On vegetarianism in the Arab world

I was alerted to Joseph Mayton's latest piece on vegetarianism in the Arab world — Vegetarianism is not contrary to Arab culture — by Brian Whitaker, who comments further about on the issue in his blog.

Both Joey and Brian are vegetarians, and in fact I think Joey is even vegan and certainly very evangelical about his food ethics. I've discussed this issue with both of them in the last — only a couple of months ago with Brian in Beirut, as I devoured keba nayeh (spiced raw meat, one of my favorite Lebanese dishes) and he vegetable kebabs. I am obviously not a vegetarian, but am certainly sympathetic to some of the arguments against eating industrially-produced meat, and have been of the opinion that, in many parts of the world, those who can afford to often eat an excessive amount of meat. I am guilty of that myself at times, but generally — as the main cook in our household — keep a fairly reasonably balanced diet and often cook pure vegetarian meals. That being said, I love meat and see no reason to abandon it, although that is because I can afford to shop carefully for it and pay a premium for the best quality stuff (especially since I don't consume that much of it.) I'll happily forego factory chicken every day if I can have a delicious baladi bird (the equivalent of free-range) once a week. 

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The very relative safety of Egypt

Egypt is generally considered a very safe place, and Cairo is perhaps the safest megapolis in the world — consider that in Rio you might be killed for your Nikes and in Mexico City gunned down in a gang war. That's why when something happens, it feels all the more surprising, especially for foreigners who think (usually rightly) that they have extra protection from the seedier side of the city. Check out the experience of this American blogger in Egypt first getting beaten up by some kind of protection racket, and then being arrested by police and forced to apologize to his attacker.

Muggings take place everywhere. But the way the police acts, as Egyptians know all too well, is a much more depressing and serious problem. When you think of some of the things that can happen in detention, the khawaga factor may have saved him from a worse fate than humiliation.

Conclusion: Egypt is a very safe place — until you have a problem.

Update: Also take a look at Sarah Carr's latest post for another take on everyday violence.

Too big to fail

My new al-Masri al-Youm column, on the Mubarak health rumors and speculation about the future of Egypt, is here. An excerpt:

A more curious phenomenon stemming from the recent rumors is the intense (but vague) speculation about the future of the country. There is, it seems, a collective failure of imagination about what Egypt after Mubarak might look like. Most, focusing on the mechanism of succession, find a future shrouded in dense fog--as Mubarak wants it--and shrug over the uncertainty of what is to come. Others predict inner-regime strife to secure control of the presidency, and not an insignificant number warn of impending chaos, either because of widening social chasms or a power vacuum at the top. The more outlandish predict an alliance of the Muslim Brothers and Mohamed ElBaradei bringing about a new Iran-like rogue state. Yet, chances are nothing so dramatic will happen.

The reason for this is that Egypt, just like the banks that were rescued by governments in the US and Europe, is too big to fail. Its systemic importance to the conduct of international relations in the Middle East is just too great to let it become a “rogue state” or spiral into chaos--even assuming that this badly run but closely controlled country is anywhere close to implosion.

Ahmet Dogan

You absolutely must read Roger Cohen's op-ed taking the US media to task for almost completely ignoring that Israel murdered an American citizen during the flotilla raid.

I'll just quote his conclusion to the question raised by Dogan's father: whether, had his son been Christian living in America, he would have faced the same silence.

It’s different, however, when an American Muslim male gets stuck in a hail of Israeli gunfire.

That lousy US Congress

Here's the latest bill going around Congress:

Expressing support for the State of Israel's right to defend Israeli sovereignty, to protect the lives and safety of the Israeli people, and to use all means necessary to confront and eliminate nuclear threats posed by the Islamic Republic of Iran, including the use of military force if no other peaceful solution can be found within reasonable time to protect against such an immediate and existential threat to the State of Israel.

Of course no such concern for the sovereign of Iran, or the protection of its civilians. The bill explicitly expresses support for an Israeli attack on Iran:

(4) expresses support for Israel's right to use all means necessary to confront and eliminate nuclear threats posed by Iran, defend Israeli sovereignty, and protect the lives and safety of the Israeli people, including the use of military force if no other peaceful solution can be found within a reasonable time.

It was supported by 46 Congressmen, mostly Republicans I believe.

Meanwhile, there's also a bill supporting democracy in Egypt [link corrected], introduced by Russ Feingold and supported by John McCain. It makes general commitments to democracy and calls for greater democracy, free elections, repeal of the emergency law and other issues, but does not introduce any idea of conditionality in the relationship. In fact the only different thing it advocates from what is currently being practiced is:

(7) recalls that pursuant to the laws of the United States, organizations implementing United States assistance for democracy and governance activities, and the specific nature of that assistance, shall not be subject to the prior approval of the Government of Egypt.

Links for July 20-26 2010

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Khouri on Clinton's Internet Initiative

Two points  on Rami Khouri's latest column, about US initiatives to encourage internet use and youth etc.

This one I partly disagree with:

But what do young people actually do, or aim to achieve, with the new media? Are the new digital and social media a credible tool for challenging established political orders and bringing about political change in our region?

My impression is that these new media today play a role identical to that played by Al Jazeera satellite television when it first appeared in the mid-1990s — they provide important new means by which ordinary citizens can both receive information and express their views, regardless of government controls on both, but in terms of their impact they seem more like a stress reliever than a mechanism for political change.

Watching Arab pundits criticize Arab governments, Israel or the United States — common fare on Arab satellite television — is great vicarious satisfaction for ordinary men and women who live in political cultures that deny them serious opportunities for free speech.

Blogging, reading politically racy Web sites, or passing around provocative text messages by cellphone is equally satisfying for many youth. Such activities, though, essentially shift the individual from the realm of participant to the realm of spectator, and transform what would otherwise be an act of political activism — mobilizing, demonstrating or voting — into an act of passive, harmless personal entertainment.

Sure, there might be a lot of passive users of the internet. But when in so many countries the internet is being used to mobilize, spread information and organize, it can hardly be called a passive medium. It draws in an admittedly small number of internet users and turns them into activists and organizers,  And unlike al-Jazeera, no one is paying the bloggers and activists who use the internet to mobilize. It's a substantive improvement over what al-Jazeera does, especially because the internet is not controlled by a government.

The second point is dead on:

One cannot take seriously the United States or any other Western government that funds political activism by young Arabs while it simultaneously provides funds and guns that help cement the power of the very same Arab governments the young social and political activists target for change.

Feeding both the jailer and the prisoner is not a sustainable or sensible policy. I would not be surprised if some wise-guy young Arab soon sends a tweet to Hillary Clinton saying, “you’re either with us, or you’re with the security state.”

This is an awkward and untenable position for any foreign government that wants to promote political activism and pluralism in the Middle East. It damages Western government credibility, leads to no significant changes in our political cultures, and often discredits the local activists who become tarred with the charge of being Western lackeys.

Clinton's Internet Initiative is essentially a substitute — and a poor one at that — for a real policy to deal with authoritarian regimes. As was Obama's Cairo speech and its 16 micro-initiatives. You don't have to invade dictatorships — please! — but you don't have to support them either. Training young people to use the internet is a ridiculous idea — they will do so anyway.  

Better to learn from the largely American success of internet start-ups such as Google: don't be evil. Cut off the funding to dictators, occupiers and regimes that carry out ethnic or religious segregation. Refuse to meet them and give them the recognition they crave. Stop humoring them because of your imperial ambitions in the Middle East — these ambitions are ruinous to America both financially and morally.

Gingrich and Cordoba

When I was in New York about two months ago, the controversy over Cordoba House, the mosque being built near the site where the World Trade Center once stood, was just getting going. I remember seeing conserative blogger Pamela Geller on Mick Huckabee's Fox News show (when in the US I watch Fox News compulsively) calling the project, which is designed to promote cross-cultural understanding, as a desecration of the memory of those who died on 9/11. As Geller engaged in tarnishing an entire religion (what else can it be called?) and Huckabee politely nodded, I wondered how mainstream this stupidity had become.

A couple of days ago the prominent Republican Newt Gingrich — often said to be one of the smartest guys in his party — joined Geller's campaign. Gingrich wrote:

There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia. The time for double standards that allow Islamists to behave aggressively toward us while they demand our weakness and submission is over. 

The proposed "Cordoba House" overlooking the World Trade Center site – where a group of jihadists killed over 3000 Americans and destroyed one of our most famous landmarks - is a test of the timidity, passivity and historic ignorance of American elites.  For example, most of them don’t understand that “Cordoba House” is a deliberately insulting term.  It refers to Cordoba, Spain – the capital of Muslim conquerors who symbolized their victory over the Christian Spaniards by transforming a church there into the world’s third-largest mosque complex.

Gingrich is clearly actually a moron, on at least two counts. First, why does he want the US to follow the same policies as Saudi Arabia? Is that the standard he sets for the country? When will Freedom House condemn this dangerous voice against freedom of religion?

Secondly — and this is pretty galling from a historian — the Cordoba mosque was built on the site of a Spanish Visigoth church, but only after it had been a place of worship for both Christians and Muslims, and Emir Abdel Rahman actually bought the property and then began building what is generally recognized as one of the most beautiful buildings on the planet. It was after the Reconquistada, along which came the Inquisition that drove Jew and Muslim from Spain, that the building was converted into a church and its interior symmetry ruined by the construction of a huge, and ugly, Baroque wooden chapel inside it.

Geller and her friends like to describe the Cordoba House project as "the Islamic supremacist mosque", which reminds me of another supremacist project Geller has no problem with: Israel. It's amazing, and I'm sure no coincidence, the overlap you get between anti-Muslim fanatics and those who support Israel's wars and land grabs. Geller notably once ranted:

Israel is essential. And I pray dearly that in the ungodly event that Tehran or its jihadi proxies (Hez'ballah, Hamas etc) target Israel with a nuke, that she retaliate with everything she has at Tehran, Mecca, and Medina...............

Not to mention Europe. They  exterminated all their Jews, but that wasn't enough. Those monsters then went on to import the next generation of Jew killers.

LoonWatch has more of the same. To me it seems clear that Geller and her ilk have embarked on a project to fan Islamophobia because it is convenient for another cause, maintaining US public opinion (already fed years of anti-Arab propaganda) on Israel's side as the legitimacy of the Zionist project erodes globally. They want to carry out this Muslim-bashing for its own sake, of course, but also comes with a nice benefit of boosting Israel, which has long had an interest in spreading anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hysteria. Sooner or later — and I think sooner — these people will start discrediting themselves and the causes they support.

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Remembering the sanctions on Iraq

I've made my opposition to sanctions — on Iran or anywhere else, and yes that includes Israel (divestment and boycotts is not the same thing) — clear in previous posts. By all means impose travel bans on senior officials, exclude countries from international sports (had much effect for rugby fans in South), boycott academics and public figures who are supportive of repressive regimes, and other inventive solutions. But don't carry out policies that cut off entire populations from the global economy, leave them isolated from the world, deny them educational opportunities and even possibly slowly starves them and denies them the tools of modern life.

This is a lesson I learned in the 1990s, when still at university and researching Iraq under the sanctions. The sanctions were one of the great war crimes of the 1990s, killing at least half a million Iraqi children and creating the situation that would contribute, a decade later, to the mess that was/is Iraq. It was the deliberate de-modernization of a country, and one of the great shames of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton's policies.

Andrew Cockburn has a great piece in the LRB reviewing a new book on the sanctions and their impact:

The first intimation that the blockade would continue even though Iraq had been evicted from Kuwait came in an offhand remark by Bush at a press briefing on 16 April 1991. There would be no normal relations with Iraq, he said, until ‘Saddam Hussein is out of there’: ‘We will continue the economic sanctions.’ Officially, the US was on record as pledging that sanctions would be lifted once Kuwait had been compensated for the damage wrought during six months of occupation and once it was confirmed that Iraq no longer possessed ‘weapons of mass destruction’ or the capacity to make them. A special UN inspection organisation, Unscom, was created, headed by the Swedish diplomat Rolf Ekeus, a veteran of arms control negotiations. But in case anyone had missed the point of Bush’s statement, his deputy national security adviser, Robert Gates (now Obama’s secretary of defence), spelled it out a few weeks later: ‘Saddam is discredited and cannot be redeemed. His leadership will never be accepted by the world community. Therefore,’ Gates continued, ‘Iraqis will pay the price while he remains in power. All possible sanctions will be maintained until he is gone.’

Despite this explicit confirmation that the official justification for sanctions was irrelevant, Saddam’s supposed refusal to turn over his deadly arsenal would be brandished by the sanctioneers whenever the price being paid by Iraqis attracted attention from the outside world. And although Bush and Gates claimed that Saddam, not his weapons, was the real object of the sanctions, I was assured at the time by officials at CIA headquarters in Langley that an overthrow of the dictator by a population rendered desperate by sanctions was ‘the least likely alternative’. The impoverishment of Iraq – not to mention the exclusion of its oil from the global market to the benefit of oil prices – was not a means to an end: it was the end.

Visiting Iraq in that first summer of postwar sanctions I found a population stunned by the disaster that was reducing them to a Third World standard of living. Baghdad auction houses were filled with the heirlooms and furniture of the middle classes, hawked in a desperate effort to stay ahead of inflation. In the upper-middle-class enclave of Mansour, I watched as a frantic crowd of housewives rushed to collect food supplies distributed by the American charity Catholic Relief Services. Doctors, most of them trained in Britain, displayed their empty dispensaries. Everywhere, people asked when sanctions would be lifted, assuming that it could only be a matter of months at the most (a belief initially shared by Saddam). The notion that they would still be in force a decade later was unimaginable.

Do read the whole thing.

New column

This comes a little bit late, as I've been in the mountains of Northern Morocco for the last few days, in a tiny village where there is no mobile phone reception or internet.

I have started writing a weekly column for al-Masri al-Youm English (which will hopefully also soon start to be picked up in the Arabic edition). The column, out every Tuesday, will cover a very wide variety of issues, both Egyptian and regional. I'm sure it will cover some of the big themes and crises of the region, but one thing I want to focus on from time to time are issues not often discussed elsewhere in the Middle Eastern media or indeed in the blogosphere: the intersection of politics, business and science and the environment.

My first column is about something I've been thinking about ever since last April: the wide-ranging ramifications of the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico on the oil industry, and what it means for countries like Egypt where deepwater fields are the next frontier (many such fields will go online in the next decade) after the exhaustion of traditional shallow water fields in the Gulf of Suez. One aspect of this issue is that there is a brewing energy crisis in Egypt; the other is that one cannot help but think of the consequences of an accident like Deepwater off Egypt's coast, where the government is much less prepared than the US and much less able to put pressure on companies. I finished writing it on Sunday, and by coincidence two news items put the column in a new perspective: one is that the first rig to leave the Gulf of Mexico because of the ban on deepwater drilling started to head to Egypt, and the second is that BP announced a $9 billion deal to develop gas fields off Egypt's Mediterranean coast. So my column was quite prescient!

You can read the column here.

Links for July 15-19 2010

  • Joe Sacco: Not in my country | The Guardian

    Sacco's new comic on African migrants in Malta.

  • Mubarak angry about rumors about his health, says Israeli minister

    Benyain Ben Eliezer talks like an Arab official: "I spoke to him very recently. Without being a doctor, I can be sure by the sound of his voice that he is in excellent health and will remain in the political arena for a long time."

  • The impresario: Gilles Kepel, scholar of radical Islam - The National

    IMHO, Kepel's most lasting contribution may be the excellent PhD students he mentored and who now lead their fields.

  • Arabianism: Watheeqa: A true-life tale of horror

    A moving post by a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon.

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    Get that gas!

    If anything positive is to come from rumored Saudi-Qatari reconciliation, I would love it to be a fast-track project to set up a rig on Lebanon's shore to get this gas out before the Israelis suck it all up. After all the Gulf states have a stake in Lebanon and the money and expertise to pull it off.

    Trouble is brewing in the waters off the coast of Lebanon and Israel about the future of one of the largest discoveries of natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean.

    A field known as Leviathan might contain 16 trillion cubic feet of gas – enough to serve Israel’s domestic needs and make the country a substantial exporter.

    But Lebanon is eyeing some of that income, badly needed to pay off its $50bn national debt. Some Lebanese politicians say the field may extend into their country’s as yet undeclared maritime zone.

    Israel and Lebanon are still formally at war and the two neighbours have never agreed a maritime boundary.

    Another problem is that Lebanon has not even passed an oil and gas law that would regulate drilling off its coast.

    In spite of late night negotiations this week between Saad Hariri, the prime minister, and Nabih Berri, the speaker of parliament, the passage of any such legislation may still be months away.

    In the meantime, Israel has unilaterally placed a line of buoys extending two miles into the sea off the two countries’ land border for what it describes as “security reasons”. Lebanon’s government has raised this with the United Nations, fearing that the floating line of Israeli-placed markers may encroach on its maritime territory.

    Hizbollah, the armed Shia movement, and its allies have taken up the cause of what they call the defence of Lebanon’s natural resources – and they charge their western-backed political opponents with weakness in regard to the issue.

    Mr Berri, from the Shia Amal movement, an ally of Hizbollah, has urged Mr Hariri’s government of national unity to counter what he sees as Israel’s designs on the country’s gas.

    “Lebanon’s army, people, and resistance will be ready to thwart any attempt to steal its natural resources,” he said during a visit to neighbouring Syria.

    In the meantime, things looking better in Lebanon — for now. I was there a few weeks ago, it looked positively bustling! Let's hope there not another summer war as some are predicting

    The Economist on Mubarak's Egypt

    This week's Economist has a special on Egypt well worth checking out. Considering The Economist only does these country surveys about every decade, this might be very well be the third one about Mubarak. I wonder how it compares to previous ones.

    The overall tone of the report is a mixture of cautious optimism and a lament of some of the Egypt's failings — its corrupt police state, its education. In light of the woe-is-us mood that dominates in the country and some alarmist accounts of Egypt being on the brink of collapse, it's refreshing to point out the dramatic social and economic changes that the Mubarak era has introduced. Will they turn out to be changes for the better, or not, or were they inevitable changes in a world that influenced Egypt much more than Egypt could influence it?

    I have been working on a long survey of Egypt's economy, which gave me an occasion to read some of the laws passed in the last decade and review the economic policies put in place by the Nazif government. There is no doubt these are some of the most dramatic changes introduced in Egypt in decades — not just changes in regulations but a fundamental change in approach. On a personal level, I think some are essential (for instance the extremely unpopular — with the upper middle class — real estate tax) and others are ill-thought (a practically flat income tax? no living minimum wage?), with unnecessarily negative social effects. Their problem is that these changes were implemented with no democratic oversight, no public debate that could have any impact, and in the middle of a succession crisis that further delegitimized these reforms. One major question about Egypt's future is how much permanence these reforms will have — how deeply they will be institutionalized and made palatable to Egyptians as a blueprint for development, which will necessitate some level of democratization, increased representativeness, and a new idea of the social contract to made explicitly. 

    The Economist has this to say about Egypt's future politics and what models might apply:

    The government’s plan to perpetuate itself in office, via the traditional electoral rigmarole, is likely to go ahead. Predictions of change in Egypt have almost always proved wrong; generally it bumbles along much as usual. This time may just be different. The country now faces three main possibilities. It could go the way of Russia and be ruled by a new strongman from within the system. It might, just possibly, go the way of Iran, and see that system swept away in anger. Or it could go the way of Turkey, and evolve into something less brittle and happier for all concerned.

    In the short term, the Russian model seems most likely. But to really get somewhere, it's Turkey's path that has to be followed. This ties in nicely to another remark on Egypt's regional decline:

    The mess next door has long been a drain on Egypt’s energies. Yet being saddled with nasty neighbours and demanding partners is not the only reason for Egypt’s relative decline. Egyptian skill at the game of geopolitics has atrophied as its professional diplomats have found themselves elbowed aside, replaced by a circle of aides to Mr Mubarak who share his outlook. Perhaps more importantly, Egypt’s leaders have failed to absorb an important lesson: that old foes such as Israel, new rivals for regional influence such as Turkey and even small non-state actors such as Hamas are strengthened by democracy. In Egypt, that still seems some way off.

    Do check out the magazine's leader on Arab autocracy (in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, mostly) and the questions raised by the coming successions. Come to think of it, it's not only those two — Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Oman also face quite uncertain future leadership...

    Links for July 9-14 2010

    Behold, the links! Expect the blog to be on summer mode, generally speaking...
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    Mosaad Abu Fajr, a voice for Sinai

    Sinai writer and blogger Mosaad Abu Fajr, who was recently released after three years in prison:

    My experience as a detainee is infinite, it is like fate which one has to adjust himself to. The conditions in Egyptian prisons are unendurable. The way inmates are received is cruel. I was not exposed to sunlight until my family came to visit me. We remained confined in our cells for 20 days, and were only allowed out within the one meter that separates the cells. The atmosphere there is filled with the odors of death and silence, and empty of any signs of hope.

    Worst of all is the process of searching the prisons. At such times, we are treated as objects or animals rather than humans. Officers goad us with their sticks, forcing us to put our hands on our heads as they drive us out of our cells. Then we have to gather all our belongings into one pile and spend a whole day searching for them. These conditions do not suit Egypt’s name and history.

    As for me, I was put in a cell with inmates sentenced to life. Imagine a cell originally devoted to six inmates but containing more than 60, with prisoners sleeping in shifts.

    Some interesting stuff happening in Sinai in recent weeks — notably Minister of Interior Habib al-Adly's meeting with tribal elders. About the time the bull was seized by the horns: Egypt had allowed this situation to fester for far too long, largely because the faults of the Interior Ministry (brutality, etc.) went unpunished. Al-Adly deserves to be sacked many times over for various things — the general decline of police work and torture epidemic, his lackluster counter-terrorism policies, his inability or unwillingness to reform a central state institution — but his handling of Sinai may be the most serious crime of all, from a national security point of view. His political longevity is one of the great mysteries of today's Egypt.

    Should I be worried?

    E.T. Come HomeI have been largely offline recently because of recent travels, as we settle into Morocco for the summer. While the Arab Far West provides a much gentler climate than Cairo, as every summer I worry that Hosni Mubarak will take advantage of my absence to step down, kick the bucket or somesuch. Having spent the past 10 years of my life waiting for that moment, I don't want to miss out (a rather sad realization, I know.)

    The recent rumors about Mubarak's ill-health — that his recent trip to Paris was for a check-up (Mubarak used to get discreetly treated by La Republique Française at the military hospital at Saint-Cyr), or that he might imminently visit his German doctors (who have been quietly visiting him in Cairo and Sharm al-Sheikh for months) — are practically unverifiable, of course. Rather than speculate on their authenticity, we might reflect on the fact that Egyptian authorities thought it fit to deny them. Which, of course, can only heighten the speculation in Arab countries, where regimes usually only issue false information and denials are interpreted as early confirmations (there is a fascinating treatise to be written about information flows and interpretation in dictatorships.)

    Or that this will pretty be par for the course in the months and years ahead. Assuming, as I am, that Mubarak is seriously ill but has some time left (or indeed may recover) he will be constantly subjected to this kind of rumor-mongering. Canceling a meeting with Netanyahu? Must be rushing off to Germany. Visiting Europe? Must be to visit a nearby clinic. Attending a military parade? It all smacks of trying too hard. These are facile conclusions that hide a nearly total information vacuum. Yes, you can look at the picture above and conclude that Hosni Mubarak is not feeling too well. But does it tell you, as one diplomat told the World Tribune, that he is a living corpse

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    Links for July 4 - July 8 2010

    Carnegie recently did some excellent work on Israel/Palestine, showing that there is some reason in Washington going against the conventional wisdom of Netanyahu's "economic miracle" and the praise heaped on Sallam Fayad:
    • Are Palestinians Building a State? Nathan Brown says not really, and: “To the extent that Fayyadism is building institutions, it is unmistakably doing so in an authoritarian context.”
    • A Little Rain on the Palestinian Parade Just to be sure Brown says again: no. "Fayyad is not building a state, he's holding down the fort until the next crisis."
    • It's Not the Economy, Stupid Michele Dunne: "Washington should stop impeding reconciliation and providing an excuse to Fatah and Hamas to avoid the necessary compromises."

    Meanwhile, Obama made up with his best-buddy Bibi:

    [PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU:] One final point, Mr. President -- I want to thank you for reaffirming to me in private and now in public as you did the longstanding U.S. commitments to Israel on matters of vital strategic importance.  I want to thank you, too, for the great hospitality you and the First Lady have shown Sara and me and our entire delegation.  And I think we have to redress the balance -- you know, I’ve been coming here a lot.  It’s about time --
    PRESIDENT OBAMA:  I'm ready.
    PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU:  -- you and the First Lady came to Israel, sir.
    PRESIDENT OBAMA:  We look forward to it.  Thank you.
    Is it just me or was there a touch of bullying in Bibi's invitation? And speaking of bullying, why is everyone suddenly talking (here's the denial) about bombing Iran after this visit?
    Now for the rest of the links:
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    Virtual Brotherhood

    The National's Matt Bradley has a story on the Muslim Brotherhood's Facebook clone:

    IkhwanBook joins a veritable suite of Brotherhood-affiliated (“Ikhwan” is Arabic for “Brotherhood”) websites, such as IkhwanWiki, IkhwanWeb, IkhwanGoogle – a “Cusotmized [sic] search engine specialized in searching muslim botherhood’s [sic] websites” – and IkhwanTube. Many of the sites are published in English and each of their functions is tailored to Brotherhood-related content.

    The article then wonders why the Ikhwan bothers: IkhwanBook is after all technologically extremely inferior to the real Facebook, and the other sites are not that sophisticated either. And there are plenty of young Brothers on Facebook — anyone who's ever met them can expect to be friended within 24 hours, after all.

    Brian Whitaker, noting the story, writes:

    The interesting and slightly puzzling question is what the Brotherhood hopes to achieve by this. It's hard to imagine the Ikhwan sites gaining anything like the popularity of those they replicate, and they look like a move towards exclusivity which is generally uncharacteristic of the Brotherhood.

    I think both Matt and Brian miss the point slightly. The first reason for having all these sites — and believe me, there are a LOT of Ikhwan sites out there, practically one for every governorate of Egypt plus many more on specific issues before you reach the Facebook and Wikipedia clones — is that there simply is enthusiasm to build them. Beyond the apparent correlation one notices between tech-savvy and religious inclination (just visit any of the computer malls on Midan Sphinx in Cairo), there are a lot of young talented programmers in Egypt who would love to show their enthusiasm for the gamaa by building websites for it. And there are a lot of young people in the Brotherhood, no matter how elderly the leadership is, for whom these websites may be a way of expressing their views as well as gain practice in the art of political and religious rhetoric.

    The second reason is that this resonates with the groupthink and in-group mentality that the Muslim Brotherhood cultivates. These sites won't replace Facebook or Wikipedia, they are a virtual gated community (gated, that is, by strong symbolic references and imagery that are likely to alienate those not already versed in the Ikhwan universe) for like-minded people, where they can create a more orderly version of the sites that they copy and where the membership is self-selecting. The Muslim Brothers tend to socialize together, marry within each others' families, work together (or for each other) and a whole lot more. It's a support group as much as a political organization. It makes sense that, online, they will tend towards a closed ecosystem — alongside the open internet, not instead of it.

    It's just the way online forums thrive: through community-building. That's true for computer geeks and religious geeks.

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    On Fadlallah

    I happened to be in Beirut when the news of Sheikh Fadlallah's death hit the news a few days ago, although since I was there for a wedding, I did not don my reporter hat or stay for the funeral yesterday, as I had a plane to catch back to Cairo and then another for Casablanca. I won't comment on the man — take a look at what Asa'ad AbuKhalil said, or Rami Khouri — but do want to touch on the American perception of him.

    In Fadlallah, one had a spiritual leader for millions of Shias who was neither an ultra-conservative nor an apologist for autocracy. He was the only Shia figure with the authority not only to counter the Vilayet al-Faqih doctrine now dominant (and state-endorsed) in Iran, but also the political quietism and all-out conservatism of Iraq's Sistani. Yes, he was a political radical by the standards of of American hegemony in the region — he opposed occupations, backed armed action against occupiers include suicide bombings — but in some respects at least preferable to the alternative religious leaders in the region. He was not simply "Hizbullah's spirtual leader" as so many American journalists, and the American government, apparently continue to consider him as, despite the obvious fact that Hizbullah's leadership looks to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatolah Khameini.

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    Chutzpahpocalypse Now

    I interrupt my blogging hiatus to bring you the most mind-bending headline of the year:

    Palestinians stealing water in West Bank


    The Israel Defense Forces recently thwarted an attempt made by Palestinians to illegally connect to the Mekorot Israel National Water infrastructure in order to siphon off water from it.

     Soldiers took note of four people trying to connect to the pipes south of Hebron. When the four noticed they had been discovered, they fled the scene and the soldiers followed after them. The soldiers managed to apprehend two of the four men, while the others got away.

    Residents of the settlements and villages in Mount Hebron woke up one morning this week only to be disappointed that there was no water in their faucets at home because of the recurring problem of Palestinian water piracy.

    Meanwhile, back in Amreeka: Tax-Exempt Funds Aiding West Bank Settlements - NYTimes.com