Al Hiwar

Here is a blog I just discovered today after its author left a comment on the previous post: Al Hiwar. It's run by Stacey Philbrick, who describes herself as a
Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, living in Cairo and conducting research in Lebanon and Yemen. I work on the transformation of discourse within Islamist parties in the Lebanese and Yemeni parliaments. Generally speaking, I'm one of those people who think that words matter.
It looks pretty interesting, and recent posts include topics such as press freedom in Yemen, Al Manar on Tantawi, Yemeni cleric Sheikh Al Zindani, and the Taif Accords and Lebanese electoral law. Interesting stuff. (P.S. For those of you who use newsreaders, Stacey's front page has no RSS link that I could find, so I used Firefox's auto-detect feature to find it. It's here.)
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Neocons, Iran, and Allawi

Two great pieces in the current New Yorker: another great scoop by Seymour Hersh on how the Pentagon is taking over covert ops from the CIA to avoid congressional oversight and carrying out missions in Iran; and a long profile of Iraq's interim PM Iyad Allawi (on which the Angry Arab has a few critical comments.) Both are must-reads. Aside from the details of his story, Hersh offers at the beginning a blunt analysis of how the neo-cons are feeling at the moment:
George W. Bush’s reëlection was not his only victory last fall. The President and his national-security advisers have consolidated contro over the military and intelligence communities’ strategic analyses and covert operations to a degree unmatched since the rise of the post-Secon World War national-security state. Bush has an aggressive and ambitious agenda for using that control—against the mullahs in Iran and agains targets in the ongoing war on terrorism—during his second term. The C.I.A. will continue to be downgraded, and the agency will increasingl serve, as one government consultant with close ties to the Pentagon put it, as “facilitators” of policy emanating from President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney. This process is well under way.
Despite the deteriorating security situation in Iraq, the Bush Administration has not reconsidered its basic long-range policy goal in the Middle East: the establishment of democracy throughout the region. Bush’s reëlection is regarded within the Administration as evidence of America’s support for his decision to go to war. It has reaffirmed the position of the neoconservatives in the Pentagon’s civilian leadership who advocated the invasion, including Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, and Douglas Feith, the Under-secretary for Policy. According to a former high-level intelligence official, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff shortly after the election and told them, in essence, that the naysayers had been heard and the American people did not accept their message. Rumsfeld added that America was committed to staying in Iraq and that there would be no second-guessing.
“This is a war against terrorism, and Iraq is just one campaign. The Bush Administration is looking at this as a huge war zone,” the former high-level intelligence official told me. “Next, we’re going to have the Iranian campaign. We’ve declared war and the bad guys, wherever they are, are the enemy. This is the last hurrah—we’ve got four years, and want to come out of this saying we won the war on terrorism.”
The story in a gist: this show is being run by neocon Likudniks with unknown and unacknowledged degrees of Israeli logistical and operational support (and probably quite a lot of influence since Israeli intelligence tends to be quite important.) And then they say Arabs have a tendency to believe in wild conspiracy theories. Update: The Pentagon is now calling Hersh a conspiracy theorist -- take a look at the strongly-worded press release about his article. It's possible the guy could be wrong, but at this point I don't really believe a word they say. Remember Iraq's WMD? Another possibility is that some sources deliberately misled Hersh to discredit him -- I can't really remember such a strongly worded denial. Read a lot more about this at Praktike's. Also, on the Israel connection they say:
Arrangements Mr. Hersh alleges between Under Secretary Douglas Feith and Israel, government or non-government, do not exist. Here, Mr. Hersh is building on links created by the soft bigotry of some conspiracy theorists. This reflects poorly on Mr. Hersh and the New Yorker.
Feith's fanatically pro-Israel attitude is pretty well documented (take a look at this book he co-authored with the "Society of Zionist Lawyers"), as is the Israeli connection of the Office of Special Plans with which he is involved. Update 2:A new development from The Guardian:
However, the Guardian has learned the Pentagon was recently contemplating the infiltration of members of the Iranian rebel group, Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) over the Iraq-Iran border, to collect intelligence. The group, based at Camp Ashraf, near Baghdad, was under the protection of Saddam Hussein, and is under US guard while Washington decides on its strategy.
The MEK has been declared a terrorist group by the state department, but a former Farsi-speaking CIA officer said he had been asked by neo-conservatives in the Pentagon to travel to Iraq to oversee "MEK cross-border operations". He refused, and does not know if those operations have begun.
"They are bringing a lot of the old war-horses from the Reagan and Iran-contra days into a sort of kitchen cabinet outside the government to write up policy papers on Iran," the former officer said.
He said the policy discussion was being overseen by Douglas Feith, the under secretary of defence for policy who was one of the principal advocates of the Iraq war. The Pentagon did not return calls for comment on the issue yesterday. In the run-up to the Iraq invasion, Mr Feith's Office of Special Plans also used like-minded experts on contract from outside the government, to serve as consultants helping the Pentagon counter the more cautious positions of the state department and the CIA.
"They think in Iran you can just go in and hit the facilities and destabilise the government. They believe they can get rid of a few crazy mullahs and bring in the young guys who like Gap jeans, all the world's problems are solved. I think it's delusional," the former CIA officer said.
They also say that Bush will make a major announcement on this issue in his inauguration speech.
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Mauritania's food crisis

Although the locust plague that hit Mauritania a few months ago has now passed, the consequences remain:
Locusts and drought have obliterated agricultural production in Mauritania, leaving 400,000 people in urgent need of food aid, the UN food agency says.
Mauritania was the country worst hit by last year's locust invasion in West Africa - the most serious infestation in 15 years.
Some 60% of Mauritania's population will not have enough to eat this year, says the World Food Programme.
The WFP appealed for $31m to fund a two-year aid project.
Huge swarms devoured crops in all Mauritania's agricultural regions and invaded the capital, Nouakchott, three times, eating every green plant from the president's gardens to the main soccer pitch.
Insufficient rain compounded the situation.
Those in the south, where the infestation was worst, rely almost entirely on farming for income.
"Entire harvests, where the people have invested their money, time and toil for so long, are simply gone. We must act now," Sory Ouane said.
"The right assistance now for the people of Mauritania will go a long way - not only to save lives today but also to help people avoid falling into a cycle of food crises that could last for years to come."
$31 million. Peanuts these days. Here's hoping that this issue will gain a high enough profile so that it is taken care of.
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Poor Hosni II

Will this farce never end?
“I could put on an act for you and say I won’t stay. The world would rise up in protest and I would have messed everything up. I don’t like to play these con games... I am a man who’s serious in my work and I work from morning till I go to sleep every day,” he said.
But he also said: “Governing Egypt is not a picnic, not something easy... You have limited resources, high population growth and the requirements of the people. So the presidency of Egypt is not an easy business, and getting out of it isn’t easy. If it was up to me, I would like to relax. From the day I graduated as a young officer, as I say, it’s been hard work all along.”
Mubarak, 76, has been in power since 1981. “He who becomes president of Egypt, that’s the will of the people. (If) the people don’t want you, when you do whatever, it’s no use. And if the people want you, you won’t be able to leave,” he added.
Come on, people of Egypt, give the poor man a break!
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Nile TV struggles to break into Israeli market

This is the first story I've seen in the Israeli press that it relatively complimentary on the state-owned Nile TV's Hebrew-language broadcast. Mind you, it's probably tongue-in-cheek:
The exposure is limited, the competition is stiff and rumors of dismissals and even impending closure are mounting. The staff at the Egyptian broadcasting authority's Hebrew-language channel are worried.
"Our colleagues in the French and English department told the minister in charge that no one in Israel watches us. They think `we're stealing the show from them,' they wanted to swallow up the Hebrew broadcasting slot, to get our airtime," says one journalist at the state-run channel, Nile TV (called "Arutz Hanilus," in Hebrew).
The channel, which broadcasts two hours a day, features news reports about Israel and the Middle East, historical items about sites in the Arab world, newspaper surveys and commentary, and speeches by President Hosni Mubarak with excellent simultaneous translation into Hebrew.
I can't say I have that much sympathy for Nile TV -- most of the programming is quite poor, the best thing on it are old Egyptian movies with subtitles, and otherwise a ragtag mix of chat shows and music videos. The Hebrew slot, which Hebrew-speakers usually make fun of because of the thick accents, is at prime time (6-8pm if I remember correctly), and tends to be propaganda-oriented. So I guess the same thing applies to Egyptians and Americans: if you can't do public diplomacy well, perhaps it's best if you don't do it at all.
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The veil

Megan Stack of the LA Times had a very good story on the veil in Egypt a few days ago exploring the different reasons Egyptian women choose to veil and the notions associated with it. It's a lot better and subtler than most similar stories I've read, perhaps because a female journalist can understand women, even those from a different culture, than a male one can. Many foreign journalists never get beyond the idea that the growth of popularity in the veil may be caused by more than just religious revivalism.
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Gamal Al Banna in Egypt Today

Noha El-Hennawy has a great story in Egypt Today this month about Gamal Al Banna and the debate around the sanctity of the Sunna in Islam, which I referred to in my previous post.
El-Banna dismisses accusations that he is calling on the faithful to abandon the Sunnah, but insists that the orally transmitted traditions of the Prophet (PBUH) are less binding on Muslims than the Qur’an itself.
“We cannot deny the Sunnah, even though it has been proven that most of the sayings attributed to the Prophet (PBUH) have been made up, were narrated in other people’s words or were transmitted inaccurately. This does not mean that there are no true sayings that set many Islamic fundamental principles; what it does mean is that it’s high time to study the Sunnah in a different way,� El-Banna says.
“The Qur’an never goes into detail,� he continues. “It talks about prayers and almsgiving and pilgrimage, but without specifying details. Does this mean the Qur’an forgot to mention them? Of course not. Had the Qur’an mentioned these details, they would have been eternally binding, which would have prevented the text from being compatible with different ages. In the meantime, we needed to know how to obey God’s commandments.
“For example, when God commanded Muslims to pray, he let the Prophet (PBUH) show us how. The Sunnah, whether it refers to the Prophet’s deeds or saying, is thus binding as long as it is compatible with progress. If it happens to be incompatible with the demands of any age, we must refer back to the Qur’an.�
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The Reformists vs. Al Azhar

The author of the book “The Calls of Prophecy in History�, which Al Azhar recently recommended banning, is bringing a lawsuit against Al Azhar for refusing to publicize a copy of its report on why the book should banned. Walid Toghan, the book’s author, said that Al Azhar rejected his book because it denied the Sunna of the prophet. The book claims that many superstitions were added to the Sunna that should never have been included and that they have nothing to do with Islam. In his book Toghan argues that the Sunna of the prophet, or his teachings and sayings, are not binding on Muslims. He argues that the friends of the prophet should be regarded as humans who make mistakes, and not as saints. He also calls for a revision of Islamic history. Toghan's lawsuit is the first of its kind, as far as I know. Perhaps it will mark the beginning of a new campaign against Al Azhar by intellectuals and reformists. Toghan’s platform is similar to many Islamic reformists. They argue that many of the most problematic tenets of Islam are rooted in the hadith, and not in the Koran. The hadith, or sayings of the prophet, are problematic, they argue, because many of these alleged sayings were fabricated for political aims in the early history of Islam. Also, the weekly Egyptian newspaper Al Qahara has a full page special on three books by proponents of reform in Islam. The three books profiled deal with the subject of the Islamic Caliphate, and argue that the notion of the Caliphate is not present in the Koran or the Sunna. The first of the three books dates back 80 years, illustrating that Islamic reform is not a new idea, or the product of US pressure. Ali Abdel Razeq’s 1924 work “Islam and the Principles of Governance� caused a firestorm of controversy when it was first published. In it Abdel Razeq argued that no where does Islam specify a certain type of government, and that the Koran and the Sunna provide only general principles of government, namely that whatever system is chosen is just. After writing the book Razeq was promptly fired from Al Azhar, fired as a judge of the sharia courts, his book was confiscated and he was accused by Al Azhar of denying that which is known by necessity in religion. The second book discussed is Khalil Abdel Karim’s 1987 book, “In Order to Apply the Sharia... Not to Rule Politically,� (that translation is a bit awkward. In Arabic it’s “L’Tatbiiq Al Sharia... la l’lhokum) in which he stresses that the concept of theocracy is un-Ilsamic. The third book profiled is the 2003 book by Gamal Al Banna, brother of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan Al Banna, called “Islam is a religion and a nation... not a religion and a state.� It makes a similar argument, that the separation of church and state is indeed an Islamic concept. Gamal Al Banna had a book banned by Al Azhar in August 2004 called "The Responsibility for the Failure of the Islamic State." Al Banna claims that the first book banned after the 1952 revolution was his book called "A New Democracy."
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Gamal and voters' rights

Gamal Mubarak has once again positioned himself in the role of defender of the public interests. In the course of responding to contradictory statements about when the presidential referendum would be held, and why parliament had announced that it would be swearing in Mubarak before the referendum, Al Masry Yom quotes Gamal in today’s paper:
Gamal stressed that President Mubarak had not yet made a decision on whether to run for a new term, and that the party will not move on this matter until after the president’s decision which he will announce at the appropriate time. [Gamal] stressed that it is the right of the voter to determine the result of the referendeum and the Parliamentary elections. And he stressed that it is not possible to jump into political reform without the participation of the society.
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The focus on family law in the Sharia

Attention to the issue of divorce in Islamic Sharia seems to be getting more and more attention these days. The issue featured prominently at a conference in Bahrain on violence and discrimination against women in the countries comprising the Gulf Cooperation Council. Conference participant Dina Mamoun submitted a paper about the unequal marital status of women in the Gulf, and argued that “Men obtain divorces in some cases in a reckless way.� It's a response to those who argue that if the "emotional" women had the same right to divorce as the man, then they would be seeking divorce for trivial reasons, thus undermining the institution of marriage. The issue of Islamic Sharia and family law has been getting quite a bit of attention in recent weeks. Here in Egypt there was the Human Rights Watch report on divorce, which was followed by a renewed push from women's groups for a new personal status law. Then the Wafaa Constantin debacle triggered a flurry of articles in the Egyptian press on the legal discrepancies between Copts and Muslims in family law issues such as marriage and divorce.
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Akhtam Naisse wins HR award

The Syrian human rights activist Aktham Naisse has been awarded one of the most prestigious human rights prize in the world. The Martin Ennals Award is awarded by a group of 11 of the most well-known human rights NGOs in the world, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Aktham Naisse is a man who keeps faith in democratic values.  Aktham Naisse embodies the soul of the democratic movement in Syria and has been involved in this struggle for over 30 years. He is one of the founding members of the Committees for the Defence of Democratic Liberties and Human Rights in Syria (CDDLHR), created in 1989, and the publication “Sawt al-Dimokratiyyah” (the voice of democracy).  Many in the Arab world see this date as the start of the modern human rights movement in Syria.  During all these years Aktham Naisse has written articles and courageously spoken out in national, regional and international forums.  He was arrested six times for publicly demanding respect for human rights, he was held incommunicado and even tortured. He is currently not allowed to travel abroad. A trial against him will resume on 16 January 2005 and he risks 15 years prison.  
The Chairman of the Jury of the MEA, Hans Thoolen, called Aktham “an extraordinary example of a man who has fought for fundamental rights in spite of constant harassment and threats”. He stated that "there was complete consensus among all eleven human rights organizations on the Jury that Aktham deserves the award for his long-standing struggle for the defence of human rights, at the risk of his own health and life”. The Jury also noted the fact that many Arab human rights organisations and the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network support Aktham in his work. 
Naisse is charged with spreading false information, forming an underground association with links to international human rights groups, opposing the ruling Baath party and "undermining the objectives of the Revolution: the Arab Unity, Liberty and Socialism." He has been in and out of a military hospital because of his treatment in jail, notably because he is not being given access to insulin to treat his diabetes. During the first week of his imprisonment he suffered from a cerebral stroke that has left the right side of his body paralyzed. He previously won the Ludovic Trarieux International Human Rights Prize, a Belgian award. There has only been one previous Arab recipient of the Martin Ennals Award, the Palestinian activist Eyad El Sarraj, in the 12 years since it was established. In other Syria news, UPI is reporting that the Bush administration is considering a strike on Iraqi insurgent camps in Syria. The story also contains some interesting analysis of both the situation inside the Syrian regime (depicting Bashar Al Assad as under increasing pressure from old guard hardliners) and the various parties within US intelligence circles.
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Al Azhar to review soap operas

In the latest development on the growing power of "official Islam" in Egyptian public life, the Ministry of Information has decreed Al Azhar will now review new soap operas:
Cairo - Egyptian television dramas will soon be subject to review by a panel of religious censors, sparking an outcry by authors who say the move is a threat to their creative freedom and livelihoods.
Information Minister Mamduh al-Beltagi told reporters that he wanted to ensure better quality Egyptian television series, which have been overtaken in popularity by Syrian productions in recent years.
He said that under the new rules, only shows that are "responsible" and "respect the values and traditions of Egyptian society" will be allowed to hit the airwaves.
"The media cannot be transformed into instruments to distill poison under the pretext of artistic licence," he said.
Certain programmes will now be presented to the clerics of Al-Azhar, the world's highest Sunni Islam authority, and the small but powerful Christian church before being broadcast, Beltagi said.
The minister has already axed a television miniseries called A Girl From Shubra, a tale of the relationship between a Christian woman and a Muslim man during the Egyptian struggle for independence in the 1940s.
The ban sparked a deluge of criticism from writers but Beltagi defended the move saying the programme "deals with relations between Christians and Muslims in a way that undermines national unity".
There are going to be a lot of different interpretations of this. It could be, as the article seems to suggest, that the current sectarian tensions in Egypt are making the state adopt a more cautious take on TV programming, especially after the brouhaha that followed 'The Girl from Shubra'. It could be simply yet another control freak aspect of the regime. A lot of people will see the US behind this, especially after the scandal of 2002's 'Headless Horseman' 'Knight Without a Horse' serial, which featured among other things the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a historical document. And I'm sure more reasons can be found. But it's rather worrying that at a time when Arab media satellite is exploding with new types of exciting content (good or bad), state TV is adding yet another layer of censorship and control. There is another element to this, too: why is Al Azhar increasingly becoming the official referee on what is Islamically correct when Sunni Islam, at least, is not meant to be clerical?
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Allawi buys off journalists

My good friend and former colleague Steve Negus had a gem in this morning's Financial Times: Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is bribing reporters at $100 a head for favorable coverage in the upcoming elections.
After a meeting held by Mr Allawi's campaign alliance in west Baghdad, reporters, most of whom were from the Arabic-language press, were invited upstairs where each was offered a "gift" of a $100 bill contained in an envelope.
Many of the journalists accepted the cash - about equivalent to half the starting monthly salary for a reporter at an Iraqi newspaper - and one jokingly recalled how Saddam Hussein's regime had also lavished perks on favoured reporters.
Giving gifts to journalists is common in many of the Middle East's authoritarian regimes, although reporters at the conference said the practice was not yet widespread in postwar Iraq.
Seek comfort in that the US is trying to make Iraq in its image: the best democracy money can buy. Update: When I asked Steve what he did with his $100, he aptly responded "Why, I passed it on to my tribal retainers of course. That's what maintaining a patronage net is all about." And apparently a talking head on Al Jazeera called this "the first cheating of the campaign, as reported on the Financial Times" today.
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The Palestinian elections

Perhaps the metaphor is a little stretched, but this editorial captured my feelings about the Palestinian elections:
If this election is like a wedding, it is a surreal, even pantomime, marriage, a show presented partly for distraction, but mostly to suit other interests and desires that do not coincide with the expected reasons -- and requirements -- of most elections or nuptials. Yesterday's polls were heavy on symbolism, hope and hype, and rather light on emotions as well as the crucial structures of governance and the sorts of powers one would expect a president to wield. But on this festive day, such doubts were brushed aside so that all could admire the handsome and suitable groom while placing unrealistic hopes on his shoulders.
Yesterday's elections did not choose a president so much as they formalized a rite of passage in the upper ranks of Fatah, passing the mantle of leadership of the Palestinian Authority (not the Palestinian people) from the late Yasser Arafat to Mahmoud Abbas, a.k.a., Abu Mazen.
The poll, this stilted, shotgun wedding, had a strange energy -- drained, anemic, and hesitant. Few seemed genuinely enthusiastic. The bride was not there, after all, and big issues and concerns were also missing. Universal human rights and international humanitarian law were not honored guests at this celebration. Inviting them might have elicited passions. Had that happened, Abu Mazen might have lost his title of "moderate candidate."
This description implies that the contender in yesterday's elections, Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, was a fiery and dangerous radical or an advocate of violence. He is neither. Rather, Barghouti is a medical doctor and a respected human rights activist who is highly regarded as an earnest, intelligent, hard-working man of integrity, someone who'd like to change the status quo, discuss the rudiments of a just society, widen political participation, and in general shake things up constructively.
You can also read more on the low turnout in Haaretz and the Guardian. There was also a good piece in the Financial Times by Rashid Khalidi, which I can't find on their site but am reproducing here. His conclusion:
The US cannot just smile benevolently as Israel evacuates the tiny sliver of the occupied territories represented by the Gaza Strip and demand that Palestinians accept Mr Sharon's vision of the continued occupation and settlement of much of the West Bank. If this is where Mr Sharon and Mr Bush intend to try to take the Palestinians, this current bout of optimism will be short-lived. There is an opportunity, but seizing it would require a new approach by Israel and America. Failing such a shift, we can look forward to the final burial of the two-state solution and the establishment of permanent Israeli control within a single, conflict-ridden entity encompassing the entirety of the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.
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Divorce law and Islam

Here's my story for WomensEnews on how the struggle to change Egypt's divorce laws is largely a debate over competing visions of Islam. There are many different angles to a discussion on Egypt's divorce laws. It is a subject that promises to feature prominently in the public debate in coming months. Divorce falls under Egypt's personal status laws, and a new personal status law is due to be presented to Parliament this Spring. In addition, the whole controversy over the Coptic bishop's wife who converted to Islam has renewed the debate about getting rid of the legal distinctions between Copts and Muslims in Egypt's family law. I'll try to follow up with more on this later.
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City of ghosts

Here are a few paragraphs from a story published in The Guardian today, written by an Iraqi doctor who visited Falluja when most journalists could not get in. His testimony will also be broascast by the UK's Channel Four News, and you can watch an excerpt here.
As I went into the graveyard, the bodies of two young men were arriving. The faces were rotting. The ambulance driver lifted the bones of one of the hands; the skin had rotted away. "God is the greatest. What kind of times are we living through that we are holding the bones and hands of our brothers?"
Then he began cursing the National Guard, calling them even worse things than the Americans: "Those bastards, those sons of dogs." It wasn't the first time I had heard this. It was the National Guard the Americans used to search the houses; they were seen by the Fallujans as brutal stooges. Most of the volunteers for the National Guard are poor Shias from the south. They are jobless and desperate enough to volunteer for a job that makes them assassination targets. "National infidels", they were also called.
I counted the graves: there were 74. The two young men made it 76. The names on the headstones were written in chalk and some had been washed away. One read: "Here lies the heroic Tunisian martyr who died", but I didn't see any other evidence of the hundreds of foreign fighters that the US had said were using Falluja as their headquarters. People told me there were some Yemenis and Saudis, some volunteers from Tunisia and Egypt, but most of the fighters were Fallujan. The US military say they have hundreds of bodies frozen in a potato chip factory 5km south of the city, but nobody has been allowed to go there in the past two months, including the Red Crescent.
He concludes:
The US military destroyed Falluja, but simply spread the fighters out around the country. They also increased the chance of civil war in Iraq by using their new national guard of Shias to suppress Sunnis. Once, when a foreign journalist, an Irish guy, asked me whether I was Shia or Sunni - the way the Irish do because they have that thing about the IRA - I said I was Sushi. My father is Sunni and my mother is Shia. I never cared about these things. Now, after Falluja, it matters.
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Election linkage

Here's an interesting result from the Palestinian elections: Egyptian activists are using the pretext of free, multi-candidate elections there to push for constitutional reform at home.
Egyptian reformers have demanded that, like Palestinians, they too should have a chance to choose their leader from a host of candidates. 
Egyptian President Husni Mubarak, who has won four presidential terms in referendums where he is the only candidate, earlier congratulated new Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas, who beat six other candidates.
"The Palestinian people chose their president," said Husain Abd al-Raziq, spokesman for the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR). "I think the Egyptian people are not naive, and are capable of choosing from among many candidates."
He was speaking at a news conference called to announce that the EOHR would work with six other human rights organisations and four opposition parties in a campaign to change the country's three-decades-old constitution.
As I've said before the Palestinian elections are hardly an example of free elections considering the pressure put on certain candidates not to run and the real threat that if the "wrong" candidate was elected he risked being given the same treatment that Arafat was given. Moreover, the voter turnout has been widely exaggerated by most media. I was bed-ridden with a rather painful muscle-spasm yesterday, but CNN and the BBC were waxing lyrical about historic democratic elections and so on. I thought those were meant to have taken place in 1995. But at least Abbas only won by a little over 62% of votes, which is more reasonable than the 95-99% you see in some countries. In the meantime, Iraqi expats in Cairo are setting up a voluntary polling center for the upcoming Iraqi elections after Egyptian officials refused to help them out.
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Settler semantics

A friend emailed me these two letters published in the London Review of Books:
Unfair to Revenants
From Yisrael Medad
Virginia Tilley (LRB, 6 November 2003) wrote of 'settlers in "Judea and Samaria" who are indeed gun-toting religious zealots (mostly from the US)'. In the same article, she also presumed that Ariel Sharon would not support the dismantling of Jewish communities in the disputed territories.
As a resident of Shiloh, a Jewish community pejoratively called a 'settlement' populated by 'settlers', and a member of the communities' representative body, the Yesha Council, I can tell Tilley that the people here, and more properly they should be referred to as revenants, persons who have returned after a long hiatus to their ancestral homes, who number more than 250,000 (and more than 400,000 if eastern Jerusalem is included), are secular in the main. The number of Americans who live beyond the Green Line armistice demarcation boundary does not exceed 20 per cent of that population.
Yisrael Medad
Shiloh, Samaria
Unfair to Revenants
From Nicholas Blanton
Yisrael Medad asks that we call the Jewish settlers in the West Bank revenants, as befits 'persons who have returned after a long hiatus to their ancestral homes' (Letters, 6 May). I know just how he feels. My family lost everything in the North of England in 1070, when William the Conqueror ethnically cleansed the landowners, and it's been annoying us ever since. If Medad would meet me next Thursday in Barnard Castle, with a few hundred of his armed friends, we could finally see justice done. It's tough perhaps to the non-revenants, who've been there for only 934 years, but we won't charge them back rent and there are plenty of people who speak their language next door. I'm sure they'll adjust and find other places to live, among their own kind.
Nicholas Blanton
Shepherdstown, West Virginia
I think I also have a pretty strong claim to Moorish Spain, from where my ancestors were driven in 1492 by those brutish Franks.
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Judeo-Muslim heritage

An association of imams and rabbis will be creating an institute for inter-religious and inter-cultural diplomacy in Fes, the old Moroccan imperial capital:
The creation of a permanent institute for inter-religious and inter-cultural diplomacy will be announced next June in Fes, during the Sacred Music Festival, held every year in this Moroccan central town.
The announcement was made by Faouzi Skalli, president of the Fes festival, on the occasion of the first congress of "imams and rabbis for peace," wound up Thursday in the Belgian capital city.
The projected institute will develop inter-religious diplomacy through reflection and interpretation of sacred texts to contribute to find a way out to political conflicts, Skalli said. Religious chiefs have an important role in promoting awareness among their communities of the judeo-moslem heritage, Skalli said.
This is an interesting development, especially since as far as I know there aren't many initiatives by religious leaders to resolve regional conflicts. Perhaps the most prominent is a program by the Church of England (it was started by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, but I don't know if the current one has given it the same attention) to get Palestinian imams and Israeli rabbis to meet and discuss. I remember attending one such meeting in Cairo last year, meeting some interesting rabbis involved in politics such as Michael Melchior. The various religious leaders' argument was that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was essentially a religious one and that therefore the solution should be religious. I can't say I agree with that, but no wrong can come from better inter-religious relations. Looking at the Moroccan side of things, it's good that there will be a public institution based there that will look at these issues. I remember being shocked by the Pew Global Attitudes survey a couple of years ago that showed that over 90% of Moroccans has a negative impression of Jews. I think that this is particularly regrettable in a country with a historical Jewish minority that until the creation of Israel was relatively well-integrated. Morocco lost a lot from the mass immigration of Jews in the 1950s and 1960s: there are currently over 650,000 Moroccan Jews worldwide, mostly in North America, but less than two thousand in Morocco itself. The city of Fes itself -- generally considered one of the most religious in the country -- once had an important Jewish population and it is generally believed that there was a lot of inter-marriage (and the occasional campaign of forced conversion). This, according to lore, is why Fassis (people from Fes) are pale-skinned.
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Poor Hosni

So Egypt's Hosni Mubarak says he's OK with having competition in the presidential elections -- but of course he's not saying he's OK with changing the constitution so that others can run against him:
CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has been in power since 1981, said he did not mind others seeking nomination for this year's presidential referendum but that the top job was tough and offered no private life.
Parliament has yet to choose the sole candidate allowed to run in the September referendum. But Mubarak is expected to be nominated again, despite reformers' calls for the government to amend the constitution and allow more than one candidate to run.
Three prominent intellectuals have announced their intention to run for the position in a symbolic challenge to Mubarak.
Asked about those seeking to run against him, 76-year-old Mubarak said: "Let them go ahead, this is good. Democracy is like this. I hope that 100 nominate (themselves). Why will I get angry? I won't get angry."
My favorite part of this story is when Mubarak complains about how tough being a dictator is:
When asked about his job, Mubarak said: "Firstly, whoever sits in the chair of the president of Egypt, his health, time and nerves are ruined and he has no private life at all.
"If I want to go to one place or another, it's impossible, or walk in the street, it's impossible," he said, adding that he could not go to a restaurant or cinema.
"I stay surrounded by walls," he said, adding that even when he traveled abroad, he could not leave the hotel where he stayed because of security.
"It means the president of Egypt is a detainee," he said.
Vintage Hosni.
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