The Obama Doctrine

In Thomas Friedman's interesting sit-down with Obama about the Iran deal, this tidbit on US policy towards Arab countries:

Regarding America’s Sunni Arab allies, Obama reiterated that while he is prepared to help increase their military capabilities they also need to increase their willingness to commit their ground troops to solving regional problems.
“The conversations I want to have with the Gulf countries is, first and foremost, how do they build more effective defense capabilities,” the president said. “I think when you look at what happens in Syria, for example, there’s been a great desire for the United States to get in there and do something. But the question is: Why is it that we can’t have Arabs fighting [against] the terrible human rights abuses that have been perpetrated, or fighting against what Assad has done? I also think that I can send a message to them about the U.S.’s commitments to work with them and ensure that they are not invaded from the outside, and that perhaps will ease some of their concerns and allow them to have a more fruitful conversation with the Iranians. What I can’t do, though, is commit to dealing with some of these internal issues that they have without them making some changes that are more responsive to their people.”
One way to think about it, Obama continued, “is [that] when it comes to external aggression, I think we’re going to be there for our [Arab] friends — and I want to see how we can formalize that a little bit more than we currently have, and also help build their capacity so that they feel more confident about their ability to protect themselves from external aggression.” But, he repeated, “The biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries. Now disentangling that from real terrorist activity inside their country, how we sort that out, how we engage in the counterterrorism cooperation that’s been so important to our own security — without automatically legitimizing or validating whatever repressive tactics they may employ — I think that’s a tough conversation to have, but it’s one that we have to have.”

Let me translate that for you: our priority in the Arab world is selling them weapons and making sure that the regimes are stable enough so that they will keep buying our weapons, and don't act too embarrassingly either in terms of human rights and so on because it might make selling them weapons more difficult. Also, we would like to formalize as much as we can how we will sell them weapons.

Palestinian iconography

The Palestine Museum -- a new museum that should open in Birzeit in 2016 -- has created a collection of images that mash up contemporary photographs with Baroque religious paintings. (Another series, also at this link, juxtaposes photos from the refugee camps today and decades ago). 

The Deposition (c. 1507) Raphaello Sanzio da Urbino 

Photo: Israeli soldiers kill a Palestinian and detain others, downtown Ramallah. 31 Mar. 2002 

byAlexandra Boulat

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Tunisia's Rachid Ghannouchi on blasphemy, homosexuality, equality

In a new book, Au sujet de l'Islam ("Speaking of Islam"), Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of the Ennahda party in Tunisia, give his opinions on a number of contemporary issues. Here are a few quotes translated from a press summary:

On blasphemy: "It's forbidden in Tunisia, although freedom of conscience and opinion are protected by the Constitution. You have the choice to be Muslim or not, but you don't have the choice to mock the beliefs of others." 
On homosexuality: "We don't approve it. But Islam does not spy on folks. It preserves privacy. Everyone leads his/her life and is responsible before his/her creator." 
On equality: "Inheritance does not reflect the value of women versus men. They are equal in terms of their human value, but don't have the same rights and responsibilities in society." 

 

I wonder if the seemingly liberal position on homosexuality is a reaction above all to the pervasive spying under Ben Ali and the way the intelligence services used people's private lives, including real or false sexual allegations, as ammunition against them. On the old Islamist chestnut that men and women don't need to be equal in everything, just to have an equitable distribution of obligations -- What about the many men who live off their wives' work, or systematically refuse to pay alimony? Shouldn't they lose the rights of "breadwinners" when they shirk their obligations? 

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Reporting on Yemen

A Yemeni reporter for the Washington Post talks about a war that is not too close for comfort:

Increasingly, Sanaa is turning into a ghost town. The universities, once bustling with students, have closed. So, too, have many businesses. People are packing their belongings into their pickup trucks and sedans and driving to far-away villages, hoping to avoid the air raids that have turned the mountains surrounding Sanaa into fiery-orange ­volcanoes.
The campaign, with a coalition of Arab nations, is an effort to dislodge Houthi rebels sweeping through Yemen.
The evenings are what alarm me most. That’s when the bombings intensify.
With Sanaa increasingly deprived of electricity, the lack of lighting creates an eerie darkness that is punctuated by the flashes — and explosions that quickly follow — that briefly illuminate my home town.
I’m also increasingly away from my wife. I’ve moved her family into our home because of the air raids. To make room, I’ve been staying at my father’s house, which is across town. I think that the family is safer this way, but all I want is to be home with my wife.
I spend my evenings trying to sleep, but often I can’t. I think about how I’ll report on the following day’s events. Will the Houthis capture the southern port city of Aden? I then inevitably ponder my own mortality. Will my family be killed in the attacks? Will I wake in the morning?


Revamping the Nixon Doctrine

Kagan and Dunne on the restoring of full levels of military aid to Egypt:

Unfortunately the idea that Sissi will be an effective ally against Islamic terrorists is misguided. He has, in fact, become one of the jihadists’ most effective recruiting tools. The simple truth is that, since Sissi took power, the frequency of terrorist attacks in Egypt has soared; there have been more than 700 attacks over 22 months, as opposed to fewer than 90 in the previous 22 months. Harder to measure is the number of young people radicalized by Sissi’s repression, but we can assume it is significant and growing. A well-regarded Egyptian rights organization estimates that 42,000 political prisoners are being held; torture and sexual assault in the course of arrest or detention reportedly are rampant. There has been no accountability for the mass killings of 2013. Amnesty International listed Egypt as one of the top two countries issuing death sentences, with 509 people condemned in 2014.
. . .
In this environment, is it surprising that reports surface regularly about the trend of radicalization of Egyptian youth, including previously peaceful Islamists? Sissi’s brutal actions speak far louder than his few words about reforming Islam; to believe that he, or the religious institutions of his government, can have a positive impact on young people susceptible to radicalization is beyond wishful thinking. It would be laughable if it were not dangerous self-delusion.
. . .
We are back on the same old course in Egypt. It’s the Nixon Doctrine all over again, and we are falling prey to the same illusions that dictatorship equals stability, that brutal repression is the answer to radicalism. We lionize Sissi just as we lionized the shah, Mubarak and the other Middle East dictators before him. He is our guy, right up until the day his regime collapses. Geopolitical godsend? Try geopolitical time bomb.

The most important point they make is that unblocking the blocked portion of the military aid was not really necessary for counter-terrorism operations, as is frequently argued by the pro-Sisi crowd. Egypt already gets all sorts of counter-terrorism aid, it did not need the unblocked F16s and tank kits for that purpose. I suspect it's much more about the symbolism, especially in the context of many of the traditional allies of the US (the SADDAM - Sunni Arab Dominated Dictatorships Against the Mullahs) anxiety about the Iran nuclear deal. On the other hand, they do not mention the change in cashflow provisions in the way the aid is administered. In any case, I am not sure the aid levels matter as much as political measures – the most damaging thing the Obama administration has done is to embrace the new regime as building a democracy (as John Kerry, notably, has done.) 

By the way, you really have to read the Bret Stephens piece they reference as an example of the Sisimania in the US – it's a spectacular piece of brown-nosing.

Weekend read: Kamel Daoud's counter-investigation

The Algerian writer Kamel Daoud's Meursault, contre-enquete is one of the best books I've read in a while. Inspired by Camus' The Stranger, it is a brilliantly written, sharp, sad, angry look at colonialism, religion, and the limits of "liberation." It is narrated by the brother of the unnamed Arab killed and quickly forgotten in Camus' novel. Adam Shatz has a great profile of Daoud, the city of Oran, where he lives, and the Algerian literary scene in the New York Times magazine.

After college, Daoud took a job as a crime reporter for a monthly tabloid called Detective. (“What made ‘The Wire’ so great,” he told me, “is that it’s a collaboration between a writer and a policeman, the dogs of the world.”) It was through traveling to small, remote towns, where he wrote about murder trials and sex crimes, that Daoud discovered what he calls “the real Algeria.” When Detective folded in 1996, he went to work for Le Quotidien d’Oran. While other journalists complained of the danger they faced from Islamist rebels, Daoud rented a donkey and went out to interview them. He reported on some of the worst massacres of the civil war, including the 1998 killings in the village of Had Chekala, where more than 800 people were slaughtered. His work as a reporter, Daoud told me, left him suspicious of “hardened positions and grand analyses,” and that sensibility infused the column he began writing for Le Quotidien. Daoud upheld no ideology, spoke in no one’s name but his own. To his new admirers, this was something to celebrate: the emergence of an authentically Algerian free spirit. To his adversaries, Daoud became the face of an Algerian Me-Generation: selfish, hollow, un-Algerian.

The New Yorker has also just published a short interview with Daoud and more importantly an excerpt from the forthcoming translation of his novel. 

Musa was my older brother. His head seemed to strike the clouds. He was quite tall, yes, and his body was thin and knotty from hunger and the strength that comes from anger. He had an angular face, big hands that protected me, and hard eyes, because our ancestors had lost their land. But when I think about it I believe that he already loved us then the way the dead do, with no useless words and a look in his eyes that came from the hereafter. I have only a few pictures of him in my head, but I want to describe them to you carefully. For example, the day he came home early from the neighborhood market, or maybe from the port, where he worked as a handyman and a porter, toting, dragging, lifting, sweating. Anyway, that day he came upon me while I was playing with an old tire, and he put me on his shoulders and told me to hold on to his ears, as if his head were a steering wheel. I remember the joy I felt as he rolled the tire along and made a sound like a motor. His smell comes back to me, too, a persistent mingling of rotten vegetables, sweat, and breath. Another picture in my memory is from the day of Eid one year. Musa had given me a hiding the day before for some stupid thing I’d done, and now we were both embarrassed. It was a day of forgiveness and he was supposed to kiss me, but I didn’t want him to lose face and lower himself by apologizing to me, not even in God’s name. I also remember his gift for immobility, the way he could stand stock still on the threshold of our house, facing the neighbors’ wall, holding a cigarette and the cup of black coffee our mother brought him.
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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Links March 21-April 3 2015

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

In Translation: Clinging to power with your teeth

The crack translation team at Industry Arabic brings us this week's installment of our In Translation feature, in which we translate a representative op-ed from the Arab pressThis column in the pan-Arab, Saudi-owned Al Hayat newspaper by its editor, Ghassan Charbel, blames the conflict in Yemen on former Yemeni president (and erstwhile Saudi ally) Ali Abdullah Saleh's unwillingness to step down and includes quotes from several previous interviews Charbel conducted with Saleh. The introductory paragraphs, on the discourse of false humility and sacrifice of leaders who can't conceive of relinquishing power, apply pretty  much to every ruler in the Arab world. 

The General Doesn’t Love the Palace

By Ghassan Charbel, Al-Hayat, 1 April 2015

The master of the palace embarrasses me when he tells me that he does not love the palace and that he awaits impatiently the date of his departure and that he suffers from a tortured conscience with regards to his family, since the concerns of the nation have distracted him from the First Lady and his children. He flabbergasts me when he tell me that he did what was necessary and will allow history to judge, that the decision to depart is final even if the masses cling to the hem of his jacket, and the time has come for him to have time to play with his grandchildren. The master of the palace disconcerts me when he says that power is a torment, and satisfying people an impossible task. He points out the white hair he has gotten from over-taxing himself for the needy and poor, and that he didn’t really intend to run in the last election but the people insisted. It disconcerts me that he says he remains in office based on election results. When he tries to portray the elections as free and fair, my mind immediately jumps to the intelligence chief and the vote-rigging factory in the Interior Ministry.

The fact of the matter is that I’m not a naïve enough journalist to believe all this. This profession has taken me to many capitals and I have interviewed many figures. Politeness forces me to suppress my chuckles so as not to jeopardize future interviews. Sometimes I have felt that the recording device itself will object to the expressions of humility voiced by a ruler who came to power on the back of a tank or the like.

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Two very good books

The finalists for the International Man Booker prize have been announced. Two names on the list have written wonderful books that have meant a lot to me. Amitav Gosh's In An Antique Land is a book I would place on my Ideal Egypt Reading List. I have just been searching my shelves for it and am distressed not to find it. This is a work of creative historical research and reconstruction and of deft and very amusing sociological observation. Gosh did doctoral research in two Nile Delta villages in the early 1980s (and then returned for a visit at the end of the decade). He memorably sketches the personalities of his hosts; his interactions with the villagers -- who mock him for his Hindu beliefs but call on him to fix their Indian-made water pumps -- are deeply funny. In his book he also imagines the life of a 12th century Jewish trader based in Egypt and his Indian slaves. He uses the Geniza documents, an incredible trove found in a Jewish synagogue in Cairo (since throwing away paper with God's name on it is forbidden, the Jewish community there had been using the space between two walls in the synagogue as a giant waste paper basket for centuries). To me In An Antique Land was a lovely, personal reflection on Egypt's layered, multi-cultural past and on its submersion (some would say erasure) by the modern nation state. It's told  by a writer with great empathy, insight and intellectual curiosity about folks around him and ones who lived centuries ago. 

The Libyan writer Ibrahim Al Koni is also one of this year's list. I read Al Koni's نزيف الحجر The Bleeding of the Stone when I was studying Arabic in Cairo in the Spring of 2008. A wonderful literature professor from Cairo University assigned it to us and it electrified the class. I have read a few more books of his in translation since, but none have struck me as much as this one. Like so many of al-Koni's books it takes place in the Libyan desert, where the writer is from. 

Elliott Colla, who has translated and written some of the best commentary I've found on Al Koni, writes:

Taking the Twareg aspect of Al-Koni’s writing seriously allows us to recognize a radically redrawn map of the world—one in which the Sahara is a full, rather than empty space; one in which the Twareg lie not at the edges, but the center of history. Al-Koni’s novels take place in a desert world that is, despite its desolation, surprisingly rich in the sense that everywhere there are living beings struggling to live. In Al-Koni’s fiction, the meaning of life is always tied to struggle. Thus, Al-Koni’s novels paradoxically suggest that only here—in the harshest corners of the desert waste—does life emerge in its richest sense.
While each of Al-Koni’s novels has a different focus, they invariably sketch a richly detailed Twareg landscape whose heart is located somewhere between Aïr and the Hamada Hamra, Ghadamès and Agadez, Sebha and Tamenrasset. Indeed, it is the Acacus range, Al-Koni’s birthplace, which forms the geographical center of this fictional universe. The inbetweenness of this geography is not accidental, for center of this world is deliberately situated between two diametrically opposing social and philosophical forces. To the South lies a world of myth, magic and superstition. It is the place where the caravans carrying blue cloth, slaves and gold originate. To the North lie the distant Arab cities of the coast and after that the sea—a place associated with mechanized technology and warfare. Truth emanates from neither—rather, it is in the struggle between them, the struggle in the Twareg center, that meaning is to be found.

The protagonist is the lone, simple Asouf, a herdsman who lives deep in the desert, in precarious and often dangerous balance with nature. Then evil hunters -- who have already wiped out the gazelles of the area -- arrive, on a hunt for the waddan, a nearly mythical mouflon (a horned wild sheep) with whom Asouf has already had run-ins. Everything about the book is strange and unique: the setting (the Arabic novel is generally extremely urban, just think of the relationship between Mahfouz and Cairo); the agency given to animals (when a late chapter is told from the point of view of a gazelle we are hardly surprised); the unique spiritual universe in which imagery and symbolism from many different religions is combined. This is a world in which nature is cruel, but human are much crueler. The original Arabic is also beautiful. I can only speak to the laborious pleasure I got, sentence by sentence (the labour added to the pleasure -- reading in a second language is often very close reading), but Colla points out how it harks directly back to early Arabic literary tradition. 

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Houellebecq's Submission

Adam Shatz reviews Michel Houellebecq's Soumission in the London Review of Books.

Soumission derives its name from the original meaning of the Arabic ‘al-Islam’ – voluntary submission, or surrender, to the will of God. In that sense, the novel is a faithful rendering of Islam’s meaning. François is under no compulsion to convert, other than the usual inducements of professional ambition and sex, the typical motors of the French novel. Ben Abbes’s arrival is greeted with relief, the war between theidentitaires and the jihadists is brought to an end, and Islamisation proceeds not so much by conquest as by persuasion. The national patrimony – the Sorbonne, the Paulhan hôtel particulier – now belongs to the Gulf sheikhdoms, and on campus the miniskirt has given way to the burqa, but otherwise France is unchanged. In fact it’s even a bit better off. As Houellebecq says, the entire novel unfolds in an ‘ambience of resignation’.
Is Houellebecq condemning the French for capitulating to Islam, or worse, accusing them of ‘collaboration’? His critics have pointed out that the structure of Soumissionresembles narratives about Vichy: a confused period of civil unrest; an exodus to the countryside; and accommodation to the new regime. But really, far from damning the French for embracing Ben Abbes, Houellebecq is suggesting that they could do much worse: indeed, that they are already doing much worse. And, as Houellebecq reminds us, ‘moderate Muslims are not Nazis.’
Perhaps this is all just a Swiftian stunt. Perhaps Houellebecq is saying that France has sunk so low that even Islam would be preferable to the state religion of laïcité. But I don’t think so. Soumission is too ambiguous to be read as satire – or, for that matter, as nightmare. There are strong indications, both in the novel and in interviews, that Houellebecq sees Islam as a solution, if not the solution, to the crisis of French civilisation. Yes, civilisation, that word evocative of the longue durée, religion, tradition, shared values and, not least, clashes with civilisational rivals. But the word is unavoidable. What has always made his writing so perverse is the way it jumps between microsociology and the aerial view of history. (His novels almost always take place at some point in the future, allowing the present to be depicted as a just vanished past.) Houellebecq has an unerring, Balzacian flair for detail, and his novels provide an acute, disenchanted anatomy of French middle-class life: TV dinners, petty intrigues at the workplace, tourism, sex. But since his characters are never more than sociological types, without much of an interior life, he needs to find another narrative for them: hence the role played by history. For Houellebecq, history is the story of the rise and fall of civilisations. The only lasting civilisations, as he sees it, rest on a solid foundation of shared religious values. Once those values disintegrate, a civilisation slides into inexorable decline, and becomes susceptible to what, in Atomised (1998), he called a ‘metaphysical mutation’, a sudden and decisive transformation of its values. These metaphysical mutations are the engine of history. Politics and economics – the stuff materialists get worked up about – are of secondary importance. (By any objective measure, France isn’t doing so badly: people work less and make more, and have a higher life expectancy than the OECD average. The ‘crisis’ of the French model is partly phantasmagorical.)

I'm reading this book now. It has some entertaining bits, some nice phrase assassines on French academia, politics and media. But generally it disappoints, mostly because of how much it repeats familiar themes and scenes. Once again there is the morose view of a culture corroded by individualism, materialism and humanism. Once again explicit, porn-like sex scenes meant to convey the opposite of intimacy. Houellebecq seems to have reached the point in his career where his style is becoming a pastiche of itself. As Shatz notes, "At the beginning of Soumission, Houellebecq says that while the style of a novel matters and ‘the musicality of phrases have their importance,’ ‘an author is above all a human being, present in his books.’ He is distressingly present in Soumission."

Because Soumission came out the day before the Charlie Hebdo attack (the magazine featured Houellebecq on its cover) it has been treated as not only relevant -- the author is certainly gifted at hitting on nerves -- but somehow prescient. But the scenario it unfolds is political science fiction. This is not a book about Islam or Muslims at all; it is a book about a decades-long French malaise and, as usual, about Michel Houellebecq himself. 

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

In prison in Egypt

Part of a testimony published on El Bedaia web site by Ahmad Gamal Ziada, a journalist being held in Abu Zabal prison. 

Still the soldiers try to provoke me. They push me with their sticks and laugh. "Move journalist, ha ha ha, you complain of your masters?!" I did not reply to avoid problems. But one of them said: "Son of a bitch"! I protested in a loud voice so that the warden would hear me. I told him I wanted to report the insult. The warden laughed and told the masked soldiers and the officer Ahmed Omar: "Take him and make the report." The signs of that report are still on my body. I took my share of beatings and instead of making the report I requested, the warden made a report against me and accused me of individual excitement (Thank God it was not one of sexual excitement against an ignorant man who described my mother as a whore). He wrote that my punishment was 24 hours in disciplinary detention. I told the chief investigating officer what happened and he said: I tried to convince the warden and Ahmed Beh not to put you in disciplinary detention, but they seem annoyed with you. And because their highnesses were annoyed with me they put me in disciplinary detention for seven days instead of 24 hours and wrote a report that I refused to enter the cell!! I entered the death chamber: A cell, 3 times 5 feet big, half a blanket, a rotten smelling plastic box to use as a toilet, since it is forbidden to open the cell throughout the duration of the punishment, a dirty bottle of water, a rotten loaf of bread and an equally rotten piece of cheese. No air, no light, no life! I declared a hunger strike, but no one cared. "We did not bring you here to eat", said the officer. I said tell the prison administration that I shall not end my hunger strike except after a human rights visit to these inhumane graves.

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

The war in Yemen (in 1963)

Patrick Seale reported for The New Republic on the war in Yemen in 1963, which saw Egypt intervening to prop up a new republican regime, against the monarchy supported by Saudi Arabia and Jordan. 

President Nasser's armed intervention in Yemen is the most ambitious and dangerous foreign adventure of his career. It has brought him to the brink of war with Saudi Arabia and Jordan and provides American diplomacy in the Middle East with possibly its greatest challenge since Suez. By recognizing, in December, the republican regime of Marshal Sallal--Nasser's protege in Yemen--the United States has clashed with her British ally and has taken sides in the inter-Arab struggle for power. Why did Washington do it, and what are the military facts?
For the last three months, an Egyptian expeditionary force--put at between 12,000 and 15,000--has been fighting a savage guerrilla war in north and east Yemen against tribes loyal to the Imamate who will not accept the republican couip d'etat by which Sallal overthrew the royalist government. These Egyptian forces--Nasser's crack combat units--were trained for desert not for mountain warfare. Their expensive equipment, their Soviet-built tanks, armored personnel carriers and Ilyushin jet bombers, are not ideally suited for operations in the crazy maze of narrow defiles and boulder-strewn mountains of northern Yemen.
A main road in these parts is a barely discernible single-file, pencil-line camel track linking two waterholes across a moon-landscape of black surging rock threaded by pale dry watercourses. Clumps of white thorn, dry as tinder, spring into flame at the touch of a match to warm the night marches. In this terrain, the slow-moving Nile Valley peasant has proved a poor match for the barefoot, elusive tribesmen armed only with rifle and jambiya--the vast, curved, razor-sharp dagger which every male Yemeni wears in his belt.
But quite apart from individual fighting qualities, it was evident (at least to this correspondent from conversations with Egyptian prisoners) that whereas the Egyptians seem uncertain why they are there, the Yemeni tribes are fighting a foreign invader in the name of Islam and of their traditional way of life and form of government--and are enjoying opportunities for loot on a scale probably unparalleled since the incense caravans of Sheba. I met a man who had acquired 80 Egyptian blankets; another had a couple of hundred cans of excellent Egyptian beans; children were dressed in rags of parachute silk and every royalist camp was littered with captured weapons, bazooka bombs, boxes of grenades and Egyptian cigarettes.


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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Egyptian Christians pretend to be Muslim to survive ISIS attack in Libya

A gut-wrenching account of the capture of Egyptian Christians by the Islamic State in Libya, by Betsy Hiel in the Pittsburg Tribune-Review:

“There were two rooms for Christians,” recalled Hamdi Ashour, 29, a construction worker who shared Mahrouf's quarters. “We pointed out one.”

He and the frightened workers said Christian men sleeping in the second room “were our cousins from our village and were Muslim,” Ashour said. “If they opened up that second door, we would have been killed, too,” because the gunmen would have easily discovered that the sleeping men were Copts.

“They opened up the first room and took seven Christians.”

“Of course, we were afraid,” said Mahrouf, explaining the horrible decision they made at gunpoint. “These people came at us with weapons loaded and banging on the door.”

He and the other men watched as the terrorists “jumped over the fence into the next courtyard and did the same thing” in the adjoining compound.

Like Mahrouf and his companions, the men in the second compound “were under the gun and told them where the Christians were, and ISIS took six of them.”

Osama Mansour, a Christian, was sleeping in a room of the first compound when ISIS burst in. Warned of what was happening, he slipped outside and “jumped from fence to fence just ahead of the gunmen,” he said.

He escaped but was left on his own in the dangerous city, separated from his friends.

“I stayed (in Sirte) for 30 days, but I didn't stay in the same room” from night to night, said the 26-year-old tile worker.

A man he called “Sheikh Ali,” a Muslim from his home province of Assuit, helped Mansour hide and constantly change locations. Eventually, he grew a beard in order to leave Sirte.

“ISIS had two checkpoints that they would move around. I heard they were checking for tattoos” — he pointed to the bluish-black cross that he and many Coptic Christians ink on the insides of their wrists — “and we put a plaster cast on my hand and wrist. Sheikh Ali gave me a Quran and a prayer rug for the trip.

“I had to do this — I can't have my mother wearing black” for mourning, Mansour said.

Links March 14-20 2015

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

What Happened in Homs

The New York Review of Books publishes an excerpt of Jonathan Littel's Syrian Notebooks:

Ever since the beheading of the journalist James Foley, Da‘esh has become the overwhelming obsession of Western governments, clouding all other issues. The regime and its Russian friends can be proud: their goal of, if not quite rehabilitating, at least bringing al-Assad back into the game as a key player, is now within reach. Even more than the fate of the broader Middle East, it is the fear, even to the point of psychosis, of another jihadi backlash against Western interests—of another September 11 or July 7 or January 7—that is driving European and US decision making. From there to working with al-Assad is only a step, no matter how much our leaders deny it. Sadly, this won’t benefit the Syrian people much.
A recent set of statistics published by the Syrian Network for Human Rights, usually considered one of the most reliable independent observer of the conflict, might serve as a useful reminder even if the figures are probably underestimated: as of March 2015, the regime had killed 176,678 Syrian civilians, including 18,242 children, as opposed to 1,054 civilians (of which 145 were children) killed by Da‘esh. Our new enemy should not make us forget who is at the root of the disaster; the Syrians certainly haven’t. The French journalist Sofia Amara cites, in her recent book, the new slogan chanted, with their eternal dark humor, by Syrian activists seen in a video marching through devastated streets: “What is left of the Syrian people wants the fall of the regime.”


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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

You probably won’t read this piece about Syria - Al Jazeera English

AJE's online editor, Barry Malone, on how few read about Syria's humanitarian disaster anymore:

We have seen a stagnation in traffic to our Syria conflict stories since 2012 with intermittent peaks when it makes headlines - Assad says something unusual, the possibility of Western missiles.

Recently, though there have been occasional spikes, they appear mostly related to ISIL. The taking of Fallujah, the fall of Mosul, the detestable beheadings, and the sledgehammering of history.

The twisted steal the attention. And the people we should pay attention to fade into the background, bit players in a narrative wrongly and unfairly dominated by the grotesque.

We find that stories about the suffocating grind and everyday hardship of war don't do as well. Stories about the almost four million Syrians who have been forced to flee their country, the same.

ISIS: Conspiracy theories in the Arab media

Not everyone in the Arab media thinks ISIS is part of a larger Western-backed conspiracy, but the view is depressingly widespread (even by those who in the same breadth demand retaliation against these apparently fabricated terrorists and their atrocities). In many of those theories, two reasonable points -- ISIS is in some sense a creation of regional and international powers, its rise a consequence of their terrible policies; and what they do is "un-Islamic," or horrifying to most Muslims -- are quickly pushed into the territory of non-thinking absurdity. Nour Youssef shares another of her expert round-ups. 

While Egyptian singer Sha’ban Abdelrahim was advising ISIS to plant cabbage and taro instead of bombs, Egyptian actor Mohamed Sobhy analyzed the terrorist group’s filmed beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya. 

Like Abdelrahim and essentially everyone who is not an MB-affiliated TV host, Sobhy asserted that the video is "an American film" with a joint “Turkish/Qatari/US/Israeli production.” The most obvious proof of this, Sobhy says, is that “Jihadi John”  who leads the beheadings, holds prayer beads, symbolizing Islam, in the same hand as a knife, symbolizing violence. “They” are trying to send a subliminal negative message about Islam. This is why the man spoke English: to reach the West and tarnish the image of Islam, he argued. 

Since the majority of Egyptian journalists subscribes to the belief that the US, Israel, Turkey and Qatar are out to destroy Islam, the Middle East and most importantly Egypt, little attention was given to ISIS itself. 

Also thinking it is all about them was Dubai’s former police chief, Dahi Khalfan, who believes the US “unleashed” ISIS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, on the Gulf, just like it once used Saddam Hussein. 

Videos and more after the jump. 

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In Translation: Standing on Saddam's Grave

Courtesy our friends at Industry Arabic -- a professional translation service that can fulfill your every Arabic need -- a column on the battle to liberate Tikrit from ISIS, Iran's prominent role there, and the way it may undermine the fragile equilibrium in Iraq. 

Suleimani, on Saddam's Grave

By Ghassan Charbel

El Hayat, 12 March

ISIS is a cancer that can only be treated by excision. Its removal is a patriotic, national and humanitarian duty. Successful treatment to ensure that a relapse will not occur requires involving the community that it has infiltrated in uprooting it, and insulating this community against ISIS' lies and claims. It is not out of place at this juncture to consider in advance what the patient’s condition will be after the malicious tumor is removed.

It is not insignificant for ISIS to control Tikrit, a city with much resonance in recent Iraqi history -- not because Saddam Hussein’s tomb is in the nearby village of Awja, but because it is symbolic of the Sunni Arab role in Iraq. The Iraqi government could not leave Tikrit in the hands of ISIS, but the conditions of the current surgery raise concerns that if Tikrit falls into the hands of its attackers – which is the necessary outcome – this could lead to the collapse of balance required for Iraq to remain united and part of the Arab world.

These concerns would not have been prompted if the Iraqi army was the one leading the charge to retake Tikrit and had adopted measures to quell the concerns of the inhabitants of Anbar, Saladin and Nineveh. But what is happening now is that “popular mobilization” is playing the main role in combating ISIS, and “mobilization” means an alliance of Shiite militias. The attack is also marked by an American refusal to provide air cover and an increasing tendency by Iran to openly admit that it is managing the campaign.

Iran has intervened in the countries of the region over the past two decades and has skillfully found many covers for this activity. What is remarkable in recent weeks is that Tehran has openly avowed these interventions through images of General Qassem Suleimani in the field in both Iraq and Syria and statements by Iranian officials about their solid influence in four Arab countries, not to mention talk about the Mandab Strait and an entrenched presence on the Mediterranean.

Why has Tehran abandoned its previous reserve? Does it wish to say that it has seized its regional role in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen before any potential nuclear agreement with the US has been signed? Does it wish to make decisive changes that cannot be reversed? Does it wish to signal that the above countries are a vital extension of Iran and that the inhabitants of the region ought to get used to seeing Iranian generals left and right? Does it wish to unequivocally declare what it used to whisper to its visitors, which is that it is not just an important country in the region, but the most important country? And that the most important country has the right to recalibrate the balances in the region in a manner that accords with its new role? It is not a trivial matter for Ali Shamkhani to be declaring that Iran has prevented the fall of Baghdad, Erbil and Damascus.

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Egypt's new capital

At the economic conference Egypt hosted last weekend, officials had a surprise announcement: they plan to build the country a new capital. And it is going to be fantastic

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The scale of the plans certainly defy historical norms. If completed, the currently nameless city would span 700 sq km (a space almost as big as Singapore), house a park double the size of New York’s Central Park, and a theme park four times as big as Disneyland – all to be completed within five to seven years.
According to the brochure, there will be exactly 21 residential districts, 25 “dedicated districts”, 663 hospitals and clinics, 1,250 mosques and churches, and 1.1m homes housing at least five million residents.

The plan has unsurprisingly generated some skepticism. Egypt has a long history of failed, delusional, top-down urban planning:

I won’t dwell on the fascination with Dubai as a model for urban development and how unsuitable this model is for Egypt whose GDP per capita is 8% of that of the UAE. Nor will I dwell on the deep political and social inequalities that lie beneath the glittering veneer of Dubai, and the serious political implications that this model bodes for the new proposed capital of Egypt. I also won’t dwell on the meaning and significance of announcing such a momentous decision not in front of parliament (for we have no such institution due to a legal fracas that delayed the elections to an unspecified future date) and not to the local media (despite the fact that whatever independence this media might have once enjoyed has evaporated in thin air), but to a group of word leaders and foreign investors who claim to be  “focus[ing] on efforts to promote shared prosperity in Egypt and the region” (in the words of US Secretary of State John Kerry).
I just wonder what will happen to Cairo, Egypt’s capital for more than a thousand years? What will happen to the metropolis that is home to close to 20 million inhabitants? Where do they fit in the government’s plans for the new capital? The website says that it is hoped that the new city will attract 5 million inhabitants when it is finished. Assuming that the aim of building a new administrative capital is to alleviate the pressure from downtown Cairo where the majority of government offices are located, and assuming, for argument’s sake, that the 5 million inhabitants will actually be moved from overcrowded city, what will happen to the rest of us?

It has also garnered quite a bit of genuine support, driven, I imagine, by the undeniable fact that central Cairo is such a brutal, and worsening, urban environment. It's not that the capital doesn't urgently need drastic new measures to solve its pollution, transportation problems, traffic, overcrowding, poor public services. I spent a year after the uprising going to weekly meetings at an Egyptian NGO where experts and activists from dozens of different fields talked knowledgeably about the city's problems, argued over solutions, and proposed many creative, worthy ideas. But none of these ideas ever get anywhere near government offices, where denial (of the 2/3 of the city that consists of informal housing, to star with), bad taste and bad faith reign supreme and no one can admit the obvious:  Cairo's fundamental problem is governance. 

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

In Translation: Civil wars in the Arab world

In the latest installment of our In Translation series -- brought to us courtesy of the diligent translation professionals of Industry Arabic --  we look at this extremely bleak assessment by a Saudi columnist writing in the Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily Al Sharq Al Awsat. The columnist quotes Thomas Hobbes and presents all attempts at contestation and demand for democracy in the MIddle East today as doomed, because of what he deems the pre-existing frailty of Arab society. The argument raises more questions than it answers, though -- is "society" really non-existent in Arab countries? And if so, why? Is the author referring to his own homeland or to places like Syria where society has been submitted to unbearable, inhuman strain? Is the point that there is no alternative to the authoritarian status quo? 

Civil Wars…and “pre-society”

By Fahad Suleiman al-Shigeran, Al Sharq Al Awsat, March 9

The slogans that have filled squares across the Middle East reflect a variety of concepts. What they have in common is the search for the key to deliverance, for a way to reach the dream of democracy and freedom and lose oneself in its bliss. However, all the current attempts to gain freedom have led to is bloody civil war, or symbolic social warfare between one individual and another. The Spring of Dreams has led to the rallying to ISIS, the rise of Boko Haram, the spread of extremism, the dismantling of the state, proposed partition schemes, economic crises, environmental pollution, overcrowded mass graves, and a sea irrigated with the blood of recently severed heads.

There is nothing strange in the fact that such furious, chaotic events should lead to what we are now witnessing. What is strange is that there are people who are betting – even now – that the revolutionary movement will reach “inevitable victory,” on the basis that what is happening is merely  “dialectic” that will sweep everybody along to a “historical inevitability” in the Hegelian manner.

In our region we are not witnessing civil wars of a conventional kind. Events have superseded the formulation of “war” and have reached a level of brutality that includes images of severed heads, disembowelments, and brutal revenge. We abuse the word “war” when we use it to describe what is going on now. Throughout history, civil wars were the bugbears of theorists, philosophers, and intellectuals, because they are not legitimate wars against a particular enemy – since wars have their particular circumstances and legitimacy; they have an art, as Machiavelli would say. However, the Arab world is sinking into brutality, through its painful unleashing of arbitrary civil wars that have opened up sectarian wounds, shredded the patrimony of minorities, and revived the phenomenon of organized tribal purges. Everyone has retreated into their caves; no one trusts even their own shadow. This absolute breakdown, constant doubt, radical condemnation, and suspicion all makes the lived environment nothing but a massive jungle that contains masses of people that do not compose a society in the scientific sense, but rather a random assemblage of people in a single geographical location, because “society” is what exerts pressure to transition from desire to reason. Among the foundations of this transition is establishing the rule of law and building institutions in preparation to drafting a constitution, and thence to constructing a state and propagating its prestige.

 

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