The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged history
It Wasn’t Just a European War

Shehryar Fazli, in the LA Review of Books, looks at new books commemorating the anniversary of World War I and highlights the war's Middle Eastern importance:

Certainly, World War I was a European war in its authorship, and it is true that the number of dead in Europe far exceeded casualties anywhere below the Mediterranean. Nevertheless, the Ottoman Empire played a crucial role in the way the war began and its outcome. If Europe was to be recast, so too was the Middle East. If the war and its aftermath prepared the ground for Hitlerism and a second world war, so too did it beget the Arab-Israeli and other Middle Eastern conflicts.
In one sense, the story of the First World War begins with the decline of the Ottoman Empire. Not only did this decline produce the vital game piece of an independent Serbia, but Italy’s successful 1911 war with Turkey over Libya, a major Ottoman province, left the bleeding empire vulnerable to further attack, and ultimately inspired the Balkan states of Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, and Greece to launch what came to be known as the First Balkan War in October 1912. This in turn led to a Second Balkan War in June 1913. The resulting new order in southern Europe created, in Clark’s words, “a set of escalatory mechanisms that would enable a conflict of Balkan inception to engulf the continent within five weeks in the summer of 1914.” As for the war itself: the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans, launched in June 1916, became anything but “a sideshow of a sideshow.”
Gaul, Caesar, Afghanistan and the US army

Gaul, Caesar, Afghanistan and the US army

From Abu Muqawama who just read Caesar's Commentaries, which is a great book I'm surprised he hasn't read before:

Caesar very rarely sent green units into the offensive. By the fourth and fifth year of the campaign, he is still making those legions which were the last to be raised in Italy responsible for guarding the freaking baggage. He relies over and over again on those legions -- most especially the Tenth -- that have proven themselves in combat in Gaul.

. . .

The cultures, politics, tribes and peoples of Afghanistan are at least as complex as those of ancient Gaul, yet we Americans are so arrogant to think that we can send officers there with no experience and, owing to our superior knowledge of combat operations, watch them succeed. We will then send units which have never deployed to Afghanistan to partner with Afghan forces and wonder why they do not get along.

This is madness. The casual arrogance with which the U.S. military has approached the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan has a direct relation to the difficulty with which we have fought each war. That we think we can send a commander to Afghanistan with no prior knowledge of Afghanistan and watch him be successful in the eleventh year of the conflict shows that after eleven years of conflict, we really don't know too much about Afghanistan. And we might not know too much about conflict either.

He also has a rant on Fisk there, which is always fun, and deserved in this case of moral equivalency between the Syrian army — which has underwritten regime repression in Syria for 40 years — and the FSA's own atrocities. Too bad because Fisk did some valuable reporting embedded with the Syrian army in the last week.

On to Nubar Street

I went down to the warzone near the Interior Ministry this morning around 9am. There were a lot fewer people, but still a few hundreds out (no doubt their numbers will increase throughout the day.) The fighting stopped last night on Mansour Street, but seems to be moving to a second front on Nubar Street one block over. Once again I got close to the ministry as conscripts were eating their breakfast and cleaning crews were coming in and there are more truck-fulls of Central Security Forces and Army APCs. Everyone was just loitering around, the on the frontline barricades a few CSF were standing guard.

To get around the barricades you have to go around on the sidestreets of the Abdin neighborhood, and you see pretty much the same thing on the hand. Protestors having breakfast (it's amazing that even in the thick of the fighting the ambulant salesman are still there, selling sticky sesame-studded date bread and other goods), cleaning crews (one rather amusingly wearing a Halliburton uniform) and of course TV camera crews. The crowds, as they were, seemed to have moved to Nubar Street but were not engaged in any clashes when I was there, keeping a distance from the CSF barricade. Noubar Street is narrower than Mansour Street and appears to have seen some looting, notably at a small computer mall complex whose windows have been broken. People seemed to think that was the new center of fighting, and despite the calm, said there were sporadic clashes.

I thought that since the world is leaning about Downtown Cairo's street names, some history might be in order. The neighborhhood were the clashes have taken place is an administrative one and contains several ministries other than the interior ministry, as well as parliament, and the nearby (lower on Mansour Street, across from the ministry) beautifully renovated new office of the Freedom and Justice Party's MPs.

Mohammed Mansour Pasha was a two-time prime minister of Egypt, first as a member of the Liberal Constitutional Party and then for the Wafd. 

Mansour Pasha could refer either to an Ottoman Sultan of Egypt (1642-44) or, more likely, a short-lived Minister of the Interior (1879) according to the ministry's own website. This is more likely because the neighborhood dates from that period and most streets bare the names of contemporary officials.

Nubar PashaNubar Pasha was Egypt's first prime minister (and served two more times) and an Armenian from Izmir, in modern Turkey. He was quite a fascinating character, and is associated with Khedive Ismail's accumulation of debts from the construction of the Suez Canal and lavish spending (such as building palaces to entertain Napoleon III's wife, Eugenie) that eventually brought Egypt under direct British control. Nubar Pasha collaborated with France and Britain, Egypt's biggest lenders, to reduce the power of the Khedive and begin the transformation of the country into a constitutional monarchy.

The history of Egypt's revolution

Jack Shenker has a fine piece in the Guardian on The struggle to document Egypt's revolution:

On any given evening Cairo's Tahrir Square creaks under the weight of its own recent history: trinket-sellers flog martyrs' pendants, veterans of the uprising hold up spent police bullets recovered from the ground, and an ad hoc street cinema screens YouTube compilations of demonstrators and security forces clashing under clouds of teargas. This is collective memory by the people, for the people – with no state functionaries around to curate what is remembered or forgotten.

"Egyptians are highly sensitive about official attempts to write history and create state-sponsored narratives about historical events," says Khaled Fahmy, one of the country's leading historians. "When Hosni Mubarak was vice-president in the 1970s he was himself on a government committee tasked with writing – or rather rewriting – the history of the 1952 revolution to suit the political purposes of the elite at that time. That's exactly the kind of thing we want to avoid."

Fahmy knows only too well about the inherent tension between acts of mass popular participation and official attempts to catalogue and record them. Less than a week after the fall of Mubarak, the professor received a phone call from the head of Egypt's national archives asking him to oversee a unique new project that would document the country's dramatic political and social upheaval this year and make it available for generations of Egyptians to come.

"I was initially very reluctant," says Fahmy. "I didn't want people to think we were producing one definitive narrative of the revolution. But then I started thinking about the possibilities, and suddenly I got excited."

Khaled Fahmy, who is quoted above, is a noted historian of Ottoman Egypt (at AUC, formerly at NYU) and I've had the occasion to talk to him about the project. In a few months we intend to interview him about it, perhaps for the podcast.

Importantly the story includes links to websites documenting the revolution, which are reproduced after the jump.  


Remembering revolution: five additional projects attempting to archive Egypt's political upheaval

• Tahrir Documents Provides scans of dozens of printed leaflets that were circulated in the streets during the anti-Mubarak uprising, from religious tracts to lists of political demands.

• R-Shief An ambitious data-mining project that draws content from Twitter and hundreds of other websites documenting the Arab spring, and provides tool and visualisations to help analyse it.

• University on the Square A collection of revolutionary stories and memorabilia shared by the staff, students and alumni of the American University in Cairo.

• The definitive home of documents seized by protesters from state security headquarters in the aftermath of Mubarak being ousted. The site's creators have remained anonymous for their own safety.

• Memory of Modern Egypt An initiative in Arabic by the vast Bibliotheca Alexandrina on the Mediterranean coast that seeks to collate material on the revolution from across Egypt, including the stories of martyrs.


History for the people

A flyer from the committee to document the January 25 Revolution, found on the website

I have a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education about a new committee led by historian Khaled Fahmy in collaboration with Egypt's National Archives to create a digital, accessible archive of the January 25 Revolution. To understand how groundbreaking this could be you have to realize to what an extent all official archives in Arab countries are treated like secrets of state, accessible only to specialists (if and when they pass an endless security clearance process). And that official documents about the most important decisions and events of the 20th century have simply never been made available: 

The country's modern rulers have created a near-total information vacuum about their decision-making.

By law, documents are supposed to be stored in the relevant ministries for 15 years, then held at the National Archives for another 15 years before being made public. In practice, however, only the most mundane administrative papers are ever deposited in the archives. Official documents dealing with wars or policy decisions of any import are simply never made available. "At this point," says Mr. Fahmy, "we don't even know if they exist."

Egyptians are rarely if ever afforded a glimpse into the deliberations of their presidents, ministers, and military commanders. And that is the case across the autocratic regimes of the Arab world. The Arab-Israeli wars, for example, have been documented almost entirely on the basis of Israeli archives.

That's one reason the committee will "try to gather as much as possible for future generations," says Mr. Fahmy, "to make available to them what hasn't been available to us."

A shift towards greater openness -- a move away from a police state's paranoid, bureaucratic and hierarchical attitude to information -- could be an important part of the intellectual legacy of the revolution. But as Fahmy notes, in these uncertain times, it is hard to persuade people that their security will be enhanced by being more transparent and less guarded about official documents. (When the Chronicle's photographer went to take portraits of Fahmy at the National Archives last week, with the permission of the archives' director, security guards there hovered nervously and one of them caused a scene when he thought the photographer had taken a shot of the building's entrance.)

Egyptian nationalism is tinged with paranoia. But it is precisely the lack of information and of serious research that fosters the proliferation of so many conspiracy theories and so much kalaam fadi. And prevents Egyptians from finding out the details of the actual conspiracies being perpetrated against them. 

There is still so much we don't know about how the revolution took place. I cannot wait to see the material this archive gathers. If you are interested in volunteering or learning more, you should visit their official website