A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Still "Not a Coup," But Now a National Holiday

June 30, 2013, three years ago today, was the first anniversary of Mohammad Morsi's election as President of Egypt. It was also the day massive popular demonstrations were called to demand the Muslim Brotherhood government accept new elections. The result was a military ultimatum that Morsi comply or face military action. On July 3, the military moved.

It still isn't a coup
The mythology promoted by President Sisi and his supporters has continued to deny that the intervention on July 3 was a coup, portraying it instead as a logical outcome of the "June 30th Revolution," which has superseded the "January 25 Revolution" of 2011 in prestige. It's still taboo to call it a coup.

In keeping with the emphasis on June 30 over July 3, Egypt celebrated today, which has become a national holiday.

I mean, is this how you celebrate a coup?

On the Lighter Side of Brexit, Karl Sharro . . .

Yesterday I posted some links about Brexit's impact on the Middle East. Those were serious assessments, whether one agrees with them or not. On the other hand, there's Karl Sharro.

Satirist Karl Sharro has been on the case, beginning last week with his piece for The Atlantic, "Brexit: A Tale of ‘Ancient Ethnic Hatreds’: What if columnists wrote about the U.K. the way they do about the Middle East?"

He traces it all  to the age-old conflict between Normans and Anglo-Saxons, of course. After interviewing the inevitable taxi driver.

Separately, he came up with this explanatory graphic;
And finally, here's a last word:

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Brexit and the Middle East

In the wake of Britain's "Brexit" vote, it's hardly surprising that the move's implications for the Middle East have drawn commentary. Here are a few links:

Friday, June 24, 2016

Arab Authors on Brexit

From the Arabic Literature (in English) log, a useful collection of "Arab Authors on Brexit," including the inimitable Karl Sharro:

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

June 1916: Outbreak of the Great Arab Revolt

First let me say I'm recovering from my surgery, and let me thank the many kind wishes I received in the comments.

Sharif Hussein in 1916
Between my health and the Journal's deadlines, it's been a while since I dealt with the centennial of the First World War in the Middle East. But June marks a century since the outbreak of the Arab Revolt led by Sharif Hussein of Mecca, or the Great Arab Revolt as it is sometimes known.

We've talked about the Hussein-McMahon correspondence and the genesis of the idea on more than one occasion, Interpretations of the significance (or peripheral nature) of the Revolt have differed widely, with what might be called the British and Hashemite view of history playing up its importance. The role of T.E. Lawrence has enhanced the mythology surrounding the Revolt, and added to the emphasis on the tribal and guerrilla aspects of the Revolt, at the expense of the regular Sharifian Army. There will be plenty of time to debate the myths versus the realities; let's begin with the outbreak.

On May 28, 1916, Ronald Storrs, Oriental Secretary, left Cairo, accompanied by Lt. Cdr. D.G.Hogarth, archaeologist and intelligence agent, and Captain Kinahan Cornwallis, the latter two attached to the Arab Bureau. With them was £10,000 destined for Amir ‘Abdullah, son of Sharif Hussein and their main interlocutor with him at this time. They were also authorized to promise another £50,000 to the Sharif after the actual outbreak of the promised revolt.

Reaching Jidda on June 5 they did not find  ‘Abdullah as expected (who was in fact preparing for the revolt), but rather a message saying his youngest brother Zayd was coming instead. Zayd arrived with a message promising simultaneous attacks at Mecca, Medina, Ta'if, and Jidda. Indeed, on June 5, Hussein's sons ‘Ali and Faisal made an initial attack against Medina, and on June 6 Zayd met with Storrs and informed him of this. The main revolt had been moved up from June 16 to June 10.

But Medina was a very different target than Mecca would prove to be. A strong Ottoman garrison of 10,000 under Fakhri Pasha defended it, and it was the railhead of the Hejaz Railway, which allowed easy resupply from Damascus.

Ironically, the very same day as the attempt on Medina, far away in the North Sea north of Scotland, HMS Hampshire, en route to Russia, was torpedoed and sunk with all hands. One passenger was far more famous than the others: the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener of Khartoum, former virtual ruler of Egypt and Storrs' former boss. A failed tribal raid on an Ottoman provincial capital would garner no headlines in London.

Kitchener was a national hero. Liberator of Khartoum, master of Egypt and, since the outbreak of war, the most famous recruiting poster. Though disliked by his subordinate officers and the rest of the Cabinet, he was idolized by the public and by Tommy Atkins in the trenches,and his death was a national shock. Egypt, where Kitchener was still known just as "the Lord" (al-Lurd) as Cromer had been before him, was also in shock.

Meanwhile, on June 10, Sharif Hussein proclaimed revolt in Mecca, declared the Young Turk regime had betrayed Islam, proclaimed an Arab Caliphate, and attacked the Turkish garrison in the Holy City. After a short siege, Mecca mostly was  under control by June 13, though resistance continued until July 9. 

On June 10 also, ‘Abdullah attacked Ta'if. The town was soon taken but the garrison hunkered down in the fort.

The port of Jidda was critical as a means of supplying Mecca and the rebels. The Royal Navy moved an aging, obsolete warship, HMS Fox, and a seaplane tender, HMS Ben-My-Chree, a converted Manx packet steamer.

HMS Ben-My-Chree (note hangars)
The rebels attacked Jidda with support from Fox's guns and air cover from Ben-My-Chree's seaplanes, and the garrison surrendered on June 16.,

Once Jidda was taken, the British began creating a series of ports along the coast controlled by the Royal Navy, provided Hussein with artillery from the Egyptian Army, and began assembling a regular Sharifian Army from Arab officers and men of the Ottoman Army assembled from POWs and deserters.The Arab Revolt had begun.


Egyptian Court Annuls Tiran/Sanafir Agreement

An Egyptian Administrative Court has annulled the April agreement with Saudi Arabia transferring the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi sovereignty.

The agreement had provoked widespread demonstrations and charges that the government was selling Egyptian sovereign territory to Saudi Arabia. As I noted in April, the history of the islands is complex, and further complicated by the fact that they are part of Area C in the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty.

The government has already said it will appeal to the Supreme Administrative Court, which will have the final say. Although President al-Sisi has said that there are documents proving the islands are rightfully Saudi, no such documents were reportedly introduced at the trial.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Another Round of Surgery

As I posted before, I spent Memorial Day weekend in the hospital due to foot surgery. The infection has persisted, accounting for my sparse blogging, and tomorrow I will go in for another surgery to remove the infected toe and adjacent bone. I hope to resume regular blogging soon.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Thoughts on Orlando

The horrible slaughter in Orlando has tragically become entangled with the US Presidential campaign. The perpetrator proclaimed his allegiance to ISIS, but had previously expressed support for Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIS' bitter rivals. Anti-gay animus is clearly another motive, and the massacre has also reignited the gun debate.

It can never be repeated too many times: the purpose of terrorism is to terrorize, and ISIS also seeks to promote a war between the West and Islam, and apparently some in the West are eager to accommodate them. But ISIS is losing on the battlefield: at Falluja in Iraq, Manbij in Syria, and Sirte in Libya, it is on the ropes, so it is seeking to encourage civilian attacks by sympathizers and fellow travelers.

Obviously we must continue to guard against these kinds of horrific domestic terror attacks, but without sacrificing our ability to lead normal lives or sacrificing the values ISIS seeks to undermine.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Israeli Sociologist Prof. Michael Feige Died in Sarona Market Attack

Michael Feige
One of the four Israelis killed in yesterday's attack on the Sarona  Market in Tel Aviv was a noted scholar of Israeli society, the sociologist and anthropologist Professor Michael Feige of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. I only knew him by reputation, but it is a reminder that attacks on civilians (by either side) leave everyone vulnerable.

BGU has posted a tribute to Prof. Feige here.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

How Involved is the US in the Manbij Campaign?

Since the first of June the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Peoples' Protection Units (YPG) have made major advances into the so-calleed Manbij Pocket along the Syrian-Turkish border, occupying hundreds of square kilometers west of the Euphrates and threatening to cut off one of the Islamic State's remaining outlets to the Turkish border.

Though the Manbij campaign has received less attention than the advance on Falluja i,n Iraq, it is a major success for US-backed forces. In fact there is reason to believe that US Special Forces are embedded with and possibly directing the advance.

Although about 60% of the SDF consist of YPG fighters. the US has sought to emphasize the Arab components in the SDF, in order to persuade Turkey that it is not primarily a Kurdish force advancing along its border. The SDF also includes Arab groups as well as Assyrian, Turkmen, Circassian and other minority groups. It's been reported that the YPG is leading the advance and capturing territory, and then handing control over to non-Kurdish forces.

The SDF says it is refraining from entering Manbij city to avoid civilian casualties,  but appears intent on cutting the routes from Manbij to the Turkish border.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Muhammad Ali and the Middle East

With Nasser, 1964
The late Muhammad Ali, who died this weekend, was often described in his heyday as the most famous man on earth. It may well have been true, especially in the Third World, where his embrace of Islam, his willingness to give up his title rather than support the Vietnam War, his staging championship bouts in Kinshasa and Manila, all added to his global fame.

When he announced his conversion to Islam, it was to the extremely unorthodox Nation of Islam, which many Muslims did not accept as Islamic. Later, in 1975, he converted to mainstream Sunni Islam. In 2005, he announced himself an adherent of the Universal Sufism movement led by Inayat Khan.

Praying at Hussein mosque, Cairo
Throughout his career, he made many visits to the Middle East, beginning with a visit to Egypt in 1964, where he met with Nasser and visited the High Dam under construction at Aswan. It should be remembered at the time meeting with Nasser was itself cause for controversial, as was his meeting with Mu‘ammar Qadhafi in Libya. It added to his reputation as a rebel.

At the Kaaba
In 1972, Ali famously made the hajj. He would thereafter speak of how moving he found the experience.

He would make many other visits to the Middle East. He was decorated by heads of state from Morocco to the Gulf, He generally drew crowds wherever he went. In 1982, having retired from the ring, he held two exhibition fights in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

In 1986 he visited Egypt for the second time, posing at the pyramids.

This is only a partial catalog of Ali's love affair with the Middle East, which was very much mutual.
Receiving a decoration from King Hasan II of Morocco

Ramadan Karim!

Wishing a blessed Ramadan to all my Muslim readers!

Friday, June 3, 2016

On Eve of Ramadan, ISIS Declares Ramadan :"Month of Conquest"

With Ramadan only a couple of days away, ISIS has called for stepped-up attacks in the West, calling Ramadan 'the month of conquest and jihad," In recent years, violence has marked the holy month. So, it may be time for a rerun of my post from last year on the history of fighting during Ramadan, going back to the Prophet's Battle at Badr. Here's that post:

 God  gave you victory at Badr when you were weak; fear God and perhaps you will be grateful.

  When you said to the Believers, "Is it not enough that God reinforced you with three thousand angels sent down?
           —Holy Qur'an, Sura 3 (Al ‘Imran), 123

It is proving to be another violent Ramadan, with violent jihadi attacks in Kuwait and Sousse and Grenoble, and today's assassination in Cairo. Ramadan is meant to be a month of peace and reconciliation, and warring Muslim states have sometimes held cease-fires during Ramadan, but in  fact there is no outright prohibition on fighting during Ramadan, a fact jihadists use to step up violence in what they see as a holy war against those they see as enemies, even their fellow Muslims.

The precedent lay in the very earliest years of Islam, just two years after the Prophet's hijra from Mecca to Medina. In AH 2 (AD 634), the Prophet Muhammad and his small Muslim forces fought against the more powerful Meccans in their first great battle, at Badr. It is one of the few battles mentioned by name in the Qur'an (above), which attributes the victory to Divine intervention. The traditional date of Badr is the 17th of Ramadan, AH 2.

Nor was Badr that unusual. Saladin's defeat of the Crusaders at Hattin in 1187 was also in Ramadan, and in Muslim tradition is said to have taken place the morning after the Laylat al-Qadr. (See the link for explanation.)

Less than a century later in 1260, the Mamluks finally stopped the Mongol invasion of the Middle East at another Battle in Galilee, at ‘Ain Jalut, fought in Ramadan.

On October 6, 1973, Egypt and Syria launched the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. The crossing of the Suez Canal may be remembered for taking place on Yom Kippur, but it was also the 10th of Ramadan. A code name for the Canal crossing was, in fact, Operation Badr. One of Egypt's satellite cities near Cairo is named 10th of Ramadan.

And during the Iran-Iraq War Iran even named an offensive which it launched in Ramadan the Ramadan Offensive.

Most Muslims would prefer not to fight in Ramadan, but there are numerous precedents, and in recent years jihadist terror violence has often spiked in Ramadan.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Erdoğan's Anti-Birth Control Campaign

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a few days ago delivered a speech, or perhaps I should say a sermon, on birth control. He's against it.

Saying that no Muslim family can accept birth control, Erdoğan urged Turkish women to have many children in order to increase Turkey's population, a topic he has addressed before.

If his argument is that Turks should reproduce to increase population, that is one thing, but if he means that Islam forbids contraception, he is well outside the religious consensus. While there are conservative scholars who oppose all contraception, most Islamic legal schools  accept artificial contraception as long as it is reversible (not vasectomy or tubal ligation), and all oppose abortion. This is not a modernist issue: several hadith indicate that the Prophet Muhammad himself was aware of, and did not express disapproval of, the withdrawal method (‘azl in Arabic, coitus interruptus), the main form available in his day, unless it was done without the wife's permission. Other reversible methods are also generally accepted, and many governments actively promote family planning. Even the most theocratic regime, Iran's, actively promotes family planning and has seen a plunge in birthrates. Iran's program was directly authorized in a fatwa by Imam Khomeini himself, which in the eyes of the regime gives it the highest authority.

So Erdoğan, however much he may believe "no Muslim family" may practice contraception, is well outside the pale of mainstream Islamic jurisprudence.

Bassem Youssef on Trusting Your Muslim Neighbors

The brilliant Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef has been banned from Egyptian TV,  but apparently we're going to see more of him over here, starting with this: