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Egypt’s Stasi moment 6, March 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Egypt.
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After the fall of the Berlin Wall the East German secret police headquarters was ransacked, much like is happening now in Egypt. Back then people were staggered at the levels of spying that the secret police had conducted. Something like 1 in 20 Communist Party members was an informant and I even remember people’s ‘odour’ being bottled as some kind of way to track people or for some such silly reason.

The picture below, if it is what it purports to be, carries similar overtones. Who knows what’s next? Apparently there are salacious videos of Kuwaiti Princesses in hotel rooms in Alexandria…mish kways, as they say.

On Egypt’s cancer 24, February 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Egypt.
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I suppose that everyone has a few topics on which they find it difficult to be balanced and polite. For me, I simply can’t help referring to Libya’s delinquent despot as the idiot Gaddafi. I also find it challenging to be civil about Italy’s joke of a leader. Yet one topic which angers me more than anything is undoubtedly the treatment of women in Egypt.

An odd topic you may think. Clearly I have never personally been affected by the legions of gropers and harassers that throng Cairo. Do I exaggerate? Well, ask any – and when I say any, I really do mean more or less any – woman who has, say, studied Arabic in Cairo for any length of time and you will get a litany of tales; most minor, some serious.

Within 6 hours of arriving in Cairo, one woman in my group of Arabic students had been harassed and groped on the street. She was walking by herself, well covered up, incidentally. Harassment of one form or other is a practically daily hourly occurrence. Actual physical assaults are, of course, rarer but will come eventually.

My wife, to take another example*, went the national museum in Cairo by herself. Having lived in Kuwait for a few years and travelled extensively thought the region, she was covered up in a basically shapeless outfit with her hair somewhat covered by a scarf. At the museum she was followed continuously by the security guards who worked there. They ignored the American tourists bussed in from Sharm in hot pants and skimpy tops, and, instead, decided to pursue her throughout the museum. How this cannot be seen as a predatory trait – going after the woman on her own not skimpliy clad women in groups – I just do not know. She was also physically assaulted on the way back from the museum by a random man in the street.

It is also important to point out that it is most certainly not just foreign women that suffer in this way. Egyptian women suffer day in day out, as I have noted before.

I write this now having just read another report of the attack on CBS’s correspondent last week. I did not write at the time fearing that it would just descend into a rant that looks essentially exactly like this… It turns out that as well as being stripped naked, punched, kicked and nearly raped, she was beaten with flag-poles.

This attack is, of course, of a different order to the attacks that I was referring to earlier. Its motivations are largely from a different place but still there is an underlying evil pathology of epic misogyny at play in Egypt that I have not come close to seeing anywhere else on earth. Were I to have a daughter one day, Egypt is – quite literally – the only place on earth where I would not want her to grow up. I’d take Kim Jong Ill and the lecherous Berlusconi’s rule before subjecting her to living in Cairo.

*For what it’s worth, I had a healthy ire for this topic well before this incident.



Where were you on the day when… 29, January 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Egypt.
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At the tender age of 28 years old, I can only really claim to remember two events in the ‘where were you when?’ category. On 11th September 2001 I was about to go to work in the Rusacks Hotel in St. Andrews to confront tens of bewildered and worried Americans and (trivially, by comparison) when Diana died I had just returned from a holiday in Turkey. Somewhat shamefully when the Berlin Wall came down, despite my mum’s protestations that ‘you’ll want to remember this moment’ I was just nagging her to go out as planned.

Perhaps the last week of January 2010 will become one of these synonymous events that reverberates for decades. It is certainly looking that way.

I am not an Egypt expert and do not claim to be so, hence my lack of posting on the topic (though this leaves me in the minority). I will just make a few notes:

– The notion of dominoes falling is ahistorical. We seem to have this inbuilt notion that an event in one country usually cascades around a region. This is simply not the historical record, especially so without any kind of supra-national involvement. However, it seems that the domino effect is actually coming to pass in Egypt. This will be an issue that intrigues Middle Eastern scholars for generations.

– Thus far, so far as I have seen, there has been essentially no Islamist involvement in this proto-Revolution. However, clearly the Muslim Brotherhood have a commanding organization network which will advantage them in the future.

– Al Jazeera’s role in this is interesting. At first they desperately avoided televising the burgeoning revolution. Clearly they were under some kind of orders not to exacerbate tensions by broadcasting events in Cairo and elsewhere. Indeed, there was some kind of accommodation reached by Al Jazeera/Qatar and Mubarak in recent months where many believe it was agreed that Al Jazeera’s coverage of Egypt would be toned down. Only when the elephant in the room reached epic proportions did they then cover it and since they have covered it extremely well.

– To follow events you must follow: @SultanAlQassemi  @nolanjazeera  @arabist  @shadihamid  @bencnn @themoornextdoor

– So where’s next? I’d not be sitting pretty if I were in Jordan and Yemen, that’s for sure. Saudi Arabia? I doubt very much that there are enough angry and unhappy Saudis willing to put in the necessary graft to instigate some kind of reform. Bahrain would be the only other of the GCC countries that I could at all see having issues but there too I’d be surprised if much came of it.

– One of my great fears about these revolutions is that people seemingly automatically expect things to get better. Don’t misunderstand me, I think it is a good thing that Tunisia and Egypt are in the process of seemingly throwing off their dictatorial yoke, but how exactly people think things will ipso facto get better I just don’t understand. Essentially, you can’t eat or pay the rent with democracy.

– Sky news: it’s not Tahir Square, it’s Tahrir Square

Qatar and Iran to launch satellite 22, March 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Al-Jazeera, Egypt, Iran.
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MEMRI reports that Iran and Qatar are to launch a satellite together primarily to compete with Egypt’s Nilesat. This stems from a recent decision imposed on Egyptian broadcast networks to stop broadcasting Iran’s Al Alam TV channel to the Arab world. If this venture succeeds (a sizable ‘if’ I’d have thought) Al Alam will once again flood the airwaves smearing Iranian soft power insidiously into the crevices of the Arab World, as Mubarak might put it.

Algerian players injured after arriving in Cairo 13, November 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Egypt, North Africa.
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Algeria’s football team arrived in Cairo to play their crucial World Cup qualifier only to have their bus assaulted with stones. Four players were injured and one had to be taken to hospital. In a PR exercise worthy of Iraq’s Comical Ali, a police spokesperson said that none of the Algerian players had been injured.

There is hugely bad blood between the two football rivals stemming mostly from the infamous 1989 encounter which Egypt won 1-0. After the game there was widespread rioting and a former Algerian footballer blinded Egypt’s team doctor in an assault. Charming.

Update: Via MEI and Sandmonkey, I’ve got a fre updates on all the shenenegans that have been going on:

  • There is a football tradition of killing owls in order to jinx your opposing team. It has been relayed to me that an Owl holocaust was started last week and is continuing until this very moment.
  • Tamer from the popular TV show el beit beitak went on TV a couple of days ago and informed the egyptian audiences of the Hotel the algerian team will be staying in, and urging the egyptian people to “go there and hang out” until the day of the game.
  • Algerian municipality workers have stopped the paperwork for an algerian girl getting married to an egyptian guy, telling her that she can come back for it after saturday’s game.
  • Egyptians dying for a ticket to the Game attacked all ticket selling centers in droves today. The Elite Heliopolis Sporting club managed to secure a couple of thosunad tickets to sell to its members, only to have word of this reaching the egyptian population and having hundreds of egyptians storm into the private club to get their hands on tickets. 40 police cars were called to secure the facility.

Israeli sub went through the Suez Canal 7, July 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Egypt, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
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Here’s the best analysis that I’ve seen so far on the intriguing incident of one of Israel’s new Dolphin submarines going through the Suez Canal in Egypt. Here’s the crux:

The reason they were never sent through the canal before this, at least according to the conventional wisdom in defense circles, was that Israel did not want Egyptian or other observers getting a good look at the exterior of one of their most modern subs, the German-built Dolphins. There are rumors they carry Harpoon and perhaps Israeli ship-to-shore missiles that could carry nuclear warheads. And the Suez Canal is narrow and shallow, with three major cities along it full of people of all natonalities, so a sub passing through it is visible to the world.

So, up to now, Israel never sent its Dolphins through the Suez Canal. This time it did, presumably as a signal to Iran. That’s the real story here, not the fact that the sub won’t be based in Eilat: the Gulf of Aqaba is a narrow, easily closed waterway, and not where you’d want to bottle up one of your few state of the art subs, which may be your second-strike capability.

Gause on the Middle East 20, May 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Middle East.
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Gregory Gause has another excellent article, this time in Foreign Affairs discussing the rule of the Middle East. Here’s the key paragraph:

…the new administration needs to remind itself of the rules of the local game — the traditional contest for influence among regional states. It is played out more in political terms than in military ones, although the possibility of violence is never far. The players are the stronger regional powers (Egypt, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey) and the playing fields are the weaker powers (Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories) whose governments cannot prevent outsiders from interfering in domestic politics. The tools of influence are money, guns, and ideology — and the scorecard is judged by the political orientations of the weaker states.

By this metric, Iran is doing rather well. In Iraq, its influence is greater than that of any other regional power. Iran’s closest Iraqi ally, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, did not do well in recent provincial elections, but Tehran’s ties to the political party of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and to the Sadrist movement, a Shia party built around Muqtada al-Sadr — both of which fared better in provincial elections — remain strong. Meanwhile, Hamas, Iran’s longtime client, emerged from this winter’s war against Israeli forces in Gaza bloodied but unbowed, much as Iran’s ally Hezbollah did from its own war with Israel in 2006. Hamas and Hezbollah now dictate the course of politics in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon, respectively — far more so than the central governments controlled by “moderate” Arabs with pro-Western inclinations.

To anyone with a fair knowledge of the Middle East, nothing that Gause says is particularly new. Rarely, however, is swathes of Middle Eastern history, politics, intrigue and modern-day machinations so well summarized.

The Gulf between Arabs and Persians 12, May 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Middle East.
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Google this Gulf does not exist

Just for a change, history is repeating itself in the Middle East. In the run-up to the 2006 Asian Olympics in Qatar, a row erupted between the Emir of Qatar, Hamad Al Thani, and President Ahmadinejad of Iran over the name of the water separating the two countries. At a press conference, Al Thani called it the Arabian Gulf to which Ahmadinejad fired back that it is and always has been the Persian Gulf. Cue an international spat with the Iranian delegation threatening to withdraw their participation from the games. Whilst Iran did eventually attend the games, rancour remained.

Today, exactly the same incident is brewing, though this time between Saudi Arabia and Iran over the Islamic Solidarity Games to be held in cities across Iran in October this year. Radio Free Europe reports that Saudi authorities reacted predictably angrily when Iran’s promotional material referred to the body of water as the Persian Gulf. After Saudi’s threat to pull out unless it was changed to the Arabian Gulf or just the Gulf, Iran has “declared the games over.”

In this case, not only is there the depressing irony that the Islamic Solidarity Games are leading to yet more intra-Islamic division, but that, for once, Iran has international law and custom on its side. Not only does the UN officially sanction the term Persian Gulf but it has been in use for quite literally thousands of years, going back to Ancient Greece. The term Arabian Gulf only emerged from the 1960s with the growth of Arab nationalism and the relative decline of Persia/Iran as a power, not to mention that fact that historically the Arabian Gulf was often used to refer to the Red Sea.

One of the ways that Iran has tried to fight its corner is by monopolizing the first place on a Google search for ‘Arabian Gulf’ which will return a page with a mock ‘broken’ webpage titled ‘The Gulf you are looking for does not exist. Please try Persian Gulf.’ Despite this levity, this issue reflects far deeper and entrenched issues to do with the mantle of leadership in the Islamic world. In recent times, Nasser’s pan-Arabism and Egypt’s profound cultural influences claimed this title until the ignominious and catastrophic 1967 defeat to the Israelis. Since then Iran and Saudi Arabia have been the principle contenders. Saudi Arabia used its financial largess post-1967 to bail out Egypt, Syria and Jordan and firmly establish its place at the top. Since then it has used the soft power of Islam’s two holiest places (Mecca and Medina) to establish, augment and propagate itself as a leader of the Islamic community.

However, Iran’s 1979 Revolution endowed it with pious revolutionary zeal, directly challenging Saudi on an Islamic front. Saudi replied to this by further expanding its funding of Wahhabi schools and teaching throughout the Arab world and beyond, most notably on Iran’s doorstep in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Additionally, Saudi funded the Mujahedeen effort do ‘defend Islam’ against the Godless Soviets in Afghanistan after the invasion in 1979. These tactics offset their traditional, conservative reputation to some degree, by placing Saudi at the vanguard of Islam’s defences, whilst also inadvertently sowing the seeds for 9/11. Since this momentous day, Saudi has come under pressure to own-up to its more radical elements and reform its arcane structures and philosophies. Neither of these things is very chic. Therefore, the Iranians, with their anti-Western stance and pursuit of nuclear weapons – the ultimate symbol of a macho-leader country – are clearly currying more favour on the Arab street than Saudi. Add to this the implosion of Iraq, taking away one of Iran’s traditional enemies and bulwarks, and Iran finds itself less constricted and able to exert more influence regionally.

The naming of the water separating these two antagonistic rivals, therefore, is a question of pride, machismo and reputation. Neither can give in. Saudi’s somewhat conciliatory and practical suggestion of just calling it ‘the Gulf’ is as near to a resolution as can hoped to be achieved. Unless Iran acquiesce to this suggestion – which does not appear likely – there is no end in sight for this perennially divisive issue.

Poor Piggies in Cairo 6, May 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Egypt.
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piggy-in-cairoHat Tip: The Arabist

Al Azhar opening up in Kabul 20, March 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Central Asia.
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Instead of a Middle Eastern country attracting foreign institutions to set up shop in some kind of ‘Education Zone’, this time the tables are turned as Egypt’s famous Al Azhar University is opening an Islamic Institute in Kabul. The Al Azhar is, of course, not only important in Egypt but one of the most influential and important seats of Islamic learning in the world. Its foray into Afghanistan is a fascinating move. These kinds of exchanges are the perfect vehicles for soft power enhancement. This is another way to describe building up a good relationship with others so that, over a given decision, ‘they’ will seek to – starkly put – do as you want because they want to help you and not because you cajole or force them to.

Hat tip: Andrew Bishop