January 2011

We’ve Waited For This Revolution For Years. Other Despots Should Quail
By Mona Eltahawy, The Observer, January 29, 2011,

My birth at the end of July 1967 makes me a child of the naksa, or setback, as the Arab defeat during the June 1967 war with Israel is euphemistically known in Arabic. My parents’ generation grew up high on the Arab nationalism that Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser brandished in the 1950s. But we “Children of the Naksa”, hemmed in by humiliation, have spent so much of our lives uncomfortably stepping into pride’s large, empty shoes.

But here now finally are our children – Generation Facebook – kicking aside the burden of history, determined to show us just how easy it is to tell the dictator it’s time to go.

To understand the importance of what’s going in Egypt, take the barricades of 1968 (for a good youthful zing), throw them into a mixer with 1989 and blend to produce the potent brew that the popular uprising in Egypt is preparing to offer the entire region. It’s the most exciting time of my life. (more…)

One of the great Victorian Orientalist poems, Ozymandias, was penned by Percy Bysshe Shelley almost two centuries ago in 1818. Substitute the name “Hosni Mubarakias” and experience the déjà vu that is Egypt, and indeed the entire world.

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
My name is Ozymandius, King of Kings,
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

The memories of past kings and pharaohs are not sacred, as looters were able to enter the Cairo Museum and damage some of the objects there. Looting is as old as the pyramids. Such was the fate with most of the pharaohs’ well concealed (and conceited) wealth for the afterlife. Now the objects preserved in the museum are also in danger.

Egypt will survive the fall of its latest pharaoh, but right now the sneer of cold command is once again sinking in the sand.

Ramses II, left; Mubarak I, right

About a month ago I visited the King Tut exhibit in New York. Here was the splendor of one of the minor pharaohs of Egypt, one that died at a very young age. Other pharaohs reigned for a lifetime, such as Ramses II who was in power over three millennia ago and ruled the mighty Egyptian empire for more than half a century. Hosni Mubarak on the Nile is no pharaoh any more than Saddam Hussein was Nebuchadnezzar on the Euphrates. Still, he has been in power almost three decades with a son said to be waiting in the wings for succession. But it is unlikely that he will match Ramses, and not simply because he would be over a century old if he did. The words of the Prophet Daniel, for a different time and place, are apt: mene mene tekel upharsin.

A Greek historian noted about the same time as Daniel that Egypt was a gift of the Nile. Not much has changed, since the vast majority of Egypt’s population lives along this river, including its delta at the Mediterranean. One of the major changes is the population density. With over 80 million Egyptians on the narrow strip along the Nile and southern Mediterranean coast, there is hardly an Egyptian more than a stone’s throw from water. When I worked on a sanitation project in 1981 for USAID, I visited a number of “villages” in the governorates of Asyut and Minufiyya. I say “villages” because of the lack of services, since some had more than 10,000 residents. At the time, as USAID was scrambling to spend development money promised to Egypt in the aftermath of Sadat signing a peace agreement with Israel, many people thought the problems in the country insurmountable. (more…)

by Omid Safi, Sightings, January 27, 2011

One of the lower points in the Park51 Center controversy was the comment by New York Governor David Paterson: “This group who has put this mosque together, they are known as the Sufi Muslims. This is not like the Shiites…They’re almost like a hybrid, almost westernized. They are not really what I would classify in the sort of mainland Muslim practice.”

In a few short sentences, the governor managed to offend Sufis, Shi’i Muslims, as well as westernized Muslims, non-westernized Muslims, and “mainland Muslims” (whoever they are). Paterson overlooked the fact that some Shi’i Muslims are mystically inclined, and that six million American citizens are Muslims, thus there is no question of “westernizing” or “almost westernizing” for them. There is a more disturbing implication hiding in his assertion: the ongoing way in which the general demonization of Muslims, of the kind now routine on Fox News, is accompanied by an equally pernicious game of Good Muslim, Bad Muslims.

There are many versions of this game, but the basic contour stays the same: The assertion that the general masses of Muslims are evil, terrorist-supporters, anti-western, patriarchal, misogynist, undemocratic, and anti-Semitic; and that these masses are set off and defined against either the solitary, lone Muslim good woman or man. The “Good Muslim” is often an individual, or a small circle, because to admit that the larger group of Muslims could be on the right side of the human-rights divide is to have the house of cards of the Muslim demonization game collapse on itself. (more…)

An Egyptian Christian clashes with Egyptian riot police in front of the the Coptic Orthodox church in Alexandria, 230 km (140 miles) north of Cairo January 1, 2011; Photo, Reuters

Tunisia lost a dictator and this has heartened critics of other regimes, especially with seemingly for-life leaders, to take to the streets and, nowadays, to youtube. New videos are posted around the clock. Here is one from a day ago, but you can easily follow a thread. The mainstream media always sanitize the news and views, but the amateur Youtube videos are almost always out of context and prone to exaggerate what is really going on. But there is indeed unrest in the streets and it is not yet played out. There is an account of what is going on in today’s New York Times.

by Stefan Winter

There is a wealth of literature on Sunni-Shi’a relations relating to many periods and places of Islamic history. I attach a brief list of titles on the Mamluk and Ottoman cases with which I am familiar below.

Beyond that, however, there is probably a good reason why “this confrontation” and “its new relevance in today’s politics” is dealt more with in journalistic analyses than scholarly works. To link all instances of conflict or contact between given Sunni and Shi’a actors throughout Islamic time and space, from Pakistan to Lebanon, from Siffin to Doha, to a single ongoing confrontation, as modern observers often do, is reductionist at best.

Of course there is a fundamental theological dispute between Sunnism and Shiism and there has been no shortage of wars and communal disturbancesthat expressed themselves along sectarian lines. But such events invariably also had political and economic causes that must be investigated in their own specific context, and they should not mask the far more numerous instances when the supposed Sunni-Shii dichotomy explains absolutely nothing of, or is downright contradicted by, political events, from the Ayyubids’ tactical alliances with the Ismailis, to the Ottomans’ commercial relations with the Safavids and recourse to Shii tax farmers, to Iran’s intermittent support of Gülbuddin Hekmatiyar to the posters of Hasan Nasrallah you see all over the (conservative Sunni) suq in Aleppo today. (more…)

For those wondering how former President Ben Ali found a place of refuge, this Youtube video might help…

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