A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, January 30, 2015

The Turkish Attack on the Suez Canal, 1915, Part II: The British Defenses, 1: Naval and Air Units

Yesterday I began this series on the Ottoman attack on the Suez Canal in January/February 1915 with a look at the Ottoman plans and order of battle. Today  we will look at the British defense preparations. The British preparations are recorded in much more detail, and today I want to begin with looking at naval and air deployments. On Monday, we'll look at the British/Indian/ANZAC ground force deployments. (Other than a few machine-gun units and some logistical support, the Egyptian Army was not used; Egypt was not a recognized belligerent.)

The Royal Navy

Admiral Richard Peirse
While both sides in the Canal battle had ground troops and a handful of aircraft, Brittania still ruled the waves, and the Royal Navy is considered the senior service, so it is appropriate to begin with the naval defens of Britain's vital naval lifeline to India. As we noted last year, the Commander-in Chief of Britain's East Indies Station in the Indian Ocean to Southeast Asia, Vice Admiral Richard Peirse, had transferred his command to Port Said in order to defend the Canal.

HMS Swiftsure
His flagship, HMS Swiftsure, a pre-Dreadnought class battleship, was based at Port Said. and the other British battleship on the scene, HMS Ocean was at Suez at the southern end of the Canal. The other heavy battleship, the French Requin, was an older ship built in 1885 and now classed as  coastal defense ship. It was birthed in a dredged birth in Lake Timsah, in mid-Canal.

Besides the capital ships, there were two protected cruisers, HMS Minerva and the French cruiser D'Entrecasteaux, the British sloop Clio, the British Armed Merchant Cruiser Himalaya (to be transferred fully to the Navy later), and the royal Indian Marine Ship RIMS Hardinge, in the naval service of British India.

The British plan was to deploy these vessels along the length of the Canal, particularly in those areas where their big naval guns could be brought to bear against attackers from the East Bank. There were certain limitations. As the official Naval History notes:
Though the canal provided excellent lateral communication, its advantage was a good deal discounted by the fact that in many places the sand dunes on the east bank were too high for the shell of the heavy guns to clear. This was specially the case from El Ferdan to Lake Timsah, also with all the centre section from Timsah to Deversoir, and finally the four miles between the southern end of the Bitter Lake and Shallufa. This difficulty also necessitated special arrangements for indirect fire wherever the gunlayers could not see over the banks, and their work was further hampered by the almost continuous mirage in the desert. A minor direct fire, however, was obtained by mounting light quick-firing guns and Maxims on the tops. The patrol boats could, of course, in no case fire over the banks, but they had power to enfilade any trenches the enemy might try to establish on the banks themselves.
The ships were deployed along the length of the Canal, a key support for the Infantry and Artillery Forces deployed along the Canal. As the Turkish force approached, the Royal Navy moved to their assigned stations along the Canal.

HMS Swiftsure moved from Port Said to take station just north of Qantara. As noted, she was also the flagship.

HMS Clio
A bit further south at the Ballah Ferry, the sloop HMS Clio took up station.

French coastal defense ship Requin
The French Requin was already berthed in Lake Timsah near Ismailia, as mentioned.

Now the French protected cruiser D'Entrecasteaux moved to take position near the Requin,  also in Lake Timsah, but subsequently was moved south to Deversoir near the Great Bitter Lake.

RIMS Hardinge
Near that place the RIMS Hardinge, the aforementioned Royal Indian Marine Ship, was already deployed.
 It stood to the northwest of D'Entecasteaux.

The cruiser HMS Minerva took position at the Little Bitter Lake.

To the southward, the armed merchant cruiser Himalaya took position at Shallufa.

And finally, anchoring this line of naval power on the south just as Swiftsure was on the north, the other battleship, HMS Ocean, took position at El Shatt, where a major road across Sinai crosses the Canal near Suez.

The British and French aircraft presence

Air power was still very new in January 1915. The Wright Brothers first flew in 1903 and sold an aircraft to the US Army in 1909. In 1911 during the Italo-Turkish War in Libya, Italy became the first country to use aerial bombing in wartime. (They also used Zeppelins.) In the Suez campaign, British land-based aircraft and French seaplanes proved invaluable in detecting and tracking the Ottoman advance across Sinai, thus denying the Turks the element of surprise. As I already discussed that role in a January 13 post,  for completeness' sake I am simply going to quote what I said then, and the passages I quoted then, and the photo I ran then:

The British had only a handful of reconnaissance aircraft available in Egypt, along with some French seaplanes. The British Official History (Military Operations Egypt and Palestine) describes the situation:
Egypt was watchful and fairly well informed. The British aeroplanes available were incapable of long flights. [The detachment under Major S. D. Massy, 29th Punjabis, consisted of three Maurice Farmans sent from Avonmouth in November, two Henri Farmans taken over in Egypt, and one B3.E2a which arrived from India in December. The aerodrome was at Ismailia, with a landing ground at Qantara. For long reconnaissances into Sinai it was found necessary to send out troops to prepare temporary landing grounds some miles east of the Suez Canal. The longest flight ever carried out was 176 miles, for which a specially large petrol tank had to be fitted to the machine. This, however, was after the Turkish attack on the Suez Canal.] The French seaplanes, put at Sir J. Maxwell's disposal in November, of which there were seven in the Aenne Rickmers - a captured cargo steamer equipped as a seaplane carrier at Port Said, were better, though far from powerful enough for the work they were called upon to perform. Hard driven Jan, by an energetic commander, Lieutenant de Vaisseau de l'Escaille, they carried out reconnaissance flights which were remarkable, particularly in view of the fact that the forced descent of a seaplane on land meant almost certain death for pilot and observer. [Thus in December Lieutenant de Vaisseau Destrem, with a British officer as observer, on two occasions flew up the Wadi Arabi from Aqaba and strove to surmount the steep range east of the valley, in order to reconnoitre Ma'an, on the Hejaz Railway. The task was beyond the power of the 80 h.p. engine, but attempts were continued by him and others until Sir J. Maxwell ordered them to stop, fearing that they would cost him one of his invaluable pilots. In the same month Lieutenant de Vaisseau Delage took off from the Doris off El Arish, flew over Gaza, then turned south-east to Beersheba. On his return his engine stopped while he was still ten miles from the sea. The wind just carried the seaplane over the water, but it was in a sinking condition when the Doris steamed up from El Arish (a distance of 35 miles) to its rescue.] From information obtained by them and from the reports of agents it became clear that the attack would not be much longer delayed, and almost certain that it would come through Central Sinai. It was known to the headquarters of the Force in Egypt that a large force, including the 10th, 23rd, and 27th Divisions, was assembled close to the frontier about Beersheba.
A report by General Sir John Maxwell, the overall commander in Egypt, discusses the air situation before and during the attack on the Canal:
Part of 30th Squadron Royal Flying Corps, under the command of Brevet Major S. D. Massy, I.A., with Headquarters at Ismailia, carried out daily reconnaissances without a single important accident. 
The French Naval Seaplane detachment, with Headquarters at Port Said, under the command of Capitaine de Vaisseau de-l'Escaille, whose services were placed at my disposal for Intelligence purposes, was continually employed in reconnoitering the Syrian, and Anatolian Coast from the requisitioned vessels "Raven" and "Anne" The results of their work were invaluable. The "Anne" was torpedoed near Smyrna during an armistice while employed by the Royal Navy, but was fortunately able to reach Mudros, where she was patched up and returned to Port Said. I cannot speak too highly of the work of the seaplane detachment. Lengthy land flights are extremely dangerous, yet nothing ever stopped these gallant French aviators from any enterprise. I regret the loss of  two of these planes whilst making dangerous land flights over Southern Syria.
The air reconnaissance capabilities may have been limited, but they gave the British ample warning that the Turkish Army was moving into Sinai.

HMS Anne (ex-German Aenne Rickmers); 2 seaplanes either side of rear mast

The Scale of Yesterday's Coordinated Attacks in Sinai

Yesterday's wave of terror attacks across northern Sinai  increasingly appear unprecedented in their scope and coordination. As many as 30 separate attacks took place against police and military positions, while there were also civilian casualties. The death toll is officially past 30, with unofficial estimates of over 490, and many wounded.

The attackers were presumably from Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, the insurgent group that late last year proclaimed its loyalty to the Islamic State (ISIS). The coordinated attacks took place during a match between Egypt's arch-rival soccer teams Ahly and Zamalek, presumably because security forces might be distracted by the game.

Former MEI President Robert V. Keeley, 1929-2015

Image result for robert v. keeleyAmbassador Robert V. Keeley, a former President of The Middle East Institute, died earlier this month in Washington at the age of 85. Born in Beirut and the son of an American diplomat, Keeley spent 34 years in the US Foreign Service. He served as Ambassador to Mauritius, Zimbabwe, and Greece, and is also remembered for his role as Deputy Chief of Mission in Cambodia in 1974-75, at the time of the fall of Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge.

Ambassador Keeley served as President of MEI from 1990 to 1995.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Turkish Attack on the Suez Canal, 1915: Part I, the Ottoman Plan

Between January 28 and February 4, 1915, elements of the Ottoman Fourth Army attempted an attack on the Suez Canal. Two weeks ago I blogged about the Anglo-French use of aerial reconnaissance to detect the Turkish movements across Sinai; over the next few days, I'll be discussing the campaign itself, beginning today with a look at the Turkish plans.

Kress von Kressenstein in Turkish Service
Djemal Pasha, Commander of the Ottoman Fourth Army based in Syria, and his VIII Corps Commander in Damascus, Djemal Bey (known as "Djemal Kuchuk" or "Little Djemal," subsequently after the language reform known as Cemal Mersinli), and his German Chief of Staff Friederich Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein, planned to throw most of the Fourth Army's VIII Corps, reinforced with divisions from Anatolia, against the Canal. Kress von Kressenstein, a military engineer, designed special pontoons for the crossing of the Canal.

"Little Djemal" (Cemal Mersinli)
This force, the Ottomans hoped, would not only attempt to threaten the Canal, cutting Britain's lifeline to India, but might also provoke an uprising in Egypt against British rule. Failing that, they hoped to hold the Canal for a few days and do as much damage to it as possible.

The logistics were daunting, as the British had already sent patrols out to damage wells lest the Turks be able to use them.The historic coast road across northern Sinai via al-‘Arish was considered too vulnerable to shelling by British naval guns, so the force would move across central Sinai instead, via al-‘Auja, where Turkey had concentrated its forces. From al-‘Auja, the force would take several routes in order to reach the Canal at multiple points along its length.
Turkish Camp at al-‘Auja
The force also included a camel squadron to carry water. The map below, in modern Turkish, illustrates the advance

 It's usually estimated that the force numbered about 20,000 men.
The order of battle appears to have been as follows:

Fourth Army (Syria) VIII Corps (Damascus)

Mounted troops:
29th Cavalry Regiment and a Camel Squadron.

Engineers: 4th and 8th Engineer Battalions.


23rd Division (Homs):  68th and  69th regiments
25th Division (Damascus) with part of 25th Artillery Regiment and 73rd, 74th, and 75th Infantry regiments
27th Division (Haifa) with part of the 27th Artillery Regiment and the 80th and 81st Infantry Regiments

These units based normally in Syria had been reinforced from Anatolia by the 10th Infantry Division, with part of the 10th Artillery Regiment and the 28th, 29th, and 30th Infantry Regiments.

There were also bedouin units and some forces detached from the Ottoman forces in the Hejaz.

Next time we'll look at the British defensive plan. Below, a 1915 shot of the Ottoman Camel Corps at Beersheba:

The Guardian Profiles Mada Masr

The Guardian has a good profile of the Egyptian news site Mada Masr, the online news source set up by former staffers of The Egypt Independent: The News Website that's Keeping Press Freedom Alive in Egypt.

I've frequently linked to articles at Mada Masr here, but for those unfamiliar with the background of the site, The Guardian's article is a good introduction.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A Historical "What If?": Could the Alexandretta Landing in 1915 Have Worked While Gallipoli Failed?

Last night I explained how the idea of a British landing at Alexandretta in 1915 ultimately faded due to French objections, limited resources, and Winston Churchill's focus on the Gallipoli venture, despite some strong strategic arguments for the Alexandretta operation as a means of cutting Turkish communications with the Arab provinces. Today I want to talk about a far more speculative question: could it have worked? Or at any rate, could it have worked better than the alternative chosen, the Gallipoli campaign?

I'm sure the ghosts of the dead at Gallipoli would not hesitate to say that anything would have worked better than Gallipoli. The real question is could it have succeeded?

Now alternative or counterfactual history is fun. What if Lee won at Gettysburg? If JFK hadn't been assassinated? If Genghiz Khan had lived longer and the Mongols hadn't retreated from Europe?

It's also futile because history is contingent on so many factors that can't be controlled (what if the "Protestant Wind" hadn't blown during the fight with the Spanish Armada?), outright accidents (young King Ghazi of Iraq dying in a car crash), improbable chances (if Franz Ferdinand's driver in Sarajevo hadn't turned down the wrong street and tried to reverse in front of the cafe where Gavrilo Princip was having lunch after assuming his plot had failed)?

And one most relevant to our discussion here: if the little Turkish minelayer Nusret had not laid a line of 26 mines that the British and French flotilla failed to detect on March 8, 1915, leading to the failure of the naval effort to run the Dardanelles on March 18 and the sinking of three capital ships and the crippling of a fourth, even the doomed Gallipoli plan might have worked. But the Navy decided not to try again until the infantry landings, by which time, a month later, the Ottomans were fully ready and Mustafa Kemal in command of part of the front.

Academic historians often won't admit it, but books like the What If? series and the sci-fi/alternate history series of Harry Turtledove (trained as a Byzantine historian with a UCLA Ph.D., by the way) seem to have a following, and I suspect alternate scenarios are a private guilty pleasure for many historians who won't admit it.  It is for me.

For reasons we saw yesterday, Alexandretta was abandoned. Given the disastrous bleed-out of Gallipoli, military historians have been tempted to wonder; could Alexandretta have worked instead of Gallipoli? As we saw, a combination of Winston Churchill's determination and France's opposition made it impossible, and there was insufficient manpower to do both. But if circumstances had been different, and all those resources diverted to Alexandretta, might it have worked?

Of course, we will never know, The British could have found themselves iun another Gallipoli. But there are some big differences in the battlefields. At Gallipoli, the Ottomans were defending their own capital, and they enjoyed internal lines of communication; they could easily move reinforcements between Anatolia and European Turkey. They had good roads and railroads.

Now consider Alexandretta. As we've learned previously, the only rail line to Alexandretta ran directly along the coast; in bad weather it could wash out, and long stretches of it were exposed to offshore naval guns, and Britain monopolized the sea. Only rough mountain roads could bring you to an inland rail line at Aleppo, and that was not yet connected to Anatolian rail lines because the Baghdad Railway had not yet tunneled through the Taurus and Amanus ranges.

If you didn't read it at the time, I'd urge you to read my lengthy excerpt from Djemal Pasha's memoirs about his difficulties in reaching Aleppo when going out to take command of the Fourth Army in Damascus. And he was one of the ruling triumvirate and the new overlord of Syria. If even Djemal faced such obstacles, imagine the difficulty of reinforcing Alexandretta by land. There would be no easy internal lines like the Ottomans enjoyed at Gallipoli.

Britain, on the other hand, enjoyed easier logistics at a time when Brittania still ruled the waves.

A successful landing and occupation of Alexandretta might even have provoked the Arab Revolt a year early, though perhaps led by Syrian Arab nationalists rather then Sharif Hussein of Mecca. If an advance inland to Aleppo had been possible (a much bigger challenge) rail supplies to Palestine and the Hejaz could have been cut much to the north of where they were later cut. Allenby's Palestine campaign might have come sooner.

It's fun to game out and speculate, but of course it could also have been a disaster on the scale of Gallipoli or Kut for the British.

Remembering January 28, 2011: The Army Steps In

Four years ago today, still in the early days of the Egyptian Revolution, the Egyptian Army moved in to separate protesters and the Central Security Forces. In one of my posts on that day, I commented:
Who won today's running confrontations? Clearly, the demonstrators believe they did. Clearly too, the police and Central Security Forces lost. The Army had to enter Cairo for the first time since 1986, and downtown for the first time since 1977. Exactly what the current dynamic is isn't clear, because no one knows if the Army will be used against the demonstrators. It apparently did little to protect the NDP headquarters, taking up positions at the Foreign Ministry and the Radio/TV building, both close by. Mubarak's decision to hang tough means we need to watch a bit more.
I spelled out a number of possible scenarios, none of which played out exactly, except that the Army intervention did portend the officer corps pushing Mubarak to leave.  In those heady days demonstrators welcomed the Army, swarmed around the APCs, and came up with the slogan, "The Army and People are One Hand."

The next day, January 29, this dramatic video was made, showing three Army APCs moving to put themselves between the demonstrators and the police:

January 28 in retrospect was a critical turning point in the Revolution: The Army, led by what was soon to emerge as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, was taking control of the situation. In the end it would be the Army, not the protesters, that determined when Mubarak had to leave.

Later the enthusiasm among the protesters for the Army would sour, of course.

Hizbullah Raid on Israeli Column was a Response to Israel's Quneitra Raid

Today's clash between Hizbullah and Israeli troops in the disputed Sheba‘a Farms area where the Lebanese, Israeli, and Golan Heights borders meet, and which killed two Israeli soldiers and a Spanish UNIFIL peacekeeper, is being portrayed by Israel as a provocation, with retaliation promised. But Hizbullah statements make it clear that the raid is directly linked to last week's attack by Israel on a Hizbullah column in the Quneitra region of the Golan.

Most of the US newspaper accounts I've seen either fail to mention this linkage or bury it deep in the article.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

January 1915: The Alexandretta Landing Idea Fades Away

In December, as part of my discussion of the 100th anniversary of the Great War in the Middle East, I discussed the strategic origins of the concept of a British landing and occupation of Alexandretta (İskenderun), and we also discussed HMS Doris' raid on Alexandretta and other ports on the Syrian coast. The idea of such a lending had originated even before the war, and both Lord Kitchener at the War Office in London and General Sir John Maxwell, the British Commander in Egypt, were enthusiastic supporters. Young 2nd Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence of the intelligence section, who knew Alexandretta from his prewar adventures in Syria, became a strong advocate and sometimes claimed to have originated the idea, though it was discussed for months before his assignment to Cairo.

Yet by late January, 1915, the Alexandretta scenario had virtually evaporated, due to a combination of factors: a shortage of resources, objections by France, and most of all, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill.

As we have seen in our previous posts on the war in both Egypt and Mesopotamia, British forces in the Middle East (except for one Territorial Division from home, the 42nd East Lancashires), were all colonials from the Indian Army (both British and Indian units), and the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (the ANZACs). These were the forces Britain had in the theater and their first responsibility was protection of the Suez Canal.

But the idea that the Canal could best be defended not merely by a passive defense but by a forward defense behind Ottoman lines appealed to planners. But there were two competing options. While Kitchener at the War Office and Maxwell in Egypt were keen for the Alexandretta plan, Churchill at the Admiralty was totally focused on the idea of running the Dardanelles and taking Constantinople.

Both projects had their advocates and, if Britain were not also bogged down against Germany on the Western Front, might have been possible. (Though, of course, the Ottomans would never have gone to war with Britain and Russia without their German and Austrian allies.)

By January 1915, the planning for the Dardanelles venture, what became the Gallipoli campaign, was under way. though the Army preferred Alexandretta, it could not be done without the Royal Navy, and the Admiralty was laser-focused (in those pre-laser days) on the Dardanelles. Alexandretta would have to be done with whatever else could be spared, if anything.

We've previously looked at the strategic arguments for the Alexandretta landings, but by December the problem was emerging of where to find the troops. By January, the Turkish advance toward the Suez Canal was getting under way, and that was Britain's lifeline to India.

On January 5, Milne Cheatham, Acting British High Commissioner in Egypt until Sir Henry McMahon's arrival a few days later, strongly urged the Alexandretta plan. But in London, while the idea had much appeal, there was debate about how many troops would be needed: somewhere between 21,000 and 50,000 seemed to be the prevailing view.

But the Indian and ANZAC troops were still being trained; many would be needed for defense of the Canal and the Dardanelles. Where would the troops come from? Kitchener wired Maxwell in Egypt asking if ANZAC Commander General Birdwood could spare 5,000 of his Australians for the operation. (For more on Gen. "Birdy" Birdwood, see my earlier post here.) Birdwood candidly said he thought far more troops were needed, but was ordered to proceed. with planning anyway.

But if the military planners were enthusiastic, the diplomats had another issue. France had long seen itself as the outside protector of the Maronite Christians in Lebanon and had a longstanding stated interest in Syria and the Levant generally. France appears to have let its British allies know that it was not enthusiastic about British troops landing in an area it saw as a future sphere of influence if the Ottoman Empire disintegrated. In January it was agreed that a French Military Mission would be dispatched to Cairo; its arrival in February was the death knell for any real chances of Alexandretta happening.

The idea did not die completely, though, and would crop up again in 1916 and 1918. The French and the Admiralty ultimately killed it. Churchill wanted every available resource for his pet project of Gallipoli, and France wanted no English forces ashore in Syria.

Military history buffs and fans of alternative history scenarios still wonder if it might have worked. I'll address that question tomorrow

Monday, January 26, 2015

Some Graffiti from a Stalled Revolution

A Cairo graffiti stencil from the fourth anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution: "You can crush the roses, but you can NOT delay the spring." The large symbol in the middle is the "not."

63 Years: Black Saturday, January 26, 1952

It is a curious fact that, 63 years after the Cairo Fire of January 26, 1952, there is still debate about who instigated it. Some 750 buildings in the heart of Cairo were burned and dozens died, yet no one has ever been held accountable. Depending on the prevailing ideological winds at the time, regime narratives since 1952 have tended to blame the Muslim Brotherhood, the King, the Wafd, or the British, even though the last were the main targets. Most historians assume that more than one of the above elements played a role, either of commission or omission.

The previous day, Friday, January 25, in a major clash in the Suez Canal Zone, the British Army had killed 50 Egyptian policemen in Ismailia after besieging the police post following hit-and-run attacks on British troops. (For details, including a video, see this post.)  The Wafd Government of Prime Minister Mustafa Nahas had previously abrogated the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, and Interior Minister Fuad Serag al-Din ordered the police to hold out at all costs.

Rage was naturally running high on Saturday. Some organized political groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood and the Misr al-Fatat Movement, were likely both among the instigators, though Serag al-Din and the Wafd may have welcomed demonstrations until they got out of hand.

When demonstrators saw a police officer dining with a woman on the terrace of Casino Opera, the famed nightclub founded by Badia Masabni on Opera Square, they attacked him for not joining his colleagues in Ismailia, and proceeded to sack and burn the club, Cairo's most famous belly-dancing venue. (Badia Masabni had sold the club in 1950 but most still called it Madame Badia's.) That is usually considered the first of the fires, and may have been the Brotherhood, which opposed nightclubs, bars, and  cinemas, all of which were soon being targeted.

As the afternoon wore on, mobs (some apparently organized, some not) attacked British institutions (most famously Shepheard's Hotel, but also Barclay's Bank, the Turf Club, etc.); institutions owned by Greeks, Italians, Jews and others were also targeted.

Shepheard's in Ruins
Shepheard's was destroyed; the grandest of the colonial era hotels was a prime target and some guests died in the fire.

Cinema Rivoli on fire
Many cinema theaters were also attacked, though the demonstrators reportedly struck only after the matinees had ended when there were no patrons, This suggests come careful planning.

Cicurel Department Store
As the fires were spreading throughout downtown, there was little being done to stop them. King Farouq, lunching with senior police officials. took no immediate action. Nor did Serag al-Din, the Wafd Interior Minister. Though the Wafd and the King were sworn enemies at this point, the inaction of both has fueled conspiracy theories ever since.

Cinema Metro
Finally, in the evening, the Army was called in to restore order. What had begun as an anti-British protest had turned into a destructive event that further weakened the King and the Wafd, and destroyed much of central Cairo's best-known institutions, many of them Egyptian-owned. Less than six months later, on July 23, the Free Officers would stage their coup.

A newsreel of the aftermath:

A Bloody January 25 in Egypt

Yesterday was the fourth anniversary of the onset of the Egyptian Revolution on January 25, 2011. Pro-Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators as well as protesters on the left were attacked bu police and at least 20, by some accounts 24, died (more than on the relatively bloodless first day of the Revolution).

Celebrations of the Revolution had been banned due to a mourning period for Saudi King ‘Abdullah.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

King Salman's Appointments Finally Give a Clue as to When the Next Generation Will Take the Throne

I don't usually post on Saturdays, but this seems to merit it. In the wake of the death of King ‘Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, King Salman has moved to replace positions vacated by the succession, and in so doing he has also given us the first official indication of when the next generation of princes will see the throne. Admittedly, it was pretty much inevitably going to be after Crown Prince Muqrin, but now we know who it will likely be.

Upon his accession, Salman confirmed the former Deputy Crown Prince (a position created by ‘Abdullah) Prince Muqrin, as Crown Prince. Then he appointed to Muqrin's previous post of Deputy Crown Prince the Interior Minister, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef. Now second in line for the throne after Muqrin, Muhammad bin Nayef is the first member of the next generation to be officially in line for the throne.

For more than 60 years, since the death of the Kingdom's founder, King ‘Abd al-‘Azīz Al Sa‘ud in 1953, every king of Saudi Arabia (Sa‘ud, Feisal, Khalid, Fahd, ‘Abdullah, and now Salman), as well as Crown Prince Muqrin, has been a son of the Kingdom's founder, who had more than 40 sons. But Muqrin is the youngest son of King ‘Abd al-‘Azīz. (Not the last surviving son as some were passed over for various reasons.) Now, barring unforeseen changes, it is likely Muhammad bin Nayef, the man behind the Kingdom's counterterrorism efforts, will be the first grandson to succeed.

King Salman, who had been serving as Defense Minister as well as Crown Prince,  has named his own son, Prince Muhammad bin Salman, to succeed him at the Defense Ministry. Muhammad bin Salman, who had been Chief of the Crown Prince's Court before the succession, will also be Chief of the Royal Court.

Inevitably, when a succession occurs, the Senior Princes have to reach an accommodation  on which branches of the family take what posts. How exactly this is done is only roughly known; I've already noted that those who speak don't know and those who know don't speak. I would be very wary of interpretations like this one by David Hearst of "A Saudi Palace Coup" in which he sees the so-called Sudeiri branch of the family as reversing the will of King ‘Abdullah. The Sudeiris were never exactly out of power; Salman is doing what any new King does, making his own appointments, but no Saudi King acts completely independently of the other Senior Princes.

Friday, January 23, 2015

When Queen Elizabeth Drove King ‘Abdullah Around Balmoral

Here's a great story quoting a former British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia about the time Queen Elizabeth II took the late King (when he was Crown Prince) for a drive at Balmoral:
His nervousness only increased as the Queen, an Army driver in wartime, accelerated the Land Rover along the narrow Scottish estate roads, talking all the time. Through his interpreter, the Crown Prince implored the Queen to slow down and concentrate on the road ahead.
 I'm sure the Queen knew that Saudi Arabia doesn't let women drive.

Why I Love Egypt Summarized by a Single Photo

Giving the donkey and goat a ride with at least two people (maybe more) in an overblown golf cart. Via Egyptouring.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

After ‘Abdullah: Salman for Now, with Muqrin Waiting in the Wings?

The death of King ‘Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is hardly a surprise, as he was 90 and had long been ailing, but it removes from the scene a man who had been a key figure in the Kingdom for decades, first as Commander and in effect creator of the Saudi Arabian National Guard, then as Crown Prince and, after King Fahd's stroke in 1995, de facto ruler during the decade until Fahd's death in 2005, and since then as King.

King Salman
His successor, his half-brother Crown Prince (now King) Salman has, at least on paper, considerable experience; after nearly 40 years as Governor of Riyadh Province, he has served as Defense Minister since 2011. But Salman, though at 79 he is a decade younger than ‘Abdullah, has suffered at least one stroke and has trouble using his left arm, has had spinal surgery, and there are many reports that he is suffering from some degree of some sort of dementia, perhaps Alzheimer's.

Probably because of these concerns, King ‘Abdullah last year took the unusual step of creating the post of Deputy Crown Prince, and naming Prince Muqrin, who is only 69 and a former head of General Intelligence, to the post. Muqrin presumably now becomes Crown Prince, unless Salman and the family make a change in ‘Abdullah's arrangements. [UPDATE: Salman has confirmed Muqrin as Crown Prince.]

Prince Muqrin
If Salman's health does not permit him to rule, Muqrin could become the de facto ruler the way then-Crown Prince ‘Abdullah was during the last decade of King Fahd's rule.That would be more in keeping with Saudi tradition than an abdication for health reasons, as happened in Kuwait in 2006.

It is axiomatic however, than those who speak about the inner workings of the House of Saud do not know, while those who know (the senior princes) do not speak. We'll see.

Well, at Least They Didn't Use Duct Tape: The Curious Case of King Tut's Beard

The gold burial mask of Tutankhamun is probably the most precious and most famous treasure of the Egyptian Museum,  which in turn is one of the world's greatest museums. Yet, as you've no doubt heard by now, when Tut's beard came loose in cleaning, someone unspecified tried to put it back using epoxy. When the epoxy was visible, someone tried to remove it and scratched the mask.

The Ministry of Antiquities is investigating, but this adds to the concern over the fate if antiquities in Egypt since 2011. The single best known attraction of the museum (and an exhibit whose world tours have earned lots of money), has been repaired (and botched) by museum conservators using the kind of technique a kid might lose to fix a broken toy.

I have no words. Or none of more than four letters at any rate.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

As the Houthis Rise in Yemen, it is Worth Remembering that Zaydi Islam Was Not Historically Radical

As the Houthi Movement in Yemen seems about ready to remove President al-Hadi, many Western commentators seem uncertain what to make of them. As I noted as far back as 2009, referring to these Zaydi Muslim revivalists as "Shi‘ite" without qualification is misleading, since their Shi‘ism is vastly different from that of Iran. Because Saudi Arabia suspects they have Iranian support, and they seem to, they are often seen as Iranian stooges, but in fact they are very much a home-grown movement springing from the Zaydi tribes of the North Yemen mountains.

On the other hand, the fact that sectarian conflict has been rare in Yemen and that since the fall of the monarchy in 1962 the distinction between Zaydis and Sunnis has been slight, and that Zaydism is historically very moderate, and that they fiercely oppose al-Qa‘ida, may mislead some into thinking they are natural allies of the West. Yet they routinely use the slogans "Death to America!" and "Death to Israel" and even "a curse on the Jews." (See the Arabic logo at left.) Not exactly our natural allies, then.

Starting as a Zaydi revivalist youth movement, the Houthis are fiercely anti-Western and have opposed the GCC-brokered transition plan under way in Yemen since 2011.

I'll leave it to the Yemen specialists to explain the radicalism of Houthi ideology; in the meantime I want to note that Zaydism as a religious school has been strikingly accommodating to Sunnis and other sects of Shi‘ism as well. With the Houthis, though, even Zaydism has acquired a radical face, though not all Zaydis back the Houthis, of course.

Zaydism is indeed a branch of Shi‘ism, the second-largest after the "Twelvers" of Iran, Iraq and Lebanon. But its history and beliefs are quite different from other varieties. While they are called "Fivers" because they accept the first four Imams recognized by Twelvers and Isma‘ilis ("Seveners") and recognize Zayd ibn ‘Ali as the rightful successor to his father ‘Ali Zayn al-‘Abidin while other groups recognize his brother Muhammad al-Baqir, they do not then insist that all rightful imams must descend from Zayd. In fact, the Zaydi doctrine of the Imamate differs enormously from other Shi‘a.

The Zaydis hold that ‘Ali, the first Imam, was the rightful successor to Muhammad, but they hold that since the Prophet did not make the succession clear and ‘Ali did not press his claim, they do not publicly curse Abu Bakr and ‘Umar. They hold that ‘Ali and his two sons, Hasan and Husayn, were rightful Imams, but that after them, the Imamate could be intrusted to any just, wise ruler descended from Hasan or Husayn, not limited to a single line. Though they recognize Zayd as their fifth Imam and his son Muhammad as their sixth, their list includes others from the Twelver line as well. There were various early sects of Zaydism that disagreed on some of these points, however.

The Zaydis do not believe in the infallibility of the Imams after the first three, and thus they also accept that geographically distant parts of the world could follow different lines of Imams. In the medieval period, there were Zaydi imamates in Tabaristan in northeast Iran and Gilan in northwest Iran as well as in Yemen. Zaydi states at one time also existed in the Arabian Peninsula outside Yemen, and in Morocco and Spain.

The Zaydi legal school is very similar to that of Abu Hanifa in Sunnism, and some have listed Zaydi law as a "fifth school" of Sunnism, except for the doctrine of the Imamate.

Zaydism was established in the highlands of Yemen in 893 AD and an imamate continued under various lines until the Revolution of 1962. In the 20th century the Imams also added the title of King and the title "Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen" for the country.

The last Imam, Muhammad al-Badr, continued to fight with Saudi backing in the eight year civil war, in which Nasser's Egypt backed the republicans. In 1970 he went into exile in Britain. He died in 1996. With the absence of any claimant to the Zaydi Imamate in Yemen, the distinctions between Zaydis and Sunnis became even fewer.

In former North Yemen, Zaydis were long a majority in the mountain interior, while the coastal plain was mostly Sunni of the Shaf‘i school. Unification with South Yemen in 1990 made Zaydism a minority (about 40%) in the country as a whole.

This tradition of there being little perceived difference between Zaydis and Sunnis seems to be another casualty of recent events in Yemen, given the radicalism of the Houthis.

Egypt Makes World's Record Koshary Dish; Well, They Did Warn Us It Was Coming

This blog has often dealt with the curious phenomenon of Middle Eastern food fights: Lebanon and Israeli Arabs competing to make the world's largest hummus, or Jordan's 75 kilogram falafel. The link will take you to the previous stories, and they did warn us this was coming last fall.

Now Egypt claims to have produced the world's largest plate of koshary. Since all of Egypt's other problems are presumably now solved, they're putting their effort into massive carbohydrates.

The traditional street dish of macaroni, rice, lentils and other ingredients reportedly weighed in at somewhere in the range of 7,000 to 8,000 kilograms, not recommended for those on a low-starch diet. (Would you like fries with that?)

While they say it breaks the Guinness Book record, no one says what the previous record was. Was there one? I've never seen koshary anywhere but in Egypt or in Egyptian restaurants serving expatriate workers in the Gulf or in he West.

Try to fit this on a street cart. Dig in:

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Israel Reportedly Did Not Know Iranian General was in Hizbullah Convoy

It's now being reported that Israel did not deliberately target an Iranian Guards Corps general killed in a weekend strike in the Golan Heights. The Sunday attack on a Hizbullah convoy by a (presumably Israeli) helicopter has prompted threats of a "devastating storm" (note: link is to a Hizbullah website if you prefer not to go there) of retaliation by the Iranian Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) in the wake of the death of IRGC General Muhammad ‘Ali Allah-Dadi.

Also killed in the convoy, according to Hizbullah, was Jihad ‘Imad Mughniyeh, (Hizbullah website again), son of the late ‘Imad Mughniyeh, the Hizbullah planning mastermind killed in a car bombing in Damascus in 2008, an attack widely blamed on Israel.

Hizbullah and Asad regime forces are fighting in the Quneitra area of the Golan Heights against Jabhat al-Nusra forces. Though Israel is hardly likely to be supporting Jabhat al-Nusra, sees Hizbullah as a traditional enemy. It has not, however, ever deliberately targeted senior IRGC officers who serve with Hizbullah, so the claims that it was unaware Allah-Dadi was in the convoy are probably true. But the killing could lead to Iranian support for an escalated Hizbullah-Israeli conflict, further spreading and further internationalizing the Syrian war.

With Israel in the midst of an election campaign, the strike could also ignite a political debate.

Syria ia Collapsing Next Door; Israel is Bombing Hizbullah in the Golan, So What was the Biggest Concern in Lebanon this Week?

Lebanon is still unable to agree on a new President. Violence breaks our regularly in Tripoli. The Syrian civil war has spilled across the border several times. Over the weekend Israel bombed Hizbullah in the Golan Heights, which could spill over into southern Lebanon. So what is the biggest concern in Lebanon?

Why of course, it's the selfie Miss Israel posted showing herself standing next to Miss Lebanon. (Also Miss Slovenia and Miss Japan, but those countries have been silent.) Miss Lebanon says Miss Israel took the photo without asking.

Needless to say, the commentary in Lebanon has been heated, while outside Lebanon a certain bemused reaction seems more common. I rather doubt Miss Lebanon would have posed willingly as she must be aware that many people back home would be upset, but the whole affair tends to make it easy for others to poke fun at Lebanon.

Including satirist Jon Stewart, who makes the inevitable "photobomb' joke:

Wittes and Lynch on the Absence of Women in ME Policy Debates

Here is an important observation from Tamara Coffman Wittes and Marc Lynch at the Washington Post blog: "The Mysterious Absence of Women from Middle East Policy Debates."

They note:
Last year, six leading Washington think tanks presented more than 150 events on the Middle East that included not a single woman speaker. Fewer than one-quarter of all the speakers at the 232 events at those think tanks recorded in our newly compiled data-set were women. How is it possible that in 2014, not a single woman could be found to speak at 65 percent of these influential and high-profile D.C. events? . . .
But as they also correctly note, it's not due to scarcity:
Really? Well-known women experts in Middle East politics are on the faculties at Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, Chicago, Northwestern, American, Georgetown and many more universities. Nine of the 15 members of the steering committee of the Project on Middle East Political Science (directed by Marc Lynch) are women. A dozen women have served as president of the Middle East Studies Association. Women are likewise a palpable presence in Middle East policy: Well over a dozen women have served as U.S. ambassadors in the Middle East, and Anne Patterson currently serves as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat dedicated to the region.
As for the think tanks, women run the Middle East Institute, the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution (Tamara Cofman Wittes), the Middle East Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, the Center for the Middle East and Africa at the U.S. Institute of Peace, the Center for Middle East Public Policy at RAND, and play key roles at the Middle East programs of the Center for a New American Security and the Atlantic Council. Women journalists covering the region are powerhouses in print, on air and on Twitter; there are, frankly, too many of them doing cutting-edge work in the region to even start to list them.
Read the whole piece, though. It raises important questions.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Holiday Note

Today is the Martin Luther King holiday in the US. Regular blogging will resume tomorrow.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Iconic Egyptian Actress Faten Hamama (1931-2015), Dies at 83

Perhaps the most admired Egyptian actress of her generation, Faten Hamama, has died at the age of 83. She rose to stardom in the 1950s, starred in a number of landmark films in the golden age of Egyptian cinema, and in 2001 was voted "star of the century" at the Alexandria film festival. She married three times; most famously, from 1955 to 1974 she was married to actor Omar Sharif. In Egypt, at least, she was more popular than he was.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Aux Armes, Citoyens! Edith Piaf, One-Quarter Amazigh, Sings La Marseillaise

A week ago I posted a post in support of France which included the version of La Marseillaise most familiar to Americans: the scene from Casablanca. It has occurred to me that there may be a more appropriate version, especially since two of the attackers in France were of North African origin. Edith Piaf was, without question, the most popular French singer of the first half of the 20th century.

What many of her French fans may not know, is her maternal grandmother was a Moroccan Berber, so her version of the anthem may be particularly appropriate.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

President Sisi is a New Favorite of the American Right Wing

On the occasion of the Prophet's Birthday, President al-Sisi of Egypt gave an address to al-Azhar in which he called for a "religious revolution" (thawra diniyya) within Islam aimed at countering the negative image of Islam created by radical Islamism. I didn't blog about it at the time as it was quite well-publicized and gave explicit voice to the generally anti-Muslim Brotherhood rhetoric that has dominated Egyptian life since July 3, 2013. But it has had a rather interesting resonance in US politics, where the right wing of the Republican Party has adopted Sisi as a new favorite. Since the Republicans control both houses of the new Congress, this should protect Egypt against those who want to cut US economic aid and military sales.

Here's the actual speech. If the English subtitles don't appear, clack on the "CC" button.

I do think Sisi may be the best public speaker of any President since Nasser, to whom the press loves to compare him. If you know Egyptian Arabic, he is speaking a clear colloquial Arabic in a manner that gives the listener the sense they are being addressed directly.

One of the most extreme examples of Sisi's new role as a darling of the American right was a recent speech by Representative Louie Gohmert, Republican of Texas, in which he said:
“I hope one day that our top leaders in this country will have the courage of President al-Sisi in Egypt and they will reflect, as Gen. al-Sisi has, the will of the people of their country,” Gohmert said in a speech first flagged by the District Sentinel.
"If the story is properly written about Egypt, and one day it will be, they will see that in the last six years, that besides Israel, the country that has been most fearless in standing up for freedom and against radical Islamic terrorism, unfortunately, has not been the United States because of our leadership," he said. 
I'm at a loss about the "last six years" line, which takes us back to 2009 and the late Mubarak era, and for one of those six years, the Muslim Brotherhood was at the helm.. And Gohmert is not a newcomer among Sisi admirers: in 2013 he traveled to Egypt with Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Steve King of Iowa (both Republicans) and actually thanked Sisi for overthrowing Muhammad Morsi. That didn't sit well with the State Department at the time.

Gohmert isn't alone. Fox News has of course joined the Sisi choir, as has The Washington Times and commentator Raymond Ibrahim. 

Oh, and George Will says Sisi deserves the Nobel Peace Prize.

Now, as it happens, I don't disagree with what Sisi said at al-Azhar and think it needed saying, and I think his appearance at the Christmas Mass at the Coptic Cathedral was a very positive step. If the journalists and other protesters currently jailed were freed, I'd start to see him as an enlightened autocrat, though hardly a democrat. So I'm conflicted. I agree Sisi is showing some positive signs among other negative ones.. But not in Gohmert's terms. And those are fairly big ifs, as well.

The Walls Are Going Up All Over the Middle East

First there was Israel's "separation wall"; then came Egypt's increasing fortification of its border with Gaza (including evacuation of the Egyptian side of Rafah).  In the wake of the rise of ISIS, we read that "Saudi Arabia is Building a 600-Mile 'Great Wall' to Shield Itself from ISIS."

It was apparently this construction that was recently attacked by ISIS, killing several Saudi Border Guards.

"Something there is that doesn't love a wall . . ."

Recycling Old News: Middle East Watches Porn

It seems about once a year someone studies online search traffic and "discovers" that searches for online pornography are extremely high in the Islamic world. It's happening again in this Salon article, "Why Porn is Exploding in the Middle East."

I'm not sure "exploding" is the right term. Yes, "According to data released by Google, six of the top eight porn-searching countries are Muslim states." But in December of 2013, I blogged about a similar study, more limited to the Arab world, and it was old news then. I think writers enjoy the contradictions and seeming hypocrisy implicit in discovering that some of the most repressive and censored parts of the world are watching online pornography; periodically we also read that Utah, the most conservative US state, consumes the most porn per capita.

The Salon article also notes the recent furor in Lebanon, which I hadn't blogged about, over a Lebanese American called Mia Khalifa, who was voted the most popular actress in US porn by some website. I didn't blog about it because she isn't making films in Lebanon, but in the US. I am unfamiliar with Ms. Khalifa's, um, body of work, but I didn't consider it a Middle East story. If she were making films in Lebanon, that would qualify as news.

So, it's old news. The countries in the region routinely condemn it, try to block it, and insist it's a Western plot, but it continues to be popular in a part of the world where there are few socially accepted outlets for sexual curiosity. This is not news; it's human nature.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

At the Smithsonian, the Freer and the Sackler Make Tons of their Art Public, Digital and Free

The Smithsonian Institution has two art galleries that cover the Middle Eastern world as well as East Asia; the Freer Gallery, which houses an originally private collection they can't add to, and the Sackler. Both the Freer and the Sackler have done a magnificent thing: except for some qualifications for commercial use, they have put some 50,000 high-resolution images amounting to over 10 terabytes of data, online and FREE.

Like both of these great collections, the bulk of the images are South and East Asia, but there is a solid core of pre-Islamic and Islamic Middle Eastern material as well. including Persian miniatures, ceramics, and other media.

There are many stories about this new trove online, but your best bet is to go to the Smithsonian website and start browsing.

Yennayer: Happy Amazigh New Year, 2015/2965! Aseggas Amagaaz!

I've said before that despite the disappointments of "Arab Spring," the enthusiasm of "Amazigh Spring" has not dissipated. The Amazigh or "Berber" peoples of North Africa have been enjoying a cultural recrudescence. Though the large Amazigh populations in Morocco and Algeria were always politically active, the Amazigh peoples of Libya were long repressed, with Qadhafi denying their very existence and their language banned. They, and he small Amazigh population of Tunisia, have gone through a conscienceless-raising of sorts. One indication of this has been more widespread celebration of the traditional Amazigh New Year, known as Yennayer (January), on January 14. (Or, among many Algerian Imazighen, on January 12.)

January 14 is simply the date January 1 in the Julian calendar, now running 13 days behind the Gregorian, and it is the traditional New Year for North African agriculturalists, Arab as well as Amazigh. Since the Islamic calendar is purely lunar, it is of little relevance for planting or harvest as it moves around the solar calendar from year to year. Just as in Egypt the fellahin, Muslim or Copic, use the Coptic months as their agricultural calendar,o do North Africans use the old Roman months (Yennayer=Januarius) for planting. (The Coptic calendar is also Julian, but their New Year is in September.) Amazigh in particular have embraced Yennayer as a particularly Amazigh holiday.

Since the Amazigh Spring began I've posted several background pieces on the New Year. My 2012 posting went into the background in some detail. That post also addressed the modern creation of an Amazigh "era," the source of that 2965 date above. While the Julian agricultural calendar is real and ancient, that 2965 date is what the late historian Eric Hobsbawm called "the invention of tradition," a modern creation pretending to antiquity. The Academie Berbere in Paris in the 1960s introduced a "Berber" era based on the accession to the throne of Egypt of the Pharaoh Shoshenq I (also Sheshonq) in 950 BC (roughly). Shoshenq came from Libya, so they identified him as Berber (still the most common usage at the time. (The modern Kurdish calendar era, which dates from the rise of the Medes in about 612 BC, is a parallel case.)

My 2013 (or 2963 if you prefer) New year's post dealt mainly with the big blowout concert held at a stadium in Tripoli (which will clearly not be repeated this year, but was equally unthinkable under Qadhafi.

And last year I dealt with the discrepancy between those Algerian Imazighen who observe the New Year on January 12 while everyone else marks it on January 14.

I would urge the curious to read these previous posts.

The Tamazight New Year's Greeting is spelled many different ways in English (Assegas Amagaaz, Asegas Amegaz), or as below, which also shows it in the Tifinagh script. (The link is to my 2011 post on Tifinagh. And remember "Berber" is not a single dialect/language, and Tifinagh is usually back-spelled from French, Arabic, or English transcriptions.)