Saturday, March 27, 2010

Living in the future, Egyptian politics section

Steven A. Cook writing in Foreign Policy [thanks to]:

Perhaps more important was the return to Egypt in February of Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), after a 12-year absence. ...Foreign news outlets estimated that as many as one thousand Egyptians turned out to welcome him home at Cairo’s airport -- and to implore him to run for president in Egypt’s 2011 elections (a significant number given the government’s record of intimidation and violence).

He coyly told the Egyptian and foreign press that he would consider running if the Egyptian government enacted electoral and party reforms to ensure truly free and fair elections. At the same time, he formed a new political organization called the National Front for Change, which encompasses a broad swath of Egypt’s fractious but largely ineffective opposition movement.... The creation of the Front, along with his tantalizing public statements, only amplified the ElBaradei phenomenon. By late February, Egyptian bloggers and journalists were reporting that one thousand people were joining ElBaradei’s Facebook page every ten minutes. This story is surely apocryphal, but it is nonetheless worth noting that ElBaradei currently has 82,069 Facebook supporters, compared to [Egyptian President] Gamal Mubarak’s 6,583.

Image:ElBaradei's Facebook fan page.

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Thursday, March 05, 2009

Turin Kinglist fragments rediscovered

Sometimes when we medievalists are feeling unloved, we can get a little self-righteous with our sources compared to people who study more recent eras which have for instance organized archives.

But imagine finding organizing and reinterpreting really ancient stuff, like the challenge recently covered in a Discovery News article:
Some newly recovered papyrus fragments may finally help solve a century-old puzzle, shedding new light on ancient Egyptian history.

Found stored between two sheets of glass in the basement of the Museo Egizio in Turin, the fragments belong to a 3,000-year-old unique document, known as the Turin Kinglist.


Believed to date from the long reign of Ramesses II, the papyrus contains an ancient list of Egyptian kings.

Scholars from the British Museum were tipped off to the existence of the additional fragments after reviewing a 1959 analysis of the papyrus by a British archaeologist. In his work, the archaeologist, Alan Gardiner, mentions fragments that were not included in the final reconstruction on display at the museum. After an extensive search, museum researchers found the pieces.

The finding could help more accurately piece together what is considered to be a key item for understanding ancient Egyptian history.

"This is one of the most important documents to reconstruct the chronology of Egypt between the 1st and 17th Dynasty," Federico Bottigliengo, Egyptologist at the Turin museum, told Discovery News.

"Unlike other lists of kings, it enumerates all rulers, including the minor ones and those considered usurpers. Moreover, it records the length of reigns in years, and in some cases even in months and days."

Written in an ancient Egyptian cursive writing system called hieratic, the papyrus was purchased in Thebes by the Italian diplomat and explorer Bernardino Drovetti in 1822. Placed in a box along with other papyri, the parchment disintegrated into small fragments by the time it arrived in Italy.

Some 48 pieces of the puzzle were first assembled by French Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion (1790-1832). Later, some other hundred fragments were pieced together by German and American archaeologist Gustavus Seyffarth (1796-1885).

One of the most important restorations was made in 1938 by Giulio Farina, the museum's director. But in 1959, Gardiner, the British Egyptologist, proposed another placement of the fragments, including the newly recovered pieces.

Now made of 160 fragments, the Turin Kinglist basically lacks two important parts: the introduction of the list and the ending.

"Some of the finest scholars have worked on the papyrus last century, but disagreement about its reconstruction has remained," Bottigliengo said. "It has been a never-ending puzzle."

"The enumeration of the kings does not continue after the 17th Dynasty. We are confident that the recovered fragments will help reconstruct some of the missing parts as well as add new knowledge to Egyptian history and chronology."

"It is possible that some dates will have to be changed and names of pharaohs will have to be added," Bottigliengo said.

Notice how many lifetimes it takes to make any progress?

Thanks to Explorator for the tip.

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Monday, April 14, 2008

What I should have talked about in the last World History lecture

I have concluded that I missed an opportunity to discuss two important issues in the last World History lecture last Monday. I blame it on end-of-term fatigue.

The first of these issues is the coming global famine. I walked into the room wanting to say something about this, which reading the Egyptian news at Al-Ahram had alerted me to. Food prices have gone up for a while and now reasonably stable if not very prosperous countries like Egypt are being hit hard. Since Monday, I've read a lot more. Here is a detailed article from the Wall Street Journal, and here are Phil Paine's remarks at his blog (April 13 post). The Journal blames the rise on commodity prices, which is just code for oil; thus the food crisis is another indirect effect of the Iraq war.

The second issue I did mention briefly, in connection with the international criminal court in the Hague. The United States, extremely imperfectly, has provided leadership in the post-World War II world and various public and especially private initiatives originating there have had a positive effect. We cannot depend upon that anymore. Not only has the USA abandoned the multilateral approach to world peace, the need for which was so evident after both world wars, it has become a great danger to that peace, not in just one place or region, but everywhere its influence reaches. This post at the blog Empire Burlesque -- Too Much of Nothing: Crime Without Punishment, War Without End -- pretty much catches my mood. I'm not sure there will be an attack on Iran, but even without that concluding bit, things are quite bad enough as it is.

One of my more attentive students challenged me privately after the last lecture for my doom and gloom view of recent events. Actually, I felt I was softening the blow. I am afraid we will see just how much damage a modern superpower without a moral compass can do, to itself and everyone else.

(Thanks to Atrios at Eschaton for the EB link; that's why I read you, Atrios.)

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Amarna finds: religious reform can be hard work

Well, I was just talking a bit ago about "the old con games," wasn't I? So today I saw over at Archaeoastronomy a post on an upcoming BBC TV show on recent work at Amarna, the city/religious center founded by the "monotheist" pharoah, Akhenaten. Here's the key passage:

One of the most shocking findings are the ages at death. There’s a chart you can look at and it’s pretty clear that Amarna was a lethal place. The 2007 report has a chart of its own. This shows that aging a skeleton isn’t always possible, but both charts indicate that a life in Amarna would likely be over at 35. The report by Melissa Zabecki, also from Arkansas, is grim. They had dental caries but probably didn’t complain too much about toothache as they were also likely to have extremely bad backs. Zabecki has found evidence of osteoarthritis and spinal trauma in many of the skeletons. Zabecki’s conclusion is that these people were worked to death. Akhenaten wanted to change Egyptian religion overnight, and that can’t be done without a lot of work. The twisted bones of the workers of Amarna show some of the cost of turning from the old gods.
I've been skeptical for a long while about Akhenaten's reputation as a "worthy heretic" and exemplar of religious progress; I've seen his religious regime as the product of a theological power grab in a heavily-ecclesiasticized society. This is not the first evidence that lots of people died in religious conflicts, either at his hands or those of his opponents.

For more detail on recent work, see the Amarna Project site.

For an aerial view of the ruins, see this BBC presentation.

Tomb #9 at Amarna, photo copyright Ross Day.

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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Background to today's politics in Pakistan

Juan Cole rightly calls this long entry on Pakistan by expert observer Barnett Rubin at Informed Comment: Global Affairs "a college education all on its own." I can speak with a little authority on this because I teach one of the few undergraduate courses offered by an Ontario university on Islamic history, and I can tell you that you won't get anything this substantial from me on Pakistan, post-independence (1947, more than 60 years ago!). Nor on India, either, and India contains very important Muslim communities. And Bangladesh, once part of Pakistan, hardly gets mentioned.

I have my excuses, of course, even valid ones. I've used the time I've allocated to post-WW II history to discuss mainly Egypt, Israel/Palestine, and to some degree Iraq, Iran and Lebanon. That may not be good enough any more. I may have to reallocate time, putting the conquests of Egypt and Bengal in the late 18th century at the end of term one instead of the beginning of term two.

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Al-Ahram: Zeno's paradox in today's Egypt

A habit I hope to cultivate this year is to read at least one article from Egypt's English-language online weekly, Al-Ahram, every day. I won't be reporting on all of them -- that would be tedious for all concerned -- but some of them will certainly get links from this blog.

Today's reading was a report on traffic jams and urban crowding in Cairo. It's entitled Zeno's Paradox, the relevance of which phrase is clear when you look at Wikipedia's entry on Zeno's Paradoxes, which sums them up thus:

You can never catch up.
You cannot even start.
You cannot even move.

If you read the article you'll see how appropriate this phrase is for a city of 17 million which has facilities for 4.5 million.

Image: The 6 October Bridge.

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Friday, December 28, 2007

The good news about Egyptian archaeology

I have decided to read Al-Ahram Weekly, the high-quality online Egyptian news site, on a regular basis.

Currently Al-Ahram is summing up the year 2007, and this effort includes a long, detailed roundup of Egyptological news.

There's lots of bad archaeological news in the world, especially in Iraq, but in Egypt at least the news is mostly good.

Image: Hapshepsut's mummy. (More here.)

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Colonialism and Revolution in the Middle East, by Juan R.I. Cole

This book is not a general discussion, but is focused on Egypt in the 1870s and early 1880s, as indicated by the subtitle, Social and Cultural Origins of Egypt's 'Urabi Movement. Ibn 'Urabi was an Egyptian army officer who led an uprising against the European-dominated Viceroyal government of Egypt and the culturally-Turkish upper-class, in the name of "Egypt for the Egyptians." His revolt had many causes, but was particularly inspired by the crushing taxation that European governments insisted that the Viceroy enact and enforce, to guarantee that holders at home of Egyptian government bonds would be paid on time. The revolt was aimed as much at European infiltration of Egyptian life as it was at a cruel and unresponsive government; the two things went hand in hand. The revolt was also a failure; the British invaded Egypt and imposed a "viceroy" of their own who could control the Viceroy who supposedly ruled the country for the Ottoman sultan. Britain continued to occupy the country in whole or in part until the 1950s.

This book is not an action-packed narrative like Cole's more recent Napoleon's Egypt -- it doesn't tell the story of Urabi's revolt or much about Urabi himself -- but I found it, given my interests, a more valuable book. In my course on the History of Islamic Civilization, I've lectured on this period, using standard books, but I learned a great deal from this treatment.

First, the relationship between Ottoman reform in Istanbul and what might be called Ottoman reform in Egypt is well drawn-out. It's easy to treat Egypt as not really part of the Ottoman Empire, given its undoubted autonomy and its diverging history in later time, but there was lots of interaction between Constantinople and Alexandria and Cairo.

Second, I had no idea how strong the European influence was in Egypt, though I knew it was strong. Details of influence by elite Europeans and expatriate European workingmen add up to a fascinating if rather gruesome picture. (Can you say, "hit by a runaway locomotive"?)

Third, Cole's big contribution here is to discuss different Egyptian social and political movements that led to the explosion of the 'Urabi movement, many of which are entirely ignored in more general accounts. I was particularly interested in the role of the urban guilds and their internal electoral institutions, institutions which may have by example encouraged the push for parliamentary, responsible government at the level of the state.

Finally, I found little to object to in the style of this book, unlike Napoleon's Egypt. Did in fact NE's editor urge Cole to repetitively explain what I found obvious.

I think as I find time I'll continue to read on Modern Egypt.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Sayyid Qutb, Milestones

Sayyid Qutb, 1906-66, is a prominent extremist. A member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, he was executed by Nasser's regime for his radical rejection of all government not based on the word of God. I have read excerpts from his work in the past, and scholarly treatments, but now I am near done with one of his key writings, Milestones.

Qutb qualifies as an extremist because though he claimed to represent a long and well-known tradition, Islam, he implicitly claimed that he and his followers (I'm not aware that he credited teachers, beside the Prophet) were the only ones who understood that tradition. Indeed, he explicitly claimed that the entire world, including the so-called Muslim world, was sunk in a state of pagan confusion or Jahiliyya, just as it was when Muhammed appeared. (He did not explain how or why the divinely-inspired movement led by the Prophet had come to this state, or how this reflected God's will and God's plan, things he was generally pretty big on.)

A central tenet of Qutb's thought has a real 20th century flavor: since Islam means "submission to the will of God," (a standard and central Islamic idea) than any other form of government than the simple enforcement of the divine legislation in the Quran and hadith was tyranny. Man should not obey man. Only Islam is freedom, since in it only God is obeyed. Although "there is no compulsion in religion," non-Muslims were free to worship as they liked, they could not erect barriers to the free preaching of Islam or the enforcement of Islamic law: all non-Muslims should be in the status of "Dhimmis" (protected and regulated by the Muslims), as in many places during the Middle Ages and early modern period. Otherwise they would be legitimate targets for jihad.

Non-Muslims may well balk at this vision, especially the part which says that their own governments, however freely chosen, are illegitimate, but look at it from the Muslim point of view. Many Muslims would likely see this presentation of God's will as arrogant and deeply insulting. For Qutb, what God wants, the law of God, is simple and straightforward and any problems in understanding the Quran are simply resolved using well-known techniques. Yet if the world is sunk in Jahiliyyah, obviously many people who considered themselves Muslims, teachers and scholars, are wrong about many crucial issues. Only Qutb and his Islamic organization -- the only real Muslim movement -- know the truth.

In this you can see how extremist movements that claim to be true Islam are as much a threat to other Muslims as to non-Muslims, if not more so. Qutb called for civil war.

Update, Sept. 9, 2007: Maajid Nawaz, a British/Egyptian militant, rejects Qutb's position.

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Sunday, July 01, 2007

Here's where it gets really messy

Or should I say, here's where the catastrophe widens unstoppably? I hope that's wrong.

Juan Cole in his blog Informed Comment, points to a story in the UK's Guardian reporting that Turkey, after years of restraint, is threatening to invade Iraq to deal with Turkish Kurd guerrillas (the PKK) hiding there, if the United States doesn't do something about the PKK's hideouts there.

Since the war began, I've been reading (often in blog comments) that "the Turks will do something crazy and then we [= the USA, the West, the world] will be in trouble." It never seems to occur to anyone that the Turks have been, despite great provocation, very uncrazy. No doubt because they actually live in the Middle East (or is it Europe? the eternal question) and know how bad things can get. Certainly they don't want all of Iraq's troubles to spill over their border. Iraq was in terrible shape before the invasion; Turkey is a reasonably stable and productive country that might someday be part of the EU.

But this news out of Turkey is ominous. The man making the demands on the US (which may not be capable of doing anything on the Turkish frontier in any case) is not some general or some editor, but the foreign minister Abdullah Gul.

We'll see.

Back to Juan Cole, whom I cited earlier: this University of Michigan professor has been running one of the great war-related resources for a long time now. He summarizes a lot of material in non-European languages and has links to lots of easier to read news and commentary. He often discusses material that no one in the professional media is discussing in depth. I don't always go along with his opinions, but I read his blog every day I'm by a computer.

Cole has now started a new blog to complement Informed Comment, i.e., Informed Comment: Global Affairs, in which he is teaming up with other observers to comment on a wider number of issues. (And maybe start a TV franchise!). The first blog post on IC:GA was two days ago, and since then it's covered some interesting stories indeed: female genital cutting in Egypt (perhaps some good news on that; at least some perspective); the new amusement park in Qandahar, Afghanistan; and the gasoline shortage and riots in Iran.

The story on Iran brings up some facts not usually discussed, especially that having large amounts of cheap oil in the ground can have disastrous effects on the domestic economy. Canada exports lots of oil and gas, but we do have other things to sell (like wood pulp and nickel, and oh, yeah, a little brainpower). If oil prices dropped dramatically tomorrow it would have some serious effects on parts of the economy, but I bet the federal budget would still be balanced next year. Cheaper energy might reduce the prices of Canadian manufacturing and allow our international customers to buy more of our resources.

If the price of oil dropped tomorrow, the governments of Venezuela, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria would be in serious, immediate trouble. In fact, with oil at or near an all-time high, Iran is already in trouble. The government is hooked on high world prices, and the population is hooked on low domestic prices, which makes life a little more tolerable. Iran is like many other countries where oil is just about the only prop holding up a poorly developed economy.

Canada's economy could use some diversification, both in what we make and who we sell it to, but so far our economy and our government haven't been corrupted by oil wealth.

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