December 29, 2005

Totalitarian Tourism – Libya, at Long Last

My first person account of hanging out in the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya – the most oppressive country in the world after North Korea – has been published by the LA Weekly: In the Land of the Brother Leader.

I don’t know if this is the best thing I’ve ever written, but it’s certainly my favorite. Please be sure to read the whole thing.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:30 AM | Comments (63)

December 28, 2005

Islam’s Greatest City – A Photo Tour of Istanbul at Christmas

Hotel Window Istanbul.jpg

Hotel room, Istanbul

Istanbul Skyline.jpg


Beyoglu at Night.jpg

Downtown at night

Beyoglu at Night 2.jpg

Downtown at night

Night Shopping Istanbul.jpg

Shopping downtown

Night Stroll Istanbul.jpg

Night stroll downtown

Pidgeons Istanbul.jpg

Taksim Square

Israeli Flag Itanbul.jpg

Israeli flag among others, Taksim Square

Beyoglu by Day.jpg


Beyoglu Side Street Day.jpg

Side street, downtown

Tokapi Palace.jpg

Topkapi Palace

Hagia Sophia Outside.jpg

Hagia Sophia

Inside Hagia Sophia.jpg

Inside Hagia Sophia

Grand Bazaar 2.jpg

Inside the Grand Bazaar

Grand Bazaar 3.jpg

Inside the Grand Bazaar

Grand Bazaar 4.jpg

Inside the Grand Bazaar

Blue Mosque.jpg

The Blue Mosque

Blue Mosque Courtyard.jpg

The Blue Mosque courtyard

Inside Blue Mosque.jpg

Inside the Blue Mosque

Inside Blue Mosque 2.jpg

Inside the Blue Mosque

Cistern Istanbul.jpg

An underground cistern for storing water

Medusa Head Cistern Istanbul.jpg

A Medusa head at the bottom of a pillar inside the cistern

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:37 AM | Comments (56)

December 27, 2005

Comments are Open Again

I have tentatively decided to open the comments again. We'll see how it goes. Please behave and don't feed the trolls when they show up. Aside from that, comment away!

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 05:55 PM | Comments (29)

Libya Essay (Finally!) To Be Published

A year ago the LA Weekly sent me to Libya after the US government lifted the travel ban. I wrote a sprawling 6,500 word essay about my experience in that crazy place. It is perhaps the best thing I have ever written, and it sat on the editor’s desk for nearly all of 2005.

This week it finally, at long last, will be published.

One of the frustrating things about paid writing work is the sometimes enormous delay between the time I’m finished working on something and the time it actually shows up in print. I’d say blogging has spoiled me, but I don’t think that quite says it.

Anyway, I am grateful this thing will finally see the light of day. Watch for the link here in this space.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 02:19 PM | Comments (10)

December 26, 2005

A Magnificent City

I didn’t go to Istanbul to write about it. I went there to have fun with my wife Shelly in a lively city that doesn’t shut down on Christmas. Because Muslims and Christians celebrate each others’ holidays in Lebanon, everything was closed yesterday in Beirut.

I will, however, say this: Someone needs to force Hosni Mubarak to spend an entire month in Beyoglu – downtown Istanbul – so he can see more or less what Cairo would look like if it had decent management. Istanbul kicks ass, in other words, and I couldn’t help but compare it to the deplorable state of Mubarak’s broken capital city.

A friend of mine went to Rome earlier this year and loved it, said it was one of the greatest cities he had ever seen. (I prefer New York and Paris, but that’s me.) Then he went to Istanbul. His reaction: “Fuck Rome.”

Istanbul, indeed, is better than Rome. I have to say it objectively ranks up there with New York and Paris. It truly is one of the world’s most magnificent cities. If you find yourself tempted by Islamophobia because of September 11 and all the rest of it, I strongly suggest you go there on your next holiday. I can all but guarantee that you will get it out of your system.

Turkey lives up to its promise and more. It is not just “the Muslim country that works.” It’s in better shape than whole swaths of Christian Europe that sneers at the Turks as “those people.” It is only possible, I think, to fear and loathe the Turks if you have not seen what they built, what they have, and what they’ve done lately.

I have to go back. I need to write about Turkey in the way it deserves.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 08:50 AM

December 23, 2005

A Plea to America - Stay the Course

by lebanon.profile

The Middle East has not been a nice place to live for a long time.

We now have some hope, but not much. We've been sold out before.

The Central and Eastern Europeans had dreams similar to ours. Their dreams were fulfilled. Unlike us, however, the people who oppressed them were the same people threatening the United States, Western Europe, Japan, and even China.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Americans and Europeans were banging at the doors to help. President Clinton created a position for Strobe Talbott to help Russia along the path to democracy. The President went to war in the Balkans against the will of many Republicans and the Russians.

NATO expanded. The EU expanded.

The Soros-es and Lauders of the world poured their billions into Central and Eastern European ventures.

Now, in under fifteen years, Prague, Tallinn, and Budapest are some of the finest places to live on the planet. America has gained some unswerving allies.


2005 began with bells of freedom ringing in Kiev. Bulgaria and Romania are coming closer to joining the EU. Turkey is now in the running.

The story was different in the Middle East.


30 January 2005 marked an historic moment for the Iraqi people. Purple fingers streaked across the world inspiring all doubters.

However, the carnage worsened throughout the year, and prospects are grim.

The massive turnouts in the recent Iraqi elections remain inspiring, but Iraq is still desperately in need of foreign assistance.


President Hosni Mubarak hosted a mockery of an election, and was applauded in the West.

The strength of the Muslim Brotherhood in the recent parliamentary elections is not a promising sign.

That elections occurred in which opposition could be voiced is fantastic, even if Egypt remains a dictatorship. Voices of dissent are increasingly being heard.

However, as Michael recently wrote, the prospects for Egypt are grim on all fronts.

Financial assistance only empowers the regime. Pushing for democracy empowers a poor, oppressed, religious, and uneducated people. The government imposes too many restrictions on free enterprise, and yet the people are horribly impoverished.

This situation will not last long. A country of 78 million people - many of them young, angry, religious, without work, and a lot of time on their hands - will not remain stable for long.


We've come a long, long way this year.

Unlike Ukraine, Lebanon in 2004 was in a hopeless situation. The President was re-appointed by a foreign country. The Constitution had to be changed first to allow this to occur. The UN, US, and the rest of the world muttered their disapproval.

October brought the near assassination of a popular opposition parliamentarian in a car bomb. A staged investigation was mounted. Nothing was found.

It appeared to some observers that the Syrian appointed Prime Minister's government took as its main objectives cronyism, profit, and attacking the opposition.

14 February 2005 brought the assassination of the most prominent Lebanese politician in the world, the man bankrolling the opposition, the man preparing to dominate the summer parliamentary elections.

Thanks to our brave efforts and an amazing show of effort by Presidents Bush and Chirac, uniformed Syrian troops left the country.

However, the last few months have been plagued by terrorist bombings and politically motivated assassinations.

Now, as the year ends, Russia, China, and Algeria have forced the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution that gives Syria a pass. The most prominent newspapers in America came out against the resolution. Their words matter, but we desperately need action.

Asking for Help

It's difficult for me to argue that the United States must do more.
It's very hard pleading for foreign assistance.
It's hard to ask a country that already has 150,000 troops deployed in a single Middle Eastern country, has domestic terrorist threats, and is plagued by horrendous natural disasters to do more.
It's hard to ask a country that already donates billions of dollars to Middle Eastern countries like Egypt, Israel, and Palestine to do more.

It's even harder to ask when I know Middle Eastern regimes and citizens will violently oppose American action.
It's even harder to ask for more money when countries in our own neighborhood are profiting greatly at the expense of citizens driving to work in Macon, Syracuse, Lubbock, and Tacoma.

But your support is all we have left.

Posted by lebanon.profile at 02:33 PM

December 22, 2005

Istanbul not Constantinople

As you can see I’ve been distracted by my wife for the past couple of days. And just as I was getting ready to take a break from my break and post again to the blog, we decided at the last minute to go to Istanbul for Christmas. It doesn’t take long at all to get there, and we’ll be back directly.

In the meantime, my friend Lebanon.Profile at the Lebanese Political Journal will briefly fill in for me here. Enjoy his posts. And have a Merry Christmas.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 09:46 AM

December 20, 2005

Please Be Patient

I’m getting ready to pick up my wife Shelly at the airport as she flies out to join me for a while. I haven’t seen her for more than two months and I've been missing her terribly.


Surely you’ll understand that blogging isn’t my number one priority right at this second. I’ll be back shortly, though, so don’t go away.

In the meantime, here is a picture of a pyramid, a Western tourist (ahem) who couldn’t stand out any more if he tried, and a horse.

Me and Pyramid.jpg

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 09:44 AM

December 19, 2005

Nasser’s Biggest Crime

CAIRO – Egyptian blogger Big Pharaoh gave me an insider’s tour of Cairo and the ghastly political situation facing his country today.

He took me down 26 of July Street on foot to the bridge over the Nile connecting Zamalek island to the mainland. As we walked up the entrance ramp – built for cars, not for people – he asked me if I ever walked like this in Beirut. “In Egypt you can walk wherever you want,” he said. “There are no rules or laws here.”

Well, I thought. There are laws against involvement in politics. But I knew what he meant. The Egyptian government doesn’t micromanage its citizens. Good on Hosni Mubarak for that one, at least. Egypt may be a police state, but at any given moment it doesn’t feel like one.

“There are no laws in Lebanon, either,” I said. “You can do pretty much whatever you want there.”

As soon as we crossed the river the amount of traffic – both pedestrian and automobile – multiplied exponentially while the economic conditions plunged precipitously. Zamalek isn’t the most charming place in the world, but it’s charming compared to the rest of the city.

“Can we talk about politics out in the open?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “We can say whatever we want.”

“Is it because we’re speaking in English?”

“No,” he said. “We could do it in Arabic, too.”

“You’re not worried about the secret police?”

“Not any more,” he said. “It is a real change from last year. Last year there was no way. But it’s better now, more open. Do you know why?”

“No,” I said. “Tell me.”

“Because of pressure from George W. Bush.”

That is the only piece of good news I have to report from Egypt.

We walked underneath an overhead freeway. I had to shout so that he could hear me. The entire world looked as though it were made out of poured concrete. I could taste the black tang of exhaust in the air.

Big Pharaoh pointed out a set of campaign posters on a wall. I felt good seeing campaign posters in Egypt. It was a long way from Libya where menacing portraits of Colonel Ghaddafi are plastered up literally everywhere.

Islam is the Solution.jpg

“Do you know what that says?” he said as he pointed at the Arabic script above the portrait of a man’s face.

“No,” I said.

“It says Islam is the Solution.”

We made our way to the nearest subway station and descended the steps. It was clean down there – much cleaner than the subway stations in New York City – and I said so.

“It is almost brand new,” he said.

“How old is it, exactly?” I said.

“About ten years,” he said.

I was amazed that such a miserably poor country could build a brand-new subway while American taxpayers say they can’t afford to build any new trains.

“It must have been hugely expensive,” I said.

“France and Japan helped us pay for it,” he said.

“Japan?” I said. “Really. Why Japan?”

“To earn some goodwill, I guess,” he said.

As our train pulled into the station I made my way toward the first car.

“Not that car,” he said. “The first car is only for women.”

Women ride in the other cars, too. But the first car is reserved only for them so they can avoid both verbal and physical attention from men if they want to.

“I got in that car on accident once,” he said. “By the time I figured it out the doors closed. I got out at the next stop and was fined seven pounds.” Seven pounds is less than two dollars.

So we boarded the second car and held onto the plastic handles on the railing over our heads.

“Does this train look familiar?” he said.

“Kind of,” I said. It looked more or less like a subway car anywhere else, although it was cleaner and there was no graffiti at all.

“It’s French,” he said. “These trains are exactly the same as the ones in Paris.”

We got off downtown and emerged next to a huge well-lit roundabout. Cairo suddenly looked like a European masterpiece. It was not at all what I was expecting after seeing the squalid condition of so much of the rest of the city. I changed my opinion of Cairo – again.

Downtown Cairo at Night.jpg

“This is amazing,” I said. “What a terrific downtown. Look at these buildings!”

“They are from another era,” he said. “They are just relics. They have nothing to do with what Egypt is now.”

“But they’re real,” I said, “and you still have them. No country builds streets like this anymore anyway.”

It felt like an Arab New York, or rather an Arab Rome. Later, though, when I went downtown again by myself during the day, I saw what he meant about how the buildings represented another era. Downtown Cairo is all sparkle and no substance at night. The shops on the ground floor are not what I expected them to be. But I didn’t notice at first because it was dark, I kept looking upward, and I was talking to Big Pharaoh.

“I am going to take you to an Egyptian bar,” he said. “Is that okay?”

“You mean an Egyptian bar where no tourists would ever go?”

“Exactly,” he said.

“Perfect,” I said. “That is exactly what I want to see.”

We walked past a women’s underwear store. “When the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power,” he said as he swept his arm in front of female-shaped mannequins modeling panties and bras, “they will ban this.”

The Egyptian bar was called Cap’dor. Instead of glass windows it had wooden shutters painted red and green. The floor was laid with gray tile and the walls were made of wood paneling. There was not one single woman inside. Apparently that’s how it always is in that bar. They didn’t even bother to install a women’s restroom. Beer was the only available beverage.


“There are some prostitute bars around, too,” he said.

“Is it legal here?” I said. “Prostitution is legal in Lebanon.”

“No,” he said, “but the law is lax. The bar owner just pays off the police and no one cares.”

We ordered two stout bottles of Stella beer.

“Best beer in Egypt,” he said. “The company was started by a Greek guy in 1897.”

The bartender brought us carrots, sliced tomatoes, and ful beans. We dug in.

I wanted to know what he thought of the Muslim Brotherhood. Was it even possible that they are as moderate as they want everyone to believe?

“They are moderate because they don’t have guns,” he said. “They don’t kill people. It’s true. But most of the armed terrorist groups we see now were born out of the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

“At some point,” I said, “if you want to live in a democracy you’re going to have to accept the fact that conservative religious political parties exist. You may never like them, but they won’t always be a terrorist threat. Democracy has mellowed out the Islamists in Turkey, for example.”

“Yes,” he said. “But Turkey has a secular constitution. They want to enter the EU, so the Islamists are forced to play by the rules of the game. They cannot step on the freedoms that the Turkish people take for granted. The Egyptian people, though, since the time of the Pharaohs, have been a flock. They follow the shepherd.”

“My biggest fear,” he continued, “is that if the Muslim Brotherhood rules Egypt we will get Islamism-lite, that they won’t be quite bad enough that people will revolt against them. Take bars, for example. Most Egyptians don’t drink, so they won’t mind if alcohol is illegal. The same goes for banning books. Most Egyptians don’t read. So why should they care if books are banned? Most women wear a veil or a headscarf already, so if it becomes the law hardly anyone will resist.”

“How many people here think like you do?” I asked him.

“Few,” he said. “Very few. Less than ten percent probably.”

We ordered more Stella beers. He practically inhaled all the ful beans. I didn’t think they were that great. They had little taste, actually.

“There probably aren’t many Muslim Brotherhood guys in this bar,” I said.

He laughed. “Ha! No way. This is a secular working class bar. Just the fact that they’re here makes them liberals.”

They didn’t look liberal, though. Not without any women around. If you want to hang out at a mixed gender bar in Cairo, go to Zamalek or a hotel.

It was odd, I suppose, to see my pale face, blue eyes, and black leather jacket in Cap’dor. No one actually stared, but almost all the other mens’ eyes lingered on mine a bit longer than usual. They seemed curious and slightly pleased that someone from somewhere else decided to hang out in their place.

Big Pharaoh made psst, psst, psst, psst, psst sounds, the way Arabs summon domestic cats. I turned around and, sure enough, a cat was swirling around an older man’s leg.

“Cats live in this bar,” he said.

“You mean they are strays who come begging?”

“No, they actually live in this bar. They belong to the owner. I’ll bet you haven’t seen cats that live in a bar before, have you?”

“No,” I said. “I’ve seen cats that live in bookstores, but never in bars.” I put out my hand and tried to lure one of the cats, but he was having none of me.

I asked Big Pharaoh what he thought would happen if Egypt held a legitimate free and fair election instead of this bullshit staged by Mubarak.

“The Muslim Brotherhood would win,” he said. “They would beat Mubarak and the liberals.”

I was afraid he was going to say that.

“I’ve had this theory for a while now,” I said. “It looks like some, if not most, Middle East countries are going to have to live under an Islamic state for a while and get it out of their system.”

Big Pharaoh laughed grimly.

“Sorry,” I said. “That’s just how it looks.”

He buried his head on his arms.

“Take Iranians,” I said. “They used to think Islamism was a fantastic idea. Now they hate it. Same goes in Afghanistan. Algerians don’t think too much of Islamism either after 150,000 people were killed in the civil war. I hate to say this, but it looks like Egypt will have to learn this the hard way.”

“You are right,” he said. “You are right. I went to an Egyptian chat room on the Internet and asked 15 people if they fasted during Ramadan. All of them said they fasted during at least most of it. I went to an Iranian chat room and asked the same question. 14 out of 15 said they did not fast for even one single day.”

“Egypt didn’t used to be like this,” I said.

“Nasser’s biggest crime was not establishing democracy when he took over," he said. "Back then, Egyptian people were liberal. It would have worked then. But not now.”

Progress is a funny thing. We Westerners like to think it moves in a straight line. In America that’s pretty much how it is. No serious person would argue that American culture was more liberal and tolerant in the 1950s than it is now. But Egypt, amazingly, moved in exactly the other direction.

“When Nasser took over,” Big Pharaoh said, “people were angry at Britain and Israel. He nationalized all the industry. He banned political parties. He stifled everything. Banned the Muslim Brotherhood. Banned the Communists. Banned all. When Sadat took over in 1970, he had two enemies: the Communists and the Nasser remnants. So to counter these threats, he did what the United States did in Afghanistan during the Cold War – he made an alliance with the Islamists. He brought back the Muslim Brotherhood which had fled to Saudi Arabia when Nasser was around. He used them to destroy the left.”

“That was part of it,” he continued. “During the oil boom of 1973 a lot of Egyptians went to Saudi Arabia to work. Then in the 1990s, two important things happened. After the first Gulf War, Saudi Arabia began to Saudize its economy and said they no longer needed Egyptian workers. When the Egyptians came home they were contaminated with Wahhabism. Egypt’s economy kept getting worse. Unemployed members of the middle class either sat around and smoked shisha or got more religious. That was when Islamism moved from the lower class to the middle class. Now it is moving even to the upper class.”

“Egypt will get over it after a while,” I said, “just like Iran is getting over it now.”

“That will take 25 years! I don’t have 25 years!”

The Iranian theocracy has been in power for 26 years.

I felt bad for Big Pharaoh. Even in the capital Egyptian society hardly had any place for a person like him. Thank the gods I didn’t have to stay there for the rest of my life.

The bartender came around and gave everyone a glass with a green liquid in it. Hey, I thought. Free drinks. I guessed beer wasn’t the only thing they had in the bar after all.

“What is this?” I said.

“It's the water the beans were cooked in.”

I just stared at him.

“This is bean juice? Are you serious?” Gads, the bars in Cairo are unlike the swanky bars in Beirut. But they’re great at least once in an experience-the-world sort of way.

“Yes,” he said. “You will love it.”

“I don’t know about that,” I said.

“There is a first time for everything,” he said.

“Okay,” I said. “Here goes.”

I took a small sip. Jesus Christ on a stick, it was disgusting.

“No,” I said. “This isn’t working for me. It’s too salty.” Too salty was the least of what was wrong with drinking bean juice from the stove in the back. I wanted a glass of red wine.

“A friend of mine recently went to Algeria,” he said. “When he came back he told me that there are far fewer veiled women there than there are here. It is much more liberal in Algeria because there they have tasted Islamism. Egypt does need to experience what happened in Iran and Algeria…as long as I am in the U.S. or Canada when it happens.”

Even though he would rather live in the United States, he is seriously looking into immigrating to Canada. It might be easier for him to qualify for an immigrant visa. “If I live in Canada I will be in the apartment above the party.”

“The apartment above the party?” I said.

“America is the party,” he said. “And I will be living right above it. So I’ll be in the apartment above the party. And I’ll go downstairs a lot.”

“I sincerely hope you can make it out of here,” I said – although I partly felt bad because that would only contribute to Egypt’s brain drain.

“Mubarak is a horrible horrible man," he said. He is the reason we are in this thing. He has oppressed all the liberals.”

Optimism in Beirut comes naturally to a foreign observer like me now that Syrian occupation troops are out of the country, the Lebanese parliament has been freely elected, and the most popular Sunni Muslim leaders are secular liberal democrats in Saad Hariri’s Future Movement. That feeling is much harder to come by in Egypt right now. I told Big Pharaoh I found his country’s prospects grim and depressing, and how Islamism feels that it is coming like Christmas.

“You want to feel good?” he said. “You want to be optimistic? Go back to Beirut.”


If you don't already have Big Pharaoh's blog bookmarked, you can find it right here.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:36 AM

December 16, 2005

“This Probably Looks Stalinist to You”

CAIRO - I met “Praktike” in the lobby of the Hotel President on Cairo’s Zamalek island. He is an American student studying Arabic at the American University of Cairo and the founder of the group blog American Footprints, formerly know as Liberals Against Terrorism.

“Let’s go somewhere off Zamalek, shall we?” I said. “This city is huge and I need to see as much of it as I can.”

“What would you like to do? Have lunch? Coffee? Smoke shisha?” A shisha is an Arabic water pipe, like a bong for flavored tobacco, also knows as a hookah, a hubbly bubbly, and an argileh.

“How about all of the above?” I said.

“I know just the place then,” he said, “in a cool neighborhood where lots of young people like to hang out.”

He hailed us a cab and we hopped in the back. I had no idea where we were going, but a cool neighborhood where lots of young people like to hang out sounded perfect. Those kinds of neighborhoods in Beirut – Gemmayze and Monot in particular – are terrific.

Praktike had a long conversation with the driver in Arabic as we blasted our way through Cairo’s homicidal maniac traffic. Clearly his Arabic studies were coming along. I can easily give taxi drivers directions in Arabic, but I can’t hold down conversations. The problem, if that is the word, is that almost everyone speaks English in Beirut. Learning Arabic there not only isn’t unnecessary, it’s almost impossible. Locals won’t speak Arabic with foreigners unless the foreigner is already fluent or the local doesn’t speak English or French. A British expat friend of mine has lived in Beirut for almost ten years, is married to a Lebanese Druze woman, and has two half-Lebanese children - and he still can’t speak Arabic. A Lebanese-American friend of mine who studied Arabic in the U.S. says his Arabic gets worse the longer he stays in Beirut.

“Here we are,” Praktike said as he paid the driver. The total fare wasn’t even a dollar.

The neighborhood looked grim and depressing, not at all what I expected from a place that hip young people had colonized. But I didn’t say anything.

“You have to revise your expectations downward in Cairo,” Praktike said, as though he knew what I was thinking. “This probably looks Stalinist to you.”

“It isn’t that bad,” I said. “Libya is Stalinist, and this is better than that. But it’s not pretty.”

“No, it’s not pretty,” he said. “But you get used to it.”

He led me into what counts in Cairo as a nice restaurant. The floors were orange tile. The chairs were made of wicker. A mild feeling of gloom hung over the place like a cloudy day just before rain. It was not even remotely like what you can easily find in Beirut’s fashionable neighborhoods.

“Do you like living in Cairo?” I said as we sat down. A beaming waiter brought us two menus and bowed.

“Well, it’s a big sprawling mess,” he said. This was certainly true. “You either hate it or love it. I think I’m in the latter category. I was bored back home in the States, and I’m not bored here at all.”

I worried that I would be bored and alienated into depression if I lived in Cairo after I saw all the sights. Going from Beirut to Cairo was like descending into a poorly lit basement. Some Americans who would visit Cairo and expect to like it won’t go anywhere near Beirut. This is incredible to me. For one thing, far more people have been killed by terrorists in Egypt than in Lebanon over the past fifteen years. Forget its reputation: Beirut is culturally, intellectually, economically, and politically more advanced by an order of magnitude. It’s unfair when Lebanon is described as Third World. Egypt, though, without question is Third World.

How far the mighty do fall. Fifty years ago Cairo was a relatively wealthy, liberal, cosmopolitan jewel of North Africa and the Middle East. Don’t even think of blaming Islam for its present wretched condition. Gamal Abdel Nasser and his secular Free Officer regime demolished this place with intellectual, political, and economic bulldozers. Hosni Mubarak’s ridiculously named National Democratic Party, which is really just a euphemism for the calcified military regime from the 1950s, has done absolutely nothing to improve things in the meantime. Wall Street Journal reporter Stephen Glain aptly described Egypt as a “towering dwarf.” I don’t think the description can be improved on.

Praktike and I ordered sandwiches, soft drinks, and a shisha to share. I asked him for a rundown of the current state of Egypt’s politics as he saw it.

“There are 21 political parties,” he said. “But 16 don’t really exist. They are newspapers, not parties. Their reporters aren’t really reporters. They have no handle on policy or ideas whatsoever. Some of them even sell access. If someone wants to smear a businessman, for instance, space can be bought for that in their pages.”

The main opposition to Mubarak’s National Democratic Party is the Muslim Brotherhood. They have been active in Egypt for 77 years, and they have built a formidable political machine through the mosques even while banned.

The two main liberal opposition parties, the Wafd and Al-Ghad, are tiny, disorganized, and woefully unprofessional. They are more like fringe parties than broad-based popular movements. It’s not that the Muslim Brotherhood truly represents everyone else – they don’t. It’s mostly because the liberal parties have not been around for as long and they have not been free to operate normally or build themselves up. They have no idea how to build grassroots support for their positions in a country where a one-party dictatorship controls or co-opts just about everything. The Muslim Brotherhood is Mubarak’s most powerful opponent by mere default.

We passed the shisha pipe between us. The tobacco flavor was apple, which is widely considered the best.

“You have to realize, too,” he said, “that a lot of the so-called independent candidates are really just NDP guys who didn’t get selected to run in their district. Some races are NDP versus NDP, even though they don’t look that way on the surface.”

What did he think of the Muslim Brotherhood?

“The MB is going to win around 100 seats in parliament,” Praktike said. (As it turned out they won 88.) “That’s 100 out of 444 seats, plus another ten appointed by Mubarak directly. That’s a lot of seats considering that they only ran 120 out of fear of being smacked down by the state if they posed too much of a threat.”

It is a big deal that the Muslim Brotherhood won more than half the seats they contested, especially since the NDP still cheated and even opened fire with live ammunition on voters.

“All the ministers are members of parliament,” Praktike said. “So the Minister of Energy,” for example, “has to face an election. In all the races where these big guys are running we are seeing vote-rigging, vote-buying, intimidation, and cheating.”

During one of the early rounds of elections in Alexandria a street battle erupted between NDP guys wielding swords and Muslim Brotherhood members who came at them with chairs. The army fired tear gas at groups of voters in Brotherhood strongholds to keep them from reaching the polls.

How extreme is the Muslim Brotherhood, really? That’s the argument that never ends in Egypt right now. That’s precisely what the Brothers want. They cleverly don’t reveal their thoughts and positions on political lightning rods. Would they actually ban alcohol if they came to power? Who knows? They won’t say. Will they force women, even foreign women and Christian Egyptians, to wear the veil? Your guess is as good as mine.

Islam is the solution is their rallying cry. But they say they want to build an Islamist state democratically.

They also claim, at least sometimes, that they are not sectarian – a rather difficult thing to believe considering that they want an Islamist state. “I went to a Muslim Brotherhood rally,” Praktike said. They chanted “Muslims and Christians, we are all Egyptians.”

That’s nice to hear. The problem Christian Egyptians have (and they make up between 10 and 15 percent of the population) isn’t that the Muslim Brotherhood won’t recognize their right to live in Egypt and be Egyptians. They worry about losing some of their already-diminished rights and being forced to live by the code of another religion.

Right now the regime is secular. And yet Christians are blatantly discriminated against when it comes to government jobs. In a country where huge swaths of the economy are controlled by the government, that’s a serious problem. There also is the matter of constructing churches. If you want to build a mosque, go right ahead. If you want to build or even repair a church, expect years of bureaucracy and being told repeatedly “no” from regime apparatchiks. If the Muslim Brotherhood ever ascends to power, Egypt’s Coptic Christians have every reason to believe the already-existing discrimination against them from the secular state will only increase under the rule of an Islamist state. Christians don’t have the numbers, the political clout, or the organization, to fend off Islamist oppression if it ever arrives. Only liberal and moderate Muslims can do that.

The Muslim Brotherhood is not armed. They are not a wing of Al Qaeda. They are a right-wing religious conservative party. And it’s hard to say how far they would go if given the chance.

“The Muslim Brotherhood is run mostly by old people,” Praktike said. “The Old Guard is definitely less moderate and less democratic. But they are also more willing to make concessions to the regime. They really don’t believe in democracy. The younger members, though, are more democratic. At least they seem to be. They talk a good game, but the way this will all play out if they ever come into power ultimately is unknowable.”

Surely it depends on how they come into power, he explained, if it ever happens. If they violently seize control, as the Ayatollah Khomeini did in Iran, the odds that Egypt’s future will be democratic are probably miniscule. If, on the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood is ever elected to power under a constitutional system and the rule of law, they will be all but forced to make compromises with liberal and moderate Egyptians who will field their own successful candidates at the same time.

It looks to me like the Muslim Brotherhood will have a powerful impact on Egyptian politics one way or another. They already are the most popular movement opposed to the hated regime. Mubarak has three options. He can do nothing but maintain the status-quo, which is his quarter century-long specialty. He can slowly cede parliament to the Muslim Brotherhood while empowering, rather than attempting to destroy, the liberal democratic opposition in order to soften the Islamist slide. Or he can damn the consequences to his country and his soul and turn Egypt into a full-blown Stalinist state to buy himself just a little more time.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 08:19 AM

December 15, 2005

Hanging with Hezbollah

The LA Weekly has published my first-person account of meeting and hanging out with Hezbollah.

Word has it that these guys are media savvy, that they know how to make a terrific impression on the press. It isn’t true. If they were friendly and civilized I would have written that they were friendly and civilized. But they weren’t, so I wrote this instead. They have no one to blame for this bad press but themselves.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:56 AM

December 14, 2005

A Eulogy and a Letter

Lebanon is a sad country today.

Michael Young, opinion page editor of Beirut's Daily Star, wrote Gebran Tueni’s eulogy – the second time this year he has had to do this for a friend and colleague murdered by a Syrian car bomb.
It seems only yesterday that I watched as a stunned Gibran Tueni looked down at the crumbled body of journalist Samir Kassir, shortly after the latter's assassination in his car on an Achrafieh street. Perhaps it was his own death that Tueni saw foretold; or more likely he was trying to come to grips with what was then the still-novel happening of seeing journalists and politicians butchered at the start of their working day.

An-Nahar has paid too high a price for its criticism of the Syrian regime. Tueni himself only recently returned from a spell in Paris, well aware of the dangers to his life. It is to his considerable credit that he accepted the risk of an uncertain homecoming, though how desirable, in hindsight, it would have been for him to spend his days working out of his home - isolated, but safe from the death squads dispatched to liquidate him.

That Tueni's death was linked to the Mehlis inquiry, and reports that the German investigator would name Syrian suspects in his latest report, cannot be doubted. At the least this murder must be dealt with in a different way by the international community, because the United Nations investigation will take many more months - time enough to kill many more people. What happened on Monday was a finger in the eye of the Security Council, and few could miss that the road on which Tueni was killed is essentially the same one used on a regular basis by UN investigators descending to Beirut from their Monteverde redoubt.

In killing Tueni, the murderers hoped to strike a mortal blow at Lebanon's most prestigious newspaper. For them, the real danger has always been independent thought - against which they can only muster media that threaten, crowds that threaten, and security services that best them both by implementing the threats. Ideas are absent from their endeavors; human development is absent; amelioration is absent; self-determination, freedom, imagination are all absent, crushed by a regime that can only warn that if it goes down, the region will go down with it.

There are those who cretinously swallow that contention hook, line and sinker; who argue that the gentlemen in Damascus must be left alone, maintained, because their departure might indeed bring disorder. That incredible interpretation somehow assures us that Gibran Tueni was, in the end, a martyr to order. A remarkable order it is, then, the very same that protected Saddam Hussein until 2003, and that today props up the authority of a cornucopia of greater and lesser criminals, from Nouakchott to Sanaa, wardens all of what Ghassan Tueni has called "the great Arab prison."


A rapid sign of daring would be for Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to compel the government to endorse an international tribunal in the Hariri case as soon as possible. If Hizbullah opposes the measure and threatens to withdraw from the session, or from the government, then the ministers must go ahead and vote anyway. The majority will win. A Lebanese consensus should not mean giving a minority the right of veto when it means defending against state-sponsored terrorism. The message on a tribunal will have a strong impact in New York, where the Security Council must know Lebanon is willing to partly internationalize its security, since it has been left with no other choice.

None of this will bring Gibran Tueni back, nor his charm, elegance and perpetual dissent. Nothing will reassure us that the venerable An-Nahar can survive this latest crime. Ghassan Tueni will soon have to bury another child, the most heartbreaking duty of all. But deep down it's another wish we have: that the Tuenis, Ghassan but also Gibran's widow and children, will stick to their guns and demand that the truth come out. At the end of the day, his murderers remain most afraid of one thing: the truth.
The great Syrian poet Adonis, who lives now in Beirut and Paris, wrote a letter to Gebran’s father Ghassan who has now had to bury three of his children. It was published on the front page of An Nahar newspaper. (Translation from Arabic by Tony Badran.)
Dear Ghassan,

You know better than all of us, you the wise experienced one, that fatherhood in such a moment, as it bows under the weight of the tragedy, must also explode like springs from the earth.

I know you are the person most deeply worried about what's being imposed on us in Lebanon: to live only with ghosts. Ghosts of destruction and murder. Not the destruction of matter alone, or the body alone, but also the destruction of the spirit and the mind and the intellect. Life -- soaked in a moving carcass, and the human being -- poured into a temple of terror: that is the Lebanon that they want for us today.

They want us to be cornered into a spot where it would seem as if death -- by murder -- is the only thing we see before us. It's as if it's imposed on us all to declare fear and succumb to it.

In your remarkable experience, in your epic life, dear friend, we find what teaches us to overcome the fearsome and the tragic, and what pushes us to open our bosoms to the truth, and to our right to it, which is our right to life.

In them also we find what tells us: if we must die -- murdered -- then let us die standing on the peak of light.


(Paris, 12/12/2005)
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 02:14 AM

December 13, 2005

The War Against the Pen

I have a lot of Egypt material left in my notebook that I need and want to write about. Rather than merely summarize what I heard and what I saw I want to dramatize it. But right after I got back to Beirut the car bomb siege against journalists started again. So I’m taking a brief detour from writing about Egypt to deal with this.

TCS just published the report I wrote last night and this morning. It includes the most up-to-date material I have, including background, analysis, interviews with some very pissed off Lebanese, and a bit of advice. Please click here and read the whole thing.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 09:00 AM

December 12, 2005

Car Bombs Resume in Lebanon

I hate to say this a mere week before my wife will join me in Beirut, but the car bombs have started again.

This time Gebran Tueni was murdered in a town called Mekalis above Beirut. Of course he was anti-Syrian. And of course he was a journalist. He was the editor, in fact, of An-Nahar – considered by many to be the best (Arabic language) newspaper in Lebanon. He was also recently elected a member of parliament.

At least three other people were killed in the car bomb that targetted him.

The lying fascist scumbag of a regime in Syria denies having anything to do with this. If they were smart they would bump off one of their Lebanese stooges once in a while just to make it look slightly less obvious to the gullible.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 05:09 AM

December 11, 2005


CAIRO - There’s no way around it – your first impression of a new city and country will be powerfully influenced by whatever you see in your first fifteen minutes of walking around. It’s important, then, that you choose the location of your hotel very carefully.

Mine was the Hotel President on the Nile River island of Zamalek, supposedly Cairo’s “Beverly Hills.” It was instantly obvious that I was no longer in Beirut. The streets were 95 percent quieter, although I heard blaring horns faintly in the distance from a busier part of the city on the mainland. There were trees there on Zamalek – trees! Beirut has almost no trees at all. The streets were twice as wide compared with what I was used to, and so were the sidewalks. Cairo – at least Zamalek in any case – was much more pedestrian friendly. I could actually walk around without having to constantly wade into treacherous streets to dodge dumpsters, electricity polls, and rudely parked cars that Beirutis seem determined to throw up in the paths of anyone who dares walk around.

A vaguely vegetable smell, presumably from the Nile, coated the air like a thin slime. I later found out it came from the lush Nile delta where farmers were burning crop waste in the fields. That explained why it smelled neither rotten nor foul. The city was enveloped in a dense fog-like haze, partly from automobile pollution, but also from the burning. It gave my sleepy Zamalek neighborhood a surreal ghostly pallor that only added to the dislocation I always feel when arriving in a new city in a new country for the first time.

Nile in Haze.jpg

Foreign embassies were all over the island, most of them right next to each other. They were the former mansions of rich Cairenes, and they truly were glorious homes from around the turn of the last century.

Zamalek Embassies.jpg

Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized their property, though, and most residents of the island have been living in apartment buildings (most of them ordinary and uninspiring) ever since.

Zamalek Towers 2.jpg

I walked along Mantazan Street on the bank of the Nile. The river was not nearly as wide as I imagined it would be, at least not as it wrapped itself around Zamalek. Two commercial pleasure boats – one lit up in neon, and both playing Arabic music too loudly – passed each other on the otherwise dark and quiet waters. International hotels skycrapered behind them.

Every single last person I passed on the streets was a man, though for what it’s worth I did go for my first walk around midnight. Cairo is twenty times larger than Beirut, but it is two or even three orders of magnitude more conservative. I felt like I was walking around a gigantic North African village, not an upper-class neighborhood in the Arab world’s New York City.

I was surprised that Zamalek was considered upper-class. It didn’t look like it or feel like it to me. The sidewalks were crumbling. Almost every apartment building, whether ugly and modern or lovely and Victorian, was coated in layers of soot and grime. Many parked cars had been idle so long on the side of the road they looked like they were covered in volcanic ash. The leaves on the trees were covered in dust. Only the embassies were clean and well-maintained.


I wouldn’t describe Zamalek as ugly. It wasn’t. It was just dour on the outside. Inside was different. I could see through windows into the living rooms of some apartments in the beautiful old buildings, and I envied the people who lived there. You can’t feel sorry for someone who has high ceilings, color-washed walls, wedding cake moldings, and chandeliers in their living room. My house in the States is not as nice as many of these.

But the neighborhood outside wasn’t kept up. Civic pride did not appear to be something Egyptians valued. The same is certainly true in the middle class areas of Beirut, but it’s worse in Cairo even among the elite, and Cairo didn’t have to rebuild after a war.

When travel writer Douglas Kennedy visited Alexandria in the 1980s he met renowned Egyptian painter Sarwat el Bahr who explained a key Egyptian concept to him. “Do you know why America does not understand Egypt? Because they do not understand the meaning of the word Maaleesh. In English, Maaleesh means ‘doesn’t matter,’ and it is the one word you need to understand Egypt. In America everything is now, now, now - make the money now, make the career now. But in Egypt, everybody believes in life after death, so everything in life is Maaleesh."

That’s how much of Zamalek looked and felt to me. It was no “Beverly Hills of Cairo.” There was just something tired and resigned about the place, like a mildly depressed person who doesn’t feel like getting out of bed at 11:00 in the morning. Zamalek disappointed – considering what it was supposed to be like – and I went back to my hotel and picked up my copy of Travels with a Tangerine by Tim Mackintosh-Smith, a British Arabist expat who lives in Yemen.
Few visitors have liked Cairo on first sight. “Uff!” exclaimed an eight-century caliph, “She is the mother of stenches!” Later, a geographer wondered why anyone should have wanted to build a city “between a putrid and mephitic river, the corrupt effluvia of which cause disease and rot food, and a dry and barren mountain range devoid of greenery.” The ground teemed with rats, scorpions, fleas, and bugs, the air with miasmas. In Cairo Symon Semeon buried his companion Brother Hugo, who had succumbed to an attack of dysentery and fever “caused by a north wind.” My guidebook, compiled a century after I.B.’s visit, was disturbingly frank about the dangers of living in a polluted high-rise city where light and air rarely penetrate the dark alleyways. Its author, al-Maqrizi, warned that “the traveler approaching Cairo sees before him a depressing black wall beneath a dust-laden sky, from which sight his soul shrinks and flees away.”
What I saw wasn’t nearly as bad as all that. And the next day, when I found 26 of July Street and the streets adjacent to it, I changed my mind about Zamalek. (I later changed my mind again and again about not only Zamalek, but all of Cairo.)

26 of July had an elevated freeway that ran right over the top if it, giving the street a dark Blade Runner-esque feel. That may sound like a complaint, but somehow it worked. It reminded me a bit of Chicago, a city I love dearly and wish I could visit more often. You can barely see the sky from the sidewalk, but the street is brilliantly lit up at night. All the usual neighborhood goods are for sale: shoes, watches, clothing, glasses, pharmaceuticals, snacks, and so on.

While most of the street was painfully ordinary, it did have its moments.

I found a terrific Italian restaurant called Maison Thomas. The sign in the window said “Le Caire Fondee en 1922,” decades before Nasser drove all the non-Arabs out of Egypt in his Arab Nationalist “revolution” from above. Maison Thomas, unlike so much of Cairo and even the quieter back streets of Zamalek, felt truly modern. Its patrons were well-dressed, most of them more so than I was. The waiters and waitresses dressed sharply in black and white. Women and men – and I couldn’t tell if they were single or married – went there on dates. None of the women wore the hijab, the veil, or the abaya. Almost everyone seemed to be in a good mood, and almost everyone smoked imported cigarettes rather than Egypt’s crappy brand Cleopatra. My charming and disarming waiter seemed like the happiest man alive, as if nothing in the known universe pleased him more than bringing me a pizza and a 7-Up. (I should add, for the sake of those who have a hard time jettisoning rigid Islamic caricatures from their heads, that pork – real non-halal pig meat – was available at this restaurant. See here for more about that.)

A first class bookstore across the street called Diwa carried some of the most sophisticated titles from the West as well as from the Middle East. A whole shelf was devoted to Arabic literature translated into English and published in beautiful eye-catching trade paperback editions. Many of the original English titles were among the finest works of literature the West has ever produced. In the history and current events section I found books by Edward Said, David Frum, Thomas Friedman, and Bernard Lewis. (No Salman Rushdie, alas.)

Down the street and around the corners I passed antique stores selling the most exquisite furnishings collected from multiple centuries and civilizations. Gold and silver jewelry was ubiquitous. Several stores sold Christmas lights and trees – although most were made out of plastic. I found a Korean restaurant called, simply, “Korean Restaurant.” Fantastically expensive clothing stores were offset with a “Timberland” store for the middle class. Most of these stores were above apartment buildings, many of which were English and Victorian.

Egyptians were more formal and polite with me than Lebanese. Almost everyone called me “sir,” which made me feel like a fraud when I was bumming around in jeans and a t-shirt. I enjoy being called “sir” when I’m dressed up and sipping French wine in a dark and exclusive piano bar in Beirut. But at a coffeeshop or corner grocery it’s really not necessary.

The nice thing about it, though, was that it politely concealed Egypt’s rampant anti-Americanism. Europeans who hate America often want you to know it, and some aren’t bashful about making it personal. Egyptians, like Arabs generally, are way too polite and hospitable to get nasty about it. I believe, although I could be mistaken, that anti-Americanism is stronger in Egypt than in any of the other Arab countries I’ve been to. Among other things we can blame our client-state “pal” Hosni Mubarak, our corrosive relationship with his military dictatorship, and his deranged state-run media machine for that. Hostility to the United States is definitely stronger in Egypt than it is in Lebanon. Yet Egyptians are kinder, gentler, and sweeter somehow. Lebanese, though I love them, are French by comparison.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 08:18 AM

December 10, 2005

Arrival in Egypt

Many thanks to Lebanon.Profile for substitute blogging while my Internet access and free time to write were lacking. Be sure to bookmark and blogroll his Lebanese Political Journal if you enjoyed reading his comments here. I have time to write about Egypt properly now, so we’ll start at the beginning.
CAIRO - I love flying in and out of Beirut. I’ve done it several times now, always at night. The view from the plane is spectacular. Lebanon is small – less than 50 miles wide and less than 100 miles long. The coast and the western side of the mountains are almost totally urbanized. You can see that coastal and mountain geography defined sharply in the night as though the country were rendered on a gigantic three-dimensional Light-Bright. Be sure to book a window seat when you come here.

After flying over the dark waters of Mediterranean for forty minutes or so, I was over Africa looking down on the Nile delta. They say it is shockingly green down there, so green it is almost black. What I saw was different. Unlike the shimmering electrified Lebanese coast, the whole earth was dimly illuminated. From 10,000 feet it looked as though a white pillow case had been thrown over a tangled coil of Christmas lights. I could see perhaps 100 villages at all once, revealed as somewhat more brightly-lit smudges evenly spaced like squares on a quilt.

Fifteen minutes later Cairo appeared in its much brighter chaos, a sprawling disorganized amoeba of twinkling stars. Dozens of towers lit up with green bands rose above the swirling mass of white and yellow lights. Presumably these towers were mosque minarets, but I wasn’t sure. I hadn’t seen green-banded mosque lights at night anywhere else. What else, though, would they have been? Green is the holy color of Islam, and Egypt is almost 90 percent Sunni Muslim.

The airport was sleek and modern, better and in nicer condition than many airports in the West. It made Egypt look grand and important. The people, though, were another story. The overwhelming majority were men, and as many as half wore dingy coats and ties with a lot of browns, yellows, and greens. No one who lives in Beirut would dare dress like that. Beirutis are as fashionable as Italians. Stepping into Cairo from there was a trip into Retroville.

The line at the Passport Control booth moved achingly slowly. I sighed.

“Welcome to Cairo,” said a pasty-white bespectacled European standing behind me.

“You have been here before,” I said.

“I live here,” he said. I was pretty sure from his accent that he was German.

“Things move slowly in Beirut, too,” I said. “I have an apartment there.”

“Cairo is nothing like Beirut,” he said. “Egypt is much slower, much poorer, and much more bureaucratic. These boys,” he meant the passport control agents, “are not very well educated. They have a hard time keying Latin letters into the computer. I would move to Beirut in a minute if I could.”

“How long have you lived here?”

“Five long years,” he said. “I am an engineer and a German.”

As I hauled my luggage out the front door the usual phalanx of taxi drivers descended on me.



“You need a taxi!”

Yes, I needed a taxi.

“You can drive me to Zamalek,” I said to the driver nearest to me, “for ten dollars.”

“You won’t do it for twelve?” he said.

“Sure, I’ll do it for twelve.”

As he took me into the city I felt I was approaching the center of an important and powerful capital. You don’t get that sense in Beirut at all. Beirut, in terms of population, is Portland, Oregon. Cairo is bigger than New York City.

Apartment towers followed the freeway and spread for miles in each direction away from it. Most of them were blocky and grubby, not unlike some of those in the Bronx and outer Paris beyond the Periferique. They reminded me of the worst in southern Beirut on the way to the airport, only bigger. That wasn’t all I saw, though. Brilliantly and masterfully illuminated architectural set-pieces – sometimes mosques with soaring minarets, sometimes mid-century Coptic Christian churches, other times glorious Egyptian palaces and villas, including President Mubarak’s – promised an exciting city to come.

One street of shops even along the airport highway was clearly set up for the wealthy and upwardly mobile. I don’t have the kind of money to spend at some of those places, and I could tell that much from the car. The Egyptian economy is moribund – even downright Latin American – but somebody there was doing okay.

The buildings kept getting taller and older and I approached the center. Cairo suddenly became an architectural wonderland, a gigantic outdoor museum for Islamic, Ottoman, and Levantine urban sculptures. There were no bullet-pocked or mortar-shattered towers like there are in Beirut. But almost every single last building needed major renovation, or at least a paint job. Cairo did not appear to be in as bad a shape as Castro-ruined Havana, but it was no Paris either. It was a grand city. I could see that that from the car. But it needed millions, if not billions, of dollars set aside for upkeep and repair. I could see that from the car, too, and I could see it at night.

In the lobby at the check-in desk at my hotel was a sign from the Ministry of Tourism. The law stated that “all bills must be settled with foreign currency or credit cards.” It didn’t specify which foreign currency. Presumably they wouldn’t take money from Colonel Ghaddafi’s mad outdoor Libyan laboratory next door. But “anything but our own!” is more or less what the sign said. It did not inspire confidence in the economy.

It was late, and I didn’t have time to find hunt around for a restaurant. So I ordered food at La Terrase near the top floor of my hotel. La Terrase advertised itself as one of the finest gourmet restaurants in Cairo. I dearly hoped that wasn’t true, that it was merely overblown self-promotion. The décor, if it could be called that, was only one step above that of Embers, the chain of corporate family restaurants in the American Midwest. It was utterly non-descript, and I was the only diner. I ordered the steak au poive with French fries. The meat was greasy and stringy. The sauce was off. I didn’t get fries, I got rice. That would have been fine, but the rice was soggy and overcooked. There were no greens on my plate, not even a sprig of parsley to throw away.

My room had a balcony on the twelfth floor overlooking the Nile and the sprawling urban behemoth beyond. Just across the river was a mosque minaret. Sure enough, it was lit up in green.

Green Mosque on Nile.jpg

More people live in Cairo than live in Lebanon and Syria combined. I know Beirut very well. I cannot get lost there. Standing on my balcony, though, I felt like I would always be one wrong turn away from being lost forever in Cairo.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 03:02 AM

December 09, 2005

On Democrats and Arabs

by lebanon.profile

Sometimes you just have to cut to the chase...

The Democratic Party critics of the President and Arab critics of American policy have a lot in common.

They love to go on the attack against people taking action, but offer no alternative. They snipe at President Bush and the oh-so-evil neo-cons, but offer few alternatives.

And when they do offer alternatives, the two groups sound exactly alike: "let the people choose their government; it should not be imposed from above," "Muslims should have a government culturally sensitive to their religion," "you must understand that America cannot support democracy because it has supported so many heinous regimes in the past," "America must first deal with Israeli aggression, and then everything will fall into place in the Arab world."

Where is the alternative in those statements?

I wanted to vote against President Bush in 2004. I couldn't do it. I just didn't vote.

It breaks my heart to see leftists, liberals, and Democrats fighting against freedom in this region. Seymour Hersh makes claims in support of Syria. The Daily Kos and Atrios refuse to link blogs supporting democracy in the Middle East. American academics choose to fight the Bush Administration by visiting the military dictatorship in Syria, and giving anti-Bush speeches in support of the Arab status quo throughout the region.

What really hurt me was Democrat responses on March 9, 2005. On March 8th, Hezbollah held a rally in downtown Beirut. The Democrats, liberals, and leftists chose to latch on to them as the voice of Lebanon. They argued that President Bush needed to mind his own business because a militant organization with full Syrian and Iranian support held a rally.

Partially thanks to American liberals and international leftists nearly 1.2 million people (in a country of approximately 4 million people) came to the streets on March 14. We wanted to make it clear to the world that Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria did not represent us, that we desire to live in freedom, and that we would no longer tolerate living under a military regime that assassinates our leaders and tortures our citizens.

It's okay to dislike President Bush. It's just fine to criticize him for the deficit. It benefits the American system to catch him when he's guilty of cronyism. Jump up and down and turn red in the face about Guantanamo, torture, Halliburton contracts, and Supreme Court nominations. But don't undermine him when the freedom of millions of people are at stake.

There's no comparison to Iraq. There's no threat of invasion, and President Bush isn't mining for evidence of WMD.

If President Bush, Jacques Chirac, the European Commission, Kofi Annan, and the United Nations come together in support of the same action, then it's difficult to argue that President Bush is doing the wrong thing.

The Bush Administration is currently repairing relations with European nations, using international institutions to support American foreign policy, practicing restraint, and masterfully using diplomacy. When it comes to American policy regarding Lebanon and Syria, there is not much to criticize if you're not pro-Syrian regime.

And yet the President continues to be attacked. Even worse, his critics are giving cover to a military dictatorship. President Bush didn't "sex up" intelligence dossiers. Dick Cheney hasn't been chatting with members of the Syrian opposition. The Syrian regime is just plain guilty of assassinations, mass graves, supporting terror in Israel/Palestine, supporting organizations wanting to destroy Israel, and supporting terrorists in Iraq.

What are the counter-solutions offered by Democrat critics, leftists, and Arab critics? Criticize Bush more. Attack him for things unrelated to policy on Syria. Bring up failures in Iraq over and over again. Assert that America can't withstand another Iraq. Compare Iraq to Vietnam and Syria to Cambodia and Laos.

Where does that leave us in Lebanon? President Bush is demanding democracy in Lebanon and an end to terror in Lebanon, Iraq, and Israel without costing the American taxpayers anything extra. Secretary Condoleeza Rice and Ambassador John Bolton will get their salaries, regardless.

Either come clean and say you hate Bush and everything he does (including hugging children and giving flowers to elderly women), or criticize him intelligently. We read what's being said over there and we hear it repeated to us by people supporting the Syrian regime.

Let's see the viable alternatives. When it comes to American policy towards Syria that is applied through the unanimous passage of Security Council Resolutions, there isn't much to criticize.

Posted by lebanon.profile at 02:59 AM

December 07, 2005

American Views of the Middle East

by lebanon.profile

Americans are aiding and abetting pan-Arabism.


This isn't a joke.

The way Americans think about the Middle East is the very way that pan-Arabists and pan-Islamists want them to think about the Middle East: it's a region of Arabic speaking Muslims who don't drink alcohol, hate the United States, want to destroy Israel and massacre Jews, and want a revolutionary socialist government.

That's the equivalent of non-Americans saying, "The United States is a country of white Protestants who trace their heritage back to England and Germany, listen to country music, are xenophobic but simultaneously enjoy foreign wars, go to church every Sunday and Bible study throughout the rest of the week, don't travel, watch Nascar, drink Miller High Life, and eat only chicken pot pie, meatloaf, tuna casserole, cranberries, hamburgers, pizza, American cheese, freedom fries, and stuffed turkey."

That description probably doesn't even describe a single American family. It discounts massive segments of the American population that have driven American political and social life.

This is going to sound very gauche and politically incorrect in an American context, but stay with me. You'll see how we feel when we're categorized as a massive monoculture of uneducated Muslim Arabs.

One can't even begin to quantify the contributions of different racial, ethnic, and religious segments of the American populace: Irish Americans, Jews, African Americans, Japanese Americans, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, Polish Americans, etc. And different groups have had profound effects on different regions. There's a reason why Illinois has Casimir Pulaski Day.

The term Arab is about as useful as the term American. It doesn't tell you all that much. A recent immigrant from the Asian subcontinent and the descendent of Mayflower migrants have little in common culturally. And it's similar here.

The Lebanese and Yemeni are worlds apart.

Catholics established many of the major educational institutions throughout the Levant (Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine). Lebanese Catholics established the most prominent newspapers in Egypt, including al Ahram, the current Mubarak mouthpiece.

The richest family in Egypt is Coptic Christian.

Muhammad Ali, the great 19th Century leader of Egypt who remains a national hero today exalted as the modernizer of Egypt, was ethnically Albanian.

Circassian Muslim migrants from southern Russia protected the Hashemite family in Jordan and continue to have a significant presence in the Jordanian government.

The Alawites rule Syria. Sunni Muslims see the Alawites as heretical.

Armenians significantly shaped the foundations of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, and Israel. Armenians dominated the oil industry in Iraq in the early years.

Writing this is very awkward for me. I'm picking and choosing ethnic contributions. It's almost the equivalent of saying George Washington Carver, Langston Hughes, Justice Thurgood Marshall, and Oprah are Black. Emma Goldman, Saul Bellow, Justice Brandeis, and Betty Friedan are Jewish. The Daleys and Kennedys are Irish. LaGuardia and Giuliani are Italian. See how much minorities defined and continue to define America. African Americans and issues surrounding racism dominated 19th and 20th Century American politics. And African Americans make up a small percentage of the American populace.

The percentages of minorities in the Middle East are far greater. They're almost all Muslim in Iraq, but look at how important sect and ethnic identity are. Lebanon has no sect that can claim to be the majority.

One shouldn't make a claim that the difference between black and white are greater than the difference between Christian and Muslim.

It frightens many people in this region when Westerners push their form of democracy. This is because we understand what that will become in our context: demographic democracy. We begin arguing about the specifics. In Iraq and Lebanon I've heard phrases like, "We hate them and will take arms against them. They support federalism."

The best way to win an election in which sects, not political parties, are competing is to reduce the number of opposing voters.

Israel worries about the same problem. Israeli sociologists fret that Palestinians will outnumber Jews in Israel by 2050. The Jewish state will no longer be the Jewish state. Lebanon, created to make the possibility of a Christian state, is no longer majority Christian.

Pan-Arabism was created to give unity in an ethnically fractured context. The concept of America brings together a Mexican American investment banker with a Dutch American dishwasher, why can't the concept of Arab bring together a Druze Syrian goatherder with a Mauritanian doctor?

It's a nice ideal, but not plausible. What brings Americans together is a system of laws that work, an economy that works, and dreams that sprout from combining those two.

Arab, contrarily, is a contrived identity that is forced onto a diverse people. Arabism doesn't come with a system of laws that work, and the economy normally tanks if it isn't supported by oil, foreign donations, or massive theft. The military dictator uses his authority, then, to support his own sectarian community. Those great pan-Arab leaders Saddam Hussein and Hafez al Assad used their pan-Arab power to empower their communities (Sunni and Alawite) and oppress and massacre other sects.

In 1958, Egyptian President and pan-Arab leader Gamal Abdel Nasser unified Egypt and Syria creating the United Arab Republic, but the whole thing broke down by 1961 because Nasser wasn't all that interested in what the "Arabs" in Syria wanted.

Despite its many failures, the dream of pan-Arabism remains strong in certain parts of the region. Minorities see the ideology as a way to dominate the state for themselves. More frightening, however, is the way Islamists use Arabism to assert their agenda.

It is sincerely frightening to hear Americans endorse the idea that everyone in the Middle East (outside of Israel) is Arab and Muslim. Iraq has taught Americans that the Sunni aren't the only Muslim sect out there, but Americans still see Lebanon - a country with a Christian President and more Christian members of Parliament than of any other single sect - as a Muslim country that should take up a form of secular democracy.

Americans forget how gerrymandered their own political system is, minority congressional districts and all. They forget that their very own Constitution was crafted because Virginians and Massaschusites (?) wanted to preserve their very different interests. The entire American system was created to protect states' rights, but unify a nation.

We need to come to a similar solution in the Middle East. Lebanon crafted a very flawed constitution in 1926 that has been governing our democratic country ever since. We had our very nasty civil war, but hopefully - like what happened in America - we will rise from it unified (even though we lived under foreign occupation for the last fifteen years and are still plagued by foreign aggression).

Most countries in the Middle East don't need to come to terms with horrific practices like slavery. However, overcoming ensconced military dictatorships with modern military arsenals, listening devices, satellite images, and massive security apparatuses will be far different than gathering Minute Men, holding up lanterns to indicate troop movements, and receiving training and assistance from foreign armies in Valley Forge.

We will need to convince our rural, feudal, estate holding elite and our urban, cosmopolitan elite educated in foreign philosophies and concepts to come together to create a document to govern a system that is good for them both in a way that still represents the interests of the people. That's going to be very difficult given that most of the monarchies and dictatorships in the region have already unified these two groups under state authority.

There's no need to be misguided or confused by concepts like Arab, Sunni/Shia/Kurd, liberal democracy, and freedom. You don't need to know any of that stuff. And promoting an inaccurate ideal only hurts the people you're trying to help.

American foreign policy should better reflect American history. The United States is the most successful example of democracy building. Asserting the potency of the American example is the greatest gift America can give us.

Posted by lebanon.profile at 05:17 AM

December 06, 2005

Update from Egypt

By Michael J. Totten

I’ve been in Egypt for four days and I only technically have time to blog. It isn’t easy, or even possible really, to cram everything I want to see and do here into a single week. If I add blogging into my schedule I’ll have even less time for everything that I must get done while I have the chance.

So far I have a huge amount of material that I’m saving for articles and blog posts. I’ll be back in Beirut in a couple of days, and then I’ll have time to write everything up with the time and care I need to do it properly.

In the meantime, I will briefly say this: I am not at all optimistic about Egypt’s future in the medium term. I have yet to meet a single Egyptian who is. Their pessimism isn’t merely contagious…it’s convincing. The ruling party, supposedly America’s “ally,” is hideously corrupt to the core. It is not ideological, just venal, well-armed, and criminal. Liberalism (broadly defined) barely exists here. The democratic opposition parties have been oppressed so long by the state they have no more hope of taking power than the Green Party has in the United States. The Muslim Brotherhood is by far the most potent political force in the country, and millions of people who under better conditions would have little or nothing to do with them are supporting them.

At least people are willing and able to talk to me freely and openly in public. This is the one bit of good news out of Egypt right now, and it’s a recent development. This is not Libya here, and it is not Syria.

Thanks to Lebanon.Profile for filling in for me while I’m away. Enjoy his posts while he’s around, and be sure to visit his Lebanese Political Journal if you want more.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 01:55 PM

December 05, 2005

What to do about Syria

by lebanon.profile

The news coming out about Syria just keeps getting worse.

The major new story is about mass graves the Syrian regime dug in their military base in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. Whenever I see "mass graves" in the news, it always means someone somewhere has committed an undeniably atrocious act. If you didn't think Syria was bad before, it's hard not to now.

The Assad regime continues to sweep problems under the carpet. They deny, cover up, assassinate, arm terrorists, support insurgencies, dig mass graves, and more to protect themselves.

The game has ended. The Syrian regime has done enough harm to enough powerful people that their actions can no longer be overlooked. We haven't even begun discussing everything the Syrian regime did during 30 years in Lebanon. Few ever mention the suffering of the Syrian people. We've barely scratched the surface, and Syrian regime already looks deplorable.

The counterarguments the Assad regime gives just don't cut it any more. They can't justify their actions with the old pan-Arab rhetoric. Destroying Israel, supporting terror, and assisting war in other countries are not good excuses for anyone (not even Arab regimes) any more. The old hat arguments cannot justify mass graves and the assassination of a Sunni Arab Prime Minister with Lebanese and Saudi citizenship.

Israel is now getting support from Arab regimes after the Gaza pull out. Arab regimes are no longer willing to tacitly condone Syrian supported Palestinian terror after the terrorist attacks against Arabs in Saudi Arabia, and after Egyptian and Bahraini government officials are kidnapped in Iraq. Arab regimes want the problem in Iraq to go away, and they definitely don't want Iran (Syria's new best friend) to benefit from Iraqi chaos.

Syria has lost their rhetorical cover. Arabs won't shield them. The international community has taken interest.

What should be done?


Lebanon is in no position to take action against Syria. The military and intelligence agencies are filled with men who assumed their positions because of their loyalty to Syria. Hezbollah is virulently pro-Syria and remains armed.

Geographically, Syria engulfs tiny Lebanon. The economies are closely linked. Lebanese trucks must pass through Syria to deliver their cargo, and Syria hit the Lebanese economy hard this summer with a trade embargo.

The best strategy for Lebanon is to continue pressuring the international community to keep watch over Syria. Simultaneously, the government must cooperate closely with the Syrian regime to guarantee stability and trade.

Key word: Containment

The European Commission

The EU has been playing hardball with the Syrian regime. It feels strange writing that, but it's true: the EU can play hardball.

The European Commission does not threaten through military means. Their power comes with their economic might. Sanctions would be devastating to Syria. However, they don't want to use sanctions because that does more harm to the people than to the regime. The Assad regime and the Europeans both know that sanctions reinforce government control.

The EU cannot destroy Syria, but they can inflict a harmful blow. The Syrian regime knows that they can survive anything the EU does to them. However, if the Syrian regime loses the EU, they've lost the middleman between them and the United States. They also risk further pressure from the member states of the EU. If the EU unanimously decides to take action against Syria, then one can be sure that the French, British, and perhaps Spanish response will be harsh as well.

Key word: threaten. If the EU can check Syrian behavior now, the regime will no longer be an imminent threat in Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine. There will then be time to single out and prosecute (Europeans love courts) every single member of the Assad regime for all atrocities committed without risking the lives of the Syrian people.

Threatening, not placing sanctions, and not promoting regime change will give Bashar Assad the benefit of the doubt he asks for (but doesn't deserve). The Assad regime will be given the chance to reform, a chance President Bush extended to Saddam before the war; a chance that was not taken.

The United States

It's assumed that the United States always holds the winning cards. That's not true. The military option is the worst option available, if it's even there.

It's hard to believe the American people will condone attacks against Syria with Iraq the way it is. Even supposing the international community supports military action against Syria without a fight, would the American people support such a move? Why should a country that's lost over 2,000 soldiers in combat in a Middle East war wage another war that is solely for democracy and human rights? The only benefits to the American people are intangible. Only hypothetical arguments can justify why taking out the Assad regime would be a good move, and that's not good enough for a people who are still in the middle of two other wars (Afghanistan isn't over, either).

However, the military threat remains. The Assad regime knows that a full scale, Iraq style invasion of Syria is unlikely. But they also know that all Donald H. Rumsfeld has to do is pick up the phone, and we could have Shock and Awe all over again. Few, if any, American lives would be directly at risk. The toll on the Syrian regime would be massive.

The US directly targeted Saddam. Why wouldn't they directly target Bashar Assad and his inner circle and leave the Syrian people alone?

Even though this option remains, pushing for regime change is asking for trouble from the international community and the American people. Seymour Hersh probably already has an article written linking the campaign against Syria to US actions in Cambodia and Laos during the Vietnam War.

The Bush Administration may want to spread democracy and peace in the Middle East, but regime change and the military option have yet to prove effective in this tumultuous region. There is great potential for further instability.

The Bush Administration learned a lot from the Iraq campaign. President Bush, Secretary Rice, US Ambassador to the UN Bolton, and US Ambassador to Lebanon Feltman are brilliantly using diplomacy. The United States government deserves congratulations for the way it is deftly using international institutions to support America's agenda. This is highlighting the best attributes of American foreign policy - support for democracy, human rights, justice, and anti-terror - while regaining the trust of the international community. America does not appear as the bully.

Key word: diplomacy. The US does not need to assert the military option because everyone knows it is there. A few brazen remarks every so often wouldn't hurt, but shouldn't be a quotidien habit.
Harnassing international institutions is the best way to give the US cover and restore trust in America's devotion to equality and fairness in international relations.

Given that Syria is not a direct threat to the United States, it doesn't matter if the diplomatic process drags out a long time.

Concluding remarks

This is Europe's chance to prove itself. Lebanon does not have the power. The Bush Administration gains domestically and abroad if it uses international institutions and diplomacy, and lets the military rest.

Regime change, as much as many Lebanese desire it, should not be on the table RIGHT NOW. It wouldn't be good for Lebanon or the region.

However, should Europe and the US fail in their negotiations and the Assad regime continues to support terror in Lebanon, Iraq, and Israel/Palestine, that option should be used.

The Assad regime is getting a second chance right now. They believe they are under attack, but they are actually in a lucky position. The regime is not under imminent threat. Even if other countries desire regime change, there is no way attain that even if the regime is found guilty of assassinating Rafiq al Hariri.

The main concern is for the Syrian regime to reform. They are responsible for assassinations and mass graves, but those are matters for courts, not armies.

If the regime does not take this chance to reform, they are risking the lives of the Syrian people. Bashar Assad has the opportunity to slowly introduce freedom, stop terror, and be seen as the bringer of peace to his country. Sadly, all of his current actions indicate that he is more interested in war, terror, violence, and assassinations.

Regime change may be the only option, but we won't know that until diplomacy has been carried to its fullest extent.

Posted by lebanon.profile at 07:57 AM

December 03, 2005

Introductory Remarks

by lebanon.profile

The 14 February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al Hariri is sometimes described in Lebanon as our 9/11.

That description is crude. There is no comparison between the two events. However, the sheer emotional devastation the assassination had on all of Lebanon and Lebanese across the world made it difficult to find the right words.

In fact, even I referred to Hariri's assassination as my second 9/11 just seconds after I walked away from the burning blast site over the debris strewn streets.

Like many Lebanese, I have American citizenship. I was in Chicago on 9/11. That event profoundly effected me.
I also saw the assassination of Hariri. I've felt the effects of the bombing campaign that swept Lebanon between February and September.

I've watched terror transform two societies.

The 2004 American Presidential election was a very hard moment for me. I couldn't bring myself to vote. Bush failed far too many times for me to support him. Kerry was too incompetent for his position; it hurt me not to vote for him. Nader, even though he is Lebanese American, lost his competency years ago.

This makes me politically independent. Americans may believe that there aren't many moderates in the United States or the blogosphere, but they've never been to Lebanon. Moderation is almost impossible to find in these parts. Most people who claim to be moderate are, in fact, promoting some sort of self-righteous cause that they believe all other Lebanese must follow.

Religion vs. secularism, the powers of the state, and terror are all Lebanese issues. During my stint pinch hitting for Michael, I'll delve into some of the major issues that confront both the US and Lebanon. Hopefully, I'll be able to provide a unique perspective.

Posted by lebanon.profile at 06:16 AM

December 02, 2005

Introducing Lebanon.Profile

I’m going to Egypt tonight, and I have no idea what kind of Internet access I’ll have. When I took my first side trip to Cyprus I had high expectations. Cyprus is Europe, after all. But Internet access in Cyprus is crap. It is far easier to find an Internet café or a wi-fi hotspot in Beirut. The Middle East is more modern than most people think if they have never been here, and Europe is way oversold. Blogging from Cairo may be easy or difficult. I won’t know until I get there.

Because I don’t know and because I don’t want the blog to lie fallow, I’ve asked anonymous blogger “Lebanon.Profile” over at the Lebanese Political Journal to help me out around here for the next week or so. On his own blog he writes with an audience of other Lebanese people in mind. For the next week he’ll write here with an audience of Western people in mind.

He knows far more about Lebanese history, politics, and current events than most people, including most Lebanese. You’re in good hands. And be sure to check out his Lebanese Political Journal if you like what he writes here.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 02:33 AM

December 01, 2005

Banned from Syria

I was going to visit Syria this week, but it looks like that isn’t going to happen. The government has gone into hyper-paranoid mode, even more so than usual. They are stopping Americans at the border and kicking them back into Lebanon.

One American friend of mine did manage to make it across after an eight hour ordeal. The border agents first said “no way” when he showed up. But he is a student at the University of Damascus and he insisted they had to let him back in. After eight hours of phone calls they finally decided to admit him – but only after an explicit exception was made for him in Damascus. I am not a student there, and I would not be so lucky if I tried.

My friend who did make it in told me Damascus is testing its air raid sirens for the first time in years, as though preparing for an invasion.

“What’s that about?” I said. “Paranoia or theater?”

“It’s totally theater,” he said, which is what I figured as well. Turning Americans back at the border, though, isn’t theater. It’s real paranoia.

But it’s time for me to leave Beirut again. So I’m going to Cairo, and I’m going tomorrow.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 08:59 AM