Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Dubiously-Friendly Gift-of-the-Nile and Her Malcontented Populace

In response to my favorable comparison of the situation in Turkey with that of Egypt, the Elephant's Child wrote:
Didn't realise things have been taking a nose dive in Egypt. In my mind, it's fixed as a "good" Middle Eastern country.
Well, Egypt is still a 'good' ME country in context of the geopolitical scheme that lasted from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the fall of the Twin Towers. In other words, a post-Cold War, September 10 mentality that valued "stability" over all else. Egypt is at peace with her neighbors, notably Israel, and generally represents the reliably quasi-secular-nationalist bloc of the Arab League, in which Egypt is the power player. Egypt is also a US ally of sorts, insofar as the terms of her peace with Israel include generous monetary and military blood money aid from the US.

The problem is, such stability needs a future. An autocracy like Egypt is 'stable' for now (her Ministry of the Interior is rumored to be the worlds largest employer) but that sort of heavy-handedness is unsustainable, to co-opt some Green-speak. The Muslim Brotherhood (incidentally the parent organization of such better-known children as HAMAS, Palestinian Jihad, and al-Qaeda) is a pervasive presence and continues to grow stronger. This is President-for-life Mubarak's permanent bogeyman to justify delaying his country's ever-promised democratization: if Egyptians could vote, the Brotherhood would come to power and Egypt would become a Sunni theocracy to rival the Shii* republic in Iran.

He's probably right. The Brotherhood's popularity continues to grow; though they officially banned, a particular bloc of 'Independents' (wink-wink nudge-nudge) holds 88 seats, or about 20% of the Egyptian Parliament. The problem is, the Islamists can't be held at bay forever by heavy-handed political persecution. The random arrests, beatings, threats, torture, and disappearances that Mubarak uses -- like so many presidents-for-life before him -- only serve to keep the Brotherhood underground and feed into its narrative of oppression. The fact that US money supports his government only serves to tie him to the Great Satan while confirming their claims of American hypocrisy. Mubarak is still strong, but he's not getting any younger. His son Gamal is widely expected to succeed him, and has made all the right reformist gestures, but then, so did Dad, once upon a time.

Long story short, Egypt is still an ally, for now, and only by the narrowest of definitions. The future, however looks bleaker. Until I start seeing some real reforms, Egypt will remain with Nigeria and Pakistan on my worry-list. Which is to say, countries I would not be too surprised to visit before the end of my Army career, and not for the souvenirs.

*Okay, I hate to be a stickler** here, but my senses of English style and Arabic grammar can't let me use "Sunni" and "Shia" in the same construction. So here's a quick lesson: sunna and shia are nouns which can mean both the religious movements and mass nouns for the people who follow them. Thus "clerical hierarchies are characteristic of Shia Islam" and "the Sunna dominated Saddam's Iraq". On the other hand, sunni and shii are adjectives: "a historic Shii mosque", "a traditional Sunni wedding". The -i forms are also used as individual nouns: "three Sunni gunmen", "he's a Shii". Some of these usages, however, roll rather uncomfortably off the tongue, complicated by the fact that the root of shia/shii includes a sound (the infamous "ayn") unique to the Semitic languages. This sound (along with its evil cousin the "hamza") is the reason for the incomprehensible assortment of apostrophes (both normal and inverse) one finds thrown about transliterated Arabic, as if they made anything any clearer.

**Okay, okay. You got me. I live to be a stickler.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

On the Anatolian Republic's Recent Referenda

In this excellent piece, the editors over at National Review explain clearly and concisely why the recent Turkish elections matter and why the results should be welcomed by anyone who welcomes the advance of freedom and good governance in the world. Turkey's "mildly Islamist" AKP ("Justice and Development Party" in English) has won a solid majority in Parliament; it does not, however, have the supermajority necessary to amend the constitution. This is a good thing for Turks: the AKP has a solid record on the economy and social reforms and is deservedly popular. This is also a good thing for Turkey's allies: many had feared an overwhelming win by the AKP would lead the vehemently secular military to overthrow the government. Turkey is, after all, right on schedule for its traditional decennial coup d'etat.

The biggest reason this result is encouraging, however, is that it has the potential to be a shining example of the successful congruence of democracy and Islam. The AKP's success has moderated its Islamism significantly. If -- as National Review's editors suggest -- the once-worrisome AKP's experience in participatory government is gradually turning it into nothing more dangerous than a Muslim social conservative party, Turkey's future as a guiding light of genuine Muslim democracy could be bright indeed. Now, compare this example to that of Egypt, where a secular strongman assures us he is protecting America's interests, holding back the tide of radicalism with his iron fist, while the Muslim Brotherhood gains popular support, growing ever bolder and more strident. Is anyone still unconvinced of the connection between autocracy and radicalization? Or of the relationship between participatory government and stability? Really?

Sunday, July 22, 2007

This Bedevilled Orthogrammatic Verifier is Hopelessly Anachronistic

Rather strangely, the (remarkably convenient) integrated spell-checker in Firefox tells me that "blog" is not an English word, or rather, that it is misspelled. One would suspect that a web browser -- of all pieces of software -- would be updated with new vocabulary from time to time, but apparently not.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Yonder Spherically-Imprisoned-Rodent-Driven Automaton

If you're not familiar with the iRobot company, take a glance through their products. They produce both the Roomba and Scooba automatic vacuum cleaner and mop, respectively. Intriguingly, they also produce the Talon and PackBot tactical robots used by the US Army for building infiltration and EOD work (Explosive and Ordnance Disposal, i.e. the army's Bomb Squad). For some reason I really appreciate the fact that they don't have separate brand names for the consumer 'bots and the tactical models. It really does add a level of respectability to the autonomous hockey-puck vacuum cleaner scooting around one's living room.

In any case, the greatest appeal of iRobot's consumer products is that they are fully 'moddable': put together with standard screws and connectors, their internal workings are spaced conveniently and clearly labeled for basement tinkerers' convenience. Which, of course, leads to results like this, the world's first hamster-controlled vacuum cleaner.

Great way to get it to move randomly around the room, sure, but isn't this taking a step backwards? Sort of like designing a USB punch-card reader. Though now that I think about it, it wouldn't really surprise me if those existed.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Hither Expanse of Excessively Bitumenated Steppeland

I arrived in Texas about two months ago after a sixteen-month sojourn in deepest darkest California, and the change has certainly been dramatic. Certainly the cultural, climatic, and geographic differences between coastal California and west central Texas are about as extreme as between any two parts of this great, diverse land of ours. My thoughts on Texas life (and flashbacks to California life) are likely to feature prominently on this blog.

It has struck me (and this may be a certain North Flyover Country bias at work) that the generic 'American' so reviled by anti-Americans in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere is in many ways a conglomeration of the worst features of California and Texas. Every purportedly negative aspect of the American public -- its overt religiosity, obesity, sexual immorality, conspicuous consumerism, and tendency toward violence -- is exemplified in these two states. This is not meant as an indictment, by the way, merely an observation. It is only natural that a nation's most populous regions should be particularly influential on its perception abroad. It does make one wish to impress upon foreigners, however, that most of America is a rather different place from California and Texas.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Of the Making of Acquaintances

Part of me feels that I should inaugurate this blog with some sort of introduction, but I don't really know what that would be. So I suppose I'll just jump right in.