Behind the Headline: Egypt’s first civilian president brings Muslim Brotherhood to power… sort of

Newly-elected president of Egypt, Muhammad Mursi.

Egypt’s first democratically-elected president, and the first civilian to hold the office, is set to meet with the heads of the country’s armed forces as he moves into the Presidential Palace that once was home to Hosni Mubarak, the dictator who was overthrown in last year’s popular uprising.

Muhammad Mursi, an American-educated engineer, was declared winner of Egypt’s first free and fair presidential election Sunday, with 51.73% of the vote. Mursi was the candidate for the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that has been a force in Egypt’s politics for generations, but has never before held power. Mursi promises to form an inclusive government that represents all the major groups in Egypt’s society, and there is much hope and optimism about Egypt’s transition to democracy, but there is also a lot of worry about exactly what direction the Brotherhood intends to take Egypt. An alleged interview published by Iran’s news agency claims Mursi wants to improve relations with Iran and form an anti-Western, anti-Israel, pan-Islamic alliance across the Middle East; Mursi’s staff denied that their leader made those comments.

These uncertainties, though, are underscored by a deeper uncertainty. As of right now, Egypt has no constitution, no parliament, and no clarity about what political powers, if any, the new president actually has. Shortly before the election, Egypt’s Supreme Court declared the country’s parliament illegal because it allowed candidates backed by political parties to take offices that were reserved for independents. Immediately thereafter, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has been managing the transition since Mubarak’s overthrow, locked out the parliament and issued a declaration giving itself extensive powers, including the power to make laws, the power to control how the new constitution is to be written, power over foreign affairs and defense, and the power to arrest civilians and try them in military courts. Critics have labeled the SCAF’s move as tantamount to a military coup. Mursi’s meeting with the military’s leaders is intended to renegotiate the boundaries of the SCAF’s powers and put more power into civilian hands.

Considering how complex all of this political wrangling in Egypt is, I think it’s time we looked Behind the Headline.

So what is the Muslim Brotherhood anyway, and why are people so worried about it?

The Muslim Brotherhood is a pan-Islamic movement with branches across the Middle East and around the world. Its stated goal is to restore the Caliphate, an Islamic empire and system of government that dominated the Middle East in Islam’s early history. The Caliphate was led by a “Caliph” (hence the name), who was seen as the Prophet Muhammad’s successor, and who in theory was elected by and responsible to a “Shura”, which was a sort of proto-democratic legislature. Law in the Caliphate was based on Shari’a (Islamic religious law), and society under the Caliphs saw great achievements in art, architecture, science, math, philosophy, medicine, and so forth – hence many Muslims’ nostalgia for this period in their history.

The Brotherhood was founded in 1928 in Egypt by Hassan al-Banna. At the time, most of the Middle East was under direct or indirect European rule, as Britain, France, and Italy carved up the former Ottoman Empire between them in the aftermath of World War I. Though European rule was great for tourists…

… archaeologists…

… and Western business interests, it wasn’t so popular among the common people. So while the Brotherhood was originally a sort of Islamic version of the YMCA, providing gymnasiums, community centers, hospitals, and schools, it wasn’t long before it became a part of the resistance movement. By 1945 it had two million members, and many believe it was behind a number of terrorist attacks and assassinations during this period.

In the 1950s, it seemed like the Brotherhood would get a break as country after country in the Middle East gained its independence, but in many cases the new governments were dictatorships that wanted to stamp out anyone who stood in their way, Muslim Brotherhood included. Even in Egypt, where it was founded, the Brotherhood was banned by the military regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser – who ironically had taken power in 1952 with the Brotherhood’s support.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the Brotherhood’s most influential member was Sayyid Qutb, an anti-establishment, anti-American radical and author whose ideas about jihad would come to inspire such groups as al-Qaeda and the Taliban. However, by the 1970s the Brotherhood had done a 180 degree turn and renounced violence, though their commitment to nonviolence has not always been consistent.

So far, the Brotherhood has only taken power twice. In 1989, Omar al-Bashir took power in Sudan, and allowed Muslim Brothers into his government. Under his rule, Sudan faced an ongoing civil war that led to the creation of South Sudan, another civil war in Darfur, and a new war with South Sudan over the countries’ border. Through all of this, al-Bashir has been accused of genocide and is wanted by the International Criminal Court.

The only other time the Brotherhood has taken power was in 2007, when Hamas, the Palestinian wing of the organization, took power in the Gaza Strip. Hamas had been one of the terrorist groups participating in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it has a reputation for extremism.

It is natural, then, that people fear the Brotherhood’s coming to power in Egypt. As one Egyptian was quoted by BBC News, “The election of a candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood means the death of secularism and a politically plural society.” However, many argue that the Egyptian version of the Brotherhood is an entirely different animal. According to this view, Egypt’s Muslim Brothers are moderate, tolerant, pragmatic, and committed to democracy. The Guardian’s Magdi Abdelhadi says, “The Brotherhood is the closest one can find in Egypt today to an independent political institution where established practices and commitment to an idea seem to trounce blood ties and financial interests. It’s not only populist, but also truly popular. Its members are drawn from all walks of life – middle-class professionals as well as workers and peasants.”

And the Wall Street Journal’s Fouad Ajami says, “If any overarching political vision inspires the Brotherhood, it is the Turkish model…a Sunni country where Islam came to power via the ballot box, then rode and facilitated an economic renaissance that made Turkey the envy of its neighbors.”

So, the military takeover is a good thing, right? Making sure the Brotherhood stays moderate?

Tell that to the Egyptian people.

See, Egypt’s army has a long history of intervening in the country’s politics. They are the ones who overthrew the British and their puppet king in 1952, and each of Egypt’s rulers since then has been from the military. The military also has what the BBC describes as a “vast business empire” in Egypt – sports stadiums, resorts, hotels, posh suburban subdivisions, and even manufacturing interests. Though their slogan may be “The army and the people are one”, in reality military rule is quite unpopular, and more than a few Egyptians see the army as no more than an extension of the old regime.

The real irony is that the Tahrir Square protests that started the Egyptian Revolution in the first place were not started by either the military or the Brotherhood – they were started by secular, liberal, pro-Western, urban youths and intellectuals, who rallied around the figure of Mohamed ElBaradei. Their goal was to turn Egypt into a modern, Western-style democracy. However, the secular liberals have been squeezed out by the other two factions in the past year, as they simply don’t have the support base to call upon that the others have.

In my Latin American History class in college, I learned that there is a regular pattern to revolutions that you see repeated over and over. First, everyone will rally together against the ones at the top to overthrow them, and then once the common enemy is gone the various factions will have competing ideas for what to do next and will start fighting each other. Egypt’s revolution seems to clearly be fitting this pattern, and we will have to wait and see who ends up deciding Egypt’s future.

Why should I care about any of this?

The thing about Egypt is that it is always the bellwether for the Middle East. As the most populous Arab country, it sets the tine for everyone else time and time again. When they overthrew the British in 1952, other Middle Eastern countries fought for and gained their independence: Sudan, Tunisia, and Morocco in 1956, Iraq in 1958, Algeria in 1962. When Egypt and Syria briefly united as the United Arab Republic in 1958, it inspired short-lived attempts at uniting all the Arab nations. When Egypt agreed to make peace with Israel, it made peace with Israel more palatable to other Arab nations and helped start the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Yes, the Arab Spring may have started in Tunisia, but it was the Egyptian protests that really got people motivated and marching. Today, Syria is in the middle of a civil war, and countries such as Libya, Yemen, and Iraq are teetering on the brink. If Egypt can sort itself out peacefully, it might inspire others to lay down their arms and talk through their problems. If Egypt’s new leaders can’t get along, though, it could precipitate an explosion of violence across a huge and very influential region of the world. At the very least, oil prices would be affected by the outcome, and that translates to the price of gasoline, groceries, travel, and almost everything else.

Information from BBC News and the Toronto Globe and Mail

More things your History Class got Wrong

I’ve mentioned before that some of the things your history teachers and textbooks in grade school told you should be taken with a grain of salt. They have a tendency to regurgitate the same stuff they were force-fed in their grade school history classes, to oversimplify things so young children’s brains can understand it, and to look at the past with rose-tinted glasses and paint a nostalgic picture of the past for us.

Thankfully, Cat Flag is here to correct our misperceptions and give you the true story of our history! Or, at least, the story that I learned through my research and through my college education, so I guess my version might be a bit off too. Anyway…

1. There are millions of corpses buried in the Great Wall of China

The truth: Nobody is buried in the Great Wall. That’s ridiculous.

See, a long time ago the Mythbusters were looking to see if Jimmy Hoffa was buried somewhere in Giants Stadium. To do this, they did some experiments with ground-penetrating radar and some dead pigs buried in concrete. What they found was that even buried in concrete, corpses rot, leaving behind big cavities in whatever it was they were buried in. (They didn’t find Hoffa, by the way.)

Now, let’s look at the Great Wall for a minute.

That’s a pretty impressive feat of architecture. One that would be really structurally unstable if there were lots of cavities in it, left behind from all the dead workers buried there.

So what’s up with our history books?

Well, the old myth is that when a worker died building the wall, they wouldn’t bother to stop work to bury him, they’d just drop him into the wall and pave over him. This begs two questions: who built the Great Wall, and why would people spread this story about them?

As for who built the Great Wall, it was mostly peasants who were drafted for several months’ service to the Emperor every year. Peasants who would probably much rather be tending to their own crops. They hated the Great Wall, and thought of it as a great waste of time, energy, and resources.

Until the Mongols showed up.

Plus, let’s not forget that to a Chinese person, a proper burial is exceedingly important. The souls of the dead are believed to influence the lives of the living, and the veneration of one’s ancestors is seen as a crucial part of the Confucian principle of 孝 (xiao, usually translated as “filial piety”). To not honor someone with a proper burial is seen as the worst possible insult.

The best I can figure is that the story that people were buried in the Great Wall comes from the legend of Meng Jiang Nu, and this story was probably spread to discredit the Emperor, feeding on the peasants’ preexisting hatred of the seasonal draft. As to why Western history books picked up the story, I’m not sure, but it does play to old, racist stereotypes of Asians not caring about human life.

Information from this video

2. The Dark Ages were a terrible time to be alive

The truth: The Dark Ages’ name has to do with how little we know about it, not what life was like.

In the 1330s, the Italian scholar Petrarch coined the term “Dark Ages” for the period between roughly 400 AD and 1000 AD due to the lack of (Latin) written records. For centuries, scholars and historians knew nothing, or at least very little, of what transpired in Europe during this time apart from what they could glean in legends and the few documents that did survive. I once saw a copy of a 17th-century book on the English kings, and it listed the legendary, probably fictional King Arthur as a real king of England. In my lifetime, archaeologists digging in Britain have learned far more about the Dark Ages than historians could have dreamed of not too long ago. Every day, this gap in our knowledge ofEuropean history closes further and further.

These guys are digging up the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold artifacts ever found. It was found in 2009.

What we have learned about the Dark Ages is absolutely fascinating. The average lifespan actually went up, not down. Science and math continued to develop, if slowly, and the foundations for the modern university and modern law were laid. Though there were few new written records, Irish Catholic monks and Arab scholars did preserve a whole lot of the ancient Greek and Roman writings for future generations to enjoy. Most counter-intuitively of all, the Dark Ages were extremely peaceful. Warfare was often a local affair, fought between bands of maybe 20 or so really tough men with swords.

So what’s with our history books?

Well, there are two interrelated things at play. First of all, “dark” has multiple meanings. Scholars may have used the term with one meaning in mind, but the uninitiated filled in the blanks by assuming “dark” meant “bad”. Second, when the term began to be used more and more frequently was during the Renaissance, Protestant Reformation, and Enlightenment. This was a time when people had a nostalgia crush on ancient Rome, which they saw as an enlightened society. And of course, they saw their own society at least equally enlightened, if not more so. Thus, the period in between simply must have been a bloody, disease-ridden, barbaric time of hopelessness, superstition, and drudgery.

Information from Listverse, Crash Course: World History, and the History Channel miniseries Barbarians.

3. Thomas Edison invented the light bulb

The truth: Thomas Edison invented a light bulb, but certainly far from the first.

Edison’s invention is descended from a long line of inventions based around the same idea, dating at least as far back as 1815. British inventor Sir Humphry Davy came up with the Davy lamp that was meant for use in coal mines. James Bowman Lindsay demonstrated a working incandescent lamp in 1835. Edison’s invention wasn’t even the first commercially successful light bulb – that credit goes to Joseph Swan, who demonstrated his invention a year before Edison rolled out his.

And he looked like Santa Claus. You don’t disrespect the Santa.

So what’s with our history books?

Well, for one thing Swan was British, Edison was American. We learn about Edison because of the accident of where we were born; British children are all taught about Swan’s invention of the bulb.

Second, Edison was an extremely prolific inventor, holding 1,093 U.S. patents. So, yeah, Edison was going to go down as a big deal in history either way.

Third, Swan and Edison ended up as business partners, merging their businesses into the Edison & Swan United Electric Light Company in 1883. So, you can’t say that either of them bore a grudge over anything.

Information from Wikipedia

On a personal note 5

She had an infectious laugh. If she laughed, you couldn’t help but smile. Her accent reflected her Texan origins, but she was deeply in tune with the minds and patterns of her Californian customers. Her business had been a part of Morro Bay for so long, it was an institution. Nobody came to our coastal town without stopping in for some salt water taffy or cinnamon rolls.

Everyone was used to her habits and cycles. Vendors avoided coming in on Tuesdays and Thursdays because on those days she had her beloved water therapy sessions. She would always come in on Mondays to catch up on her book work, though sometimes she’d take it home to finish. She always got her hair done at the same salon, and it seemed like she had a friend or relative taking her out to dinner just about every night.

She had her way of doing things, and it always made sense to her. She kept paperwork in giant buckets, washed the employees’ aprons in her home washing machine, and insisted that we could only give free samples of two things: taffy and ice cream. Nothing else.

Her fondness for ordering things meant the “gift shop” part of her store was always an overcrowded, bizarre mix of things. Try as we might to keep it looking nice, we had three separate racks of wind chimes, an overcrowded wall of salt & pepper shakers (with back-ups spilling over her desk), and so much costume jewelry and other knickknacks on the counters that handing customers the candy they had just ordered was a chore. And she would always find the strangest things to try to sell, from margarita-shaped hummingbird feeders to T-shirts to condiment platters to piggy banks to teddy bears. She even tried to sell a toilet seat once!

She also seemed to sometimes be caught in some kind of strange time warp. She carried rare, old-fashioned candies like horehound drops and divinity. Her cash registers looked like they had been lifted from an ’80s movie, and couldn’t even print receipts for customers; we had to write them by hand. She called the back of a car the “turtle”, and she seemed unaware that it is called the “trunk” by pretty much everyone else. She had an old cell phone that she never used; it just stayed in her purse, turned off. She used land-lines for everything. And she refused to keep a computer at work, or to order anything online, or to have anything to do with the Internet.

Yet she was more to us than just an eccentric boss. She legitimately cared about all of us, and treated us like family. If we needed money, she’d gladly give us more hours or maybe even an advance in an emergency. If we just needed a listening ear, she’d offer hers. She never asked anyone to do anything she hadn’t done herself. She inspired confidence in people, and kept us motivated. She attended our birthday parties, graduations, and other major events. She was loath to fire anyone, and did so only as a last resort.

She even volunteered to help me with one of my earliest assignments as a new college journalism student:

The truth is, she is the reason I was able to attend college at all, or at least without racking up student loan debt. The paychecks I got from her went to my tuition, fees, and textbooks. The money I got in tips went toward bus passes and hot lunches. For six years of my life I worked for her. In that time, I went through so many changes that I feel like a completely different person. When I began my employment, I was about to graduate high school and still quite immature. I had never so much as done dishes before, let alone held a steady job. By the end, I was one of her most  trusted workers.

Thus, it was with great shock and sadness that I heard that she passed away Saturday. She was more than an employer to me. She was in some ways a mentor, in some ways a grandmother, and in some ways a friend. I wouldn’t be exaggerating to say she played a huge role in who I am today. As I, now an adult and a college graduate, begin the next phase of my life, I will miss her. I will miss her laugh. I will miss her colorful Southernisms. I will miss her determination and work ethic. I will miss her empathy and her kindness. I will miss her long stories and her apparent inability to end a conversation. I will miss the eccentric ways she ran her business. I will miss everything about her.

In Memoriam

Savannah Williams


Historic Primary Election Produces Tight Race in 24th District

Yesterday, Californians voted in the first ever primary held under new rules approved by voters over the past four years. Proposition 11, passed in 2008, created a bipartisan Citizen’s Redistricting Commission responsible for shaping the districts that California’s Congressmen and state legislators represent in order to eliminate gerrymandering, while Proposition 14, passed in 2010, eliminated partisan primaries and instead created a system where voters can pick from a  wide range of candidates of whatever party affiliation and the top two candidates run off in the general election. Both of these measures were put into practice for the first time yesterday, as voters took part in the new-style nonpartisan primary for the newly-minted districts drawn up by the commission.

One of these new districts is getting attention from across the United States. The new 24th Congressional District, which covers San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties as well as parts of Ventura County, will see Congressional veteran and Democrat Lois Capps pitted against the Republican former Lieutenant Governor Abel Maldonado in the general election. The unofficial results show Capps taking 44.91% of the vote, with Maldonado winning 33.39%. The other two candidates, Tea Party favorite Chris Mitchum and independent Matt Boutté, won 18.75% and 2.87%, respectively.

Lois Capps, incumbent Democratic Congresswoman

Abel Maldonado, Republican former Lieutenant Governor

The 24th district has neither a clear Democratic nor Republican majority, making the upcoming general election a hotly-contested fight. Maldonado, who was the author of Proposition 14, plans to run on the platform of creating more jobs and getting the economy back on track. Capps, meanwhile, will probably make much of an IRS investigation into Maldonado’s farming business for unpaid taxes.

This will be the first time in many years that Capps will have faced a serious challenge to her Congressional seat, as her district had long been solidly Democratic before the reforms.

Meanwhile, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein cruised to a 44.4% lead in her reelection bid, facing an extremely divided field of 23 candidates, with the second-place finisher, Elizabeth Emken, receiving a mere 12.37% of the vote. Emken will face Feinstein in November. Races for the State Senate and State Assembly, meanwhile, were mere formalities, as there were only two candidates and both will automatically move on to the general election. Still, the winners of these contests were Democrat Bill Monning for State Senate and Republican Katcho Achadjian for State Assembly.

Meanwhile, the vote on Proposition 29, a bill to create a $1-per-pack tax on cigarettes to fund cancer research, was too close to call as of midnight last night, but appears to have been defeated with a 50.8% “No” vote as of this morning. Another ballot measure, Proposition 28, was approved by a wide margin, with 61.4% of the vote. Prop 28 will change the term limits of state legislators. Instead of a maximum of six years in the Senate and eight in the Assembly, legislators will be restricted to 12 years total which may be served in either house.

And in my hometown of Morro Bay, Jamie Irons, a former city planning commissioner, won the race for Mayor with 52.97% of the vote, defeating incumbent Bill Yates, City Councilmember Carla Borchard, and local businessman Joe Yukich. The race for Morro Bay City Council, like those for State Senate and State Assembly, was also a formality as all four candidates automatically qualify for the runoff in November. Still, the results show that incumbent Noah Smukler received 37.12% of the vote, Christine Johnson 31.71%, Joan Solu 17.43%, and James R. Hayes 13.53%.

You can see the full election results here.

Information from The Tribune, The Orange County Register, and Your Central Coast News.

Queen Elizabeth II celebrates six decades on the throne

This weekend, BBC America will be airing a special presentation of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. In honor of her 60 years on the throne, celebrations are being held throughout the United Kingdom and other “Commonwealth realms” that recognize her as their sovereign (i.e. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, and 11 other countries).

In London, a series of celebratory events are scheduled from June 2 to June 5, starting with the Epsom Derby today and including a pageant of 1,000 boats parading up the Thames River, a major televised concert by major British musicians such as Elton John and Paul McCartney, the lighting of 2,012 beacons across her realms, and climaxing with a carriage procession on the final day.

Elizabeth II will be only the second monarch in the history of the United Kingdom to have a diamond jubilee. The only other diamond jubilee was held in 1897 for Queen Victoria. Queen Victoria reigned from 1837 to 1903, her 64 years on the throne the longest reign in British history. Queen Elizabeth II is catching up, though; her mother lived to be 101 years old, so it is possible she might live to surpass Victoria’s record.

Even so, Queen Elizabeth’s 60 year reign is impressive. To put that in perspective, when she first took the throne:

  • Harry S Truman was president of the United States
  • Joseph Stalin was still ruler of the Soviet Union and, well, being Stalin.
  • Europe was still recovering from World War II.
  • Spaceflight was still theoretical, and people still plausibly speculated about the existence of Venusians and Martians.
  • Television was still a very new technology (though many Britons bought a TV set to watch the coronation).
  • Computers were giant machines that filled a whole room.
  • Elvis Presley had not recorded his first song yet.
  • Much of Africa was still under British rule.
  • The Korean war was still being fought.
  • Racial segregation was still “normal” in many parts of the world.

This interactive guide demonstrates just how different the world was in 1952.

Elizabeth II’s reign has seen the break-up of the British Empire into today’s Commonwealth, the rise and fall of rock ‘n’ roll and the hippie movement, the terrorist campaigns of the IRA and other groups over the political status of Northern Ireland, the Falklands War with Argentina, and the current War on Terror and Great Recession.

Through the years Elizabeth II has had her share of personal triumphs and tragedies. She has four children, two of whom were born before her accession and two after. In 1979, her uncle-in-law, the popular Lord Mountbatten, was assassinated by IRA rebels. In 1981 her son, Prince Charles, married Lady Diana Spencer, a woman who reshaped the public image of the monarchy but ultimately fell out of favor and divorced her husband. The queen declared 1992 to be her “annus horibilis” (horrible year) after two of her other children got divorced and Windsor Castle suffered a devastating fire. And who can forget the events after death of Princess Diana, when the royal family’s seclusion from the press very nearly got them overthrown until Prime Minister Tony Blair intervened and saved the monarchy. But of course, the monarchy’s popularity has only improved since then, especially after the marriage of her grandson, Prince William, to the commoner Kate Middleton.

And, of course, she also has her famous lifelong love of Welsh corgis.

During this time, she has also become the most well-traveled monarch in history. She has visited 116 countries around the world, and has been to all of the continents except Antarctica.

One must wonder what she thinks of all the changes in her life and the world around her, but the Queen has never given a press interview and she keeps her personal views extremely private. What we do know is that she has an iPod and a Nintendo Wii, the latter of which she has called “addicting”. Perhaps it is fitting that one of her favorite pastimes mirrors the great changes in her life.

Long live the Queen!

Information from various sources, including Wikipedia, the official website of the British Monarchy, and BBC.