The Middle East Channel

Questions are raised after Australian report of Israel’s “Prisoner X”

Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr has ordered a review of his ministry's handling of a 2010 case in which an Australian man, allegedly a Mossad agent, reportedly hanged himself in a secret Israeli jail. On Wednesday, Carr admitted that the Department of Foreign Affairs knew about the detention of the man referred to as Prisoner X, who the report revealed is likely Ben Zygier. He changed his name to Ben Alon in Israel. Initial reports of his death were leaked in 2010, but the story was highly censored by Israel. On Tuesday, Israeli news organizations were forced to remove content concerning the case, but the ban was partially lifted on Wednesday after Knesset members raised questions. Israel's prime minister's office has declined to comment. According to ABC, Zygier was 34 when he died, and was married to an Israeli woman with two young children. It is unclear why he was incarcerated. He was held at the Ayalon high security prison in central Israel, in a wing constructed to hold Yigal Amir, the Israeli who assassinated former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, with a surveillance system installed to prevent suicide.  


United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay addressed the U.N. Security Council Tuesday calling for action to resolve the conflict in Syria, saying the death toll is approaching 70,000. Severe fighting has continued in Damascus. The government has targeted opposition positions in the neighborhood of Jobar as well as the suburb of Daraya. Russia said it will continue its weapons supplies to the Syrian regime, saying "in the absence of sanctions" it will fulfill its "obligations on contracts for the delivery of military hardware" which it maintains are not offensive weapons, but mainly air defense systems. Meanwhile, Qatar has decided to hand over the Syrian embassy in its capital Doha to the opposition Syrian National Coalition.


  • Iran has announced it is upgrading its centrifuges ahead of renewed negotiations on its nuclear development program set to begin Wednesday.
  • Hundreds of Egyptian police began a strike protesting against President Mohamed Morsi on Tuesday, shutting down headquarters at about seven provincial capitals in a rare case of open dissent.
  • Egyptian security forces have flooded smuggling tunnels between the Sinai and the Palestinian Gaza Strip in efforts to shut them down, angering Hamas leaders.
  • Debt stricken carrier Bahrain Air has announced it will shut down amid political unrest while leaders enter into a new round of reconciliation talks. 

Arguments and Analysis

How to Start a Battalion (in Five Easy Lessons) (Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, London Review of Books)

"In the cramped living room of a run-down flat near the Aleppo frontline, two Syrian rebels sat opposite each other. The one on the left was stout, broad-shouldered, with a neat beard that looked as though it had been outlined in sharp pencil around his throat and cheeks. His shirt and trousers were immaculately pressed and he wore brand-new military webbing - the expensive Turkish kind, not the Syrian knock-off. The rebel sitting opposite him was younger, gaunt and tired-looking. His hands were filthy and his trousers caked in mud and diesel.

The flat had once belonged to an old lady. Traces of a domestic life that had long ceased to exist were scattered around the room and mingled with the possessions of the new occupiers. A mother of pearl ashtray sat next to a pile of walkie-talkies. Small china figurines stood on top of the TV next to a box of cartridges. Guns and ammunition lay on the rickety wooden chairs and a calendar showing faded landscapes hung on the wall. In the bedroom next door clothes were piled on the bed next to crates of ammunition. The stout rebel was shifty, on edge and keen to finish what he came to say and leave quickly. The other looked like a man waiting for a disaster to unfold.

But like a couple trying to conduct the business of their divorce with civility they spent a long time on pleasantries: each asked the other about his village and praised the courage and strength of his people. Outside a machine gun fired relentlessly down the street, interrupted only by the occasional thud of a mortar shell."

Al-Qa'ida and the Jihadi Dynamics in the Sahel (Jean-Pierre Filiu, Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore)

"Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM) was launched in 2007 as the last offshoot of Osama bin Laden's organization. It has therefore attracted significant international interest, especially after murderous suicide attacks in Algiers and repeated abductions of Western nationals in the Sahara. But AQIM media exposure could not mask its failure to live up to its commitment to strike Europe from North Africa. Hence AQIM increasingly bet on its commandos operating in the Sahel region to upgrade its jihadi profile.

In order to understand the complexity of the jihadi dynamics in the Sahel region, one must take into full consideration four specific and interlinked dimensions of those groups and networks:

  • They are led by veterans from the "black decade" of the 1990s in Algeria, who escaped both repression and purges, therefore developing a strong resilience in an extremely inhospitable environment.
  • Those "survivors" were initially smugglers who were in charge of the logistical needs of the jihadi hierarchy in northern Algeria before reaching a militant capacity of their own, enhanced by the extreme mobility of their commandos.
  • This trans-Sahara mobility nurtured increased cooperation with criminal networks active in the region, with repeated exchanges of favors and services, blurring the lines between gangsterism and jihadism.
  • After one generation of activity, Algerian "veterans" and "survivors" are still firmly in command, fueling the popular feeling of a "foreign" occupation in Mali that paved the way for the recent French rollback in Timbuktu and Gao.
The Sahel region became only recently a focus for jihadi escalation. During the 1990s, the jihadi insurgency of the Islamic Armed Group (Groupe Islamique Armé, or GIA) focused on the main cities of coastal Algeria, with the support of activist cells in the countryside and the mountain ranges. The Sahara katiba (battalion) of the GIA was led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, nicknamed "the one-eyed" (Belaouar) because of the wound he claimed to have suffered fighting in Afghanistan from 1991 to 1993 (suspiciously two years after the Soviet withdrawal).  But this katiba was not involved in active combat; its priority was the channeling of weapons and funds to the GIA heartland."


--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images/JACK GUEZ

The Middle East Channel

Egypt’s new mufti

Egypt watchers were briefly all a-twitter yesterday about the appointment of the country's first post-revolutionary mufti. With rumors widespread that a prominent Muslim Brotherhood leader, Abd al-Rahman al-Barr, would get the nod, concerns that the "Brotherhoodization" of the Egyptian state was soon to spread to the official religious establishment. In the end, al-Barr was passed over, but the brief kerfuffle obscures the real long-term struggle likely to take place over Egyptian religious institutions.

Instead of al-Barr, the designee is Shawqi Ibrahim ‘Abd al-Karim, a scholar of Islamic law teaching in Tanta. ‘Abd al-Karim is a figure known to his colleagues but with a low public profile. He has written widely on subjects ranging from the narrowly technical (a comparison between Islamic and civil law on the right to cancel a sale while the contracting parties are still in each other's presence), to the broadly social ("Women and Globalization in the Arabian Peninsula" in which he praises the spread of education among women but decries homosexuality), and to the esoteric (a book on sex selection and sex changes, a surprisingly lively topic among Islamic legal specialists in part because laws governing the family and even prayer are highly gendered, so that it becomes important to know whether one is dealing with a male or a female). 

In fact, it is doubtful that al-Barr was ever all that strong a candidate for the position. In a trip to Egypt last month, I received the impression that he was a possible but unlikely choice. The main reasons for spreading his name were largely political. Some associated with the Council of Senior Religious Scholars (the body making the pick) may have wished to mollify Egypt's Brotherhood president (who formally makes the appointment) that they would give active consideration to a Brotherhood candidate. And Egypt's growing number of Ikhwanophobes, by contrast, wished to sound the alarm about the movement's growing reach.

The rumor mongering was aggravated by widespread confusion about the new procedure for picking the mufti. While the legal provisions are very clear, they are untested and known only to specialists. Misinformation abounded. In a law issued on al-Azhar rushed through by Egypt's new military rulers in January 2012, the newly created Council of Religious Scholars selects the mufti. (Formally, the council forwards the name to President Mohamed Morsi for formal appointment. To my reading, Morsi has little leeway and his approval is essentially a clerical matter, but one could claim that he could refuse the appointment -- and some people in the religious establishment were uncertain if he might push such an interpretation if he were deeply unhappy with the pick.)

And the Council of Senior Religious Scholars itself is a group hand-picked by the current sheikh of al-Azhar. It is tilted toward his orientation (the sheikh is from within the institution, a Sufi, fairly liberal in Azhari terms, critical of Salafism, and distant from the Brotherhood). To be sure, the council is a diverse body and includes various tendencies. But despite some press accounts, it is hardly a Brotherhood preserve and is not, as a body, sympathetic to Salafism.

Some very prominent scholars (including the retiring mufti and one of his predecessors) were appointed to the council. So was Yusuf al-Qaradawi, often erroneously described as the Brotherhood's "spiritual leader." (Al-Qaradawi is treated respectfully by the Brotherhood but hardly directs the organization in either doctrinal or strategic matters; the attributed link appears to stem from his claim that he was offered leadership of the movement some years ago, an account I have not been able to confirm from anyone familiar with the organization.) The most knowledgeable observers see the council as a body as close to the current sheikh, and, since he selected each member, anything else would be a surprise.

But if the brief brouhaha about the mufti's appointment was based on rumor mongering and legal misreadings, the episode should turn our attention to some real and more portentous struggles over the official religious establishment in Egypt.

The first contest will be over the council itself. The mufti's authority is actually fairly limited, but the council has been granted substantial authority by the new al-Azhar law and the new Egyptian constitution. Its membership will likely be more consequential than that of the mufti's office. And the body is incomplete. The sheikh designated 26 individuals for the council, enough to constitute a quorum but leaving 14 vacancies. Morsi made the formal appointment of the sheikh's picks as one of his first acts as president. The sheikh now should complete the formation of the body, but he seems to wish to do so with an eye to the shifting political balance. He appears to be consulting to develop a body that will be both safe and accepted -- and is taking his time doing so. Once the body's membership is completed, it becomes self-perpetuating; current members fill any vacancy. But an isolated body will not only lose respect, it will be politically exposed, meaning that whoever fills the slots will likely have to have one eye on election returns.

And that leads to the second possible context -- over the text of the al-Azhar law itself. That law has many critics. Within al-Azhar, many advocate that the council be elected by the scholars; outside of al-Azhar the law was seen as a power play by the military, and the sheikh, and the Brotherhood vowed to amend it. But the sheikh has been very careful with Egypt's new leadership, and the thunder has gone out of the Brotherhood's rhetoric on the issue. The sheikh and the Brotherhood appear to have reached a modus vivendi for now, but a reconvened parliament (especially one with a powerful Islamist bloc) could take up the issue, especially if the council or al-Azhar accumulates enemies.

Finally, over the longer term, the coloration of al-Azhar might change. At present, this would be among top leadership clusters around the sheikh or around more traditional Azhari scholars. But Brotherhood figures (like al-Barr) dot the deanships and the faculty. Salafis are rare at higher levels but are not unknown among rank and file scholars. The lower one goes, in fact, the more numerous Brotherhood supporters become and even Salafis turn up: in the student body, for instance, the Brotherhood has a strong presence and Salafis a significant one. The top leadership is clearly concerned that with the presidency in Brotherhood hands, the parliament likely with an Islamist majority, and pressure from the lower ranks inside the institution, what it values as the centrist Azhari way may gradually be squeezed in favor of approaches it finds rigid or overly literalist as well as by movements whose political focus is masked in religious garb.

Whether such fears are justified is hard to tell. But it is clear that the struggle over the orientation of religious institutions could last a generation and does not hinge on a single appointment.

Nathan J. Brown is professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University, nonresident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and author of When Victory is Not an Option: Islamist Movements in Arab Politics (Cornell University Press, 2012). He gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Mokhtar Awad, junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment.