Obama, Romney clash over foreign policy in last debate


President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney clashed over U.S. military strength and how to deal with crises in the Middle East in a third and final debate on Monday as polls showed them in deadlock two weeks before the Nov. 6 election.

With one last chance for both men to appeal to millions of voters watching on television, Obama was the aggressor from the start. He criticized the Republican on his proposals on the Middle East, mocking his calls for more ships in the U.S. military and saying Romney wants to bring the United States back to a long-abandoned Cold War stance.

Obama had a biting response when Romney said he would increase the number of ships built by the U.S. Navy, saying the United States should typically have 300 and only had 285.

“Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets,” said Obama.

Obama also said the Republican presidential candidate, by once declaring Russia a “geopolitical foe” of the United States, was seeking to turn back the clock.

“The Cold War has been over for 20 years,” Obama said, turning to Romney as they sat at a table before moderator Bob Schieffer. “When it comes to your foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s.”

Romney, wanting to make no mistakes that could blunt his recent surge in the polls, said Obama's policies toward the Middle East and North Africa were not stopping a resurgence of the threat from al Qaeda in the region.

“Attacking me is not an agenda,” said Romney. “Attacking me is not how we deal with the challenges of the Middle East.”

The two candidates agreed that the United States should defend Israel if Iran attacked the key U.S. ally in the Middle East, but Romney said he would tighten sanctions that are already affecting the Iranian economy.

The Republican, whose central theme throughout the campaign has been a promise to rebuild the weak U.S. economy, repeatedly turned the discussion back to economic matters, saying U.S. national security depended on a strong economy.

But Obama fired back that Romney's economic plan was based on tax cuts that had not had their desired effect in the past. Romney would not be able to balance the budget and increase military spending with such a plan, he said.

“The math simply does not add up,” he said.

'BACKBONE' ON RUSSIA

On Russia, Romney criticized Obama for an open-microphone comment he made to then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have more “flexibility” after America's election.

Instead of showing Russian President Vladimir Putin more flexibility, Romney said, “I'll give him more backbone.”

The two candidates were tied at 46 percent each in the Reuters/Ipsos online daily tracking poll. Other surveys show a similar picture.

Obama came to Boca Raton with the advantage of having led U.S. national security and foreign affairs for the past 3 1/2 years. He gets credit for ending the Iraq war and the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2011.

But Romney had many opportunities to steer the conversation back toward the weak U.S. economy, a topic on which voters see him as more credible.

Egypt’s Islamists claim most seats in run-off vote


Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood said on Wednesday it won most seats in a first-round parliamentary vote, with early tallies suggesting liberals had backed some of its candidates to block hardline Salafis.

The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), which has promised to work with a broad coalition in the new assembly, secured 34 individual seats out of the 45 it contested in the run-offs on Monday and Tuesday, a party source told Reuters.

The Islamist group, which was banned under ousted president Hosni Mubarak, had already won 37 percent of the vote in an initial phase of the multi-pronged election, meaning it is well on course to have the largest bloc of seats in the new assembly.

Its success confirms a trend set by Islamist election wins in post-uprising Tunisia and in Morocco, disappointing many of the democracy activists who led protests that toppled Mubarak.

But the real surprise in the opening ballot was the success of the ultra-conservative Salafi al-Nour party, which secured 24 percent of the vote and went head-to-head with the Brotherhood in 24 of the run-offs.

Official results are not due until Thursday, but leaked tallies suggested secular moderates might have rallied behind the Brotherhood to thwart the Salafis.

Sayyeda Ibrahim, 52, a cook from Cairo, said she voted for a Salafi candidate in last week’s first round but regretted her choice later when she saw him debate with a liberal candidate.

“That bearded fellow is too radical,” she said.

Among the Salafis who lost out was Abdel Moneim el-Shahat, a prominent spokesman for the movement in its base in Egypt’s second city of Alexandria, who was defeated by a Brotherhood-backed rival, local media reported.

Shahat caused uproar among liberal Egyptians for suggesting democracy was “haram” (forbidden) and the country’s ancient Pharaonic statues which draw millions of tourists to the country should be covered up or destroyed as they are idolatrous.

The strong showing by Islamists has unnerved Israel, which called on Egypt this week to preserve their 1979 peace treaty, and also the United States which has backed the peace deal with billions of dollars in military aid for both countries.

The Brotherhood and Salafi al-Nour party share much of the same rhetoric, focused on applying Islamic sharia law as the solution to Egypt’s problems.

But the Brotherhood has emphasized the political reform agenda it shares with a broad range of groups that took part in the uprising at the start of the year and is sounding more open to compromise with liberal forces in parliament.

Some 56 individual seats were up for grabs in the first round of the election, with others assigned to party lists that will eventually account for two thirds of all seats on offer. Two more rounds follow, with the last run-off in mid-January.

Divisions between Islamist rivals has given liberals hope that they might take part in a post-election government and help shape the future constitution.

Parliament’s popular mandate will make it difficult for the military council to ignore, but the army will keep hold of the levers of power until a presidential election in June, after which it has said it would hand over power to civilians.

The army announced on Tuesday it would give more decision-making powers to its new prime minister, Kamal al-Ganzouri, in an apparent attempt to deflect criticism that it is seeking to control the political transition.

Ganzouri, tasked with forming a “government of national salvation” after violent street protests last month, announced a new cabinet with many incumbents keeping their portfolios.

A state-owned newspaper said on Wednesday that Ganzouri had nominated General Mohamed Ibrahim, a former regional security official, to the sensitive role of interior minister, tasked with reforming the police.

Additional reporting by Dina Zayed, Tamim Elyan and Patrick Werr; Editing by Crispian Balmer

Egypt vote tests troubled political transition


Egyptians vote on Monday in the first big test of a transition born in popular revolutionary euphoria that soured into distrust of the generals who replaced their master, Hosni Mubarak.

In the nine months since a revolt ended the ex-president’s 30-year rule, political change in Egypt has faltered, with the military apparently more focused on preserving its power and privilege than on fostering any democratic transformation.

Frustration erupted last week into bloody protests that cost 42 lives and forced the army council to promise civilian rule by July after the parliamentary vote and a presidential poll, now expected in June, much sooner than previously envisaged.

Oppressed under Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties stood aloof from those challenging army rule, unwilling to let anything obstruct elections that may open a route to political power previously beyond their reach.

It is not clear whether voters will punish them for that or whether the Brotherhood’s disciplined organization will enable its newly formed Freedom and Justice Party to triumph over the welter of lesser-known parties and individuals in the race.

Free elections are an intriguing novelty in a nation where the authorities and security forces rigged polls for decades in favor of Mubarak’s now-dissolved National Democratic Party.

A high turnout among Egypt’s 50 million eligible voters could throw up surprises, perhaps revealing whether a silent majority favours stability or the radical overhaul demanded by the youthful protesters who overthrew Mubarak.

Shadi Hamid, research director at the Doha Brookings Center, said the parliamentary vote phased over weeks until January 10 was the first real benchmark of progress in Egypt’s transition.

“It will also tell us how much Egyptians are invested in this political process. If turnout is low, it will mean there is widespread disaffection among Egyptians and they don’t believe that real change is possible through the electoral process.”

Parliament’s lower house will be Egypt’s first nationally elected body since Mubarak’s fall, and those credentials alone may enable it to dilute the military’s monopoly of power.

Yet army council member General Mamdouh Shahin said the new assembly would have no right to remove a government appointed by the council using its “presidential” powers—a stance the new parliament may try to challenge.

On Friday, the army named Kamal Ganzouri to form a new cabinet, a choice rejected by protesters in Tahrir Square demanding that generals step aside immediately in favor of a civilian body to oversee a transition to democracy.

Ganzouri said on Sunday that any parliamentary majority that emerged from the elections may move to install a new government.

The military had envisaged that once upper house polls are completed in March, parliament would pick a constituent assembly to write a constitution to be approved by a referendum before a presidential election. That would have let the generals stay in power until late 2012 or early 2013.

The faster timetable agreed under pressure from the street has thrown up many questions about how the process will unfold and how much influence the army will retain behind the scenes.

The United States and its European allies, which have long valued Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, have urged the generals to step aside swiftly, apparently seeing them as causing, not curing instability in the most populous Arab nation.

Editing by Philippa Fletcher

Egypt votes in first post-Mubarak election


Egyptians voted on Monday in their first election since a popular revolt ousted Hosni Mubarak, amid fears the generals who replaced the deposed leader would try to cling on to power.

In the nine months since the end of Mubarak’s 30-year rule, political change in Egypt has faltered, with the military apparently more focused on preserving its power and privilege than on fostering any democratic transformation.

Frustration erupted last week into violent protests that cost 42 lives and forced the army council to promise civilian rule by July.

In Cairo, Alexandria and other areas, voters stood patiently in long queues, many of them debating Egypt’s political future that for the first time they believed they could shape.

“Aren’t the army officers the ones who protected us during the revolution? What do those slumdogs in Tahrir want?” one woman asked loudly at a polling station in Cairo’s Nasr City.

“Those in Tahrir are young men and women who are the reason why a 61-year-old man like me voted in a parliamentary election for the first time in his life today,” one man replied politely.

About 17 million Egyptians are eligible to vote in the first two-day phase of three rounds of polling for the lower house, which will be completed on January 11.

Oppressed under Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties stood aloof from those challenging army rule, unwilling to let anything obstruct elections that may open a route to political power previously beyond their reach.

“We are at a crossroads,” Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi said on Sunday.

“There are only two routes, the success of elections leading Egypt toward safety or facing dangerous hurdles that we in the armed forces, as part of the Egyptian people, will not allow.”

The United States and its European allies, which have long valued Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, have urged the generals to step aside swiftly, apparently seeing their grip on power as provoking instability in the most populous Arab nation.

Tents of protesters demanding an immediate end to army rule still stood in Tahrir Square, but after heavy overnight rain, the epicenter of the anti-Mubarak revolt was far from crowded.

There were no reports of serious election-day violence. But scuffles among women voters erupted at one Alexandria polling station that opened late because ballot papers had not arrived.

At least 1,000 people were queuing outside one polling station in Cairo’s Zamalek district when it opened at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT). “We are very happy to be part of the election,” said first-time voter Wafa Zaklama, 55. “What was the point before?”

In Alexandria, Egypt’s second city, men and women voted in separate queues. Campaign posters for Islamist parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the Salafi Nour Party and the moderate Wasat Party festooned streets. Troops outnumbered police guarding polling stations.

“This is the first real election in 30 years. Egyptians are making history,” said Walid Atta, 34, an engineer waiting to vote at a school on his way to work in Alexandria.

The segregated voting for men and women in Alexandria and many other places was a reminder of the conservative religious fabric of Egypt’s mainly Muslim society, where Coptic Christians comprise 10 percent of a population of more than 80 million.

A host of parties have been formed since the removal of Mubarak, who routinely rigged elections to ensure that his now-dissolved National Democratic Party dominated parliament.

Under a complex electoral system, voters pick both party lists and individual candidates.

In the Nile Delta city of Damietta, some voters said they would punish the Brotherhood for its perceived opportunism.

“I think the Brotherhood has lost more in the past three months than it built in the last three decades,” said tour operator Ayman Soliman, 35, adding that his vote would go to the moderate Islamist Wasat Party.

Nevertheless, the Brotherhood has formidable advantages that include a disciplined organization, name recognition among a welter of little-known parties and a record of opposing Mubarak long before the popular revolt that swept him from power.

Brotherhood organizers stood near many polling stations with laptops to help people find where they should vote, printing out a paper with the FJP candidate’s name and symbol on the back.

Shadi Hamid, research director at the Doha Brookings Center, said the vote was the first benchmark in Egypt’s transition.

“If turnout is low, it will mean there is widespread disaffection among Egyptians and they don’t believe that real change is possible through the electoral process.”

But Egyptians seemed enthused by the novelty of a vote where the outcome was, for a change, not a foregone conclusion.

“We are seeing clear signs of voter excitement and participation, as evidenced by long lines at polling stations, and it appears to be a genuine contest,” said Les Campbell, of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute.

The army council has promised civilian rule by July after the parliamentary vote and a presidential poll, now expected in June – much sooner than previously envisaged.

Parliament’s lower house will be Egypt’s first nationally elected body since Mubarak’s fall, and those credentials alone may enable it to dilute the military’s monopoly of power.

Yet army council member General Mamdouh Shahin said on Sunday the new assembly would have no right to remove an army-appointed government using its “presidential” powers.

On Friday, the army named Kamal Ganzouri to form a new cabinet, a choice quickly rejected by protesters in Tahrir Square demanding that generals step aside immediately in favor of a civilian body to oversee the transition to democracy.

The military had envisaged that once upper house elections are completed in March, parliament would pick a constituent assembly to write a constitution to be approved by a referendum before a presidential election. That would have let the generals stay in power until late 2012 or early 2013.

Additional reporting by Edmund Blair, Maha El Dahan and Tom Perry in Cairo, Marwa Awad in Alexandria, Shaimaa Fayed in Damietta, Yusri Mohamed in Port Said and Jonathan Wright in Fayoum; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Maria Golovnina

Mubarak says he won’t seek new term


Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said he would not run again and pledged a peaceful transition to his successor.

In an address late Tuesday night, Mubarak said he had already decided not to run before the eruption last week of an uprising that called for the end of his 30-year autocracy.

“I am totally keen on ending my career,” he said in remarks translated by Al Jazeera English. “I tell you in plain terms that in the few months remaining in my current term I will work on the procedures for the transition of power.”

Presidential elections were set for September, but opposition leaders have already said Mubarak must step down immediately.

In his speech, Mubarak said the uprising had its roots in legitimate claims by “honest youth” but had since been manipulated by “political forces” that have led to violence.

He excoriated opponents who have rejected his calls to negotiate the terms of the transfer of power, and swore not to leave.

“I will die on the soil of Egypt that I have defended and will be judged by history,” he said.

Mubarak’s speech came after President Obama reportedly urged him not to run in the coming elections.

Past elections were widely seen as rigged in Mubarak’s favor.

Footage from the protest in Cairo on Feb. 1.