Israel lobbying U.S., EU to support Egypt’s military government


The Israeli government is pressing its efforts to convince the United States and the European Union to support the military-backed government in Egypt.

The New York Times reported late Sunday that Israeli ambassadors in Washington and the European capitals will lobby foreign ministers, and that Israeli leaders will urge diplomats to see the Israeli viewpoint that the Egyptian military will prevent a further deterioration of the situation in Cairo.

The newspaper cited an unnamed “senior Israeli official involved in the effort.”

“If you insist on big principles, then you will miss the essential — the essential being putting Egypt back on track at whatever cost,” the official told the Times. “First, save what you can, and then deal with democracy and freedom and so on. At this point it’s army or anarchy.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered government officials to refrain from publicly discussing the situation in Egypt.

Israel reportedly has been lobbying American officials hard to sustain the annual $1.5 billion in U.S. aid to Egypt. President Obama has threatened to withhold the aid over a violent government crackdown on demonstrations in support of ousted President Mohamed Morsi that has resulted in more than 800 deaths since last week.

Last week, Obama canceled a planned joint military exercise with Egypt over the bloodshed.

Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who led the military coup that ousted Morsi, developed close ties with Israel when he headed Egypt’s military intelligence, according to the Times, and has remained in close contact with Israel throughout the recent violence and bloodshed.

Obama condemns violence in Egypt, cancels military exercises


President Barack Obama announced on Thursday that the United States is canceling joint military exercises with Egypt next month, saying normal U.S. cooperation cannot continue in light of the armed forces' bloody crackdown.

“The United States strongly condemns the steps that have been taken by Egypt's interim government and security forces,” Obama said on the Massachusetts island of Martha's Vineyard, where he is on vacation.

“We deplore violence against civilians. We support universal rights essential to human dignity, including the right to peaceful protest,” he said in his first remarks since the crackdown began early Wednesday. At least 525 people have been killed and thousands wounded.

Washington provides $1.3 billion in military aid and about $250 million in economic aid to Egypt every year, which it has been reluctant to cut off for fear of losing leverage there and in the broader region.

Stopping military exercises in Egypt was one clear way the White House could show its displeasure. Other than a previously announced decision to halt delivery of four U.S.-made F-16 fighters, it was the first significant U.S. move to penalize Egypt's military rulers.

Obama said the United States had informed Egyptian authorities it had canceled the joint military drill named “Bright Star” that had been scheduled for next month. He said the state of emergency should be lifted in Egypt and a process of national reconciliation started.

“While we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt, our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back,” Obama said.

“Going forward, I've asked my national security team to assess the implications of the actions taken by the interim government and further steps we may take as necessary with respect to the U.S.-Egyptian relationship.” He did not elaborate.

The military drill, which dates back to 1981, is seen as a cornerstone of U.S.-Egyptian military relations. It began after the Camp David Peace Accords between Egypt and Israel.

Obama, who departed for a game of golf shortly after making his statement, vented frustration that both sides in the Egyptian conflict were blaming the United States for the turmoil in the country since the military ousted Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, on July 3.

The United States has insisted it is not taking sides. But it chose not to condemn Morsi's ouster or call for his reinstatement, leaving the impression that it had tacitly sided with the military and accepted a coup.

“We've been blamed by supporters of Morsi. We've been blamed by the other side as if we are supporters of Morsi. That kind of approach will do nothing to help Egyptians achieve the future that they deserve,” Obama said.

“We want Egypt to succeed. We want a peaceful, democratic, prosperous Egypt. That's our interest. But to achieve that, the Egyptians are going to have to do the work.”

CALLS FOR END TO AID

On Thursday, hundreds of supporters of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood stormed a government building in Cairo and set it ablaze as fury over a security crackdown on the Islamist movement that killed hundreds of people spilled on to the streets.

Egypt, the Arab world's most populous nation, is of strategic importance because of its peace treaty with close U.S. ally Israel and its control of the Suez Canal, a vital waterway for trade and for the U.S. military.

Held every two years, the “Bright Star” exercise also was canceled in 2011 because of the political turmoil in Egypt following the ouster of longtime autocrat and U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak.

Several thousand U.S. troops were slated to participate in the exercise, which was due to begin Sept. 18, said Max Blumenfeld, spokesman for U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East and central Asia. He said past exercises focused on integration of naval forces, airborne operations, field exercises and disposal of explosive ordnance.

Some analysts and lawmakers questioned whether the cancellation of military exercises was enough.

“This falls well short of the fundamental rethinking and reorientation that is necessary right now,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research for the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings.

“If the US wants to reestablish its leverage it will actually have to do something to show it is serious. The first serious step would be cutting aid, then there would be no doubt that finally the US is serious about using its leverage.”

Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat and chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee in charge of foreign aid, said that military aid to Egypt should stop under a U.S. law that triggers an aid cutoff if a military coup has taken place. The administration has repeatedly said it has not determined whether the military's actions in Cairo amounted to a coup.

“While suspending joint military exercises as the president has done is an important step, our law is clear: aid to the Egyptian military should cease unless they restore democracy,” Leahy said in a statement.

The full Senate Appropriations Committee late last month voted to tie aid to Cairo to the restoration of a democratically elected government in Egypt. But the legislation is still working its way through Congress and has not become law.

Reporting by Steve Holland and Jeff Mason in Martha's Vineyard; additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed, Lesley Wroughton, Susan Heavey, Susan Cornwell, Andrea Shalal-Esa and Tabassum Zakaria in Washington; Editing by Warren Strobel and David Storey

U.S. senators urge Egypt dialogue, prisoner release


Two senior U.S. senators delivered a strong message on Tuesday to the Egyptian military, saying it should release political prisoners, start a national dialogue and return the Arab nation swiftly to democratic rule.

Republicans Lindsey Graham and John McCain were sent to Cairo by U.S. President Barack Obama to help resolve the crisis brought on by the army's overthrow of elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi.

They urged Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, many of whose leaders have been jailed including the deposed president himself, to avoid resorting to violence and to join a dialogue on a political way forward.

The two men's mission reflected Washington's anxiety at events in Egypt, a bulwark of its Middle East policy and the first Arab state to make peace with Israel.

But their comments after meeting army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, interim Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei and interim Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi fell well short of an endorsement of their actions.

“The people who are in charge were not elected. The people who were elected are in jail. The status quo is not acceptable,” Graham told a news conference.

They also described Morsi's overthrow as a coup – a definition that is hotly disputed by the rival Egyptian sides and among U.S. officials, and could trigger a cut-off off in the $1.3 billion U.S. military aid Egypt receives each year.

However, “cutting off aid would be the wrong signal at the wrong time,” McCain said.

Addressing both sides, he said: “If you think you can restore legitimacy by violence, you are wrong. Violence will only marginalize you. If you think you can only negotiate with people in jail, that's a huge mistake.”

COOL RESPONSE

A spokesman for the interim government, Sherief Shawki, gave a cool response to the senators' words.

He rejected their characterization of Morsi's overthrow as a coup and said the new authorities, installed by the army, had spelled out a plan for a political transition and new elections.

“There is a roadmap which means that what happened was not a coup and that it was Egyptian people who decided on the roadmap put (forward) by the military and which represents the Egyptian people. We don't want foreign intervention to be imposed on us.”

The government would stick by that plan, he said. He also rejected the call to release jailed Brotherhood members, saying they would be dealt with by the courts.

Egypt has been dangerously divided since the overthrow of Morsi on July 3 following huge demonstrations against his rule.

He became Egypt's first freely elected president in June 2012, 16 months after the overthrow of U.S.-backed strongman Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled for nearly 30 years.

Morsi is now being detained at an undisclosed location and thousands of his supporters remain camped out at two protest sites in Cairo which the government has pledged to break up.

Almost 300 people have been killed in political violence since the overthrow, including 80 shot dead by security forces in a single incident on July 27.

A diplomatic push led by envoys from the United States, the European Union, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates has so far helped to hold off further bloodshed between Morsi's backers and the security forces but not achieved a breakthrough.

McCain said the senators also met members of Morsi's Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“All parties should be part of a national dialogue and reconciliation is the only way to bring out peace in this country, but also in order to take part in that national dialogue those parties should renounce violence,” he said.

U.S. QUANDARY

The crisis has put U.S. policy in a quandary. Mubarak was a close ally who kept Islamist militants under heel and maintained peace with Israel.

Washington was slow to support the popular uprising that ousted him and cautiously welcomed Morsi's election.

But fears that Morsi was trying to establish an Islamist autocracy, coupled with a failure to ease economic hardships afflicting most of Egypt's 84 million people, led to mass street demonstrations, triggering the army move.

On Monday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and European Union envoy Bernardino Leon met jailed Brotherhood deputy leader Khairat El-Shater in the prison where he is being held.

They tried to persuade him to recognize that there was no realistic prospect of Morsi being reinstated and to accept a political compromise. A Brotherhood spokesman said Shater had insisted they should be talking to Morsi and the only solution was the “reversal of the coup”.

Government political adviser Mostafa Hegazy said on Tuesday the authorities would have to deal with the protesters at the Brotherhood camps at Rabaa al-Adawiya and al-Nahda Square.

“The crowds exist not to find a solution or to enter political life but to disrupt everyday life and endanger the future of the nation,” he told the MENA state news agency.

Security forces have promised the protesters safe exit if they quit the camps but have warned their patience is limited.

It is thought unlikely that they would take action before Sunday, the end of Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the close of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Writing by Angus MacSwan; Editing by Mike Collett-White

Egypt broadens Sinai campaign against militants


Egypt’s military said on Wednesday it would broaden its offensive against militants in the Sinai Peninsula, a campaign that has raised concerns in Israel about the movement of heavy armor into the area near its border.

After militants attacked and killed 16 border guards on Aug. 5, Egypt launched an operation using the army and police to raid militant hideouts, arrest suspects and seize weapons, including rockets and other arms, that are rife in the area.

Disorder has spread in Sinai since former President Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow last year. Analysts say Islamists with possible links to al Qaeda have gained a foothold. This has alarmed Israel.

Israeli officials have privately voiced concerns about heavy equipment being sent to areas where there are restrictions on weapon deployments under a 1979 peace treaty.

Egypt has sent hundreds of troops, along with tanks, armored vehicles and helicopters into the North Sinai region since the start of military operations there on Aug.8.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi told Reuters on Monday in his first interview with international media that Egypt was committed to all treaties and, without naming Israel, said no other states should worry about its actions in Sinai.

“As of the morning of Aug. 29, in continuation of the military operation, there will be a redeployment of forces in various locations in Sinai to complete the hunt for terrorist elements,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement.

A military source told Reuters this would involve spreading security forces over a wider area to root out militants.

The campaign is led by the defense minister and head of the armed forces, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, appointed by Morsi in a shake-up of the military top brass on Aug. 12. The Islamist president has promised to restore order.

Sisi briefed Morsi on the Sinai operation on Monday.

The ministry statement on its website said 11 militants had been killed and 23 arrested in the campaign. It said 11 vehicles had been seized, along with ammunition, including five boxes of Israeli-made ammunition, but did not give details.

WEAPONS SMUGGLING

The 1979 peace treaty limits the military presence in the desert peninsula though in recent years Israel has agreed to allow Egypt to deploy more forces there to stem weapons smuggling by Palestinian gunmen and crime.

An Egyptian security source said on Wednesday tanks were being withdrawn from the border area in a move that could calm Israel’s concerns. Three other security sources confirmed this and said the tanks were being moved to another part of Sinai, without giving further details.

No one had yet claimed responsibility for the killing of the border guards. But a Sinai-based Islamist militant organization, the Salafi Jihadi Group – which denies any involvement in the attack – warned the Egyptian army last week that the crackdown would force it to fight back.

Leaders of the Cairo-based Jihad Group, which fought against Mubarak but has since renounced violence, met earlier in the week in Sinai with members of the Salafi Jihadi Group in an attempt to defuse tensions.

“We went to prevent a new rivalry with the state,” said Magdy Salem, a member of the Cairo group. He said the visit was approved by Morsi.

The unrest has occurred mainly in North Sinai, where many people have guns and where Bedouin tribes have long complained of neglect by central government. They say they have seen no benefits from the expanding Sinai tourist resorts.

Mubarak’s military-backed government worked closely with Israel to keep the region under control. Diplomats say security contacts continued after Mubarak’s fall. But Egyptian security sources said Israel should not expect day-to-day reports.

Egypt’s Islamist president removes top generals


Egypt’s new Islamist president Mohamed Mursi dismissed Cairo’s two top generals on Sunday and cancelled a military order that curbed his powers, in a dramatic move that could free him of some of the restrictions of military rule.

It was not clear how far the measures were agreed with the dismissed Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, whose Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had taken over when Hosni Mubarak was deposed – nor how far they would shift the power balance between the generals and Mursi’s long-suppressed Muslim Brotherhood.

A member of the military council told Reuters that Mursi, a moderate Islamist popularly elected in June but with constitutional powers sharply circumscribed in advance by the generals, had consulted Tantawi, 76, and General Sami Enan, 64, the military chief of staff, before ordering both men to retire.

However, coupled with what Mursi’s spokesman described as the cancellation of the constitutional declaration issued just before Mursi’s election, by which Tantawi and his colleagues curbed presidential powers, the surprise move seemed to indicate a substantial reordering of Egypt’s political forces as it waits for a new constitution after six decades of unbroken army rule.

“Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi has been transferred into retirement from today,” presidential spokesman said in a statement, appointing in his place as armed forces chief and defense minister General Abdellatif Sisi.

Enan was replaced General Sidki Sobhi. Both retirees were appointment as advisers to the president.

Enan, long seen as particularly close to the U.S. military which has been the main sponsor of Egypt’s armed forces, and Tantawi, who was Mubarak’s defense minister for 20 years before helping ease him out in the face of street protests 18 months ago, were both appointed as advisers to Mursi.

The changes were effective immediately, presidential spokesman Yasser Ali said.

General Mohamed el-Assar, who sits on the military council, told Reuters: “The decision was based on consultation with the field marshal, and the rest of the military council.”

Mursi, whose victory over a former general prompted concerns in Israel and the West about their alliances with Egypt, also appointed a judge, Mahmoud Mekky, as his vice president. Mekky is a brother of newly appointed Justice Minister Ahmed Mekky, who had been a vocal critic of vote rigging under Mubarak.

Mursi, who has said he will stand by Cairo’s treaties with Israel and others, has shown impatience with the military following violence in the Sinai desert that brought trouble with Israel and the Palestinians’ Gaza Strip enclave this month.

The president, whose own Brotherhood movement renounced violence long ago, sacked Egypt’s intelligence chief last week after an attack in which Islamist militants killed 16 Egyptian border guards before trying to storm the Israeli border.

On Sunday, Egyptian troops killed five Islamist militants after storming their hideout near the isolated border with Israel, security sources and eyewitnesses said.

The troops found the militants in the settlement of al-Goura, about 15 km (10 miles) from the frontier, as they searched for jihadists who killed the 16 border guards a week ago.

The latest clash is part of a security sweep that began on Wednesday and is the biggest military operation in the region since Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel was followed by a 1979 peace treaty which opened the way for massive U.S. aid to Cairo. No one has claimed responsibility for killing the border guards.

Additional reporting by Yasmine Saleh and Marwa Awad; Writing by Alastair Macdonald

Egyptian military’s anti-democratic moves may benefit Israel


Egypt’s military coup is now nearly complete.

That may be distressing for Egyptian democracy, but it could help the Israel-Egypt relationship.

Sunday’s decision by military rulers in Egypt to rewrite the country’s constitution – a move that strips much of the power of the Egyptian presidency — confirms what many skeptics had warned about since Hosni Mubarak was deposed in February 2011: This wasn’t so much a revolution as a military coup.

It was the Egyptian army that played the decisive role during the 2011 uprising, siding with the people against the regime and overthrowing Mubarak. It was the military’s leaders who then assumed control of the country. And it was the army that again intervened this week in the middle of a presidential election that would have delivered control of the country to the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi.

A few days before this weekend’s presidential vote, in which Morsi edged Ahmed Shafik, a former Mubarak-era prime minister and air force general, the military dissolved the country’s Islamic Brotherhood-dominated parliament. It did so by declaring that up to one-third of the legislators were elected illegally. The Brotherhood controlled 47 percent of seats in the body after Islamist parties captured more than 65 percent of the votes In Egypt’s first real democratic elections six months ago.

The moves against the parliament and the presidency make clear that Egypt’s military rulers are unwilling to cede power to a democratically elected government, especially if elections empower the Muslim Brotherhood.

“With this document, Egypt has completely left the realm of the Arab Spring and entered the realm of military dictatorship,” Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said in widely quoted comments.

“It is a soft military coup that unfortunately many people will support out of fear of an Islamist takeover of the state,” Bahgat told The Associated Press.

That may be bad news for democracy and the Egyptian revolution, but it could be good for Israel.

Ever since Mubarak was overthrown, Israeli leaders have wrung their hands over increasingly bellicose signals from its neighbor to the south, once a key ally and broker between Israel and the Palestinians. Leading Egyptian political figures have threatened to cancel or promised to “review” the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.

In April the state-owned Egyptian gas company canceled its contract to supply Israel with natural gas; its pipeline to Israel has been attacked 14 times since the country’s revolution. Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula has been used as a staging ground for terrorist attacks against Israel, including a deadly one on Monday.

If the Muslim Brotherhood, the parent organization of Hamas, were to have taken control of Egypt, Israelis feared that things could get much worse.

After Israel was struck last Friday by Grad rocket attacks, unnamed Israeli security analysts told Haaretz that the Muslim Brotherhood had encouraged the attack. It’s not clear whether the analysis is true or who actually launched the rockets. Neither was it immediately clear who was behind a border attack on Monday that killed an Israeli contractor; Israeli forces returning fire killed two of the attackers from Egypt.

Despite this latest move, it’s far from clear whether Egypt’s military rulers – led by army Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, or SCAF – have successfully fended off the challenge by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Many Egyptians have denounced the dissolution of parliament and unilateral rewriting of the country’s constitution by the military leaders as illegal.

“The SCAF has become a state above the state with wide legislative and executive powers, a veto on constitutional and other political matters, and stands immune to any challenges,” a liberal member of Egypt’s Parliament, Amr Hamzawy, wrote in Arabic comments posted to Twitter and then reported by Egypt’s daily Al-Ahram. “We need to use all peaceful means to challenge this dangerous scenario, as it is a national duty and a necessity.”

Still, the election gives the Brotherhood’s Morsi some modicum of authority. Whether the Brotherhood will use that authority to challenge the army or seek some sort of accommodation with Egypt’s military rulers remains unclear.

Egypt awaits poll results, Tahrir protest starts


Egypt will hear the results of elections which Islamist parties expect to win on Friday and protesters rallied in Cairo to remember 42 people killed in clashes with police last month.

“Without Tahrir, we wouldn’t have had these elections,” said Mohamed Gad, in the Cairo square that was the hub of the revolt that ousted Hosni Mubarak in February. “God willing, the elections will succeed and the revolution will triumph.”

But many of the young people who took to the streets early this year now fear their revolution risks being stolen, either by the army rulers or by well-organized Islamist parties.

The Muslim Brotherhood, banned but semi-tolerated under Mubarak, says its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) expects to win 43 percent of party list votes in the first stage of a complex and lengthy election process that lasts into January.

Many had forecast that the Brotherhood would convert its decades of grassroots social and religious work, as well as its opposition to Mubarak, into a solid electoral showing.

But the Brotherhood’s website also forecast that the Salafi al-Nour party would gain 30 percent of the vote, a shock for some Egyptians, especially minority Christian Copts, who fear it will try to impose strict Islamic codes on society.

Nour said on Thursday it expected 20 percent of the vote.

As in Saudi Arabia, Salafis would want to bar women and Christians from executive posts. They would also ban alcohol, “un-Islamic” art and literature, as well as mixed beach bathing.

If implemented, such curbs would wreck Egypt’s vital tourism industry, which employs about one in eight of the workforce.

More secular-minded Egyptian parties, some of which were only formed after Mubarak’s fall, had always feared that they would not have enough time to put up a credible challenge to their experienced and better-funded Islamist rivals.

The liberal multi-party Egyptian Bloc has said it is on track to secure about a fifth of votes for party lists. The youthful activists who launched into politics after the revolt that toppled Mubarak on February 11 made little impact in the polls.

The first-stage poll results were due to be announced at 8 p.m. (1800 GMT) after successive delays, state television said.

Local monitors have urged stricter procedures for the next two stages of voting so that irregularities are not repeated but said those violations did not void the vote’s legitimacy.

The world is watching the first post-Mubarak election for pointers to change in Egypt, the most populous Arab nation and one hitherto seen as a firm U.S. ally committed to preserving its peace treaty with Israel and fighting Islamist militancy.

The United States, which still gives Egypt about $1.3 billion a year in mostly military aid, has urged the ruling generals to step aside swiftly and make way for civilian rule.

Islamist electoral success in Egypt would underline a trend in North Africa, where moderate Islamists have topped polls in Morocco and post-uprising Tunisia in the last two months.

Egypt’s ruling generals, who have promised civilian rule by July, have said they will keep powers to appoint or fire a cabinet, even after an elected parliament is installed.

The Brotherhood’s FJP seemed to back away from a statement from its leader that the majority in parliament should form a government, saying discussion of the issue was premature.

The FJP says its priorities are ending corruption, reviving the economy and establishing a true democracy in Egypt.

It may not necessarily ally with its Salafi rivals in parliament, perhaps preferring more moderate coalition partners to help reassure Egyptians and foreigners of its pragmatism.

Senior FJP official Essam el-Erian said before the vote that

Salafis, who had kept a low profile and shunned politics during Mubarak’s 30-year rule, would be “a burden for any coalition.”

After Friday prayers, a few thousand demonstrators rallied in Tahrir Square, the hub of the anti-Mubarak revolt, to honor the 42 “martyrs” and push demands that the army step down now.

“I came to thank the youth for what they have done for the country. We have to bow to them,” said Zeinab al-Ghateet, a woman in her 50s wearing an Egyptian flag around her neck.

Kamal al-Ganzouri, asked by the army to form a “national salvation government,” aims to complete the task soon.

Protesters in Tahrir have rejected Ganzouri, 78, saying the army must give up power and let civilians take over now.

“It is unacceptable that after the revolution, an old man comes and governs. We don’t want the army council anymore. they should go back to barracks,” said Menatallah Abdel Meguid, 24.

Crowds chanted: “Run us over with your tanks. Oh country, revolt, revolt, we don’t want (Field Marshal) Tantawi or Ganzouri.”

Egypt Islamists expect gains in post-Mubarak poll


Egyptians voted on Tuesday in a parliamentary election that Islamists hope will sweep them closer to power, even though the army generals who took over from President Hosni Mubarak have yet to step aside.

The election, the first since a revolt ousted Mubarak on February 11, unfolded without the mayhem many had feared after last week’s riots against army rule in which 42 people were killed.

General Ismail Atman, a ruling army council member, said he had no firm figure, but that turnout would exceed 70 percent of the 17 million Egyptians eligible to vote in the first round that began on Monday. “I hope it will reach more than 80 percent by the end of the day,” he told Al Jazeera television.

Atman was also quoted by Al-Shorouk newspaper as saying the election showed the irrelevance of protesters demanding an end to military rule in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and elsewhere.

Les Campbell, of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, one of many groups monitoring the poll, said earlier it was “a fair guess” that turnout would exceed 50 percent, far above the meager showings in rigged Mubarak-era elections.

The United States and its European allies are watching Egypt’s vote torn between hopes that democracy will take root in the most populous Arab nation and worries that Islamists hostile to Israel and the West will ride to power on the ballot box.

They have faulted the generals for using excessive force on protesters and urged them to give way swiftly to civilian rule.

The well-organized Muslim Brotherhood, banned but semi-tolerated under Mubarak, said its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), had done well in the voting so far.

“The Brotherhood party hopes to win 30 percent of parliament,” senior FJP figure Mohamed El-Beltagy told Reuters.

The leader of the ultra-conservative Salafi Islamist al-Nour Party, which hopes to siphon votes from the Brotherhood, said organizational failings meant the party had under-performed.

“We were not dispersed across constituencies, nor were we as close as needed to the voter. Other parties with more experience rallied supporters more effectively,” Emad Abdel Ghafour said in the coastal city of Alexandria, seen as a Salafi stronghold.

But he told Reuters the party still expected to win up to half of Alexandria’s 24 seats in parliament and 70 to 75 nationwide out of the assembly’s 498 elected seats.

Abou Elela Mady, head of the moderate Islamist Wasat Party, made no predictions, but praised the turnout and said the party would accept the result despite electoral violations.

Soldiers guarded one banner-festooned Cairo voting station, where women in Islamic headscarves or Western clothes queued with their families. Judges kept an amiable eye on proceedings.

ISLAMIST VOTE-GETTERS

Islamists did not instigate the Arab uprisings that have shaken Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen, but in the last two months, Islamist parties have come out top in parliamentary elections in Morocco and post-revolutionary Tunisia.

Egyptian Islamists want to emulate those triumphs, but it is unclear how much influence the previously toothless parliament in Cairo can wield while the generals remain in power.

If the election process goes smoothly, the new assembly will enjoy a popular legitimacy the generals lack and may assert itself after rubber-stamping Mubarak’s decisions for 30 years.

“Real politics will be in the hands of the parliament,” said Diaa Rashwan, an Egyptian political analyst.

One general has said parliament will have no power to remove an army-appointed cabinet due to run Egypt’s daily affairs until a promised presidential poll heralds civilian rule by July.

The army council assumed Mubarak’s formidable presidential powers when it eased him from office on February 11. Many Egyptians praised the army’s initial role, but some have grown angry at what they see as its attempts to retain its perks and power.

ELECTORAL VIOLATIONS

The election is taking place in three regional stages, plus run-off votes, in a complex system that requires voters to choose individual candidates as well as party lists. Full results will be announced after voting ends on January 11.

Election monitors have reported logistical hiccups and campaign violations but no serious violence.

Armed with laptops and leaflets, party workers of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing and its Islamist rivals have approached muddled voters to guide them through the balloting system and nudge them toward their candidates.

In the Nile Delta town of Kafr el-Sheikh, Muslim Brotherhood workers were selling cut-price food in a tent where they also distributed flyers naming the FJP candidates in the area.

Some Egyptians yearn for a return to stability, uneasy about the impact of political turmoil on an economy heading toward a crisis sure to worsen the hardship of impoverished millions.

Others worry that resurgent Islamist parties may dominate political life, mold Egypt’s next constitution and threaten social freedoms in what is already a deeply conservative nation of 80 million people whose 10 percent Coptic Christian minority complains of discrimination from the Muslim majority.

Copts, like Muslims, were voting in greater numbers than in the Mubarak era. “Before, the results were known in advance, but now we have to choose our fate,” said Wagdy Youssef, a 45-year-old company manager in Alexandria.

“Copts like others want civilian rule,” he said. “I voted for Muslims because they represented moderate views and stayed away from a few Christians on the lists I saw as extremist.”

As voting resumed in the chilly, rain-swept coastal town of Damietta, Sayed Ibrahim, 30, said he backed the liberal Wafd Party over its main local rival, the Salafi Nour Party.

“I’m voting for Wafd because I don’t want an ultra-religious party that excludes other views,” he said, in jeans and a cap.

Additional reporting by Marwa Awad in Alexandria, Shaimaa Fayed in Damietta and Tom Perry, Patrick Werr, Peter Millership and Edmund Blair in Cairo; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Peter Millership

Egypt army head says military does not want power


Egypt’s army would quit power immediately if the people voted for it in a referendum and a presidential election will be held by mid-2012, the head of the ruling military council said on Tuesday.

In a speech announcing concessions to protesters who massed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demand the army withdraw from power, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi said the council accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf’s cabinet.

“The armed forces, represented by their Supreme Council, do not aspire to govern and put the supreme interest of the country above all considerations,” Tantawi said in the televised address.

He said the army was “completely ready to hand over responsibility immediately, and to return to its original mission to protect the nation if the nation wants that, via a popular referendum, if need be.”

Writing by Marwa Awad and Tom Perry

Who is in the military junta ruling Egypt? More unknowns than knowns


One guy we know, and we’re pretty sure he’s not in charge.

The other guy we don’t know so well, and it looks like he might be in charge.

The other three guys—who knows?

The five figures comprising Egypt’s Supreme Military Council are commanding the rapt attention of a world already transfixed by the unrest that last week unseated President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s autocratic leader for 30 years.

They appeared on state television in a pose typical of the region’s leaders: sitting along a table, ramrod straight and inscrutable. They are now running the Egyptian show, although they have promised speedy elections to replace Mubarak and the parliament they dissolved.

The Sphinx-like TV pose accrued a Sphinx-like riddle in the wake of the sudden transfer of power: Who exactly are they?

Extraordinarily, the Egyptian sources routinely tapped by Westerners for inside information were responding to queries this week with a shrug emblematic of the degree of how much has changed in Egypt. They don’t seem to know much either.

Ehud Ya’ari, an Arab affairs expert with Israel’s Channel 2, said it was because Mubarak for years had played his cards close to his vest. He and a small circle of advisers were the only interlocutors with Israel and the West.

“We have a big problem here: We don’t know the Egyptian army,” Ya’ari told a conference call convened by the Jewish Federations of North America. “The Egyptian army was kept by Mubarak outside all dealing with Israel except for liaison officers in the Sinai. Israelis do not know the Egyptian generals who now form what I would describe as a military junta.”

For the record they are Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the defense minister; Lt. Gen. Sami Hafez Enan, the military chief of staff; Vice Adm. Mohab Mamish, commander of the Navy; Air Marshal Rada Mahmoud Hafez Mohamed, commander of the Air Force; and Lt. Gen. Abd El Aziz Seif-Eideen, commander of the Air Defense.

The two figures emerging as the ones to watch are Tantawi and Enan. They both are known to have served in wars against Israel, in 1967 and 1973. What they did, however, is hardly known, much less the stuff of legend.

Mubarak, by contrast, made his name between those two wars when he resisted Soviet pressure, as Air Force commander, to run raids over the Sinai. That made his reputation as a man wise enough to pick his battles—one that served him well until his fruitless effort to resist calls to resign.

Tantawi, who is in his mid-70s, already has been dubbed “Mubarak’s poodle,” although this might derive simply from his having served in the outgoing government. He is, in any case, a known quantity.

“We know a lot more about Tantawi than Enan in terms of roles they played in the former regime and this regime,” said J. Scott Carpenter, the deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs from 2004 to 2007 and now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

What is known about Tantawi suggests that he is not in control, although he is nominally the most senior officer on the council.

“The officers, from a number of generals and colonels on down, don’t hold him in high regard,” Carpenter said.

Tantawi, trained by the Soviets, is seen as the old guard by a younger generation of officers trained by the United States to be forward thinking, according to Joel Rubin, an analyst with the National Security Network who during the last Bush administration headed the State Department’s Egypt desk.

“He’s perceived as a yes man to Mubarak—not charismatic, not someone perceived as leading a rebellion,” Rubin said.

Tantawi was visible but did not make himself known, Carpenter said.

“I’ve only met him a couple of times,” he said, “and both times I have been struck how he’s not dynamic, hard to converse with, not forthcoming—he doesn’t seem to get it.”

Worse, he apparently had a tin ear when it came to cultivating loyalty.

“He’s mishandled some of the relations he’s had with senior military officers, being late with salary payments, holiday bonuses,” Carpenter said.

Rubin said Enan, believed to be between 64 and 68, had better relations with U.S. officials. He was the point man for military relations with the United States, meaning he handled the requests for equipment through the $1.3 billion in U.S. defense assistance Egypt gets annually—that is believed to comprise as much as 80 percent of the country’s materiel.

Enan was in Washington on just such a consultation with his Pentagon counterparts when the protests erupted on Jan. 25.

“He understands our culture, he’s someone who’s seen as responsible and responsive,” Rubin said.

Carpenter said that was the impression he got from the Americans he spoke to, but he noted that outside of the interactions on defense assistance, not much else was known about Enan.

“Our military perceives him as thoughtful and very active,” Carpenter said. “He was one of the people they were talking to during the run-up” to Mubarak’s ouster, “when they thought there would be real violence.”

One narrative, as related by Rubin, has it that Enan clashed with Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman over who controlled the transition. Under the Suleiman plan, Mubarak would have remained as a purely titular president.

Suleiman had the upper hand until Mubarak, in a defiant Feb. 10 speech, went off script and insisted he was keeping some powers. That led to his formal ouster—and Enan emerging triumphant. Suleiman is now out of the picture.

Carpenter heard the same story, but from American officials. From Egyptian interlocutors he heard that Enan had argued within the military for a tougher line against protesters. The fact that the military held back, according to this narrative, suggests that Enan was overruled.

But by whom?

“No one knows,” Carpenter said.

Israel grows impatient with terror-filled Gaza


Israel’s patience with the growing menace from the Gaza Strip appears to be wearing thin.

Government and military officials spoke openly Sunday of the need to move fast to stop Palestinian terrorists from turning the coastal territory into a “second Lebanon” threatening southern Israel.

At the heart of the concerns is the so-called Philadelphi route, Gaza’s seven-mile-long southern border, which, since Israel’s withdrawal of soldiers and settlers last year, has seen unbridled arms smuggling from neighboring Egypt.

“When we left the Philadelphi route, I said that abandoning it was to open the gates of hell. We might have to find a way to retake it,” Industry and Trade Minister Eli Yishai said Sunday before the weekly Cabinet meeting.
The call was echoed by at least two other ministers. Already, Israeli forces are carrying out pinpoint missions at the border to uncover and destroy underground tunnels that provide the main conduit for Egyptian contraband.

In the southern Gaza town of Rafah, soldiers killed two gunmen Monday who tried to attack Israeli forces working to uncover arms-smuggling tunnels.

Israeli forces also killed at least seven Palestinians in the northern Gaza city of Beit Hanoun. Military sources said the fatalities were members of a Popular Resistance Committees rocket crew that was ambushed by commandos.
However, there is more at stake than the regular rocket barrages by Palestinian terrorists or the fate of an Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, abducted to Gaza on June 25 in a cross-border raid.

Still recovering from the Lebanon war, Israel wants to stop Hamas and other Palestinian factions from adopting Hezbollah’s methods and turning Gaza into a second front against the Jewish state.

“We should prevent Hamas from replicating what happened with Hezbollah in Lebanon. This would have to take place in the coming days or weeks,” said Yom-Tov Samia, a retired Israeli major general who was called up for emergency reserve duty as deputy chief of military forces around Gaza.

Also of concern is Hamas’ threat of further kidnappings. Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar of Hamas told protesters in Gaza over the weekend, “We will abduct more soldiers if Israel does not release Palestinian prisoners.”

Samia called for Israel to retake the Philadelphi route and massively expand its buffer zone to enable a large-scale tunnel hunt. This almost certainly would entail razing Palestinian homes en masse along the frontier.
“There is no other way to control Philadelphi,” Samia told Army Radio. “We must simply go in there and stay there until peace and quiet reign for 25 straight years.”

It’s unclear whether Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is in a position to order such sweeping moves. Israelis remember Olmert as the most vocal champion of the Gaza withdrawal, which was masterminded by his predecessor, Ariel Sharon.
Since the Lebanon war, however, Olmert has made no secret of having to revise his diplomatic vision. With right-wing parties such as Yisrael Beiteinu expected to join the coalition government, the prime minister may have an extra incentive to crack down in Gaza. An alliance with Yisrael Beiteinu was formalized Monday and the Cabinet will vote on it Wednesday. Lieberman would become minister of strategic affairs, a new portfolio dealing primarily with the Iranian nuclear threat.

Political sources said Olmert likely would convene his Security Cabinet Tuesday or Wednesday to decide about a major Philadelphi operation. But few expect Olmert to initiate such an operation before his trip next month to the United States, which will include consultations with President Bush and an appearance at the United Jewish Communities’ 75th General Assembly in Los Angeles.

Then again, the timing may be hijacked by the Palestinians.

“The decision to embark on an operation will be made in Israel an hour after a Kassam kills two small children in Sderot,” Nahum Barnea wrote in Yediot Achronot.

Sderot is an Israeli town just outside Gaza’s border that has been hit repeatedly by Palestinian rockets.

The Officer’s Grin


Gaza 1995. Though my tank brigade is stationed in the Jordan Valley, I am deployed to Rafiah. Rafiah lies in the southern Gaza

Strip, on the Israeli-Egyptian border.

Together with some of my colleagues, I am charged with the mission of delivering weapons to the Palestinian Authority. Some of my fellow soldiers refuse this job, but I volunteer for it. Recently immigrated to Israel from Switzerland, bedazzled by “Oslo” and soaked with hope, I try to comprehend the logic of acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres, or at least not to question it. Weapons, lots of weapons are to be handed out to the Palestinians, so that they can provide quiet and order in the territories. OK then.

I try to ignore the fear that these weapons, handed out to the Palestinians in the course of the “peace process,” might be used against Israelis — as history would evidence later on.

So I travel to Rafiah in winter of 1995. Upon our arrival, I see Israeli officers and representatives of the Palestinian Authority. I am guided to a huge container that is opened. And I do not believe my eyes. Inside the container there are hundreds of guns, all Kalashnikovs, sent from Egypt.

“Foreign aid for the little, suffering brother,” flashes through my head. The brand new “Kalashim,” as they are affectionately named, are of Russian origin, most accurate in hitting their target. My duty is to count these guns, lubricate them and hand them over to the newly appointed Palestinian “officer” waiting next to me.

I start my work, and my hands turn black.

“What doesn’t one do for peace?” I say to myself.

After several hours of counting, cleaning, lubricating and, most of all, perspiring, I deliver the last gun to the Palestinian officer. And just then, something happens that I will never be able to erase from my memory. The man looks at the gun, then lifts his head and looks straight at my face. And then, all of a sudden, he starts to grin. It is a brutal grin, full of malice. My blood runs cold; thoughts flash through my head: How long will we Israelis play this naive game? In the reflection of his teeth I see the raped innocence of the Jewish people and those Arabs who really want peace. It almost feels to me as if sympathy for our naivety, for our foolishness resonated in his grin. In my head it echoes: “Israeli! You know very well that this very gun one day will be pointed against you and your people!”

Paralyzed, I watch the man as he — still grinning to himself — walks to his container, “my” last Kalashnikov in his hands.

On our journey home I cannot speak a word, the following day I cannot eat a bite. In the course of the following months and years there will be nights when I wake up drenched in sweat and see the grinning face of that Palestinian officer in front of me. Especially on those days when Jews are shot like ducks in the streets of Israel by murderous Palestinian terrorists, a thought keeps running through my head: “Perhaps this was your gun? One of your well-lubricated Kalashims?”

Gaza 2005. Over the last years, and especially after living through the second intifada, I, as well as many other Israelis, have become aware of the fact that weapons must not be given into the wrong hands. Specifically in view of the recurring mad cycle of giving weapons to the Palestinians, waiting till they are misused, and confiscating the same weapons some time later in the course of a military action unnecessarily costing many lives. And then, later, we return these weapons as new “endeavors for peace” to the Palestinians — with the next “date of confiscation” probably nothing but a matter of time. Is the handing over of a potentially explosive strip of land perhaps not too different from handing over a weapon?

There is a serious apprehension expressed by many leading military experts that now, after the total pullout, Gaza will become an unprecedented hotbed of terror, just a few kilometers from Israeli towns. Shouldn’t certain preconditions have been imposed on the beneficiaries of this territory prior to a risky handing over of land? Is it reasonable to deliver a gun to a man who publicly threatens to use it against him?

Thank goodness I was not mobilized as a reservist for the Gaza evacuation. I could not have gone there. Not that I am against any pullout from the Gaza Strip (though I considered the plan to evacuate it without any Palestinian reciprocity disastrous and a reward to terrorism), not that I do not appreciate Israeli democracy, not that I have personal feelings against Ariel Sharon. None of that. I simply could not stand to see that grin again.

Emanuel Cohn was born and reared in Basel, Switzerland, and moved to Israel 12 years ago. In his army service he served in the Israel Defense Forces tank corps. He now lives in Jerusalem with his wife, Naomi, and their two children.

World Briefs


Variety Comes Down on Egyptian
Television

Variety, the daily newspaper covering the entertainment industry, admonished Egyptian television in a Nov. 13 editorial for running its 41-part series called “Horseman Without a Horse,” a series which is based on the anti-Semitic tract

“Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” The series has not only come under fire from Jewish groups, but the U.S. government as well. Last week, U.S. lawmakers sent a letter urging Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to condemn an anti-Semitic television program; the Bush administration also has urged Egypt to review the miniseries. This week the entertainment industry weekly jumped into the fray. “Leaders of the U.S. entertainment industry must come up with some sort of suitable admonition to Egyptian state television for running its 41-part series,” Variety Editor-in-Chief Peter Bart wrote. “The U.S. pumps some $2 billion a year in aid to Egypt and Hollywood dispatches a flow of movies and TV shows to that nation, which pretends to be one of the more enlightened centers of the Arab world,” he noted. “But if state-run television in Egypt effectively transforms itself into a prime time propaganda organ, it should hear about it from Hollywood. Loud and Clear.”

Israeli Army Moves Into Nablus

The Israeli army took control of the West Bank city of Nablus. Soldiers, heavy armor and helicopter gunships moved on Nablus early Wednesday morning after the army took control of Tulkarm and an adjacent refugee camp a day earlier. Operation Wheels in Motion is the biggest Israeli military operation in months, according to The Jerusalem Post. Israeli officials said the operation is focusing on Tulkarm and Nablus because the two cities have been linked to Sunday’s attack on a kibbutz in which five Israelis were killed. After taking control of Nablus, soldiers imposed a curfew and began house-to-house searches for terrorists. In a statement, the army said its operation also involves a crackdown on Bir Zeit north of Ramallah.

In another incident early Wednesday, Israeli helicopters fired missiles at a suspected weapons-making workshop in downtown Gaza City. It was the second such strike on the site in two days. There were no reports of casualties.

Report: U.S. Puts Peacemaking On
Hold

The United States reportedly agreed to an Israeli request to put U.S. peacemaking efforts on hold until after Israel’s January elections. Agreement was reached Monday in Washington during a meeting between the head of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s office, Dov Weisglass, and the U.S. national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, according to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.

Netanyahu Pledge Angers Arafat

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat responded angrily to Israeli Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pledge that, if elected prime minister, he would expel Arafat. “Netanyahu has to remember that I am Yasser Arafat and that this is my land and the land of my great-great-grandfathers,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) dismantled 23 settlement outposts in the past month, according to Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. Speaking before the Knesset on Wednesday, Mofaz also said three outposts are currently being evacuated and that the High Court of Justice will soon decide the fate of six others, Israel Radio reported. The IDF is currently investigating the status of 35 other settlement outposts.

Harvard Uninvites Controversial Poet

Harvard’s English department retracted an invitation to a poet who once said West Bank settlers should be “shot dead.” Following student complaints, the department chair, Lawrence Buell, issued a statement saying the reading had been canceled “by mutual consent of the poet and the English Department.” Buell also said he “sincerely regretted the widespread consternation that has arisen as a result” of the invitation to Tom Paulin, who lectures at Oxford University.

The invitation “had been originally decided on last winter solely on the basis of Mr. Paulin’s lifetime accomplishments as a poet,” the statement added. Paulin told an Egyptian newspaper earlier this year that “Brooklyn-born” Jewish settlers should be “shot dead,” according to National Review Online. These settlers are “Nazis, racists, I feel nothing but hatred for them,” he also was quoted as saying. “I can understand how suicide bombers feel.”

Former Bank Guard to be Naval Reservist

A former Swiss bank guard who rescued sensitive Holocaust-era documents from the shredder decided to become a reservist in the U.S. Navy. Christoph Meili moved to the United States after his actions at the bank in January 1997 brought him adulation from the U.S. Jewish community, but prompted death threats in his native Switzerland. Now living in California, Meili recently signed up to be a naval reservist a move that can again get him in hot water back in Switzerland.

A Swiss Foreign Ministry official said it is against the law for a Swiss citizen to serve in a foreign army without the government’s approval. As a result of his actions, Meili could face arrest upon his return to Switzerland. But this is apparently not a concern for Meili. “I will apply for U.S. citizenship very shortly, and therefore I am not afraid,” he told the Swiss daily Blick.

Six Egyptians Charged as Spies

Six people were arrested in Egypt on charges of spying for Israel. Egyptian officials said Wednesday that the six, operating under the cover of a travel agency, had spied for Israel in exchange for money, according to The Associated Press. Earlier this year, two other Egyptian nationals were found guilty of spying for Israel and sentenced to 10 years and 15 years in prison with hard labor. Israel has denied such allegations in the past.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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