In court, defiant Morsi says he is still Egypt’s president


Ousted Egyptian leader Mohamed Morsi, given his first public forum since his overthrow in a trial where he could face execution, declared on Monday he was still Egypt's legitimate president and shouted: “Down with military rule!”

Morsi, an Islamist who was toppled by the army in July after mass protests against him, spoke with anger and passion, interrupting the first day of his trial repeatedly from his cage during an unruly hearing that the judge adjourned to January 8.

State television aired brief footage of Morsi, the first public sighting of the president since his overthrow in July. Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, had been kept in an undisclosed location since then.

“I am Dr. Mohamed Morsi. I am president of the republic,” said Morsi.

Inside the courtroom, anti-Morsi Egyptian journalists chanted “execution”, “execution” as the deposed leader did his best to challenge the authority of the court, shouting repeatedly at the judge whose legitimacy he refused to accept.

“We are in a state, not a (military) camp. Down down with military rule,” said Morsi. “I am a witness that what is happening is a part of a military coup. I ask the Egyptian judiciary to not act as a cover for the military coup.”

The judge repeatedly asked Morsi to stop giving long speeches. “Please answer the question, do you agree to have a lawyer representing you?” judge Ahmed Sabry said.

Opponents of Egypt's army-backed government deride what they call a “show trial” as part of a campaign to crush Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood movement and revive the police state of Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule that ended in a 2011 popular revolt.

Hundreds of people were killed in the months that followed Morsi's overthrow, including many hundreds shot dead by police and troops who cleared out a weeks-long protest vigil by Morsi's supporters. Thousands of followers have been rounded up.

Egypt has become fiercely divided, with state media lionizing the military and police for their crackdown on “terrorists”, while the Brotherhood, once the country's most powerful political force, has retreated to the shadows where it spent more than 80 years as an underground movement.

Morsi, 62, who like many Islamists was also jailed under Mubarak, now faces charges of inciting violence that could carry the death penalty.

It is the second time Egypt has put an ousted president on trial since 2011, and taking place in the same venue – a police academy hall – where Mubarak has faced retrial over his conviction for complicity in killing protesters.

Morsi and 14 other Islamists face charges of inciting violence relating to the deaths of about a dozen people in clashes outside the presidential palace in December after Morsi enraged his opponents with a decree expanding his powers.

After stepping out of a white van and buttoning his jacket, he appeared in a cage in the courtroom beside other Islamist defendants, who were in white prison garb. They applauded when Morsi arrived, gave the Brotherhood's four-fingered salute, and at times turned their backs on the court.

“This trial is illegitimate,” said Morsi, who was dressed in a dark suit. “This is a criminal military coup.”

Hundreds of Morsi's supporters gathered outside the court building. One sign read: “The people's will has been raped”.

SECURITY PRESENCE

Trial proceedings were not aired on state television and journalists were barred from bringing telephones into the courtroom. Senior Brotherhood figures among the defendants used the chance to tell reporters they had been mistreated.

“I have been kept in my cell for 60 days,” Brotherhood leader Mohamed El-Beltagi told Reuters in the courtroom from inside a cage holding defendants. “I have been held under water in my cell and this has happened to other members.”

Another Islamist in the cage, Alaa Hamza, said he was tortured and lifted his shirt to show reporters what he said were torture marks.

After the hearing, Morsi was taken to Borg al-Arab prison in Alexandria.

The military establishment's return to the forefront of power prompted Washington to cut some military aid, although Washington has not said whether the overthrow was a “coup”, language that would require it to halt aid to one of its biggest clients. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, visiting Cairo on Sunday, expressed guarded optimism about a return to democracy.

The uprising that toppled Mubarak in 2011 had raised hopes that Egypt would embrace democracy and human rights and eventually enjoy economic prosperity.

Instead, the power struggle between the Brotherhood and the army-backed establishment has created more uncertainty in the country of 85 million which has a peace treaty with Israel and controls the Suez Canal. Tourism and investment have collapsed.

INCITING VIOLENCE

The Brotherhood won repeated elections since Mubarak's fall. But millions of Egyptians grew disillusioned with Morsi's troubled one-year rule and took to the streets to demand his resignation. They accused Morsi of usurping power and mismanaging the economy, allegations he denied.

“We didn't see as much misery in the 30 years of Mubarak as much as we saw in one year of Morsi,” said Ali, a driver who was sipping morning tea at a cafe in downtown Cairo.

“He fooled us with his year in power.”

The army, saying it was responding to the will of the people, deposed Morsi and announced a political road map it said would lead to free and fair elections.

But the promises have not reassured Western allies, who had hoped six decades of rule by military men would be broken. Army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who toppled Morsi, is very popular, and few doubt he would win if he runs for president.

The Brotherhood maintains Morsi's removal was a coup that reversed the democratic gains made after Mubarak's overthrow.

Mohamed Damaty, a volunteer defence lawyer for Morsi, said:

“It is clear that the goal of this trial as well as any action against the Muslim Brotherhood is to wipe out the group as well as any Islamist movements from political life.”

Additional reporting by Hadeel al-Shalchi, Asma Alsharif, Shadia Nasralla and Shaimaa Fayed; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Michael Georgy, Giles Elgood and Peter Graff

The two faces of Morsi: Power-hungry peace broker?


Is Morsi morphing into Mubarak?

Last week Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi earned U.S. kudos that were quickly followed by expressions of concern — the former for brokering the truce that ended the Israel-Hamas mini-war, the latter for then decreeing himself absolute powers.

It’s a sequence of events that has some in Washington wondering whether Morsi aims for the kind of relationship that helped prop up his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, for decades until the 2011 revolution: regional stability in exchange for unfettered rule by Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement that brought him to power.

“It is unclear whether this represents a mistake or an overreach,” said Jon Alterman, the director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, referring to Morsi’s declaration over the weekend removing judicial oversight of his decisions until a constitution is in place.

Alterman leaned toward “mistake,” noting that Morsi and his aides have scrambled to reassure opponents that the decree is temporary. But Alterman added that such a move inevitably reminded Egyptians of Mubarak’s excesses.

“From what he said and how he talked about it, it seems he was principally motivated by the threat to continuing the process” posed by deep disagreements over the constitution “rather by a desire to have unchecked power,” Alterman said. “The problem is that in doing so, he raised the worst fears of the return of Mubarak-style governance.”

Others were less sanguine. Eric Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, argued that the Obama administration's hopes for a Muslim Brotherhood leadership that would respect democracy were naive.

“Washington ought to have known by now that ‘democratic dialogue’ is virtually impossible with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is now mobilizing throughout Egypt to defend Morsi’s edict,” Trager wrote in The New Republic. “The reason is that it is not a ‘democratic party’ at all. Rather, it is a cultish organization that was never likely to moderate once it had grasped power.”

On Nov. 21, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was lavishing praise on Morsi for his role in ending the fighting between Israel and Hamas.

“I want to thank President Morsi for his personal leadership to de-escalate the situation in Gaza and end the violence,” Clinton said in Cairo. “This is a critical moment for the region. Egypt’s new government is assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone of regional stability and peace.”

Israeli leaders also praised the Egyptian president's role in securing the cease-fire. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his “appreciation,” and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said that Morsi deserves “a word of thanks.”

The expressions of gratitude were striking given the Israeli leadership's strong suspicion of the Morsi government in light of the Muslim Brotherhood's traditional animosity toward Israel and affinity for Hamas, an offshoot of the Egyptian Islamist movement.

Such concerns were heightened after the Brotherhood's top leader called in October for a “jihad for the recovery of Jerusalem” and the surfacing of video of Morsi nodding along to an imam's anti-Jewish sermon. And in his speech at the opening of the U.N. General Assembly, Morsi omitted an affirmation of the Arab League's initiative for a comprehensive peace with Israel that had been present in an advance copy of his remarks distributed by Egypt's U.N. mission — a fact later discovered by JTA.

During the Gaza conflict itself, Morsi's government expressed strong public support for Hamas and condemned Israel. Egypt's prime minister traveled to Gaza in a show of solidarity during the early days of the fighting. But Morsi's assistance in brokering the cease-fire offered a measure of reassurance that his government would take a pragmatic approach toward dealing with Israel.

The day after the cease-fire deal was reached, however, international gratitude morphed into expressions of concern about Morsi's path at home.

On Nov. 22, Morsi issued his decree removing judicial review, sparking massive protests in Egypt and causing Clinton to voice concerns the next day about the move's implications for Egyptian democracy.

“The decisions and declarations announced on November 22 raise concerns for many Egyptians and for the international community,” she said in a statement. “One of the aspirations of the revolution was to ensure that power would not be overly concentrated in the hands of any one person or institution.”

Jason Isaacson, the international affairs director for the American Jewish Committee, said that Morsi posed a dilemma for Israel and its American allies who want to maintain the 33 years of peace between Egypt and Israel and fear imposition of a Muslim Brotherhood dictatorship.

“The attempt to change the power structure appears to have been in the works for some time,” Isaacson said Monday, speaking from Cairo, where he had just met with Egyptian government officials, diplomats and members of the country’s tiny Jewish community.

“It did not disrupt the achievement of the cease-fire, for which you just give them credit. But obviously, [the decree] raises concerns about human rights and the rule of law. Those who have a stake in protecting the principles of democracy and in human rights, and in preserving the Egyptian role in the Middle East peace treaty should stay engaged with Egypt and express concerns when concerns are felt.”

U.S. lawmakers already were threatening to redirect assistance from Egypt’s military to democracy promotion.

“This is not what the United States of America and taxpayers expect, and our dollars will be directly related to the progress towards democracy which you promised to the people of Egypt when your party and you were elected president,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told “Fox News Sunday.”

Ori Nir, a spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, the American affiliate of the dovish Israeli movement established in the wake of the Israel-Egypt peace agreement, said that cutting U.S. aid would be counterproductive.

“Our focus in terms of aid to Egypt has to do with fulfilling the terms of the peace agreement Egypt signed with Israel,” he said, adding that outside actors would likely not be able to influence Morsi’s domestic policies in any case.

“The extent to which he will be another dictator has to do with the dynamic between him and the Egyptian public and less so his foreign relations,” Nir said. “One has to hope that the Egyptian public, which has shown incredible fortitude and courage, will reapply that and will demand democracy and leadership that is accountable to the public.”

That, Alterman of CSIS said, is already playing out, noting the persistent protests against Morsi’s decree.

“The fact that this became contentious is a good thing and reflects a broader trend in Egypt that people are much more willing to protest than was ever the case before,” he said.

Protests after “Pharaoh” Morsi assumes powers in Egypt


Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's decision to assume sweeping powers caused fury amongst his opponents and prompted violent clashes in central Cairo and other cities on Friday.

Police fired tear gas near Cairo's Tahrir Square, heart of the 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, where thousands demanded Morsi quit and accused him of launching a “coup”. There were violent protests in Alexandria, Port Said and Suez.

Opponents accused Morsi, who has issued a decree that puts his decisions above legal challenge until a new parliament is elected, of being the new Mubarak and hijacking the revolution.

“The people want to bring down the regime,” shouted protesters in Tahrir, echoing a chant used in the uprising that forced Mubarak to step down. “Get out, Morsi,” they chanted, along with “Mubarak tell Morsi, jail comes after the throne.”

Morsi's aides said the presidential decree was intended to speed up a protracted transition that has been hindered by legal obstacles but Morsi's rivals condemned him as an autocratic pharaoh who wanted to impose his Islamist vision on Egypt.

“I am for all Egyptians. I will not be biased against any son of Egypt,” Morsi said on a stage outside the presidential palace, adding that he was working for social and economic stability and the rotation of power.

“Opposition in Egypt does not worry me, but it has to be real and strong,” he said, seeking to placate his critics and telling Egyptians that he was committed to the revolution. “Go forward, always forward … to a new Egypt.”

Buoyed by accolades from around the world for mediating a truce between Hamas and Israel in the Gaza Strip, Morsi on Thursday ordered that an Islamist-dominated assembly writing the new constitution could not be dissolved by legal challenges.

“Morsi a 'temporary' dictator,” was the headline in the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm.

Morsi, an Islamist whose roots are in the Muslim Brotherhood, also gave himself wide powers that allowed him to sack the unpopular general prosecutor and opened the door for a retrial for Mubarak and his aides.

The president's decree aimed to end the logjam and push Egypt, the Arab world's most populous nation, more quickly along its democratic path, the presidential spokesman said.

“President Morsi said we must go out of the bottleneck without breaking the bottle,” Yasser Ali told Reuters.

TURBULENCE AND TURMOIL

The president's decree said any decrees he issued while no parliament sat could not be challenged, moves that consolidated his power but look set to polarize Egypt further, threatening more turbulence in a nation at the heart of the Arab Spring.

The turmoil has weighed heavily on Egypt's faltering economy that was thrown a lifeline this week when a preliminary deal was reached with the International Monetary Fund for a $4.8 billion loan. But it also means unpopular economic measures.

In Alexandria, north of Cairo, protesters ransacked an office of the Brotherhood's political party, burning books and chairs in the street. Supporters of Morsi and opponents clashed elsewhere in the city, leaving 12 injured.

A party building was also attacked by stone-throwing protesters in Port Said, and demonstrators in Suez threw petrol bombs that burned banners outside the party building.

Morsi's decree is bound to worry Western allies, particularly the United States, a generous benefactor to Egypt's army, which praised Egypt for its part in bringing Israelis and Palestinians to a ceasefire on Wednesday.

The West may become concerned about measures that, for example, undermine judicial independence. The European Union urged Morsi to respect the democratic process.

“We are very concerned about the possible huge ramifications of this declaration on human rights and the rule of law in Egypt,” Rupert Colville, spokesman for the U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay, said at the United Nations in Geneva.

The United States has been concerned about the fate of what was once a close ally under Mubarak, who preserved Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel. The Gaza deal has reassured Washington but the deepening polarization of the nation will be a worry.

“ANOTHER DICTATOR”

“The decree is basically a coup on state institutions and the rule of law that is likely to undermine the revolution and the transition to democracy,” said Mervat Ahmed, an independent activist in Tahrir protesting against the decree. “I worry Morsi will be another dictator like the one before him.”

Leading liberal Mohamed ElBaradei, who joined other politicians on Thursday night to demand the decree was withdrawn, wrote on his Twitter account that Morsi had “usurped all state powers and appointed himself Egypt's new pharaoh”.

Almost two years after Mubarak was toppled and about five months since Morsi took office, propelled to the post by the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt has no permanent constitution, which must be in place before new parliamentary elections are held.

The last parliament, which sat for the first time earlier this year, was dissolved after a court declared it void. It was dominated by the Brotherhood's political party.

An assembly drawing up the constitution has yet to complete its work. Many liberals, Christians and others have walked out accusing the Islamists who dominate it of ignoring their voices over the extent that Islam should be enshrined in the new state.

Opponents call for the assembly to be scrapped and remade. Morsi's decree protects the existing one and extends the deadline for drafting a document by two months, pushing it back to February, further delaying a new parliamentary election.

Explaining the rationale behind the moves, the presidential spokesman said: “This means ending the period of constitutional instability to arrive at a state with a written constitution, an elected president and parliament.”

“THIS IS NOT THE REMEDY”

Analyst Seif El Din Abdel Fatah said the decree targeted the judiciary which had reversed, for example, an earlier Morsi decision to remove the prosecutor.

Morsi, who is now protected by his new decree from judicial reversals, said the judiciary contained honorable men but said he would uncover corrupt elements. He also said he would ensure independence for the judicial, executive and legislative powers.

Although many of Morsi's opponents also opposed the sacked prosecutor, whom they blamed for shortcomings in prosecuting Mubarak and his aides, and also want judicial reform, they say a draconian presidential decree was not the way to do it.

“There was a disease but this is not the remedy,” said Hassan Nafaa, a liberal-minded political science professor and activist at Cairo University.

Additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva and Sebastian Moffett in Brussels; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Peter Millership and Giles Elgood

Romney’s Libya comments landed with a thud, according to poll


Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney was the loser in a political fight over U.S. reaction to attacks last week on American diplomatic compounds in Libya and Egypt, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll on Tuesday.

Four in 10 U.S. voters felt less favorably toward Romney after hearing about his criticism of President Barack Obama's handling of the attacks in which the U.S. ambassador to Libya was killed.

Only 26 percent of the registered voters polled felt worse about Obama after hearing about the Democrat's comments about the violence in the Middle East, the survey said.

“Romney probably did not do anything to shore up his foreign policy cred on this particular issue,” Ipsos pollster Julia Clark said, but she noted that foreign policy was typically low on lists of the issues most important to American voters.

Romney took heavy criticism for issuing a statement accusing Obama of sympathizing with Islamists who waged the attacks on U.S. diplomatic compounds in Egypt and Libya.

For his part, Obama vowed to work with the Libyan government to bring to justice the killers of the ambassador and three other Americans.

The poll found that 37 percent of voters felt more favorable toward Obama after hearing about his remarks, versus 29 percent who felt favorable about Romney after hearing about his statement.

The flap last week started a tough period for Romney, who struggled to stabilize his reeling campaign after a secretly recorded video showed him belittling Obama's supporters, raising questions about his ability to come from behind and win the Nov. 6 election.

The poll surveyed 792 registered voters.

The precision of the Reuters/Ipsos online polls is measured using a credibility interval. In this case, the poll has a credibility interval of plus or minus 4.0 percentage points for all respondents. (Editing by Alistair Bell and Eric Beech)

Egypt’s President Morsi to decline Israel visit invitation


A day after Israel’s foreign minister called on Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi to visit Israel, a Muslim Brotherhood official called such a visit impossible.

“There is no possibility for Morsi to visit the Zionist entity,” Gamal Heshmat of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party told an Egyptian online news magazine, Ynet reported.

“President Morsi’s patriotism will not allow him to do so,” Heshmat said, saying that the presidential palace will turn down the invitation,

Avigdor Lieberman issued the invitation Tuesday during a speech at a legal conference. He called for the visit after Morsi said in an interview Monday with Reuters that he would not attempt to overturn the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s military said Wednesday that it would expand its counterattack against terrorists in the Sinai Peninsula that have launched attacks on both the Egyptian military and Israel. The offensive could involve bringing more military hardware into the area in contravention of the peace treaty. Egypt and Israel reportedly have been in regular contact over the redeployments.

Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi wins presidency in Egypt


Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was declared the winner of Egypt’s presidential race in its first democratic elections.

Egypt’s electoral commission on Sunday said Morsi was the victor and would be sworn in as president. Morsi reportedly won with 52 percent of the vote.

Morsi and Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister of deposed President Hosni Mubarak and the candidate with the tacit backing of the military, both had claimed victory after the polls closed. The commission reportedly spent the last week reviewing complaints of election violations.

Mubarak was deposed in uprisings that began in February 2011. He is in a coma in a military prison.

Military rulers in Egypt, who have run the country since Mubarak’s departure, rewrote the country’s constitution last week, stripping much of the power of the Egyptian presidency.

“Israel appreciates the democratic process in Egypt and respects the results of the presidential elections. Israel looks forward to continuing cooperation with the Egyptian government on the basis of the peace treaty between the two countries, which is a joint interest of both peoples and contributes to regional stability,” a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office in Israel said following the announcement.

Military man has Egypt presidency in sights


Ahmed Shafik’s campaign to succeed Hosni Mubarak as president of Egypt did not include a stopover in Tahrir Square.

Birthplace of the uprising that toppled the autocratic leader and now the rallying point for an unfinished revolution, Tahrir has seethed with hostility to a man seen by many as a Mubarak offshoot who would reverse progress to democracy.

Shafik’s critics say influence wielded by Egypt’s interim army rulers got him as far as this weekend’s run-off against the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsy.

Suspicion that powerful forces are lining up behind the former air force commander deepened on Thursday when Egypt’s highest court overturned a law that would have barred him from the presidency and declared a parliamentary vote won by Islamists as void.

But there is real appeal to his law-and-order message for millions of Egyptians fed up with social and political turmoil since the collapse of Mubarak’s heavy-handed security apparatus in last year’s popular uprising.

There is also the fear, not least among Egypt’s 10 percent Christian minority, of rising Islamist power that Shafik has portrayed as a dangerous threat.

In his last appeals for votes before Friday’s close of official campaigning, Shafik pledged to “address chaos and return stability”, but also claimed the mantle of the uprising for himself, promising to bring its dividends to all Egyptians.

Yet Shafik, 70, remains a divisive figure whose repeated expressions of support for the uprising are met with indignation by the youthful revolutionaries who led it.

Many recall his offer as prime minister of “sweets and chocolates” for the protesters in Tahrir, proffered while they were mourning comrades shot dead by riot police.

After the first round of the presidential election last month, he tried to reach out again to his staunchest critics, saying: “Your revolution was stolen… I pledge to return its fruits to your hands.”

A state electoral committee said Shafik came second in last month’s opening round of Egypt’s first free presidential election. Turnout was 46 percent.

It said Morsy won 24.3 percent of the vote and Shafik 23.3 percent, knocking more moderate candidates out of the race.

Many Shafik supporters come not from the political hotbed of Cairo and other cities, but from the countryside, where voter concerns about security and order tend to be strongest.

Successive attacks on his campaign offices drew defiance from Shafik that played up to his no-nonsense image.

“Do they think that by burning Shafik’s headquarters, they will burn Shafik? Forget it,” he told reporters early this month before evoking another campaign refrain – fear of the unknown.

“The Brotherhood represents the darkness and secrets and nobody knows who they are and what they do… I represent Egypt, all of Egypt,” he said.

EXPERIENCE

Shafik, who favors open-necked shirts, stood alongside relatives of Mubarak’s two predecessors, including the wife of Anwar Sadat and daughter of Gamal Abdel Nasser, at an event on Wednesday, hinting at a continuity of power that a Morsy win would rupture.

He has vowed to uphold Sadat’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel, saying: “I object to Israel’s current actions, but I am a man who honors past agreements.”

He says he has the military and political experience to lead Egypt into a new democratic era, yet his links to Mubarak have polarized voters. He sees himself as slotting into Egypt’s 60-year-old tradition of drawing presidents from the military.

“You cannot suddenly bring a civilian man with no relation or knowledge of military life and make him president and supreme commander of the armed forces,” Shafik told Reuters earlier this year, saying he could ensure a “smooth transition”.

The military council that took over from Mubarak has promised to hand over to a new president by July, but the army is expected to wield political influence for years to come.

“Civilians may be in a hurry and they think that as soon as the new president is elected he will act freely of the military. No, this will not be the case,” Shafik declared.

But the idea of Shafik taking power angers many Egyptians who see him as a tool of the army and the Mubarak old guard who would roll back all the uprising’s fragile gains.

Protesters threw stones and shoes at him when he voted in Cairo last month. “The coward is here. The criminal is here!” they chanted. “Down with military rule!” Shafik was unhurt.

NO APOLOGIES

He makes no secret of his “good relations” with army chief Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, saying he consulted him before deciding whether to run.

Shafik has openly expressed his admiration for Mubarak, making no apologies for describing the former president as his role model, after his own father, in a 2010 newspaper interview.

“See what I said? And I will keep telling you this until the last day in my life, and for a reason: he had great courage,” Shafik told al-Hayat television when queried about the remark.

Mubarak named Shafik prime minister in a last-ditch attempt to placate protesters. A few days later the president stepped down. Shafik lasted another three weeks before he too resigned.

In a military career spanning four decades, Shafik served in wars with Israel and is credited with shooting down an Israeli aircraft in the 1973 war.

When he led the air force in the 1990s, he sought to modernize it with more advanced weapons. Some Egyptian officials say Washington, which gives Egypt $1.3 billion a year in military aid, opposed some plans because of Israeli objections.

As civil aviation minister from 2002 to 2011, he overhauled state airline EgyptAir and improved the country’s airports.

(Additional reporting by Shaimaa Fayed; Writing by Edmund Blair and Tom Pfeiffer; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Egypt’s Mubarak sentenced to life, protests erupt


Hosni Mubarak, toppled by an uprising last year after 30 years ruling Egypt, was sentenced to life imprisonment on Saturday for his role in killing protesters after a trial that sets a precedent for holding Middle East autocrats to account.

But it was not enough for thousands of Egyptians who poured onto the streets afterwards in a nation already on edge before a deciding presidential vote in two weeks. Some wanted Mubarak executed, others feared the judge’s ruling exposed weaknesses in the case that could let the ex-military strongman off on appeal.

Wearing dark glasses, the 84-year-old Mubarak was wheeled into a courtroom cage on a hospital stretcher to join co-defendants including his two sons Alaa and Gamal, former Interior Minister Habib al-Adli and six security officials.

Addressing the hushed courtroom, Judge Ahmed Refaat said: “The court has ordered a punishment for Hosni Mubarak of life in prison based on charges of participating in crimes of killing and attempted killing.”

Propped up on the stretcher and stony-faced during the verdict, the only words the former air force commander uttered were to acknowledge to the judge over a microphone that he was present before the ruling was read out. Afterwards, he was whisked off by helicopter to a prison hospital.

His two sons, businessman Alaa, and Gamal, a former banker was once seen as being groomed for president before his father was toppled on February 11, 2011, had corruption charges quashed, but stay in jail over another case referred to court last week.

Refaat sentenced Adli, whose police force was hated for the brutal tactics used against the revolt, to life in prison. About 850 people were killed in the 18-day uprising against Mubarak.

But the judge acquitted the senior security officials for lack of evidence, a decision that worried lawyers for victims’ families who said that could help Mubarak win any appeal.

Businessman and Mubarak ally Hussein Salem, being tried in absentia, was also acquitted of corruption charges.

It was the first time an ousted Arab leader had faced an ordinary court in person since a wave of uprisings shook the Arab world last year, sweeping away four entrenched rulers.

State television said Mubarak suffered a “health crisis” when he was flown to Cairo’s Tora prison, where he was admitted to a hospital facility. Mubarak had been held at a luxurious military-run hospital during the 10-month trial.

ONCE FETED, NOW FALLEN

A medical source said Mubarak argued with those around him when he landed at Tora, refusing to leave the aircraft. Mubarak always appeared in court sessions on a stretcher but his ailment has not been defined.

Long feted by Arab leaders and his U.S. and other Western allies as a lynchpin politician who offered stability in a turbulent region, Mubarak’s ousting has helped redraw the Middle East’s political map and let Islamists he once repressed sweep up parliamentary seats in the Arab world’s most populous state.

The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s biggest Islamist group, is now fielding one of the two challengers in a fraught run-off vote for the presidency against Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, who like his former boss once led the air force.

Unlike elections in Mubarak’s time, that were routinely rigged and the outcome guaranteed, no one can be sure who will emerge victor in the June 16 and 17 run-off that has polarized the nation, leaving many worrying both about Islamist rule and the alternative of handing power back to a former military man.

Refaat opened proceedings by hailing Egyptians for removing the only leader many of them had known. Mubarak came to power in 1981 after his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated by Islamists angry at Egypt’s 1979 peace deal with Israel.

“The people of Egypt woke on Tuesday, January 25, 2011, to a new dawn, hoping that they would be able to breathe fresh air … after 30 years of deep, deep, deep darkness,” he said, referring to the day the uprising erupted.

Yet many Egyptians are still waiting for the light – the chaos that erupted in court after the ruling typifying a messy political transition that has been led by the military. Generals say they will hand over power to a new president by July 1.

After a silence during sentencing, scuffles broke out inside the court between security officers and people chanting “Void, void” and “The people want the cleansing of the judiciary”.

Rather than a healing experience that many Egyptians wanted, many saw the trial that acquitted top security officials as showing how much of Mubarak’s old order was still in place.

Protesters gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, focus for the uprising that drove Mubarak out. In Alexandria, demonstrators chanted: “We are done with talk, we want an execution!”

Al Jazeera reported that Mubarak would lodge an appeal. His lawyers could not be reached immediately for comment.

BROTHERHOOD WANTS RE-TRIAL

Yet some Egyptians said Mubarak’s sentencing was enough, even if they were unhappy security officials were off the hook.

“I think the verdict on Mubarak is fair, he is over 80 years old and a life in prison verdict is a hard one, as it means he will certainly spend all his remaining years in jail,” said Ahmed Raouf, 30, who works at a private Cairo computer firm.

Brotherhood presidential candidate Mohamed Mursi promised in a news conference he would deliver “retribution for the martyrs” and would dig up evidence to try those responsible for killings.

“The blood of the martyrs will keep boiling in my veins,” he said, painting himself as the choice for revolutionaries and those seeking change in the presidential race.

Ahmed Shafiq, appointed premier in the last days of Mubarak’s rule and who calls the ex-president a role model, said on his Facebook page the trial showed no one was above the law.

“This verdict brings Egypt back to its leading regional role as the country witnesses the first condemnation of an Arab pharaoh who ruled for 30 years,” said Nabil Abdel Fattah from the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

But he said the verdict would be a political football in the election. He said Mursi wanted to show he was the only one who could reform the system and Shafiq would seek to prove that this showed the judiciary could deliver a tough sentence, despite criticism of the ruling by protesters.

Lawyers acting for the families of victims said the acquittal of the six security officials showed the weakness of the prosecution case. They said the sentence was designed to appease public anger, but could be overturned at appeal.

“Regarding accusations against the police leadership, the court is of the opinion that none of the actors who committed the crimes of murder were caught during or after the events, so there is no direct evidence for the charges,” the judge said.

Charges against the six included complicity in killing protesters and failing to prevent damage to public property.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said the ruling “sends a powerful message to Egypt’s future leaders that they are not above the law”. But it said the acquittals suggested a prosecution failure to fully investigate killings of protesters.

Few Egyptians had expected Mubarak to be put to death, although protesters have often hung his effigy from lamp posts.

Hanafi el-Sayed, whose 27-year-old son was killed early in the uprising, travelled from Alexandria for the trial.

“I want nothing less than the death penalty for Mubarak. Anything less and we will not be silent and the revolution will break out again,” he said shortly before the verdict.

Additional reporting by Yasmine, Saleh, Tom Perry, Patrick Werr and Marwa Awad; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Alistair Lyon and Ralph Gowling

Egypt holds first round of voting in presidential election


Egypt is holding its first round of balloting for its first presidential election since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak during an uprising more than a year ago. 

The balloting began its second day Wednesday. Nearly 50 million Egyptians are eligible to vote. 

Results for the election are expected May 29. If no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote, a runoff election will be held. 

While the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party now holds control of the parliament, the presidential election includes contenders from other factions of Egyptian politics. 

The top contenders for the race are two Islamists that include Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi and Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fouth. The other contenders are two officials from the Mubarak era—Ahmed Shafik, the former prime minister, and Amr Moussa, the ex-foreign minister and Arab League secretary-general. 

Following Mubarak’s ouster, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has maintained governing power over Egypt in order to ensure a smooth transition to the new government in parliament and the new president.

Mubarak’s PM says can lead Egypt, draws protests


Ahmed Shafiq says he has the military and political experience needed to lead Egypt into a new democratic era, yet Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister has divided voters and drawn angry protests with his bid to become president.

Shafiq’s supporters see his military background as guarantee he can restore order after 14 months of turmoil. Opponents see him as leftover from the old order and mock him as the “candy man” for once suggesting anti-Mubarak protesters should be offered sweets during demonstrations.

The former air force commander’s campaign got off to a turbulent start. He was disqualified from the race this week on the basis of a law drawn up by his Islamist rivals, an announcement that came four days after his wife had died of cancer.

Then, in a dramatic U-turn less than 48 hours later, the election committee reinstated him, fuelling suspicions that he is the favorite candidate of the generals who have ruled Egypt since Mubarak was deposed in February 2011.

If he wins the first real presidential race in Egypt’s history, he will continue a decades-long tradition of presidents who have come from top military posts. Mubarak was, like Shafiq, an air force commander, before he took the top job.

“You cannot suddenly bring a civilian man with no relation or knowledge of military life and make him a president and the supreme commander of the armed forces,” he told Reuters in February, saying he could ensure a “smooth transition”.

The vote is set for May 23-24, with a run-off scheduled in June for the top two vote-getters. None of the 13 candidates is expected to win more than 50 percent of the votes and seal victory in the first round.

Egypt’s army vows to hand over power on July 1 but analysts expect it to wield influence from behind the scenes for years.

“Civilians may be in a hurry and they think that as soon as the new president is elected he will act freely of the military. No, this will not be the case,” Shafiq, 70, said in the interview.

CLOSE TIES

Though the military may be comfortable with a president who comes from their ranks, a Shafiq presidency could spark new unrest from those who harbor deep-seated suspicions about the army’s role and fear it wants to hijack the uprising.

Banners featuring his picture are held up by demonstrators demanding that Mubarak-era politicians and officials – known by the Arabic term “feloul” meaning “remnants” – be excluded from public life.

Shafiq makes no secret of his close ties with the army.

“I have good relations with the field marshal,” Shafiq told Reuters. He said he had spoken with Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi before making a final decision over his bid, though he didn’t disclose what Egypt’s military ruler had told him.

“They (the army) do want the transition to conclude. They do want to be out of frontline of politics,” said a Western diplomat, adding that the army could be back restoring order if the streets flared up again. “It is not in their interest for there to be large-scale instability,” the diplomat said.

Shafiq’s presidential bid almost foundered because of a law that was passed by Egypt’s new Islamist-dominated parliament that bars top officials from Mubarak’s era, including former prime ministers, from the presidential race.

He was prime minister just over a month, appointed in the final days of Mubarak’s rule as a last-ditch attempt to placate protesters. He lasted about three weeks after Mubarak fell.

He appealed against his expulsion on grounds the law was unconstitutional, and was reinstated pending a court’s decision over the law’s compliance with the constitution.

Shafiq, a straight-talker known for often wearing sweaters in public, has shrugged off his opposition: “I have looked at the CVs of other candidates and I was surprised that they dare run for president,” he told an Egyptian television interviewer.

Shafiq’s main rivals are Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that Mubarak and his government banned; Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, a moderate Islamist seeking to win broad support; and Amr Moussa, the former Arab League chief and foreign minister.

In a military career spanning four decades, Shafiq served in wars with Israel and is credited with shooting down an Israeli aircraft in the 1973 war. He has pledged to uphold Egypt’s peace deal with Israel, but criticizes Israeli policies.

“I object to Israel’s current actions. But,” he added, “I am a man who honors past agreements.”

When he led the air force in the 1990s, Shafiq sought to acquire more advanced weapons and make the force more modern. But Egyptian officials say Washington, which provides Egypt with $1.3 billion in annual aid in the wake of the peace deal with Israel, opposed some of the plans because of Israel’s objections.

As minister of civil aviation, a post he held from 2002 to 2011, Shafiq won a reputation for efficiency as he successfully oversaw the modernization of state airline EgyptAir and improvements to the country’s airports.

Editing by Alessandra Rizzo

Netanyahu aide denies Mubarak asylum offer


An aide to Benjamin Netanyahu denied an Israeli lawmaker’s assertion that the prime minister had offered Hosni Mubarak asylum in Israel.

“The prime minister never offered Mubarak asylum,” the aide, Roni Sofer, told the Associated Press on Wednesday.

Sofer was responding to remarks made by Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, a Labor Party lawmaker, who said in a radio interview Wednesday that he had extended an offer of asylum months earlier to the ailing and embattled ex-Egyptian leader. Ben-Eliezer said he had made the offer during a visit to the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh and that he had done so with Netanyahu’s approval.

“I met [Mubarak] in Sharm el-Sheikh and I told him that it was a short distance and that it might be a good chance to heal himself,” Ben-Eliezer told Israel’s Army Radio, according to Haaretz. “I am convinced that the Israel government would have accepted him, but he declined [the offer] because he was a patriot.”

Mubarak, who served three decades as Egyptian president before resigning under fire in February, he went on trial Wednesday in Egypt on charges of charges related to corruption and the killing of demonstrators. Appearing in court in a hospital bed, Mubarak denied the charges.

Egypt moves to limit presidential terms as protests reach 16th day


A judiciary committee formed to review Egypt’s constitution has agreed to amend six articles, state media reported on Wednesday, as anti-government protests continued for the 16th straight day.

Articles 76 and 77 are among those to be changed, to put term limits on the presidency and expand who can run for the highest seat in the country – two of the protesters’ key demands.

The 2005 revision of the Egyptian Constitution, first drafted in 1971, had made the selection of presidential candidates more challenging.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

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.

Egypt Displays Split Personality on Israel


Israeli leaders were heartened in late December, when Egypt’s
foreign minister announced that he would come to Jerusalem for talks on
promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace.

At the same time, however, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak
was moving in Cairo to galvanize international pressure on Israel to dismantle
the nuclear weapons it is presumed to possess.Â

These seemingly contradictory thrusts in Egyptian policy
highlight the deep ambivalence that has characterized Egypt’s attitude to Israel
since the two countries made peace in 1979.Â

On the one hand, Egypt has been keen to encourage other Arab
countries and the Palestinians to follow its lead in making peace with Israel —
partly to prove that it was right in pioneering accommodation with the Jewish
State, partly to reinforce its position as a major power broker in the Middle
East and partly to satisfy Washington.Â

Some believe that Egypt still is undecided about whether it
really wants peace with Israel. Others believe Egypt simply sees Israel as a
major rival for regional hegemony. In either case, while seeking a wider,
regional rapprochement, Egypt also strives to weaken Israel and keep it
isolated.Â

Egypt therefore makes peace overtures but keeps Israel at
arm’s length. It fashions a model of “cold peace” — some might call it a war
everywhere but on the battlefield — and implies that other Arab countries
should adopt it. It carries out war games in which Israel is the named enemy,
presses every possible button to pressure Israel to dismantle its presumed
nuclear stockpile and often leads the diplomatic charge against Israel in
international forums.Â

For more than 20 years, this ambivalent policy has not
changed. Nor, from Egypt’s perspective, should it, since the policy has paid
rich dividends.Â

First and foremost, it paved the way for Egypt to build
close relations with the United States, including a huge annual aid package
that Egypt has used both to advance domestic goals and to undertake a massive
military reconstruction effort over the past two decades. It also has put Egypt
in a position to help other Arabs, such as the Palestinians or Syrians, forge
negotiations with Israel. Egypt has been trying to play the “honest broker”
over the past year, searching for ways to stop Israeli-Palestinian violence.Â

Since the Palestinian intifada was launched in September
2000, Egypt has worried about violent repercussions at home. Radical Islamic
groups in Egypt could harness anti-Israeli feeling to attack the Mubarak regime
for not doing more to help the Palestinians, conceivably sparking violence
directed at the regime, itself.Â

Last June, Egypt was able to get Palestinian terrorist
groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad to agree to a temporary truce with
Israel. But the truce quickly collapsed after a rash of targeted killings of
terrorist leaders and a new wave of Palestinian suicide bombings.Â

Now the Egyptians are trying again, holding meetings in
Cairo on a new cease-fire and sending Egypt’s intelligence chief, Omar
Suleiman, for talks in the Palestinian territories, so far without concrete
results.

Syrian President Bashar Assad also is seeking Egyptian aid
in paving the way for a renewal of peace talks with Israel. After Saddam
Hussein’s fall in Iraq and Libyan leader Muammar al-Quaddafi’s agreement to open
his weapons programs to international inspection, Assad fears he could be next
in line for special treatment by a U.S. government that has shown little
tolerance for Arab sponsors of terrorism.Â

Assad announced through the pages of The New York Times that
he wants to start a new negotiating process with Israel, and in late December,
he flew to Egypt to ask for Mubarak’s aid.Â

Israel has been skeptical of Assad’s intentions — most
officials believe Assad merely is trying to duck U.S. pressure — but says it is
exploring Assad’s statement. Still, Israel is demanding strong Syrian action
against terrorist groups in Damascus and Lebanon before any talks can begin.Â

While playing the “honest broker,” however, Egypt also has
been leading diplomatic moves against Israel in various international forums.Â

Egypt was active in getting the security fence issue
referred to the International Court at The Hague and, following Libya’s
startling commitment on weapons of mass destruction, Egypt worked closely with
Syria to force a Security Council debate on ridding the Middle East of all
weapons of mass destruction — a debate that is bound to focus primarily on
Israel’s presumed nuclear arsenal.Â

For years, the campaign against Israel’s nuclear capability
has been a cornerstone of Egyptian foreign policy. In 1995, Egypt threatened to
scuttle international reaffirmation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by
persuading Third World countries not to sign unless Israel did.

Five years later, Egypt repeated the same gambit. In both
cases, however, strong U.S. pressure forced the Egyptians to back down.Â

There is a huge disparity between Egypt’s self-image and the
reality on the ground: The truth is that Egypt no longer seems to have the
clout of a great regional player.Â

For example, when Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher
visited the Al Aksa Mosque on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount in late December,
Palestinian radicals bombarded him with shoes, a display of contempt. And on
that same trip, Egypt heeded Israel’s demand that Maher not meet with
Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, whom Israel seeks to sideline.
Earlier, Palestinian terrorist groups disdainfully rejected Egyptian advice to
accept a cease-fire with Israel.Â

The duality of Egyptian policy leads to suspicion and
anxiety on the Israeli side. One of Egypt’s sharpest Israeli critics is Yuval
Steinitz, chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, who
asked why Egypt needs such a huge, modern army when it has no apparent
enemies.Â

Steinitz noted that Egypt has used huge amounts of U.S.
money to transform its army into one of the strongest forces in the Middle
East, that it has many of the same weapon systems as Israel and that it even
has U.S. instructors to teach the Egyptians how to use the weapons. Of all the
Arab armies, Steinitz said, Egypt’s is the one Israel has to take most
seriously in the future.Â

Perhaps the case that best highlights the ambivalence of
Egyptian policy is the abortive Camp David summit with the Palestinians in July
2000. Fearing that their regional influence would be diluted, the Egyptians
blocked the resumption of multilateral peace talks with Israel on regional
cooperation in the runup to Camp David.Â

Then, as the Camp David summit was about to collapse,
Mubarak turned down a request from President Bill Clinton to do him a personal
favor and pressure Arafat to sign an agreement with Israel that would postpone
disputes over sovereignty of Jerusalem’s holy sites.Â

At the time, U.S. and Israeli officials found Egypt’s
spoiler role unbearable. Yet when fighting erupted two months after the collapse
of Camp David, Egypt played a major role in containing the violence and
preventing a full-scale regional war.Â

Though he pulled Egypt’s ambassador from Israel — a
violation of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel — Mubarak declared early on that
Egypt “wouldn’t fight to the last Egyptian” for the Palestinian cause. More
than anything else, analysts believe, Mubarak’s levelheaded attitude prevented
the spread of violence across the entire region.

Though Egypt continues to fire diplomatic broadsides at
Israel and refuses to return its ambassador, trumpets its friendship with the
United States while ignoring U.S. calls to democratize and plays the regional
superpower without regional respect, the bottom line is that most feel that
Egypt’s pragmatism remains a powerful, pro-Western force for regional
stability.

However, that stability rests, in large degree, on the
person of Mubarak, a 75-year-old whose health has raised concern recently.
Mubarak had to interrupt a televised speech last month when he suddenly fell
ill.

After 22 years in power, Mubarak has not chosen a successor,
and analysts worry that if Mubarak dies suddenly — he came to power after Anwar
Sadat was assassinated — Egypt will fall into disarray. That could give
Islamists, Mubarak’s most powerful domestic opponents, an opportunity to seize
power and upset the regional stability Mubarak has been so keen to maintain. Â