Hamas rally in Gaza takes aim at Egypt, Israel and Abbas


Tens of thousands of Palestinians rallied in Gaza on Sunday to show support for their Islamist Hamas government, which has long been at loggerheads with Israel but is now shunned by Egypt as well.

The military-backed government that toppled the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas's ideological kin, in Cairo last year deems the Palestinian faction a security threat. An Egyptian court this month banned Hamas activities in the country, and Cairo has clamped down on smuggling tunnels across the Sinai-Gaza border.

Hamas tried in vain to mollify Egypt by insisting that its hostility was directed exclusively at Israel, but is now turning up the rhetoric.

“The punishment of the people of Gaza must end,” Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Hamas government, told the rally in a speech interspersed with chants of “Jihad is not Terrorism” over the loudspeakers.

“Why punish Gaza? Was it because it achieved victory against the Occupier? Why punish Gaza? Was it because it took up the rifle against Israel?” Haniyeh said.

“We are living through a difficult stage and harsh challenges, but we are not terrified and we are not defeated. We have become familiar with difficulties and this stage is not the most difficult.”

Hamas has repeatedly fought Israel, which withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005. The Islamists won a Palestinian legislative election the next year and, after a uneasy power-share with the U.S.-backed rival faction Fatah, seized control of Gaza in 2007.

OPPOSITION TO PEACE TALKS

Sunday's rally was intended to commemorate three top Hamas leaders, including the group's founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was assassinated by Israel a decade ago.

The tone of defiance appeared aimed in part at undermining Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, who holds sway in the West Bank and is holding peace talks with Israel under Washington's auspices.

“We call upon the Palestinian negotiator to quit this pointless track and not to extend negotiation,” said Haniyeh.

Though Hamas has largely held fire since its last war with Israel, in November 2012, the Israelis have been uncovering tunnels dug from Gaza to allow cross-border attacks in the next confrontation. Haniyeh said the tunnels showed his faction's dedication to fighting Israel until its eventual destruction.

“From below ground and above ground, you, the Occupiers, will be dismissed. You have no place in the land of Palestine.”

Haniyeh described Egypt as “brother, friend and neighbor”, but another Hamas official based in the West Bank, Hassan Youssef, had harsher words.

“We say to the authors of the coup in Egypt, the criminals who support the Occupation (Israel), that the blockade will not work,” he said in a televised speech.

Cairo's cold shoulder has exacerbated Hamas's isolation since it quit its headquarters in Damascus in protest at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown on opposition groups, a move that led Iran to cut off funding.

Palestinian officials said Hamas was now in fence-mending talks with Tehran, though their outcome remained unclear.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Kevin Liffey

Grenades fired in Cairo, troops killed near Suez Canal after protesters die


Suspected militants killed six Egyptian soldiers near the Suez Canal and fired rocket-propelled grenades at a state satellite station in Cairo on Monday, suggesting an Islamist insurgency was gathering pace three months after an army takeover.

Dozens of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood were killed in clashes with security forces and political opponents on Sunday, one of the bloodiest days since the military deposed Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in July.

The death toll from that day's violence across the country rose to 53, state media said, with 271 people wounded.

The Brotherhood denies the military's charges that it incites violence and says it has nothing to do with militant activity, but further confrontations may shake Egypt this week, with Mursi's supporters calling protests for Tuesday and Friday.

They are likely to be angered by the publication of an interview with Egypt's army chief on Monday in which he said he told Mursi as long ago as February he had failed as president.

Sunday's clashes took place on the anniversary of the 1973 war with Israel — meant to have been a day of national celebration. The countries signed a peace agreement in 1979.

Authorities had warned that anyone protesting against the army during the anniversary would be regarded as an agent of foreign powers, not an activist – a hardening of language that suggested authorities would take a tougher line.

The Muslim Brotherhood accused the army of staging a coup and working with security forces to eliminate the group through violence and arrests, allegations the military denies.

Sinai-based militants have stepped up attacks on the security forces since the army takeover and assaults like that in Cairo's Maadi suburb fuel fears of an Islamist insurgency like one in the 1990s crushed by then President Hosni Mubarak.

Two people were wounded in the attack on the state-owned satellite station while medical sources said three were killed and 48 injured in a blast near a state security building in South Sinai. A witness said it was caused by a car bomb.

“Unidentified people opened fire on a satellite receiver station in the neighborhood of Maadi in Cairo,” the Ministry of Interior said in a statement. Security sources said assailants fired two rocket-propelled grenades at the site.

Security sources said gunmen opened fire on the soldiers in Ismailia while they were sitting in a car at a checkpoint near the city on the Canal, a vital global trade route.

TOURISM HIT

Traffic flowed freely in the centre of Cairo where Sunday's clashes had taken place and state radio said security forces were in control of the country.

But attacks in Cairo like Monday's on the satellite station could do further damage to Egypt's vital tourism industry.

David Hartwell, a Middle East analyst at IHS Jane's, said more explosive devices seemed to be being used in the capital.

“It suggests that Sinai groups are infiltrating in greater numbers in to northern Egypt,” he said. “Either these groups are expanding out of Sinai, he said, “or the capabilities that they have is being used by other groups that may or not be affiliated with the Brotherhood.”

Army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has promised a political roadmap that would lead Egypt to free and fair elections, said in the interview published on Monday that Egypt's interests differed from those of the Brotherhood.

“I told Mursi in February you failed and your project is finished,” privately-owned newspaper al-Masry al-Youm quoted Sisi as saying.

Militant attacks, including a failed assassination attempt on the interior minister in Cairo in September, are deepening uncertainty in Egypt along with the power struggle between the Brotherhood and the army-backed government.

Neither side seems willing to pursue reconciliation, raising the possibility of protracted tensions in U.S. ally Egypt.

Almost daily attacks by al Qaeda-inspired militants in the Sinai have killed more than 100 members of the security forces since early July, the army spokesman said on September 15.

Security forces smashed pro-Mursi protest camps in Cairo on August 14, killing hundreds of people. In an ensuing crackdown, many Muslim Brotherhood leaders were arrested in an attempt to decapitate Egypt's oldest Islamist movement.

The Brotherhood, which had proven highly resilient after previous crackdowns, has embarked on a strategy of staging smaller protests to avoid action by security forces.

Sisi denied Brotherhood allegations that the army had intended to remove Mursi through a coup, saying it had only responded to the will of the people.

Before Mursi's overthrow, Egyptians disillusioned with his year-long rule had held huge rallies demanding that he quit.

Last month, a court banned the Brotherhood and froze its assets, pushing the group, which had dominated elections held in Egypt after Mubarak's fall in 2011, further into the cold.

Additional reporting by Yasmine Saleh and Maggie Fick; Writing by Michael Georgy

Dozens die in Egyptian bloodbath on Islamists’ ‘Day of Rage’


Islamist protests descended into a bloodbath across Egypt on Friday, with around 50 killed in Cairo alone on a “Day of Rage” called by followers of ousted President Mohamed Morsi to denounce a crackdown by the army-backed government.

As automatic gunfire echoed across Cairo, the standoff seemed to be sliding ever faster towards armed confrontation, evoking past conflict between militant Islamists and the state in the most populous Arab nation.

More than 40 people were also killed in provincial cities, taking the overall toll close to 100, although the intense shooting eventually died down in Cairo at dusk as a curfew began.

While Western governments urged restraint after hundreds died when security forces cleared protest camps two days ago, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah endorsed the government's tactics against the Muslim Brotherhood, saying on Friday his nation stood with Egypt in its battle against “terrorism”.

Army helicopters hovered low over supporters of Morsi's Brotherhood in Ramses Square, the theatre of much of Friday's bloodshed in Cairo, black smoke billowing from at least one huge blaze which lit up the night sky after sundown.

A Reuters witness saw the bodies of 27 people, apparently hit by gunfire and birdshot, wrapped in white sheets in a mosque. A Reuters photographer said security forces opened fire from numerous directions when a police station was attacked.

Men armed with automatic weapons appeared to be taking part in the Cairo protests. At Ramses Square, Reuters journalists saw three men carrying guns; protesters cheered when cars carrying gunmen arrived, another Reuters witness said.

“Sooner or later I will die. Better to die for my rights than in my bed. Guns don't scare us anymore,” said Sara Ahmed, 28, a business manager who joined the demonstrators in Cairo. “It's not about the Brotherhood, it's about human rights.”

A security official said 24 policemen had been killed and 15 police stations attacked since late Thursday, underlining the increasing ferocity of the violence.

Egyptian state media have hardened their rhetoric against the Brotherhood – which ruled Egypt for a year until the army removed Morsi on July 3 – invoking language used to describe militant groups such as al Qaeda and suggesting there is little hope of a political resolution to the crisis.

“Egypt fighting terrorism,” said a logo on state television.

Showing no sign of wanting to back down, the Brotherhood announced a further week of nationwide protests.

Islamists have periodically been in conflict with the Egyptian military for decades. Nationalist General Gamal Abdel Nasser staged a crackdown on the Brotherhood in the 1950s and another followed before and after the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat by fundamentalist officers. In the 1990s militants waged a bloody campaign for an Islamic state.

LIVE AMMUNITION

The army deployed armored vehicles on major roads around the capital and the Interior Ministry said before Friday's protests began that police would use live ammunition against anyone threatening public buildings.

Anger on the streets was directed at army commander General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who moved against Morsi last month after massive street rallies against his administration that had been dogged by accusations of incompetence and partisanship.

“The people want the butcher executed,” said Mustafa Ibrahim, 37, referring to Sisi, as he marched with a crowd of several thousand on downtown Cairo under blazing summer sun.

The Brotherhood said in a statement: “The coup makers have lost all lost their minds, norms and principles today.”

State television said 16 people died in clashes in Alexandria, Egypt's second city, and 140 were wounded. Eight protesters died in the coastal town of Damietta and five in Fayoum south of Cairo. The Suez Canal cities of Ismailia, Port Said and Suez all had deathtolls of four, as did Tanta in the Nile delta.

A police conscript was shot dead in the north of Cairo, state news agency MENA reported. Nile TV showed video of a gunman among Islamist protesters firing from a city bridge.

Witnesses said Morsi supporters ransacked a Catholic church and a Christian school in the city of Malawi. An Anglican church was also set ablaze. The Brotherhood, which has been accused of inciting anti-Christian sentiment, denies targeting churches.

Signaling his displeasure at the worst bloodshed in Egypt for generations, U.S. President Barack Obama said on Thursday normal cooperation with Cairo could not continue and announced the cancellation of military exercises with Egypt next month.

“We deplore violence against civilians,” he said, but did not cut off $1.55 billion a year of mostly military U.S. aid.

The European Union asked its members to consider “appropriate measures” it could take, while Germany announced it was reviewing relations with Cairo.

The Egyptian presidency issued a statement criticizing Obama, saying his comments were not based on “facts” and would strengthen violent groups that were committing “terrorist acts”.

Some fear Egypt is turning back into the kind of police state that kept the veteran autocrat Hosni Mubarak in power for 30 years before his removal in 2011, as security institutions recover their confidence and reassert control.

In calling for a “Day of Rage,” the Brotherhood used the same name as that given to the most violent day of the uprising against Mubarak. That day, January 28, 2011, marked protesters' victory over the police, who were forced to retreat.

The centre of the anti-Mubarak protests, Tahrir Square, was deserted on Friday, sealed off by the army.

SAUDI SUPPORT

Washington's influence over Cairo has been called into question following Morsi's overthrow. Since then Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates have pledged $12 billion to Egypt, making them more prominent partners.

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, its people and government stood and stand by today with its brothers in Egypt against terrorism,” King Abdullah said in an uncompromising message read out on Saudi television.

“I call on the honest men of Egypt and the Arab and Muslim nations … to stand as one man and with one heart in the face of attempts to destabilize a country that is at the forefront of Arab and Muslim history,” he said.

Obama's refusal so far to cut off U.S. aid to Egypt suggests he does not wish to alienate the generals, despite the scale of the bloodshed in the suppression of Morsi supporters.

Egypt will need all the financial support it can get in the coming months as it grapples with growing economic problems, especially in the important tourism sector that accounts for more than 10 percent of gross domestic product.

The United States urged its citizens to leave Egypt on Thursday and two of Europe's biggest tour operators, Germany's TUI and Thomas Cook Germany, said they were cancelling all trips to the country until September 15.

Underscoring the deep divisions in the country, local residents helped the army block access to Cairo's Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, the site of the main Brotherhood sit-in that was swept away during Wednesday's police assault.

“We are here to prevent those filthy bastards from coming back,” said Mohamed Ali, a 22-year-old business student.

Pro-army groups posted videos on the Internet of policemen they said had been tortured and killed by Islamist militants in recent days, including a bloodied, beaten police chief.

However, when a military helicopter flew low over Ramses Square, Brotherhood protesters held up shoes in a gesture of contempt, chanting “We will bring Sisi to the ground” and “Leave, leave, you traitor”.

As the sound of teargas canisters being fired began, protesters – including young and old, men and women – donned surgical masks, gas masks and wrapped bandannas around their faces. Some rubbed Pepsi on their faces to counter the gas.

“Allahu akbar! (God is Greatest)” the crowd chanted.

Additional reporting by Michael Georgy, Tom Finn, Yasmine Saleh, Mohamed Abdellah, Ahmed Tolba and Omar Fahmy in Cairo, Steve Holland and Jeff Mason in Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Alistair Lyon and David Stamp

Israeli Arabs protest in Tel Aviv over Egypt violence


Dozens of Israeli Arabs protested in front of the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv following clashes in Egypt between government security forces and protesters backing deposed President Mohamed Morsi.

At least 149 protesters affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood were killed and more than 1,400 injured throughout Egypt on Wednesday after government security forces raided two major sit-in protests in Cairo early in the morning.

Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and pro-reform leader, resigned in protest over the violence.

Following the raids, the Egyptian government, led by interim President Adly Mansou, declared a monthlong state of emergency. A nighttime curfew has been imposed on Cairo and other areas of the country.

The protesters in Tel Aviv were joined by Knesset member Ibrahim Tzartzur of the Arab Ra’am-Ta’al party.

“Our message is simple: We are here to condemn the attacks and the Egyptian coup in general,” Tzartzur told Ynet. “We are protesting against the bloodshed of those who protested quietly.”

A Jerusalem-based cameraman for Sky News, Mick Deane, 61, was killed in the violence.

At least nine die in Cairo violence, 2 killed in Sinai


Nine people were killed in Cairo on Tuesday in clashes between opponents and Islamist supporters of Egypt's deposed President Mohamed Morsi, state-run media reported, keeping the most populous Arab nation in turmoil.

The violence broke out before dawn near a Brotherhood protest at Cairo University, where Morsi supporters have been camped out since the army removed the Islamist politician from power on July 3 following protests against his rule.

The Brotherhood described it as an attack on peaceful protesters and blamed the killing on thugs backed by the Interior Ministry – an accusation a security official denied.

Police sources said hundreds of Morsi supporters clashed with local residents, street vendors and others near the sit-in. They said gunshots were fired and stones were thrown.

With the Brotherhood vowing to stay in the streets, the bloodshed was a fresh example of the instability facing Egypt as the newly installed interim government moves along an army-backed roadmap towards elections in about six months.

“The longer this standoff continues, the more hardened the positions become, and the more likelihood there is for violence, and oppression,” said Yasser el-Shimy, Egypt analyst with the International Crisis Group.

“It needs an urgent political deal or compromise and unfortunately we are not seeing any signs of that.”

The state-run Al-Ahram newspaper quoted a health ministry official as saying nine people had been killed and 33 wounded in the Cairo University clashes, while two wounded in fighting on Monday had died, bringing to 14 the number of deaths in violence between rival protesters in Egypt in the last two days.

At least 15 burned-out cars lay abandoned around the university area where the clashes took place. Splattered blood and broken glass disfigured the pavements near the shopping area where a traffic police station was set on fire.

Brotherhood members with sticks guarded the entrance to the protest site after the clashes calmed, while residents stopped cars on the road to Cairo University to check for weapons.

About 100 people have died in violence since the army deposed Morsi and replaced him with an interim administration led by the Adli Mansour, the head of the constitutional court. The Brotherhood accuses the army of orchestrating a coup.

It said on its website that seven “martyrs” had been killed overnight in two separate attacks on Morsi supporters, one at Cairo University and another during a march near a bigger round-the-clock sit-in in the north of the city.

Egypt's general prosecutor ordered 22 pro-Morsi protesters be detained for 15 days while they are investigated over accusations they attacked the ousted president's opponents in central Cairo on Monday, the state news agency said.

They are also accused of carrying unlicensed fire arms and ammunition, the report said.

BROTHERHOOD PROTESTERS “TERRORISED”

The Brotherhood vows to keep up its vigil until Morsi, held in an unknown location since the army ended his year in power as Egypt's first freely elected president, is reinstated.

“Leaders of the military coup continue to terrorize the peaceful protesters in Egypt,” the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party said in a statement.

Morsi's family said on Monday it would sue the army for holding him without charge. The United States, which gives Egypt $1.3 billion a year in military aid, has called for Morsi's release and an end to “all politicized arrests and detentions”.

Some residents near the Islamist movement's main protest area in Nasr City have filed a complaint with the public prosecutor asking for the removal of the protesters. A security source said on Tuesday a court was expected to rule on the case soon “to give the army a legal basis to end the protests”.

The National Salvation Front, an alliance of liberal and leftist parties that supported Morsi's ouster, condemned what it described as attacks by Brotherhood supporters on protesters over the last three weeks.

In separate overnight clashes, a civilian and a policeman were killed in the lawless North Sinai region, near Egypt's borders with Israel and the Palestinian Gaza strip, where hardline Islamists have stepped up attacks on security forces.

A security vacuum following the 2011 uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak resulted in a surge of attacks in North Sinai. At least 20 people have been killed in militant violence there since Morsi's overthrow on July 3.

Israel has boosted its rocket defenses near its southern border with Egypt to counter possible attacks from Islamist militants there, Israeli officials said on Tuesday.

“We hear reports every day of attacks there and our concern is that the guns will be turned on us,” Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said. “We have indeed strengthened our deployment along the border.”

Additional reporting by Yasmine Saleh and Ahmed Tolba in Cairo and Maayan Lubell and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Alistair Lyon and Michael Roddy

Police fire tear gas in Cairo, U.S. envoy spurned by parties


Police fired tear gas in central Cairo on Monday when protesters calling for the reinstatement of the ousted Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, scuffled with drivers and passers-by annoyed that they had blocked major roads.

Supporters of Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, threw rocks at police near Ramses Street, one of the capital's main thoroughfares, and on the Sixth of October Bridge over the Nile in the first outbreak of violence in Egypt in a week.

“It's the army against the people, these are our soldiers, we have no weapons,” said Alaa el-Din, a 34-year-old computer engineer, clutching a laptop.

“The army is killing our brothers, you are meant to defend me and you are attacking me. The army turned against the Egyptian people.”

While smaller in scale and more localized than previous clashes since Morsi was deposed by the military on July 3, scenes of running street battles will raise further concerns over stability in the Arab world's most populous country.

Eye witnesses said thousands of pro-Morsi demonstrators were in the area and police had used tear gas several times to try to control the crowd. A large fire was burning on the bridge, although the cause was not immediately clear.

The clashes came as the first senior U.S. official to visit Egypt since Morsi was toppled was snubbed by both Islamists and their opponents.

Large crowds mobilized by Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood movement gathered at various points in the city, including outside the Rabaa Adawiya mosque where they have held a three-week vigil, and at Cairo University.

The army warned demonstrators on Monday that it would respond with “the utmost severity and firmness and force” if they approached military bases.

At least 92 people were killed in the days after Morsi was toppled, more than half of them shot by troops outside a barracks near the mosque a week ago.

Protests since then had been tense but peaceful until Monday evening's developments.

U.S. ENVOY SHUNNED

The crisis in Egypt, which has a peace treaty with Israel and controls the strategic Suez Canal, has alarmed allies in the region and the West.

After meeting interim head of state Adli Mansour and Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns insisted he was not in town “to lecture anyone”.

He arrived in a divided capital where both sides are furious at the United States, which supports Egypt with $1.5 billion a year in mostly military aid.

“Only Egyptians can determine their future. I did not come with American solutions. Nor did I come to lecture anyone,” Burns told a brief news conference. “We will not try to impose our model on Egypt.”

Washington, never comfortable with the rise of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, has so far refused to say whether it views Morsi's removal as a coup, which would require it to halt aid.

The State Department said Burns would meet “civil society groups” as well as government officials. But the Islamist Nour Party and the Tamarud anti-Morsi protest movement both said they had turned down invitations to meet him.

“First, they (the Americans) need to acknowledge the new system,” Tamarud founder Mahmoud Badr said. “Secondly, they must apologize for their support for the Muslim Brotherhood's party and terrorism. Then we can think about it,” he told Reuters.

In a further slight, Badr posted a copy of his invitation, including the U.S. embassy's telephone number, on the Internet.

Nour, sometime allies of Morsi's Brotherhood who have accepted the army takeover, said they had rejected meeting Burns because of “unjustified” U.S. meddling in Egypt's affairs.

The Brotherhood said it had no meeting planned with Burns, although it did not make clear if it had been invited.

“America are the ones who carried out the military coup,” Farid Ismail, a senior official in the Brotherhood's political arm, told Reuters. “We do not kneel for anyone, and we do not respond to pressure from anyone.”

If Burns had driven through the city centre a few miles away, he might have seen a giant banner with a portrait of U.S. ambassador Anne Patterson and the message “Go home, witch!” hung by Morsi's opponents.

INCOMMUNICADO

Morsi is being held incommunicado at an undisclosed location. He has not been charged with a crime but the authorities say they are investigating him over complaints of inciting violence, spying and wrecking the economy. Scores of Morsi supporters were rounded up after violence last week.

Many of the top Brotherhood figures have been charged with inciting violence but have not been arrested and are still at large. The public prosecutors' office announced new charges against seven Brotherhood and Islamist leaders on Monday.

Beblawi has been naming ministers for his interim cabinet, including a former ambassador to the United States as foreign minister, a sign of the importance Cairo places in its relationship with its superpower sponsor.

U.S.-educated economist Ahmed Galal, as finance minister, has the task of rescuing an economy and state finances wrecked by two and a half years of turmoil.

That task became easier, at least in the short term, after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait – rich Gulf Arab states happy at the downfall of the Brotherhood – promised a total of $12 billion in cash, loans and fuel.

The new planning minister, Ashraf al-Arabi, said the Arab money would be enough to sustain Egypt through its transition period and it did not need to restart talks with the International Monetary Fund.

Egypt had sought $4.8 billion in IMF aid last year, but months of talks ran aground with the government unable to agree cuts in unaffordable subsidies for food and fuel. Arabi's comments could worry investors who want the IMF to spur reform.

Additional reporting by Ashraf Fahim, Peter Graff, Shadia Nasralla, Noah Browning, Ali Abdelaty, Patrick Werr, Maggie Fick, Yasmine Saleh and Mike Collett-White in Cairo and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Writing by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Kevin Liffey

Egyptian army helicopter briefly enters Gaza airspace


An Egyptian military helicopter briefly crossed into Israeli-controlled airspace over the Gaza Strip on Friday, in a possible sign of increased security jitters a week after Egypt's army toppled President Mohamed Morsi.

Security sources in Egypt and Israel both described the flyover as a navigational error, but it came shortly after militants killed an Egyptian policeman and wounded a second in an attack on a checkpoint in the lawless Sinai peninsula across the border from the Palestinian Gaza Strip.

Separately, Egyptian authorities arrested three Palestinian gunmen on Friday during “an attempt to attack vital sites in Sinai”, Egyptian state media reported.

“The helicopter mistakenly crossed into Gazan airspace and immediately returned to Egypt,” the Israeli security source said. Witnesses in Gaza said it stayed on their side of the border for about 10 minutes before returning.

The militant Palestinian group Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, declined comment on the helicopter incident. Hamas denies Egyptian accusations that it has an armed presence in Sinai.

Militants have staged almost daily attacks on security checkpoints in Sinai since the army's overthrow of the Islamist Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected leader. Officials say Morsi is still being held at a military compound in Cairo.

Egyptian army sources have said an offensive in the Sinai against hardline Islamist militants may be imminent, though the military is now heavily focused on maintaining order in the streets of Cairo, where its tanks are deployed.

Under a 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace deal, Sinai is largely demilitarized. But Egypt, with Israel's consent, has at times sent in extra forces to make security sweeps.

Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem and Noah Browning in Cairo; Editing by Gareth Jones

Egypt receives Arab billions, names prime minister


Egypt named an interim prime minister on Tuesday and rich Gulf states poured in $8 billion in aid, as the biggest Arab nation sought ways out of a crisis a day after troops killed dozens of Islamists.

Interim head of state Adli Mansour announced a faster-than-expected timetable to hold elections in about six months. Scorned by the ousted Muslim Brotherhood, he is under mounting pressure to plot a path back to democracy less than a week after the army overthrew the first freely elected president.

A day after 55 people were killed when troops opened fire on Brotherhood supporters, Hazem el-Beblawi, a liberal economist and former finance minister, was named interim prime minister. Former U.N. diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei, now a liberal party leader, was named deputy president for foreign affairs.

News quickly followed of $8 billion in grants, loans and fuel from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Crucially, the choice of Beblawi won the acceptance of the ultra-orthodox Islamist Nour Party – sometime ally of toppled President Mohamed Morsi and his Brotherhood. Nour leaders have been courted by the military-backed interim authorities to prove that Islamists will not be marginalized by the new government.

Yet the worst day of violence in more than a year has left Egypt more divided than ever in its modern history. The Brotherhood is isolated and furious at Egyptians who passionately reject it.

The bloodshed has raised alarm among key donors such as the United States and the European Union, as well as in Israel, with which Egypt has had a U.S.-backed peace treaty since 1979.

Rich Gulf Arab states, long suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood, have shown fewer reservations. The United Arab Emirates offered a grant of $1 billion and a loan of $2 billion. Saudi Arabia offered $3 billion in cash and loans, and an additional $2 billion worth of much-needed fuel.

In a further demonstration of its support, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed visited Egypt on Tuesday, the most senior foreign official to arrive since Morsi's removal.

“EVEN IF THEY KILL US ALL”

The Brotherhood says Monday's violence was an unprovoked attack on worshippers holding peaceful dawn prayers outside a barracks where they believed Morsi was being held.

But in a sign of the country's deep divisions, many Cairo residents seemed to accept the official account and blamed the Brotherhood for its members' deaths. That has left the deposed president's followers isolated and angrier than ever.

Thousands of Morsi followers gathered at the site of a vigil near a mosque in northeast Cairo, where they have vowed to remain camping out in the fierce heat until he is restored to power – an aim that now seems vain.

“Revolutionaries! Free people! We will complete the journey!” chanted a speaker as the crowd held aloft a wooden coffin draped in an Egyptian flag.

Medical sources confirmed at least 55 people had been killed, raising the death toll in the incident, the deadliest in the two and a half years of Egypt's political turmoil apart from a riot at a soccer stadium in 2012.

A year after Morsi took power, millions of people took to the streets on June 30 to demand his resignation, fearing he was orchestrating a creeping Islamist takeover of the state and frustrated by his failure to turn around the crippled economy.

To the Brotherhood, his removal amounted to the reversal of democracy by entrenched interests who would never accept their election victories. The long-banned Brotherhood fears a return to the suppression endured for decades under autocratic rulers.

“The only road map is the restoration of the president elected by the people,” said Hoda Ghaneya, 45, a Muslim Brotherhood women's activist. “We will not accept less than that, even if they kill us all.”

The streets of Cairo were quieter on Tuesday but the Brotherhood called for more protests later in the day, raising the risk of further violence.

Away from the camp, its support is patchy in the capital. Some in Cairo are flying banners from balconies with portraits of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the military commander who toppled Morsi.

In an address before Wednesday's start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Sisi made clear who was in charge: “No party has the right to oppose the will of the nation,” he said.

Egyptian media, mainly controlled by the state and Morsi's opponents, praised the army and denounced Monday's violence as the provocation of terrorists. Many Cairenes seemed to agree.

“Of course I condemn this: Egyptian versus Egyptian. But the people attacked the army, not the other way around,” said Abdullah Abdel Rayal, 58, shopping in a street market in downtown Cairo on Tuesday morning.

Yet the Brotherhood still maintains support of many in rural provinces, after decades of dedicated underground organization.

ARAB CASH URGENTLY NEEDED

Saudi and UAE aid provides Egypt with urgently needed funds to maintain the subsidized fuel and food supplies it gives its 84 million people. Its coffers are running desperately short since the unrest of the Arab Spring drove away tourists and investors.

Both Gulf countries had promised aid after former autocrat Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011, but withheld it under Morsi.

Mansour, the judge named head of state by the army when it brought down Morsi last week, decreed overnight that a parliamentary vote would be held in about six months, faster than many expected. That would be followed by a presidential election. An amended constitution would be put to a referendum.

The Brotherhood rejected the plan. Senior Brotherhood figure Essam El-Erian condemned a “decree issued after midnight by a person appointed by the putchists, usurping the legislative power from a council elected by the people, and bringing the country back to stage zero”.

The military-backed authorities seem to be resigned to restarting politics without the Brotherhood. Instead, they are courting the country's other main Islamist group, Nour, which had said on Monday it was pulling out of all political talks as a result of the attack on Morsi supporters.

Nour's signal that it would now support Beblawi as prime minister showed it had not fully abandoned politics.

“We do not object to Dr. Hazem. He is an important economic figure,” Nour Party head Younes Makhyoun told Reuters by telephone. “He has no party affiliations that I am aware of.”

In what appeared to be an olive branch to Islamists – and a move that also angered liberals – Mansour's decree included language put into the constitution last year that defined the principles of Islamic law, or sharia.

Nathan Brown, a leading expert on Egypt's constitution at George Washington University in Washington, said that while the overnight decree laid out a clear sequence for transition, it also repeated some mistakes made two years ago, after Mubarak.

“It was drawn up by an anonymous committee; it was issued by executive fiat; the timetable is rushed; the provisions for consultation are vague; and it promises inclusiveness but gives no clear procedural guidelines for it,” he told Reuters.

The West has had a difficult time formulating a public response, after years of pushing Arab leaders towards democracy while at the same time nervous about the Brotherhood's rise. Demonstrators on both sides in Egypt have chanted anti-American slogans, accusing Washington of backing their enemies.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called Monday's violence “unacceptable” and said it should be investigated.

The military authorities did indeed announce an inquiry on Tuesday. They said they were pursuing 650 unidentified people for offences from “thuggery” to murder and terrorism.

Washington has refrained from calling the military intervention a “coup” – a label that under U.S. law would require it to halt aid. It called on Egypt's army to exercise “maximum restraint” but has said it is not about to halt funding for Egypt, including the $1.3 billion it gives the military.

A U.S. official said on Tuesday that Washington encouraged that the Egyptian authorities had laid out a plan.

The army has insisted that the overthrow was not a coup and that it was enforcing the “will of the people” after millions took to the streets on June 30 to call for Morsi's resignation.

Although Tuesday was comparatively quiet, there were minor violent incidents reported by late morning. Gunmen fired on a church in Port Said at the mouth of the Suez Canal overnight. Two people were wounded, medical sources said.

Reporting by Mike Collett-White, Maggie Fick, Alexander Dziadosz, Tom Perry, Yasmine Saleh, Peter Graff, Patrick Werr, Shadia Nasralla and Tom Finn in Cairo, Roberta Rampton, Lesley Wroughton and Arshad Mohammed in Washington and Michelle Nichols in New York; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Peter Millership and Alastair Macdonald

Morsi reportedly ousted by Army


This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

Egyptian state media reported Wednesday night that the army has deposed President Mohamed Morsi. Earlier, a meeting presided over by the Egyptian military that included representatives from political, religious and national groups was held on Wednesday evening. State media, citing anonymous sources, reported that the army deadline demanding President Morsi’s compliance with opposition demands had been extended in order to reach a peaceful conclusion among the diverse interests. By late evening, tanks were deployed in Cairo and elsewhere in an attempt to prevent chaos.

Rumors from inside Egypt’s military echelon speak of the creation of a ruling council that would include representatives of all relevant sectors – military, political, religious – and allow Morsi to remain in power with the promise of “early presidential elections once the constitution is re-written.”

The Egyptian military took control of state television on Wednesday as the army’s ultimatum to President Mohamed Morsi to reach an agreement with his opponents approached. Morsi issued a plea for calm in remarks aired on Egyptian TV Tuesday night, but his rejection of the army's 48-hour threat to intercede appears only to have heightened tensions in the street with the president offering his people an olive branch that few were prepared to accept.

The situation remained fluid Wednesday morning as the Egyptian people were watching and contemplating the possibility of civil war.

After his speech, clashes erupted between pro- and anti-Morsi demonstrators resulting in the deaths of at least sixteen of his supporters who were camped out in front of Cairo University. “Heavy clashes are taking place and cars are on fire,” journalist Baher Ghorab told The Media Line.

[Related: Egypt army commander suspends constitution, appoints interim head of state]

Through Tuesday night, the army sought to maintain neutrality between the government and opposition, with no signs of intervention apparent.

“Morsi defied the army's 48-hour ultimatum given to all political factions in Egypt to find a resolution that benefits Egypt,” Egyptian Army Capt. Amr Tolba told the Media Line.

In his speech, the president was adamant in rejecting the ultimatum and asserted that he would remain in office.
Morsi also assured Egyptians that, “Egypt will sustain its production of food, its own defense, and maintain its natural resources.”

On the streets, however, it appeared to observers that the Egyptian people were uninterested in paying heed.  Huge crowds estimated as high as 25 million protesters poured out across the nation in what was the largest mass protest seen since the first day of the revolution that brought down Hosni Mubarak in January 2011.

Sky News Arabia reported that anti-Morsi protesters in Alexandria had started blocking the railroad to Cairo, as the army’s deadline loomed.

Several  Morsi supporters interviewed by The Media Line said they are willing to pay with their lives to protect the legitimacy of Egypt's democracy and constitution.

“We will protect the president and those behind him, and if required we will seek martyrdom to protect the Islamic Project,” [referring to a plan calling for Islamic party rule throughout the region]. “We will not allow the immoral opposition to take this dream of a better life away from us,” demonstrator Hamdy Sayed told The Media Line.

On the other hand, liberals who oppose the Muslim Brotherhood's rule, are equally adamant.

“Morsi escaped from prison with the help of foreign militias. Egypt and Egyptians don't support terrorism or terrorists,” anti-Morsi demonstrator Yasmine Khatab told The Media Line from Tahrir Square.

Khatab was referring to the years Morsi spent in prison following allegations that he spied for a foreign country during the rule of Hosni Mubarak when the Moslem Brotherhood was outlawed. Morsi escaped at the beginning of the revolution that overthrew Mubarak in 2011, and in turn, accused the ousted president of corruption and of stifling democracy.

“Some people don't want democracy to succeed because it will not allow them to steal your money,” Morsi said in his rambling late-night speech on Tuesday.

The embattled president added that Egypt is an independent state with challenges that will take time to overcome, claiming that thirty-two families control most of Egypt's wealth. Morsi lamented that supporters of the old regime don't like the democratic experiment going on in the country now.

Morsi’s supporters argue that he was elected through a democratic process and should therefore remain in power.

“The opposition [at the time] shoved an election process in our face — 25 million Egyptians participated in the elections, and Morsi won. Now they are like kids who want to spoil a game because it doesn't go their way,” Mohammed Zahran, a Muslim Brotherhood supporter, told The Media Line.

In an effort to defuse the on-going tension in his remarks, Morsi spoke of an initiative for reforms that would include reviewing the articles of the constitution many Egyptians oppose and of bringing a better government to serve their needs. He stressed that he will protect the constitution and will lead an open dialogue with opposition groups for the benefit of all Egyptians.

Morsi also urged Egyptians not to clash with anyone from the army. “The army is the backbone of Egypt and all Egyptians need to respect it and let it protect Egypt from foreign enemies. Don't confront the army and don't use violence against it,” the president admonished his constituents.

Egypt's key geopolitical position as the largest Arab country underscores its importance to the international community. It is the second-largest recipient of American foreign aid, just behind Israel with $3 billion annually. Some in Egypt fear that aid could be jeopardized if Egypt pursues an anti-democratic course.

Egyptians also stress their nation’s importance by referring to the Suez Canal, the vital waterway for global shipping; its strategic position bordering the Gaza Strip; and the importance the world community places in Egypt maintaining the Camp David peace treaty, in force since 1979.

There is concern that unless the Egyptian army remains vigilant and prevents chaos during the current crisis, the United States could reduce or retract its military support and find another player to help protect its interests in the region.

“The country is already divided between different religious and political factions; all they need are guns like in Libya,” Ahmed Seddik, a tour guide who voted for Morsi told The Media Line. He said that, “Egypt is lucky that Egyptians aren't that violent compared to places where similar revolutions took place.”

Egypt’s Morsi defies army as it plots future without him


Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi vowed to stay in power and defend constitutional legitimacy on Wednesday as generals worked on plans to push the Islamist aside within the day and suspend the constitution.

In a defiant midnight television address responding to military demands that he share power with his opponents or see the army impose its own solution, Morsi warned that any deviation from the democratic order approved in a series of votes last year would lead Egypt down a dangerous path.

He was speaking as vast crowds of protesters rallied in central Cairo and across the nation to demand the Muslim Brotherhood politician's resignation in a third night of mass demonstrations. His supporters also turned out and some were involved in clashes with security forces at Cairo University.

“The price of preserving legitimacy is my life,” Morsi said in an impassioned, repetitive, 45-minute ramble. “Legitimacy is the only guarantee to preserve the country.”

In a warning aimed as much at his own militant supporters as at the army, he said: “We do not declare jihad (holy war) against each other. We only wage jihad on our enemies.”

Urging Egyptians not to heed the siren calls of what he called remnants of the former authoritarian regime, “the deep state” and the corrupt, he said: “Don't be fooled. Don't fall into the trap. Don't let them steal your revolution.”

An opposition spokesman called Morsi's defiance “an open call for civil war”. Peaceful protests would go on, he said.

On Monday, army commander General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi gave Morsi 48 hours to reach an accommodation with his opponents. Otherwise, he said, the military would step in and implement its own roadmap for the country's future.

A military spokesman said the armed forces would not comment on the president's statement until Wednesday afternoon. The deadline is set to expire at 5 p.m. (1500 GMT).

Condemning a coup against their first freely elected leader, tens of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters took to the streets, clashing with opponents in several towns. But they were dwarfed by anti-government protesters who turned out in their hundreds of thousands across the nation.

Security sources said dozens of people were wounded in the clashes at Cairo University involving Morsi supporters. Witnesses heard gunfire and teargas was used by the authorities.

TROOPS ON ALERT

Troops were on alert amid warnings of a potential civil war. Seven people died in a demonstration crush and sporadic fighting in Cairo and hundreds more were wounded in the provinces.

“Morsi – Game Over – Out”, proclaimed a laser display beamed over the capital's jam-packed Tahrir Square, where Egyptians danced with joy, recalling the euphoria and the slogans that greeted the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak two years ago. The light show counted the hours to the army deadline.

Despite his fighting talk, time appears to have all but run out for Morsi, as liberal leaders refuse to talk to him, while ministers have resigned and aides abandoned his sinking ship.

Military sources told Reuters that, assuming the politicians fail to end a year of deadlock before the deadline, the generals have their own draft program ready to implement – though it could be fine-tuned in consultation with willing political parties.

Under the roadmap, the military would install an interim council, composed mainly of civilians from different political groups and experienced technocrats, to run the country until an amended constitution was drafted within months.

That would be followed by a new presidential election, but parliamentary polls would be delayed until strict conditions for selecting candidates were in force, the sources said.

They would not say how the military intended to deal with Morsi if he refused to go quietly. Some of his Islamist supporters have vowed to defend what they see as the legitimate, democratic order, even if it means dying as martyrs. And some have a history of armed struggle against the state.

TROOPS

The confrontation has pushed the most populous Arab nation closer to the brink of chaos amid a deepening economic crisis two years after the overthrow of Mubarak, raising concern in Washington, Europe and neighboring Israel.

Troops intervened to break up clashes in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria. They were also out on the streets of Suez and Port Said, at either end of the Suez Canal. The waterway is vital to world trade and to Egypt's struggling economy.

Egypt's Coptic Pope, spiritual leader of the country's 10 percent Christian minority, expressed open support for the anti-Morsi “Tamarud – Rebel!” movement in a tweet, voicing support for the national trio of people, army and youth.

The leading Muslim religious authority, Al-Azhar, called for the will of the people to prevail peacefully.

Morsi met Sisi for a second day, his office said, along with Prime Minister Hisham Kandil but there was no sign of any meeting of minds.

Though Morsi has held out repeated offers of dialogue, liberal opponents accuse him and the Brotherhood of bad faith and have ruled out starting talks with him before the deadline.

After that, former U.N. nuclear agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei will deal directly with the military on behalf of the main coalition of liberal parties. Also planning to take part are leaders of the Tamarud youth movement, which initiated mass rallies on Sunday that the army says prompted it to act.

Among figures being considered as an interim head of state was the new president of the constitutional court, Adli Mansour.

The new transition arrangements would be entirely different from the military rule that followed Mubarak's fall and more politically inclusive, the sources said.

Then, the ruling armed forces' council was criticized by liberal and left-wing politicians for failing to enact economic and political reforms – and for siding with the Brotherhood.

FIGHTING

The Brotherhood's political wing called for mass counter- demonstrations to “defend constitutional legitimacy and express their refusal of any coup”, raising fears of violence. But the biggest pro-Morsi rally in the a Cairo suburb appeared to attract around 100,000 supporters, Reuters journalists said.

The Brotherhood long avoided direct confrontation with the security forces despite suffering oppression under Mubarak.

The United States, which has previously defended Morsi's legitimacy as a democratically elected leader, stepped up pressure on him to heed the mass protests but stopped short of saying he should step down.

President Barack Obama told Morsi in a phone call late on Monday that the political crisis could only be solved by talks with his opponents, the White House said. Secretary of State John Kerry hammered home the message in a call to his outgoing Egyptian colleague on Tuesday.

That prompted Morsi to say in a tweet that he would not be “dictated to internally or internationally”.

At least six ministers who are not Brotherhood members have tendered their resignations since Sunday, including Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr. The president's two spokesmen and the cabinet spokesman also quit on Tuesday and nearly 150 Egyptian diplomats signed a petition urging Morsi to go.

Senior Brotherhood politician Mohamed El-Beltagy denounced what he called a creeping coup. He said he expected the High Committee for Elections to meet within hours to consider annulling the 2012 presidential election.

The United States has long funded the Egyptian army as a key component in the security of Washington's ally Israel.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke to his Egyptian counterpart on Monday. It is unclear how far the military has informed, or coordinated with, its U.S. sponsors but an Egyptian official said a coup could not succeed without U.S. approval.

A senior European diplomat said that if the army were to remove the elected president, the international community would have no alternative but to condemn it.

Yasser El-Shimy, Egypt analyst at the International Crisis Group, said the army ultimatum had hardened positions, making it very difficult to find a constitutional way out of the crisis.

“Things could deteriorate very rapidly from there, either through confrontations on the street, or international sanctions,” he said.

“Morsi is calling their bluff, saying to them, 'if you are going to do this, you will have to do it over my dead body'.”

For many Egyptians, fixing the economy is key. Unrest since Mubarak fell has decimated tourism and investment and state finances are in poor shape, drained by extensive subsidies for food and fuel and struggling to provide regular supplies.

The Cairo bourse, reopening after a holiday, shot up nearly 5 percent after the army's move.

Reporting by Asma Alsharif, Alexander Dziadosz, Shaimaa Fayed, Maggie Fick, Alastair Macdonald, Shadia Nasralla, Tom Perry, Yasmine Saleh, Paul Taylor and Patrick Werr in Cairo, Abdelrahman Youssef in Alexandria and Yursi Mohamed in Ismailia; Writing by Alastair Macdonald and Paul Taylor; Editing by Alastair Macdonald

One dead, dozens hurt as police clash with Egypt protesters


At least one protester was shot dead and dozens wounded on Friday when riot police clashed with demonstrators demanding the overthrow of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, witnesses said.

Youths threw petrol bombs and shot fireworks at the outer wall of Morsi's Cairo presidential compound as night fell. Police responded by firing water cannon and tear gas leading to skirmishes in the surrounding streets.

Two witnesses said they had seen a protester shot dead in Cairo with live ammunition in front of them.

“It's verified. I am at the morgue. He was shot with two bullets, and that's the report of the hospital. The shots were in the neck and the right side of the chest,” said one of the witnesses, lawyer Ragia Omran. Medical and security sources confirmed Mohamed Hussein Qurany, 23, was killed with live bullets.

The head of Egypt's ambulance service said at least 54 people had been wounded across the country, mostly in Cairo.

The renewed violence brought an end to a few days of calm after the deadliest week of Morsi's seven months in power. Protests marking the second anniversary of the uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak have killed nearly 60 people since January 25, prompting the head of the army to warn this week that the state was on the verge of collapse.

With multi-colored fireworks bouncing off their shields and bursting among them, helmeted and baton-wielding riot police chased protesters at the palace and set their tents ablaze. Petrol bombs briefly set fire to a building inside the compound.

The head of the Republican Guard, which protects the palace, condemned what he described as attempts to climb the compound walls and storm a gate. In a statement to the state news agency, he urged protesters to keep their demonstration peaceful.

Earlier, men dressed in mourning black marched through the Suez Canal city of Port Said, scene of the worst bloodshed of the past eight days, chanting and shaking their fists.

“There is no God but God and Mohamed Morsi is the enemy of God,” they chanted. Brandishing portraits of those killed in recent days, they shouted: “We will die like they did, to get justice!”

There were also scuffles earlier near Cairo's central Tahrir Square, where police fired teargas at stone-throwing youths. In Alexandria, protesters blocked roads, staged a sit-in on the railway and tried to break into the TV and radio building.

The protesters accuse Morsi of betraying the spirit of the revolution by concentrating too much power in his own hands and those of his Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood accuses the opposition of trying to overthrow the first democratically elected leader in Egypt's 5,000-year history.

Mohamed Ahmed, 26, protesting at the presidential palace, said: “I am here because I want my rights, the ones the revolution called for and which were never achieved.”

For the Port Said marchers, Friday was also the first anniversary of a soccer stadium riot that killed 70 people last year. Death sentences handed down on Saturday against 21 Port Said men over the riots helped fuel the past week's violence there, which saw dozens shot dead in clashes with police.

VIOLENCE DISAVOWED

Friday's marches took place despite an intervention by Ahmed al-Tayyeb, head of the 1,000-year-old al-Azhar university and mosque, who hauled in politicians for crisis talks on Thursday where they signed a charter disavowing violence. Morsi's foes said the pact did not require them to call off demonstrations.

“We brought down the Mubarak regime with a peaceful revolution and are determined to realize the same goals in the same way, regardless of the sacrifices or the barbaric oppression,” tweeted Mohamed ElBaradei, a former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog who has become a secularist leader.

The main opposition National Salvation Front denied it was to blame for the demonstrations turning violent. Morsi's office said it would “hold the political forces that may have participated in incitement fully politically responsible, pending results of investigation.”

Tahrir Square, ground zero of the uprising against Mubarak, has become a graffiti-scarred monument to Egypt's perpetual turmoil, strewn with barbed wire and burnt-out cars. Vendors sold flag bracelets, pharaonic statues, sunflower seeds, water and fruit while the protesters gathered.

A man with a microphone shouted to the crowd, calling for Morsi to be put on trial. “We came here to get rid of Morsi,” said furniture dealer Mohammed al-Nourashi, 57.

UNGOVERNABLE

The rise of an elected Islamist after nearly 60 years of rule by secular military men in the most populous Arab state is the most important change achieved by two years of Arab revolts.

But seven months since his narrow election victory over an ex-Air Force commander, Morsi has failed to unite Egyptians and protests have made the country seem all but ungovernable. The turmoil has worsened an economic crisis, forcing Cairo to drain its currency reserves to prop up its pound.

Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie, on his Facebook page, blamed the unrest on “regional and international forces which aim for instability and to stir up problems and ignite strife to damage Egypt … to thwart the democratic transition”.

Brotherhood followers have clashed with demonstrators in the past, especially at the presidential palace which they regard as a symbol of his legitimacy. But the group has kept its men off the streets during the latest violence.

It is far from clear that opposition politicians could call off the street demonstrations, even if they wanted to.

“You have groups who clearly just want a confrontation with the state – straightforward anarchy; you've got people who supported the original ideals of the revolution and feel those ideals have been betrayed,” said a diplomat. “And then you have elements of the old regime who have it in their interests to foster insecurity and instability. It is an unhealthy alliance.”

Many Egyptians are fed up.

“We are exhausted. This protests thing is a political game whose price the people are paying. I hate them all – liberals and Brotherhood,” said Abdel Halim Adel, 60, near the presidential palace.

Additional reporting by Tom Perry, Shaimaa Fayed and Alexander Dziadosz in Cairo, Abdul Rahman Youssef in Alexandria and Yusri Mohamed in Ismailia; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Stephen Powell

Egyptian protesters defy curfew, attack police stations


Egyptian protesters defied a nighttime curfew in restive towns along the Suez Canal, attacking police stations and ignoring emergency rule imposed by Islamist President Mohamed Morsi to end days of clashes that have killed at least 52 people.

At least two men died in overnight fighting in the canal city of Port Said in the latest outbreak of violence unleashed last week on the eve of the anniversary of the 2011 revolt that brought down autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Political opponents spurned a call by Morsi for talks on Monday to try to end the violence.

Instead, huge crowds of protesters took to the streets in Cairo, Alexandria and in the three Suez Canal cities – Port Said, Ismailia and Suez – where Morsi imposed emergency rule and a curfew on Sunday.

“Down, down with Mohamed Morsi! Down, down with the state of emergency!” crowds shouted in Ismailia. In Cairo, flames lit up the night sky as protesters set police vehicles ablaze.

In Port Said, men attacked police stations after dark. A security source said some police and troops were injured. A medical source said two men were killed and 12 injured in the clashes, including 10 with gunshot wounds.

“The people want to bring down the regime,” crowds chanted in Alexandria. “Leave means go, and don't say no!”

The demonstrators accuse Mubarak's successor Morsi of betraying the two-year-old revolution. Morsi and his supporters accuse the protesters of seeking to overthrow Egypt's first ever democratically elected leader through undemocratic means.

Since Mubarak was toppled, Islamists have won two referendums, two parliamentary elections and a presidential vote. But that legitimacy has been challenged by an opposition that accuses Morsi of imposing a new form of authoritarianism, and punctuated by repeated waves of unrest that have prevented a return to stability in the most populous Arab state.

WEST UNNERVED

The army has already been deployed in Port Said and Suez and the government agreed a measure to let soldiers arrest civilians as part of the state of emergency.

The instability unnerves Western capitals, where officials worry about the direction of powerful regional player that has a peace deal with Israel. The United States condemned the bloodshed and called on Egyptian leaders to make clear violence is not acceptable. ID:nW1E8MD01C].

In Cairo on Monday, police fired volleys of teargas at stone-throwing protesters near Tahrir Square, cauldron of the anti-Mubarak uprising. Demonstrators stormed into the downtown Semiramis Intercontinental hotel and burned two police vehicles.

A 46-year-old bystander was killed by a gunshot early on Monday, a security source said. It was not clear who fired.

“We want to bring down the regime and end the state that is run by the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Ibrahim Eissa, a 26-year-old cook, protecting his face from teargas wafting towards him.

The political unrest in the Suez Canal cities has been exacerbated by street violence linked to death penalties imposed on soccer supporters convicted of involvement in stadium rioting in Port Said a year ago.

Morsi's invitation to opponents to hold a national dialogue with Islamists on Monday was spurned by the main opposition National Salvation Front coalition, which rejected the offer as “cosmetic and not substantive”.

The only liberal politician who attended, Ayman Nour, told Egypt's al-Hayat channel after the meeting ended late on Monday that attendees agreed to meet again in a week.

He said Morsi had promised to look at changes to the constitution requested by the opposition but did not consider the opposition's request for a government of national unity.

The president announced the emergency measures on television on Sunday: “The protection of the nation is the responsibility of everyone. We will confront any threat to its security with force and firmness within the remit of the law,” Morsi said.

His demeanor in the address infuriated his opponents, not least when he wagged a finger at the camera.

Some activists said Morsi's measures to try to impose control on the turbulent streets could backfire.

“Martial law, state of emergency and army arrests of civilians are not a solution to the crisis,” said Ahmed Maher of the April 6 movement that helped galvanize the 2011 uprising. “All this will do is further provoke the youth. The solution has to be a political one that addresses the roots of the problem.”

Additional reporting by Edmund Blair and Yasmine Saleh in Cairo and Abdelrahman Youssef in Alexandria; Writing by Edmund Blair, Yasmine Saleh and Peter Graff

Egypt’s opposition protests draft constitution


Egypt's opposition said it would continue to protest an upcoming referendum on a draft constitution even after President Mohammed Morsi cancelled decrees that gave him virtually unlimited power.

Late Saturday night Morsi withdrew the decrees that gave him immunity from judicial oversight. But he continues to insist on going forward with the scheduled Dec. 15 referendum.

The opposition, led by the National Salvation Front, objects to the draft constitution in part because it would enshrine Islamic law.

Demonstrators have been protesting outside of the presidential palace, and the Cairo headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood, to which Morsi belongs, were set on fire.

A million man march demonstration opposing the draft constitution has been called for Tuesday.

Egyptian protesters penetrate barrier at Morsi’s palace


Egyptian protesters broke through a barbed wire barricade keeping them from the presidential palace in Cairo on Friday and some climbed onto army tanks and waved flags.

Up to 10,000 protesters had been penned behind the barrier, guarded by tanks that were deployed on Thursday after a night of violence between supporters and opponents of the Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, in which seven people were killed.

Demonstrators cut the barbed wire and hundreds swarmed through and surged up to the walls of the palace, some kissing the police and military guards surrounding it. “Peaceful, peaceful,” they chanted.

Troops of the Republican Guard, which had ordered rival demonstrators to leave the vicinity on Thursday, moved to the front gate to secure the main entrance to the palace.

Reporting by Yasmine Saleh; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Andrew Roche

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

Thousands protest in Egypt against Israeli attacks on Gaza


Thousands of people protested in Egyptian cities on Friday against Israeli air strikes on Gaza and Egypt's president pledged to support the Palestinian enclave's population in the face of “blatant aggression.”

Western governments are watching Egypt's response to the Gaza conflagration for signs of a more assertive stance towards Israel since an Islamist came to power in the Arab world's most populous nation.

President Mohamed Morsi is mindful of anti-Israeli sentiment among Egyptians emboldened by last year's Arab Spring uprising but needs to show Western allies his new government is no threat to Middle East peace.

His prime minister, Hisham Kandil, visited Gaza on Friday in a demonstration of solidarity after two days of strikes by Israeli warplanes targeting Gaza militants, who had stepped up rocket fire into Israel in recent weeks.

Gaza officials said 28 Palestinians, 16 of them civilians, had been killed in the enclave since Israel began the air offensive against the tiny, densely populated enclave ruled by the Islamist Hamas movement.

Three Israelis were killed by a rocket on Thursday.

“We see what is happening in Gaza as blatant aggression against humanity,” Morsi said in comments carried by Egypt's state news agency. “I warn and repeat my warning to the aggressors that they will never rule over the people of Gaza.

“I tell them in the name of all the Egyptian people that Egypt today is not the Egypt of yesterday, and Arabs today are not the Arabs of yesterday.”

The Egyptian foreign minister also spoke to his counterparts in the United States, Jordan, Brazil and Italy on Friday to discuss the situation in Gaza, a ministry statement said.

Mohamed Kamel Amr spoke to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the necessity of cooperation between the United States and Egypt to end the military confrontations. Amr stressed the necessity of Israel ending attacks on Gaza and a truce being rebuilt between the two sides, the statement said.

Israeli ministers were asked to endorse the call-up of up to 75,000 reservists after Gaza militants nearly hit Jerusalem with a rocket for the first time in decades and fired at Tel Aviv for a second day. Such a call-up could be the precursor of a ground invasion into Gaza, or just psychological warfare.

COLD PEACE

Morsi's toppled predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, was a staunch U.S. ally who upheld a cold but stable peace with Israel.

The new president has vowed to respect the 1979 peace treaty with the Jewish state. But relations have been strained by protests that forced the evacuation of Israel's ambassador to Cairo last year and cross-border attacks by Islamist militants.

More than 1,000 people gathered near Cairo's al-Azhar mosque after Friday prayers, many waving Egyptian and Palestinian flags.

“Gaza Gaza, symbol of pride,” they chanted, and “generation after generation, we declare our enmity towards you, Israel.”

“I cannot, as an Egyptian, an Arab and a Muslim, just sit back and watch the massacres in Gaza,” said protester Abdel Aziz Nagy, 25, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Protesters were marching from other areas of Cairo towards Tahrir Square, the main rallying point for last year's uprising that toppled Mubarak.

In Alexandria, around 2,000 protesters gathered in front of a mosque, some holding posters demanding Egypt's border crossing to Gaza be opened to allow aid into the impoverished enclave.

Hundreds also gathered in the cities of Ismailia, Suez and al-Arish to denounce Israel's attacks.

Al-Azhar, Egypt's influential seat of Islamic learning, called on all Arabs and Muslims to unite in support of their brothers in Gaza, the state news agency MENA said.

“The Zionists are seeking to eliminate all (Palestinians) in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip,” Ahmed al-Tayyib, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, said in comments carried by MENA.

Al-Tayyib denounced the position of world powers on the Gaza crisis, describing them as having “forgotten their humanitarian duties … and standing on the side of the aggressors,” according to MENA.

Israel wary as protests engulf Muslim countries


Israel stepped up security after a controversial American film, “Innocence of Muslims,” sparked protests at U.S. embassies in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia and Sudan, as well as violence in Lebanon. In Libya, U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other diplomats were killed.

Several dozen protesters from the Islamic Movement’s northern branch demonstrated outside the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv on Sept. 13 and held posters with slogans such as “A film that demeans the Prophet Muhammad is a despicable and contemptible act,” “We love Muhammad,” and “We will sacrifice our blood and souls for Muhammad.”

Jerusalem police forces reinforced their presence in the capital due to the expected expansion of the protests. Hundreds of policemen secured the al-Aqsa mosque and other areas within the city. Protests also took place in the Gaza Strip, and Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh called on the U.S. to apologize “before the affront to the Prophet Muhammad in the film in question ignites a revolution in the Islamic nation to preserve the prophet’s honor.”

The intelligence leading up to the embassy attacks will be examined to “see if there was any way of forecasting this violence,” House Intelligence Committee member Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said in an interview Sept. 13.

President Barack Obama, speaking at a campaign event in Colorado, also vowed that the perpetrators would be punished. “I want people around the world to hear me,” he said. “To all those who would do us harm: No act of terror will go unpunished. I will not dim the light of the values that we proudly present to the rest of the world. No act of violence shakes the resolve of the United States of America.”

As of Sept. 13, there was no intelligence indicating that what happened in Benghazi was planned, according to two U.S. officials briefed on the investigation into the attack. Intelligence officials said they believe it was more likely that the attack was “opportunistic or spontaneous,” with terrotists taking advantage of the demonstration to launch the assault. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the ongoing investigation publicly.

There is also no evidence that the attack was tied to the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, one of the officials said. But the Libyan-based terrorist group Ansar al Shariah is the leading suspect for carrying out the violence, possibly with help from al-Qaida’s main African-based offshoot, Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. The officials said it may be hard to determine definitively which group was responsible, because many terrorists are members of both.

As far as protests go, it is virtually impossible to predict when a crowd might form and turn violent, according to retired U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte, who served as chief of mission at five posts, including Iraq, and is a former director of national intelligence.

“These things can be mobilized on the spur of the moment, set off by a spark,” especially in places such as Egypt and Libya where the ruling strongmen have just fallen, Negroponte said. “When you get rid of authoritarian regimes, there’s little or no institutional framework left …That’s why there's disorder and chaos” that is so easily hijacked, he said.

Egypt’s ruling Muslim Brotherhood called for demonstrations after Friday prayers Sept. 14, as did authorities in Iran and the Gaza Strip. The White House said it was prepared for more protests but stressed that any violence would be unjustified.

“It is important to note that as these protests are taking place in different countries around the world, responding to the movie, that Friday, tomorrow, has historically been a day when there are protests in the Muslim world,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters in Colorado. “And we are watching very closely for developments that could lead to more protests. We anticipate that they may continue.”

Around the world, U.S. missions issued warnings to Americans about demonstrations that could turn violent. More than 50 embassies and consulates released such alerts, the State Department said.

Jewish reaction

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations condemned the attacks, saying there is “no justification and no legitimization for such violence.”

“We hope that all parties, governmental and non-governmental alike, will strive to restore calm and prevent the exploitation of the situation by extremist elements,” the Conference of President said in a statement. 

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said the group affirms “the U.S. government’s statement that those responsible must be held accountable for their actions and brought to justice.”

“The Jewish tradition is unequivocal in its belief that taking one life is akin to destroying the entire world,” Schonfeld said in a statement.

Jewish Council for Pubic Affairs President Rabbi Steve Gutow said, “As a rabbi, American, and human being, I am shocked and heartbroken by this heinous attack.”

“People of goodwill everywhere should stand up and unequivocally condemn these cold blooded murders,” he said in a statement.

Filmmaker’s identity

Sam Bacile—the name of the alleged producer of “Innocence of Muslims”—is a pseudonym, and the real producer is neither Israeli nor Jewish, according to reports.

“I don’t know that much about him,” said Steve Klein, a home insurance salesman from Riverside, Calif., who has been described in several media accounts as a consultant to the film, according to the Atlantic. “I met him, I spoke to him for an hour. He’s not Israeli, no. I can tell you this for sure, the State of Israel is not involved, Terry Jones (the fundamentalist Christian pastor) is not involved. His name is a pseudonym. All these Middle Eastern folks I work with have pseudonyms. I doubt he’s Jewish. I would suspect this is a disinformation campaign.” 

Californian Coptic Christian Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, 55, confirmed that he was involved with “Innocence of Muslims.” Although he denied being Sam Bacile, a phone number called by the Associated Press matched Nakoula’s address. These findings suggest that the film may have been produced by Coptic Christians to protest their persecution in Muslim countries.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Bacile had originally identified himself as a 52-year-old Israeli-American real estate developer from California who raised $5 million from Jewish donors to make the film. News outlets were unable to contact Bacile to confirm his identity. 

Vote result delay frays Egyptian nerves


Allegations of fraud delayed the result of Egypt’s presidential election on Thursday, fraying nerves as the Muslim Brotherhood, which claims victory, called for street protests against moves by the ruling generals to deny them power.

Thousands of protesters gathered for a third day in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, cauldron of the revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak 16 months ago, to demand that the officers who pushed him aside keep their word and hand over to civilians by July 1.

There is little sign that will happen after the ruling military council dissolved the Islamist-led parliament and set strict limits on the new president’s powers. But prominent Islamists dampened talk of violence, for all their promise of permanent town square vigils until their demands are met.

Among thousands who packed Tahrir after dark, Ahmed Youssef said he and his friends from a province north of Cairo would camp out overnight to join a major rally after weekly prayers on Friday: “We thought the army would stand by the revolution, and were surprised when it didn’t,” said the bearded, 24-year-old electrical engineer, who supports a hardline Salafist group.

“We will stay here until the military council hands over power,” he added, voicing a widely-shared sense of betrayal by generals who promised to rule only until elections. “If they do this, we will carry them on our shoulders. We love the army.”

The state election committee has spent four days collating counts from the two-day run-off ballot but said it would miss a target of Thursday for announcing the result as it was going through hundreds of complaints from both sides. As the weekend starts on Friday, that might mean a wait until Sunday.

“We are taking our time to review the appeals to investigate them properly but, God willing, the results will be announced by Sunday at most, if not before that,” Judge Maher el-Beheiry, a member of the election committee, told Reuters.

The candidates – former general and Mubarak aide Ahmed Shafik and the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsy – have both called for national unity as the delay jangled the nerves of a nation increasingly suspicious of the military and the Mubarak-era establishment, or “deep state”, that survived the revolution.

Some see the delay as a bid to pressure the Brotherhood to accept the military decree that curbed the president’s powers before any Morsy presidency. The committee insists it is simply a procedural issue to ensure all appeals are fairly assessed.

Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan said the delay “generates concern, no doubt”, expressing fear that the authorities were getting ready to announce Shafik the winner.

“The doubt extends to this possibility,” he told Reuters.

ON EDGE

In an effort to buttress its claim of victory, the Brotherhood has distributed what it says are copies of official records of the vote count at the local level. It says the margin of its victory means it is impossible for Shafik to have won.

But some have identified what they describe as flaws in the paperwork, saying, for example, that some of the documents did not bear official stamps or that the numbers did not add up.

“We cannot rely on them as numbers, because they contain great problems,” Hafez Abou Saeda, a human rights activist who is coordinating a monitoring initiative, said.

Egyptian media described a nation on edge.

“Egypt on the verge of exploding,” Al-Watan daily wrote in a front-page headline, highlighting worries about how supporters of rival camps will respond if their candidate loses. “Security alert before the presidential result,” wrote Al-Masry Al-Youm.

“The interest of the nation goes before narrow interests,” said reformist politician Mohamed ElBaradei on Twitter. “What is required immediately is a mediation committee to find a political and legal exit from the crisis. Egypt is on the verge of explosion.”

Cairo’s cafes and social media were alive with chatter about troops preparing to secure major cities, but military sources played down the idea that there was any unusual activity beyond extra alertness.

Adding to unease, Mubarak is himself back in the news, being let out of the prison where he began a life sentence this month for treatment at a military hospital. Security sources have said the 84-year-old was slipping in and out of a coma but “stabilizing”. Many Egyptians suspect the generals are exaggerating to get their old comrade out of jail.

Mohamed Abdel Razek, a Mubarak defense lawyer, said the former president had a stroke on Wednesday after he had a fall during an accompanied visit to a bathroom at Tora prison.

That incident prompted doctors to order he be moved to the hospital in Maadi that was better equipped, the lawyer said.

FUELLING SUSPICIONS

The political uncertainty has taken its toll on an already battered economy. The pound has hit a seven-year low against the dollar, and Egypt’s benchmark share index has tumbled 17 percent since the first round of the vote in May.

In a nation where vote-rigging was the norm during 60 years of military rule, and which is reeling from what critics called a “soft coup” by the generals in the past week, the delay in the results fuelled suspicions of foul play.

“There is absolutely no justification for the result of the vote to be delayed,” Muslim Brotherhood leader Essam el-Erian told Al-Jazeera on Wednesday, describing complaints from the Shafik camp as either invalid or too few to affect the result.

He called on Shafik to show “chivalry” and accept defeat.

Morsy said within hours of polls closing last Sunday that he had beaten Shafik by 52 percent to 48 percent. The group has stuck to those figures.

Shafik’s camp said on Wednesday it remained confident that its man, whom Mubarak appointed prime minister during the uprising, would win, although a spokesman for Shafik also described the vote as “too close to call”.

Whoever is declared winner, the next president’s powers have already been curbed in the last-minute decree issued by the army after it ordered the dissolution of the Islamist-led parliament.

The European Union on Wednesday joined the United States, both major aid donors, in expressing “concern” at what the army moves meant for a promised transition to democracy.

On Tuesday, election monitors from the Carter Center, founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who brokered the peace between Egypt and Israel that unlocked U.S. aid, said they could not call the election free and fair as they were denied sufficient access to polling stations and results collation.

The Brotherhood has called for open-ended protests against the army’s decree to limit the president’s role and retain powers, but said it would not resort to violence.

Reporting by Marwa Awad, Shaimaa Fayed, Edmund Blair, Patrick Werr, Ahmed Tolba and Dina Zayed in Cairo; Writing by Alastair Macdonald and Edmund Blair; Editing by Philippa Fletcher

Military rulers spread fear throughout Egyptian media


The ousting of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak one year ago was supposed to be the harbinger of an era of democracy, freedom, justice and, ultimately, freedom of press. But only a few days removed from the anniversary of Mubarak’s “departure,” journalists – foreign media and locals alike – are facing the heavy hand of the Egypt’s governing military council as they seek, day-by-day, to do their jobs.

On Saturday, the military again showed its face by detaining Australian journalist Austin Mackell, Egyptian translator Aliya Alwi and American graduate student Derek Ludovici in the Nile Delta town of Mahalla. The three were then transported hundreds of kilometers over two days, charged with “incitement of violence” and “bribing” local residents to demonstrate. All three deny the charges.

The incident triggered new widespread outrage, with activists and professional media colleagues demanding that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) release the trio immediately while calling for an end to the near constant crackdown on journalists in the country.

For the Australian, the detention has affected his entire life. Locals from his neighborhood ransacked his flat, increasing his fear for his personal safety while in Egypt.  Mackell told The Media Line, “I don’t feel safe. This is not just affecting my work; it’s my entire life.”

[RELATED: Felice Friedson talks with Nadia Al-Sakkaf, Editor-in-Chief of The Yemen Times]

Late Tuesday evening, Mackell, Alwi and Ludovici were barred from leaving Egypt while an investigation is ongoing.

The situation of Mackell and the others was the latest in a string of attacks against media in the country. In December, this Media Line reporter was beaten and detained for 13 hours in downtown Cairo while attempting to photograph the barbed wire fence that had been erected near the Cabinet building. Like Mackell – who described citizens being tortured and beaten in the cell nearby – the military at that time also appeared unfazed by a foreign presence; attacking, assaulting and eventually killing one protester in plain sight.

But the crackdown on media in Egypt goes farther than the detention of foreign journalists. Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently published an extensive report in which it documented at least fifty cases of intimidation, arrests, summons and attempts to silence what many believed last March were indicators of nascent freedoms.

According to Egyptian journalists, the message the SCAF is sending through the systematic arrests and detentions during the past 12 months is “don’t criticize the military.” 

The beginning of what many media professionals are calling the “full-on assault” in conversations with The Media Line came last May when activist Hossam Al-Hamalawy, who blogs at arabawy.org, and two journalists were summoned by the army after they were critical of the military’s actions during two separate broadcasts carried by popular independent television station OnTV.

Program host Reem Maged and reporter Nabil Sharafeddine, along with Hamalawy, were questioned personally by Adel Morsi, the head of the Military Justice Authority.

Maged, whose program is called “Baladna Bil Masry,” told reporters that the army claimed she was not being investigated, but that it need to “clarify” statements made on the talk show. On the program, Hamalawy had accused the military police of rights abuses, claiming he had proof of violations committed by officials he named. He said after his interrogation that the military demanded that he provide all documents pertaining to the alleged violations. The quizzing of Sharafeddine was related to his comments regarding the military that were made on the same program.

Although the three were not detained, they insist the message was made clear by the military: criticism will not be tolerated. Weeks before, the military council had issued a formal communiqué stating that media could face fines and possible jail time for criticizing the military’s actions – a policy that continues to this day. 

In April, an Egyptian military court sentenced Internet activist and blogger Maikel Nabil to three years in prison for criticizing the armed forces. He was arrested on March 28 after posting on his blog comments that were critical of the army’s role during the massive protests throughout the country that resulted in the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.

Nabil, 26, was a prominent secular activist who gained notoriety for his movement on Facbeook called “No for the compulsory conscription.” He was the first blogger to be jailed following the fall of the Mubarak regime; his case in retrospect a sign of things to come. Nabil was released in January, ahead of the one-year anniversary of the uprising.

One leading editor speaking to The Media Line under the condition of anonymity because of fear for his safety said bluntly that, “it’s not the civil prosecution to be worried about, it’s the military.”

The editor asserted that currently, “things are touchy. More people are facing military interrogations over insulting the military and most of [what they said] isn’t even that bad.”

But for media professionals, the military’s long reach has led to censorship, with even the most outspoken independent newspapers seemingly acquiescing under the military’s might. Late last year, Al-Masry Al-Youm – the leading non-government run publication – refrained from publishing an interview with U.K. journalist Robert Fisk and an editorial in its English language sister publication for fear it would stir the wrath of the military junta.

Both incidents, coupled with dozens of incidents in which reporters were attacked while covering protests – at least five photographers have lost sight in at least one eye – and the fear of being arrested or summoned because of what he or she writes, has led to an outpouring of anger.

Ahmed Aggour, a leading protester, argues adamantly that the problem facing Egypt and its media was state television.

“Look at what they are showing,” he began. “The state tells the people lies about what is going on, talks of foreigners’ involvement, and this hurts the country.”

This coercion of media has been seen following every violent outbreak in the country over the past 6 months, with the military detailing how protesters “used excessive force;” “were being directed by invisible hands;” followed by the assertion that “the military does not use force or kill its citizens,” despite evidence to the contrary. If a reporter speaks up, or a publication writes negatively about the military, they face charges of “insulting the military.”

For the mainstream Arabic press, reporting and discussing military initiatives or actions, is fraught with self-censorship. Adel Hammouda, a leading editor with Al-Fagr newspaper – who has experienced being summoned by the military – told The Media Line in a recent interview that now when media cover the military’s actions, they have begun to remove anything that is critical of its performance.

“There’s too much fear going around right now,” Hammouda said. “Nobody wants to have their names revealed when dealing with the army, so it is frustrating. And now we are already censoring our work because we don’t want to have our reporters get detained or face charges for anything that they write.”

Soccer fans on the frontline of revolution


Sprinting down a side street in downtown Cairo, the group of young men are outrun by a hissing tear gas canister careening through the air, slamming into the ground beside them. They quickly raise their arms to their mouths in a futile attempt to avoid inhaling the gas. But one of the group turns in the direction of his pursuers, staring at them defiantly as he breathes in the gas as a show of strength.

In case anyone is wondering who the courageous young man is and whom he represents, look no further than the red, black and white flag of Al-Ahly waving to and fro amid the tumult and white clouds.

Al-Ahly is not a political or religious movement, but the legendary Cairo soccer team. And the man who is defying the security forces is an “Ultra,” a hardcore fan of the team. Like thousands of other Ultras, he has been putting forth his street smarts and penchant for confrontation with the police to join opposition activists in their fight against the generals ruling Egypt.

The Ultras and their role in the revolution came to the world’s attention earlier this month when two groups of them clashed at a Port Said soccer match between the visiting Al-Ahly team and the local squad, Al-Masry. At least 75 people were killed in the violence as security forces stood by, fueling a new round of protests against the interim military government.

Sitting and recovering from the sprint down the street, dodging birdshot and rubber bullets, a group of three teenagers sits off to the side. They dab their eyes with a vinegar mixture and peer slowly back down the street. Mahmoud is the eldest of the three and the leader. He holds an Al-Ahly flag in his left hand. The determination in eyes belies the reality of the clashes. The 17-year-old points to his leg, lifting up his pants to reveal wounds suffered in the past few days of clashes.

“They shot me five times,” he told The Media Line as he waited for his friends—also Ultras—to recover before heading back down the street. “We are here because our friends were killed and the police and military are responsible.”

In many ways, the Ultras have become the face of the most recent round of clashes with police that erupted following the soccer riot amid accusations that the government did little to discourage the violence or perhaps even encouraged it as a means of justifying continue military rule.

The Ultras’ flags and the fireworks they like to set off when they protest have become a common sight in downtown Cairo. On the walls of Mohamed Mahmoud Street and Mansour Street – the flashpoint of the recent battles between protesters and police – are graffiti memorializing the “martyrs” killed in Port Said.

Last Thursday, tens of thousands of Ultras arrived in Cairo to protest. The police were ready and waiting. They fired barrage upon barrage of tear gas canisters at the protesters, who in return threw rocks at the shielded and masked police. The clashes that followed in subsequent days have left Cairo in yet more chaos, with at least 13 people dead in the capital and Suez to the east.

Leading the protests have been the Ultras, football fans angered at the violence at the Port Said match. This isn’t the first time these football fans have taken to the streets. In fact, their presence in downtown Cairo has become common; their arrival marking an upsurge in confidence and determination among protesters.

Ahmed, a 41-year-old handyman from Aswan, arrived in Cairo on Thursday in the late afternoon to join the protests. “I get a lot of strength by seeing the young people determined to change this country for the better,” he told The Media Line during one of the truces on Mansour Street.

Once devoted wholly to soccer and street fighting, the Ultras have become politicized since the uprising to oust President Hosni Mubarak began last year. They were a major presence downtown during the six days of street battles in November. Their fireworks have become a mark of their will and strength. The rattle of rocks on metal pipes signals their readiness to battle. The Ultras’ motto is: “All Cops Are Bastards.”

In December, their strength became apparent after one of their fellow members was brutally beaten as the military cleared out a peaceful sit-in at the cabinet building in downtown Cairo. The Ultras responded with force, taking to the streets and throwing rocks, which turned into three days of bloody clashes that left at least 17 people dead.

The Ultras of Al-Ahly were founded in the late 1990s by a group of hardcore football fans who traveled around the country following their beloved club to matches. They were known for their virulent chants, feuds with other teams in the stadiums; and clashes with police. Historically, they confined their activity to sports stadiums.

That is, until January 25, 2011, when Egypt exploded in protest against Mubarak. They led the vigilante groups that guarded the entrances to Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the anti-Mubarak protests. When Mubarak backers attacked the rally on camels a year ago in the so-called Battle of the Camel, it was the Ultras who fought back. As time went on, the Ultras became an integral part of the protest movement, taking the lead in many of the marches and showing their fearlessness in the face of violence.

Their political power, while ostensibly outside the mainstream of opposition movements, is unmatched by any group in the country. When the Ultras take to the street, the police are fearful.

One of their downtown Cairo leaders, a man named Gamal, led chants during the latest round of clashes, urging fellow protesters to remain strong and not back down in the face of police violence. He was at the Port Said match, he told The Media Line, and says the people he has spoken with are as angry as ever.

“We have been at the front of these protests for the last few battles with the police. Football is not political, but when the police allow—even push—for fans to attack others, we can no longer sit back and permit this to happen to Egypt,” he says.

“I want to go to a match and have fun. We are not a violent people, but the police and military want violence and we will protest for them to leave,” he says, resting on the sidewalk as he recovers from teargas. There was no let-up for Gamal and his followers. When the Ultras come out, he says, “We should be noticed for our power and strength. It’s others who want us to stop protesting, but what does that serve?”

Egyptians gather in Tahrir Square to mark uprising


Thousands of Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square in Cairo to mark the first anniversary of the uprising that led to the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak.

Liberal and Islamist protesters gathered in groups on opposite sides of the square, according to reports.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement that won nearly half the seats in the new Parliament, sent many of its followers to the square, according to The New York Times.

Other protesters called for an end to military rule.  A constitution is expected to be ratified in June, when a president is supposed to be elected.

The military government made the day a national holiday.

Mubarak stepped down on Feb. 11, 2011, and is on trial for the killing of hundreds of protesters during the uprising.

No soldiers or police were in evidence in the square on Wednesday.

Egyptians rally against army over beatings of protesters


Thousands of Egyptians rallied in Cairo and other cities on Friday to demand the military give up power and vent their anger after 17 people were killed in protests where troops beat and clubbed women and men even as they lay on the ground.

One image in particular from the five days of clashes that ended this week has stoked their fury: that of soldiers dragging a woman lying on the street so that her bra and torso were exposed, while clubbing and stamping on her.

“Anyone who saw her and saw her pain would come to Tahrir,”

Omar Adel, 27, said in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. “Those who did this should be tried. We can’t bear this humiliation and abuse.”

Some protesters have been demanding the army bring forward a presidential vote to as early as January 25, the first anniversary of the start of the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak, or at least much earlier than the mid-2012 handover now scheduled.

But other Egyptians fret that 10 months after Mubarak’s downfall Egypt remains in disarray. They want protests to stop so order can be restored and the economy revitalized, voicing such views in a smaller protest in another part of Cairo.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s party, leading in a staggered parliamentary election that runs to January and is Egypt’s first free vote in six decades, said it would not join Friday’s rally.

It also supports the army’s schedule and says the process must be decided by balloting, not street pressure.

Courtesy of Reuters

Demonstrators in Tahrir chanted, “Down with military rule.” Nearby, new concrete walls bar access from Tahrir to the cabinet, parliament and Interior Ministry, areas where clashes flared in November and December. The November death toll was 42.

There were several thousand demonstrators in Tahrir by mid-afternoon but that number paled next to some huge rallies seen in the square during and after Mubarak’s ouster, and fell well short of the one million organizers had called for on Friday.

But there were protests elsewhere. In the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, several thousand people marched to an army base chanting: “Women of Egypt raise your heads, you are more noble than those who stamp on you.”

Smaller rallies to decry the handling of protests and treatment of women were held in the eastern cities of Suez, Ismailiya and Port Said, witnesses said.

‘FOOT-DRAGGING’

The army has said it regretted the violence in Tahrir and offered an apology over the woman who was beaten, saying the case was isolated and under investigation. But the military was drawing fierce criticism from many political parties and groups.

“The current predicament we have reached is a result of the army council’s reluctance to play its role, its intentional foot-dragging, breaking its obligations and failing over the economy and security, putting the whole country on the edge of a huge crisis,” two dozen parties and groups said in a statement.

It said members of the military council, which is led by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, should be held to account out of respect for those killed and women who were mistreated.

“Tantawi undressed our daughters, he should be executed,” said Samah Ibrahim, 40, a woman protesting in Tahrir.

While the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) said it would steer clear of Friday’s rally, the ultraconservative Salafist al-Nour Party, a surprise runner-up in the election so far, said on its Facebook page that it would take part.

Many activists accuse the Brotherhood and other Islamists of betraying the grassroots protest movement in order to secure their own positions in the emerging new power structure.

The FJP said on its Facebook page it would not participate although it said it was “the right of the Egyptian people to protest and demonstrate peacefully.”

“The party emphasizes the need for the handover of power to civilians according to the will of the Egyptian people through free and fair elections … in a stable environment,” said Mohamed al-Katatni, a senior member of the FJP.

His remarks indicated the group was sticking to the army’s timetable to hold a presidential vote in June. The Brotherhood has said bringing the vote forward could “create chaos.”

MILITARY DOMINANCE

Those views were echoed a short distance from Tahrir where hundreds of Egyptians backed the army, chanting: “We support the military council staying until the presidential election.” A few hundred supporting the military also gathered in Alexandria.

The Brotherhood’s stance reflected a wish to shape the new constitution before a presidential vote, seeking more influence for parliament where it is doing well thanks to a well-organized grassroots network, and reining in powers of the president.

An earlier presidential vote would not necessarily eliminate the military’s dominance in a new civilian-governed state.

The military has survived Egypt’s political upheaval intact and has vast economic and other interests, so any new president would likely need its support to maintain order.

The United States, which provides the military with $1.3 billion a year in aid, a deal in place since Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, has rebuked the ruling generals for their rough handling of protests and women.

Washington, which like other Western powers long looked to Mubarak to keep a lid on Islamists, has been cultivating contact with newly elected Islamist politicians.

The Brotherhood’s FJP said it had won 40 of the 60 individual seats up for grabs in the second round of Egypt’s election after this week’s run-offs, in line with the previous round. Official results have yet to be announced.

The electoral system gives two thirds of the 498 elected seats to lists, and the rest to individuals.

Parliament’s primary role will be in picking a 100-strong assembly that will write the new constitution.

Unrest in Tahrir that has gone on since November 18 was stirred by resentment over proposals by the army-backed cabinet for articles in the new constitution that would have permanently shielded the military from civilian oversight.

Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Detained in Cairo


I had been abused and beaten and had my camera confiscated all in the confines of the cabinet building, the headquarters of Egypt’s nascent democracy. Now, for the better part of an hour, I was languishing in a makeshift holding pen somewhere at the entrance of the building.

A group of plainclothes men entered. One handed another a heavy metal rod and they began talking about where they might shove it into me and how they wanted to destroy my face.  I retrospect, I suspect the whole thing was an act, but being a neophyte prisoner, suddenly cut off from the world and having no sense of when or how I would be released, it worked well enough. The men discussed my fate, one holding the rod firmly in his hand and occasionally turning in my direction.

They left without acting, but by now the last remnant of any hope that my being a journalist or an American citizen, much less someone who was not guilty of new crime, might somehow be released with no more than a few welts and some abuse.

Over the previous several hours on Saturday morning I had seen children as young as 13 shoved to the ground, beaten by soldiers, kicked and punched in the face over and over. I had a first-hand view of every detainee brought in to what began to look more and more like the military’s torture chamber.

One young man had been thrown against a stone pillar. Soldiers kicked him repeatedly, despite his pleading. A man brought a small palm tree trunk out – from where I don’t know – and began beating him with it. The blood that came forth was shocking. He was then dragged to the back grass area, where earlier in the morning, regular beatings were taking place.

Ten months after Husni Mubarak was ousted from office, I got to see firsthand over 13 hours in detention the new Egypt, a country where the military rules, the police and the torturers act as enforcers and the civilian prime minister comes on television to deny that the army is using live fire against protestors and to call on civilians to civilians “to protect Egypt” from the very people who are trying to save it.

The violence against protestors began in the early morning hours of Friday, with a barrage of rocks hurled from the roof of the cabinet building and smashing onto the sidewalk were demonstrators were gathered. The calls of haassib (stone throwing) echoed throughout the air, as the stones tumbled through the sky.

The protesters who had defied the troops stationed along Qasr el-Aini and Magles el-Shaab Streets could not avoid being hit, toppling to the ground. Fellow demonstrators carried the injured; their heads covered in blood, down a side street to makeshift hospital close to the U.S. and British embassies.

Cairo had once again turned into a war-zone, pitting the military against protesters who had been carrying out a non-violent sit-in. Throughout Friday, the barrage of rocks continued, soldiers and protesters alike hurling stones at each other. By Sunday morning, activists and medics estimated that 10 people had been killed. 

On Saturday morning, calm seemed to return to Egypt’s capital. Heading down to the street, I wanted to see the barbed wire that had been erected on the street parallel to where I lived. I took out my camera and snapped an image. Nothing looked threatening. Groups of men had gathered and the security personnel on the other side of the barbed wire were idly manning their positions.

An elderly woman approached me. She told me how the soldiers had removed the memory card from her camera and deleted almost all of her pictures. “I wanted to document the violence against the military,” she told me on the corner of Hussein Hegazy Street. With no apparent sense of irony she went on to insist that the protesters were the ones “committing suicide” and that “the military and police had never killed any Egyptian citizen.”

Naively, I decided to refute her claim, telling her of my own first-hand experience on Mohamed Mahmoud Street in late November, where scores of Egyptians were killed by live fire from the security forces and the military. She would have none of it, calling me a liar.

By now, we were joined by a group of men from the ligaan shaabiya, or people’s committee, that guarded the entrance to nearby streets, including my own. They demanded to see my passport and know why I was here. As I started to leave, they grabbed my arms and neck.

A uniformed military officer was quick to the scene. He pulled me from what I thought was harm’s way and handed me over to another soldier, who led me inside the cabinet building, where I assumed that I would be released.

That was not to happen. Instead, he put me in a headlock, lifted me off my feet and dragged me into the building’s courtyard. Once there, he tightened the grip on my neck and slapped me in the face repeatedly. Others who I never had a chance to see struck me on the back.

The pummeling over, but not my detention, I was taken to an open grass area where dozens of bandaged detainees were languishing on the ground. I realized that the beating I had received until now might just be the beginning.

But I was lucky: They sat me down away from the others and took my camera and computer, going through each and every file on the computer to delete they said were “not appropriate to tell of Egypt.” I got back my computer, now reconfigured to confirm with the New Egypt and was led to the makeshift holding pen to meet the men with the metal rod.

They departed with their threat, but not long afterwards, the officer who had taken me from the street – a major, I learned later – entered the room.  “If I see you again near the street, I will slit your throat,” he announced and instructed me to walk down the street until the end and go home. I got up, exited the building and began my trek over the rock debris that covered the street from the battles of the previous day.

I got no more than halfway down the street before a soldier caught up with me and ordered me to return. I had to see a colonel of the secret police colonel before I could leave. With two soldiers flanking me, I was marched to the other side of the street, just past the parliament building, where we were met by a group of baton-wielding plainclothes officers. They began to speak in rapid Arabic, accusing me of trying to reignite the protests that had died down.

One of the men barked at me a question. When I told him I didn’t understand a word he used, he replied calmly, “I will make you understand inside.” But at that moment something bigger was happening. All around me the soldiers who had been standing idly by a fleet of armored vehicles began putting on riot gear and moving out. In the distance, black smoke rose above the buildings from what I learned later was Tahrir Square. The military had already attacked.

Taken back to the holding cell, I spent the next 10 hours waiting for my release. I was told that someone from my embassy, the American Embassy in Cairo, could come and take me away and I would be free.

Surprisingly my jailers allowed me to keep my phone, so I called the embassy myself ––to have someone come and arrange my released. They refused, citing diplomatic issues between Washington and the Egyptian security forces as well as the precarious security situation on the street outside. The embassy is building is on the opposite side of the street no more than 100 meters (300 feet) from where I was being held, but officials insisted that the security officer at has banned all personnel from being near the scene.

I had been abused, threatened and beaten, but for the first time, I was angry.

By early afternoon, a Hungarian national, Mark Fodor, was also brought in for the offense of taking photos at the same spot I was detained. He immediately contacted his embassy and got the ball rolling. By around 9 p.m., the Hungarian counsel was en route to free him. I was livid. Two Egyptian officers had specifically told embassy officials on the phone that to get me released an embassy employee had to come get me.

But they never came. I would have to stay the night until the morning, they insisted.

It was cold and after Fodor – who I had conversed with throughout the afternoon and early evening – was gone. I was preparing for a lonely night in the small, pitch black room without any confidence about what would happen tomorrow when suddenly two soldiers entered. They asked me if I knew how to get home and took me to a side street outside and let me go.

It was a strange turn of events, but I had been freed.

I still wonder where the U.S. State Department was over the matter. Why had they not issued a statement about an American journalist being held in Cairo for an entire day? Was diplomacy more important than my freedom and ability to conduct my work? It was, and remains, a disheartening reality.

One Embassy official had the audacity to question why I had been at a “dangerous” place in Cairo. The same official told my wife that I “should not have even left my apartment,” citing the security directives issued from the embassy. I am a journalist and it is my job to document. The American Embassy and government should know better than to make such claims.

My neck and back may still be in pain, sore from the early morning beating I received, but as I write, Egyptians continue to brave military attacks down the street. They are fed up with military rule, and it is time the world stands with the Egyptians who want change. They fought the Mubarak government, which was replaced by the military. Now they are continuing the unfinished revolution.

Mobilizing the Veto in Egypt


The vehemence of the Egyptian people’s response to the recent machinations of the military council caught a lot of people by surprise. Egyptians continue to show that they will march to the barricades when they smell a rat in the actions of their leadership. Beatings, gas and even killings do not seem to intimidate anymore. But with the rolling elections that began on Nov. 28, the actions of the past weeks carry a more poignant political overtone and raise important questions anew.

Perhaps the key question is about the true power and the true intent of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is the largest and best-organized of all the political movements, but does it represent as many Egyptians as it claims? That is anybody’s guess. And while the common wisdom has it that the Brotherhood has a considerable advantage over all other parties, it has become increasingly fragmented into factions and even break-away parties defined by how deeply Islam should be involved in governing a new Egypt.

The Brotherhood lost a lot of credibility during the recent tumult when it held back from supporting the activists in Tahrir Square. Its refusal to join the others is considered by many to have been a revelation of the Brotherhood’s true colors: that it is willing to act in cahoots with the military council for its own selfish ends at the expense of the Egyptian people as a whole. Yet it is extremely difficult to poll the populace. Observers don’t have an accurate handle on the pulse of the people, and they don’t yet know whether voters will stick with their positions or veer off as they enter the polling booth.

Add to this confusion the problem of “revolution fatigue.” The turbulence of recent months has made life extremely difficult for millions of people for whom getting by was difficult even before the fall of Hosni Mubarak. Many people are just fed up. They don’t really want to go back to the corruption of the old ways, but they are desperate for stability, and many feel they can’t trust the ability or the reliability of any of the current leadership options. Nobody knows where it is all heading, and everybody seems to be trying to spin the situation to their own advantage.

It is impossible to know what is going to happen in Egypt. That’s a simple fact. Here are some reasons. Egyptians have been moving steadily toward religious conservatism over the past 40 years. In the 1950s and ’60s you saw few women veiled, and mosque attendance was sporadic. Today, you rarely see a woman on the street unveiled, and on Fridays worshippers typically spill out onto the sidewalks despite the existence of literally thousands of mosques in greater Cairo. Bikinis were common in Alexandria. Today, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any Egyptian bikinis anywhere on public beaches (private pool parties are another story). But Western ideas and values have penetrated Egypt increasingly and thoroughly during the same period. Notice the veils on many young women … and extremely tight-fitting tops and pants that show every wrinkle. Egyptian music today is a fusion of Eastern and Western styles, and Egyptian sitcoms could be produced in Hollywood.

Egypt has had no direct experience with democracy, ever. Dictators, kings, foreign colonial administrators, sultans, caliphs and pharaohs all have ruled. Egyptians never have experienced a true parliament or real elections. But, vicariously, Egyptians have been watching America and Europe, and most have envied the West’s democracy and success. And they have watched the fall of the Iron Curtain and the democracy struggles — some successful and others not — after the failure of communism. They know a lot about democracy from afar, but they have not seen it up close.

Egyptians, like most peoples who have lived for generations without a free press or freedom of expression, feel manipulated by government and the media and public pundits. They are so used to being sold a bill of goods that they feel hesitant to believe any authority. At the same time, conspiracy theories abound in Egypt. People will believe one, then not, then believe a new theory. There is a tremendous volatility in the opinions of many Egyptians.

Dozens of new parties have formed over the past few months, most too small to make a big difference unless they are able to form coalitions and work the system. But nobody really knows how to work a democratic system because they have never experienced one. The experience will come with time, but in the meantime, they’ll make mistakes, sometimes even very bad mistakes.

The question is, can the mistakes be corrected? Let’s take the precedence of Iran after 1979. The earliest Iranian government was not Islamist, but mistakes were made, and because they were not corrected, the entire country slid into an Islamist theocracy. Will that happen in Egypt? The true answer is, of course, nobody knows.

But there are some significant differences between Egypt and Iran. Iran is disparaged by Egyptians for many reasons, and not only because it is a stifling, theocratic dictatorship. The bottom line is that Iran is a powerful example for Egyptians of what they don’t want.

Now the good news. Egyptians have tasted freedom, and they want it — and that includes members of the Muslim Brotherhood. There are too many instances to count since January of when Egyptians have not allowed autocratic leaders — whether in local government or the work place or even the university — to get away with obvious corruption that previously had been tolerated because that was simply how things “worked” in Egypt. The people have shut down factories, risen up against university policies, and even closed down the national rail line in order to make themselves heard.

This is a critically important card that the Egyptian people hold. The Iranian people never had it. It is the card of the mobilized veto. You have seen it at work in Egypt since January, and especially in recent weeks. The people mobilize and proclaim a loud and public veto, and that public veto has now become an honored part of Egyptian political culture. It is hard to overestimate how important and respected it is, honored by everybody from garbage collectors to housewives to the military junta trying to hold onto power.

If the Muslim Brotherhood becomes the major power broker after things have settled down, or if an Islamist coalition, or any leadership for that matter, tries to force something on the public that the public will not bear, the people will mobilize. They will return to Tahrir Square and the streets in cities and towns and even villages to proclaim their public veto. The feared paramilitary police failed to stop them, and now the military is failing to stop them. For the foreseeable future, this will be a central fact of Egyptian politics, and it will be a profound moderating influence on whoever ends up on top.

Reuven Firestone lived in Israel and Egypt. He is professor of medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. His most recent book is “An Introduction to Islam for Jews.”

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

Tahrir reprise throws down gauntlet to Egypt army


The chants, tear gas and violence emanating from Cairo’s Tahrir Square evoke the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak. Protesters talk of a fight to the death with the ruling military council, whose entire transition plan looks shakier than ever.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces may take some comfort from the scale of the protests, which in the past four days have yet to attract the hundreds of thousands who turned out against Mubarak in January and February.

Yet activists resisting efforts to dislodge them from Tahrir are voicing defiance reminiscent of the height of the 18-day uprising that unseated Egypt’s longtime ruler.

Their passions inflamed by the deaths of at least 33 people since Saturday, they show no signs of leaving. There are calls for a bigger protest on Tuesday. A protracted standoff could put at risk elections planned to begin on November 28.

On Monday, crowds chanted “the people want the downfall of the regime,” the main refrain of the anti-Mubarak protest. Some said they were ready to die for their cause, sentiments also often heard during demonstrations in February.

And there were flashes of the volunteer spirit that was vital to the successful uprising against Mubarak.

Youths on motor bikes ferried those wounded in clashes with the security forces to makeshift clinics. Others formed human corridors to clear the way. Medics treated the casualties on the pavement, while volunteers swept away rubbish.

It wasn’t the first time the spirit of the original uprising had returned. Large protests in July are widely credited with prompting the military council to put Mubarak on trial.

What sets this protest apart is the level of the bloodshed blamed on the security forces, which could inflame unrest, just as it did in the last days of the Mubarak era.

“A LOT OF KILLING”

“I came because I saw the situation on the TV. There’s a lot of killing,” said Hussam Mohammad, a 22-year-old history student, among a crowd that had grown from thousands to tens of thousands by late afternoon.

“The thing you can take from all of this is that revolution is still going on. It reminds me exactly of January 25,” he said, referring to the day the anti-Mubarak protests erupted.

Among the Tahrir Square activists, anger has mounted over the way the ruling military council has governed Egypt. The protesters believe the generals are trying to hold onto power and privilege, undermining hopes for real democratic change.

“If people go home now, the whole revolution will have been for nothing,” said Abdou Kassem, a youth activist who had been leading the chants atop the shoulders of other demonstrators.

He pulled from his pocket a bird shot pellet which he said security forces had fired at demonstrators. “Morale is very high,” he smiled, pointing out wounds to his face and leg.

Tuesday’s turnout will likely help shape the military’s next step. A poor showing could encourage it to try to clear the square by force. A large crowd may deter a harsh crackdown.

Not all the Egyptians in the square on Monday were there to protest. As always, some were there merely to watch. Others were urging the protesters to go home. Others, on the fringes, played a more sinister role, provoking violence or looting buildings.

While the activists are confident of popular support for their street action, beyond Tahrir there is more doubt.

Some Egyptians say the activists should be more patient and give respite to an economy battered by a year of political turmoil. They see the elections for a new legislature due to start on November 28 as the first step on the road toward the return of civilian government promised by the military.

“The silent majority now are not the same as the silent majority of January 25. Now, they are not with the Tahrir crowd. Why? Because there are positive steps being implemented,” said Mustafa Ibrahim, 31, from the town of Tanta north of Cairo.

“They must be patient,” he said.

Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Alistair Lyon

Egypt cabinet to meet over violence that kills 24


Christians clashed with military police, leaving at least 24 people dead in Cairo, and the cabinet called an emergency meeting for Monday, vowing the violence would not derail Egypt’s first election since Hosni Mubarak was toppled.

Christians protesting about an attack on a church set cars on fire, burned army vehicles and hurled rocks at military police who they said used heavy-handed tactics against them. It was some of the worst violence since the February uprising.

The violence casts a shadow over the imminent parliamentary election. Voting starts on on Nov. 28 with candidates due to begin registering during the week starting on Wednesday.

The clashes also added to growing frustration among activists with the army who many Egyptians suspect wants to keep hold of the reins of power from behind the scenes even as it hands over day-to-day government. The army denies this.

“This is a dark day in the military’s history. This is betrayal, a conspiracy, murder,” Magdy el-Serafy wrote on Twitter where he and other Egyptians voiced frustration at the army’s handling of the protest.

The Health Ministry said the death toll had reached 24 with 213 injured, the official MENA news agency reported. It did not identify the dead but state television had earlier reported three soldiers were killed.

Prime Minister Essam Sharaf toured the area near the state television building where clashes erupted, MENA said, adding he spoke to those in the area to hear their accounts of events.

“What happened in front of the state TV building is exactly what happened on Jan. 25,” wrote Muslim activist Asmaa Mahfouz, referring to the start of the anti-Mubarak uprising.

Christians, who make up 10 percent of Egypt’s roughly 80 million people, took to the streets after blaming Muslim radicals for partially demolishing a church in Aswan province last week. They also demanded the sacking of the province’s governor for failing to protect the building.

Tensions between Christians and Muslims have increased since the uprising. But Muslim and Christian activists said the violence on Sunday was not due to sectarian differences but was directed at the army’s handling of the protest.

‘MALICIOUS CONSPIRACIES’

“Instead of advancing to build a modern state of democratic principles, we are back searching for security and stability, worrying that there are hidden hands, both domestic and foreign, seeking to obstruct the will of Egyptians in establishing a democracy,” Sharaf said on state television.

“We will not surrender to these malicious conspiracies and we will not accept reverting back,” he said in his address.

The cabinet said in a statement that it would “not let any group manipulate the issue of national unity in Egypt or delay the process of democratic transformation” which it said would begin with opening the doors to candidate nominations.

Cabinet spokesman Mohamed Hegazy told Reuters the cabinet would hold a special session on Monday to discuss the events.

“The most important thing is to contain the situation, see the way forward and the necessary measures to avoid any ramifications,” Hegazy said, adding a committee of prominent figures from the church and Al-Azhar mosque would also meet.

Presidential candidate Amr Moussa and political groups said they would hold an emergency meeting on Monday about the violence.

The army imposed a curfew on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the focus for protests that brought down Mubarak, and the downtown area. It was set from 2 a.m. to 7 a.m., (0000-0500 GMT).

Pictures of smashed faces and dead bodies of what activists said were bodies run over by military vehicles circulated online, with angry comments comparing the violence used by the military to that of Mubarak’s hated police in the uprising.

“What happened today is unprecedented in Egypt. 17 corpses crushed by military tanks,” Hossam Bahgat, human rights activist tweeted from hospital. “I saw bodies missing hands and legs, heads twisted away or plastered to the ground.”

Protesters also took to the streets in Alexandria, Egypt’s second city.

The government appealed for calm. In comments published on his Facebook page, Sharaf said he had contacted security and church authorities about the situation, saying the one ones to benefit were the “enemies of the January revolution”.

Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Michael Roddy

Israel evacuates Jordanian embassy ahead of protest


Israel evacuated its embassy in Jordan, amid fears that a planned anti-Israel protest could turn violent.

The ambassador and staff of the embassy, located in Amman, returned to Israel Wednesday night. Jordanian activists have called for a “million man march” against the embassy for Thursday. The protest was organized on Facebook. A similar demonstration in Egypt lead to the evacuation a week ago of Israel’s embassy in Cairo and the emergency rescue of several members of the embassy’s security staff.

The staff of Israel’s Jordanian embassy regularly return to their homes in Israel on Thursday for the weekend. Their families reside in Israel. The evacuation order sent them home one day earlier, with plans to return on Sunday, according to reports.

Security near the embassy reportedly has been increased.

Egypt is not withdrawing Israel envoy, diplomat says


Egypt is not preparing to withdraw its ambassador to Israel, an Egyptian diplomat said on Tuesday, playing down an earlier threat to bring home the envoy in protest at the killing of five Egyptian security personnel near the Israeli border.

The deaths, which Egypt blamed on Israel, sparked the deepest crisis in their relations since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in February and four days of angry protests near the Israeli embassy in Cairo.

Egypt’s cabinet posted an online statement on Saturday—which it then withdrew—saying the killing of the Egyptians was a breach of Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel and it would withdraw its envoy in protest.

Low-key talks followed, with expressions of regret from Israel over the Egyptian deaths and meetings with top U.S. and United Nations diplomats.

By Tuesday, Egypt’s threat appeared to have been dropped.

“There are currently no procedures being taken to withdraw the Egyptian ambassador in Israel,” the Egyptian diplomat told Reuters, asking not to be named. He declined to comment further.

An Egyptian cabinet official said, on condition of anonymity, that recalling the ambassador would depend on the Jewish state’s cooperation in a joint investigation of the deaths that Egypt has demanded, and when it would start.

The killings followed an attack near Israel’s Red Sea resort of Eilat on Thursday by armed militants that left eight Israelis dead. Israel said the gunmen were Palestinians from Gaza who went through the Egyptian Sinai before crossing into Israel.

Israel said it was looking into what happened, but its national security adviser said no joint investigation was planned—instead, both sides would share results of their separate inquiries.

“I don’t think there will be a joint investigation in the sense that both sides will sit in front of those officers (involved in the incident),” Yaakov Amidror told Israeli Army Radio.

“But we will carry out our own detailed investigation. They will carry out their own detailed investigation, and we will sit together with the results of the investigations,” he added.

Egypt recalled its ambassador from Israel in 1982 after Israel invaded Lebanon and in 2000 after heavy Israeli shelling of the Gaza Strip.

SINAI RAIDS HALTED

The generals ruling Egypt since Mubarak’s overthrow in a popular uprising are anxious to appease a newly-assertive public among whom resentment of Israel runs deep.

The spat has highlighted a dilemma for the military council, which is trying to show it respects public opinion more than Mubarak, while avoiding a major stand-off with its neighbour.

The army refused to comment on the Israeli security adviser’s statement that no joint investigation was planned.

Egypt’s state news agency MENA cited a report by U.N. peace keepers on the border with Israel saying that Israeli troops had crossed into Egyptian Sinai by land to pursue the gunmen and then fired at Egyptian border guards, killing five and prompting Egyptian forces to clash with them.

The report said the peace keepers examined the boundary where the clashes took place and “recorded two violations by Israeli troops: crossing the border into Egyptian territory and firing bullets at the Egyptian side of the border,” MENA said.

North Sinai security officers said on Tuesday they had halted a security sweep in Sinai to root out armed groups whose numbers there have grown amid the security vacuum left by the uprising against Mubarak.

“We have caught a number of suspects who have carried out armed attacks in Sinai and bombed gas pipelines, but after the border incident many escaped to Halal mountain and we suspect they planted mines to prevent security forces from tracing them,” a security source said.

Israel accuses Egypt’s interim rulers of losing control over the isolated desert peninsula. Egypt rejects the charges, saying Israel is blaming Egypt for its own security failings.

Amidror, who previously headed the research division of the Israeli Military Intelligence, added that “Islamic Jihad concentrations” were in Northern Sinai and that Israel was keen for Egypt to “exert its sovereignty in Sinai more effectively”.

The number of troops Egypt can deploy in the Sinai is limited under the 1979 peace treaty, which followed four wars with Israel since 1948.

Additional reporting by Yusri Mohamed in Ismailia and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem

Doubt, fear as Egyptians head to polls


The distance between the speaker on the stage and the hundreds of spectators seated in front of him in the coastal city of Ismailia was not very far. But the gap between the thoughts and the enthusiasm of the two sides was unimaginably huge.

The talk in this street rally — something that could never have happened two months ago — was about the Egyptian revolution that forced Hosni Mubarak to resign as president of Egypt on Feb. 11.

The speaker was enthusiastically encouraging the audience to keep rebelling until the revolution becomes a full-fledged political movement able to make this populous Arab county, which was ruled by one man for the last 30 years, take off.

“The revolution isn’t complete yet,” the speaker told the crowd. “The people in each of the nation’s cities and governorates must take the revolution to their individual governorates and cities. Our country must be fully clean of the pits of the former regime.”

The speaker was Ahmed Maher, a civil engineer in his early 30s and one of the champions of the revolution that engulfed Egypt on Jan. 25 with the aim of ousting Mubarak — a former army general who, during his three-decade reign, devolved from a celebrated air-force liberator to become a despised despot.

Maher spoke about the need for more revolutionary work. For him, Egypt could now easily fall into the hands of either the Islamists or the remaining members of Mubarak’s disbanded National Democratic Party.

His enthusiasm, however, was not shared by everybody in the audience. Some people kept mumbling, while others shook their heads in disagreement.

“Which work?” one of the attendees at the rally asked a friend after the rally. “We need to be clear on our future. Everything is obscure. When will these clouds go?”

This attitude may reflect the general condition in Egypt now that the revolutionaries have gone home, a new government has been installed and a process of constitutional reform has started.

While almost everybody in post-revolution Egypt is happy to be rid of Mubarak and his corrupt band of politicians-cum-businessmen, almost everybody is also totally unclear on the direction their country will take in the future.

Having seen their country thrown into extreme chaos after clashes between the demonstrators and policemen forced the latter to turn tail, leading to an unprecedented security vacuum, some Egyptians, the elderly in particular, blame the revolutionaries, most of whom youthful, for what they call the “destruction” of their country.

“I had really hoped that this revolution had never happened,” said Mohamed Qamhawy, a shop owner in Cairo. “True, Mubarak was corrupt, but at least people felt more secure.”

Security seems to be one of many things missing in post-revolution, post-Mubarak Egypt. On Jan. 28, at the climax of confrontations between Mubarak’s policemen and the hundreds of thousands of his haters who came out to demand his ouster, all of the nation’s police stations were suddenly empty. Jails were attacked, leading to the escape of thousands of inmates who spread fear everywhere.

Some of Qamhawy’s neighbors were robbed, and the shops of others were looted.

Egyptian cab drivers talk about masked men who meet them on highways and take their cars from them at gunpoint. In some areas, the sound of gunfire is becoming a common occurrence in a country that seems to have quickly descended into total fear and uncertainty, just one month after the dictator left.

Some Egyptians, however, look at this fear and point at behind-the-curtain plans that aim to destabilize Egypt and abort the revolution. They call these plans a “counterrevolution.”

Essam Sharaf, the prime minister of the caretaker government, said in a TV interview that there has been a “systematic” effort to spread chaos in Egypt and make Egyptians regret deposing Mubarak.

“The counterrevolution is true,” said Rifaat Al-Saed, the chief of the leftist Tagammu Party. “Some of Mubarak’s loyalists can’t reconcile themselves with the fact that their benefactor is gone.”

This is, perhaps, one reason that most Egyptians view a recent proposed package of constitutional amendments with a mixture of doubt and fear. The amendments, which mainly focus on the powers of the president and his tenure, are due to go before a national referendum on Saturday, March 19, when more than 40 million Egyptians are expected to head to the polls.

But some people fear that if the amendments are approved by a majority of Egyptians, a parliamentary election will follow to benefit none but the pits of Mubarak’s party and the Islamist movement the Muslim Brotherhood.

“They’re the only organized powers in society now,” said Zakaria Abdelaziz, an Egyptian judge, during a recent gathering in Cairo. “A parliament majority by these two powers will be catastrophic for Egypt.”

The next parliament will have the authority to choose a group of experts who will write Egypt’s next constitution, and therein lies the danger, according to many. If the Muslim Brotherhood and Mubarak’s party make up a majority in parliament, they will choose people to write the constitution they like, not the one the rest of Egypt likes.

Even with this, a large number of the people who will head to the polling stations — the first democratic test for this country in modern history — have not made up their mind on the amendments. Some of them do not even known what the amendments are generally about.

“I can go to the polling station on Saturday, but I don’t really know whether to vote yes or no,” said Khalid Abu Shama, a trash collector from Giza. “What I want now is for this country to go back to normal. Everybody is tired. Everybody is fed up with fear and uncertainty.”

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