Egypt’s contentious Islamist constitution becomes law


Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi signed into law a new constitution shaped by his Islamist allies, a bitterly contested document which he insists will help end political turmoil and allow him to focus on fixing the economy.

Anxiety about a deepening political and economic crisis has gripped Egypt in past weeks, with many people rushing to buy dollars and withdraw their savings from banks. The Egyptian pound tumbled on Wednesday to its weakest level against the U.S. currency in almost eight years.

The new constitution, which the liberal opposition says betrays Egypt's 2011 revolution by dangerously mixing religion and politics, has polarized the Arab world's most populous nation and prompted occasionally violent protest on the streets.

The presidency said on Wednesday that Morsi had formally approved the constitution the previous evening, shortly after results showed that Egyptians had backed it in a referendum.

The text won about 64 percent of the vote, paving the way for a new parliamentary election in about two months.

The charter states that the principles of sharia, Islamic law, are the main source of legislation and that Islamic authorities will be consulted on sharia – a source of concern to the Christian minority and others.

The referendum result marked yet another electoral victory for the Islamists since veteran autocrat Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011, following parliamentary elections last year and the presidential vote that brought Morsi to power this year.

Morsi's government, which has accused opponents of damaging the economy by prolonging political upheaval, now faces the tough task of building a broad consensus as it prepares to impose austerity measures.

CRISIS ATMOSPHERE

The atmosphere of crisis deepened this week after the Standard & Poor's agency downgraded Egypt's long-term credit rating and warned of a possible further cut. The government has imposed currency restrictions to reduce capital flight.

The pound traded as low as 6.1775 against the dollar on Wednesday, close to its all-time low of 6.26 hit on October 14, 2004, on concerns that the government might devalue or tighten restrictions on currency movements.

“All customers are rushing to buy dollars after the downgrading,” said a dealer at a Cairo-based bank. “We'll have to wait to see how the market will operate with the U.S. dollar, because as you know there is a rush at the moment.”

Keen to be seen as decisive, the government is now in talks with business figures, trade unions and other groups to highlight the need for tax increases to resolve the crisis.

Morsi has committed to such austerity measures to receive a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.

However, Al-Mal newspaper quoted Planning Minister Ashraf al-Araby as saying the government would not implement the tax increases until it had completed the dialogue with different parts of society.

In Cairo's bustling centre, people openly expressed their frustration with economic instability as they went about their daily business.

“The country's going to the pits. Everything is a mess,” Hamdy Hussein, a 61-year-old building janitor, said angrily. “It's worse than ever. Mubarak was better than now. People were living and there was security.”

Ashraf Mohamed Kamal, 30, added: “The economic situation will be a mess in the next few years. It already is. People will get hungrier. People are now begging more.”

TURMOIL CONTINUES

Morsi, catapulted into power by his Islamist allies this year, believes adopting the constitution quickly and holding the vote for a permanent new parliament will help to end the long period of turmoil and uncertainty that has wrecked the economy.

Morsi's government argues the constitution offers enough protection to all groups, and that many Egyptians are fed up with street protests that have prevented a return to normality and distracted the government from tackling the economy.

The charter gives Egypt's upper house of parliament, which is dominated by Islamists, full legislative powers until the vote for a new lower house is held.

While stressing the importance of political stability to heal the economy, Morsi's government has tried to play down the economic problems and appealed for unity despite the hardship.

“The government calls on the people not to worry about the country's economy,” Parliamentary Affairs Minister Mohamed Mahsoub told the upper house in a speech. “We are not facing an economic problem but a political one and it is affecting the economic situation. We therefore urge all groups, opponents and brothers, to achieve wide reconciliation and consensus.”

Morsi is due to address the upper house on Saturday in a speech likely to be dominated by economic policy.

Sharpening people's concerns, the authorities imposed currency controls on Tuesday to prevent capital flight. Leaving or entering Egypt with more than $10,000 in cash is now banned.

Adding to the government's long list of worries, Communications Minister Hany Mahmoud has resigned citing his “inability to adapt to the government's working culture”.

The opposition has condemned the new basic law as too Islamist, saying it could allow clerics to intervene in the lawmaking process and leave minority groups without proper legal protection. It said this month's vote was marred by major violations.

Nevertheless, major opposition groups have not called for new protests, suggesting that weeks of civil unrest over the constitution may be subsiding now that it has passed.

The United States, which provides $1.3 billion a year in military aid plus other support to Egypt and sees it as a pillar of security in the Middle East, called on Egyptian politicians to bridge divisions and on all sides to reject violence.

Additional reporting by Patrick Werr; Writing by Maria Golovnina; editing by David Stamp

Egypt’s new politics make Israel ties a target


To mark the day Egypt regained control of the Sinai peninsula from Israel, a group of protesters pledged they would this week cover a memorial to Israelis killed in the war with an Egyptian flag bearing the words: “Sinai – the invaders’ graveyard.”

The gesture will be one of the most public expressions of anger against Israel since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, marking the emergence of a long-repressed hostility among many ordinary Egyptians.

But while some of the new breed of politicians who emerged after the revolution are only too happy to exploit such defiance, there are still powerful reasons why mainstream leaders are not ready to burn their boats with Israel.

Calls for such a public act of protest would have been unthinkable under Mubarak, for whom the 1979 peace treaty with Israel was a cornerstone of regional policy.

Under him, public antipathy towards Israel – a nation with which Egypt has fought four wars – was kept in check, often brutally. It changed when the anti-Mubarak uprising erupted on Jan. 25 last year. Egyptians now openly voice frustrations and are demanding Egypt’s new political class listen.

“After the Jan. 25 revolution, the regime fell and with it everything linked to treaties and protocols,” said Saeed al-Qasas, head of the Revolutionaries of Sinai, which vowed to cover on Wednesday the Dayan Rock memorial, a large stone erected in the desert with names of fallen air force personnel.

Egypt’s transition to democracy from autocratic rule is transforming the political landscape at home but also promises to shift foreign policy of the Arab world’s most populous nation which was the first Arab state to sign a peace deal with Israel.

None of the mainstream politicians emerging in Egypt have said they would abandon the treaty, but the new order promises to make what was often described as a “cold peace” colder still, raising tensions on a sensitive border if mishandled.

Yet, even after handing over power to a new president by July 1, the generals who have ruled since Mubarak’s fall are likely to act as guardians of a deal that brings them $1.3 billion U.S. military aid a year.

Egypt, its economy in tatters, also can’t afford to alienate the United States or other Western states whose governments and investors are likely to be vital in reviving growth and creating jobs, crucial points to any Egyptian political career.

But Israeli politicians are already fretting over the political changes in Egypt and worry about the rise of Islamists, who swept the parliamentary election and are strong contenders in the presidential vote that starts on May 23-24.

One senior Western diplomat said the army, mainstream Islamists and other leading politicians recognised the benefits of maintaining a deal that kept the border peaceful for three decades.

“But there is zero traction in broader society,” the diplomat said, adding that this could encourage Islamists to test how far the boundaries of ties could be pushed.

Islamists and their rivals in Egypt’s presidential race, the final stage of a turbulent political transition, are already using Israel as a political punchbag to chase votes. They are vowing no repeat of Mubarak’s cosy ties with Israel.

“Democracy is about responding to public sentiment and public sentiment has little interest in maintaining a real relationship with Israel,” said Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center.

He suggested Egypt could follow Turkey’s example where once-close ties with Israel had worsened sharply after Israeli naval commandos killed nine Turks in May 2010 in a raid on a ship carrying aid to the Gaza Strip.

“What people should be focusing on is how domestic developments in Egypt will alter its foreign policy. I think the model here is probably something resembling Turkey’s approach to Israel, that you maintain diplomatic cooperation but there is a lot of anti-Israel bluster and symbolic gestures,” he said.

One such gesture may have been a decision this week to scrap a 20-year deal reached in 2005 to export Egyptian gas to Israel. It drew applause among the Egypt public, although both sides said commercial differences not politics were behind the move.

Professor Uzi Rabi at Tel Aviv University said that gas deal decision pointed to a region more “attuned to the street.”

“We are in (the midst of) a continuing deterioration in Israel-Egypt relations. One must hope that the interests will overcome the inflammatory direction,” he added.

The gas deal had long been criticised in Egypt’s opposition media and by the public even when Mubarak was in office. They said the gas was sold too cheaply and benefits were pocketed by Mubarak’s associates. The pipeline was sporadically attacked.

But the number of attacks has soared since the anti-Mubarak uprising. The line has been blown up 14 times in that period, halting the flow for much of the time. Officials and former Mubarak associates behind the deal have also been put on trial for corruption.

Islamists were swift to laud the gas deal’s cancellation and have been among the most critical of Israel, although such criticism crosses the broad spectrum of Egypt’s politicians.

“There is no doubt the peace treaty is unfair to the Egyptian side,” Mahmoud Ghozlan, spokesman and a senior figure in Egypt’s biggest Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood, told Reuters, although he said all treaties would be “respected”.

He pointed to limitations on troop numbers allowed in Sinai since Israeli completed the pull back in the 1980s from the peninsula it occupied in the 1967 war. He also complained that Israelis were allowed into that area of Egypt with no visa.

The outspokenness of politicians taps a deep vein of anger against Israel but also reflects a desire since Mubarak was ousted to be more assertive and end what many saw as Mubarak’s subservience to policies of the United States and the West. Restoring Egypt’s “dignity” is a common refrain in speeches.

“Egypt’s next president can’t be like his predecessor, he can’t be a follower who executes policies put to him from outside,” Mohamed Mursi told his first news conference as the Brotherhood’s presidential candidate.

The challenge for Egypt’s new politicians, keen to win over the public, will be putting the genie back in the bottle as they respond to the popular mood and test the boundaries of how far they challenge ties with Israel.

A miscalculation risks riling U.S. politicians, quick to rally to Israel’s defence, and alienating a major donor with the might to sway international investment and support.

“It is not about explicit policies or some kind of master plan the Brotherhood has, but how misperception breeds misperception,” said Brookings’ Hamid, adding there was a chance that Egypt, Israel or the United States could misjudge events.

Some Israeli officials have shown increasing signs of worry as they have watched Egypt’s political drama unfold.

Amos Gilad, a top aide to Defence Minister Ehud Barak, said this month he was “concerned” about future relations with Egypt and said he was “not so sure” the Brotherhood was committed to peace, a break with the usually cautiously optimistic line.

An Israeli newspaper cited Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman saying Egypt was more dangerous to Israel than Iran, a country Israelis accuse of building nuclear weapons. Lieberman would not confirm those comments when asked later.

One of Israel’s biggest worries is the security vacuum in Sinai where Islamic radicals, some blamed for blowing up the gas pipeline, have gained a foothold as policing of the area collapsed after Mubarak’s fall. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described it as a “kind of Wild West”.

Yet, the Brotherhood, the dominant group in Egypt’s emerging democracy for now, may share Israel’s concern for the rise of extremism on its border. The Brotherhood has long been branded too pragmatic by more radical Salafis.

“So I think there is potential for a kind of understanding in the Sinai,” said Brookings’ Hamid, pointing to Gaza nearby where the Brotherhood-inspired Palestinian group Hamas cracked down on hardline Salafi Islamists.

And even the more hostile voices to Israel in Egypt seem to know the “red lines” that shouldn’t be crossed over a peace deal that won back the Sinai, which is now scattered with popular Red Sea tourist resorts where Israelis mingle with other visitors.

The Revolutionaries of Sinai had originally wanted the Dayan Rock memorial destroyed, but now said covering it in a flag would suffice. “We will make do with this,” said Qasas. “Though we call for its removal.”

Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem and Tom Perry in Cairo; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Giles Elgood

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?”

Arab unrest alters power balance in as yet unseen ways


They were the devils they knew.

Though Israel lives in a dangerous neighborhood, surrounded by countries whose leaders or people wish its destruction, over the years it had adjusted to the status quo, more or less figuring out how to get by while keeping an eye on gradual change.

But the sudden upheaval in the region that in a matter of weeks has toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, and threatens autocrats in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere, is forcing Israel to grapple with how to recalibrate for dramatic change.

For the time being, as Israel sits and watches how things play out from Tripoli to Manama, Bahrain, it’s not clear exactly how the game will change.

“The best answer is we don’t know,” Ron Pundak, the director of the Peres Center for Peace in Herzliya said this week at the J Street conference in Washington.

“The biggest change since 1967 is this tsunami rolling across the region whose end results no one really can foresee,” said Samuel Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who attended the conference. “Something new is happening in the Arab world.”

In some places, like Libya, the immediate effects on Israel are minimal. Libyan strongman Muammar Gadhafi’s state has had no ties to Israel, so the dictator’s demise—if it comes—wouldn’t change much for Israelis.

“The civil war raging in Libya poses no immediate cause for concern in Israel,” Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff wrote in Haaretz.

However, the cumulative effects of the Middle East unrest are prompting shifts throughout the region that may require dramatic strategic rethinking in the Jewish state.

Every time a protest movement in the Middle East succeeds, protest movements elsewhere are emboldened, and that has put many regimes that for decades have not been hostile to Israel—including those of the Persian Gulf, Jordan and North Africa—on alert and at risk.

With Israel and the West engaged in a proxy war with Iran for regional hegemony, the fall of autocratic regimes allied with the West provides an opening for Iran to expand its power and sphere of influence.

And Iran is intent on doing so. It was no accident that just days after the fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Tehran dispatched two warships to sail through the Suez Canal—something Iran had not dared to do since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The ships docked in Syria in what Iran’s Navy chief, Rear Adm. Habibollah Sayyari, described as “a routine and friendly visit” to “carry the message of peace and friendship to world countries.”

In truth, it was an exercise in saber rattling.

Iran is projecting “self-confidence and certain assertiveness in the region,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told CNN. Nevertheless, he said, “I don’t like it, but I don’t think that any one of us should be worried by it.”

When a pair of rockets fired from Gaza hit the Israeli city of Beersheba last week, some Israeli analysts saw it as another example of Iran’s saber rattling. Iran has sent weapons to Gaza and seeks more influence there, even though the strip’s Hamas rulers are Sunni Muslims, and Iran is a Shiite power.

“I do not recommend that anyone test Israel’s determination,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after the rocket attack.

The great fear is that regimes friendly toward Israel (Egypt, Jordan), or friendly with Israel by proxy via the United States (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain), or not actively hostile (Libya, among others), will be co-opted by elements with greater animus toward the Jewish state.

That hostility could come from any one of a number of places. On the Egyptian front, the long-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, an ally of Hamas, stands to gain greater power. In the cases of Tunisa and Libya, there is fear that al-Qaeda could capitalize on a power vacuum and take root. In Bahrain, which is overwhelmingly Shiite but ruled by a Sunni king, the concern is that genuine democracy could throw the country the way of Iran.

“The regional balance of power is changing, and not necessarily in Israel’s favor,” Robert Serry, the U.N. secretary-general’s special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said at the J Street conference.

But there could be some good news, too. The uprisings that have spread from North Africa to the Persian Gulf have been broad-based, loosely organized protest movements led by young people networking through the Internet and social media like Facebook. They have not been dominated by Islamists, and the protesters have not made Israel a focal point.

Whether these young people really will take hold of the levers of power, and how they will relate to Israel in the future, are open questions.

For those concerned with Israel, the unrest is being interpreted one of two ways, depending largely on political leanings. Those on the right point to the instability as a reason for Israel to be more wary of concessions in any peace agreements, since their peace partner could disappear at any time.

“Why should Israel expect that another agreement would not be overturned by some new revolution, change of mind or cynical long-term plan?” columnist Barry Rubin wrote in The Jerusalem Post.

Those on the left say that if Israel does not resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict quickly with a peace deal, the new generation of leaders emerging in the Arab world won’t be able to see Israel as anything other than an occupier and repressor of Palestinian rights. Arab commentators echo that thinking.

“The hatred of Israel will not end until you start treating Palestinians with freedom and dignity,” Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy said at the J Street conference. “This is the time for Israel to sit down and make concrete concessions.”

In Jerusalem, the government is still in the wait-and-see mode, albeit with as much handwringing as possible.

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, speaking Tuesday in Brussels, warned that the danger is that democracy movements in the Arab world will be “hijacked,” emulating the “model of Iran, the model of Hamas in Gaza, the model of Hezbollah in Lebanon,” according to the German news agency DPA.

Ayalon also said the unrest in the Arab world demonstrates that the notion of the Arab-Israel conflict being the region’s most serious issue is just not true.

“The real major problem of the Middle East, which is now so glaringly evident, is the dysfunctionality of the Arab societies,” Ayalon reportedly said, noting the absence of “rights of any kind.”

AJC: Suspend Libya from U.N. Human Rights Council


The American Jewish Committee called on the United Nations General Assembly to suspend Libya’s membership in the U.N. Human Rights Council.

“The Gadhafi regime’s widespread use of brutal force against protestors makes a mockery of the U.N. Human Rights Council,” said AJC Executive Director David Harris said in a statement released Monday.

“The world must not stand by while hundreds of people are being systematically killed, and many more brutalized and threatened as Gadhafi seeks to hold to the power he seized nearly 42 years ago.”

Hundreds are reported dead in protests calling for an end to Gadhafi’s 41-year reign; Gadhafi took power in a 1969 coup. Anti-government protests began Monday for the first time in Libya’s capital, Tripoli. Media reported that pro-Gadhafi supporters and security forces were firing into crowds of demonstrators and government buildings were set on fire.

Libya was elected to a three-year term on the Human Rights Council in May 2010. It received 155 votes from the 192-member U.N. General Assembly.

AJC is urging the General Assembly to gather immediately in New York to take up the suspension of Libya’s membership in the Council in a special session.

According to the 2006 U.N. General Assembly resolution creating the Council, “the General Assembly, by a two-thirds majority of the members present and voting, may suspend the rights of membership in the Council of a member of the Council that commits gross and systematic violations of human rights.”

The U.N. Security Council was set to convene Tuesday in New York to hold a consultation on the unrest in Libya.

U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon said Monday night that the Libyan violence was a “serious violation of international law,” is “unacceptable” and “must stop immediately.”

The uprising in Libya has come at a time when Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi seemed willing to address some of the former Libyan Jewish community’s grievances.

In an interview published Monday in the Jerusalem Post, Raphael Luzon, chairman of the Jewish Libyan Diaspora in Britain, said he had met twice with Gadhafi, who said he was willing to give a proper burial to Jews buried in common graves and to come to a settlement over Jewish money left in the country. Gadhafi also approved a meeting between Jews and Muslims in Tripoli, Luzon told the newspaper.

There were about 25,000 Jews in Libya in the 1930s. Today there are no Jews left in Libya, the last moving to Italy in 2003.

Luzon told the Post that he is in touch with people in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city and the scene of deadly violence during four days of protests, and that the situation was worse than it appeared in the press and on television. News reports Monday night said that city residents with the help of a defecting army unit had taken over the city.

Unconfirmed rumors Monday night said that Gadhafi had fled to Venezuela, which Libyan officials denied.

Gadhafi’s son Saif al-Islam went on state television late Sunday saying that his father remained in power and that the government would fight until “the last man, the last woman, and the last bullet” to stay in power.

Gadhafi last week called on Palestinians to mass on Israel’s borders until their demands are met. “Fleets of boats should take Palestinians … and wait by the Palestinian shores until the problem is resolved. This is a time of popular revolutions,” Gaddafi said in a speech Feb 14 on state television.

Courage in Cairo: Reflecting on Jewish martyrs and heroes


As seen in The Jewish Week

Putting politics and Israel aside, the most impressive part of the events in Cairo was the fearlessness and courage of the protesting Egyptians. We asked Rabbi Jill Jacobs to offer perspective on placing life in harm’s way. What should we be prepared to die for?Tell us what you think at con- {encode=”nect@jinsider.com” title=”nect@jinsider.com”}.

The Jewish Obligation

The three categories for which Jews are traditionally expected to mar- tyr themselves are all instances in which the choice is either to die or to violate a serious prohibition — namely, idol worship, murder or certain sexual practices such as incest.TheTalmud also offers examples of rabbis who choose to martyr themselves rather than desist from teachingTorah. In all of these cases, the potential martyr does not put him or herself into the situation, but rather is forced into it by an oppressive government or a powerful individual.

Tahrir Square & Jewish Tradition

In the Egyptian situation, individuals are not necessarily setting out to martyr themselves, but are assuming a significant degree of risk for a greater cause. Anyone who entered Tahrir Square knew there was a possibility of being injured, arrested or even killed.The calculation, then, is whether the risk of death is outweighed by the possibility of bringing about a better life for the majority.

This may be more akin to the Jewish question of whether one must put him or herself in physical danger in order to save a life. In general, there is no expectation, for example, that one must risk drowning in order to rescue another person.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs

But no situation comes without risk — a doctor driving a car to the hospital could be involved in a fatal car crash. In every situation, then, a person must weigh whether the chance of saving lives immediately or in the long term outweighs the possibility that she will be hurt or killed in the process. Judaism does not value martyrdom for its own sake, but may permit some degree of risk when lives are at stake.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs On Her Own Martyrdom

I don’t think that any one of us can know whether or when we would be willing to sacri- fice our lives until the choice presents itself. It’s easy for me to sit in my Manhattan apartment and declare what I would or would not do under any circumstance, but philosophical musings may or may not have any relationship to how I would act when called.That said, the chief question for me would be whether I believed that the risk I was taking was justified by the results that my actions would bring about.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the author of “There Shall Be No Needy” and the forthcoming “Where Justice Dwells.”

Final Thought: Human Being Not Martyr Or Hero

Rob Eshman

Just the other night in a lecture hall at UCLA, the writer Leon Wieseltier stood beneath a photo of the journalist Daniel Pearl. Islamic terrorists mur- dered the young Wall Street Journal reporter nine years ago, just seconds after he told them, “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.”

But Pearl, said Wieseltier, was not a martyr. “Jews don’t believe in martyrs,” he said. “We believe in heroes. And

Daniel Pearl was a hero.” Martyrs set out to die for a cause. But thevalue Judaism places on life is too high, too precious, to make room for the intention to die. Daniel Pearl didn’t set out to die for his faith; he was killed for it, and he died a hero’s death. So the question, “What would you be willing to die for?” is a question best left to the moment before, when all other options are exhausted, when the only choice left is life or death.

Take away the obvious and immediate an- swers — my family — and the answer is likely just one word: freedom. Given the choice between living an oppressed or enslaved life, robbed of choice and dignity, and a chance to change my fate, I’d like to believe I would risk my life for freedom. I don’t think that makes me special, or a martyr, or a hero, but a human being.

Rob Eshman, editor-in-chief of Tribe Media Corps, which publishes the LA Jewish Journal.

Tunisia: the first Arab revolution


Every July 23 for the past 58 years, Egypt, my country of birth, has celebrated its “July revolution” that overthrew King Farouk and ended the monarchy and British occupation once and for all. It was no revolution: It was a coup staged by young army officers.

And so it has been with a series of “revolutions” around the Arab world in which a succession of military men went on to lead us in civilian clothes — some kept the olive drabs on — and rob generations of the real meaning of revolution. For years I looked at the Iranians with envy — not at the outcome of their 1979 revolution, but because it was a popular uprising, not a euphemism for a coup.

So you’ll understand why, along with millions of other Arabs, I’ll forever cherish Jan. 14, 2011 — the day Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia, his 23-year rule toppled by 29 days of a popular uprising. A real revolution for a change.

It’s the first time Arabs have toppled one of their dictators, so you’ll understand why, despite the reports of chaos, looting and a musical chairs of caretaker leaders, I’m still celebrating. Let’s have no whining about how those thousands of pesky Tunisians who risked their lives to face down a despot ruined the idyllic package-holiday-in-a-police-state for so many European tourists.

The equations circling Tunisia right now are very clear: We have no idea who or what kind of coalition of leaders will emerge, but there is no doubt who’s rooting for the failure of this revolution: every Arab leader who has spent the past month watching Tunisia in fear. You can be sure the region’s dictators are on their knees right now praying for chaos and collapse for Tunisia.

Some Arab countries have simply ignored what happened: no official statement from Algeria or Morocco. Others said they respect the wish of Tunisians but filled their state-owned media with reminders that they weren’t anything like Tunisia: Egypt.

Leave it to Muammar Gaddafi, the world’s longest-serving dictator, to best portray that panic. Addressing a nation where thousands had faced down the bullets of Ben Ali’s security to protest unemployment, police brutality and the corruption of the regime, Gaddafi told Tunisians they were now suffering bloodshed and lawlessness because they were too hasty in getting rid of Ben Ali.

If every Arab leader has watched Tunisia in fear, then every Arab citizen has watched in hope because it was neither Islamists — long used by our leaders to scare many into acquiescence — nor foreign troops that toppled the dictator: It was ordinary and very fed up people.

Tunisians must remember that during these days of chaos. We’re hearing reports that neighborhood watch committees have sprung up to protect against looting and violence, which many blame on Ben Ali’s loyalists.

Interestingly, both Western observers and Gaddafi have been crediting WikiLeaks but for different reasons. By buying into the idea that leaked U.S. embassy cables about corruption “fueled” the revolution, commentators smear Tunisians with ignorance of facts and perpetuate the myth that Arabs are incapable of rising up against dictators. Gaddafi railed against WikiLeaks because he, too, wants to blame something other than the power of the people — and cables from Tripoli portray him as a Botox-using neurotic inseparable from a “voluptuous” Ukrainian nurse.

Gaddafi’s Libya has had its own protests over the past few days. Nothing on the scale of Tunisia, but enough that his speech to Tunisians could be summarized thus: I am scared witless by what happened in your country.

That’s why I insist we stop and appreciate Tunisia: Relish the revolution that is not a euphemism for a coup.

Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-born columnist and public speaker on Arab and Muslim issues. This essay originally appeared in The Guardian and is reprinted with permission of the author.