Obama condemns violence in Egypt, cancels military exercises


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CALLS FOR END TO AID

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Egypt’s bruised Islamists protest after bloody week


Islamist supporters of Egypt's ousted president, Mohamed Morsi, protested in Cairo on Friday after a week of violence in which more than 90 people were killed in a bitterly divided nation.

More than a week after the army toppled Egypt's first elected leader after a wave of demonstrations against him, Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood is trying to mobilize popular support for his reinstatement, which for now looks like a lost cause.

At a Cairo mosque where Morsi supporters have held vigil for more than two weeks, crowds swelled as people were bused in from the provinces, where the Brotherhood has strongholds.

The streets of Cairo were otherwise quiet on Friday, the weekly Muslim day of prayer, in the holy month of Ramadan.

The youth-led Tamarud group, which brought millions of people to the streets to demand Morsi resign, has called for a Ramadan celebration in Tahrir Square, the cradle of the uprising that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

Officials say Morsi is still being held at the Republican Guard compound in Cairo, where troops killed 53 Islamist protesters on Monday in violence that intensified anger his allies already felt at the military's decision to oust him.

Four members of the security forces were also killed in that confrontation, which the military blames on “terrorists”. Morsi's supporters call it a massacre and say those who died were praying peacefully when troops opened fire.

Many of Egypt's 84 million people have been shocked by the shootings, graphic images of which have appeared on state and private news channels and social media. The incident occurred just three days after 35 people were killed in clashes between pro- and anti-Morsi demonstrators across the country.

“It's a very hard time for Egyptians, to see footage of blood and violence during the holy month of Ramadan, and everyone I speak to says the same thing,” said Fateh Ali, a 54-year-old civil servant in Cairo.

The Brotherhood contends it is the victim of a military crackdown, evoking memories of its suppression under Mubarak.

But many of its opponents blame Islamists for the violence, and some have little sympathy for the demonstrators who died, underlining how deep the fissures in Egyptian society are.

The unrest has also raised fear over security in the lawless Sinai peninsula bordering Israel and the Palestinian Gaza Strip.

Militant groups in North Sinai have promised more attacks and urged Islamists to take up arms, while the army has vowed to step up operations in the region, which is near the Suez Canal, the busy waterway linking Asia and Europe.

One Egyptian policeman was killed and another wounded early on Friday when militants fired rocket-propelled grenades at checkpoints in the Sinai town of El Arish.

Egyptian state media said police arrested three Palestinian militants for attempted attacks in Sinai.

VIGIL, SONGS FOR THE DEAD

Outside the Rabaa Adawiya mosque in northeastern Cairo, thousands of Brotherhood supporters gathered late on Thursday to mourn the dead in Monday's violence, the deadliest since Mubarak was toppled, apart from a 2012 soccer stadium riot.

Women wailed and men cried as they watched a large screen showing grim footage of hospital scenes immediately after the shooting, with corpses on the floor and medics struggling to cope with the number of bloodied casualties being carried in.

Hundreds of Egyptian flags fluttered. Songs of defiance were sung. Thousands of Islamists have camped out in searing heat, fasting in the daytime since Ramadan began on Wednesday.

“This is a bloody military coup,” said Saad Al-Husseini at the vigil. “This is the biggest crime I have witnessed in my country's recent history. Never before has blood been so cheap.”

The camp has become the de facto base of the Brotherhood, whose leaders live under the threat of detention after the public prosecutor ordered their arrests earlier in the week.

Judicial sources say Morsi is likely to be charged, possibly for corruption or links to violence. Prosecutors are also looking again at an old case from 2011 when Morsi and other Brotherhood leaders escaped from prison after being detained during anti-Mubarak protests.

The detentions and threats of arrest have drawn concern from the United States, which has walked a semantic tightrope to avoid calling Morsi's ouster a military coup.

U.S. law bars aid to countries where a democratic government is removed in a coup. Washington, which gives Egypt's military $1.3 billion in aid each year, has said it is too early to say whether Morsi's removal by the army meets that description.

The army has said it was enforcing the nation's will – meaning the huge crowds of people fed up with economic stagnation and suspicious of a Brotherhood power grab who took to the streets in late June to demand Morsi's departure.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Wednesday Morsi's government “wasn't a democratic rule”.

Her words were warmly received by the interim government and swiftly denounced by the Brotherhood. On Thursday, Psaki expressed concern over the crackdown on Brotherhood leaders.

“If politicized arrests and detentions continue, it is hard to see how Egypt will move beyond this crisis,” she said.

German's foreign ministry demanded that Morsi be freed.

ALARM OVERSEAS

Crucial to longer-term stability will be holding parliamentary and presidential elections, which the transitional authorities are hoping to achieve in a matter of months.

Adli Mansour, the interim president named by the general who removed Morsi, has announced a temporary constitution, plans to amend it to satisfy parties' demands and a faster-than-expected schedule for parliamentary elections in about six months.

He has named liberal economist Hazem el-Beblawi as interim prime minister, and Beblawi said he had named leftist lawyer Ziad Bahaa el-Din as his deputy. Beblawi also said he would contact candidates for ministerial posts on Sunday and Monday, with a view to swearing in a cabinet next week.

Negotiations are difficult, with the authorities trying to attract support from groups that range from secularists to ultra-orthodox Muslims, nearly all of whom expressed deep dissatisfaction with elements of the interim constitution.

Underlining the level of concern overseas at Egypt's crisis, two U.S. Navy ships patrolling in the Middle East moved closer to Egypt's Red Sea coast in recent days, in what appeared to be a precautionary move following Morsi's ouster on July 3.

The United States often sends Navy vessels close to countries in turmoil in case it needs to protect or evacuate U.S. citizens or give humanitarian assistance.

Rich Gulf states have thrown Egypt a $12 billion lifeline in financial aid, which should help it stave off economic collapse.

More than two years of turmoil have scared away tourists and investors, shriveled hard currency reserves and threatened Cairo's ability to import food and fuel.

Additional reporting by Alexander Dziadosz, Sarah McFarlane, Mike Collett-White, Tom Finn, Peter Graff, Ali Saed, Seham el-Oraby and Shadia Nasralla in Cairo and Andrea Shalal-Esa and Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Writing by Mike Collett-White and Peter Graff; Editing by Alistair Lyon

Egypt seeks end to crisis with quick elections


Egypt's interim rulers unveiled a quick timetable for elections and won a $3 billion cash lifeline from the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday, a day after 55 people were killed when troops fired on a crowd supporting ousted President Mohamed Morsi.

The worst day of violence in more than a year has left Egypt more divided than ever in its modern history, and added to pressure on the military-led authorities to explain how they will restore democracy after the army toppled Morsi last week.

Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood rejected the proposed plan for constitutional changes and elections to be held in about six months, holding fast to its demand for the reinstatement of Egypt's first freely elected leader.

Senior Brotherhood figure Essam El-Erian condemned “a constitutional 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”.

In an important signal for the transitional authorities, the ultra-orthodox Islamist Nour Party said it would accept ex-finance minister Samir Radwan as prime minister, potentially paving the way for an interim cabinet.

The Brotherhood says Monday's violence was an unprovoked attack on worshippers holding peaceful prayers. But in a sign of the country's deep divisions, most 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.

The bloodshed in the Arab world's most populous nation 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.

[Related: Egypt receives Arab billions, names prime minister]

Millions of people took to the streets on June 30 to demand Morsi's resignation, fearing he was orchestrating a creeping Islamist takeover of the state.

To the Brotherhood, his removal amounted to the reversal of democracy a year after he became Egypt's first freely elected leader. Islamists fear a return to the suppression they 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.”

MORE PROTESTS CALLED

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

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.

Thousands of pro-Morsi protesters are now camped out at a mosque in northeast Cairo, while elsewhere in the city residents are flying banners from their balconies with portraits of the military commander who toppled him.

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

UAE PROVIDES CASH

Arab states, long suspicious of the Brotherhood, have signalled support for Morsi's overthrow. UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed became the most senior foreign official to visit Egypt since the army toppled Morsi last week.

He brought a promise of a grant of $1 billion and a loan of $2 billion, money that will help Egypt provide food and fuel for its 84 million people. That replenishes funds which have been running desperately short after two years of unrest drove away tourists and investors.

An Egyptian source close to negotiations said Saudi Arabia would also lend $2 billion within two days. Both Gulf countries had promised money after former autocrat Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011 but never sent the aid while Morsi's Brotherhood was in power.

Adli 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 military-backed authorities seem to be resigned to restarting politics without the Brotherhood. Instead, they are courting the support of the country's other main Islamist group, the ultra-orthodox Nour Party, Morsi's occasional allies.

In what appeared to be an olive branch to Islamists that irritated liberals, Mansour's decree included language put into the constitution last year that defined the principles of Islamic sharia law.

Nour said on Monday it was pulling out of all talks towards a transition as a result of the attack on Morsi supporters. But its signal that it would support a former finance minister as prime minister showed it has not fully abandoned politics.

Radwan, the former finance minister, has emerged as favourite to lead a government after Nour rejected Mohamed ElBaradei, a former U.N. diplomat and secularist politician.

Nour spokesman Nader Bakkar said Radwan met its conditions: “We asked for a technocrat economist … a neutral guy.”

BLOODSTAINED SHEETS

Protesters said Monday's shooting started as they performed morning prayers outside the barracks. Military spokesman Ahmed Ali said that at 4 a.m. (0200 GMT) armed men attacked troops in the area in the northeast of the city. Emergency services said in addition to the dead 435 people were wounded.

At a hospital near Cairo's Rabaa Adawiya mosque, where many of the wounded and dead were taken on Monday, rooms were crammed full, sheets were stained with blood.

On Friday, clashes between pro- and anti-Morsi supporters had swept across Egyptian cities, killing 35 people.

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 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.

Although Tuesday was comparatively quiet, there were minor 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.

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.

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.

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.

Iran says Egyptian army interference is ‘unacceptable’


Iran on Monday called the Egyptian army's ousting of president Mohamed Morsi “unacceptable” and said Israel and the West did not want to see a powerful Egypt.

The comments from Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Araqchi were more disapproving than his immediate reaction last Thursday, when he merely called for the Egyptian people's “legitimate demands” to be fulfilled.

Iran welcomed the popular overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, calling it an “Islamic awakening” inspired in part by its own 1979 revolution, and after Morsi's election victory last year it sought to repair its strained ties with Egypt.

However, the two countries now have found themselves supporting opposite sides in the civil war in Syria. While Shi'ite Iran is President Bashar al-Assad's closest Arab ally, largely Sunni Muslim Egypt under Morsi has voiced its support for the mostly Sunni rebel groups seeking to overthrow Assad.

On Monday, Araqchi said: “What is important is giving significance to the legitimate aspirations of the Egyptian people,” according to the Mehr news agency.

“However, military intervention in politics is unacceptable and a cause for concern.”

Araqchi warned against greater divisions in Egyptian society, adding: “Certainly foreign hands are also at work, and … the West and the Zionist regime (Israel) will not want a powerful Egypt.”

Several dozen people were killed on Monday when Islamist demonstrators enraged by the Morsi's overthrow said the army opened fire on them at the Cairo barracks where he was being held. The military said a group of armed assailants had tried to storm the compound and soldiers returned fire.

Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Jon Hemming and Kevin Liffey

Morsi, army refuse to budge as deadline passes


Egypt's army commander and Islamist President Mohamed Morsi each pledged to die for his cause as a deadline neared on Wednesday that will trigger a military takeover backed by protesters.

Military chiefs, vowing to restore order in a country racked by demonstrations over Morsi's Islamist policies, issued a call to battle in a statement headlined “The Final Hours”. They said they were willing to shed blood against “terrorists and fools” after Morsi refused to give up his elected office.

The armed forces general command was holding a crisis meeting, a military source said, less than five hours before an ultimatum was due to expire for Morsi to either agree to share power or make way for an army-imposed solution.

In an emotional, rambling midnight television address, the president said he was democratically elected and would stay in office to uphold the constitutional order, declaring: “The price of preserving legitimacy is my life.”

Liberal opponents said it showed he had “lost his mind”.

The official spokesman of his Muslim Brotherhood movement said his supporters were willing to become martyrs to defend Morsi.

“There is only one thing we can do: we will stand in between the tanks and the president,” Gehad El-Haddad told Reuters at the movement's protest encampment in a Cairo suburb that houses many military installations and is near the presidential palace.

“We will not allow the will of the Egyptian people to be bullied again by the military machine.”

The state-run Al-Ahram newspaper said Morsi was expected to either step down or be removed from office and that the army would set up a three-member presidential council to be chaired by the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court.

A military source said he expected the army to first call political, social and economic figures and youth activists for talks on its draft roadmap for the country's future.

REVOLUTION SAVED?

A mass of revelers on Cairo's Tahrir Square feted the army overnight for, in their eyes, saving the revolutionary democracy won there two years ago when an uprising toppled autocratic President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

But Morsi's backers denounced the army's intervention as a “coup”. At least 16 people, mostly supporters of the president, were killed and about 200 wounded when gunmen opened fire on pro-Morsi demonstrators at Cairo University campus.

The Muslim Brotherhood accused uniformed police of the shooting. The Interior Ministry said it was investigating.

Central Cairo was quiet by day. Many stores were shuttered and traffic unusually light. The stock market index fell 1.7 percent on fears of bloodshed. The Egyptian pound weakened against the dollar at a currency auction, and banks said they would close early, before the army deadline.

Military sources earlier told Reuters the army had drafted a plan to sideline Morsi, suspend the constitution and dissolve the Islamist-dominated upper house of parliament after the 5 p.m. (1500 GMT) deadline passes.

The opposition Dustour (constitution) party led former U.N. nuclear agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei appealed for military intervention to save Egyptian lives, saying Morsi's speech showed he had “lost his mind” and incited bloodshed.

The opposition National Salvation Front, an umbrella group of liberal, secular and leftist parties, and the “Tamarud – Rebel!” youth movement leading the street protests have both nominated ElBaradei to negotiate with army leaders on a post-Morsi transition.

Coordinated with political leaders, an interim council would rule pending changes to the Islamist-tinged constitution and new presidential elections, the military sources said.

They would not say what was planned for the uncooperative president, whose office refused to disclose his whereabouts.

“PEOPLE'S COUP”

In his 45-minute address to the nation, Morsi acknowledged having made mistakes and said he was still willing to form a national unity government ahead of parliamentary elections and let a new parliament amend the constitution.

But he offered no new initiative and rejected calls to step aside, saying it was his sacred duty to uphold legitimacy – a word he repeated dozens of times.

The president accused remnants of Mubarak's former regime and corrupt big money families of seeking to restore their privileges and lead the country into a dark tunnel.

Liberal opposition leaders, who have vowed not to negotiate with Morsi since the ultimatum was issued, immediately denounced his refusal to go as a declaration of “civil war”.

“We ask the army to protect the souls of Egyptians after Morsi lost his mind and incited bloodshed of Egyptians,” the Dustour Party said in a statement.

The youth movement that organized the mass protests urged the Republican Guard to arrest Morsi immediately and present him for trial.

“We ask the army to intervene to prevent the bloodshed of the Egyptian people,” Tamarud's founder Mahmoud Badr told a news conference. “This is a people's coup against a dictator and tyrant president and the army of the Egyptian people has to respond to the people's demands and act upon them.”

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

More demonstrations in Tahrir Square against Morsi power grab


Police fired tear gas and beat demonstrators as large-scale protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square continued over Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's power grab.

Many young protesters were arrested Wednesday on the second straight day of demonstrations in and near the square. On Tuesday, more than 200,000 people gathered at the site of demonstrations in February 2011 that led to the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.

At least one protester has died in this week's demonstrations.

Mass protests also are being held in other cities and are comparable in size to the uprising that turned Mubarak out of office, according to Reuters. The protests have expanded to decrying Morsi's Islamist Muslim Brotherhood Party as well.

Morsi announced on Nov. 22 a consolidation of power, including that Egyptian courts would not be permitted to overturn any laws or decrees he has issued since assuming the presidency in June — at least until a new constitution is presented and approved in about six months.

Morsi earned praise from the United States and the international community last week after Egypt brokered a cease-fire between Hamas and other terrorist organizations in Gaza and Israel, ending more than a week of escalated warfare.

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

Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi wins presidency in Egypt


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

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

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

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

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

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

Egypt holds first round of voting in presidential election


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Egypt ends gas deal with Israel, stakeholder says


Egypt’s energy companies have terminated a long-term deal to supply Israel with gas after the cross-border pipeline sustained months of sabotage since a revolt last year, a stakeholder in the deal said on Sunday.

Ampal-American Israel Corporation, a partner in the East Mediterreanean Gas Company (EMG), which operates the pipeline, said the Egyptian companies involved had notified EMG they were “terminating the gas and purchase agreement”.

The company said in a statement that the Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation and Egyptian Natural Gas Holding Company had notified them of the decision, adding that “EMG considers the termination attempt unlawful and in bad faith, and consequently demanded its withdrawal”.

It said EMG, Ampal, and EMG’s other international shareholders were “considering their options and legal remedies as well as approaching the various governments”.

Before the sabotage, Egypt supplied about 40 percent of Israel’s natural gas, which is the country’s main energy source.

Israeli officials have said the country was at risk of facing summer power outages due to energy shortages.

Companies invested in the Israeli-Egyptian venture have taken a hit from numerous explosions of the cross-border pipeline and are seeking compensation from the Egyptian government of billions of dollars.

Ampal and two other companies have sought $8 billion in damages from Egypt for not safeguarding their investment.

The Egyptian decision is a potential blow to the country’s ties with Israel, already tested by the toppling of Israeli ally President Hosni Mubarak a year ago.

Egypt was the first of two Arab countries to sign a peace treaty with Israel, in 1979, followed by Jordan in 1994.

Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch, Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Michael Roddy

Egypt: U.S. aid cut may force Israel treaty review


The Muslim Brotherhood has warned that Egypt may review its 1979 peace deal with Israel if the United States cuts aid to the country, a move that could undermine a cornerstone of Washington’s Middle East policy.

Washington has said the aid is at risk due to an Egyptian probe into civil society groups which has resulted in charges against at least 43 activists, including 19 Americans who have been banned from leaving the country.

Egypt has been one of the world’s largest recipients of U.S. aid since it signed the peace treaty with Israel, and the Brotherhood, which does not yet hold the reins of power, said any decision to cut that aid because of the investigation would raise serious questions.

“We (Egypt) are a party (to the treaty) and we will be harmed so it is our right to review the matter,” Essam el-Erian, a senior Brotherhood leader, told Reuters in a telephone interview.

“The aid was one of the commitments of the parties that signed the peace agreement so if there is a breach from one side it gives the right of review to the parties,” added Erian, the deputy leader of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the biggest group in the newly elected parliament.

His remarks are likely to increase pressure on all sides to resolve one of the worst crises in U.S.-Egyptian ties since the treaty was signed. In similar comments, FJP leader Mohamed Mursi said in a statement that U.S. talk of halting the aid was “misplaced,” adding that the peace agreement “could stumble.”

He said: “We want the march of peace to continue in a way that serves the interest of the Egyptian people.”

The 1979 treaty made Egypt the first Arab state to forge peace with Israel and underpinned Washington’s relationship with Cairo during Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule, during which the Brotherhood was officially banned.

The Sinai peninsula, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, was handed back to Egypt under the agreement, and diplomatic relations between Israel and Egypt were established.

The Brotherhood has emerged as the single biggest political force in Egypt since Mubarak was ousted a year ago, winning more than 43 percent of the seats in recent parliamentary elections.

But for now Egypt is ruled by a council of military generals to whom Mubarak handed power on February 11, 2011. They are due to make way at the end of June for an elected civilian president – a post the Brotherhood has said it will not contest.

The military council has repeatedly pledged to honor Egypt’s international obligations, including the peace deal with Israel, a position the Brotherhood has shared until now.

The group has become increasingly outspoken on foreign policy since its parliamentary success, directing harsh criticism at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government over its efforts to crush a revolt against his rule.

CLERIC SAYS FOCUS MUST BE ECONOMY

In his annual budget message to Congress this week, U.S. President Barack Obama asked for military aid to Egypt to be kept at $1.3 billion and sought $250 million in economic aid.

But General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Tuesday he had told Egypt’s ruling generals that the NGO issue must be resolved satisfactorily to allow military cooperation with Cairo to continue.

A State Department spokeswoman also said that failure to resolve the impasse could endanger the funds.

Charges filed against those accused in the investigation include that they worked for groups not properly licensed in Egypt and received foreign funding illegally. The Egyptian government has said the case is a matter of law.

But Egyptian NGOs accused the authorities on Wednesday of mounting a scare campaign aimed at deflecting attention from what they said was the failure of the army-led administration.

The 29 NGOs issued a statement accusing the authorities of “creating imaginary battles with other states.”

Tensions were further inflamed with the release of remarks made last year by Minister of International Cooperation Faiza Abul Naga in which she linked U.S. funding to civil society to an American plot to undermine Egypt. She spoke of what she called an attempt to steer the post-Mubarak transition in “a direction that realized American and Israeli interests.”

The rise of Islamist groups since Mubarak was ousted has caused deep concern in Israel. But despite their worries, Israeli officials do not believe the next president of Egypt will tear up the peace treaty.

A cleric seen as close to the Brotherhood said in an interview published on Wednesday that Egypt could not risk any military confrontation with Israel, adding that the country’s main concern must be its economic problems.

“Egypt cannot enter a struggle in the military sense and leave the affairs of building on the internal front,” Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian who lives in Qatar, told Shorouk newspaper. “Now the citizen cannot remain without work.”

Additional reporting by Omar Fahmy; Editing by Andrew Osborn

Israel congratulates Egypt on new parliament


Israel congratulated Egypt on the inauguration of its new parliament, the first in the post-Mubarak era.

“On the occasion of the opening session of the Egyptian parliament, on Jan. 23, Israel extends its congratulations to the people of Egypt for its efforts to achieve freedom, democracy and economic development,” Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said in a statement issued Wednesday.

“We send the new parliament our wishes of constructive and fruitful work for the well-being of the Egyptian public,” read the statement. “We trust Egypt will continue to uphold the importance of peace and stability in our region.”

A spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, which garnered nearly half the seats in the newly elected parliament, said Wednesday that the government would not hold any kind of dialogue with Israel.

“The [Muslim Brotherhood] group does not have any willingness to engage in dialogue with Israel,” Mahmoud Ghazlan told the London-based Arabic Asharq Alawsat newspaper in an interview. “This decision has been taken and our position is consistent and clear, and is not currently open to discussion.

“It does not make sense to launch a dialogue, any form of dialogue, in light of Israel’s current practices against the Arab people,” he added.

Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty in 1979, making Egypt the first Arab state to recognize Israel.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Islamists seek to extend gains in Egypt run-off vote


The Muslim Brotherhood’s party will seek to extend a lead over hardline Islamists in run-offs in Egypt’s parliamentary vote Monday, with liberal parties struggling to hold their ground in a political landscape redrawn by the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.

The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is set to take most seats in Egypt’s first democratic parliament in six decades, strengthening their hand in a struggle for influence over the Arab world’s most populous country.

Banned from formal politics until a popular uprising ended Mubarak’s three-decade rule in February, the movement emerged as the main winner from last week’s first-round vote and called on its rivals to “accept the will of the people.”

The phased election runs over six weeks, ending in January.

Opponents accuse the Brotherhood’s slick campaign machine of flouting a ban on canvassing near polling stations and say it handed out food and medicine to secure votes, but monitors said polling seemed fair overall.

“You cannot have democracy and then amend or reject the results,” Amr Moussa, a front-runner for Egypt’s presidency, told Reuters, adding that the shape of parliament would not be clear until the voting was over.

The Brotherhood, Egypt’s best-organized political group and popular with the poor for its charity work, wants to shape a new constitution to be drawn up next year.

That could be the focus of a power struggle with the ruling military council, which wants to keep a presidential system, rather than the parliamentary one favored by the Brotherhood.

Egyptians return to the polls Monday for 52 run-off votes for individual candidates, who will occupy a third of the 498 elected seats in the lower house once two more rounds of the complicated voting process end in January.

ISRAELI CONCERN

The run-offs will pit 24 members of the ultra-conservative Islamist al-Nour party against Brotherhood candidates.

Two-thirds of the seats in the assembly are allocated proportionately to party lists.

Figures released by the election commission and published by state media show a list led by the Brotherhood’s FJP securing 36.6 percent of valid party-list votes, followed by the Salafi al-Nour Party with 24.4 percent, and the liberal Egyptian Bloc with 13.4 percent.

The result has unnerved Israel, concerned about the fate of its 1979 peace treaty with Egypt. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on Egypt’s future rulers to preserve the deal.

“We hope any future government in Egypt will recognize the importance of keeping the peace treaty with Israel in its own right and as a basis for regional security and economic stability,” Netanyahu said Sunday.

The fate of the peace deal between Egypt and Israel is a concern for its sponsor, the United States, which has backed it with billions of dollars in military aid for both countries.

The rise of the Salafis has also sparked fear among many ordinary Egyptians because of the group’s uncompromising views.

Analysts say the Brotherhood, which topped the first-stage vote, has a pragmatic streak that makes it an unlikely ally for Salafis who only recently ventured from preaching into politics and whose strict ideology suggests little scope for compromise.

The leader of Salafi party al-Nour Emad Abdel Ghaffour made it clear he would not play second fiddle to the Brotherhood.

“We hate being followers,” Ghaffour told Reuters in an interview. “They always say we take positions according to the Brotherhood but we have our own vision… There might be a consensus but … we will remain independent.”

Additional reporting by Edmund Blair; writing by Tom Pfeiffer; editing Philippa Fletcher

Egypt awaits poll results, Tahrir protest starts


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Egypt Islamists expect gains in post-Mubarak poll


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISLAMIST VOTE-GETTERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

ELECTORAL VIOLATIONS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Egypt vote tests troubled political transition


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Editing by Philippa Fletcher

Egypt votes in first post-Mubarak election


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Muslim world is out of control


The Muslim world is out of control. And that’s a good thing.

The control of ruthless dictators has declined markedly in less than a single year. Two brutal despots, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, are gone for good, and while it will take time for the citizens of these two states to clean up the mess left them by their erstwhile leaders, they are moving in the right direction. Others, like King Abdullah in Jordan and King Mohammad VI in Morocco, are voluntarily beginning to transfer power, incrementally to be sure, to parliaments.

The old guard running the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is failing to keep discipline among young members who are creating new break-off parties, and as of this writing the Islamist Tunisian Renaissance Party (called Hizb al-Nahda in Arabic) is negotiating with secular parties to try to form a coalition government as a result of its winning 41 percent of the vote in a fair and democratic election. Veteran Islamist popular preachers such as Yusuf Qaradawi, who used to control the media for the Muslim religious right, are swiftly losing ground to savvy young Muslim televangelists. And leaders in Al-Azhar, the bastion of the Muslim old guard in Egypt, are hoping the new government that will be formed in elections a month from now will have a secular bent that protects the rights of all minorities, including Christians.

Whatever happened to the static, unchanging, ever-rigid iceberg of Islamic backwardness?

The answer is that we weren’t paying attention. All the while that we were assuming Muslims were hopelessly stuck, they were, in fact, changing. We weren’t paying attention because it was we who were stuck in the false assumption about Islam that actually has never been true — that Islam is backward and unable to change with the times.

Never have I been more struck by the positive lack of control in the Muslim world than last week in Qatar at two conferences, the 18th Conference of the Islamic World Academy of Sciences, and the ninth annual conference of the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID). Muslim participants represented virtually the entire Muslim world, from Bangladesh to Bosnia, and from Yemen and Somalia to Norway and Sweden. The Interfaith Dialogue conference was particularly interesting because of this year’s theme of new social media and how to use it for enhancing understanding and better relations among religious communities. Not only did we experience plenary sessions and Q-and-A before an international audience of hundreds, we also had the opportunity to take workshops on the latest in the social media trade, including how to avoid its pitfalls and harmful use. And all this in an Arab Muslim state.

What particularly struck me was the openness of discourse among the participants. Not only Muslims and Christians, but a minyan of rabbis representing literally all Jewish religious movements engaged fully in the program, from delivering keynote presentations to chairing panels and even drafting the final summary conference declaration.

Islam always has honored the monotheistic religions of Judaism and Christianity, even when it has not had a consistent record of honoring those religions’ practitioners. But Islam has had a history of real trouble with polytheistic religious traditions. And yet, in a plenary session attended by the entire assembly, a Muslim religious scholar who directs an institute of Islamic studies at one of the most prominent Islamic seminaries in India called for future conferences to include non-monotheistic religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and others. This would have been impossible even a few years ago.

This year’s conference was far less controlled than the earliest Doha conferences on interfaith dialogue, which excluded Jews. Since those early days, Jews from the Diaspora and from Israel have been invited and have participated, though during periods when relations between Israel and the Arab world deteriorate enough, Israelis are not invited — which is unfortunate because inviting them nevertheless would be a great step forward. OK, there is still government meddling in religious affairs, but they are light-years ahead of where they were only a short while ago, and forward-looking projects like DICID are leading the way.

The Arab Spring has given a huge push to the sea change in the Middle East and North Africa, but the region is a very big ship, and it takes a long time for a turn of the helm to move such a large vessel to a different course. That new course is one in which the old autocratic forms of leadership will lose influence and power as the culture of the region continues to move toward democracy. We need to keep in mind that it will not happen in any way that we can expect or anticipate. Still, we will see real change in our own lifetimes, something that I could hardly have hoped for even a year ago. That’s because people have been pushing the rudder for many years. The molasses seas of dictatorships have, until recently, blocked any significant turn.

Let’s not let our old assumptions remain stuck in the muck of stale thinking. Democracy is a political system that varies from state to state. Christian Democrats control the government of democratic Germany. Not secular Democrats, but Christian Democrats. And in democratic Israel, the National Religious Party and Shas have made themselves indispensable to virtually every government. So, too, will we see Muslim democrats controlling the governments of some Arab democratic political systems. That in and of itself is not cause for alarm. We need to judge by deed and not by name.

The Muslim world is not nearly so simple as we’ve been accustomed to thinking.

American-Israeli Ilan Grapel is freed in prisoner exchange with Egypt


Egypt released an American-Israeli it held as an alleged spy and Israel freed 25 Egyptians in a prisoner swap on Thursday that will ease strains between Cairo’s new rulers and the United States and Israel.

Ilan Grapel, 27, flew to Israel accompanied by two Israeli envoys sent by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom he was due to meet later in the day. Smiling, he embraced his mother who waited on the tarmac at Tel Aviv airport.

The freed Egyptians crossed overland into Egypt’s Sinai desert, some of them kneeling in a thanksgiving prayer.

Egypt arrested Grapel in June on suspicion that he was out to recruit agents and monitor events in the revolt that toppled Hosni Mubarak, an ally of Israel and the United States.

Israel denied that Grapel, who emigrated from New York in 2005 and was wounded as an Israeli paratrooper in the 2006 Lebanon war, was a spy. His links to Israel were apparent on his Facebook page, which contained photos of him in Israeli military uniform.

A law student in the United States, Grapel had been working for Saint Andrew’s Refugee Services, a non-governmental agency, when he was detained.

The United States, which provides the army that now runs Egypt with billions of dollars in military aid, had called for Grapel’s release. He was freed three weeks after U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited Egypt.

The U.S.-brokered exchange deal was reached shortly after a more high-profile, Egyptian-mediated swap between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas Islamist rulers freed captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.

Eli Avidar, a former diplomat who headed Israel’s mission in Qatar, said securing the release of Egyptian prisoners could help Cairo’s new leaders domestically.

“The Egyptian administration needs this for its prestige,” he said on Israel Television.

Israel is widely unpopular in Egypt, which signed a peace treaty with its northern neighbor in 1979.

EMBASSY ATTACK

In September, Israel flew its ambassador out of Egypt when the Israeli embassy was attacked by protesters angry at the killings of Egyptian border guards when Israeli troops pursued raiders who killed eight Israelis in August. Israel said the gunmen infiltrated from the Gaza Strip via the Sinai.

Many of the prisoners on the release roster were jailed for drug trafficking, infiltration into Israel and gun-running, but not for espionage or attacks on Israelis, Israel’s Prison Service said.

“Raise up your heads, you are Egyptian,” cried relatives waving the country’s red, white and black flag as the bus carrying the men crossed the border.

“I’ve been in jail since 2005. Thank God. I feel reborn,” Mursi Barakat told Egyptian state television. “The treatment in jail was very tough and it was clear there was discrimination.”

U.S. Congressman Gary Ackerman who pressed for Grapel’s release, travelled to Israel to accompany him back to the United States, his office said in a statement.

Israel has also called for steps to help free another Israeli, Oudeh Suleiman Tarabin, jailed by Egypt.

Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli Defense Ministry official, rejected arguments by right-wingers in Israel that it had capitulated to Egypt in the 25-1 exchange.

“The bottom line is you have to decide, will he (Grapel) stay there in prison, or not? If you ask, me, he needed to be freed,” Gilad said on Israel Radio.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem and Shaimaa Fayed and Omar Fahmy in Cairo; Writing by Jeffrey Heller and Edmund Blair

The Arab Spring and Iraq


The Arab Spring, as a moniker for the revolution that seemed about to sweep the Middle East earlier this year, has given way to far less cheerful seasonal metaphors — from long, hot summer to dark, dismal winter. In Egypt, where “people power” toppled Hosni Mubarak’s corrupt dictatorship, the dream of freedom has morphed into a nightmare of mob violence and military crackdown. In other countries whose dictators have been more willing to use extreme savagery to hold on to power, the opposition is getting slaughtered — except for Libya, where Western intervention has made the difference.

What lessons should we learn from these depressing developments? And should these lessons include a reassessment of the war in Iraq?

The first lesson is that when it comes to world politics, cynicism is, alas, a safe bet. A few months ago, people who cautioned that the upheaval in the Mideast could lead to the rise of dangerously radical regimes were commonly labeled as paranoid naysayers if not bigots. When Sen. John McCain sounded such a warning last February, the leftist Web site ThinkProgress.com lambasted him for negativity toward a movement pursuing “freedom and self-determination.”

Concerns about politicized Islamic fundamentalism were dismissed because the victorious anti-Mubarak activists were mainly young and modern. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof shrugged off Islamism as a “bogeyman,” asserting that the Coptic Christians he interviewed in Egypt were baffled and offended when he asked if the revolution might end in a more oppressive society.

What would those Copts say now when their community faces escalating aggression? A recent protest by Christians demanding a stop to the violence was brutally dispersed by soldiers, leaving 25 dead and hundreds injured. Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper al-Watani, tells Reuters that “the new emerging faction of Islamists and Salafists [Muslim ultra-fundamentalists] has created havoc since the January revolution.” Nearly 100,000 Christians have fled Egypt.

Other pessimistic predictions, too, are looking prescient. The upcoming parliamentary elections are almost certain to make the Muslim Brotherhood Egypt’s single dominant party — and the military is poised to indefinitely delay full transfer of power to civilians. Meanwhile, measures to stop weapons smuggling to Hamas across the Egyptian border have been virtually discontinued.

The point is not that any revolution in a Muslim country is likely to slide into violent fanaticism; rather, revolutions in general are liable to fall into the hands of the worst factions, be it communists or Islamists. (Even the much-praised secular activists who helped bring down Mubarak are probably more likely to be Che Guevara lovers than classical liberals.)

Critics of the Arab Spring have been accused of supporting democracy in other countries only when those countries do what the West wants. That’s a crude caricature, but it is related to a pesky fact: Peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy is more likely when the revolution is friendly to America and its allies. This was evident in Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism. Today, of the Arab Spring countries, the most encouraging situation is probably in Tunisia: While a moderate Islamic party is set to lead in the upcoming elections, it is a party that pledges to respect secular law, boasts female candidates who don’t wear the veil and promises expanded trade with the United States.

Unfortunately, Western and American involvement is no panacea either. We do not know whether the Libyan rebels effectively backed by the United States will bring about positive change or a Taliban-style fiasco: despite their professed liberal values, some of their leaders have jihadist ties and are evasive on whether they favor a sharia-governed Islamic state. Now, foreign-policy interventionists lament the West’s failure to help rid Syria of its homicidal tyrant, Bashar al-Assad. But who or what will follow in his wake?

In a recent column, Washington Post deputy editorial page editor Jackson Diehl suggests that the woes of the Arab Spring cast the now-reviled Iraq war in a better light: Today’s Iraq, where violence has quieted and rival groups are learning coexistence, is a model for “what Syria, and much of the rest of the Arab Middle East, might hope to be.” Yet the road to this peace lies through several years of strife that took more than 100,000 lives — and it’s not all in the past: An outbreak of violence against Christians took dozens of lives less than a year ago.

Diehl argues that if Syria’s Assad falls, the sectarian and tribal violence could be even worse, without American and allied troops to curb it. Most controversially, he concludes that the invasion of Iraq has been somewhat vindicated — and that “Syrians may well find themselves wishing that it had happened to them.”

There have been predictable cries of outrage at the claim that anyone would welcome a U.S. invasion. But that’s not an outrageous notion unless one wears left-wing blinders: For all the hardships in Iraq, polls consistent ly show about half of Iraqis supporting the 2003 invasion. Still, another Iraq with its human and social costs on both sides is now unthinkable. Too many roads to hell have been paved by humanitarian intentions.

Today, democracy promotion tends to be viewed as naively arrogant: Who are we to bring freedom to other countries? One answer is that “we” — the United States and other industrial democracies — are, for all our flaws, the possessors of the only working model of a free society, as well as a civilization with unmatched economic, cultural and military power. There is no arrogance in seeking to advance the universal values of liberty and human rights — as long as we do so with a sense of realism, and of our own limitations.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine and a columnist at The Boston Globe. She is the author of “Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood.”

Israeli Cabinet approves Grapel prisoner swap deal


Israel’s Cabinet unanimously approved a deal to release dual American-Israeli citizen Ilan Grapel in exchange for 25 Egyptians being held in Israeli prisons.

The agreement, which was facilitated by the U.S. government, according to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office, was approved Tuesday.

Grapel, who is accused by Egypt of being a spy for Israel, is expected to return to Israel on Thursday, according to the statement.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also instructed the relevant authorities to work to bring about the release of Ouda Tarabin, an Israeli Bedouin who has been held in Egypt for 11 years on charges of espionage, the statement said.

The Egyptians to be released under the Grapel deal, including three minors, are not security prisoners, the Prime Minister’s Office said Monday evening. They are being held on charges such as crossing the border illegally, drug trafficking and holding unlicensed weapons, according to reports.

Grapel, arrested in Cairo in June, was accused of espionage. Later he was accused as well of incitement and the attempted arson of the country’s Interior Ministry building and police headquarters in Cairo during January’s riots in the capital.

The agreement comes less than a week after captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was exchanged for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in an agreement reached with the terrorist organization Hamas.

Egyptian security officials said Grapel entered the country shortly after the start of the Jan. 25 uprising that led to the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak and posed as a foreign correspondent. A law student at Emory University, Grapel allegedly said he was Muslim on the visa application that he filed with the Egyptian Embassy in Tel Aviv and then entered Egypt using his American passport.

Grapel is a New Yorker who moved to Israel following his graduation from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He joined the Israeli army, served as a paratrooper during the Second Lebanon War and was wounded in Southern Lebanon in August 2006.

Is Assad next?


Bashar Assad must have felt a chill when he saw the pictures of Muamar GadHafi’s final moments and knowing that Syrian crowds were chanting, “Assad is next.”

There are differences between the uprisings in Libya and Syria, but the outcome will be the same: one more tyrant dumped on the dung heap of history.  The only question facing Assad is whether Assad goes vertically or horizontally.

While he contemplates his fate and the death toll passes 3,000, Assad’s international isolation grows.  International sanctions are taking a heavy toll, despite his Chinese and Russian enablers blocking stronger measures by the United Nations.

U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford, the bête noire of the Assad regime, said, “There is not an armed opposition capable” of defeating Assad’s security forces, but that does not make him secure.  Support is crumbling around the country, even in his army.

Ford had to be evacuated from Damascus this week in the face of “credible threats” against him by the regime, the State Department revealed.  He had been the target of an incitement campaign and repeated incidents of intimidation as a result of his high profile visits to conflict sites and his harsh criticism of the regime’s violent attacks on unarmed protesters.

The vast majority of the protests are peaceful but the rising violence around the country coupled with the regime’s deliberate provocation of ethnic and religious friction could spark civil war, Ford told a group of journalists and foreign policy professionals at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy by Skype from Damascus shortly before he was forced to leave.  Civil war is not inevitable, he added, but the possibility cannot be ignored.

Syria expert Andrew Tabler called for a two-pronged approach.  International opponents of the regime should begin working with dissidents to train them in civil disobedience, particularly general strikes, while helping the opposition “develop a plan for post-Assad Syria.”

Tabler, who has spent years working in Syria and is now at the Washington Institute, said U.S. policy should focus on regime change and assemble a “Friends of Syria” group of international and regional countries to coordinate pressure on the regime outside of the United Nations framework because of Russian and Chinese support for Assad.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II told CNN no one has a clue what to do about Syria, and even if they did Assad is “not interested” in taking advice from anyone, including him.

Marc Ginsburg, former ambassador to Morocco, said the success of the U.S. and NATO in removing Gadhafi may bring pressure from Syrian demonstrators for similar help.

Some in the Syrian resistance have called for armed rebellion and NATO intervention in the wake of Gadhafi’s downfall, but the young activists who sparked the uprising have successfully maintained the largely non-violent nature of the demonstrations.

Ford said some armed gangs linked to Islamic militant groups may be contributing to the violence for their own ends.  But no one is buying the regime’s consistent insistence that the unrest is caused by a “Western, American and Zionist conspiracy.”

The economy is in deep trouble and bound to get worse. Consumption is down, business is hurting and the economy is contracting.

A rapidly growing population facing rapidly shrinking opportunities for jobs while demanding greater freedom makes up the backbone of the protest movement, Tabler said.

The Syrian National Council was formed in Turkey last month an attempt to bring together opposition leaders and present an alternative to the Assad regime. There is widespread concern about the disproportionate influence of Islamists, particularly the Moslem Brotherhood, within the Council, at the expense of Kurds, Druze, Christians and other minorities.  Another concern is influence of the Islamist government of Turkey, which seeks to spread its foothold across the old Ottoman Empire.

Meanwhile, Assad is spreading tentacles abroad into Lebanon, Turkey and even into the United States.

Syrian troops have crossed into Lebanon to capture or kill Syrian dissidents and defecting soldiers, according to the State Department, which called on the Lebanese government to do a better job policing its borders and protecting those fleeing Assad’s “violence and brutality.”

Similarly, Syrians fleeing across the Turkish border have been pursued by Assad’s soldiers, and the Turkish government has warned of reprisals.

A Virginia man was recently arrested by the FBI and charged with heading a network collecting information on peaceful anti-Assad protesters for use by the intelligence services to intimidate, arrest, torture and even kill family members in order to silence critics in exile.

The toll of tyrants, dictators and terror kingpins has grown dramatically during the Obama years, most notably Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Walaki and Muammar Gadhafi.

Is Bashar Assad next?  Inshallah.

He won’t be missed, but what is most important is what will come next in a troubled, turbulent Syria.

Egyptian gas flows again to Israel


Egypt has renewed pumping gas to Israel through a pipeline that has been attacked six times in less than a year.

It is the first time that gas has flowed to Israel through the pipeline since July.

The return of Egyptian gas began on Sunday, after a short test the previous week. Gas flow was also renewed to Jordan, which recently agreed to pay a higher price for its gas, Reuters reported. Egypt is expected to demand that Israel agree to a price hike as well, according to reports.

Egypt supplies Israel with more than 40 percent of its natural gas needs to produce electricity; electricity prices have risen by more than 10 percent in Israel since the attacks began.

The most recent attack came in late September, when three men fired on the pipeline at a pumping station in the northern Sinai.

The first attack on the pipeline came in February during the uprisings against deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. In July, machine-gun toting men overtook guards before blowing up a station in the Sinai.

Selling gas to Israel has been unpopular on the Egyptian street since the opening of the pipeline in 2008. Mubarak has been accused of giving Israel a sweetheart deal on the gas, since Egypt lost more than $714 million on the pact.

Netanyahu aide denies Mubarak asylum offer


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

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

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

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

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

Israeli lawmaker says he offered Mubarak asylum


As the trial of Hosni Mubarak began in Egypt, an Israeli lawmaker said he had offered political asylum in Israel to the longtime Egyptian president.

Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, a Knesset member from the Labor Party, told Israel’s Army Radio on Wednesday that he had made the offer to an ailing Mubarak several months ago in Sharm el-Sheikh, a Red Sea resort city in Egypt.

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

According to The Jerusalem Post, Ben-Eliezer said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was a party to the offer.

Mubarak, who resigned as president under fire after serving 30 years, went on trial Wednesday on charges of charges related to corruption and the killing of demonstrators.

Appearing in a hospital bed inside a defendant’s cage, Mubarak denied the charges against him. The trial—Mubarak’s first public appearance since he gave a televised speech in February refusing to resign amid protests sweeping Egypt—was broadcast on Egyptian television.

Egypt questions Mubarak on gas deal with Israel


Egyptian judicial authorities have extended deposed President Hosni Mubarak’s detention to question him regarding a natural gas deal with Egypt.

Egypt lost more than $714 million in the deal, Egypt’s prosecutor said in a statement, the New York Times reported.

The extension of Mubarak’s remand, announced April 22, came as former Egyptian oil minister, Samih Fahmy, and five other top officials were arrested and imprisoned prior to the start of an investigation into the deal.

Egypt supplies more than 40 percent of the gas that Israel needs to provide the country with electricity. Candidates to replace Mubarak have said they plan to renegotiate the contract with Israel.

Egypt’s new foreign minister said earlier this month that Egypt will demand a retroactive payment of the difference between the reduced prices it received and market value on the natural gas it purchased under Mubarak.

The pipeline between Egypt and Israel opened in 2008. Selling gas to Israel was unpopular on the Egyptian street from the time the pipeline opened.

The supply of Egyptian gas to Israel has not returned to full levels since terrorists in the Sinai tried to blow up the pipeline in February during the uprisings against Mubarak in Egypt.

Egypt’s Mubarak, sons detained


Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his two sons have been detained for 15 days while the country’s prosecutor general investigates corruption allegations.

Wednesday’s detentions came a day after Mubarak, 82, was hospitalized in Sharm el-Sheik with heart problems, which afflicted him as prosecutors began questioning him over allegations of corruption and abuse of power. He is also being investigated on allegations that he ordered the military to fire on demonstrators. State prosecutors are probing his sons, Alaa and Gamal, on allegations of embezzlement.

The detentions were announced on Egyptian state television and on the Egyptian prosecutor general’s Facebook page.

In a five-minute recording released April 10, Mubarak denied the accusations against him and his family.

Mubarak, the president of Egypt for 30 years, stepped down Feb. 11 and power was transferred to the military’s Supreme Council following popular protests that began in late January. Mubarak has been under house arrest ever since in Sharm el-Sheik, a resort city on the Red Sea. Presidential elections are due in September.

Egypt’s foreign minister talks tough on Israel


Egypt’s new foreign minister said the days of Israel getting cheap gas and strategic benefits are over.

In an interview Sunday on Egyptian television, Nabil al-Arabi said Egypt will demand that Israel pay the difference between the reduced prices it received and market value on the natural gas it purchased under deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. 

It was the first time an Egyptian official has spoken of a retroactive payment. The new oil minister has called for the price to be renegotiated on future purchases, according to Ynet.

Reports have circulated that the Egyptian government exports natural gas to Israel at prices lower than the cost of production.

Arabi also threatened to review and amend security arrangements agreed to in the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty, but he stressed that the two countries would have to agree on any changes.

”We will stick to all of the treaties we signed, and we will demand that they keep their side of the deal,” he said, before adding that “We will not be a ‘strategic treasure’ for Israel as they used to say during the time of Mubarak. We will only abide by the treaties.”

Arabi also said that although the Sinai Peninsula is required to be demilitarized according to the treaty, Egypt keeps a military presence there.

The foreign minister stressed that the Egyptian government continues to play an important role in the Middle East peace process and said that “the Palestinians want peace, but Israel has not yet met their demands.”

”There must be some decisiveness in the issues Israel has not abided by, such as the clause that states that Israel must maintain peace with countries that want peace, which has not happened with Palestine, which has agreed to peace with Israel,” he said. ”The conflict between Palestine and Israel should be ended and not managed … for the benefit of Israel, Palestine and the entire world.”

Egyptian media reported over the weekend that Arabi also said that he would work to renew diplomatic ties with Iran since he did not consider it an enemy state.

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