That was the year that was


It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times around the world.

Dickens’ famous line aptly describes a wide swath of the Arab world in 2011.  It was a good year for the Arab Street as popular uprisings, fueled by the social media, swept across the Middle East toppling some despots and threatening others.

It was a bad year for dictators – Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali is in exile, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak is in the court dock, Muammar Qadaffi is in Hell and Syria’s Bashar Assad is on his way – but was it really that good for the pro-democracy movement?

We can’t be sure whether Egypt had a democratic revolution, a military coup or an unholy alliance of the military and the Islamists, who have done disturbingly well in recent elections.

It was a good year for Gilad Shalit, free after more than five years in captivity, but it was also a good year for his Hamas captors, who won freedom for 1,072 of their followers and a public relations coup in their rivalry with the secular Fatah.

Osama bin Laden, Anwar Al-Awalki and many of their cohorts had a very bad year, thanks to the Obama administration’s stepped-up targeting of terrorist leaders.

On the domestic political scene, the year was characterized by polarizing partisan gridlock and acrimony in Washington and on the campaign trail.

The campaign for the Republican presidential nomination looked like a stampede to the far right as candidates vied for title of most ultra-conservative. There was more flip-flopping than a carp out of water.

Some politicians started out the year as serious people and are leaving it as punch lines in a bad joke: Donald “the birther” Trump, Anthony “Tweets” Weiner, Herman “Libya brain freeze” Cain, Arnold “the impregnator” Schwarzenegger, Rick “Ooops, I forget ” Perry, Michele “shootzpah” Bachmann and Dominique “grab a chambermaid” Strauss-Kahn.

It was a year in which former Speaker Newt Gingrich blamed his adultery on his patriotic zeal, and current Speaker John Boehner was for the compromise on the payroll tax holiday before he was against it before he was for it again.

The year had a tragic beginning for Rep. Gaby Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman who was severely wounded in an assassination attempt that left six dead and 11 others wounded.  Her courageous struggle to recover has been inspirational.

Millionaires who think they pay too much in taxes own a solid voting block in the U.S. Congress – keep those contributions coming – which is more than can be said for folks who rely on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

President Obama gave up on making peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, at least for the rest of this term, when their leaders showed scant interest in talking peace, especially with each other.

Bibi Netanyahu had a very good year.  He may have dissed the President of the United States with a rude lecture on live television but that didn’t stop Barack Obama from leading the campaign to block the Palestinian bid for U.N. membership, raising the level of security cooperation to new highs and approving the transfer of weapons system denied by the Bush administration. As a bonus, Netanyahu got standing ovations at a joint session of Congress that insulated him from pressure to be more flexible in the peace process; he returned home stronger than ever – and less interested in fulfilling his end of the U.S.-Israeli partnership.

And it was a year when Israel’s tolerance of the antics of West Bank and religious zealots came home to roost in a Jewish state that sometimes seems to be imploding, politically and socially.

Mahmoud Abbas didn’t fare so well.  Not only was his much vaunted U.N. strategy derailed, but it also cost him valuable White House support and threatens hundreds of millions in U.S. aid. If his reconciliation with Hamas goes through, he can kiss good bye to that aid and the chances for peace.

Israeli settlers have much to celebrate.  Netanyahu once again demonstrated that he would rather build settlements than build peace with the Palestinians. The Price Tag movement and other settler extremists expanded their attacks with little more than a wrist slap, if that, from the Israeli government, even when they burned mosques, attacked Israeli soldiers or vandalized IDF bases.

It was supposed to be a very good year for the Iraqis, getting their country back and the Americans out, but as the year ends it looks like the country could be headed back to sectarian warfare.

Iran continued its bombast and bluster but admitted the sanctions are hurting.  The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency reported it believes Iran, despite denials, is working on a nuclear weapon.  There was a lot of talk about an Israeli strike on Iran – not just in Israel but here as well, encouraged by Republican presidential wannabes anxious to show they love Israel more than Obama does since he lacks their enthusiasm for starting another war.

As the election campaigns heat up, the Mideast peace process cools off and the Arab awakening remains uncertain, the coming year does not hold great expectations.

Mobilizing the Veto in Egypt


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Egypt army head says military does not want power


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

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

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

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

Writing by Marwa Awad and Tom Perry

Three U.S. students held in Egypt over protests


Three U.S. students were paraded on Egyptian television on Tuesday after being accused of throwing petrol bombs at police during protests near Cairo’s Tahrir Square where demonstrators have been demanding an end to military rule.

State television did not give their identities, describing them as “foreigners.” But the U.S. embassy confirmed that three U.S. citizens were being detained and the American University in Cairo said three U.S. students studying there had been held.

Egypt’s state television cited an Interior Ministry official as saying that the three had been detained after they threw petrol bombs at police protecting the Interior Ministry. It said the identities of the three were being established.

It showed pictures of three with their backs against a wall and looking at the camera. One person out of shot raised the head of one of the Americans with his hand to ensure he looked straight ahead.

It showed videos, taken by phone cameras, that it said showed the three taking part in the protest at night. One of the people in the picture wore a medical face mask that many protesters have been using to protect against teargas. Another had a headscarf around his mouth.

“Three of our American study-abroad students, Gregory Porter, Luke Gates and Derrik Sweeney, were arrested last night. We are in touch with their families and are working with the U.S. embassy and the Egyptian authorities to ensure that they are safe,” the American University in Cairo said.

“We have been able to determine that they are being held at Abdeen’s public prosecutor’s office,” it said in a statement that was e-mailed to alumni of the university.

The U.S. embassy also confirmed the detention.

“We have been in contact with the Egyptian authorities and can confirm that there are three U.S. citizens in detention in connection with the protest. We have requested consular access,” a U.S. embassy spokeswoman said.

She said the embassy expected to be granted access on Wednesday.

Additional reporting by Dina Zayed; Writing by Edmund Blair

Egyptian police battle protesters, 33 dead


Cairo police fought protesters demanding an end to army rule for a third day on Monday and morgue officials said the death toll had risen to 33, with many victims shot in the worst violence since the uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.

Tens of thousands of people packed Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the anti-Mubarak revolt in January and February, as darkness fell, despite the clashes that threaten to disrupt Egypt’s first free election in decades, due to start next week.

Protesters have brandished bullet casings in the square, where police moved in with batons and tear gas on Saturday against a protest then dominated by Islamists but since driven by young people with secular aims. Police deny using live fire.

Medical sources at Cairo’s main morgue said 33 corpses had been received there since Saturday, most of them with bullet wounds. At least 1,250 people have been wounded, a Health Ministry source said.

“I’ve seen the police beat women my mother’s age. I want military rule to end,” said protester Mohamed Gamal, 21.

Army generals were feted for their part in easing Mubarak out, but hostility to their rule has hardened since, especially over attempts to set new constitutional principles that would keep the military permanently beyond civilian control.

Police attacked a makeshift hospital in the square after dawn on Monday but were driven back by protesters hurling chunks of concrete from smashed pavements, witnesses said.

“Don’t go out there, you’ll end up martyrs like the others,” protesters told people emerging from a metro station at Tahrir Square.

CLOUD OVER ELECTION

The violence casts a pall over the first round of voting in Egypt’s staggered and complex election process, which starts on November 28 in Cairo and elsewhere. The army says the polls will go ahead, but the unrest could deter voters in the capital.

In an apparent sop to protesters, the army council issued a law to bar from political life “those who work to corrupt political life and damage the interests of the nation.”

The announcement was unlikely to satisfy political parties and activists who have called for a blanket ban on former members of Mubarak’s now defunct National Democratic Party.

“This is a meaningless move by the military council. In fact this is a slap in the face of protesters and those who died to demand freedom and respect,” said activist Mohamed Fahmy. “The council is out of step with the people.”

Some Egyptians, including Islamists who expect to do well in the vote, say the ruling army council may be stirring insecurity to prolong its rule, a charge the military denies.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said violence must end. “This is quite evidently an attempt to thwart a democratic transition process,” he said.

Political uncertainty has gripped Egypt since Mubarak’s fall, while sectarian clashes, labor unrest, gas pipeline sabotage and a gaping absence of tourists have paralyzed the economy and prompted a widespread yearning for stability.

The state news agency MENA said 63 flights to and from Cairo had been canceled because of the latest unrest.

The instability could accelerate Egypt’s slide toward a currency crisis, forcing a sharp depreciation of the Egyptian pound in the next few months and conceivably prompting Cairo to impose capital controls, analysts said.

“Even in advance of recent events we were very concerned about the balance of payments and the burn-through in reserves,” said Farouk Soussa, Middle East chief economist at Citigroup. “The violence and political noise is going to erode whatever confidence was left in the Egyptian economy, and may result … in an acceleration of capital outflows.”

The military plans to keep its presidential powers until a new constitution is drawn up and a president is elected in late 2012 or early 2013. Protesters want a much swifter transition.

The army said on Monday it had intervened in central Cairo to protect the Interior Ministry, not to clear demonstrators from nearby Tahrir Square, whom it also offered to protect.

“The protesters have a right to protest, but we must stand between them and the Interior Ministry,” said General Saeed Abbas. “The armed forces will continue in their plans for parliamentary elections and securing the vote.”

“SAME MENTALITY”

The Interior Ministry, in charge of a police force widely hated for its heavy-handed tactics in the anti-Mubarak revolt, has been a target for protesters demanding police reform.

“Unfortunately the Interior Ministry still deals with protests with the same security mentality as during Mubarak’s administration,” said military analyst Safwat Zayaat.

The latest street clashes show the depth of frustration, at least in Cairo and some other cities, at the pace of change.

About 5,000 students marched in Alexandria, demanding an end to military trials of civilians and for those responsible for the recent violence to be brought to justice, MENA said.

“Military rule is defunct, defunct,” crowds chanted in Cairo. “Freedom, freedom.”

Residents reacted angrily when police fired tear gas into a crowd gathered below a burning building 200 meters (yards) from Tahrir Square, hindering the rescue of trapped residents.

Outside the apartment building, protesters chanted “Tantawi burned it and here are the revolutionaries,” referring to Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak’s defense minister for two decades and leader of the army council.

Doctors in orange vests were treating casualties on pavements in the middle of Tahrir.

Liberal groups are dismayed by the military trials of thousands of civilians and the army’s failure to scrap a hated emergency law. Islamists eyeing a strong showing in the next parliament suspect the army wants to curtail their influence.

Analysts say Islamists could win 40 percent of assembly seats, with a big portion going to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Additional reporting by Erik Kirschbaum in Berlin and Andrew Torchia in Dubai; writing by Alistair Lyon; editing by Philippa Fletcher

Tahrir reprise throws down gauntlet to Egypt army


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A LOT OF KILLING”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They must be patient,” he said.

Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Alistair Lyon

Greek coast guard seizes Canadian ship bound for Gaza


The Canadian ship “Tahrir”, participating in the flotilla to Gaza, attempted to depart Monday from the Greek port of Piraeus, but was intercepted by the Greek coast guard shortly after departure.

The Greek coast guard boarded the Canadian ship after the Greek authorities had banned the departure of all ships to Gaza from its ports.

On Sunday, the organizers of the Gaza flotilla announced that the flotilla ships anchored in Greek ports are planning to set sail to Gaza on Monday. The decision came despite the Greek’s governments ban on any ships to depart from its ports to Gaza.

Read more at Haaretz.com.