Publisher: the New York Times, USA
Author: By ANDRÉ ACIMAN
Story date: 21/11/2011
THE images streaming from Cairo's streets last month were not as horrifying as those of the capture and brutal death of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, but they were savage all the same. They were a sobering reminder that popular movements in some parts of the world, however euphorically they begin, can take disquieting and ugly turns.
When liberal Muslims joined Coptic Christians as they marched through Cairo's Maspero area on Oct. 9 to protest the burning of a Coptic church, bands of conservative Muslim hooligans wielding sticks and swords began attacking the protesters. Egyptian security forces who had apparently intervened to break up the violence deliberately rammed their armed vehicles into the Coptic crowd and fired live ammunition indiscriminately.
Egyptian military authorities soon shut down live news coverage of the event, and evidence of chaos was quickly cleared from the scene. But the massacre, in which at least 24 people were killed and more than 300 were wounded, was the worst instance of sectarian violence in Egypt in 60 years.
Confusion and conflicting narratives abound. Some claim to have overheard an announcer on television encourage "honorable Egyptians" to come to the rescue of soldiers under attack by a mob of Copts. Others heard a Muslim shouting that he had killed a Christian.
Unable to explain exactly why events turned violent, Egypt's interim prime minister, Essam Sharaf, claimed that the wholesale slaughter of civilians was not the product of sectarian violence but proof that there were "hidden hands" involved.
I grew up in an Egypt that was inventing hidden hands wherever you looked. Because of my family's increasingly precarious status as Jews living in Nasser's Egypt, my parents forbade me to flash my flashlight several times at night or to write invisible messages with lemon ink in middle school. These were a spymaster's tricks, and Jews were forever regarded as spies after the 1954 "Lavon Affair," in which Israeli intelligence recruited Egyptian Jews to bomb targets in Egypt.
Sadly, the phrase "hidden hands" remains a part of Egypt's political rhetoric more than 50 years later — an invitation for every Egyptian to write in the name of his or her favorite bugaboo. Rather than see things for what they are, Egyptians, from their leaders on down, have always preferred the blame game — and with good reason. Blaming some insidious clandestine villain for anything invariably works in a country where hearsay passes for truth and paranoia for knowledge.
Sometimes those hidden hands are called Langley, or the West, or, all else failing, of course, the Mossad. Sometimes "hidden hands" stands for any number of foreign or local conspiracies carried out by corrupt or disgruntled apparatchiks of one stripe or another who are forever eager to tarnish and discredit the public trust.
The problem with Egypt is that there is no public trust. There is no trust, period. False rumor, which is the opiate of the Egyptian masses and the bread and butter of political discourse in the Arab world, trumps clarity, reason and the will to tolerate a different opinion, let alone a different religion or the spirit of open discourse.
"Hidden hands" stands for Satan. And with Satan you don't use judgment; you use cunning and paranoia. Cunning, after all, is poor man's fare, a way of cobbling together a credible enough narrative that is at once easy to digest, to swear by, and pass around. Bugaboos keep you focused. And nothing in the Middle East can keep you as focused (or as unfocused) as the archvillain of them all: Israel.
Say "Israel" and you've galvanized everyone. Say Israel and you have a movement, a cause, a purpose. Say "Israel" and all of Islam huddles. Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and now Turkey.
What is good about the episode in Maspero is that, in the exhilarating and unusual spirit of the events of last spring in Tahrir Square, Muslims joined the Coptic demonstrators who were eager to exercise the right to build churches — a right that has always been grudgingly granted to Egypt's Copts.
What is terrible about the episode, however, is the inability of the government to take the blame for the slaughter of the Copts. Similarly, in September, it failed to intervene in good time when a large mob attacked the Israeli embassy in Cairo, broke down its walls and nearly slaughtered those inside.
The friendly army that Copts embraced during the Arab spring has turned its guns on those who embraced it. Your pal today, your killer tomorrow.
There are no rules and there is no trust. The poor man on the street, if he is to think for himself — which is a tall order in a country that has no history of free speech — must either wear warped lenses to see through wholesale agitprop or surrender to blind fanaticism.
COPTS represent approximately 10 percent of Egypt's population and are the direct descendants of the ancient Egyptians. Yet, sensing danger while everyone else in Egypt and in the West was busy celebrating the fall of Mr. Mubarak during the much-heralded Arab Spring, 93,000 Copts have already fled Egypt since March. In light of the events in Maspero, it is thought that another 150,000 Copts may leave their ancestral homeland by the end of 2011.
When Mr. Mubarak was in power, the Copts were frequently the victims of violent attacks and official discrimination — the New Year's bombing of a Coptic Church in Alexandria that left 21 dead is the most recent instance. Now, with Mr. Mubarak gone, Copts fear that an elected Muslim majority is likely to prove far less tolerant than a military dictatorship.
Conditions were by no means good for the Copts when Mr. Mubarak was at the helm. The most risible instance occurred in 2009 when, in an absurd effort to prevent the spread of swine flu, the government decided to slaughter all pigs in Egypt.
But since neither contact with pigs nor eating pork spreads swine flu, why kill the poor pigs? The answer is very simple. Slaughtering the pigs, as it turns out, was probably meant to inconvenience the Copts who farmed them and ate them. This constituted another of those petty measures intended to harm the Copts financially.
Today, Egypt is doing the same with Israel. Under the pretext of preserving its national agricultural patrimony, it has forbidden the sale of palm fronds to Israel. Palm fronds are used ceremonially by Jews during the holiday of Sukkot, and since Israel doesn't grow enough palm trees, it imports the fronds from Egypt. Whom did the ban hurt? The Egyptians who grow palm trees. Whom did the slaughter of pigs hurt? None other than the Cairenes themselves, because pigs, which eat tons of organic waste, used to play an important role in clearing trash from the streets of Cairo.
What doesn't occur to most Egyptians is that the Copts represent a significant business community in Egypt and that their flight may further damage an economy saddled with a ballooning deficit.
But this is nothing new for Egypt. The Egyptians have yet to learn the very hard lesson of the post-1956 departure of its nearly 100,000 Jews, who, at the time, constituted one of the wealthiest Jewish communities in the Mediterranean region.
The Egyptian economy never recovered from this loss. While blaming Zionism and the creation of Israel or turning to Islamic leadership may take many people's minds off the very real financial debacle confronting Egypt and help assuage feelings of powerlessness, the hard lesson has not been learned yet.
The Arab Spring was a luminous instance of democratic euphoria in a country that had no history of democracy or euphoria. What happened to the Copts this fall cast a dark cloud, which the interim government, whatever its true convictions, would do well to dispel.
Egypt should not lose its Copts. For if that is what autumn brings, then, to paraphrase Shelley, winter may not be far behind.
André Aciman is a professor of comparative literature at the City University of New York Graduate Center and the author of "Out of Egypt" and "Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere."
Publisher: The Financial Times, UK
Author: By Heba Saleh in Cairo
Story date: 21/11/2011
Essam Sharaf, the Egyptian prime minister, submitted the resignation of his government on Monday, plunging the country deeper into crisis.
The death toll in fighting between protesters and police has risen to 33 and thousands massed in Cairo's Tahrir square demanding an end to military rule.
Egypt's military council was seeking agreement on a new prime minister before it accepted the resignation submitted by the cabinet of Mr Sharaf, a military official told Reuters news agency. The official said that no formal announcement would be made until the ruling military council had agreed on the candidate.
The resignation and the continuing bloodshed in the capital called into question the holding of multi-stage parliamentary elections scheduled to start on November 28.
The poll, which would be the country's first since the popular revolt that toppled Hosni Mubarak, the former president, is a crucial step in the democratic transformation of the Arab world's most populous nation as it seeks to shed the legacy of decades of dictatorship.
The US urged Egypt on Monday to go ahead with the elections despite the flare up of violence. It urged restraint on all sides. "The United States continues to believe that these tragic events should not stand in the way of elections," said Jay Carney, White House spokesman.
In an effort to absorb popular anger, the ruling military council hurriedly signed a long-promised decree on Monday barring "those who corrupted political life" under the Mubarak regime from running for election. The legislation, which came too late to make an impact on this month's election, was a small concession that failed to mitigate what has turned into the biggest political disaster facing the council since it took power nine months ago.
On Monday night fighting continued on a street leading from Tahrir Square to the fortress-like headquarters of the interior ministry. Riot police fired teargas, rubber bullets and buckshot at young men determined to block security forces from marching on the square to evict protesters there.
A Molotov cocktail in his hand, Islam, a young hotel receptionist, hurried down a narrow alley strewn with rotting garbage behind Tahrir square, heading towards a nearby street where protestors have been battling police for three days.
"I am armed with this because I am defending myself," he said as fumes of teargas filled the air. "They have killed many of us and they have guns and we don't. We don't want them to keep on coming back to attack us in the square."
Having failed repeatedly to clear Tahrir square, the council faces difficult choices: they can use greater force to end the standoff, potentially leading to more anger, or make political sacrifices which the generals appear reluctant to make.
The crisis, analysts say, is a reflection of a mounting loss of confidence in the stewardship of the generals, who promised a democratic transition but revived Mr Mubarak's emergency law and tried thousands of people, including activists, before military courts.
Instead of dismantling the structures of repression which underpinned the Mubarak state, they have balked at police reform and only reluctantly agreed to flimsy changes removing those linked to the former regime from their positions.
"The council appears more of an extension of the old regime rather than as a trusted agent authorised by the people to run a transition," said Hassan Nafea, a professor of political science. "Their reforms have been superficial and not up to the ambitions of a people who carried out a revolution. They know that real change is needed, but they don't want it."
Several politicians, including Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Laureate and presidential candidate, have proposed that the council appoint a strong national unity government empowered to take steps to reform the security services and get the economy back on its feet.
For the protestors enraged by the bloodshed of the past three days and now determined to bring down the council, the crisis has now assumed the dynamics of a vendetta. The initial use of overwhelming force to clear a protest camp on Saturday galvanized fury against the country's rulers and its police and now every new death entrenches the feud with the authorities.
"They have been shooting at our faces," said Hassan al Guindi, a screenwriter who received two buckshot pellets in the face and leg on Monday, but stayed on to fight. "They are supposed to shoot at people's legs to disperse them, but it's all at face level. They want us to get tired and leave, but we won't."
In a narrow street behind the square, anger and grief making his voice shake, Saieed, an oil worker, pointed to large patch of blood on the ground. He brandished a digital camera showing pictures of two bodies slumped on the street outside a shop. A close up revealed the bloodied face of a young man apparently shot around the mouth.
"It happened just an hour ago. We were running away with an injured man, when we heard a shot and someone behind fell," said Saieed. "One of us rushed to help him, but he too was shot down. I was planning to return to my job on Wednesday, but now I am staying, so that their blood would not have been shed in vain."
Publisher: the Washington Post, USA
Author: By Liz Sly,
Story date: 21/11/2011
BAGHDAD — The top U.S. general in Iraq on Monday warned that violence there will probably increase after U.S. troops withdraw, setting the stage for a potentially rocky start to the post-American era in Iraq.
Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the commanding general for U.S. forces in that country, predicted that the threat from the Sunni extremist organization al-Qaeda in Iraq could grow as militant groups jostle to fill the vacuum that the departing Americans leave behind. Shiite militias backed by Iran will also seek to assert their capabilities, he said.
"As we leave, we can expect to see some turbulence in security initially, and that's because you'll see various elements try to increase their freedom of movement and freedom of action," he told journalists at a briefing at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, just weeks from the planned departure of the last American troops.
Austin's comments represent the clearest statement yet by a U.S. military commander that the United States is leaving unfinished business in Iraq — particularly at a time of mounting regional instability that risks exacerbating long-standing tensions.
Militant groups on both sides of the sectarian divide have not been vanquished, the country's fractious politicians remain deadlocked on key issues, and the Iraqi security forces lack many of the capabilities that would enable them to fill the gaps left by the departing Americans.
Austin said conditions for a U.S. exit are better than at any point in the previous 81 / 2 years, but he said that "there will probably be unfinished business for many, many years to come."
The U.S. military had hoped that as many as 20,000 of its troops would remain to continue to train Iraqi security forces, but an agreement on the terms under which the troops would stay foundered on the issue of whether the trainers and those assigned to protect them would be granted immunity from prosecution.
Though it is possible that the Iraqis will ask for additional help after the drawdown is complete, Austin said, no such request has been made.
Foremost among U.S. concerns is the risk posed by militant groups, including al-Qaeda in Iraq, which remains a potent threat in the north and center of the country and is capable of staging devastating attacks. Austin said the group is expected to try to take advantage of the United States' departure.
"Al-Qaeda will continue to do what it's done in the past, and we expect that it's possible they could even increase their capability," he said. "If the Iraqi security forces and the government of Iraq are able to counter that, it will be a good thing. If they can't, they'll continue to grow in capacity."
At the same time, Iranian-backed Shiite militias, based mostly in the south and around Baghdad, are also expected to try to expand their role, in ways that could challenge the Iraqi government's hold on power.
"These are elements that are really focused on creating a Lebanese Hezbollah kind of organization in this country," Austin said. "As we leave, if those elements are left unchecked, they will eventually turn on the government, and they should be concerned about that."
A particular worry for the United States, he said, is the threat that those militias could pose to the sizable number of U.S. diplomats who will remain at the fortified U.S. Embassy in Baghdad's Green Zone. The Iranian-backed group Asaib Ahl al-Haq has kidnapped Westerners, and the Promised Day Brigade, controlled by anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, has been held responsible for many of the rocket attacks against the embassy in recent years.
Austin said he does not foresee a dramatic collapse in security, but he warned that containing the threats will depend on the response of the Iraqi security forces and the government.
"There's likely to be setbacks, some tough times in the days ahead," he said. "But I'm very hopeful we'll stay on course."
All American troops are scheduled to leave by the end of the year under a U.S.-Iraq security agreement signed in 2008, and with fewer than 20,000 now in the country, the withdrawal is on track to be completed by then, U.S. officials say.
Another concern for American and Iraqi officials is the Iraqi army's inability to mount a credible defense against any external threat to the country's borders at a time when unrest is spiraling in neighboring Syria and tensions are mounting between the West and another Iraq neighbor, Iran.
With F-16 fighter jets not due to be delivered until 2015 and only small numbers of tanks and other military hardware currently in their arsenal, the Iraqi security forces lack "very much of a capability at all to address an external threat," Austin said.
Though the Iraqis need help, it is far from certain that they will ask for it, he said. And if they do, it is possible that they could seek assistance from other countries, he added, seemingly acknowledging that the United States might not be able to count on Iraq as a strategic ally in the future.
But he said he believes that Iraq wants to uphold close ties with the United States, and he pledged that America will continue to pursue that relationship.
"This is clearly not an endpoint," he said. "We really intend to remain engaged with Iraq, and we look forward to having Iraq as a great strategic partner in the future."
Publisher: the Jerusalem post
Author: By ARIEH O’SULLIVAN / THE MEDIA LINE
Story date: 21/11/2011
A United Nations organization dealing with refugees has said that land has been designated in Jordan to set up a camp to deal with an expected tide of refugees fleeing unrest in Syria.
Thousands of Syrians have reportedly been pouring over the border into Jordan as a defiant President Bashar Assad has ratcheted up his lethal crackdown on anti-government protesters that has killed over 3,500 as the country slides deeper into civil war.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Jordan is working with the Ministry of Interior to prepare a refugee camp in Mafraq north of Amman to take in the Syrians who have fled their homes.
"The area where it would be possible to receive an influx of refugees has been designated, but there hasn't been any kind of action taken on the ground yet. No tents have been set up, but at least the land has been designated for such a contingency,"
Dana Bajali, a spokeswoman for UNHCR, told The Media Line.
Bajali said they have been providing assistance to some 200 Syrian refugee families, but that it is estimated that over 3,000 have sought sanctuary in Jordan, some legally, others illegally. Hundreds are thought to be army deserters.
"This includes urgent cash assistance, some blankets and mattresses. We also try to provide some food items to these families, kitchen sets, hygiene kits, utensils, school kits and food packages," Bajali said, adding that most of the refugees were being housed by relatives and friends since there were close family and tribal ties on both sides of the border.
Many have come from the Syrian town of Deraa, the birthplace of the Syrian rebellion that erupted in mid-March when dozens or more youths were detained by security forces for spray painting anti-government graffiti. Since then, despite the massive presence of troops and attacks on the city's main mosque, Deraa remains in turmoil.
But others have been coming from the area around Homs, the heart of the anti-Assad revolt, north of Damascus.
"We have noticed a steady influx of Syrians into Jordan and the number of those registered with us has increased. There is a plan to receive an influx of refugees if that happens and one of them is to set up a reception center, but that hasn't started yet," she added.
Another UNHCR official told the Ammon news website that the cost of the refugee camp would be about half a million dollars and that the tents would come from their stocks currently stored in warehouses in Zaraq. But it also quoted government officials as saying they are not formally cooperating with the UN organization.
Syria has periodically sealed its 380-kilometer border with Jordan since the revolt began. Last week, Syrian army defectors clashed with loyalist troops near the border along the Damascus-Amman highway and at least 40 people were reportedly killed.
Since the fighting began tens of thousands of Syrians have fled to neighboring countries. Some 5,000 are estimated to have sought shelter in Lebanon and another 7,600 are reportedly in Turkey. Hosting the refugees and allowing Syrian opposition to organize on its territory has plunged relations between Turkey and Assad's regime to their lowest point in years.
Syria's 22 million people are not only feeling the pressure of growing causalities and fighting but the economic fallout. Syria has been hit by international sanctions and other measures that may cause the economy to contract by as much as 10% this year. Even those who cannot or will not leave have been sending capital out of the country.
Two rocket-propelled grenades hit a Baath ruling party building in Damascus on Sunday, residents said, the first reported attack by insurgents inside the Syrian capital. Meanwhile, the Arab League said it rebuffed a request by Syria to amend plans for a 500-strong monitoring mission after Assad disregarded a deadline to halt violent repression of protesters.
Unlike Turkey, Jordan is not allowing Syrian opposition groups in the kingdom. Still, there are tensions between the countries, particularly after King Abdullah II last week became the first Arab ruler to call for Assad to step down. Following the monarch's statements, pro-government mobs attacked the Jordanian Embassy in Damascus.
Syria reportedly apologized to Jordan over the attack. Jordan's state-run Petra news agency quoted Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad as apologizing for the attack on the Jordanian Embassy as well as other diplomatic missions, including the Turkish Embassy.
Last month, Jordanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Nasser Judeh said in a joint press conference with his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu, that the kingdom would be ready for the receiving any new numbers of refugees from Syria in the event of deterioration of the security situation there.
Publisher: the Washington Post, USA
Author: By Alice Fordham,
Story date: 21/11/2011
BEIRUT — The Turkish prime minister sharply criticized Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after an attack on buses carrying Turkish pilgrims Monday in central Syria wounded two people and brought a new low in an increasingly sour relationship between the two countries.
"You can remain in power with tanks and cannons only up to a certain point. The day will come when you'll also leave," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at a conference in Istanbul. Responding to Assad's repeated condemnation of other countries' interference in Syrian affairs, Erdogan asked, "Why don't you handle your own problem within yourself, without opening the way for outside interference?"
Turkey, which shares a border with Syria, was a close diplomatic and trade partner with the country before Assad's government imposed a brutal crackdown against protests calling for greater political rights and freedoms.
Activists from the umbrella opposition group called the Local Coordination Committees reported that 18 people were killed by security forces across Syria on Monday, 14 of them in the central city of Homs, which has seen some of the worst violence and has a heavy presence of security forces. A United Nations estimate has numbered the deaths of protesters at more than 3,500 since demonstrations began in spring.
According to Turkish news television, the attack on the buses happened near Homs. The Local Coordination Committees showed video on their Facebook page of two buses with broken windows and Turkish paramedics treating injured passengers.
One of the drivers, Erhan Surmeli, told the Associated Press that a convoy of buses returning from the hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, had stopped at a checkpoint. "Syrian soldiers emerged from behind sandbags and cursed Erdogan when we told them we were Turks. Then they suddenly opened fire at the bus," he said.
It was not possible to verify the report independently, and armed opposition groups have also been increasingly active in recent weeks.
In London, British Foreign Minister William Hague condemned Assad, calling the violence in Syria "appalling and unacceptable."
Speaking after a meeting with the Syrian National Council, a political opposition group that is seeking to topple Assad and form a transitional government, Hague said that Britain was not in a position to recognize the group formally because it was not yet representative of all aspects of the opposition movement. He called for greater unity among the Syrian political opposition and for protests to remain peaceful.
Publisher: The Guardian, UK
Story date: 21/11/2011
Coalition of Ennahda and Ettakatol have announced shape of interim government ahead of the newly-elected assembly's meeting
The main winners of Tunisia's elections have announced the shape of the country's interim government ahead of the first meeting of its newly-elected assembly.
On 25 October, Tunisians elected a body to write a new constitution nine months after they overthrew President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in a popular uprising.
As the country that set off the wave of pro-democracy movements that engulfed the Arab region, Tunisia's efforts to build a democracy are being closely watched around the world.
The Islamist Ennahda Party won the most seats and partnered with the liberal Congress for the Republic and the left-of-centre Ettakatol Party to form a ruling coalition and divide up the top posts between them.
Ennahda will take the powerful prime minister's position while veteran rights activist Moncef Marzouki will become the interim president.
Mustapha Ben Jaafar of Ettakatol will head the assembly, which has a year to write the constitution before new elections are held.
The three leaders did not elaborate on who would fill the remaining government posts but said that they would also go to prominent figures of civil society.
A number of ministers from the outgoing transitional government will also appear in the government.
The plan for the new government will be presented on Tuesday to the inaugural meeting of the new council, which will first vote on the new president, who will then appoint the prime minister and ask him to form a government.
The coalition holds a comfortable majority of 139 seats in the 217-member body.
The North African country of 10 million people has been essentially a one-party state in the half-century since it won its independence from France.
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