Saudi-led Yemen intervention threatens protracted, sectarian war

Adam Baron writes: Yemen has lately become a hot topic of rampant strategic pontification, pundits rushing to make bold sweeping statements that seek to explain the turbulence in this conflict-wracked nation as simply another front in a region-wide strategic context. But reality — as most who follow Yemen would attest — is far more complicated.

Last September, the Houthis — a Zaidi Shia rebel group — took effective control of Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, riding on a wave of popular discontent over the transitional government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. That government had been installed under a U.N.-backed deal mediated by the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to end the Arab Spring-inspired uprising against the country’s longtime leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Houthis quickly inked a deal with Hadi and other political factions, but tensions soon emerged. By the start of March, the government had resigned, while Hadi — after escaping house arrest by the Houthis in Sanaa — fled to Aden and declared it Yemen’s temporary capital. U.N.-mediated talks continued in search of a political settlement, while the Houthis moved to consolidate power. The power vacuum resulting from the steady collapse of Yemen’s political order had already proven a boon to extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and deepened an economic and humanitarian crisis that had already left half of the country’s population food-insecure.

Any hope of an early resolution to the crisis among Yemen’s rival factions has been quashed by the Saudi-led anti-Houthi military offensive — euphemistically named “Resolute Storm.” Five nights into the air barrage, a return to calm seems as far away as ever, while the outcome of the Saudi-led intervention remains uncertain.

That’s because while the Arab League countries waging the air campaign portray the Houthi rebellion as a product of Iranian meddling, Yemen’s conflict remains in essence a local struggle for political power. It was spurred by the deterioration of central government control in the run-up to Saleh’s exit and then exacerbated by his successor’s inability to consolidate power — all of which created a perfect opening for the Houthis, whose complaints about corruption and widespread pernicious foreign influence seemed to resonate with more Yemenis than ever. The Houthi campaign, until the middle of last year, was largely a turf war against tribal opponents in the highlands of northern Yemen — a conflict in which Hadi and the central government alternately played mediator and disinterested observer. More recently, however, as the Houthis grew stronger, they began directly challenging Hadi and his backers — with the support of their ally of convenience, former President Saleh. Houthis forged the partnership with Saleh more than a year ago, fueled by their mutual distaste for the Islah party, a Yemeni faction that includes the bulk of the country’s Muslim Brotherhood. [Continue reading…]

Reuters: Iran-allied Houthi militiamen pushed into the northeastern outskirts of the Yemeni port city of Aden on Monday amid heavy clashes with loyalists of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi apparently backed by Saudi-led air strikes.

Witnesses heard loud explosions and saw a thick column of black smoke and a jet flying overhead. Hadi’s supporters earlier said artillery and rocket fire hit the approaches to the city after the Houthis made a fresh advance from the east along an Arabian Sea coast road.

As the two sides fought over Hadi’s last bastion, humanitarian workers said an air strike in the northern Yemen district of Haradh killed 21 people at a refugee camp near to a military installation.


Reuters
:
Warships shelled a column of Houthi fighters and troops loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh as they tried to advance on the southern port city of Aden on Monday, residents said, the first known report of naval forces taking part in the conflict.

They said the vessels were believed to be Egyptian warships that sailed last week through the Suez Canal toward the Gulf of Aden. Egypt is a member of the Saudi-led coalition that has been targeting Houthi positions to stem their advance on Aden, a last foothold of fighters loyal to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

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Egypt says it may send troops to Yemen to fight Houthis

The New York Times reports: Egypt said Thursday that it was prepared to send troops into Yemen as part of a Saudi-led campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthi movement, signaling the possibility of a protracted ground war on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula.

A day after Saudi Arabia and a coalition of nine other states began hammering the Houthis with airstrikes and blockading the Yemeni coast, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt said in a statement that the country’s navy and air force would join the campaign. The Egyptian Army, the largest in the Arab world, was ready to send ground troops “if necessary,” Mr. Sisi said.

Egypt must “fulfill the calls of the Yemeni people for the return of stability and the preservation of the Arab identity,” he said, alluding to the specter of Iranian influence.

His comments were one of several indications on Thursday that the antagonists on either side of the Yemeni conflict are bracing for a prolonged battle as Yemen — like Iraq, Libya and Syria — is consumed by civil conflict, regional proxy wars and the expansion of extremist groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. [Continue reading…]

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What’s your mother’s name?

In Egypt and across much of the Middle East, Mother’s Day is celebrated at the Spring Equinox, which was March 21 this year.

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Hamas reacts to potential Egyptian attack

Adnan Abu Amer writes: Hamas never imagined that it would be classified as a terrorist movement by an Arab country — a classification that has dangerous political, media and perhaps military repercussions.

However, Egypt’s Court of Urgent Matters declared Hamas a terrorist organization on Feb. 28 against the backdrop of the proven movement’s implication in armed operations that claimed the lives of Egyptian officers and soldiers in Sinai Peninsula, after its members seeped through the tunnels into Egypt.

Why is this decision dangerous? Egypt is considered the only leeway for Gaza where Hamas is in control. Egypt’s classification of Hamas as a terrorist organization implies that all efforts are being made to cut off its arms supplies and funding by all means necessary. Moreover, whoever cooperates with Hamas is considered a criminal by law, according to a statement on March 4 by Egypt’s Minister of Justice Mahfouz Saber. The law stipulates seizing Hamas properties, arresting all its affiliated members and confiscating their funds and locations. [Continue reading…]

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From a private school in Cairo to ISIS killing fields in Syria

Mona El-Naggar reports: He winced at the mere mention of his son’s name, visibly overcome by an unceasing thought that he struggled to articulate. He looked down to hide the tears in his eyes.

“You have to understand, I am in pain,” said Yaken Aly, choking on the words: “My son is gone.”

Mr. Aly raised his son, Islam Yaken, in Heliopolis, a middle-class Cairo neighborhood with tended gardens and trendy coffee shops, and sent him to a private school, where he studied in French. As a young man, Mr. Yaken wanted to be a fitness instructor. He trained relentlessly, hoping that his effort would bring him success, girlfriends and wealth. But his goals never materialized. He left that life and found religion, extremism and, ultimately, his way into a photograph where he knelt beside a decapitated corpse on the killing fields of Syria, smiling.

“Surely, the holiday won’t be complete without a picture with one of the dogs’ corpses,” Mr. Yaken, now 22 and fighting for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, wrote in a Twitter post in July, during Ramadan.

The West is struggling to confront the rise of Islamic extremism and the brutality committed in the name of religion. But it is not alone in trying to understand how this has happened — why young men raised in homes that would never condone violence, let alone coldblooded murder, are joining the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. It is a phenomenon that is as much a threat to Muslim nations as to the West, if not more so, as thousands of young men volunteer as foot soldiers, ready to kill and willing to die. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. won’t back Egypt’s attacks on ISIS

Nancy A. Youssef reports: The Obama administration was given multiple chances Wednesday to endorse a longtime ally’s airstrikes on America’s biggest enemy at the moment, the so-called Islamic State. Over and over again, Obama’s aides declined to back Egypt’s military operation against ISIS. It’s another sign of the growing strain between the United States and Egypt, once one of its closest friends in the Middle East.

This shouldn’t be a complete surprise; Cairo, after all, didn’t tell Washington about its strikes on the ISIS hotbed of Derna, Libya. Still, Wednesday’s disconnect was jarring. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest passed on a reporter’s question about an endorsement of Egypt’s growing campaign against ISIS. So did State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

“We are neither condemning nor condoning” the Egyptian strikes, is all one U.S. official would tell The Daily Beast.

In other words, these once-close nations are now fighting separate campaigns against their mutual foe. And that could prove to be very good news for ISIS. The rift between U.S. and the region’s most populous country portends of another division that ISIS could exploit, this time for its expansion into northern Africa and the broader Middle East. [Continue reading…]

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Warning that Libya could become Somalia on the Mediterranean

Ian Black writes: International efforts to resolve the crisis in Libya after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi must forge agreement between the warring parties to forestall the emergence of a failed state that could become a “Somalia on the Mediterranean”, the UK government’s special envoy has urged.

Jonathan Powell, a veteran of the Northern Ireland peace process, warned in an interview that violent chaos in Libya will spread to its neighbours and to Europe and Britain if left unchecked.

Powell was speaking before news emerged on Sunday of the beheadings of 21 Egyptian Christians by Islamic State (Isis) fighters near Sirte and Monday’s retaliatory bombing raids by the Egyptian air force on Isis training locations and weapons stockpiles in Libya. [Continue reading…]

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Egypt seeks UN backing for air strikes against ISIS in Libya

The Guardian: Egypt has called for a UN-backed international intervention in Libya after launching air strikes on Islamic State targets following the murder of 21 Egyptian Christians.

The country’s president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, said in an interview aired by France’s Europe 1 radio that there was no choice but to create a global coalition to confront the extremists in Libya.

Egypt’s top diplomat is in New York to seek backing for military intervention from UN security council members. On Monday Egypt’s armed forces announced F-16 strikes on Isis weapons caches and training camps – the first time Egypt has acknowledged any kind of military intervention in its increasingly chaotic and violent western neighbour.

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Egyptian and Libyan warplanes bomb ISIS targets

Reuters: Egypt’s air force bombed Islamic State targets inside Libya on Monday, a day after the group released a video showed the beheading of 21 Egyptians there, marking an escalation in Cairo’s battle against militants.

It was the first time Egypt confirmed launching air strikes against the group in neighbouring Libya, showing President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is ready to expand his fight against Islamist militancy beyond Egypt’s borders.

Egypt said the dawn strike, in which Libya’s air force also participated, hit Islamic State camps, training sites and weapons storage areas in Libya, where civil conflict has plunged the country into near anarchy and created havens for militia.

A Libyan air force commander said between 40 to 50 militants were killed in the attack. “There are casualties among individuals, ammunition and the (Islamic State) communication centres,” Saqer al-Joroushi told Egyptian state television.

“More air strikes will be carried out today and tomorrow in coordination with Egypt,” he said.

Reuters also reports Egypt has once again called for the formation of an international coalition to fight ISIS in Libya. Meanwhile, Libya’s Tripoli-based parliament strongly condemned Monday’s airstrikes.

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ISIS beheads 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya. How will Sisi respond?

Ian Black writes: The latest video horror apparently released by the Islamic State (Isis) shows the mass beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya and underlines the alarming spread of the jihadi group far from the familiar killing fields of Syria and Iraq.

The gruesome film – the victims again kneeling in orange jumpsuits – confirms what had been signalled a few days ago by Isis propagandists. The language directed at these Arab Christians is as hateful and sectarian as that employed against Shia Muslims and the western journalists and aid workers whose murder by Isis has so far attracted most attention internationally.

Like the recent immolation of Jordanian pilot Muadh al-Kasasbeh captured by the extremists in Syria, this mass killing will horrify Egyptian and wider Arab and Muslim opinion. The authorities in Cairo and their conservative allies in the Gulf are deeply alarmed by the growing chaos in Libya. Egypt and the UAE have already intervened against Islamist forces and may do so again now more forcefully. [Continue reading…]

In January, The Telegraph reported on the circumstances of the abductions: It was the early hours phone call that would save his life. As militants went from house to house, pulling Christians from their rooms, Youssef Zekry was woken suddenly.

Don’t open the door, said a voice on the line. It was his friend, Atef, who was also cowering from the gang outside.

As footsteps approached, Mr Zekry sat waiting for the knock. It never came.

“We could hear they were about to break down the door,” he said. “But then a voice said, ‘We have enough, let’s go…’ Then the footsteps retreated.”

That was January 4. Mr Zekry had just witnessed – and narrowly escaped – one of the most targeted acts of violence against Christians since the start of the Arab Spring, and the worst to befall them in Libya since it was liberated from the dictatorship of Col Muammar Gaddafi.

That liberation came thanks to an alliance including secular activists, Islamist fighters, and the air forces of the western world. It is an alliance that has now fractured, a breach that is plunging the country into chaos.

The victims are ordinary Libyan people, who have been assassinated, shelled, and killed in the cross-fire of the Arab world’s latest civil war. But on this occasion, it was Egyptians, Coptic Christians trying to escape poverty back home and find work in their supposedly oil-rich neighbour, who were targeted.

“They knew who they wanted, and they asked for them by name,” said Mr Zekry, now back in his home village of Al-Our in central Egypt. “They had a list with all our names on it.”

He was lucky. Eyewitnesses saw fourteen other men led away in handcuffs. Their masked captors carried the black flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The group had only announced its existence in Libya a few weeks before – a nadir in the country’s descent into post-Gaddafi chaos.

Reuters: Islamic State released a video on Sunday that appeared to show the beheadings of 21 Egyptian Christians in Libya and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi warned that his country would respond to the deaths as it saw fit.

Speaking on national television hours after the release of the video, Sisi said Cairo would choose the “necessary means and timing to avenge the criminal killings”.

However Egypt responds, it’s worth remembering the slaughter of Copts by the Egyptian Army in October 2011 in Maspiro.


Warning: This video contains disturbing images.

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Mohamed Fahmy still fighting for his freedom

The Toronto Star reports: Mohamed Fahmy may be out of prison but he is still fighting for his freedom.

“We’re still living in this nightmare,” Fahmy told the Star in a wide-ranging interview from his family home in Cairo. “Of course I feel a little bit better that I’m out and I’m able to enjoy this freedom, but it’s still not gone. It’s still there.”

The 40-year-old Canadian journalist was let out on bail early Friday morning after spending more than a year behind bars along with his Al Jazeera English colleagues, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed. In a case that reverberated around the world, the three had been imprisoned by Egyptian authorities on terror-related charges and sentenced to between seven and 10 years.

Fahmy’s release was ordered on Thursday, the first day of a retrial that he and Mohamed are facing after Egypt’s highest appeals court overturned their conviction on Jan. 1 and issued a damning appraisal of their original trial. Greste, who is still named in the case, was deported to Australia two weeks ago. The next session in court is scheduled for Feb. 23.

“I don’t trust that we’re going to be acquitted, and to think that is naive,” he said. “Anyone who’s covered Egyptian political events and the judiciary here knows that unless you are really vindicated, it doesn’t end. We can celebrate for a couple days, but I’m still very cautious and very aware that more needs to be done on every level.”

Fahmy’s family had to secure the $41,000 bail before he was able to leave prison.

“I was just walking around the house and looking at the bed and enjoying the fact that I don’t have a cop watching me 24 hours a day,” he said Saturday.

The case has made front-page news in Egypt, and Fahmy marvelled at the fact he was now recognized in the street, describing how several strangers approached him to shake his hand and welcome his release.

As a condition of his bail, Fahmy must report to a police station every day and is banned from travelling. None of his possessions, including ID cards and passport, that were seized during his arrest have been returned. [Continue reading…]

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Al Jazeera’s reporters may go free, but a muzzled press in Egypt is here to stay

Dan Murphy writes: After more than a year in prison, Egypt is to release on bail two Al Jazeera journalists pending a retrial on claims that the men were involved in terrorism and supporting Egypt’s now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

The conviction of Mohamed Fahmy, Baher Mohamed, and Peter Greste – who was released last week – followed a farcical trial in which prosecutors asserted the reporters were running a clandestine operation out of the Marriott Hotel in Cairo. Their conviction was an international symbol of the repression of free speech in Egypt under Gen. (Ret.) Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who came to power in the wake of a July 2013 coup.

Today the work of muzzling, or re-muzzling, Egypt’s press has largely been done. Self-censorship is rampant, TV stations have been closed, and calls from the Interior Ministry warning producers and editors about their coverage are once more commonplace. Reporters Without Borders ranked Egypt at 158th out of 180 countries in its 2015 Press Freedom Index. In 2010, former President Hosni Mubarak’s final full year in office, the group rated Egypt 127th. [Continue reading…]

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How Sisi dictates

Tom Stevenson writes: It’s no secret that Hosni Mubarak’s regime was repressive. Yet although in its treatment of prisoners and many other ways besides, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s is worse, statesmen around the world praise its role in Egypt’s ‘democratic transition’. When John Kerry visited Cairo last year he reported that Sisi had given him ‘a very strong sense of his commitment to human rights’. These issues, he said, were ‘very much’ on Sisi’s mind. For more than thirty years it was US policy to support autocratic government in Egypt as a route to ‘regional security’. The US backed Mubarak’s regime until its very last days; even during the mass protests of January 2011, the US hoped Mubarak could survive if he made political concessions. Mubarak is gone, but the US Defense Department’s links with the Egyptian military – long-standing and solid – have remained. Officials are steadily restoring the flow of aid and equipment that was temporarily suspended in the wake of the coup: there is no serious ‘human rights’ issue for Washington.

The US is not alone in this. When Shinzo Abe visited Cairo last month he spoke of the ‘high esteem’ in which the Japanese government holds its relationship with Sisi, and pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in development loans. Diplomatic support from Europe, which suffered minor interruptions when the repression peaked late in the summer of 2013, has largely been restored. In addition to visiting the UN General Assembly, Sisi has been received on official visits to the Vatican, Davos, Rome and Paris: little or nothing has been said about routine human rights abuses, let alone the Rabaa massacre or the mass imprisonment and torture of dissidents.

When David Cameron held a meeting with Sisi in New York in September he spoke of ‘Egypt’s pivotal role in the region’ and its importance to British policy. ‘Both economically and in the fight against Islamist extremism’, he said, Egypt was a crucial ally and the UK was ‘keen to expand practical partnerships’. Cameron urged the president ‘to ensure human rights are respected’; he was much more specific on the point that Egyptian state debts to Britain’s international oil companies should be promptly repaid. The British embassy now issues reports with titles like ‘Egypt: Open for Business?’ and last month’s UK investment delegation to Cairo was the biggest in a decade. Western leaders – as Sisi well knows – have very little interest in upsetting Egypt, strategically located as it is between the world’s major energy-producing region and the developed world. The West appears to see no contradiction in supporting the ‘stability’ of the Sisi regime at a time when the Egyptian population is suffering from the extreme instability that comes with mass arrests and torture. [Continue reading…]

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Egypt reporter to stand trial alone as foreign colleagues freed

AFP reports: With Australian Peter Greste freed and a Canadian colleague close to release, the other Al-Jazeera journalist arrested in Cairo faces languishing in jail for an indefinite period because he has only Egyptian nationality.

Under global pressure to release the prisoners, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued a decree tailored for Greste and colleague Mohamed Fahmy, allowing the deportation of foreigners but overlooking Baher Mohamed in the process.

Greste, an acclaimed reporter for Al-Jazeera English, was deported last week.

Fahmy, a dual national, had to renounce his Egyptian citizenship and his release and deportation to Canada is imminent, a government official said.

But in the face of delays, prominent lawyer Amal Clooney, who married Hollywood star George Clooney last year, has requested a meeting with Sisi to press Fahmy’s case, a letter obtained by AFP on Saturday showed, leaving Mohamed in the cold.

“We’re paying the price for being Egyptian,” his embittered wife Jihan Rashid told AFP. [Continue reading…]

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Egypt turns to France for weapons with U.S. still wary of delivering military aid

Vice News: Speaking at a political conference Sunday in Cairo, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi unveiled a $1.31 billion budget for counterterrorism efforts in the eastern Sinai Peninsula, an area that has repeatedly been hit by militant attacks. Addressing politicians in the Egyptian capital, Sisi announced he is looking to France to supply Egypt with much-needed modern military equipment.

The US halted the delivery of 20 F-16 fighter jets, 125 M1-A1 battle tank kits, and 20 Harpoon cruise missiles to Egypt following the 2013 coup that ousted former President Mohammed Morsi, but 10 Apache helicopters included in the original deal were reportedly delivered last month. The US also suspended a portion of the $1.3 billion worth economic and military aid delivered annually to Egypt, though the withheld funds were released last June after Congress passed a law that requires the Egyptian government to take steps to improve human rights conditions in order to receive the aid.

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Peter Greste is free but Egypt’s journalists remain muzzled

Wadah Khanfar writes: Peter Greste, of the al-Jazeera English television network, has been released after 400 days of detention in Egyptian prisons. I am delighted. The detention of the three al-Jazeera journalists is a blatant example of the deterioration of press freedom in the country.

They were arrested while conducting their professional duties, but the court imprisoned them for allegedly spreading lies and distorted the image of Egypt.

Our happiness following the news of Greste’s release, however, remains incomplete. The other two journalists are still in detention. It has been reported that Mohamed Fahmy, who has dual nationality, has been asked to denounce his Egyptian citizenship so he may be deported to Canada; the third journalist, Baher Mohamed, has no foreign nationality and has still been given no prospect of release.

The court’s discrimination in dealing with him was evident from the very beginning. While his two colleagues were sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment each, the court singled Mohamed out for 10 years. In fact, the detention of Egyptian journalists has now become customary – in a climate of repression and restrictions that did not exist even during the era of the former dictator Hosni Mubarak. [Continue reading…]

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Egypt court bans Hamas’ armed wing, designates as ‘terrorist organisation’

Middle East Eye: Palestinian faction Hamas on Saturday slammed a decision by an Egyptian court to designate its military arm, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, a “terrorist organisation”.

“This is a dangerous decision that only serves the best interests of Israel,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told the Anadolu Agency.

He described the court verdict as “politically motivated”, reiterating that his movement does not interfere in Egypt’s internal affairs.

Earlier on Saturday, an Egyptian court declared the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades a “terrorist organization”.

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Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste deported from Egypt

The Guardian: One of the three al-Jazeera journalists jailed in Egypt, Peter Greste, has landed in Cyprus after being deported from Egypt following 400 days in jail, his brother has told the Guardian.

Mike Greste confirmed that the Australian journalist had arrived in Cyprus and said he would issue a full statement later on. An interior ministry spokesman had earlier confirmed Peter Greste’s deportation under a recently enacted decree.

“A presidential decree has been issued to deport him to continue his punishment period in Australia. The foreign ministry co-ordinated with the Australian embassy and his plane took off at 4.10pm [local time],” he said.

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