Wael Eskandar writes: It is a time in Egypt when it is not welcome to write something serious that addresses serious issues. Everything borders on the ridiculous. Rhetoric has shifted to a medieval or primal state where basic values are being revisited. Is it OK to discard human rights because of the violence of non-state actors? Is it OK for the police to kill innocent civilians in the supposed act of protecting these same people from terrorism? Is it OK that we have a country without fair trials? Most of the time, in the state media, the answer is yes.
There is little public discussion permissible. The majority has made its voice heard: The mass of Egyptians trusts whatever the government does politically, but will continue to ask for economic reform. It’s a little strange that things such as murder, torture and fair trials have become something “political” that only concern the elite. As if it’s forgivable, in the eyes of the masses, that such actions occur in the name of the greater good. What greater good is there other than giving the poor their rights and holding those in power accountable, rather than targeting the innocent?
The argument is that terrorism forces us to take exceptional measures. In reality it’s fear.
The amazing thing about fear is that it makes everything possible. All of a sudden it’s possible to cure AIDS and hepatitis C without scientific research. It’s possible to grow as a nation and be respected without the government respecting democracy or its citizens. It’s possible to condemn some inhumane acts of terror, such as the slaughter of 21 Copts by ISIS in Libya, but not the murder of a thousand people in Rabaa. [Continue reading…]
The Economist: It is hard to gauge the popularity of Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, but most Egyptians seem to approve of their president. The turbulence of recent years, starting with the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and through the chaotic presidency of Muhammad Morsi, who was himself toppled in 2013, has left many longing for order and stability. Mr Sisi, a former general, has provided both. The sense of relief is captured in a catchphrase of pro-government types: “At least we are not Iraq or Syria.”
But at what price? As Mr Sisi has kept Egypt from descending into mayhem, he has unremittingly repressed critics. Several thousand dissidents, both secular and Islamist, have been jailed; at least a thousand were killed. “We don’t have the luxury to fight and feud,” says the president. But his authoritarian habits leave Egypt looking a lot as it did before the Arab spring, when Mr Mubarak, another military man, ruled with an iron first. The repression is even worse now, say many.
The Muslim Brotherhood of Mr Morsi has borne the brunt of the crackdown. Mr Sisi, the power behind the coup, has stripped the Islamist group of power and crushed it, labelling it a terrorist organisation. Hundreds of its supporters have been killed by state-security forces during protests. The politicised judiciary has handed down death sentences (many since commuted) to hundreds more. Mr Morsi got off relatively lightly on April 21st when he received a 20-year sentence for, ironically, inciting the killing of demonstrators in 2012. But he still faces two more capital charges.
Bemoaning the dismal political climate, several opposition parties decided to boycott parliamentary elections that had been scheduled for March. These would have been held in an “environment full of oppression, hatred and vendetta”, said the Building and Development Party, which is Islamist. The liberal Constitution Party criticised the government’s “grave human-rights violations”. The vote was postponed after the law governing it was found to be unconstitutional. Critics say that it was designed to create a parliament in thrall to the president, who continues to rule unchecked. But few think the new law, expected by the end of the year, will be fairer. [Continue reading…]
Reuters: Ousted president Mohamed Mursi once dreamed of creating an “Egyptian renaissance with an Islamic foundation”. That seemed more unreachable than ever on Tuesday after a judge sentenced him to 20 years in jail for violence, kidnapping and torture.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the army chief who ousted Mursi in 2013 after mass protests against his rule, has repeatedly portrayed his Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group which poses an existential threat to Egypt.
That message was well received by many Egyptians whose desire for stability made them turn a blind eye to Sisi’s subsequent crackdown on Mursi, his supporters and other Brotherhood leaders. It was the toughest in Egypt’s history and about 800 protestors died.
In an open letter to President Obama on his 26th birthday, November 16, 2013, Mohamed Soltan wrote from a cell in Cairo’s infamous Tora Prison:
Dear President Obama,
Last week, I underwent a procedure to remove two 13” metal nails that were placed in my left arm to help support and repair the damage sustained from a gunshot wound I suffered at the hands of Egyptian security forces. The bullet that punctured my arm was paid for by our tax dollars. I was forced to undergo this procedure without any anesthesia or sterilization because the Egyptian authorities refused to transfer me to a hospital for proper surgical care.
After the nails penetrated the skin at my elbow from below, and ripped through my shoulder muscle from above. The doctor who performed this procedure is a cellmate. He used pliers and a straight razor in lieu of a scalpel. I laid on a dirty mat as my other cellmates held me down to ensure I did not jolt from the pain and risk permanent loss of feeling and function in that arm. The pain was so excruciating, it felt like my brain could explode at any given point. I was finally given two aspirin pills almost an hour later when the guards found my cellmates screams for help unbearable.
I share these details here because my mind drifted to 2007 as I stared at the ceiling of my cramped cell after surgery. During your first presidential campaign, I was moved by your message. I was so passionate about everything you represented. Finally, “change we can believe in.” I saw you, as many Americans did then, a true civil servant looking to put the disadvantaged first, and to pioneer a new model of governance. I felt I was part of the making of a great chapter in my country’s history. You were someone I wanted to stand behind, someone I wanted to support, so I volunteered and worked for your campaign in Ohio, a crucial swing state. As an O.S.U. student, I went door-to-door, made phone call after phone call, urged people to join the movement that would revolutionize American politics. It was time to go back to a government “for the people, of the people.”
Now as I sit in this crowded cell, I can’t help but ask myself, was I naïve to think you were a departure from the norm? As domestic and foreign policies I disagreed with passed during your terms, I chalked it up to the negative consequence of bipartisanship, but now after months of being held without cause in Egypt’s infamous prisons and so little [regard for] my Americanness, let alone humanity, shown, I am beginning to think I was just another silly, idealistic college kid who believed the world can look a whole lot different, with a leader such as yourself at the head of it.
Your abandonment of me, an American citizen who worked tirelessly towards your election, and a staunch supporter and defender of your presidency, has left a sting in me that is almost as intense as the sharp pain emanating from my recently sliced arm.
Last weekend Soltan was sentenced to life imprisonment:
An Egyptian court on Saturday sentenced an American citizen, Mohamed Soltan, to life imprisonment for supporting an Islamist protest against the military ouster of President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in the summer of 2013.
The presiding judge, Mohammed Nagi Shehata, sentenced more than 35 other defendants in the case to the same penalty and also confirmed death sentences in the same case for about a dozen defendants, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s top spiritual guide, Mohamed Badie, 71, as well as Mr. Soltan’s father, Salah Soltan.
Gehad el-Haddad, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, was also sentenced to life in prison. Members of the Soltan family have said they will appeal the decision, and other defendants are expected to appeal as well.
The verdict is the latest in a long series of similarly harsh sentences handed down at mass trials of dozens or hundreds of defendants accused of participating in violent protests or riots in the aftermath of the military takeover, often based on only police testimony or cursory evidence. Thousands more remain imprisoned without convictions. The sweeping penalties have drawn outraged denunciations from rights groups and milder rebukes from Western diplomats.
But the case of the younger Mr. Soltan, 27, is exceptional because he is an American citizen.
The verdict comes just days after President Obama released hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid for Egypt that had previously been suspended in response to the military takeover and subsequent repression.
The White House released a brief statement:
The United States condemns the life sentence issued today in Egypt against American citizen Mohamed Soltan. We call for Mr. Soltan’s immediate release from prison. We remain deeply concerned about Mr. Soltan’s health, which has suffered during his 20 month-long incarceration. The President is deeply committed to the welfare of all U.S. citizens abroad and we will ensure that Mr. Soltan continues to receive consular support until he can return safely to the United States, per his wishes.
James Traub writes: Saudi Arabia has pulled eight other Arab nations, as well as the United States, into its air war against the Houthis. That war has thus become a prototype of a new form of collective regional action with the United States as a supporting player — precisely what Obama suggested at West Point [last year].
The administration defends the Saudis’ resort to force to stem the tide of the takeover of Yemen: The Houthis had placed Scud missiles on the border, while Iran had begun regular flights to Saada, the Houthi stronghold. But the State Department official I spoke to added that the hostilities would have to end soon in order to limit death and destruction, and to bring the Houthis to a political settlement.
There is, unfortunately, no sign that Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz agrees with that proposition. His apparent plan is to bomb the Houthis into submission. What’s more, the Saudis are new to the game of military intervention, and they seem bent on reproducing America’s worst mistakes. The air war has caused over 500 civilian deaths and an incipient humanitarian disaster; created new opportunities for al Qaeda, which has seized Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth-largest city; and done nothing to hinder the Houthis’ bid to conquer the strategic southern city of Aden. It’s not a very encouraging prototype.
The fight is only two weeks old and perhaps the tide will turn. The more lasting problem is King Salman’s idea of a political solution. Once he’s evicted the Houthis, he plans to restore to power President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was forced to flee Yemen to Saudi Arabia. But it was the Saudis who put Hadi there in the first place; so weak is his writ that his army effectively abandoned him in favor of his widely hated predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Hadi might survive, but only as a Saudi puppet. What’s more, the Houthis are not Iran’s puppets, as the Saudis insist, but a powerful indigenous force whose demands must be accommodated in a power-sharing agreement.
A comparable situation can be seen in Libya, where Egypt has given political and military support to the Tobruk government in its effort to destroy the rival government based in Tripoli. The former is avowedly “moderate,” the other “Islamist,” but these oversimplified terms disguise the reality of different regions, tribes, and ethnic groups vying for control. Again, the only lasting solution would be a political one. Yet right now the greatest obstacle to a cease-fire is the refusal of the Tobruk government to negotiate with the Islamists. The Tobruk prime minister, Abdullah al-Thinni, has demanded that the Arabs do in Libya what they’re now doing in Yemen. That would be a catastrophe.
The United States has learned the hard way that it cannot simply prop up governments seen as illegitimate by their own people; that’s why Obama has tried to condition military assistance to Iraq on political reform that offers a significant role to Sunnis. Arab autocrats do not accept this principle. [Continue reading…]
Reuters reports: An Egyptian court sentenced Mohamed Badie, leader of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, and 13 other senior members of the group to death for inciting chaos and violence, and gave a life term to a U.S.-Egyptian citizen for ties to the Brotherhood.
The men were among thousands of people detained after freely elected Islamist president Mohamed Mursi was toppled in 2013 by the military under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is now president.
Sisi describes the Brotherhood as a major security threat. The group says it is committed to peaceful activism and had nothing to do with Islamist militant violence in Egypt since Mursi’s fall following mass protests against his rule.
Egypt’s mass trials of Brotherhood members and people accused of links to the group, as well as its tough crackdown on Islamist and liberal opposition alike, have drawn international criticism of its judicial system and human rights record.
The sentences, pronounced at a televised court session on Saturday, can be appealed before Egypt’s highest civilian court in a process that could take years to reach a final verdict.
U.S.-Egyptian citizen Mohamed Soltan was sentenced to life in jail for supporting the veteran Islamist movement and transmitting false news. He is the son of Brotherhood preacher Salah Soltan, who was among those sentenced to death. [Continue reading…]
BuzzFeed reports: A consensus appears to be building in Riyadh, Cairo, and Islamabad toward inserting ground troops into the conflict in Yemen.
One Egyptian military official told BuzzFeed News the decision had already been made. “Ground forces will enter the war,” the official said on condition of anonymity in order to discuss classified military operations.
The timing of such a move, which would be a significant escalation in the Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen, is still being discussed. But the Egyptian military source said it could happen as soon as “two or three days.”
There has been no official comment from the Egyptian government on sending troops or the size of any potential operation. Youssef al-Sharqawy, Egypt’s Ambassador to Yemen, however, refused to rule out ground troops in an interview with al-Monitor on Tuesday.
Two weeks of Saudi airstrikes have failed to halt the advances of the Huthis, a Zaydi-Shi’a group that has taken over large parts of the country. Saudi Arabia, which sees itself locked in a battle with Iran for control of the region, is portraying the Huthis as an Iranian proxy. [Continue reading…]
Reuters reports: A small but highly dangerous succession of former Egyptian army officers are joining Islamist militant groups, complicating President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s efforts to counter what he calls an existential threat from extremism.
These men are raising the stakes in an insurgency that has killed hundreds of soldiers and police since the army toppled Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in 2013.
They pose a danger to U.S. ally Egypt with their knowledge of the Arab world’s biggest army, provide militants with training and strategic direction, and even carry out suicide bomb attacks against government officials.
Since Mursi was ousted some officers have joined the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM) Islamist group and planned and participated in attacks on the army and other facilities, particularly in the Sinai, said Khalil al-Anani, adjunct professor with the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
“We can’t talk about a mainstream or a large scale defection toward extremism. We are talking about individual cases that could escape and find a safe haven in Sinai. Yet their attacks are fatal and costly.”
As former army chief and head of military intelligence, Sisi is well aware of the Islamist threat from within the military. [Continue reading…]
Jesse Ferris writes: In the spring of 1967, Egypt’s president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, lamented to the U.S. ambassador in Cairo that the war in Yemen had become his “Vietnam.” He subsequently explained to an Egyptian historian how the conflict spiraled out of control: “I sent a company to Yemen and ended up reinforcing it with 70,000 troops.”
Over the course of the five-year war, from 1962 to 1967, Nasser lost more than 10,000 men, squandered billions of dollars, and painted himself into a diplomatic corner from which the only way out was through war with Israel. As Nasser himself would realize by the war’s end, Yemen was to Egypt what Vietnam was to the United States — and what Afghanistan was to the Soviet Union, what Algeria is to France, and what Lebanon is to Israel.
Not surprisingly, the predominant takeaway for Egyptians was “never again.” Never again would they send their boys to fight for a dubious cause on a remote battlefield.
Never again would they waste their modern army to build a nation where there was none. Never again would they set foot in Yemen. [Continue reading…]
Joyce Karam writes: The “free and fair elections” and the “inclusive government” that the Obama administration once called for in Egypt is now part of a long wishful list for the 44th U.S. President in the Middle East. The “rule of law” and the “transition to democracy” did not transpire in Cairo, prompting Washington to reverse its punitive path and resume the military aid to Egypt, being withheld since 2013.
Obama’s reversal this week of his own decision concludes this administration’s failed experiment in Egypt. The Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi joins the club of many Middle East leaders who outmaneuvered Obama and forced a change in U.S. calculus instead of the changing theirs. Sisi did so through a strategy that challenged Obama regionally and on his own turf in Washington, while clamping down on the Muslim Brotherhood, and executing a new power grab.
The full resumption of military aid to Egypt, and this time with no strings attached is an admission that the policy of the last two years fell flat. The U.S. administration is practically meeting all Sisi’s demands without Egypt’s strongman giving an inch, not even promising parliamentary elections or the release of political prisoners. [Continue reading…]
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.
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…]
In Egypt and across much of the Middle East, Mother’s Day is celebrated at the Spring Equinox, which was March 21 this year.
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…]
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…]
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…]
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…]
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.