#EgyPresElex: The Centre vs. the Oldest Game in Town

It’s easy to say in hindsight but there should not be any surprise that Mohammed Mursi and Ahmed Shafiq have come on top – by fair means or foul – in the first round of voting in Egypt’s presidential elections. The reason is that The State vs Muslim Brotherhood has been the only game in town for years, in the sense that it is these two institutions that use institutional power to generate political campaigns and garner votes. Continue reading #EgyPresElex: The Centre vs. the Oldest Game in Town

Cairo Topography and Remains of a Revolution

Women push in to vote in Imbaba, despite a '5-at-a-time' rule

Since this election has been one of the great guessing games of the age, I only spent the first of the two days of voting plodding the streets and stalking voters as they came in and out of schools. For what it’s worth – and I know that isn’t much – most people I spoke to in the Cairo district of Imbaba were with “new order” candidates: Sabahi, Abu al-Futuh, Mursi. Sabahi was roundly cited as an honourable, decent person; one 22-year-old woman said Abu al-Futuh had lost support because of more awareness spreading of his role in forming al-Gama’a al-Islamiya; Mursi supporters were thin on the ground until they suddenly turned up in herds – that Brotherhood machine getting to work. Around the Imbaba church that was attacked last year, Copts said they supported Moussa but many others they knew were with Shafik. I wondered if they were dissembling in front of reporters or Egyptians, saying Moussa because his name was more acceptable in polite company. However, this guy Wa’il did say: “None of them are good, but Moussa the least bad of them all. The important thing is that an Islamist doesn’t win. I feel that they do not have good intentions for Copts.” Continue reading Cairo Topography and Remains of a Revolution

Eyes Wide Shut: Egypt on the Eve of #EgyPresElex

Walking around Cairo on the eve of the presidential election – the first free one, as media are calling it – and the sense of hope, anxiety and waiting is palpable. The city is of course crammed full of election posters, as it always is at these times. There’s been a lot of talk that Amr Moussa and Ahmed Shafik must have a lot of money behind them because of this or that poster in a prime position, but to be honest the images of all the main candidates are everywhere, so that one minute you see one, the next you see another. The slogans are all catchy. Moussa peers down with gravitas on Mustafa Mahmoud Square in Mohandiseen, exhorting the people that Egypt “is up to the challenge”, but Shafik peers out from ground level warning you with a paternal look, with hints of scorn or menace, or both, that he’s all about “actions, not words”. Continue reading Eyes Wide Shut: Egypt on the Eve of #EgyPresElex

Bahrain rejects autopsy saying dead Shi’ite was tortured

Fri, 18 May 2012 19:12 GMT

By Andrew Hammond

DUBAI, May 18 (Reuters) – Bahrain rejected on Friday an independent medical report that says a Shi’ite man found dead this year was tortured by electric shock, a finding that counters the Gulf Arab state’s claim to have improved its rights record as democracy protests continue.

Bahrain has been under pressure from Western governments to implement rights and others reforms after it tried to crush the protests last year with martial law and bringing Saudi troops.

Activists say five people, all Shi’ites, have died in suspicious circumstances this year.

One of them is Yousef Mowali, 23, whose body was found in January by the sea in northern Bahrain two days after he went missing.

The interior ministry said he had not been in police custody and an official autopsy said he died from drowning.

But Mowali’s family say they were not happy with the way the authorities handled the case at the time. They say a local police station had acknowledged Mowali’s presence to them, and the body showed signs of abuse when they were allowed to see it.

The family’s lawyer this week handed public prosecutors an independent autopsy carried out by the Denmark-based International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) after Mowali’s body was released for burial in January.

It said Mowali was likely unconscious when he drowned and there were signs of abuse, including wounds that lab tests carried out on samples taken to Istanbul suggested were caused by electric torture.

“The idea that the death was the result of unconsciousness due to electrocution is only an assumption and the report did not take into consideration some factors like the presence of prescription medication for schizophrenia,” a statement on the state news agency BNA said on Friday, citing the public prosecution office.

It said the prosecutors want to speak to the Turkish doctor who entered Bahrain in January on a tourist visa to carry out the IRCT report to question her about the findings of a second autopsy which did not have official approval.

“Our concern right now is to understand the discrepancy between these two reports and make sure the truth prevails,” BNA said in its English version of the report, suggesting charges could be pressed for conducting an unlicenced medical exam.

Mowali’s family says he was a quiet and apolitical youth, who suffered from schizophrenia and lived with his family.

“I was hoping for a response that would take the matter more seriously. It’s more of a media and political statement,” the family’s lawyer, Nawaf al-Sayed, said.

“For the family it’s not a game with a winner and loser. They lost their son and would like to see justice.”

Bahrain remains in turmoil with weekly mass protests and clashes between riot police and Shi’ite youths who complain of political and economic marginalisation, charges the government denies. The ruling Al Khalifa family has so far rejected opposition calls for an elected government.

The body of a protester was found dead, riddled with birdshot wounds, on the rooftop of a farm last month, the morning after he was involved in clashes with riot police.

Analysis: Saudi Gulf union plan stumbles as wary leaders seek detail

By Andrew Hammond

DUBAI | Thu May 17, 2012 11:46am EDT

(Reuters) – Saudi Arabia’s thrust for a Gulf Union, driven by fear of Arab Spring contagion and spreading Iranian influence, has stumbled on misgivings among smaller neighbors about a loss of sovereignty and increasing domination by Riyadh.

Gulf diplomats, officials and analysts expressed surprise that Saudi Arabia had opened itself up to such a public setback.

The union proposal, initially designed to contain Shi’ite Muslim dissent in Bahrain and counter the growing sway of Shi’ite Iran, surprised Gulf Arab leaders when King Abdullah first unveiled it at a summit in December. Rather than fade away, it acquired momentum when a Saudi minister outlined plans for shared foreign and defense policy last month.

Yet when the meetings ended on Monday, there was little hiding the fact that some leaders in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) had put the brakes on the project, if not shot it down entirely.

“These things need to be looked at in depth,” said Ghanem al-Najjar, professor of political science at Kuwait University.

“You don’t just decide that you will have unity, by trying to create some sort of unified body against Iran and to handle the development created by the Arab uprisings,” he said, referring to street revolts that have toppled several dictators since early 2011 and have rattled GCC member Bahrain’s monarchy.

It will “take time” to get all Gulf countries on board, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told reporters after the GCC summit, explaining that Gulf leaders wanted to know “details and details of the details” of how Saudi Arabia imagined a “union” bringing them closer than they are now.

He even stated baldly that there was “no step to have a special relationship between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia” – despite fanfare to the contrary in pro-government Bahraini media – while admitting both leaderships would welcome a closer association.

“They had no idea really what they wanted the union to look like, then they came on Sunday to try to work things out and couldn’t agree. By Sunday night there were strong rumors it wasn’t going well,” said a Qatar-based analyst familiar with the talks. Saudi officials were angry and disappointed, he said.

People with access to the room where the leaders met noted few smiling faces, in contrast to most such events, and even sensed anger among some of them.

Revealingly, heads of state from Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) did not attend the summit, which brought leaders from the other three member states – Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait.

OMAN, UAE, KUWAIT OBJECTIONS

The Saudis envisage close economic, political and military coordination and a new decision-making body based in Riyadh, replacing the current Secretariat of the 31-year-old GCC.

Reports from officials, diplomats and media suggest that Oman, Kuwait and the UAE mounted the strongest objections to the union proposals, fearing being lorded over by the Saudis as well as difficulties in integrating varying social and political systems. A Saudi spokesman was not available to comment.

“The UAE will not accept a single country taking over a union, so that issue has to be clear,” a UAE official told Reuters, pointing to the UAE’s 2009 withdrawal from a monetary union over Saudi insistence that Riyadh host the central bank.

Asked if he thought the union would eventually happen, the official added: “Let’s just say it will take more time.”

Saudi Arabia is by far the biggest and most powerful state in the group of major, U.S.-aligned oil and gas producers.

Although the six states look similar on the surface – Arab, conservative Muslim and with similar social customs – there are wide differences of tribe, history, sect and geography among them, particularly in Bahrain with its Shi’ite majority, as well as in their degree of openness to Western culture.

Oman, which has long sought to protect its identity deriving in part from a distinctive Indian Ocean coast and maritime tradition, said as early as 2006 that it would not join the as-yet unrealized single currency project.

“The UAE may not be as keen on a stronger union because they may worry about Saudi Arabia being dominant within that,” a Western diplomat said.

MISSILE SHIELD DISPUTE

Dubai-based defense analyst Theodore Karasik said the UAE was also concerned that rushing into a Gulf Union could endanger progress already made in delicate defense negotiations.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia are arguing over where to locate the central command of a Gulf missile shield that the United States has pushed them on as the best means of defense against Iran, but they are reticent about sharing data.

“A GCC military technical committee has been working on a shared anti-ballistic missile plan for the last few years and now there’s a debate about where it should be based – the UAE or Saudi,” Karasik said.

Kuwaiti parliament speaker Ahmed al-Saadoun said equal levels of political openness in each country should precede a closer political compact. Saudi Arabia has no elected parliament, while Kuwait has the most lively political culture.

“Freedom of expression and the right of popular participation in decision-making…, we hope (that) will be achieved in all GCC states shortly so the union can be established,” Saadoun said on Twitter.

“Leaders of Kuwait, Qatar, UAE and Oman expressed concern about a loss of identity of individual states and pointed to differences in law between the countries,” the Kuwaiti daily al-Qabas commented. “A lot of GCC decisions have still not been implemented. It would be better to get these done first.”

Even the rise of Iran over the past decade and the Arab Spring uprisings have failed to put all GCC six on the same page, while lingering border disputes have often marred ties among states where personalized, dynastic rule is the norm.

While Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE want a strong policy to stem Iranian influence in the region, Qatar and Oman have hedged their bets by nurturing good relations with Tehran.

BAHRAINI ENTHUSIASM

The only country to wholeheartedly welcome the fast track to Gulf Union appears to have been Bahrain, where many see the proposal as a way of crushing an uprising led by majority Shi’ite Muslims who they believe have backing from Iran.

“I believe the union between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain will happen 100 percent, with maybe the others coming afterwards,” said Anwar Eshki, a Saudi analyst and ex-adviser to the cabinet.

Bahrain, whose economy relies on oil from a field shared with Saudi Arabia, allowed Riyadh to send in Saudi troops in an initial attempt to suppress the protests last year.

But the turmoil has revived, economic growth has been cut in half and a sense of crisis pervades an island state increasingly divided by sect where hardliners on both sides gain ground.

Iran has strongly objected to the Saudi move to formalize its influence over Bahrain, with parliamentarians saying it would deepen divisions on the island and speaker Ali Larijani even suggesting it should be Iran that Bahrain integrates with.

Nabeel al-Hamer, media adviser to Bahrain’s King Hamad, tried to reassure supporters afterwards, promising a Riyadh summit in coming months to sign a unity charter including Qatar.

Bahrain’s opposition movement dismissed the entire project as just the latest maneuver by aloof, entrenched rulers to put off the day when they cede powers to an elected government.

“This is an attempt to escape a political resolution by putting Bahrain under the hegemony of Saudi Arabia, which wants to show it is the big power in the region,” said political activist Abdulnabi Al-Ekri. “I think it will be a failure.”

(Reporting by Andrew Hammond, Sylvia Westall, Angus McDowall, Amena Bakr, Regan Doherty and Raissa Kasolowsky; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Mark Heinrich)

Gulf leaders expected to announce unity plan

By Andrew Hammond and Angus McDowall

DUBAI/RIYADH, May 13 (Reuters) – Gulf Arab leaders meeting
on Monday are expected to announce closer political union,
starting with two or three countries including Saudi Arabia and
Bahrain, a government minister in Bahrain said.

Saudi Arabia and Bahrain might initially seek closer union,
local newspapers have reported, as both countries have accused
Shi’ite giant Iran of fomenting discontent among Shi’ite Muslims
against the Sunni dynasties that rule in both nations.

Tehran denies the charges.

“I expect there will be an announcement of two or three
countries. We can’t be sure but I have a strong expectation,”
Samira Rajab, minister of state for information affairs, said on
Sunday.

“Sovereignty will remain with each of the countries and they
would remain as U.N. members but they would unite in decisions
regarding foreign relations, security, military and economy.”

The leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which
also includes Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman,
meet in Riyadh as they grow increasingly concerned over Iran and
al Qaeda after the Arab uprisings.

The protest of majority Shi’ite Muslims in Bahrain against
the monarchy that is allied with the United States has not gone
away after a year.

Saudi security forces entered Bahrain in March 2011 before a
crackdown on the revolt, which Riyadh fears has the potential to
spill over into Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ite-populated Eastern
Province region, where major Saudi oilfields are located. The
Saudis also accuse Tehran of instigating protests among their
Shi’ite minority.

Bahrain’s prime minister, Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who
has close ties to the Saudi ruling family, is already in Riyadh,
where he was quoted as urging closer integration.

“The great dream of the peoples of the region is to see the
day when the borders disappear with a union that creates one
Gulf,” he told Bahrain News Agency.

Gulf leaders also fear the Arab uprisings last year created
more opportunities for al Qaeda to gain a foothold in Yemen,
where the discovery of another alleged bomb plot was revealed
last week.

Rajab said, however, that there were reservations among some
GCC members over the idea of a closer union, and that it was too
early to say if any agreement taken among Gulf leaders would
require a referendum in Bahrain or not.

Some members of the GCC fear a closer union might grant too
much sway to the body’s largest member, Saudi Arabia.

Jamal Fakhro, the deputy head of Bahrain’s appointed upper
house of parliament, said he thought an announcement of
Saudi-Bahraini unity unlikely now.

“It will be on the agenda and I think there might be an
effort to say that kings and rulers support unity of the GCC
countries, but no (formal) announcement,” he said.

“It will not be an easy achievement to have one foreign
policy between six countries unless it’s limited to specific
issues,” he added.

Bahrain “to get tougher” on protest as talks stop

May 08, 2012|Andrew Hammond | Reuters

DUBAI (Reuters) – Bahrain vowed on Tuesday to crack down harder on anti-government protests as a leading opposition figure said the government had put a stop to talks on addressing the political grievances that fuelled last year’s pro-democracy uprising.

Bahraini media have reported a new security plan to “restore order” to the Sunni-ruled Gulf monarchy and, in recent days, authorities have detained a leading activist and warned a top Shi’ite cleric to stop alleged incitement to violence.

The moves coincide with a Saudi push for a Gulf union, likely to be discussed at a May 14 summit of Gulf leaders in Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia, already heavily influential in the smaller fellow-Sunni monarchy, is keen to see Bahrain stem the upsurge of Shi’ite and Islamist resentment that was a large part of last year’s uprising, and sent troops to help quell the revolt.

Bahraini government spokesman Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Mubarak Al Khalifa told Reuters: “Because of the escalation in violence, we are looking into the perpetrators and people who use print, broadcast and social media to encourage illegal protest and violence around the country.”

“If applying the law means tougher action, then so be it,” he added.

Asked about the dialogue with the opposition, he said opposition parties must first declare they are prepared for talks without preconditions.

“BACK TO SQUARE ONE”

“This escalation is not good for the country, it will take us back to square one,” said Abduljalil Khalil, a senior member of the leading opposition party Wefaq who was involved in meetings this year with royal court minister Khaled bin Ahmed.

“The talks have stopped, so the authorities are really moving to another phase of the security approach,” he said. “I don’t know if it was the hardliners in the family or from outside, but at any rate the outcome now is that everything has stopped.”

A cabinet statement on Sunday warned clerics against incitement to violence, sectarianism, harming the economy and insulting institutions of state.

A government adviser said the comments were directed against Sheikh Isa Qassim, a leading Shi’ite cleric who led a mass protest some 100,000 people in March and in January called on protesters to “crush” policeman who attacked women.

Wefaq’s Khalil said any move against Qassim, such as banning him from preaching, would inflame the Shi’ite opposition and would indicate that government hardliners “really want to burn the country” to maintain the status quo.

Clashes between police and youth protesters in Shi’ite villages have worsened this year.

Last week a parliamentarian announced a new Interior Ministry plan to deal with the protests, though the ministry was not able to respond immediately to a request for details.

Bahrain’s status as a banking and tourism hub is under threat from the continued unrest. Economic growth more than halved in 2011, and even weekend Saudi revelers seeking escape from the kingdom’s strict social controls have dried up.

GRAND PRIX

Tension rose in the run-up to last month’s Formula One Grand Prix, when world media got a close glimpse of protests that the government wants confined to hidden Shi’ite neighborhoods.

“Since Formula One there are around 200 people still held and there have been around 150 people wounded, about 60 of them from birdshot,” said Mohammed al-Maskati, head of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights.

Nabeel Rajab, a key protest leader who heads the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, has been held since Saturday on charges of organizing illegal marches, and prosecutors are weighing further charges of inciting rioting via Twitter.

Rajab’s 140,000 followers on the social media network make him one of the most widely known activists in the Arab world.

The Interior Ministry says 15 policemen have been wounded by three separate homemade bombs within the last month.

Wefaq says riot police attacks on protesters have taken the death toll since the unrest began last year to 81, although the government questions the attribution of many of those deaths.

It says that, since martial law ended last June, only one person has been killed by live fire, from an unknown assailant, and has neither confirmed nor denied opposition allegations that security forces use birdshot pellets on protesters.

Justin Gengler, a researcher on Bahrain based in Qatar, said the government had ditched dialogue in favor of a security crackdown to appease Sunni hardliners and avoid demands by other Sunnis for action on corruption and political reform.

“They do not want Sunnis and Shi’ites at the same table, but they can at least appeal to those Sunnis who want the harsher security response,” he said, noting a recent Sunni call for the veteran prime minister to stand down – a stock Shi’ite demand.

Gengler said Saudi Arabia was pressuring the government to take steps to end the turmoil. “The talk about union is a way to pressure the Bahrainis to get their house in order,” he said.

Bahrain arrests rights activist Nabeel Rajab

By Andrew Hammond and Rania El Gamal | Reuters – Sun, May 6, 2012

DUBAI, May 6 (Reuters) – Bahrain has arrested a prominent

human rights activist and critic of the country’s ruling family,

the Interior Ministry and an activist said on Sunday, as the

authorities escalated a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

Bahrain, which is ruled by a Sunni Muslim monarchy and

hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, has been in turmoil since activists

mainly from the majority Shi’ite community began protests in

February 2011 after successful revolts in Egypt and Tunisia. Continue reading Bahrain arrests rights activist Nabeel Rajab

Bahrain king enacts parliament reforms as protests continue

DUBAI, May 3 (Reuters) – Bahrain’s king ratified
constitutional reforms on Thursday that the government hopes
will help end a year of protests, but the main opposition party
denounced them as inadequate and said the struggle for
democratic reforms would continue.

Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, has been in
turmoil since activists launched protests in February 2011 after
successful popular revolts in Egypt and Tunisia.

The authorities tried to crush the uprising for democratic
reforms with martial law and by bringing in Saudi troops,
accusing majority Shi’ites of cooperating with Iran to change
the system of government.

But more than a year later, unrest persists with weekly mass
rallies by opposition parties and clashes between youth
activists and riot police. Police fired teargas in Jidhafs on
the edge of Manama on Wednesday.

“The door of dialogue is open and national accord is the
goal of all dialogue,” King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa said in a
ceremony broadcast on state television. “We hope at this
important stage that all national forces and groups…will join
in development and reform.”

State tv dubbed the amendments “the consensus of a people”.

The amendments, which boost powers to question and remove
ministers and withdraw confidence in the cabinet, stem from a
national dialogue the king organised after last year’s uprising.

This was his second televised speech this year announcing
the amendments after he appeared in January.

“The amendments have not changed the core of the dispute and
have not ended the crisis. They have not met the people’s hopes
and they have consecrated the constitution of 2002 which gives
the authorities the keys of government,” said Khalil Marzouq, a
senior member of opposition bloc Wefaq, at a news conference.

“There is no way these amendments can reflect popular will.”

The current constitution came after a referendum on
political reforms after King Hamad came to power in 1999. But
the opposition has long accused the government of promulgating a
one-sided constitution with powers that lack popular support.

The opposition want changes that would give the elected
parliament full powers to legislate and form cabinets. At
present the Al Khalifa family dominates government and accuses
the opposition of having a Shi’ite sectarian agenda.

Wefaq says such talk is an excuse to maintain privileges.

The final implementation comes after clashes worsened in
recent weeks in the run-up to Bahrain’s Formula One Grand Prix
on April 20-22. A protester was found dead during the race with
extensive birdshot wounds and fractures, taking the total
casualties since the uprising started to 81, Wefaq says.

Thirty-five, including five security personnel, died by the
time martial law ended last June but others have died since,
many from complications after exposure to tear gas, activists
say. The government disputes those figures and causes of death.

At least 11 policemen were wounded by petrol bombs in April.