Middle Eastern & International News (29/1/2011)

More violence feared in Egypt as president refuses to quit

More violence feared in Egypt as president refuses to quit

Jan 29, 2011

CAIRO: In his first response to the unrest sweeping his nation, Egypt’s president fired his Cabinet Saturday and promised reforms but refused to step down, setting the stage for perhaps even heavier street battles with protesters calling for an end to his nearly 30 years in power.

Four days of the largest anti-government protests in decades exploded into chaos hours earlier. Tens of thousands of Egyptians fed up with crushing poverty, unemployment and corruption poured out of mosques after Friday’s noon prayers and battled police with stones and firebombs.

By nightfall, they had burned down and looted the ruling party’s headquarters along the banks of the Nile and set fire to many other buildings, roaming the streets of downtown Cairo in defiance of a night curfew enforced by the army.

President Hosni Mubarak, confronted with the most dire threat to his three decades in power, faced his nation in a televised address at midnight, making vague promises of social reform in what is likely to be interpreted as an attempt to cling to power rather than a genuine pledge solve Egypt’s pressing problems.

He also defended his security forces and accused the protesters of plotting to destabilize Egypt and destroy the legitimacy of his regime, outraging those still in the streets well into the night.

“We want Mubarak to go and instead he is digging in further,” protester Kamal Mohammad said. “He thinks it is calming down the situation but he is just angering people more.”

A heavy police crackdown and other extreme measures by the government — including the shutting down of all Internet and mobile phone services in Cairo and other areas — did not stop the surging crowds. With police beaten back in many places, the government called the army into the streets and imposed a nationwide dusk-to-dawn curfew.

US urges respect for rights

Egypt’s crackdown drew harsh criticism from the Obama administration and even a threat Friday to reduce a $1.5 billion foreign aid program if Washington’s most important Arab ally escalates the use of force.

Stepping up the pressure, President Barack Obama told a news conference he called Mubarak immediately after his TV address and urged the Egyptian leader to take “concrete steps” to expand rights and refrain from violence against protesters.

“The United States will continue to stand up for the rights of the Egyptian people and work with their government in pursuit of a future that is more just, more free and more hopeful,” Obama said.

Throughout Friday, flames rose in cities across Egypt, including Alexandria, Suez, Assiut and Port Said, and security officials said there were protests in 11 of the country’s 28 provinces.

Calling the anti-government protests “part of a bigger plot to shake the stability and destroy legitimacy” of Egypt’s political system, a somber-looking Mubarak said: “We aspire for more democracy, more effort to combat unemployment and poverty and combat corruption.” His promises fell short of the protesters’ demands for him to step down.

“Out, out, out!” protesters chanted in violent, chaotic scenes of battles with riot police and the army — which was sent onto the streets for the first time Friday during the crisis.

Protesters seized the streets of Cairo, battling police with stones and firebombs and burning down the ruling party headquarters. Many defied a 6 p.m. curfew and crowds remained on the streets long after midnight, where buildings and tires were still burning and there was widespread looting.

Victims of violence

At least one protester was killed Friday, bringing the toll for the week to eight. Demonstrators were seen dragging bloodied, unconsciousness protesters to waiting cars and on to hospitals, but no official number of wounded was announced.

Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, a leading pro-democracy advocate, was soaked with a water cannon and briefly trapped inside a mosque after joining the protests.

He was later placed under house arrest.

In the capital, hundreds of young men carted away televisions, fans and stereo equipment looted from the National Democratic Party, near the Egyptian Museum, home of King Tutankhamun’s treasures. Young men formed a human barricade in front of the museum to protect one of Egypt’s most important tourist attractions.

Others around the city looted banks, smashed cars, tore down street signs and pelted armored riot police vehicles with paving stones torn from roadways.

“We are the ones who will bring change,” declared 21-year-old Ahmed Sharif. “If we do nothing, things will get worse. Change must come!” he screamed through a surgical mask he wore to ward off the tear gas.

Travel, communication disrupted

Egypt’s national airline halted flights for at least 12 hours and a Cairo Airport official said some international airlines had canceled flights to the capital, at least overnight. There were long lines at many supermarkets and employees limited bread sales to 10 rolls per person.

Options appeared to be dwindling for Mubarak, an 82-year-old former air force commander who until this week maintained what looked like rock-solid control of the most populous Arab nation and the cultural heart of the region.

The scenes of anarchy along the Nile played out on television and computer screens from Algiers to Riyadh, two weeks to the day after protesters in Tunisia drove out their autocratic president. Images of the protests in Tunisia emboldened Egyptians to take to the streets in demonstrations organized over mobile phone, Facebook and Twitter.

The government cut off the Internet and mobile phone services, but that did not keep tens of thousands of protesters from all walks of life from joining in rallies after Friday prayers. The demonstrators were united in rage against a regime seen as corrupt, abusive and uncaring toward the nearly half of Egypt’s 80 million people who live below the poverty line.

“All these people want to bring down the government.

That’s our basic desire,” said protester Wagdy Syed, 30. “They have no morals, no respect, and no good economic sense.”

Egypt has been one of the United States’ closest allies in the region since President Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel at Camp David in 1977.

Mubarak kept that deal after Sadat’s assassination and has been a close partner of every US president since Jimmy Carter, helping Washington on issues that range from suppressing Islamist violence to counterbalancing the rise of Iran’s anti-American Shiite theocracy.

The Mubarak government boasts about economic achievements: rising GDP and a surging private sector led by a construction boom and vibrant, seemingly recession-proof banks.

But many say the fruits of growth have been funneled almost entirely to a politically connected elite, leaving average Egyptians surrounded by unattainable symbols of wealth as they struggle to find jobs, pay daily bills and find affordable housing.

From all walks of life

The uprising united the economically struggling and the prosperous, the secular and the religious. On Friday, several of the policemen even stripped off their uniforms and badges and joined the demonstrators.

The crowd included Christian men with key rings with crosses swinging from their pockets and young men dressed in fast-food restaurant uniforms. Women dressed in black veils and wide, flowing robes followed women with expensive hairdos, tight jeans and American sneakers.

In downtown Cairo, people on balconies tossed cans of Pepsi and bottles of water to protesters on the streets below to douse their eyes, as well as onions and lemons to sniff, to cut the sting of the tear gas.

Junior lawmakers in the ruling party phoned in to national Egyptian TV appealing for calm in the city.

Some of the most serious violence Friday was in Suez, where protesters seized weapons stored in a police station and asked the policemen inside to leave the building before they burned it down. They also set ablaze about 20 police trucks parked nearby. Demonstrators exchanged fire with policemen trying to stop them from storming another police station and one protester was killed in the gun battle.

In Assiut in southern Egypt, several thousand demonstrators clashed with police that set upon them with batons and sticks, chasing them through side streets.

Mubarak has not said yet whether he will stand for another six-year term as president in elections this year. He has never appointed a deputy and is thought to be grooming his son Gamal to succeed him despite popular opposition.

According to leaked US memos, hereditary succession also does not meet with the approval of the powerful military.

Miqati Promises to Form All-Party Government: Hariri's Demands Not Tough

Prime Minister-designate Najib Miqati on Friday wrapped up two days of consultations with the various parliamentary blocs as part of efforts to form a new Lebanon government.

Miqati said there are two opposing views – one that is requesting commitments and one is seeking the opposite.

"Our role here is to reconcile the two views," Miqati told reporters at the end of consultations in Parliament.

He said there is "more common ground than points of disagreement," stressing that these differences could be solved through dialogue.

In response to a question on demands placed by outgoing PM Saad Hariri's Al-Mustaqbal Movement, Miqati said the demands are not tough.

Hariri's demands are "not impossible to meet," he believed, stressing that he is seeking to form a government that includes the various political parties.

Local media on Friday said Miqati is likely to form a government of technocrats or a "single color" Cabinet as chances that March 14 forces will join the new government looked slim after the coalition voiced suspicions over the Hizbullah-led March 8 alliance's intentions vis-à-vis the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL).

Miqati has stressed that options were still open as to whether the government would be made up exclusively of technocrats, or a mix between technocrats and politicians.

He said Hizbullah would take part in a Cabinet in which political parties are represented.

Caretaker State Minister Jean Oghassabian on Friday said there is a good chance that March 14 would not join the Miqati-led Cabinet "since we believe that March 8 has an intention to abolish the tribunal, while we believe the STL is a necessity."

Sources also ruled out the possibility of Miqati forming an expanded 30-member government, saying the business tycoon prefers to work with small groups.

An-Nahar newspaper on Friday quoted March 8 sources as saying Miqati's new Cabinet is likely to be made up of at least 24 ministers.

Kuwaiti NA okays Amiri grant, free food

January 27, 2011

KUWAIT: The National Assembly yesterday unanimously approved a draft law calling to grant Kuwaiti citizens cash and free food for 14 months at a total cost of KD1.405 billion on the occasion of national celebrations. All 53 MPs present in the session voted for the law although several MPs urged the government to contain an expected rise in prices after paying the money. The Assembly overcame protests by the opposition early in the day for a decision taken on Tuesday to postpone all assembly sessions until early March during the celebrations of national occasions.

Opposition MPs unsuccessfully tried to pass a proposal calling to convene the assembly on February 8 and 9 in order to debate the grilling against the interior minister over the death of a Kuwaiti citizen at a police station as a result of excessive torture. The assembly also adjourned the session without being able to discuss the probe report on the death of the Kuwaiti citizen as time was completely consumed in debating other issues.

As a result, MP Mussallam Al-Barrak said the opposition will hold a series of gatherings at the diwaniyas of MPs to highlight the rule of the government in preventing holding assembly sessions and wasting the assembly time. Several opposition MPs have already said the decision was primarily taken to delay the grilling of Interior Minister Sheikh Jaber Al-Khaled Al-Sabah over his alleged responsibility for the death of Kuwaiti citizen Mohammad Ghazzain Al-Maimouni Al-Mutairi.

Now the grilling is due to take place on March 8. The grant legislation stipulates that each Kuwaiti citizen born until February 1, 2011 will be paid a cash grant of KD1,000. This will cost KD1.15 billion as the number of Kuwaitis now stands at 1.150 million. The law also stipulates providing all families holders of ration cards who include Kuwaitis, Gulf citizens and Bedouns in the army, with free distribution of essential food products starting from February 1 to March 31, 2012.

The grant, the largest ever in Kuwait's history, was given to mark the occasion of Kuwait's golden jubilee of independence, 20 years for the Liberation of Kuwait from seven months of Iraqi occupation and the fifth anniversary of HH the Amir's ascendance to power. Before approving the law, many MPs thanked HH the Amir for this generous grant, but urged the government to take all necessary measures to stop merchants from artificially raising prices.

However, a number of MPs said that prices of some items have already been increased after announcing the grant. MP Maassouma Al-Mubarak said that the price of certain mobile phones has been increased by 30 percent. MP Saleh Ashour said that the prices of certain food products have increased by 35 percent during the past few months and called for stern government action.

Commerce and Industry Minister Ahmad Al-Haroun said the government will not allow merchants to exploit the grant to raise prices, adding the ministry has the manpower to do that. He said that prices of main items will be announced by Kuwait TV every day to make sure they are not raised without justification.

The assembly also approved a draft law to increase the salaries of servicemen in the army, the police force and the National Guards at an estimated cost of KD300 million. The assembly also approved an amendment to the foreign residence law to allow Kuwaiti women to sponsor their foreign husbands and their children provided they do not have a residence permit on other sponsors.

Libya launches development fund

The Libyan Economy Ministry on Wednesday (January 26th) unveiled a 14 billion euro investment and development fund, ANSAmed reported. The fund will sponsor new home construction projects, mortgage lending and a healthcare insurance programme.

Iran Hangs Iranian-Dutch Woman for Drug Smuggling

Iran on Saturday hanged an Iranian-Dutch woman, Zahra Bahrami, after she was found guilty of selling and possessing drugs, the Tehran prosecutor's office said on its website.

"A drug trafficker named Zahra Bahrami, daughter of Ali, was hanged early on Saturday morning after she was convicted of selling and possessing drugs," the prosecutor's office said.

Bahrami, a 46-year-old Iranian-born naturalized Dutch citizen, was reportedly arrested in December 2009 after joining a protest against the government while visiting relatives in the Islamic republic.

The prosecutor's office confirmed on Saturday that she had been arrested for "security crimes."

But elaborating on her alleged drug smuggling, the office said Bahrami had used her Dutch connections to smuggle narcotics into Iran.

"The convict, a member of an international drug gang, smuggled cocaine to Iran using her Dutch connections and had twice shipped and distributed cocaine inside the country," it said.

During a search of her house, authorities found 450 grams of cocaine and 420 grams of opium, the office said, adding that investigations revealed she had sold 150 grams of cocaine in Iran.

"The revolutionary court sentenced her to death for possessing 450 grams of cocaine and participating in the selling of 150 grams of cocaine," the prosecutor's office said.

The Netherlands had been seeking details about Bahrami's case and had accused the Iranian authorities of refusing the Dutch embassy access to the prisoner because they did not recognize her dual nationality.

On January 5, Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal expressed "extreme concern" about Bahrami, and said that he had "asked the Iranian authorities to provide immediate clarification" about her case.

"We insist on information, the possibility to provide her with consular assistance, and a fair course of justice," Rosenthal said in a statement at the time.

Dutch broadcaster Radio Netherlands Worldwide, quoting Bahrami's daughter Banafsheh Najebpour, had also reported earlier this month that Bahrami was awaiting trial in a second capital case in which she was accused of membership of an armed opposition group.(AFP)

Bkirki, Al-Ahbash Deny News about Bomb Threat against Catholic School

Both the seat of the Maronite church and the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects, aka Al-Ahbash, denied on Friday reports about a bomb threat against a Catholic school in Lebanon.

Bkirki's secretariat said in a statement that reports about the threat were not true.

"The patriarchate never received such a phone call," the statement said.

For its part, Al-Ahbash group issued a statement in which it said "some people distributed an SMS saying (Maronite) Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir received a phone call from Al-Ahbash that involved a threat to bomb a Catholic school on Monday at 1:00 p.m."

"This is a suspicious, malicious and false message that is aimed at stirring fear, panic and sedition," the statement added.

"Those behind this message could be parties plotting to execute terrorist operations and attribute them to others," Al-Ahbash warned.


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