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Are Egypt's judges independent?

In the midst of a highly-politicized trial of foreign and Egyptian NGO workers, are Egypt's judges free from political meddling?
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Picture showing Faruq Sultan, Chairman of the Supreme Constitutional Court of Egypt, the highest judicial court in Egypt. Whether or not Egypt's judiciary is independent from the executive branch is still a matter of debate. (KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)

CAIRO, Egypt – It’s a crucial question for post-Mubarak Egypt, where an uprising was meant to remake the system as one rooted in the rule of law – and a high-profile case against US-funded NGOs is being touted by ruling military figures as the work of autonomous judiciary.

The level of judicial independence in Egypt has fluctuated over the years, rising enough at some points to spook the Mubarak regime, and dipping so low as to uphold the state’s right to torture.

It’s difficult to argue that any judiciary could maintain its sovereignty when a military junta is at the helm – whether in ruling for or against oppressive practices.

Those at the forefront of the recent campaign to try pro-democracy NGOs like Freedom House, the National Democratic Institute, and the International Republic Institute, have maintained that the public prosecutor is acting on its own, free from political meddling.

Read more from GlobalPost: Egypt: Americans could face jail time... for having maps

But the reported lifting yesterday of a travel ban on the foreigners charged for their involvement with these NGOs by a Cairo appeals court suggests otherwise.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had hinted Tuesday that the US was “moving toward a resolution” of the NGO crisis, which may have included a political and diplomatic deal with Egypt’s ruling generals.

Three of the case’s presiding judges recused themselves from the trial also Tuesday, without giving explanation but amid speculation the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) intervened to halt the prosecution of Americans in an Egyptian court.

Read more from GlobalPost: Egypt: NGO trial judges recuse themselves from case

It’s still unclear whether the judges were unsure of the legal merits of the case or if they objected to political interference on principle. 

One judge not involved in the case, deputy head of the appeals court in Egypt's Ismailia governorate, Ashraf Zahran, said the judges stepped aside because of "the intervention of the authorities in the work of judges." He was speaking on a local popular television program "The Truth." 

Mahmoud Al Sherif, spokesman for the Judges Club, a judicial advocacy group, said the withdrawl of the judges from the case was a "positive" step because "it means that Egypt's judiciary is still independent and resolute on being separate from the executive branch."

But in the prominent Arabist blog, Moroccan-American commentator, Issandr El Amrani, writes:

“…there are signs that Egyptians' reaction will be to think (no matter what they think of the merits of the case) that all the talk about their judicial system being above political influence being total bullshit.”

Nathan Brown of the DC-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recently gave an excellent run-down of the Egyptian judiciary’s battle for independence.

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It's a hard life for a mistaken Al Qaeda militant

On the run for more than a decade, why did Mohammed Ibrahim Makkawi return to Egypt?
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Saif Al-Adel, a suspected terrorist wanted in connection with the 1998 bombings of the United States Embassies Tanzania and Kenya, is shown in a photo released by the FBI October 10, 2001 in Washington, DC. Courtesy FBI/Getty Images. (AFP/Getty Images)

CAIRO, Egypt – On the run for more than a decade, why would Mohammed Ibrahim Makkawi return to Egypt, where he's wanted on charges of conspiracy to commit terrorism? 

Because living a life where you're constantly mistaken for an even more hardline jihadist – Al Qaeda's Adel Al Saif, also Egyptian – is apparently worse than potentially spending the rest of your years in Egyptian prison. 

Makkawi, who was once a member of Egypt's Islamic Jihad and whose name was mistakenly published by the FBI as one of Al Saif's aliases, for years suffered harassment from authorities – even after denouncing Al Qaeda and living as a political refugee in Pakistan. 

Fed up with the trouble, and somehow managing to secure travel documents from the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad, according to CNN, Makkawi decided to hop on a plane to Egypt to clear his name once and for all. 

Of course, he was immediately nabbed at the airport as Al Saif – but Egyptian police quickly changed their tune and confirmed it was in fact Makkawi, a case of mistaken identity. 

Read more from GlobalPost: Al Qaeda "appoints Saif al-Adel" as interim leader

An Egyptian ministry official told GlobalPost he would be referred to the state security prosecutor's office for any legal charges he may face. According to CNN, he is still charged with terrorism and conspiracy to topple the regime. Makkawi fled Egypt to Pakistan in the late 1980s.

But following decades of persecution under Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak – although many of them did commit violent crimes – the Islamists are experiencing a new era in Egyptian politics.

Following the ouster of Mubarak last year, hundreds of Islamist prisoners, violent and non-violent, were released from Egyptian prison (some also escaped). 

Many who had participated in assassinations or attempted assasinations were set free, having rejected the armed struggle. Political Islamist parties just swept Egypt's parliamentary elections and now hold a majority in the people's assembly. 

"I came to Tahrir to lead the way to a good Islamic life," one former Islamic Jihad prisoner, Sheikh Adel Shehato, told me at a protest in Nov. 2011. He was held for 20 years. "We are fighting for bin Laden. There is no armed struggle, but our fight against the Pharonic regimes is on a mental level."

Read more from GlobalPost: Egypt: Policemen use Facebook to protest ban on beards

Makkawi may have been a high-profile arrest, and his militant activities go back to the 1980s. 

But in Egypt's new political climate, with Islamists in the parliament and jihadists in Tahrir, I wouldn't be surprised if the charges are dropped and he's free to go. 

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Egypt: NGO trial judges recuse themselves from case

More controversy in the case against employees of US-funded NGOs as trial judges recuse themselves.
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Egypt started the trial of dozens of democracy activists including Americans on charges of receiving illegal foreign funding, despite Washington's insistence that the charges be dropped. Three of the trial judges resigned on Tuesday. (AFP/Getty Images)

CAIRO, Egypt – In yet another twist in the already convoluted criminal saga surrounding US NGOs in Egypt, the three judges presiding over the trial of 43 NGO employees recused themselves from the case Tuesday night.

Chief judge, Mohammed Shoukry, said they felt "uneasiness" about the case, the Associated Press reports. Their reported skepticism over the merits of the case lends credence to NGO and US government claims that the trial, which began on Feb. 26, 2012 but was abruptly adjourned until Apr. 26, 2012, is legally dubious and political posturing on the part of the current regime. 

Read more from GlobalPost: Cairo court postpones high-profile US NGO trial

The employees and their organizations – including Freedom House, the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) – are charged with receiving illegal foreign funds to carry out political activities. 

In the prosecution's dossier, according to the New York Times, the infamous Minister of Planning and International Cooperation, Fayza Aboul Naga, is said to have tesified that the groups "worked in coordination with the CIA" with the goal of "bringing down the ruling regime in Egypt, no matter what it is." 

The groups and the defendants have denied the charges. 

Also on Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Egypt and the US were "moving toward a resolution" of the NGO debacle. The case has hurt ties between the two countries and put into question over $1 billion in US aid to Egypt. 

Khaled Fahmy, a professor of history at the American University in Cairo (AUC), penned an in-depth piece on the all the forces at work here in local English-language, daily Egypt Independent. 

Here's an excerpt: 

The real target of Abouelnaga’s crusade is not foreign NGOs receiving foreign funding. Her real targets are human rights organizations that have been campaigning to defend basic freedoms before and after the 25 January revolution. The reason is simple: it is human rights organizations, more than official political parties or even the press, which have uncovered cases of police brutality under Mubarak’s dictatorial rule, which have defended helpless victims in numerous cases of outright injustice, and which have raised public awareness of basic and constitutional rights.

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More death in Syria: What can be done?

The death toll is rising fast in Syria. Analysts weigh in on the web.
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The mother of Mohammed Shawi, 15, reacts next to her son's body at a hospital after he was shot by a sniper in Idlib in northwestern Syria earlier this month. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

CAIRO – More than 120 people have been killed today across Syria, including 62 civilians trying to flee a weeks-long assault in Homs, anti-government activists said today

It marks one of the highest daily death tolls so far, and the alleged massacre outside Homs, if true, would mark a grim milestone in the nearly year-long uprising that has taken thousands of lives. 

I must stress that right now, the alleged massacre is still unverified and details remain sketchy – as the level of violence keeping most foreign journalists away – but anti-government activists are saying the victims were males stopped on a bus at a checkpoint outside the Baba Amr area of Homs. They were separated from the women and children, before being killed, the activists said. 

The descriptions conjure up images of the kind of targeted ethnic cleansing that took place in Bosnia in the 1990s. 

So what to make of Syria, at the heart of the Middle East and where conflict threatens to draw in its already volatile and fragile neighbors? (Think: Israel, Iraq, Lebanon). 

This week, where the US met with regional leaders in the Tunisian capital to discuss options for Syria, incuding arming the rebel Free Syria Army, produced a series of excellent pieces on the embattled nation. They don't put forth a magic solution to the Arab Spring's darkest and most foreboding uprising, but they do cut through the clutter.

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Egypt: Reading Orwell in the dock

Egypt began its trial of 43 pro-democracy activists yesterday. In one powerful image, a defendant is captured reading anti-authoritarian author, George Orwell, while waiting in the dock.
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One of fourteen Egyptian activists who worked in Egypt with civil society groups stands inside a cage during their trial in Cairo Sunday. (KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)

It's been a year since Egypt's authoritarian president, Hosni Mubarak, stepped down. But now it is the democracy activists - employees of foreign-funded NGOs - who are on trial for political meddling. 

In a case that is straining Egypt's ties with the US, 43 employees of organizations like the International Republican Institute (IRI), National Democratic Institute (NDI) and Freedom House, are now standing trial for receiving illegal foreign funds to carry out political activities in the post-revolt period. 

After the military seized power as guardians of the people during the popular uprising, the language of the revolution has been turned against the revolutionaries. 

It's fairly appropriate, then, that one of the defendants, Freedom House Egypt director, Nancy Okail, was captured by the European Pressphoto Agency reading George Orwell through the black bars of the cage where the accused stand during trial. 

Orwell is famous for his anti-authoritarian works, Animal Farm and 1984, as commentaries on thought control and government surveillance and propaganda. 

Later on Twitter (the defendants were released without bail until the next hearing), Okail said she had been reading Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, where he writes about his experiences fighting for socialism in the Spanish Civil War

In the book, Orwell is forced to flee Spain when his pro-Stalin Communist allies begin attacking the socialist for failing to toe the line. 

Opposed to the centralized machinations of the Stalinist revolutionary model, Orwell was labeled a pro-regime fascist. 

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In Egypt, reporting raises suspicion of foreigners

Amid heightened xenophobia in Egypt, an otherwise normal government interview is thwarted by spokesman's suspicion of foreign press.
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A picture shows boats on the river Nile as traffic moves along the 6 October bridge in Cairo, Egypt. While reporting for a story on the Nile, I raised suspicion at the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation as a member of the foreign press. (KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)

CAIRO, Egypt – I am currently in the throes of reporting for GlobalPost a series of articles on Egypt's changing relationship with the Nile River, the desert country's primary source of water and which has fed Egyptian civilizations for millennia. 

As part of my reporting, I arranged – through a translator – an interview with the media spokesperson for Egypt's Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, Khaled Waseef, to speak with him about some of the government-run projects to help better manage and conserve the Nile flow that wets the country's farmland.

Outlining the issues I would address in the interview, including Egypt's irrigation systems and urban access to water, my translator also alerted him that I sought more information on new developments with the Nile Basin Initiative, a World Bank-backed framework to coordinate efforts among all Nile Basin states. 

Read more from GlobalPost: Who owns the Nile? 

But upon arriving at Mr. Waseef's office last Thursday, it was clear he was immediately uncomfortable with my presence as a member of the foreign press.

Egypt is undergoing a wave of xenophobia following a heavy state media campaign to paint continued political unrest as the work of foreigners seeking to sow chaos in and destroy the country.

To be accosted on the streets by self-proclaimed "honorable citizens", who often accuse foreigners of spying, is commonplace. (I myself have been detained numerous times by ordinary Egyptians, whom insisted I prove I was not a foreign agent). 

Right now, 43 NGO workers, including 19 Americans, are on trial for receiving foreign funds to "influence" Egypt's political environment.

However, I had yet to experience outright suspicion of my role as a foreign journalist inside a government building and from an official media spokesperson who should, in theory, understand the role of the press and the existence of foreign reporters in Egypt

Several days prior, I witnessed my translator arrange the interview for myself, an American journalist, and state clearly that the GlobalPost was a US-based news outlet – and he agreed.  

But Mr. Waseef, now visibly troubled at the thought of being interviewed, in person, by a foreigner, refused to even start the interview because he had assumed he would be "speaking with an Egyptian journalist," he said, rather abruptly. 

He forcefully demanded a copy of the newspaper through which I am employed (and did not accept the GlobalPost URL as valid), and scoffed at my government-issued press credentials. 

"This information is very sensitive," he said, after I presented the series of questions I planned to ask, mostly on the subject of water conservation. 

"We cannot just give this information to anyone," he said, hinting at my status as a foreign journalist. 

Egypt's control over the Nile is indeed a sensitive subject for the government, and has long been deemed an issue of national security in the event any upstream states – most notably, Ethiopia – decides it wants a greater share of the Nile waters. 

Read more from GlobalPost: Tensions rise over access to the Nile River

But reaching out to government sources to share their expertise and explain the initatives taken to craft sustainable solutions for their own population is key.

Before the current unrest, in 2009, I was able to secure an interview with the deputy minister of housing, who spoke to me at length about how Cairo's informal slums were virtually ticking time bombs from a political perspective.

My questions for Mr. Waseef did not seek to probe any high-level military plans to invade Ethiopia in order to secure the Nile, but rather paint a picture of government efforts to assist local farmers and modernize Egypt's irrigation systems. 

Read more from GlobalPost: Egypt loses a President, and maybe its water

Benign enough, right? Perhaps even positive? Apparently not. 

Even a government-accredited journalist requesting information from an official government spokesman can be spun so as to be part of the grand (although rather ambiguous) plot by "foreign hands" to stymie Egypt. 

Needless to say, the interview did not proceed, leaving the water ministry with less representation than it deserves in a story on the Nile. 

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Egypt: Chaotic start to aid worker trial

A high-profile trial against US-funded NGOs kicks off in Cairo to scenes of mayhem.
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Egyptian minister of international cooperation, Fayza Aboul Naga, has been spearheading the campaign against foreign-funded NGOs in Egypt. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

CAIRO, Egypt -- The first hearing of a politically-charged trial against employees of foreign-funded NGOs kicked-off to scenes of disorder and chaos in a Cairo courthouse today. 

In a packed session that last several hours, members of the press jostled for space while protestors - both for and against the defendants - gathered and chanted outside. 

At one point, the presiding judge left the courtroom because he was so frustrated by the racket. One of the defendants, held in the dock behind a black-steel cage, lit up a cigarette while waiting to enter his plea. 

It is hardly without surprise that the proceedings opened with such mayhem. In a high-profile case that has threatened ties between Egypt and the US, forty-three defendants, 19 of them Americans, are now on trial for their democracy-promotion work with foreign NGOs here. 

US lawmakers have threatened to cut aid to Egypt if the trial continues. 

Only 16 defendants, none of them American, showed up to court today to plead "not guilty" to charges of receiving foreign funding as employees of illegal NGOs (none of the NGOs are officially registered in Egypt, according to the law). The aid workers could receive between six months and five years in prison, depending on their rank, if found guilty. 

Read more from GlobalPost: NGO trial takes aid worker by surprise

Many of the Americans charged are hiding out at the US embassy in Cairo.

As has been the case since the NGOs were raided in Dec. 2011, some of the other charges were unclear. But prosecutors have said the aid workers were seeking to influence the political environment in post-revolution Egypt, in language that resonates with nationalists and those worried about foreign infiltration of Egypt's borders. (They were also apparently incriminated by a couple of maps). 

Prior to the hearing, the aid workers' lawyers said they had yet to see any of the 2,200 pieces of evidence used by prosecutors in the case.

Read more from GlobalPost: Is Egypt's military worse than Mubarak?

Prosecutors charged that all together, the NGOs - which include the International Republican Institute (IRI), National Democratic Institute (NDI), Freedom House and the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) - received $22.9 million in illegal funds. 

The judge released the defendants without bail, and adjourned the trial until April 26. As the session ended, supporters of the defendants chanted "down, down with military rule." 

And the circus continues.

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Hamas break with Syria marks seismic change in region

Hamas has turned against Syria, its longtime patron. Just how important is the move?
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Hamas's Gaza premier Ismail Haniya delivers a speech after Friday prayers in the Al-Azhar grand mosque in Cairo on Feb. 24, 2012 where he hailed the 'heroic' Syrian struggle for democracy. (AFP/Getty Images)

CAIRO, Egypt -- This weekend marked another extraordinary development in Middle East politics, when the leader of Gaza's Islamist Hamas movement declared his opposition to the increasingly isolated Syrian government, the organization's decades-long host and patron as it faced isolation and exile across the region.

The announcement, which came during Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh's sermon at a mosque in Cairo last Friday, solidifes the progressive undoing of a once crucial alliance between the Islamists, Syria and Syria's Iranian-backed regime in the wake of the Arab Spring - and that has profound implications for Palestinians, Egyptians and Israelis alike. 

Read more from GlobalPost: Hamas: Shifting alliances in the Arab Spring? 

"I salute all the nations of the Arab Spring and I salute the heroic people of Syria who are striving for freedom, democracy and reform," Ismail Haniyeh, visiting Egypt from the Gaza Strip, told thousands of Friday worshippers at Cairo's al-Azhar mosque, according to Reuters

Syria is now on the brink of civil war after an 11-month uprising prompted a bloody crackdown by the government of President Bashar Al Assad. Thousands have been killed, and Hamas ditched its offices in Damascus amid growing international criticism of the Syrian regime. 

"We are marching towards Syria, with millions of martyrs," chanted worshippers at al-Azhar, home to one of the Sunni world's highest seats of learning. "No Hezbollah and no Iran. "The Syrian revolution is an Arab revolution."

The popular revolts that began sweeping the Middle East last year - and which continue in Syria, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen - have thrown the region into political and diplomatic disarray, disturbing and scrapping partnerships forged for years under stagnant authoritarian rule. 

In 2007, Egypt enthusiastically participated in Israel's military blockade of Gaza when Hamas seized power there. Its leaders were subject to travel restrictions through Egypt's Rafah crossing with the Gaza Strip, as Egyptian officials grew wary of a Muslim Brotherhood-linked movement on its borders.

Read more from GlobalPost: Egypt breaks its own Gaza blockade 

So the fact that Haniyeh was able to give this speech from one of Egypt's most prominent and influential mosques is remarkable in itself. It suggests the Hamas leader was given guarantees of assistance and perhaps promises of a diplomatic future in Egypt if he turned against his benefactors. 

Syria, one of Israel's regional foes, offered refuge away from potential assassination attempts by Israeli security forces. Iran, also an enemy of Israel, provided cash and weapons to the Islamist fighters. 

In recent days, following a week-long fuel shortage that shut Gaza's power plant, Haniyeh met with Egyptian officials to clinch a new energy deal that would supply Gaza with more electricity and connect the besieged enclave to the regional power grid. 

Egypt maintains shaky relations with Iran, and recently recalled its ambassador to Syria. The Syrian embassy in Cairo is no longer functioning. 

It remains unclear whether Hamas will open a new office in Cairo following its flight from Damascus. 

Regardless, the changes to the old Middle East order are seismic. 

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Do Egyptians support Syria's protestors?

Gallup is out with a new poll measuring Egypt's take on Syria and other Arab uprisings.
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A protester holds a sign reading 'One people' during a demonstration organized by Egyptians and Syrians living in Egypt to call for the expulsion of the Syrian ambassador outside the Syrian embassy in Cairo. (MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)

CAIRO, Egypt -– What do Egyptians think of the efforts of Syria protestors to overthrow President Bashar Al Assad?  

Gallup says it has the answers, with a new US Foreign Policy Opinion Briefing released today. According to the poll, 56 percent of Egyptians say they support current calls to oust Assad in Syria. 

But roughly one-third also said they "don't know" if they support those battling for regime change in Syria. Compare those figures with 79 percent who said they supported the protests to overthrow Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, last year. 

Gallup attributes the uncertainty over Syria to fears of a security vacuum that would destabilize the region should Assad fall. While Egypt has not witnessed the same level of violence as either Syria or Libya in the year since the Arab uprisings began, many Egyptians are alarmed by rising domestic insecurity and street-level crime in the wake of the revolt.

Read more from GlobalPost: Syria: Journalists killed by heavy shelling in Homs

Still, the poll, based on face-to-face interviews with 1,077 adults, aged 15 and older, was conducted from Dec. 16 to 23, 2011.  

At that time, the Syrian conflict had already grown exceptionally violent, but the current crackdown on the flashpoint city of Homs, under heavy bombardment by Assad forces, had yet to begin. 

On Feb. 17, 2012, hundreds of Egyptians and Syrians demonstrated outside the Syrian embassy in Cairo, where the phones are now disconnected with rumors the ambassador has been recalled. 

Find more of the poll's findings here

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Syria: Journalists killed by heavy shelling in Homs

Two foreign journalists and a Syrian reporter killed in Homs amid intensified crackdown.
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LONDON - NOVEMBER 10: Marie Colvin of The Sunday Times, gives the address during a service at St. Bride's Church November 10, 2010 in London, England. The service commemorated journalists, cameramen and support staff who have fallen in the war zones and conflicts of the past decade. (Photo by Arthur Edwards - WPA Pool/Getty Images) (WPA Pool/AFP/Getty Images)
A government-fired mortar volley slammed into a house hosting several foreign journalists covering an bloody crackdown by regime security forces in Homs.
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