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The Middle East, explained

Will Egypt's military council turn into a pumpkin?

If parliament continues to assert its power, the answer is yes, one expert says.
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Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas (R) walks next to Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, head of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, prior to their meeting at the Ministry of Defense headquarters in Cairo on May 30, 2011. (Khalil Hamra-Pool/AFP/Getty Images)

CAIRO, Egypt – Senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Nathan J. Brown, says midnight is approaching for the Egyptian military's "Cinderella story." 

In a piece in Foreign Policy Magazine, the Middle East politics expert writes that unless Egypt's Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), the coterie of generals that seized power during the uprising, "has the appetite for a second coup, or somehow discovers a way to shoehorn in its puppet as president, the constitutional vehicle that gave the military such political authority will soon turn into a pumpkin."

Brown argues that SCAF's timeline to democratic transition was less a nefarious plot than just a complete lack of political vision.

Read more from GlobalPost: Is Egypt's military an "enemy of the internet"? 

Regardless, things are falling into place for parliament to guard its role in choosing the constitutional committee, and for a civilian president to be elected by the end of the May. 

"Critical aspects of Egyptian authoritarianism," Brown writes. "are waning." 


In Egypt, death of Pope raises Coptic fears

Egypt's Coptic Christian minority fear more discrimination in wake of patriarch's death, reports say.
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Pope Shenouda III, head of the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church, leads Christmas mass in Abassiya Cathedral in Cairo on Jan. 6, 2011. (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images)

CAIRO, Egypt – Tens of thousands of Coptic Orthodox Christians streamed into the Abbaseya cathedral in downtown Cairo on Sunday and Monday to grieve for their patriarch, Pope Shenouda II, 88, who died over the weekend after battling a long illness. At least three people were killed in a stampede of mourners on Sunday, state television reported. 

The death of the leader of Egypt's Coptic Christian population comes at a precarious time for the minority group. While they make-up 10 percent of Egypt's population of 80 million, they feel increasingly isolated as Islamists sweep to power in the wake of the uprising that ousted Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, last year. 

While Pope Shenouda, who was appointed in 1971, came under fire for cozying up to the Mubarak regime in the later years of his tenure, he was largely seen as a stalwart protector of the Christian population and campaigned vigorously for Coptic rights. 

From an article in the Seattle Times

"Every Copt is asking the other, 'What are we going to do now? How are we going to survive? Are they going to cleanse us from this country because this wise man is no longer here?' " said Ihab Aziz, president of the Coptic American Friendship Association, who left his home in Washington and returned to Egypt a year ago to fight for the inclusion of Coptic rights in the revolutionary agenda.

During the parliamentary elections last winter, Coptic Christian voters in the Egyptian governorate of Beni Suef said they felt unsafe and did not trust the Islamist politicians they expected to secure the polls (and whom later did).

Read more from GlobalPost: Egypt’s Copts feel discrimination, but many afraid to react

Just two months before, in Oct. 2011, an army crackdown on a largely Coptic Christian protest outside the state television building at Maspero left at least 25 dead. On the heels of a car bomb attack on a church in Alexandria at midnight on New Year's Eve the year before, it was one of the worst sectarian incidents in recent memory. 

“If the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Nour come to power, there will be religious problems,” said Salwa Gaber, an older Christian woman from Beni Suef city. “They will impose an Islamic state, and we don’t want this. When I was growing up, Muslims and Christians were sharing this country. Now there are differences.” 

Check out this set of very moving photos from the cathedral in Cairo over the past several days. 


Israel and Iran: Make memes, not war

Israelis and Iranians take to Facebook to ditch the war rhetoric.
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A Facebook meme inspired by a similar one over the weekend in which ordinary Israelis and Iranians posted pictures imposed with peace slogans. (Facebook)

Over the weekend, groups of Israeli and Iranian netizens decided to ditch their respective governments' war rhetoric and kick-off an internet love-in instead.

The result was a series of both genuine and cynically humorous memes imposed with the slogans "Iranians we <3 (love) you" and "Israeli people, we <3 (love) you", and that took Facebook by storm. 

Dimi Reider, an Israeli journalist, writes at blog-based web magazine, +972

The couple told “The Marker” they had received hundreds of private messages from Iranians saying they were deeply moved by the campaign.
So what does it all mean? Quite simply, that neither party has any appetite for a war right now. 

Read more from GlobalPost: Netanyahu's AIPAC speech: Israel determined to stop nuclear Iran (VIDEO)

Inevitably, cats were thrown into the mix. This meme, posted (perhaps not originally) here by a Facebook user whose profile says he is a former Tel Aviv University student, reads: "Israeli cats we love you. Persian cats against war." 

Worth the look. 


US to resume military aid to Egypt: report

According to a report today in the New York Times, the US will resume military aid to Egypt despite concerns.
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US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is greeted by Egypt's defacto leader, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi in Cairo last year. A report today says the US is ready to resume military aid to Egypt. (AMR NABIL/AFP/Getty Images)

The New York Times reports

"To restart the aid, which has been a cornerstone of American relations with Egypt for more than three decades, the administration plans on sidestepping a new Congressional requirement that for the first time directly links military assistance to the protection of basic freedoms.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is expected to waive the requirement on national security grounds as soon as early next week, according to administration and Congressional officials."

What's more: 

"....the United States has budgeted $250 million for economic and political programs, including those targeted by the Egyptian courts."

The State Department is required to certify that Egypt is honoring the US-brokered peace treaty for any financial or military assistance to go through.

More from GlobalPost: Congress: NGO chiefs testify on Egypt aid (VIDEO)

Earlier this week, Egypt’s parliament voted to expel Israel's ambassador in Cairo, dubbing the Jewish state Egypt's "number one enemy," the Associated Press reported.  

The move was largely, symbolic, however. At present, such decisions remain in the hands of Egypt's ruling military council. 

More from GlobalPost: Is the Egypt-Israel peace treaty at risk?


Amnesty: US says military cargo not headed for Egypt

A new statement from Amnesty International cites US officials as saying ship carrying military cargo are not headed to Egypt.

CAIRO, Egypt – A Dutch ship laden with US military cargo will not dock at an Egyptian port, US authorities told Amnesty International yesterday, following a statement from the rights group slamming the shipment of weapons to a regime that would likely use the cargo "for serious violations of human rights." 

Amnesty International yesterday released a statement condemning the "ship of shame" it said was headed from a US military port to the Egyptian city of Port Said. Egyptian security forces often use US-made tear gas and other weapons to crack down on protestors. 

US authorities apparently told Amnesty that while the ship is indeed carrying US military cargo, it is not headed for Egypt. US officials did not disclose the actual destination port, Amnesty said. 

Read more from GlobalPost: Egypt: US sending new shipment of weapons, rights group says

No doubt Amnesty will be tracking the ship to see where it does end up. The US has long supplied Middle East states like Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Yemen with miilitary aid and supplies. 

Read more from GlobalPost: US weapons sales underscore tensions with Iran

In the meantime, Amnesty called on Secretary Hilary Clinton to "stop funding Egypt's weapons purchases with US military aid because there is substantial risk those weapons will be used for serious rights violations."

In today's edition of the New York Times, the paper reports the Obama administration plans to resume military aid to Egypt, siting officials in Washington.


Pelosi in Egypt: NGOs a 'bump' in the road

Former speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, visits Cairo following NGO spat with Egypt government.
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US congressional minority leader Nancy Pelosi meets with Egypt's Islamist Parliament Speaker Saad al-Katatni (R) in Cairo today to discuss the issue of foreign funding for NGOs. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

CAIRO, Egypt – House Minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, is here in Cairo today. Leading a delegation of six Democrat and Republican lawmakers, the former House speaker is on the first official visit to Egypt since US NGO workers charged with receiving illegal foreign funds fled the country two weeks ago.

At a press conference in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, Pelosi called the rift over the US-funded NGOs were a "bump in the road." 

"We don't intend to have it stand in the way," she said, according to the Associated Press

In the midst of the NGO debacle, which saw prominent US organizations like Freedom House and the National Democratic Institute (NDI), US lawmakers hinted they were ready to sever the $1.3 billion in aid to Egypt each year. 

But Pelosi, after having met with Egypt's military ruler, Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, and People's Assembly speaker, Saad Al Katatney, said ties between the two countries were strong.

Read more from GlobalPost: Egypt: Chaotic start to aid worker trial

"The interest of Egypt and the surrounding area, as well as the United States, is well served by a strong and stable Egypt," she said, according to AFP.

The local Arabic-language news outlet, Youm7, reported that Al Katatney, a prominent leader of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, told Pelosi to respect Egypt's sovereignty and refrain from interfering in its political affairs. But that information could not be independently verified nor was it reported anywhere else at the time of this post. 

The Brotherhood and the FJP have waivered in their support for the crackdown on US-funded NGOs in Egypt, at times throwing their weight behind the "NGO law," a regulation forged by ousted President Hosni Mubarak that activists call draconian, but also taking care not to prematurely rankle relations with the US. 

Read more from GlobalPost: For Egypt, little to celebrate after foreign NGO workers are freed

Local press reported this week that FJP parliamentarians are right now drafting their own law on civil society organizations, but it was unclear just how much it would differ from the current law that prohibits outside funding for political activities. 

In February, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but who is not currently a member of parliament, told the GlobalPost FJP lawmakers would revamp the law so that civil society, both local and US-funded would be under less pressure: 

“I believe they [the parliament] will stop the implementation of this law,” said Ahmed El-Nahhas, a member of the FJP’s Supreme Committee in Alexandria.

“Through setting new laws, the parliament will take this legislation out of the current government’s control. The government should monitor the [foreign] funds, but not through force.”


Egypt: US sending new shipment of weapons, rights group says

Amnesty International says the US is sending a new shipment of weapons to Egypt.

Even on the heels of several violent crackdowns on Egyptian protestors by security forces here, the US is again sending a new shipment of weapons to the country's military junta. 

According to a statement today by London-based rights group, Amnesty International, "a ship carrying a cargo of weapons with explosives" is en currently en route from the US to Egypt. 

The ship "must not be allowed to offload because of a substantial risk the weapons will be used by Egyptian security forces to commit human rights violations," Amnesty said today. 

In its statement, the rights group has significant details of the ship's cargo, its departure port and how long its been at sea. According to Amnesty:

On 3 March 2012 the ship left Sunny Point, a military-only port, carrying a class of dangerous goods that covers cartridges for weapons, fuses, and other ammunition. The ship has a cargo capacity of 21,000 tons and 1,100 twenty foot containers. The captain reported the ship’s next destination as Port Said in Egypt.   

Amnesty's head of arms control, Brian Wood, goes on to say:

“This ship of shame should not be allowed to unload its dangerous cargo in Egypt, and there is a substantial risk that this is what it plans to do. There is a clear pattern that weapons from previous ships have recently been used to commit serious human rights violations by the Egyptian security forces, and yet the US is recklessly sending a constant flow of arms to Egypt.” 

In recent clashes between protestors and police in Cairo, demonstrators are quick to pick up spent, US-made tear gas canisters and denounce the US government to local and foreign media. 

Read more from GlobalPost: In Egypt, the police force is up for grabs

In December 2011, workers at the Egyptian commercial port Suez leaked documents revealing a 21-ton shipment of US tear gas to Egypt's Ministry of Interior. 


Gaza: What's behind the recent violence?

This most recent round of bloodshed in Gaza is at the same time rooted in familiar patterns and recent patterns.
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The body of Palestinian boy Ayoub Asaly, killed in the recent round of violence in the Gaza Strip. (MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images)

A truce has been called between Israel and armed Palestinian factions to halt several days of violence in the Gaza Strip. Israel's air assaults on Gaza over the weekend left 25 Palestinians dead, many of them fighters but some of whom were civilians. Palestinian groups fired over 100 rockets, most of them homemade, into Israel.

But who's to blame? (That's always a fun question to ask when discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). 

More from GlobalPost: Israel, Gaza violence escalates as rockets continue to fly (VIDEO)

A few key points should be made about this most recent round of bloodshed, at the same time rooted in both familiar patterns and recent developments, in order to contextualize the events and what will for sure be a next battle. 

The fresh clashes were sparked by an Israeli assassination of a known Palestinian militant by firing a missile at his car from a pilotless drone over Gaza City on Mar. 9, 2012, part a years-old Israeli policy of carrying out so-called 'extrajudicial killings' (without due process) in the Gaza Strip.

Zuhair Al Qaissi was a senior commander of the armed wing of the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), the Nasser Salah Al Din Brigades, and that led the cross-border operation that led to the capture of now-released Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit, in 2006. 

Israel said Al Qaissi had been responsible for planning a brazen Aug. 2011 attack by militants inside Israel and that left 8 Israelis dead – and that he was plotting another like it.

Only serious doubt had since been cast on Israel's previous claim the PRC was behind the the August attack, even by Israeli officials themselves who backtracked on charges of the group's involvement despite having launched a series of air-strikes that left 30 Gazans dead that same month.

During my own time in the Gaza Strip in 2009, I spent a day with a small unit of the Nasser Salah Al Din Brigades in central Gaza to get an idea of their capabilities. They seemed paltry at best. And although the group was revered in Gaza for having snatched Schalit, Hamas (who controls Gaza) prohibited some of the other smaller armed groups from obtaining more sophisticated weapons and operating withou the movement's consent. 

More from GlobalPost: Hamas break with Syria marks seismic change in region

Over the weekend, Hamas refrained entirely from firing rockets at Israel, something it has largely adhered to since a punishing assault on Gaza in 2008-2009 left many Hamas institutions in ruins. 

But the movement undoubtedly maintains a tight grip on the territory – and while since the war it has moved to appear like a responsible, pragmatic and non-violent government, it can still clampdown on any guerrilla operations and seems more than happy to allow the splinter factions and other armed groups fire rockets at Israel in the interim. 

According to news reports, it was Islamic Jihad, yet another Gaza-based armed faction, that negotiated the truce with Israel through Egypt. 


Cairo ranked one of world's least competitive cities

Egypt scores low on yet another global list. Its two largest cities are some of the world's least competitive, the Economist magazine says.
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Crowded, congested Cairo is ranked by the Economist as one of the world's least competitive cities. (KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Number 113 out of 120. Ouch. 

That's the Egyptian capital Cairo's rank in the Economist research unit's 2012 Global City Competitiveness Index, which evaluates the general economic environments of 120 of the world's major cities. 

Alexandria, Egypt's second-largest metropolis on the Mediterranean, clocks in at an embarassing 116. The Iranian capital, Tehran, takes the index's last place – but that hardly seems fair given the berth of economic sanctions on Iran, right? 

The report doesn't elaborate on Cairo's meager rank, but says the index is classified on eight categories of competitiveness, including economic size and growth, business environment, human capital and quality of life. 

Read more from GlobalPost: Cairo 90210?

Anyone who's so much as touched down in Cairo's International Airport would probably say it's not a surprise this massive, urban mecca – poor, polluted and populated – scored so low. 

Bureaucracy and chaos abound. Corruption is a part of daily life. And you can forget about getting anywhere on time if you get snagged into one of the city's epic traffic jams. 

But one thing Cairo's got is longevity. It might be down and out but it's definitely not going anywhere. 

For more on Cairo's urban idosyncracies and what make it so unique, check out the Cairo Observer, a blog on all of Cairo's metropolitan madness – old and new. 


Is Egypt's military an "enemy of the internet"?

A new report by Reporters Without Borders pens a new list of countries deemed "enemies of the internet." Is Egypt one of them?
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Egyptian blogger and activist Alaa Abdel Fattah speaks to the press following his release from the police headquarters in Cairo in December. In a new report, Reporters Without Borders says Egypt is on its way to becoming an "enemy of the internet." (FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)

Not exactly an enemy, but "under surveillance" – or on the brink of achieving enemy status – according to a new report on internet freedom by Reporters Without Borders (RSF - Reporters sans frontières).

The Paris-based press freedom watchdog released the report yesterday to coincide with World Day Against Cyber Censorship, and names Middle East countries Bahrain and Syria as "enemies of the internet," or nations taking decisive steps to stifle web freedom.

(Syria is in the midst of violently quelling an armed uprising and Bahrain, facing continued unrest following a popular revolt last year, is a key all of the US in the Gulf). 

Read more from GlobalPost: Is your country an enemy of the internet?

Egypt, under the stewardship of a conclave of military generals, is alarming the organization with its continued arrest and detention of activist-bloggers charged with insulting the armed forces:

"Untouchable in Egypt, the army still practices the same censorship and intimidation," the report says. The Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), which seized power during Egypt's uprising, has not only adhered to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's censorship tactics but strengthened them, RSF says. 

Several high-profile bloggers have been tried by military courts or held incommunicado since last year.

Both local and foreign journalists also face harassment from police forces, the army and locals while operating in Egypt, often accused of wanting to "paint a bad picture of Egypt" or "incite violence."

With an already rocky – and sometimes violent – transition to miilitary rule, Egypt had better chill out on the web-based repression – or risk becoming the world's next "enemy of the internet."