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The Middle East, explained

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. 


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. 


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.


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. 


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


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.

Egypt: Policemen use Facebook to protest ban on beards

It might seem silly, but the Facebook debate over policemen's beards reveals a long-held suspicion of Islamists by Egypt's security forces.
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Supporters of the ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak demonstrate outside the police academy, as Mubarak's trial continues on February 16, 2012 in Cairo, Egypt. (Carsten Koall/AFP/Getty Images)

Only in Egypt. Policemen disgruntled over interior ministry restrictions on beard-growing have reportedly started a Facebook page calling for more freedom for their facial hair. 

Some here in Egypt are worried the fresh calls for beards - which are grown to emulate Islam's Prophet Mohammed - are a sign the Islamists have been emboldened after securing a majority in parliament following President Hosni Mubarak's ouster. 

The new Facebook page, titled “I Am a Bearded Police Officer”, was created following the suspension yesterday of one Egyptian policeman who refused to shave.

The page creators say they are 18 policemen "forced by the Interior Ministry to shave every day," which they say is a “violation of the teachings of religion," according to Egypt Independent, a local English-language daily. 

A spokesman for the Salafi Al-Nour party, Nader Bakar, said reprimanding police officer's for going unshaven is against sharia law, and that the Prophet Mohamed and his companions led the world's best armies while bearded, Egypt Independent reported. 

The beard debate might seem silly, but it strikes at the heart of a decades-long controversy over Islamists and Egypt's security forces. 

Dating back to the time of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nassar, the formal Egyptian security apparatus has been highly suspicious or even downright hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists, banning them as activists and jailing their leaders.

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

Allowing the bearded faithful to swell the ranks of the police force probably seems like quite a concession. 

On Monday, the current minister of interior, Mohamed Ibrahim, said he did not feel the police force - widely hated and associated with Mubarak-era corruption - needed to be "purged" of its most tainted officers. 

GlobalPost reported today that "it may be those who end up at the helm of the vast security apparatus nurtured under Mubarak, but which largely withdrew from the streets following his ouster, who become the ultimate powerbrokers of post-revolution Egypt." 

In the meantime, here are some of the world's most famous beards.


Why are the lights out in Gaza? An explainer.

Much of Gaza is in the dark again this week. But who's to blame?
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Palestinian children sit at their home during a power cut at the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City earlier this month. (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images)

The lights are out again in Gaza, the tiny Palestinian enclave ruled by Hamas. But with a partially lifted Israeli blockade and rival factions Hamas and Fatah (somewhat) on the mend, why is the territory's sole power plant still sputtering to a stop? 

There's no simple answer, and tracing the source of Gaza's constant electricity problems is often as difficult as mapping the conflict itself. For years the state of Gaza's power plant, built during the relatively optimistic years following the 1993 Oslo Accords, has been linked with the region's politics. 

This time, Hamas authorities and Gaza residents are blaming the outage - which kicked-in on Feb. 14 and affects everything from people's homes to hospitals and water pumps - on a shortage of black market fuel coming through the underground tunnels from Egypt.

Some reports say Egyptian security forces are clamping down on the movement of smuggled goods in the lawless Sinai region, but the source of the shortage is still unclear.

More from GlobalPost: Fears of humanitarian crisis as Gaza power plant runs out of fuel

Until Jan. 2011, Gaza's power plant ran on industrial-grade fuel imported from Israel, which under the blockade restricted the amount to run just one of the plant's three turbines. 

This, coupled with a dispute with the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) over Gaza's reportedly unpaid electricity bills, prompted the energy authority in Gaza to modify the fuel coming from Egypt so that it could run the power plant without relying on the PA and Israel. (The PA is supposed to use European Union funds to purchase the Israeli fuel for Gaza, but says Gaza's Hamas-run government doesn't do its part to help foot the $13.3 million bill). 

The man who spearheaded the initiative, power plant manager Dirar Abu Sisi, is now in Israeli jail after having been allegedly kidnapped by Israeli security forces from a train in the Ukraine in 2011. 

Crippled by an Israeli air-strike in 2006, following the capture by Palestinian militants of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, much of the rest of the power plant remains in disrepair. Israel still limits the type of items that go into the Gaza Strip, including many construction materials, that it says can be used by militants to make weapons. 

On Monday, Egyptian officials met with Hamas Prime Minister, Ismail Haniya, and reportedly agreed to help temper the crisis by providing more fuel, helping repair the plant, and hooking up the isolated territory to the regional power grid - in a move that would boost Egypt's influence in Gaza. 

Right now, Egypt supplies about 17 megawatts of electricity to Gaza at the cross-border town of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. Israel supplies roughly 120 megawatts through feeder lines at Gaza's north, and the power plant provides another 70 megawatts to Gaza's 1.7 million people. 

It's being reported as a so-called "Gaza energy deal", brokered between Egyptian officials, the PA, and with the involvement of Hamas contacts. 

More from GlobalPost: Hamas said to reject Egyptian fuel offer as Gaza energy crisis deepens

But so far just 300,000 liters of diesel fuel have been transferred to Gaza from Egypt - and through the underground tunnels. The power plant needs 600,000 liters per day. 

“Egyptian officials said we should put an end to this problem and legalize the process and not leave it to the black market and smuggling,” Omar Kittaneh, the head of the Palestinian Energy Authority, told the Associated Press on Monday. “I think the atmosphere of reconciliation made this possible.”

But as the politicians stroke their egos, negotiate, and talk of grand development plans, tonight many Gazans will still be in the dark. 


In Egypt, reactions to the death of Middle East reporter Anthony Shadid

For years, Anthony Shadid called Cairo home. Egyptian activists and journalists react to his death on Twitter.
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A group of journalists, including Tyler Hicks (2nd from right) who was on assignment with Anthony Shadid when he died in Syria Thursday and carried his body out of the country, are pictured March 11, 2011 in Ras Lanuf, Libya, during a pause in the fighting. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images) (John Moore/AFP/Getty Images)

Like much of the rest of the world, Egypt awoke on Friday morning to the tragic news that long-time Middle East-based reporter, Anthony Shadid, had died while on assignment for the New York Times in Syria. 

Shadid, one of the world's most admired and respected journalists, covered a myriad of conflicts across the region for over a decade, but for years he called the Egyptian capital, Cairo, home. 

Read what was one of his latest dispatches from Cairo here.

Journalists, activists, artists and others reacted on Twitter to his untimely death from Egypt. 


Who will be Egypt's next president?

With elections three months away, the race for Egypt's presidency is still up for grabs.
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An Egyptian protester holds a chain as he shouts slogans against ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak outside the police academy in Cairo where his trial is drawing to an end on February 16, 2012. The verdict in the trial of Mubarak will be announced on February 22, presiding judge Ahmed Refaat said. (MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)

Who will have the lucky chance to follow in Mubarak's footsteps and be Egypt's next president? Or... not really. 

Under increasing pressure to handover power, Egypt's military junta has again moved up the country's presidential elections, this time to May. 

But with a posse of mostly uninspiring candidates, a clear frontrunner has yet to emerge.