Inter Press Service » Middle East & North Africa http://www.ipsnews.net Journalism and Communication for Global Change Thu, 17 Apr 2014 07:38:02 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8.3 OP-ED: Egyptian-Saudi Coalition in Defence of Autocracy http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/op-ed-egyptian-saudi-coalition-defence-autocracy/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=op-ed-egyptian-saudi-coalition-defence-autocracy http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/op-ed-egyptian-saudi-coalition-defence-autocracy/#comments Tue, 15 Apr 2014 15:28:37 +0000 Emile Nakhleh http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133684 The Bahraini Arabic language newspaper al-Wasat reported on Wednesday Apr. 9 that a Cairo court began to consider a case brought by an Egyptian lawyer against Qatar accusing it of being soft on terrorism. The “terrorism” charge is of course a euphemism for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab […]

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By Emile Nakhleh
WASHINGTON, Apr 15 2014 (IPS)

The Bahraini Arabic language newspaper al-Wasat reported on Wednesday Apr. 9 that a Cairo court began to consider a case brought by an Egyptian lawyer against Qatar accusing it of being soft on terrorism.

The “terrorism” charge is of course a euphemism for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have designated a “terrorist” organisation and are vowed to dismantle.It’s becoming very clear that dictatorial policies are producing more instability, less security, and greater appeal to terrorism.

The two new partners and the UAE also loathe Qatar for hosting and funding Al-Jazeera satellite TV. The continued incarceration of the Al-Jazeera journalists and dozens of other journalists on trumped up charges is no coincidence.

The court case is symptomatic of the current Saudi-Egyptian relationship in their counter-revolution against the 2011 pro-democracy upheavals that toppled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and his fellow autocrats in Tunisia, Yemen, and Libya.

The pro-autocracy partnership between the Egyptian military junta and the Saudi ruling family goes beyond their opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood and the perceived threat of terrorism. It emanates from the autocrats’ visceral opposition to democracy and human rights, including minority and women’s rights.

What should be most critical to them as they contemplate the future of their coalition of counter-revolutionaries, however, is the growing Western conviction that dictators can no longer provide stability.

The Egyptian Field Marshall and the Saudi potentate also abhor the key demands of the Arab uprisings and reject their peoples’ calls for freedom, dignity, justice, and genuine economic and political reform.

They are equally terrified of the coming end of the authoritarian paradigm, which could bring about their demise or at least force them to share power with their people. The Saudis and their Gulf Arab allies, especially Bahrain and the UAE, are willing to trample on their people’s rights in order to safeguard family tribal rule.

The Saudi-Egyptian partnership is also directed at the Obama administration primarily because of Washington’s diplomatic engagement with Iran.

According to media and Human Rights Watch reports, at least 15,000 secular and Islamist activists are currently being held in Egyptian prisons, without having been charged or convicted. This number includes hundreds of MB leaders and activists and thousands of its supporters.

Many of them, including teenagers, have also been tortured and abused physically and psychologically. These mass arrests and summary trials and convictions of Islamists and liberals alike belie the Saudi-Egyptian claim that theirs is a campaign against terrorism.

A brief history of Egyptian-Saudi relations

Egyptian-Saudi relations in the past 60 years have been erratic, depending on leadership, ideology, and regional and world events. During the Nasser era in the 1950s and ‘60s, relations were very tense because of Saudi fears of Nasser’s Arab nationalist ideology.

The Saudis saw Nasser a nationalist firebrand arousing Arab masses against colonialism and Arab monarchies. He supported national liberation movements and wars of independence against the French in North Africa and the British in the Arab littoral of the Persian Gulf.

The Saudi monarchy viewed Nasser’s call for Arab unity “from the roaring ocean to the rebellious Gulf” as a threat to their survival and declared a war on “secular” Arab nationalism and “atheist” Communism.

They perceived Nasser’s war in Yemen against the tribal monarchy as an existential threat at their door and began to fund and arm the royalists in Yemen against the Egyptian military campaign.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia were the two opposite poles of the “Arab cold war” during the 1950s and ‘60s. Nasser represented emerging Arab republicanism while Saudi Arabia epitomised traditional monarchies. Nasser turned to the Soviet Union; Saudi Arabia turned to the United States.

In the late 1960s, Saudi Arabia declared the proselytisation of its brand of Islam as a cardinal principle of its foreign policy for the purpose of fighting Arab nationalism and Communism.

It’s ironic that Saudi Arabia is currently supporting and funding the military junta in Egypt at a time when the military-turned-civilian presidential shoe-in Sisi is resurrecting the Nasserist brand of politics.

In the next three to five years, the most intriguing analytic question will be whether this partnership would endure and how long the post-2011 generation of Arabs would tolerate a coalition of secular autocracy and a religious theocracy.

Saudi Arabia supported Egyptian President Sadat’s war against Israel in 1973 but broke with him later in that decade after he visited Jerusalem and signed a peace treaty with Israel.

By the early 1980s, however, the two countries re-established close relations because of their common interest in supporting Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war and in pushing for the Saudi-articulated Arab Peace Initiative.

The Saudi King viewed President Hosni Mubarak warmly and was dismayed by his fall. He was particularly incensed by Washington’s seeming precipitous abandonment of Mubarak in January 2011.

The Saudi monarchy applauded General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s removal of President Muhammad Morsi and pumped billions of dollars into the Egyptian treasury. They also indicated they would make up any deficit in case U.S. aid to Egypt is halted.

The Saudis have endorsed Sisi’s decision to run for president of Egypt and adopted similar harsh policies against the Muslim Brotherhood and all political dissent. Several factors seem to push Saudi Arabia closer to Egypt.

The Saudis are concerned about their growing loss of influence and prestige in the region, especially their failure in thwarting the interim nuclear agreement between the P5+1 and Iran. Their policy in Syria is in shambles.

Initially, they encouraged jihadists to go to Syria to fight the Assad regime, but now they cannot control the pro-Al-Qaeda radical Salafi jihadists fighting the Damascus tyrant.

The Saudis also failed in transforming the Gulf Cooperation Council into a more unified structure. Other than Bahrain, almost every other state has balked at the Saudi suggestion, viewing it a power grab.

In an absurd form of retaliation against Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain recalled their ambassadors from that country. The Saudis are engaged in tribal vendettas against their fellow tribal ruling families, which is out of place in a 21st century globalised and well-connected world.

The oil wealth and the regime’s inspired religious fatwas by establishment clerics have a diminishing impact on the younger generation connected to the global new social media.

Despite the heavy-handed crackdown, protests, demonstrations, and confrontations with the security forces are a daily occurrence in Egypt. It’s becoming very clear that dictatorial policies are producing more instability, less security, and greater appeal to terrorism.

It won’t be long before Western governments conclude that autocracy is bad for their moral sensibilities, destructive for business, and threatening for their presence in the region. The Saudi-Egyptian coalition of autocrats will soon be in the crosshairs.

In order to endure, such a coalition must be based on respect for their peoples, a genuine commitment to human rights, and a serious effort to address the “deficits” of liberty, education, and women’s rights that have afflicted Arab society for decades.

Emile Nakhleh, a former Senior Intelligence Service Officer, is a Research Professor at the University of New Mexico, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of “A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World.”

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Iraqi Sunnis Seek a Say http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/iraqi-sunnis-seek-say/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=iraqi-sunnis-seek-say http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/iraqi-sunnis-seek-say/#comments Sat, 12 Apr 2014 09:33:34 +0000 Karlos Zurutuza http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133624 Sunni Muslims have set up a new party amidst uncertainties as to whether elections can be held as scheduled in the troubled western regions of Iraq. Polling for the 328-seat Iraqi parliament is due Apr. 30. Ahead of the scheduled election, tribal, political and religious leaders, and also lawyers, engineers and other professionals,  gathered in Erbil […]

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Members at the inaugural meeting of Karama, a newly founded umbrella party for Iraqi Sunnis. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS.

Members at the inaugural meeting of Karama, a newly founded umbrella party for Iraqi Sunnis. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS.

By Karlos Zurutuza
ERBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan , Apr 12 2014 (IPS)

Sunni Muslims have set up a new party amidst uncertainties as to whether elections can be held as scheduled in the troubled western regions of Iraq. Polling for the 328-seat Iraqi parliament is due Apr. 30.

Ahead of the scheduled election, tribal, political and religious leaders, and also lawyers, engineers and other professionals,  gathered in Erbil in the Kurdistan region of Iraq April 8 to set up a new party, Karama (Dignity).Karama hopes to become an effective political voice for Sunnis, but Jassim cautions that Karama is a project “in the long-term”.

The Sunni Arabs came from several western towns of Iraq, where fighting and unrest have not yet ended, 11 years after former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was toppled.

No bloc is expected to get a majority but Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is the favourite to lead. Shia Arabs are split between the prime minister’s State of Law party, the Sadrist Movement and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

Karama candidate Afifa Agus al-Jumaili says a third consecutive term for Maliki would be “disastrous” for all Iraqis.

“The Sunni provinces of Iraq have turned into a combat zone between tribal militias, Al-Qaeda and Maliki’s Shias,” Jumaili tells IPS. She sees Karama as the “only chance for Sunni Iraqis of all walks of life to get back their rights and dignity.”

Karama is among 276 political entities approved by the Independent High Electoral Commission to contest the election. It’s among several parties looking to win over supporters of the now fragmented secular and Sunni Iraqiya coalition. That coalition won the last elections but was ousted by a Shia coalition, that brought Maliki to power.

The Sunni population is variously estimated to be 20 to 40 percent of Iraq’s population of 32 million. Sunnis have been complaining of increasing marginalisation by the predominantly Shia political leaders.

“The sad irony of all this is that we are forced to gather in the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq because an event like this is simply not feasible in Arab Iraq,” says Jumaili.

Despite their initial opposition to a federal model for the country, Iraqi Sunnis have increasingly been demanding an autonomous region similar to that for the Kurds.

Jumaili is originally from Hawija town 230 km north of Baghdad. Apr. 23 will mark a year since Iraqi special forces killed 51 protesters in this town. At least 215 more were killed in violence that followed.

In its World Report 2014, Human Rights Watch says security forces “responded to peaceful protests with threats, violence, and arrests, using lethal force on demonstrators who had been gathering largely peacefully for five months.” It spoke of “arbitrary and often massive arrests.”

Following the killings, anti-government protests picked up new momentum, particularly in mid-December after several bodyguards of Finance Minister Rafie al-Issawi, the highest-ranking Sunni Arab in the cabinet, were arrested on suspicion of engaging in terrorism.

Sunnis are functionally excluded from government. The few who participate are coopted by Maliki.

The protests for rights and over the deaths has dragged the west of the country into unprecedented chaos since the peak of sectarian violence between 2006 and 2008.

Among the most prominent protesters is Ghanim Alabed, a resident of Mosul town about 400 km northwest of Baghdad.

“Mosul has become a real nightmare over the last year,” Alabed, who has joined Karama, tells IPS. “Car bombs, kidnappings, killing of tribal leaders or simply ordinary civilians are sadly common currency among us, yet again.”

Alabed says most attacks are carried out by “either the army or Shia militias.” He says local journalists are increasingly being targeted. At least 50 journalists have been killed in Mosul alone since 2003.

The U.S. based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) named Iraq the “worst nation” in its 2013 Impunity Index of unsolved journalist murders.

“I cannot set foot in Mosul, Baghdad or any other Arab part of Iraq because I know they will kill me straightaway,” says Alabed, who moved to Erbil with his family a few months ago.

His face is familiar to almost every Iraqi, and not just for his public appearances at many demonstrations. Cartoons portraying him as a terrorist leader have been shown on a government-funded TV channel.

“Americans had labelled all Sunni insurgents ‘Al-Qaeda’ and, today, Maliki still sticks to that line,” says Alabed. “But the truth is that most of us hate Al-Qaeda because we know that they are backed by Iran. Their sole aim is to destroy our society and prevent us from sharing power.”

The proof, he says, is that Islamic extremists hardly ever target Shias in his hometown.

The death toll is increasing by the day. Mera Faris Hassan, a tribal leader from Samarra, 130 km northwest of Baghdad, is mourning the death last week of Sheikh Juma al-Samarrai in his hometown.

Hassan tells IPS a curfew is in force in Samarra. He condemns constant attacks from both the government and unidentified groups.

“Through Karama we will struggle to get rid of policies meant only to justify repression against our people,” says Hassan. “We deserve to get back our legitimate rights as Iraqis.”

The emergency situation extends to virtually every Sunni area in Iraq. But Fallujah, 60 kilometres west of Baghdad, could well be facing the worst of the unrest.

Karama candidate Mohamed Jassim speaks of a mass exodus of civilians from Fallujah to Baghdad and Erbil. The situation in Fallujah, he says, is a “humanitarian catastrophe”.

“Every main road is blocked and the only way in and out is through secondary roads, and often on foot. The outskirts of the city are under the control of armed gangs but it’s difficult to know whether they are Al-Qaeda fighters or tribal militias because most are masked and carry no emblems.

“The biggest threat, though, comes from the constant bombings by the Iraqi air force,” the 44-year-old candidate tells IPS.

Karama hopes to become an effective political voice for Sunnis, but Jassim cautions that Karama is a “long-term” project. At this nascent stage and under the difficult circumstances it is hard to gauge whether Karama can emerge as a Sunni political force to contend with.

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Jordan Faces Looming and Complex Cancer Burden http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/jordan-faces-looming-complex-cancer-burden/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=jordan-faces-looming-complex-cancer-burden http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/jordan-faces-looming-complex-cancer-burden/#comments Thu, 10 Apr 2014 10:23:48 +0000 Elizabeth Whitman http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133472 This story is part two of a three-part series on how social and economic inequalities impact cancer treatment. The third installment examines how Peru's Plan Esperanza is providing comprehensive treatment for cancer patients, especially the poor.

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The King Hussein Cancer Centre, Jordan's premier cancer treatment facility located in Amman, is being expanded to double its capacity as national and regional cancer rates continue to rise. Credit: Elizabeth Whitman/IPS

The King Hussein Cancer Centre, Jordan's premier cancer treatment facility located in Amman, is being expanded to double its capacity as national and regional cancer rates continue to rise. Credit: Elizabeth Whitman/IPS

By Elizabeth Whitman
AMMAN, Apr 10 2014 (IPS)

The concrete skeleton of a twin 13-storey complex towers over surrounding buildings on one of Amman’s busiest streets. The ongoing expansion of the King Hussein Cancer Centre symbolises progress as much as it portends a crisis.

After its completion, expected in 2015, the new buildings will more than double the KHCC‘s current capacity, increasing space for new cancer cases from 3,500 per year to 9,000. Yet even this 186-million-dollar project may be insufficient to shoulder Jordan’s growing cancer burden."We don't have a single medical oncologist or radio oncologist in the south." -- Dr. Jamal Khader

In Jordan, cancer is the leading cause of death after heart disease. Over 5,000 Jordanians annually are diagnosed with cancer, a figure projected to reach 7,281 by 2020, statistics that reflect global trends.

Cancer was once viewed as a first-world scourge. But in 2008, 56 percent of new cancer cases were in the developing world. And by 2030, the proportion will have climbed to 70 percent.

If Jordan fails to actively prepare for a continuing wave of cancer cases, “we won’t be able to cope with the increased number of patients and the increased cost of treatment,” leading to “less treatment and more mortalities,” Dr. Sami Khatib, a clinical oncologist who is president of the Arab Medical Association Against Cancer and former president of the Jordan Oncology Society, told IPS.

Jordan is fortunate to have the KHCC, a non-governmental organisation run by the King Hussein Cancer Foundation that is the country’s only comprehensive cancer treatment centre and the only cancer treatment facility in the Arab world to receive Joint Commission accreditation.

The KHCC has been a pioneer in cancer treatment in Jordan, transforming the process from disjointed visits with various specialists to comprehensive care with a treatment protocol.

But it is merely one centre. About 60 percent of Jordan’s cancer cases are in Amman, according to the latest national statistics in cancer incidence, which are from 2010. Yet according to Khatib, around 80 percent of cancer treatment facilities in Jordan are in Amman.

For the half of Jordan’s population residing in Amman or its outskirts, this location is ideal. For residents of remote areas, reaching these facilities can be a major problem.

“Inequality of access is the major obstacle” in providing cancer treatment in a country where “the whole spectrum of cancer treatment is available,” concluded Dr. Omar Nimri, director of the Jordanian Cancer Registry at the Ministry of Health, in the 2014 World Cancer Report.

An island of care

Sitting on a plain bench in a waiting room at the KHCC one morning were Nisreen Harabi and Sana’ Iskafee, two wives of the same husband. Harabi rocked back and forth as if to distract herself from pain while Iskafee spoke.

To reach Amman from their home in the village of Luban one hour away, Iskafee said, the women had to take one or two affordable public buses or spend 15 dinars (21 dollars) on a taxi ride.

Nisreen has cancer in her lymph nodes, according to Sana’, and must go to the KHCC four times a week for radiation therapy.

“We started coming two months ago,” Sana said. “The hardest part for us is the transportation. We live so far away.”

That morning, they had left their home at 6:30 am for a noon appointment, as a variety of factors can often cause delays on public transportation in Jordan.

“The distribution [of cancer treatment facilities] is not fair, as a whole, for Jordan,” Dr. Jamal Khader, a radiation oncologist at the KHCC and president of the Jordan Oncology Society, told IPS.

Like Nisreen, about 60 percent of cancer patients will at some point go through radiology treatment, he pointed out. But they have to be in Amman daily for a 10 to 15-minute session, making for a lot of extra suffering for those living outside the capital.

“We don’t have a single medical oncologist or radio oncologist in the south” or other remote areas, Khader added. “The ideal scenario for a cancer patient is to be treated in a comprehensive centre,” of which the KHCC is the only one. And specialised doctors and technology are primarily available in Amman.

Although all patients across Jordan receive “almost” the same quality treatment, no matter the health care facility they visit, Nimri told IPS in an interview, poorer patients or those who live far from Amman face extra difficulties.

“They have to rent a place, or stay in a hotel, or stay with relatives if they have any,” he said.

In that sense, Harabi is lucky to live one hour away.

 

Travel and accommodations require time and money, the latter of which is in especially short supply in a country where average annual per capita income is 5,980 dollars. Although societies and charities may help to cover costs, the system that remains in place is a centralised one that does not cater to impoverished patients living far from the capital.

“We need to build facilities…in the north and in the south of Jordan to better cover all the population,” Khatib said. He said the government had “a plan to start building facilities for the treatment of cancer in the different governorates of Jordan” and that “maybe they will start implementing it… soon.”

The situation is changing, albeit gradually. King Abdullah University Hospital in the northern city of Irbid has plans to get radio therapy machines, so that cancer patients residing in northern Jordan would not have to go to Amman for radiation therapy.

A national control plan for cancer is currently being developed as well, with the goal of outlining guidelines for prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and beyond. Khader, the KHCC oncologist, hoped the plan would be finalised within a year and that it could help identify “what facilities are missing here and there.”

Cancer treatment is divided into several sectors, besides the KHCC. Members of the military and security services, and their families, are treated at military facilities; private hospitals are available for those who can afford them; and those who do not qualify or cannot afford to go elsewhere have public facilities run by the Ministry of Health.

Yet their capacity does not match that of the KHCC, with “variable cancer care across facilities,” a 2011 report by the Harvard Global Equity Initiative noted. Of 29 public hospitals, only one offers chemotherapy, it said.

Furthermore, a difference in quality in treatment does exist between public and private facilities, Khatib allowed. As is generally true in most countries, “I think it’s much better in the NGO and private sectors than in the public sector,” he said.

Most cancer patients have their treatment covered by the Ministry of Health or the royal court, Khader noted, since by law, every Jordanian can apply for free treatment. While this policy eases individual suffering, for the government, it will become a financial “crisis to cope with all the commitments,” he added.

Nimri calculated roughly that with 25,000 – 30,000 cancer patients and the average cost of cancer treatment at 20,000 dollars per patient per year, Jordan is spending annually at least half a billion dollars on cancer treatment.

A multi-factor disease

Forty-eight percent of men over the age of 15 in Jordan smoked cigarettes (compared to 5.7 percent of women), according to WHO statistics from 2009, while 63.3 and 70.4 percent of men and women, respectively, had a body mass index (BMI) over 25, or in other words were overweight.

Tobacco is the biggest risk factor for cancer, and the WHO estimates that its use causes 22 percent of cancer deaths and 71 percent of lung cancer deaths globally.

Another 30 percent of cancer deaths are due to behavioural and dietary risks overall, such as having a high body mass index, poor diet, or lack of exercise.

“Our population is growing and aging… without having embraced healthy lifestyles that may help prevent many non-communicable diseases such as cancer,” wrote Dr. Abdallatif Woriekat, then minister of health, in Jordan’s 2010 national report on cancer incidence.

“The unhealthy diet and potentially lethal habit of tobacco use in particular, unfortunately, remains highly common and acceptable among Jordanians, and will undoubtedly leave a large unwanted print with its strong contribution to the increasing incidence of cancer,” he concluded.

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New Treatments May Defuse Viral Time Bomb http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/new-treatments-may-defuse-viral-time-bomb/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=new-treatments-may-defuse-viral-time-bomb http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/new-treatments-may-defuse-viral-time-bomb/#comments Wed, 09 Apr 2014 08:10:04 +0000 Cam McGrath http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133530 Mohamed Ibrahim first learned he had hepatitis C when he tried to donate blood. Weeks later he received a letter from the blood clinic telling him he carried antibodies of the hepatitis C virus (HCV). He most likely acquired the disease from a blood transfusion he received during surgery when he was a child. “I […]

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Egyptian HCV carriers will soon have cost-effective alternatives to interferon therapy. Credit: Cam McGrath/IPS.

Egyptian HCV carriers will soon have cost-effective alternatives to interferon therapy. Credit: Cam McGrath/IPS.

By Cam McGrath
CAIRO, Apr 9 2014 (IPS)

Mohamed Ibrahim first learned he had hepatitis C when he tried to donate blood. Weeks later he received a letter from the blood clinic telling him he carried antibodies of the hepatitis C virus (HCV). He most likely acquired the disease from a blood transfusion he received during surgery when he was a child.

“I needed a lot of blood, and this was at a time before they screened it,” Ibrahim recalls.Even with new drugs showing promise in reversing cirrhosis, it may already be too late for late-stage HCV patients.

Now, at 24, Ibrahim is living with the blood-borne virus, knowing it is slowly eroding his liver. Unless treated, by the time he reaches his forties the disease will likely advance to cirrhosis or liver cancer.

While Ibrahim has been undergoing treatment since he first learned of his infection, the medication is costly and yet ineffective.

“Nothing has worked, and the side effects of the medicine are as bad as the disease,” he says. “I can’t work in [other places such as) Dubai or Saudi Arabia, because they require a clean blood test before issuing a work permit.”

Ibrahim is one of an estimated eight to 10 million Egyptians living with hepatitis C.

Egypt is said officially to have the highest prevalence of hepatitis C in the world, with 10 to 14 percent of its 85 million people infected, and about two million in dire need of treatment. HCV-related liver failure is one of the country’s leading causes of death, taking over 40,000 lives a year.

But Egyptians infected with HCV now have fresh hope in novel treatments.

The Egyptian government recently struck a deal with U.S. pharmaceutical firm Gilead Sciences to purchase its new hepatitis C pill Sovaldi at a fraction of its American price.

Under the agreement, Gilead will supply a 12-week regimen of Sovaldi to Egypt for 900 dollars, instead of the 84,000 dollars the medicine costs in the United States. Egypt’s health ministry is expected to make the drug available at specialised government clinics in the second half of 2014, once local drug registration procedures are completed.

Studies have shown that Sovaldi is up to 97 percent effective in curing HCV type-4, the most common strain of hepatitis C among Egyptians. The pill is seen as a significant improvement over the traditional HCV treatment in Egypt, which is a 48-week course of the anti-viral drug interferon taken in combination with ribavirin tablets.

The existing treatment costs up to 7,000 dollars using pegylated interferon supplied by multinational pharmaceutical firms Roche and Merck, and is only about 60 percent effective. Many patients also report severe side effects such as anaemia and chronic depression.

Interferon is available without a prescription at pharmacies in Egypt, but at 150 dollars per weekly injection, the 48-week regimen is well beyond the reach of most Egyptians. Reiferon Retard, a locally manufactured interferon, costs a third of that price, but critics claim it is less than 50 percent effective.

Since 2006, the Egyptian government has treated more than 250,000 HCV patients at specialised units affiliated to the National Committee for the Control of Viral Hepatitis, a government body formed to tackle the disease. Interferon injections are provided at reduced cost or free to uninsured Egyptians, but as many as half of the patients treated suffer a relapse within six months.

A 2010 study by the U.S.-based National Academy of Sciences estimates that more than 500,000 new cases of HCV infection occur in Egypt each year. Researchers attributed the spread of the disease to the high background prevalence of HCV in Egypt – about 20 times higher than the global average – and to poor medical hygiene practices, including the use of unsterilised medical equipment and unscreened blood.

Egypt’s government claims the figures are highly exaggerated, and that the high prevalence is the clinical outcome of infections decades earlier.

Many HCV carriers were infected during a national campaign in the 1960s and 1970s to stamp out the water-borne disease schistosomiasis, also known as bilharzia. Health authorities administered repeated injections of the bilharzia treatment to Egyptians in rural areas using unsterilised needles, inadvertently spreading hepatitis C among the population.

“Doctors at that time were unaware of HCV, which was only identified in 1987, and were using glass syringes instead of the plastic disposable syringes that is current practice,” explains Dr. Refaat Kamel, a surgeon and specialist in tropical diseases. “Once a needle got infected, the disease spread quickly.”

Kamel says a better understanding of the structure and reproductive mechanism of HCV has allowed scientists to devise more effective treatments.

Gilead’s Sovaldi received the approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in December 2013 after clinical trials demonstrated its effectiveness in curing HCV without significant adverse effects. The drug, one of a new line of direct-acting antiviral agents, combats the disease by targeting infected liver cells and inhibiting the enzymes that allow the virus to replicate.

The FDA has also approved Janssen Therapeutics’ Olysio, a direct-acting antiviral agent that is about 25 percent cheaper than Gilead’s pill. Pharmaceutical firms AbbVie, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Merck and others are all hustling to develop their own oral therapies.

Sovaldi’s effectiveness on HCV type-4 is proven only when used with interferon and ribavirin. Further testing will establish whether the drug can be taken without weekly interferon injections, or as a combined therapy with other direct-acting antiviral agents.

“Trials here of six months of Sovaldi without interferon but with ribavirin showed similar success rates, higher than 96 percent (cured),” says Dr. Mohamed Abdel Hamid, director of the government-run Viral Hepatitis Research Lab (VHRL). “The drug might also be effective taken for three months without interferon. We just don’t know yet.”

He says that apart from the reduced cost and greater efficacy of Sovaldi, oral medication could reduce the manifold problems associated with long-term intravenous interferon therapy.

“Obviously, over 48 weeks there is a lot more that can go wrong,” Abdel Hamid tells IPS. “Adherence is a problem as patients must visit the treatment centre at the same time every week to receive the injection. There are also problems keeping the interferon cold, and the medication has many side effects.”

But he cautions that even with new drugs showing promise in reversing cirrhosis, it may already be too late for late-stage HCV patients. With a limited healthcare budget, Egypt is expected to prioritise treatment for those in whom the disease has not yet manifested.

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Criminal Court a U.S.-Israeli “Red Line” for Palestinians http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/criminal-court-u-s-israeli-red-line-palestinians/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=criminal-court-u-s-israeli-red-line-palestinians http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/criminal-court-u-s-israeli-red-line-palestinians/#comments Mon, 07 Apr 2014 22:52:32 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133495 When Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas decided to defy the United States and Israel over stalled peace negotiations, he formally indicated to the United Nations last week that Palestine will join 15 international conventions relating mostly to the protection of human rights and treaties governing conflicts and prisoners of war. But he held back one of […]

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Riyad H. Mansour, Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine to the U.N., briefs journalists Apr. 2 on the signing of international treaties and conventions by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

Riyad H. Mansour, Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine to the U.N., briefs journalists Apr. 2 on the signing of international treaties and conventions by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Apr 7 2014 (IPS)

When Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas decided to defy the United States and Israel over stalled peace negotiations, he formally indicated to the United Nations last week that Palestine will join 15 international conventions relating mostly to the protection of human rights and treaties governing conflicts and prisoners of war.

But he held back one of his key bargaining chips that Israel and the United States fear most: becoming a party to the Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court (ICC) to punish war crimes and genocide – and where Israelis could be docked.

Asked whether it was a wise move, Darryl Li, a post-doctoral research scholar at Columbia University, told IPS, “I would call it a clever move, not necessarily a wise one.”

There’s no question avoidance of ICC was deliberate, that’s clearly a U.S.-Israeli “red line,” he said. So it makes sense as a way to prolong negotiations.

A Flurry of Treaty Signing by Abbas

The United Nations said last week it had received 13 of the 15 letters for accession to international conventions and treaties deposited with the world body.

They include: the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations; Vienna Convention on Consular Relations; Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in armed conflict; Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Also included were the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties; International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; United Nations Convention against Corruption; Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide; International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid; International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Meanwhile, accession letters for the following two conventions were submitted respectively to the Swiss and Dutch representatives respectively: the Four Geneva Conventions of Aug. 12, 1949 and the First Additional Protocol, for the Swiss; and the Hague Convention (IV) respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its annex: Regulations Concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land, for the Dutch.

“But since the current framework for negotiations won’t yield just outcomes due to the Palestinians’ lack of leverage, I wouldn’t call it ‘wise’,” he declared.

And in a blog post for the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) last week, Li underlined the political double standards: “Israel demands that Washington release the convicted spy Jonathan Pollard while the Palestinians are blamed for voluntarily shouldering obligations to respect human rights and the laws of war.”

Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said, “It is disturbing that the Obama administration, which already has a record of resisting international accountability for Israeli rights abuses, would also oppose steps to adopt treaties requiring Palestinian authorities to uphold human rights.”

He said the U.S. administration should press both the Palestinians and the Israelis to better abide by international human rights standards.

In a statement released Monday, HRW said Palestine’s adoption of human rights and laws-of-war treaties would not cause any change in Israel’s international legal obligations.

The U.S. government should support rather than oppose Palestinian actions to join international treaties that promote respect for human rights.

HRW also said that U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power last week testified before Congress that in response to the new Palestinian actions, the solemn commitment by the U.S. to stand with Israel “extends to our firm opposition to any and all unilateral [Palestinian] actions in the international arena.”

She said Washington is absolutely adamant that Palestine should not join the ICC because it poses a profound threat to Israel and would be devastating to the peace process.

The rights group pointed out the ratification of The Hague Regulations and Geneva Conventions would strengthen the obligations of Palestinian forces to abide by international rules on armed conflict.

Armed groups in Gaza, which operate outside the authority or effective control of the Palestinian leadership that signed the treaties, have committed war crimes by launching indiscriminate rocket attacks against Israeli population centres, HRW said.

HRW also said Washington appears to oppose Palestine joining human rights treaties in part because it is afraid they will gain greater support for Palestinian statehood outside the framework of negotiations with Israel.

Li said the choice of agreements signed indicated a desire to ruffle feathers but go no further.

Notably, Abbas did not sign the Rome Convention of the ICC, which would have exposed Israeli officials to the possibility, however remote, of prosecution for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Moreover, Abbas also declined to set into motion membership applications to any of the U.N.’s various specialised agencies, such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) or Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Such a move would have triggered provisions under U.S. law that automatically cut U.S. funding to those bodies, as occurred when Palestine joined the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 2011, Li wrote in his blog post.

Meanwhile, the group known as The Elders, which include former world political leaders, said in a statement Monday that the Palestinian move is consistent with the U.N. non-member observer state status obtained by Palestine in November 2012.

Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Norwegian prime minister and deputy chair of The Elders, said, “As a U.N. non-member observer state, Palestine is entitled to join international bodies. We welcome President Abbas’ decision to sign the Geneva Conventions and other important international human rights treaties.”

This move opens the way to more inclusive and accountable government in the West Bank and Gaza, she added.

It has the potential to strengthen respect for human rights and provide ordinary Palestinians with essential legal protections against discrimination or abuses by their own government, Brundtland noted.

“In global terms, it will also increase their ability to enjoy, in practice, the protection of their basic rights granted to them by international law,” she said.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, also a member of The Elders, said the decision by the Palestinians to exercise their right to join international organisations should not be seen as a blow to peace talks.

“I hope that, on the contrary, it will help to redress the power imbalance between Israelis and Palestinians, as we approach the 29 April deadline set by [U.S. Secretary of State John] Kerry.”

More than ever, he said, both parties urgently need to make the necessary compromises to reach a lasting peace with two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.

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Truman Was Less “Pro-Israel” than Commonly Known, New Book Says http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/truman-less-pro-israel-commonly-known-new-book-says/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=truman-less-pro-israel-commonly-known-new-book-says http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/04/truman-less-pro-israel-commonly-known-new-book-says/#comments Thu, 03 Apr 2014 17:20:19 +0000 Barbara Slavin http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133402 With U.S.-mediated Israel-Palestinian peace talks once again dangling over the abyss, a new book has kicked up controversy over the roots of U.S. policy toward Israelis and Palestinians. In Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict, John Judis, a senior editor at The New Republic, argues that President Harry Truman was […]

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By Barbara Slavin
WASHINGTON, Apr 3 2014 (IPS)

With U.S.-mediated Israel-Palestinian peace talks once again dangling over the abyss, a new book has kicked up controversy over the roots of U.S. policy toward Israelis and Palestinians.

In Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict, John Judis, a senior editor at The New Republic, argues that President Harry Truman was more ambivalent about the creation of the state of Israel than is commonly known.

19book "Genesis" by John B. Judis.While Truman famously told audiences after he left the presidency that he considered himself a modern-day Cyrus – after the Persian king who freed Jews from Babylonian captivity in the sixth century B.C. – Truman actually preferred a federation of Arabs and Jews to a Jewish-run state and worried about the impact of favouring Zionist claims over Arab ones, according to Judis.

“His preference was for a plan negotiated by American Henry Grady and British official Herbert Morrison that recommended a federated Palestine jointly administered by Arabs and Jews,” Judis writes. “‘Zionist pressure killed the plan,’ ” Judis quotes Truman as saying.

While the plan – as Judis acknowledges – was not very realistic given strong Zionist desire for a Jewish state, the impact of the Holocaust on US and global politics and Britain’s eagerness to shed expensive overseas commitments after World War II, Judis’s depiction of Truman’s concerns have upset some American Jews and others who prefer a less nuanced narrative about the U.S. role in Israel’s origins.

Among those criticising Judis is Leon Wieseltier, a colleague at The New Republic, who in an email to historian Ron Radish that was published by the hawkish Washington Free Beacon accused Judis of being “a tourist in this subject” with a “shallow, derivative, tendentious, imprecise and sometimes risibly inaccurate” understanding of Zionist and Jewish history.

Wieseltier also accuses Judis of insulting Jews, showing “shocking indifference” to their fate after the Holocaust and even being a disciple of communist radical Rosa Luxemburg.

Peter Beinart, a former colleague of Judis’s at The New Republic whose own recent book – “The Crisis of Zionism” – also created quite a stir, wrote in an email that much of the criticism of Judis as “anti-Israel” and anti-Jewish was patently unfair.

“I honestly don’t know what people mean when they say John is ‘anti-Israel,’ ” Beinart wrote. “It’s such an overused and ill-defined phrase. I think what he wants for Israel today is the same thing that most Israelis who care about democracy want: a two state solution, a democratic Jewish state and an end to Israeli control over millions of stateless Palestinians.”

Judis discussed the controversy at an appearance in Washington earlier this week before an audience at the Centre for the National Interest. He said that he had been interested in the subject of how Israel came to be since he edited an essay by Noam Chomsky in 1971 that advocated a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians before that was fashionable again.

The Arab side of the debate, Judis said, has been obscured by the events of World War II and the Holocaust and by the fact that the Jews of Eastern and Central Europe had nowhere to go but British Mandate Palestine after the U.S. and other Western countries shut off immigration following World War I.

“If immigration had not been closed off, Israel would have been located somewhere between Silver Spring [Maryland] and Great Neck [New York],” Judis quipped, referring to two suburbs with large numbers of descendents of Jewish immigrants.

Truman, Judis said, had tremendous sympathy for the 50,000 Jewish survivors of the Holocaust who were stuck in displaced persons camps in Europe after World War II. But he was “not a Christian Zionist” like former British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour of the 1917 Balfour Declaration fame or the prime minister at the time, David Lloyd George, or even President Woodrow Wilson.

“He did not have a special attachment to the Jewish people,” Judis said of Truman.

In his book, Judis writes that “Truman’s foreign policy views were grounded in personal morality. He saw the world divided between good guys and bad guys and between underdogs and bullies. He worried about fairness.”

Judis sees the world in shades of grey. Among his more incendiary comments in the book – from the point of view of traditional Zionists — is that “in historical terms, the Zionist claim to Palestine had no more validity than the claim by some radical Islamists to a new caliphate.”

Asked what was new in his account, given other revisionist histories of Israel’s creation primarily by Israeli authors such as Ari Shavit and Benny Morris, Judis said the book would not have caused such a stir if it had been published in Europe or Israel. “What’s new is it is being published in the U.S.…The idea of the two sides of Truman – that’s a different way of doing it.”

While some books attribute Truman’s decision to recognise Israel to his being a Christian Zionist and others say Truman was merely bowing to domestic politics and the power of a Jewish lobby, Truman had “a principled view but at some point got frustrated and gave up,” Judis said.

As for the book’s relevance to the current Mideast impasse, Judis said he hopes to convince more Americans of the legitimacy of the Palestinian case to help U.S. leaders mediate a fair and durable solution to the crisis. “We have to recognise the Arab side better and recognise that they have a real beef,” he said.

“I can’t solve the situation but the book might have a slight effect on changing how people feel about this issue,” Judis said.

Jewish Democrats are increasingly less supportive of the policies of right-wing Israeli governments, Judis said, but “the Republicans are going in the opposite direction.”

He cited the recent furor over comments by New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a possible candidate for president in 2016, referring to the West Bank as “occupied” territory during a speech in Las Vegas in front of wealthy Republican Jews. Christie has since apologised for not using the adjective “disputed.”

U.S. domestic politics have always played a role in Washington’s Middle East policy although some presidents – among them Dwight Eisenhower – were more willing to confront the Jewish state. Judis quotes a famous line by Truman that “I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism; I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.”

Even after the U.S. recognised Israel in May 1948, Judis says that Truman pressed for Israel to allow Palestinian refugees to return and to adjust the borders of Israel in a manner more favourable to Arabs.

However, Arab divisions — and the willingness of many Arab states to use the Palestinian cause for their own purposes – have also jeopardised subsequent efforts at peace talks, Judis acknowledges.

“Almost every American president since Truman has tried to find a way to improve the lot of Palestinian Arabs,” Judis writes. “Yet Truman’s successors have, as a rule, suffered the same fate as he did.”

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Fighting Now Brings Disease http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/fighting-now-brings-disease/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=fighting-now-brings-disease http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/fighting-now-brings-disease/#comments Sat, 29 Mar 2014 10:21:11 +0000 Mutawalli Abou Nasser http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133295 For just that moment, the refugees in Yarmouk camp in Damascus made news. After months of facing starvation and death in the shadows of the Syrian civil war came packets of food and aid in January – with cameras in tow. The refugees poured out on the streets in a river of desperation to claim […]

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The celebrations over food aid at Yarmouk camp in Damascus were short-lived. Credit: Niraz Saeed/IPS.

The celebrations over food aid at Yarmouk camp in Damascus were short-lived. Credit: Niraz Saeed/IPS.

By Mutawalli Abou Nasser
DAMASCUS, Mar 29 2014 (IPS)

For just that moment, the refugees in Yarmouk camp in Damascus made news. After months of facing starvation and death in the shadows of the Syrian civil war came packets of food and aid in January – with cameras in tow.

The refugees poured out on the streets in a river of desperation to claim the first deliveries of aid that made it into the besieged area. Grown men were reduced to tears as their terror and isolation were momentarily broken.The escape from siege and warfare in January was as brief as it was desperate.

But the camera crews have since moved on, and hunger, violence and disease have returned to torment the people stuck in the camp.

Yarmouk camp in Damascus used to be the largest community of Palestinians living in Syria. They had to leave their homeland in the wars of 1948 and then 1967. It was a flourishing and vibrant neighbourhood in the capital, home to more than 100,000 people.

By late 2012 the camp became embroiled in the increasingly malignant civilian conflict, and it has suffered for it. Rebels have been engaged in long and bloody battles with the forces of President Bashar Assad.

Yarmouk has faced siege tactics, indiscriminate bombardment, and sniper fire, as have other neighbourhoods. The tactic seems to have been to subdue whole populations. It seems to have succeeded.

Rebels in many of the besieged areas, including Yarmouk, entered into fragile truce with government forces and their allied militias earlier in the year. A string of local agreements were brokered to put the fighting on hold, and to allow food and medicine in and civilians out.

The escape from siege and warfare in January was as brief as it was desperate. “UNRWA [the United Nations Relief and Works Agency] remains deeply concerned about the desperate humanitarian situation in Yarmouk and the fact that repeated resort to armed force has disrupted its efforts to alleviate the desperate plight of civilians,” UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness said in a statement.

Until recently resourceful volunteers had been working to maintain some rudimentary education system for the children and adolescents trapped in the camp. Working without institutional support, they were doing what they could to ensure the conflict would not leave a lost generation in its wake.

Now, the teachers and volunteers have had to close the classrooms. It’s not just bombs and snipers that have put a stop to their work but disease. The collapse of the healthcare system, chronic shortages of food and clean water, and accumulation of waste are combining to give rise to a number of health epidemics.

“One of our students fell unconscious in class, we took him to hospital and they diagnosed him with hepatitis,” Dr Khalil Khalil, a founding teacher of the makeshift school project, told IPS. “We then had all of our students tested and found at least seven other cases. The spread of this and other contagious diseases means a decision has been made to stop convening the classes.”

Making all this worse, fighting has erupted again. “The recent truce failed and the amount of vaccines and medication that made it into the camp were nowhere near sufficient to treat the plethora of diseases and illnesses we see spreading through the camp, especially among children,” Wissam Al-Ghoul, community health worker at the local Palestine Hospital, told IPS.

Fighters from both sides used the insufficient quantities of aid that did make it into the camp to reward their own.

“Members of the security services at the checkpoints seized some of the aid to distribute among their people, and rebel fighters stole some of the aid for their families and people close to them,” said food aid organiser Abou Salmi. “There is no order, and we suffer for that.”

About 7,000 parcels of aid are believed to have made it through the blockade in January. UNRWA concedes this was a “drop in the ocean” for the approximately 20,000 people who remain trapped in the camp.

In the spell when the siege was lifted, government forces and the Palestinian factions allied to them kidnapped many they suspected of supporting the rebels. Those picked up included children.

At least 30 men and adolescents have been detained, and their whereabouts remain unknown.

“Members of the Syrian security services, along with their allies from the PFLP-GC [a Palestinian faction allied to the Syrian government] detained at least 10 young men in front of my own eyes…We also know of people being lured to outlying buildings, and they were then kidnapped and whisked away,” said an UNRWA staff member who was among the team that oversaw the food aid. She asked not to be named for security reasons.

Each side blames the other for the breakdown in the ceasefire. “The regime did not release any of the detainees it had promised to, or secure the safe passage of food,” said Abu Khitaab from the ideologically extreme rebel battalion Jubhet al-Nusra.

“We pulled out of the camp fully as agreed but instead of releasing prisoners the regime began kidnapping young students and activists and to occupy some buildings inside the camp. We could not tolerate this, so we moved back in and resumed the battle.”

Regardless of who carries the responsibility for breaking the deal on which the ceasefire was built, for the innocent within Yarmouk the reality has returned to the same difficulties – a steady descent back into virtual imprisonment, and the chaos of fighting. Now, with disease added on.

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OP-ED: Egypt’s Death Sentences Test U.S. Resolve http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/op-ed-egypts-death-sentences-test-u-s-resolve/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=op-ed-egypts-death-sentences-test-u-s-resolve http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/op-ed-egypts-death-sentences-test-u-s-resolve/#comments Fri, 28 Mar 2014 18:56:26 +0000 Emile Nakhleh http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133285 The summary mass trial and sentencing of 529 Egyptians to death this week is yet another example of Egypt’s descent into lawlessness and blatant miscarriage of justice. The rushed decision showed no respect for the most basic standards of due process under the military dictatorship. The Egyptian court spent less than a minute on each […]

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U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel participates in an arrival honours ceremony with then Egyptian defence minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo, Egypt, Apr. 24, 2013. Credit: public domain

U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel participates in an arrival honours ceremony with then Egyptian defence minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo, Egypt, Apr. 24, 2013. Credit: public domain

By Emile Nakhleh
WASHINGTON, Mar 28 2014 (IPS)

The summary mass trial and sentencing of 529 Egyptians to death this week is yet another example of Egypt’s descent into lawlessness and blatant miscarriage of justice.

The rushed decision showed no respect for the most basic standards of due process under the military dictatorship.Sisi, much like Vladimir Putin and his land grab in Ukraine, feels empowered to defy the U.S. because he perceives it as unwilling or unable to confront him.

The Egyptian court spent less than a minute on each of the 529 defendants before sentencing them. Defence lawyers were barred from challenging state “evidence” and defendants were not allowed to speak. Yet, the Sisi government and the pliant Egyptian media did not question the sentences.

The U.S. State Department issued a statement in Secretary of State John Kerry’s name condemning the sentences. Kerry said he is “deeply troubled” and called on the Egyptian interim government to “remedy the situation.”

The decision, according to the statement, “simply defies logic” and fails to satisfy “even the most basic standards of justice.” Amnesty International deemed the death sentences “grotesque.” Most Western countries have expressed “deep concern” over the sham trial and convictions and the hope the decision would be overturned on appeal.

In his heady rush to seek the presidency, however, Field Marshall turned civilian Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is not paying much attention to Washington’s warnings or to international condemnations of the Minya judge who dispensed the ruling.

Sisi sees the Barack Obama administration moving away from values of good governance and the rule of law in Egypt to a myopic doctrine of national interest, which includes coddling Arab dictators and tribal ruling potentates.

Since the Arab upheavals of 2011, President Obama has identified U.S. values of tolerance, justice, fairness, and democracy as a guiding principle of post “Arab Spring” relations with Arab countries. These values, the U.S. president frequently said, “define who we are” as a people and as a nation.

Sisi, on the other hand, much like Vladimir Putin and his land grab in Ukraine, feels empowered to defy the U.S. because he perceives it as unwilling or unable to confront him or to shun him or cut military aid to Egypt. He counts on Washington’s inaction against him despite rising lawlessness by state institutions because of Egypt’s pivotal standing in the region.

By ignoring the Egyptian constitution and its traditional claim of judicial independence, the Egyptian judiciary seemed to kowtow to the military-run interim government.

The mass death sentences coupled with Sisi’s announcement of his candidacy for the presidency seem to bring the coup that toppled President Mohamed Morsi full circle. For Sisi, the January 25 Revolution is history, and the demands for democracy are now subsumed under the rubric of fighting “terrorism”, which he equates with the Muslim Brotherhood.

It’s symbolic that Sisi made the announcement on Egyptian television in military uniform even though he had just resigned as minister of defence and as a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). He told the Egyptian public he would continue the struggle “against terrorism” and would fight to “regain Egypt” and restore its “dignity and stature.”

Sisi must have taken a page from the American Tea Party book about “taking back America” and from Putin about taking back Crimea. As if someone has stolen America from the Tea Party, or Ukraine from Russia, or Egypt from Sisi.

In fact, it was Sisi and the military junta that stole Egypt from the January 25 Revolution in a military coup. It was Sisi’s regime that has put over 15,000 Egyptians – Islamists and secularists – in jail through illegal arrests, sham trials, and without due process for challenging the coup.

Sisi envisions his presidency to rest on a three-legged stool of pliant media, submissive public, and adulation of him as a rising “selfie” star. In the name of “serving the nation,” Egyptians are being brainwashed not to question the personality cult of Sisi’s budding populist dictatorship.

In addition to frightening the public into submission, Sisi has also shuffled SCAF by sidelining potential challengers like General Ahmed Wasfi and promoting supporters like General Sidqi Sobhi. He sees these actions as an insurance policy against a possible coup that could topple him, much like he did against Morsi.

Although much has been written about Egypt in recent days, the death sentences and Sisi’s presidency have created two serious concerns, which Washington and other Western capitals must confront.

First, these actions likely will result in a growing radicalisation of some elements within the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups in Egypt. Radicalisation usually begets violence and terrorism.

It would be a nightmare scenario for any Egyptian government if the new radicals join forces with Salafi jihadists in Sinai. Such coordination, which could create an opening for al-Qa’ida in Egypt, would wreak havoc on the country and on Western interests and personnel there.

Second, continued instability, lawlessness, and repression in Egypt under a Sisi presidency would begin to attract Islamist jihadists from Syria to Egypt.

Unlike their counterparts from Afghanistan, the new jihadists are honed by combat experience and trained in the use of all kinds of weapons. A jihadist base in Egypt would certainly spread to neighbouring countries, including the Gulf tribal monarchies.

To stem this nightmarish tide, the United States and its Western allies must urge Gulf monarchies to start serious dialogue with their peoples toward inclusion and tolerance.

They also must convince Sisi that no stable political system would emerge in Egypt without including secularists and Islamists in the process. An adoring public, a pliant media, a sycophantic government, and an unfettered and corrupt military are a formula for disaster for the Egypt and the region.

Emile Nakhleh is a former Senior Intelligence Service Officer, a Research Professor at the University of New Mexico, and author of “A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World.”

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To Spy To Live http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/spy-live/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=spy-live http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/spy-live/#comments Fri, 28 Mar 2014 09:05:17 +0000 Khaled Alashqar http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133274 “If you want to live and receive medical treatment, you have my number, so you can call me and agree to my request. You will then get medical help, and survive.” The request, the patient said, was from an Israeli intelligence officer looking to recruit him in exchange for treatment. The 28-year-old Fadi Al-Qutshan never […]

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The mother and father of Fadi Al-Qutshan beside their son's framed picture outside their home in Gaza. Credit: Khaled Alashqar/IPS.

The mother and father of Fadi Al-Qutshan beside their son's framed picture outside their home in Gaza. Credit: Khaled Alashqar/IPS.

By Khaled Alashqar
GAZA CITY , Mar 28 2014 (IPS)

“If you want to live and receive medical treatment, you have my number, so you can call me and agree to my request. You will then get medical help, and survive.” The request, the patient said, was from an Israeli intelligence officer looking to recruit him in exchange for treatment.

The 28-year-old Fadi Al-Qutshan never did become a spy for Israel. And he did not survive long.The centre has documented several cases of arrest and manipulation of patients from Gaza needing to pass through the Erez crossing.

Qutshan suffered from a rare illness that led to artery blockage. With no help possible in Gaza, he was advised to go for treatment at a hospital in the West Bank. His application to Israeli authorities – needed for a Palestinian to enter another Palestinian area – was refused several times. It was finally granted on the intervention of the Palestinian Centre of Human Rights in Gaza.

At the West Bank hospital Qutshan was told he needed treatment at the Israeli hospital, Tel Ha Shomar. He did get passage and admission to the Israeli hospital and was operated on successfully. He needed a follow-up visit to complete treatment. That return became conditional.

“His phone rang when he was sitting next to me, and his expressions started to change and he suddenly ended the call and switched off his phone,” his mother Zeina Al-Qutshan told IPS. “He told me after that the caller was an officer from the Israeli intelligence services offering a permit to return to the hospital in exchange for working with Israel as a spy in Gaza.” Zeina said her son refused to collaborate. He died soon after.

“Blackmail of patients because of their need to travel through Israeli checkpoints has turned these checkpoints into traps for Palestinian patients,” Ahlam Al-Aqra’, solicitor with the legal aid unit of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza, told IPS. “Many needing to go through checkpoints are either arrested or pressured to work as spies,” he said. “This is against basic human rights, and it must stop.”

The centre has documented several cases of arrest and manipulation of patients from Gaza needing to pass through the Erez crossing (at the intersection of Gaza, the West Bank and Israel), and of harassment of their family members or others accompanying them.

The number of patients arrested and put in Israeli jails has increased, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Prisoners. The total number of Palestinian political prisoners and detainees in Israel is 4,800, and it says about a quarter require medical help.

Ministry spokesperson Eslam Abdo gave a specific breakdown. “In all 170 prisoners need surgery, 23 prisoners have cancer, and 45 are suffering from a physical disability and need support with their movement. Eighteen prisoners are serving a sentence in Ramallah jail-clinic because of their critical health situation.”

More than 1.5 million people live in Gaza Strip on a small area of 360 sq km. As a result of the Israeli-imposed blockade, Gaza is suffering from severe shortage of hospitals and medical equipment. Hospitals in Gaza are unable to deal with all medical needs, and they refer critical cases to the West Bank and Israel depending on permits from the Israeli army who control the Erez crossing point.

The health system in the West Bank is in a better situation but it is Israeli hospitals that are well-equipped.

Mahmould Shamlakh was detained by the Israeli army on his way to an Israeli hospital. “After obtaining all required permits I accompanied my wife for medical treatment to the West Bank,” he told IPS. “My wife was sent back to Gaza and I was detained for nine months in Israeli jails under difficult circumstances for no reason.”

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR Israel) has condemned Israeli policies towards Palestinian patients seeking medical access.

“Physicians for Human Rights-Israel had called in the past on the Israeli security authorities to stop this manipulation of the most basic humanitarian needs of medical patients from Gaza as a means of coercing them and their families,” the organisation told IPS in a statement.

“This conduct of arresting patients or persons who escort them after giving them permits or clearance to pass through Erez is a policy that constitutes cruel, inhuman [treatment] that PHR Israel strongly condemns and objects to.”

Over the last three years, 13,000 cases have been referred for further and urgent medical treatment to Israeli and Palestinian hospitals outside Gaza, according to the Ministry of Health. The Israeli blockade of Gaza, coupled now with closure of the Rafah crossing with Egypt, means that this number is likely to increase over the coming weeks and months.

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Increased Instability Predicted for Egypt http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/increased-instability-predicted-egypt/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=increased-instability-predicted-egypt http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/increased-instability-predicted-egypt/#comments Wed, 26 Mar 2014 00:02:50 +0000 Jim Lobe http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133224 International human rights groups have strongly denounced Monday’s sentencing by an Egyptian court of 529 Islamists to death for a riot in which one policeman was killed. Egypt specialists here say the sentences, which are widely seen as the latest in a series of steps taken by the authorities to crush the Muslim Brotherhood, as […]

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The killing of Muslim Brotherhood supporters has only strengthened resolve within the party to resist the current regime. Credit: Khaled Moussa al-Omrani/IPS

The killing of Muslim Brotherhood supporters has only strengthened resolve within the party to resist the current regime. Credit: Khaled Moussa al-Omrani/IPS

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Mar 26 2014 (IPS)

International human rights groups have strongly denounced Monday’s sentencing by an Egyptian court of 529 Islamists to death for a riot in which one policeman was killed.

Egypt specialists here say the sentences, which are widely seen as the latest in a series of steps taken by the authorities to crush the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as other dissident forces opposed to the military-backed government, are certain to fuel increased radicalisation in the Arab world’s most populous nation.“What all this repression creates is a very deep well of anger.” -- Michelle Dunne

“What all this repression creates is a very deep well of anger,” said Michelle Dunne, an Egypt specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and co-chair of the Working Group on Egypt, a coalition of neo-conservative and liberal internationalist Middle East analysts who have informally advised the administration of President Barack Obama since the dawn of the Arab spring in late 2010.

“Where these kinds of actions are taking Egypt is very worrisome. …We now have an ally that might be headed toward serious and persistent instability,” according to Dunne, who noted that another court sentenced a group of 17 university students for rioting just a few days ago. Although no one was killed or seriously injured in that incident, each of the students received 14 years in prison.

Indeed, while the administration of President Barack Obama, which Monday described the mass death sentences as “defy(ing) logic,” had hoped to fully normalise military ties that were partially suspended after the July coup against President Mohamed Morsi, the latest court actions – along with the designation by the military-backed government of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation – would appear to make that much less likely.

The death sentences, which Amnesty International and the New York Times described as “grotesque” and “preposterous”, respectively, followed a one-day trial before three judges in Minya in which most of the defendants were absent or had no or very limited legal representation. As noted by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the prosecution failed to put forward evidence implicating any individual defendant.

“The Minya court’s sentencing more than 500 people to death for the killing of a police officer highlights the fact that no Egyptian court has even questioned a single police officer for the killing of well over 1,000 largely peaceful protesters since Jul. 3 [when the military ousted Morsi],” said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East director.

“This trial is just one of dozens of mass trials taking place every day across Egypt, riddled with serious due process violations and resulting in outrageous sentences that represent serious miscarriages of justice,” she noted.

The defendants were all indicted for alleged participation in a riot in Minya, a Brotherhood stronghold in central Egypt, last August, some six weeks after a military coup against the country’s democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi. The riot, which followed two massacres of hundreds of peaceful Brotherhood protestors in Cairo, resulted in the destruction of several churches and police stations and the death of one police officer.

Analysts here said the mass sentencing, the largest in modern Egyptian history, may have been motivated by a desire on the specific court’s part to retaliate against Morsi’s efforts to gain greater control over the judiciary or by its acquiescence to instructions by the police or interior ministry to make an example of the case as part of a broader strategy to intimidate the opposition. Both the verdicts and the sentences are subject to appeal.

If, indeed, the intent of the verdicts and other repressive measures is to restore stability to Egypt, the strategy does not appear to be working, according to Dunne, who Monday released a new report documenting both the growing repression and the rise in violence directed against the government.

“Egyptians have suffered through the most intense human rights abuses and terrorism in their recent history in the eight months since the military ousted then president Mohamed Morsi,” according to the report, “Egypt’s Unprecedented Instability by the Numbers.”

Citing statistics by Egyptian rights groups and other sources, the report found that a total of 3,143 people have been killed as a result of political violence between Jul. 3 last year and the end of January. Of the total, at least 2,528 civilians and 60 police were killed in political protests and clashes, and another 281 others are estimated to have been killed in terrorist attacks.

Some 16,400 people have been arrested during political events, while another 2,590 political leaders – the vast majority associated with the Brotherhood – have been rounded up and remain in detention, the report said.

All of these tallies, according to the report, show that current level of repression actually exceeds the scale reached under former President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who tried to crush the Brotherhood in the 1950s and 1960s by rounding up hundreds of members and executing a dozen of their leaders, and in the aftermath of the assassination of former President Anwar Sadat in 1981.

The report also found, the rate of terrorist incidents – and the deaths they’ve inflicted — in the seven months that followed the Jul. 3 coup have also surpassed the rates reached between 1993 and 1995, when more than 300 people, including police, extremists, civilians and tourists fell victim annually to the war between the security forces and Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya (The Islamic Group) of which the current Al Qaeda chief, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, was a top leader.

“(M)ilitants have shown that they are capable of inflicting far more damage should they choose to do so,” according to the Carnegie report, which noted that insurgents have “shown increasing sophistication” in carrying out attacks against police officers, soldiers, and high-level government officials but have not yet shown interest in inflicting mass casualties.

The latest developments appear to have put the Obama administration, which suspended joint exercises with Egypt immediately after the coup and subsequently suspended delivery of some weapons systems, including attack helicopters and tanks, to coax the military into pursuing a less repressive policy toward the Brotherhood, in particular.

Saudi Arabia, with which Obama hopes to patch up relations badly strained by his failure both to support former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at the outset of the Arab Spring and to intervene more aggressively on the side of rebels in Syria when he visits Riyadh later this week, has strongly backed the military’s crackdown against the Brotherhood and are expected to press their guest to do likewise.

The Saudis have not only provided billions of dollars in budgetary support for the regime; they have also offered to make up for any weapons withheld by Washington by buying comparable systems from other arms suppliers, including Russia, on Egypt’s behalf.

“The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have a basic disagreement about what’s going on in Egypt,” according to Dunne. “The Saudis would say whatever heavy-handed measures the authorities are taking is necessary to defeat terrorism. Most U.S. officials says these tactics are causing terrorism and potentially driving Egypt toward persistent instability.”

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.com.

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OP-ED: A New World Order? Think Again http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/op-ed-new-world-order-think/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=op-ed-new-world-order-think http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/op-ed-new-world-order-think/#comments Fri, 21 Mar 2014 12:37:32 +0000 James A. Russell http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133143 Russia’s storming of the Ukrainian naval base in Crimea just as Iran and world powers wrapped up another round of negotiations in Vienna earlier this week represent seemingly contradictory bookends to a world that some believe is spinning out of control. It’s hard not to argue that the world seems a bit trigger-happy these days. […]

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Some argue that the conflicts in Syria, the Congo and Libya are part of a more general slide into a Hobbesian, or failed state, the kind of world in which the weak perish and the strong survive. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

Some argue that the conflicts in Syria, the Congo and Libya are part of a more general slide into a Hobbesian, or failed state, the kind of world in which the weak perish and the strong survive. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

By James A. Russell
WASHINGTON, Mar 21 2014 (IPS)

Russia’s storming of the Ukrainian naval base in Crimea just as Iran and world powers wrapped up another round of negotiations in Vienna earlier this week represent seemingly contradictory bookends to a world that some believe is spinning out of control.

It’s hard not to argue that the world seems a bit trigger-happy these days.The chaos in places like Syria, the Congo, Libya, and Afghanistan has actually been the norm of international politics over much of the last century - not the exception.

Vladimir Putin’s Russian mafia thugs armed with weapons bought with oil money calmly annex the Crimea. Chinese warships ominously circle obscure shoals in the Western Pacific as Japan and other countries look on nervously. Israel and Hezbollah appear eager to settle scores and start another war in Lebanon. Syria and Libya continue their descent into a medieval-like state of nature as the world looks on not quite knowing what to do.

Noted U.S. foreign policy experts like Senator John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Condoleezza Rice have greeted these developments with howls of protest and with a call to arms to reassert the United States’ global leadership to tame the anarchic (and anti-U.S.) world.

They appear to believe that we should somehow use force or the threat of force as an instrument to restore order. Never mind that these commentators have exercised uniformly bad judgment on nearly all the major foreign policy issues of the last decade.

The protests of these commentators notwithstanding, however, it is worth discussing what all these events really mean; whether they are somehow linked and perhaps suggest a structural shift in international politics towards a more warlike system.

For the United States, these developments come as the Obama administration sensibly tries to take the country’s military off a permanent war-footing and slow the growth in the defence budget — a budget that will still see the United States spend more on its military than most of the rest of the world combined.

The first issue is whether the events in Crimea are emblematic of a global system in which developed states may reconsider the basic calculus that going to war with each other doesn’t pay.

Vladimir Putin may have correctly calculated that the West doesn’t care enough about Crimea to militarily stop Russia, but would the same calculus apply if he tried to seize Moldova, Poland, or some part of Eastern Europe?

Similarly, would the Central Committee in Beijing risk a wider war in the Pacific over the bits of rocks in the South China Sea that are claimed by various countries?

While we can’t know the answer to these questions, the political leadership of both Russia and China clearly would face significant political, economic, and military costs in choosing to exercise force in a dispute in which the world’s developed states could not or would not back down.

These considerations remain a powerful deterrent to a resumption of war between the developed states, events in Crimea notwithstanding – although miscalculations by foolhardy leaders like Putin are always a possibility.

The second kind of inter-state dispute are those between countries/actors that have deep-seated, historic disputes.

Clearly, the most dangerous of these situations is the relationship between India and Pakistan — two nuclear-armed states that have been exchanging fire directly  and indirectly for much of the last half century.

Similarly, the situation in the Middle East stemming from Israel’s still unfinished wars of independence remains a constant source of regional instability.

Maybe one day, Israel and its neighbours will finally decide on a set of agreeable borders, but until they do we can all expect them to resort to occasional violence until the issue is settled.

Try as we might, there’s not much the international community can do about these enduring disputes until the parties themselves seek peaceful solutions that address their grievances.

The third kind of war is like those in Syria, the Congo, and Libya that some argue is part of a more general slide into a Hobbesian, or failed state, kind of world in which the weak perish and the strong survive.

Here again, however, we have to wonder what if anything is new with these wars. As much as we might not like it, internal political evolution in developing states usually entails violence until winners in the contests for political authority emerge.

The West’s own evolution in Europe took hundreds of years of bloodshed until established political systems took shape that settled disputes peacefully.

The chaos in places like Syria, the Congo, Libya, and Afghanistan has actually been the norm of international politics over much of the last century – not the exception.

This returns us to the other bookend cited at the outset of this piece — the reconvened negotiations in Vienna between Iran and the international community.

These meetings point to perhaps the most significant change in the international system over the last century in which global institutions have emerged as mechanisms to control state behaviour through an incentive structure that discourages war and encourages generally accepted behavioural norms.

These institutions, such as the United Nations, and its supporting regulatory structures like the International Atomic Energy Agency, have helped establish new behavioural norms that impose serious costs on states that do not observe the rules.

While we cannot be certain why Iran seeks a negotiated solution with the international community over its nuclear programme, it is clear that the international community has imposed significant economic costs on Iran over the last eight years of sanctions.

That same set of global institutions and regulatory regimes supported by the United States will almost certainly enact sanctions that will impose significant costs on Russia as a result of its illegal seizure of the Crimea.

Those costs will build up over time, just as they have for Iran and other states like North Korea that find themselves outside of the general global political and economic system.

Russia will discover the same lesson learned by Iran – it’s an expensive and arguably unsustainable proposition to be the object of international obloquy.

For those arguing for a more militarised U.S. response to these disparate events, it’s worth returning to George F. Kennan’s basic argument for a patient, defensive global posture.

Kennan argued that inherent U.S. and Western strength would see it through the Cold War and triumph over its weaker foes in Moscow.

As Kennan correctly noted: we were strong, they were weaker. Time was on our side, not theirs.

The same holds true today. Putin’s Russia is a paper tiger that is awash in oil money but with huge structural problems.

Russia’s corrupt, mafia-like dictatorship will weaken over time as it is excluded from the system of global political and economic interaction.

The world’s networked political and economic institutions only reinforce the strength of the West and those other members of the international community that choose to play by the accepted rules for peaceful global interaction.

In places like Syria, we need to recognise that these wars are part of the durable disorder of global politics that cannot necessarily be managed by us or anyone else despite the awful plight of the poor innocent civilians and children – who always bear the ultimate costs of these tragic conflicts.

We need to calm down and recognise that the international system is not becoming unglued; it is simply exhibiting immutable characteristics that have been with us for much of recorded history.

We should, however, be more confident of the ability of the system (with U.S. leadership) to police itself and avoid rash decisions that will only make these situations worse.

James A. Russell is an Associate Professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, where he is teaching courses on Middle East security affairs, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and national security strategy.

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Egypt Gets Muscular Over Nile Dam http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/egypt-prepares-force-nile-flow/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=egypt-prepares-force-nile-flow http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/egypt-prepares-force-nile-flow/#comments Fri, 21 Mar 2014 07:55:50 +0000 Cam McGrath http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133136 When Egypt’s then-president Mohamed Morsi said in June 2013 that “all options” including military intervention, were on the table if Ethiopia continued to develop dams on the Nile River, many dismissed it as posturing. But experts claim Cairo is deadly serious about defending its historic water allotment, and if Ethiopia proceeds with construction of what […]

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Houseboats line the Nile bank in Cairo. Some 85 million Egyptians depend on the Nile for water. Credit: Cam McGrath/IPS.

Houseboats line the Nile bank in Cairo. Some 85 million Egyptians depend on the Nile for water. Credit: Cam McGrath/IPS.

By Cam McGrath
CAIRO, Mar 21 2014 (IPS)

When Egypt’s then-president Mohamed Morsi said in June 2013 that “all options” including military intervention, were on the table if Ethiopia continued to develop dams on the Nile River, many dismissed it as posturing. But experts claim Cairo is deadly serious about defending its historic water allotment, and if Ethiopia proceeds with construction of what is set to become Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam, a military strike is not out of the question.

Relations between Egypt and Ethiopia have soured since Ethiopia began construction on the 4.2 billion dollar Grand Renaissance Dam in 2011.

Egypt fears the new dam, slated to begin operation in 2017, will reduce the downstream flow of the Nile, which 85 million Egyptians rely on for almost all of their water needs. Officials in the Ministry of Irrigation claim Egypt will lose 20 to 30 percent of its share of Nile water and nearly a third of the electricity generated by its Aswan High Dam."Hydroelectric dams don’t work unless you let the water through.” -- Richard Tutwiler, a specialist in water resource management at the American University in Cairo

Ethiopia insists the Grand Renaissance Dam and its 74 billion cubic metre reservoir at the headwaters of the Blue Nile will have no adverse effect on Egypt’s water share. It hopes the 6,000 megawatt hydroelectric project will lead to energy self-sufficiency and catapult the country out of grinding poverty.

“Egypt sees its Nile water share as a matter of national security,” strategic analyst Ahmed Abdel Halim tells IPS. “To Ethiopia, the new dam is a source of national pride, and essential to its economic future.”

The dispute has heated up since Ethiopia began diverting a stretch of the Nile last May, with some Egyptian parliamentarians calling for sending commandos or arming local insurgents to sabotage the dam project unless Ethiopia halts construction.

Ethiopia’s state-run television responded last month with a report on a visit to the site by army commanders, who voiced their readiness to “pay the price” to defend the partially-built hydro project.

Citing a pair of colonial-era treaties, Egypt argues that it is entitled to no less than two-thirds of the Nile’s water and has veto power over any upstream water projects such as dams or irrigation networks.

Accords drawn up by the British in 1929 and amended in 1959 divvied up the Nile’s waters between Egypt and Sudan without ever consulting the upstream states that were the source of those waters.

The 1959 agreement awarded Egypt 55.5 billion cubic metres of the Nile’s 84 billion cubic metre average annual flow, while Sudan received 18.5 billion cubic metres. Another 10 billion cubic metres is lost to evaporation in Lake Nasser, which was created by Egypt’s Aswan High Dam in the 1970s, leaving barely a drop for the nine other states that share the Nile’s waters.

While the treaty’s water allocations appear gravely unfair to upstream Nile states, analysts point out that unlike the mountainous equatorial nations, which have alternative sources of water, the desert countries of Egypt and Sudan rely almost entirely on the Nile for their water needs.

“One reason for the high level of anxiety is that nobody really knows how this dam is going to affect Egypt’s water share,” Richard Tutwiler, a specialist in water resource management at the American University in Cairo (AUC), tells IPS. “Egypt is totally dependent on the Nile. Without it, there is no Egypt.”

Egypt’s concerns appear warranted as its per capita water share is just 660 cubic metres, among the world’s lowest. The country’s population is forecast to double in the next 50 years, putting even further strain on scarce water resources.

But upstream African nations have their own growing populations to feed, and the thought of tapping the Nile for their agriculture or drinking water needs is all too tempting.

The desire for a more equitable distribution of Nile water rights resulted in the 2010 Entebbe Agreement, which replaces water quotas with a clause that permits all activities provided they do not “significantly” impact the water security of other Nile Basin states. Five upstream countries – Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda – signed the accord. Burundi signed a year later.

Egypt rejected the new treaty outright. But after decades of wielding its political clout to quash the water projects of its impoverished upstream neighbours, Cairo now finds itself in the uncomfortable position of watching its mastery over the Nile’s waters slip through its fingers.

“Ethiopia’s move was unprecedented. Never before has an upstream state unilaterally built a dam without downstream approval,” Ayman Shabaana of the Cairo-based Institute for Africa Studies had told IPS last June. “If other upstream countries follow suit, Egypt will have a serious water emergency on its hands.”

Ethiopia has sought to assure its downstream neighbours that the Grand Renaissance Dam is a hydroelectric project, not an irrigation scheme. But the dam is part of a broader scheme that would see at least three more dams on the Nile.

Cairo has dubbed the proposal “provocative”.

Egypt has appealed to international bodies to force Ethiopia to halt construction of the dam until its downstream impact can be determined. And while officials here hope for a diplomatic solution to diffuse the crisis, security sources say Egypt’s military leadership is prepared to use force to protect its stake in the river.

Former president Hosni Mubarak floated plans for an air strike on any dam that Ethiopia built on the Nile, and in 2010 established an airbase in southeastern Sudan as a staging point for just such an operation, according to leaked emails from the global intelligence company Stratfor posted on Wikileaks.

Egypt’s position was weakened in 2012 when Sudan, its traditional ally on Nile water issues, rescinded its opposition to the Grand Renaissance Dam and instead threw its weight behind the project. Analysts attribute Khartoum’s change of heart to the country’s revised domestic priorities following the secession of South Sudan a year earlier.

According to AUC’s Tutwiler, once Sudan felt assured that the dam would have minimal impact on its water allotment, the mega-project’s other benefits became clear. The dam is expected to improve flood control, expand downstream irrigation capacity and, crucially, allow Ethiopia to export surplus electricity to power-hungry Sudan via a cross-border link.

Some studies indicate that properly managed hydroelectric dams in Ethiopia could mitigate damaging floods and increase Egypt’s overall water share. Storing water in the cooler climes of Ethiopia would ensure far less water is lost to evaporation than in the desert behind the Aswan High Dam.

Egypt, however, is particularly concerned about the loss of water share during the five to ten years it will take to fill the dam’s reservoir. Tutwiler says it is unlikely that Ethiopia will severely choke or stop the flow of water.

“Ethiopia needs the electricity…and hydroelectric dams don’t work unless you let the water through.”

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Executions Rising in Iran http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/executions-rising-iran/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=executions-rising-iran http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/executions-rising-iran/#comments Thu, 20 Mar 2014 10:20:58 +0000 Isolda Agazzi http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=133106 As many as 700 people were sentenced to death in Iran last year, according to United Nations estimates. Most were charged with drug-related crimes and belonged to ethnic minorities, new studies show. “Despite signs of openness with the election of President (Hassan) Rohani almost a year ago, the human rights situation in Iran has dramatically […]

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By Isolda Agazzi
GENEVA, Mar 20 2014 (IPS)

As many as 700 people were sentenced to death in Iran last year, according to United Nations estimates. Most were charged with drug-related crimes and belonged to ethnic minorities, new studies show.

“Despite signs of openness with the election of President (Hassan) Rohani almost a year ago, the human rights situation in Iran has dramatically deteriorated,” Taimoor Aliassi, U.N. representative of the Association of Human Rights in Kurdistan of Iran – Geneva, told IPS.“Iran is the second executioner country in the world behind China, but the first one per capita." -- Raphaël Chenuil-Hazan, executive director of French NGO Ensemble Contre la Peine de Mort

At least 687 prisoners have been executed in 2013, 68 percent of them after the presidential election in June 2013, Aliassi said. This is the highest figure in 15 years.

The vast majority, he said, were from ethnic minorities such as Kurds, Baloch and Baha’is. “The repression of these minorities has accentuated.”

Aliassi’s comments followed a report by Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Iran, detailing the executions. The Iranian government labelled the findings “not objective” and “mostly a compilation of unfounded allegations.” It is opposing the renewal of Shaheed’s mandate.

“Last year, there were two executions a day,” Shaheed said at a meeting in Geneva earlier this week on rights in Iran. “Sixty percent of them were related to drug crimes. Many did not have access to lawyers, and confessions were got under torture. Three juveniles were among those hanged.”

Shaheed contested the Iranian government allegation that his report is based on opposition sources, or even terrorists. “Even though I could not get into the country, I talked to 700 people. I do my interviews by Skype. If I was able to go to Iran, there would be government views in my report. It would be in its advantage.”

“Iran is the second executioner country in the world behind China, but the first one per capita,” Raphaël Chenuil-Hazan, executive director of the French NGO Ensemble Contre la Peine de Mort, told IPS. The NGO was created in 2000 to investigate death penalties. It launched the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty that holds a congress every three years.

“The death penalty is a benchmark for human rights,” Hazan said. “It opens the door to the scrutiny of other human rights violations like juvenile justice, ethnic minorities, public executions, torture and unfair trials. We manage to work with grassroots NGOs in all countries, including China and Iraq, but not in Iran.”

The Iranian government, Hazan said, like North Korea “does not allow local NGOs to come to our congress. Our sources are individuals we identify in the prisons. Last year we counted 687 executions. We know it is more, but this is the figure we are able to prove in our report.” The U.N. report is in line with findings by NGOs.

Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, spokesperson of Iran Human Rights, an NGO based in Oslo with members both inside and outside Iran told IPS that “56 percent of the figures included in this report are official, and 44 percent have been confirmed by us independently.”

Last year, he said, the group “documented 59 public executions, all of them announced officially. Children are also watching executions since there is no age limit. But there are so many secret executions in prisons that we need independent investigations.”

According to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by Iran, countries that have not abolished the death penalty can impose it only for the most serious crimes.

“Since 2010, more than 1,800 people have been executed on drug-related charges. But is the possession of 30 grams of heroin, morphine, opium or methadone a ‘most serious crime?’” said Hazan.

Other reasons for capital punishment are “corruption on earth”, rebellion, sexual offences including same-sex relations, organised crime, robbery and smuggling, murder and other religious offences. At least 28 women were hanged publicly in 2013, according to the Special Rapporteur.

Some NGOs accuse the government itself of fostering drug addiction for political reasons, particularly in the Kurdish area. “It is practising an anti-Kurdish policy of pushing youth into drugs and then arresting them,” Karen Parker, a human rights attorney based in San Francisco, told IPS.

Gianfranco Fattorini, of the Mouvement contre le racisme et pour l’amitié entre les peuples (MRAP), a French NGO that supports against racism and discrimination, told the meeting in Geneva that 20 Kurdish activists are known to be on death row and 25 Kurdish political activists have been sentenced to death for propaganda against national security and similar charges.

Diane Ala’i, of the Baha’i International Community, an international NGO representing members of the Baha’i faith, says the persecution of Baha’is is engrained in the constitution that recognises only three religious minorities – Christians, Jews and Zoroastrian. Members of the Baha’i religious minority are persecuted from the time they are born till they die, said Ala’i at the meeting in Geneva.

“Children are ostracised at school; youngsters are denied access to university and to jobs in the public sector. Today 136 Baha’is are in prison only because they are Baha’is. The accusation goes from enmity against god, to being spies or belonging to an illegal organisation. Some of these people are elderly; others are young mothers who have to take their children into prison.”

She added that their cemeteries are bulldozed and “it is clear that these horrible acts are condoned by the authorities.” Violent crimes and incitement to hatred are rising against Baha’is and other minorities, but none of these cases have been investigated by judicial authorities. “This is government orchestrated,” she said.

But more and more Iranians are showing solidarity with the Baha’is, she said. Last week, 75 prominent activists asked the head of the judiciary to give the benefit of Islamic law even to “unrecognised religious minorities” like the Baha’is.

Influential personalities like renowned film-maker Asghar Farhadi have signed an open charter to ask for abolition of the death penalty, following a campaign called Legam (step by step abolition of the death penalty) initiated last November.

“Since they are well known, they encounter fewer risks to go to prison. This shows that civil society is advancing. Now it is up to the government to show that it is opening up too,” said Hazan.

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Middle East Sustains Appetite for Arms http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/middle-east-sustains-appetite-arms/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=middle-east-sustains-appetite-arms http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/middle-east-sustains-appetite-arms/#comments Mon, 17 Mar 2014 21:44:20 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132976 The Middle East continues to be one of the world’s most lucrative arms markets, with two Gulf nations – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – taking the lead, according to a new study released Monday by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). During 2009-2013, 22 percent of arms transfers to the […]

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Saudi Arabia is now the world's fifth largest arms importer, moving up from the 18th largest in 2004-2008. Credit: Radio Nederland Wereldomroep/cc by 2.0

Saudi Arabia is now the world's fifth largest arms importer, moving up from the 18th largest in 2004-2008. Credit: Radio Nederland Wereldomroep/cc by 2.0

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Mar 17 2014 (IPS)

The Middle East continues to be one of the world’s most lucrative arms markets, with two Gulf nations – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – taking the lead, according to a new study released Monday by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

During 2009-2013, 22 percent of arms transfers to the region went to the UAE, 20 percent to Saudi Arabia and 15 percent to Turkey."The Gulf is the Eldorado for Western arms merchants and governments that want to recycle some of the wealth generated from oil." -- Toby C. Jones

The United States accounted for 42 percent of total arms supplies to the region, SIPRI said.

The rising arms purchases are attributed to several factors, including perceived threats from Iran, the growing Sunni-Shia sectarian strife, widespread fears of domestic terrorism, political instability and hefty oil incomes.

“I definitely think it is a mixture of all of those factors,” said Nicole Auger, a military analyst covering Middle East/Africa at Forecast International, a U.S.-based defence market research firm.

The Middle East defence market, she told IPS, is growing substantially as a result of civil unrest, international instability – especially between Iran and Gulf States – and higher oil prices.

Toby C. Jones, an associate history professor at Rutgers University, told IPS, “The Gulf is the Eldorado for Western arms merchants and governments that want to recycle some of the wealth generated from oil.”

There is no collection of states on the planet with more money and more enthusiasm for purchasing expensive weapons systems than in the Gulf, he pointed out.

Whatever strategic value these weapons have or do not have, it is important to keep in mind these weapons are mostly useless for “actual” war, which is why the United States continues to keep such a huge military presence in the region, he added.

“There is almost literally nothing else states could possibly buy that allow for recycling some of the Gulf’s cash,” he said.

Weapons sales generate a lot of virtual bang for the buck, said Jones, a former fellow at Princeton University’s Oil, Energy and Middle East Project and author of ‘Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia’.

Iran, which is barred from importing most types of major arms due to U.N. sanctions, received only one percent of the region’s arms imports in 2009-2013, according to SIPRI.

During the same period, the UAE was ranked the world’s fourth largest arms importer and Saudi Arabia the fifth largest (having been the 18th largest in 2004-2008).

Both countries have large outstanding orders for arms or advanced procurement plan, SIPRI said.

The top three arms importers, however, were India, China and Pakistan. And the five largest arms suppliers during 2009-2013 were the United States (29 percent of global arms exports), Russia (27 percent), Germany (seven percent), China (six percent) and France (five percent).

Auger told IPS, “I would pin Iran as the number one driver: its ongoing role in supporting rebel Shiite groups, cultivating political-military proxy allies in Hamas and Hezbollah and more recently its effort to keep Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in power.”

The Middle East’s major interest right now in upgrading or purchasing missile defence networks is almost all in preparation to defend against long-range attacks from Iran.

Also, Iran appears to be the major reason behind the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) trying again to form the U.S.-backed joint military command, she added.

These GCC countries include Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE.

Auger said internal security would be a close second following the 2011 uprisings, the ongoing unrest in certain nations and the continuing threat of established and emerging Islamic fundamentalist groups.

“This is evident due to the new focus on special operations, electronic surveillance, and cybersecurity equipment,” she said.

The influx of revenue among the energy-exporting nations and the high oil price trend obviously plays a part as well, she added.

Last year’s 10.5-billion-dollar arms deal, one of the largest in the Middle East in recent years, included the sale of 26 F-16 fighter planes to UAE and sophisticated air-launched and air-to-ground missiles to Saudi Arabia.

These missiles were mostly to arm 154 F-15 fighter planes, to be delivered beginning 2015, purchased from the United States in 2010 at a staggering cost of 29.5 billion dollars.

The missiles were meant “to address the threat posed by Iran”, according to a senior U.S. official quoted in a news report.

The arms contract also included 1,000 GBU-35 “bunker busting” bombs to Saudi Arabia and 5,000 to UAE – bombs ideally suited to destroy underground nuclear installations.

But despite the sale of these weapons to Middle Eastern nations, the United States has always maintained it will continue to “guarantee Israel’s qualitative military edge” over Arab nations.

Jones told IPS the Arab Gulf states are politically vulnerable at home and the last three years have been particularly contentious.

While the region has not seen the kind of unrest that shook other parts of the Middle East, except for Bahrain and Kuwait, the regimes in Riyadh and elsewhere are anxious about the possibility there could be a rise in revolutionary fervour.

“They always have been, but these anxieties are more acute in this particular moment. So buying lots of weapons is often connected to domestic policing and counter-revolutionary concerns,” he said.

These weapons will likely never be used in a serious way in a regional conflict, he added.

Jones pointed out the purchasing of weapons, especially long range and complex weapons systems, has little to do with these states’ interest in going to war with Iran or even defending against it. “They have the United States for that,” he said.

But, in buying weapons like these, Gulf regimes claim they are also looking after U.S. energy concerns in a tough neighbourhood.

“These are specious claims, designed to reinforce American anxieties about dangers in the region in order to keep the U.S. military there,” Jones said.

The Arab states need “crisis” to be a permanent condition in order to maximise the West’s and especially Washington’s security commitment – whether crisis is real or not, he added.

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Split over Ukraine Could Undermine Peace in Syria http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/split-ukraine-undermine-peace-syria/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=split-ukraine-undermine-peace-syria http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/split-ukraine-undermine-peace-syria/#comments Thu, 13 Mar 2014 21:57:20 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132834 As the protracted Syrian conflict enters its fourth year, there seems to be little or no hope of a resolution to the devastating crisis. The death toll has now been estimated at more than 140,000, up from over 100,000 last March, claiming the lives of both rebel and security forces. And according to U.N. figures […]

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Calm and composed, Omar heads a family of seven in his tent at a refugee camp in Jordan, including his elderly mother, Samah. He used to be an Arabic language teacher back in Syria. Credit: EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection

Calm and composed, Omar heads a family of seven in his tent at a refugee camp in Jordan, including his elderly mother, Samah. He used to be an Arabic language teacher back in Syria. Credit: EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Mar 13 2014 (IPS)

As the protracted Syrian conflict enters its fourth year, there seems to be little or no hope of a resolution to the devastating crisis.

The death toll has now been estimated at more than 140,000, up from over 100,000 last March, claiming the lives of both rebel and security forces.

And according to U.N. figures released Tuesday, about 5.5 million children have been reduced to the status of refugees, the economy is in free fall, half of the total population of 22 million are living below poverty levels, about 2.5 million have lost their jobs and unemployment is estimated at 44 percent.

Still, the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) remains paralysed and unable to act – and will continue to remain so, since the United States and Russia are now bickering over a new divisive issue: the spreading crisis in Ukraine.

A peace conference in Geneva last month, presided over by Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, ended in shambles.

Three out of the eight children gathered in Omar’s tent said they were continuing their education. One reason for not attending school is the distance, they say, especially for those living in the outskirts of the village like Omar. Credit: EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection

Three out of the eight children gathered in Omar’s tent said they were continuing their education. One reason for not attending school is the distance, they say, especially for those living in the outskirts of the village like Omar. Credit: EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection

With Ukraine taking centre-stage, says one Third World diplomat, Syria has slipped from the negotiating table.

“The three years of deadly devastation in Syria may soon be a thing of the past – and perhaps forgotten,” he predicted, particularly if the big power confrontation over Ukraine continues to escalate.

Jose Luis Diaz, head of Amnesty International’s U.N. office, told IPS one measure of how outrageous the situation in Syria — and of the complicity of some countries in that tragedy — is that the most the UNSC has been able to achieve in three years is to call on the parties, and principally the Syrian government, to abide by the most basic responsibility.

And that responsibility, he said, “is not letting people die of hunger and lack of medical care.”

After taking a tough stand against Western-inspired moves to punish the government of President Bashar al Assad, Russia and China last month supported a Security Council resolution, adopted unanimously, calling for humanitarian access to Syria.

“We hope Russia and China are taking seriously the UNSC’s intention to ensure its recent resolution on humanitarian access is respected, including if necessary by agreeing further steps against parties that don’t comply,” Diaz added.

Mohammad, one of the Jordanians living in the village, has been trying to assist the incoming refugees. He says that most of the aid goes to the camp, with those living with host communities receiving a minimum, which however does include food vouchers distributed by the World Food Programme (WFP). Credit: EC/ECHO/A. Al Sukhni

Mohammad, one of the Jordanians living in the village, has been trying to assist the incoming refugees. He says that most of the aid goes to the camp, with those living with host communities receiving a minimum, which however does include food vouchers distributed by the World Food Programme (WFP). Credit: EC/ECHO/A. Al Sukhni

In a hard-hitting statement Wednesday, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said three years ago, the Syrian people stood up in peaceful protest to demand their universal rights and freedoms.

“In response came brutal force, escalating bloodshed and the devastation of civil war,” he said.

Ban appealed to all warring parties to reflect upon the long and growing list of horrors taking place in Syria every day.

The secretary-general said he “deeply regrets the inability of the international community, the region and the Syrians themselves to put a stop to this appalling conflict.”

Ban specifically appealed to both the United States and Russia to help re-energise the virtually defunct peace process in Geneva.

Diaz of Amnesty International told IPS, “Just as important is that the UNSC follows through on its various statements, including in the latest resolution, that those responsible for violations of human rights and international humanitarian law will face justice.

“We continue to believe the Council should refer the situation in Syria to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC).”

In a statement released Thursday, the New York-based Global Centre for Responsibility to Protect (R2P), said, “Syrians cannot wait any longer.”

The Centre urged the UNSC to demand full implementation, by all parties in Syria, of resolution 2139 (demanding humanitarian access), including the cessation of attacks on civilians, lifting of sieges and facilitation of immediate humanitarian access to all areas of the country.

The Centre also asked the UNSC to authorise targeted sanctions against any government and non-state actors who continue to act in defiance of resolution 2139 and are responsible for mass atrocity crimes; impose an arms embargo on Syria; and refer the Syrian situation to the ICC for investigation, and hold accountable those responsible for mass atrocity crimes.

Additionally, it called for increased efforts to find a political solution to the conflict, including by engaging with all relevant regional powers.

Conscious of the deadlock in the UNSC, the Centre said: “Given the detrimental effects of UNSC division and inaction on Syria, we urge the permanent members of the Council (the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia) to commit to refrain from using the veto, in any case where crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing or genocide, are occurring.”

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Russian Arms to Egypt Threaten to Undermine U.S. in Mideast http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/russian-arms-egypt-threaten-undermine-u-s-mideast/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=russian-arms-egypt-threaten-undermine-u-s-mideast http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/russian-arms-egypt-threaten-undermine-u-s-mideast/#comments Tue, 11 Mar 2014 17:27:10 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132685 Russia, which is at loggerheads with Washington over the spreading political crisis in Ukraine, is threatening to undermine a longstanding military relationship between the United States and one of its traditional allies in the Middle East: Egypt. A photograph of Russian President Vladimir Putin shaking hands with Egypt’s de facto leader Field Marshal Abdel Fateh […]

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Crews of an Egyptian ranger battalion in Jeep YJ light vehicles circa 1992. The soldiers standing are holding Russian-made SA-7 Grail surface-to-air missiles. Credit: public domain

Crews of an Egyptian ranger battalion in Jeep YJ light vehicles circa 1992. The soldiers standing are holding Russian-made SA-7 Grail surface-to-air missiles. Credit: public domain

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Mar 11 2014 (IPS)

Russia, which is at loggerheads with Washington over the spreading political crisis in Ukraine, is threatening to undermine a longstanding military relationship between the United States and one of its traditional allies in the Middle East: Egypt.

A photograph of Russian President Vladimir Putin shaking hands with Egypt’s de facto leader Field Marshal Abdel Fateh Al Sisi was flashed across newspapers and TV screens in the Arab world last month.Although advanced surface-to-air missile systems have a much lower price-tag than larger systems such as combat aircraft, their transfer could have significant military effects.

Sisi, who is planning to run in the country’s presidential elections later this year, was in Moscow to negotiate a hefty two-billion-dollar arms deal with Russia.

“The U.S. government has built the modern Egyptian military over the course of the last three decades,” Dr Natalie J. Goldring, a senior fellow with the Security Studies Programme in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, told IPS.

“Egypt would have to turn its military upside-down to switch to Russian weapons at this point,” she noted.

Ironically, if and when the arms deal is signed, the funding will come from money pledged by three strong U.S. allies in the region: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) who themselves depend heavily on U.S. weapons for survival.

All three countries pledged more than 12 billion dollars to Egypt last year for two reasons: first, to provide economic support to a bankrupt Sisi regime, which ousted the government of former President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, and second, to counter the U.S. threat to reduce or cut off billions of dollars in military grants and suspend arms supplies to Cairo.

The U.S. had expressed its displeasure at the ouster of Morsi, the head of the first democratically elected government in Egypt.

Despite these tensions, Goldring said the Egyptian military will continue to be dominated by U.S. weapons for the foreseeable future.

According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), more than 80 percent of Egyptian weapons deliveries (by dollar value) in recent years have been supplied by the United States.

The U.S. government has provided roughly 1.3 billion dollars of military assistance each year since Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty in 1979.

“While attention has focused on the dollar value of the agreement, it is more important to focus on the types of [Russian] weapons that are transferred,” said Goldring, who also represents the Acronym Institute at the United Nations on conventional weapons and arms trade issues.

Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher with the Arms Transfers Programme of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), told IPS the deal would include air defence systems, MiG-29 or Sukhoi fighter aircraft, combat and transport helicopters and anti-tank missiles.

That Egypt would be looking for such weapons to augment what it gets from the United States is not surprising, he noted. Egypt has since long sought to diversify its arms suppliers in order not to be dependent on Washington.

Wezeman said there have been reports that Egypt is looking for new combat aircraft from another supplier than the United States to replace its ageing Soviet and Chinese models, and that it has looked at options from China, Russia or even surplus fighter planes of French origin from the UAE.

Goldring told IPS the types of weapons transferred will determine the military effects of the sale.

Although advanced surface-to-air missile systems have a much lower price-tag than larger systems such as combat aircraft, their transfer could have significant military effects, she noted.

Before the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, Egypt was equipped mostly with Soviet weapons systems.

Goldring said the upgrading of these weapons, obtained from the then-Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s, is less likely to be militarily significant.

“This [Russian] sale isn’t just about the potential military effects, it’s also about world politics,” she said.

By funding the Egyptian purchase, the Saudi government shows its preference for the Egyptian military government over the Muslim Brotherhood and former Egyptian leader Mohammed Morsi, Goldring noted.

In turn, Russia gets cash from Saudi Arabia for providing the weapons.

The sale could also potentially help Russia further weaken ties between Egypt and the United States, she added.

The Saudis have pledged massive quantities of aid to the military government, beginning with a pledge of five billion dollars just a week after the military took power in July 2013.

The Saudis also organised contributions from the UAE of three billion dollars and four billion dollars from Kuwait, for a total pledge of 12 billion dollars.

Wezeman said the deal, when completed, does not mean that Russia will become the sole or dominant arms supplier to Egypt, taking advantage of the current rift in relations between Egypt and Washington.

He said the United States still plans to resume its large military aid and Egypt is shopping for arms elsewhere too.

Despite the fact that European Union (EU) states had agreed to carefully review their arms exports to Egypt after the violence of last August, they don’t seem to have lost their appetite for selling weapons to Egypt altogether, said Wezeman.

Just last week, it was reported that Egypt was very close to signing a one-billion-euro deal with a French company for four to six new missile-armed corvettes for its navy.

And last year, there were reports Egypt had ordered two submarines from Germany, now under construction (with two more to be ordered this year).

Wezeman said Egypt has also been a longstanding market for Chinese arms and there is no doubt China will work hard to maintain that relationship.

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What’s Going on in the Gulf? Unsurprisingly, It’s Probably About Iran http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/whats-going-gulf-unsurprisingly-probably-iran/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=whats-going-gulf-unsurprisingly-probably-iran http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/whats-going-gulf-unsurprisingly-probably-iran/#comments Mon, 10 Mar 2014 18:42:20 +0000 Derek Davison http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132625 Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain all recalled their ambassadors from Qatar on Wednesday, citing Qatar’s alleged support for organisations and individuals that threaten “the security and stability of the Gulf states” and for “hostile media.” This came right on the heels of a U.A.E. court sentencing Qatari doctor Mahmoud al-Jaidah to seven […]

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By Derek Davison
WASHINGTON, Mar 10 2014 (IPS)

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain all recalled their ambassadors from Qatar on Wednesday, citing Qatar’s alleged support for organisations and individuals that threaten “the security and stability of the Gulf states” and for “hostile media.”

This came right on the heels of a U.A.E. court sentencing Qatari doctor Mahmoud al-Jaidah to seven years in prison on Monday, for the crime of aiding a banned opposition group called al-Islah, which the U.A.E. government alleges has operational ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

This was a coordinated move, led by the Saudis, to punish Qatar for supporting Muslim Brotherhood interests around the Middle East (and also for assuming a more prominent role in pan-Arab politics in general), but beyond that it reflects the Saudis’ deep and ongoing concern about an Iranian resurgence in the Gulf.

The North Dome-South Pars Field, straddling Qatari and Iranian waters. Source: Wikipedia

The North Dome-South Pars Field, straddling Qatari and Iranian waters. Source: Wikipedia

From the Saudi perspective the Qataris have been punching above their proper weight, and making nice with the wrong people.

Qatar’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood are clearly the public justification for this row; it is no mystery why Saudi Arabia followed up Wednesday’s diplomatic swipe at Qatar with a decision on Friday to declare the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation.

The Saudis, while they share certain conservative Islamic principles with the Brotherhood, are more than a bit put off by the group’s opposition to dynastic rule. Despite that feature of Brotherhood’s ideology, though, the very dynastic Qatari monarchy has been a strong supporter of Brotherhood-allied movements throughout the Middle East and North Africa, in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt (especially), and Syria.

Their rationale for doing so has been two-fold: one, they feel that supporting the Brotherhood abroad should insulate them from the Brotherhood at home, and two, Qatar has been predicting that the Brotherhood would be the main beneficiary of the Arab Spring.

Had they been right in their prediction, Qatar’s regional influence would have been significantly increased as a result, but by the looks of things, they were wrong. The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is now outlawed in Egypt, its Ennahda Party in Tunisia has voluntarily agreed to give up power, and it has lost most of its influence within the Syrian opposition.

Last November’s reorganisation of Syrian opposition groups from the Qatar-financed Syrian Islamic Liberation Front to the Saudi-backed Islamic Front can be seen as evidence of the Brotherhood’s, and thus Qatar’s, loss of stature.

A related complaint that these countries have with Qatar is with the country’s Al Jazeera television news network (the “hostile media”).

Al Jazeera has continued to provide media access to Muslim Brotherhood figures in Egypt even as that organization was outlawed by the interim Egyptian government, to the extent that several Al Jazeera journalists are currently on trial in Egypt for aiding the Brotherhood.

These countries are also angry about the fact that Al Jazeera continues to give airtime to Brotherhood-affiliated cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Qaradawi is actually wanted for extradition to Egypt over his comments about the coup that removed the Brotherhood from power there, and he recently lambasted, on Al Jazeera’s airwaves, the U.A.E., for “fighting everything Islamic.”

The reported pressure being placed on Saudi and Emirati journalists working in Qatar to quit their jobs and return home undoubtedly has something to do with the overall irritation with Qatari media.

However, there is another factor at play here: Qatar’s close – too close for Saudi comfort – ties with Iran (the real “organisation” that threatens Gulf – i.e., Saudi – security), which has to do largely with natural gas. Qatar shares its windfall natural gas reserves with Iran, in what’s known as the North Dome/South Pars Field in the Persian Gulf.

The International Energy Agency estimates that it is the largest natural gas field on the planet. Qatar has been extracting gas from its side of the field considerably faster than Iran has been, for a couple of reasons.

For one thing, the North Dome side of the field (the part in Qatari waters) was discovered in the early 1970s, whereas the South Pars side was only discovered about 20 years later, so Qatar had a lot of time to get a head start on developing the field.

For another thing, the North Dome field is pretty much the only game left in Qatar, whose Dukhan oil field is clearly on the decline. Qatar has a huge incentive, then, to develop as much of the North Dome as they can as fast as they can in order to fund their numerous development projects.

There is a potential conflict here, though. Natural gas, like any other gas, tends to flow toward areas of low pressure. So when one end of a gas field is being drained of its gas faster than the other end, some of the gas in the less exploited end may flow to the more exploited end.

This is fine when an entire field is controlled by one country, but in this case, one can easily envision a scenario in which, several years from now, the Iranian government is accusing Qatar of siphoning off its gas.

What this means is that Qatar has a strong incentive to maintain friendly relations with Iran, and on this they have considerable disagreement with their Saudi neighbors.

To Saudi Arabia, Iran is a potential regional rival and must be countered at every turn; their opposition to easing international sanctions against Iran, for example, is not so much about the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon as it is about fear of Iran escaping from the economic cage in which those sanctions have trapped it.

The proxy war taking place between Saudi and Iranian interests in Syria is the most obvious example of the rivalry between the two nations, and the Saudi move against Qatar can be seen as another front in that proxy war.

Qatar, although it has backed the Syrian opposition, sees things differently where Iran is concerned; in January, Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohammad Al-Attiyah publicly called for an “inclusive” approach to Iran, which he argued “has a crucial role” in ending the crisis in Syria.

There is enough historic tension between the Qataris and the Saudis for this kind of disagreement over foreign affairs to provide the basis for a wider fracturing of relations.

For its part, Bahrain has every reason to go along with a Saudi diplomatic move against a suspected regional ally of Iran; after all, it was Saudi intervention that saved Bahrain’s ruling al-Khalifa family from a Shiʿa-led rebellion in 2011, a rebellion that Bahrain accuses Iran of fomenting.

Look, though, at the two GCC members that did not pull their ambassadors from Qatar: Kuwait, where the Brotherhood’s Hadas Party is out of favour, but whose relations with Iran are “excellent”; and Oman, where Sultan Qaboos has been critical of the Brotherhood, but who is close enough to Iran to have served as a go-between for back-channel U.S.-Iran negotiations.

If the issue were really Qatar’s support for the Brotherhood, and not its relationship with Iran, both of these countries may well have joined the others in recalling their ambassadors.

The one country for which this explanation does not make sense is the U.A.E., whose relations with Iran are improving after the two countries recently reached an accord over the disposition of three disputed Gulf islands. In this case, it may really be that Qatar’s support for the Brotherhood, and especially the Jaidah case and Qaradawi’s criticisms, motivated their action.

Qatar’s failed bet on the Muslim Brotherhood made this the right time for the Saudis to move against them, but Saudi fears about an Iranian resurgence may well have been the real reason for their action.

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Gazans Find Tuneful Resistance http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/gazans-find-tuneful-resistance/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=gazans-find-tuneful-resistance http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/gazans-find-tuneful-resistance/#comments Sun, 09 Mar 2014 09:37:34 +0000 Khaled Alashqar http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132574 Like almost everyone else in Gaza, these six are angry about the Israeli-imposed blockade and the resulting misery. Except that they are expressing their anger through music – without the music itself sounding angry. There’s much to say – or sing if you prefer to say it that way. More than a million-and-a-half people in […]

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The Watar band at a performance in Gaza. Credit: Khaled Alashqar/IPS.

The Watar band at a performance in Gaza. Credit: Khaled Alashqar/IPS.

By Khaled Alashqar
GAZA CITY , Mar 9 2014 (IPS)

Like almost everyone else in Gaza, these six are angry about the Israeli-imposed blockade and the resulting misery. Except that they are expressing their anger through music – without the music itself sounding angry.

There’s much to say – or sing if you prefer to say it that way. More than a million-and-a-half people in Gaza are living under a tight blockade. Poverty and widespread despair have radically increased as a result.There’s much to say – or sing if you prefer to say it that way. More than a million-and-a-half people in Gaza are living under a tight blockade.

Unemployment is reaching high levels, particularly among graduate students. Dreams of a better and secure future lie shattered in the impoverished territory.

In these difficult circumstances, these six have chosen to sing through their Watar Band; Watar means ‘tune’ in Arabic. The musical six mostly use Western instruments, and sing in Arabic, English and French.

Following the Israeli assault on Gaza in 2009 which led to the deaths of more than 1,400 people and massive destruction, Ala Shoublak, founder and leading member of the band, gathered musician friends to set up the band.

“Everything was destroyed, including schools, roads and buildings, and the only theatre in Gaza that belongs to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society was bombed. We just decided to take our music instruments and sit on top of the destroyed theatre and sing for peace and freedom despite the ugly smell of death all around.”

After that brave start five years back, the band developed further and became more structured. They bought new instruments and began to do public shows.

The group has gradually become well known and attracts many fans, especially among school and university students in Gaza Strip. This is not surprising, because they sing about the hopes and aspirations of youth for a better life, and for a peaceful future free of conflict and siege.

The band has two clear objectives, Ala Shoublak tells IPS: “To resist first the occupation and the blockade through music which delivers messages of peace and freedom, and second, to communicate the hopes of the youth amidst suffering in Gaza to the outside world. That’s why we use English and French in our songs as well.”

The band has recently produced a song called ‘Dawsha’ (meaning ‘noise’ in Arabic) that has become very popular. Many youth come up to sing with the band through such songs.

Media student Mariam Abu-Amer joined the band during a project called ‘Gaza Sings for Freedom and Peace’. “It was a unique and special experience to singe with Watar,” she told IPS. “My participation gave me the opportunity to express my dreams and hopes to my people and to the world as a young woman in Gaza. It also allowed me to encourage female participation in music bands in Gaza as it’s generally limited.”

Despite success, the band lacks the funds and professional support it needs. It’s unable to produce an album because of funding problems.

All along, the group face the fundamental problem that in the political and economic crisis, music is not a priority. The Hamas-led government is focused on urgent humanitarian needs.

Director-General of the Ministry of Culture Mohammed Alaraieer told IPS that the government is trying to “deal with the cultural needs and situation in all forms and encourage artists and culturists to focus on the just cause of Palestine and Israeli occupation, but the ministry is not able to give much assistance because of the blockade and closure.”

Groups like Watar band therefore seek support from international organisations and institutions that are based in Gaza. The French Cultural Centre has allowed the band to use its premises for workshops and to host concerts. It also has also connected them with European bands, and organised a cultural tour to France and other countries in Europe.

The Edward Said National Institute of Music is the only place in Gaza that teaches music and provides professional training. Until recently it had only a small a number of students attending classes, but the numbers increased following Watar’s success in finding international audiences.

Director of the Institute Ibrahim Al-Najar told IPS that the Watar band’s “education and good command of international languages and excellent use of social media allow them to develop their skills and present their work globally. They put on wonderful performances and deserve to be supported.” But, he said, that success only “represents individual efforts.”

But the success is in part a result of the very difficulties Gazans face. “The youth are generally ambitious and hopeful, and success comes also out of suffering, and this is what motivated Watar band to form and attempt to reach international audiences, especially given that the political circumstances here have cut the world off from the people of Gaza,” Prof. Fadil Abu-Hein, who teaches psychology and sociology at Al-Aqsa University in Gaza told IPS.

Periodic instances of using the arts to express resistance and anguish have been arising in Gaza. Last year Mohammed Assaf from Gaza won the Arab Idol contest. Many who cannot fight the blockade fight it their own way through music and the arts.

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Tahrir Square Finds a GrEEK Neighbour http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/tahrir-square-finds-greek-neighbour/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=tahrir-square-finds-greek-neighbour http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/tahrir-square-finds-greek-neighbour/#comments Fri, 07 Mar 2014 08:11:46 +0000 Rachel Williamson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132481 The group of buildings near Tahrir Square could be modern campus-style office space anywhere. It’s hard to believe that just outside the heavy steel gates lies downtown Cairo, the noisy, polluted and now troubled heart of Egypt. The buildings are now a new IT hub called the GrEEK, after its history as a Greek school […]

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IT entrepreneur Marwa Sadek, the face of a new Egypt. Credit: Rachel Williamson/IPS.

IT entrepreneur Marwa Sadek, the face of a new Egypt. Credit: Rachel Williamson/IPS.

By Rachel Williamson
CAIRO, Mar 7 2014 (IPS)

The group of buildings near Tahrir Square could be modern campus-style office space anywhere. It’s hard to believe that just outside the heavy steel gates lies downtown Cairo, the noisy, polluted and now troubled heart of Egypt.

The buildings are now a new IT hub called the GrEEK, after its history as a Greek school and its current incarnation as a technology hub, and are the intended nucleus of a rising Egyptian ‘Silicon Alley’.The possibility of disruption from Tahrir Square to business as usual at the tech hub is a continuing reminder here that Egypt is not out of the political woods yet.

The location was the chief attraction for venture capitalist Ahmed Alfi when he decided in 2012 to build an ‘ecosystem’ for tech entrepreneurs.

The campus is close to the junction of the main metro lines and just a few stops from the national train station. Alfi said residents of Greater Cairo and from many of the surrounding cities could be at the business park within an hour and a half.

Alfi has ten tenants already in the office space he lets out, and “four or five” negotiating space, he told IPS.

Rent for a 50-square-metre office can vary from 450 dollars per month to 1,500 dollars on the lower floors. To put that in context, the new minimum wage for public sector workers is 172 dollars a month.

Alfi is clear about his aims for the campus: to give Egypt’s engineers and scientists a place to build technology businesses and thereby boost the sputtering economy. “My interest is its impact on the culture of entrepreneurs and on the Egyptian economy,” said Alfi.

“I don’t feel a responsibility towards the restoration of downtown. I mean, there’s some, but I feel a responsibility towards taking the really, really smart kids here who aren’t part of an ecosystem and getting them to work together and get some dynamism to happen.”

Those “kids” are the much talked of entrepreneurs in Egypt’s tech revolution who are reimagining their country as they want it to be. They are educated, usually bilingual, and tapped into regional entrepreneurial and business networks.

Marwa Sadek, founder of the digital marketing agency 20 Uses, mentored start-ups in Alfi’s Flat6Labs business incubator for the last two years, and couldn’t wait to get involved when she heard about the venture.

“I wanted to be in a place that is a business hub,” she said, having moved into a fashionably spartan second floor office in January. “When all the companies move in, the GrEEK campus is going to be a strong source of economic activity.”

Not only has the exposure to other businesses expanded 20 Uses’ client base, Sadek will soon have all the facilities on site needed to run a business, such as meeting rooms and cafes.

Yassar el-Zahhar chats happily about the plans for his health food start-up to service the geeks on the new campus. “You can smell the success here,” he told IPS. “Being here makes me take the power from the entrepreneurs around me.”

But all the excitement and business acumen inside the campus are unlikely to benefit those working just outside the gates. Continuing political agitation in Tahrir Square is one factor that raises questions just how much positive influence will flow out into the wider community.

Sadek’s main problem is the proximity to the square. She’s had to postpone meetings “three or four times” in the last two months because protests made the campus difficult or dangerous to reach.

Sadek said this would not discourage her from working from the GrEEK. But the possibility of disruption from Tahrir Square to business as usual at the tech hub is a continuing reminder here that Egypt is not out of the political woods yet.

GrEEK seems a world apart from Tahrir Square. The downtown area is “full of nasty people,” said el-Zahhar. “You can’t walk in peace in downtown.”

That means business for his food outlet at the GrEEK haven. “This will be protecting you. Protecting the girls, protecting the nice guys… I don’t think downtown will make any use of us, we are here to make money not spend money.”

Across the road from the GrEEK, Reda Feuad sipped tea in his IT shop as he waited for customers. Feuad doesn’t see the upstarts next door replacing his long-standing relationships with clients around the country.

The generational and educational difference between Feuad and the GrEEK tenants was clear: where Feuad spoke Arabic only and connected with his Egyptian clients via phone and sometimes in person, his new neighbours have regional and international ambitions, speak two or more languages and are constantly available by phone, and email, Facebook and Twitter.

No signs of this are evident yet, but some expect the influx of smart, innovative problem solvers to have some impact on the downtown area.

Heba Gamal, managing director of the economic development NGO Endeavour Egypt, hoped it would revive the community through foot traffic and social interactions with “young, enthusiastic, excited” business leaders.

“I think the downtown culture will be affected because it will want to, I mean smart entrepreneurs will definitely come in and want to tailor to that new segment of clientele that is suddenly available to them,” she said.

GrEEK CEO Tarek Taha is keen to be a good neighbour and has commissioned local carpenters and furniture makers to renovate heritage-listed buildings.

“We clearly understand where we’re located and we want to have an impact within the environment around us… I know this is a really small incremental effect but it’s very important to us.”

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Women Still Walk Two Steps Behind in Arab World http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/women-still-walk-two-steps-behind-arab-world/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=women-still-walk-two-steps-behind-arab-world http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/women-still-walk-two-steps-behind-arab-world/#comments Thu, 06 Mar 2014 20:49:00 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=132522 In much of the Arab world, women’s participation in the labour force is the lowest in the world, according to the United Nations, while women in politics are a rare breed both in the Middle East and North Africa. Perhaps one of the few exceptions is Algeria, says Lakshmi Puri, deputy executive director of U.N. […]

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Women protest in Tunis to demand protection of their rights. Credit: Giuliana Sgrena/IPS

Women protest in Tunis to demand protection of their rights. Credit: Giuliana Sgrena/IPS

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Mar 6 2014 (IPS)

In much of the Arab world, women’s participation in the labour force is the lowest in the world, according to the United Nations, while women in politics are a rare breed both in the Middle East and North Africa.

Perhaps one of the few exceptions is Algeria, says Lakshmi Puri, deputy executive director of U.N. Women."There is no doubt that culture and religion play some role, but the fact remains that over the past 30 years, and particularly in the last decade, we have seen the rising tide of very conservative forces in the region." -- Sanam Anderlini

The North African nation has reached the critical mass of some 30 percent of women parliamentarians, while Saudi Arabia has broken new ground by welcoming women to the Shura council.

Still, with a regional average of female parliamentarians just above 12 percent, the Arab world remains far behind the already low global average of 20 percent, according to U.N figures.

Asked whether this was due to cultural or religious factors, Puri told IPS, “It is not easy to pinpoint a single cause for the low level of women’s participation in the labour force and in politics in the Arab world, and more generally, around the world.”

She said there is no doubt that entrenched gender stereotypes and social norms that condone discrimination against women play a negative role, but other factors also need to be taken into account.

These include, for example, access to and quality of education, opportunities to reconcile professional or political life with family responsibilities, the overall structure of the labour market, and prevalence of violence against women.

When representatives of women’s organisations meet in New York next week, one of the many issues before the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) will be the low level of women’s participation in the labour force and in political and social life worldwide.

Women wearing the traditional Hijab attend the Commission on the Status of Women at U.N. headquarters in March 2010. Credit: Bomoon Lee/IPS

Women wearing the traditional Hijab attend the Commission on the Status of Women at U.N. headquarters in March 2010. Credit: Bomoon Lee/IPS

The CSW, scheduled to hold its annual sessions Mar. 10-21, is the primary inter-governmental policy-making body on gender equality and advancement of women.

This year’s session will focus on challenges and achievements in the implementation of the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), specifically for women and girls.

Sanam Anderlini, co-founder of the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN) and a senior fellow at the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), told IPS: “We should steer clear of assuming that the low levels of participation in public spaces – political and economic – are ‘entrenched ‘cultural or religious values.’

“There is no doubt that culture and religion play some role, but the fact remains that over the past 30 years, and particularly in the last decade, we have seen the rising tide of very conservative forces in the region – largely supported by regional governments themselves – that are promoting a regressive agenda towards women.”

Let’s not forget that Egypt had a feminist movement in the 19th century, she added.

Puri listed several factors that negatively affect outcomes for women and girls.

These, she pointed out, include family codes and parallel traditional legal and justice systems that deny women property and inheritance rights, access to productive resources, sanction polygamy and early and child marriages, and put women at a disadvantage in marriage and divorce.

At the same time, it is essential to tackle negative misinterpretations of religion or culture that not only condone but perpetuate myths about inherent inequality between men and women and justify gender-based discrimination.

“As we at UN Women have pointed out, along with many faith-based and other organisations, equality between women and men was propounded centuries ago in the Arab region,” Puri said.

At the same time, governments along with all stakeholders, including civil society, need to put in place an enabling environment in order to increase women’s participation in all spheres of life, said Puri.

Anderlini told IPS that in the Arab world – like any other part of the world – there are always different cultural forces at play simultaneously: conservative and progressive.

But in the Arab world, the conservative forces are seeking to erase or discredit the gains made in the past.

“They like to associate ‘women’s rights’ with immorality and westernisation. It is a clear political agenda that is being fomented and we must not fall for the notion that it is ‘cultural’ or religious’,” said Anderlini, who was appointed last year to the Working Group on Gender and Inclusion of the Sustainable Development Network for the U.N.’s post-2015 economic agenda.

She also said Islam calls for equal rights to education for women and men – to equal pay, to women’s rights to inheritance and participation in public life.

“What’s being spread are extreme interpretations of Islam that may be rooted in countries like Saudi Arabia but are newer to Egypt, Tunisia or Lebanon,” she warned.

Asked how women’s participation can be advanced in the Arab region, Puri told IPS, “As elsewhere, achieving the advancement of women’s participation in the political, economic and social spheres in the Arab States requires interventions at multiple levels.”

First, a reform of state constitutions and laws as well as of traditional legal and justice systems and the creation of a conducive policy environment based on international women’s rights norms and instruments, such as the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action, needs to be in place.

This environment should not only allow, but also encourage women to participate in the work force and in public life.

It must include temporary special measures, such as quotas in all public institutions. Education, training and skills building is also essential.

In the workplace, reconciling family responsibilities with professional life must be addressed, as women still undertake most of the domestic and care work, said Puri.

This must include effective maternity leave practices and provisions, affordable and accessible childcare and other caregiving structures, as well as incentives for men and boys to play a greater role in undertaking domestic work, such as compulsory paternity leave, she noted.

The policy environment also must focus on preventing violence against women at home, harassment at the workplace and in public spaces, so that women and girls do not fear any repercussions for partaking in public life.

Secondly, she said, there has to be bottom-up change.

“This means changing entrenched patriarchal mindsets and shift from attitudes and beliefs that focus on women’s reproductive role to women’s productive and public roles,” stressed Puri.

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