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Updated: 22 hours 32 min ago

Egyptians vote in snap referendum on keeping Sisi in power

Sun, 2019-04-21 16:24
Banners line streets of Cairo telling citizens to vote to extend presidency of Abdel Fatah al-Sisi

Polling stations across Cairo filled with people as Egyptians voted in a snap referendum expected to allow President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi to remain in power until 2030. Six people said that they had been bussed to the polls from working-class areas, and given bags of food in exchange for their vote.

Amid a subdued atmosphere on the streets of downtown Cairo, banners lined the streets telling citizens to vote to confirm the changes. A lone banner from the Egyptian Conservative party hung above one central square, stating that it “rejected the constitutional amendments,” which also increased Sisi’s control over the judiciary and expanded the military’s role in politics.

Gun-toting soldiers and members of the security services watched over polling stations, accompanied by teenagers wearing T-shirts bearing the logo of the “do the right thing” campaign, set up to encourage citizens to vote, often in favor of the changes. The campaign’s logo was visible on dozens of microbuses lining the streets around polling stations in central Cairo, where voters said the buses had brought them from working-class neighborhoods surrounding the capital. A recent change to election regulations allowed Egyptians to vote anywhere in the country, not just their local area.

The amendments are predicted to pass, allowing Sisi to extend his current term until 2024, with a third term lasting until 2030. The vote, some observers believe, marks the end of the constitutional guarantee that Egyptian presidents may only rule for two terms, the last remaining achievement of the 2011 uprising that toppled former autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

The sweeping changes will also create a second house of parliament, the role of vice-president and add a 25% quota for women.

“All the polling stations are full like this,” said Amal Ali, as she stood in front of a polling station in downtown Cairo. Her husband, she said, was one of the microbus drivers who had brought people from the Giza neighborhood of Talbiya, and had returned to collect more. “Two or three people on every bus will vote no,” she said, but was unable to point out anyone she knew who had done so.

A group of four women sat inside a nearby microbus bearing the “do the right thing” logo explained the bus had brought them to the polls from Qalyubia, south of Cairo. All declined to give their names, for their own safety. “Ten days before the vote, someone said if you show your ink-stained finger, you’ll get a bag worth 150LE [£6.70],” one explained. All four women said they had voted in favor of the amendments.

“Imagine how poor we are that we came all this way to sell our vote,” said another. “Everything now is hard – if someone has five kids they have to beg in the street,” she said, in reference to harsh austerity measures. “Some people can’t afford food or clothing. If they arrest me, I don’t care.”

A third woman complained that the bag of food they had been promised by the driver “would be big – but it’s small”.

“With us he will win. Without us, he will also win,” said a fourth woman, in reference to Sisi.

Around the corner, close to Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which formed the central point of the 2011 uprising, a group of 10 people jostled in front of a microbus. “Some people took more than two bags, so they’re fighting,” explained a woman standing nearby, who had travelled with the group. “Now they’re refusing to go back until they’ve got their share.” Nearby, others carried armfuls of black plastic bags of food.

The driver of the van, who did not give his name, explained that the small bags contained cooking oil, salsa, pasta, rice and sugar. “Some guy at the bus stop gave us the bags,” he said.

The campaign to demand that citizens vote in favor of the changes began long before a referendum was officially declared, when 531 out of 596 MPs supported the amendments just four days before the vote. Most people said they had learned about the referendum from television and newspaper reports in the pro-government media. Very few said they were aware of any campaign to demand that citizens vote against the reforms.

“We were not given any chance to campaign,” said Khaled Dawoud, a longtime opposition figure and a member of the Civil Democratic Movement set up to oppose the changes. “Our members were arrested, and we had no access to local media at all.”

With days between the declaration of a referendum and the vote, international observers were unable to organize themselves to oversee the polling. “That’s their problem,” said a judge as he watched over a polling center in downtown Cairo. “Most people following the referendum knew it would happen now.”

As mass protests rose up against military dictatorships in Sudan and Algeria, banners appeared on the streets of Cairo telling Egyptians that Sisi’s rule was a guarantee of future stability and prosperity. The former minister of defence who swept to power in a coup in 2013 renewed his current mandate in 2018 with 97.8% of the vote.

“You see what’s happening in the Arab world right now? Look at Syria, or Iraq. Egypt wants to avoid what happened in other countries,” said Mahmoud Hamma, who said he had voted in favor of the reforms.

Others were determined to vote against the changes, despite the odds. “I will go and vote no because this man and this government should not continue. Everything is now worse,” said Mohammed, a parking attendant who spoke by telephone from Luxor, and whose surname has been withheld for his safety. “I even voted for Sisi in the first elections in 2014, and I am regretting this now,” he said.

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Turkey arrested 2 UAE intel operatives in Istanbul, probing link to Khashoggi murder

Sun, 2019-04-21 14:00

Turkey arrested two intelligence operatives in Istanbul on Monday who confessed to spying on Arab nationals on behalf of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), one of whom is suspected of having connections to the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed more than six months ago by a Saudi hit squad.

Citing judicial sources, Anadolu Agency reported Friday that Turkey was investigating whether the arrival of one of those detained had connections to Khashoggi’s murder in October last year.

Reuters also reported on Friday that according to a senior Turkish official, the two confessed to spying on Arab nationals for the UAE and that now Turkey is investigating whether their arrival in the country is related to Khashoggi’s death.

The two UAE nationals were detained as part of an investigation led by the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office and the two were referred to a court to be arrested on charges of military, political and international espionage.

Khashoggi was killed in the kingdom’s Istanbul Consulate on Oct. 2, 2018, by a team of 15, consisting of Saudi officials who arrived in Turkey for his murder and a cover-up team also in charge of dismembering Khashoggi’s body.

It has also been reported that one of the two men arrived in Turkey in October 2018, only few days after Khashoggi was murdered inside Saudi Arabia’s Consulate in Istanbul. Officials said that the other spy arrived later to assist his colleague.

“We are investigating whether the primary individual’s arrival in Turkey was related to the Jamal Khashoggi murder,” said the official, adding the person has been under surveillance for the past six months.

“It is possible that there was an attempt to collect information about Arabs, including political dissidents, living in Turkey,” he further underlined.

During the arrests, Turkish officials also seized an encrypted computer located in a hidden compartment at what the official told Reuters was the spy ring’s base.

The official, who requested anonymity, said statements by the detained men suggested their intelligence operation targeted political exiles and students.

The Daily Sabah learned that the suspects identified as S.S. and Z.H. also said that the aim of the spy ring was to create an anti-Turkey structure. S.S. came under the radar of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) for his meetings and was taken under physical and technical surveillance, according to government officials. The MIT also detected that he was gathering information from his contacts in exchange for money.

The other suspect, Z.H., was sent to Turkey five months after to help S.S. resume his activities more comfortably. The two were found to be working until late at night on some days. When intel units concluded that S.S. and Z.H. were conducting espionage activities, the MIT and Istanbul police held a joint operation Monday while the two were on their way to a rendezvous point.

The CIA concluded in October that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) ordered the assassination of Khashoggi. However, U.S. President Donald Trump has disputed the CIA report and told reporters: “The CIA points it both ways. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t,” a phrase he had used in a controversial statement released on the incident. When the reporter asked who should be held responsible for the killing, Trump responded, “Maybe the world should be held accountable because the world is a vicious place.”

After weeks of denying any involvement in the crime, Saudi Arabia later admitted that Khashoggi had been killed inside the consulate but denied that the royal family and the crown prince had any prior knowledge of or responsibility for Khashoggi’s killing. The incident was blamed on lower-level officials, including five that are now facing the death penalty over their involvement; the kingdom has indicated 21 people are officially involved in the case.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia are close Arab allies.

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For the 7th Time Round, Sisi Blocks Batel (Void) Campaign Site

Fri, 2019-04-19 06:00

For the seventh time round, the Egyptian authorities on Wednesday morning blocked the new site of the anti-constitutional amendments “Batel” electronic campaign, which is intended to collect signatures for rejecting the extension of the rule of coup leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, after blocking the official website of the campaign six times earlier.

The NetBlocks International website released a report on Wednesday saying that the seventh website of the opposition campaign was blocked, after internet service providers in Egypt blocked over 34,000 internet domains on Monday night in an apparent bid to stamp out the campaign that opposes proposed amendments to the Constitution.

Websites and subdomains unreachable via Telecom Egypt, Raya, Vodafone and Orange include prominent technology startups, self-help websites, celebrity homepages, dozens of Open Source technology projects, as well as Bahá’í, Jewish and Islamic faith group websites and NGOs.

The set of websites hosted on a shared IP address, now blocked, owned by hosting provider Netlify. The findings suggest that the Egyptian government may have incurred significant collateral damage as it seeks to restrict online content relating to the campaign, which uses the slogan Void.

NetBlocks released a report earlier this week stating that the original website for the Batel / Void campaign was first blocked hours after it reportedly gathered 60,000 signatures on Tuesday 9 April 2019 after gaining popular support against proposed changes to Egypt’s constitution “amid concerns over electoral fraud.”.

Ahead of the referendum, Egypt has seen widespread campaigning pushing for people to vote for the amendments. Website blocks began in May 2017, when access to 21 sites was blocked on some ISPs, without the websites’ prior notification or clarification from relevant officials on the reasons behind the block or the entity responsible for its implementation. Since then, the Egyptian government has increasingly resorted to website censorship, with access to nearly 500 webpages currently blocked, according to an inventory compiled by AFTE.

The “free referendum” campaign on Tuesday launched the seventh domain: “https://34000sites.com” on its seventh day since its launch, which lasted less than a day after its launch.

In an earlier statement, Arabi 21 said that “the Egyptian authorities continued to track and block the website’s addresses, reflecting their complete failure to penetrate and disrupt the site, due to the advanced security procedures developed by the technical team of the campaign, which led the government to resort to the only option it can do by blocking votes and silencing voices”.

The number of signatories to the Void petition campaign has so far exceeded 327,000 Egyptians both at home and abroad, despite the almost permanent blocking attempts of the campaign site.

A few days ago, Amr Waked, a famous Egyptian actor, announced his support for the Batel campaign, calling on the Egyptians to interact positively with the campaign and to participate in voting through the platforms announced.

Egyptian space scientist and former presidential adviser who is working at US Nasa Agency Essam Heggi also expressed his support and solidarity for the Void campaign, asserting that it is a “symbolic movement that seems small but carries great and sweeping hopes for change.”

Heggi stressed that “Batel Campaign is now the only way that has been made available to people for peacefully and securely express their opposition to constitutional amendments”, calling on all Egyptians to participate heavily in the campaign.

The family of the young Egyptian Khaled Said, described as “icon of the January 25 Revolution” expressed their full support for the campaign, adding: “If the martyr Khaled Said had been alive now, he would have been the first to declare his full and frank rejection of these amendments”.

The Khaled Said family also called upon the Egyptian people of across the political spectrum to participate quickly in this campaign, which they believe “contributes to the revival of the spirit of the January Revolution to save Egypt from Sisi’s tyranny.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s General Office also called upon all the free people all over the country, including various age, social, and intellectual categories to be “active participants in Batel campaign; to reject this regime, expose it through expressing themselves through this free vote, and to highlight rejection of attempts to reinforce the military rule”.

The “Void Campaign” is the first joint action that includes all thvarious political orientations since the July 3, 2013 coup, bringing together opposition political figures and forces from across its liberal, leftist, and Islamic spectrum. Observers consider this a significant change in the call for alignment of all national forces against the Sisi regime.

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Sudan’s military ties with Saudis, UAE in spotlight amid turmoil

Thu, 2019-04-18 13:38
Amid continuing pressure to transfer power to a civilian government, Sudanese protesters are rejecting support from Saudi Arabia and the UAE to the military regime.

With Sudan in turmoil following the ouster of longtime President Omar al-Bashir, the continuation of his foreign policy towards Gulf countries by the military has not been well received by the Sudanese people. Despite the declaration of a curfew last week, protesters gathered near the military headquarters in the capital and chanted slogans against Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt. “We do not want your support,” one banner said, in an apparent reference to countries backing the council, while another said, “No to intervention in Sudan by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.”

Sudan is part of Saudi Arabia’s disastrous military campaign in Yemen. That marked a dramatic shift by Khartoum, which aligned itself with the Gulf Arab monarchies at the expense of close ties with their archrival Iran. Ousted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir deployed troops to Yemen in 2015 as part of a major foreign policy shift that saw Khartoum break its decades-old ties with Shiite Iran and join the Saudi-led coalition. Sudan, an Arab League and African Union members situated along the strategically prized Red Sea, play a unique role in the Middle East’s geopolitical order.

This was the first major foreign policy announcement made by the new military rulers after ousting al-Bashir last week and essentially a continuation of his policy. Last week, Saudi Arabia and the UAE issued statements in support of Sudan’s transitional military council after mass protests forced longtime President al-Bashir from power. Sudanese media reports claim that many of the Sudanese troops fighting in Yemen are from the Rapid Support Force (RSF) paramilitary group. Hundreds of Sudanese soldiers and officers are fighting in Yemen and have suffered casualties, raising calls for a withdrawal.

Sudanese troops participating in a Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen will remain in the war-torn country until the Arab alliance achieves its goals, a senior Sudanese military official said Monday. “We will stick to our commitment with the Arab alliance, and our troops will remain until the alliance achieves its goals,” Mohammad Hamdan Daglo, the second-in-charge in Sudan’s new ruling military council, told the Sudan News Agency.

Ousted President al-Bashir jailed

For nearly four months, thousands of people protested across Sudan, calling for ousted President al-Bashir to step down. Their wish came true on April 11, when the military ended his 30-year rule and placed him under house arrest. But it wasn’t enough for the demonstrators, who fear an army dominated by al-Bashir appointees will cling to power or select one of their own to succeed him. Thousands of people continue to gather at a sit-in outside the military headquarters in Khartoum set up April 6. The country’s military rulers have transferred al-Bashir to prison, a family source said yesterday. Since his removal by the military last Thursday, al-Bashir had been detained under heavy guard in the presidential residence inside the compound that also houses the Defense Ministry, the family sources said. Sudan’s military rulers have made some concessions to protesters, including the sacking on Tuesday of Prosecutor General Omer Ahmed Mohamed, but demonstrators still fear their uprising could be hijacked.

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Egypt: No One Believes Vote on Constitutional Amendments Will Be Fair

Wed, 2019-04-17 20:48
Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi blocked access to opposition websites, introduced draconian penalties and vowed to punish journalists ahead of vote

As the world watches the peaceful revolution that is changing Sudan in awe and amazement, it is clear that in Egypt, Sudan’s neighbor to the north, Sisi is getting nervous. On the same day as the protests in Khartoum reached a head, several of us who oppose Sisi’s autocratic rule launched an online petition to declare any result from Tuesday’s referendum on proposed constitutional amendments; “void”.

Amongst the amendments which Sisi is trying to force on the Egyptian people is a provision which could allow him to remain in power until 2034. The amendments would also increase the control of the military who would be given powers to police the political sphere in Egypt. They would also give Sisi control over the appointment of judges and the public prosecutor.

These amendments are to be voted on by the people in a referendum, but there is no one who believes that this would be anything close to free or fair. Sisi is desperate to overstay his welcome in power and it is for this reason that we have decided to run a “shadow” referendum, to show the true will of the Egyptian people.

No one who believes that this would be anything close to free or fair. In typical Sisi fashion, the website was blocked in Egypt after reaching 60,000 signatures in the first few hours of its launch. The voting was then moved to encrypted messaging app Telegram. Even then, Sisi’s team were able to block access, which lead to another page being created. It has now become a cat and mouse chase to block and re-open websites. All the while there are now over 100,000 signatures and the apparent full force of the Egyptian Government is not able to fully silence the true will of the people.

In fact, only a few weeks earlier another wave of discontent flooded Egyptian social media through the “You are not Alone” hashtag. It was started by Motaaz Matar an Egyptian opposition journalist working from a TV station based in Turkey. He called on people to tweet with the hashtag #اطمن_انت_مش_لوحدك (Be assured, you are not alone), and within a few hours it spilled over the border and became the top trending hashtag in Egypt, Algeria, Qatar and Jordan.

Everyone from opposition leaders to other journalists, foreign politicians and just regular people joined in, prompting the Sisi regime to respond with extreme violence and targeting those participating in the campaign.

The Parliament issued a new amendment to the already-draconian anti-terror law, declaring that the penalty for writing any “extremist” idea online, or inciting action against the state would be increased from five years to 10 years imprisonment.

But Sisi’s online war began long before the Void and You Are Not Alone campaigns.

Indeed, before the revolution in 2010, when he was a director of military intelligence, he said in a seminar with the Egyptian military that “social media will have a critical impact on Egypt and our region.”

He made sure to act swiftly on this. In 2014, before the presidential elections that followed the military coup, the UAE paid 10 million euros to buy a spyware program from a French company, Nexa technology. The UAE gave this program to Egypt to facilitate monitoring, tracking and hacking of opponents’ social media accounts.

Soon after a large number of Egyptian opposition activists were arrested.

In May last year, Sisi angrily announced that, “all the people who oppose [Egypt] from TV stations based abroad, I swear they will be punished”. He was issuing a clear threat to all journalists and activists who are working in TV stations abroad, myself included.

It was following this threat that he began to impose much stronger restrictions and control on what is published online. The social media accounts of activists were monitored and tracked. Many such as Wael Abbas a prominent blogger were then arrested and charged with publishing “rumors”, insulting the president, or spreading a pessimistic atmosphere in Egypt.

Amnesty international released a report on 6 March 2019 that said Egypt had targeted dozens of human rights defenders with cyber-attacks. They found that the attacks occurred between 13 and 18 January 2019 and increased significantly on 29 January, during a meeting between opposition activists and French president Emmanuel Macron.

But outrage is growing against the repression by Egyptian authorities. An increase in the detention of political prisoners is making social media more appealing than ever to Egyptians and especially to the opposition.

Indeed, whatever it is that Sisi and his regime are trying to achieve by curbing social media use, targeting activists and even changing the constitution, seems to have had the complete opposite effect. Social media is more buzzing now than ever. Blocking websites increases the desire to reach them; targeting social networking sites encourages their users to devise more ingenious and effective means to use them to their advantage; and arresting activists pushes their friends to blog more about them.

I sometimes wonder if Sisi and his regime realise we are living in 2019. No matter how hard they try, we will always find a voice to express our discontent, whether it is on the streets or online, he cannot silence us.

*By Osama Gaweesh, an Egyptian TV presenter living in exile in the UK. The article was published on The Guardian on 16 April 2019.

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Egypt, “Void” campaign

Wed, 2019-04-17 19:16

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Egypt. The Permanent Coup

Wed, 2019-04-17 14:50
The Egyptian Parliament is expected to adopt earlier this week a constitutional reform that will eradicate the latest achievements of the 2011 revolution and allow Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to remain in power until. . . 2030.

By: Bahey Eldin Hassan

Throughout the six years that marked President Abdelfatah al-Sisi’s coup on Egypt’s first civilian president, Sisi orchestrated several political, security, legislative, constitutional, and electoral coups. Sisi is currently preparing a constitutional coup that allows him to remain in office until 2034. However, by doing so, he committed a tragic mistake. Not only is he granting the military a constitutional cover to remove him, but also gave all those who oppose him within and outside his regime a goal that bridges their irreconcilable divisions. Sisi might be a victim of his own making, the experiences of former Egyptian presidents who amended the constitution to consolidate their powers ended up with them losing it.

Although Sisi announced after his coup in 2013 that he won’t run for the presidency, he has been effectively ruling the country since then. Within a year, Sisi broke his promise and announced he’s running for the presidency and turned against his secular allies, eliminating them from government and imprisoning their activists. During his first four-year term and behind the smokescreen of fighting terrorism, Egypt witnessed the largest crackdown in its modern history against peaceful opposition, whether Islamist or secular.

Throughout his first year as president, Sisi led a legislative coup through issuing hundreds of legislations, many of which unconstitutional. The parliament, which according to a now-imprisoned former advisor to Sisi, was engineered by intelligence services, and rubberstamped those legislations en-masse during its first sessions. By the end of his first term, Sisi started settling scores with senior military and security officers. He fired the military’s chief-of-staff and the director of General Intelligence and put them under house arrest and appointed his office’s chief-of-staff and his son, Mahmoud, at the top two positions in General Intelligence. Sisi imprisoned presidential candidates running against him in reelection or put them under house arrest (a precedent throughout the republic’s 65 years) including a former military chief-of-staff and a former prime minister.

Failure of the anti-terrorist war in Sinai

After Sisi ran the elections effectively unopposed, he led the largest campaign of mass arrests of secular political figures since 1981 and sacked the minister of defense whose loyalty to him was questioned, and appointed instead the head of the presidential guard. In tandem with the crackdown on the former generals, he ordered the military to launch the propagandized “Comprehensive Campaign” against ISIS in Sinai, which was perceived by many as a distraction from the scandalous elections. The campaign, which was meant to last for three months, dragged on for a year and ended unceremoniously when the military spokesperson simply seized to refer to it in his statements. ISIS still carries out devastating attacks and utilizes the military’s crimes against civilians in Sinai as a propaganda tool.

Academic studies note that the constant decisive factor in Egyptian politics since the military’s first coup in 1952 has been contention between the military and senior military officers in power. They also observe that this vicious contention has consumed the country and led to the depletion of its resources and the erosion of competencies. This contention has also reflected severely on the professionalism and effectiveness of the military and contributed to Egypt’s most humiliating military defeat in 1967. During a general’s first day as president he realizes that he daily has to deal with a very delicate balance between two vital, yet contradictory, considerations. The first is that the military is his primary constituency, and the second is that military is a threat and that he has to contain senior military officers’ ambitions to replace him. The dilemma of Sisi, and all presidents that preceded him throughout the past 67 years is how to manage such a delicate balance without ending up being crushed by popular uprisings or military coups.

Full authority over the judiciary

The constitutional amendment that allows Sisi to stay in power for extra 12 years, has overshadowed other amendments that reassert the one-man dictatorship. According to statements by two senior judicial officials, those amendments will give Sisi complete authority over the judiciary and constitutionalize the military’s dominance of politics. Those unprecedented statements, along with other public positions of figures from the Mubarak and Sisi regimes, point to a lack of consensus inside the regime on those amendments. The wording of the amendment concerning the role of the military also implies that for the first time its role is no longer limited to a security agency, but a guaranteed position as an arbitrator between major political actors, including the president. The military has already played this role in 2011 and 2013 when it overthrew two presidents, despite the absence of such a stipulation in the constitution. Such an amendment is a double-edged sword: it gives the army a justification to turn Egypt into a bloodbath as was the case in Syria, but also gives it a constitutional cover to overthrow Sisi with the next major crisis.

Maintaining impunity

Sisi is likely aware of the dangers the constitutional amendments carry for his future as president. However, he is also fully aware that if he steps aside in 2022 as the constitution currently stipulates, he will not be safe. Reports by national and international rights groups accuse him of committing crimes that far exceed those of Mubarak, including overseeing the worst massacre in Egypt’s modern history. Staying in power is the only guarantee to maintain his impunity, even if it’s at the expense of disturbing the delicate balance he tries to maintain with the military.

Mohammed Morsi went down in history as the president who inadvertently proved to Egyptians that Islam is not a solution to politics. In all likelihood, Sisi will go down in history as the general who proved to Egyptians that the military isn’t a solution to Egypt’s chronic political dilemma, but an entity that should indefinitely stay out of it.

*Bahey Eldin Hassan Director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.  This article published first at orientxxi magazine 15th of April

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Haftar Offensive on Tripoli ‘Sounded Like a Coup’: UN Libya Envoy

Wed, 2019-04-17 14:29

The United Nations’s top envoy for Libya has said that renegade General Khalifa Haftar tried to stage a coup when he issued an arrest warrant for Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA).

Speaking to BBC Radio this week, Special Representative Ghassan Salame said Haftar’s decision to issue in the course of his offensive arrest warrants against al-Serraj and other top Tripoli officials “sounded more like a coup than counter-terrorism”.

Haftar announced an attack against Tripoli on April 4 to wrest control of western Libya from armed groups that back the UN-backed GNA, headed by al-Serraj.

The 75-year-old, who casts himself as a foe of “extremism” but is viewed by opponents as a new authoritarian leader in the mould of former strongman Muammar Gaddafi, has vowed to continue his offensive until Libya is “cleansed of terrorism”.

Libya, which has been mired in chaos since the NATO-backed toppling of Gaddafi in 2011, has been split into rival eastern and western administrations since 2014.

In March 2016, GNA chief al-Sarraj arrived in Tripoli to set up a new government, but the Haftar-allied administration in the eastern city of Tobruk refused to recognise its authority.

Haftar’s push on the capital threatens to further destabilise the oil-rich country and reignite a full-blown civil war.

Both sides accuse each other of targeting civilians.

At least 174 people have been killed and 756 wounded since the LNA started its offensive on April 4, according to the World Health Organization. It says it has deployed additional surgical staff to support hospitals receiving trauma cases.

About 15,700 people have been forced to flee their homes because of the conflict, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), with a “significant number” of others still stuck in conflict zones.

Haftar’s side confirmed the warrant had been issued and al-Serraj’s government said it had been immediately rejected.

Diplomats believe Haftar, for now, faces no pressure to stand down from backers including theUnited Arab Emirates, Egypt and France, who see him as the best bet to end the factional chaos plaguing Libya since Gaddafi’s fall in the 2011 uprising.

“We are in fact in a military stalemate since eight days, or nine days,” Salame said, adding that both sides had carried out 30 air attacks each that had not changed the situation on the ground.

Qatar’s foreign minister said in a tweet on Tuesday that Haftar’s actions were obstructing international efforts towards dialogue in Libya.

Air raids and shelling have hit civilian infrastructure and residential homes, especially in the south of Tripoli where Haftar’s forces have sought to penetrate government defences. The UN humanitarian agency OCHA said targeting civilians was a violation of international humanitarian law.

The UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) warned in a statement that “the bombing of schools, hospitals, ambulances and civilian areas is strictly prohibited,” adding that it was documenting all such offences for the UN Security Council.

A school was hit on Saturday in an air raid blamed on Haftar’s forces, Tripoli officials said.

Two missiles also struck education ministry warehouses late on Sunday, destroying 3.1 million school books, an official in the Tripoli government told Reuters news agency. OCHA said in a tweet five million books and national exam results had been destroyed.

Salame, whose plans for a national reconciliation conference this week had to be postponed because of the fighting, said he hoped both sides would realize in the coming days that neither could achieve an outright military victory. 

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Scandal, Egypt filters 34,000 domains in bid to block opposition campaign platform

Tue, 2019-04-16 18:53
A new scandal by the Egyptian regime Internet providers in Egypt are blocking access to an estimated 34,000 internet domains in an apparent bid to stamp out an opposition campaign launched last week under the slogan Void, according to new Netblocks internet measurement data.

Websites and subdomains unreachable via Telecom Egypt, Raya, Vodafone and Orange include prominent technology startups, self-help websites, celebrity homepages, dozens of Open Source technology projects, as well as Bahá’í, Jewish and Islamic faith group websites and NGOs.

The set of websites hosted on a shared IP address, now blocked, owned by hosting provider Netlify. The findings suggest that the Egyptian government may have incurred significant collateral damage as it seeks to restrict online content relating to the campaign, which uses the slogan Void.

Alert: #Egypt has blocked an estimated 34,000 internet domains as it attempts to restrict newly-launched opposition campaign site #Void, which has reportedly collected 250,000 signatures #KeepItOn#باطلhttps://t.co/roqjmeFu2u pic.twitter.com/WoiLLDb0uf

— NetBlocks.org (@netblocks) April 15, 2019

The original website for the Batel / Void campaign was first blocked hours after it reportedly gathered 60,000 signatures on Tuesday 9 April 2019 after gaining popular support against proposed changes to Egypt’s constitution. Thee mirrors of the website were subsequently made unavailable with the campaign currently on its fifth iteration.

NetBlocks data confirm that the blocked sites are all served from an IP address assigned to the Netlify hosting service. Users report having to use VPN circumvention tools to work around the filters, and network measurement data show the disruptions are consistent with filters used to block online content in Egypt.https://twitter.com/netblocks/status/1115655336894062592

The campaign, which says it has amassed 250,000 signatures, was launched in opposition to changes proposed in the upcoming constitutional referendum, which would extend presidential term limits and increase presidential control over the judiciary.

WHO conceals a voice forging thousand voices

The website going by the tagline Void remains available globally outside of Egypt, with the exception of Sudan where it is also restricted. The campaign launched a fifth mirror of its website on the evening of Monday 15 April to counter state restrictions.

Egypt implements a strict regiment of internet controls on grounds of national security, recently introducing a new legal framework for the regulation of social media and website content.

Last August, Egypt passed new regulations that allow the top media regulator to block websites and social media accounts with more than 5,000 followers if they are deemed to be spreading fake news or promoting violence, hatred or discrimination.

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Egypt’s Sisi backs Haftar assault on Tripoli

Tue, 2019-04-16 14:21
Warlord also understood to have private support of Saudi Arabia and the UAE

Khalifa Haftar, the Libyan warlord bombarding Tripoli in an attempt to oust the country’s UN-recognized government, has won unequivocal support from the Egyptian leader, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, his closest political ally.

“The president affirmed Egypt’s support in efforts to fight terrorism and extremist militias to achieve security and stability for Libyan citizens throughout the country,” Sisi’s office said on Sunday.

It is thought Haftar also has the private support of leaders in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The Cairo meeting came amid reports the Italian security services were warning that Libya could become “another Syria”, as fighting and general instability could prompt thousands more people to try to flee across the Mediterranean to Europe.

Haftar has defied international calls to halt his battle against fighters loyal to the government of national accord (GNA) based in Tripoli, the capital. The warlord supports a parallel administration based in Libya’s east. Egypt has provided funding and arms to Haftar’s “Libyan National Army”, seeing him as a bulwark against Islamist militants.

As fighting raged in the capital, the death toll since Haftar’s assault began on Thursday was put at 121 by the UN World Health Organization, with nearly 600 wounded. More than 13,000 civilians have been displaced by the fighting, which has included air raids that have hit schools.

In a message directed at Haftar, the UN’s special envoy for Libya, Ghassan Salamé, said: “Our position will not change. You’ve learned and tasted war. No matter how obstinate one becomes, there is no solution except a political one.”

Before last week, Salamé believed he had finally negotiated a deal that would have seen a painful reunification of Haftar’s forces in the east with the government in the west, thereby creating a single set of economic and political institutions across the country for the first time in four years.

Haftar’s assault, as well as thwarting that plan, threatens to disrupt oil supplies. The chairman of the Libyan National Oil Corporation warned that supplies faced their biggest threat since 2011, when Nato-backed Libyan forces ousted Muammar Gaddafi.

With Haftar seemingly bogged down on the outskirts of Tripoli, Sisi was probably the single external leader who might have persuaded the Libyan warlord to accept a ceasefire.

Italy, the former colonial power in Libya, with extensive oil investments, is trying to protect the Tripoli-based government, led by Fayez al-Sarraj. Italy’s coalition government has ruled out any use of military force.

Italian newspapers reported that Italian security services had warned that 6,000 people might try to flee the fighting, and that human traffickers were trying to take advantage of the chaos. The International Organization for Migration said it was impossible to predict the numbers that might try to leave detention camps, some of which are administered by the UN. The Italian interior minister, Matteo Salvini, has insisted Italian ports will remain closed to all migrants.

Italy’s already fraught diplomatic relations with France have been put under further pressure by Haftar’s attack. Last week France blocked a draft EU resolution that would have condemned him and called for him to retreat.

The GNA vice-president, Ahmed Maiteeq, was due in Rome on Monday as part of a tour of Europe including Berlin and London, where he will try to enlist support for a ceasefire – only if Haftar’s forces retreat to pre-existing positions.

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Turkey: Strong evidence points to rerun of Istanbul elections

Mon, 2019-04-15 13:53
Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) is getting ready to apply to the Supreme Election Council (YSK) with its legal right to extraordinary objection to re-hold the municipal elections that saw a large number of irregularities and suspicious activities that has led to the recount of irregular votes in some districts and recounts of all votes in some other districts.

“We will submit our application and its supplements to the YSK in a very short time,” AK Party Deputy Chairman Ali İhsan Yavuz said Sunday on his Twitter account.

In the application file, the AK Party will list the reasons that require the elections to be redone based on evidence and documents. Some reasons include invalid or deceased people who allegedly voted in the elections. According to the AK Party, there were significant discrepancies among the tabulated results with wet signatures and stamps that show the first vote record, the final record and the total number of votes submitted to the YSK. Additionally, balloting committees in many districts were not compatible with the requirements of the law; there were empty or unsigned voting records and irregular registrations of voters.

Moreover, out of nearly 9 million voters, 319,540 votes were labeled invalid, mainly in districts considered AK Party strongholds, increasing the party’s suspicions regarding interference in the elections.

The YSK decision period for objections ended on Saturday. Yet, the recounting of votes in Maltepe, Istanbul, has not been completed yet, with only 742 out of 1,089 ballot boxes recounted. Thus, the number of delegations of the YSK was increased from two to 12 to accelerate the process.

The AK Party is expected to make its extraordinary objection to the YSK this week following the completion of the recount in Maltepe. If the YSK decides to re-hold the elections in Istanbul, the elections will be held on June 2 along with three other districts in Artvin’s Yusufeli, Kırıkkales’s Keskin and Denizli’s Honaz.

Büyükçekmece, Istanbul, was another much-debated district where the AK Party insisted on a do-over election since its Büyükçekmece district organization previously applied to the local election board alleging that 21,000 fake voters had been registered in the district during the process to update voters lists in the run-up to the elections.

A district registry office personnel and another person, a namesake and relative of the Büyükçekmece’s longtime mayor Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) Hasan Akgün, had been arrested for irregularly registering voters by fabricating documents on behalf of Akgün. A judicial investigation launched by the Büyükçekmece Public Prosecutor’s Office is ongoing, in addition to an administrative inquiry by the district. In relation to the issue, the former mayor of Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality Mevlüt Uysal made a statement saying: “In the last eight months since the June 24 presidential elections, 11,954 voters have been dropped from the voter records in Büyükçekmece, and 3,092 of those do not have any record in any place. What does that mean? It is like their citizenship just disappeared. Those who vote for the AK Party have been erased from the list. Turkey has not seen such an organized operation in its history.”

The AK Party announced on last Tuesday that it would seek to use the right to make an extraordinary objection and demand a repeat of the election. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan raised concerns about “organized interference” in the Istanbul elections earlier Monday. “We, as a political party, have detected organized crime and some organized activities,” Erdoğan told reporters ahead of his departure from Istanbul for Moscow. On election night, the AK Party candidate Binali Yıldırım declared victory as he was leading in the polls by a narrow margin, only to be followed by main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu announcement of victory. The candidates’ early victory statements were followed by YSK Chairman Sadi Güven’s announcement on April 1, saying İmamoğlu led the polls by almost 25,000 votes according to unofficial results. The provisional election results, however, were followed by the objection process, which saw numerous irregularities and discrepancies between ballot result reports and counting tabulations.

As the recounting process continues in Istanbul, 97 percent of the votes in the appealed ballot boxes have been counted. The last results show that İmamoğlu leads by 13,996 votes over AK Party candidate Yıldırım.

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What’s happening in Sudan?

Sat, 2019-04-13 15:59
AFTER THREE DECADES in power, Sudan’s Omar-al-Bashir was ousted following months of protests by the Sudanese.

Speaking on State television 2 days ago, Defence Minister Awad Ibnouf announced Bashir had been removed from power and detained by the army.

“I announce as minister of defence the toppling of the regime and detaining its chief in a secure place,” he said.

The overall official death toll in anti-government demonstrations over the last five months is 49. 

How did it all start?

Hundreds of people took to the streets in central Atbara and other Sudanese cities on 19 December to protest the tripling of bread prices. Some chanted “No to hunger” and in Atbara, they set fire to the headquarters of Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP).

These protests began on the same day the main opposition leader – ex prime minister Sadiq al-Mahdi – returned from exile. He had been driven out in Bashir’s military coup in 1989. 

The protests spread to Khartoum and other cities the next day. Clashes broke out as police tried to disperse the crowds and eight demonstrators were killed.

Other NCP offices were torched and troops were deployed in a number of cities, including Khartoum. 

On the sixth day of protests – Christmas Eve – Bashir broke his silence and vowed there would be “real reforms”.

Bashir in power

Bashir has ruled the country since he took power in a military coup against the democratically elected government in Sudan 30 years ago. 

In 2003, he sent troops and militia to crush a rebellion in the western region of Darfur. The conflict claimed more than 300,000 lives according to the UN. 

The International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest in 2009 on war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur. The following year it issued a warrant for genocide. 

Bashir has denied all the charges. 

In 2010 he was elected president in the first multiparty election since he took power in the coup. This election was boycotted by the opposition.

Three years later dozens of people were killed in demonstrations against his government after a hike in petrol prices. 

He was again election in 2015. 

Call for a new regime

On 1 January this year, 22 political groups in Sudan issued a joint call for a new regime. 

Four days later Bashir sacked his health minister over rising costs of medicine and on 9 January thousands chanted support for the country’s leader at a rally in Khartoum.

However there were further deaths of demonstrators as anti-government protests continued in the city of Odurmann. 

On 13 January, protests spread further to the war-torn region of Darfur. Bashir tells supporters there: “Demonstrations will not change the government.”

Emergency rule

In February, Human Rights Watch released videos documenting violence by security forces against protesters including live fire, tear gas and beatings.

Bashir declared a nationwide year-long state of emergency on February 22. He also dissolved the federal and provincial governments and appointed army and intelligence officers as provincial governors.

Two days later, he swore in a new prime minister as riot police confronted hundreds calling for him to resign. On March 1, Bashir handed his powers as chief of the ruling NCP to his deputy.

After this, the protests became less regular but on 6 April thousands again marched in Khartoum, gathering for the first time outside the military headquarters chanting “One army, one people”. 

They set up camp at the complex, which also houses the president’s residence, and defied attempts by police to dislodge the sit-in with tear gas and gunshots into the air.

On 9 April, police followed the policy of non-intervention by the military and ordered their forces not to take any further action against the demonstrators. 

 Two days later, Defence Minister Awad Ibnouf made his statement about Bashir being removed from power.

What happened next?

Ibnouf said a transitionary military council would replace the president for two years. Before the end of the transitional period, he said “fair elections” would be held.

However, activists are demanding that power be handed to a civilian government. Protesters have defied a night-time curfew and dismissed the military council that took over as “the same old faces” from Bashir’s regime. 

Most shops and offices closed today, as Friday is a day of prayer and rest in Sudan. But large crowds are expected to throng into the streets of Khartoum and its twin city Omdurman afternoon prayers. 

The US has called on the military council “to exercise restraint and to allow space for civilian participation within the government”.

The European Union urged the army to carry out a “swift” handover to civilian rule.

Protesters last night were seen chatting with soldiers. They said their quarrel was with the commanders who had led the coup, not the rank-and-file.

“There was no difference between last night and previous days and nights for us,” said one protester.

“This is now our square. We have taken it and won’t leave until victory is achieved.

“We broke the curfew. We will continue doing it until we have a civilian transitional government.” null

Sudan coup leader Awad Ibn Auf steps down
  • Another surprise move came from Awad Ibn Auf ,

The head of Sudan’s military council has stood down a day after leading a coup that toppled long-time leader Omar al-Bashir amid a wave of protests.

Defence Minister Awad Ibn Auf announced his decision on state TV, naming as his successor Lt-Gen Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan.

The army has said it will stay in power for two years, followed by elections.

But protest leaders say they will not leave the streets until the military hands over to a civilian government.

– With reporting from AFP. and BBC

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Sudan and Algeria’s Dilemma, How to Avoid Turning into Egypt – WP

Sat, 2019-04-13 15:53

In the space of little more than a week, two long-ruling autocrats in the Arab world succumbed to people power. First, it was Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the wheelchair-bound figurehead of an entrenched regime who bowed out in the face of mass protests last week after two decades in power. Then came news Thursday of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who was placed under house arrest by the country’s military authorities after four months of ceaseless demonstrations in the streets. The move brought to an end Bashir’s 30-year rule, during which he ruthlessly cracked down on dissent, waged bloody — legal experts would say genocidal — counterinsurgencies and, over the past decade, evaded an international warrant for his arrest for crimes against humanity.

Protesters in Sudan and Algeria are deeply aware of the fragility of their present gains. What began as unrest over economic grievances morphed into a far-reaching clamor for political reform. Young people who have only known life under Bouteflika or Bashir will wake up Friday with both leaders gone and their nations poised for change. Though the situations differ, they share the same fear that the old guards of the ancien regime may snap back into place, halting the momentum of what appear to be pro-democracy uprisings in the mold of the upheavals that rocked the Arab world in 2011.

There’s the lesson of Egypt, where epochal protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square eight years ago led to a reviled despot stepping down but an entrenched military establishment maintaining power. The top brass eventually presided over a vicious counterrevolution in 2013 led by Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, the country’s current president, who has since sent thousands of dissidents to prison and clamped down on the press and civil society. He is now coercing lawmakers to make him president for life.

Determined not to be the victims of the same forces of history, Algerians and the Sudanese are staying on the streets, calling for a wholesale removal, root to stem, of the autocratic regimes that have long dominated their societies. Their resolve will surely be tested in the weeks to come.

The shadow of Sissi hangs over the man who shoved Bashir aside — Sudanese Defense Minister Awad Ibn Auf. On Thursday, Auf, who was placed on a sanctions list by the United States in 2007 and indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2009 for his role in the genocide in Darfur, announced on state radio that he would be at the helm of a two-year transitional government.

His caretaker military administration would suspend the constitution and impose a three-month state of emergency, including a nighttime curfew. But by the evening in Khartoum, protesters massed on the streets in defiance of the curfew.

“They just replaced one thief with another,” Ahmad Ibrahim, a young protester at a sit-in outside of the army headquarters in Khartoum, told The Washington Post. “We are going to keep pushing until all of our demands are met.”

In a statement posted on Twitter, the Sudanese Professionals Association — an organization that includes doctors, lawyers, students and others who helped drive the protests — decreed that it did not accept “a coup” that would simply reproduce the status quo.

“Hold the squares and the roads that we liberated by force and courage until the handover of authority to a civilian transitional government that expresses the forces of the revolution,” the group posted on Twitter. “The ones who destroyed the country and killed its people are trying to steal every drop of blood and sweat that our great people shed in the revolution that has shaken the throne of tyranny.”

In Algeria, Bouteflika’s exit similarly was announced by Gen. Ahmed Gaid Salah, the head of the army, who indicated this week that the Algerian military would shepherd a three-month transition period, culminating in a presidential election on July 4. But protesters have vowed to continue until their wider demands for systemic reform are met.

“This is only the beginning of an uncertain political process,” Andrew Lebovich, a North Africa and Middle East expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations, told my colleague Sudarsan Raghavan. “I think protesters will demand much broader changes now that Bouteflika is gone, but we don’t yet know what form this will take.”

The prospect of repressive state violence still hangs over Sudan and Algeria, and may test the cohesion of the protest movements, which both draw wide a political and societal cross-section.

“There are entirely legitimate fears that the militaries . . . will now move to divide, and then violently crush, the popular protest movements that spurred these remarkable developments,” Amy Hawthorne, deputy director of research at the Project on Middle East Democracy, told Today’s WorldView. “It won’t be easy, but Algerian and Sudanese pro-democracy protesters need to stay unified around a core set of first-order demands about civilian-led democratic transitions and stay mobilized in the streets to press those demands.”

The risk may be less acute in Algeria, where few want a repeat of the traumatic civil war between the regime and Islamist forces that left as many as 200,000 people dead during the 1990s. But Sudan — riven by ethnic conflicts, dominated by a complex security apparatus of regime-affiliated paramilitary forces and tangled up in a mess of regional geopolitics — could be “at the precipice of bloodshed and turmoil,” wrote Alex de Waal, an expert on the Horn of Africa.

Analysts argue that the international community can play a key role in staving off further chaos. “If foreign friends of Algerians and Sudanese want to help them out, then they should encourage the effective powers in those countries to listen to the demands of their peoples and own up to the fact that the underlying structural problems that have faced those countries won’t be dismissed by the dismissal of a few political leaders,” H.A. Hellyer, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, told Today’s WorldView. “And, yes, that means conditioning financial assistance — which both countries are almost definitely going to need — on genuine advancements, as opposed to simple road maps.”

It’s less clear where that support may come from. Western leaders see the enduring strife in Syria and Libya and have largely accepted the mantra of stability preached by the Middle East’s Arab monarchies, which have moved in various ways to undermine the democratic transitions of other countries in the region. President Trump, too, has long rejected the appeal of the Arab Spring and welcomed Sissi to the White House this week as a leader doing a “great” job.

“The Sudanese and Algerian generals likely are counting on Russia and the Arab dictators to back them in crushing the pro-democracy movements, and on passivity or even tacit support from the Trump administration to restore order as well,” Hawthorne said.

The protest movements arrayed against them have proven to be resilient so far and refused to blink when Bouteflika and Bashir attempted to assuage their demands with half-measures. Looking on, the proponents of Egypt’s uprising can only wish them luck.

“The power of the people has proved to be alive, and the desire to have a president who does not stay for life,” Khaled Dawoud, an Egyptian journalist and former liberal politician, told the New York Times. “The model we set in 2011 remains alive despite the tremendous efforts to crush and distort it.

*By: Ishaan Tharoor – The Washington Post

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UAE: Top Abraaj Executives Arrested on U.S. Fraud Charges

Fri, 2019-04-12 20:07
The chief executive and a managing partner of the collapsed Dubai private equity firm Abraaj Capital Ltd were arrested on U.S. charges that they defrauded their investors, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a federal prosecutor said on Thursday.

Abraaj founder and Chief Executive Arif Naqvi was arrested in the United Kingdom last Friday, while managing partner Mustafa Abdel-Wadood was arrested at a New York hotel on Thursday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Griswold said at a hearing in Manhattan federal court.

Abdel-Wadood appeared at the hearing and pleaded not guilty to securities fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy charges. His lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, did not immediately request bail, saying he needed more time to become familiar with the case.

Griswold said prosecutors would seek to have Naqvi, who is charged with the same crimes, extradited. Casey Larsen, a spokesman for Naqvi, could not immediately be reached.

Abraaj had been the largest buyout fund in the Middle East and North Africa until it collapsed last May, after the Gates Foundation and other investors raised concerns about the management of its $1 billion healthcare fund.

In brief indictments unsealed on Thursday, prosecutors claimed that from about 2014 until the collapse, Naqvi and Abdel-Wadood lied about the performance of Abraaj’s funds, inflating their value by more than half a billion dollars.

Prosecutors also said that Naqvi and Abdel-Wadood caused “at least hundreds of millions” of investor funds to be misappropriated, either to disguise liquidity shortfalls or for their personal benefit or that of their associates.

Griswold said that Abraaj had represented itself as a pioneer of “impact investing” that promoted social progress, for example by investing in hospitals in developing countries.

“In truth, Abraaj was engaged in a massive fraud,” she said.

The indictments were short on detail, Griswold said, because authorities moved quickly to arrest Abdel-Wadood upon learning he was in the United States with his wife and son to visit colleges.

She said prosecutors intended to file more detailed charges by the end of May.

After the hearing, Abdel-Wadood spoke briefly to his wife, who had watched from the courtroom gallery, before U.S. marshals led him away in handcuffs.

Abraaj and Naqvi face related civil charges filed on Thursday by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

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Egypt reportedly pulled out of US-led effort to form ‘Arab NATO’

Fri, 2019-04-12 01:29
Egypt has reportedly decided to pull out of a U.S.-led effort to create an initiative with key Arab allies, Reuters reported Wednesday. 

Sources familiar with the matter told Reuters that Egypt had announced its decision to the U.S. and allies in the proposed Middle East Security Alliance (MESA) ahead of planned meeting Sunday in Riyadh.

The move marks a blow to the Trump administration’s aim to curb Iranian power, the outlet noted.

Egyptian leaders were reportedly concerned the plan to form an “Arab NATO” would inflame tensions with Iran and had yet to see a formal blueprint for the pact, according to Reuters. “It’s not moving well,” a Saudi source reportedly told Reuters.

The decision was also reportedly motivated, in part, by uncertainty about whether President Trump would be re-elected to a second term in 2020 and whether his successor would scrap the initiative, according to Reuters.

Saudi Arabia first proposed the initiative in 2017 as a means of limiting both China and Russia’s influence in the region, according to the report. The alliance was reportedly set to include Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and Qatar, Reuters reported.

National security adviser John Bolton has supported the MESA plan and orchestrated the Trump administration’s strategy for containing Iran, U.S. officials told Reuters.

The news comes a day after Trump hosted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at the White House.

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Egypt : ‘Void’ campaign had attracted more than 100,000 votes online opposing constitutional changes

Thu, 2019-04-11 18:45
Egypt blocked a petition website set up to collect signatures against an upcoming constitutional referendum hours after the platform was launched on Tuesday, an internet monitor said.

The proposed amendments to the constitution would allow President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to stay in power until 2034, bolster the role of the military and increase the president’s power over the judiciary.

Sisi’s supporters say the changes are needed to give him more time to complete major development projects and economic reforms. His critics say they concentrate more powers in the hands of a leader accused by rights groups of presiding over a relentless crackdown on freedoms.

NetBlocks, an internet monitoring group, said the opposition campaign website was blocked after it reached 100,000 signatures on Thursday. Users were still able to access the website, voiceonline.net, from abroad and or via a virtual private network (VPN) that allows them to skirt local controls.

NetBlocks said network data indicated that access to the site was being restricted by all of Egypt’s internet service providers except for one.

The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology and the Egypt State Information Service could not immediately be reached for comment.

In May 2017, Egypt blocked 21 websites that it accused of supporting terrorism. Middle East and North Africa programme coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Sherif Mansour said that more than 100 news sites are now blocked in Egypt.

Last August, Egypt passed new regulations that allow the top media regulator to block websites and social media accounts with more than 5,000 followers if they are deemed to be spreading fake news or promoting violence, hatred or discrimination.

“This is all part of a new trend … where the government is shoring up its technical capacity and control on information,” the CPJ’s Mansour said.

The date for the constitutional referendum has still not been confirmed, but Cairo is full of banners encouraging voters to participate. It is expected to take place shortly after parliament holds a final vote on the amendments next week.

An overwhelming majority in parliament, which is dominated by Sisi supporters, voted for the changes in principle in February, with 485 of 596 lawmakers voting in favour.

Resources:

(Reuters) (Reporting by Lena Masri Editing by Nick Tattersall)

Middle East Monitor

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Egypt’s Sisi in Trump’s Embrace, Hoping to Be Allowed to Stay in Office Until 2034

Wed, 2019-04-10 17:10
US President Donald Trump welcomed Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to the White House on Tuesday, and bestowed on his ally what he most eagerly sought: a ringing endorsement of his strongman rule, according to Mark Landler’s NYT report.

Mr. el-Sisi, 64, a former general who took power in a military coup in 2013, is seeking to amend the Egyptian Constitution to allow him to run for two more six-year terms, which would keep him in power until 2034.

When Mr. Trump was asked about the amendments, he professed not to know anything about them, but declared: “I can just tell you he’s doing a great job. Great president.”

Mr. el-Sisi’s visit came on the same day that another key ally of Mr. Trump’s in the Middle East, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, was facing voters in a tight election. In the weeks leading up to that vote, the president tried to shore up Mr. Netanyahu’s fortunes with a series of gestures, chief among them American recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

It also came as Mr. Trump called a third ally, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, who has been under a cloud since reports that he ordered the killing in October of a Saudi dissident journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.

Mr. Trump and Prince Mohammed discussed Saudi Arabia’s “critical role” in stabilizing the region, the campaign to isolate Iran and “the importance of human rights issues,” according to a White House statement.

For Egypt’s leader, Mr. Trump offered only the trappings of an Oval Office welcome, though one with flashing cameras and looming boom mics. Back home, where Mr. el-Sisi has methodically stifled dissent and tightened his grip on power, that could prove more than enough validation.

“The single and only reason for President Sisi to visit the White House right now is to obtain a strong endorsement from President Trump to stay in power,” said Amy Hawthorne, the deputy director of research at the Project on Middle East Democracy. “He has calculated that he can intimidate his opponents and potential opponents with a show of support from Trump.”

Before their session, Mr. Trump said the two men would discuss trade and counterterrorism. He said nothing publicly about Egypt’s human rights record, which was always checkered but has deteriorated under Mr. el-Sisi, who has brutally suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood and turned Egypt into a society in which a person can be arrested over an objectionable Facebook post. Mr. Trump’s daughter Ivanka also met with Mr. el-Sisi to discuss the empowerment of women.

Mr. Trump said nothing about several Americans currently detained in Egypt. Earlier in the day, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo raised the issue with Mr. el-Sisi, according to the State Department.

For his part, Mr. el-Sisi said relations between Egypt and the United States had never been stronger. “All the credit goes to you, Mr. President,” he said through a translator. “Thank you very much for your support on all fronts.”

In fact, some analysts said, the United States alliance with Egypt is at an awkward moment. Mr. Trump has focused most of his energy in the region on assembling an Israeli and Persian Gulf alliance against Iran.

 “When you think of Trump’s agenda in the Middle East, Egypt doesn’t offer that much,” said Brian Katulis, an expert on Egypt and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “What’s interesting to me is that Trump — who is always asking ‘what’s in it for us?’ — is even doing this meeting.”

Moreover, Egypt, which still receives roughly $1.3 billion a year in American military aid, recently agreed to buy 20 fighter jets from Russia, potentially exposing individual Egyptians to American sanctions.

Mr. Trump’s decision on the Golan Heights rankled Egyptian officials, as did his earlier order to move the United States Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Both moves run counter to the spirit of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, brokered 40 years ago by President Jimmy Carter.

They could also make it harder for Mr. el-Sisi to voice wholehearted public support for the Israeli-Palestinian peace plan being drafted by Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner.

The administration has said it would present the plan sometime after the Israeli elections, but the White House, like the Israeli public, will have to await the results of Tuesday’s vote to determine whether Mr. Netanyahu or his opponent Benny Gantz, are able to form a governing coalition.

There is less suspense in Egyptian politics these days. Analysts said Mr. el-Sisi’s constitutional amendments, which also include a provision that would expand the military’s role, have drawn no public enthusiasm. But the electoral system is set up so that they can prevail with a simple majority even if voter turnout is low.

To coincide with Mr. Sisi’s visit, his critics began an online petition on Tuesday to oppose the amendments. The website was quickly blocked inside Egypt; the government has previously blocked several other independent or critical websites or online publications.

But the petition remained accessible outside Egypt and the website counter indicated that more than 67,000 people had endorsed it — a number that could not be confirmed. Egypt has permitted almost no public criticism of the proposals or organizing against them, but street signs urging a “yes” vote are common in Cairo.

“These amendments were cooked up inside the regime,” Ms. Hawthorne said. “They’ve had only Potemkin debates about them.”

President Barack Obama kept Mr. el-Sisi at a distance. But it was his second White House invitation from Mr. Trump, who has obviously established a rapport with him. At a meeting in Saudi Arabia in May 2017, the two lavished praise on each other, with Mr. Trump even declaring: “Love your shoes. Boy, those shoes.”

Some of Mr. Trump’s affection may be explained by his general affinity for strongmen. At a recent speech to Republican supporters, the president recalled an exchange he claimed to have had with President Xi Jinping of China, who, like Mr. el-Sisi, pushed for an extension of his term.

Mr. Trump said he referred to Mr. Xi as a king, which prompted the Chinese leader to demur that he was only a president.

“I said ‘No, you’re president for life, and therefore you’re king,’” Mr. Trump said he replied.

If Mr. el-Sisi succeeds in his drive to extend his term, he would serve as Egypt’s president until the age of 80 — unless he changes the Constitution again.

The post Egypt’s Sisi in Trump’s Embrace, Hoping to Be Allowed to Stay in Office Until 2034 appeared first on Middle East Observer.

Categories: BFFBTY, MENA

US Senators Urge Secretary Pompeo to Address Human Rights during Sisi’s Visit

Tue, 2019-04-09 17:47
One day before Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s visit to the White House, senators from both parties sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday urging him to address “the erosion of political and human rights” in Egypt during his discussions with the autocratic leader.

Lawmakers raised concerns about Sisi’s government ahead of Tuesday’s negotiations between the United States and Egypt to discuss their strategic partnership and priorities in the Middle East. The letter was signed by 17 senators, including the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Jim Risch (R-Idaho), and ranking member, Bob Menendez (D-N.J.).

“It is critical to stress that our partnerships are stronger and more sustainable when rooted in shared values including democratic governance, political and economic freedom, and fundamental human rights for all citizens,” the letter read.

Sisi’s visit to the White House will be his second since President Donald Trump took office. Trump’s relationship with the Egyptian leader has largely consisted of public exchanges of praise, interactions that have drawn criticism from those who condemn the bloody coup d’etat that brought Sisi to power or accuse his government of human rights violations.

In their letter, senators encouraged Pompeo to demand the release of more than a dozen Americans whom Egypt has “unjustly detained,” and to pressure Sisi to reevaluate its deepening relationship with Russia.

Additionally, senators warned against proposed amendments to Egypt’s constitution that would extend Sisi’s term in office — now slated to end in 2022 — until 2034.

“We urge you to ask President Sisi to reconsider his support for these amendments, the fast-tracked process through which they are being considered, and uphold democratic governance, including the independence of the judiciary,” the letter read. “We also hope you will stress the importance of promoting a free and transparent political process and stress the important role of human rights and civil society in building a more resilient and prosperous country.”

The senators also wrote to commend Egypt for its assistance in brokering peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Sisi’s visit to the White House will take place the same day as elections in Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a Trump ally, seeks to hold on to his office in a close race.

The post US Senators Urge Secretary Pompeo to Address Human Rights during Sisi’s Visit appeared first on Middle East Observer.

Categories: BFFBTY, MENA

Saudi-led air raids ‘kill at least 11 civilians’ in Yemen’s Sanaa

Mon, 2019-04-08 13:23
Most of those killed in the attack were children, a spokesperson for the rebel-controlled health ministry said.

Air raids by a Saudi-UAE led coalition in a residential area in Yemen’s Houthi-held capital, Sanaa, have killed at least 11 civilians, including children, according to local officials.

Youssef al-Hadrii, a spokesman for the rebel-controlled health ministry, was quoted as saying by DPA news agency that the attack on Sunday left more than 39 people wounded.

He said most of the dead were students killed in the bombing of houses and a school.

Citing local medical sources, The Associated Press news agency put the number of those killed at 13, including seven children. More than 100 were wounded, it added.

“Everyone was hysterical, some were crying and shouting in panic,” said Fatehiya Kahlani, principal of Al Raei school. “The situation was horrible as the school population is 2,100.

“Some girl students were killed and others were wounded and are in a hospital as a result of the missile strike. The school building was destroyed too.”

“‘We suddenly heard a fighter jet while we were at school. We then heard the first strike. We remained calm. Then came the second strike and then the third, which was the strongest of them all,” said Ali Ahmed, a wounded student.

“The building was damaged and we were injured by broken glass. As the fourth air strike came in, we panicked and ran home.”

The Saudi-UAE-led alliance fighting the Houthis said its jets had struck a military camp in the Sanaa suburb of Sawan, according to DPA. But the coalition did not provide casualty figures.

The state-run news agency in Aden, aligned with the coalition-backed government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, said a warehouse used by the Houthis to store weapons was targeted.

The latest conflict in Yemen began with the 2014 takeover of Sanaa by Houthi rebels, who toppled Hadi’s government.

Air raids by a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have hit schools, hospitals and wedding parties, killing thousands of Yemeni civilians. The Houthis have fired long-range missiles into Saudi Arabia and targeted vessels in the Red Sea.

The fighting in the Arab world’s poorest country has killed thousands of civilians, left millions suffering from food and medical shortages, and pushed the country to the brink of famine.

UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock has said about 80 percent of Yemen’s population – 24 million people – needs humanitarian assistance, including nearly 10 million “just a step away from famine” and nearly 240,000 “facing catastrophic levels of hunger”.

The post Saudi-led air raids ‘kill at least 11 civilians’ in Yemen’s Sanaa appeared first on Middle East Observer.

Categories: BFFBTY, MENA

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