The third attack by saboteurs in six months against the pipeline supplying natural gas to Israel and Jordan underscores security lapses and the opposition of many Egyptians to their nation's contract to ship low-cost energy to Israel.
Early-morning blasts Monday were carried out by masked men who tied up security guards and planted bombs at the Bir el Abd pipeline station near the town of Al Arish in the Sinai Peninsula. The official state news aganecy, MENA, reported that the assailants remotely activated the bombs by firing gunshots. No casualties were reported.
The pipeline was attacked two other times this year: a few days after the Feb. 11 overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak and a second assault on April 27 (pictured) that interrupted supplies to Israel for weeks.
Witnesses said Monday that flames streaked as high as 30 feet. MENA later quoted security sources as saying the incident was a terrorist attack. The fire was under control by Monday afternoon, but officials did not say when gas service would be restored. The Sinai is home to Bedouin tribes that have long complained of discrimination and have often clashed with police and security forces in a region known for weapons trafficking and other smuggling.
A picture of Mickey Mouse with long beard and Minnie with a full-face veil posted on businessman Naguib Sawiris’ Twitter account has enraged Muslims and prompted 15 lawyers to file a lawsuit against him for blasphemy and insulting Islam.
The Christian Copt telecommunications mogul, who has emerged as a provocative voice in post-revolutionary Egypt, apologized on Twitter, saying that he meant the picture to be humorous, not an affront to the country's majority population of Muslims. "I apologize for those who don’t take this as a joke. I just thought it was a funny picture no disrespect meant! I’m sorry,” the magnate tweeted.
Nonetheless, Sawiris’ apology wasn’t enough to halt the fury and criticism from many Muslims, especially the ultraconservative Salafis, whose lawyers have already sued the billionaire. A Facebook group launched under the name “we are also joking, Sawiris” gathered no less than 90,000 members in recent days, calling for boycotting products or services sold by any of the businessman’s companies, especially the Mobinil mobile phone company.
A year and a bit after the ill-fated interception of the Mavi Marmara that headed last year's flotilla to Gaza, Israel is bracing for another one. This time around, say authorities, they are more prepared, having learned the lessons from operations to public relations and media. (We'll get back to that second point later.)
Israel launched a diplomatic, legal and bureaucratic offensive to prevent the flotilla well in advance and for months has been appealing to governments to block their citizens' efforts to participate, with a certain degree of success. Easing restrictions on goods entering Gaza certainly helped, as has the recent Egyptian decision to open the Raffah crossing, which Israel did not like but quickly recognized as advantageous in this context.
The ships are supposed to rendevous in the Mediterranean and then sail to Gaza but some of the likely candidates in the region are dropping out. Cyprus has announced it will not let the ships in, Greece will let them in but is stalling them with red tape at Israel's request, activists complain. Greece has its own issues this week and will have limited energy to spend on this, one way or the other.
Elsewhere in Europe, delegations met with problems as insurance companies were reluctant to issue policies for the ships and their passengers, after an Israeli legal group, Shurat Hadin, sent letters to the world's leading marine insurance companies advising them they could be held accountable for damages and complicit to violating the law. Other initiatives seek to block satellite communications services to the ships.
The Turkey-based IHH was to be the biggest contingent of the flotilla, its massive passenger ship the largest by far of the dozens of vessels originally slated to sail. Last week the organization announced the ship was staying home.
With Syria's troubles spilling into its backyard, Turkey may have bigger fish to fry at this time -- and both countries seem keen to work things out in advance of the United Nations report on the 2010 flotilla. Turkey was not impressed with the early draft and Israeli media suggest the final report, currently due early July, is still pretty critical of Turkey. And Israel, for its part, always needs all the friends it can get.
In recent weeks, the military completed a series of comprehensive drills for intercepting the next flotilla. Netanyahu is determined to uphold the naval blockade, which Israel says aims only to prevent gunrunning to Hamas-ruled Gaza and not against Palestinian civilians. On Monday, the security cabinet approved the operational plan presented by the army.
Israel has reached understandings with Egypt about the ships docking in El Arish and inspecting the cargo before transfer to Gaza by land in case participants decline Israel's invitation to dock at its Ashdod port -- as expected. There's no humanitarian crisis in Gaza, repeat Israeli spokespeople, who call the flotilla a provocation.
The organizers and activists are equally determined to sail for Gaza and are undeterred by the difficulties. And if Israel has eased up some on Gaza, well, if anything, this just proves flotillas work, says the Free Gaza movement . At a news conference in Athens on Monday, organizers said the 10 ships taking part in the voyage would gather at sea toward the weekend before heading to Gaza.
Meanwhile, until any encounter at sea, the skirmish is being waged on YouTube and all sides are uploading fast and furious -- some straightforward, others kind of clever.
And back to that media lesson learned. One of the main problems Israel had getting its message across last time (besides the message) was the long delay in releasing timely visual images and information from the scene while the operation was still ongoing, leaving the media stage to activists and semi-professionals and an anti-Israeli angle. For weeks, Israeli officials have been stressing the importance of the media battlefield and assuring outlets that professional and credible material will be much more timely.
That's good. Less good was the letter from Government Press Office director Oren Helman on Sunday, warning foreign press they could be deported and banned from working in Israel for 10 years if they participated in the flotilla. Besides infuriating both local and international media, the move seems to have embarassed Netanyahu, who ordered the directive be rethought.
-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem
Video, from top: An Israeli Defense Forces video explains the Gaza naval blockade from the official Israeli perspective; activist Yonatan Shapira, an Israeli combat pilot who has become an outspoken critic of his county's policies, discusses his reasons for joining the flotilla. Credit: YouTube
Scores of family members of Egyptians killed during the revolution that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak clashed with police and military forces Sunday after the trial of the country's former Interior Minister was adjourned until July 25.
Relatives hurled stones at police and military officers after a hearing in the trial of former Interior Minister Habib Adli and seven of his aides for their alleged roles in the shooting of protesters during the 18-day revolution that began Jan. 25. Sunday's melee damaged several security vehicles and injured a number of police and military personnel, though no serious injuries were reported.
“The people want the execution of the killer,” relatives of victims chanted outside the courthouse in the New Cairo suburb. Upon hearing of the adjournment, families who were conducting a sit-in in downtown Cairo blocked the main road leading to the state radio and television headquarters.
On April 20, a fact-finding commission found that at least 846 people were killed during the popular uprising that ousted Mubarak. It blamed Adli and his feared state security services for the deaths. The commission’s report added that Mubarak was indirectly involved in the shooting of protesters. The former 83-year-old leader is expected to go on trial in August for those charges and for alleged financial crimes.
Adli had earlier been sentenced to 12 years in jail for financial corruption and abuse of power. However, families of dead and injured demonstrators are growing impatient about the delay in trying him for allegedly targeting protesters.
“We see no justification in the continuous postponement of a verdict against Adli and others responsible for killing our brothers and sisters. Such hindrance will force some to consider taking revenge with their own hands,” Mahmoud el Sayed, whose brother Mohamed was killed on Jan. 28, told Babylon and Beyond.
This is the second time Adli’s trial has been postponed. Similar clashes with police erupted after his first hearing in May.
-- Amro Hassan in Cairo
Photo: Angry family members of protesters who were killed during the revloution hurl stones at security vehicles. Credit: Agence France-Presse
The Muslim Brotherhood is struggling with more dissent in its ranks after a group of young members broke away from the Islamist organization's political party to form a secular party that is more inclusive of other cultures and religions.
The new party, known as the Egyptian Current, is a direct challenge to the Brotherhood and follows the expulsion this week of Dr. Abdul Monem aboul Fotouh, a prominent member who defied the organization by running for president. Fatouh has the support of thousands of young members, many of whom reportedly have had their memberships in the organization frozen.
“We are convinced that Egypt is currently in need of political parties that rise beyond specific ideologies. The Egyptian mainstream political current should have a real voice in the country’s politics,” Mohammed Abbas told the Los Angeles Times. Abbas said he suspects he and others will also be expelled from the Brotherhood.
Abbas said the Egyptian Current will be a secular party with Islamic and Arabic roots but will represent Egyptians belonging to different cultural and religious backgrounds: “We need a party which will look after the interests of all Egyptians," he said. Founding members announced that the party will take the slogan of “freedom, building and pioneering.”
Young Brotherhood members have often voiced their dismay at the policies of the Brotherhood's senior members, most notably after leaders of the organization's Justice and Freedom political party were appointed by the group’s politburo rather than being elected by a committee of party members.
Abbas, who represented the Brotherhood at the Jan. 25 Youth Coalition during the revolution that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak, was also angered by the group's decision to ban its members from taking part in “the second revolution” protests in Tahrir Square in May.
The announcement of the Egyptian Current comes days after the Brotherhood officially axed Fotouh. The group announced that Fotouh violated its regulations by launching a presidential bid despite the Brotherhood’s decision not to field a candidate. The dissension comes as the Brotherhood -- free from the persecution of Mubarak's police state -- has emerged as the country's top political player. It is poised to win as many as 25% of the seats in Parliament in September elections.
But it is increasingly unable to mend the differences between the aspirations of its youth and its conservative Islamic tenets. While members of the Egyptian Current expressed willingness to remain in the Brotherhood, many officials in the organization's guidance bureau demanded their dismissal from the group Wednesday. No decisions were made but Abbas believes that they are likely to be expelled.
-- Amro Hassan in Cairo
Photo: Brotherhood leaders during the establishing conference of the Justice and Freedom party on April 30. Credit: Reuters
Babylon & Beyond today is switching to a new commenting system.
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Readers will have the option of posting their Babylon & Beyond comments on their Facebook walls, but that's not required. Readers are welcome to express their opinions about the news -- and about how the new Facebook comments system is working.
Although new laws regulating the construction of houses of worship have been sought by politicians and human rights advocates long before the Jan. 25 revolution, there has been little progress toward passing such regulations.
A draft law proposes that building permit applications for houses of worship should go through the public engineering office in the governorate where the church or mosque would be built. It sets a maximum period of two months for approval or rejection of an application, and stipulates that no house of worship can built closer than a kilometer to another church or mosque.
A spokesman for the Egyptian Evangelical Church, Akram Lamei, said he believes that the draft law has a number of flaws, including the "strange" condition of setting two or more houses of worship apart by at least a kilometer.
Toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has cancer, according to his lawyer, who disclosed the news less than two months before Mubarak is to stand trial, accused of financial corruption and allowing security forces to kill hundreds of protesters who rallied against his regime in February.
Mubarak, who has been hospitalized since suffering a heart attack in April, has been in ill health for years. Reports that he may have cancer surfaced in 2010, when the 83-year-old former leader had a growth removed from his intestine during gallbladder surgery.
Mubarak’s lawyer, Farid Deeb, told Reuters of the former president condition on Monday, referring to a medical report filed with the court. Deeb was quoted as telling Agence France-Presse that Mubarak has "stomach cancer and the tumors are growing."
The announcement contradicts comments last week by an Egyptian medical official, who denied that the former leader had a serious illness. “Whatever has recently been said about the deterioration of Mubarak’s health is rumors,” Dr. Adel Adawi, an assistant to the minister of health, told the Arab media.
Activists and opposition leaders have been suspicious of reports on Mubarak’s health, fearing that his condition is being made to look more dire than it is in an effort by his supporters to keep him from trial. Mubarak and his sons, Alaa and Gamal, are expected to be tried in early August for allegedly defrauding the country and allowing government forces to kill more than 840 Egyptians during 18 days of demonstrations.
“Mubarak and his sons are the symbol of all the corruption carried out under his rule,” said Ismael Zakareya, a teacher. “The importance of his trial is not just to punish him, but it will be to set a great example to any ruler or official who will come to power after him. This revolution will lose a large part of its essence if he and his sons are not sentenced.”
Gamal Mubarak, once expected to be his father's successor, and Alaa are in Tora Prison on the outskirts of Cairo. The former president is in custody in a hospital in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh. His wife, Suzanne, was released from detention after agreeing to turn over about $4 million in assets. She remains under investigation.
Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf has appointed former Ambassador Mohamed El-Orabi as the country’s new foreign minister, state news agency MENA announced Sunday.
El-Orabi, who has previously served as Egypt’s ambassador to the United States, Great Britain, Germany and Kuwait, will replace Nabil Elaraby, who will move to become the Arab League’s secretary general. Elaraby’s nomination to head the league was opposed by Egypt’s political elite and activists, who believed he articulated a bolder foreign policy less dependent on Washington and the West.
Prior to Shara's appointing El-Orabi, a number of activist groups, including the April 6th Youth Movement, called on the prime minister to put the matter up for national debate. It is unclear whether El-Orabi will prove a popular choice among the majority if Egyptians.
Egypt is seeing a post-revolution media renaissance, including in print and on television stations. The growth of coverage has posed a challenge to the transitional military government, which activists and some media have accused of slipping back into the censorship of the previous regime.
Among the upstarts is TV 25, a 24-hour satellite news channel with more than a dozen original programs. The channel is staffed by about 42 newly-trained journalists charged with covering the aftermath of the Jan. 25 revolution from the perspective of the people, not the oft-quoted experts seen on mainstream television.
The station has a Facebook following, broadcasts and streams live video online from the sleek offices of Video Cairo, a 40-year-old satellite broadcast network overlooking the Nile. One day last week, the TV 25 news broadcast— delivered by a young presenter in short sleeves and jeans — included reports about the latest sectarian tensions between Muslims and Coptic Christians attempting to build churches, a strike by electrical workers and spending limits for the presidential election next fall.
"Our main rule is to be a reflection of the street," one young anchor said. "We are fed up with experts who didn’t expect the revolution."
Another host, Miral Brinjy, 26, is a blogger who now has her own social media show, "Hashtag." She has reported about recent government censorship, including the arrest and sentencing of an Egyptian blogger to three years in prison after a military trial.
Ilan Chaim Grapel, 27, was detained Sunday in Cairo on “suspicion of espionage and spying on Egypt with the aim to harm its economic and political interest,” according to a statement released by the Egyptian General Prosecution office. Grapel will be held for 15 days pending interrogation, a spokesman for the office said in a statement.
Egyptian intelligence officials believe Grapel, a former Israeli soldier, was sent to Cairo by the Israeli spy agency, Mossad, to provide military and political intelligence and recruit Egyptian agents, according to the spokesman’s statement.
The spokesman noted that Grapel participated in a number of anti-government protests during the revolution, and accused him of attempting to disrupt the demonstrations by provoking attacks on protesters.
The caption says, "Egyptian security authorities released a video that allegedly shows an Israeli spy as he is being monitored by security," while the subtitles, paired with sinister music, say, "Israeli spy on Cairo streets."
Egyptian state television reported that Grapel posed as a foreign correspondent and was monitored for months by Egyptian authorities before his arrest.
On Monday, however, an American law student who says he is a former classmate of Grapel’s disputed the spying allegations.
Human rights organizations have called on the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces to allow a new constitution ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for September and December, respectively.
“We ask SCAF to engage constructively with demands from revolutionary forces to ... give priority to the drafting of a new constitution for the country whose provisions will govern the institutions of a democratic regime,” a statement issued on Thursday and signed by 11 human rights groups read.
The military council dissolved Egypt’s lower and upper houses of parliament and suspended the constitution on Feb.13 -- two days after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down. A committee of lawmakers and judges quickly amended the existing constitution. On March 19, over the objections of youth acitivists and revolutionary leaders who were demanding a new constitution, Egyptians voted overwhelmingly in favor of the amendments.
The amended articles called for parliamentary and presidential elections to be held this year and require that the new parliament and president form a committee to to write a new constitution within six months of electing the president. Human rights advocates, however, protested that a consitution should be written before a new govermnment is elected.
“The insistence on putting the cart before the horse --that is electing a parliament based on the rules of the old regime’s constitution before preparing a constitution for the new order -- will allow parties that win elections to manage the drafting of the constitution with accordance to their own narrow interests,” said the human rights groups' statement.
The National Front for Change Youth and other youth coalitions have called for a million-man march in Tahrir Square on July 8 to demand a new constitution. The Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest and best organized opposition party, which is expected to pick up many seats in parliamentary elections, is against the youth protest.
“Those calls are an attempt to pounce on the legitimacy of the people who voted in favor of holding elections before forming a constitution. We can’t put the whole society’s future on hold just because some political forces didn’t do their homework for the upcoming elections,” said Ahmed Abou Barak, a prominent Brotherhood member.
The Brotherhood boycotted Tahrir Square protests on May 27, when demonstrators called for speeding up democratic reforms and drafting a constitution ahead of elections.
-- Amro Hassan in Cairo
Photo: Thousands of protesters marching in Tahrir Square on May 27. Credit: Associated Press