Egypt's Copts select three finalists in election for new pope

CAIRO -- Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church began the first phase of voting Monday to elect a new spiritual leader to replace Pope Shenouda III, whose death in March left behind a Christian community increasingly worried over the rise of a new Islamist-led government.

An assembly of more than 2,400 Coptic scholars and public officials cast ballots, narrowing a list of five papal candidates down to three finalists: Bishop Rafael, 54, a doctor and current assistant bishop for central Cairo;  Bishop Tawadros, 60, of the Nile Delta district of Beheira; and Father Rafael Ava Mina, 70.

The names of the finalists will be written on ballots and placed in a box.  In accordance with church tradition, a blindfolded child from the congregation will draw the name of the new pope Nov. 4 during a public ceremony at St. Mark's Cathedral in Cairo. The pope will be enthroned in a ceremonial celebration Nov. 18.

The long-anticipated election for the 118th pope of Alexandria, as the leader of the church is known, came as a relief for thousands of anxious Copts, who often said they felt "orphaned" after the death of Shenouda. The late pope led the church for more than four decades and was revered among Copts, who make up about 10% of Egypt's 82 million people.

Shenouda was a calming voice in a country troubled by growing sectarian animosities even under the seemingly secular regime of Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted last year. Churches have been attacked and peaceful Christian protesters have been killed. The Coptic community has felt increasingly isolated since new Islamist President Mohamed Morsi was inaugurated in June.

Morsi’s government includes few Christians, women and other minorities. Copts are also concerned over how strongly sharia, or Islamic law, will influence the nation’s new constitution in terms of civil and religious freedoms. When the Cabinet was chosen in August, the church’s acting leader, Bishop Pachomious, refused to congratulate the prime minister on the formation, which he called "unjust" for failing to be inclusive.


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 -- Reem Abdellatif

Photo: Egyptian Coptic priests wait in line Monday at St. Mark's Cathedral in Cairo to cast their votes in the election of a new pope. Credit: Khaled Elfiqi / European Pressphoto Agency

Suspect in Libya consulate attack killed in Cairo, reports say

CAIRO -- A gunman reportedly linked to the militant attack last month on the U.S. mission in Libya was killed in a shootout with police in Cairo on Wednesday, according Egyptian state TV and independent news media.  

The Egypt Independent newspaper reported that the man, whom security officials identified only as Hazem, was described as a terrorist. The newspaper and the state TV website said the heavily armed suspect was killed after a long gun battle with police in the Nasr City section of Cairo.

The reports could not be independently confirmed, and there were conflicting reports over the incident.

“Security authorities said they had acquired information implicating the man of involvement in the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi,” the newspaper reported. The attack on the consulate in September killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

State TV and the Egypt Independent reported that the suspect died in an apartment during the gunfight and a fire. Police reportedly seized bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and ammunition from the scene.


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New uncertainty for Egypt's troubled constitutional panel

This post has been updated. See the note below for details.

CAIRO -- The fate of the assembly writing Egypt’s new constitution became more uncertain Tuesday when the case to disband the Islamist-dominated body was referred to the nation’s highest court.

The decision by an administrative panel to send the matter to the Supreme Constitutional Court indicates the sensitivity around a document that has become a volatile battle between secularists and Islamists over the nation’s character. The ruling means it is possible the assembly may finish the constitution before the case is decided.

The referral to the supreme court also leads of questions of impartiality. Members of the court recently admonished the assembly over the draft; one judge called certain articles disastrous. Others said the document weakens the court’s purview on constitutional matters and allows a provision that grants the president the power to appoint its judges.

The constitutional assembly has had a brief, if turbulent, history. The first 100-member body was dissolved by a court in April amid questions over its selection and concerns that it did not reflect the will of all Egyptians. The new assembly, whose legitimacy has been challenged by various political groups, is expected to complete the constitution by December and put it to a public referendum.

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Egypt freezes assets of ex-presidential candidate and Mubarak ally

Ahmed-shafikCAIRO — The Egyptian government on Sunday froze the financial assets of former presidential candidate Ahmed Shafik and his three daughters as authorities move to try the retired general over his alleged business dealings with the sons of deposed leader Hosni Mubarak.

Shafik, who was Mubarak's last prime minister, is wanted for graft and is expected to face trial on Dec. 2. Immediately after losing the presidential race to Mohamed Morsi in June, Shafik left Egypt for the United Arab Emirates. He has not returned home and authorities have announced he may be tried in absentia. 

Last month, Egyptian authorities called for Shafik’s arrest in a case involving Mubarak's sons, Gamal and Alaa, and four retired generals. The charges center on Shafik's role as chairman in the state’s housing association in the 1990s, when he allegedly sold publicly owned lands below market value to Mubarak's sons. Judge Osama Alsaeedy referred Shafik to criminal court on charges of squandering public funds.

Shafik, a staunch Mubarak ally who failed to calm the uprising that brought down the regime last year, has also been ordered to face trial on charges along with 10 other former officials who were accused of corruption in Egypt's Ministry of Civil Aviation. The government did not disclose the amount of Shafik’s assets that have been frozen.

The former pilot and aviation minister spoke from Dubai in September on a television interview to deny the accusations. He said the charges were "politically motivated" and that he would not return to Egypt until investigations were completed and his innocence was proven.


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Photo: Then-presidential candidate Ahmed Shafik speaks to the media during a news conference at his office in Cairo on May 26. Credit: Khalil Hamra, file / Associated Press.

Striking Egyptian doctors begin nationwide resignation campaign

This post has been updated. See the note below.

CAIRO -- Egyptian doctors began a mass resignation campaign in state-run hospitals across the country Thursday after the government failed to meet demands for higher salaries, better security and a dramatic increase in national healthcare spending.

"We're targeting at least a third of the 50,000 doctors employed through the state. This will cripple the Health Ministry,” said Dr. Ahmed Shoura, a member of the strike committee. “Our campaign is going to resume until at least 15,000 resignations have been collected, then we will submit our resignations to the ministry."

For the last three weeks, doctors in public hospitals have been on a partial strike across the country, handling only chronic cases once a week. Thousands of doctors have threatened to submit their resignations if the state did not meet their demands in a strike that has become an intensifying problem for President Mohamed Morsi's new government.

The strikers are also calling for "corrupt" Health Ministry employees and former officials loyal to ousted President Hosni Mubarak to be removed from office. 

[Updated  2:23 p.m., Oct. 18: Several doctors who helped organize the strike said the ministry has been unresponsive to their pleas for negotiations. However, Dr. Ahmed Sedeek of the Health Ministry previously told The Times that officials had been meeting with doctors to find a middle ground.

“Some of the people participating in the strike believe that the Health Ministry is against the doctors; this is not the case," Sedeek said. "We are doctors as well and the ministry needs all of its doctors to contribute.”

He said that while the doctors have legitimate demands, the new government needs more time to increase the health budget as promised and implement reform.

“Our main goal is to fix the health institution,” he said. “If the doctors don't want to give us a chance or abort the steps we've already taken, then this is just unfortunate.”]

Last week, 85 doctors resigned from one hospital in Cairo's urban slum district of Sayeda Zeinab, Shoura told The Times. He and several dozen doctors in Cairo and Alexandria have already resigned. He said he expects that they will reach their goal quickly because both doctors and patients are "fed up" with Egypt's healthcare system.

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Islamist president backs off on replacing Egypt's top prosecutor

CAIRO -- Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi backed off his decision to replace the nation’s prosecutor-general following an outcry Saturday from judges and lawyers criticizing the new Islamist leader for tampering with an independent judiciary.

The retreat was a bracing political lesson for Morsi, who is moving to control government institutions still influenced by officials appointed by deposed autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Morsi deftly maneuvered in August to replace Egypt’s top military commander, but he encountered defiance in recent days from Prosecutor-General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud.

Egyptian law prevents the president from firing the prosecutor-general. Instead, Morsi pressured Mahmoud to accept the role of ambassador to the Vatican. Mahmoud declined and received the backing of judges who supported him Saturday when he showed up for work. That left the president’s staff trying to finesse a way around the embarrassment.

"There was confusion. The acceptance was not complete, was not clear," Vice President Mahmoud Mekki told journalists, referring to the ambassador offer. He said the president decided to keep Mahmoud in his post at the request of the Supreme Judicial Council.

Morsi moved against Mahmoud, an unpopular holdover from an era many Egyptians revile, on Thursday after a court acquitted 24 Mubarak loyalists of plotting an assault on protesters during last year’s uprising. The attack became an international spectacle when camels and horses charged into demonstrators in a desperate attempt for Mubarak to hold on to power.

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Egyptian court acquits 26 in bloody camel attack on Tahrir Square

CAIRO -- An Egyptian criminal court Wednesday acquitted 26 loyalists of deposed President Hosni Mubarak of charges of plotting the notorious attack in which camels and horses charged hundreds of protesters in Tahrir Square during last year's uprising.

Twenty four of the accused were members of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, including businessmen, government officials and the speaker of the former parliament. The attack, which played out on television and stunned the world with medieval-like spectacle, marked one of the bloodiest days of the revolt.

The defendants were found not guilty of manslaughter, according to Egypt's state-run news agency. The attack, which became known as the Camel Battle, was regarded by many as Mubarak's last desperate attempt to cling to power before the 18-day uprising forced him to resign in February 2011.

Human rights advocates and protesters who participated in the uprising were outraged by the verdict. Many said it was an expected yet disappointing blow to justice.

"The trial failed to find those responsible or reveal the truth on what is a defining episode of the uprising," said Mohamed Lotfy,  a researcher with Amnesty International.

The decision comes amid public discontent as many Egyptians feel that justice has not yet been served for those who died in anti-government protests before and after the uprising. That sentiment is putting increasing pressure on new President Mohamed Morsi.   

"They weren't even found guilty of plotting the attack. Many of these government officials and party members were responsible for decision-making during the attack, they should be held responsible,” said Heba Mahfouz, an activist. “If they can't find legal evidence against these people, then they should be responsible to find who committed these crimes resulting in the deaths of hundreds of protesters."


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Photo: In this file photo from Feb. 2, 2011, Egyptian government supporters, some riding camels and horses and armed with sticks, clash with demonstrators in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Credit: Ben Curtis / Associated Press

Egypt's Christians, Muslims hold vigil on anniversary of massacre

CAIRO -- Thousands of Egyptians on Tuesday marched to Maspero, the country's television headquarters, to commemorate the killings of 27 people, mostly Coptic Christians,  a year ago by thugs and soldiers during a protest over a church destroyed by arson.

Muslims and Christians marched in solemn procession, carrying flowers and photos of the dead and chanting calls for justice for what has been dubbed the Maspero Massacre.  They called for the death penalty for Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, former head of the military-led government.

"I'm recalling everything that happened last year. I'm remembering how we approached the television building. I can still hear the gunfire and I remember the army tanks as they ruthlessly chased us," said Amir Roshdy, a 30-year-old Copt. "Till now we can still smell the blood of the martyrs, we still feel them here."

Protesters also chanted against Egypt's new Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. They accused him of striking deals with the former military rulers to secure power. Morsi was sworn into office in June and none of the nation's commanders have been charged.

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Egypt's pardoning of revolutionaries draws praise, cynicism

MorsiCAIRO — Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s blanket pardon of hundreds of activists arrested during last year’s revolution and its turbulent aftermath was widely viewed as a morally wise but politically timed move from a leader attempting to calm his critics amid social and economic turmoil.

Morsi had been criticized by liberals for not swiftly granting amnesty to political prisoners arrested or convicted between Jan. 25, 2011, when the uprising began against the rule of Hosni Mubarak, and June 30, 2012, the day Morsi was sworn into office. His decision Monday delighted many but was also viewed as a tactic to counter demonstrations against his administration planned for Friday.

Human-rights groups praised Morsi for pardoning what could be more than 1,000 people. They reportedly include those held by military tribunals that arose when the army seized control of the country after Mubarak was overthrown in February 2011. Activists have repeatedly called for top military officials, including Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the nation’s leader for 17 months, to be tried for civil-rights abuses.

The pardon covers those facing “felony convictions and misdemeanor convictions or attempted crimes committed to support the revolution and the fulfillment of its goals,” according to the president's office. It does not extend to those charged with murder.

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Two Christian boys detained over accusations of defiling Koran

CAIRO -- Two Christian boys have been arrested for allegedly urinating on the Koran, agitating tensions across Egypt amid rising accusations of blasphemy after the furor last month over a film made in California that ridiculed the prophet Muhammad.

Egyptian media reported that brothers Nabil Nadi, 9, and Mina Nadi, 10, were placed in juvenile detention Tuesday in a southern village in Beni Suef province. The boys were taken into custody after a cleric told authorities they ripped up pages of the Koran and urinated on two holy books.

It was unclear whether the pair were coerced or acted on their own. Authorities said the boys could be held for up to 15 days while police investigate. The Egyptian Independent newspaper reported that the cleric “brought the kids to the local bishop and insisted someone else had incited them to desecrate the Korans and throw them near the mosque.”  

The case is the latest in a series of blasphemy charges brought by conservative Islamists against Coptic Christians, who make up about 10% of the population of 82 million. A teacher has been interrogated for allegedly demeaning the prophet in one of her lessons; a Coptic man may face trial for posts on his Facebook page considered offensive to Islam.

Human rights activists warn that such cases endanger freedom of speech and foreshadow restrictions on civil liberties at a time Islamists and secular liberals are drafting a new constitution. Islamists dominate the constituent assembly and liberals fear the document will be heavily weighted in sharia, or Islamic law.

Ultraconservative Islamists have been emboldened since violent protests flared across the world last month over the film "Innocence of Muslims," which depicted Muhammad as a womanizer and child molester.

In Egypt, the fallout from the film further strained relations between Muslims and Christians, already tested by attacks on churches and homes over the last year. The new government of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi has been unable to allay  sectarian suspicions.


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