Reprieve – February 10, 2016
The Egyptian Foreign Minister has defended his government’s mass imprisonment of political activists, and the use of lengthy pre-trial detention periods, during a visit to Washington DC to meet with US Secretary of State John Kerry among other officials.
In an interview with NPR that aired today, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry defended the detention without trial of activists and others arrested at protests in 2013, saying that arrests only took place where protestors didn’t have ‘permits’. Asked why many protestors were still imprisoned and awaiting trial two years later, he said: “It is a long time, but I believe justice has to be given the opportunity, within the impartiality of the judicial system, to ascertain all of the facts and to pass a verdict”.
Mr Shoukry added that “no country” has a perfect human rights record, and that “there will always be ups and downs.” He said that “it is our intention to do everything possible to live up to those [human rights] standards and provide the rights of all individuals.”
Since taking power in July 2013, the Sisi government has overseen thousands of arrests of protestors, journalists and others, many of whom have been put through mass trials that fail to meet international standards. International human rights group Reprieve, which assists several prisoners in Egypt, recently established that between 2014 and the end of 2015, nearly 600 death sentences were handed down, the majority in relation to political charges.
Hundreds of other prisoners are enduring lengthy periods of pre-trial imprisonment; one trial involving 494 people has been postponed 12 times since it began in 2014. The defendants, including Ibrahim Halawa – an Irish student, who is being assisted by Reprieve – are currently understood to be undergoing torture, including forms of ‘crucifixion’ and electrocution. Mr Halawa is one of several prisoners in the trial who were arrested as juveniles, and who are being tried as adults in violation of Egypt’s Child Law.
Reprieve has previously written to Secretary Kerry, asking him to press the Egyptian government to end the use of mass trials and release prisoners who were arrested as juveniles.
The Saudi plan to send ground troops into Syria appears to be just a ruse. But this is precisely the kind of reckless saber-rattling that could ignite an all-out war, one that could embroil the United States and Russia.
Saudi rulers have reportedly amassed a 150,000-strong army to invade Syria on the alleged pretext “to fight against terrorism” and to defeat the so-called Islamic State (also known as ISIS/ISIL). Saudi officials told CNN that in addition to Saudi troops there are ground forces from Egypt, Turkey, Sudan, Morocco, Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem gave a categorical response, saying the move would be seen as an act of aggression and that any invasion force regardless of its stated reasons for entering Syria will be sent back in “wooden coffins”.
Nevertheless, US President Barack Obama has welcomed the Saudi plan to intervene in Syria.
Obama’s Defense Secretary Ashton Carter is this week due to meet in Brussels with counterparts from the US-led so-called “anti-terror” coalition to make a decision on the whether to activate the Saudi plan. A Saudi military spokesman has already said that if the US-led coalition gives its consent then his country will proceed with the intervention.
In recent weeks, Carter and other senior US officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, have been calling for increased regional Arab military action against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Carter and Biden have also said the US is prepared to send in its own ground troops en masse if the Geneva peace talks collapse.
Now, those talks appear to be floundering. So, does that mean that a large-scale invasion of US-led foreign armies in Syria is on the way?
Let’s step back a moment and assess what is really going on. The Saudi warning – or more accurately “threat” – of military intervention in Syria is not the first time that this has been adverted to. Back in mid-December, when Riyadh announced the formation of a 34-Islamic nation alliance to “fight terrorism”, the Saudis said that the military alliance reserved the right to invade any country where there was deemed to be a terror threat – including Syria.
Another factor is that the House of Saud is not pleased with US-led diplomatic efforts on Syria. US Secretary of State John Kerry’s bustling to organize the Geneva negotiations – supposedly to find a peace settlement to the five-year conflict – is seen by the Saudis as giving too many concessions to the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad and his foreign allies, Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
The Geneva talks – which came unstuck last week – can be arguably assessed as not a genuine internal Syria process to resolve the war – but rather they are a cynical political attempt by Washington and its allies to undermine the Syrian government for their long-held objective of regime change. The inclusion among the political opposition at Geneva of Al Qaeda-linked militants, Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, with Western backing, illustrates the ulterior purpose.
The Washington Post gave the game away when it reported at the weekend: “The Obama administration has found itself increasingly backed into a corner by Russian bombing in Syria that its diplomacy has so far appeared powerless to stop.”
In other words, the Geneva diplomacy, mounted in large part by Kerry, was really aimed at halting the blistering Russian aerial campaign. The four-month intervention ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin has turned the tide of the entire Syrian war, allowing the Syrian Arab Army to win back strategically important terrain.
That the Russian military operations have not stopped, indeed have stepped up, has caused much consternation in Washington and its allies.
Russia and Syria can reasonably argue that the UN resolutions passed in November and December give them the prerogative to continue their campaign to defeat ISIS and all other Al Qaeda-linked terror groups. But it seems clear now that Kerry was counting on the Geneva talks as a way of stalling the Russian-Syrian assaults on the regime-change mercenaries.
Kerry told reporters over the weekend that he is making a last-gasp attempt to persuade Russia to call a ceasefire in Syria. Indicating the fraught nature of his discussions with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, Kerry said: “The modalities of a ceasefire itself are also being discussed… But if it’s just talks for the sake of talks in order to continue the bombing, nobody is going to accept that, and we will know that in the course of the next days.”
Moscow last week was adamant that it would not stop its bombing operations until “all terrorists” in Syria have been defeated. Syria’s Foreign Minister al-Muallem reiterated this weekend that there would be no ceasefire while illegally armed groups remain in Syria.
What we can surmise is that because the US-led covert military means for regime change in Syria is being thwarted and at the same time the alternative political means for regime change are also not gaining any traction – due to Russia and Syria’s astuteness on the ulterior agenda – the Washington axis is now reacting out of frustration.
Part of this frustrated reaction are the threats from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other regional regimes – with US tacit approval – to go-ahead with a direct military intervention.
In short, it’s a bluff aimed at pressuring Syria and Russia to accommodate the ceasefire demands, which in reality are to serve as a breathing space for the foreign-backed terrorist proxies.
From a military point of view, the Saudi troop invasion cannot be taken remotely serious as an effective deployment. We only have to look at how the Saudi regime has been battered in Yemen over the past 10 months – in the Arab region’s poorest country – to appreciate that the Saudis have not the capability of carrying out a campaign in Syria.
As American professor Colin Cavell noted to this author: “Saudi intervention in Syria will have as much success as its intervention in Yemen. History has clearly shown that mercenary forces will never fight external wars with any success or elan, and no Saudi soldier in his right mind truly supports the Saudi monarchy. Everyone in Saudi Arabia knows that the House of Saud has no legitimacy, is based solely on force and manipulation, propped up by the US and the UK, and – if it did not have so much money – is a joke, run by fools.”
Thus, while a military gambit is decidedly unrealistic, the real danger is that the Saudi rulers and their American patrons have become so unhinged from reality that they could miscalculate and go into Syria. That would be like a spark in a powder keg. It will be seen as an act of war on Syria and its allies, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. The US would inevitably be drawn fully into the spiral of a world war.
History has illustrated that wars are often the result not of a single, willful decision – but instead as the result of an ever-quickening process of folly.
Syria is just one potential cataclysm.
Finian Cunningham (born 1963) has written extensively on international affairs, with articles published in several languages. Originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, he is a Master’s graduate in Agricultural Chemistry and worked as a scientific editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge, England, before pursuing a career in newspaper journalism. For over 20 years he worked as an editor and writer in major news media organizations, including The Mirror, Irish Times and Independent. Now a freelance journalist based in East Africa, his columns appear on RT, Sputnik, Strategic Culture Foundation and Press TV.
Israeli Infrastructure Minister Yuval Steinitz has said that Egypt’s new policy of flooding the tunnels between the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula with seawater had come at Israel’s request.
“Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is flooding the tunnels on his country’s border with the Gaza Strip with water based on a request by Israel,” Steinitz said at a seminar held Saturday in the southern city of Beer Sheva, according to Israel Radio.
“Security coordination between the two countries [Israel and Egypt] is better than ever,” the minister said at the seminar, at which participants discussed the relationship between the two neighbors.
In recent months, the Egyptian army has begun flooding the network of cross-border tunnels linking Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula to the Gaza Strip with seawater.
Subject to a years-long blockade by Israel and Egypt, the Hamas-run Gaza Strip had come to depend on the tunnel network to import desperately-needed commodities, including food, fuel and medicine.
Steinitz is particularly close to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and is a member of the latter’s influential security cabinet.
Some 544 people have been arrested in Egypt since the start of the year, human rights activists have reported.
In exclusive comments to the Anadolu Agency, Ezzat Ghoneim, of the Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms, said: “Since the beginning of 2016, this association has flagged 544 detained people, including 34 cases of arrests that took place yesterday [Saturday] and 17 on Sunday, with all of the people involved in such cases still imprisoned.”
He pointed out that Saturday’s arrests were over “seven provinces: one in Cairo, two in Giza, 19 in Al-Gharbia, three in Al-Behairah, four in Aswan, four in Monoufia and one in Kafr El-Sheikh.”
Yesterday, “seven people were arrested in Alexandria and 10 in Ismailia,” Ghoneim said, adding that the organisation is monitoring all arrests.
“The charges range between issues related to demonstrations, incitement of violence, membership of an outlawed group, preparing to commemorate the January 25 Revolution of 2011, or taking part in the January revolution itself. However, we are not concerned with the detainees’ affiliations in our work,” Ghoneim added.
Most normal people look at the smoldering cemetery that is post-“liberation” Libya, the gruesome graveyard of an almost-“liberated” Syria, the 14 year slow-motion failed regime change in Afghanistan, blood-drenched Iraq, and they are horrified. Washington Post’s neocon nag Jennifer Rubin looks across that bloody landscape and sees a beautiful work in progress.
She writes today in the online edition of the Post that despite what we might be hearing from some “libertarian/populist pols masquerading as conservatives,” the interventionist enterprise is chugging along just fine. Democracy promotion at the barrel of a gun is every American’s “white man’s burden” whether he likes it or not.
Never mind that Syria has been nearly leveled by almost five years of an Islamist insurgency that was but a few weeks from success when Russia stopped it in its tracks. The real villain is the secular Bashar al-Assad, writes Rubin. After all, he “is partnered with Iran and spurs support for Islamist rebels…”
Assad “spur[s] support for Islamist rebels” by waging war on them for six years? Or does she somehow deny that Assad is fighting the insurgents who seek to drive him from power? Both cannot be true.
And on Planet Rubin, funding, training, and arming Islamist rebels, as the US and its allies have done, can in no way be seen as spurring them on.
“It has become fashionable in some circles to pooh-pooh support for democracy,” Rubin moans. Not so fast, she says. This is not a failed project. Her evidence? From all the countries destabilized by US democracy promotion schemes there is “one encouraging success story” — Tunisia!
Yes, after the destruction and killing in places like Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and the rest, it is the great success in little Tunisia that makes it all worthwhile!
Unfortunately for Rubin, even her little Tunisian success story looks to have an unhappy ending. As reported by BBC News, unrest is spreading throughout Tunisia as demonstrators are clashing with police. Tunisians are in far worse economic shape now than before the US-backed “Arab Spring” brought them their “liberation.” One-third of young people are unemployed in post-liberation Tunisia and 62 percent of recent college graduates cannot find work.
“We have been waiting for things to get better for five years and nothing has happened,” Yassine Kahlaoui, a 30-year-old jobseeker, told the AP as reported by the BBC.
Here is the ugly truth that regime change enthusiasts like Rubin will never admit: it is very easy to destabilize and destroy a country from abroad in the name of “promoting democracy,” but those recipients of America’s largesse in this area soon find that it is all but impossible to return a country to even pre-“liberation” economic levels. They are left missing their “dictator.”
What does Rubin care: she doesn’t have to live in these hellholes she helps create.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says Saudi Arabia now sees Tel Aviv “as an ally rather as an enemy” as he claims “a great shift taking place” in the Arab policy toward the Palestinian issue.
“Saudi Arabia recognizes that Israel is an ally rather than an enemy because of the two principle threats that threaten them, Iran and Daesh,” he told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos Friday.
Both Saudi Arabia and Israel are fiercely opposed to a nuclear accord between Iran and the West which came into force recently. They are worried the agreement could boost Iran’s role in the region.
Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that Israel was actively seeking to strengthen ties with Arab powers in the wake of the nuclear deal with Iran.
Daesh ideology is rooted in Wahhabism which is widely promoted by Saudi clerics and tolerated by the kingdom’s rulers. Both Saudi Arabia and Israel support Takfiri groups fighting in Syria. Meanwhile, there is no known case of a Daesh attack on either Saudi or Israeli targets.
Netanyahu also said “there is a great shift taking place” in the Saudi-led policy toward the Palestinian issue, citing Israel’s “relationships” with unknown Arab states.
“By nurturing these relationships that are taking place now with the Arab world, that could actually help us resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and we’re actually working towards that end,” he said.
Netanyahu’s overtures to Saudi Arabia and its allies come in the midst of international outcry after Tel Aviv declared 154 hectares (380 acres) of Palestinian territory in the Jordan Valley as “state lands.”
Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister for national infrastructure, energy, and water, returned recently from an energy conference in the UAE, where Tel Aviv recently established a diplomatic mission. Israel’s Channel 2 suggested that the real aim of the trip may have been for the two sides to covertly conduct strategy meetings.
In recent months, Egypt returned its ambassador to Tel Aviv while a group of Jordanian pilots paid a “working visit” to Israel and trained closely with their Israeli counterparts during US-sponsored military exercises.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also recently expressed an interest in easing tensions with Israel after reaching an agreement to restore relations last month. Sudan is also said to be considering normalizing ties with Israel.
The visit of Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin may be considered by some to be unexpected, but it is hardly surprising.
Although the two countries maintain considerable trade ties to the tune of half a billion dollars a year, they have for more than a decade been erstwhile adversaries.
As two of the greatest gas exporters, they rarely agree on production quotas, vying for control of this essential market. In the past 20 months, Russia has been highly critical of Saudi Arabia and Qatar for refusing to curb oil production output as global prices plummeted.
A major oil exporter, Russia – already reeling from EU and US sanctions – has suffered considerably as prices drop to the $30 mark.
The rhetoric between both countries peaked after Russian fighter bombers and naval vessels began pounding Islamist extremist groups fighting to remove Moscow’s Syrian ally President Bashar Al Assad.
As the Sunni-funded campaign to remove Assad appeared to reach a stalemate, both Qatar and Saudi Arabia have since May 2015 significantly increased their support (financially, logistically and with materiel) to Wahabist Islamist factions in Syria.
The increase in support came as both countries realized that Washington was unable – or unwilling – to provide such groups as Nusra Front and the Free Syrian Army with the upper hand to turn the tide against Assad.
When Russia moved to reinforce its bases in Syria and presence in the Mediterranean, the Qataris in late October 2015 announced they could militarily intervene in the civil war there to aid their Islamist allies.
“If a military intervention will protect the Syrian people from the brutality of the regime, we will do it,” Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiyah said at the time.
If such bravado was meant to nudge Washington to up the ante against Assad, it failed.
Russian diplomacy moves forward
A week later, the US appeared to cave in to Russian pressure to bring together senior representatives from Germany, France, Great Britain, Italy, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, as well as the UN’s special envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura, and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini to meet in Vienna to resolve the Syrian civil war.
It marked the first time rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran joined discussions on Syria. The two countries have backed opposing sides in the Syrian and Yemeni conflicts.
The armed Syrian opposition – classified as moderates by the US – did not participate in the talks.
By expanding the number of countries meeting on the crisis – and bringing Assad’s critical backer Iran to the table – Russia effectively minimized Qatar’s and Saudi Arabia’s influence in the conflict.
In late November, on the sidelines of the third summit of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF) in Tehran, Putin thanked Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei for his help in Vienna.
Moscow and Tehran have supported Syria’s President Bashar Al Assad and insisted that he be part of an interim political process and future elections.
“All this is done, of course, in agreement with the Iranian partners … I think that without them it would be impossible,” Putin said in comments carried by Russian news agencies.
Russia also played a critical role in ensuring that Iran and the other permanent Security Council members (and Germany) sign a deal which would curb Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for a lifting of debilitating sanctions.
If it wasn’t clear yet, a rising Russia was increasingly flexing both its military and diplomatic muscles in the Middle East.
Even Egypt, which has been financially sustained by Saudi Arabia, defied its Riyadh benefactors and backed Russia’s approach to resolving the conflict.
On December 18, Russia and the US agreed to a UN Security Council resolution “to convene representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition to engage in formal negotiations on a political transition process on an urgent basis, with a target of early January 2016 for the initiation of talks, pursuant to the Geneva Communiqué, consistent with the 14 November 2015 ISSG Statement, with a view to a lasting political settlement of the crisis”.
A week later, the previously chest-pumping Qatar Foreign Minister al-Attiyah was in Moscow where he praised his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov for Russia’s efforts to stabilize the Middle East.
The two diplomats agreed on the need to move the UNSC resolution forward.
“We discussed in detail what’s necessary to be done to implement the agreements on the Syrian settlement,” Lavrov said at the time.
In early January, Russia’s BRICS ally China, which is also increasingly playing a political role in the Middle East, separately hosted members of both the Syrian government and the opposition. It encouraged the latter to drop its preconditions to meeting with Syrian government representatives.
In less than six months, the momentum to bring Assad down has shifted toward ensuring that a political peace process get off the ground.
So, what changed?
Qatar’s ambitions to become a regional and global player have in recent months been tamed.
Its ‘soft power’ approach to controlling the Middle East has backfired as it rushed head on against countries that have for centuries been well-versed in the art of Machiavellian empire-building and proxy manipulation.
At the same time, Russia’s aggressive immersion in the Middle East muddle has altered not only the narrative in the region but physical realities on the ground.
Anti-Assad forces have been losing significant territory to the Syrian military and its Hezbollah allies.
As Russia pounds and destroys the weapons bought by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the US appears to have retreated despite Arab Sunni protestations.
As Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani himself likes to point out, Qatar is a peace-loving member of nations that will work with the US and Western allies to bring the Middle East back from the brink of chaos and collapse.
He has blamed the international community for not supporting Arab youth in their drive for democracy, justice and economic security. That is really a scolding of the US and the West for not doing more to bring the Assad regime down.
Iran rising, Russia to stay
New realities have been forming in the Middle East.
The Iran nuclear deal, which has alarmed Washington’s Sunni allies, will not only be a moral and propaganda boost for Tehran but also allow tens of billions of dollars to flow into its cash-strapped coffers.
Iran is soon expected to flood already saturated oil markets with an additional one million barrels – a day.
Iran has successfully ‘managed’ its new ally Iraq, kept Assad in power, and maintained its proxy Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon.
With Iran and the US appearing to be at the very least cordial now, Tehran’s influence is only set to grow.
For Iran to grow as a geopolitical power, other players must first retreat.
Backing the wrong horse
By continuing to back Islamist factions in Libya, Syria and Egypt, Qatar misread and miscalculated the response of erstwhile allies in its own front yard.
Nowhere has that been more evident than in Qatar’s commitment to Egypt following the 2011 uprising which resulted in President Hosni Mubarak stepping down and the Muslim Brotherhood eventually winning power through the ballot box.
Qatar backed the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist factions in Egypt.
Egyptian hardline cleric Yussuf Al Qaradawi, who was a vociferous critic of the Mubarak government, returned to Cairo from his home in Doha just a week after the president stepped down.
Qaradawi, who is close to Qatar’s ruling family, is also a strong advocate of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
When the Muslim Brotherhood’s President Mohamed Morsi was forced from power, many in Egypt felt that Qatar’s Al Jazeera was biased in favor of the Islamist group and openly belligerent against the new government.
According to prominent Middle East commentator Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, Al Jazeera was used by the Qatari leadership to the service of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Even after Morsi was imprisoned and put on trial, Al Jazeera continued to support the Muslim Brotherhood despite the advice to the contrary and objections of many of its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the latter having been directly threatened by Brotherhood officials in 2012 and 2013, urged Qatar to back away from supporting the group.
After failing to persuade Qatar to terminate its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, and in the wake of Saudi Arabia classifying the group as a terrorist organization, key GCC states turned on Qatar.
They accused Doha of failing to live up to a 2013 GCC security agreement to end support for the Muslim Brotherhood and stop providing sanctuary to its leaders and members.
GCC, oil and Al Jazeera America
In March 2014, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Doha.
This was unprecedented among the usually unified and resolute GCC.
The diplomatic rift indicated that there were significant fissures within the GCC and marked a shift in Qatar’s fortunes. How could it influence the region like it once did if it was becoming a pariah among its closest friends and allies?
As Europe, the US, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE declared support for the new Egyptian President Abdel-Fatah El-Sissi, Qatar was growing increasingly isolated.
The drastic fall of global oil prices has also delivered a debilitating blow to GCC countries, Qatar included.
Brent Crude was at nearly $110 in 2013; on January 15, 2015 it closed below $30 a barrel – more than a 75 per cent drop.
Funding a civil war that is not paying dividends is not the best of financial decisions given the current oil glut.
Some media analysts have speculated that the drop in oil prices played a role in Qatar deciding to shut down its media operations in the US – Al Jazeera America.
Having lost leverage, Qatar is adopting a more pragmatic approach to carefully chart a way back to international cooperation.
Ahead of his trip to the US last year, Sheikh Tamim said in a New York Times editorial that Qatar sees itself as a force of good. It aggressively seeks to resolve conflict and enjoys playing the role of mediator and arbiter.
Russia has in recent months made significant overtures to several Arab countries, including Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Qatar cannot afford to be left out. When Sheikh Tamim arrives in Moscow this weekend he will likely discuss current gas and oil crises with his Russian counterpart as both seek ways to raise global prices.
Qatar could also offer to mediate between Russia and Turkey, one of its strongest allies in the region, following the diplomatic spat between Moscow and Ankara in the wake of the downing of a Russian fighter jet over Syrian air space.
Middle East commentator Camille Otrakji, however, cautions that “one can expect Qatar’s ruler to talk to Russia, without necessarily being ready to stop financing and arming the Jihadists”.
“[The] Qataris show interest in any promising investment, and Russia is today looking very attractive,” he added.
In 2006, then Secretary of State Condi Rice said that the Middle East map was being redrawn.
She likely could have never predicted the Qatar-Russia detente we see today.
Instead of fulfilling his promises to improve the country’s deteriorating economy, provide new job opportunities for thousands of unemployed youth and build at least one million housing units to accommodate young couples, Egypt’s President, Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi has only managed to build more prisons and detention centres to accommodate the growing number of opposition activists.
Less than two months after his election in June 2013, Al-Sisi opened the first maximum security prison in the Dakahlia Governorate.
As many as five new prisons have been constructed since 2013.
Yesterday, the president issued a decree to allocate a plot of state-owned land that spreads over more 103.22 acres to construct a new central prison in Giza.
With the new prison, Egypt will have 42 prisons as well as 382 detention centres in police stations.
A report by the Arab Organisation for Human Rights revealed that the cost of building Gamasa prison was 750 million Egyptian pounds ($95.8 million), adding that the interior ministry did not publish the costs incurred during the construction of the other prisons because they probably cost billions of Egyptian pounds.
According to the organisation, Egypt does not need to build more detention centres to solve a capacity crisis; the problem is imprisoning tens of thousands of innocent people without justification.
Authorities have increased arbitrary arrests because of political opinion and the number of detainees has reached more than 41,000 prisoners, the human rights group said.
In what appears to be an ongoing security crackdown on media personnel, four journalists were sentenced to three years in prison by the Sayeda Zeinab Criminal Court on Sunday. They were convicted of disseminating false information and belonging to a banned organization.
Khallaf allegedly made his LE1,200 bail on Monday, defense lawyer Hany al-Sadeq told the local rights group Journalists Against Torture Observatory, but it is unclear whether he has yet been released from detention. The first hearing in his appeal has been scheduled for March 17.
Khallaf was arrested on July 21 after the state-run Egyptian Trade Union Federation summoned him to their headquarters for interrogation on charges of operating the Electronic Media Syndicate (which was established in 2011) without a license. He was also accused of affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood.
The other journalists in the case — Mohamed Adly of the privately owned Al-Tahrir newspaper, Hamdy Mokhtar of the privately owned Al-Shaab newspaper and videographer Sherif Ashraf — were arrested while reporting outside the Zeinhom morgue on July 1. The journalists say they were there to report on the deaths of nine Muslim Brotherhood leaders fatally shot by police forces in a 6th of October City apartment on that day.
Rights organizations including the New York-based Human Rights Watch have questioned whether police claims of a “shootout” with the nine men were covering up a case of “extrajudicial execution.”
The Journalists Syndicate’s Liberties Committee will hold a session on Tuesday to discuss the three prison sentences issued in absentia, according to a statement posted to the syndicate’s official website. In that meeting, the committee also plans to discuss the referral of six journalists — including three chief editors — to judicial hearings at the request of Justice Minister Ahmed al-Zend.
The committee will seek to resolve these cases in favor of the journalists, as well as five other lawsuits that have been filed against media workers, the syndicate said.
On Monday, the prosecutor general ordered investigations into charges that high-profile journalist and editor Ibrahim Eissa and his colleague Ahmed Samer insulted the judiciary. The investigations were ordered after a lawsuit was filed against the two men for defamation.
Samer was targeted for his article, “The state that spurns itself,” published in the privately owned Al-Maqal newspaper, which is edited by Eissa. The article discussed the recent prison sentence levied against reformist preacher Islam al-Beheiry for religious commentary on his talk show.
As of last month, at least 32 journalists were in detention across Egypt, the Liberties Committee said, of whom 18 were arrested while reporting in public space.
Throughout the whole of 2015 the Rafah Crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt was open for just 21 days. On 31 December, the Egyptian authorities opened the border to deliver the corpse of a 28 year-old mentally-ill Palestinian, Ishaq Khalil Hassan, who was shot in full view of the cameras after he had strayed into Egyptian waters while swimming in the Mediterranean. As the Israeli-led — and Egyptian-backed — blockade of Gaza enters its tenth year, there is little hope that the Rafah Crossing will be opened for any meaningful number of days in 2016.
In fact, a combination of domestic and external factors are likely to continue to prevent an early end to the siege. The cold-blooded killing of Hassan by the Egyptian army in late December was indicative of a hardening of Cairo’s attitudes toward the Palestinians in Gaza. As a result, many more will pay with their lives, either through being denied unrestricted passage through Rafah to get essential medical treatment, or by attempting to smuggle basic needs through the tunnels once described as Gaza’s “lifeline”; or by falling victim to Israeli or Egyptian state violence.
For now, there is no shortage of excuses for keeping the Rafah Crossing closed; the usual excuse given to the Palestinians is that the security situation in north Sinai necessitates the closure. While it is true that there is a deadly insurgency in the Sinai which is taxing the resources of the Egyptian security forces and needs a massive political effort to resolve, that does not justify the demonisation and extrajudicial killing of Palestinians.
It has not gone unnoticed that on every occasion that the crossing was open last year there was a major security incident on the Egyptian side of the border. Coincidence? Perhaps, or maybe such incidents were planned in order to provide the Egyptian authorities with an excuse to keep Rafah closed. We will probably never know.
Israel’s role in prolonging Gaza’s humanitarian ordeal, however, is far more clear-cut. Soon after Hamas was elected to run the Palestinian Authority in January 2006 the Israelis imposed economic sanctions against the enclave. At the time, Dov Weisglass, an advisor to the then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said, “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.”
The following year, Israel declared Gaza to be a “hostile entity” and tightened further its sanctions regime. By adopting this designation, the Israeli cabinet had in effect voted to keep Gaza under a permanent state of siege.
Repeated calls by world leaders, including UN chief Ban Ki-moon, to end the blockade have all fallen on deaf ears. In 2010, Mr Ban condemned the blockade, saying that it caused “unacceptable sufferings.” Today, international aid agencies have confirmed that 80 per cent of Gaza’s inhabitants are aid dependent because of unemployment and poverty created by the Israeli siege.
It has now become abundantly clear that the aims of the blockade have gone well beyond the near-starvation proposed by Weisglass; it has been extended to ensure that young Palestinians in Gaza are even denied the basic right to an education. According to the Palestinian ministry of education, the blockade is currently impeding the building of 55 schools in the territory.
Internally, political analysts and observers in Gaza don’t expect 2016 to be any better than last year. There is a general sense among most that without a resolution of the differences between the two main factions, Fatah and Hamas, things will not improve. Perhaps the most intractable factor in this dossier is who controls the Rafah Crossing.
This week, a new formula has been proposed by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Islamic Jihad and other factions to resolve the issue. It suggests the appointment of an independent body of technocrats to oversee the border with the reappointment of those Fatah officials who were removed when Hamas took over the territory in 2007. At the same time, it stipulates that those officials employed by Hamas should retain their positions. An agreement on this formula between Fatah and Hamas could pull the rug from under the feet of the Egyptian government and nudge it to reopen the crossing.
Another ray of hope comes from the ongoing talks between Turkey and Israel, both of whom have now decided to normalise relations. While Israel has agreed to some of the Turkish conditions —notably an apology for the Freedom Flotilla attack in 2010 and compensation for the victims’ families — one condition remains hanging in the balance: Ankara’s demand for an end to the blockade of Gaza. As it has done so many times in the past, Israel has agreed to an “easing” of the restrictions but, as before, it has not actually defined what that means. If past experience is anything to go by, it means very little.
Sources close to the talks, though, have told MEMO that Turkey has proposed the construction of a sea port in Gaza and offered to administer it. So far Benjamin Netanyahu and his government remain implacably opposed to this. Nevertheless, although it will be a bitter pill to swallow it may actually be the best face-saving device for the Israelis to accept. After all, Israeli commentators and intelligence officials alike have realised that instead of weakening Hamas the blockade has strengthened the movement.
While it is hard to imagine a year worse than 2015, Gaza is caught in a downward spiral from which it will be difficult to escape. However, this Turkish proposal provides a chink of light that, with goodwill, could lead to 2016 not being as bad as last year after all. Some courageous steps are needed to make it work, but it is possible. to 2016 not being as bad as last year after all. Some courageous steps are needed to make it work, but it is possible.
Journalist Mohamed Abdel Moneim was sentenced to three years imprisonment on Sunday, after a court found him guilty of partaking in an unauthorized protest dating back to April 24, 2015. However, Abdel Moneim’s coworkers at the Tahya Masr news portal insist he was arrested while covering this protest, not participating in it.
Convening at the Police Academy, Cairo Criminal Court ruled that Abdel Moneim had breached the Protest Law by taking part in an unauthorized street protest. The court also ruled that the 22-year-old journalist was guilty of possessing weapons, Molotov cocktails, obstructing traffic, endangering the lives of civilians, as well as damaging both public and private properties.
The privately owned Al-Shorouk newspaper reported that the court had issued an identical sentence against two other defendants on Sunday: a 19-year-old student Essam Abdel Hakim, and 15-year-old student Abdel Rahman Sayyed.
The three-year sentence against the journalist was issued despite the in-court testimony of Tahya Masr’s administrative chief who, according to Al-Shorouk, confirmed that Abdel Moneim was his employee, and had been covering the street protest in question. Abdel Moneim’s boss added that the young journalist was objective in his coverage of protests, siding neither with the current administration, nor with the ousted regime of the Muslim Brotherhood.
According to state-owned Al-Ahram, the court did not recognize that Abdel Moneim was a journalist, as he is not an officially registered member of the Journalists’ Syndicate. However, there are several thousand journalists said to be operating in Egypt who are unable to enter this syndicate due its restrictive preconditions for membership.
As of last month, the Liberties Committee of the Journalists’ Syndicate announced that there are at least 32 journalists in detention across Egypt, from which at least 18 were arrested while reporting in public spaces.
The Liberties Committee has organized several petitions calling for the release of detained journalists and media staffers, along with several legal appeals, protests, and marches along with campaigns for improved treatment of jailed journalists.
According to the chief of the Liberties Committee, Khaled al-Balshy, at least 350 cases of assaults against journalists have been documented over the past two years.
Egypt has sent a new ambassador to Tel Aviv after a three-year lapse in diplomatic presence in the occupied territories.
Israel’s foreign ministry said on Sunday that Egyptian ambassador Hazem Khairat arrived on Friday.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed Khairat’s arrival at his cabinet meeting on Sunday and said this would enable both sides to further “strengthen relations.”
Khairat previously served as Egypt’s ambassador to Chile and the Arab country’s envoy to the Arab League. He was appointed as the ambassador to Tel Aviv by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in June, but was deployed on Friday.
Khairat is the first residing Egyptian ambassador in Tel Aviv since former President Mohammed Morsi recalled Cairo’s last ambassador in November 2012 in protest to the Israeli regime’s aggression against Palestinians in the besieged Gaza Strip.
Relations between Egypt and the Israeli regime have been growing since Sisi took power in the Arab country in 2014 after orchestrating a military coup against Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, a year earlier.
The Israeli regime appointed Haim Koren as its envoy to Cairo in 2014 and opened its embassy in September 2015 after a four-year closure due to security concerns.
The embassy was closed on September 9, 2011, after thousands of protesters stormed the compound following the killing of six Egyptian policemen in August the same year by Israeli forces during cross-border operations on Egyptian soil in the Sinai Peninsula.
Last summer, Egypt launched a project to flood the area along its border with Gaza Strip to destroy the underground lifeline tunnels linking Egypt to the Palestinian territory.
In mid-June 2015, the Egyptian military said it had demolished nearly 1,430 underground tunnels in 18 months.
The Egyptian army claimed that the tunnels were “used by terrorists and criminals” to smuggle weapons to militants in the Sinai Peninsula. The World Food Program (WFP), however, said in a report in February 2014 that the tunnels have represented “the main supply and commercial trade route for goods into Gaza” since 2007.
Dozens of people, mostly Palestinians, have lost their lives during the destruction of tunnels, which has intensified since the 2013 ouster of Egypt’s first democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi.
Gaza has been under the Israeli air, sea and land blockade since 2007, causing a decline in living standards, unemployment and unrelenting poverty.
The Rafah border crossing, the sole crossing point between Egypt and Gaza, has also largely been shut since the 2013 coup in the African country.