News and Comments 8 Feb 2012


Egypt accuses NGOs of meddling in politics

Egyptian soldiers stand guard in front of the US National Democratic Institute, an NGO rights group in Cairo

Egyptian judges probing alleged illegal foreign funding of non-governmental organisations accused domestic and foreign groups on Wednesday of illegally meddling in politics, further straining ties with key ally Washington.

The NGOs are operating “without licence,” and their work “constitutes pure political activity and has nothing to do with civil society work,” Judge Sameh Abu Zeid told a news conference. The judge said December raids on 17 NGO offices as part of a probe into illegal funding had been conducted “according to the law.” “It is a very large and complicated case involving hundreds of people and organisations, Egyptian and foreign,” he said. He said dozens of people had been referred to trial because there was deemed to be enough evidence. Among them are 19 Americans, a fact that prompted a trio of leading US senators to warn Egypt on Tuesday that the risk of a “disastrous” rupture in ties had “rarely been greater.”

The United States, meanwhile, said it has been notified by Egyptian authorities of the formal charges against the US citizens in a document in Arabic of more than 100 pages. “We now have a formal charging document,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington. “We’re working our way through it to understand who is implicated and … what the expectations are.” And another official in Washington said the US military’s top general plans to fly to Egypt this week, as the United States tries to press Cairo to lift the charges against the American nationals.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “is scheduled to travel to Egypt later this week,” his spokesman Colonel Dave Lapan told AFP. The “long-planned” visit includes meetings with his counterpart Lieutenant General Sami Enan and Egypt’s military ruler, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, he said. Abu Zeid said he had rejected a request from US Ambassador Anne Patterson to lift a travel ban on American NGO staff. The groups being investigated include the US International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), Freedom House and the German Konrad-Adenauer Foundation.

Following December’s raids, several US members of the NGOs were barred from leaving the country, including Sam LaHood, the son of US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and the IRI’s country director for Egypt. American officials said “a handful” of the pro-democracy activists subsequently took refuge inside the US embassy in Cairo, fearing arrest. Abu Zeid said “there is much evidence, including witness accounts, expert accounts and confessions. There are 67 items of evidence. The foreign organisations are not civil society groups but branches of organisations based abroad.” He said security agencies had repeatedly refused to register the NGOs, which “have been working in Egypt for years on tourist visas. “They received orders from abroad to do this and were told not to get work permits. They also violated Egyptian tax laws.” He said the case involved illegal funding from the United States, Europe and also from Arab countries.

Investigations showed that their work “took another dimension after the January 25 revolution” that ousted president Hosni Mubarak last year, Abu Zeid said. “Money was transferred to the organisations through a range of ways, including in individual accounts of employees, instead of in bank accounts in the organisation’s name; or through money transfer companies,” he said. Those charged face up to five years in jail, according to Ashraf Ashmawi, another judge involved in the case. Egypt’s military junta, which took power after Mubarak was toppled, has accused foreign groups of funding street protests against them.

On Tuesday, US Republican senators John McCain and Kelly Ayotte, joined by independent Joe Lieberman, warned that US congressional “support for Egypt — including continued financial assistance — is in jeopardy” over the case. Washington provides some $1.3 billion (981 million euros) a year in aid to Cairo — one of the biggest aid packages offered to any nation. “The current crisis with the Egyptian government has escalated to such a level that it now threatens our long-standing partnership,” they wrote in a joint statement. “There are committed opponents of the United States and the US-Egypt relationship within the government in Cairo who are exacerbating tensions and inflaming public opinion in order to advance a narrow political agenda,” they said.


Don’t be Misled on Mali

Some news websites have posted stories recently alleging attacks have been made on shopkeepers and traders in Bamako, Mali as people react to the unrest in the North. The news claims that Malians want to vent their anger on citizens of neighbouring countries. There are no photographs or video to support these claims. I have heard today from friends in Bamako who says there have been no attacks, no one is taking refuge in any embassy and everyone there is fine; life continues as normal.

El Kabar in Algeria reports [Ar] that the Red Crescent has the situation in Northern Mali under control, they send regular supplies to the area, 20 to 30 tons at a time. The last shipment was just  a few days ago. They also do not expect a massive influx of new refugees to enter Algeria as a result of the fighting in he north of Mali.

The Foreign Minister of Mali is visiting Mauritania and Algeria, and presumably Nigeria, in person, to discuss the situation, especially the influx of refugees. He is echoing the call made by 30 political groups in Mali for an immediate cease-fire so that talks can begin. I hope he also demands that the refugees are returned as quickly as they were uprooted, and that should happen immediately these talks are under way.

Damages inside a home following shelling at the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs, Syria Photo: EPA

Damages inside a home following shelling at the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs, Syria Photo: EPA

Homs in Shock

The people of Homs, Syria are showing signs of extreme anxiety, in shock after 5 straight days under bombardment by heavy munitions. The BBC reporter on the ground there has personally witnessed snipers killing an elderly couple as they crossed the street, and interviewed another man shot by a sniper after going in search of bread because the local bakery was destroyed by a shell.

Fires burned and smoke billowed over rooftops as heavy artillery pounded areas under the de facto control of rebels from the Free Syrian Army, killing about 50 people.

Three families were shot dead by members of a pro-regime militia, popularly known as “al-Shabiha” – or “the ghosts” – which has been responsible for numerous atrocities since the conflict began 11 months ago.

The Ghantawi family, including a girl of 15 and two boys aged seven and five, lived near al-Firdaos square. The al-Tirkawi family, with seven members, and the al-Zamal family, with eight members, both lived in the al-Nazirheen area of Homs. All were murdered when militiamen raided their homes late on Tuesday or in the early hours of yesterday morning, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based group.

Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Observatory, said the murders of the families, which claimed a total of 20 lives, had been disclosed by trusted primary sources in Homs. “This is not the first time that the Shabiha have carried out killings like this,” he said. “When they come into an area, they kill people to cause fear and to say ‘we can do more’.”

Another report – attributed to different sources – suggested that 18 babies died in a hospital in Homs after electricity for their incubators was cut off.

8 Feb 2012 Protest demanding release of jailed students

8 Feb 2012 Protest demanding release of jailed students

Mauritania Rising

Photo: Mauritania students protesting to demand the release of their imprisoned classmates arrested last Thursday when police raided a peaceful occupation of the University, which was unexpectedly closed for 3 weeks immediately after a major protest, on the pretext of granting extended holiday to celebrate Eid.

I suspect that the reason for evicting the students and keeping the most vocal activists under lock and key was so that the University could stage a “coup seminar” with invited guests from other Arab countries, including a former Jordanian minister and founder of Ennahda in Tunisia, Rachid Ghannouchi. The seminar subject? The Arab Spring!!

It seems that despite the epic failure of their Arab Spring Bloggers conference, the Mauritanian authorities are determined to seize ownership of the Arab revolutions, following the pattern of behaviour we have observed from another Islamic Republic, the one in Iran.

Recent reports indicate that the students have now been released, just in time for a visit to Mauritania by Tunisia’s new President, Moncef Marzouki. I hope that all Mauritanian activists will visit his official FaceBook page to share their experiences and concerns.

Three videos from Mauritania

Activist Abdul Birane Wane, arrested last week while visiting his brother in the hospital, was freed today. He immediately returned to the hospital, this time to visit his father, who suffered a stroke after hearing the news of Birane’s arrest.

Workers in Zouerate hold a rally, agree to maintain pressure on authorities to heed their demands for fair pay and conditions.

A member of the senate Zeinab Mint Aldadah [sp?], was expelled from the house for disagreeing with the role of the military in the governance of the country. Other senators walked out in support of her situation.

Social Media Wannabes

Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki has a new official account on Twitter, @presidenceTN linked to a FaceBook page.

The latest tweet relates to his visit to neighbouring Sahel countries of Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria which begins today. The FM says Marzouki wants to “reinvigorate” the Sahel and “also voiced hope that the Sahara issue* will cease being a hindrance to the economic development of the Maghreb”. Seriously. Marzouki stirred my displeasure by inviting Aziz to join the one year anniversary of the Tunisian revolution in January. His praise for “the wisdom and intelligence of Moroccan officials” ahead of today’s visit is yet another show of the sort of diplomacy everyone assumes is necessary but it is repulsive to me. I remain unimpressed and disappointed.

*“Sahara issue” is the coward’s way of saying “Western Sahara“.

Not to be outdone, Mauritania’s president dictator Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz has a new parody account @MedOAbdelAziz. Too soon to know if it will be comedy gold. Opening tweet invites us to ask the poor who he is, if we don’t know him already. Oh yes, General, we know you.

Iran Opposition Still Fighting

With the parliamentary elections due next month, the opposition for Iran has produced a new video based on the film Avatar.

Neighborly Help for Iranian Abductees in Syria

Iran Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast was quoted today by IRAN daily saying the 11 men abducted while travelling with groups of pilgrims in Syria were released after the “help of friendly and influential countries in the region.” The report didn’t elaborate. I assume after Hassan Nasrallah’s recent message [Ar] confirming their relationship with Iran (and incidentally saying that what is going on in Syria is a “conspiracy”, and they prefer financial and political support from Iran over that from Arab states) that Hezbollah operatives from Lebanon might be involved in the recovery of these people. IRNA news agency says the 11 crossed into neighboring Turkey after their release. Iran banned travel by road to Syria after the third group of people were kidnapped.

Iran’s Prisoners Experience Increasing Health Issues

Human Rights Watch has called on Iran to investigate the death of  two Ahwazi detainees  in Intelligence Ministry detention facilities in the past week. On 7 January, HRW reported that Iran has arrested more than 65 Arab activists since late 2011. It also urged Iran to immediate charge or release arrestees.

Prisoners in Iran are increasingly making the news for health reasons. Today it is Abolfazl Ghadiani’s turn: he’s been transferred to hospital from Evin prison. Apart from the negative impact on health or existing conditions of the generally hostile prison environment, many prisoners get sick because of prolonged or repeated hunger strikes, where they refuse all solid foods for extended periods and drink only tea or milk. Dry hunger strikes are less common, and prisoners deteriorate much more quickly when refusing both liquids and solids. The routine use of physical and mental torture in prisons also claims many victims, and it is often the younger prisoners who we hear about of being transferred to specialist mental health institutes. As weeks have turned to months and now years, and the arrests continue, with very few prisoners so far being released, this situation is an increasing concern. The UN Human Rights Special Rapporteur on Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, has not been allowed to visit Iran, and his final report is still awaited.


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