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Egypt panel votes on divisive charter

An Egyptian panel was rushing through on Thursday approval of a new constitution at the centre of a political crisis pitting the Islamist president against the opposition, which has threatened more protests.

By early evening, the constituent assembly, which has been boycotted by liberals and Christians, had approved almost half of the 234 articles, including an unanimous decision to retain the principles of Islamic law as the main source of legislation.

“We want a constitution we agree on,” said assembly chief Hossam al-Gheriani, adding that the panel had been “awaiting” boycotting members even as it went to the vote.

The opposition, which has mobilised unprecedented rallies since Morsi assumed broad powers last week, accuses the president and allies in the constituent assembly of railroading the charter through for a quick referendum.

The constitution will replace the one suspended after president Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow in early 2011.

Once it has been approved by the panel, it will be sent to Morsi, who must call a referendum on it, with one advisor saying that might happen within two weeks.

The opposition mostly disagreed with the rushed manner in which the assembly was operating and opposes some of of the draft charter’s provisions on rights and freedoms.

Christians objected to an article, yet to be approved, that seeks to narrow the meaning of “the principles of Islamic law” to the tenets of Sunni Muslim jurisprudence.

Heba Morayef, Human Rights Watch Egypt directors, said some of the draft articles on freedom of expression and religion resemble a “penal code.”

“Some of the provisions are penal code provisions. You don’t list all the things that you are not allowed to do, you’re supposed to set up the rights and limitations,” she said.

Particularly worrisome was the limitation of religious freedom to followers of Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam and Judaism), Morayef said, which would exclude minorities such as Bahais that have been persecuted in Egypt.

“They have added language that is problematic to freedom of expression. You cannot ‘insult a human,’ which is very broad. It can be used to censor criticism of the president,” she said.

A number of private newspapers announced that they would not appear on the street on Tuesday to protest what they consider to be a lack of press guarantees in the new charter.

Abdallah Sennawi, a member of the Committee to Defend Freedom of Expression and Thought, said private television channels would follow suit on Wednesday.

Morsi’s decree, described by the opposition as dictatorial, stripped courts of the right to annul the controversial constituent assembly ahead of an expected court ruling on Sunday.

It shields Morsi’s decisions from review by the judiciary, which he and his movement believe retains Mubarak-era appointees who are opposed to the Islamists.

The top Cassation Court has suspended work to protest the decree, which will expire once the constitution is ratified.

Morsi and his supporters argue that delaying the constitution, which would be followed by parliamentary elections to replace the Islamist-dominated house dissolved by a court earlier this year, would delay democratic transition.

The assembly, dominated by Islamists, had announced on Wednesday it would vote on the charter the following day, to the shock of opposition groups holding out that Morsi would try to reconcile after a massive Tuesday rally.

Morsi allowed the assembly a further two months after its mid-December deadline to finish the charter, making the quick vote even more of a surprise to the opposition.

Opposition groups said they would march on Friday to Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where dozens of protesters say they will remain camped out until Morsi reverses his decree.

One protester, Tamer Harby, aged 30, said the “Muslim Brotherhood are making their constitution, not Egypt’s.”

Minor skirmishes persisted on Thursday between some protesters and police near the square. At least three protesters have been killed in country-wide unrest since the decree.

For its part, the Muslim Brotherhood said it plans a pro-Morsi demo on Saturday, but that it will not be held in Tahrir Square to avoid any confrontation.

In a pre-recorded interview broadcast on Thursday night, Morsi repeated that the new powers he had assumed were temporary.

“This is an exceptional stage; we are in a transitional phase,” Morsi told state television. “This constitutional declaration is temporary, and it will end once the people have approved the constitution.”

Source:  AFP

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Nobel peace laureates call for Israel military boycott over Gaza assault

Letter with 52 signatories including artists and activists also denounces US and EU ‘complicity’ through weapons sales

A group of Nobel peace prize-winners, prominent artists and activists have issued a call for an international military boycott of Israel following its assault on the Gaza Strip this month.

The letter also denounces the US, EU and several developing countries for what it describes as their “complicity” through weapons sales and other military support in the attack that killed 160 Palestinians, many of them civilians, including about 35 children.

The 52 signatories include the Nobel peace laureates Mairead Maguire and Adolfo Pérez Esquivel; the film directors Mike Leigh and Ken Loach; the author Alice Walker; the US academic Noam Chomsky; Roger Waters of Pink Floyd; and Stéphane Hessel, a former French diplomat and Holocaust survivor who was co-author of the universal declaration of human rights.

“Horrified at the latest round of Israeli aggression against the 1.5 million Palestinians in the besieged and occupied Gaza Strip and conscious of the impunity that has enabled this new chapter in Israel’s decades-old violations of international law and Palestinian rights, we believe there is an urgent need for international action towards a mandatory, comprehensive military embargo against Israel,” the letter says.

“Such a measure has been subject to several UN resolutions and is similar to the arms embargo imposed against apartheid South Africa in the past.”

The letter accuses several countries of providing important military support that facilitated the assault on Gaza. “While the United States has been the largest sponsor of Israel, supplying billions of dollars of advanced military hardware every year, the role of the European Union must not go unnoticed, in particular its hefty subsidies to Israel’s military complex through its research programmes.

“Similarly, the growing military ties between Israel and the emerging economies of Brazil, India and South Korea are unconscionable given their nominal support for Palestinian freedom,” it says.

The letter opens with a quote from Nelson Mandela: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

The other signatories include John Dugard, a South African jurist and former UN special rapporteur in the occupied territories; Luisa Morgantini, former president of the European parliament; Cynthia McKinney, a former member of the US Congress; Ronnie Kasrils, a South African former cabinet minister; and the dramatist Caryl Churchill.

Source: Guardian News

Gaza crisis: will Egypt come to regret its role as peacemaker?

The irony is that asking Egypt to take greater responsibility for Gaza is precisely what some Israeli politicians have long desired

As the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, flew into Cairo on Wednesday to help seal the deal that would bring an end to a week of conflict in Gaza, a plume of smoke was visible from the Kasr an-Nile bridge.

Half an hour earlier, a group of several hundred demonstrators had torched a studio used by al-Jazeera television. That event, on the third day of clashes with police, underlined the contradictions of Egypt under President Mohamed Morsi, even as he emerged as an important new player on the international stage.

For while Morsi has skilfully negotiated the first major foreign policy crisis since the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, that success masks a host of challenges ahead for him.

In the immediate aftermath of the truce announcement on Wednesday, Morsi was lauded by Clinton. “I want to thank President Morsi for his personal leadership to de-escalate the situation in Gaza and end the violence,” she said. “This is a critical moment for the region. Egypt’s new government is assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone of regional stability and peace.”

Over the past few days Morsi has met with Turkey’s prime minister and the emir of Qatar, and hosted Germany’s foreign minister and Arab officials. An Israeli envoy flew secretly into Cairo for talks with Egyptian security officials, though Morsi did not meet or speak directly with any Israelis.

In the end the truce, and his role in it, was an extraordinary achievement. The question, however, is whether Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt may come to regret their key role.

For while the deal has established Egypt as a key regional leader in the region with Turkey and Qatar – all US allies – the truce negotiated by Morsi and his spy chief, Mohamed Shehata, also inserts Egypt as guarantor of Gaza and Hamas.

The irony is that asking Egypt to take greater responsibility for Gaza, which it administered until 1967, is precisely what some Israeli politicians have long desired: to hive off the problem of Gaza to Cairo, which would further stifle any possibility of a two-state solution.

Indeed, Morsi may find the truce easier to negotiate than what follows: his predecessor, Mubarak, chose to co-operate with Israel in maintaining the blockade of Gaza because of his enmity to Hamas, which emerged out of the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi, however, may find his difficulties reside in his movement’s closeness to Hamas.

Facing pressure from within Egypt and from Hamas to open the borders, he may, however, be deeply cautious of doing anything unilaterally that might underline the broader objectives of securing a Palestinian state.

Indeed, as Michael Wahid Hanna of the Century Foundation told Time magazine in the immediate aftermath of the ceasefire: “If Egypt opened the Rafah border crossing without Israel doing the same at its own crossings into Gaza, there’d be champagne corks popping in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. They won’t do that, because Egypt won’t shoulder the burden of Gaza, which could end the possibility of a unified Palestinian state.”

On the Gaza front the deal may present other immediate problems. In the ceasefire negotiations Israel pushed hard for firmer Egyptian action on arms smuggling to Gaza through the northern Sinai, an increasingly lawless region where armed attacks on security forces by Salafists are so commonplace that on some roads the army abandons its checkpoints at night.

The problems in the Sinai are not, as a recent International Crisis Group report made clear, simply a security problem, but also a complex political and economic one, which Egypt’s new government has barely grappled with.

“Egypt has huge problems of its own,” said one diplomat last week. “It needs stability and it needed the prospect of war to recede. There is a question too of its military capacity to deal with issues like Sinai.”

Therein lies the problem. Critics allege that while Morsi has taken a high profile on the international stage he and his government have been far less successful in tackling his country’s myriad economic, social and political problems.

On the economic front, Egypt’s deal with the IMF for a $4.8bn (£3bn) loan, announced on Tuesday, obliges it to end subsidies on items such as fuel, which will lead, inevitably, to unpopular price rises at a time of growing hardship.

Tourism, while slowly improving after the huge hit it took during the Arab spring, is far below pre-revolution levels. Unemployment remains high as does inflation – a dangerous combination – while crime has become a serious issue.

The failure to prosecute members of the security forces who committed crimes, including killings, during the revolution and after remains a running sore in Egyptian society.

In the past week Egypt was hit by small-scale confrontations between army and police, another worrying symptom. And almost unnoticed amid the intense focus on Gaza, a stream of groups – including liberals, Christian Copts, journalists and women’s rights campaigners – have withdrawn from Egypt’s constitutional assembly, which is supposed to draw up the country’s new constitution, alleging that ultra-conservatives have taken over the process.

Given all these simmering tensions, Gaza and the truce matters in terms of Egypt’s domestic politics because it is an issue on which most Egyptians, from secular liberals to Islamist, agree. Should the truce agreement backfire badly it would have profound implications not only for Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood but for Israel: any alternative Egyptian government would likely be hostile to the deal.

“Morsi’s popularity can’t go on eroding like this for ever,” rights activist Mohsen Kamal told Reuters. “He is vulnerable to dramatic, and maybe even violent, changes if he ignores what is happening.”

Source: Guardian News