Fight brews between Israeli settlers and army

Yitzhar, Occupied West Bank — In two weeks, the residents of this settlement, known as one of the West Bank’s most ideological and uncompromising, will vote on whether it’s acceptable to fight the army that is assigned to protect them.

Yitzhar is a small town of about 1,100 people perched on a hill outside of the Palestinian city of Nablus, but it has developed an oversized reputation. In 2011, it earned the distinction of carrying out more attacks on Palestinians than any other settlement in the occupied West Bank: One out of every six incidents documented by the United Nations that year involved a resident of Yitzhar.

Earlier this month, though, residents went after a less common target. Six officers from the Israeli border police were injured by stone-throwing settlers on April 8 when they demolished a house that was built without the proper permits. Settlers also trashed an army post and slashed the tires of a colonel’s jeep.

The army responded by closing a notorious Yitzhar yeshiva, or Jewish seminary, called Od Yosef Chai ("Joseph Still Lives"). Border police took control of the site on April 11 after the local army commander declared it a military zone. His order forbids anyone from entering for two months, and today the site is barricaded and guarded by armed officers.

The attack, while hardly unprecedented, has touched off a controversy within Israel about how the state should deal with growing settler violence. Some politicians have labeled the residents of Yitzhar "terrorists", a term almost exclusively applied to Palestinians, and called on the army to set up checkpoints, or even evacuate the settlement.

Within Yitzhar, the attack has also been debated. The vote later this month will decide whether stone-throwing and other acts are a valid response to future demolitions: Municipal officials have said they will resign if the town votes yes.

"The army can come and do things that upset us, but there have to be limits," said Ezri Tubi, a Yitzhar resident. "This vote is an inner vote, to decide if there are borders and ways to act in harsh situations like this… this will have to be settled."

Why Egypt Hates Al Jazeera

Cairo — Last summer, Mohamed Fadel Fahmy was one of thousands of protesters who took to Tahrir Square to give Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Egyptian army chief, a mandate to "confront terrorism" -- the Egyptian government's euphemism for cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood.Tomorrow, he will appear in court on the receiving end of that mandate: He stands accused of running a terrorist cell from a luxury hotel in Cairo.

Fahmy, who was hired in September as Al Jazeera English's bureau chief here, is one of three journalists from the channel who have spent nearly seven weeks behind bars. They were arrested in late December and have since disappeared into Cairo's Tora Prison, held alongside Muslim Brotherhood leaders and jihadists. After more than a month in detention, they were finally charged in late January with everything from broadcasting false news to terrorism, and their first court hearing will be held on Feb. 20.

Foreign journalists here describe the arrests and trumped-up charges as a warning shot to the entire press corps, the most egregious signs of a press crackdown that has seen dozens of journalists detained or attacked.

But it is no coincidence that the charges are directed at a network that Egyptian security officials often describe as the media wing of an enemy state. The Qatar-owned Al Jazeera has continued to give airtime to Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist leaders, emerging as the only high-profile outlet for their members since the Egyptian government's brutal crackdown last summer.

Egypt's new dictator was made in the USA

Cairo — A confident-looking Abdel Fattah el-Sisi strides across the tarmac at Almaza Air Base, dressed in a blue blazer and his trademark sunglasses. He is not yet Egypt’s head of state, but certainly looks like one: Nabil Fahmy, the foreign minister, trails a few steps behind, half-obscured by the phalanx of military officers around Sisi. The delegation is en route to Russia to discuss a multi-billion dollar arms deal.

The next day in Moscow, a smiling Sisi shakes hands with Vladimir Putin. The Russian president wishes him well. “I know you have decided to run for president. This is a very responsible decision, to take upon yourself responsibility for the fate of the Egyptian people,” he says.

It is Sisi’s first foreign trip since he overthrew President Mohamed Morsi last summer, and it ticks all the boxes: The army chief doffing his uniform, acting like a statesman, shoring up relations with a popular ally.

Except, despite Putin’s good wishes, Sisi hasn’t actually announced a presidential bid yet. For the second time this month, a foreign dignitary got ahead of the army chief. Last week it was Ahmed El-Garallah, the editor of Al-Seyassah, a Kuwaiti newspaper of dubious reliability, who interviewed Sisi at the Defense Ministry and reported that he would run for president, only to have the army deny the story hours later.

In public, Sisi is the subject of a massive cult of personality. Posters of him are everywhere; a particularly large one, in a gilded frame, stands outside the Court of Cassation, Egypt’s top appeals court, in downtown Cairo. Vendors sell Sisi jewelry, Sisi chocolates, even Sisi pajamas. Chefs discuss his merits with callers while chopping vegetables on cooking shows.

But for all the adulation, Sisi is something of an enigma. Nobody knows how he would govern as president, or even if he really wants the job. His best-known statements are platitudes, one-liners about Egypt as the “mother of the universe,” its people “the light of our eyes.”

Even those who know him personally say he didn’t make a deep impression. “Warm eyes,” is how one former army colleague remembers him. “A quiet guy, very thoughtful,” according to his former academic adviser. So it’s a bit of a mystery how he ended up in a position to replace Hosni Mubarak, the longtime dictator who was deposed in February 2011 amid huge protests centered around Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

“I think he got caught up in the fever of the country,” says Sameh Saif el-Yazal, a retired general from the same military intelligence division Sisi once commanded. “After a really bad year with the Muslim Brotherhood, and the president, the people believe that without [Sisi] the country is going to collapse.”

The general rises: Can Sisi handle the presidency?

Cairo — The choreographed dance of Egypt's military-orchestrated politics inched closer to its climax on Monday, Jan. 27, as the country's popular army chief, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, moved a step closer to announcing his candidacy for president.

On the official level, Sisi's grasp over Egyptian politics seems stronger than ever. Interim President Adly Mansour promoted the general to field marshal on Monday, a symbolic gesture that could foreshadow his resignation from the army. Meanwhile, Sisi and his fellow officers met in the afternoon, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) subsequently issued a televised statement that praised him for "responding to the call of duty."

"The council looks with reverence and respect at the desire of the masses of the honorable Egyptian people for the candidacy of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for the presidency, which it considers a mandate and an obligation," the council said.

The statement stopped short of formally announcing Sisi's resignation from the military, or his candidacy. But it was hard to interpret the language as anything else, coming as it did just two days after tens of thousands of Egyptians descended on Tahrir Square to mark the third anniversary of the Jan. 25 revolution that overthrew long-time President Hosni Mubarak -- and declare their support for another military man turned national leader.

How to crush low-hanging fruit

Cairo — The Egyptian government, after designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization last week, is now extending its crackdown to an ever-widening list of enemies. But even as the generals in Cairo prepare for a series of crucial elections, persistent terrorist attacks continue to undermine their attempts to restore a sense of normality to the country.

On Sunday, Egyptian police raided a suite in the Marriott hotel in Cairo's upscale Zamalek neighborhood, arresting four journalists from the Al Jazeera English satellite channel. The hotel has been a studio of sorts since July, when the army raided the offices of Al Jazeera's sister Arabic-language channel. Correspondent Peter Greste, Cairo bureau chief Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, cameraman Mohamed Fawzy, and producer Baher Mohamed were all thrown in jail, joining two other Al Jazeera journalists who have been jailed since the summer.

In a statement, the Interior Ministry accused the four of "threatening national security" by "broadcasting false news." Badr Abdel Atty, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, said they also were found with "literature" about the student protests that have roiled Egypt for weeks. Security officials have made even stronger claims to local media, accusing the team of setting up a Muslim Brotherhood cell at the hotel, and said that they would be brought to trial "within hours."

Egypt's parties back draft constitution that could leave them isolated

Cairo  The founder of a liberal party worries that Egypt's new constitution could make his bloc irrelevant in next year's parliamentary elections. His ideological opposite, a conservative salafi, fears it might mean a ban from politics.

They have other complaints as well, about articles on military trials for civilians and the status of religion in public life. Ideology aside, though, both men have a pragmatic reason to oppose the charter: A last-minute compromise on its wording could breathe new life into former President Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP), at the expense of opposition parties that formed since the 2011 revolution.

Paradoxically, both men are among the charter's most vocal supporters.

The public will have the final say in a January referendum. Authorities are clearly nervous about whether election-weary voters will turn out; after all, this will be Egypt's seventh nationwide vote since the revolution. Advertisements along the highways and on television urge people to participate. In one city, copies of the charter were included in bags of government-subsidised bread.

Several groups are planning a boycott, most notably supporters of President Mohamed Morsi, who was deposed by the army in July.

Still, there is little doubt about the eventual outcome: Never in Egypt's modern history have voters said "no" to a referendum, and this one is unlikely to buck the trend, because not a single influential political faction is urging a "no" vote.

Five injured in Cairo bus bombing

Cairo — Five people were injured on Thursday when a bomb exploded near a bus in the Egyptian capital, two days after a blast at a police station in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura killed 14 people.

The explosion happened in Cairo's Nasr City neighbourhood, in front of Al-Azhar University. Ambulance workers said one of the injured passengers was in critical condition.

Police said the bomb was a small homemade device planted in the street. It blew out the windows of the bus, but caused little damage to the surrounding area, and the driver was able to move the bus after police cordoned off the area.

“We defused two other bombs in the area, which were meant to detonate by remote,” said an officer at the scene, speaking on condition of anonymity.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the bombing.

Jailed and released in Alexandria, young women plan to protest again

Alexandria, Egypt — Ola Ezzat is already making plans to protest again, just two weeks after she and 20 other women were sentenced to 11-year jail terms for their activism.

Ezzat, 18, a student at Ain Shams University, was convicted on November 27 for taking part in a peaceful protest in this Mediterranean city in Egypt. Seven of the defendants were minors, the youngest just 15 years old.

On Saturday, however, an appeals court lessened the verdict - three years' probation for the girls, one-year suspended sentences for the adults - and allowed the defendants to go free, with a warning not to break the law again.

But in an interview in her family apartment in Alexandria's Sidi Bishr neighbourhood, Ezzat said her friends are already discussing more protests.

"This is our right, and we cannot only exercise it the first time," she said.

Ezzat and her family are outspoken supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate who was elected last year and overthrown by the army in July. They insisted that Morsi, "the legitimate democratic president", would eventually return to power. A hand-drawn portrait of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Brotherhood, hangs over the couch in their living room.

For a family such as the Ezzats, however, the political has also become intensely personal. Ola's brother joined the sit-in at Raba'a al-Adawiya square, one of two pro-Morsi protests where hundreds were killed in August; several friends were shot in front of him, he said.

Four other family members are in jail, including her cousin and uncle, who have been held without charge since August.

Deadly shooting at Cairo University galvanizes campus protests

Cairo  The police shooting of an engineering student at Cairo University has sparked demonstrations and strikes on campuses across the country, galvanising opposition to the interim government but also raising fears among some students that their protests will be "hijacked" by supporters of former President Mohamed Morsi.

Mohamed Reda, 19, was killed on Thursday afternoon after police violently dispersed a protest in front of the university. Human rights activists who have seen the initial coroner's report said that it confirms Reda was shot three times before his death.

In response, students from several departments went on strike this weekend, hanging a sign on campus declaring Cairo University "closed". They held an angry rally on Sunday, at one point setting fire to a police car outside the campus.

"This will continue until the resignations of the interior minister and the minister of higher education," said Hisham Ashraf, the president of the university's student union. "[Reda's] whole college is angry about this."

Police have denied using lethal force: Hany Abdel Latif, a spokesman for the interior ministry, said that officers only fired tear gas at demonstrators.

The ministry's denials, contradicted by the coroner's report and eyewitness testimony, have further enraged students, and even prompted an angry reaction from university officials. In an interview with the private television channel Al-Nahar on Saturday night, Gaber Gad Nasser, the president of Cairo University, demanded a full investigation into Reda's killing.

"Security forces used excessive force against the university students," he said. "We do not accept the interior ministry's statement that it did not use firearms." 

Protests on Mohamed Mahmoud anniversary struggle to reach an audience

Cairo — Crowds of protesters marched through downtown Cairo, chanting slogans against military rule ("killers!"), the Muslim Brotherhood ("killers!"), and just about every other organised political group in Egypt.

A few metres away, a group of men watched Egypt's World Cup qualifier against Ghana, seemingly oblivious.

Almost everyone in Egypt had a reason to take to the streets on Tuesday. It was the second anniversary of the start of deadly clashes on Mohamed Mahmoud Street in Cairo, a nearly week-long battle that left more than 40 people dead and thousands wounded. Revolutionary groups called for protests to remember the victims.

Some of them did so one day early, however, to avoid confrontations: Tuesday was also the 59th birthday of the popular army chief, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who led the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi in July. His supporters wanted to rally to praise the man they call "the lion of Egypt"; Morsi's backers, meanwhile, promised to descend on "all public squares" in protest.

Yet almost none of this materialised. Pro-Morsi protests were mostly confined to university campuses. Tamarod, the pro-army movement which organised the protests that preceded Morsi's ouster, cancelled its planned marches. A few dozen Sisi supporters took to Tahrir in the morning, only to be pushed out by a slightly larger group of revolutionaries.

"The crowd is not very big," acknowledged Ahmed Salah, a protester in the anti-Brotherhood, anti-military crowd. "The important thing is that we're making our voices heard."