30 June 2012

Egypt’s first Islamist civilian president gets to work

Egypt’s President-elect Mohamed Morsi has been drawing up a battle plan to confront Egypt’s economic and security crises as he pushes ahead with selecting a new government of technocrats, a senior aide has said. Egypt’s first civilian president, and its first elected leader since an uprising ousted President Hosni Mubarak early last year, went straight to work after he was declared the election winner on 24 June.

Following a historic victory against former Mubarak premier Ahmed Shafiq, Islamist Morsi must now try to live up to campaign pledges he undertook to gain the support of pro-democracy groups in defeating Shafiq.

Morsi, who resigned from his position as a former senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood after his win, will try to select a government that will be inclusive of other political forces who reluctantly supported him against Shafiq. He also has to contend with a ruling military that will maintain broad powers even after formally transferring control at the end of June.

A senior aide to the first Islamist president in the country’s modern history said Morsi was conducting talks to appoint an ‘independent national figure’ as his premier. ‘Most of the cabinet will be technocrats,’ the aide added.

On 25 June Morsi met the head of the government-appointed cabinet, which submitted its resignation but will continue in a caretaker capacity until a new cabinet is sworn in. He also met Egypt’s military ruler, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, in what official media described as an amiable meeting between the country’s two most powerful men following months of acrimony between the generals and Islamists.

Morsi has pledged to restore security and improve the economy, in tatters since the anti-Mubarak uprising, to tackle fuel shortages and organise the cities’ traffic and garbage problems.

Photo: picture showing recent Egyptian elections or pic of President Mohamed Morsi

Turkey seeks diplomacy not war against Syria

NATO has begun meeting in special session after Syria shot down a Turkish war plane on 22 June – an act condemned by Turkey as a ‘serious threat’ to regional peace.

Turkey, a NATO member, requested a meeting of the alliance’s ambassadors in Brussels after invoking Article 4 of NATO’s founding treaty, which entitles any member state to ask for consultations if it believes its security is threatened.

In a letter to the UN Security Council, which does not ask for any action to be taken, Ankara said the shooting down of its F-4 reconnaissance plane was ‘a serious threat to peace and security in the region’. Syria insists the F-4 Phantom jet was shot down inside Syrian airspace.

Ankara said the jet strayed into Syrian airspace by mistake but was quickly warned to change course by Turkish authorities and was one mile (1.6km) inside international airspace when it was shot down. Syria said it was unaware that the plane belonged to Turkey and had been protecting its air space against an unknown intruder. But in its letter to the Security Council, Turkey says that intercepted radio communication shows that Syrian units were fully aware of the circumstances of the flight.

Relations between the two countries were already highly strained before the F-4 was shot down. Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been outspoken in his condemnation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose government he accuses of brutally putting down opposition protests.

The North Atlantic Council – which consists of ambassadors from all 28 Nato countries – works by consensus and all members must approve any action. The envoys are expected to discuss Turkey’s concerns but not decide on anything specific, said an official.

Turkish deputy prime minister Bulent Arinc, speaking after an emergency cabinet meeting on 25 June, said the shooting down of the plane ‘would not go unpunished’, but stressed Turkey was not seeking a military response. He called the shooting down of the jet ‘a hostile act of the highest order’ but added that Turkey had ‘no intention’ of going to war.

MI5 head warns: Arab Spring may sprout British terrorists

The head of MI5 has warned there is a growing threat of Britons being radicalised and attending terrorist training camps in the Middle East and North Africa following the Arab Spring. In a rare public speech, Jonathan Evans, the Director General of the Security Service, said the Arab world had become a ‘more permissive’ environment for militant activity, especially for groups such as al-Qaeda.

In his first speech since September 2010, Mr Evans told an audience at Mansion House that there were at least 200 British residents and nationals at training camps that MI5 knew of. He warned that the ‘radical transition’ that took place in the Arab world over the last year meant the situation ‘could get worse’. He said, ‘A small number of British would-be jihadis are also making their way to Arab countries to seek training and opportunities for militant activity. Some will return to the UK and pose a threat here. This is a new and worrying development.’

The spy chief, who said the UK had foiled at least one credible terrorist plot every year since September 2001, highlighted Yemen, Libya, Nigeria and Egypt as countries of particular concern. He added that the death of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan last year had not lowered the terror threat from that country.

Mr Evans said, ‘The threat is real and remains with us today. But we do see a changing shape of the threat internationally. We appear to be moving from a period of a deep and focused threat to one where the threat is less monolithic but wider.’

Having warned that it was impossible to guarantee the safety of the London 2012 Olympics, he said there was also a growing threat from terrorism-related cyber-attacks.

‘So far, established terrorist groups have not posed a significant threat in this medium, but they are aware of the potential to use cyber vulnerabilities to attack critical infrastructure and I would expect them to gain more capability to do so in future,’ he said.

Taliban attack Pakistan’s Aaj TV station in Karachi

The Pakistani Taliban have claimed responsibility for carrying out an attack on a private television station in the southern port city of Karachi on the night of 25 June. Two people were injured when gunmen on motorbikes fired at Aaj headquarters. A Taliban spokesman told the BBC it was a response to critical comments by Aaj about the militants and its failure to accommodate Taliban views.

Correspondents say this is the Taliban’s first direct attack against a media group. The Pakistani Taliban admitted killing a journalist in the volatile region of Mohmand six months ago in January. Pakistan ranks as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists.

Witnesses say gunmen on motorbikes opened fire on the station’s offices in the busy Karachi neighbourhood of Gurumandir and then immediately fled the scene. Both of those injured were reportedly employees of Aaj.

Aaj TV is a privately owned Urdu-language television station that covers national and international news.

Scots’ independence a ticket to uncertainty says Alastair Darling

Former chancellor Alistair Darling warned voting for Scottish independence would be an ‘irrevocable’ decision. The Scottish MP was speaking at the launch of the Better Together campaign to keep Scotland as part of the UK.

The cross-party Better Together campaign was launched in Edinburgh on 25 June and involves Labour, the Lib Dems and the Conservatives. Mr Darling said that Scotland, through family, economic and cultural friendship, was stronger in the UK.

The Labour member also said, ‘The choice we make will be irrevocable. ‘If we decide to leave the United Kingdom, there is no way back.’ He added: ‘We can’t give our children a one-way ticket to a deeply uncertain future.’

Conservatives and Liberal Democrats joined Mr Darling at the launch to make ‘a positive case for staying together’. David Cameron has backed the campaign, saying: ‘We all know Scotland can stand on its own two feet. We believe the United Kingdom is special and we would all lose if separation happened. We treasure Scotland’s place in our family of nations.’

Scottish first minister Alex Salmond, who launched the Yes Scotland campaign in May, said Mr Darling was ‘mired in negativity’.

The referendum on Scottish independence is likely in autumn 2014. A poll of people eligible to vote suggests 55 per cent are against a split while 35 per cent want it.

Eurozone leaders concerned as bailout requests grow

Eurozone leaders were reeling from a triple blow as Greece’s prospective finance minister resigned, while Spain and Cyprus asked for bailouts to prop up their struggling banks.

Vassilis Rapanos, chairman of the National Bank of Greece, stepped down after he was taken to hospital with severe abdominal pain, dizziness and nausea on 22 June. He had only just been named as finance minister in the country’s new three-party coalition government but fell ill before he could take office. Mr Rapanos sent a formal letter of resignation that was accepted by Prime Minister Antonis Samaras.

Greece will send a delegation with outgoing finance minister, Giorgos Zanias, to the EU summit in Brussels. Mr Zanias was one of the key negotiators in Greece’s bailout agreement. But Germany’s foreign minister Guido Westerwelle warned: ‘We cannot allow everything to be negotiated again.’

Meanwhile, Spain formally requested a loan of ‘up to a maximum of €100billion (£80.3billion)’ for its banks. It has yet to specify how much of the loan package offered by the other 16 eurozone countries it needs. Economy minister Luis De Guindos said the final figure would be known on July 9 when Spain and its partners reach agreement on terms such as interest.

Spain wants the money to go straight to the banks, rather than the government be responsible for repayment. But, while the International Monetary Fund is in support, Germany and the European Commission oppose the move.

Cyprus became the fifth eurozone country to request financial aid – after Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain – owing to its ‘large exposure in the Greek economy’. It needs to find about £1.45billion, or ten per cent of its gross domestic product, to recapitalise its second-largest lender, Cyprus Popular Bank, by the end of June. Fitch became the third agency to downgrade Cyprus’ credit rating to junk status, estimating its banks need £3.21billion.

US Supreme Court cuts parts of Arizona migrant law

The US Supreme Court has backed checks on the immigration status of people stopped or arrested in Arizona, while striking down key parts of a tough law that critics have branded as racial profiling. President Barack Obama said he was pleased three challenges were upheld. But Arizona’s Republican Governor Jan Brewer said the ‘heart’ of the law would remain.

The headline provision, known as Section 2(B), that requires police to make a ‘reasonable attempt… to determine the immigration status’ of anyone who is stopped for another violation, was upheld by the Supreme Court. But the court struck down three clauses that would have: required immigrants to carry proof of their status with them; would have made it a crime for undocumented workers to apply for a job; and a provision that would have allowed police to stop people purely on the suspicion that they were in the country illegally.

President Barack Obama and his Republican rival Mitt Romney, who are each battling for Hispanic votes ahead of November’s presidential election, both made comments on the ruling. Mr Romney reacted quickly, criticising Mr Obama for not passing a national immigration reform law. In a statement, he said each US state has ‘the duty – and the right – to secure our borders and preserve the rule of law’.

President Obama later said he was ‘pleased’ that some parts of the law had been thrown out by the court. But he added: ‘I remain concerned about the practical impact of the remaining provision….No American should ever live under a cloud of suspicion just because of what they look like.’

The Supreme Court judgement came after the US government argued that the law infringed on federal rights to oversee immigration policy. Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah have all adopted variations of the Arizona law.

Dalai Lama: China needs to embrace democracy

During his June tour of Britain, Tibet’s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama spoke to British journalists about the future of Tibet and the changing attitudes of the Chinese government.

The 14th Dalai Lama has held out the hope that the next generation of Chinese leaders will relax Beijing’s iron grip on Tibet but also defiantly vowed that the Tibetan culture and spirit was virtually unbreakable and would survive continuing Chinese rule of the ancient Himalayan region. He said the culture was flourishing inside Tibet even among Tibetans who have grown up only speaking Chinese. And he suggested Tibetan culture could even outlast the rule of the Chinese Communist party.

However, with characteristic optimism, he said he believed China, which seized control of Tibet in the 1950s, will eventually end what activists claim is widespread political and religious repression against the mainly Buddhist population. The leadership of the world’s most populous nation has already shown it is capable of radical change by embracing capitalism and boosting the living standards of hundreds of millions of people, he claimed. And the Dalai Lama added the current Chinese president, Hu Jintao, was trying to address the growing gap between rich and poor. He added, ‘The Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao, has on many occasions expressed publically China needs political reform.’

China reviles the Dalai Lama as a separatist who is trying to split Tibet from the rest of China and accuses him of trying to hide his real agenda. But he insisted the issue of Tibet’s status could be solved relatively quickly because it was not seeking separation, but simply wanted to keep its own language, script and culture.

He explained, ‘Since the authoritarianism is institutionalised, change is not easy, but we’ll see. For their own interests they (China) have to follow the world reality. Democracy and the rule of law are world trends.’  He urged China to follow the example of its democratic neighbour, India – where he fled in 1959 – in how to keep together a vast and diverse country without resorting to authoritarianism.

Democracy Forum seminar

On Friday 22 June, The Democracy Forum hosted a seminar at King’s College, London on the theme ‘The role of education in combating terrorism’. The event was chaired by Dr William Crawley from the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, and the list of distinguished participants and speakers included Stephen Hammond MP, Chairman of The Democracy Forum, and His Honour Judge Sir Mota Singh, the Vice-Chairman; Professor Jack Spence OBE from the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London; Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy of Islamabad’s Quaid-e-Azam University; G Parthasarathy, former diplomat and visiting professor at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi; Shiraz Maher, a Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR); and Mushtak Parker, Editor of Islamic Banker magazine.

Professor Spence drew key distinctions between ‘old’ and ‘new’ terrorism, and considered the possibilities of negotiating with terrorists, while Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy’s presentation focused on how education fuels terrorism in his homeland of Pakistan, which, he said, now has ‘no place for minorities’. He offered disturbing examples from the current school curriculum, showing how children as young as 14 are being fed extreme religious, pro-violence and anti-India views.

G Parthasarathy stressed the need for pluralism, secularism and inclusivity in educational and social structures, saying: ‘The most important part of education is that diversity should be cherished, that unity does not mean uniformity.’ Shiraz Maher offered an assessment of Saudi Arabian deradicalisation through education initiatives, while Mushtak Parker spoke about the Islamic financial industry and terrorism, exploring various misconceptions and misrepresentations.

The seminar concluded with a few words by HHJ Sir Mota Singh, who said that violence is the curse of the modern world and serious consideration should be given to winning the hearts and minds of those who are committed to it.

US drone strike ‘kills at least five’ in Pakistan

A US drone strike targeting a militant compound in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal district has killed at least five militants, security officials said.

The unmanned aircraft fired two missiles on the compound in the Shawal area, some 50 kilometres southwest of Miranshah, the main town of North Waziristan tribal district, near the Afghan border. The area is considered to be a hub of Taliban and al-Qaeda activity.

All those killed were fighters linked with local warlord Hafiz Gul Bahadur, said another security official based in Miranshah. Bahadur, who is allied with Afghan Taliban, is accused of fighting US-led troops across the border.

He is said to have recently imposed a ban on anti-polio vaccination teams in protest at US drone strikes, saying the ban would remain until cessation of the attacks in the tribal region.

But Washington considers Pakistan’s semi-autonomous northwestern tribal belt the main hub of Taliban and al-Qaeda militants plotting attacks on the West and in Afghanistan.

Islamabad is understood to have approved the strikes on al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in the past. But the government has become increasingly energetic in its public opposition as relations with Washington have plummeted.

US officials consider the attacks a vital weapon in the war against Islamist extremists, despite concerns from rights activists over civilian casualties.

Baloch becoming marginalised in Balochistan

Balochistan National Party-Mengal (BNP-M) acting president Jahanzaib Jamaldini has said the Baloch are being converted into a minority in the province through a conspiracy.

‘Millions of Afghan refugees have been listed as locals in the recent house-listing, which was rejected by the BNP-M, and the party will resist the conspiracies against Balochistan,’ Jamaldini said, addressing a recent press conference.

He said that through a conspiracy on the part of Islamabad, Afghan refugees had been settled across Balochistan, and had obtained NICs and passports without any hurdles. ‘There are more than four million Afghan refugees and most of them are not registered,’ he said, adding that inclusion of Afghan refugees in the house-listing should be cancelled.

The BNP-M leader said the population of Pashtun districts had been increased hugely – by 447.7 per cent – in the recent census as compared to the last census of 1998, in order to convert the Baloch population into a minority.

Responding to a question regarding the new Pashtun province, Jamaldini said that they had no objection to the formation of a Pashtun province consisting of Pashtun districts. However, the demand should be made from Islamabad, not from the Baloch.

‘The statistics secretary in Islamabad has confessed on record that big irregularities have been made in the recent house-listing in Balochistan,’ he said, adding that they had great respect for Afghan refugees but they needed to be repatriated to their country.

‘The Baloch are in a state of war. Thousands of people have gone missing and hundreds of bodies have been recovered. In such a situation, demanding a new province is tantamount to rubbing salt on the wounds of the Baloch.’

To a query about the upcoming elections, he said that BNP-M was a democratic party and would adopt all democratic means for the rights of the people of Balochistan.

Muslim Brotherhood gives new president to Egypt

Muslim Brotherhood (MB) candidate Mohammed Morsi has been declared Egypt’s first democratically elected civilian president after the fall of Hosni Mubarak nearly 17 months ago.

According to the Special Presidential Election Commission, Morsi won approximately 52 per cent of the vote, while Ahmed Shafiq, the preferred candidate of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and former Mubarak-era prime minister, earned 48 per cent. The results will not change the fact that the SCAF will continue to dominate Egyptian politics for a variety of reasons.

First, the council prevented the MB from dominating both the legislative and executive branches of government by dissolving the parliament after the MB won the most seats of any group in the late 2011/early 2012 parliamentary elections. Secondly, the SCAF issued a fresh constitutional declaration giving itself sweeping legislative and security powers as well as major oversight over the process to draft a new constitution. Thirdly, the SCAF and the MB have been in continuous negotiations throughout the transition process, resulting in a bargain whereby the MB will work within the parameters laid out by the military in exchange for a share of the power.

In addition to having his powers circumscribed by the military, Morsi will not be a full-term president because fresh parliamentary elections will be held after the formation of a new constitution, a process that will be heavily influenced by the military. The MB’s victory in the presidential elections thus shows that the SCAF will continue to determine the scope and pace of the post-Mubarak transition toward multiparty politics. For its part, the MB would be left with little choice but to cede primary authority to the military in drafting the constitution, which will ultimately decide the balance of power among the military, parliament and presidency.

Karzai’s calls for foreign skills risk brain drain

Calls by Afghan President Hamid Karzai for more foreign involvement in the country’s higher education system risks exacerbating an already dangerous brain drain, analysts warn.

With foreign forces set to leave by the end of 2014, the country badly needs highly skilled graduates to help it rebuild and progress economically after more than 30 years of near-continuous war, which have destroyed hundreds of schools and colleges and driven many well-educated people abroad.

Karzai has called for subjects such as medicine and engineering to be taught in international languages such as English or German, and invited foreign institutions to come and fund Afghan faculties.

But analyst Mostafa Assir warned that Karzai’s proposals were likely to make the situation worse. Afghanistan’s education system has been through many changes since the country’s last monarch, King Zahir Shah, was overthrown in 1973, leading to an invasion by the Soviet Union in 1979 and 30 years of war.

When Soviet troops were in Afghanistan in the 1980s, textbooks that preached communism were printed and taught in schools. These were countered by books backed by the US filled with anti-communist ideas of resistance against the Soviets. Then, during the rule of the hardline Islamist Taliban from 1996 until their overthrow by a US-led invasion in 2001, schoolbooks were dominated by the promotion of jihad. Girls were banned from going to school, and religious schools became the main source of education for boys.

Since the fall of the Taliban, education inAfghanistan has expanded rapidly and the education ministry says there are now around 8.2 million students in school, up from about 1.2 million ten years ago.