Friday, November 30, 2012

Syria conflict: 'Brutality' appals UN's Ban Ki-moon

Violence in Syria is "reaching new and appalling heights of brutality", the UN secretary general has said, as fighting continued across the country.

Speaking at the UN General Assembly, Ban Ki-moon warned that refugee numbers could swell to 700,000 by January.

More than 80 people died in clashes in Syria on Friday, activists said.

Many flights in and out of the capital Damascus were cancelled for a second day after fighting spread close to the country's main airport.

However, state TV said domestic flights were operating.

The highway to the airport was eventually reopened by government troops after heavy fighting, the BBC's James Reynolds in neighbouring Turkey reports.

In other developments:
at least 17 Lebanese fighters sympathetic to the majority Sunni-led revolt were killed by Syrian government forces in the border province of Homs, Lebanese security officials said.
internet and phone systems reportedly remained down for a second day across Syria with the government and the opposition blaming each other for the shutdown.'Failed state'

On Friday, Mr Ban warned the UN General Assembly in New York that civilians were being massacred almost daily across Syria. "Human rights violations are being carried out on a wide scale by all combatants," he said.

He predicted that up to four million people would be in need during the winter as a consequence of ever more brutal violence.

Mr Ban also said that "building a free and democratic Syria will require political dialogue and negotiations".

His words were echoed by the UN-Arab League envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, who told the New York gathering that Syria would become a failed state unless a negotiated political solution to the conflict could be found.

Only the UN Security Council could put together a viable peace plan, he emphasised.

Activists say more than 40,000 people have been killed since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011.

Cairo's Tahrir Square fills with anti-Morsi protesters

Tens of thousands of protesters opposed to Egypt's president and the sweeping new powers he assumed last week are in Cairo's Tahrir Square, hours after a new constitution was hastily approved.

The Islamist-dominated constituent assembly finished voting on the draft in the early hours on Friday.

The draft will now be sent to Mr Morsi, who is expected to call a referendum.

The Supreme Constitutional Court is due to rule on Sunday on whether the assembly should be dissolved.

Senior judges have been in a stand-off with the president since he granted himself sweeping new powers.'Fall of the regime'
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An emergency decree issued last week said Mr Morsi's decisions could not be revoked by any authority, including the judiciary, until the new constitution had been ratified and a fresh parliamentary election is held.

It also stated that the courts could not dissolve the constituent assembly.

Mr Morsi says he will give up his extraordinary powers once the new constitution is approved by a referendum.

Live TV feeds from Tahrir Square showed tens of thousands of people in the square.

Demonstrators chanted slogans, including, "The people want the fall of the regime", one of the rallying cries against ex-President Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled last year.

In the city of Alexandria, supporters and opponents of Mr Morsi clashed on the streets, but there were no immediate reports of injuries.

The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties have called on their supporters to join a rally in Cairo on Saturday.

Protesters confronted Mr Morsi at Friday prayers at the al-Sharbatli mosque after the preacher defended the president's recent actions, comparing them with incidents in the life of the Prophet Muhammad.

The BBC's Jon Leyne, in Cairo, says that infuriated worshippers, who chanted against the president, while Mr Morsi himself got up to say that did not agree with the preacher.

It is an illustration of how inflamed and divided opinion is across Egypt, our correspondent says.'Divisive move'

Mr Morsi insists the powers he has taken are meant to be temporary and will protect the transition to a constitutional democracy.

However, their extent has raised fears that he might become a new strongman.

UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay has written to Mr Morsi, asking him to reconsider his decree. In her letter, Ms Pillay "warned that approving a constitution in these circumstances could be a deeply divisive move", her spokesman said.

Mr Morsi's decree of 22 November gave the 100-member constituent assembly until January to complete the draft constitution.

Opponents filed 43 separate lawsuits challenging the process.

When the Supreme Constitutional Court said it would soon rule on the lawsuits, supporters of the president on the assembly decided to pass a rushed draft to head off the threat of dissolution.

During a marathon session that began on Thursday and continued through the night, the assembly voted on and passed all 234 articles.

Among the historic changes to Egypt's system of government, the draft limits the amount of time a president can serve to two four-year terms.

It also introduces some civilian oversight of the military establishment.

The draft keeps in place an article defining "principles of Sharia", or Islamic law, as the main source of legislation.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Palestinians say no rush to join international court after U.N. vote

UNITED NATIONS - The Palestinians will not rush to sign up to the International Criminal Court if they win a U.N. status upgrade on Thursday, but warned that seeking action against Israel in the court would remain an option, said the Palestinian U.N. observer.

Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations, speaks to reporters at the U.N. headquarters in New York September 26, 2011. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

The Palestinians appear certain to earn approval in the 193-member U.N. General Assembly for a status upgrade to "observer state" - similar to the Vatican's rank - from observer "entity." The move would implicitly recognize Palestinian statehood.

The change would allow the Palestinian territories to access bodies like the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which prosecutes people for genocide, war crimes and other major human rights violations, where it could complain about Israel.

"I don't believe that we are going to be rushing the second day to join everything related to the United Nations, including the ICC," Palestinian U.N. observer, Riyad Mansour, told a news conference at the United Nations on Tuesday.

But if Israel continued to violate international law, particularly by building settlements in the West Bank - territory Israel captured in a 1967 war - then Mansour said the Palestinians would consult with friends, including Europe, on "what should we do next to bring Israel into compliance?"

"We're not in the business of trying to prolong this conflict and settle scores," Mansour said. "But we are not fools nor dummies. If they don't move in that direction ... then all of us should be considering all other possible options in order to bring them into compliance."

Israel and the United States oppose the U.N. move by the Palestinians and have called on President Mahmoud Abbas to return to peace talks that collapsed in 2010 over the Israeli settlement construction. Abbas says he is ready for an unconditional resumption of talks after the U.N. upgrade.

In April, the ICC rejected a Palestinian request to examine alleged crimes in Gaza and the West Bank because the Palestinian territories were not a full U.N. member. But the Palestinian move on Tuesday to downplay their ICC aspirations appeared to be a bid to build European support ahead of the U.N. status vote.

France said on Tuesday it would support the Palestinians bid for U.N. non-member status, but the European vote at the United Nations is split. One senior diplomat said he expected between 11 and 16 European states to vote for the Palestinians, while the rest would be a mix of abstentions and no votes.

"When the question is asked, France will vote yes," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced in the French National Assembly, the lower house of parliament.


After Israeli, British and U.S. diplomats unsuccessfully tried to persuade the Palestinians to drop their bid for a U.N. status upgrade, they then focused on trying to get the Palestinians to guarantee that they would forego complaining about Israel to the ICC. The Palestinians refused.

Israel is concerned the Palestinians could ask the ICC - which is not an official U.N. body - to prosecute its leaders.

Britain, which recently pushed European countries to abstain on the U.N. vote, has asked the Palestinians to forego joining the ICC in return for its vote. Britain's U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said London had not yet decided how to vote.

"We have made consistently clear that it is wrong for the Palestinians to bring this resolution to a vote at this time and that it isn't likely to be a helpful contribution to the peace process in the Middle East," he told reporters on Tuesday.

One envoy from a European country, as yet undecided on how it will vote, said the Palestinian comments on the ICC were "unlikely to be sufficient" to win broad European backing. "A vague promise not to go to the ICC won't cut it," he said.

Mansour said there were currently almost 60 co-sponsors of the Palestinian resolution and that he expected that to increase by the time it is put to a vote in the General Assembly.

"We tried very hard to win the largest number of European countries to vote in favour, we are delighted a certain number have declared their support for our draft resolution," he said.

European countries were split in voting for a successful Palestinian bid to join the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO in October 2011. The United States cut funding to UNESCO after it admitted the Palestinians as a full member.

The United States has suggested aid for the Palestinians - and possibly some funding for the United Nations - could also be at risk if the Palestinians win the U.N. upgrade. Israel has said it may cancel the Paris Protocol, a key economic accord it maintains with the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority.

A 1990s U.S. law prohibits American funds going to U.N. organizations that grant full membership to any group that does not have "internationally recognized attributes" of statehood. The Palestinians are not seeking U.N. membership.

The Palestinians launched their watered-down bid for recognition as an "observer state" after an attempt to gain full U.N. membership last year failed amid U.S. opposition in the U.N. Security Council.

(Additional reporting by Noah Browning and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, John Irish in Paris and Crispian Balmer in Jerusalem; Editing by Douglas Hamilton and Jackie Frank)

Don't blame Muslim Brotherhood for Morsy power grab

 Twenty years ago, Edward Djerejian, a former U.S. diplomat, famously worried that Islamists would exploit democratic elections to come to power, after which they would pull the democratic ladder up behind them. Instead of one man, one vote, he said, Islamists wanted one man, one vote, one time.

Last week, Egypt's President Mohamed Morsy, a member of theMuslim Brotherhood, and his country's first democratically elected president, seemed to fulfill Djerejian's grim prophecy.

In a series of unilateral amendments to Egypt's interim constitution, Morsy declared that his word "is final and binding and cannot be appealed by any way or to any entity," and that he is empowered to "take the necessary actions and measures to protect the country and the goals of the revolution."

But, as shocking as Morsy's actions are, they do not prove that Islamists cannot be democrats. Morsy's decision to grant himself unquestioned authority was not the final, spectacularly public phase in some hitherto clandestine Muslim Brotherhood plan to erect a holy autocracy. Instead, the Egyptian president simply did what Egyptian presidents have been doing for more than 60 years — that is, loosening institutional restraints on their authority in order to more easily fulfill their agendas.

News: Is Morsy Egypt's next strongman?

That Morsy is an Islamist is largely irrelevant. It's likely that the autocratic temptation would have seized Egypt's president regardless of his party or ideological orientation. This is not only because Egypt has had a distressingly long history of powerful executives, it's also because, at this moment in Egypt's political history, there is no actor, institution or organization able to keep the presidency in check.

Under such circumstances, even the most earnest democrats would find themselves flirting with authoritarianism — first in the name of the greater good, and then later, when pretenses can be dropped, in the service of naked ambition.

Usually, presidential ambitions are tamed by legislatures, and this was to be the case under Egypt's interim constitution. A parliament was elected in January, but the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court dissolved the body once it became clear that Morsy was on his way to being elected president.



The ostensible reason for the dissolution was that the parliamentary election law ran afoul of some foggy constitutional provision, but the real reason was that Islamists dominated parliament, and the court feared that this Islamist legislature, coupled with a Muslim Brotherhood president, would lead Egypt irretrievably down the road to theocracy.

In the absence of an elected legislature, it was left to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces -- the consortium of generals who ruled Egypt for the 18 months following former leader Hosni Mubarak's overthrow -- to counteract the presidency. But the Egyptian people and the generals had grown weary of each other. Word in Cairo was that the septuagenarian minister of defense, Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, wanted a way out, a "safe exit" in which he could live out his days free of the indignities visited upon his old boss, who bounced between prison and infirmary.

A bargain was worked out. The president clawed back the council's powers and sent the minister of defense and the armed forces chief of staff into cossetted retirement (while naming them presidential advisers). The political landscape now lay prostrate before him.

Except for the judiciary, and particularly the SCC. To Morsy, the 17 men (and one woman) who make up that body constitute a defiant remnant of the Mubarak order. That a clash was inevitable was apparent from Morsy's first moments in office, when his inauguration was delayed for several hours over his reluctance to be sworn in before the outgoing head of the court.

Business: Morsy makes his power plays

When the president decreed that the dissolved parliament should return to work, the judges shut him down. Later, he tried to fire Egypt's attorney general, a Mubarak appointee. Again, he was told that this was outside his ken. Rumors swirled that the SCC was planning to dissolve the second constituent assembly; others reported that a court was about to rule the Muslim Brotherhood itself illegal.

Morsy and his men point to these things and argue that he was forced to take action. But what's remarkable is what the president didn't do. For all of his complaining about SCC's dissolution of parliament's lower house, and for all the damage that the decision did to Egypt's democratic transition, the president has indicated that he will uphold it.

Essam el-Erian, deputy chairman of the Brotherhood's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, has publicly called on Morsy to reinstate the parliament, but a presidential spokesman has said that there are no plans to do so.

The president's reluctance to bring back the parliament further reinforces the impression that his main aim is to expand the powers of his office, which he probably believes is better able to put Egypt right than a raucous legislature packed with unreliable Salafists and a fractious "liberal" wing.

Though the Muslim Brotherhood has generally fallen into line behind the president, there are signs that at least some of its members are deeply uncomfortable with what he has wrought. Muslim Brotherhood politician Ahmed Fahmi, the speaker of the upper house of parliament and a relative of Morsy's, was reported to have said, "We wish that the president had conducted a popular referendum on the constitutional declaration, because what he has done has divided the country between the secular and Islamic forces." (Fahmi has since denied making the statement.)

Muhammad Abd al-Quddus, a Muslim Brotherhood member and a member of the board of Egypt's journalists union, reportedly said, "despite my membership in the Brotherhood, I am a son of the revolution for freedom. Therefore, I reject unlimited powers for the president, regardless of the reasons and the duration."

Even some of the president's defenders have betrayed hints of ambivalence over his radical decision. Muhammad al-Biltagi, secretary general of the Freedom and Justice Party's Cairo branch, declared that "many have a right to be worried" about the president's move to place his decisions above oversight, and he called for a national dialogue to arrive at a solution that would preserve "the right of the president to perform his duties with full authority without political interference from Mubarak's Constitutional Court, as well as the right of the political and social forces to receive guarantees against even temporary presidential tyranny."

Today, the only check on Morsy's authority comes from the streets. And while the protests against the president's decisions have been surprisingly robust, Morsy has so far resisted making concessions. In a meeting with Egyptian judges, he reassured them that he would limit his use of his new powers, but, as of this writing, his decree still stands.

Though large protests are scheduled, the president may believe that he can afford to wait them out. After all, a repeat of the January 25 scenario is unlikely.

The opposition to the president, though significant, remains fractured and uncoordinated, and in any case is far narrower than it was in 2011. The military, which proved essential in removing Mubarak from power, has no appetite for a repeat engagement with the responsibilities of governance, and Morsy has more legitimacy — at home and abroad — than Mubarak did.

And Morsy may believe that the great, silent majority of Egyptians are behind him. After all, Egypt's GDP is about an eighth of the United States', and a greater percentage of Americans were literate during the Civil War than Egyptians are today. The vast countryside is likely untroubled by the president's constitutional maneuverings.

One might be tempted to ask what the United States, Egypt's greatest foreign patron, can do to set that country on the right course. Some have suggested withholding aid, canceling loans and other means of pressuring Morsy to step back from the authoritarian ledge on which he now finds himself.

These measures may produce flurries of positive statements and signals in the near term, but they won't change the fundamental alchemy of Egyptian politics. One only need examine the example of Iraq, which, after almost a decade of American tutelage has nonetheless glided into a form of dominant party autocracy, to realize that genuinely democratic governance cannot be imposed, especially on poor, underdeveloped countries.

None of this — Egypt's tradition of executive dominance, its feeble institutions, its weak political organizations or its enervated society — is particularly the fault of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In fact, if we are to take any lesson from the turmoil on the banks of the Nile, it is not that Islamists can't be trusted with Egypt's presidency, it is that no one can. Morsy may yet reverse course, but odds are that this will not be the last time that an Egyptian leader tries to convince his people that he must kill democracy in order to save it.

Mercy seeks aid for Gaza victims

KUALA LUMPUR: The Malaysian Medical Relief Society (Mercy Malaysia) said there is great need for medical supplies for the people of Gaza wounded in the recent Israeli attacks.

Mercy Malaysia president Datuk Dr Ahmad Faizal Mohd Perdaus said the aid organisation was monitoring the situation in the Gaza Strip while assisting a hospital there.

"Through our support, the El Wafa Hospital has been able to provide medical outreach programmes for specialised medical rehabilitation in the southern part of the Gaza Strip.

"We have also been providing psychological care and building psychological resilience among the population in partnership with the Emaar Association," he said.

Mercy Malaysia is relaunching the Gaza Relief Fund to raise money for the El Wafa Hospital.

Palestinian reps meet PM

KUALA LUMPUR: Umno president Datuk Seri Najib Razak had a short meeting with Palestinian representatives who attended the Umno General Assembly yesterday.

In the meeting with Hamas international relations de partment head Osama Hamdan and Palestinian Cultural Organisation Malaysia (PCOM) Muslim Abu-Umar at the Putra World Trade Centre here yesterday, Najib was briefed on the latest development in Palestine, especially about the recent incidents in Gaza.

Speaking to media after the meeting, which was held after Najib finished a closed-door briefing with Umno delegates to the assembly, Osama said they took the chance to thank the prime minister for Malaysia’s continuous support to Pales tinians and quick response to the recent Israeli aggression.

"We truly appreciated the efforts by Malaysian officials, NGOs and citizens in supporting Palestinians against Israeli occupation, and the relief missions to ease our people's sufferings. Malaysians and Palestinians are very close at heart.

"The prime minister said that he fully supports the Pales tinian cause and people, and stressed on our rights to defend ourselves. He also affirmed that the efforts to help Pales tinians will continue, including providing scholarships to young Palestinians to study in Malaysia," he said.

Yasser Arafat's remains exhumed in murder inquiry

Swiss, French and Russian experts were given samples to establish whether his death in Paris in 2004 at the age of 75 was the result of poisoning before the tomb was resealed.

France began a murder inquiry in August after Swiss experts found radioactive polonium-210 on his personal effects.

Arafat's medical records say he had a stroke resulting from a blood disorder.

His widow, Suha, objected to a post-mortem at the time of his death, but asked the Palestinian Authority to permit the exhumation "to reveal the truth".

Sealed tomb

Arafat's body lies in a stone-clad mausoleum inside the Muqataa presidential compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah. The mausoleum was sealed off earlier this month.
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Palestinian officials told Agence France Presse that only a Palestinian doctor had been allowed to directly touch the remains and remove the samples, but the process was conducted in front of the Swiss, Russian and French scientists, who will carry out tests for polonium-210 and possibly other lethal substances in their respective countries.

It is believed that the investigation could take several months.

Before the exhumation, the head of the Palestinian committee investigating Arafat's death, Tawfik al-Tirawi, said no journalists would be allowed to observe the exhumation.

"Because [of the] sanctity of the symbol and the sanctity of this event, [the exhumation] should not be permitted to be in front of the media," the former Palestinian intelligence chief said.

A reburial ceremony with full military honours had been planned, but this ultimately was not deemed necessary as the body was not removed from the grave during the collection of the samples.

Many Palestinians continue to believe Arafat was poisoned by Israel, which saw him as an obstacle to peace and had put him under house arrest.

There has also been speculation that Arafat was suffering from HIV or cancer at the time of his death.

Israel has strongly denied any involvement in Arafat's death.

An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the BBC: "All the medical files are in the hands of the family or the Palestinian Authority. For some reason they have not released them to this day. Our position has not changed over the years, but the question is why did they wait eight years?"