Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Bassem Youssef and Egypt's Future Course

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Update from AIJAC

April 5, 2013
Number 04/13 #01

This Update deals with growing signs that political and economic problems in Egypt may be coming to a head - problems which have been highlighted in the media primarily in the wake of the prosecution for various political "crimes" of Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef. It also features some analysis of the recent secret leadership elections within Hamas. 

First up is the always well-informed Washington Institute for Near East Policy expert on Egyptian politics Eric Trager. Trager places the persecution of Youssef into the larger context of a growing campaign of repression by the Muslim Brotherhood goverment aimed at both criticism of government leaders and of anything it chooses to define as "Islamic", and to gain control over the judiciary. He argues that this is not simply a matter affecting the political freedom of Egyptians, but one likely to affect the political and economic stability of Egypt, as the repressive atmosphere is pushing the political opposition increasingly into trying to spark a cycle of violence that it hopes will prompt intervention by the military. He also offers some advice to Western policymakers, and to read it all, CLICK HERE. Also offering important comments on the policy implications of the Youseff case and other efforts to stifle dissent in Egypt are former senior US official Elliott Abrams and the Washington Post.

Next up, Zvi Mazel, a former Israeli Ambassador to Egypt, assesses the current situation of the Muslim Brotherhood government - and finds it far from a pretty picture for them. He argues that between the escalating street unrest, the dire economic situation, the increasingly unified opposition, and the government's alienation from both the traditional elites and the young, things have reached such a state where civil war cannot be ruled out. He notes that the Brotherhood leadership appears too busy trying to appoint its own cadres to key bureaucratic, judicial and military positions to be doing much to deal with the crisis, and the situation appears to be turning into a nightmare for them. For this good look at the increasingly chaotic picture inside Egypt, and increasingly cloudy future facing the country, CLICK HERE.

Finally, noted expert on Palestinian politics Jonathan Schanzer looks at the implications of the recent secret Hamas leadership elections. He notes that Khaled Meshal, now based in Qatar, retained the top spot, and that Qatar is now serving as Hamas' primary source of financial support. He also notes that the Gaza leadership under Ismael Haniyah appears to have made major prestige gains within the organisation, that Egypt remains important but Turkey, despite angling for a major role, appears to have been ignored, and that overall, the changes suggest "absolutely no changes in the group's approach to terrorism or rejectionism." For the rest of Schanzer's thoughtful analysis, CLICK HERE.

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Egypt Takes Another Step Toward Autocracy -- and Instability

Eric Trager

Policy Alert, April 1, 2013

Washington should tell Morsi that politicized prosecutions and other autocratic moves are increasing the risk of wider violence.

Egypt's prosecution of comedian Bassem Youssef for allegedly insulting President Muhammad Morsi and denigrating Islam is the latest indication of the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government's undemocratic disposition. The move will likely deepen the non-Islamist opposition's mistrust of the country's political and judicial institutions, encouraging groups to continue seeking change through increasingly violent demonstrations rather than official political channels. Given Washington's interest in promoting democratic governance and stability in Egypt, the Obama administration should urge Morsi to pardon Youssef and end the crackdown on critics of the Brotherhood.

Youssef's case is not unique. According to the Egypt-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, four times as many lawsuits for "insulting the president" were filed during Morsi's first 100 days in office than during Hosni Mubarak's thirty-year reign. Although private citizens filed many of these suits, the Brotherhood has encouraged them by frequently depicting its media critics as remnants of the old regime. The group has also made politicized prosecutions even more likely in the future by pushing a new draft electoral law through parliament allowing the use of religious slogans in campaigns. Article 44 of the new constitution, ratified in December, prohibits "the insult or abuse of all religious messengers and prophets," and this can be broadly interpreted to insulate Islamist religious political slogans from non-Islamist attacks.

Morsi and the parliament have also worked to stifle media criticism by appointing a Muslim Brother as minister of information, using their control over state-run media to fire writers and editors who question the new government's policies, and hiring new editors sympathetic to the group's ideology. Meanwhile, the government has begun prosecuting wealthy anti-Brotherhood businessmen, potentially denying opposition media outlets and political parties vital sources of funding.

This pattern of prosecutions has validated opposition concerns that Morsi is undermining judicial independence. The irregular appointment of Prosecutor-General Talaat Abdullah is especially worrisome: Morsi used his November 22 constitutional declaration, through which he temporarily asserted virtually unchecked executive authority, as a pretext for selecting Abdullah rather than leaving the decision to the Supreme Judicial Council, as required by Egyptian law at the time. And last week, in another assault on judicial oversight, Morsi's office declared that it would not abide by a court decision ruling the appointment illegal.

Youssef's prosecution will only further inflame the situation. Opposition parties have already declared their refusal to participate in the next parliamentary elections, which Morsi recently indicated might be pushed to October given the current lack of sufficient guarantees for electoral transparency. Some oppositionists have resorted to violence against Brotherhood targets as a means of spurring the military to topple Morsi, whom they increasingly view as illegitimate due to his dictatorial behavior. The government's blatant assault on free speech will likely harden this position and fuel further violence, thereby adding to Egypt's mounting economic woes.

To reverse this dangerous trend and encourage stability, the Obama administration has rightly urged the non-Islamist opposition to re-engage in the political process by participating in the next elections. But so long as the Morsi government uses the political process to undermine judicial independence and enhance its crackdown, the opposition's skepticism will be warranted. Washington should therefore warn Morsi -- publicly, so as to counter the widely held impression of U.S. backing for the Brotherhood's actions -- that his autocratic policies are exacerbating Egypt's volatile political atmosphere. It should also advise him privately to act decisively and reverse course, in part by pardoning Youssef.

Eric Trager is the Next Generation fellow at The Washington Institute.

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Egypt becoming a nightmare for Muslim Brothers

By ZVI MAZEL
Jersualem Post, 04/02/2013 08:14

Analysis: The threat of civil war appears all too real in Egypt amid economic, social and political crisis.

For the Muslim Brotherhood, the long awaited dream come true is turning into a nightmare. Having survived 80 years of persecution to achieve power democratically, they suddenly find themselves the focus of widespread popular hatred.

Never have Egyptians been in such dire economic traits.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, however, is not about to give up and make way for new presidential elections. The Brotherhood will spare no effort to stay in power.

Such is the depth of the economic, social and political crisis that the threat of civil war appears all too real.

Most commentators believe the army won’t let things go that far and will step in; however the road back to recovery and a civilian regime accepted by all will be long and arduous.

Civil disobedience is rampant.

In Port Said the police have disappeared from the streets and the army called in to maintain law and order. Indeed here and there people are petitioning the courts to appoint popular Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to rule Egypt in Morsi’s stead. They know it won’t happen but are trying to make a point. Demonstrations calling for getting rid of Morsi and of the Brotherhood are held on a daily basis in Cairo and in cities all over the country. They are met by militant groups of the Brotherhood. Dozens have died and thousands were wounded in the resulting clashes though both sides are trying not to let the violence escalate.

The economy is in shambles.

In a remarkable and enduring show of unity, non-Islamic opposition parties under the banner of the National Salvation Front are boycotting the regime until their demands – canceling the Islamic constitution and setting up a consensus government until new elections are held – are met.

The Muslim Brotherhood who had won a sweeping victory in the first free parliamentary elections and got their candidate elected president have bitterly disappointed the people who had put their faith in them.

Nothing has been done to improve their lot. Upon taking office Morsi had promised – and failed – to take care of five burning issues within a hundred days: growing insecurity, monster traffic jams in the capital, lack of fuel and cooking gas, lack of subsidized bread, and the mounting piles of refuse in the streets.

The president’s high-handed attempt to take over all legislative powers and grant himself full immunity provoked such an outcry that he had to back down. He sacked the prosecutor-general and appointed a new one – only to have his decision overthrown by the Cairo Court of Cassation last week, throwing the judicial system into disarray.

It seems that such unwise and unpopular moves were taken without prior consultations with his advisers and that in fact it was the Supreme Guidance Bureau of the Brotherhood which had urged Morsi to do so. In other words, the president is acting as a proxy for the movement.

Dissatisfaction is now evident everywhere. Elections held in students’ union throughout the country saw Brotherhood candidates defeated by independent candidates. Worse, elections to the key Journalists’ Syndicate saw the victory of Diaa Rashwan, head of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic studies and bitter opponent of the Brotherhood.

In other words the movement is losing both the youth and the elites.

Yet the regime plods on as if unaware of the fact that times have changed and that people are no longer afraid to take to the streets to fight for the future of their country.

On the contrary, Morsi is hard at work appointing as many of his men as he can everywhere, from national to regional and local positions supervising everything from public order to food distribution – such as it is – under his direct orders.

Clearly, he is here to stay.

Army no longer refusing Islamic candidates

In a new and startling development, he is now turning to the army. For the first time since Nasser ruled, the army academy is no longer refusing Islamic candidates.

Then of course there is the legislation. The lower house of parliament has been disbanded by the courts because of widespread electoral fraud, so Morsi gave temporary legislative powers to the upper house “Shura council.”

These powers were supposed to be used for urgent legislation; however taking advantage of the solid Islamic majority – 80 percent Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists – Morsi is pushing through laws organizing the next elections, restraining the right to strike and to demonstrate; in the wings are stringent laws regulating NGOs – including a special provision legalizing the Brotherhood – a movement banned by Nasser. This was needed because the advisory board of the High Administrative Court had declared the movement illegal and recommended that it be disbanded.

Within two days of the ruling a new law had been drafted and is now awaiting the verdict of the High Constitutional Court. The problem is that the Brotherhood has since its inception refused to divulge the list of its members and the origin of its funds – two requirements for registering a movement.

While feminist organizations are demonstrating against repeated violence against women and fatwas encouraging such violence, the Brotherhood posted on its official website a condemnation of the recent UN resolution on the rights of women “because it is in violation of the Shari’a.”

Currency shortage threatens petrol, food imports

Strangely enough, while the level of violence in the streets is steadily rising, the president has nothing to say.

It is as if the Brotherhood had adopted the motto “least said, soonest mended” and had decided to keep a low profile in the hope of seeing the protests die a natural death as protesters get tired or lose hope.

Yet there is no sign of it happening anytime soon. In the wake of the last round of violence around the Brotherhood’s Cairo headquarters, Morsi did warn that if “hooliganism” did not stop, harsh measures would be taken. His warning only added fuel to the fire, resulting in new clashes and more wounded.

In the meantime, currency reserves are bleeding, there may be soon not enough money to pay for imports of petrol and basic food supplies.

Subsidizing these items accounts for 25 percent of the country’s budget. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Libya did extend substantial help, but it all went to subsidies and imports. None of the long overdue economic reforms have been launched. Without these reforms the International Monetary Fund is withholding the $4.8 billion loan Egypt desperately needs; there is also the small problem of the interest to be paid; Islamic circles are vehemently opposing any form of interest, which they said is prohibited by Shari’a law.

Unless and until a solution is found, Western countries will not lend any money to Egypt.

Power failures are getting more frequent, queues for petrol and cooking gas longer and food is scarce.

Investors have fled, tourists are scared. Hunger riots may not be far off. Yet the Brotherhood surges blindly on, not ready to let go of the golden prize achieved after nearly a century. And so the standoff goes on between the regime and the opposition, while quicksand threatens to engulf them all.

The writer, a fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.

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Hamas Leadership Selection: An Initial Assessment

by Jonathan Schanzer

FDD Policy Brief, April 1, 2013

After months of fits and starts, Hamas finally completed its internal leadership elections, news sources report. The head of the politburo will again be Khaled Meshal, who had previously expressed his intent to step down. Meshal's deputy, according to some unconfirmed sources, will be Ismail Haniyeh, who also is the de facto prime minster of Gaza.

It is worth recalling that the Hamas politburo vacated its long-standing headquarters in Damascus last year amidst the increased violence in Syria. The politburo, or external leadership, was forced to scatter throughout the Muslim world. Meshal was reportedly spending more time in Qatar. Mousa Abu Marzook set up shop in Egypt. The politburo remains without an official headquarters, relying instead on a handful of actors that now influence the movement.

Meshal's selection demonstrates the increased importance of Qatar, which has emerged as one of Hamas' primary funders since Iran's funding dried up due to U.S.-led sanctions, among other factors. Qatar is, in blunt terms, Hamas' new ATM.

If Haniyeh is confirmed as the number two, the move would signify the rising importance of the Gaza-based leadership, which fights on the "front lines" against Israel. Indeed, Gaza remains the center of political gravity within the movement.

The fact that the elections took place in Egypt demonstrates that Egypt is still an important factor for Hamas. Despite recent tensions (Egypt flooded Hamas smuggling tunnels and accused Hamas members of hatching plots against the state), both Cairo and Hamas understand that Egypt is Hamas' key to the outside world. If Hamas is ever to integrate politically or economically with the rest of the Arab world, Egypt is the portal.

Notably absent in this leadership selection process was Turkey, which has become a rather outspoken champion of Hamas in recent years. Last year, Ankara reportedly provided $300 million to Hamas. It continues to export goods to Gaza and help with costly reconstruction projects after the 2012 conflict with Israel. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan recently announced he would visit Gaza, too. Yet, Turkey does not figure prominently in the new leadership structure (that we know of).

Nor is Sudan's role reflected in the new make-up, but Meshal is a frequent visitor to Khartoum, where the Bashir regime coordinates closely with the regime in Tehran. While Iran-Hamas-Sudan ties have been documented for years, Haniyeh's selection, to some extent, reinforces the importance of Hamas' close ties with both Sudan and Iran, which furnishes short-and long-range rockets and other weaponry to the Palestinian terrorist groups.

In other words, the Hamas leadership selection reflects absolutely no changes in the group's approach to terrorism or rejectionism. Meshal, during a visit to Gaza in December, vowed that Hamas would continue its strategy of violence against Israel. With a new four-year term, it's reasonable to expect more of the same.

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