Obama warns Assad on chemical weapons
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, December 3, 2012 18:07 EST
US President Barack Obama directly warned Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad Monday that he would face “consequences” if he made the “tragic mistake” of turning chemical weapons on his own people.
“Today, I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command, the world is watching. The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable,” Obama said.
Originally published Monday, December 3, 2012 at 6:16 AM
US weighing military options if Syria uses WMD
By KIMBERLY DOZIER and PAULINE JELINEK
The White House and its allies are weighing military options to secure Syria's chemical and biological weapons, after U.S. intelligence reports show the Syrian regime may be readying those weapons and may be desperate enough to use them, U.S. officials said Monday.
President Barack Obama, in a speech at the National Defense University on Monday, pointedly warned Syrian President Bashar Assad not to use his arsenal.
"Today I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command: The world is watching," Obama said. "The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable."
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in Prague for meetings with Czech officials, said she wouldn't outline any specifics.
"But suffice it to say, we are certainly planning to take action if that eventuality were to occur," Clinton said.
Options now being considered range from aerial strikes to limited raids by regional forces to secure the stockpiles, according to one current U.S. official, and one former U.S. official, briefed on the matter. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
The administration remains reluctant to dispatch U.S. forces into Syria, but a U.S. special operations training team is in neighboring Jordan, teaching troops there how to safely secure such sites together with other troops from the region, the officials said.
The warnings to Syria come after U.S. intelligence detected signs the Syrian regime was moving the chemical weapons components around within several of Syria's chemical weapons sites in recent days, according to a senior U.S. defense official and two U.S. officials speaking on Monday. The activities involved movement within the sites, rather than the transfer of components in or out of various sites, two of the officials said.
But they were activities they had not seen before, that bear further scrutiny, one said.
Another senior U.S. official described it as "indications of preparations" for a possible use of the chemical weapons. The U.S. still doesn't know whether the regime is planning to use them, but the official says there is greater concern because there is the sense that the Assad regime is under greater pressure now.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about intelligence matters.
U.S. intelligence officials also intercepted one communication within the last six months they believe was between Iran's infamous Quds Force, urging Syrian regime members to use its supplies of toxic Sarin gas against rebels and the civilians supporting them in the besieged city of Homs, a former U.S. official said. That report was not matched by other intelligence agencies, and other intelligence officials have said Iran also does not want the Syrians to use their chemical weapons.
The Assad regime insists it would not use such weapons against Syrians, though it carefully does not admit to having them. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the government "would not use chemical weapons - if there are any - against its own people under any circumstances." The regime is party to the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning chemical weapons in war.
The Syrian assurances did not placate the White House.
"We are concerned that in an increasingly beleaguered regime, having found its escalation of violence through conventional means inadequate, might be considering the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people," said White House press secretary Jay Carney.
"Assad has killed so many of his people, I just wouldn't be surprised if he turned these weapons on them," added Maryland Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, after intelligence briefings Monday.
An administration official said the trigger for U.S. action of some kind is the use of chemical weapons, or movement with the intent to use them, or the intent to provide them to a terrorist group like Hezbollah. The U.S. is trying to determine whether the recent movement detected in Syria falls into any of those categories, the official said. The administration official was speaking on condition of anonymity because this person was not authorized to speak publicly about the issue.
Israeli officials have repeatedly expressed concerns that Syrian chemical weapons could slip into the hands of Hezbollah or other anti-Israel groups, or even be fired toward Israel in an act of desperation by Syria.
Syria has some 75 sites where weapons are stored, but U.S. officials aren't sure they have tracked down all the locations, and fear some stockpiles may have already been moved. Syria is believed to have several hundred ballistic surface-to-surface missiles capable of carrying chemical warheads, plus several tons of material stored in either large drums, or in artillery shells, which become deadly once fired.
"In Syria, they have everything from mustard agent, Sarin nerve gas, and some variant of the nerve agent VX," according to James Quinlivan, a Rand Corp. analyst who specializes in the elimination of weapons of mass destruction.
A primary argument against sending in U.S. ground troops is that whoever takes possession of the chemical weapons will be responsible for destroying them, as part of the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention. Destroying Syria's stockpiles could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and take more than a decade, Quinlivan said.
Syria's arsenal is a particular threat to the American allies, Turkey and Israel, and Obama singled out the threat posed by the unconventional weapons earlier this year as a potential cause for deeper U.S. involvement in Syria's civil war. Up to now, the United States has opposed military intervention or providing arms support to Syria's rebels for fear of further militarizing a conflict that activists say has killed more than 40,000 people since March 2011.
Activity has been detected at Syrian weapons sites before.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in late September the intelligence suggested the Syrian government had moved some of its chemical weapons in order to protect them. He said the U.S. believed that the main sites remained secure.
Asked Monday if they were still considered secure, Pentagon press secretary George Little declined to comment about any intelligence related to the weapons.
Senior lawmakers were notified last week that U.S. intelligence agencies had detected activity related to Syria's chemical and biological weapons, said a U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door meetings. All congressional committees with an interest in Syria, from the intelligence to the armed services committees, are now being kept informed.
"I can't comment on these reports, but I have been very concerned for some time now about Syria's stockpiles of chemical weapons and its stocks of advanced conventional weapons like shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles," said House intelligence committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich.
"We are not doing enough to prepare for the collapse of the Assad regime, and the dangerous vacuum it will create. Use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would be an extremely serious escalation that would demand decisive action from the rest of the world," he added.
The U.S. and Jordan share the same concern about Syria's chemical and biological weapons - that they could fall into the wrong hands should the regime in Syria collapse and lose control of them.
December 4, 2012
Assad Facing Setbacks as Syrian Capital Is Besieged
By ANNE BARNARD and ELLEN BARRY
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Fierce fighting on the battlefield and setbacks on the diplomatic front increased pressure on the embattled Syrian government as fresh signs emerged on Tuesday of a sustained battle for control of the capital.
News reports quoted activists as saying fighting was raging in the southern suburbs of Damascus and near the international airport for a fifth straight day as government forces sought to dislodge rebels and reverse their recent gains.
While the government has superior firepower and rebels are reporting heavy losses, loyalist forces have been carrying out a serious counteroffensive in the suburbs without being able to subdue the insurgents.
The latest reports followed developments on Monday when a senior Turkish official said that Russia had agreed to a new diplomatic approach to seek ways to persuade President Bashar al-Assad to relinquish power, a possible weakening in Russia’s steadfast support for the government.
In Damascus, a prominent Foreign Ministry spokesman was said to have left the country amid reports of his defection, and both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton issued warnings that any use of chemical weapons by a desperate government would be met with a strong international response. The NATO secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, echoed this warning on Tuesday.
“The possible use of chemical weapons would be completely unacceptable to the whole international community,” Mr. Rasmussen said, according to Agence France-Presse.
A Western diplomat confirmed that there were grave concerns in United States intelligence circles that Syrian leaders could resort to the use of the weapons as their position deteriorates.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry, repeating earlier statements, told state television that the government “would not use chemical weapons, if it had them, against its own people under any circumstances.”
The United Nations said it was withdrawing nonessential international staff from Syria, and the European Union said it was reducing activities in Damascus “to a minimum,” as security forces pummeled the suburbs with artillery and airstrikes in a struggle to seal off the city from its restive outskirts and control the airport road. A senior Russian official spoke for the first time in detail about the possibility of evacuating Russian citizens.
The United Nations World Food Program reported on Tuesday that “the recent escalation of violence in Syria is making it more difficult to reach the country’s hardest-hit areas.”
“Food insecurity is on the rise due to bread shortages and higher food prices in many parts of the country. High prices are also affecting neighboring countries hosting Syrian refugees,” the organization said in a statement.
“Road access to and from Damascus has become more dangerous, making it difficult to dispatch food from World Food Program warehouses to some parts of the country, the organization said, adding that there had been increasing indiscriminate attacks on its trucks in different parts of the country.
It also said it would relocate seven nonessential staff members to neighboring Jordan while about “20 international and 100 national W.F.P. staff remain in the country to carry out the emergency operation to feed 1.5 million vulnerable Syrians.” Mr. Assad has held on longer than many had predicted at the start of the 21-month uprising. He still has a strong military advantage and undiminished support from his closest ally, Iran. Military analysts doubt the rebels are capable of taking Damascus by force, and one fighter interviewed on Monday said the government counteroffensive was taking a heavy toll. There were still no firm indications from Russia that it was ready to join Turkey and Western nations in insisting on Mr. Assad’s immediate departure.
But the latest grim developments follow a week of events that suggested the Assad government was being forced to fight harder to keep its grip on power. Rebels threatened its vital control of the skies, using surface-to-air missiles to down a fighter plane and other aircraft. The opposition also gained control of strategic military bases and their arsenals, and forced the government to shut down the Damascus airport periodically. The Internet was off for two days.
A Russian political analyst with contacts at the Foreign Ministry said that “people sent by the Russian leadership” who had contact with Mr. Assad two weeks ago described a man who has lost all hope of victory or escape.
“His mood is that he will be killed anyway,” Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of a Russian foreign affairs journal and the head of an influential policy group, said in an interview in Moscow, adding that only an “extremely bold” diplomatic proposal could possibly convince Mr. Assad that he could leave power and survive.
“If he will try to go, to leave, to exit, he will be killed by his own people,” Mr. Lukyanov said, speculating that security forces dominated by Mr. Assad’s minority Alawite sect would not let him depart and leave them to face revenge. “If he stays, he will be killed by his opponents. He is in a trap. It is not about Russia or anybody else. It is about his physical survival.”
Many observers — United Nations personnel in Syria, Arab diplomats and opposition activists — stress that it is difficult to reliably assess the state of the government. But taken together, the day’s events suggested that the government’s position was declining more sharply than it had in months and that an international scramble to find a solution to the crisis was intensifying.
Nabil al-Araby, the head of the Arab League, said on Monday that the government could fall at “any time,” Agence France-Presse reported.
The Arab League has long called for Mr. Assad to step down. But Russia, Mr. Assad’s most powerful ally, has held out the possibility of his staying in power during a transition, so the Russian government’s apparent shift of emphasis carried more weight.
Mikhail Bogdanov, a deputy foreign minister, told Itar-Tass that Russia was ready to provide assistance to any of its citizens wishing to leave Syria. Tens of thousands of Russians live there, mainly women married to Syrian men after years of cold war cooperation between the countries. He said their route out would most likely be by plane.
After meeting in Istanbul on Monday, President Vladimir V. Putin and President Recep Tayib Erdogan of Turkey said they had agreed on a new approach to resolving the conflict.
“We are neither protecting the regime in Syria nor acting as their advocate, but remain worried about Syria’s future,” Mr. Putin said at a joint news conference with Mr. Erdogan.
Mr. Putin did not elaborate, though Mr. Bogdanov said Russia would meet intensively with Syrian opposition groups based inside the country in the coming month. A senior Turkish official, speaking anonymously in accordance with diplomatic protocol, said plans included looking for ways to get Mr. Assad to step down. Russia has previously said it is not wedded to Mr. Assad, but the official suggested it was now more motivated to find an alternative.
“There is definitely a softening of the Russian political tone,” the Turkish official said, adding that Mr. Putin had acknowledged that Mr. Assad seemed unwilling to depart.
Yet, doubts remain about whether Russia can engineer a breakthrough. The Kremlin has insisted the crisis would be resolved only through negotiations between Syria’s government and its opponents, and its top envoy to Syria has quietly continued to meet with defectors from Mr. Assad’s government and members of the opposition.
But Russia has typically engaged mainly with Syria-based opposition groups, which the exile opposition and many in the uprising say are too close to the government. militia.”
Lebanon’s Al-Manar television reported that a Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, had been fired for making statements that did not reflect the government’s position. Activists said he had defected.
Mr. Makdissi, whose polished persona and fluent English had long made him one of the most cosmopolitan faces of the government, had not taken reporters’ phone calls or made public statements recently.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, who uses a pseudonym for safety reasons, said that Mr. Makdissi had met his family in Beirut, where they had been staying, and was believed to have boarded a flight for London. He said Mr. Makdissi had earlier angered some in the Syrian government with a statement saying Syria would use chemical weapons only against a foreign invasion — weapons the government prefers not to acknowledge it has.
Analysts say the rebels are forcing the government to devote forces to Damascus, and their offensive could hasten the loss of control in other parts of the country.
“We feel a change in the security situation,” said Muhannad Hadi, the Syria director of the United Nations’ World Food Program. “You hear sounds of explosions, you hear shelling, you don’t know where it’s taking off or where it’s landing,” Mr. Hadi said. “It’s becoming part of daily life.”
Anne Barnard reported from Beirut, Lebanon, and Ellen Barry from Moscow. Reporting was contributed by Alan Cowell in London, Sebnem Arsu in Istanbul, Peter Baker in Washington, Hwaida Saad, Neil MacFarquhar and Hania Mourtada in Beirut, and Christine Hauser in New York.
December 3, 2012
5 European Nations Summon Envoys of Israel
By ISABEL KERSHNER
JERUSALEM — Britain, France, Spain, Sweden and Denmark summoned the Israeli ambassadors to their countries on Monday to protest Israel’s plans for increased settlement construction, an unusually sharp diplomatic step that reflected the growing frustration abroad with Israel’s policies on the Palestinian issue.
After the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly last week to upgrade the status of the Palestinians at the United Nations, Israel announced plans for 3,000 more housing units in contested areas of East Jerusalem and around the West Bank.
Israel raised particular alarms with its decision to continue planning and zoning work for the development of a contentious area known as E1, a project vehemently opposed internationally because it would partially separate the northern and southern West Bank, harming the prospects of a contiguous Palestinian state in that territory.
The move raised questions in Israel about whether the country’s leaders were putting domestic political interests ahead of its foreign relations, with Israeli elections scheduled for late January.
“Bibi had to do something” in response to the United Nations vote, said Prof. Shmuel Sandler of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan Universiy, referring to the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, by his nickname, “first because he is Bibi and second because of the elections.”
Mr. Sandler said that Mr. Netanyahu, a conservative, was making the mistake of competing against those farther to the right, adding, “But I don’t think he expected such a reaction” internationally.
Yet Israel remained defiant. The prime minister’s office issued a statement on Monday, saying, “Israel will continue to stand for its essential interests, even in the face of international pressure, and there will be no change in the decision it has taken.”
A press officer for United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement on Sunday that construction in E1 “would represent an almost fatal blow to remaining chances of securing a two-state solution.”
European countries long opposed to Israeli settlement construction went beyond their usual statements of condemnation. The countries that called in the Israeli ambassadors “expressed their strong protests about the announced settlement plans,” said Yigal Palmor, the spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
Mr. Palmor said that the Israeli ambassadors told their hosts that Israel had been warning for months that the Palestinian bid at the United Nations would not go unanswered and that it would have implications.
Israel has described the bid as a unilateral Palestinian step that violates previous signed agreements. The Palestinians have long refused to negotiate with Israel without a halt in settlement construction.
France, Spain, Sweden and Denmark voted for the Palestinian upgrade, while Britain abstained. Although Israel had expected the resolution to pass, officials here expressed disappointment over the lack of support from several friendly European nations. Israel was particularly surprised by Germany’s decision to abstain in the vote, having expected Germany to go with Israel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to visit Germany this week. Despite the so-called special relationship between Israel and Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has not minced words about her opposition to Israeli settlement construction in the past.
Philippe Lalliot, a spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry, said in a statement on Monday, “Settlement activity is illegal under international law, hurts the confidence necessary for a return to dialogue and constitutes an obstacle to a just peace founded on the two-state solution.”
The British Foreign Office said that it deplored the Israeli settlement plans and that it had called on the Israeli government to reverse the decision.
But Israeli officials denied that the government’s policies were isolating Israel.
“It is well known that Europe and Israel have a different approach on settlements,” said one Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “There is nothing new here. If European countries would have behaved differently in their vote at the United Nations last week,” he continued, “we may have reacted differently.”
Analysts here said that after showing strong support for Israel during its military campaign last month against Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza, European countries had felt the need to bolster the more moderate Palestinian wing led by President Mahmoud Abbas in its United Nations bid.
At the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, Mr. Netanyahu said, “Today we are building and we will continue to build in Jerusalem and in all areas that are on the map of the strategic interests of the State of Israel.”
But beyond the tit-for-tat measures set off by the United Nations vote, analysts pointed to a trend of deteriorating relations between Israel and Europe in particular.
“That is because the top-level people making decisions here in recent years are completely insular and out of touch with the rest of the world, especially regarding the Palestinians and the settlements,” said Mark Heller, a foreign-policy analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “Self-righteousness may be good for domestic politics,” he said, “but it is not a policy.”
At the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday, 138 nations voted in favor of upgrading the status of the Palestinians and 41 abstained. The nine that voted against it were Israel, the United States, Canada, the Czech Republic, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Panama and Palau.
Scott Sayare contributed reporting from Paris.
Egyptian press refuses to print to protest ‘tyranny’
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, December 4, 2012 7:30 EST
Egyptian independent and opposition newspapers refused to publish their Tuesday editions in protest against lack of press freedom in the country’s draft constitution, set for a popular referendum on December 15.
The move was in order to “stand up to tyranny,” independent daily Al-Tahrir said on its website.
“The Egyptian Independent objects to continued restrictions on media liberties, especially after hundreds of Egyptians gave their lives for freedom,” read a message on that newspaper’s website, its only viewable content on Tuesday morning.
Daily Al-Masry Al-Youm said the papers were “protesting against the articles on the press in the draft constitution… and reject (President Mohamed Morsi’s) November 22 decree.”
The decree gave Morsi new sweeping powers, placing his decisions and the Islamist-dominated constituent assembly, which drafted the charter, beyond judicial oversight.
The charter has raised human rights concerns, including over freedom of expression and freedom of worship for religions other than Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
Activists say it opens the door to implementing a strict interpretation of Islamic law.
Government newspapers, including Al-Ahram, went to print as usual on Tuesday.
Private television channels are to join the protest on Wednesday, refusing to broadcast, some newspapers said.
The constitution has become the focal point of Egypt’s biggest political crisis since Islamist Morsi’s election June, polarising opinion and causing mass civil unrest.
Opposition will rally at the presidential palace on Tuesday to protest against the charter, the vote and Morsi’s decree.
December 3, 2012
Egyptian Judges Break Ranks to Support Morsi Vote Request
By KAREEM FAHIM
CAIRO — After showing a measure of unity against President Mohamed Morsi’s decision to put his edicts above the law, Egypt’s judges splintered on Monday, with one leading judicial official saying many judges would cooperate with plans to hold a public vote on a draft constitution supported by the president.
The official, Judge Ahmed Abdel Rahman, a member of the country’s top judicial administrative authority, told state news media that judges and prosecutors would supervise the constitutional referendum to be held on Dec. 15 — a setback for opposition groups who had hoped to delegitimize a charter that they complain was drafted by an unrepresentative body and pushed through a constitutional assembly in haste by Mr. Morsi. Other judges have said they will boycott the referendum. Judge Abdel Rahman said judges would not be permitted to excuse themselves unless they provided a letter explaining their reasoning.
The decision left opponents of Mr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement that supports him, facing the most critical test of their unity since the crisis began on Nov. 22. Opposition leaders have capitalized on Mr. Morsi’s aggressive moves by smoothing over their perennial squabbles. Some conceded that they would have to now move beyond the relatively easy work of organizing rallies and criticizing the president to the more complicated tasks of agreeing on policies and formulating collective plans.
In the coming days, they are expected to call on Egyptian voters to either boycott the referendum or to vote down the charter, with campaigns that will test the opposition’s capabilities and reach.
Both tactics carry risks for leaders who have been criticized for quickly resorting to obstructionism and for failing to concentrate on building the kind of broad constituencies that would allow them to mount a significant challenge to the Brotherhood’s popularity.
Looking beyond the current crisis, analysts said, an ad-hoc coalition would have to mature into a movement with an identity that was based on more than just being a secular alternative to the Islamists.
“That is not going to get them anywhere,” said Rabab el-Mahdi, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo. “They need an alternative platform that is not based on the division between religious and civil — a clear alternative in their socioeconomic policies that affect people’s daily lives.”
Opposition leaders insisted they were thinking ahead. “There are two processes going on,” said Emad Gad, a leader of the Social Democratic Party. “One is a temporary coalition in front of the Islamists," he said, the other, was "a permanent coalition.”
For now, the opposition has been content to use what they call gradual escalations to test Mr. Morsi. After two large rallies in Tahrir Square last week, activist plan a march on the presidential palace on Tuesday.
So far, Mr. Morsi has barely blinked, as the crisis had devolved into a deep social schism marked by episodes of deadly street violence, fisticuffs in union halls and an increasingly poisonous public debate.
With stunning ease, some of Mr. Morsi’s opponents have lumped him in with history’s most brutal tyrants, while the president’s supporters have been equally comfortable tarring their opponents as foreign agents, and revolutionaries as remnants of the old government.
“It has never been this way before,” said Amr Moussa, a former presidential candidate and opposition leader. “There is no dialogue whatsoever.”
In that atmosphere, the opposition’s escalations and the Islamists’ response has become more combustible, raising the specter of political violence. “I’m afraid of a confrontation,” Mr. Gad said. “I do not want to use the term civil war.”
There was little sign the air would clear soon. Amr Hamzawy, the founder of the Free Egypt Party and a former member of Parliament, called Mr. Morsi’s offers of dialogue “a farce” and said the opposition was fighting “a calculated attempt by the Brotherhood to take over Egypt.”
Mr. Hamzawy compared recent Brotherhood rallies to pro-Hitler demonstrations in Germany in the 1930s. “There are great similarities,” he said.
“We will not legitimize what’s going on,” he said, raising the possibility of boycotting parliamentary elections that are to be held after the constitution is approved.
“I do not see us breaking apart soon,” Mr. Hamzawy said of the opposition coalition, the National Salvation Front, that was formed during the crisis. “We have a historic chance to bring people behind us, and to stand where we belong.”
Such talk seemed optimistic, given the fissures within the movement that are discussed openly by activists and opposition politicians. Some young revolutionaries are angry that Mr. Moussa, a former foreign minister under the deposed president, Hosni Mubarak, has ended up in their camp. Others say it is only a matter of time before the rivalries between the coalition’s most prominent leaders — and their weaknesses — begin to surface again.
The opposition has been further damaged by the failure to attract a prominent political figure, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Brotherhood leader who broke from the Islamist group. In a recent interview in the online journal Jadaliyya, Mr. Aboul Fotouh criticized Mr. Morsi for “governing unilaterally,” but also faulted some of the president’s opponents, who he said were “settling scores” with the Brotherhood and “stalling the political process in pursuit of their own goals.”
Professor Mahdi, who was once a political adviser to Mr. Aboul Fotouh, said it was still early to judge the emerging coalition and whether they could move past their old patterns of discord. “We’ve seen them organize and call for demonstrations,” she said. “So far, there’s nothing new.”
Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting.
Obama calls on Russia to update nuclear arms treaty
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, December 3, 2012 20:09 EST
US President Barack Obama on Monday called on Russia to join him as an equal partner in updating a nuclear non-proliferation deal, after Moscow opted not to extend it earlier this year.
Russian officials said in October that they had notified Washington that the Nunn-Lugar program, which disposed of thousands of Soviet-era warheads and missiles, would not be extended when it expires in May.
The decision was seen as the latest challenge to the “reset” of relations Obama engineered with Russia early in his first term, ties that are now in a new era under the returning President Vladimir Putin.
But Obama said Monday that he was ready to talk to Russia about a new version of the 20-year pact, as he honored its founders, Republican Senator Richard Lugar and former Democratic senator Sam Nunn.
“Russia has said that our current agreement hasn’t kept pace with the changing relationship between our countries,” Obama said at the event in Washington.
“To which we say, let’s update it. Let’s work with Russia as an equal partner. Let’s continue the work that’s so important to the security of both our countries. And I’m optimistic that we can.”
US diplomats started talking to Russia about renewing the US-financed program in July, but Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Moscow wanted to end it.
Lugar, who is leaving the Senate after losing a Republican primary challenge, traveled to Russia in August to talk about extending the deal.
The Nunn-Lugar plan was created in 1992 after the breakup of the Soviet Union amid worries over the fate of its vast arsenal of nuclear as well as chemical and biological weapons.
It began with an effort to safeguard materials by improving security at nuclear complexes and graduated to decommissioning work.
Ryabkov suggested that Moscow was starting to feel constrained by the deal because it gave Washington access to sensitive information about its weapons that Moscow could not get about America’s nuclear arsenal.
Lugar says the scheme has deactivated 7,610 strategic nuclear warheads and destroyed 902 intercontinental ballistic missiles and 906 nuclear air-to-surface missiles along with 684 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, among other stockpiles that have been eliminated.
The decision not to renew the Nunn-Lugar program came weeks after the Kremlin asked a key US democracy development organization to leave Moscow in the latest deterioration in relations under Putin.
USAID was ordered out of the country over accusations it supported opposition leaders who helped organize a wave of demonstrations against Putin.
December 3, 2012
American Commander Details Al Qaeda’s Strength in Mali
By ERIC SCHMITT
WASHINGTON — Al Qaeda’s affiliate in North Africa is operating terrorist training camps in northern Mali and providing arms, explosives and financing to a militant Islamist organization in northern Nigeria, the top American military commander in Africa said on Monday.
The affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, has used the momentum gained since seizing control of the northern part of the impoverished country in March to increase recruiting across sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Europe, said the commander, Gen. Carter F. Ham.
General Ham’s assessment is the most detailed and sobering American military analysis so far of the consequences of the Qaeda affiliate and associated extremist groups seizing the northern part of Mali to use as a haven.
“As each day goes by, Al Qaeda and other organizations are strengthening their hold in northern Mali,” General Ham said in remarks at the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University. “There is a compelling need for the international community, led by Africans, to address that.”
In addition to the risks inside Mali, General Ham also said that members of Boko Haram, an extremist group in northern Nigeria, had traveled to training camps in northern Mali and have most likely received financing and explosives from the Qaeda franchise. “We have seen clear indications of collaboration among the organizations,” he said.
Radical Islamists have turned northern Mali into an enclave for Qaeda militants and for the imposition of harsh Shariah law, which has been used to terrorize the population, particularly women, with amputations, stonings, whippings and other abuses.
The Qaeda North Africa affiliate is now considered one of the best armed and wealthiest of the Qaeda franchises across the world, largely because of millions of dollars gained in kidnapping ransoms, drug proceeds and illicit trafficking in fuel and tobacco, General Ham said.
Last week, Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, recommended that the Security Council endorse a plan by the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States to deploy a security force at the request of the Mali government to reclaim the north from the extremists. But the action did not offer financial support from the United Nations.
“Northern Mali is at risk of becoming a permanent haven for terrorists and organized criminal networks where people are subjected to a very strict interpretation of Shariah law and human rights are abused on a systematic basis,” Mr. Ban said in his report.
While a detailed military plan has yet to be drafted, the idea has been for about 3,300 troops from Nigeria and other African countries to help Mali’s military mount a campaign against the militants. France, the United States and other countries would help with training, intelligence and logistics.
General Ham acknowledged that Qaeda fighters would probably solidify their gains in northern Mali — an area the size of France — in the months that it would take to train and equip an African force to help Mali’s fractured military oust the militants from the north.
General Ham said that pursuing a diplomatic solution should be the first avenue for resolving the conflict. Malian diplomats have recently met with some ethnic Tuareg rebels in neighboring Burkina Faso in an attempt to resolve some long-standing complaints by the Tuareg people and isolate the Arab foreign fighters from the Qaeda franchise.
General Ham, a former Iraq war commander who oversaw the initial American-led air campaign against Libya last year, identified hurdles that an African force would face in evicting the extremists. Most of the African militaries likely to participate in such an operation have largely been trained and equipped for peacekeeping missions, not offensive operations, he said.
The region’s desert terrain, vast distances and the likelihood of an extended conflict also pose significant challenges to an African force, as well as to any Western militaries playing supporting roles, he said.
Mr. Ban identified even more basic issues to address before an African-led force would be ready to deploy. “Fundamental questions on how the force would be led, sustained, trained, equipped and financed remain unanswered,” he said in his 39-page report to the Security Council last Wednesday.
Islamists seized control of the long-unstable north after a coup d’état in the Malian capital of Bamako last March. The Malian Army collapsed after the coup, fleeing the main cities of the north in the wake of the rebel advance, and power in Bamako has since been uneasily shared by weak civilian leaders and the military, which has been accused of serious human rights abuses.
The fall of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya prompted Tuareg fighters from northern Mali, who had been fighting alongside Colonel Qaddafi’s forces, to return home with weapons from Libyan arsenals. They joined with Qaeda-affiliated Islamist militants who had moved to the lightly policed region from Algeria, and the two groups easily drove out the weakened Malian army in late March and early April. The Islamists then turned on the Tuaregs, routing them and consolidating control in the region in May and June.
Balkans: Hague verdicts stoke old war feud
3 December 2012
Tygodnik Powszechny Cracow
The acquittal of two Croat generals and a Kosovar ex-prime minister has reignited the dispute over a much-contested subject in the former Yugoslavia: who was the victim and who the aggressor in the war nearly 20 years ago?
Although it’s been more than two weeks since the acquittal of the Croat generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač – accused of committing war crimes during the Serb-Croat war in the 1990s – emotions in the region have continued to run high. Each side explains their release differently; for the Serbs, it is a scandal and yet more proof of the anti-Serbian bias and one-sidedness of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). For the Croats, the ruling came as confirmation of the legitimacy of Operation Storm, which took place in the summer of 1995, when Croatian forces retook much of the territory previously seized by the Serbs, and a triumphal victory in an ongoing Balkan dispute: who was the victim in the war and who the aggressor.
In its initial verdict in April 2011, the Hague Tribunal found Gotovina and Markač, commanders of the Croatian army during the Balkan conflict, guilty of war crimes, including plunder, inhumane treatment, murder, wanton destruction and looting. However, by a 3-2 majority, the ICTY has now overruled that decision and fully acquitted both generals of all charges except one: that they knew about crimes committed by their subordinates and should have investigated them.
The acquittal and subsequent release of Gotovina – who is a national hero – and Markač, was received with extraordinary enthusiasm in Croatia. In most cities the reading of the Hague verdict was broadcast live on large screens in public places. Many viewers prayed silently in anticipation of the ruling. After the acquittal, the madness began. Veterans cried openly, and so did the women and the war-wounded.
A national frenzy broke out not only in Croatia, but around the world as the Croatian diaspora marked their their joy at the ruling. Bayern Munich’s Mario Mandžukić ran to the side of the pitch and gave a salute after scoring a goal, in a gesture widely interpreted by most Croats as supporting the generals’ acquittal.
The Serbs reacted quickly to the acquittal and the subsequent Croat euphoria. A conference on the legacy of the Hague Tribunal was cancelled in Belgrade. The ICTY had “completely lost its credibility”, said Serbian Foreign Minister, Rasim Ljacić, while Deputy PM in charge of European integration, Suzana Grubješić, cancelled her planned visit to Zagreb, where she was to extend a protocol on Serb-Croat cooperation in EU integration. A few days later, Serbian prosecutors started six new inquiries into Croat war crimes allegedly committed during Operation Storm. “In this way we are trying to balance out this gross injustice,” said Serbia’s War Crimes Prosecutor, Vladimir Vukčević, openly speaking of his government’s intentions. Serbian prosecutors were already running a number of investigations into crimes allegedly committed during the conflict in the other Yugoslav republics. This has often led to bitter controversies, notably with the Bosnia-Herzegovina government.
The purpose of Operation Storm, which began in August 1995 by General Gotovina, was to drive Serbian forces out of Krajina, a region formerly belonging to Croatia. Most Croats see the campaign as a decisive clash in a war that was exclusively defensive. Following a series of defeats, it was only Operation Storm that brought the conflict to a conclusion, in favour of the Croats. Of course, there were civilian casualties, but those are seldom mentioned in Croatia because they don’t tally with the “defensive war” story. There were more than 600 Serbian casualties in Operation Storm, mainly old or sickly people who were unable or unwilling to flee from Krajina. A total of 600 dead and 200,000 forced to flee – these are figures that no one forgets in Serbia. Families of the victims, most of whom are based in Serbia today, were outraged by the Hague ruling. The few Serbs living in Krajina, preferring not to stick their necks out, have remained silent.
Search for justice
Members of Croatian non-governmental organisations, led by activists Vesna Teršelić and Zoran Pusić, stress that Croatia must not forget the crimes committed by its own troops – another dark face of the confict. But people like them are in minority.
Croatia has yet to see any army officers sentenced for crimes committed during Operation Storm. While a number of Croat soldiers have faced trial over killings in the battle, all have been acquitted. Among the crimes that remain unpunished, are those committed in the villages of Mokro Polje and Golubić on August 6, 1995; the attacks on refugees on August 7-8 that year; as well as crimes in the villages of Komic and Grubori on August 25, also in 1995, where Croatian soldiers murdered 80-year-old Miloš Grubor, 65-year-old Jovo Grubar, 90-year-old Marie Grubor, 41-year-old Duro Karanović and 51-year-old Milica Grubor.
Croatian PM Zoran Milanović and President Ivo Josipović refused to succumb to the nationwide euphoria and stressed that Croatia will bring those responsible for war crimes to justice as soon as possible, although as this comes 17 years since the end of the war, the pledge sounded somewhat hollow.
Everyone was surprised, though, by Ante Gotovina’s comment, when he was asked by the Belgrade tabloid daily Kurir if he himself would call upon Serbs to return to Krajina: “How can I call upon anyone to return to their own home? It’s their home! They [Serbs] are citizens of Croatia. They are with us. We are together. We must go on. The future belongs to us. The past is past.”
Although nearly two decades have passed since the war, and despite the good deal of work done by the Hague Tribunal, each of the post-Yugoslav countries has its own vision of the war. Just as in Serbia no one speaks about the victims of the Serbian crimes in Vukovar or Sarajevo, so in Croatia only a handful of “traitors” mention the crimes committed against the Serbs. And it is not only the two countries. A similar policy of self-denial has been evident in relations between Serbia and Kosovo, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and recently even between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro.
The governments in Belgrade, Zagreb, Sarajevo, Pristina, Podgorica and Skopje have become used to ups and downs in diplomatic relations. They easily make accusations, take offence and stir up the masses. The kind of courage that was recently shown by a group of Serbian veterans, who went to Srebrenica, laid flowers at the Genocide Memorial and met the families of the Bosniaks buried there, is still seldom to be found among politicians in the region.
View from Belgrade: A court against the Serbs
The acquittal of former Kosovo prime minister Ramush Haradinaj by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) on November 29 is seen by Serbs as yet another insult. The former warlord of the detached Serbian province was cleared of accusations of war crimes committed between 1998 and 1999. “This tribunal has been set up to try the Serbian people,” responded the President of Serbia, the nationalist Tomislav Nikolić. His opinion is shared by Serbia's pro-European circles.
It is an insult to the memory of Serbian victims.” writes the daily Blic, criticising the series of acquittals that have “enraged all those Serbs who believed in the values of Western democracy and who fought against war and violence, against Milošević and his policies. The ICTY has revealed its true nature, when it ought to be finishing up its remaining tasks: the court is not meant to serve justice.
Regions: Separatism is dragging Europe back to the Middle Ages
3 December 2012
24 Chasa Sofia
Catalans, Scots, Flemish... Western Europe is succumbing in its turn to the sirens of separatism. For Bulgarian essayist Ivaylo Dichev, the new nationalists are entrenching themselves as feudal lords behind the walls of their economic prosperity, under the guise of protecting their identities.
To understand the European separatist movements of the past 20 years, I started with the speculative hypothesis that Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, one day raises a cry for substantial autonomy; its ultimate goal is separation from the rest of the country. How would this play out?
First, a cohort of media-savvy historians is mobilised to prove, for example, the Celtic roots of the city that fell under the blows of invaders from the north, who then massacred thousands of innocent and peaceful Christians. History is vast, and it isn't lacking in such stories. Sofia's independence from the rest of the country, which is less well developed, automatically leads to a boost in the prosperity of its citizens. From 37 per cent of the European average, their incomes (skillfully excluding the city's Roma neighbourhoods) reach 70 and even 100 per cent. All that's left for us to do is to proclaim our capital “The Luxembourg of the Balkans.” Simple!
It would be much the same if the city of Munich also began to free itself from the German “yoke” one day – ditto for the City of London. In this case, the incomes of their inhabitants would reach astronomical figures: from 300 per cent of the EU average for Muncheners and up to 600 per cent for City of Londoners!
Lessons of history
What can prevent the rich from shaking themselves free of the burden of their poorest citizens? We must recall that after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Balkans were engulfed in a crisis that lasted many decades. And throughout the 19th Century, for example, the Greek economy was on life-support from big international banks, exactly like it is today. From the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was born a small, agrarian, provincial country given to folklore: Austria. In the time of their greatest splendour, these empires controlled large areas of land governed centrally – lands that were sources of raw materials and labour that industry, in turn, sold its products to. Such a trade-off requires a dose of solidarity: the rich spend a part of their profits to educate their future employees, to build roads, and to defend the country's borders.
All this is even more appropriate today. If Sofia declares its independence, after all, the city state will have no such worries. The economy is now global, and security is provided by NATO. Rather than buying tomatoes at Plovdiv, in the south of Bulgaria, the city can buy them in Izmir, in Turkey; rather than hiring tram drivers from Vidin, in northern Bulgaria, it will be able to bring in Indians from Delhi.
Building an identity, even a fantasy identity, is certainly important. Above all, though, it is usually a tool in the struggle for power and economic resources.
Unlike Sofia, Catalonia actually does have a history that goes back a thousand years, a culture and even a language of its own. The most serious argument of the separatists, though, is the fact that this region is substantially richer than the rest of Spain, and the separatists win the sympathy of voters thanks to their refusal to pay out for the rest of the country.
In comparison, the Basque separatists, who do not hesitate to use force and terror, appear more grimly determined in their struggle against Madrid. Their independence, nonetheless, seems to me to be further off than it is for their fellow Catalans, for the simple reason that the Basques are poorer than the Catalans.
It's much the same story in Scotland, which expects to hold an independence referendum within two years. Here again we have an ancient history, cultural differences and the damage wrought by British imperialism – in short, all the necessary identity kit to support this separatist bid. But would this desire for independence be the same if enough oil had not been found in the North Sea to make Scotland a second Norway – a country that, moreover, stubbornly refuses to join the EU? In comparison, Irish nationalism is older, and even bloody. A majority in Northern Ireland, however, has consistently come out against independence.
The Flemish in Belgium are also demanding independence because of the impoverishment of their fellow Walloons in the 1970s. Perhaps the only thing – besides the king, beer and football – that makes this pleasant little country still exist is the city of Brussels, which the two regions cannot agree to divide up. Otherwise, the process of disintegration is well advanced, and most Belgians that I know are resigned to the idea of their country disappearing one day. Corsican nationalism, which is much noisier, has on the other hand far less chance of succeeding, as the population of the "Island of beauty", where villas of “French intruders” are torched every summer, are unlikely to refuse the generous subsidies and benefits lavished on the island by Paris.
How is it that Western Europe is succumbing in its turn to the forces of separatism and disintegration that were at work in Eastern Europe in the 1990s? Need we search for the reason in the irresponsible policy of regionalism advocated by the EU? This policy was intended to weaken the nation states and strengthen the hand of Brussels. That idea failed. While the states have indeed been weakened, Brussels has been undermined even more.
More than money
In my opinion, the main cause of the disintegration of national territories is the neoliberal logic holding that immediate economic benefit is the sole and universal criterion. Consequently, a country, region or even a city begins to think of itself as a business and to act selfishly in the global marketplace. The visible aspect of this process is the hardening of the identity discourse, which becomes more aggressive, even fascistic. The British who are becoming increasingly anti-European, Germans who do not want to pay for the mischief of the Greeks ... The new nationalism is defensive, and its symbols express the desire of a small group of rich to hide behind the walls of their castle, leaving those outside to their fate. Welcome to the Middle Ages!
A lot of ink will certainly flow again on all these subjects. We ought not to forget, however, the lessons of history. While Europe is reverting to feudalism, the great empires have the wind in their sails. This was true for the Ottomans, and it's still true today for China and the United States.
12/04/2012 12:50 PM
Stashed in the Alps: A Tax Evasion Bonanza Hidden in a Swiss Bank
Yet another CD has surfaced containing data on German tax evaders who have stashed billions in a Swiss bank. The city of Bochum is hoping for a windfall as a result. But the discovery further undermines a stalled deal between Germany and Switzerland to crack down on tax evasion.
Public prosecutors in the western German city of Bochum have found some €2.9 billion hidden in accounts at the Swiss bank UBS after analyzing a CD with the names and bank data of clients thought to be evading taxes, according to a Monday newspaper report. Authorities said the discovery was one of their most lucrative ever.
The Tuesday edition of the Süddeutsche Zeitung reports that the CD contains 1,300 cases of potential tax evasion -- 750 of them involving German foundations.
The western state of North Rhine-Westphalia has been one of the most eager in recent years to buy CDs, created illicitly from anonymous bank employees and then sold to officials in Germany, with data from Swiss banks on tax evaders. The state government has bought four such CDs in recent months. Initial estimates put the amount of potential tax revenue that could be collected as a result of those CDs at €1.3 billion. The most recent CD reportedly cost about €3.5 million.
The first such CD purchase was in 2007. Authorities have typically given tax evaders a chance to come clean before they are prosecuted. Since 2007, some 40,000 people or institutions have taken advantage of such amnesty programs. Still, very few of the cases contained on the most recent CD -- a mere 135 out of 1,300 -- involved clients who have already turned themselves in.
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has said the practice of paying for data on tax evaders undermines the federal government's efforts to come up with a broader agreement on tax evasion with Switzerland. A treaty negotiated between Berlin and Bern was blocked last month by the opposition Social Democrats and Greens in Germany's upper legislative chamber, the Bundesrat, which represents the interests of Germany's 16 states.
Swiss-German Tax Treaty Nears Failure
The opposition said the current treaty with Switzerland is too weak, and that Germany should push for a better deal. The Bundesrat is now negotiating changes to the treaty with the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament, which had already approved the original treaty. Any changes would have to be approved by Switzerland as well.
Swiss President Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said Switzerland is not prepared to give any more concessions to Germany, and that the failure of the agreement would be "good news for German tax evaders."
"They could continue hoping to remain unexposed until the statute of limitations on their tax crimes expires," she said in an interview with SPIEGEL. "With a 'no,' we'll be keeping the status quo."
Swiss banks have proposed giving their clients the choice to either voluntarily declare their assets to German tax authorities or close their accounts. Despite this, Widmer-Schlumpf said the tax agreement is still a better deal for Germany.
"German coffers get nothing when German clients, out of fear of prosecution, close their accounts in Switzerland and take their money elsewhere," she said. "With the tax treaty, in contrast, Germany can expect these clients will come clean with their finances. That will bring the German state a lot of money. Why Germany should say no to those billions of euros -- that's something the politicians rejecting this treaty will have to explain to the taxpayers in their constituency."
12/04/2012 12:50 PM
Juncker Stepping Down: French Finance Minister to Head Euro Group?
By Christoph Schult in Brussels
Jean-Claude Juncker has had enough, announcing on Monday evening in Brussels that he is stepping down as head of the Euro Group at the end of the year. Who, though, will take over? With elections in Germany looming, all signs point to French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici.
When German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and his French counterpart Pierrre Moscovici gave their first joint press conference two weeks ago, they were asked who would take over leadership of the Euro Group once Jean-Claude Juncker stepped down. As early as last summer, Juncker had said he wanted to hand over the reins, but had been persuaded to continue for lack of consensus on a successor. But despite such indications that the end was nigh for Juncker's term at the top, both Schäuble and Moscovici played down the issue.
"Next year is next year," said the Frenchman. "We have other concerns at the moment," said the German.
As of Monday evening, however, the two can no longer dodge the question. At the end of yet another late-evening Euro-Group meeting in Brussels -- during which finance ministers from the 17 euro-zone member states agreed to provide €40 billion in aid to ailing Spanish banks -- Juncker told his colleagues that he intended to step down at the end of the year. "I have asked them to name another minister," Juncker said.
His departure will mark an end to his seven-year stewardship of the common currency -- and one that comes not a moment too soon from his perspective. Juncker, who is also the prime minister of Luxembourg, had long been nonplussed at the lack of urgency with which his colleagues viewed his approaching departure, assuming that he would simply carry on until they got around to finding someone.
Juncker himself is not blameless in this regard, having been convinced to continue once before, even allowing himself to be elected to another term as Euro Group president last summer. Still, he had been consistent in his desire to step down at the end of this year or the beginning of next. Now, it would seem, it would take a great deal of convincing from a personage such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel to get him to change his mind.
Berlin, though, has already moved on. Since this spring, Merkel has thrown her support behind Schäuble as the best candidate to take over the leadership of the euro-zone body. Some have said her fixation on nominating her finance minister has more to do with domestic political concerns given next year's general elections in Germany: It would no doubt please voters to have Schäuble looking after German taxpayer money in Brussels.
Juncker, too, has backed Schäuble, though for a different reason. Schäuble has shown himself to be reliably pro-European and Juncker may be hoping that as Euro Group president, he could emancipate himself from Merkel's euro-crisis heavy-handedness.
Either way, Schäuble's chances of being chosen are virtually nil. For one, the German finance minister hasn't exactly endeared himself to his colleagues of late. Two weeks ago, for example, he agreed to a massive reduction in the interest rates Greece must pay on its emergency aid loans -- only to reverse course 24 hours later after Merkel intervened. Many would rather have a more resolute Euro Group head.
He isn't easy, Schäuble recently said of himself, but he is completely loyal -- a statement that only served to increase his colleagues' mistrust. That loyalty, they fear, could ultimately be greater to Merkel than to other euro-zone finance ministers.
But the primary argument against Schäuble is his political half-life. With German general elections set for next autumn, euro-zone leaders are not eager to choose a German minister who may not even have a seat in the Berlin cabinet at the end of 2013.
Originally, Paris and Berlin had envisioned a system whereby Schäuble and Moscovici would share the position. The idea was for the German finance minister to take the first stint before making way for Moscovici. Now, though, it might be the other way around. France would take over Juncker's position first and pledge to hand it over to Berlin in 2015, no matter who is then finance minister.
That could very well be Schäuble, should Merkel's current coalition, which pairs her conservatives with the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP), manage to win a majority. But with the FDP having shrunk to niche party status since the last election, such a result seems unlikely. Instead, it looks as though Germany might be heading for another "grand coalition" of the conservatives together with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), meaning that the party's current parliamentary floor leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier would likely take over the Finance Ministry. (Peer Steinbrück, the former finance minister and current SPD chancellor candidate, has insisted he will not join the cabinet should he lose the election to Merkel.) Another possibility would be a conservative-Green Party coalition, which would mean that Green Party floor leader Jürgen Trittin could be tapped.
Schäuble, though, would have a chance were he to commit to take over the job full time, which would require him to resign as German finance minister. French President François Hollande has supported such a model, as has Juncker himself, due to the extreme amount of work involved. Schäuble, though, has always rejected the idea out of his conviction that the Euro Group president should be bound closely with a national government. European Council President Hermann Van Rompuy is also opposed to a full-time euro-zone head given that European Union leadership is already top heavy as it is.
Other candidates could theoretically be considered as well, but their chances are seen as limited. Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, for example, is considered both competent and less stubborn than his predecessor, but he has only been finance minister for a few weeks. It is also possible that the Euro Group chooses an outside candidate. The Lisbon Treaty merely stipulates that "the Ministers of the Member States whose currency is the euro shall elect a president for two and a half years, by a majority of those Member States." Still, it would almost certainly need to be someone who has played a central role in recent efforts to combat the euro crisis.
Whoever might take over the leadership of the Euro Group, Juncker will likely continue to play a role as Luxembourg's representative. While his country's finance minister, Luc Frieden, currently fills Luxembourg's seat on the panel, Juncker, who carries the official title "treasurer" in addition to his role as prime minister, is likewise eligible for Euro Group membership. And, he has said, he still wants to have a voice.
December 3, 2012
Terms of Greek Bond Buyback Top Expectations
By LANDON THOMAS Jr.
LONDON — In a bold bid to reduce its debt burden, Greece offered on Monday to spend as much as 10 billion euros to buy back 30 billion euros of its bonds from investors and banks.
While the buyback had been expected, the prices offered by the government were above what the market had forecast, with a minimum price of 30 euro cents and a maximum of 40 cents, for a discount of 60 percent to 70 percent.
Analysts said they expected that the average price would ultimately be 32 to 34 euro cents, a premium of about 4 cents above where the bonds traded at the end of last week.
Pierre Moscovici, the French finance minister, played down concerns that the Greek debt buyback might not go as planned.
“I have no particular anxiety about this,” Mr. Moscovici said Monday at the European Parliament ahead of the meeting in Brussels of euro zone finance ministers to discuss Greece. “It just has to be very quick.”
A successful buyback is critical for Greece. The International Monetary Fund has said that it will lend more money to Greece only if it is reasonably able to show that it is on target to achieve a ratio of debt to annual gross domestic product of less than 110 percent by 2022.
Greece will have at its disposal 10 billion euros, or $13 billion, in borrowed money from Europe. Investors who agree to trade in their Greek bonds will receive six-month treasury bills issued by Europe’s rescue vehicle, the European Financial Stability Facility. The offer will close Friday.
If successful, the exchange will retire about half of Greece’s 62 billion euros in debt owed to the private sector. The country still owes about 200 billion euros to European governments and the I.M.F.
Analysts said that Greek, Cypriot and other government-controlled European banks, which have as much as 20 billion euros worth of bonds, were expected to agree to the deal at a price in the low 30s. That would mean that to complete the transaction, hedge-fund holdings of 8 billion to 10 billion euros in bonds would have to be tendered at a price below 35 cents. Any higher price would mean that Greece would have to ask its European creditors for extra money — an unlikely outcome at this stage.
Even though Greece is so close to bankruptcy, its bonds have become one of the hot investments in Europe. Large hedge funds, like Third Point and Brevan Howard, have accumulated significant stakes, starting this summer when the bonds were trading in the low teens. Shorter-term traders have been snapping up bonds at around 29 cents to make a quick profit by participating in the buyback.
In a research note published Monday, analysts at Nomura in London said it was “reasonable and likely” that enough hedge funds — especially those that might be more risk-averse and or have a shorter perspective — would agree to the deal at a price below 35 cents.
But there are also foreign investors looking to the longer term who may decide to hold onto most of their holdings in the hope that the bonds rally even more after a successful buyback.
“I think the bonds could go to as high as 40 cents in a nonexit scenario,” said Gabriel Sterne, an analyst at Exotix in London, referring to the consensus view that Greece will not leave the euro zone anytime soon.
Bondholders were encouraged by comments from Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, reported in the German news media over the weekend, that raised the possibility that European governments might offer Greece debt relief in the future. A number of bondholders expect Greek bond yields to trade more in line with those of Portugal in the coming years, but without the prospect of a future buyback to push up the prices of Greek government bonds, the risk to such an approach is substantial.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the group of finance ministers whose countries use the euro, told a news conference late Monday in Brussels that ministers would meet again on the morning of Dec. 13 to make a final decision on aid disbursement to Greece.
Mr. Juncker said he was confident that Greece would receive its money on that date, but he declined to comment on the prospects for success of the buyback program because it was a sensitive matter for the financial markets.
Mr. Juncker has been the president of the group of ministers since 2005, and the post gives him significant power over what is discussed at the group’s meetings.
Mr. Juncker reiterated at the news conference that he would step down at the end of this year or at the beginning of next year. But he declined to signal his preference for any particular successor.
“I don’t have to endorse anyone,” Mr. Juncker said. “I was asking my colleagues to provide for my succession,” he said, referring to discussions held with ministers earlier in the evening.
Separately, Spain, which is also seeking to overcome crippling debt problems, began the process Monday of formally requesting 39.5 billion euros in emergency aid to recapitalize its banks. It also announced that a tax amnesty had yielded only 1.2 billion euros, less than half what the government had expected.
The request for emergency aid was being sent to authorities managing the euro zone bailout funds, according to Spanish officials, who added that no further approval would be needed from ministers meeting in Brussels.
The request follows the European Commission’s approval last week of a plan to make the granting of the aid conditional on thousands of layoffs and office closings at four Spanish banks: Bankia, Catalunya Banc, NCG Banco and Banco de Valencia.
James Kanter contributed reporting from Brussels.
December 3, 2012
British Business Leaders Stay Silent on E.U. Exit
By STEPHEN CASTLE
LONDON — The chairman of the London Stock Exchange, Chris Gibson-Smith, simply does not have the time to speak. Christopher North, the boss of Amazon in Britain, is too busy as well. And Charles Dunstone, the founder of the mobile phone retailer Carphone Warehouse, also has an exceptionally full agenda.
All three are among a dozen or so top business and financial leaders concerned enough about Britain’s future in the European Union to join the advisory council of a group campaigning to keep the country in the bloc.
But not many of them seem ready to explain why in public.
Bringing access to an economic area of about 500 million people, membership in the European Union is vital to many British businesses. Yet with the public divided over Britain’s ties to the bloc, most business leaders prefer a discreet silence to risking criticism.
Recently the stakes have increased, with Prime Minister David Cameron promising to loosen British ties to the bloc and possibly hold a referendum after negotiating a more arm’s-length relationship. After almost three years of crisis in the euro zone, there is more speculation than ever about a possible British withdrawal.
Britons have never been enthusiastic about the idea of European integration. So pro-Europeans are frustrated by the reluctance of business to stress the commercial benefits, particularly since, in private, company bosses can be outspoken about the risks of withdrawal.
“What they say to me when I meet them is this would be disastrous for British business,” said Glenis Willmott, leader of the British Labour Party’s members of the European Parliament.
Last month, Roger Carr, chairman of the main business lobbying organization, the Confederation of British Industry, appealed to his colleagues to break their silence or risk a possibility that now goes by the shorthand “Brixit”: British exit.
On Europe it was “essential that the voice of British business is loud and clear in extolling the virtues of future engagement,” he said.
A poll of business leaders by Ipsos MORI, commissioned in 2011 by Business for New Europe, a lobbying group campaigning for continued British membership, showed that 33 percent said they strongly agreed that a British exit from the European Union would damage business.
So why the silence when the stakes are so high?
“I ask myself, Why are these people not willing to be more outspoken?” said Phillip Souta, director of Business for New Europe. Its advisory council includes Mr. Gibson-Smith, Mr. North and Mr. Dunstone — all of whom declined to be interviewed.
“But I understand why they are not willing to be more outspoken is because it is so politically divisive,” he added. “Boards are divided on all of these issues. If you don’t have consensus they will agree not to talk.”
Some business leaders who supported earlier pro-European initiatives have been compromised by having advocated British membership in the now struggling euro.
Martin Sorrell, chief executive of the advertising group WPP and one of a handful of business figures happy to go on television to make a pro-European case, says many colleagues find the European Union too politically charged.
“Business leaders don’t want to speak out on these controversial issues,” he said. “They’ve got enough to do trying to run their own businesses and focusing on their own businesses and challenges.”
And even pro-European company bosses tend to have some reservations about the way the European Union is run, including the level of bureaucracy, the “more extreme” pieces of European legislation and the increases demanded by some in the bloc’s budget, he said.
Nevertheless, Mr. Sorrell says he believes that Europe’s internal market is “a major economic opportunity that we would live to regret passing up” and Britain has a better chance of resolving its problems with the union if it argues from within.
With the debate moving so swiftly in a euro-skeptic direction, pro-union campaigners are beginning to organize a counteroffensive.
If there is a referendum on Britain’s relations with the union, Mr. Sorrell says he believes that his business colleagues will stir.
Ms. Willmott thinks there’s no time like the present. “They say this to us privately, why not say it publicly?” she said. “It’s about time we heard these arguments.”
Norwegian princess intervenes incognito on behalf of gay couple adopting baby in India
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, December 3, 2012 16:23 EST
Norway’s Crown Princess Mette-Marit rushed to India on her own dime in October to help care, incognito, for twins delivered by a surrogate until their parents, a Norwegian gay couple, could arrive, the palace said Monday.
Mette-Marit flew to New Delhi to help care for the babies until their parents — a male couple who are friends of the princess and her husband Crown Prince Haakon — could resolve a visa delay.
During her stay at the clinic with the newborns, the 39-year-old royal, often praised for her modern ways, went unrecognised. According to Norwegian media, medical staff thought the blonde woman was a nanny.
The princess, a commoner who was a single mother until she married Haakon in 2001, said she did not want to get involved in the debate over surrogate mothers, a practice prohibited in Norway.
“Sometimes in life, we find ourselves in a difficult situation where there are few, or no, good solutions. In those situations you have to make difficult choices even if it sometimes comes at a price,” she said on the palace’s website.
“An important debate is taking place in society about the issue of children brought to the world by surrogates. In my eyes, this was not a contribution to the debate. For me, this was simply about helping two newborns, who were alone in the world, because I could,” she said.
While the practice is illegal in otherwise liberal Norway, the former national chief of police Oeystein Maeland recently had a child with his male partner through a surrogate in the United States.
12/04/2012 12:04 PM
'We Are Standing Our Ground': Meeting with Pussy Riot Members in Hiding
By Matthias Schepp in Moscow
As Moscow bans video clips by Pussy Riot, the Russian media celebrates the end of the protest band. But some of the women have gone underground and are using a hidden apartment as their headquarters. They plan to continue their fight.
As Moscow bans video clips by Pussy Riot, the media celebrates the end of the protest band. But some of the women have disappeared and are using a hidden apartment as their headquarters. They plan to continue their fight.
"My name is Tomcat. Nice to meet you," the young woman says. She is standing in a derelict mansion on the banks of the Moskva River. A wooden door is hanging crookedly from its hinges, and the wind howls through a broken window. A snowstorm has been sweeping across the Russian capital for the last two days.
Like the other activists in the protest band Pussy Riot, who use names like Blondie, Terminator, Puck and Schumacher, the petite woman is using a fake name to conceal her identity.
To pose for a photo, she pulls a bright green wool cap over her head, into which she has cut three slits for her eyes and mouth. It's clear that she has long hair, but she doesn't want anyone to recognize much more than that about her.
Only three hours ago, a Moscow court banned four of the group's music and protest videos, and now anyone who disseminates the clips is committing a criminal offense. The judge hasn't seen any of the videos, but her ruling is based on a law that addresses extremism, which is normally used against pamphlets distributed by Chechen terrorists.
The women of Pussy Riot criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin and his political machine more coarsely than anyone has in a long time. After daring appearances in the country's most important cathedral and on Moscow's Red Square, three of the women were charged and two are now in a prison camp.
And the Kremlin still isn't letting up. The other women in the group have gone underground, knowing that they face the threat of persecution by the police and the intelligence service. Their disappearance enables Russia's propaganda machine to create the impression that the band is finished. Not so, say the women in a secret meeting with SPIEGEL; it's just that the fight has become more difficult.
A Daring Meeting
Tomcat also attended the performances that made the band world-famous. If she were caught, she too would probably end up in a prison camp. The pro-Putin, Kremlin-backed youth movement Nashi ("Ours!") is even offering a bounty for the fugitive women.
When the censorship decision was announced last Thursday, Pussy Riot had just had a rough few days. There had been quarrels between the female activists and Pyotr Verzilov, the husband of the group's imprisoned lead singer, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. She is seen as the feminist punk band's ideologue.
Then the attorneys who had been fired by the defendants accused activist Yekaterina Samutsevich of being an agent of the Kremlin. "Pussy Riot Finished," the government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta cheered.
Another Russian newspaper, Izvestia, also announced the demise of the political activists-cum-musicians. The paper is owned by a wealthy friend of Putin, a man he knew in the years when former intelligence agents and organized crime figures in St. Petersburg were pilfering the assets of the former Soviet Union. The editors allowed Eduard Limonov, a well-known nationalist and leftist writer, to badmouth the band. He ridiculed Pussy Riot singer Maria Alyokhina, who is serving a prison sentence in a women's penal colony 1,200 kilometers (745 miles) from Moscow. According to Limonov, Alyokhina begged the camp warden to move her from the group barracks to an individual cell. "This red-haired and busty girl," he wrote, could no longer stand interacting with the other prisoners -- simple, working class women. "Pussy Riot has capitulated," he concluded.
When we meet with Pussy Riot member Tomcat, the Kremlin towers across the Moskva River are visible through one of the windows. The ruined mansion stands next to the headquarters of oil giant Rosneft, which is headed by another Putin friend. It's a daring move for Tomcat to meet with us in a place so close to the center of power, even though she has had to move from one apartment to the next to evade the police. "I want to show that we are standing our ground," she says. Pussy Riot must continue its fight, she adds, because it's the most visible sign that opposition still exists in Russia. "The gap between the people and the government is getting wider and wider."
A few kilometers away, past endless rows of houses and glaring neon signs, a tiny apartment an upper floor of a nondescript concrete high-rise apartment building serves as a refuge -- and as headquarters -- for other Pussy Riot members and supporters. Several boxes containing Tolokonnikova's belongings are lined up against the kitchen wall. From one of the boxes, a stuffed tiger that belongs to her four-year-old daughter Gera stares down at milk cartons and beer bottles. Gera is living with her grandparents now. Her tiger is wearing a pirate hat.
The women of Pussy Riot keep the address a secret, not even revealing the location to their own attorneys. Tolokonnikova's husband Verzilov lives in the apartment, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, the activist released on probation, is also staying with a friend. But they are not naïve. They suspect that the domestic intelligence agency is familiar with the apartment, if only because Samutsevich occasionally has to use her mobile phone, which can of course be traced. Other women and sympathizers never stay very long. The group doesn't even want anyone to know how many members it has.
Samutsevich is wearing a grey tracksuit top with the word "Outsider" printed on it in red letters. Sitting at a makeshift desk in the living room, she communicates with supporters via Facebook, as she tries to put the group on the offensive once again. "They always portray us as silly geese on state television," Samutsevich explains. "Many people are against us, even though they've never heard of our ideas."
When she wants to distract herself, Samutsevich, who studied at Moscow's Rodchenko School of Photography, reads a book about the history of the film industry. A suitcase and two backpacks are on the floor. Boxes from the supermarket serve as wardrobes. The books lying around in the apartment include an illustrated book about Chinese concept artist Ai Weiwei, a book by Russian dissident and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature Joseph Brodsky, as well as "The Strategy of Conflict," a classic by American economist Thomas Schelling that addresses geopolitics in the nuclear age.
Pussy Riot is currently fighting on more manageable fronts. The women's first goal is to confront the rumors about the band. Her friend Maria didn't break in the penal colony, as Izvestia wrote, says Samutsevich, nor did she voluntarily move to an individual cell to avoid the other prisoners. According to Samutsevich, the prison management segregated Maria to prevent her from agitating among the other prisoners.
Putin Capitalizes on Controversy
Samutsevich also says the accusation that Pussy Riot is now trying to capitalize on its fame is false. Last Monday, Tolokonnikova's former attorneys held a press conference in Moscow and presented a document that seemed to show that the members of Pussy Riot had given their permission for the registration of a company to market the group's name. It even included the notarized signatures of Samutsevich and the two others.
"But we reject any form of commercialization," says Samutsevich. "The attorneys came to the pretrial detention center and surreptitiously obtained the blank signatures." According to Samutsevich, the attorney had claimed that they needed the signatures for formalities during the subsequent course of the proceedings.
But the worst slander came from Putin himself, says Samutsevich. In a meeting at the Kremlin in mid-November, he told German Chancellor Angela Merkel that the activists were anti-Semitic. He was referring to an event in September 2008, one that Samutsevich herself attended.
The choppy video of the event depicts a group that preceded Pussy Riot, Voina ("War"). In the film, Voina crudely imitates the execution of three migrant workers from Central Asia and two homosexuals, wearing hot pants and feather boas. It was intended as a campaign against xenophobia and homophobia, and perhaps it was tasteless. But, says Samutsevich, "we didn't portray a Jew."
It's unclear whether Putin was given the wrong information by his aides. It is clear, however, that he has benefited from the polemics in Russia.
Many Russians are receptive to propaganda that demonizes Pussy Riot. In a film depicting another Voina campaign that is often shown on television, a young woman in a supermarket shoves a frozen chicken between her legs in protest of excessive consumption. It's the sort of performance that makes it easy for Putin's propaganda experts to portray the artist-activists as eccentric oddballs -- and the entire opposition along with them.
Is There an Informant?
It's a battle of David against Goliath, a few women challenging the power of the Kremlin and its media organizations. And perhaps another biblical figure also plays a role in the drama surrounding Pussy Riot: Judas. "When we entered the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, I had the feeling that someone had already leaked the entire event," says Samutsevich.
The women had planned to shoot a provocative video in the area surrounding the altar. It was Tuesday, Feb. 21, and the cathedral was mostly empty. But to Samutsevich, it seemed as though the cathedral guards had been waiting for them. She also thinks it's strange that a member of a radical Orthodox church group was in the cathedral on the day of the performance, even though there was no mass being read and nothing else was going on.
The radical Christian group has only a few dozen active supporters throughout Moscow. But the man's testimony would later play an important role in the trial, when he said that the performance had offended his religious feelings. The judgment against the women who had been apprehended was based on the man's statements.
Was the whole thing staged by Putin's omnipresent intelligence agents? The campaign against Pussy Riot helped Putin mobilize his conservative voter base directly before the presidential election.
The affair also split the opposition, whose rigidly nationalistic wing didn't like it when Pussy Riot disparaged Patriarch Kirill, the religious head of the Russian Orthodox Church, as a pig in the sanctuary.
Even the patriarch himself, viewed critically by the Kremlin as a rival over moral leadership in the country, has now been damaged. When a heated debate erupted in the church over whether the women should be punished or forgiven, Kirill vacillated back and forth, and his popularity suffered greatly as a result.
Accusations Called Ridiculous
Putin, however, benefited from the affair, partly from the suspicions it generated about the opposition that are now serving to destroy it, a situation typical in surveillance states. Prominent Putin critic Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister, even believes that Pyotr Verzilov, Tolokonnikova's husband, is working for the intelligence service.
Milov describes an odd appearance by Verzilov and Tolokonnikova at an anti-Putin demonstration in April 2007, when the couple had incited the crowd to attack police officers. According to Milov, marshals grabbed the couple and turned them over to uniformed police officers, fearing that they could trigger an escalation.
But suddenly, says Milov, men turned up in civilian clothes, apparently government officials. They then spoke to their uniformed colleagues and "prevented the provocateurs from being arrested."
Verzilov calls the accusation ridiculous.
It's become dark in the apartment being shared by several Pussy Riot members. Samutsevich slips on a parka and walks to the post office in downtown Moscow. She wants to send her friend Tolokonnikova a telegram at the penal colony with the latest news and some words of encouragement.
Some youths recognize Samutsevich in the subway. During the trial, images of her and the two others were broadcast on TV almost every day as they sat in a glass cage in the courtroom.
The young people stare at the Pussy Riot woman with big eyes, as if she were an evil spirit.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
In the USA...
December 2, 2012
The Big Budget Mumble
By PAUL KRUGMAN
In the ongoing battle of the budget, President Obama has done something very cruel. Declaring that this time he won’t negotiate with himself, he has refused to lay out a proposal reflecting what he thinks Republicans want. Instead, he has demanded that Republicans themselves say, explicitly, what they want. And guess what: They can’t or won’t do it.
No, really. While there has been a lot of bluster from the G.O.P. about how we should reduce the deficit with spending cuts, not tax increases, no leading figures on the Republican side have been able or willing to specify what, exactly, they want to cut.
And there’s a reason for this reticence. The fact is that Republican posturing on the deficit has always been a con game, a play on the innumeracy of voters and reporters. Now Mr. Obama has demanded that the G.O.P. put up or shut up — and the response is an aggrieved mumble.
Here’s where we are right now: As his opening bid in negotiations, Mr. Obama has proposed raising about $1.6 trillion in additional revenue over the next decade, with the majority coming from letting the high-end Bush tax cuts expire and the rest from measures to limit tax deductions. He would also cut spending by about $400 billion, through such measures as giving Medicare the ability to bargain for lower drug prices.
Republicans have howled in outrage. Senator Orrin Hatch, delivering the G.O.P. reply to the president’s weekly address, denounced the offer as a case of “bait and switch,” bearing no relationship to what Mr. Obama ran on in the election. In fact, however, the offer is more or less the same as Mr. Obama’s original 2013 budget proposal and also closely tracks his campaign literature.
So what are Republicans offering as an alternative? They say they want to rely mainly on spending cuts instead. Which spending cuts? Ah, that’s a mystery. In fact, until late last week, as far as I can tell, no leading Republican had been willing to say anything specific at all about how spending should be cut.
The veil lifted a bit when Senator Mitch McConnell, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, finally mentioned a few things — raising the Medicare eligibility age, increasing Medicare premiums for high-income beneficiaries and changing the inflation adjustment for Social Security. But it’s not clear whether these represent an official negotiating position — and in any case, the arithmetic just doesn’t work.
Start with raising the Medicare age. This is, as I’ve argued in the past, a terrible policy idea. But even aside from that, it’s just not a big money saver, largely because 65- and 66-year-olds have much lower health costs than the average Medicare recipient. When the Congressional Budget Office analyzed the likely fiscal effects of a rise in the eligibility age, it found that it would save only $113 billion over the next decade and have little effect on the longer-run trajectory of Medicare costs.
Increasing premiums for the affluent would yield even less; a 2010 study by the budget office put the 10-year savings at only about $20 billion.
Changing the inflation adjustment for Social Security would save a bit more — by my estimate, about $185 billion over the next decade. But put it all together, and the things Mr. McConnell was talking about would amount to only a bit over $300 billion in budget savings — a fifth of what Mr. Obama proposes in revenue gains.
The point is that when you put Republicans on the spot and demand specifics about how they’re going to make good on their posturing about spending and deficits, they come up empty. There’s no there there.
And there never was. Republicans claim to be for much smaller government, but as a political matter they have always attacked government spending in the abstract, never coming clean with voters about the reality that big cuts in government spending can happen only if we sharply curtail very popular programs. In fact, less than a month ago the Romney/Ryan campaign was attacking Mr. Obama for, yes, cutting Medicare.
Now Republicans find themselves boxed in. With taxes scheduled to rise on Jan. 1 in the absence of an agreement, they can’t play their usual game of just saying no to tax increases and pretending that they have a deficit reduction plan. And the president, by refusing to help them out by proposing G.O.P.-friendly spending cuts, has deprived them of political cover. If Republicans really want to slash popular programs, they will have to propose those cuts themselves.
So while the fiscal cliff — still a bad name for the looming austerity bomb, but I guess we’re stuck with it — is a bad thing from an economic point of view, it has had at least one salutary political effect. For it has finally laid bare the con that has always been at the core of the G.O.P.’s political strategy.
December 3, 2012
Republicans Make Counteroffer in Fiscal Talks
By JONATHAN WEISMAN
WASHINGTON — Republican Congressional leaders on Monday countered President Obama’s deficit reduction proposal with a plan of their own that is far heavier on spending cuts but embraces $800 billion in new taxes over the next 10 years.
The counteroffer represented an acknowledgment by Republicans that they had to issue their own proposal to head off around $600 billion in automatic tax increases and spending cuts next year, a fiscal combination that could send the economy back into recession. They said that their approach was a move toward the center rather than sticking to a position established last year with the passage of the House Republican budget, which included contentious changes to Medicare and Medicaid and deep domestic spending reductions.
“Mindful of the status quo election and past exchanges on these questions, we recognize it would be counterproductive to publicly or privately propose entitlement reforms that you and the leaders of your party appear unwilling to support in the near term,” Republican leaders wrote in a letter to Mr. Obama.
The president’s offer, forwarded to Congressional leaders by Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner last week, stuck almost word for word with the proposal the administration released nearly a year ago. Monday’s Republican offer on taxes was close to what Speaker John A. Boehner offered during private talks with Mr. Obama last year.
But it did bring some Republican concessions. Senior Republican leadership aides said the $800 billion in new revenue would come from increases in tax receipts, not from increased economic growth, as Republican leaders have often suggested since the number emerged from the Boehner-Obama talks. But the plan would extend the expiring Bush-era tax cuts for high-income Americans, something the president has said he will not agree to.
The offer itself — in a letter signed by the Republican House leadership, including Representative Paul D. Ryan, the former vice-presidential nominee — means that both sides have now put their opening bids on the table. Republican leaders last week loudly rejected the Obama administration’s offer and said they would not counter until the president came back with a plan they considered more realistic, not the one Mr. Boehner again dismissed on Monday as a “La-La-Land offer.”
But facing increasing political pressure to produce an alternative, Republicans acted. “What we are putting forth is a credible plan that deserves serious consideration from the White House,” Mr. Boehner said.
The White House was critical of the proposal. “The Republican letter released today does not meet the test of balance,” said Dan Pfeiffer, the communications director. “In fact, it actually promises to lower rates for the wealthy and sticks the middle class with the bill. Their plan includes nothing new and provides no details on which deductions they would eliminate, which loopholes they will close or which Medicare savings they would achieve.”
Republicans did produce proposals that could create a political backlash. Of the plan’s savings, $200 billion over 10 years would come from changing the way the government calculates inflation, which would slow benefit increases in programs from Medicare to Social Security and raise taxes by slowing the annual rise in tax brackets. Republican aides said that it would be unpopular, but that it was the right response to deficits still topping $1 trillion.
The Republican plan also called for $600 billion in cuts to federal health care programs, including an increase in the eligibility age for Medicare and increased means testing to shrink health benefits for more affluent elderly Americans.
In all, the Republican offer would reduce the deficit more than the president’s, which predicted about $1.8 trillion in deficit reduction over the next 10 years. The White House also counted $1 trillion in cuts agreed to last year, savings from ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and lower interest payments on a shrinking debt for a total savings of $4 trillion. Republicans rejected that accounting, but using the same figures their plan would cut $4.6 trillion from future deficits over 10 years.
In an effort to give their proposal added credibility, Republicans said their counteroffer is close to numbers suggested last year by Erskine B. Bowles, the Democratic co-chairman of the president’s deficit reduction task force. Mr. Bowles said last week that his numbers, offered in testimony to a special bipartisan Congressional committee on deficit reduction, were not so much a plan as a back-of-the-envelope suggestion to show that a deal could be struck that would be somewhere between Mr. Obama’s position and the speaker’s during their talks last year.
On Monday, Mr. Bowles sought to distance himself from the Republican plan, saying circumstances had overtaken his numbers. He said that to get a deal today “it will be necessary for both sides to move beyond their opening positions.”
With just weeks left to find a solution, the parties remain far apart on substance. The White House is insisting that tax increases include higher tax rates on affluent households, a formula Republicans continue to reject.
“The new revenue in the Bowles plan would not be achieved through higher tax rates, which we continue to oppose and will not agree to in order to protect small businesses and our economy,” the Republican letter said. “Instead, new revenue would be generated through pro-growth tax reform that closes special-interest loopholes and deductions while lowering rates.”
Republicans offered no specifics on which loopholes or deductions they would close, saying that would be determined next year by the Congressional tax-writing committees.
Cuts to other programs that are not under the purview of annual Congressional spending bills — so-called mandatory programs — would total $300 billion over 10 years, according to the Republican plan. And discretionary programs, already cut by nearly $1 trillion through last year’s Budget Control Act, would be cut another $300 billion.
Republican leaders called the offer “exactly the kind of imperfect but fair middle ground that allows us to avert the fiscal cliff without hurting our economy and destroying jobs.”
December 3, 2012
Initial Deficit Cuts Are Sticking Point in Negotiations
By JONATHAN WEISMAN
WASHINGTON — For all the growing angst over the state of negotiations to head off a fiscal crisis in January, the parties are farthest apart on a relatively small part of the overall deficit reduction program — the down payment.
President Obama and the House speaker, John A. Boehner, are in general agreement that the relevant Congressional committees must sit down next year and work out changes to the tax code and entitlement programs to save well more than $1 trillion over the next decade.
But before that work begins, both men want Congress to approve a first installment on deficit reduction in the coming weeks. The installment would replace the automatic spending cuts and tax increases that make up the “fiscal cliff,” while signaling Washington’s seriousness about getting its fiscal house in order. That is where the chasm lies in size and scope.
Mr. Obama says the down payment should be large and made up almost completely of tax increases on top incomes, partly because he and Congressional leaders last year agreed on some spending cuts over the next decade but have yet to agree on any tax increases.
Republicans have countered by arguing for a smaller down payment that must include immediate savings from Medicare and other social programs. Republicans, using almost mirror-image language, have said that they do not want to agree to specific tax increases and vague promises of future spending cuts.
Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota, chairman of the Budget Committee and part of a bipartisan “Gang of Six” senators who devised the two-stage process, said: “I think there’s a lot of confusion between the initial down payment and the framework. That’s for sure.”
The two biggest areas of dispute are tax increases and the big government health insurance programs, Medicare and Medicaid. On the health programs, neither side believes Congress could meaningfully overhaul them in the four weeks that remain before the fiscal deadline.
“Entitlement reform is a big step, and it affects tens of millions of people,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, another architect of the two-stage framework. “It’s not just a matter of cutting spending in an appropriation. It’s changing policy. And that’s why I was reluctant to include it in the down-payment conversation. I want this to be a thoughtful effort on both sides that doesn’t jeopardize this program.”
But Republicans say that it is possible to make some initial changes to the programs in coming weeks. “There are simpler things that can be done,” said Senator Michael D. Crapo, Republican of Idaho and another Gang of Six member. “The real structural changes would come later.”
Mr. Crapo said Congress could agree on some additional cuts to health care providers and change the way inflation is calculated to slow not only automatic increases in Medicare and Social Security benefits, but also the annual rise in tax brackets.
Democrats instead argue that the down payment should consist of a combination of tax increases and cuts to programs outside Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, like farm programs. Mr. Obama has pushed for a return to the top tax rates under President Bill Clinton.
Republican leaders have said that they are willing to raise new tax revenues — albeit not as much as Democrats want — but Republicans want taxes to rise by closing loopholes and curbing tax deductions and credits.
If the two sides are able to come to an agreement on the down payment, it would also likely fix targets for larger savings in the tax code and entitlement programs. The White House and Congress would then spend much of the next year trying to hash out the specific policy changes needed to hit those targets.
December 3, 2012
E.P.A. Rule Complicates Runoff Case for Justices
By ADAM LIPTAK
WASHINGTON — Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. did not seem happy during a Supreme Court argument on Monday about whether the Clean Water Act applies to runoff from logging roads. The source of his frustration was a last-minute action from the Environmental Protection Agency that was expressly calculated to address the legal issues before the court.
“Were you as surprised as we were?” Chief Justice Roberts asked a lawyer for the government, referring to a new regulation, issued Friday afternoon, that said permits are not required for the runoff at issue in the case.
The lawyer, Malcolm L. Stewart, said his office had known the measure was “a strong possibility” since early November.
The chief justice said it would have been nice to have heard about that. “Maybe in the future,” he told Mr. Stewart, “you could let us know.”
“There were 875 pages on the merits briefing in this case,” the chief justice added, “and if we knew that the final rule was imminent, we could have rescheduled the case for April or something along those lines.”
Mr. Stewart acknowledged that “obviously, it’s suboptimal for the new rule to be issued the Friday before oral argument.”
“But, it would have been even worse, I think,” he went on, “from the standpoint of the parties and the court’s decision-making processes if the rule had been issued a week or two after the court heard oral argument.”
The regulatory development, if not its exact timing, could not have come as a complete surprise to the justices. In May, the government urged the court not to hear the case, in part because the agency was considering new rules.
The back-and-forth on Monday followed a similarly testy exchange between Chief Justice Roberts and another government lawyer last week in US Airways v. McCutchen, No. 11-1285, a case about when health plans must be paid back from injury awards. In that case, the chief justice chastised Joseph R. Palmore for saying in a brief that the secretary of labor had changed a legal position “upon further reflection.”
“That is not the reason,” Chief Justice Roberts said. “It wasn’t further reflection. We have a new secretary under a new administration.”
“We are seeing a lot of that lately,” he added, calling the government’s advocacy “a little disingenuous.”
Much of the argument on Monday was devoted to the consequences of the new environmental regulation for the two consolidated cases before the justices, Decker v. Northwest Environmental Defense Center, No. 11-338, and Georgia-Pacific West v. Northwest Environmental Defense Center, No. 11-347. They arose from suits against logging companies and Oregon forestry officials under the Clean Water Act, saying the defendants were required to obtain permits for runoff from logging roads that ran through ditches and culverts.
The E.P.A. has long taken the opposite view, and the ultimate answer to whether the Clean Water Act applies to hundreds of thousands of miles of logging roads is quite consequential, as it could provide a tool for conservationists to block logging where silty runoff would choke forest streams. But it seemed on Monday that even a partial answer would have to wait.
Mr. Stewart, the government lawyer, urged the court to dismiss the case as moot.
His ostensible ally, Timothy S. Bishop, a lawyer for several lumber companies, took a different approach, asking the court to decide the case anyway.
Chief Justice Roberts asked why that was needed, given that his clients were “getting almost all the relief they’re looking for under the new rule issued on Friday.”
Mr. Bishop said the court should address the meaning of a provision of the Clean Water Act underlying the regulation. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg responded that the question had not been addressed by the appeals court.
“This court is a court of review, not first view,” she said, “and we don’t take questions that haven’t been aired below.”
Jeffrey L. Fisher, a lawyer for the environmental group, asked the justices simply to dismiss the appeal and let the lower courts sort things out. He added that the new regulations only added further complications and ambiguities.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer did not participate in Monday’s argument. Judge Charles R. Breyer, his brother, had sat on the appeals court panel whose decision was under review.
December 3, 2012
Judge Deals a Setback to Louisiana’s Voucher Program
By CAMPBELL ROBERTSON
NEW ORLEANS — Last January, Gov. Bobby Jindal took the oath of office for his second term, declaring in his inauguration speech that anyone who stood in the way of his education reform efforts “must stand down.” On Friday, a judge in Baton Rouge said, in effect: not so fast.
Judge Timothy Kelley of State District Court ruled that the way in which the state finances its new voucher program violates the state Constitution, as it relies on money intended in “plain and unambiguous” terms solely for public schools.
In a statement, Governor Jindal called the decision “wrongheaded and a travesty for parents across Louisiana” and vowed to appeal. But it was not the crippling setback it could have been.
“As court rulings go, there are some that create giant brick walls and there are some that create small fences,” said Michael Griffith, a school finance consultant for the Education Commission of the States, a policy organization. “This is a small fence.”
What the court fight did show, Mr. Griffith added, is the evolving nature of the voucher debate, and the variety of problems state-run voucher programs have run into.
“It’s a symptom of what we’re seeing nationally,” he said. “Groups that are opposing vouchers using every sort of tool that they can,” from broader challenges on the nature of public education to technical, state-specific arguments like the one that prevailed on Friday.
Voucher opponents in some other states have successfully argued that vouchers violate constitutional bans on money going to religious schools, while others have contended that redirecting more to private schools would leave the public education system inadequately financed.
The ruling on Friday was just about how a state pays for it. Even a lawyer for one of the teachers’ unions that brought the lawsuit acknowledged that this was not a death knell for vouchers in Louisiana.
“I think they can do it right,” said Brian F. Blackwell, who represents the Louisiana Association of Educators. “The question is whether or not there’s a willingness to do it right.”
It is certainly not as potentially problematic for the program as a decision that vouchers violate a standing court order on desegregation, as a federal judge ruled last week in regard to such an order in one Louisiana parish.
But if it survives appeal, the state court’s decision would make things far messier for a governor who is widely believed to have aspirations for national office, and who made education reform a centerpiece of his second-term agenda.
The law at the center of the debate, which was passed last March, includes more than just a voucher system: it also significantly broadens and streamlines the process of establishing charter schools and creates a program in which students can take courses from online providers with state money.
That “course choice” program, which begins next year, would also be subject to the judge’s decision about funding, though the state board of education is going forward with plans this week to finalize a list of approved course providers.
The voucher program, on the other hand, is already under way: about 5,000 of Louisiana’s 556,000 students are participating.
John White, the state superintendent of education, said that the program was working very well, especially considering that it was put in place on such a large scale in a relatively brief period of time and against what he called “entrenched interests.”
He also insisted that the program would continue whether or not the appeal succeeded.
“I want to emphasize how unfortunate I think this decision is,” he said, but added, “Barring any outcome in the courts, we’re going to make sure our parents are served.”
Under the law passed last March, the money for vouchers would take an increasing share of the “minimum foundation program formula,” which determines the state and local financial support for school systems. The state had argued that this formula was intended to finance “a public educational system,” of which parish and city schools are simply a part.
But if the State Supreme Court were to agree with the district judge and find that arrangement unconstitutional, money for vouchers would have to be appropriated as a separate line item each year, with all of the political complications, year-to-year uncertainty and budget squabbling that would entail.
What is certain is that there will be more arguments on the issue to come, in both the courts and the Legislature.
“This is simply one battle in the war that will take place in Louisiana over vouchers,” said Mr. Griffith, the school finance expert.
12/04/2012 03:25 PM
The World from Berlin: 'This Time, Israel Has Defied the Whole World'
Europe is furious with Israel for its plan to build 3,000 new settler units to punish the Palestinians, following their elevation to "non-member observer status" in the UN last week. While sanctions appear not to be on the table, German commentators say it is time to get tough with Israeli premier Netanyahu.
One might think that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Wednesday visit to Berlin could provide for some fireworks. He has come under significant criticism from the European Union for Israel's announcement last Friday that it would build 3,000 new settler homes in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Britain and France denied reports on Monday that they were considering recalling their ambassadors from Israel, though both nations, in addition to Sweden, did vent their anger by summoning the Israeli ambassadors to voice their concerns.
On Tuesday, cooler heads seem to be prevailing. British Foreign Secretary William Hague ruled out the possibility of European sanctions on Israel. "I don't think there is enthusiasm around the European Union … about economic sanctions in Europe on Israel," he said. "I don't believe there would be anywhere near a consensus nor is that our approach." France too has indicated that it would not pursue sanctions.
Furthermore, despite Merkel's own warning on the settlement construction plan -- her spokesman said on Monday that the chancellor was "extremely concerned" -- it seems more likely that the experienced stateswoman would chide Netanyahu in private rather than openly.
Still, anger is widespread in Europe at the Israeli plan, announced shortly after the United Nations voted last week to grant the Palestinians "non-member observer status," essentially recognizing a state of Palestine. In addition to the settlement program, Israel also announced it would withhold more than $100 million in tax revenue due the Palestinians this month in response.
"We deplore the recent Israeli decision to build 3,000 new housing units," the British Foreign Office said on Monday.
The Palestinians, too, are seeking to use their newfound status to exert pressure on Israel to halt the settlement expansion plan. Having been granted UN observer status, the Palestinians now have access to the International Criminal Court -- and on Tuesday they threatened to pursue war crimes charges against Israel should the construction go ahead.
Europe, too, has not completely backed away from applying pressure on Israel. Hague said on Tuesday that the focus remains on bringing the two sides back to the negotiating table. But, he added, "if there is no reversal of the decision that has been announced, we will want to consider what further steps European countries should take."
German commentators take a closer look at the brewing conflict on Tuesday.
The Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"One can only encourage the chancellor to use Netanyahu's planned construction of settlements in the West Bank as an opportunity to take the hardliner to task. Because what Netanyahu is planning makes a two-state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians impossible."
"The construction of settlements has long been the source of discord in the Middle East conflict. But Netanyahu wants more. … Clearly Netanyahu doesn't want a Palestinian state. Even if Berlin, Paris and London pull their ambassadors out together, as long has he has the fundamental support of the US for his course of action, he won't be dissuaded from it. But it would be fatal if the Palestinians -- and, indirectly, the Arab states -- were to turn away from Germany and Europe in disappointment."
"Anyone who gives up on the Palestinian goal of an independent state is arguing against European interests. Of course, a German chancellor must choose her words carefully, given the background of Nazi history. But it is exactly this history that obligates Germany to criticize the repressive measures taken by a government like Netanyahu's."
Conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"Netanyahu wants to punish the Palestinians because President Mahmoud Abbas applied for 'non-member observer state' status at the United Nations…. But Israel's settlements on Palestinian land are a violation of international law, against which the Palestinians could take action within the framework of the United Nations. With his approach, Netanyahu isn't just awaking the suspicion that he is not interested in resuming peace negotiations. Rather, his government is creating facts on the ground indicating a creeping annexation of the West Bank. The prime minister is provoking both the Palestinians and the international community. A number of European capitals called in Israeli ambassadors to voice concern."
"If the international community wants to prevent the door to peace from closing completely, they should try to persuade Netanyahu to change his strategy from punishment to negotiation."
Center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"This is typical of the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, but it's not clever. Revenge is never a good counselor -- and in the end the damage to Israel could be greater than to the Palestinians. The sharp reactions from Washington as well as London and Paris and Berlin show that Israel has gone too far."
"Sure, the government in Jerusalem has long since gotten used to protests from all over the world against every new settler home it builds. Even though international law forbids the settlement of the Jewish population on Palestinian land occupied since 1967, around half a million Israelis live there now. Breaking the law has long since become routine -- and has even become a ritual with which every Palestinian transgression is punished. But this time, Israel hasn't just punished the Palestinians -- it has defied the whole world."
"Of the 193 UN member states, only eight voted together with Israel against elevating the status of the Palestinians. That very clearly shows the growing isolation of the Jewish state. Psychologically, the fact that Israel should dare to show the global community the finger after such a vote can probably only be explained as a mixture of defiance and megalomania."
"It's up to Israel's friends to show Netanyahu where the limits lie. Protests alone will evaporate -- nothing less than the withdrawal of the announced plan is warranted now. If Netanyahu isn't prepared to do that, he and his voters should know that he risks losing the support of the last remaining allies. Angela Merkel will have the opportunity to convey this to the Israeli premier at their dinner on Wednesday. She should do that as clearly as possible in the interest of Germany and Israel."
Conservative daily Die Welt writes:
"The announcement of plans to build 3,000 new homes in the particularly delicate 'E1' area east of Jerusalem is another kind of punishment for the Palestinians, and is likely to lead to long-term international isolation of Israel. The housing plans would essentially divide the West Bank into two halves and largely cut off the Palestinians from East Jerusalem, which they want to make the capital of their future state."
"The German government didn't go as far as France, the UK or Sweden, who all summoned their Israeli ambassadors, marking a clear diplomatic escalation. But Berlin did speak -- even just before the German-Israeli government consultations in Berlin -- of a 'negative message' by which 'Israel is … undermining confidence in its readiness to negotiate.' When have we last heard such tones from the German government directed at their Israeli partners?"
"Israel should acknowledge that the international community wants to find a two-state solution in the Middle East to finally put an end to the long-lasting conflict. The question is no longer whether, but how that will be accomplished."
-- Charles Hawley
Israel PM heads to Berlin as settlement row grows
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, December 5, 2012 8:25 EST
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was due in Berlin on Wednesday for talks likely to focus on the growing crisis over settlement plans that could torpedo the viability of a Palestinian state.
Ahead of his departure on a trip that will take him briefly to Prague and then on to Berlin, Netanyahu brushed off the diplomatic pressure.
He insisted that Israel’s settlement building was not the central issue in the decades-long conflict between the Jewish state and the Palestinians.
“The root of the conflict is not the settlements; it is the very existence of the state of Israel and the desire to wipe it off the face of the earth,” he said late on Tuesday.
“Our top public diplomacy mission is to explain that the root of this conflict is not territorial. It is over our very existence in any borders whatsoever.”
Israel is facing mounting international pressure over its announcement that it will build 3,000 new settlement homes, including in an area east of Jerusalem, where observers say construction could crush hopes of a viable Palestinian state.
It announced the plans in response to the General Assembly’s decision last week to upgrade Palestinian UN status.
On Tuesday night, the Palestinian leadership said it would ask the UN Security Council to condemn the Israeli settlement programme.
The leadership decided “as a first measure to turn to the UN Security Council… to request a constraining resolution for Israel to stop its decisions of destructive expansion and all forms of settlement.”
The decision came after a chorus of disapproval from the international community, including the European Union, although Britain said on Tuesday that the grouping was unlikely to punish Israel by imposing trade sanctions.
Germany said it was “deeply concerned” about the Israeli plans and urged the Jewish state to reverse its decision.
“Both sides should act constructively and avoid obstructing what is urgently needed, namely the resumption of substantial direct peace talks,” German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said on Monday.
France, Britain, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, Australia and Egypt have all summoned the Israeli ambassadors to protest the plans, which also drew criticism from Russia and Japan.
The site of the controversial new construction, known as E1, lies between the easternmost edge of annexed east Jerusalem and the nearby Maaleh Adumim settlement.
Observers say Israeli settlement there would effectively prevent the future establishment of a contiguous Palestinian state, dooming the two-state solution.
Washington has also warned construction in E1 “would be especially damaging to efforts to achieve a two-state solution” and President Barack Obama’s spokesman urged Israel “to reconsider”.
EU’s ambassador to Israel, Andrew Standley, said on Tuesday that despite growing international calls, Israel had shown no sign it was planning to call off its construction plans.
“We’ve not had any signal or message back, for the time being, to indicate that this message has been heard and has been acted upon,” he said.
“There have been in fact, to the contrary, further messages or announcements saying Israel will act upon what it considers to be its strategic interests, which may suggest that if it sees more measures as necessary it will take more measures,” he said.
“This is not what we are asking for.”
A source in Netanyahu’s office stressed on Monday there would be “no change” to the decision.
Since then the Israeli government, which is in election mode, has announced it will revive plans for another 1,600 settlement homes in annexed east Jerusalem.
12/05/2012 01:35 PM
Islamist Intimidation: The Battle for the Future of Tunisia
By Alexander Smoltczyk
Almost two years after the Arab Spring got its start in Tunisia, Salafists are intimidating women, artists and intellectuals. Many fear that the government is tacitly supporting the radical Islamists in their efforts to turn the young democracy into a theocracy.
It was a Friday in February 2011 when the Jasmine Revolution reached the prostitutes on Impasse Sidi Abdallah Guech, a dead-end street tucked away in the dingiest corner of the medina in Tunis, the Tunisian capital. The women leaning against the walls there are registered with the government and pay taxes. The red-light district on this small street is only a stone's throw from a large mosque in the heart of an Islamic country.
On this day, shortly after the fall of the old regime in Tunisia, several hundred outraged citizens had gathered near the prostitutes' street. Some were bearded and others were wearing jeans, but they were all loudly demanding moral cleanliness. Before long, they began making their way toward the women, sticks and torches in hand.
That this could happen was no surprise. Imams preaching on satellite stations from Qatar and Saudi Arabia routinely rage against this hotbed of vice. Arabs from the Persian Gulf don't need the women from Abdallah Guech when they come to Tunisia in the summer since they usually bring along their own escorts. The Guech and hundreds of other so-called maisons closes in Tunisia are for ordinary people, have always been tolerated and were legalized in 1942. Men come and go, leaving behind a handful of dinars.
On that Friday, the military stepped in and police fired warning shots into the air to fend of the Muslim moralists' attack on the women. A militia of pimps, porters and day laborers barricaded the entrance to the lane. After the incident, the sign "Impasse Sidi Abdallah Guech" was removed for security reasons. A gate was installed, and the women posted a sign above it saying "Closed on Fridays and during Ramadan" in an effort to accommodate the Islamists.
Maisons closes in other Tunisian cities were not so lucky. In places such as Sousse, Médenine, Sfax and Kairouan, brothels were set on fire, and women were hunted down and beaten.
The attacks of February 2011 marked the beginning of a development that has grown to become a cultural revolution and a model for the post-revolutionary countries of North Africa: the government-tolerated offensive of Salafist fundamentalists against aspects of modern secular society, even if they amount to nothing more than the bleak activities of prostitutes and their customers on a small street in Tunis.
In April 2011, the filmmaker Nouri Bouzid was beaten with an iron bar after he had spoken out in favor of a secular constitution.
A few weeks later, in June, a gang of Salafists forcibly entered the AfricArt art-house cinema in Tunis, sprayed tear gas and roughed up the management. The cinema was planning to show what the Salafists viewed as a heretical film about religion in Tunisia. The police only intervened after prolonged pressure. AfricArt has been closed ever since.
In October 2011, a few hundred Islamists tried to set the house of the owner of the private television station Nessma on fire. The station had broadcast the animated film "Persepolis," by Iranian exile Marjane Satrapi, in which Allah is briefly depicted. In June 2012, morality police attacked the exhibition "Spring of the Arts" in the El Ebdellia palace, destroying about a dozen paintings.
Fear and Intimidation
The scar on Nouri Bouzid's bald head is hardly visible anymore. "Luckily I was wearing a hat," says the 67-year-old director. "All that's left of our revolution is that there are no longer scissors," he adds, referring to government censorship. "But there is a censorship of deeds carried out by the Salafist brigades and the so-called Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution."
Bouzid seems more alarmed than bitter. "Hundreds of events" have already been quietly obstructed, he says. Summer festivals and rock concerts have been interrupted, and actors have been threatened. All of this is happening, Bouzid explains, with the tacit consent of the ruling Islamist party, Nahda. "They're playing a double game," Bouzid says. "They use the radicals to test how far they can go. Not a single artist is involved with Nahda."
Located on the extreme northern tip of Africa, Tunisia is very close to Europe. It has a tradition of tolerance that artists like Bouzid now believe is threatened. "They want to destroy this identity, using all the money they get from the Gulf," Bouzid says. "But, unlike in the past, we are no longer afraid of the police. We can express our views, we are willing to take risks and we don't take everything lying down. That can be inspiring."
Tunis is still a city where women don't have to be brave to show their hair. In contrast to Cairo, for example, veiled women are a minority in Tunis. In many neighborhoods, Tunis looks like the twin sister of Marseille, a pleasant and open metropolis on France's Mediterranean coast, where most people refuse to be told what to wear in public or on the beach in the summer.
Given Tunis's reputation, it's all the more shocking to hear a young female journalist talk about how terrified she was to find her photograph on the Facebook page of a Salafist group. Her address was also listed there. Above it were a skull and the word "traitor." This isn't uncommon, she says. "You have to expect that 30 Salafists will be outside your door the next morning, shouting that the devil lives there."
It's a Salafist chorus of online outrage. It would be a continuation of the Facebook revolution, using the same tools, but for a different purpose: to intimidate lawyers, artists, university lecturers and filmmakers -- and, of course, women.
Controlling the Mosques
The offensive by the ultra-conservative group has been most successful in the mosques. "It's an invasion. They control most of the mosques in Tunis. They demonize the old imams and berate them as accomplices of the old regime," says Sheikh Ahmed Touati, the imam at the large Zitouna Mosque until recently, and the head of a group calling itself the "Party of Conservatives."
The 32-year-old Touati is a large, imposing figure. He is sitting with his legs apart, wearing baggy trousers, in front of the Sekajine souk, drinking tea. Most passers-by greet Touati, but not all, especially not those wearing the calf-length robes favored by radical Islamists. "In their view, I'm even a kafir, an infidel," he says. "They aren't allowed to greet an infidel."
He describes the day the Islamists first turned up at the large mosque, a week after the overthrow of former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. They demanded different prayer positions and didn't want the Koran to be recited out loud by the congregation. Within a year, the chief imam had been driven out. "Why? They have the money and the satellite dishes," Touati say. "Their message appeals to the practicing faithful, especially the younger ones. The others keep their distance. Our mistake was that we waited too long."
Touati was slapped when he removed an Islamist treatise from the wall of his mosque. He also received threats, with the Islamists telling him things like: "Get out of here and don't come back -- or someone will slit your throat."
Charges of Government Duplicity
Many of the Islamists are also involved in militant activities. The Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution collect donations and allegedly recruit young men to fight in Syria's civil war.
The ruling Nahda Party has yet to distance itself from the radicals. Nahda founder Rachid Ghannouchi even encouraged "our young Salafists" to patiently embark on a long march. "Why the hurry?" he said in a video of a meeting with Salafists. "The Islamists must fill the country with their organizations, establish Koran schools everywhere and invite religious imams." The video was secretly recorded and posted online, but Ghannouchi claims his words were taken out of context.
The opposition accuses Nahda of duplicity, saying that while it publicly encourages tolerant discourse, it also uses the young radicals to intimidate independent voices in what seems like a joint effort.
Nahda bridles at the accusation and claims it is being misunderstood. "We support tolerance and freedom of expression in the arts. After all, Nahda means renaissance, right?" says Ajmi Lourimi, a member of the party leadership in charge of educational and cultural matters.
Lourimi is wearing a cap backwards. He turns his computer around and points to the screen, where there is a YouTube interview with the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas: "You see? I'm a philosopher myself," says Lourimi. "An Islamic philosopher."
The purpose of culture is to educate the people, Lourimi says. And of course, he adds, he is against raids on art galleries. When asked about demonstrations against airing the "Persepolis" film, he says: "No one is against this film. It's just that there are few scenes that hurt the feelings of many people when it's shown publicly. Most directors realize that this is where cuts are needed."
When asked about his favorite film, he mentions a crime thriller starring Alain Delon and Jean Gabin. "My favorite painter? Oh, I'm too old to go to exhibitions anymore." He's in his early 50s.
The party newspaper al-Fajr has an article about the short film "Bousculades" entitled "The Latest Flashes of Genius of Tunisian Cinema." The film tells the story of how prostitutes in a brothel participated in the country's war of liberation from France.
Sawssen Saya, the film's 26-year-old director, sees the article as a call to action. "The governing party's newspaper denounces a film without having seen it," she says. "Why? So that there will be boycotts in keeping with the motto: Defend yourselves."
At the same time, "Bousculades" received a government grant and has since collected an award at a film festival. This could be a sign of liberalization -- or of what is left of freedom for the arts.
Going 14 Centuries Back in Time
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi's recent move to grant himself extensive powers has triggered a debate over the true nature of the new Islamic regimes in North Africa. Are the Muslim Brotherhoods in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia totalitarian in disguise, or do they more closely resemble Germany's conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). In other words, are they radical in terms of their rhetoric and values, but pragmatic when push comes to shove?
Béji Caïd Essebsi is the man who brought the Nahda leadership back from exile. The former interior minister headed the transitional government after the Jasmine Revolution, and he organized the October 2011 election, which made the Islamists the strongest political force in the country.
Since then, Essebsi has been haunted by the feeling that he made a mistake. "They're like the communists -- they don't want to give up power," he says. "These people don't want a modern Tunisia. They want a traditional society, where religion shapes everyday life, like it was in the 7th century. We differ by 14 centuries."
Essebsi, now 86, is the founder of Nida Tunis ("Tunisia's Call"), a coalition movement intended to bring together opponents of the Islamists while there is still time to act. In his office hangs a portrait of Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia's first president, who is now seen in a different light than he once was. "He modernized Tunisia, gave women equal rights and made attending primary school mandatory," Essebsi says.
Essebsi believes that Salafists and Nahda are part of the same family. "Rachid Ghannouchi is a Salafist. He doesn't accept that someone doesn't believe in God," Essebsi says.
Nevertheless, he is confident that the Islamists will have to step down again soon. "First, they are incapable of governing," he explains. "Second, thanks to Bourguiba, we have a high level of education. Illiterate people can be manipulated, but not our Tunisians."
The Battle to Keep Universities Secular
Manouba University, with its "Faculty of Arts and Humanities," was one of the flagship projects of the Bourguiba era. The university, located on a campus of concrete buildings far outside the city, is known for its leftist lecturers and critical approach to Islamic theology. It comes as no surprise that Manouba became the site of the Salafists' most vehement attack to date. For several months, they repeatedly occupied campus buildings, locked up the dean and sabotaged teaching at the university. The black flag of the Islamic caliphate was even flown above the university's main gate for a brief period of time.
Dean Habib Kazdaghli received his first name as a sign of appreciation for the "father of independence." The 57-year-old, a specialist in the history of Jews in Tunisia, is an unassuming man who avoids conflict. This makes him suspicious in the eyes of the Salafists.
But the dean only became an object of hate because he believes that "a dean should be able to see the faces of the people in his audience." In November 2011, university administrators decided that the niqab, the full-facial veil that only has slits for the eyes, would not be permitted in lecture halls, although it would be allowed in the library and elsewhere on campus.
"A campaign began right away," says Kazdaghli. "A female student came to a lecture in a niqab and refused to take it off. So the lecturer ended the lecture, and when he left the room, he was greeted by 20 people in Afghan clothing, who shouted at him, saying that he was an atheist, a Freemason and a Zionist. A female professor had a panic attack and fainted."
Similar campaigns were simultaneously underway at other Tunisian universities. The demands were always the same: permitting women to wear the niqab, establishing a prayer room and keeping men and women separate. "We negotiated, for hours and days," Kazdaghli says. "My deputy has been in therapy ever since."
In March, two female students wearing full-body veils went to the dean's office and loudly demanded that they be allowed to attend lectures. A striking video shows one of the women sweeping the papers off Kazdaghli's desk and onto the floor. The dean and two staff members forcibly removed the two furious women, who then sued for assault.
A court decided to hear the case. Since then, every hearing has become an occasion for a showdown between secularists and Islamists. The next hearing is scheduled for Jan. 3, 2013.
Kazdaghli dreads the hearing. "These groups are more determined and violent than I had ever expected," he says. "Many know nothing about religion. They often include petty criminals or losers who have latched onto something. For them, the successful overthrow of the tyrant proves that God is on their side."
And not just God. Kazdaghli feels let down by his superiors. "The interior minister spoke publicly of the Salafists' legitimate demands and blamed me for the crisis," he says. "No wonder they feel completely confident."
Ironically, Mohammed Bakhti, a Salafist leader, was once one of Kazdaghli's students. After his first two semesters, he was suddenly arrested and charged with having obtained explosives for al-Qaida. He was in prison for four years and was released shortly after the revolution. "After the revolution," Kazdaghli says, "I had the young man sitting here on my sofa, as I tried to convince him to continue his studies. But all he did was stare at the ceiling and say: 'God doesn't want that.'"
Bakhti was arrested again in September in conjunction with an attack on the US Embassy in Tunis. He recently died in prison after going on a hunger strike.
Fighting to Protect a Democratic Tradition
There are people in Tunis who say that their country is on its way to becoming a theocracy akin to the one in Iran. But no one seriously expects this to happen because Tunisian civil society is too self-confident -- and because Tunisia has too many people like Maya Jribi.
The biologist and secretary-general of the centrist Republican Party is one of the most popular voices of the opposition. Instead of protesting in the street, she spends most of her time in the old palace of the Ottoman governor, or Bey, which now houses the parliament. The constituent assembly, charged with drafting Tunisia's new constitution, has been meeting there for the last year.
"Nahda is determined not to give up its power," Jribi says. "It is trying to place its people in key positions. And we are trying to prevent it from doing so. That's democracy."
The Muslim Brotherhood enjoys a plurality in the assembly, but not the absolute majority needed to push through amendments to the constitution. This forces the delegates to compromise in a process that involves grueling discussions over the identity of the new Tunisia. The Nahda delegates, for example, wanted to see the "equality" between men and women guaranteed in the constitution replaced by "complementarity."
"We have defeated Nahda on important issues three times," Jribi says. "On the status of women, on the rights of the president and on fending off Sharia. That gives me hope."
At some point after every revolution, a constitution has to take shape. Perhaps the former Bey's palace is the most important battlefield in this process.
Maya Jribi hurries off to an assembly meeting. She was part of the resistance movement against Ben Ali, she took part in the revolution and she is now leading the civil dispute over what the correct constitution should look like. It is quite possible that she will become the first female prime minister of an Arab country one day -- once the current, horrific episode is over.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
12/04/2012 04:20 PM
Islamist vs. Secularists: The Post-Revolution Struggle for the Arab Soul
By Daniel Steinvorth
The rise of political Islam following the Arab Spring has many worried that the democratic achievements of the revolution could be lost. In Egypt and Tunisia alike, citizens are once again taking to the streets. But this time they are opposing Islamism. Does secularism still stand a chance?
Egypt's strongman was sitting in the first row of the mosque. "Anyone who criticizes the president is worse than the heretics who attacked the Prophet in Mecca," the imam preached in his sermon. Then he handed the microphone to Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, saying that he should address the faithful himself. But he never got a chance.
"Down with Morsi! Down with the Muslim Brotherhood!" chanted hundreds of men who were now pushing their way to the front. "Enough is enough!" they shouted. "No to tyranny!" For them, it was intolerable to hear the president being compared with the Prophet Muhammad. Morsi, surrounded by bodyguards, had to leave the mosque on Friday. It was both a scandal and a first for Egypt.
But it was only the beginning. Later, more than 100,000 people gathered on Tahrir Square again to protest the actions of their president.
There are no signs that tensions will ease in Egypt, and it is difficult to predict the outcome of the current power struggle. The president, who gave himself dictatorial special powers, seems unimpressed by the storm he has unleashed among secular Egyptians. In rushed proceedings, he also held a vote on a new constitution, in which the Constituent Assembly, dominated by Islamists, clearly voted in favor of Sharia law. The draft constitution will soon be put to a referendum. But the opposition will not accept this, because it is determined to stop the Muslim Brotherhood's Morsi.
This says a lot about the most important country in the Arab world, which is only at the beginning of its democratization. It also says a lot about the emotional state of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which came to power as a result of a revolution that it had only halfheartedly supported. The Islamist movement has decades of experience in dealing with authoritarian rulers, but it knows nothing about freedom and pluralism.
Islamists Met with Resistance
It wants to demonstrate strength, especially in Egypt, the country where it was founded, because it knows that a fierce struggle is underway over the role of political Islam, especially in the Arab countries that drove out their dictators only recently: Tunisia, Libya and Yemen. In Syria, where the war is still raging, the question remains as to whether the secular state will be jeopardized if more radical forces within the opposition prevail.
Two years after the beginning of unrest in North Africa and the Middle East, the Islamists seem to have emerged as the clear winners. Many are now claiming that the Arab Spring has been followed by an Islamist winter.
In 2011, the world was euphoric over the fight for freedom being waged by protestors in Tahrir Square. But a shadow fell over the revolution when Libyan militias put the bloodied corpse of former dictator Moammar Gadhafi on display. And the daily bloodshed in Syria comes as a terrible climax to a development that has spun out of control.
The Arab world has once again become a greater source of worry than hope to the Western world. Islamists are winning elections and putting together governments, and even ultraconservative Salafists, shady characters who promise to eliminate democracy as soon as they can, are suddenly playing a role. They also want to take away the freedoms Arab women have achieved, ban bikinis on tourist beaches and turn the administration of justice over to Islamic scholars. Is the revolution over? Not quite.
The struggle for the Arab soul hasn't been decided yet. Wherever movements backed by political Islam begin to gain strength, they encounter broad resistance. It's worthwhile to take a closer look at the countries involved in the Arab Spring.
Exporting Islamism to Libya
In early November, an Egyptian imam who had gone to Libya to preach had an experience similar to Morsi's. He was forced to interrupt his sermon when the audience decided to stop listening to him and left the mosque.
Shortly after the collapse of the Gadhafi regime, in the summer of 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt felt that the moment had come to export radical imams to neighboring Libya. They established a branch of the Brotherhood in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, as well as a book publishing company and a television station. They prepared for the first free parliamentary elections in the country, ran a morally charged campaign, but then lost handily to the liberal "National Forces Alliance."
"The Libyans are already good Muslims. They don't understand what more Islam is supposed to be good for," says Abdurrahman Sewehli, a member of the Libyan parliament, commenting on the defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood. "They are interested in rebuilding the country, and in development, schools and infrastructure."
Libya has a religiously homogeneous society, with Sunni Muslims making up almost 100 percent of the population. The dividing lines in Libya run primarily between clans. The disputes in the desert nation are not about the true practice of Islam, but about tribal interests and the distribution of oil revenues.
And it isn't the only country that is bristling against the deliberate immigration of radical groups.
Contradictions in Yemen and Tunisia
Even before the beginning of the year, the two most important tribal federations in Yemen, the Bakil and the Hashid, had severed all contact with jihadist cells in the country. Yemeni tribal warriors and extremists occasionally cooperated, but it was hardly for ideological reasons. Instead, their interests coincided over money, smuggling and the arms trade. But then the jihadists offended the tribes when they violated their traditions. The American drone war against the al-Qaida cells in the country also made it more difficult for the tribal groups to cooperate with the extremists.
Yemeni society is clannish and deeply traditional. Both Islam and Islamism are firmly established in the country. To secure his power, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in office from 1990 until he stepped down this February, made a pact with the Islamist Islah Party, and for years he promoted the radical imam and friend of al-Qaida Abdul Majeed al-Zindani. Today liberal ideas are much more widespread in the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula than in Saleh's time. Nevertheless, and this is one of the contradictions in archaic Yemen, no politician would even think of questioning Sharia law, which is in effect in the country.
The political antipode of Yemen is 4,000 kilometers (2,485 miles) to the northwest, in Tunisia, the most secular country in the Arab world. This didn't change after Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali took office in late 2011. His Ennahda Party, a branch of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, had repeatedly assured Tunisians that it did not intend to introduce Islamic law or curtail the rights of women. Tunisia's Islamists have distanced themselves from that position since summer, and yet they are still behaving more reasonably than their counterparts in other countries in the region, as they observe from a safe distance the game President Morsi is currently playing in Egypt.
The independent Cairo daily Al-Fagr wrote that the president had undertaken an "abortion in the fifth month," a reference to the five months Morsi had been in office before stifling democracy. What happens next? Although the Muslim Brotherhood is the best-organized political entity, says political scientist Paul Salim, pluralistic Egyptian society is setting limits to its progress.
Uncertainty in Syria
And what happens to Syria if the regime falls? The demise of the government in Damascus seemed yet another step closer last week, when rebels, allegedly for the first time, shot down two army helicopters with surface-to-air missiles. The incident suggests that the regime of President Bashar Assad, whose air force had long given him military superiority, is now seriously threatened. Until now, the United States and other Western countries had vehemently refused to provide the opposition with weapons of the kind used to down the helicopters.
No one knows exactly how many foreign jihadists currently support the rebellion in Syria, but they do exist. When the governor of Homs Province and fighters with rebel militias tied to the Free Syrian Army sought to reach an agreement last week, foreign fighters frustrated the effort at rapprochement, reports a military observer. "The extremists, who are loosely associated with al-Qaida, have their own agenda," says an intelligence agent. "They don't want a ceasefire; they want to exterminate the Baath regime and establish an Islamist state." If Syria sees a transition process similar to what took place in Tunisia and Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood will likely be among the first groups to position themselves in Damascus.
"Bread, freedom and Islamic Sharia!" thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters chanted on Alexandria's central Al-Qaed Ibrahim Square 10 days ago, as they waved Egyptian flags and held up pictures of President Morsi.
"Bread, freedom and social justice!" their opponents, who had turned out in even greater numbers and included secular Egyptians, leftists and liberals, shouted in return. It was a rude awakening for the Islamists in Alexandria, which had been considered one of their strongholds.
When the two sides, standing only a few meters apart, tried to shout each other down, an eyewitness says he felt that the situation could soon spin out of control. "The air was filled with hate and the feeling of civil war."
WITH ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SUSANNE KOELBL AND VOLKHARD WINDFUHR
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
12/05/2012 11:10 AM
Crisis in Egypt: Rift Widens Between Morsi and Opposition
By Matthias Gebauer in Cairo
Thousands of protesters marched on Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi's palace on Tuesday in Cairo, forcing police to retreat after violent clashes. The opposition is celebrating the protest as a victory, but the bitter power struggle is far from over.
The battle on the outskirts of Egypt's presidential palace was brief but intense. It was a few minutes before 6 p.m. in the upscale Cairo suburb of Heliopolis when the acrid smell of tear gas came wafting through the streets once again, overcoming thousands of demonstrators in front of makeshift police barricades. Panic broke out immediately, with protesters -- among them a striking number of women -- quickly running from the notorious riot police, with their threatening-looking shields and batons. The officers repeatedly fired fresh canisters of tear gas into the crowd.
"You see!" screamed one young woman. "Morsi is firing on his own people just like Mubarak did."
The situation had escalated within seconds. Demonstrators, many of them masked, had torn away street barricades at an intersection not far from the gateway to President Mohammed Morsi's palace, charging at a line of police.
Several thousand opposition protesters had begun heading toward the palace from different locations around Cairo in the afternoon. With the provocative slogan "The Last Warning," the demonstrators had wanted to once again show the strength of their resistance to the president's recent consolidation of power and voice their disapproval of the plan to vote in two weeks on a new constitution -- a document that contains a significant religious coloring. They wanted to be as close as possible to the palace, the symbol of Morsi's power.
Threat of Further Violent Protests
They accomplished the day's goal. The tear gas had barely begun to dissipate when the masses of people began pushing toward the palace again, and this time they were met with no more resistance. Within a few minutes, the police had retreated to behind the high walls of the enormous building complex, letting the demonstration run its course. Morsi himself, at least according to state television, had fled through a back exit of the building and was driven home. The crowd quickly cheered over the president's flight, although his office released a statement saying Morsi had left the palace long before, when the protest had only just begun to form behind the street blockades. But none of the protesters let that spoil the party.
What played out around the palace on Tuesday once again made clear the bitter struggle for control over the future of Egypt. The huge numbers of people flocking to the demonstration illustrated how the diverse opposition -- which includes revolutionaries, politicians and a growing number of influential judges and journalists -- is not ready to give up. In the days running up to the Dec. 15 referendum on Morsi's constitution, hastily approved by his allies in parliament, there hangs a threat of further violent confrontations.
Morsi Undeterred by Protests
No one dares predict with certainty how the situation in Egypt will develop in the coming weeks. The two sides appear more irreconcilable than ever, and the images of violent protests and the storming of the palace are not likely to calm the situation. Morsi's opponents have already called for another big protest, saying the new constitution will lead straight to an Egyptian theocracy. They fear a state in which women's rights are limited, the media is censored and Sharia law is held up as the highest legal philosophy. The debate is so heated that some have begun a painting a grim representation of what an Egyptian theocracy might look like.
Morsi, by contrast, appears determined to put all his eggs in one basket. If the referendum produces a majority for his constitution, he could point back to this mandate from the people to justify filling the government and the state apparatus with those who are loyal to him. And there have certainly been some signals that indicate this will be the case. Morsi's spokesman said on state television on Sunday that if the president wins a majority for the constitution, he would eliminate the post of vice president -- similar to what his despotic predecessor Hosni Mubarak did.
Such a move would hand Morsi even more power than he already has.
Sun rises over Egypt protesters after palace siege
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, December 5, 2012 8:13 EST
Hundreds of protesters woke up Wednesday in front of the presidential palace, the new focus of protests against President Mohamed Morsi, as an already-polarised Egypt slipped deeper into crisis.
“The final warning, the presidency under siege,” read the headline of daily al-Shuruk as the independent Al-Watan declared “Revolution at the president’s doorstep.”
Hundreds more Morsi opponents spent the night in Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square under dozens of tents erected almost two weeks ago.
Activists used social networking sites to appeal for blankets and food for the protesters who said they won’t leave until Morsi rescinds a decree expanding his powers.
Tuesday’s protests were the latest in a string of actions opposed to Morsi’s November 22 decree, which expanded his powers and enabled him to call a mid-December referendum on a draft constitution drawn up by an Islamist-dominated panel and rejected by liberals, leftists and Christians.
“Why did he do all this? He’s supposed to be a president for all Egyptians, not just for the Muslim Brotherhood,” said a protester said at the presidential palace.
Tens of thousands of Egyptian demonstrators encircled the presidential palace Tuesday after riot police failed to keep them at bay with tear gas, in a growing crisis over Morsi’s decree.
The protesters cut through barbed wire a few hundred metres (yards) from the palace, prompting police to fire the tear gas before retreating and allowing demonstrators to reach the palace walls, AFP correspondents said.
Morsi himself was not in the palace, a presidential aide told AFP. A security official said “the president of the republic left the Itihadiya palace on schedule after official meetings”.
A video posted online by the Egyptian news network Rassd showed a convoy leaving the palace through a riot police cordon as protesters chanted “coward” and “leave”.
In Tahrir Square, where other protesters had rallied, the spokesman for an alliance of opposition groups, the National Rescue Front, announced a sit-in outside the palace and called for similar actions across the country.
Demonstrators, many from liberal and leftist movements, banged on lamp posts and chanted “leave” in a thunderous show of force.
Most left later in the night, leaving behind roughly two thousand protesters as some set up about a dozen tents for the night outside the palace walls, which had been covered in anti-Morsi graffiti.
In the central province of Minya, clashes flared between opponents and supporters of Morsi outside the headquarters of his Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Police fired tear gas at the crowd after Morsi opponents tore down a picture of the president, prompting skirmishes with his supporters.
Anti-Morsi protests also erupted in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria and the central province of Sohag, with the spreading unrest prompting US appeals for restraint.
“We would simply urge that protesters express their views peacefully and that they be given the environment… to protest peacefully,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
Tuesday’s protests are the latest in a string of actions opposed to Morsi’s November 22 decree, which expanded his powers and enabled him to put to a mid-December referendum a draft constitution drawn up by an Islamist-dominated panel and rejected by liberals, leftists and Christians.
Outside the palace, the demonstrators waved Egyptian flags, chanting for the regime’s downfall and denouncing the Brotherhood for having “sold the revolution” that toppled longtime leader Hosni Mubarak last year.
The draft constitution has become the focal point of a political and ideological battle between Islamists and the largely secular-leaning opposition.
“Egypt is a country where all religions should live together. I love God’s law and sharia (Islamic law) but I will vote against the constitution because it has split the people,” Bassam Ali Mohammed, an Islamic law professor, said as he neared the palace.
Thousands also gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where protesters have been camping out since Morsi issued his constitutional declaration.
The decree placed Morsi’s decisions beyond judicial oversight and barred any judicial body from dissolving the panel that drew up and approved the draft charter, sparking a conflict with judges.
Independent and opposition newspapers refused to publish Tuesday editions in protest at a lack of press freedom in the constitution. The move was in order to “stand up to tyranny”, independent daily Al-Tahrir said on its website.
Morsi, who took office in June, insists the measures are aimed at ending a tumultuous transition following the 2011 uprising.
But his opponents have accused him of choosing the same path of autocracy that finally cost Mubarak his presidency.
The decision to go to a referendum on December 15 caused further upheaval, including within the judiciary itself.
On Monday, the Supreme Judicial Council said it would ensure judicial supervision of the referendum, despite calls for a boycott by some colleagues, including the influential Judges Club that represents judges nationwide.
On Tuesday, the head of the Judges Club, Ahmed al-Zind, stuck by his group’s decision to boycott the vote and said judges who supervise the referendum “would never be forgiven”.