US backing of el-Sissi reminiscent of Mubarak era

(By Deutsche Welle) With ex-army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi sworn in as Egypt’s president, Washington has promised that it will cooperate with his government. Are US-Egyptian ties returning to the Mubarak-era status quo of military rule?

More than three years ago, US President Barack Obama withdrew Washington’s long-standing support for Hosni Mubarak, accelerating the former air force marshal’s overthrow by mass demonstrations. Today, the White House is cooperating with Egypt’s latest military-commander-turned-president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, in what some analysts say is a return to the old status quo of US support for military rule.

“The United States looks forward to working with [Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi], the winner of Egypt’s presidential election, to advance our strategic partnership and the many interests shared by the United States and Egypt,” the White House said in a news release.

The Obama administration also expressed concern about the restrictive political environment in which the elections took place, calling on el-Sissi to adopt political reforms that would fulfill the “democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people.”

But in his May 28 foreign policy speech, President Obama made clear that US-Egyptian relations are primarily rooted in national security interests, not democracy promotion.

“In countries like Egypt, we acknowledged that our relationship is anchored in security interests, from peace treaties with Israel to shared efforts against violent extremism,” Obama told the West Point Military Academy’s graduating class.

“So we have not cut off cooperation with the new government, but we can and will persistently push for reforms that the Egyptian people have demanded,” the president continued.

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Egypt opposition wary of US financial overtures

(Deutsche Welle) As Egypt heads toward economic crisis, Washington has begun releasing long-stalled financial aid. But members of the secular opposition are concerned that the US may be getting too cozy with the Islamist incumbents.

US Secretary of State John Kerry announced last weekend that Washington would disburse some $190 million (145 million euros) to help Egypt close its gaping budget deficit, raising concern among secular and liberal opposition groups that the Obama administration is cultivating closer ties with Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.

Kerry also pledged another $60 million to help set up a joint Egyptian-American Enterprise Fund to support small businesses. The total $250 million in aid money would be the first installment of a one-billion-dollar package pledged by US President Barack Obama to Egypt in May 2011.

Up until now, the disbursement of that money has been delayed due to concerns in Washington about Egypt’s volatile transition to a more democratic system. Members of Congress in particular have been worried about Morsi’s commitment to peace with Israel, Egyptian security forces raiding NGOs, and anti-American protests at the US embassy in Cairo last September.

“[The US] wanted to make sure power is transferred meaningfully from the military to an elected president,” Yasser El-Shimy, an analyst with the International Crisis Group in Cairo, told DW. “Now that Egypt has a president, a constitution and parliamentary elections, the US feels much more comfortable giving that money.”

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Syrian uprising challenges Assad regime’s regional ties

(By Deutsche Welle) Syria’s violent crackdown on protesters has placed Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran in a tough spot as they try to reconcile their political ties to the Assad regime with their professed support for the Arab uprisings.

As President Bashar al-Assad’s regime faces growing isolation both domestically and on the world stage due to its six-month-long violent crackdown on opposition protesters, the increasingly real prospect of regime change in Syria has sent political tremors throughout the region.

The Assad regime claims the leadership mantle of the so-called resistance bloc in the Middle East (informal group including Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran – the ed.), a movement that opposes Israel and American influence in the region.

But the Syrian government’s violent crackdown, which has taken the lives of an estimated 2,700 people according to the UN, has begun to undermine the regime’s resistance credentials and could tarnish the reputation of its Islamist allies, threatening to permanently de-legitimize and weaken the current key players within the resistance camp.

“The whole raison d’être of the state is based on the whole slogan of resistance and we are facing Israel,” Khaled Hroub, an expert on Arab politics at the University of Cambridge, told Deutsche Welle.

“The rhetoric, the discourse is the backbone of the whole regime in the country, if you take this out nothing is left for the regime to promote itself, to justify its existence.”

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Anatomy of Arab revolutions shows trend toward democracy

(By Deutsche Welle) Although the Arab world has traditionally lagged behind the global trend toward greater democracy, a liberal revolution that began in Tunisia has put monarchies and dictators throughout the region on the defensive.

For decades, the Arab world stagnated under authoritarianism despite a global expansion of democracy beyond its historic core in North America and Western Europe. According to the US think tank Freedom House, the number of democracies in the world more than doubled by the new millennium, as communism collapsed and strongmen from Latin America to Southeast Asia were forced from power.

Although the Middle East appeared immune to this liberalizing trend, popular uprisings now referred to as the “Arab Spring” have successfully forced authoritarian regimes from power in Tunisia and Egypt, demonstrating that even political heavyweights like former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak are ultimately accountable to the people.

“We’re seeing in a sense the global spread of the aspirations for democracy finally coming to the surface in the Arab world,” Jack Goldstone, an expert on revolutions with George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia, told Deutsche Welle.

But turning an uprising against an authoritarian leader into a broader revolution that brings true political change is more difficult. Although the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia have been successfully ousted, the future is uncertain. And in Libya, Syria and Yemen, peaceful calls for civil rights have descended into violence.

“Whether this results in revolutions or not depends on the local regimes,” Goldstone said.

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Berlin steadfast in Libya abstention despite political fallout

(By Deutsche Welle) For the first time in post-war history, Germany has publicly taken a position contrary to virtually all of its major allies. The fallout of Berlin’s abstention from coalition operations in Libya could be far reaching.

By abstaining from the UN Security Council vote to intervene in Libya, Germany has managed to position itself against both the United States and Europe for the first time, said former NATO General Klaus Naumann in an interview with the daily Stuttgarter Zeitung.

Berlin’s abstention has sparked controversy domestically with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right government coming under bi-partisan political fire. Former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, member of the Green Party, wrote in the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung that he was “ashamed” of the German government’s “failure.” And Ruprecht Polenz, a member of Merkel’s party and chairman of parliament’s foreign affairs committee, expressed concern that Berlin had isolated itself.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Merkel has declared Berlin’s “unreserved support for the goals of the resolution” despite its opposition to military intervention. And Merkel has sought to demonstrate this ambiguous support by offering humanitarian aid for refugees and pushing for an oil embargo against Gadhafi. However, Berlin’s attempts at damage control are unlikely to contain the negative political fallout from its abstention.

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ICC’s Gadhafi probe could empower neighbors more than Libya

(By Deutsche Welle) The international criminal investigation against Gadhafi may have limited impact on the Libyan conflict. But it could give protesters in other Arab countries new momentum in their bid to force democratic reforms.

In a period of two weeks, the world community stripped Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi of his status as rehabilitated dictator, relegating him to the rank of international pariah and possible war criminal.

On February 26, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to refer Gadhafi’s violent crackdown on peaceful protesters to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. It was the first unanimous referral in the Security Council’s history.

But in the weeks since the Security Council’s historic vote, the international response to the conflict in Libya has floundered. As world powers debate the pros and cons of military intervention, heavily armed and well-trained Gadhafi loyalists have regained momentum and pushed deeper into rebel-controlled territory, closing in on the opposition stronghold of Benghazi.

So while the Security Council’s vote to investigate the Gadhafi regime may lend moral support to the embattled rebels, it has little practical impact on the balance of power in Libya. However, holding the Gadhafi regime legally accountable for alleged crimes could give renewed momentum to other opposition movements throughout the Arab world.

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Death by fire: Self-immolation in the Arab World

(By Deutsche Welle) As the political upheaval that began in Tunisia spreads from Egypt to Libya, dozens of people across the Arab world have publicly set themselves on fire. Are these self-immolations acts of despair or political protest?

Last December, a young unemployed street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi doused himself in paint thinner and set himself on fire outside of the municipal building in the remote Tunisian town Sidi Bouzid. He died of his self-inflicted wounds weeks later.

Bouazizi’s self-immolation, the act of burning oneself to death, became the symbol of a popular uprising that toppled Tunisia’s authoritarian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Inspired by events in Tunisia, the Arab street protests subsequently forced Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down and have now placed Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi under siege.

As revolutionary fervor engulfs the Arab world, dozens of people from Morocco to Yemen have lit themselves on fire in front of municipal buildings, parliaments, and presidential palaces. Are these gruesome suicides acts of personal desperation triggered by hopeless social conditions, or are they a form of political protest designed to expose societal injustice and incite popular uprisings?

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