King holds talks with British Premier, Foreign Minister

London, Dec. 11 (Petra) — His Majesty King Abdullah II held talks here on Tuesday with British Prime Minister David Cameron on the latest developments in the Middle East, especially efforts to breathe life into the peace process after the UN recently upgraded Palestine to non-member observer state.

Talks also touched on the rapid developments in Syria as well as bilateral relations and ways of developing them.

During the meeting, King Abdullah reiterated the importance of Britain’s role within the EU and international community, to encourage the Palestinians and Israelis to return to negotiating table in line with the two-state solution to solve all final status issues and establish an independent Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, living in peace and security alongside Israel.

His Majesty noted that the European and US role will be essential to re-establish momentum to the peace process, especially after the re-election of President Barack Obama for a second term. He reiterated the importance of building on the UN General Assembly’s resolution to upgrade the state of Palestine.

The King warned against the consequences of unilateral Israeli actions and policies, mainly the continuation of settlement building in the Palestinian territories, on chances to achieve peace between the two sides.

King Abdullah and Cameron also discussed regional and international efforts to sustain the recently-reached ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, leading to an end to Israeli aggressions on the Gaza Strip. His Majesty noted the Kingdom’s humanitarian efforts to support the Palestinian people and help them overcome the repercussions of the recent Israeli aggression through the Jordanian military field hospital in the coastal enclave.

Talks also touched on the rapid developments on the Syrian arena. The King affirmed that Jordan was closely monitoring the escalation of violence in Syria, warning against the crisis’s repercussions on all countries in the region.

His Majesty reiterated Jordan’s stance, which is based on the importance of finding a political solution to the Syrian crisis, putting an end to the killing of innocent people and maintaining the unity of Syria and its people.

The two leaders discussed Jordan’s relief efforts and the burdens borne by hosting more than 250,000 Syrian refugees in the kingdom, as well as the needed international support in this regard.

The meeting also touched on bilateral ties and means to enhance cooperation, especially ways to benefit from the British expertise to develop political march and parliamentary work in Jordan. The two leaders discussed promoting cooperation in various domains.

King Abdullah briefed Cameron on reform efforts, within the Kingdom’s ongoing reform program, leading to holding parliamentary elections on January 23, enhancing the democratic march, contributing to the development of political life and enhancing grassroots participation in the decision-making process.

King also briefed Cameron on the goals of the recently-established Royal Committee for Enhancing the National Integrity System, which would review and study the reality of all regulations and diagnose problems facing monitoring agencies to enhance reform process in the Kingdom.

The British Prime Minister, for his part, noted the depth of ties between Jordan and Britain, as well as his appreciation for the efforts exerted by King Abdullah to promote security and stability in the Middle East and push forward peacemaking efforts based on the two-state solution. Cameron also valued the King’s efforts to consolidate the march of comprehensive reform to meet the aspirations of Jordanians in a better future.

In another meeting, the King discussed with British Foreign Secretary William Hague the latest developments in the Middle East, and efforts to revive the peace process as well as the latest developments in Syria and issues of common interest.

King Abdullah stressed the importance of maintaining coordination between Jordan and Britain to revive peace efforts in the Middle East based on the two-state solution.

King Abdullah and Hague also discussed the latest developments on the Syrian arena as well as ways to find a way out of the crisis, put an end to the bloodshed, guarantee the unity of Syria and its people, and spare the Middle East from the crisis’s disastrous consequences.

The King reviewed the latest developments regarding the reform process in the Kingdom and chances to develop Jordanian-British cooperation in various fields.

Hague said that his country appreciates Jordan’s endeavors to achieve peace in the Middle East, and His Majesty’s efforts to achieve comprehensive economic and political reform in the Kingdom.

The meetings were attended by Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, Director of the King’s Office Imad Fakhoury and Jordan’s ambassador to Britain Mazen Hmoud.

( / 11.12.2012)

The Geopolitical Chess Game behind the Israeli Attack on Gaza

Muslim Clerics

The recent hostilities between the Gaza Strip and Israel have to be viewed in context of a broader geopolitical chessboard. The events in Gaza are tied to Syria and the US’s regional maneuvers against Iran and its regional alliance system.

Syria has been compromised as a conduit for weapons to Gaza, because of its domestic instability. Israel has capitalized on this politically and militarily. Benjamin Netanyahu has not only tried to secure his own election victory in the Knesset through an attack on Gaza, but has used the US-sponsored instability in Syria as an opportunity to try and target the arms stockpiles of the Palestinians.

Netanyahu calculated that Gaza will not be able to rearm itself while Syria and its allies are distracted. The bombing of the Yarmouk arms factory in Sudan, which Israel says was owned by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, was probably part of this plan and a prelude to Israel’s attack on Gaza.

In this chess game, sit the so-called “Moderates”— a misleading label jointly utilized by Messrs George W. Bush Jr. and Tony Blair to whitewash their regional cabal of tyrants and backward regimes — alongside the Obama Administration and NATO. These so-called Moderates include the desert dictators of the feudal Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Jordan, Mahmoud Abbas, and Turkey. In 2011, the ranks of the Moderates were augmented by the NATO-installed government of Libya and the GCC/NATO-supported anti-government militias that were unleashed in Syria.

On the other side of the chessboard defiantly sits the Resistance Bloc composed of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah (and Hezbollah’s partners in Lebanon, like Amal and the Free Patriotic Movement), the so-called Palestinian Rejectionists, and increasingly Iraq. The Muslim Brotherhood, which has emerged as a new regional force, is being increasingly prodded into the Moderate camp by the US and the GCC in an attempt to ultimately play the sectarian card against the Resistance Bloc.

A Palestinian man helps clean the debris from the building of the Ministry of Interior in Gaza City on November 24, 2012, after it was destroyed during an Israeli air strike on November 16, at the height of the week-long conflict between Israel and Gaza militants (AFP Photo / Marco Longari)
A Palestinian man helps clean the debris from the building of the Ministry of Interior in Gaza City on November 24, 2012, after it was destroyed during an Israeli air strike on November 16, at the height of the week-long conflict between Israel and Gaza militants

Stark contrasts between Gaza and Syria

Israel’s attack on Gaza was a litmus test. All those voices continuously pushing for America’s McJihad against the Syrian government in the name of freedom vanished from their podiums or suddenly went silent when Israel attacked Gaza. Al Jazeera’s tele-preacher Yusuf Al-Qaradawi and Saudi Arabia’s dictator-selected Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz went silent. Adnan Al-Arour — the Saudi-based exiled kooky Syrian cleric who, as one of the spiritual heads of the Syrian anti-government forces, has threatened to punish anyone that says that Al-Qaeda is among their ranks — even berated Hamas and the Palestinians for fighting Israel.

The fighting in Gaza really placed them in a fix. Here we see the contradictions in their “Arab Spring.” We now see who really pays lip service to Palestinian liberation and who does not. Moreover, the foreign supporters of the Syrian National Coalition, a rehash of the Syrian National Council, are ironically all supporters of Israel.

This is why mentioning the support that Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah have provided for Gaza has become a taboo among the supporters of the anti-government forces in Syria. All they can say is that any acknowledgment of the support that Tehran, Damascus, and Hezbollah have provided to Gaza is an attempt to sanitize “Bashar Al-Assad and his supporters.”

 Family members and Palestinian militants of Hamas′ armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, carry the body of one of their leaders, Judah Shamallah, during his funeral procession in Gaza City on November 24, 2012 (AFP Photo / Marco Longari)
Family members and Palestinian militants of Hamas’ armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, carry the body of one of their leaders, Judah Shamallah, during his funeral procession in Gaza City on November 24, 2012

Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah helped the Palestinians in Gaza

The Iranian Fijr-5 symbolically embodies Tehran’s support for Palestine. Despite the fact that Israel and Gaza are by far not equal, it was predominately Iranian arms and technology that changed the balance of power. Tehran has been the main ally and supporter of the Palestinian resistance. The US, Israel, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Iran itself have all acknowledged this in different ways.

The Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which is unapologetically pro-Iranian, has openly stated that everything Gaza used in the fight against Israel, from its bullets to missiles, has been generously provided by Tehran. It was even reported during the fighting that Hezbollah, using a special unit dedicated to arming the Palestinians, resupplied the Gaza Strip with some of its own long-range missiles.

This has all taken place while the cads in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey have instead armed the Syrian anti-government militias. Egypt and Jordan continue to be major partners in preventing Iranian arms from reaching the Palestinians.

Palestinian fighters have also been trained in Lebanon, Syria, and Iran. Ironically, the anti-government forces in Syria are also targeting members of the Palestinian Liberation Army in Syria.

The support that the Resistance Bloc has given the Palestinians puts those actors, like Turkey and Qatar, opposed to the Syrian government in a real predicament. These so-called Sunni states were embarrassed; not only did they fail to help a predominately Sunni population, but their insincerity was exposed.  This is why there is an active effort to deny the support that Iran and its allies have provided for Gaza.

A boy looks up as he walks in the rubble of a destroyed shop in Beit Lahia, in the northern Gaza Strip, on November 26, 2012 (AFP Photo / Mahmud Hams)
A boy looks up as he walks in the rubble of a destroyed shop in Beit Lahia, in the northern Gaza Strip, on November 26, 2012 

De-linking Hamas from Resistance Bloc to start a Muslim Civil War

As a back story to all this, the Israeli attack on Gaza and the Moderate’s wooing of Hamas is more than just about neutralizing Gaza. Hamas leaders are being tempted to choose between the Moderate and Resistance camps and increasingly between governing or active resistance to the Israeli occupation. Through this, some form of accommodation to the US and Israel is being sought from Hamas. The aims are to de-link the Palestinians, particularly Hamas, from the Resistance Bloc in order to portray Iran and its allies as a Shiite alliance bent on dominating the Sunnis.

If you are foolish enough to fall prey to it, welcome to the unfolding “American fitna” (schism) that aims to ignite a regional Muslim civil war between the Shiites and Sunnis. The Obama administration is trying to construct and line up a Sunni axis against the region’s Shiite Muslims.

It is a classic strategy of divide and conquer that envisions America and Israel dominating the region as the Muslims are incapacitated by their bloodletting. The Shia are systematically being vilified courtesy of the new media war: Iran, Hezbollah, Bashar Al-Assad (an Alawi who is increasingly labeled a Shiite for the benefit of this project), and Nouri Maliki’s administration in Iraq are being portrayed as the new oppressors of the Sunnis. In their place Turkey, with its virtually stillborn neo-Ottomanism foreign policy, and Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood are being presented as the champions of the Sunnis. Never mind that Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi has continued the blockade of Gaza for Israel or that Turkey’s Erdogan lost his voice for a while when Israel began bombing Gaza.

The US is trying to use Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to control Hamas, because it was Cairo that established a ceasefire between Israel and Gaza. While Iran offers military technology, logistical support, and finance the Egyptians are being presented as Gaza’s ticket to establishing some form of normality and the GCC as alternative funding. This is why Qatar’s Emir Al-Thani visited Gaza to tempt Hamas with his declining supply of petro-dollars.

Smoke billows after Israeli air strikes near smuggling tunnels between the southern Gaza Strip and Egypt, on November 21, 2012 in Rafah (AFP Photo / Said Khatib)
Smoke billows after Israeli air strikes near smuggling tunnels between the southern Gaza Strip and Egypt, on November 21, 2012 in Rafah 

Shiite and Sunni divisions are political constructs

Inside Hamas there are internal differences over this. While Damascus, Tehran, and Hezbollah desired some form of public acknowledgment about their vital assistance to Hamas and the Palestinians, Hamas officials were careful about their statements. When Khaled Meshaal thanked Egypt, Qatar, and Tunisia during an important press conference, he narrowly mentioned Iran.

Meshaal’s politicking was not lost on Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, who responded hours later by rhetorically asking who supplied and painstakingly transferred the Fajr-5 missiles into Gaza? Nasrallah asked people to look past Gaza’s fair-weather friends, like the Qataris and Saudis who think they can buy their ways into the grace of the Palestinians, but to look at Gaza’s tested friends who allowed Gaza to stand on its own two feet. Then the Lebanese leader reaffirmed the ongoing support of the Resistance Bloc for the Palestinian people.

Despite its politburo’s position on Syria, Hamas is still a part of the Resistance Bloc. There is a new format now. If Greece and Turkey were at odds with one another as two NATO allies, then Hamas can have its differences with Syria and still be allied with the Resistance Bloc against Israel.

The divide in the Middle East is not a sectarian one between Shiites and Sunnis, but fundamentally political. The alliance of the predominately Sunni Muslim Palestinian resistance movements and the Free Patriotic Movement, Lebanon’s largest Christian political party, with predominately Shiite Muslim Iran and Hezbollah should defuse such a perception that the US and its allies are trying to cultivate.

(Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya / / 11.12.2012)

‘Als Marokkaanse slaat mij een kille wind om de oren, gevoed door sensatiezucht’

Clubleden van SC Buitenboys stellen zich op voor de erehaag, voor aanvang van de uitvaart van de overleden grensrechter Richard Nieuwenhuizen. Nieuwenhuizen overleed na mishandeling door jeugdvoetballers van Nieuw Sloten.

OPINIE Er is een grote behoefte aan het steeds benoemen van problemen waarbij Marokkaanse jongeren zijn betrokken. Maar een constructief debat over oplossingen ho maar, schrijft studente Malika el Allaoui. ‘Niet gehinderd door enige kennis of reflectie gooit men alle Marokkanen op een hoop, met alle gevolgen van dien.’

  • Een maatschappelijk probleem is een probleem van ons allemaal. Je kunt alleen onderscheid maken in mensen die deugen en diegenen die niet deugen. Zo simpel is dat

Het is winter in Nederland. Ik kan mij ook de koude winters in mijn dorp in Marokko goed herinneren. De school was niet ver van ons huis vandaan, maar tussen ons huis en de school lag een rivier. In de winter moest ik deze vaak oversteken om naar school te kunnen gaan. De rivier had vaak hoog water en kwam tot aan mijn middel, het was koud en eng. Maar ik wilde heel graag leren, dus riskeerde ik soms mijn leven door toch over te steken. Als kind vond ik dat verschrikkelijk en achteraf gezien ben ik getraumatiseerd door de kou: alles wat koud en kil voelt, doet me denken aan die tijd.

Toen mijn vader mij vertelde dat we naar Nederland gingen verhuizen, was ik dan ook euforisch. Ik wist een ding zeker: in Nederland hoefde je geen rivieren over te steken om naar school te gaan. Alleen al om die reden was ik dol en dolgelukkig.

Het begin was even wennen, maar al gauw sprak ik de taal en kon ik mijn weg goed vinden in het kikkerlandje. Het werd mijn land. Het land waarin ik vanaf mijn twaalfde levensjaar ben opgegroeid en geworteld ben. Het land dat mij zoveel kansen heeft geboden, zoals de mogelijkheid om een onafhankelijke- en een zelfstandige vrouw te kunnen zijn. Het Nederland dat ik heb leren kennen en in mijn hart heb gesloten. Zelfs de charmes van de winters heb ik leren kennen en waarderen. Geen enkel land dat kan tippen aan mijn kikkerlandje, want door je best te doen, hard te werken, je eigen wil en weg te volgen, kun je alles doen en bereiken in het leven. Een weldaad aan keuzes en mogelijkheden. Wat wil je als mens nog meer?

Ik heb nooit een gevoel van discriminatie ervaren. Bij een sollicitatie werd ik zelfs uit vijf andere kandidaten gekozen, mijn zelfvertrouwen ging als een speer. Maar bij mijn broertje lag het anders. Mijn broertje, die Mohammed heet en hier geboren is, kon niet aan een stageplek komen. Waar hij ook solliciteerde, hij werd niet aangenomen.

Hij begon een keer tijdens het eten aan tafel te schelden: ‘Kut Hollanders, vuile racisten, toen ik langs ging hadden ze geen plek, Joris uit mijn klas heeft daar wel een stageplek gekregen, kutbedrijf.’ Toen ik hem zo hoorde spreken, schrok ik, zo kende ik mijn broertje niet. Hij was ervan overtuigd dat het bij dat bedrijf niet om zijn kwaliteiten ging, maar om hoe hij eruit zag. Ik heb toen een lang gesprek met hem gevoerd. ‘Mensen hebben nu eenmaal mentale schema’s, en uit gemak en zonder nadenken gaan ze af op vooroordelen. Het is onwetendheid en dat leidt soms tot discriminatie’, zei ik. ‘Je moet ook niet jaloers zijn op Joris, want jaloezie komt van het slechte in de mens. Je moet gewoon iets harder lopen voor die stage dan de rest, maar het komt goed.’

Vele winters later waait er een heftigere wind door mij zo gewaardeerde kikkerlandje. Als Marokkaanse slaat mij een kille wind om de oren, de kille winter van verdeeldheid, discriminatie, haat en racisme. Het voelt bijna even kil als mijn koude herinneringen aan de rivier. Maar nu gevoed door oppervlakkigheden en sensatiezucht.

Als we iets van onze geschiedenis zouden moeten leren, dan is het dat verdeeldheid en discriminatie ons niets goeds brengen. Maar mijn kikkerland is verstard, verkrampt en gevangen in zijn eigen angsten. In tijden van een crisis waarin je economische en maatschappelijke problemen daadkrachtig het hoofd dient te bieden, vlucht het in de clichés van zondebokken.

Ik zal het beestje maar bij de naam noemen: de zondebokken zijn voornamelijk Marokkanen. Vroeger waren het Antillianen en Turken, maar nu zijn het dus Marokkanen. Marokkaanse jongeren om precies te zijn. Journalisten draaien overuren, Pauw & Witteman besteedde maar liefst drie uitzendingen achter elkaar aan een incident dat door twee Marokkanen, een Antilliaan en nog iemand is gepleegd.

Oplossingen, ho maar
Blijkbaar is er een grote behoefte in het land aan het steeds benoemen van problemen waarbij Marokkaanse jongeren zijn betrokken. Maar een constructief debat over oplossingen, ho maar. Niet gehinderd door enige kennis of reflectie, gooit men vaak alle Marokkanen op een hoop, met alle gevolgen van dien. De jonge Marokkaantjes schijnen oververtegenwoordigd te zijn op allerlei lijstjes, lijstjes waar ik niet graag mee geassocieerd wil worden. Houd mij en mijn familie dus graag daar buiten!

Wat is dat eigenlijk met die Marokkanen? Waarom is er gemiddeld meer aan de hand met deze jongeren? Zijn het de incapabele ouders en gebrek aan goede opvoeding? Of het slechte onderwijs en de ongeschikte leraren? Of toch de sociaaleconomische omstandigheden waarin deze jongeren opgroeien? Of is het misschien wel de overheid die in het begin dacht de je het beste kunt integreren door behoud van je eigen cultuur en daarom niet meteen aan de slag ging met de achterstanden in die gezinnen? Misschien is het wel het gevoel van deze jongeren dat ze toch nooit als een volwaardige Nederlander zullen worden geaccepteerd.

Wie zal het zeggen? Sommige problemen laten zich niet vatten in een oorzaak, maar dienen wel aangepakt te worden. Dat doen we niet door als samenleving aan de zijlijn te blijven benoemen en met de vinger te blijven wijzen naar de Marokkanen, de Polen, de Antillianen, de Turken etc. Een maatschappelijk probleem is een probleem van ons allemaal. Je kunt alleen onderscheid maken in mensen die deugen en diegenen die niet deugen. Zo simpel is dat.

Als een paar ongeleide projectielen op een voetbalveld een grensrechter doodschoppen, horen we dat te veroordelen en daar onze lering uit te trekken. Het leger aan toeschouwers dat er naast stond en fijn toekeek heeft evenveel verantwoordelijkheid. Niemand die zich geroepen voelde in te grijpen, hoe kan dat? Je bent in feite medeplichtig als je het ziet gebeuren en niet ingrijpt. Waar was die maatschappelijke verantwoordelijkheid van diegenen die deugen?

Een paar weken geleden was het een Nederlander die een oude man op een voetbalveld van het leven had beroofd. Waarom was dat toen minder aanleiding tot sensatie? Is dat minder moord omdat het niet door een allochtoon is gepleegd? Het was een Nederlander die in de zaak Vaatstra het meisje heeft verkracht en op een brute wijze heeft vermoord. Toen wezen alle vingers naar de asielzoekers in het naast gelegen asielzoekerscentrum. Nu blijkt dat het geen asielzoeker of Marokkaan is, maar een Nederlandse boer. Dan wordt er niet gesproken over een Nederlandersprobleem.

Dit is meten met twee maten, en dat is zorgelijk. Op het moment dat een delict gepleegd wordt door een Marokkaan krijgt het delict een andere dimensie. Ik ben niet tegen problemen benoemen, maar er dient ook constructief te worden gesproken over oplossingen; alleen benoemen is niet goed genoeg.

In mijn kikkerland is een Marokkanenprobleem tevens een Nederlandersprobleem en andersom, wie dit niet inziet is blind van kortzichtigheid.

Mijn landje dat ik zo lief had, lijkt mij door de vingers te glippen, en dat doet pijn. Niet door enige kennis gehinderd laat het mij, inclusief 95 procent van diegenen die goed doen, in de kou staan. Dit doet het nu al jaren. De hoop dat reflectie voor een kentering zou zorgen, ebt steeds verder weg. Ons kikkerlandje ligt liever aan het infuus van sensatiezucht, sensatiezucht rondom die andere 5 procent die de boel verstieren. Gevangen in oppervlakkigheden heeft zij enkel oog en oor voor hen. Waarom niet voor mij en die andere 95 procent die het goed doen?

(Malika el Allaoui / / 11.12.2012) 

Bahrain court cuts activist’s jail sentence

(Photo for illustrative purposes only)

(Photo for illustrative purposes only)

The prison sentence of a prominent Bahraini rights activist jailed for taking part in unlicensed protests was cut by a year by an appeals court on Tuesday, his lawyer said.

In a case criticised by rights groups, Nabeel Rajab, founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, had been serving three years for leading protests against the wide powers of the Sunni Muslim al-Khalifa dynasty which rules the island kingdom.

Bahrain, the base of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, has been in turmoil since the pro-democracy protests led by its Shi’ite Muslim majority erupted last year. Washington has called on its ally to talk to the opposition.

A hero to protesters but a villain for those Bahrainis who fear the protests will bring Shi’ite Islamists to power, Rajab was originally sentenced by a lower court in August, a verdict Washington said was deeply troubling and rights campaigners called a “dark day for justice”.

The judge ruled in three cases on Tuesday, all related to participating in peaceful protests, and handed Rajab a one-year jail sentence in one case and six months each in the other two cases, said lawyer Mohammed al-Jishi.

He said Rajab had yet to decide whether to appeal again, adding: “It is a very harsh verdict.”

“We were expecting the judge to issue one sentence for the three cases collectively, but he treated them as three separate cases and each had a separate sentence,” Jishi told Reuters by telephone from Manama.

Tuesday’s hearing was attended by monitors from rights groups and foreign diplomats, Jishi said.

The Bahrain government’s Information Affairs Authority said in August the charges against Rajab had been related to violence. Public prosecutors had said Rajab’s participation in marches and “provocation of his supporters” led to violence, including throwing petrol bombs and blocking roads.

Rajab has been in jail for about seven months for other charges, Jishi said.

Since April, the authorities have stepped up efforts to crack down on unrest. Activists cite an increased use of shotgun pellets, whose use officials have declined to confirm or deny.

In November, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashed bin Abdullah al-Khalifa said the Gulf Arab kingdom had temporarily banned all rallies and gatherings to ensure public safety and stability are restored.

Several activists have been jailed for organising or taking part in unlicensed anti-government protests.

Bahrain’s ruling family used martial law and help from Gulf neighbours to put down last year’s uprising, but unrest has resumed.

The opposition says that little progress has been made towards its demands for reforms including a parliament with full powers to legislate and form governments. Many Shi’ites complain of political and economic marginalisation, a charge the government denies.

( / 11.12.2012)

Egyptians arrested by army during referendum to face civil courts

On Tuesday, police cars surrounded the Square, the first time they had appeared in the area since Nov. 23, shortly after a decree by the Islamist president giving himself sweeping temporary powers touched off widespread protests. (Reuters)

On Tuesday, police cars surrounded the Square, the first time they had appeared in the area since Nov. 23, shortly after a decree by the Islamist president giving himself sweeping temporary powers touched off widespread protests.

Anyone arrested by the military during Egypt’s referendum on a new constitution will face civil rather than military courts, the presidency said on Tuesday after the army was given powers of arrest during the vote period.

“Individuals arrested under these powers must be remanded to the office of the prosecutor and are tried before civilian courts, if the prosecutor recommends trial,” Reuters reported the presidency as saying in a statement after rights groups criticized the arrest powers granted by President Mohammed Mursi.

“Rumors have circulated that the law allows for civilians to be referred to military courts and this law does not, in any way, allow for civilians to be tried before military courts,” it said in a note explaining the army’s role that will last until results are declared after Saturday’s referendum.

Meanwhile, Mursi approved an army call for holding national unity talks in a bid to end a political crisis, a presidency official said on Tuesday.

Protesters opposed to Mursi on Tuesday breached concrete barricades built outside the presidential palace in Cairo on Tuesday, forcing back the soldiers manning it.

There was no violent confrontation. The protesters pulled apart a high metal gate bar by bar and toppled concrete blocks with chains.

Soldiers, who had erected the barrier on the weekend to block access roads following violent clashes in the area last week, fell back closer to the palace, which is surrounded by a high brick wall. Six tanks were stationed close to the compound.

The protesters were part of a crowd expected to swell to tens of thousands through Tuesday night to denounce a referendum proposed by President Mursi on a draft new constitution written up by his Islamist allies.

Earlier, nine people were hurt when gunmen fired at protesters camping in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, according to witnesses and Egyptian media.

Supporters of the Islamist leader, who want the vote to go ahead as planned on Saturday, were also gathering in the capital, setting the stage for further street confrontations in a political crisis that has divided the Arab world’s most populous nation.

Police cars surrounded Tahrir Square in central Cairo, the first time they had appeared in the area since Nov. 23, shortly after a decree by Mursi awarding himself sweeping temporary powers that touched off widespread protests.

The upheaval following the fall of Hosni Mubarak last year is causing concern in the West, in particular the United States, which has given Cairo billions of dollars in military and other aid since Egypt made peace with Israel in 1979.

The Tahrir Square attackers, some masked, also threw petrol bombs which started a small fire, witnesses said.

“The masked men came suddenly and attacked the protesters in Tahrir. The attack was meant to deter us and prevent us from protesting today. We oppose these terror tactics and will stage the biggest protest possible today,” said John Gerges, a Christian Egyptian who described himself as a socialist.

The latest bout of unrest has so far claimed seven lives in clashes between the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and opponents who are also besieging Mursi’s presidential palace.

Police powers

The elite Republican Guard which protects the palace has yet to use force to keep protesters away from the graffiti-daubed building, now ringed with tanks, barbed wire and concrete barricades.

The army has told all sides to resolve their differences through dialogue, saying it would not allow Egypt to enter a “dark tunnel”. For the period of the referendum, the army has been granted police powers by Mursi, allowing it to arrest civilians.

The army has portrayed itself as the guarantor of the nation’s security but so far it has shown no appetite for a return to the bruising front-line political role it played after the fall of Mubarak, which severely damaged its standing.

Leftists, liberals and other opposition groups have called for marches to the presidential palace later on Tuesday to protest against the hastily arranged constitutional referendum planned for Dec 15, which they say is polarizing the country and could put it in a religious straightjacket.

Mohamed ElBaradei, a prominent opposition leader and Nobel prize winner, called for dialogue with Mursi and said the referendum should be postponed for a couple of months due to the chaotic situation.

“This revolution was not staged to replace one dictator with another,” he said in an interview with CNN.

Outside the presidential palace, anti-Mursi protesters huddled together in front of their tents, warming themselves beside a bonfire in the winter air.

“The referendum must not take place. The constitution came after blood was spilt. This is not how a country should be run,” said Ali Hassan, a man in his 20s.

Opposition leaders want the referendum to be delayed and hope they can get sufficiently large numbers of protesters on the streets to change Mursi’s mind.

Islamists, who dominated the body that drew up the constitution, have urged their followers to turn out “in millions” in a show of support for the president and for a referendum they feel sure of winning.

Opponents angered

Leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahy, one of the most prominent members of the National Salvation Front opposition coalition, said Mursi was driving a wedge between Egyptians and destroying prospects for consensus.

As well as pushing the early referendum, Mursi has angered opponents by taking extra powers he said were necessary to secure the transition to stability after the uprising that overthrew Mubarak 22 months ago.

“The road Mohamed Mursi is taking now does not create the possibility for national consensus,” said Sabahy. He forecast polarization if constitution were passed.

The National Salvation Front also includes ElBaradei and former Arab League chief Amr Moussa.

The opposition says the draft constitution fails to embrace the diversity of 83 million Egyptians, a tenth of whom are Christians, and invites Muslim clerics to influence lawmaking.

But debate over the details has largely given way to street protests and megaphone politics, keeping Egypt off balance and ill-equipped to deal with a looming economic crisis.

Mahmoud Ghozlan, the Muslim Brotherhood’s spokesman, said the opposition could stage protests, but should keep the peace.

“They are free to boycott, participate or say no; they can do what they want. The important thing is that it remains in a peaceful context to preserve the country’s safety and security.”

The disruption is also casting doubts on the government’s ability to push through economic reforms that form part of a proposed $4.8 billion IMF loan agreement.

( / 11.12.2012)