Sunday, October 14, 2007

Weekend News Roundup - Egypt

Egyptians Have Cornered the Squash Racket

Squash, at least in the U.S., is a game associated with men's clubs and prep schools, so the idea that the world's best squash players hail from Egypt, an impecunious country not known for its sporting tradition, seems remarkable. But it's true. As the U.S. Open Squash Championship is under way in New York, the top-ranked player in the world is Amr Shabana of Giza, Egypt. His countryman Ramy Ashour, who just turned 20, is ranked second. All told, five Egyptians are in the top 20 of the Professional Squash Association's world rankings.

Some Egyptians host sahour parties where friends and relatives pack into homes often decorated in brightly colored fabrics to give them the look of a traditional tent. There, they eat, drink, and celebrate from midnight until 4 a.m. Others pay top dollar to attend swanky "tents," as these fabric-walled spaces are known, at posh restaurants or hotels.

But most average Egyptians head to places like the sprawling mosque and market complex of old Islamic Cairo. There they eat the sahour staple dishes: mashed bean, known as fool , and milk that is called zabadi. Even there, prices are high during the holiday. A cup of tea can cost more than $1, about six times the normal price.

Sahour revelry was in full swing this weekend around the historic Sayyidna al-Hussein Mosque, where the head of the prophet Muhammad's grandson is supposedly kept. (It is believed to have been cut off in a famous Islamic battle in Iraq.)

Some Ramadan street beggers really aren't that poor

Muslims struggle with obligations and annoyances

Throughout the Muslim world during Ramadan -- the Islamic holy month, which ends this week -- 'tis the season for giving and deceiving.

In Cairo, street begging increases exponentially during Ramadan, when the destitute emerge from the shadows to cash in on the holiday spirit. Among the true have-nots, however, are sophisticated professional begging networks that make many Muslims think twice before donating.

In Egypt, many Muslims say they struggle with how to fulfill their religious obligation of charity without feeling conned or pressured by the beggars who take over traffic intersections, loiter outside mosques, stuff their hands into rolled-down car windows and recite tales of woe. The more daring sometimes waltz right into apartment buildings, posing as gas company representatives who've come to check the meter and collect a holiday bonus.

(Child refusing to let me take a photo, unless she's paid to go away.)

Last Year's Violence Hangs Over Eid Celebrations in Egypt
The Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr has already begun in many countries. Egypt will mark the holiday on Saturday, but the celebrations connected to the Eid will continue for several days. This year, there is apprehension in Cairo after the events of last year's Eid al-Fitr, when a mob of young men rampaged through the crowds of downtown revelers, assaulting women and trying to tear off their clothes. VOA's Challiss McDonough has more from the Egyptian capital.

In Egypt, A Son Is Readied for Succession
Egyptians have never experienced a democratic transfer of presidential power. As Hosni Mubarak, 79, begins the 27th year of his rule this month, many say they expect Mubarak's family and ruling party, military officers and security officials to decide on his successor.

Egypt's National Democratic Party is now the only party legally eligible to field a presidential candidate; an independent candidate would need to secure approval to run from commissions dominated by ruling party members.

If power passes to Gamal Mubarak, Egypt would join Syria, Jordan and Morocco -- the latter two officially kingdoms -- on the growing list of modern Middle East dynasties in which sons have taken over from fathers in governments of elites backed by the military and security services. In Libya and Yemen, sons are also seen as the leading candidates to succeed their fathers.

Most Egyptians call Gamal "Jimmy." Educated in Egypt, Gamal, 43, left a job as an investment banker in London in 2000 to return home, and took a post as head of the ruling party's policy committee. He married for the first time this year.

Across the Middle East, the sons who assumed power in the 1990s and earlier this decade did so while promising greater freedoms than their fathers allowed.

"It never happens," said Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert at George Washington University. "People always think, 'He uses the Internet and he speaks good English and therefore he won't be like his parents,' but it never seems to work out that way," Lynch said by telephone.

The regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is in the midst of one of its largest crackdowns against public dissent in a decade.

Seven journalists have been given prison sentences in recent weeks; more than a thousand activists of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's most popular political opposition, languish in jail; and labor organizers involved in a wave of strikes at government-owned factories have been detained.

On Sunday, fighting between rival Bedouin clans in the Sinai Peninsula quickly spiraled into a riot targeting the police and President Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP). While local grievances sparked the fight, regular reports of widespread police brutality and torture fed anger in the Sinai, where locals called for the police chief's resignation, and are fueling public outrage around the country.

The Egyptian government says police abuse and torture here are isolated incidents and that the guilty are prosecuted. In an interview with a local newspaper earlier this year, Gen. Ahmed Dia el-Din, an assistant to the interior minister, accused the media of sensationalizing police abuses to stir up opposition to the government.

Those words have been followed in recent months by efforts to silence those who complain. In September, the government closed the Association for Human Rights and Legal Aid after it helped bring a case against the government over a political activist, Mohammed al-Sayyed, who died in police custody.

Last week, the government arrested two political activists – Mohammed al-Dereini and Ahmed Mohammed Sobh, both members of Egypt's tiny Shiite minority – following their recent efforts to expose torture in the Egyptian prison system. Mr. Dereini's 2006 book, "Hell's Capital," chronicles torture in Egyptian prisons and includes firsthand accounts from his time in jail in 2004-2005.

"Is police torture a bigger problem today? There's no question," says Gasser Abdel Razek, the director of regional relations for Human Rights Watch. "Fifteen years ago, we used to say that this or that police station is bad, or if that you were an Islamist and you got picked up after a bombing, you could count on being tortured. Today, I can't name a single police station that's good. And the victims are middle-class, they're educated, they're homeless. It doesn't make any difference."

One case that caused particular shock and revolution was the death of a 13-year-old boy, Mamduh Abdel Aziz, after he was taken into police custody in August in the delta town of Mansoura. He was charged with theft. The boy died in hospital, four days after he was beaten while in police custody. Before his death, the nearly comatose boy was shown on a video posted to with extensive burn wounds in his genital area.

Mr. Razek, like many Egyptian human rights activists, says the spread of torture was a natural consequence of the government's use of violent interrogations against alleged Islamist militants in the 1980s. What became standard doctrine for the country's antiterrorist police units spread throughout the system as officers shifted to other jobs in the police force.

"It became a culture. We have two generations of police who were brought up to use torture against Islamists. But if it's allowed and seen as effective, it spreads," says Razek.

Razek says there has only been one successful torture prosecution of a police officer in Egypt this year, and argues that police violence is systemic, not isolated.

"We've seen dissent spreading beyond those who are politically organized, for instance, the labor unrest; so the regime feels it needs to make its people afraid to control its fate," he says. "I'm not talking people agitating for democracy, but people who are worried about feeding themselves

CAIRO: The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's powerful opposition movement, has laid down its first detailed political platform, which would bar women and Christians from becoming president and establish a board of Muslim clerics to oversee the government, reminiscent of Iran's Islamic state.

The body recalls the system in Iran, where clerical councils have final say on a wide range of political issues and can even vet candidates running for president and parliament.

Bahy Eldin Hassan, head of Cairo Center for Human Rights, said the new platform shows the Brotherhood has added “vocabularies of democracy and human rights [to their rhetoric]. But the content remains the same as the old generations.’’

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