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Out of ideas, Palestinian Authority censors critics

By Staff writer / 05.03.12

Over the past year, there have been growing questions about whether the long-promised "two-state solution" for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains viable, with West Bank settlements expanding, direct talks largely cut off, and the growing impression that neither side is willing to make the compromises that would be required to move the ball forward.

The most tangible positive result on this path was the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA) after the 1993 Oslo Accords, a sort of proto-Palestinian government for an eventual state.

Recently, one of the highest-profile people to throw in the towel on Oslo was Yossi Beilin, a lead Israeli negotiator on the Oslo Accords. He urged PA President Mahmoud Abbas to abandon the Oslo process as a "farce."

He wrote: "Dissolving the Palestinian Authority and returning daily control to Israel would be an action nobody could ignore... Do not hesitate for a moment!"

The PA's democratic mandate expired nearly two years ago, when scheduled elections were cancelled because of the five-year rift between Mr. Abbas' Fatah Party, which is dominant in the West Bank, and Hamas, the Islamist movement that now runs the Gaza Strip as a separate Palestinian enclave.

Amid on-again, off-again reconciliation efforts, the PA has trundled on under Fatah's guidance, and has shown increasing signs of authoritarianism and thuggish control of free speech, even as the Arab countries around them struggle to put that behind them.

Last week that PA blocked eight websites tied to a Fatah rival of Abbas, which had been heavily critical of the president, in an unprecedented case of Internet censorship. Communications Minister Mashour Abu Daka, who shortly thereafter resigned, told the Maan News Agency that Abbas' Attorney General Ahmad al-Mughni "made up his own laws to justify what was solely his decision. Blocking websites is against the public interest. I oppose it without exception.”

In March, Palestinian reporter Yousef al-Shayeb was arrested after a report alleging corruption at the Foreign Ministry, and Mr. Mughni defended the arrest as justified, calling Mr. Shayeb's reporting libelous. Two bloggers who criticized Abbas online were also recently arrested. And next week, the independent Palestinian Wattan television station is facing a $1 million defamation case over its reporting on alleged corruption involving a senior PA official.

The crackdown on the press is part of a broader pattern. In the West Bank, Hamas activists have been subject to arrest for their views for years now. (Hamas behaves in much the same manner against political opponents in Gaza, where authorities have also violently disbursed pro-Fatah demonstrations.)

In one week in April, the Palestinian rights group Al-Haq reported eight politically motivated arrests alone. "Most were university students suspected of being affiliated with Hamas and who had previously been arrested several times by the PA security forces or by the Israeli occupying forces. Others were arrested for making political statements on social networking sites or for drawing satirical cartoons."

Among those arrested was Jamal Muhammad Abu-Rihan, a political activist. His crime? Running a Facebook page that campaigns against official corruption. That sort of arrest was far too common in Mubarak's Egypt, and in Syria today.

Hamas and Fatah have dramatically different visions of the future for the Palestinian people, with Hamas far less compromising when it comes to negotiating a peace with Israel, and interested in pursuing an Islamist form of government that alarms Palestinian Christians and secularists.

Fatah and Hamas fought a brief civil war for control of Gaza in 2007, after Hamas won elections held the previous year, but Fatah refused to cede power. In Gaza, Fatah lost. There have been few signs of real healing since. 

There has been some speculation that Palestinian elections may be held this year, but as yet no tangible evidence. A reconciliation deal between the two sides announced last year appears to have led nowhere.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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Egyptians walk past a defaced poster of Egyptian presidential candidate for the upcoming elections Ahmed Shafiq in Cairo, Wednesday, May 2. (Amr Nabil/AP)

Concerns ahead for Egypt's election monitoring

By Dan MurphyStaff writer / 05.02.12

Egypt's presidential election looms, notwithstanding fighting in Cairo today and a distinct lack of trust in the country's political institutions.

While the upheaval has led to some speculation that the vote, scheduled to start May 23, may be delayed, the smart money is on the election going ahead, barring a major new crisis (there was plenty of speculation that the parliamentary election would be delayed last December, but that vote went ahead as scheduled).

So it's worth taking a look at how these elections – the first chance for Egyptians to freely choose their leader in generations – are going to be conducted. How well will they be monitored, and will monitoring make a difference?

On that score, the rules for foreign monitors are less than ideal. The rules as set out by the Presidential Election Committee (PEC), which was appointed in a March 23 decree by the military junta that has run Egypt since Hosni Mubarak was ousted in Febuary 2011, do create concerns about monitoring and transparency ahead of the most important Egyptian election for decades.

The decree says foreign monitors will be allowed, as long as they are accredited by the PEC. But three weeks ahead of the election, accreditations have not been issued. Today is the deadline for applications, and May 7 is the deadline for approval or denial, which will be decided on by the Interior Ministry, the Foreign Ministry and Egypt's National Security Agency.  

The rules are restrictive – they bar Egyptians from working with foreign groups as monitors, which increases costs and decreases the pool of people available with the language skills and local experience to be effective.

Egypt's ruling generals also appear interested in controlling the flow of information. Article 8 of the decree says that complaints of irregularities should be funneled through the PEC to handle as it seems fit, and Article 10 seeks to prevent monitors "from making any statement to the media." Article 11 requires reports written by monitoring groups after the election to include the PEC's "official response" to their findings. Article 12 allows for the PEC to cancel the accreditation for a foreign group if it "appears" that the group itself is responsible for the violations it reports and states specifically that existing laws governing elections, including jail time, may be applied if a monitor is deemed to have caused a violation.

Now, on the one hand it seems reasonable to hold monitors responsible if they, say, are found to be stuffing ballot boxes. But on the other, Egypt's legal processes are heavily politicized, particularly at the moment, as the efforts to prosecute members of a group of foreign NGOs earlier this year demonstrated all too well.

Monitors, if approved, will walk with care.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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Protesters clash with a Egyptian military solider outside the Defense Ministry in Cairo, Wednesday, May 2. (AP)

Egypt political chaos threatening to foment actual chaos

By Staff writer / 05.02.12

The steady unraveling of Egypt's "transition process" continued today, with clashes outside the Ministry of Defense as thugs armed with guns and knives sparked a melee that left at least 11 people dead and dozens injured.

A small group of Islamist protesters demanding the reinstatement of salafi sheikh Hazem Salah Abu Ismail into the presidential race were attacked by a group of armed young men in civilian dress, according to reporters on the scene. Despite the fighting occurring so close to the defense ministry, no major effort to provide security was evident. 

Egypt's transition has been run by a military junta, the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF), since Hosni Mubarak was pushed from office in February 2011. The next step to returning to some semblance of normalcy are presidential elections scheduled to begin in just three weeks.

But every other step leading up to this point has gone badly wrong.

A new constitution has not been written, as originally hoped, meaning the Mubarak-era document, which concentrated all real power in the hands of the president, remains in force. The elected parliament, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, has walked off the job, demanding that the government ministers appointed by Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi be replaced. A team of Mubarak-era judges are now considering a recommendation that they declare the parliamentary election unconstitutional, an act that would dissolve parliament and probably lead to mass street protests from Islamists. And two of the most popular candidates for the presidency have been disqualified. 

Those two are Abu Ismail and Muslim Brotherhood leader Khairat al-Shater. Ismail, a popular salafi preacher who favors the imposition of Saudi-style Islam on Egypt, was earlier disqualified because his deceased mother was said to be a US citizen. Mr. Shater, a key Muslim Brotherhood strategist, was disqualified because of Mubarak-era convictions related to his political activities.

The deaths in Cairo overnight and in the morning, which came during hours of fighting, are just the latest evidence to activists, both Islamists and the secular-minded protesters who fueled the uprising against Mubarak last year, that the generals running Egypt and the institutions they control are not to be trusted. The electoral commission overseeing the presidential election answers to SCAF, and many Egyptians are convinced that political machinations are as important to the actions of the judiciary as points of law.

The use of unarmed thugs, or baltigaya, was frequent under Mubarak, a tactic to throw the thinnest veneer of deniability over government decisions to crack heads in the street. The protesters are convinced that was what happened in the clashes today. Perhaps they're wrong. It could be the mob was sent by a political rival of the salafis. But that would, in some ways, be even more unsettling, since it would mark the spread of the use of violence as a key tool of Egyptian politics.

Leading presidential candidates Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh, an ex-Brotherhood member, and Mohammed Mursi, the Brotherhood's choice now that Shater has been thrown out, criticized SCAF for allowing this mornings violence. The Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the salafis main party, Al Nour, announced they were boycotting a meeting scheduled with Tantawi today in protest. The FJP holds about 50 percent of parliament, while Al Nour has roughly 20 percent.

Egypt's presidential election is supposed to start May 23. But the road between now and then is fraught with dangers. On May 6, a constitutional court is scheduled to rule on the legality of the parliamentary elections that finished earlier this year. Another court already disqualified the body that Parliament had set up to try to write a new constitution, enraging Islamists who said the legitimate flow of power from the ballot box was being thwarted. Tossing the Parliament out entirely would probably push that rage into overdrive.

And with the failure to provide security today for what was, after all, a small protest by recent Cairo standards, raises questions about how safe and secure the first round of the presidential elections can be, with the stakes high, the temptations to intimidate voters barely restrained by the military or police.

Egypt, if wisdom isn't shown by the men in power in the days ahead, could turn 2012 from the year in which the gains of the revolution was supposed to be ratified into the year when a long, chaotic period of street power, protest and counter protest, began.

At the moment, the institutions meant to channel popular aspirations don't appear to be working very well.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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Workers march on a street during a May Day rally to call for a minimum wage law in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Tuesday. (Lai Seng Sin/AP)

In Malaysia, a May Day pay raise, but no victory for democratic reformers

By Staff writer / 05.01.12

Malaysia's unpopular Prime Minister Najib Razak has had a rough week.

Tens of thousands of protesters from the Bersih reform movement went back to the streets of Kuala Lumpur, where they were greeted with riot police, tear gas, and more than 500 arrests. And Mr. Najib's approval rating took a hit after the last crackdown on protesters from the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, or Bersih.

Now, two days after the street battles in Kuala Lumpur, Najib's government has made a major gesture toward political popularity. For May Day, he announced Malaysia will institute its first ever minimum wage: A monthly salary of 900 ringgit ($300). A pay raise for Malaysia's poorest isn't what Bersih is after, but Najib is betting it will prove popular at the ballot box. Najib said when making the announcement that a government survey had found one-third of Malaysia's workers earn less than 700 ringgit a month.

The trouble appeared to start after protesters pushed through barriers erected to keep them out of Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) in the capital, and the riot police responded with force.

The rally was a platform for opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to speak to vast crowds expressing dissatisfaction with Malaysia's tightly controlled political process, amid indications the country might hold early elections in June.

The coalition is now demanding an overhaul of Malaysian electoral rules they say have given Malaysia's ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) a lock on political control since independence and the creation of the modern state in 1963 and led to a feudal brand of politics, with spoils sharing among the ethnic parties that back the organization. The country maintains a long-standing policy of economically favoring ethnic Malays over the country's sizable ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.

Rising living standards

Malaysia has achieved stunning economic growth since independence, and steadily rising living standards for its people.

But while elections have been dutifully held (the next general elections will be Malaysia's 13th), the government has long had control over the outcomes, with tight controls on the press, independent political organization, and the counting of the ballots themselves.

Malaysia ranks 122 out of 179 nations on Reporters Without Borders' Press Freedom Index (just behind Venezuela and Zimbabwe). The country has seen rampant gerrymandering of electoral districts and allegations in the 2008 elections that the National Front might be voting the cemetery given the electoral rolls had more than 9,000 people over 100 on them.

Ahead of the last elections, Human Rights Watch charged that "the authorities’ manipulation of the electoral process appears aimed to ensure that the ruling coalition maintains its two-thirds parliamentary majority." It also charges that "police have repeatedly blocked attempts by opposition parties to hold election rallies by refusing to issue the permits required for any gathering of four or more people."

Bersih, then as now, was calling for electoral reform ahead of the election. But the movement had largely gone dormant until the Arab uprisings that began in early 2011 caught the imagination of the Malaysian public.

The National Front is an umbrella for a group of ethnically and regionally-focused parties, with the United Malays National Orginization (UMNO) chief among them, with the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress its principal partners.

But Malaysia's growing middle class has increasingly strained the old ways of doing political business in the former British colony.

In the last elections in 2008, the National Front won 63 percent of the seats. That was a 58 seat decline from the previous election, and marked the first time that the Front hadn't won two-thirds of the seats since the '60s.

Almost all of the lost seats went to the People's Alliance, an amalgam of three opposition groups that will almost certainly be led at the next election by Anwar, a former UMNO stalwart who fell out with the party in the late 1990s and spent six years in jail on sodomy charges for his pains.

Anwar is a far more charismatic political figure than Najib, and the government is clearly worried. Members of UMNO declared that Anwar had "hijacked" Bersih for his own political ends, and that it was his presence at the event that stirred the violence over the weekend. The pro-government New Straits Times has carried headlines in the past few days like "MCA Youth: Anwar, Azmin should own up to turning gathering into a riot," and "A show of hooliganism." Azmin Ali is the deputy leader of Anwar's People's Justice Party (PKR).

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In this image from video, News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch appears at Lord Justice Brian Leveson's inquiry in London, Wednesday, April 25, to answer questions under oath about how much he knew about phone hacking at the News of the World tabloid. (AP/File)

Rupert Murdoch declared unfit to lead. The price of half-truths?

By Dan MurphyStaff writer / 05.01.12

In Rupert Murdoch's appearances before the British parliamentary inquiry into allegations of illegal phone hacking and bribery of public officials by two of his UK newspapers, his strategy has been a simple one: Claim he had no knowledge of the extent of the problem, complain that he was misled by subordinates, and promise to fix the culture of his company going forward.

In the damning report News International and Phone-Hacking, the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee has now responded by saying, in effect, that if Mr. Murdoch is taken at his word then he should no longer be running his $49 billion News Corporation. Both Murdoch and his son James told recent parliament hearings that they were misled by executives Tom Crone and Colin Myler about the extent of phone hacking at News International's papers. The committee found that Mr. Crone and Mr. Myler misled them about what they knew, and when they knew it, but also argued that at minimum the Murdochs should have known more themselves. News International is the News Corp. subsidiary for its UK print holdings.

On the basis of the facts and evidence before the Committee, we conclude that, if at all relevant times Rupert Murdoch did not take steps to become fully informed about  phone-hacking, he turned a blind eye and exhibited willful blindness to what was going on in his companies and publications."

"This culture, we consider, permeated from the top throughout the organisation and speaks volumes about the lack of effective corporate governance at News Corporation and News International. We conclude, therefore, that Rupert Murdoch is not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company.

The finding doesn't carry any legal weight on his own – the UK has no power to remove Murdoch from his positions at the multinational he built from after inheriting a daily newspaper in Adelaide, Australia, from his father in 1952. But UK government regulators have been considering News Corp.'s ownership of satellite station BskyB. The company now owns 39 percent of the company and had hoped to make a $13 billion bid for the full company until that effort was dropped last year as the Murdoch companies became embroiled in scandal. It's possible that the 39 percent stake may come under scrutiny. 

Ofcom, the UK's broadcast regulator, requires owners of television licenses to be deemed "fit and proper" for that public responsibility. The hacking scandal, which began at the since-shuttered News of the World weekly tabloid but has now spread to its daily sister publication, The Sun, has already forced Murdoch to abandon a bid for full control of BskyB, which has broadcast rights to Premier League soccer and other sporting events and brought in $715 million of profit in the first half of its current fiscal year. With a parliament committee already declaring Murdoch an enabler of a malfeasance at his companies, Ofcom may take another look at News Corp's ownership stake in BskyB.

The elder Murdoch's reputation is very much in tatters. More than 20 current and former employees have been arrested in the series of scandals that emerged after the discovery last year that NotW reporters hacked into the cellphone of Millie Dowler in 2002, after the 13-year-old girl was abducted. She was later found murdered.

But NotW employees had broken into her cellphone and deleted messages in her full inbox, hoping they'd be able to eavesdrop on future messages left by her worried family. Those deletions gave the Dowler's false hope that their daughter was still alive. As the story came out, the British public and members of parliament were outraged.

To be sure, investors don't appear worried about the prospect of News Corp. losing some or all of its stake in BskyB. News Corps shares were up 1.5 percent in mid-morning trading, following the release of the report. A forced sale of part or all of the BskyB stake is still a dim possibility, and since it's worth about $4.5 billion and there would be plenty of willing suitors, there would be a lot of cash to help News Corp move on.

The report was issued over the objections of all of four voting Conservatives on the committee, arrayed against five Labour MPs and one Liberal Democrat who voted in favor. The committee will seek an endorsement of its findings from the full House of Commons in the next week or so.

In the full house, the Conservatives control 305 seats against 253 for Labour and 57 for the Liberal Democrats. Bloomberg quotes one of the dissenting Conservatives on the committee,  Philip Davies, as saying: “Rupert Murdoch clearly is a fit and proper person to run an international company ... he’s been running businesses since before I was born. We’ve seen absolutely no evidence to suggest that Rupert Murdoch was aware these things were going on.”

The report charges that Les Hinton, who is one of Murdoch's most trusted lieutenants and was put in charge of Dow Jones & Co. (which owns the Wall Street Journal) after News Corp's takeover in 2007, "misled the committee about the extent of his knowledge of allegations that phone-hacking extended beyond Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire to others at News of the World." Mr. Hinton stepped down last summer as the scandal unfolded.

Mr. Goodman was NotW's royal correspondent, and he and Mr. Mulcaire, a private investigator employed by the paper, were caught hacking into the phone messages of people connected to the British royal family. After that scandal, Hinton and other Murdoch employees insisted that it was an isolated incident.

The report clearly is a result of the frustration of its drafters over what it paints as a pattern of half-truths and concealment in testimony over the years and details how members of the committee itself have occasionally been put under surveillance by phone hacking and the hiring of private investigators by News International employees as far back as 2001. 

Corporately, the News of the World and News International misled the Committee about the true nature and extent of the internal investigations they professed to have carried out in relation to phone hackings; by making statements they would have known were not fully truthful; and by failing to disclose documents which would have helped expose the truth.

In failing to investigate properly and by ignoring evidence of widespread wrongdoing, News International, and its parent News Corporation exhibited willful blindness, for which the companies directors – including Rupert  Murdoch and James Murdoch – should ultimately be prepared to take responsibility. 

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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Children are seen through the window of a house under construction as they play cricket on the demolished site of a compound of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad May 1, 2012. Al Qaeda leader bin Laden was killed almost a year ago, by a United States special operations military unit in a raid on his compound in Abbottabad. (Mian Khursheed/Reuters)

One year after Osama bin Laden's killing, Al Qaeda is in tatters

By Staff writer / 05.01.12

Nearly 11 years ago, Osama bin Laden was on a high. His tight-knit band of terrorists wreaked havoc on the United States, taking down the twin icons of America's financial might in New York, striking at the main symbol of America's military power in Washington, and killing more than 3,000 people on American soil in the process.

In the years after Al Qaeda's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Saudi Arabian jihadi could hardly believe his luck. His video messages of threats and bluster were broadcast around the world, and the US was soon drawn into a ruinous war in Iraq.

The conflict proved a recruiting magnet for his ideology, bringing hundreds of fighters from across the Arab world to a country in turmoil on the doorstep of his ultimate objective: Saudi Arabia, and its monarchy that he had come to despise.

He made gleeful predictions that the US "empire" would collapse, just as the Soviet Union had (jihadis like bin Laden liked to tell themselves that the war they helped wage against the Soviets in Afghanistan, not a bankrupt political system, is what caused the superpower to unravel) and that it was only a matter of time before the House of Saud would fall too, heralding the rise of the caliphate of his dreams.

Approval slips from 60-70 percent to 20-30 percent

But then it all went wrong, and badly. The unprecedented international security cooperation spawned by Al Qaeda attacks in the early and mid-2000s had led to the arrest and killing of lieutenant after lieutenant.

Bin Laden's acolytes in Iraq, with an almost nihilistic string of attacks on schools, on ambulances, and on Iraqis sleeping in their beds whose only crime was not sharing Al Qaeda's extreme vision for the world's future caused most of the Muslim world to recoil in horror. His redoubt in Afghanistan was lost, hundreds of his supporters were killed in airstrikes, and he was pushed into living in Pakistan, with the acquiescence of elements of that country's security services.

In the corners of the Muslim world where Al Qaeda had wrested control – parts of Iraq's Anbar province during the height of the war there, or in Afghanistan, or in spots in Yemen – they alienated local residents with arrogance and aggressive attempts to suppress the local tribal cultures. 

And while the Arab uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere have threatened a regional order that bin Laden despised, the vast majority of regional citizens have rallied for a democratic voice, not for a medieval caliphate. Islamists will certainly be empowered by real democratic change in the region, but they will be those of the Muslim Brotherhood's brand, a group he despised.

It has now been almost six years since a major attack has been successfully carried out by his organization outside Iraq or Afghanistan (the November 2005 attacks on hotels in Amman, Jordan, that murdered about 60 people). And while there are fellow travelers under the Al Qaeda brand name in places like Yemen, their ability to operate outside their areas remains as yet unproven. Bin Laden's optimism that the Muslim world would flock to his banner was proven foolish.

Polling tells the tale of his failure. Before the Al Qaeda attacks in Amman in 2005, 61 percent of Jordan's citizens told Pew pollsters that bin Laden was a positive force in world affairs. The following year, after the murders in their capital, that number dropped to 24 percent. By 2011, that number had declined further to 13 percent.

It's a similar story elsewhere. In Indonesia in 2003, 59 percent had confidence in him. By last year, that number was 26 percent. In the Palestinian territories, his approval dropped from 72 percent in 2003 to 34 percent last year. And in Pakistan, he fell from 46 percent to 21 percent.

'He confessed to "disaster after disaster" '

In short, while the murderous ideology of Al Qaeda lives on, organizationally it is in tatters. And it already was by the time bin Laden was finally killed. What his successor, the dour Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, will be able to do about it is unclear. Mr. Zawahiri lacks the charisma or stature of his former boss.

John Brennan, President Obama's counterterrorism adviser, said yesterday that Al Qaeda was already teetering by the time its inspirational figurehead was tracked to his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Mr. Brennan said documents recovered from that compound during the US raid indicated that bin Laden was well aware how much trouble his group was in.

"He confessed to 'disaster after disaster'" in his writings, Brennan said in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "Under intense pressure in the tribal regions of Pakistan, they have fewer places to train and groom the next generation of operatives, they're struggling to attract new recruits... morale is low." Brennan said bin Laden had considered a name change for the group in desperation. "For the first time since this fight began, we can look ahead and envision a world in which the Al Qaeda core is simply no longer relevant," he concluded.

To be sure, Brennan works for Obama, who is headed into a tough reelection fight. And officials overstating the security successes of sitting administrations is a time honored tradition in American politics. But it's hard to look at the work against Al Qaeda over the past decade under two administrations, one Republican and the other Democrat, and not see major successes.

The Al Qaeda of Sept. 11 has failed

Will jihadis inspired by Al Qaeda's ideology successfully strike out at the US or other international targets again? Probably.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group's offshoot in Yemen, has some potency. The war in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad appears to have attracted Al Qaeda-style jihadis, judging by reports of suicide bombings there, and when that conflict ends they may fan out. And in Mali, an Al Qaeda-style group appears to have taken some territory thanks to the recent coup and chaos there.

But Al Qaeda as it was understood after Sept. 11 has failed. The groups followers only have a strong presence in exceedingly weak states like Yemen, or Somalia, and are further away from their quixotic dream of conquering the world in the name of a regressive version of Islam than they were 10 years ago.

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Israel's Defence Minister Ehud Barak (l.) sits across from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2nd r.) during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday. Netanyahu dropped heavy hints on Sunday of an early election, shifting the national focus from a former spymaster's accusations that he could start a 'messianic' war with Iran. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

Israel security establishment goes where US politicians fear to tred

By Staff writer / 04.30.12

When Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, said in February that it wouldn't be "wise" for Israel to attack Iran and said that the "Iranian regime is a rational actor" that can be negotiated with and pressured via sanctions, he received a withering attack from the hawkish American right and criticism from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported then that Mr. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak told US officials privately that General Dempsey's comments "served Iran's interests" and that an unnamed senior Israeli official complained "the Iranians see there's controversy between the United States and Israel, and that the Americans object to a military act. That reduces the pressure on them."

Well, now Dempsey has been joined by a number of other security experts who appear to share his point of view on a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran. They are Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad, Israel's international spy service; Yuval Diskin, the former head of the Shin Bet, the country's domestic intelligence service; (Ret.) Gen. Gabi Askhenazi, a former head of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF); and Gen. Benny Gantz, the current head of the IDF.

Showing how raw emotions are, and how split the Israeli establishment is on war with Iran and other issues, former premier Ehud Olmert spoke out against a rush to war with Iran in a speech in New York sponsored by The Jerusalem Post on Sunday. According to the New York Times, Mr. Olmert cautioned against war with Iran, said Netanyahu was disinterested in making the compromises required for peace with the Palestinians, and warned Israel against alienating the Obama Administration. Of Obama, Olmert said: "You have to respect him.... He is the president of the most powerful nation on Earth, and happens to be a friend of Israel."

That comment drew boos from the largely Jewish-American crowd, and at other moments audience members shouted out "Neville Chamberlain" (the UK prime minister who sought to make peace with Hitler) and "naive."

Israel is turning towards elections that must be held by the end of next year, but that many in the country now speculate will be moved up to this fall, ahead of the US presidential election. At the moment, Mr. Netanyahu and his coalition partners look well positioned to retain the government, but the public squabbling can't be helping.

Israeli politicians are known for their very public disagreements, but differences between security officials past and present and Israel's sitting government – especially on a topic as critical as this – are rare. Israel's generals have far more sway over policy in Israel than US ones do, at least historically, and in the case of the war posturing over Iran's nuclear program the simple message of their public comments appears to be: Don't.

But the debate is also a sign of how much Israel's political culture is changing. Allies of Netanyahu have been whispering that Mr. Diskin and Mr. Dagan are merely angry that they didn't retain senior posts and are lashing out in a fit of pique.

More generally, Israel's political order has been transformed in recent decades. The views of men like Netanyahu were once to the far right of Israeli public opinion. They are now firmly in the center, and the centrist and cautious views of many in the older cadre of senior officers have shifted from the center, to what might now be called the left.

Diskin's comments were the most striking, even shocking. A career internal security man, much of his climb through the ranks was in dealing with terrorist attacks emanating from the West Bank. He declared both Netanyahu and Mr. Barak unfit to lead Israel, accused them of "misleading the public on the Iran issue," and said that contrary to their position that military action would deter Iran "many experts say that an Israeli attack would accelerate the Iranian nuclear race."

"My major problem is that I have no faith in the current leadership, which must lead us in an event on the scale of war with Iran or a regional war. I don't believe in either the prime minister or the defense minister. I don't believe in a leadership that makes decisions based on messianic feelings," Diskin told a political meeting. "Believe me, I have observed them from up close.... They are not people who I, on a personal level, trust to lead Israel to an event on that scale and carry it off. These are not people who I would want to have holding the wheel in such an event."

Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer said Diskin's warning that an Israeli strike could harden an Iranian desire for the bomb is striking. "While it is true that many experts have expressed this opinion, this is the first time that a central figure who was so recently within the innermost security circles has said such a thing."

The logic of Diskin's point is simple. Though Iran insists publicly that it doesn't want a bomb, it can see the example of the NATO bombing campaign that helped drive Libya's Qaddafi from power (a few years after he gave up his nuclear program) on the one hand, and the freedom from external military interference of North Korea on the other. Israel's war planners believe a successful strike on Iran could knock its nuclear efforts back a few years, but not wipe it out entirely. Perhaps it will reason in the aftermath of such a strike that the best way to guarantee its security is to get the bomb, after all.

General Gantz said last week that he deems Iran rational, and that though he's deeply concerned that Iran is advancing towards the place where it could get a bomb, if it so chose, that it isn't committed to taking the final step yet. He said:

"If the supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wants, he will advance it to the acquisition of a nuclear bomb, but the decision must first be taken. It will happen if Khamenei judges that he is invulnerable to a response. I believe he would be making an enormous mistake, and I don't think he will want to go the extra mile. I think the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people. But I agree that such a capability, in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists who at particular moments could make different calculations, is dangerous."

This is a very different position from that of Netanyahu and Barak, who have insisted repeatedly that the time for action is nearly at hand, and that negotiations will go nowhere.

Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan, a member of Netanyahu's Likud, and Dagan also went at in in New York over the weekend. Dagan said he agreed with Diskin's position, to which Mr. Erdan responded that Diskin was simply bitter he'd been passed over for a senior position. To that, Dagan responded, "You're a liar." Erdan also said that "Mossad chiefs [shouldn't] sabotage Netanyahu's efforts to garner the world's support against Iran."

What to make of it all? Simply, that there are major splits within Israel on the right course of action going forward. A healthy debate is being had on that question, right out in the open.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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Ahead of elections, Egypt's state propaganda machine rolls on

By Staff writer / 04.30.12

Last week, Egypt's state-owned newspaper Al Ahram helped kick up an international storm with a bit of dodgy journalism: It ran an opinion piece by Amr Abdel Samea, a former loyalist of deposed President Hosni Mubarak, that stated that Mervat el-Tallawy, the head of Egypt's National Council for Women, had complained that Egypt's parliament was considering a piece of legislation sponsored by Islamists to allow men to have sex with their wives after their death.

The story was translated into English by Al Arabiya, and was quickly picked up by outlets like the Huffington Post and the sensationalist British tabloid The Daily Mail, which distorted the original claim from a proposal to a done deal: "Egyptian husbands will soon be legally allowed to have sex with their dead wives," the tabloid claimed, apparently having misunderstood the original Arabiya translation. The story buzzed around the world, held up in blogs as evidence of the immorality of Islamist politicians. The current version of the Wikipedia article on necrophilia even has a section devoted to the claim.

The problem is that there was never any such proposal, at any stage of consideration, in the Egyptian parliament. Ms. Tallawy issued a statement today that says she's concerned about legislation that may harm the position of women in Egypt, but that there was never any "sex after death law" under consideration, let alone one she complained about. Arabiya followed up as well, quoting Parliament Secretary Sami Mahran as saying no such piece of legislation ever existed.

This is hardly surprising. Anyone who knew Egypt didn't believe it in the first place, since sex with the dead is a laughably extreme position that no Egyptian Islamist group has ever espoused but is exactly the kind of overheated scare-mongering that can be potentially useful for opponents of Islamist politicians as Egypt's presidential campaign heats up.

In the presidential campaign, former Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa (who served as Mubarak's foreign minister for a decade) is the old establishment's preferred candidate. His main rivals are former Muslim Brotherhood executive Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh and current Brotherhood member, Mohammed Morsi.

Ahram's reporting should be seen within its traditional framework – serving the interests of those in power. That was Mr. Mubarak for decades. Now, it's the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF), the military junta that has run Egypt since Mubarak's ouster last February.

Ahram under Mubarak was much like Pravda in the old Soviet Union. Consider the former president's September 2010 visit to Washington for Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. A photographer captured Mubarak, President Obama, Jordanian King Abdullah, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walking the red carpet together. Mubarak trailed the whole group, just behind Mr. Netanyahu.

Ahram judged this not befitting a leader of Mubarak's stature, so photo-shopped the image to put the former president in the center of the frame, in front of the other world leaders. It was probably no coincidence that this came just ahead of parliamentary elections and at a time when many Egyptians were speculating about the aging leader's health, and his plans to install his son Gamal Mubarak as his successor.

NPR devoted a segment of its program "On the Media" in February 2011 to the role of Ahram in bolstering Mubarak's power, with the host explaining that "in the past five years, under the editorship of Mubarak crony Osama Saraya, Al Ahram has developed into a propaganda machine, devoting hagiographic and occasionally utterly fabricated coverage to the former president and his regime."

The paper says it has changed since Mubarak's fall, but appears to continue to serve the interests of those in power. After days of criticism of last week's necrophilia hoax, the paper sought to shift blame to others. In a news article it reported that a "number of newspapers and websites" had speculated about such a law, and cited a Daily Mail story in which the Mail quoted an Egyptian diplomat in London as saying that the claims were false. Ahram's story – soon pulled from its website – made no mention that all the reports of the claim originated directly and specifically with its story.

"Reporting the controversy" is an old journalistic trick. If there's some salacious story in a tabloid that the quality press wants to report, but doesn't want to be accused of amplifying, it reports the claim has "stirred controversy" and then reports reaction to whatever the claim is, notwithstanding the truth value of the claim. But a "reporting the controversy" approach when the false story originates with yourself? That's a new innovation. 

Last week Ahram carried another false report that cast Islamists in a bad light. The paper reported that the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) had tabled a law in parliament that would severely curtail Internet freedom in Egypt. The trouble? The FJP immediately denied seeking to advance any such legislation, and as a number of Egyptian reporters and activists pointed out, the draft law published in Ahram appeared to be a straight cut and paste of a piece of Saudi Arabian legislation; the word "Kingdom" was even left in Ahram's version of the story where "Republic" would have been used by an Egyptian.

There is plenty to worry about when it comes to women's rights and Egypt's Islamists. So far, the parliament is a paper tiger, with a new constitution to be written and most powers of government in the hands of the executive. And if the Muslim Brotherhood ever manages to translate its dominance of parliament into the power to actually legislate, I would expect legislation under the guise of protecting against pornography, or blasphemy, or "the dignity of women" to emerge that would be harmful to basic rights. The salafi sect, currently the junior partner in parliament, are particularly hostile to the position of women, and would probably favor laws mandating head scarves for women.

But speculation about the future is a long way from things that are actually happening in the present. Though much has changed in Egypt, it looks increasingly like Al Ahram has largely remained the same.

Reform and rumblings in Jordan

By Staff writer / 04.27.12

Jordanian Prime Minister Awn Khasawneh stepped down from his post yesterday amid a controversy about a proposed new election law that has roiled the kingdom, with supporters of the old way of doing things squaring off against those demanding a move towards democracy.

Mr. Khasawneh, a long time adviser to Jordan's royal family, who helped negotiate the country's peace deal with Israel in 1994, was appointed to his post last October in an attempt to mollify growing street protests demanding an opening of the political system.

The election law he's been working on was intended to deliver that opening. But he's been hemmed in on two sides: one, by tribal leaders close to the court and the security services worried that it would end up delivering power into the hands of Jordan's opposition. And two, by the opposition, which has complained loudly that the new law doesn't go far enough.

The law has stalled. And now Khasawneh, who reached out to Islamist politicians, started corruption investigations against high officials, and promised a fairer election law soon after taking office, is gone.

Marc Lynch wrote of Khasawneh's resignation that "the last straw, it appears, was the disappointing new election law which failed to respond to long-standing complaints by political activists, parties, and outside analysts... The sudden resignation of the respected jurist should draw renewed attention to Jordan's political stability – and raise important questions about its willingness and ability to reform."

Curtis Ryan, a political scientist at Appalachian State and author of two books on modern Jordanian politics, wrote an in-depth piece in Foreign Policy about the reform wrangling in the country before Khasawneh resigned. He points to splits between Jordan's Palestinian and East Bank communities (the East Bankers, the "native" Jordanians, are over-represented in the current parliament thanks to existing electoral rules), lawmakers that have appeared mostly interested in preserving their own privilege, and anger from Islamists that the new rules are being designed to limit their possible power.

As much debate as the new law has triggered amongst Jordan's many pro-reform constituencies, political opposition in Jordan has taken a major turn in the last few years by moving beyond just the perennial new electoral law debates. The electoral law matters, to be sure. But opposition forces have rallied over a diverse set of demands that may seem disparate or even muddled to less democratically minded forces in the kingdom, but in actuality represent a fairly clear program. Pro-democracy and pro-reform activists in parliament have at various times called for more checks and balances between the legislature and executive authority (often arguing for a more constitutional monarchy), a more independent judiciary, the release of activists jailed in demonstrations, a reduced role for the (secret police) in daily life, and an end to corrupt governmental and business practices in the context of the country's longstanding economic privatization program.

The stakes are high regarding all these issues -- and of course regarding the electoral law as well -- since the new rules will set the stage for new elections and a new parliament, and opposition forces hope (for the first time in modern Jordanian history) to see future governments drawn from parliamentary majorities, rather than by royal appointment.

Ryan and others point out that if accommodations aren't made, there are risks ahead for Jordan, with a population that was riveted by the uprising in nearby Egypt and now watching in horror the war in Syria, with refugees from that conflict already streaming into their country.

The fast, wrenching change that descended on Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya last year, sparked the ongoing Syrian civil war, and led to the current hostile and occasionally bloody standoff between Bahrain's rulers and its people, may seem to have come out of nowhere. But the one thing these different countries – and other Arab nations that have not been touched as much by turmoil – have in common is that they failed at the trick of opening up enough to head off eventual disaster while still retaining control.

That trick is what is usually meant when the word "reform" is tossed about. Bend, before you break. Create political institutions that give a dissatisfied populace a voice in the system before they take to the streets. It may be later than you think.

Egypt is a case in point. For over a decade, US officials in first the Bush administration and later Obama's, consistently told Hosni Mubarak and the courtiers around him to act before it was too late. He acceded to the US demands occasionally, usually when it looked like Egyptian aid was on the line, but never took the message to heart. His regime was strong, he reasoned, and knew what was best for the country. And if worst came to worst, he was an indispensable regional partner for the US, with its concerns about Islamist militancy and the security of Israel, and he would be saved.

Then the storm broke and the rest, as they say, is history.

Well, the Jordan of King Abdullah, and of his father King Hussein before him, has some similarities to the Egypt of Mubarak. The only other Arab state to make peace with Israel is another friend of the US, an important partner in America's regional ambitions, and home to a restive population. With an eye on not being the next domino to fall, Abdullah made steps towards a political opening last year. But now, it seems, change may be stalling.

Jordan's monarchy has proven very effective over the years at facing down challenges, both the bloody, as its defeat of the Black September movement in 1970 and '71, in which King Hussein faced down a potential takeover of Jordan by the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and the peaceful, as the democratic reform process enacted in 1989 in response to street protests has shown. 

But the Jordanian people have been glued to satellite television and the Internet the past year, watching rolling, partially successful demands for change elsewhere. The country is stable for now, but as Egypt and other neighbors show, pressure can build up for years along political fault-lines before erupting into an earthquake.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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Egypt 'necrophilia law'? Hooey, utter hooey.

By Staff writer / 04.26.12

Update: Further research showed there was no validity to the claim that Egypt was considering a "sex after death" law. I followed up with a piece on April 30.

Today, Egypt's state-owned Al Ahram newspaper published an opinion piece by Amr Abdul Samea, a past stalwart supporter of the deposed Hosni Mubarak, that contained a bombshell: Egypt's parliament is considering passing a law that would allow husbands to have sex with their wives after death.

It was soon mentioned in an English language version of Al-Arabiya and immediately started zipping around social-networking sites. By this afternoon it had set news sites and the rest of the Internet on fire. It has every thing: The yuck factor, "those creepy Muslims" factor, the lulz factor for those with a sick sense of humor. The non-fact-checked Daily Mail picked it up and reported it as fact. Then Andrew Sullivan, who has a highly influential blog but is frequently lax about fact-checking, gave it a boost with an uncritical take. The Huffington Post went there, too.

There's of course one problem: The chances of any such piece of legislation being considered by the Egyptian parliament for a vote is zero. And the chance of it ever passing is less than that. In fact, color me highly skeptical that anyone is even trying to advance a piece of legislation like this through Egypt's parliament. I'm willing to be proven wrong. It's possible that there's one or two lawmakers completely out of step with the rest of parliament. Maybe. 

SEE ALSO – IN PICTURES: Behind the veil

But extreme, not to mention inflammatory claims, need at minimum some evidence (and I've read my share of utter nonsense in Al Ahram over the years). The evidence right now? Zero.

There was a Moroccan cleric a few years back who apparently did issue a religious ruling saying that husbands remained married to their wives in the first six hours after death and, so, well, you know. But that guy is far, far out on the nutty fringe. How fringe? He also ruled that pregnant women can drink alcohol. Remember, alcohol is considered haram, forbidden, by the vast majority of the world's Muslim scholars. Putting an unborn child at risk to get drunk? No, that's just not what they do. Whatever the mainstream's unpalatable beliefs (there are plenty from my perspective) this isn't one of them.

It's important to remember that the structure of the Muslim clergy is, by and large, like that of a number of Protestant Christian sects. Anyone can put out a shingle and declare themselves a preacher. The ones to pay attention to are the ones with large followings, or attachment to major institutions of Islamic learning. The preacher in Morocco is like the preacher in Florida who spent so much time and energy publicizing the burning of Qurans.

Stories like this are a reminder of the downside of the Internet. It makes fact-checking and monitoring easier. But the proliferation of aggregation sites, newsy blog sites, and the general erosion of editorial standards (and on-the-ground reporters to do the heavy lifting) also spreads silliness faster than it ever could before.

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Danny Bent poses at the starting line of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Mass.

After the Boston Marathon bombings, Danny Bent took on a cross-country challenge

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