Ahad, 20 Februari 2011

The Malaysian Insider :: World

The Malaysian Insider :: World

Egypt banks and pyramids open as some protest in Cairo

Posted: 20 Feb 2011 05:48 PM PST

Back in business: The Giza pyramids beckon. — Reuters pic

Cleric Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi (centre) arrives to lead Friday prayers in Tahrir Square in Cairo, February 18, 2011. — Reuters pic

A pro-democracy supporter prays alongside Egyptian Army soldiers atop a tank during Friday prayers in Tahrir Square, Cairo, February 18, 2011. — Reuters pic

CAIRO, Feb 21 — Banks opened yesterday after a week-long closure as Egypt's economy struggled to get back on its feet after political turmoil caused by the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak and subsequent labour protests.

New military rulers watched closely as many Egyptians resumed their jobs on the first day of the working week, after issuing a stern warning effectively banning labour protests and telling workers to abandon their revolutionary fervour.

The Egyptian Museum in Cairo and the pyramids at Giza were among the tourist sites that were reopened for the first time in some three weeks. Egypt's lucrative tourist sector was dealt a body blow as foreigners stayed away.

There were some pockets of protest in Cairo.

Attempting to placate pro-democracy reformers who want swift change, the military said at the weekend that constitutional changes paving the way for elections in six months should be ready soon and the hated emergency law would be lifted before the polls.

"A new constitution is a long-term goal. Let's first get the flaws out of the system to bring the process along," one expert on a key constitutional change committee said. "The say of the people is the most important factor in this process."

At pains to distance itself from Mubarak's old guard, the government plans to reshuffle the cabinet, probably today.

The new military rulers were also facing their first foreign policy test yesterday, with two Iranian naval vessels about to sail through the Suez Canal, causing grave concern in Israel.

In a difficult decision, the military approved the Iranian ships' passage. Cairo is an ally of Washington, was the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel, and its relations with Iran have been strained for more than three decades.

Egyptians generally respect the 470,000-strong military, which played a key role in the downfall of Mubarak by not intervening, but some mistrust its intentions in reshaping a corrupt and oppressive system that it supported for decades.

"I don't think the military is the best incubator of democracy anywhere," one Western diplomat said, adding: "You have to create an open political space now, so parties can be formed with freedom of association, assembly, peaceful activities, freedom of expression without interference from police sources. That should start right away."

Political earthquake

A court at the weekend approved a new political party that had sought a licence for 15 years, making it the first to be recognised since Mubarak's overthrow and illustrating the political earthquake shaking the new Egypt.

The Wasat Party (Centre Party), set up by a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, had tried to gain an official licence four times since 1996, but each time its application was rejected by a political parties committee chaired by a leading member of the ruling party, a procedure that stifled opposition.

Washington has watched with discomfort as the Brotherhood played an increasingly big role in politics in the new Egypt, which is the Arab world's most populous nation.

By far the best-organised group that said it could win 30 per cent of the vote in an election, the Brotherhood has a member on the constitution committee, a member on a Council to protect the revolution, and is eager to register as a political party.

Any sign that the army is reneging on its promises of democracy and civilian rule could reignite mass protests on the street, and newly empowered political voices are urging the army to proceed quickly with democracy and to free political prisoners.

In another move to reach out to reformists, Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq said 222 political prisoners would soon be freed.

The government said that 365 died in the bloodshed that accompanied the revolution, with about 5,000 people injured.

Dozens of customers queued outside the branches of state-owned banks in downtown Cairo.

There were no signs of the worker protests outside the state banks that erupted last Sunday and prompted the central bank to shut down state and private banks for the rest of the week.

There were a few tourists at the Egyptian Museum, which houses the world's biggest collection of Pharaonic treasures.

"The tour operators said it was safe for us to go, so we gambled," Dutch supermarket worker Sandra de Rooij told Reuters. "We didn't know the museum would be open."

Not everyone in the Egyptian capital heeded the army's warning that "the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces will not allow the continuation of these illegal practices".

About 70 employees were demonstrating in front of the head office of the Omar Effendi department store chain in central Cairo, demanding that the company be renationalised.

Denying media reports that Mubarak, ailing in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, amassed enormous wealth in office, a representative said the 82-year-old had submitted his financial statements to judicial bodies, in accordance with the law. — Reuters

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Unrest spreads to Libyan capital, Arab protests simmer

Posted: 20 Feb 2011 05:00 PM PST

Anti-government protesters pray at Pearl Square in Manama February 20, 2011. The sign on the left reads: "I learned from Imam Hussein how to be oppressed and win. Blood will defeat the sword". — Reuters pic

A man kneels in prayer in front of the White House in Washington, February 20, 2011, as demonstrators protest against Bahrain's ruling Al-Khalifa family. — Reuters pic

TRIPOLI, Feb 21 — Violent unrest against Libya's Muammar Gaddafi spread to the capital Tripoli yesterday and his son vowed to fight until the "last man standing" after scores of protesters were killed in the east of the country.

Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam said in an address on state TV that the army stood behind his father as a "leader of the battle in Tripoli" and would enforce security at any price. His comments were the first official reaction from the Libyan authorities since the unrest began.

As he spoke, police used tear gas to disperse thousands of protesters in Tripoli, where gunfire was heard, vehicles were on fire, and protesters threw stones at billboards of Gaddafi, who is facing the most serious challenge to his four-decade rule.

Revolutions that deposed the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt have shaken the Arab world and inspired protests across the Middle East and North Africa, threatening the grip of long-entrenched autocratic leaders.

In the Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, thousands of protesters gathered in a square in Manama, calling for political change and awaiting promised talks with the island's Sunni rulers.

After days of violence, the mood among the mainly Shi'ite protesters appeared to be more conciliatory.

Libya, however, was witnessing the bloodiest episodes yet in two months of unrest convulsing the Arab world.

A resident in Tripoli told Reuters by telephone that he could hear gunshots. "We're inside the house and the lights are out. There are gunshots in the street," he said. "That's what I hear, gunshots and people. I can't go outside."

An expatriate worker said: "Some anti-government demonstrators are gathering in the residential complexes. The police are dispersing them. I can also see burning cars."

Al Jazeera television said thousands of protesters clashed with supporters of Gaddafi in Tripoli's Green Square.

The violence spread to Tripoli after days of protests in Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city, in which at least 233 people have been killed, according to Human Rights Watch.

Communications are tightly controlled and Benghazi is not accessible to international journalists, but the picture that has emerged is of a city slipping from the grasp of security forces in the biggest challenge to Gaddafi's rule since the "brotherly leader" seized power in a 1969 military coup.

Habib al-Obaidi, head of the intensive care unit at the main Al-Jalae hospital in Benghazi, said the bodies of 50 people, mostly killed by gunshots, had been brought there yesterday afternoon. The deaths came after scores were killed on Saturday.

Two hundred people had arrived wounded, 100 of them in serious condition, he said.

Members of an army unit known as the "Thunderbolt" squad had come to the hospital carrying wounded comrades, he said. The soldiers said they had defected to the cause of the hundreds of thousands of protesters in the streets and had fought and defeated Gaddafi's elite guards.

"They are now saying that they have overpowered the Praetorian Guard and that they have joined the people's revolt," another man at the hospital who heard the soldiers, lawyer Mohamed al-Mana, told Reuters by telephone.

A Libyan tribal leader threatened to block oil exports to the West within 24 hours if the government did not stop the "oppression of protesters". Another tribal chief told Al Jazeera that Gaddafi had to leave the country.

Gaddafi's son promises reform

Saif al-Islam, who has in the past pushed a reform agenda in Libya with limited success, said the protests threatened to sink Libya into civil war and split the country.

He said reports of hundreds killed were an exaggeration, but acknowledged the police and army made mistakes in dealing with the protests.

The General People's Congress, Libya's equivalent of a parliament, would convene today to discuss a "clear" reform agenda, while the government would also raise wages, in an apparent attempt to address some of the protesters' demands, he said.

The clamour for reform across a region of huge strategic importance to the West and the source of much of its oil began in Tunisia in December. The overthrow of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali then inspired Egyptians to rise up against strongman Hosni Mubarak, overthrowing him on February 11.

The tide has challenged Arab leaders, including many who have long been backed by the West as vital energy suppliers and enemies of Islamist militants. While each uprising has its own dynamics, from religion to tribalism, all protesters seem united by frustration over economic hardship and a lack of political freedom under entrenched elites.

Unrest also hit Yemen, Tunisia, Morocco, Oman, Kuwait, Algeria and Djibouti over the weekend as people took to the streets demanding political and economic change.

In Iran, thousands of security personnel were deployed in the streets of Tehran and other cities to prevent protesters rallying in spite of a ban, opposition websites said.

US 'gravely concerned'

The United States said it was "gravely concerned" by the situation in Libya and warned its citizens to delay trips there.

In Bahrain, the main opposition party said it wanted the crown prince to show signs of tackling opposition demands before any formal dialogue could start.

Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, of the ruling Sunni Muslim dynasty, made conciliatory moves after days of violence in which at least six people died.

"All political parties in the country deserve a voice at the table," he told CNN. "I think there is a lot of anger, a lot of sadness . . . We are terribly sorry and this is a terrible tragedy for our nation," said the prince, who is seen as a reformist.

Ibrahim Mattar, a lawmaker of the main opposition Wefaq party, said protesters, thousands of whom were camping out in Pearl Square, wanted more than words.

"We are waiting for an initiative from him, with a scope for dialogue," he said, adding that the prince should "send a small signal he is willing to have a constitutional monarchy".

Shi'ites, who make up 70 per cent of the population, complain of unfair treatment in Bahrain, an ally of the United States, whose Fifth Fleet is based there.

The opposition is demanding a constitutional monarchy that gives citizens a greater role in a directly elected government. It also wants the release of political prisoners.

Speculation was growing that Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, in office since independence from Britain in 1971, would be replaced by the crown prince.

In Tunisia yesterday, security forces fired into the air as tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered downtown to call for the replacement of the interim government — a sign that problems are not all swept away with the removal of a dictator.

In Yemen, shots were fired at a demonstration in the capital Sanaa on the ninth consecutive day of unrest. Thousands were demanding the departure of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who called for dialogue with the opposition.

But the coalition of main opposition parties said there could be no dialogue with "bullets and sticks and thuggery", or with a government "which gathers mercenaries to occupy public squares . . . and terrorise people".

At least 2,000 protesters gathered in a square in Morocco's capital yesterday to demand King Mohammed give up some powers. — Reuters


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