Roula Khalaf

 

Egyptian policemen standing guard outside the courthouse in Minya during the trial of some 683 Islamists on March 25, 2014. AFP/Getty Images

That Egypt’s judiciary is politicised is nothing new. Usually, though, at least it goes through the motions of a trial, allowing some form of defence and taking its time in issuing controversial verdicts.

A court in the southern city of Minya, however, has dispensed with all formality, opting instead for an absurd and outrageous miscarriage of justice. On Monday, it delivered the biggest mass death penalty in the country’s modern history, sentencing 529 Muslim Brotherhood followers to death for an August attack on a police station, in which the deputy police chief was killed. The defendants’ lawyers were not allowed into the proceedings – which lasted a mere two days. Read more

Roula Khalaf

As western leaders prepare to strike Syria, many ordinary people and observers, inside and outside the Middle East, are inevitably drawing parallels between this attack and the US-led war on Iraq a decade ago. Whether in its complicated ethnic composition and its prospects for further violence, in the weapons of mass destruction as a trigger for military action, or in the questions of legality and the likely diplomatic bypassing of the UN security council, a growing perception is that we are about to witness a repeat of recent history.

The Middle East is such a complicated place that these perceptions are not unreasonable. It’s not easy to make sense of Sunni versus Shia, Alawite versus Sunni, regime versus jihadis. Also complex is the debate over legality versus legitimacy of intervention. Western shifts of policy can be confusing, from watching tens of thousands of Syrians slaughtered to declaring the death of hundreds in an alleged gas attack a moral obscenity that cannot go unpunished. Read more

Roula Khalaf

Police arrest a supporter of ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi at a protest camp in Cairo last week. (Getty)

Saud al-Feisal, the veteran Saudi foreign minister, delivered a strident warning to Europe and the US this week as western nations consider suspending financial assistance to Egypt’s new military-backed government.

Slamming what he said was a refusal to recognise reality, in which Islamists alone were to blame for the violence and chaos spreading in Egypt, he warned that Cairo had friends in the region who would make up any reduction in aid.

He went further, hinting at potential consequences for western relations with Saudi Arabia itself. If the “strange” international policy on Egypt continued, he said, “we will not forget … and will consider it hostile attitude towards Arab and Muslim security and stability”.

Riyadh had already shown its commitment to Egypt’s new government, rushing in after the July coup with billions of dollars of assistance. Saudi officials argue that western reluctance to embrace the new government in Cairo runs against the demands of the popular majority and encourages the Islamists’ defiance, thereby provoking more violence.

Although often indecisive, and sometimes shy, Riyadh appears to be acting on Egypt in the same resolute way it handled Bahrain two years ago. Read more

Roula Khalaf

In a rambling weekend statement, Egypt’s state information service complained of “severe bitterness” towards some western media coverage, which it deemed “biased” in favour of the Muslim Brotherhood. Forget that the Brothers had won legislative and presidential elections and are now facing one of the most brutal crackdowns in their more than 80-year history; they are, says the statement, terrorizing citizens, killing innocent people, and attacking the police. And they are being aided in their devious acts by al-Qaeda.

The police and army, meanwhile, are the heroes who have rushed to protect the people and their revolution and are now standing in the face of “terrorist” attempts to “fling the country into violence.”

Expressing dismay that several western media have been focusing on the outraged reaction of some western governments, the statement recommends that they pay closer attention to the support in Egypt’s war against terrorism delivered by the likes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (the autocratic supporters of the anti-Brotherhood campaign.) Read more

Roula Khalaf

Egyptians in Tahrir Square celebrate the army's 48-hour ultimatum to President Morsi (Getty)

In the surreal world of Egyptian politics, the embattled president, Mohamed Morsi, issued his response to the army’s ultimatum at 2 am on Tuesday morning. You’re too confusing, he told the generals, and why didn’t you consult me before?

The army itself, shortly after telling Mr Morsi that he had 48 hours to fix Egypt’s irreconcilable political differences — a threat that looked very much like a creeping coup –went on to post a clarification. It’s not a coup, said the second military statement, only an attempt to push politicians to reach consensus.

Instead of consensus, though, Egypt’s divided camps were digging in their heels on Tuesday, Tahrir roaring with anti-Morsi crowds and the Muslim Brotherhood staging its own show of support for the president. Read more

Roula Khalaf

Qatar’s outgoing ruler likes to be known as a maverick in a conservative Gulf apprehensive of change. True to his reputation, he becomes the first Arab leader to abdicate in favour of his son, Crown Prince Tamim.

More changes are expected in Doha this week, not least the departure of Hamad bin Jassim, the powerful prime minister and architect of the country’s controversial foreign policy.

Whether he is ill, as many believe, or simply wanting to get ahead of the curve, the 61-year-old Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani has undoubtedly annoyed his neighbours with his move. Read more

Roula Khalaf

John Kerry and William Hague discuss Syria (Getty)

It’s comforting to see that there is a flurry of diplomacy on Syria. But it not the Geneva peace conference sponsored by the US and Russia that had been expected this month. The conference plan has run into a few problems, including that the regime’s gains on the ground have made it even less likely that Bashar al-Assad would hand over power to a transitional government, which is supposed to be the basis of peace negotiations. There’s now talk that the conference could take place in early July, starting just before the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan. Or it might be delayed until the end of the summer. Or it might never happen. Read more

Roula Khalaf

“Aren’t you ashamed?” charged a visibly angry Eric Chevalier, the French ambassador to Syria, as he chastised opposition members for failing to expand the Syrian National Coalition after a week of negotiations.

In the Youtube video clip that was making the rounds of social media sites on Tuesday, the French diplomat goes on to ask how Coalition leaders elected only eight members, when they agreed to add 22. “There is a problem,” he said. Read more

Roula Khalaf

Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika (Getty)

As Algeria’s hostage crisis unfolded last week one man was conspicuously absent from the action: President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Mr Bouteflika wields enormous power and he has dominated the country’s politics since the late 1990s. He also has been at the centre of the diplomacy in the Sahel.

Yet when the going got tough, the 75-year-old president was nowhere to be seen or heard (although he did bother to send a note of encouragement to the national football team, which is competing in the Africa Cup of Nations). Instead he left it to his prime minister, Abdelmalek Sellal, to field the anxious calls of world leaders and to communicate – rather poorly – with the public. The British government, for example, tried to contact Mr Bouteflika but was told that he was not available. Read more

Roula Khalaf

It’s too early to pass judgment, said William Hague, British foreign secretary, about Algeria’s handling of the worse hostage crisis in decades. And he might be right.

It is not easy for western governments to strike the right balance between criticism of the Algerian assault on the In Amenas gas plant and the ensuring bloodbath, and the need to appear tough and determined in combating terrorism.

But questions about whether Algeria’s military moved too rapidly on the offensive when jihadi militants took one of the country’s vital gas facilities will have to be asked by governments and by the families of those who died. Read more