Hosni Mubarak

A member part of the Black Bloc holds the Egyptian national flag during clashes with riot police near Tahrir Square, in Cairo, on Monday.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

CAIRO — Protesters battled police for hours in Cairo on Monday and thousands marched through Egypt’s three Suez Canal cities in direct defiance of a nighttime curfew and state of emergency, handing a blow to the Islamist President Mohammed Morsi’s attempts to contain five days of spiraling political violence.

Nearly 60 people have been killed in the wave of unrest, clashes, rioting and protests that have touched cities across the country but have hit the hardest in the canal cities, where residents have virtually risen up in outright revolt.

The latest death came on Monday in Cairo, where a protester died of gunshot wounds as youths hurling stones battled all day and into the night with police firing tear gas near Qasr el-Nil Bridge, a landmark over the Nile next to major hotels. In nearby Tahrir Square, protesters set fire to a police armored personnel carrier, celebrating as it burned in scenes reminiscent of the 2011 revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak.

“I will be coming back here every day until the blood of our martyrs is avenged,” said 19-year-old carpenter Islam Nasser, who wore a Guy Fawkes mask as he battled police near Tahrir square.

Angry and at times screaming and wagging his finger, Morsi on Sunday declared a 30-day state of emergency and a nighttime curfew on the three Suez Canal cities of Suez, Ismailiya and Port Said and their provinces of the same names. He said he had instructed the police to deal “firmly and forcefully” with the unrest and threatened to do more if security was not restored.

But when the 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew began Monday evening, crowds marched through the streets of Port Said, beating drums and chanting, “Erhal, erhal,” or “Leave, leave” — a chant that first rang out during the 18-day uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011 but is now directed at Morsi.

CAIRO — A Cairo appeals court on Sunday overturned Hosni Mubarak’s life sentence and ordered a retrial of the former Egyptian president for failing to prevent the killing of hundreds of protesters during the 2011 uprising that toppled his regime.

The ruling put the spotlight back on the highly divisive issue of justice for the former leader and his top security officers.

Mubarak, who is currently being held in a military hospital, will remain in custody while under investigation in an unrelated case.

The court did not provide the reasoning for its ruling, but was expected to do so later. No date has been set for the retrial.

Egyptian protesters chant slogans against President Mohammed Morsi in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday. Egyptians gathered in the square Tuesday for a protest against Egypt's president in a significant test of whether the opposition can rally the street behind it in a confrontation aimed at forcing the Islamist leader to rescind decrees that granted him near absolute powers.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

CAIRO — More than 200,000 people thronged Cairo’s central Tahrir Square, protesting against Egypt’s Islamist president Tuesday in an opposition show of strength, as the standoff over Mohammed Morsi’s assertion of near absolute powers escalated into the biggest challenge yet to his and the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule.

The massive, flag-waving, chanting crowd in the iconic plaza rivaled the size of some of the large protests of last year’s uprising that drove autocrat Hosni Mubarak from office. The same chants used against Mubarak were now turned against Egypt’s first freely elected leader.

“The people want to bring down the regime,” and “erhal, erhal” — Arabic for “leave, leave,” rang across the square.

Protests in Tahrir and several other cities Tuesday were sparked by edicts issued by Morsi last week that effectively neutralized the judiciary, the last branch of government he does not control. But it turned into a broader outpouring of anger against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Opponents say have used election victories to monopolize power, squeeze out rivals, and dictate a new, Islamist constitution, while doing little to solve Egypt’s mounting economic and security woes.

Clashes broke out in several cities as Morsi opponents tried to attack offices of the Brotherhood. At least 100 people were injured when protesters and Brotherhood members protecting their office pelted each other with stones and firebombs in the Nile Delta city of Mahalla el-Kobra.

“Power has exposed the Brotherhood. We discovered their true face,” said Laila Salah, a housewife in the Tahrir protest who said she voted for Morsi in this summer’s presidential election. After Mubarak, she said, Egyptians would no longer consent to an autocrat.

“It’s like a wife whose husband was beating her and then she divorces him and becomes free,” she said. “If she remarries she’ll never accept another day of abuse.”

Gehad el-Haddad, a senior adviser to the Brotherhood and its political party, said Morsi would not back down on his edicts. “We are not rescinding the declaration,” he told The Associated Press.

That sets the stage for a drawn-out battle between the two sides that could throw the nation into greater turmoil. Protest organizers on a stage in the square called for another mass rally on Friday. If the Brotherhood responds with mass rallies of its own, as some of its leaders have hinted, it would raise the prospect of greater violence.

A tweet by the Brotherhood warned that if the opposition was able to bring out 200,000-300,000 “they should brace for millions in support” of Morsi.

Another flashpoint could come Sunday, when the constitutional court is due to rule on whether to dissolve the assembly writing the new constitution, which is dominated by the Brotherhood and Islamist allies. Morsi’s edicts explicitly banned the courts from disbanding the panel. If the court defies him and rules anyway, it would be a direct challenge that could spill over into the streets.

“Then we are in the face of the challenge between the supreme court and the presidency,” said Nasser Amin, head of the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession. “We are about to enter a serious conflict” on both the legal and street level, he said.

A protester is detained by security forces in front of the Saudi Embassy in Cairo during a demonstration to demand the release of a human rights lawyer detained in Saudi Arabia for allegedly insulting the monarch.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia closed its Cairo embassy Saturday and recalled its ambassador following protests over a detained Egyptian human rights lawyer in a sharp escalation of tension between two regional powerhouses already on shaky terms due to uprisings in the Arab world.

The unexpected Saudi diplomatic break came following days of protests by hundreds of Egyptians outside the Saudi Embassy in Cairo and consulates in other cities to demand the release of Ahmed el-Gezawi. Relatives and human rights groups say he was detained for allegedly insulting the kingdom’s monarch.

Saudi authorities denied that and said he was arrested for trying to smuggle anti-anxiety drugs into the conservative oil-rich kingdom.

The collapse of Hosni Mubarak’s regime last year in Egypt stunned Saudi Arabia’s monarchy, which saw it as a sign of its own potential vulnerabilities and how Western backing can suddenly shift away from longtime allies.

Saudi officials have increasingly viewed Egypt’s post-revolution trajectory — particularly the political gains by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood — as worrisome trends that could encourage greater opposition in the Gulf.

A full break in ties between Cairo and Riyadh appears unlikely as the Arab League deals with the complicated showdown between protesters and the regime in Syria. But the deepening rifts underscore profound changes in the region’s hierarchy with Gulf states using their influence and relative stability to exert more leverage over wider Mideast affairs.

Egypt swiftly tried to contain the Saudi snub.

Egypt’s military ruler, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, was in touch with the Saudis to “heal the rift following the sudden decision,” the Egyptian official news agency said.

Tantawi asked King Abdullah to reconsider the decision, the Saudi news agency reported. The news agency said the king would look into the matter in the coming days and cited the two countries’ “long history of friendly relations.”

The Egyptian government issued a statement expressing its “regret” for the behavior of some of the protesters, and noted that the government and Egyptian people hold Saudi Arabia in “great esteem.”

The Egyptian news agency also published a copy of what it said was a signed confession by el-Gezawi admitting to drug possession, in a clear attempt to mute Egyptian public anger.

But the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is jockeying with Egypt’s military rulers for power, supported the demonstrators.

“The protesters in the past days were expressing the desire of Egyptians to protect the dignity of their compatriots in Arab countries and a reflection that disregard for the dignity of Egyptians abroad is no longer acceptable after the revolution,” the group said in a statement.

It was worst diplomatic tiff between the two regional powerhouses since Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries broke off diplomatic ties with Egypt after it signed a peace deal with Israel in 1979.

Diplomatic relations were restored in 1987.

Under Mubarak, the two regional powerhouses generally had strong relations.

But el-Gezawi’s case revived long-standing resentment over the treatment of Egyptians working in Saudi Arabia, which is a destination for more than a million Egyptians searching for better jobs.

The lawyer flew to Jiddah on his way to perform a minor pilgrimage, called umrah, to Islam’s holy shrines in the Saudi cities of Mecca and Medina, said his sister Shereen el-Gezawi. The fact that he was arrested on his way to perform a religious rite further enflamed Egyptian sentiment.

His family said he had been convicted in absentia and sentenced to a year in prison and 20 lashes by a Saudi court for insulting the king. However he was not notified of the court’s ruling ahead of his Saudi trip. El-Gezawi had earlier filed a lawsuit in Egypt against King Abdullah over the alleged arbitrary detention of hundreds of Egyptians.

As Arab uprisings have toppled four longtime Middle Eastern rulers, Saudi Arabia has been worried about signs of rebellion within its borders. Authorities have met attempts to advocate for more rights, as el-Gezawi has done, or question the monarchy’s authority with strong opposition.

Many Egyptians suspect the drug case against el-Gezawi was trumped up.

El-Gezawi’s friend and lawyer Mohammed Nabil, dismissed reports el-Gezawi was smuggling drugs and said the lawyer may have confessed under duress. The lawyer’s wife visited him Friday and is due to return to Cairo late Saturday, Nabil said.

Outside the Cairo embassy earlier this week, protesters chanted, “Down, down with Al-Saud!” referring to the Saudi royal family and “Screw you, your majesty!” in reference to the aging Saudi monarch.

The demonstrators called for the expulsion of the Saudi ambassador in Cairo, and some raised their shoes alongside a picture of Abdullah, a sign of deep contempt in the Arab world. In the consulate in the port city of Suez, protesters blocked staff from leaving Thursday, prompting the military to evacuate them.

The Saudi news agency, quoting a foreign ministry official, said the protests were “unjustified” and attempts to storm the missions threatened the safety of diplomatic staff.

The agency also said the ambassador was recalled for “consultation.”

An Egyptian government official said the decision was largely motivated by security concerns over the protests. A staff member in a Saudi consulate said the offices will be closed indefinitely.

Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive situation.

The Saudi ambassador had previously filed a police report against protesters from a youth group, accusing them of sabotaging his embassy during an unrelated protest.

Egyptian protesters also questioned whether the Egyptian government is doing enough to protect its citizens abroad. They rallied outside the Foreign Ministry in Cairo, demanding the Egyptian ambassador in Saudi Arabia be questioned over his handling of el-Gezawi’s case.

Many activists claim Egypt curbs its criticism so as not to alienate the wealthy kingdom or endanger Egyptian jobs there.

Printed on Monday, April 30, 2012 as: Saudi Arabia closes embassy in Egypt.

CAIRO — An Egyptian court on Tuesday upheld a conviction against one of the Arab world’s most famous comedians, sentencing him to jail for offending Islam in some of his most popular films.

The case against Adel Imam and others like it have raised concerns among some Egyptians that ultraconservative Muslims who made gains in recent elections after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster last year are trying to foist their religious views on the entire country. Critics say the trend threatens to curb Egypt’s vibrant film industry and freedom of speech.

Imam was sentenced to three months in jail and fined around $170 for insulting Islam in roles he played in movies such as “The Terrorist”, in which he acted the role of a wanted terrorist who found refuge with a middle class, moderate family, and the film “Terrorism and Kabab.”
The actor was also found guilty for his 2007 role in “Morgan Ahmed Morgan,” in which Imam played a corrupt businessman who tries to buy a university diploma. The film included a scene parodying bearded Muslim men wearing traditional Islamic clothing.

Author Alaa al-Aswany, whose best-seller “The Yacoubian Building” was turned into a film costarring Imam, said the court ruling sets Egypt back to the “darkness of the Middle Ages.”

“This is an unimaginable crime of principle in developed nations,” he said in remarks posted on his Twitter account Tuesday.

The case is one of many brought by conservative lawyers in recent months seeking to punish individuals they deem as having offended Islam. Earlier this year, two courts rejected blasphemy cases against Christian media mogul, Naguib Sawiris, after he relayed a cartoon online of Mickey Mouse with a beard and Minnie in a face veil.

The cases highlight the newfound sense of empowerment among followers of the ultraconservative Salafi trend of Islam in Egypt after Mubarak was toppled in a popular uprising. Their newly formed Al-Nour party won 25 percent of seats in parliament, emerging as the second most powerful group in Egypt after the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood.

The mere filing of such blasphemy cases by Salafi lawyers has raised concern among rights groups and liberals about attempts to curb freedom of speech.

Egyptian entertainment reporter Tarek el-Shinnawi said the case against Imam is a setback for Cairo’s famed film industry, which has produced the region’s most popular films.

“It will make any writer, director or actor think before considering the role of a Muslim figure,” el-Shinnawi said.

Imam was initially found guilty in February in a case brought by an ultraconservative Islamist lawyer. He was given a retrial since he was first tried in absentia. He did not appear in court Tuesday but his lawyers did. Imam has the right to appeal.

Under Mubarak, government censors controlled what could be shown in theaters or filmed by major studios. The films Imam starred in were approved by the censors.

El-Shinnawi argued that a legally sound case would involve the writers and directors, and the censors who approved the movies, not just the star of the films.

Imam, 71, has acted in dozens of films in a career that spans nearly 50 years.

Long a beloved figured in Egypt, Imam lost popularity among Egyptian protesters for supporting Mubarak during last year’s 18-day revolt.

In one of his most popular roles, Imam played an Arab dictator in a 1998 satirical play called el-Zaeem. The play has since been aired on satellite television across the Arab world, bypassing state censors and gaining popularity through its comedic take of a tyrannical figure.

Printed on Wednesday, April 25, 2012 as: Egypt court convicts comedian for offending Islam through film

Fans of Al-ahly soccer club rally during the trial of defendants charged with the Port Said stadium killings of 75 soccer fans outside the courtroom in Cairo, Egypt Tuesday.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

CAIRO — Fans charged in Egypt’s deadliest soccer riot declared their innocence in the first session of their trial Tuesday, directing their anger toward police, charged with collaborating in the killing of 75 supporters of a rival team.

Nine senior officers, including six police generals and a colonel, are among the 73 people charged in the case. The officers were present in the courtroom, dressed in traditional white defendant uniforms, but they were not held in the courtroom cage with the rest of those on trial.

If the police are convicted, it would further fuel widespread speculation that the country’s much-despised Interior Ministry force allowed the bloody Feb. 1 attack on fans of a soccer club with which they have a long antagonistic history.

Most of the defendants are fans of Al-Masry, the main sports club in the Mediterranean city of Port Said, where the attack took place. The majority of the victims were fans of a rival team, Cairo’s Al-Ahly, whose supporters are credited with playing a major role in the 18-day popular uprising that toppled longtime President Hosni Mubarak last year.

Survivors of the attack charge that police allowed the attack by Al-Masry fans to deteriorate into bloodshed. Others have suggested that former regime loyalists hired thugs to infiltrate the stadium and kill Al-Ahly fans.

“Where is Mubarak?” the defendants chanted, reflecting their suspicions against the ousted regime and the justice system in Egypt.

The hearing took place in the same courtroom where Mubarak has faced charges related to the deaths of hundreds of protesters in the uprising.

“We will get them their justice or die like them,” the defendants in the courtroom cage shouted, fists pumping in the air as they referred to those killed in the riots.

One defendant told the presiding judges he had been called in by police as a witness but was arrested instead.

“They fooled me and brought me in as a witness ... and told me if I point people out they will release me,” he said.

Outside the courtroom, hundreds of Al-Ahly fans held photos of those killed and raised posters that said, “I will never forget justice for our brothers.” Some wore black T-shirts with the words, “We were killed in Port Said.”

The 30-minute killing frenzy in Port Said broke out when Al-Masry fans stormed the field just seconds after the final whistle blew, even though the home team won the match.

What happened next is not entirely clear, but according to witnesses and survivors, Al-Ahly fans were attacked with batons, knives, fireworks and other weapons. Some were tossed from the tops of bleachers. Others said they were stripped and Port Said fans carved slogans into their skin.

The lights at the stadium were abruptly turned off and the exit doors closed during the melee, forcing a stampede down a narrow corridor. The stadium gate, which was locked from the outside, was forced open by the crowd. Dozens were crushed to death there, including fans of Al-Masry. The youngest victim was 14 years old.

Prosecutor Mahmoud al-Hennawy said the attack that night was “planned” both by Al-Masry fans and thugs.

“The cutting off of the light in the stadium was intentional, and the proof is that Al-Ahly fans were thrown off bleachers and the main cause of deaths were the presence of thugs,” al-Hennawy said.

Some of the defendants face murder charges. The officers have been charged with assisting the attackers. They could face up to 10 years in prison.

Most of the victims were from Al-Ahly’s “Ultras”, an organization of the club’s most hardcore fans.

Some believe the security forces stood by to punish the Al-Ahly Ultras for their high-profile involvement in the uprising against Mubarak and in subsequent protests against Egypt’s military rulers.

Others attribute the violence in Port Said to negligence. Security forces at the stadium did little during the attack. Beforehand, they failed in routine security measures like searching fans for weapons, though both sides threatened violence.In addition to fans and police, the manager of the stadium and the technician in charge of the lights have been charged. The trial is scheduled to resume May 5.

After the riot, Egypt imposed a two-year ban on Al-Masry, while this year’s club season has been suspended.

Published on Wednesday, April 18, 2012 as: Fans proclaim thier innocence in Egypt soccer attack scandal

JERUSALEM — Israel’s prime minister on Thursday warned that Egypt’s Sinai desert is becoming a “terror zone” and vowed to strike at militants there after a rocket fired from the area hit a southern Israeli resort town.

The tough talk, however, was tempered by Israel’s desire not to disturb the already fraught relationship with Egypt. Israeli officials acknowledged their options are limited as the new government in Egypt — one of Israel’s few allies in the Arab world — tries to secure its sovereignty over the mountainous Sinai Peninsula.

Thursday's rocket attack, the first on Eilat in nearly two years, raised new Israeli concerns about militant activity in Sinai, particularly since the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime last year. Israeli security officials have repeatedly warned of a power vacuum in Egypt and say that Islamic militants have stepped up their activity in Sinai and are now active on Israel’s doorstep.

“We are seeing now with Eilat that the Sinai Peninsula is turning into a terror zone,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “We will strike at those who attack us. There can be no immunity for terrorism; it must be fought and we are doing so.”

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak threatened to “strike those responsible for firing (the Grad rocket) at Eilat.”

No injuries were reported in the overnight strike against Eilat, a normally tranquil Red Sea vacation spot that is set to welcome thousands of visitors this weekend for the Passover holiday.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, and Egypt denied the attack was launched from its territory. “The chief of security of southern Sinai has already denied that the rocket was fired from the Sinai territory,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Amr told reporters in Cairo.

But Israel military officials, citing intelligence, said all signs were that the rocket had been fired from Egypt. It would be the third such time since 2010 that militants in Egypt have fired rockets toward Israel.

Israel has warned of growing lawlessness in Sinai following the uprising last year that overthrew Mubarak’s regime.Sensing the growing threat, Israel has increased its surveillance on the Egyptian border and is building an electronic barrier along the 150 mile frontier in a bid to keep out militants and illegal migrants. It is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

But the fence cannot protect southern Israel from rockets, a gap that Netanyahu pointed out on Thursday.

Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, separated by a border fence from Israel, have fired thousands of rockets into Israel in recent years. Israel has responded to Gaza rocket fire with military reprisals and the deployment of a rocket-interception system known as Iron Dome.

Rocket fire from Egypt is far rarer, and it is not clear if Israel plans to move the anti-rocket system, which is still in its infancy and expensive to deploy, to the border with Egypt.

Thursday’s attack left Israel in a delicate position: absorbing hostile fire from a neighboring country but having few options to respond.

Eli Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, said Israel’s hands are tied until a government takes shape in Cairo that is ready and able to tackle the militancy in the Sinai Peninsula. Israel’s historic peace agreement with Egypt is a cornerstone of Israeli security policy, and Israel cannot do anything that might sabotage the peace.

“Israel has no choice but to wait,” he said.

An Israeli official echoed those limitations.

“We will fight terror, of course, but we don’t intend to enter Egyptian territory. That’s not an option,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the sensitive diplomatic issue with the press. “We can talk to (the Egyptians), but that’s it.”

Both Shaked and the official were confident Egypt would work to rein in anarchy in Sinai, but that it would take time before it could do so. Egypt votes for a new president in May.

No injuries were reported in Thursday’s incident. But it was part of a string of attacks believed to have been launched from Sinai over the past year years.

Last August, gunmen from Sinai sneaked into Israel and ambushed vehicles on a desert highway, killing eight Israelis. Three Egyptian soldiers were killed in Israel’s subsequent hunt for the militants, causing a diplomatic crisis that ended with an Israeli apology. It is unclear if Israeli soldiers crossed the border in their chase.

That incident suggested that Gaza militants with their allies in neighboring Sinai were exploiting Egypt’s political turmoil to open a new front against Israel.

It also highlighted the delicate balance Israel must maintain between trying to defend its border and protect its relationship with Egypt.

Rockets last hit Eilat and the nearby Jordanian town of Aqaba in August 2010, killing one person and wounding four. In April of that year, two rockets landed in Aqaba and the remains of one were found in the waters off Eilat.

Egypt became the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. After Mubarak’s fall and with the rise of Islamist parties who traditionally view Israel with hostility, Israel has become concerned that the accord may be under threat.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the largest party in Egypt’s parliament, does not openly oppose the peace deal, but has said it would consider amending the pact to allow more Egyptian troops along the border with Israel. The deployment of Egyptian forces in Sinai is limited under the 1979 deal.

Israel’s insistence that the peninsula be significantly demilitarized was a key aspect of the 1979 peace deal.

Today, however, this provision makes it difficult for Israel itself to demand the Egyptians do a better job of policing the vast desert triangle that separates Asia from Africa. In the aftermath of Mubarak’s ouster, Israel permitted Egypt to send in more troops than the 750 allowed under the treaty.

Printed on Friday, April 6, 2012 as: Rocket fires into Israeli resort, responds with Egyptian tension

U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, left, walks next to Lt. Gen. Sami Anan, right, upon his arrival to meet the head of Egypt’s ruling military council, at the Ministry of Defense in Cairo, Egypt on Saturday.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

CAIRO — Stoking tensions with Washington, an Egyptian Cabinet minister has accused the United States of directly funding nonprofit groups to create chaos in the country following last year’s ouster of longtime leader and U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak, according to comments published in state-owned newspapers on Tuesday.

International Cooperation Minister Faiza Aboul Naga made the remarks in a testimony she gave in October to judges investigating allegations the groups used foreign funds to foment unrest.

Aboul Naga, a leftover from the Mubarak regime who has served in three interim governments formed since his ouster, has been leading the crackdown on the foreign groups. Authorities last week referred a total of 43 employees of nonprofit groups, including at least 16 Americans, to trial before a criminal court.

The Americans include Sam LaHood, son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. All 43 are banned from travel. No date has been set for their trial.

The crisis has soured relations between Egypt and the United States, which has threatened to cut off aid to Egypt — a total of $1.5 billion a year in military and economic assistance — if the issue was not resolved. The release of Aboul Naga’s testimony four months after she gave it suggests that Egypt may not be willing, at least for now, to ease tensions with the U.S.

Aboul Naga said international and regional powers did not want Egypt to prosper following Mubarak’s ouster, so they resorted to the creation of chaos.

“But the United States and Israel could not directly create and sustain a state of chaos, so they used direct funding, especially American, as the means to reach those goals,” she was quoted as saying.

She also claimed that some of the money came from the U.S. economic assistance to Egypt — which currently runs at $250 million a year.

Aboul Naga claimed Washington directly and illegally funded the nonprofit groups in what amounted to an interference in Egypt’s internal affairs, a challenge to its sovereignty and harms national security.

“Evidence shows the existence of a clear and determined wish to abort any chance for Egypt to rise as a modern and democratic state with a strong economy since that will pose the biggest threat to American and Israeli interests, not only in Egypt, but in the whole region,” she was quoted as saying.

The allegations facing the nonprofit groups are tied to the turmoil roiling Egypt for the past year.

The generals who took over from Mubarak when a popular uprising forced him to step down a year ago have routinely accused the pro-democracy groups behind their predecessor’s overthrow of following a “foreign agenda” and of seeking to plunge Egypt into chaos or even topple the state itself.

The Egyptian military has been the recipient of $1.3 billion in annual aid. America’s top soldier, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Chief of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, held talks with the ruling generals last weekend in Cairo, but appeared to have made little or no progress on resolving the issue.

“We discussed that (situation) very professionally,” Dempsey said during his flight back from Cairo. “I expressed the fact that it caused us concern, not only about the particular NGOs and individuals currently unable to leave the country, but rather more broadly.”

“But we’ve got some work to do” on resolving tensions over the issue of the nonprofit groups, Dempsey added, “and so do they.”

Under the aid program, Egypt’s military has been able to modernize and replace its antiquated Soviet-era arsenal with modern weapons, including fighter-jets, tanks and armored personnel carriers. Dempsey, underlining the close ties between the Egyptian and American militaries, said 200 to 300 Egyptian officers are in the United States at any given time attending military schools.

The close ties raise questions about why the generals, led by Mubarak’s defense minister for 20 years, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, want to risk such a lucrative and beneficial relationship over the issue of the nonprofit groups.

However, they have near absolute powers in Egypt and Aboul Naga could have only led the crackdown on the nonprofit groups with their endorsement.

This has prompted many in Egypt to speculate that the military may be willing to risk losing the U.S. aid to weaken the pro-democracy groups harshly critical of the military’s handling of the post-Mubarak transition and its poor human rights record.

By discrediting the groups, the generals also hope to build an image of themselves as the nation’s only true patriots, cashing in on the deeply rooted suspicion of the West felt by many Egyptians.

But the tension in U.S.-Egyptian relations was belied by photographs published in Cairo’s newspapers Sunday, the day after Dempsey met Tantawi. One showed the two sharing a hearty laugh, while another had Egyptian Chief of Staff Sami Anan giving Dempsey a warm welcome at the Defense Ministry.

Printed on Wednesday, February 15, 2012 as: Tensions rise betwen US, Egypt's rulers

CAIRO — Islamists appear to have taken a strong majority of seats in the first round of Egypt’s first parliamentary vote since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, a trend that if confirmed would give religious parties a popular mandate in the struggle to win control from the ruling military and ultimately reshape a key U.S. ally.

Final results, expected Friday, will be the clearest indication in decades of Egyptians’ true political views and give the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood a major role in the country’s first freely elected parliament. An Islamist majority could also herald a greater role for conservative Islam in Egyptian social life and shifts in foreign policy, especially toward Israel and the Palestinians.

Judges overseeing the Egyptian vote count said Thursday that near-complete results show the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest and best organized political group, could take as many as 45 percent of the contested seats.

In addition to the Muslim Brotherhood wins, parties backed by ultraconservative Salafist Muslims looked poised to take 20 percent, giving Islamist parties a striking majority in the first round of voting.

The Islamist victories came at the expense of a coalition of liberal parties called the Egyptian block, the group most closely linked to the youth activists who launched the anti-Mubarak uprising — and which is expected to win only about 20 percent of seats.

Egyptian voters line up outside a polling center in Assuit, Egypt. Voting began on Monday in Egypt’s first parliamentary elections since longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak was ousted.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

CAIRO — Shaking off years of political apathy, Egyptians turned out in long lines at voting stations Monday in their nation’s first parliamentary elections since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, a giant step toward what they hope will be a democracy after decades of dictatorship.

Some voters brought their children along, saying they wanted them to learn how to exercise their rights in a democracy as they cast ballots in what promises to be the fairest and cleanest election in Egypt in living memory.

After the dramatic 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak on Feb. 11 after almost three decades of his authoritarian regime, many had looked forward to this day in expectation of a celebration of freedom. Now that it arrived after nearly 10 months of military rule, divisions and violence, the mood was markedly different: People were eager to at last cast a free vote, but daunted by how much is unknown and unclear about what happens next in their country, whatever the outcome.

On one level, the election will be a strong indicator of whether the nation is heading toward Islamism or secularism. The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest and best organized group, along with other Islamists are expected to dominate in the vote. Many liberals, leftists, Christians and pious Muslims who oppose mixing religion and politics went expressly to the polls to try to stop them or at least reduce their victory.

Also weighing heavily on voters’ mind was whether this election will really set Egypt on a path of democracy under the rule of the military, which took power after Mubarak. Only 10 days before the elections, major protests erupted demanding the generals step aside because of fears they will not allow real freedoms. The ruling military council of generals, led by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, insists it will maintain considerable powers after the election. It will put together the government and is trying to keep extensive control over the creation of an assembly to write a new constitution, a task that originally was seen as mainly in the parliament’s hands.