HSBC accused of helping Egypt’s generals stifle dissent

NGOs have criticised HSBC's recent actions in Egypts

 

Originally published in The Independent, 31 October 2011

Human rights groups and NGOs have accused HSBC bank of colluding in a campaign of intimidation which they say is being waged against them by Egypt’s ruling military council.

The groups, which hold Egyptian accounts with the global banking giant, say that over the past two months HSBC has contacted them requesting documents and information relating to their finances and work in Egypt.

One NGO worker, the director of an organisation which works to promote democracy around Egypt, said he was called last month by an HSBC bank manager who asked why the group had been receiving money from the American embassy.

“They wanted to know what our activities were,” said Bassem Samir, executive director of the Egyptian Democratic Academy.  “It was not clear why they were asking these questions.

This month HSBC also contacted another civil rights group, the New Women Foundation, and asked staff to provide a list of all of their future projects.

“They also said they could release our accounts to the government if they were asked,” said Nawla Darwiche, a founding member of the organisation. “This is very serious.”

It comes at a time of heightened tensions between NGOs and the ruling military council, which took power after former president Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February.

During the summer, Egypt’s Minister of International Co-operation, Faiza Abul-Naga, announced that a commission of inquiry was being established to investigate the funding of civil society organisations.

The results of the investigation were published in an Egyptian newspaper last month, which detailed the funding received by numerous NGOs and also revealed that 39 organisations had been declared illegal – including some of the most respected civil rights groups in Egypt.

Since August there have also been reports in official newspapers accusing some NGOs of treason. State TV has questioned the loyalty of certain groups, while in a recent statement the Justice Minister referred to spies and treachery in a statement about human rights organisations.

Last week the vice-president of the Union of NGOs, the government body which regulates NGOs, told a local newspaper that some employees of Egyptian rights groups could face jail over the issue. It came after the Ministry of Justice submitted information to a Cairo court detailing the foreign funding received by 75 organisations.

But HSBC is not the only target of criticism by activists. Another bank, Egyptian-owned CIB, has also been accused of intimidation.

According to United Group, a firm of Cairo lawyers specialising in human rights, the bank recently contacted lawyers to ask why the firm’s partners had received money from USAID, the US governmental organisation which distributes development cash.

“They asked us to send them copies of the contract we signed with USAID,” said Nigad al-Boraa, a senior partner at the firm. “I told them we were a law office and USAID are one of our clients, and that by legal profession laws we cannot deliver any information to a third party without the consent of our client.”

Following CIB’s inquiry, the bank closed Mr al-Boraa’s personal account along with his sister’s. United Group’s company account was also subsequently closed.

Mr al-Boraa said CIB had told him they were acting at the behest of officials at the money laundering department of the Central Bank of Egypt, which oversees all banking operations in Egypt.

Neither the Central Bank of Egypt nor CIB responded to The Independent’s requests for comment.

HSBC Bank Egypt’s head of communications, Omnia Samra, said that international banks had to respond to the Central Bank of Egypt “on a wide range of queries”.

“We are not in a position to advise the nature of such queries to third parties,” she added.

Egyptian NGOs gave The Independent a number of other examples of government interference in their work. The New Women Foundation said that during the summer, ministry officials blocked a $5,000 “Nelson Mandela Award” given to them by an international NGO called Civitas for their campaign promoting freedom of association.

Leaders of groups such as the Egyptian Democratic Academy and April 6, the prominent political youth movement, were also investigated by the government to discover details about their property assets, according to newspaper reports.

It has led to accusations that Egypt’s ruling generals, who have come under intense criticism since 27 protesters were killed during a confrontation with troops earlier this month, are using banks and government departments to apply pressure on groups which have investigated the military’s abuses of power.

A number of NGO directors told The Independent that the persecution was worse than under former President Hosni Mubarak.

“Under Mubarak, maybe this or that NGO was investigated,” said Bahey al-Din, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), one of the civil organisations reportedly under investigation. “It never happened that NGOs as a group were investigated.

“The military is not satisfied with the continuous critique of their human rights performance. It seems they are not able to tolerate the move to more and more openness.”

In August the director of USAID in Egypt resigned after a row which erupted over the group’s activities in the country.

Since February USAID has distributed millions of dollars to a variety of NGOs, leading some Egyptian officials to denounce those who accept foreign money as being “traitors”.

After coming to power the military council announced that foreign funding of civil organisations must go through official channels, such as the Ministry of Social Solidarity, which vets all external financing of registered NGOs.

However some organisations escape the tighter scrutiny of their financial affairs by registering either as civil or legal entities, meaning there is far less government oversight of their activities.

Neither the Egyptian Democratic Academy nor the United Group are registered as NGOs, but instead operate under legal and civil status.

The deadly clashes in central Cairo this month, just weeks before parliamentary elections scheduled for November, marked the latest in a series of growing rifts between Egypt’s generals and the activists who brought them to power.

Since the February uprising thousands of civilians have been arrested and jailed using the military court system, while following violent clashes outside the Israeli embassy last month, the ruling generals said they would be renewing the Emergency Law – a hated symbol of Mubarak-era abuses.

Egyptian journalists and bloggers have also been summoned by the military to answer questions about articles criticising the government.

According to Shaimaa Abo El-Khair from the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network, an organisation which has just completed an investigation of the military’s treatment of Egyptian NGOs, the council’s attack on civil society is “very, very serious”.

“We are very concerned about the human rights situation in Egypt, which is perhaps as bad as before the uprising.

“Even Hosni Mubarak’s regime didn’t reach this level of attack.”

Mubarak’s fall could trigger Egypt gold boom in Sinai

Egypt could be on the verge of a gold mining boom

 

Originally published in The Independent, 18 October 2011

The fall of Hosni Mubarak could trigger an Egyptian gold boom as the government looks to carve up precious reserves in the Sinai desert which have remained untapped for decades. Officials have known about the potential for finding gold in Egypt’s mountain wilderness for years, yet a combination of security concerns and the complicated mining process have so far hampered serious progress.

Egyptian mining chiefs now plan to invite investors to carry out gold exploration in the Sinai – an area which was once occupied by the Israelis during the 1970s and which has been plagued by security problems since the uprising which toppled Mr Mubarak.

According to Dr Hassan Bakheit, the head of geological surveys in the Egyptian Mineral Resources Authority, the government wants to start receiving contract bids next year.

“We’re trying to develop the Sinai desert,” he said. “I think in the future there will be more explorations. I hope that if the revolution goes the right way and is not stopped by any further problems, Egypt will become known as a big gold producer in the region.”

Egypt is no stranger to the gold mining industry. As long ago as the third century BC, workers living under the realm of the Old Kingdom were unearthing the precious mineral from the volcanic rocks that line the country’s Red Sea coast.

Yet since the 1950s there has been virtually no serious investment in the industry. Only one company is currently producing Egyptian gold, the Australian firm Centamin, which is listed in London and Toronto and which started commercial production last year.

With an estimated 6.7 million ounces of the metal lying under more than 100 possible mining sites around the country, analysts say the potential value of Egypt’s untapped reserves runs into billions of pounds – a literal gold mine in a nation which could sorely use the receipts of its own mineral wealth.

Louise Collinge, a mining analyst for Evolution Securities, said there was “a lot of interest” about investing in Egypt. She said its location in the Arabian- Nubian Shield – a band of rocks that stretches down from north of Cairo as far as the Horn of Africa – meant it was ripe for gold prospecting.

But she added that with the current political insecurity it would be difficult for the gold boom to really take off. “It’s a big worry for any investor,” she said. “In theory there should be no problems at all. But the market is a bit worried as to what might happen.”

Centamin lost millions of dollars during the Egyptian uprising and saw its stock plummet by more than 25 per cent following the toppling of former President Hosni Mubarak in February.

“The worst case scenario for potential investors is whether they will still own their assets at the end of events like those in Egypt,” said Ms Collinge.

There are now six companies carrying out gold exploration at various locations along the Red Sea coast, though none have yet started producing commercially.

According to Centamin’s chief executive, Harry Michael, one of the main reasons Egypt did not open up to investors until only relatively recently is because previous governments simply did not think the industry was viable. When company bosses tried to tell Mr Mubarak’s officials that they were sitting on a fortune, the response was incredulous. “They said, ‘you guys are crazy’,” claimed Mr Michael.

“There is not much rainfall in Egypt,” he added. “A lot of the country is desert. Nobody goes there, and there was an opportunity for us to get something from that land for the nation and our investors. It was crying out for some kind of use.”

Yet according to Dr Bakheit, the reason that the Sinai desert’s reserves have so far remained off-limits is more political than economical.

He blamed the hidden “agenda” of Hosni Mubarak’s relations with Israel, saying he believed the government had a deal with Tel Aviv under the 1979 peace treaty not to develop large scale mining operations in the area.

It is a view not taken seriously by Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, an expert on Egyptian-Israeli relations from Tel Aviv University. “It makes no sense,” he said. “After 1979, Israel was interested in Egypt developing economically.”

Nonetheless it is clear the precarious security situation in the Sinai has hamstrung economic development. Centamin’s Mr Michael said it had “definitely been an issue” when it came to the government failing to pursue mining projects in the region.

And there are other political ramifications of a future gold boom in Egypt. Under Centamin’s deal with the government, it is obliged to pump half of its profits back into the state treasury.

Given that geologists believe the nation’s gold reserves could be worth many billions of pounds, the next few years could be critical in determining how well Egypt’s first post-Mubarak government can exploit the nation’s substantial mineral resources.

In a nation where 40 per cent of the population live on less than a dollar a day, a profitable gold mining industry – and the thousands of jobs needed to sustain it – could be a significant boon.

“I’m optimistic,” said Ibrahim Shalaby, the former deputy minister of the Egyptian Mineral Resources Authority. “We just need someone with some money who is not afraid to come here, invest their cash and see the benefits.”

Family hits out at US over Yemen drone attack on Anwar al-Awlaki’s son

The son of Anwar al-Awlaki, who was one of America's most wanted men, was killed in a Yemen drone strike

 

Originally published in The Independent, 19 October 2011

The family of a American teenager killed in Yemen during a US attack – a week after his terrorist father also died in a US strike – has lashed out at reports that the young man was a militant.

Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, 16, who was born in Denver, was the son of Anwar al-Awlaki, one of America’s most-wanted men, whom an unmanned drone obliterated with a rocket in Yemen last month.

Some US newspapers described the American-born teenager as a militant in the mould of his notorious father, a preacher who was implicated in a series of alleged terrorist plots – including an attempt to bring down an airliner over Detroit – over the past five years.

Yet this week the young man’s family, who said Abdulrahman left the US in 2002 when he moved to Yemen with his father, released a statement lashing out at the American media. The teenager’s family “watched with surprise” as several newspapers and TV channels “twist the truth” [sic] about the young man,” according to the statement. On the night of 14 October, the day Abdulrahman was killed by a US drone, he had “gone barbecuing under the moonlight” with his friends.

Recently posted Facebook photos on a tribute page showed a smiling, cherubic youngster, his glossy brown hair swept into a neat side parting. Others pictured a scrawny young teenager larking around with his friends.

The statement from the Awlaki family claimed the young man had been living in the Yemeni capital Sana’a until several weeks ago, when he disappeared after leaving a note for his mother saying he had gone to search for his father in Shabwah province, the family’s ancestral homeland in south-east Yemen.

After the assassination of his father – who was described to one newspaper as “one of the most dangerous al-Qa’ida terrorists” by a US intelligence official – the teenager stayed in Shabwah. He was killed two weeks later.

Abdulrahman al-Awlaki

 

Speaking to The Washington Post, Abdulrahman’s grandfather – Anwar al-Awlaki’s father – expressed disbelief that American drones, which have carried out two attacks in Yemen since the end of September, had killed such a young man. “To kill a teenager is just unbelievable, really, and they claim that he is an al-Qa’ida militant,” Nasser al-Awlaki, a former Yemeni Agriculture Minister, said. “It’s nonsense.”

Regardless of whether Abdulrahman was the innocent victim of overwhelming American aggression, his death illustrates the growing signs of an escalation of US influence in the southern Arabian peninsula.

According to Yemeni officials, another victim of Friday’s air strike was the Egyptian-born Ibrahim al-Banna, a man the country’s Defence Ministry said was head of media for the Yemeni branch of al-Qa’ida.

This group, better known as al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has been identified by US intelligence chiefs as the most dangerous terrorist operation in the world. The recent escalation in drone strikes has been seen by some as part of the Obama administration’s attempt to drive out its members, who operate in the mountains of the Yemeni highlands. “Everyone with interests in Yemen, including al-Qa’ida and the Americans, is raising the stakes at this time of uncertainty,” Abdul-Bari Taher, an analyst, said. “The Americans are wasting no time to try and eliminate the al-Qa’ida threat before the militants dig in deeper and cannot be easily dislodged.”

During his 2009 inaugural address, Barack Obama said that America must “reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals”.

So, what do you think of your husband’s brutal crackdown, Mrs Assad?

Asma al-Assad in a photo from the now-infamous Vogue shoot

 

Originally published in The Independent, 18 October 2011

Vogue magazine famously called her a “rose in the desert”, while Paris Match proclaimed she was the “element of light in a country full of shadow zones”. But when Syria’s glamorous First Lady invited a group of aid workers to discuss the security situation with her last month, she appeared to have lost her gloss.

During the meeting, British-born Asma al-Assad – who grew up in Acton and attended a Church of England school in west London – came face to face with aid workers who had witnessed at first hand the brutality of her husband’s regime. Yet according to one volunteer who was present, the former investment banker and mother of President Bashar al-Assad’s three children appeared utterly unmoved when she heard about the plight of protesters.

“We told her about the killing of protesters,” said the man, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. “We told her about the security forces attacking demonstrators. About them taking wounded people from cars and preventing people from getting to hospital … There was no reaction. She didn’t react at all. It was just like I was telling a normal story, something that happens every day.”

Syrians working with aid agencies to try to help the thousands injured as Mr Assad’s security forces unleash tanks, guns and airpower to crush a seven-month uprising against his rule had hoped for a lot more. The First Lady’s office contacted them and said she wanted to hear about the difficulties they faced in the field. She met the humanitarians in Damascus.

“She asked us about the risks of working under the current conditions,” he added. But when she was told about the abuses of power being committed by her husband’s notorious secret police, Mrs Assad’s blank face left them unimpressed. “She sees everything happening here. Everything is all over the news. It’s impossible she doesn’t know,” said the volunteer. Yet even if Mrs Assad does know about the worst of the violence and the 3,000 civilians human rights groups accuse the regime of killing, many people who have met her question what she could possibly do about it.

“Whatever her own views, she is completely hamstrung,” said Chris Doyle, the director of the Council of Arab-British Understanding. “There is no way the regime would allow her any room to voice dissent or leave the country. You can forget it.”

Mrs Assad, who achieved a first class degree in computer science from King’s College University, was brought up in Britain by her Syrian-born parents, who were close friends of Hafez al-Assad, the former President of Syria. She started dating Bashar al-Assad in her twenties, and they eventually married in 2000, when she moved to Syria for the first time.

According to one prominent Western biographer of the Assad family, Bashar chose Asma against the determined opposition of his sister and mother. “He had lots of beautiful girlfriends before her,” said the journalist, who asked not to be named. “He faced opposition when he wanted Asma because she was Sunni and he is Alawite. Here was Bashar al-Assad marrying outside the clan.”

She championed several development initiatives, and delivered genuine change by helping to create NGOs in Syria, as well as highlighting the plight of disabled children and laying the groundwork for plans to rehabilitate dozens of Syria’s ramshackle museums.

For some, she is the modern, made-up face of a former pariah state; to others, an aloof, 21st-century Marie Antoinette. Either way, nothing perhaps crystallised the fate of Syria’s First Lady better than the disastrously-timed interview run by Vogue magazine in its March issue this year.

Amid obsequious descriptions of Chanel jewellery and her matey banter with Brad Pitt during the Hollywood star’s 2009 visit to Syria, the article described how the Assad household was run on “wildly democratic principles”. According to Mrs Assad: “we all vote on what we want, and where.”

Naturally, many outraged Syrians were left asking why the Assads could not extend them the same courtesy.

Egypt’s Copts mourn their dead

Mourners gathered in the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo

Originally published in The Independent, 11 October 2011

Anguished Christian mourners turned out in their thousands in Cairo today to remember their dead and voice their anger at the Egyptian army over clashes that killed 26 members of their sect.

On another day of violence in the Egyptian capital, there was further trouble when angry Coptic Christians threw stones at riot police outside the hospital where dozens of casualties had been brought. And as the leader of Egypt’s Christian minority, Pope Shenouda III, presided over a service for mourners at a cathedral in eastern Cairo, attendees at the mass funeral vowed to defend their faith at any cost.

At the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Abbassia, thousands of mourners chanted “With our soul and our blood we will defend the cross” while waiting for the service to begin. Pope Shenouda III went on to declare a three day period of mourning, prayer and fasting for the victims, who were protesting against attacks on churches in Upper Egypt. “Strangers got in the middle of our sons and committed mistakes to be blamed on our sons,” the Coptic Church said in a statement.

Yesterday’s clashes came about after a peaceful demonstration by Christians was set upon by plain-clothed regime loyalists. Thousands of protesters went on to fight running battles with the police, army and thugs in central Cairo in what would become the worst violence since the fall of Mubarak. Foreign Secretary William Hague today condemned the clashes, saying it was “important that the Egyptian authorities reaffirm freedom of worship in Egypt.”

Many Christians are pointing the finger of blame at the army, after military vehicles were seen speeding over demonstrators and shots were heard ringing out across the city centre. “It will affect the revolution so much,” said Karima Kamal, a Christian columnist in Egypt. “This is the first time a massacre against the Christians was done by the state itself. This is something that has never happened before.”

As dozens of Christians poured through the metal detectors outside the entrance of the cathedral, mother-of-one Jihan Maher was in tears as she vented her anger over the violence. Pointing to her 16-year-old daughter Madonna, she said: “She is an only child, but everybody who is dead inside that cathedral is her brother and sister.”

The atmosphere before the service was uneasy, with one woman outside berating a journalist wearing a headscarf. “You’re wearing a hijab, but you’re not modest,” she shouted.

Earlier in the afternoon at the Cairo Coptic Hospital, where dozens of casualties had been brought on Sunday night, there had been further clashes when hundreds of Christians attacked riot police – albeit on a much smaller scale than yesterday. Demonstrators outside the downtown building waved crosses and shouted slogans for the dead protesters, such as “Oh martyrs sleep tight, we’ll continue the fight”.

According to one cardiologist from the hospital, doctors were forced to resuscitate patients on corridor floors after being overwhelmed by casualties. “It was a massacre,” said Dr Osama Refat. “I was carrying someone’s brain in my hands. Another person had his leg mashed up because he was run over by a military vehicle.”

Egypt’s interim Prime Minister Essam Sharaf condemned the violence, saying it had “taken us back several steps”. He also blamed so-called “foreign meddling” for the trouble and claimed the problems were part of a “dirty conspiracy”.

Yet some protesters blamed the government for instigating the trouble through its broadcasts on state television. At one point during the violence on Sunday night, broadcasts were asking Egyptians to defend the army against attacks. “Egyptian TV was saying that if you are Egyptian and you like your country you should go down and protect the army from us,” said Shady Ahmed, a 25-year-old who was present during the trouble.

The violence has heightened fears among some activists that the ruling military council, which took power after Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February, will try to exploit the crisis for its own ends.

There are already concerns that the revolution has hit the buffers. The ruling generals have said that presidential elections might be delayed until 2013, while the widespread use of military courts to try thousands of civilians has led to accusations of Mubarak-style authoritarianism on the part of the military council.

Following the announcement last month that army chiefs will not be ditching the widely-loathed Emergency Law, some activists believe Sunday night’s confrontations have handed the military another excuse to maintain its stranglehold on power.

Egypt on the brink as deadly riots hit Cairo

A demonstration by Copts descended into the deadliest violence since Mubarak was toppled

 

Originally published in The Independent, 10 October 2011

Twenty-four people were killed and 150 injured in Cairo yesterday during the most violent scenes to hit the country since February’s revolution ousted ex-President Hosni Mubarak. Reports said trouble escalated after Christians, protesting an attack on a church, threw rocks and petrol bombs and set cars on fire as they clashed with military police.

Gunshots and the sound of exploding tear-gas canisters rang out across the centre of the capital amid chaotic scenes. Thousands of people, some hurling stones and petrol bombs, charged through Tahrir Square as protesters fought battles with soldiers and riot police.

The violence started after demonstrators from Egypt’s Christian community headed towards the state television building in central Cairo late yesterday afternoon.

The protesters, who began their rally from the Shubra district of northern Cairo, were hoping to start a sit-in outside the riverside TV complex to highlight grievances within their community – something Egypt’s Copts have done numerous times in the past without trouble. But, according to witnesses, they came under attack from men in plain clothes who started hurling stones at them. Not long afterwards gunshots rang out at the scene.

By around 7pm central Cairo was boiling over with angry protesters as thousands of youths fought running battles with the police and gangs of regime loyalists.

At the northern side of Tahrir Square, close to the Egyptian Museum, the road was littered with rocks and broken glass as young men launched missiles at scores of plain-clothed thugs standing about 200 yards away near the Ramses Hilton Hotel.

One man, his head tied with a ribbon in the colours of the Egyptian flag, used an axe to bang metal railings like a war drum as more and more activists arrived at the scene.

Nearby, beneath a motorway overpass close to the Egyptian Museum, three teenagers scrambled to extinguish their burning T-shirts after being hit by a petrol bomb. “The army are filthy,” cried out Hassan Asius, 24, as he limped through the square after being hit by a rubber bullet. “People have died. The army are no good.” Amir Shabrawy, a 32-year-old producer, said: “This will be the end of the revolution.”

By about 9pm a tense stand-off was taking place near the state TV building as hundreds of protesters faced scores of baton-wielding riot police and soldiers.

Nearby, on 6th October bridge, which spans the Nile close to the Ramses Hilton Hotel, scores of onlookers had gathered to watch.

The sudden explosion of violence will raise fears that Egypt’s uprising – already labouring under the weight of myriad concerns – has foundered.

Last month the ruling military council, which took power after Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February, said it would be reintroducing the much-hated Emergency Law following an attack on the Israeli embassy.

Many activists will be worried that last night’s violence will offer the generals even greater reason to implement martial law.