Leader of Libya’s revolt, Khalifa Hifter, rules out negotiations and vows to fight

I managed to secure an interview with Khalifa Hifter, his first with any western media since launching his assault in Benghazi:
The former general who is leading an armed uprising in Libya said Tuesday that he would not negotiate with his rivals and would instead rely on force to achieve his objectives.

“We see that confrontation is the solution,” Khalifa Hifter said in a telephone interview with The Washington Post from his headquarters in the eastern city of Benghazi. “I do not think talks will work with them,” he said.

On Friday, Hifter launched an offensive in Benghazi against Islamist militias that have been widely blamed for a string of assassinations. As least 70 people were killed and dozens injured in the most intense fighting Libya has seen since the revolt that deposed dictator Moammar Gaddafi three years ago. The assault was followed two days later by an attack on the national parliament by militias loyal to Hifter.

The fighting was a dramatic sign of the central government’s inability to assert control over the country, which has broken up into virtual fiefdoms ruled by militias since the ouster of Gaddafi. The stunning offensive of recent days led by Hifter — a former anti-Gaddafi activist who spent years in exile in Northern Virginia — has prompted militias to choose sides, in what could be a prelude to large-scale clashes.

Click to read more

The full Q&A is available here

Khalifa Hifter, the ex-general leading a revolt in Libya, spent years in exile in Northern Virginia

On a reporting trip in Libya, some of the heaviest fighting broke out after a renegade general launched an offensive against Islamist militias in the eastern city of Benghazi. I filed for the Washington Post throughout the week. The first piece was written with Post correspondent Abigail Hauslohner:
Two weeks before he masterminded an assault on two major Libyan cities, Khalifa Hifter hosted a dinner to court a potential ally. Hifter was normally a confident man, a former general who had gone on to spend years in Northern Virginia as an exiled opposition leader before returning home for the 2011 Libyan revolution.

But that night he seemed unsteady.

“Do you think I’m committing suicide?” Hifter asked his new friend and supporter, businessman Fathallah Bin Ali, as they dined in the eastern city of Benghazi.

Today, Hifter, 71, is leading what may be the most serious challenge to the Libyan government since the overthrow of Moammar Gaddafi in 2011. Attacks by Hifter’s forces on rival militias in Benghazi and Tripoli in recent days have left more than 70 people dead and dozens more injured. Militiamen loyal to him have overrun parliament.

Libya may now be sliding into civil war. On Monday, additional militias threw their weight behind Hifter, including those at an air force base in the far-eastern city of Tobruk, fighters who have occupied swaths of the country’s oil infrastructure, and members of an important Benghazi militia. Meanwhile, fighters from the powerful city-state of Misurata said they would soon move on Tripoli to counter Hifter’s assault.

Hifter had plotted his operation for months, friends say. His goal is to rid the country of the Islamist militias that he accuses of terrorizing the country, assassinating and kidnapping their political rivals, in the three years since they all fought on the same side to oust a dictator.

Click to read more

Does Egypt’s Resurgent Labor Unrest Pose a Threat to Sisi’s Power?

My latest for The Nation is a long analysis of the labor movement in Egypt:
Egypt’s former army chief Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi is all but guaranteed to win presidential elections later this month, formalizing his role as the country’s de facto ruler since leading the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi last summer. As Sisi prepares to take office and consolidate his regime, he will have to contend with a wave of labor unrest that has gripped the country for the first time since the July coup, with tens of thousands of workers going on strike for higher wages and improved working conditions.

Bus drivers, postal workers, garbage collectors, dock workers, doctors, pharmacists and steel and textile workers have staged walk-outs, factory occupations, sit-ins and other stoppages over the past several months, crippling a number of industries and adding to the turmoil of an already chaotic and violent political transition. According to the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, labor actions account for 70 percent of all documented protests in the first quarter of 2014.

Soon after the army ouster of Morsi following mass protests against Muslim Brotherhood rule, the interim government launched a sweeping crackdown on its opponents, imprisoning at least 16,000 people—many of them rounded up in mass sweeps—and killing up to 2,500. A court in southern Egypt recently sentenced more than 1,100 alleged Brotherhood members to death—among the largest death-penalty rulings in modern history—in trials that lacked even the most basic standards of due process. While the Brotherhood and its allies were the primary victims of the re-empowered security apparatus, the crackdown quickly widened beyond the Islamists to target any dissenting voices. Protesting workers have not been spared.

Over the past few months, strike leaders have been arrested at their homes in dawn raids, worker sit-ins have come under attack by riot police and union leaders have been summoned by the military and threatened with terrorism probes.

Click to read more

Egyptian prosecutors present videos in trial of Al-Jazeera journalists

My latest for the Toronto Star on the sixth court session of the trial of imprisoned Al Jazeera journalists:
CAIRO, EGYPT—Prosecutors in Egypt presented their evidence in a case against a Canadian journalist and his two colleagues in a lengthy court session on Tuesday.

Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian citizen and the acting bureau chief for Al-Jazeera English, was arrested on Dec. 29, along with colleagues Peter Greste, an Australian correspondent, and Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian producer. The three have been accused of belonging to or aiding a terrorist organization.

The trio has waited nearly four months in prison to see the videos, which prosecutors said would prove they manipulated footage to smear Egypt’s reputation and benefit the Muslim Brotherhood.

Yet the evidence appeared both uncontroversial and slipshod at best, with much of it presented in a random and unprepared manner.

Projected onto a large screen, the footage included raw interviews and unfinished video reports by various Al-Jazeera English correspondents — many of whom were not named in the case — covering issues ranging from street protests to rising food prices. Audio recordings of students charged alongside the journalists were mostly incomprehensible.

Click to read more

Egypt’s ‘war on a whole generation’

A feature piece on the brutal crackdown on dissent by the police in Egypt was finally published by the Toronto Star:
On Jan. 25, Nagy Kamel was arrested. He will never forget the next 38 days.

The 26-year-old activist was one of more than 1,000 people rounded up on the third anniversary of Egypt’s 2011 revolution.

At the local Azbakeya police station, he was crammed into a small cell with 120 other prisoners. They were beaten and terrorized with electric shocks.

Kamel was eventually transferred to the notorious Abu Zaabel prison, which was just as deplorable. Cells were overcrowded and infested with insects. Prisoners had their clothes taken. They were given stale or rotten food and little water. Guards randomly beat prisoners several times a day.

“There is a sadism to it,” Kamel says. “The treatment inside police stations and prisons is inhumane and the abuse is non-stop.”

Three years after a revolution that rose up against Hosni Mubarak’s brutal security state, the repression in Egypt has reached unprecedented levels, say human rights activists, with mass detentions, systematic prisoner abuse and an acquiescent judicial system. At least 16,000 people have been imprisoned over the past eight months.

“This is certainly the worst I’ve ever seen,” says Hossam Bahgat, the founder and former executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

Click to read more

Baird urges ‘fair and expeditious’ trial for journalist jailed in Egypt

Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird visited Egypt for the first time and I was able to ask him about the case of Mohamed Fahmy’s case during a press conference with his Egyptian counterpart. This is a quick piece for the Toronto Star on his comments:
In his first bilateral visit to Egypt, Foreign Minister John Baird said he called for a fair and expeditious trial for imprisoned Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy but stopped short of calling for his release.

Baird made the comments at a news conference Thursday, hours after arriving for a two-day visit.

“If I’m loud and vocal and use a bullhorn, I’m accused of bullhorn diplomacy. If I try to work quietly and directly, it’s not enough,” Baird said, in response to a question from the Star.

A dual Egyptian-Canadian citizen, Fahmy was working for Al-Jazeera English when he has detained on Dec. 29, along with colleagues Peter Greste, an Australian journalist, and Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian producer. The men have been accused of belonging to or aiding a terrorist organization in a case that has sparked worldwide condemnation and accusations of a crackdown on press freedom led by Egypt’s military-backed government.

“If someone is before the courts in Canada, I’m not able to order their release,” Baird said. “But I appreciated the assurances that the minister (Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy) gave with respect to a fair, open, transparent, expeditious process.”

Click to read more

Exclusive: Egyptian Activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah on Prison & Regime’s “War on a Whole Generation”

My in-depth discussion with one of Egypt’s most prominent dissidents, Alaa Abd El-Fattah, speaking in his first extended interview after nearly four months behind bars. Alaa talks about his imprisonment, the wave of repression in Egypt and the state of the revolution:

Click for full transcript

Egypt’s Courts Further Repression with Journos on Trial & Mass Death Sentence for Morsi Supporters

I was on Democracy Now! talking about the mass death sentence of 529 defendants as well as the ongoing trial of the Al Jazeera journalists:

Click for full transcript

Is being a journalist a crime? Defence grills witnesses at trial of Canadian journalist in Egypt

My piece for the Toronto Star after the third session of the Al Jazeera trial:
The trial of a Canadian journalist and his two colleagues, who have been imprisoned in Egypt for the past 12 weeks on terrorism charges, was adjourned for a third time on Monday with the defence team’s requests for bail again denied by the court.

Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian citizen and the acting bureau chief for Al-Jazeera English, was arrested by Egyptian authorities on Dec. 29, along with colleagues Peter Greste, an Australian correspondent, and Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian producer.

The three have been accused of belonging to or aiding a terrorist organization in a case that has sparked worldwide condemnation and accusations of a crackdown on press freedom led by Egypt’s military-backed government.

Monday’s four-hour court session was marked by the defence team grilling government witnesses, including questioning that centred on whether the prosecution was criminalizing basic acts of journalism.

Prosecutors have charged the Al-Jazeera journalists with fabricating news reports and tarnishing Egypt’s reputation abroad.

During Monday’s hearing, defence lawyer Khaled Abu Bakr questioned a member of a state media team that issued a forensic report requested by the prosecution. It concluded the defendants manipulated footage to create “false scenes” that endanger national security.

Click to read more

Canadian journalist imprisoned in Egypt gets MRI under heavy guard

I got to spend some time with Mohamed Fahmy - a friend and journalist with Al Jazeera who has been jailed since December 29 on terrorism charges - when he was taken to hospital for a scan on his injured shoulder. I filed a piece for the Toronto Star about his condition:
Mohamed Fahmy’s mother couldn’t hold back the tears when she saw the armoured police truck carrying her son enter the hospital compound. “Look at how they treat him,” she sobbed. “Why?”

Half a dozen heavily armed security forces had come to escort Fahmy, a respected journalist who has worked for CNN and the New York Times, from the southern Cairo prison complex where he has been detained for the past 84 days to a public hospital to receive a scan on his shoulder. Fahmy’s family and friends were waiting to greet him as he arrived.

A Canadian-Egyptian citizen and the acting bureau chief for Al-Jazeera English, Fahmy was arrested by Egyptian authorities on Dec. 29, along with colleagues Peter Greste, an Australian correspondent, and Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian producer. The three have been accused of belonging to or aiding a terrorist organization in a case that has sparked worldwide condemnation and accusations of a crackdown on press freedom led by Egypt’s military-backed government.

Fahmy emerged from the police truck dressed in prison whites and hugged his mother, younger brother and fiancée. Police officers stood nearby, some sporting flak jackets and assault rifles, their faces hidden behind black balaclavas and helmets.

He had been taken to the Qasr al-Aini hospital for MRI scan of his shoulder, which was broken during his arrest after having been previously fractured. The injury was further aggravated by his being forced to sleep on the floor during his initial detention period, when he was held in solitary confinement in extremely harsh conditions in a maximum-security prison wing for more than a month.

Click to read more