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Analysis: As Egypt hardliners gain, scope for conflict grows | Top News | Reuters

Analysis: As Egypt hardliners gain, scope for conflict grows | Top News | Reuters.

By Tom Perry

CAIRO (Reuters) – If there was any hope left that the generals who overthrew Egypt’s elected president six months ago might ease the state’s crackdown on dissent, a suicide bomb that ripped through a police station on Tuesday may have destroyed it.

The most populous Arab country enters the new year with deeper divisions in its society and more bloodshed on its streets than at any point in its modern history. The prospects for democracy appear bleaker with every bomb blast and arrest.

The army-backed government says it will shepherd Egypt back to democracy and points out that the state defeated Islamist militants when they last launched waves of attacks in the 1990s. But this time around there are more weapons and harder ideologies, and a bitter example of a failed democratic experiment to toughen positions on all sides.

Like much of the recent violence, the bombing that killed 16 people on Tuesday was bloodier than all but the very worst attacks of the 1990s. The tactic of using suicide bombers to hit security forces is more familiar to Iraq or Syria than to Egypt, which for all its history of militancy is one of the few big Arab states that has never experienced a modern civil war.

The blast was claimed by a Sinai Peninsula-based Islamist militant group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which has stepped up attacks on government targets in recent months and narrowly failed to assassinate the interior minister in September.

The blast set off mob attacks on the shops, homes and vehicles of people believed to be supporters of ousted President Mohamed Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood.

“After the funerals of the martyrs, angry people smashed my pharmacy and my brother’s shop,” said Mohamed Heikal, a Brotherhood activist in the city of Mansoura, scene of Tuesday’s bombing. “We had nothing to do with what happened,” he said, condemning the bombing as a terrorist attack.

With much of the public feverishly backing the government’s calls to uproot the Brotherhood, talk of political accommodation is non-existent. Analysts see little or no chances of a political deal to stabilize a nation in turmoil since Hosni Mubarak’s downfall in 2011.

Signs of escalation abound. Mursi and other top Brotherhood leaders have been ordered to stand trial on charges that could lead to their execution. They are charged with conspiring with foreigners to carry out a terrorist plot against Egypt.

Following Tuesday’s attack, Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.

Meanwhile, the frequency of attacks suggests militants are taking centre stage within the Islamist movement, further diminishing hopes of the state reaching an accommodation with moderates and strengthening the hawks in government.

One consequence could be to increase the chances of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi becoming Egypt’s next president.

The army chief who deposed Mursi after mass protests against Brotherhood rule has yet to decide whether to run, an army source said. Though Sisi would almost certainly win were he to run, the source said he is hesitant partly due to the mountain of problems awaiting Egypt’s next head of state.

But analysts say the increase in violence makes it less likely Sisi and those around him would trust anyone else with the reins of power.

“The more dire the situation becomes, the less a second tier civilian candidate will be seen able to take charge of the situation,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a New York-based think-tank. “This type of deterioration will increase pressure on Sisi to run.”

MOST SOLDIERS KILLED SINCE ’73 WAR

Crowds that gathered outside the compound hit in Tuesday’s attack to show support for the security forces brandished Sisi’s portrait.

Egypt has experienced violence for decades including the assassination of President Anwar Sadat by an Islamist gunman in 1981, and attacks on tourist sites in the 1990s that hurt the economy. But civil bloodshed has now reached an unprecedented level.

A conservative estimate puts the overall death toll since Mursi’s fall at well over 1,500. Most of those killed were Mursi supporters, including hundreds gunned down when the security forces cleared a protest vigil outside a Cairo mosque.

At least 350 members of the security forces have also been killed in bombings and shootings since Mursi’s downfall. The state has declared them martyrs of a war on terror.

The army has suffered its greatest casualties since the 1973 Middle East war, most of them in the Sinai Peninsula, where the most heavily armed Islamists are based.

The blood spilt since Mursi’s downfall has evoked comparisons with Algeria – a country pitched into a decade of civil war in 1991 when its army aborted an experiment with democracy because Islamists looked set to win power.

Some dismiss that comparison, arguing the past failures of militants in Egypt should dissuade Islamists from following that path.

But as the attacks spread beyond the Sinai Peninsula, the risks are compounded by the large quantities of weapons smuggled in from neighboring Libya since the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, in a war that saw his arsenals looted by rebels.

“This particular incident shows that the group operating in Mansoura is very organized, well equipped and capable,” said Mustapha Kamel Al-Sayid, a professor of political science at Cairo University, referring to the Nile Valley town where Tuesday’s attack took place.

“This points to the difficulty of any kind of compromise between the government and Islamist groups.”

FREEDOMS IN DANGER

The Brotherhood, most of whose leadership are in jail, continues to reiterate its mantra of peaceful resistance and denies turning to violence.

It is pressing a campaign of protests on university campuses where its followers routinely clash with the police.

But as that strategy fails to make much of an impact, there is a risk of radical logic winning over its supporters, posing a threat to the Brotherhood itself.

Analysts believe the security establishment now has a firm grip over the course of government, reasserting political influence that diminished after the 2011 uprising. Activists say the freedoms won in that uprising are in danger.

The state has widened a crackdown on dissent, on December 22 jailing three leading secular activists to three years in prison for breaking a law that severely curbs the right to protest – a major blow against those behind the January 25, 2011 revolution.

“What we see now is a security apparatus that really seems to be out of control, going after individuals and groups it has grudges against,” said Nathan Brown, a professor of political science at George Washington University.

“You do sometimes hear murmurs that people in the leadership worry that an overly harsh set of actions will make the political divisions in Egypt worse, and there has to be some kind of lessening of the security crackdown.

“This bombing puts off that date.”

Khaled Dawoud, a liberal politician, said the wave of Islamist attacks will make calls for reconciliation even less popular. He has continued to call for a political accommodation even after being stabbed by Mursi supporters in October.

“In any country where terrorism takes place, public freedoms and hopes for democracy suffer a retreat. That is the law of gravity,” he said.

 

European countries reel from deadly storms – Europe – Al Jazeera English

European countries reel from deadly storms – Europe – Al Jazeera English.

Deadly hurricane-force winds and torrential rain have brought havoc to transport networks Britain and France.The death toll rose to at least six people on Tuesday, as winds of up to 145kph hit both sides of the Channel with heavy downpours causing flooding, traffic jams, and cancellations of rail, flight and ferry services.

Aidan McGivern, a meteorologist, told Al Jazeera people were preparing themselves for more bad weather.

Analysts expect the storms to hurt retailers eager to cash in on the traditional Christmas rush [EPA]

In Britain, the number of people killed in two days of storms rose to at least five after a man died trying to rescue his dog from fast-flowing waters in Devon, southwest England.

A teenager died in France on Monday after a wall collapsed on him.

Airports in southern England were disrupted, with some flights from Britain’s busiest airport, Heathrow, cancelled or delayed.

Britain’s second busiest airport, Gatwick, said one terminal had been hit by a major power outage on Tuesday and storm damage had temporarily cut all trains to the airport.

Several hundred passengers were stranded at the airport and airport police had to be called in to help deal with angry passengers.

British train operators cancelled hundreds of services on Tuesday morning, by which time the storm had abated, leaving hundreds of thousands of people scrambling to get on to later services in and out of London.

Thousands without power

Brittany and Normandy were among the regions worst hit in France, where 240,000 homes lost electricity, while in southern England, 150,000 homes were cut off from the power grid, the Energy Networks Association said.

Energy company Southern Electric said that some customers would be without power on Christmas Day.

McGivern told Al Jazeera another storm was expected to strike on Friday.

“That is expected to bring another spell of wet and windy weather,” he said.

IHS analyst Howard Archer said the weather was expected to hurt British retailers, eager to cash in on the traditional pre Christmas rush.

“Given retailers’ hopes that the last couple of days before Christmas would see a final strong surge in sales, the awful weather could not have come at a worse time,” Archer said.

 

Bank of Canada says housing, debt still pose stability risks | Canada | Reuters

Bank of Canada says housing, debt still pose stability risks | Canada | Reuters.

By Louise Egan

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Soaring consumer debt and a robust housing market pose an “elevated” risk to Canada’s financial stability, but the overall level of danger has fallen from six months ago, the Bank of Canada said on Tuesday.

“In Canada, the high level of household debt and imbalances in the housing sector are the most significant domestic vulnerabilities to address,” the central bank said in its semi-annual Financial System Review.

These risks could make Canadians vulnerable to an adverse macroeconomic shock and a sharp correction in the housing market, it said.

The bank cut its overall level of risk to the country’s financial system to “elevated” from “high”, citing among other factors continuing stabilization in the euro zone and the start of a modest recovery in that region. Despite the brighter outlook for Europe, it remains the biggest threat to Canada, the bank said.

Tuesday’s report marked the first time the bank has eased its overall risk level since it began classifying risk in this way in December 2011.

The overall level of risk could fall further with continued progress on banking sector reform and other reforms in the euro area. That said, the level could increase if the current low interest rate environment in advanced economies persists longer than anticipated, it added.

The bank listed risky financial investments in a prolonged period of low interest rates as a “moderate” risk and added financial vulnerabilities in emerging markets as another moderate threat.

Canada’s housing market has been a source of concern for policymakers and economists since a property boom helped fuel the economy’s rebound from the 2008-09 recession.

After four government interventions to tighten mortgage rules, the market cooled in late 2012 only to regain momentum through the spring and summer of this year.

The bank, the finance ministry and the banking regulator monitor the market closely. The bank noted an oversupply of multiple-unit dwellings in some areas, and cited an elevated number of high-rise condos under construction in Toronto.

“If the upcoming supply of units is not absorbed by demand as units are completed over the next few years, there is a risk of a correction in prices and construction activity,” it said.

Such a correction could spread to other parts of the market and hit the overall economy, it added.

The bank said simple indicators suggest there is overvaluation in the housing market overall and it said any sharp downturn in a large city could spread, ultimately affecting sentiment, lending conditions as well as jobs and income.

While the latest data suggest some stabilization in the market, there is still much debate among economists over whether housing is poised to crash and damage the economy, or have a so-called “soft landing”.

Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz has placed himself in the latter camp, saying he expects record-high household debt to ease gradually as the housing market softens.

The report on Tuesday supported that view.

“The overall moderating trend is expected to resume in due course,” it said. “As long term interest rates normalize with the strengthening global economy, the risk will diminish over time.”

The ratio of household debt to income in Canada hit a record high in the second quarter of 163.4 percent, although the pace of credit growth has been slowing.

Statistics Canada will release third-quarter data on household debt on Friday.

(Reporting by Louise Egan; editing by David Ljunggren; and Peter Galloway)

 

Study finds growth not helping Africa’s poor – Africa – Al Jazeera English

Study finds growth not helping Africa’s poor – Africa – Al Jazeera English.

Improved economic growth over the past decade in Africa has failed to reduce poverty in a majority of countries on the continent, a new study has revealed.

The Afrobarometer survey, released on Tuesday, said that despite playing host to some of the world’s highest economic growth rates, many Africans still reported shortages of basic needs, including water, food, healthcare and cash.

“Meeting their basic daily needs remains a major challenge for a majority of Africans, even at a time when their countries are reporting impressive economic gains,” the survey found, citing data retrieved from the citizens of 16 African countries over the past 10 years.

In a second part of the study, the report surveyed the opinions of more than 50,000 citizens of 34 countries across the continent between 2011-2013 and concluded that “lived” poverty remains “pervasive across the continent”…

 

US House defies Obama on funding bill – Americas – Al Jazeera English

US House defies Obama on funding bill – Americas – Al Jazeera English.

The US House of Representatives has brought the federal government closer to a shutdown as it voted to delay President Barack Obama’s landmark health care law for a year as part of an emergency spending bill.

There is now less than 48 hours to avert a shutdown, which will begin on Tuesday if no spending bill is passed.

The Senate is not due to meet again until Monday afternoon.

In a statement issued on Sunday, US Senate Majority leader Harry Reid said that “after weeks of futile political games from Republicans, we are still at square one”.

He added that Republican efforts to change the bill – that would delay the healthcare law for a year and repeal a tax on medical devices – were pointless.

At 11:59pm local time on Monday (03:59 GMT on Tuesday), the US government technically runs out of money to fund many of its programmes in the new fiscal year that starts on Tuesday, unless Congress can agree on a funding bill.

If Congress cannot come to a compromise by midnight on Monday, as many as 800,000 federal workers would be furloughed as part of a partial government shutdown.

 

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