U.S. working to designate Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group: White House

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders talks to reporters at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 29, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration is working to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization, the White House said on Tuesday, which would bring sanctions against Egypt’s oldest Islamist movement.

“The president has consulted with his national security team and leaders in the region who share his concern, and this designation is working its way through the internal process,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in an email.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi asked President Donald Trump to make the designation, which Egypt has already done, in a private meeting during a visit to Washington on April 9, a senior U.S. official said, confirming a report in the New York Times on Tuesday.

After the meeting, Trump praised Sisi as a “great president” while a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers raised concerns about Sisi’s record on human rights, efforts to keep him in office for many years and planned Russian arms purchases.

Sisi, who ousted President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013 and was elected president the following year, has overseen a crackdown on Islamists as well as liberal opposition in Egypt.

White House national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo support the designation but officials at the Pentagon and elsewhere have been opposed and have been seeking more limited action, the senior official said.

The Brotherhood, which estimates its membership at up to 1 million people, came to power in Egypt’s first modern free election in 2012, a year after long-serving autocrat Hosni Mubarak was toppled in a popular uprising. But the movement is now banned and thousands of its supporters and much of its leadership have been jailed.

The Egyptian government blamed the organization for a 2013 suicide bomb attack on a police station that killed 16 people. The Brotherhood condemned that attack and denies using violence.

Some conservative and anti-Muslim activists have argued for years that the Brotherhood, which was founded in Egypt in 1928 and sought to establish a worldwide Islamic caliphate by peaceful means, has been a breeding ground for terrorists.

Designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist designation could complicate Washington’s relationship with NATO ally Turkey. The organization has close ties with President Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AK Party and many of its members fled to Turkey after the group’s activities were banned in Egypt.

Turkey is under threat of U.S. sanctions if it pursues plans to purchase Russian S-400 missile defense systems, which are not compatible with NATO systems.

Washington also says Turkey’s purchase of the S-400s would compromise the security of F-35 fighter jets, which are built by Lockheed Martin Corp and use stealth technology.

The U.S. administration debated the terrorist designation for the Muslim Brotherhood shortly after Trump took office in January 2017.

Some branches of the Brotherhood, including the Palestinian group Hamas, have engaged in anti-government violence and provoked violent government reactions. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, was once a member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

Other offshoots in Turkey and Tunisia have forsworn violence and come to power by democratic means.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Franklin Paul and Bill Trott)

Saudi Arabia says revamping education to combat ‘extremist ideologies’

FILE PHOTO: Saudi Arabia's then Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman reacts upon his arrival at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, June 24, 2015. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/File Photo

RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia is revamping its education curriculum to eradicate any trace of Muslim Brotherhood influence and will dismiss anyone working in the sector who sympathizes with the banned group, the education minister said.

Promoting a more moderate form of Islam is one of the promises made by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman under plans to modernize the deeply conservative Muslim kingdom.

The education ministry is working to “combat extremist ideologies by reviewing school curricula and books to ensure they do not reflect the banned Muslim Brotherhood’s agenda,” Ahmed bin Mohammed al-Isa said in a statement issued on Tuesday.

It would “ban such books from schools and universities and remove those who sympathize with the group or its ideology from their posts,” he added.

In September, a large Saudi public university announced it would dismiss employees suspected of ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, adding to concerns that the government is clamping down on its critics in academia and beyond.

Earlier this month, Crown Prince Mohammed told CBS in an interview that Saudi schools have been “invaded” by elements of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been designated by Saudi Arabia as a terrorist organization along with other militant groups such as al Qaeda and Islamic State.

INTERNAL THREAT

The young crown prince has already taken some steps to loosen Saudi Arabia’s ultra-strict social restrictions, scaling back the role of religious morality police, permitting public concerts and announcing plans to allow women to drive.

The ruling Al Saud family has always regarded Islamist groups as a major internal threat to its rule over a country where appeals to religious sentiment resonate deeply and an al Qaeda campaign a decade ago killed hundreds.

Since the kingdom’s founding, the Al Saud have enjoyed a close alliance with clerics of the ultra-conservative Wahhabi school of Islam who have espoused a political philosophy that demands obedience to the ruler.

By contrast the Brotherhood advances an active political doctrine urging revolutionary action.

A political Islamist organization founded in Egypt nearly a century ago, the Muslim Brotherhood says it is committed to peaceful activism and reform through elections, and its adherents span the region, holding elected office in Arab countries from Tunisia to Jordan.

Brotherhood members fleeing repression in Egypt, Syria and Iraq half a century ago took shelter in Saudi Arabia, some taking up roles in the kingdom’s education system and helping to establish the Sahwa or “Awakening” movement which agitated in the 1990s for democracy.

The Sahwa mostly fizzled, with some activists arrested and others coaxed into conformity, though admirers and its appeal lingered.

(Adds dropped first name of education minister in paragraph 3.)

(Reporting by Marwa Rashad; Editing by Ghaida Ghantous and Andrew Heavens)

UK criticizes Muslim Brotherhood, defends Western policy

UK criticizes Muslim Brotherhood, defends Western policy

By William James

LONDON (Reuters) – British foreign secretary Boris Johnson singled out the Muslim Brotherhood and its associates for criticism on Thursday in a speech calling for a renewed western diplomatic push in the Middle East to tackle Islamic extremism.

Speaking to diplomats and experts at the Foreign Office in London, Johnson called for better engagement with Muslim populations worldwide and argued that blaming Western intervention for the rise of Islamist extremism played into the jihadi narrative.

He said the West needed to collectively re-insert itself in the process towards peace in Syria and called for the United States to bring fresh impetus to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Johnson said the Muslim Brotherhood – a global Islamist organization which started in Egypt in 1928 – was one of the most politically savvy operators in the Muslim world, but he also criticized its conduct in the Middle East and Britain.

“It is plainly wrong that Islamists should exploit freedoms here in the UK – freedoms of speech and association – that their associates would repress overseas and it is all too clear that some affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood are willing to turn a blind eye to terrorism,” he said.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was designated as a terrorist organization in that country in 2013.

A 2015 British government review into the organization concluded that membership of or links to it should be considered a possible indicator of extremism but stopped short of recommending that it should be banned.

NO DIPLOMATIC RETREAT

Johnson admitted there had been policy missteps in Iraq and Syria interventions, but said that did not justify a diplomatic retreat from the region.

“British foreign policy is not the problem, it is part of the solution,” he said, calling for a renewed role in Syria, more work to halt conflict in Yemen and progress in bringing factions together in Libya.

“We need more engagement, not less,” he said.

His remarks come a day after the United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, drawing international criticism.

British Prime Minister Theresa May has said that decision was wrong, and Johnson repeated the government criticism that the U.S. move was premature.

“We … think that the future of Jerusalem must be settled as part of the negotiated agreement between Israel and the Palestinians and as part of the two-state solution,” he said.

“This decision, having been announced by President Trump, the world would like to see some serious announcements by the U.S. about how they see the Middle East peace process and how to bring the two sides together.”

(Editing by Stephen Addison)

Arab states demand Qatar closes Jazeera, cuts back ties to Iran

The Al Jazeera Media Network logo is seen on its headquarters building in Doha, Qatar June 8, 2017. REUTERS/Naseem Zeitoon - RTX39N4R

By William Maclean and Rania El Gamal

DUBAI (Reuters) – Four Arab states boycotting Qatar over alleged support for terrorism have sent Doha a list of 13 demands including closing Al Jazeera television and reducing ties to their regional adversary Iran, an official of one of the four countries said.

The demands aimed at ending the worst Gulf Arab crisis in years appear designed to quash a two decade-old foreign policy in which Qatar has punched well above its weight, striding the stage as a peace broker, often in conflicts in Muslim lands.

Doha’s independent-minded approach, including a dovish line on Iran and support for Islamist groups, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, has incensed some of its neighbors who see political Islamism as a threat to their dynastic rule.

The list, compiled by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Bahrain, which cut economic, diplomatic and travel ties to Doha on June 5, also demands the closing of a Turkish military base in Qatar, the official told Reuters.

Turkey’s Defense Minister Fikri Isik rejected the demand, saying any call for the base to be shut would represent interference in Ankara’s relations with Doha. He suggested instead that Turkey might bolster its presence.

“Strengthening the Turkish base would be a positive step in terms of the Gulf’s security,” he said. “Re-evaluating the base agreement with Qatar is not on our agenda.”

Qatar must also announce it is severing ties with terrorist, ideological and sectarian organizations including the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State, al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Jabhat Fateh al Sham, formerly al Qaeda’s branch in Syria, the Arab official said, and surrender all designated terrorists on its territory.

QATAR WON’T NEGOTIATE UNDER BOYCOTT

The four Arab countries accuse Qatar of funding terrorism, fomenting regional instability and cozying up to revolutionary theocracy Iran. Qatar has denied the accusations.

Qatari officials did not reply immediately to requests for comment. But on Monday, Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani said Qatar would not negotiate with the four states unless they lifted their measures against Doha.

The countries give Doha 10 days to comply, failing which the list becomes “void”, the official said without elaborating, suggesting the offer to end the dispute in return for the 13 steps would no longer be on the table.

“The demands are so aggressive that it makes it close to impossible to currently see a resolution of that conflict,” said Olivier Jakob, a strategist at Switzerland-based oil consultancy Petromatrix.

Several Qataris who spoke to Reuters described the demands as unreasonable. “Imagine another country demanding that CNN be closed,” said 40-year-old Haseeb Mansour, who works for telecom operator Ooredoo.

Abdullah al-Muhanadi, a retired public sector shopping for groceries in Doha on Friday morning, said the boycott must be lifted before negotiations to resolve the dispute could start.

“There’s a lot on the list that is simply not true or unreasonable, so how can we comply?” he said. “There are no IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) elements in Qatar and the agreement with Turkey is a long-standing diplomatic agreement so we cannot ask them to leave.”

The demands, handed to Qatar by mediator Kuwait also require that Qatar stop interfering in the four countries’ domestic and foreign affairs and stop a practice of giving Qatari nationality to citizens of the four countries, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Qatar must pay reparations to these countries for any damage or costs incurred over the past few years because of Qatari policies, he added. Any resulting agreement to comply with the demands will be monitored, with monthly reports in the first year, then every three months the next year, then annually for 10 years, the official said without elaborating.

U.S. President Donald Trump has taken a tough stance on Qatar, accusing it of being a “high level” sponsor of terrorism, but he has also offered help to the parties in the dispute to resolve their differences.

Turkey has backed Qatar during the three-week-old crisis. It sent its first ship carrying food aid to Qatar and dispatched a small contingent of soldiers and armored vehicles there on Thursday, while President Tayyip Erdogan spoke with Saudi Arabia’s leaders on calming tension in the region.

(Additional reporting by Tom Finn and Tom Arnold in Doha, and Daren Butler in Istanbul; Editing by Rania El Gamal, Paul Tait and Richard Balmforth)

Egyptian government bans scores of news websites in growing censorship crackdown

By Eric Knecht and Nadine Awadalla

CAIRO (Reuters) – An often fiery government critic, Egyptian journalist Khaled al-Balshi has been arrested, had his operations monitored, and staff harassed by police for years. Yet his website Al-Bedaiah, a rare dissident voice in Egypt, had never been touched.

On Sunday that changed when it suddenly went blank with no warning after being blocked, part of what Balshi called an unprecedented and far-reaching state crackdown on scores of news websites in recent weeks.

“Let’s be clear, the Egyptian websites going through this are dealing with a long-term shutdown — this is not short term,” said Balshi from his downtown Cairo office, where four work stations sat idle, because staff feared coming to work in case of arrest.

Balshi’s website was the 57th blocked since May 24, according to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, a non-government organization tracking the affected sites through software that monitors outages.

Journalists see the campaign against them as a step toward banning all but the most state-aligned media, effectively reversing the private media boom that flourished in the final decade of former president Hosni Mubarak’s rule and which they say helped push him from power in 2011.

Though no precise figures on readership are available, Egypt enjoys an active private media that includes widely read print and web format publications as well as popular late-night talk shows. State newspapers still maintain wide circulation.

The spike in censorship has come as a surprise, even to journalists long-accustomed to reporting within strict red lines in Egypt where direct criticism of the military, the president, and judiciary are considered taboo and punishable by jail time.

The government has offered no comment on the reason behind the blockages and the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology had no immediate comment.

MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD

Makram Mohamed Ahmed, head of the newly formed Supreme Media Council, a state media regulator, told Reuters he believes “the main reason is how much [these websites] deal with the Muslim Brotherhood or express support for terrorism,” referring to the Islamist group whose president Mohamed Mursi held office for a year before being ousted in 2013 by the military after mass protests.

But the blockages have also hit Mada Masr, a self-described progressive outlet with no Islamist ties, as well as the widely read Al-Borsa, a financial newspaper favored by the largely pro-government business community.

“If they did something more grave like arresting team members or me it would make big noise, whereas blocking the website is the best way to paralyze us without paying a high price for it,” Lina Atallah, editor of Mada Masr, told Reuters.

Some journalists say a presidential election in 2018 means Egypt is doubling down on press restrictions, a move intended to ensure opposition candidates have few spaces to challenge general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is widely expected to run for a second term.

“There are people getting ready to nominate themselves for the presidency and they have to make their voices heard or else they won’t be competitive,” said Adel Sabry, the editor-in-chief of Masr al-Arabia, a website blocked last month.

“[The goal] is that it’s just one voice,” said editor-in-chief of Al-Borsa, Hussein Abd Rabo, who said his paper could be closed any day.

FILE PHOTO: Masked Egyptian security forces walk by a demonstration held by journalists and activists against the detention of journalists, in front of the Press Syndicate in Cairo, Egypt April 26, 2016. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany/File Photo

RED SEA ISLANDS

When Balshi’s website was wiped from Egyptian screens seven of its eight most read articles dealt with the same hot-button issue: a controversial accord transferring two Red Sea islands to Egypt’s top benefactor, Saudi Arabia. The measure is expected to be voted on within days by parliament.

Like another website blocked on Sunday, El Badil, Balshi’s has provided a platform for critics of the deal who argue that the islands are Egyptian territory, a point of view that sparked rare street protests last year calling for the accord’s cancellation.

Balshi and other journalists believe the wave of censorship is meant to neutralize debate on an issue that opposition figures say has already eroded some of Sisi’s support among voters who consider ceding sovereign territory unacceptable.

“I insist that we remain a voice, no matter what. And that we try to preserve our space. I think it should be done even as a suicide mission,” said Balshi. “What can we do?”

(Reporting by Eric Knecht and Nadine Awadalla; Additional reporting by Mohamed Abdellah, editing by Peter Millership)

Hamas to soften stance on Israel, Muslim Brotherhood in policy document

A young Palestinian loyal to Hamas stands under the stage in front of a poster depicting late Hamas spiritual leader Ahmed Yassin (L) during a rally in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip

DOHA (Reuters) – The Palestinian Islamist group Hamas will remove a call for Israel’s destruction and drop its association with the Muslim Brotherhood in a new policy document to be issued on Monday, Gulf Arab sources said.

Hamas’s move appears aimed at improving relations with Gulf Arab states and Egypt, which label the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, as well as with Western countries, many of which classify Hamas as a terrorist group over its hostility to Israel.

The sources said Hamas, which has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007, will say in the document that it agrees to a transitional Palestinian state along the borders from 1967, when Israel captured Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem in a war with Arab states. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

A future state encompassing Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem along 1967 borders is the goal of Hamas’ main political rival, the Fatah movement led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. His Palestinian Authority has engaged in peace talks with Israel on that basis, although the last, U.S.-mediated round collapsed three years ago.

The revised Hamas political document, to be announced later on Monday, will still reject Israel’s right to exist and back  “armed struggle” against it, the Gulf Arab sources told Reuters.

Hamas has fought three wars with Israel since 2007 and has carried out hundreds of armed attacks in Israel and in Israeli-occupied territories since it was founded three decades ago.

It remains unclear whether the document replaces or changes in any way Hamas’s 1988 charter, which calls for Israel’s destruction and is the Islamist group’s covenant.

A Hamas spokesman in Qatar declined to comment. There was no immediate comment from Egypt and Gulf Arab states.

Arab sources said the Hamas document was being released ahead of a planned visit by Abbas to Washington on May 3 and as Donald Trump administration prepares to make a renewed push for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Analysts say the revised document could allow Hamas to mend relations with Western countries and pave the way for a reconciliation agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organisation, now also headed by Abbas.

U.S.-allied Arab states including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia classify the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. The 89-year-old Brotherhood held power in Egypt for a year after a popular uprising in 2011.

The Brotherhood denies links with Islamist militants and advocates Islamist political parties winning power through elections, which Saudi Arabia considers a threat to its system of absolute power through inherited rule.

(Reporting by Tom Finn; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Jordanian soldier who shot Israeli schoolgirls walks free from jail

Ahmad Daqamseh, a Jordanian soldier convicted of killing seven Israeli schoolgirls on March 13, 1997, is seen at Um Alluol prison in the city of Mafraq, Jordan, July 30, 2013. Picture taken July 30, 2013. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – A Jordanian soldier who killed seven Israeli schoolgirls has been freed after serving 20 years in prison, with many Jordanians celebrating his release and calling him a national hero, witnesses and family sources said on Sunday.

Ahmad Daqamseh, 45, was taken to his family home in the village of Ibdir near the city of Irbid in northern Jordan where dozens of relatives and wellwishers gave him a rousing welcome.

Jordanian security services set up checkpoints around the village to restrict access as people flocked to see him.

In July 1997, a five-member Jordanian military tribunal found Daqamseh guilty of opening fire on a group of Israeli schoolchildren and killing seven of them before soldiers seized him and rushed to help the victims.

Daqamseh became a hero to many Jordanians and was embraced as a figurehead by a strong opposition movement led by Islamists and nationalists vehemently opposed to the country’s peace treaty with Israel.

During the trial, Daqamseh said the girls had mocked him while he was performing Muslim prayers in a border area returned to Jordanian sovereignty under the 1994 peace treaty.

He would have faced the death penalty but the tribunal ruled he was mentally unstable and sentenced him to life imprisonment, which is equivalent to 20 years under Jordanian law.

A few days after the incident, the late King Hussein personally apologized for the incident, traveling to Israel to visit and pay his respects to the girls’ families.

Many lawmakers welcomed his release. Neither the Jordanian nor the Israeli government made any comment.

“The release of this hero has cheered us. Israel has committed crimes against many Jordanians that were never accounted for,” Saleh Armouti, a leading parliamentarian, said.

One Israeli survivor, Keren Mizrahi, said Daqamseh’s release revived painful memories and he had served a light sentence.

“My feeling is that it’s like I’m being wounded again, mentally and physically, as if a knife is turned inside my heart,” she was quoted as saying on Israeli Channel 10 TV.

A defiant Daqamseh told Al Jazeera he did not recognize Israel, saying Arabs could not have normal ties with what he termed “the Zionist entity”.

Jordan’s biggest political opposition group, the Islamic Action Front, which is the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, hailed his release.

“We congratulate Jordan and the family of the hero Ahmad al Daqmaseh his release from prison,” it said in a statement.

Many lawmakers and politicians had lobbied to set him free in a kingdom where hostility toward Israel runs deep.

Many Jordanians see Israel as an occupier state which has driven them from their land. Palestinians originally from Jordan make up a large proportion of the country’s population.

(Editing by Louise Ireland)

Egypt’s Sisi pardons 203 young protesters: state news agency

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (C) meets with his prime Minister Sherif Ismail (4th L) with other ministers and senior State officials at the Ittihadiya presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt March 13, 2017 in this handout picture courtesy of the Egyptian Presidency.

CAIRO (Reuters) – Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued a pardon for 203 youths jailed for taking part in demonstrations, state news agency MENA said on Monday, as part of a pledge he made months ago to amend a protest law.

No official list of names was immediately available.

Sisi promised in October to amend a law on assembly and protests, which rights groups say is severely restrictive and critics condemn as unconstitutional. He also hinted at possible pardons for youths who had demonstrated against his rule.

Sisi does not have the authority to interfere in Egypt’s judicial processes but can issue pardons.

In November, he pardoned 82 prisoners, mostly university students.

Since seizing power in mid-2013 from the Muslim Brotherhood, Sisi has presided over a crackdown on his Islamist opponents that has seen hundreds killed and many thousands jailed.

But the dragnet has since widened to include secular and liberal activists at the forefront of the 2011 uprising that ended Hosni Mubarak’s 30 years in power.

A law requiring permission from the Interior Ministry for any public gathering of more than 10 people is strictly enforced and has largely succeeded in ending the kind of mass demonstrations that helped unseat two presidents in three years.

Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court upheld the law in December but said that an article granting the Interior Ministry authority to deny protest requests was unconstitutional.

The law imposes jail sentences on those who violate a broad list of protest restrictions, and allows security forces to disperse illegal demonstrations with water cannon, tear gas, and birdshot. The court’s ruling kept all of these elements of the law intact and there is no further appeal.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Louise Ireland)