New evidence is deepening fears in the scientific community that the Middle East and North Africa risk becoming uninhabitable in a few decades, as accessible fresh water has fallen by two-thirds over the past 40 years. Already, per capita availability of fresh water in the region—encompassing 22 countries and home to nearly 400 million inhabitants—is 10 times lower than the world average. The region's fresh water resources are among the lowest in the world, and are expected to fall over 50% by 2050, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). By century's end, higher temperatures may shorten growing seasons in the region by 18 days and reduce agricultural yields by up to 55%. "Looming water scarcity in the North Africa and Middle East region is a huge challenge requiring an urgent and massive response," said FAO director general Graziano da Silva on his recent visit to Cairo.
Lynne Stewart, the fighting activist attorney who gained fame with her 2005 conviction for "providing material support" to terrorism, died March 7 at her home in Brooklyn. She was 77, and had been granted a "compassionate release" from federal prison in January 2014 after she was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. The obituary in the New York Times says she was convicted of "helping smuggle messages" from her imprisoned client Omar Abdel Rahman "to his violent followers in Egypt." It doesn't mention that the "messages" were essentially press releases, barred by stringent "Special Administrative Measures" imposed by the Justice Department, which Stewart rejected as illegitimate. Her prison term, initially set at 28 months, was later increased to 10 years after an appeals court ordered the trial judge to consider a longer term. In a statement after her release, her longtime partner Ralph Poynter said: "The enduring global movement for social justice has persevered—ever inspired by Lynne Stewart's steadfast refusal to bend the knee, submit to coercion or official duplicity."
The Egypt Court of Cassation on March 2 acquitted former president Hosni Mubarak in a retrial of charges that he ordered the killing of protesters during the civil uprising of 2011 that ended his 30-year reign. Mubarak was initially convicted on these charges and sentenced to life in prison in 2012. But he strenuously maintained his innocence over the years, and an appeals court later ordered a retrial that ultimately brought the case to the Cassation Court. The retrial was postponed in November as it was moved from the high court building in Cairo to a different location. The Court rejected demands from lawyers for the victims and their families to initiate or reopen civil suits, which means that any remaining option for appeal or retrial is now closed.
Politicians wielding a dehumanizing rhetoric are creating a more divided and dangerous world, warned Amnesty International as it launched its annual assessment of human rights around the world. The report, "The State of the World's Human Rights" (PDF), warns that the consequences of "us vs them" rhetoric setting the agenda in Europe, the United States and elsewhere is fuelling a global pushback against human rights and leaving the global response to mass atrocities perilously weak. "President Trump's policies have brought the US to a level of human rights crisis that we haven't seen in years," said Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA. "As the world braces itself for a new executive order, thousands of people inside and outside of US borders have had their lives thrown into chaos as a result of the president's travel ban. This administration, like other governments across the world, is playing politics with people's lives. President Trump and leaders across the globe should be reaffirming and upholding international human rights protections, not exploiting fear and prejudice for their own agendas."
The United Nations Security Council on Dec. 23 voted in favor of adopting Resolution 2334, that calls on Israel to cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem. The vote, with 14 member states voting in favor and the United States abstaining, was the first such vote to be held on the Middle East Peace process in eight years. The resolution's text, drafted by Egypt alongside Palestine, demands that Israel "immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem," and emphasizes that the establishment of settlements by Israel has "no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law." The abstention by Obama came as a major reversal in US policy, as a similar resolution was vetoed by the US in 2011.
A bombing during Sunday Mass at a chapel attached to Cairo's main Coptic cathedral killed at least 25 and wounded some 50 others Dec. 11. Most of the victims are reported to have been women and children. St Mark's Cathedral is the main institution of Egypt's Coptic Christians and home to the head of the church, Pope Tawadros II. The blast coincided with celebrations of Mawlid, a national holiday in Egypt marking the birth of Islam's Prophet Muhammad. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, the deadliest targeting Egypt's Christians since a New Year's Day bombing at a church in Alexandria in 2011 that killed 21 people. President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has condemned the Cairo attack and declared three days of national mourning. There are around 9 million Coptic Christians in Egypt, around 10% of the country's population. (EuroNews, AfricaNews, Crux, Dec. 11)
Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court on Dec. 3 upheld a law that effectively bans protests. The law requires individuals seeking to protest to inform the interior ministry, at least three days prior, of any public gathering with more than 10 people, allows security forces to break up unapproved protests with water cannons, tear gas, and birdshot, and imposes up to five years of jail time for violation of various protest restrictions. The lawsuit had contended the law violated Article 73 of the Constitution, which provides for the "right to organize public meetings, marches, demonstrations and all forms of peaceful protest while not carrying weapons of any type, upon providing notifications as regulated by law." Despite upholding the law generally, the court did find unconstitutional a provision that allows the interior ministry to deny protest requests. In response to the ruling, human rights lawyer Gamal Eid said, "There isn't a court in Egypt that has mercy on the people."
Egypt's Court of Cassation on Nov. 22 overturned the life sentences of former president Mohamed Morsi and 16 other members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi had been convicted of conspiring with the Palestinian Hamas and other foreign militant groups. The court ordered a retrial in the matter, though a new hearing date is yet to be scheduled. The court also performed the same for Brotherhood spiritual leader Mohammed Badei and fellow members accused of spying for Hamas and Iran. Last week the court had overturned Morsi's death sentence in the matter of his prison break during the Egyptian Revolution in 2011. Morsi still faces numerous other sentences including 20 years for violence against protestors and 40 years for leaking state secrets to Qatar.