EGYPT ENDS EMERGENCY LAW
From Alex MARQUARDT in Cairo: Big news here: head of the military council Field Marshal Tantawi just finished speaking – the day before the first anniversary of the revolution – and just announced the end of the detested emergency law after 30 years. It was a major reason Egyptians turned out last year against Mubarak and was a huge disappointment when the military council didn’t do away with it. It has been at the top of the demands of protesters since Mubarak fell. In a Cairo restaurant where we watched the speech some started applauding. But on the eve of the anniversary, when widespread protests are planned, Tantawi warned that “anybody who’s playing with our security we will not tolerate.” Tantawi also talked about the new parliament being a symbol of reform and democracy. He said Egypt would expand its regional and international ties, ensure its national security and remains committed to international treaties (i.e. Camp David).
OTHER ARAB SPRING
-SYRIA: GULF STATES TO PULL MONITORS…The Associated Press reports a Gulf Cooperation Council official says the six-nation group plans to pull its monitors from Syria. The official who spoke on condition of anonymity said a statement is planned outlining the decision to withdraw from the Arab League effort to stem the bloodshed between opposition groups and the government of President Bashar Assad.
-BAHRAIN…The State Department says it is moving American Embassy employees to safer locations in Bahrain after ongoing political unrest elevated security worries in the strategic Gulf kingdom. The statement issued late Monday says frequent clashes along a main highway in Manama have forced people to remain indoors and have disrupted travel.
RUSSIA: NO ARAB SPRING-LIKE MOVEMENT HERE
From Alexandra NADEZHDINA in Moscow: The Kremlin is growing increasingly wary of “Arab Spring”-style revolts spreading to Moscow, especially amidst a growing protest trend at home. And as the West digs in its heels against countries such as Syria and Iran, Russia has found itself in a tight spot vis-à-vis these regimes – and, experts suggest, perhaps on the wrong side of the battle. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said heavy-handed Western action in the region could result in a “very big war.” According to foreign policy expert Pavel Bayev, “[The Kremlin believes] that everything should be done, every resource mobilized, every diplomatic tool used in order to stop that trend,” said Bayev, a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute of Oslo. The point was hammered home when Channel 1 launched a smear campaign against newly-minted U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul, criticizing his experience as an academic researcher on democracy and regime transitions. It also came on the heels of McFaul’s recent meeting with opposition members and civil society activists.
WAVE OF CAR BOMBS ACROSS BAGHDAD
A harrowing day in the Iraqi capital - Aadel RASHID reports on a wave of car bombings that have rocked the city, killing at least 14 people and wounding more than 50. It’s the latest example of a surge in violence in the country – coming amid an escalating political crisis, and just one month after the U.S. military withdrawal. At least 170 people have died in attacks since the beginning of the year, many of them Shiite pilgrims attending religious commemorations. The last American soldiers left the country December 18.
POPE TO THE WORLD: QUIET DOWN
From Phoebe NATANSON and the AP: Pope Benedict XVI is asking everyone to quiet down. In his annual “communications message”, Benedict extolled the sounds of silence. He said a little bit of quiet makes people better listeners and better communicators by giving them more time to reflect on what they’re hearing and saying. And in a world inundated by Tweets and 24-hour news coverage, that precious time to think gives words greater value, the pontiff said. “Joy, anxiety and suffering can all be communicated in silence — indeed it provides them with a particularly powerful mode of expression,” he said in his written message. Benedict has in recent years used this message to comment on social media, urging priests to blog and Catholics who spread the faith on Facebook and other social networks to be respectful. This year, his attention turned to the need to tune out the social media information overload. “By remaining silent, we allow the other person to speak, to express him or herself, and we avoid being tied simply to our own words and ideas without them being adequately tested.” And he noted that sometimes the most authentic communication takes place in utter silence, “between people who are in love: gestures, facial expressions and body language are signs by which they reveal themselves to each other.”
ATHENS, WE HAVE A PROBLEM
Richard DAVIES reports on a new and critical standoff over Greek debt. European finance ministers rejected an offer by hedge funds, banks and other private bondholders to restructure Greece’s debt burden. The IMF and European officials want private sector creditors to accept average interest rates of less than 4%. A high interest rate could buffer losses for investors, but would also require the eurozone and the International Monetary Fund to put up more in rescue loans they promised in late October. Athens is trying to get its private creditors to swap their Greek government bonds for new ones with half their face value, thereby slicing $130 billion off its massive debt.
-JOINING THE OIL EMBARGO…Reuters reports Australia’s foreign minister Kevin Rudd says the country will follow the European Union’s embargo against oil imports from Iran, in a bid to stop its nuclear program. Bazi KANANI adds that some African countries could be next – and the WSJournal reports U.S. diplomats are working to reduce African ties to Iran. The state-owned energy company in Angola, Sonangol, may pull out of an Iranian gas deal, and one of South Africa’s largest companies, Sasol, is considering exiting a $900 million Iranian petrochemical project. According to the IMF, African countries have been partly filling the void left by Western countries pulling out of Iran. In the past decade, Iranian exports to sub-Saharan Africa nearly tripled.
-IRAN SAYS EMBARGO HELPS THE COUNTRY…Meanwhile, Tehran’s intelligence chief Heidar Moslehi shrugged off the EU’s ban late Monday, insisting the world economy is so diversified that sanctions will be ineffective. Iran’s state IRNA news agency reported today that Moslehi also argued sanctions have brought benefits to the country, making it economically self-sufficient.
-UK ASSETS TO REGION? Britain’s defense secretary Philip Hammond said Tuesday that the U.K. could send further military assets to the Strait of Hormuz to deter any attempt by Iran to block the Persian Gulf’s oil tanker traffic.
-FUEL PUMPING TO BEGIN SATURDAY…Rescue efforts continued today as a barge loaded with drills, pipes and other heavy equipment moved into place alongside the crippled Costa Concordia. Actual fuel pumping efforts are not expected to start before Saturday. The confirmed death toll stands at 15 after searchers found the bodies of two women yesterday.
-COSTA CONCORDIA’s LIFEBOATS…While they investigate what Captain Schettino, his crew, and his company did or did not do that night, Italian prosecutors are also investigating reports of broken or ineffective lifeboats.
-NEW SAFETY RULES?…Sim Kallas, European Union commissioner for transport, said “We are very committed to introducing new and more serious rules regarding security on board cruise ships: We have not been waiting for an accident to happen to do this.”
Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s grip on the insurgency is loosening as battlefield successes in southern Afghanistan have helped sow discord among the Taliban top ranks and weakened the organization, a top U.S. commander tells USA Today. ”What we have seen in the last couple months is…a lot of infighting among some of his senior leadership,” said Marine Maj. Gen. John Toolan, commander of coalition forces in southwestern Afghanistan. “There were some killings within and among the Taliban.” Analysts say the discord among Taliban leadership is a sign that battlefield successes have hurt the organization, though it might also mean the insurgency will be in the hands of more radical junior leaders who operate independently.
NORTH KOREAN TV ANCHOR
China’s CCTV secured an exclusive for its New Year’s show – an interview with the face of North Korea’s KCNA: Ri Chun Hee (a.k.a., the woman who announced Kim Jong Il’s death, Pyongyang’s nuclear testing, etc). As Akiko FUJITA notes, It’s a side of KCNA rarely seen before. NHK translates some of what Ri Chun Hee says: ”When we read the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, we shouldn’t sound as if we’re shouting, but speaking gently to viewers.”
JAPAN’S EXPORT MACHINE FIZZLES
From the WSJournal: One of the world’s greatest export engines is running out of steam. For decades, Japan used the combination of manufacturing might and an export-oriented trade policy to shower markets around the world with its cars and consumer electronics and semiconductors. No longer. The Japanese government is expected to announce Wednesday that the country recorded its first annual trade deficit since 1980. If the yen remains strong and global demand weak, economists warn that Japan could run trade deficits for years to come.
JAPAN: ANOTHER BLACK EYE FOR GOVERNMENT
Akiko FUJITA reports from Tokyo: The hits just keep coming for the Japanese government. Yesterday, it was revelations that officials hid the worst case scenario from the public, during the Fukushima crises. Now there’s word that Tokyo did not keep records of top-level discussions, in the critical hours and days following the reactor meltdowns. The news first came to light, following an NHK investigation into the government’s handling of the nuclear disaster. When the broadcaster sought records of official discussions, they only found one page logs of meeting “agendas.” Today, the Energy Minister admitted, the government failed to record any of its conversations.
JAPAN TO FORCE “HANDOVER” OF ABDUCTED CHILDREN
FUJITA again: An update to discussions about the Hague Treaty, and a story World News did, regarding international custody disputes. A Justice Ministry panel is drafting legislation that would allow courts to legally force Japanese spouses to return children they “abducted” overseas. This is an about-face from previous stances Japan has taken, regarding custody cases, involving children born to American fathers and Japanese mothers. Of more than 300 children “abducted” by mothers, wanting to go back to their native country – none have been returned for years, because Japan has refused to sign an international treaty that would give left behind parents access to the child. Tokyo has announced its intention to join the treaty this year, but had not disclosed specifics on the court’s handling of cases until now. The proposed legislation says family court officers can forcibly hand over the child to the parent overseas, if the Japanese spouse refuses…but it doesn’t discuss whether the same rules will be applied to outstanding cases.
ZULU KING INVESTIGATED FOR GAY-BASHING
Bazi KANANI reports from Nairobi: The South African Human Rights Commission has launched an investigation into alleged homophobic comments made by King Goodwill Zwelithini. People attending an event over the weekend at which the Zulu King gave a speech say he called gay people “rotten” and said “same sex relationships are not acceptable.” The Human Rights Commission is demanding that King Goodwill explain his remarks and retract them if they can be deemed hate speech. South Africa is one of few African countries to grant gay people equal rights.
SUMATRAN ELEPHANT COULD BE EXTINCT IN 30 YEARS
Environmentalists say the Sumatran elephant could be extinct in the wild within three decades unless steps are taken to slow the pace of deforestation. The species has lost half its population and 69% of its habitat through deforestation in the past 25 years. The International Union for Conservation of Nature recently listed the animals as “critically endangered,” after their numbers dropped to between 2,400 and 2,800 from an estimated 5,000 in 1985.
DINOSAURS WERE CARING MOTHERS
The oldest dinosaur nest found by scientists shows the creatures were caring mothers in their early evolution. The finding in South Africa showed several clusters of fossilized eggs, many containing embryos. Tiny footprints of the newborn dinosaurs also showed they stayed in the nest long enough to grow to double their size. The nest is 100 million years older than previously found nests and belonged to Massospondylus, a 20-foot ancestor of long-necked “sauropod” dinosaurs that lived 190 million years ago. At least 10 nests were found at different rock levels, with up to 34 eggs in each, suggesting the dinosaurs returned to the same spot to lay their eggs according to the journal of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
PASS THE LIVE GRENADE!
What is it we’re watching here? Is it “military training”? A bizarre form of Russian Roulette? A really dangerous form of “Hot Potato”? All of the above? We’re not sure. What it most certainly is NOT – is anything you want to try at home. We – and many others in the newsroom today – have been watching this strange, minute-long piece of videotape that purports to show a People’s Liberation Army training exercise. A half dozen soldiers toss a live explosive, one to the other, in a small circle. (Here – you take it! I don’t want it! Here – over to you! And so on…) Then – not a moment too soon – they toss the grenade into what looks like a sand pit at the circle’s center, and take a kind of synchronized leap away from the pit.