EGYPT: HISTORIC VOTE
-BIG PICTURE…It’s the Arab world’s first competitive presidential election – a true watershed in the “Arab Spring” – and the “greatest prize won in last year’s uprising”, as an AP writer puts it. As Alex MARQUARDT reports from Cairo, millions of Egyptians have been waiting patiently in long lines at polling stations across the nation, to freely choose their first president since the revolution that ended decades of dictatorship. “I think everyone’s upbeat, everyone’s looking forward to the future,” Mohammed Kamel, CEO of a real estate development firm, told Alex, at a polling place in Giza. “The country’s sort of been on hold for the past 15 months, everyone’s looking for stability.”
-WHO WILL WIN?…Thirteen candidates – including Islamists, liberals and Mubarak regime figures – are contesting the vote. Leading candidates include former Arab League chief Amr Moussa, Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul-Fotouh, Mohammed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood and Ahmed Shafik, who served as prime minister in the last days of the old regime. The campaign has already challenged conventional wisdom — namely, that hard-line Islamist parties would coast to power. Pollsters say that large numbers of voters were undecided – and the novelty of a free presidential vote make this week’s election almost impossible to call. A runoff between the two top finishers will be held in mid-June.
-MUBARAK…Today’s election comes less than two weeks before Egypt’s last President – longtime U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak – is due to be sentenced on charges of complicity in the killing of some 900 protesters during the uprising against his rule.
IRAN, WORLD POWERS SEEK BREAKTHROUGH
-CAN WAR BE AVOIDED?…World powers are testing those signs of hope we’ve seen recently from Tehran. Is Iran ready to scale back – or at least render more transparent – its nuclear program? That’s the question at talks in Baghdad today – and the stakes of course include the likelihood of a Middle East war. Today’s meeting between Iran and six world powers – the U.S., Russia, China, Germany, France and Britain – is the second since diplomacy resumed in mid-April. Reuters reports around 15,000 Iraqi police and troops will protect the venue inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, which has been the target of attacks.
-OIL PRICE FALLS ON IRAN NEWS…Also at stake here: the price of oil and gas. Oil fell to a seven-month low – near $91 a barrel – Wednesday in Asia after Iran agreed to allow the U.N. nuclear agency to restart an investigation into the country’s nuclear program.
-IRAN TO LAUNCH OBSERVATION SATELLITE…Meanwhile, as Whitney LLOYD writes, it’s worth noting Iran is expected to launch an experimental observation satellite today. The Fajr satellite will be the fourth satellite sent into space since 2009 by Iran, whose space program has attracted the concern of international community which is suspecting Tehran is seeking to develop long-range ballistic missiles capable of carrying conventional or nuclear warheads.
“CIA DOCTOR” SENTENCED IN PAKISTAN
From Muhammad LILA and Habibullah KHAN: Dr. Shakeel Afridi, the surgeon who helped the U.S. with reconnaissance outside Osama Bin Laden’s compound – and who started a fake vaccination program to help the CIA gather information on Bin Laden – has been sentenced by Pakistani authorities to 33 years for “high treason”. U.S. officials had repeatedly been demanding his release. Obviously another major blow to relations between the U.S. and Pakistan. Muhammad has interviewed Afridi’s co-workers, who have since lost their jobs. One of them, a nurse, broke down in tears asking why the “whole team” is being punished. He also has recent material from the Abbottabad compound.
AID WORKERS KIDNAPPED IN AFGHANISTAN
Muhammad LILA reports that two foreign doctors and three Afghan colleagues have been kidnapped in the north-eastern province of Badakhshan. They were abducted while travelling on horseback north of the provincial capital Faizabad. This is the same region where six American aid workers were killed in 2010. Their names and nationalities have not been released. The five worked for an NGO which provides relief in areas that are difficult to access. It is not yet clear who exactly abducted them.
-LOOKING FOR A WAY OUT…European Markets fell ahead of a key meeting of European leaders in Brussels today. The leaders of the 27 countries that make up the European Union are meeting to try and find a way to keep the debt crisis in Europe from spiraling out of control and promote jobs and growth. On Tuesday the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warned that the 17 countries that use the euro risk falling into a “severe recession.”
-IMF BOSS: GREECE HAS “MORE TO DO”…The head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, is keeping up the pressure on Greece to fix its finances. In an interview with the BBC, Ms Lagarde said there had to be more tax collection and structural reform. That is despite the deep unpopularity of austerity measures imposed on Greece by the IMF and European union in return for bailout funds.
-GREEK BANKS TO GET $23 BILLION FROM BAILOUT FUND…Greece’s four biggest commercial banks are getting an euro18 billion ($23 billion) cash infusion from the European bailout fund. The European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) money will be disbursed on Wednesday to the National Bank of Greece, Eurobank, Alpha Bank and Bank of Piraeus.
-THE GREXIT IS A VERY REAL RISK…Reuters quoted former Greece Prime Minister Lucas Papademos as saying that preparations for the country’s exit from the euro zone are being considered. Papademos said such a move was unlikely to materialize but the risk is real.
YEMEN: FOOD CRISIS LOOMS
Dana HUGHES reports: Along with the terror, and the heavy fighting, instability in Yemen has left the country facing a hunger catastrophe, with nearly half of people without enough food, aid groups have warned. In a joint warning, a group of seven charities said 10 million Yemenis – 44% of the population – are undernourished, with 5 million requiring emergency aid. Yemen has been shaken by pro-democracy protests, communal unrest in the north, and an Islamist conflict in the south. The warning comes as an international conference on Yemen gathers in the Saudi capital Riyadh.
NORTH KOREA ROCKET LAUNCH SITE IN ‘MAJOR UPGRADE’
The BBC reports satellite images show a ”major upgrade” is underway at North Korea’s rocket launch site. Work at the Musudan-ri site showed “rapid progress” since mid-2011, the analysis said. The report came as Pyongyang accused Washington of trying to ”incite confrontation” over speculation it may carry out a third nuclear test.
ITALY’S QUAKE: HUMAN TRAUMA – AND PARMESAN WIPED OUT
From Phoebe NATANSON in Rome: Emilia Romagna, the region hit by the 6.0 magnitude quake which killed seven people, is home to much of the nation’s Parmesan cheese – and that sector has suffered a severe setback. Around 400,000 wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano (Parmesan) and Grana Padano cheese, worth more than 240 million euros (£194 million), were damaged when the powerful earthquake toppled them from the warehouse racks on which they are left to mature. At least 10 per cent of Parmesan production was affected, according to Coldiretti, a national farmers’ association. The cheese wheels, which each weigh around 88lb, tumbled to the ground after the racks on which they were stored, known as “scaloni”, fell on top of each other like dominoes. “In my warehouse there are 32,000 wheels of Parmigiano lying ruined on the floor,” said Dante Caretti, 70, a cheese producer in the town of San Giovanni in Persiceto, north of Bologna. “It’s a disaster – two years work just thrown away.”
ZUMA PAINTING VANDALIZED
From Wilfred WAMBURA in Nairobi: A controversial painting showing South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma with his genitals exposed has been vandalized in an art gallery. Footage shown on South African television showed a man in a suit painting a red cross over the president’s genital area and then his face. The painting has been controversial and a case was to be heard this week.
DRIVERS RISKING LIVES TO CHECK FACEBOOK
The Telegraph reports the number of young drivers in the U.K. checking social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter while on the roads has increased by 50 per cent in the last year, according to the UK motoring association, the RAC. A survey the dramatic rise among 25 to 44-year-olds, who were at risk of being distracted by checking their smartphones while driving. The RAC warned the temptation to check applications on mobile phones while behind the wheel was quickly becoming a “new breed of motoring offence”.
“GAY” PENGUIN COUPLE GIVEN EGG OF THEIR OWN
The Telegraph reports zookeepers in Madrid have given a pair of male penguins, Inca and Rayas, an egg of their own. For years, the pair have built a nest together, but had no egg to fill it, of course. This year, zookeepers took pity on the childless pair and gave them an egg to care for. Inca has taken on the “female” role of incubating the donated egg. His partner Rayas, meanwhile, keeps a watchful guard over the nest while eating whatever he can fit in his beak, in preparation for the traditional male job of feeding his young with regurgitated fish. To be clear, Inca and Rayas are not to be confused with our other “gay” penguin friends, Buddy and Pedro, who were put in separate enclosures by Toronto Zoo keepers who felt they were not making a sufficient contribution to the gene pool.
A JUMP FROM THE SKY – MINUS THE PARACHUTE
Don’t try this at home. A British skydiver has landed successfully – in a long pile of cardboard boxes – after jumping from a helicopter at roughly 2,400 feet, wearing a “wing suit” but no parachute. It’s estimated he reached speeds of 80 miles per hour.
PRINCE CHARLES, DJ
Whitney LLOYD again: Prince Charles proved to have a dab-hand as a DJ on a visit to a youth centre music studio in Canada. The prince worked his mixing skills up to scratch at the Yonge Street Mission in Toronto. Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall are on a four-day Diamond Jubilee tour of Canada.