Large cabinet reshuffle in Egypt

Interior ministry denies it has sniper units

Erekat asserts PNA to go to UN for recognition amid U.S. efforts to impede the move

7 wounded in Israeli airstrike on Gaza Strip

Egypt's Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, who was hospitalized overnight for exhaustion, will spend the day resting and then finalize a new cabinet, the government said on Tuesday.

The new ministers were meant to be sworn in on Monday, but the ceremony was postponed for a day amid protests over the embattled premier's choice of ministers.

Then Sharaf, 59, was briefly admitted to hospital on Monday night suffering from exhaustion.

Sharaf "is resting on the advice of doctors after medical examinations following his illness last night, which was the result of hard work," a cabinet statement said.

Sharaf was "in stable condition and he will resume consultations to finalize the new ministerial changes after that," the statement said, denying "rumors on some websites about Prime Minister Essam Sharaf's resignation."

A cabinet source said the premier would return to work on Wednesday and "finalize the cabinet tomorrow or the day after."

The cabinet said on its Facebook page that Sharaf asked the current ministers to continue working until the new cabinet was sworn in.

Sharaf, who heads a caretaker government after a popular revolt toppled strongman Hosni Mubarak in February, had hoped the sweeping reshuffle would persuade protesters to end a sit-in at Cairo's Tahrir Square.

Fourteen new ministers and a deputy premier had been expected to take the oath of office before Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who heads the ruling military council.

But the protesters complained that the new cabinet retains ministers they wanted sacked, including Justice Minister Abdel Aziz al-Gindi, whom they accuse of delaying trials of former regime officials, including Mubarak.

A protest leader told AFP that on Monday night activists handed a list to Sharaf of ministers they wanted replaced.

Chief among them were Gindi, Interior Minister Mansur Essawy and three ministers who had served under Mubarak.

Two nominees, for the antiquities and international trade ministries, have already backed off.

The appointment of Abdel Fatah Banna as antiquities minister caused a backlash from ministry workers, leading Banna to turn down the job. It was not immediately known why Ahmed Abdel Wahab chose not to take up the trade portfolio.

There were consultations among protest leaders whether to end the sit-in, now in its 12th day, as divisions emerged over the new cabinet.

The liberal Wafd party was reported to have withdrawn from the protest after Sharaf appointed one of its senior members, Ali al-Silmi, as his deputy.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the influential Islamist movement that joined a mass demonstration on July 8 that led to the sit-in, said there was no point to prolonging the protest and that the new cabinet should be given a chance.

"We wanted a temporary government of technocrats, and things are headed that way," said Essam al-Erian, a Brotherhood leader who doubles as vice president of the movement's Freedom and Justice Party.

The protesters also risk the enmity of Egyptians who accuse them of destabilizing the country, which has seen a sharp decline in tourism and a rise in unemployment since the revolt that toppled Mubarak on February 11.

Hard-line Islamist groups have called for a mass demonstration for "stability" on Friday.

Egypt's antiquities minister, whose trademark Indiana Jones hat made him one the country's best known figures around the world, was fired Sunday after months of pressure from critics who attacked his credibility and accused him of having been too close to the regime of ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

Zahi Hawass, long chided as publicity loving and short on scientific knowledge, lost his job along with about a dozen other ministers in a Cabinet reshuffle meant to ease pressure from protesters seeking to purge remnants of Mubarak's regime.

"He was the Mubarak of antiquities," said Nora Shalaby, an activist and archaeologist. "He acted as if he owned Egypt's antiquities, and not that they belonged to the people of Egypt."

Despite the criticism, he was credited with helping boost interest in archaeology in Egypt and tourism, a pillar of the country's economy.

But after Mubarak's ouster on Feb. 11 in a popular uprising, pressure began to build for him to step down.

Hawass was among a list of Cabinet ministers protesters wanted to see gone because they were associated with the former regime.

And archaeology students and professors blasted him for what they saw as his lack of serious research.

Shalaby said Hawass didn't tolerate criticism. She said most his finds were about self-promotion, with many "rediscoveries" in search of the limelight.

Hawass prided himself in being the "keeper and guardian" of Egypt's heritage. He told an Egyptian lifestyle magazine, Enigma, in 2009 that George Lucas, the maker of the "Indian Jones" films, had come to visit him in Egypt "to meet the real Indiana Jones."

Hawass, 64, started out as an inspector of antiquities in 1969 and rose to become one of the most recognizable names in Egyptology. He became the general director of antiquities at the Giza plateau in the late 1980s, before being named Egypt's top archaeologist in 2002.

In one of Mubarak's final official acts as president, Hawass' position was elevated to that of a Cabinet minister. After Mubarak's ouster, Hawass submitted his resignation but he was reinstated before finally being removed Sunday.

His name has been associated with most new archaeological digs in Egypt, with grand discoveries such as the excavation of the Valley of the Golden Mummies in Bahariya Oasis in 1999 and the discovery of the mummy of Egypt's Queen Hatshepsut almost a decade later.

He was also a staple on the Discovery Channel, which accompanied him on the find of Hatshepsut mummy. He started his own reality show on the History Channel called "Chasing the Mummies." The channel introduces him as "the man behind the mummies."

Hawass has long campaigned to bring home ancient artifacts spirited out of the country during colonial times. He said since he became top archaeologist, he managed to recover 5,000 artifacts.

In January, just before anti-government protests erupted, he formally requested the return of the 3,300-year-old bust of Queen Nefertiti that has been in a Berlin museum for decades.

Hawass also had a fashion line, including his hat, for which he organized a photo-shoot in the Egyptian Museum, something that drew the ire of many archeologists.

"He was a personality created by the media," said Abdel-Halim Abdel-Nour, the president of the Association of Egyptian Archeologists.

He said many campaigned for Hawass's removal, including on Facebook and in Tahrir Square, the centre of Egypt's protests.

Just before news of his departure, Hawass was heckled near his office Sunday as he left on foot. Protesters tried to block his way, until he jumped into a taxi to get away from the melee, the taxi driver, Mohammed Abdou, said.

Hawass was replaced by Abdel-Fattah el-Banna, an associate professor in restoration. He was frequently present in Tahrir Square during the protests.

The Ministry of Interior terminated the service of 669 police officers, including those implicated in the killing of peaceful protesters during the Jan. 25 uprising in what was dubbed the most sweeping reshuffle in the ministry’s history.

“The ministry ended the service of 505 generals, 82 brigadier generals, and 82 colonels, including those who were referred to the Criminal Court for the killing of protesters,” said Minister of Interior Essawy in a press conference Wednesday.

“After the Jan. 25 uprising, we need to establish the rule of law, and according to the law, I cannot terminate the service of officers with ranks below colonel. We decided to send them to administrative jobs, away from interaction with the public,” he said.

El-Essawy also confirmed that the law authorizes him to terminate the service of officers ranking above colonel, because their service at this point is subject to annual renewal and is extended only in cases of proven ethical conduct and efficiency.

“Those two factors also determine the movement of lower ranking officers. If they are unethical or inefficient then they can be moved to other departments to give them another chance, but they cannot be fired,” El-Essawy said.

Of the 669 whose service was terminated, 18 generals and nine brigadier generals were implicated in the killing of protesters.

Fifty-four officers who have lower ranks and are investigated for their involvement in these killings were moved to administrative positions.

Human rights activist Ramy Raoof commented that even though this is a positive step, it would have never happened without public pressure through protests and sit-ins.

“These moves should have been made by General El-Essawy by default, not because of the pressure of public opinion,” Raoof told Daily News Egypt.

“We want the cabinet to shift its mentality from simply fixing the status quo to reforming the old structure completely,” Raoof added.

The reshuffle included 4,000 officers and will be implemented on August 1.

Raoof was, however, disappointed with the ministry’s decision not to temporarily suspend low ranking officers accused of killing protesters. “They are now free and are threatening the families of martyrs to make them drop the cases filed against the officers,” he said.

“The families of martyrs and the injured were coerced by police officers and many cases were reported to us. One of them was the case of Mohammed Marzouk who was injured on Jan. 28. The officers stormed his home, kidnapped him, and forced him to sign a document to drop the case,” Raoof said. “How will such cases be addressed? We need sweeping changes in the ministry to feel the difference.”

El-Essawy also denied rumors that jailed ex-regime officials, now under investigation for a slew of crimes, had escaped Tora prison, confirming that the prison is well-secured.

“I urge media outlets to fact-check carefully before publishing [such rumors],” he said.

He also denied that snipers who shot protesters in Tahrir Square during the uprising were police officers.

“The report of the official fact-finding committee presented no proof of the presence of police snipers,” he said.

“After Jan. 28 the Ministry of Interior was dead, so how were protesters shot?” he added.

Raoof criticized the minister’s comments, describing them as “going back to the comments of his predecessor, the much reviled Habib El-Adly, who continuously denied any wrong-doing.

“Such denial supports the officers who are involved in torture and human rights violations and empowers them to practice more violations,” Raoof said.

He added that it would have been more accurate if El-Essawy investigated the issue before blindly denying the accusations. “Essawy’s denial also contradicts reports by human rights organizations and the reports of independent fact-finding committees which confirmed that police snipers shot protesters from the roofs of the ministry on Jan.29,” he explained.

Meanwhile, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will ask the United Nations to recognize Palestine as an independent country, a spokesman, Saeb Erekat, said last week.

In an interview with Maan Radio, Erekat, the Palestinians' chief negotiator with Israel, said reports the Arab League would submit the request were mistaken. Abbas, blaming Israel for the stalled peace process, plans to ask in September for recognition of an independent state based on Israel's 1967 borders.

Erekat also said the United States should support the Palestinian move. The United States has said it would use its veto power on the Security Council to prevent U.N. recognition.

"We can't see any justification for the U.S. vetoing our bid seeking statehood, and we call upon the U.S. administration to reconsider their decision objectively, especially after they failed to maintain the peace process and make Israel stop settlement activities," Erekat said.

Erekat, a member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, in a press interview on July 8 rebuffed the U.S. House of Representatives' warning.

The U.S. House of Representatives adopted a decision on July 7 to cut off aid if the Palestinian National Authority applies a written request on the recognition of an independent state to the United Nations in September.

"The decision is rejected, denounced and unjustified," he said. "I don't believe that the U.S. decision would influence the Palestinian leadership's decision to apply to the UN," said Erekat.

The U.S. House of Representatives’ top Republican and Democratic appropriators for foreign assistance warned the Palestinian Authority that it is jeopardizing funding by pursuing statehood outside of talks.

The July 11 letter from Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX), the chairwoman of the foreign operations subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), the subcommittee’s senior Democrat, to Abbas noted that both the House and the Senate had in recent weeks overwhelmingly passed resolutions making such warnings.

“We write to reiterate our serious concerns about your intentions to pursue recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations,” it said. “It has been the longstanding belief of the United States government that the path to a true and lasting peace between Palestinians and Israelis will come only as a result of direct negotiations. We write to reaffirm that belief and warn of the severe consequences of abandoning it.”

It concluded: “Current and future aid will be jeopardized if you abandon direct negotiations and continue your current efforts.” The United States currently delivers about $500 million in assistance to the Palestinians, although not all of it directly to the P.A.

A number of proposed laws are now circulating in Congress that would ban assistance to the Palestinian Authority if it declares independence outside the framework of talks with Israel.

The Arab League this week asked the U.N. Security Council to consider recognizing an independent Palestinian state.

The Obama administration has said that pushing for statehood at the United Nations outside of the negotiation process is not constructive, but has not said definitively whether it would veto such a resolution at the Security Council.

On the other hand, Palestinian medical sources said 7 more Palestinians were wounded in continued Israeli air raids Sunday in what has become the deadliest series of strikes since violence flared in the strip in 2008-09.

Israel denied it had carried out any such raid.

Adham Abu Selmiya, a spokesman for the Hamas-run medical services in the Gaza Strip, said that four children and three adults suffered moderate injuries in airstrikes in the northern Beit Hanoun area.

But a spokeswoman for the Israeli army told AFP that “there was no [Israeli army] activity in Gaza overnight or this morning.”

The reported raid comes after four straight days of Israeli airstrikes between Tuesday and Friday night following rocket fire into southern Israel from Gaza.

The renewed violence comes after months of relative calm that followed a flare-up in tensions in April, when an anti-tank missile fired from Gaza hit an Israeli school bus, killing a teenager.

The Israeli military said four rockets were fired from the coastal territory into Israel over the weekend, bringing to 20 the number of munitions – including both rockets and mortar rounds – fired from Gaza since July 1.

Israel responded with a series of airstrikes that killed at least 19 Palestinians in the deadliest violence since Israel’s devastating 22-day assault on Gaza in 2008-09.

The violence raised fears of another similar offensive, but on April 10 Gaza’s Hamas rulers declared a return to the truce that ended Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in January 2009.

Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot reported Sunday a “dramatic rise” in the number of rockets being smuggled into the Gaza Strip, citing intelligence sources, who said that the increase was the biggest since the end of Operation Cast Lead.

The newspaper reported that intelligence officials believe around 10,000 rockets have been stockpiled in the Palestinian territory, with the weapons flowing more easily into Gaza with the breakdown of security in Sinai after the overthrow of the Egyptian government.

“The working assumption in the … [military] Intelligence Branch is that, among the 10,000 rockets currently in Gaza, there are several Fajr-5 rockets with a range of 70 kilometers, several hundred Grad rockets with a 40-kilometer range and hundreds more Grad rockets with at least a 20-kilometer range,” the newspaper reported.

Israeli jets struck three targets in Gaza Thursday night, moderately wounding four Palestinians, security and medical officials said.

Israeli aircraft targeted three tunnels Wednesday night, two used for smuggling in southern Gaza and one “used for terrorist activity” in the north of the Palestinian territory.

Two Palestinians were listed as missing after one of the tunnels collapsed in the raid, and the body of one of them has been recovered, medics said. The fate of the other man is still unknown.

Israeli air raids hit what the military called two “weapons manufacturing sites” in northern Gaza Tuesday. Palestinian medical sources said one woman was moderately wounded.