Recent developments in the region until February 16

Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques thanks Crown Prince Naif, passports officials

Prince Salman discusses cooperation with India during talks with Indian defense minister

King of Bahrain stresses march towards reform

Ali Abdullah Saleh calls on citizens to elect his VP as new president

Abu Mazen says insists on reconciliation, Gaza reconstruction

Egypt’s military rulers say reject all forms of threats and pressures

SAUDI ARABIA:

The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has expressed his thanks to Crown Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Deputy Premier and Minister of Interior after reviewing a copy of the statistical yearbook of General Directorate of Passports for the year 1431AH, including services provided for citizens, residents, and visitors throughout the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

In a reply cable, the King said, 'We thank You and employees of Directorate General of Passports for these efforts, wishing you all success.'

On this occasion, Passports Director General, Lieutenant General Salim bin Mohammed Al-Blaihid expressed his thanks to and appreciation of the King and the Crown Prince for their unlimited support for passports sector.

Meanwhile, Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz, Minister of Defense, received this week Indian Defense Minister Arackaparambil Kurien Antony in the presence of Prince Khalid bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz, Deputy Minister of Defense.

During the meeting, they held talks and made an in-depth review of aspects of cooperation between the two countries and ways of enhancing bilateral ties.

In a statement at the outset of the meeting, Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz hailed Saudi-Indian relations as deep-rooted, saying that they started since the historic visit of the late King Saud bin Abdulaziz to India.

Prince Salman also highlighted the visit of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to India in January 2006 that he said boosted further cooperation between the two countries and strengthened the partnership in the framework of mutual interest and the close ties that combine the two countries.

Prince Salman stated the visit of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz was culminated into the signing of several agreements which boosted these relations.

'Moreover, the meeting of the Saudi-Indian joint committee last month provided ample evidence of the firm desire to continue booting these relationships for the benefit of the two friendly countries,' he added.

For his part, the Indian Minister of Defense said his visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was important for promoting cooperation between the two countries.

He also stressed the keenness of the Indian government to strengthen further relations with the Kingdom.

Prince Salman also received Prince Lieutenant General Khalid bin Bandar bin Abdulaziz, Commander of Royal Saudi Ground Forces and Commanders of the Regions, who came to greet him.

They all listened to the directives of the Minister of Defense.

The meeting was attended by Chief of General Staff, General Hussein bin Abdullah Al-Qabil and Director General of the Office of Minister of Defense Lieutenant General Abdulrahman bin Saleh Al-Bunyan.

Units of paratroopers and Special Forces of Royal Saudi Ground Forces and paratroopers of Omani Army have ended five-day joint exercises in the Sultanate of Oman.

The exercises have been carried out with live ammunition and aircraft C130 of Royal Saudi Air Force and aircraft C130, F16 of Omani Air Force have taken part in these exercises.

On the other hand, Saudi Ambassador to Cairo Ahmed Abdel-Aziz al-Qattan on Thursday denied that there are Egyptian political prisoners in Saudi Arabia.

Qattan, who is also the Saudi delegate to the Arab League, explained that the Egyptian prisoners in Saudi Arabia were convicted in security and criminal cases.

“The issue of Egyptian prisoners in Saudi Arabia is closely followed up by both our governments,” he said, adding that he sent a list with the names of all prisoners, their charges and the sentences against them to the Egyptian Foreign Ministry in December 2011.

“There are 38 Egyptians detained for investigation,” he said.

“They will be tried at the earliest opportunity.” He also said his government is keen on resolving this matter in line with the fraternal relations between the two countries and in accordance with Islamic law.

On Saturday, Qattan said that there are 1401 Egyptian prisoners in Saudi Arabia, and that the Egyptian Foreign Ministry has been briefed on them.

Egypt's Sada al-Balad news website claims based on media reports that there are 50 Egyptians imprisoned in Saudi Arabia on political charges.

Egyptian diplomatic sources told Al-Masry Al-Youm on Monday that the Foreign Ministry did not receive a list with the names of those prisoners, and that the ministry is following up on the matter with the embassy in Riyadh and the consulate in Jeddah.

BAHRAIN:

King Hamad last night (February 13) called for cohesion and reconciliation between all sections of Bahraini community, while vowing to continue the reforms, development and modernization drive.

'There is no doubt that everyone is looking to achieve this objective and we are pleased to see the sincere and honest calls from those who are keen on the unification and cohesion of Bahraini society,” he said.

His Majesty King Hamad congratulated citizens on the 11th anniversary of the National Action Charter.

It was the result of a vision of broader popular participation through the elected council, which oversees government action, based on endorsed national values, he said.

'We are pleased to address you today, as always, with an open heart, feelings of compassion and aspiration to work together with you for the benefit and progress of our nation,' His Majesty said.

'We pray for the success of efforts to overcome the phase experienced by our beloved country and to start a new phase of hard and honest work for the benefit of the homeland and the citizens.

'We remain committed to the reforms that we launched a decade ago with the consensus of all the sons and daughters of our loyal people through the unprecedented referendum on the National Action Charter, an auspicious occasion that we celebrate today.

'It marked the launch of a development and modernization process, which is still moving forward to meet the aspirations of our loyal people in all areas.'

His Majesty King Hamad last night pardoned 291 prisoners after serving part of their jail terms. The gesture, marking the anniversary of the Charter, reflects the King's keenness to provide the pardoned convicts an opportunity to reintegrate into society and participate in the march of nation-building and progress.

YEMEN:

Outgoing Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has ordered his pictures to be replaced by those of his vice president, who is due to take his place later this month, state news agency Saba reported Wednesday.

Meanwhile, violence continued ahead of the one-man election on Tuesday to endorse the handover of power.

Five people, including an official responsible for Tuesday's election, were killed when gunmen opened fire on their car in Bayda, southwest of the capital, a local official and security sources said.

And three were wounded in attacks in the south, where factions from the separatist Southern Movement have been calling for preventing the polls from taking place, officials and activists said.

"President Ali Abdullah Saleh has ordered all authorities and institutions" public and private, across the country, "to take down his pictures from public squares, streets, buildings and offices and raise those of Vice President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi," Saba reported.

Referendum-like elections will be held in Yemen on Tuesday to approve Hadi, the sole candidate, as a consensus president for a two-year term, as per a Gulf-brokered deal which Saleh signed in November after months of pressure.

Under the deal, which came in response to an uprising that began in January 2011, Saleh, who has ruled Yemen for three decades, will hand power to Hadi, a southerner, in return for a promise of immunity from prosecution.

But while most members of the opposition welcome the election, members of the Southern Movement, who say it fails to meet their aspirations for autonomy or southern independence, have been campaigning for a boycott of the poll.

The more extreme factions led by Yemen Socialist Party's former leader Ali Salem al-Baidh have openly called for preventing the poll from taking place at all.

The people killed in Bayda also included a Republican Guard officer responsible for electoral security, two soldiers and a civilian, the sources said.

One policeman was wounded when a gunman "from the Southern Movement threw a home-made bomb at a polling booth in the town of Huta before fleeing," a local official told AFP.

This came hours after gunmen from the same movement clashed with policemen guarding the same booth, the official said.

In Daleh province, Southern Movement gunmen from fired on a local government building during the launch of Hadi's campaign, wounding a passer-by, and on a police vehicle leaving a polling booth, wounding a policeman, an activist said.

A stun bomb also exploded near a polling booth in the main southern city of Aden, a security official said, accusing members of the Southern Movement of planting it.

The attacks come one day after a man was killed when a bomb exploded as he was planting it in a polling booth in Aden, a security official said.

The official had accused members of the separatist movement of being behind the attack. But leading Southern Movement member Qassem Askar denied his group's involvement in the blast.

He accused "security forces and other parties who are against the peaceful Southern Movement of orchestrating the attack to find an excuse to arrest activists and leaders in the movement and kill protesters" against the polls, in a statement received by AFP.

Saleh has been in New York since late last month to receive medical treatment for wounds suffered in a June bombing at the presidential palace in Sana’a.

US officials have said he will not return to Yemen until after the election, but state news agency Saba reported last week that Saleh had told visitors he would "participate" in the poll.

KUWAIT:

Kuwait's emir on Wednesday called on MPs and the government to cooperate, end disputes and fend off internal and external dangers as the opposition consolidated its grip on parliament.

"Our country is facing a host of internal challenges and external dangers that are hampering progress... and stalling development," Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah told the new parliament elected on February 2 in snap polls.

We must show "unity and cooperation to face these dangers and its evils," said the emir, referring to ongoing turmoil in several Arab countries and a series of internal political crises which rocked the oil-rich Gulf state.

"Fending off these dangers should top your list of priorities... and preserving national unity and fighting dissent... should be your most important duty," Sheikh Sabah told MPs.

The Islamist-led opposition scored a resounding victory, controlling a majority in the 50-member house but the new line-up announced Tuesday included only one member of the opposition and no Islamists.

This was immediately reflected when the opposition, a loose formation of Islamists, nationalists and independents, swept the election to the speaker, deputy speaker and most of the parliamentary panels.

Veteran opposition figure MP Ahmad al-Saadun, 78, was elected speaker by 38 votes against 26 for his only rival, liberal MP Mohammad al-Sager.

Under Kuwait's unique democratic system, 15 unelected ministers from the 16-member cabinet are allowed to vote like elected MPs, which in effect raises the parliament membership to 65. One cabinet minister is an elected MP.

Saadun is the longest serving lawmaker in the Gulf state. He has been a member of parliament since 1975, winning in every parliamentary poll since then.

He has also served as speaker on three occasions.

Islamist Salafi MP Khaled al-Sultan, 74, who is the second oldest MP after Saadun, was elected his deputy. Salafists are members of an ultra-conservative branch of Islam.

Opposition MPs also swept to most of the parliamentary panels, considered as the main tools for legislation and probes. Kuwait has been rocked by a series of political crises that led to the resignation of eight governments and the dissolution of parliament on four occasions since 2006.

This month's elections, the fourth in less than six years, were held following protests that forced former prime minister Sheikh Nasser Mohammad al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, a nephew of the emir, to quit in November.

The emir later dissolved the previous parliament.

Recognizing the growing power of youth, the emir said that he has called for a national conference to focus on the problems and explore solutions to the challenges facing the young people.

Youth groups and activists played an important role in the elections, campaigning for reformist candidates.

The new cabinet, led by Sheikh Jaber Mubarak Al-Sabah, a senior member of the Al-Sabah ruling family, also excluded women for the first time since 2005.

Kuwait, which says it sits on 10 percent of global crude reserves, pumps about 3.0 million barrels of oil daily. It has a population of 1.17 million native Kuwaitis and 2.4 million foreign residents.

QATAR:

Qatar firmly believes in the importance of empowering women to exercise all their rights - political, social and economic - since Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani assumed power, HE the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr. Khalid bin Mohamed al-Attiyah has said.

Addressing the opening ceremony of the Third Ministerial Meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) on the Advancement of Women in Doha, the minister explained that this was enshrined in the Constitution and the laws of the country, especially the principle of equal rights among all citizens - men and women.

The minister noted that Qatar has signed a number of agreements and international and regional conventions on the rights of women.

At the institutional level, numerous institutions and governmental bodies were established to promote and protect women’s rights and eliminate all forms of discrimination against them, al-Attiyah said.

Qatari women have assumed the highest positions in the State’s institutions and the private sector, including ministerial positions, he said, adding that they also contribute significantly to the country’s renaissance.

In this regard, al-Attiyah highlighted the pioneering role played by Sheikha Moza bint Nasser in promoting humanitarian affairs and empowering women through her economic, social and development initiatives and contributions.

He stressed that Qatar National Vision 2030 seeks to strengthen the capacities of women and empower them to participate in all fields, particularly in decision-making roles, as well as to increase their opportunities to receive professional support.

To achieve this vision, al-Attiyah said that the State of Qatar launched the National Development Strategy 2011/2016, which includes national priority programs to ensure the empowerment of women through capacity building and removal of restrictions.

The minister explained that the Third Ministerial Meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement on the Advancement of Women shows the real keenness of the Non-Aligned Movement for the advancement of women as an essential pillar of development.

Al-Attiyah added that most countries of the world witnessed in recent decades a shift in terms of women’s legal entitlements in various spheres of life to promote and protect their rights.

Despite all efforts made by the governments and relevant UN agencies and civil society organizations in this area, women are still facing many challenges and obstacles, he said, adding that societal and legal discrimination between women and men is a frightening obstacle.

Women are the ones who suffer the most in times of poverty, and are more vulnerable to the negative effects of armed conflict than others, al-Attiyah said, pointing to the maternal mortality rate which is still unacceptably high in many developing countries.

The minister emphasized that this discrimination is unacceptable as “we are in the third Millennium, and this is the main obstacle facing the human development”.

The minister said that empowering of women will be one of the main factors in the advancement of the Arab region, particularly in light of the Arab Spring which saw a significant contribution by women.

He noted that creating a suitable environment for women and boosting their participation in all fields, will contribute significantly in moving the world forward.

He called on governments to play their role in the advancement of women and enhancing their participation in different fields - economic, social, cultural, political and civilian.

He stressed that it’s the governments that need to place strategies and carry them out in order to guarantee equal opportunities for women with men.

The minister also called on the international community to support the national efforts made for the advancement of women, particularly in developing countries.

He stressed that the State of Qatar is going forward with its efforts to empower women economically, socially and politically, stressing the importance of direct support to the least developed countries to assist them in taking effective steps to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

Meanwhile, Dr. Najwa Khalil, the Egyptian Minister of Insurance and Social Affairs and head of NAM at the ministerial level concerned with the women’s topics, expressed her thanks to Qatar for hosting the meeting.

She said the meeting represented a good opportunity for member-countries to recommit themselves to women’s issues in their respective societies.

Director of the NAM Institute for the Empowerment of Women Rafia bint Selim said that the institute, which was formed in 2005, currently has 54 member-countries. She said that the institute has a number of plans in place that aim at enhancing women’s rights.

The institute had launched a plan last year that that aimed at decreasing poverty and ensuring the social and economic rights of women in Cambodia, Bint Selim said, noting that the scheme’s cost was over $2billion.

The State of Qatar proposed finding a mechanism to follow the Doha Declaration, which will be produced at the end of the Third NAM Ministerial Meeting on the Advancement of Women.

The propositions also included finding mechanisms to follow the resolutions of the previous two meetings held in Malaysia 2005 and Guatemala 2009, respectively.

The announcement was made by Dr. Johainah Sultan al-Eissa, who is the deputy director of the Supreme Council of Family Affairs, during her speech at the meeting.

Dr. Eissa, in her address, stressed Qatar’s commitment to empower women in all aspects.

She said that all of Qatar’s national strategies focused on the advancement of women. She added that the vision of Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani determined the foundations with which to build a modern country, based on a constitution and respect for the law and national institutions.

LIBYA:

About 5,000 rebels have joined Libya's nascent national army but more of the militias that have dominated the country since the revolution must sign up if the armed forces are to reassert their authority, the new chief of staff said.

The militias, which fought to unseat former leader Muammar Gaddafi, are now the biggest threat to the stability of Libya, clashing regularly with each other in violent turf wars and undermining the authority of the new rulers.

Libya's interim government, the National Transitional Council (NTC), wants to amalgamate the militias into the police force and army. NTC chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil warned last month that if they did not comply, the country risks being dragged into a civil war.

Drawn from dozens of different towns and ideological camps, militias are reluctant to lay down arms they believe will help them secure their due share of political power in the new Libya.

The NTC named a chief of staff, Youssef al-Manqoush, last month and set up a committee to register former fighters and help them to either join the army or police forces or offer them the financial means to start new lives as civilians.

"More than 100,000 rebels from all over Libya have registered with the combatants' committee that deals with the rebels on an individual level and not as groups," Mustafa al-Saqizly, the head of the committee, told a news conference late on Tuesday.

Of those, Manqoush said 5,000 rebels joined the army in an official ceremony on Tuesday and would begin their training in March. About 400 had completed training to join the police.

It is not clear how many fighters there are in Libya's many militia units, but they could number in the hundreds of thousands.

Those that have turned up to seek jobs in the new police force or army appear to be from smaller militias that did not have the resources to make a bid for power, rather than the heavily armed and well-organized militias that are the biggest headache for the NTC.

Mokhtar al-Akhdar commands a 1,200-strong force drawn mainly from Zintan, which now controls Tripoli airport.

Speaking to reporters at the airport on Wednesday evening, Akhdar said the NTC had failed to provide jobs and security and that the rebels were so far working without pay to secure the country, making it difficult for the militias to give up their guns.

Once there was a functioning police force of at least 10,000 men, they would consider giving up their own weapons, Akhdar said, complaining about a recent incident in which members of his militia had been detained by a rival group in Benghazi in apparent response for a previous clash.

Such altercations have become a daily occurrence in Libya, while the poor state of the armed forces under Gaddafi has also posed challenges for the NTC.

Gaddafi distrusted the military and effectively dismantled the armed forces in the 1990s, leaving them with few arms or personnel, placing real power in the hands of his own militias which moved swiftly to crush protests against him in February.

A large number of military officers defected in the early days of the uprising and barracks were overrun by rebels.

Manqoush said the new Libyan army also needed graduates to join a new 8-10 month officer training scheme aimed at creating a smaller professional army to replace the sprawling but disorganized force of old.

"The army is an institution that cannot be built in a matter of days. We need time," Manqoush said.

"The more we support the national army, and people rally around it and offer it the necessary support and cooperation the more we reduce the need for armed groups ... We must cooperate with the army to help them regain the military barracks and equipment."

PALESTINE:

Two rival Palestinian organizations, Hamas and Fatah, agreed on a power-sharing accord earlier this month. Experts say the new agreement is another step forward in healing the rift between the two organizations, whose territories are separated by Israel.

The secular Fatah movement is led by Mahmoud Abbas, also president of the Palestinian Authority, and rules the West Bank. He has been in power since January 2005, succeeding the late Yasser Arafat, founder of the Fatah movement.

The militant group Hamas is also known as the Islamic Resistance Movement and is the elected ruling party in the Gaza Strip.

For years, Hamas has carried out suicide bombings and rocket attacks against Israel, prompting inevitable Israeli military responses. An unofficial cease-fire between Hamas and Israel has been in effect since last April. The United States and Israel consider Hamas to be a terrorist group, though Hamas also runs an extensive social service network.

After months of talks, the two groups agreed that Abbas will lead a unity government that will prepare for new presidential and parliamentary elections later this year. The agreement was signed in Doha, the capital of Qatar. Experts say this fulfills a key requirement of a previous accord brokered by the Egyptians last May.

Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics, welcomes the power-sharing agreement. But he adds a cautionary note.

“The jury is still out on whether Fatah and Hamas can put their differences aside and begin the process of reconciliation, of governing," he said. "And even though the accord talks about reconciliation, how do you empower Fatah in Gaza where Hamas rules supreme? Will Mahmoud Abbas be able to govern Gaza? Will Hamas cease its authority in Gaza? And also, you have dissenting voices within Hamas and also within Fatah. So although the accord represents a breakthrough, at least symbolically and politically, the reality is the devil is in the details.”

Gerges says this is not the first time that the two Palestinian factions promised to put their differences aside.

“The difference between previous agreements and the Qatar accord is that so many changes have taken place in Palestine and the region itself. I would argue that the Arab Spring awakenings have had a major impact on the Hamas leadership," said Gerges. "The Hamas leadership no longer feels besieged as it used to be before the rise of the Islamists took power in Tunisia, in Morocco, in Egypt. Hamas feels now that it has strategic depth, that Egypt no longer is hostile, as it used to be under Mubarak.”

Many experts, including Alon Ben-Meir, a Middle East expert at New York University, say Hamas is changing and is moving away from violence.

“They have also been advised by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and specifically, recently by King Abdullah of Jordan and certainly the Emir of Qatar, that if they do not abandon violence, that is going to be the end of the so-called ‘Palestinian enterprise’ - because Israel, at this juncture, at this specific time, is not going to tolerate any provocation coming from the West Bank and/or Gaza," said Ben-Meir. "And I think they know this only too well.”

Ben-Meir also says Fatah has every reason to urge Hamas to renounce violence.

“If you went to Ramallah or Jenin and other cities in the West Bank, you’ll be shocked to see the progress that they have made in terms of infrastructure, building roads, highways, restaurants and all that - they do not want to lose that, Ben-Meir said. "So I cannot imagine they [Fatah] making an agreement with Hamas that will reignite, or restart violence against the Israelis. That simply would not work.”

But John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, does not see Hamas changing.

“They know what they need to do to change: recognize the state of Israel, accept the previous agreements and renounce terrorism. And at least so far, they’ve done none of those things,” Bolton said.

Some experts believe the growing unity between Fatah and Hamas could signal a turning point in the search for a lasting peace in the Middle East - but only if violence is eradicated for good.

UAE:

The UAE stands by the Palestinian people in their struggle to regain their legitimate rights and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, in accordance with legitimate international resolutions, the President, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, reiterated on Monday.

While welcoming Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh at the Al Dhiyafa Palace in Abu Dhabi, the President also stressed the importance of unifying the Palestinian ranks to meet the challenges faced by the Palestinian cause.

His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, was also present on the occasion.

Haniyeh briefed Sheikh Khalifa on the latest developments on the Palestinian issue and the efforts to achieve national reconciliation aimed at restoring unity.

Haniyeh also expressed his happiness over visiting the UAE and meeting Sheikh Khalifa. He also appreciated the stance of the UAE towards the Palestinian people and their just cause.

He thanked the UAE for continued support to the Palestinian people through humanitarian projects.

The Hamas leader wished the people of the UAE continued progress and prosperity under the wise leadership of President Sheikh Khalifa.

The meeting was attended by Sheikh Tahnoun bin Mohammed Al Nahyan, Ruler’s Representative in the Eastern Region; Sheikh Saeed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Representative of the Ruler of Abu Dhabi; Sheikh Nahyan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Charitable and Humanitarian Foundation; Lt. Gen. Sheikh Saif bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister; Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs; Sheikh Omar bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Deputy Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Charitable and Humanitarian Foundation; Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, Member Executive Council; ministers and senior state officials.

EGYPT:

Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the Head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) discussed at his meeting on Tuesday 14/2/2012 with People's Assembly Speaker Dr. Saad El Katatni, number of Chairmen of the Parliament Committees and lawmakers how to complete measures of transitional period following the end of the Shura Council elections through writing the new constitution and holding the presidential elections in preparation for handing over power to an elected civil authority.

The meeting which was attended by Lt. General Samy Anan, the Deputy SCAF Head, discussed a wide range of issues mainly the acts of violence witnessed by Port Said Stadium, means of developing the Egyptian-foreign relations to support the Egyptian economy in the light of the existing crisis and means of supporting police to maintain security and discipline in the Egyptian street.

Meantime, Dr. Essam al-Eryan, the Chairman of the People's Assembly's Foreign Relations Committee, said that Tantawi stressed the importance of exerting efforts to restore security to the street whereas lawmakers stressed the importance of handing over power to an elected authority in time, saying that they also criticized the performance of the current government.

However, he denied that the meeting discussed the formation of a coalition government.

Egypt's military rulers warned Friday that the country faces conspiracies that seek to topple the state and spread chaos, in a message intended to undermine activists who plan to mark the anniversary of President Hosni Mubarak's overthrow with anti-army protests.

The statement from the council of generals who took power when Mubarak stepped down on Feb. 11, 2011, came on the eve of a planned general strike aimed at pressuring the military to give up power.

Protest groups have grown harshly critical of the military's handling of Egypt's transition to democracy, accusing the army of trying to protect its power and committing human rights violations that rival those of Mubarak's regime.

Thousands rallied outside the defense ministry Friday to call for the immediate transition of power to a civilian authority. In a statement read on state TV Friday, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces said it would not bow to pressures to accelerate the transition.

"Never will we bow to threats, nor succumb to pressures, nor accept ultimatums," it said.

The message said the army had played an essential role in Egypt's transition and warned of plots that seek to strike "a mortal blow" to the revolution by sewing discord between the army and the people.

Without naming any culprits, it said Egypt was facing great threats.

"We face conspiracies hatched against the homeland, whose goal is to undermine the institutions of the Egyptian state and whose aim is to topple the state itself so that chaos reigns and destruction spreads," it said.

Egyptian officials and military leaders have often blamed unnamed actors and "foreign hands" for fomenting unrest.

In the statement, the generals said they remained bound by the plan to pass executive power to an elected president before June 30.

The generals and the military-backed Cabinet have been critical of the strike call, casting it as another example of foreign attempts to weaken Egypt.

The state media and a Facebook page affiliated with the ruling generals accused the U.S. of using local institutions to agitate for the strike.

On Friday, the army deployed tanks and armored vehicles at various points around Cairo in anticipation of protests. Army vehicles were posted at the state TV building, prominent ministries, the Cabinet building, the Central Bank and elsewhere.

It is unclear how many people will participate in the strike. Continued unrest since Mubarak's ouster has battered Egypt's economy, leading some to criticize the continued protests for preventing a recovery.

Some protests calls have also put activists at odds with the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's best organized political group, which won nearly 50 percent of the country's newly elected parliament.

The Brotherhood, prominent religious figures and others condemned the strike on the grounds that it could hurt the economy.

Hours before Friday's statement, several thousand protesters marching from different parts of Cairo converged on the Ministry of Defense, chanting against the military rulers. They found approaches to the ministry blocked with barbed wire and guarded by military police.

Protester Ahmed Hassan, 26, said the march sought to push the generals from power.

"They don't know negotiations. They only know pressure," he said, also calling for the military rulers to stand trial for the deaths of protesters in recent waves of unrest. "A safe exit for the generals was possible before the violence. Now there is blood. They must be tried."

Also on Friday, Cairo airport officials banned a British woman from leaving the country because she is being targeted in a criminal investigation into foreign-funded organizations.

The investigation has caused the most serious rift in decades between Egypt and the United States, and U.S. officials have warned that the crackdown on NGOs could block $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt.

The woman joins a list of at least 10 foreigners, including six Americans, who have been barred from traveling as part of the investigation.

Egyptian judges have referred 43 people including 16 Americans to trial on accusations they illegally used foreign funds to foment unrest in the country. The rest of the accused are Egyptians and Europeans.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood urged officials to reject U.S. “pressure” over the case of workers at non-governmental organizations accused of breaching laws on foreign funding.

“Egyptians will not tolerate any officials who decide to succumb to pressure and to cover up the accusations or interfere in the work of the judiciary,” the group, whose party alliance controls the largest bloc in parliament, said in an e- mailed statement.

The Muslim Brotherhood supports the “nationalistic” stance taken by Egyptian officials over the case, it said.

Egypt has referred 43 people, including the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, to trial after a probe into foreign funding of NGOs. The inquiry has added to strains between the U.S. and Egypt and jeopardized American financial aid to the Egyptian military, a close ally.

The Brotherhood said the case showed that part of U.S. aid to Egypt “is being spent to destroy Egypt and ruin its society.”

The state-run al-Ahram newspaper reported that Egypt’s minister of planning and international cooperation, Fayza Abul-Naga, has told investigators that the U.S. directly funded NGOs in the country to sow chaos after the fall of Hosni Mubarak.

In an initial report, the Fact-finding Committee of the People's Assembly held state security, Egypt's Football Association, Al-Masry Sporting Club and Port Said Stadium, accountable for the deadly soccer match.

The People's Assembly had assigned the Fact-finding Committee, headed by Ashraf Thabet, to investigate the incident where over 70 people were killed in clashes that followed a football match between Al-Ahly and Al-Masry teams, in Port Said, earlier this month.

According to the committee, state security is responsible for making it possible for the bloody clashes to occur, and Egypt's Football Association violated the international FIFA safety regulations, reported Middle East News Agency.

In addition, the committee also held Al-Masry Sporting Club relatively responsible for letting raged fans in possession of weapons into the field.

The report also held Port Said Stadium responsible for closing the steel doors on fans, disallowing them from running for their lives and violating FIFA regulations.

IRAN:

As the anniversary of the 25 Bahman (February 14) protests approaches, several social media outlets have called on people to take to the streets.

Meanwhile, the coordination council of the Rahe Sabz Omid (Green Path of Hope) has issued a statement calling on people to participate in a "silent protest" on the February 14 anniversary.

The Rahe Sabz Omid's statement, which was first published on the website Kalame affiliated with Mir-Hossein Mousavi noted that the protests should take place on the first anniversary of the February 14 protests and the start of the "green movement leaders'" house arrests.

Last year, at the invitation of the two prominent green movement leaders, Mehdi Karoubi and Mir-Hossein Mousavi, their supporters came out to the streets to support the popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. State security forces cracked down on the protests, and at least two protesters Sane' Jaleh and Mohammad Mokhtari were killed in street clashes with state forces.

After the protests, Mehdi Karoubi and Mir-Hossein Mousavi were both arrested and have been under house arrest since.

The coordination council of Rahe Sabz Omid declared its existence shortly after, although the council's performance since has been met with criticism from some green movement supporters.

In its statement, the coordination council calls on security and police forces to "respect their fellow countrymen's rights under the law and demonstrate to the world that they will not behave as suppression tools for a dictatorial regime." The statement also refers to the "humanitarian, legal and religious" right of Iranians to protest their current living conditions and the state of affairs in their country.

The Rahe Sabz Omid released its statement one week after 39 political prisoners wrote an open letter inviting the people to "deepen and expand their protest movement" and intensify efforts to release their "imprisoned leaders."

Meanwhile, activists used social networking websites to amplify the call for February 14 protests.

The 25 Bahman Facebook page which is one of the most popular green movement pages on Facebook with more than 73,000 members invited people to participate in the protest, even setting up a poll to determine the protest route.

Members picked a route that ended at Pastor street, where Mir-Hossein Mousavi is under house arrest.

Iranian patrol boats and aircraft shadowed a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group as it transited the Strait of Hormuz on Tuesday.

The passage ended a Gulf mission that displayed Western naval power amid heightened tensions with Tehran, which has threatened to choke off vital oil shipping lanes.

But officers onboard the USS Abraham Lincoln said there were no incidents with Iranian forces and described the surveillance as routine measures by Tehran near the strategic strait, which is jointly controlled by Iran and Oman.

Although U.S. warships have passed through the strait for decades, the trip comes during an escalating showdown between Iran and the West over the Islamic Republic's nuclear program. The last time an American carrier left the Gulf - the USS John C. Stennis in late December - Iran's army chief warned the U.S. it should never return.

The Lincoln was the centerpiece of a flotilla that entered the Gulf last month along with British and French warships in a display of Western unity against Iranian threats. There was no immediate comment by Iran about the Lincoln's departure.

Iran's Revolutionary Guard has said it plans its own naval exercises near the strait, the route for a fifth of the world's oil supply. But Iran's military has made no attempts to disrupt oil tanker traffic - which the U.S. and allies have said would bring a swift response.

Two American warships, one in front and one in the rear, escorted the Abraham Lincoln on its midday journey through the strait and into the Arabian Sea after nearly three weeks in the Gulf, which is frequently visited by U.S. warships and includes the headquarters of the U.S. 5th Fleet in Bahrain. The strait is only about 30 miles (50 kilometers) across at its narrowest point.

On one side, the barren, fjord-like mountains of Oman were visible through the haze. Iran's coast was just beyond the horizon on the other side of the ship, but too far away to be seen.

Gunners in red jerseys manned the 50-caliber machine guns as the ships moved out of the Gulf. An Iranian patrol boat pulled nearby.

Later, just after the Lincoln rounded the "knuckle" - the nub of Oman jutting out at the southern end of the strait - an Iranian patrol plane buzzed overhead.

Another patrol boat was waiting further down the coast, said Rear Adm. Troy Shoemaker, commander of the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Force.

Besides Iran's regular patrol boats, the Revolutionary Guard operates a large number of small, fast-attack boats. Some are armed with only a machine gun, while others also carry anti-ship missiles. They can be difficult to spot because they resemble the swift-moving smuggling boats that ply the strait.

Shoemaker said none of those fast boats appeared Tuesday, likely deterred by the rough seas.

He predicted before the transit that the Iranians would likely keep a close eye on the Lincoln throughout its passage, including with ground-based radars. He wasn't surprised by the attention from Iranian forces.

"We would do the same things off the coast of the United States ... It's more than reasonable. We're operating in their backyard," he said. "We've been doing it for years."

Several U.S. choppers flanked the carrier group throughout the transit, watching out for potentially hostile vessels and relaying real-time pictures back to the Lincoln's crew.

Dozens of F/A-18 strike fighters and other planes in Lincoln's embarked air wing sat parked silently on deck throughout the trip. Today was a no-fly day for their crews, though some fighters were prepped and armed, ready to launch in as little as 15 minutes should things go wrong.

Officers on board were eager to describe the transit, in which the Lincoln was accompanied by the cruiser USS Cape St. George and destroyer USS Sterett, as a routine maneuver despite the growing speculation that Israel could launch a military strike against Iran's nuclear program.

The U.S. and allies fear Iran's uranium enrichment program could eventually lead to the production of weapons-grade nuclear material. Iran claims it only seeks reactors for energy and medical research.

"I wouldn't characterize ... us going through the strait as: 'Hey, this is a huge show of force, we're coming through.' It's an international strait to transit. We're going from one body of water to the other," said Capt. John Alexander, the Lincoln's commanding officer, as preparations for the trip got under way late Monday.

The Lincoln is expected to provide air support for the NATO mission in Afghanistan starting Thursday.

Navy brass in the Gulf say another American carrier is due back through the strait soon, but gave no firm timetables.