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Power Outage In Egypt Strands Commuters, Disrupts Capital

By Laura King and Amro Hassan, Los Angeles Times

CAIRO — An hours-long power outage in the Egyptian capital and elsewhere in the country on Thursday stranded commuters, disrupted TV broadcasts, and trapped a small but unlucky cohort in elevators as daytime temperatures topped 100 degrees.

Compounding the misery, the outage shut down water supplies in some parts of the country as only water plants with generators continued to operate. Many factories and bakeries also stopped working, leading to long lines of unhappy people waiting for their daily bread subsidy. Cellphone signal boosters were also affected.

Egypt has suffered through a summertime electricity drought that has led to regular rolling blackouts, but Thursday’s outage stood out in terms of both duration and scope. State media did not provide a number of those affected, but said many governates — the administrative equivalent of provinces — were hit along with the capital.

Twitter users vented their outrage — often signing on from cafes in parts of Cairo that still had power — and angry television commentators called for firing the minister of electricity.

For many Egyptians, the prolonged outage was particularly galling, coinciding with a blast of late-summer heat and coming on the heels of official reassurances that the electricity problems were being alleviated.

Authorities blamed a technical failure at a Cairo relay station, and said institutions such as hospitals would be given priority as electricity was restored. Egypt’s stock exchange, powered by generators, was unaffected, state media reported.

Egypt’s chronic energy problems have been worsening for years, due to a combination of poorly maintained infrastructure, weakening oil and natural gas output and failure to pay foreign companies that partner with the state in energy production.

However, this summer’s power woes do not appear to have triggered widespread antigovernment sentiment, as last year’s did, when President Mohammed Morsi was in office. Morsi was toppled by a popularly supported military coup led by then-Defense Minister Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who is now president, and Morsi’s movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, has been decimated by arrests and fatal clashes with security forces.

Still, the big blackout led to grumbling in shisha cafes and in living rooms and on social media.

“Sissi is the bad omen,” one Facebook user said in a status update, referring sarcastically to the former general’s much-publicized account of a omen in a dream that told him he would one day lead Egypt.

A Twitter user chimed in: “Wonder how long it will take the government to blame the mass power cuts on the Muslim Brotherhood?”

Hassan is a Los Angeles Times special correspondent.

AFP Photo

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Two Police Brass Killed Trying To Defuse Bombs Near Egyptian Palace

By Laura King and Amro Hassan, Los Angeles Times

CAIRO — A series of bomb blasts near Egypt’s presidential palace killed two senior police officials and injured 10 other people on Monday, officials and media reports said, two days after another deadly explosion struck the capital.

The three bombings occurred on a tensely symbolic day: the first anniversary of the start of massive protests that culminated in the Egyptian army removing Islamist President Mohamed Morsi from office.

After the bombs went off, authorities sealed off streets surrounding the palace in Cairo’s affluent Heliopolis district. Security forces also closed Tahrir Square, the site of many of last summer’s demonstrations, to sweep for explosives in advance of celebrations on Monday evening.

The government — now led by President Abdel Fattah Sisi, the then-army general who orchestrated Morsi’s ouster — calls the protests that broke out a year ago the “June 30 revolution.” Egyptian officials bristle at any characterization of the deposing of Morsi, the country’s first freely elected president, as a coup.

In a speech marking the anniversary, Sisi, who has presided over a wide-ranging crackdown on Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, signaled that his government would continue to deal harshly with opponents, particularly any who engage in violence.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Monday’s bombings. The Islamist group Ajnad Misr, or Soldiers of Egypt, had claimed last week that it had planted homemade explosive devices close to the presidential palace, intending to target police.

The group also said it had penetrated palace security earlier this month and managed to smuggle a bomb inside, a claim that authorities have denied.

The two police officials who were killed Monday, one a colonel and another a lieutenant colonel, died trying to defuse two of the bombs. One other devise was disposed of safely, Egyptian media reports said.

Authorities have warned against any anniversary demonstrations this week by supporters of Morsi, who is now on trial for an array of capital crimes. Thousands of his followers are behind bars, and more than 1,400 have been killed over the last year in clashes with security forces, according to human rights groups.

AFP Photo/Khales Desouki

Libyans Vote In Parliamentary Elections Amid Ongoing Violence

By Laura King and Amro Hassan, Los Angeles Times

CAIRO — Libyans went to the polls Wednesday in parliamentary elections meant to bring a measure of stability that has been elusive in the turmoil-weary North African nation.

Libya in recent weeks has been roiled by some of its worst fighting since the 2011 civil war that led to the toppling and killing of strongman Moammar Gadhafi. A renegade ex-general embarked last month on a self-declared war on Islamist armed groups, and before that, rival militias had been battling for power and spoils including oil wealth.

According to election authorities, 1.5 million Libyans registered to vote in balloting for 200 members of parliament, with about 1,600 candidates seeking seats. It marked the third nationwide vote in as many years.

Dozens of people have died since the start of an offensive by retired Gen. Khalifa Hifter. That fighting has taken place mainly in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city, but it has also spilled into the capital, Tripoli, where the parliament was stormed by gunmen.

Fears that Hifter was attempting a coup spurred calls for these elections to replace the much-reviled General National Congress, whose mandate had expired. It was not clear whether rival factions would accept the results of Wednesday’s voting.

AFP Photo/Abdullah Doma

Libya Demands Return Of Benghazi Suspect Seized By U.S. Forces

By Laura King and Amro Hassan, Los Angeles Times

CAIRO—Libya’s weak interim government on Wednesday verbally assailed the U.S. capture of a suspected mastermind of the 2012 attack in Benghazi that killed four Americans and set off a political firestorm in the United States.

At a news conference nearly 24 hours after the Pentagon publicly disclosed the special-operations raid that netted Ahmed Abu Khattala, Justice Minister Saleh Marghani denounced the U.S. military action as a violation of Libyan sovereignty and demanded that Abu Khattala be returned to Libya for trial.

“We had no prior notification,” the minister told reporters. “We did not expect the U.S. to upset our political order.”

Libya said it had had an arrest warrant out for Abu Khattala but that turmoil in Benghazi, the hub of Libya’s east, had prevented it from being executed.

After being grabbed Sunday on a street outside Benghazi, Abu Khattala was swiftly bundled onto an American warship and President Barack Obama declared that he would face the “full weight” of U.S. justice.

U.S. officials in Washington characterized the capture of Abu Khatalla, who had lived openly in Benghazi even after being accused of plotting the storming of the U.S. Consulate in the city, as a long-planned response to the deaths of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

Central authority in Libya has weakened dramatically in recent months as fighting among rival militias — one-time allies in the uprising that toppled and killed strongman Moammar Gadhafi — has engulfed the country. The situation is particularly dire in Benghazi, which is plagued by near-daily bombings, abductions and assassinations, many of them blamed on Islamist groups such as Ansar al Sharia, with which Abu Khattala was affiliated.

Deepening the turmoil, a rogue ex-general, Khalifa Hifter, has in recent weeks launched a self-declared war against the Islamists. He has urged regular Libyan military units to join forces with him and has marshaled weapons including artillery and attack aircraft to bombard Islamist militias’ positions in Benghazi.

The Islamists and Hifter’s troops routinely exchange fire with heavy weapons while civilians cower in their homes.

AFP Photo/Abdullah Doma

Libyan Interior Ministry Backs Anti-Islamist Rogue Ex-General

By Laura King and Amro Hassan, Los Angeles Times

CAIRO — Libya’s Interior Ministry announced Wednesday it was throwing its support behind Khalifa Haftar, a former army general who last week launched an unauthorized armed offensive against Islamist militias and their political allies.

The tumult in the North African nation, previously a major oil producer, has shattered the country’s fragile political order, with heavily armed militias across the country lining up behind the Islamists, Haftar or the weak central government.

Diplomats and representatives of foreign businesses, including some major energy concerns, have been abandoning Tripoli amid the deepening chaos. U.S. Marines were standing by in Sicily in case a decision is made to evacuate the American Embassy, according to officials in Washington.

The Interior Ministry’s statement, reported by the official LANA news agency, marked the latest in a series of high-profile official defections from the central government, which has been trying to rein in Haftar and his forces. In the previous 24 hours, expressions of support for him had come from the head of Libya’s air force, the country’s ambassador to the United Nations and ousted Prime Minister Ali Zidan.

The impact of the ministry’s decision to abide by “the will of the people” and back Haftar was not immediately clear. The ministry theoretically commands all police and paramilitary troops, but individual police units sometimes strike alliances with local militia chieftains.

Haftar has demanded the disbanding of the Islamist-dominated parliament, and the government responded by setting elections for June 25. But it appeared that concession would not satisfy the renegade ex-general.

More fighting erupted early Wednesday in the vicinity of Tripoli, and Reuters news service reported at least two deaths. Haftar is based in the eastern city of Benghazi, where he launched his offensive, but over the weekend his forces brought the battle to Tripoli, brazenly storming the parliament building.

Haftar, a onetime loyalist of toppled strongman Moammar Gadhafi, returned to Libya in 2011 from the U.S., where he had been living, to take part in the uprising against him. He calls his forces the National Army, and has said he would be willing to become president if there was popular demand that he do so.

AFP Photo/Abdullah Doma
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Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak Sentenced To Three Years In Prison In Graft Case

By Laura King and Amro Hassan, Los Angeles Times

CAIRO — Former President Hosni Mubarak and his two sons were convicted Wednesday of plundering the state treasury of millions of dollars, with the ex-leader sentenced to three years in prison and his sons to four years each.

The verdict by a Cairo court came more than three years after the revolution that drove the 86-year-old Mubarak from power following almost three decades of absolute rule. During his reign, he and his family lived a life of luxury amid Egypt’s overwhelming poverty, with private mansions and palaces furnished and renovated with public funds, according to prosecutors.

The three were fined 21.1 Egyptian pounds, which is the equivalent of about $3 million, and ordered to reimburse the state an additional 125 million pounds, or about $17.9 million. They had paid back some diverted funds before the proceedings began.

Mubarak has been in custody at a military hospital in Cairo, and was expected to remain there. His lawyers will likely argue that he is too ill and frail to serve prison time. The ex-leader still faces a retrial on charges related to the deaths of hundreds of protesters during the Tahrir Square uprising of 2011.

Mubarak and his sons — Gamal, whom he had tried to anoint as his successor, and Alaa, a business magnate — can appeal Wednesday’s verdict. If the sentence is upheld, they will receive credit for time already served. Four co-defendants were acquitted.

In the defendant’s caged dock, Mubarak sat impassive in dark glasses and a suit and tie, his hair still dyed jet-black, as the judge sternly lectured him over embezzling public funds while the country faced such enormous needs. His sons, who also face additional graft charges, were wearing white prison uniforms.

Egyptians were initially transfixed by images of a once all-powerful leader brought into court in the two cases — at times so enfeebled he was carried in on a stretcher. But the shock value has diminished as the legal proceedings dragged on for months, then years.

AFP Photo

Jordan Envoy Freed By Libyan Militia After Handover Of Jailed Militant

By Laura King and Amro Hassan, Los Angeles Times

CAIRO — Jordan’s ambassador to Libya, abducted by gunmen nearly a month ago in the Libyan capital, arrived safely home in Amman on Tuesday. But the case raised troubling questions about the Libyan government’s ability to resist the demands of armed groups that hold sway in the energy-rich North African nation.

The envoy, Fawaz Itan, said after landing at a Jordanian military airfield that he had been treated well by his captors and was eager to return to his post. Armed assailants had yanked him from his car in central Tripoli on April 15 — one of an escalating series of abductions and other attacks directed against diplomatic personnel and Libyan officials this year.

More than two years after the capture and killing of fallen strongman Moammar Gadhafi, chaos reigns in Libya. Rival militias act with impunity, with the weak central government unable to rein them in. Some of the groups have nominal ties to the Libyan government but are not answerable to it.

Envoys in Tripoli increasingly risk becoming pawns in militias’ demands for the freeing of jailed colleagues. Itan’s captors had demanded the release of Islamist militant Mohamed Dersi from a Jordanian prison, and Agence France Presse quoted a Jordanian official as saying Dersi had been handed over to Libyan authorities.

Jordan characterized Dersi’s release as part of a prisoner exchange between the two governments, rather than a trade made with the militia to win Itan’s freedom.

Dersi, who allegedly has links to al-Qaida, had been serving a seven-year sentence in Jordan for plotting a suicide attack at Amman’s international airport. The kingdom’s minister of political and parliamentary affairs, Khaled Kalaldeh, told AFP he would serve the remainder of his sentence in Libya.

But this marked the second time in recent months that militias were able to pressure foreign governments to hand over prisoners.

In January, five Egyptian diplomats in Tripoli were seized as hostages by a militia group known as the Libyan Revolutionary Operations Room, which demanded the release of its leader, Shaaban Hediya, who had been arrested in Egypt days earlier. The group subsequently announced that Hediya had been released by Egypt and freed the diplomats.

©afp.com / Abdullah Doma

Blasts In Egypt Strike Near Riot Police; Senior Official Killed

By Laura King and Amro Hassan, Los Angeles Times

CAIRO — In the latest sign of Egypt’s growing volatility, a series of blasts went off outside Cairo University on Wednesday, killing a police brigadier general and injuring at least seven other people, officials and state media reported.

The three explosions took place outside the university’s engineering faculty building, where students have been holding almost daily protests in support of deposed Islamist president Mohamed Morsi. The bombs apparently targeted riot police whose usual staging ground is an area close to the entrance.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility. Political violence in Egypt has surged in the nine months since Morsi’s ouster. Police have cracked down hard on Morsi’s backers, while hard-line Islamic groups have repeatedly attacked security forces and police and army installations.

Two bombs initially went off Wednesday only moments apart, but the third did not detonate until about an hour later, after police reinforcements, medical personnel, onlookers and journalists had converged on the scene. Officials described the devices as seemingly homemade.

The latest violent episode comes amid a newly launched presidential bid by former Defense Minister Abdel Fattah Sisi, who resigned from the army last week to run. Sisi led the coup against Morsi after overwhelming public calls for the Islamist president’s removal from office.

The presidential vote is to take place May 26 and 27, with Sisi expected to easily win.

Morsi is now on trial for his life, and thousands of his Muslim Brotherhood supporters are imprisoned, including virtually all the group’s senior leaders. Only those who are in hiding or have fled the country have been spared. The interim government has been conducting mass tribunals that have been heavily criticized by human rights groups and judicial advocacy organizations.

The Muslim Brotherhood has been branded a terrorist group by the Egyptian government. The Brotherhood denies carrying out any acts of violence, and other groups have claimed responsibility for most of the recent attacks.

AFP Photo/Ahmed Gamel