Pentagon chief arrives in Egypt on Mideast tour

Updated 25 April 2013
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Pentagon chief arrives in Egypt on Mideast tour

CAIRO: US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel landed in Egypt yesterday as part of a Middle East tour designed to bolster America's alliances amid growing concern over the fallout from Syria's roiling civil war.
In his first trip to the Middle East as Pentagon chief, Hagel is promoting longstanding US military ties with traditional allies, including Saudi Arabia and Israel, as a way of countering Iran and deterring militants.
Hagel, who was in Riyadh on Tuesday evening to finalize a major arms sale to Saudi Arabia, traveled to Cairo to meet his counterpart, General Abdel Fattah Al-Sissi, and later hold discussions with President Muhammad Mursi.
For years Egypt was at the center of America's strategic influence in the region but since the 2011 ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, the United States has had to contend with new political realities and an independent-minded government in Cairo.
US officials, however, say security ties cultivated over decades between the two countries have survived the revolution and that America's military leaders still have a direct channel to Egypt's powerful top brass.
"We can pick up the phone, the secretary of defense, and have his counterpart who we can talk to at any time," a senior defense official told reporters last week before Hagel's trip. "Despite changes in the Egyptian military and political system, that's been constant."
In the post-Mubarak era, the United States still provides more than a billion dollars in annual military aid to Egypt. The huge funding package has always been seen as a way of ensuring Cairo abide by the 1979 peace accords with Israel.
Hagel and his counterparts are expected to discuss relations with Israel, deteriorating security in the Sinai Peninsula and Egypt's domestic politics, officials said.
Hagel's visit coincides with political crises and power struggles in Egypt, including a hemorrhaging economy and threats by the opposition to boycott parliamentary elections.
"He'll have an opportunity to talk directly with Egyptian officials about the difficult times they're in," said the defense official.
Hagel's trip will mark the first meeting between US and Egyptian defense chiefs since former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta paid a visit last August.
The new Pentagon chief, who took office two months ago, came to the Middle East touting an elaborate arms deal with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel designed to bolster America's partners as a counterweight to Iran. But Syria's raging civil war has topped the agenda through much of Hagel's trip, amid renewed fears Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime has turned to deadly chemical weapons in its fight with rebel forces.
The United States has said any use or transfer of chemical weapons would cross a "red line" and possibly trigger military action.

But Hagel's spokesman said the US government was still not convinced chemical agents had been employed and that the claims were being reviewed.
Hagel began his tour with a three-day visit to Israel and he stopped in Jordan before flying to Riyadh on Tuesday.
After discussions in Egypt, Hagel will head to the United Arab Emirates, which has signed up to buy nearly $ 5 billion worth of American-made F-16 fighter jets as well as sophisticated missiles that can hit targets at a long-range.


Turkey’s ruling party taunts opposition over early election

Updated 55 min 34 sec ago
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Turkey’s ruling party taunts opposition over early election

  • People’s Republican Party (CHP) reluctant to put its leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, forward for the June 24 vote
  • Since an abortive military coup in July 2016, authorities have detained more than 160,000 people, the United Nations says

ANKARA: Turkey’s ruling AK Party taunted the main opposition party on Thursday to name a candidate to challenge Tayyip Erdogan for June elections which are expected to tighten the president’s 15-year hold on power.
Government spokesman Bekir Bozdag said the secularist opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP) was reluctant to put its leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, forward for the June 24 vote “because they do not believe he can compete with our president.”
Erdogan called the snap election on Wednesday, bringing the vote forward by more than a year so that Turkey can switch to the powerful new executive presidency that was narrowly approved in a divisive referendum last year.
While many people expected the presidential and parliamentary elections to be held early, the new date leaves barely two months for campaigning and may have wrong-footed Erdogan’s opponents.
“Our chief has donned his wrestling outfit, so if Mr.Kilicdaroglu says ‘I’m a soldier’, then he should put on his wrestler’s tights and come out,” Bozdag said.
The CHP says it will decide on a candidate in the next 10 days, and the pro-Kurdish HDP said it would convene on Sunday to discuss its plans. The nationalist MHP party has said it is backing Erdogan.
Only former interior minister Meral Aksener, who broke away from the MHP last year to form the Good Party, has announced her plans to stand for the presidency.
“A politician does not run from elections,” Bozdag said, adding he believed Erdogan would win in the first round. “We as the AK Party are ready for elections.”
Since the Islamist-rooted AK Party first won a parliamentary election in November 2002, Erdogan has dominated Turkish politics, first as prime minister and then as president, transforming his poor, sprawling country on the eastern fringes of Europe into a major emerging market.
But Turkey’s rapid growth has been accompanied by increased authoritarianism, which critics at home and in Europe say has left the country lurching toward one-man rule.
Since an abortive military coup in July 2016, authorities have detained more than 160,000 people, the United Nations says. Nearly two years after the coup attempt Turkey is still ruled under a state of emergency, and the crackdown continues.
Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli said on Wednesday authorities had identified 3,000 armed forces personnel believed to be linked to the US-based cleric Ankara blames for the failed coup. He said they would be dismissed in the coming days.
Media outlets have also been shut down and scores of journalists have been jailed.

Early advantage
By calling the vote nearly a year and half early, Erdogan can capitalize on nationalist support for the military advances by Turkish troops in north Syria, where they drove out Kurdish YPG forces, said Goldman Sachs senior economist Erik Meyersson.
The tight schedule “also gives less time for the opposition to organize and choose presidential candidates,” Meyersson wrote in a research note.
The head of a Turkish polling company seen as close to the AK Party said a poll conducted this week had put the AKP on 41.5 percent, with 6 percent for its ally, the MHP.
Mehmet Ali Kulat, chairman of MAK Danismanlik, said that in a presidential election support for Erdogan could outstrip support for his party.
Erdogan’s announcement helped the lira, which has plumbed record lows this month on widening concern about double-digit inflation and the outlook for monetary policy, surge 2.2 percent on Wednesday, its biggest one-day advance in a year. Turkish stocks also rose more than 2 percent.
Economists said the lira rally reflected a belief that the quick timeline for the election reduced the prospect of extra stimulus to maintain economic growth ahead of the vote.
The economy expanded 7.4 percent last year, fueled by stimulus measures including tax changes and an increase in government credit support for small businesses. The government forecasts 5.5 percent growth in 2018 though economists polled by Reuters expect more modest growth of 4.1 percent.
On Thursday the lira eased slightly from Wednesday’s close to 4.030 lira to the dollar at 1026 GMT.