News & Current Affairs

September 30, 2008

Egyptian TV show gives away homes

Egyptian TV show gives away homes

Winning couple Rabab Mahmoud and Ashraf Aboubakr

Teachers Rabab and Ashraf, the proud and happy owners of a new flat

A new quiz show in Egypt has focused attention on one of the country’s most pressing social problems: the severe shortage of affordable housing.

Every night during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan a popular television programme has been giving away a new flat to a couple who cannot marry simply because they cannot afford a home.

During rehearsals on the bright, flashy set of al-Beit Beitak (The House is Yours) nerves begin to show.

Hazem Abd Raouf, a factory worker in his late-20s reaches for the hand of his fiancee of eight years, Shaimaa Shawky, a dental assistant.

Standing opposite them behind touch-screens two English teachers, Rabab Mahmoud, 30, and Ashraf Aboubakr, 31, exchange encouraging smiles.

Both couples are about to compete for a prize that will change their lives: a new apartment.

‘My dream’

“The main pressure when you’re trying to get married is finding a flat,” Rabab explains.

“My dream is to have our wedding soon. This is our chance and we are praying for it.”

The institution of marriage is in crisis. You have serious economic problems but also you have consumer culture taking over. It’s rigid – dictating what a married couple should have. The family exerts a lot of pressure
Dr Mona Abaza
American University in Cairo

“I have been waiting for so long,” says Shaimaa. “If we win an apartment tonight we will run to get married.”

The catchy theme tune plays out as the programme goes live on-air and the contestants are introduced to its audience of millions.

Neither Hazem nor Shamaa has a privileged background. Ashraf and Rabab earn low wages in the state school system.

All four live at home with their parents. Many young Egyptians can identify with their situations.

“It is a striking problem,” says television producer, Yara Hassan. “There are a lot of people who can’t afford to have a proper home and they are suffering.

“They face a psychological problem because of the financial and social burden.”

Marriage in crisis

Marriage in Egypt is the gateway to adulthood yet it is estimated that almost half of all Egyptian men remain unmarried at the age of 30.

The main reason is the cost which typically involves buying and furnishing a home.

Cairo rock fall

A recent rock fall in the impoverished Duweika area killed more than 100

“The institution of marriage is in crisis,” says Dr Mona Abaza, a sociologist at the American University in Cairo.

“You have serious economic problems but also you have consumer culture taking over.

“It’s rigid – dictating what a married couple should have. The family exerts a lot of pressure.”

A drive on a main road out of Cairo reveals no housing shortage. In fact there are thousands of acres of new developments.

Many are gated compounds with their own swimming pools and gyms. Some have their own private schools and clinics.

Here, those who can afford it live in relative luxury.

Slum life

But head to the areas inhabited by the masses of Egyptians on lower incomes and the contrast is stark.

There has been little investment in homes for the less well-off at a time of increased urbanisation.

Millions of people live in old, overcrowded tenements and unplanned, fast-expanding slums.

Earlier this month in the impoverished Duweika district on the eastern outskirts of Cairo a section of hillside collapsed crushing dozens of homes and killing more than 100 people.

The government is now under growing pressure to show it can provide better-quality, affordable housing.

But back at the TV studio the competing couples try to take matters into their own hands.

Ashraf and Rabab quickly take the lead following the general knowledge questions.

There is a late rally from Hazem and Shaimaa but the teachers clinch their win in a final round about each other’s likes and dislikes.

“I can’t believe it I’m over the moon,” declares Rabab. “This is heaven’s gift.”

“I’m very happy because God willing I will marry soon,” says Ashraf. “This is something great in my life.

“The main problem was the apartment. Anything else could be solved.”

The pair are wasting no time. They are already planning their wedding for the first of January. In the new year they will finally start a new life together.

September 20, 2008

Dozens killed in Pakistan attack

Dozens killed in Pakistan attack

A bomb attack has hit the Marriott Hotel in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, killing at least 31 people.

The blast created a 20ft (6m) deep crater, and destroyed the entire front section of the hotel.

She says the building is engulfed in flames, and rescue workers are carrying out bloodied victims and bodies.

Police say the blast occurred as a lorry approached the hotel and they suspect it was a suicide attack.

Police estimate that the blast was caused by more than a tonne of explosives. They are warning that the hotel could collapse.

Heavy security

Our correspondent says that the centre of the blast was at the front of the building close to the area where security checks are carried out.

Employees flee from the foyer of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad
I don’t understand what it was, but it was like the world is finished
Hotel employee Mohammad Sultan

She says that about two-thirds of the 290-room hotel is on fire, and the wounded and dead are still being brought out, on stretchers or wrapped in sheets.

She says the emergency services have been unable to reach the upper floors of the hotel, where more people are feared to be trapped.

A hotel employee, Mohammad Sultan, said he was in the reception when something exploded, forcing him to the ground.

“I don’t understand what it was, but it was like the world is finished,” he told the Associated Press news agency.

There are reports that the explosion brought down the ceiling of the banquet hall, where some 300 people were sharing a meal to break the fast during the holy month of Ramadan.

The Marriott is located near government buildings and diplomatic missions. Security there is tight, with guests and vehicles subject to checks.

The hotel is popular with foreigners visiting Pakistan or members of the expat community, and has previously been the target of militants.

Last year a suicide bomber killed himself and one other in an attack at the hotel.

Insurgency

The bomb attack comes just hours after Pakistan’s newly installed President, Asif Ali Zardari, said he would not allow Pakistan’s territory to be violated by terrorists or foreign powers fighting them.

Asif Ali Zardari (file photo)

Pakistan has been a key ally of the US in its “war on terror”

In his first speech to MPs since he replaced Pervez Musharraf in August, he vowed instead to “root out terrorism and extremism wherever and whenever they may rear their ugly heads”.

He was speaking in Islamabad, just several hundred metres to the east of the Marriott.

Pakistan has been a key ally of the US in its “war on terror”, but relations have become strained over tactics.

In recent months, Pakistan has voiced growing disquiet over US raids targeting militants in its territory, launched from neighbouring Afghanistan.

Al-Qaeda and Taleban militants based in Pakistan’s north-west tribal region have repeatedly carried out attacks across the border in Afghanistan.

Militants have also carried out waves of attacks in Pakistan in recent years.

 


Are you in the area? Did you see what happened? Send us your comments and eye witness accounts

September 13, 2008

Saudi judge condemns ‘immoral TV’

Saudi judge condemns ‘immoral TV’

Map

The most senior judge in Saudi Arabia has said it is permissible to kill the owners of satellite TV channels which broadcast immoral programs.

Sheikh Salih Ibn al-Luhaydan said some “evil” entertainment programs aired by the channels promoted debauchery.

Dozens of satellite television channels broadcast across the Middle East, where they are watched by millions of Arabs every day.

The judge made the comments on a state radio program.

He was speaking in response to a listener who asked his opinion on the airing of programs featuring scantily-dressed women during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

“There is no doubt that these programs are a great evil, and the owners of these channels are as guilty as those who watch them,” said the sheikh.

“It is legitimate to kill those who call for corruption if their evil can not be stopped by other penalties.”

Royal dilemma

Given his position as the country’s most senior judge, the sheikh’s views can not be easily dismissed.

Clerics like Sheikh al-Luhaydan represent a huge dilemma for the Saudi royal family, our correspondent adds.

On the one hand, Saudi rulers need their support to claim that they rule in the name of Islam.

But on the other hand, fighting militant Islam can be difficult when the country’s top judge calls for the beheading of those he views as immoral broadcasters.

September 7, 2008

Anger over ‘Ramadan’ trial delay

Anger over ‘Ramadan’ trial delay

Muslims pray during Ramadan

Ramadan is a holy month of fasting and prayer for Muslims

A row has broken out in France after a court postponed a trial, apparently because it was to take place during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan.

Critics say the decision is a breach of France’s strict separation of religion and state.

The trial of seven men for armed robbery was due to start on 16 September in Rennes.

But last week the court agreed to a request from a lawyer for one of the accused to put it off until January.

In his letter asking for the delay, the lawyer noted that if the trial were to start now, it would fall in the Muslim month of Ramadan.

His client, a Muslim, would have been fasting for two weeks and thus, he said, be in no position to defend himself properly.

He would be physically weakened and too tired to follow the arguments as he should.

Knife wound

The court’s agreement to postpone the trial has now triggered an outraged response from campaigning groups and politicians of both left and right, who see it as a worrying new incursion by religion into the institutions of the French state.

The government’s Minister for Urban Affairs, Fadela Amara, herself a Muslim, said it was a “knife wound” in the principle of a secular republic, and she compared it to another controversial decision earlier this year, in which a judge agreed to annul a marriage between two Muslims because the wife had lied about her virginity.

The far right leader, Jean-Marie le Pen, for his part, said the French justice system had reached a new low.

The row has forced the Rennes prosecutor to issue a denial that Ramadan was the reason for the postponement.

But this has not convinced lawyers, who note that all the other reasons previously put forward as arguments for a delay had already been declared inadmissible.

September 4, 2008

Pakistan fury over ‘US assault’

Pakistan fury over ‘US assault’

Pakistani soldier in South Waziristan

Tension in Pakistan’s north-west has increased in recent months

Pakistan has summoned the US ambassador to protest at an alleged cross-border raid which officials say killed at least 15 villagers in the north-west.

A number of civilians were reported killed in the raid, which Pakistan says was a violation of its sovereignty.

Correspondents say the raid appears to have been the first ever ground assault by foreign forces based in Afghanistan.

US-led and Nato forces said they had no reports of any such incursion. Border tensions have risen in recent weeks.

US aircraft have carried out air strikes in the region, but a ground assault would be unprecedented.

It is not clear who the target of any attack might have been.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said Pakistan would not allow any foreign power to carry out attacks on its territory.

He was speaking hours after his motorcade was hit by sniper fire near the capital, Islamabad. Senior government officials say he was not in the car at the time.

‘Act of aggression’

Pakistani military and political officials say ground troops brought in by US-led coalition helicopters launched the attack in the South Waziristan tribal area near the Afghan border early on Wednesday morning.

Map

Locals say soldiers attacked with gunfire and bombs. Women and children were among those reported killed.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Sadiq said a “very strong protest” had been delivered to the ambassador, Anne Paterson.

“The ambassador said that she would convey it to her government,” he said.

The army called the attack an act of aggression which undermined the fight against militancy.

North West Frontier Province (NWFP) Governor Owais Ahmed Ghani, who is in administrative charge of the tribal areas, called the attack “cowardly”.

“At least 20 innocent citizens of Pakistan, including women and children, were martyred,” he said in a statement.

There is mounting US pressure on Pakistan – a key ally in the “war on terror” – to crack down on militants, who use the border region to launch raids into Afghanistan.

The Afghan government and Nato say the border region is a haven for al-Qaeda and the Taleban. Pakistan says it is doing all it can to curb militancy.

On Monday, Pakistan’s military suspended its operations against Taleban militants in the neighboring Bajaur tribal area.

The government said this suspension of fighting was to respect the fasting month of Ramadan.

Taleban spokesman Maulvi Omar welcomed the announcement, but he said militants would not lay down their arms.

September 3, 2008

Pakistan PM’s motorcade attacked

Pakistan PM’s motorcade attacked

Shots have been fired at the motorcade of Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, although it is not clear if he was in the convoy at the time.

Two bullets from an unidentified gunman hit the PM’s car as he was traveling from Islamabad airport into the city, his press secretary told.

But security officials say the car was on its way to collect Mr Gilani.

Mr Gilani’s government is grappling with a growing threat from militants in the country.

It is not clear who fired the shots but Islamist militants based in Pakistan’s border regions have threatened to kill various government ministers, and have carried out deadly suicide bombings against army and government targets.

The incident represents a major lapse in security. In December former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was killed at an election rally in Rawalpindi.

Shattered glass

“I can confirm the prime minister’s convoy was fired upon while returning from [Islamabad] airport,” his press secretary Zahid Bashir told.

Bullet marks

Two bullets struck the window of one of the front doors

“The prime minister was coming back from Lahore. The firing took place on the Islamabad highway. At this point, we believe the firing was from a small hill on the roadside.”

A statement issued by the prime minister’s office said: “Of the multiple sniper shots fired on the prime minister’s vehicle, two hit the window on the driver’s side.

“However, because of the robust and comprehensive security measures, the prime minister and all the members of his motorcade remained unharmed.”

Television pictures showed the shattered glass of the driver’s door.

Officials say another car in the convoy was also hit by several bullets. There are no reports of injuries.

However, there was confusion when the interior ministry gave a different account of the incident, saying that Mr Gilani was not in the car at the time of the attack.

The government information minister, Sherry Rehman, supported that account: “The convoy was going to receive the prime minister,” she told state TV. “Those who had designs, have failed.”

Mr Gilani had been in Lahore to canvass support for Asif Zardari, Ms Bhutto’s widower, ahead of presidential elections on Saturday.

Ms Bhutto had been favorite to win Pakistan’s general elections and become prime minister for a third time before she was killed on 27 December. The elections were subsequently postponed until February.

Her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) emerged as the winners and formed a coalition with the PML-N party of another former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif. Mr Gilani, himself a senior PPP member, became prime minister

The coalition broke up amid political acrimony late last month.

Confident

One of the biggest challenges facing Mr Gilani’s government comes from Islamist militants who control large areas along the border with Afghanistan.

Prime Minister Gilani

Mr Gilani became prime minister after February’s elections

The army has been engaged in a major operation in recent weeks in the district of Bajaur which is estimated to have displaced up to 300,000 local people.

This week the government said the Bajaur operation would be suspended during the holy month of Ramadan.

Last year militants grew increasingly confident and carried out a series of attacks in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, the country’s main garrison town.

And last month a double suicide attack at a munitions factory in the town of Wah in Punjab province left nearly 70 people dead.

The loose alliance of militants that calls itself the Pakistan Taleban claimed responsibility for the Wah incident, the heaviest attack on a military installation by a militant group in the country’s history.

Mr Gilani’s PPP and Mr Sharif’s PML-N have spent much of their time since February arguing over issues such as the power of the presidency and the reinstatement of judges sacked by former President Pervez Musharraf.

During that time the economy has taken a further battering, with the Pakistani rupee falling to an all-time low, while food and fuel prices have risen sharply.

August 12, 2008

Spotlight on Egypt’s marriage crisis

Spotlight on Egypt’s marriage crisis

Ghada Abdelaal with her book Ayza-Tgawwiz

Abdelaal’s story started as an online log – now she’s working on a sitcom

“I want to get married” is a perfectly normal thing to say for a young Egyptian man. But when a girl says it in such a conservative society – let alone writes a book with that title – she is making a political statement.

“Girls are not supposed to be actively seeking something, a girl simply exists for someone to marry or divorce her,” says the author of the top-selling book, Ghada Abdelaal. “To say she wants something is seen as impolite.”

The book started as a blog, before it was spotted by an Egyptian publisher and printed as a series of comic sketches in which flawed and failed suitors knocking at her parents’ door.

A paranoid policeman, a hirsute fundamentalist, a pathological liar and other hilarious caricatures portrayed in sparkling Egyptian vernacular.

Marriage anxiety

The veiled, softly-spoken Abdelaal is a sharp and witty observer of social incongruity in Egypt, a feisty spirit trying to tear up stifling tradition.

They ask young girls here when they are three or four, who would you marry… they implant the idea your only purpose in life is to get married
Ghada Abdelaal

She says her target is not Egyptian men but a tradition known as “gawwaz el-salonat” (living room marriage), where a stranger is brought to the family home and the daughter must decide whether to marry him on the basis of this brief encounter.

“People who go for a picnic need to know each other a little longer than that – let alone make a lifelong commitment.”

The book’s popularity – it is in its third print run with a sitcom in the offing – reflects a widespread anxiety in Egyptian society. More and more young people cannot afford to get married.

Although the book focuses on finding Mr Right, she acknowledges finding an affordable flat remains an almost insurmountable obstacle. Many young people stay engaged for years before they can save up enough money.

“By the time they actually get to live together, they are already tired of each other,” says women’s rights activist Nihad Abou El Qoumsan. This causes the unusually high rate of divorce among the newlyweds in Egypt, she says.

Such is the impact of property prices on the marriage crisis, a popular talk show has invited engaged couples to join a draw to win a flat.

A new apartment will be given away by a wealthy businessman every day of the fasting and holiday month of Ramadan, in September. Huge numbers have registered.

Sexual frustration

Some describe it as a social time bomb. Religious customs mean there is no sex before marriage. So how do young people react to this situation?

I don’t think people who harass women on the street are necessarily single, or necessarily sexually frustrated
Anthropologist Hania Sholkamy

Sociologist Madeeha al-Safty of the American University in Cairo believes one consequence is sexual harassment of women and rape reaching unprecedented levels in Egypt.

“If you are frustrated, there is the possibility that you take it out [through] violence.

“Some people choose the safer way in moving towards a more religious attitude – not necessarily extremism, but it might reach the point of extremism,” she adds.

But anthropologist Hania Sholkamy hesitates to link the problems of sexual harassment and rape to the marriage crisis.

“I don’t think people who harass women on the street are necessarily single, or necessarily sexually frustrated. There are many millions of people who are extremely frustrated, but they do not harass women.

“I think the issue is one of violence and gender disparities, pure and simple.”

Gender disparities is a theme running throughout Abdelaal’s book, from the provocative title questioning the woman’s passive role in a traditional society to the way children are brought up.

“They ask young girls here when they are three or four, who would you marry… they implant the idea your only purpose in life is to get married.

“Even after she goes to school they tell her that a girl’s only future is in her husband’s home. So what happens when a girl for any reason cannot get married. Should she set fire to herself?”

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