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Secret Alliance: Israel Carries Out Airstrikes in Egypt, With Cairo’s O.K.

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The jihadists in Egypt’s Northern Sinai had killed hundreds of soldiers and police officers, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, briefly seized a major town and begun setting up armed checkpoints to claim territory. In late 2015, they brought down a Russian passenger jet.

Egypt appeared unable to stop them, so Israel, alarmed at the threat just over the border, took action.

For more than two years, unmarked Israeli drones, helicopters and jets have carried out a covert air campaign, conducting more than 100 airstrikes inside Egypt, frequently more than once a week — and all with the approval of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

The remarkable cooperation marks a new stage in the evolution of their singularly fraught relationship. Once enemies in three wars, then antagonists in an uneasy peace, Egypt and Israel are now secret allies in a covert war against a common foe.
For Cairo, the Israeli intervention has helped the Egyptian military regain its footing in its nearly five-year battle against the militants. For Israel, the strikes have bolstered the security of its borders and the stability of its neighbor.

Their collaboration in the North Sinai is the most dramatic evidence yet of a quiet reconfiguration of the politics of the region. Shared enemies like ISIS, Iran and political Islam have quietly brought the leaders of several Arab states into growing alignment with Israel — even as their officials and news media continue to vilify the Jewish state in public.

American officials say Israel’s air campaign has played a decisive role in enabling the Egyptian armed forces to gain an upper hand against the militants. But the Israeli role is having some unexpected consequences for the region, including on Middle East peace negotiations, in part by convincing senior Israeli officials that Egypt is now dependent on them even to control its own territory.

Seven current or former British and American officials involved in Middle East policy described the Israeli attacks inside Egypt, all speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified information.

Spokesmen for the Israeli and Egyptian militaries declined to comment, and so did a spokesman for the Egyptian foreign ministry.
Both neighbors have sought to conceal Israel’s role in the airstrikes for fear of a backlash inside Egypt, where government officials and the state-controlled media continue to discuss Israel as a nemesis and pledge fidelity to the Palestinian cause.

The Israeli drones are unmarked, and the Israeli jets and helicopters cover up their markings. Some fly circuitous routes to create the impression that they are based in the Egyptian mainland, according to American officials briefed on their operations.

In Israel, military censors restrict public reports of the airstrikes. It is unclear if any Israeli troops or special forces have set foot inside Egyptian borders, which would increase the risk of exposure.

Mr. Sisi has taken even more care, American officials say, to hide the origin of the strikes from all but a limited circle of military and intelligence officers. The Egyptian government has declared the North Sinai a closed military zone, barring journalists from gathering information there.

Behind the scenes, Egypt’s top generals have grown steadily closer to their Israeli counterparts since the signing of the Camp David accords 40 years ago, in 1978. Egyptian security forces have helped Israel enforce restrictions on the flow of goods in and out of the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian territory bordering Egypt controlled by the militant group Hamas. And Egyptian and Israeli intelligence agencies have long shared information about militants on both sides of the border.

Israeli officials were concerned in 2012 when Egypt, after its Arab Spring revolt, elected a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood to the presidency. The new president, Mohamed Morsi, pledged to respect the Camp David agreements. But the Israelis worried about the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideological kinship with Hamas and its historic hostility to the Jewish state itself.

A year later, Mr. Sisi, then the defense minister, ousted Mr. Morsi in a military takeover. Israel welcomed the change in government and urged Washington to accept it. That solidified the partnership between the generals on both sides of the border.

The North Sinai, a loosely governed region of mountainous desert between the Suez Canal and the Israeli border, became a refuge for Islamist militants in the decade before Mr. Sisi took power.

The main jihadist organization, Ansar Beit al Maqdis — the Partisans of Jerusalem — had concentrated on attacking Israel, but after Mr. Sisi’s takeover it began leading a wave of deadly assaults against Egyptian security forces.

A few weeks after Mr. Sisi took power, in August 2013, two mysterious explosions killed five suspected militants in a district of the North Sinai not far from the Israeli border. The Associated Press reported that unnamed Egyptian officials had said Israeli drones fired missiles that killed the militants, possibly because of Egyptian warnings of a planned cross-border attack on an Israeli airport. (Israel had closed the airport the previous day.)

Mr. Sisi’s spokesman, Col. Ahmed Ali, denied it. “There is no truth in form or in substance to the existence of any Israeli attacks inside Egyptian territory,” he said in a statement at the time, promising an investigation. “The claims of coordination between the Egyptian and Israeli sides in this matter are totally lacking in truth and go against sense and logic.”

Israel declined to comment, and the episode was all but forgotten.

Two years later, however, Mr. Sisi was still struggling to defeat the militants, who by then had killed at least several hundred Egyptians soldiers and policemen.

In November 2014, Ansar Beit al Maqdis formally declared itself the Sinai Province branch of the Islamic State. On July 1, 2015, the militants briefly captured control of a North Sinai town, Sheikh Zuwaid, and retreated only after Egyptian jets and helicopters struck the town, state news agencies said. Then, at the end of October, the militants brought down the Russian charter jet, killing all 224 people aboard.

It was around the time of those ominous milestones, in late 2015, that Israel began its wave of airstrikes, the American officials said, which they credit with killing a long roster of militant leaders.

Though equally brutal successors often stepped in to replace them, the militants appeared to adopt less ambitious goals. They no longer dared trying to close roads, set up checkpoints or claim territory. They moved into hitting softer targets like Christians in Sinai, churches in the Nile Valley or other Muslims they view as heretics. In November 2017, the militants killed 311 worshipers at a Sufi mosque in the North Sinai.

By then, American officials say, the Israelis were complaining to Washington that the Egyptians were not holding up their end of the arrangement. Cairo, they said, had failed to follow the airstrikes with coordinated movements of its ground troops.

Although Israeli military censors have prevented the news media there from reporting on the strikes, some news outlets have circumvented the censorship by citing a 2016 Bloomberg News report, in which an unnamed former Israeli official said there had been Israeli drone strikes inside of Egypt.

Zack Gold, a researcher specializing in the North Sinai who has worked in Israel, compared the airstrikes to Israel’s nuclear weapons program — also an open secret.

“The Israeli strikes inside of Egypt are almost at the same level,” he said. “Every time anyone says anything about the nuclear program, they have to jokingly add ‘according to the foreign press.’ Israel’s main strategic interest in Egypt is stability, and they believe that open disclosure would threaten that stability.”

Inside the American government, the strikes are widely known enough that diplomats and intelligence officials have discussed them in closed briefings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers in open committee hearings have alluded approvingly to the surprisingly close Egyptian and Israeli cooperation in the North Sinai.

In a telephone interview, Senator Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, declined to discuss specifics of Israel’s military actions in Egypt, but said Israel was not acting “out of goodness to a neighbor.”

“Israel does not want the bad stuff that is happening in the Egyptian Sinai to get into Israel,” he said, adding that the Egyptian effort to hide Israel’s role from its citizens “is not a new phenomenon.”

Some American supporters of Israel complain that, given Egypt’s reliance on the Israeli military, Egyptian officials, diplomats and state-controlled news media should stop publicly denouncing the Jewish state, especially in international forums like the United Nations.

“You speak with Sisi and he talks about security cooperation with Israel, and you speak with Israelis and they talk about security cooperation with Egypt, but then this duplicitous game continues,” said Representative Eliot L. Engel of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Relations Committee. “It is confusing to me.”

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has also pointedly reminded American diplomats of the Israeli military role in Sinai. In February 2016, for example, Secretary of State John Kerry convened a secret summit in Aqaba, Jordan, with Mr. Sisi, King Abdullah of Jordan and Mr. Netanyahu, according to three American officials involved in the talks or briefed about them.

Mr. Kerry proposed a regional agreement in which Egypt and Jordan would guarantee Israel’s security as part of a deal for a Palestinian state.

Mr. Netanyahu scoffed at the idea.

Israeli’s military was already propping up Egypt’s military, he said, according to the Americans. If Egypt was unable to control the ground within its own borders, Mr. Netanyahu argued, it was hardly in a position to guarantee security for Israel.

Africa

Warlord’s fighters become movie stars as Ugandan cinema booms

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BLOOMBERG — Opio was 16 when he was abducted by a Bible-quoting warlord and forced into a militia notorious for massacres and sexual slavery. Two decades on, he again took up a rifle — this time playing one of his former comrades in an award-winning Ugandan movie.

As the cameras rolled, he and other actors stormed a village set, shot at civilians and were ambushed at a river crossing. It was all for ‘The Devil’s Chest,’ one of two feature films about Joseph Kony and his rebel Lord’s Resistance Army that was made on location in northern Uganda last year and stirred some painful memories.

“I felt it all coming back, the frustrations, the helplessness and how sometimes I would feel that I just wanted to die,” said Opio, who’s now 38 and spent seven years in the LRA before fleeing and accepting a state-sponsored amnesty. “But at the end of it all, I knew it was just a movie — I had already left that real life in the past.”

Uganda, too, has moved on from the chaos sown by Kony’s militia, which may have been responsible for 100,000 deaths in central and eastern Africa in the past three decades. There’s been an investment in oil exploration and infrastructure in the north, which the LRA terrorized until 2005, while the capital, Kampala, is touted as a hot new nightlife spot. Now at peace — and still under the iron rule of President Yoweri Museveni — U.S. ally Uganda is a regional heavyweight, sending troops to Somalia and South Sudan.

The country isn’t a complete stranger to Hollywood: ‘The Last King of Scotland’ recreated the despotic 1970s rule of President Idi Amin, while Lupita Nyong’o played the mother of a chess prodigy in Disney’s ‘Queen of Katwe,’ which takes its title from a Kampala neighbourhood. Recent years, though, have brought a surge in locally funded films. Museveni’s drive to remain in office may have curbed political expression, but it hasn’t dampened creativity in an economy that’s almost quadrupled in size since he took power in 1986.

At least 700 Ugandan features and short films have played at festivals in the past five years, according to Ruth Kibuuka, content development manager at the Uganda Communications Commission, the industry regulator. While quality was initially “wanting,” it has “greatly improved,” partly due to technical training, she said.
There’s still a long way before Uganda challenges Nollywood, Nigeria’s film industry that produces movies at a rate second only to India’s. That’s despite the efforts of Nabwana Isaac Godfrey. The founder of Wakaliwood, a studio that turns out scrappy, fast-paced action movies from a Kampala slum, he says he’s directed about 60 since 2005 — at less than $300 each.
Driving Passion

“The industry is growing at a very good speed and it’s passion that is driving it,” said Godfrey. His most famous production,‘Who Killed Captain Alex?,’ showcases the crude computer-generated effects and over-the-top violence that’s won him a cult following outside Uganda.

For director Hassan Mageye, ‘Devil’s Chest’ commemorates the insurgency’s victims while showing that people have moved on. It won best feature at Uganda’s main film festival in September but hasn’t yet been widely released. He estimated about 90 percent of the 400-strong cast were affected by Kony’s rebellion, including some ex-fighters.

Roger Masaba, who portrayed Kony, said he was advised by some of the cast who’d met the real man. The 47-year-old said he was surprised not everyone off the set in the north expressed dislike for the warlord. While he was in costume, some even thought he was Kony.

Kony, who’s been indicted by the International Criminal Court and still on the run, went on to plague South Sudan and the Central African Republic with a much-diminished militia. His former fighters in Uganda were mostly granted amnesty by the government, which has provided counseling and outlawed discrimination against them.

There’s a strong local appetite for stories about Uganda’s past, according to Steve Ayeny, the director of ‘Kony: Order From Above,’ another feature about the rebels and their captives filmed at a northern army base. He said about half his 445 actors and extras were former insurgents.

Reenacting the lynchings and burning of villages “was not easy,” said Ayeny, who had friends killed during the period his film portrays. “Because they were the truth, we just had to deal with it and say, ya, let’s move on.”

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South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma resigns

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South Africa’s embattled President Jacob Zuma has resigned his office with immediate effect.

He made the announcement in a televised address to the nation on Wednesday evening.

Earlier, Mr Zuma’s governing ANC party told him to resign or face a vote of no confidence in parliament on Thursday.

The 75-year-old has been under increasing pressure to give way to Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, the ANC’s new leader.

Mr Zuma faces numerous allegations of corruption.

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South Africa’s ANC gives Zuma 48 hours to quit, state broadcaster says

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PRETORIA/JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) gave President Jacob Zuma 48 hours to resign as head of state on Monday after an eight-hour meeting of the party’s top leadership, the SABC state broadcaster said.

Party leader Cyril Ramaphosa’s motorcade left a marathon ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting at 10:30 p.m. (2030 GMT) for Zuma’s residence near the Union Buildings in Pretoria to deliver the message in person, the SABC said, citing sources.

His motorcade returned an hour later to the venue of the ANC meeting debating Zuma’s fate.

The rand ZAR=D3, which has tended to strengthen on signs Zuma could step down before his second term ends next year, extended its gains to 0.7 percent to the dollar on expectations Zuma was on his way out.

ANC officials and Zuma’s spokesman could not be reached to comment.

Since Ramaphosa was elected party leader in December, Zuma has faced mounting calls from his party to end his scandal-plagued second term a year early.

The NEC meeting in a Pretoria hotel had all the ingredients for a showdown between Zuma stalwarts and those backing a swift transfer of power to Ramaphosa, the deputy state president.

Ramaphosa, 65, says he has held direct talks with Zuma over a transfer of power, and said on Sunday the meeting of the party’s executive committee would be aiming on Monday to “finalize” the situation.

The party executive has the authority to order Zuma to step down as head of state, although there is domestic media speculation that he might yet refuse.

Zuma survived calls last year from within the NEC for him to quit.[L8N1IU0QO] But analysts say there is greater support for him to step down now.

His tenure as president officially runs until mid-2019 and he has not said publicly whether he will step down voluntarily.

The president is also facing a no-confidence motion in parliament set for Feb. 22, but has survived several similar attempts to oust him in the past.

His entire Cabinet would have to step down if the motion of no-confidence against him was successful.

Since becoming president in 2009, Zuma has been dogged by scandal. He is fighting the reinstatement of 783 counts of corruption over a 30 billion-rand (now $2.5 billion) government arms deal arranged in the late 1990s when he was deputy president.

Some within the ANC and the opposition say the Gupta family, friends of Zuma, have used their links with the president to win state contracts and influence Cabinet appointments. The Guptas and Zuma have denied any wrongdoing.

India’s Bank of Baroda (BOB.NS), which counts the Guptas as clients, has announced plans to exit South Africa, the central bank said on Monday.

Ramaphosa has put the focus on rooting out corruption and revitalizing economic growth since defeating Zuma’s preferred successor, Zuma’s ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, in the ANC leadership race.

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