The news at a glance ... International
Cairo, EgyptMubarak hospitalized: Egyptians were given a rare update on their leader’s health this week, when state newspapers reported that President Hosni Mubarak, 81, had undergone successful gallbladder surgery in Germany. The health of Mubarak, who has ruled in authoritarian style since 1981, has long been treated as something of a state secret. In 2008, a newspaper editor was even jailed for reporting that Mubarak was ill. But more recently, the question of Mubarak’s succession has become a national obsession, and the government has been trying to portray itself as more open and transparent.
Jerusalem‘Day of rage’: Palestinian rioters burned tires and threw rocks at Israeli security forces this week in protest over the dedication of a restored synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement, announced a “day of rage,” while Fatah, the West Bank’s ruling party, also urged Palestinians into the streets. Palestinians see the synagogue—whose dome, from some vantage points, rises above major Muslim shrines—as an insult to Islam. Dozens of protesters were injured by tear gas and rubber bullets. Jerusalem was already tense because of the government’s approval last week of new Jewish settlements in a Palestinian neighborhood. The announcement caused a rift between the U.S. and Israel, and U.S. envoy George Mitchell canceled his planned trip to Israel this week.
BaghdadSlow vote results: Amid rising tensions, preliminary vote counts in Iraq’s parliamentary elections give Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s political bloc a narrow lead over that of his closest competitor, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. With results still incomplete more than a week after the vote, some Iraqis are alleging fraud. But the election commission said the tally has been slow because of the complicated ballot, which had more than 6,000 candidates competing for 325 seats. Al-Maliki is leading in Shiite areas, while Allawi, who is also a Shiite but ran with a more secular coalition, has strong support in Sunni areas. The closeness of the race has raised fears of a sectarian power struggle when it comes time to form a government. The country is already tense: Al-Maliki was hospitalized briefly last week, and rumors quickly spread that he had been shot in an assassination attempt. His office said he had undergone unspecified surgery.
Kabul, AfghanistanProtecting civilians: The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan has put Special Operations forces under his direct control for the first time, in an effort to cut down on the civilian casualties that have angered Afghans. Gen. Stanley McChrystal said the change was one of several reforms, including restricting night raids, that are intended to reduce collateral damage. Afghans welcomed the news. “In most of the cases of civilian casualties, special forces are involved,” said Mohammed Iqbal Safi, head of the defense committee in the Afghan parliament. “We’re always finding out they are not obeying the rules that other forces have to.”
BangkokBloody protest: Thousands of anti-government protesters demanding new elections poured their own blood on the steps of the Thai prime minister’s office this week. The “Red Shirters,” as they are known, contend that the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is illegitimate and interested only in protecting the wealthy. Abhisit came to power in December 2008 after a court forced out the previous government, which was widely suspected of corruption. But many of the rural poor felt their interests were better protected under the previous government. Last week, the Red Shirt protest movement set up tents with nurses, and blood was reportedly collected from 150,000 protesters.
Pyongyang, North KoreaA dictator’s cushy life: A new book about the late dictator Kim Il Sung’s personal shopper reveals how the North Korean leader enjoyed every luxury while his nation starved. In the Dictator’s Service tells the story of Kim Jong Ryul, a North Korean who traveled through Europe for two decades with a suitcase full of cash, procuring fancy cars, gold-plated pistols, and other goodies for the Great Leader and his son, current dictator Kim Jong Il. Kim Jong Ryul, who defected to Austria in 1994, when Kim Il Sung died, said Kim and his family lived in fabulous mansions, furnished with crystal chandeliers and silk wallpaper, and ate only gourmet foreign food. “Maybe I’ll be shot, killed in the next few days,” Kim Jong Ryul said. “At least now I can die with a clear conscience.”
MoscowKremlin party sweeps: The pro-Kremlin United Russia party swept regional elections this week, as expected, although opposition parties made a few token gains. In the previous regional elections, held in October, United Russia won everywhere with such implausibly high margins of victory that President Dmitri Medvedev actually called for greater political diversity in the legislatures. The voters in this week’s elections—or, at least, the government officials who tallied the votes—complied, and some opposition parties took more than 10 percent of the vote. But new apportioning rules ensure that United Russia still takes a large majority of seats in the regional legislatures, even if it wins just a plurality of votes.