TIME Bowe Bergdahl

Israel Is Experienced With Prisoner Exchanges and Their Consequences

Over the decades Israel has freed 7,000 prisoners to secure a handful of its soldiers, pleasing the public but encouraging kidnap plots

Israel knows a few things about prisoner exchanges. Over the decades, its governments have released more than 7,000 captives in order to secure the freedom of 16 Israelis and, in some cases, the bodies of Israelis. It’s a lopsided exchange rate — about 450 to 1 — that reflects the extraordinary value Israeli society places on its individual members. It also offers a perspective on the price the Obama Administration paid for the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier was released by the Taliban over the weekend in exchange for five senior Taliban figures freed from Guantánamo.

“To be honest, I felt as an Israeli, as a security man, I felt proud for the United States,” says Avi Dichter, a former head of Shin Bet, as Israel’s internal security agency is known. “I’m glad they decided to bring him back, even if it’s five, 50 or 500. I think bringing him back is more important than any other issue. In my life, 43 years in the security business, either in the army or Shin Bet or government, I’ve never seen a terrorist, including an archterrorist, that he’s worth more than the nails of an Israeli soldier. That’s why I don’t believe the five are worth more than the nails of Bowe Bergdahl.”

But prisoner deals are just that — transactions, which in the law of supply and demand create a market for captives, one that Republican critics of the Bergdahl exchange say will put more U.S. service members at risk. Indeed, Israel has seen a surge in plots to kidnap soldiers or civilians since its last prisoner exchange, the October 2011 release of a record 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit, the captive Israeli soldier held in the Gaza Strip for five years.

The windfall from Shalit stirred militants to shift their energies toward abductions. In Gaza, the chant was “The people want a new Gilad,” as Hamas officials vowed to repeat their success. Militants burrowed toward Israeli military outposts and communities in what a leader dubbed “the strategy of the tunnels” aimed at reaching Israeli outposts and communities. In the past 20 months, Israeli forces have stumbled on four concrete-reinforced underground channels, each apparently intended to carry back a captive; that’s how Shalit was taken.

Kidnap efforts are also being made in the West Bank, and inside Israel, where 20% of the population is Palestinian. Israeli officials say the effort involves every Palestinian faction, and shows no sign of waning. In December 2012, Israeli security arrested four men trying to pick up hitchhiking Israeli soldiers in an SUV where investigators found rope, masking tape, ski masks and a toy gun. In the next nine months, officials detected another 37 plots, but in September a Palestinian man lured an off-duty Israeli soldier he knew from work to the West Bank, killed him and threw his body in a well. He told investigators his plan was to trade the body for the release of his imprisoned brother.

In the nine months since, the number of plots rose to 50, including 11 traced to Israeli prisons, where high-value inmates were orchestrating the plots, according to a Shin Bet statement.

Still, the exchanges are not only accepted by Israelis, but applauded. At the time, 80% of Israelis supported the Shalit deal, according to polls. And while senior officials appointed a committee to explore ways to avoid releasing such large numbers of prisoners in the future, nothing is known to have changed. The Mossad, Israel’s external intelligence agency, has an agent assigned full time to prisoner exchanges.

“It’s crazy to outsiders, but that’s how it is,” Rami Igra, who formerly held the job, told TIME when the Shalit exchange was taking shape. “We are a small nation, a fighting nation. We have to show the people that fight with us and for us that we as a community will do the utmost to bring them back home. It’s a battlefield value. It’s a very important value, and it has a lot of weight in our national security. Unfortunately the other side knows it, and they use it against us.”

Dichter, the former Shin Bet chief, points out that Israel has the means to have the last word. Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin was released twice from an Israeli prison, he notes, first in 1985 along with 1,149 others in an exchange for three Israeli soldiers, then, after being arrested again, for two Mossad agents caught trying to poison a Hamas official in Jordan in 1997. Finally, an Israeli Apache gunship fired a Hellfire missile at the partially blind cleric as he was wheeled out of morning prayers. “When we had no option to detain him, we targeted him in 2004,” Dichter says. “So those who think there’s only one round — no, no, no. There’s many rounds.”

TIME Terrorism

Syria Conflict Spawning ‘New Generation of Terrorists,’ Report Warns

A rebel fighter walks on a street in the Syrian city of Aleppo following a reported bombardment with explosive-packed "barrel bombs" by the government forces on April 27, 2014
Baraa Al-Halabi—AFP/Getty Images A rebel fighter walks on a street in the Syrian city of Aleppo following a reported bombardment with explosive-packed "barrel bombs" by the government forces on April 27, 2014

In just three years, 12,000 foreign fighters have traveled to Syria to fight, according to a new report by the Soufan Group — and most arrive already steeped in extremism

The civil war in Syria already appears to have drawn more foreign fighters than the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and may prove an even more dangerous incubator for terrorism in the long run, according to a new report by a private security company.

The report, by the Soufan Group, estimates that 12,000 foreign fighters have traveled to Syria. The estimate is up sharply from 7,000 that U.S. and Israeli intelligence estimated at the start of 2014, and more than the 10,000 thought to have fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, the decadelong conflict that spawned al-Qaeda.

The greatest concern about terrorism resides in the perhaps 3,000 fighters the report says traveled to Syria from Western countries to fight with rebel groups dominated by Islamic extremists. Though arrayed against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Iranian allies, the fundamentalists might in time choose to direct violence against Western targets, “the far enemy” in the parlance of al-Qaeda — and recruit those battle-hardened foreign fighters to return to their home countries and carry out attacks.

“Leaving aside what may happen in Syria, if al-Qaeda can maintain a network of even a small number of motivated returnees, or recruit fighters to its terrorist agenda while they are still in Syria, it may once more pose a significant global threat,” the report says.

Most of the foreign fighters in Syria arrived from Arab countries, with 3,000 alone from Tunisia and another 2,500 from Saudi Arabia. But 700 fighters are thought to have traveled to Syria from France; 400 from the U.K.; and around 250 each from Belgium, Australia and Germany, the report says, quoting estimates by the nations ’ own governments.

The study says about 70 fighters from the U.S. have traveled to Syria, quoting an FBI statement from May. Last Friday, the conflict recorded its first known American suicide bomber, when Moner Mohammad Abusalha, a recent resident of Florida, detonated the truck he was driving in an attack for al-Nusra Front, an extremist Sunni force.

Study author Richard Barrett, a former British intelligence official and U.N. specialist on al-Qaeda, writes that that leaders of groups that attract most foreign fighters — al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) — were previously members of al-Qaeda. He adds that the process of indoctrination in extremist thought may well be accelerated by social media, as young would-be fighters reinforce their views in self-limiting Twitter, Facebook and other feeds. In any event, most already are familiar with the extremist ideology that recruits learned from Osama bin Laden and his acolytes.

“The progression from foreign fighter to terrorist is not a linear one, nor is it inevitable, and the majority of people who return from the fighting in Syria may pose no terrorist threat,” Barrett writes. “But the difficulty remains how to distinguish those who will from those who won’t.”

The only known attack outside Syria by a foreign fighter occurred in Belgium in May, where a French citizen who had fought for a year in Syria with ISIS killed three people at a Jewish museum on May 24. But if the experience after the Soviet war in Afghanistan is any example, the report says, “the Syrian war is likely to be an incubator for a new generation of terrorists.”

TIME Libya

Libyan General With U.S. Passport Wages War On Islamist Extremists

Gen. Khalifa Hifter has assembled a force that is taking the fight to Islamist extremists in the worst fighting since the 2011 revolution

Into the chaos of post-revolution Libya rides Gen. Khalifa Hifter, a former confidant of Muammar Gaddafi with a U.S. passport and a reputed history with the CIA. A resident of northern Virginia until the 2011 revolution that deposed his old boss, Hifter, 71, returned to his homeland and, after a couple of embarrassing personal setbacks, recently persuaded elements of the military forces to join him in battling the most extreme of the many armed militias operating in Libya today.

The fighting, described as the worst since the overthrow of Gaddafi, prompted the State Department this week to urge Americans to leave Libya, and the Pentagon to move a warship with 1,000 Marines on board into the vicinity. The USS Bataan was ordered, if not quite to the shores of Tripoli, then close enough to respond quickly if an evacuation is ordered.

Libya has remained conspicuously unstable since Gaddafi’s regime fell in August 2011 in an armed rebellion supported by a NATO air campaign. A constitutional process was set up, and a legislature and prime minister elected. But the government has failed to establish what academics call the fundamental element of sovereignty—a monopoly on force. Last October, the premier was kidnapped in broad daylight. Scores if not hundreds of militias are active, the most feared of which are Islamist extremists like the gunmen responsible for overrunning the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi in September 2012, killing ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

Those are the militias Hifter is targeting. “We are now fighting not only on behalf of Libya, but on behalf of the whole world,” he told the New York Times by telephone on Wednesday. Fighter-jets loyal to Hifter bombed a base in Benghazi held by an extremist militia. In Tripoli, the capital, a militia loyal to Hifter overran the legislature on May 18, prompting lawmakers to finally name a date for new elections (June 25).

U.S. officials deny that Hifter is getting American support, something he reportedly boasted of receiving decades earlier when he commanded a force trying to unseat Gaddafi. He had helped Gaddafi come to power in a 1969 coup, but then turned against the strongman in the 1980s after being captured in neighboring Chad, which Gaddafi had ordered invaded. He later moved to Virginia, and voted in local elections in 2008 and 2009.

His 2011 return to Libya was not triumphant. Hifter tried but failed to take command of the rebel force arrayed against Gaddafi. And when he showed up on television in February calling for the overthrow of the government, he was mocked.

But in the weeks that followed, a force took shape behind him—motivated, according to the current U.S. ambassador, Deborah Jones, by a wave of assassinations carried by extremists, including a bomb attack on graduating military cadets. “That was the breaking point,” Jones said in a May 21 talk at The Stimson Center, a Washington think tank.

“Hifter’s focus is very specifically on terrorist groups,” Jones said, in remarks she acknowledged were more supportive of Hifter than the official State Department line, which criticizes the use of force. “It’s not necessarily for me to condemn his action going against… groups that are frankly are on our lists of terrorists,” Jones said.

Libya’s politics remain chaotic. The country has had three prime ministers in the last two months, two of whom still claim the title. The constitution is only now being drafted. Hifter has shown signs he views himself as Libya’s version of Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian general who deposed an elected Islamist government in neighboring Egypt, and was elected president this week. But the dynamic in Libya is a different one, analysts say.

“I hear a lot of support for his actions against these specific groups, less support for him as an individual, given his background,” Jones said. “The jury is still out, because it’s not clear what the political agenda is.”

TIME Egypt

Al-Sisi Wins Egypt’s Presidency But Is Stumbling Already

Supporters hold up posters of Egypt's former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as they celebrate at Tahrir square in Cairo May 28, 2014.
Amr Abdallah Dalsh—Reuters Supporters hold up posters of Egypt's former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as they celebrate at Tahrir square in Cairo May 28, 2014.

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has won what is being called a "landslide" victory but the low voter turnout—by every count well under 50 percent—has undermined his savior image and deprived him of the mandate he so eagerly sought

As fully expected, the man who deposed Egypt’s last elected president — and who has been running the country for the 10 months since — will remain in charge. Early on Thursday, supporters of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, said the former field marshal had garnered 23.38 million votes, while his only opponent, the leftist political activist Hamdeen Sabahi, was said to have notched up just 735,285.

But if the outcome of the election was never really in doubt, the way balloting unfolded this week had the perverse effect of undermining the winner — and in more ways than one. Embarrassingly low voter turnout has cast a shadow over al-Sisi’s victory, which he had framed as a request for a “mandate” from an Egyptian public that government and private media alike portrayed as in rapturous thrall of the career soldier. The Sabahi campaign said just 25 percent of voters showed up at polls during the two days of official voting; an Egyptian official put the figure at “about 37 percent.” Neither figure could be confirmed by independent observers, but both were well below the 52 percent turnout in the 2012 presidential ballot.

Perhaps worse for al-Sisi, in political terms, was the decision to extend voting to a third day in order to boost turnout — a move that only served to emphasize the lonely emptiness of numerous polling places. His campaign sought to distance itself from the extension, which even according to official sources quoted by Reuters early Wednesday produced barely half the 80 percent turnout al-Sisi had sought. In the end, an election carefully presented as the public coronation of a new military strongman turned out to be something else altogether: A display of the deep and wide cleavages in the nation of 80-million the new president will have to govern.

Those divisions were what prompted al-Sisi to dispose of Morsi, whose Islamist Muslim Brotherhood government had ruled with a high hand after just scraping into office. But the tensions have been exacerbated by the crackdown al-Sisi enforced against Morsi supporters. Despite the hagiography of al-Sisi by Egyptian media, a rare external public opinion survey released May 22 found that only 54 percent of Egyptians approved of al-Sisi – the same percentage who approved his removal of Morsi (who had enjoyed similar approval ratings just a year earlier).

The poll, conducted by the well-regarded Pew Charitable Trusts, based in Washington DC and Philadelphia, questioned 1,000 Egyptians in face-to-face interviews in mid-April. It found the Brotherhood retained significant support in Egypt — 38 percent voiced a favorable opinion of the group, despite it being dubbed a terrorist organization last December by the interim government al-Sisi put in place. Brotherhood supporters had called for a boycott of the presidential ballot, and the low turnout might indicate a measure of success: Rank and file of the Nour Party, the most prominent remaining Islamist party, reportedly ignored their leaders’ instructions to cast ballots.

Voters found other reasons to stay home as well — including a heat wave that Sisi’s campaign cited on its website. But the net effect of the disappointing turnout was to shine a spotlight on the one word that Morsi supporters have made their slogan since his removal: “Legitimacy.” His supporters shout it as they march into the courtroom where the deposed president is on trial.

“I’m not sure what we’re looking for in Sisi,” Ali Desoke, the owner of a modest central Cairo sandwich shop said in a pre-election interview. “Are we looking for a new hero? A new pharaoh?” The Pew poll had an answer to that as well, asking Egyptians whether democracy was more important, or a stable government without full democracy. Unlike a year ago, a majority — once again, 54 percent —– said a stable government was more important.

That appears to be what al-Sisi is giving them. Though running as protector of the 2011 revolution that ended President Hosni Mubarak’s three decades of autocratic rule, al-Sisi presided over an interim government that banned public demonstrations, killed 1,000 Brotherhood supporters and arrested more than 20,000 people, including prominent journalists.

“The Egyptian people and democracy, it doesn’t work like it does in Europe,” Ahlam Ali Mohamed, a 47-year-old housewife in Alexandria, who voted for Sisi, told Reuters. “I voted today because I want to feel safe.”

Sisi’s campaign was founded on that desire. “If this framework is not tight between the police, the people, the courts and the government, Egypt is in danger,” Hazem Abdel Azim, a senior campaign official told TIME earlier this month. “It’s very important to have this binding relationship.”

Others toyed with the reductionist notion that — after thousands of years under pharaohs, kings and, since 1953, career military men — Egyptians embraced the familiar. “It’s easy to be determinist, to say after 7,000 years of Pharaohs, our government perhaps hasn’t changed over time, because we haven’t thought it would be any other way: One strong ruler,” says Mohamed Lotfy, a founder of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedom, an independent human rights group. But he goes on to observe that the French struggled under despots for decades after their revolution, and that the last three years have left Egyptians exhausted — another explanation for the low turnout.

“People got tired of calling for change and not getting what they want,” Lotfy says.

Indeed, Pew found dissatisfaction with the way things are going in Egypt, at 72 percent, higher than before the 2011 revolution. Desoke, the sandwich maker who asked if Egyptians want another pharaoh, supports Sisi but considers his candidacy a colossal mistake. “By running, he’s losing a lot,” he says, “and if he wins he will lose even more. Because the problems are still there. Look at the problem of the economy.

“We came out in demonstrations against Morsi because the electricity was being cut. And when Sisi takes over the electricity will still be cut.”

TIME Israel

Pope Offers Israel Gestures of Reconciliation

After pleasing Palestinians a day earlier, the pontiff made a flurry of symbolic moves Monday aimed at healing 2,000 years of tension between the Catholic Church and Jews

A day after pleasing Palestinians by calling attention to their incipient statehood and praying at the concrete barrier that symbolizes Israel’s occupation of their land, Pope Francis made a concerted effort to engage Israelis on Monday.

The pontiff prayed at the Wailing Wall, laid a wreath on the grave of the founding father of Zionism, and spoke movingly at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum where he kissed the hands of Israeli Jews who survived the Nazi regime.

Francis also gamely accommodated a request from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who after seeing the Pope stop to pray in Bethlehem at the separation barrier that divides Israel from Palestinian territory, asked the pontiff to add a stop to his schedule in Jerusalem: A memorial to victims of terror attacks, which Netanyahu pointed out was the reason the barrier was put up.

The result was a photo of Francis bending to the terror memorial, as Netanyahu and a phalanx of fellow officials look on from close quarters. A less forced symmetry with the Bethlehem stop–which had been the Pope’s own idea–had occurred less than an hour earlier, in the image of the Pontiff praying before the Western Wall, a palm on the massive Herodian stones that had formed the foundation of the Temple where God was believed to reside.

But on the final and busiest day of his three-day Holy Land tour, it’s the effort that counts, especially in Israel.

“Every single gesture on this trip has some significance,” says Jeffrey Woolf, a scholar of Christian-Jewish relations at Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan, outside Tel Aviv. “And we, because we live in an Internet age which cultivates superficial thought, have no idea how powerful these can be. But in the Middle East it certainly [resonates] very powerfully.”

“All these actions are very loaded,” Woolf tells TIME. “He crammed a lot of meaning into a few hours.”

The Pope’s itinerary in Israel was intended to bridge tensions that extend to Biblical times, says Woolf, and address the schism between the emerging Christian church and the Jews its leaders rejected, and later oppressed. “Look, [Jews] have a 2,000-year account with the Catholic Church,” says Woolf. “It’s a fact that the fundamental oppression of the Jews was enforced by the papacy.”

So it was that Francis’ visit to the Western Wall, a standard stop for any VIP visit, carried particular significance for Jewish Israelis. “For 2,000 years about, the destruction of the Temple was the symbol of the rejection of the Jews,” Woolf says. “And now the Pope is going to the Wall. That’s an affirmation. That’s a powerful switch, that [Catholics]no longer believe the Jews are a ‘fossil religion.’”

The visit also carried a modern ecumenical message, as the pontiff, after turning from the wall, embraced two old friends from his native Argentina, a rabbi and an imam, who are his traveling companions on the trip.

The pope then did something no other pontiff has done: He honored the grave of Theodor Herzl, the Austrian journalist who championed the idea of a Jewish homeland after realizing anti-Semitism in Europe could not be overcome. The gesture was an effort to undo a specific slight: Pope Pius X’s tart rejection of Herzl’s movement, dubbed Zionism. Woolf adds that Francis’s move also represents a belief in Israel’s right to exist. “By going to Herzl’s grave he’s making a statement that the founding of the state of Israel is not a result of the Holocaust; it’s an understanding of it as an assertion of the right of self-determination.”

At Yad Vashem, the museum documenting the murder of the 6-million Jews killed by Nazi Germany, Francis quoted the book of Genesis, where after his creation has sinned God asks, “Adam, where are you?”

“Who corrupted you?” Francis asks. “Who disfigured you? Who led you to presume that you are the master of good and evil? Who convinced you that you are God? Not only did you torture and kill your brothers and sisters, but you offered them in sacrifice to yourself because you made yourself a god.”

The pontiff also met with Israeli President Shimon Peres, who earlier agreed to travel to the Vatican to pray for peace with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas; and with Netanyahu, who as prime minister would be in a position to actually make peace. There was a brief session as well with religious leaders: The chief rabbis of both major Jewish traditions, who joined the pontiff in a vow to fight anti-Semitism, and the Muslim Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, during a brief visit to the Haram al-Sharif, as Muslims call the Temple Mount above the Western wall.

There, with an Israeli helicopter hovering overhead, the Pope made yet another plea for peace. “Dear friends, from this holy place I make a heartfelt plea to all people and to all communities who look to Abraham,” Francis says. “May no one abuse the name of God through violence.”


TIME Egypt

A Tale of Two Sisis

Egypt's Military Chief Visits Moscow
Sasha Mordovets—Getty Images Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi

The extraordinary rise of Abdul Fattah al-Sisi will be complete this week with his all-but-certain election to Egypt's presidency. But the story of a man who shares his last name illustrates the enormous challenges facing the former military commander when he takes office

For Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, life has gotten better and better since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.

The career military man was doing well even before the popular revolt of January 2011 ended the three-decade reign of the Egyptian president: al-Sisi sat on the general staff, holding the delicate portfolio for military intelligence.

But he was just getting started. When the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was elected president in 2012, al-Sisi was named minister of defense, as well as chief of general staff. And when Morsi fell out of favor with Egyptians a year later, with millions marching for his removal last June 30, al-Sisi rose to the occasion, removing the country’s first and only freely-elected president in a coup that most Egyptians call a second revolution.

In January he was promoted to Field Marshal, and polls say that in balloting that begins Monday, he will be elected president.

The scope of the challenge now facing the next president might best be understood by the post-Revolution experience of another al-Sisi. Mohamed Mahmoud al-Sisi shares the family name with the candidate, but that’s all. In 2011, he had his own business selling finely crafted gold jewelry made in a shop he owned. He commuted daily from a Cairo suburb, and says he took home 5,000 Egyptian pounds a month, worth about $870 at the time. His wife and four daughters, aged 12 to 3, ate fish one night, chicken the next, beef when they liked. Money was not a problem—he had so much, he says, he was investing in the Egyptian stock market–but governance was. So he joined the throngs in Tahrir Square, chanting the slogan of the Revolution, “Bread, Freedom, Dignity, Social Justice,” and cheered when Mubarak surrendered his office.

Then his troubles began, he says. First, the stocks collapsed. The father of four had invested in companies that looked rock solid under Mubarak, including Ezz Steel; its shares plummeted from $25 just before Tahrir to $5 after its president, a Mubarak man, was convicted of money-laundering.

Egypt became a dangerous place, and not just to investors. The political uncertainty created a security vacuum, and crime rates soared. One day men with knives confronted al-Sisi as he left his workshop, carrying finished gold jewelry to client shops. The thieves took it all.

“I was a gold maker and I had my own workshop, and I lost all my money and now I’m doing this,” says al-Sisi.

He stands in a Cairo alley, holding a platter. On the platter are paper plates. Some hold peanuts. Others, chick peas. Each plate sells for two Egyptian pounds, or about 23 cents. His government ID card still reads “gold maker” but al-Sisi, 40, spends his workdays moving through the side streets of Zamalek, a relatively prosperous island in the Nile, imploring people smoking water pipes to buy one of his snacks.

On a good night, he makes 70 Egyptian pounds, or $10. On a bad night, 50 pounds, or $7. “From bad to worse,” he says. “The economy is going lower and lower and lower.”

His monthly income, which formerly approached $900, now ranges from $84 to $125. Most nights the girls eat macaroni and rice. “Some vegetables, but not much,” he says. The family has meat only on feast days, two or three times a year. “Now fruit is the third priority. I know it’s important to my children, but first I have to feed them,” al-Sisi says. “My children love apples, the red and the yellow. Now when they are asking for it, I just cry. I cannot afford it any more.”

The candidate al-Sisi is asked constantly about the economy. By some measures, 25 percent of Egyptians live in poverty. By others, the measure approaches 50 percent. A poll released Thursday by Pew Research Center found that 76 percent of Egyptians describe the economy as “bad,” up from 64 percent just after the revolution. Tourism is staggering, and hard currency is so scarce the government has been failing to pay the international firms that pump its oil.

“If things go according to the plan we have prepared, we will see an improvement in two years,” the former field marshal told Sky News Arabia in a May 11 interview. Except for championing energy-saving lightbulbs, however, he has declined to share his economic plan with Egyptians, or anything else that would constitute a platform.

A few days before balloting began, his campaign released a color-coded “Map of the Future,” which appeared to recycle a 30-year-old plan to create a band of cities in what is now desert. Critics say the expense would be beyond Egypt’s means, already burdened by subsidies that keep the prices of food and fuel artificially low, and deter investment.

The al-Sisi selling peanuts says he might not even vote. “Most likely he will be like Mubarak,” he says, of the candidate who shares his name. “This is their nature, the men from the army.” He admits only to the dimmest flicker of hope, rising from the general’s personal religious piety. “Yes,” he says, “this is a very good and important point, and yes it gives hope. But only if the whole system is changing. Otherwise it’s not enough.”

“I will not speak big words,” Mohamed al-Sisi says. “All I care about is that they give people the minimum wage, not less. And that they cast a kind look to the poor people. Social justice.”

TIME Pope Francis

Pope Francis Draws Shrinking Christian Flock in Holy Land

Every space in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was filled for the papal visit on Sunday morning, but with the population of Palestinian Catholics dwindling, many Filipino and Indian guest workers made up the numbers

As much as the half-empty soccer stadium where Pope Francis gave a Mass in Jordan on Saturday, the Sunday morning scene at Bethlehem’s Manger Square spoke volumes about the declining population of Christians in the very place the faith was born.

Unlike the scene in Amman, where half of the seats in a 30,000-seat stadium went unfilled, there were no empty spaces in the plaza–some 9,000 congregants turned out in front the Church of the Nativity, built above the cave where the baby Jesus was said to have been laid in a manger.

But relatively few in the crowd were themselves born in the Holy Land. Laced heavily among the hardy native Palestinian Catholics were guest workers from India and the Philippines working in Israel, asylum seekers from Sudan, American tourists, pilgrims from Ghana, and a smattering of Palestinian Christians from other denominations.

Christians account for only about 1.5 percent of the West Bank’s 2.5 million population, and a similar proportion of Israel, where every fifth citizen is Palestinian. Historically, according to Hanna A. Amirah, head of the Higher Presidential Committee of Churches in the Palestinian Authority, Christians accounted for every tenth resident in the region.

“We are few,” said Layla Zaid, sitting with her sister Nadia in the shade of the gift shop arcade off the square as Pope Francis entered. Greek Orthodox both, they had traveled by bus from the West Bank city of Ramallah with 150 others, including Romanian Orthodox, Protestants and Catholics. “No problem,” Nadia says. “It’s for Christians.”

But there are fewer and fewer of them. Bethlehem itself is mostly Muslim today, the Christian population dwindling to perhaps 15 percent of the district.In the Gaza Strip, the Christian population is down to an estimated 1,250 in a population of 1.7 million. Half of them got permits from Israel to travel to the West Bank, and about 50 were clustered in Manger Square, holding a homemade sign reading: “With Great Love & Happiness GAZA Receives our Pope”

“Most of the Christians leave Gaza,” says Hanady Missak, deputy director of the Rosary Sisters School, a Christian private school of 850 students, only 78 of whom are Christian. The balance are Muslim. “They sell their houses and their lands and go to the United States or Australia or Canada.” The exodus accelerated after Hamas came to power in 2007, when Gaza had nearly three times as many Christians. But the man standing next to her, Suleiman Hana, had a similar story from the West Bank city of Nablus: Only 650 Christians remain, he says, including just three Catholic families.

Under such dire circumstances, the natives say they very much welcome the Filipino and Indian guest workers, many of whom share their faith. “One God for all,” says Hana. Israel admits the foreigners, if only for a few years, to do jobs that Israelis will not, mostly cleaning and caring for the elderly and disabled. Most are Catholic, and in some parts of the country they vastly outnumber their native Palestinian counterparts. The allotment of tickets for the Manger Square mass by the priests at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Jaffa tells the story: Arab members of the church got 100 tickets, Indian members 120 and Filipinos 250. Another 60 were divided between members from Sri Lanka and Sudan.

The guest workers say they are surprised to find Christians such a small minority in the Holy Land. “Sometimes this is strange,” says Teresa Paglinawen, who hails from the Philippines. “Sometimes they don’t understand us, how we like this place, its importance for us. We are foreigners working here so sometimes they cannot accept us, our religion and our faith.”

Who are “they”?

“Everyone – Jews, Muslims,” replies Ruby Tiongson, a fellow Filipina, joining the conversation.

“We are not angry, because it is their place,” says Paglinawen. “We rely on visiting here and working here. But they need to understand also, because this place has a holiness. Our savior was born here.”

TIME Pope Francis

Pope Makes Mideast Leaders a Peace Offer They Couldn’t Refuse

Francis' invitation to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres to pray together at the Vatican exploits their one shared desire: To avoid painful specifics

By inviting the president of Israel and the head of the Palestinian Authority to his Vatican home for a “prayer for peace,” Pope Francis picks up where Secretary of State John Kerry left off—using moral suasion to bring the two famously recalcitrant sides together in the same room. But in this case, Francis is leaving out the Israeli leader who matters most.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as head of government, is the key decision-maker in any peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Yet the Pope’s invitation from a Bethlehem mass on Sunday was extended not to Netanyahu but to Shimon Peres, the famously dovish 90-year-old statesman whose seven-year term in the largely symbolic office of president expires in two months.

Peres readily accepted the Pope’s invitation to travel to the Vatican for “a heartfelt prayer to God for the gift of peace,” as Francis put it. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said a quick yes, too. That puts together in a room two men of peace who routinely voice the need for a two-state solution to the as-yet-intractable conflict–and who, according to contemporaneous news reports, met discreetly several times in 2011.

As Peres tells it, he and Abbas came within a whisker of fashioning an agreement that would have resolved the matter by agreeing on the terms for fashioning a state called “Palestine” beside Israel.

But Netanyahu forbad Peres from closing the deal, according to Peres, who recounted the tortured history earlier this month to an Israeli television station, shortly after the apparent collapse of the Kerry negotiations.

And while there is nothing at all wrong with prayer, least of all for peace, the Pope’s invitation truly was one that neither side could refuse. The Israelis and Palestinians have been talking so long about peace – 20 years now, since the breakthrough known as the Oslo Accords that introduced then then-exciting idea of sitting down face-to-face with the enemy – that to be seen rejecting talks is to be viewed as the villain.

Both sides have strong incentives to be perceived as inclined toward an agreement, and both sides have strong incentives to avoid the particulars required to produce one. Which is why an invitation to keep things as vague as praying for peace is something of a godsend, especially coming from the most charismatic religious figure in the world. Where’s the downside in that?

None that’s apparent. But only a fool would rule out this Pope. After barely a year in office, the Argentine Francis has shown himself nothing if not a man of this world, shrewd, and deeply committed to challenging the status quo. It was en route through Bethlehem to the mass where he delivered his seemingly airy invitation that Francis made his unscheduled, quietly thrilling stop at the Separation Barrier. He prayed in silence, and briefly touched his head against the gritty concrete, possibly the way a ram does, in warning.


TIME Pope Francis

Pope Makes Surprise Stop to Pray at Bethlehem Separation Wall

Pope Francis touches the wall that divides Israel from the West Bank in the West Bank city of Bethlehem
Osservatore Romano—Reuters Pope Francis touches the wall that divides Israel from the West Bank, on his way to celebrate a mass in Manger Square, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on May 25, 2014

The unscripted move cheers Palestinians already encouraged by the Pontiff's support of Palestine, before he moved on to Israel for a day

Pope Francis stopped his motorcade between scheduled events in Bethlehem on Sunday to pray before the massive concrete separation barrier that divides the Palestinian city from Israel, which erected the controversial wall a decade ago.

The surprise stop was the latest signal that the Pope backed what the Vatican had indicated in 2012 with its support for a U.N. vote to make Palestine a nonmember state: that it regards it as a sovereign state. In a speech earlier on Sunday the Pope called Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas a “man of peace” after paying him a courtesy visit, and referred to the Vatican’s good relations with the “state of Palestine.”

But Sunday’s unscheduled prayer had the weight of symbolic imagery. Israeli guards watched from a fortified guard tower overhead as the Pontiff stepped down from his Popemobile and made his way to what may be the most photographed section of the Wall, as the barrier is colloquially known — a graffiti-rich section that tourist buses pass by entering from Israel en route to Bethlehem, which along with the rest of the West Bank Israeli troops have occupied since 1967.

As security and staff formed a cordon through several dozen well-wishers lining the motorcade route, Francis made his way to the towering concrete wall. He stopped at a panel spray-painted, in black, “Pope we need some 1 to speak about Justice Bethlehem look like Warsaw ghetto” and, in red paint, “Free Palestine.” He bowed his head in silent prayer, laid his palm against the wall, and before leaving touched his forehead to it.

The episode lasted only a few minutes, but on a three-day visit to the Holy Land the Pontiff had billed as “strictly religious,” likely provided the iconic image of the trip. The Pontiff is known for identifying with the underdog, and in a visit that is of necessity mostly stage-managed, the visuals alone were exceptional.

It certainly pleased the Palestinians.

“He decided without anybody knowing that he would pass by and stop at the wall, and with the Israeli soldiers up there just looking down and not knowing what’s going on!” says Elias Giacaman, 32, a who saw the stop on the television mounted in the gift shop his family runs on Manger Square, where Francis arrived a few minutes later to preside over a Sunday morning mass.

“That has a lot of meaning, a lot of meaning,” adds Belinda Shamma, 53, a Palestinian Catholic who traveled from her Jerusalem home to the Bethlehem mass. “He is trying to tell the world what is happening to Palestinians is so unfair … We are dying inside.”

Analysts had already detected support for the Palestinian cause in Francis’ decision to helicopter from Jordan directly to Bethlehem, without stopping first in Israel. But local merchants clearly had too. T-shirts on sale at the event featured both the Pope and Abbas, plus Patriarch Bartholomew of the Greek Orthodox church, in a circle labeled “state of Palestine.”

The balance of the Pope’s time in Bethlehem was devoted to hearing complaints from Palestinians about the hardships of Israel’s occupation, including a visit with children from the city’s refugee camps, home to descendants of Arabs displaced since Israel was established in 1948.

Even the Pope’s decision to travel in an unarmored Popemobile was taken by some as a statement, given the security measures Israel has imposed as a matter of routine over the decades, which included two armed intifadehs, or uprisings. “Why not feel safe in here?” asks Giacaman, who is both Palestinian and Catholic. “He might feel unsafe in Jerusalem, not here, with those fanatical Jews around him.”

Francis was scheduled to arrive in Jerusalem later on Sunday, and — in part because of official concerns about religious extremists, security preparations were extraordinary even by Israeli standards, outstripping even precautions taken for President Obama’s visit last year, according to organizers.

The schedule for Monday includes deep bows to the Israeli narrative, including a visit to Yad Vashem, the museum of the Holocaust and to the Wailing Wall, the last remaining piece of the temple in place at the time of Christ. In a gesture that unsettles Palestinians, Francis will also be the first Pontiff to lay a wreath on the grave of Theodore Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement that envisioned a future state on the land hundreds of thousands of Arabs called home.

TIME Egypt

Egypt Veers Toward Return of Security State

Khaled Desouki—AFP/Getty Images An Egyptian man sits next to graffiti of Egypt's ex-army chief and leading presidential candidate Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on May 21, 2014.

As former Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi looks set to be voted president in next week's elections, Egyptians can't decide whether the military commander's rule will represent a return to law and order — or regression to a police state

From beyond its borders, Egypt seems poised to revert to form after next week’s presidential election a security state led, as it has been for the last half-century, by a military strongman in uniform or out. The headlines suggest little room for any other conclusion: Hundreds condemned to death after a one-hour trial; last year’s governing party declared a terrorist group; public protests outlawed; mass arrests, kangaroo courts.

Yet on the ground, no sense of crisis presents itself. The airport is no longer the loneliest place in town. There’s little or no overt security presence in the streets, save the armed camp around the U.S. embassy just off Tahrir Square. Cairo feels like itself. And the people who would be expected to complain about the state’s infringement on rights may or may not actually complain. It depends on who you’re talking to.

Some see the crackdown on dissent led by former Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whose election to the presidency is considered a foregone conclusion, as a throwback. “I think al-Sisi is trying to rebuild the wall of fear that we destroyed in the 11th of February revolution,” says Ahmad Abdallah, a leader of the April 6th Movement, the grassroots group most prominent in the build-up to the protests that overthrew Hosni Mubarak, who stepped down Feb. 11, 2011.

Abdallah predicts his movement will be declared a terrorist organization after Sisi becomes president. Some of April 6th’s leaders already are in jail, alongside respected journalists and at least 16,000 others arrested since July. Another 1,000 Egyptians have been killed by security forces.

“And this is just a prelude,” says Mohamed Lotfy, co-founder of the independent Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms. “If an interim government is capable of doing this, imagine what an elected government can do.”

Others, former revolutionaries among them, argue the draconian new rules are simply necessary given the domestic threat posed by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, the insular Islamist group that controlled government until Sisi removed it last July after millions marched against its continued rule.

“The security part is the most crucial part,” says Ahmed Magdy, 26, who protested in Tahrir Square and worked for a moderate Islamist candidate, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, in the 2012 presidential elections. He sat with three artists in a hookah bar one night last week where activists gathered each night during the protests against Mubarak. Magdy declares Hamdeen Sabahi, the Tahrir activist running against Sisi, “too weak.” The artists, all 26, and each named Aya, nod their agreement.

“He built his campaign on being against the army, at a time when the army is all we have,” says Aya Hassan. “It’s the one thing keeping the country secure….But we don’t think Sisi will be able to do much more than keep control. “

Does that mean Egypt is a police state again? “That’s the way it looks to outsiders, and this is the way the Muslim Brotherhood describes the regime. But that’s not the way the majority of Egyptians see it,” says Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a sociologist and human rights activist jailed by Mubarak in 2000.

“Egyptians love stability,” Ibrahim explains. Living beside the Nile for thousands of years, he says, Egyptians relied on the course and predictability of its flow for life itself — and the same desire for steadfast permanence has dictated the shape of Egyptian politics. “This is the whole idea of a hydraulic society,” Ibrahim says. “You have a central authority that maintains law and order, and regulates the river, because it’s the only source of survival.”

Another veteran activist, Wael Nawara, says wariness of instability is what brought people into the streets against Morsi last June 30, fearing that after three years of incessant political tumult the state was nearing collapse. “Understand the model: It’s the people,” says Nawara, who co-founded the Constitution Party with Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei. “The people made a decision to [depose Morsi]. Not the army. The country was collapsing.”

Nawara says he supports Sisi, but adds, “I’m not betting on him. I’m betting on the Egyptian people, because he is following them.”

Ibrahim agrees that something fundamental has changed. “Water does not pass under the bridge twice,” he says. “Things have proceeded in a way that is irreversible. The wall of fear that has remained in Egypt for 6,000 years–with this Pharaonic, hydraulic central authority–that no longer is there. Everyone is talking politics.”

Not quite everyone. Back at the hookah bar, the artists say they’re growing wary of speaking their minds. “The problem now is people are not generating the atmosphere of freedom,” says Aya Amr. “When I’m in a group taxi now and I say I’m against Sisi, people get angry with me.”

Adds Aya Fayez: “The society is divided into two parts: Sisi or Brotherhood. If you speak against Sisi, you’re Brotherhood, and the other way around. Which reduces my freedom. Even on Facebook, I’m not speaking any more about politics. People fight over every word that’s said. You find fighting inside the home, between friends, losing each other because everyone’s very rigid in their opinion.”

Magdy, the Tahrir activist who a few minutes earlier called security key to everything, now adds the situation is far from ideal. “The heavy hand of security, and arresting everyone near the Brotherhood makes the families stricter with their kids, always advising them not to speak: ‘Don’t say anything about Sisi or the Brotherhood.’ ‘Don’t speak in the taxi, don’t speak in class.’”

So things are not always as they seem, either inside or outside Egypt. Consider that Amr Badr, the spokesman for presidential contender Sabahi, meets TIME at the online newspaper he edits. It’s a hive of twenty-somethings swarming workstations where a screensaver shows a bloodied protester. But while the blood was real enough, the freedom, Badr says, is an illusion. “Actually, everything you see from outside is true,” he says. “We are turning back to a police regime.”

The only thing that’s totally clear is that the country is in yet another transition. But the direction is evident even to visitors. In the current EgyptAir inflight magazine, there in the seat pocket of every flight to and from Cairo, the centerpiece is not a glossy photo spread of a new tourist destination but rather a tribute to “Egypt’s greatest modern soldier, General Abdel Moneim Riad,” the Six-Day War commander remembered as a martyr. His statue presides over a grubby downtown traffic circle the magazine struggled in vain to make look attractive in a photo, but could not. It just looked like a clumsy attempt to please the new boss.



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