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EGYPT HOLDS KEY VOTE ON COUNTRY'S NEW CHARTER

Tuesday, 14 January 2014 08:37 Published in National News

CAIRO (AP) — Upbeat and resentful of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egyptians voted Tuesday on a new constitution in a referendum that will pave the way for a likely presidential run by the nation's top general months after he ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.

The two-day balloting is a key milestone in a military-backed political roadmap toward new elections for a president and a parliament after the July coup that has left the Arab world's most populous nation sharply divided between Brotherhood supporters in one camp, and the military, security forces and their supporters in the other.

It is taking place in a climate of fear and paranoia, with authorities, the mostly pro-military media and a significant segment of the population showing little or no tolerance for dissent. Campaigning for a "no" vote risked arrest by the police and Egyptians who have publicized their opposition to the charter, even just parts of it, are quickly labeled as traitors or closest supporters of Morsi.

A massive security operation was underway to protect polling stations and voters against possible attacks by militants loyal to Morsi, with 160,000 soldiers and more than 200,000 policemen deployed across the nation of some 90 million people. Cars were prevented from parking or driving by polling stations and women were searched by female police officers. Military helicopters hovered over Cairo and other major cities.

Shortly before polls opened, an explosion struck a Cairo courthouse, damaging its facade and shattering windows in nearby buildings but causing no casualties in the densely populated neighborhood of Imbaba — a Brotherhood stronghold.

Three people were killed when gunfire broke out between police and gunmen on rooftops as clashes broke out between pro-Morsi protesters and security forces in the southern city of Sohag, according to security officials.

A Morsi supporter also was shot to death as he and about 100 others tried to storm a polling station in the province of Bani Suef south of Cairo, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media. It was not clear who was behind the shooting.

In Cairo's working class district of Nahya, pro-Morsi protesters shot at and pelted with rocks a polling station before closing all entrances with chains, scaring away voters and locking election officials inside, Mohammed Seragedeen, the judge in charge of the station, said.

Security forces later fired tear gas to disperse the protesters and allow voting to resume, he said.

The referendum is the sixth nationwide vote since the authoritarian Hosni Mubarak was toppled in a popular uprising in 2011, with the five others widely considered the freest ever seen in Egypt, including the June 2012 balloting won by Morsi. But this vote was tainted by criticism that many of the freedoms won in the anti-Mubarak revolution have vanished amid a fierce crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood that has spread to others as the military-backed administration tries to suppress all dissent.

The new charter, drafted by a liberal-dominated committee appointed by the military-backed government, would ban political parties based on religion, give women equal rights and protect the status of minority Christians. It also gives the military special status by allowing it to select its own candidate for the job of defense minister for the next eight years and empowering it to bring civilians before military tribunals.

The charter is in fact a heavily amended version of a constitution written by Morsi's Islamist allies and ratified in December 2012 with some 64 percent of the vote but with a nationwide turnout of just over 30 percent.

The current government is looking for a bigger "yes" majority and larger turnout to win undisputed legitimacy and perhaps a popular mandate for el-Sissi, to run for president this year. El-Sissi has yet to say outright whether he plans to seek the nation's highest office, but his candidacy appears increasingly likely every day.

"The constitution is not perfect," said Ameena Abdel-Salam after she cast her ballot in Cairo's upscale Zamalek district. "But we need to move forward and we can fix it later."

Illustrating the high stakes, the government and the overwhelmingly pro-military media have portrayed the balloting as the key to the nation's security and stability. Hundreds of thousands of fliers, posters, banners and billboards urged Egyptians to vote "yes." People have been arrested for posters and campaigns calling for a "no" vote.

Long lines of voters began to form nearly two hours before polling stations opened in some Cairo districts, including Imbaba, where the blast promptly whipped up anti-Brotherhood sentiment with chants and shouting against the Islamist group.

Women and the elderly were heavily represented. The mood was generally upbeat, hostile toward the Brotherhood and hopeful that the charter would bring better days. In one women-only line in Cairo, voters sang the national anthem together as well as patriotic songs dating back to the 1960s. "El-Sissi is my president," they chanted as some jubilantly ululated.

"The dogs, the traitors," shouted a man on a motorcycle as he passed by the Imbaba courthouse after the blast. Voters lined up at a nearby polling station chanted in unison: "Long live Egypt!"

Several hundred angry residents gathered outside the courthouse, some carrying posters of el-Sissi.

Outside a nearby polling station, 67-year-old Alaa al-Nabi Mohammed echoed a similar sentiment — that Egyptians have consigned Morsi and the Brotherhood's yearlong rule to the past.

"I am here to send a message to the world and to those who hate Egypt that we want to live and get our country back on its feet," he said.

The balloting is the first electoral test for the popularly backed coup that ousted Morsi and his Brotherhood. A comfortable "yes" vote and a respectable turnout would bestow legitimacy on the cascade of events that followed the coup while undermining the Islamists' argument that Morsi remains the nation's elected president.

The Brotherhood, now branded as a terrorist group, has called for a boycott of the vote. Morsi himself is facing three separate trials on charges that carry the death penalty.

The unprecedented security surrounding the vote follows months of violence that authorities have blamed on Islamic militants. In the six months since Morsi's ouster, there has been an assassination attempt on the interior minister and deadly attacks on key security officers, soldiers, policemen and provincial security and military intelligence headquarters.

"You must come out and vote to prove to those behind the dark terrorism that you are not afraid," Interim President Adly Mansour told reporters after he cast his ballot.

Morsi's supporters have promised massive demonstrations and have labeled the draft charter a "constitution of blood," but protests in several parts of the country drew only several hundred supporters.

The government has warned it would deal harshly with anyone interfering with the referendum.

Most of Egypt's minority Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population, have backed the removal of Morsi and the charter in hopes of winning religious freedoms.

"Anyone who was raised in Egypt will choose this constitution," said Verta Nassif, a 70-year old Christian from Assuit, a stronghold of Islamists and home to a large Christian community south of Cairo.

There was a lone voice of dissent outside another polling station in Assiut.

"El-Sissi is a killer and his constitution is void," shouted a woman, who left the scene just before a security team arrived to look for her. At a nearby outdoor market, Hany Abdel-Hakeem was arguing with a vendor.

"I will not participate in anything I am not convinced of. And if I say anything against it, I will be arrested. Keeping silent is better."

___

El Deeb reported from Assiut, Egypt. Associated Press reporters Maggie Hyde and Mariam Rizk contributed to this report from Cairo.

PROPOSED SPY PHONE RECORD SHIFT DRAWS RESISTANCE

Tuesday, 14 January 2014 08:36 Published in National News

WASHINGTON (AP) — Telephone companies are quietly balking at the idea of changing how they collect and store Americans' phone records to help the National Security Agency's surveillance programs. They're worried about their exposure to lawsuits and the price tag if the U.S. government asks them to hold information about customers for longer than they already do.

President Barack Obama is expected to announce Friday what changes he is willing to make to satisfy privacy, legal and civil liberties concerns over the NSA's surveillance practices. One of the most important questions is whether the government will continue to collect millions of Americans' phone records every day so that the government can identify anyone it believes might be communicating with known terrorists.

The president's hand-picked review committee has recommended ending the phone records program as it exists. It suggested shifting the storage of the phone records from the NSA to phone companies or an unspecified third party, and it recommended new legal requirements before the government could search anyone's phone records.

The phone companies don't want the job. Executives and their lawyers have complained about the plan in confidential meetings with administration officials and key congressional intelligence and other committees, according to interviews by The Associated Press. Two phone executives familiar with the discussions said the cellular industry told the government that it prefers the NSA keep control over the surveillance program and would only accept changes if they were legally required. The executives spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the private discussions. But there have been public complaints, too.

"Our members would oppose the imposition of data retention obligations that would require them to maintain customer data for longer than necessary," said Jot Carpenter, vice president of government affairs for CTIA-The Wireless Association, the trade group for the cellular phone industry.

Obama's Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies was expected to discuss the dilemma over the phone records program Tuesday at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. The committee will play an important role in any new legislation on the issue. Executives and industry lawyers said phone companies would reluctantly agree to become the stewards of the phone records only if current laws were changed relieving them of legal responsibilities and paying their costs. The industry is also wary of NSA insistence that the records would need to be standardized and probably held for longer periods than most firms now keep them.

Liability is a key concern for phone companies, which could be sued if hackers or others were able to gain unauthorized access to the records. Under the Patriot Act, which governs the NSA's phone collection program, the phone companies are free of legal responsibility for disclosing customer records to the government in counterterrorism investigations. Industry lawyers say similar protections could be broadened to cover phone companies holding customer data for the NSA, but it's unclear whether Congress would pass them.

A former top NSA lawyer and Bush administration national security official who has represented phone firms, Stewart Baker, said Congress only grudgingly granted legal protections to the phone companies in the immediate years after the 9/11 attacks.

"The phone companies were seared by their experience in Congress and can't be enthusiastic about a return engagement," Baker said.

Even with broader legal protections, the companies would expect to cope with a surge in demands for business records from local prosecutors, private lawyers, insurance firms and others. Companies already retain some customer records, but the duration of their storage and the kinds of records they keep vary. While T-Mobile keeps records for seven to 10 years, according to a recent Senate Commerce Committee study, other major firms — including Verizon, US Cellular and Sprint — keep them less than two years.

The government keeps Americans' phone records for at least five years before destroying them. Obama's review committee said phone companies could hold the same data for two years before destroying them. NSA officials have said they could compromise no lower than three years but want all the data to be standardized.

"The data has to be provided or kept in a way that allows it to be integrated" by the NSA, said the agency's general counsel, Rajesh De, during a November hearing of the semi-independent Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, another task force examining the surveillance program.

Currently, phone companies differ in what they keep on file. For example, according to Justice Department records, Verizon maintains calling-detail records over a rolling year, disposing of them once a year passes. Sprint and Nextel keep them 18 to 24 months, while T-Mobile and AT&T divide the records into pre-paid and post-paid categories, with different durations.

Standardizing such a variety of reporting and storage requirements and holding so much more data would cause phone companies to expand their collection infrastructure and hire more lawyers and technical staff to respond to the NSA's needs.

"It would be enormously costly and burdensome to set up and implement," said Michael Sussmann, a Washington attorney who specializes in technology and national security issues. "However you change the system, they would have to handle a greater set of data than they collected before. And more people— of all sorts— will come looking for it."

The cost could be high. Last week, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., said it would cost at least $60 million to shift the records for the NSA program to phone providers. Feinstein opposes such a shift.

Keeping the records at phone companies so they could be readily searched by the government won't satisfy privacy advocates, either.

"The government would just be outsourcing the data collection to the companies," said David Sobel, a lawyer for the Electronic Freedom Foundation who met last week with administration officials on the issue. "From a privacy perspective, the result will be the same."

Many of the 46 recommendations urged by the president's review group could be carried out by Obama himself, said Benjamin Powell, former general counsel to the Director of National Intelligence.

But some of the report's key points, including amending the Patriot Act to expand the role of phone companies, could not go forward without congressional action, Powell said.

___

AP Intelligence Writer Kimberly Dozier contributed to this report.

City crews busy patching potholes

Monday, 13 January 2014 11:30 Published in Around Town
A break in the weather allowed St. Louis city street crews to patch the pavement yesterday in an attempt to manage the growing number of potholes.  Officials hoped to have most of the major holes on the arterial roads fixed with a temporary patch on Monday. The storm of a week ago, coupled with frigid temperatures and then fast melting, has created craters on streets throughout the area. The pothole patching is a temporary fix which will hopefully last until getting more attention in the Spring. City officials are asking residents to report potholes to the Citizens' Service Bureau by calling 314.622.4800, tweeting to @stlcsb, or filling out a request for service online.  The Streets Department has also set a goal of patching potholes reported to the CSB within 48 hours of getting a request. 
 

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