Transitions

The nose job scandal in Cairo

Anwar El Balkimy, a Member of Parliament for the Nour Party, underwent a nose job on Feb. 29 in the private Salma Hospital in the posh Cairene district of El Agouza. He insisted on leaving the clinic, according to its manager, on the same evening the procedure was performed. In so doing he defied their advice that he remain under supervision for another day.

By itself this story would offer little cause for headlines. But Nour just happens to be the party of those ultraconservative Islamists, the salafis, and they explicitly deem plastic surgery as forbidden by religion. This was probably why he refused to remain bedridden: He was afraid of getting caught. But how could he conceal his new nose from his fellow MPs once the bandages were off?

That's when it gets really entertaining.

Here's what Nikolai Gogol writes about the leading character in his short story The Nose: "...[A]s though visited with a heavenly inspiration, he resolved to go directly to an advertisement office, and to advertise the loss of his nose."

Balkimy decided to tackle the issue rather differently. In a call to the state-owned Middle East News Agency (MENA), he said he had been attacked by masked assailants who robbed him of 100,000 LE ($17,000), attempted to kill him, and left him for dead. The wounds sustained in the attack necessitated surgical intervention.

Coming in the wake of two other attacks on politicians in past weeks, the story seemed plausible. To seal the deal, he filed a police report detailing his accusations.

Balkimy then went to another hospital where he allegedly underwent the necessary surgery, and he appeared on television, from his hospital bed, with most of his face bandaged.

A spokesperson for the Nour Party, Yousry Hamad, decried a "campaign to liquidate Islamist politicians," and confirmed on the party's Facebook page that the MP was indeed undergoing emergency surgery.

Unfortunately for Balkimy and his party, there were numerous eyewitnesses who knew that his bandages actually came from the hospital where he had undergone plastic surgery. The manager of the hospital, two doctors, and four nurses exposed Balkimy's lies. Someone even leaked the hospital bill and the release form, which Balkimy had signed.

Balkimy denied it all, accusing the hospital manager of lying and threatened to take legal action. He assured everyone that his nose had to be operated on because of the injury he sustained from the attack.

Eventually, though, medical evaluation proved that Balkimy was the one doing the lying. The Nour Party promptly reversed course. In a television interview, spokesperson Nader Bakar intimated that Balkimy might not be entirely right in the head, forcing himto resign from the party and the parliament. (The photo above shows salafi MPs hard at work.) The public prosecutor has also moved to request that his parliamentary immunity be lifted so that he can be charged for faking a police report.

The word in town this morning is that the parliament speaker will likely reject the MP's resignation and will issue a reprimand to our national Pinocchio (whose nose, in this case, got smaller rather than longer.)

If there is one lesson to be learned from all this as we approach presidential elections, it is that you shouldn't vote for deputies based on an appearance of piety. This, of course, is what many voters have done until now, thanks to an electoral climate that is defined by the dichotomy of liberal-vs.-Islamist parties, falsely presented as the "pro-religion" or "anti-religion" forces.

The most dangerous and little-noticed consequence of this scandal is the detail that the police had indeed arrested five suspects in the case -- for a crime that never happened. Anyone in Egypt can tell you that they would have been made to confess to the crime, too -- a reminder that police reform is long overdue. Such reform is urgently needed not only to stem the present (real) crime wave in Egypt, but also to protect the rights of all citizens, be they innocent, suspects, or convicted criminals.

Asmma Waguih - Pool/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

A trial for Taylor, immunity for Rajapaksa

Europe

Ahead of Sunday's presidential elections in Russia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said he may run for president for a fourth time in 2018. But some observers think he may face significant challenges during his third term.

At a European Union summit in Brussels, Serbia finally received official approval as a candidate for membership in the EU. At the same the EU's 27 member nations withdrew their ambassadors from Belarus.

The Spanish Supreme Court acquitted Judge Baltasar Garzon, who had been accused of violating a 1977 amnesty law when he tried to prosecute crimes committed during the Franco era.

Middle East and North Africa

On Friday, Iranians voted in their first parliamentary elections since 2009, the year that a disputed presidential vote triggered widespread protests.  The parliamentary elections were expected by some to reinforce Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei's power, with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad expected to fare badly. A leading human rights group asserted that the elections are already tainted by arbitrary disqualifications and other restrictions in the lead-up to the voting.

On Syria, the UN Security Council agreed on a statement expressing "deep disappointment" in the Syrian government's refusal to give aid agencies access to cities under attack by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad. Earlier the UN Human Rights Council overwhelmingly voted to condemn widespread and systematic violations in Syria. Only China, Cuba, and Russia voted against. The opposition Syrian National Council established a military bureau to co-ordinate the various armed groups on the ground, though the head of the Free Syrian Army denied having anything to do with the move.

Egypt lifted the travel ban on 43 NGO workers accused by the government of conducting illegal activities -- a move criticized by some Egyptians, who saw it as proof of political interference in the judiciary. The dates for Egypt's presidential elections were set for May 23 and 24, 2012, with run-offs on June 16 and 17. 

Yemen's new President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi formally took office on Monday, ending Ali Abdullah Saleh's 33-year rule.

Asia

There were reports of at least 12 people killed in riots in China's ethnically divided north-western Xinjiang province, home to the restive Uighur ethnic minority. 

The Azerbaijani government dismissed a provincial governor after a rare protest.

In the Maldives, supporters of the former president blocked the current president from addressing Parliament.

The Burmese government said that it would grant exiled Burmese journalists visas to report on the elections on April 1 from inside the country. A commentator emphasized the need for urgent exchange rate unification.

A group called on the UN Human Rights Council to demand that the Sri Lankan government make dramatic and timely progress on reconciliation and accountability. Meanwhile, a U.S. court dismissed a lawsuit against President Mahinda Rajapaksa over killings allegedly committed at the end of the 1983-2009 civil war. (A poster featuring Rajapaksa is shown in the photo above.) The court ruled that his status as a head of state guarantees him immunity.

Americas

Colombia's FARC rebels announced that they plan to release any remaining "prisoners of war" and give up kidnapping in a step towards peace talks with the government.

Ecuador's President pardoned three owners and one journalist of the El Universo newspaper. They had been found guilty of libeling the president and faced three years in jail and a $42 million fine. Correa's decision marked the end of a long-simmering feud over the limits of press freedom in Ecuador. Despite the pardon, advocates of free speech worry that the case could lead to a culture of self-censorship among Ecuadorean journalists.

Africa

The United Nations has set April 26 as the day when the Special Court for Sierra Leone will issue a verdict in the trial of Liberia's ex-President Charles Taylor. It will be the first international trial of a former African head of state.

The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sudan's defense minister as the result of the ICC's investigation into atrocities committed in Darfur.

Senegal's incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade will face a run-off next month against his former prime minister in the second round of presidential elections. His bid for a third term had led to violent protests.

Plus this week's recommended reads:

A former analyst at the U.S. Department of Defense describes how to save Afghanistan from falling victim to the resource curse.

The World Bank's president explains why we still need the institution.

A leading political commentator in Thailand explores the dilemma of Asian liberal democracy.

Two experts on Syria speculate on what is likely to happen after the collapse of the present regime.

Two articles contemplate the politics of economic reform in China -- and whether the uprising in Wukan provides a democratic model for the country's future.

And finally, an expert on democratic transitions analyzes the performance of Burundi's political parties.

Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images