Trump’s Hold on Military Aid Blindsided Top Ukrainian Officials

Trump’s Hold on Military Aid Blindsided Top Ukrainian Officials
,
,
CAIRO — Under the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, so little dissent is allowed — and what little there is comes at such a high price — that when just a few hundred people across the country called for Mr. el-Sisi’s ouster in a burst of scattered protests on Friday night, it came as a shock.
The apparent trigger for the demonstrations was almost as unexpected: Mohamed Ali, a 45-year-old construction contractor and part-time actor who says he got rich building projects for the Egyptian military and then left for Spain to live in self-imposed exile, where he began posting videos on social media accusing Mr. el-Sisi of corruption and hypocrisy.
In the three weeks since his first video appeared, Mr. Ali has reinvented himself as a whistle-blower, an el-Sisi antagonist and a protest guru, and his tales of corruption at the top have transformed him into a leading voice of opposition to the president. When the protests erupted, it was at the time and date Mr. Ali had urged from afar.
But the extent, and durability, of Mr. Ali’s out-of-nowhere influence — and his ability to spur further demonstrations — remains to be seen. His surge from obscurity to prominence has also raised questions in Egypt about whether his sudden fame has been helped along or exploited by powerful interest groups in the country, inside or outside the government.
“It is sort of odd,” said Amy Hawthorne, the deputy director for research at the Project on Middle East Democracy. “Who is this person, who is he connected to, what led him to come out with these allegations now? Obviously he’s very well connected, but who exactly are his connections?”
To at least some of protesters, Mr. Ali was less an inspiration than an opportunity to vent their frustrations.
“I protested because the way Sisi is ruling is wrong and disgraceful,” said Ali Mohamed, 19, a resident of the working-class Cairo neighborhood of Boulaq who live-streamed some of the Tahrir Square demonstrations on Friday. “Egypt deserves better than for its land to be sold out or for its people to be imprisoned.”
He added: “People were just waiting for the opportunity to protest — Mohamed Ali’s videos are not the real reason why they did. The reason is that people wanted to take action.”
On Saturday evening, about 200 protesters in the Red Sea city of Suez were met with police officers firing rubber bullets, according to posts on social media and a witness.
In Cairo, however, there did not appear to be any signs of further protests. The police pre-emptively flooded Tahrir Square on Saturday, where mass demonstrations during the Arab Spring eight years ago brought down President Hosni Mubarak and raised hopes for democratic change.
The test of just how deep Mr. Ali’s influence is could come as soon as this week. In a video posted Saturday evening, Mr. Ali called for a new round of protests against Mr. el-Sisi to take place this coming Friday.
“We should stop making gods out of presidents,” he said in the video, exhorting the military to remove Mr. el-Sisi from power.
Though the police did not kill any protesters on Friday, the security forces have not hesitated to use deadly force in the past, and Mr. el-Sisi is likely to order a swift and thorough crackdown if the protests persist.
Since coming to power in a 2013 military takeover, Mr. el-Sisi has cemented his hold through harsh repression that has silenced critics and curtailed free speech.
An Egyptian monitoring group, the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, said on Sunday that at least 274 people had been arrested at the protests, and that some demonstrators had reported being beaten and tear-gassed.
Given the gravity of the possible consequences, observers were stunned that protesters had dared to show up at all, apparently moved by little more than a man with a webcam waging a campaign against Mr. el-Sisi from the safety of Spain.
But the Facebook videos Mr. Ali posts under the name “Mohamed Ali Secrets” have become must-see TV among young, social media-savvy Egyptians, who tune in every day or two to watch him talk to the camera, chain-smoking as he cheerfully insults Mr. el-Sisi as a “midget” and a “disgrace.” There have been at least 35 so far.
In working-class, colloquial and often profane Arabic, he muses on the military’s growing domination of the Egyptian economy. He complains of being owed millions of dollars by the government for construction work. He accuses Mr. el-Sisi of wasting government funds on vanity projects like multimillion-dollar presidential palaces.
“The system has made us all corrupt,” he said in one video. “We are going to change that system and install a proper one.”
Mr. Ali’s gravel-voiced exposés have resonated with many Egyptians, who have watched Mr. el-Sisi erect enormous building projects while their own finances collapse. The government reported in July that one in three Egyptians were living in poverty.
The video monologues have been repeatedly taken down from Facebook, under unclear circumstances, but not before accumulating millions of views. On Twitter, Egyptians joked that his episodes were better than Netflix.
Then last week, Mr. Ali called for viewers to take to the streets Friday evening after a soccer game between two popular Egyptian teams. That appeared to let loose hundreds of Egyptians — many of them young, working-class men — who participated in protests in a scattering of cities around the country, including in Tahrir Square and the poor neighborhood of Warraq Island in Cairo, as well as in Alexandria, Suez and El-Mahalla El-Kubra.
But beyond the fact that the protests erupted when Mr. Ali called for them, theories far outweighed the available information about his precise role. Some observers speculated Mr. Ali may be a puppet controlled, at least in part, by another entity, possibly people in Mr. el-Sisi’s government who are seeking to undermine or even overthrow the president, who is out of the country attending the United Nations General Assembly this week.
“The entire thing is a little bit fishy,” said Khaled Dawoud, a longtime journalist and spokesman for one of Egypt’s all-but-defunct opposition parties. “He didn’t introduce himself as a politician. He’s more like a whistle-blower, and suddenly he decided to turn into a revolutionary leader.”
Others wondered whether the protests had truly been spontaneous, or if they had been orchestrated by opposition groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that Mr. el-Sisi has sought to throttle ever since he came to power in a coup that deposed President Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Brotherhood who was also Egypt’s first democratically elected leader.
Mr. Dawoud said the opposition, which has lost much of its leadership to prison or self-imposed exile, was waiting to see how the protests evolved — and to identify who exactly was protesting — before jumping in.
Those who support the president say the Brotherhood is likely to be quietly organizing the protests. Though public opinion is difficult to gauge accurately in Egypt, they say many Egyptians support Mr. el-Sisi’s economic overhauls and the stability he has brought in a time of turmoil across the region.
“The trains go and run on time. We lacked that for two and a half years,” said Moataz Abdel Fattah, a pro-Sisi political scientist. “The great majority of Egyptians would say, ‘No, hold on, you cannot drive the country into some sort of waterfall.’”
Most protesters on Friday appeared to be young men in their teens or early 20s, who were children during the upheavals of 2011 and 2013, when protests brought down two successive presidents.
Good-looking and fit, Mr. Ali may be seen as something of a folk hero, analysts said — an uneducated man who made millions and who is now riding to the rescue of the working classes. He does not speak like a democracy activist or a politician, but like one of them — or, perhaps, who they would like to be.
“He resonates with a wider sector of Egyptians in a way that no one before him ever did,” said Rabab el-Mahdi, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo. “They look at him and see a successful version of themselves.”
It is perhaps not surprising that Mr. Ali exudes on-camera charisma. A movie in which he stars and also produced, about young Egyptians making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe, won the 2019 Outstanding Art for Peace prize at the Luxembourg Peace Prize awards in June.
But Mr. Ali’s motivations remain murky, as do his exact whereabouts in Spain. In an article published in the Spanish edition of Vanity Fair in July, he said that he decided to settle in Barcelona and pursue business projects there after a vacation in the area.
He could not be reached for comment.
His credibility with Egyptians is, if anything, greater because he profited from the very system to which he is now taking a sledgehammer, and because he does not seem motivated by ideology.
“He’s not a person from the opposition that seemed to have an ax to grind,” said Michele Dunne, the director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “He’s seen as a bit of a common man, not an elite figure speaking to them about abstract elite concepts.”
Mr. el-Sisi may have helped legitimize Mr. Ali as an opposition figure with a recent speech in which he addressed but did not refute his claims.
“Yes, I have built presidential palaces, and will build more,” he said. “I will continue to do more and more, but not for me. Nothing is in my name. It is in Egypt’s name.”
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Ruth Pineda stood with her back to the mirror, the strap of her tank top tucked under her arm, revealing a new tattoo: a heart. Inside were three dolphins jumping over the sea at sunset.
“The big dolphin is me — the mom — and the two little ones are my sons,” she said.
With her tattoo complete after a three-hour session, Ms. Pineda studied the artwork etched into her skin with equal parts admiration and disbelief. The tattoo is her first, and a statement the 43-year-old schoolteacher has wanted to make for nearly 20 years, but never quite felt she could.
For decades, tattoos weren’t just unfashionable in religiously conservative Honduras. They were taboo, with a malevolent history as an identifying feature of deadly gangs like Mara Salvatrucha, better known as MS-13, and the 18th Street gang, or Barrio 18.
Those gangs are two of the primary sources of the pervasive violence in the country that has sent so many migrants fleeing north.
Various tattooed signs and symbols indicated a gang member’s rank within his organization or what crimes he had committed. Other gang-related tattoos included images of the Virgin of Guadalupe; spider webs; three dots; barbed wire; and yin-yang symbols.
In the early 2000s, amid rising lawlessness across the country, the government of then-president Ricardo Maduro passed legislation that came down hard on criminal activity, banning any “illicit association” to gangs. Tattoos became a major police target, interpreted as proof that someone belonged to the likes of MS-13 or 18th Street.
To evade official scrutiny and incarceration, members stopped getting tattoos. Any they did get were inked in inconspicuous places.
But in recent years, tattoos have become more commonplace, slowly migrating from the underbelly of society to the bellies of ordinary citizens (and their arms, legs and backs), aided by their ubiquitous exposure in global pop culture.
“Things are changing now,” said Ms. Pineda, the schoolteacher. “More and more people are getting tattoos.”
In the capital, Tegucigalpa, it is easy these days to spot people with benign body art, depicting characters from their favorite books, quotes in elaborate cursive or animals crawling slyly across their flesh.
“People started seeing tattoos as a fashion trend to follow,” said Mei Lan Quan, one of the first female tattoo artists in Tegucigalpa.
Public figures, like soccer players and singers, started appearing on TV and in magazines with visible tattoos, and foreign visitors brought the tattoo culture with them. The reality television show, “Miami Ink,” popular here, made a big impression.
“It opened up a lot of minds here,” Ms. Quan said, referring to the show.
By claiming tattoos for themselves, everyday citizens are helping to normalize this form of creative expression. And their appeal is growing, tattoo artists say.
When Ms. Quan, who is known by her artist name, Elephanta Tattoo, opened her first shop in 2011, she had only five or six customers per week. Now, she tattoos six or seven people on a busy Saturday.
Her male clients tend to get illustrations of wolves, tigers and eagles. Women prefer infinity symbols, arrows, flowers, quotes or dates.
Most first-timers used to start off small, said Juan Carlos Pulido, a tattoo artist known as Fonty. But recently he has noticed that people are bolder at the outset, requesting large tattoos in more visible locations — forearms, calves and hands.
“People are getting bigger pieces than they did in the past,” he said.
Mr. Pulido, a 38-year-old from Nicaragua, has been living in Honduras for two-and-a-half years. He has tattoos covering most of his arms. When he first arrived, he said he almost never left them exposed. He lived in a gang-controlled area and was aware he could be linked to criminal activity.
Now, he feels more confident walking around with his arms uncovered.
“People are starting to see the difference of the artistic tattoos and the gang-related tattoos,” Mr. Pulido said.
For some, tattoos are a connection to a family separated by migration.
Jesus Martinez, a 27-year-old cook working in a small pizzeria in the capital, has an illustration of his mother’s headshot from her days as a model tattooed on the inside of his right forearm, stretching from his wrist to his elbow.
“It’s a way of introducing my mom to people,” Mr. Martinez said. She left for the United States when he was 2, and he didn’t see her again until he was 12. Now, they message by text every day. She still lives in the United States, and called for a video chat when he was getting his tattoo.
People do stare at him, Mr. Martinez conceded, because the stigma of tattoos hasn’t entirely gone away. But that doesn’t stop him from wearing a shortsleeve shirt.
His co-worker, Allison Lagos, 21, said she no longer harbored a prejudice against tattooed people as dangerous.
“Before working here, I was a little afraid of people with tattoos,” she said.
Despite these changing views, flaunting tattoos can still be a problem in the eyes of law enforcement and private security in stores.
Mr. Pulido said he has been stopped by the police and questioned about his tattoos. Ms. Quan added that she knew many people who had experienced similar run-ins.
“Society still has a long way to go,” Ms. Quan said.
In 2016, a famous Honduran musician, Ramsés Barrientos, made local headlines when he described the “harassment and discrimination” he had faced while shopping in a supermarket, where he was followed around by security.
“We still live in a country where tattooed people are frowned upon and judged,” he wrote in a Facebook post.
In addition to the remaining social disapproval, some Christians, especially members of older generations, view tattoos as a sin.
“In the eyes of God, it’s not proper to get a tattoo,” said Glenda Suazo, 49, an evangelical Christian who works in the Ministry of Health.
And yet even she isn’t immune to the allure of tattoos.
“Right now I have been having an internal struggle,” Ms. Suazo admitted. She pulled out her phone and pulled up photos of her dog, Puky, a cocker spaniel who died last August at age 15. She started to cry.
“I had Puky since she was 45 days old,” she said. “I’ve thought that I’d like to get a tattoo of her paw print.”
JERUSALEM — After 27 years of sitting out decisions on who should lead Israel, Arab lawmakers on Sunday recommended that Benny Gantz, the centrist former army chief, get the first chance to form a government over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a watershed assertion of political power.
Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Arab Joint List, wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed published on Sunday that the alliance’s 13 incoming lawmakers — the third-largest faction in the newly elected Parliament — had decided to recommend Mr. Gantz because it would “create the majority needed to prevent another term for Mr. Netanyahu.”
“It should be the end of his political career,” Mr. Odeh wrote.
The Arab lawmakers’ recommendation, which Mr. Odeh and other members of the Joint List delivered to President Reuven Rivlin in a face-to-face meeting Sunday evening, reflected Arab citizens’ impatience to integrate more fully into Israeli society and to have their concerns be given greater weight by Israeli lawmakers.
“There is no doubt a historic aspect to what we are doing now,” Mr. Odeh said in the meeting with the president, which was broadcast live.
Mr. Netanyahu and his Likud party responded furiously to the Joint List’s recommendation, continuing an anti-Arab campaign as if the election was yet to take place.
“There are now two options,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a video clip soon after the meeting between members of the Joint List and the president. “Either there will be a minority government that relies on those who reject Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and glorify terrorists who murder our soldiers and civilians, or there will be a broad national government.”
“I know what the answer is and so do you,” he continued, “which is why I will work as hard as I can to form a broad national unity government.”
There was no immediate word from Mr. Gantz or his Blue and White party.
The Joint List’s recommendation was a striking act of comeuppance for Mr. Netanyahu, who for years had rallied his right-wing supporters by inflaming anti-Arab sentiments. Before the Sept. 17 election, he accused Arab politicians of trying to steal the election and at one point accused them of wanting to “destroy us all.”
Israeli Arabs “have chosen to reject Benjamin Netanyahu, his politics of fear and hate, and the inequality and division he advanced for the past decade,” Mr. Odeh wrote in the Op-Ed for The Times.
It was all the more surprising that the Arab lawmakers chose to end a quarter-century of noninvolvement by endorsing Mr. Gantz, a former army chief of staff. He led a devastating, 50-day war against the militant groups in Gaza five years ago. Blue and White has three former military chiefs in its top four slots, who appeared in a past campaign video in full battle dress.
In a further gesture of outreach to the Israeli mainstream, Mr. Odeh quoted from Psalms 118:22, telling Mr. Rivlin, in Hebrew, “The stone that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone” — a verse cited in Jewish and Christian scriptures and liturgies.
Still, even though the Joint List recommended that Mr. Gantz be asked first to form a government, Mr. Odeh wrote that the group would not itself enter a government led by Mr. Gantz because he had not agreed to embrace its entire “equality agenda.”
That agenda consists of various positions, among them, changing housing and planning laws to treat Arab and Jewish neighborhoods the same; resuming peace talks with the Palestinians; and repealing the law passed last year that declared Israel the nation-state only of the Jewish people.
Also, one of several predominantly Arab parties making up the Joint List, Balad, which accounts for three of the alliance’s 13 seats, opposed recommending Mr. Gantz. Its representatives did not attend the meeting with the president. Some Arab lawmakers described Mr. Gantz as a “default choice.”
The last time Arab lawmakers recommended a prime minister was in 1992, when two Arab parties with a total of five seats in Parliament recommended Yitzhak Rabin — another former chief of staff — though they did not join his government.
“We have decided to demonstrate that Arab Palestinian citizens can no longer be rejected or ignored,” Mr. Odeh wrote.
In the 1992 election, Mr. Rabin initially held a narrow majority in the 120-seat Knesset even without the Arab parties’ support, though he came to rely on it a year later after Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party, quit the government when Mr. Rabin signed the Oslo peace accords.
Mr. Odeh wrote that the decision to support Mr. Gantz was meant as “a clear message that the only future for this country is a shared future, and there is no shared future without the full and equal participation of Palestinian citizens.”
Mr. Gantz narrowly edged the prime minister in the national election last Tuesday. Afterward, both candidates called for unity, but differed on how to achieve it.
The former army chief appears to lack a 61-seat majority even with the Joint List’s support.
He emerged from the election with 57 seats, including those of allies on the left and the Joint List, compared with 55 seats for Mr. Netanyahu and his right-wing allies.
Some analysts questioned whether Balad’s three seats would ultimately be counted as being on Mr. Gantz’s side, since Balad refused to endorse him, potentially leaving Mr. Gantz with only 54 supporters.
Avigdor Liberman, leader of the secular, right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, which won eight seats, is in position to be a kingmaker, but said on Sunday that he would not recommend any candidate. He said Mr. Odeh and the Joint List were not merely political opponents, but “the enemies” and belonged in the “Parliament in Ramallah,” not in the Knesset.
Mr. Liberman said that Mr. Gantz called him on Sunday night, and that the pair agreed to meet on Monday.
Mr. Rivlin began hearing the recommendations of each major party Sunday evening and was to finish on Monday, before entrusting the task of forming a government to whichever candidate he believes has the best chance of being successful.
In remarks at the start of that process, Mr. Rivlin said the Israeli public wanted a unity government including both Blue and White and Likud.
On paper, the Joint List’s recommendation increases the chances that Mr. Rivlin will give Mr. Gantz the first crack at forming a government.
But analysts said the postelection imbroglio was far from resolved.
In deciding who is better placed to form a viable and stable coalition, Mr. Rivlin may take more than the basic numbers of recommendations into consideration, according to experts. In addition to Balad’s non-endorsement, he could, for example, take into account the Joint List’s broader refusal to join a Gantz-led government in weighing Mr. Gantz’s prospects.
In any case, there are risks for both Mr. Gantz and Mr. Netanyahu in being the first to try to form a government, and analysts were already parsing the pros and cons of going first. Each might prefer their rival to try first and fail, in the hope that the second time around, it may be easier to persuade potential partners to cooperate in order to prevent a third election.
For Mr. Gantz, there could be an additional advantage in waiting: Mr. Netanyahu is facing a looming indictment in three corruption cases on accusations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, and he could be charged in the coming weeks or months.
KIEV, Ukraine — Senior Ukrainian officials said they were blindsided over the summer when they heard the United States would withhold security assistance to the country.
“It was a total surprise,” said Pavlo A. Klimkin, who was Ukraine’s foreign minister in August when he learned of the Trump administration’s suspension of military aid by reading a news article.
The blocking of military aid to Ukraine is now at the center of questions about whether President Trump manipulated foreign policy to pressure the Ukrainian government to take action that would hurt Joseph R. Biden Jr., the former vice president and a top rival in the campaign for the presidency.
President Trump acknowledged on Sunday that he used a July 25 phone call with the new Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to accuse Mr. Biden of corruption.
Mr. Biden oversaw American policy toward Ukraine in the Obama administration when his son served on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company. Allies of Mr. Trump have pointed to a conflict of interest, and asked Ukraine to investigate Mr. Biden’s request in 2016 that Ukraine’s president at the time, Petro O. Poroshenko, dismiss a prosecutor who had investigated the gas company.
By the time of that July 25 call, the administration had already suspended the aid, a decision reached in early July, according to a former American official.
But the news would not reach the Ukranian officials until much later, and then through nonofficial channels. For years, Ukranian officials had coordinated with the Pentagon, the State Department and members of Congress on military aid.
Mr. Klimkin said he received no formal notice through American diplomatic channels of the halt in aid, although he noted the suspension came as the ministry was transitioning to a new administration. He left the ministry on Aug. 29.
American military assistance for Ukraine had flowed unobstructed into the country since 2014, the year Russia annexed Crimea and fomented a war in two eastern provinces. The aid had always arrived in carefully choreographed shipments planned months in advance.
If the United States harbored concerns about any misuse of the aid by Ukraine, the senior officials said they had never heard about them.
Mr. Klimkin said American officials had always provided the aid along with encouragement to overhaul the army and military industries to root out corruption.
But Mr. Klimkin said that aid was not conditional on those issues, and that he had heard no expressions of concern on those fronts from the United States in 2019.
“I never heard a discussion about meeting these conditions,” he said. “I’m not aware of any indication that something could have gone wrong.”
After a bipartisan outcry in Congress, the White House agreed to restore the aid in mid-September.
If the decision to suspend the aid was tied to a request by Mr. Trump for a politically motivated investigation, that “represents a fundamental challenge and problem for Ukraine,” Mr. Klimkin said, possibly threatening what had been bipartisan support in Congress for military assistance to the country.
“At the end of the day, the only ones who will be happy about that are the people sitting in the Kremlin,” he said.
In an interview on Ukrainian television on Saturday, Ukraine’s current foreign minister, Vadym V. Prystaiko, said Mr. Trump had not pressured Mr. Zelensky in the telephone call.
“There was talk, conversations are different, leaders have the right to discuss any problems that exist,” he said. “This conversation was long, friendly, and it touched on a lot of questions, including those requiring serious answers.”
Another official who learned of the hold on aid like a bolt from the blue was Oleh Shevchuk, who was deputy minister of defense in charge of logistics and oversaw the aid shipments until this month. He also said he learned of it through media reports.
Everything had been arriving smoothly, he said. Even as the news of the suspension came out, he said, Ukraine was receiving containers of medical supplies in Odessa, a Black Sea port. The Ukrainian military was expecting 33 Humvees equipped as ambulances, water purifying equipment and so-called containerized housing units, or mobile homes for soldiers. The Ukrainian military still expects these items, he said.
In fact, the hold came and went so quickly he noticed no change in the shipments and American officials never informed him of any planned delays, Mr. Shevchuk said. “We got more this year than last year,” he said.
The United States has provided about $1.5 billion worth of military aid to Ukraine since 2014, almost entirely as equipment, often drawn from United States Army surpluses, rather than money transfers to the Ukrainian budget.
It includes items much sought-after on the battle front, like body armor, night-vision goggles and armored ambulances. But the aid has not been decisive in the now five-year-old war. Some aid, including ready-to-eat meals and at least one sophisticated counter-battery radar, has been captured and gleefully put on display by the Russian-backed separatists.
As a major component of the aid, about 300 American soldiers serve as trainers at a military base in western Ukraine, far from the fighting in the east.
Oksana Syroid, a former deputy speaker of the Ukrainian Parliament, said in an interview that no American concerns about military aid crossed her desk this year before the hold was announced.
“It’s a very slippery road, a very dangerous approach, to make external relations a hostage to internal politics,” she said of a possible tie of the aid to corruption accusations against Mr. Biden. “It’s like asking a neighbor to take sides in an argument with your spouse.”