Early returns from Egypt's first elections since its February revolution yielded unsurprising results: Islamists will likely dominate the nation's next parliament and could shape the country's future for decades.
Countrywide voting won't end until January, but the first contests that began in Cairo and Alexandria on Nov. 28 are bellwethers: Unofficial results showed the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm-the Freedom and Justice Party-in first place. Trending in second place: The Nour Party-the political wing of Salafi Muslims who advocate strict adherence to Sharia law.
Though the new parliament will have limited powers, members will be responsible for nominating a 100-person assembly to draft the country's next constitution. That makes Islamist politicians a potentially powerful force in shaping the country's direction. That's a disappointment to many secular activists who launched the revolution in Cairo in February that ended with the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. The activists, hoping for a more secular government, renewed protests in Tahrir Square days before the elections, demanding that the interim ruling military transfer power to a civilian government. Clashes with the military killed at least 42 people and injured some 3,000 others.
If secularists are disappointed with election results, so are many Christians-a minority group that makes up 10 percent of Egypt's population. An increase in violence against Christians since February confirms some of those fears, but so did political fliers distributed in Assiut, a rural province 200 miles south of Cairo: The pamphlets warned that Christians were trying to block an Islamist victory by voting for secular parties, and warned voters that the "enemies of Islam" must be stopped at the polls.
Controversial Medicare chief Donald Berwick resigned effective Dec. 2, ending an 18-month confirmation battle between the White House and Senate Republicans. President Obama tapped the Harvard professor to head the Medicare and Medicaid programs in April 2010. Tasked with supervising new regulations tied to Obamacare, Berwick drew the ire of conservatives for his past comments advocating healthcare rationing and England's national health system. The Senate never held confirmation hearings for Berwick, and Obama bypassed the formal Senate process by confirming Berwick to his position during a congressional recess last year. Berwick has attacked the free market system and said, "Any healthcare funding plan that is just, equitable, civilized, and humane must, must redistribute wealth from the richer among us to the poorer and the less fortunate. Excellent healthcare is, by definition, redistributional."
When Democratic Rep. Tim Walz (Minn.) introduced a bill to address lawmakers' trading on their inside knowledge back in March, it drew only 10 co-sponsors. But after a 60 Minutes special and a new book brought the practice to light, 90 other members from both parties signed on, and Republican Sen. Scott Brown (Mass.) introduced a parallel measure in the Senate. The television report, based in part on the bestseller by Peter Schweizer, Throw Them All Out (see "Notable Books," Dec. 17, 2011), alleged that House leadership, both Republican and Democrat, had used nonpublic knowledge from their legislative work to their advantage in personal investments. According to Schweizer, if the allegations are true, the lawmakers would not have broken any laws. Both the House and Senate plan hearings on the legislation.
Confiscation by court order
When Timberridge Presbyterian of McDonough, Ga., showed signs of dissatisfaction with the direction of its denomination, the PCUSA, the Greater Atlanta presbytery formed an administrative commission to consider discipline and possible removal of its pastor. Timberridge sought assurance of its rights to the property, the presbytery counter-sued, and Timberridge disaffiliated from the PCUSA. At the time (2007), Timberridge's pastor, Matt Allison, wrote that it "takes a lot of nerve" to tell the members of a nearly 200-year-old church, whose families have supported the church and paid for the building for generations, "that they don't own this property." Yet that's precisely what the Georgia Supreme Court ruled Nov. 21, after back-and-forth in the lower courts: that the presbytery had rights to the property.
In a separate case, Christ Church Savannah, founded by James Oglethorpe in 1733 and pastored by John Wesley and George Whitefield, also lost its battle to retain historic property (see "Bricks and mortar," Mar. 27, 2010). After the Episcopal Church named Gene Robinson its first openly gay bishop in 2003, the Savannah congregation disaffiliated and placed itself under the leadership of the Anglican diocese in Uganda. The national church and the Georgia Diocese sued for the $3 million property, and the Georgia Supreme Court ruled (along with the lower courts) against the congregation. While congregants are free to leave, the 6-1 majority argued, they have no right "to take with them property that has for generations been accumulated and held by a constituent church of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America."
The blame game grew more popular on Capitol Hill minutes after the Nov. 21 formal announcement of the congressional supercommittee's super failure. Lawmakers from both parties raced to provide the most quotable epitaph to the unsurprising demise of a panel that had been given three months to agree on $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction.
But newcomer Sen. Marco Rubio, a freshman Republican from Florida with Tea Party ties, best summed up the panel's problem: "The Super Committee was a flawed idea from the start."
In reality, it never had a chance. What the panel most provided was cover for the rest of Congress while the media focused its attention on the 12 chosen to shoulder a budget deficit load that had proven to be too heavy for either Capitol Hill or the White House.
Now both sides can boast on the campaign trail: Democrats will be able to say they protected entitlements while Republican candidates will trumpet their stand against large tax increases.
But there may be one thing that will win bipartisan support in the aftermath of the panel's collapse. Lawmakers from both parties have already started to attack the $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts triggered by the supercommittee's failure. Those automatic cuts, which would begin in January 2013, include about $600 billion in reduced Pentagon spending.
"I will not be the armed services chairman who presides over crippling our military," said House Armed Services Committee chair Buck McKeon, R-Calif. Meanwhile Rep. Jim Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat and a member of the supercommittee, also opposed across-the-board cuts: "If those triggers get pulled ... It is going to be nasty. It will be a meat ax approach, and I don't think that's the best way to do it."
That puts him at odds with Obama, who has pledged to veto any efforts to repeal the automatic spending cuts, which also include about $500 billion in reductions to domestic spending. As political will continues to falter, government debt now stands at $15 trillion-more than 12 times what the supercommittee could not cut.
Thug nations, unite!
A key UN committee voted overwhelmingly Nov. 22 to condemn human rights violations by President Bashar Assad's government in Syria and called for an immediate end to all violence. The resolution adopted by the General Assembly's human rights committee was nonbinding but significant for the lineup for and against it: Sponsored by Britain, France, and Germany, it was approved by a vote of 122-13 with 41 abstentions. Joining Syria in the "no" column were Belarus, Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Iran, Myanmar (Burma), Nicaragua, North Korea, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe. Notably absent in siding with the Assad regime were any Arab nations. Russia and China abstained. On Nov. 27, the Arab League approved economic sanctions against Syria, and Turkey-one of Syria's largest trading partners and its strategic neighbor-is set to tighten already existing sanctions. Government forces have killed at least 3,500 demonstrators, according to UN and human rights monitors, since the uprising began eight months ago.
Man knows not his time
Marion Montgomery was not a household name, but the novelist prompted one of Southern literature's most enduring sound bites. When Flannery O'Connor read his 1962 novel The Wandering of Desire, she wrote him a letter that became famous: "I think your book is wonderful. ... The Southern writer can outwrite anybody in the country because he has the Bible and a little history, but you've got more of both than most and a splendid gift besides."
Montgomery and O'Connor were the same age-both born in 1925-and had similar resumés. But O'Connor died in 1964, and Montgomery continued to write excellent fiction and poetry for another decade or more, then turned to social and literary criticism, championing in nearly 40 books the work of O'Connor, Walker Percy, T.S. Eliot, and others who cared about what Montgomery called "the permanent things." Montgomery, who died Nov. 23 at age 86, also played a less noted role in the development of conservative and Christian intellectual thought, coming alongside writers like National Review's Russell Kirk. According to Gregory Wolfe of IMAGE Journal, "He had the gift of relating the smallest literary details to the largest questions."
Congress has final say over the District of Columbia's budget, an arrangement the city has long resented. But the district's desire for budget autonomy is apparently weaker than its appetite to fund abortions. House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., whose committee oversees the D.C. budget, offered the district autonomy on the condition it ban public funding for abortions. The district's top elected officials refused. Congress has long imposed a ban on funding for abortions in the district, but Democrats lifted that ban in 2009 for about a year until Republicans took control of the House in 2011. The district estimates it paid for at least 300 abortions over that period.