Egypt after Mubarak

By Lee Smith

As the Obama administration crosses its fingers in the hope that an Iraq currently without a government will somehow stabilize and justify the American blood and money spent over the last seven years, Washington has started to turn its attention to what has historically been one of Baghdad’s rival centers of Arab power—Cairo.

A Democratic Hereditary Succession?

Things are changing in Egypt as well, for barring any last-minute surprises, the ailing 82-year-old president, Husni Mubarak, is reportedly on the verge of enjoying the highest privilege afforded Arab rulers—to die in bed of natural causes. It seems almost certain that he will be succeeded by his second son, Gamal, the 46-year-old, one-time London financier.[1] The speculation inside the Beltway is that either Gamal will replace his father on the ruling National Democratic Party’s (NDP) ticket for next September’s presidential elections, or that Husni Mubarak will not last that long and the constitutional process will kick in, paving the way for Gamal’s nomination and election.

Another Mubarak would spell continuity of a sort even if it meant an end to nearly six decades of military rule by the “Free Officers” regime. While it is true that Gamal has relationships with the military establishment not only through his father but also by way of intersecting business interests—some Egyptian industries are essentially military-run concessions—the fact remains that he is not a military man. “To be part of the military establishment is not just about your connections or family,” says Muhammad Elmenshawy, Washington bureau chief for the independently owned Egyptian daily newspaper Al-Shorouk. “It means that you’ve worn a uniform, or you’ve fought in a war. Gamal is a complete outsider.”

This perhaps raises a historical analogy: The Mamluk sultans (1260-1517) tried to get their non-slave sons to succeed them and sometimes managed it, but they were not from the military slave caste and eventually petered out, to be replaced by a proper Mamluk. The bulk of Gamal’s task, at least early on, may be to ensure that history does not repeat itself.

Most Washington officials are comfortable with Gamal and see no fundamental change in the U.S.-Egyptian relationship on the horizon or adverse effects on the Egyptian-Israeli peace accord that is the foundation of the U.S. position in the eastern Mediterranean. Indeed, the fact that Gamal accompanied his father to the pre-Labor Day peace summit in Washington[2] that also included Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas along with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, was read as a signal that the succession issue had been resolved.

Until now, Mubarak has not only declined to appoint a successor, or even name a vice president who would assume the presidency in the event of an emergency, but has also avoided discussing the political prospects of his second son. According to officials from the Bush administration, whenever the president asked after Gamal, the Egyptian ruler would quickly change the subject. It is widely believed that the Egyptian president is less eager to have his son inherit the post than is his mother, the first lady Suzanne Mubarak.

Does Gamal Even Want the Job?

Other U.S. policymakers are not sure that Gamal himself is entirely interested in the job. His background is in finance and economics, subjects that seem to elicit his passion. And indeed, thanks largely to Gamal and his cadre of technocrats in the NDP, the Egyptian economy has enjoyed a period of growth for half a decade or more. Even as little of the wealth has trickled down to improve the lot of the poor—20 percent of Egyptians live in abject poverty, and 60 percent live on $2 a day—the thriving economy has changed middle-class perceptions. Egyptian parents, Elmenshawy explains, are less impressed these days when their daughters are courted by members of the military and security establishment and more apt to be swayed by young men who have made careers in banking, telecommunications, or the big real estate deals taking place in New Cairo.

If Gamal cares about the economy, this seems to come at the expense of his interest in politics, a topic that leaves him cold or, in the words of someone who has been in the room with him, brain dead. This is a dangerous liability for a man required to keep in check competing centers of domestic power—including the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian military, and the intelligence services (mukhabarat)—and regional actors while also accommodating his U.S. benefactors without aggravating an Egyptian population that has always been, at best, wary of U.S. influence in the Middle East. On the other hand, it is possible he has just learned well from his father, the stone-faced former Air Force commander who has steered the Free Officers’ regime on a steady course for almost thirty years between the radicalism that devastated Nasser’s Egypt and the then-startling accommodations with the United States and Israel that got Sadat killed. And so the question in Washington is, what will this transitional Egypt look like?

“The physical decline of Husni Mubarak coincides with the decline of Egypt as a regional actor,” says David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Never mind the fact that Iran sets the region’s political tempo while Qatar and Dubai’s satellite TV networks have eclipsed Cairo’s as the region’s media capital. “Egypt can’t even get a veto on upstream Nile development projects anymore from upstream African riparian states, like Ethiopia.”

Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace agrees that the Cairo regime is not what it once was. “Domestic affairs take up so much time that Egypt is far less able to play an effective role in regional affairs. Even the succession issue itself preoccupies them and absorbs energy. Egyptian influence is much less than it was even twenty years ago though part of that is because other Arab states have caught up in terms of education and communication and moved past Egypt in terms of development. But Egypt just can’t present a compelling model, a compelling argument, or philosophy that other Arabs want to imitate.”

The Egyptian opposition, says Dunne, is another matter. “Look at Kifaya, which started in 2004, and then the way Facebook took off and rallied people. These things inspired imitators around the region. Egypt is still an important country that other Arabs look up to, but its energies ensue not from the government but from those that are opposed to government.”

Competition from Mohamed ElBaradei

To be sure, one of the biggest stories surrounding the succession issue is Mohamed ElBaradei’s decision to challenge the regime with his unofficial campaign. Even as the Nobel Peace Prize winner and former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief is not—not yet anyway—a member of a political party and thus not eligible to run in next fall’s elections, his presence has generated attention both inside and outside Egypt.

“There’s a weird infatuation with Baradei,” says Steven Cook at the Council on Foreign Relations, referring to fawning notices in U.S. press outlets including The Washington Post and The New Yorker. “But in a fairly bleak political environment lacking charisma, Baradei shakes things up. He says, ‘I am not going to run unless I can be assured of free and fair elections,’ and this really throws a monkey wrench into the system and shakes up Gamal’s claims to legitimacy.”

“I like the idea of Baradei,” says Schenker. “I like the idea of an ostensible liberal. Baradei came along and said things openly, and no one could touch him. He seems to be in the vanguard of a political culture that is less fearful of the government.” Nonetheless, explains the former Bush administration Pentagon official, ElBaradei wouldn’t be particularly palatable in Washington. “He politicized the IAEA, oversaw the nuclearization of Iran, and maintains that Israel is the most dangerous state in the Middle East,” says Schenker.

Given that ElBaradei was comfortable working with the Islamists who govern Iran, it is hardly surprising that he has joined forces with Egypt’s own Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood, in order to focus on political reform.[3] Presumably the Brotherhood is happy to let ElBaradei take the lead since his previous employment and profile afford him international political protection not extended to the Islamists. The Brotherhood, says Joshua Stacher, an assistant professor at Kent State, is not going to make a big deal out of the succession.

“I have talked about it with them exhaustively, including senior leadership,” says Stacher, who has done extensive research on the movement. “All oppose an inherited succession in principle, but they will not mobilize in an organized way, and there will be no overt signs of discontent. Presidential succession is extremely important to the elites in Egypt, and the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t want to challenge them on something they hold this close to their hearts. They all think it’s unjust but, as one told me, ‘at the moment of the transfer of power, the Brothers will be silent.'”

In exchange, says Stacher, the Brotherhood is not exactly expecting a quid pro quo. “The MB is not going to be handed the keys to the parliament, but they’re not going to be shut out completely either,” he explains. “Gamal or whoever becomes president will have to renegotiate with a large array of interests and social forces, which includes the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Consolidating Power and Shifting Allies

Indeed, Washington policymakers and analysts concur that the real campaigning will take place after Gamal becomes president rather than before. “Arab leaders are always most vulnerable just when they take office,” says Stacher. “They are busy consolidating power and eliminating enemies.”

The two most obvious, and recent, examples are Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and Jordan’s King Abdullah II, both of whom also followed their fathers. According to press accounts and contemporary scholarship, both Abdullah and Bashar spent a considerable amount of energy during their early years at the helm building their power bases and eliminating the so-called “old guard” remnants from their fathers’ diwans. However, the fact is that both Bashar’s and Abdullah’s paths to power passed directly through regime strongholds. Abdullah was the commander of the Hashemite Kingdom’s special forces, an elite unit that ensures the regime’s survival; and Bashar was handed the extremely sensitive Lebanon portfolio, which during the years of the Syrian occupation was essentially Damascus’ ATM, feathering the nests of the country’s numerous security chiefs.

Unlike those two soon-to-be peers, Gamal has no such foundations in regime management, which is why so many believe that Omar Suleiman, chief of Egypt’s General Intelligence, is the man to watch. While it had been rumored that Suleiman was another presidential possibility, and still may be, he is ineligible, right now anyway, since he is without membership in a political party. At any rate, the key issue is where Suleiman stands on Gamal, and whether or not he will stick his neck out for a novice with no military or security credentials tasked to run what is still a military regime. Certainly the $1.3 billion in U.S. military assistance to Egypt is evidence that Washington, however happy with the country’s recent economic performance, still sees Cairo as such.

Perhaps a more useful question is, how does Cairo see itself? In a sense, Mubarak was only continuing Sadat’s work of extricating Egypt from troublesome regional issues, especially the Arab-Israeli conflict, as it went from frontline combatant to peacemaker and mediator. Gamal is likely to wish for more of the same inward turn and to focus on the economy, but the Middle East has its own energies and forces to which an untested leader, one at the helm of the largest Arab state, may be especially vulnerable.

The main issue right now is Iran, which has effectively patterned itself after Nasser’s Egypt in its struggle to build a regional hegemony and challenge the U.S.-backed order, which presently includes Egypt and the other “moderate” Arab states along with Israel. The Egyptian masses might be infatuated with Iran, says Elmenshawy, “but the elites see it as anti-Western and isolated from the rest of the world. It is not an appealing model for them.” Still, Cairo has decided to restart its own nuclear program but understands that the prospect of an Iranian bomb is only one aspect of Tehran’s regional strategy. Even without a nuclear weapon, Iran is dangerous to Egypt through its allies and assets, from Syria to Hezbollah, and especially Hamas, sitting on Egypt’s border.

“If I were part of the Egyptian elite,” says Stacher, “I’d be most worried about Gaza. If that spills over the border, it can derail everything.”

One way to defend against Hamas is to seek to co-opt them as the Turks have tried. And indeed one possibility considered throughout Washington is what might happen if Cairo follows Ankara’s lead. If U.S. power is perceived to be on the decline, what if Egypt, like Turkey and Iran, questions some of the assumptions of the U.S. order? Egypt could force the issue with the Israeli nuclear program and could even question demilitarizing the Sinai. It is highly unlikely that the Egyptians would take it as far as making war on Israel, but they could make themselves more obstreperous, just as the Turks have done, such as when they dispatched the “humanitarian flotilla” to Gaza. Now that the Turks are bending to the new regional winds, it is hardly clear that Washington has exacted a price for their behavior or even warned them. That it is acceptable to cross Washington is not a message the United States wants to send its regional allies, especially Egypt, one of the foundations of its Middle East strategy.

From Nasser through the pre-October 1973 Sadat, Washington was accustomed to Egypt being the primary regional power that questioned the U.S. order. Sadat’s strategic shift made Egypt one of the pillars of the U.S. camp, which Washington has taken for granted just as it had done with regard to Turkey’s strategic orientation. The passing of Mubarak and the rise of his successor, presumably his son, means that the largest Arab state’s future orientation can no longer be taken for granted.

[1] Daniel Sobelman, “Gamal Mubarak, President of Egypt?Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2001, pp. 31-40; “Gamal Mubarak: ‘We Need Audacious Leaders,'” Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2009, pp. 67-73.
[2] Ha’artez (Tel Aviv), Aug. 31, 2010.
[3] Ilan Berman, “The Islamist Flirtation,” Foreign Policy, Apr. 2, 2010.

Lee Smith is a Senior Editor at The Weekly Standard and the author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics and the Clash of Arab Civilizations.

Middle East Quarterly
Fall 2010, pp. 79-83
(view PDF)

http://www.meforum.org/2792/egypt-after-mubarak

New Crisis, Old Demons in Lebanon: The Forgotten Lessons of Bab-Tebbaneh/Jabal Mohsen

 

18 October 2010

 

OVERVIEW

The crisis that has gripped Lebanon since the murder of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005 has taken a new and dangerous turn, as the international tribunal charged with investigating the assassination comes close to issuing indictments. The expected implication of Hizbollah members has turned the political landscape into a brutal battleground. Inter-communal relations, the legitimacy of the resistance embodied by Hizbollah, the credibility of the tribunal, the survival of the current national unity government, the future of the recent Saudi-Syrian rapprochement and the fragile stability of the country are all at stake. International support for the tribunal, Hizbollah’s categorical rejection of it and the difficulty Saad Hariri, the current prime minister and Rafic’s son, would have to disavow it, risk leading rapidly to a political impasse whose effects would reverberate in the streets.

Many politicians and commentators evoke the possibility of an impending coup d’état or even a new civil war. But the more probable short-term scenario is repetition of a recurring Lebanese cycle: a political stalemate that triggers popular tensions which, in turn, political actors manipulate in order to bolster their leverage. As a result, instability is most likely to occur in Lebanon’s under-developed peripheral areas, whose populations are deeply divided by current events, harbour painful memories of the civil war and are largely left to their own devices until escalating violence brings them into the political game. Such is the case of the Bab-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen neighborhoods of Tripoli, which recently have witnessed both verbal and military escalation, including the firing into the latter neighborhood of a rocket that injured two.

Much as Lebanon, despite its small size, reflects the tensions of the region in its entirety, these two neighborhoods replicate, on a miniature scale, broader challenges to the stability of the country as a whole. Over the last few years, deadly incidents in these geographically and socially remote areas have been linked to disputes far beyond their horizon. This microcosm, largely hidden to those who focus on the spectacle of the capital’s political scene and the secret power games played on the regional stage, offers a key to understanding the interaction between the local, national and regional levels and thus deciphering the crisis currently brewing in Lebanon.

Jabal Mohsen and Bab-Tebbaneh are virtual metaphors for the country at large. Founded as a single unit, they were separated during the civil war along the boundary that now divides the fractured community. Once interwoven, the Sunni majority in Bab-Tebbaneh and the Allawite majority in Jabal Mohsen parted ways in the 1970s and 1980s. Around that time, Tripoli experienced intense political mobilisation under the impact of the Palestinian cause, rising Arab nationalism and Islamism, and, partly as a result, Syria’s expanding influence. Factional street battles caused many deaths, culminating in the 1986 massacre in Bab-Tebbaneh. As elsewhere in Lebanon, those wounds have yet to heal. Memories are fresh; identities are defined primarily by victimisation, yesterday’s suffering, persistent threats and the prospect of revenge; the present is viewed through the prism of the past; and both sides share an intense sense of vulnerability.

The resurgence of the old demons in Jabal Mohsen and Bab-Tebbaneh is of a piece with the country’s chronic instability. Since the end of the civil war, nothing has been done to solve underlying problems; rather, post-war Lebanon has been built upon a flimsy equilibrium whose perpetuation has become an end in itself. Tellingly, violent outbreaks in 2007 and 2008 were followed, at best, by efforts to contain the situation until the next flare-up. The few agreed so-called reconciliation measures still await implementation.

But these two neighborhoods also have served as the arena for proxy wars. External actors transferred their conflicts there, backing local fighters in a struggle that was less costly, and more easily managed, than would be open warfare in the capital. It is hardly coincidental that tensions between Jabal Mohsen and Bab-Tebbaneh exploded just as opposing sides came to realise the limits of what violence in the capital could achieve and decided to back down out of fear that it might spin entirely out of control. Such was the case both when the opposition-led January 2007 general strike threatened to devolve into fighting and when Hizbollah occupied parts of the city centre in May 2008.

These neighbourhoods, marginalised and neglected by the state, illustrate a development model centred on Beirut’s wealthy quarters. Basic public services are reduced to an absolute minimum. Victims of a decrepit education system, young people expect little more than menial work or unemployment. The security apparatus, absent in normal times and all the more so in times of crisis, makes fleeting appearances whenever a truce is concluded, as if to symbolically endorse the reestablishment of “order”, without in fact asserting state authority. A feeling of abandonment and economic precariousness feed a militia culture inherited from the civil war in two conflicting areas which in fact have much in common.

For many Sunni youngsters in Bab-Tebbaneh, joining one of the many Islamist groups which have spread relatively freely since Syria’s military withdrawal provides an attractive alternative to idleness and social failure. Jabal Mohsen’s Allawite majority has rallied behind a single political party, not necessarily out of shared ideals or conviction, but rather because it is the only actor able to protect it in some fashion.

The external sponsors that prop up local actors do little more than maintain them in a client relationship. That was the case when Syria, then Lebanon’s dominant power, favoured the Allawites politically while failing to ensure Jabal Mohsen’s development. It is true, too, of Bab-Tebbaneh’s various sponsors, whether Saad Hariri’s Future Current movement, Saudi Arabia or members of Tripoli’s wealthy Sunni class. Besides, just as external actors use local conflicts to pursue their own confrontation by other means, local fighters use their struggles as a way to attract important outside support. This economy of violence is replicated at all levels of Lebanese politics.

The ebbs and flows in the antagonism between Bab-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen serve as a reliable barometer for tracking two fundamental issues facing Lebanon: tensions between Sunnis and Shiites on the one hand; and relations between Lebanon and Syria on the other. Notwithstanding a period of relative calm in both regards thanks to the Damascus-Riyadh rapprochement – exemplified by Hariri’s reconciliation efforts – popular resentment is very much alive, if not rising. What is happening at the ground level illustrates the scepticism and suspicion with which, so far, ordinary Lebanese have greeted agreements reached at the top, and how little such agreements have altered underlying dynamics. The international tribunal easily could bring the temperature on the street back to boiling point. Should that occur, Tripoli’s barometer could take another plunge.

 

The full briefing will shortly be available in English.
http://www.crisisgroup.org/
International Crisis Group
Middle East Briefing – 14 Oct 10
Beirut/Brussels
The International Crisis Group (Crisis Group) is an independent, non-profit, non-governmental
organisation covering some 60 crisis-affected countries and territories across four continents, working
through field-based analysis and high-level advocacy to prevent and resolve deadly conflict.

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Table Talk with Michael Hudson: Peace remains elusive in Mid-East

Editor’s Choice

September 21, 2010
TABLE TALK WITH MICHAEL HUDSON
Peace remains elusive in Mid-East

By Cheong Suk-Wai, Senior Writer
Prof Hudson says there is a disjunction between the Arab world’s self-perpetuating political systems and the people who are underneath them, who don’t really like it but can’t do much about it. However, there are currents in civil society challenging this and the rise of new media has opened up the public space a lot. So things are not entirely static.
STUDYING political modernisation at Yale University in the 1960s, the young Michael Hudson was required to spend time in a country that was deeply divided ethnically. His options were Lebanon, Malaysia or Nigeria. He plumped for Lebanon, and struck academic gold because it proved to be ‘a place where all the political forces of the Middle East competed with one another, and so I got sucked into the Arab-Israeli conflict and inter-Arab politics’.
 
Today, Professor Hudson, 72, is a world authority on Lebanese politics as well as on other hot-button issues in the region. In 1975, he co-founded Georgetown University’s Centre for Contemporary Arab Studies in Washington, and steered it for 35 years. He left all that to become director of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore.
 
A widower with two daughters, he met me earlier this month to tell me why the latest round of peace talks between Israel and Palestine will go nowhere, and more:
 
 How do you plan to contribute to Singaporeans’ understanding of the Middle East?
My Singaporean colleagues made it very clear to me that they felt the Middle East has not figured very prominently in the educational systems here, and even specialised knowledge of that region was rather limited. So one of the points I made in discussions with them was that if you’re looking to develop a research institute that offers advice, that advice is best informed by academic scholarship.
 
Can academics in ivory towers offer better advice than observers on the ground?
To put it bluntly, many in the academic community who have studied the Middle East have long taken a very dismissive view of policy research in the region. They find such research often superficial, poorly informed and unreliable because it depends on the anecdotal ‘I was there’ experience, which can be valuable but might be misleading. Whereas policy researchers say: ‘These academics spend all their time engaging in complicated studies of unimportant things which mean nothing to us.’ I’m exaggerating the gap, but you really need the academics if you want to convey the complexities.
·  
What can they see that others can’t?
Well, take Islam and terrorism: many American policy researchers tend not to understand the nature and depth of religious commitment and identity, and see Middle Eastern societies as monolithically religious and so vulnerable to manipulation by extremists… If you don’t understand how Islam plays out in their lives, it’s hard for you to gauge how extremists use Islamist discourse for particular ends.
 
Is that lack of understanding the result of ignorance or complacency?
If you are in the United States, where Middle East initiatives are highly politicised… there will be those driven by dark and simplistic partisan views to demonise Islam and paint all Muslims with the same brush. But you don’t want to leave that understanding to the terrorism experts or even theologians. You need sociologists, anthropologists, cultural historians and political scientists to look at how Islam actually functions in society.
I don’t think it’s the role of the researcher to be an apologist for Islam, but it’s pretty evident what the policy implications are of an imperfect understanding of Islam. For example, there’s a resurgence of Islamophobia in the US that’s opened a Pandora’s Box of prejudice… When this happens, you’re attacking someone’s very identity and culture, and that’s a big problem.
Some argue that Arab/Muslim communities in general tend to be insular, lack initiative and are slow to grow.
I don’t agree with that. The Muslim world in general is a very complicated place and there’s a lot of variety in it… There has been a very big debate among Middle East scholars over the last 25 years about how to study and characterise The Other, as opposed to non-Muslim Westerners. The late Edward Said’s book, Orientalism, changed the way the informed public think about Islam, saying that Westerners were really exporting their own prejudices and identifying The Other in a very superficial, incomplete and pejorative way. So most academic scholarship on Islam is now free of such prejudice. But public perceptions of early stereotypes still exist.
But do they exist for good reasons?
You’re raising a very important point. It’s true that Muslim communities are not doing so well in many ways, but in many other ways, they’re doing quite well indeed – such as in Lebanon and the Gulf states. There’s also a great deal of self-criticism going on now in the Muslim world. But it’s true that it could grow more, as shown in the United Nations’ Arab Human Development Reports, which were put together by Arab researchers.
Public opinion data also shows that Muslims in Arab countries value democracy, but their political systems have not been particularly good at delivering that. But to say that’s just because they are Muslims misses the larger point that in mainstream Islam one is enjoined to work hard, cooperate and treasure family, which is consistent with humanistic norms.
What’s the cost of its weak leadership?
There’s a disjunction between the region’s self-perpetuating political systems and the people who are underneath them, who don’t really like it but can’t do much about it because these governments have got the police and all that. So that’s a real concern. Still, there are currents in Middle Eastern civil society challenging this and the rise of new media has opened up the public space a lot. So things are not entirely static.
But it’s all static on its No. 1 problem, Israel and Palestine.
It’s certainly the most durable of the many conflicts in the region. It’s also the most important one because it fuels all sorts of extremism elsewhere in the region. So why don’t things move? Because Israel, with the almost unlimited backing of the US, does not feel inclined to make concessions. I’d be surprised if the latest effort to broker peace really brings about a breakthrough.
Has US President Barack Obama lost the plot on that?
Yes. At the beginning of his term, he was on the right track. He said this issue was important and tried to reach out to the Muslim world in his speech in Cairo over a year ago. He said the Israeli-Palestinian problem was part of the problem, and Israel had to stop building and reinforcing its settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu simply stood up to him and said: ‘No, we won’t.’ And Mr Obama blinked and backed off on what had been a proper, balanced approach.
Should the Middle East enlist emerging powers to broker a breakthrough on this?
This is a good question that can be addressed by the realist theory of international politics, which holds that power is the name of the game. And the US can apply more military power than any other country in this situation. Can China or India project such power? The answer is no and they’ve no compelling interest to do so anyway.
So can the Israeli-Palestinian problem ever be solved?
At the moment, I don’t see diplomacy bringing a clear end to this… There’s been a debate that the proper solution is a two-state one, but a good many Palestinians now want a one-state solution because how can you have a proper state when it’s divided into little enclaves and surrounded by Israeli settlers and troops?
 
suk@sph.com.sg
 
(The Straits Times, 21 September 2010)

 
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