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Hungary's Orban says crisis may overstretch Europe's democracies


BERLIN (Reuters) - Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said Europe's democracies might not be up to coping with the crisis they face, making the case in an interview for the "presidential" form of leadership that has let him drive through tough reforms at home.

A fiercely independent leader whose economic and social policies have drawn protests from foreign investors, governments and international bodies, Orban told German business daily Handelsblatt he was "a passionate supporter of democracy".

"But the question has to be asked if the leadership structures in democratic systems are still up to the times," he said, citing the challenges of dealing with sovereign debt crises and reforming social welfare states.

That could not become a taboo in the event of a weakness of leadership, Orban said in an interview published hours ahead of a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"Our current democratic systems have built-in weaknesses," he said, referring to Europe. "A presidential system is probably more suitable than a parliamentary system in times when difficult reforms need to be pushed through."

Since winning an election in 2010, Orban has drawn heavy criticism from among others the European Union and the International Monetary Fund for pushing through reforms that opponents say threaten the independence of the country's media, judiciary and central bank.

He has yielded ground on some of these issues.

Orban said U.S. presidents had the power to push through tough decisions "against the will of the people if they are important for the country's future".

Within five years, Europe would be debating whether it needed stronger presidents based on that model.

"The longer the (debt) crisis lasts, the louder the calls will be for strong political leadership," he said. "We've got to find democratic answers to that as soon as possible."

The government, dominated by Orban's Fidesz party, has a two-thirds majority in parliament. It is among the most stable in the EU even though public support for the party has crumbled to around 16-18 percent, according to opinion polls that also showed half the electorate undecided.

In the interview, Orban also said it would be irresponsible for Hungary to join the euro now as the key lesson to be learned from the debt crisis was that southern states had joined the currency zone before they were ready.

"We are not going to repeat that mistake," he said.

(Additional reporting by Gergely Szakacs in Budapest; Editing by John Stonestreet)

F.A.Q. on U.S. Aid to Egypt: Where Does the Money Go—And Who Decides How It’s Spent?

by Marianne Wang & Theodoric Meyer-Propublica

The regime change in Egypt — and in particular, the riots outside the American embassy last month — have prompted renewed questions about American aid to the country. (A recent poll found that 42 percent of Americans supported cutting aid to Egypt; 29 percent supported cutting it off altogether.)

We've taken a step back and tried to answer some basic questions, including how much the U.S. is giving Egypt, what's changed since the Arab Spring and who is benefiting from all this aid money.

How much does the U.S. spend on Egypt?

Egypt gets the most U.S. foreign aid of any country except for Israel. (This doesn't include the money spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.) The exact amount varies from year to year and there are many different funding streams, but U.S. foreign assistance to Egypt has averaged about $2 billion a year since 1979, when Egypt struck a peace treaty with Israel following the Camp David accords, according to the Congressional Research Service. That includes military and economic aid, though the latter has declined by more than two-thirds since 1998, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report.

Let's start with the military aid. How much is it, and what does it buy?

Military aid — which comes through a funding stream known as Foreign Military Financing — has held steady at about $1.3 billion since 1987. American officials have long argued that the money promotes strong ties between the American and Egyptian militaries, which gives the U.S. all kinds of benefits. U.S. Navy warships, for instance, get "expedited processing" when they pass through the Suez Canal.

Here's a 2009 U.S. embassy cable released by WikiLeaks that makes essentially the same point:

President Mubarak and military leaders view our military assistance program as the cornerstone of our mil-mil relationship and consider the USD 1.3 billion in annual FMF as "untouchable compensation" for making and maintaining peace with Israel. The tangible benefits to our mil-mil relationship are clear: Egypt remains at peace with Israel, and the U.S. military enjoys priority access to the Suez Canal and Egyptian airspace.

The military funding also enables Egypt to purchase U.S.-manufactured military goods and services. But a 2006 report from the Government Accountability Office (PDF) criticized both the State Department and the Defense Department for failing to measure how the funding actually contributes to U.S. goals.

Does this aid require Egypt to meet any specific conditions regarding human rights?

It didn't for a long time. When an exiled Egyptian dissident called on the U.S. to attach conditions to aid to Egypt in 2008, Francis J. Ricciardone Jr., who had recently stepped down as the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, told the Washington Post the idea was "admirable but not realistic." And Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that military aid "should be without conditions" at a Cairo press conference in 2009.

Last December Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, led Congress in adding language to a spending bill to make aid to Egypt conditional on the secretary of state certifying that Egypt is supporting human rights and being a good neighbor. The language requires that Egypt abide by the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, support "the transition to civilian government including holding free and fair elections," and put in place policies to protect freedom of expression, association, and religion, and due process of law." It sounds pretty tough, but it's not.

So has American aid to Egypt been cut off?

No. Congress threatened to block the aid when Egypt began a crackdown on a number of American pro-democracy groups this winter. A senior Obama administration official said that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had no way to certify the bill's conditions were being met.

But in March Clinton waived the certification requirement (yes, she can do that) and approved the aid, despite concerns remaining about Egypt's human rights record. The reason? "A delay or cut in $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt risked breaking existing contracts with American arms manufacturers that could have shut down production lines in the middle of President Obama's re-election campaign," the New York Times reported. Breaking the contracts could have left the Pentagon on the hook for $2 billion.

Oy vey. What kind of arms have we been sending them, anyway?

According to the State Department, the aid has included fighter jets, tanks, armored personnel carriers, attack helicopters, antiaircraft missiles, and surveillance aircraft. In the past, the Egyptian government has bought some of the weaponry on credit.

What about economic aid and efforts to promote democracy?

U.S. economic aid to Egypt has slumped from $815 million in 1998 to about $250 million in 2011.

The various economic aid efforts have had mixed results. The State Department has described the Commodity Import Program, which gave Egypt millions of dollars between 1986 and 2008 to import American goods, as "one of the largest and most popular USAID programs." But an audit of the four-year, $57 million effort to create agricultural jobs and boost rural incomes in 2007 found that the program "has not increased the number of jobs as planned" [PDF]. And an audit of a $151 million program [PDF] to modernize Egypt's real estate finance market in 2009 found that, while the market had improved since the program began, the growth was "not clearly measureable or attributable" to the aid efforts.

The U.S. has also funded programs to promote democracy and good government in Egypt — again with few results. It has sent about $24 million a year between 1999 and 2009 to a variety of NGOs in the country. According to a 2009 inspector general's audit [PDF], the efforts didn't add much due to "a lack of support" from the Egyptian government, which "suspended the activities of many U.S. NGOs because Egyptian officials thought these organizations were too aggressive."

A WikiLeaks cable revealed the Egyptian government had asked USAID to stop financing NGOs that weren't properly registered.

President Obama has promised Egypt $1 billion in aid to support its transition to democracy following the fall of President Hosni Mubarak. But the funding has become a political issue since the attacks on the American embassy in Cairo on Sept. 11. When the Obama administration announced last month that it was sending the Egyptian government $450 million to help forestall a budget crisis, Representative Kay Granger, a Texas Republican and the chairwoman of a subcommittee that oversees foreign aid, said she would block the money because of concerns about Egypt's direction under the Muslim Brotherhood. "I am not convinced of the urgent need for this assistance and I cannot support it at this time," she said in a statement.

Teaching Risk Assessment in Cairo, Egypt

Teaching Risk Assessment in Cairo, Egypt


My colleagues and I were delighted to respond to an invitation from Professor Dr. Osama El-Tawil, the Chairman of Toxicology & Forensic Medicine Department, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Cairo University, to provide an international training course on risk assessment. We arrived in Cairo on May 16, 2012.

Over the next three days, we offered comprehensive training on current, state-of-the-art risk assessment practices as used and implemented by EPA and various international organizations. The course is titled “Risk Assessment as a Critical Tool for Everyday Challenges.”

More than 300 men and women from throughout the Middle East attended the training. The course offered hands on training in the primary areas of risk assessment (i.e., hazard identification, dose-response assessment, exposure assessment, risk characterization). Additionally, we covered risk communication, because outreach to the public and other stakeholders is essential to the successful implementation of risk assessment.

Throughout the course, there were discussions of real environmental and public health problems experienced in the country. Students had the opportunity to apply skills learned in class to these problems in several small breakout sessions. In addition to learning about risk assessment, the participants formed new friendships and extended their professional networks.

The course also attracted a large number of newspapers and TV stations. This training represents a culmination of knowledge sharing among science experts in the field of risk assessment. (For more information about the course go to: EPA Risk Assessment Class at Cairo University.)

It was such great opportunity to meet the leadership team of Cairo University, especially: Professor Dr. Prof Hossam Kamel, President of Cairo University; Professor Dr. Azz Eldin Abostat, Vice President of Students Affairs, Cairo University and Professor of Agriculture Science; Professor Dr. Gamal El-Din Essmat, Vice President for higher studies, Cairo University; Professor Dr. Heba Nassar, Vice President for Environmental and Society Services, Cairo University; and Professor Dr. Fathy Farouk, the Dean of  the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Cairo University.

On Sunday, we were invited by the Dean of the Veterinary School to tour Cairo University (home to 250,000 students), meet the faculty and discuss their research. We visited the famous library of Cairo University, the veterinary clinic, microbiology laboratories, and the latest incineration facility in Cairo University, which is charged with sanitary disposal of infectious biologic materials.

First 360-Degree Panorama from NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover

First 360-Degree Panorama from NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover

PASADENA, Calif. -- Remarkable image sets from NASA's Curiosity rover and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) are continuing to develop the story of Curiosity's landing and first days on Mars.

The images from Curiosity's just-activated navigation cameras, or Navcams, include the rover's first self-portrait, looking down at its deck from above. Another Navcam image set, in lower-resolution thumbnails, is the first 360-degree view of Curiosity's new home in Gale Crater. Also downlinked were two, higher-resolution Navcams providing the most detailed depiction to date of the surface adjacent to the rover.

"These Navcam images indicate that our powered descent stage did more than give us a great ride, it gave our science team an amazing freebie," said John Grotzinger, project scientist for the mission from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "The thrust from the rockets actually dug a one-and-a-half-foot-long [0.5 meter] trench in the surface. It appears we can see Martian bedrock on the bottom. Its depth below the surface is valuable data we can use going forward."

Another image set, courtesy of the Context Camera, or CTX, aboard NASA's MRO has pinpointed the final resting spots of the six, 55-pound (25-kilogram) entry ballast masses. The tungsten masses impacted the Martian surface at a high speed about 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) from Curiosity's landing location.

Curiosity's latest images are available at:

Wednesday, the team deployed the 3.6 foot-tall (1.1-meter) camera mast, activated and gathered surface radiation data from the rover's Radiation Assessment Detector and concluded testing of the rover's high-gain antenna.

Curiosity carries 10 science instruments with a total mass 15 times as large as the science payloads on NASA's Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Some of the tools, such as a laser-firing instrument for checking rocks' elemental composition from a distance, are the first of their kind on Mars. Curiosity will use a drill and scoop, which are located at the end of its robotic arm, to gather soil and powdered samples of rock interiors, then sieve and parcel out these samples into the rover's analytical laboratory instruments.

To handle this science toolkit, Curiosity is twice as long and five times as heavy as Spirit or Opportunity. The Gale Crater landing site places the rover within driving distance of layers of the crater's interior mountain. Observations from orbit have identified clay and sulfate minerals in the lower layers, indicating a wet history.

MRO's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera is operated by the University of Arizona in Tucson. The instrument was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Exploration Rover projects are managed by JPL for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The rover was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built the orbiter.

NASA Offers Condolences on the Passing of Pioneering Astronaut Sally Ride

Former NASA Astronaut Steve Hawley Remembers Sally Ride's Dedication to Students


WASHINGTON -- The following is a statement from former NASA astronaut Steve Hawley regarding the death of fellow astronaut Sally Ride. Hawley was selected into the astronaut corps in 1978 and was married to Ride from 1982 until 1987. A veteran of five space shuttle flights, he left the agency in 2008 and now is Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Kansas, Lawrence.

"Sally was a very private person who found herself a very public persona. It was a role in which she was never fully comfortable. I was privileged to be a part of her life and be in a position to support her as she became the first American woman to fly in space.

While she never enjoyed being a celebrity, she recognized that it gave her the opportunity to encourage children, particularly young girls, to reach their full potential.

Sally Ride, the astronaut and the person, allowed many young girls across the world to believe they could achieve anything if they studied and worked hard. I think she would be pleased with that legacy."

For more information about Ride and her NASA career, visit:

For more information about Hawley, visit:

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