The FBI will investigate accusations against Brett Kavanaugh

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SENATOR Jeff Flake is a harsh critic of President Donald Trump. He also votes for the president’s agenda most of the time. On September 27th, one day after Christine Blasey Ford told the Senate Judiciary Committee that she was “100% certain” Brett Kavanaugh, Mr Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court, had sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers, Mr Flake said he would support Mr Kavanaugh’s bid for the Supreme Court. But a funny thing happened on the way to the chamber. Instead of joining his fellow 10 Republicans on the committee to send Mr Kavanaugh’s nomination to the floor, Mr Flake threw his colleagues a curveball. He would vote yes in committee, he said, but would not do so in a final full Senate vote unless the FBI reopened its background check into Mr Kavanaugh. Without further investigation into allegations that Mr Kavanaugh had assaulted Ms Blasey, Mr Flake could not support sending him to the Supreme Court.

What prompted Mr Flake’s change of heart? It may have been an interrupted elevator ride in the Capitol building. Two women who say they suffered sexual assault, Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher, rushed to speak to Mr Flake when they saw him entering a lift. Ms Archila stuck her foot in the door, preventing him from closing it. “What you are doing is allowing someone who actually violated a woman to sit on the Supreme Court”, she cried. “I cannot imagine that for the next 50 years they will have to have someone in the Supreme Court who has been accused of violating a young girl. What are you doing, sir?” Ms Gallagher told Mr Flake she had been assaulted “and nobody believed me”. By supporting Mr Kavanaugh, she said, “you’re telling all the women that they don’t matter, that they should just stay quiet because if they tell you what happened to them you are going to ignore them” and “help that man to power anyway”.

Eyes downcast, Mr Flake said only “thank you” and “I have to go to the hearing”. But hours later he suggested he did not want to ignore these protestors. As senators waited inside the chamber, Mr Flake conferred furiously with Democrats, while anxious Republicans crowded around him. He then returned to the chamber, looking pained, to say that senators “ought to do what we can to make sure we do all due diligence with a nomination this important”. The way to prevent America from being ripped apart, he said, was a renewed investigation by the FBI, to be wrapped up in a week.

Senate Republican leaders, anxious to get Mr Kavanaugh robed before November’s mid-terms, had no choice but to agree to these terms. Mr Flake had recruited Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican moderate, to join his call for delay. Without these two votes in a Senate narrowly controlled by 51 Republicans to 49 Democrats, Mr Kavanaugh’s confirmation would fail. Later, Susan Collins, another potential Republican defector, called the proposal “sensible”.  

Mr Trump also agreed to the Senate’s recommendation. Ms Blasey’s testimony was “very compelling”, he said, and senators “have to do what they think is right and be comfortable with themselves”. On the afternoon of September 28th he accepted the committee’s call for the FBI to get started investigating all “current credible accusations” against Mr Kavanaugh.

FBI agents are now springing to action, identifying and interviewing people who might shed more light on Ms Blasey’s charge that a drunk Mr Kavanaugh threw himself on top her, tried to remove her clothes and covered her mouth to stifle her screams at a high-school gathering in 1982. Those witnesses include Mark Judge, the man Ms Blasey says was in the room when his friend assaulted her, as well as Leland Keyser and P.J. Smyth, two contemporaries she says were downstairs during the attack. The FBI will also search for evidence to narrow the time and location horizons of the alleged incident. It is unclear whether or how extensively the agency will investigate two other accusations that have surfaced in recent days. Mr Kavanaugh denies all the accusations against him.

Ms Blasey’s lawyers welcomed the development but complained of “artificial limits” imposed on the investigation. That is a reasonable concern. The FBI may be able to complete its work by October 5th, but if it uncovers leads late in the week, it would be antithetical to the truth-finding goal of delaying the vote to say agents must cease in their investigations. 

The report, whenever it comes, will not put an end to the rancour over whether Mr Kavanaugh should be confirmed. Nor, absent a major new finding, is it likely to imperil his nomination. The FBI will supply Mr Trump and the Judiciary Committee with interview transcripts and notes on how witnesses behaved; it is up to the senators how to analyse this data and piece it together. As their responses to the testimonies of Ms Blasey and Mr Kavanaugh showed, senators can hear evidence in very different ways. If Republicans are comfortable dismissing Ms Blasey’s wrenching and credible account of her alleged assault by Mr Kavanaugh on the basis of his furious yells and tears, more interview transcripts are not likely to sway them against him—especially as chances fade of confirming a different Supreme Court pick before the mid-terms. 

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Egypt’s president grows even more intolerant of dissent

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PITY the future historian who tries to decipher the workings of Egyptian courts. On September 15th police unexpectedly arrested Gamal and Alaa Mubarak, the sons of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s deposed dictator. No one knows why they have been jailed again. Their stock-manipulation case has dragged on since 2012, and they have been free on bail for three years. Some call it a shakedown: the Mubaraks are among the few old-regime figures who have yet to trade wealth for freedom. Others fear a broader campaign against the rich. The news sent Egypt’s main stock index tumbling 3.6%, its biggest single-day loss since January last year.

It is hard to discern truth in Egypt these days. President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s government is opaque, and there are few independent journalists to question it. Under a new law, even popular social-media accounts can be regulated as if they were newspapers, which are themselves horribly over-regulated. A pro-government television host has been off the air for weeks with no explanation. A rumour on WhatsApp claims that 22 military officers were quietly arrested this month. The facts of these stories are almost irrelevant. What matters is that the rumours circulate.

Mr Sisi ought to be comfortable. He won a second term in March with 92% of the vote. After years of stagnation, the economy is growing at 5.3% a year. A new capital city is rising in the eastern desert. Energy firms have discovered vast reservoirs of natural gas. Tourists are coming back. Security has improved, even in the restive Sinai peninsula. Though the constitution says Mr Sisi cannot serve another term, his allies in parliament want to remove the limit. They will probably succeed. “There will be a lot of noise, and then nothing,” says Anwar Sadat, a former MP.

Yet, for the average Egyptian, all this could be happening on another planet. Millions of them cheered when Mr Sisi seized power in a coup in 2013. All they have known since then is higher prices and unceasing repression. The latest jolt was a new electricity tariff in July, the third big increase in four years. In the hot summer months, prices jumped by up to 43%. Some Cairenes were hit with bills close to 1,000 pounds ($56), a quarter of the average salary. Weary bill collectors recount being chased out of tenement buildings by angry residents. Shops and restaurants come and go every few months, their owners unable to make a living. “There’s a feeling of despair I’ve never seen before,” says a seasoned foreigner visiting for the summer.

Most Egyptians keep their complaints private. In August a retired diplomat, Masoum Marzouk, called for a referendum on Mr Sisi’s rule. He was promptly arrested, as were several other dissidents. Police grabbed a geology professor, a critic of the government, at a relative’s funeral and hauled him off to jail. The remnants of the opposition held a rare press conference to demand their release. It did not help. Mr Marzouk and the rest are still in jail, their assets reportedly frozen. On September 8th an Egyptian court upheld 75 death sentences in a farcical mass trial of more than 700 mostly Islamist defendants.

No one envies Mr Sisi’s position. He inherited a mess and has made unpopular decisions to reverse decades of bad economic policy. You do not have to be popular to run an authoritarian state, but it helps to have the support of the elite. Business leaders are nervous. Some of Mr Sisi’s media allies are murmuring. Sami Anan, a former army chief arrested for mounting a brief presidential campaign, now languishes in hospital, his health failing. “For a general to be treated this way, it’s unthinkable,” says a Western diplomat. “[Sisi] has made a lot of enemies.”

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