Twenty journalists working for the Qatari-based television network Al Jazeera are standing trial Thursday for the case widely known as the Marriott Cell, on charges of belonging to a terrorist organization, working without permission, and other accusations. Police claimed that the defendants were in possession of false videos of clashes that took place in Al-Azhar University. The case was adjourned to March 5. The journalists, wearing white prison outfits, appeared in metal cages, and six others identified as Al Jazeera journalists are being tried in absentia. Three of the Qatar-based television network’s journalists—Peter Greste, an Australian; Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian national; and Baher Mohamed—were detained in Cairo on December 29 and remain in custody. All three deny the charges and Al Jazeera has said the accusations are absurd. Egyptian officials have said the case is not linked to freedom of expression and that the journalists raised suspicions by operating without official permission. [Mada MasrReutersAPAswat Masriya (Arabic), 2/20/14]



Three suspects apprehended in Taba bus blast
Security sources in Sharqiya say three suspects have been apprehended for involvement in the Taba tourist bus blast which took place on Sunday by a suicide bomber killing four and injuring sixteen others. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis earlier claimed responsibility for the attack. “It’s still not clear whether the group is behind [the attack], but [the ministry] is taking steps to contact all South Koreans traveling or staying in the region and advise them to leave,” said the official said on the condition of anonymity. [Egypt Independent, 2/19/2014]

Egypt boosts police salaries as strikes mount
Egypt’s interim president has raised pay for police as some of their forces join strike actions that have mushroomed across the country. Adly Mansour said that police will receive a 30 percent salary increase as hazard pay starting in March. Labor coordinators and activists say that workers’ strikes have spiked this past week, with more than 20,000 workers at Egypt’s largest public textile company, along with doctors, pharmacists, and even policemen stopping work to demand better pay amid worsening living conditions. [AP, 2/20/14]

Second US congressional delegation visits Cairo
A five-member US congressional delegation arrived in Egypt on Wednesday to hold talks with top Egyptian government officials, days after discussions by another congressional team concluded in Cairo. Led by congressman Tim Kaine, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee, the delegation is due to hold talks with interim President Adly Mansour and foreign minister Nabil Fahmy on recent developments in the country and the region as part of a three-day visit, Al-Ahram Arabic news website reported. A separate group of congressional representatives met with military chief Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo on Tuesday as part of talks on US-Egypt ties and recent regional developments. [Ahram Online, 2/20/2014]


Blasts shake five polling stations in Libya, no one hurt
In an apparent attempt to intimidate voters from casting their ballots today for the constitutional committee, five local schools in Derna that served as polling stations were blown up in the middle of the night, causing severe damage to the buildings. Nobody was wounded in the attacks, according to residents. A Derna local council official said voters were now afraid to go to the other polling stations. About 52,000 police and military personnel have been deployed to secure polling stations across the country. [Reuters, Libya Herald, 2/20/2014]

Tebu blockade arrival of election materials in south
Tebu boycotting today’s elections for the constitutional committee have blockaded the arrival of polling station material to Obari and Kufra, demanding guarantees for minorities within the framing of the constitution. In a statement, Tebu activists said they would not allow the material to proceed in the towns unless the General National Congress amended Article 30 of the Constitutional Declaration to allow ethnic minorities to determine their own rights during the drafting of the constitution. At a press conference, High National Elections Commission officials said they would not cave to the pressure and “insisted on holding elections on time.” The Amazigh, who have boycotted the constitutional committee process from the start, reiterated their rejection of the constitutional committee and announced plans to hold elections for their own parliament. [Libya Herald, 2/19/2014]

Water shortages from Benghazi to Sirte set to end as electricity supply is reconnected
Water shortages that have affected an area from Benghazi to Sirte since the end of January are set to end as electricians head to the Sarir area to repair power lines brought down in clashes between rival Tebu and Zwai military units. With the Omar Mukhtar Brigade securing the area, engineers have returned to reconnect the power lines that were cut during the missile attack. The Benghazi-based Omar Mukhtar brigade, led by Zeyad Balam, was deployed to the area a week ago. Zeyad Balam, who leads the brigade, said they have been successful in brokering a ceasefire and that the combatants “have all been cooperative with us so far, agreeing to hand over checkpoints and positions to us.” [Libya Herald, 2/19/2014]

Libya to compensate women raped during 2011 uprising
Libya will offer compensation to women raped during the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that toppled Muammar Qaddafi, Justice Minister Salah al-Marghani said on Wednesday. Hundreds of women may have been raped during the eight-month conflict, according to the International Criminal Court, which has collected evidence that pro-Qaddafi forces used rape as a weapon to spread fear among its opponents. Human rights activists have pushed for compensation, but rape victims are often ostracized in the country where discussion of the crime remains taboo, so it is unclear how many victims would actually come forward. Minister al-Marghani said the cabinet had issued a law that would recognize women raped during the conflict as war victims, putting them on the same level as wounded former rebel fighters requiring medical treatment. [Reuters, 2/19/2014]


UN aid vote likely Friday, Russia or China support unclear; Russian FM says US policy supports terrorism
The UN Security Council will likely vote on a draft resolution to boost humanitarian aid access in war-torn Syria on Friday, diplomats said, but it was unclear if Russia and China would support or veto the Western- and Arab-backed text. Australia, Jordan, and Luxembourg finalized the draft on Wednesday, which includes demands for cross-border aid access, an end to shelling and aerial bombardment—including barrel bombs—and threatens “further steps” in the event of non-compliance. These were among the main sticking points during almost two weeks of negotiations. Russia, supported by China, has shielded Syria on the UN Security Council during the three-year-long civil war. Separately, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Thursday during a visit to Iraq that America’s Syria policy encourages the financing and supply of “terrorist organizations”. [Reuters, Al Arabiya, 2/20/2014]

Mo’adamiya activist released after seventeen days
A high-profile activist who handed himself in to regime security as part of a truce deal in the besieged Damascus suburb of Mo’adamiya has been released after seventeen days held by security officials, in what could be seen as a trust-building exercise for broader negotiations. The opposition media activist, using the name Qusai Zakarya, arrived in Beirut in the early hours of Wednesday morning after weeks of negotiations with senior military officials in Damascus. Zakariya, a former hotel employee and English language student, had emerged as a vocal opponent to the Assad regime, drawing attention to the plight of residents living under harsh government siege conditions in rebel-held Mo’adamiya for over fifteen months. As part of what the Syrian government is promoting as a “National Reconciliation” campaign, Zakariya’s case came to be seen as a litmus test for successful negotiations and a measure of regime sincerity. In his first comments to the media after his release, the activist told reporters he had been treated “surprisingly” well during his seventeen days of detention. [The Daily Star, 2/20/2014]

Rebels use tunnels to blast regime HQ in Aleppo; Contest over Yabrud continues
Rebels in Aleppo killed eleven regime troops and wounded at least ten others when they detonated a building near the city’s historic citadel, in the third such attack this month using a network of tunnels. The explosion, which targeted a structure being used as a headquarters for army troops, brought down a number of other buildings at the site, located near the Carlton Hotel, where the last such rebel action using tunnels took place. While helicopters dropped barrel bombs throughout the city, fierce fighting was also reported around the Aleppo Central Prison, with two regime officers killed, and rebels seized two villages in Aleppo province near the town of Azaz from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, an al-Qaeda splinter group. Also on Thursday, rebels were engaged in fierce battles with regime forces trying to capture the town of Yabrud, their last stronghold in the strategic Qalamoun region near the Lebanese border. A source close to Hezbollah said the regime would seize Yabrud soon. “Yabrud will be taken by the Syrian army very soon, by force or through negotiations. Then the mountain leading to the village of Arsal [in Lebanon] will be taken.” [The Daily Star, 2/20/2014]


Jailed Tunisian blogger pardoned but will remain in jail
Blogger Jabeur Mejri, who was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years of jail time in March 2012 for sharing drawings of the Prophet Mohammed on Facebook that were considered insulting to Islam, was officially pardoned by President Moncef Marzouki. Previously, Marzouki had said he would release Mejri but was waiting for a “good political moment”. Nonetheless, according to Marzouki’s spokesperson, Mejri will remain in jail as a result of separate charges. Amnesty International called Mejri the first prisoner of conscience in Tunisia following the 2011 revolution that ousted a decades-long dictatorship. [Al Arabiya, 2/20/2014]

Trial to begins for security forces who told leaders to “dégage”
On Wednesday, the trial, before a military court, began for a group of security union members who chanted “dégage”, which means leave, at Tunisia’s president, former prime minister, and assembly speaker at the funeral of two national guard officers. The two officers were killed in October 2013 in clashes with gunmen in Goubellat, a town in northwestern Tunisia. The leaders were forced to leave the memorial service as members of the security forces called for their exit. The “dégage” chant is associated with the 2011 uprising that toppled former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. [Tunisia Live, 2/19/2014]

Unknown explosion reported in Mount Chaambi
On Wednesday afternoon, a loud explosion was heard in Mount Chaambi. According to a spokesperson for the ministry of defense, the causes of the explosion are still unknown and are under investigation. This explosion follows a roadside bomb detonating Tuesday as an armored vehicle passed it in Mount Chaambi but caused no casualties or material damage. Mount Chaambi has been the site of clashes between militants and the army over the course of the last year. [TAP, 2/19/2014]


Military officer details Houthi-tribesmen ceasefire, state of Yemen’s transition
The commander of the Yemeni reserve forces spoke in an interview about the ceasefire between the Houthi militants and the tribesmen of Irhab. While he praised both of the parties for the successful mediation, he warned that the state would take firm action against any party that violates the agreement or impedes its implementation. The two sides have exchanged detainees and removed barricades built to hinder travel and the flow of goods. The officer reported that there are plans to build two military bases in the area to keep peace between the two sides. Speaking on Yemen’s ongoing transition, the officer affirmed that the six-region model is administrative rather than political, and will facilitate good governance throughout the country. Commenting on the restructuring of the military, he cautioned that though the modernization of the military is an important necessity, it will incur a high cost that may be more than the state can afford, particularly within the next decade as more personnel retire and need their pensions. [al-Masdar (Arabic), 2/20/2014]

US drone strike may have violated international law
The US drone strike in December that made headlines after a convoy suspected of carrying a mid-level leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was found to be a wedding procession is the subject of a new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report. HRW found no evidence to suggest that any of the victims had ties to al-Qaeda. A HRW researched told Al Jazeera, “The likelihood of civilian casualties in this attack raises serious questions about whether US forces are complying with President Obama’s policy that the US only strikes when it has ‘near-certainty’ that no civilians will be harmed.” HRW has called upon the US government to clarify its targeting policies and conduct an investigation into the incident, making all findings public. [Al Jazeera, al-Masdar (Arabic); 2/20/2014]

Ultra-conservative Islamist assassinated, al-Qaeda suspected
Salafi Shaikh Ali Bawazir was gunned down by alleged al-Qaeda militants in front of a Quranic school in Hadramawt on Wednesday. Bawazir had previously called on AQAP fighters to leave his town, saying their presence was endangering civilians there, naming specifically the threat of drone strikes. He had previously served as a mediator between the government and AQAP forces. [al-Masdar (Arabic), Gulf News; 2/20/2014]

Natural gas to be developed in al-Jawf
The Safer Exploration & Production Operations Company completed the drilling of the first of five wells early this week in a project stretching from Marib to al-Jawf. The general manager of the Petroleum Exploration and Production Authority said that the area “is very rich in gas. Though the block might contain some oil, gas [is the more important discovery].” Yemen has an estimated 18.2 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, much of it unexploited. Local analysts believe that the discovery could lead to renewed investment in the country. [Yemen Times, 2/20/2014]


Algerian Islamists to boycott the election
Algeria’s presidential election, scheduled for April 17, will occur without the participation of any of Algeria’s Islamist parties. Islamist party Justice and Development Front (FJD, or El Adala) has decided to boycott the election. In late January, Algeria’s largest Islamist party, the Movement of Society for Peace (Hamas), announced that it will boycott the elections. Ennahda will as well meaning that this election will be is the first time since the advent of multiparty politics in Algeria at the beginning of the 1990s that Islamist parties have all withdrawn from a presidential election. [All Africa, 2/19/2014]

Pro-Damascus party official killed in Lebanon
Abdelrahman Diab, an Alawite official in the Arab Democratic Party in Lebanon, was gunned down in the northern city of Tripoli in Lebanon on Thursday. As Diab drove through Tripoli, masked gunmen open fired and shot him in the head and stomach. Diab’s party backs the Syrian regime and Tripoli has become a hotspot of violence between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. As news of the attack spread, one person was killed and eight wounded in clashes between Alawites and Sunnis in the Bab al-Tebbaneh district of the port city, closing local schools and shops. [Ahram Online, 2/20/2014]

Kurds agree to export oil via central marketing body
Iraqi Kurdistan has agreed to export crude via the country’s main oil marketing body, potentially removing a major sticking point in a resource row with the central government. The autonomous region’s prime minister and top energy official travelled to Baghdad earlier this week, intensifying efforts to settle the long-running dispute over exports of oil from Kurdistan via a new independent pipeline to Turkey. Baghdad has repeatedly threatened to sue Ankara and slash Kurdistan’s share of the national budget if exports go ahead through the pipeline without its consent. [Reuters, 2/20/2014]

Saudi Arabia jails seven men for demonstrating
A Riyadh court sentenced seven men to between six and 20 years in jail on Wednesday for offences that included taking part in protests in the town of Qatif, in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. the seven had been also convicted of chanting slogans against the Kingdom as well as possessing and making petrol bombs and hurling them at security forces. Minority Shia have staged sporadic protests in Qatif since 1979. The town’s most recent wave of demonstrations began during the Arab uprisings of 2011 and continued through 2012. At least 20 people were killed as Shia youth took to the streets to demand equal treatment in the Sunni-ruled Kingdom. Shiites accuse Saudi authorities of persistent discrimination against them and say some protesters were shot. [Gulf Business, 2/20/2014]