Top News: Egypt Sinai Crash Probe Finds No Evidence of Terrorism

Egypt said on Monday it had found no evidence so far of terrorism or other illegal action linked to the crash of a Russian passenger plane in Sinai that killed all 224 people on board on October 31. Egypt’s chief investigator Ayman al-Moqadem said, in a statement by Civil Aviation Ministry, that the committee completed a preliminary report into the causes of the incident and sent it to all accredited representatives from countries that had the right to participate in the investigation. The report was also sent to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Moqadem also said that the plane’s wreckage scattered over more than 16 square kilometers, meaning that it broke up midair, which is one thing that experts have agreed on from the onset. The committee is “continuing its work,” he added. Egypt also said on Monday it would hire a foreign company to help improve the country’s airport security. [Ahram OnlineDNEReutersAPMada MasrAswat MasriyaThe Guardian, 12/14/2015]


Egypt and US discuss means to block ISIS funding
Egyptian and US officials discussed on Sunday methods to limit the Islamic State’s (ISIS or ISIL) access to funding, as well as joint strategies to combat the group’s affiliates in North Africa. Daniel Glaser, Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing in the US Department of the Treasury, met with senior Egyptian officials in Cairo to discuss collaborative efforts to dismantle the group’s funding networks and curb its access to the international financial system, according to a statement released by the US embassy in Cairo. “The United States, working closely with regional partners like Egypt, is taking aggressive steps to isolate this brutal terrorist organization from the international financial system,” Assistant Secretary Glaser said. Glaser said his visit to Cairo is aimed at helping “leverage Egypt’s counterterrorism strengths” and improve Egypt-US collaboration against ISIS affiliates in North Africa. [Ahram Online, DNE, AMAY, 12/14/2015]
Two Egyptian policemen jailed for torturing lawyer to death
Two police officers were sentenced on Saturday to five years in jail by an Egyptian court for torturing a lawyer to death in a police station in February. Lawyer Karim Hamdy, 27, was arrested in February on charges of taking part in anti-government protests organized by the Muslim Brotherhood. He died two days after his arrest after sustaining fractures to the ribs, bruises and bleeding in the chest and head, the initial forensic report showed. The lieutenant colonel and major with the national security agency were found guilty of torturing Hamdy to death. The sentence can be appealed. Lawyers’ Syndicate Chairman Sameh Ashour said he is filing a lawsuit with the Court of Cassation to demand a harsher penalty for the police officers. The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) in a statement on Sunday welcomed the verdict but called on the government and parliament to pass a previously proposed anti-torture law. EOHR considered the ruling a step forward in the prosecution of perpetrators of crimes of torture and an indication of a willingness to eliminate human rights violations in Egypt, but said this should be consolidated with legislative changes and harsher punishments. Meanwhile, in a statement published on Friday, Amnesty International called for the release of a 14 year-old boy whose family claimed was sexually abused and tortured by police to force him to confess to protesting without authorization and belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. [AMAY, Aswat Masriya, 12/13/2015]
‘Raba’a dispersal’ trial adjourned to February due to lack of cage space
A judge on Saturday postponed the trial of 739 people accused of murder and staging an armed sit-in at Raba’a al-Adaweya square, because they would not fit inside the courtroom cage. The defendants include photojournalist Mohamed Abu Zeid (also known as Shawkan), and Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie. Judge Hassan Farid said he received a letter from the Cairo security directorate stating police would be unable to move the defendants from prison to the courthouse after cage expansion works had stalled. The trial was adjourned to February 6. [Ahram Online, Reuters, Aswat Masriya, 12/13/2015]
For more in-depth Egypt news, please visit EgyptSource
Global powers back unity government in Libya
Global powers on Sunday backed the formation of a national unity government in Libya, pledging economic, security, and counterterrorism support to help stabilize the country. Representatives from 17 countries including Egypt, Germany, Russia, Turkey, and China signed a joint statement calling for an immediate ceasefire and promising to cut off contacts with factions that do not sign the deal. US Secretary of State John Kerry and Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni, joined by UN Special Envoy for Libya Martin Kobler, expressed optimism that the majority of the representatives of Libya’s two governments will sign a unity deal on December 16 at a ceremony in Morocco. Kobler is working to get both parliaments to ratify a deal. If that does not happen, diplomats and Western officials say a “Plan B” will be signatures from lawmakers in each camp and independents who already agree, as a way to bypass opponents who would be urged to join later. However, questions remain about how opponents and armed factions who reject the deal will react to what they will see as an unrepresentative Tripoli government and how they can be brought onboard after. “Ending negotiations will strengthen hardliners…Granting recognition to a government that has insufficient backing will condemn it to irrelevance,” International Crisis Group said in a statement before the Rome meeting. [Reuters, AP, Libya Monitor (subscription), Libya Herald, 12/13/2015]
Frances says ISIS eyeing Libyan oil
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Monday that the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) is spreading from its stronghold on the Libyan coast to the interior of the country with the aim of getting access to oil wells. “They are in Sirte, their territory extends 250 kilometers (155 miles) along the coast, but they are starting to penetrate the interior and to be tempted by access to oil wells and reserves,” Le Drian told RTL radio. [AFP, France24, 12/14/2015]
ISIS executes two for witchcraft, spying in Libya
ISIS has executed a Moroccan woman for witchcraft and a Palestinian man accused of spying in Sirte, local news agencies said Monday. The militants also chopped off a Libyan’s hand for stealing, according to witnesses. According to a United Nations report issued in December, ISIS has between 2,000 and 3,000 fighters in Libya, including 1,500 in Sirte. But the militants face “strong resistance from the population as well as difficulties in building and maintaining local alliances,” the report said. [AFP, 12/14/2015]
Tunisia lifts curfew on capital imposed after deadly bombing
On Saturday night, Tunisia lifted a curfew imposed in the capital and suburbs after a deadly November bus bombing, according to the interior ministry. Following the November 24 suicide attack that killed 12 presidential guards, the government also declared a 30-day nationwide state of emergency and closed the border with Libya, where investigators believe the bombing was planned. The border was reopened on Thursday night, but the state of emergency remains in place. [AFP, TAP, 12/12/2015]
Marzouk announces resignation as Nidaa Tounes Secretary General
On Sunday, Nidaa Tounes Secretary General Mohsen Marzouk announced his resignation from his post within the party. He is not, however, leaving the movement or renouncing its political project. Marzouk said the party is in need of renewal and development. Party leader Lazhar Akermi said later on Sunday that the party has fallen apart after the dissolution of its political authority and executive committee, and that the creation of a new party is “probable.” [TAP, 12/13/2015]
Tunisia jails six students for homosexuality
A Tunisian court sentenced six students to three years in jail each on charges of homosexuality, their lawyer Boutheina Karkni said on Monday. Last week, the court in Kairouan handed down the maximum term under a controversial article of the criminal code that criminalizes sex between two males, Karkni said. The six were also banned from the central city for five years when they finish their time in jail. The young men were detained in November and December and made to undergo anal exams, according to Karkni. Local rights group Shams, which calls for decriminalizing homosexuality in Tunisia by revising Article 230 of the penal code, condemned the judgement. Interior Ministry Spokesman Walid Louguini defended the ruling, saying, “our job is to uphold the law.” [AFP, 12/14/2015]
Air strikes hit Damascus day after 45 were killed
The Syrian government struck a suburb of the capital, Damascus, on Monday, the day after air strikes in the area killed at least 45 people, activists said. Sunday’s barrage saw government air strikes and bombardment of several opposition-held eastern Damascus suburbs, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Visiting UN Humanitarian Chief Stephen O’Brien said the humanitarian situation in Syria is “a blot on our collective conscience,” and that he was “deeply saddened” by the uptick in violence Sunday. O’Brien called the attacks a “tragic reminder of the urgency of finding a political solution and securing a nationwide ceasefire.” There was no immediate word on casualties from Monday’s attacks, which targeted the southwestern suburb of Daraya. [AP, 12/14/2015]

Russia says Riyadh talks do not speak for entire Syrian opposition; Kerry to Moscow on Tuesday
A meeting of Syrian opposition groups in Riyadh Thursday did not represent all opposition groups from the country, Russia’s foreign ministry said Saturday. “We cannot accept the attempt by the group which met in Riyadh to assign itself the right to speak on behalf of the entire Syrian opposition,” the ministry said in a statement. The talks between Syrian opposition groups in Saudi Arabia this week called for an all-inclusive, democratic Syria and said Moscow’s regional ally President Bashar al-Assad should leave power at the start of a transitional period. Amidst continued disagreements, US Secretary of State John Kerry will head to Moscow on Tuesday to keep the Syrian peace process on track at the invitation of the Russian foreign ministry. [Reuters, 12/14/2015]

ISIS-claimed attack kills 16 in Syria’s Homs
A car bomb exploded near a hospital in the central Syrian city of Homs Saturday, killing 16 people and wounding dozens in an attack claimed by ISIS, Provincial Governor Talal al-Barazi and an activist group said. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement and said it consisted of a car bombing and a suicide bomber. Barazi said the blast near the al-Ahli hospital, in the al-Zahraa neighborhood where most residents belong to the same Alawite sect as President Bashar al-Assad, killed 16 people. Another 54 were wounded, some seriously, and were being treated at hospitals throughout the city. [Reuters, 12/12/2015]

Russian destroyer wards off Turkish fishing ship in Aegean
A Russian destroyer used small arms fire on Sunday to ward off a Turkish fishing ship and prevent a collision in the Aegean Sea, the defense ministry said, calling the actions of Turkey’s vessel “provocative.” The guided missile destroyer Smetlivy was unable to establish radio contact with the approaching Turkish seiner, which also failed to respond to visual signals and flares, the ministry said in a statement. The ministry summoned the Turkish defense attache in Moscow over what it described as the “provocative actions” of the Turkish ship. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey would get the Turkish fishing ship’s side of the story before making an announcement on the issue, but added that Turkey does not favor an escalation of tensions. [AP, 12/14/2015]

Turkish police, protesters clash in southeast as new curfews declared
Turkish police fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse a protest against a security crackdown in the main southeastern city of Diyarbakir on Monday, while curfews were declared elsewhere in the region. The latest clashes began as hundreds gathered for a march called by the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party to demonstrate against a nearly two-week-long curfew in the city’s historic district of Sur. In Sirnak province, the governor imposed a curfew in two towns near the borders of both Syria and Iraq from Monday night. “A curfew is declared to neutralize separatist terror group members, remove explosives-laden barricades and ditches…and secure public order,” the Sirnak governor’s office said in a statement. According to data compiled by the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, 52 curfews have been imposed since mid-August across seven Turkish provinces in the region, affecting areas where some 1.3 million people live. [Reuters, 12/14/2015]

Turkey withdraws some troops from camp in Iraq
On Monday, Turkey withdrew some of its soldiers from a camp in Iraq, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced, days after Iraq demanded that Turkish troops immediately leave Iraqi territory. Davutoglu said “a group of soldiers” were pulled out due to “military necessity.” Atheel al-Nujaifi, former Mosul governor who established the Sunni militia camp where Turkish trainers and troops were stationed, confirmed that Turkey pulled out some troops. “They withdrew Turkish soldiers as well as some tanks. Not all of them but some, I can’t say exactly how many,” he said, adding that “Turkish trainers are still in the camp providing training.” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called for the immediate withdrawal of Turkish troops from northern Iraq in a national address Friday night, insisting that no foreign forces are needed to fight ISIS in the country. Iraqi Ambassador to the United Nations Ambassador Mohamed Ali Alkhakim also complained to the UN Security Council about the presence of Turkish troops. [AP, 12/14/2015]

Suicide bomber kills six on Iraq-Saudi border; oil official killed in Kirkuk
A suicide bomber attacked an Iraqi position on the border with Saudi Arabia on Saturday, killing six guards, including a commander, officials said. The attack by the bomber, who detonated an explosives-rigged vehicle at the headquarters of the Hafr Zawiyah border post in Iraq’s vast Anbar province, also wounded fourteen guards. An army lieutenant colonel said the bomber was dressed in a military uniform with captain’s insignia and was driving an explosives-rigged military vehicle. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack. In a separate incident on Monday, gunmen shot dead a senior employee of Iraq’s state-run North Oil Company (NOC), the third company official to be killed in the past four months. NOC Deputy Inspector-General Hassan Salim and three other employees were driving to their office in the northern oil city of Kirkuk when assailants in a speeding car sprayed their minibus with bullets. [AFP, 12/12/2015]
For more in-depth Syria news and analysis, please visit SyriaSource.
First women elected to Saudi local councils
Women have been elected to municipal councils in Saudi Arabia for the first time after a ban on women taking part in elections was lifted. At least four women were elected, the state-run Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported., a news website affiliated with the Saudi monarchy’s Interior Ministry, reported that a total of seventeen women had been elected. SPA said women were elected in Mecca, Jawf and Tabuk. The election was for two thirds of seats in municipal councils that have no lawmaking or national powers. Salma bint Hizab al-Oteibi was named as Saudi Arabia’s first elected female politician, after winning a seat on the council in Madrakah in Mecca province. She was running against seven men and two women, the electoral authorities said. The decision to allow women to take part in elections was made by the late King Abdullah. [BBC, Reuters, 12/13/2015]
HRW says Houthi rebels close NGOs in Sana’a
Houthi rebel forces in Yemen have closed down dozens of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and detained activists affiliated with a rival political party, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). Many of the organizations were closed for their perceived connections to Islah, a rival political party, HRW said in a press release on Sunday. HRW also said the Houthis had detained more than 100 Islah party members and activists. At least 33 NGOs in the capital Sana’a have been closed since September 2014, according to statistics provided by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Hussain al-Bukhaiti, a pro-Houthi activist in Sana’a, said the NGOs closed because they were being used as weapons depots for groups fighting alongside the coalition. HRW Deputy Middle East Director Joe Stork described the shutting down of the NGOs as “a repressive Houthi tactic to close down democratic space in the areas they control.” [Al Jazeera, HRW, 12/13/2015]
Houthi rebels announce truce ahead of peace talks
Houthi rebels announced a ceasefire date on Saturday ahead of planned peace talks in Switzerland with the Yemeni government. Head of the Houthi delegation to the peace talks Mohammed Abdul-Salam said the ceasefire would start on Monday, a day before the UN-brokered meeting. The United Nations invited President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi’s government and the Houthi rebels to peace talks in Switzerland starting on Tuesday, after the sides agreed on a draft agenda and ground rules for the talks. While reports this past week indicated that Houthi rebel leaders had refused to name their delegates in an apparent bid to further stall dialogue, the group submitted the names of their negotiating team on Friday. The Popular Resistance in the Jawf province, allied with the Saudi-led coalition and pro-government forces, released a statement saying it would not accept any agreement that doesn’t hold the Houthi rebels fully accountable for their attempted overthrow of President Hadi’s government. Meanwhile, 44 people were killed from fighting this weekend by Saudi-led air strikes and fighting between pro-government forces and Houthi rebels. [Al Jazeera, AFP, Al Masdar, 12/13/2015]
Two top Gulf commanders killed in Yemen rocket strike
Two senior commanders from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were among dozens of Gulf, Yemeni and Sudanese soldiers killed in a rocket strike in Yemen as fighting flared ahead of Tuesday’s planned peace talks. The Tochka rocket strike on a Red Sea army camp south-west of the besieged city of Taiz early on Monday killed Sultan Mohammed Ali al-Kitbi and Colonel Abdullah al-Sahian, both Emirati officers. The Houthis said that the two commanders were among scores killed in a rocket attack near Bab al-Mandab on the Red Sea coast. President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi paid tribute to the killed commanders and said Yemen would “not forget the physical sacrifices made by brothers in the Gulf Cooperation Council in support of the Yemeni people.” [Reuters, Al Masdar, 12/14/2015]
World powers increase pressure on Saudis over Yemen conflict
Frustrated by a worsening humanitarian crisis and rising civilian death toll in Yemen, Western nations are quietly increasing pressure on Saudi Arabia to seek a political deal to end the nearly nine-month conflict, UN diplomats said. While most of the pressure has been applied through discreet diplomacy, the United States will shine a global spotlight on the conflict when it chairs a public UN Security Council meeting on Yemen on December 22. It will be the first open council session on Yemen since Saudi Arabia led an Arab military intervention in March to try to restore President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi’s government. Western diplomats said they hope the peace talks and ceasefire appeal are a sign the Saudis now want a political solution that will end the conflict, but they caution that previous ceasefires fell apart. [Reuters, 12/11/2015]
UAE, China set up $10 billion joint strategic investment fund
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and China have established a joint strategic investment fund worth $10 billion. The agreement was finalized during a three-day visit by Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan to China and follows a cooperation deal between state-owned oil companies in both countries. “The launch of this strategic fund with commercial goals builds on the next phase in our partnership in our quest to work in a close way to develop the economies of the two countries and take part in the growth of the global economy,” Sheikh Mohammed said. The fund, which will be financed equally by both countries, will pursue a range of opportunities in various asset classes including greenfield projects, in which operational facilities are built from scratch. The fund joins others set up by the UAE to invest with different countries, including Russia and France. It also comes after China National Petroleum Corp signed a strategic cooperation agreement on Sunday with Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala Petroleum to collaborate on upstream oil and gas investment and related projects outside the UAE. [Reuters, 12/14/2015]
Turkey to relaunch EU membership bid with economic talks
European Union (EU) foreign ministers are set on Monday to revive Turkey’s efforts to join the bloc by agreeing to open talks on the EU’s financial rules. Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek said he expects quick progress on bringing Ankara in line with the EU’s economic and monetary policy. “Turkey does not have major shortcomings regarding this chapter,” Simsek said. French Minister for European Affairs Harlem Desir said he expects to see a “willingness to implement reforms in Turkey that contribute to the modernization of Turkish society [and] the Turkish economy.” However, concerns remain over whether Turkey’s new government will curtail central bank independence. During the yearly economy review of Turkey’s EU candidacy in May, EU finance ministers expressed displeasure at President Tayyip Erdogan’s demands for lower interest rates. [Reuters, 12/14/2015]
Egypt central bank injects dollars into banks in special measure to ease shortage
The Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) injected more foreign currency liquidity into the banking system on Sunday, the latest in a series of steps aimed at ending a foreign exchange shortage. Bankers said the central bank announced the move suddenly and offered dollars at a rate of 7.7401 pounds, the CBE’s official selling price for dollars. It was unclear how much foreign currency the central bank had pumped out in total, as bankers said each bank was only aware of the share it would be receiving. “We were just told the central bank will sell dollars against Egyptian pounds to banks according to the outstanding credit of banks,” said one banker, suggesting the move was meant to cover outstanding dollar exposure at banks. A banking official said the CBE has repaid approximately 25 percent, or $1 billion of the total credit facilitations granted by banks for importers in the past period. Meanwhile, the CBE is offering treasury bills worth $1.1 billion on behalf of the finance ministry today. The CBE’s coordinating council for fiscal and monetary policies will hold its first meeting on Thursday after a recent reshuffle. [Reuters, 12/13/2015]
Saudi Arabia to announce spending cuts as part of strategy for era of cheap oil
Saudi Arabia’s government is expected to announce spending cuts and a drive to raise revenue from new sources as it lays out a strategy to cope with an era of cheap oil. The government has not yet revealed a detailed, comprehensive plan for how to deal with low crude prices that have pushed state finances deep into deficit. But in coming weeks, authorities will make their intentions clearer. The state budget for 2016 is expected to be released on or around December 21 according to official sources. In the following weeks, likely in January, the government will reveal a multi-year economic plan that may include longer-term reforms such as energy subsidies and new taxes. The budget will be the first drafted by the administration of King Salman and the first carrying the imprint of his son Mohammed bin Salman, who chairs a new Council of Economic and Development Affairs that now dominates the economic policy apparatus. [Reuters, 12/13/2015]
Government adviser says Iraq has no plans to lift fuel subsidies
The Iraqi government has no plans to lift subsidies on fuel and oil products as part of negotiations to secure a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), according to the government adviser for economic affairs Mazhar Mohammed Saleh, dismissing local reports about a possible reduction in energy subsidies. “Under the program, the IMF will provide loans and assistance to Iraq to cover the (budget) deficit. There will be further talks on the subject in the second half of December. It is totally untrue that the IMF requested the lifting of oil subsidies,” Saleh told Zawya. Additionally, Iraqi Central Bank Governor Ali al-Allaq said the value of the IMF loan has yet to be determined. Saleh told Zawya in November that Iraq would start discussions with the World Bank and the IMF to secure loans worth $6 billion. [Zawya, 12/14/2015]