Top News: EU sanctions hit three Libyan politicians opposed to new government

The EU has imposed sanctions on three prominent Libyan politicians opposed to the installation of a UN-backed government. The sanctions target the leaders of two rival administrations that have been vying for power amid the chaos after the 2011 overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi. All three face travel bans and asset freezes. It is not clear how the new administration will be able to take over state institutions there, given the stiff opposition it faces. The politicians targeted are: Agilah Saleh, head of the House of Representatives in Tobruk; Khalifa Ghweil, head of the so-called National Salvation Government (NSG) in Tripoli, supported by the Libya Dawn alliance; Nouri Abusahmain, who leads the General National Congress, the previous parliament, which backs the NSG. [BBC, 4/1/2016]



Sisi approves 2016-17 draft budget
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi approved the 2016-2017 draft budget on Thursday during a ministerial meeting, as well as an economic development plan, and sent both to parliament for passage, state news agency MENA said. The cabinet passed the draft on Wednesday as a first step in the process. During the meeting, Sisi reiterated the necessity of cutting down the budget deficit, rationalizing expenses, and making sure basic goods and medical supplies are available at affordable prices for limited-income citizens. In addition, Sisi reviewed plans to reduce unemployment and increase the gross domestic product to EGP 3.2 trillion in FY 2016-17, Presidential Spokesman Alaa Yusuf said. Egypt’s government approved a draft on Wednesday with a deficit of 9.9 percent and economic growth of 5 to 6 percent and passed it to the president for amendments. [Ahram Online, Reuters, SIS, 3/31/2016]

Sources say Egypt blocked Facebook Internet service over surveillance
Egypt reportedly blocked Facebook Inc’s Free Basics Internet service at the end of last year, after the US company refused to give the Egyptian government the ability to spy on users, two people familiar with the matter have said. The Egyptian government suspended the service on December 30 and said at the time that the mobile carrier Etisalat had only been granted a temporary permit to offer the service for two months. Two sources with direct knowledge of discussions between Facebook and the Egyptian government said Free Basics was blocked because the company would not allow the government to circumvent the service’s security to conduct surveillance. They declined to say exactly what type of access the government had demanded or what practices it wanted Facebook to change. A spokesman for Facebook declined to comment. Etisalat also did not respond to a request for comment. Mohamed Hanafi, a spokesman for Egypt’s Ministry of Communication, declined to comment specifically on the allegation about surveillance demands but cited other reasons for Free Basics to be blocked. “The service was offered free of charge to the consumer, and the national telecommunication regulator saw the service as harmful to companies and their competitors,” he said. [Reuters, 4/1/2016]

Cairo says Washington keen to boost Egypt’s ailing economy
Cairo has said Washington is keen to help stabilize Egypt’s battered economy and bolster its development plans, while stressing that there are strong ties between the two countries. Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry held talks with his US counterpart John Kerry early Thursday on the sidelines of a global two-day nuclear security summit in Washington. “Kerry stressed that Washington is keen to assist Egypt in the economic woes it faces,” Shoukry told reporters in Washington following the talks, as quoted by state news agency MENA. During the bilateral discussion, both leaders discussed possible US efforts to promote investment in the Egyptian market. Shoukry heads Egypt’s delegation that is participating in the two-day Summit along with representatives from over 50 nations. [Ahram Online, Aswat Masriya, 4/1/2016]  

For more in-depth Egypt news, please visit EgyptSource


Support grows for Libya unity government
Libya’s UN-backed unity government has won increasing pledges of loyalty as it gradually exerts its authority in the face of strong opposition from rival political forces in the conflict-wracked country. Libya’s warring sides are under intense international pressure to cede power to prime minister-designate Fayez al-Sarraj, whose arrival in the capital on Wednesday angered a rival Tripoli-based government. But there are signs that allegiances are starting to shift in favour of Sarraj, a businessman from Tripoli who was a member of a committee that paved the way to national dialogue in Libya. Ten western cities called on all Libyans Thursday to back the Government of National Accord (GNA) in a major blow to the unrecognised Tripoli authority which is refusing to give up power. The announcement came in a statement on the official Facebook page of the Sabratha municipality near the border with Tunisia. [AFP, Middle East Online, 4/1/2016]

Rival of Libyan unity government says will not cling to power in Tripoli
Tripoli’s self-declared government has said it will not cling to power but will peacefully oppose a U.N.-backed unity government that arrived in the capital this week from Tunisia. Western powers hope the unity government will seek foreign support to confront the Islamic State militant group, deal with migrant flows from Libya towards Europe and restore oil production to shore up its economy. But the new government, which held its first meetings in Tripoli on Thursday at a heavily guarded naval base, has failed to win backing from Libya’s two rival pairs of governments. “We will not cling to power,” the statement said. “I demand that the revolutionaries, civil society and the senior clerics be given the opportunity to take the necessary decisions to avoid bloodshed and find a solution to the Libyan crisis.” [Reuters, 4/1/2016]

France says be ready for Libya intervention
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault on Friday urged the international community to prepare to help Libya’s unity government if asked, providing military support if necessary. “Libya is a concern shared by all the countries of the region and beyond,” Ayrault said in comments to a French newspaper. “The chaos which reigns there today aids the rapid development of terrorism. It is a direct threat to the region and to Europe … We must be prepared to respond if the national unity government of (prime minister-designate Fayez) al-Sarraj asks for help, including on the military front,” he said. Asked specifically on the likelihood of military intervention, Ayrault replied, “That will depend on the legal government. To think of launching air strikes outside of the political process is not an option.” [AFP, 4/1/2016]


Death toll from east Damascus airstrikes rises to more than 30
The death toll from air strikes in the Deir al-Asafir district southeast of Damascus has risen to more than 30, mostly women and children, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) and the White Helmet civil defense group. The strikes Thursday, which SOHR said were carried out by Syrian aircraft, came despite a month-long “cessation of hostilities” in Syria between government forces and their opponents, excluding the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. Air strikes continued in the area on Friday. Two strikes hit the outskirts of Deir al-Asafir and at least seven hit the village of Bala, SOHR said. The US State Department said it was appalled by the reported air strikes. “We condemn in the strongest terms any such attacks directed at civilians,” spokesman John Kirby said. France condemned the attack Friday and said it violated the truce. “This abject act is designed to terrorize the Syrian people and sap efforts by the international community to find a political solution,” French Foreign Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal said. [Reuters, 4/1/2016]

Rebels drop leaflets over Syrian capital from drones
The most powerful rebel group operating around Damascus has flown drones over the Syrian capital, reportedly dropping propaganda leaflets in the first opposition operation of the kind since the start of the civil war. Pro-rebel media outlets covered the unprecedented incident Thursday, with All4Syria claiming that “modified reconnaissance aircraft” belonging to Jaish al-Islam “cruised the skies of Damascus and dropped leaflets, [mostly] on the eastern neighborhoods” of the capital. Pro-regime media made no mention of the leaflets, while SOHR tracking developments in the war-torn country did not report on the purported incident. Jaysh al-Islam has yet to issue a statement on the matter, however officials in the insurgent faction spoke with opposition outlets on the alleged operation. Hamzeh Bayrakdar, a spokesperson for Jaysh al-Islam’s general staff, told Syria Mubasher news that the drones dropped “20,000 leaflets” over a number of Damascus areas: including the famed Old City, the upscale Muhajireen quarter near the presidential palace, and the Aash al-Warour district on the foothills of Mount Qasioun. The spokesperson claimed that the aircraft returned safely to their take-off points, adding further that they weren’t exposed to anti-aircraft fire since they took regime forces by “surprise.” [NOW, Syrian Observer, 4/1/2016]

Canada to take in 10,000 more Syrian refugees
Canada will take in an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees, adding to the more than 25,000 already received in the last few months, Immigration Minister John McCallum said on Thursday in Germany, where an influx of refugees has sparked a backlash. McCallum told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp he was responding to complaints from Canadian groups who want to sponsor Syrian refugees but did not have their applications processed quickly enough to be among the government’s initial target of 25,000. “We are doing everything we can to accommodate the very welcomed desire on the part of Canadians to sponsor refugees,” McCallum said in a phone interview with CBC News from Berlin, where he is meeting with the German interior minister. [Reuters, Guardian, Asharq al-Awsat, 3/31/2016]

Syrian held for smuggling migrants to Cyprus
A Syrian was remanded in custody in Cyprus on Friday on suspicion of smuggling migrants after coastguards rescued 28 people from a small boat that had been adrift for days. The 41-year-old suspect was among the mostly Syrian people who were brought safely to shore on Thursday evening after patrol vessels responded to a distress call off the island’s west coast. He appeared in court on Friday and was remanded in police custody for eight days on suspicion of migrant smuggling and helping third country nationals enter the island illegally. Police said the boat had left the Turkish coastal town of Alanya for Cyprus on Tuesday but had run out of fuel. The Turkish captain, who had been paid 2,000 euros ($2,200) a head for the voyage, had abandoned ship, the refugees said. The 27 passengers — 18 men, six women and three children, all said to be in good health — are being cared for at a reception centre outside the capital Nicosia. Although it lies just 100 kilometres (60 miles) off the coast of Syria, EU member Cyprus has so far avoided a mass influx of refugees from the war-torn country. But as Greece prepares to start sending migrants back to Turkey on Monday under a controversial March 18 deal between the EU and Ankara, there have been concerns that other migration routes will open up. [AFP, 4/1/2016]

Turkey forcibly returned hundreds of Syrian refugees to war zone
Amnesty International says Turkey has forcibly returned hundreds of Syrian refugees to their homeland since mid-January. It said this practice exposes “fatal flaws” in an agreement between Turk and the European Union. The organization says its research on the Turkish-Syrian border suggests that around 100 Syrians —who often have not registered in Turkey— are expelled from Turkey each day. Advocacy groups are concerned that the deal, including the UNHCR, which aims to stem the flow of illegal migrants and goes into effect April 4, threatens the rights of asylum seekers, and they question whether Turkey is a safe country for them. The EU-Turkey deal stipulates the return to Turkey of any Syrian refugee arriving on the Greek islands, to be offset by resettling a Turkey-based Syrian in the EU. “Far from pressuring Turkey to improve the protection it offers Syrian refugees, the EU is in fact incentivizing the opposite,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s director for Europe and Central Asia. [AP, AFP, BBC, 4/1/2016]

For more in-depth Syria news and analysis, please visit SyriaSource.


Iraqi Prime Minister names new cabinet to fight corruption
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi presented his proposals to parliament for a technocrat government in the face of resistance from politicians who fear their entrenched interests could be hurt. He merged several portfolios and presented a list of 16 ministers while keeping the current defense and interior ministers. The established political parties fear a reshuffle could weaken patronage networks that have sustained their wealth and influence for more than a decade. Parliament must vote on any cabinet changes but postponed its session until Saturday, state TV said, so that lawmakers could have time to review and possibly challenge the candidates. Following Abadi’s speech to parliament, Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr described Abadi’s proposed cabinet lineup as “courageous” and called on his supporters to withdraw from the Green Zone where they have been camping out for about two weeks. [Reuters, Rudaw, 3/31/2016]

Iraqi Special Forces push through ISIS attacks, move in on Heet
Iraqi Special Forces, backed by army troops and US-led coalition air strikes, moved on Heet in western Anbar province that has been for months under the control of ISIS, and forces recaptured the areas south and west of the city. Eight Iraqi soldiers were killed on Thursday after an ISIS suicide car bomber detonated near an army convoy advancing towards of Heet. In a separate attack, at least seven Iraqi soldiers were killed and 14 others wounded in an ISIS assault on military units protecting the al-Habaniyah air base, northeast of Ramadi. However, a major impediment to progress has been the tens of thousands of trapped civilians. The counterterrorism forces reached within three kilometers of the city center Thursday before being forced to stop, according to Sabah al-Numan, who explained that preparations are underway to evacuate the families and leaflets are being dropped over Heet to let civilians know which roads can be used to flee safely. [Al Jazeera, AP, 4/1/2016]

Iraqi appeals court upholds $187 million Zain Iraq tax ruling
An Iraqi appeals court has upheld a ruling that obliged the local unit of Kuwait’s Zain to pay a $187 million tax bill related to the acquisition of a rival operator from Egypt’s Orascom Telecom in 2007. The government has tried to levy capital gains on Zain Iraq as the asset buyer, rather than on the seller, Egypt’s Orascom Telecom, which was later renamed Global Telecom. A bourse statement from Zain, the majority shareholder in Zain Iraq, said, “The company has a right to appeal the decision at the cassation court within 30 days, and the company will offer an appeal in the coming days.” Iraq’s tax authority has claimed from Zain Iraq, the country’s biggest mobile operator by subscribers, capital gains tax worth $187 million from its $1.2 billion purchase of Iraqna. [Reuters, 3/31/2016]


Yemeni government says more than 8,000 civilians killed since start of war
Human Rights Minister Ezzedine al-Asbahi said Thursday that the Saudi-led coalition documented more than 66 thousand total casualties, including an estimated eight thousand civilians, since the beginning of the war in December 2014.  The coalition documented 508 children and 470 women among those killed. [Al Masdar, 4/1/2016]

UN says Yemen conflict puts 3.4 million women of reproductive age at risk
A year of conflict in Yemen has left an estimated 3.4 million women of reproductive age between 15 and 49 years in need of humanitarian assistance, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) reported Thursday. Nearly 500,000 women are pregnant and will give birth within the next nine months. The lack of reproductive health services and supplies can result in an estimated 1,000 maternal deaths among 68,000 pregnant women who are at risk of life-threatening complications during childbirth. “Women and girls lack access to humanitarian aid, including reproductive health services, and are therefore even more at risk of unwanted pregnancies, which, in turn, can put their lives at risk,” UNFPA Country Representative Lene K. Christiansen said in a press release, noting that the status of women and girls was already weak in Yemen prior to the conflict as gender-based violence was common at home. (UN News Centre, 3/31/2016]

Modi’s Saudi visit part of push to ‘de-hyphenate’ India from Pakistan
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Saudi Arabia on Sunday is part of a broader diplomatic offensive to put pressure on arch rival Pakistan by forging ties with some of Islamabad’s closest allies, Indian ruling party and government officials said. Modi is expected to sign trade agreements, including contracts to secure investment for infrastructure projects, and offer security and military cooperation, such as training and joint exercises, they said. The visit comes just months after he traveled to another Pakistan ally, the United Arab Emirates, and signed a security cooperation agreement that includes regular meetings between top security advisers. [Reuters, 4/1/2016]


Saudi plans $2 trillion fund for post-oil era
Saudi Arabia plans to set up a $2 trillion Public Investment Fund that will reduce the kingdom’s reliance on oil, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said. As part of that effort, Saudi Arabia will sell less than 5 percent of shares in Aramco and transform the oil giant into an industrial conglomerate. The initial public offering will happen as early as 2017 and no later than 2018. The aim is to “make investments the source of Saudi government revenue, not oil,” Prince Mohammed said. “What is left now is to diversify investments. So within 20 years, we will be an economy or state that doesn’t depend mainly on oil,” he added. Prince Mohammed said the Public Investment Fund is looking at “two opportunities outside Saudi Arabia” in the financial industry, the prince said, declining to name the possible acquisition targets. “Undoubtedly, it will be the largest fund on Earth,” he said. “This will happen as soon as Aramco goes public.” [Reuters, Bloomberg, FT, 4/1/2016]

Three Libya oil ports set to reopen
Three Libyan oil ports that have been closed for over a year are set to reopen now that a unity government has arrived in Tripoli. “We are planning to reopen the ports. It’s under the control of the unity government now,” said Spokesman for the Petroleum Facilities Guard Ali al-Hassi. The Government of National Reconciliation confirmed on its Facebook page that the “guards [protecting] the installations had agreed to open ports and work immediately.” The reopening of the ports in Es Sider, Ras Lanuf and Zueitina raises hope that Libya can increase its oil exports. However a return to normal production may not be straightforward, as facilities at the ports have been damaged by fighting and attacks.  [WSJ, 3/31/2016]

Egypt to ban rice exports from April 4 amid shortages
Egypt will ban rice exports starting on April 4 in an effort to preserve stocks for the local market and to combat rising prices, Trade Minister Tarek Kabil said Thursday. He said the ban aims to provide for the needs of the domestic market. Egypt lifted a previous ban on rice in October due to an expected surplus and imposed an export tariff. That decision is set to expire on April 3. “The ministry is coordinating with all the ministries and concerned entities to tighten and control all customs and borders to prevent rice smuggling in order to take deterrent measures against violators,” Kabil said. “The decision will positively contribute to the stability in rice prices for consumers.” [Reuters, DNE, 3/31/2016]