Top News: Former Regime Official Nominated as New Tunisian Prime Minister

Habib Essid, a former Tunisian interior minister, has been nominated as prime minister to form a new government after an agreement among political parties in the newly elected parliament.

The nominee worked in the Ben Ali government and also served as interior minister after the 2011 revolution that ended Ben Ali’s one-party rule. His nomination follows the election of Beji Caid Essebsi, also a former Ben Ali minister, as president. Essebi’s secular Nidaa Tounes party holds the most seats in the new parliament. Essid will now appoint a government that must then be approved by a vote in the parliament. [ReutersAl Arabiya, 1/5/2015]



Egyptian court orders retrial of Al Jazeera journalists
Egypt’s highest court has ordered a retrial of three jailed journalists working for Al Jazeera television, citing procedural flaws in last year’s trial, defense lawyers said on Thursday. The three were not granted bail, however, meaning that they will remain behind bars after one year in detention. Following the order, two of the journalists, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy and Australian Peter Greste, applied to be deported under a new law, which allows for foreign convicts or suspects to be transferred to their country to serve their sentences or to be tried there. Meanwhile, Al Jazeera has called on Egyptian authorities to speed up the retrial. [Reuters, Ahram Online, DNE, Aswat Masriya, Mada Masr, 1/2/2015]

Pro-Morsi coalition calls for rally on January 2011 anniversary
Egypt’s largest coalition supporting ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy (NASL), has called on its supporters to rally on the fourth anniversary of the January 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak. “We demand the Egyptian people to be ready to continue their uprising that started in 2011, calling for the rights of bread, freedom, and dignity,” a statement by the coalition late Wednesday read.  Wednesday’s statement highlighted that NASL is preparing for a campaign under the name “Egypt speaks revolution” in order to prepare a 25 January 2015 “uprising.” [Ahram Online, Aswat Masriya, 1/1/2015]

Rafah-Gaza buffer zone expands; more Sinai residents to be evacuated
Egypt will begin work on phase two of the buffer zone on the Rafah-Gaza border next week, state news agency MENA reported. North Sinai governor Abdel-Fattah Harhour said in a meeting with locals that eviction operations for the additional 500 meters to be added to the buffer zone will take place next week. Approximately 1,200 houses are expected to be evacuated and demolished. Harhour asked residents to report to the local council to file for compensation. The government has so far disbursed EGP 242 million as compensation for the families that had to evacuate their homes to make way for the buffer zone. According to Harhour, the government allocated EGP 500 million ($70 million) as compensation for families in the first phase alone. [Ahram Online, DNE, 1/3/2014]

Governor reshuffle in January, says Sisi
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said that a reshuffle of city governors is expected in January, adding that the performance of the government is good. Sisi added, however, that “we need more effort” and that he does not feel satisfied with the performance of ministers. He added that a ministerial reshuffle is also expected to take place to satisfy “popular interest.” Commenting on the security situation, Sisi said that a secret operation is currently taking place, following new techniques in fighting terrorism. When asked about the status of imprisoned youth, Sisi ordered a committee from the “media youth” to monitor the prisons. The ministry of interior was also ordered to do a full scale revision on the arrested youth, and whoever will be found innocent will freed, he said. [Ahram Online, DNE, 12/29/2014]

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UN-brokered Libya negotiations delayed; Arab League to discuss Libya; France rules out intervention
A new round of UN-brokered peace talks aimed at ending Libya’s political crisis has been delayed once more, according to diplomatic sources. Dialogue has been repeatedly delayed due to difficulties in getting the parties to agree to meet, and it is unclear when, and if, the new round would take place. Separately, Arab League ambassadors are meeting today to discuss the deepening conflict, following a request by Libya’s internationally recognized government, which is supported by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Meanwhile, French President Francois Hollande said that France would not intervene unilaterally in Libya but that it would strike Islamic extremists seeking to leave the southern part of the country to bring arms into the African Sahel. [Reuters, AFP, AP, 1/5/2015]

At least twenty Egyptian Christians kidnapped in Libya; Egypt issues warning to its citizens
Masked gunmen in Sirte kidnapped thirteen Coptic Christians over the weekend after seven others were abducted days earlier, said a witness and a priest, in a new wave of assaults against Egypt’s Christians working in Libya. Early reports on Monday indicate that the thirteen have been released. Sirte has become a safe haven for extremist Islamist groups like Ansar al-Sharia, blamed for the September 2012 attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry issued a statement urging Egyptians in the city to stay indoors until the government can facilitate a safe return home. The ministry assured it is working with its Libyan contacts to determine the whereabouts of those abducted, but efforts are hampered as “many of the regions are out of state control.” [AP, Libya Herald, 1/4/2015]

ISIS militants kill fourteen Libyan soldiers, says Tobruk government
Supporters of the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL), the militant group that has overrun parts of Iraq and Syria, have killed fourteen Libyan soldiers in the south of the country, the official, Tobruk-based government said on Saturday. Western and regional states fear ISIS and other radical Islamists are seeking to exploit a power vacuum in the oil-producing nation. A website called Islamic State in Libya claimed responsibility for killing twelve soldiers at the same location and posted a picture purporting to show the execution of one soldier. The rival Libyan parliament in the capital denounced the killing, according to a Tripoli-based news agency. ISIS is attempting to open a branch in the eastern city of Derna; the US military is monitoring nascent efforts by ISIS to train several hundred fighters there. [Reuters, 1/3/2015]

Two killed in Derna tanker attack; more airstrikes carried out against Misrata
A Greek-operated oil tanker has reportedly been attacked by aircraft loyal to the Tobruk government at the port of Derna in eastern Libya, killing two crew members. The vessel was said to be delivering gasoil to power generators that supply Derna, Khoms, Benghazi, and Misrata. Ahmed al-Mismari, a spokesman for armed forces loyal to the elected Tobruk government, justified the attack, saying the tanker was warned not to approach Libyan waters. Meanwhile, those forces staged another round of airstrikes on Misrata, a western city that has helped to prop up the rival government in Tripoli. The first aerial strikes against it, marking an escalation in the conflict, were carried out last week. Fighting between the two competing factions was also reported near the country’s biggest oil export port in the east. [Libya Monitor (subscription), Reuters, 1/5/2015]

Former regime official nominated as new Tunisian prime minister
Habib Essid, a former Tunisian interior minister, has been nominated as prime minister to form a new government after an agreement among political parties in the newly elected parliament. The nominee worked in the Ben Ali government and also served as interior minister after the 2011 revolution that ended Ben Ali’s one-party rule. His nomination follows the election of Beji Caid Essebsi, also a former Ben Ali minister, as president. Essebi’s secular Nidaa Tounes party holds the most seats in the new parliament. Essid will now appoint a government that must then be approved by a vote in the parliament. [Reuters, Al Arabiya, 1/5/2015]

Suspected militants stab Tunisian policeman to death
Suspected Islamist militants captured and killed a Tunisian police officer, stabbing him and slashing his throat as he traveled home off-duty south of the capital, the government said on Sunday. Nine suspected militants were arrested after the officer was killed. The violence was part of ongoing insecurity, as Islamist militants wage a campaign against security forces, who are trying to flush them out from the Chaambi mountains bordering Algeria. Authorities are also worried about Islamist extremists using remote, desert areas of neighboring Libya as a base. [Reuters, 1/4/2015]


Khaled Khoja elected president of Syrian opposition organization
Syria’s Western-backed political opposition group, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, has elected a new presidential committee and a president widely seen as not tied to any of the body’s international sponsors. Despite having tenuous links with fighters on the ground, the National Coalition remains one of the main parties in international discussions. Khaled Khoja, a forty-nine-year old Damascus-born doctor and businessman, takes over as president from Hadi al-Bahra, who will now serve on the political committee. The role of the vice president reserved for a Kurdish member has not yet been filled, as the Kurdish bloc had not yet presented a new nominee. [Reuters, AFP, 1/5/2014]

Nusra Front fights Hezbollah near Lebanon border
Al-Qaeda-linked fighters battled with members of Lebanese group Hezbollah and the Syrian army in a mountainous area on the Syria-Lebanon border on Saturday, leading to deaths on both sides. Three Hezbollah fighters, five Syrian soldiers, and more than fifteen members of al-Qaeda’s Syria wing Nusra Front were killed when Nusra attacked Flita, a village just inside Syria in the Qalamoun mountain range. Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters to support Syria’s army in the conflict and has regularly clashed with Sunni Islamist groups like Nusra and the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). [Reuters, 1/5/2015]

Islamist group seizes Damascus suburb from rivals
Islamist fighters seized a suburb east of Damascus on Sunday after driving out a smaller rival insurgent group in deadly clashes, the latest example of rebel infighting. Fighters from the Army of Islam clashed with members of the Army of the Nation group in Douma, a strategic suburb on one of the main roads linking the capital with Homs city further north. Both groups include Sunni Muslim fighters opposed to President Bashar al-Assad’s government, and the fighting is seen as more of a turf war than a conflict over ideology. [Reuters, 1/4/2015]

Syrians entering Lebanon face new restrictions
For the first time since colonial powers carved Syria and Lebanon into separate countries, Syrians now need visas to enter Lebanon, the latest and most significant in a series of new measures by Syria’s neighbors to try to control an overwhelming flow of refugees that appears unlikely to end any time soon. Before now, Syrians could stay in Lebanon for up to six months automatically. Under the new measure, Syrians wanting to enter Lebanon will have to fulfil certain criteria in order to be granted a visa at the border. [BBC, NYT, 1/5/2015]

Syrian rebel groups in Aleppo enter alliance
Rebel groups fighting in Syria’s northern Aleppo province have agreed to form an alliance, a group monitoring the country’s civil war said last Thursday. The fight for the northern city of Aleppo, divided between rebels and government forces, is seen as one of the most significant last fronts for mainstream opposition forces in the country’s north. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a number of armed groups in Aleppo had agreed to the alliance, including factions from the Islamic Front, which was a merger of rebel groups announced last year. [Reuters, Carnegie, 12/25/2014]

Turkey, United States to finalize Syrian rebel training this month
Turkey and the United States aim to finalize an agreement on equipping and training moderate Syrian rebels this month, a senior foreign ministry official said on Monday, part of the US-led campaign to battle the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) militants. The training is expected to start in March, simultaneously with similar programs in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The aim is to train 15,000 Syrian rebels over three years; around 1,500 to 2,000 are expected to be trained in Turkey in the first year. The training is planned to take place at a base in the central Turkish city of Kirsehir. [Reuters, 1/5/2015]


Houthis block Yemen’s new constitution and reject federal plan
The leader of Yemen’s Shia rebel Houthi movement on Saturday rejected an agreement reached last year to divide the country into six federally organized regions, a major blow to efforts to unite the divided country. Houthis, however, continue to push to expand their territorial gains and have been moving toward the south-central city of Taiz, where on Saturday thousands demonstrated against them. On Monday, the Houti movement also refused to approve the draft of a new constitution because of a clause including the same division of the country into six regions. [Washington Post, Yemen Fox, 1/5/2015]

Violence targeting Houthis continues unabated

A suicide bomber killed at least twenty-six people in central Yemen last Wednesday when he blew himself up at a cultural center where students were celebrating the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday. At least forty-eight people were wounded, including many women and children. On Thursday, clashes between the Yemeni army and tribesmen in Marib province left seven dead and more than fifteen injured. Meanwhile, a large blast damaged a building belonging to the Houthi militia in a western district of the capital Sana’a early on Monday, but there were no fatalities. [Reuters, 1/5/2015]

Yemenis Protest in cities across Yemen against Houthi presence
Hundreds of Yemenis took to the streets of Sana’a on Saturday calling for the withdrawal of Houthi militants from the capital. Protesters gathered outside the eastern gate of Sana’a University and toured several streets before reaching the Sana’a Municipality building. They called for Houthis to leave the city and demanded Sana’a Mayor Abdul-Qader Hilal take back the sixth military district headquarters and turn it into a public park. Thousands of residents in Taiz, south of Sana’a, staged similar rallies on Friday and Saturday. [Yemen Fox, 1/3/2014]

Yemen’s al-Qaeda branch is surging, as instability grips the country

Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen is surging in strength, finding new support and recruits among the country’s Sunni tribesmen, in a backlash to drone strikes and the rise to power of Shia rebels who have taken over the capital and other parts of the country, tribal leaders and Yemeni officials warn. The turmoil in Yemen has taken on a sharply sectarian tone, pitting Sunni against Shia, to the benefit of Sunni al-Qaeda. Houthi power “is only increasing al-Qaeda membership,” an al-Qaeda member in Yemen told The Associated Press. He said the group’s strategy is to exploit the Houthis’ overextension from their base in the north, “drag them into a long war, and force them to retreat.” [AP, 1/5/2015]


Egypt’s current account hits deficit of $1.4 billion in first quarter  
Egypt’s current account recorded a $1.4 billion deficit from July to September, in contrast to a $610 million surplus in the same period last year when Gulf states provided billions of dollars in aid. According to a statement by the Egyptian central bank, the deficit was driven by a wider trade gap and a contraction in net transfers which was offset by a rise in foreign direct investment due to a jump in net inflows to the oil sector to $948.1 million from $377.6 million. [Reuters, Zawya, 12/30/2014]

Libya managing scant oil output as fighting shuts major ports
According to officials, Libya is producing 128,000 barrels of oil a day from fields connected to the far eastern port of Hariga, a fraction of the 1.6 million barrels a day it produced prior to 2011. Fighting continues to halt work at the major ports of Ras Lanuf and Es Sider, where several oil storage tanks have been on fire for days due to clashes. Official figures show that the fires destroyed more than two days of the country’s production. The western ports of Zawiya and Mellitah have also had to halt oil exports as the conflict shut down the connecting fields of al Sharara and al Feel.  [Reuters, 12/29/2014]

Attacks on energy infrastructure “big challenge” to Yemen economy
Yemen’s economy is on the brink of collapse due to the deepening financial problems, which are mostly blamed on repeated attacks on oil infrastructure. This past year, authorities reported around eighteen attacks on the main Marib pipeline alone. The latest attack on the pipeline was on November 26 and left a hole in the pipe leaking crude for more than a month. According to a report from the oil and minerals ministry, the leak amounts to around 52.000 barrels so far and local tribes have prevented the authorities from fixing the damage. All attacks resulted in production disruptions at Marib and Shabwa oilfields, which in return has been reflected in the budget deficit and fund shortages. The national economy depends largely on oil revenues, which account for around 70 percent of budget resources. [Yemen Post, 1/4/2015]

Moroccan economy grows 2.9 percent
Morocco’s High Commission for Planning reported that Morocco’s GDP grew 2.9 percent in the third quarter of 2014 compared to the 4.1 percent in the same period the year before. According to the source an overall 3.7 percent increase in non-agricultural activities and a 1.6 percent shrink in agricultural activities was recorded. The general added value registered in economic activity rose 2.9 percent compared to the 3.8 percent in the same period in 2013. [MAP, 12/31/2014]

Jordan’s GDP up by 3.1 percent in third quarter
According to the Department of Statistics, Jordan’s economy grew by 3.1 percent at constant market prices during the third quarter of 2014. Most sectors recorded positive growth during the period from July to September compared with the results achieved during the same period in 2013, with the mining industry recording the highest growth rate at 43.7 percent.  [Zawya, 1/1/2015]