Top News: Geneva talks end first round, government uncommitted to return February 10

A contentious week-long first round of Syrian peace talks ended on Friday with no progress towards ending the civil war and the government delegation unable to say whether it will return for the next round in ten days. UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said the opposition delegation would be back on February 10, but President Bashar al-Assad’s delegates had told him they would have to check with Damascus before agreeing to return. “They didn’t tell me that they are thinking of not coming. On the contrary, they said that they would come, but they needed to check with their capital,” Brahimi told a news conference. Several diplomats reflected that the regime’s performance at Geneva was a strategic misstep, while the opposition claimed some success. [ReutersNaharnetThe Daily Star, 1/31/2014]


Islamist rallies on Friday see limited clashes
Following a call by the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy for its supporters to rally for one week starting Friday in order to commemorate martyrs, Egypt has witnessed limited protests across several governorates. Protests have been seen in Cairo’s Maadi, Helwan, Nasr City and Ain Shams, as well as in Giza and Minya. Protests in Sharqiya broke out in clashes between supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi and residents, leaving five injured. Clashes also broke out in Mattariya, where residents and pro-Morsi protesters exchanged gunfire and several homes were set on fire according to Al-Ahram. In Suez, police pursued protesters participating in a pro-Morsi march as they emerged from a mosque after Friday prayers, firing teargas at them. In Alexandria, clashes broke out between protesters and the police, with security forces firing teargas at protesters. Ten protesters, who according to Tahrir were in possession of blades and molotov cocktails, were arrested in Alexandria. Al-Ahram reports that six Brotherhood members were arrested in Abdeen, also in possession of molotov cocktails. Heightened security was seen in Mohandessin and at the Helwan police station, in anticipation of pro-Morsi protests. On Thursday, at least one person was killed in clashes between residents and pro-Morsi protesters in Alexandria according to a ministry of interior statement. [Aswat Masriya, EGYNews (Arabic), 1/31/2014]

Police to arrest social media users ‘inciting’ violence
Egypt’s interior ministry has said that it will start arresting those using social media websites to incite violence against the police and other citizens. In a statement released on Thursday, the ministry said that its initiative to track online users is in response to “terrorist” Muslim Brotherhood members who use social media sites to urge others to commit violence as well as to provide detailed instructions on how to create explosives and plant them in police cars and buildings. The statement included the names of ten Brotherhood members who had all been arrested, most of whom had allegedly administered Facebook pages that incited violence against police and advocated the use of terrorism against the state. South Giza prosecutors ordered the detention of a blogger for fifteen days pending investigation into charges that he threatened national security. The blogger allegedly created a Facebook page called “Free Army of Egypt, Iraq and the Levant”, which calls for armed militias to oppose security forces. [Ahram Online, Egypt Independent, 1/31/2014]

Defending subsidy cuts, government officials accuse wealthy of abusing the system 
Egypt’s wealthiest citizens are abusing energy subsidies, a government official claimed in a panel discussion on Thursday. Of citizens belonging to the wealthiest 20 percent of Egyptian society, 72 percent were taking advantage of ration cards for subsidized energy, claimed General Abu Bakr al-Gendy, the head of the governmental Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), reported the state-owned Middle East News Agency (MENA). “We have to take real and practical steps towards amending the subsidy system,” he said. “These steps include revising the consumption rates database and developing appropriate mechanisms like smart cards, in addition to reviewing the costs of these services and studying ways to reduce them.” [Mada Masr, 1/30/2014]

African Union stands by decision on Egypt suspension
The African Union (AU) High-Level Panel for Egypt “affirmed the correctness” of the July 2013 decision to suspend Egypt’s activities within the union. The panel prepared a progress report containing the details of their visits, which was presented in full to the African Union Peace and Security Council (PSC) on Wednesday evening. Within the “observations” section of the report, which was published on Thursday, the panel said the decision taken by the PSC in July was correct. During their meetings the panel pointed out that the PSC’s decisions “should not be misconstrued as a punitive measure”. The PSC at the time said that Morsi’s removal “did not conform to the relevant provisions of the Egyptian Constitution and, therefore, fell under the definition of an unconstitutional change of government as provided for in the relevant AU instruments”, which prompted the suspension. Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Nabil Fahmy is scheduled to meet with a delegation from the British parliament, head of the Arab Parliament Ahmed Al-Jarwan, and Sierra Leone’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Samura Kamara on Saturday to discuss Egypt’s situation in the wake of the passing of the 2012 amended constitution. [DNE, 1/31/2014]


Libya sets February 20 for constitution assembly vote
In a small step in its transition to democracy, Libya will elect an assembly on February 20 to draft a constitution. “We want all Libyan people and groups to reconcile and support these elections,” General National Congress President Nouri Abu Sahmain said after announcing the date of the vote. The short lead time to the elections – just three weeks – has already drawn some criticism that it will be difficult for voters to get to know the candidates. Once the sixty-member constitutional assembly is elected, it will have 120 days to draft a new charter, which would then be submitted to a popular referendum. If the document is approved, the country will prepare for parliament elections. The drafting process, however, is likely to be complicated by the demands of tribal, regional, and ethnic interest groups. [Reuters, Libya Herald, 1/30/2014]

First private real estate investment fund approved by central bank
The Central Bank of Libya has given its approval to a LD 165 million ($125 million) Islamic Real Estate Fund, shares in which will be traded on the Tripoli Stock Exchange. It is the first private real estate fund in the country, and the managers, Tadawul Financial Services, say they expect it to be oversubscribed. Returns in the region of 20 percent are anticipated. The main focus on investment, however, will be in four predefined development projects in Tripoli and Benghazi in partnership with the landowners. Investments will have to be approved by a Sharia board, as yet to be appointed. [Libya Herald, 1/31/2014]

Transport ministry invites private sector participation in Libyan public bus system
Libya’s transport ministry has invited the private sector to participate in establishing a public bus system. At a seminar organized by the Tripoli Chamber of Commerce, Deputy Transport Minister for Roads and Land Transport Abdulrizag al-Houd presented a proposal for a private sector public bus transport system. The objective of the seminar was to identify the barriers to the improving Libya’s transport sector and to provide suggested solutions in line with the country’s target to diversify its economy away from the hydrocarbon sector. Al-Houd agreed that a good public bus system needed a good road system but stressed that Libya would have to address these matters simultaneously. [Libya Herald, 1/31/2014]


US raises estimates of foreign fighters; France cracking down; Indonesians joining fight
More than 7,000 foreign militants are fighting for the rebels in Syria’s civil war and some are being trained to return home and conduct attacks, according to US spy chiefs. The estimate, given at a Senate intelligence hearing, was much higher than earlier figures of 3,000 to 4,000 foreign fighters in Syria. The first trial of French citizens accused of attempting to join the rebellion in Syria began Thursday. The three men were indicted under a law enacted in 2012 that makes it a crime to have the intent to prepare terrorist acts. A Jakarta-based think tank released a report Friday stating that Indonesian militants have joined the ranks of thousands of foreign fighters who have traveled to Syria to join extremist groups trying to create an Islamic state there, adding concern that it could help revive a weakened jihad movement in Indonesia and trigger more attacks on minority Shia in the Southeast Asian country. According to the report the Syrian conflict had “captured the imagination of Indonesian extremists in a way no foreign war has before.” [The National, 1/31/2014]

Aid enters besieged Yarmouk refugee camp for second day
The United Nations distributed food in the Syrian capital’s besieged Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp for a second day Friday in a bid to help tens of thousands of trapped civilians. The aid distribution comes after months of siege by the army that has caused shortages of food and medicines, which have led to the deaths of eighty-six people. The UN Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA) spokesperson said an aid convoy entered the camp in south Damascus on Friday morning, following the distribution of 1,026 food parcels Thursday. [AFP.1/31/2014]

Kurdistan’s “Islamic” parties seek to downplay Islam
Kurdistan’s two main Islamist parties—the Kurdistan Islamic Group and Kurdistan Islamic Union—are witnessing separate internal attempts to drop the term “Islamic” from their names in order to broaden their public appeal. Nazim Abdulla, a senior member of the Kurdistan Islamic Group led by Ali Bapir, has recently called on the party to drop the term “Islamic” from its name in order to strengthen its presence on the political scene. He warned that the Islamist group—colloquially referred to as Komal—might be losing potential supporters due to some Kurds being intimidated by the “Islamic” nature of the group. Abdulla said it was important to clarify that the Kurdistan Islamic Group was seeking to serve the interests of all Kurds “regardless of their ideological views or background.” [Asharq al-Awsat, 1/31/2014]


EU support program launched
The EU-funded Programme of Support to the Civil Society in Tunisia (PASC) met on Thursday in Tunis. The program is one component of the EU’s assistance to the country’s democratic transition process. More than 200 public actors and representatives of civil society organizations from different regions of the country met in order to create a network and share their experiences. PASC was established by the Tunisian ministry of development and international cooperation and the delegation of the EU to Tunisia, has a budget of seven million euros, and lasts forty-eight months, from 2012 to 2016. Its objective is to reinforce the capacities of Tunisian civil society organizations in their effective contribution to political dialogue, to the consolidation of the rule of law, to the democratization of the country and to the socio-economic development of Tunisia. [TAP, 1/30/2014]

Tunisian blogger plans to return to Tunisia to challenge prison sentence
Yassine Ayari, a Tunisian blogger currently living in Paris, will return to Tunisia next Friday to challenge his six month prison sentence. Ayari received the sentence earlier this week after being found guilty of calling for the murder of leftist political analyst Mondher Thabet in a Facebook post. Ayari claims that Thabet represents the government of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was removed from power during the revolution in 2011, and as a result should be held accountable, along with judges and media personnel he also believes to be corrupt. Ayari is a computer science engineer, journalist, blogger, and cyber-activist and is known for his constant criticism of the actions of the opposition. [Tunisia Live, 1/30/2014]

Central bank trims growth forecast for 2014
The central bank stated on Thursday that it predicts that the economy will grow by 3.8 percent in 2014, a slight reduction from their original prediction of 4 percent. The bank did not provide a reason as to why they were lowering the expected growth rate. In 2013, the economy grew by 3 percent. Nonetheless, the central bank has expressed optimism regarding “progress of the political process and its positive impact on the improvement of visibility among investors and financing institutions, as well as on boosting co-operation with international financial institutions”. On Wednesday, the International Monetary Fund on Wednesday approved a $507 million loan tranche for the North African country, the second part of a $1.5 billion credit agreed at the start of 2013. [Al Arabiya, 1/30/2014]


Confrontation heats up between government and former regime
Soon after the end of the National Dialogue, tensions have increased between the current government and the former regime as the government has stepped up efforts reclaim money stolen by former regime officials and has threatened to utilize local and international courts to do so. The allegations against former officials center on the sale of liquefied natural gas at exorbitantly low prices far below market value, which prompted the launch of an investigation. Rumors are also circulating that the government has begun the process of freezing money believed to have been stolen and stashed abroad. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council are also considering placing sanctions on Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and former vice-president Ali Salem al-Beidh. [al-Masdar (Arabic), 1/31/2014]

Clashes in South over presence of armored brigade
In addition to a series of separatist protests since Tuesday, the Southern province of al-Dali’ has been the site of ongoing clashes between Herak militants and the military. The Southern separatist movement has demanded the removal of the 33rd Armored Brigade from the province, a popular demand since the Brigade shelled a funeral procession in December. The military claims they are shelling the city in order to combat militants, though Herak militants claim their attacks are in response to the shelling. After an order came for the dismissal of the Brigade’s commanding officer, the Brigade’s forces have fortified its headquarters, encircling the compound with tanks, refusing to honor the order citing the abduction and continued detention of their comrades by the separatists. [Yemen Times, Gulf News; 1/30/2014]

Attack on military base in Hadramawt leaves fifteen dead
At least fifteen soldiers were killed Friday after an assault believed to be carried out by al-Qaeda targeted a military base in Hadramawt province. After an initial attack by gunmen, witnesses confirmed that they heard explosions, though it is not yet known if improvised explosives were used or if grenades were thrown in the exchange. [Mareb Press (Arabic), Gulf News; 1/31/2014]

Yemen signs bilateral coopation deals with Jordan
Following a meeting between President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi and Jordanian Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour in Sana’a, the two countries announced a series of bilateral initiatives for the countries to cooperate in a wide range of fields from education and scientific research to environmental protection and agriculture. In addition, Yemen’s minister of planning and international cooperation met with the ambassador from the UAE to talk about similar collaborative initiatives. [Ammon, Saba; 1/31/2014]


Iraqi army kills forty ISIS fighters
Iraqi armed forces, in partnership with tribal fighters in Anbar province, killed forty fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the city of Fallujah. They also destroyed weapons and seized four ISIS headquarters. Since December 2013, Iraqi forces, along with the police and tribal forces, have been battling to regain control over areas in Anbar, which shares a 300 kilometer border with Syria. On Friday morning, two rockets hit Baghdad airport but there were no casualties. The attack on the international airport came a day after militants briefly occupied a building housing a transport ministry state-owned company and took hostages. [Al Arabiya, 1/31/2014]

Despite oil wealth, Saudis unhappy
Though the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has sold the world more than a trillion dollars worth of oil in the past three years alone, Saudi citizens remain dissatisfied. The Kingdom has pursued massive infrastructural projects including new universities and road projects,  but the “machinery of government” remains the same as it ever has. One diplomat said of the Kingdom, “The government keeps people quiet with money, and in the rare cases that doesn’t work, with threats. But this is not a happy place.” [Economist, 1/31/2014]

Kuwaiti MP calls for five-year cap on expat workers’ stay
A Kuwaiti member of parliament is calling for new limits on expatriate workers working the country. The proposal, coming as neighbors in Saudi Arabia have deported hundreds of thousands of such immigrants, would place a limit of five-years as the maximum stay for unskilled foreign workers and limit the number of workers from each country to no more than 124,000. The number of Indian workers, the largest expatriate group in the country, in Kuwait is more than 700,000; 500,000 Egyptian workers live in the Gulf nation as well alongside hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis, Filipinos, and other foreign nationals. [Gulf News, 1/30/2014]

Image: (Photo: US Mission in Geneva/Flickr)