Top News: Iran Says Warships at Entrance to Key Yemen Strait

Two Iranian destroyers, sent to the Gulf of Aden to protect commercial ships, have reached the entrance of Bab al-Mandab, a strategic strait between Yemen and Djibouti. “We are present in the Gulf of Aden in accordance with international regulations to ensure the safety of commercial ships of our country against the threat of pirates,” said the head of the Iranian navy, Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayari. The navy sent the Alborz and Bushehr destroyers to patrol the entrance to the strait, he added. Sayari said the two destroyers would stay posted around Bab el-Mandab until late June. [AFP, 4/30/2015]



New secular party to ‘challenge religious dominance’
A new political party, the Egyptian Secular Party (ESP), has been proposed to challenge what the founders see as the dominance of religious institutions over the Egyptian state, and to call for the writing of a secular constitution. The party’s main principles include abolishing all articles related to the Islamic nature of the Egyptian state in the constitution, including Article Two, which stipulates that Islamic Sharia is the main source of legislation. The party proposes the reform of the legal system, to include civil marriage and a secular personal status law. The party’s founder Hisham Ouf told Mada Masr that their aim is to encourage the separation of religion from politics and the state. [Mada Masr, 4/30/2015]

Ahmed Moussa loses Esraa Abdel Fattah libel case
Television presenter Ahmed Moussa was fined 15,000 Egyptian pounds for defaming activist Esraa Abdel Fattah. Moussa lost the case after filing an appeal, according to Abdel Fattah’s lawyer Ramy Ghanem. Ghanem won the case against Moussa’s defense lawyer Farid al-Deeb, a lawyer who also represents Hosni Mubarak. Moussa has also been sentenced to two years in prison and ordered to pay a 20,000 Egyptian pound fine for insulting and defaming Osama Al-Ghazali Harb, head of the Democratic Front political party. In 2014, the Nasr City Misdemeanour Court sentenced Moussa to six months’ imprisonment with hard labor or 5,000 Egyptian pound bail for insulting the lawyer of the Zamalek Sporting Club’s fan group the Ultras White Knights Tarek al-Awady. [DNE, 4/29/2015]

AFTE campaign calls for reinstatement of expelled students
The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) condemned on Thursday Egyptian universities’ “deliberate expansive use of their abusive authority to expel students.” In a statement released by the group, they called on administrations to “reconsider” their decisions to dismiss hundreds of students. Expulsion based on political practices and activities has become the one of the top violations that students in Egyptian public, private, and al-Azhar universities have been exposed to over the past two years, according to the AFTE statement. AFTE added that university administrations are thereby “withholding from students their right to education” because these students “were practicing their right to free expression on their campuses.” Protests under the title “Bring back our students” took place on various university campuses at the beginning of the most recent academic semester in February. [DNE, 4/30/2015]

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UN wants Libya agreement by Ramadan
UN Special Representative to Libya Bernardino Leon said that it was difficult to be optimistic that a peace deal could be reached between the rival Tobruk and Tripoli governments, but the aim was to try to broker an agreement on a unity government before the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan starts in mid-June. Leon said he gave the parties a third draft of a possible agreement this week and they are due to respond by Sunday. He added that no military party in Libya is strong enough to take full power and that a unity government is at the center of any deal. Leon wants to see direct, face-to-face meetings as soon as possible, including on issues of security. [Reuters, AP, 4/29/2015]

New helicopters delivered to LNA
Four new helicopter gunships have been delivered to the Libyan National Army, which is allied to the Tobruk-based government. The helicopters are Russian-made Mi-35s and said to have been delivered from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The delivery follows the visit last week to the UAE by the commander of the Libyan armed forces General Khalifa Haftar and Tobruk Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni’s visit to Moscow to discuss military cooperation. Despite an arms embargo, supplies of equipment and arms have reached Tobruk- and Tripoli-allied fighting forces. [Libya Herald, 4/28/2015]

Benghazi refugee center hit
A missile has hit a school in Bengahzi’s Majouri district housing refugees from other parts of the country and five people were wounded in the attack. In a separate incident, part of the Children’s Hospital, near the Benghazi Medical Center, has closed after it was hit by a missile. After a year of war, Benghazi is divided into areas controlled by forces loyal to the Tobruk or Tripoli governments and areas held by Islamist fighters. With rockets crashing daily into its streets, neighborhoods reduced to rubble, and around a tenth of its 1 million people made homeless, Benghazi has now become one of the worst examples of the chaos that followed Qaddafi’s downfall. [Libya Herald, 4/29/2015]

ISIS militants kill two Tunisian reporters kidnapped last year in Libya
Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) militants in Libya killed two Tunisian journalists kidnapped last year, Libyan officials said on Wednesday. A spokesman for Libya’s Tobruk-based government said an arrested militant had admitted that his group had killed the two reporters, the same group that killed the five Libyan journalists whose bodies were found earlier this week. The two Tunisian journalists were kidnapped about eight months ago. [Reuters, 4/29/2015]

China donates military equipment to Tunisia
The Chinese government has donated military equipment to Tunisia to aid its fight against terrorism. The equipment includes weapons, ammunition, bulletproof vests. Representatives from the Chinese government presented the new equipment during a ceremony held at the al-Aouina military barracks. [Tunisia Live, 4/29/2015]


Syrian opposition, activists report chemical attack in Idlib
Syrian activist groups on Wednesday reported another suspected chemical attack in the northwestern province of Idlib. Idlib-based groups said government helicopters dropped at least two barrel bombs containing chlorine on the town of Saraqeb, triggering cases of suffocation. The head of Syria’s main opposition group in exile said he received the reports during his informal meeting with the UN Security Council. Khaled Khoja with the Syrian National Coalition said he urged the council to act on its resolutions, including one adopted last month that threatens action against the use of chemical weapons in Syria.[AP, 4/29/2015]

Blast at explosives factory in Syria kills twenty-five ISIS fighters
Twenty-five fighters from ISIS were killed when a powerful blast rocked an explosives manufacturing plant in al-Mayadeen in Deir Ezzor province. It was not immediately clear whether the explosion was accidental or the result of a missile strike, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Director of Deir Ezzor is Being Silently Slaughtered, Abu Mujahid al-Shami, confirmed the report and said, “While ISIS fighters were outfitting several cars to use as car bombs, an accident occurred and the cars blew up, which caused approximately thirty casualties.” [AFP, 4/30/2015]

Iraq offers amnesty to security personnel who fled ISIS
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Thursday offered an amnesty covering security forces members who fled the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL), provided they return to their units within thirty days. Multiple Iraqi divisions collapsed when an ISIS-led offensive swept through Iraq last June. In their haste to escape, some security personnel shed their uniforms and abandoned vehicles, weapons, and other equipment, which the jihadists have since employed against government forces. The amnesty specifically excludes those who committed offenses including crimes against state security, corruption, and abuse of influence. It was unclear if tens of thousands of so-called “ghost soldiers,” who are on the payroll but do not show up for work and sometimes split salaries with their commanders, would be covered.[AFP, 4/30/2015]

Tense Turkey braces for May 1 clashes
Turkey braced Thursday for a tense Labor Day, with the authorities banning May 1 demonstrations in Taksim Square in Istanbul. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned that any disorder would not be tolerated. This year’s planned union demonstrations will come just two months after parliament passed a controversial security bill giving the police greater powers to crackdown on protests. Authorities in Istanbul have tightened security ahead of the national holiday, with iron barricades already erected in the city center. Istanbul’s Governor Vasip Sahin said that demonstrations would not be allowed in Taksim Square as there was a risk to security and property. Unions and activists have made clear they still intend to take to the streets, in defiance of the restrictions. In related news, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Thursday the strong executive presidency he seeks would bear no resemblance to Asian or African dictatorships, but would be “like a bee… taking something from every flower” to create a uniquely Turkish honey. Erdoğan said systems of checks and balances would be more effective under a full executive presidency.[AFP, 4/30/2015]


Iran says warships at entrance to key Yemen strait
Two Iranian destroyers, sent to the Gulf of Aden to protect commercial ships, have reached the entrance of Bab al-Mandab, a strategic strait between Yemen and Djibouti. “We are present in the Gulf of Aden in accordance with international regulations to ensure the safety of commercial ships of our country against the threat of pirates,” said the head of the Iranian navy, Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayari. The navy sent the Alborz and Bushehr destroyers to patrol the entrance to the strait, he added. Sayari said the two destroyers would stay posted around Bab el-Mandab until late June. [AFP, 4/30/2015]

Saudi Arabia trains Yemeni tribal fighters in war against Houthis
This week 300 tribal fighters trained in Saudi Arabia were deployed back to their home area in the Sirwah district of central Marib province to fight the Houthis and managed to push the militia back, a Yemeni official source told Reuters. A Saudi defense source said there was a plan to bolster Yemeni forces in the battles raging across the country because locals knew the terrain better than Saudis. The kingdom announced last week it would rein in its strikes to give aid and reconciliation efforts more space, but the warring sides have made no visible progress toward talks. [Reuters, 4/29/2015]

Besieged Yemeni city sees worst fighting yet
Arab air strikes and artillery fire rocked the southern Yemeni city of Aden overnight as combatants battled for control of the main airport in fighting described by residents as the worst in over a month of war. The surgical team from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and all local staff and patients were forced to evacuate Aden’s al-Jamhouriya Hospital when the building itself became a battlefront in the fighting. Coalition forces have also continued to strike targets in Sana’a and Taiz despite announcing an end to airstrikes in order to provide space for reconciliation between the warring parties. [Al-Masdar, ICRC, Reuters, 4/30/2015]

Iran calls for UN talks on Yemen at neutral venue
Iran proposed Wednesday to hold UN talks on ending the conflict in Yemen at a neutral venue. Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said the talks should include everyone in Yemen and lead to a broad-based government that has good relations with its neighbors. “It should be a Yemeni-owned and a Yemeni-operated process. We can facilitate,” he said. He recalled the 2001 Bonn conference, held under UN auspices, that paved the way for an Afghan government after the US-led invasion brought down the Taliban. In yesterday’s press briefing, State Department spokesperson, Marie Harf, responded to Zarif’s comments saying that under the right circumstances there could be an openness to Iran participating in negotiations. [AFP, 4/30/2015]


Libya chaos threatens oilfields, power supply, and gas exports to Italy
Libyan protesters demanding jobs have shut down the eastern Irda gas field and are threatening to close the western Wafa oil and gas field, which would stop gas exports to Italy, a spokesman for Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC) said. The closure will worsen widespread power cuts and might shut down one of the last revenue generators for the central bank. Libya’s state electricity firm warned earlier this week that power cuts would worsen. Meanwhile, both the eastern Es Sider oil port and the western El Feel oilfield remain closed. [Reuters, 4/29/2015]

Iraq seeks credit rating before $5 billion bond issue
Iraq plans to obtain a sovereign credit rating and is approaching rating agencies as it prepares for a $5 billion bond issue needed to cover a budget deficit caused by low oil prices. Iraq’s need for cash is acute; the government has projected a budget deficit of about $25 billion this year, in a budget of roughly $100 billion. Obtaining a credit rating from a major agency, which Iraq currently lacks, could help to persuade global fund managers and banks to subscribe to the issue. However, process of obtaining a credit rating could be a delicate one for Iraq, requiring it to open its books to the agencies and disclose new information on its finances. [Reuters, 4/30/2015]

Poll says Egypt’s economic growth set to accelerate over next two years
Egypt’s economic growth is set to accelerate in the next two years, reaching 5.5 percent in fiscal 2016/17, a Reuters poll forecast on Wednesday. After struggling to restore growth during more than four years of political upheaval, the Egyptian economy is showing signs of a revival. The poll showed economists had lifted their growth forecasts for the current fiscal year ending in June to 4.2 percent after the economy grew by more than 5 percent in the first half. The outlook should continue to improve, although not by as much as the government hopes in the near term. [Reuters, 4/29/2015]

Tunisia agrees to public sector wage hike after union talks
Tunisia’s government has agreed to increase the wages of 800,000 public sector workers after negotiations with the main labor union. Tunisia is under pressure from international lenders to reduce public spending and cut the deficit to help economic growth. A union source said the deal for a 50 Tunisian dinar a month ($26) increase was expected to be signed on Thursday. The increase will add about 540 million dinars ($280 million) more public spending to the budget. It raises the minimum wage in the public sector by 15.6 percent, the second such hike in less than two years. [Reuters, 4/29/2015]