Top News: Kerry Meets with Gulf Ministers on Iran, Yemen

Concerns over a final nuclear deal with Iran and civil war in Yemen will top the agenda of talks in Paris on Friday between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Gulf Arab states. Kerry met counterparts from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain, as well as the head of the Gulf Cooperation Council. While in Saudi Arabia on Thursday Kerry said the goal of talks was to “see how we can provide greater assurance to people about the road ahead, as well as build an architecture which allows us to cooperate more effectively.” [Reuters, 5/8/2015]



Sisi frees presidency, cabinet from some public sector labor laws
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued a decree exempting him and the Prime Minister from following public sector labor regulations when it comes to hiring and firing top staffers. Articles 19 and 20 of the Civil Service Law, which was ratified in February this year, hold that senior and executive management positions in the public sector must be openly advertised on a government website. Applicants would be evaluated and selected by a committee, and successful applicants would be given three-year contracts with a one-time option to renew, or the right to take up another position of a similar standing at the end of the employment period. After the first thirty days of employment, new hires also have the right to request termination of the contract. Presidential Decree No. 188/2015 exempts the president’s office and the office of the cabinet from both of those articles. [Mada Masr, 5/7/2015]

EgyptAir pilots withdraw group resignation in response to Sisi’s call
The Egyptian Pilots Association announced on Friday that a group of EgyptAir pilots who had previously announced their collective resignation would withdraw it “for the benefit of their company and in response to the calls of the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi,” according to a statement.
On Wednesday, 224 pilots submitted resignations in objection to a newly issued financial charter, and to demand raises for salaries that have been fixed since 2006. “In response to the calls of the Egyptian president, the association management along with all the pilots have withdrawn all the resignations,” the statement issued early Friday read. The statement also highlighted that the decision of the pilots did not affect EgyptAir flight schedules in any way. [Ahram Online, DNE, Egypt Independent, 5/8/2015]

Egypt’s Sisi heads to Moscow for second time
Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is expected to arrive in Moscow on Friday to participate in the Russian Victory Day celebrations, to be held on Saturday. Saturday marks the 70th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Germany. According to sources, Sisi is also scheduled to meet with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Saturday during his two-day visit. The two heads of states will discuss regional and international developments. The Egyptian president first visited Russia in August 2014, while Putin made a trip to Cairo in February 2015. [Ahram Online, Egypt Independent, 5/8/2015]

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Two killed in rocket strike in Libya’s Benghazi
Two people were killed when a rocket hit a residential building in Benghazi on Thursday, bringing the death toll from recent fighting to at least fifty-three people in the past five weeks, according to medics. Forces loyal to Libya’s internationally recognized government have regained some territory in the city lost last year to Islamist groups, but fighters of the Islamist Majlis al-Shura still control several districts and the commercial port area. Army and medical sources say another thirty-six soldiers and armed youth have been killed and around 270 wounded in street fighting between pro-government and Islamist forces since April. [Reuters, 5/7/2015]

Islamists in Derna issue ultimatum to ISIS, raising prospects of conflict
The prospects of fighting between Islamists in Derna have been raised with the “Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna” (SCMD) issuing an ultimatum to the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL), telling it to renounce extremism or face the consequences. Last Friday, an IS preacher at a local mosque claimed IS and its supporters are the only true Muslims and that SCMD and others are fighting to protect infidels. The SCMD was formed after the launch of Operation Dignity in May 2015. Initially it included Ansar al-Sharia, which pulled out after IS declared SCMD apostate. Both SCMD and IS are firmly anti-Haftar, but there have been numerous clashes between the entities, as much over possession of weapons as ideology. [Libya Herald, 5/7/2015]

No decision made by GNC on whether to suspend participation in dialogue
No decision was made at the General National Congress (GNC) session earlier this week to suspend participation in the UN-sponsored dialogue, despite reports that some members had presented a formal request to consider the move. Fifty-two members apparently signed the petition, asking that the GNC refuse to continue participation until the UN Support Mission in Libya replace Bernardino Leon, whom they have criticized of “arrogant” leadership and driving the country towards civil war with his policies. GNC-appointed Prime Minister Khalifa Ghwell, however, has recently expressed his support for the dialogue endeavors. [Libya Herald, 5/7/2015]

Tunisian inner cabinet meeting focuses on development of two interior governorates
Thursday’s cabinet meeting, under chairmanship of Prime Minister Habib Essid, focused on development issues in the governorates of Gafsa and Tozeur. The meeting looked particularly at the lack of complementarity and integration between the economic sectors, as well as the absence of symbiosis between the private sector and the pace of public investment. The cabinet also discussed the issue of land and examined proposals to energize the development process in the two interior regions. [TAP/All Africa, 5/7/2015]

Tunisia bets on organic farming for sustainable growth
Speaking on the sidelines of an expo at the UTICA building in Tunis, Secretary of State for Tunisian Agriculture Youssef Chahed said that organic farming “holds great untapped export potential and constitutes a priority for the next five years,” stressing its role in spurring job growth, especially in the heart of the country. Tunisia cultivates more than 180 organically farmed foodstuffs, at least sixty of which, such as olive oil and dates, are exported. The sector currently employs approximately 3,000 people. As part of its strategy to expand and advance organic farming, the ministry of agriculture and fishing has selected five pilot-regions in which organic farming will be carried out. [ANSAmed, TAP/All Africa, 5/8/2015]


United States begins training Syrian rebels
The US military has begun training a small group of Syrian rebels in an effort to build a force capable of defeating Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said about ninety people were being trained in a secure location and they would be paid by the US. He said more fighters would begin training soon at sites in Jordan, Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. Supporting the troops militarily on the battlefield has not been ruled out. Nearly 4,000 fighters volunteered for the program but, after an extensive screening process, only 400 were selected. Carter pointed out that the role of the force would be to take on the ISIS and not the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. However, he did not say what would happen if the rebels engaged the Syrian army. The Pentagon intends to train and arm more than 15,000 rebels over the next three years. [BBC, NY Times, Reuters, AP, 5/8/2015]

Syrian activists report new chlorine attacks in Idlib
Syrian activists and a doctor reported of new suspected chemical attacks in the northwestern province of Idlib, leaving several dozens of people suffering from asphyxiation. Mohammed Tennari, a doctor who testified before the UN Security Council last month, said there were at least three separate attacks in the province that injured nearly eighty people. Tennari shared field reports from doctors in the three villages that were reportedly hit. The reports said government helicopters dropped barrel bombs containing chlorine on the villages of Janoudieh, Kansafrah, and Kafr Batiekh on Thursday. On Tuesday, the Syrian National Coalition sent a letter to the President of the UN Security Council to call for “urgent… action to prevent further atrocities” after the Assad regime’s latest chemical weapons attacks.[AP, 5/8/2015]

Saudi Arabia plans pan-opposition meeting on Syria after Assad
Saudi Arabia wants to bring together the many branches of Syria’s armed and political opposition to discuss what to do after the regime’s downfall. Saudi Arabia is a main backer of forces fighting to topple Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. “In mid-June, Saudi leaders want to unite all — or a vast majority — of Syrian political and military opponents to prepare” for the period after Assad, said Haytham Manna, a veteran opposition figure heading the “Cairo conference,” a gathering of opposition figures living in Syria and abroad. This meeting would “not include the jihadists of the Nusra Front and of ISIS.” Saudi Arabia had tentatively organized its pan-opposition meeting for May 3, but was forced to abandon the idea due to differences among opposition groups. But closer ties between Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey — previously competing for influence over Syria’s rebels — had led to a string of recent victories for opposition fighters, said Manna.[AFP, 5/8/2015]

Thirty-four dead in ISIS assault on Deir Ezzor
Battles between Syrian regime forces and ISIS in Deir Ezzor have left thirty-four fighters dead in twenty-four hours, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Observatory said nineteen pro-government forces and fifteen ISIS extremists had been killed since clashes began late Wednesday in the city of Deir Ezzor and around its nearby military airport. The head of the regime’s aerial defense at the airport was killed in the fighting. Four government soldiers were beheaded by ISIS Thursday as the terrorists seized a key checkpoint in the city near the air base.[AFP, 5/8/2015]


Yemeni rebels to pay dearly for Saudi bombardments, says coalition
Yemeni rebels have crossed a “red line” and will pay a high price for deadly bombardments of Saudi Arabia, the Saudi-led coalition said Thursday, hours after the kingdom proposed a humanitarian ceasefire. Shells fired from Yemen this week killed several people in Saudi Arabia’s border region, the first attacks on populated areas of the kingdom since a Saudi-led coalition began air strikes against the Shia Houthi rebels on March 26. “The equation is different, the confrontation is different, and they will pay a harsh and expensive price,” said coalition spokesman Brigadier General Ahmed al-Assiri. [AFP, 5/8/2015]

Saudi Arabia and United States say ceasefire in Yemen coming “soon”
Saudi Arabia and the United States said Thursday a renewable, five-day cease-fire in Yemen’s war would start soon to facilitate aid to millions of civilians in need, on condition that Iran-backed militants also agree to stop fighting. Saudi-led warplanes on Friday bombed targets in Yemen’s Saada province, a bastion of Iranian-allied Houthi rebels, and dropped leaflets asking civilians to leave one district a day after promising a harsh response to cross-border Houthi attacks. The official Saudi news agency SPA said the air raids, which started late on Thursday, hit four Houthi command-and-control centers, two in the Saada provincial town of Bani Maaz, and destroyed a mine factory in the ancient quarter of Saada city as well as a communications hub in the Mothalath area. [Arab News, Reuters, 5/8/2015]

Top al-Qaeda militant Nasser al-Ansi killed in Yemen
Site Intelligence, a US militant monitoring group, cites an AQAP statement as saying Nasser al-Ansi was killed in April in the port city of Mukalla. There is no US confirmation. Ansi had appeared in a number of AQAP videos. In one, he claimed the group was behind the attack on the Paris offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January, in which 12 people died. [New York Times, BBC, 5/7/2015]


US official says majority of Iraq’s Baiji refinery controlled by ISIS
Iraqi security forces are “all but cut off” at the Baiji oil refinery by the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) and now only control about 20 percent of the facility, according to a senior US official. ISIS fighters have successfully moved into several refinery areas in recent days, and are keeping the Iraqi forces from being resupplied. The official told CNN that ISIS now controls the majority of the refinery. US forces have dropped supplies in an effort to try to relieve pressure on Iraqi forces at the refinery. [CNN, Reuters, 5/8/2015]

Egypt’s nine month budget deficit 9.4 percent of GDP
Egypt’s budget deficit since the start of the fiscal year in July 2014 to March 2015 rose to 9.4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), compared with 7.3 percent for the same period last year. In February, Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab said he believed his government’s budget deficit would come in below 10 percent of GDP in the current financial year. Egypt’s GDP is expected to grow 4 percent, up from 2.2 percent last year, he said. [Reuters, 5/7/2015]

Saudis seek to secure role as largest oil supplier to Asia
Saudi Arabia is spending generously on Asian oil refiners in an effort to secure its position as the region’s biggest oil supplier. Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi traveled to Beijing last month, highlighting the importance of the world’s second-biggest crude consumer to Saudi Arabia’s future. Al-Naimi also visited a South Korean refinery, in which his Saudi Arabia has a majority interest. Pressure is rising on Saudi Arabia to hold on to market share in Asia as competitors including Iraq, Russia, and Mexico make inroads. The kingdom has cut price differentials on its crude to Asia ten times in the past eighteen months, while rivals followed with their own reductions. [Bloomberg, 5/7/2015]