Top News: Lebanon forms government after ten-month deadlock

A new government was announced on Saturday ending a long political deadlock that was compounding turmoil in Lebanon due to spillover from Syria. Battle lines have been drawn between political forces lining up behind Hezbollah and the Sunni-led bloc, a political struggle exacerbated by sectarian civil war in Syria. The new government is marked by former ministers changing portfolios. Prime Minister Tammam Salam hailed the new government as an opportunity to begin confronting Lebanon’s social and economic challenges. [Reuters, 2/15/2014]


Delays in preparations for Egypt’s upcoming presidential polls
The judicial body tasked with supervising Egypt’s upcoming presidential elections has announced that it will not meet as planned on February 18, the day slated by interim authorities as the beginning of the polling process which will elect the country’s second president in three years. Hamdan Fahmy, secretary-general of the five-member Presidential Election Commission (PEC), said on Monday that the meeting will be delayed until a new law regulating the upcoming elections is issued by interim President Adly Mansour. Sources told Ahram Online that the delay in the PEC meeting comes mostly from the failure of Mansour’s legal team to finish drafting the new law aimed at regulating the elections. Ali Awad, Mansour’s legal and constitutional affairs advisor, said that the law had not been issued as expected by February 17 because the president’s team had taken time to review the hundreds of proposed amendments it received from political groups, civilians, and the PEC itself as part of a national dialogue concerning the law’s stipulations. [Ahram Online, Egypt Independent, 2/17/14]

Government report on post-June 30 violence won’t be released to public
The fact-finding committee tasked with investigating post-June 30 violence is not entitled to release its findings to the public, said committee spokesperson Amr Marwan. The committee may only send the final report to the president, but could then submit a request for the president to then make the report public, Marwan added. Minister of Transitional Justice Mohamed Amin al-Mahdi requested in December that a committee be formed to investigate all violent incidents that occurred after the June 30 mass protests that ultimately led to former president Mohamed Morsi’s ouster. These incidents include the deadly clashes in front of the Republican Guard headquarters, the fatal violence that occurred during the mid-August dispersals of the pro-Morsi al-Manassa, Rabaa al-Adaweya and Nahda Square protest camps, the burning of churches, violence inside universities, assassinations, assassination attempts, attempts to block Suez Canal and violence in Sinai. In a meeting with representatives from human rights organizations on Monday, committee head Fouad Abdel Meniem Ryad urged human rights organizations not to blame the committee for being unable to release its findings to the media. [Mada Masr, 2/17/14]

Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis claims responsibility for tourist bus blast which left four dead
Militant group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis claimed responsibility for the bombing of a tourist bus that killed four people in the Sinai Peninsula on Sunday. The ministry of interior also said the remains of a body thought to be the suicide bomber were found at the scene of the explosion. The Sinai based group said in a Monday statement the attack is part of its “economic war” against the “treacherous regime.” The group accused the government of “targeting believers” and “using the money and assets of Muslims, murdering the innocent and imprisoning women.” Reuters reported that Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis also warned tourists to leave Egypt and threatened to attack any who stay in the country after February 20. The statement, however, was made from a Twitter account that is not affiliated with the group, as it does not use any social media accounts. [Reuters, DNE, Mada Masr, Ahram Online, Aswat Masriya, AP, SIS, 2/18/2014]

Congressional delegations arrive in Cairo, call for release of journalists
Congressional delegations arrived in Cairo on Monday and Tuesday for a two-day visits in which they will meet with high-level government officials. Republican congressman Mike Rogers, who is the head of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in the US House of Representatives, is scheduled to discuss bilateral cooperation with Egyptian government officials and consult with US Embassy officials on bilateral relations between the United States and Egypt, according to the US Embassy in Cairo. The Egyptian ministry of foreign affairs said that a second delegation, headed by Senator Tim Kaine, was scheduled to arrive on Tuesday. Kaine is the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs. Meanwhile, several members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry calling on the administration to ”take immediate action to help secure the release of journalists in Egypt who are imprisoned on what appear to be baseless and politically motivated charges.” [DNE, 2/18/2014]


Carter Center assesses elections, political environment in Libya
The Carter Center has issued a report assessing the election environment in Libya ahead of the February 20 elections for the constitutional committee. Citing the elections as an important stage in the country’s democratic transition, the Carter Center report encouraged authorities to bolster voter information efforts and strengthen security coordination. The Carter Center’s mission is limited in scope due to security constraints, focusing on the legal framework, election administration, technical preparations, the general political environment, and the resolution of electoral disputes. The National Tebu Assembly joined the Amazigh in announcing a boycott of the constitutional committee, calling on the General National Congress to amend the 2011 Constitutional Declaration to include a commitment to uphold the rights of Libya’s minorities. [Tripoli Post, 2/17/2014]

Libya parliament agrees to ‘early’ election amid public anger
Libya’s legislature will call elections “as early as possible,” General National Congress (GNC) President Nuri Abu Sahmain said on Monday, in an apparent effort to assuage ordinary Libyans’ anger over the political chaos gripping the country. The GNC is deadlocked between Islamists and nationalists, and many people blame the infighting for a lack of progress in the transition towards democracy. In a televised speech, Abu Sahmain announced that an election law will be approved by the end of March, without providing a more precise timetable. Tensions have increased over the GNC’s own role after its initial mandate ran out on February 7. After recent statements by Major General Khalifa Haftar that seemed an attempt to mount a coup, a military police source refuted GNC claims that intelligence services had located Haftar, asserting that he was among supporters in Ajdabiya and was unlikely to be arrested. [Reuters, 2/17/2014]

International community offers congratulations on anniversary of February 17 revolution
The international community sent messages of support and congratulations to the Libyan people on the third anniversary of the start of the NATO-backed uprising. In a video message, Secretary of State John Kerry said the February 17 revolution was “now part of Libya’s proud legacy but also the promise of its future,” adding that the United States looked forward to standing alongside the country in continued friendship. EU High Representative Catherine Ashton praised the Libyans for their achievements, noting however that “many challenges remain. I am however convinced that the Libyan people remain committed to democracy, freedom and justice.” [Libya Herald, 2/17/2014]

Armed guards force airport closure in eastern Libya’s Benghazi
Security guards forced the Benghazi airport in eastern Libya to close on Tuesday, demanding months of unpaid wages as well as an investigation into a helicopter crash in the region last week, according to airport officials. Members of an armed unit in charge of protecting the airport blocked the runway and prevented staff from entering the passenger terminals. The guards also complained that they had not received their salaries for several months. [Reuters, 2/18/2014]


Free Syrian Army sacks chief, appoints replacement; Window into Saudi-Qatari rift
The Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) has sacked its leader after recent military missteps and a fall out with the Saudi-supported head of the moderate opposition. General Salim Idriss, whose relations with Saudi Arabia deteriorated after he opened channels with Qatar, was replaced by Brigadier General Abdelilah al-Bashir, head of FSA operations in al-Qunaytira province bordering the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Bashir assumes leadership of a force trying to regain the initiative from rival and better organized Islamist groups that have overshadowed it in fighting against Assad. A statement signed by twenty-two of the FSA’s thirty-member Supreme Military Council said the decision was prompted by “the ineffectiveness of the command in the past few months… and to provide leadership for military operations against the criminal regime and its allies from terrorist organizations.” A statement by the opposition National Coalition, which includes fifteen members of the FSA, said news of Bashir’s appointment came as a “relief.” Ahmad Jarba, a tribal figure close to Saudi Arabia, became president of the coalition last July after an expansion last year that diluted the influence of Qatari-backed members. “Idriss appears to have gotten too close to the Qataris, prompting Jarba to move against him,” one of the opposition sources said. [Reuters, 2/17/2014]

Second round of peace talks fizzle; US officials lash out at Damascus and Moscow
The UN mediator for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, wrapped up the second round of peace talks in Geneva on Saturday without breaking a longstanding deadlock or setting a date for a third round, and urged the parties to think seriously about their commitment to the negotiations. Brahimi said the talks had broken down primarily because the Syrian government balked at his suggestion that the negotiators discuss both sides’ top demands in the first two days of negotiations, rather than spending days on the government’s priorities. On Sunday, US Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement that blamed the Syrian government for the deadlock in peace talks but asserted that the United States remained “committed to the Geneva process.” On Monday, Kerry sharpened the Obama administration’s mounting criticism of Russia’s role in the escalating violence in Syria, asserting that the Kremlin was undermining the prospects of a negotiated solution by “contributing so many more weapons” and political support to President Bashar al-Assad. [NYT, Washington Post, 2/15/2014]

Army, rebels agree to small-scale truces around Damascus
Syria’s army and rebels have agreed local truces in key flashpoints around Damascus, despite regime and opposition representatives failing to make any progress in Geneva peace talks. In the southern suburb of Babila, AFP journalists Monday saw rebels and soldiers–all armed–in conversation, which would have been unthinkable just days ago. Besides Babila, deals have been struck for Moadamieh, Qudsaya, Beit Sahm, Yalda, Barzeh, and Yarmouk–a former Palestinian camp. Negotiated by public figures, the accords involve a truce, a siege being lifted and food allowed in to rebel-held areas, with opposition fighters handing over heavy weapons and the regime raising its flag. A new agreement is reported to be in the offing for Harasta, a rebel bastion northeast of Damascus, and talks over Daraya to the southwest are also under way. An AFP journalist visiting Babila accompanied by official regime escorts saw dozens of cheering residents chant: “One, one, one! The Syrian people are one!” There was widespread devastation. On Babila’s main street, every single building had been either destroyed or damaged. Assad told AFP in January that such truces could “be more important than Geneva.” [AFP, 2/18/2014]

Rebels planning Damascus spring offensive
Rebels in southern Syria say they are planning a spring offensive against Damascus, which regime and opposition sources say will include fighters trained by Western forces in neighboring Jordan. The army, meanwhile, is redeploying troops in al-Qunaytira province located on the ceasefire line with Israel, and stepping up shelling on rebel positions in Daraa on the Jordan border to stop any advance. Both regime and opposition sources say the offensive on Damascus will involve thousands of rebels who have been receiving combat training for the past year from the United States and other Western countries in Jordan. “Daraa province is the gateway to Damascus. The battle for Damascus starts from here,” said rebel commander Abdullah al-Qarazi, an ex-officer in the Syrian army. “For now, we only have guarantees [for weapons] from the countries that support” the revolt, he said. “If the promises are honored, God willing we will reach the heart of the capital,” in a bid to break army sieges on the Western and Eastern Ghouta districts outside the capital. [AFP, 2/18/2014]


Kerry visits Tunisia
Secretary of State Kerry arrived in Tunisia on Tuesday for an unannounced visit and met with President Moncef Marzouki and Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa. The visit occurred on very short notice and without much publicity and is intended to demonstrate support for Tunisia’s transition to democracy. Kerry is not expected to announce additional US assistance for Tunisia during his visit but rather, according to a senior American official, to “listen and find out what more we can do.” [NYT, 2/18/2014]

Terrorist attack in Jendouba kills four
On Sunday, a group of five people disguised as policemen exchanged gunfire with members of the National Security Forces that left three security force members and one civilian dead. The ministry of the interior stated that the National Guard members were on a mission when they were ambushed and then gunned down by the terrorist group. Of the five that carried out the attack, three were Tunisian and two were Algerian. The three prime suspects in the case have been identified and investigations have begun to capture them. This attack occurred amidst growing insecurity in Tunisia, partly fuelled by instability across the Tunisian-Algerian border and by extremist Islamist groups Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. [Tunisia Live, 2/17/2014]

Civilians and members of the government condemn the Jendouba terrorist attack
On Monday, more than a thousand protesters gathered in Jendouba to condemn the weekend killings of four people by suspected Islamist militants. “Tunisia is free, terrorism out,” and “Faithful to our martyrs,” were among the slogans chanted by the protesters outside the governor’s office. Mustapha Ben Jafar, the president of the National Constituent Assembly, expressed indignation at the “cowardly” terrorist attack, describing it as an attempt to destabilize the country and jeopardise democratic transition. Following a national security council meeting, Prime Minister Jomaa stated that the aim of the terrorists was to wipe out the state and its institutions and that the fight against terrorism will not stop. [Al Arabiya, 2/17/2014]

Tunisia’s mufti supports possible face-veil ban
Sheikh Hamda Saeed, Tunisia’s mufti, declared his support for banning the face-covering niqab garment on security grounds on Monday. Saeed stated that sect community leaders have the right to limit things that are permissible if they find this to be in the best interests of the nation. This announcement comes three days after the ministry of the interior said it was taking strict measures against women wearing the veil. The ministry of the interior’s decision is intended to deal with the growing terror threat and to prevent wanted criminals from wearing it in order to avoid being identified at security checkpoints. [Al Arabiya, 2/17/2014]


Exiled Southern leaders may be pardoned
According to al-Masdar Online, a pardon for Southern leaders such as Ali Salem al-Beidh and Haider Abu Bakr al-Attas will be issued in a few days. The decree would throw out all charges against these political leaders stemming from the 1994 civil war and would also grant immunity for any offenses committed during that time period. Moreover, the decree goes further by restoring the leaders’ political and civil rights and calling on them to return to Yemen. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh previously offered amnesty but refused to grant immunity, leading to fears of subsequent prosecution. President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi cites the “spirit of tolerance and national reconciliation” as the impetus for the decree. Moreover, this step is part of the Eleven Points suggested by the National Dialogue Conference’s Southern Issue working group. [al-Masdar (Arabic), 2/18/2014]

Three new presidential advisers tapped
Yemen’s state news agency announced the appointment of three new presidential advisers. The new advisors are Mohamed al-Yadumi, the head of Islah; Sultan al-Atwani, the Secretary General of the Nasserist party; and Dr. Rashad al-Alimi, a leader in the former ruling party the General People’s Congress. [Saba (Arabic), 2/16/2014]

Full text of UNSC draft resolution forming committee for sanctions on spoilers
The draft sanctions resolution prepared by the United Nations Security Council was obtained by various media outlets over the weekend. The resolution would establish a committee to investigate the possibility of sanctions on persons obstructing Yemen’s transition process. The document specifically identifies former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and former Vice-President of South Yemen Ali Salem al-Beidh as “attempting to discredit the legitimacy of the transition process, incite violence, and subvert the legitimate aspirations of the Yemeni people.” The committee would be empowered to freeze assets and impose a travel ban on individuals it deems as spoilers and is expected have a report ready sixty-days after its establishment. The resolution also calls for increased aid from the international community and looks to Yemen to continue transitional justice and reconciliation efforts. [al-Masdar (Arabic), 2/16/2014]

Humayqani: cease drone strikes and begin reconciliation process
Salafist representative and accused al-Qaeda supporter Abdul-Wahhab Humayqani has called upon the United States to cease drone strikes that “create enemies” and focus on building state institutions. Humayqani was accused in December of funneling money to al-Qaeda and has had his assets frozen by the US Treasury Department, though he denies the allegations. He also said the best way to stop al-Qaeda would be develop a reconciliation plan whereby militants would turn in their weapons. [Washington Post, 2/16/2014]


Bahrain protests marred by clashes, bombings
Protests marking the anniversary of Bahrain’s uprising continued on Saturday and included clashes between demonstrators and police. In two instances, police were targeted with improvised explosive devices, wounding several and killing one. The regime’s justice minister accused the largest opposition group al-Wefaq of fueling violence harboring terrorists; however al-Wefaq has released a statement affirming its commitment to nonviolence and condemning the bombings. Though access to Manama was strictly prohibited to protesters, thousands gathered on nearby roads in one of the biggest demonstrations since the uprising began in 2011. Two US congressmen called on the US to ensure that the Bahraini government adheres to human rights norms, in addition to other commentary from international observers. [Reuters, Al Jazeera; 2/15/2014]

Sadrist resignations threaten new political crisis in Iraq
After Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s surprise resignation from politics last week, Nineteen Iraqi parliament members from Sadr’s al-Arhrar party have begun following suit, threatening to plunge Iraq into another political crisis just months before planned parliamentary elections. Speculation abounds as to why Sadr is retiring, but most of it focuses on his displeasure with PM Nuri al-Maliki—who he called “a dictator and a tyrant”—and the prospect of him winning a third term. Though Sadr called on Iraqis to participate in the upcoming elections, observers worry that “a grave and dangerous void” in the country’s parliament, upsetting the political balance in the country. [Asharq al-Awsat, 2/18/2014]

Image: Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Sallam, April 2013. (Photo: Wikimedia)