Top News: Mehdi Jomaa chosen as Tunisia’s new caretaker prime minister

Political leaders today chose Mehdi Jomaa, the current minister of industry, to take over as prime minister and lead a caretaker government until elections next year. Jomaa, aged fifty, is an independent technocrat who joined the current government in March after a career in the private sector. Jomaa garnered nine of twenty-one potential votes, with seven parties abstaining, two voting for the runner-up, and three absent. Out of the twenty-one parties included in the discussions, eleven voted for Jomaa, two were absent, and one withdrew. The Popular Front opposition coalition expressed disappointment that the chosen nominee is a member of the current government. A spokesman for Nidaa Tounes, a party that had boycotted the talks, stated that “several weeks’ work has ended in a negative result, the [ruling coalition] repeated its errors and chose a minister from the outgoing government.” Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi hailed the appointment as a “success for democracy in Tunisia,” adding the country would become the first in the region “to be a democratic model.”  [Tunisia Live, 12/14/2013]



Presidency plans parliamentary electoral system with political parties
Egypt’s presidency is currently holding hearing sessions with legal experts and politicians to decide whether parliamentary or presidential elections will take place first, presidential Constitutional Adviser Ali Awad said on Monday. Interim President Adly Mansour will decide on that after the referendum on the country’s constitution, scheduled for mid-January. The draft constitution grants the president the right to determine the timing of elections and the nature of the electoral system in the absence of a legislative council. Awad held a meeting on Thursday with representatives of political groups including the Wafd Party, Tamarod movement, and National Salvation Front to agree on the new electoral system ahead of the president’s issuance of the elections law, sources said. Sources referred to a partial agreement on the mixed electoral system which allocates 80 percent of the seats to individuals and 20 percent to the list-based system. The 444 seats will be divided among constituencies with two seats at each electoral district for the single-winner. Another 111 seats will be added to the parliament making the total 555 seats. [Aswat Masriya, Egypt Independent, 12/16/2013]

Egypt sees 511 student protests in November, as renewed clashes break out Monday
A Saturday report by Democracy Meter said that 511 student protests took place in universities, higher institutes and schools during November, with an average of seventeen daily protests. A total of 457 protests were held in universities. The nationwide branches of al-Azhar University topped the charts for number of protests, with 101, while Cairo University ranked second with fifty-two and Alexandria University saw forty-six. The report claimed that 296 students and twelve teachers were arrested in November while 423 students were dismissed from their universities. Egyptian police fired teargas to disperse protests staged by students supporting the Muslim Brotherhood near Ain Shams University in Cairo on Monday. The students were heading to the Defense Ministry to commemorate 2011’s cabinet violent clashes. The students raised the Rabaa sign and chanted against the police and army. [DNE, AP, Aswat Masriya, Egypt Independent, 12/16/2013]

Egyptian trade deficit falls 22.3 percent in August year-on-year: CAPMAS
Egypt’s trade deficit reached EGP 16.86 billion ($2.45 billion) in August of this year, a 22.3 percent decrease compared to the same month in 2012, when it stood at EGP 21.69 billion ($3.15 billion), state statistics body CAPMAS reported on Monday. The value of exports, including crude oil, fertilizers, petroleum products, ready-made-clothes, and plastics, increased by 3.7 percent to reach EGP 13.85 billion ($2.01 billion) in August 2013, as opposed to EGP 13.36 billion ($1.94 billion) for the same month the previous year. The report also pointed to a decline in the value of imports by 12.4 percent, to reach EGP 30.71 billion in August, compared with EGP 35.05 billion during August 2012, due to the decline in the value of some goods such as raw iron or steel, corn, wheat and meat. [Ahram Online, Egypt Independent, 12/16/2016]

US congress delegation meets with Mansour and Sisi
A three-member delegation of members of the United States House of Representatives met with high-level Egyptian government officials on Sunday. Republicans Steve King, Louis Gohmert and Michele Bachmann arrived to Cairo on Saturday as part of a trip to Egypt that is scheduled to end on Monday. The group met with interim President Adly Mansour and Minister of Defense Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Sunday. The meeting with Sisi involved discussions concerning regional issues, bilateral relations between Egypt and the United States and recent developments in Egypt’s ongoing transition following former president Mohamed Morsi’s ouster. Ahram Online, DNE, Mada Masr, 12/15/2013]


East Libyan autonomy group will not reopen oil ports, challenges Tripoli
Hopes for a resolution to the end of oil blockages in the east of the country were dashed when the autonomy movement behind the closure of three major oil ports announced on Sunday that it would not end the blockade. Autonomy leader Ibrahim Jadhran told reporters his group had failed to reach a deal with Tripoli on its conditions, which included taking a share of oil sales and investigating reports of corruption in the industry. The announcement was a blow to Prime Minister Ali Zidan, who had said he expected two weeks of negotiations to end the standoff. Brent crude oil rose above $110 per barrel on Monday as supply concerns resurfaced. [Reuters, 12/15/2013]

Libya increasing fuel imports to overcome shortages at petrol stations
Officials in Tripoli announced Sunday the country is increasing fuel imports to make up for local shortages caused by strikes and shutdowns at oilfields and ports, as negotiations to end blockades in the east failed. Deputy Oil Minister Omar Shakmak declined to comment on the announcement from autonomy leader Ibrahim Jadhran, who is behind the blockages of three main terminals, but assured that the situation was improving as more imports were coming in. According to authorities, two tankers with fresh supplies have arrived at Zawiya port, where storage facilities are now full. [Daily Star/Reuters, 12/15/2013]

Ghariani calls for national unity
The Grand Mufti of Libya, Sheikh Sadik al-Ghariani, called on Libyans to put their differences aside and work together toward the national interest. Speaking to a crowd in the Amazigh town of Jadu, al-Ghariani praised the community for their role in the revolution and called for that same unity of purpose. He warned that divisions between tribes, ethnic groups, and religious groups would be destructive. Meanwhile, Tebu activists deny allegations that they have again closed the Ajdabiya-Kufra round but say that protesters await the outcome of negotiations with Tripoli over their demands about electrical supply and creation of their own municipality. [Libya Herald, 12/16/2013]

Italy trebles exports to Libya
Italy’s exports to Libya have increased threefold since the 2011 revolution and could grow more despite current challenges, according to Aurelio Regina, deputy chairman of the Confederation of Italian Industry. Speaking to the Rome Chamber of Commerce, Regina called Libya an important market, saying there are opportunities for Italian businesses in sectors such as renewable energy, agro-industry, and infrastructure. Separately, Libya’s General National Congress economy, trade, and industry committee met with several commercial law experts to review a bill on the adoption of the trade companies’ law, which would abolish laws imposed by the former regime and enable Libyan citizens to more easily set up companies. [Libya Herald, 12/15/2013]


Syrian helicopter bomb raids kill 125 in Aleppo, dozens of children among the dead
At least 125 people, many of them children, were killed on Sunday when Syrian army helicopters dropped improvised “barrel bombs” on the disputed northern city of Aleppo. Video uploaded by local activists showed a fire in a narrow street covered in debris and dust after one air raid in the Karam al-Beik district. Another showed blackened and twisted wreckage of a vehicle at a busy roundabout. Barrel bombs are explosive-filled cylinders or oil barrels, often rolled out of the back of helicopters with little attempt at striking a particular target but capable of causing widespread casualties and significant damage. Regime forces have been unable to recapture eastern and central parts of Aleppo, which rebels stormed in the summer of 2012, but they have driven rebel fighters back from towns to the southeast of the city in recent weeks. [Al Jazeera, Reuters, 12/16/2013]

United Nations seeks $6.5 billion for Syria crisis in 2014; Bread prices up 500 percent
The United Nations appealed for $6.5 billion for Syria and its neighbors on Monday to help sixteen million people next year. The Syrian appeal accounted for half of an overall funding plan of $12.9 billion to help fifty-two million people in seventeen countries–the largest worldwide appeal ever requested at the start of a year. The money requested for Syria is the largest UN appeal ever for a single crisis. The UN’s ability to deliver humanitarian aid in Syria, however, is perpetually hamstrung by red tape from the Assad regime. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) said Monday that the price of bread in Syria has soared by 500 percent since its thirty-three-month conflict erupted, and warned of dire consequences as winter takes hold. At twenty-seven dollars, the cost of blankets is prohibitively high, amounting to “93 percent of the average monthly income.” The IRC also said that four out of five Syrians are now worried about food running out, while more than half are struggling for access to clean water. [Reuters, 12/16/2013]

Islamist rebels to meet US officials
Syrian rebel commanders from the Islamic Front which seized control of bases belonging to Western-backed rebels last week are due to hold talks with US officials in Turkey in coming days, rebel and opposition sources said on Saturday. The expected contacts between Washington and the radical fighters reflect the extent to which the Islamic Front alliance has eclipsed the more moderate Free Syrian Army brigades, which Western and Arab powers tried in vain to build into a force able to topple President Bashar al-Assad. The Islamic Front is led by Zahran Alloush, a man who could turn out to be the most powerful leader in rebel-held Syria. [Reuters, 12/14/2013]

Al-Qaeda-linked rebels kidnap 120 Kurds in northern border town
Islamist rebels linked to al-Qaida have kidnapped at least 120 Kurdish civilians from a village near the Turkish border in Aleppo province. The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) fighters entered Ihras, twelve miles south of the border town of Azaz, and took the captives, including at least six women, to an unknown location. The incident is the latest in a series of kidnappings, killings, and forced displacements by ISIS this month targeting Kurds in northern Syria, where mainly Sunni Arab Islamist rebels and Kurdish fighters have clashed repeatedly in recent months. Control over northeast Syria, where Kurds predominate, has swung back and forth between them and Islamists, who strongly oppose what they suspect are Kurdish plans to secede. [The Guardian, Reuters, 12/13/2013]


Tunisia adopts law on transitional justice
Tunisia’s parliament Sunday adopted a transitional justice law designed to compensate victims of the former regimes of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Habib Bourguiba, official media said. The law was rushed through parliament after repeated delays as the ruling Islamist Ennahda party and the opposition accused each other of trying to exploit the issue for political gain. It stipulates the creation of an independent “truth and dignity body” tasked with identifying and compensating victims of abuse under the regimes of Ben Ali and founding president Bourguiba. It also proposes to identify and bring to trial those responsible. [AFP/Wall Street Journal, 12/15/2013]

Birthplace of Tunisia uprising to hold day of protests
Tunisians are planning a day of protests in the so-called “birthplace of the Arab Spring” on Tuesday to vent their anger at new rulers they say have failed to improve their lives. Three years after Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated in the central town of Sidi Bouzid, unemployment in Tunisia remains stuck at 15 percent, with seemingly few prospects of improvement. “Tuesday will be a day of rage and protests against the policies of the government which did not keep to its word and betrayed the promises of the revolution,” said activist Youssef Jlili. Jlili said it would be a peaceful demonstration organized jointly with other pro-reform groups and the Tunisian General Labor Union confederation. [AFP/Ahram Online, 12/15/2013]


Yemenis and international community react to latest drone strike in Yemen
In the wake of a drone strike on a Yemeni wedding convoy in Baydah province that killed seventeen on Thursday, Yemenis and international observers have expressed outrage over the drone campaign. Amnesty International issued a statement condemning the lack of accountability for civilian deaths in Yemen, citing this latest drone attack as an example. In addition, Reuters quoted local Yemenis from Baydah expressing concern that this attack and others like it encourage victims’ family members to join al-Qaeda to seek revenge. The Yemeni government made a statement confirming that the drone strike targeted al-Qaeda militants, but did not mention the wedding convoy or civilian casualties. On Saturday, tribal leader Mohammed Nasser said the government paid nearly $140,000 to the families of fifteen civilians killed in Thursday’s strike in central Radda city. This came in response to tribal demands and protests for an apology over the drone strikes. On Sunday, Yemen’s parliament on called for a stop to drone attacks in a symbolic vote that reflected growing public anxiety about Washington’s use of the unmanned aircraft to combat al-Qaeda in the impoverished country. [Reuters, 12/14/2013]

Assailants stab Japanese diplomat in Yemen
The Japanese embassy in Yemen said that assailants stabbed a Japanese diplomat on Sunday as he drove his car in the capital Sana’a, scene of a recent spate of attacks on foreigners. The consul and second secretary at the embassy suffered five stab wounds in the morning attack as he drove through the neighborhood of Hadda, an embassy spokesman said. “He is OK now. He is in [the] hospital,” said the spokesman, who declined to disclose the name of the consul. [Gulf News, 12/15/2013]

US official says Yemen’s national dialogue is going very well
The acting head of the US Embassy in Yemen, Karen Sasahara, confirmed that her country and the ten countries sponsoring the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative for Yemen’s transition believe that the national dialogue is going well. She also noted that the option to take action against parties impeding the dialogue is still on the table for the UN Security Council. At a press conference in Sana’a on Sunday, Sasahara said the US and international partners are committed to preserving the unity of Yemen. [NDC (Arabic), 12/15/2013]


Israeli army fires on Lebanon in retaliation for soldier’s death
The Israeli army said Monday it fired across the Lebanese border in retaliation after accusing Lebanese troops of gunning down one of its soldiers as he drove near the frontier. The shooting was the first time an Israeli soldier had been killed along the border with Lebanon in more than three years, although commentators said it was unlikely to spark a confrontation. The army said the soldier was shot by Lebanese troops as he was driving a civilian vehicle along a section of the border near Rosh HaNikra on the Mediterranean coast. “After the incident, we reached the area to conduct searches as part of the investigation, and saw two suspects on the other side of the border,” army spokesman Major Arye Shalicar said. Troops opened fire and hit at least one of them. [AFP/Ahram Online, 12/16/2013]

Six billion dollar contract between Iraq and allegedly fake company
An Iraqi Swiss-based expert alleged Sunday that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had signed a $6 billion contract with a “bogus” company. On October 10, Maliki announced that his government had signed a contract to build and operate a 150,000 barrels per day oil refinery in the southern province of Maysan with the Swiss company Satarem. Iraqi engineer Muthna Kubba, who works in Switzerland, said Satarem appears to be fake. In a letter sent to Maliki, Kubba said he carried out a thorough investigation in Switzerland into the company and concluded it only exists on paper. [Ahram Online, 12/15/2013]

Saudi rights group says activist sentenced to lashes and prison
A Saudi judge sentenced a political activist to 300 lashes and four years in prison for calling for a constitutional monarchy in Saudi Arabia, a rights group said on Sunday. Omar al-Saeed is the fourth member of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA) to be jailed this year after the group issued statements attacking the ruling family over its human rights record and calling for democracy. Saeed did not have legal representation at the secret hearing when he was sentenced, ACPRA said in a statement. A spokesman for the Justice Ministry said he could not comment on the report or confirm its accuracy. [Reuters/Ahram Online, 12/15/2013]

Image: Mehdi Jomaa, the Tunisian minister of industry, was chosen to take over as prime minister and lead a caretaker government until elections next year. (Photo: Wikimedia)