Top News: New UN report concludes chemical arms used repeatedly in Syria

Chemical weapons were used repeatedly in the Syria conflict this year, not only in a well-documented August 21 attack near Damascus but also in four other instances, including two subsequent attacks that targeted soldiers, the United Nations said in a report released Thursday.  The report, prepared by chemical weapons specialists and doctors who traveled to Syria to conduct interviews and collect samples amid fighting, is the most comprehensive independent assessment of facts and allegations surrounding the use of chemical weapons in the conflict. It was the first time the United Nations asserted as fact that chemical weapons had been used on multiple occasions in the fighting between the forces of President Bashar al-Assad and the insurgents seeking to topple him, including chemical weapons use after world outrage over the infamous August attack, which killed hundreds of civilians, including children. [NYTAFPAl JazeeraAl Arabiya, 12/12/2013]


Disputes fracture emerging Egyptian parties
After the fall of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, liberal and leftist activists were free for the first time in years to found new political parties. Now, almost three years later and after much political tumult—including one year of Muslim Brotherhood rule when they led the opposition—internal divisions and organizational problems have taken a toll on nascent liberal and leftist parties, leading to the resignation of hundreds of their members. Ahram Online spoke to senior members and former members of the two largest liberal and leftist parties emerging since the January 2011 revolution, who highlighted some of the main troubles currently afflicting the budding parties. [Ahram Online, 12/12/2013]

Lawsuit demands military council to nominate Sisi for president
Nabil Luka Bibawy, a retired police officer, filed a lawsuit on Thursday, demanding the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces nominate Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for the presidential elections, in response to the call of the majority of the Egyptian people. He also demanded EGP 1 million in compensation in case the council procrastinates the decision, an amount that he said should be spent on the restoration of houses of worship under the supervision of the Al-Azhar. “The council is taking a passive stance,” he said. “This gives the right to any citizen to appeal against this passiveness.” “Public interest presides over private interest,” he said. “This means Sisi has no right to reject the candidacy.” [Egypt Independent, 12/13/2013]

EU grants Egypt $380 million for development projects
The European Union (EU) recently approved a grant to Egypt totaling 277 million euros ( $380 million) for development projects on public services, said James Moran, head of European Union Delegation to Egypt in a press conference on Thursday. Moran said that the EU, in cooperation with the German government, is part of the Participatory Development Programme in Urban Areas (PDP). They have allocated 20 million euros, part of which is included in the aforementioned EU aid to Egypt, to improve five informal areas in Greater Cairo over five years. The five informal areas targeted are Matariya in Cairo, Old Boulaq in Giza and Qalyub, Shubra and Khusus in Qalyubeya. The project aims to help two million inhabitants out of 12 million currently living there. [Ahram Online, 12/12/2013]

Government has responsibility to protect human rights, says US State Department
The United States Department of State called on the Egyptian government to protect peaceful protests on Thursday, adding that the violent dispersal of protesters would factor into any decision to suspend future assistance to Egypt. In the department’s daily press briefing, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said that the actions taken by the Egyptian interim government, such as the use of water cannons and tear gas, “do not match the government’s stated commitment to protecting the Egyptian people’s freedoms and universal human rights.” [DNE, 12/13/2013]


Oil prices down as Libya plans to resume output
Oil prices have decreased amid the possibility of Libya resuming oil production and exports after militias said oil terminals could reopen. Brent crude, a benchmark for international oils, eased 4 cents to $108.34 a barrel on the ICE exchange in London. Libya has been losing millions of dollars a day as production has dropped to a few thousand barrels per day (bpd) since the port closure. Libyan authorities hope to increase oil output to pre-2011 revolution levels of two million bpd. [AP, 12/13/2013]

JCP offices bombed in Derna
A bomb exploded outside the offices of the Islamist Justice and Construction Party (JCP) in Derna on Thursday, causing substantial damage to the building. There were no reported injuries. Head of the JCP, Mohamed Sarwan, condemned the attack in a statement, saying it would not stop the party from continuing its work in the town. The JCP offices were the only remaining political party offices in Derna, as those belonging to the National Forces Alliance had already been attacked. [Libya Herald, 12/12/2013]

Five SME funds in five main cities set up, says economy minister
At a conference organized by the Tripoli Chamber of Commerce, Economy Minister Mustafa Abufunas confirmed that five small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) funds have been created in five cities, saying official sare working out the legal and regulatory details since Libya has not had a process for loans based on Islamic banking. According to Abufunas, Libya is in contact with several local and international banks for cooperation on this project. The country’s banking sector is still waiting on government reforms, as current regulations give the banks no incentive to lend to the private sector, including risky SMEs. [LIbya Herald, 12/11/2013]

Congressman kidnapped in spiraling tit-for-tat action between Kikla and Warshefana
Aziziya Congressman Abdulmajid al-Zantuni has been abducted, General National Congress spokesman Omar Hemidan has confirmed. There is little information as to the culprits. However, it is widely believed to have been carried out in retaliation for the earlier abduction, allegedly by Warfeshana forces, of several Kikla officials, including the head of the local council and a member of the shura council. [Libya Herald, 12/12/2013]


Moderate Syrian rebels try to recover after Islamists take over headquarters
Commanders of Syria’s Western-backed opposition fighters met Thursday to try to salvage their efforts to oust Bashar al-Assad’s regime after Islamist rebels ran them out of their headquarters, threatening to sideline the steadily weakening group. The takeover of Gen. Salim Idris’s facilities by Islamist fighters over the weekend caught the Obama administration by surprise and threw US policy into turmoil. Officials said they were struggling to piece together what happened and what it meant for support of the moderates. On Wednesday, some senior US officials said they believed that Gen. Idris, the commander of the Free Syrian Army, had fled northern Syria to Turkey after Islamist rebels seized his headquarters and some warehouses storing international aid. However on Thursday, the State Department said updated information showed Gen. Idris was in Turkey at the time of the incursion and had not fled Syria and reiterated support for the FSA. A State Department official said that approximately $1 million in nonlethal equipment and supplies, including about 50,000 military rations, were inside the warehouses that were seized by Islamists on December 6. This included nine pickup trucks, four passenger buses, and office and communications equipment, the official said. The armed takeover of Gen. Idris’s headquarters was a sign of a fracturing relationship between the two largest groups in the Syrian insurgency and the ascension of the Islamists in the opposition arena. [WSJ, 12/13/2013]

Islamists kill fifteen Alawite and Druze civilians in Syria
Islamist rebels killed at least fifteen civilians from the minority Alawite and Druze sects in the central Syrian city of Adra, twelve miles northeast of Damascus, on Wednesday and Thursday. Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority has largely joined the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, who is an Alawite, while minority sects have largely stood behind him in the conflict that has killed more than 125,000 since it began in March 2011. Many cities in Syria have become segregated along sectarian lines but Adra–strategically important as one of the rebels’ only routes into Damascus–has mostly resisted that. Witnesses, activists, and Syrian state media accused the Islamic Front, an alliance of several large rebel groups, and the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front of carrying out the attacks. [Reuters, AP, 12/12/2013]

Detained at sea, Syrian refugees stranded in Egyptian limbo
More than 1,500 Syrian and Palestinian refugees from Syria have been arrested in Egypt since August for trying to leave illegally by sea. The attempted exodus underscores how unwelcoming Egypt has become to Syrians since the military ousted former President Mohamed Morsi. A public prosecutor later dropped the charges against at least 615 of the detained refugees and ordered them released. But, in a move that underlines their perilous position in Egypt, police initially defied the order and continued to hold hundreds of refugees in crowded police stations while pressuring them to leave Egypt. So far, authorities have deported more than 1,200 refugees to countries including Turkey, Lebanon, and even Syria, where they face possible arrest and torture, raising an outcry from rights groups. On Monday, authorities released most of those who were still detained, leaving thirty-five still in detention, according to activists. [Christian Science Monitor, 12/12/2013]


Tunisia deal fails as ninety-two year-old declines premiership
An overnight deal between Tunisia’s main parties to end a protracted political crisis was thrown into doubt Thursday after the agreed choice of interim premier declined the job. Mustapha Filali, who is ninety-two and served as agriculture minister in 1956 under Tunisia’s founding president Habib Bourguiba, ruled himself out after earlier indicating he was ready to accept the job. Filali justified his refusal with several reasons including the weight of the position, the complexity of the current political situation, and his age, which he said, “aroused on social networks negative reactions and, to say the least, a questionable ethical level.” Houcine Abassi, a mediator from the powerful Tunisian General Labor Union, announced on Thursday that a compromise had been reached on the choice of prime minister following a fresh round of talks. [Reuters/Ahram Online, 12/13/2013]

UTICA calls for revision of some articles of 2014 finance law
The chairwoman of the Tunisian Industry, Trade, and Handicrafts Union (UTICA), Wided Bouchamaoui, urged the government on Thursday in a statement to revise certain articles of the 2014 finance law. Bouchamaoui stated, “some articles should be reviewed, especially those related to the submission of nonresident enterprises to tax charges, with a view to preserving Tunisia’s site attractiveness and its capacity to draw investments.” She also recommended replacing the fee on the nights spent by foreign tourists in Tunisian hotels by a tax paid upon their entry through airports and ports, saying the change would offer the state more foreign currency. [TAP, 12/12/2013]

Washington Post interviews Rachid Ghannouchi and Beji Caid Essebsi
In separate interviews, the Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth spoke with both Rachid Ghannouchi, head of the ruling Ennahda party, and Beji Caid Essebsi, an opposition leader. Ghannouchi defended Ennahda’s record, pointing to efforts to develop parts of the country’s interior, and explained the party’s moderate stance, saying, “we chose to form a coalition government not with other Islamists but with other secular parties because we wanted to send a message that the country is for everyone.” Essebsi stated that the current Constituent Assembly had lost legitimacy in the eyes of the Tunisian public, as the original one year plan for a constitution had stretched to three years without a result. Essebsi also expanded on the reasoning behind calls for Ennahda to resign, saying “if we are demanding the dissolution of this government, it’s not because they belong to the Ennahda party—it’s because they are incompetent. The way they have been running the country has been disastrous.” [Washington Post, 12/12/2013]


Drone strike in al-Baydah province killed seventeen
A US drone struck a wedding convoy in Yemen and killed seventeen people, mostly civilians, medical and security sources said Friday, adding grist to mounting criticism of the US drone war. Some of the dead in Thursday’s strike near the central town of Radaa were suspected members of al-Qaeda, but the rest were all civilians with no connection to the jihadist network, a security official said. A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged media reports about members of a wedding party getting killed in a counterterrorism strike. “We have no information that corroborates these reports,” the official said, without elaborating. “This was a tragic mistake and comes at a very critical time. None of the killed was a wanted suspect by the Yemeni government,” said a top Yemeni national security official who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to talk to media. However, another report indicates that two of those killed were previously listed on Yemen’s government list of wanted al-Qaeda suspects. [AFP/Ahram Online, 12/13/2013]

Yemen opens up new training center for journalists
Sheikh Mohammed Bin Issa al-Jaber, a Saudi entrepreneur and philanthropist, has announced that he will finance and sponsor a new training center for journalists in Sana’a, completely free of charge, in order to promote unbiased and independent journalism. For a country where independent journalism has too often been associated with death threats, kidnappings and violence, such a move carries the promise of stronger institutions and the promotion of better journalistic standards. Yemen’s new Al-Jaber Media Institute will work in collaboration with local media outlets and organizations to encourage journalists to abide by international standards and move away from heavy sponsorship or propaganda campaigns. [Yemen Post,12/13/2013]

Sectarian clashes kill at least forty in Yemen
Security officials say more than forty people have been killed in sectarian clashes between Salafis and Houthis in northern Yemen. The officials say the fighting began when the Salafis took over a Houthi stronghold in a strategic mountainous area near the border with Saudi Arabia. The two sides battled with artillery fire, mortar shells, and machine guns in the town of al-Fagga. Thursday’s clashes mark an expansion of the battlefield between the two rival sides, which have been concentrated in an adjacent province, Sa’ada. [AP/Ahram Online, 12/12/2013]


Abbas rejects US plan for permanent Israel troop presence
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has rejected US proposals for Israel to keep troops in a future Palestinian state along its strategic border with Jordan, a Palestinian source said on Friday. At a meeting on Thursday evening with US Secretary of State John Kerry in the West Bank city of Ramallah, President Abbas also gave Kerry a letter on “Palestinian red lines,” the source added, singling out “the refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.” [AFP/Ahram Online, 12/13/2013]

Morocco opposition file bill to abolish death penalty
A parliamentary opposition group has filed a bill to abolish the death penalty in Morocco, where a moratorium has been in place for twenty years, a member said Thursday. The bill was filed last week in the lower house by the group of thirty-nine lawmakers from the left-wing opposition USFP party, one lawmaker confirmed. “We are relying on the support of other groups and members of parliament” to pass the bill, he said, adding that the group would be open to proposed amendments. The MP said he was “optimistic” about the bill passing “in view of the current reform movement in Morocco.” [AFP/Ahram Online, 12/12/2013]

Israel drops controversial Bedouin relocation plan
Israel is scrapping a controversial draft law to relocate thousands of Bedouin residents of the Negev desert, an official said Thursday. Benny Begin, tasked with implementing the so-called Prawer Plan, said he had recommended to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “end the debate on the law” in parliament. The bill, which would have seen the demolition of some forty unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev and the relocation of between 30,000 and 40,000 people, passed a preliminary ministerial vote in January. But it faced intense objection from members of the parliament both from the right, where lawmakers said the compensation in land and money offered to Bedouins was too generous, and from the Left, which said it was racist and accused the Jewish state of usurping the land of indigenous Arab inhabitants. [AFP, 12/13/2013]

Image: Lakhdar Brahimi, UN Special Representative for Syria, speaks to the UN-based media on the eve of tripartite talks among Russia, the United Nations to prepare for the Geneva conference on Syria, otherwise known as Geneva II. (Photo: US Mission to Geneva)