Top News: President Obama Elevates Tunisia to Status of Non-NATO Ally

President Barack Obama elevated Tunisia to new allied status, promising financial and security assistance to ensure the North African country’s transition to democracy remains a success in a fragile region. During a meeting with Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, Obama announced he will designate Tunisia as a major non-NATO ally of the United States, a special status only a few countries have been granted. Status as a non-NATO ally qualifies a country for certain privileges supporting defense and security cooperation, but does not provide any security commitment. The United States also offered a loan guarantee to Tunisia of up to $500 million if the funding is needed to help advance economic reforms. [APReuters, 5/21/2015]



Sisi says lack of justice fuels extremism; Egypt will host 2016 WEF conference
Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said on Friday the fight against extremism in the region must go hand-in-hand with pursuing greater “freedom, equality and justice.” Speaking at a regional World Economic Forum (WEF) conference in Jordan, he said extremism increases because of “desperation, regression of values of justice.” The world community should act together to face political, economic and security challenges, Sisi said, adding that this should be done through close cooperation between governments, the private sector and NGOs. The president also said, “Empowering the role of Youth is no longer such a luxury but it has become an indispensable necessity… to push the production wheel and achieve the desired civilized development.” Sisi also said that there should be plans to eradicate poverty. The 2016 WEF on the Middle East and North Africa will be held in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm al-Sheikh in May, he announced. [AP, SIS, Cairo Post, Cairo Post, Full Transcript, Video, 5/22/2015]

Alexandria military court hands prison sentences to 147 defendants, including children
An Alexandria military court issued sentences against 147 defendants, including at least twelve children aged between fifteen and eighteen, according to the National Community for Human Rights and Law. The Egyptian Foundation for the Advancement of Childhood Conditions (EFACC) stated that despite the due release of six children in the case, the foundation maintains that all military trials of children must end. The sentences varied, with approximately fifty receiving life sentences, while thirty received fifteen-year prison sentences, seven received ten year sentences, two received seven year sentences, and eighteen received five year sentences. Thirty-seven were found innocent. Three children were declared as falling outside the jurisdiction of the court, whereas six others received fifteen-year sentences, and another three were proven innocent. According to EFACC, the charges include “offenses against public property and intimidating civilians through force and violence.” [DNE, 5/22/2015]

After classmate’s death, Ain Shams students resign from union in protest
After security forces allegedly killed an Ain Shams University student on Tuesday, his classmates released a statement Wednesday announcing they would resign from their student union in protest. The Student Union said in a statement published on its Facebook page late Wednesday that on Tuesday an unknown man accompanying one of Ain Shams University officials asked about student Islam Salah al-Din Atitu at the exams room. The student was then ordered to go to the head to the Students Affairs department. “The next day, the news of his murder by security forces spread like fire in the media,” the statement said. However, the Interior Ministry has offered a starkly different account of events. In a statement released on its official Facebook page, the ministry claimed that Atitu was killed after he opened fire on security personnel during an attempted arrest in the Fifth Settlement, not on campus. Officials claimed Atitu was wanted for alleged involvement in the assassination of Colonel Wael Tahoun. [Ahram Online, Mada Masr, 5/21/2015]

Academics banned from travelling without prior security approval
The Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) condemned the Ministry of Education for cooperating with the security apparatus in not allowing academics to travel without obtaining prior security authorization. Faculty of Science Professor Nabil Labib was banned from traveling outside of Egypt to supervise a student’s PhD dissertation. Labib told AFTE that he went to the Ministry of Higher Education to submit the Cairo University approval for his request to travel to Hungary, where he is due to follow-up on supervising an Egyptian student’s PhD dissertation. There, he was told that he had to obtain approval from security forces before traveling. Without security approval, Labib cannot get the Ministry of Higher Education’s approval for travel. AFTE said the obligation of security service approval for academics and researchers before working abroad is a clear violation of Egyptian law, the constitution, and international conventions. [DNE, 5/22/2015]

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LNA claims first joint operation with Misrata against ISIS; Misratans hold anti-war demonstration
In what would be a dramatic new development, Misratan forces loyal to the Tripoli government were reported to have carried out a joint operation with the Libyan Nation Army (LNA), allied to to Tobruk government, against the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) in Sirte. The LNA carried out air strikes against a checkpoint controlled by ISIS to the west of the town, while Misratan forces, thought to be Brigade 166, attacked on the ground. However, Misratan sources denied cooperation in the incident. Meanwhile, some 300 Misratans took to the the street for a peaceful protest to demand an end to the violence across Libya. [Libya Herald, ANSAmed, 5/21/2015]

ISIS suicide bomb near Misrata kills two; Another suicide car bomber strikes Harawa
A suicide car bomber blew himself up at a checkpoint near Libya’s western Misrata city on Thursday, killing two guards. The Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) says it carried out the attack, posting photos of the bomber, who it said was Sudanese and named as Abu Abdullah. Also, several people were injured when a suicide car bomber detonated his vehicle near a barracks on the eastern outskirts of Harawa. The vehicle approached the town yesterday from the direction of Nufaliya, which was seized by ISIS forces in March. [Reuters, Libya Herald, 5/21/2015]

President Obama elevates Tunisia to status of non-NATO ally
President Barack Obama elevated Tunisia to new allied status, promising financial and security assistance to ensure the North African country’s transition to democracy remains a success in a fragile region. During a meeting with Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, Obama announced he will designate Tunisia as a major non-NATO ally of the United States, a special status only a few countries have been granted. Status as a non-NATO ally qualifies a country for certain privileges supporting defense and security cooperation, but does not provide any security commitment. The United States also offered a loan guarantee to Tunisia of up to $500 million if the funding is needed to help advance economic reforms. [AP, Reuters, 5/21/2015]

Tunisia’s ruling coalition parties agree to increase political support for Essid cabinet
Member parties of the ruling coalition in Tunisia agreed to create a political cover for the Essid government to help it iron out social and economic difficulties. The parties comprising the coalition are the ruling Nidaa Tounes with Ennahda, the Free Patriotic Union, and Afek Tounes. Members of the coalition parties met this week and agreed to form commissions and task forces to discuss decentralization, the state of affairs in municipalities, and education reform. [TAP/All Africa, 5/21/2015]

Tunisia says Moroccan held in Italy supplied weapons for museum attackers
Tunisia claims that the Moroccan arrested in Italy on suspicion of involvement in the Islamist militant attack on Tunisia’s Bardo Museum provided the weapons to the attackers. Italian police arrested Abdelmajid Touil, aged 22, in connection with the March attack in Tunis. Touil is being described as a weapons smuggler who brought weapons in from Libya for use during the attack. However, some Italian officials believe Touil was in Italy at the time of the Bardo attack and say that Tunisian authorities have not yet supplied Italy with details about what Touil was suspected of doing or when. [Reuters, 5/21/2015]


Rebels seize hospital holding 150 Syrian soldiers in Jisr al-Shughour
Insurgents on Friday seized a hospital from Syrian government forces who had been besieged there since late April, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Syrian state TV said soldiers holed up in the Jisr al-Shughour hospital in Idlib province had been freed, saying they had managed to “break the siege” in an operation coordinated with hundreds of airstrikes and artillery bombardment. The Nusra Front said government forces had fled. “The Mujahideen are pursuing them,” a Twitter feed affiliated to the group reported. The Observatory said dozens of Syrian troops had managed to escape from the hospital, where the insurgents were in complete control. [Reuters, AFP, AP, 5/22/2015]

Iraqi Shia cleric al-Sistani urges wise planning after fall of Ramadi
Iraq’s Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called Friday for a “wise and precise” plan to purge the country of ISIS militants after they overran the western provincial capital of Ramadi several days ago. In his first sermon since then, Sistani’s representative Sheikh Abdulmehdi al-Karbalai did not refer explicitly to the city. But he said, “We must have a precise and wise plan drawn up by professional and patriotic figures … to resolve the military and security issues and begin to purge Iraqi lands of all terrorists.” Sistani urged that “the initiative must always remain with the armed forces, Popular Mobilization Units, and tribal fighters.” [Reuters, 5/22/2015]

ISIS seizes Syria’s last border crossing with Iraq
Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) militants have seized the last Syrian government-controlled border crossing between Syria and Iraq after Syrian government forces withdrew, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The al-Tanf crossing, known as al-Waleed in Iraq, is in Syria’s Homs province, where ISIS on Wednesday seized the historic city of Palmyra from government forces. [BBC, Reuters, 5/22/2015]

European Union fears war crimes after fall of Palmyra
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini on Thursday warned of potential war crimes in the UNESCO World Heritage site of Palmyra after ISIS militants seized the city. “With the reported occupation of the ancient city of Palmyra by ISIS, yet again hundreds of people have been killed and thousands more risk to be exposed to arbitrary violent actions and more destruction of cultural sites might be perpetrated… [ISIS’s] mass killings and deliberate destruction of archaeological and cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq amount to a war crime according to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court,” Mogherini said. On Friday, French President Francois Hollande called for a new international push for a peace deal in Syria Friday, saying the fall of Palmyra to ISIS showed President Bashar al-Assad was gravely weakened. [AFP, 5/21/2015]


Saudi-led coalition steps up air strikes on Houthis in Yemen’s Sana’a
Saudi-led warplanes extended air strikes on Iranian-backed Houthi militia in the Yemeni capital Sanaa on Friday, residents in the area said. They said that the strikes focused on the presidential compound district in Sana’a, which the Houthi rebels seized in September, and Houthi military sites in mountainous areas on the outskirts of the city. [Reuters, 5/22/2015]

Yemen tribes set to attack key Houthi stronghold
Yemeni tribal fighters loyal to President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi are preparing to launch a ground attack on the Houthi rebel heartland near the southern border of Saudi Arabia. The tribal force will consist of a coalition of anti-Houthi fighters mainly based out of the western al-Jawf province and the oil-producing Marib governorate. The ground offensive will be carried out in coordination with the Saudi-led coalition forces that are continuing to carry out airstrikes against Houthi positions in the country. Another anti-Houthi coalition of Yemen’s tribes is being formed along the Arab state’s eastern border with Oman. [Asharq Al-Awsat, 5/22/2015]

Suicide bomber strikes Saudi Shia mosque, many dead or wounded
A suicide bomber blew himself up at a Shia mosque in eastern Saudi Arabia during Friday prayers, residents said, and up to thirty people were reported to have been killed or wounded. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the bombing, the first to target Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia since November when gunmen killed at least eight people in an attack on a Shia religious anniversary celebration, also in the east. A witness described a huge explosion at the Imam Ali mosque in the village of al-Qadeeh. He estimated there were at least thirty casualties in the attack, where more than 150 people were praying. A security spokesman confirmed an explosion at a mosque in eastern Saudi Arabia, where most of the country’s minority Shias live. [Reuters, 5/22/2015]

ISIS claims Yemen mosque attack
A bomb exploded at a Shi’ite Houthi mosque in the Yemeni capital Sanaa on Friday, wounding 13 people. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement on Twitter stating that members of the caliphate in Sanaa have detonated an explosive device in a Houthi mosque. The bomb was planted inside the mosque before Friday prayers. [Reuters, Gulf News, 5/22/2015]


Libya’s General National Congress approves subsidies reforms
Libya’s General National Congress (GNC) has approved a potentially controversial decision to replace state subsidies for basic goods with direct cash payments, which it said would reduce smuggling. The Tripoli-based parliament announced that in place of subsidies on staple foods and fuel, each Libyan citizen will receive LD50 ($40) per month. The GNC added that payments of the new direct benefit will start before any subsidies are lifted. The move is intended to cut the huge payments made by the state to maintain artificially low prices on staples such as food, utilities, and fuel. It is not clear whether the restructuring will affect the entire country or only the areas controlled by the Tripoli-based authorities. [Libya Monitor (subscription), 5/21/2015]

Syria hopes for new $1 billion credit line from Iran
Syria hopes to receive a new credit line from Iran worth around $1 billion which it will use to buy basic goods, an assistant to Syria’s Minister of Economy and Foreign Trade Hayan Salman said. The comments come a day after Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. Syrian state media said Velayati’s visit yielded agreements on oil, electricity, industry and investment, without giving details. Salman added that a previous $3.6 billion credit line from Iran is close to being used up. [Reuters, 5/20/2015]

Egypt permits private sector to import natural gas
Egypt has given the private sector a green light to import natural gas or liquefied natural gas (LNG), a step that could encourage private investment in the energy sector while easing energy shortages. Egypt has tried to address energy shortages by signing LNG import deals this year, but allowing the private sector to import gas could further boost supplies of gas used to power most Egyptian homes and factories. The chairman of state gas board Egyptian Natural Gas Holding Company (EGAS) said officials had decided to allow private companies to import gas through state infrastructure. In exchange, the state will get a tariff for transferring the gas through its infrastructure. [Reuters, 5/21/2015]

With oil cheap, public pressure grows on Gulf sovereign funds
Running sovereign wealth funds in the Gulf has become an awkward business in the era of cheap oil, as managers face growing pressure from politicians and the public to prove they are investing national reserves wisely. When oil prices were high, the Gulf funds came under little public scrutiny. But with Brent crude now at little more than half last June’s level, Gulf countries may be entering their toughest fiscal times since the 1990s. With most of the funds publicly disclosing little information about their accounts, lawmakers in some states are looking out for poor performance. It is not clear whether investigations will unearth any serious wrongdoings, but they could encourage funds around the Gulf to operate more cautiously and conservatively. [Reuters, 5/20/2015]