Top News: Presidents Obama and Essebsi to Meet; Countries Sign MOU, Agree to Boost Economic, Security Ties

President Barack Obama is showing support for Tunisia’s transition to democracy by welcoming the North African country’s newly elected president, Beji Caid Essebsi to the White House today. The meeting is meant to mark Tunisia’s progress and deepen their partnership. Yesterday, Essebsi met with Secretary of State John Kerry and the two signed a memorandum of understanding to make clear the US commitment to support Tunisia’s democratic transition, economy, and security with more than words. In a joint opinion piece appearing in The Washington Post, the two presidents said the meeting would represent the strides Tunisia has taken and show the strength of their relationship. [APAFP, 5/21/2015]



Experts testify in Congress subcommittee hearing on Egypt two years after Morsi
The government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is a better US ally compared to its predecessor dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, Eric Trager of the Washington Institute told a US Congress subcommittee hearing on the political situation in Egypt, two years after the ouster of Mohamed Morsi. Trager said that the United States should not ignite tensions with Egypt due to its importance as a strategic regional ally but neither should it tolerate the current government’s “repressiveness.” Samuel Tadros of the Hudson Institute spoke on the persecution of religious minorities and Nancy Okail, Executive Director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Peace, spoke on the need to enact comprehensive security sector reform and to support civil society in Egypt. [Egypt Independent, HFAC, 5/21/2015]

Islamic State’s Egypt affiliate urges attacks on judges
Islamic State’s Egypt affiliate on Wednesday urged followers to attack judges, declaring a new front in an Islamist militant insurgency in the world’s most populous Arab state. The leader of the group Sinai State, formerly known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, called for violence against judges in an audio statement posted on a prominent jihadist website. Reuters could not confirm the authenticity of the recording. A spate of attacks on judges suggests they are the latest targets of an insurgency centered in North Sinai that has killed hundreds of Egyptian soldiers and police in the past two years. “It is wrong for the tyrants to jail our brothers,” cleric Abu Osama al-Masry said, referring to judges. “Poison their food… surveil them at home and in the street… destroy their homes with explosives if you can.” [Reuters, 5/202/2015]

Shoukry discusses Sisi’s visit to Germany with German counterpart
Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry discussed preparations for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s visit to Germany with his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier in a telephone call earlier on Wednesday. The two ministers also discussed bilateral relations, according to Al-Ahram. Meanwhile, Sisi met Thursday afternoon with Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, who is currently on a multiple-day visit to the Egyptian capital to boost mutual ties, Egypt’s presidency said. Sisi and Kurz discussed developments in the Middle East, mainly the rise of militant terrorism, presidential spokesman Alaa Youssef said. Speaking at a press conference held in Cairo, Kurz said, “The death penalty is an inhuman deterrent strongly rejected by not only the Austrian government but also by the European Union.” He  added, “Dealing with terrorism issues is definitely an Egyptian internal affair. We support the punishment of terrorists but in the framework of fair trials.” [Ahram Online, Aswat Masriya, 5/21/2015]

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Libyan Islamist leader proposes elections to end conflict; Ten killed in clashes
Fresh elections are the only way to end conflict in Libya, where two governments are competing for power and the country’s oil wealth, said Khalid Sherif, a former Deputy Defense Minister and influential Islamist supporter of the government in Tripoli. He said the mandate of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives would end by law in October, opening the way to a new vote as compromise. Both sides would have to agree on a ceasefire until a vote could take place in October. Meanwhile, ten people were killed and almost forty wounded when Libya’s two rival governments clashed with Islamist fighters in two large cities on Wednesday. The Libyan National Army is battling Islamist fighters in Benghazi and Operation Libya Dawn, allied to Tripoli, has been fighting the Islamic State in Sirte. [Reuters, 5/20/2015]

Misratan brigades call for end to fighting and for reconciliation
Over forty military brigades in Misrata signed up to a call for peace and national reconciliation in the country. They urged other brigades and civil organizations from across Libya to join them in pushing for an end to the fighting and for a dialogue between all Libyans. Their statement said that just as they had been at the forefront of military action, they would now be at the forefront of a national campaign for peace. Meanwhile, Misrata’s 166 Brigade, which launched an operation against the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) forces in Nufaliya is reported to have pulled back from the town to its operations base west of Sirte, with ISIS claiming victory. [Libya Herald, 5/20/2015]

Tribal elders strive to stop Tebu-Tuareg battles
Tribal elders have been seeking to halt renewed clashes between Tebu and Tuareg tribesmen in Obari, which broke out again this week. The latest conflict, which broke out five weeks ago, pits the Tobruk government supporting Tebu against the Operation Libya Dawn-backing Tuareg. The rivalry between the two tribes predates Libya’s current divisions. The elders from each community have agreed a three-phase settlement. The first part would implement an immediate ceasefire. Next, neutral forces would take over key installations, including the airport. Lastly, tribesmen would form a supreme council of elders for Obari, committed to supporting the local police and overseeing the demolition of military camps. [Libya Herald, 5/20/2015]

Tunisian government says sixty citizens released in Libya, many remain
A Tunisian official said that around sixty citizens have been released from detention in Libya, leaving more than one hundred still under arrest. On Saturday, Tunisia’s consul in Tripoli, Brahim Rezgui, said 172 Tunisians had been arrested by the Operation Libya Dawn coalition. The Tunisian foreign ministry said that negotiations for the captives’ release are ongoing. [AP, 5/21/2015]

Presidents Obama and Essebsi to meet; Countries sign MOU, agree to boost economic, security ties
President Barack Obama is showing support for Tunisia’s transition to democracy by welcoming the North African country’s newly elected president, Beji Caid Essebsi to the White House today. The meeting is meant to mark Tunisia’s progress and deepen their partnership. Yesterday, Essebsi met with Secretary of State John Kerry and the two signed a memorandum of understanding to make clear the US commitment to support Tunisia’s democratic transition, economy, and security with more than words. In a joint opinion piece appearing in The Washington Post, the two presidents said the meeting would represent the strides Tunisia has taken and show the strength of their relationship. [AP, AFP, 5/21/2015]

Essebsi plane video draws harsh criticism from opposition
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi has been accused of having his head in the clouds following the release of a video showing the president and friends living the high life on a government jet. Online footage, released by Essebsi’s media team, shows him relaxing aboard the presidential plane, which is paid for by taxpayers. The video has drawn strong criticism from opposition figures, who claim that the current government is out of touch with the needs of ordinary Tunisians. [Tunisia Live, 5/20/2015]


ISIS takes control of Syria’s Palmyra
Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) seized full control of the historic city of Palmyra in central Syria on Thursday, just days after it captured the provincial capital of Ramadi in neighboring Iraq’s Anbar province. ISIS said in a statement it was in full charge of Palmyra, including its military bases, marking the first time it had taken a city directly from President Bashar al-Assad’s army and allied forces. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said ISIS now controls more than half of Syrian territory. The radical group has destroyed antiquities and monuments in Iraq and there are fears it might now devastate Palmyra, an ancient World Heritage site. Clashes in the area since Wednesday killed at least 100 pro-government fighters, said Rami Abdulrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. On Wednesday, UNESCO called for an immediate halt to fighting in Palmyra, urging the world to do everything it can to protect the population “and safeguard the unique cultural heritage.” According to Syrian state TV, pro-government militia evacuated citizens from the city of Palmyra on Wednesday. [Al Arabiya, Reuters, NY Times, Washington Post, WSJ, BBC, The Daily Star, AP, AFP, The Guardian, , 5/21/2015]

Iraqi Prime Minister in Russia urges cooperation on fighting ISIS
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi Thursday met his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev at the start of a Moscow visit aimed at boosting cooperation in the fight against ISIS. “We understand that the threat of terrorism is enveloping not just Iraq but the neighboring countries… It evolves and takes new shapes, and we understand perfectly well that it requires heightened attention from Russia. We expect more active cooperation in this direction,” Abadi said. He was set to meet President Vladimir Putin later in the day. The two are to discuss defense cooperation and the “situation in the Middle East region,” after ISIS fighters seized the strategic Iraqi city of Ramadi, dealing a major blow to the government. [AFP, 5/21/2015]

Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr vows to protect Shia sites from ISIS
Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has vowed to protect all Shia holy shrines in the country following threats purportedly made by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In an audio recording released by ISIS following its takeover of Ramadi on Friday, a man claiming to be Baghdadi, threatened, “After Ramadi will come Baghdad and Karbala.” In a statement issued on Tuesday, Sadr promised that ISIS would suffer a “complete rout” if it “dared to even touch” any of the Shia holy sites in the Karbala. Al-Sadr leads the Sadrist Movement, a popular religious and political group in Iraq, as well as the Peace Brigades, part of the pro-government Shia-majority Popular Mobilization forces. On Tuesday, Iraq’s government called for volunteers to fight against ISIS and help retake the city of Ramadi. A cabinet statement said a voluntary recruitment drive was necessary to fill shortages in squads in the west of Anbar province. In related news, the US military said Wednesday it is sending 1,000 anti-tank missiles to the Iraqi government. [Asharq al-Awsat, BBC, 5/20/2015]

Canada arrests ten youths attempting to join ISIS
Canadian police arrested ten young people as they allegedly tried to leave the country to join ISIS. The federal police arrested the group last weekend at Montreal’s international airport and their passports have been withdrawn. Charges have not been filed and the families and relatives of the ten people are being interviewed, police said. The arrests come months after five boys and two girls from the Montreal area left the country and apparently joined ISIS. Another teen was arrested in March for aiming to join the ISIS group. [AFP, 5/20/2015]


United Nations announces Yemen talks, Iran to allow ship inspection
UN chief Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday announced talks between warring Yemeni parties in Geneva on May 28 to end over seven weeks of war, as Iran agreed for international inspections of an aid ship sailing to Yemen. The moves are aimed at defusing the deepening crisis, where Saudi-led forces killed at least fifteen Houthis in the latest air strikes of a campaign to restore President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi. The UN Security Council released a statement urging “all Yemeni parties to attend these talks and engage without preconditions and in good faith,” while also calling for the resumption of humanitarian pauses in the fighting. Houthi leader Abdel-Malek al-Houthi announced “conditions” for their attendance of the talks in a speech broadcast on Wednesday, including a commitment by parties to a controversial agreement after the Houthis’ September takeover of the capital that integrated the militia into all the state’s institutions. Yemen’s government-in-exile wants rebels to pull back from seized territory before it agrees to join UN-convened talks in Geneva on May 28, Foreign Minister Reyad Yassin Abdulla said on Wednesday. [Reuters, 5/20/2015]

Amnesty report says Qatar still failing migrant workers
Qatar, host of the 2022 World Cup, is doing little to improve conditions for migrant workers despite promising reform last year, Amnesty International said in a report released Wednesday. Amnesty said little had changed for the 1.5 million migrant workers and soccer’s governing body FIFA had a “clear responsibility” to put pressure on Qatar to do more. Qatar’s Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs said, “Significant changes have been made over the last year to improve the rights and conditions of expatriate workers.” It said the ministry had launched a wage protection system, an electronic payment system to ensure wages are paid on time, and increased the number of labor inspectors. It said more accommodation was being built for more than a quarter of a million workers across Qatar. On Thursday, FIFA sponsors, including VISA and Coca-Cola, expressed concern at the conditions of migrant workers in 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar. [Reuters, 5/21/2015]

Saudi shells hit Yemen aid office kill five Ethiopian refugees
Saudi shells hit an international humanitarian aid office in northern Yemen on Thursday, killing five Ethiopian refugees and wounding ten. Artillery fire and airstrikes hit the town of Maydee along Yemen’s border with Saudi Arabia in Hajja province, a stronghold of the Houthi militia that a Saudi-led Arab alliance has been bombing for eight weeks. Saudi forces and Houthi militiamen exchanged heavy artillery and rocket fire, and Arab airstrikes hit Houthi positions inside Yemen on Thursday. On Wednesday, Houthi rebels in Jazan killed a border guard official in mortar shell attack. [Reuters, 5/21/2015]

Kattan new head of Council of Press Organizations
Waleed J. Kattan, director general of Okaz Organization for Press & Publication, has been elected president of the Council of Press Organizations for a period of three years. He succeeds Saleh Al-Humaidan, former director general of Dar Al Yaum Organization for Printing and Publishing. Abdul Hafeez Qari, director general of Al-Bilad Organization for Press and Publishing, took over as president of the board of directors of Al Watania Consolidated Distribution Company. [Saudi Gazette, 5/21/2015]


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]