Top News: Russia blocks UN condemnation of regime assault on Aleppo

Russia on Friday blocked a US-drafted United Nations Security Council statement condemning the Syrian government’s increasing military offensive on Aleppo that has killed approximately 200 and wounded nearly 900 since Sunday. France asserted Friday that the regime’s indiscriminate killing of civilians amounts to war crimes. The US move, followed by Russia’s counter-move, heightened diplomatic tensions ahead of a key Russia-US-UN meeting in Geneva on Friday on organizing an international Syria peace conference. Russian diplomats refused to allow any mention in the statement of President Bashar al-Assad’s tactics, diplomats said. In the face of the obstacles, the United States decided to withdraw the draft which needs the approval of all fifteen Security Council members to be released. The United States wanted the statement to express “outrage at the use of air strikes by the Syrian government, in particular the use of heavy indiscriminate weapons, including Scud missiles and ‘barrel bombs,’ which were dropped on Aleppo” this week. [AFP,12/20/2013]


Egypt: Leaks help, not hurt, al-Sisi’s image
In an audiotape, Egypt’s military chief, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, talks about his dreams, saying that in one nighttime vision he was brandishing a sword and that in another he told the late Anwar Sadat that he himself would be president one day. The tape, apparently leaked by opponents to embarrass the general, kicked off an online storm of parodies and mockery. But to most Egyptians, among whom dream interpretation is commonplace, it only deepened an image of the country’s most powerful figure—and very possibly its next president—as a spiritual man, in touch with the nation’s traditions. “Apparently, those who leaked the last tape have not sufficiently studied the nature of Egyptians,” said Negad Borai, a prominent rights activist and a lawyer. [AP, 12/20/2013]

Salafi Watan Party call for boycotting referendum
The Salafi Watan Party has called for boycotting the constitutional referendum set to take place on January 14-15.The party took an initial decision to boycott the referendum yet added that its final decision will be announced in line with parties that form the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy, which backs ousted President Mohamed Morsi. “The Egyptian (political) environment is not in its normal state and is neither fit for the democratic process nor for constitution drafting,” the party said in a statement on its Facebook page. There are no clear criteria for the referendum, the statement added. Sheikh Mohamed Abdel Maqsoud, a prominent figure at the former Rabaa square sit-in, also announced that it is a duty to boycott the referendum on the new draft constitution. “People should not even go to vote against it,” he said in a post on his official Facebook page. Abdel Maqsoud called on all Islamist forces to collaborate with the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy and work as a single bloc. [Egypt Independent, Aswat Masriya, 12/20/2013]

Minister says no intention to shift to monetary subsidies
The government has no intention of shifting food subsidies to monetary plans, Minister of Supplies and Internal Trade Mohamed Abu Shadi told state-owned Middle East News Agency (MENA) Friday. Abu Shadi said some 18 million cards have been allocated for subsidized supplies, benefiting around 69 million citizens. Food and energy subsidies, including bread, amount to EGP 35 billion, the minister added. His comments were made in response to rumors he says have been circulating by mobile phone, claiming that the ministry has initiated an agreement with subsidized food distributors to gradually implement monetary subsidies. [Mada Masr, 12/20/2013]

Egypt a world leader in detaining journalists, says report
Egypt was the ninth worst offender this year for jailing journalists in a list topped by Turkey, Iran and China, according to a study released by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) on Wednesday. CPJ said 2013 was the second worst year on record in terms of the number of journalists imprisoned worldwide. Egyptian authorities detained five journalists in 2013, as compared to none in 2012, according to the study. But CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa consultant Shaimaa Aboul Khier told Mada Masr that one journalist, a Turkish national named Metin Turan who works for Turkish Radio and Television Corporation, was released after the study was completed on December 1, leaving four journalists detained at present. Journalist Mahmoud Abdel Nabi, from the Rassd News Network, Al-Jazeera correspondents Mohamed Bader and Abdallah al-Shami and freelance journalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid are currently in custody. On Thursday, the prosecution extended Shami’s detention for 45 days pending investigations. [Mada Masr, 12/19/2013]


Libyan customs procedures boosted by border management training
Libyan customs staff have boosted their skills by training on the benefits of an integrated border management system and the use of different types of technologies at border crossing points. Customs officers from towns across the country traveled to Tripoli for the training, designed to improve standards and procedures as part of the latest program organized by the European Union Integrated Border Assistance Mission in Libya (EUBAM). The EUBAM Libya mission began work in the country in May 2013 and has a two-year mandate to mentor, advise and provide training for Libyan border management agencies. [Libya Herald, 12/19/2013]

Libya criminalizes gun ownership
The General National Congress this week passed a law criminalizing possession of all kinds of weapons, including explosives. The new legislation states that if weapons are not handed over to the government within ninety days, the person will be liable to a prison sentence and a fine. Despite calls by legislative members to apply the law strictly, military and strategy experts say the law cannot be implemented because weapons proliferation is so widespread. Others say a strong civil society and intervention by elders and tribal leaders would be necessary to reduce the chaos. [AllAfrica, 12/19/2013]

Strategic planning process for sustainable development in Zawia
Through a process led by the Zawia local council, key civil society organizations, business representatives, and other stakeholders drafted a strategy for local sustainable development in the town of Zawia. The process began with the collection and analysis of data, with working groups focusing on economic, environmental, and socio-cultural issues to better understand the town’s strengths and weakness and to identify both possible opportunities and threats to the local community. [Tripoli Post, 12/19/2013]

Local government could boost border security, says NGO
A Dutch NGO held workshops this week in Tripoli to support the building of democratic local government in Libya, explaining how local government could boost border security. The branch in Tunisia has been looking at how their work in the neighboring country could be applied to Libya, nevertheless stressing the need for “purely Libyan solutions.” At the conference, seminars focused particularly on how decentralization could better combat local problems. [Libya Herald, 12/19/2013]


Russian foreign minister: West realizing Assad less of a threat than Islamist militants
Western diplomats are increasingly saying that President Bashar al-Assad keeping power is a better option for Syria than the country being ruled by Islamist militants, Russia’s foreign minister was quoted as saying on Friday. “Not only in private meetings but also in public comments, the idea is occurring to some Western colleagues that … Assad remaining in office is less of a threat for Syria than a takeover of the country by terrorists,” Sergei Lavrov told RIA news agency in an interview published on Friday. Russia has been Assad’s most important supporter during Syria’s civil war. It says his removal from power must not be a precondition for holding peace talks. [Reuters, 12/20/2013]

Syria Kurds to send two delegations to peace talks
Syria’s Kurds will send two delegations to upcoming peace talks, one with the opposition coalition and another with representatives of President Bashar al-Assad, opposition leader Ahmed Jarba said Friday. There will be “a delegation within the [opposition] coalition and a regime delegation,” Jarba said, without saying who was who. But it seems likely that the Kurdish National Council (KNC), which is part of the opposition coalition, will attend with opposition representatives, while the People’s Council of Western Kurdistan (PCWK), which is seen as close to the regime, will accompany the government representatives. The main group in the PCWK is the Democratic Union Party, which is the most powerful armed Kurdish organization in Syria. The KNC and PCWK, the two main Syrian Kurdish groups, have been at odds since the latter announced last month a transitional autonomous administration for Kurdish-majority areas of northeastern and northwestern Syria without the former’s backing. Since Tuesday, they have been holding talks in Arbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, aimed at establishing a unified front ahead of the talks. [AFP, 12/20/2013]


Nidaa Tounes still committed to roadmap, willing to carry on dialogue
Secular opposition party Nidaa Tounes reaffirmed Thursday in a press release that it is “still committed to the roadmap,” and called for implementing all the roadmap’s provisions, abiding by its timetable, and making room for compromise. The leftist alliance Popular Front has decided to suspend participation in the national dialogue pending consultations with partners including the Salvation Front, Spokesperson Hamma Hammami announced on Thursday. A source from the lead mediator Tunisian General Labor Union said on Thursday that the resumption of the national dialogue, scheduled for Friday morning at 10 AM, has been delayed to the afternoon session at 4 PM. [TAP, 12/20/2013]

UGTT protests at constituent assembly building
The Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) organized protests yesterday in front of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), where they were joined by the General Union of Tunisian Students. Protests also took place in front of the Ministry of Health building. Protesters denounced the proposed 2014 budget, according to UGTT’s Facebook page. The new budget is designed to raise taxes and cut subsidies in order to reduce the country’s budget deficit. The NCA began debate on the bill today, according to monitoring group Al Bawsala. [Tunisia Live, 12/19/2013]

Standard and Poor’s will not rate Tunisia anymore
Rating agency Standard & Poor’s (S&P) announced that it will no longer rate Tunisia, per the request of the Tunisian government. In a statement posted on Thursday on its website, S&P affirms it kept Tunisia’s previous rating at “B/B” adding that “at the time of withdrawing Tunisia from the list of countries rated, the outlook remained negative.” Also on Thursday, Tunisia and the European Investment Bank signed two financial agreements worth a global amount of more than 200 million Tunisian dinars (€90 million). [TAP, 12/20/2013]

Tunisia’s PM designate promises transparent elections
Tunisian premier-designate Mehdi Jomaa, chosen to form a transitional government, promised Friday to do his utmost to ensure transparent elections and bring the country out of crisis, state news reported. Jomaa said he would “favor the appropriate conditions for transparent and credible elections, the security of Tunisians, and promoting the economy with the aim of emerging from the crisis” that erupted with the July assassination of opposition leader Mohamed Brahmi. The news agency also said he committed himself to “guarantee the neutrality of the administration, of the security apparatus and the army.” [AFP/Al Arabiya, 12/20/2013]


Attackers blow up Yemen oil pipeline again
Militants blew up a section of oil pipeline in eastern Yemen overnight for the second time, stopping the flow of crude, an oil ministry official said on Friday. Armed men blew up the pipeline in the Al-Arqain area of Maarib province late on Thursday, just “one hour after it was repaired following a previous act of sabotage,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Technicians, accompanied by security forces, are trying to seal a breach in the oil pipeline to ensure the pumping of crude can resume,” the official said. He blamed tribes in the region east of the capital Sana’a for the attacks, but did not give any further details. [AFP/Khaleej Times, 12/20/2013]

NDC transitional justice working group submits its report
The transitional justice working group in the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) submitted its report to the NDC presidency Thursday for presentation to the plenary session. The report of this working group has been the subject of intense debate throughout the dialogue. [NDC (Arabic), 12/20/2013]

Sectarian clashes kill nine in northern Yemen
Nine people have been killed in ongoing sectarian fighting Friday in northern Yemen between Houthis and Salafis backed by local tribes, a tribal source said. “Seven Houthis and two tribesmen were killed on Thursday in the clashes, which were continuing intermittently,” particularly in the Kitaf area in the north of Saada and in neighbouring Amran province, the source told AFP. A spokesman for the Salafis, Khaled al-Azzani, confirmed the toll. An official from the Houthi Ansar Allah group, Ali al-Bukheiti, said the clashes in Amran had left some dead and wounded, without elaborating. On Thursday the International Committee of the Red Cross  issued a statement expressing concern over increasing violence in the north and demanding access to the region to provide humanitarian assistance. [AFP/Ahram Online, Al Masdar (Arabic), 12/20/2013]

Clashes break out in Hadramawt
Armed clashes have erupted in the Hadramawt province, as the tribal alliance’s deadline for Yemeni government forces to leave the area passed at midnight. Yemen state media reports three simultaneous attacks on communications cables in Amran, Shabwah, and Marib have caused a disruption of telecommunications services in Hadramawt as well as Shabwah, Marib, Abyan, Al-Jowf, and Aden. Heavy clashes are going on in Seiyun town in Wadi Hadhramaut. Tribesmen are attacking army soldiers located within Seiyun’s sole airport. Yemeni security forces warned residents of the province against using “violence, chaos, and sabotage” as a means of expression. Military and security units have reportedly abandoned posts across the province.  [Al Tagheer (Arabic), 12/20/2013]


UN rights office protests treatment of Saudi reform activist
The United Nations’ human rights office raised concerns Friday over the treatment of a Saudi activist punished for advocating a constitutional monarchy in the conservative oil-rich kingdom. “We are deeply concerned about the intimidation and sometimes prosecution of individuals in Saudi Arabia for exercising their right to freedom of expression,” said Ravina Shamdasani, spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. A closed-door court hearing last week reportedly sentenced Omar al-Saeed to four years in prison and 300 lashes, and banned him from leaving the desert kingdom for a further four years after his release. [AFP/Ahram Online, 12/20/2013]

Israeli PM vows to expand settlements
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to continue developing settlements amid warnings that peace negotiations with the Palestinians could break down. “We will not stop, even for a moment, building our country and becoming stronger, and developing… the settlement enterprise,” he said in remarks on Wednesday to his rightwing Likud faction, which were broadcast on army radio on Thursday, AFP reported. [Al Arabiya, 12/19/2013]

Migrant workers going hungry in Qatar
Dozens of migrant workers in Qatar are running low on food after a pay dispute with their employer, according to rights group Amnesty International. More than eighty laborers, mostly from Nepal, are waiting for up to a year’s worth of pay after having worked on a prominent skyscraper in the capital, Doha, a statement by the group said on Wednesday. Qatar has said it will review working conditions for laborers after questions were raised about safety on construction sites, and allegations of human rights abuses. “It is now one month since we visited these men and found them living in desperate conditions. But their ordeal has not ended,” said Salil Shetty, secretary general of Amnesty International. “They have not been paid for nearly a year and can’t even buy food to sustain themselves on a day-to-day basis. They also can’t afford to send money back home to their families or to pay off debts.”[Al Jazeera, 12/18/2013]

Image: UN Security Council open debate on protection of civilians in armed conflict, August 19, 2013 (Photo: UN/Devra Berkowitz)