Top News: South Syria rebels given more arms; Jordan says it will help train rebels

Mainstream rebels in Syria’s Southern Front say foreign states have stepped up weapons supplies to them since Damascus launched an offensive early last month to regain the frontier zone near Jordan and Israel in the provinces of Rif Dimashq, Deraa, and Quneitra. The rebels declined to give details, or say which states had supplied the weapons. The Southern Front groups have previously received military aid via Jordan. In related news, the Jordanian government announced Monday it would help train fighters belonging to Syrian tribes. A Jordanian spokesperson also indicated that Amman was ready to help train and arm forces in neighboring Iraq for their war on terrorism. [ReutersAPAFP, 3/24/2015]



Government to discuss elections law changes with Egyptian parties
Egyptian Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab is scheduled to invite political party representatives to discuss changes to a law regulating upcoming parliamentary elections, after a court order indefinitely postponed the polls earlier in March. Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court ruled on March 1 that the country’s Elections Districting Law is unconstitutional. Consequently, the elections, scheduled to begin March 21, were postponed until a new law is passed. According to the Prime Minister’s statement, the political parties’ representatives will have the chance to take a first look at the draft laws and “agree on a common vision for the election laws in accordance with the constitution.” [Ahram Online, DNE, 3/24/2015]

Egypt hunting down Muslim Brotherhood ‘sleeper-cells’
In an alleged leaked document from the Egyptian cabinet marked “urgent-top secret,” the government asks the minister of agriculture to hunt down “sleeper-cells” of the Muslim Brotherhood at the ministry and to train staff on security tasks “to overcome the scarcity of security elements” in different government installations. Addressing former agriculture minister Adel al-Beltagy, the message recommended reallocating security forces to different government offices according to need. It also advises ministries to carry out periodical security checks of all employees and remove from their posts “all those who are proven to believe in or sympathize with terrorist or saboteur ideas.” When asked about the letter that bore the logo of the general secretariat of the cabinet, a spokesperson said neither confirmed nor denied it. Former agriculture minister Beltagy refused to comment and new minister Salaheddin Helal said he is not aware of such a document. [Ahram Online, 3/24/2015]

Rafah buffer zone to extend 1,000 more meters into Egypt
People in the Sinai Peninsula have been informed of a third phase of evacuations to be made as part of government plans to create a 1.2 mile buffer zone along the border with the Palestinian Gaza Strip. People in Rafah said they have been notified that the third phase of evacuations will begin in early April. The first two phases involved the evacuation of 3,350 families from land that extended 0.6 miles into Egypt along the 8.6 mile-long border. [Egypt Independent, DNE, 3/24/2015]

Declaration of principles over Ethiopia dam a “positive step on the right path” says Sisi
Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi described a declaration of principles on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam signed on Monday as a “positive step on the right path.” Sisi addressed the declaration during a joint press conference with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn during the former’s visit to Addis Ababa on Tuesday. Sisi signed the declaration with Desalegn and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. Egypt’s president said the declaration would strengthen relations between the three countries. Former Water Resources and Irrigation Minister Mahmoud Abu Zeid said the document was legally binding and did not cancel former treaties on the Nile water. Signing the document is a clear indication of the start of formal negotiations, said former Foreign Minister Mohamed al-Oraby. [Aswat Masriya, 3/24/2015]

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Eight reportedly killed in air strike in Tripoli; US ambassador leaves Twitter
According to a tweet from US Ambassador to Libya Deborah Jones, eight members of the Tawergha, a minority group that was displaced after Qaddafi fell, were killed in an air strike near Tripoli on Monday. The Tobruk-based government pressed on with an assault to recapture Tripoli even as UN-led negotiations continue. The eastern chief of army staff for the Libyan National Army said that its planes had hit a Libya Dawn barracks, not a Tawergha camp, demanding an apology from Jones. A municipal spokesman also said that nobody had been killed in the strike and that rather it hit an empty farm near a camp of displaced Tawergha. Meanwhile, Ambassador Jones announced she is quitting Twitter due to personal attacks against her. [Reuters, Libya Herald, 3/23/2015]

East’s bid to control Libya oil wealth likely to fail
The Tobruk-based government in the east is unlikely to succeed in plans announced last week to divert the country’s oil export income away from the Tripoli-based government. Control over oil is at the heart of a struggle between the two rival governments and both sides field armies of fighters whose salaries are paid with export revenues collected by the National Oil Company (NOC). The NOC continues to operate out of Tripoli and sell oil abroad even though the capital is in the hands of a faction whose legitimacy is not recognized by the international buyers. Analysts, oil insiders, and Libyan businessmen doubt the Tobruk government can convince buyers it is the legitimate owner of Libya’s oil reserves. [Reuters, 3/23/2015]

Tunisia’s tourism ministry reports 3,000 cancellations; Bardo museum symbolic reopening
The Tunisian tourism ministry reported that around 3,000 booking cancellations have occurred since the attack on the Bardo museum last week. Two cruise ship owners have also cancelled their intended stops in Tunisia. Meanwhile, the Bardo museum held a ceremonial reopening on Tuesday. People carried national flags and “Visit Tunisia” signs and gathered behind barricades outside the Bardo where dignitaries participated in a ceremony. The public reopening of the museum is expected this weekend. [All Africa/TAP, Reuters, 3/24/2015]

Tunisia closes airspace to western Libya for security reasons
Tunisia has again closed its airspace to flights from western Libya, just days after allowing Libyan planes from Tripoli back for the first time in around six months. The move comes after militants killed foreign tourists in an attack on the national museum in Tunis last week. Tunisian officials say the two gunmen had been trained at a jihadist camp in Libya and fear further spillover of violence and extremism from its chaotic neighbor. [Reuters, 3/24/2015]

Algeria temporarily evacuates Turkish workers after ISIS threat
Algerian authorities temporarily evacuated nearly 100 Turkish construction workers from a roadway project east of Algiers as a precaution after a threat from militants affiliated with Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). The measure underscores growing concern over militant attacks in North Africa following last week’s Bardo museum attack in Tunisia and ISIS’s growing presence in neighboring Libya. The evacuation of the Turkish workers was a preventative measure and only temporary. However, the Algerian leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is still hiding in the eastern mountains. The Caliphate Soldiers, a splinter group that declared affiliation with ISIS, has also emerged. [Reuters, 3/23/2015]


Canada to expand anti-ISIS strikes to Syria
Canada plans to expand its mission against Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) militants by sending fighter-bombers to attack targets in Syria as well as Iraq. Prime Minister Stephen Harper will formally announce the plan on Tuesday morning. He will also announce that Canada intends to extend its six-month military mission by another year to April 2016. Canada has around seventy special forces troops operating in northern Iraq and has also provided six jets to take part in US-led bombing missions against ISIS in Iraq. Harper has taken a strong line on ISIS, saying the movement poses a threat to Canada. [Reuters, WSJ, 3/24/2015]

South Syria rebels given more arms; Jordan says it will help train rebels
Mainstream rebels in Syria’s Southern Front say foreign states have stepped up weapons supplies to them since Damascus launched an offensive early last month to regain the frontier zone near Jordan and Israel in the provinces of Rif Dimashq, Deraa, and Quneitra. The rebels declined to give details, or say which states had supplied the weapons. The Southern Front groups have previously received military aid via Jordan. In related news, the Jordanian government announced Monday it would help train fighters belonging to Syrian tribes. A Jordanian spokesperson also indicated that Amman was ready to help train and arm forces in neighboring Iraq for their war on terrorism. [Reuters, AP, AFP, 3/24/2015]

United States providing eye in the sky for Tikrit operation
The United States is providing reconnaissance support for Iraq’s operation to retake Tikrit from ISIS, a senior US military official said Tuesday. “The coalition began providing ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) support on March 21, 2015 at the request of the government of Iraq and the US is now providing that support,” adding that the support is in the form of “an eye in the sky.” The coalition has targeted ISIS with airstrikes and provided training and equipment to Iraqi forces, but this is the first confirmation of its direct involvement in the Tikrit operation. The ground operation, involving thousands of Iraqi soldiers, police, and predominantly Shia Iranian-backed paramilitaries began on March 2. [AFP, AP, 3/24/2015]

Iraqi Foreign Minister to meet Syria’s Assad in Damascus
The foreign ministers of Syria and Iraq met in Damascus on Tuesday to discuss ways to tackle militant groups in their countries and Iraq called for greater international cooperation to combat the violence. The Shia-led government in Baghdad have been an important ally for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Tuesday’s discussions “focused on the fight against terrorism and common dangers that threaten our countries,” Syrian state television said. It did not specify which groups to which the discussions referred. Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari was also due to meet Assad. In June 2014, Damascus announced its readiness to coordinate with Baghdad in order to face the threat posed by ISIS. [AFP, Reuters, 3/24/2015]


Yemen’s Foreign Minister appeals to Saudi Arabia for help
Yemeni Foreign Minister Riyadh Yaseen called on Monday for Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) military intervention in the country to stop territorial advances by Houthi fighters opposed to President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi. Yassin called for military intervention by the GCC to contain Houthis’ growing influence in Yemen, warning that the country “is heading towards a civil war.” The Yemeni government also called on the UN and the GCC to impose a no-fly zone over parts of the country after the third largest city of Taiz fell to Houthi rebels. [Reuters, Asharq al-Awsat, 3/23/2014]

Yemen’s rival factions agree to meet in Doha
Rival Yemeni factions have agreed in principle to hold reconciliation talks in the Qatari capital of Doha, but no date has yet been set, a Qatari foreign ministry source said on Monday. The information was leaked after Al-Jazeera television quoted UN Yemen envoy Jamal Benomar as saying the discussions would be held in Qatar and that any subsequent agreement reached would be signed in Saudi Arabia. [Reuters, 3/23/2015]

Houthis take town near Bab al-Mandab
Fighters from Yemen’s Houthi movement have entered the Red Sea port of al-Mukha, bringing them closer to President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi’s refuge in Aden. The advance also placed the Houthis a short drive from the Bab al-Mandab strait, a Red Sea shipping lane vital to oil shipments. Residents said the Houthi fighters entered al-Mukha, the southernmost Yemeni port before the Red Sea tapers to its narrowest point, overnight. Units from Yemen’s divided military accompanied them. More than 3.4 million barrels of oil per day passed through Bab al-Mandab in tankers in 2013, according to the US Energy Information Administration. [Reuters, 3/24/2015]

Oman’s Sultan returns after months of medical treatment
Oman’s Sultan Qaboos returned home “in complete health” on Monday after an eight-month medical stay in Germany, state television reported, adding his treatment had been a success. The royal court has not said what kind of treatment he underwent or provided any details about what he was ailing from, only saying that the treatment was successful. His last public appearance was in November, in a video message broadcast on state TV to mark the occasion of his birthday. In January, US Secretary of State John Kerry made a brief stop in Germany to meet the sultan, whose country has served as an intermediary in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. [AP, Reuters, 3/23/2015]


Egyptian president orders new bonds issued for Suez project
Egypt’s president has issued a decree to offer new bonds to the public to generate revenue to develop the Suez Canal area, where authorities aim to create new infrastructure and industries and draw foreign investment. The canal is currently undergoing expansion aimed at allowing two-way traffic starting in August. That project was also funded by a bond issue, which collected $8.5 billion in just eight days by selling non-tradable certificates with a maturity of five years at 12 percent interest to Egyptian nationals. [Ahram Online, 3/23/2015]

Al-Thinni cabinet approves 2015 budget
The cabinet of Abdullah al-Thinni has approved their version of the 2015 budget, which will now be presented to the House of Representatives (HoR) for voting. Finance Minister Kamil al-Hassi in al-Thinni’s government presented an overview of the 2015 budget, but no figures were provided in the statement. The draft document “took into account the fall in global oil prices and the fluctuations in local production due to the difficulties facing Libya at this time,” the statement said. Any approved funding decisions agreed by the Tobruk government are set to remain on paper until the political standoff in the country is settled. [Libya Monitor (subscription), 3/24/2015]

Saudi real estate shares tumble on decision to tax undeveloped land
Most Saudi real estate-related shares fell in early trade on Tuesday after the cabinet on Monday approved a proposal to tax undeveloped land in urban areas. Wealthy individuals or companies own much of the urban land in the kingdom, preferring to either hold it as a store of value or trade it for speculative profits, rather than develop it. The cabinet decision aims to push more land out into the market in order to address Saudi Arabia’s shortage of affordable housing. [Reuters, 3/24/2015]

Morocco’s exchange office to liberalize its foreign exchange rate
Morocco is moving towards the liberalization of its foreign exchange rate regime in what appears to be an attempt to install confidence in foreign investors. The country’s Exchange Office is reportedly working gradually on the liberalization of the highly regulated foreign exchange regime. The latter will witness a wide range of regulatory and institutional reforms that are expected to have important implications on the economy’s business cycle, trade, and capital flows. [Morocco World News, 3/23/2015]