Top News: Syrian Regime Delegation Ready to Discuss Geneva I Communique

Syria’s opposition said peace talks with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Geneva took a step forward on Wednesday with discussions on a transitional government after four days of deadlock. The regime delegation also said that “positive” talks had started on the Geneva I communiqué—the statement put out by global powers during talks here in 2012–while stressing that the focus was on ending violence and “stopping terrorism.” “Today we had a positive step forward because for the first time now we are talking about the transitional governing body, to end dictatorship and end the fighting and the misery in Syria,” the opposition delegation spokesman told reporters, adding that he hoped for “more progress in the coming days.” Regime delegation member Buthaina Shaaban confirmed that talks on the Geneva communiqué had begun, but said “the first item is to stop violence which now has turned into terrorism.” [AFPReuters, 1/29/2014]


Brotherhood issue statement on SCAF support of Sisi presidential bid
The Muslim Brotherhood released a statement Tuesday in response to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ (SCAF) recent announcement of support for Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the upcoming presidential elections. “It has become evident that what happened July 3 was a military coup,” the statement reads. It blames SCAF for authorizing the “coup leader” to run for president, saying that the military has long dominated political life in Egypt and should stay away from politics altogether. The statement also accuses Sisi of responsibility for the death of “more than one hundred martyrs” on the third anniversary of the January 25 uprising, immediately after which Sisi was made field marshal, the highest possible rank in the Egyptian armed forces. The statement ends by warning that “the people will not accept being governed by a “cutthroat traitor” who they accuse of being in “relentless pursuit of the throne.” [DNE, 1/29/2014]

Four Al-Jazeera journalists and sixteen others referred to criminal court
Egyptian prosecutors referred on Wednesday four foreign Al-Jazeera journalists and sixteen Egyptians, including Peter Greste, Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, to criminal court. The sixteen Egyptian defendants face charges including belonging to a terrorist organization, harming national unity and social peace, and using terrorism as a means to their goals. The four foreigners face charges of collaborating with the Egyptians and providing them with information, equipment, and money as well as broadcasting false information and rumors to convince the international community that Egypt was undergoing a civil war. The case has become known as the “Marriott cell” because the journalists are accused of operating illegally from a room at the Marriott Hotel in collaboration with the Muslim Brotherhood. Eight of the accused are in custody, with arrest warrants issued for the twelve other journalists. [Ahram Online, AP, Aswat Masriya, 1/29/2014]

Egypt targets $4 billion FDI by end of 2013/14 says minister
Egypt aims to attract $4 billion net foreign direct investment (FDI) by the end of the fiscal year 2013/14, state news agency MENA reported on Tuesday, citing Osama Saleh, the minister of investment. Total FDI reached $9.2 billion in the last three years. The fiscal year 2010/11 saw $2.2 billion in FDI, and increased to $4 billion in 2011/12. It reached around $3 billion in fiscal year 2012/13, Saleh said. Saleh pointed out that last year Egypt witnessed a record of establishing more than 8,000 new companies, which he expects to double after achieving political stability. [Ahram Online, 1/28/2014]

Egypt, US army officials discuss military ties in Cairo
Egypt’s Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Sedky Sobhy received on Wednesday Deputy Commander of the United States Central Command Mark Fox, an Egyptian army statement announced. According to Al-Ahram, the meeting—attended by several Egyptian army officials and the acting US ambassador in Cairo—tackled means of supporting and activating military cooperation and exchange of experiences between the two armed forces. Mofid Deak, spokesman for the US Embassy in Cairo, said that Fox would meet with a number of government officials to discuss security and military issues of mutual concern to the two nations. Deak then reiterated that the meetings, which will cover “a range of issues”, are based solely on military cooperation. [Ahram Online, DNE, 1/29/2014]


Libyan deputy PM escapes assassination attempt
Deputy Prime Minister Sadiq Abdulkarim survived an assassination attempt in Tripoli on Wednesday. There are conflicting reports as to where Abdulkarim was headed at the time of the incident. According to officials, gunmen opened fire when he was about to enter the interior ministry, which he also heads. The state news agency LANA, however, reported that the minister was heading to a meeting at the General National Congress. No further details were available, and the identity of the attackers is unclear. [Reuters, 1/29/2014]

Sebha celebrates airbase recapture as Qaddafi forces fire on historic castle
Sebha residents took to the streets this afternoon to celebrate the recapture of the nearby Tamenhint airbase as pockets of Qaddafi supporters fired missiles at the town’s historic castle, held by the army’s Sixth Brigade. Speaking by phone to Tripoli this afternoon, a local media professional said that people were awaiting the arrival of the Misratan forces that captured the airbase. There were earlier reports of fighting near the airbase between pro-Qaddafi elements and Misratan forces that arrived from the Jufra district. [Libya Herald, 1/29/2014]

Security forces free eighteen Warshefana locals as UN calls for end to violence
Eighteen Warshefana residents who were arrested amid recent clashes have been freed. They were among the more than eighty detained by security forces during clashes that broke out between locals and security forces who were looking for suspects wanted by the public prosecutor’s office. According to sources, among the remaining people arrested, some had been caught carrying guns and others were accused of criminal activities. They were still being interrogated as to the whereabouts of other suspects and the location of arms caches. Responding to the fighting, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya called on all parties involved to “exert every effort to reach a prompt end to violence and restore security and stability in the area.” [Libya Herald, 1/28/2014]

Alcatel Luscent to install high-speed internet link between Benghazi and Tripoli
In the latest effort by Libya’s communications ministry to modernize the country’s infrastructure, France-based telecommunications company Alcatel Luscent has been awarded a multi-million dollar contract to install high-speed internet broadband cable between the capital and Benghazi. The undersea cable project, to be carried out jointly between Alcatel Luscent and the Libyan International Telecom Company, is expected to be completed within sixteen months. [Libya Herald, 1/28/2014]


Extremists’ control of oil resources creates bond with regime it purportedly opposes
Islamist rebels and extremist groups have seized control of most of Syria’s oil and gas resources, a rare generator of cash in the country’s war-battered economy, and are now using the proceeds to underwrite their fights against one another as well as President Bashar al-Assad, US officials say. While the oil and gas fields are in serious decline, control of them has bolstered the fortunes of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS, and the Nusra Front, both of which are offshoots of al-Qaeda. ISIS is even selling fuel to the Assad government, lending weight to allegations by opposition leaders that it is secretly working with Damascus to weaken the other rebel groups and discourage international support for their cause. Although there is no clear evidence of direct tactical coordination between the group and Mr. Assad, American officials say that his government has facilitated the group’s rise not only by purchasing its oil but by exempting some of its headquarters from the airstrikes that have tormented other rebel groups. The Nusra Front and other groups are providing fuel to the government, too, in exchange for electricity and relief from airstrikes, according to opposition activists in Syria’s oil regions. The scramble for Syria’s oil is described by analysts as a war within the broader civil war, one that is turning what was once an essential source of income for Syria into a driving force in a conflict that is tearing the country apart. [NYT, 1/28/2014]

United Nations suggests removal of Syria chemicals unnecessarily delayed
The second cargo of Syria’s most toxic chemical weapons was exported by ship on Monday for eventual destruction at sea, officials overseeing the effort reported. But UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon suggested in a report on Tuesday that an operation to remove the chemical weapons had been unnecessarily delayed and that he had expressed his concern to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Ban said in a report to the UN Security Council, dated January 27 but made publicly available on Tuesday, that a December 31 deadline for removing Syria’s worst chemicals had been missed. Syria has said the operation faces security challenges. [Reuters, NYT, 1/28/2014]

Opposition in Geneva tries to polish image, project unity
The Syrian opposition delegation to the Geneva peace talks has gone to pains over the past week to overcome its image as a fractious organization mired in infighting, trying to present a strong and united front to the media, Western backers and Syrians back home. The team, led by 44-year-old lawyer Ahmad Jarba, has come under intense focus at the first talks between any opposition representatives and the Syrian regime in nearly three years of civil war. They were pressured to unify by their Western and Arab backers, who also financed a coterie of international advisers now surrounding the delegation in Geneva. [WSJ, 1/29/2014]


Tunisia’s parliament approves new government
On Wednesday morning Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly (NCA) approved the new caretaker government announced by Prime Minister Jomaa on Sunday and presented to the NCA for a vote of confidence yesterday. The line-up received 149 votes in favor, twenty votes against, and twenty-four abstentions. It was expected that the Jomaa’s proposed cabinet would be approved by the NCA, however, Jomaa still spent twelve hours on Tuesday defending his cabinet to the NCA. The lengthy deliberations over the cabinet focussed on a number of ministers including the proposed minister of tourism, Amel Karboul, who was criticized by some for having traveled to Israel and the minister of justice candidate, Hafedh Ben Salah, was alleged to have worked with deposed president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. [Tunisia Live, Ahram Online, 1/29/2014]

Tunisia appeals for support in its last steps towards democracy
Tunisia’s new Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa appealed on Tuesday to the international community for financial support to help the country take the last steps in its transition to a full democracy. In addition to overseeing new elections, Jomaa’s government must deal with a large budget deficit and the threat of Islamist militants. International lenders want a cut in subsidies as well as other reforms to trim Tunisia’s widening budget deficit, which the government expects to jump to 6.8 percent of gross domestic product in 2013, compared to 6 percent in 2012. Tunisian officials say the recent political and economic strides forward should be enough to persuade the International Monetary Fund to release a second, $500 million tranche from a $1.5 billion credit. [Al Arabiya, 1/28/2014]

Vocal minority opposes constitution
During Sunday’s vote in the NCA to ratify Tunisia’s constitution, of the 216 member assembly, four members abstained and twelve voted against ratifying the constitution. Reasons for opposing the charter varied. Some took issue with the structure of the new Tunisian state, others with the relationship between government and religion. Still others held out for individual causes, like healthcare or consumer rights. The majority of those voting against the constitution were members of the Mohabba party, which generally advocates for conservative religious values and social welfare. Some criticized Ennahda for conceding, stating that they failed the Tunisian people by not considering Islamic laws the primary source of legislation. [Tunisia Live, 1/28/2014]

Tunisian blogger sentenced to six months in prison
Yassine Ayari was sentenced to six months in prison on Tuesday. Ayari, thirty-three, pleaded guilty to threatening to kill Mondher Thabet in a comment on the former’s official Facebook fan page. Thabet is the former Secretary General of the Social Liberal Party. He is accused of promoting the corrupt regime of ousted president Ben Ali and has retreated from the political arena following the overthrow of president Ben Ali. Ayari is a computer science engineer, journalist, blogger, and cyber-activist and is known for his constant criticism of the actions of the opposition. Ayari is also one of the initiators of the “Nhar Ala Ammar” event on May 22, 2010. The event was in response to the restrictions imposed on cyber-surfing in Tunisia. During the era of Ben Ali, Tunisians were banned from accessing websites where anti-government articles or videos were published. [The Tunis Times, 1/28/2014]


Benomar addresses UN security council, urging action on would-be spoilers
UN special envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar briefed the Security Council yesterday in a closed door session. Benomar put pressure on the Security Council to follow-up with action on its November 2013 observation that elements of the former regime were attempting to derail Yemen’s transition process. “I told the Council that the Yemeni people are doing their part,” Benomar said. “And they are counting on the Council to do its part.” The president of the Security Council, the ambassador from Jordan, said that a resolution on Yemen would be drafted within days and that Council members have expressed readiness to act on “attempts to place obstacles to subvert” Yemen’s stability. Benomar’s full statement can be found here. [Reuters, 1/28/2014]

Hadi appoints military spokesman with ties to journalism
President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi has appointed Colonel Saeed Mohamed Saif al-Faqih as the official spokesman for the military. The choice of al-Faqih is a gesture toward transparency as he is a member of the Syndicate of Yemeni Journalists and the Federation of Arab Journalists. He told reporters that he looks forward to representing the military as “a protector of national sovereignty,” detached from political interests. [Al-Masdar (Arabic), 1/29/2014]

From Guantanamo Bay to Socotra: prison in paradise?
Human rights activists are raising alarm over rumors that Yemeni detainees currently held without trial or charges at the United States’ Guantanamo Bay prison will be transferred to Socotra, Yemen’s southern archipelago. “The prisoners in Guantanamo should either be prosecuted or released,” one activist said. “Simply transferring them to another prison located elsewhere is not a solution.” The idea does not seem to be popular among local residents who believe it would adversely affect tourism to the area, and who oppose the idea that some or the entire island would be turned into a military detention facility. [Economist, 1/29/2014]

Amnesty International releases statement ahead of UPR
Human rights monitor Amnesty International has released a statement about the current status of human rights in Yemen ahead of the UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Amnesty praised the “positive developments” that the National Dialogue has produced, but noted that until recommendations are implemented, Yemen’s “overall record on human rights and reform leaves much room for improvement.” [Amnesty International, 1/29/2014]


Palestine’s Abbas agrees to temporary Israeli military presence after peace
President of the Palestinian Authority (PA) Mahmoud Abbas said that he is willing to accept an Israeli military presence in the West Bank for a transition period of three years, as part of a peace agreement with Israel. Abbas dismissed notions of continued Israeli presence for up to ten years as not serious, but suggested the presence of a third party may be acceptable to soothe concerns. The Palestinians have rejected the idea of exclusive Israeli control of the Jordan Valley. Responding to criticism that Palestinians were making arrests of “people affiliated with Hamas” but failing to bring charges, an unnamed US official suggested that the PA is dealing with suspects outside the public’s view. [Haaretz, 1/29/2014]

Morocco and Algeria trade accusations over Syrian refugees
Morocco and Algeria are accusing each other of mistreating Syrian refugees. Morocco’s ministry of the interior stated that between Sunday and Tuesday, approximately seventy-seven Syrian refugees, including eighteen women and forty-three children, were expelled from Tunisia. This accusation follows a week of similar claims. The Algerian ambassador in Rabat was summoned by the foreign ministry on Tuesday to complain about what Morocco described as a rise in the expulsion of Syrian refugees into Morocco from Algerian territory. The spokesman for the Algerian foreign ministry stated that the accusations of expulsion were made up by Morocco’s media. [Gulf News, 1/29/2014]

Bahrain shuts Shia Cleric’s council
A Bahraini court ordered the closure of Bahrain’s ‘Ulama Islamic Council, accusing it of politicization and functioning outside the law. The court additionally ordered the liquidation of its assets as a result of the charges pursued by the ministry of justice. The Council is led by prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim, who is closely associated with Bahrain’s largest opposition group and political society, al-Wefaq. The move is likely to increase tension between Bahrain’s Shia majority and could derail what was thought to be a cooling of relations between the ruling family and the country’s opposition following meetings between opposition leaders and the Crown Prince. [Gulf News, Daily Star; 1/29/2014]

Image: Supporters of Syrian National Coalition in Bologna, Italy. (2012) (Photo: Wikimedia)