Top News: Tunisia marks one year since opposition leader’s assassination

Thursday marks one year since the assassination of Chokri Belaid. Belaid was a prominent politician and critic of the Islamist government. His assassination triggered massive anti-government protests and a political crisis from which Tunisia has only recently started to emerge, with the adoption of a consensus constitution last month. It was the first of two assassinations by jihadists and the authorities blamed the assassination on members of Ansar al-Sharia, a Salafi group suspected to have links to al-Qaeda. Earlier this week, the main suspect in Belaid’s assassination, Kamel Gadhgadhi, was killed along with six other terrorist suspects and one police officer. Belaid’s widow, Basma Khalfaoui, sees the killing of Gadhgadhi as calculated and politically motivated. She stated that “Police officers could have completed the operation months ago if there was a serious political will to unveil the truth.” Interestingly, President Marzouki has declared February 6 as the National Day Against Political Violence. [Ahram Online, 2/6/2014]



Egypt army denies Sisi candidacy announcement
Egypt’s military spokesman Ahmed Ali has denied that army chief Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi told a Kuwaiti newspaper he would stand for president. “What was published in Al-Siyasa is merely journalistic speculation and not a direct statement from Field Marshal Sisi,” Ali said via Facebook. Al-Siyasa published a lengthy interview with Sisi on Wednesday in which he reportedly said he “would fulfill the people’s demands to run for president.” London-based Al-Hayat reported that the former governor of Luxor Major General Samir Farag, and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Major General Mahmoud Nasr would be running Sisi’s presidential campaign. Mohamed al-Erian, CEO of PIMCO who will be leaving the company in March, has also denied earlier reports that he held prepare Sisi’s platform. [Ahram Online, AP, Mada Masr, DNE, Egypt Independent, Aswat Masriya, SIS, 2/6/2014]

Egyptian court orders retrial for Port Said football killings
The appeals court accepted on Thursday the challenge of forty-two defendants in the Port Said massacre case, but rejected the appeal submitted by the nine others. The court rejected the appeals of eight defendants on procedural grounds, as they are still being retried after they received verdicts in absentia before turning themselves in. In March of last year, the Port Said Criminal Court gave varied verdicts to forty-five defendants, and acquitted twenty-eight others, including the police leaders. The challenge means retrying all those who received verdicts. Thursday’s decision may lead to the conviction of those previously acquitted, and the possible easing of the sentences of the others or their acquittal. Both defendants and families of the soccer fan victims appealed the verdict in December. The Cairo Criminal Court ordered that the defendants would be retried in front of a different court than that which issued the previous ruling. [Egypt Independent, Mada Masr, Ahram Online, 2/6/2014]

Gated metal barrier replaces wall blocking Tahrir entrance
A concrete wall blocking Qasr al-Aini street in downtown Cairo has been replaced with a gated metal barrier. The gate can be closed to prevent protesters or rioters entering streets leading to the nearby interior ministry, parliament and government headquarters. Police and military personnel removed the concrete wall on Wednesday night and erected its replacement on Thursday morning. [Ahram Online, 2/6/2014]

Egypt’s energy subsidy expected to increase by up to 10 percent this fiscal year
Petroleum Minister Sherif Ismail said petroleum products subsidy is expected to increase by 10 percent by end of the current fiscal year to reach EGP 140 billion, compared to the current spending of EGP 130 billion. The minister added that “if Egypt wants to achieve huge growth rates in the near future, we should take serious measures to rationalize this subsidy. If the situation continues this way, Egyptian citizens, as well as the services rendered for them, especially in vital sectors like health and education, will be negatively affected.” [Egypt Independent, 2/5/2014]


NFA rejects GNC roadmap
The National Forces Alliances (NFA) has rejected the roadmap for the new constitution and legislature adopted by the General National Congress (GNC) this week. The roadmap could see the GNC remain in office until as late as September 2015 or dissolved and fresh elections called as early as June 2014. The NFA disassociated itself with the GNC decision, saying that just because a majority of legislators had voted in favor did not mean that it represented the will of the Libyan people. The only way to do that was by a referendum, the NFA said. [Libya Herald, 2/5/2014]

Sebha peace deal on brink of collapse
A mediator between warring tribal factions in Sebha says the current state of peace could be on the brink of collapse after the withdrawal of Zintani forces that had moved in to secure the area. Khaled Salim, a member of the Zintani mediation committee negotiating an end to the violence between Tebu tribesman and the Awalad Suleiman clan, said that while relative stability had returned to Sebha for almost a week, members of the Awlad Suleiman tribe had refused to comply with particular terms of the truce. The point of contention was the demand that they withdraw forces from their base at the city’s Faris military compound and hand it over to neutral forces. Zintani and Misratan revolutionary forces had moved into Sebha to act as a buffer between the combatants and wrest control of nearby Tamenhint airbase from Qaddafi loyalists. An indication that the truce was collapsing was the kidnapping yesterday of seven Tebu detainees. [Libya Herald, 2/6/2014]

France and US should intervene in Libya, says Niger
Niger’s interior minister says France and the United States should intervene in southern Libya “to eradicate the terrorist threat” in the region. In an interview with Radio France Internationale broadcast Wednesday, Massoudou Hassoumi said southern Libya had become “an incubator for terrorist groups” and that countries involved in the 2011 overthrow of Libya dictator Moammar Qaddafi “need to provide an after-sales service.” He was responding to a question about remarks by US intelligence official James Clapper last month regarding the terrorist threat facing countries in Africa’s Sahel region, including Niger. [AP, 2/5/2014]

Zidan calls on GNC to recognize the royal family
Prime Minister Ali Zidan has asked the General National Congress (GNC) to pass a law recognizing the historic role that King Idris played in the creation of Libya and repealing Qaddafi’s laws against the royal family. These, said Zidan in a letter to the GNC President Nuri Abu Sahmain, included death sentences against members of the family as well the confiscation of their property and stripping them of Libyan nationality. It was time, Zidan said, that Libyans let the world know the wrongs done to the royal family by Qaddafi and the leadership of King Idris in the struggle for Libyan independence. [Libya Herald, 2/6/2014]


United States quietly ramps up funding to rebels to increase pressure on Assad
The United States has increased direct funding to rebel groups fighting in Damascus and southern Syria, ramping up pressure on president Bashar al-Assad after negotiations in Geneva ended in deadlock. Last week, as the Syrian regime delegation in Switzerland vowed there would be “no concessions” to the opposition, US officials were handing over hundreds of thousands of dollars to Syrian rebel commanders in Jordan, according to opposition fighters. “From now until the next round of talks in Geneva, Assad will be under real pressure—he will feel more pressure from opposition forces,” a rebel field commander cited a US official as saying. The injection of funding from Washington comes on top of a major push by Arabian Gulf states to finance rebel operations in the southern region of Syria, including the war to control the capital, Damascus. More than $1 billion has been paid out since the summer, much of it for weapons purchases in Eastern Europe, according to sources connected with Gulf governments, which are bankrolling the effort. On Saturday, less than forty-eight hours after getting the funds from US officials, rebels launched a new military campaign called Geneva Horan, involving sixty-eight rebel units in southern Syria. [The National, 2/6/2014]

US spy chief says Assad has strengthened his hold on power; Kerry concurs
America’s country’s top intelligence official said Tuesday that President Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power had “strengthened” over the past year, and that he had benefited from a deal to abandon his chemical weapons arsenal. The statement by James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, came as concern has been mounting both in Congress and in the Obama administration that the policy toward Syria is faltering on several fronts. US Secretary of State John Kerry admitted Wednesday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was making gains on the ground, but he denied U.S. policy in Syria was failing. “It’s fair to say that Assad has improved his position a little bit, yes. But he’s still not winning. This is a stalemate,” Kerry told CNN. But asked whether he believed that America’s policy in the war-torn country, which has seen a mounting death toll in its three-year conflict, had failed, he replied “No.” Adding: “The policy in Syria is just very challenging and very difficult.” [NYT, 2/5/2014]

Aleppo bombing kills 257 dead in five days; Russia says “not a good time” for humanitarian resolution
At least 246 people, including 73 children, have been killed in five days of army barrel bombing of rebel-held held areas of second city Aleppo. Hundreds more have been wounded in the raids using the controversial unguided munitions, condemned by rights groups as indiscriminate. The heavy casualty toll has sparked a mass exodus from the worst-hit neighborhoods in the east of the city, the Britain-based monitoring group added. On Wednesday, Russia’s UN envoy said that Moscow opposes a UN Security Council Resolution demanding greater humanitarian access in Syria to those in urgent need of food and medical supplies. Since negotiations between Syria and world powers halted Friday without concrete results, nations backing the opposition have drafted a text they hope to bring before the council this week. “It is too early,” the Russian envoy said. “We believe it is not a good time to have any resolution discussed in the Security Council… My concern is if there is a resolution, it will be an effort to politicize.” On Thursday, rebels announced a new military campaign in Aleppo, a few days after government forces stepped up air attacks in a bid to recapture territory and drive residents out of opposition-held areas. The largest Syrian rebel coalition, known as the Islamic Front, joined forces with the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria, to launch an assault dubbed “The promise of truth approaches,” a reference to a Quranic verse about Judgment Day. [Daily Star, Naharnet, 2/6/2014]

UN, Syria agree on evacuation of Homs’ women and children; No deal on men or aid
The United Nations and Syria have reached a deal to allow civilians to leave besieged areas of Homs, the provincial governor said Thursday. The statement came days after regime and opposition representatives meeting for peace talks in Geneva discussed the situation in the besieged districts of the central city. UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi had announced that Damascus agreed to allow women and children out, though the opposition and the regime then accused each other of blocking any further progress. There had been no deal on the exit of men, or the entry of much-needed aid into the city, where activists say some 3,000 people have been surviving on little more than olives for many weeks. On Thursday, a Syrian senior official said the government has not decided yet whether to take part in a second round of peace talks tentatively scheduled for next week. [AFP, Reuters, 2/6/2014]


Electoral law is the next step for Tunisia’s Assembly
The National Constituent Assembly (NCA) will meet on Thursday to begin discussing the country’s electoral law, which is the next step on Tunisia’s roadmap to democracy. The electoral law will schedule poll dates, set out rules for campaign finance, determine the timing and order of presidential and parliamentary elections, and decide the terms of candidacy. The new law may reinstate Decree 15 from the 2011 election law, which was enacted for the 2011 NCA election. Decree 15 prevented influential members of the former regime from running for office. Two controversial issues are likely to be the date and order of presidential and parliamentary elections and campaign financing. [Tunisia Live, 2/5/2014]

Annual inflation rate falls in January to 5.8 percent
Tunisia’s annual inflation rate fell in January to 5.8 percent from 6 percent in December, official data showed on Wednesday. Inflation had been steady in November-September 2013 at 5.8 percent. Tunisia’s central bank raised its benchmark interest rate to 4.5 percent from 4 percent at the end of December, citing inflation pressures. Average inflation for 2013 was 6.1 percent, up from 5.5 percent for 2012. The central bank does not target a particular inflation rate but says the most that should be tolerated is 5 percent. [Reuters, 2/5/2014]

Jailed bloggers are a test for the new constitution
Human Rights Watch (HRW) is calling on Tunisia, in honor of its new constitution, to rescind the sentences of anyone convicted under laws that violate human rights. One such sentence is that of Jabeur Mejri, a blogger who was sentenced to seven and a half years of jail time in March 2012 Another blogger, Ghazi Beji, was sentenced alongside Mejri for seven and a half years as well, however, Beji fled Tunisia and received political asylum in France. Mejri wrote satirically about Islam and the Prophet Muhammad and reprinted crude caricatures of the prophet from an essay by Beji. HRW stated that “Tunisia’s new constitution has bold protections for freedom of speech and freedom of conscience […] Mejri’s sentence violates his freedom of speech, and the government should celebrate the new day in Tunisia by freeing him.” [HRW, 2/6/2014]


Houthi spokesman discusses objections over regions committee, guarantees document
In an interview with the Yemen Times, a Houthi spokesman discussed his group’s objections to the Regions Committee, saying that its composition should reflect that of the National Dialogue Conference (NDC). When questioned about why the group would sign the Southern Issue document despite knowing the Committee would be formed by President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi, the spokesman said that they made their objections known but signed on to the document as it was clear a majority of the NDC supported it. The spokesperson also said the group objected to the NDC guarantees document because it was signed without considering their perspective. [Yemen Times, 2/6/2014]

LNG workers’ strike suspended; youth movement protests to scrap deal
Due to the intervention of the deputy minister of oil, a strike organized by a workers union that began on February 2 has been suspended. The French energy company TOTAL thanked the efforts of the government and released a statement about their respect for their employees. However, a youth movement citing TOTAL’s corrupt arrangement with the previous regime that sold Yemeni gas far below market prices held protests in throughout the country calling for the contract to be terminated. [Mareb Press (Arabic), 2/6/2014]

Increased attacks on power grid recently
The fifth attack on the power grid in Mareb province in the past week occurred today. A source in the Ministry of Electricity blamed the attacks on “subversive elements,” but the identity of the perpetrators is not known. [al-Masdar (Arabic), Mareb Press (Arabic); 2/6/2014]


Iraqi forces abuse female prisoners
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), thousands of women are being illegally held in Iraqi prisons, where they suffer torture and other forms of abuse, including sexual assault. These women are often not arrested for crimes they themselves have committed but rather in order to question their male relatives’ alleged support for militants or to harass male family members or the community more generally. HRW said that women in Iraqi prisons—the vast majority of whom are Sunni—have reported being beaten, kicked, and slapped, given electric shocks, and raped, while others have been threatened with sexual assault, sometimes in front of male relatives. The Sunni community points to the treatment of women in prisons as one way in which their community is unfairly targeted by the authorities. [Al Arabiya, 2/6/2014]

US State Department defends weapon sales to Iraq as fighting spills over from Anbar
Deputy assistant secretary of state Brett McGurk defended the recent sale of Hellfire missiles and Apache helicopters to Iraq citing “vital US interests at stake.” McGurk, briefing the House Foreign Affairs Committee, referred specifically to the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which has been engaged in pitched battles with security forces in Anbar province, recently spilling over into the neighboring province of Salahuddin. Without properly armed and armored helicopters, Iraqi forces would be hard pressed to fight ISIS. Representative Ed Royce however demanded that the Obama administration must address Iraq’s “relations with Iran and the slow pace of political reconciliation with minority groups.” [Defense News, 2/6/2014]

Image: Memorial for Tunisian opposition leader Chokri Belaid, assassinated February 6, 2013. (Photo: Wikimedia)