Top News: Tunisia Ratifies New Constitution

 The National Constituent Assembly (NCA) ratified the new constitution on Sunday. A vast majority of the NCA voted in favor of the constitution, with 200 voting in favor, twelve against, and four absent. On Monday morning, President Moncef Mazrouki, outgoing premier Ali Larayedh, and assembly speaker Mustapha Ben Jaafa signed the constitution. This constitution replaces the 1956 constitution that followed Tunisia’s independence from France. The ratification and signing of the constitution is regarded as a historic moment for Tunisia’s future as a democracy and as a model for other countries in the region that are in transition. The constitution has received praise from the international community, including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon [Tunisia LiveAl Arabiya, 1/27/2014].


Egypt’s SCAF authorizes newly promoted Field Marshal Sisi’s presidential bid
Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has empowered army chief Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi to run for president, according to reports from state-run MENA. The sources speaking to MENA also said that al-Sisi will announce his decision in the next few hours over whether or not he will enter the upcoming presidential elections as a civilian candidate. The military council convened earlier to discuss the nomination of Sisi. This announcement comes in the wake of Sisi being promoted to field marshal this morning. Interim president Adly Mansour issued a presidential decree promoting Sisi to the rank of field marshal. Security officials said on Monday that the promotion was a sign he is about to declare his candidacy for the presidency. Another official close to the military said that this is a routine upgrade in rank and the timing is not tied to anything, but comes upon decree by the president when he sees fit to do so. He did add that it is 90 percent likely that Sisi will indeed nominate himself and bid for the nation’s top post. The resignation of three ministers will be decided on next week, according to a high level government official. The cabinet reshuffle will also be announced after Sisi makes a decision whether to run in the presidential election, as he must first step down as minister. Al-Ahram reports that Deputy Prime Minister Ziad Bahaa El-din resigned. [Ahram Online, Aswat Masriya, DNE, Reuters, Egypt Independent, 1/27/2014]

Egypt’s finance minister implements Morsi’s customs tariff regulations
Minister of Finance Dr. Ahmed Galal issued Sunday a decree (No.23) defining the rules of applying Mohamed Morsi’s April decree to regulate custom tariffs on 100 goods. Among other products, new tariffs will be applied on capital goods, hotels’ imports, Arab Organization for Industrialization (AOI) imports, and Arab Petroleum Pipelines Company SUMID imports. Through the ministerial decision, imports tax will be reduced by 110 percent on products that are 30-40 percent locally manufactured, by 115 percent for 60 percent locally manufactured products, and 120 percent for more than 60 percent locally manufactured products. Morsi’s decree primarily targeted increasing tariffs luxury items like sunglasses, watches, yachts and shrimps. [Cairo Post, 1/26/2014]

Death toll from January 25 anniversary clashes reaches sixty-four, over 1,000 arrested
On Saturday, the third anniversary of the popular revolt that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak, deadly fighting erupted between police and supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi and some non-Islamist protesters in several parts of the country. The death toll from clashes has reached sixty-four, Egypt’s, said forensic authorities’ spokesperson Hisham Abdel Hamid. Post-mortem examinations showed at least fifty-eight of the deaths were caused by gunshot wounds and one by birdshot, Abdel Hamid added. At least 247 were wounded in nationwide clashes. An April 6 youth movement member was shot dead when police dispersed a downtown Cairo protest opposed to both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. Security forces used teargas and birdshot to disperse a protest at the Journalists’ Syndicate in downtown Cairo, while armored vehicles reportedly drove through the demonstration. The march included members of the Way of the Revolution Front, a coalition opposed to both the Muslim Brotherhood and the military, which joined the demonstration at the press syndicate after being driven out of a previous protest at Mostafa Mahmoud Mosque in Mohandiseen by police firing birdshot and teargas. A total of 1,079 were arrested according to a statement released by the ministry of interior. [Ahram Online, Egypt Independent, DNE, Mada Masr, AP, Reuters, 1/27/2014]

Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis claims responsibility for downing military helicopter
Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, a Sinai militant group, released a statement Sunday morning claiming responsibility for shooting down a military helicopter in North Sinai on Saturday, among other attacks. Five military personnel were killed in the crash. The al-Qaeda inspired group also said it was behind attacks on military support forces in the area surrounding Jura International Airport using heavy weapons, a bombardment of al-Zohour camp with mortars, and the shooting of soldier in the al-Kharouba ambush on Saturday, and the wave of Cairo bombings on Friday. On Sunday, up to four soldiers died and thirteen were injured when militants attacked their bus in the Sinai Peninsula, an army spokesperson announced. The ambush took place fifty meters from a security checkpoint. Meanwhile, a car bomb detonated on Saturday outside a Central Security Forces (CSF) camp in the city of Suez. Sixteen people were injured in the attack, the ministry of health said in a statement. [Ahram Online, Aswat Masriya, DNE, Mada Masr, AFP, Egypt Independent, 1/26/2014]


Kidnapped Egyptian diplomats freed in Libya
Five Egyptian diplomats and an embassy employee that were kidnapped last week in Tripoli were freed Sunday night, according to an official from the Libyan interior ministry. The abductions came hours after Libya’s state news agency reported that Egyptian authorities had arrested Shaaban Hadiya, the commander of the Libyan Revolutionaries Operation Room, who was visiting Egypt. Hadiya was later released by Egyptian authorities and called the Annaba TV station to tell them he was free. According to Libyan security officials, the kidnappers freed the six Egyptians as part of a deal between Tripoli and Cairo. Egypt withdrew its embassy staff along with the Egyptian ambassador who flew back to Cairo on Saturday evening. [Tripoli Post, Al Jazeera, 1/27/2014]

French admiral says Libyan insecurity needs attention
French Admiral Edouard Guillaud says he favors an international operation to battle a security “black hole” in southern Libya. Speaking to reporters, the France’s top military officer suggested that Tripoli’s lack of firm authority has fostered lawlessness in the southern region and France does not want to see it become “the new center of gravity of terrorism.” Guillaud stressed that Libya remains an independent state and no international operation could happen without its government’s approval, adding without elaborating “but we are looking.” [AP, 1/27/2014]

UN delivers aid to displaced Libyans in the south, urges end to violence
The United Nations in Libya is preparing to deliver assistance, including food, medicine, and other supplies, to displaced families in Sabha, in the southern part of the country. Georg Charpentier, the top UN humanitarian official in the country expressed concern about the ongoing violence and “appeals to all sides to end violence and guarantee the protection of civilians,” according to a news release. Earlier this month, Tripoli declared a state of emergency in the southern region where fighting has displaced hundreds of families. Despite government promises, no military reinforcements have been sent to the region, and any security achieved has been done so only by local forces. [All Africa/UN news service, 1/26/2014]

Reyayna local council head assassinated
Issa Mohamed Ahmed al-Ajrab, head of the Reyayna local council, was assassinated by masked gunmen while checking on various council matters within the town. An investigation into his death has been launched. [Libya Herald, 1/27/2014]


Geneva II turns to humanitarian relief of besieged Homs; Details in dispute
Over the weekend, negotiations in Geneva moved to a newly concrete phase, as the government and opposition met face to face for the first time in an attempt to win government approval for an aid convoy to reach parts of Homs long blockaded by the army. UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said Saturday that the governor of Homs had met with UN employees inside Syria and was awaiting the verdict of security forces on whether a shipment of food and medicine could enter the rebel-held Old CIty. On Sunday, the Syrian government said it was willing to allow women and children to leave the blockaded area of the city of Homs at any time. But the government said a list of male civilians must be submitted before the men could leave, raising fears that they would be subject to arrest, and raising suspicion among rebels that the move was a ploy. It was unclear when and how the plan to let the women and children go would take effect, and as of Monday the Red Cross said no concrete steps had yet been taken to implement an evacuation. Moreover, many women are reportedly unwilling to leave Homs. The plan fell short of what international mediators were seeking: the entry of a United Nations aid convoy to areas of the city that have been without access to food for months and where malnutrition is on the rise. The opposition delegation condemned on Monday the government’s proposal to allow women and children out of blockaded areas as a ploy to depopulate the area and arrest its opponents, saying the plan was not a substitute for allowing international aid convoys to enter. The opposition’s international backers said that international law was clear on the matter: The Syrian government is obligated to allow unimpeded aid access without conditions. The government responded that the proliferation of “terrorists” in the area rendered aid delivery too dangerous. [NYT, WSJ, 1/27/2014]

Despite peace talks, Assad’s forces drop barrel bombs
Syria’s air force struck rebel-held areas near Damascus and Aleppo on Saturday, as regime and opposition representatives met briefly in the same room in Geneva for peace talks. Government warplanes fired rockets at Talfita north of the capital, and helicopters struck Daraya to its south-west using deadly TNT-laden barrels. Air strikes also hit the Hanano, Qadi Askar, Salihin, and Maysar areas of Aleppo city, swathes of which have been under rebel control since an assault on the city in July 2012. Since December 15, Aleppo city has been the target of an aerial offensive that has killed hundreds, mostly civilians. The strikes come a day after barrel bomb attacks on Aleppo’s outlying industrial city and the Sheikh Najjar districts killed ten people. [The National, 1/25/2014]

Elders call for ending Syria ‘nightmare’ on Iran visit
A delegation of former world leaders from the so-called Elders group on Monday called for an end to Syria’s “nightmare” during a rare visit to Iran, a key regime ally. “All of us, including our Iranian hosts, are deeply concerned about the tragic situation in Syria today. We must all do our best to help reduce suffering… and put an end to the nightmare of Syrian people,” former UN chief and Syria envoy Kofi Annan said after a meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Annan arrived in Iran on Sunday with former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, South African Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu and Mexican ex-president Ernesto Zedillo. The Elders group was formed in 2007 and is made up of twelve former global leaders who “promote peace, justice and human rights.” During the visit, the Elders “will exchange ideas with the Iranian leadership about peaceful ways of addressing conflict and healing sectarian divisions in the region.” [The Daily Star, 1/27/2014]

Key al-Qaeda militant killed in Syria
Activist say a top militant who was the second in command in an al-Qaeda-linked group has been killed in Syria in clashes with rival Islamic factions. Activists in the northern province of Aleppo said on Monday that Haji Bakr was killed earlier this month in the town of Tal Rifaat. Bakr, an Iraqi citizen and former member of Saddam Hussein’s military, was the deputy chief of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), a transnational jihadi militia. Infighting among rebels in Syria’s civil war has killed more than 1,400 this month. A statement posted on a jihadi websites published a photograph of a man with a long grey beard announcing the death of Bakr, who was described as an “honorable sheik.” [The Daily Star, 1/27/2014]


Jomaa names caretaker cabinet
On Sunday night, caretaker Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa named his caretaker cabinet. The names will be presented to the NCA on Tuesday for a vote. The deadline for Jomaa to name his cabinet was Saturday, January 25, however, he failed to reach a consensus with political leaders over the names he had selected. The caretaker cabinet is tasked with overseeing elections later this year [Tunisia Times, 1/26/2014].  

Elections to take place before the end of the year
Mohamed Chafik Sarsar, the President of the Independent Higher Authority for the Elections (ISIE), announced on Friday that elections must take place before 2015. On Monday, Ameur Larayedh, a senior official in Tunisia’s dominant Islamist party, Ennahda, told AFP that Ennahda expects elections to take place in October. ISIE is tasked with setting the date for elections and overseeing them. [Ahram Online, 1/27/2014]

Islamists protest against new constitution
On Friday, following the conclusion of article-by-article voting on the constitution on Thursday, Islamists protested the new constitution. The protesters argued that Ennahda, the dominant Islamist party, made too many concessions to the secular opposition out of fear that events similar to those taking place in Egypt, where a military-backed government is cracking down on Islamist groups, would occur in Tunisia. The protest in Tunis was organized by the Tahrir Party, known for its aims to restore Caliphate and institute an Islamic state. [Tunis Times, 1/24/2014]


US, UN, EU say NDC conclusion is historic step, but much work remains
Congratulations to Yemen poured out from across the region and the world as the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) officially concluded on Saturday. The US State Department noted that the conclusion is a “milestone… [but] the work of Yemen’s democratic transition is not complete.” UN special envoy Jamal Benomar recalled the “onerous journey that Yemen has gone through” to create what he called a “roadmap to a new Yemen.” The European Union’s High Representative Catherine Ashton had similar praise, but turning toward what comes next she noted: “More than ever, the perseverance and collaborative spirit of all stakeholders and a climate of security and inclusiveness will be essential to the success of this transition.”

Benomar interviewed about post-NDC challenges of transition
In an interview with the UAE’s al-Bayan, UN special adviser on Yemen Jamal Benomar noted the challenges ahead but criticized the notion that Yemen could be sliding toward civil war, given the positive steps taken in the NDC. He affirmed that sanctions on former regime figures attempting to derail the transition process are still very much on the table, specifically with regard to Ali Salem al-Beidh. With regard to the Southern issue, Benomar called the NDC consensus on the South a victory for Southerners and for all Yemenis. He also called on political leaders to act on their promises, saying that popular demands–particularly from the Southern Herak movement–will become more radical as they lose faith in the political leadership. [Al-Masdar (Arabic), 1/27/2014]

Herak protesters, security forces clash
In Shabwa province, two protesters and two soldiers were injured in clashes as Herak protesters marched through a city, proclaiming their rejection of the NDC outcomes and calling for secession. Police and soldiers attempted to disperse the protests when gunfire broke out. [NOW Lebanon, Al-Masdar (Arabic); 1/27/2014]

HRW calls for inquiry into former regime; government to investigate corrupt LNG deal
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called upon Yemen’s government to create a commission of inquiry to investigate violations of the former regime. The recommendation came as part of the group’s World Report 2014. Though Yemen’s parliament granted immunity to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, HRW called on President Hadi to fulfill promises to pass transitional justice laws. Meanwhile, the government is threatening to bring charges against former regime officials associated with selling liquefied natural gas (LNG) to foreign companies such as Total and KOGAS far below market price. [Human Rights Watch, 1/27/2014]


Al-Qaeda linked ISIS opens branch in Lebanon
A recording was distributed on jihadist forums on Saturday announcing the creation of a Lebanese franchise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). In the recording, Abu Sayyaf al-Ansari swears allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Iraqi leader of ISIS. In the five-minute recording, he said that a spokesman for ISIS in Lebanon, identified as Abu Omar al-Muhajir, would soon make a statement of his own. ISIS is an al-Qaeda affiliated organization based in Iraq and is fighting against Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Additionally, the Nusra front in Lebanon, another al-Qaeda affiliated group that also has a branch fighting in Syria, has stated that it intends to target Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon. [Al Arabiya, 1/25/2014]   

Iraqi military steps up artillery and airstrikes on Fallujah
After an assault on a military post, Iraq has stepped up strikes on the on Fallujah, currently held by militants linked to ISIS. Four civilians have been killed and forty-two wounded in the strikes. Local tribes fear that a ground assault may be next. More than 65,000 residents have fled the city since ISIS took over the town in early January. According to the United Nations, with more than 9,000 people–mostly civilians–killed in 2013, violence in Iraq is at its highest level in five years. The Central bank of Iraq governor, in a plea for investment, calls security concerns over exaggerated. [Reuters, 1/26/2014]

Islamist party to boycott Algerian election
Algeria’s largest Islamist party, the Movement of Society for Peace (Hamas), has announced that it will boycott the upcoming presidential elections set for April 17. A majority of the ruling council of the Movement of Society for Peace voted in favor of the boycott stating that “conditions weren’t right for a free choice for Algerians.” The Rally for Culture and Democracy, a liberal party in Algeria, also announced a boycott, citing similar reasons. While a number of people have announced their candidacy for April’s elections, it remains to be seen whether President Bouteflika will run for a fourth term. [New York Times, 1/25/2014]

Israelis oppose Jordan Valley security proposal
After months of shuttling back and forth between Palestinian and Israeli leaders, US Secretary of State John Kerry is having difficulties selling Jordan Valley security arrangements to Israel. The proposal, put together through extensive strategic dialogue talks between US and Israeli officials, would see an international peacekeeping force alongside a temporary Israeli force patrol the area. The area would be devoid of Israeli settlers. In exchange, Israel would receive increased security support, in particular with advanced technologies. However, Israeli military officials appear to be rejecting the idea, Maj. Gen. Uzi Dayan declaring that “satellites, drones and all the other goodies cannot compensate for IDF [Israel Defense Forces] control of the ground and airspace of this vital sector.” Dayan also warned that Israeli withdrawal from the territory would lead to another war. [Defense News, 1/27/2014]

Image: Tunisia's National Constituent Assembly explodes with joy upon approval of the country's new constitution.