Top News: Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda becomes biggest in parliament as ruling party splits

Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda Party became the biggest in parliament after more lawmakers in President Beji Caid Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes party resigned from the parliamentary bloc on Monday. The rift does not present an immediate threat to the coalition government, which includes Ennahda. After a wave of resignations last week last week, two more lawmakers said they were resigning from Nidaa Tounes on Monday, bringing the total to 19. That leaves the party with 67 lawmakers in the 217-member congress, while Ennahda has 69. Those who have resigned, including Marzouk, say they will form a new party. They said their fears Hafedh Caid Essebsi was seeking control of the party were reinforced on Sunday when he was appointed to its central committee as legal representative and general secretary. [Reuters, 1/11/2016]



Egypt’s first parliament in three years convenes
Egypt’s first legislature in more than three years held its inaugural session on Sunday, where it elected a constitutional expert as its speaker. Ali Abdel Aal was elected speaker of the house with 401 out of 585 votes. Abdel Aal is a constitutional law professor at Ain Shams University and is the nominee from the Support Egypt Coalition, a branch of the state-sponsored For the Love of Egypt coalition that dominated much of the 2015 parliamentary elections. He was on the committee of 10 legal experts who were given a mandate to amend Egypt’s constitution in 2014, as well as the 50-person committee that produced a final revision of the document. He also sat on the committee that drafted the political rights law, as well as the electoral law. The members also elected MP Mahmoud al-Sharif as one of its two deputies, with run-offs for the position of a second deputy set to take place on Monday, between Wafd Party candidate MP Soliman Wahdan and MP Alaa Abdel-Moneim. The new chamber’s first task will be to ratify some 300 presidential decrees issued by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi since taking office in June 2014 and Interim President Adly Mansour before him.  [AP, SIS, Aswat Masriya, Ahram Online, DNE, Egypt Independent, Mada Masr, 1/10/2016]

Mubarak loses final appeal against graft conviction, set to be stripped of presidential benefits
Egypt’s court of appeals on Saturday rejected an appeal by former president Hosni Mubarak and his two sons over a three-year jail sentence for corruption, but the trio is unlikely to be imprisoned again having already served the sentences. They will have to pay a fine of 125 million Egyptian pounds ($15.96 million) and return 21 million pounds to the state treasury. According to Reuters, Mubarak and his sons paid 104 million Egyptian pounds during the trial. This is the final ruling on the case, and no further appeals can be made.  The ruling means that Mubarak will be deprived of privileges granted to former presidents according to Egyptian law. “Mubarak will be deprived of special privileges such as a special security crew allocated to ex-presidents, as well as some honors which come with an annual income,” lawyer Amr Emam with the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre said. The ruling also means Mubarak’s sons, Alaa and Gamal, will not be allowed to return to the political arena in the foreseeable future. “His two sons will be prohibited from practicing politics for five years,” Emam added. [Ahram Online, Aswat Masriya, AP, Reuters, 1/9/2016]

Three tourists stabbed in attack on Hurghada hotel, one assailant killed
Knifemen stormed a hotel in Egypt’s Hurghada on Friday evening, injuring a number of foreign tourists before security forces killed one of the assailants, injured the other and ended the attack. Health Ministry Spokesperson Khaled Megahed said two Swedish tourists and one Austrian were stabbed. They were sent to the town’s Nile Hospital and Red Sea Hospital. According to Tourism Minister Hisham Zaazou, the three tourists sustained “minor injuries.” A police statement, however, gave their nationalities as two Austrians and one Danish citizen. The statement added that two assailants were carrying bladed weapons and an imitation pistol. Security sources, however, told Reuters the attackers had arrived by sea and also carried a gun and a suicide belt. Zaazou also said the government would announce additional security measures to safeguard tourists after Friday’s attack. The attack took place at Bella Vista Hotel in the busy downtown area of Hurghada, a popular tourist resort located on the Red Sea. No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack. [Ahram Online, DNE, AP, Reuters, 1/10/2016]

Egypt following Turkey’s questioning of 12 Egyptians for ‘ISIS membership’
Turkish authorities confirmed to the Egyptian consulate in Istanbul that 12 Egyptian nationals were arrested in Turkey on the charge of membership to the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) group. Consul Bassam Rady said that the consulate will take the measures normally followed in cases involving Egyptians abroad, adding that the consulate will assign lawyers to follow up on the questioning process. He said that Egypt will ask that the arrested Egyptians be deported to Egypt after the completion of the Turkish investigation. Turkey’s Anadolu Agency reported Sunday that Turkey arrested 15 Egyptians and Russians accused of ISIS membership in the Turkish provinces of Adana and Elazig. [Aswat Masriya, 1/11/2016]

For more in-depth Egypt news, please visit EgyptSource


Power plant hit by shelling in Libya’s Benghazi
Artillery fire in Benghazi hit a key power station that provides electricity to much of the country’s east on Saturday, a security official and an engineer said. Mussa Suleimani, an engineer at the power station, said five of the six transformers at the facility were knocked out after it was struck on Friday evening and twice on Saturday. He said that it was likely that power cuts which have plagued the city will worsen across the region. Captain Adnan al-Baba, a spokesman for a Libyan anti-terrorism squad, said Howitzers were used in the attacks. He said for such guns to hit with precision someone on the inside must have supplied the terrorists with specific coordinates, otherwise it would be impossible to target the power station. [AFP, Reuters, 1/9/2016]

Air strikes reported near Libya’s Sirte
Unidentified aircraft attacked an Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) convoy on Sunday near the Libyan city of Sirte, according to a local resident. The witness account could not be verified, and the air force allied to Libya’s eastern government said it had not carried out any strikes. Also on Sunday, a spokesman for the Petroleum Facilities Guard said three boats had tried to attack the oil port of Zueitina. The guards repelled the attack before the boats reached the port, spokesman Ali al-Hassi said. Last week ISIS launched an assault on the major Libyan oil terminals of Es Sider and Ras Lanuf, which lie between Zueitina and Sirte. [Reuters, 1/10/2016]

Italy evacuates 15 Libyans wounded in bomb attack
Italy evacuated 15 Libyans on Monday for medical treatment after they were wounded in last week’s truck bomb attack against a police training center, the Italian government said. At dawn, Italy sent a C-130 transport plane to the port city of Misrata to take the wounded to a military hospital in Rome, the statement said. The attack in Zliten killed at least 47 people and wounded more than 100, making it the worst such attack since the 2011 revolts. [Reuters, 1/11/2016]

EU pledges 100 million euros to aid Libya’s unity government
The European Union’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini unveiled a 100 million euro ($109 million) aid package for Libya’s fledgling unity government one day after a deadly attack on a police training school by a suicide bomber. Mogherini announced the aid deal Friday at a joint press conference with Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Serraj in Tunis, where the unity government is temporarily based. Mogherini, who spent Friday in talks with senior Libyan officials, said EU nations would offer Libya “technical and logistical” support for battling extremists, but no troops on the ground. [AP, AFP, 1/9/2016]

Germany mulls sending 100 troops to train Libyan army
Germany is considering sending more than 100 troops to train Libyan armed forces, Der Spiegel magazine reported Saturday. “According to internal (government) plans German soldiers could, along with Italian colleagues, within months begin training Libyan armed forces,” the news magazine said. The outlet added that this would involve 150-200 Bundeswehr (German armed forces) troops. There was no comment from the Defense Ministry. For security reasons the military training would take place in Tunisia rather than on Libyan soil. [AFP, 1/9/2016]


Aid heads for starving Syrian town Madaya
Dozens of aid trucks headed on Monday to the besieged rebel-held Syrian town of Madaya, where some 42,000 people are living under a government siege. It comes after the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) charity said some 28 people had died of starvation in Madaya since December 1. Forty-four trucks operated by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Syrian Red Crescent, the United Nations, and World Food Programme left from Damascus for Madaya on Monday afternoon. The trucks are carrying food, water, infant formula, blankets, and medication for acute and chronic illnesses, as well as surgical supplies. Earlier, 21 trucks carrying similar supplies left for the government-held towns of Fuaa and Kafraya, which are under rebel siege in the northwest of the country. Even as aid convoys head to parts of Syria, government forces are tightening a new siege on another rebel-held town Moadamiya, a suburb of Damascus. [AFP, BBC, AP, 1/11/2016]

Toll in Russia raids on Nusra Front-run Syria jail rises to 81
At least 81 people were killed in Russian strikes on a prison complex run by the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front in Syria’s northwest, the Syrian Observatory for Human RIghts (SOHR) said Sunday in a new toll. The strikes on Saturday targeted a Nusra Front building near a popular market in northwestern Idlib province. The complex in Maarat al-Numan housed the group’s religious court and a jail. The dead included 23 Nusra fighters and six non-jihadist rebels who were in the building. Another 52 people—including civilians and prisoners in the complex—were also killed. At least one child and two women were among the civilians killed in the strikes. [AFP, 1/11/2016]

Nusra Front briefly abducts prominent media activists
Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front briefly detained two of the country’s most prominent media activists who worked at a radio station in the northwestern Idlib province on Sunday, their employer said. Raed Fares and Hadi al-Abdallah were released about 12 hours after their abduction, Fresh FM said in a statement posted on Facebook. SOHR confirmed the release, saying the Nusra Front freed the pair after “interrogating them.” SOHR head Rami Abdel Rahman said they had been arrested because the radio had “broadcast content against Islamic law, like songs, in violation of an agreement” with the group. [AFP, NOW, 1/11/2016]

Syria regime advances on rebels’ main Latakia stronghold
Syrian regime forces backed by Hezbollah have continued to gain ground in the mountains north of Latakia, advancing around the rebels’ main stronghold in the rugged region amid intense Russian bombardment. In the past hours, pro-regime troops have advanced on four axes of attacks around the village of Salma, a heavily fortified mountain redoubt that overlooks vital rebel supply lines linking the Latakia and Aleppo provinces. SOHR reported Monday morning that intense clashes had raged overnight around the Sunni-populated area, which was first seized by Free Syrian Army brigades in mid-2012. “Information suggests that there have been a large amount of human losses in the ranks of both sides,” SOHR added. [NOW, 1/11/2016]

Iraq forces evacuate hundreds of civilians from Ramadi
Iraqi forces evacuated 635 civilians from Ramadi Sunday as they continued to clear the city two weeks after declaring victory against the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL), security officials said. Federal forces retook the strategic government compound in the center of the capital of Anbar province late last month but they have yet to assert full control over the city. “Forces from the counter-terrorism service and the Anbar police evacuated 635 civilians,” said Major General Sami Kadhem al-Aredhi, a commander of elite troops in Ramadi. He said the civilians had been trapped in areas where ISIS fighters are still present in Sichariyah and Sufiya, on the eastern outskirts of Ramadi. They were taken to a camp in Habbaniyah, east of Ramadi, to join hundreds of other families displaced from Ramadi by the fighting. On Saturday, Anbar Governor Sohaib al-Rawi said most areas are under control of the security forces but that “[m]ost of the streets in Ramadi are mined with explosives so it requires large efforts and expertise.” He indicated that specialized bomb disposal teams would begin work to clear these streets “soon.”  [AFP, 1/10/2016]

Turkey plans to issue work permits for Syrians
Ankara is planning to offer Syrian refugees work permits in order to encourage fewer of them to migrate to Europe, Turkish EU Minister Volkan Bozkir said on January 11 after talks with European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans. Turkey, still in its EU accession process, struck a deal with the EU in November 2015 to prevent migrants from traveling to Europe in return for 3 billion euros ($3.3 billion) in cash, a deal on visas, and renewed talks on joining the 28-nation bloc. Minister Bozkir’s statement came around a month after the International Labor Organization (ILO) stressed the need for a comprehensive measures to regulate the employment of Syrian refugees in Turkey as well as to minimize the negative impact on the local labor market and to turn the issue into an opportunity rather than a threat. “The employment of Syrians is already a reality on the ground. In the absence of the possibility to work legally, they are working informal, low-quality, low-paid jobs, pushing wages down for the local population and endangering workplace peace,” said ILO Turkey Office head Numan Ozcan at the launch of the report. [Hurriyet, Reuters, Sabah, 1/11/2016]

For more in-depth Syria news and analysis, please visit SyriaSource.


Next round of Yemen peace talks postponed
The next round of peace talks between Yemen’s government and Iran-backed Houthi militia scheduled for next week have been postponed, Foreign Minister Abdel Malak al-Mekhlafi said Saturday. “The negotiations will not take place on the announced date of January 14,” Mekhlafi said on the phone from Cairo. “They will be postponed until January 20 or 23 because the Houthis rejected the January 14 date.” He said UN Envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed would travel to the capital Sana’a on Sunday to “convince the Houthis to participate in the negotiations on the new dates.” The envoy would also seek confidence-building measures from the Houthis, including the lifting of their siege of Taiz and allowing aid into the southwestern city, he added. The next round of peace talks would be held in Geneva, said the Yemeni minister. [AFP, 1/10/2016]

Asiri says Saudi Arabia will not negotiate with Saleh
Arab Coalition spokesman Brigadier General Ahmed Asiri confirmed that Saudi Arabia will not negotiate directly with the former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Houthi militias. His statement was in reference to Saleh who announced on an episode of Yemen Al-Yawm that he will not negotiate with anyone but Saudi Arabia. Minister of Civil Service Abdulaziz Jabari, an adviser to Yemen’s President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi, said that the UN Yemen Envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed has met with the Yemeni delegation and asked for a new truce during the consultations. He confirmed that the decision is to be taken by President Hadi and added that his party has made a truce in the previous rounds of peace talks, in coordination with the Saudi-led coalition forces. [Asharq Al-Awsat, 1/10/2016]

Iran seeks to limit diplomatic fallout from Saudi embassy attacks
Iran took steps on Monday to try to limit the diplomatic damage from an attack on Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran by an angry mob, laying blame on a top security official and saying some of those who carried out the attack were being interrogated. Iranian officials appear to fear that the January 2 storming of the embassy by a mob protesting Riyadh’s execution of a leading Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr may derail moves to end years of isolation with the West following the signing of a landmark nuclear deal with world powers in July. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and other GCC states have broken off ties with Iran over the attack. The Tehran government distanced itself from the attack, saying the protesters had entered the Saudi embassy despite widespread efforts by the police to stop them. Some of the attackers have been identified, captured, and interrogated, said Tehran General Prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi. [Reuters, 1/11/2016]

Arab League condemns Saudi embassy attack
Arab League foreign ministers agreed at an emergency meeting in Cairo on Sunday to condemn the attack on the Saudi diplomatic mission in Iran and accused the Tehran government of failing to protect it. In a closing statement distributed after the meeting, the Arab League also condemned the allegedly Iranian-backed militant group discovered in Bahrain. The statement did not agree on any specific joint measures against Iran but set up a smaller committee to keep up discussions of the crisis. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir accused Iran of interfering in Arab affairs and undermining regional security. Jubeir also said the cutting of diplomatic and commercial ties with Iran was a first step and it could take more action if Tehran does not change its policies, but did not expect the dispute to affect efforts to end the war in Syria. Tehran also cut all commercial ties with Riyadh and banned pilgrims from traveling to Mecca. [Al Arabiya, 1/10/2016]

Masked men attack Saudi intelligence compound with firebombs
Masked men threw firebombs at an intelligence service compound in the city of Qatif in eastern Saudi Arabia, activists said Monday, in an apparent reprisal for the execution of a prominent Shia Muslim cleric earlier this month. A Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman said, “There was a failed terrorist attempt to burn the building with Molotov cocktails,” and that one of the assailants was captured. Video footage posted on social media and dated January 9 showed several masked young men moving under cover of darkness and lobbing firebombs over the protective outer wall of a building compound. Most of the firebombs were seen exploding on the ground inside. [Reuters, 1/11/2016]


Egypt’s President Sisi launches loan program for SMEs
Egypt’s banking sector will inject EGP 200 billion ($25 billion) to support small and medium businesses (SMEs), President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said on Saturday. “I have assigned the central bank to make the most of the banking sector to implement a comprehensive program to support small and medium businesses,” al-Sisi said, adding that loans for SMEs over the next four years would not be less than 20 percent of all loans issued. On Sunday, the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) issued guidelines on how it will incentivize banks to participate in a “comprehensive program” to help finance SMEs. The CBE said interest rates on loans offered to SMEs would not exceed 5 percent. In return for issuing the loans, participating banks would be permitted to reduce their level of required reserves held at the CBE by an amount equivalent to what they lend. The SME program aims to finance 350,000 companies and create 4 million new job opportunities over a period of four years. [Reuters, 1/9/2016]

Turkey lifts economic growth forecasts
Turkey’s government boosted its economic growth forecast and pledged reforms to cut stubbornly high inflation on Monday, citing domestic political stability as the driving force for its revisions. The country raised its 2015 growth forecast to 4 percent from October’s forecast of 3 percent, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek said, citing economic “momentum” as he unveiled the government’s updated medium-term program. Simsek also raised gross domestic product (GDP) targets for 2016 to 4.5 percent from 4 percent, adding that annual GDP expansion will reach 5 percent in 2017 and 2018. Turkey’s inflation rate will decline to 7.5 percent by the end of 2016, from 8.8 percent in 2015, Simsek said. “Slowing down inflation is a top priority for us,” he said. “The reform program’s purpose is to move Turkey up into a higher class, to achieve sustainable, strong growth.” [WSJ, Anadolu Agency, Daily Sabah, 1/11/2016]

Saudi Aramco would sell downstream ops, not upstream
Saudi Arabia is considering selling shares in refining ventures with foreign oil firms, but would not offer a stake in the crude oil exploration and production operations of state oil giant Saudi Aramco, sources said. Some Aramco managers have been informed that the company is looking at listing shares in “joint downstream subsidiaries” at home and abroad. One option is to create a holding company that would group together Aramco’s stakes in the downstream subsidiaries, one source said. Shares in the parent firm would not be offered, he added. “The holding company is the one which could be listed, not Aramco itself,” he said.  Saudi Aramco Chairman Khalid al-Falih told the Wall Street Journal that there was no specific timeline yet for the listing, but that Saudi Aramco is “considering a listing at the top. So a listing of the main company, and obviously the main company will include upstream.” [Reuters, 1/11/2016]

Bahrain to raise domestic gasoline prices starting Tuesday
Bahrain has approved raising domestic gasoline prices, the cabinet said in a statement on Monday, as part of the government’s efforts to boost revenues amid low oil prices. State news agency BNA said the cabinet set the new price for super fuel at 160 Bahraini fils ($0.424) per liter from 100 fils, while the price for regular fuel would be raised to 125 fils per liter from 90 fils. The new prices will take effect on Tuesday. Since its oil income started to fall last year, the government’s budget deficit has widened and the subsidies have become much harder for Bahrain to afford.[Reuters, 1/11/2016]