Top News: US Senate bill allows room for aid to return to Egypt

The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee overwhelmingly passed legislation on Wednesday to ease tight US controls on aid to Egypt, which was largely cut off after Egypt’s military ousted President Mohamed Morsi last summer. The panel passed the measure by a 16-1 vote. Backers of the legislation said it struck an appropriate balance between pushing Cairo to embrace democratic reforms and continuing the US commitment to Egypt. The “Egypt Assistance Reform Act of 2013” allows aid, but makes it subject to conditions such as adhering to the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, cooperating on counterterrorism and taking steps to restore democracy. The measure also revises the US “coup law,” which bars aid to countries whose democratically-elected head of state has been removed in a coup d’etat or by military decree. [DNEReutersEgypt IndependentShorouk (Arabic), SIS, 12/18/2013]


Mubarak sons and Shafiq acquitted on corruption charges
An Egyptian court on Thursday acquitted former leader Hosni Mubarak’s two sons and his last prime minister of corruption charges, a verdict announced just hours after security forces arrested a prominent activist as part of an intensifying crackdown against icons of the nation’s 2011 uprising. The Cairo criminal court found Gamal and Alaa Mubarak and Ahmed Shafiq innocent of corruption in a case that arose from the 1995 sale of a plot of land to Mubarak’s sons by an association led at the time by the former prime minister. However, Alaa and Gamal will stay in custody as the court still review another corruption case which both are involved in. A Cairo criminal court sent Thursday to prosecution a corruption case involving former PM Ahmed Shafiq, after refusing to look into the case because of a procedural error. Along with ten officials from the Housing Cooperative Association for Military Pilots, former presidential candidate Shafiq is accused of appropriating a plot of land worth EGP 30 million (around $ 4.3 million) owned by the association. The former Air Force commander is also facing charges of money laundering. Earlier Thursday, Shafiq was acquitted of charges of embezzling public funds in the Pilots’ Association for Land Development trial. The rulings mean Shafik’s name will be removed within days from a list of people whose arrest has been ordered, assuming no other cases are filed against him, judicial sources said. [Ahram Online, DNE, Reuters, Aswat Masriya, Mada Masr, AP, EGYNews (Arabic), Shorouk (Arabic), AMAY (Arabic), Reuters, 12/19/2013]

Revolutionary Socialists call for ‘no’ vote on constitution; FJP officially announces boycott
The Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists have called for a ‘no’ vote on a draft constitution set to be put to a referendum early next year. In a statement on Wednesday, the movement said the constitution represents to a “ruling gang” and denounced the 50-member assembly that wrote it. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party officially announced on Wednesday that it would boycott the referendum. “The FJP’s boycott of the fake vote will be accompanied with continued escalation of peaceful revolutionary actions,” read the party’s statement. The National Alliance to Support Legitimacy, a coalition backed by groups including the Muslim Brotherhood, also announced it would protest on Friday and that it too would boycott the referendum. [Aswat Masriya, DNE, Ahram Online, Mada Masr, 12/18/2013]

Police storm rights organization, arrest employees
Security forces stormed the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR) late Wednesday night, arresting several people, and confiscating laptops and other materials from the center. Researchers in the center and human rights activists reported that five researchers were arrested, including leading April 6 Youth Movement member and volunteer researcher Mohamed Adel, as well as photographer Mustafa Eissa. “All the five detainees … have been released now, except Mohamed Adel, volunteer researcher in the center,” said a tweet on the ECESR’s Twitter account early Thursday. Egypt’s prosecutor general had already issued an arrest warrant two weeks ago for Adel, accusing him of organising an unauthorised protest at Abdeen along with activists Ahmed Maher and Ahmed Douma, who are currently detained pending investigations. There has been no official statement from authorities on the reasons for the raid. Ten human rights organizations issued a statement denouncing the raid including Hisham Mubarak Law Center, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. [Egypt Independent, Ahram Online, Aswat Masriya, Mada Masr, DNE, Ahram Gate (Arabic), 12/19/2013]


US-Libyan Trade and Investment Council agreed
The United States and Libya plan to set up the American-Libyan Council for Trade and Investment to regulate commercial issues between the two countries. The agreement was formally signed by Libyan economy minister Mustafa Abufanas and US Ambassador Deborah Jones on behalf of the US Trade Representative Michael Froman. The established body will regulate all commercial matters between Libya and the United States, including a wide range of trade and investment issues such as market access, intellectual property rights, and labor and environmental issues. It will also help in growing commercial and investment opportunities by identifying and working to remove impediments to trade and investment flows between the countries. [Libya Herald, 12/18/2013]

Low representation of minority groups in constitution drafting process slammed by LFJL
NGO Lawyers for Justice in Libya (LFJL) have criticized the General National Congress and the High National Election Committee over the low representation of Amazigh, Tebu, and Tuareg ethnic groups in the framing of the constitution. The group called the allocation of six seats altogether to the minorities “a flawed structure” and called on authorities to uphold human rights by ensuring inclusivity in the constitution drafting process. [Libya Herald, 12/19/2013]

Libya violence deters Tunisian workers
Given the deteriorating security situation in Libya, Tunisians now fear going to the neighboring country, despite their need for work and the financial attractions. For years, Libya has provided many job opportunities for Tunisians, and Libyan authorities have previously said they want to hire more than 200,000 Tunisians to contribute to the country’s reconstruction. Continued violence, however, has many Tunisians now fearing for their personal safety; the kidnapping of forty Tunisians by an armed group earlier this month in Zawiya was the latest incident in a series of kidnappings targeting foreign workers in Libya. [Magharebia, 12/18/2013]

US Congress members visit Tripoli
Three Republican members of Congress – Michele Bachmann, Louie Gohmert, and Steve King – made a quick trip to Libya to assess the situation in the country. The representatives, who have been fierce critics of the Obama administration following the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi in September 2012, met with General National Congress President Nuri Abu Sahmain to discuss US-Libya security cooperation and economic and technical assistance to help Libya build its national institutions. [Libya Herald, 12/18/2013]


United Nations: Secret detention part of Syria ‘campaign of terror’
Syrian activists and other citizens have vanished into secret detention as part of a “widespread campaign of terror against the civilian population” by the Damascus government, according to a new report by UN investigators released Thursday.The state-run practice of enforced disappearances in Syria–abductions that are officially denied–is systematic enough to amount to a crime of humanity. Some armed groups in northern Syria, especially the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), have also begun to abduct people into incommunicado detention and denied their captivity, tantamount to the crime of enforced disappearances, the report said. ISIS has also sought ransoms or prisoner exchanges, which constitute separate war crimes.But most witnesses have identified Syrian intelligence officers, soldiers, and pro-government militias as having snatched people whose fate remains unknown. In a separate report, Amnesty International said Islamist militants were perpetrating “a shocking catalogue of abuses” in secret jails across northern Syria, including torture, flogging, and killings after summary trials. According the report’s findings ISIS is operating seven clandestine prisons in rebel-held areas. [Reuters, AFP, 12/19/2013]

Syrian Kurds demand their own delegation at Geneva talks
Syrian Kurds are demanding their own delegation separate from both the government and opposition at next month’s peace talks in Switzerland aimed at halting the conflict in Syria, Kurdish political leaders said on Thursday. The Kurds say they need independent representation because their demands in negotiations over Syria’s future are distinct from those of the government or the opposition Syrian National Coalition that seeks to end President Bashar al-Assad’s rule. “The Coalition are no different from Assad’s Baath party rule when it comes to their position on the Kurds. They do not recognize the rights of Kurds to live on their land with recognition of their basic rights, including the right to administer their own region,” said a leading figure in the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The push for a more autonomous role for Kurds in Syria has unnerved regional powers such as neighboring Turkey, already dealing with such demands among its own Kurdish population. Syrian Kurdish parties have themselves been deeply divided for months by an internal power struggle. They are currently holding talks in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Erbil. [Reuters, 12/19/2013]

Regime extends air campaign on Aleppo region; at least 190 killed in city since Sunday
Syrian warplanes pounded northern Aleppo for a fifth consecutive day Thursday, unleashing their firepower against several rebel-held villages in the province. “After four days of helicopters dropping barrel bombs on Aleppo city, the regime changed the direction of its raids and struck the village of Tal Alam near Sfeira” southeast of Syria’s second city, the Aleppo Media Center reorted. Another activist network in the province, Shahba Press, reported air raids on Daret Ezza, Marea, Minbej, and Anadan north of Aleppo city. The villages targeted have been rebel-held for more than a year and have suffered frequent bombing. But activists called Thursday’s raids an extension of a deadly five-day aerial campaign against the provincial capital itself, which has frequently deployed makeshift barrel bombs which are packed with TNT and are highly destructive. Doctors Without Borders reported more than 189 killed between Sunday and Wednesday evening from such attacks in the city alone. [Naharnet, 12/19/2013]

Sixty nations invited to Syria donors meeting in Kuwait
Around sixty nations, including Lebanon, have been invited to a second donors conference for Syria in a bid to raise an unprecedented $6.5 billion in humanitarian aid, a UN official said Thursday. The one-day event will be held on January 15 in Kuwait, which hosted the first conference a year ago. The funds will be used to aid around 13.4 million Syrians whom the United Nations estimates will be affected by the war by the end of 2014. The figure is higher than the original 10 million people announced by the United Nations six months ago. The United Nations will need $2.3 billion to support 9.3 million people inside Syria and $4.2 billion for Syrian refugees, expected to nearly double to 4.1 million next year. The first donors conference in Kuwait last January saw participating nations pledge $1.5 billion but only around seventy-five percent of the pledges were fulfilled, according to a Kuwaiti official. [AFP, 12/19/2013]


Mehdi Jomaa looking for competence and independence in new government  
Tunisia’s soon-to-be caretaker Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa said Wednesday that “competence and independence” will be the criteria by which he will select the nation’s next government. In a statement to the media after a meeting with the National Constituent Assembly President Mustapha Ben Jaafar, Jomaa said that the meeting “turned on the working plan in implementation of the commitment from the national dialogue,” adding that the consultations and meetings he engages in now are not yet advanced to the point of selecting the new government. [TAP, 12/18/2013]

EU, US officials deny pressuring parties to appoint prime minister
Representatives of the European Union (EU) and the United States in Tunisia denied having a hand in nominating newly-designated caretaker Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa following accusations from a French publication. The French newspaper Le Monde published an article by journalist Isabelle Manraud alleging that the nomination of Jomaa was suggested by the West. “The EU did not support any candidates for the position of head of Tunisia’s government but we support the quartet’s efforts in leading the national dialogue in search of a consensual solution,” head of the EU delegation in Tunisia Laura Baeza said Tuesday. In a press conference Wednesday, US Ambassador to Tunisia Jacob Walles denied imposing candidates on national organizations hosting political talks aiming to solve the current crisis. [Tunisia Live, 12/18/2013]

US Ambassador Walles says no US military base in Tunisia
US Ambassador to Tunisia Jacob Walles has denied the current presence or intentions to set up an American military base in Tunisia. At a press conference held on Wednesday at the US Embassy, Walles said Tunisia is still facing security threats from groups linked to al-Qaeda, particularly Ansar al-Sharia. The Tunis Times had reported that other Tunisian media outlets alleged that the US administration intended to establish a military security base deep in the Tunisian desert, specifically at the border triangle between Tunisia, Libya, and Algeria, to monitor and follow up on al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and jihadist affiliates. [TAP, 12/18/2013]

Worry in Tunisia over youths who turn to Jihad
Homegrown suicide attacks, previously unheard-of in Tunisia, are the latest sign of spreading radicalization among young people in a country that has become fertile ground for Islamist groups recruiting fighters for the conflicts convulsing the region. There is growing concern that hundreds of young volunteers have been recruited through a widening network of hard-line Salafist mosques and then trained to fight in Syria, with the potential to return home to cause more trouble. [NYT, 12/18/2013]


US sanctions Yemeni NDC member
The United States on Wednesday imposed sanctions on two al-Qaeda supporters and added militants to its lists of terrorists. The Treasury Department sanctioned Abd al-Rahman Bin Umayr Nuaymi in Qatar and Abd al-Wahhab Muhammad Abd al-Rahman Humayqani in Yemen by naming them as specially designated global terrorists. Humayqani allegedly used his position as head of a Yemen-based charity to raise money, including funds sent to the group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. He also is accused of facilitating financial transfers from al-Qaeda supporters in Saudi Arabia to Yemen. Humayqani is the secretary general of Yemen’s Salafist al-Rashad party and a member of the country’s National Dialogue Conference (NDC). [AP, Al Masdar (Arabic), 12/18/2013]

Conciliation committee says Yemen will be a federal state
The conciliation committee of the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) in a meeting on Wednesday settled on key issues including the country’s future political system and the form of the state. Committee member Tawakkol Karman said that the meeting approved a presidential system for two rounds of elections. She added that the committee also settled issues of the state’s identity, including the role of Islam and the federalist shape of the state. On Tuesday, Yaseen Saeed Noman and Sultan al-Atwani, the joint deputy heads of the NDC, said the conference will end this month after a roadmap for the rest of the transition is put in place. [Al Masdar (Arabic), 12/19/2013]

President Hadi appeases angry tribes in Hadramawt
President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi agreed Tuesday to the demands of tribes in Hadramawt, who have asked that military camps be removed from the area and that the those responsible for the killing of a prominent tribal sheikh be handed over. The president also promised that jobs with petroleum companies working in the region will be allocated for Hadramawt residents, according to Khalid al-Daini, the area’s governor. Last week a coalition of powerful tribes in Hadramawt threatened to occupy military camps and government compounds in the governorate if the state did not respond to their demands. The tribes gave the government a December 20 deadline. [Yemen Times, 12/19/2013]

Yemen calls for reforms on liquid gas prices
The Yemeni government called on the Total Oil company this week to adhere to changes in Yemeni liquid natural gas (LNG) prices that will peg them to global prices as of the first of the year. Total Oil purchases approximately two-thirds of Yemen’s natural gas supply. The company agreed to negotiate reforms at a meeting held by President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi with the head of Total’s Middle East department in early December, according to the minister of finance. Shawki al-Mekhlafi, the deputy minister of oil and minerals, told the Yemen Times that “agreements signed during the former regime deprived Yemen of full and fair compensation for LNG sales.” The Total Middle East communications director, Eve Gautier, said in an email to the Yemen Times that negotiations between Yemen and the company over the new price have not yet concluded.  “Talks are ongoing with Yemeni authorities regarding the pricing of Yemen LNG’s production,” Gautier said, adding that company policy prevented her from commenting further on ongoing negotiations.  [Yemen Times, 12/19/2013]


UN calls for an end to torture, now less prevalent in Morocco
Morocco must put an end to the practice of convicting detainees on the basis of confessions obtained through torture, a visiting group of United Nations experts said Wednesday. “The working group [on arbitrary detention] was informed in its meetings with detainees that confessions obtained through torture serve in most such cases as the basis of convictions,” delegation chief Malick Sow told reporters in Rabat. The delegation said that although torture occurs in Morocco, it is no longer as systematic as it once was. Sow noted that “torture still exists in Morocco, but it is no longer a systematic policy of the state.” [AFP/Ahram Online, 12/18/2013]

US blacklists Algerian jihadists, Nusra leader
The United States on Wednesday blacklisted a shadowy al-Qaeda breakaway faction behind the bloody siege of an Algerian gas plant, and the leader of a Palestinian group fighting for Islamists in Syria. The Signatories in Blood, an armed unit founded by the one-eyed Mokhtar Belmokhtar last year when he split from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and also known as the al-Mulathamun Battalion, was designated a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department. In a separate move, the head of the Palestinian wing of the Syria-based Al-Nusra Front, Usamah Amin al-Shihabi, was also blacklisted as a “global terrorist.” [AFP/Ahram Online, 12/18/2013]

Constitutional reforms may see Algeria’s aging Bouteflika run again
Eight months after Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika suffered a debilitating stroke, his allies are promoting constitutional changes including a new vice presidency, which may let the aging independence veteran run for a fourth term. That would put off an answer to one of the enduring questions in North Africa: who will replace Bouteflika, seventy-six, as leader of one of the principal allies of the West against Islamist militancy. In April he suggested it was time for the old guard to move aside for new leaders: “Our generation is over.” But Algeria’s ruling FLN party has nevertheless touted him for weeks as their official candidate, and his allies have started outmaneuvering rivals in negotiations between FLN cadres and military elites who wield real power. [Reuters, 12/18/2013]

Nine accused in Oman graft trials
Nine state officials and private sector executives have gone on trial in Oman on charges of taking or offering bribes, in a widening crackdown on corruption in the Gulf sultanate’s oil industry and related sectors. The charges, mostly involving infrastructure projects, were outlined in six trials that opened on Sunday. The nine accused all denied the charges when they appeared at the Court of First Instance in the capital Muscat. [Reuters/Gulf News, 12/18/2013]

Image: Russell Senate Office Building - Washington DC (Photo: Larry Lamsa/Flickr)