Top News: US Senate Democrats Hold Up Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia

A US Senate panel voted Wednesday to delay weapons sales to Saudi Arabia over concerns regarding the kingdom’s ongoing air war in Yemen. Congress was notified on August 19 of the Obama administration’s intent to provide Riyadh with thousands of precision-guided munitions. The sale is linked to the US government’s effort to placate the Gulf countries’ concerns about the Iranian nuclear deal. However, democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee want to see stricter controls over the Saudi-led campaign, as a coalition of human rights and arms control groups has been working behind the scenes for weeks to try to also get lawmakers to speak up against the coalition’s reportedly indiscriminate killing. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said, after an airstrike killed more than 130 people at a wedding reception, “We are very careful in picking targets … we work with our allies, including the United States, on these targets.” [Al-MonitorSCFR, 10/8/2015]



Former Egyptian general sees his bloc leading new parliament
A former intelligence officer who heads the largest loyalist coalition running in Egypt’s upcoming elections expects his bloc to lead the new parliament and eventually seek to curb the legislature’s wide-ranging powers. Sameh Seif al-Yazal, an ex-general who now heads a pro-government think tank, said his Fi Hob Misr (For the Love of Egypt) alliance would compete for all list seats and draw on individuals to form a large bloc that can pursue its legislative agenda. The Socialist Popular Alliance Party (SPAP) announced their electoral program on Wednesday. In a press conference, the party discussed several issues while introducing its program, including freedoms, education, health spending, fighting corruption, culture, and unemployment. The party is fielding six candidates, who are contesting independent seats. The Supreme Administrative Court upheld on Wednesday verdicts preventing steel tycoon Ahmed Ezz and belly dancer Sama al-Masry from running in the approaching parliamentary elections. Masry was excluded for lacking “trust” and “a good reputation.” A prosecutor’s decree and the Illicit Gains Authority froze Ezz’s national post office account where he had deposited his money in September, resulting in his eliminatation. The High Electoral Committee (HEC) reportedly said Thursday that it will ban women from wearing the ‘niqab’ (full face veil) while casting their ballots. The HEC also announced that more than sixty foreign embassies in Egypt will be allowed to monitor the elections, while the Prime Minister’s advisor Refaat Qomsan announced Wednesday that eighty-one domestic and six international NGOs will also be allowed to observe. [Reuters, Ahram Online, 10/8/2015]

Sisi tells Putin regional ‘political’ settlement is urgently needed
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi discussed over the phone the latest security and political developments in the Middle East with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin late Wednesday, according to state-affiliated MENA news agency. Sisi emphasized the immediate need for a political and security settlement that would provide both stability and a solution to the crises currently facing the Middle East. The two presidents also discussed means to strengthen relations between Cairo and Moscow in different fields. Since being sworn into office in June 2014, Sisi has visited Moscow three times, indicating strong ties between the two countries. Egypt and Russia also share a common vision on the war against terrorism, a factor that strengthened military cooperation and deals between the two countries. Meanwhile, Egypt’s stance on recent Russian military operations in Syria was welcomed by Deputy Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad on Thursday. [Ahram Online, SIS, 10/8/2015]

French Prime Minister to visit Egypt on Saturday for cooperative deals  
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls is expected to arrive in Egypt on Saturday to discuss economic projects and sign deals with Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail, the media office to the French embassy said. The French Minister of Defense will accompany the Prime Minister on his twenty-four hour visit. Valls will visit the Middle East for five days starting October 9. He is expected to also visit Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The prime minister will hold talks with his Egyptian counterpart where the two are expected to sign a number of agreements, according to the French embassy. The embassy also said on its official website, “This movement will strengthen economic ties and will allow the PM to support the presence of French companies in the Middle East.” [Ahram Online, 10/7/2015]

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No GNC agreement on names for new Libyan government
UN Special Envoy to Libya Bernardino Leon said early Thursday morning that he expects the formation of the Libyan cabinet to be officially announced within the coming hours. Leon added, however, that he has not received the names of candidates for the government from the General National Congress (GNC). It is unclear whether the GNC will be part of the cabinet decision today. The Special Envoy reaffirmed that there will be no further amendments to the Skhirat agreement, despite the request by the delegation of the GNC for two amendments to the final agreement. [Al Arabiya, AP, Libya Herald, Libya Monitor (sub.), 10/8/2015]

In Libya, explosion near Tripoli parliament during session
Libyan security officials say an explosion went off next to the meeting of the General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli as lawmakers were in session. The officials say no casualties were reported. The officials say the parliament session continued undeterred, with lawmakers debating names for a potential national unity government. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the explosion. [AP, 10/7/2015]

Tunisian lawmaker escapes assassination attempt
Ridha Chareffedine, a lawmaker from Tunisia’s ruling party Nidaa Tounes, escaped an assassination attempt on Thursday when a gunman riddled his car with automatic rifle fire from a passing vehicle. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the shooting. The Interior Ministry confirmed the shooting and said authorities were closing off routes out of Sousse, a beach town where in June an Islamist gunman massacred thirty-eight foreign tourists. Charfeddine is a lawmaker in the Nidaa Tounes party, president of the Etoile Sportive du Sahel football team, and a top shareholder in the Attassiaa TV channel, among other business interests. Charfeddine was not hurt in the attack. [Reuters, AP, AFP, 10/8/2015]

Algeria kills ‘dangerous terrorist’ near Tunisian border
The Algerian Defense Ministry says its security forces have killed a “dangerous terrorist,” active since 1995 in an eastern region near the border with Tunisia. A ministry statement on Wednesday said that Bakari Ali, whose nom de guerre was Abou al-Hacen, was killed a day earlier in the Tebessa region. The statement said al-Hacen and his wife joined extremist groups in 1995 in the eastern region before heading to the Sahel in 2000 and “becoming one of the acolytes of terrorist Mokhtar Belmokhtar,” the militant who claimed responsibility for the 2013 Amenas gas plant attack in southern Algeria. [AP, 10/7/2015]


Syria extends offensive to retake territory in west
Syria’s army announced Thursday a “vast offensive” to wrest back territory from armed opposition groups, as NATO voiced alarm at escalating Russian military activity in the country. Moscow has dramatically stepped up its nine-day-old air war against opponents of President Bashar al-Assad, with heavy bombing by warplanes and cruise missile strikes from the Caspian Sea. Ground forces loyal to the government-targeted insurgents in the Ghab Plain area of western Syria, with heavy barrages of surface-to-surface missiles as Russian warplanes bombed from above, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). [Reuters, AFP, 10/8/2015]

NATO renews pledge amid Russia escalation
NATO has renewed assurances to defend allies in view of the “escalation of Russian military activities” in Syria, NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says. He added that the defense ministers had decided to boost response forces to be able to deploy troops speedily. The NATO chief said Moscow’s position was “unhelpful” and urged Moscow to stop backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Moscow denies Western accusations that it has mainly targeted Assad opponents, insisting its strikes have hit the infrastructure of ISIS and other armed groups. Turkey appealed to its NATO allies on Thursday to shore up missile defenses in the country aimed at shooting down Syrian rockets, as Germany said again that it will withdraw its Patriot batteries and the United States was set to do the same. [BBC, 10/8/2015]

Insurgents shoot down helicopter in Syria’s Hama province
The Syrian regime’s massive offensive in northern Hama has suffered an initial setback after insurgents destroyed a number of armored vehicles. The offensive aims to end the rebels’ push toward Hama, with government forces attempting to seize the town of Lataminah. Insurgents shot down a helicopter in Hama province on Thursday, SOHR reported, as Russia continued air support for Syrian government forces fighting on the ground. The helicopter was downed near the village of Kafr Nabouda in northern Hama. It was unclear if the aircraft was Syrian or Russian. [Reuters, NOW, 10/8/2015]

No US decision yet on Syria no-fly zone
The possibility of a no-fly zone in Syria has come up intermittently since 2012, but the administration of President Barack Obama never fully embraced the idea. State Department Spokesman John Kirby did acknowledge that the issue is still on the table. “We continue to have discussions about how to best go after ISIL and particularly there in Syria, in northern Syria in particular,” he said. “To date, there’s been no decision to move forward with a no-fly zone.” His counterpart at the White House Josh Earnest also said, “We’ve not been in a position to take it off the table or to rule it out in the future, but we have indicated that it’s not something that we’re considering right now … Even things that sound simple, like a no-fly zone, have significant consequences for longer-term strategic decisions that have to be made there.” [AFP, 10/8/2015]

Turkey bans TV channels close to Erdogan foe ahead of polls
A state prosecutor has banned Turkey’s largest pay-television platform from broadcasting channels close to an arch-enemy of President Tayyip Erdogan, heightening concern about press freedom weeks ahead of an election. Digiturk became the third platform to ditch channels close to US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen on the orders of the Ankara prosecutor, including news services Bugun TV and S Haber, a children’s channel, and four other general interest stations. Digiturk has almost 3 million subscribers, according to data from Turkey’s information technologies authority. Turkcell TV+, an online streaming service provided by Turkcell, and Tivibu, provided by Turk Telekom, had earlier removed the channels in line with the same court order. [Reuters, 10/8/2015]


Airstrike hits wedding party in Yemen
Two rockets killed at least thirteen civilians and wounded twenty-five others on Wednesday at a wedding party hosted in Houthi controlled Sanabani, in Yemen. Reportedly, the wedding was hosted by a tribal leader known to support the Houthi rebels. While it was not initially clear who had attacked the party, residents have said that Saudi-led coalition jets most likely carried out the strikes. The attack was the second on a wedding in Yemen in a little over a week, and it added to growing criticism over the coalition’s air campaign, which has killed more than 1,100 civilians over the past six months. The Saudi-led coalition denied responsibility and blamed rebel propaganda, saying it has no ongoing operations in the southwestern province in Yemen where the incident occurred. [NYT, BBC, AP, Reuters, 10/8/2015]

Security concerns grow in Aden after two assassinations
Security fears in Aden grow as a judge and senior military commander were both assassinated within hours of each other on Thursday. After the assassination of Judge Abbas Agrebi, an unidentified gunman also shot Colonel Jamal al-Safaq in front of his house in Aden. These assassinations follow an attack on Saudi security forces and Yemeni government officials in Aden on Tuesday by the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). Despite the concerning security situation, Yemen President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi said that his government is continuing to work from Aden to begin its reconstruction and facilitate the import of petroleum and humanitarian relief to the city. [Aden al-Ghad (Arabic), Al Masdar (Arabic), Al Jazeera, 10/8/2015]

HRW urges West to act over jailed Bahrain opposition figures
Human Rights Watch called on Bahrain on Thursday to release two “unjustly imprisoned” opposition figures immediately, urging the kingdom’s allies in the United Kingdom and United States to intervene on their behalf. Ibrahim Sharif, an activist who spent four years in jail over his involvement in 2011 pro-democracy protests, has been on trial since August for “promoting political change through forceful means.” Head of the Wefaq opposition bloc Ali Salman was sentenced in June to four years in prison after he was convicted of “inciting disobedience and hatred.” Human Rights Watch has reported that the two men were either subjected to torture or convicted based off hearsay evidence. [HRW, 10/8/2015]


Saudi Arabia said to order spending curbs amid oil price slump  
Saudi Arabia is ordering a series of cost cutting measures as a global slide in oil prices weighs on the kingdom’s budget. The Saudi Finance Ministry told government departments not to contract any new projects and to freeze appointments and promotions in the fourth quarter of 2015, sources said. The ministry also banned the buying of vehicles and furniture or agreeing to any new property rentals and told officials to speed up the collection of revenue. To help shore up its finances, authorities plan to raise between 90 billion riyals ($24 billion) and 100 billion riyals in bonds before the end of the year, sources said in August. The finance ministry declined to comment. Sources in August also said that the government was working with advisers on a review of capital spending plans. The International Monetary Fund found that over the past three years, Saudi Arabia’s budget surplus has been turned into a deficit of more than 20 percent of gross domestic product. [Bloomberg, 10/8/2015]

S&P cuts Turkey growth forecast for 2016
Ratings agency Standard & Poor’s (S&P) on Wednesday slightly raised its forecast for Turkey’s economic growth this year to 3.1 percent from 3 percent. However, S&P cut its forecast for Turkey’s growth in 2016 to 2.8 percent from 3.2 percent. “Turkey reported stronger [gross domestic product] growth than we expected in the first half [of 2015], with a surprising surge in private investment in the second quarter,” S&P said. “External and domestic headwinds are intensifying, however, suggesting that this strong performance is unlikely to continue into the second half of the year,” the agency added.  S&P said its forecasts assumed a gradual tightening of monetary policy, with the central bank raising its main interest rate to 8.5 percent by the end of 2016. A survey released by the German Marshall Fund on Wednesday found that Turks are pessimistic about their country’s economic prospects. [Reuters, 10/7/2015]

Libya’s oil export capacity rises as Zueitina port reopens
Libya’s crude export capacity has increased as the eastern Zueitina oil port resumed loadings after a five month halt due to protests, a workers union said. Zueitina began loading 600,000 barrels of crude oil on Thursday, according to the port’s workers union president Ramadan Lefkaih. The shipment, which is bound for Italy, is the first since May when protesters seeking jobs at state run National Oil Corporation (NOC) shut down the pipeline that supplies Zueitina with crude. The protesters agreed to reopen the export route after being promised jobs, Lefkaih said. Zueitina has 2 million barrels in storage and its current supply rate from the fields stands at 30,000 barrels per day (bpd), Lefkaih added. It has an installed export capacity of 70,000 bpd, according to the Oil Ministry. Meanwhile, NOC spokesman Mohammed al-Harari denied recent reports that Libya’s crude production had fallen to 300,000 bpd, saying that output stands at more than 400,000 bpd.  [Bloomberg, 10/8/2015]

Egypt’s annual inflation rises to 9.2 percent in September
Egypt’s annual inflation accelerated to 9.2 percent in September compared to 7.9 percent in August, while the monthly inflation rate spiked 2.8 percent, state statistics agency CAPMAS said Thursday. CAPMAS attributed the sharp rise in inflation to a 19 percent hike in vegetable prices, a 14.4 percent increase in outpatient clinic fees, and a 17 percent rise in the cost of school uniforms. Egypt’s core annual inflation rate dropped to 5.55 percent in September, down from 5.61 percent in August. The Egyptian government has projected an inflation rate of about 10 percent in the 2015/2016 fiscal year and a rate of about 7 percent by the 2018/2019 fiscal year. In other news, the Egyptian government said its repayment of $1.25 billion for ten-year bonds that recently matured was responsible for the country’s drop in foreign currency reserves last month. [Ahram Online, Aswat Masriya, 10/8/2015]