News Roundup: Gazans participate in Great March of Return as Hamas and Israel negotiate ceasefire, Algerian President Bouteflika poised to resign amid continuing protests, and opposition scores victories in Turkish local elections


Algeria

Algerian television network Ennahar TV reports that Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is preparing to announce his resignation in light of mass protests against his presidency. The rumors follow a March 26th speech by Army Chief of Staff Lt Gen Ahmed Gaed Salah, in which he publicly urged Bouteflika to step down. Gaed Salah hinted that the Algerian military, a key pillar of Bouteflika’s regime, was considering an intervention to “find a solution” to the country’s unrest as of March 18th, but quickly adopted a more conciliatory tone after backlash from protest leaders on March 20th. Bouteflika’s March 31st decision to appoint a new cabinet, replacing 21 of the nation’s 27 ministers, further evidences his plans to resign. Noureddine Bedoui is slated to keep his position as Prime Minister, and Bouteflika has himself kept the Defense Ministry portfolio, but new ministers were appointed to the top positions at the Foreign and Energy Ministries.

 

Bahrain

Bahrain has extended invitations to four Israelis to speak at a conference scheduled to take place in the middle of April called Global Entrepreneurship Congress. It is the first time that the Manama government extends invitation to Israeli nationals and the move is considered controversial considering that Bahrain does not have official diplomatic ties with Israel. However, the move is also considered to be a sign of warming relations between Gulf monarchies and Israel.

 

Egypt

The Civil Democratic Movement (CDM), a coalition of secular and center-left parliamentarians, voiced opposition to Egypt’s proposed constitutional amendments on March 27th, marking the first overt objections since the beginning of debate over the content of the amendments last week. If adopted, the proposed amendments would keep President ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi in power until 2034 and extend the powers of the military at the expense of Egypt’s judiciary. Parliamentarians voted to accept the amendments in principle in mid-February, and are expected to adopt them formally in mid-April. Lawmakers who have opposed the amendments are experiencing smear campaigns and intimidation, and have been denied permits to protest the amendments.

Authorities released prominent democracy activist Alaa Abdel Fattah from prison on March 29th after serving a five-year term for organizing an illegal protest. Abdel Fattah was a prominent voice during the 2011 protests that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak, and wrote a widely-read blog. He continued his organizing activities into 2013, when he was arrested. He stood trial in 2017 on a separate charge of insulting the judiciary.

On March 30th, authorities sentenced thirty men for allegedly planning to bomb a Coptic church in Alexandria, and for maintaining links to Daesh. The attack was not carried out. Twenty of the defendants appeared in court, while the other ten were sentenced in absentia and remain at large.

 

Iran

Flash floods resulting from heavy rain that started on March 25th are still devastating much of Iran. President Rouhani placed all governors and their deputies on alert March 25th, though his opponents criticized his response to the situation as inadequate. As of March 30th, 45 people were reported dead. Although the capital Tehran has been affected, Shiraz is the worst hit of the major cities in Iran as floodwaters spread throughout the city center.

Iran welcomed a March 26th court decision in Luxembourg refusing to enforce a 2012 US ruling that would allow families of September 11th victims to claim Iranian assets as restitution. The court ruled that enforcing the US ruling would violate Iran’s sovereign immunity. Iran hailed the verdict as an important legal victory for the Islamic Republic, and has denied any involvement in the September 11th attacks.

 

Iraq

On March 29th, Iraq’s President Barhim Salih discussed the issue of American troops in Iraq. According to Salih, Iraq has no serious issue with the deployment of US forces in Iraq, but insisted that their purpose must solely regard combating Daesh.

Water levels are rising across Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan as floods sweep neighboring Iran. Baghdad expressed concerns of flooding on March 30th. According to the Iraqi government’s Crisis Office, the rising waters are due to an unusual rain season and the increased flow of water from Turkey and Iran.

On March 27th, a federal court issued a warrant for the arrest of Ninevah Governor Nafwal Hammadi al-Sultan on corruption charges after a ferry sank crossing the Tigris in late March, killing over 100 people. The ferry disaster sparked controversy in Mosul, prompting Parliament to swiftly dismiss al-Sultan from his post. The court order also authorized the arrest of several lower-ranked officials for their own involvement in the same corruption scheme.

 

Jordan

Thousands of Jordanians took part in an annual protest known as Land Day to commemorate the 1976 seizure of Arab villages by Israel, and to oppose Jordan’s 1994 treaty with Israel. This year’s protest focused on US President Trump’s March 21st decision to recognize Israel’s claim to sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights, as well as renewed hostilities in Gaza.

On March 25th, Egyptian President al-Sisi, Jordan’s King Abdullah II, and Iraqi Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi met in a summit in Cairo. They covered topics including strengthening economic ties between the countries, increasing trade exchange, cooperating in areas such as energy and infrastructure, and establishing joint industrial zones. They also discussed issues such as terrorism and the Palestinian cause.

Additionally, Iraq has completed the technical preparations to extend the Basra-Aqaba pipeline, which will export one million barrels of oil per day through Jordan.

 

Lebanon

In a landmark ruling on March 30th, a military court in Lebanon acquitted four military personnel who had been accused of sodomy and committing sexual acts “contrary to nature.” Civilian courts have previously ruled that consensual same-sex intercourse is not unlawful, but this ruling marks the first such decision by a military court.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a speech in Beirut on March 29th outlining President Trump’s intentions to confront Hezbollah’s “criminal activities and terrorist network” by “peaceful means.” Hezbollah Secretary General Nasrallah responded by claiming that Secretary Pompeo’s rhetoric was a point of pride for the party.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on March 26th to discuss the implementation of Russia’s refugee return initiative. In July, Russia put forth a plan to facilitate the return of approximately 890,000 Syrian refugees from Lebanon.

 

Libya

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres indicated on March 30th that rival Libyan leaders Khalifa Haftar and Fayez al-Serraj may soon be prepared to sign off on a power-sharing agreement that will officially unify the divided country. Still uncertain is whether Haftar — the military commander and de facto leader of the so-called “Eastern Government” — will be able to head a single, unified national army under civilian command.

Meanwhile, nine municipalities within the UN-backed, Tripoli-based government held local elections on March 30th, the first held in the country since 2014. These municipal elections serve to appoint seven-member municipal committees, which then elect mayors. Elections will continue to be held over the next several months until all Western municipalities’ councils have been filled. The Eastern government has given no indication that there are plans for municipal elections in the near future.

 

Morocco

Pope Francis traveled to Morocco on March 30th, becoming the first pope to visit in 35 years. His visit centered around the promotion of inter-religious dialogue. Approximately 30,000 Roman Catholics reside in Morocco, many of them from migrant backgrounds. The visit was also intended to further support King Mohammed VI’s efforts to promote a moderate vision of Islam.

 

Palestine/ Israel

Tens of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza took part in protests to mark the anniversary of the Great March of Return this week. Israeli security forces killed four Palestinians and wounded a further 300, using live fire and tear gas on protesters who approached the Gaza border fence. Israel deployed additional infantry and artillery to the Gaza border on March 28th, and claimed that protesters threw explosive devices at the border. The Great March of Return began on March 30th, 2018, and continued weekly throughout the year to protest Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories and blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Just two days later, Israel and Hamas appeared to implement a ceasefire deal. A team of Egyptian intelligence officials, who are brokering the deal, returned to Israel after talks with Hamas in Gaza on March 29th. Israel reopened border crossings with Gaza and expanded the territory’s fishing zone on March 31st. Gazan fishermen face equipment shortages, as well as harassment by Israeli naval vessels, but the move represents a step towards a broader agreement.

Simultaneously, a March 29th report by the Israeli Broadcasting Authority (IBA) stated that the Israeli government will approve the construction of 4,500 new settlements in the West Bank next week. However, if the talks between the finance and defense ministries are not finalized, the approvals could be delayed until after Israel’s April 9th general election. According to international law, the West Bank and East Jerusalem are “occupied territories,” and any construction of Jewish settlements in those areas is illegal.

 

Qatar

On March 29th, Qatari Shura Council Speaker Ahmed Bin Abdullah al-Mahmoud attended a regular meeting of the heads of the legislative councils of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It is al-Mahmoud first time attending a GCC meeting in Saudi Arabia since the Gulf Diplomatic Crisis began in June, 2017.

On March 31st, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani abruptly left an Arab League summit in Tunisia without explanation. Sheikh Tamim attended only the opening ceremony, and left during Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit’s introductory speech.  

 

Saudi Arabia

On March 27th, King Salman hosted Libyan General Khalifa Haftar for talks in Riyadh. The two discussed developments in Libya’s civil war during the visit, which marked the first meeting between Haftar and King Salman.

A Saudi court approved the temporary release of three women’s rights activists currently on trial for subversion charges after their arrest last spring, though the three women remain on trial. A human rights organization identified the released women, and indicated that the others were slated for release on March 31st. Most of the women are charged with maintaining unauthorized contacts with foreign journalists and diplomats, though two are held without charges.

At the opening of the Arab League summit in Tunisia on March 31st, King Salman denounced the US recognition of Israeli control over the Golan Heights.

 

Syria

The UN Security Council will meet, at Syria’s request, to discuss US President Donald Trump’s March 21st decision to recognize Israel’s claim to sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which it occupied in the 1967 War and annexed in 1981. All 28 member states of the European Union voted to reject Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights on March 27th, maintaining the bloc’s existing position on the issue. The Arab League said March 31st that it would seek an injunction from the UN Security Council against the US for its actions. On March 22nd, Yahya Al-Aridi, a spokesperson of the opposition High Negotiation Committee (HNC) told SMART News Agency that the HNC considers US President Donald Trump’s proclamation of support for Israeli annexation of the occupied Golan Heights as harmful to international security and contravening of international law.

On March 27th, Hossam Zaki, the Assistant Secretary-General of the Arab League, hinted at Syria’s potential reinstatement to the multilateral organization.

Also on March 27th, Syria said it responded to an Israeli air attack in the northern Aleppo province. The attack targeted an industrial area near Aleppo city, and a Syrian official claimed that Assad government forces had intercepted several missiles.

 

Tunisia

The 30th annual Arab League summit opened in Tunisia on March 30th. Arab leaders jointly condemned the US decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over Golan Heights, but did not announce further action. Leaders also discussed the increasing influence of Iran and Turkey on regional politics, with Saudi’s King Salman stating that Iran represents a direct threat to the international community more broadly. Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir were absent from the meeting, in light of ongoing protests against their regimes.

 

Turkey

Turkey’s March 31st municipal elections saw a voter turnout of nearly 85%. The opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate Mansur Yavaş won the mayorship in the capital of Ankara for the first time in 25 years. As the gap between the CHP and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) candidates for mayor in Istanbul narrowed and with uncounted votes remaining, AKP candidate Binali Yıldırım announced his victory. With the Supreme Electoral Council’s official website down and election results paused on state-run media, CHP candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu later announced that the vote count put him in the lead and that he had won. Later media updates have acknowledged İmamoğlu’s lead. However, state media also reported that invalid votes would be examined in Ankara, Istanbul, and İğdir, an eastern province where available numbers showed the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) won. AKP members have said they contest current results.

President Erdoğan held 102 rallies in just 50 days in the lead-up to the polls. On March 29th, Turkish authorities deported a British journalist arriving to cover the elections in the country’s southeast, where the HDP is popular. The day before the elections, local media reported that police in Istanbul had detained 32 members of the HDP, as well as party election observers. In Diyarbakır, Italian election observers were briefly detained. Violence at the polls on March 31st, including a shooting that killed two members of Saadet party in Malatya province, was reported in provinces such as Diyarbakır, Mardin, Adana, and Istanbul.

 

Yemen

Fighting between Houthi forces and the Saudi-led coalition left three dead in Hodeidah on March 25th, marking another flare-up in tensions plaguing the critical port city. Hodeidah is the main entry point for aid into Yemen, and fighting there has severely exacerbated the already-crippling humanitarian crisis in the country. Despite the outbreak of violence, UN Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths said March 28th that the redeployment of the rival factions in Hodeidah would proceed as planned. The UN secured a deal for the warring factions to redeploy their forces in February; according to Griffiths, the UN remains optimistic that the deal will serve as a basis for further negotiations to reduce tensions in Hodeidah.

A March 26th airstrike killed seven people, including four children, and wounded a further eight. The strike targeted a petrol station next to a hospital in Kitaf, a rural town near Sa’ada. Save the Children, a charity, condemned the attack and called for increased diplomatic pressure to broker an end to the fighting in Yemen.

Separately, the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) confirmed April 1st that it had conducted six strikes in al-Bayda Governorate during late March. The strikes allegedly targeted fighters associated with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and are the first since the US killed Jamal al-Badawi in January for his role in planning the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Aden. The strikes were undertaken as Congress considers a range of options to curtail US involvement in Yemen, with the aim of curbing President Trump’s support for the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen.

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