Weekly Roundup: Protests in Tunisia, attacks in Baghdad and Libya, and tensions between Qatar and the UAE
Thousands of Tunisians gathered in Tunis on Sunday to mark the seventh anniversary of the overthrow of former dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. This follows a week of protests against the current Tunisian government, which some view as threatening the legacy of the revolution. Protesters also called for a review of the 2018 federal budget. More than 800 protesters have been arrested over the past week, causing Amnesty International to release a statement urging police to respect the rights of protesters.
A Monday attack on Tripoli’s Mitiga Airport left at least nine people dead. The airport doubles as a prison where the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) keeps more than 2,500 prisoners. Libya’s competing governments continue to disagree on who rules the country and despite the UN’s backing, the GNA has faced considerable security and political opposition for years. The eastern-based rump government of Khalifa Haftar, which calls itself the House of Representatives, enjoys Saudi backing and Haftar continues to assert power. Haftar hinted last week that he may assume control of the country if the UN-backed election process planned for 2018 fails. Adding to the internal political tension is the December announcement by Saif al-Islam, Muammar Qaddhafi’s son, that he seeks to regain a position in Libya’s fractured political system. In today’s Libya, where military competition is a legitimate political exercise, Saif reported he is gathering and leading a force against Libya’s militant groups.
Qatari Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali Al-Thani announced on Sunday in a video posted to YouTube on Sunday that he was being detained in Abu Dhabi against his will. Seen by some as a potential challenger to the Qatari leadership, the little known royal stated whilst seated in an armchair, “”I am now in Abu Dhabi, where I was a guest of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan…that is no longer the case. I am now detained.” The UAE Foreign Ministry denied that the Sheikh was being detained claiming that he had been granted permission to leave the UAE.
The UAE claimed that one if its Etihad flights bound for Bahrain was intercepted in international airspace on Monday by Qatari fighter jets. The UAE’s General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) received “a message from one of the UAE’s national carriers on Monday morning that one of its aircraft on a flight to Manama on a normal route had been intercepted by Qatari fighters”, according to the UAE’s state run news agency UAM. Qatar denies the allegations. This story follows the events of Friday when Qatar filed a complaint to the UN regarding the supposed violation of Qatari airspace on 21st December 2017. The UAE similarly denies these claims.
A leading Syrian opposition figure, Mounir Darwish, died on Friday after he was hit by a car in a hit-and-run incident outside his home in Damascus. Darwish has been part of UN peace talks as the representative of an internationally backed Syrian opposition movement. His death is a blow to the prospect of further peace talks between Assad’s government and the opposition forces in the Syrian Civil War.
Spotlight on Migration and Refugees
Tens of thousands of people have fled Idlib province and nearly 180 were killed in Eastern Ghouta after attacks launched by pro-Assad forces on the last rebel-held territories in Syria. This recent wave of violence, which includes a missile attack on a refugee camp in Idlib, has lead to a “new wave of migration,” especially into Turkey, as many of the displaced have sought refuge in crowding camps near the Turkish border.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has denounced the plans of a US-led coalition to send 30,000 troops to the borders with Turkey and Iraq, with the mission of recruiting and training Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. He scolded the US for creating what he called a “terror army”, and warned them against getting involved in Turkey’s ongoing conflict with the region’s Kurdish minority.
In Southern Lebanon, a Palestinian man named Mohammed Hamdan was wounded when a bomb placed in his car detonated. Hamdan is a member of the militant group, Hamas.
The United Kingdom has committed to expanding the cash transfers program targeting Syrian refugees in Lebanon, committing to spending £77 million over the next two years.
Mohamed Anwar Al-Sadat, the nephew of assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Al-Sadat, announced that he would not be running for president in March. The announcement came as a surprise, as it was widely expected that Sadat would announce his candidacy in today’s news conference. He cited a climate of fear and his lack of confidence in genuine electoral competition as the reasons that he would not be seeking office, and suggested that he may consider running in 2022 when President Abdel Fateh El-Sisi is no longer eligible.
On Friday, President Donald Trump stated that he would waive nuclear sanctions on Iran, potentially giving the US and its allies time to amend the nuclear agreement. However, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has explicitly stated that the agreement is not negotiable as Iran will not take any action beyond its current commitments. Further, Iran’s President Rouhani mocked President Trump for failing to end the nuclear agreement despite consistent threats to do so. The United States did impose new sanctions on 14 key Iranian figures, including the head of the judiciary, Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani.
Two suicide attacks in Al Tayaran Square in central Baghdad today claimed at least 38 lives, and injured more than 100 people. No groups have claimed responsibility thus far. The bombings come as part of a wave of deadly attacks in Iraq’s capital city in the past 48 hours: deadly attacks occurred in other neighborhoods of the city on both Saturday and Sunday.
Germany’s Defence Minister, Ursula von der Leyen, stated that Germany has delivered millions of dollars worth of equipment to Jordan’s military to help improve their border surveillance. The King of Jordan, in a meeting with the defense minister on Sunday, expressed his gratitude for Germany’s support. He also stressed the importance of the international community’s continued support of the cause of the Palestinian people. Jordan has approved a one-time humanitarian aid drop to Rukban Camp, a refugee camp on the border of Jordan where refugees were trapped in 2016 after the closure of Jordanian borders following an attack on Jordanian soldiers by Daesh. The camp houses at least 55,000 refugees.
Israel & Palestine
The Palestinian Liberation Organization convened a two-day meeting of its Central Council in Ramallah on Sunday; discussion of the Palestinians’ negotiating strategy following America’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital featured high on the agenda. In a blistering opening address, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas castigated President Trump for delivering “the slap of the century” to the Palestinian people, while stating that Israeli actions have spelled the end of the Oslo peace accords. Abbas also suggested that the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would now have to be achieved under the auspices of the international community rather than through the leadership of the United States. Notably absent at the conference were Hamas and Islamic Jihad, two major Gaza-based Palestinian factions, whose decision not to attend raised questions about the progress of the ongoing reconciliation talks between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.
Algerians celebrated the Berber New Year as a national holiday on Friday, marking an important first for the nation’s indigenous Amazigh communities. The Yennayer celebration featured parades, communal feasts, and traditional music. This comes after Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced on December 27 that the Amazigh New Year would be celebrated as an official holiday, in order “to strengthen national unity”. The Amazigh community has long called for greater recognition of their culture and identity.
A nephew of the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh has called for an end to the Yemen war, in his first public appearance since his uncle was killed by his former Houthi allies last month. Brigadier-General Tareq Mohammed Saleh, had been expected to help lead Saleh’s supporters in a fresh fight against the Iran-aligned Houthis. Addressing supporters in the southern Shabwa province, he stated “We extend our hands to our brothers, particularly the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, to work to end the war and to restore stability and security to Yemen”.
This week Saudi Arabia began screening movies after a 35-year-old ban on cinemas was lifted in the Kingdom. In a makeshift theatre in Jeddah, children and parents flocked to see the Emoji Movie. New rules will still require strict censorship and only films considered in line with the country’s “Islamic” values will be permitted.
Saudi Arabia has shortlisted New York, Hong Kong and London for the international portion of the listing of the national oil company Saudi Aramco, singly or even in combination of two or even all three. The initial public offering (IPO) will also include the Saudi stock exchange, Tadawul, and is still set for late 2018.
Saudi Arabia is taking managerial control of Saudi Binladin Group and is discussing a possible transfer of some of the giant construction group’s assets to the state while its chairman and other family members are in detention. The Government seized control of the group which had 100,000 employees at its height and is still the largest construction company in the Kingdom, as part of an effort to regain some $100 billion of funds that it claims rightfully belong to the state. It is not clear whether the government’s handling of Binladin may set a precedent for the cases of other businessmen detained in the supposed corruption purge, initiated by crown prince Muhammad bin Salman.