News Roundup: Egypt sentences nine to death on assassination charges, protests sweep Algeria ahead of April elections, and Yemen’s Houthis agree preliminary withdrawal from contested port
Algerians took to the streets in protest against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term ahead of the April 18th presidential election. Tens of thousands joined demonstrations in Algiers on February 22nd, with protests continuing into the weekend. Protestors were met by police and tear gas and dozens were arrested. Additional protests are planned throughout the upcoming week.
Bahrain’s Court of Cassation on February 25th upheld three-year jail sentences against three relatives of prominent political activist Sayed Alwadaei. Alwadei is the head of advocacy for the London-based Bahrain institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD). The UN has called the case an unlawful act of reprisal over family connections.
Nine prisoners were executed by Egyptian authorities on February 20th for their suspected involvement with the assassination of Hisham Barakat, Egypt’s former chief prosecutor. This brings the total of individuals sentenced to death in Egypt this month to 15. The executions drew international criticism from the United Nations and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In other news, Egypt is set to host the very first EU-Arab League Summit. The two-day summit will take place between February 24th-26th and is expected to bring leaders together to discuss migration, security, and counter-terrorism. The Summit was initially proposed by the EU last year as a way for leaders to strategize around the issue of Arab migration to Europe.
Iran successfully tested a cruise missile on February 24th during naval exercises near the Strait of Hormuz, according to state media. More than 100 vessels took part in the three-day war games stretching from the Strait of Hormuz to the Indian Ocean, Iranian state media reported. In August, Washington said Iran had test-fired a short-range anti-ship missile in the strait during naval drills.
Iranian lawmakers on February 24th approved the transfer of 1.5 billion euros from the National Development Fund to the nation’s defense sector. The reallocation, which is part of the parliament’s yearly review of the national budget, is in line with Ayatollah Khamenei and senior officials’ calls to strengthen Iran’s defensive capabilities. The news came the day after an Iranian official close to Ayatollah Khamenei suggested Tehran could disrupt the flow of oil from the Middle East if it feels militarily threatened.
The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have extradited 280 Iraqi militants to Iraq, according to an Iraqi spokesperson at a press conference on February 24th. Iraqi security forces said on February 21st that they received a first batch of 130 Iraqi Daesh members. Also on February 21st, Iraqi intelligence uncovered a Daesh finance ring and carried out the largest financial bust in Iraq’s history.
On February 18th, in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Gorran met on to discuss Kurdistan’s government formation. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) boycotted the meetings. The KDP and PUK are in a stalemate over some of the top government positions. Both parties want Kurdistan’s Presidency and the post of Kirkuk’s governor.
On Wednesday, February 20th, Jordan and the international community endorsed a $2.4 billion budget for the Jordan Response Platform, which provides support to Jordan in its role as a host to thousands of refugees during the crisis in Syria. Of the funding, $702.9 million is dedicated to refugees, and $698.9 million to strengthening the resilience of host communities.
More than 150 protestors marched from Irbid and Aqaba to Amman in demand of greater job opportunities and improved salaries. Young university graduates, in particular, were vocal in the marches.
The Palestine Parliamentary Committee in Jordan’s parliament called for the removal of the Israeli ambassador as a response to Israeli soldiers’ actions this week at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. On Monday, February 18th, soldiers placed locks on al-Rahma gate, preventing Palestinian worshippers from having access to the site, and banned top Waqf official Sheikh Abdul Azim Salhab from visiting the property on February 24th.
On February 22nd, Hezbollah issued a decision to temporarily freeze the political activities of a leading legislator, Nawwaf Musawi, in part because of comments he made last week about the late President-elect Bachir Gemayel.
On February 23rd, a group of protesters gathered outside Lebanon’s interior ministry to demand state recognition for civil marriages after recent remarks by its new chief, Raya Al Hassan, raised hopes of overcoming decades-old objections from religious groups. Legalizing civil marriage in Lebanon has been debated in parliament since the 1950s. Al Hassan said in a recent interview that she was considering reopening the debate with religious authorities.
Human Rights Watch released a statement on February 22nd urging east Libyan military leader Khalifa Haftar to discontinue his siege of Derna, an eastern port town where an unknown number of civilians are allegedly trapped. Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) has also been engaged since February 20th in violent clashes in the southern city of Murzuq, where 11 deaths and 15 injuries among local tribesmen have been reported. The fighting in Murzuq represents the first violent opposition to LNA forces since they first began their expansion into the south last month. An LNA spokesman also confirmed on February 21st that they had taken control of the El Feel oilfield. Meanwhile, Libya’s National Oil Company (NOC) has confirmed that the LNA-controlled El Sharara oilfield remains closed, following a safety check which discovered continued militia presence on the base. The LNA handed over control of El Sharara to an oil security force on February 19th, hoping to encourage the NOC to resume production.
Britain’s Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan arrived in Morocco for an official state visit on February 23rd. They met with Morocco’s Crown Prince, fifteen-year-old Moulay Hassan, and discussed relations between the two countries. The royals also visited a school in the rural Atlas Mountains in a visit focused on encouraging female education.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on February 20th reached a preliminary election deal with two fringe religious-nationalist parties in a bid to unify his hardline bloc before the April 9th elections. Netanyahu’s Likud party announced it would reserve the 28th spot on its parliamentary list for the Jewish Home party and grant it two cabinet ministries in a future government if it merges with the Jewish Power party.
In a tweet, the American Jewish Committee criticized the election deal. Jewish Power is seen by many as an offshoot of a the Kach party of Meir Kahane, an ultranationalist American-Israeli rabbi banned from Israeli politics for his racist opinions who was assassinated in the early 1990s. The Kach Party is designated a terrorist organization by the State Department.
In other election news, the two main challengers to Netanyahu, retired military chief Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party, joined forces on February 21st in a bid to create a unified coalition capable of opposing Netanyahu.
Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas urged European to play a greater role in mediating the peace process. “Has the time not come for European states that have not yet recognized the State of Palestine to do so, especially in light of your belief in the two-state solution?” Abbas said in a short speech at a two-day summit of Arab and European leaders in Egypt.
On February 25th, Qatar issued a statement protesting the style of the invitation it received from Egypt to the EU-Arab league summit taking place in Sharm el-Sheikh. Since Egypt cut all diplomatic ties with Qatar in June 2017 along with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the invitation was sent to the Greek Embassy in Doha. Qatar says the invitation was not addressed to Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad and “broke international protocol in the language and format of the invite received.” Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry responded to the Qatari statement on saying, “This is natural because relations have been severed.” Qatar in response downgraded their representation at the summit.
On February 25th, senior Taliban leaders and U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad met in Qatar for the latest round of Afghan peace talks.
Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman completed his trip to Asia on February 22nd after spending two days in Pakistan, two days in India, and two days in China. The tour was seen as as a way to shore up additional international support for the Kingdom as its relations with western powers remained strained. On the final leg of his trip, MBS made headlines for publicly supporting China’s policy of interning its Muslim Uighur population as necessary to fight terrorism.
On February 23rd, Saudi Arabia named Princess Reema bin Bandar as ambassador to the United States, replacing Prince Khalid Salman in the post. Princess Reema is Saudi Arabia’s first female ambassador and is known as a leading advocate of female empowerment in the kingdom.
Also on February 23rd, King Salman travelled to Sharm el-Sheikh to attend the first summit conference of the Arab League and the European Union. The summit marks the King’s first foreign visit in more than a year. King Salman met with British Prime Minister Theresa May, who used the event to advocate for a political settlement to the war in Yemen. King Salman also stressed the importance for a political solution to the war in Yemen while emphasizing the destabilizing role of Iran in fueling the conflict in the region.
US President Donald Trump has reportedly agreed to leave about 400 troops in Syria — 200 in a multinational force in the northeastern part of the country and another 200 at a small outpost in the southeast, where they will seek to counter Iran’s influence throughout the country. His decision to commit troops to the multinational force, operating south of the Turkish border, came after European allies said they would refuse to contribute troops to the force if the United States would not.
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reportedly floated the idea of deploying Russian military police to Syria as part of a proposed “safe zone” along the country’s northern border with Turkey. The suggestion is unlikely to appeal to Ankara, has stressed that the safe zone be under Turkish control. Russia has said that Turkey had no right to set up the zone without seeking and receiving consent from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The Tunisian government is attempting to disband one of the country’s prominent LGBTQ rights groups, according to the group’s leader. Mounir Baatour, president of Association Shams, said the government filed an appeal seeking to overturn a 2016 court decision that permitted the association to continue operating in Tunisia. He said Association Shams received initial approval to operate from the government in May 2015, and that approval was subsequently upheld by a 2016 court case that challenged the group’s legality according. Human Rights Watch called the government’s attempts to disband Association Shams “a very negative sign.”
Meanwhile, Tunisian Minister of Social Affairs Mohamed Trabelsi said in an interview that Tunisia plans to cut poverty rates in half by 2030.
Turkey’s trade minister urged consumers to take note of businesses charging high prices for consumer items by using a mobile app through which they can report these businesses to the government. Turkey places the blame of heightened inflation on outside powers and businesses it claims have been manipulating prices of goods such as produce.
A Turkish court indicted and requested life sentences for 16 civil society leaders on charges of planning to overthrow the Turkish government and financing the 2013 Gezi Park protests. The charges have been criticized by groups such as Amnesty International as “an attempt to rewrite history and to silence some of Turkey’s most prominent civil society figures[.]”
The discovery of natural gas off of Cyprus is expected to increase tensions between Cyprus and Turkey. Turkey contests the maritime jurisdiction boundaries of Cyprus, and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that Turkey would start drilling around the area. On February 23rd, Cyprus’ foreign ministry said that the Turkish army, which maintains 35,000 troops in the northern Turkish zone of the island, has built a new fence in a northern village that prevents farmers from accessing fields.
Iranian-aligned Houthi forces agreed to draw back from two Yemeni ports on February 25th, stating that they would withdraw from Hodeidah at a later date, on condition of compliance from Saudi-backed forces. Houthi forces will fall back 3 miles from the ports of Saleef, used for grain, and Ras Isa, an oil terminal, as a first step in a tentative agreement with Yemen’s internationally recognized government. Ensuring a peaceful withdrawal from Hodeidah is critical to securing a peace settlement in Yemen, as the port city is vital to the delivery of aid in Yemen and is a highly strategic position for Houthi fighters. UN negotiators are prioritizing the negotiations over Hodeidah as a framework for a larger peace settlement between the warring parties.
The UN is set to host a donor conference on February 26th in an effort to raise $4.2 billion for humanitarian support to Yemen. The conference is being led by the governments of Sweden and Switzerland.