News Roundup: Iranian Foreign Minister posts resignation, train accident in Egypt kills 22 and injures over 40, and Kushner meets with Mohammad bin Salman
Protests continue this week, as Algerians take to the streets to challenge the recent move by the FLN party to adopt longtime president Abdelaziz Bouteflika as their candidate for the upcoming presidential elections. The elections, which are expected to take place in April, will mark twenty years of Bouteflika’s time in office. He is expected to secure another five-year term. The constitution was revised twice to allow Bouteflika to exceed the two-term limit, and although the 2016 revisions to the constitution brought back the limitation, some have argued that these revisions gave Bouteflika renewed terms. In response to the protests, Bouteflika made a statement assuring the protestors that if he won the elections he would enact political reforms and expedite new elections in which he would not run. Although protests are illegal in Algeria, there have been peaceful demonstrations in Algiers, Oran, Steif, Tizi Ouzou, and Boufarik. Security forces have begun responding aggressively with tear gas to quench the protests.
On February 28, Ahmed Mohey was arrested for holding a sign that said “Leave Sisi” in Tahrir Square. His protest was a direct response to the train accident that took place on February 27, where an out of control train crashed into the end of the subway barrier causing a massive explosion. The crash and explosion resulted in the death of 22 people and over 40 injuries. Transport Minister, Hisham Arafat immediately resigned in response to the accident. Egypt has a history of train accidents and steps towards improving public infrastructure have always come up short. The national statistics agency, CAPMAS, reported that Egypt had a total of 10,965 railroad related accidents between 2008 and 2017. Given that the Government has recently funded super projects such as the new capital city, many are criticizing Sisi for misallocating funds and failing to invest in public infrastructure.
On March 4, Mahmoud Abu Zaid, popularly known as “Shawkan”, a famous photojournalist in Egypt, was released after being wrongfully detained while covering the Rab’a al-Adawiya massacre in August 2013. He is expected to report to the nearest police station every evening from 6pm to 6am for the next five years as part of his probation and is not allowed to manage his finances or property during this time as well.
The recent move by the Tunisian government to raise public sector wages seems to have delayed an IMF visit to Tunisia this past week. According to the Governor of the Tunisian Central Bank, Marwan Abbasi, the IMF was expected in Tunisia for the fifth review to process the incoming loan installment. However, the IMF previously threatened to suspend the loan disbursements if the country failed to comply with reform recommendations which include privatization and minimizing national debt by reducing public spending. Abbasi emphasized that receiving this IMF loan was vital to Tunisia as incoming foreign funding is contingent on Tunisia obtaining this loan and will severely impact the 2019 budget.
Kuwait announced a $10 billion dollar investment fund with China that seeks to create a Kuwait-China Silk Road like fund, to which both countries are responsible for raising half of the total share. This fund has been one of the many endeavors that the Kuwaiti government has installed to boost non-oil revenue within its economy before 2035.
The General Aviation Association of the UAE has announced that it has partially resumed flights to Pakistan following the shutdown of the Islamic Republic’s airspace. The shutdown was initiated after Pakistan saw escalating tensions with neighboring India, as the latter carried out strikes on presumed terrorist bases inside the former’s territory.
On March 4, Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed al-Thani said that Qatar is still examining the deal with Russia to purchase its S-400 missile air defense system. Saudi Arabia is reportedly against the deal and even threatened to take military action should the purchase of Russia’s top air defense system happen. Sheikh Mohammed told journalists in a joint conference with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Qatar’s military equipment purchases are no one’s business.
On February 26, White House adviser Jared Kushner met with Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, in Riyadh to discuss increasing cooperation between the United States and Saudi Arabia and to advance Kushner’s plans for peace between Israelis and Palestinians according to a White House statement. The meeting marked the first time a US delegation visited the Kingdom following the Khashoggi scandal.
On March 1, the office of Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor announced that it had completed its investigation on a group of women’s rights activists and was preparing to put them on trial. The activists were detained last spring in the run-up to the country’s lifting of its female driving ban. They stand accused of “undermining the security and stability of the kingdom.”
On March 3, reports emerged stating that a dual Saudi and U.S. citizen has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for over a year. Dr. Walid Fitaihi was reportedly arrested in 2017 when Saudi officials detained hundreds of prominent figures at the Ritz Carlton Hotel. His family believes he has been tortured while in custody and are calling for greater visibility around his case as well as increased pressure on Saudi officials by the US to expedite Fitaihi’s release. US diplomats recently met with Fitaihi according to US National Security Advisor, John Bolton, but not much else is known about Fitaihi’s current condition.
On February 25 Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif announced his resignation via Instagram. Many Iranians were outraged, and 135 of 290 members of the Iranian parliament urged President Hassan Rouhani to refuse Zarif’s resignation. Rouhani followed this recommendation, and Javad Zarif remains the Foreign Minister of Iran. The twarthed resignation seems linked to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s state visit to Iran on the same day that Zarif resigned. During this visit, which was the first since the start of the Syrian civil war, high-ranking Iranian officials held a meeting with President Assad without having invited Foreign Minister Zarif. Most notably, the head of Iran’s revolutionary Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, was present at the meeting. The Quds Force is an unconventional military unit nominally under the direct control of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Within the factional political system of Iran, Zarif and his civilian foreign ministry often clash with the Quds Force on matters of foreign policy. Syrian President Assad has since invited Foreign Minister Zarif to visit Damascus. Iranian officials were quick to deny any connection between Assad’s visit and Zarif’s attempted resignation.
According to Iraqi officials, ISIS is now fighting with insurgency tactics. On February 28, a car bomb exploded outside the University of Mosul killing 2 people and wounding 24. Although ISIS has lost significant territory, it still has fighters, leaders, and resources that will enable the group to continue terrorizing the citizens of Iraq.
Despite US sanctions, Iran released a three year plan to improve Iraq’s electricity grid. Since 2003, blackouts are a daily occurance and no Iraqi government has successfully provided 24-hour electricity for the people. Since 2005 to deal with the recurring blackouts, Iraq has relied on Iran for gas imports to maintain power. Although US sanctions complicated this relationship, in December 2018, the State Department worked directly with Iraqi Officials to provide them a waiver for paying Iran for gas. It is still unclear how the US will respond to the proposed three year plan which continues this relationship between Iraq and Iran.
On March 3, jihadists from the Ansar al-Tawhid group attacked Syrian army posts in northwest Hama, in violation of the buffer zone established by Turkey and Russia.
On March 3, Syria attended its first meeting of Arab states since 2011, in Amman, Jordan.
Iran is reportedly creating an all-Syrian militia, in compliance with a defense agreement signed by Syria and Iran in May 2017.
In discussing his meeting in Moscow last week, on March 3, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet that Israel and Russia share a common goal of removing all foreign troops from Syria.
In a follow up to US President Donald Trump’s February 16 tweet, US National Security Advisor John Bolton pressed European allies to take back European fighters from the Islamic State.
On March 1, the Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) concluded that chlorine gas was used in the April 2018 chemical weapon attack on Douma, in the eastern Damascus suburbs. More than 40 people were killed in this attack.
Cyprus Energy Minister, Georgios Lakkotrypis, announced on February 28 that ExxonMobil discovered the third biggest gas deposit off the coast of the Island. The area in question is subject to territorial claims by Turkey which could intensify tensions between the two countries. The gas deposits are expected to hold between 142 billion to 227 billion cubic meters of gas. ExxonMobil is partnering with Qatar Petroleum to begin drilling expedition.
Investigators for the United Nations Human Rights Council have found “reasonable grounds” that Israeli forces may have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during last year’s weekly Gazan “Great March of Return.” Israeli forces killed 189 Palestinians and wounded more than 6,100. The investigative committee presented evidence that Israeli forces killed Palestinian protestors “who did not pose an imminent threat of death or serious injury to others.” The committee further stated that “journalists and medical personnel who were clearly marked as such were shot, as were children, women, and persons with disabilities.”
Based on the conclusory findings of three separate corruption investigations, Israel’s Attorney General announced that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be indicted on charges of bribery and breach of trust. The investigations center on Netanyahu’s alleged receipt of gifts in exchange for tax breaks and attempts to control political news coverage. News of the indictment comes ahead of the upcoming Israeli elections. However, Israeli law necessitates that Netanyahu step down only upon conviction, a process that may take several years to resolve.
On March 3, the UK’s Foreign Minister Mr. Jeremy Hunt visited Yemen and warned that the peace process could collapse if both parties don’t continue to implement the terms of the peace deal. Mr. Hunt is the first western Foreign Minister to visit Yemen since the conflict began.
Donors have pledged $2.6 billion dollars to aid Yemen on February 24, according to the UN Secretary-General António Guterres with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates being the highest contributors at the Conference, at $500 million each.
In Beirut on Saturday, March 2, hundreds marched in protest of child marriage and in support of raising the minimum legal age for marriage to 18 years old. The protest was organized by the Lebanese Women Democratic Gathering and the National Coalition for Protecting Children from Marriage.
The World Bank has pledged $1.9 billion in financial support to Jordan over the next two years. Interim World Bank President Kristalina Georgieva praised the strong reform movement within the country.
The London Initiative hosted by Theresa May and King Abdullah on February 28, laid out a five year strategy to increase employment, investment and economic growth within Jordan. It encourages international partners to better align assistance to Jordan’s priorities.
The United Nations said on February 28 that Serraj al-Fayez– Prime Minister of the internationally-recognized west Libyan government– and Khalifa Haftar– military commander and de facto leader of eastern Libya– have met and agreed that national elections in the highly divided state are necessary. During a meeting in Abu Dhabi on February 27, the two leaders reportedly agreed on measures to increase stability and end the country’s long transitional period, although neither party has released specific details. While both leaders were in Abu Dhabi, a spokesman for the Libyan National Army (LNA)– Haftar’s military arm– confirmed that the LNA had seized the last remaining territories in Libya’s south, effectively gaining control of the entire southern border.