News Roundup: Algerian military hints at intervention as protests continue, US Senate votes to end support for war in Yemen, and Saudi Arabia terrorism court tries women’s rights activists
Lieutenant-General Ahmed Gaed Salah, the Algerian Army’s Chief of Staff, said March 18th that the military should find a solution to Algeria’s tumult as protests continued this week. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced he would not seek re-election on March 11th, giving in to three weeks of sustained popular outcry, but a March 13th statement promising to work with the Algerian people towards building a more inclusive governance system failed to satisfy protesters. The appointment of Lakhdar Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister and UN Special Envoy to Syria, as the steward of Algeria’s transition process likewise failed to allay protesters’ concerns. Brahimi is closely tied to the Algerian political establishment, including Bouteflika. On March 14th, Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui pledged to form a transitional government next week, but protesters organized a massive demonstration on March 15th to demand Bouteflika resign outright. Lieutenant-General Salah’s comment represents a policy shift for Algeria’s military, which ruled out a direct intervention in national politics in September 2018 after a purge removed high-ranking officials in late August and early September.
On March 13th, the General Intelligence Directorate ruled that all government-run and private satellite channels cannot host government ministers, and have been ordered to rely solely on official statements released from government ministries. The new move is part of an attempt by the government to limit the dissemination of information not yet ready for public consumption. Many ministers were surprised at the new move and are reportedly uncertain about the government’s reasoning for imposing such a ban.
On March 15th, the U.S. State Department released its annual human rights report, which included a long list of violations committed by the Egyptian government. The report accused Egypt of unprecedented rates of “forced disappearances; torture; restrictions on political participation; [and] violence targeting LGBTI persons and members of other minority groups.” The Egyptian foreign ministry released a statement denying the accusations in the report, saying it was based on unsubstantiated evidence and false claims.
Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezaei on March 18th announced that a majority of the council is opposed to ratifying bills that would institute Financial Action Task Force (FATF) regulation aimed at boosting transparency in international financial transactions. Implementation of the regulations is considered a prerequisite for allowing Iran to trade on the international market. On March 17th, Rezaei suggested European countries should guarantee future purchases of Iranian oil as a precondition for Iran’s passing of the FATF regulation.
On March 18th, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that the government would file a legal case in Iran against U.S. officials who imposed sanctions on the country as a precursor to action in international courts.
Chief of Staff of the Iraqi Armed Forces Lieutenant-General Othaman al-Ghanimi said March 18th that Iraq plans to reopen its border crossing with Syria this week. The announcement followed a trilateral meeting between the defense chiefs of Syria, Iran, and Iraq in Damascus, which aimed to project an image of stability and legitimacy for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Iraq continued prosecution proceedings against foreign-born members of Daesh this week. On March 14th, legal proceedings began against 14 French citizens suspected of supporting Daesh, and an Iraqi court sentenced a Belgian citizen to death on March 18th for his membership in the group. Iraqi courts have handed down the death penalty to dozens of people convicted of ties to Daesh, including foreign fighters.
On March 13th, the Jordanian government praised the newly developed strategic partnership between the Arab Potash Company and China’s State Development and Investment Corporation (SDIC). For approximately $500 million, the SDIC has acquired a 28 percent stake in the Arab Potash Company. Prime Minister Razzaz also introduced Jordan’s energy and transportation projects to Chinese officials, and welcomed Chinese investment in these sectors.
King Abdullah met with Vice President Mike Pence in Washington on March 11th. King Abdullah reasserted Jordan’s eagerness to increase cooperation with the United States, particularly in the economic sphere. They also discussed cooperation on counterterror efforts between the United States and Jordan.
On March 17th, hundreds of protestors took to Beirut’s streets to demand that Lebanese women have the right to pass on citizenship to their children. The march was organized by the “My Nationality, My Dignity” campaign.
Prime Minister Hariri met with King Salman of Saudi Arabia on March 11th to discuss developments in the region and strategize on ways to strengthen bilateral ties between the two countries.
During the third international Brussels conference in support of Syrian refugees, Prime Minister Hariri requested over $2.5 billion from the international community to assist in long-term projects facilitating the return of Syrian refugees to their homes. The United Nations secured $7 billion in funding from donor countries by the end of the conference.
Libya’s El Sharara oilfield, which reopened at the beginning of March after months of protests and occupation, is on track to reach 300,000 barrels per day of output within the next two weeks, according to a field engineer at the site. El Sharara is now under the control of the unofficial, eastern-based government and Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Commander Khalifa Haftar.
In Tripoli, the internationally-recognized Libyan government and its allies at the United Nations continue to fear that Haftar and the LNA will soon make a push eastward, attempting to extend their leadership across the entire state. While there have been widespread rumors that the LNA plans to move on Tripoli, no such reports have been substantiated to date.
Morocco’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Nasser Bourita has reiterated that the government will maintain a policy of “non-interference” regarding protests in Algeria. Bourita said that Morocco will “neither meddle with the internal developments that Algeria witnesses nor comment on them.” Since protests began in Algeria, on February, Morocco has been watching developments in its neighbor cautiously.
Israel’s Supreme Court has reversed the decision of the Knesset Election Committee allowing the chairman of the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, Michael Ben-Ari, to run in upcoming elections. The court also disqualified the Balad-United Arab List from participating in the vote. The Supreme Court’s decision, passed by an eight to one majority of justices, was supported by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit. The decision was taken on the basis of the Ben-Ari’s incitement against Arabs. While Ben-Ari has been barred from running, his party will nevertheless still be allowed to participate, despite having been banned before in the 1988 elections.
On March 14th, two rockets were launched from the Gaza Strip at the Tel Aviv area, setting off air-raid sirens for the first time in the city since the Israel-Gaza war of 2014. The rockets caused no human injury or infrastructural damage. A statement by Hamas said it was not responsible for the attack. Hamas vowed to “take measures” against those behind the move, which it described as violating the “factional and national consensus” governing Gaza.
Israel’s military expanded a manhunt for a Palestinian assailant on March 18th after a second Israeli died of wounds sustained in a West Bank shooting attack the previous day. “We know the attacker’s identity … and security forces are in a close pursuit after him,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
Qatar will no longer permit First Abu Dhabi Bank, the largest bank in the UAE, to provide services for new customers in Doha, its regulator said, amid a probe over alleged currency manipulation. Qatar’s central bank has been investigating whether rival countries attempted to devalue its currency, securities, and derivatives markets just after a Saudi-led bloc launched a diplomatic and trade boycott against the country in mid-2017.
On March 13th a group of prominent women’s rights activists appeared before Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court, which was established to try terrorism cases, nearly a year after they were arrested on charges of undermining national security. Activists brought before the Criminal Court in Riyadh last week included Loujain al-Hathloul, Iman al-Nafjan, Aziza al-Yousef, Amal al-Harbi, Dr. Ruqayyah al-Mharib, Nouf Abdulziaz, Maya’a al-Zahrani, Shadan al-Anezi, Dr. Abir Namankni, Dr. Hatoon al-Fassi and another female activist. Their next trial sessions are scheduled to resume on March 27th.
On March 14th, President of the Saudi Human Right Commission, Bandar bin Mohammed Al-Aiban delivered his remarks to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva during a periodic review of the nation’s human rights record. He rejected calls for an independent investigation into the Khashoggi killing and reiterated the government’s claim that the accused culprits were being brought to justice internally. On March 17th, the New York Times in a report said that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had launched a covert campaign to silence dissenters more than a year before the killing of Khashoggi, citing U.S. officials.
In a joint press conference on March 18th with visiting Iraqi and Iranian military commanders, Syria’s defense minister condemned U.S. military presence in Syria, emphasizing Syria’s right to self-defense. U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) announced on March 18th that they have taken positions in the last ISIS-held enclave in northeast Syria.
The Wall Street Journal reported that the United States may leave up to 1,000 U.S. troops in Syria, as talks between the United States, Turkey, European allies, and the Kurds have failed to establish a safe zone in Syria. However, top U.S. military officials refuted the report, adding that the United States was continuing to implement President Trump’s directive to draw down the U.S. presence in the country.
Tunisia’s secularist Nidaa Tounes party faces internal strife after the March 13th resignation of its committee in charge of organizing the party’s national conference. The committee accused the controversial leader of Nidaa Tounes, Hafedh Caid Essebsi, of refusing to give up control over the conference planning process. The resignation jeopardizes the presidential run of Hafedh’s father, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, who was announced as the Nidaa Tounes presidential candidate in January 2019.
On March 17th, a Justice Ministry spokesperson said Tunisia was seeking the extradition of Belhanssen Trabelsi, brother-in-law to former President Zine Ben Ali. Trabelsi was arrested in France on March 14th on fraud charges, and faces 17 arrest warrants in Tunisia.
Turkey has announced a joint military operation with Iran against Kurdish militants. Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu says the operation against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) began on March 18th on Turkey’s eastern border. Iran’s deputy interior minister visited Ankara last week and the two countries vowed to continue cooperation in fighting “terrorist groups.”
Meanwhile, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan faced criticism from authorities in New Zealand for broadcasting online footage of the March 15th shooting that killed 50 people at two mosques in New Zealand. Erdogan has played blurred clips of the video at campaign rallies in several Turkish cities over the past few days in an effort to fire up his conservative Islamist supporters and attack his political opponents ahead of local elections scheduled for later this month. New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters said the dissemination of the video could endanger his country’s citizens.
The United Arab Emirates has started a program that aims to reduce the debt burden of its citizens as it grapples with an economic slowdown. The program, launched by the central bank, targets loans that cost individuals more than 50 percent of their monthly salary, according to the state-run WAM news agency. Payments would be consolidated over a maximum period of four years and capped at half the person’s salary or 30 percent of their pension. Citizens have to pledge that they would not seek any loans or credit facilities from banks or financial institutions during the repayment period.
On March 14th, the U.S. Senate voted to end support for Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen. The 54-to-46 vote. The resolution seeks to end U.S. military involvement in the campaign within 30 days. The House of Representatives is expected to overwhelmingly pass the measure, possibly later this month. On March 15th, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo opposed the senate’s decision in a news conference saying, “The way to alleviate the Yemeni people’s suffering isn’t to prolong the conflict by handicapping our partners in the fight, but by giving the Saudi-led coalition the support needed to defeat Iranian-backed rebels and ensure just peace.”
Meanwhile, the Houthi rebels warned that they were ballistic capabilities and that their forces stand ready to strike Riyadh and Abu Dhabi if implementation of a UN peace deal in the port city of Hodeidah is breached. A spokesman for the Houthi forces said the group has a “stockpile of missiles” that can hit Saudi Arabia and and the UAE.