News Roundup: Moroccan teachers protest low wages, Leaders respond to Trump’s decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over Golan Heights, and Pompeo speaks in Lebanon
Protests continued in Algeria this week as Algerian citizens reiterated their demands and expressed dissatisfaction with the pace of the government response. Hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered on March 22nd despite heavy rains to demand the resignation of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and a full-scale overhaul of the political system. The elderly president promised not to seek a fifth term on March 11th, and government representatives promised to form a transition government on March 14th. Protesters flatly rejected these offers. On March 18th, the Algerian military, a pillar of the country’s political establishment, threatened to intervene by “finding solutions” to the unrest. Protest organizers forcefully denounced military intervention in politics on March 19th. On March 20th, Army Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaid Salah reversed his statements hinting at a military intervention and expressed the Army’s support for the protest movement, marking the clearest sign that the Algerian armed forces are distancing themselves from President Bouteflika.
On March 19th, the government implemented new media regulations that give the Supreme Media Regulatory Council more powers to block and fine websites that they perceive as a threat to national security without obtaining court orders. This is the latest move by the Sisi government to suppress any form of dissent in Egypt.
On March 21st, a report was released indicating that the 720 participants of the National Dialogue on the constitutional amendments were all supporters of the regime. These individuals were chosen by the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee. Although the Speaker of the Parliament, Ali abdel-Al, indicated that the dialogue would allow for an inclusive discussion on the amendments, there are no dissenting voices on the list of participants. The Dialogue is expected to consist of six sessions covering the constitutional amendments with only nine participants attending all sessions.
On March 20th, President Essebsi gave a speech in Carthage urging parliament to consider constitutional reforms that expand the powers of the president. According to Essebsi, the President has very limited authority and the executive power is concentrated with the Prime Minister. The Tunisian constitution purposefully distributed executive powers between the Prime Minister and Parliament as a direct reaction to the oppressive rule of the former president, Zine el-Abidine Ali. Essebsi also called for Prime Minister Yousef Chahed to resolve the tension between them and claimed that Chahed’s policies were harming Tunisia’s development.
On Sunday March 24th, Moroccan teachers marched in Rabat to protest low wages and poor working conditions. Thousands of teachers marched from the Education Ministry to Parliament demanding permanent contracts and wages that support the rising cost of living in the country. Additionally, protestors called for the resignation of Prime Minister, Eddine el Othmani. Police fired water cannons on protestors who camped and slept outside of Parliament. The government continues to insist that the temporary contracts for teachers guarantee the same starting salaries as permanent contracts. The government has also warned teachers to return to the classrooms or they will be fired.
As early as March 21st, observers expected US-led coalition forces to announce the capture of Baghouz, the last territorial stronghold of Islamic State (Daesh). Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) spokespeople announced March 23rd that SDF and US forces had captured Baghouz. The White House released its own statement on March 23rd, but a US spokesperson confirmed that operations to clear the town of ordinance and continue detaining Daesh fighters continued through March 24th. At the same time, SDF forces are engaged in negotiations with the Assad regime over the future relationship of Kurdish territory in Syria’s northeast with Damascus.
On March 22nd, the Assad government vowed to retake the disputed Golan Heights after US President Donald Trump acknowledged Israeli sovereignty over the territory on March 21st.
Eight Lebanese citizens were arrested in the United Arab Emirates and are being accused of terrorism. Although authorities have not disclosed the details of the arrests or the claims brought against the men, UAE media has speculated that the men had links to Hezbollah, which is considered a terrorist organization in the UAE. Family members reached out to Human Rights Watch and said that the men are being held in solitary confinement and are being denied both legal representation and visits from family members. Additionally, the families of the men vehemently deny any political affiliations of the men and claim that their confessions were made under duress. The next hearing will be held on March 27th.
United Nations envoy Ghassan Salame announced on March 20th that the organization will be hosting a conference next month in Libya, in order to pave the way for statewide elections later this year. Salame did not confirm whether both Fayez al-Sarraj– Prime Minister of the official government based in Tripoli– and Khalifa Haftar– leader of the rival Eastern government– will be in attendance, nor did he propose dates for the upcoming elections. The conference is set to be held April 14th to 16th in the northwestern city of Ghadames.
A Libyan coastguard representative announced on March 21st that at least 30 Libyan migrants are missing after a boat sank off the coast of Sabratha earlier in the week. The coastguard managed to rescue 16 people and recovered the body of one child, but the rescued migrants report that at least 50 people were on board the ship. The western port of Sabratha serves as a popular point of departure for Libyan migrants hoping to reach Europe. Finally, state officials announced on March 18th that the Tripoli-based government and the central bank have reached an agreement for a 2019 state budget worth about $34 billion. The budget, which represents an increase from 2018, will mainly serve to cover public salaries and fuel subsidies.
On March 24th reports emerged that former MbS aid, Saud al-Qahtani, fired for his role in facilitating the Khashoggi assassination, is not among the 11 suspects on trial at closed hearings in Riyadh. The revelation renewed criticisms of the Kingdom’s handling of the affair and its promise that the culprits would be brought to justice.
On March 22nd industry analysts reported that Saudi Arabia was advocating to raise the international price of oil to $70 a barrel. Government representatives announced the kingdom was cutting exports in March and April, a move designed to raise prices amid national budget pressures according to sources familiar with Saudi oil policy.
On March 22nd, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Beirut. He gave a seven minute media address declaring the intentions of President Donald Trump’s administration to take on Hezbollah for its “criminal activities and terrorist network” albeit by “peaceful means”. Pompeo referred to a recent televised speech by Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, claiming that US sanctions against Hezbollah have been successful, saying “Nasrallah begged for contributions” from its support base.
Lebanese politicians, including President Michelle Aoun, are at odds with Pompeo, as they recognize the need to support Hezbollah in order to preserve unity among the different factions of Lebanon’s sectarian government. Alain Aoun, an MP with President Aoun, told Al Jazeera that while the US was free to limit whatever it deemed to be Hezbollah’s external acts, within Lebanon, Hezbollah was a legitimate part of the society.
The AP reported that Turkey’s Kurdish population may constitute a “key swing vote” in the country’s upcoming March 31st local elections through pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party’s (HDP) decision to not run its own candidates in certain races and instead back the Republican People’s Party (CHP). In the week leading up to the election, the HDP, which has many leaders and members in jail, is holding multiple rallies across the country. In past elections opposition candidates have had difficulty receiving news coverage, and one local newspaper recently reported that state media channels provided five times more coverage of President Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) than to opposition parties in the first half of March.
Former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım is running for mayor of Istanbul with the support of President Erdoğan, who has also held a number of election rallies in neighborhoods across Istanbul, despite his not being up for election. Erdoğan has campaigned heavily in other cities as well, saying that he will restore the economy and playing video footage of the terrorist attack at the Christchurch mosque as a means of criticizing the main opposition party CHP.
Responding to U.S. President Trump’s statement that he will recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, President Erdoğan said in an interview that he would bring the issue to the United Nations. He also reiterated that Turkey would not reverse its decision to buy Russian S-400 air defense system, as U.S. officials continued to stress it will not send Turkey fighter jets if it purchases the Russian technology.
Protests were held outside the White House against AIPAC and its annual conference, which began on Sunday, March 24th. The protesters condemned Israel’s occupation of Palestine as well as AIPAC’s influence on American politicians. Amongst Democrats, this year’s conference has become a contentious issue due to requests amongst progressives to boycott the event. Some 2020 Presidential candidates (Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, Julian Castro, Pete Buttigieg, and Jay Inslee) have responded to this request and will not be attending the conference. Some attribute this change to Ilhan Omar’s comments addressing AIPAC and its reach, others to Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, shut down the PLO office in Washington D.C., and his recent recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
President Trump tweeted his recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights on March 21st, and signed an official order to the same effect on March 25th. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria during the 1967 War, and has administered the area since over repeated Syrian objections. Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu thanked President Trump for the decision on March 21st. Netanyahu currently faces a competitive electoral landscape as he confronts legal challenges connected to a long-running corruption investigation. Trump’s recognition of the Israeli claim to the Golan Heights may work to boost Netanyahu’s chances at the polls.
On March 25th, Qatar Airways CEO Akbar al-Baker publicly backed Boeing in Muscat despite the crashes of their flagship jet, Boeing 737 MAX, that happened recently in Indonesia and Ethiopia leaving several hundreds dead. It is worth nothing that Qatar airways had put an order for 20 MAX jets and is planning to buy another 40 after a dispute over ordering similar size jets with Airbus.
On March 25th, Bahrain’s state media announced the commercial start of liquified natural gas (LNG) operations quoting Bahrain’s National Oil and Gas Authority (NOGA) CEO and Minister of Oil, Shaikh Mohammed bin Khalifa. The first LNG shipment is set to be imported from the United Arab Emirates’ Oil and Gas company (ADNOC). According to the Bahrain LNG website, the terminal, which will be developed by Bahrain’s LNG, will be used for receiving and regasification purposes. The terminal is located in the Khalifa bin Salman Port in Hidd, Bahrain.
In response to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s call for Lebanon to choose “independence or Hezbollah”, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Bahram Qasemi, on March 24th said Iran would expand ties with Hezbollah. Qasemi added that Hezbollah was a legal and popular party. The party holds three ministries of the Western-backed Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s government.
On March 25th, France banned the Iranian airline Mahan Air from the country, claiming the airline transports military equipment and personnel to Syria and other war zones. According to Bloomberg the move came after pressure from the Trump administration. On March 22nd, the US Treasury moved to sanction 14 Iranian individuals and 17 entities it said had played a central role in Iran’s past pursuit of nuclear weapons.
On March 21st, 100 people died after a ferry sank in the Tigris River in Mosul. After the disaster, protests erupted in the city of Mosul, and the Iraqi Parliament sacked the Governor of Nineveh Province.
Iraq’s Foreign Ministry responded to Donald Trump’s tweet that recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Iraq joined other Middle Eastern states in rejecting Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
March 22nd marked four years since the beginning of the Yemen war between the Saudi-coalition backed government and the Houthi rebels. The conflict has left millions displaced and has had catastrophic consequences on civilians ranging from disease to famine to death. Leaders of five opposition parties in Great Britain signed a letter on the four-year mark to urge parliament to stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia, halt military operations in the Kingdom, and condemns the role of Saudi in the war.
On Friday, March 22nd, Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi affirmed Jordan’s position that the Golan Heights is occupied Syrian territory, and that any lasting peace requires the withdrawal of Israel from all occupied Arab lands. King Abdullah reasserted Jordan’s stance on Jerusalem, claiming it is a “red line” and that his “people stand with” him.