News Roundup: Egyptians vote in constitutional referendum, court verdict on Hirak activists ignites protest in Morocco, and opposition Istanbul mayor-elect Imamoğlu certified despite resistance from ruling AKP
Algeria’s Interim President, Abdelkader Bensaleh, appointed Kamel Feniche as the new head of the Constitutional Council after the incumbent stepped down on April 16th under pressure from protesters. Demonstrators thought Tayeb Belaiz, the outgoing Constitutional Council president, too close to the regime of ousted President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to serve as an objective arbiter of the constitutional transition process.
On April 22nd, authorities arrested five billionaires with close ties to the ousted Bouteflika regime on corruption charges. The arrests follow a call by Algerian Army Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Gaid Salah, on April 10th for the prosecution of corrupt individuals close to the Bouteflika government.
On April 21st, Bahrain’s news agency BNA reported that King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa restored the citizenship of 551 citizens stripped of their citizenship by the courts since 2011. Since the events of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, Bahrain has stripped hundreds of nationals of their citizenship after mass trials and has banned opposition parties. Most recently, Bahrain drew international criticism when courts stripped 138 nationals of their citizenship on April 16th on terrorism charges. Since the King’s restoration announcement, the Bahraini government has not specified which individuals will reclaim their citizenship.
On April 20th-22nd, Egyptians headed to the polls to vote on the proposed constitutional amendments that could extend President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s term in office until 2034. Egypt’s National Elections Authority (NEA) announced the referendum on April 17th, just days after Parliament approved it. The three-day voting window was meant to maximize turnout. A group of opposition parties issued a statement April 18th calling for Egyptians to vote “no” and reject the amendments. Opposition parties were prevented from hanging banners encouraging Egyptians to vote “no,” while posters in support of the amendments lined the streets. Those who refuse to vote will face a fine of 500 Egyptian pounds.
On April 22nd, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the US will end all sanctions waivers to nations that buy Iranian oil. The waivers have been in place since American wide-ranging sanctions on Iran were reinstated in November 2018, and cover eight countries. The countries that fail to end their imports of Iranian oil by May 2nd will be subject to US sanctions. Iran has yet to offer an official response, but the decision is likely to have sweeping consequences for the Iranian economy, the global energy market and the economies of the China and India, the main importers of Iranian oil.
On April 19th, Iraq hosted a summit with leaders from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Jordan, Kuwait, and Turkey. The summit covered regional stability and trade, both crucially important to post-war Iraq. Iraq is seeking billions of dollars in aid to support reconstruction and infrastructure projects.
Jordan hosted a trilateral summit with Jordan’s King Abdullah, Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. The focus of the summit was to expand cooperation between the three countries in sectors such as agriculture, tourism, energy, health, education, trade, investment, and information and communications technology. A substantial natural gas field was discovered off the coast of Cyprus in February, raising the island’s profile in eastern Mediterranean politics.
In a speech on April 17th, Prime Minister Saad Hariri warned of economic catastrophe if parliament refuses to adopt his government’s proposed budget, which includes the most severe austerity measures in Lebanon’s modern history. International observers, including high-profile donors who pledged some $11 billion in conditional aid to Lebanon in Paris in 2018, view the austerity package as a test of Hariri’s ability to carry out economic reforms. Hundreds of workers responded to Hariri’s statement with protests in downtown Beirut on April 17th and 18th.
During a visit to Moscow on April 15th, Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil reportedly met with a senior Israeli official to discuss border issues, the Syrian war, and Iranian weapon factories in Lebanon. The Israeli official reportedly told Bassil that Israel does not consider Lebanon to be an enemy, but that it also will not hesitate to strike at Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria.
Forces loyal to the internationally recognized government in Tripoli have managed to push back Libyan National Army (LNA) forces several miles from the frontline surrounding the capital, as eastern commander Khalifa Haftar and the LNA continue their two-week offensive on the city. Witnesses within the city reported several airstrikes and explosions during the evening of April 19th, despite calls from the UN for a ceasefire. It is unclear whether these airstrikes were carried out by aircraft or unmanned drones. The latest update from the UN health organization reports that deaths from the conflict now exceed 250, including civilians.
On April 19th, the White House confirmed a telephone conversation between President Trump and Haftar that took place on April 15th, in which the President reportedly recognized Haftar’s role in combating terrorism and ensuring security of Libya’s oil reserves. This announcement immediately followed the United States’ and Russia’s April 18th refusal to support a UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire, which would have placed blame for the present conflict on Haftar and his forces.
On April 22nd, thousands of demonstrators marched on Parliament in Rabat, demanding the release of 42 jailed activists linked to the Hirak protest movement. Also known as the Hirak Rif or the Rif movement, its organizers advocate social justice and enhanced worker protections; they have also called for an end to corruption and unemployment. This week’s protests follow an early April court decision upholding the lengthy prison terms handed down against Hirak-affiliated activists, whom the Moroccan government views as a source of instability. Nasser Zefzaki, a leader of the movement who was arrested in 2017, received a 20-year prison sentence in June 2018 that many view as a death sentence due to the abuse Zefzafi is expected to face in prison.
On April 17th, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin gave incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the mandate to form a majority governing coalition of at least 61 seats (out of 120). Netanyahu now has 28 days, plus a possible two-week extension, to form his government. Should he succeed, Netanyahu will become the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history. He intends to form his coalition with five far-right wing and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties. As for the possibility that he will be charged on counts of bribery and fraud in an upcoming trial (as per the recommendation of the Attorney General), Netanyahu would still have no legal obligation to vacate his post.
On April 22nd, the Arab League pledged to pay an extra $100 million to the Palestinian Authority per month to help fund the financially struggling governing body. The decision follows an Israeli move in February to block $138 million of tax transfers to the Palestinian Authority in response to PA payments to political prisoners jailed for attacks against Israel.
On April 17th, Saudi news channel, al-Arabiya, reported that Sudan’s new military council refused to meet with a high-ranking Qatari delegation headed by deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed al-Thani citing a Sudanese source. On April 18th, the spokesperson of Sudan’s foreign minister denied the Saudi channel reports and demanded they take it down. The Saudi channel report comes after a joint Saudi-Emirati delegation visit to Khartoum to meet with Sudan’s new military leaders.
On April 22nd, four gunmen were killed after attempting to attack a police station in Riyadh, wounding three security officers in the process. Daesh claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement.
Also on April 22nd, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates agreed to send $3 billion in aid to Sudan’s interim ruling military council. The two countries will deposit $500 million with the Sudanese central bank and the rest in the form of vital products like food and petroleum. Sudanese protesters, who precipitated the ouster of former President Omar al-Bashir, chanted slogans rejecting the funds.
On April 19th and 20th, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met with Russian senior officials to discuss trade and peace talks, as well as the renewed rental of the Russian port in Tartus. The war continues despite territorial gains by the Assad regime, which relies on Russian military support in its efforts to regain territory from the rebels. Daesh fighters reportedly killed 35 Syrian government and allied fighters in eastern Homs governorate, near Palmyra, on April 20th. Separately, regime shelling continued in the rebel-held Idlib on April 20th. Russia backs a political settlement to the conflict, including constitutional talks, but Assad has worked to avoid them out of a fear that a new constitution would dilute his power.
Defense Minister Abdelkareem Zubaidi said in an April 16th interview that Tunisian security forces had detained two groups of armed Europeans carrying diplomatic papers attempting to cross the border into Libya. Zubaidi said Tunisian Army troops stationed at a border crossing stopped 13 armed French citizens and confiscated their weapons when they attempted to cross the border. In a separate incident, Tunisian Coast Guard forces intercepted two boats carrying 11 armed Europeans carrying diplomatic passports, allegedly on their way to Libya.
Almost three weeks after the March 31st local elections and a number of vote recounts, opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu received his election certificate and was declared the winner of Istanbul’s mayoral race on April 17th. However, the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party appealed again to the Supreme Election Council (YSK) with lists of voters it argues were ineligible to vote in Istanbul, calling for a renewal of the vote there.
At a funeral in Ankara for a soldier killed fighting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) on April 21st, a mob attacked CHP leader Kılıçdaroğlu. Police detained nine individuals after the incident. The primary suspect is a member of the ruling AK Party, whom party officials said they would dismiss.
A Greek news website reported that the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus—which is recognized only by Turkey—notified the UN that it plans to start drilling for oil and gas in Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone.
On April 17th, the UN Security Council called for Houthis forces to vacate the disputed Hodeidah port as soon as possible, per the terms of a de-escalation deal brokered in Sweden in December 2018. The Security Council’s statement expressed concerns that continued fighting would threaten the ceasefire agreed to distribute humanitarian aid in Hodeidah, the main ingress point for humanitarian supplies, including food and medicine, for the war-stricken country. UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths said April 18th that he hopes for a full troop withdrawal from Hodeidah in the next several weeks.
On April 16th, US President Donald Trump vetoed a bipartisan measure to stop US involvement in Yemen war. However, Congress still has options available to constrain Trump’s uncritical support for the war in Yemen.