M!ddleEasterners Newsblog 1-10 March
The new US Secretary of State, John Kerry, released $250 million in aid to Egypt after meeting with President Morsi whilst on his first trip to the Middle East. The aid was given as a “good faith effort” to help the Egyptian people, with a pledge for more if Morsi implements social and economic reforms. Kerry commented the aim of this to promote reforms that will, “put Egypt on the path to establishing a firm economic foundation and allow it to chart its own course.”
A date of April 13th has been set for former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, his two sons and his interior minister to be retried in Egyptian courts. Mubarak and his interior minister, Habib al-Adly, are currently serving life sentences for their roles in the killing of peaceful protesters during the 2011 revolution. A senior advisor to the current President was quoted as saying, “ God willed the retrial would take place under Morsi’s rule, with new evidence and new defendants.” Other connected individuals may also be subjected to retrial; this includes 6 interior ministry deputies.
An Egyptian court has confirmed the death sentences of 21 Port Said football fans accused of starting deadly riots last year. In a live ruling, the Egyptian court sentenced 5 more people to life in prison and acquitted 28, out of the total 73 defendants. The 21 death sentences given out after the outcome of an earlier trial on January 28th sparked protests across the country. Egyptian protesters torched buildings in Cairo and unsuccessfully tried to disrupt international shipping in the Suez Canal, after the outcome of last Sunday’s trial. The rioting crowds were especially angered by the 28 people acquitted on Sunday, who many of the protesters wanted to see punished. Out of the 28 acquitted, 7 were members of the police force, known for its brutality under former President Mubarak.
Egypt’s Interior Ministry told police in the Sinai Peninsula to declare a state of emergency after they obtained intelligence that jihadists might be operating there. According to the news agency MENA “the Minister of Interior has raised the level of emergency in North and South Sinai after receiving information that jihadist groups intended to attack police buildings there.” The concerns stem from an incident last August where an lslamist gunman killed 15 Egyptian policemen on the border of Egypt and Israel. President Morsi has pledged to get a grip on the spreading violence in Egypt, but so far has struggled to successfully do so.
Thousands of Egyptian security officers went on strike last week in cities around the country in protest against conflicting pressures from the government to crack down on demonstrators. This revolt marks a new complication in the now three way struggle against the Egyptian government. The first wave of police rebellions took place on Tuesday March 5th when 2,000 officers in the town of Ismailia refused to deploy for crowd control on Port Said. By Thursday, the number of rebelling officers reached an estimated 10,000 across the country.
Last Thursday Egypt’s electoral commission cancelled dates planned for the Parliamentary elections which were scheduled to begin in April. The dates were cancelled after the court ruled that the electoral law backed by President Morsi needed to be reviewed first by the Supreme Constitutional Court for conformity to the constitution. President Morsi commented later that he respected the ruling and that an appeal was unlikely.
After launching Palestinian only buses, Israel has been accused of encouraging racial segregation. Since early last week Palestinians travelling from the West Bank to their day jobs in Israel have been urged to use special buses at checkpoints, instead of regular buses. The idea was proposed by the Israeli transport ministry after two Jewish residents of the West Bank complained that Palestinian travellers on the Trans-Samaria road between the West Bank and Tel Aviv posed a potential threat. The ministry commented on the separation saying it was, “designed to improve the service for Palestinians entering Israel.” Human rights groups although have called it, “blatant racism.” The transport ministry has reported that there is no official ban on Palestinian workers travelling on public busses. According to official figures, roughly 29,000 Palestinians commute to jobs outside of the West Bank everyday.
Palestinian Finance Minister, Nabil Qassis announced his resignation on Sunday after saying that the government has failed to address a gaping budget deficit. In an interview explaining his reasons for quitting Qassuis said, “no decision had been taken to lower deficit substantially, and on the contrary it is growing ahead of ratifying the (2013) budget.” The Palestinian Authority is in a financial crisis caused by lack of foreign aid, tensions with Israel and expanding public sector payrolls. In the last few months, the authority has failed to pay the full salaries of 160,000 employees.
Last week prosecutors unsealed an indictment against the son-in-law of Osama bin Laden that charged him with conspiracy to kill Americans. Suleiman Abu Ghaith, a militant who appeared in videos representing al Qaeda after 9/11 was initially picked up in Turkey and was brought to the United States in an operation led by Jordanian authorities and the FBI. He was deported by the Turkish government to Jordan, where local authorities and the FBI took custody of him. US Attorney General Eric Holder announced the indictment saying he would be arraigned in a US District Court in Lower Manhattan. The decision to deal with Abu Ghaith in the US federal justice system, rather than a military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay is because of commitments made by the Obama administration, “our policy is that we will prosecute whenever feasible in the national security interests of the United States.”
Jordan’s Parliament has voted for the first time to allow the Prime Minister to assemble a new cabinet. This will be the first time in history that Jordan’s head of government will not be decided by the the King. Abdullah Ensour, a liberal legislator was selected on Saturday as part of a reform programme aimed at diffusing political unrest. King Abdullah II formally confirmed Ensour’s appointment as new Prime Minister with a 4 year term.
Syrian opposition fighters captured the north-eastern city of Raqqa. The fall of Raqqa on the Euphrates River marks the first time that rebels have been able to hold claim to a provisional capital. Government forces are still operating out of a Syrian military intelligence compound outside the city, but anti- Assad fighters have successfully surrounded the complex. The civil war burst into neighbouring Iraq, where officials reported that some 48 Syrians, most of them soldiers, and 9 Iraqi soldiers were killed in an attack near the western town of Ar Rutbah. The Syrian army convoy was ambushed by gunmen using roadside bombs and machine guns. Al Qaeda is taking responsibility for the attack reaffirming the concerns that the civil war in Syria is now spilling over into Iraq. An Iraqi advisor to Prime Minister al-Maliki commented that “from the beginning, we have warned that some militant groups want to move the conflict in Syria to Iraq…Militant groups are very active on the border between Iraq and Syria.”
Syrian rebels have also successfully captured most of the police academies in the northern city of Aleppo. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that 200 troops and rebels were killed after 8 days of fighting. The seizing of the academy came as opposition leader, Mouaz al-Khatib, visited the rebel-held areas in the outskirts of Aleppo. The trip by the leader of the Syrian National Coalition was intended to help strengthen ties between the main opposition coalition and rebels fighting inside the country.
The UN reported that 21 Filipino peacekeepers were captured in Syria near the Israeli occupied Golan Heights by 30 fighters linked to armed opposition groups. Several videos since the kidnapping were posted online showing footage of the group, with one of the peacekeepers saying they were not in danger. The rebels holding them have been identified as members of the “Martyrs of Yarmouk Brigade.” Abu Essam, a member of the rebel group released a statement saying that “ they will be passed to safe hands when possible – because the area is surrounded and the Assad regime is bombarding it.” Rebels went to keep their promise and released them shortly after to Jordanian forces. The peacekeepers arrived “well and unharmed” said a spokesperson.
Rebel forces staged a surprise attack on the Syrian army in the district of Baba Amr in the city of Homs. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights Director, Rami Abdel Rahman, who is in contact with the rebels reported that “at dawn the rebels launched a surprise attack on Baba Amr, which they have entered.”
20 young bodies of men shot by security forces were discovered in a small river flowing through the city of Aleppo. This has been the largest number of bodies lifted in a single day from what has been called the “river of martyrs.” 65 bodies were recovered from the same river back in late January. There has been no official comment from the Syrian government, but state funded TV have blamed al-Qaeda linked rebel brigade al-Nusra Front.
The Syrian opposition has yet again postponed their meeting to form a provisional government. The Syrian National Coalition was supposed to meet to elect a provisional Prime Minister on March 12th but has rescheduled for March 20th. The coalition according to a leading member, Kamal al-Labwani was split over the merits of forming a new government. Some members want to wait and see if UN mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi’s, efforts to form a transitional government as part of a political compromise is successful. Other members want to form a government immediately to prevent any compromise that could allow Assad to remain in power.
The UN refugee agency has reported that the number of Syrian refugees has reached the million mark. Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said “with a million people in flight, millions more displaced internally, and thousands of people continuing to cross the boarder everyday, Syria is spiralling towards full-scale disaster. We are doing everything we can to help, but the international humanitarian response capacity is dangerously stretched. This tragedy has to be stopped.” The UNHCR has reported that the one million figure is comprised of both registered figures and those who are waiting registration.
Written by ICSR Research Intern Mildred Conroy