Weekly News 11 March – 15 March 2019 | Mediterranean Affairs


Monday, 11 March 2019

Ethiopia: investigators have found the flight data recorders from an Ethiopian Airlines plane that crashed on Sunday. The devices recovered at the crash site were the Boeing 737 Max 8’s cockpit voice recorder and digital flight data recorder. The plane was en route from Addis Ababa to the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, when it crashed six minutes after take-off, killing all 157 people on board. Several airlines have grounded the Boeing model following the disaster. (BBC)

Turkey: Turkey’s economy fell into its first recession in a decade at the end of last year, official data has shown, as the country heads towards key local elections at the end of the month. Gross domestic product (GDP) in the fourth quarter fell by a seasonally adjusted 2.4 percent compared with the previous three months, the Turkish Statistics Institute said on Monday. The drop followed a contraction of 1.6 percent in the third quarter. (Al Jazeera)

Algeria: President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has said he will not seek a fifth term and delayed the country’s presidential polls amid mass protests against his reelection bid. In a message carried by the official APS news agency on Monday, the 82-year-old also said the elections would follow a national conference on political and constitutional reform to be carried out by the end of 2019. “There will be no presidential election on April 18,” he said in reference to the scheduled date of the vote, adding that he was responding to a “pressing demand that you have been numerous to make”.  (Al Jazeera)

UK: The prime minister has secured “legally binding” changes to her Brexit deal a day ahead of MPs voting on it, says the Cabinet Office minister. David Lidington said the changes will mean the EU “cannot try to trap the UK in the [Irish] backstop indefinitely”. But he said further negotiations are taking place as the PM is still meeting EU officials in Strasbourg. Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer questioned whether any changes had been made to the withdrawal agreement. Replying to Mr Lidington’s statement in the Commons, he said: “People will be disappointed when they look at the detail.” (BBC)

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

UK: British Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to bring her Brexit deal back to Parliament on Tuesday for a second meaningful vote. The last time May put the deal to Parliament on January 16. It suffered a major defeat as 432 MPs voted against it and just 202 supported her plan. The lawmakers forced the prime minister to go back to EU leaders in Brussels to seek changes to the withdrawal agreement, particularly on the so-called “backstop”, the protocol to ensure an open border is maintained in the island of Ireland. May is expected to chair a cabinet meeting on Tuesday morning before the motion is debated in Parliament in the afternoon. A vote would then be held in the evening. (Al Jazeera)

Saudi Arabia: Saudi “government agents” murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year, an annual US State Department report has acknowledged, without identifying the individual perpetrators or assigning responsibility to top Saudi officials.In the document released on Wednesday, Washington accuses Riyadh of a myriad of human rights abuses, including “unlawful killings; executions for nonviolent offenses; forced renditions; forced disappearances and torture of prisoners and detainees”. But Khashoggi, a Saudi government critic and Washington Post columnist, is only mentioned in two paragraphs in the 21,000-word section dedicated to Saudi Arabia. (Middle East Eye)

France, Germany: Tasked with implementing the so-called Aachen Treaty, the binational chamber is set to be launched amidst tense Franco-German relations. On Monday (11 March), the French National Assembly adopted the text enshrining the cooperation between the French and German assemblies. Enhanced cooperation between the legislators of both countries is one of the linchpins of the Aachen Treaty. Signed in Germany on 22 January, the new treaty, designed to strengthen and modernise the Franco-German relationship, has been decried by those on the political extremes and plagued by fake news. The far right claimed that it would ultimately see France handing back Alsace and Lorraine to Germany or that encouraging pupils to learn both languages would end up in the German administration of French regions. (Euractiv)

Iraq: A failed asylum seeker who was arrested by German police in Iraq has gone on trial accused of the rape and murder of a 14-year-old German girl in Wiesbaden. Ali Bashar, 22, admitted in court that he had strangled Susanna Feldman, but said he did not know how it happened. The May 2018 killing prompted outrage in Germany and led Chancellor Angela Merkel to call for faster deportation of failed asylum seekers. The girl’s body was found two weeks after she disappeared. Ali Bashar is also accused of attacking a man in a park and faces a separate trial next week for allegedly raping a girl aged 11. (BBC)

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

UK: Theresa May has suffered a second humiliating defeat on her Brexit deal, as MPs voted it down by a crushing majority of 149, dealing a fresh blow to her shattered authority. With just 17 days to go until the UK is due to leave the EU, backbenchers from both sides of the Brexit divide immediately began manoeuvring to take control of the next steps of the process, in a series of key votes in the coming days. MPs ignored the prime minister’s pleas to “get the deal done” and voted the deal down for a second time, after the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) said it was not convinced by last-minute assurances won from Brussels on Monday. (The Guardian)

Syria: The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) say the battle against the ISIS in Baghouz is as good as over, with the armed group facing imminent defeat. Thick black smoke rose from the ISIS-held encampment on Wednesday, as air strikes and mortar fire pounded Baghouz for a third night in a row. The Kurdish-led SDF has unleashed a deluge of fire on Baghouz, a little cluster of hamlets and farmland on the banks of the Euphrates river, with around 3,000 ISIL fighters and their families surrendering since Monday. (Al Jazeera)

EU, China: Europe dramatically sharpened its political stance against China on Tuesday by slamming Beijing as a “systemic rival” for the first time. In a strategic communication mapping out 10 proposals for dealing with Beijing, the European Commission also slapped down countries such as Italy for aligning too closely with China’s landmark One Belt, One Road program, which promotes Chinese trade via infrastructure running across Asia into Europe. In a departure from its usual softly-softly approach on Beijing, the EU called China “an economic competitor in pursuit of technological leadership and a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance”. (Politico)

Egypt: A transgender activist was given a forced anal examination in Egyptian police custody following her arrest last week and is being held in solitary confinement as authorities refuse to put her in a cell with male or female prisoners, according to her lawyer and a police officer. Rights activists and friends of 19-year-old Malak al-Kashif, who has undergone gender confirmation surgery but is registered as a man by the state, have called for her immediate release. Her treatment, they say, amounts to torture and shows the state’s inability to treat transgender individuals with dignity. (Middle East Eye)

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Cyber-security: Facebook is under criminal investigation by federal prosecutors examining its data-sharing deals with other major technology companies, according to the New York Times. A New York grand jury has subpoenaed records from “at least two prominent makers of smartphones and other devices”, the Times reported, citing two unnamed sources. The two companies are among more than 150, including Amazon, Apple and Microsoft, that have entered into partnerships with Facebook for access to the personal information of hundreds of millions of its users, according to the report. (The Guardian)

Saudi Arabia: Ten women’s rights activists have gone on trial in Saudi Arabia in a case that has raised questions about the kingdom’s human rights record. Those who appeared included Loujain al-Hathloul, a prominent figure in the campaign to win Saudi women the right to drive. She was detained last May. A UK-based Saudi rights organisation, ALQST, said they were charged under the country’s cyber-crimes law. Demands for the women’s release have come from around the world. Last week more than 30 countries at the UN Human Rights Council criticised Saudi Arabia for detaining the women. Scrutiny of human rights in the kingdom has intensified since the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October. (BBC)

UK: MPs have inflicted two more defeats on Theresa May, rejecting the idea of Britain leaving the EU without a deal and clearing the way for Brexit to be delayed. After the prime minister’s deal was heavily voted down for a second time on Tuesday, she announced a government motion ruling out a no-deal Brexit on 29 March – overturning her longstanding policy of refusing to rule it out. May promised MPs a free vote, but the motion was carefully worded, with the final sentence stating that, “leaving without a deal remains the default in UK and EU law unless this house and the EU ratify an agreement”. (The Guardian)

Sudan: Bahrain has sentenced a liberal opposition figure to six months in jail for tweeting criticsm of Sudan’s president who has been facing protests against his rule, rights groups said. Ibrahim Sharif, a founding member of the secular National Democratic Action Society (Waed) party which was dissolved in May last year, was also given a 500-dinar fine ($1,300) by Bahrain’s lower criminal court on Wednesday. Amnesty International said the prosecution was based on a December tweet by Sharif in which he said “get out of here, man” and “the time has come for freedom for the Sudanese and the departure of the dictatorial president”. (Middle East Eye)

Friday, 15 March 2019

New Zealand: Forty-nine people have been killed and at least 20 others injured in shootings at two mosques in New Zealand city of Christchurch in the worst attack in the Pacific country’s history. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told a news conference that the mosque shootings appeared to be a well-planned “terrorist attack”. “This is, and will be, one of New Zealand’s darkest days,” an ashen-faced Ardern said. The prime minister also said two explosive devices attached to suspect vehicles were found and were disarmed. The mosques on target were the Masjid Al Noor in central Christchurch and another one in suburban Linwood (Al Jazeera)

Climate warming: Thousands of schoolchildren worldwide have abandoned classrooms for a day of protest against climate change. India, South Korea, Australia and France are among the countries where teenagers are already on strike. The day of action is expected to embrace about 100 countries. They are inspired by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, who protests weekly outside Sweden’s parliament. (BBC)

Israel: The Israeli army attacked some 100 targets in Gaza Thursday overnight in response to two rockets being fired at Tel Aviv from the Strip the evening before, a first since the 2014 war. According to a preliminary army assessment, the rockets were fired at Tel Aviv by mistake during maintenance work.The army said the Iron Dome missile defense system was activated as a result of the launches. It is assumed that the rockets landed in open areas due to the fact that no damage or injuries were reported. The last time rocket alerts were activated in Tel Aviv was two years ago, in what turned out to be a false alarm. The flare-up comes three weeks before Israel holds its general election on April 9. (Haaretz)

Syria: The death toll in Syria‘s northwestern Idlib province has risen to 15 following Syrian government forces launched air strikes in the rebel-held area, the Syria Civil Defence said on Thursday. Along with artillery barrages, Russian warplanes attacked central Idlib and its rural outskirts with four air raids on Wednesday, resulting in the casualties that included eight children, the Syria Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, said. The attacks, which wounded 49 civilians, targeted the al-Kaseeh neighbourhood, damaging residential buildings, according to the White Helmets, which added that a search-and-rescue operation was under way. (Al Jazeera)

Palestine: Weekly protests along the Gaza-Israel border were called off after Israeli jets pounded the enclave overnight, hours after rockets were launched at Tel Aviv. “In keeping with the public interest, the commission has decided to exceptionally postpone its activities scheduled for this day,” the body which organises the protests said in a statement. Protests will resume in the coming weeks, with particular preparation for the one-year anniversary of their beginning on 30 March, it said. An official from the organising committee, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the protests were delayed “to protect our people due to the escalation and the Israeli aggression”. (Middle East Eye)