Weekly News 18 February – 22 February 2019


Monday, 18 February 2019

Egypt: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi refused to speak in the same room as the emir of Qatar at the Munich Security Conference in Germany on Sunday. With the event well underway, Sisi threw his hosts into a state of “inconvenience and confusion” when he made a last minute request to change the time and place of his speech to avoid the emir. In June 2017, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain cut diplomatic relations with Qatar over allegations that Doha supports terrorism, a rift which has continued until now. World leaders gather annually for the conference to discuss security and terrorism challenges facing their countries and the world. (Middle East Eye)

Spain: The EU, just like the markets, is ruling out a financial or budget meltdown as a result of the snap election announced in Spain for April 28. But Brussels is afraid that the euro zone’s fourth-largest economy could be affected by the same kind of political instability seen for years in Italy, which is currently led by a populist and euro-skeptic government. The risk of seeing Spain follow in Italy’s footsteps is creating apprehension among EU institutions, which view Spain as one of the few member states that supports European integration and remains free of extremist parties. Brussels made a point of underscoring Madrid’s commitment to EU rules as opposed to the constant putdowns by the Italian vice-presidents, Luigi di Maio and Matteo Salvini. But eight months later and with Spain now poised to hold its third general election in four years, the differences with Italy are not quite as obvious to Brussels. (El País)

France: The question of setting migration quotas in France has come back to the forefront through the ‘great debate’ initiated by Emmanuel Macron. Within the national ‘great debate’, a two month series of public meetings initiated by the French President in the wake of the ‘yellow vest’ crisis, the question of setting migration quotas has been put back on the table. (Euractiv)

Israel: Aiming to become the fourth country to make a soft landing on the moon, Israel’s non-profit SpaceIL has announced it will launch a spacecraft from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Thursday on board a Falcon 9 rocket. The unmanned craft, weighing 1,300 pounds and standing approximately five feet tall, will then begin an about seven-week journey to the moon, from where it will send back images of the rocky surface and conduct experiments on the lunar magnetic field. The spacecraft is called “Beresheet,” a reference to the first words of the Bible in Hebrew: “In the beginning…” (CNN)

Spain: Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Barcelona on Saturday to protest against the Supreme Court trial of 12 separatist leaders who are facing charges for their involvement in the illegal independence referendum on October 1, 2017, and the unilateral declaration of independence that was passed in parliament a few weeks later. According to the Civil Guard, around 200,000 protesters took part in the demonstration in the Catalan capital, but organizers put the figure as high as 500,000. According to estimates from the Civil Guard, it was the biggest pro-independence demonstration since last year’s Diada, or Catalan National Day, on September 11. (El País)

Yemen: About 20,000 migrants, mostly from Ethiopia, attempt the journey along this ancient and increasingly deadly route through Yemen’s war zone each month, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). They all risk deportation if they come to the attention of the police. Many are unaware of the war in Yemen, the bombs, bullets, mortars, and mines. They are unaware of the dangers of the crossing, and the bodies that wash up on Djibouti and Yemen’s shores. They trudge, exhausted, along the desolate winding road to Obock in northern Djibouti, flanked on either side by a black, alien landscape created millennia ago by volcanic eruptions. “Ethiopia is broken,” one of the young men says of his homeland. He is traveling in a group of four from Jimma, in southwest Ethiopia, each carrying nothing but a bottle of water. (CNN)

Sudan: Nearly 2,000 workers at Port Sudan have gone on strike in the Sudanese city of the same name, amid ongoing discontent over a deal with a Philippine port operator. The strike at the port’s southern container terminal kicked off on Monday following the agreement with the Philippine’s International Container Terminal Services Inc (ICTSI), port employees and a union official told the news agency. Work at the terminal was suspended on Monday morning. The strike began as the Sudanese prime minister visited the port in an attempt to stem opposition to the deal. Othman Taher, head of an opposition trade union, said 1,800 workers participated in the strike, he told AFP. The workers are demanding that plans to privatise the port be scrapped, he said. (Middle East Eye)

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Spain: Vox, a Spanish far-right party that recently gained parliamentary representation in the southern region of Andalusia, is trying to extend its successful strategy ahead of local, regional and national elections due to be held in the spring. After securing 12 seats in Andalusia on December 2 on a pro-Spanish unity and anti-immigration message, Vox got an early start on its campaign for regional and municipal elections in Madrid with a Sunday rally in Torrejón de Ardoz. (El País)

France: Mass rallies are planned in Paris and other French cities Tuesday (19 February) to denounce a flare-up of anti-Semitic acts which culminated in a violent tirade against a prominent writer during “yellow vest” anti-government protests last weekend. Political leaders of all stripes called the rallies after a protester was caught on video calling the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut a “dirty Zionist” and telling him that “France belongs to us.” (Euractiv)

Italy: An Italian far-right party is aiming to change the national constitution as a means to reduce the influence of EU law over national legislation. The party Brothers of Italy (FDI) submitted to the House of Representatives a draft law which vies to remove all obligations to EU legislation, which in the party’s view, amounts to achieving true independence. (Euractiv)

UK: A new schism opened up in British politics on Monday when seven lawmakers staged a dramatic walkout from Britain’s opposition Labour Party, denouncing its handling of a wave of anti-Semitism and a “betrayal” on Brexit. The seven Members of Parliament, many of them long-standing figures in the party, said variously that Labour was racist, had betrayed its working-class roots and was a threat to national security. (CNN)

Syria: After years of people fleeing Syria and its civil war, there are now long queues to enter the country each day. Jordan opened its Jaber border crossing last October after Syrian government troops defeated rebels who had controlled the other side. Now several thousand people pass through each day. They include small-scale merchants reviving cross-border trade and returning Syrian refugees who hope to rebuild their lives. (BBC)

Italy: Members of Italy’s ruling governing party the 5-Star Movement voted on Monday to block a possible kidnapping trial against Matteo Salvini, its coalition ally and leader of the hard-right League party. The online ballot is meant to dictate how 5-Star senators should vote on Tuesday in a parliamentary committee reviewing whether magistrates can continue a probe into Salvini, who is also interior minister and deputy prime minister. 5-Star said on its website that 59 percent of its members had voted to protect Salvini – a result that will help defuse tensions within the government. The contested case has sown division within 5-Star, which has built its support on pledges to bring transparency to Italian politics and has traditionally denounced parliamentary maneuvering to halt judicial proceedings against lawmakers. (Reuters)

Saudi Arabia: Saudi Arabia has said it will work to de-escalate tensions between India and Pakistan, ahead of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s arrival in Delhi. The prince, known as MBS, is on a tour of Asia and has just visited Pakistan. Hostilities between Delhi and Islamabad flared last week, after a suicide bombing in the India-administered part of Kashmir killed at least 40 paramilitary police. (BBC)

Syria: In a tiny sliver of land along the Euphrates River in northern Syria, about 300 battle-hardened ISIL fighters are making a last stand, with just a “few days” remaining for the group’s total military defeat, according to US-backed Kurdish forces battling the fighters. But US President Donald Trump – even while hailing an impending “100 percent victory” – has issued a threat that, if executed, could help the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group rise once again. In a flurry of tweets on Sunday, Trump demanded that his European allies “take back over 800 ISIS fighters we captured in Syria and put them on trial”. The slow-rolling crisis over foreign ISIL prisoners in Syria has taken on a new urgency, analysts say, because of Trump’s recent vow to pull US troops out of Syria. (Al Jazeera)

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Vatican City: Pope Francis has summoned senior bishops from all over the world to Rome for a landmark meeting on sexual abuse. From Thursday to Sunday, 190 Catholic leaders, including 10 women, will gather in the Italian capital at the pope’s request; the event marks the first time in history that a pope has called senior bishops to discuss sexual abuse. Scandals have struck the Catholic Church for decades, with pressure increasing after journalistic and judicial investigations revealed patterns of sexual abuse and cover-ups. Further cases in 2018 heightened the crisis – some senior bishops have said the issue puts the very credibility of the Catholic Church at stake. (Al Jazeera)

Germany: The Foreign Secretary has written to the German government to ask it to start selling arms to Saudi Arabia again, after the country halted exports due to concerns about human rights. Jeremy Hunt said he was concerned about the impact the recently imposed embargo would have on arms manufacturers’ balance sheets. Germany has joined other EU countries including Denmark and Finland in ending arms sales in the wake of of evidence of war crimes being committed by Saudi coalition forces in Yemen. Human rights groups say Saudi warplanes have bombed schools, hospitals, weddings, and food factories – contributing to 13 million civilians facing starvation and “the worst famine in 100 years” according to the United Nations. (The Independent)

Russia: Vladimir Putin has promised to target more missiles at the US if America deploys new weapons to Europe in the wake of Washington’s withdrawal from a key arms pact.

The US has repeatedly accused Russia of violating the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) deal by developing banned weapons and earlier this month Donald Trump confirmed America was leaving the treaty. But speaking today, Putin said this was based on ‘far-fetched accusations’ and warned Russia would have to deploy missiles targeting ‘decision-making centres’ if new US missiles are sent to Europe. Putin said U.S. policy-makers, some of whom he said were obsessed with U.S. exceptionalism, should calculate the risks before taking any steps. He also warned Russia will deploy a new hypersonic missile for its navy as part of efforts to counter what he described as hostile U.S. moves. (Daily Mail)

Saudi Arabia: The US is rushing to transfer sensitive nuclear power technology to Saudi Arabia. A Democratic-led House panel has launched an inquiry over concerns about the White House plan to build nuclear reactors across the kingdom. Whistleblowers told the panel it could destabilise the Middle East by boosting nuclear weapons proliferation. Firms linked to the president have reportedly pushed for these transfers. President Donald Trump met nuclear power developers at the White House on 12 February to discuss building plants in Middle Eastern nations, including Saudi Arabia. And Mr Trump’s son-in-law, White House adviser Jared Kushner, will be touring the Middle East this month to discuss the economics of the Trump administration’s peace plan. (BBC)

Germany: Germany will only take back Islamic State foreign fighters and their families if they can prove their identities and they do not pose a serious security threat, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has said. “In the interest of the security of our country, the German government must set out conditions for the return of former IS fighters who have German citizenship” he told the Wednesday edition of the Süddeutsche Zeitung. German authorities would also need to review each individual case before anyone boarded a plane for Germany, to find out whether the former fighters are wanted in another country. (Deutsche Welle)

Russia: Russia’s parliament has voted to ban soldiers from using smartphones while on duty, after their social media use raised issues of national security. The bill forbids military personnel from using a phone with the ability to take pictures, record videos and access the internet. Soldiers also cannot write about the military or talk to journalists. \More than 400 of 450 lawmakers in Russia’s lower house of parliament, the Duma, backed the law on Tuesday. Phones with basic calling and messaging facilities could still be used, but tablets and laptops would also subject to the new ban. (BBC)

Thursday, 21 February 2019

France: Emmanuel Macron, the French president, is to recognise anti-Zionism, the denial of the state of Israel, as a form of anti-Semitism in response to a surge in acts against Jews not seen “since the Second World War”. He also promised new legislation in May to fight hate speech on the Internet, which could see platforms such as Facebook and Twitter fined for every minute they fail to take down racist or violent content. Speaking at the annual meeting of France’s largest Jewish organization, CRIF, Mr Macron said that France and other countries in Europe had recently witnessed “a resurgence of anti-Semitism that is probably unprecedented since World War II.” (The Telegraph)

Egypt: Three men who were executed in Cairo on Wednesday had previously testified in court that they were tortured and forced to confess to the killing of Egypt’s former prosecutor general, Hisham Barakat. In a video of the trial from August 2016, Mahmoud el-Ahmady, Abulqasim Youssef and Abubakr Ali told an Egyptian court hearing that they had been pressured to confess to a crime they did not commit and that their bodies still had marks of torture on them. El-Ahmady was not the only one who recounted his treatment in the courtroom that day. Youssef, 25, a former student at al-Azhar University, said he was subjected to “the most brutal forms of torture” during his interrogations. On Wednesday, Amnesty International decried the executions of el-Ahmady, Youssef and Ali, and six other co-defendants in the case, saying it demonstrated Egypt’s “absolute disregard for the right to life”. (Middle East Eye)

Israel: Israel’s primary centrist challengers to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have announced they are joining forces, a dramatic move that has created the first credible alternative to Netanyahu’s decade-long rule. Recent polls suggest that together, the two could surpass Netanyahu’s ruling Likud to become Israel’s largest faction after the April 9 vote. (Al Jazeera)

Algeria: Leaders from Algeria’s diverse opposition parties have failed to agree on a joint candidate to face incumbent President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in the April 18 presidential election. A five-hour meeting on Wednesday, organised by the Islamist Justice and Development Front party (MRN), ended with participants unable to choose a candidate to take on Bouteflika, who has been in power since 1999. Other attendees included Abderrazak Makri, leader of the Islamist Movement of Society for Peace (MSP), former Prime Ministers Ali Benflis and Ahmed Benbitour as well as a plethora of other smaller parties. A joint statement reiterated the need to overcome political differences and field a single candidate but said the representatives needed time to consult their party hierarchies. The group also lauded protests that have taken place in different cities across the country, saying they “reflected the people’s awareness.” (Al Jazeera)

Albania: Albania’s centre-right opposition said Monday (18 February) its MPs would resign from parliament, the latest in a series of dramatic protests against Prime Minister Edi Rama, who they accuse of corruption. “The deputies of the Democratic Party but also its allies have decided to resign from their positions,” announced Lulzim Basha, the leader of the main opposition Democratic Party. “This government has manipulated the results of the June 2017 legislative elections and is involved in criminal affairs and corruption,” he added. The opposition has taken a series of dramatic measures to push Rama to resign and call early elections. He has been in power since 2013. (Euractiv)

Jordan: A committee within in Jordan’s parliament called for the expulsion of Israel’s ambassador from the country in response to the latest measures taken by the Israeli army in occupied East Jerusalem. On Monday, Israeli soldiers placed locks and metal chains on al-Rahma gate of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and prevented hundreds of Palestinian worshippers from entering the site, while several were arrested inside the compound. In a statement read to Jordan’s parliament on Tuesday, the Palestine Parliamentary Committee also called for the return of Jordan’s ambassador from Tel Aviv. (Al Jazeera)

Friday, 22 February 2019

Syria: US-backed fighters have transported civilians from the last speck of Islamic State’s dying “caliphate” in Syria, as they press on with the battle to defeat the jihadist group. More than four years after Isis overran large parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq to declare a caliphate, it has lost all but a tiny patch in the village of Baghouz near the Iraqi border. More than 40 trucks carrying men, women and children left the enclave on Friday, according to AFP reporters at a position of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) outside the village. (The Guardian)

Saudi Arabia: Saudi Arabia on Friday signed a wide-ranging set of agreements on energy and trade with China, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman accelerated efforts to court an economic power that offers a potential counterweight to the U.S. Among the deals, Prince Mohammed’s delegation committed to a pact to build a roughly $10 billion petrochemical refinery in northeast China, a joint-venture project first announced in 2017 that would be co-owned by Saudi state-oil company Aramco and two Chinese state-owned enterprises, including China North Industries Corp., according to Aramco. During Prince Mohammed’s stay in China, members of his delegation also signed agreements on energy, investment and counterterrorism. At least 25 Saudi companies participated in an “Invest in Saudi Arabia” business forum in Beijing. (The Wall Street Journal)

Algeria: Hundreds of demonstrators, in defiance of a ban on protests, rallied in the Algerian capital against a bid by ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika for a fifth term in office. The protesters chanted pro-democracy slogans at a rally on Friday in May 1 Square amid a heavy police presence, witnesses said. Security forces cordoned off the square and prevented other protesters from entering it, the witnesses added. “No fifth mandate,” chanted the mostly young demonstrators, many waving Algerian flags, as they started to march through central Algiers. (Al Jazeera)

Syria: President Donald Trump agreed on Thursday to keep about 200 US troops as part of planned multinational force that would maintain a safe zone in Northeastern Syria. This force would be in addition to the 200 troops the US is planning to maintain after the withdrawal at its base in at-Tanf, Syria, the official said. The US and NATO allies are in the process of assembling what officials are calling a “monitoring and observer” force of roughly 800 to 1,500 troops to maintain a safe zone in Northeastern Syria. The goal of the force would be to maintain a buffer between Turkey and US-allied Syrian opposition forces to ensure that neither side carries out attacks on the other. The US initially planned to only provide air support – not ground troops – to the observer force, but NATO allies objected and said they would not contribute troops toward such a mission without a US troop commitment, the official said. (CNN)

Palestine: For the first time in 16 years, Palestinians on Friday prayed at an area by the Al-Rahma gate, located inside East Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque complex. It is a passageway of gates and a stairway leading to a hall that had been closed by Israeli authorities for years and was reopened on Friday by Muslim religious officials. The hall is located a short distance from Al-Aqsa Mosque itself. The Israeli authorities closed the area in 2003. In 2017, an Israeli court upheld the closure order. But on Friday, the Religious Endowments Authority, a Jordan-run agency mandated with overseeing East Jerusalem’s Muslim and Christian holy sites, announced the reopening of the mosque after a 16-year hiatus. (Al Jazeera)