Weekly News 25 February – 1 March 2019 | Mediterranean Affairs


Monday, 25 February 2019

Algeria: Algeria’s prime minister on Monday insisted voters would determine if ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika gets a fifth term at the ballot box, after major protests against his candidacy. Tens of thousands of people on Friday took to the streets, including in the capital Algiers where demonstrators are forbidden to vent their ire at Bouteflika’s bid to extend his 20 years in power at elections in April. Presidential polls “will take place in less than two months, and everyone will make their choice freely”, Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia said in televised comments that were the first official reaction to the protests. “Everyone has the right to support their candidate and be against any other candidate, the ballot box will decide in a peaceful and civilised way.” (Al Jazeera)

Russia: Russian state television has listed US military facilities that Moscow would target in the event of a nuclear strike, and said that a hypersonic missile Russia is developing would be able to hit them in less than five minutes. The targets included the Pentagon and the presidential retreat in Camp David, Maryland. The report, unusual even by the sometimes bellicose standards of Russian state TV, was broadcast on Sunday evening (24 February), days after President Vladimir Putin said Moscow was militarily ready for a “Cuban Missile”-style crisis if the United States wanted one. With tensions rising over Russian fears that the United States might deploy intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe as a Cold War-era arms-control treaty unravels, Putin has said Russia would be forced to respond by placing hypersonic nuclear missiles on submarines near US waters. (Euractiv)

UK: Food shortages. Major disruption to trade. At least $17 billion in new costs for business. Big trouble for small companies. These are the potential consequences of a disorderly Brexit, according to an analysis published Tuesday by the UK government that concludes the country is nowhere near ready to leave the European Union on March 29 without a transitional deal. In its analysis, the government admits it’s on track to complete only two-thirds of its “most critical” preparation projects. Many companies and individuals are even less ready for an abrupt rupture with the European Union next month. (CNN)

Egypt: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has defended his country’s widely criticised human rights record and told European nations not to lecture the Arab world. “You are not going to teach us about humanity,” said Sisi at a press conference after a European Union-Arab League summit ended on Monday. He told reporters that Europeans “have your rules ethic and values. We respect yours. You should respect ours”. Sisi said Europe is prosperous while many Arab countries struggle simply to prevent conflicts. He was applauded by local media after his remarks. EU leaders have avoided publicly criticising Egypt even amid an unprecedented crackdown on dissent and a recent spike in executions. (Al Jazeera)

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

France: Thirteen French citizens accused of fighting for the Islamic State group are to be tried in Iraq rather than face charges back home in France. Iraqi President Barham Saleh said the 13 were handed over by Syrian Kurdish forces last month. French President Emmanuel Macron declined to comment, saying it was a sovereign matter for Iraq. The news comes as several Western countries struggle with the fate of alleged militants returning from Syria. (BBC)

France, Germany: the two countries tabled a joint proposal to establish a new “eurozone budgetary instrument” that would support national reforms and investments in the single currency bloc. The plan is far from France’s initial ambition to introduce a dedicated budget for the eurozone. Still, it risks running into opposition as part of its funding would come from fresh national contributions, in addition to the EU’s regular budget. (Euractiv)

Syria, Iran: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met Iranian officials in his first visit to the Islamic Republic since the start of the Syrian conflict, Syrian state media reported. Assad met Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani on his first trip to Iran since the war erupted nearly eight years ago. Assad has only ventured outside his war-ravaged nation twice since the conflict began, both times to Russia. Syrian and Iranian media released photos showing Assad, in a dark suit, in an embrace with Khamenei and shaking hands with Rouhani, both of them smiling, the two leaders agreed “to continue cooperation at all levels for the interests of the two friendly nations.” (Al jazeera)

Yemen: UN aid officials have for the first time in six months reached a vast store of desperately-needed food on the frontline in Yemen’s Hudaydah port. The Red Sea Mills facility holds enough grain to feed 3.7 million people for a month, but the UN had warned the grain was at risk of rotting. UN Secretary General António Guterres announced that a World Food Programme evaluation mission had been able to reach the Red Sea Mills at the start of an aid pledging conference in Geneva on Tuesday. (BBC)

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

Egypt: At least 20 people have been killed and 50 injured after a train smashed into a barrier at Cairo’s main train station, state television and witnesses have said. Photographs on social media showed clouds of black smoke billowing from the building in central Cairo. Footage also showed fire engulfing the train and a nearby platform and people rushing to help the injured. Ambulances and rescue teams have been dispatched to the site, medical sources said. Egypt’s National Railway Authority confirmed the accident, saying several people were killed and injured. (Al Jazeera)

Iran: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s resignation took many by surprise. “I warmly apologise for my inability to continue serving [the nation] and for all the shortcomings and negligences during the period of service,” he wrote in a post on his official Instagram account. The short resignation letter was posted at night as if to deliberately make it harder for President Hassan Rouhani to dismiss it before the news would set in and thus present him with a fait accompli. Rouhani expectedly rejected the resignation, but this is unlikely to salvage his cabinet from the deepening crisis it has descended into. Zarif’s resignation is a symptom of a larger malaise currently afflicting the Islamic Republic. (Al Jazeera)

Palestine: Israeli military police have detained the Palestinian governor of Jerusalem, during overnight raids in which more than thirty people were arrested in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Adnan Ghaith, who was last detained by Israeli forces late last year, was arrested when police stormed his home in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Silwan. The spate of arrests follows weeks of escalating tensions around al-Aqsa Mosque, where Palestinians have been holding protests over restricted access and feared changes to the status quo. Also arrested in the West Bank was Zakaria Zubeidi, a leading member of Fatah Revolutionary Council. The two men are among a total of 33 Palestinians arrested overnight across Jerusalem and the West Bank. (Middle East Eye)

France: French sports goods chain Decathlon has cancelled plans to sell a sports version of the Muslim headscarf in France after politicians, including a minister, threatened a boycott. Xavier Rivoire, Decathlon’s head of communications, told the RTL broadcaster on Tuesday that the decision was taken “to ensure the safety and security of our own teams”. The company had earlier written on Twitter that it had suffered an “unprecedented wave of insults and threats” over the product. Decathlon initially responded by saying that the hijab was “a requirement of certain runners, and we are therefore responding to this sporting requirement”. But later Rivoire told RTL: “We are effectively taking the decision to not sell this product in France for now.” (Al Jazeera)

Yemen: Saudi-led coalition airstrikes killed 30 people, including 22 children, in a rebel-held area in northwestern Yemen on Thursday, according to the Houthi-controlled Health Ministry.  Four families were evacuating their homes in a vehicle when the airstrikes hit, according to Houthi-owned media. Earlier coalition airstrikes on Wednesday killed four people and injured two, according to two surviving family members who preferred to remain anonymous for security reasons. Thursday’s airstrikes hit al-Duraihmi district, some 20 kilometers from the Red Sea city of Hodeidah, the latest flashpoint in Yemen’s ongoing war. The International Rescue Committee said airstrikes in al-Duraihmi city on Wednesday killed 13 people. (CNN)

Thursday, 28 February 2019

Saudi Arabia: Senior White House adviser Jared Kushner met Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Tuesday for the first time since the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The talks in the Saudi capital Riyadh, part of Kushner’s tour of the Middle East, focused on ways of “increasing cooperation” between the United States and Saudi Arabia as well as efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Al Jazeera)

Israel: More than 250 Palestinians were killed and 26,000 injured since weekly “Great March of Return” protests began in March 2018 at the Gaza border. The UN new report said that the killing of largely unarmed protesters “may constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity”. (Middle East Eye)

Algeria: A dozen journalists rallying against alleged censorship of protests against Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika were arrested in Algiers on Thursday. The journalists were participating in a 100-person strong protest against what they said were state-backed efforts to muzzle coverage of demonstrations against Bouteflika running for a new presidential term. On Thursday, some 100 journalists, both from print and online, congregated in central Algiers, railing against apparent reporting restrictions. The journalists, who work for both state-owned and private outlets, said they have been unable to carry out their work properly since protests broke out on Friday. (Middle East Eye)

UK: The European Union will not match the UK government’s decision to guarantee the rights of EU nationals in the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit, and a Commission spokesperson insisted on Thursday (28 February) that the bloc would not negotiate ‘mini deals’. On Wednesday, UK MPs voted to guarantee the rights of EU nationals after 29 March, when the UK is due to leave the EU, unanimously supporting an amendment by former ministerial aide Alberto Costa. (Euractiv)

Palestine: A prominent Palestinian lawmaker was released from Israel’s Damon prison after 20 months in administrative detention without charges, local media reported. Khalida Jarrar, 56, is a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). She is also a well-known human rights and feminist activist. Jarrar was released in the early hours of Wednesday at the Salem checkpoint in the district of Jenin in the West Bank. (Middle East Eye)

Hungaria: The European Commission reacted strongly on Thursday (28 February) to a new anti-immigration campaign launched by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán earlier this week by saying it “distorts the truth”, and by refuting most of its points. Commission spokesperson Mina Andreeva said the college of commissioners had discussed the Hungarian migration campaign at their weekly meeting on Wednesday. The Hungarian press reported that Orbán had written a “letter” to his compatriots, saying that “Brussels has learned nothing from the terrible terrorist attacks of recent years and wants to bring more immigrants to Europe”. (Euractiv)

Friday, 1 March 2019

Saudi Arabia: Hamza bin Laden, the son of former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, has been stripped of citizenship by Saudi Arabia. The country’s interior ministry announced the move in a statement after the US state department said on Thursday it was offering a reward of up to $1m for information leading “to the identification or location in any country” of Hamza, calling him a key al-Qaeda leader. The ministry said his citizenship was revoked via royal decree in November. There was no explanation why the order was only made public now. (The Independent)

Europe: The coming EU elections posed “a real risk” of a spike in xenophobic violence, Italy’s security services have said, but Italy’s prime minister ignored the warning. Gennaro Vecchione, the head of the Department of Information for Security (DIS), highlighted the threat in his presentation of an annual report in Rome alongside Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte on Thursday (28 February). Neo-fascist groups had shown “a pronounced vitality” in the past year, it noted. It came amid a spike in xenophobic hate speech that “focused on the opposition to migration” and contained an “accent of strong intolerance towards foreigners” – in developments likely to intensify ahead of the European Parliament (EP) vote, it added. (Eu Observer)

Israel: Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Thursday called for Prime Minister Netanyahu to face charges in all three of the open corruption investigations into his activities, hours after the High Court rejected a last-ditch attempt by the Likud party to scupper his recommendations until after the April 9 elections. The indictments recommended by Mandelblit will be subject to a hearing beforehand. (Yediot Ahronot)

Sudan: President Omar al-Bashir quit his position as chairman of the ruling party after more than two months of protests against his nearly three-decade rule, the party said. According to a party statement released on Friday, al-Bashir delegated his powers as chairman of the National Congress Party to its deputy chairman, Ahmed Harun, until the party’s next general conference. No date has been set for the conference. Local media quoted Harun as saying al-Bashir took this step in order to “devote himself to the national tasks” as the country’s leader. (Al Jazeera)