Weekly News 4 February – 8 February 2019 | Mediterranean Affairs


Monday, 4 February 2019

Egypt: Fifty mummies dating back to the Ptolemaic era (305-30BC) have been found by Egyptian archaeologists, the antiquities ministry says. The mummies, of which 12 were children, were found in four burial chambers 9m (30ft) deep in the Tuna El-Gebel site in Minya, south of the capital Cairo. (BBC)

UAE: History was made on Sunday when the wheels of Pope Francis’s flight from Rome touched down in Abu Dhabi. The Pope’s first day in the UAE will be a moment for all faiths to meet and build strong relationships based on religious tolerance. (The National)

Palestine: A Palestinian was shot dead and another wounded on Monday near an Israeli checkpoint in the occupied West Bank. A spokesman for the Palestinian Red Crescent, Mahmoud al-Sa’di, said Israeli forces opened fire on two young men who were travelling on a motorcycle near the Jalamah checkpoint in the northern city of Jenin. The two men were transferred to Jenin hospital. One died after being shot in the head with a live round. He was identified by the Palestinian health ministry as 19-year-old Abdullah Tawalba. (Al Jazeera)

Saudi Arabia: Three British politicians have endorsed reports stating that women activists detained in Saudi Arabia have been tortured, and said responsibility for what is likely a violation of international law could lie with “Saudi authorities at the highest level”. (Al Jazeera)

Turkey: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has lashed out at the United States for not taking a tougher position against Saudi Arabia over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, as he demanded answers from the kingdom over the journalist’s killing. “I cannot understand America’s silence when such a horrific attack took place, and even after members of the CIA listened to the recordings we provided,” Erdogan said in an interview on Sunday. (Al Jazeera)

Iraq: President Trump plans to keep United States troops in Iraq to monitor and maintain pressure on neighboring Iran, committing to an American military presence in the region’s war zones even as he moves to withdraw forces from Syria and Afghanistan, said in an interview aired Sunday. Mr. Trump’s comments come as the United States has quietly been negotiating with Iraq for weeks to allow perhaps hundreds of American commandos and support troops now operating in Syria to shift to bases in Iraq and strike the Islamic State from there. But senior American officers and diplomats said Mr. Trump’s comments could undercut the delicate negotiations in Iraq by inflaming fears among the Iraqis that the moves would be a guise to check Iran, potentially straining ties with Baghdad and weakening the ability of the United States to respond to Islamic State remnants in Syria. (The New York Times)

Iraq: Iraqi President Barham Salih has said US President Donald Trump did not ask Iraq’s permission for US troops stationed there to “watch Iran”. Salih was responding on Monday to Trump’s comments to US media in which he said American forces would remain at a US base in Iraq to keep a close eye on neighbouring Iran. The Iraqi leader, speaking at a forum in Baghdad, said US troops in the country are there as part of an agreement between the two countries with a specific mission of combating “terrorism” and that any action taken outside that framework is “unacceptable”. (Al Jazeera)

Denmark: Denmark has deported two Huawei workers after finding they had flouted work and residence permit rules. Police said it was part of a policy of regular checks on companies with large numbers of foreign workers. They said the inspection had nothing to do with the recent controversy surrounding the Chinese telecoms giant. (BBC)

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

EU: Some key European Union nations have recognised Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country’s interim president, heightening a global showdown over President Nicolas Maduro’s rule. The coordinated move by France, Spain, Germany, Britain, Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, Austria and the Netherlands on Monday came a day after the expiry of an eight-day ultimatum for Maduro to call a new election. The European countries urged Guaido to hold free and fair elections as soon as possible. Italy blocked an EU statement saying the group recognised Guaido. (Al Jazeera)

UAE: In a speech given during his historic visit to Abu Dhabi, Pope Francis said that no violence can be justified in the name of religion and must be condemned without hesitation. The head of the Catholic Church and the sovereign of the Vatican was accorded a state welcome to the UAE at a grand ceremony organized at the Presidential Palace in Abu Dhabi. Over 700 attendees, including religious leaders representing 22 faiths, were in Abu Dhabi to mark the event. (Al Arabiya)

UAE: The Pope and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar have launched the Human Fraternity Document calling on people across the globe to unite to bring about inter-faith harmony and spread a vital message of peace. The blueprint to “guide future generations” to advance a “culture of mutual respect” spanning all nationalities, backgrounds and beliefs was signed after Pope Francis and Dr Ahmed Al Tayeb, revered figures in the Catholic and Muslim faiths, met at the Global Conference of Human Fraternity in Abu Dhabi on Monday. (The National)

Syria: Senators from across party lines in the United States have backed an amendment opposing Donald Trump’s plan to pull troops out of Syria and Afghanistan, in a strong rebuke of the Republican president’s decision. The text, which was passed on Monday by a majority of 70 to 26, says the troop withdrawal could allow ISIS and al-Qaeda to re-group and destabilise both countries. The amendment, opposed by only three of the 53 Senate Republicans, will eventually be incorporated into a broader security bill on the Middle East which will be voted on later this week. (Al Jazeera)

France: Eight people including a baby have died in a fire at an eight-storey building in south-western Paris, fire service officials say. Nearly 30 people – including six firefighters – were injured and one person is in a serious condition. Fifty people were evacuated by ladders from the blaze in the upmarket 16th arrondissement. The Paris prosecutor says it may have been deliberately started. Police have detained a female suspect. (BBC)

Saudi Arabia, UAE:  Saudi Arabia and its coalition partner in Yemen, the UAE, transferred US-made weapons to al-Qaeda-linked groups and a Salafi militia whose commander who once “served with” the Yemeni branch of ISIS, a CNN investigation has found. Corroborating an earlier report by Al Jazeera, the CNN investigation said that the weapons had also made their way into the hands of Houthi rebels, in Yemen, who are battling against the coalition for control of the country.  (Al Jazeera)

Syria: Senators from across party lines in the United States have backed an amendment opposing Donald Trump’s plan to pull troops out of Syria and Afghanistan, in a strong rebuke of the Republican president’s decision. The text, which was passed on Monday by a majority of 70 to 26, says the troop withdrawal could allow ISIS and al-Qaeda to re-group and destabilise both countries. The amendment, opposed by only three of the 53 Senate Republicans, will eventually be incorporated into a broader security bill on the Middle East which will be voted on later this week. (Al Jazeera)

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Egypt: the Parliament has given its preliminary approval of the changes after two-thirds of the general committee endorsed the proposed amendments on Tuesday. The 596-seat assembly, which is packed with Sisi supporters, will take a final vote on February 17, but the amendments would also need to be put to a national referendum. Abdel-Aziz el-Husseini, a senior leader in the Karama (Dignity) Party, said on Wednesday that 11 parties met the previous day and declared their opposition to the proposed changes.The group established a “union for the defence of the Constitution”, which includes secular and left-leaning parties and MPs, he added. (Al Jazeera)

UK: Brexiteers with no plan of how to deliver on their exit plans deserve a “special place in hell”, EU Council President Donald Tusk said on Wednesday, sparking a new war of words with UK politicians bent on leaving the bloc this March. Tusk told reporters in Brussels after a meeting with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar. In his comments, Tusk reaffirmed the position of the EU-27 that the Withdrawal Agreement was “not open for renegotiation”. (Euractiv)

Israel: The foreign ministry has reactivated a “virtual embassy” aimed at promoting dialogue with the Gulf countries. First launched in mid-2013, the embassy had been active on Twitter for less than a year before going offline in early 2014. “We are pleased to announce the relaunch of ‘Israel in the Gulf’ page which aims to promote dialogue between Israel and the Gulf nations,” the ministry said on Tuesday. (Al Jazeera)

Greece, Turkey: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras stressed Tuesday they planned to resolve disputes between their two countries through dialogue. Tsipras, in his second visit to Turkey as Greek premier in four years, met with the Turkish leader at the vast presidential palace on the outskirts of the capital Ankara. Greece and Turkey have a fraught history going back centuries with disputes over maritime borders and the 1974 division of Cyprus. (Euractiv)

Macedonia: Nato states have signed an agreement with Macedonia, clearing the way for the Balkan nation to become the military alliance’s 30th member. Each Nato member will now need to ratify the accession protocol. (BBC)

EU: When plans for a summit between the European Union and the Arab League were first hatched last year, it was envisioned as the start of a new friendship across the Mediterranean. But after the murder of a journalist in a Saudi consulate last October, European officials helping to prepare for the Feb. 24-25 summit in Egypt say they are now focused mainly on limiting the awkwardness. (Euractiv)

Thursday, 7 February 2019

UK: Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker have described their talks on changing the Brexit deal as “robust but constructive”, in a joint statement. The European Commission President stressed the withdrawal agreement could not be changed, as the UK PM wants. But he said the EU was open to adding words to the non-binding future relations document that goes with it. The two leaders agreed to meet for further talks before the end of February. The EU and UK Brexit negotiating teams are, meanwhile, set to resume their talks to find out “whether a way through can be found that would gain the broadest possible support in the UK Parliament and respect the guidelines agreed by the European Council”. (BBC)

France: France blamed what it called called baseless verbal attacks from Italy’s political leaders, which it said were “without precedent since world war two”. In a statement, the French foreign office said: “For several months, France has been the target of repeated, baseless attacks and outrageous statements.” It added: “Having disagreements is one thing but manipulating the relationship for electoral aims is another.” This week Di Maio met leaders of the gilets jaunes and said: “The wind of change has crossed the Alps.” Macron said the comment was an unacceptable “provocation”. Paris has taken the extraordinary step of recalling its ambassador from Rome in the worst crisis between the two neighbouring countries since the second world war. (The Guardian)

Syria: Isis will have lost all the territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria by next week, Donald Trump has claimed. The president made the statement during a gathering of coalition partners on Wednesday, where he maintained his promise to withdraw US troops from Syria. “It should be formally announced sometime, probably next week, that we will have 100 per cent of the caliphate,” Mr Trump said. (The Independent)

France: After almost three months of protests, France’s yellow-vest movement, which rejected any formal leadership or political affiliation, has split over the question of whether to enter electoral politics. This citizens’ movement has already forced President Emmanuel Macron’s first policy climb-down. So far, five separate groups have emerged with plans to contest upcoming elections – either the European parliamentary elections in May, or the French local elections next year. (BBC)

Friday, 8 February 2019

Morocco: Morocco has suspended its participation in the Saudi Arabia-led military coalition’s fight against Yemen’s Houthi rebels, government officials have said. Speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak publicly about the diplomatic tensions, two officials told the Associated Press news agency on Thursday that Rabat had also recalled its ambassador to the kingdom. The officials did not elaborate, simply saying Morocco was not taking part in any military interventions or ministerial meetings with the coalition. (Al Jazeera)

Syria: Civilians continue to bear the brunt of suffering in northern Syria, as government forces step up their bombing campaign on rebel-held areas ahead of peace talks in the Russian city of Sochi later this month. The escalation in artillery attacks on towns and villages by government troops across southern Idlib has forced Syrians to flee their homes in a bid to stay alive. Thousands are estimated to have been displaced by the renewed government advance in southern Idlib – despite its designation as a “de-escalation zone” – as harsh winter conditions further compound the situation. (Middle East Eye)

Egypt: There is an alarm in Egypt over the proposed changes to the constitution. A parliamentary panel has approved a six-year term for President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. It also allows the 64-year-old leader to run for third and fourth terms. The amendments will be put to vote in parliament later this month. This will be followed by a national referendum. If the amendments become law, they could allow President Sisi to stay in office until 2034 – well after the official end of his second term in 2022. (Al Jazeera)

Saudi Arabia: Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s 33-year-old de facto ruler, told a senior aide he would go after Jamal Khashoggi “with a bullet” a year before the dissident journalist was killed inside the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate, according to a US media report. US intelligence understood that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince was ready to kill the journalist, although he may not have literally meant he planned to shoot him, according to the New York Times. After initially denying any knowledge of Khashoggi’s disappearance, the kingdom has acknowledged that a team killed him inside the diplomatic mission but described it as a rogue operation that did not involve the crown prince. (The Guardian)

France, Italy: Diplomatic etiquette would normally classify the recall of an ambassador for “consultations” as a middle-order symbol of displeasure. But for France to withdraw its ambassador to Rome for the first time since the second world war represents a genuine diplomatic shock. For two European powers to fall out to this extent shows how far Italy’s government of the far-right League and anti-establishment populist Five Star Movement is prepared to break the rules. It marks an extraordinary collapse in Franco-Italian relations. (The Guardian)

Yemen: Speaking at a press conference in London, Save the Children’s Yemen director Tamer Kirolos painted a bleak picture of the humanitarian situation inside Yemen. The country is at risk of plunging further into famine if fighting continues near the port city of Hodeidah, a major aid agency has warned as peace talks continue. “If Hodeidah is cut off, then it will lead certain pockets of the country to famine,” Kirolos told Middle East Eye. (Middle East Eye)