Egypt, Tunisia agree on Libya recovery strategy

Egypt, Tunisia agree on Libya recovery strategy
Egypt and Tunisia have agreed to a UN-supported plan on Libya that would see the withdrawal of foreign forces and the holding of elections in the country by the end of the year. (File/AFP/Spokesman of the Egyptian Presidency)
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Updated 07 October 2021

Egypt, Tunisia agree on Libya recovery strategy

Egypt, Tunisia agree on Libya recovery strategy
  • A statement stressed the desire of both Egypt and Tunisia to end the crisis in Libya
  • El-Sisi also expressed Egypt’s support for the measures and efforts of the Tunisian president aimed at building a better future for the Tunisian people

CAIRO: Egypt and Tunisia have agreed to a UN-supported plan on Libya that would see the withdrawal of foreign forces and the holding of elections in the country by the end of the year.

A statement by the Egyptian presidency said that President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi had made a phone call to his Tunisian counterpart, Kais Saied, in which the two sides agreed on the need to intensify coordination in the Libyan crisis.

The statement stressed the desire of both sides to end the crisis in a way that paves the way for the return of security, stability and sovereignty to Libya.

As part of the agreement, presidential and parliamentary elections will be held on a scheduled date at the end of the year, in compliance with a road map agreed upon by Libyan parties.

El-Sisi also expressed Egypt’s support for the measures and efforts of the Tunisian president aimed at building a better future for the Tunisian people and achieving stability in the country.

Egyptian presidential spokesman Bassam Rady said that the call dealt with “visions regarding a number of regional files of common interest, especially the Libyan crisis.”

According to a statement by the Tunisian presidency, Saied and El-Sisi’s conversation “represented an opportunity to review the strong and distinguished brotherly relations that exist between the two countries and to emphasize the common determination to diversify and strengthen them.”

During the call, Saied also congratulated El-Sisi on the anniversary of the October War. The Tunisian president added that during the war, the Egyptian army achieved an “unprecedented victory and a military miracle by all standards, by being able, within hours, to cross the Suez Canal and cross the Bar Lev Line.”

Saied expressed his thanks to the Egyptian president for the “air bridge which he authorized to support Tunisia’s efforts in confronting the COVID-19 pandemic, which further consolidated the bonds of solidarity between the two brotherly peoples.”

Libya is awaiting parliamentary and presidential elections on Dec. 24, based on the road map approved by the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum with the support of the UN.


Russia urges restraint in crisis-hit Lebanon

Russia urges restraint in crisis-hit Lebanon
Updated 15 October 2021

Russia urges restraint in crisis-hit Lebanon

Russia urges restraint in crisis-hit Lebanon
  • In its statement, Russia’s foreign ministry called on the Lebanese government to return to resolving the current issues “without external interference"

MOSCOW: Russia’s foreign ministry on Friday called on all sides in Lebanon to “show restraint” after deadly clashes rocked its capital Beirut as tensions rise over last year’s port explosion.
Six people were killed and dozens wounded on Thursday when violence erupted following a rally by Shiite protesters demanding the removal of the judge investigating last August’s blast that left at least 210 people dead.
“Moscow is extremely concerned about the growing political tensions in Lebanon,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
“We call on all Lebanese politicians to show restraint and prudence.”
The ministry added that it hoped the government of new Prime Minister Najib Mikati would be able to cope with a “dangerous and considerably difficult challenge.”
France, the United States and United Nations earlier appealed for calm but also insisted on the need to allow the port explosion probe to continue unhindered.
In its statement, Russia’s foreign ministry called on the Lebanese government to return to resolving the current issues “without external interference.”


More repression, fewer jobs: Jordanians face bleak outlook

More repression, fewer jobs: Jordanians face bleak outlook
Updated 15 October 2021

More repression, fewer jobs: Jordanians face bleak outlook

More repression, fewer jobs: Jordanians face bleak outlook
  • A years-long economic downturn was accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic

AMMAN, Jordan: As a poorly paid public school teacher, Khaled Jaber always needed a side hustle, working as a private tutor and using his car as a taxi to help pay the bills. For unexpected needs, such as medical expenses, he has had to borrow money from relatives.
Somehow, the 44-year-old muddled through life, sustained by his love of teaching high school Arabic and the respect his job earned him in the community.
But his fragile equilibrium has been upended by the government’s harsh treatment of tens of thousands of teachers over the past two years. Their union, leveraging mass protests and a one-month strike, obtained a 35 percent salary increase, only to then be dissolved by the government. Thirteen union leaders were dragged to court and each faces a one-year prison term pending appeal.
The increased authoritarianism — noted in the downgrade of Jordan from “partly free” to “not free” this year by the US advocacy group Freedom House — stands in contrast to monarchy’s image of having embraced liberal Western values and being a reliable ally in a turbulent region.
In Jaber’s case, the heavy-handed silencing of protests leaves him feeling disrespected, while the salary increase has barely made a dent because of exploding prices.
Even the right to complain has been taken away, he said.
“Allow the space for me to speak, to go out to the street and scream, as long as the stance is peaceful,” he said, speaking in his small apartment on the edge of Amman, as if appealing to the authorities. “Allow the space for me to express my distress.”
The crackdown on expression has contributed to a growing malaise in the kingdom.
A years-long economic downturn, accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic, means more than half of young Jordanians are now unemployed and the country is sinking deeper into debt.
Recent revelations that King Abdullah II secretly amassed more than $106 million in luxury properties abroad have further undermined public trust. News of the offshore acquisitions came just months after the king’s half-brother, Prince Hamzah, alleged corruption at the very top, engulfing the typically discreet royal family in a rare scandal.
Anger at this trifecta of increased repression, a worsening economy and perceived corruption is bubbling just under the surface, several activists said. Only fear of being jailed or inadvertently igniting self-destructive chaos, akin to events in Syria, is keeping a lid on mass protests, they said.
“There is no doubt that this generates pressure,” Maisara Malas, 59, an engineer and union activist, said of the widening gap between a detached, high-living elite and the vast majority of Jordanians. “The people are getting poorer, and the ruling regime is getting richer.”
Any hint of instability should worry Jordan’s Western allies, foremost the United States, who value the kingdom for its help in the fight against Islamic extremists, its security ties with Israel and its willingness to host refugees.
But the focus of the Biden administration has shifted to the Indo-Pacific, with Middle East policy in maintenance mode and the approach to Jordan seemingly on autopilot, said Seth Binder of the Project on Middle East Democracy, a Washington-based advocacy group.
In comparison to troubled Syria or Yemen, US officials apply to Jordan “this tired trope of an Arab regime that is a moderate regime,” he said. “That misses what is really happening and raises some real concerns.”
Jordan is the second-largest recipient of bilateral US aid in the region, after Israel. In a 2018 memorandum, the US assured Jordan that it would receive at least $1.3 billion a year for five years. Congress, where Jordan enjoys bipartisan support, has gone beyond that. In 2021, it appropriated $1.7 billion, including $845 million in direct budget support. For the upcoming fiscal year, the Biden administration proposes $1.3 billion, including $490 million in budget support, or money not earmarked for specific programs.
In a report circulated among Washington decision-makers in September, Binder’s group called for more stringent conditions to be attached to direct cash transfers, and to eventually phase them out. Aid should be leveraged in a push for economic and political reforms, it said.
“A cash transfer to the government is a privilege that should be reserved for US partners committed to democracy and human rights and not known for rampant corruption,” the report said.
The State Department said in a response that aid to Jordan is in the direct national security interest of the US, describing the kingdom as an “invaluable ally.” It said the US carefully monitors its aid programs to Jordan and that the US routinely engages the Jordanian government on a wide range of issues, including human rights.
Jordanian officials pushed back against corruption allegations. “Every (aid) dollar that is provided is accounted for,” Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi told The Associated Press last week. Direct cash transfers are “accounted for in the budget the government executes, and it’s subject to audit.”
Safadi also defended the king’s purchase of luxury homes, revealed earlier this month in a massive leak of documents dubbed the Pandora Papers. Safadi said the monarch used private funds and cited security and privacy needs as a reason for keeping the transactions secret.
Former Information Minister Mohammed Momani said he regretted Jordan’s downgrade to “not free,” but argued that the kingdom still did better than most countries in the region.
“We know that Jordan is not Sweden, but we also know that we are among the very few best countries when it comes to freedom of expression in the Middle East,” he said. “So the situation is not as we hoped we would have, but it is not as dark as some people would paint it.”
All power in Jordan rests with the king, who appoints and dismisses governments. Parliament is compliant because of a single-vote electoral system that discourages the formation of strong political parties. Abdullah has repeatedly promised to open the political system, but then pulled back amid concerns of losing control to an Islamist surge.
After the Prince Hamzah scandal in the spring, the king appointed a committee of experts who now propose reserving one-third of seats in the 2024 parliament election for political parties. The quota would rise to two-thirds in a decade and eventually reach 100 percent, said Momani, a member of the committee.
Momani said this is the most significant reform attempt in three decades, though the latest ideas generated little excitement in Jordan, where many view promises of change with skepticism.
Jaber, the Arabic teacher, is among those with a bleak outlook. He said he expects his four children to be worse off than he is, citing high unemployment and rising prices.
“When a student goes to university, he and his family will owe thousands (of dinars). How long does he need to get a job? When will he be able to get married? When will he build a house?” he said. “I don’t see that there is a positive or rosy future, as some officials say. Things are getting worse and more desperate for me and for others.”


Iraqi elections were competitive and ‘surprisingly’ well-managed, observers say

Iraqi elections were competitive and ‘surprisingly’ well-managed, observers say
Updated 15 October 2021

Iraqi elections were competitive and ‘surprisingly’ well-managed, observers say

Iraqi elections were competitive and ‘surprisingly’ well-managed, observers say
  • Chief EU observer Viola Von Cramon-Taubadel said although the low turnout and exclusion of some groups was a concern, the vote was well run in terms of administration and integrity
  • Iran is the country with the biggest stake in the outcome of Iraq’s election, because of the influence it exerts over its neighbor, says an expert

LONDON: Despite some lack of clarity, low voter turnout, the exclusion of several groups and the overarching security, the Iraqi elections this week were “surprisingly” well run and managed and were genuinely competitive, according to experts.
“It was a special experience being the first chief observer of the European Union Election Observation Mission to Iraq,” said Viola Von Cramon-Taubadel, a member of the European Parliament.
“Coming from a, let’s say, very civil society in Germany and even more-robust political environments in a post-Soviet world, something like this I have never experienced or seen before.”
She was speaking on Thursday during a panel discussion, organized by UK think tank Chatham House, about the Iraqi elections last Sunday and what they mean for the government. Only about 9 million of 22 million eligible voters cast a vote, a turnout of just over 40 percent.
Cramon-Taubadel said observers’ preliminary statement was fairly critical and that the low voter turnout was in part due to structural problems, including a lack of access and services for people with special needs, including those with vision and hearing impairments and in wheelchairs. The high level of security at polling stations also hindered access and several sections of the population were excluded, such as internally displaced persons, she added, and there were technical issues with voter cards that did not work and biometric systems that failed to recognize fingerprints.
However she compared this with election experiences in Berlin, where significant problems have also been encountered. And in terms of the fundamentals, Iraq fared relatively well, she added.
“In terms of administration, in terms of having everything, people knew what they were doing and the technology worked, mainly — I cannot say this for Berlin, honestly,” said Cramon-Taubadel.

(L to R) Head of the European Parliament’s delegation Domenec Ruiz Devesa, Chief Observer of the EU Election Observation Mission to Iraq Viola von Cramon, and deputy chief Alexander Matus hold a press conference to announce their preliminary report in Baghdad’s Green Zone on Oct. 12, 2021. (AFP)

Many democratic countries are experiencing increasingly low levels of voter turnout, even the US, she added, but rather than comparing Iraq’s elections with those in the West she suggested that a more relevant comparison was with the previous elections in Iraq, in 2018.
“The level of security, the level of professionalism...in general, if you look through the process how it went in 2018 and now, I would say this was a huge upgrade,” said Cramon-Taubadel. “And I have only heard that people were surprised by how many independent candidates in the end have made it, and they kind of regretted their decision to boycott (the election) because they didn’t believe, they didn’t trust the institution and there was no confidence in the IT system.”
Authorities ran election simulations before and after the vote and have precautionary measures in place to prevent fraud or tampering, she explained, and eradicated a number of loopholes in the past month.
Cramon-Taubadel said she saw highly-sophisticated precautionary measures in place at a warehouse in Basra where ballots were being stored, to protect it and avoid a repeat of incidents such as a warehouse fire in Baghdad during the 2018 election in which votes were destroyed. Staff at polling stations were well trained and committed, she added, but they were sad and frustrated because they had hoped for higher turnouts that would have given then more to do, especially in urban areas.
Regarding accusations of fraud and ballot-rigging, Cramon-Taubadel said the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq has access to the raw election data and has not found any evidence of this. Expressing her trust in Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission, she said any indications of fraudulent activity should be submitted to it so that their and EU observers can implement the proper legal mechanisms and investigate.
She said the main thing now is for the government to listen to the people and include the views of protest movements in the political process, focus on rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, particularly the “awful” schools, and try to capitalize on oil and other resources while it can because the Iraqi people “deserve better.”
Harith Hasan, a non-resident senior fellow at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, said the low turnout had favored some parties and hurt others.
Muqtada Al-Sadr’s bloc was the biggest winner, taking more than 70 seats, followed by Mohammed Al-Halbousi’s Progress Party, Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, and Nouri Al-Maliki’s State of Law, all of whom won more than 30 seats. The most notable loser was the Fatah bloc, pro-Iranian Shiite parties with links to armed groups, affiliated with the Popular Mobilization Forces (Hashd Al-Shaabi).

Iraq’s populist cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr shows his ink-stained finger after casting his vote at a polling station in the central Iraqi shrine city of Najaf on Oct. 10, 2021. (AFP)

Hasan said Iran is the country with the biggest stake in the outcome of Iraq’s election, because of the influence it exerts over its neighbor.
“The Iranians have three interests in Iraq,” he explained. “The first is, of course, the ending of the US military presence and making sure there are no threats coming from Iraq.
“The second is maintaining the Hashd Al-Shaabi, and the third is keeping the Iraqi markets open for Iranian products.”
Tehran would prefer an Iraqi government dominated by its allies, which they believe would secure their interests much better than a government dominated by Al-Sadr, Hasan said, but much will depend on who is responsible for Iraqi policy in President Ebrahim Raisi’s government.
Hanaa Edwar, the founder and general secretary of the Iraqi Al-Amal Association, a non-political, non-sectarian organization of volunteers that works to improve the lives of all Iraqis, said that if there is an effort to “really build an opposition for the first time inside the parliament,” that would be a positive first step.
“And if they really can confront cutting MPs’ privileges, materially and funding and so on, I think this is also something we can take into consideration as a positive step,” she added.
She said this will depend on how established national parties and MPs cooperate with new parties, as well as civil society, intellectuals and “the movement in the street,” which have a large role to play “in the development of this new era in the country.”


UN condemns armed violence outside of state authority in Beirut

UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Joanna Wronecka expressed deep concern over the people killed during clashes in Beirut. (AFP/File Photo)
UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Joanna Wronecka expressed deep concern over the people killed during clashes in Beirut. (AFP/File Photo)
Updated 15 October 2021

UN condemns armed violence outside of state authority in Beirut

UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Joanna Wronecka expressed deep concern over the people killed during clashes in Beirut. (AFP/File Photo)
  • At least six people were killed in Lebanon’s capital amid a protest organized by Hezbollah against the judge who is investigating last year’s Beirut port explosion
  • Special Coordinator for Lebanon Joanna Wronecka calls for ‘maintaining calm and stability and ensuring the protection of civilians’

NEW YORK: UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Joanna Wronecka expressed deep concern over the people killed during clashes in Beirut on Thursday and condemned the use of “armed violence outside of state authority.”

In a statement, she underscored “the need for restraint, for maintaining calm and stability and ensuring the protection of civilians.” 

At least six people were killed and dozens injured in Lebanon’s capital amid a protest organized by Hezbollah and its ally Amal movement against the judge who is investigating last year’s Beirut port explosion. 

Tensions are high around the probe. Protesters accused Judge Tarek Bitar of being politically biased, but many Lebanese, including victims’ families, see him as an incorruptible judge, taking on a corrupt political elite. 

Wronecka noted the “dangerous increase in polarization” in the context of the Beirut port explosion investigation. She also called on the Lebanese leaders to shoulder their responsibilities and place the interests of the country first at this critical juncture.

“Lifting Lebanon out of its current crisis and moving forward on reforms requires the efficient functioning of the state’s legislative, executive and judicial institutions,” Wronecka said. 

“Now is the time for all sides to support judicial independence in the interest of the people.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres reiterated the need for “an impartial, thorough and transparent investigation” into the explosion on Aug. 4, 2020, when some 2,750 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate blew up in the port of Beirut after being inadequately stored there since 2013. The blast killed more than 200 people and wounded thousands.

Guterres called on “all concerned to immediately cease acts of violence and to refrain from any provocative actions or inflammatory rhetoric,” spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters in New York.


Pro-Iran militias warn of ‘very cruel’ response after Israeli strike on Palmyra

Pro-Iran militias warn of ‘very cruel’ response after Israeli strike on Palmyra
Updated 14 October 2021

Pro-Iran militias warn of ‘very cruel’ response after Israeli strike on Palmyra

Pro-Iran militias warn of ‘very cruel’ response after Israeli strike on Palmyra
  • Israeli missiles flew over Jordanian airspace above US forces, says Syria

AMMAN: Iran-backed forces in Syria said on Thursday they would respond forcefully to an Israeli strike over Syria’s Palmyra area in the province of Homs on Wednesday evening in the second such strike within a week.

The Syrian Defense Ministry said in a statement that one soldier was killed in the attack that took place at 11:34 p.m. (2034 GMT) and targeted a communications tower and caused some material losses.

Israel has kept silent about the strikes that came days after Damascus reported its air defenses intercepted an Israeli missile attack above the Homs countryside, wounding six Syrian soldiers and causing some material damage.

Israeli missiles flew over Jordanian airspace above US forces based in the Tanf area at the Syrian-Iraqi border, the Syrian ministry statement said.

The latest strikes are part of an escalation of what has been a low-intensity conflict in recent years that has seen hundreds of Israeli raids whose goal was to slow down Iran’s growing entrenchment in Syria, Israeli and regional military experts say.

Tehran-backed forces including Lebanon’s Hezbollah have built a presence since deploying to help President Bashar Assad in the Syrian conflict that erupted in 2011.

A statement by the so-called operations room of Assad’s Iran-backed allies said the response to the strike would be “very cruel,” adding casualties would have been much higher had its forces not been well spread across the desert area.

“As a result of this attack a number of martyrs and injured from our Mujahedeen brothers have fallen,” the statement said without elaborating.

“We have taken a decision to respond to this attack in revenge for the martyrs and the blood of the injured and the response will be very cruel,” said the statement published on pro-Iranian news outlets whose authenticity Reuters verified.

A senior military source who requested anonymity said the strikes hit among other targets the T4 airbase where Iran-backed militias launched drone strikes in recent months against US bases in northern Syria.

The source said unidentified drones believed to be Israeli also hit this week Tehran-backed bases in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor along the Iraqi border, a strategic supply route for Iranian-backed militias who regularly send reinforcements from Iraq into Syria

Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz earlier last month accused Tehran of providing foreign militias with drone training at an airbase in Iran.

Two military sources familiar with the affair say the site that was hit on Wednesday was near a secret facility that Tehran was using to transfer “know-how” on unmanned aerial vehicles technology.

The Palmyra area where the strikes were conducted is close to a major concentration of Russian bases and where its troops conducted in recent days maneuvers with Syrian troops, military experts say.

Israel wants Iranian and Iran-backed forces kept away from its border and more broadly, removed from Syria entirely.