Saturday, January 31, 2015

Saudi King orders massive $29.3 billion spending

King Salman bin Abdulaziz has ordered a massive $29.3 billion (110 billion Saudi Riyals) spending in a series of decrees issued on Thursday, that include lavish payments of two months bonus salary to all Saudi state employees and a series of subsidies.
Former government employees will receive two months bonus pension, while students, people with special needs and people receiving welfare payments will also benefit from a bonus payment equivalent to two months of their annual income.
The King posted a statement later on Twitter in which he addressed his people saying: “You deserve more and whatever I do will never meet your right. I ask Allah to help me and you for the service of religion and the nations. Don't forget me in your prayers.”
Included in the handouts was $5.3 billion (20 billion riyals) pledged in subsidies for electricity, water, and housing.
King Salman succeeded his brother, the late King Abdullah, who died after a short illness last week.
And in a commitment to the arts, King Salman pledged $267,000 for each art club in the kingdom.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Egypt military targeted in deadly Sinai attacks

At least 26 people, mostly soldiers, have been killed in a series of attacks by Islamist militants in the north of Egypt's Sinai peninsula.
Most of the casualties were in the provincial capital, El-Arish.
Militant group Sinai Province, which changed its named from Ansar Beit al-Maqdis when it pledged allegiance to Islamic State, said it carried out the "extensive, simultaneous" attacks.
Egypt's president cut short a visit to Ethiopia because of the attacks.
They represent some of the worst anti-government violence in Egypt for months, and indicate a previously unseen level of co-ordination, correspondents and analysts say.
The US condemned the attacks, saying it remained "steadfast in its support of the Egyptian government's efforts to combat the threat of terrorism".
Insurgents have intensified attacks since Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi was ousted in 2013.
Tensions have also been raised across Egypt this week amid protests marking the anniversary of the 2011 uprising that ousted then-leader Hosni Mubarak.
Security officials said rockets were first fired at police offices, a military base and a military hotel in El-Arish, before a car bomb exploded at the rear gate of the military base. Several army checkpoints in the city were also targeted.
Newspaper al-Ahram said its El-Arish office - which is opposite the hotel and base - had been completely destroyed.
Map of North Sinai
Four soldiers were wounded in an attack at a checkpoint outside El-Arish and an army major was later shot dead at a checkpoint in Rafah, medical and security sources said.
More than 50 people were wounded in Thursday's attacks.
North Sinai has been under a state of emergency and a curfew since October, when an attack on a checkpoint killed dozens of soldiers.
The army has launched major operations to try to quell violence in the region, but has so far failed.
Sinai Province has become the biggest threat, staging many attacks on security targets.
The group, which was originally inspired by al-Qaeda but pledged allegiance to Islamic State in November 2014, has called on Egyptians to rebel against President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi.
President Sisi is the former military chief who led the crackdown on Mr Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood has said it rejects violence.
Egypt is creating a 1km (0.6-mile) buffer zone along the border with Gaza in a bid to stop militants smuggling weapons in from the Palestinian territory using tunnels.
The project has displaced more than 1,000 families in Rafah and severed an economic lifeline for many Palestinians.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

North Korea leader 'to visit Russia'

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has confirmed he will attend celebrations in Russia in May marking the Soviet victory over Germany in World War II, South Korea's Yonhap news agency said, citing a Kremlin spokesman.
The trip would mark Kim's first official foreign trip since taking power in 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il. The celebrations would be attended by a host of world leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Yonhap said the Kremlin, responding to an emailed query, said 20 leaders had confirmed their attendance so far.
According to Yonhap, the Kremlin response also noted that the confirmation process was "still ongoing" and a final list of participants had yet to be drawn up.
According to AFP, Russia only confirmed that a North Korean leader would attend the celebrations, but did not specify who yet.
If Kim Jong-un does make Moscow the destination of his first foreign trip, it would reflect a desire to reduce his country's dependence on China, which remains Pyongyang's main ally, diplomatic protector and economic safeguard. Russia is one of North Korea's few allies, along with China.
Xi Jinping and Kim have kept their distance since each assumed power and Xi's first visit as head of state to the Korean peninsula was to the capitalist South last year, rather than the North.
South Korean president invited
South Korean President Park Geun-hye has also been invited to the Moscow event, but has yet to announce whether she will attend.
Both have opposed the United Nations' call for Pyongyang to be referred to the International Criminal Court over its human rights record.
The late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il visited Russia in August 2011 in his personal train for a rare meeting with then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
Russia is seeking to expand economic ties with North Korea and is eyeing a project worth about $25bn to overhaul the country's railway network in return for access to mineral resources.
Russia has also pushed ahead with plans for natural gas projects with North Korea in the hope of boosting gas exports to Asia and exporting coal to South Korea through an experimental consortium based in the North.

Two Israeli soldiers killed in Hezbollah missile attack

Two Israeli soldiers have been killed by a Hezbollah missile fired at at an Israeli military vehicle in the Shebaa farms area on the border with Syria and Lebanon.
The Israeli military confirmed that seven soldiers were also injured in Wednesday's strike.
In response to the attack, Israeli forces fired shells across the border into southern Lebanon, killing a UN peacekeeper from Spain. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) confirmed the death. 
Responding to the attack, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised those behind it would be held responsible.
"Those behind the attack today will pay the full price," Netanyahu said as he launched consultations with security chiefs on a possible further response to the incident, according to a Reuters news agency report.

There were also reports of Israeli war planes flying over the border with Lebanon.
A Hezbollah statement claiming responsibility for the attack said: "11:25am this morning, al-Quneitra Martyr's group targeted an Israeli convoy with specialised heavy duty rockets in the occupied Lebanese Shebaa farms area.
The convoy included Israeli artillery, an officer and several soldiers many of whom were injured," the statement read. 
"Await retaliation"
The attack by Hezbollah was likely in retaliation for an Israeli air strike in Quneitra on January 18th that killed six Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian general. Both Hezbollah and the Iranian army had vowed revenge, and earlier on Wednesday Iran said that Israel should "await retaliation" for the strike.  
A Lebanese army spokesman said the missile was not fired from Lebanese territory, and that the artillery response by Israel was randomly falling on areas along the border, but that no shells had landed on villages with civilians yet.
Shebaa Farms is a small strip of disputed land at the intersection of the Lebanese-Syrian border and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
Schools closed in and around Shebaa, and residents stayed indoors as the shelling continued throughout Wednesday morning.
Residents in neighbouring towns carried on as normal, telling Al Jazeera they did not feel things would escalate into full-blown war.
"Whatever happens happens, but we're not moving and we're not scared," one resident of Marjayoun, a town a few kilometres from the border with Israeli, said.
In a letter to the UN Security Council, Ron Prosor, the Israeli ambassador to the UN, condemned the attack, saying Hezbollah had been "stockpiling" weapons in southern Lebanon in violation of a UN resolution.
"Israel will not accept any attacks on its territory and it will exercise its right to self-defence and take all necessary measures to protect its population."
Al Jazeera's Nisreen el-Shamayleh, reporting from Jerusalem, said that while a response was expected from Israel against Hezbollah, an escalation of hostilities was unlikely.
Lebanese politician Samir Geagea, a member of the March 14 opposed to Hezbollah, said that the organisation "doesn't have the right to involve the Lebanese army and government in a battle with Israel."
Walid Jumblatt, another politician considered to be centrist, said the attack would lead to "turbulent" times for Lebanon.
On Friday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is expected to speak on the Quneitra strike.
In 2006, Israel fought a bloody war against Hezbollah that killed more than 1,200 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and some 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers.

Iran sends 'warning to Israel via US officials'

Tehran said it sent a warning to Israel through the United States over the recent killing of an Iranian general in an Israeli air strike in Syria, the official IRNA news agency reports.
"We told the Americans that the leaders of the Zionist regime should await the consequences of their act,'' IRNA quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian as saying. Israel has "crossed our red lines'', he added.
Amirabdollahian said Iran had sent the message on Tuesday through diplomatic channels to US officials, to hand over to Israel. He did not elaborate.
The January 18 strike in the Syrian-controlled part of the disputed Golan Heights killed Iranian General Mohammad Ali Allahdadi, a senior commander in the Revolutionary Guards, along with six Lebanese Hezbollah fighters.
Allahdadi was one of the highest ranking Iranian officers known to have been killed abroad in decades. 
Amirabdollahian spoke during a commemoration on Tuesday for the Iranian general. The Guards' acting commander, General Hossein Salami, said Iran will soon retaliate for his death.
"We tell them [Israelis to] await retaliation but we will decide about its timing, place and the strength,'' Salami said at the ceremony.
US disregards threat
Both Iran and Hezbollah, close allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, blamed Israel, which is believed to have been behind a number of air strikes in Syria in recent years. Israel has neither confirmed nor denied the air strike.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki would not comment on private diplomatic talks with Iran, beyond saying that no threat to Israel was delivered in the latest round of nuclear talks between US and Iranian officials.
"We absolutely condemn any such threats that come in any form," Psaki told reporters.
Iran and the US have had no diplomatic relations since Iranian armed students stormed the US embassy in Tehran and held Americans there hostage for 444 days in 1979.
The two nations normally exchange diplomatic messages through the Swiss embassy, which looks after US interests in Iran.
Diplomats from both countries also meet directly on other occasions, such as the current negotiations to limit the scope of the Iranian nuclear programme in exchange for easing harsh international sanctions against Tehran.
Source: Associated Press

28 January 2011: Egypt’s Decisive Day

28 January 2011 marked a turning point in Egyptian history. On that day, anti-Mubarak demonstrations escalated their protests, engaging in violent confrontations with police forces all over the country. Protesters surrounded police stations, and police forces opened fire, killing many.
Reports mentioning deaths only reinvigorated the demonstrations, leading protesters to directly attack police stations and target officers. Outnumbered, police forces withdrew from their positions, leading to widespread looting, acts of thuggery, and hundreds of deaths.
Police stations were targeted because they were seen a symbol of police brutality and regime corruption. Since then and until today, the government has been campaigning for a different image for police forces. Slogans such as “the police are in the service of the people”, and “police and the people are one hand” are constantly used in pro-government propaganda and in posters on the streets.
However, local and international human rights organisations continue to condemn the Egyptian security forces for their brutality and torture of civilians in police stations and prisons.

Unholy silence


The Middle East is by almost any reckoning the world's worst region for freedom of expression. Reporters Without Borders, a press freedom lobby, puts war-torn Syria 177th out of 180 countries on its latest annual ranking, in 2014. Iran is 173rd, Sudan 172nd, Yemen 167th, Saudi Arabia 164th. The highest any of the region's countries make it is 91st, with Kuwait, which has a democracy of sorts. According to the Pew Research Centre, a think-tank, as of 2012, 14 of 20 Middle Eastern countries criminalise blasphemy and 12 of 20 make apostasy—leaving Islam—an offence.

Freedom of expression is particularly curtailed where it concerns politics, sexual matters or Islam, the region's main religion
. Even secular or less devout leaders refuse to grant religious freedom, in part to keep hardline clergy and their followers happy, and in part to extend their totalitarian rule into their subjects' private livesOne example is Saudi Arabia, where the ruling family imposes harsh penalties based on sharia law because it rules in tandem with the puritanical Wahhabi clerics. Being openly gay is not tolerated anywhere except in central areas of Beirut, Lebanon's capital, and charges for "debauchery" are not uncommon. The region offers almost no space for legal protest; some countries set ridiculous requirements for protests to have official permission before going ahead—which is only granted when the protests are pro-government. Vague national-security laws and emergency laws allow prosecution for almost anything that rulers do not like.Restrictions bite not only on what is said in the media or public forums. Some countries, including Iran and Syria, have large numbers of security agents who listen in to private conversations on the street or in the market, and use reports from informers who shop their neighbours for badmouthing the regime. Taxi drivers can earn handsome supplements by filing reports on their customers. Only at the dentist, runs a popular Arabic joke, is it safe to open your mouth.
Mocking Jordan's monarch is a criminal offence punishable by prosecution in a military court, but when King Abdullah of Jordan (pictured above with the French president, Fran├žois Hollandeattended the demonstration on January 11th in Paris to express support for free speech in the wake of the Paris attack, some found ridicule hard to suppress. How could he march in defence of freedom of expression abroad, they asked, when he is such a serial abuser of that freedom at home? Last June he expanded the remit of an anti-terrorism law to include public criticism of the king or his allies. His spooks trawl social media for dissenting Jordanians to arrest. On December 18th the deputy leader of Jordan's branch of the Muslim Brotherhood was tried before military judges for a colourful posting on his Facebook page denouncing Jordan's allies in the Emirates. Salafi preachers who decline to opine in favour of coalition attacks on Islamic State are sent back to jail. "Everyone in Jordan is assumed to be a terrorist until proven innocent," says an embittered Islamist.
A few days after the king marched in Paris, his security forces beat back protestors heading for the French embassy in Amman. In recent years the king has closed hundreds of news sites for lacking a licence, and ordered those that still operate to appoint editors more likely to toe the government line. An irate taxi driver criticising the king stops himself as he passes a police post in the capital, and then punches the air with his fist to illustrate what might befall him should he speak out.
Egypt's constitution says freedom of belief is absolute, but only guarantees freedom to practise their religions to Muslims, Christians and Jews. That leaves atheists unprotected, and the government, which appears to see homogeneity as desirable and likely to make ruling easier, has recently been cracking down on them. In June it announced a campaign to confront the spread of unbelief. Since a farcical survey in December which found that Egypt had a suspiciously specific 866 atheists, and that this was more than any other country in the Middle East (no mention of the fact that Egypt is also the region's most populous country), the persecution has worsened. On January 10th a court in Idku sentenced Karim Ashraf Mohamad al-Banna, a student, to three years in prison for saying on Facebook that he was an atheist, which, the court decided, counted as "insulting Islam".
Although cases for apostasy and depicting the Prophet Muhammad make the news, many of the region's Muslims agree that such offences should be penalised. Mr Banna was reportedly harassed by his neighbours for his views, before the state got involved.

Monday, January 26, 2015

18 deaths on the fourth anniversary of the January 25 revolution

The Health Ministry announced 18 deaths on the fourth anniversary of the January 25 revolution, 16 of which occurred in clashes between protesters and police in Matareya, Haram and Alexandria. 
At least 52 were injured nationwide, including five police officers.
An Interior Ministry spokesperson told the state-owned Middle East News Agency that 150 protesters were arrested across the country. The ministry claimed many were supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, according to the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper. 
Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated social media accounts posted pictures of bloody-faced protesters, asserting that the casualties were peaceful demonstrators attacked by police forces.
The Interior Ministry announced the killing of an armed man in Alexandria earlier on Sunday, who they claimed was one of two civilians using automatic weapons to shoot randomly at protesters.
The Middle East News Agency reported the death of two people who they said were attempting to install a bomb at an electricity tower in Beheira.
Clashes broke out in downtown Cairo between dozens of protesters and a group of civilians in front of the Journalists Syndicate on Sunday afternoon. Police forces dispersed protesters and began to round them up and make a number of arrests.
A Mada Masr reporter said a march left from the syndicate heading down Ramses Street in downtown Cairo. It was a peaceful demonstration, with protesters chanting slogans.

At around 4.30 pm, the march came under attack. Police fired tear gas canisters at demonstrators, while people in civilian clothes threw stones from within and behind police lines.

The reporter witnessed demonstrators being grabbed by police, but was unable to confirm whether or not they were arrested.
Eyewitness Shady Hussein said the clashes started when supporters of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi intervened in the protest and raised posters of the president, throwing rocks at protesters. 
The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) said in a report released Sunday that nine journalists were briefly arrested while covering events. Some of them, including a Dutch journalist, were reportedly assaulted by police forces who confiscated their equipment.
BBC journalist Orla Guerin said security forces threatened to shoot her if she didn't stop filming protests in Ain Shams. Al-Fagr journalist Sarah Hisham was beaten by civilians while covering protests in Ramsis street, and Nader Nabil was shot with pellets in the head and hands, AFTE reported.
Dozens also marched in a protest in Maadi organized by revolutionary forces, which ended peacefully, eyewitnesses recounted.
The Ministry of Interior dispersed protests in October 6 City and Maadi using tear gas, according to several media reports.
Security forces closed off Tahrir Square and dispersed small attempts at protests on its peripheries throughout Sunday. Small groups of pro-Sisi protesters were reportedly asked politely by police to move elsewhere. 
An April 6 Youth Movement spokesperson told privately owned Al-Shorouk newspaper that the movement was planning to commemorate the revolution with marches. He said five members were arrested in downtown on Sunday by officers in civilian clothing.
Amongst the fiercest clashes in Cairo on Sunday were those around the northern district of Matareya. This working-class neighborhood witnessed ongoing violence between opposition forces and supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi and police and civilian supporters of President Sisi.
The death toll and number of arrests in Matareya were reported to be amongst the highest in Cairo. 
At around 5 pm, hundreds of protesters reportedly pushed riot police troops out of Matareya Square. Clashes centered around Taawon Street leading up to the square. Photos and videos reveal rock-strewn streets and troops firing tear gas at protesters from armored personnel carriers.
Private media outlets Al-Shorouk, Al-Masry Al-Youm, Veto, and Al-Mogaz reported that Morsi supporters set fire to tires in the square after pushing Central Security Forces back to the nearby Matareya Police Station and sealing off the streets surrounding the square.
Protesters could be heard chanting slogans against Sisi, the police and the Armed Forces.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Tunisian blogger sentenced for defaming army

A Tunisian military court has sentenced blogger Yassine Ayari to a year in prison for defaming the military, in a case that has been criticised by human rights groups.

The sentence was handed down on Tuesday, but Ayari, 33, was arrested on December 25 on his return from Paris, following an initial three-year sentence passed the previous month in his absence.
Ayari told the court before the new ruling that the charges were a "settling of scores against me for criticising officers in the army".
He had accused officers and Defence Ministry officials of financial abuse.
"Today's one year prison sentence imposed on Yassine Ayari by a military court exposes the extent of the limits on freedom of expression in Tunisia," the London-based rights group Amnesty International said.
It said that during the session, when defence lawyers complained that journalists were not allowed to be present at the re-trial, the court's president, who is a civil judge, responded by saying: "This not a court, this is a [military] barracks." 
Dozens of protesters gathered outside the court demanding Ayari's immediate release, saying the conviction was a violation of freedom of expression.
Appeal planned
The demonstrators chanted "Down with military trials" and "No return to dictatorship".
The defence team said it planned to appeal.
"Freedom of expression is the only benefit of the revolution and today we see a blogger sentenced harshly by a military court for criticising the army," Malek Ben Amor, his lawyer, said.
Ayari was also an activist during the rule of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the long-serving president who was overthrown in a 2011 uprising that spurred the Arab Spring revolts.
In recent months, he had published blogs critical of the Nidaa Tounes party, which won Tunisia's first-post revolution parliamentary elections in October.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has described the case against him as "not worthy of the new Tunisia".
It has urged parliament to reform laws that lead to imprisonment for defaming or insulting state institutions, and to remove jurisdiction of military courts over civilians.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

Q&A: Jailed Saudi blogger's wife calls for his release

Raif Badawi, a 31-year-old Saudi blogger who has been sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for criticising the country's religious leaders, was due to receive his second set of 50 lashes.
A committee of Saudi doctors recommended the lashes be suspended this week because of health reasons.
Speaking to Al Jazeera from her home in Canada, Badawi's wife, Ensaf Haidar, says her husband is a "peaceful person" who deserves to be freed.
Al Jazeera: Tell us about your husband and how this happened to him.

Ensaf Haidar: My husband is an activist and the founder of the "Free Saudi liberal network". Raif believed in the freedom of speech and the respect of other beliefs. The main reason he launched the network is to promote debate and discussion about lots of topics in Saudi society.
He is accused of lots of things. In my opinion, Raif's detention is unjust and they should re-try him and set him free. All he was asking for was freedom of speech. And because he wrote that down, he was thrown in jail.

AJ: Have you heard from him at all? Do you speak? Are you able to communicate?

EH: Yes, we talk to each other. It's been four years since the kids and I have seen him, but we talk over the phone through official channels when he gets permission from the jail administration.

AJ: What do you know about his physical condition? How is he bearing up in this ordeal?

EH: His physical and psychological state is bad. Last week he was supposed to be flogged for the second time, but the jail doctor said that his body was not up to it. You know, when someone gets 50 lashes and knows he's going to receive another 50 lashes next week, he is certainly not going to feel good.

AJ: Is there any hope in the fact that the king had asked the Supreme Court to examine your husband's case? Any hope of a reprieve, a relaxation in the situation?

EH: The Office of the Saudi King filed Raif's case to the Supreme Court, but this did not help Raif because even after doing so, he still received the 50 lashes and that indicates that there's no change in his case.

AJ: Canada, the United States and other countries that are making these appeals for your husband's freedom, also have close relations with Saudi Arabia and in some cases sell them arms and other items. Do you have any hope that these appeals will work on the Saudi government?

EH: I don't think that this will make a difference and will not affect Raif's case. Raif's jailing is unjust and the governments of the world should call for his release on a humanitarian basis, but I don't think political relations with the Saudis will help.

AJ: What do you think the world can do to help? Tell us what can be done to help your husband.

EH: All that I can do is to raise my voice and make countries listen and help Raif. Raif is a peaceful person, his own man. He is a great dad and husband, and I call on all countries to stand by our side and call for the release and freedom of Raif.
Source: Al Jazeera

The question of succession in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud has passed away after nearly 10 years as the country's top leader, handing his throne to a 79-year-old brother and raising questions about succession within the oil-rich gulf kingdom.
King Abdullah officially assumed the country's top role in 2005, but has largely been seen as the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia since the mid-1990s. Saudi's status as one of the world's largest oil exporters, as well as its role in regional power struggles, means that King Abdullah's death is being observed closely around the world.
For the ruling al-Saud royal family, King Abdullah's passing also raises the question of a possible generational shift to the throne.
Since the 1953 death of Abdulaziz ibn Saud, Saudi Arabia's modern-state founder, his eldest living son has always been succeeded by the next brother in line - so long as he was able and willing to rule.


While King Abdullah's age was believed to be close to 90, the next two designated crown princes, Salman and Muqrin, are themselves already almost 80 and 70 years old respectively.
Since 2011, Saudi Arabia had buried two crown princes and now a king. In October 2011, then Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz al-Saud died at a New York hospital after a string of health issues.
During King Abdullah's reign, he has inspired a greater openness in two particular areas: role of women and freedom of expression.
- Christoph Wilcke, former Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch
Less than a year later, Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, then next in line and believed to be 79 at the time of his death, passed away in the Swiss city of Geneva on June 16, 2012.
The next crown prince, now king, is 79-year-old Salman al-Saud. He has been representing Saudi Arabia at most official events, including the latest Gulf summit in Qatar last month.
Perhaps anticipating the potential questions surrounding the country's succession issue, King Abdullah established the allegiance council in 2006, made up of his brothers and nephews, who decide collectively on succession.
The allegiance council, with King Abdullah's blessing, added an unprecedented position to the line of succession: a deputy crown prince. At a much younger age of 68, Muqrin bin Abdulaziz al-Saud was widely seen as Saudi Arabia’s next king should Salman decide to pass on the title.
Despite the uncertainty, Joseph Kechichian, a columnist for the Gulf News newspaper and a specialist on GCC relations, told Al Jazeera that there are no causes for concern as the system in place is "well-oiled".
"Prince Salman will succeed the monarch and will, in turn, designate Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, as his own heir. Soon thereafter, the allegiance council will confirm these appointments and there will be no succession crisis," Kechichian said. 
Considered as one of the world's few remaining absolute monarchs, King Abdullah was known, in many circles, as a devout and conservative Muslim with strong ties to the country's Bedouin tribes. At the same time, he pushed for greater change in the kingdom.
"During King Abdullah's reign, he has inspired a greater openness in two particular areas: role of women and freedom of expression. And there is [an] outburst of criticism, social criticism and of government policy that happened in Saudi Arabia with the tolerance to some degree of the Saudi government," Christoph Wilcke, former Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera.
King Abdullah paved the way for municipal elections, granting women the right to vote and run for office, and issued them with identification cards - allowing them for the first time to do business without involving a male guardian.
"There is no going back as the kingdom is embarked on epochal changes, which have a pace of their own. Young Saudis, both men and women, are increasingly responsible for their actions and have long-term goals to assume their share of the nation-building burden," Kechichian said.


King Abdullah's record on human rights, however, remained controversial. His critics believe he could have done more - given Saudi Arabia's vast oil wealth - to help the Saudi population, especially the younger generation.
"King Abdullah isn't a reformer but a modernist. There's a difference," Ali Alyami, director of the Centre for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, told Al Jazeera. "Most human rights activists have been imprisoned during his reign. Yes, he's taken reformist steps, but they're mainly cosmetic in the sense that he has appeased women activists by allowing them to run for office and holding a municipal election. But most of those in elected office have no real political assignments."
In recent years, activists who have demanded change through public petitions ended up in jail. Political parties and public demonstrations are officially banned. Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia began the trial of two Saudi women, Loujain al-Hathloul and and Maysa al-Amoudi. Both were stopped and later arrested for breaking a ban on female driving when they attempted to cross from the United Arab Emirates into Saudi Arabia. They were eventually referred to a specialised court on terrorism charges.
In a previous interview with Al Jazeera, Toby Jones, professor of Middle East history at Rutgers University, said King Abdullah had to show his unyieldingness in order to keep power: "[He] may have allowed debate and some movement on social issues, but the regime benefits by allowing its allies and adversaries to argue over things rather than embrace real change."
The monarch's death is being watched internationally due to the country's role as one of the world's largest oil exporters, but more so regionally, where Saudi Arabia plays a significant role in the US-led coalition air strikes against fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Within minutes of a state television report about his hospitalisation, Saudi Arabia's stocks, which were already down more than 1 percent due to sliding oil prices, dropped 5 percent lower.
Analysts, however, say this is purely coincidence. "There are many hands other than the king invested in keeping Saudi [oil] production at its current levels, and ensuring that security and logistical issues are taken care of. Of all the things that could be affected by a dying monarch, this oddly enough is probably the least affected," Michael Stephens, deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute, (RUSI) Qatar, told Al Jazeera.
Mecca transformation poses risk to heritage
In addition, the potential issue of Saudi Arabia's policies towards ISIL will remain unchanged, analysts say. "On this particular issue the House of Saud stands together because the nature of the threat from ISIL threatens to undermine the legitimacy of the ruling house by destabilising its Islamic roots. There will be no change in the policy," Stephens said.
King Abdullah's naming of his youngest brother Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz as deputy crown prince came with both praise and criticism. This is because Muqrin, the youngest born to the founding King Abdulaziz, has a Yemeni mother.
 Still, Khaled al-Maeena, editor-at-large of the Saudi Gazette, says no one from the Saudi street is really bothered about Prince Muqrin's heritage, as long as the job gets done.
"It doesn't matter to the people what his heritage is. Yes, it’s true, there are those within some circles in Saudi Arabia that don't want him to succeed to the throne, but these are narrow-minded people."
For now, Maeena says that Saudis have to take a step back and reflect on the late King Abdullah's legacy.
"Saudi Arabia is a rumour factory and one has to wait and see regarding the succession. Hundreds and thousands of people, including the youth, were praying for the king's health to recover. That is something I've never seen before with any other GCC leader's death. This is because he listened to the changing needs of a modernising people, and that will remain as his legacy," Maeena said.
Source: Al Jazeera

Protester shot dead at leftist party march in central Cairo



CAIRO (AP) - A female protester was shot dead by police at a march in downtown Cairo Saturday, her political party said in a statement.
The leftist Popular Alliance party said that police shot its member Shaimaa el-Sabagh with birdshot Saturday evening as the group peacefully marched toward Tahrir Square to lay a commemorative wreath of roses on the eve of the 4th anniversary of Egypt's 2011 uprising.
A Ministry of Health official confirmed that a female protester died from birdshot injuries to her head and body.
A statement from the Interior Ministry said the police forces moved to disperse a protest after they saw demonstrators setting off fireworks. It said the police were conducting an investigation into the woman's death and vowed to arrest the perpetrators.
Photos widely distributed on social media showed el-Sabagh carrying a wreath of roses, and then bloodied and being carried by another protester.
Security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters, say they arrested 11 people following clashes.
Ahead of the 4th anniversary of the uprising, the revolutionary fervor of 2011 has been largely extinguished. Many of the pro-democracy activists central to the uprising are in prison for attempting to protest against the new president, former army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. Others are dismissed in the media as troublemakers while the police, who in the revolutionaries' eyes were the hated tools of oppression, are now lauded in the press as heroes in a fight against Islamists.
In addition to being the anniversary of the 2011 uprising, Sunday is national Police Day in Egypt.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Syria refugees: UN warns of extreme poverty in Jordan

The UN refugee agency has urged the international community to help alleviate the "desperate living conditions" of Syrian refugees living away from Jordan's main camps.
One in six of them live in extreme poverty, a UN study says.
It warned that unless the international community provided more support, the conditions of the refugees would only get worse.
More and more them were relying on outside assistance, it said.
The study covered the more than half a million Syrian refugees who live in urban or rural areas outside the main refugee camps of Jordan.
UN refugee chief Antonio Guterres said their problems had been made more acute because of freezing winter temperatures and electricity shortages.
Mr Guterres is meeting Jordanian officials and donors to co-ordinate efforts to improve living conditions for the refugees and the communities who are hosting them.
The UN's Living in the Shadows report says it is based on data from home visits to almost 150,000 Syrian refugees living outside of camps in Jordan in 2014.
Two-thirds of refugees across Jordan, it says, are now living below the national poverty line, while one in six refugee households is in abject poverty, with less than $40 (£26; €34) for each person every month.
Almost half of the households researchers visited had no heating, the report says, while a quarter had unreliable electricity and 20% had no functioning toilet.
Rental costs accounted for more than half of household expenditures, with refugee families being forced to share accommodation with others to reduce costs.
"Unless the international community increases its support to refugees, families will opt for ever more drastic coping strategies," Mr Guterres said.
"More children will drop out of school to work and more women will be at risk of exploitation, including survival sex."
'Massive' need
Jordan currently hosts a registered Syrian refugee population of about 620,000, with around 100,000 living in camps.
The UN report said that as the Syrian conflict approached its fifth year, many refugees were becoming "increasingly dependent on assistance, with Jordan's resources and infrastructure being stretched to the limit".
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said it was providing monthly cash assistance to 21,000 of the most vulnerable Syrian families, or 14% of the Syrian refugee population living outside camps.
As of the end of 2014, more than 10,000 additional Syrian refugee households had been identified as eligible for such assistance but, due to lack of funds, could not be helped, it said.
"Overall, the report's findings make it clear that any further reductions in the current levels of support will have immediate and serious consequences for Syrian refugees in Jordan," the UNHCR said.
The report said the "generosity of the Jordanian people and the government needs to be matched by massive support from the international community".