Middle East Weekly Roundup: November 30th – December 4th, 2015
JMEPP’s new Middle East Weekly Roundup is compiled and written by JMEPP editors.
Energy earnings have dropped 50% through 2015; due to low oil prices, earnings are expected to fall to $26.4 billion in 2016, stated Algeria’s Finance Minister, Abderrahmane Benkhalfa. Oil and gas sales constitute 95% of Algeria’s exports and represent 60% of its budget. In order to mitigate the damages it continues to absorb in economic losses, Algeria has discussed tax hikes, import duties and a further increase in subsidized diesel and electricity prices. Like its fellow OPEC nations in the Gulf, Algeria utilizes an economic system that depends upon energy revenues to pay for many of its social services.
Additionally, the revenues generated from oil and gas sales help pay for major infrastructure projects, such as the Algiers Metro expansion, which was frozen as of October. Inaugurated in October of 2011, the metro network covers 13 km and was expected to grow to 55 km; however, the drop in oil prices over the past year has made paying for such projects costly.
Such cases of infrastructure freezes and social benefit cuts will continue to deliver body blows to the one-trick pony economies of the oil producing nations. If oil and gas prices are to remain low in the foreseeable future, nations such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Algeria will have to diversify their economies in order to avoid major losses and detrimental social costs.
North Africa in Brief
- In an interview with the Independent just prior to the conference Algeria hosted this week to discuss the situation in Libya, Algeria’s foreign minister Ramtane Lamamra warned against the intervention of foreign militaries in North African affairs, stating that such intervention “can become part of the problem and not part of the solution”.
- General Medjoub “Djamel” Kehal, the former head of Algeria’s presidential guard, was sentenced to three years in jail on Thursday, on the heels of the sentencing of the former counterterrorism chief “Abdelkader “General Hassan” Ait-Ouarabi to several years in prison last week. The move is being seen by some analysts as a continuation of a supposed regime purge taking place within the higher ranks of the Algerian regime, a theory that was ignited with the September dismissal of the head of Algerian intelligence, General Mohamed “Toufik” Mediene.
- Algerian soldiers reportedly killed three Islamists identified by the defence ministry as extremists in an operation spanning several days last week in Tizi Ouzou.
- Ailing president Abdelaziz Bouteflika is also said to be in France for yet another round of medical testing, amidst concerns over how much longer he can continue to stay in power.
- Egypt is seeking the resumption of flights to and from Russia after continued security concerns stemming from the downing of the Russian plane from Sharm el Sheikh in October of this year. Russia, for its part, has said that it will not restore flights until it is confident in Egyptian aviation security compliance, noting that it does not expect to be restoring flights before 2016. Egypt’s tourism industry has suffered amid such security concerns, especially since the aforementioned plane incident, with Russian tourists looking elsewhere in the MENA region and Asia for vacation spots.
- Unofficial results from the second round of Egyptian parliamentary elections held last month indicate that secular parties have made major gains, with the Free Egyptians Party in the lead with 65 seats.
- Egyptian courts have ordered a retrial for former Mubarak-era prime minister Ahmed Nazif. Meanwhile, a retrial has also been ordered for Mohamed Badie, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and another 36 individuals who have been sentenced to death or life in prison, among them several journalists and rights activists.
- 16 people were reported dead after a firebombing of a Cairene nightclub and restaurant earlier today, reportedly perpetrated by disgruntled patrons.
- France has flown surveillance missions over areas of Libya held by ISIS, according to presidential documents distributed in a press release this week. The French had not officially acknowledged carrying out operations of this nature in Libya until this point. The press release included that “other intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance flights are also planned”.
- In other news, Libya’s unrecognized government, headed by the Libya Dawn coalition of militias, announced this week that it had reshuffled its ministerial cabinet, reducing the number of ministers from 24 to 12.
- The UN released a report this week stating that ISIS is struggling to expand in Libya due to it being “only one player among multiple warring factions”, therefore affecting its ability to build and maintain local alliances. The report added that ISIS’ Libyan operations are not as lucrative as those that they conduct in the Levant.
- Morocco made headlines this week with the announcement of the rejuvenation of a major solar energy megaplant project that reportedly will serve as the largest concentrated solar power (CSP) plant in the world once it is completed in 2017, generating enough electricity to supply 1.1 million Moroccans. The first of four plants is said to be opening this sometime month.
- Morocco also sent a troupe of 1500 soldiers to Yemen this week to join the ground military offensive being run by the Arab Coalition, under Saudi command.
- Tunisia has arrested several individuals on suspicion of plotting terrorist attacks in the country during a major operation by Tunisian security forces to identify those under suspicion of having fought or trained in Iraq, Libya or Syria. Amnesty International has condemned these efforts as a crackdown indicative of “repressive and abusive measures” after reports surfaced of violent nighttime raids by heavily armed security guards threatening residents in various districts of the capital. This development comes after the ISIS-claimed suicide attack on the bus of the Tunisian presidential guard on November 25th in which 12 were killed. Security has been boosted at tourist sites and airports over the past few weeks, and Tunisia recently closed its main airport to Libyan planes and shut its border with Libya, leading to increases in petrol prices.
- Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi addressed the Tunisian public on December 2nd, speaking to both the security issues and the internal conflicts within his ruling party, Nidaa Tounes. These reported conflicts have led some to speculate that the party, founded in 2012, is falling apart.
- Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid spoke during the 2nd Tunisian-German economic forum this week, stating his confidence in Tunisian reforms and affirming that they would “bear fruits” in the near future while pushing for more international investment in Tunisia.
Countering Violent Extremism (CVE)
Sarah Sewall, Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights at the U.S. Department of State spoke at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. During her remarks she emphasized the importance of CVE to, “address the underlying forces that make people vulnerable to violent extremism.” Additionally, she remarked on the trend within the CVE field to focus on prevention in order to push back against recruitment tactics of terrorist organizations, focusing on the “whole of society.”
George Washington University’s Program on Extremism released a report, “ISIS in America: From Retweets to Raqqa” on Americans who support ISIS in various fashions. The report found that the CVE efforts in the United States are inadequate in combating this trend. “As of fall 2015, 250 Americans have either traveled or tried to travel to Syria or Iraq to join Islamic State.”
On December 3, Australia passed new laws that permit the government to revoke Australian citizenship of individuals with dual nationality if it suspects they may be engaging in terrorism. In addition, the new laws also apply to Australians overseas who help raise money or support extremist groups in other ways.
Reports have emerged of a new phase in Iranian cyber espionage of U.S. government officials. Tipped off by a security feature in Facebook, several State Department officials focusing on Iran and the Middle East recently discovered that their email and social media accounts had been breached by Iranian hackers. These attacks constitute part of a broader increase in Iranian cyber espionage, and could represent Iran’s attempts to gain leverage in other realms after its concessions in the nuclear deal.
Early reports of the Islamic State’s use of encrypted communications have come into question. Updated analysis shows that, despite the group’s recently revealed (and plagiarized) “operational security” guide, the Paris attackers likely failed to use encryption whatsoever. These new findings cast doubt on recent assumptions of the Islamic State’s cyber capabilities, though they will likely still fuel arguments in the West for government-mandated “back door” access to encrypted communications, in the name of thwarting future attacks.