Middle East Roundup: Libya, Syria, Egypt, Iran

Updated On: Nov 23, 2011

NTC announces new cabinet; Saif al-Islam to be tried in Libya

Libya's interim Prime Minister Abdulrahman El Keib named a new government on Tuesday which dropped several experienced officials in favour of appointees who could tone down rivalries between regional factions.

The National Transitional Council (NTC) faces the challenge of reconciling regional and ideological interests whose rivalry could destabilise the country three months after the end of Col Muammar Gaddafi’s rule.

Western countries welcomed the new government, saying it would set Libya on the path towards democracy.

Foreign diplomats had been expecting the foreign minister's job to go to Libya's deputy envoy to the United Nations, Ibrahim Dabbashi, who had rallied other Libyan officials to turn against Col Gaddafi soon after the revolt erupted against his rule. The position was instead given to Ashour Bin Hayal, a little-known diplomat from the eastern city of Derna, a long-standing anti-Gaddafi stronghold.

The biggest surprise was the appointment of Osama al-Juwali, chief of the Zintan military council, who was appointed defence minister at the expense of Islamist Hakim Bilhaj.

Mr Juwali, commander of the military council in the small city of Zintan, played a key role in the takeover of Tripoli in August, but until now he had no prominent national profile. It is reported that his forces captured Col Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam on Saturday and moved him to their hometown instead of the capital, and pressed for a cabinet position in return for handing over Saif al-Islam.

Islamists who were persecuted under Gaddafi but have been rising in power since the end of his reign were excluded from any strategic positions in the government. Their increasing influence has raised concerns among secularist Libyans, some neighbouring countries and Western backers of Libya.

Catherine Ashton, spokeswoman for the European Union's foreign policy chief, said that the EU was "confident that the interim leadership now in place will enable the country to embark on the political transition ahead."

The cabinet included two women, heading the ministries of health and social affairs, a symbolic step for Libya, a conservative Muslim society.

Report: Libya's NTC unveils new government line-up (Reuters, 22 Nov 2011)

Report: Libyan PM snubs Islamists with cabinet to please western backers (Guardian, 22 Nov 2011)

Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court's (ICC) chief prosecutor has accepted that Saif al-Islam will be tried in Libya and not in The Hague.

Luis Moreno-Ocampo, speaking in Tripoli, said the ICC had previously issued a warrant for arresting Saif al-Islam on war crimes charges because Libya's justice system was unable to do so, and added that Saif-al-Islam did not have to be tried in The Hague if Libya's own justice system was proficient enough. "[Mr Moreno-Ocampo] said that it is for the Libyan government to decide," said Justice Minister Mohammed Alagi, while insisting that Libya’s justice system was "absolutely ready." "Foreign governmental and non-governmental organisations are welcome to witness the trial," Mr Alagi said.

Mr Keib has promised that Saif al-Islam will receive a fair trial amid concerns about the possibility of ill-treatment after the brutal killing of Col Gaddafi. Libyan officials have promised Saif al-Islam’s safety whilst in captivity, although he faces the death sentence if tried in Libya.

Report: Saif al-Islam Gaddafi can face trial in Libya – ICC (BBC, 22 Nov 2011)

Report: Saif al Islam Gaddafi's fate 'to be decided by Libya' (Telegraph, 23 Nov 2011)

Syria faces international isolation as UN, Turkey denounce Assad regime

Meanwhile, Syria faces increasing international pressure as it continues to crack down on opposition to the government.

Activists said that Syrian troops killed 21 civilians and five army deserters on Tuesday. Confirmation of the killings was not possible as Syrian authorities, who blame the unrest on "armed terrorist groups," have prohibited most independent foreign media from entering the country.

In a latest development, Turkey demanded that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down for the sake of his people. "Without spilling any more blood, without causing any more injustice, for the sake of peace for the people, the country and the region, finally step down," Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday, while referring to Col Gaddafi’s downfall as a warning to Mr Assad.

Mr Erdogan’s admonition followed an attack on Turkish pilgrims in Syria on Monday, allegedly by Syrian forces. But Mr Erdogan echoed the stance of Arab League foreign ministers who have suspended Damascus, saying that his statements did not amount to a call for international action.

The United Nations estimates that over 3,500 have been killed since protests began in March. The UN General Assembly's human rights committee voted in favour of a resolution condemning Syria’s human rights abuses and demanding that Mr Assad halts the bloodshed and conform to an Arab League ultimatum to implement a peace plan. The resolution, drafted by Britain, France and Germany, will next move to a mid-December vote in the UN General Assembly.

The action comes after Russia and China vetoed a 4 October Security Council resolution demanding that Mr Assad stops the crackdown. Russian and China abstained in the General Assembly vote, which diplomats said could indicate a shift in their positions.

Syria's U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari said in response, “Although the draft resolution is submitted primarily from three European countries it is not a secret that the United States of America is the mastermind and main instigator of the political campaign against my country… This draft resolution definitely has nothing to do with human rights; it is only a part of the typically hostile policy by the United States against Syria.”

Arab foreign ministers are due to meet on 24 November to discuss Syria. The Arab League has announced plans to send about 500 monitors to Syria, and has refused to negotiate over the proposal after Syria suggested adjustments, according to Egypt’s state-run Middle East News Agency. The League repeated a call for “immediate measures” to stop the bloodshed, as well as the imposition of sanctions.

Report: Turkey tells Syria's Assad: Step down! (Reuters, 22 Nov 2011)

Report: UN Resolution Condemns Syria Abuses With Arab Backing (Bloomberg, 23 Nov 2011)

Egypt's military government faces continued protests despite concession

Meanwhile, in Egypt, thousands have continued to occupy Tahrir Square in Cairo despite a concession from the military for a quicker transition to civilian rule.

After four days of violent clashes, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi said presidential elections would be held by July 2012, instead of the original plan to have the military government rule until presidential elections in late 2012 to early 2013, but protesters said the concession was insufficient and demanded the resignation of the field marshal.

The military's original timetable for presidential elections, along with a draft constitution exempting the military and its budget from civilian supervision, triggered a mass protest in Tahrir Square on Friday. Bloodshed began when security forces attempted to remove the protesters from the square on Saturday. At least 30 people have been killed since Saturday and hundreds injured, Egypt's ministry of health said.

Field Marshall Tantawi said on national television on Tuesday that parliamentary elections scheduled to begin on 28 November would take place as planned, despite the unrest.

Report: Egypt unrest: Cairo protests continue despite military concessions (BBC, 23 Nov 2011)

US slaps Iran with fresh sanctions

In other news, the Obama administration on Monday hit Iran with fresh sanctions by formally naming the country’s financial sector a “money laundering concern,” so as to discourage businesses from trading with Iranian banks.

US officials also announced new sanctions against Iran’s oil sector and expanded the growing ranks of Iranian companies and individuals blacklisted from doing business with Americans.

Canada, Britain and France took similar punitive measures in a coordinated attempt to squeeze Iran economically after new accusations of Iranian scientists attempting to covertly obtain technology for nuclear weapons.

Diplomats and independent experts said the concerted effort by North American and European countries marks a significant increase in pressure on Iran.

The US stopped short of slapping direct sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran, but two European allies have demonstrated their willingness to take on the Central Bank.  Britain enacted sanctions that would completely cut off financial ties between Iranian and British banks, while France pressed Western nations to freeze all overseas assets held by the Central Bank of Iran and suspend all oil transactions.

The US has exercised caution, saying that more analysis is needed to examine potential impacts of such action on global markets. Some economists believe that a freeze on overseas assets held by the Central Bank of Iran could abruptly push up global oil prices, which would hurt Western economies while increasing Iran’s oil revenues.

Report: US, allies hit Iran with new sanctions (Washington Post, 22 Nov 2011)

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