Greater Middle East

Kurdish forces claim victory at Kobani

Kurdish forces at Kobani announced Jan. 26 that the town is now under their full control, with ISIS militants driven out of all neighborhoods. Joint forces of the People's Protection Units (YPG) and Peshmerga said ISIS remains in control only in a small village on the outskirts, which is expected to fall soon. Syria's Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) announced on Twitter that "the city of Kobane is fully liberated." YPG's posted to Twitter a photo of their fighters raising a flag on a liberated hilltop. The claim was also confirmed by the US military. "Anti-ISIL forces now control approximately 90 percent" of Kobani, Central Command said. The CentCom statement congratulated the town's "courageous fighters" for their "resilience and fortitude" and having denied ISIS "one of their strategic objectives."

Egypt: leftist protester killed at Tahrir Square

A demonstrator identified as Shaimaa El Sabbagh was killed in clashes with Egyptian police during a protest near Cairo's Tahrir Square on Jan. 24. She was reportedly hit with birdshot fired by police. The protest, on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the uprising against Hosni Mubarak, was called by the Socialist Popular Alliance, which has now opposed the regimes of Mubarak, Morsi and al-Sisi alike. The clash ironcially took place hours before state television aired a speech by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to mark the fourth anniversary of the uprising, pre-recorded as al-Sisi had  left for Saudi Arabia to offer his condolences over the death of King Abdullah (a patron of his regime). "I salute all our martyrs, from the beginning of January 25 [2011] until now," Sisi said in his speech, broadcast just before his own cops created yet another martyr. Islamist supporters of Mohamed Morsi, ousted in Sisi's July 2013 coup, are expected t dominate protests around the uprising commemoration. (Daily News Egypt, AFP, Jan. 24) ) It is often forgotten that Egypt also has a secular left opposition, which during the 2013 unrest launched a "Third Square" movement, rejecting both the Morsi and Sisi supporters then both occupying Cairo squares. 

Egypt: retrial for police in protester deaths

Egypt's Court of Cassation on Jan. 22 ordered a retrial for four police officers facing accusations of involuntary manslaughter relating to the deaths of 37 prisoners  in a van outside the Abu Zaabal prison in 2013. The prisoners, arrested days before during protests in support of former president Mohamed Morsi, were being transported from the Nasser City police station to the Abu Zaabal prison on Aug. 18, 2013, when the officers in question allegedly fired tear gas into an overcrowded police van. The gas caused 37 of the 45 prisoners within the van to die from suffocation. A series of conflicting early reports asserted that the detainees were attempting to escape, or being freed by an armed group. In March one of the officers, Lt. Col. Amr Farouk, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for involuntary manslaughter and extreme negligence. The other three officers, Ibrahim El-Morsi, Islam Abdel-Fattah and Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, were given suspended sentences. In June, those sentences were overturned by a lower appeals court. The coming retrial will be the final trial for the officers, as Egyptian law only permits two appeals.

Yemen's Houthi rebels: Iran's proxies?

Yemen's President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi (put in power in a US-brokered political deal in 2012) remains holed up in his palace besieged by Shi'ite Houthi rebels, who drove off the guards in a gun-battle yeserday. But through intermediaries, he has reportedly expressed readiness to accept rebel leader Abdel-Malik al-Houthi's demands for constitutional changes and a power-sharing agreement with the Houthis. (Reuters, Yemen Online, Jan. 21; Middle East Online, Jan. 20) The Jerusalem Post and, less predictably, Quartz play up the notion that the Houthis are Iran's proxies. The JP headlines that with the Houthi siege of the palace, "Yemen falls into Iran's orbit." As evidence, we are told that the Houthis' popular slogan is "Death to America, Death to Israel," also popular in Iran (and everywhere else in the Middle East). Quartz leads: "On the same day that US president Barack Obama warned Congress not to push for more sanctions against Iran, the regime in Tehran demonstrated why its threat to the world is not limited to nuclear weapons." Well, Iran doesn't actually have any nuclear weapons (hello?). And are the Houthis really Iran's proxies?

Lebanon's hashish valley arms against ISIS

Reporting from Lebanon's hashish heartland of the Bekaa Valley on Jan. 5 Public Radio International spoke to cannabis farmers who say they are ready to resist any ISIS incursion into their fastness. Ali Nasri Shamas, who runs a mechanized hashish factory in Bouday village, took up arms in 2007 to resist Lebanese government eradication forces. This paid off; the army hasn't been back since 2012. But now the Lebanese army and hash producers are confronting the same enemy. Although officially a wanted man for 35 years now, Shamas happily talks on-camera, alongside a three-ton yield of hash, flanked by masked employees, amid the clatter of processing machines.

Egypt: atheist gets prison for Facebook posts

An Egyptian court in Baheira governorate on Jan. 10 sentenced a student to three years in prison for announcing on Facebook that he is an atheist and for allegedly "insulting Islam." The sentence, the latest of several handed down on blasphemy charges in recent years, comes amid a coordinated government crackdown on perceived atheists. Authorities arrested the student, Karim Ashraf Mohamed al-Banna, with a group of others at a youth café in Beheira in November, Egypt's Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression reported. "Atheists are one of Egypt's least-protected minorities, although the constitution ostensibly guarantees freedom of belief and expression," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Egyptian authorities need to be guided by the constitution and stop persecuting people for atheism."

Saudi blogger to be flogged for blasphemy

Blogger Raif Badawi, convicted of "offenses to Islamic precepts" in Saudi Arabia, is to receieve 1,000 lashes starting Jan. 9. The lashing order says Badawi should "be lashed very severely." He is to receive 50 lashes once a week for the first 20 weeks of his 15-year prison term. The piunishment was imposed  for having co-founded a website, "Free Saudi Arabian Liberals" (now offline), and for posts to Facebook and Twitter. His posts criticized and poked fun at Saudi institutions such as the Commission for the Promotion of Goodness and the Prohibition of Vice (the "religious police"), the Saudi Grand Mufti, other Saudi ulema, or religious scholars. Among his offending comments: "My commitment is…to reject any repression in the name of religion…a goal that we will reach in a peaceful and law-abiding way." (Gatestone Institute, The Guardian, Jan. 8)

Egypt: secularism and dictatorship?

Opposition and human rights activists in Egypt are bracing for the impacts of a new law "anti-terrorism" decree signed by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi that allows life sentences for such ill-defined crimes as intending to "harm the national interest," "compromise national unity," or "breach security or public peace." Human rights attorney Ragia Omran told the New York Times, "Everyone in civil society is panicking." (Inquisitr, Dec. 27) At the end of 2014, el-Sisi boatsed of having detained nearly 10,000 for "rioting" and "terrorism" over the course of the year. (Daily News Egypt, Dec. 21)

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