SUEZ REGION: Egyptian President Muhamed Morsi has declared a 30-day emergency curfew in the cities of Port Said, Ismailia, and Suez, following riots that left dozens dead and hundreds injured. Protesters poured into the streets to reject both Morsi and his state of emergency.
Violence erupted in Port Said on Saturday following a partial verdict in a trial accusing 73 people of murder and related charges stemming from a 2012 football massacre between Al Ahly and Al Masry football fans. The mêlée resulted in the deaths of more than 70 Al Ahly fans and left over a thousand wounded. The court issued a death sentence for 21defendants. Verdicts on the remaining defendants, including nine accused police officers, have been postponed to 9 March.
Al Ahly fans in Cairo celebrated the decision, but in Port Said, the defendants’ enraged families attempted to storm the prison facility where defendants are held. As tension escalated, the nature of the unrest shifted to dissatisfaction with Egypt’s current leadership. Since Thursday, over 50 people have been killed in demonstrations around the country. Further protests have been called for the week ahead.
In Ismaila, police fired teargas at protesters attacking a police station with petrol bombs and stones. In Suez, the governorate building and four police stations were attacked by angry mobs in protests on the second anniversary of the January 25 Revolution. Nineteen prisoners fled Suez police stations; 18 weapons were stolen. Security forces closed roads in and out of Port Said; army units have taken control of the main Suez Canal administration building, provincial government buildings, power and water facilities, and banks and courts in Port Said.
On Sunday, the Greek embassy in Cairo reported that a Greek ship had been attacked by a group of armed protestors. The embassy stated that “no losses were reported and the ship proceeded with its navigation route shortly afterward.” The Greek embassy also concluded that Egyptian officials fully cooperated with their counterparts, taking all necessary measures to protect the vessel.
The head of the Third Field Army reported that the Suez Canal’s navigational office is fully functional and that it is monitoring international maritime traffic.
NILE VALLEY: Fighting between anti-government protesters and security forces in Cairo continue in clashes over what demonstrators call a power grab by Islamists, two years after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. More than 50 people have been killed in the unrest.
In Alexandria, several thousand protesters blocked one side of the corniche road in the Sidi Gaber district in Alexandria to commemorate the second anniversary of the “Friday of Anger”, January 28 2011. Protesters also cut off roads near to Al-Raml train station, in downtown Alexandria, as well as the Azaretah district.
Tensions escalated following the passage of a new and controversial Egyptian constitution, and Morsi’s ill-fated attempt to give himself sweeping powers until its ratification. In addition, fears regarding media persecution have risen. While international media outlets have not been affected by the protests, under the new constitution, the jailing of journalists is not explicitly banned, and newspapers can be shut down or confiscated following a legal ruling. The wording is vague and easily manipulated.
Finally, Morsi’s declaration of emergency law is reminiscent of the Mubarak regime, which kept Egypt under emergency law during his entire 30 year rule. His police used the provisions to muzzle dissent and round up opponents, including members of the Brotherhood and Morsi himself. These laws raise fears of abuse and fuel deep-rooted anger.
The protests expose a deep rift in Egyptian politics. Morsi’s opponents accuse him of failing to deliver on economic promises or living up to pledges to represent all Egyptians. Backers say the opposition desires to topple Egypt’s first freely elected leader by undemocratic means.
In a televised address, Morsi warned that he would not hesitate to take action to stem the violence, and invited the nation’s political forces for talks to resolve the nation’s crisis.
Police have closed all the main roads and highways near Tahrir Square. Vehicles are not allowed to stop or wait near the square. The U.S. and British Embassies have closed offices and suspended public services.
Despite the protests and a sluggish economy, Arab banks see the crises in Egypt as an opportunity to invest in Egypt’s largest financial institutions. NBD, the UAE’s biggest bank, will buy France’s BNP Paribas operations in Egypt, the bank confirmed. The deal is scheduled to be finalized by the end of the first quarter in 2013.
Expert Ahmed Adam states, “Even with all the troubles clouding the current financial environment, Egypt is a significant economy in the Middle East, with huge potential.” Egypt’s banking sector came second among the highest profitable sectors on the Egypt stock market last year, and still appears to be a promising market.
Egyptian tourism is also on the rise, up 17% from 2012, but not yet at pre- revolution levels. Investor confidence is poised on next month’s parliamentary elections and a possible loan from the IMF. The ongoing power struggle is likely to keep tourists and investors on standby until the political and security risks are resolved.
EGYPT TRAVEL ADVICE:
Despite the protests in parts of Egypt, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has updated, but not changed travel advice. The FCO warns that demonstrations happen regularly across Egypt, often on Fridays. Some have been violent and resulted in deaths, and police may use tear gas for crowd control. In addition, disturbances in Cairo, Port Said, Suez, Ismalia and Alexandria have been violent. A state of emergency is in force in Port Said, Suez and Ismalia; the curfew is from 21:00 to 06:00, and is expected to remain in place until 26 February 2013.
Over the past 48 hours, French-led troops in Mali have managed to take over the key town of Gao and the airport of Timbuktu from Islamist rebels. By Monday afternoon, French and Malian military sources confirmed that the troops had entered the historic city of Timbuktu, encountering minimal resistance from the militants. However it must be noted that while the towns of Gao and Timbuktu are currently under the control of French troops, travel to these areas continues to be unadvisable as the security situation may change at any moment. There continues to be a high level of terrorism and threat of kidnapping. As such, MS Risk advises against all travel to the region.
The advance into Timbuktu, which lies 1,000 km (600 miles) north of the capital city of Bamako, comes just one day after French and Malian soldiers seized control of another Islamist stronghold, the eastern town of Gao. French and Malian troops, along with soldiers from Chad and Niger, regained control of Gao on Saturday.
By Sunday, French paratroopers had swooped in to attempt to block the fleeing militants while on the ground troops, coming in from the south, seized the ancient city’s airport, which up until now had been one of the strongholds of the militant groups who have controlled the northern region of the country for the past ten months. Colonel Thierry Burkhard, a French army spokesman, confirmed that in less than 48 hours, the troops, backed by helicopters, had seized control of the Niger Loop, which is the area located alongside the curve of the Niger River that flows between Gao and Timbuktu. On the ground sources have also confirmed that the ground force units and paratroopers were dispatched to surround the city of Timbuktu in an attempt to cautiously enter the city.
On Monday afternoon, the French military confirmed that the troops had moved into Timbuktu after blocking all the roads surrounding the city. It was also confirmed that “substantial airpower” had been used in order to support the 1,000 French and 200 Malian forces in their offensive against the rebels in Timbuktu. A Malian army colonel has indicated that “the Malian army and the French army are in complete control of the city of Timbuktu.” However reports have already emerged that while the town remains to be under the control of the allies, a severe amount of damage was caused to some of the historic sites located throughout this ancient town. Mali’s culture ministry has confirmed that prior to escaping the town, the militants burnt the Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research, which housed between 60,000 and 100,000 manuscripts from Greece and the ancient Muslim world. Reports have also indicated that Islamists have been fleeing from Timbuktu towards the city of Kidal, which is located more than 500km (300 miles) to the northeast.
Gao is the largest of the six towns which have been seized by French and Malian troops since France launched its military intervention on 11 January. The largest town yet to be recaptured is Kidal, which is located close to the Algerian border. It was also the first town that was seized by an alliance of Tuareg rebels and Islamist extremists last year.
It is currently believed that once Timbuktu is secured, French-led troops will focus on retaking Kidal. Preparations for this final takeover have already been launched as Malian officials have confirmed that Kidal, which is the home of the head of Ansar Dine, was bombed overnight by French forces. Once Kidal is taken, the first phase of the French operation will be over, while the second phase, which will strictly focus on tracking down the militants in their desert hideouts, will commence. This phase, however, will likely prove to be a more complex task then the first as, according to French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, the militants have adopted a “strategy of evasion and some of them could return in the north.”
On Sunday, France also confirmed that it has now deployed 2,900 troops to Mali, with another 1,000 troops supporting the operation elsewhere, and that there currently are 2,700 African soldiers on the ground in Mali and in Niger. However French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault has appealed for more aid for the ongoing efforts in Mali.
The French-led military intervention in Mali has entered into its third week with French and Malian troops currently advancing towards the town of Gao after earlier retaking the northern town of Hombori. Meanwhile, militant extremists have struck back with the bombing of a strategic bridge in the region.
Official reports have confirmed that French and Malian troops have retaken the town of Hombori, which is located 160km (100 miles) from the Islamist stronghold of Gao. The movement towards Gao follows several days of air strikes which targeted Islamist bases, fuel stock and weapon dumps near the town. While troops are currently on their way to regain Gao, in the west, the French-led forces who recaptured the town of Diabaly on Monday are pushing towards the town of Lere, with the eventual plans of taking control of Timbuktu which lies further north. Gao is just one of three major northern towns, along with Kidal and Timbuktu, where al-Qaeda-linked Islamists have imposed a strict form of Sharia law over the past ten months..
Meanwhile, reports have indicated that rebels have blown up the Tassiga bridge which links Gao to neighbouring Niger. The bridge likes on the quickest route from Niger to Gao. More than 2,000 Chadian soldiers and 500 troops from Niger were planning to use this route in order to deploy and open a second front against the Islamists from the east. Although there is a detour, which is an additional three to six miles, that eventually links to the Niger-Gao road, it is currently unknown which direction these troops will take in order to link up with AU forces in Mali.
A large international troop-build up will continue over the weekend, ahead of a probable French-led air and ground offensive that will take place in Gao and other desert cities. Currently, France has 2,000 troops in Mali. More than 1,000 soldiers from Nigeria are expected to arrive in Mali within the coming days.
Unidentified sources told Verdens Gang (VG), a Norwegian newspaper, that the Islamist militants had placed inside knowledge of the Ain Amenas gas plant, and were able to place weapons inside the complex ahead of their 16 January attack. Hostage witness accounts also state that the attackers knew exactly where to find foreign workers inside the complex. An Algerian security official confirmed on Wednesday that one of the assailants had been employed as a chauffeur at the site up until last year.
Analysts suspect the Algerian government grew complacent in security at oil and gas installations in recent times, and the militants took advantage of the lapse in security. If the attacks were assisted by insiders, or succeeded due to complacency, a similar attack is less likely to be repeated elsewhere, as the conditions which allowed this attack are unlikely to be recreated. However, if the capability of the terrorists is greater than the security precautions in place, likelihood for attacks may increase.
Companies are now trying to determine whether the attacks at Ain Amenas were an isolated incident, or a paradigm shift for security in North Africa. As Militant Islamists are increasingly present and active in the region, it is possible they may now target energy facilities, especially in countries where the security is not as tight as it has been in Algeria.
Libya, which has a well-developed hydrocarbon sector, but a very week security infrastructure, is at particular risk, as well as other extractive industry installations in Mauritania or Niger.
It is unlikely that attacks will occur at similar facilities in the immediate future. Belmokhtar, mastermind of the raid, may take time to replace people and equipment that were lost in last week’s attacks. However, because the region is vast, and targets are increasingly scarce and difficult to attack, it is likely that militant groups will continue to expand their range of operations for new kidnapping victims. Ransoms from these victims would replace the resources lost in the attack.
Further complicating matters, following the Libyan revolution, an abundance of shoulder-fired missiles have become available in the region, adding to the risk that in lieu of kidnapping, militants may choose to conduct surface to air terrorism, such as attacking aircraft used to transport Westerners to extraction installations.
As smuggling operations in Mali become increasingly difficult and insurgents are driven further north, it is possible that the Islamist extremist groups will retreat into Mali’s Kidal region, Niger’s Air region, or as far back as Libya, where relative lawlessness allows operations to be conducted with comparative ease.
Canada, Britain, and several European countries have urged their nationals to leave Benghazi on Thursday, citing “specific and imminent” threats to Westerners days. The warning occurs a week after the attack at Ain Amenas gas complex in neighbouring Algeria, and was made due to a “credible threat” picked up by MI6 that was linked to last week’s raid. The threat was described as “specific” and “imminent”, however details have not been released.
Few Westerners are believed to be in Benghazi, the tumult in the city following the Libyan revolution saw an increase in violence toward diplomats, military, and police, including the September attack on the US Embassy which resulted in four deaths.
The British ambassador in Tripoli called each British national and told them to leave immediately, stating that there are threats of attack on foreign institutions run by foreigners, including schools and hospitals. Experts believe the warnings are likely from groups angered by the French operation in Mali, and inspired by last week’s events.
These warnings have shocked the Libyan government, who have not received formal information regarding the threat, and raised the ire of Deputy Interior Minister Abdullah Massud, who wants an explanation as to the nature of the threats. “If Britain was afraid of threats to its citizens,” he stated, “it could have pulled them out quietly without causing all the commotion and excitement.”
Libya is in the process of rebuilding its nation following the revolution, and warnings of this nature can cause foreign investment to drop at a time when building and strengthening foreign relationships is critical to the Libyan economy.
No restrictions in this travel advice
Avoid all but essential travel to part(s) of country
Avoid all but essential travel to whole country
Avoid all travel to part(s) of country
Avoid all travel to whole country
The UK Foreign Commonwealth office advise: “We are aware of a specific, imminent threat to Westerners in Benghazi. We advise against all travel to Benghazi and urge any British nationals who are there against our advice to leave immediately.” The FCO further advise against all but essential travel to Tripoli, Zuwara, Az Zawiya, al Khums, Zlitan and Misrata, and the coastal towns from Ras Lanuf to the Egyptian Border, with the exception of Benghazi. Finally, the FCO advise against all travel to all other areas of Libya, including Benghazi. Travellers to the region are warned of high threat from terrorism and kidnapping, as well as retaliatory attacks targeting Western interests in the region following the French intervention in Mali.
Algerian forces are combing the Sahara desert for five foreigners who remain missing from the attacks at Ain Amenas gas complex last week. It is unknown whether they were able to flee the complex and are perhaps lost in the vast desert region. The plant is located deep in the Sahara with few population centres nearby. Evening temperatures in the region can drop as low as 3° Celsius.
The attack last week left 38 workers and 29 militants dead. The al Qaeda-linked group reportedly demanded the release of two well-known, linked jihadists in exchange for American hostages. The two jihadists are Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman (a.k.a. the “Blind Sheikh”) and Aafia Siddiqui (a.k.a. “Lady Al Qaeda”). The request for their release, however unlikely, remains a common refrain by Al-Qaeda linked groups.
Of the three militants taken into custody, one stated under interrogation that some Egyptian members of the group were involved in the terrorist attacks at the US Mission in Benghazi. The attacks left four dead, including US Ambassador Chris Stevens, in September of last year. It is not known whether this confession was obtained under duress or should be deemed trustworthy. However, if confirmed, the link underscores the transnational characteristic of the jihadist groups now occupying the Sahara and Sahal regions.
US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, believes that the Islamist militant takeover of northern Mali had created a haven for terrorists to extend their reach in North Africa. Algerian officials believe the gas complex plot was devised by groups in northern Mali, where Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the leader of the group claiming responsibility, is believed to be based. Further reinforcing this notion, US intelligence officials believe that some members of Ansar al-Shariah, the group that carried out the attack in Benghazi, has connections to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Algerian officials say the Ain Amenas attackers travelled through Niger and Libya, whose border is only 30 miles from the plant. It is believed that the arms for the assault were purchased in Tripoli. The hostage takers converged in the southern Libyan town of Ghat, just across the border. Algerian officials believe the nation can expect more terrorist attacks, despite having delivered sharp blows to militants over a period covering nearly 15 years.
Belmokhtar, mastermind of the Ain Amenas attack, may have once worked as an agent for Algeria’s secretive internal security agency (Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité or DRS).
A 2009 cable describes a conversation with a prominent Tuareg leader assigned to the Malian consulate, who professed to be “as confused as everyone else regarding the Algerian government’s reticence to go after [Belmokhtar’s] camps in northern Mali”, presuming that Belmokhtar may have been receiving support from certain quarters of the Algerian government.
A senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies stated, “You have a number of jihadi figures who have approached intelligence agencies about serving as double agents, not because they wanted to betray the jihadi cause, but rather because they thought they could play the agencies and get more information about their thinking about the jihadis.”