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Archive for October, 2014

Tunisians in historic vote spurred by Arab Spring

October 26, 2014

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Tunisians expressed tentative hope for the future as they lined up early Sunday to choose their first five-year parliament since they overthrew their dictator in the 2011 revolution that kicked off the Arab Spring.

The past three and a half years have been marked by political turmoil, terrorist attacks and a faltering economy which has brought disillusionment to many over the democratic process, even though Tunisia is widely seen as the country that has the best chance for democracy in the Arab world.

“We are proud to vote. It’s our duty as citizens and I am optimistic,” said Zeinab Turabi, a lawyer in the affluent Tunis neighborhood of Sukra. “If you don’t vote, you’ll get Libya,” he added, referring to the neighboring country which has been taken hostage by violent militias since the downfall of dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

At polling stations in the 27 districts across Tunisia, citizens have a bewildering array of candidates to choose from with more than 50 choices laid out on enormous ballots, though the Islamist Ennahda Party is expected to do well.

The election in this country of 11 million is for the 217 seat parliament and the largest party will get the right to form a government. Presidential elections are in November. “I came to vote to save my country from many things, primarily terrorism, and then inflation and unemployment,” said Wafaa Masmoudi, a civil servant voting in the Tunis suburb of Carthage.

As recently as Friday, police stormed a house full of suspected militants after a 24-hour standoff, killing five women and a man, all described as “terrorists” by the government. The Ennahda Party did well immediately after the revolution, though many criticized the Islamists’ turbulent two years in power and they later stepped aside in favor of a transition government ahead of elections.

“I don’t want the same people to stay in power, that is why I came to vote to prevent that from happening,” said Amira Medeb, a bank director who admitted she was afraid for the future. In the lower income Tunis neighborhood of Yasmina, voters chose to separate themselves into male and female lines while waiting to vote, officials said.

“We wanted this separation because it is not logical for men and women to be mixed in the same line, we must respect each other,” said Mohammed Saleh Mellouli, a middle-aged man with a beard. He cited the economy as his main concern in the election.

Despite Sunday being a weekend in Tunisia, people woke early to vote, citing the five hour long lines in 2011. “The last three years have been really bad, but we’re hoping it will get better,” said Mehdi Omar, a taxi driver, his finger stained blue from the indelible ink used to mark voters.

Associated Press writer Bouazza ben Bouazza contributed to this report.

Tunisians skeptical on eve of historic election

October 25, 2014

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — In a raucous cafe in a Tunis slum, men talked in loud voices and paid little attention to the politicians debating on the television mounted on the wall. Qais Jebali swiftly made espressos behind the bar and explained why no one in the gritty neighborhood of Tadamon cared about the upcoming elections.

“We’ve had five governments since 2011 and nothing has changed on the ground,” he said, arranging the cups of strong black coffee on a tray with a bowl of sugar. “The poor people don’t trust the government because they are marginalized, harassed by police and don’t have money to pay bribes.”

Outside, members of the National Guard in bullet-proof vests and carrying assault rifles waved cars through a dilapidated traffic circle. Security was heightened because a standoff with suspected militants was taking place just a few kilometers (miles) away.

On Sunday, Tunisians will vote for their first five-year parliament since they overthrew dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, marking the end of the democratic transition that they alone among the pro-democracy Arab Spring uprisings have managed to achieve. Now, many Tunisians are expressing disillusionment over democracy.

They say it has not brought prosperity and seems largely to involve squabbling politicians and attacks by Islamic militants, raising fears that many may not turn out to vote in a country that has been described as the best chance for democracy in the Arab world.

“There is a depression after these three years of seeing rulers lying, not keeping their word, not doing or not even trying to do what they promised to do, and especially, in the midst of a dire economic situation,” said Chawki Gaddes, a political analyst at Tunis University.

In 2011, the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party dominated elections and formed a coalition government with two secular parties. Over the next two years, the country was buffeted by punishing inflation, attacks by radical Islamists, assassinations and the daily spectacle of squabbling politicians in a country accustomed to a half century of one-party rule.

As the government and opposition deadlocked amid the rising political acrimony — and against the backdrop of a military coup against the Islamist government in nearby Egypt — the Islamist-led government stepped down at the end of 2013 in favor of new cabinet of technocrats.

Polling from the Pew Research center in Tunisia has seen support for democracy as the best form of government drop from 63 percent in 2012 to 48 percent, while the demand for a strong leader rose from 37 percent to 59 percent.

The disaffection is particularly strong among young people, the group that so spectacularly took to the streets to fight Ben Ali’s riot police and force him out of power three years ago. In the neighborhoods like Tadamon, it’s difficult to find any young people registered to vote. According to Mouheb Garoui of the election monitoring group I Watch, some 60 percent are undecided just days before the election.

“There were so many promises in 2011 and now the same promises are being made in 2014,” he said. “There is discontent and apathy among youth.” The Islamist-led government managed to lay down many of building blocks of a new political system and, together with the opposition, write a constitution described as one of the most progressive in the region. Yet the turmoil and deadlock kept away foreign aid, tourism and investment.

“The question of the economy was neglected in the three years of the revolution — it was years of political wrangling and political transition,” Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa, the interim prime minister that succeeded the Islamist government, told The Associated Press. He says his administration, which succeeded the Islamist government, has begun the necessary economic reforms to stabilize the country. Under his watch, foreign aid has flowed back to the country.

In the past year, security forces have also carried out a string of attacks to dismantle suspected militant cells, most recently on Friday when a counterterrorism operation in the suburbs resulted in the deaths of six alleged militants — five of them gun-toting women, according to police.

The party most hoping to capitalize on voters’ disaffection is Nida Tunis (Tunisia’s Call) run by charismatic — albeit 87-year-old — politician Beji Caid Essebsi, who is clearly trying to evoke the good old days of an educated, modern Tunisia without the dictatorship.

Formed after the revolution, the party brings together trade unionists, businessmen and more than a few politicians from Ben Ali’s time that are united by little more than opposition to the Islamists. The main message of their campaign has been that their party represents progress in the face of what they call the reactionary policies of Ennahda.

“We needed a party to bring back the middle class that was pushed to the side by the aggression of the Islamists and their beliefs,” said Mustapha Ben Ahmed, a member of the party’s executive bureau. “This historical bloc can restore the prestige of the state.”

The party is probably the only one that can compete with Ennahda’s impressive organization around the country and is running equal in polls. With the anti-Islamist vote divided among many parties all promising jobs and stability, Ennahda likely will have to be part of any future coalition — a possibility Ben Ahmed fervently condemned as an “unnatural alliance.”

The leader of Ennahda, however, has said his party is ready to make a coalition with whomever else the voters choose, though Nida Tunis would not be his first choice. Rachid Ghannouchi told AP that the lesson he has learned from the party’s first experience in power was the need for an even broader-based coalition to carry out the difficult reforms need to get the country on track.

“Before when we came to power we were just activists and not statesmen but today we have both activists and statesmen,” he said. “We have gained experience and become more realistic with a better understanding of the problems of the people.”

At a massive Ennahda rally in the heart of downtown on the iconic Bourguiba Avenue on the eve of the election, thousands cheered and waved flags, showing none of the flagging enthusiasm for politics found elsewhere.

For supporters of the party, any past missteps are made up for by the belief that the Islamists have their best interests at heart. “They were learning,” said Kamal Ali as he drove his car through downtown. “Do children on the first day of school already know how to read and write?”

He gestured at the still damaged husk of the old ruling party headquarters nearby. “The others they knew how to do politics, but they also knew how to steal — morals is the most important thing.”

Associated Press writers Bouazza ben Bouazza and Sam Kimball contributed to this report.

Tunisia holds election dry run

By Jamel Arfaoui in Tunis for Magharebia


To prepare for all surprises on the real election day, Tunisia held a test vote last Saturday (October 18th).

“Preparations have reached final phases,” said Mohamed Chafik Sarsar, who heads the Independent High Electoral Commission (ISIE).

“ISIE employees and cadres are putting the final touches before election day on October 26th,” he said.

The election dry run, attended by ISIE representatives and civil society groups, was held in the Tunis suburb of Ben Arous.

The test starting with receiving election documents, tools and printed materials at the polling stations.

It then simulated the experience of voters, from the time they arrive to cast their ballots: identity checks, receiving the ballot, entering the voting booth and putting the ballot in the box.

Other practice runs focused on preventing voter fraud at the ballot box level.

These included carrying the ballot boxes to the collection center (there is an assembly center in each constituency) and the attendees learning how to take down the results based on sorting reports received from polling stations. This is to be conducted manually, with the data later entered into a computerized system.

“For a moment, I felt as if it was a real election day,” Abir al-Saidi, who took part in the dry run, told Magharebia. “The scene was well organised, and our army and police forces were present in the place wearing their official uniforms.”

Her colleague Tarik Bouziane urged citizens to abide by instructions and to go to polling stations early on October 26th.

“We all have to take advantage of this day to confirm our patriotism and cherish our right to freely choose those who will represent us in parliament,” Bouziane said.

More than 5 million citizens have registered for the vote.

Security forces have been deployed around polling stations to provide protection until the end of voting and sorting.

The dry run capped a training course for some 50,000 workers who will secure the poll, the ISIE chief said. The initiative was launched after some expressed concerns about potential technical and human disruptions.

ISIE member Nabil Bafun said that the election would take place smoothly and that the commission was prepared for all surprises.

“ISIE will also respect election law by announcing the election results within three days,” he told TAP.

“The supervising electoral committee has gained enough experience to make the vote a success on October 26th,” voter Samia El Alaoui told Magharebia.

Source: Magharebia.


Derna Islamists open Sharia court


The Shura Council of Islamic Youth officially launched its own court in Derna, Libya Herald reported on Wednesday (October 22nd).

The former al-Qaeda affiliate and Ansar-al Sharia branch, which recently declared allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS), set up the Sharia court in the legal aid building next to King Idris library.

Daesh signs are now on buildings across Derna. Another banner saying “Islamic Police” was put up at one station. Police vehicles also bear the new markings.

The Yemeni head of Derna’s new Sharia court, Abu Taleb Al-Jazrawi, reportedly demanded that schools stop teaching foreign languages, physics, chemistry and biology.

The group on Saturday flogged several young men for drinking alcohol. In late August, the Shura Council of Islamic Youth staged a public execution at the local football stadium.

Source: Magharebia.


Benghazi welcomes Libyan army

By Nadia Radhwan in Benghazi for Magharebia


Libyan army forces on Wednesday (October 22nd) entered Sidi Khalifa in the eastern suburbs of Benghazi with little resistance from Shura Revolutionary Council fighters.

The army’s reconnaissance vehicles were met with cheers and applause by citizens in the al-Wahaishi and al-Salam neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, the air force on Wednesday evening targeted the headquarters of Raf Allah al-Sahati brigade, one of the biggest terror strongholds in the al-Hawari area.

Fighter jets also attacked the al-Quarshah gate, another terrorist stronghold. Supplies coming from western Libya to terrorist groups in the east pass through the gate.

The Libyan army said terrorist Tawfik Makhlouf al-Hejazi and his son were killed following desperate resistance after he refused to turn himself in. The event capped several developments on a tense day in the Deriana area, east of Benghazi.

A suicide bomber attacked a security checkpoint in the same area early Wednesday morning, AFP reported. One person was killed and four were wounded in the car bombing.

At least 10 others were slain in Benghazi on Wednesday, bringing the death toll in the recent clashes to 110 people.

The army declared a curfew in Benghazi from 7:00pm Wednesday to 7:00am Thursday and warned that it would open fire on any movement, especially in areas where the terrorist group Ansar al-Sharia is active.

Benghazi district youths shared a circular on social networking websites in which they warned about three large garbage trucks loaded with snipers and suicide bombers on their way to al-Salam neighborhood where the army’s reconnaissance vehicles entered. Pictures of al-Hejazi going around that area Wednesday evening were also shared on social networking websites.

Meanwhile, a Libyan soldier was killed Wednesday evening as he dismantled a landmine in Sidi Mansour, east of Benghazi.

Two decomposed bodies were also found in Sidi Mansour as the army combed the area and cleared explosives and landmines.

Skirmishes continue around the February 17th Brigade camp as remnants of the Islamist forces battle the Libyan army’s 204th Tank Battalion and 21st Special Operations Battalion. The army is combing the area, prompting fierce battles between the Special Forces and the extremists at the university campus, which they penetrated after their February 17th Brigade base was captured by the army. As a result, shells hit the public administration building.

The army also said it had cleared Benina and Sidi Faraj of extremist militias, which had controlled them for months.

“We express our respect and appreciation to our army’s officers, non-commissioned officers and soldiers for their great sacrifices for Libyans,” commented Marwan al-Kharam, a 35-year-old journalist. “We pray to God to have mercy on those who died for the true Islam, not the Islam of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), and on those who died for truth, homeland, pride, honor and dignity.”

For her part, lawyer Najlaa al-Zaydi said: “The internal security and intelligence agency must be activated as of now in Benghazi. We call upon all former security agencies to return to work.”

“We also call upon all honest people and heroes, all those who love Benghazi, the cradle of revolution, our land and home, which has always been generous to everyone, all military units and all those whose hands haven’t been stained with blood, to return to work and join the army. Those who fail to do that will be deemed as traitors who have no place among honest people,” she added.

“This is the hour of decisiveness,” al-Zayda said.

Source: Magharebia.


Japan, North Korea start talks on abductions

October 28, 2014

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — Japanese and North Korean officials held talks in Pyongyang for the first time in 10 years Tuesday, meeting to assess progress into North Korea’s investigation into the fates of Japanese citizens who were abducted in the 1970s and ’80s.

The abduction issue has long been a major obstacle in the frosty ties between the two nations, which have no formal diplomatic relations. The Japanese delegation, led by Junichi Ihara, head of the Asia and Oceania affairs bureau at Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is to stay in North Korea for four days.

After years of denial, North Korea acknowledged in an unprecedented 2002 summit between Kim Jong Il and then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi that its agents had kidnapped 13 Japanese, mainly to train spies in Japanese language and culture. It allowed five of them to return to Japan that year, but said the others had died.

Japan believes hundreds more may have been abducted and some may still be alive. In what was seen as a significant breakthrough after years of stalemate, North Korea agreed in May to launch a new probe into the abductions. In exchange, Japan agreed to ease some unilateral sanctions on North Korea, though it continues to enforce sanctions backed by the United Nations over North Korea’s nuclear and long-range missile programs.

But progress in North Korea’s re-investigation has been slower than Tokyo had hoped. In September, Ihara and his North Korean counterpart, Song Il Ho, held a meeting in the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang. Japan was hoping then to receive a preliminary report on the investigation, but none was presented.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the delegation is being sent to convey that the resolution of the issue is a high priority for Japan. He has promised not to relent until all of the abductees are returned to Japan or accounted for.

That could prove to be a very complicated and sensitive matter since estimates of the number of abductees range from the 17 that the Japanese government officially acknowledges to more than 800 that Japanese police list as cases of missing persons in which abductions by North Korea cannot be ruled out.

The last time the two sides had talks in Pyongyang was in November 2004, six months after Koizumi’s second visit.

Taiwan reveals new plans to send nuclear waste abroad

Taipei (AFP)

Oct 14, 2014

Taiwan on Tuesday unveiled plans to process nuclear waste abroad for the first time as its power plants reach capacity — but environment groups slammed the proposal as “too risky”.

The government is under growing public pressure over its unpopular nuclear policy as concerns over the safety of its plants have grown since the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan.

Authorities were forced in July to seal off a new power plant due to open next year, pending a referendum on its future.

But the government says Taiwan will run out of energy if it ditches nuclear power — the three plants currently operated by state-owned Taipower supply 20 percent of the island’s electricity.

The new proposals, announced on Tuesday by a special government task force, pave the way for used nuclear fuel rods stored at two plants to be shipped abroad to be processed.

A reduced amount of nuclear material would then be sent back to Taiwan and re-stored at the sites, which are due to come out of commission within the next few years and are reaching storage capacity.

“The storage sites of the two plants would run out of capacity next year and the plants would have to be shut down if these plans were not carried out,” Bob Lee, spokesman for the task force, told AFP.

He added that open bidding was scheduled for next year to pick a contractor. One Taipower official said a French firm had already voiced interest in processing the waste.

The government and Taipower say the processing plan could significantly reduce the amount of used nuclear fuel and that only a few countries have the technology to carry it out.

But the plan sparked opposition from environmental protection groups who questioned the safety of shipping the fuel.

Activist Pan Han-shen of the Tree Party warned it was “too risky”.

“Any risks in the process of transportation could be a huge disaster,” he said.

The two plants which currently store the spent fuel rods were launched in 1978 and 1981 — they will each be decommissioned once they have been operational for 40 years.

Concerns about Taiwan’s nuclear power facilities have mounted since 2011, when Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant was hit by a tsunami which knocked out power to its cooling systems and sent reactors into meltdown.

Like Japan, Taiwan is regularly hit by earthquakes. In September 1999 a 7.6-magnitude quake killed around 2,400 people in the island’s deadliest natural disaster in recent history.

Source: Nuclear Power Daily.


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