Archive for December, 2015


OSLO, Norway (AP) — Members of the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, which helped build democracy in the violence-torn country after the 2011 revolution, collected the Nobel Peace Prize in the Norway’s capital on Thursday.

This year’s award was picked up at a ceremony in Oslo City Hall by members of four organizations, representing unions, industry, trade and human rights. The quartet is made up of four key groups: The Tunisian General Labor Union; the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts; the Tunisian Human Rights League; and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers, the country’s bar association.

Norwegian Nobel Committee Chairwoman Kaci Kullmann Five cited the group for “its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy” following Tunisia’s 2011 revolution that overthrew its long-time authoritarian president.

The gold medals and diplomas were picked up by Houcine Abassi, the labor union leader; Mohammed Fadhel Mafoudh, head of the bar association; Abdessatar Ben Moussa, president of the human rights group and Wided Bouchamaoui, the head of the employers’ association.

Addressing the audience of 1,000 people, including royalty, government members and foreign dignitaries, Kullmann Five described as “dramatic” the narrative behind this year’s peace prize. “It speaks to the core of Alfred Nobel’s will and Nobel’s vision of fraternity, disarmament and peace-building forums,” she said. “Against a backdrop of unrest and war … (their) resolute intervention helped to halt the spiraling violence and put developments on a peaceful track,” after the summer of 2013 when Tunisia was on the brink of civil war.

She said the 8 million Swedish kronor ($960,000) prize was for the quartet as a whole, not for the four individual organizations. All four prize winners took turns at addressing the gathering in the traditional peace laureates’ speech.

According to an English translation of the remarks in Arabic, Abassi expressed their sorrow and anger at the “terrorist acts” that had killed and injured hundreds. This year, two major attacks on tourists in Tunisia killed 22 people at the Bardo Museum in the capital, Tunis, and 38 at a resort near Sousse.

He said their “feeling of euphoria and pride does not obscure the grief sorrow and anger” they feel about recent violent events, including “Sousse, the Bardo Museum, Beirut, Paris, Sharm el-Sheikh and Bamako (with) scenes of barbaric and heinous terrorist acts.”

The peace award was the first of the Nobel prizes to be presented on Thursday. Later, the prizes in medicine, physics, chemistry, literature and the Nobel Memorial Prize in economic sciences, are to be handed out to the winners in the Swedish capital, Stockholm.

Police in the two countries had increased the already tight security surrounding the events since the Paris attacks, but gave no details. Last year, when prize winners Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi were receiving their award, a Mexican student ran onto the stage waving his country’s flag, which he had smuggled into the heavily guarded ceremony without an official invitation. The young man, who had applied for asylum in Norway, was quickly whisked away by a guard.

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November 27, 2015

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — An attack by Islamic State militants on Tunisia’s presidential guard has left this North African country, its economy and its democracy even more vulnerable just days before four Tunisians head to collect the Nobel Peace Prize.

Five years ago, a desperate Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire, unleashing a pro-democracy movement that swept the Arab world. This week, a Tunisian street vendor blew himself up on a presidential bus, killing 12 others in the name of the Islamic State and further darkening hopes for this country’s economy and newfound freedoms.

Alone among the nations that underwent the turmoil of the Arab Spring, Tunisia has emerged as a democracy, but just this last year has seen three devastating terrorist attacks claimed by the Islamic state that killed more than 70 people, mainly tourists and security forces.

What Tunisia needs now, analysts and the government say, is better intelligence and jobs for youth who see holy war as their only future without resorting to the brutal tactics that first sparked the revolution.

After each attack, the government has promised better security — including passing a counter-terrorism law over the summer criticized by human rights activists as draconian — yet the attacks have continued.

Their goal is to “seed chaos and destabilize the country, and in doing so, make a fledgling democracy fail,” Prime Minister Habib Essid said after the attack Tuesday, when a street vendor-turned-suicide bomber hopped on a bus carrying members of the elite presidential guard, killing 12 of them.

In March, two gunmen trained in a camp in neighboring lawless Libya unleashed carnage in the country’s leading museum, the Bardo, killing 22, mostly foreign tourists. Three months later, the Mediterranean beach resort of Sousse was the stage of a bloody operation by a student, also trained in Libya, who killed 38 tourists, mostly British.

Tunisia has already sought Western help for better police and border technology, built a sand wall on the Libyan frontier and shut down social media accounts of people suspected of terrorism links. But the problem is deep and broad.

More than 3,000 Tunisians are believed to be fighting along with other Islamic extremists in Syria, Iraq and Libya, and several hundred are believed to have returned to Tunisia and authorities have had trouble tracking them.

“While Tunisia has stepped up its policing, which is relatively easy to do, its intelligence capabilities, which are significantly harder to develop, are lagging,” Geoff Porter of North Africa Risk Consulting said in a research note.

The overthrown regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was known for its ruthlessly efficient network of informers, but they targeted mainly political dissidents and not the hardened jihadis in the poor neighborhoods.

Police, who are regarded with a great deal of suspicion by many sectors of society because of their brutal reputation, have struggled to build up networks of informers among the urban poor that feed the ranks of the jihadis.

The government announced a new string of measures after the latest attack to combat the extremists, putting the country back under a state of emergency with an overnight curfew around the capital. “It’s total war against terrorism,” the president’s office said in a statement. The border with Libya has been closed and security tightened at sea ports and airports.

The government is now revising next year’s budget — already tight because of economic troubles — to spend more on security and defense. It plans to create 6,000 more jobs linked to the army and police.

They’re also trying to speed up court proceedings — some 1,200 terrorism-related cases have been dragging through the courts for years. Issandr El Amrani, the North Africa director for the International Crisis Group, said efforts at beefing up intelligence gathering are just starting out and without a coherent strategy for reform it will be easy for police to fall into the kind of bad old habits that just feed the problem.

“The government as a whole — not just security forces — need to address socio-economic woes,” he said. “Otherwise the security forces end up having to bear the brunt alone, and Tunisians from marginalized areas — especially the urban poor and those in interior provinces — end up increasingly hostile to a state they only interact with when police are sent in.”

Samir Taieb, head of the opposition Al Massar party is all for a muscular government response, including calling up reservists, but he too cautioned not to forget the social and economic dimensions of the crisis, including a 25 percent unemployment rate among young people.

“We should also pursue the path of dialogue and consensus that won us the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize,” he said. Four Tunisian groups in the National Dialogue Quartet won this year’s prize for their efforts in 2013 to resolve a constitutional crisis and rescue the country’s efforts to build a democracy.

Residents of the capital don’t appear to be ceding to fear despite this week’s attack and crowds have been lining up to see movies as part of the Carthage Cinema Festival currently under way. The night of Tuesday’s attack, organizers decided to go ahead with the show.

“If the terrorists think they’ll scare us, they’ve got the wrong address,” said 30-year-old public servant and festival-goer Ahmed Sassi. “We are attached to life, we love culture and we will continue to go out.”

Angela Charlton in Paris and Paul Schemm in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, contributed to this report.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Tunisia’s Ennahda Movement has called for an immediate national conference on combating terrorism in light of the terrorism attack that occurred yesterday in the country’s capital.

In a statement issued by Ennahda last night, a copy of which was obtained by Anadolu news agency, the movement stressed the need for “a comprehensive strategy to mobilize the Tunisians and their political forces in order to eliminate [terrorism].”

In early October, Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid announced the delay of the national conference to combat terrorism (which was due to be held at the end of October), saying that the conference was postponed to allow for more coordination on the national and international level.

In its statement, Ennahda denounced yesterday’s crimes and the perpetrators. The movement stressed that it would stand by the national security and army forces in its confrontation of terrorist gangs and called for supporting these national forces and improving their abilities and preparedness.

In the same statement, the movement stressed that “national unity and solidarity are the weapons of the Tunisian [people] in the open war against the danger of terrorism that targets the lives, state, revolution, and democracy of Tunisia and Tunisians.”

“Terrorism has no future and it will be defeated. These terrorists have no relation to true Islam, a religion of peace, tolerance and brotherhood and their crimes will not affect the morale of our people or our security and military forces, nor will they hinder our people’s path towards achieving development and establishing freedom and democracy,” the movement added.

Earlier yesterday, the Tunisian presidency announced that 12 presidential security guards had died and 17 were injured as a result of a bomb that targeted the presidential bus in the Tunisian capital.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/africa/22477-ennahda-calls-for-national-conference-on-combatting-terrorism.

By Jalal Al Makhfi

Ouarzazate, Morocco (AFP)

Dec 13, 2015

On the edge of the Sahara desert, engineers make final checks to a sea of metal mirrors turned towards the sun, preparing for the launch of Morocco’s first solar power plant.

The ambitious project is part of the North African country’s goal of boosting its clean energy output with what it says will eventually be the world’s largest solar power production facility.

Morocco has scarce oil and gas reserves, and is the biggest importer of energy in the Middle East and North Africa.

The plant is part of a vision to move beyond this heavy dependency and raise renewable energy production to 42 percent of its total power needs by 2020.

About 20 kilometers (12 miles) outside Ouarzazate, half a million U-shaped mirrors — called “parabolic troughs” — stretch out in 800 rows, slowly following the sun as it moves across the sky.

Spread over an area equivalent to more than 600 football pitches, they store thermal energy from the sun’s rays and use it to activate steam turbines that produce electricity.

King Mohamed VI launched construction of the plant, called Noor 1, in 2013, at a cost of 600 million euros ($660 million) and involving roughly 1,000 workers.

Its start of operations by the end of this month was set to coincide with the conclusion of high-stakes COP21 global climate talks in Paris.

“Construction work has finished,” said Obaid Amran, a board member of Morocco’s solar power agency.

“We are testing components of the production units with a view to connecting them to the national grid at the end of the year.”

The project’s next phases — Noor 2 and Noor 3 — are to follow in 2016 and 2017, and a call for tenders is open for Noor 4.

– ‘A million homes’ –

Once all phases are complete, Noor will be “the largest solar power production facility in the world”, its developers say, covering an area of 30 square kilometers (11.6 square miles).

It will generate 580 megawatts and provide electricity to a million homes.

The solar power project will also help reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The energy ministry estimates that its first solar power plant will allow the country to reduce CO2 emissions by 240,000 tonnes per year initially, and by 522,000 tonnes with the second two phases.

That is equivalent to nearly one percent of Morocco’s CO2 emissions of around 56.5 million tonnes in 2011, according to World Bank figures.

The so-called “greenhouse effect” is a natural phenomenon — an invisible blanket of gases including small amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) — that has made Earth warm enough for humans to survive on it comfortably.

But human activities such as burning coal and oil inject additional CO2 into the atmosphere, leading to global warming.

Humanity’s annual output of greenhouse gases is higher than ever, totaling just under 53 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2014, according to the UN.

Morocco, to host next year’s COP22, aims to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 32 percent by 2030 as it develops renewable energy production.

“We have a project to introduce 6,000 megawatts to the existing electricity production nationwide,” Energy Minister Abdelkader Amara said recently.

“Two thousand megawatts will come from solar energy and 2,000 megawatts from wind and hydroelectric power.”

Morocco started producing electricity at Africa’s largest wind farm in its southwestern coastal region of Tarfaya last year.

“Things have been going well so far,” the minister said. “We’re likely to go beyond 2,000 megawatts by 2020 in the area of wind power.”

But Rabat has not abandoned fossil fuels altogether — last December, Amara announced a multi-billion-dollar project to step up Morocco’s search for natural gas to produce electricity.

Source: Solar Daily.

Link: http://www.solardaily.com/reports/Vast_desert_sun_farm_to_help_light_up_Morocco_999.html.

December 17, 2015

SKHIRAT, Morocco (AP) — Hopes that divided, war-ravaged Libya can pull itself together and fend off advancing Islamic State extremists soared on Thursday, as the country’s rival factions signed a U.N.-brokered deal to form a unity government that is meant to bring about peace.

But the lawmakers from Libya’s rival parliaments who hugged and celebrated at the signing ceremony in Morocco still face the enormous task of convincing the deal’s many opponents back home — including rival political factions and heavily armed militias — that compliance is worthwhile.

Libya slid into chaos following the 2011 toppling and killing of dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Since then, its divisions only increased, and now it has two governments and parliaments — the internationally recognized one in the country’s east, and an Islamist-backed one in the capital, Tripoli.

The agreement aims to create a new national government in Tripoli, end the divide between the rival parliaments, governments and military coalitions, and give the international community a partner for its battle against the IS’s affiliate in Libya and human traffickers.

The agreement also envisages a presidential council tasked to choose the Cabinet, which includes a prime minister, five deputies, and three state ministers. Fayez Serraj, a member of the eastern parliament from Tripoli, will head the council.

“On paper, this is fantastic news,” said analyst Claudia Gazzini of International Crisis Group. “In practice, the uncertain level of support for the agreement in Libya, the fact that the leadership of both existing parliaments oppose it and are busily devising their own peace plan, and the fact that the new government will have little control over key parts of the country have left many skeptical.”

The document was signed by Emhemed Shoaib, the deputy speaker of the internationally recognized Libyan parliament, and Salah al-Makhzoum, the second deputy of the Islamist-backed parliament based in Tripoli, among others. But it has detractors on both sides who seek a separate deal without U.N. involvement.

“We know well that the document of political accord in its current form is not the perfect thing that everyone wants, but at the same time, this political accord is a stage on the path to rescue Libya from collapsing and to ensure its unity,” al-Makhzoum said.

Shoaib said the deal is meant to say “goodbye to weapons” that Libya is awash in. The speakers of the two parliaments — Tripoli-based Nuri A.M. Abusahmain and Aguila Saleh Issa from the east — were not at the Morocco ceremony. The two, who are seen by analysts as hard-liners, held talks on Tuesday in Malta to forge a separate deal without U.N. involvement.

Afterward, they issued a statement saying the representatives who travelled to Morocco were not mandated to represent the parliaments in the talks. Before the start of Thursday’s ceremony, Al-Makhzoum and Faraj Abu-Hashem, the spokesman for the east-based parliament, told The Associated Press that 88 lawmakers from the two parliaments were present at the signing. The eastern parliament has 156 known members, while the rival parliament in Tripoli has 135.

U.N. envoy Martin Kobler, who attended the Morocco ceremony, said that it was “just the beginning of a long journey for Libya.” “Four challenges in particular will immediately test the abilities of the new government,” he said. “First, to face immediately the dire humanitarian situation in the country. Second, an inclusive national security dialogue. Third, the fight against Daesh (the Islamic State group) and other terrorist groups, and fourth, a particular attention to Benghazi and other areas.”

The foreign ministers of Turkey, Italy, Spain, Qatar, Tunisia, and Morocco also spoke at the ceremony in support of the deal. Among the first to welcome the deal was French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who praised the accord and promised to support efforts by a new unity government.

“The priority should now go toward creating a national unity government,” he said in a statement. “That’s the condition for tackling terrorism and trafficking that threaten the security of the region and Europe.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the ceremony a “historic signing … a critical step in continuing Libya’s post-revolution transition after months of turmoil and uncertainty.” Ban said the U.N. will keep working to broaden support for the agreement and also cautioned that the “road ahead will be difficult.”

In Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby welcomed the deal, saying it “provides the framework for establishing a unified Libyan government of national accord.” Stopping the violence however hinges on getting the government up and working in Tripoli despite any opposition it may face there, said Mattia Toaldo, a policy fellow at the European council on foreign relations think tank.

“If they manage to solve the Tripoli issue, they have a relatively good chance, because there are number of local cease-fires already in place in Libya,” he said. “If the government doesn’t manage to establish itself in Tripoli, then there could be a big battle for the control of it between militias loyal to the — let’s call it the U.N. government — and militias loyal to the GNC. That could mean a lot of fighting and a lot more space for IS to expand.”

Musa reported from Benghazi, Libya. Associated Press writers Maram Mazen and Brian Rohan in Cairo; Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations; Matthew Lee in Washington and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.

December 13, 2015

ROME (AP) — Foreign ministers were poised to endorse a U.N.-brokered national unity plan for Libya at a Rome conference aimed at prodding the North Africa country’s bickering factions to fulfill their commitment to sign the agreement and abide by its terms.

Libya slid into chaos following the 2011 toppling and killing of dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Since then, it has been torn between an internationally recognized government in eastern Tobruk and an Islamist-backed government in the capital, Tripoli, and now faces threats from Islamic State extremists.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni were co-hosting the meeting that also included top diplomats and senior officials from 16 nations, the African Union, the Arab League and the United Nations.

The officials are to endorse the U.N. deal that Libya’s bickering factions have said they intend to sign in Morocco on Wednesday. The plan calls for the creation within 40 days of a national unity government that would then seek security assistance from outside parties to ease the conflict and concentrate on IS. It would give the Libyans until early February to form a presidency council that would appoint a cabinet, including chiefs of the central bank and national oil company, and begin the process of moving the Tobruk-based parliament back to Tripoli.

Libya’s oil industry has been largely crippled by the crisis. Proper management, as well as that of the central bank, is considered essential to the country’s viability. The plan would extend the reconstituted parliament’s term by one year and allow for an automatic one-year extension of its mandate beyond that, if necessary.

The U.N. Security Council is expected to approve of the agreement shortly after it is signed by the Libyans. IS is trying to extend its influence beyond areas it now controls, including the city of Sirte. The envisioned “government of national accord” is seen as critically important to help restore security and to mobilize international support to counter the extremists.

The United Nations and many countries concerned about Libyan crisis and the rise of IS stepped up efforts to get the rival governments to accept the power-sharing agreement since the factions rejected the deal in October.

“Libya is in a race against time,” the U.N. special envoy for the country, Martin Kobler, told the U.N. Security Council on Friday. “Its very social fabric, national unity and territorial integrity is directly endangered by the forces of extremism and terrorism.”

Kobler, who is at the Rome meeting, mediated the meeting at which some 40 Libyan lawmakers from the two sides agreed to sign the deal this Wednesday. The Security Council has welcomed that date and expressed “grave concern” at the expansion of Islamic State extremists and their threat to Libya and the region. Council members “stressed that a unity government must be formed swiftly to counter this threat” and they again threatened sanctions against those impeding the restoration of peace and stability.

December 15, 2015

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Saudi Arabia said Tuesday that 34 nations have agreed to form a new “Islamic military alliance” to fight terrorism with a joint operations center based in the kingdom’s capital, Riyadh.

The announcement, published by the state-run Saudi Press Agency, said the alliance will be Saudi-led and is being established because terrorism “should be fought by all means and collaboration should be made to eliminate it.”

The statement said Islam forbids “corruption and destruction in the world” and that terrorism constitutes “a serious violation of human dignity and rights, especially the right to life and the right to security.”

The new counterterrorism coalition includes nations with large and established armies such as Pakistan, Turkey and Egypt as well as war-torn countries with embattled militaries such as Libya and Yemen. African nations that have suffered militant attacks such as Mali, Chad, Somalia and Nigeria are also members.

Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, Shiite Iran, is not part of the coalition. The two support opposite sides of in the wars raging in Syria and Yemen. Saudi Arabia is currently leading a military intervention in Yemen against Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, and is part of the U.S.-led coalition bombing the Sunni extremist Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

Turkey, the only country in the alliance that is also a NATO member, welcomed the new coalition. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called it the “best response to those who are trying to associate terror and Islam.”

“We believe that this effort by Muslim countries is a step in the right direction,” Davutoglu said. At a rare news conference, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman said the new Islamic military coalition will develop mechanisms for working with other countries and international bodies to support counterterrorism efforts. He said their efforts would not be limited to only countering the Islamic State group.

“Currently, every Muslim country is fighting terrorism individually … so coordinating efforts is very important,” he said. He said the joint operations center will be established in Riyadh to “coordinate and support military operations to fight terrorism” across the Muslim world.

Smaller member-states included in the coalition are the archipelago of the Maldives and the Gulf Arab island-nation of Bahrain, which is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet. Other Gulf Arab countries such as Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are also in the coalition, though notably absent from the list is Oman, a neighbor of Saudi Arabia. In recent years, Oman has maintained a neutral role and has emerged as a mediator in regional conflicts, serving as a conduit from the Gulf Arabs to Iran.

Iraq and Syria, whose forces are battling to regain territory taken by the Islamic State group and whose governments are allied with Iran, are not in the coalition. A Jordanian government spokesman confirmed that the Hashemite kingdom is part of the coalition. Spokesman Mohammed Momani would not comment specifically on the alliance but said that “Jordan is always ready and actively participates in any effort to fight terrorism.”

A Lebanese government official confirmed to The Associated Press that his nation was also part of the 34-nation coalition. Tiny Lebanon has seen frequent spillovers from Syria’s civil war next door, as well as sectarian clashes and militant attacks.

“Lebanon is fighting a daily war against terrorism … Lebanon cannot but be part of the alliance that is combating terrorism,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give official statements. Asked how Lebanon plans to contribute to the alliance, he said that “these are details that we haven’t gotten into yet.”

Benin, while it does not have a majority Muslim population, is another member of this new counterterrorism coalition. All the group’s members are also part of the larger Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which is headquartered in Saudi Arabia.

Associated Press writers Karin Laub in Amman, Jordan; Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.

December 13, 2015

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Saudi voters elected 20 women for local government seats, according to results released to The Associated Press on Sunday, a day after women voted and ran in elections for the first time in the country’s history.

The women who won hail from vastly different parts of the country, ranging from Saudi Arabia’s largest city to a small village near Islam’s holiest site. The 20 female candidates represent just one percent of the roughly 2,100 municipal council seats up for grabs, but even limited gains are seen as a step forward for women who had previously been completely shut out of elections. Women are still not allowed to drive and are governed by guardianship laws that give men final say over aspects of their lives like marriage, travel and higher education.

Though there are no quotas for female council members, an additional 1,050 seats are appointed with approval by the king who could use his powers to ensure more women are represented. Around 7,000 candidates, among them 979 women, competed in the election for a seat on the municipal councils, which are the only government body elected by Saudi citizens. The two previous rounds of voting for the councils, in 2005 and 2011, were open to men only.

The conservative capital of Riyadh saw the most women candidates win, with four elected. The Eastern Province, where minority Shiites are concentrated, saw two women elected, said Hamad Al-Omar, who heads the General Election Commission’s media council.

Saudi Arabia’s second largest and most cosmopolitan city, Jiddah, also elected two women, as did one of the most conservative regions, Qassim. The mayor of the city of Mecca, Osama al-Bar, told the AP that a woman won in a village called Madrakah, about 93 miles (150 kilometers) north of the city which houses the cube-shaped Kaaba to which Muslims around the world pray.

Another woman won in Medina, where the Prophet Muhammad’s first mosque was built. Other women hailing from the kingdom’s northernmost areas won, with two elected in Tabuk, one in al-Jawf and another in Hail. Additionally, a woman won in Saudi Arabia’s southern border area of Jizan, another in Asir and two won in al-Ahsa.

Many women candidates ran on platforms that promised more nurseries to offer longer daycare hours for working mothers, the creation of youth community centers with sports and cultural activities, improved roads, better garbage collection and overall greener cities.

In October, the Saudi Gazette reported that harsh road conditions and long distances to the nearest hospital had forced some women in the village of Madrakah, where one female candidate was elected, to give birth in cars. The local newspaper reported that the closest hospital and the nearest university were in Mecca, prompting some students to forgo attending classes. The article said residents were also frustrated with the lack of parks in the village.

It is precisely these kinds of community issues that female candidates hope to address once elected to the municipal councils. The councils do not have legislative powers, but advise authorities and help oversee local budgets.

Most ran their campaigns online, using social media to get the word out, due to strict gender segregation rules that ban men and women from mixing in public. This meant candidates could not directly address voters of the opposite sex.

In an effort to create a more level playing field for women who wear the traditional full-face veil, the General Election Committee banned both male and female candidates from showing their faces in promotional flyers, billboards or online. They were also not allowed to appear on television.

Still, al-Omar said the historic election drew a staggering 106,000 female voters out of some 130,000 who’d registered. Out of 1.35 million men registered, almost 600,000 cast ballots. In total, some 47 percent of registered voters took part in Saturday’s election.

In Jiddah, three generations of women from the same family voted for the first time. The oldest woman in the family was 94-year-old Naela Mohammad Nasief. Her daughter, Sahar Hassan Nasief, said the experience marked “the beginning” of greater rights for women in Saudi Arabia.

“I walked in and said ‘I’ve have never seen this before. Only in the movies’,” the daughter said, referring to the ballot box. “It was a thrilling experience.”

December 04, 2015

BEIRUT (AP) — Saudi Arabia is hosting Syrian opposition groups and many of the main rebel factions next week in an effort to come up with a unified front ahead of peace talks with representatives of the government in Damascus, scheduled to begin early next year.

The meeting is the first of its kind in the Sunni kingdom, which is a main backer of the Syrian opposition, underscoring how the internationally backed effort is the most serious yet in attempts to end the nearly five-year civil war. The conflict has killed more than a quarter of a million people and triggered a refugee crisis of massive proportions.

The rebel factions’ participation points to the evolution in the position of many of them that long rejected any negotiations with Damascus as long President Bashar Assad was in power. Now they are on board to attempt a process that the United States and its allies say must eventually lead to Assad’s removal — but with no timetable for it.

At the three-day gathering that starts next Tuesday in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, the factions will try to form a unified opposition delegation and a platform regarding what is meant to be a transitional period in Syria, officials who were invited said.

“We will be negotiating Assad’s departure,” said Mustafa Osso, the vice president of the Syrian National Coalition, the main Western-backed opposition group. “If this regime stays, violence will continue in Syria and there will be no stability,” he said, speaking from Turkey. Osso will be part of what he said will be a 20-member delegation from the coalition at the Riyadh meeting.

A peace plan agreed to last month by 20 nations meeting in Vienna sets a Jan. 1 deadline for the start of negotiations between Assad’s government and opposition groups. The plan says nothing about Assad’s future, but states that “free and fair elections would be held pursuant to the new constitution within 18 months.”

Among the nations that took part in the Vienna meeting were the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. Russia and Iran have been Assad’s strongest supporters since the crisis began in March 2011 while Saudi Arabia and Turkey have backed factions trying to remove the Syrian president from power.

In Tehran, Iran’s deputy foreign minister denounced the planned gathering in Saudi Arabia, the official IRNA news agency reported. “The action will divert Vienna political efforts on Syria from its natural path and will drive the Vienna talks toward failure,” Hossein Amir Abdollahian was quoted as saying.

Most of the main rebel factions have been invited to the Riyadh talks, including the Western-backed Free Syrian Army. Also among the invited are two of the biggest — Jaysh al-Islam and the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham group that has been for months trying to improve its image and market itself as a moderate faction, said Ibrahim Hamidi, a journalist who covers Syrian affairs for the Saudi-owned newspaper Al Hayat.

Spokesmen for Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham did not respond to requests for comment on whether the groups would attend. “The time for serious negotiations to find a solution has begun,” Hamidi said.

But in a sign of the splits within Assad’s opponents, no Kurdish factions have been invited, including the main Kurdish militia known as the YPG. The YPG has been the most successful group fighting the Islamic State group and captured scores of towns and villages from the extremists over the past year.

Saleh Muslim, the president of the largest Kurdish group, the Democratic Union Party or PYD, said his group has also not been invited. He said Turkey, which has broad fears of Kurdish ambitions, likely pressured Saudi Arabia not to invite them or the YPG.

“We would love to participate. The conference is related to Syria’s future and we are a main part of Syria and its future,” Muslim said. Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, making up more than 10 percent of the country’s pre-war population of 23 million people. There are Kurds, including Osso, in some other factions that will attend.

Among those invited is Hassan Abdul-Azim, a veteran opposition figure in Syria who leads the Syria-based National Coordination Body for Democratic Change. He said that his group will enter talks with the Syrian government “without pre-conditions.”

“The fate of the Syrian president will be decided during the negotiations,” Abdul-Azim said. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said last month that the Syrian government has already put forward to the U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, the makeup of its delegation to the upcoming negotiations. Lavrov last week said peace talks cannot go ahead until all parties involved agree on which groups should be listed as terrorist and which as Syria’s legitimate opposition.

Also ahead of the peace talks, Jordan is to oversee a process identifying which militant groups in Syria should be considered as terrorists and thus should be prevented from participating in any negotiations. That is to be completed by the time the political process between the government and opposition begins in January.

Separately, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Thursday that the world body is working to launch talks between Syria’s warring parties and start a nationwide cease-fire in the country in early January. He also said he expects the third round of talks on the “Vienna process” to take place in New York but wouldn’t confirm a Dec. 18 date, though that date is being considered, according to U.N. diplomats.

Also Thursday, Iyad Ameen Madani, the secretary general of the world’s largest body of Muslim nations, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, appealed to the Syrian opposition leaders to “close ranks and make the legitimate demands of the Syrian people for change, reform and reconstruction of institutions.

Associated Press writers Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

November 30, 2015

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — The opposition in Kosovo said Monday it would turn to street protests to get the government to cancel deals with Serbia and Montenegro after its lawmakers were barred from Parliament after they again broke up a session with tear gas.

Government lawmakers met alone in the afternoon after their earlier session was disrupted by the opposition, which has pledged that no sessions will take place until the government renounces a deal with Serbia giving more powers to ethnic-Serb communities in Kosovo and another with Montenegro on border demarcation.

The opposition responded by calling on the public to join it in street protests. “In a country with no opposition in the parliament, there is no parliament and it cannot be called a democracy,” said main opposition Self-Determination Movement lawmaker Aida Derguti.

In a statement, the European Union called for a return to dialogue in Kosovo. “This kind of violent obstruction is neither acceptable nor will it solve any problem for the citizens of Kosovo,” it said.

Over the past three months, the opposition has regularly disrupted parliament with tear gas, pepper spray, whistles and water bottles. The government of Prime Minister Isa Mustafa has accused the opposition of trying to come to power by force.

Two opposition lawmakers were under arrest before Monday’s actions, and arrest warrants have been issued for two others. Police reported they had arrested one lawmaker Monday after finding two tear gas canisters on him as he tried to enter the Parliament hall. Another lawmaker who opened a canister in the hall at the morning session has also been arrested, according to police and party officials.

Parliament Speaker Kadri Veseli urged the opposition not to disrupt parliament this week, when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is due in Pristina. A chaotic situation continued at the Parliament building Monday afternoon. A tear gas canister was opened in the lobby as some opposition lawmakers tried to go round guards to reach the higher floors of the building.

The Constitutional Court has suspended the deal with Serbia until it rules on whether it breaches the constitution while the government also has said it will ask for international expertize for the border demarcation with Montenegro.

Kosovo and Serbia are holding EU-mediated talks to overcome their differences. Kosovo in 2008 declared independence from Serbia, an act that Serbia still rejects.

Gresa Kraja in Pristina, Kosovo and Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, contributed to this report.