Tunisia’s president publishes amended draft of constitution with minor changes

President Kais Saied. (AFP)
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Updated 09 July 2022

Tunisia’s president publishes amended draft of constitution with minor changes

TUNIS: Tunisian President Kais Saied has published an amended version of a draft constitution in an attempt to ward off criticism after the original was slammed for the nearly unlimited power it gave his office.

The new constitution, which will be put to a referendum this month, is the centerpiece of Saied’s plan to remake the North African country’s political system.

It was unveiled almost a year after Saied sacked the government, suspended parliament and added wide-ranging powers.

The legal expert who oversaw the constitution’s drafting has disavowed it, saying it was “completely different” from what his committee had submitted and warning that some articles could “pave the way for a dictatorial regime.”

The amended draft, published around midnight on Friday, makes changes to two articles, though it still retains a broad range of powers for the head of state.

Hours before the new text was released, Saied announced in an official video that “clarifications needed to be added to avoid confusion and interpretation.”

Changes have been made to an article that stated Tunisia “is part of the Islamic community” and that “the state must work to achieve the objectives of Islam” — it now adds “within a democratic system.”

The clause had been previously criticized for its ambiguity by those who advocated for a completely secular system, and international rights group Amnesty International had warned it could “provide a mandate to discriminate against other religious groups.”

The other amendment is to an article about rights and freedoms, which now clarifies that “no restriction may be placed on the rights and freedoms guaranteed in this Constitution except by law and necessity imposed by a democratic order.”

The rest of the document remains largely unchanged.

Saied wants a presidential system to replace the country’s 2014 constitution, which enshrined a mixed presidential-parliamentary system often beset by deadlock and marred by corruption.

Under his proposal, “the president of the republic carries out executive functions with help from the government,”  whose chief would be appointed by the president and not subject to confidence votes in parliament.

The document would water down the role of parliament, creating a new parliamentary chamber for “regions and districts,” chiming with Saied’s long-held vision for a decentralization of power.

The president would be the head of the armed forces and be charged with naming judges, who would be banned from striking.

Some Tunisians have welcomed Saied’s moves against the sclerotic system that emerged from the revolt that toppled President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.


UN agency for Palestinians refugees at ‘breaking point’: chief

Updated 23 February 2024

UN agency for Palestinians refugees at ‘breaking point’: chief

  • UNRWA, which employs some 30,000 people working in the occupied territories, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, has been accused by Israel of serving as a tool of the Hamas militant group
  • Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA chief, asserts that Israel has provided no evidence against the 12 former employees it accuses, but 16 countries have suspended funding anyway

UNITED NATIONS: The UN agency for Palestinian refugees warned Thursday it has reached a critical juncture as it struggles to cope with the war in Gaza.

“It is with profound regret that I must now inform you that UNRWA has reached a breaking point,” chief Philippe Lazzarini said, as donors freeze funding, Israel exerts pressure to dismantle the agency and humanitarian needs soar.
“The Agency’s ability to fulfill the mandate given through General Assembly resolution 302 is now seriously threatened,” he said in a letter to the assembly.
That is the resolution under which the agency was founded in 1949, following the creation of Israel.
UNRWA employs some 30,000 people working in the occupied territories, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

Students attend a class inside a school run by UNRWA at Mar Elias Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon, on February 21, 2024. (REUTERS)

Several countries — including the United States, Britain, Germany and Japan — have suspended funding to UNRWA in response to Israeli allegations that some of its staff participated in the October 7 attack on Israel.
In an interview published over the weekend, Lazzarini said $438 million has been frozen — the equivalent of more than half of expected funding for 2024. He said Israel was waging a concerted effort to destroy UNRWA.
The UN fired the employees accused by Israel and has begun an internal probe of UNRWA.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has also tasked an independent panel with assessing whether UNRWA acts neutrally in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Lazzarini asserted Thursday that Israel has provided no evidence against the 12 former employees it accuses, but 16 countries have suspended funding anyway.
“I have cautioned donors and host countries that without new funding, UNRWA operations across the region will be severely compromised from March,” he said.
He added: “I fear we are on the edge of a monumental disaster with grave implications for regional peace, security and human rights.”
The war started after Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official figures.
Hamas militants also took about 250 hostages — 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 30 presumed dead, according to Israel.
Israel’s retaliatory campaign has killed at least 29,410 people, mostly women and children, according to the latest count by Gaza’s health ministry.

WHO plans more evacuations from Gaza hospital as bodies buried on grounds

Updated 23 February 2024

WHO plans more evacuations from Gaza hospital as bodies buried on grounds

Aid agencies hope to evacuate roughly 140 patients stranded in Gaza’s Nasser hospital, a World Health Organization official said on Thursday, as Palestinian authorities reported that Israeli troops withdrew from the complex and then stormed it again.

Medical teams had buried on the grounds of the hospital 13 patients who had died because the facility had no power or oxygen, Gaza’s health ministry said.

The WHO says the hospital in Khan Younis, which is Gaza’s second-largest and is crucial to the territory’s crippled health services, stopped working last week after an Israeli siege followed by a raid.

The WHO and partners have so far carried out three evacuations from the hospital, the latest on Wednesday, transferring a total of 51 patients to southern Gaza, the UN agency’s Ayadil Saparbekov told a press briefing.

“The WHO will continue to try evacuation of those critically ill and critically wounded patients from the Nasser hospital to other hospitals in the south, including the field hospitals that have been established in Rafah,” Saparbekov said.

“However it’s a very difficult and high-risk mission.”

Israeli forces had withdrawn from the hospital, positioning themselves nearby and preventing movement to and from it before storming it once more, the Gaza health ministry said. There was no immediate comment from Israel.

The number of patients remaining in Nasser hospital had been changing by the hour as some people left to escape the fighting and others succumbed to their wounds, Saparbekov said.

Gaza’s health ministry had said in an earlier statement on Wednesday that 110 patients were waiting to be evacuated. It said eight patients at Nasser had died due to the lack of power and oxygen four days previously and that their bodies had begun to decompose, posing a risk to other patients.

When the WHO carried out the evacuations so far, it observed four doctors and nurses at Nasser hospital along with about a dozen volunteers helping medical staff keep patients alive, Saparbekov said. Staff had not yet managed to reconnect the main generator.

The Gaza health ministry said there was a lack of food, drinking water and medical supplies at the complex, and that the ground floors were flooded with sewage water.

Four-and-a-half months after Israel began its campaign in Gaza in retaliation for a major Hamas attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7, just 13 of the Palestinian enclave’s 34 hospitals are functioning on a partial or minimal level.

Gaza’s population of 2.3 million faces acute hunger and the spread of disease in a humanitarian crisis that aid officials describe as unprecedented.

Most Gaza residents have been displaced and are crammed into the south of the strip around Rafah, close to the border with Egypt.

Israel says Hamas, the Islamist group that has run Gaza since 2007, uses hospitals for cover. Hamas denies this and says Israel’s allegations serve as a pretext to destroy the health care system. 

West must return to imposing cost on Iran’s ‘malign activity’ to restore Mideast stability: Pompeo

Updated 23 February 2024

West must return to imposing cost on Iran’s ‘malign activity’ to restore Mideast stability: Pompeo

  • Former US Secretary of State, speaking at FII Priority Miami summit, claimed US deterrence of Iranian regime had been lost

LONDON: Taking away Iran’s ability to create instability in the Middle East was the driving force behind the 2020 Abraham Accords, and US policy needs to move back toward imposing a cost on Tehran’s malign actions, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday.

The accords were agreements signed by the UAE and Bahrain to normalize relations with Israel, brokered by then-US President Donald Trump. Sudan and Morocco also later agreed to establish ties with Israel.

Pompeo told the Future Investment Initiative Priority forum in Miami that the process of formulation to signing the accords happened due to a “central thesis” held by all involved that Tehran was the “malign actor” in the region.

“You should know, I’m hopelessly biased as they’re still trying to kill me. If you see me walking around with a security team, it’s not because I enjoy it but because I still need it,” he said.

“I think that’s telling. You can see (Iran’s) hand in what happened in Gaza. They supported, funded and essentially facilitated the capacity for Hamas to carry out the barbaric attacks (on Israel) which took place on Oct. 7.

“Today, without the Iranian support you’d still have shipping through the Red Sea, instead of transit having to move some other way because you’ve got missiles being launched into (the area) with relatively good accuracy.

“Nearly all the instability that takes place in the Middle East is as a direct result of that regime in Iran. The United States had the lead in deterring them and we’ve lost that.”

Pompeo praised Saudi Aramco for stabilizing oil markets following an attack claimed by the Iran-backed Houthis on its facilities in Abqaiq-Khurais in eastern Saudi Arabia, but pinpointed that attack as the beginning of the end of the US and the West being able to deter Tehran.

Despite a US drone strike that assassinated senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps official Qassem Soleimani in 2020, Pompeo said the current administration of President Joe Biden and the leadership in many European countries are now unwilling to impose a cost on Tehran for its malign activities.

“We permitted (Iran) for three years to fire rockets out of Yemen into southern Saudi Arabia and we did nothing, and that was a precursor to what I think you’re seeing today,” Pompeo added.

He said part of the solution is being serious about taking Iranian crude oil off the market and limiting revenue for the regime from that source, adding that in January 2021, Iran had $4 billion worth of foreign exchange reserves compared with $25-$30 billion today.

‘Pattern’ of Israeli attacks on hospitals either intentional or ‘reckless incompetence,’ MSF chief tells UNSC

Updated 23 February 2024

‘Pattern’ of Israeli attacks on hospitals either intentional or ‘reckless incompetence,’ MSF chief tells UNSC

  • Christopher Lockyear says a resolution calling for anything short of a ceasefire is ‘gross negligence’
  • He paints an apocalyptic picture of health facilities, staff and patients in Gaza, where the focus is on mere survival amid complete erosion of humanitarian laws
  • Children as young as 5 are expressing their desire to die rather than live with injuries and trauma

NEW YORK: In one of the most powerful speeches delivered at the UN Security Council since beginning of the war in Gaza, the secretary-general of the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres) on Thursday called for the UN body to demand an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and ensure protection of health facilities, workers and patients.

He said the world is watching council members “deliberate and delay while civilians die,” and expressed outrage at the recent US veto that prevented the adoption of “the most evident of resolutions, one demanding an immediate and sustained ceasefire.”

Christopher Lockyear said: “Three times this council has had an opportunity to vote for the ceasefire that is so desperately needed. And three times the United States has used its veto power.”

He said the draft resolution tabled by the US last week to rival the Algerian draft it vetoed and “ostensibly” calling for a ceasefire is “misleading at best.”

Although the draft in question does support a call for a ceasefire, it refers to it as a temporary measure that needs to be enacted “as soon as practicable,” which many have understood as leaving the decision for its implementation to the Israelis.

Lockyear called on the council to reject “any resolution that further hampers humanitarian efforts on the ground and leads this council to tacitly endorse the continued violence and mass atrocities in Gaza.”

He added: “The people of Gaza need a ceasefire, not when practicable, but now. They need a sustained ceasefire, not a temporary period of calm. Anything short of this is gross negligence. The protection of civilians in Gaza cannot be contingent on resolutions from this council which instrumentalize humanitarianism to blur political objectives.”

Lockyear painted an apocalyptic picture of the situation in Rafah, the last refuge for Gazans, where over 1 million displaced Palestinians are sheltering and which is now being engulfed with fear of a ground invasion.

Over four months of war have killed nearly 30,000 Palestinians in Israel’s constant bombing and attacks, according to MSF.

More than 1.7 million are estimated to have been forcibly displaced and facing infected wounds and disease, as the organization says providing healthcare is becoming “virtually impossible” in Gaza, where medical facilities have not been safe from military attacks.

“Our patients have catastrophic injuries, amputations, crushed limbs and severe burns,” Lockyear said.

“They need sophisticated care. They need long and intensive rehabilitation. Medics cannot treat these injuries on a battlefield or in the ashes of destroyed hospitals. Our surgeons are running out of basic gauze to stop their patients from bleeding out. They use it once, squeeze out the blood, wash it, sterilize it, and reuse it for the next patient.

“The humanitarian crisis in Gaza has left pregnant women without medical care for months. Women in labor cannot reach functional delivery rooms. They are giving birth in plastic tents and public buildings.

“Medical teams have added a new acronym to their vocabulary, WCNSF: Wounded child, no surviving family.

“Children who do survive this war will not only bear the visible wounds of traumas and injuries, but the invisible ones to those of repeated displacements, constant fear and witnessing family members being literally dismembered before their eyes. These psychological injuries have led children as young as 5 to tell us that they would prefer to die.”

On Feb. 20, a MSF staff member’s wife and daughter-in-law were killed and six other people were injured when an Israeli tank fired on a clearly marked MSF staff shelter in Al-Mawasi in Khan Younis.

Israeli forces last week evacuated then raided Nasser Hospital, the largest remaining medical facility in southern Gaza. Those who were forced out have nowhere to go, said MSF. They cannot move back to the now largely destroyed north, and in Rafah they live amid constant Israeli airstrikes and the fear of an extensive ground incursion.

Since the beginning of the war in Gaza, MSF medical teams and patients have been forced to evacuate nine different healthcare facilities in the Gaza Strip. Five MSF workers have been killed. Today’s MSF efforts to help are “entirely inadequate,” said Lockyear.

He added: “For 138 days we have witnessed the unimaginable suffering of the people of Gaza. For 138 days we have watched the systematic obliteration of a health system we have supported for decades. We have watched our patients and our colleagues be killed and maimed. This situation is the combination of a war Israel is waging on the entire population of the Gaza Strip; a war of collective punishment, a war without rules, a war at all costs.

“The laws and the principles we collectively depend on to enable humanitarian assistance are now eroded to the point of becoming meaningless.

“The humanitarian response in Gaza today is an illusion. A convenient illusion that perpetuates a narrative that this war is being waged in line with international laws. Calls for humanitarian assistance have echoed across this chamber. Yet in Gaza, we have less and less every day: less space, less medicine, less food, less water, less safety. We no longer speak of a humanitarian scale up. We speak of how to survive even without the bare minimum.”

Lockyear said the Israeli attacks against medical facilities and staff have become now “all too familiar.”

He said: “Israeli forces have attacked our convoys, detained our staff, bulldozed our vehicles. Hospitals have been bombed and raided.

“This pattern of attacks is either intentional or indicative of reckless incompetence. Our colleagues in Gaza are fearful that as I speak to you today, they will be punished tomorrow.”

Lockyear cautioned against casting international humanitarian law to the wind as that “will reverberate well beyond Gaza. It will be an enduring burden on our collective conscience. This is not just political inaction: It has become political complicity.”

The humanitarian official demanded from the Security Council “the protections promised under international humanitarian law,” and a ceasefire from both parties.

Lockyear asked council members: “We demand the space to turn the illusion of aid to meaningful assistance. What will you do to make this happen?”

How US-Iran proxy wars are keeping the Middle East on edge

Updated 23 February 2024

How US-Iran proxy wars are keeping the Middle East on edge

  • Experts see militias backed by Iran as nothing more than “expendable pawns” in a chess game
  • Tehran strenuously denies any connection with the mainly Shiite militias

DUBAI: Iran and the US are engaged in an intensifying proxy war, which is playing out across several Middle Eastern states. Although neither side appears to be looking for a direct confrontation, vulnerable Arab countries with divided loyalties are paying the biggest price.

That seems to be the consensus view of Middle East experts as low-intensity wars rage on in several parts of the region in addition to the full-on Gaza conflict.

Since Oct. 7 last year, Iran-backed militias have mounted more than 170 attacks on US military bases and assets in Syria, Iraq and Jordan in response to US support for Israel in the Israel-Hamas war, prompting American retaliation.

Meanwhile, Iran’s Houthi allies in Yemen have launched repeated attacks on commercial and military shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, likewise prompting retaliatory strikes by the US and UK on militia targets.

While analysts believe the US and Iran are unlikely to become embroiled in a direct state-on-state confrontation, attacks by Iranian proxies are expected to occur for as long as Israel’s military campaign in Gaza continues.

Some experts think Iran is acutely aware of the Biden administration’s fear of a regional escalation and has sought to exploit this threat as a means of influencing the course of the war in Gaza.

Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, believes Iran is trying “to instrumentalize that fear by directly ordering, indirectly encouraging, or acquiescing to proxy attacks against Israel, the US, and international shipping.”

This photo released by the Houthi Media Center shows the Iran-backed Houthi forces boarding the cargo ship Galaxy Leader on Nov. 19, 2023, in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen. (Handout via AP)

In this way, Iran “hopes a terrified Biden administration will increase pressure on Israel to end the war before total destruction of Hamas,” he told Arab News.

However, this proxy war is playing out on the sovereign territories of Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Yemen — all nations that can ill-afford to be swept up in a regional conflict. Some commentators say Arab lives in these countries are being treated as expendable.

“I think the attacks signal bloody bargaining between America and Israel on one side and Iran on the other,” Ayad Abu Shakra, a journalist at Asharq Al-Awsat, told Arab News.

US soldiers patrol the town of al-Qahtaniyah in Syria's northeastern Hasakeh province near the Turkish border. (AFP/File)

“I don’t think there is any ‘war of survival’ or a ‘war of elimination’ between the two camps, the Israeli-American camp and the Iranian camp. They are bargaining, as if in a bazaar, but with blood. The Iranians are fighting the Americans with Arab bodies and vice versa.”

This bargaining, as it were, has the potential to get out of hand, however.

On Jan. 28, US forces stationed at Tower 22, a remote installation in Jordan, close to the Syrian and Iraqi borders, came under drone attack, leaving three US soldiers dead and 34 wounded.

US President Joe Biden said the drone attack was launched from Iraq by an Iran-backed militia. He vowed to retaliate at a time and in a manner of America’s choosing.

On Feb. 3, the US military launched an air assault on 85 targets at seven locations across Iraq and Syria including command and control headquarters and weapon storage sites used by Iran-backed militias and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

This was followed on Feb. 7 by a drone attack on eastern Baghdad that killed Abu Baqir Al-Saadi, commander of Kataib Hezbollah, the Iraqi militia that Washington had deemed responsible for the attack on US troops in Jordan.

Iran of course denies links to any militias in the Middle East. For instance, in a Jan. 29 letter to the UN Security Council, Amir Saeid Iravani, Iran’s ambassador to the UN, said: “There is no group affiliated with the Islamic Republic or Iran’s armed forces, whether in Iraq, Syria, or elsewhere that operates directly or indirectly under the control of the Islamic Republic of Iran or acts on its behalf.

“Therefore, the Islamic Republic of Iran is not responsible for the actions of any individual or group within the region.”

Iran denies links to any militias in the Middle East. But to fighters and supporters of Lebanon's Hezbollah, there is no hiding what is obvious. (AFP/File photo)

Some Republican lawmakers had exhorted the administration to authorize a direct strike against Iran, even if it risked sparking a wider escalation. Others accused Biden of responding too slowly and giving the enemy too much forewarning.

Wary about being dragged into another potentially open-ended Middle East war, especially during an election year, Biden has appeared keen to limit the scope of America’s retaliation.

“The Biden administration partially called the Islamic Republic’s bluff by harshly reacting to the killing of three American servicemen and women in Jordan, but publicly signaled that it would not target Iranian territory,” said Alfoneh.

“Retaliating for the loss of American life was a correct response, but the US would perhaps be better off keeping the Islamic Republic guessing about America’s retaliation, which may include Iranian territory in the future.”

US President Joe Biden has warned Iran to rein in its proxy militias or face American retaliation. (AFP/File)

Iran is likewise mindful of the potential blowback from its activities. But by operating through its network of proxies throughout the region, Tehran feels it can deny any involvement in attacks on Israel or US targets while reaping the benefits.

“After 1979, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared the export of the Islamic revolution, Iranians formed the IRGC,” said Abu Shakra.

“It was almost an open secret that they would rather fight their wars of negotiations with the Americans and Israelis in Arab cities rather than fight them in Iran’s cities.

“They eventually took over Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus and Sanaa, and now they are negotiating with the Americans and the Israelis through massacres, in which the Arabs are paying the price, not the Iranians.”

Hossein Salami, head of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. (AFP)

Nevertheless, according to analysts, Iran has sometimes overplayed its hand, leading to a more aggressive US response, as was the case when the administration of former President Donald Trump ordered the killing of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in Jan. 2020, allegedly to stave off a planned attack on US forces in Iraq.

“They are reminded of the accepted bargaining limits,” said Abu Shakra. “The assassination of Qassem Soleimani, for example, was such a reminder and a big hit. Both America and Iran are still respecting ‘the rules of engagement.’”

The latest US retaliation does appear to have had an impact. On Feb. 12, the Pentagon announced there had been 186 US casualties in Iraq, Syria and Jordan since Oct. 18. A day later, on Feb. 13, it declared there had been no further attacks on US forces.

The killing of major general Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran's Quds Force, by US forces in early 2020 has served notice to Iran's authorities that it does not pay to overplay their hands. (Tasnim News photo via AFP/File)

Washington is also likely in no hurry to attack Iran directly because the survival of the Islamic Republic has other uses. “It’s important to note that Iran is a sizable player whom the West can ‘use’ in any role,” said Abu Shakra.

“Whether Washington admits it or not, Iran is a very important bulwark against the rise of Sunni militant Islam. Iran is also a potential counterbalance against a nuclear Pakistan. Iran is an important bulwark against the expansion of the Chinese in the Gulf.

“No one has the strategic interest of destroying Iran. Neither America, nor Russia, nor India can ignore the role or influence of Iran.”Critics of the Biden administration say its hesitance about a direct confrontation with Iran was demonstrated by its response to the Hamas-led attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7, including efforts through media leaks to play down an Iranian link and prevent a regional escalation.


269 People killed in Lebanon since violence erupted in October 2023.

40 Civilians are believed to be among the dead in Lebanon.

16 Israeli nationals were killed in the north, including 6 civilians.

When Israel began its retaliatory campaign in Gaza, the US said there was no proof that Iran was behind the Oct. 7 attack, said Abu Shakra. Then, within a week or two, the US said it did not want the conflict to spread.

“They wanted it to be limited,” he said. “The Americans did not want any involvement with the Iranian militias in Lebanon and Iraq. I think unless the Iranians overplay their cards and become too arrogant, the current fighting will remain limited to Iran’s Arab appendages.

“I think neither the US nor Israel nor the pro-Tehran Iraqi regime or Iran itself has any real interest in direct confrontation, which would be apocalyptic if it were to happen.”

Iran has little to gain from a direct conflict with the US and so it outsources its activities to proxies to tilt regional affairs in its favor.. (AFP/File)

Likewise, Alfoneh believes Iran has little to gain from a direct conflict with the US. Instead, it can outsource its activities to proxies to tilt regional affairs in its favor.

“The Islamic Republic achieved all of its objectives on Oct. 7,” said Alfoneh. “Hamas’ terrorist incursion into Israel shattered the myth of Israel’s invulnerability.

“Iran got even with Israel, which for years has bombed Iranian and allied positions in Syria, and even engaged in operations on Iranian soil, and the attack sabotaged diplomatic normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel.”

The fate of Hamas and Palestinian civilians is of no interest to Iran, which perceives them as expendable pawns, says Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. (AFP photo)

The interests of the Palestinians, and indeed the populations of the wider Arab region caught in the crossfire, are thereby secondary to these geopolitical goals.

“The fate of Hamas and Palestinian civilians is of no interest to the Islamic Republic, which perceives them as expendable pawns in a grander chess game in the region,” said Alfoneh.

“Therefore, the Islamic Republic is not interested in spreading the war in Gaza, which may directly entangle Iran in a war with Israel and, possibly, with the US.”