Recent developments in the region until Dec. 29

Saudi Defense Minister Prince Salman briefed on Saudi Council of Engineers strategy

Yemen parliament grants confidence to transitional government

Egypt’s SCAF brings forward presidential elections from June to May

Palestinian President Abbas tells Obama Israel erased PNA’s role

Arab League monitors to Syria study situation on the ground

SAUDI ARABIA:

Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz, Minister of Defense, received the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, Konstantin Gryshchenko and his accompanying delegation.

During the meeting, they discussed bilateral relations, ways of strengthening them, and latest developments at regional and international arenas.

The meeting was attended by Saudi Ambassador to Ukraine, Judaie Bin Zaban Al-Hathal and the Ambassador of Ukraine to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Petro Kolos.

Prince Salman also received the President of Board of Directors of Saudi Council of Engineers Abdullah Bin Ahmad Bugshan and members of the Council, who congratulated him on the royal trust in his appointment as Minister of Defense.

The Prince was briefed on the Council's strategies and activities in building engineering cadres to meet the needs of the Saudi society.

The meeting was attended by Director General of the Office of Minister of Defense, Lieutenant General Abdulrahman bin Saleh Al-Bunyan.

Prince Salman also received President of Saudi Post, Dr. Mohammed Bin Saleh Benten and other senior officials of the Post.

During the meeting, the Prince was briefed on the development of Saudi Post and turning it into an electronic, governmental and commercial mail.

The meeting was attended by Lieutenant General Bunyan.

YEMEN:

The Yemeni parliament offered confidence to the transitional government, half of its portfolios went to the ruling party GPC and the other half for the opposition parties JMP.

However, the MPs stressed that the government should give priority for restoring peace and security and to fully implement the GCC reconciliation deal.

The MPs also stressed that the government should restore the essential services including electricity, water and oil derivatives for the public in Sana’a and all other main cities across the country.

Meanwhile, military positions in central Sana’a were dismantled on Wednesday in a show of faith by both sides that they want to halt implement the GCC deal and its executive mechanism.

Bulldozers crashed through the walls of sandbags fortifying the fighters' positions on a main street in Hasaba, a flashpoint area where fierce fighting took place between Sadeq al-Ahmar's tribesmen and the security forces in the past few months.

The military committee also announced starting to dismantle military positions in the southern ring road where military vehicles affiliated to the central security forces were deployed in the past few months.

President Saleh had announced he would head to Washington not only for medical treatment but also for political affairs and said he wanted to pave the road for the transition government to conduct an early presidential elections and to implement the GCC deal.

The military committee overseeing the disengagement is headed by vice president Abdu Raboo Mansour Hadi whom Saleh had handed over power to as part of the GCC deal.

The ruling party organized a demonstration in Sana’a last Monday demanding full implementation of the GCC’s deal, urgent remove all military presence from the streets of Sana’a and to restore the electricity and water services.

EGYPT:

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ (SCAF) Advisory Council has finished writing a memorandum on the presidential elections draft law, said Mohamed Nour Farahat, the council’s secretary general, on Wednesday. But Farahat refused to comment on the details of the document which expressed the council views concerning the draft law.

"The expected next step is for this memorandum to be presented to the cabinet’s Legislative Committee,” he said. “If approved, it will be issued by the SCAF as part of a presidential elections law."

Farahat said that the members of the Advisory Council submitted the memorandum Wednesday morning.

However, Sameh Ashour, deputy head of the advisory council, told Al-Masry Al-Youm that the Advisory Council rejects the draft law in its current form.

On 15 December, the SCAF announced it had prepared a draft law to regulate the presidential elections, which are slated to be held before the end of June.

According to the draft law, which was discussed in the state-owned Middle East News Agency (MENA), presidential hopefuls must receive the support of 30 members of Parliament, or 30,000 potential voters, to become official nominees for president.

MENA said the draft law allows any party in parliament to nominate one of its members in the presidential elections.

When questioned about the founding committee to draft the constitution, Farahat said the Advisory Council is committed to Article 60 of the Constitutional Declaration, which states that the formation of this committee is within the jurisdiction of the elected members of parliament and the Shura Council.

Farhat went on to say that "the Advisory Council’s role is has a great deal of importance and significance during this sensitive period in the history of our country, and we are playing a patriotic role that everyone needs to respect."

Islamist parties have consolidated earlier gains in Egypt's multistage parliamentary elections, winning nearly 70 percent of the seats determined so far, according to results announced Saturday.

Election commission chief Abdel-Moez Ibrahim announced results from the second round of three rounds, which was held Dec. 14-15, followed by a run-off this week. The second round was held in nine provinces, and Ibrahim said turnout reached 65 percent.

Based on the results he gave, the Muslim Brotherhood says it won around 86 of estimated 180 seats up for grabs in the round, or 47 percent.

The Al-Nour Party, the political arm of the ultraconservative Salafi movement, won around 20 percent of the vote.

The secular and liberal forces that largely drove Egypt's uprising against former leader Hosni Mubarak were trounced, failing to turn their achievement into a victory at the polls. The secular alliance of Egyptian Bloc and youth Revolution Continues won less than 10 percent of the seats.

The results mirror those from the first round of voting, held in late November, when the two blocs together won nearly 70 percent.

A third round of voting is to be held Jan. 3-4. It is not expected to alter the result and could strengthen the Islamists' hand.

The exact numbers of seats won by each group is not immediately known because of the complicated voting system Egypt is using. Some seats are determined by a direct competition between candidates, while others are divvied out in proportion to each party's percentage of votes.

The commission is to announce the actual numbers of seats at the end of the entire vote.

The commission on Saturday also suspended announcement of results for few seats because of lawsuits filed by candidates citing irregularities.

The election is the first since Mubarak's Feb. 11 ouster and is the freest in Egypt's modern history. The 498-seat People's Assembly, the parliament's lower house, will be tasked, in theory, with forming a 100-member assembly to draft a new constitution.

But its actual role remains unclear. The military council that has ruled since Mubarak's fall says the parliament will not be representative of all of Egypt, and should not have sole power over the drafting of the constitution. Last week, the military appointed a 30-member council to oversee the process.

Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, charged with the killing of protesters and abuse of power, was wheeled into court on a hospital trolley on Wednesday as his trial resumed after a delay of almost two months while lawyers demanded a new judge.

Many Egyptians hope the trial will heal some of the scars of his autocratic rule and help the country find stability after nearly a year of political turmoil under the military generals who replaced him in power.

But the multitude of witnesses and the complexity of the charges mean the case could drag on for months, perhaps years.

Mubarak, his two sons, the former interior minister and senior police officers face charges ranging from corruption to involvement in the deaths of hundreds of protesters in the uprising that unseated him.

"The court has responded to all the defendants' lawyers requests," said lawyer Khaled Abu Bakr, who represents families of people who died in the uprising. "Egypt has guaranteed for Mubarak a very fair trial, the judge has ensured that all the basics of justice are there ... no one should object the final verdict."

The former leader, who is being held under guard at a military hospital near Cairo because doctors say he has a heart condition, was brought into the court on a hospital trolley, covering his eyes with his arm and surrounded by police.

Previous sessions were marred by clashes outside the Cairo court building between Mubarak supporters and Egyptians demanding the death penalty for him, but there were no scuffles when Mubarak arrived on Wednesday.

He was widely believed to be grooming his son Gamal to succeed him but any such plan was overturned when disgust at poverty, corruption and the brutality of Egypt's security forces boiled over and millions took to the streets in January.

Around 850 people were killed in the 18-day uprising that overthrew him, with the police accused of shooting live rounds at unarmed demonstrators. Much of the trial centers on who gave the order to fire.

The case has gripped the Middle East, a region ruled mostly by autocrats who seemed unassailable until this year when Mubarak and the leaders of Tunisia and Libya were toppled in popular revolts.

The sight in August of Mubarak, the man who ruled the Arab world's most populous nation for three decades, appearing behind bars in a Cairo courtroom on charges that could bring the death penalty was one of the defining moments of the Arab Spring.

Later that month the presiding judge Ahmed Refaat ordered television cameras out of the courtroom until the case concludes, ensuring key testimony by top officials took place beyond public view.

Lawyers for families of the dead filed a suit in September calling for Refaat and the two other judges to be replaced.

They had complained that the judges had failed to give them enough time to question Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who heads the ruling military council, during his court appearance. Their request was rejected.

Former Interior Minister Habib al-Adli and six senior police officers are also standing trial. Businessman Hussein Salem, a close associate of Mubarak, is being tried in absentia.

Lawyers asked that the deputy head of the military council, General Sami Anan, give testimony, and also Major General Naguib Mohamed Abdel Salam, former commander of the Republican Guard.

Abdel Salam was ordered by Mubarak on January 28 to send Republican Guard troops to surround the state television building in Cairo, said Mohamed Gendi, lawyer for Ismail Sha'er who headed the state security services and is one of those on trial.

"We request to know what orders Major General Abdel Salam received from Mubarak. Were the orders to use force with protesters or just to protect the TV state building?" said Gendi.

The lawyers also asked for the former head of the National Security Authority, Mostafa Abdel Nabi, and Major General Hamdi Badeen, head of the military police, to appear as witnesses.

The judge gave no response to the demands before calling the session to a close. He set January 2 for the court to reconvene.

The case is a test for the army, which may be uncomfortable at the prospect of a public humiliation for Mubarak, a former air force head.

Whatever the outcome, his overthrow ensures his successors cannot ignore the power of the public.

But those who hoped that the revolt would lead quickly to a return to stability and an improvement in their lives have been disappointed.

Egyptians began choosing a new parliament a month ago in elections due to last until mid-January, but the vote has taken place in the shadow of violence and an economic crisis.

Protesters demanding the army cede power more swiftly fought troops in Cairo for five days until calm was restored last week. The Health Ministry put the death toll at 17.

The Muslim Brotherhood, whose party is leading in the election, said the army's timetable for handing power to civilians after a presidential vote, due before mid-2012, should not be changed as it would cause chaos.

PALETINE:

Lawmakers have freed up a little more than 20 percent of $187 million in U.S. assistance to the Palestinians that had been frozen over the Palestinian bid for U.N. membership.

Members of Congress have made available $40 million in economic and humanitarian funding for the Palestinians, the State Department said Wednesday. The money is administered by the U.S. Agency for International Development and "has been vital to establishing and strengthening the foundations necessary for a future Palestinian state," the department said.

The Obama administration had been urging lawmakers, with Israel's backing, to release the money as it contributes to Palestinian stability and Israeli security. "It is in the interest of the Palestinians, Israel and the United States, to ensure these efforts continue," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. "They help to build a more democratic, stable, and secure region."

The administration is pressing Congress to release the remaining $147 million that comes from the last budget cycle in which aid to the Palestinians was to total $545.7 million.

New funding for the Palestinians will be subject to additional scrutiny and can be blocked if they win full admission to the United Nations before a peace deal with Israel is agreed. The administration has asked Congress for $513.4 million in aid for the Palestinians in fiscal year 2012.

resident Mahmoud Abbas discussed Monday with a delegation of Hamas lawmakers and officials results of the recent reconciliation talks held in Cairo.

The delegation, headed by the president of the Palestinian parliament, Aziz Dweik, listened to a briefing from Abbas on the issues discussed in Cairo, particularly restructuring the PLO to include Hamas and other organizations not already members and elections for the Palestinian National Council.

Abbas expressed satisfaction with the results of the Cairo talks, explaining that the results are the mechanism to implement the reconciliation agreement and end all signs of division.

He urged all parties to implement what was agreed on and to hold the elections planned for May.

The lawmakers said they ware satisfied with the results of the Cairo talks, expressing support for Abbas’ diplomatic efforts to win recognition for Palestine as member of the United Nations.

SYRIA:

Syria said on Thursday it was providing Arab monitors with "all the facilities they need" in a mission to assess whether Damascus has halted a nine-month crackdown on protesters.

Anti-government activists have criticized the mission, saying observers have only been coordinating with government officials and not with them, and rely on government transport to get around, undermining their independence. Arab League officials on Thursday said they were having difficulty talking to monitors because communication lines were poor.

"They (the monitors) are getting all the facilities they need with no exception and that is reflected in the positive statements made by the Sudanese chief of observers," Foreign Ministry Spokesman Jihad Makdesi said in an email.

Sudanese General Mustafa Dabi has said that the Syrian government, which is escorting his team, is cooperating well with the monitors. He also said his initial trip to the flashpoint city of Homs showed "nothing frightening," though he said the mission may need more time to get a clear picture.

"The success in the mission of the Arab League in reflecting the true story of the Syrian crisis is definitely in the vital interest of Syria," Makdesi said.

Syria says it is fighting foreign-backed terrorists who have killed more than 2,000 of its security forces.

More than 5,000 protesting civilians and army deserters have been killed by Syrian forces, according to the United Nations.

Syrian opposition activists are calling for the removal of the Sudanese head of the Arab League monitoring mission for serving as a senior official in the "oppressive regime" of Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese president under an international arrest warrant on charges of committing genocide in Darfur.

The 60 Arab League monitors who began work Tuesday are the first Syria has allowed in during the nine-month anti-government uprising. They are supposed to be ensuring the regime is complying with terms of the League's plan to end the regime's crackdown.

The U.N. says more than 5,000 people have died in the uprising since it began in March.

The mission is headed by Lt. Gen. Mohamed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, a longtime al-Bashir loyalist who once served as his head of military intelligence.

Al-Bashir came to power in a 1989 military coup and Amnesty International said al-Dabi led his military intelligence service until August 1995, when he was appointed head of external security.

"During the early 1990s, the military intelligence in Sudan was responsible for the arbitrary arrest and detention, enforced disappearance, and torture or other ill-treatment of numerous people in Sudan," the Amnesty statement said.

"The Arab League's decision to appoint as the head of the observer mission a Sudanese general on whose watch severe human rights violations were committed in Sudan risks undermining the League's efforts so far and seriously calls into question the mission's credibility," Amnesty said.

Haytham Manna, a prominent Paris-based dissident, urged the Arab League to replace al-Dabi or reduce his authority.

"We know his history and his shallow experience in the area," he said.

Omar Idilbi of the Local Coordination Committees described al-Dabi as a "senior officer with an oppressive regime that is known to repress opposition" and said there are fears he might not be neutral.

The controversy over al-Dabi raises troubling questions about whether Arab League member states, with some of the world's poorest human rights record, are fit for the monitoring mission to protect Syrian civilians.

An Arab League official in Cairo defended the choice of al-Dabi, saying he enjoyed the support of all members. The monitors' mandate, he explained, was to observe and report to the League and not to intervene.

"We follow our conscience. The mission and its final report will decide the future of Syria and this is not a small matter," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Some of al-Dabi's comments during a visit to the flashpoint city of Homs this week also angered the opposition. He said the mission was enjoying the full cooperation of the Syrian government, which has shot and killed dozens of people around the country, mostly unarmed protesters, while the monitors have been working there.

"What do you expect from the head of a monitoring mission who is accused of genocide in his own country," said British-based opposition activist Ausama Monajed, a member of the Syrian National Council, the main opposition group. "Why couldn't the head of the mission be from Egypt, Morocco or the Gulf?" he told The Associated Press by phone. "That his background is military undermines his credibility. Why did not they pick someone who has a legal or rights background?"

He said SNC "is deeply concerned about having Mr. al-Dabi as head of the monitoring mission given the accusations around him and we will put a motion to the Arab League requesting that he be changed."

Because killings have continued with the monitors present, some members of the opposition have even accused the observers of complicity in the bloodshed.

President Bashar Assad's regime signed off on the peace plan on Dec. 19. The plan requires his regime to remove security forces and heavy weapons from city streets, start talks with opposition leaders, free political prisoners and allow human rights workers and journalists into the country. Syrian opposition groups have been critical of the mission, saying it will give Assad cover for his crackdown.

Sudan and Syria have been close allies for most of al-Bashir's 22 years in power, with Damascus routinely coming to al-Bashir's defense in the face of the International Criminal Court's indictment and arrest warrant against him.