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Five ways that Saudi-Israeli normalisation is already here

Sat, 09/30/2023 - 11:43
Five ways that Saudi-Israeli normalisation is already here
Despite having no formal ties, Saudi Arabia and Israel continue to develop covert relations that are becoming increasingly public
Rayhan Uddin Sat, 09/30/2023 - 12:43
Israel's Tourism Minister Haim Katz in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on 27 September 2023 (AFP/Israeli Ministry of Tourism)
Israel's Tourism Minister Haim Katz in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on 27 September 2023 (AFP/Israeli Ministry of Tourism)

While the timing of a potential deal normalising relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel remains unknown, talk of such a move is rapidly gaining momentum.

Asked last week how close a deal was, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman said: "Every day we get closer."

But Saudi Arabia has long maintained that it wouldn't normalise ties with Israel until Palestinians got their own state - a reality that is even more unlikely under Israel's current far-right coalition government.

In recent months, US President Joe Biden's administration has spearheaded efforts to strike a deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel, which would have Riyadh follow in the footsteps of the United Arab EmiratesBahrainMorocco and Sudan, who normalised ties in 2020 as part of the so-called Abraham Accords.

But members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition have rejected any serious concessions to Palestinians, including the freezing of illegal settlement construction on occupied Palestinian land.

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As such, an official Saudi announcement may yet be far off.

But despite having no official ties, Saudi Arabia and Israel have forged and maintained relations across a number of areas over the past decade.

Often covert, but increasingly public, representatives from the two countries have held meetings and cooperated on defence, technology, trade routes and airspace.

That has included Saudi Arabia buying Israeli-made spyware to reportedly hack opponents' phones, military cooperation to repel a common enemy in Iran, and the rollout of fibre optic internet cables linking the two countries. 

Middle East Eye takes a look at five ways the normalisation of relations between the two countries is already under way.

Saudi and Israeli officials meeting

A string of meetings between Saudi Arabian and Israeli officials, sometimes clandestine, have been reported for several years now. 

It began with mostly recently-retired officials coming together. 

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In 2015, an incoming director general of the Israeli foreign ministry publicly shook hands with a retired Saudi general and former adviser to the kingdom. 

That was followed a year later by Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former intelligence chief and Saudi ambassador to Washington, sharing a stage with Yaakov Amidror, a former general and ex-adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

'MBS is trying to see how the reaction is among the Saudi population'

- Andreas Krieg, analyst

Later that year, another retired Saudi official, General Anwar Eshki, led a team of businesspeople and academics to a meeting with Israeli foreign ministry officials and Israeli members of parliament in Jerusalem.

It's highly unlikely that such a trip would have gone ahead without Riyadh's approval. 

In November 2017, then-Israeli energy minister Yuval Steinitz became the first senior official to confirm covert contact between the two countries. 

When asked about ties with Riyadh, he responded: "We have ties that are indeed partly covert with many Muslim and Arab countries, and usually [we are] the party that is not ashamed.

"It's the other side that is interested in keeping the ties quiet. With us, usually, there is no problem, but we respect the other side's wish, when ties are developing, whether it's with Saudi Arabia or with other Arab countries or other Muslim countries, and there is much more... [but] we keep it secret."

For Andreas Krieg, assistant professor at King's College in London's defence studies department, the steady stream of meetings is part of Saudi Arabia "playing the long game" for normalisation. 

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"This is a strategy of trial and error where they take a lot of smaller tactical approaches to achieve the ends," Krieg told MEE. "There's a lot of testing waters."

Clandestine official contact peaked in 2020 when Netanyahu himself reportedly met with Mohammed bin Salman in the new Saudi megacity Neom.

The Israeli premier was joined by Israeli military, national security and intelligence chiefs, as well as then-US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The meeting was thought to have been deliberately leaked to media by the Israeli side.

"The Israelis also use this domestically, particular the Netanyahu government, to show that they are making progress, that they have something to show for themselves," said Krieg. 

Delegations 

While some visits and meetings have been secret, there has been an uptick in public delegations and visits on either side.

In 2019, Mohammed Saud, a self-styled Saudi blogger and vocal admirer of Israel, went on a trip to Israel and Palestine officially sponsored by Israel's foreign ministry.

Saud, who has called for normalisation between the two countries, was chased out of Al-Aqsa Mosque in occupied East Jerusalem by Palestinian residents, who called him "trash", "cheap" and "Zionist", and spat in his face.

On the other side, Israel's Channel 13 military correspondent, Alon Ben-David, travelled with a non-Israeli passport to the Saudi capital in July 2022, to gauge Saudi reactions to his presence there as an Israeli. 

He said he received a mixed reaction, and that normalisation was "going to be much slower with Saudi Arabia". 

In recent weeks in particular, publicised Israeli delegations to Saudi Arabia have picked up pace. 

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Last month, three Israelis competed in an international e-game tournament in Riyadh, arriving in Saudi Arabia using Israeli passports. 

During rehearsals for the opening ceremony, the three were filmed singing the Israeli national anthem and holding an Israeli flag. The Saudi organisers subsequently decided not to broadcast national anthems during the main event.

Days later, Israeli officials embarked on their first publicly announced delegation to Saudi Arabia.

A five-member contingent arrived for a Unesco meeting - the UN's cultural agency - to update the world heritage list of cultural and historic sites. 

"We are happy to be here - it's a good first step," an Israeli official told AFP in what appeared to be a reference to normalisation.

That was followed this week by Tourism Minister Haim Katz becoming the first Israeli minister to formally visit the kingdom to attend the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) conference.

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"The main reason that the talks are no longer secret is due to the political interests of Biden and Netanyahu," Michal Yaari, Gulf states researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told MEE.

"[They] hope that the agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia will improve their public standing."

Krieg adds that Saudi Arabia's crown prince will be judging the public's reaction to more open signs of relations between the two countries.

"[He's] trying to see how the reaction is among the Saudi population, [and] Muslims and Arabs more widely," Krieg said. "What we're seeing at the moment is the normalisation of normalisation."

But Krieg stressed that such overtures did not necessarily mean full-scale normalisation was imminent, with several sticking points yet to be resolved, including Palestinian concessions.

"You can have interactions with Israeli dignitaries and even allow Israelis to join an international conference in your country. But that doesn't mean necessarily you're going to normalise with Israel."

Defence cooperation

Several of the past meetings between Saudi and Israeli officials have centred around their common regional rival, Iran.

Last year, Israeli diplomatic and security officials told MEE that they were engaging in talks with the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to install a joint defence programme against the threat of drones.

The initiative, backed by Washington, was part of a coordinated effort to repel Iran and its proxies in the region, including Yemen's Houthis.

In March, a high level meeting between Israeli and Saudi military officials took place in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Delegations from Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain and Jordan were also present, as well as a former head of the US Central Command.

The participants reportedly struck a non-binding agreement to coordinate rapid notification systems in the event of detecting an aerial threat from drones or ballistic and cruise missile attacks. 

'Israel's capabilities and its proven ability to face Iran made it a crucial ally'

Michal Yaari, researcher

"Israel's capabilities and its proven ability to face [Iran] made it a crucial ally for some Gulf states," said Yaari. "This is how Israel turned from 'the problem of the Arab world' into an important ally."

Saudi Arabia restored ties with Iran in March this year, after a seven-year fallout - a development that likely did not please Israel. 

But Krieg notes that several elements of the Iranian "deep state", including the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and proxy networks involved in Iraq and Yemen are still a bone of contention for Riyadh.

"We shouldn't interpret too much into that normalisation," said Krieg. "There's still a lot of mistrust."

An alliance against Iran is not the first report of defence coordination between Saudi Arabia and Israel. 

In July 2015, MEE editor-in-chief David Hearst outlined in a comment piece the links between Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel that seek to "crush" the Palestinian group Hamas.

Saudi Arabia's ambassador in the UK criticised Hearst for the piece, accusing it of being "baseless lies". 

But Debkafile, a news site known to be close to the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, substantiated many of Hearst's assertions on the emergence of a Saudi-Israeli alliance against Hamas in Gaza.

Technology and trade

There have been signs of covert business activity too, particularly in the technology sphere, as well commitments to collaborate more openly in future.

In a move repeatedly maligned by human rights and digital activists, Saudi Arabia is an alleged purchaser of Pegasus, the notorious spyware made by Israeli company NSO Group which has been used to hack the phones of political opponents.

Riyadh first purchased the software in 2017 for $55m, after a small team of Israeli defence officials took part in a secret dialogue with Riyadh, according to a New York Times report.

Israel's defence ministry declined to renew Riyadh's licence for the spyware following allegations it used Pegasus to track MEE columnist Jamal Khashoggi before he was murdered by Saudi agents in October 2018.

However, after Mohammed bin Salman directly called Netanyahu, the licence was renewed. Netanyahu denies the reports.

Elsewhere, an Israeli technology firm, IntuView, said that it had worked with Saudi Arabia to surveil "potential terrorists". It also scanned Saudi citizens' data to help define the kingdom's Vision 2030 economic diversification strategy.

The company's founder said he set up an offshore company to hide its Israeli identity.

There are longer term ambitions too: MEE revealed in April that a proposed fibre optic cable linking Saudi Arabia and Israel, backed by a major Israeli investment fund, was "gaining traction" in Riyadh. 

The 20,000 km cable, known as the Trans Europe Asia System, would also run through the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman - as well as Jordan and Palestine on a route between Marseille in France and Mumbai in India.

trans europe asia system cable saudi arabia israel

Sources in the cable industry told MEE that the project had gained favour in Riyadh and was also being backed by the US government.

A submarine cable consultant said the Israeli-Gulf connection had not been disclosed more openly because "the mere mention of Israel is very sensitive".

In another future project linking the two countries, Israel also announced a $27bn rail expansion which seeks to reach the Gulf kingdom.

"In the future... we will also be able to link Israel by train to Saudi Arabia and the Arabian peninsula," Netanyahu said in July.

Airspace

Flight paths and airspace has provided another area of friendliness between the two countries.

In July 2022, Saudi Arabia announced that it would open up its airspace to all civilian flights. It had previously barred overflights from Israeli and non-Israeli companies travelling to or from Israel. 

The announcement was made just hours after Biden flew directly to Saudi Arabia from Israel. 

Since the decision, flights to and from countries such as India and China to Israel have been allowed to pass over the Saudi peninsula, cutting hours of flight time and significant amounts of fuel. 

Last month, an Air Seychelles flight heading to Tel Aviv made an unscheduled landing in Saudi Arabia after it faced technical issues. The 128 Israelis on board spent the night in the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah.

It's thought to be the first time an Israel-bound commercial flight has been permitted to land in Saudi airspace.

"I am very much appreciative of the warm welcome by Saudi authorities to the Israeli passengers whose plane faced difficulties and was forced to land in Jeddah, and I'm happy that everyone is coming home," Netanyahu said at the time.

Omani authorities followed suit and opened up their airspace to Israeli airlines in February. 

Up until that point, even with Saudi airspace being made available, Israeli airlines had been unable to open a corridor for longer haul flights to fly over the kingdom, and therefore had to continue bypassing the Arabian peninsula.

In another move towards normalising ties, Israel is negotiating with Saudi Arabia to allow Palestinians with Israeli citizenship to fly directly to the kingdom to perform the Hajj and Umrah religious pilgrimages. A deal has yet to be struck.

Yemen: Fourth Bahraini officer dies following Houthi attack

Sat, 09/30/2023 - 10:31
Yemen: Fourth Bahraini officer dies following Houthi attack
A drone attack on Monday blamed on Houthi rebels killed and wounded a number of Bahraini soldiers near the Yemeni border in Saudi Arabia
MEE staff Sat, 09/30/2023 - 11:31
Bodies of two Bahrain Defence Force officers, killed in a Houthi drone attack against forces of the Saudi-led coalition on the Saudi-Yemeni border, arrive at Bahrain Royal Air Force Base in Jaw (Reuters)

A fourth Bahraini man has died following an attack by Houthi rebels in Saudi Arabia, on the border with Yemen, a spokesperson for the Bahraini army said.

The suspected drone attack on Monday came a week after ceasefire talks were held between the Yemeni group and Saudi Arabia

According to the Bahraini army, three officers were initially killed in the drone attack while they were stationed inside Saudi Arabia along the border with Yemen.

On Friday, a fourth officer, First Lieutenant Hamad Khalifa al-Kubaisi, "succumbed to serious injuries as a result of the treacherous Houthi attack", the Bahraini army said.

The Houthi movement said on Tuesday that violations of a truce between them and the Saudi-led coalition have not stopped despite recent peace talks.

The conflict in Yemen began in 2014 after the Houthis seized the capital Sanaa.

A Saudi-led military intervention, which included Bahrain, began in 2015, intending to restore the internationally recognised government. 

Fighting has dragged on since, without a decisive military victory for either side, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths and a major humanitarian crisis. 

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After the UN brokered a ceasefire in April 2022, hostilities and casualties were drastically reduced. The truce expired in October, but fighting has largely remained on hold since then. 

Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia launched diplomatic efforts to reach a permanent end to the conflict with the Houthis.

The two sides held talks in April which were followed by a major prisoner exchange involving almost 900 detainees. 

Last week, a delegation from the Houthi movement travelled to Saudi Arabia to resume direct talks. After five days of discussions, Saudi Arabia said the results were "positive". 

According to analysts, the talks come as it appears Riyadh has realised its prolonged military campaign will not bring about the defeat of the Houthis. 

It also follows an agreement earlier this year by Saudi Arabia and Iran, which backs the Houthis, to re-establish diplomatic ties.

White House to use Civil Rights Act to deter antimsemitism, Islamophobia in federal programmes

Fri, 09/29/2023 - 19:51
White House to use Civil Rights Act to deter antimsemitism, Islamophobia in federal programmes
White House says the move provides safeguards and resources for mitigating and preventing discrimination
MEE staff Fri, 09/29/2023 - 20:51
US President Joe Biden at Tempe Center for the Arts in Tempe, Arizona, on 28 September (AFP)

The White House announced on Thursday it would employ the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to combat antisemitism and Islamophobia in programmes funded by the federal government. 

Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act bans discrimination stemming from common ancestry or ethnic traits and is applicable to any programme or activity that receives federal financial aid. 

While Title VI does not directly offer protection against religious discrimination, eight federal agencies will for the first time ever clarify, in writing, that it prohibits certain forms of antisemitic, Islamophobic, and related forms of discrimination in federally funded programmes and activities.

The clarification emphasises protections specifically related to actual or perceived ancestry and ethnic characteristics; being a citizen or resident of a country where a specific religion is predominant or where distinct religious identities are recognised, whether this is actual or perceived; safeguards in instances of discrimination that include racial, ethnic, or ancestral slurs; discrimination based on skin colour or other physical attributes; style of dress; or foreign language, accent, or name, Axios reported

The White House's fact sheet on the updated plan references antisemitism 27 times and Islamophobia six times. 

"We believe that Americans deserve the agency to receive the care they need regardless of what they look like or believe in," Melanie Fontes Rainer, the health and human services civil rights director said in a statement.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations documented a 28 percent rise in incidents of hate and prejudice directed at Muslims in 2022, compared to the previous year.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Jewish Americans are the victims of 63 pecent of all reported religiously motivated hate crimes. 

According to the White House, the move provides extensive safeguards and instrumental resources for mitigating and preventing various types of discrimination, including specific instances of antisemitic, Islamophobic, and other related prejudices and biases.

This initiative is a part of the first National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism, which the White House describes as the most thorough campaign against antisemitism in US history. It was launched earlier this year amid reports of an uptick in antisemitic rhetoric. 

The White House released the National Strategy plan earlier this year, which it said reaffirmed “the United States’ unshakable commitment to the State of Israel’s right to exist”.

The plan had a four-point approach consisting of improving education around antisemitism, strengthening safety and security for Jewish communities, reversing the "normalisation" of antisemitic discrimination, and building "cross-community solidarity" to counter bigotry.

“Every person in this country should have access to the resources that the federal government provides. Today, the Biden-Harris administration is leading by example and making it crystal clear that antisemitism, Islamophobia and related forms of discrimination have no place in America,” Secretary Deb Haaland said. 

“Interior is committed to living up to our values as a country and enforcing these important civil rights protections.”

Congresswoman Tlaib rebukes US decision to grant Israel entry to visa waiver programme

Fri, 09/29/2023 - 17:09
Congresswoman Tlaib rebukes US decision to grant Israel entry to visa waiver programme
Rashida Tlaib says Israeli government has not and will not uphold principle of reciprocity
Shaheryar Mirza Fri, 09/29/2023 - 18:09
US Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib is the first woman of Palestinian descent to serve in Congress (AFP)

Democratic Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib slammed the Biden administration's decision to accept Israel into the US visa waiver programme (VWP), saying it enables Israel's "discriminatory practices".

“The Biden Administration’s decision to admit Israel into the Visa Waiver Program explicitly condones and enables the Israeli government’s discriminatory practices towards Americans requesting entry, including hours of detainment and interrogation," Tlaib said in a statement posted to her website on Thursday.

The State Department and Department of Homeland Security made the announcement on Wednesday morning, ahead of the 30 September deadline the US gave itself to make a decision on the matter.

Now becoming the 41st country to join the VWP, Israeli citizens will be allowed visa-free travel into the US for up to 90 days, and US citizens will be given the same privilege when travelling to Israel.

Israel's entry into the VWP will go into effect on 30 November, according to the State Department.

Tlaib added that the decision to allow Israel into the programme means "the US government is allowing a foreign government to discriminate against its own citizens based on protected class".

Entry into the VWP for any country requires that both countries abide by the principle of reciprocity, which means that any US citizen be allowed freedom of movement - as Israel's citizens enjoy in the US - and no discrimination during entry and exit protocols.

Reciprocity has been the main sticking point for critics of Israel's acceptance. A US-based rights group filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction on Tuesday, arguing that Israel is not eligible for the programme because it discriminates against Palestinian Americans.

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Tlaib used her own and Congresswoman Ilhan Omar's travel experience as an example of what she described as Israel's "racist" practices towards Palestinian Americans. 

“The far-right Israeli government routinely discriminates against Americans seeking to enter the country, even denying myself and Congresswoman Omar entry in 2019. This decision enables further racist practices and violence towards Americans including the murder of Shireen Abu Akleh. The United States has yet to hold the Israeli government accountable.

“The Visa Waiver Program requires that all US citizens are treated equally. I have received consistent reports of discrimination of Americans attempting to enter Israel. No one should be discriminated against due to their national origin, ethnicity, or faith."

Israel has long sought entry into the VWP, and in July, the US and Israel signed a “reciprocity agreement” to allow American citizens the ability to freely enter Israel.

Washington had announced it would be monitoring Israel over a trial period of six weeks and then would make a decision about whether or not to allow the country into the VWP by 30 September - a process many have said has been rushed to give Israel "unique treatment".

Reciprocity

Palestinian Americans from Gaza, as well as rights groups, feel little will change for them after the VWP goes into effect. 

According to the US embassy in Israel, those registered on the Palestinian population registry for Gaza have new procedures for short-term entry, exit and transit through Israel, effective the afternoon of 11 September. However, the embassy website shows a number of stipulations regarding entry procedures.

For example, a US citizen and Gaza resident who has spent more than 50 percent of the last five years in Gaza (as confirmed by the Israeli government) can apply for a permit to enter Israel through the Erez Crossing. If they are outside of Gaza at the time of applying, they can apply for entrance through any international port of entry.

'The VWP 'condones and enables the Israeli government’s discriminatory practices...'

- Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib

But US citizens cannot use their US passports for transiting from Israel to Gaza.

Chris Habiby, national government affairs and advocacy director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, told MEE for a previous article that the process is starting to cater to Gaza residents to some degree, "But from what I can tell, it just looks like a continuation of the separate and unequal system that they're setting up."

Habiby added that the process for Americans from Gaza is overly complicated, and has created additional tiers of access in what was already a multi-tiered system for Palestinian Americans.

Earlier this month, more than a dozen senators raised these concerns with the Biden administration, sending a letter that warned against moving forward with Israel’s entry into the VWP.

“The contacts we have had from US citizens seeking to travel to Israel since the MOU went into effect, it is clear that Israel is not in compliance with this law as it relates to reciprocal treatment for all US citizens, and is not on track to come into compliance before the September 30, 2023 deadline,” the senators said in their letter.

This sentiment was echoed by Tlaib on Thursday. 

"The Israeli government has not and will not uphold reciprocity.”

Egyptian woman murdered on campus in third femicide case this week

Fri, 09/29/2023 - 16:04
Egyptian woman murdered on campus in third femicide case this week
The spate of killings is part of an 'epidemic' of gender-based violence in Egypt, says activist
Katherine Hearst Fri, 09/29/2023 - 17:04
Nourhan (pictured) was gunned down by a colleague on campus (social media)

An employee of Cairo University was killed on campus on Thursday, in the third incident of femicide in Egypt in two days.

State-run Al-Ahram newspaper reported that the woman, identified only by her first name, Nourhan, was gunned down by a colleague whose marriage proposal she had rejected, following months of harassment.

The assailant reportedly later killed himself with the same gun.

A day earlier, 32-year-old Shaimaa Abdel Karim was fatally shot by her 36-year-old ex-fiancee while leaving work in Heliopolis, a suburb of Cairo.

The ex-fiance had reportedly repeatedly stalked and harassed Karim since she ended the engagement 12 years ago.

On Wednesday, a third woman, identified as 33-year-old Sumayya by local media, was stabbed to death by her ex-husband in Omraniya as she was leaving her work at a factory.

According to the reports, the perpetrator had harassed Sumayya for two years after their divorce and threatened her when she became engaged in a new relationship.

Human rights lawyer Mai-El Sadany has described the string of killings as "a crisis".

An epidemic of violence

The murders are not isolated incidents in Egypt, but part of a pattern in a country where women have long suffered from violence and sexual harassment.

In September 2022, Amany Abdel Karim, a 19-year-old student, was allegedly killed by a man whose offer of marriage was rejected by her family.

Her murder was part of a spate of killings earlier that year, including 20-year-old student Salma Baghat, who was killed by a fellow student in the city of Zagazig; and Nayera Ashraf, a 21-year-old student who was stabbed 19 times outside the university in Mansoura, north of Cairo. 

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“One of the most problematic things about dealing with violence against women…(is that) people talk about it as if it is the first time (it has happened), without understanding there is an epidemic of violence against women,” Mozn Hassan, women's rights advocate and founder of the feminist organisation Nazra, told Middle East Eye.

“I think this is the problem with viewing gender issues as something that is parallel to society. It's not, it’s part of what is happening [in society].

“People are shocked..but this has been reported systematically since 2011, and it’s increasing.” 

Nearly eight million Egyptian women were victims of violence committed by their partners or relatives, or by strangers in public spaces, according to a United Nations survey conducted in 2015.

In 2021, Egypt’s Edraak Foundation for Development and Equality recorded over 813 cases of violence against women and girls, up from 415 the previous year.

Pro-Israel groups call on US law firms to boycott event honouring UN's Navi Pillay

Fri, 09/29/2023 - 15:29
Pro-Israel groups call on US law firms to boycott event honouring UN's Navi Pillay
Human rights campaigner continues to face barrage of attacks for documenting Israeli crimes against Palestinians
Azad Essa Fri, 09/29/2023 - 16:29
Navi Pillay presents a report at the UN Human Rights Council, in Geneva, on 13 June 2022 (AFP)

Several pro-Israel Jewish groups have urged law firms to rescind their sponsorship of a conference next month over the presence of a former UN high commissioner for human rights at the event.

In a letter sent to law firms Debevoise & Plimpton; Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher; and White & Case, the organisations urged the law firms to rescind their sponsorship of the conference scheduled between 19-21 October in New York City, on account of Navi Pillay, the noted South African judge, accusing her "of holding [a] discriminatory agenda against the Jewish people".

Pillay, who was the UN high commissioner for human rights between 2008 and 2014, as well as a former judge of the International Criminal Court between 2003-2008, is scheduled to receive an "Outstanding Achievement Award" at the event organised by the American Branch of the International Law Association on 21 October.

In the letter signed by more than 30 organisations both in the US and South Africa, the pro-Israel groups said continued participation in the conference amounted to legitimising bigotry, adding that participants were effectively endorsing what they call Pillay's "antisemitism".

"Pillay has repeatedly demonstrated a bias that fundamentally undermines the fight against antisemitism, Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects, and the integrity of international law," the letter said.

Signatories included pro-Israel groups like the American Jewish Congress; World Jewish Congress - North America; B’nai B’rith International; StandWithUs; the Simon Wiesenthal Center; Hadassah; Human Rights Voices; NGO Monitor; Camera; and the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. They also included South Africa-based Zionist groups as well as several US-based legal organisations.

The American Branch of the International Law Association did not reply to MEE's request for comment.

A concerted effort

Francesca P Albanese, the United Nations special rapporteur on the Occupied Palestinian Territories, said the allegations against Pillay were "baseless".

"They appear to be designed to disseminate disinformation and tarnish the reputation of anyone engaged in the question of Israel’s occupation of Palestine and violations associated with it," Albanese told Middle East Eye.

"Such tactics have long been employed to shield the Israeli apartheid policies towards Palestinians from scrutiny, and to deflect attention from the harsh realities on the ground," Albanese added.

Likewise, Ronnie Kasrils, a former South African government minister, said it was outrageous that the pro-Israel lobby would try to intimidate the law firms from honoring Pillay.

"My fellow South African, Navi Pillay, is an outstanding opponent of racial discrimination in all its forms; and is a champion of human rights and justice for all people," Kasrils told MEE.

Pillay, who is currently the president of the Advisory Council of the International Nuremberg Principles Academy, has been at the receiving end of attacks from Zionist groups, following several years of meticulous documentation of Israeli crimes against Palestinians.

The Israeli government has routinely described the UN's Human Rights Council as biased and has refused to cooperate with UN-led investigations.

In 2010, Pillay defended the Goldstone report that investigated the 2008-2009 Israeli military assault on Gaza.

The Goldstone report concluded that both the Israeli military and Hamas had engaged in war crimes and urged both sides to carry out credible investigations of their own. The report said that should these investigations fail to be carried out properly, they ought to be referred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Around 1,300 Palestinians were killed during the three-week Israeli invasion of the besieged enclave. Thirteen Israelis were also killed by rockets fired from Gaza.

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At the time, Pillay said that Israeli slurs and attacks on efforts to bring attention to the findings were clearly attempts to distract from the pursuit of clarity and truth.

“These vehement arguments tried to shift the focus away from the soundness of the methodology and findings of the mission to plunge the debate into the quicksands of the highly partisan politics of the Middle East conflict,” Pillay said.

As part of a commission of inquiry set up in 2021 to investigate alleged violations of international law in the occupied West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem, Pillay's team concluded that there was "credible evidence that Israel has no intention of ending the occupation, has clear policies for ensuring complete control over the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and is acting to alter the demography through the maintenance of a repressive environment for Palestinians and a favourable environment for Israeli settlers".

In 2022, following a spate of personal attacks from the Israeli government on the three-member commission, Pillay felt compelled to inform the president of the UN General Assembly about the extent of the intimidatory tactics. 

“During the interactive dialogue following the presentation of the report, the permanent representative of the State of Israel to the United Nations launched personal attacks directed at each of the commissioners, including by using offensive language and insults which questioned their objectivity and impartiality, accusing them of ‘Jew hatred’, labelling them ‘blatant antisemites’, and referring to them as part of a ‘terror-supporting’ commission," Pillay wrote. 

She also reportedly told a journalist that she would be asking UN secretary general Antonio Guterres for a statement addressing accusations she was antisemitic. 

When Guterres' spokesperson was asked if he would issue a statement, he replied:

“We don’t have a statement on this, but obviously, you’re aware of the many different roles Navi Pillay has played in the UN system in terms of the international criminal tribunals, in terms of the work of the Human Rights Office. And so, her professionalism and her integrity are well known to all of you, and we would reaffirm that," the spokesperson said.

To scholars in the field of human rights, however, Pillay is an unambiguous trailblazer and a dogged campaigner.

Sarah Farbstein, director of the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard University, said that Pillay, as the UN high commissioner for human rights between 2008-14 "built a legacy of addressing all forms of discrimination including against previously overlooked groups".

"She is an icon. She is a role model," Farbstein said during a panel discussion with Pillay at Harvard in November 2022.

Likewise, Albanese, the UN special rapporteur, added that Pillay's track record in upholding justice and human rights bears testament to the baselessness of these allegations.

"Her lifelong efforts in fighting against discrimination and fighting for justice, equality and human rights, have been applauded by numerous members of the global community, including Jewish scholars," Albanese added.

Kasrils, the former minister of parliament from South Africa, described Pillay as "richly deserved of this award".

"I call on the law firms concerned to reject with contempt this despicable demand which reeks of the stench of intolerance and bigotry all too prevalent in today's world -  a world community that needs to honour the contribution of those like Navi Pillay," Kasrils added.

Pillay did not reply to MEE's request by the time of publication.

Pro-Israel groups call on law firms to divest from conference honoring UN's Navi Pillay

UN: More than 2,500 people died or went missing crossing Mediterranean in 2023

Fri, 09/29/2023 - 13:01
UN: More than 2,500 people died or went missing crossing Mediterranean in 2023
At least 186,000 people crossed the Mediterranean between January and August this year, according to UN refugee agency

MEE staff Fri, 09/29/2023 - 14:01
People in a makeshift boat heading for Italy are intercepted by Tunisian authorities off the coast of Sfax, on 4 October 2022 (AFP)

From January to August this year, more than 2,500 people died or went missing trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, the UN's refugee agency said on Thursday.

Ruven Menikdiwela, director of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), also told the UN Security Council that 186,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean so far this year. 

Tunisia and Libya were the main departure hotspots for those seeking to make the journey.

More than 102,000 people departing from Tunisia have attempted to cross the sea towards Europe in 2023 to date, a 260 percent increase on last year.

At least 45,000 people have sought to make the dangerous crossing from Libya.

Of the 186,000 people who crossed the Mediterranean, more than 80 percent landed in Italy. The rest landed in Greece, Spain, Cyprus and Malta. 

Menikdiwela told a council meeting called by Russia on migration to Europe that the high departure rates from Tunisia “result from the perception of insecurity among refugee communities, following incidents of racially motivated attacks and hate speech, as well as collective expulsions from Libya and Algeria."

Earlier this year Tunisian President Kais Saied linked people from sub-Saharan Africa in the country to criminality, in comments that were widely denounced as racist. 

“There has been a criminal plan since the beginning of the century to change the demographic structure of Tunisia and there are parties that received large sums of money after 2011 for the settlement of illegal immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa,” Saied said. 

In Libya, where there are nearly 50,000 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the UNHCR, “the conditions of thousands of refugees and migrants in both official and unofficial detention facilities… remains of grave concern,” said Menikdiwela. 

Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called the European Union’s decision to release $135m in migrant control assistance to Tunisia “terrible for human rights”.

Last week, the European Commission announced the payment, which came after a controversial deal it signed with the North African country in July.

The decision by the EU was made “despite an absence of any specific human rights guarantees for migrants and asylum seekers”, said HRW.

Moreover, the deal risked making the EU “complicit in abuses” carried out by Tunisian authorities.

Migrant abuse 

The financial assistance is meant to prop up Tunisia's crisis-hit economy and help the country stop refugees from heading to Europe. More than 10,000 refugees have arrived at the Italian island of Lampedusa in recent weeks.

Italy's right-wing prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, has been pushing the EU to fulfil the agreement brokered by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in July.

No rescue from above: Europe's surveillance in the Mediterranean leaves migrants to their fate
Read More »

Middle East Eye reported earlier this month that Sub-Saharan Africans in Tunisia are increasingly being denied emergency food and water supplies in the government's latest move to crack down on migration at the behest of Saied.

The plight of migrants, mainly from Sub-Saharan countries, is the "worst" in modern Tunisian history, Nicholas Noe, a senior visiting fellow at Refugees International, told MEE.

In July, HRW reported that the Tunisian police, military, national guard and coastguard have been involved in grave violations against Black Africans.

Beatings, use of excessive force, some cases of torture, arbitrary arrests and detention, collective expulsions, dangerous actions at sea, forced evictions and theft of money and belongings are all examples of abuses documented by HRW.

Bahrain: Activist held on return to UK after addressing UN on human rights

Fri, 09/29/2023 - 12:47
Bahrain: Activist held on return to UK after addressing UN on human rights
Sayed Alwadaei says Border Force officers detained him for over two hours at Gatwick Airport without explaining why
Dania Akkad Fri, 09/29/2023 - 13:47
Sayed Alwadaei (right) and other Bahraini human rights defenders visit US Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council, Michele Taylor, in Geneva on Thursday (X/@USAmbHRC)

A prominent Bahraini activist says he was held at Gatwick Airport on Friday as he returned to the UK from addressing the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva about Bahrain’s human rights abuses.

Sayed Alwadaei, director of advocacy at the UK-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, told Middle East Eye that UK Border Force officials stopped him after he landed, but did not tell him why he was being held.

Instead, they gave him a document, seen by MEE, which said he is “an individual who may be liable to arrest by a constable or subject to a warrant for arrest”. Alwadaei said he was released after two-and-a-half hours.

MEE asked the Home Office why Alwadaei was held. A Home Office spokesperson said: “Border Force’s number one priority is to maintain a secure border, which includes verifying that those wishing to enter the UK have the right to do so.”

Alwadaei said he was also held last month at a UK airport when he arrived from South Africa, but was unclear what triggered that, or whether Friday's incident is connected. 

"The fact that you have no explanation, nothing, it just keeps your mind floating around," he said on Friday. "You're not sure - is it an Interpol red notice? What is it?"

Speaking after he was released, Alwadaei told MEE he is more concerned about a group of female Bahraini human rights defenders who were on their way back to Bahrain from Geneva on Friday after participating in the council's session.

Their visit included a meeting on Thursday with Michele Taylor, US Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council.

"I’m more worried, to be honest, about the safety of those who came to Geneva to tell their story and also to deliver their message on behalf of hundreds of political prisoners in Bahrain," he said. "What if they are stopped and questioned?"

One of the women in Geneva was Ebtisam al-Saegh, who was detained in March 2017 for seven hours at Bahrain International Airport and interrogated on her return from the UN Human Rights Council, where she spoke about violations.

'Urgent questions'

Maya Foa, joint executive director of Reprieve, called Alwadaei a "courageous human rights defender and torture survivor" who has been granted asylum by the UK because of violence and persecution by Bahraini authorities.

"Sayed’s family have suffered reprisals in Bahrain for his work exposing torture and forced confessions leading to death sentences - and the role played by institutions funded by the UK in whitewashing this abuse," Foa said.

'Sayed’s family have suffered reprisals in Bahrain for his work exposing torture and forced confessions leading to death sentences'

Maya Foa, Reprieve

"Under these circumstances, Sayed’s detention today is clearly extremely alarming for Sayed and his family."

She said the incident raises "urgent questions" for the UK government, particularly given the removal of Bahrain from the list of human rights priority countries this year, for the first time since 2015.

MPs and rights groups have criticised the decision to drop the kingdom from the list, days after Bahrain pledged to invest £1bn in Britain. 

"Ministers must urgently confirm what representations [the UK government] has received from the government of Bahrain around Sayed’s citizenship and immigration status, and assure the public that its actions are in no way influenced by pressure from the Bahraini authorities," Foa said.

Prominent Bahraini activist detained at UK airport after addressing UN
Sayed Alwadaei is the director of advocacy for the UK-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (YouTube)

Syria's Assad won symbolic victories in China. Will material benefits follow?

Fri, 09/29/2023 - 12:47
Syria's Assad won symbolic victories in China. Will material benefits follow?
Praise from Xi Jinping and a silk gown worn by Asma provided a PR boost for Damascus. But what it really needs is cold, hard cash
Danny Makki Fri, 09/29/2023 - 13:47
Bashar al-Assad and Asma al-Assad being welcomed upon their arrival at the airport in Beijing, on 21 September (AFP)
Bashar and Asma al-Assad are welcomed on their arrival in Beijing on 21 September 2023 (AFP)

Shrouded in heavy fog, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad landed in the Chinese city of Hangzhou, exiting an Air China plane on 21 September in his first official visit to the country since 2004.

For Syrian officials, the visit carried their government's hopes of breaking further out of international isolation, following Syria’s recent readmission to the Arab League.

Syria’s half-frozen conflict, its cratering economy and the role of outside players were priority issues to discuss. So, too, was the elephant in the room: China’s growing role in Syria and the wider Middle East.

Though China has kept channels of dialogue and cooperation open with Damascus throughout Syria’s 12-year conflict, Beijing’s muscle has begun to be felt more forcefully in the region, with the recent Chinese-brokered Saudi-Iran rapprochement a landmark development.

It’s also believed the Chinese helped encourage Arab countries to bring Syria back into the fold.

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It remains to be seen whether Syria can achieve similar breakthroughs with Chinese support following Assad’s trip. But nonetheless, it provided at the very least symbolic victories.

President Xi Jinping appeared to go out of his way to portray Assad as a trusted and welcomed ally during his week-long trip, and the surprise announcement of a “strategic partnership” has raised expectations of closer ties.

China to bring Assad in from the cold?

Syria played the polite guest in Hangzhou - home of the Asian Games, which Assad and his wife Asma attended - as Xi heaped praise on his Syrian counterpart.

“I salute your steadfastness. You defended your country with courage. We in China are closely following everything that is happening in Syria, and we are with you,” Xi said.

"China supports Syria's opposition to foreign interference, unilateral bullying... and will support Syria's reconstruction."

In a direct message to the United States, Xi exclaimed: “China urges all relevant countries to lift illegal unilateral sanctions on Syria immediately”, before a joint summit marked the formation of the “strategic partnership”.

Washington clearly was taking notice, with Senator Michael McCaul responding: “I strongly condemn Assad’s visit to China. China’s willingness to welcome such a brutal war criminal… underscores the threat posed by China and its friends in Russia, Iran and Syria.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar Assad before their bilateral meeting in Hangzhou, China, 22 September (AP)
President Bashar al-Assad and President Xi Jinping in Hangzhou, China, on 22 September 2023 (AP)

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The symbolism didn’t stop there. Asma al-Assad was seen stepping out in a silk Damascene brocade robe, signalling that Syria and China have a shared history as two countries on the Silk Road.

Images of members of the Chinese public rushing to greet the Assads in the temple of Khanjo will also have been deemed a PR victory by Syrian officials.

//--> //--> //-->

The timing of the visit made much political sense for several reasons, analyst Camille Otrakji told Middle East Eye.

“Assad's supporters and opponents keenly monitored the developments of the visit and ultimately both sides could assert that it met their expectations and preferences,” Otrakji said.

“On one hand, numerous pacts were inked, including a 'strategic agreement', yet on the other hand, there was a lack of concrete measures that could translate into a tangible shift in the Syrian situation.”

While China has been touted as a major potential economic backer for Syria, any actual assistance will have its difficulties and complexities.

Otrakji added: “At this stage, it is unlikely that the Chinese government is prepared to go further and to confront the Americans and their intricate framework of sanctions on Syria. Only time will reveal whether this visit will catalyse a far deeper bond in Sino-Syrian relations in the future.”

Hope for Syria’s struggling economy

Assad’s priority in China was most likely economic. Over a decade of war, crippling western sanctions and an economic crisis in next-door Lebanon have left Syria’s economy in tatters.

Damascus has long hoped that China could drive reconstruction and deliver outside investment, though there has been wariness on the Chinese side, for whom security and sanctions remain an issue.

Nonetheless, Middle East analyst Alexander Langlois told MEE he believed Assad’s trip could prove significant.

'The trip to China… presents a major moment for Damascus to garner economic support'

Alexander Langlois, Middle East analyst

“Although Damascus has witnessed major regional diplomatic advancements it has not received significant economic assistance following its return to the Arab League in May,” he said.

“Assad had likely hoped for Gulf reconstruction funds that never materialised - probably due to his disinterest in any publicly identifiable and/or serious concessions thus far.”

Langlois added: “The trip to China falls within this context and presents a major moment for Damascus to garner economic support. China-Syria trade is not substantial, but we have seen smaller Chinese businesses and investors willing to take on the risk of sanctions and conflict make business moves in Syria in recent years.”

The West must get used to China's new role in the Middle East
Read More »

Syria joined China's Belt and Road Initiative in 2022, and during Assad’s trip his aide, Luna al-Shibl, talked up the prospect of partnership.

“Syria constitutes an essential part of the Chinese vision for stability in the world, considering that China has established a new form in global politics,” she said.

Yet Syria’s economic plight necessitates a greater outreach than ever before, as over 90 percent of the population now live under the global poverty line and the government is being forced to make a series of unpopular and difficult cutbacks.

Meanwhile, Damascus is yet to see any significant Chinese investments or construction since joining the Belt and Road Initiative.

Syria’s currency exchange rate has worsened to the degree where even basic necessities are becoming scarce. According to the head of the Syrian pharmacies syndicate in Damascus, Hassan Derwan, the government decided to increase the prices of pharmaceuticals by 50 percent.

In essence, a state visit to China has been long overdue, and the messaging and optics go some way to showing an interest in cultivating solid ties, away from Russia and Iran, who can be unreliable at times and lack the economic initiative to help Syria.

Syria’s main priority, however, is cold, hard cash. And if eyes in Damascus are eagerly locked onto Beijing in the hope that assistance will come, China will no doubt require a tangible and substantial return. Perhaps the “strategic partnership” will be the beginning.

Iranian press review: Curly hair banned for male medical students

Fri, 09/29/2023 - 10:23
Iranian press review: Curly hair banned for male medical students
Meanwhile, unrestricted internet for foreigners causes anger, and pro-establishment mothers march in support of 'childbearing jihad'
MEE correspondent Fri, 09/29/2023 - 11:23
A young Iranian man walks along a street in downtown Tehran at sunset on 8 June 2023 (Reuters)
A young Iranian man walks along a street in downtown Tehran at sunset on 8 June 2023 (Reuters)

List of new restrictions announced for students

At the beginning of the new academic year, Iran's health ministry published a list of new instructions for medical students, in which male students and physician assistants were banned from having curly hair.

These new restrictions were announced after a law passed by parliament on 20 September to impose harsher punishments on women defying the compulsory Islamic hijab and dress code.

On Monday, the Etemad Daily published the details of the health ministry's instructions, which oblige medical schools to grade students based on their compliance with the Islamic hijab law.

Most of the restrictions announced targeted women. However, two bans were explicitly for men: a "ban on having curly hair" and a "ban on wearing bracelets".

The daily reported that apart from covering the hair, other obligations were directed towards women, including a ban on putting on false eyelashes, having nail extensions, tucking trousers into boots, and wearing lace socks.

"Wearing clothes with printed images of women, love sentences, swearing, comic and meaningless pictures, anti-religious symbols, logos of rap, and heavy metal bands" were also prohibited in this directive.

The new order also forbade "having tattoos on the face (especially lips, eyebrows, and eye tattoos), on visible parts of the body (such as hands, face, and...), and piercing on body parts such as nose rings".

Indignation over better internet for foreigners

A decision by Iran's officials to offer "special SIM cards" to foreign tourists, enabling them to have unrestricted internet while visiting the country, has provoked anger among Iranians who encounter difficulties in accessing reliable internet.

On Sunday, Ali Asghar Shalbafan, a deputy at the tourism ministry, told ISNA news agency that "unrestricted tourism SIM cards" would be provided to foreign tourists.

Iran bets on brutal new hijab law after a year of failing to suppress women
Read More »

The decision was made amid ongoing internet cutoffs since the anti-establishment protests that swept the country last September following the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody. At the same time, social media platforms and messaging applications such as Instagram and WhatsApp have been blocked.

The move received adverse reactions from the public and politicians, with many labelling it a "capitulation law".

On Monday, the Aftab daily criticised the decision under the headline, "Tourism SIM card or capitulation in simple words?"

"It's not right to offer extra convenience to others while Iranians lack basic internet access. Offering special deals to tourists is fine, but not at the expense of Iranian citizens' rights," wrote the daily.

Iranian lawmaker Moein-odin Saeedi also lambasted the government's decision, calling it "internet capitulation".

"How can they provide unrestricted access to social media for outsiders while millions of Iranians, who rely on these platforms for income, can't access the internet?" the ILNA news agency quoted him as saying.

Mothers hold 'childbearing jihad' march

Photos published by local media showing a large group of women in black chadors pushing children's strollers during an official military march in the central city of Yazd have sparked criticism and mockery among Iranians.

The photos were first published by the country's official news agency, IRNA, and the semi-governmental ISNA news agency. In the images, a small white flag with Farsi writing that read "childbearing jihad" was seen attached to each stroller.

Pro-establishment outlets, such as the Hamshahri daily, republished the photos, hailing the move as a landmark example of obedience to the country's supreme leader's demand to increase the birth rate. 

In recent years, authorities in Iran have widely campaigned for increasing the country's population as a strategic policy to maintain dominance in the region. At the same time, officials have banned the free distribution of contraceptive products and prohibited voluntary sterilisations.

However, in response to the official outlets, ordinary Iranians took to Farsi social media to denounce the mothers' march as a form of child abuse.

"This country has over one million ready-to-fight soldiers to protect women and children from the battleground. This march with the strollers was a disrespect to a military march, a disrespect to mothers, and a disrespect to children's rights," one Iranian social media user wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Meanwhile, some other Iranians used the occasion to ridicule Iranian officials' demographic policies and military shows.

"Apparently, the masters who cannot win any combat against the Taliban, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and any other country decided to showcase the only successful combat they have had: the nocturnal hand-to-hand combat," wrote another X user.

* Iranian press review is a digest of news reports not independently verified as accurate by Middle East Eye.

Tehran
Curly hair banned for male medical students: Iranian press review

Tunisia: Opposition leader Rached Ghannouchi begins hunger strike

Fri, 09/29/2023 - 07:14
Tunisia: Opposition leader Rached Ghannouchi begins hunger strike
Ghannouchi, who has been jailed since April, says he will not eat until restrictions on him and other prisoners are lifted
MEE staff Fri, 09/29/2023 - 08:14
Ennahdha Rached Ghannouchi, the head of Tunisia's Islamist movement, greets supporters upon arriving at a police station in Tunis on 21 February 2023 (AFP)
Ennahdha Rached Ghannouchi, the head of Tunisia's Islamist movement, greets supporters upon arriving at a police station in Tunis on 21 February 2023 (AFP)

Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia’s main opposition party, announced that he will begin a hunger strike on Friday. 

The Ennahda party leader, the most prominent critic of Tunisian President Kais Saied, made the announcement through adviser Riad al-Shuaibi on Thursday, according to local media.

In a Facebook post, Ennahda adviser al-Shuaibi stated that the hunger strike would be “ongoing” until “all grievances and restrictions imposed on him and other political detainees are lifted”.

Ennahda, a self-defined Muslim-democratic movement and one of the most prominent parties in Tunisia, confirmed the hunger strike in an official statement on Friday.

Ghannouchi joins Jawher Ben Mbarek, another prominent opposition figure and fierce critic of Saied, on the hunger strike.

The Ennahda leader was arrested on 17 April on the orders of a Tunisian judge and was under investigation by authorities for money laundering and incitement to violence, charges he denies and that his supporters claim are politically motivated. 

On 15 May, Ghannouchi, who refused to appear before the judiciary because he believed the charges were fabricated for political reasons, was sentenced in absentia to a year in prison. The sentence marked the most high-profile escalation of an authoritarian crackdown that has been ongoing since Saied took office.

“Kais Saied is making a mockery of the judiciary, using it as a tool for political revenge and persecution,” Ghannouchi's daughter tweeted at the time.

Calls for release

Last month, hundreds of influential figures from across the Arab and Muslim world demanded the release of Ghannouchi and other political detainees in Tunisia, 100 days on from his arrest.

According to the signatories of the open letter to Tunisian authorities, Ghannouchi’s arrest is part of a “widespread crackdown” on dissent that has intensified since February 2023, as more than a dozen opposition figures have been arrested, including judges, politicians, activists and businessmen. 

Tunisia sentences opposition leader Rached Ghannouchi to year in prison
Read More »

Ghannouchi served as the speaker of parliament but Saied dissolved parliament. He led a centrist party of what he called "Muslim democrats", who aimed to find common ground with Tunisia's secular factions in the administration.

The 82-year-old political leader was handed a prison sentence and a fine in connection with public remarks he made at a funeral last year when he praised the deceased, an Ennahda member, as a “courageous man” who did not fear “a ruler or tyrant”.

Kais Saied, a former constitutional law professor, was elected president in 2019, vowing to clean up corruption and cut through political chaos.

In 2021, he closed down parliament and began consolidating power. He has arrested journalists, activists and political opponents, in what Amnesty International has decried as “a politically motivated witch hunt”.

This article is available in French on the Middle East Eye French edition.

Tunisian opposition leader Rached Ghannouchi begins hunger strike

Former President Donald Trump wanted to leverage Israel aid, upcoming book reveals

Thu, 09/28/2023 - 19:55
Former President Donald Trump wanted to leverage Israel aid, upcoming book reveals
According to the book, Trump asked whether US aid could be leveraged for a peace deal, and displayed frustration when told it couldn't be done
MEE staff Thu, 09/28/2023 - 20:55
Donald Trump speaks at Drake Enterprises, an automotive parts manufacturer and supplier in Clinton, Michigan, on 27 September 2023 (AFP)

Former President Donald Trump floated the idea of conditioning aid to Israel for a peace deal, a book by the former executive editor of The Washington Post reveals.

Marty Baron’s book, Collision of Power: Trump, Bezos, and The Washington Post, says that in 2017, after Trump's visit to Israel where he met both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Trump questioned whether the annual $3.8bn US aid to Israel could be leveraged to facilitate a peace agreement with the Palestinians, and upon learning that US military assistance to Israel could not be used in that way, he displayed frustration.

“I was told ‘there’s no connection’,” Trump told a group of journalists during a dinner at the White House, according to the book, which is scheduled to be released on Tuesday, The Forward reported on Thursday.

“No connection?” Trump said in disbelief.

A recent book by Israeli journalist Barak Ravid claims that Trump had a favourable impression of Abbas. In an interview with Ravid, Trump said: "I thought he was terrific." He further expressed his belief that Abbas was more inclined towards making a deal compared to Netanyahu.

In May 2018, Trump made the highly controversial decision to unilaterally recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to the historic city. 

In March 2019, Trump enacted an executive order acknowledging Israel's authority over the Syrian Golan Heights, which were annexed by Israel in 1981. Experts criticised Trump's order as a breach of international law, which forbids countries from seizing territory through military force.

The Trump administration was the architect of the Abraham Accords, a 2020 agreement normalising relations between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco (with Sudan joining later). The Biden administration has since attempted to expand the agreement to bring forth a normalisation of ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel. 

Trump, who is running for president again and is the Republican Party frontrunner, has been charged with state and federal crimes and is currently facing four indictments. He is accused of having broken New York State law by purportedly consenting to conceal a series of reimbursement payments made to his previous attorney, Michael Cohen.

He is also accused of keeping classified documents after leaving the White House and storing them "in various locations at The Mar-a-Lago Club including in a ballroom, a bathroom and shower, an office space, his bedroom, and a storage room", according to the indictment. He is also accused of a "scheme to conceal" that he had kept those documents, CBS reported.

Trump is accused of being involved in a plot to disrupt the smooth transition of power following his 2020 election defeat to President Joe Biden.

And lastly, Trump, along with 18 individuals, faces accusations under Georgia's Rico law for allegedly orchestrating a plan to obstruct the certification of the state's 2020 presidential election results. 

Pakistan's rupee surges amid crackdown on illegal dollar trade

Thu, 09/28/2023 - 16:52
Pakistan's rupee surges amid crackdown on illegal dollar trade
According to Bloomberg, the rupee saw a nearly six percent increase in September
MEE staff Thu, 09/28/2023 - 17:52
A Pakistani man counts rupees at his shop in Karachi, on 16 May 2019 (AFP)

Pakistan's rupee is on track to be the best-performing currency worldwide this month, following the government's measures against unauthorised dollar transactions.

The rupee saw a nearly six percent increase in September. On Thursday, it climbed 0.1 percent to Rs287.95 against the dollar, rebounding from its all-time low of approximately Rs307 earlier this month, Bloomberg reported on Thursday.

The government of Pakistan had amplified its measures to curtail the illegal trading of dollars that has been supporting the currency. 

The Federal Investigation Agency conducted raids on offices nationwide, and incognito security officials were stationed at currency exchange centres to oversee dollar transactions.

“When the dollar rate reverses everybody, the hoarders, the exporters who are holding their export proceeds, start selling their dollars,” Khurram Schehzad, chief executive officer of Alpha Beta Core Solutions, told Bloomberg.

The central bank has increased the capital requirements for smaller currency exchange firms and directed major banks to establish their own exchange services. This move aims to enhance transparency and facilitate closer monitoring of the retail foreign exchange market.

Pakistan has been suffering from an acute economic crisis and a severe depletion of its foreign reserves, leading it to secure a bailout from the International Monetary Fund to the tune of $3bn. The IMF loan approval came shortly after Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates deposited a combined total of $3bn with the State Bank of Pakistan. 

In the course of a year, Pakistan's GDP growth rate had gone down from 6.1 percent to somewhere around 0.3 percent, while large-scale manufacturing has seen a recession, with growth falling from 10.6 percent last year to -8.11 percent. 

Middle East Eye reported last month that political unrest worsened an already dire economic situation that is pushing young people to look for work abroad. In over a year, nearly one million Pakistanis left for the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in search of better lives.

Earlier this week, Bloomberg reported that billions in humanitarian aid and increased trade with neighbouring Asian countries propelled Afghanistan's currency to become the best performer this quarter overall, with a nine percent ascent.

“The ruling Taliban, which seized power two years ago, has also unleashed a series of measures to keep the Afghani in a stronghold, including banning the use of dollars and Pakistani rupees in local transactions and tightening restrictions on bringing greenbacks outside the country,” Bloomberg wrote.

'Just a blip?': Questions swirl over Egypt's role in Menendez case as US ties jolted

Wed, 09/27/2023 - 20:06
'Just a blip?': Questions swirl over Egypt's role in Menendez case as US ties jolted
Menendez charges bring the bare-knuckled world of Egypt's intelligence services to Washington, as FBI reportedly launches counter-intelligence investigation
Sean Mathews Wed, 09/27/2023 - 21:06
US Attorney for Southern District of New York Damian Williams speaks on indictment of Senator Robert Menendez at press conference in New York City, on 22 September (Reuters)

Egypt’s notorious mukhabarat, or intelligence services, crashed awkwardly onto America’s domestic doorstep on 22 September.

Prosecutors charged Democratic Senator Robert Menendez with corruption for taking hundreds of thousands of dollars and gold in exchange for his influence over military aid and "highly sensitive" government information to Egypt.

The 39-page indictment is replete with secret hotel room meetings, encrypted messages and references to an unknown military "general".

Notably, the indictment documents two secret meetings between Menendez and Egyptian intelligence officials in Washington, one of which coincided with a visit by Abbas Kamel, chief of the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate, to Washington.

Former US intelligence and defence officials tell MEE that the report reads like a classic case of spy games. 

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“I would say it looks like an intelligence operation, one that quite frankly did not use good tradecraft to cover its actions,” a former US senior intelligence officer told Middle East Eye on condition of anonymity.

“Raw cash, gold bars, no plausible deniability as to why they would be giving these things to a sitting senator, just says they are very bad at this, desperate, or viewed him [Menendez] as disposable,” he added.

'Egypt's crown jewel'

After one of his earliest interactions with Wael Hana, an Egyptian-American businessman who prosecutors say has ties to Egyptian intelligence, Menendez obtained un-classified but “highly sensitive” information from the State Department on the number and nationality of persons serving at the US embassy in Cairo, Egypt. The information was transmitted back to an Egyptian official.

But experts tell Middle East Eye that Menendez's greatest value as an asset to the Egyptians would be due to his position as the top-ranking Democratic on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

'Going after a sitting US senator is hitting the red zone' 

- Abbas Dahouk, former senior military advisor to US State Department

As a matter of longstanding practice, the State Department notifies the chairs and ranking members of the Senate and House foreign relations committees before proceeding with arms transfers. Menendez was one of only four US lawmakers who could, at will, block arms. 

It's a trump card the New Jersey senator has never been shy to play. Last year, he threatened to put a hold on arms sales to Saudi Arabia after it cut oil production, and he has repeatedly stated he won’t sign off on the sale of F-16s to Turkey.

“Menendez is the crown jewel for Egypt,” Abbas Dahouk, a former senior military advisor to the State Department who previously served as Washington’s defence attache to Saudi Arabia, told MEE. “When it comes to lawmakers approving foreign aid, you can’t get any higher.”

Menendez and all four codefendants, including Wael Hana, have pleaded not guilty to the corruption charges.

No Egyptian officials have been charged, but on Wednesday, NBC reported that the FBI was conducting a counter-intelligence investigation into the role of Egyptian intelligence. 

'Red zone'

Spy games are a way of life in the Middle East, Dahouk told MEE. 

“Intelligence operations are always there below the surface in our bilateral ties. We (the US) do the same thing. We try to collect information and influence policies, it's tolerated, but going after a sitting US senator on US soil, that is hitting the red zone," he said. 

The amateur manner in which Egypt’s intelligence is portrayed in the indictment is bound to be noticed by rich Gulf powers, whose suave ambassadors and sunglass-wearing security chiefs are masters at working rooms in Washington. 

'The Americans will try to get some leverage out of this, but Biden doesn’t have any interest in exploiting it publicly' 

- Robert Springborg, Egypt expert

“If you are a Gulf Arab leader watching this, you have to be thinking: ‘What a bunch of idiots these guys are',” Robert Springborg, an Egyptian expert at the Italian Institute of International Affairs, told MEE.

“The incompetence is glaring. It’s going to be hard for Egypt’s professional military and intelligence officers to live this down. They see all of this." 

Egypt's embassy in Washington did not respond to MEE's request for comment. 

The indictment against Menendez comes at a particularly sensitive time for President Abdel Fattah-el Sisi, the former general who has ruled Egypt with an iron grip since coming to power after his 2013 military coup toppled the first democratically elected government. 

Sisi, a former defence minister and US-trained general, has portrayed himself as a steady hand, adept at managing national security matters and avoiding drama. 

But Egypt is in the midst of a deep economic crisis. Sisi's government, which once prided itself on being a bastion of stability, oversees the highest influx of illegal migrants to Europe. Meanwhile, Gulf powers that once provided him with financial backing have tightened the purse strings. 

On Monday, Egypt moved up the presidential elections to 10-12 December, originally due to take place in 2024. Sisi is widely expected to win a third term.

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Thumbs up

Of course, Egypt had good reason to want to influence Menendez.

For more than 40 years, the US has sent the Arab world's most populous country about $1.3bn in US military aid annually, the second highest of any state after Israel.

While countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE pay for their US military hardware, Egypt relies on aid as part of a programme called Foreign Military Financing (FMF). 

Biden Sisi
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and US President Joe Biden at a meeting on sidelines of Cop27 summit, in Egypt's Sharm el-Sheikh, on 11 November 2022 (AFP)

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The assistance dates back to 1978, when President Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel, making Egypt a linchpin in the US security umbrella. Bringing Egypt to their side was a major coup for Washington during the Cold War and after the tumultuous years of bilateral relations under President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

That aid started to come under scrutiny after 2013 when Sisi came to power in a military coup that ousted the country's first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi. The following year, Congress made a portion of the aid subject to human rights concerns. 

While Menendez publicly denounced Egypt on multiple occasions for its poor human rights record, the indictment paints a picture of a US lawmaker working under the radar to guarantee the steady flow of weapons to Cairo.

According to the indictment, Menedez would often communicate his decisions on aid to Nadine, his girlfriend at the time and now his wife. After Menendez approved a multimillion-dollar weapons transfer to Egypt, he informed Nadine, who passed the message along to Hana. An Egyptian official replied to the news with a thumbs-up emoji.

Tanks and F-16s

Despite some calls from lawmakers to curtail aid over Egypt's poor human rights record, US administrations on both sides of the political aisle have kept ushering it through.

While the "war on terror" has ebbed, Washington continues to see Egypt as a strategic partner, perched on the Mediterranean and home to the Suez Canal, through which at least 12 percent of global trade passes. 

Egypt has a web of interests in several regional hotspots along its borders, including Libya, an oil-rich country divided between two rival governments, the besieged Gaza Strip, and Sudan, where two warring generals are engaged in a bloody power struggle. 

Abbas Kamel photograph
Libyan General Khalifa Haftar (R) meeting with Egypt's intelligence chief Abbas Kamel (L) at Haftar's office in the Rajma military base 25 kilometres east of Benghazi, on 29 May 2019 (AFP)

Keeping Egypt dependent on US arms is also a way to limit the influence of Washington's foes, China and Russia, who have pursued their own arms deals with Cairo, experts tell MEE.

“Ideally, all those interoperable M-1 Abrams tanks, F-16s and attack helicopters sitting in Egypt can be used by the US in the region or even in the Far East on short order if we need to,” Dahouk told MEE. “If Egypt buys Russian stuff, we are frozen out.”

The war in Ukraine has stretched that reasoning. Egypt reportedly rebuffed US requests to send spare ammunition to Ukraine, even as Sisi secretly planned to supply Russia with 40,000 rockets, leaked US intelligence revealed.  

But the US has doubled down on the military partnership, betting that a suspension of aid could damage ties with a country Washington still views as a strategic partner.

In September, the Biden administration announced it would withhold just $85m in aid - out of $1.3bn - to Cairo.

The same month, US and Egyptian militaries held one of their largest exercises in recent years, with 1,500 US troops participating in the Bright Star military exercises.  

Now, critics of Egypt have latched on to the indictment to press their case for curtailing the defence relationship.

Is Egypt bulletproof?

Democratic Congressman Don Beyer, who heads the Egypt Human Rights Caucus, said Cairo had been caught “conducting an espionage operation within the US Senate” in an interview with CNN, as he urged the administration to withhold aid.

Democratic Senator Chris Murphy told reporters on Tuesday that aid to Cairo should be paused.

But experts tell MEE that Cairo may be able to withstand the crisis, because while congressional critics of Egypt are vocal, they are few.

“Egypt has strong bipartisan congressional support because it was the first Israeli peace partner,” said Douglass Silliman, president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, DC, and a former US ambassador to Iraq and Kuwait.

“That doesn’t make Egypt bulletproof, but it helps them weather storms.”

Meanwhile, the Biden administration, Sisi’s government and even Democratic lawmakers may be aligned in keeping a lid on the allegations as the US approaches an election year, experts tell MEE.

A telling example is that no lawmakers - even critics of Egypt - have called for the Department of Justice to release the names of the Egyptian officials involved in the corruption case.

'Biden doesn’t have any interest in exploiting this publicly' 

- Robert Springborg, Egypt expert

Human rights activists and lawmakers called for the release of the intelligence report on the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. President Biden’s decision to make the report public sent ties with Riyadh plummeting. 

In a separate incident, Italian prosecutors named the Egyptian officials and tried them in absentia after an Italian national was killed on Egyptian soil.

Pressed on the indictment last week, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said he had no comment, saying it was an “active and ongoing legal matter”.

“Both governments have decided to be very careful about what they say,” Springborg told MEE. “The Americans will try to get some leverage out of this privately with Egypt, but Biden doesn’t have any interest in exploiting it publicly.”

If military aid comes out of this unscathed, Cairo might even be able to take solace in the fact that their defence ties endured the Menendez indictment and a reported counter-intelligence investigation. 

“This is a blip as opposed to a major detriment to bilateral US-Egyptian relations,” Jonathan Lord, head of the Middle East security programme at the Center for a New American Security, told MEE.

“The stakes are too high for both countries. Egypt and the US will continue to work together.”

Morocco: Climate change threatens Argan ‘liquid gold’ and the women who produce it

Wed, 09/27/2023 - 12:12
Morocco: Climate change threatens Argan ‘liquid gold’ and the women who produce it
Argan oil has been produced by the women of Morocco for centuries, but climate change is threatening a critical ecosystem
Ella Benson Easton Wed, 09/27/2023 - 13:12
The argan forest is integral to life in southern Morocco region and a source of food and income for locals, particularly women (MEE)

Argan trees have grown in southern Morocco for centuries, but in the last 20 years increased interest from the global beauty industry has transformed the oil into a highly sought-after product - an economic boon for the region that has earned the oil the title of "liquid gold". 

However, recent droughts have put new pressure on the argan forests, and, by extension, on the women who depend on it for survival. 

The roads from Essaouira to Sidi Ifni, along the southwestern coast, and throughout the Souss-Massa region are lined with argan trees.

The tree used to grow throughout northern Africa, but is now limited to southern Morocco, and is one of the only plants that can survive in the inhospitable climate at the edge of the Sahara. 

The argan forest, a UNESCO-designated biosphere reserve since 1988, is integral to life in the region, as a last defence against desertification and as a source of food and income for locals, particularly women. 

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But a changing climate is taking its toll, and many of the women who work in argan oil production are already seeing the consequences.

“The last harvests have been smaller, and the fruits are also smaller,” Fadwa el-Mennani, a member of Marjana Cooperative, a women’s argan oil cooperative near Essaouira, told Middle East Eye.

Mennani believes that erratic weather at the start of the year has played a part in these changes.

“It was summer and winter on the same day, the trees can’t cope with the change,” she said.

The preserve of women

Cherif Harrouni, a professor and researcher at the Hassan II Institute of Agronomy and Veterinary Medicine in Agadir, has been studying the argan forest and is concerned by the results of his investigations. 

“In 60 years, between 1960 and 2020, temperatures have increased by over two degrees in certain parts of the argan forest and rainfall has decreased by 20 percent, and with manmade deforestation, these figures explain why the productivity of the woodland has decreased,” Harrouni said.

Any reduction in productivity will put severe stress on women’s incomes in the region.

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“Argan trees have an important role in the region, especially for women’s employment” said Hafida Boutargua, who was born and raised in a traditional Berber family in the region and runs a small business in the port town Sidi Kaouki sharing her knowledge of the industry.

Argan trees near the southern town of Smimou, on the primary route between Essaouira and Agadir (MEE)
Argan trees near the southern town of Smimou, on the primary route between Essaouira and Agadir (MEE)

“Many young people think about starting a business with argan, but it’s becoming more difficult with drought and the rarity of argan fruits.”

Historically, argan production has been the preserve of women like Hafida. For years, women produced the oil in their homes before it was sold by men outside the house.

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Wanting to ensure that women retained the profits of their labour, Zoubida Cherrouf, a professor in the science faculty of Mohammed V University, established the first women’s argan oil cooperative in the Souss-Massa region to create social and economic opportunities for the community. 

“Crucially these women’s organisations, these cooperatives, had to have a social impact for marginalised women in the region,” said Cherrouf, who specialises in the phytochemistry of medicinal Moroccan plants.

“Ninety-five percent of the women we worked with were illiterate, so creating a training programme was important to help them professionalise. It wasn’t simply economic.”

Changing mindset

Nonetheless, it's the economic opportunities that have given women greater independence and more of a say in family decision-making.

Hafida El Hantati, who oversees oil production at Cooperative Addjigue, has seen this impact first-hand.

“The cooperatives changed mindsets, the women working with us now encourage and prioritise their daughters to continue with school,” she said. 

However, Hantati said that due to the current rarity of the fruit, the price of oil has increased in the last three years, which has affected business growth.

“We have lost our major international clients and have stopped exports due to these price rises,” she said. 

Argan oil was already one of the world’s most expensive oils, but now the cooperatives with their socio-economic mission are struggling to meet demand at sustainable prices or compete with international businesses with greater capital. 

“Many of the women we work with are very remote, this is the only work they have,” Charrouf said. “If there is no money it will impact the family in many ways, like their ability to eat, their children’s access to education.”

(MEE)
Workers at Cooperative Marjana extract oil from the Argan fruit (MEE)

At Cooperative Marjana, staying in business while still providing the space for social growth for women in their region has been difficult.

To make money they have had to increase the prices they charge their clients as they try to find a level that meets both their social and economic goals. 

“The social objective is still important, we look for women who really need the work - for example, divorced women, widows - to help improve their situation and realise our socio-economic goals. But now we must find solutions for poor harvests, too,” Mennani explains. 

'We have trust in the tree'

Finding these solutions will be difficult without a significant change in the environmental outlook.

The Moroccan government has plans for reforestation in the region, but this won’t resolve the omnipresent issue of water shortages or deforestation in the short term. 

“During the last 60 years the water table has changed dramatically, making it extremely difficult for the entire area to cope,” said Harrouni. “Over-pumping of the aquifer means that it goes deeper and deeper and so now the trees, even with deep roots, are deprived of this water source.” 

Meanwhile, international demand exacerbates these issues.

'Argan is part of life here, even in the cooperative if a woman leaves, we know her daughter will take her place'

- Fadwa el-Mennani, a member of Marjana Cooperative

“The pressures on the forest keep growing, especially with climate difficulties and increasing export demand - 80 percent of the fruits now go to export,” Charrouf said.

“Very little stays with the organisations that understand both the social and economic importance of the tree.”

Faoued Bat, an agricultural consultant, points out that regional dependency on the argan product can make it harder to protect it.

“Argan is symbolic, it’s the most resistant to the aridity, to the drought, and the people here are dependent on it - they can no longer pay for gas to cook, so they look to the trees for fuel,” Bat told MEE.

“We have to be pragmatic,” he added. “We can help with planting and reforestation, and it is one solution to the problems faced by argan, but there should also be helping to feed animals, for example. Otherwise, people will still allow them to eat the argan tree. It’s a domino effect.” 

In short, the argan forest is essential for survival in southern Morocco, and not just in terms of income from marketable products. 

“How can I explain it?” Mennani said. “It’s difficult, but it’s a particular relationship between the woman and the tree.

“It’s thanks to this fruit that women can have a normal life, it’s not easy but it’s a particular love that has passed through generations. Argan is part of life here, even in the cooperative if a woman leaves, we know her daughter will take her place.” 

Nonetheless, women working with the argan plant are facing numerous intertwined issues. Global demand for the oil remains high, which forces locals to compete with international companies, while at the same time, the productivity of the forest is decreasing, and deforestation continues.

Meanwhile, it may still take years to see the products of the reforestation plans. 

Ultimately, the loss of the argan forest to climate change, over-exploitation - or a mix of the two - would be both an environmental disaster and radically impact the lives of the women who are on the front lines of the industry.

What will they do if there’s another poor harvest next year? 

“We have trust in the tree,” Mennani said. “We have to hope.” 

Essaouira, Morocco
Climate change threatens Morocco’s Argan ‘liquid gold’ and the women who produce it

Iran aligns universities with establishment in academic purge

Thu, 09/21/2023 - 13:10
Iran aligns universities with establishment in academic purge
At least 58 independent professors have been dismissed in two years as Tehran tightens control over higher education
MEE correspondent Thu, 09/21/2023 - 14:10
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei pictured speaking during a meeting with Iranian students in Tehran on 18 April 2023 (AFP/HO/Khamenei.ir)
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during a meeting with Iranian students in Tehran on 18 April 2023 (AFP/HO/Khamenei.ir)

University professors who are critical of the establishment have witnessed their space steadily shrink in Iran over the past two years. In recent weeks, however, authorities have dismissed dozens of independents from their posts in a project that has been called a "second cultural revolution" to purge higher education of professors whose views do not align with the Islamic Republic. 

The administration of principlist President Ebrahim Raisi began sacking university professors, such as philosophy professor Bijan Abdul Karimi and sociologist Mohammad Fazeli, and philosophy researcher Arash Abazari, during the early months of his presidency in 2021.

But the rate of dismissals seems to have accelerated over the past few months, causing alarm across the academic and intellectual communities that the move would have a long-lasting effect on Iranian society.

In August, the reformist Etemad newspaper released a list of 58 professors who have been fired by the government since the purge began. 

Among those who were recently sacked are Dariush Rahmanian, a distinguished history professor at Tehran University, and Ali Sharifi-Zarchi, professor of bioinformatics and artificial intelligence at Sharif University.

Zarchi was told that he was sacked because he failed to apply for a contract extension, a claim he refuted by publishing online documents of his application.

The list also includes former IRGC general Hossein Alaei, a reformist removed from Tehran University, and former culture minister Reza Salehi Amiri, who lost his job at the University of Azad. 

When asked about the list, a science ministry spokesperson did not confirm the account, but said if there were reports about dismissals it is then possible that the individuals in question either no longer met the "scientific or general conditions of being a university professor" or their security status was under investigation by law enforcement agencies.

Dismissals have continued after Etemad published its report, and some officials have brought up new accusations when addressing the issue.

The head of the academic staff recruitment centre at the Ministry of Science, Mohammad Khalaj Amirhosseini, alleged that some professors' contracts were terminated due to moral issues, without specifying.

Similarly, the chancellor of Tehran University made allegations suggesting that "termination of cooperation with some professors is due to moral problems", contrary to media claims attributing their dismissals to political issues.

Imam Sadiq University in Tehran is known for its hardline approach, as it only tries to attract and nurture conservative students who remain fully loyal to the Islamic Republic.

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The chief concern for the academic community has been the risk that the dismissals herald the spread of this principlist university's model to other universities across the country.

A glance at the positions held by Imam Sadiq graduates suggests the university's influence and the type of future that it could secure for them within the establishment. Notable alumni include Saeed Jalili, the former chief nuclear negotiator, who is known for his disapproval of any engagement and deal with the United States.

Observers are worried that the academic purge will pave the way for ultra-conservatives to take over all universities in Iran.

Alarming reports have emerged in recent weeks that professors with principlist ideologies have replaced those who have been dismissed.

New appointments include principlist TV host Amir Hossein Sabeti, who has recently joined the Sharif University, and famous principlist religious singer Saeed Haddadian, who is now teaching at Tehran University.

'A coup against science'

A secret document published by a hacker group on Telegram in mid-August cites a letter from Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi indicating that the National Security Council has ordered that the recruitment of university faculty members must be done through a "special process".

The letter accuses professors who are "not aligned with the system" of playing a major role in the protests that swept the country last year following Mahsa Amini's death in police custody and anti-government student action at universities.

According to the document, the government has reportedly secretly started the process of recruiting 15,000 university faculty members whose views align with the Islamic Republic. 

'If this trend persists, universities may transform into places where the principlist ideology is imposed on students'

- Reformist political activist

In an open letter, Mohsen Renani, a prominent professor of economics, described the process as "the second cultural revolution", and said it was "a coup by the security apparatus of the political system against science" and "the final shot to the brain of science".

At the dawn of the Cultural Revolution in 1980, which followed the Islamic Revolution, a sweeping transformation unfurled across Iranian academia as authorities sought to rid it of western influence.

The era witnessed the mass expulsion of professors and a comprehensive change in university curricula. As a result, a significant cadre of educators was fired and Iranian universities temporarily shuttered their doors. 

Renani also drew attention to what he said was a worrying emigration of "a substantial cadre of young and erudite professors", who have either voluntarily departed from academia or been compelled to emigrate due to mounting pressures.

The prospect of individuals who lack the necessary qualifications being appointed in the field of higher education has raised alarm over the deterioration in the quality of education in Iran, which could have a far-reaching impact across different sectors.

Mahmoud Vaezi, a former diplomat and chief of staff to former President Hassan Rouhani, said the appointment of thousands of so-called "revolutionary" professors could lead to job insecurity as educational standards decrease.

Leaving Iran

Since Raisi came to power, the desire among many Iranians to emigrate has intensified, for various economic, political and social reasons. The lack of opportunities, however, has been the primary factor.

While emigration has been most notable among doctors and nurses, fears have grown over the past two years over the loss of specialised talents across different sectors in Iran.

'The dismissal of capable professors… is very worrying and harmful. It could discourage elites and intellectuals and lead to their migration'

– Ishaq Jahangiri, former vice president

Ishaq Jahangiri, the first vice president during Rouhani's government, has said, "The dismissal of capable professors who are also among critics, and students who protest, is very worrying and harmful. It could discourage elites and intellectuals and lead to their migration."

Similarly, moderate Hassan Khomeini, grandson of the Islamic Republic's founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, said an increase in migration of elite professionals, triggered by the dismissals, would cause significant harm to the country and promote a "sense of despair and intellectual stagnation".

A moderate conservative professor in Tehran, who asked for anonymity when speaking to Middle East Eye, believes the ramifications of the wave of dismissals would pose a threat to Iran's image abroad.

"The reflection of disgruntled, powerful forces emigrating can be more perilous than other types of migration," the professor told MEE. "Such forces, armed with knowledge and expertise, can shed light on Iran's internal realities inside their destination countries, potentially inflicting severe blows to the Islamic Republic."

In an interview with local media, Abdulwahid Mousavi Lari, the interior minister in reformist Mohammad Khatami's government (1997-2005), likened the dismissals to a disease that, if unchecked, could erode the Islamic Republic from within.

'Self-destruction'

A video that has been recently making the rounds online shows Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urging authorities under Rouhani to remove the professors who "challenge" the Islamic Republic. 

A former conservative official who also spoke to MEE on condition of anonymity said, "Rouhani’s administration somehow resisted the leader’s order, but Raisi’s government is evidently the government of Khamenei himself.

Inside Iran's 'war of attrition' on journalists
Read More »

"Therefore, I think the government is implementing the order of the leader and for sure they won't back down, as the leader is behind the recent wave of dismissal of professors who are critical of the Islamic Republic."

Mohammad Reza Tajik, a distinguished professor of political thought at Shahid Beheshti University, has delivered a particularly dire warning about the Islamic Republic's "self-destruction", suggesting that nothing will remain after this elimination-and-rejection project concludes.

Tajik urged authorities to increase their tolerance for dissenting voices and recognise opposing opinions, to ensure survival.

Meanwhile, a reformist political activist told MEE anonymously that the dismissal campaign indicates a repression of freedom of speech and diverse opinions in universities.

"If this trend persists, universities may transform into places where the principlist ideology is imposed on students," he said.

"This is concerning, as scientific progress relies on diverse and opposing ideas, critical discourse, and the open exchange of different perspectives.

"What [moderate leader] Ali Larijani recently said about a 'purification project' taking place in the political system is actually happening in the universities."

Tehran
Iran aligns universities with establishment in academic purge

Lebanon: Four killed in fresh Palestinian clashes in Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp

Sat, 09/09/2023 - 13:51
Lebanon: Four killed in fresh Palestinian clashes in Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp
Unresolved case of Fatah commander's killing in July triggers new round of fighting between rival groups
MEE staff Sat, 09/09/2023 - 14:51
Paramedics evacuate injured woman from a government hospital in Sidon on 9 September 2023 following renewed clashes at Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp (AFP)
Paramedics evacuate an injured woman from a government hospital in Sidon on 9 September 2023 following renewed clashes at Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp (AFP)

Four people were killed as clashes between Palestinian groups returned to a Lebanon refugee camp on Saturday, according to the official Lebanese National News Agency (NNA).

Small armed factions in Saida's Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp exchanged fire on Thursday night with members of the dominant Fatah movement. 

A ceasefire was announced on Friday to end the fighting, which left at least 20 people wounded. 

However, heavy clashes returned to the camp alleyways on Saturday morning, killing a member of Fatah, a member of the Young Muslims group and a civilian, NNA reported.

It added that dozens of people have been wounded.

The latest violence comes more than a month after the same groups fought similar clashes, leaving 11 people killed and 40 others wounded.

Tensions in July spiked following the failed assassination attempt on a senior member of a local rival of Fatah, which controls security in the camp.

Abu Sheref el-Armoushi, a senior Fatah commander in the camp, was killed along with four of his guards in what appeared to be a retaliatory ambush for the failed assassination attempt.

Subsequent clashes included the use of heavy machine guns, grenades and shoulder-fired missiles in the densely populated camp.

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The Palestinian Joint Action Committee, an umbrella group including Palestinian factions in Lebanon, announced an end to the fighting after three days of clashes.

It also announced the creation of a committee to present those responsible for Armoushi's death to justice, a measure that has not been enforced since. 

Ain al-Hilweh is located in Saida in southern Lebanon and is the largest Palestinian refugee camp in the country. It houses a population of nearly 80,000 people who live in an area of just 1.5 sqkm.

More than 480,000 registered Palestinian refugees are living in 12 camps across Lebanon. 

Security and governance inside the camps are the responsibility of Palestinian factions, mainly Fatah.

Lebanese forces do not intervene in security matters within the camps but control checkpoints leading to them.

Clashes sometimes occur between Fatah and activists from small armed groups who control streets and neighbourhoods in the camp and who push Fatah activists back from some checkpoints in the area.

Four killed in fresh Palestinian clashes in Lebanon refugee camp

Morocco earthquake: How the world reacted

Sat, 09/09/2023 - 09:48
Morocco earthquake: How the world reacted
Messages of support and offers for help pour in from foreign governments as search for survivors begins
MEE and agencies Sat, 09/09/2023 - 10:48
People work next to damage in the historic city of Marrakech, following a powerful earthquake in Morocco, 9 September 2023 (Reuters)
People work next to damage in the historic city of Marrakech, following a powerful earthquake in Morocco, 9 September 2023 (Reuters)

Messages of support and offers for help from foreign governments have poured in after a powerful earthquake struck Morocco's High Atlas mountains late on Friday. 

At least 820 people have died and 672 were injured in the 6.8-magnitude quake as of 11am GMT, according to Moroccan state TV.

Authorities have launched rescue efforts on Saturday morning to remove the rubble of destroyed buildings, looking for survivors. 

Here's how some parts of the world reacted: 

Turkey

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took to X, formally known as Twitter, to show solidarity with the "Moroccan brothers".

"We will support our Moroccan brothers in every way in this difficult hour," Erdogan said.

Turkish officials have said they are ready to dispatch 265 emergency workers and 1,000 tents to Morocco, awaiting confirmation from Rabat.

In a separate statement, the Turkish foreign ministry said that Ankara was ready to provide all kinds of support "to heal the wounds of the earthquake in Morocco". 

Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a message of support to Morocco's King Mohammed VI. 

"Please accept my sincere condolences on the tragic consequences of the devastating earthquake in the central regions of your country," Putin's message read. 

"Russia shares the worry and sorrow of the friendly people of Morocco. Please convey words of sympathy and support to the families and friends of the victims, as well as wishes for a speedy recovery to all those who have suffered as a result of this natural disaster."

Israel

Israeli officials said they were preparing to send aid and emergency assistance to Morocco.  

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent prayers for the well-being of those affected and instructed his government to "provide assistance as necessary to the Moroccan people, including planning to send an aid delegation to the area", according to his office. 

United Arab Emirates

Agencies in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have been instructed to prepare an air bridge to deliver critical relief to Morocco, state news agency WAM said. 

It added that President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed sent a message of condolence to the Moroccan king and wished a speedy recovery to all the injured.

India

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, speaking at the inauguration of the G20 summit in New Delhi, said the "entire world" was with Morocco. 

"We pray that all the injured people get well soon. The entire world community is with Morocco in this difficult time and we are ready to provide them with all possible assistance," Modi said. 

In a statement, the foreign ministry expressed its sincere condolences to the government and people of Morocco, and the families of the victims of the tragedy, as well as its wishes for a speedy recovery for all the injured.

France

French President Emmanuel Macron said he was shocked by the "terrible earthquake" and that his country "stands ready to help first aid responses". 

Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna in a statement sent "compassionate thoughts for the victims and their families and admiration for the work of rescue crews who relentlessly help the injured".

Spain

Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares said his country has offered to send rescuers to Morocco as Acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said his country "stands with the victims of this tragedy and their families".

"Spain has offered Morocco, if it deems it necessary, both its rescue capacities, which in these moments are the most important, as well as its rebuilding capacity once this moment has passed. What is important right now is to save the greatest number of lives possible," Albares told reporters at the G20 summit in India.

How the world reacted to the Morocco earthquake

Morocco earthquake: Unesco world heritage site damaged

Sat, 09/09/2023 - 09:35
Morocco earthquake: Unesco world heritage site damaged
Reports and footage indicate parts of Marrakech's Old City and historic walls suffered heavy damage
MEE staff Sat, 09/09/2023 - 10:35
A view of Djamaa Lafna square and its restaurants in Marrakesh's old city 18 December 2014 (Reuters)
A view of Djamaa Lafna square and its restaurants in Marrakech's old city 18 December 2014 (Reuters)

A deadly earthquake in Morocco has damaged buildings in Marrakech's Old City and parts of its historic walls.

The extent of the damage from the quake on Friday night is not yet fully known, as the search for survivors in the Unesco world heritage site continued on Saturday.

Initial reports and social media posts indicate some buildings in the Old City had suffered heavy damage. 

Parts of a minaret of a small mosque in the famous Jemaa el-Fnaa square, at the heart of Marrakech's Old City, collapsed and caused injuries and damage to property nearby. 

Online footage showed dust emanating from the minaret during the earthquake.

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However, the famous medieval Kutubiyya mosque, which overlooks the Jemaa el-Fnaa square, remained intact.

The square, a famous tourist attraction packed with busy markets, street vendors and gardens, also appeared largely unaffected.

Parts of the Old City's famous red earth walls were cracked, according to state-run Al Aoula TV.

انهيار سور مراكش بسبب الزلزال pic.twitter.com/KS5d3ZmQqY

— ALMA9AL (@alma9alcom) September 8, 2023

Translation: Collapse of Marrakech walls due to the earthquake

The city of Marrakech, founded in 1070, boasts a vibrant history, containing notable landmarks like the Kutubiyya mosque and Saadian Tombs.

In 1985, Unesco designated it a World Heritage Site, recognising its cultural significance. 

Unesco has praised Marrakech as a "living testimony to a historic civilisation", celebrating its unique blend of architecture and traditions, and attracting millions of tourists to the city annually. 

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The 6.8-magnitude quake struck a mountainous area 72km southwest of Marrakech at 11.11pm local time (10.11pm GMT) on Friday, the US Geological Survey reported.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Unesco world heritage site damaged in Morocco earthquake

Morocco earthquake kills hundreds and levels buildings around Atlas mountains

Sat, 09/09/2023 - 05:24
Morocco earthquake kills hundreds and levels buildings around Atlas mountains
Many victims believed to be in hard-to-reach areas with Marrakech Old City also hit
MEE and agencies Sat, 09/09/2023 - 06:24
Residents stay out at a square following an earthquake in Marrakech (AFP)

An earthquake has rocked Morocco’s Atlas mountains, killing hundreds of people and flooring buildings in several surrounding governorates.

On Saturday morning state TV quoted the interior ministry as saying the preliminary death toll stood at 822, with another 672 injured. As the quake hit mountainous areas, access to victims is believed to be difficult.

The ministry said the provinces of Al Haouz, Ouarzazate, Marrakech, Azilal, Chichaoua and Taroudant were affected. Reuters reported that buildings in Marrakech’s Old City, a World Heritage Site, had collapsed.

Five people from one family were killed in one such incident, al-Arabiya reported.

The powerful earthquake was measured by the Moroccan geophysical centre as having a magnitude of 7.2, with the US geological survey putting it at 6.8.

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Its epicentre is believed to have been the Ighil area of the High Atlas, some 70 km southwest of Marrakech.

"Our neighbours are under the rubble and people are working hard to rescue them using available means in the village," Montasir Itri, a resident of Asni village near the epicentre, told Reuters.

As victims began arriving at Marrakech hospitals, the city’s blood transfusion centre launched an urgent appeal for donations.

“We urgently appeal to all citizens, especially those in the city of Marrakech, to donate blood to assist the injuries,” Morocco World News quoted the centre saying, adding a lot of blood would be needed.

Videos circulating online show people fleeing as the powerful tremors hit, and piles of rubble where buildings once stood.

A view of debris in the aftermath of an earthquake in Marrakech (Reuters)
A view of debris in the aftermath of an earthquake in Marrakech (Reuters)

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Engineer Faisal Baddour told AFP he felt the quake three times in his building.

"People went out into the street just after this total panic, and there are families who are still sleeping outside because we were so scared of the force of this earthquake," he said.

"It was as if a train was passing close to our houses."

One video appears to show the minaret of Marrakech’s famous Kutubiyya Mosque, which is nearly 1,000 years old, emanating dust, sparking fears it could collapse.

This is a developing story...

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