As a 20-year war led by US forces against the Taliban draws to an end in Afghanistan, concerns grow for the safety of the civilian population in the light of Taliban advances. Meanwhile, basic needs for water, food and fuel are uppermost in minds in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon.
Two decades ago, in response to the 9/11 attacks by al-Qaeda, then US President George W Bush ordered troops to Afghanistan , where Taliban rulers were seen to have sheltered the terrorists. The Taliban were quickly overthrown and reforms and freedoms gradually introduced from which Afghans, especially women in urban areas, have benefited. But establishing a trusted government and maintaining peace and security in the face of Taliban and Islamic State insurgencies has been an exhausting task. Since April, when President Biden announced a US withdrawal by 11 September this year, Taliban militias have made swift advances and are now thought to control one third of the country. In some areas, anti-Taliban militias have formed to supplement the Afghan army. Afghan government and Taliban talks aimed at a negotiated peace stalled in Qatar last month but were followed by a meeting between the two parties in Tehran. Iran and Pakistan both want to avoid a civil war in their neighbouring country. UN and human rights groups fear a Taliban takeover that would reverse the many freedoms gained in recent years and that girls and women will especially suffer. Please pray about this.
Iran, meanwhile, showed signs of intensifying its campaigns against dissidents. Tehran’s parliament passed the first draft of a bill that advocates the death penalty for anyone convicted of “spying” for or “cooperating” with “hostile states”, “especially the United States”. Although spying would be a serious offence ani any country, human rights group Article 18 voiced concern that Iran might use this law against human rights advocates and even against members of house churches. It pointed out that Tehran has denounced unauthorised churches as “hostile” entities. Recent prosecutions of Christians have wrongly described them as members of “enemy groups” and some even alleged “collaboration” with foreign states, the group said. The European Parliament last week issued a resolution calling Iran to release all prisoners “detained solely for exercising their rights to freedoms of expression, belief, association, peaceful assembly and media freedom”. The call came with demands to halt the shocking planned execution of a Swedish-Iranian doctor. He was arrested during a lecture trip and sentenced after confessing while under torture to spying.
Eleven months after the Beirut explosion, Lebanon continues to need our prayers. “The storm is becoming more fierce day after day,” commented SAT-7 Lebanon Executive Director, Maroun Bou Rached. “The Lebanese are losing hope for a better country.” This month, they faced extreme power cuts, with many receiving only a few hours of electricity a day unless they had their own generators. The latest blackouts were due to dire fuel shortages. Residents also struggled to find petrol for their cars, with many queuing for hours at petrol stations. Finding medicines, too, became a hunt from one pharmacy to another, while news reports highlighted how young nurses and medical staff are leaving their posts to find work abroad. A 90 per cent fall in the value of the Lebanese pound means that 55 per cent of the population now struggle to pay for their basic needs. On 30 June Parliament approved a ration card system aimed at supporting Lebanon’s 500,000 poorest families although this would still exclude Lebanon’s over 1 million refugees from Syria and Iraq. Meanwhile, campaigners demonstrated against the politicians who have so far refused to lift the immunity of former ministers and officials wanted for questioning by the judge who is seeking to bring charges in relation to the Beirut blast.
Thanks to a strong push by the United States, Russia agreed to allow the extension of cross-border aid into rebel-held northwest Syria from Turkey for the next 12 months. It was a truly disturbing reality that some 3.4 million people, including 1 million children could have been denied life-saving aid. Meanwhile, bread prices doubled and oil prices tripled in parts of Syria ruled by the Assad government.
Sadly, the latest UN-backed initiative to bring different factions in Libya to an agreed constitutional basis for elections has failed. This is a blow to the presidential and parliamentary elections due in December. These could have offered Libya a road to normalisation after a decade of conflict between warring sides, supported by their international backers. Latest reports suggested that the son of former ruler Muammer Gaddafi, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, is considering running for president. He was imprisoned for two years after his father was ousted and still faces charges of committing crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court.
In quite a bold move the new Israeli government has reached out to King Abdullah of Jordan. It emerged that the new Israeli PM Naftali Bennett undertook a secret trip to Amman to meet the king at his palace. He also offered Jordan an increase in the volume of water Israel supplies to a country that is ranked fifth in the world in terms of water stress. The overture signals a change of policy from the Netanyahu era. The former prime minister had sought to isolate the Jordanian leader and often threatened Israel’s neighbour.
Meanwhile, in the Palestinian West Bank there was fury over the death of a prominent critic of alleged corruption by the Palestinian Authority (PA). The PA Justice Minister accepted that Nizar Banat had died after being beaten while in custody. Several thousand gathered to bury Banat in the West Bank city of Hebron and called for President Mahmoud Abbas to resign. Protests continued for several days but some were met with violence, allegedly by PA security members in plain clothes. In April Abbas put on hold parliamentary and presidential elections that were due in May and July respectively, and would have been the first elections in 15 years.
Sameh Shoukry, the Foreign Minister of Egypt, issued a strong statement once again calling for Ethiopia to agree to a legally binding solution on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and to stop filling its reservoir, which he labelled an “existential threat” to Egypt. Egypt fears that water flows will be substantially reduced in the River Nile, the country’s lifeline. While analysts do not expect a military escalation, there is always a danger that tensions could boil over when such a precious resource is at stake.
New shipping canal
A canal rather than a dam is the grand engineering project officially launched by President Erdogan in Turkey this month. The Istanbul Canal aims to be a kind of Suez Canal from the Black Sea down to the Sea of Marmara. The Bosphorus Strait already provides such a passage naturally and serves as a divider between the European and Asian continents. To its critics at home and abroad, this is an unnecessary and costly project with questionable benefits and sustainability. For Erdogan and his supporters, it is a mega project that will ease the traffic passing through the Bosphorus and minimise risks to Istanbul from such heavy tanker traffic. Politically, it is also about the prestige of a mega project in the lead up to the centenary of the founding of Turkish Republic and Turkey’s next presidential elections in 2023.
The month also saw Turkey’s official withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention on the prevention of violence against women. Erdogan’s AK Party claims the pact undermines family structures, whereas many Turks and international signatories of the pact see Turkey’s exit as a big backward step from protecting women and combating rising levels of domestic violence. SAT-7 TÜRK this year launched a programme that offers legal advice and points those affected by domestic abuse to sources of help.
Pray for Tunisia. Recent reports suggested that the Tunisian health system has “collapsed” under pressure from COVID-19. After containing the first wave last year, avoiding a total national lockdown for economic reasons in 2021 has left intensive care units unable to cope with soaring numbers of patients. The health minister described the situation as “catastrophic” and urged all Tunisians to unite in combating the pandemic. Only 4% of the 12 million strong nation has had double doses of the vaccine so far while the number of cases has climbed to 480,000. Gulf and North African countries, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Libya and Algeria, have promised or begun to send help in the shape of medics, equipment and vaccines.