A religious feast brought a temporary reprieve to conflict-ridden Libya, while political changes and protests dominated its North African neighbours.
The region marked one of the two main Islamic holidays this month. Eid al-Adha marks Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, and Muslims celebrate either by slaughtering a lamb and distributing its meat to those in need or by donating the equivalent cost to a charity. The feast comprises a week of family visits, sweet-giving and rest, and it provides a welcome break for a still turbulent region.
The Eid al-Adha feast brought welcome relief to the beleaguered citizens of Tripoli in Libya. Warring sides in the country’s conflict agreed a temporary truce during the festival. The forces of eastern commander Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar now control much of the country. They have been fighting running battles against forces of the internationally recognised Government of National Unity on the outskirts of the capital since April. Tripoli’s estimated two million residents have endured lengthy cuts in the water and power supply and price hikes. The UN has urged both sides to convert the temporary truce into a lasting one and offered to facilitate talks.
There is no let-up in death and destruction in Syria, however. Government and Russian forces and mercenaries resumed their assault on the jihadist-held region of Idlib just days after a 1 August ceasefire. The Al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) had refused to withdraw its troops from a buffer zone negotiated by Turkey and Russia. Hospitals and other civilian targets have come under repeated bombardment from regime and Russian forces. Observers especially fear for civilians who have begun to flee their homes in besieged towns. Turkey and the United States, meanwhile, have been thrashing out plans for a “peace corridor” in north-eastern Syria, east of the Euphrates river. Their goals are to prevent Kurdish fighters from holding unbroken territory on Turkey’s borders and to create a safe zone to relocate Syrian refugees from Turkey. Worried Kurdish groups, however, see the relocation of Sunni Arabs to the area as a move to change the demography of Kurdish-majority towns. Meanwhile, recent US government assessments show that so-called Islamic State (IS) is regrouping and reappearing in Syria and Iraq, while the problem of thousands of IS and other militants and their families being held captive remains unsolved.
In the Gulf states, there was good news for women in Saudi Arabia. Historic changes to the state’s male guardianship system will allow Saudi women to travel abroad without a male guardian’s permission, and allow them to register births, marriage or divorce and to become a legal guardian of children. This will remove some of the hurdles to obtaining a national identity card and registering children for schooling. Strangely, these welcome reforms arrived at a time when several leading women activists who campaigned for them are facing trial.
However, Saudi’s military goals are being frustrated through a deepening rift with its coalition partner in the war in Yemen. While the Saudis have backed exiled president Hadi in the conflict against Houthi rebels, Saudi’s main ally, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has supported southern separatists who oppose both the Houthis and a Hadi government. After a four-year conflict that has devastated an already impoverished country, the UAE began reducing its forces in June. This month, the southern fighters seized much of the port of Aden, the government’s main base, in what observers have called “a civil war within a civil war”. Deadly clashes between the separatists and Saudi-backed forces have killed some 40 people and left more than 200 wounded.
The UAE offered better news regarding religious freedom. As part of the state’s Year of Tolerance, it announced that the formulation of licensing laws for places of worship were in their final phase. The sheikh responsible for foreign affairs and international cooperation said the new law would mean places of worship would be approved if they reflect the values of the Year of Tolerance. With its over 40 approved church centres, the Emirates leads the way among Gulf states in the authorisation of Christian places of worship.
Tensions between Iran and the US seemed less acute this month, but the same could not be said for UK-Iranian relations. The standoff continues over an Iranian tanker detained in Gibraltar and vessels with a UK flag impounded by Iran. Iran has also detained another British-Iranian dual national. Kameel Ahmady is a respected anthropologist who has carried out widely valued research into female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage in Iran. Iranian authorities have a well-established pattern of detaining dual nationals as a bargaining chip during diplomatic tensions. The US continues to ask the UK to join its escalated campaign of pressure and intensified sanctions on Iran.
North Africa in transition
North Africa this month witnessed the death of one president, while another head of state marked the anniversary of his accession with a move to tackle social inequalities. President Beji Caid Essebsi of Tunisia died at the age of 92 after becoming the country’s first democratically elected president. Essebsi had held senior government positions under Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president after independence from France. He came out of retirement following the so-called “Jasmine Spring” that deposed dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. Tunisia is the only country that has emerged peacefully from the region’s uprisings, with Essebsi’s centrist party restraining the Islamist policies of the opposing Ennahda party. Nevertheless, the country has failed to overcome its economic and unemployment challenges and widespread political disillusionment.
In Morocco, King Mohammad Vl marked 20 years of his reign by pardoning almost 5,000 prisoners and reducing the sentences of others. Among those released are protestors held since nationwide protests in 2016 against economic inequalities and corruption. The King also announced a cabinet reshuffle and a new committee charged with boosting development, increasing internal investment and ensuring that the economic benefits are felt more evenly across the country.
In Sudan heavy rains and flash floods have forced thousands to evacuate their homes. On the political front, there was a breakthrough in negotiations between democracy campaigners of the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) movement and the Transitional Military Council (TMC). The two sides agreed to a three-year interim government to be led by six civilians and five generals. The announcement was widely welcomed, following mass protests that had continued despite a massacre of demonstrators in Khartoum. Mediation was led by the African Union, while UK and US envoys reportedly convinced TMC backers Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE to support the power-sharing.
Algeria has been out of the media eye recently, although there are ongoing protests calling for a new constitution to ensure that the ruling elite do not maintain their control. Meanwhile, the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) reported that authorities forcibly closed two more evangelical churches in May and August, bringing the number to six, despite the affiliation of five of them to a government-recognised Protestant church network. Many more churches are threatened with closure, amid denial of formal registration and recognition by authorities. The WEA appealed for the closures to be reversed and for a 2006 law cited in church closures to be revised or suspended.
In the Holy Land, Israel’s house demolitions policy hit the headlines this month. In this case, the 70 Palestinian-owned new-build apartments in the Sur Baher district of East Jerusalem were judged by Israel’s Supreme Court to be too close to Israel’s security barrier. This was despite their being built outside the city’s municipal boundary on land controlled by the Palestinian Authority and constructed with their permission. The demolition triggered international condemnation and concerns that the ruling could set a precedent for the demolition of thousands of other Palestinian properties located near to the barrier.