Week of July 22

President Béji Caïd Essebsi of Tunisia in his office in Tunis in 2015. He came out of retirement to lead his country after a dictator was ousted, and was later the people’s choice in a free election. Credi: Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

On Wednesday last week, the United Arab Emirates announced they would begin a significant withdrawal of ground troops from Yemen, where it participates in the Saudi-led coalition supporting the Sunni government. The troop drawdown signals a growing understanding in the coalition that the war cannot be won decisively through military means, especially as international scrutiny and criticism of the conflict has grown. While the coalition has air supremacy, the Houthi rebels are strong guerrilla fighters and the conflict has been in military stalemate for years. As one insider said, “They (the UAE) don’t want to keep getting beaten up over a war they can’t win.” International observers say that now there is “real momentum” towards a durable ceasefire, and some insiders have claimed that the Saudi coalitions could participate in U.N.-led talks as early as this autumn to expand the ceasefire in the port city of Hodeidah. Although “a million things could still go wrong,” the announcement of the drawdown signals a potential end to the conflict, which has thus far killed at least 10,000 — by violence as well as cholera; displaced 3 million; and plunged 15 million into food insecurity. 

Also on Wednesday, the United States blocked an attempt by the UN Security Council to condemn Israeli destruction of a Palestinian apartment building in East Jerusalem. The apartment building was bulldozed and three families displaced in the early hours of Monday morning following a lengthy legal battle in which the Israeli government argued that the apartment buildings were a security risk because they were located too close to the security barrier built around the West Bank. The government also argued that the homes were built illegally without a permit. The Palestinian Authority and the text of the proposed U.N. censure, drafted by Kuwait, Indonesia, and South Africa, point out that the land was under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority per a 1993 agreement and that the families had been granted building permits through their regulatory body. Allies of Palestine internationally and in the United Nations are concerned that the demolition and apparent support by the U.S. set a dangerous precedent for unilateral destruction of Palestinian neighborhoods, even in areas as established and nominally legal as the West Bank. In days since, Palestinian leadership has called for ending all existing agreements with Israel. 

Credit: Facebook/Mashrou Leila

Lebanese rock band Mashrou’ Leila was in the news last week when religious conservatives protested their upcoming concert in Byblos, Lebanon. The band, hugely popular in the modern Arab music scene, is no stranger to controversy — lead singer, Hamed Sinno, is open about his queer identity and the group regularly tackles contentious social issues in its music. The group has been banned from performing in Jordan and Egypt. This is the first time, however, that the group has faced backlash in its home country, widely seen as being more secular and liberal than many of its neighbors. The Maronite archbishop of Byblos, an overwhelmingly Christian town, asked on Monday that the performance be cancelled over the “group’s aims and the content of their songs,” which he said “undermine religious and human values, attack sacred symbols of Christianity.” Additionally, multiple Facebook pages (one called “The Soldiers of God”) have called for the cancellation of the concert, while liberals have called this yet another example of the shrinking freedom of expression in the country. One pro-Mashrou’ Leila columnist said, “Either we consecrate bans and populism and say goodbye to what remains of this moderate spot, or we confront this tyrannical wave that goes against our pluralistic and diverse country.” Neither the band nor the Byblos venue have made an announcement on whether the show will go on. Watch their 2016 NPR Tiny Desk Concert here.

On Thursday, Beji Caid Essebsi — Tunisia’s first democratically elected president — died at the age of 92. In a statement, Tunisia’s government called Essebsi one of Tunisia’s “greatest men and one of those who contributed the most to building it.” Essebsi had a lengthy and distinguished political career, serving under the post-colonial dictatorship of Habib Bourguiba (to whom Essebsi was deeply devoted) and under Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali before coming out of retirement in 2011 to help lead Tunisia after the Arab Spring. Tunisia is widely considered to be one of the only real Arab Spring success stories, thanks in part to Essebsi’s strong leadership. He became Tunisia’s interim prime minister in 2011 after popular revolt ousted Ben Ali, before being elected president in 2014. Essebsi helped found Tunisia’s secular political party, Nidaa Tounes, and led a movement in 2013 to oust the unpopular Islamist government. Tunisia was on the edge of a breakdown in 2013, but Essebsi facilitated peace by holding meetings between prominent leaders. While many young Tunisian revolutionaries felt Essebsi represented the old government, his supporters praised his desire to create a strong, secular and modern state. Essebsi was notable for his progressive attitudes and policies: he once made headlines for drinking orange juice in the middle of the day during Ramadan, had pushed for policies against veiling, and supported an educational infrastructure that made Tunisians some of the most well-educated people in the Muslim world. While Tunisia is one of the more stable North African countries, the nation still struggles with a fractured society; the loss of Essebsi, who has long emphasized unity over politics, is a great blow to Tunisia.

Slamming the new US proposal for a ‘’safe-zone’’ in northern Syria as ‘’not satisfactory,’’ Turkey warned the United States that if measures to secure the Syrian-Turkish border from a U.S.-allied Kurdish militia fail, it might launch a new offensive in Syria. Since Trump’s announcement to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria in December 2018 — an announcement that remains unfulfilled, Turkey and the U.S. have been attempting to negotiate the establishment of a safe-zone in the YPG-held northern province of Syria. These negotiations are part of U.S. efforts to ease tensions with Turkey by addressing its security concern over the presence of U.S.-backed YPG fighters, which Turkey considers a separatist terror network, along its border. Yet negotiations have been difficult, particularly since the U.S. promised Turkey in June 2018 that the Syrian Kurdish fighters would be moved from Manbij to the east of the Euphrates, yet didn’t follow through by the agreed upon deadline. In response, Turkey has insisted on forming a self-administered safe zone in northern Syria, yet neither the Syrian Kurds nor the United States are convinced that the area will remain safe under Turkish control. The latest round of negotiations, made during U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey’s visit to Turkey on June 21, have also been fruitless. On Friday, President Erdogan announced that the ‘’terror corridor’’ in northern Syria would be destroyed, regardless of the establishment of a safe-zone. If negotiations fail and Turkey conducts an incursion into Syria, Turkish-American relations will suffer another blow, adding to the damage caused by the S-400 crisis.

Nineteen decommissioned pieces of military hardware have been submerged at depths of up to 92ft (28m). Credit: AFP

Aqaba, a Jordanian port city in the Red Sea, has started attracting tourists for its new underwater museum and artificial reef made from various out-of-service military objects. The museum launched an opening ceremony last Wednesday, with the sinking of a helicopter and several tanks and troop carriers. Divers and snorkelers are now able to explore the military equipment stationed along coral reefs. The equipment was cleared of any hazardous material before being lowered into the seafloor and is expected to attract sea life in the upcoming years.

 

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