Week of April 6
TeachMideast relies on the help of interns whose semesters were interrupted by Covid-19 and it has taken some time to adjust to new realities on the ground as a small organization like ours. We thank you for your patience. TeachMideast will dedicate space in the coming days to specialized content on the pandemic in the Middle East. COVID-19 has had a distinct impact on people in the Middle East and North Africa, where political and economic instability already limited opportunity and access to resources. Vast refugee and IDP settlements and conflict zones are particularly vulnerable environments for numerous reasons, not least of which is the lack of infrastructure and personnel to handle a health crisis. Sanctions and blockades prohibit essential items from entering places like Iran and Gaza.
But, we humans adapt and carry on despite all odds. TeachMideast is working on content that addresses COVID-19 in the Middle East but we will resume our weekly recap of notable developments and events in the region, which was sidelined temporarily.
A COVID-19 Silver Lining in Yemen
On April 8th, the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen declared a two-week ceasefire in a bid to stem the spread of the coronavirus in the war-torn country, according to the state-run Saudi Press Agency (SPA). The ceasefire in the five-year conflict was set to begin Thursday, according to coalition spokesman Col. Turki al-Malki. SPA said the move was prompted by United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ call for a pause of hostilities in the country in order to counter the spread of Covid-19. Malki also said the temporary ceasefire could pave the way for talks between the Saudi-backed government in Aden, and Iran-backed Houthi rebels based in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. Yemen recorded its first confirmed case of coronavirus on Friday. Aid officials have warned the impoverished country will be unable to cope if the virus spreads.
Who Counts on the 2020 Census?
For the first time ever, the decennial census provided an option for people who identify as “white” to expand on their ethnic origins; the form offered some examples, such as German, Irish, English, Italian, Lebanese and Egyptian. For some Arab Americans, that option falls short. In 2017, the Census Bureau tested a MENA category, and found that Arab Americans were more likely to choose it rather than to identify as “white,” but a year later, the Census said it needed to do more research, and removed the possibility of the option on the 2020 Census.
The Arab American Civic Council and other advocacy groups have long campaigned for people of Middle Eastern and North African descent – who are socially regarded as a non-white minority – to have a unique designation on the Census. Raad Ghantous, chair of the Arab American Civic Council, urged people to reject the expanded white option, encouraging Arabs to select the “Other” category and fill in their particular heritage. “It’s like a wave. If you get to the point where there are many people filling out ‘other,’ the data collection will not be able to ignore it,” said Ghantous. “You have a position of power, as a community, as a person filling out the Census form.” The Arab American Institute estimates that nearly 3.7 million Americans trace their roots to an Arab country.
Domestic Violence Protections Threatened by COVID-19
Countries all over the world have reported increases in domestic violence as families are cooped up together at home, prompting the head of the United Nations Antonio Guterres to call for urgent government action. Women’s rights groups in the Middle East have seen a surge in reports of domestic violence across the region and victim advocates have warned that hard-won gains in protection for victims are at risk. In Lebanon, calls to a government domestic violence hotline have doubled; in Tunisia, authorities say cases have increased five-fold, while in Jordan, a video of a victim tearfully describing her abuse under lockdown has gone viral.
Some fear fragile gains for victims are being jeopardised by restrictions on movement to curb the spread of the coronavirus that have forced women behind closed doors. “We’re seeing the nature of the violence become more severe and there are more death threats,” said Ghida Anani, founder and director of ABAAD, which runs shelters for women in Lebanon. Civil society groups have launched awareness campaigns to support women and have been providing counseling sessions via video conferencing. But for countries already affected by high rates of unemployment, the current crisis exacerbates pre-existing tensions that place vulnerable populations at even greater risk of violence.
No Man’s Land for Mediterranean Migrants
Libya’s UN-recognised government in Tripoli has declared its own seaports unsafe and has said it will not authorise the landing of migrants stopped at sea and sent back to Libyan territory by its coastguard vessels. The Libyan coastguard rescued about 280 migrants on Thursday, but when it attempted to return them to Libya, the country’s authorities refused to let them disembark, according to the UN migration agency IOM. Authorities in Tripoli said that “due to the intensity in shelling, some of which previously targeted the capital’s main port, Libya is not considered a safe port,” according to the UN.
Since a deal was signed with the Italian government in 2017, the Libyan coastguard has stopped migrant boats heading to Europe at sea and sent their passengers back to Libya, where aid agencies say they face torture and abuse. Libya’s refusal to take people back comes at a time when European governments have been taking harsher measures to stop migrants since the start of the coronavirus crisis, leaving no option to asylum seekers escaping from torture and wars, who despite the fear of Covid-19 continue to risk their lives at sea in order to reach Europe. In an unprecedented move on Tuesday, the Italian government also declared its seaports “unsafe” because of the coronavirus pandemic and said it would not authorise the landing of migrant rescue boats until the end of the emergency.
Possible End in Sight for Saudi Arabia and Russia Oil Wars
Meanwhile, two of the world’s largest oil producers — Saudi Arabia and Russia — have been engaged in a price war that has caused oil prices to fall more than 60% since the beginning of the year. BOth had been increasing production dramatically this month, after an agreement between OPEC and its allies to lower output expired at the end of March. Concerns arose over the future of oil demand in January as China battled the virus, but have intensified, now that infections have spread further and sent countries into lockdowns. American leaders have voiced alarm and anger at the impact of overproduction on the American energy industry and had pressured Saudi Arabia, its ostensible ally, to cut back. On Thursday, the two countries arrived at an historic crude production cut, effectively halting a bitter oil war which saw prices implode by more than 50% from January highs. Details from the virtual OPEC+ conference can be seen here.
Politicians in Israel Struggle to Find Common Ground
On Sunday, Israel’s president turned down a request from Benny Gantz, whose Blue and White party had secured a slight majority of seats in Israel’s house of representatives, for a two-week extension to form a new coalition government with current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. The announcement by President Reuven Rivlin gave Gantz and Netanyahu a midnight deadline on Monday to reach a power-sharing deal. A second request was approved pushing negotiations until Wednesday, April 15th. Gantz announced in March that he instead of forming his own government, he would instead try to form an “emergency” government with Netanyahu’s Likud party to deal with the country’s coronavirus crisis. The current impasse is over the matter of appointing judges. If they fail to resolve their differences, the country could be forced into a fourth consecutive election in just over a year.