Week of September 16

Hundreds gathered in central Cairo demanding President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s resignation on Friday. Credit: Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

On Monday, the Iran-backed Houthi forces in Yemen warned that the drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities, which they had claimed to be responsible for, could continue. Drone attacks on September 14 targeted Saudi Arabia’s national oil company facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais, which led to a 15% increase in oil prices a 5.7 million barrel oil cut per day in the short span of two days. Though Saudi Arabian authorities said that they would be able to restore oil production to previous levels by the end of September, the brief cut in oil production sent a shock wave across the world and raised concerns about the damage of future strikes. However, by Friday the Houthis shifted their rhetoric and gave assurance that future attacks would not take place as long as that commitment is reciprocated by the Saudi coalition in Yemen. The leader of the Houthi supreme political council, Mahdi al-Mashat, added that all parties should be willing to engage “in serious negotiations,” as the continuation of the war “will not benefit any side.” The UN welcomed this sudden diplomatic turn as an opening for a solution to the violence and humanitarian disaster happening in Yemen. However, Saudi authorities haven’t been warm in their response to the Houthis, primarily because they hold Iran accountable for the drone attack. The question of who was actually behind the drone attacks remains unresolved; regardless, the shift in Houthi attitudes regarding the conflict could be considered a positive development.

Arab voters tipped the balance in the do-over the Israel’s April parliamentary elections, bringing an end to the decade-long solitary rule of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Disappointed when the Joint List split up, many Arab voters stayed home on Election Day in April. The revival of the Joint List is believed to have been a major factor behind increased voter turnout in the Arab community on election day last Tuesday. Another factor in his downfall was the vehemently anti-Arab campaign waged by Netanyahu in recent weeks, as part of an effort to rally his right-wing base. Another explanation for the estimated 20% increase in the number of Arabs who cast their ballot on Tuesday, compared with five months earlier, was an organized campaign to get out the vote. Comprising 11 civil society organizations active in Arab society, Coalition 17/9 was created last month and played a major role in the effort to increase Arab civic participation. It had nearly 600 volunteers spread out across the country on election day.

Men carry a coffin of one of the victims after a drone strike, in Khogyani district of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan on September 19th. Credit: REUTERS/Parwiz

On Wednesday night, a U.S.drone intended to kill Islamic State fighters hit a pine nut farm in the east of Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, killing 30 and injuring 40 laborers. According to locals, at the time of the incident approximately 200 laborers were sleeping and a number of them were sitting together in front of a bonfire after a day’s labor in the fields. A spokesperson for the provincial governor stated that the strike had been intended for Islamic State militants who frequently use fields and farmlands for the purpose of recruitment and training. The U.S. has not yet made a public statement; however, the spokesman for the American-led coalition in Afghanistan explained that the coalition is ‘’working with local officials to determine whether there was collateral damage.’’ (UPDATE: On September 23rd, the Washington Post reported that a U.S. defense official in Kabul said the operation may have resulted in civilian casualties.) Since 2003, U.S. forces have been operating inside Afghanistan and carrying out airstrikes targeting the Taliban and more recently, the Islamic State. Civilian death has been a recurring problem throughout the war, with the UN reporting that at least 3,812 civilians were killed or wounded in the first half of 2019. The number of casualties has been on a steep rise since the collapse of the U.S.-Taliban peace deal, which would bring an end to Taliban attacks in exchange for the withdrawal of thousands of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. After Trump abruptly ended talks with the Taliban earlier this month, violence erupted between the West-backed Afghan government and the Taliban, which has been stepping up attacks against civilians in order to dissuade them from voting in the upcoming elections. 

On Friday night, a crowd of Egyptians gathered in Cairo’s famous Tahrir Square, chanting slogans such as “the people demand the fall of the regime” and “leave, Sisi”’ — a striking resemblance to the start of the Arab Spring protests of 2012 that ousted former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarek. The protests were held in at least eight major cities, the largest in Cairo, Suez and Alexandra, and were repeated on Saturday night. Since a ban was placed on public demonstrations in 2013 following the overthrow of  former democratically-elected president Mohammed Morsi, anti-government protests have been very uncommon in Egypt, and thus were met with a harsh government crackdown. According to AFP news agency, at least 74 were reported to be arrested. The demonstrations came at a time when Egypt is experiencing a harsh crackdown on many dissidents, activists and journalists. Yet what directly prompted the protests were the calls of a self-exiled businessman who gained popularity on social media through his videos accusing  al-Sisi of “squandering public funds on vanity projects despite rising poverty.” El-Sisi’s government has imposed strict austerity measures since 2016 as part of a loan package from the International Monetary Fund, and yet Mohammed Ali’s videos have sparked a debate on whether these measures are actually being taken, especially since nearly one in three Egyptians live below the poverty line under el-Sisi’s presidency. The protests coincide with Sisi’s visit to the U.S. to attend the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). 

Also on Friday, Twitter announced that it had suspended thousands of state-sponsored propaganda accounts with ties to Middle East governments, including one belonging to a former Saudi Arabian official who’s been implicated in the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The company announced the suspensions in a Twitter Safety blog post in which it said on Friday. In the post, the company said it had suspended the account of Saud al-Qahtani, a former aide to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed. Implicated in Khashoggi’s death, he was also the target of sanctions enacted by the Trump administration in response to the journalist’s killing. The accounts were suspended for “violations of our platform manipulation policies.” The company also targeted Spanish and Ecuadoran government-linked accounts, and in the past, has suspended Chinese accounts that targeted protesters in Hong Kong.

The 10 refugees were wearing matching tracksuits and carrying volleyballs. Credit: Police handout

And, on Sunday, Greek police said in a statement that ten Syrian refugees posing as a men’s volleyball team had been arrested at the Athens airport. Reports stated that the refugees were dressed in identical athletic uniforms and carried the same sports bags, as well as two volleyballs. The men were reportedly hoping to travel to Zurich, Switzerland, but were questioned and later arrested after police determined that they did not belong to a sports club, according to the statement. Police said they had entered Greece without legal documents and were found out carrying Ukrainian passports that had been reported stolen or lost. Between January and August this year, more than 25,000 people arrived by sea to the Greek islands – a 32 per cent rise compared to the same period in 2018, according to the United Nations. The individuals were sent to an examining magistrate to face charges of trying to illegally exit the country using stolen or lost travel documents.

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