Tunisia’s premier unlikely to push reform as polls loom

Chahed has gathered enough support in Parliament to stave off a possible vote of no confidence. (Reuters)
Updated 22 September 2018

Tunisia’s premier unlikely to push reform as polls loom

  • By surviving for more than two years, Chahed has become the longest-serving of Tunisia’s nine prime ministers since the Arab Spring in 2011
  • Western partners see him as the best guarantee of stability in an infant democracy that they are desperate to shore up

Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed has survived attempts by his own party and unions to force him out but, with elections looming, looks less and less able to enact the economic reforms that have so far secured IMF support for an ailing economy.

Last week, the Nidaa Tounes party suspended Chahed after a campaign by the party chairman, who is the son of President Beji Caid Essebsi.

Chahed has gathered enough support in Parliament to stave off a possible vote of no confidence by working with the co-ruling Islamist Ennahda party and a number of other lawmakers including 10 Nidaa Tounes rebels. But his political capital is now badly depleted.

By surviving for more than two years, Chahed has become the longest-serving of Tunisia’s nine prime ministers since the Arab Spring in 2011.

In that time, he has pushed through austerity measures and structural reforms such as cutting fuel subsidies that have helped to underpin a $2.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other financial support.

Western partners see him as the best guarantee of stability in an infant democracy that they are desperate to shore up, not least as a bulwark against extremism.

Yet the economy, and living standards, continue to suffer: inflation and unemployment are at record levels, and goods such as medicines or even staples such as milk are often in short supply, or simply unaffordable to many.

And in recent months, the 43-year old former agronomist’s main focus has been to hold on to his job as his party starts to look to its ratings ahead of presidential and parliamentary polls in a year’s time.

The breathing space he has won is at best temporary; while propping him up for now, Ennahda says it will not back him to be prime minister again after the elections.

And, more pressingly, the powerful UGTT labor union on Thursday called a public sector strike for Oct. 24 to protest against Chahed’s privatization plans.

This month, the government once more raised petrol and electricity prices to secure the next tranche of loans, worth $250 million, which the IMF is expected to approve next week.

But the IMF also wants it to cut a public wage bill that takes up 15 percent of GDP, one of the world’s highest rates.


Jordan slams Israeli police bid to silence call to prayer at Al-Aqsa Mosque minarets

Updated 15 April 2021

Jordan slams Israeli police bid to silence call to prayer at Al-Aqsa Mosque minarets

  • Israel is a signatory to numerous international treaties obliging it to respect the sanctity of holy places

AMMAN: Jordan on Wednesday condemned Israeli police for sabotaging door locks at four Al-Aqsa Mosque minarets in a bid to silence the Muslim call to prayer.

The move came after waqf officials, who oversee Jerusalem’s holy sites, refused to turn off loudspeakers on the first day of Ramadan. They said the Israelis had wanted it quiet while new soldiers prayed at the Buraq (Western) wall.

Jordanian officials claimed employees of the Jordan-run Jerusalem waqf and Al-Aqsa affairs department were harassed during the police operation.

Daifallah Al-Fayez, spokesman for the Jordanian Foreign Ministry, described the Israeli actions as a provocation against Muslims around the world and a violation of international law and the historical status quo.

He said that Al-Aqsa Mosque was a “pure” Islamic holy site and that the Jerusalem waqf department was “the sole authority” tasked with supervising all of its affairs.

A source at the Jerusalem Waqf Council told Arab News: “This is the first time since 1967 that Israeli occupiers have sabotaged locks in order to enter the minarets and physically cut off the electricity to the loudspeakers. And they pursued waqf officials and staff who refused to carry out their demands.”

Israel is a signatory to numerous international treaties obliging it to respect the sanctity of holy places.

An Israeli siren was sounded in Jerusalem at 8 p.m. on Tuesday as a tribute to the country’s 23,928 fallen soldiers with that day’s call for isha prayer in the city being at 8:29 p.m.

Hanna Issa, head of the Islamic-Christian Committee for Jerusalem, told Arab News that the Israeli action had been a violation of the 1998 Rome Convention and called on the international community to hold Israel to account.

Dimitri Diliani, president of the National Christian Coalition in the Holy Land, told Arab News that the incident was an attempt to stifle religious freedoms and represented an attack against Islamic holy places.

“In addition, this is a reflection of a racist policy of the Israeli occupiers that can’t accept anyone who is not Jewish,” he said.

Ahmad Tamimi, member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, urged international action to put an end to Israeli violations of Muslim holy places in Jerusalem.


Houthis to prosecute abducted Yemeni model

Updated 15 April 2021

Houthis to prosecute abducted Yemeni model

  • Kidnapping of Al-Hammadi and two friends is latest attack by the Houthis on dissidents

AL-MUKALLA: Iran-backed Houthis plan to launch a criminal investigation against Entesar Al-Hammadi, a young Yemeni model and actress, who was abducted from a Sanaa street on Feb. 20, the model’s lawyer Khaled Mohammed Al-Kamal said on Wednesday.

The kidnapping of Al-Hammadi and two of her friends is the latest in a string of attacks by the Houthis on dissidents and liberal women in areas under the group’s control.

Al-Kamal told Arab News that a prosecutor from the rebel-controlled West Sanaa court will question Entesar on Sunday.

“My client was arrested without a warrant,” Al-Kamal said by telephone, giving no information about the Houthis’ explanation for the abduction.

Yemeni officials said the three actresses were traveling to shoot a drama series when the rebels stopped their vehicle on Sanaa’s Hadda Street and took them to an unknown location.

Al-Hammadi was born to a Yemeni father and an Ethiopian mother and pursued her ambition to become a model despite growing up in a conservative society. The 20-year-old first caught the public’s attention after she published images showing off traditional Yemeni costumes and she later appeared on a local television show talking about her dream of becoming an international supermodel.

The Houthis accused the abducted actresses of violating traditional Islamic dress codes.

Their detainment has sparked outrage inside and outside Yemen as human rights activists and government officials compared Houthi suppression of women to similar activities by terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and Daesh.

Moammar Al-Eryani, Yemen's minister for information, culture and tourism, said the rebels have launched a “systemic and organized” crackdown on Yemeni women in areas under their control.

“We call on the international community, the UN, the US envoys to Yemen and the women's protection organizations to condemn this crime and pressure the terrorist Houthi militia to immediately release the abductees,” the minister wrote on social media. “They must stop the extortion of women and release all disappeared women from their secret prisons unconditionally.”

Al-Hammadi told a local TV station last year that she wished she could travel abroad to work as a model, citing parental and societal resistance at home.

“It would be great if I was given an opportunity outside Yemen,” she said.

Social media users have blasted the Houthis for snatching women from the street.

Huda Al-Sarari, a Yemeni activist, said that the abduction of Al-Hammadi is part of “a dirty” campaign by the rebels against women.

“My solidarity is with my dear Entisar and with all male and female abductees inside the militia’s prisons,” she wrote on Twitter.

Amat Al-Salam Al-Hajj, chairwoman of the Mothers of Abductees Association, an umbrella organization for thousands of female relatives of war prisoners, told Arab News that the Houthis have “brazenly” committed crimes against dissidents and women amid “unexplained” silence of international rights organizations.

“The Houthis have abducted models and female activists and committed flagrant violations of human rights before the eyes and ears of the UN, human rights organizations, and everyone else,” she said.


WHO worried COVID-19 rates could spike during Ramadan

Updated 15 April 2021

WHO worried COVID-19 rates could spike during Ramadan

  • In Yemen, where some 14 million doses were pledged through the Covax program that aims to ensure equitable access to COVID vaccinations

CAIRO: The World Health Organization expressed concern on Wednesday that the COVID-19 pandemic could worsen in the Middle East and North Africa during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Detected cases of COVID infection in the region rose 22 percent last week, while deaths rose 17 percent, said Ahmed Al-Mandhari, the Cairo-based chief of the WHO for the eastern Mediterranean.

Mandhari said the situation in the vast region reflects a “worrying trend.” “We are especially worried that the current situation may worsen during Ramadan if people don’t follow and adhere to the proven social measures that work,” he told an online news conference.

Ramadan, one of the five pillars of Islam, began in most Muslim countries on Tuesday. Observant Muslims refrain from eating and drinking from dawn to dusk, and traditionally gather with family and friends to break their fast.

“This year, like last year, people may feel that the spirit of Ramadan has changed because of social distancing and lockdowns,” said Mandhari. “But the actions that need to be maintained to help contain the pandemic are in line with the basic tenets of Islam: Take care of your physical health and do no harm to others.”

Dalia Samhouri, WHO’s regional head of emergency preparedness, said the international organization wanted “countries to do a risk assessment in order to prevent the dissemination of the infection.”

She suggested measures that could be taken around mosques during Ramadan, including physical distancing, ventilation, and regular disinfection. People who felt sick were advised to stay at home, along with the elderly and sufferers of chronic disease, she said.

Mandhari said all countries in the region had received vaccines, but that those with the most limited access were Yemen and Syria.

“Although progress has been made with starting vaccination around the world, there remains a shocking imbalance in the distribution of vaccines,” he said. “This is especially true in our region.”

In Yemen, where some 14 million doses were pledged through the Covax program that aims to ensure equitable access to COVID vaccinations, only 360,000 have been delivered.


Turkey frees journalist Altan after European rights court ruling

Updated 14 April 2021

Turkey frees journalist Altan after European rights court ruling

  • Award-winning editor was jailed after writing politically-sensitive articles and columns critical of Erdogan and supporting Kurdish rights
  • Cassation Court’s Wednesday ruling overturned Altan’s conviction in the 2019 case related to charges of assisting a terrorist organisation

ISTANBUL : A Turkish court on Wednesday ordered the release of journalist and novelist Ahmet Altan after over four years in prison for involving in a failed 2016 coup attempt that he had always denied.
The Court of Cassation ruling came a day after the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) demanded the 71-year-old’s freedom in a verdict that accused Turkey of violating his civil rights.
Altan’s lawyer Figen Calikusu told AFP that the writer was released from the Silivri prison on Istanbul’s western outskirts a few hours after the verdict was announced.
The award-winning novelist and newspaper editor was jailed after writing politically-sensitive articles and columns critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and supporting Kurdish rights.
The 71-year-old was arrested shortly after the putsch attempt as part of a purge of media organizations and accused of supporting the uprising by “disseminating subliminal messages to the public.”
He was subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment for trying to overthrow the government — a ruling that was later quashed by Turkey’s top court.
But the case was re-examined and he was sentenced to 10 years and six months in prison for “knowingly supporting a terrorist organization” that was involved in the 2016 coup attempt.
“Very happy to hear Turkey’s Court of Cassation has just ordered the release of novelist Ahmet Altan after more than 4.5 years in jail,” the European Parliament’s Turkey rapporteur Nacho Sanchez Amor tweeted.
“Will be even happier after seeing him enjoying fully his freedom and all charges dropped. Hope all other (ECHR) rulings will be applied too.”
The Court of Cassation ruling came as Erdogan mounts a charm offensive aimed at mending torn relations with the European Union and building a new rapport with the US administration of President Joe Biden.
EU leaders highlighted Turkey’s deteriorating human rights record during a summit in Ankara last week.
Biden’s White House has also made human rights a much bigger issue in US-Turkish relations than it had been in the former administration of Donald Trump.
Turkish officials argue that the courts are independent and not swayed by politics or Erdogan’s whims.
But critics accuse Erdogan of stacking them with supporters during the sweeping purges that followed the coup attempt.
Western observers have thus been watching the case of Altan and some other famous prisoners for signs of Turkey’s diplomatic intentions and future political course.
Perhaps the most celebrated case involves civil society leader Osman Kavala — in custody without a conviction for nearly four years and re-arrested after being cleared of all charges in 2019.
Altan was also briefly freed and cleared of all charges before being almost immediately rearrested in 2019.
The Court of Cassation ruling on Wednesday overturned his conviction in the 2019 case related to charges of “assisting a terrorist organization.”
He had turned to the ECHR for help in 2017 after calling the charges against him “grotesque.”
The Strasbourg-based rights court on Tuesday found “no evidence that the actions of the applicant had been part of a plan to overthrow the government.”
It ordered Turkey to immediately release him and pay him 16,000 euros ($19,000) in damages for violating his rights to freedom of expression.
“Deprivation of liberty, in particular continued detention, must be based on reasonable suspicion,” the ECHR ruling said.
The ECHR “found that the applicant’s criticisms of the president’s political approach could not be seen as an indication that he had had prior knowledge of the attempted coup,” it added.


Remains of Daesh-beheaded Syrian archaeologist still missing

Updated 14 April 2021

Remains of Daesh-beheaded Syrian archaeologist still missing

  • Three bodies had been located in Kahloul, 10 km east of Palmyra, where Khaled Al-Asaad was killed in 2015, but DNA testing has ruled out the archaeologist being among them
  • Al-Asaad, known as ‘the father of Palmyra,’ was 83 when Daesh extremists executed him on August 18, 2015, three months after they overran the so-called ‘Pearl of the Desert’

DAMASCUS: The remains of Khaled Al-Asaad, a Syrian archaeologist beheaded by Daesh group extremists, have yet to be recovered, his son told AFP on Wednesday.
The official SANA news agency reported in February that authorities had uncovered three corpses in Kahloul, 10 kilometers (six miles) east of the ancient city of Palmyra where Al-Asaad was killed in 2015.
Al-Asaad was believed to be among them, SANA said at the time, ahead of DNA testing.
But two months later, DNA results have shown that the remains of the archaeologist have yet to be found, his son Tareq said.
“Authorities have just informed us that the DNA test results are not compatible with my father,” he said.
“Our sorrows and wounds have returned,” he said. “We had hoped to close this wound.”
Officials have yet to comment.
Al-Asaad, known as “the father of Palmyra,” was 83 when Daesh extremists executed him on August 18, 2015, three months after they overran the so-called “Pearl of the Desert.”
Seen as a pioneer of Syrian archaeology, Al-Asaad was director of antiquities in Palmyra for 40 years until 2003.
He was responsible for the discovery of several ancient cemeteries and oversaw the excavation of 1,000 columns as well as the site’s stunning necropolis of 500 tombs.