Middle East & Africa

Algeria witnesses widespread ‘Hirak’ pro-government protests
Middle East & Africa

Algeria witnesses widespread ‘Hirak’ pro-government protests

In renewed Hirak-led demonstrations, thousands of anti-government protesters took to the streets in Algeria’s capital on Friday, demanding sweeping changes in the political system of the country. Defying Coronavirus protocols, protesters raised slogans and banners and aloft the national flag as they called for an independent judiciary and an end to the military’s dominance on the governance of the country.

“We want an independent judiciary. The injustice must stop!” chanted thousands of demonstrators, marching across the streets of Algiers and other cities including Annaba and Oran.

Last month, Algerians revived the pro-democracy Hirak movement as they staged protests across several parts of the North African country to demand an overhaul of the governance system. Several demonstrators are rejecting the early legislative elections announced by President AbdelmadjidTebboune.

In February, President Tebboune dissolved the National Popular Assembly and announced early legislative elections to take place on June 12, 2021. Responding to the protests, the President further promised government reshuffle and major reforms in the political system of the country.

“I have tried as much as possible to appoint new ministers. I have honored this commitment by appointing young ministers and five ministers who were Hirak activists and whose work on the ground begins to give results,” Tebboune said in early March after a government reshuffle.

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Algeria was scheduled to witness its next legislative elections in 2022 after a five-year term of its existing parliament appointed in May 2017. However, Tebboune called for early polls before the end of the term as part of reforms in the political system.

According to a statement issued by the President’s office, the upcoming elections will take place on the basis of a new electoral law which will be ratified by Tebboune. As per reports, for the first time in Algeria’s political history, an open list system will be adopted for selecting candidates in the upcoming vote.

Significantly, the Hirak movement first broke out in February 2019 against the then-President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, forcing him to renounce his bid for a fifth term in office in April. Responding to Bouteflika’s resignation, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had called it “an important page in the history of Algeria.”

In a late 2019 presidential election amid widespread protests, former Prime Minister AbdelmadjidTebboune was elected as the new president of the North African nation. Hundreds of Algerians boycotted the December 2019 elections, calling it a “charade”.

World powers, Iran to discuss US return to 2015 nuclear deal
Middle East & Africa

World powers, Iran to discuss US return to 2015 nuclear deal

World powers and Iran will, in a virtual meeting on Friday, discuss America’s possible return to the 2015 nuclear deal, the European Union (EU) said in a statement broadly welcomed by the US.

Representatives of France, China, Russia, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Iran will attend Friday’s meeting, according to the statement.

The countries are still party to the agreement that the US left.

“Participants will gather to discuss the prospect of a return of the United States to the JCPOA, and ways to ensure the effective and complete implementation of the agreement by all sides,” read the statement, referring to the deal by its initials.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price said “we welcome this as a positive step”.

“We are ready for a return to compliance with the JCPOA commitments consistent with Iran also doing so,” Price said on Thursday.

The US is currently speaking to its partners “about the effective way to achieve this, including a series of preliminary mutual steps,” he said.

“We’ve been looking at various options for doing so, including indirect conversations via our European partners,” Price added.

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Friday will see the first meeting of the “joint commission” on the Iran nuclear accord since Joe Biden took office.

The body overseeing the implementation of the JCPOA has constantly been under threat since then US President Donald Trump moved his country out in 2018 and Iran started to resume nuclear activities it had halted.

Trump criticized the 2015 accord because it granted Iran a relief from international sanctions in exchange for limitations on its nuclear aims. Western powers feared that it would pay the way for it to acquire an atomic weapon.

Biden has promised to join the agreement on the condition that Tehran first returns to respecting the abandoned commitments in retaliation for Trump’s decision. The meeting will be chaired by European Union diplomat Enrique Moral.

Grazed British aid supply might leave Syrian refugees sans legal support
Middle East & Africa

Grazed British aid supply might leave Syrian refugees sans legal support

Thousands of refugees in Syria have been stripped off British aid supply leaving them sans legal support. This is putting the refugees in war-stricken country in “utter destitution” as they are left with no documentations required to work, travel and even return to their home country. In a catastrophic move by British government £4m aid supply was cut off by the government, the development that led to huge criticism globally.

The plan has been chalked out to reduce aid by 67% in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) budget for Syria which can put lives of thousands of people in country at grave risk.

The aid cut has been implemented to Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) project that lends support to tens and thousands of refugees and Syrians who have been internally displaced as a result of years long civil war in the country.

Decade long Syrian Civil War has left over 12.4 million people battling food insecurity and more than 90% of people living below poverty in Syria.

Jan Egeland, the secretary general of the NRC, said: “This cut means we need to stop legal and protection assistance for 65,000 displaced people in Syria and Lebanon. Syrian children will no longer get help to get birth certificates, students and schoolchildren will no longer get help to get exam or training documents and we can no longer help people with housing, land and property rights.”

Egeland explained that many Syrians who wished to move to Lebanon are now left in a wary situation with zero legal support and no documentations.

It is to be noted that UK has always been leading in providing refugees required legal support, and is one of their ideologies. Egeland said, “The UK has been a champion of legal advice for refugees for many years, so that people can one day return to working life as productive citizens.”

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NRC’s Bahia Zrikem said that the project employees have noticed spike in child labor and increased food insecurity in families. She said, “Humanitarian needs are increasing, not falling.” In such circumstances, cutting off aid is only going to bring catastrophic situation in the country, worsening humanitarian crisis.

Preet Gill, the UK shadow international development secretary, said, “Slashing life-saving support to a country where more than 90% of the population have been plunged into poverty after a decade of death and destruction is disgraceful. This callous move highlights a blatant disregard by this government to fulfil its moral duty.”

UK government is said to have maintained extreme secrecy around the decision of cutting off aid to Syria, with only close aids to Dominic Raab knowing the knick-knacks of decision. Spokesperson of government explained, “We have been delivering life-saving aid and support direct to the Syrian people – including over 28m food rations, over 20m medical consultations and over 14m vaccines – since 2012. The seismic impact of the pandemic on the UK economy has forced us to take tough but necessary decisions, including temporarily reducing the overall amount we spend on aid.”

Sudan Moves Towards Peace
Middle East & Africa

Sudan Moves Towards Peace

Sudan’s interim government is now in peace talks with the main rebel group, according to confirmed reports. The agreement was marked in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, which has mediated past negotiations between the Sudan Popular Liberation Movement — North, led by Abdel-Aziz al-Hilu, and the government.

Peace talks have been going back and forth between Sudan’s interim government and the rebel group. The Al- Hilu’s movement is Sudan’s single largest rebel group and is active in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan provinces, where it controls significant chunks of territory.

The agreement between them has been uploaded by the rebel group on its website and shows both leaders singing an agreement.  The Sudanese transitional government has been trying to engage with related rebel groups to restore peace in the war torn land. Sudan has been trying to get back on its feet following a military overthrow of the longtime autocrat Omar al-Bashir in April 2019 after nearly three decades of being in power.

Sudan is a resource rich country and has been on the radar of many western nations for a long time.  As the rebels went into talks with the interim government, it was clear that they didn’t want any role of religion in the formation of a secular state. They also wanted the disbanding of all of al-Bashir’s militias and the re-vamping of the country’s military. Al-Hilu’s group says if its demands aren’t met, it will call for self-determination in areas it controls.

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Both sides have now agreed to ensure a state that gives people freedom of religion, belief and religious practices as well as freedom to worship shall be guaranteed to all Sudanese people by separating the identities of culture, region, ethnicity and religion from the State.

Sudanese rebels for years fought al-Bashir’s loyalists, in Darfur but also in the southern provinces of Blue Nile and South Kordofan. The fighting has often fallen along religious and ethnic lines. In rebel-held provinces much of the population claims sub-Saharan African descent and are Christian, and were targeted by al-Bashir’s Islamist government in the north of the country.

Aftermath of Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict: Tigray civilians need protection amid fears of humanitarian crisis
Middle East & Africa

Aftermath of Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict: Tigray civilians need protection amid fears of humanitarian crisis

Months since the Tigray conflict erupted in Ethiopia raising humanitarian crisis by activists, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has constantly denied allegations against any abuse or targeted attacks, until now. Months into denial Abiy Ahmed has finally admitted that the Eritrean troops in Ethiopia are fighting alongside the federal army. Interestingly, this has been since the beginning reported by human rights groups in the region, raising deep concerns.

Eritrean troops have been reported to target Tigrayans and kill them singling out, an indication towards attempt of ethnic cleansing of the community in Tigray.  

To the terrible human crisis that has shocked the world, with its implications still coming to the forefront and the horrid human toll, Abiy Ahmed just said, “War is a nasty thing.” He barely touched the surface of the surmount of human suffering that has come at the cost of war between Ethiopian military led by the Prime Minister and TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front). Since the war began in November last year, thousands have died, majority being civilians. After multiple reports of targeted attacks, killings, rapes and lootings against Tigray region civilians, heads of nine UN agencies and other officials have demanded halt on targeted attacks against civilians and non-combatants.

Médecins Sans Frontières reported that this week its staff noticed at least four men being dragged out of bus by armed men and shot. Furthermore, at least 70% of medicals facilities in the region have been looted and vandalized deliberately, leaving only 13% in functional state.

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Extensive evidence now shows that Eritrean forces have killed hundreds of people in Tigray region since November, including young children in Axum and over 160 in Dengolat village. TPLF too has been accused of massacring hundreds of civilians in Mai Kadra, western Tigray in November.

Concerns over possible ethnic cleansing in western Tigray were raised by US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken.

Over three-quarters of Tigray population is now completely dependent on relief aid with thousands on verge of starvation. 2 million people have displaced internally with around 60,000 having fled to neighboring Sudan. The rising international attention, criticism and involvement is said to have prompted Abiy Ahmed to finally acknowledge the ongoing humanitarian crisis at the hand of Eritrean troops fighting alongside Ethiopian military.

Joint investigation announced by UN and Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and Abiy Ahmed’s admission to the crisis, and access to humanitarian efforts and media shows what impact international pressure can have.

Struggle to free Suez Canal of the giant container ship enters third day
Middle East & Africa

Struggle to free Suez Canal of the giant container ship enters third day

World’s key trade route of Suez Canal remains lock-jawed by a massive container ship for third day and pressure on authorities is building up to free the canal from wedged vessel.

A brief pause in overnight operations was resumed on Thursday to refloat the massive 220,000 ton and 400 metre long Ever Given. The fears loom that the operation could practically extend to weeks if vessels needs to be unloaded.

“It is not really possible to pull it loose”, said Peter Berdowski, CEO of Beskalis, the dredging company that is on site for the operation. He added that unloading might be needed which could take weeks together. “We can’t exclude it might take weeks, depending on the situation.”

Ship’s bow and stern have been lifted up against canal’s either side. Ship’s waterline indicates that the vessel is sitting ‘heavily on the bank’. He added, “It’s like an enormous beached whale. It’s an enormous weight on the sand. We might have to work with a combination of reducing the weight by removing containers, oil and water from the ship, tug boats and dredging of sand.”

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Meanwhile, the blocking of Suez Canal has led to traffic jam on either side of the Asia-Europe trade channel with 150 ships laden with oil, consumer goods and automotive parts. The channel is passage for a third of world’s container traffic. Experts also warn that a massive flood of insurance claims of the huge amount of cargo which has been held up.

Ever Given is a Panama flagged ship and operated by Taiwan was drifted aground on Tuesday morning by as massive gust of wind when it lost its ability to steer, said the Suez Canal Authority (SCA).

Lieutenant General Ossama Rabei, head of the Suez Canal Authority, said, “The Suez Canal will not spare any efforts to ensure the restoration of navigation and to serve the movement of global trade.”

Apart from the loss in trade and massive economic implications, experts warn that idling ships across the channel in Red Sea can invite attacks amid rising tensions between Iran and US and its implications across the Middle East.

Exit polls predict Netanyahu falling just short of majority in quest to form Israel’s government for another term
Middle East & Africa

Exit polls predict Netanyahu falling just short of majority in quest to form Israel’s government for another term

According to exit polls, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is envisaged to fall just short of locking the required number of seats to form next Israeli government. These elections are fourth in past two years in Israel.

It is predicted that Netanyahu’s Likud Party would be able to secure around 52 seats of the 120 seats in the Knesset, Israel’s unicameral parliament. The opposition party are thus projected to win approximately 60 seats. This can be a big jolt to Netanyahu who has been able to dramatically win all the four elections in past two years and remaining in power. Despite of support from the nationalist Yamina party, Netanyahu may lose the election, as the exit polls suggest.

Yamina party that is led by Naftali Bennett, a Netanyahu loyalist, is forecasted to win around seven seats. The party hasn’t however clearly declared which side it would support. Before exit polls were released, Bennett had said, “I will do only what is good for the State of Israel.”

Yamina party is said to wait for the final results to finally declare its support to any side.

The Central Elections Committee of Israel is projected to be able to make a final count of votes till Wednesday due to restrictions around Coronavirus pandemic.

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Anticipating his lead, Netanyahu tweeted late Tuesday thanking his supporters. He wrote, “You gave a huge win to the right and Likud under my leadership. Likud is the biggest party by far. It’s clear most Israelis are right-wing, and want a strong, stable right-wing government.”

Meanwhile, Opposition party Yesh Atid is predicted to win between 16 and 18 seats. Yasir Lapid, the main opposition leader said he is proud of his party’s monumental achievement. More than 6.3 million people in Israel were eligible to vote in the elections. Crossings were closed by military from the West Bank on the election day. Israel occupied West Bank is home to around 2.5 million Palestinians who are not allowed to vote. According to the Israeli law, any party with minimum 3.25% votes can only enter the Knesset. This means a minor change in votes distribution can sway away the results.

Israel elections: Can Netanyahu win this time?
Middle East & Africa

Israel elections: Can Netanyahu win this time?

Israelis, in two years, are voting in the fourth general election what is being widely seen as a referendum on Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister. 

The previous three elections ended inconclusively. The coalition government collapsed in December and polls point towards yet another stalemate.

These polls are being held as Israel returns from lockdown and Mr. Netanyahu’s corruption trial resumes in two weeks’ time.

The prime minister is subjected to charges of fraud, corruption, bribery, and breach of trust which he denies and says are politically motivated.

Since the elections of March 2020, Israel has been through three lockdowns in a bid to stop the spread of coronavirus.

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Mr. Netanyahu’s opponents accuse him of mishandling the crisis, but as per the latest facts and figures, the economy has rebounded in recent weeks, infection rates have gone done and the PM has termed Israel’s rapid inoculation program as a big achievement.

Israel, at its peak, was amongst the worst-hit countries in the world, but nearly half of the population now has received one vaccination dose.

Apart from the pandemic crisis, the opposition has focused on Mr Netanyahu’s political dominance as the longest-serving leader, saying that now the country is overdue a change.

The prime minister is in power since 2009, having served a three-year term in the late 90s.

His Likud party is expected to get more seats but is forecasted to fall short of the 61 needed to form a government without any support from other parties. 

However, polls ahead of the elections suggest that even the bloc of right-wing parties that are willing to back the PM could struggle to get through the numerical threshold that will enable him to stay in the office.

The Anti-Netanyahu bloc is expected to outshine the pro-Netanyahu bloc but analysts are of the opinion the level of political differences between the two means that even if they manage to win 61 or more seats, they won’t be able to form a government together.

Iran Not In The Mood For Meeting Unless America Withdraws Sanctions
Middle East & Africa

Iran Not In The Mood For Meeting Unless America Withdraws Sanctions

Iran has no intentions of reversing its uranium enrichment moves unless the US reverses its sanctions, according to Tehran’s top religious leader. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has not minced his words while addressing the state television, expressing distrust for America, even though leadership change speaks for itself. 

Khamenei referred back to the days of Obama saying that things were more trustful as America was seen keeping its promise but nothing seems like this as of now. “The Americans must lift all sanctions. We will verify it and if sanctions are…really canceled, we will return to our obligations without any problems,” Khamenei said. “We have a lot of patience and we are not in a hurry.”

On the flip side, the spokesperson of the State Department has already clarified that it does not intend to see through negotiations from the Iranian side before both governments can have a meeting. Since Trump pulled off the Nuclear Peace Treaty of 2015, there has been no level ground dialogue or meeting between Tehran and Washington. 

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America is saying it does not intend to be arm-twisted by Iranian pressure or wind its way down to a meeting stage.  But in Washington, the Democrats and Republicans together had written to Joe Biden, with high hopes that under his leadership, America will yet again be able to set a precedence of fair and just diplomacy.

In a letter, both sides have urged to look for a long-lasting solution; something that goes beyond just addressing the nuclear deal or the various economic sanctions. The threat that Iran poses to America and the rest of the world needs some thought and strategic handling. 

On its part, the Islamic country is threatening war like conditions, if America does not remove its sanctions. Only peace talks are not what they are interested in. 

According to American intelligence, this is evident from the fact that in January 2021, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard was already discussing plans of mounting ‘USS Cole Style attacks’ against the Fort McNair, an Army base in the nation’s capital, and also attack the Army’s vice chief of staff.  

It was supposed to be an act of revenge for the October 2000 suicide attack in which a small boat pulled up alongside the Navy destroyer in the Yemeni port of Aden and exploded, killing 17 sailors. The intelligence also revealed threats to kill Gen. Joseph M. Martin and plans to infiltrate and survey the base, according to the officials, who were not authorized to publicly discuss national security matters and spoke on condition of anonymity to the media. The base, one of the oldest in the country, is Martin’s official residence. 

Morocco’s online drought maps can be beneficial for the entire MENA region
Middle East & Africa

Morocco’s online drought maps can be beneficial for the entire MENA region

Water scarcity and managing drought is an ongoing problem in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. In an attempt to tackle the drought, Morocco’s Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, Rural Development, Water, and Forests (MAFRWF) has published a nationwide satellite based drought maps.

Morocco is frequently experiencing water crisis and drought conditions, and climate change conditions are expected to continue this trend in future as well. The fact that half of the population in Morocco lives in rural areas and are farmers, when drought strikes it leaves a lasting impact on food and water security in region. These drought maps would be made available to government agencies and research institutes would make a network for delivering early draught warning. These automatic trigger warnings would initiate agencies to mitigate the impacts.

These color coded maps would visually present satellite data on rainfall, land surface temperature, soil moisture, and vegetation health, compiled into enhanced Composite Drought Index (eCDI), which would be easy to interpret. By analyzing changes on these maps from the start of the growing season, users can detect at an early stage if a drought is emerging, even before any effects are visible on ground.

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These maps have been developed as part of Morocco arm of the USAID funded MENA drought Project, which is being carried out by International Water Management Institute and partners. ECDI is developed in collaboration with National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, NASA Hydrological Sciences Laboratory, and Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute, USA, in collaboration with the Department of Strategy and Statistics of MAFRWF.

As Morocco has decided to publish the color-coded maps, it will have wider implications and work towards providing benefits for the entire MENA region. If Morocco gains success in using maps to steer the actions for drought management in right direction, then other nations in region too can be persuaded towards same modus operandi.

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