News Feed: Middle East and Africa

THE wheels of justice turn slowly, but probably not slowly enough for South Africa’s scandal-plagued president. Jacob Zuma’s court dates have piled up in recent years, along with seemingly endless appeals in what his allies have termed his “Stalingrad strategy” of contesting every judgment, no matter the futility. On December 13th, in the latest damning decision, a high court ordered Mr Zuma to set up a judicial inquiry into allegations of “state capture” against him, his son Duduzane and their friends. A few hours earlier the court ruled in a separate decision that Mr Zuma had abused the judicial process by trying to block an anti-corruption ombudsman, Thuli Madonsela, from releasing a report on state capture in late 2016. It ordered that Mr Zuma must personally pay the legal fees in both cases.

It is not clear whether Mr Zuma will appeal even these, as he did another judgment a week earlier in which the courts fired his appointee as head of the national prosecutors’...

Fish out of water

ONE evening in Tombo, as fish buyers throng the seafront, an argument erupts at the far end of the harbour. Angry voices waft through the air, as Pa Seaport, the master fisherman of Sierra Leone, tries to solve a heated dispute between local fishermen and a South Korean man. They accuse him of damaging their nets with his trawler, which, they say, was heading to an area where fishing is banned.

This squabble points to a much bigger problem. In Sierra Leone nearly half the population does not have enough to eat, and fish make up most of what little protein people get. But the country’s once-plentiful shoals, combined with its weak government, have lured a flotilla of unscrupulous foreign trawlers to its waters. Most of the trawlers fly Chinese flags, though dozens also sail from South Korea, Italy, Guinea and Russia. Their combined catch is pushing Sierra Leone’s fisheries to the brink of collapse.

Sierra Leone is not alone...


TOURISTS have long been drawn to Hell’s Gate National Park in Kenya by its steep cliffs, plentiful zebras and spectacular canyons. Recently there is a new attraction; a spa set amid the cliffs, with a huge pool heated by the energy stored in the Earth’s crust. Curiously, it is not run by a tourist company, but by KenGen, the national electricity generator. It abuts the Olkaria geothermal power plants, from which plumes of steam pour into the sky. Since 1982 four power stations have opened here; a fifth is being built and work on a sixth will begin soon. Energy harvested from volcanic heat now provides almost half the power Kenya needs.

Electrification has been one of the country’s great successes over the past few decades. It is not just new generators; the number of people connected to the power network has also soared. According to the Kenya Power and Lighting Company (KPLC), nearly three-quarters of Kenyans are now connected, up from barely a quarter in 2013. The trend in many...

This is my winning face

EVEN some of Bashar al-Assad’s staunchest opponents cringed at the snub. On December 11th Vladimir Putin made a surprise visit to Khmeimim airbase in Syria, from where the Russian air force launched a bombing campaign against Syrian rebels in 2015. Two years later, most of Mr Putin’s aims have been achieved: Russia’s military bases in the Middle East are secure; Western attempts to isolate Russia have failed; and Mr Assad remains Syria’s president, halting what the Kremlin sees as an American-backed wave of regime change. But when Mr Assad tried to join a photo-op, a Russian officer grabbed him by the arm. The base might be on Syrian soil, but it is Russia’s turf and Mr Putin would lead the victory lap.

From Syria Mr Putin flew to Egypt for talks with its president, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi. They agreed to resume flights between their countries, which were cut off after the bombing of a Russian airliner over Sinai in 2015. They also...


RESIDENTS of Tataouine, on the edge of the Sahara, think it ought to be a boomtown. The dusty city is close to Tunisia’s oil and gas reserves. But firms do most of their recruiting elsewhere and send their profits away. The local unemployment rate is more than twice the national average of 13%. In April job-seeking protesters shut the main oil pipeline and briefly halted work on Nawara, a big gasfield. Youssef Chahed, the prime minister, was booed off the stage at a town-hall meeting. So the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), the country’s largest, stepped in to mediate. In June it announced a deal: the state would hire another 3,000 workers from the region.

The concession ended the protests. But it was bad policy. The state oil company is already an inefficient mess. Over the past decade its production has fallen by 29%, even though its workforce has grown by 14%. Under the agreement, the government urged private oil and gas firms to hire 1,500 locals, but they do...

The greatest, according to some

HE WAS exceptional in several ways. Brought up in the shtetls of what is now Belarus, Aharon Yehudah Leib Shteinman was the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust. He then devoted his life to building the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Israel. Such was his piety that other religious Jews came to regard him as Gadol Hador—the greatest of his generation. But he remained exceedingly modest, sleeping on the same mattress for six decades. During the day it would serve as a sofa for anyone wanting his guidance. Parents, ministers and tycoons passed through his damp one-bedroom flat.

“Ten people at my funeral would be enough,” wrote Rabbi Shteinman in his will. As it happened, hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox men turned out to mourn their leader, who died on December 12th at the age of 104.

Rabbi Shteinman was one of a small group of rabbis who arrived in the new state...


IN AMBO, a town in central Ethiopia, a teenage boy pulls a tatty photo from his wallet. “I love him,” he says of the soldier glaring menacingly at the camera. “And I love socialism,” he adds. In the picture is a young Mengistu Haile Mariam, the dictator whose Marxist regime, the Derg, oversaw the “Red Terror” of the 1970s and the famine-inducing collapse of Ethiopia’s economy in the 1980s. Mr Mengistu was toppled by rebels in 1991 before fleeing to Zimbabwe, where he still lives. He was later sentenced to death, in absentia, for genocide.

But the octogenarian war criminal seems to be growing in popularity back home, especially in towns and among those too young to remember the misery of his rule. When Meles Zenawi, then prime minister, died in 2012, a social-media campaign called for Mr Mengistu to return. In the protests that have swept through towns like Ambo since 2014, chants of “Come, come Mengistu!” have been heard among the demonstrators.

Asked by...


EVERYONE knew this year’s summit of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) would be contentious. But the envoys barely had time for a cup of tea. Since June, three out of six GCC members (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain) have blockaded a fourth (Qatar), cutting ties and trade until it stops backing Islamist groups. Kuwait, the host, hoped to use the summit on December 5th to broker a solution. “We believe that wisdom will prevail,” said the emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, at the opening.

His optimism lasted about 15 minutes before he emerged from a closed-door meeting and abruptly ended the conference, which was meant to last two days. The Kuwaitis felt snubbed: though Qatar sent its emir, other members dispatched mere cabinet ministers. Hours before the summit even began, the UAE announced a new economic and military alliance with Saudi Arabia. It was a clear sign that the GCC’s two most important members think the bloc has outlived its usefulness...


THE old taxi park in central Kampala, Uganda’s noisy, traffic-clogged capital, is a huge patch of bare earth and mud filled almost entirely with minibuses. Battered, often still with old Chinese names painted on the side, these are the core of the city’s transport system. Each day, they bring thousands of commuters into the city.

Yet this is also, curiously, a centre of politics. To enter the rank, drivers must pay a fee of 120,000 Ugandan shillings (roughly $34) per month to the city council. In November, hundreds of them surrounded President Yoweri Museveni’s convoy to demand a reduction. The ageing president conceded; from January, the fee will be cut by a third. But that may not mollify the drivers. “We are still not happy,” says Waiswa Mubarak, a 30-year-old driver. “According to us youths, he has to retire. If he doesn’t, we will force him to.”

Mr Museveni, aged 73, has been president since 1986, longer than four-fifths of Ugandans have been alive....

A swift revenge

IT WAS an unceremonious end. On December 4th Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s former dictator, was killed outside the capital Sana’a, which has been paralysed by a week of fighting. A video circulated online showed his bloodied body wrapped in a gaudy blanket, surrounded by militiamen. State television called the former president “the leader of the traitors” (see Obituary).

His death was emblematic of Yemen’s complexity: Mr Saleh was killed by the Houthis, enemies who had become allies, only to become enemies again. For all his many faults, Mr Saleh was the most powerful politician in Yemen, and both America and Saudi Arabia had hoped to use him to broker an end to the war. His death leaves a power vacuum that no one else will be able to fill any time soon.

Mr Saleh ran...


EVEN before Donald Trump issued his proclamation recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, stiff opposition was brewing. Pope Francis and the Supreme Leader of Iran denounced his plan to move America’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. So did the UN Secretary-General, the prime minister of Italy and a global chorus of diplomats. If anything, opposition from such grandees emboldened Mr Trump. On December 6th he jettisoned most of the conventional wisdom about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Without preconditions, Mr Trump recognised Jerusalem as the historic capital of the Jewish people, “established in ancient times”, and the seat of Israel’s government. In the first taste of a peace plan he is expected to unveil next year, he failed to mention Jewish settlements in the West Bank or the Palestinians’ claims to Jerusalem. It was, as he said, “very fresh thinking”. The proclamation delighted Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, who hailed it as “a...

Some don’t want to see any Arabic

TWO years ago Ayman Odeh, the pragmatic new leader of Israel’s Arab parliamentary bloc, said that within a decade Arabic would be “on Tel Aviv street signs as part and parcel of the urban environment”. It is happening faster than he predicted. Across Jewish as well as Arab towns, Arabic signage is sprouting on highways, bus routes and, most recently, railway stations. Some 40% of the digital panels on public buses now list their routes in Arabic alongside Hebrew, up from near zero two years ago. By 2022, says the government, the service will be fully bilingual. A new department pumps out road-safety warnings in Arabic.

In tandem, a five-year plan, Resolution 922, aims to narrow the gap between Jews and Arabs in education, housing and policing. Though not the first, it is by far Israel’s most ambitious. It costs 15bn shekels ($4.3bn), and unlike previous plans was devised together with Arab representatives....


IN THE hot, golden light of an Abuja afternoon two men spin a rotating Scrabble board, oblivious to the flies buzzing around them. The opening moves in the word-building game are relatively low-scoring: “writer” for 26 points, followed by “pool”, “ow”, “or” and “li”. But the scores soon stack up, including two 50-point bonuses for getting rid of all seven letters for “mediant” (the third note of a diatonic musical scale) and “deracine” (from déraciné, a French noun and adjective for someone who has been uprooted). In less than 20 minutes, the time allowed for a professional game, Eta Karo beats Ben Quickpen by 461 points to 410.

Both men are members of the triumphant Nigerian team that last month won the World English-language Scrabble Players Association championship for the second time running. Four of the team’s eight players made the top ten, out of 118 competitors.

Scrabble found fans in Nigeria in the 1980s. It was made an official sport...


WHEN João Lourenço said on the eve of Angola’s election in August that, as president, he would have “all the power”, few took him seriously. The former defence minister had been hand-picked by José Eduardo dos Santos, Angola’s president for 38 years, seemingly as part of a deal to protect his interests. The opposition dubbed him “the chauffeur”, since Mr dos Santos would tell him where to go.

Two months into his presidency, though, the chauffeur seems not to be taking directions. On November 15th he suddenly sacked Mr dos Santos’s flamboyant and ultra-wealthy elder daughter, Isabel dos Santos, from her job at the head of Sonangol, the national oil company. That was followed by the cancellation of a lucrative contract between the state television company and a media company owned by two of Mr dos Santos’s younger children.

Then, on November 20th, in defiance of a law introduced by his predecessor, Mr Lourenço fired the police chief and the head of the intelligence agency. In Luanda, the fabulously expensive...


THE Dead Sea is dying. Half a century ago its hyper-salty, super-pungent waters stretched 80km from north to south. That has shrunk to just 48km at its longest point. The water level is falling by more than a metre per year. All but a trickle from its source, the Jordan River, is now used up before it reaches the sea. “It will never disappear, because it has underground supplies, but it will be like a small pond in a very big hole,” says Munqeth Mehyar of EcoPeace, an NGO.

Until this summer Israel and Jordan, which share the sea, were trying to slow the decline. The “Red-Dead project”, as it is called, would desalinate seawater at the Jordanian port of Aqaba and pump 200m cubic metres of leftover brine into the Dead Sea each year. That would not be enough to stabilise the sea, which needs at least 800m cubic metres to stay at current levels. Still, it would help—and the project has a much more important benefit.

The World Bank defines water scarcity as less than 1,000 cubic metres per person annually. Jordan can...


HAVING promised at his inauguration on November 24th to “hit the ground running”, Emmerson Mnangagwa has no time to lose. Somehow, he must persuade Zimbabweans that he can improve their lives after 37 years of despotism and decline under Robert Mugabe. Already people have been chuffed by one striking change: the police are almost nowhere to be seen on the streets of Harare, the capital, whereas previously they were ubiquitous, shaking down drivers for minor or fictitious traffic offences. That is no small matter. It used to cost $10-20 to make a cop go away, when a blue-collar urban wage is perhaps $250 a month.

When the chief of police, Augustine Chihuri, swore allegiance to the new president at the inauguration ceremony, a roar of boos erupted across the stadium. Mr Mnangagwa would earn easy plaudits if he sacked a man who failed utterly to curb corruption within the police. Mr Chihuri is also reviled for his ties to Mr Mugabe’s unpopular wife, Grace, who had Mr Mnangagwa chased...


WHEN it is finished, America’s imposing new embassy in Lebanon will be its second-biggest in the world. Yet it was France, not America, that stepped in to resolve Lebanon’s latest political crisis. Speaking from the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on November 4th, Saad Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister, abruptly announced his resignation. What followed was a bizarre two-week saga in which he seemed to be under house arrest in the kingdom. Though America’s State Department criticised the move, it fell to France to negotiate Mr Hariri’s return to Beirut. He has since suspended his resignation.

Nearly a year into his presidency, Donald Trump’s Middle East policy could best be characterised as one of neglect and confusion. His term coincides with a period of radical change in Saudi Arabia. King Salman and his son, Muhammad, the all-powerful crown prince, have abandoned the Al Sauds’ plodding caution in favour of a more aggressive foreign policy. Their actions have unsettled friends and neighbours. Even Israeli diplomats, no fans of Mr...


CHECKING into Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton usually costs about $300 per night. Checking out could cost the current guests billions. This month the Saudi authorities commandeered the hotel to serve as a gilded prison for more than 200 princes, ministers and businessmen held in an anti-corruption sweep. Though the kingdom has not released a list of suspects, some big names have been leaked. Among them are Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a billionaire investor; Khaled al-Tuwaijri, the former head of the royal court; and Waleed al-Ibrahim, the chairman of the region’s largest satellite broadcaster. The arrests were engineered by King Salman and his son, Muhammad, the young crown prince.

Some of the suspects could soon buy their way to freedom. A new anti-corruption committee, led by Prince Muhammad, is offering release in exchange for a portion of their assets. Officials hope to recover at least $50bn this way. That figure may be too optimistic, and represents only a fraction of what graft has cost the kingdom. Still, it would boost a...


“IF SOUTH SUDAN secedes,” Omar al-Bashir told supporters at a rally in 2010, “we will change the constitution”, paying no attention to “diversity of culture”. The Sudanese president revisited the subject two years later. “Our template is clear: a 100% Islamic constitution,” he said in a speech to Muslim leaders in the capital, Khartoum. As for non-Muslims: “Nothing will preserve your rights except for Islamic sharia.”

The south seceded in 2011, taking with it most of Sudan’s Christians. After the split churches in the north were burned. Then came demolitions: at least 20 since 2011. Four took place in August this year. About 27 other churches are listed for bulldozing. The government says it is merely removing unlicensed buildings. But only churches seem to be getting knocked down. In any case, the government announced in 2013 that it would no longer grant licences for the construction of new churches. “Christians have no rights here any longer,” says Reverend Kuwa Shamal of the Sudanese Church of Christ, one of several church...

Egypt’s terrorist sexpot

AFTER centuries of abuse, the Nile river will finally get its day in court. At a concert in the United Arab Emirates, a fan asked Sherine Abdel-Wahab to perform her patriotic song “Mashrebtesh Min Nilha?” (“Haven’t You Drunk From the Nile?”). The Egyptian chanteuse replied with a joke about the notoriously polluted river: “You’ll get bilharzia [a disease caused by parasitic worms] if you do.” Better to drink Evian, she said. It was sound advice. Though the government insists that the water is safe, people are often poisoned by it. But her comments sickened a lawyer called Hany Gad, who sued Ms Wahab for insulting Egypt. She will stand trial in December.

In many countries this case would be laughed out of court. No one has standing to sue on behalf of a resentful river. But in Egypt judges are often eager to restrict free speech and promote a paranoid strain of nationalism. In 2014 they investigated a puppet after someone took...