News Feed: Middle East and Africa

AS THE territory held by Islamic State (IS) shrivelled in Syria, American generals spoke of “stabilisation” and “consolidation”. But seven months after an American-led coalition drove the jihadists from Raqqa, their putative capital, “stable” is not how residents describe the city. Mines, booby-traps and bombs continue to kill and maim. Bodies are still being pulled from the rubble. The lights are off and there is no running water. “The Americans have given us nothing,” said Omar Alloush, a member of the city council, weeks before he was shot and killed in his apartment by unidentified gunmen.

The goodwill that first greeted the coalition is fading as popular anger mounts, especially in the Arab heartlands south of Raqqa, along the Euphrates river. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led militia that America relies on to fight IS, are increasingly viewed as occupiers. Tribal leaders in the eastern province of Deir ez-Zor mutter openly about taking up arms to drive the...

Salah strikes again

IN THE run-up to Ramadan artisans set to work on fawanis, the lanterns that hang in Egyptian homes and streets throughout the month-long holiday. Many are adorned with geometric patterns or the crescent-and-star symbol of Islam. This year some customers want a different model: a grinning face with a tangle of curls and a Liverpool jersey.

Much has been said about Mohamed Salah’s influence on Britain. At a moment of rising xenophobia, a foreign-born Muslim footballer has become a national sensation. “If he scores another few, then I’ll be Muslim too,” fans chant. To the extent that they care about his religion, it is only to fret that the Ramadan fast could hurt his performance in the Champions League final in Kiev on May 26th.

His influence runs even deeper in his native Egypt. His face is everywhere, not just on lanterns but on T-shirts, bumper stickers, even the wall of a downtown café. Cairo’s relentless...

Sinwar has seen war and it didn’t work

YAHYA SINWAR, 56, has spent his entire adult life in prisons: the concrete Israeli sort and the open-air prison that is Gaza. Yet Mr Sinwar is now, arguably, the most influential man in the Palestinian territories. On May 16th, two days after Israeli soldiers killed about 60 Palestinian protesters at the border fence, Gazans huddled around televisions to learn if the violence would push their scarred enclave into another war. They were not listening to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, or even Ismail Haniyeh, the nominal leader of Hamas, the jihadist group that runs Gaza. They were watching Mr Sinwar, Hamas’s leader in Gaza, who may one day represent all Palestinians.

He was under pressure from militants to avenge the dead. But Mr Sinwar announced on Al Jazeera that Hamas would pursue “peaceful, popular resistance”. (Less publicly, the group discouraged people from returning to the border fence.) It was an unexpected...


PAUL KAGAME, the president of Rwanda, thinks there is nothing odd about how he won re-election for a third presidential term last year with 98% of the vote. “It could have been 100%,” he told the Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank in New York a few months later.

It is hard to tell how popular Mr Kagame really is. Serious candidates who tried to stand against him were barred from doing so—and then ruthlessly punished. One of them was Diane Rwigara, a young businesswoman who appeared in court this week with her mother, charged with “inciting insurrection or trouble among the population”. The government has also brought charges against her aunt and brother, who live abroad.

The prosecution says the charges against Ms Rwigara relate, in part, to comments she made at a press conference last year. “She intended to smear the country and its leadership with lies,” Faustin Nkusi, the prosecutor, told the court. “She said that people are dying of poverty in Rwanda; this...


IN A dank, unlit room in a government office in Mbandaka, a sleepy city of 1m people on the banks of the Congo river, Marie-Claire Thérèse Fwelo is booming out her most valuable knowledge to an assembled group of perhaps 80 health workers. “What do we look for?” she asks the class. They respond in unison: “a brutal fever”. And what else? “Someone who has been in contact with an Ebola patient?”, pipes up one.

This is the ninth outbreak of Ebola for Ms Fwelo, a 63-year-old Congolese employee of the World Health Organisation (WHO). As a young nurse she was at the hospital where the fever was first isolated in 1976. Since then she has become an expert on epidemic control. Yet this outbreak is the scariest Ms Fwelo has experienced in her own country. Most previous instances of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been in remote towns where the disease burns out fast. This time the virus has spread onto the country’s main artery, the Congo river. A little over 600km downstream is Kinshasa,...


ON MAY 9th, the day after the first cases of Ebola were confirmed in Bikoro, an urgent request came into the headquarters of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), an international charity. Maps of this part of the Democratic Republic of Congo were needed to deliver vaccines and medical help. Yet accurate ones did not exist.

MSF turned to the crowd for help. Volunteers, trained using an online tutorial, started analysing satellite pictures and drawing maps. About 450 volunteers have already managed to plot some 67,000 structures and 1,000km of roads in the area of the outbreak, completing in days a task that could have taken months. Some of these new maps (see above) are already in the field.

This is not the first time humanitarian organisations have turned to crowdsourcing to help gather data. When Ebola spread through parts of west Africa in 2014, more than 3,000 people around the world helped add some 16m features to maps of the affected area.

Crowdsourced mapping is also proving...


AS OMENS go, it is not a good one. In Kinama, a district in north-east Bujumbura, the cobble-stoned capital of Burundi, residents found the body of a man floating in a field of rice on May 8th. His head was missing; his heart had been torn out. Stuck to his chest was a message written in Kirundi, the language of most Burundians: “Traitors are punished.”

Violence has broken out in Burundi ahead of a referendum on May 17th to change the constitution to allow Pierre Nkurunziza, a former rebel who has been president since the end of the civil war in 2005, to stand for office again in 2020. On May 11th, 26 people were killed in the north-west of the country in an attack by rebels who crossed in from the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. Three days later an opposition activist who had been campaigning against the change was murdered in the street by a crowd of young pro-government militiamen.

Many Burundians expect the constitutional amendment to pass comfortably (...

Green, but not backed

UNTIL recently Priscilla was an administrator in a printing firm in Harare, Zimbabwe’s sunny capital. Today she spends her days on the side of a street, clutching a thick bundle of different banknotes. A few weeks ago, after two years of not paying her wages, her employer went bust. Ms Magaya turned to money trading, swapping real American dollars for Zimbabwe’s confusing profusion of local paper. For $100 in actual greenbacks, buyers get $120 in bright green “bond notes”—a Zimbabwean currency introduced in 2016 that is meant to be pegged to the dollar—or $140 in mobile money, which is also meant to be on a par with real dollars. Her earnings are “not something that I can survive on”, she says, but she has no other option.

Two years ago money in Zimbabwe was simple: everyone used the American dollar, introduced in 2009 after hyperinflation destroyed the Zimbabwean version. Since then, however, banks have run out of real dollars because the cash-...


STEP inside, and it could be a scene from the English countryside or the American heartland: one hundred well-fed dairy cows spinning slowly on a circular milking parlour. But outside there are no green fields, only sand. Baladna (“Our Country”) is a dairy farm in the desert, 50km from Doha, the Qatari capital. Behind the milking house is the din of construction. Hundreds of labourers are working to expand the farm, building new barns and installing fans and misters to cool them. “None of this was here a year ago,” says John Dore, the Irishman who manages the place.

There was no need for it. Until June Qatar imported milk from Almarai, a Saudi conglomerate. Then Saudi Arabia and three other Arab states closed their borders to punish Qatar for supporting Islamist groups and Al Jazeera, a state-owned broadcaster that criticises all the Gulf monarchies except Qatar’s. Overnight the world’s richest country (measured by income per head at purchasing-power parity) was cut off from its food supplies....


MUQTADA AL-SADR is a master at tapping Iraqi discontent. The firebrand Shia cleric (pictured) directed his supporters to attack the American troops who invaded Iraq in 2003. More recently he has led campaigns against corruption and foreign influence. His supporters ransacked government offices in 2016. And in the election on May 12th they gave his nationalist bloc, Sairoun (“Marching to Reform”), the most seats in parliament. Unofficial results put it unexpectedly ahead, with 55 seats.

The bloc led by Iraq’s mild-mannered prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, came second, with 51. A coalition led by Hadi al-Amari, the gruff commander of the Iranian-backed Badr Brigades, came third, with 50. The surprising result signals growing discontent with Iraq’s sectarian old guard. But it is unlikely to sweep it away.

It may yet take months to determine who has actually won the election. Claims of irregularities need resolving before results are final. Parliament then has to elect a president,...


TEHRAN’S grand bazaar, a weathervane of politics, is on strike again. Shutdowns there foreshadowed Iran’s 1979 revolution. In 2012 they pushed the government into talks that eventually resulted in a deal, signed in 2015, that restricted Iran’s nuclear efforts in exchange for sanctions relief. And Donald Trump’s pull-out from that deal on May 8th drew an instant reaction from traders, who sense something ominous. “Tehran feels like it did before...1979,” says Pejman Abdolmohammadi, an Iranian lecturer at the London School of Economics.

Iran’s business world was already glum. America’s continued curbs on dollar transactions had muted the effect of the lifting of global sanctions in January 2016. But now, merchants say, America is moving from containing the regime to trying to change it. Mr Trump has told firms worldwide that they have three to six months to cut ties with Iran or face sanctions, too. Oil exports, which rose as a result of the deal, are already falling. Maersk, the...


HAVING one loss-making state-owned airline is bad enough. What, then, of a government that wants two?

Earlier this year Zimbabweans were startled to learn that the government had concluded a secret $70m deal to buy four second-hand Boeing jets from Malaysia to form the core of a new national airline, Zimbabwe Airways. This venture is supposed to compete with Air Zimbabwe, the flag carrier, which ran up huge debts thanks to poor management and ex-President Robert Mugabe’s habit of commandeering its planes so his wife could shop abroad.

The government hopes to stimulate tourism and business by reopening long-haul routes that are closed to Air Zimbabwe, whose planes can be impounded as soon as they land on foreign runways. It suspended flights to London’s Gatwick airport in 2011, for instance, after one of its planes was seized over an unpaid debt. It has since been banned from European skies because of concerns over the safety of its creaking planes.


Give me a child and I’ll make a soldier

AFONSO DHLAKAMA (pictured), the Mozambican rebel turned opposition leader who died on May 3rd at his Gorongosa mountain lair, had been the undisputed and charismatic leader of Renamo for nearly 40 years. Some disciples said he had magic powers: that he could turn into a partridge (a symbol of Renamo) to escape danger. He had been trying to clinch a peace deal with the government, and was said to have made progress during secretive talks with Mozambique’s president, Filipe Nyusi. But since, in typical African big-man style, he left no successor, that whole process may now be in question.

Mr Dhlakama had once before laid down his guns, ending a civil war marked by mass atrocities, child conscripts and 1m deaths between 1977 and 1992. But the two decades of peace that followed were not to his liking. In 2012 he took up arms again to protest against the dominance of Frelimo, the ruling party. Renamo fighters attacked police...


WHEN it has come to punishing recalcitrant foreign countries, President Donald Trump’s bark has sometimes been worse than his bite. A fierce announcement from the Oval Office of new import tariffs or impending fire and fury has been followed by a lull. Loopholes and exemptions have emerged. The threat on May 8th of the “highest level of economic sanction” on Iran, however, seems to mean exactly what it says.

Again, there is a breathing space, of three to six months, before stinging sanctions lifted two years ago are reinstated. These include cutting Iran off from dollar financing, imposing “significant” reductions on its hydrocarbon exports and banning American companies from doing any business there. Most believe Steven Mnuchin, the treasury secretary, that after the “wind-down period” sanctions, both primary and secondary, “will come back into full effect”.

The threat of secondary sanctions resonates most in Europe. As Carl Bildt, a former Swedish prime minister, tweeted: “US...


HAIDER AL-ABADI, the prime minister of Iraq (pictured), has a strong case for re-election. He has overseen the defeat of Islamic State (IS), which once held vast portions of the country. He denied a Kurdish push for independence last year. Oil production is near record levels and rising. And he has learned to play foreign powers off against each other. No wonder he calls his inclusive electoral list of Shias, Sunnis and Kurds the “Victory Alliance”.

But as Iraqis go to the polls to elect a new parliament on May 12th, many will be thinking about the economy. Unemployment is up and salaries are down. GDP per person has fallen from almost $7,000 in 2013 to under $5,000 last year. Much of this is a result of the war with IS. Mr Abadi, though, has failed to tackle corruption, increase transparency or reform the system by which ministries are divvied up (and plundered) by sect and ethnicity. He shies away from a showdown with fellow Shia politicians who have ruled Iraq since America installed them 15...


THE placard is grim: a hand smeared in blood set inside a red circle, with the words: “Enough, no more killings; Rajao, get out.” Since police shot and killed two people on April 21st at an opposition rally in Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital, there has been a steady stream of anti-government demonstrations.

The trouble started with a new law that would have prevented leading opposition candidates from contesting elections scheduled for November. Among those barred were two former presidents: Marc Ravalomanana, who was ousted in a coup in 2009; and Andry Rajoelina, who had mounted the coup with the help of the army and ruled Africa’s biggest island until democracy was restored in 2013.

Even the constitutional court’s ruling on May 3rd that struck out parts of the electoral law, including those that would have prevented Mr Ravalomanana and Mr Rajoelina from running, has failed to placate the opposition. It is demanding the resignation of Hery Rajaonarimampianina, the...


A MONTAGE of miracles plays on the giant screens in the Perez Dome, a Pentecostal church in Accra. A paralysed man tosses away his crutches. A woman’s tumour vanishes. It is not only the sick who need help. “I pray for businesses,” intones the pastor, promising that struggling ones will “resurrect”. A stall outside sells recorded sermons on “financial prophecy” and “creating wealth God’s way”. Someone up there is listening. After several tough years Ghana’s growth rate in 2017 was 8.4%, the third fastest in the world.

African economies often seem like victims of divine whimsy. Most of the continent’s workers are farmers, reliant on the rains. Much of its wealth comes from oil and minerals, at the mercy of markets. When prices are high, as they were in the first decade of the century, Africa booms. But in recent times drought and a commodities slump have stymied growth. In 2016 economies in sub-Saharan Africa grew by just 1.4%, the slowest rate for two decades.

Now the...


ALMOST everybody claims to have foreseen Donald Trump’s decision, but when the thunderbolt came it was even more cacophonous than most people expected. Excoriating the nuclear bargain with Iran struck by his predecessor and five other leaders as a “horrible, one-sided deal”, the president finally declared on May 8th that he was pulling out. Henceforth, he promised, America would use its muscle to extract far bigger concessions from the Islamic Republic.

These would include an end to “terrorist activities” in the region and to the development of ballistic missiles. Faced with such a show of strength, Mr Trump predicted, Iran’s leaders “are going to want to make a new and lasting deal”.

There was little sign of any such desire in Tehran, where hawkish figures gloated that Mr Trump had confirmed their doubts about bargaining with the West, while relative moderates, such as President Hassan Rouhani, said there was only a small window of opportunity to save the agreement. Signed by...

At least we have a choice now

LOCAL lore holds that seven visits to Kairouan’s imposing grand mosque are equal to the haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that is one of the “pillars of Islam”. The city has been a centre of Sunni scholarship for centuries. Lately, though, it has acquired another landmark: the “road of death”, a rutted highway that slices south-west into the desert. The transport ministry promised to fix it in 2016 after 27 people died in wrecks the previous year. Yet the moniker still fits. On April 18th a pregnant woman was seriously hurt in a crash. She might have lived if the local hospital used paramedics qualified to operate the ambulance. Instead, she died hours later.

Since their revolution in 2011, Tunisians have been stuck with unelected local governments that do little to fix up highways and hospitals. That is meant to change on May 6th, when voters choose municipal councils for the first time. The elections, originally...

Cold peace, hot border

“LIKE Sarajevo, 1914,” said the late Ethiopian prime minister, Meles Zenawi, of the first gunshots fired on May 6th 1998. “An accident waiting to happen.” Neither he nor his counterpart in neighbouring Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki, imagined that a light skirmish at Badme, a border village of which few had heard, could spiral into full-scale war. But two years later about 80,000 lives had been lost and more than half a million people forced from their homes.

No land changed hands. Two decades on, Ethiopia still occupies the disputed territories, including Badme, having refused to accept the findings of a UN boundary commission. But the conflict’s miserable legacy persists. Thousands of troops still patrol the frontier. Centuries of trade and intermarriage abruptly ceased. Ethiopia lost access to Eritrea’s ports. Eritrea lost its biggest trading partner and retreated into isolationism. It has been on a war footing ever since.

But it is...