Arab countries of North Africa feel coronavirus’ economic pain

Arab countries of North Africa feel coronavirus’ economic pain
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Impoverished Tunisian citizens gather outside Tunis on March 30 to claim the financial aid promised by the government. (AFP)
Arab countries of North Africa feel coronavirus’ economic pain
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Updated 12 August 2020

Arab countries of North Africa feel coronavirus’ economic pain

Arab countries of North Africa feel coronavirus’ economic pain
  • Maghreb countries urged to set aside their differences if they want their responses to the crisis to succeed
  • Projected drop in overall tourism revenue across the Maghreb region for 2020 is estimated at $34.1 billion

DUBAI: The peaceful demonstrations demanding political change in Algeria have been silenced. Another fight now keeps the country preoccupied — the coronavirus threat.

On March 17, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune announced that there would be a ban on all marches in order to combat the pandemic and, on March 24, the country officially began its lockdown.

Every Friday since Feb. 22, 2019, members of the Hirak movement had marched peacefully demanding regime change, social justice and popular sovereignty.

But today, Algeria’s streets are empty. The cries for change are ghosts of the recent past.

“Now the Hirak gathers digitally to discuss the country’s future through their computers and phones,” Algerian journalist Faycal Metaoui told Arab News.

“There is still desire for change and President Tebboune has said that there will be change. But we do not know when this coronavirus will end, or in what state the country will be in after the next three to four months.”

The crisis has hit oil-dependent Algeria, which also has strong ties with China, particularly hard. The collapse of crude oil prices could send the country reeling into economic and social turmoil.  

Algeria’s lockdown has been extended three times, with the current restrictions set to expire on May 30.

The socio-economic challenges confronting Algeria are emblematic of the situation in all the Maghreb countries as they grapple with the deadly coronavirus pandemic.

The precautionary measures taken so far are bound to exact a harsh toll on the already feeble economies of North Africa.

In Morocco and Tunisia, tourism contributes 19 percent and 15.9 percent respectively to GDP.

Algeria’s energy-dominated economy has never been dependent on tourism or trade, but the country is likely to take a major economic hit due to the collapse of oil prices.

“The differences between the Maghreb countries, especially between Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, have long been known, but faced with this global crisis the challenges are the same for all of them,” said Slim Bahrini, executive director of the Maghreb Economic Forum (MEF).

“Few COVID-19 tests and few means, coupled with an economy that is likely to worsen in the coming months or collapse after the crisis, portend unprecedented social disruption.”

One clear takeaway from the crisis, according to Bahrini, is this: “Alone, each one of these countries cannot cope with this pandemic.”

On the political front, the lockdowns across North Africa have given the ruling elites a respite from anti-government protests, particularly in Algeria. But this is temporary, say analysts.

“Many North Africans don’t believe that the Arab Spring ever ended,” said an Algerian researcher who spoke to Arab News on condition of anonymity.

“As soon as the lockdown measures are eased, people will be out on the streets again, protesting for change. The authorities will now face a new opposition. We all hope it will remain peaceful.”

For his part, Bahrini says that Maghreb countries must set aside their differences if they want to succeed in their response to the coronavirus threat.

The differences between the Maghreb countries, especially between Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, have long been known, but faced with this global crisis the challenges are the same for all of them.

Slim Bahrini, Executive Director of the Maghreb Economic Forum (MEF)

“These countries must embark on a radical transformation of their public policies and institutional priorities to cope with the immediate crisis and its long-term impact,” he told Arab News.

“Copy-pasting measures taken by the West saves us time, but our economies will suffer the consequences of this approach in the future.

“The handling of this crisis will undoubtedly lead to a social crisis more serious than the one we know now.”

Take Morocco, the North African country with the most extensive ties to Europe.

Although it has had a relatively low rate of case numbers in comparison with its European neighbors, the effects of the country’s lockdown have crippled tourism.

The National Tourism Confederation (CNT) estimates the projected losses across Morocco for 2020 to be about $34.1 billion in overall tourism revenue and $14 billion for the hotel industry alone.

CNT predicts a 98 percent drop in tourists visiting the country, which will put 500,000 jobs and 8,500 businesses at risk.

“The only hotels that are not closed in Morocco are those that have been given freely from their owners to the government to lodge either health care workers or those in quarantine after they have finished their treatment at the hospital,” said Jalil Benabbes-Taarji, president of the National Association of Tourism Investors.




Dar Ben-Gacem, a 17th-century boutique hotel in the heart of Tunis’s medina, has teamed up with Tunisia's Red Crescent. (Supplied)

There was already high unemployment in Morocco before the pandemic hit. At the end of 2019, close to 1.1 million people were unemployed. To address the crisis, the Moroccan government has created a fund that has now reached more than $3.5 billion.

“The state has indicated that it will support vulnerable sectors and has begun compensating some of the most defenseless affected citizens,” Bahrini said.

While not officially part of the Maghreb, Egypt is one of the North African countries most vulnerable to the pandemic’s fallout.




Egypt is one of the North African countries most vulnerable to the pandemic’s fallout. (Credit: Samy Iverson)

The World Bank will provide $50 million for Egypt as an emergency response under the World Bank Group’s new Fast Track COVID-19 Facility — a global effort to help strengthen the COVID-19 response and shorten the time of recovery.

“The socio-economic turmoil will continue to be a part of the politics of the region until some really systemic change can happen,” said Timothy Kaldas, a nonresident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.

“Poverty in Egypt has increased in the past decade. Millions of people have fallen into poverty since the 2016 bailout from the IMF. The tension is there but the question we are all asking is, what is the breaking point?”

The ability to “stay home” in North Africa, like in other parts of the world and even in North America, says Kaldas, is limited to the affluent and not the working class.

“One third of the population in Egypt lives in poverty. Many are getting up each day and going to work because they don’t have a choice.”

“I don’t have much hope,” he told Arab News. “Egypt is likely to continue to muddle along with no massive breakthroughs but no complete collapse either.”

Against this grim background, Tunisia offers a glimmer of hope.

The Tunisian government has put in place a $860 million fund to support businesses, using money previously earmarked for government projects under the 2019 national budget.

However, Tunisia’s already high unemployment level, unchecked public-sector spending and anemic GDP growth rate are likely to aggravate the economic situation.

On the bright side, as the lone surviving Arab Spring democracy, Tunisia can perhaps count on the resilience and capacity-building skills of civil society groups and individuals to cope with the fallout of the coronavirus shock.

A role model in this regard is Leila Ben-Gacem, who has founded Blue Fish, a consultancy firm that promotes cultural diversity through socio-economic development, and Dar Ben-Gacem, a 17th-century boutique hotel in the heart of Tunis’s medina.

“For the first time I had to close the hotel,” the social entrepreneur told Arab News from the capital.

“Instead we collaborated with the Red Crescent, which had a long list of people who had lost their jobs and were unable to feed their families.”

Ben-Gacem has transformed her house into a kitchen, with a team preparing up to 120 meals a day for suffering medina residents.

“I’ve told myself that this is not the year for business,” she told Arab News.

“This is the year to make sure everyone around me is in good health. And when business comes back, it will come back.”

@rebeccaaproctor


Over 120 wounded in east Jerusalem clashes

Over 120 wounded in east Jerusalem clashes
Updated 16 min 38 sec ago

Over 120 wounded in east Jerusalem clashes

Over 120 wounded in east Jerusalem clashes
  • The violence flared outside one of the entrances to the walled Old City, after police had barred access to some areas where Palestinians usually gather
  • Tensions were fueled by the arrival of far-right Jews at the end of a march during which they harassed Palestinians and chanted “death to Arabs”

JERUSALEM: Over 100 Palestinians and 20 Israeli police were wounded in overnight clashes in annexed east Jerusalem, authorities said Friday, as tensions mount over a ban on gatherings and videos of attacks on youths.
The violence flared outside one of the entrances to the walled Old City, after police had barred access to some areas where Palestinians usually gather in large numbers during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
Tensions were fueled by the arrival of far-right Jews at the end of a march during which they harassed Palestinians and chanted “death to Arabs.”
There have been nightly disturbances in the area since the start of Ramadan on April 13, with Palestinians outraged over police blocking access to the promenade around the walls, a popular gathering place after the end of the daytime Ramadan fast.
Police said that after night prayers at Al-Aqsa mosque in the Old City “hundreds of rioters began disrupting the order violently, including throwing stones and objects at forces.”
Stun grenades were fired and water cannon deployed to disperse the “rioters” and force them toward less central areas of east Jerusalem, police said.
Police said officers attempted to “distinguish between them and those who finished prayers” and were not involved in the events.
The Palestinian Red Crescent said on Friday it had treated at least 105 people, with about 20 of them hospitalized.
Israeli police said 20 officers were injured, three of whom were taken to hospital.
“It was like a war zone; it was dangerous,” a Palestinian who was near the clashes outside the Old City told AFP. “That’s why I left the place.”
Tensions have been high in Jerusalem after a series of videos posted online in recent days showing young Arabs attacking ultra-Orthodox Jews and Jewish extremists taking to the street to bully Arabs in nightly confrontations.
On Thursday night, the Israeli extreme right group Lehava organized a march ending opposite the Old City attended by hundreds to protest the anti-Jewish violence.
Police erected barriers to keep them from entering the mainly Arab location.
The Palestinian presidency meanwhile condemned “the growing incitement by extremist far-right Israeli settler groups advocating for the killing of Arabs, which in recent days manifested in a wave of attacks against Palestinian civilians in the Old City.”
A statement late Thursday on the official Palestinian news agency Wafa urged the international community to protect Palestinians from the “settler” attacks, which it alleged were encouraged by the Israeli government.
Videos on social media also showed Palestinians attacking ultra-Orthodox Jews in the early hours of Friday, with reports of Israeli vehicles being stoned in and near east Jerusalem.
Police reported “a number of incidents overnight in which civilians were attacked, some of whom needed medical treatment.”
Jerusalem mayor Moshe Lion said he tried to cancel the Lehava march, but police told him it was legal, noting that “dozens” of Jews who attacked Arabs had been arrested in the past two weeks.
Speaking with public broadcaster Kan, Lion said he was in talks with leaders of the Palestinian east Jerusalem neighborhoods “to end this pointless violence.”
More than 50 people detained overnight were taken for a remand hearing on Friday morning, a statement from police said.


Houthis abduct three civilians from Yemeni village

Houthis abduct three civilians from Yemeni village
Updated 23 April 2021

Houthis abduct three civilians from Yemeni village

Houthis abduct three civilians from Yemeni village

ADEN: Houthi "terrorists" have abducted three civilians from the Yemeni village of "Beit Al-Jabr" in the governorate of Dhamar, the Saudi Press Agency reported on Friday.

The Houthis took their victims to a detention center in Jabal Al-Sharq district, in the same governorate controlled by the Iran-backed group, the report said.

The raiders claimed they were taking the victims under the pretext of setting up a funeral council, but the official Yemeni News Agency (Saba) quoted a local source as saying there was no such plan to establish a funeral council, SPA said.

According to the Saba source, the storming of the village was consistent with the "systematic policy of harassment" that the Houthi militia follows in dealing with the population in all areas under their control, SPA added.

Houthis earlier abducted Yemeni model and actress Entesar Al-Hammadi and two of her friends on Feb. 20 as they were traveling to shoot a TV drama series.

On Thursday, the captors reportedly placed Al-Hammadi in solitary confinement as punishment for her protest against her initial incarceration and prison conditions.


Credible Palestinian elections crucial for peace and unity, says UN

Credible Palestinian elections crucial for peace and unity, says UN
Updated 23 April 2021

Credible Palestinian elections crucial for peace and unity, says UN

Credible Palestinian elections crucial for peace and unity, says UN
  • Envoy Tor Wennesland said the road will not be easy, and called on all sides to protect voting rights
  • Central Elections Commission praised for “professionalism and integrity” and its efforts to ensure safe voting during pandemic.

NEW YORK: The successful staging of credible Palestinian elections on May 22 is a crucial step toward unity and guaranteeing the legitimacy of national institutions, the UN Security Council heard on Thursday.
Tor Wennesland, the UN’s special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, told council members that the elections, along with Israeli efforts to form a coalition government, will have a “significant implication for the prospects for advancing peace in the months ahead,” and called on the international community to provide support.
“Expectations for the holding of elections in Palestine are high and come after a long wait of almost 15 years … a growing number of young people are expected to participate in shaping their political future, and have the opportunity to vote for the first time,” Wennesland said.
“These elections should also pave the way to uniting Gaza and the West Bank under a single, legitimate national authority, which would be an important step toward reconciliation and could advance Middle East peace.”
He praised the Palestinian Central Elections Commission for its “professionalism and integrity, enhancing trust in the electoral process,” singling out in particular the committee’s efforts to create a safe voting environment during the pandemic.
He also underscored the importance of the role of election observers in ensuring that the results of “credible and transparent” elections are respected.
“All sides must work toward protecting the right of Palestinians across the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem and Gaza, to participate in credible and inclusive Palestinian elections, as well as to stand for election free from intimidation,” said Wennesland.
He urged all those involved in the process “to refrain from any arrest, detention or interrogation based on freedom of opinion, expression or association.”
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to pose “a formidable threat” throughout the occupied Palestinian territories, further exacerbating an already dire social and economic situation, Wennesland said as he called for vaccination efforts to be stepped up and for more vaccine doses to be made available.
The Biden administration this month announced its plans for resuming US funding for the UN Relief and Work Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), which was halted in August 2018 by President Donald Trump. Wennesland welcomed the move by Washington and called on all UN members to recommit to supporting the agency, whose “services are not only a lifeline for millions of Palestine refugees but are also critical for stability throughout the region.”
The envoy repeated his call for Israel to halt the demolition and seizure of Palestinian properties and to allow the Palestinian people “to develop their communities.”
Denouncing the “daily violence” that has resulted in more arrests, injuries and deaths, Wennesland called on all sides “to de-escalate tensions and maintain calm.”
He added: “I underscore that all perpetrators of violence must be held accountable and swiftly brought to justice. I reiterate that Israeli security forces must exercise maximum restraint and may use lethal force only when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.
“Particular care should be taken to protect children from any form of violence. In addition, the indiscriminate launching of rockets toward Israeli population centers violates international law and must stop immediately.”


Iraqi military: 3 rockets strike close to Baghdad airport

Iraqi military: 3 rockets strike close to Baghdad airport
Updated 23 April 2021

Iraqi military: 3 rockets strike close to Baghdad airport

Iraqi military: 3 rockets strike close to Baghdad airport

BAGHDAD: At least three rockets hit near Baghdad international airport late Thursday, the Iraqi military said.
A total of eight missiles were fired and three landed near the airport complex, the statement said. It did not detail whether the attack caused casualties.
The rockets struck areas known to contain Iraqi security forces. One hit close to a central prison, the second near an academy of the elite Counter-Terrorism Service, and a third near the headquarters of the Rapid Response regiment.
No one claimed responsibility for the attacks. US officials have previously blamed Iran-backed militia groups.
It is the latest in a string of rocket attacks that have primarily targeted American installations in Iraq in recent weeks. On Sunday, multiple rockets hit an Iraqi air base just north of Baghdad, wounding two Iraqi security personnel.
Last month, a base in western Iraq housing US-led coalition troops and contractors was hit by 10 rockets. One contractor was killed.
Calls from mainly Shiite leaders have grown to oust US troops from Iraq after a US-directed drone strike killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and an Iraqi militia leader in Baghdad in January 2020.
Strategic talks between the US and Iraq have focused on the future of US troop presence in the country.


Syrian missile exploding in Israel not intentional: US general

Syrian missile exploding in Israel not intentional: US general
Updated 23 April 2021

Syrian missile exploding in Israel not intentional: US general

Syrian missile exploding in Israel not intentional: US general
  • Israeli media also described the Syrian missile as an “errant” projectile, not a deliberate attack deep inside Israel
  • Dimona, the Negev desert town where Israel’s nuclear reactor is located, is some 300 km south of Damascus

WASHINGTON/JERUSALEM: A senior US general said on Thursday that he believed a Syrian missile exploding in Israel was not intentional, but rather showed a lack of Syrian air defense capability.

“I think it reflects actually incompetence in Syrian air defense ... I do not believe it was an intentional attack,” Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of US Central Command, said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing

Earlier in the day, a Syrian anti-aircraft missile landed in southern Israel, setting off air raid sirens near the country’s top secret nuclear reactor. In response, it attacked the missile launcher and air-defense systems in neighboring Syria.

Israeli media later described the Syrian missile as an “errant” projectile, not a deliberate attack deep inside Israel.

In recent years, Israel has repeatedly launched air strikes at Syria, including at military targets linked to foes Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, both allies of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Such strikes routinely draw Syrian anti-aircraft fire. Thursday’s exchange was unusual because the Syrian projectile landed deep inside Israel.

A road sign shows the way to Dimona nuclear power plant in Israel's Negev desert. (AFP / Ahmad Gharabali)

Syria’s state news agency SANA said the exchange began with an Israeli air strike on Dumeir, a suburb of the capital of Damascus. Dumeir is believed to house Syrian army installations and batteries as well as bases and weapons depots belonging to Iran-backed militias. SANA said four soldiers were wounded.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitoring group based in Britain that tracks Syria’s civil war, said the Israeli strikes hit an air defense base belonging to the Syrian military and destroyed air defense batteries in the area. It said the Syrian military fired surface-to-air missiles in response.

The Israeli military described the projectile that landed near the nuclear site as a surface-to-air missile, which is usually used for air defense against warplanes or other missiles.

Dimona, the Negev desert town where Israel’s nuclear reactor is located, is some 300 km south of Damascus, a long range for an errantly fired surface-to-air missile.