From Morocco to Sudan, North Africa grapples with crippling new wave of COVID-19 

A medical worker assists an elderly woman arriving to receive a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine at El-Menzah sports hall in Tunisia's capital Tunis. (AFP/File Photo)
A medical worker assists an elderly woman arriving to receive a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine at El-Menzah sports hall in Tunisia's capital Tunis. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 01 August 2021

From Morocco to Sudan, North Africa grapples with crippling new wave of COVID-19 

A medical worker assists an elderly woman arriving to receive a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine at El-Menzah sports hall in Tunisia's capital Tunis. (AFP/File Photo)
  • North African states are seeing varying degrees of success at containing the coronavirus amid a devastating third wave 
  • Slow vaccine rollouts, lockdown fatigue and the spreading Delta variant stretch health systems and economies to the limit 

DUBAI: First identified in India, the highly transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus has since been detected in around 100 countries, prompting new waves of infections, travel restrictions and concerns over the effectiveness of vaccines.

One region that has been especially hard hit is North Africa, where the economic havoc caused by lockdowns forced governments to reluctantly reopen borders and businesses in recent months despite the slow pace of inoculation.

Tunisia, with a population of 11.69 million, has reported 582,638 infections and 19,336 deaths since the pandemic was declared in March 2020, making it one of the worst-hit nations in Africa, alongside Namibia, South Africa, Uganda and Zambia.

The collapse of the health system and severe economic hardship triggered mass protests that in turn have plunged the country into a political crisis.

War-ravaged Libya has also witnessed an alarming surge of COVID-19 cases over the past month. Because of its two centers of political power with parallel institutions, its response and vaccination rollout have been disjointed and sluggish.

The country’s National Center for Disease Control (NCDC) recorded 3,845 new COVID-19 cases on July 25 — at that time the highest daily rate since the onset of the pandemic.

Libya has recorded roughly 246,200 cases and 3,469 deaths, but the true figure is likely far higher given the country’s acute shortage of tests and laboratory capacity.

“We are alarmed at the rapid spread of the virus in the country,” AbdulKadir Musse, UNICEF Special Representative in Libya, said in a statement.




A Moroccan municipal worker disinfects outside a house in a closed street in the southern port city of Safi on June 9, 2020 after Moroccan authorities declared a total lockdown. (AFP/File Photo)

“The vaccination rate is very low, and the spread is fast. We must be quicker in our response. The most important thing we can do to stop the spread of COVID-19 and the variants, is ensure everyone who is eligible gets vaccinated.

“Countries with high coverage of two doses of vaccines have been able to drastically reduce the rate of hospitalization and deaths. We also need to follow and abide by preventive measures.”

Also known by its scientific name B.1.617.2, the delta variant was first detected in the Indian state of Maharashtra in October 2020, but was only labeled a “variant of concern” (VOC) by the World Health Organization (WHO) on May 11 this year.

The strain, itself the product of multiple mutations, is thought to be 60 percent more infectious than the alpha (or Kent) variant, an earlier mutation that emerged in southern England in November 2020.

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In many countries, including the UK, delta has now become the dominant strain. Although it is thought to cause more severe symptoms than its ancestor variants, placing additional strain on health services, there is currently not enough data to suggest it is more deadly.

More encouraging is the data on the effectiveness of vaccines. A study by Public Health England found the Pfizer vaccine was 94 percent effective against hospitalization after one dose and 96 percent effective after two doses, while AstraZeneca was 71 percent effective after one dose and 92 percent effective after two.

This is all good for countries with high rates of vaccination such as the UK. But for countries in the developing world, including the Arab states of North Africa, the slow rollout of vaccines means there is limited protection against the virus.

Delta is taking a terrible toll in these countries, leaving hospitals overburdened and mortuaries short of space.

Africa as a whole recently recorded a 43 percent week-on-week rise in COVID-19 deaths. Hospital admissions have increased rapidly and countries face shortages of oxygen and ICU beds.




A mask-clad worker measures the body temperature of incoming Muslim worshippers arriving for prayers at the Hasan II mosque, one of the largest in the African continent, in Morocco's Casablanca. (AFP/File Photo)

According to the WHO, the continent has vaccinated around 52 million people since the start of the rollout in March and only 18 million are fully vaccinated, representing 1.5 percent of the continent’s population compared with more than 50 percent in some high-income countries.

South Africa, with its population of almost 60 million, has recorded 2,422,151 cases and 71,431 deaths since the pandemic began. Based on deaths per head of the population, Tunisia tops the region.

However, the picture is not uniform across the region. To date, 1.63 percent of Egyptians and 1.68 percent of Algerians have been fully vaccinated, compared with 27.68 percent of Moroccans, and 8.24 percent of Tunisians. Just 0.43 percent of Sudanese have received two doses, while data for Libya is unavailable.

“Different countries have different epidemiological situations, so we can’t generalize all of North Africa,” Abdinasir Abubakar, head of the Infectious Hazard Management Unit at the WHO regional office in Cairo, told Arab News.

Some countries have “really invested so much in vaccination and this is paying off,” while other countries have focused on enforcing public-health measures to slow the spread of the virus, he said.

“I think Morocco has really made a great investment and progress on administering more people with the vaccine compared to a number of other countries. And the cases you see are actually very minimal compared to previous waves, so I wouldn’t worry much about Morocco,” Abubakar said.




People queue as they arrive outside a make-shift COVID-19 coronavirus vaccination and testing centre erected at the Martyrs' Square of Libya's capital Tripoli on July 24, 2021. (AFP)

Nevertheless, cases in Morocco have been steadily increasing since mid-May, prompting the government to announce an extension of its state of emergency until Aug. 10.

Having already inoculated older age groups, Moroccan health authorities are now offering vaccines to people over the age of 30. But compliance with social-distancing and other hygiene regulations appears to be slipping.

“In Casablanca, I saw many people wearing masks but without adhering to other physical and social-distancing measures,” said Um Ahmad, who recently returned to Dubai following a family visit.

“I saw crowds on the streets and in markets as usual. And when I visited Fez, I saw people living normally with no precautionary actions whatsoever. I even asked my relative ‘are we on a different planet?’”




A Tunisian woman infected by the COVID-19 coronavirus receives oxygen at the Ibn al-Jazzar hospital in the east-central city of Kairouan. (AFP/File Photo)

In Algeria, which decided to close its borders to curb the spread of the delta variant, there is another more pressing problem — a shortage of oxygen in its hospitals to treat the seriously ill, forcing the government to establish a special unit to supervise the distribution of oxygen cylinders.

Egypt has reported a recent decline in the number of COVID-19 cases, with officials recording less than 70 new infections and less than 10 deaths per day. The country has even started sending its surplus medical kits to Tunisia.

But here too, public compliance with social-distancing measures leaves much to be desired. Eman Amir, an Egyptian working in Dubai who traveled to Cairo in May to visit her ailing mother, said she was shocked by the public’s relaxed attitude toward virus containment.

“Those who don’t care whether they die of coronavirus are those who feel they have little to lose given their already precarious existence,” she told Arab News, referring to contract and informal-sector workers most affected by pandemic restrictions.

In neighboring Sudan, cases are surging, particularly in the eastern city of Port Sudan, capital of the Red Sea State.




Abdinasir Abubakar, head of Infectious Hazard Management Unit, WHO Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean. (Supplied)

Dr. Ahmed Dreyer, the state’s director of the Emergency and Epidemic Control Department, has urged authorities to impose a three-week lockdown — known in policy circles as a circuit breaker — to help contain the spread of the delta variant.

Hana, a young Sudanese woman who lives with her family in Dubai, says many people back home are still not convinced the coronavirus even exists — the product, it would seem, of widespread misinformation.

“People have enough problems to worry about,” Hana said. “They don’t want to add to them and worry about the pandemic.

“They try to lead normal lives, by earning their livelihood and putting bread on the table.” 

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Twitter: @jumanaaltamimi


Anwar Sadat’s nephew negotiates way out for Egypt prisoners

Anwar Sadat’s nephew negotiates way out for Egypt prisoners
Updated 3 sec ago

Anwar Sadat’s nephew negotiates way out for Egypt prisoners

Anwar Sadat’s nephew negotiates way out for Egypt prisoners
  • Mohamed Al-Sadat has become an unofficial negotiator advocating on behalf of figures imprisoned under President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi
CAIRO: The fate of dissidents languishing in Egypt’s prisons has long been under scrutiny, but one veteran is leveraging his political prowess in a bid to have them released.
Mohamed Al-Sadat, 66, nephew of former president Anwar Al-Sadat, the first Arab leader to strike peace with Israel, has long been a fixture of Egypt’s political scene.
Now, he has become an unofficial negotiator advocating on behalf of figures imprisoned under the uncompromising administration of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.
“Dialogue with the state’s institutions isn’t just a one-man job, there are many others in close contact... but lately we’ve been successful in using a language that is being listened to,” he said in his plush office in an upscale Cairo suburb.
“This has been effective in some cases (of political prisoners) being re-examined,” he said.
Forty-six prisoners were freed in July, including prominent activists such as rights lawyer Mahienour el-Massry.
But as many as 60,000 political prisoners are serving time in Egyptian jails, according to human rights defenders.
El-Sisi, a former army chief, became president in 2014 after leading the military ouster of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi a year earlier.
He has since overseen a sweeping crackdown on dissent.
Those jailed for criticizing the political status quo have included academics, journalists, lawyers, activists, comedians, Islamists, presidential candidates and MPs.
But Sadat is less concerned about the conditions that led to their arrest than with securing their release.
“There’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes in these security agencies where they undertake an examination of specific cases that we’ve raised, whether from a humanitarian or legal perspective,” he explained.
With a portrait of his uncle, a Nobel laureate for the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty, gazing down on him, Sadat was careful not to appear too critical of El-Sisi’s human rights record.
He insisted that on-off pressures imposed by US President Joe Biden’s administration have not influenced Egypt’s willingness to improve its often condemned record on human rights.
“I don’t agree that it (reform efforts) all stems from international pressures or a new US administration, that’s not really appropriate to say,” he maintained.
El-Sisi enjoyed a close working relationship with former US president Donald Trump who said the Egyptian leader was doing “a fantastic job in a very difficult situation,” in reference to counter-terrorism and regional instability.
But Biden kicked off his term this year by vowing no more “blank checks” to El-Sisi.
However, with Cairo’s critical role in brokering a cease-fire between the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas and Israel after fighting broke out in May, ties with Washington have significantly warmed.
Leading an “International Dialogue” delegation comprised of lawmakers and media personalities to Washington last week, Sadat went on a “charm offensive,” according to one attendee of the meetings.
The dialogue included meetings with State Department officials, think tanks, policymakers and Egyptian activists.
“Sadat’s not the boss. He is there as a figurehead or elder statesman,” the source, who preferred to remain anonymous, said.
“Maybe El-Sisi wants to get his DC invitation and this is the way,” the participant added.
Sadat, who once mulled a presidential run in 2018 against El-Sisi, describes himself as an “honest broker” and “messenger” but not the decision-maker.
“We’re told by judicial officials that some inmates will be released after looking over their case files again. We then tell their families. That’s the process in a nutshell,” Sadat said.
For one former detainee unable to leave Egypt because he is on a no-fly list, Sadat’s role has been crucial in negotiating his case with the interior ministry.
Describing him as “genuinely sympathetic,” the detainee, who requested anonymity, said: “He’s treading a very delicate line ... He’s interfacing with security agencies and civil society activists.”
“He’s the man of the hour really when it comes to human rights.”

Lebanon MPs hide in fear of Hezbollah assassins

Lebanon MPs hide in fear of Hezbollah assassins
Updated 17 October 2021

Lebanon MPs hide in fear of Hezbollah assassins

Lebanon MPs hide in fear of Hezbollah assassins
  • Crisis surrounds probe being conducted by Judge Tarek Bitar, who wants to question former and serving ministers linked to Hezbollah and the allied Amal Party about their responsibility for the deadly port blast

BEIRUT: Members of parliament hid in their homes on Saturday in fear of assassination by Hezbollah gunmen as new turmoil in Lebanon threatened to spiral out of control.

Security services advised MPs from the Lebanese Forces party not to venture out amid growing tension over a judicial investigation into the Beirut port explosion in August 2020, which killed more than 200 people and devastated swaths of Beirut.

“Yes, this advice was given to the MPs of the Lebanese Forces,” party media chief Charles Jabbour told Arab News. “There is fear of them being exposed to assassination and murder, which Hezbollah has practiced before. The solution requires that Hezbollah hand over its weapons to the state.”

The crisis surrounds the investigation being conducted by Judge Tarek Bitar, who wants to question former and serving ministers linked to Hezbollah and the allied Amal Party about their responsibility for the deadly port blast. The ministers claim the judge’s actions are political, and have refused to cooperate.

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Tensions erupted into violence last Thursday, when seven people were killed after gunfire erupted during a Hezbollah and Amal protest against the investigation in a mainly Christian area of central Beirut.

Justice Minister Henry El-Khoury said on Saturday he supported Judge Bitar, who had the right to summon whoever he wanted in the case. “I stand by the ... investigator,” El-Khoury said. He said he did not have the authority to replace Bitar, and faced no pressure to do so.

The minister held crisis talks on Saturday to discuss the investigation with Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Supreme Judicial Council president Suhail Abboud and public prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat. They decided to invite Bitar to a meeting of the council on Tuesday.

“Judge Abboud is committed to judicial, not political, approaches to resolving the problem,” a judicial source told Arab News.

There was also support for Bitar’s investigation from a surprising source —  former Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, Lebanon’s largest Christian bloc. “The Free Patriotic Movement is for continuing the probe, revealing the truth and putting those responsible on trial,” Bassil said on Saturday.

Bassil, who is President Michel Aoun’s son-in-law and is widely thought to be angling to replace him, is under US sanctions for alleged corruption, and for having ties to Hezbollah.


Merkel vows continuity on last visit to Erdogan

Merkel vows continuity on last visit to Erdogan
Updated 17 October 2021

Merkel vows continuity on last visit to Erdogan

Merkel vows continuity on last visit to Erdogan
  • Germany, Turkey hope cooperation prospers between both countries

ISTANBUL: Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday vowed continuity in Germany’s relations with Turkey that included both cooperation and criticism of Ankara as she paid her final visit to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Merkel and Erdogan developed complex but close relations over the German chancellor’s 16-year term that navigated the perils of Turkey’s tumultuous ties with the West.

Their personal bond was instrumental in helping Europe manage a refugee crisis in 2016 and calm simmering tensions in the east Mediterranean last year.

Merkel also helped iron out some of the difficulties that have crept into Erdogan’s relations with Washington and French President Emmanuel Macron.

The two leaders had lunch and private talks in a presidential villa overlooking the Bosphorus on the latest leg of Merkel’s parting foreign tour.

“I have always said that our collaboration was very good in the years that I worked with Mr. Erdogan,” Merkel told reporters after the talks.

The 67-year-old German leader said her “advice” to Turkey today was to expect “the same thing for the coming government in Germany.

“The relationship between Turkey and Germany, with its negative and positive sides, will go on. It will be recognised by the next government,” she said.

Erdogan referred to Merkel as his “dear friend” twice during the closing media event.

But he also hinted at the difficulties Turkey might have in promoting its interests after Merkel formally gives way to a new coalition government taking shape in Berlin following elections last month.

“If there had been no coalition government, (Germany’s) relations with Turkey might have been easier. Of course, it is not easy to work with a coalition government,” Erdogan said.

Erdogan headed Turkey as prime minister when Merkel became the first woman to head Germany in 2005.

The two have since shared a long list of differences and numerous testy exchanges on issues ranging from Turkey’s crackdown on human rights to its military campaigns in Syria and Libya.

But Germany also played a central role in defusing a crisis in the east Mediterranean last year that erupted when Turkey began searching for natural gas in disputed waters claimed by Cyprus and Greece.

Analysts say Merkel was more sympathetic to Erdogan’s position because of the presence of an estimated 3 million ethnic Turks in Germany.

She has also been sensitive to Erdogan’s threats to let an estimated 5 million migrants and refugees temporarily living in Turkey under a 2016 deal with the EU to leave for Europe unless Ankara’s interests are respected by Brussels.

After admitting hundreds of thousands of refugees to Germany in 2015, she stressed Turkey’s role in preventing a repeat of such large-scale migration to Europe and helped engineer a deal for Turkey to stem the flow of people seeking to cross the Aegean Sea.

“Their relations were very difficult in many respects but they managed to establish and maintain working cooperation,” analyst Gunter Seufert of the German Institute for Security and International Affairs told AFP.

Seufert predicted that the new German government will be more “sceptical” about extending the terms of the Turkey-EU agreement on migrants or continuing arms sales to Ankara — particularly submarines.

“With the new chancellor, no matter who they will be ... it will be more difficult to coordinate the European policy with Turkey to the level and degree Angela Merkel did.”


Sudan prime minister announces steps to move out of political crisis

Sudan prime minister announces steps to move out of political crisis
Updated 17 October 2021

Sudan prime minister announces steps to move out of political crisis

Sudan prime minister announces steps to move out of political crisis
  • Tensions between the civilians and generals in the transitional government have increased since the foiled coup attempt within the military

CAIRO: Sudan’s prime minister has announced a series of steps for his country’s transition to democracy less than a month after a coup attempt rocked its leadership.

In a speech, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok called the coup attempt an “alarm bell” that should awaken people to the causes of the country’s political and economic challenges.

“The serious political crisis that we are living in right now, I would not be exaggerating to say, is the worst and most dangerous crisis that not only threatens the transition, but threatens our whole country,” he said.

Authorities announced the coup attempt by a group of soldiers on Sept. 22, saying that it had failed. They blamed supporters of the country’s former autocrat Omar Bashir for planning the takeover.

It underscored the fragility of Sudan’s path to democracy, more than two years after the military’s overthrow of Bashir amid a massive public uprising against his three-decade rule. Sudan has since been ruled by an interim, joint civilian-military government.

Months after Bashir’s toppling, the ruling generals agreed to share power with civilians representing the protest movement.

But tensions between the civilians and generals in the transitional government have increased since the foiled coup attempt within the military.

There is wide-scale mistrust of the military leaders among the protest movement, and tens of thousands have taken to the street in the past two years to call for an immediate handover of power to civilians.

Earlier this month, the Sudanese Professionals Association, which spearheaded the nationwide uprising that kicked off in December 2018, said the interim government must end its power-sharing agreement with the military council. Their call then for demonstrations brought thousands more to the streets.

Hamdok said Friday that the root issues behind the political crisis have long been there, in an attempt to bring all parties back to the table for talks. He laid out a series of measures that he said would help speed the handover to a completely elected and civilian government.

They included repeated exhortations for groups of differing opinions to work together, and for the country’s transitional constitution and judicial bodies to be respected.

“This crisis was not created today, it did not descend upon us from the sky, and it did not surprise us at all,” he said of the recent political turmoil.


Iran’s former central bank chief gets 10-year jail term in $160 million currency fraud case

Iran’s former central bank chief gets 10-year jail term in $160 million currency fraud case
Updated 17 October 2021

Iran’s former central bank chief gets 10-year jail term in $160 million currency fraud case

Iran’s former central bank chief gets 10-year jail term in $160 million currency fraud case
  • Besides violating the currency system, Valliollah Seif also had a role in smuggling foreign currency

TEHRAN/JEDDAH: The former governor of Iran’s central bank was sentenced on Saturday to 10 years’ imprisonment for fraud, corruption and smuggling several million dollars in foreign currency.

Valiollah Seif, 69, headed the monetary authority under former President Hassan Rouhani from 2013 until he was dismissed in 2018, and is the first Iranian central bank governor to be indicted. He remains free pending an appeal.

In 2018, the US Treasury Department placed Seif under sanctions for helping transfer millions of dollars to Hezbollah.

Ahmad Araghchi, who was Seif’s deputy from 2017 to 2018, was sentenced to eight years in jail on the same charges. A third senior figure at the central bank, Rassoul Sajad, received a 13-year sentence for illegal foreign currency trading and taking bribes.

Eight others were also sentenced to prison terms, judiciary spokesman Zabihollah Khodaeian said. All of those convicted have the right to appeal.

Khodaeian said the three central bank officials were involved in violations of the currency market in 2016, a time when the Iranian rial sustained considerable losses in value against major foreign currencies. They illegally injected $160 million and €20 million into the market.

The rial exchange rate was at 39,000 to $1 in 2017 at the beginning of Araghchi’s time in office but it reached more than 110,000 to $1 by the time he was dismissed in 2018.

The change partly coincided with severe US sanctions imposed on Tehran.

The rial has tumbled from a rate of about 32,000 rials to $1 at the time of Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers to about 27,000 rials to $1 in recent months.

The currency unexpectedly rallied for some time after President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the nuclear deal and reimpose crippling trade sanctions on Iran in 2018.

The sanctions have caused Iran’s oil exports, the country’s main source of income, to fall sharply.

(With AP)