Moroccans elect new leaders in shadow of virus

Moroccans elect new leaders in shadow of virus
Morocco Prime Minister and head of the PJD Islamist party Saad Eddine el-Othmani casts his ballot in Rabat on Wednesday. Moroccans are voting in legislative, regional and local elections amid strict virus safety guidelines. (AP)
Short Url
Updated 08 September 2021

Moroccans elect new leaders in shadow of virus

Moroccans elect new leaders in shadow of virus
  • Candidates promised to create jobs and boost Morocco's economy, education and health care
  • Turnout was 36% three hours before polls closed

RABAT, Morocco: Moroccans voted Wednesday for a new parliament and local leaders in elections that have been reshaped by the pandemic, and whose outcome is hard to predict as opinion polls were not allowed.
Candidates promised to create jobs and boost Morocco’s economy, education and health care. The kingdom has been hit hard by the pandemic, but has Africa’s highest vaccination rate so far.
Despite a dip in popularity in recent years, the governing Islamist party is eyeing a third term at the helm of the government if it again wins the most parliament seats. But a recent election reform could limits its powers, and the role of lawmakers is limited by the powers of King Mohamed VI, who oversees strategic decision-making.
“I hope that the people we voted for do not disappoint us,” said voter Adel Khanoussi, casting his ballot in the capital Rabat. “There are so many projects that should be implemented. The people’s expectations are high.”
Turnout was 36 percent three hours before polls closed.
The outcome of Wednesday’s voting is difficult to predict since opinion polls on elections are banned. The race will likely be close and no matter which party comes first, it will likely need to cobble together a coalition with other parties to form the government.
At a school turned polling station in Temara, near the capital, dozens of people stopped in to vote before going to work. Two security officers were stationed outside, and a poll worker took voters’ temperatures before letting them in.
Once inside, voters are asked to provide their identity cards and hand over their phones before entering the booth. They’re required to use hand sanitizer, wear a mask and keep 1-meter (3-foot) distances.
A 36-year-old woman who only gave her name as Fatima said she hopes the parliament can bring a “new Morocco” seen as an advanced world country.
While Morocco has one of the region’s strongest economies and a thriving business district in Casablanca, poverty and unemployment are also widespread, especially in rural regions. Morocco has seen thousands of despairing youth make risky, often deadly, trips in small boats to Spain’s Canary Islands or to the Spanish mainland via the Strait of Gibraltar.
Strict pandemic guidelines restricted candidates’ ability to reach the 18 million eligible voters. Candidates weren’t allowed to distribute leaflets and had to limit campaign gatherings to a maximum of 25 people. As a result, many stepped up efforts on social media instead.
Morocco has registered more than 13,000 COVID-19-related deaths since the start of the pandemic, according to figures from the Moroccan Health Ministry.
There were 31 parties and coalitions competing for the 395 seats in the lower house of parliament. Voters will also be selecting representatives for 678 seats in regional councils.
The moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD), at the helm of the government since 2011, is seeking a third term. With Prime Minister Saad-Eddine El Othmani, the party has campaigned on raising the competitiveness of Morocco’s economy.
El Othmani acknowledged that turnout is a “challenge” in a country where many are disillusioned with politics, but said he was encouraged at his voting station to see “good participation of voters of both sexes.”
Other major contenders are the center-left Party of Authenticity and Modernity, or PAM, the Istiqlal party and the liberal National Rally of Independents.
Istiqlal general secretary Nizar Baraka said the new parliament should “work for the people to get them out of poverty and stop the deterioration of the middle class.”
The elections were monitored by 4,600 local observers and 100 more from abroad.


Possible cyberattack hits Iranian gas stations across nation

Possible cyberattack hits Iranian gas stations across nation
Updated 6 sec ago

Possible cyberattack hits Iranian gas stations across nation

Possible cyberattack hits Iranian gas stations across nation
  • Lines of cars at a Tehran gas station, with the pumps off and the station closeda
DUBAI: Gas stations across Iran on Tuesday suffered through a widespread outage of a government system managing fuel subsidies, stopping sales in an incident that one semiofficial news agency briefly referred to as a cyberattack.
An Iranian state television account online shared images of long lines of cars waiting to fill up in Tehran. An Associated Press journalist also saw lines of cars at a Tehran gas station, with the pumps off and the station closed.
State TV did not explain what the issue was, but said Oil Ministry officials were holding an “emergency meeting” to solve the technical problem.
The semiofficial ISNA news agency, which called the incident a cyberattack, said it saw those trying to buy fuel with a government-issued card through the machines instead receive a message reading “cyberattack 64411.” Most Iranians rely on those subsidies to fuel their vehicles, particularly amid the country’s economic problems.
While ISNA didn’t acknowledge the number’s significance, that number is associated to a hotline run through the office of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that handles questions about Islamic law. ISNA later removed its reports.
Farsi-language satellite channels abroad published videos apparently shot by drivers in Isfahan, a major Iranian city, showing electronic billboards there reading: “Khamenei! Where is our gas?” Another said: “Free gas in Jamaran gas station,” a reference to the home of the late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the outage. However, the use of the number “64411” mirrored an attack in July targeting Iran’s railroad system that also saw the number displayed. Israeli cybersecurity firm Check Point later attributed the train attack to a group of hackers that called themselves Indra, after the Hindu god of war.
Indra previously targeted firms in Syria, where President Bashar Assad has held onto power through Iran’s intervention in his country’s grinding war.
Iran has faced a series of cyberattacks, including one that leaked video of abuses its notorious Evin prison in August.
The country disconnected much of its government infrastructure from the Internet after the Stuxnet computer virus — widely believed to be a joint US-Israeli creation — disrupted thousands of Iranian centrifuges in the country’s nuclear sites in the late 2000s.

Leaving British Daesh members in Syria camps ‘coward’s Guantanamo’

Leaving British Daesh members in Syria camps ‘coward’s Guantanamo’
Updated 17 min 1 sec ago

Leaving British Daesh members in Syria camps ‘coward’s Guantanamo’

Leaving British Daesh members in Syria camps ‘coward’s Guantanamo’
  • Ex-UK top prosecutor: ‘We’re just demonstrating an unwillingness to take responsibility. I think it’s an embarrassment’
  • Ex-US intelligence official: London stripping nationals of citizenship ‘is misguided and will make us all less safe’

LONDON: The British strategy of leaving Daesh members and their families in Kurdish-administered camps in Syria is a “coward’s Guantanamo,” Britain’s former top prosecutor has said.

Lord Macdonald, the UK’s former director of public prosecutions, compared the situation in camps in Syria to the US-run Guantanamo Bay prison, which has been used to hold hundreds of people suspected of terrorist crimes or affiliations indefinitely and without trial.

“I think we’re just demonstrating an unwillingness to take responsibility. I think it’s an embarrassment personally … a coward’s form of Guantanamo,” the House of Lords member said while giving evidence at a parliamentary committee on Britons trafficked to Syria.

Rather than repatriating Daesh recruits to face prosecution at home, the UK has chosen to strip them of their citizenship where possible, making it impossible for them to legally return to the country.

Dozens of women and children are among the British citizens currently living in dire conditions in camps run by the Syrian Democratic Forces.

The committee heard that this approach is increasingly at odds with other Western nations such as Denmark, Germany and the US, which are gradually bringing their people home and putting them before juries.

Ministers have considered running trials in Iraq and Syria as a compromise — an idea Macdonald branded “preposterous” on logistical and legal grounds.

Instead, he urged London to “set our justice system loose” and attempt to formally prosecute suspected Daesh members.

“I am confident that many of these individuals would face prosecution because we do know a lot, and many of them have spoken about themselves on social media,” he said. “There are other means by which we can place some restraints on people we have to release.”

Officials and observers have consistently warned that abandoning Britons and other foreign nationals in Syria presents a long-term security threat.

A former senior official in the US State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism told the committee that repatriating people from these camps is “the right thing do to from a security perspective.”

Chris Harnisch, deputy coordinator for the department from 2018 until earlier this year, said the Trump administration chose to take back “Americans of all ages.”

Other countries must do the same to “prevent the re-emergence of the caliphate,” and there is “no viable alternative,” he added.

Daesh’s leadership “has made clear that the men, women and children in prisons and camps are strategic assets,” Harnisch said, warning of repeated attempts at large-scale prison breaks.

“The US and UK and the whole world is at more risk,” he added. “Al-Hol is the capital of the caliphate at this point — you have more hardened adherents to ISIS (Daesh) ideology living in that camp than anywhere in the world.”

Escapees, Harnisch warned, could join Daesh campaigns in Syria and Iraq, or travel further afield and return home from there to plan attacks.

He pointed to previous prison breaks by the Taliban in Afghanistan as evidence of the grave threat that the status quo presents.

Harnisch urged the UK to “think twice before stripping nationals of citizenship,” adding: “Such an approach is misguided and will make us all less safe.”

John Godfrey, US special envoy for the global anti-Daesh coalition, said in March this year that there remained around 2,000 foreign fighters in Kurdish-run camps in Syria, with about 10,000 associated family members, the majority of them children.

The British government has previously said prosecuting returning Daesh members presents serious legal challenges as it is difficult to prove the actions they took while in Syria and fighting for the group.

On Monday, a German court sentenced a female Daesh recruit to 10 years behind bars for war crimes committed after joining the group, including the enslavement, horrific abuse and eventual murder of a Yazidi girl she purchased on the Daesh slave markets.


Sudan capital locked down after coup triggers deadly unrest

Sudan capital locked down after coup triggers deadly unrest
Updated 26 October 2021

Sudan capital locked down after coup triggers deadly unrest

Sudan capital locked down after coup triggers deadly unrest
  • Life comes to a halt in the capital Khartoum and its twin city Omdurman across the Nile, with roads blocked either by soldiers or by barricades erected by protesters
KHARTOUM: Roads were blocked, shops were shut, phones were down and mosque loudspeakers blared calls for a general strike in Sudan on Tuesday, a day after the army seized power in a coup that triggered unrest in which at least seven people were killed.
Life came to a halt in the capital Khartoum and its twin city Omdurman across the Nile, with roads blocked either by soldiers or by barricades erected by protesters.
The night appeared to have passed comparatively quietly after Monday’s unrest, when protesters took to the streets after soldiers arrested Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and other civilians in the cabinet. A health ministry official said seven people had been killed in clashes between protesters and the security forces.
The leader of the takeover, General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, dissolved the military-civilian Sovereign Council set up to guide Sudan to democracy following the overthrow of long-ruling autocrat Omar Al-Bashir in a popular uprising two years ago.
Burhan announced a state of emergency, saying the armed forces needed to protect safety and security. He promised to hold elections in July 2023 and hand over to an elected civilian government then. On Tuesday he dissolved committees that govern trade unions, Arabic news channels reported.
The Sudan information ministry, still loyal to Hamdok, said on its Facebook page the transitional constitution gave only the prime minister the right to declare an emergency and the military’s actions were a crime. Hamdok was still the legitimate transitional authority, it said.
The main roads and bridge between Khartoum and Omdurman were closed to vehicles by the military. Banks and cash machines were shut, and mobile phone apps widely used for money transfers could not be accessed.
Some bakeries were open in Omdurman but people were queuing for several hours, longer than usual.
“We are paying the price for this crisis,” a man in his 50s looking for medicine at one of the pharmacies where stocks have been running low said angrily. “We can’t work, we can’t find bread, there are no services, no money.”
In the western city of El Geneina, resident Adam Haroun said there was complete civil disobedience, with schools, stores and gas stations closed.
The Sudanese Professionals Association, an activist coalition that played a major role in the uprising that toppled Bashir, has called for a strike.
Hamdok, an economist and former senior UN official, was detained and taken to an undisclosed location on Monday after refusing to issue a statement in support of the takeover, the information ministry said. Troops also arrested other civilian government figures and members of the Sovereign Council.
Western governments have condemned the coup, called for the release of the detained civilian leaders and threatened to cut off aid, which Sudan needs to recover from an economic crisis.
The United States has said it was immediately pausing delivery of $700 million in emergency support.
Sudan has been ruled for most of its post-colonial history by military leaders who seized power in coups. It had become a pariah to the West and was on a US terrorism blacklist under Bashir, who hosted Osama bin Laden in the 1990s and is wanted by the International Criminal Court in the Hague for war crimes.
Since Bashir was toppled, the military shared power uneasily with civilians under a transition meant to lead to elections in 2023. The country had been on edge since last month when a failed coup plot, blamed on Bashir supporters, unleashed recriminations between the military and civilians.

Israel envoy to brief US over ban on Palestinian groups

Israel envoy to brief US over ban on Palestinian groups
Updated 26 October 2021

Israel envoy to brief US over ban on Palestinian groups

Israel envoy to brief US over ban on Palestinian groups
  • Israel last week designated prominent Palestinian human rights groups as terrorist organizations
  • The announcement has outraged the activist community in Israel

TEL AVIV: Israel is sending an envoy to Washington amid a deepening rift with the Biden administration over six outlawed Palestinian rights groups, a Foreign Ministry official said Tuesday.
Israel last week designated the prominent Palestinian human rights groups as terrorist organizations, sparking international criticism and repeated assertions by Israel’s top strategic partner, the United States, that there had been no advance warning of the move.
Israel’s move marked what critics say was a major escalation of its decades-long crackdown on political activism in the occupied territories. The US State Department has said it would seek more information on the decision.
Joshua Zarka, a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official, told Israeli Army Radio the envoy would “give them all the details and to present them all the intelligence” during his visit in the coming days.
Zarka said he personally updated US officials on Israel’s intention to outlaw the groups last week, and said he believed Washington wanted a more thorough explanation of the decision.
The rights groups decision is emerging as a test of the relationship between the Biden administration and Israel’s new government, which was formed in June by eight politically disparate parties. The coalition ended the 12-year rule of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s hard-line government enjoyed broad support from the Trump administration, which moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, largely allowed settlement building to continue unfettered, cut funding to the Palestinians and presented a vision for the Mideast that sided with Israel’s positions.
The Biden administration has mostly restored traditional foreign policy toward Israel and the Palestinians. But with the US focused on other pressing domestic and foreign issues, the conflict was expected to take a backseat.
The fractious coalition government has also sought to minimize the Palestinian issue, agreeing not to make major moves that might threaten its stability. But in recent weeks, it has ramped up focus on the conflict, offering a number of goodwill gestures to Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and also pushing forward on building thousands of new homes for Jewish settlers.
Most dramatic was the decision on the civil society groups, which has rattled the coalition and returned focus to the conflict and Israel’s decades-long occupation of territories the Palestinians seek for a future state.
Israel has for years alleged the groups’ links to a Palestinian militant group but even under Netanyahu’s hard-line government, stopped short of labeling them terrorist organizations.
The announcement has outraged the activist community in Israel, which in recent years has also faced pushback from hard-line Israeli governments. In a joint statement Monday, more than 20 Israeli human rights groups, including some of the country’s leading, most established organizations, condemned the step, calling it “a draconian measure that criminalizes critical human rights work.”
The declaration against the Palestinian rights groups appeared to pave the way for Israel to raid their offices, seize assets, arrest staff and criminalize any public expressions of support for the groups. Most of the targeted organizations document alleged human rights violations by Israel as well as the Palestinian Authority, both of which routinely detain Palestinian activists.
The designated groups are Al-Haq, a human rights group founded in 1979, as well as the Addameer rights group, Defense for Children International-Palestine, the Bisan Center for Research and Development, the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees and the Union of Agricultural Work Committees.


Lebanon’s Najib Mikati hopes cabinet meetings resume soon

Lebanon’s Najib Mikati hopes cabinet meetings resume soon
Updated 26 October 2021

Lebanon’s Najib Mikati hopes cabinet meetings resume soon

Lebanon’s Najib Mikati hopes cabinet meetings resume soon
  • Local media say Najib Mikati would not ask for another meeting to convene before a framework agreement was reached

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati said on Tuesday he hoped cabinet meetings would resume after a two-week hiatus since a row over the Beirut blast probe led some ministers to ask for his removal.
Local media had said that Mikati would not ask for another meeting to convene before a framework agreement was reached.