Security Exchange News

Security Exchange Newsletter | September

05 October 2020
 


The main topics in this edition of the InTouch Monthly are the ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, and the news from Washington DC that US President Donald Trump has tested positive for Covid-19. We also look ahead to the upcoming elections in Cote d'Ivoire and neighbouring Guinea, alongside an update on the ongoing protests in Belarus against President Lukashenko.

AFRICA

Cote d’Ivoire | Political tensions are increasing in Cote d’Ivoire ahead of elections on 31 October. Incumbent President Alassane Ouattara previously announced that he would not run for a third term and said he would support Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly as the Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (RDHP) candidate. However, in July Coulibaly became unwell during a cabinet meeting and later died in hospital. The party then nominated Ouattara as its preferred candidate, an offer that he accepted in August. His bid for a third term sparked an outcry from the opposition, with the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) calling the decision “deplorable” and claiming that he was violating the two-term limit in the constitution. Throughout September there have been several anti-Ouattara protests in the country, including the largest city Abidjan, and more are expected in the lead up to the vote.

The election is seen as a major test of Cote d’Ivoire’s democracy, coming just a decade after conflict erupted following the disputed vote in 2010. The fighting was sparked by then-President Laurent Gbagbo refusing to concede the election to Ouattara, who led a France-backed military offensive against Gbagbo’s forces. Ahead of the vote in October, Gbagbo’s supporters submitted an application for his candidacy, although this was rejected by the Constitutional Council. Former rebel leader and ex-prime minister Guillaume Soro was also blocked from running by the court. Both Gbagbo and Soro filed appeals at the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, based in Arusha, Tanzania. The court has ordered Cote d’Ivoire to reinstate the two candidates on the electoral roll ahead of the vote, but it is not yet clear when the Constitutional Council will adhere to the judgement.

Guinea | A similar situation is unfolding in Cote d’Ivoire’s western neighbour, Guinea, where President Alpha Conde is also seeking a third term in office. The 82-year-old president is allowed to run following a constitutional referendum held in March that removed presidential term limits. The referendum was controversial and led to clashes between pro-government and opposition supporters. The National Front for the Defense of the Constitution (FNDC), an umbrella opposition group, boycotted the vote and rejected the results. The security forces were accused of human rights abuses during the violence, which left at least 32 people dead and 90 others wounded.

In September Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report which documented inter-communal violence between armed Guerze and ethnic Konianke and Malinke in the second-largest city, Nzerekore. Amnesty International claims at least 50 people have been killed in politically-motivated violence, adding that more than 70 others have been arrested by the security forces. “Exercising the right to freedom of peaceful assembly remains dangerous in Guinea, where impunity for human rights violations has remained the rule for the past decade. Concrete actions are required from the authorities to bring justice to the victims and their families,” said Samira Daoud, Amnesty’s West and Central Africa Regional Director.

The main opposition candidate is Cellou Dalein Diallo from the Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea (UFDG), a former prime minister who lost to Conde in the 2010 and 2015 elections. “We will be at the polls and in the streets, and we will counter any attempts to steal the vote,” Diallo told supporters last month. “We will be in the streets, protesting until the last day to prevent Alpha Conde from obtaining a third term.”

DRC | Rebel groups carried out a number of high-profile attacks in eastern DRC last month. The Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), which has become the most violent of the armed groups operating in the region, has been blamed for several attacks in North Kivu province. Gunmen killed 10 people during raids in Mbau, north of the town of Beni, on 20 September. The following day rebels targeted a health centre in the village of Musuku, to the east of Beni, killing two people and forcing villagers to flee to nearby towns. Earlier in the month, almost 50 people died in another attack linked to the ADF in neighbouring Ituri province. Heavily armed rebels stormed a community in the Tshabi area, during which 17 people were kidnapped. More recently, three aid workers from Concern Worldwide were abducted by unidentified gunmen in the Uvira area of South Kivu. This followed the kidnapping of three engineers near Bunia, Ituri and the killing of an aid worker In Lubero, North Kivu.

There was also a brutal attack in the south-eastern town of Lubumbashi over the weekend. An estimated 400 fighters from the Kata Katanga militia targeted the mineral-rich town, leading to heavy fighting with the security forces. Two police officers were beheaded and a soldier was killed during the clashes. The gunmen attempted to seize key strategic buildings but they were eventually repelled by troops. The militia, which is led by Gédéon Kyungu Mutanda, wants to create a new state in Haut-Katanga province.


AMERICAS

US | President Donald Trump and former Democratic Vice-President Joe Biden have faced each other in a highly contested debate in Ohio. In the first debate held ahead of the presidential elections on 3 November, both candidates engaged in heated arguments and traded accusations on a variety of topics including climate change, the economy, the coronavirus pandemic, law enforcement, and the electoral process. Another prominent issue discussed was the topic of President Donald Trump’s tax returns, which were recently published by the New York Times (NYT). Although President Trump said that his tax returns have yet to be fully disclosed, the NYT report showed that in 2016 - the year President Donald Trump ran for office - he had paid $750 in federal taxes. The same amount was also claimed to have been paid in the first year that he was in the White House. Although the report shows that over a period of almost two decades, the president has paid $95m in federal taxes, a large portion of this amount was refunded. Details of President Trump’s tax returns and those of his companies have been under scrutiny since he launched his presidential election campaign. In the latest findings, the president stands accused of not paying federal taxes for 11 of 18 years analysed. In addition, it is thought the reason for such low rates could be linked to major business losses and tax deductions. When questioned on the matter during the debate, President Trump slammed the NYT report and labelled it as fake news. In a similar fashion, Biden and his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, disclosed their tax returns just before the debate – in 2019, Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, paid nearly $300k in taxes.

In the run-up to the presidential election, another contested issue has hit US politics. Aged 87, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died after suffering health complications. Nominated for the post back in 1993 during the Clinton administration, she was praised for championing liberal values. With her death, President Trump was tasked with finding her replacement and chose Amy Coney Barrett. The nomination of right-wing Barrett is seen as somewhat of a departure from the more liberal approach of Ginsburg. Barrett is aged 48 and, if confirmed for the lifetime post, she will be one of the youngest Supreme Court justices ever to be sworn in. Barrett will be the third justice nominated by President Trump. During his administration, he has already nominated Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh for the post.

The debate also came as the US continues to face a significant increase in coronavirus cases, with the total number of cases surpassing seven million and the death toll topping 200,000. Data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that in more than half of all states, the number of cases has significantly increased, with the highest figures for the last week of September reported in Texas, California, Florida and Wisconsin. During the debate, President Trump claimed to have the military ready to distribute a coronavirus vaccine as soon as 01 November. Biden accused Trump of largely discrediting experts, including Dr Anthony Fauci, and raised concerns over rushing the release of a vaccine amid claims that the approval process could face political interference. Days after the debate, President Trump and his wife, Melania, tested positive for coronavirus. Although it remains unclear how this will affect the schedule of the election, the medical team at the Walter Reed Medical Center has said that President Trump is experiencing mild symptoms. However, the actual condition of the president is unknown amid conflicting reports from his own medical team and Chief-of-Staff Mike Meadows, who stated that the president’s situation was “very concerning”.

Colombia As the government of President Ivan Duque struggles to address the coronavirus crisis in the country, the security forces are simultaneously facing an increase in violence across several areas where militant and paramilitary groups widely operate. In recent weeks, several incidents believed to be associated with territorial disputes have taken place in the south-western department of Narino. In one of the incidents, four suspected dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were executed in a remote rural town in the northern part of the department. Narino is home to the restive city of Tumaco and neighbours the department of Cauca, where an increase in violent incidents have also been reported in recent months. Violence in south-western Colombia is mainly attributed to the operations of the Oliver Sinisterra Front, which is a dissident group of the FARC, and other emerging paramilitary groups also linked to drug-trafficking. Additionally, recent reports have raised concerns over the appearance of new groups in Colombia, which are believed to be closely associated with Mexican drug cartels such as the Cartel Jalisco New Generation. In late-August, the security forces carried out a massive cocaine bust in Tumaco after intercepting narco-submarines.

Initial reports claimed that the drugs belonged to FARC dissidents and were being shipped to Mexico. Despite the FARC demobilisation in 2016, a number of dissident fronts engaged in drug-trafficking still operate across Colombia. Despite a fractured leadership, former leaders of the FARC have recently joined forces to create a new movement. In 2018, former Senator Ivan Marquez joined Jesus Santrich and alias ‘El Paisa’ in declaring that the ‘Segunda Marquetalia’ is part of the demobilised FARC-People’s Army (FARC-EP). Initially calling for support and accusing President Duque of failing to follow guidelines of the peace deal, the movement remained largely unheard of until its leadership released a new statement in September 2020. In the communique, the group calls for the immediate resignation of President Duque, denouncing him as an illegitimate leader. They also accused former President Alvaro Uribe – who is under house arrest - of violating the peace agreement. The re-emergence of dissident FARC leaders in Colombia came after the extradition of another infamous paramilitary leader to the country. The former paramilitary leader of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), Rodrigo Tovar, alias ‘Jorge 40’, was extradited from the US after serving 12 years in prison. His extradition came as he still faces dozens of arrest warrants in Colombia for war crimes. Jorge 40 is the former ally of Salvatore Mancuso, another AUC former leader who is jailed in the US.

Mexico In addition to facing increased levels of violence in some cartel-disputed areas and challenges related to the coronavirus pandemic, Mexican politics is also having a busy year after three former presidents were implicated in a major corruption scandal. When President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador took office in 2018, he vowed to flush corruption out of Mexico after decades of rule under the influential National Action Party (PAN) and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Considered one of the highest profile cases in Mexico, the extradition of the former head of the state-owned PEMEX from Spain has generated shockwaves throughout the entire Mexican political spectrum. Emilio Lozoya has said that he will cooperate with the investigations into the graft scandal, which mainly involves PEMEX and the Brazilian-based construction giant, Odebrecht. Among those accused include dozens of ministers and former presidents Enrique Pena Nieto, Felipe Calderon, and Carlos Salinas.

Lozoya was PEMEX’s director during most of the Pena Nieto administration. He has already told the Attorney General Alejandro Gertz that the former president – a member of the PRI - and his finance minister, Luis Videgaray, have received multi-million-dollar grants from Odebrecht to finance the 2012 presidential campaign. He also added that bribes were paid to lawmakers of the PAN to back an energy bill. Meanwhile, allegations against Calderon include dealings between an Odebrecht subsidiary, Brasken, and the multi-billion-dollar Etileno XXI project which would include preferential rates on fuel prices. Two months after his extradition, Lozoya testified for the first time in late-September. Despite President Lopez Obrador’s bid to crackdown on corruption, some are sceptical about the government’s political will to guarantee a smooth investigation. Several members of the opposition have already accused President Obrador of being politically motivated in his approach. Among his main critics is the political analyst Jorge Castaneda – former foreign minister during the Vicente Fox government – who said that “López Obrador's motivation is essentially political.”

The Supreme Court has already approved a referendum that could pave the way for the prosecution of Pena Nieto, Calderon and Salinas. President Lopez Obrador plans to hold the referendum in June 2021, when the mid-terms will also take place. If the referendum is approved, former presidents Fox and Ernesto Zedillo could also be implicated in future investigations for other alleged crimes committed during their administrations. Since taking office, President Lopez Obrador has accused the PAN and PRI of nearly a century of corruption and mismanagement. Despite being a decision largely supported by the public and supporters of his Movements of National Regeneration (MORENA), critics claim that the investigations come as a means to consolidate his political power.


ASIA 

Armenia-Azerbaijan | Heavy fighting has continued between the Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh for the ninth consecutive day after the decades-old conflict flared up again last week. Both sides claim to have inflicted damage on each other’s military positions and have both claimed to have either captured more ground or ‘improved’ frontline positions. Recent shelling has been reported in the regional capital of Stepanakert and in the Azerbaijani city of Ganja, where the military airport was allegedly targeted. As of Monday 5 October, the estimated overall death toll for the conflict stands at around 220; however, it is feared the actual death toll is much higher, as casualty claims have not been independently verified. Both sides have claimed civilian casualties as a result of shelling from the other side. A precise civilian casualty figure has yet to be ascertained from a reliable source but reports on the ground paint a daunting picture.

Officials in the region have described the situation as incredibly tense with gunfire being exchanged. Azerbaijan’s defence ministry claims to have carried out “crushing artillery strikes against Armenian forces’ positions” in overnight offensives. Armenian sources have claimed that three civilians were killed in an Azerbaijani air attack in Martakert on Wednesday. Recent reports indicate that a number of journalists have also become caught up in the crossfire, with two French journalists injured in shelling in the nearby Armenian town of Martuni. Russian journalists have also allegedly come under fire whilst reporting on the conflict.

Talks have been held between the chairing members of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group – which was set up in 1992 to encourage a peaceful, negotiated resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The group is chaired by France, Russia, and the US. Leaders from all three countries have urged both sides to consider a ceasefire as the number of deaths continues to rise amid fighting in the disputed region. Russia, which has a military alliance with Armenia and has close ties to Azerbaijan, has offered to host peace talks, as fears of a broader conflict grow. Moscow has also called for Turkey, which borders Armenia but supports Azerbaijan, to back a Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire. Last week, Armenia claimed that Turkey had shot down an Armenian fighter jet, killing the pilot. Turkey has denied the report and dismissed the claim as “cheap propaganda”. Ankara has also denied reports that Syrian fighters have been sent to assist the Azerbaijani forces in the conflict. More recently, Iran has been forced to deny similar claims - that it was providing military support to Armenia.

Despite international calls for a de-escalation of tensions in the disputed region, Azerbaijani and Armenian forces have been reluctant to call a truce. A fleeting glimpse of progress was achieved last week, when Armenia indicated it was ready to engage with mediation efforts from France, Russia, and the US; however, Azerbaijan has continued to demand the withdrawal of Armenian troops from the region and adjacent areas before talks can begin. Previous border spats between the two countries have typically been contained within a few days – what makes this flare-up in tensions different is the continued intensity of the fighting, with populated areas within the contested region being hit by shelling for the first time in three decades. Many fear that a continued escalation in the territory could lead to a wider regional war, with increased involvement from third party states, such as Turkey. 

Thailand | American tourist, Wesley Barnes, could face a two-year prison sentence under anti-defamation laws in Thailand for leaving negative reviews of a hotel resort on Koh Chang island, in which he accused the resort of “modern-day slavery”. The Sea View Resort claimed Barnes’ harsh reviews were damaging to its reputation and sought to sue him under the country’s strict anti-defamation laws.

Thailand’s anti-defamation laws are not unique, with many other countries enforcing similar legislation; however, Thailand’s is known for being particularly stricter than most and unusually easy to abuse, with journalists and activists often targeted. Over the last few weeks, a growing anti-government protest movement has gained momentum in Thailand. Originally triggered by the dissolution of the Future Forward Party in February, the protests were initially led by student groups against the government of former military general Prayut Chan-o-cha. Now, the protests have evolved into a much broader anti-government and anti-monarchy movement calling for constitutional reform – particularly of the country’s strict lese majeste laws, which criminalise defamation of the monarchy.

Last month, protesters laid down a plaque symbolising democracy at Sanam Luang. The plaque was intended as a replacement for the original memorial plaque installed at the Royal Plaza during the 1932 Siamese Revolution, which disappeared in 2017. The newly laid plaque was removed less than 24 hours after it was installed but its message and the symbolism of its removal representing the suppression of democracy in Thailand have since spread online. Many protest leaders face charges under the lese majeste laws, for allegedly openly challenging the rule of King Vajiralongkorn. Recent developments have also seen court petitions brought forward which could pave the way for prosecuting anti-government protesters for treason.

India | Nationwide protests have been taking place in India against a set of agricultural reform bills. The government has stated that the aim of the reforms is to loosen rules around the sale, pricing, and storage of farm produce, enabling farmers to sell produce at a market price directly to private consumers, free of government-controlled wholesale markets and assured prices. However, those against the reforms fear they pave the way for the government to remove assured prices - putting farmers at risk of exploitation in the private market without a guaranteed price to fall back on. Farmers claim the reforms risk leaving farmers at the mercy of private buyers. The opposition Congress Party has also come out strongly against the reforms, accusing the government of ignoring demands for the bills to be sent to parliamentary committees for further debate and thereby rushing the legislation process. Opposition politicians have labelled the new laws as ‘anti-farmer’ and likening them to a ‘death sentence’. The protests, which have already led to significant disruption across several states including Haryana, Punjab, and Telangana, are expected to continue indefinitely and are likely to grow in scale.

As the farmers’ protests continue to gain momentum, another issue has stirred up public anger in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where groups are protesting against the deaths of two gang-rape victims. Both victims have been identified as members of the Dalit community – widely considered the lowest in the Hindu caste system and often discriminated against, despite laws aimed at protecting them. The first victim was a 19-year-old woman who was attacked by four men in the Hathras district last month. The arrest of four upper-caste men and her death last week, followed by her subsequent cremation against the wishes of her family, have further fuelled outrage amongst the Dalit community – leading to protesters clashing with police. The victim’s family claimed the police were attempting to destroy evidence by burning the victim’s body. Further outrage was also sparked when a senior police officer suggested that a forensic report and autopsy indicated the woman had not been raped – contradicting hospital reports and statements from the victim, which were given before she died. The latest reports indicate five police officers have now been suspended from the force over their handling of the case.

The second victim was a 22-year-old woman who was assaulted last week in the Balrampur district – some 500km away from Hathras, where the earlier attack happened. Reports indicate the victim was apprehended by three or four men who forced her into a vehicle before assaulting her. She was then put in a rickshaw and sent home, where her family claim she arrived in a drugged state with a broken leg and hip. She died on the way to the hospital. At least two arrests have been made following the incident.

Both cases have brought the issue of sexual assault against women to the fore in Uttar Pradesh, along with the issue of caste discrimination, as both women were Dalits and at least one of the accused is understood to have a record of assaulting and discriminating against Dalits.


EUROPE

Belarus | Mass anti-government demonstrations have taken place again in Belarus, for the eighth weekend in a row. The rally saw police use water cannons to disperse protesters, while further arrests were also reported as tens of thousands gathered in the capital to demand the release of political prisoners. Prior to the march, Belarus withdrew accreditation for all foreign correspondents with immediate effort on Saturday – making independent coverage of protests more difficult. Mobile internet outages were also reported in Minsk on Sunday, in a move thought to be linked to the continued protests.

The UK and Canada have both recently announced sanctions against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, along with 10 other senior officials – all of whom have been sanctioned for alleged human rights violations. The sanctions come as a coordinated response to Belarus’ disputed election in August, which the opposition claim was rigged by long-serving President Lukashenko – who claimed a sweeping 80 percent majority. Following the election, widespread protests have broken out across the country, while leading opposition figures have either been jailed or forced into exile. The Belarusian government’s decision to crackdown on protesters has also drawn global criticism. On Friday, the EU and the US also hit Belarus with long-awaited sanctions for vote-rigging and orchestrating a crackdown on protests, targeting key officials.

A recent secret inauguration ceremony which was held for Lukashenko in Minsk has sparked further widespread unrest. Following the swearing-in ceremony, the EU officially stated that is does not recognise Lukashenko as the country’s legitimate leader, due to a lack of democratic legitimacy surrounding August’s presidential election. With Russia backing Lukashenko as the legitimate leader of Belarus, the standoff has taken on a geopolitical dimension. The Belarusian opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, plans to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Tuesday to discuss Germany’s potential participation in mediating peace talks between protest leaders and Lukashenko’s government. So far, Lukashenko has refused to take part in negotiations.

International criticism has also been drawn over Lukashenko’s decision to clamp down on protests, which many have seen as a suppression of free speech and political expression. Over the last few weeks, clashes between the security forces and protesters have become increasingly violent and there have been widespread reports of detained activists being tortured or mistreated. So far, more than 12,000 protesters have been arrested, with hundreds still in jail. Further mass protests are expected to take place over the coming weekend, which will mark the ninth consecutive week of demonstrations against Lukashenko.

France | Prosecutors have filed terrorism charges against the main suspect involved in a double stabbing incident outside the former offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris. Initially being dealt as a murder attempt, the 18-year-old suspect is currently being questioned for his involvement in the incident. In total, seven people have been arrested for their alleged involvement in the attack. The latest incident happened just as 14 people are on trial for the death of 12 people in 2015. At the time, two attackers – both later killed – targeted Charlie Hebdo’s offices in the capital’s 11th district after the magazine published a satirical cartoon portraying Prophet Mohammed. Since the Charlie Hebdo incident a number of high-profile terrorist attacks have occurred in the country. In the same year, more than 130 people were killed in a series of coordinated attacks across Paris. A year later, nearly 90 people died when a lorry ploughed into crowds on a busy promenade in the southern city of Nice. Those incidents and subsequent terrorist acts led the government to declare a lengthy state of emergency that was replaced in 2017 when President Emmanuel Macron signed a new anti-terrorism law.

After periods of relative calm and isolated low-profile incidents across the country, France has not had a major terrorist incident in years. However, despite stringent coronavirus measures being implemented to curb the spread of the virus, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said in August that the threat of terrorism in France “remains extremely high”. He said that more than 8,000 suspects are on the government’s database for posing a potential security threat to France. Most recently, after a visit to a synagogue in the outskirts of Paris, he highlighted that in the last three years, 32 terrorist incidents were reported in the country. Darmanin reiterated that France is currently at war with Islamic terrorism.  He said that Jewish areas are high-profile targets and called on the authorities in Paris to reinforce security measures to prevent further incidents, especially before the Yom Kippur Jewish holiday in late-September. Data from the European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2020 shows that more than 200 jihadist terrorism suspects were arrested in France in 2019, comprising nearly half of all terror suspects detained in all EU states combined – UK data not included.

Russia The poisoning of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny has created diplomatic tension across Europe after Germany threatened Russia with the introduction of sanctions. Navalny’s case comes at a delicate time when Russia negotiates the latest details of its Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Navalny was transferred to a hospital in Berlin after suffering health complications in the Siberian town of Tomsk. Doctors had already concluded that Navalny was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok, the same that was used against the former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury, UK. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has already visited Navalny at the hospital in Berlin while her government called on its Russian counterpart for clarification. A spokesman for the Russian government, Dmitri Peskov, has already denied any involvement in the incident. He said in early-September: "Attempts to somehow associate Russia or the Russian leadership with what happened are unacceptable to us. They are absurd in essence.” Peskov later alleged that “specialists from the CIA are working with him [Navalny] during these days, and it’s not the first time that they have given him various instructions”. During an interview, Navalny directly accused President Vladimir Putin of orchestrating the poisoning attempt. He told the German-based Der Spiegel that: “Only three people can give orders to put into action ‘active measures’ and use novichok. Those who know Russian states of affairs also know: FSB director Alexander Bortnikov, foreign intelligence service head Sergey Naryshkin and the director of GRU cannot make such a decision without Putin’s orders.” Navalny has been one of the most prominent opponents of President Putin. He has been detained on multiple occasions for leading unauthorised protests in Moscow and other major Russian cities. He has also been subject to attacks and intimidation. In 2017 he was splashed with green paint during a march. Although Navalny told Der Spiegel that he “have never been closely associated with Germany”, the incident has intensified already strained relations between Russia and Germany. In June, Germany summoned the Russian ambassador following the suspicious death of a former Chechen rebel in Berlin.

UK | Meanwhile, in the UK, the focus is less on anti-government protests and more on the continuing coronavirus pandemic. As of last week, an additional 500,000 people in four council areas of north Wales face strict new measures. The measures are in addition to existing localised lockdowns across much of South Wales. Elsewhere in the UK, a ban on households mixing indoors has been brought in across parts of the north-east, including the Liverpool City Region, Warrington, Hartlepool, and Middlesbrough. It has been reported that Liverpool’s infection rate has risen 13-fold over the last month. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been accused of creating widespread confusion over localised rules in parts of north-east England after he ‘misspoke’ regarding the application of the ‘rule of six’ in the north of England earlier this week.

The surge in cases across parts of northern England is a sign that the UK’s second wave of infections has followed a more typical outbreak trend than that of the initial wave, which hit in the first half of this year. Whereas the first wave saw cases spread relatively uniformly across the country, the second wave has seen clear localised outbreaks concentrated in a number of towns and cities – similar to outbreak patterns observed in Italy and Spain, where virus cases were more highly concentrated in some areas. The reason behind why there have been such distinctive spikes across the north is thought to be related to several possible reasons, including higher infection rates when initial lockdown measure was lifted earlier this year, making it easier for the virus to take off again; the high concentration of densely-populated areas, where virus spread has proven harder to curb; and the socialising habits of teenagers and young adults, many of whom are at great risk of spreading the virus when asymptomatic. Meanwhile, the Labour MP for Middlesbrough has suggested that recent data indicates the rise in cases there has been linked to people mixing in households.

Other areas are still seeing cases rise gradually and the current government strategy is to respond with localised measures when the R number (the number of people each coronavirus case infects) rises considerably above 1 – which indicates the virus is spreading. Currently, the national R number is around 1.1 – having fallen from 1.7 last month. Further concerns over the government’s handling of the crisis have also arisen over the weekend after it emerged that nearly 16,000 cases of Covid-19 went unreported due to a technical glitch. Public Health England stated that 15,841 confirmed cases between 25 September and 2 October were excluded from official UK daily case figures – resulting in misleading case figures for last week. The opposition has criticised the mistake – which led to a delay in contact tracing efforts - as “shambolic”. The PM has warned that the gradual increase in coronavirus cases could continue through to Christmas, while the government’s vaccine task force has indicated that vaccine efforts would prioritise those over the age of 50, health workers, care home workers, and the vulnerable – with no plans to vaccinate anyone under the age of 18.


MENA

Kuwait | On 29 September Kuwait’s emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Sabah, died aged 91 following a long illness. He was best known for his two spells as foreign minister between 1963 and 2003, during which he was a leading mediator between states across the Muslim world. He was one of the leading figures behind the establishment of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) in 1981, and tried hard to keep the bloc together when a sea, land and air blockade was imposed on Qatar by the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in 2017. The late emir also built a strong relationship with the US, notably following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of the kingdom during the first Gulf War in 1990. Sabah fled to Saudi Arabia to create a government-in-exile and returned following Operation Desert Storm in 1991. The US subsequently used bases in Kuwait to launch its military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. He will be replaced by his half-brother Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah, who takes power at a time when Kuwait’s finances have been badly hit by falling oil prices and the coronavirus pandemic which has claimed more than 600 deaths. He could also come under pressure from the US to normalise relations with Israel following deals with the UAE and Bahrain, although there is little domestic support for such a policy.

Libya | The head of the Government of National Accord (GNA), Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, has announced that he will be stepping down by the end of October. He said the UN-brokered talks between the country’s rival factions had led to a “new preparatory phase.”  Early contenders to replace him are Ahmed Omar Maiteeq, Sarraj’s current deputy, and Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha, who was briefly suspended in August. The news came after the eastern-based government in Tobruk also stepped down. Abdullah Al-Thani submitted the government’s resignation to the speaker of the House of Representatives (HoR) following days of protests over poor living conditions in the east of the country. The self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Khalifa Haftar, was accused of opening fire on protesters in Benghazi, Bayda and Marj. Haftar is aligned to the HoR and there is increasing pressure on him to move aside to allow reconciliation talks to resume with new political leaders on both sides. Sarraj and Haftar met several times but there was deep distrust between the two rivals, particularly after the LNA launched its offensive against Tripoli in April 2019. While the removal of both men could allow for fresh talks to begin, they will also create power vacuums in an already fractious and volatile country. Last week two militias loyal to the GNA clashed in the Tarjoura suburb of eastern Tripoli. The fighting was reminiscent of the inter-militia conflict which erupted in the capital in 2018. The foreign states which back both sides (Turkey – GNA, Russia – LNA) will also be instrumental in the new political process.

Israel | A second lockdown was introduced in Israel at the end of September as the government tries to reverse the significant rise in Covid-19 cases. The new measures were reinforced by additional restrictions, including the forced closure of non-essential businesses and a ban on people from travelling more than 1km from their homes. "Wake up. Enough is enough. We are in a different reality. Something needs to be done and it must be done now," said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when the further measures were announced. The government then introduced legislation which banned people from travelling to protests, which are also limited to groups of 20. Over the weekend tens of thousands of people ignored the new law to voice their anger at Netanyahu’s government. More than 30 people were arrested during a rally in Tel Aviv. There is increasing anger at the PM over his handling of the coronavirus crisis and allegations of corruption. Netanyahu is currently on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. The second lockdown was introduced after the number of daily cases passed 8,000 per day. There have now been over 264,000 confirmed cases, while almost 1,700 people have been killed by the virus.

In September the Israeli government agreed to normalise diplomatic relations with Bahrain. The deal came a month after the UAE became the first Gulf state to normalise relations with Israel following prolonged talks.  The Palestinian Authority (PA) condemned both deals and officials refused to chair the Arab League in protest at the decision. "Palestine has decided to concede its right to chair the League's council [of foreign ministers] at its current session. There is no honour in seeing Arabs rush towards normalisation during its presidency," said Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki. Palestinian anger has also led to the rival political groups Hamas and Fatah starting work on a “unified field leadership” which they said will lead to a “comprehensive popular resistance” in the Gaza Strip and occupied West Bank. The two factions met for talks in Istanbul at the end of the month, after which they announced plans to hold the first elections in Palestine in 15 years. Parliamentary and presidential polls will be scheduled within six months under a deal agreed by Fatah, PA leader Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh.


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