Security Exchange News

Security Exchange Newsletter | February

01 March 2021
 


The February edition of InTouch Monthly covers the fresh outbreak of Ebola in Guinea, along with the rising violence in Colombia, political unrest in Haiti and the fallout from the coup in Myanmar. We also look at the anti-government protests in Thailand, the conflict in the Marib province of Yemen and the power struggle between Armenia's prime minister and the army.

AFRICA

Tanzania | Nothing to see here. For months that has been the message from President John Magufuli as most of the world battled against the coronavirus pandemic. The government stopped releasing data on the outbreak in April. Even as cases and deaths soared throughout southern Africa, the president continued to deny that the virus was present in Tanzania. He promoted herbal remedies, steam inhalation and prayer, and in January claimed the vaccines were dangerous and warned his health ministers against acquiring them. Amid mounting international pressure – including from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the US – Magufuli finally acknowledged the outbreak, albeit somewhat begrudgingly, last Sunday. “Let us all depend on God as we also take other preventive measures. I put God first and that is why I do not wear a mask.” Days after the president made his statement in Dodoma, the country’s Finance Minister Philip Mpango appeared in a news conference to defend his health following rumours that he was seriously ill with Covid-19. The minister appeared without a mask and appeared to be struggling for breath throughout the statement. The incident sparked condemnation of the government on social media, while opposition leader Tundu Lissu said: “Has the intelligence of our leaders reached this level? Who allowed this patient to cough on people, instead of being in hospital for treatment or bed rest?” he wrote on Twitter. “What kind of doctor is this who was coughed on without mask? What are you trying to prove by this recklessness?”

The public denials from Magufuli had become increasingly hard to maintain in recent weeks. In mid-February Zanzibar’s Vice President Seif Sharif Hamad died three weeks after his ACT Wazalendo party announced that he had contracted Covid-19. Chief secretary John Kijazi, and the former Bank of Tanzania Governor, Professor Benno Ndulu also succumbed to the virus. Then the World Health Organization (WHO) called on the government to take “robust action” after several Tanzanian travellers had tested positive for the virus. The US issued a “do not travel” warning to Tanzania, Oman banned entry from the country and Kenya said it was banning its athletes from competing in a marathon in Tanzania over fears about the scale of the outbreak. Without any official data, and restrictions on the reporting of the virus from inside the country, it is difficult to quantify how bad the situation is. Hospitals have seen a sharp increase in patients with respiratory problems, but there has not been any clear guidance for doctors dealing with a public health emergency. A testing centre has been set up at Serengeti National Park and it is now mandatory to wear a mask and practice social distancing, yet the government has reiterated that they will not impose a lockdown. “We managed to defeat these respiratory diseases last year. We will do so again with God’s help,” said Maguful at Kijazi’s funeral.

Somalia | There is a serious risk of a complete political breakdown in Somalia. President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed Farmajo remains in office despite his term ending in February. The scheduled elections were delayed and talks to agree a new date with regional leaders reached an impasse. The administration’s rivals claimed that Farmajo was intentionally stalling in order to remain in office indefinitely. On 19 February heavy fighting erupted in Mogadishu as government forces clashed with armed opposition supporters throughout the city, while former president Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed accused the government of attacking a hotel where he was staying. The incident sparked fears that Somalia could spiral into civil conflict, although late on Thursday night a small breakthrough was made when Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble agreed on a six-point deal with opposition candidates during talks in the capital. The government apologised for the violence on the previous Friday and the opposition agreed to postpone plans to hold mass anti-Farmajo rallies. However, Farmajo was not directly involved in the agreement and the two sides did not agree on a new date for the election.

The political crisis comes after the US completed the withdrawal of around 700 military personnel from Somalia. They had been deployed to help the federal government in its fight against the al-Shabaab militant group. The danger of a protracted political crisis is that the security forces would be distracted, allowing al-Shabaab to regain territory in central and southern Somalia. The group has demonstrated that it is still capable of carrying out high-profile attacks in the capital. At the end of January, five people were killed when militants targeted the Afrik Hotel, killing at least five people including former military general, Mohamed Nur Galal. Farmajo has attempted to bring the armed forces under federal control, and although some progress has been made in this regard, political and clan rivalries are still apparent. If the political situation deteriorates further, there is no guarantee that all of the security forces will remain loyal to the president. In that scenario, al-Shabaab could be the real winners.

Guinea | In mid-February Guinea’s government confirmed a new Ebola epidemic in the country. The declaration came after three people died and four others tested positive for the virus after they attended a burial near the Liberian border. The fresh outbreak of the virus comes five years after the previous Ebola epidemic, which killed more than 11,000 people across Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Since then much work has been done to develop treatments for the virus, especially during multiple recent outbreaks in DR Congo. The Ervebo vaccine was licensed by the European Medicines Agency in 2019 and last year the body approved another vaccine delivered in two doses – Zabdeno ((Ad26.ZEBOV) and Mvabea (MVA-BN-Filo). Guinea’s government, working alongside the WHO and several Red Cross agencies, has mobilised quickly in response to this outbreak and 11,000 vaccine doses have been dispatched by the WHO from Geneva. A further 8,500 will be sent from the US for the first phase of immunisation and will be distributed in the affected area. The first doses have already been administered in Gouecke, N’Zerekore prefecture where the first cases were detected. These measures should help limit the spread of the virus, and help the region avoid the mass outbreak witnessed in 2013-2016. Supplies of the vaccines are limited, which is why they are currently used in response to outbreaks and not before they occur.

The outbreak in Guinea comes in the aftermath of a tumultuous election, which saw incumbent President Alpha Conde re-elected for another term. He was allowed to stand following a constitutional referendum last March that removed two-term limits. During a post-election purge, dozens of opposition figures and activists were arrested by the security forces for protesting against the result. In December a spokesman for the Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea (UFDG), Roger Bamba, died in prison where he was being held without trial. At least 30 people were killed in the violence and access to the internet restricted during the vote in October. In February, a court sentenced opposition activist Mamadi Conde to five years in prison after he was accused of criticising the government on social media.


AMERICAS

Haiti | Haiti has seen a recent wave of civil unrest amid political turmoil surrounding President Jovenei Moise. Moise has been accused of trying to manipulate the country’s political system in an alleged effort to centralize power further into his hands. At the heart of the unrest is a dispute over the president’s term limit, with his opposers saying that he should have left office on 7 February 2021, citing a constitutional provision that starts counting once a president is elected. Moise says he has only served four of the usual five years in office and believes his term ends in 2022 – a stance backed by the US, the UN and OAS. Moise has described protesters as “a minority looking to destabilize the country” and has denied calls for a transitional government, asking that they wait until general elections later this year. Still, mistrust looms over the electoral system since legislative elections are already long overdue and the population feels they have been systematically under-represented. The vacant parliament is what allows President Moise to rule by decree under a constitutional provision, while the elections, which should have taken place on October 2019, have yet to be organized.

Earlier this month, Moise forced three Supreme Court justices into retirement, unconstitutionally according to experts. This led to the judicial branch halting its work, meaning courts and tribunals across the country have been on hold. Haiti’s Superior Council of Judicial Power (CSPJ) signed a resolution in support of calls for President Moise to step down, along with the country’s National Bar Association. But with US President Joe Biden’s support, Moise has expressed his intentions to oversee the country for another year. "Haiti is for me, for my kids, for the people here dancing. The people who don't want me to do the people's work will stop, or I will make them stop. I was elected to do a job, and I will do it," he said. President Moise had 23 alleged coup instigators, including a senior Supreme Court judge, Ivickel Dabresil, detained. It has been reported that Dabresil had been chosen by the opposition to act as ‘provisional president’ while Moise refused to step down. During the detention of Justice Dabresil, a Haitian news outlet reported that “Haiti has two presidents”.

Haiti suffers from this political turmoil on top of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, corruption scandals, economic uncertainty and a concerning amount of kidnappings throughout the country. Last week, three people (two Dominicans, one Haitian) were kidnapped whilst filming a documentary on the country’s kidnapping situation, and recent civil unrest has materialized into dozens of riots in the streets of Port-au-Prince, the nation’s capital. Two weeks ago President Jovenei Moise’s car was mobbed when he was leaving a radio station and the opposition promised more anti-government protests in the weeks to come. Haitian media reported a “tide” of anti-Moise protest marches on 14 February in the streets of Port-au-Prince, Cap-Haitien, Les Caves and Miresbalais, though Haiti’s armed forces commander sided with President Moise when he asked him to join the efforts.

Ecuador | With President Lenin Moreno’s term in office ending on 24 May, presidential elections are underway in Ecuador. The first round saw Rafael Correa-protégé, Andres Arauz, win with 32.72 percent of the vote. Arauz is now set to face Guillermo Lasso, who narrowly edged out indigenous candidate Yaku Perez by a mere 0.33 percent for second place, in the second round of the elections to be held 11 April. Initially, a recount was being held at the request of Perez, but this was halted when the results were approved by four out of the five members of the electoral body last Wednesday. Yaku Perez alleged fraud but failed to secure his requested recount in seventeen of the country’s twenty-four provinces.

The elections have been somewhat overshadowed in the news recently due to massive riots in Ecuador’s prisons, which left 79 people dead. The riots were reportedly a coordinated effort throughout four different prisons, where rival gangs faced off for control and dozens attempted to flee amidst the chaos. Prisons in Guayaquil, Cuenca and Latacunga required additional assistance from the National Guard in order to subdue the situation, which they did on 24 February. President Lenin Moreno had declared a state of emergency in Ecuador’s prison system in 2019 after a wave of violence left 24 people dead, and which remains in place.

In summer 2019, thousands marched in the streets of Quito to protest against the country’s economic situation and the austerity measures stemming from a $6.5bn IMF deal secured by the Ecuadorian government that same year. The country’s future relationship with the IMF will be a source of much debate during these elections. Candidate Andrés Arauz has called the austerity measures and debt restructuring “unconstitutional” and has said on several occasions that he would not respect the agreement; while economist Guillermo Lasso has expressed that he is more willing to work with the international organization in order to improve Ecuador’s accounts in the long term.

Colombia | After a peace deal was brokered between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government in 2016, violence took a steep downturn in most regions of the country, with a recent spike in FARC dissident activity saw January 2021 become the most violent month since the signing of the peace deal. It is not only FARC dissidents who are responsible, NGOs reported that Colombian police officers killed 86 people last year and documented 7,992 cases of assault and 30 cases of sexual violence towards migrant communities. “The violence isn’t just because of a few rotten apples, it’s part of the architecture of the Colombian state,” said Alejandro Lanz, director of Police Violence Observatory. The recent violence has prompted several demonstrations demanding police reform using the hashtag #ReformaPolicialYa (Police Reform Now). Thirteen people were killed, and hundreds injured by police officers during the protests in Bogotá. Furthermore, two officers were placed under investigation for their role in the death of prominent lawyer Javier Ordoñez, which caused a civilian uproar.

FARC dissidents have also reportedly been gathering in neighbouring Venezuela in order to resume their illegal activities away from the Colombian police – reports emerged about the Venezuelan government selling around $5m of missile launch controllers to FARC dissidents. Dozens of recent shootings and murders have been reported in the Guayaquil area, often stemming from rivalling FARC dissident groups in a battle for regional control - reportedly, around 7,700 ex-FARC members have been killed since the peace deal.

As the country battles with the Covid-19 pandemic and a new, more contagious strain found in neighbouring Brazil, the national death toll now totals 52,128. Violence has failed to stagnate along with the open transit of people and calls by opposition parties and human rights organizations to end the wave of violence have gone unheard. The Colombian government faces a tough task in trying to curb the spiral of violence in the upcoming months.


ASIA

Armenia | Last week, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan fired the head of general staff of the country’s armed forces over an alleged coup attempt. The developments first unfolded on Thursday morning, when the military called for Pashinyan’s government to resign amid continued anti-government protests over the controversial Nagorno-Karabakh peace deal. Pashinyan signed the deal last year, bringing about an end to months of deadly violence in a war with Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The deal sparked protests in Armenia, as it was widely seen as a huge concession, allowing Azerbaijan to keep control of vast swathes of territory which the Azerbaijani troops had recaptured during the fighting.

In response to calls from the military to resign, the prime minister accused the armed forces of attempting to stage a military coup – leading to the dismissal of Onik Gasparyan, the armed forces’ Chief of General Staff. The military first issued its statement calling on Pashinyan and his cabinet to resign after the prime minister had initially fired Tiran Khacharyan, Gasparyan’s first deputy. Khacharyan was reportedly dismissed for ridiculing Pashinyan’s claims that Russia-supplied Iskander missiles failed to hit targets during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The army claimed that Khacharyan’s dismissal was proof that Pashinyan was “no longer able to make reasonable decisions”. The statement also suggested that the Armenian armed forces had been subjected to defamation attacks by the government.

After accusing the armed forces of attempting to carry out a military coup and firing Gasparyan, Pashinyan urged his supporters to rally in the capital, gathering in Republic Square, where he then delivered an address to hundreds of supporters. Meanwhile, opposition protesters reportedly led a rival demonstration in the capital, calling on Pashinyan to leave the government.

So far, two opposition parties have backed the military’s demand for Pashinyan’s government to stand down, warning that if he refuses to resign, he risks a civil war breaking out. Armenia’s president, Armen Sargsyan has urged all sides to “show restraint and common sense”, stating that he was working to resolve the developing political crisis.

Afghanistan | In recent months, Afghanistan has witnessed a spate of deadly attacks targeting high-profile individuals. So far, the attacks have targeted judges, activists, government officials, security personnel, journalists and medical professionals in shootings or car bombings. Most of these attacks have taken place in the capital city of Kabul. Attacks have also been reported in Baghlan, Ghazni, Faryab, Kandahar, Nangarhar and Parwan.

Among more notable incidents include the killing of two female Supreme Court judges who were shot dead in Kabul in January. On 9 February, four government employees were killed in another shooting in Kabul’s Bagh-e-Daud area. That same week, another government employee was also wounded in a vehicular explosion in Kabul, and two others – including a district police chief – were also killed in another car bomb explosion in downtown Kabul. A week later, an employee of the National Directorate of Security (NDS) was also killed in a targeted gun attack in Dasht-e-Barche, Kabul. Unidentified gunmen also shot dead a medical worker in the Jada area of the capital. No claims of responsibility have been made for the shootings or car bomb attacks. The police believe most of the bombings have been targeting prominent Afghans during rush-hour traffic, with magnetic sticky bombs detonated by remote control or timer.

Outside of Kabul, another judge was also shot dead in an incident in Jalalabad, Nangarhar, in February, along with three police officers and a doctor who were also killed in Jalalabad in separate shootings. Gunmen also attacked a journalist in Faryab, while another doctor was also killed in a shooting in Baghlan last week. The deadly attacks have been on the rise in recent weeks, despite ongoing negotiations to end two decades of war in the country. The killings started taking place prior to Taliban peace talks becoming shrouded in uncertainty following a US administration change; however, they have nevertheless contributed towards international concern surrounding the Taliban’s commitment to reducing violence in Afghanistan – a key condition of the complete withdrawal of US troops. Amid stalled peace talks, the US have yet to confirm whether they will honour the promise to withdraw, while the Afghan government has openly suspected the Taliban of involvement in the killings. The Taliban have denied responsibility for most of the attacks.

Thailand | The anti-government protest movement in Thailand has seen renewed demonstrations spark up this month in response to a political corruption scandal. The ongoing anti-government protest movement has been staging increasingly larger rallies in the capital over the last month. Pro-democracy protesters recently congregated outside the police headquarters in Bangkok after news of the so-called “Tua Chuang” (‘Elephant Ticket’) scandal broke. The scandal revealed that a list of police officers had been drawn up, with the intention of them being fast-tracked through police ranks due to connections or favours. The list was produced in parliament by an opposition lawmaker accusing the government of overseeing a corrupt and nepotistic police force. Unrest has also been fuelled by former military general Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s alleged mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on the country’s economy.

Prayuth recently survived a no-confidence vote in parliament amid continued protests. The no-confidence motion against Prayuth was rejected by 272 lawmakers, while 206 voted in support of it. Three voters abstained from the vote - which marked the second no-confidence test Prayuth’s government has faced since coming to power in 2019. Prayuth originally seized power in a 2014 coup as the army chief. Among other complaints, Prayuth’s government has been criticised for alleged abuse of power to promote police officials, establishing a cyber-unit to attack government critics on social media, and deepening divisions in society by using the monarchy as a shield against criticism of the government. During four days of no-confidence debates, opposition leader Pita Limjaroenrat accused Prayuth of being unfit to govern due to his apparent misuse of the monarchy to stifle anti-government sentiment. The accusation refers to King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s request last year that the lese majeste law not be used to prosecute pro-democracy protesters. Despite this, four protesters were prosecuted under the law on sedition charges in February this year.

Protests are expected to continue in Bangkok, with police anticipating the deployment of more than 10,000 officers across the capital city to monitor large-scale demonstrations which typically take place at the weekend.

Myanmar | One month on from the military coup which seized power in Myanmar by toppling the democratically elected government of detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi, anti-coup protests are continuing to take place in streets across most major towns and cities. The civil disobedience protest movement has gained significant momentum over four weeks, despite the military junta enforcing bans on public gatherings, night-time curfews, internet blackouts and erecting roadblocks in a bid to curb the unrest.

Military roadblocks have been particularly focused in diplomatic areas, as protests have been increasingly taking place outside foreign embassies and consulate buildings in Yangon, where demonstrators have been calling on the international community not to support the coup and to take decisive action against it. Many countries have condemned the military’s overthrowing of the government and detention of Suu Kyi, echoing calls from protesters for her immediate release and the reinstatement of her government. Several countries and international institutions, including Canada, the EU, New Zealand, the UK and the US have already announced sanctions targeting military leaders. Facebook also recently banned the Myanmar military from using its Facebook and Instagram platforms, stating that the “risks of allowing the Tatmadaw (Myanmar army) on Facebook and Instagram are too great”. The move comes after the military used Facebook to boost its claim of voter fraud in the 2020 election, justifying the coup. The military’s main Facebook page had already been banned for breaching guidelines. The military junta temporarily blocked access to Facebook amid periodic internet blackouts during February, sparking further criticism for alleged attempts to stamp out dissent online.

A heightened military presence continues to be reported across most cities, particularly in Mandalay, Naypyitaw, and Yangon – sparking fears of a coordinated military crackdown on protesters. The country has a history of brutal military crackdowns. In 2018, the armed forces led a deadly military campaign against insurgents in Rakhine state, which forced more than 750,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee the country to neighbouring Bangladesh. The crackdown was widely condemned internationally, with the UN labelling the campaign “textbook ethnic cleansing” against the long-persecuted Rohingya ethnic minority.

The recent protests in Myanmar have already turned deadly, with at least three protesters and one police officer dying amid clashes in recent days. The first fatality occurred as a result of a gunshot injury sustained to the head during clashes with police. Reports of security personnel firing live rounds at protesters have been disputed; however, medical professionals treating the protester confirmed her injuries were consistent with being hit by live ammunition, as opposed to rubber pellets.


EUROPE

Spain | Disruptive protests have broken out across several cities in Spain over the last two weeks. The protests broke out over the detention of rapper Pablo Hasel in mid-February. Hasel was arrested on charges related to promoting terrorism and offending the state and monarchy. Catalan police detained him on 16 February, following a two-hour struggle after he barricaded himself inside the University of Lleida. The rapper managed to resist arrest with the help of his supporters and activists. He was due to hand himself in to police earlier this month but defied the order. Hasel now faces a nine-month jail term for glorifying terrorism and slandering the crown and state institutions in lyrics and tweets attacking the monarchy and police.

Since his arrest, Hasel’s supporters have continued to take to the streets in protests which have led to clashes with the police. The day after Hasel was detained, dozens were reportedly injured after riots broke out in Valencia and Catalonia. Demonstrations have largely focused on Madrid and Barcelona but have also been held in Lleida, Gerona, Murcia, and Tarragona. The protests have been organised by a group known as ‘Movimiento Antirepressive de Madrid’, to call for Hasel’s immediate release. The case has reignited debate in Spain surrounding free speech. Prior to Hasel’s detention, the Spanish government agreed to ease restrictions on free speech amid widespread public upset over the charges brought against Hasel. However, the change in the law has not prevented the jailing of Hasel, who has been arrested under a security law known in Spain as the ‘gag law’. The law was enacted in 2015 by a previous right-wing government, which justified the law by claiming it was needed to prevent the glorification of banned armed groups such as the Basque separatists ETA – thereby banning the glorifying of violence and insulting religions or the monarchy. Critics of the law argue that the restrictive law has been applied too harshly, targeting those with legitimate criticism of the state. According to Amnesty International, around 70 people were convicted under the law over a two-year period between 2018 and 2019. Hasel was initially charged in 2018, prompting him to flee to Belgium.

More than 200 well-known artists have signed a petition against Hasel’s jailing, calling for the law to be changed, while thousands of Hasel’s supporters have taken part in the ongoing protests. The police have already made dozens of arrests and have also used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters in Madrid after crowds began throwing projectiles at police officers. Reports also emerged from Barcelona of protesters setting up barricades, setting fire to furniture and vehicles in the streets and looting luxury stores.

EU-Russia | At the beginning of February, the EU issued a warning to Moscow of possible sanctions over the case surrounding the detention of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The EU has continually reiterated calls for Navalny’s release since his imprisonment upon return to Russia earlier this year. In response to the EU’s warning, Moscow threatened to cut ties with the EU over the proposed sanctions. The deterioration in relations came after Russia expelled three EU diplomats for allegedly attending illegal pro-Navalny protests – an allegation which was rejected by the EU, prompting the three EU countries in question to retaliate by also expelling Russian diplomats.

Last week, the EU confirmed it was pushing ahead with plans to impose sanctions on Russian officials over the jailing of Navalny, who was sentenced in February to two years and six months in a penal colony. The bloc has now agreed in principle to impose travel bans and asset freezes on at least four individuals. The sanctions will be the first use of a new human rights sanctions regime which was agreed in December. The EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell described Russia as being on a “confrontational course with the European Union”. The US has welcomed the move from the EU; however, the Kremlin’s toughest critics have suggested the sanctions are still too weak.

Following the announcement of the sanctions, Russian President Vladimir Putin has reportedly ordered Russia’s top counterintelligence agency to ramp up efforts to address alleged anti-Russia sentiment in Europe. Putin claimed foreign actors were working to destabilise Russia, including efforts from the West to “derail our development, slow it down, create problems alongside our borders, provoke internal instability and undermine the values that united the Russian society”. Both the US and its NATO allies have rejected previous such claims made by the Kremlin accusing them of seeking to undermine Russia.

UK | After two months of national lockdown measures, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined plans to ease Covid-19 restrictions in England. The roadmap out of the current lockdown in England aims to achieve a gradual and sustainable return to a more normal way of life. Each step in the plan will be assessed against four tests before restrictions are eased, with decisions driven by “data, not dates” in order to successfully move forward whilst keeping infection rates under control. Nevertheless, provisional dates have been laid out in the plan – the first sign of a detailed exit strategy from nationwide lockdown since it began.

According to the government’s website, assessments to lift measures at each stage will focus on the following four tests:

  • The vaccine deployment programme continues successfully.
  • Evidence shows vaccines are sufficiently effective in reducing hospitalisations and deaths in those vaccinated.
  • Infection rates do not risk a surge in hospitalisations which would put unsustainable pressure on the NHS.
  • Our assessment of the risks is not fundamentally changed by new Variants of Concern.

Each step will be subject to a minimum period of five weeks, with a key review scheduled in the fourth week deciding whether the four tests have been sufficiently met for restrictions to be eased. If conditions have been met, the fifth week will act as a seven-day notice period ahead of rule changes.

The first step of the four-step plan is pencilled in for 8 March 2021 and will begin with a re-opening of schools from 8 March 2021. By this point, everyone in the top four vaccine priority cohorts will have had their first inoculation and developed the necessary protection from it. As part of step one, the Stay at Home order will end on 29 March. This means that outdoor gatherings of either six people or two households, including private gardens, will be allowed. People will also be allowed to take part in organised outdoor sports, with the re-opening outdoor sports facilities, such as tennis and basketball courts. Many lockdown restrictions will remain in place, with people still encouraged to work from home where possible.

If all conditions continue to be met following this initial step, more significant social relaxations could come into effect by 12 April. This would allow non-essential retail, outdoor hospitality and indoor leisure facilities to re-open. The third step on 17 May could see the 'rule of six' lifted for outdoor settings and replaced with a limit of 30 people. Restrictions on indoor hospitality and entertainment venues will also be lifted. The fourth and final step on 21 June would see all legal limits on social contact removed, and the last closed sectors of the economy re-opened - such as nightclubs. Restrictions on weddings and funerals could also be entirely lifted from this date.

The more finite details of the four-step plan will be subject to a vote in parliament over the coming weeks. One aspect of the full plan includes the potential re-introduction of localised lockdown measures for high-risk areas of England. The 68-page report states that: “The Government cannot rule out re-imposing economic and social restrictions at a local or regional level if evidence suggests they are necessary to contain or suppress a variant which escapes the vaccine”.

Algeria | Thousands of people march in central Algiers on Friday, signalling a return to the street protests which had stopped for almost a year due to the coronavirus pandemic. The rally followed another march earlier in the week which marked the second anniversary of the ‘Hirak’ protest movement, which forced long-time President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to resign. During the rally on Friday, the security forces fired tear gas as the crowds pushed through a police barrier to reach the Grand Post Office, which was a key rally point during the Hirak protests. The demands of the demonstrators remain the same as they were before the pandemic prevented them from gathering en masse. They are calling for an overhaul of the old ruling elite, an end to corruption and for the army to be separated from politics. Prior to last week’s rallies, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune dissolved parliament and issued a pardon to dozens of people detained during previous protests. However, these measures have done little to placate the demonstrators who see the president as being part of the old system; he briefly served as prime minister under Bouteflika.

The Hirak united a wide cross-section of society and mobilised a whole generation to become engaged in politics. The youth-led protests are driven by principles and values rather than ideology and aim to unite groups that were previously divided. The Nida-22 coalition includes progressives and Islamists who are working on grassroots campaigns to promote a more equal society. While they succeeded in forcing Bouteflika to resign, the wider elite and the military will be harder to shift. One of the challenges for the movement is whether to engage with the regime to achieve gradual progress or oppose it completely until the whole system is gone. This debate takes place while Algeria struggles with a record-high budget deficit and the impact of the pandemic. The country’s energy exports, a key part of the economy, are dwindling and some projections suggest that the country might cease being a crude exporter within the next 10 years. In January oil sales fell to 290,000 BPD, the lowest figure since 2017. Overall output is down to levels not seen since 2002. Gas output has also been falling at a time when consumption is increasing.

Saudi Arabia | Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) was complicit in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, according to a declassified US intelligence report released last week. The new administration of President Joe Biden had already outlined that it wanted to reset relations with the kingdom prior to the publication of the report; in January US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said arms sales with Saudi Arabia and the UAE were “being reviewed” as part of a wider evaluation of US foreign policy in the Middle East. The release of the intelligence report raises more questions about the future of US-Saudi relations and marks a significant shift from Biden’s predecessor. The Trump administration blocked the release of the intelligence report and even strengthened ties with the kingdom after Khashoggi was murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Trump even ignored a defence bill passed by Congress in December 2019 that said the report had to be released within 30 days, stating that it included information that would compromise national security.

The latest developments will increase pressure on MBS and the Saudi government to improve its human rights record and to reduce the political oppression of dissidents. In a call to King Salman last week, Biden warned of “significant changes” in the two countries’ relationship and said any future partnership “must reflect US values.” The shift in policy could also have significant implications for the Saudi-led military operation in Yemen; the US review of arms sales is largely due to their use in the conflict. It also comes as the Biden administration attempts to revisit the nuclear deal with Saudi Arabia’s main rival, Iran. In recent weeks reports have emerged of low-level talks between representatives from the Saudis and Iran, and Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif has previously suggested that Tehran was in favour of cooperating with its old adversary.

Yemen | While Saudi Arabia and the UAE are under pressure from the US to end their military operations in Yemen, fighting in Marib intensified last month between the Houthi rebel group and pro-government forces. Hundreds of fighters from both sides have been killed in the clashes, which escalated when the Houthis launched an offensive in the strategically important province. The rebels are pushing to capture Marib city, which is the last significant territory held by the government in the north of the country. Over the weekend multiple ballistic missiles were fired at Marib city, while the Houthis also launched several missiles into Saudi Arabia.

Analysts have suggested that both the Houthis and Yemen’s government are attempting to strengthen their positions ahead of future peace talks. However, the renewed conflict has prompted the UN and aid agencies to reiterate warnings over the humanitarian catastrophe in the country. Marib is home to tens of thousands of people displaced by the earlier fighting in the country, and the province had previously escaped much of the fighting witnessed in places like Sana’a, Hodeidah, Taiz and Aden. "Should hostilities move towards the city and surrounding areas, it could displace another 385,000 people," warned the International Organization for Migration (IOM), while Mark Lowcock, the UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said that the assault on Marib would have “unimaginable humanitarian consequences.” The Biden administration has appointed Timothy Lenderking as its Special Envoy for Yemen and tasked him with meeting senior government officials in the region to focus on the “United States’ dual-track approach to end the conflict in Yemen: a lasting political solution and humanitarian relief for the Yemeni people.”