August 26, 2016

NEED TO KNOW

A Sense of Gloom

Once a regional power, Egypt is now a shell of its former self.

“A sense of gloom hangs over the country,” the New York Times recently intoned. “Traditionally a leader of the Arab world, politically and culturally, and home to a quarter of its population, Egypt has become inward-looking and politically marginalized in a way not seen for generations.”

Now Egypt is waiting on the International Monetary Fund for a $12 billion loan that President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi hopes will be a lifesaver for the country’s declining economy and his regime.

“There is no time left and nothing should be put off,” an unnamed Egyptian government official told the Associated Press.

But, in exchange for the loan, the IMF is demanding reforms that include the privatization of parts of Egypt’s bloated public sector and the devaluation of its currency. The two sides are negotiating but Sisi doesn’t have much leverage. Without the loan, it’s unclear if he’ll be able to retain control of Egypt.

Still, an initial agreement with the IMF, meant to restore the confidence of foreign investors and provide a desperately needed infusion of dollars, was reached earlier this month, Bloomberg reported.

And Egypt is expected to end its dollar exchange rate problem within months, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi said Tuesday, warning that the Arab world’s most populous nation could no longer put off tough measures if it hopes to revive its economy.

But citing the alleged jailing of journalists and political opponents, the forced closures of NGOs, human rights violations, and high unemployment and inflation, the Economist recently described Sisi as repressive as Hosni Mubarak – the former president who was ousted in 2011 during the Arab Spring – and as incompetent as Mohamed Morsi, the first democratically elected but controversial Islamist president who was forced out in a coup three years ago.

The stakes go beyond the Nile, the Economist argued.

“As the largest Arab state, Egypt is central to the region’s future,” wrote the Economist. “If it succeeds, the Middle East will start to look less benighted; if it fails, today’s mayhem will turn even uglier.”

Egyptian foreign ministry spokesperson Ahmed Abu Zeid downplayed the British magazine’s dire warning.

“As a leading magazine in economic and financial analysis, one would expect the Economist to provide objective, informed analysis that focuses on evaluating and assessing the merits of Egypt’s economic policies over the past few months,” Zeid wrote in an op-ed on Egypt’s foreign ministry blog, according to state-owned newspaper Ahram Online.

But like Sisi, Ahram admits the country faces problems. The news website recently reported that Egypt’s foreign currency reserves decreased by $2 billion at end of the July to $15.5 billion. That’s problematic for a country that depends on foreign cash – obtained mostly through tourism, an industry that’s in dire straits due to recent terror attacks and the crash of EgyptAir earlier this year.

The IMF loan would help Egypt avoid more ugliness at least temporarily. The question is whether Sisi could use that fleeting respite to put the country on a sustainable path and revive Cairo’s role as a leader in the region.

WANT TO KNOW

An Obvious Target

The death toll in an attack on the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul climbed to at least 16 people Thursday, a massacre locals said targeted “the best and the brightest.”

Students hid in terror throughout the university’s halls during the 10-hour siege, which began when a suicide bomber exploded a vehicle near the university’s entrance, clearing a path for two gunmen to evade security, said officials.

Afghan special forces slowly evacuated hundreds of students overnight Wednesday, declaring the siege over early Thursday morning after the two gunmen involved in the attack had been killed.

Afghani officials suspect the Haqqani wing of the Taliban, a hardline faction of the group largely based in Pakistan, of being behind the attack, although no group has yet claimed responsibility.

The American University of Afghanistan, thanks to its connections to the West and its ideal of a progressive Afghanistan, has become an obvious potential target for insurgents in the country who are increasingly escalating their attacks on sites associated with foreigners, say observers.

Christmas, Spanish style

The Spanish economy continues to defy expectations that the country’s ongoing political impasse – it’s now in its ninth month without a government – would hamper its economic recovery, according to reports released this week.

Spain’s economy grew 0.8 percent in the second quarter this year, putting the country’s economic growth on track to outpace Eurozone competitors like France and Germany as a whole for 2016.

But investors warn that the ongoing political uncertainty in Spain could soon take its toll, reported the Wall Street Journal.

The country has been without a full government since last December, when a divided parliament failed to install a prime minister and was dissolved. A similar deadlock erupted after a new parliament with no clear majority was elected in June.

In an attempt to build a new coalition, acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has agreed to submit himself to a vote of no confidence in parliament next week. But observers say the stalemate is likely to hold, with the end result being a highly unwelcome Christmas present for Spanish voters – yet another general election, this one held on Dec. 25.

A Peace, A Referendum

Negotiators from the Colombian government and the FARC rebel group said they reached a final peace deal this week that ends the five-decades-old insurgency in Colombia, one of the world’s longest running conflicts.

The agreement, finalized in negotiations in Cuba, comes shortly after a ceasefire was agreed to between both parties in June.

The peace deal not only ends the Colombian government’s fighting with the rebels but also deals with issues of land reform, the drug trade, and trials for alleged human rights abuses, reported CNN.

This peace deal still has to overcome one important hurdle, however: Colombians must approve the landmark deal in an Oct. 2 referendum for it to take effect.

And because the deal includes provisions allowing FARC leaders to avoid prison for confessing to their crimes, some Colombians might balk at what they see to be a lack of justice after decades of murder, kidnapping and drug trafficking.

DISCOVERIES

Bring On The Celestial Welcome Wagon

Astronomers have long suspected that Proxima Centauri, the red dwarf star that is the nearest known star to our sun, could be home to a planet despite the lack of concrete proof.

Now it appears that those suspicions have been confirmed – scientists say they have discovered a small, rocky planet orbiting the sun’s closest stellar neighbor.

A new study published in the journal Nature this week lays out the evidence for the existence of what would be the closest planet ever detected outside our solar system.

Based on a statistical analysis of Proxima Centauri’s behavior, scientists say the planet, dubbed “Proxima b,” is “quite likely” to exist, reports the Washington Post. Proxima b orbits the parent star every 11 days, and it’s estimated to be at least 1.3 times as massive as the Earth.

And like other planets that orbit around red dwarf stars – think Earth, Mars and Venus – Proxima b is probably rocky and tidally locked, meaning one half constantly faces the sun while the other sits permanently in darkness.

The next question to be answered is whether or not Proxima b has an atmosphere, say astronomers. If it does, it could have a temperature that resembles that of Earth’s and thus the ability to maintain liquid water – and therefore, possibly life – on its surface.

Regardless of the lingering questions, astronomers are confident this is an important find.

“It’s so inspiring, it’s our closest star,” Lisa Kaltenegger, an astronomer not involved in the study, told the Washington Post. “A planet next door. How much more inspiring can it get?”