The World Today for December 24, 2018

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The Spark that Changed the World

Eight years ago this month, a Tunisian fruit vendor finally had enough of the low wages, corruption and indignities he and his family had suffered for years. A female police officer had slapped him in the face in the marketplace, a humiliation he would not endure.

“What happened next changed the world,” wrote the Independent.

Mohammed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in front of the governor’s office in Sidi Bouzid, a provincial city in the center of the North African country.

His act of self-immolation triggered a wave of protests that morphed into the Arab Spring, an uprising that helped give rise to a revolution and coup d’état in Egypt, the rise of the Islamic State, the Syrian civil war and other convulsions in the Middle East.

On Dec. 17, the eighth anniversary of Bouazizi’s death, Tunisian activists took to the streets wearing red vests – an echo of the yellow vests worn by French protesters who are also disgruntled with the state of things in their country.

“We won’t back down and we won’t go home until our demands are met,” Riad Jrad, a leader of the Red Vest movement, told Bloomberg.

Another activist, Seifeddin El-Ghabri, said that wearing the vests was not necessary. “This is the name of our movement, but the first blow came in Sidi Bouzid, which witnessed the igniting of the spark of revolution in Tunisia in 2011.”

Tunisia is a rare example of a thriving democracy in the Arab world. It has a vibrant civic culture.

When Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited in November, for example, demonstrators panned him as an autocrat who killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi, reported Reuters. Such demonstrations would be crushed in many other countries in the region.

Even so, the country faces big challenges, including a sluggish economy and terrorism.

Teachers, lawyers and civil servants have gone on strike, demanding pay raises after years of stagnant wages.

The protest movement adopted the color red “because the economic situation in Tunisia has hit dangerous levels,” wrote Al Monitor.

In 2015, Islamic State fighters attacked tourist spots in Tunis and on the Mediterranean. Today, analysts say they are less worried about Tunisian militants returning home from Iraq and Syria – a phenomenon that raises fears in European countries – than they are about terrorist groups that continue to operate in the country’s impoverished south, the Washington Post reported.

“Tunisia is the land of recruitment,” International Crisis Group analyst Michael Bechir Ayari said.

Tunisia is in a tricky situation right now. Tyrants and democrats should beware.



Speaking of Protests

Four days of widespread protests in Sudan are prompting hopes and fears of an imminent end to the 29-year rule of President Omar al-Bashir, who was indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in 2010.

It’s not the ethnic cleansing in Darfur but his disastrous economic performance that has sparked his people’s ire, Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported, following the deaths of at least nine protesters and the arrests of 14 opposition leaders.

Sudan lost three-quarters of its oil output when the south seceded in 2011.

The protests began Wednesday after the government tripled the price of a loaf of bread from about $0.02 to $0.06, heightening anger over inflation and shortages of basic commodities, Al Jazeera reported.

While the number of protesters has been low, demonstrations have cropped up around the country and persisted despite the deployment of tear gas and baton-wielding riot police, the news channel noted. On Monday, the country’s doctors are expected to go on strike in the first of a series of work stoppages planned by an umbrella coalition of professional unions.


The Replacements

As worries mount over the possible impact on peace negotiations of Donald Trump’s plan to slash by half the number of US troops in Afghanistan, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Sunday appointed two anti-Taliban hardliners who have long criticized what they called his mismanagement of the war to head Afghanistan’s army and police forces.

Both Assadullah Khalid, the new minister of defense, and Amrullah Saleh, the new minister of interior, are close allies of the United States military and former spy chiefs, the New York Times reported.

The paper suggested that the appointment of the two hardliners is likely part of an Afghan strategy to prove that it can keep up the military pressure on the Taliban amid the nascent peace negotiations despite the proposed US drawdown – and make sure Taliban forces don’t make last-minute gains ahead of peace.

“Peace isn’t coming by begging,” said Fatullah Qaisari, a member of the defense committee of the Afghan Parliament. “The Taliban must be targeted and these two persons can be effective in terms of security in the country.”


Emboldened Once More?

Has Donald Trump’s decision to leave Syria to Turkey, Russia and Iran emboldened Moscow in Ukraine, too?

On Saturday, Russia added more than a dozen SU-27 and SU-30 fighter jets to its arsenal deployed in Crimea, adding fuel to the fire started by Moscow’s seizure of three Ukrainian navy ships and their crews on Nov. 25, Reuters reported.

The jets landed at Belbek air base in Crimea, which Moscow annexed by force in 2014 after the ouster of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, the agency said, noting that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has alleged Ukraine was preparing “a provocation” near Crimea before the end of the year.

The US State Department said Friday that Washington would boost military aid to Ukraine’s navy by $10 million following the seizure of the vessels, Reuters said separately.

“With this latest attack, Putin effectively has his hands around Ukraine’s throat and is tightening his grip,” Pavlo Klimkin, Ukraine’s foreign affairs minister, wrote recently in Politico.


New Houseguest

When Benny, a Beluga whale, moved into the River Thames back in September, British authorities believed that he was only passing by and would leave in a matter of days.

Apparently, the whale has taken a liking to his new habitat far away from his natural Arctic home and might stick around for Christmas, Reuters reported.

Benny is not the only one: The Thames has seen a resurgence in aquatic life after being declared “biologically dead” by the Natural History Museum in 1957. Cleanup efforts took decades, but by the 2000s the river was home to 125 fish species, seals, and occasional stray whales.

Scientists say it shows that cleaning up rivers and lakes really works – and that this example gives hope that other polluted bodies of water can be revived.

Meanwhile, tourists and locals have flocked to catch a sight of Benny. Still, not everyone is happy with the uninvited guest: British authorities have had to slow down a $7.5 billion tunnel project under the Thames because of his presence.

Beluga whales generally live in colder zones. They were last spotted in UK waters near the coast of northeastern England in 2015.

“This whale in its natural environment in the Arctic is a diverse feeder – so it is not a fussy eater,” the spokesman of the Port of London Authority told Reuters. “The Thames is much cleaner now so there are more fish stocks.”

Looks like Benny is going to have a nice holiday meal also.

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