May 06, 2019

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NEED TO KNOW

SUDAN

Curtain Call

In Sudan, it’s the people versus the generals.

Since the military overthrew Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir last month, activists have been calling for the generals who once propped him up to transition the country to democracy. Instead, as al-Bashir and his allies sit in jail, the generals have been reluctant to relinquish power.

National Public Radio reported that the generals have proposed a transitional council to rule the country that would include seven military officers and three civilians.

Thousands have staged a sit-in outside the military’s headquarters in the capital of Khartoum.

“Today’s rally is a message to the military council as well as regional and international players that the Sudanese people will not give up on their demand for a civilian government,” Ahmed Rabie, leader of the Sudanese Professionals Association, a group that helped oust al-Bashir, told the Associated Press.

Sudan’s Transitional Military Council said on Sunday it would announce its plan for the country’s transitional period this week, after reviewing one by the Declaration of Freedom and Change Forces, an alliance of activists and opposition groups, Reuters reported.

But in the meantime, there’s no sign of the tensions easing. A protester died after being shot on Saturday when security forces attempted to break up a sit-in outside a military facility in Nyala, the capital of South Darfur, the AP reported.

In April, protests led to the ouster of Al-Bashir, ending 30 years of a brutal dictatorship, the New York Times reported in a multimedia project that included audio interviews with an air force chief and his son who both called on the president to step down.

But at the same time, the military’s reluctance to enact meaningful reforms reflects a problem that has bedeviled many countries in the region since the Arab Spring of 2011, the Los Angeles Times explained. As public discontent undermines long-ruling dictators – as in Algeria recently – the military seizes control of the state. But military leaders rarely address the conditions that led to the public discontent in the first place.

“[If] you’re not granting people political and civil rights, then you’re essentially giving them nothing but repression, and that is ultimately unsustainable,” Saudi political analyst Mohammed Alyahya told Reuters, adding that the problem is worse if the economy is struggling to grow and youth unemployment is high, as is the case in many Arab and African states.

In Sudan, like elsewhere in the region, the role of Islamist parties is a wild card in the tumult. Islamist groups supported al-Bashir, who used them to bolster his appeal to pious Muslim constituents.

The party leaders, in turn, portrayed themselves as “kezain,” or drinking vessels by which Muslims could “imbibe” the faith. Now, however, the Guardian noted, pro-democracy activists have targeted the Islamists as personae non gratae in politics. For now, the generals are siding with the protesters. They’ve forced Islamist generals out of service and prevented Islamists from staging demonstrations.

The BBC wondered if that could set the stage for outside actors to meddle in Sudan during this uncertain time. The Saudis back the generals. Turkey and Qatar are aligned with the Islamists.

The stage is set for another proxy war. And many hope the curtain call doesn’t lead to another Syria.

WANT TO KNOW

NORTH MACEDONIA

Westward Bound

Pro-western candidate Stevo Pendarovski won the presidential run-off vote in North Macedonia over the weekend, firming up the country’s path toward joining the European Union and NATO.

Representing the country’s present ruling coalition, Pendarovski received 51.7 percent of the votes to nationalist candidate Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova’s 44.7 percent, the State Election Commission said after 99.5 percent of the votes had been counted, Reuters reported.

That’s a significantly wider margin than the narrow one that separated the two candidates in the first round of voting two weeks ago, following a campaign dominated by debate over the name change that ended the country’s dispute with Greece and removed an obstacle to EU accession.

Pendarovski backed the name change, while Siljanovska-Davkova opposes it, though she is in favor of joining the EU.

“The victory of this concept brings a future for the republic of North Macedonia and it’s our ticket to Europe,” Pendarovski said after the results came in. However, Siljanovska-Davkova’s nationalist VMRO-DPMNE accused the government of bribing and threatening voters to engineer the win.

ISRAEL

Tit For Tat

Hamas fired hundreds of rockets into Israel from Gaza on Sunday, killing at least four Israelis and prompting an immediate retaliation, in what marked the most serious violence in the on-again, off-again conflict since an all-out war in 2014.

Israel’s retaliatory air strikes raised the death toll to 23, the Associated Press reported.

The Israeli deaths are the first casualties from rocket fire since the 2014 war, the news agency noted, warning that the fighting could escalate as Palestinian militants threaten targets farther inside Israel, and the latter sends additional troops to the Gaza border.

Israel and Hamas have fought three wars since Hamas seized Gaza from Western-backed Palestinian forces in 2007. But Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said in a statement late Sunday that the group is “not interested in a new war” and offered to stand down if Israel “immediately starts implementing understandings about a dignified life.”

That sentiment aside, AP suggested Hamas is seeking to pressure Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom they perceive as vulnerable politically.

BRUNEI

One Step Back

Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah extended the kingdom’s moratorium on the death penalty to cover the laws introduced last month calling for men caught engaging in gay sex to be stoned to death.

While the law will remain on the books, the decision clarifies that the ultimate penalty will likely never be enforced, the BBC reported, noting that Brunei’s broader moratorium on capital punishment has meant that no executions have been carried out there since 1957.

In his speech, the sultan directly addressed the global outcry that resulted from the country’s new strict interpretation of Islamic law, saying he was aware of  “many questions and misperceptions” about the legislation, called the Syariah Penal Code Order (SPCO).

However, he insisted on the “merit” of the rules, which also call for caning or a prison term as long as 10 years for lesbian sex and for amputation as a penalty for theft.

DISCOVERIES

The Gift of a Voice

Speech-generating devices have allowed individuals who have lost the ability to speak, such as the famed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, to communicate their ideas to others.

Formulating sentences through these devices, however, is a slow and arduous process. But a team led by neurologist Edward Chang might be on to something, the Economist reported.

The researchers explained in their study that synthetic speech can be formed by directly reading and translating the brain signals of people with paralysis of the vocal cord muscles.

“For the first time, this study demonstrates that we can generate entire spoken sentences based on an individual’s brain activity,” said Chang in a statement.

In their experiment, the team used electrodes to record the brain activity of five participants with epilepsy, particularly the sections that send signals to the muscles of the vocal tract.

The scientists then fed the collected data to an algorithm, which converted the signals into vocal-tract configurations, and thus into sound.

The system wasn’t entirely accurate, but it showed that it could produce speech even when a person mimed sentences, rather than speaking them out loud.

All of the study’s participants were able to speak. Chang’s team will now test how the method will fare with people who cannot speak, hopefully leading to more-effective devices, and giving a voice to many.