The World Today for June 20, 2024

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The Genie in the Bottle

TUNISIA

Last month, prominent Tunisian lawyer Sonia Dahmani was on a popular talk show addressing comments by President Kais Saied who alleged a conspiracy to push thousands of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa into Tunisia.

She wondered how that was possible, given the dire economic conditions in her country.

“What kind of extraordinary country are we talking about?” she mused. “The one that half of its youth want to leave?”

A day later, Dahmani was summoned to court, reported Al Jazeera. Instead, she took refuge in the bar association’s Lawyers’ House. Raided by police, she – as well as the journalists covering the situation during a live broadcast for France 24 – were arrested. Masked police also raided the Lawyers’ House a few days later as demonstrations broke out against the raids, arrests and beatings, France 24 reported.

Dahmani, meanwhile, is only the latest lawyer among others and journalists, opposition politicians or civil society activists to be arrested under a law known as Decree 54, ostensibly created to fight fake news – but instead, critics say, is used to suppress dissent, according to Amnesty International. Anyone who criticizes Saied or the government faces arrest, prosecution and five-year sentences.

Meanwhile, those trying to speak up – especially for migrants – are often branded “traitors” by Saied.

The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy calls the development “the slow constriction” of civil society that began about two years after Saied, an economics professor, won free elections in 2019.

Since the Tunisian revolution, which was partly caused by high unemployment, removed long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 and ignited the Arab Spring across the MENA region, Tunisia has struggled politically and economically, a situation that worsened after the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

Unemployment in Tunisia is still one of the highest in the region. Around 17 percent of Tunisians live under the poverty line, with even the middle class struggling to afford sugar, milk or meat, when these commodities are even in the stores at all. Thousands of young Tunisians have been trying over the past few years to emigrate to Europe as a result. Hundreds, meanwhile, have been jailed in a revival of debtor’s prison, wrote Human Rights Watch.

Last year, Tunisia rejected a $1.9 billion IMF deal to bail out the country again, because Saied said that “foreign diktats” would lead to more poverty. Some analysts say Tunisia was right to reject the deal. Others, however, worry that Tunisia is edging toward economic meltdown.

The problem is that the president is focusing on dissent when the country is on the edge. “It almost seems like he’s living in a parallel universe or on another planet,” Syrine, a 24-year-old former supporter of Saied, told Foreign Policy. “He doesn’t see or chooses not to see his people’s problems or acknowledge their existence. His only job is the witch hunt of his opponents.”

That the government, meanwhile, seems fixated on suppressing dissent rather than fixing these economic problems makes sense, say analysts, because the fix would involve restructuring the economy – which would increase hardship and likely set off a sociopolitical crisis, possibly like the one that brought down Ben Ali. “Social peace is not a game,” Saied said after rejecting the IMF deal.

Even so, protests have broken out this year against deteriorating living standards.

At the same time, it’s also likely Saied is expanding a crackdown on dissent and enforcing his brand of patriotism in order to stay in power after elections this fall, Deutsche Welle wrote. Critics say it borders on insanity.

Recently, for example, Saied ordered authorities to arrest seven sports officials, including the head of the Tunisian swimming federation, after they failed to fly the country’s flag at a recent swimming competition, the BBC reported. Saied was supposedly furious over the flag’s absence, calling it “an act of aggression.”

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Sore Losers

NEW CALEDONIA

Police in New Caledonia arrested pro-independence leader Christian Tein and 10 others Wednesday over their role in the deadly riots that swept the overseas French territory last month, unrest that came as Paris sought to impose voting reforms critics said would negatively impact the archipelago’s Indigenous population, Al Jazeera reported.

Authorities said the individuals were detained for “organized crime” offenses and accused them of playing a role in sparking days of unrest in May.

Meanwhile, New Caledonia’s officials have launched an investigation into last month’s violence, which killed nine people including two police officers, injured hundreds and caused around $1.6 billion in damage. The unrest also prompted France to declare a state of emergency in the territory and deploy around 3,000 security personnel to the archipelago.

The violence broke out after both houses of the French parliament passed a reform that would allow French residents living in New Caledonia for 10 years or more to vote.

The territory’s Indigenous Kanak people – who make up around 41 percent of the population – expressed concern that the reform would leave them in a minority and hinder their efforts to push for independence from Paris.

Last month, French President Emmanuel Macron visited the archipelago and met with officials and independence leaders, including Tein. He left the island saying that Paris would review the reforms again within a month.

Last week, he announced the suspension of the reform plan, the Guardian noted.

Observers said the measure needed approval by a constitutional congress comprising both houses before it could be passed. However, Macron dissolved parliament and called for early elections on June 30 and July 7, preventing the congress from convening.

Pro-independence groups have demanded the complete withdrawal of the reform plan, while others believe the measure is in effect dead following the president’s call for new elections – a decision influenced by the recent defeat of Macron’s allies by far-right parties in the European parliamentary elections earlier this month.

The Politics of Entropy

ITALY

Italy’s upper house of parliament approved a proposed constitutional overhaul this week that would allow the prime minister to be directly elected, an ambitious reform measure that has prompted fears of authoritarianism and further chaos in Italian politics, Reuters reported.

Dubbed “the mother of all reforms” by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, the overhaul would allow voters to elect the prime minister for five years, while the coalition supporting the winning candidate would be given at least 55 percent of seats to ensure a workable majority in both houses of parliament.

Meloni has pushed for the changes, claiming that it will help end political instability in Italy, which has been dogged by nearly 70 administrations since the end of World War Two.

But critics warned that reform will create more uncertainty in Italian politics, adding that it would also prevent the country from responding quickly to future crises.

Constitutional scholars also launched an appeal against Meloni’s proposal, saying it presented “various alarming aspects” and would cause “irreparable contradictions” in the country’s charter.

They added that the president’s position “would be reduced to a notary role and would risk losing his function as an arbiter and guarantor,” according to Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata (ANSA), Italy’s main news wire.

An op-ed in Politico said, “The optics are terrible,” adding that the measure is reminiscent of another introduced by Benito Mussolini a century ago that paved the way to dictatorship.

The government has rejected accusations that it is trying to weaken the legislature and the president’s role in order to instigate authoritarian rule.

The bill will now go to the lower house of parliament, but analysts believe that the reform will most likely need to be put to a referendum, ANSA reported separately.

Under Italian law, constitutional amendments need a two-thirds majority in both houses to avoid a referendum, and the overhaul did not receive the two-thirds majority in the upper house.

The Taxman Leaveth

KENYA

The Kenyan government this week scrapped a series of tax proposals, including a 16 percent value-added tax on bread, that had sparked rage and protests in the East African nation as it seeks to shore up its finances and eliminate its national debt, the BBC reported.

On Tuesday, lawmakers announced they were dropping some of the tax proposals following a meeting with ruling party legislators and President William Ruto.

Including the bread tax, officials are also scrapping levies on cooking oil, mobile money services and motor vehicles. They also reversed an eco-tax targeting products that negatively impact the environment, such as packaging and plastics.

The axed proposals are part of Ruto’s plan to make Kenya more self-sustainable and resolve its $80 billion national debt.

But opposition leaders and many Kenyans warned that the measures will impact the country’s poor and raise prices on key goods, such as sanitary napkins, computers and other key goods. Others cautioned that the duties will curb economic growth and increase unemployment.

Kenyans have taken to the streets this week to protest the financial bill with police arresting more than 200 people, the Associated Press wrote.

Since he was elected in 2022, Ruto has introduced a series of taxes on fuel, salaries and gross sales, including a 1.5 percent housing tax on gross income for salaried individuals.

The president has previously said that Kenyans are undertaxed but acknowledged the difficulty in urging citizens to accept more taxation.

DISCOVERIES

Small-Arm Terrors

Small and nearly useless arms did not deter the mighty Tyrannosaurus rex from terrorizing the planet millions of years ago.

They also did not appear to have impacted another apex predator, the horned Carnotaurus sastrei that lived around what is now South America’s Patagonia region.

And now a new study has found that a newly discovered close relative of the C. sastrei remained a fearsome beast, despite having punier arms than the T. rex.

Named Koleken inakayali, this carnivorous, bipedal dino was a member of the abelisaurid family – which also includes C. sastrei – known for their distinctive, short-snouted faces, really short arms and fearsome predatory habits.

Found in Argentina’s La Colonia geological formation, the K. inakayali measured 16 feet in length and lived near the end of the dinosaur era around 70 million years ago.

“These guys were the apex predator in that part of the world,” study co-author Michael Pittman told Live Science. “They were occupying the same role that T. rex would have been doing in parts of ancient North America.”

The research team was able to identify the creature after piecing together a treasure trove of fossilized bones, including parts of the skull, a nearly complete backbone, some tail vertebrae and almost complete hind limbs.

Although they did not find arm bones, they suggested that the K. inakayali’s upper limbs resembled those of the C. sastrei – both of which were smaller than those of the T. rex. What set apart the two extinct beasts was the K. inakayali’s smaller stature and lack of horns above the eyes.

Scholars are still wondering why these abelisaurids and other big dinos sported these dinky arms: Some suggest that they had a purpose in capturing prey, while others believe they were leftovers from evolution.

Still, K. inkayali had a formidable skull and jaw to make up for its puny appendages, with the authors explaining that the findings hint at abelisaurids having experienced rapid skull evolution compared with other dinosaurs.

“This finding sheds light on the diversity of abelisaurid theropods in Patagonia right before the mass extinction event,” lead author Diego Pol told National Geographic. “It expands what we know about abelisaurids living in this area during the Cretaceous Period and shows that they were more diverse than previously understood.”

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