The ghost of Mohamed Bouazizi was heard in Tunisia this week.
In 2010 Mr. Bouazizi set fire to himself in protest over unemployment and police harassment. This led to the uprising of 2011 which overthrew President Ben Ali which in turn was followed by the other Arab uprisings. This week, on the 7th anniversary, nationwide rioting broke out again in Tunisia. (The anniversary this year falls this Sunday)
Clashes with police erupted in more than 20 towns. The ousting of Ben Ali, who misruled for 24 years, raised expectations of a better future, but the country’s structural problems including deep inequality, youth unemployment, and poverty remain. Many of those on the streets this week were students.
Similar structural issues were factors in the outbreak of war in Syria where, alas, the end is not yet in sight.
Government forces, loyal to President Assad, have renewed an offensive in Idlib province which has displaced more than 100,000 civilians. Many had already had to escape fighting elsewhere in the country. Idlib is supposed to one of the four de-escalation zones agreed by Turkey, Russia, and Iran. This escalation led, on Tuesday, to the Turkish foreign ministry summoning the Russian and Iranian ambassadors to express concern that their governments were supporting Assad’s offensive. This calls into question last September’s ‘Astana Troika’ agreement in which the three countries agreed to serve as guarantors of a cease-fire. For its part, Russia does not accept that some rebel groups are covered by the ceasefire. Even so, it’s unclear if Moscow green-lighted the offensive. President Assad, who now will not lose in Syria, may be feeling bolder and has vowed to take back 100% of the country. This will not play well later this month when Russia hosts a ‘national dialogue’ among Syrian groups in Sochi.
The Russians were upset and caught by surprise this week when their main airbase in Syria was attacked by a swarm of drones launched, they said, from the rebel-controlled village of Muwazarra – that’s in an area of Turkish ‘responsibility’ for a ceasefire. However, Turkey has made no efforts to disarm the dominant militia there which is an Al Qaeda affiliate. Defeating ISIS was the only thing binding Iran, Russia, and Turkey together – those ties are now fraying.
On the South and North Korean border – talks began. The North will send a delegation to the Winter Olympics – it’s a start which could lead to meaningful talks about denuclearising the Korean peninsula, but, I argued here before, this may simply be Kim Jong Un playing nice ahead of the expected American pressure this spring.
Either way, this start was approved by China’s President Xi, who called his South Korean counterpart to say so. However, Xi also seems to have approved building barracks and other military installations on artificial islands in the South China Sea despite agreeing not to. For example, all sorts of military activity seem to be happening on Fiery Cross Reef, despite it being in a contested region. China claims almost all of the South China Sea, and the island building, and militarising is part of that claim.
That’s power politics, so was the sacking of Steve Bannon. The former chief strategist of Donald Trump was turfed out of the White House last year and was busy sniping at his former boss from his position as head of the right-wing news site Breitbart. This included him being a source for the anti-Trump book ‘Fire and Fury’. This week ‘Sloppy Steve’ as Trump now calls him, was fired. Subtext? Well, Breitbart’s financial backers seemed to have answered the question as to where power lies – still with the president.
And possibly with Angela Merkel. Last ditch negotiations for a coalition government with the SDP in Germany appeared to bear fruit. Compromises were made. Formal negotiations over cabinet positions can now begin.
And let the games begin… the football games in Saudi Arabia. Never mind Phillipe Coutinho’s transfer from Liverpool to Barcelona… the real action was in Riyadh where for the first time women were allowed to attend a match. The General Sports Authority said that ‘adaptions’ had been completed allowing for women’s seating. These social reforms are now coming on a regular basis, and they’re coming from the top.
And finally, Thailand’s Prime Minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, has taken avoiding issues to a new low. With reporters waiting to speak to him he had a cardboard cut-out of himself installed behind microphones and, as he walked into a building, said – ‘Any questions… ask this guy’