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What an attack on an oil tanker says about Iran

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At first the ship’s operators said it was piracy. But the attack came from the sky. On July 29th an unmanned drone laden with explosives was flown into the MV Mercer Street (pictured), an oil tanker managed by an Israeli-owned firm, just off the coast of Oman. Two people on board, a British national and a Romanian citizen, were killed.

The strike wasn’t carried out by pirates, said America, Britain and Israel. It was the work of Iran. “This is exactly the reason why we must act now against Iran,” said Benny Gantz, Israel’s defence minister.

Iran quickly denied involvement—while ratcheting up the tension. Saeed Khatibzadeh, a spokesman for the foreign ministry, accused Israel of creating “instability, terror and violence”, and warned that “whoever sows the wind shall reap the whirlwind”.

And so the shadow war between Iran and Israel continues. In recent years several of their vessels have been attacked, with each side blaming the other. Israel has also struck Iranian positions in Syria and is accused of attacking important facilities in Iran, sometimes with cyber-weapons. An operation earlier this year, with conventional explosives planted at the site, did significant damage to Iran’s main uranium-enrichment complex, in Natanz.

The strike on the Mercer Street came just a week before Hassan Rouhani, a pragmatist who reached out to the West, is due to step down as Iran’s president (after the maximum two consecutive terms). Ebrahim Raisi, who won a rigged election in June, will take his place. Mr Raisi, a hardline cleric, has a narrow and suspicious view of the world, and of the West in particular. He rarely travels beyond Iran’s religious seminaries, let alone abroad. “A darker Iran is emerging,” says a foreign observer in Tehran.

If Iran was behind the attack, it was probably the work of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the country’s most powerful military force. Few Iranian presidents have succeeded in curbing the Guards, whose workings are murky and who often seem to pursue a policy at odds with that of the weak elected government. Mr Raisi is unlikely even to try. If the Guards answer to anyone it is to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Mr Raisi was handpicked by Mr Khamenei and is widely considered his yes-man. “Under the new administration, Iran will be much more assertive,” says Mohammad Marandi, an Iranian academic with close ties to the IRGC.

All of this complicates efforts to revive the nuclear deal signed in 2015 by Iran and six world powers. That agreement, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), had Iran curb its nuclear programme and agree to rigorous inspections in return for the lifting of some international sanctions. But under President Donald Trump, America then abandoned the deal in 2018. In response, Iran began breaching parts of it.

President Joe Biden promised to return to the deal if Iran came back into compliance. But a sixth round of indirect negotiations to revive the JCPOA ended in June. There was no date set for the resumption of talks. Iran, meanwhile, has continued to steadily expand its nuclear activity. It is enriching uranium beyond the levels required for civilian use and it is no longer co-operating with inspectors.

Nevertheless, America and Britain may want to limit any response to the strike on the Mercer Street in order to keep the JCPOA talks alive. Britain summoned Iran’s ambassador over the “unlawful and calous attack”. Iran summoned the British chargé d’affaires in Tehran, as well as Romania’s top envoy, to protest against the accusations that Iran was behind the attack.

Israel’s leaders, never fans of the JCPOA, may prefer a more forceful response. “This time the price is going up,” says Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence.

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Why Jordan leads the way in Arabic-language training

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THE COUNTER of Fahad Subeihi’s falafel stand is stacked with piles of sliced tomatoes, onions and pickled turnips dyed pink. “The students love it,” he says. Mr Subeihi’s stand is located in the Jabal Amman neighbourhood of Jordan’s capital, Amman, amid a bevy of Arabic-language schools. Mr Subeihi estimates that, before the pandemic, half of his customers were foreigners, mostly Western students.

Jordan has cornered the market in Arabic-language training in the region. Unlike many of its neighbours, it is relatively stable and at peace. Its nickname, the “Hashemite Kingdom of Boredom”, may turn off thrill-seekers. But it attracts Western universities and grant programmes, which have largely stopped sending students to more volatile countries.

“Amman has become our largest centre,” says Pauline Koetschet of the French Institute of the Near East (IFPO), which teaches mainly European students. IFPO used to have centres in Aleppo and Damascus, but closed them because of Syria’s civil war. It still has a centre in Beirut, Lebanon’s unruly capital, but schools are increasingly worried about sending students there. “We have universities that tend to prefer Amman for security,” she says.

Oman and Morocco also offer stability, but Jordan has other advantages. Unlike Oman, at the tip of the Arabian peninsula, Jordan is in the heart of the Arab world. And although Morocco is still a popular destination, its dialect, called darija, is difficult to understand. Jordan’s, on the other hand, is close to the Modern Standard Arabic taught in most Western classrooms.

“I feel like Amman has a monopoly on Arabic-language students from America,” says Patrick, who studied Arabic on a grant from Boren, a language programme funded by America’s Defence Department. In normal times Jordan is Boren’s second-most popular destination for grant recipients after Taiwan. (Arabic and Mandarin are languages the programme deems crucial to national security.) Students on Boren grants cannot train in countries for which the State Department has issued high-level travel advisories, which have become common during the pandemic. Even before, though, the rule meant nearly all of Jordan’s neighbours were out of luck.

The pandemic has cut into the number of Arabic-language students travelling to the region, so Jordan has been hit particularly hard. Katy Whiting of the Sijal Institute, an Arabic-language school in Jabal Amman, says that normally over 200 students would be enrolled at Sijal during the summer. As it is, 30 are attending classes in person and another 30 are studying online.

The absence of students has hurt neighbourhoods like Jabal Amman, which is eerily quiet. Muhammad Zuher says his restaurant, Kmajeh, near the popular Rainbow Street, used to draw a steady crowd of Western students. Now it is largely empty. Still, he is confident the students will return. “They want security, safety and to practise Arabic with locals,” he says. “Welcome to Jordan.”

This article appeared in the Middle East & Africa section of the print edition under the headline “Being boring has its advantages”

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A tangy Nigerian cooking ingredient is cheering the diaspora

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THE FERMENTED African locust bean, known in Yoruba as iru, has an unmistakable cheesy tang that hits you before you see it. “Iru isn’t just a flavour on the tongue,” says Ozoz Sokoh, a food blogger. After an elaborate process of fermentation, the smell is essential to its flavour. Iru is further enriched once tossed in smoky, bleached palm oil.

Long before Nestlé came to Nigeria with its Maggi bouillon cubes, iru was flavouring soups, stews and rice dishes. After independence the cube, with its monosodium glutamate seasoning, became more popular than iru, particularly in cities. But iru is making a worldwide comeback, thanks to a dish called ayamase which is packed with it.

A decade ago you would have been hard-pressed to find ayamase on a party menu. Instead you might have found ofada, a dish named after a town in south-western Nigeria close to Lagos, the commercial capital. It consists of unpolished rice and a spicy fried red-pepper beef stew. But now ayamase, the green-pepper rival of ofada, is wherever you find Nigerians, at home or abroad.

Bilikisu Raji, who lives in Ibadan, another big city in the south-west, was taught to ferment iru by her mother-in-law. The iru enterprise is run by women because, she jokes in Yoruba, the men aren’t up to it. She buys the yellow-tinged seeds in the market and boils them for 12 hours in a cauldron. She removes the chaff to reveal black-brown beans, peels them with the balls of her feet, washes them through a sieve, then boils them again. Eventually she dry-roasts them and covers them with a raffia tray to let them ferment overnight. Finally she rubs the iru in salt, then rolls it up in dry leaves, ready to sell. A small wrap weighing 20 grams goes for only 50 naira (an American dime). She survives on the patronage of foreign customers who buy as much as $25-worth at a time to use in ayamase abroad.

Nowadays you can find iru on shelves across the world. Ms Sokoh, who has lived in the Netherlands and Canada, has seen it in shops everywhere. “You find frozen iru, fresh iru, powdered iru, dried iru on the shelves in ways you couldn’t ten years ago,” she says. Suffering from high blood pressure, she steers clear of stock cubes in favour of iru. “There’s definitely a saltiness without being sodium-heavy,” she says.

To non-West Africans, iru is likely to remain a niche ingredient “like fish sauce”, sighs Tunde Wey, a popular Nigerian chef based in New Orleans. He has collaborated with an American company to sell iru in sleek jars, hoping to boost small farmers back home while getting fellow cooks abroad to appreciate its versatility. Whether or not Western foodies catch on to this superbean rich in probiotics, iru is fuelling Nigerian partygoers around the world.

This article appeared in the Middle East & Africa section of the print edition under the headline “Locust beans are back”

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Israel is loth to regulate its spyware exports

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WHEN INTERNATIONAL news organisations revealed that at least ten governments had used Pegasus, a powerful software tool created by Israel’s NSO Group, to hack into the smartphones of thousands of people around the world, including politicians, human-rights activists and journalists, the Israeli government shrugged. None of its ministers has publicly commented. A humdrum official statement insisted that all Israeli cyber-exports were regulated by the government in “adherence to international arrangements”. Export licences were granted “exclusively to governmental entities, for lawful use, and only for the purpose of preventing and investigating crime and counter-terrorism”.

Israeli defence exporters privately expressed ridicule. “Arms companies can’t keep track of every rifle and bullet they sell to legitimate customers,” said one. “Why should we have higher expectations when it comes to software?…Israeli spying is a sexy subject and these reports are the price for doing business.”

In any case, the Pegasus customer list correlates neatly with many of the governments courted by Israel’s former prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, who lost his job in June. These include like-minded populists such as the rulers of Brazil, Hungary and India, along with Sunni Arab regimes with whom Israel recently established diplomatic relations: Bahrain, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia, a fellow enemy of Iran, is listed, too. “Deals on cyber-surveillance are the kind of sweetener you can throw into a diplomatic package with a foreign leader,” says a former NSO consultant.

Israel’s new government, too, has close ties to the cyber-industry. The prime minister, Naftali Bennett, made a fortune as a founder of an online-banking security company and is a cyber-defence aficionado. His interior minister and right-hand woman, Ayeled Shaked, is a former tech executive with friends at NSO; she supported awarding the firm government contracts. The new defence minister, Benny Gantz, chaired a company that specialised in data-mining for policing and counter-terror purposes. The head of that (now defunct) company, Ram Ben Barak, a former Mossad bigwig, currently chairs the foreign-affairs and defence committee, which monitors cyber-exports. A hearing on the NSO affair is scheduled, but only in a secretive subcommittee behind closed doors.

Israel’s Defence Export Control Law of 2007 requires companies to undergo a rigorous licensing process. It was passed after America, Israel’s chief patron, complained about Israel selling arms to China. But defence officials and human-rights campaigners admit that once a licence has been obtained, the Israeli government prefers not to know how the tools are used.

Some firms have set up in-house ethics committees, fearing that otherwise they might become tainted, making it harder to do business in the West. “The more progressive-minded workforce coming to the fore in America’s tech giants could treat Israel as a pariah, object to having research centres in Israel and collaborating with Israeli companies,” says a veteran dealmaker. Stung by the Pegasus revelations, investors in Novalpina Capital, a private-equity firm that owns NSO, are thinking of liquidating the fund. But Israel’s rulers, old and new, have fewer qualms.

This article appeared in the Middle East & Africa section of the print edition under the headline “Letting Pegasus fly”

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In Ethiopia’s civil war, Tigrayan forces take the offensive

THE STREETS of Dessie, in Ethiopia’s Amhara region, are loud and bustling. So are its restaurants and bars. But as Ethiopia’s civil war edges closer, the mood is darkening. In the past week military-training camps have sprung up. Outside a hospital a tent has been erected; wounded soldiers lie on stretchers. Through mountain fog come the screams of ambulance sirens. Such is the tension gripping the place that when your correspondent visited, he was arrested almost immediately and held for several hours.

The jitters are because rebels from Tigray are advancing fast and meeting weak resistance. As The Economist went to press, the fighting was drawing near to Weldiya, a strategically important town about 80km north of Dessie. To the west they have penetrated to within perhaps 80km of Gondar, Ethiopia’s historic capital (see map).

A few weeks ago, when the insurgents captured most of the Tigray region, including Mekelle, the capital, there may have been a chance for a negotiated end to Ethiopia’s civil war and accompanying humanitarian crisis. Instead, the war may be entering its most dangerous phase yet.

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On June 28th Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister, announced a unilateral ceasefire and withdrew his troops from Tigray. Yet instead of using the opportunity to open talks with the rebels led by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the region’s ruling party, Abiy tightened a blockade. Ignoring calls to join the ceasefire the TPLF has sent its forces well beyond Tigray’s borders. As well as into Amhara, they have marched east into the Afar region in what seems like a bid to control the road and rail link to Djibouti, through which about 95% of landlocked Ethiopia’s trade flows. The TPLF may even be mulling a march on Addis Ababa, the federal capital, to remove Abiy by force.

Abiy has responded with a call for total war, invoking the battle of Adwa, when Ethiopians from all corners defeated Italian invaders in 1896. The president of Amhara has ordered all armed residents to mobilise in a “campaign for survival”, while the president of Afar has called on his people to protect their land “whether by guns, sticks or stones”. Other regions have also sent in paramilitary forces.

The tactics on both sides are risky. The government’s mobilisation of ethnic militias is a recipe for bloodletting: most of their members are poorly trained and have been whipped up by allegations of Tigrayan atrocities. “Everyone is ready with anything they have, from machetes to Kalashnikovs,” says Teqil Nigusse, a merchant in Weldiya. In Addis Ababa and elsewhere, ordinary Tigrayans are being treated as fifth-columnists. Hundreds have been arrested and scores of Tigrayan-owned businesses, including hotels and bars, have been closed, in some cases simply for playing Tigrayan music.

For now, though, the Tigrayan forces have the upper hand. As the Ethiopian army has retreated, they have captured its heavy artillery. And they have turned their once-disorganised ranks into an effective fighting force, motivated by the murders and rapes committed by Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers. The insurgents’ counterparts in Amhara, by contrast, lack training and have been hastily assembled. The Tigrayans “have the military advantage now”, frets a young policeman in Dessie.

Even so, the Tigrayans’ gamble is also risky. Rather than focus on reclaiming disputed territory occupied by Amhara forces in the west, they are attacking on many fronts—and risk overstretching themselves. Tigrayans make up only about 7% of Ethiopia’s population. Amharas alone outnumber them four to one.

Securing the road to Djibouti, moreover, is no easy feat. The scorching deserts of Afar are harsh terrain and, beyond their own borders, Tigrayan forces cannot rely on widespread local support. The fighting in Afar has already forced tens of thousands of civilians from their homes. The resistance may be stiffening. Federal troops backed by Afar paramilitary forces seem to have halted the Tigrayan advance in the east. “Invading Afar was a historic mistake,” argues Dawud Mohammed Ali, a local academic.

The second risk is political. When the TPLF arrived in Addis Ababa in 1991 as a band of guerrillas who had toppled Ethiopia’s then military dictatorship, it could count on support from many of Ethiopia’s more than 80 ethnic groups. But after almost three decades in charge of the government in Addis Ababa, it has few friends left. Many would regard any move towards the capital as a brazen attempt to put itself back on the throne.

Despite the dangers, neither side in the war appears especially interested in talks to end it. The TPLF, believing it can smell victory, wants a transitional government to replace Abiy. The prime minister, for his part, insists that the TPLF must be defeated entirely. Many Ethiopians agree with him. Yet much blood has been spilled trying to do this, even as the government’s prospects have inexorably worsened.

This article appeared in the Middle East & Africa section of the print edition under the headline “Down from the mountains”

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Tunisia’s democracy totters as the president suspends parliament

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SOME CHEERED it as a necessary intervention into a broken political system. Others called it a “coup”, the possible end of Tunisian democracy. No one is playing down the significance of President Kais Saied’s decision to enact Article 80 of the constitution, under which he suspended parliament for 30 days and dismissed the prime minister, Hichem Mechichi. Mr Saied also lifted members’ legal immunity, saying he would preside over the office handling the prosecution of parliamentarians.

The president’s decision, delivered late on July 25th in his customarily awkward style, came after a day of protests spread across the country. Tens of thousands of Tunisians, braving the sweltering heat and defying a covid-19 lockdown, called for the downfall of the government. Some attacked the offices of Ennahda, the biggest party in parliament. After Mr Saied’s announcement, many of the protesters again took to the streets—to celebrate (pictured).

Tunisia is the one true democracy to emerge from the Arab spring protests of 2010-11 that toppled dictators in a handful of countries. But it has struggled in the decade since. Ten governments in ten years have failed to stem corruption or revitalise the economy. Covid-19 has added to the strain. The government declared victory over the virus in June last year. Now Tunisia is suffering a new spike in cases. The health service has collapsed. Oxygen supplies are at a premium. About 200 people (out of a population of 12m) are dying each day from the disease.

Earlier this month the government opened dozens of centres offering covid-19 vaccines. Large crowds showed up expecting to be jabbed, only to find chaos, confusion and widespread rumours of vaccine shortages. The dismissal of the health minister did little to appease an angry public—nor did the prime minister’s claim of ignorance over the operation. In a harbinger of things to come, Mr Saied stepped in, asking the army to assume management of the country’s pandemic response.

Mr Saied’s latest move has met condemnation from some of Tunisia’s political parties, while others were still formulating a response. Ennahda, a party with its roots in the Muslim Brotherhood (a regional Islamist movement) which now styles itself “Muslim democratic”, called the move “a coup against the Tunisian democracy and its constitution”. Rachid Ghannouchi, the party’s leader and speaker of parliament, was barred by the army from entering the chamber on July 26th. That morning he and his supporters staged a sit-in outside. Later in the day the police in Tunis stormed the office of Al Jazeera, a media outlet seen as sympathetic to Ennahda.

Tunisia’s politicians have little chance of swaying the overwhelmingly popular Mr Saied, who was elected two years ago as a protest against the political class. A former constitutional-law professor with no previous political experience, he won with 73% of the vote, drawing support from young Tunisians and others who viewed him as incorruptible. The same election produced a fractious and divided parliament, with no party or coalition claiming a majority. Mr Saied has attempted to play a larger role in domestic policy, previously the preserve of the prime minister and government. Since January the president has refused to swear in 11 new ministers.

It is no secret that Mr Saied, who helped to write Tunisia’s constitution (but later criticised it), wants to upend the political system. He would like the president to have more power and to do away with political parties and some elections. Instead, he suggests that Tunisians should elect local delegates, based on their merit, not their ideology. These delegates would appoint regional representatives, who would then appoint members of a national assembly. According to the constitution, two-thirds of parliament would need to approve any revision of the document.

What Mr Saied has planned for the near term is unclear. He has claimed the power to extend the 30-day suspension of parliament “until the situation settles down”. For now he says he will assume executive authority with the help of a new prime minister, whom he will select. (On July 26th he also dismissed the defence minister and acting justice minister.) The Tunisian General Labour Union, the country’s largest, has come out in support of Mr Saied’s moves, so long as they come with constitutional guarantees that state institutions will return.

But Tunisia’s sprawling bureaucracy looks to parliament for direction. It is not clear how Mr Saied, a member of no party, will enact the changes he desires. He faces an immediate challenge in managing Tunisia’s relationship with the IMF. The government had been negotiating a much-needed loan from the fund, which may now think twice about making any commitment.

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Where does South Africa go from here?

TO TRAVEL AROUND Durban last week was to witness scenes of wholesale devastation. Shopping centres were ransacked, with nothing left but decapitated mannequins lying amid broken glass. Torched factories smouldered, the smell of burnt materials wafting on the breeze from the Indian Ocean. Not that one could escape into the water. A noxious spill, thought to be from a scorched chemical warehouse, had closed the beach.

Elsewhere a humanitarian crisis was spreading. Queues for food snaked for ever. The main motorway into the city was closed after dozens of lorries were set alight. The country’s largest factory making anti-retroviral drugs was up in smoke. Vital supplies of bread, pills and nappies had to be flown in from Johannesburg. The city that hosts one of Africa’s busiest ports looked like the site of a natural disaster.

As in the case of America’s Hurricane Katrina, the carnage revealed much about the country in which it occurred—except that in South Africa the disaster was entirely man-made. In particular, the worst violence since the end of apartheid puts a spotlight on the party of Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress (ANC). Its failure to build a properly functioning state and to deliver economic growth created the potential for chaos. Its own factional battles set the timing. The effects of the destruction will be felt for years in Africa’s most industrialised country.

The proximate cause of the unrest is clear. On July 7th Jacob Zuma began a 15-month prison sentence for defying an order by the Constitutional Court to appear at an inquiry into vast corruption during his presidency of 2009-18. Messages calling for an uprising soon spread on social media. Thousands of people in townships in the provinces of Gauteng, which contains Johannesburg, and KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), the birthplace of Mr Zuma and home to the cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg, descended on factories, warehouses and malls. They were cheered on by those close to Mr Zuma, such as his daughter, Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla. Her twin brother, Duduzane Zuma, who has political ambitions, said people should steal “carefully” and “responsibly”. He later noted that the loss of at least 276 lives was “not an ideal situation for them and for any of us”.

And allies of Mr Zuma did more than cheer. On July 16th President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke of an “insurrection” and “nothing less than a deliberate, co-ordinated and well-planned attack on our democracy”. Three days later the government said it had arrested six of the “instigators”. On July 20th Mr Ramaphosa mentioned the use of “criminal networks” to organise looting. Though this may not have been a coup attempt, it was certainly an effort to render the country ungovernable and Mr Ramaphosa unpopular, so as to force the release of Mr Zuma and let his friends reassert control of the ANC.

Edendale, a township outside Pietermaritzburg, was among the first to explode. “Society is divided,” explains Michael Malinga, who farms chickens having recently lost his job with a local NGO. “These are the people who are envious of the good life that is being lived over there,” he said, pointing towards affluent suburbs. Although Mr Zuma’s incarceration was the “trigger”, he says, “looting didn’t take much to trigger.”

Peering at South Africa’s statistics verges on voyeurism. The unemployment rate, 33% in the first quarter of 2021, is the highest on record, perhaps the highest in the world. And it excludes those who have given up looking. Nearly half of black South Africans cannot find work or have stopped trying. Roughly 13m South Africans (22%) were hungry even before covid-19’s third wave, according to a survey.

Lockdowns have pushed people deeper into poverty. Poor workers, nearly all of whom are not white, are almost four times as likely to have lost jobs since covid-19 than higher-paid ones. The end of welfare grants introduced at the start of the virus has led to more hunger. A booze ban announced on June 27th has created “alcohol-thirsty people”, says Mr Malinga.

Desperation explains some of the horror. At a supermarket near Edendale five people died in a stampede; in a similar scene in Soweto ten perished. Other images shared on social media hint at the inequality behind the dash for goods, such as the woman who reportedly ended up with a couch worth 68,000 rand ($4,600) that was far too big to fit in her shack. “This is as close to a rebellion against inequality as SA has ever come,” argues Jonny Steinberg, a South African writer.

As more people joined in the looting, others began to feel left out. “We’ve become a joke, us people who don’t loot. People say ‘you’re stupid’”, says Kwasi Molefe, from the Chesterville township near Durban. Some people did not want to steal but feared there might be no food left in the shops, explains a grandmother.

Whatever the precise mix of conspiracy and poverty behind the violence, it was facilitated by failures of security. Police watched as people piled contraband onto pickup trucks. In downtown Pietermaritzburg one ransacked supermarket is around the corner from the main police station. Neither the criminal-intelligence branch of the police nor the domestic spy agency saw the violence coming or forewarned others in government. It took almost a week for the deployment of up to 25,000 troops to be authorised, a move that ultimately helped quell the chaos.

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As so often, ordinary South Africans filled the gap left by the state. At night in the suburbs of Durban and Pietermaritzburg, and in smaller KZN towns, pallets, branches and barbed wire were shoved into street entrances as barricades. Residents, some armed, took turns to stand guard overnight.

In most cases these vigils were peaceful. “I’ve never felt safer,” says Wimpie De Lange at the barricade between Chesterville and Westville, a suburb on the other side of the motorway. “This is South Africa. We come together after chaos.” At a roadblock in Pietermaritzburg a group of whites and South Africans of Indian descent joked with black students entering nearby university halls of residence. In case of trouble the whites had golf clubs and the Indians cricket bats.

But tensions have risen, at times fatally. In Phoenix, an Indian township north of Durban, at least 20 deaths have been reported. In a nearby black township residents say that family members were racially profiled and shot by Indians. Police and human-rights groups are investigating.

Even in peaceful areas some are uneasy about the roadblocks. Mbali Ntuli, a member of the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), who lives in a Durban suburb, says, “I don’t feel super comfortable as a black person with people asking me whether I live here.” She notes that it reminds her mother of apartheid, when black South Africans needed passes to enter white areas. Yet, adds Ms Ntuli, she understands the need for communities to protect themselves. “People are realising how exposed and unprotected we are.” For many, she says, “this is the final straw.”

Shades of the bad old days

It is a long cry from April 1994. Back then the world watched as South Africans queued from dawn to vote in the country’s first fully democratic election. Today the queues are for food, petrol and medicine. How did it come to this?

For most of the 20th century South Africa was a white-supremacist state. The creation of modern South Africa in 1910 established peace between Afrikaners (those of mainly Dutch descent) and British settlers at the expense of black people. The brutality of apartheid, introduced in 1948, built on colonial foundations. Under the National Party whites benefited from state largesse while non-whites were violently displaced and exploited. By the late 1980s white rule was morally and literally bankrupt. Pressure from the anti-apartheid struggle, capital flight and the end of the cold war brought about its demise.

The negotiated transition is seen by many on the left as a stitch-up. Blacks may have got the vote, goes the argument, but economic power remained with whites. “We missed the boat in 1994. We have no one to blame but ourselves,” says Important Mkhize, a leftist ANC figure, referring to his party’s apparent failings.

Such views, like mutterings about how life was better under apartheid, are overly cynical. Under Mandela (president from 1994 to 1999) and his successor, Thabo Mbeki (1999-2008), life improved for nearly all South Africans. Proper houses were built roughly ten times faster than shacks. Townships got running water and electricity. A basic welfare state was established. “Social grant” recipients rose from 2.5m to 12.4m under Mr Mbeki. His government’s sensible macroeconomic policies and a commodities boom raised growth to an average of 5% a year for four straight years for the first time since the 1960s. Unemployment went from horrific to merely awful.

Yet trouble was brewing. A corrupt arms deal in 1999, for which Mr Zuma still faces charges, set the standard for future graft. Black Economic Empowerment, a policy that incentivises firms to give equity to black investors or business to black-owned suppliers, has created a new generation of Randlords with more political acumen than entrepreneurial talent. “Cadre deployment”, whereby ANC party members get jobs on the basis of factional fealty rather than merit, has degraded the state. These appointees steer contracts towards chosen “tenderpreneurs”, who in turn donate to the party. By 2007 Kgalema Motlanthe, a party grandee, said: “This rot is across the board…Almost every project is conceived because it offers opportunities for certain people to make money.”

The blackouts that still plague the country began under Mr Mbeki, who neglected Eskom, the state power utility. His abject handling of the AIDS plague cost at least 330,000 lives, according to a Harvard study. It also contributed to his loss in a factional battle to Mr Zuma, who took over as the ANC’s president in 2007. That moment was crucial in fragmenting the party. What one ANC official called the party’s “rational centre” could no longer hold. Anarchy was loosed upon the country.

At its heart was Mr Zuma. Under him much of the progress was squandered. Corruption soared. The lure of jobs in the party led to scores of assassinations, most of them in KZN, where Mr Zuma’s fellow Zulus predominate. Agencies meant to stop crime ran smear campaigns on political enemies. Government came to resemble an organised-crime gang.

The economy was not helped by the global financial crisis and the end of the commodities boom. But “state capture” made things worse by deterring investment. Though growth slowed, the government kept on spending, more than doubling the share of debt to GDP during Mr Zuma’s reign. Much of this was directed to looted state-owned enterprises and wage rises for existing public-sector workers. To try to keep finances in check, the Treasury increased regressive taxes and ministries slowed the hiring of teachers, nurses and police. The result, writes Michael Sachs, a former Treasury official, is that “the real value of public services—particularly to the poor—has fallen.”

A year after bruising local-election results in 2016, the party rejected Mr Zuma and his preferred successor (an ex-wife). They turned instead to Mr Ramaphosa, who promised more jobs and less graft. His approach has been to lead from behind, appointing people to key jobs and leaving them alone. But he has not gone far enough. The “security cluster”, especially police and spies, is ineffectual. His cabinet remains replete with incompetents. Mr Ramaphosa’s defenders argue that he has to tread carefully because he needs to win internal ANC elections to stay in power. Yet South Africans are frustrated that he puts party before country.

The result of ANC misrule has been the entrenchment of two South Africas. In one, a multi-racial, but still disproportionately white, minority lives in a privatised bubble: private security, private schools, private health care and, increasingly, private (solar or generator) electricity and (borehole) water, too. In the other live most black and mixed-race (“coloured”) South Africans, with shoddy services, joblessness and hungry stomachs.

Before the unrest, NGOs working in townships warned of simmering tensions taken to boiling point by covid-19. The South African Human Rights Commission recently called Alexandra, a Johannesburg township, a “ticking time bomb”. The Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group said on June 30th, with devastating prescience, that “high food prices and no jobs could lead to social disorder and social instability.”

After the failure to heed those warnings, South Africa’s future is uncertain. The violence has damaged an already fragile economy. Gauteng and KZN account for half of the country’s GDP. Roughly 200 shopping centres and 3,000 shops were ransacked. Several small towns in KZN lost nearly all of their shops. In townships the economic self-harm has flabbergasted some residents. “We destroyed the amenities we had fought so hard for,” says Richard Yangaphi of Alexandra.

In KZN alone 150,000 jobs may be at risk. One supermarket employee, Mike Nkwana, has not worked since rioting destroyed his workplace, so has been unable to feed his children. He brings up the added impact of “the black tax”: on average one South African wage supports the livelihoods of 4.3 people, a burden disproportionately shouldered by black employees. “I don’t only look after my family,” he says.

Guns n’ hoses

Firms will ponder the risk of further unrest when making investment decisions. Toyota, which has a plant in Durban, told the municipality that it was “feeling very uncertain about the future of our business in KwaZulu-Natal”. Traders who rely on the port may look to alternatives such as Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Emigration enquiries have reportedly soared.

Those who stay may take extra precautions. Denzil Smith, a B&B owner in Pietermaritzburg with a fondness for Victorian knick-knacks, is not your natural vigilante. “But after this I’m definitely getting a gun,” he says. South Africa’s “enclave society”, as Frans Cronje, a political analyst, calls it, may take deeper root.

There will be political effects, too. If Mr Ramaphosa does not push Zuma-era figures out of the party, they may jump. “The violence, looting and arson of the past week will change the ANC for ever,” argues William Gumede, a former anti-apartheid activist and commentator. “It has hastened the [Zuma] faction’s own departure from the ANC.” If Mr Zuma’s supporters flee the party, that would probably mean losses for the ANC in KZN at local elections scheduled for October (though they may be delayed by covid-19). Whether it would cause losses elsewhere is less clear. “People don’t feel they have a lot of options,” notes Ms Ntuli.

Even so, the unrest may speed the ANC’s secular decline. Polling suggests that fewer than half of 15- to 50-year-olds support the party. Its voters are increasingly old and rural in a young and urban country. The ANC looks ever more like Zimbabwe’s Zanu-PF and other “liberation” parties in southern Africa, which depend on rural voters (and rigging) to win elections. Mr Ramaphosa may be the last ANC leader with a national majority. That could mean a coalition of moderate elements from the ANC and DA. But it could also pave the way for the entry of left-wing populism exploiting the country’s poverty, or a right-wing version playing on fears of crime and xenophobia.

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The two South Africas

Is there reason for optimism? South Africa has defied the odds before. It did not descend into violence, as some feared, after 1994. Desmond Tutu’s commission brought some truth and a little reconciliation. Just 18% of South Africans feel there has been no progress at reconciliation since the end of apartheid, according to a survey in 2019. “A vast majority of South Africans are proud to be South African,” it concluded. An imaginative politician could galvanise the country’s pragmatism and patriotism.

Such spirit was on show in townships after the chaos subsided. In Alexandra two young residents joined hundreds in a clean-up. Talia Mogano, 17, says of the looters: “Life isn’t fair, yes, but what they did wasn’t right either. They should have had a protest but what they did was a crime.” Her friend, Thabang Kanetsi, is buoyed by the many who have risen at dawn to collect brooms and bin bags. “Everything is going to go back to normal,” he says. “I have faith in this community and this country.” But South Africa’s problem is that going back to normal may not be enough.

This article appeared in the Middle East & Africa section of the print edition under the headline “The shaming of South Africa”

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The countries of the Middle East and north Africa are parched

IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD of Algiers where the presidential palace and foreign embassies are located, some think the water pressure has increased of late. But don’t tell those living in the suburbs of Algeria’s capital, where the taps have been dry for days, as temperatures and tempers rise. Protesters have blocked main roads and railways. “If the water stops flowing, so will everything else,” says a local journalist, conveying the protesters’ mindset.

Algeria is not alone. In the past few months protests over water shortages have erupted in Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Yemen. Two protesters were shot dead in Iran on July 16th. And a lack of water is contributing to unrest elsewhere in the Middle East and north Africa.

Drought has been a feature of the region since biblical times. But now climate change is causing longer dry seasons, as well as hotter heatwaves and record-setting temperature spikes. Rainfall is expected to decline, precipitously in some places, leaving farmers to dig more wells, draining aquifers and causing potentially irreversible environmental damage. For most of the region the trend is towards a drier, hotter, more miserable future.

Some governments are dealing with the problem. Israel and the Gulf states rely on desalination plants, which can run on solar power and produce a cubic metre of freshwater (enough for 3,000 small water bottles) for as little as 50 cents. But many governments are making things worse. Protesters blame mismanagement and corruption for much of the misery. “The water sector is disintegrating,” says Hassan al-Janabi, a former water minister in Iraq. “There will be an explosion.”

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Agriculture accounts for the overwhelming share of freshwater taken from ground or surface water sources globally (about 70%), says the World Bank. The proportion is even higher in the Middle East and north Africa (about 80%). Crops depend entirely on irrigation in the arid region and officials say that supporting agriculture stems rural migration and reduces the need to use hard currency for food imports. So Egypt, for example, allows its farmers to take water from the Nile for nothing but the cost of pumping it.

Such subsidies have long encouraged farmers in the region to waste water on a massive scale. Still, leaders like to use cheap water as a way to buy support or further their own interests. The regime in Jordan, one of the world’s driest countries, uses it to mollify farmers from powerful tribes in the Jordan valley. In Iran the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps rerouted a river to cool its steel mills in Isfahan. A former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, is even said to have built a dam to water his pistachio crop.

The protests in Iran have occurred in Khuzestan, home to most of the country’s Arabs. Much of Iran’s fresh water used to flow through the province. Old-timers remember when ships bound for America sailed up the Karun river. But dozens of dams have dried up Khuzestan’s rivers and marshes. Angry residents accuse the clerical regime of diverting water to Persian cities and seeking to drive Arabs off the land in order to drill for more oil. “No to forced migration,” chant protesters.

Those in Algeria often blame corruption for their water woes. The government has spent more than $50bn on water projects over the past two decades, but much of it has evaporated. One former minister of water resources has been sentenced to jail for pilfering funds and in recent weeks two more have been arrested. Ten of the 11 desalination plants built by a state subsidiary are in disrepair. The story is much the same in Iraq, where the construction of a large desalination plant has been delayed for years as the country’s ruling factions bicker over who gets the contract.

War has made it hard for some countries to maintain water infrastructure. And water is sometimes used as a weapon. The jihadists of Islamic State tried to dam the Euphrates in order to starve their opponents in Iraq. Turkish-backed rebels in northern Syria have stopped operating a water plant that supplies the bread basket of their rivals, the Kurds. A report by the University of Sana’a estimated that 70% of the rural skirmishes in Yemen, before the civil war, began as disputes over water.

Water could even become the main cause of future conflicts. Egypt and Sudan are feuding with Ethiopia over its filling of a giant dam on the Nile. “All options are open,” says Egypt’s president, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, menacingly. Turkey and Iran are also building dams that will deplete the water flowing to Arab countries. Israel’s blockade of Gaza ensures that the territory does not have the means to produce enough potable water.

Other observers, though, are more sanguine. It’s cheaper to desalinate water than to fight over it, says Eran Feitelson of Israel’s Hebrew University. Still, unrest related to water could have global consequences. Yemenis, for example, are already abandoning parched villages. Without better sharing, management and investment, millions of the region’s residents risk becoming climate refugees.

This article appeared in the Middle East & Africa section of the print edition under the headline “Dry and disorderly”

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Syria has become a narco-state

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IN THE DUNES north of Riyadh, the Saudi capital, the sun sets and the party begins. Girls discard their abayas, the black shrouds that envelop them in public, and begin jiving to techno music with boys. A few swig from bottles, but most prefer Captagon pills, nowadays the Gulf’s favourite drug, at $25 a pop. They call it Abu Hilalain (Father of Two Half-moons), after the two letter “c”s (for Captagon) embossed on the pills. Part of the amphetamine family, it can have a similar effect to Viagra—and conquers sleep. “With one pill,” says a raver, “we can dance all weekend.”

Though Saudi rulers have opposed the regime in Syria for a decade, the pill-popping by young people is funding it. For Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, the drug has become a boon—at least in the short run. His country has become the world’s prime pusher of Captagon. As the formal economy collapses under the burden of war, sanctions and the predatory rule of the Assads, the drug has become Syria’s main export and source of hard currency. The Centre for Operational Analysis and Research (COAR), a Cyprus-based consultancy, reckons that last year authorities elsewhere seized Syrian drugs with a street value of no less than $3.4bn. That compares with Syria’s largest legal export, olive oil, which is worth some $122m a year. The drug is financing the central government, says Ian Larson, who wrote a recent report on the subject for COAR.

Syria has long been involved in drugs. In the 1990s, when it ruled Lebanon, the Bekaa valley was the region’s main source of hashish. But mass production of drugs within Syria began only after the civil war erupted in 2011. Officers fed their men “Captain Courage”, as they called Captagon. Shia fighters from Afghanistan and Lebanon, who came to support the Syrian regime, brought their skills in making and trafficking drugs. Hizbullah, Lebanon’s biggest Shia militia, which has given crucial support to the Assad regime, acquired large tracts across the border in Syria’s Qalamoun mountains. They expanded hashish cultivation and developed a new cottage industry, making Captagon pills.

Syria began exporting them in about 2013, as its formal economy shrivelled, thanks to war, economic sanctions and corruption within the regime. Chemical plants in the cities of Aleppo and Homs have been converted into pill factories. In the Gulf the mark-up for pills can be 50 times their cost in Syria. Smugglers hide them in shipments of paper rolls, parquet flooring and even pomegranates. Saudi princes use private jets to bring the stuff in.

Seizures by police in foreign waters testify to the size of the trade. Italian police last year uncovered 84m pills worth over €1bn on a single ship. It was then said to be the world’s biggest interception of amphetamine-related drugs. In May the Malaysian authorities, acting on a Saudi tip-off, seized 95m pills. The Libyan port of Benghazi, linked by a regular shipping route to Syria, is said to be a key entrepot.

The Assads insist they are not involved. “Propaganda”, says Shadi al-Ahmad, an economist in Damascus, the capital, who is loyal to the regime. But because Mr Assad finds it hard to pay his troops, he farms out much of his country to warlords who oversee the smuggling. The army’s fourth division, which is commanded by Maher al-Assad, the president’s younger brother, is said to take a big cut. Other relations run operations at the Mediterranean ports of Latakia and Tartous. A Lebanese drug-runner close to Hizbullah and wanted by Interpol boasts on Facebook of his ties to the Assads and senior Hizbullah clerics. “It’s out of control,” says an insider in Damascus.

The regime may see Captagon as a lever in regional power struggles. It “uses drugs as a weapon against the Gulf”, says Malik al-Abdeh, a Syria watcher close to the opposition. “The message is: normalise relations, or we’ll destroy your youth.”

In any event, the regime’s loyalists are not the only ones involved. The Kurds who control Iraq’s north-eastern border with Turkey draw on the experience of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which operates routes through the mountains to Europe. Sunni Syrian rebels under Turkish protection in northern Syria are at it too. And the route south through Jordan to Saudi Arabia is getting busier. “All the militias get their earnings from smuggling drugs,” says a tribal leader in southern Syria. He says southern militias have helped thousands of refugees cross the border into Jordan, their knapsacks full of pills.

For the Syrians left behind, drugs may destroy what remains of society after a decade of civil war. “Young men who haven’t been killed, exiled or jailed are addicts,” says a social worker in Sweida, a city held by the Assads in the south. A recent survey of Syrians in the north found that in January this year 33% said they knew a drug user. That is up from 7% in 2019. So prevalent is the habit that during this year’s Ramadan, in April and May, the prime-time serial on state television was “On a Hot Plate”, portraying a family of drug dealers.

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Jordan’s jailing of a courtier exposes fissures in the kingdom

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FOR KING ABDULLAH it is like old times. On July 19th he will be back in the White House, the first Arab leader to meet the new president. Gone are the cast of old antagonists, Donald Trump and his chum, Binyamin Netanyahu. President Joe Biden has ditched Mr Trump’s “deal-of-the-century” for Arab-Israeli peace, which had sidelined Jordan and its king. Naftali Bennett made Amman, Jordan’s capital, his first foreign destination as Israel’s new prime minister. Without Mr Trump’s support, Saudi Arabia has backed off from trying to supplant Jordan as the custodian of Jerusalem’s holy sites. Confident of this geopolitical realignment in Jordan’s favour, Abdullah and his queen, Rania, have taken a three-week jaunt around America.

Back home, though, Jordan is seething. Bedouin tribes, historically the regime’s bedrock, openly challenge the king, who has reigned for 22 years. “I’ve never seen such dissent,” says a former official. “It’s seeping into the heart of the system itself.”

On July 12th Jordan’s State Security Court sentenced two of the king’s former confidants, Bassem Awadallah and Sharif Hassan bin Zeid, to 15 years in prison for plotting against the monarch. The trial was quick, closed and devoid of key witnesses. No army officers were charged, casting doubt on the prosecution’s claim that a coup was being planned. Lawyers for the accused could not call as a witness the alleged chief protagonist, Prince Hamzah, the king’s half-brother, because he is under house arrest.

Instead of uniting Jordan behind the king, the case has inflamed tensions. Several Bedouin tribes, a minority who fear losing their dominance to the descendants of Palestinians, have pledged their allegiance to the prince. One of their parliamentarians led protests waving a sword. (He was subsequently jailed for threatening to shoot the king.) Protesters praise Hamzah’s fluent Arabic, deep tribal connections and facial resemblance to their beloved former king, Hussein, and deride Abdullah’s Western upbringing and ties by marriage to Jordan’s Palestinian majority. They call him an American lackey and chant in English—“so he’ll understand”.

In the past the king (pictured below) has bought off the tribes by offering them jobs in the security forces. But the country’s economic woes are stoking anger. Covid-19 has hit the mainstays of tourism and remittances. Oil-rich Gulf states have been cutting aid and investment. Debt is set to reach 118% of GDP this year. Almost two-thirds of young Jordanians are jobless.

With no vision for recovery, the king rarely addresses his nation. America already gives $1.5bn annually (making the country America’s second-largest recipient of aid). Israel has direct flights to the Gulf and no longer needs Jordan as a stepping stone to the Arab world and beyond. For appearances ahead of his visit to America, the king has appointed a commission stacked with toadies to consider political reform. But he prefers to stifle dissent than listen to it. He closes trade unions and curbs civil liberties. This year Freedom House, a think-tank in Washington, downgraded Jordan’s ranking from “Partly Free” to “Not Free”. The king’s meeting with Mr Biden may offer him a photo opportunity. It will not cure his country’s ills.

This article appeared in the Middle East & Africa section of the print edition under the headline “Courting trouble”