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World roundup: June 19-20 2021
Stories from Iran, Libya, Peru, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
June 18, 1815: Napoleon’s revived imperial dreams run smack into British (with allies) and Prussian armies at the Battle of Waterloo. Spoiler warning for those who are listening to the excellent Age of Napoleon podcast, but this one doesn’t go too well for Napoleon. The French cause was arguably lost when Napoleon defeated the Prussians at the Battle of Ligny two days earlier, which despite the French victory ended with the intact Prussian army retreating in good order such that it was still available to reinforce the British army. Napoleon had divided his enemies, but he’d been unable to conquer.
At Waterloo, the British, under Duke of Wellington Arthur Wellesley, were able to hold on long enough for the Prussians to reach them and make a decisive attack that sent the French into retreat. Napoleon abdicated (well, re-abdicated) on June 22 and was forced once again into exile. This time he was sent not to nearby Elba but to distant (and considerably harder to escape) St. Helena, where he died on May 5, 1821.
June 18, 1940: Charles de Gaulle’s “Appeal of 18 April” and Winston Churchill’s “This was their finest hour” speech mark France’s World War II surrender and the birth of the French resistance movement.
June 19, 1821: An Ottoman army defeats a group of fighters from the Filiki Eteria (Society of Friends), a Greek independence movement, in battle near the town of Drăgășani (in modern Romania). This was one of the earliest battles of the Greek War of Independence, so clearly the Greeks’ fortunes picked up afterward.
June 20, 1631: Algerian pirates sack the Irish village of Baltimore. They carted off 107 captives, of whom only three ever made it back to Ireland.
June 20, 1789: Members of the French Third Estate take the Tennis Court Oath, in which they pledged not to dissolve under royal pressure. This was one of the first serious acts of defiance in the French Revolution and helped establish the power of the National Assembly.
As of this writing, Worldometer’s coronavirus figures show 179,252,416 total cases of COVID-19 worldwide to date, with 3,882,008 reported COVID fatalities. According to the New York Times vaccine tracker, over 2.61 billion vaccines have been administered worldwide, or roughly 34 for every 100 people.
The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen reported shooting down a Houthi drone heading for Khamis Mushait on Sunday. That came a day after the coalition reported downing no fewer than 17 (!) Houthi drones that were apparently bound for the Saudi side of the border.
Elsewhere, the Houthis reportedly undertook a renewed offensive against Maʾrib city on Friday, with Yemeni government sources telling media outlets that “dozens” of combatants were killed in the fighting over the course of the weekend. Most of those were likely rebel fighters, particularly insofar as the coalition began conducting airstrikes on the rebel line on Sunday. There’s been a little recent movement on the peace talks front, with an Omani negotiating team having met with senior Houthi leaders earlier this month and with talk of an end to the Saudi blockade of Sanaa’s airport, and it’s hard to know if this latest attack is a setback to those efforts or a last-ditch Houthi attempt to seize Maʾrib before giving way to talks. It’s probably the former, but I suppose we’ll see.
Somebody fired one Katyusha rocket at Iraq’s Ayn al-Asad airbase in Anbar province on Sunday. That facility houses US military personnel. The rocket landed along the perimeter of the base, failed to detonate on impact, and thus caused little to no damage. An Iraqi militia was presumably responsible, though the Islamic State also uses Katyusha’s and can’t be ruled out as the culprit, especially in Anbar.
European Union foreign policy head Josep Borrell visited Lebanon over the weekend and had nothing good to say about its political leaders. Renewing European calls for the formation of a new government under Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri, Borrell warned that targeted sanctions could be forthcoming if Hariri and President Michel Aoun cannot come to an agreement on a cabinet. Borrell met with Aoun, Hariri, parliament speaker Nabih Berri, and caretaker PM Hassan Diab during his visit.
Presumably in response to Borrell’s criticism, Free Patriotic Movement party boss Gebran Bassil (who is also Aoun’s son in-law) delivered a televised speech on Monday in which he insisted that the FPM, the largest Christian party in parliament, wants a government led by Hariri and claimed that Aoun was being shut out of the cabinet appointment process by “opponents” (it’s unspecified in the reporting but presumably he means Hariri and Berri, who is publicly at odds with Aoun though both are part of the “March 8” political alliance). Bassil apparently called on Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to mediate this dispute, though it seems unlikely that Hariri, in particular, would regard Nasrallah as a credible interlocutor.
To I expect nobody’s surprise, Iranian Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi handily won Friday’s presidential election over a field of mostly nobodies, taking nearly 62 percent of the vote. Raisi’s victory is the successful outcome of what was essentially a bespoke campaign crafted specifically to ensure his victory, after Iran’s Guardian Council screened out anyone who might actually pose a challenge to him.
Turnout, usually a big deal for Iranian leaders though less so over the past couple of elections (last year’s parliamentary vote and this one), was officially a hair under 49 percent. That’s the lowest turnout for a presidential election since the 1979 Iranian revolution. Over four million votes (a higher total than any candidate except Raisi received) were left blank or fouled, perhaps intentionally, which means the percentage who cast a legitimate vote was considerably lower than 49 percent and close to where some pre-election turnout estimates had settled (in the low 40s).
Raisi is an ultraconservative whose past is checkered with allegations of human rights abuses along with his well-documented role in the mass execution of thousands of political prisoners in the late 1980s. He’s under sanction by both the United States and the European Union, which is an interesting and potentially challenging situation for a head of government, but exceptions can be made to allow him to participate in any sort of international diplomatic processes. It’s unclear whether that will be much of an issue, though talk of Raisi’s election interfering with the ongoing negotiations over reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is likely misguided. Participation in the nuclear talks is ultimately Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s decision, and he’s obviously decided to participate. Even if Raisi wanted to interrupt that process his means to do so would be limited.
The vote counting is underway in Armenia and so far Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s Civil Contract party is out to an early lead. With some 30 percent of the vote in, Pashinyan’s party is holding at over 58 percent and he’s availed himself of the opportunity to declare victory. It’s early enough in the count that the declaration could be more a political gambit than a fair assessment of where things stand. Meanwhile, the opposition Armenia Alliance, led by former President and PM Robert Kocharyan, is already talking about “violations” and “irregularities” in the election so it may be preparing to dispute the outcome.
Taliban fighters reportedly advanced into two provincial capitals in northern Afghanistan, Kunduz city in Kunduz province and Maymana city in Faryab province, on Sunday. There are also reports of fighting outside Taliqan city, the capital of Takhar province. Some 12 districts have been seized by Taliban fighters over the weekend, with the heaviest fighting concentrated in the northern part of the country.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the head of the country’s negotiating team, Abdullah Abdullah, will head to Washington on Friday to meet with US President Joe Biden about the decrease in US military (especially air) support as its September 11 withdrawal deadline get closer. The loss of air support is exposing the flimsiness of Afghanistan’s security forces, though to be fair that had already been exposed. On Saturday, Ghani replaced his defense and interior ministers in response to recent setbacks. Unconfirmed reports suggest he was also seen rearranging some deck chairs on the Titanic for some reason.
Pakistani security forces undertook an operation against a group of suspected Pakistani Taliban fighters in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province overnight, leading to a shootout in which at least two militants and one soldier were killed.
The Libyan government on Sunday reopened the Libyan Coastal Highway, which runs the entire east-west length of the country and is part of the Trans-African Highway network. That roadway had been closed for over two years thanks to the civil war, and its reopening is a powerful symbol that Libya and its new interim government are putting the turmoil of the past several years behind them and moving…I’m sorry, what’s that? Khalifa Haftar’s “Libyan National Army” has seized control of a major Libyan-Algerian border crossing? And declared the border closed? After deploying a disturbingly large military force to the southern city of Sebha several days ago? And the Libyan government has now announced a nationwide ban on all unauthorized military movements? And may be sending its own units south to check in on the LNA? Well I’m sure that will all work out for the best.
The United Nations and German government are hosting a conference on Libya in Berlin in the coming days. The opening of the highway was undoubtedly timed to show the international grandees at that conference that the interim government is making progress. Haftar’s move to close the border, which he likely cannot enforce, is probably intended to demonstrate to those same grandees that he’s still relevant to the success or failure of Libya’s peace process.
Authorities say they’ve rescued three teachers and eight students from among the 94 people abducted from the Federal Government College in northwestern Nigeria’s Kebbi state on Thursday. Unfortunately three of the abducted students have been killed thus far.
Anglophone separatists reportedly attacked a security checkpoint in Cameroon’s Northwest region and killed three police officers on Saturday. Separately, two soldiers and at least one Cameroonian official have been killed in two recent separatist attacks in Cameroon’s Southwest region. Five other officials are missing as a result of those two incidents.
Ethiopia will hold its long-delayed general election on Monday, or at least most of the country will. Owing to a combination of logistical issues and violence—most particularly the ongoing war in the Tigray region—around a fifth of the country’s polling sites will not be open for voting. Of interest will be the effect the Tigray war has on Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s political standing. Initially popular with many non-Tigrayan Ethiopians who have no fondness for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the conflict has turned into a lengthy slog featuring multiple reports of serious human rights violations and a lingering Eritrean military occupation of the Tigray region. Those things could tarnish Abiy’s image.
Joe Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, told CNN on Sunday that the administration is working up a new package of sanctions over the apparent poisoning of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny last summer. It’s unclear what these forthcoming sanctions will entail. A previous round of Navalny-related sanctions from the US and European Union targeted several senior Russian officials, including Prosecutor General Igor Krasnov and (on the US side) FSB boss Alexander Bortnikov.
According to POLITICO, the Biden administration has put a planned arms shipment to Ukraine on ice:
The National Security Council directed officials to put the package together, as Washington grew increasingly concerned over a massive Russian military buildup near the border with Ukraine and in the Crimean Peninsula, according to three of the people, who like the others asked not to be named in order to speak candidly about internal discussions. Officials at the State Department and Pentagon worked to assemble the proposal.
But officials on the National Security Council ended up putting the proposal on hold after Russia announced it would draw down troops stationed near Ukraine and in the lead-up to President Joe Biden’s high-stakes summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The package has been valued at around $100 million and includes potentially offensive weapons. Now that Biden has had his meeting with Putin planning for the shipment could resume, or it may be held in limbo pending any future Russian military moves that could be construed as threatening toward Ukraine.
Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven may be on the verge of losing his job, after his attempt to forestall a no-confidence vote on Monday flopped over the weekend. Löfven’s minority coalition lost the support of the Left Party several days ago over a proposal to “reform” Sweden’s rent control system, prompting the parliamentary move against him. He tried over the weekend to soften that reform plan in order to bring the Left Party back on side, but to no avail. Löfven is expected to lose Monday’s vote, at which point he could either resign or call a snap election.
Presidential runner up Keiko Fujimori’s thus-far baseless claims of voter fraud are really energizing some of the classiest elements of Peruvian society:
In a move which illustrates the skewed playing field, Fujimori has recruited Lima’s most expensive law firms to quash 200,000 votes, almost all from poor Andean regions which voted overwhelmingly for [winner Pedro] Castillo.
“The tension has reached a breaking point,” said José Ragas, a Peruvian historian at Chile’s Catholic University. “The Lima elite is not just trying to keep power – it’s not just that they don’t want to recognise the victory of Pedro Castillo – but they are trying to cancel the rural vote.”
The election has unleashed expressions of racism that go beyond the discrimination against Japanese-descended Alberto Fujimori who took office in 1990 and Alejandro Toledo, a US-educated Andean, who governed Peru from 2001 to 2006.
In one ugly but not unusual case, the online news site Sudaca published a private text messages between middle-class white men in Lima who discussed how people from the highlands should “die of hunger” and called for the return of Alberto Fujimori’s alleged forced sterilisations which mostly targeted indigenous women.
Other social media memes characterised Castillo as a donkey or said Andeans were too ignorant to be allowed to vote. They echo old “racist and classist attitudes ingrained in the national and social debate,” said Ragas. But social media has given such comments a much bigger audience, he said.
Unknown gunmen rolled through the northern Mexico city of Reynosa on Saturday, leaving at least 18 people dead in their wake. Details are sparse but presumably the attackers were gang affiliated.
The Cuban-developed Soberana 2 COVID vaccine has reportedly showed 62 percent effectiveness after two of its recommended three doses in human trials. That’s a promising number for an incomplete run, and if the vaccine’s efficacy improves as expected after a third dose this vaccine could become a new player on the international market. Cuba regularly exports vaccines so it has the production capabilities to help alleviate the shortage of COVID vaccines in less developed countries—though Cuban officials will likely want to address their own country’s spiking COVID rate first.
Polling consistently shows that most Americans want to cut the US foreign aid budget. Polling also consistently shows that most Americans think the United States should spend upwards of 10 percent of its federal budget on foreign aid, which would represent a roughly ten-fold increase over current levels. World Politics Review’s Charli Carpenter considers some of the implications of this massive discrepancy:
It is certainly heartening that, on the whole, the public wants to fund economic aid over military aid, humanitarian aid over agricultural aid, and aid to democracies over nondemocracies. In short, American goals regarding aid are human rights-based, and Americans across the political spectrum are generous when it comes to aid in absolute terms. This explains in part why former President Donald Trump’s slashing of the foreign aid budget was wildly unpopular.
At the same time, public misperception about relative spending drives a widening humanitarian gap in foreign aid and undercuts good public intentions. This civic misperception and lack of public education on aid spending makes it hard to convert the American public’s good-hearted generosity into enough help across borders of the type the United Nations is calling for in Yemen and Ethiopia, or the World Health Organization wants to see for pandemic relief in Africa.
And the contradictory polling numbers make political elites less attuned to public priorities when it comes to how foreign aid is spent. Since public opinion polls on aid can be interpreted to suit either increases or reductions in overall aid spending, politicians on both sides can manipulate the numbers to serve their own purposes. In effect, this means the impact of the public’s desires are diluted in the appropriations process—the opposite of what a democratic foreign policy would look like. It is part of why the military portion of the aid budget remains far higher than humanitarian aid, although it is the lowest priority for Americans.
Worse, in some ways, pollsters, the media and advocacy groups might even be enabling or exacerbating this trend. Pollsters continue to ask questions in a way that perpetuates the public’s confusion. The media rarely reports on aid spending or on aid surveys in a way that helps educate the public to better understand aid or survey science. And advocacy groups for the humanitarian and development aid community are too busy advocating to the public on behalf of starving, impoverished or conflict-affected populations to advocate for themselves to receive enough money to do their work safely in complex emergencies. In short, there is too little campaigning with the public on behalf of foreign aid as a concept, rather than on behalf of specific vulnerable populations.