World roundup: May 14-15 2022
Stories from Lebanon, Mali, NATO, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
May 13, 1805: The Battle of Derna ends
May 13, 1846: The US Congress votes to declare war on Mexico, marking the formal start of the Mexican-American War though the fighting had actually begun several days earlier. The war ended formally in February 1848 with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which has to be one of the most lopsided treaties every negotiated, in which Mexico acknowledged US sovereignty over the whole of Texas and ceded most of what is now the southwestern United States.
May 14, 1560: The Battle of Djerba ends
May 14, 1796: English doctor Edward Jenner administers an experimental smallpox vaccine to the eight year old son of his gardener, inoculating the boy with pus from a woman who was infected with cowpox. This technique was already in use, but Jenner then intentionally exposed the child to smallpox and is thus credited with proving that the vaccine actually worked.
May 15, 1811: Paraguay’s May 14 Revolution, a military coup against Governor Bernardo de Velasco, succeeds in forcing him to create a three man governing junta including himself and two military appointees. The junta was the first in a series of governments that increasingly substituted local rule for colonial control from Spain. Although it was a very long road from here to Paraguay’s formal declaration of independence in 1842, May 14 and 15 are commemorated as Independence Day (well, “days”) in Paraguay today.
May 15, 1940: Brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald open a small restaurant called “McDonald’s Bar-B-Que” in San Bernardino, California, serving mostly, as the name says, barbecue. A few years later they streamlined the operation to focus on their most popular item, hamburgers. Since as far as I know there are no McDonald’s Bar-B-Que restaurants in existence anymore, I can only assume this disruptive change was the death-knell of their company, and it just goes to show you that innovation isn’t always a panacea. That’s today’s business tip.
May 15, 1948: The Arab-Israeli War begins.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Lebanese voters headed to the polls on Sunday for an election festooned with high hopes and low expectations. This is the first parliamentary election Lebanon has held since the Beirut seaport explosion sent national politics into a new level of dysfunction in 2020. Those high hopes are that this vote will install a new, uncorrupted parliament that can begin the process of political and economic reform. The low expectations are there because the Lebanese political system was designed decades ago to protect incumbents and therefore prevent any sort of electoral upheaval.
There was some speculation as to turnout, after expat voting produced somewhat higher numbers than expected and anecdotal accounts suggested the potential for surprisingly high turnout on election day. That speculation was dashed by official figures showing overall turnout somewhere in the range of 41 percent. That’s about what you’d expect, since if any electorate should feel dubious about voting as a solution to national challenges it’s Lebanon’s.
If there are any results to report by the time I’m ready to sent out the newsletter I’ll append them here, but if not then we’ll review tomorrow.
Under a rare level of international pressure, Israeli authorities now say they will investigate the actions of their security forces on Friday, when many of them were captured on video assaulting mourners during the funeral of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in Jerusalem. Two initial Israeli justifications for Friday’s violence—that people in the crowd attacked first and that security forces were trying to protect the funeral according to the wishes of Abu Akleh’s family—have been undermined by witnesses and the family. The Israeli military is already investigating the possibility (“strong likelihood” would probably be a better way to put it) that its soldiers killed Abu Akleh in Jenin on Wednesday. “Open source” analysis seems to support the conclusion that they did, which aligns with witness accounts.
The Israeli government announced on Sunday that it has reopened the Erez crossing into Gaza, which is used by Palestinians who live in the enclave but work in Israel proper. The Israelis closed Erez on May 3 due to tensions in the West Bank and ahead of expected tension around the anniversary of Israel’s independence (see above), a day Palestinians call the Nakba (“catastrophe”) in commemoration of those Palestinians who were displaced by the new Israeli state.
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
As expected, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan has succeeded his deceased half-brother, Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, as emir of Abu Dhabi and therefore also as president of the UAE. “MBZ” has been de facto ruling the UAE since at least 2014, when Khalifa suffered a debilitating stroke, if not before. So the formal transition of power is unlikely to mean any substantial change in policy.
From the corrections department: yours truly has been remiss in identifying defense contractors as the only unambiguous winners of the war in Ukraine. It turns out there’s at least one other entity that can also claim victory: Aramco. The Saudi oil giant rode spiking oil prices to a whopping $39.5 billion profit last quarter, an increase of some 82 percent. Most major oil companies appear to have done well for themselves last quarter, but Aramco’s success tops them all.
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz checked out of Jeddah’s King Faisal Specialist Hospital, about a week after he checked in for a colonoscopy and other tests and wound up extending his stay, ostensibly to rest.
At least one person has reportedly been killed amid widespread protests over recent cuts to Iranian food subsidies. It’s unclear how large any of these demonstrations have been but they’ve hit a number of Iranian cities over the past several days. An Iranian lawmaker in the city of Dezful, in Khuzestan province, reported the fatality during a protest in which some 300 people are believed to have participated.
There’s now some evidence to support the claim that “National Resistance Front” rebels are battling Taliban forces in Afghanistan’s Panjshir region, in the form of residents fleeing the fighting. The NRF says it’s seized a handful of districts in Panjshir but there’s no way to verify that, while Taliban officials are suggesting they’ve thwarted this latest outburst and sent NRF fighters retreating into the countryside. That claim is likewise unconfirmed.
Two attacks in northern Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province killed at least eight people on Sunday. In the larger of the two incidents, a suicide bomber targeted a Pakistani military vehicle in the North Waziristan region, near the Afghan border, killing at least three soldiers and three civilians (all children). In the second incident, gunmen killed two Sikhs in the city of Peshawar. It appears they were intentionally targeted because they were Sikh. There’s been no claim of responsibility in either incident as yet.
The Indian government imposed a ban on wheat exports on Friday in an effort to control domestic food prices that may cause a rise in global food prices. India is the world’s second-largest wheat producer, though because of high domestic demand it’s not an especially big exporter. Nevertheless, this ban—prompted by a major regional heatwave that’s reducing crop yields—will remove Indian wheat from a global market in which prices have already risen by upwards of 40 percent due to the war in Ukraine and its effect on both Russian and Ukrainian exports.
The Sri Lankan government has lifted its nationwide curfew ahead of the Buddhist holiday of Vesak on Monday. This should not be taken as an indication that the political crisis that spawned the curfew, after it turned violent last week and left at least nine people dead, is anywhere near a resolution. New Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe named his first four ministers on Saturday, but as all of them came from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party they can hardly be considered part of the “national unity” government Wickremesinghe is supposed to be forming.
Thousands of people reportedly hit the streets in Tunis and other cities across Tunisia on Sunday in what may have been the largest protests yet against Tunisian President Kais Saied and his assumption of near-dictatorial powers. These protests appear to have been substantially larger than last weekend’s demonstrations in support of Saied, though it’s probably not a good idea to try to draw any substantive conclusions from that. Still, the longer Saied continues to hoard power the more resistance to his one-man rule is likely to grow.
Mali’s ruling military junta announced on Sunday that it’s quitting the G5 Sahel Force, a multinational (also including Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, and Niger) military outfit created in 2017 to combat regional jihadist violence. This is an interesting move in that of all the G5 member states Mali’s jihadist conflict has been the most serious and I think it’s safe to say Bamako has received more from the unit than it’s offered. The G5 hasn’t been particularly effective in general so I don’t think this will have a significant impact either on its operations or on Mali’s war against jihadist groups. The junta is apparently aggrieved at what it sees as efforts within the G5 to marginalize and isolate it, but in quitting altogether it seems like the junta is going out of its way to isolate itself.
Officials in northern Nigeria’s Sokoto state have imposed a curfew in the wake of protests over the murder of Christian college student Deborah Samuel on Thursday. The protesters are demanding the release of the two individuals arrested in connection with Samuel’s killing, who were part of a mob that beat and killed her over allegations that she’d spoke blasphemously about the Prophet Muhammad in an online chat. Many of the protesters were likely also part of that mob.
Nigeria is about evenly divided between Muslims and Christians. Often it’s overly reductive to talk about inter-communal tension in purely religious terms but in this case the cause of this crisis is obviously religious. That’s not to say that these Muslim protesters are representative of all Nigerian Muslims, but they are a political as well as legal problem for state and national leaders. If authorities are seen to be capitulating to this Muslim mob in Sokoto it will undoubtedly create tension within Nigeria’s Christian community. If they’re seen as cracking down too hard on the mob it could create tension in the Islamic community.
Protesters in N’djamena attacked French businesses and at one point flew the Russian flag on Sunday during a demonstration that was indirectly about Chad’s ruling military junta. Police responded with tear gas and water cannons. A civil society organization called Wakit Tamma organized the protest to criticize the French government over its support for the junta. This seems like a roundabout way of criticizing the junta itself, but whatever works I guess. Certainly France, which long supported Chadian dictator Idriss Déby until his death last April, has thrown its lot in with the junta and its leader, Déby’s son Mahamat. The appearance of the Russian flag reflects what seems to be a growing Sahelian trend away from former colonial power France and toward Russia’s more mercenary (literally and figuratively) approach to the region.
CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
Militants from the Union for Peace in Central Africa rebel group reportedly attacked a village called Bokolobo in the CAR’s Ouaka province last Monday, killing at least ten people. The UPC, which is part of the rebel Coalition of Patriots for Change umbrella group, is rejecting the charge and is accusing the Central African military, backed by Russian mercenaries, of massacring some 30 people in that town.
Somalia lawmakers have decided to give former Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud another turn at the wheel, choosing him out of a field of 36 candidates in voting on Sunday. Mohamud, who previously served as president from 2012 through 2017, defeated incumbent Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed in the third round of voting. The Somali parliament met at a fortified hanger at Mogadishu’s airport due to security concerns. There were reports of mortar fire in the vicinity during the first round of voting but that did not disrupt the proceedings.
The likelihood seems pretty high that NATO will be growing by two members in the near future. After Finnish officials made their unofficial application announcement on Thursday, the Finnish government made its formal announcement on Sunday. In Sweden, meanwhile, the ruling Swedish Social Democratic Party announced its support for NATO membership, basically ensuring that Stockholm will be formally applying in the next few days.
The fly in the proverbial ointment, from Brussels’ perspective, is that the Turkish government has stated its opposition to both Finnish and Swedish membership. Over the weekend, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu laid out Ankara’s position, which mostly seems focused on the Swedish government’s support/tolerance for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). He also said he’d had positive discussions on the issue with his Finnish and Swedish counterparts in Berlin. My sense is that Turkish officials aren’t trying to block Finnish or Swedish accession so much as they’re trying to wring concessions out of either or both governments and possibly from other NATO members as well. It seems more likely than not that they’ll find some common ground and that Turkey will drop its objection.
Fighting appears to have picked up in eastern Ukraine over the weekend, as Russian forces pushed ahead in their effort to secure control of the Donbas and Ukrainian forces advanced their recent counteroffensive beyond Kharkiv. The Russians are still trying to advance south from the city of Izyum and north from the city of Donetsk, hoping to envelope a large portion of the Ukrainian military in the process. They continue to rely on missiles and airstrikes to degrade Ukrainian capabilities in that region. The Ukrainians, meanwhile, having pushed Russian forces away from the city of Kharkiv, seem to be advancing on Izyum from the west. They could threaten the Russian line from the side or rear and/or cut their supply lines if successful.
US Senator Mitch McConnell led a delegation of Republican congresspersons to Kyiv on Saturday, so thoughts and prayers to residents of the Ukrainian capital. I suppose this sort of thing is the “quo” to the US Congress’s $40 billion “quid,” but I can’t help thinking that Ukrainian officials have better things to do than to glad-hand McConnell and Nancy Pelosi, et al, during what are glorified campaign events. On the plus side, Ukraine won this year’s Eurovision competition over the weekend, so I guess that’s something.
The US State Department is about to remove five groups from its list of terrorist organizations: the Japanese cult/extremist group Aum Shinrikyo, the Basque separatists group ETA, the Israeli extremist group Kahane Chai, the Palestinian Mujahideen Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem, and the Egyptian group al-Jamaʿah al-Islamiyah. All have either explicitly shut down or have not been heard from in several years.
Finally, writing for Inkstick, Clark University’s Michael Butler looks at how the Ukrainian government has shaped its war messaging specifically to appeal to one key target audience:
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has dominated headlines since late February 2022. The war struck a nerve among Western audiences, evoking a high degree of support for Ukraine.
The reasons for the prominence of the war in the West are many and varied.
A ground war in Europe launched by a major military power evokes the ghosts of World War II. This is especially true when the attacking country has designs on territory it considers integral to its nation, and is led by a personalist authoritarian regime where all power is concentrated in a single leader. The deep involvement of the US and European countries, both individually and collectively through NATO and the European Union, also inspires Cold War comparisons.
The resulting humanitarian crisis, including the mass exodus of over 5 million refugees, underscores the ethical and moral implications of the war. These historical analogies and simplifying ideas help explain why the West’s imagination has been captured by this war. But there’s more to the West’s captivation with the war than is immediately apparent. As a scholar of armed conflict and security, I also find a compelling explanation for why the West is so focused on Ukraine in the Ukrainian government’s ability to provide information about the war in a way that appeals to Western sensibilities.