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UN envoy optimistic on Morocco-Polisario Front talks

UN was able to stakeholders around the same table in Geneva for the first time in six years.

Kathleen Ndongmo

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Leader of the Sahrawi delegation and Frente Polisario Khatri Addouh attend a press briefing on December 6, 2018 in Geneva - AFP

Former German president Horst Koehler, the UN secretary-general’s personal envoy for Western Sahara, has expressed optimism on reaching a political solution to the conflict despite ongoing differences between Morocco and the Polisario Front.

Koehler told the Security Council in closed consultations that he plans to hold separate talks with all parties in February before getting them around the dialogue table again in March.

Kohler was able to get Morocco, the Polisario Front and neighbors Algeria and Mauritania around the same table in Geneva in early December for the first time in six years.

A diplomat who attended Tuesday’s consultations told Asharq Al-Awsat that the ex-German president seemed “very optimistic during his briefing to the members of the Security Council.”

During the December meetings, participants had a “positive” attitude toward the talks, said the diplomat.

Koehler urged Council members on Tuesday to support his efforts not just through statements but by not backing any side to the conflict in order to limit tension.

Morocco’s UN ambassador, Omar Hilale, reiterated to reporters that autonomy is all that his government is offering.

“That’s the top. That’s the bottom. That’s everything, and within the sovereignty of Morocco,” he said. “On this basis, we are ready to negotiate it and give largest operative power for the autonomy. Outside autonomy, nothing. We are not ready to negotiate anything.”

On the other side, the Polisario Front’s UN representative, Sidi Omar, said a referendum with independence as an option is a red line for the people of Western Sahara. 

He said that at December’s meeting in Geneva the Polisario Front proposed confidence-building measures, including the exchange of prisoners and the opening Western Sahara to human rights groups. However, he said that Morocco’s representatives rejected those ideas.

“Everybody is looking forward to the next round of talks that we expect in March,” German Ambassador Christoph Heusgen told reporters in New York. “What we have to do now is to achieve some progress.” 

South African Ambassador Jerry Matjila also said: “It’s very positive that the parties are talking.”

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Tunisia decides: Voters head to polls in test on democracy

Tunisia has been praised as a rare success story for democratic transition after the Arab Spring regional uprisings

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Tunisia decides: Voters head to polls in test on democracy
Tunisians walk in front of posters of presidential candidates in the capital Tunis, on September 7, 2019. (Photo by FETHI BELAID / AFP)

Tunisia will hold on Sunday its second free presidential election by universal suffrage since the 2011 uprising that toppled an autocratic regime, with growing uncertainty over who will reach the next round.

Twenty-six candidates are in the race, including the incumbent prime minister and a media magnate who was arrested just weeks before the polls, as well as a presidential hopeful put forth by an Islamist-inspired party.

Seven million voters are expected to head to the ballot box after a campaign that largely focussed on social and economic challenges that have plagued the country’s fledgeling democracy.

“There are favourites and everything is possible, but even God cannot predict the results of the first round, let alone what will happen next,” columnist Ziyed Krichen said.

Political analyst Hatem Mrad agreed. “This election is really one of uncertainties,” he said.

Tunisia has been praised as a rare success story for democratic transition after the Arab Spring regional uprisings sparked by its 2011 revolution.

Three years later, it held its first post-revolution election, during which the political fault lines were clear, said Mrad, with Islamists squaring off against modernists.

But this time around, the differences are huge, with a plethora of candidates — Islamists, secularists, populists and partisans of the toppled regime — political programmes and issues, he added.

Preliminary results are expected to be announced by the electoral commission on September 17, but the date of the second round, which will decide the presidency, is not yet known.

Heavyweights –

Heavyweight candidates include Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and his nemesis Nabil Karoui, the media magnate arrested on charges of money laundering just three weeks before the election.

Tunisia decides: Voters head to polls in test on democracy
Prime Minister of Tunisia, Youssef Chahed speaks during a meeting ahead of the upcoming presidential elections, in Tunis, Tunisia on September 02, 2019. Yassine Gaidi / Anadolu Agency

Karoui’s supporters accuse Chahed of orchestrating his arrest, a charge denied by the ambitious prime minister who became the country’s youngest-ever head of government in 2016 at age 40.

A controversial businessman, Karoui has built his popularity by using his own Nessma television channel to launch charity campaigns, handing out food aid to some of the country’s poorest.

On Wednesday, the jailed candidate started a hunger strike, according to a member of his defence team, Ridha Belhaj.

Studies suggest that his arrest boosted his popularity, and observers say that if Karoui makes it to the second round of voting, it will be hard for authorities to justify keeping him behind bars without a trial. 

Tunisia decides: Voters head to polls in test on democracy
Nabil Karaoui, founder of Nessma TV, poses in his studio in Tunis. – The Independent High Authority for Audiovisual Communication (HAICA), created in 2012 to reform the audiovisual landscape, fails to impose its decisions on media outlets with political support. With the elections approaching, however, measures were taken against Nessma TV, one of the country’s major private broadcasters, which was accused of “political advertising” for its founder Nabil Karoui. (Photo by Fethi Belaid / AFP)

Also in the race is lawyer Abdelfattah Mourou, 71, who was selected to run by the Islamist-inspired Ennahdha party, and Mohammed Abbou, who was imprisoned under the ousted regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Candidates also include former defence minister Abdelkarim Zbidi, a technocrat who said he would “restart the social ladder” and make public services accessible to all Tunisians, if elected.

Two women are also eyeing the presidency, including Abir Moussi, a staunch anti-Islamist lawyer and champion of Ben Ali’s regime.

Tunisia decides: Voters head to polls in test on democracy
Ennahdha Party’s Candidate for the presidential election in Tunisia Abdelfattah Mourou (C) holds a press conference regarding his election pledges ahead of the Tunisia’s presidential election which is slated for September 15, in Tunis, Tunisia on September 9, 2019. Yassine Gaidi / Anadolu Agency

Social challenges – 

The presidential campaign wraps up on Friday, but none of the candidates appears to have stood out despite squaring off in multiple debates that were broadcast on radio and television.

Around two to three million Tunisians are believed to have tuned in to three major debates, during which candidates were asked to respond to questions drawn randomly.

The economic and social hardships that undermine Tunisia’s transition to democracy took centre stage during the campaign.

The country, hit by terrorist attacks against its key tourism sector and security forces, has struggled to combat unemployment and bring down inflation.

Unemployment in Tunisia is at 15 per cent, while the cost of living has increased by more than 30 per cent since 2016.

The election was brought forward from November after the death in July of Beji Caid Essebsi, Tunisia’s first president democratically elected in nationwide polls in 2014.

It will be followed by legislative elections, due to take place on October 6.

Some of the 26 hopefuls have called for the president’s powers to be beefed up in Tunisia, which has a parliamentary system.

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Sudanese Prime Minister Hamdok arrives in South Sudan on first official trip

South Sudan split from the north in 2011 after decades of bloody war with Khartoum, famously becoming the world’s youngest nation

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Sudanese PM Hamdok arrives in South Sudan on first official trip

Sudan’s new Prime Minister, Abdalla Hamdok, arrived in South Sudan on Thursday on his first official visit since becoming premier, declaring “the sky is the limit” for ties between the former foes.

Hamdok, heading an 18-member transitional government following the overthrow of Omar al-Bashir, is set to meet South Sudanese President Salva Kiir as well as Sudanese opposition leaders on his two-day visit.

“I am very delighted to be here in my second home, Juba. We are looking for a very strategic, very distinguished relationship between our two nations, and the sky is the limit for this relationship,” Hamdok said upon his arrival.

“We hope to have a very prosperous relationship that will address issues of trade, border issue, oil, free movement of our people between the two countries and all these agenda.”

South Sudan split from the north in 2011 after decades of bloody war with Khartoum, famously becoming the world’s youngest nation.

But just two years later, it plunged into its own internal conflict, with catastrophic consequences.

While tensions remain high between south and north over ongoing border disputes and the transfer of oil to the north, the two nations have increasingly moved to normalise ties in recent years.

Analysts say the two have been pushed together by the grinding war in South Sudan, which has defied several peace attempts, and an economic crisis in Sudan, which was hard-hit by the collapse of the south’s oil industry.

One of Bashir’s last moves before his ouster was to broker a peace deal between President Salva Kiir and his rival Riek Machar — at a time when much of the world had wearied of trying to solve the crisis.

Sudanese PM Hamdok arrives in South Sudan on first official trip
Sudan’s prime minister Abdalla Hamdok (L) and South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir Mayardit meet on September 12, 2019 in the capital city of Juba, South Sudan. (Photo by AKUOT CHOL / AFP)

However, the 2018 peace deal has stalled as Sudan has battled its own political crisis in recent months.

Observers are anxious to see if Khartoum’s new government will push Kiir and Machar to advance on the implementation of the deal.

The two men met this week in Juba for the first time in five months, with a power-sharing government meant to be set up by November.

In a further sign of rapprochement between the two countries, Kiir offered in 2018 to mediate peace talks between Khartoum and rebels in the Blue Nile, South Kordofan and Darfur conflict zones.

The Blue Nile and South Kordofan fought alongside the south for independence, however, were left north of the border in 2011 and have continued their own insurgency against Khartoum.

Rebels in Darfur also waged a long war over marginalisation in the western region.

Hamdok has vowed to end these conflicts which have left thousands dead and millions displaced.

This week, armed groups from those areas held talks in Juba which ended Wednesday in the signing of a deal on “pre-negotiation principles” with Khartoum.

“We assure them and the people of Sudan in general that all the suffering and the killing and marginalisation will end,” said General Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, deputy chairman of the Sudan Sovereign Council.

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Sudan reports 4 cases of cholera in Blue Nile state

Dozens of people died from acute diarrhoea in Sudan in 2016 after thousands of cases were reported nationwide

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Sudan reports 4 cases of cholera in Blue Nile state

Sudan reported four confirmed cases of cholera in Blue Nile Tuesday and said three people had also died of acute diarrhoea in the state.

Health Minister Akram al-Toum has asked the World Health Organization to send supplies of cholera vaccine immediately, the ministry said.

Ministry and WHO officials have been sent to the affected area.

“There are 37 cases of acute diarrhoea in Blue Nile… There have been three deaths,” the ministry said in a statement.

Dozens of people died from acute diarrhoea in Sudan in 2016 after thousands of cases were reported nationwide.

Blue Nile state, which has a large ethnic minority population, has been the focus of a rebellion by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North since 2011.

The army declared a ceasefire after the overthrow of veteran President Omar al-Bashir earlier this year.

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