Beyond Syria: five Middle East stories you may have missed

Brian Whitaker writes: Have you been missing something in the Middle East? As the newspapers are full of Syria at the moment, we are hearing little else from the world’s most turbulent region. For once, that’s probably how it should be. The Syrian tragedy is urgent and important, and the debates in Britain and the US over what to do about chemical weapons, no matter how they end, will shape foreign policy for years to come. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing else happening. Here are five stories you may not have noticed:

1. Remember Libya? They said it was all about oil. Well, it is now. Production in the country’s most vital industry has dropped to around 10% of capacity because of disruption by armed groups, security guards and oil workers – costing $2bn in lost revenue so far.

Part of this is the long-running problem of militias. After the fall of Gaddafi it was hoped they would settle down if given proper jobs, and thousands were recruited into the petroleum facility guards where they have continued causing trouble.

In the past week strikes have spread to the western coastal ports and armed groups have also closed taps on pipelines from major oil fields, Reuters reports. AP adds that the armed men “have no connection to the pipelines and are demanding money and vehicles in return for allowing oil to resume flowing”.

Apart from the attempts to extort money, this is seen as part of a wider tussle for power between the still-fragile central government, tribal elements and those calling for federalism (who some suspect are really aiming for separatism).

2. The big story from Egypt at the weekend was the arrest of a bird – some reports said it was a duck, others a swan – on suspicion of spying. The bird, actually a white stork, was found with a mysterious electronic device attached, hence the belief that it was up to no good.

The stork refused to utter a single word under interrogation and was finally released because it had a perfect alibi. The electronic thing was a tracking device and you can see all the stork’s movements here or read more about them (if you happen to understand Hungarian).

Silly as this story was, there’s a serious point. It’s one example of the paranoia and conspiracy theories swirling around in Egypt at present. Among these are claims that President Obama is not only a secret Muslim (as the American Tea Party asserts) but also a secret member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Since the military takeover, crazy tales have been appearing almost everywhere in the Egyptian media. When al-Ahram, the leading pro-government daily, implicated the US ambassador in one of these conspiracies she sent a stiff letter to the editor which included the immortal line: “This article isn’t bad journalism; it isn’t journalism at all.”

3. News from Iraq is much the same as ever. In August, 804 people were killed and a further 2,030 wounded, according to the UN. That, however, was an improvement on July – the worst month so far this year with 1,057 dead.

Considering the level of violence there, Iraq is probably now the most under-reported country in the region. [Continue reading…]

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