MENA Brief newsletter 26 April - 2 May 2019

The latest MENA Brief analyses the US’s potential decision to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, demonstrations in Iraq, and the protests in Morocco and Tunisia 

Middle East

  • Regional – US ‘set to designate Muslim Brotherhood as terrorist organisation’
  • Egypt – State of emergency extended until 25 July
  • Iran – Demonstrations expected in capital, following Labour Day protest arrests
  • Iraq – Protests against Bahrain due to comments by foreign minister
  • Lebanon– General strike by public sector workers 
  • Oman – National carrier cancels hundreds of flights in May

North Africa

  • Algeria – Security forces deploy checkpoints to limit protesters’ access to capital
  • Morocco – Demonstration in capital in support of Hirak protest prisoners
  • Tunisia – Protests following deaths of 12 farm workers in car accident
  • Tunisia – Fuel workers conduct three-day fuel strike’ strike

Middle East

According to media reports, on 30 April US President Donald Trump is planning to list the Muslim Brotherhood as a ‘foreign terrorist organisation’. This has not been confirmed by the White House.

Why it matters: Founded in Egypt in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood is commonly referred to as a Sunni Muslim political organisation. It has support in countries with large Muslim populations, and has created political parties in Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Indonesia and Somalia, and Indonesia, among others. In Palestinian territory Gaza, the Muslim Brotherhood is responsible for the creation of Hamas, the Sunni-Islamist governing party.

If reports are correct, Trump is likely to have taken this decision due to pressure from countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. These countries, as well as Bahrain, Russia, Syria, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan have listed the group as a terrorist organisation due to its support of anti-government uprisings. Although there is no official figure, the Muslim Brotherhood is likely to have millions of members.

Since the 2013 coup d’état in Egypt that led to the ousting and imprisonment of then-president Mohamed Morsi, who led a Muslim Brotherhood government, the group has faced repression there. The Muslim Brotherhood is often accused by the government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of conducting terrorist attacks, something the organisation denies.

Listing the organisation as a terrorist organisation would make it a crime for any American to assist the group, as well as banning its members from entering the country. The Muslim Brotherhood has economic interests in areas including the oil and gas sector, infrastructure and telecommunications across the Middle East and North Africa. International firms should review their exposure to Muslim Brotherhood operations through due diligence of companies with which they have dealings, including third-party relations. They should be prepared to adjust operational and strategic plans in the event of the US listing the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation.

Egypt – State of emergency extended until 25 July
Egypt – Security risk: High
President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi announced on 25 April that the country has extended the ongoing state of emergency for a further three months, until 25 July.

Why it matters: The state of emergency was first introduced in April 2017, due to the threat posed by Islamist militants. It is also probable that this extension was due to the recent heightened threat of protests, following a referendum approving constitutional amendments that could see al-Sissi remain in power until 2034. Under the state of emergency, the military and police are granted extraordinary powers of investigation, confiscation, and detention against individuals deemed a threat to the internal security and stability of the state. The extension of the state of emergency also places restrictions on travel and civil rights. Businesses should factor the extension into operational planning.

Iran – Demonstrations expected in capital, following Labour Day protest arrests
Iran – Travel risk: Elevated
Protests occurred in the capital Tehran on 2 May, after dozens of people were arrested during International Labour Day protests 1 May. The arrests occurred opposite the parliament building on Ibn Sina street as demonstrators called for the right to form unions

Why it matters: The country only permits Islamic labour councils, which bring together representatives from the labour ministry, employers, and employees who are loyal to the government. Protesters are likely to gather at Taleqani street, where the ministry of industry is located, in the north-east of the city. Business travellers should avoid protests as precaution and allow for additional journey time.

Iraq – Protests against Bahrain due to comments by foreign minister
Iraq – Travel risk: Extreme
Protests re set to continue in the country against the Bahraini government, due to the ongoing diplomatic row between the two countries. On 28 April, Bahrain’s foreign minister claimed that Iraq’s affairs were being managed by Iran, while also using disparaging terms against influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. This was after al-Sadr condemned Bahrain’s repression of Shia-dominated opposition groups, and the conflicts in Yemen and Syria. Al-Sadr called for Bahrain’s leaders to be ousted. The Iraq foreign ministry condemned the statements by Bahrain’s foreign minister

Why it matters: Protests against the Bahraini government have been ongoing in the capital Baghdad and the southern port city of Basra since 28 April. In Baghdad, protesters are likely to gather outside the Bahraini embassy on Mansour street in the centre of the city. Business travellers should avoid protests as a precaution, due to the likelihood of clashes between security forces and demonstrators. Business travellers should allow for additional time when travelling, due to disruption caused by protests.

Lebanon – General strike by public sector workers 
Lebanon – Travel risk: High
The General Confederation of Lebanese Workers, a trade union, announced on 1 May that it will be holding a strike from 2 until 4 May, in protest against government austerity measures.

Why it matters: The austerity measures are highly unpopular as they will result in cuts in public sector salaries and pensions. On 30 April, retired military and security personnel protested in the capital Beirut over pension cuts. Services at government offices are likely to be impacted during the strike. Demonstrations are also likely during the strike. A popular gathering point for demonstrators in recent weeks has been Riad el Sohl square, opposite the Lebanese parliament. Business travellers should avoid protests as a precaution and allow additional time for journeys, due to the travel disruption the probable demonstrations are set to cause.

Oman – National carrier cancels hundreds of flights in May
Oman – Travel risk: Elevated 
On 29 April, Oman Air, the national carrier cancelled 460 flights due the continuing worldwide grounding of Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft. Cancellations are scheduled until 31 May.

Why it matters: All Boeing 737 Max 8 fleets were grounded over safety concerns after the fatal crashes of an Ethiopian Airlines in Ethiopia on 10 March, and an Indonesian Lion Air flight in October 2018. There is no imminent likelihood of the ban being lifted. Oman Air’s 55-strong fleet includes five Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft. Affected destinations include Saudi Arabia, India, Kenya and Jordan. Oman Air is offering its customers alternative flights to their destinations. Business travellers due to fly with the airline should re-confirm their flight status and make alternative travel arrangements where necessary.

North Africa

Algeria – Security forces deploy checkpoints to limit protesters’ access to capital 
Algeria – Travel risk: High
Large anti-government demonstrations resumed in the capital Algiers on 26 April for the tenth consecutive Friday. Mass protests against the government have been ongoing since 17 February, and forced former present Abdelaziz Bouteflika to resign after 20 years in power. Protesters are demanding the replacement of the old political class.

Why it matters: Security forces filtered roadblocks in the town of Lakhdaria, 68km south of Algiers, and the town of Bouzegza, 50km east of the capital. Checkpoints were set up to prevent protesters from joining demonstrations in the capital. Previous flashpoints for protests in the capital include Grand d’Alger square, Place Audin, La Rue Didouche Mourad street, in the city centre. Security personnel have recently deployed tear gas and water cannon to disperse protesters, another sign of escalation, and of the increased collateral risk to bystanders. Business travellers should avoid protests as a precaution, and allow for additional time when travelling to Algiers and within the city. Logistics operators should be aware of the potential delays in their operations due to limited access to Algiers.

Morocco – Demonstration in capital in support of Hirak protest prisoners
Morocco –Travel risk: Elevated 
Large-scale demonstrations and sit-in protests took place in the capital Rabat  on 26 April, in support of prisoners convicted following anti-government protests in the northern region of Rif, between October 2016 and June 2017. The Thafra lil Wafae wa Attadamoun group, an offshoot of the Hirak popular mass protest movement in the Rif region, protestors staged a sit-in protest opposite the headquarters of the Moroccan prison service, near Rue Al Jaouz in the centre of the city. Activists are calling for the release of the prisoners.

Why it matters: The demonstration follows protests organised by Thafra lil Wafae wa Attadamoun on 21 April. The Hirak Rif movement first held mass protests in the Amazigh region of Rif from October 2016 to June 2017. These were sparked by the death of a fish seller who was crushed inside a garbage truck while attempting to retrieve fish confiscated by local authorities. Over 150 people were put in jail in the protests.

A heightened security presence is expected, with the deployment of armored vehicles and potential use of tear gas to disperse protesters. Travellers should allow for additional journey time and avoid any protest as a precaution.

Tunisia – Protest in southern city against government  failed promises 
Tunisia –Travel risk: Elevated
Around 5,000 people protested on 29 April in the city of Sidi Bouzid, 270km south of the capital Tunis, over socio-economic grievances and the government’s provision of public services. The protests were sparked by the deaths of 12 female rural workers in a road traffic accident in the nearby village of Cebbala, on 27 April. A general strike was held in the city as part of the protest, leading to the closure of schools and hospitals.

Why it matters: Sidi Bouzid is the birthplace of the Tunisian revolution which forced the ousting of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 during the ‘Arab spring’. Anti-government demonstrations have been increasing in the country over the past few months. On 23 April, in the city of Tataouine, sit-in protests were staged against the government. In addition, several labour unions have been staging strikes and protests across the country over fuel price increases. Business travellers in Sidi Bouzid should allow for additional journey time, due to the likelihood of protests continuing in the one-week outlook.

Tunisia – Railway workers stage two-day strike 
Tunisia –Travel risk: Elevated
Fuel transport workers represented by the General Federation of Transport union announced on 1 May that they will hold a nationwide strike from 2 May until 4 May, after negotiations with the government over fuel prices broke down.

Why it matters: Fuel carriers staged a two-day strike in April leading to major disruptions at petrol stations and impacting on public transport services. This strike is occurring in the midst of anti-government sentiment across the country, including the capital Tunis, due to recent fuel price increases. Business travellers should allow for additional journey time, due to the disruptions that the protests are set to cause. Logistics and facilities managers should factor the strike into their operational plans.