Saturday, the 31st of July

Talking Points

Masks are coming back as Delta surges. PHOTO: Reuters
  1. A shift in America's outbreak victims: younger, sicker, quicker
  2. US to formally end combat operations in Iraq this year
  3. Queen "stays out of politics" Elizabeth found to have lobbied MPs
  4. Papal palace intrigue at the trial of Cardinal Angelo Becciu
  5. India fought a small battle in a border dispute with... India
  6. Cigarette giant Philip Morris called for a UK ban on cigarettes
  7. Trading app Robinhood disappointed on its Nasdaq debut
  8. Newly public and battered Didi considered going private again
  9. Chinese regulators strung-up a new target: the education sector
  10. The shocking toll of floods in China emerged in rural areas

Dive deeper

Good luck – you'll all need it. PHOTO: Martin Meissner / AP

A president turfs out elected officials and seizes total power. The international community is strangely coy. Stranger still, life continues almost undisturbed in the country in question. This week, we go searching for the problem in Tunisia.

When is a coup not a coup?

The events in Tunisia have most of the elements of a coup. On Sunday President Kais Saied invoked emergency powers under Article 80 of the constitution. He swiftly fired the prime minister, suspended parliament for a month, and enacted a nation-wide curfew. The justice and defence ministers were sacked next – their powers deferred to the president. Parliament has been sealed off with barbed wire and armoured vehicles. Movement between cities has been restricted and public gatherings of more than three people banned. The emboldened and now unchecked president has vowed to put down any violence with a response in kind.

Something is missing from the picture: the streets of Tunis are not ablaze. There are no mass demonstrations or calls for a general strike. Indeed, the largest gatherings – ones that clearly haven't roused Saied's ire – have been of his own supporters. Everyday life continues, but don't for a second ascribe this to passivity. Tunisians overthrew their autocrat in 2011, and in doing so ignited the Arab Spring. Is Saied the next Ben Ali? The retired constitutional law professor was only elevated as head of state in 2019. The political neophyte is an avowed independent with no party apparatus behind him. If this was purely a crime of opportunity, Saied would have been dragged out of office. But he hasn't been, which is why our attention should be on who was kicked out, not who has stepped in.

The future disappears

Rached Ghannouchi , the parliament speaker and leader of the major Ennahda party, slammed it as a "coup against the constitution and the revolution". After all, Ennahda is the largest parliamentary party and has the most to lose in political turmoil. Its leader is a colourful figure, one of the many political exiles who returned after Ben Ali's ouster and helped steer the fledgling democracy in its first decade. Ghannouchi, informed by both Algeria's recent history and Libya's current state, made the avoidance of civil war a priority. A noble cause, no doubt. He's guided Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party , clear of the perennial debate in North Africa: Islamic integralism. So why hasn't a torchbearer of the Arab Spring, a respected politician in charge of the most seats in parliament, been able to cut through?

For many Tunisians, the future promised by the Arab Spring never materialised. In the words of Monica Marks , an expert in Tunisian politics, "the street has been boiling after 10 years of democratic transition that has not produced any tangible gains beyond freedom of expression which is not an edible good". Ennahda and the other major parties are the loci of discontent, not the president. The endemic corruption that defined the Ben Ali years may have been uprooted but the poverty has not. The unemployment rate is just shy of 20%. Youth unemployment is double that. Over the years, the desperation over the economy has calcified into anger at the political class. The pandemic has sharpened every edge . Public figures have been hounded for their poor response to the rising death toll. The economy has shrunk as tourism, then manufacturing, have collapsed. Protests spread across Tunisia in January but were met, as always, with political gridlock. Saied has, in an admittedly dramatic and possibly unconstitutional style, cleared that gridlock.

In 2011, Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated before the governor's residence in Ben Arous. A persistent victim of corrupt local officials, the young street vendor's goods were impounded when he failed to produce a bribe, and his pleas for help fell on deaf ears. Before dousing himself in petrol, Bouazizi yelled, "how do you expect me to make a living?" His martyrdom sparked the Arab Spring. And yet, the same question can still be asked of all those who call themselves the custodians of that revolution.


When will this man stop making money? PHOTO: Bloomberg

Monopoly rent for the big five

One analyst called this earnings season "spectacular". That is, if anything, downplaying it. Some of the world's largest companies are growing even faster than many high-risk start-ups do. The five biggest are worth a combined $9.3 trillion and are making money hand over fist.

Alphabet has ridden the "rising tide of online activity" – much of it on their cloud – to post second quarter revenue of $61.9b. That's an improvement of more than 60% year-on-year for Google's parent company. Amazon has reported a third $100b quarter in a row but somehow still fell short of expectations. "Sluggish" second quarter sales stood out like a sore thumb given the unfortunate year-on-year comparison to the sizzling growth of last year when we were all stuck at home ordering things online. Amazon Web Services continues to keep a lock on cloud computing with another growth spurt of 37% in the June quarter. In its last quarter with Jeff Bezos at the helm the "everything store" raked in $7.8b in profit.

Apple too is on a frightening tear with $21.7b in profit on $81.4b in revenue . As 5G networks roll out globally, the world's largest tech manufacturer is meeting voracious demand for new handsets. The chip shortage that has smashed other large manufacturers doesn't appear to have slowed Apple. For its part, Facebook also beat earning forecasts but was immediately clipped because of growing pessimism over "headwinds" in its ad business. Apple's new restrictions on third-party data collection promise to upend the current order of online marketing. And last but not least, Microsoft's blooming Azure cloud computing system and business services earned the old hand $16.5b in profit.

So tell us again, how is the broad anti-trust movement faring?

Peru's Chankillo observatory. PHOTO: Marice Castaneda

The bounty of the world

This week the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) announced the latest inclusions on the World Heritage List. The committee responsible sifts through the cultural and natural riches of the planet and anoints just a handful. It is heartwarming to know that in the midst of the worst pandemic in modern history, an online meeting of (presumably bookish) heritage specialists was held to safeguard our collective culture.

This year's inclusions were Giotto's Padua frescoes for Enrico Scrovegni (some of the finest of the Italian Renaissance, up there with Gozzoli's Magi Chapel for the Medici), Bologna's porticoes , the Darmstadt Artists' Colony, the delightful Cordouan Lighthouse (now in its 410th year of operation), and the ornate Paseo del Prado in Madrid. No surprising choices there given the long-standing favouritism towards European locales by the Paris-based organisation. But there were also juicier picks from further afield: the ornate stonework of the Ramappa Temple in Telangana, the Trans-Iranian railway linking the Caspian Sea with the Persian Gulf, Jordan's As-Salt, the adobe mosques of Côte d'Ivoire, and the Jomon prehistoric sites in Japan that reveal 10,000 years of pre-agrarian culture.

Our pick of the bunch is the Chankillo archaeoastronomical complex (pictured above). The site, a fortified hilltop temple in Peru's north-central Casma Valley, functioned as a calendar: 13 towers and an artificial horizon marked every date of the year to within 2 days of accuracy. It was built in 250-200 BCE. As one archaeologist exclaimed, "there are no parallels anywhere in the Americas or the world".

Then there are the Colchic rainforests of Georgia, the Getbol tidal flats in South Korea, and the lush, fecund wetlands of Gabon's Ivindo National Park . The closer we align our own cultural heritage with the bounty of the natural world, the better.

The worst of times

Libya's coast guard have intercepted 15,000 this year alone. PHOTO: AAP

Another failed Mediterranean crossing

57 migrants drowned on the Mediterranean earlier this week after their boat capsized in stormy weather. Only 18 of the boat’s passengers could be rescued by local fishermen and the Libyan coastguard. As rescue operations from both sides of the sea fail, almost 1,000 people have died attempting the crossing this year. But even those who are rescued aren’t guaranteed safety. Some are sent to detention camps, where they face systematic abuse - rape, torture, beatings, and forced labour.

Myanmar gasping

Months after Myanmar’s coup, the country is struggling to contain its Covid outbreaks. Official records show around 5,000 cases have been recorded every day this week, though the true number is thought to be higher. The military junta has decimated the country’s healthcare since it took power in February. Just 40% of its facilities are operational, and 157 medics have been detained — including the former head of vaccinations. Without help or interference from the international community, the crisis will continue to spiral.

The best of times

It's not just cool – it's an Olympic sport. PHOTO: Reuters

Skateboarding is not a crime

In its Olympic debut, the women’s skateboarding competition was dominated by Gen Z athletes. All three of its medallists are under the age of 18. Its winner, Japan’s Momiji Nishiya , is just 13 years old. Her win makes her the second youngest individual to win a gold medal in Olympic history. Following her victory, she told the media she wanted to celebrate by eating yakiniku — if her mum would let her .

Pounce back

The Iberian lynx has been saved from extinction thanks to a decades-long breeding program in Europe. 100 years ago, 100,000 of the big cats existed in the wild. By 2000, Urban development and poaching had brought that number down to less than 100. In response, five breeding sites were set up across Spain and Portugal, allowing the population to grow without interruption. And it worked: there are now over 1,100 of the felines across the Iberian peninsula alone.

Weekend Reading

The image

The Dixie Fire in California is burning uncontrollably. It has been a shocking fire season and the worst is yet to come. The largest blaze of the season met a smaller wildfire in NoCal and incinerated the community of Indian Falls. Photograph supplied by The Atlantic.

The quote

"By the rules of engagement, it may have been permissible for me to have helped to kill those men — whose language I did not speak, customs I did not understand, and crimes I could not identify — in the gruesome manner that I did. Watch them die. But how could it be considered honorable of me to continuously have laid in wait for the next opportunity to kill unsuspecting persons, who, more often than not, are posing no danger to me or any other person at the time. Never mind honorable, how could it be that any thinking person continued to believe that it was necessary for the protection of the United States of America to be in Afghanistan and killing people, not one of whom present was responsible for the September 11th attacks on our nation. Notwithstanding, in 2012, a full year after the demise of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, I was a part of killing misguided young men who were but mere children on the day of 9/11."

– Former US drone pilot and whistleblower Daniel Hale was sentenced to 45 months in jail this week for leaking information about unreported civilian casualties to the media. Above is an excerpt from his hand-written letter to the judge.

The numbers

8.2 magnitude

- The most-powerful earthquake to hit the US in half a century struck off Alaska's Aleutian Islands on Wednesday. A tsunami warning was rung as far south as Hawai'i, but the extreme depth of the quake – 32 kilometres – meant the surface was left mostly untouched.


- Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer has sharply increased its sales forecast for 2021 raising the number of delivered coronavirus vaccination shots by 500 million doses. It'll pocket a cool $33.5b for its troubles.

The headlines

" A giant red hamster wheel washed up on a Florida beach. And a man was inside. " Miami Herald . Par for the course in that state.

" Tesla's Autopilot thinks the moon is a big old traffic light in the sky . " Input . Perfect, really.

The special mention

These bees which were jacked up on caffeine .

A few choice long-reads

  • "At 6pm on August 4 2020, I was at home in Beirut, working on an article about Lebanon’s faltering banking system. Without warning, I felt the world shudder" – a diary from Lebanon's year in hell from the Financial Times.
  • The Amazon is burning and all Jair Bolsonaro can do is fan the flames. A pressing, crucial read from Bloomberg Businessweek.
  • It feels as though human progress is stalling if not reversing in some areas. Not in protein-folding. We're getting quite proficient at that. A lovely read from The Economist.

Tom Wharton @trwinwriting