As the world celebrates International Women’s Day 2023, the issue of women’s empowerment and feminism remains a sensitive subject in the Arab world, particularly in Iran. Since the overthrow of the shah in 1979, the image of women in the country has typically been defined by the hijab. However, the past six months have seen a complete turnaround of this past notion, as young women in Tehran have pushed the limits on what they can wear publicly, risking arrest and punishment.

Photos and videos of women with their hair out in public have gone viral on social media, but this newfound sense of freedom has not gone unnoticed by the authorities. The recent Mahsa Amini protests and the revelation that more than 1,000 Iranian girls in schools across the country have been poisoned are stark reminders of the continued oppression of women in Iran. Despite the implementation, criminalization, and promotion of compulsory hijab as the primary gender policy in Islamic states, women have shown remarkable courage and determination in their pursuit of justice, gender equality, and freedom of choice. The ongoing pursuit of these ideals is embodied in the slogan “women, life, freedom.”

The recent Mahsa Amini protests in Iran have shed light on the brutal oppression faced by women in the country. Mahsa Amini, a 26-year-old Iranian woman, was brutally beaten and murdered while in police custody after being arrested for not wearing a hijab in public. Her death sparked widespread protests across Iran, with many women taking to the streets to demand justice for Amini and an end to the oppressive policies that have long plagued their lives. However, the Iranian government has responded to these protests with violence and repression, using excessive force to quell dissent and punish those who speak out against the regime.

Moreover, recent revelations that more than 1,000 schoolgirls in Iran have been poisoned further demonstrate the dire situation faced by women in the country. The use of poison as a weapon against women is a shocking and deeply concerning development, and it is a clear indication that the Iranian government is willing to go to any lengths to maintain its control over the population. This is a violation of basic human rights, and it is a reminder that we must continue to fight for the rights of women and other marginalized groups in Iran and around the world.

The poisoning of schoolgirls in Iran is a shocking and disturbing development, and one that demands a response from the international community. This type of violence against children, particularly girls, is unacceptable and requires a multilateral response. It is essential that Iran’s leadership take swift action to identify and punish those responsible for these attacks, as well as to take steps to prevent such incidents from happening in the future. Additionally, other countries must come together not just to condemn these acts of violence but also to apply pressure to the Iranian regime to enact real change.

While international condemnation is an important step in bringing attention to human rights abuses, it is not sufficient in and of itself to bring about change in the behaviour of the Iranian regime. As history has shown, the regime has a pattern of making baseless statements in response to international criticism and continues to engage in human rights violations. Therefore, in addition to international condemnation, there needs to be concerted efforts to hold the Iranian regime accountable whether it be through sanctions targeting the regime or other measures.

On this International Women’s Day, it is important to recognize the courage and resilience of women in Iran who continue to fight for their rights in the face of incredible adversity. They have shown us that even in the darkest of times, hope and determination can prevail. We must stand in solidarity with these women and support them in their ongoing struggle for justice, gender equality, and freedom of choice.

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The country has been in a state of political limbo and faces a stalemate in Lebanon now with the country struggling to find a consensus candidate for the presidency. Despite the fact that none of the major political parties have an interest in blocking the election of a new president, finding a compromise solution that satisfies all sides has proven to be a significant challenge to overcome the stalemate in Lebanon.

The situation is made even more complicated by the severe economic crisis that Lebanon is currently facing, as well as the regional role of Hezbollah. A new president will need to be acceptable to regional states like Saudi Arabia and Iran, while also having the confidence of the US and France. This means that the candidate must be able to show that they will not undermine the expectations of these regional and international actors, while also being able to preserve good relations with Lebanon’s Arab partners and implement much-needed economic reforms.

To this end, a meeting was held in Paris last month, attended by representatives from the US, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Egypt. The participants discussed the profile of the ideal candidate, emphasizing the need for a consensual president who would be able to implement reforms and break ties with corrupt patronage networks in the country.

Underlying causes of the political stalemate in Lebanon

However, finding a candidate that satisfies all sides has proven to be difficult, with different factions holding different preferences. Hezbollah and its allies, for instance, have indicated a willingness to engage with the Gulf states, as seen in an article published last November by an affiliated media outlet, Al-Akhbar newspaper. The article suggested a quid pro quo whereby Hezbollah and its allies would choose a president and Saudi Arabia and its local allies would select a prime minister. However, without Christian backing, the candidate suggested by Hezbollah, Suleiman Franjieh, would not have communal legitimacy, handicapping his presidency.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that Saudi Arabia is holding back in Lebanon as long as Hezbollah is active in Yemen. This puts a brake on other Arab states, not least Qatar, which has played an axial role in trying to find a solution, given the fact that it can speak to all sides in the deadlock and act as a mediator.

Despite the difficulties, there are indications that talks are taking place behind the scenes, and it remains possible that a package deal can be worked out eventually to resolve the stalemate in Lebanon. However, for now, a positive outcome remains elusive until one side makes a serious concession.

The European Union seeks to hastily find alternatives to what it called the Kremlin’s “weaponization of energy” following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Last September, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar to roll out the red carpet to these Middle Eastern gas exporters to deepen their position in the world’s largest trading bloc.

Highlighting the dependency on Russian energy, the International Energy Agency (IEA) published a report on “A 10-Point Plan to Reduce the European Union’s Reliance on Russian Natural Gas” as the European Union imported an average of over 380 million cubic metres (mcm) per day of gas by pipeline from Russia in 2021. The report clearly points out that the EU should immediately increase near-term LNG inflows by some 60 bcm, compared with the average levels in 2021. This reality leads the region to the Middle East LNG market as the timely procurement of LNG can be facilitated by enhanced dialogue with LNG exporters in the Middle East countries such as Qatar and UAE.

Energy independence of EU

The current energy war between Russia and Europe has also had widespread consequences for global liquefied natural gas (LNG) markets and the war itself leads EU to cooperate with the Gulf countries on the LNG transfer.

In 2022, as an alternative source to gain energy independence against Russia, European countries have successfully attracted an estimated 53 billion cubic meters (bcm) of incremental LNG supplies representing over four times the LNG demand of Japan after Fukushima. On the other hand, the continents’ decarbonization goals of by 2050 mean that companies (and countries) are hesitant to make long term commitments to sign the large volumes of LNG contracts with the Gulf countries.

Within the framework of the net zero target, Europe would like to contract clean LNG for 10 years to avoid being stuck with LNG volumes in the late 2040s. Therefore, German economy minister Habeck recently discussed LNG supply with Qatar for an eight-10-year contract. Also, Germany announced to receive first Middle Eastern LNG, from UAE’s Adnoc. On the contrary, the biggest dilemma for the European stakeholders is how to ensure security of gas supplies while decarbonizing the energy system.

EU and Middle East are also cooperating on green energy. In the medium and longer term, Europe’s transition from fossil-based economies to renewable energy could be increasingly bound to a vigorous development of clean energy production in the Middle East region. With the EU’s established ambitious climate and energy policy targets; reducing greenhouse emissions by 2030 by more than half vis-à-vis 1990 levels and achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, the region has lots of potential such as solar and wind energy as well as hydrogen to become the saviour of EU.

During COP27, the Sustainable Electricity Trade (SET) MoU signed by Morocco, Spain, Portugal, France and Germany to promote cross-border trade corporate green energy further highlights the acceleration of the MENA region integration in the energy sector. 

The move towards renewables in MENA is accelerating. Morocco, for instance, aims to have 80% of its total electricity generation capacity from renewables by 2050. According to the World Bank, this trend, boosted by European investment deals for clean energy production in the region has the potential to not only increase GDP in the MENA countries involved, but also provide much needed jobs.

Win-win situation

As I highlight in my newly published book “The Renaissance of Smart Energy”, the Middle East region is more than the Syrian war or visits to Dubai for super-posh expensive shopping. Undoubtedly, the region has huge potential for green investments for European countries.

The energy cooperation path remains clear for the building of trust in order to achieve progress on the environment in 2023 between Europe and the Middle East. The Middle Eastern countries must however unite to combat climate-change and the energy oligarchs in order to build a strong alliance that supports European energy independence. There can be no losers in this scenario. It can only be a win-win situation.

The current challenge of Europe on clean energy and Russian energy supplies creates a unique opportunity to draw the countries of the MENA region into a nexus of trade, growth, and peace, while at the same time pushing forward the transition to renewable energy. It is a win-win opportunity that we must not let slip away.

In October 2016, the Egyptian Premier League witnessed a unique refereeing scandal, which was covered by many local and international media, in the 68th minute of the Ismaily and Al-Nasr mining match, which ended in a positive draw with a goal for the same, Ismaily goalkeeper Mohamed Awad saved a ball with his hands from outside the penalty area, and the referee did not calculate a free kick or anything, and even demanded that play continue amid a wide astonishment from everyone.

Egyptian football followers thought that this disaster would resolve the non-repetition of refereeing errors in the Egyptian Premier League football matches, especially after the heinous attack on the refereeing staff, which resulted in an official decision to suspend the referee of the match, but the crisis continued to flare up from year to year, which shattered the hopes of emerging football teams to achieve advanced positions in the league table, and participate in continental tournaments such as the African Champions League or the African Confederation Championship.

Recurring crisis of referee corruption in Egypt

The refereeing crisis in Egypt is witnessing a remarkable development in the recent period, as the emerging football clubs suffer from the continuation of the journey of the Egyptian Premier League, after the clear stubbornness they are exposed to in favour of the most popular clubs, which appeared recently this month, especially in the first minute of the match Zamalek and Smouha, within the eighteenth round of the Premier League Championship.

The arbitration disaster was new of its kind this time, when only 15 seconds passed from the events of the meeting, and Zamalek player Mohamed Abd El-Shafi made a mistake, in passing the ball to his team’s defense line, to be kidnapped by Hossam Hassan, striker of Smouha Club, from inside the penalty area of the white team, to do Mohamed Abd El-Ghani, defender of Zamalek Club, “mashing” the player’s foot clearly in front of everyone.

The strange thing is that the match referee, Ibrahim Nour El-Din, returned to review the game again via the Var technique, but he decided not to calculate a penalty kick in favour of the Alexandrian team to continue playing normally, in a usual scene from the Egyptian refereeing, and even the director of the match deliberately showed the aforementioned shot in front of the viewers (black and white), so that the vision is not fully clear.

Compulsory retirement

One of the players of emerging clubs in Egypt, who refused to be named, so as not to be subjected to legal accountability, says in an exclusive interview with The Middle East Beat, that his journey in moving between the Egyptian Premier League clubs exceeded 7 years, during which he did not achieve any official championship, despite his many participations in matches, attributing the reason to the refereeing crisis in Egypt, which was exposed to disasters more than 20 times.

The player expresses his sad career in the world of football: “I would have liked to play for popular clubs in Egypt such as Al-Ahly or Zamalek, so that I could avoid repeated refereeing errors, which affected the future of many players in different clubs, and even made a difference in the fate of many football coaches, who were greatly wronged by repeated refereeing errors in the Premier League.”

He concludes his speech, explaining that some players in emerging clubs decided to retire from football permanently in the past few years, after they lost hope in the progress of the teams they joined, or competing with the most popular clubs, stressing that small teams suffer from several things, most notably that the media does not address any details except for popular clubs and affiliated with major companies, which affects the absence of marketing for small clubs, and makes them less likely to defend their rights, as they have been exposed to cases of refereeing errors.

Flops of the “Var” rooms

For his part, Omar Emad, a sports critic, believes that the refereeing crisis in the Egyptian Premier League is very huge, due to the referees’ different treatment of the two most popular teams in Egypt (Al-Ahly and Al-Zamalek), and the referees’ strange actions in calculating direct free kicks or penalties, and cancelling goals or counting them in favour of popular clubs.

“Emad” explains in an exclusive interview with The Middle East Beat: “I personally asked many of the players of the Egyptian Premier League, all of them unanimously agreed on one thing, playing for Al-Ahly or Zamalek is one thing, and playing against them is another thing entirely, despite the large presence of corporate clubs in recent times, but the injustice is clear to them, in exchange for the full bias of the popular clubs in Egypt.”

He adds: “There are several crises within the rooms of the Var, and I attended one of the matches inside the room of the Var, accompanied by one of my friends from the directors of the matches, and I saw then the disasters arbitration, it became clear to me the extent of apprehension that exists n before the referees of the Var in favour of Ahli and Zamalek, the two teams if they were wronged once, the teams that play against them will wronged 10 times,  as a compensation for the two teams”.

As for the reasons for the resignation of the previous arbitration committee, which came under the leadership of the English referee Mark Clattenburg, the sports critic confirms that he decided to leave the presidency of the referees committee in Egypt, because of his repeated crises with Zamalek club president Mortada Mansour, as well as being insulted and slandered publicly in the club’s television programs.

In conclusion, he says: “The presence of Clattenburg in the referees committee did not add anything to the tournament, because his personality was completely absent with the Egyptian referees, and this was quite clear especially in his review of the wrong decisions and refereeing cases, and nothing changed”.

Corrupt appointment

We also got in touch with Mohamed Mohsen, a former Egyptian Premier League referee, who decided to leave the profession a few years ago due to widespread corruption in referee matches, and a lack of desire to belong to the system in general, it became clear that there was another disaster in Egyptian arbitration, little is known about, which is the appointment of people as referees inside the Farr rooms, who do not belong in any way to the profession, and do not have the usual referees.

Mohsen continues his conversation with “The Middle East Beat”, pointing out that these people are relatives of members within the arbitration committee and the Egyptian Football Association, and some of them also have close relations with the presidents of mass clubs in Egypt, and have been appointed in order to provide services to certain clubs, and this has become widely clear in front of the fans recently, and resulted in refereeing disasters that have no analogue in other tournaments.

He says: “Last year, 16 clubs out of 18 participating in the Egyptian Premier League competition, filed official complaints against the wrong refereeing decisions they were subjected to, at the same time that the Egyptian Club Association was asking a committee to contract with a foreign expert to develop the system, which was rejected more than once by the referees committee without giving clear reasons”.

Mohsen concludes: “The continuous pressure by the Egyptian clubs forced the referees committee in the end to bring in the English referee Mark Clattenburg, but only a few months have passed until the parties to the system deliberately spoil his work, and even made it completely cancelled, no impact of his decisions permanently, until he submitted his resignation and left the country, and this is the biggest evidence of the lack of hope for the progress of Egyptian football”.

Image Credit: Omar Emad

Egypt has invested heavily in massive infrastructure projects in recent years, including the new capital east of Cairo and widespread road construction, which helped maintain economic activity during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this has weakened the investment environment, stifling industrial and agricultural projects and relying on hot money, creating some instability in the Egyptian economy in 2022.

The instability could have disappeared or increased over time without defined moments, but the Russian-Ukrainian conflict ignited the situation and has brought the economic situation to light causing huge difficulties and forcing the Egyptian government to struggle to control the exchange rate of the Egyptian pound against the US dollar, leaving the Egyptian government struggling to keep afloat amidst the overwhelming debt that has grown heavier in last 10 years.

With inflation spiraling, American interest rates rising, ongoing geopolitical disturbances, and structural economic challenges, the Egyptian pound and other regional currencies may face further declines in 2023. Therefore, 2023 may be a defining year for the Egyptian state to chart its destiny for years to come.

Eye on the crisis

The Egyptian pound has declined in value in three stages. The first was in March 2022, when it dropped from 15.7 to 18.2 pounds per dollar. The second was in October 2022, when it reached 23 pounds per dollar, with the central bank announcing a flexible exchange rate policy. The third was in January 2023, when the pound plummeted to a record level of over 32 pounds before stabilizing at around 30 pounds currently.

Egypt has been struggling with foreign currency since the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian war in February 2022 and the rise in US interest rates throughout 2022, resulting in the exit of over 22 billion dollars in hot foreign investments in debt instruments.

The financial statement for the state’s 2022/2023 general budget project revealed that the total payment of local and foreign debts will amount to 690 billion pounds, representing 7.6% of the total domestic output and an increase of 19.1% over the previous budget. Since October, the Egyptian currency has been depreciating, and the government is facing the challenge of finding sustainable solutions to tackle rising product prices and potential political instability.

Facing the beast

The Egyptian government has faced a challenge and changed some of its important financial leadership, such as replacing Tarek Amer as the governor of the central bank with Hassan Abdullah and appointing Rami Aldekani instead of Mohamed Omran. Since then, the government’s management has improved significantly, despite it not being clear to the Egyptian citizen.

On January 11, 2023, the Egyptian Central Bank succeeded in obtaining a loan from the International Monetary Fund by committing to stringent reform conditions, such as its commitment to maintain a constant exchange rate for the local currency against receiving a loan from the International Monetary Fund worth 3 billion dollars for 46 months. On the same day, the Central Bank announced the exchange rate, and the pound fell to its lowest level ever, 32.5 for the dollar in state-owned banks, close to its price in the black market.

The decision by the head of the Egyptian Central Bank was made due to the observation of four unauthorized practices in the foreign currency market in December 2022 that drained the Egyptian economy. These practices included the use of credit cards abroad to take advantage of currency differences, trading some goods in the local market with hard currency, and violations related to the transfer of money from Egyptians abroad through unofficial channels to take advantage of the unofficial exchange rate. The fourth violation was the establishment of illegal foreign currency trading offices. These practices were negatively affecting the Egyptian economy, and the Central Bank’s decision was aimed at stopping them.

The stock market as a lifeline for the Egyptian Economy

The Egyptian government has taken the reins to revive its stock market and turn it into a safe haven for investors. Along with maintaining a stable exchange rate, the government has also committed to gradually selling some of its state-owned assets, including those owned by the military, to regional and international investors to provide more freedom for the private sector and attract investors back. It has also agreed to increased supervision from the International Monetary Fund on its national budget, state-owned companies, and government spending, in an attempt to control the value of the Egyptian pound.

The government aims to raise 2.5 billion dollars by the mid-year from these sales, covering sectors such as energy, industry, and transportation. Despite the Egyptian stock market being in its worst state in recent years, it has now started to bounce back with the new economic administration. The EGX30, the main stock index in Egypt, has risen by 22.17% in 2022, reaching its highest level since 2017 and adding another 9.51% this year, surpassing 17,000 historical points.

In 2023, there is a high number of companies set to be listed on the Egyptian stock market, attracting Arab and foreign investment, supported by strong performance in the last quarter of 2022 and the first months of 2023. This is just the beginning of a promising future for the Egyptian stock market as a hub for investment.

Sovereign funds as a new player

Egyptian sovereign funds have emerged as a new player in the economy. Failure is the last thing the Egyptian government needs right now, and it seems that the new economic team understands this and will rely on the Arab player in the coming period, specifically the massive financial capabilities and meeting of expectations of the Egyptian Sovereign Fund.

The fund was able to attract investment worth $3.3 billion from Arab and Gulf sovereign funds in 2022, with some in dollars and others in Egyptian pounds, in sectors such as tourism, real estate, industry, financial services, education, and manufacturing. Additionally, the Saudi Sovereign Wealth Fund is in advanced talks to acquire the state-owned Unified Bank of Egypt in a deal worth approximately $600 million, with more companies on the way in the next four years with a total value of around $40 billion.

The acquisition of the investment will take place through the newly established Egyptian-Saudi Investment Company, valued at a whopping $620 billion. This move is a testament to the Egyptian economic team’s understanding of the challenges they face and their determination to find solutions that benefit everyone involved. The vision of Saudi Arabia to transform its oil-based economy aligns with the Egyptian government’s effort to sell some assets to finance exchange rate fluctuations. This agreement is reflected daily in the Egyptian stock market and will become more evident as the government’s initiatives begin this year.

Credit rating downgrades send shockwaves again

Moody’s has announced a decrease in Egypt’s credit rating from B2 to B3, dashing hopes for a brighter future. This may hamper Egypt’s efforts and make it more difficult to issue more bonds, which the government had relied on to fund Egypt’s external debt of 155 billion dollars by September 2022. The Egyptian government will now have to either raise interest rates or resort to alternative means of funding the debt.

The current situation in Egypt’s economy is better than it has been in the past and the production sector has started to recover to its full capacity. This will help stabilize the prices of all products in the near future. However, Moody’s report is based on data from before the new economic administration took over. Standard & Poor’s has already given Egypt a B rating with a stable outlook, which shows that the current situation is under control.

Nevertheless, these reports emphasize the importance of the stock exchange’s initiatives to improve the Egyptian economy and the Egyptian stock exchange, which is expected to see higher values for its companies in the future. The question remains whether Rami Dakkani and Hassan Abdullah will be able to prevent the Egyptian pound from further depreciation. With their economic performance during the storm, it seems that they are up to the challenge of steering the Egyptian pound to calmer waters.