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Saturday, June 30, 2012

Singapore cuts Iran fuel oil imports as sanctions kick in (JMD quoted)



28-Jun-2012 19:07

By Luke Pachymuthu and Lee Yen Nee


SINGAPORE, June 28 (Reuters) - Singapore's fuel oil imports from Iran fell nearly 60 percent from their 2012 peak in June, as the city state applies pressure to oil firms to reduce trade with the Islamic Republic to win an exemption from U.S. sanctions.


The U.S. has granted waivers to major importers of Iranian crude such as India, Japan and South Korea, leaving just Singapore and China facing the threat of penalties that apply from Thursday and that could hurt the island's important financial industry.


International Enterprise (IE) Singapore, the country's trade agency, increased pressure on oil firms to reduce trade with Tehran following the visit of a senior U.S. diplomat, an official source familiar with the matter said.


"Another round of calls (was made) to re-emphasize the broader implications of doing business with Iran, the companies are receptive," the source said.


The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, referring to a previous statement issued on June 12, said Iran accounted for just one percent of the city-state’s total crude oil imports and that imports had shrunk to zero in May.


The ministry also said the central bank has asked banks to more closely monitor Iran-related business transactions.

Residual fuel, used for fueling ships and for power generation, accounts for the bulk of Iranian oil imports into Singapore, the world's top marine fuel trading hub.


The imports fell to 230,000 tonnes, 58.7 percent lower than the peak for the year of around 561,000 tonnes in February, according to Reuters data.


They have dropped to an average of about 294,517 tonnes a month so far this year, from 623,934 tonnes a month last year.


It is not clear why Washington, a key ally for Singapore, excluded the city state from a list of countries granted exemptions to the sanctions after cutting Iranian oil imports.


The U.S. sanctions aim to slash the flow of oil revenues to Iran to force it to curb its nuclear programme, which the West believes is being used to develop a bomb. Tehran says it needs nuclear reactors to supply elecricity.


Singapore is one of the world's biggest oil trading centres and most of its imports from Iran are of oil products rather than crude.


Fuel arriving from Iran is typically blended, stored, traded and transported from one ship to another by private companies operating on the island and in surrounding waters.


Not being on the U.S. waiver list does not mean immediate sanctions. A U.S. official said earlier this month that it would take some time for Washington to gather evidence to support punitive measures against banks that have processed oil deals.


The drop in oil imports is a clear indication that traders are beginning to take the message seriously, analysts said.


"If the Singapore government were to advise traders that they want a further reduction, traders would probably want to comply with that because they may not want to compromise other interests they have," said James Dorsey, senior fellow at the Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. ($1 = 1.2768 Singapore dollars)


(Additional reporting by Kevin Lim, and Eveline Danubrata; Editing by Simon Webb and Michael Urquhart) ((Luke.Pachymuthu@thomsonreuters.com)(+65 68703573)(Reuters Messaging: luke.pachymuthu.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Amid development failures, some see reduced foreign aid as a boon to Afghanistan


EXCLUSIVE FEATURE: AFGHANISTAN

Amid development failures, some see reduced foreign aid as a boon to Afghanistan

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Afghan boys
Two small boys hold socks they received during a humanitarian aid mission organized by the U.S. Air Force in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo by: isafmedia / CC BY-NC-SA
As Afghanistan braces for reduced foreign aid as part of the NATO drawdown over the next two years, some government and aid officials - current and former - view an expected drop in international support as a blessing in disguise despite the likely negative impact on the local economy. These officials argue that lower aid levels will force Afghanistan to become less aid dependent and limit opportunities for rampant corruption. More importantly, they say, foreign aid that builds up the Afghan government and tackles long-term objectives like infrastructure could create a path to truly sustainable development in a country long plagued by development disappointments.

Interviews with these government and aid officials, as well as with analysts and businessmen working in the country, suggest the prospect for Afghan development is less tied to overall aid funding and more to the specific projects selected for support and the way funds are channeled to those projects.

“Poor donor coordination and flaws in most international development assistance models are so profound in Afghanistan that I am not sure reducing the level of aid will cause great problems because most aid has not caused great good,” said Jeremy Pam, who participated in a U.S. Central Command high-level review of US strategy in Afghanistan and recently returned from an 18-month stint in the country where he oversaw local governance initiatives for the U.S. State Department.

There is evidence that development in Afghanistan is not simply a question of money. Under the belief that more is better, the U.S. doubled its assistance in 2010 from roughly $2.3 billion to $4 billion only to go back to $2.3 billion in 2011 without either the increase or the reduction having had any visible impact according to knowledgeable sources. The sudden and temporary increase may have highlighted the limits of Afghanistan’s ability to absorb aid and, perhaps more importantly, put a spotlight on the limitations of a foreign aid system designed largely to serve donors’ political goals.

“The international donors have been a major problem. We internationals wanted big symbolic statements. We doubled the resources and didn’t care about absorption capacity,” added Pam.

All in all, the impact of fluctuating aid levels on the local economy may be less than expected because, some say, most foreign aid is not spent in Afghanistan and much of what is spent there, leaves the country through imports, expatriated profits and outward remittances.

Wadan Farahi, a former spokesman of the Afghan women’s ministry asserts donor spending has focused on “quick fixes” and that “money spent did not produce long term benefits.” Having left government service to become a consultant, Farahi argued that strengthening the government’s capacity to handle large amounts of aid should be a priority. He said a litmus test would be the government’s willingness to enforce the law and hold those accountable who were responsible for past financial mismanagement. “Our economy cannot withstand another Kabul Bank crisis. It would spark hyperinflation,” Karahi said referring to last year’s discovery that $1 billion had vanished from the bank as a result of insider loans. He said the Tokyo Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan this coming July was expected to help the government streamline its procurement procedures in a bid to roll back corruption and focus on its development priorities.

Ironically, at least one well-placed official says Afghanistan’s government, despite rampant corruption and limited capability, has so far achieved a significantly higher rate of effective aid delivery than donor managed funds. “The money spent through the government had an 80 percent effect. In contrast, the money spent by donors had a 15 per cent local impact. There is not a lot of transparency in donor community spending. It involves multiple layers of contracting and sub-contracting. If they go through the Afghan government a lot of layers are eradicated. It is much easier to have the Afghan government as a single source to coordinate and monitor,” said Arian Sharifi, a partner in Afghan Financial Services, a privately owned consultancy, and former senior finance ministry official.

Sharifi and others may be overstating the evidence to argue their case. Nonetheless, donors implicitly admitted that the Afghan government was more efficient at aid delivery with their decision at the Kabul conference in 2010 that 50 percent of all aid would be channeled through the government (so called ‘on-budget’ spending) by the summer of 2012. Analysts and Afghan officials note that the country’s GDP rose in 2011, the year aid was cut back, although economic growth was also aided by increased agricultural production as a result of the end of a four-year drought in the country.

“That is what we demonstrated to the World Bank,” revealed Najib Manalai, an advisor to Afghan Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal, arguing that foreign aid is not the only socio-economic driver in the war-torn country.

Local officials like Manalai say that a decade of channeling aid through donor agencies, nongovernmental organizations and contractors oriented development strategy toward vested interests of donor country institutions and a rush to allocate budgets – all at the expense of considering a project’s local results.

“Billions of dollars were spent, projects were developed that were not doable. For example, a school but no teachers, desks or chairs, a clinic with no nurses and no doctor. Every aid organization had specialists apply examples from elsewhere, money spent was not producing long term benefits,” Farahi said.

Mikhael Shahmahmood, the United States Institute for Peace representative in Kabul, noted the failure to exploit Afghanistan’s economic strengths in agriculture. “We are sitting with French imports of chicken and eggs; we import 200 million chickens a year from Brazil. We import grapes and yoghurt from Iran,” he said, suggesting those could easily be produced by Afghanistan itself. Sharafi recalled being pushed by the World Bank during his days with the finance ministry to spend his $600,000 budget for capacity building despite his lack of qualified candidates.

“I organized a few training workshops in Dubai and New Delhi but could not find a single person with sufficient English to participate,” he said.

A decade of ineffective aid coupled with the imminent drawdown of international forces has likely cost Western donors the ability to significantly influence the future course of Afghan development. That future will be determined to a large extent by domestic and regional players, and involves the ability of the Taliban, the Haqqani network and the Hekmatyar group to undermine the government of President Hamid Karzai as well as the roles of Pakistan, India, Iran, former Soviet Central Asian republics, Russia and China.

Complicating planning for the transition is lack of clarity around what funds donors have poured into Afghanistan over the past decade and how those funds were used. “No one actor – international or Afghan – knows how much money overall is being spent and where it goes. How do you plan a transition under those circumstances?” Pam, the former U.S. government advisor, asked. Critics argue that neither the United Nations nor the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Agency for International Development, other donor nations, the World Bank or the Afghan government has ever published a transparent assessment of the flow of aid to Afghanistan, its impact of the civil and security aid programs or an assessment of how aid has impacted the Afghan economy. Neither has any of these organizations developed credible measures for the effectiveness of aid, according to a recently published study of aid to Afghanistan by analyst Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies as well as a report late last year by the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In contrast to Iraq, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan has no criteria to validate plans and requirements for civil and security aid efforts in Afghanistan that go beyond the traditional audits which simply document past failures.

As a result, donors may find it difficult to assess the required financial support to ensure the troop drawdown and expected aid cuts do not drive the country into recession. Those eventualities would reduce demand for Afghan goods and services as well as public sector investment. The economic fallout is likely to occur amid an uncertain post-drawdown security vacuum and a deteriorating humanitarian situation. Without a baseline to work from, it will be challenging to ensure that the Afghan government can spend enough to offset the reduced international funding flows. Last November, a World Bank study of Afghanistan’s post-2014 funding and aid needs warned that a cut-off of aid could spark a fiscal meltdown and resulting chaos. Under such circumstances, the study said, Afghanistan could witness the eruption of a civil war with rival warlords and a militant Islamist faction battling one another much like in Somalia.

Cordesman’s first working draft report, “Afghanistan: The Uncertain Economics of Transition,” concluded that if “the level of future U.S. aid and other donor military and civil aid efforts is to have any chance of creating a reasonable level of post-2014 security and stability” planners would have to “approach economics with a level of integrity that has been sadly lacking to date.” That would involve being “honest when the data and sources are in conflict, or so conflicting and poorly based that they cannot credibly be used for planning – a state of affairs that is more often than not the case.”

Overall, some local officials and development experts are calling for delinking aid from military objectives and making jobs, human security, justice and governance a priority. Those interviewed for this article all argued for a shift away from quick impact projects driven by donors’ need to demonstrate progress against military and political objectives to less flashy, long-term development and infrastructure initiatives.

“Afghanistan has been doing quick impact projects for the last 30 years. The effect is obvious, they are not the solution,” said Shahmahmood.

Contradicting this view, a majority staff report of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee recommended last summer that “our aid should be visible among Afghans, and we should have a robust communication strategy in place so that Afghans know what U.S. aid in Afghanistan is accomplishing.” The report defined a sustainable U.S. strategy as one that would “pursue a limited number of high-impact programs that do not require complex procurement or infrastructure.”

If Western donors are to change their strategy, they are likely to increasingly rely on Islamic organizations and regional institutions such as the Aga Khan Foundation, the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Asian Development Bank, according to Brad L. Brasseur of the Brussels-based EastWest Institute. The Aga Khan Development Network has already contributed around $700 million to large-scale rural development, health, education and micro-finance in Afghanistan. Moreover, Islamic and regional agencies could help develop and finance feasible annual provincial development plans involving transparent transfers of development funds in line with government capacity to implement projects. This larger role for the Afghan government and regional players, some say, may be the unexpected development benefit of the coming reduction in foreign aid.

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James M. Dorsey
James M. Dorsey is a Devex correspondent, senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the author of "The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer" blog. James has written frequently about Afghanistan, reporting as a foreign correspondent regularly from the country since he first covered the Soviet invasion in 1979 from Kabul.

Saudi Arabia to allow women to compete in London Olympics


Dalma Rushdi Malhas, Saudi Arabia's likely female Olympic athlete

By James M. Dorsey

Saudi Arabia, in a sudden turnabout has lifted its ban on women athletes competing in international tournaments little more than a week after the death of Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, an opponent of women’s participation in global sports events.

It was not immediately clear what prompted the reversal that was announced in a statement by the Saudi embassy in London. A Saudi women equestrian is expected to be the conservative kingdom’s only female athlete likely to qualify for next month’s London Olympics. The kingdom does not encourage women’s sports, offer girls physical education in public schools or include women in its national sports plan.

The embassy statement followed months of sea-saw pronouncements on whether women would be allowed to compete in London, topped in April by a statement by Prince Nayef categorically ruling out. Prince Nayef, largely viewed as a conservative hardliner with close ties to Saudi Arabia’s religious leadership was succeeded as crown prince by Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz who is believed to be more liberal.

"The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is looking forward to full participation" in the Olympic Games. "The Saudi Olympic Committee will oversee participation of female competitors who qualify," the Saudi embassy in London said.

If indeed implemented it would mark the first time that Saudi women are allowed to officially participate in an international sports tournament and would mean that the kingdom no longer is the only country in the world that refuses to allow women to compete on a global scale.

The embassy statement came at a time that Saudi women have been campaigning for greater rights, focusing on demands to lift a ban on women driving. Proponents of women’s driving submitted earlier this month a petition to King Abdullah with some 600 signatures.

Women driving however has so far been a bridge too far for the king. Scores of women who defied the ban in the past year have been arrested and forced to sign pledges that they would not drive again.  

Manal al-Sharif was detained in May of last year for nine days after she videotaped herself flouting the ban on women driving by getting behind a steering wheel and driving. She was released only after signing a statement promising that she would stop agitating for women's rights.

Prince Nayef dashed hopes that Saudi women would be allowed to participate in the Olympics a month after initially endorsed it by declaring in April that “female sports activity has not existed (in the kingdom) and there is no move thereto in this regard. At present, we are not embracing any female Saudi participation in the Olympics or other international championships.”

The International Olympic Committee which has been negotiating with Saudi Arabia about a lifting of the ban rejected at the time Saudi suggestions that Saudi women living abroad be allowed to compete under the Olympic flag rather than as part of the official Saudi delegation.

International human rights group Human Rights Watch accused Saudi Arabia in February of kowtowing to assertions by the country's powerful conservative Muslim clerics that female sports constitute "steps of the devil" that will encourage immorality and reduce women's chances of meeting the requirements for marriage.

The group’s charges contained in a report entitled “’Steps of the Devil’ came on the heels of the kingdom backtracking on a plan to build its first stadium especially designed to allow women who are currently barred from attending soccer matches because of the kingdom’s strict public gender segregation to watch games. The planned stadium was supposed to open in 2014.

The report urged the IOC to require Saudi Arabia to legalize women's sports as a condition for its participation in Olympic games.

The embassy statement takes on broader significance coming at a time that King Abdullah is seeking to counter attempts by conservative clerics to thwart his minimal reforms and circumvent post-9/11 restrictions on charitable donating, designed to prevent funds from flowing to militant Islamists.

It’s a delicate balancing act for more reform-minded members of the royal family like King Abdullah who rely on the clergy to support the kingdom’s efforts to contain the Middle East and North Africa’s wave of anti-government protests that have already toppled the autocratic leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen and brought Syria to the brink of civil war. Some clerics have asserted that the protests stem from the mingling of the sexes in sports.

“In the past it was only men, now it is almost half half (in stadiums). Allah knows what happens afterwards. Either way it is bad. Either people go out, they are sensing and partying and drinking and all that, so that’s negative. And if they don’t, they go out and they demonstrate and they’re angry and they destroy property and they destroy cars and they destroy people’s business. Either way its haram (forbidden), things have to be done in moderation,” said A Saudi-backed imam Abu Abdellah of the As-Sunnah mosque in Kissimee, Florida. His statement was in line with a series of pronouncements by senior religious leaders in the kingdom itself.

Show-jumper Dalma Rushdi Malhas is likely to be Saudi Arabia’s only female representative in London if the kingdom adheres to the new policy announced by its London. Ms. Malhas in 2010 became the first Saudi woman to compete in the Youth Olympics, where she won a bronze participating on an individual basis rather than as part of a Saudi team.

"I am determined to give my best to reach their level one day, and prove that all women athletes, all over the world, should be given equal opportunities," 20-year old Ms. Malhas said in February at a conference where breaking with Saudi tradition she spoke with her hair uncovered.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a consultant to geopolitical consulting firm Wikistrat.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The man at the epicentre of Egyptian football (JMD quoted)


The man at the epicentre of Egyptian football


One-page article
Samir Zaher, the man who brought Bob Bradley to Egypt, is all apologies after showing up more than an hour late for an interview.
He has been very busy, he explains, campaigning for Ahmed Shafiq, Hosni Mubarak's final prime minister and one of the finalists in last week's run-off in Egypt's first post-Mubarak presidential election.
These days, it is his prize recruit, the American coach Bradley, who commands the sports headlines in Egypt with the national football team in the midst of qualification for the 2014 World Cup and 2013 African Cup of Nations.
But in an Egypt, where sport and politics have long been intertwined, the three terms and 10 years Zaher served as chairman of the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) continue to make him a deeply polarising figure.
On a recent afternoon a group of protesters camped out at Tahrir Square had a discussion about the national team's upcoming World Cup qualifier against Guinea. The conversation turned, unprompted, to the EFA's former chairman.
"Samir Zaher is the most corrupt person to ever work in the football federation," offered one, who identified himself as Abu Shahid.
For many Egyptians, and particularly the hard-core supporters of Egypt's professional clubs known as Ultras, Zaher is the foremost symbol of the corruption and cronyism that permeated Egyptian sport under the Mubarak regime.
Zaher was first appointed to the EFA's board of directors in 1992 before rising to chairman in 1996. He returned to the post after a six-year hiatus, in 2005. In that period, he also served in parliament as a member of the ruling National Democratic Party.
"He was a big figure. He was soccer," said James Dorsey, an academic and author of the popular football blog "The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer".
In the final six years of Mubarak's rule, the ageing dictator increasingly focused on neutralising militant fan groups while exploiting football as a prop to polish his image. "Zaher was the top henchman," Dorsey said. "It was his job … to control that threat and to maximise the opportunity."
In Zaher's sparsely decorated sixth-floor office in the upscale Cairo neighbourhood of Heliopolis, where he heads a trading company, a lone poster hangs on the wall opposite his desk. It features an image of Zaher presenting Mubarak with what appears to be a cup winner's medal superimposed over a photo of Egypt's victorious 2008 African Cup of Nations squad.
In the foreground, a beaming Mubarak holds the trophy, flanked by Hassan Shehata, the coach at the time, and the captain Ahmed Hassan. Mubarak's sons, Alaa and Gamal, appear off to the sides.
As EFA chairman, Zaher concerned himself with every detail pertaining to the national team.
"I am the one responsible for the first team. I go with them in the hotel. I stay in the hotel. I travel with them. I am responsible about everything," he says.
The team's success under his stewardship convinced Zaher of his indispensability. Four of Egypt's record seven African Cup of Nations championships came while he was the chairman, including three consecutive, in 2006, 2008, and 2010.
"I never left anyone to be near the first team except me because the results said so," he says.
His latest run as EFA chairman came to an ignominious end in February when 74 people died in a riot at a league match in the coastal city of Port Said.
The next day, Kamal Al Ganzouri, the prime minister, dismissed Zaher and the rest of the board. After Fifa, world football's governing body, objected to the political interference in the sport, the board announced its resignation a few days later.
Despite reports at the time that Zaher planned to contest his dismissal to Fifa, he insists that he never had any intention of doing so.
"To start with, Fifa, they told us they were backing us, but I don't know what happened after this," he says. "I didn't want to make a conflict between me and the people here in Egypt because it was very hard days."
He had been through the process before. He was fired by Ganzouri during his first stint as prime minister, in 1999, following a stadium incident between the Cairo rivals Al Ahly and Zamalek. "People here in Egypt got used to if there is a drop in football, the responsible people are out. It's not the first time," Zaher said.
Since then, he has kept a low profile, rarely speaking to the media. He takes comfort in his record as the EFA's most accomplished federation chairman.
"I made everything in football: money, results. It was super results. The only thing I did not do is to go to the World Cup," he says.
It was for that reason that he brought in Bradley in September to succeed Shehata, the longtime coach. Shehata coached each of the three successive African Cup victories but failed to lead Egypt to the biggest competition.
Zaher, who had been impressed by Bradley since his US team thrashed Egypt 3-0 in the 2009 Confederations Cup, spearheaded the American's recruitment, hosting him on two visits last summer and advocating for his appointment before the board.
"I saw that this guy, he can do something in Egypt," Zaher says. "He can make something with the Egyptian team. And before leaving the federation, really, I give him all the authorities he wants. Everything."
So far, the plan is on track after victories over Mozambique and Guinea earlier this month to open World Cup qualifying, although Egypt suffered a setback last week in a shock 3-2 home loss to Central African Republic in an African Cup qualifier.
Zaher is unapologetic about his close ties to the former regime. He gestures towards a photograph of Mubarak with the winning 1998 African Cup side. "That's Hosni Mubarak, eh? You can go look, if you like," he says.
But he rejects the suggestion that he is a crony of the former president.
"If I didn't have good results and make good results and have four times cup, will Mubarak or any one of these people ask about me?"
Regarding Mubarak and his sons, who were frequently accused of using football to burnish their popularity, he responds, "They came to the football team, not to me. They came to the results."
Though out of the limelight, for now, the 68-year-old Zaher doesn't intend to drift serenely into his golden years. Besides his day job and work on the Shafiq campaign, he says he maintains close contact with Bradley and the national team staff.
"I'm very near for all these guys. I get in touch with them. 'How are you doing? Come on. We want to beat Mozambique.' Before leaving [to play Mozambique in the first World Cup qualifier], I gave them a talk, you know?"
He also is trying to reintroduce himself to the Egyptian public. He hired a private production company to make a documentary about his life, dating back to his schoolboy days at the prestigious Victoria College in Alexandria.
The film, he says, is "what is not said or seen from my life. Because my life, everyone knows."
The public-relations play also raises an obvious question: does Zaher hope to chair the EFA once again? Under current rules, he would next be eligible to run for the post in four years.
At a time when Egypt's revolutionaries are feverishly fretting a wholesale reconstitution of the old order after the military's recent grab for power, Zaher's restoration to his former perch would surprise few.
"I don't think so," he replies at first. But a few minutes later, he is openly musing about the possibility, and his answer changes to a casual "maybe".
A victory for his man Shafiq, when the election results are announced, would pave the most obvious path for a return to the limelight.
For now, though, he can only sit and watch, hoping that the American manning the sideline can help vindicate, if not his political legacy, than at least his sporting one.
"In the end they are going to say that Samir brought him," he says. "I'm not still there. But it is like this."

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Sudanese anti-government protests mushroom


video


By James M. Dorsey

Sudanese students are demanding the fall of President Omar Hassan Ahmed al-Bashir’s government in growing daily demonstrations that come 15 months after student protests nearly forced the African Football Confederation to deprive Sudan of the hosting of an African soccer tournament.

Like in February of last year, attempts by security forces using tear gas have only boosted the demonstrators’ ranks with other population groups joining the week-old protests that erupted after the government announced spending cuts.

Hundreds of Sudanese of various walks of life joined the students after Friday prayers chanting the Arab world’s all too popular slogan: “The people want to overthrow the regime.” Mr. Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity related to the Sudanese crackdown against rebels in the Darfur region.

This week’s protests have already lasted longer than last year’s and it remains to be seen whether the eruption will fizzle out as it did last year. The killing by security forces of a student last year proved insufficient to give the protests the momentum witnessed in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere in the Arab world.

The student protesters were born largely after the popular revolt in 1985 that forced then President Jaafar al Numeir from office. Nonetheless those protests, that like in Egypt last year prompted the military to step in and replace the disliked leader are one of the few, if not the only ones, in which an Arab leader was forced out of office by popular will prior to the current wave of revolts sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. That revolt led to Sudan for a period of time becoming the first country ever to be effectively ruled by a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate rather than a democracy.

What makes this round of protests different from those last year is the fact that they feed on government measures intended to reduce a $2.4 billion budget deficit fuelled by last year’s secession of South Sudan that robbed Sudan of three quarters of its oil production that effect the pocket book of every Sudanese. The measures include lifting subsidies for fuel, and increased taxes and custom duties on luxury products.

Disagreement over the price that landlocked South Sudan should pay Sudan to pump its oil to northern ports has prompted the newly created nation to shut down production and brought Sudan and South Sudan to the brink of war.

Some analysts suggest that the myriad problems Mr. Bashir faces rather than popular discontent that struggles to maintain momentum the absence of a viable alternative to the disliked president could ultimately prove to be his downfall. "But an economic crisis, armed conflict along the borders, a stalemate with South Sudan on sharing the oil yield and a malfunctioning political system might all render a popular uprising unnecessary, and cripple the government from within," said Sudanese analyst Nesrine Malik in an article in The Guardian.

If Darfur is one of Mr. Bashir’s problems, Darfur United, the region’s fledgling soccer team made up of survivors of the vicious battles against Bashar-backed forces who live in refugee camps in neighbouring Chad is happy to contribute its bit. The team plays in a bid to offer a violence-ridden and destitute region a ray of hope, keep it on the world’s map and serve as a reference point that allows a far-flung refugee Diaspora to maintain contact. Newly formed with the support of an American NGO, singer Macy Gray, National Basketball Association Tracy McGrady and Adidas, Darfur United earlier this month participated alongside Kurdistan, the Western Sahara, Provence, the Tamils and Northern Cyprus in the 5th VIVA World Cup for nations world soccer body FIFA refuses to recognize.

“Soccer united people. It keeps Dafur on the international agenda. Competing in VIVA in Kurdistan is more important than winning. We are now part of the world,” said a Darfur United player putting a good face on the fact that his team ended at the bottom of the tournament.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a consultant to geopolitical consulting firm Wikistrat.