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Despots are pushing the Arab world to become more secular

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DURING Friday prayers the congregation of Muhammad Yousef, a young puritanical preacher in the Egyptian town of Mansoura, once spilled out into the alleys surrounding his mosque. Now Sheikh Muhammad counts it a good week if he fills half the place. In Cairo, 110km (68 miles) to the south, unveiled women sit in street cafés, traditionally a male preserve, smoking water-pipes. Some of the establishments serve alcohol, which Islam prohibits. “We’re in religious decline,” moans Sheikh Muhammad, whose despair is shared by clerics in many parts of the Arab world. According to Arab Barometer, a pollster, much of the region is growing less religious. Voters who backed Islamists after the upheaval of the Arab spring in 2011 have grown disillusioned with their performance and changed their minds

Zimbabwe’s deepening crisis

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Do you take electronic dollars? A MONEY-CHANGER deftly flicks through a brick of bills, her fingernails a sparkly purple that matches her eye-shadow. She keeps the stack of “bond notes” (Zimbabwe’s ersatz money) bundled inside a sock in a plastic carrier bag. Real American dollars are hidden in her bra. Although bond notes are officially worth the same as American dollars, here on a pavement in Harare, the capital, greenbacks trade at a premium of 20-30% to the bills printed by Mr Mugabe’s government. Those wanting to buy dollar bills with mobile money, which is also supposedly denominated in the American currency, must pay a further premium of 30%. Such a range of values for Zimbabwe’s money ought not to be possible since, officially at least, it does not have a currency. The country a

Morocco’s little idyll of Jewish-Muslim coexistence

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Striking a harmonious note ONCE a year the little seaside town of Essaouira, in Morocco, reclaims its lost Jewish community. Sephardic trills echo from its whitewashed synagogues. The medieval souks fill with Jewish skullcaps. Rabbis and cantors wish Muslims “Shabbat Shalom” and regale them with Hebrew incantations. “It’s our culture,” says a merchant from Marrakech, who travelled 200km (124 miles) to hear them this year. The revival is the initiative of André Azoulay, a 76-year-old Jew from Essaouira (one of just three) and a former counsellor to Morocco’s kings. Each autumn he stages a colourful festival of Andalusian music aimed at bringing hundreds of Jews and Muslims together for a weekend of concerts and dialogue. Locals pack the small stadium to watch Hebrew cantors and Koran-rec

A pageant with a feminist cause in Liberia

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“THEY want to strike fear into the hearts of their opponents!” remarked an onlooker, tapping his chest. Fighting words, perhaps, for a staff fundraiser—but hyperbole is the name of the game at the Liberia National Police (LNP) Queen Contest. Trading their uniforms for ballgowns and flanked by raucous entourages raining confetti and cash, a half-dozen policewomen peacocked to their seats under a balloon-lined marquee. They vogued, cat-walked and delivered impassioned speeches. This was no normal beauty pageant. The contestants were chosen for their professional ambitions, their appearances almost incidental. For all its pomp, the contest is a practical affair to raise money to send policewomen to Australia for training. Guests and officers of all ranks put banknotes into the basket of th

Kenya’s fresh election is preposterously flawed

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CLUTCHING a large rock on his shoulder, Sam Ogada is ready for battle. “This”, he says, gesturing with it, “is the only language our government understands”. A little way down the street, in Kisumu, a large city in western Kenya, piles of burning tyres spew black smoke into the air. Policemen, dressed in full camouflage and clutching assault rifles, mill about. The sting of tear gas hangs in the air. On the streets men have fashioned bricks, stones and tree branches into crude roadblocks, where, when not fighting with the police, they ask somewhat menacingly for donations from passing motorists. The people of Kisumu are used to this. The city is the stronghold of Raila Odinga, Kenya’s veteran opposition leader. It has been a centre for discontent with Kenya’s government for as long as m

Israel’s “New Labour” party

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A third way in the Jewish state AVI GABBAY has already overturned convention once—when on July 10th he won the primaries to become the leader of Israel’s Labour party just six months after joining it. Now he is causing more ructions in the main opposition, with a series of statements that are heretical to those on the far left of Israeli politics. Although other Labour leaders have, at times, espoused similar views, Mr Gabbay has done so earlier and more emphatically. He says that, should he win the next election he would not invite the country’s Arab parties to join his coalition. And he has said that he does not think that Jewish settlements built on land in the West Bank, which Israel captured in 1967, should necessarily be dismantled as part of a peace agreement. Further disconcerti

Biafran separatists are gaining support, 50 years after the civil war

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DOORS hang off their hinges. Cupboards have been emptied onto floors, walls and windows are pitted with what appear to be bullet holes. A statue of Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), a Nigerian separatist group, is missing a hand and an arm. Mr Kanu’s family compound in Umuahia, the sleepy capital of Abia state in south-eastern Nigeria, was raided by soldiers on September 14th. His brother, Emmanuel, claims 28 people were killed and says he has not heard from Mr Kanu since. The army denies the raid even happened. Meanwhile Mr Kanu, who was charged with conspiracy to commit treason two years ago, failed to attend a bail hearing on October 17th. His disappearance illustrates how the unhealed wounds of Nigeria’s brutal civil war have been reopened in recent