Longtime Lebanese Parliament Speaker Berri re-elected to post

The 128-seat assembly voted 98 in favor of Nabih Berri, with 29 blank ballots and one that was annulled. (AP)
Updated 24 May 2018
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Longtime Lebanese Parliament Speaker Berri re-elected to post

  • The 128-seat assembly voted 98 in favor of Berri, with 29 blank ballots and one that was annulled.
  • The re-election of Nabih Berri, a Shiite ally of the Iran-backed Hezbollah group who has held the post since 1992, reflects Lebanon’s entrenched sectarian-based political system, which has held despite rising discontent.

BEIRUT: Lebanese lawmakers overwhelmingly re-elected the country’s longtime Parliament speaker to the post on Wednesday, giving the 80-year-old monopoly of the office for three decades now.

The re-election of Nabih Berri, a Shiite ally of the Iran-backed Hezbollah group who has held the post since 1992, reflects Lebanon’s entrenched sectarian-based political system, which has held despite rising discontent.

The 128-seat assembly voted 98 in favor of Berri, with 29 blank ballots and one that was annulled. The newly elected Parliament convened Wednesday for the first time after May 6 nationwide balloting. It’s Berri’s sixth consecutive term; he ran unchallenged.

The country’s first parliamentary elections in nine years ended years of political stalemate over a new election law and repeated extension of the Parliament’s terms. Hezbollah and its political allies scored significant gains in those elections.

Outgoing Prime Minister Saad Hariri called Berri a “national symbol.” The oldest member of Parliament, 86-year-old Michel Murr commended Berri for successfully managing the country’s sectarian politics over the years, preventing conflict.

“I extend my sincere thanks, for the sixth time, to the members of Parliament for their confidence in renewing my responsibilities as Parliament speaker,” Berri said, addressing the assembly following the vote.

Keeping on Berri as Parliament speaker is expected to smooth the way for the formation of a new government in the coming weeks. Like the outgoing Cabinet, it’s also likely to be a unity government that incorporates Hezbollah members.

Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun, a Christian, is now expected to begin consultations with lawmakers about a prime minister-designate and Parliament majority leader Hariri, a Sunni, is tipped to yet again head the government.

That Berri faced no challengers, and rarely has over the years, owes much to Lebanon’s sectarian-based and elite-dominated political system, which has mostly kept the peace since the 1975-1990 civil war, but has also spawned political paralysis and endemic corruption.

Berri is seen by some as an embodiment of that system, which shows no signs of changing despite rising discontent. But the Parliament speaker, who is one of Lebanon’s most influential and enduring politicians, is also seen as a moderate, unifying figure who lifted his Shiite community’s profile and role in the country’s postwar politics, often acting as mediator among feuding Lebanese factions.

Celebratory gunfire and firecrackers erupted across southern Beirut after Berri was approved. A pro-Syrian member of Parliament, Elie Firzli, was re-elected as his deputy.

Lebanon’s political system, built to distribute power among its various sects, mandates a Christian president, a Sunni prime minister and a Shiite Parliament speaker, while the Cabinet and Parliament seats are equally divided between Muslims and Christians.

As leader of the Shiite Amal movement, which is closely allied with the powerful Hezbollah, Berri is virtually untouchable. The two parties hold all but one of the 27 seats allotted to Shiites in Parliament.

A lawyer by training, Berri won power as a militia leader during the 1975-1990 civil war and transitioned to politics as the war ended.

His career since has mirrored the Shiite community’s steadily rising clout in a country where it had long been marginalized both economically and politically.

He has nimbly navigated shifting tides over the past three decades to seal both his popularity in the Shiite community and his grip on the post of speaker.

Even as he fashioned himself into a mediator among Lebanon’s deeply divided political factions, he has remained firmly allied to Hezbollah.

That partnership is likely to remain intact. In an AFP interview shortly after this month’s election, Berri said the triumvirate of “the army, the people, the resistance (Hezbollah)” was key to keeping Lebanon safe.

Like many Lebanese from the south, Berri’s parents moved to Africa to make a better living. He was born on Jan. 28, 1938, in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He earned a law degree from the state-run Lebanese University in 1963 before completing post-graduate law studies at the Sorbonne in Paris.

During Lebanon’s war, he rose to prominence by taking over the leadership of the Amal movement in 1980, two years after the mysterious disappearance in Libya of its founder, Imam Mussa Sadr.

In 1984, he led his militiamen in an uprising against the US- and Israeli-backed regime of President Amin Gemayel. Between 1985 and 1988, he helped crush supporters of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the so-called “war of the camps.”

In 1988, his militia fought a deadly power struggle with Hezbollah, which took control of almost all the Shiite southern suburbs of Beirut and swathes of Lebanon’s Shiite-dominated south.

Amal continued to fight against Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon until the latter withdrew in 2000.

 

 

“I am proud of my participation in the resistance against Israel,” Berri told AFP in an earlier interview. “But the rest (of the war) could have been avoided.”

Like many of Lebanon’s war-time chiefs, Berri transitioned to politics when the frontlines calmed, making himself an indispensable ally to Syria, which kept its troops in Lebanon.

Berri was named minister several times between 1984 and 1992. That year, in the first elections after the war ended, Berri was simultaneously elected a member and speaker of Parliament — the highest post for a Shiite in the country’s sectarian political system.


Sudan protests rumble on as Bashir remains defiant

Updated 17 January 2019
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Sudan protests rumble on as Bashir remains defiant

  • Rights group Human Rights Watch has put the death toll at 40, including children and medical staff
  • Bashir has remained steadfast in rejecting calls for him to resign

KHARTOUM: One month after protests erupted across Sudan against rising bread prices, anti-government demonstrations have turned into daily rallies against a defiant President Omar al-Bashir who has rejected calls to resign.
Protest organisers have called for a march on the presidential palace in the capital Khartoum on Thursday, along with simultaneous demonstrations in several other cities.
Authorities say at least 24 people have died since the protests first broke out on December 19 after a government decision to triple the price of bread.
Rights group Human Rights Watch has put the death toll at 40, including children and medical staff.
The protests have escalated into nationwide anti-government demonstrations that experts say pose the biggest challenge to Bashir since he took power in an Islamist-backed coup in 1989.
"I have been demonstrating and will continue to demonstrate until this regime is overthrown," vowed Adel Ibrahim, 28, who has participated in demonstrations in Khartoum.
"We are protesting to save our future and the future of our homeland."
Protests initially broke out in the eastern town of Atbara, which has a history of anti-government sentiment, and within days spread to other provinces and then to Khartoum.
Cities like Port Sudan, Gadaref, Kassala and agricultural regions that previously backed Bashir saw protests calling for him to step down, while the western region of Darfur too witnessed rallies against the 75-year-old veteran leader.
Using social media networks to mobilise crowds, most protesters have marched chanting "Peace, freedom, justice", while some have even adopted the 2011 Arab Spring slogan -- "the people want the fall of the regime".
Crowds of demonstrators, whistling and clapping, have braved volleys of tear gas whenever they have taken to the streets, witnesses said.
"There's a momentum now and people are coming out daily," said prominent Sudanese columnist Faisal Mohamed Salih.
"Even the authorities are astonished."
Although the unrest was triggered by the cut in a vital bread subsidy, Sudan has faced a mounting economic crisis in the past year, including an acute shortage of foreign currency.
Repeated shortages of food and fuel have been reported across cities, including in Khartoum, while the cost of food and medicine has more than doubled.
Officials have blamed Washington for Sudan's economic woes.
The US imposed a trade embargo on Khartoum in 1997 that was lifted only in October 2017. It restricted Sudan from conducting international business and financial transactions.
But critics of Bashir say his government's mismanagement of key sectors and its huge spending on fighting ethnic minority rebellions in Darfur and in areas near the South Sudan border has been stoking economic trouble for years.
"If this regime continues like this, we will soon lose our country, which is why we have to fight," said Ibrahim, who has been looking for a job for years.
An umbrella group of unions of doctors, teachers and engineers calling itself the Sudanese Professionals' Association has spearheaded the campaign, calling this week the "Week of Uprising".
"Protesters don't even know the organisers by names, but they still trust them," said Salih.
Sudanese authorities led by the feared National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) have cracked down on protesters, drawing international criticism.
More than 1,000 people, including protesters, activists, opposition leaders and journalists have been arrested so far, rights groups say.
Bashir has remained steadfast in rejecting calls for him to resign.
"Demonstrations will not change the government," he told a rally in Darfur on Monday as supporters chanted "Stay, stay".
"There's only one road to power and that is through the ballot box. The Sudanese people will decide in 2020 who will govern them," said Bashir, who is planning to run for the presidency for the third time in elections to be held next year.
Two uprisings in Sudan in 1964 and 1985 saw regimes change within days, but experts say this time protesters have a long road ahead.
"At the moment, Bashir appears to have the majority of the security services on his side," said Willow Berridge, a lecturer at Britain's Newcastle University.
Bashir's ruling National Congress Party has dismissed the demonstrations.
"There are some gatherings, but they are isolated and not big," party spokesman Ibrahim al-Siddiq told AFP.
The International Crisis Group think-tank said Bashir might well weather the unrest.
"But if he does, it will almost certainly be at the cost of further economic decline, greater popular anger, more protests and even tougher crackdowns," it said in a report.
Salih said protesters appeared to be determined.
"But the one who tires first will lose," he said.