Iran protests show danger of economic woes

Demonstrators attend a protest over Iran's weak economy in Tehran, Iran. (AP)
Updated 09 January 2018

Iran protests show danger of economic woes

DUBAI: The protesters rallied for days in Iran, chanting against government corruption and demanding justice.
That was last year, when depositors who lost their savings in the collapse of a major government-run credit union took to the streets, shouting “Death to (Valiullah) Seif,” Iran’s Central Bank governor.
In the past 10 days, there were new protests, the largest in Iran since its 2009 disputed presidential election, fueled by young people angry over their bleak prospects. This time, they shouted slogans against President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The protests in dozens of towns and cities also showed that a sector of the public was willing to openly call for the removal of Iran’s system of rule by clerics — frustrated not just by the economy but also by concern over Iran’s foreign wars and general direction.
That sentiment likely extends beyond those who took to the streets. But the protests also showed the constraints on discontent. Fear of reprisals probably kept some people away from the protests.
Without drastic change in people’s livelihoods, unrest over the economy will only intensify, becoming perhaps the greatest challenge for Iran as it nears its fourth decade of existence and a new era of leadership looms.
The collapse last year of the Caspian Credit Institute, which promised depositors returns often seen in Ponzi schemes, showed the economic desperation faced by many in Iran. Retirees unable to make ends meet on their pensions can be found driving many of the taxis crowding Tehran’s roads. Universities turn out students with no hope of employment in their fields, while those lucky enough to have work often have a second or even a third job.
Banks remain saddled with bad loans, a warning repeatedly sounded by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Some of this stretches back to the days of nuclear sanctions, while others find themselves mired in the murky finances of the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, which is estimated to control a third of the total economy.
Inflation, initially brought under control by Rouhani, has slipped back into double digits, according to recent figures. He cut some subsidies offered by his hard-line predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Those subsidies benefited rural and poor voters in the provinces, the same people who appear to have taken to the streets in the recent protests, initially sparked by food prices.
The recent protests saw some marchers chant against Iran’s foreign wars, demanding the government focus first on those at home.
Protesters denounced the money going to support Iranian proxies fighting in the region rather than helping people in Iran.
Approaching the 40th anniversary of the revolution, Iran will increasingly consider who will follow the 78-year-old Khamenei, who underwent prostate surgery in 2014. Among those under consideration is Rouhani, himself a cleric. Both the US and analysts studying Iran say hard-liners initially fomented the economic protests to put pressure on Rouhani but quickly lost control of them.
The economic resentment seen in recent days could prompt the rise of another Ahmadinejad-style hard-line populist.
It is hard to tell right now who emerged stronger after the protests — Rouhani or his hard-line opponents. Each tried to wield anger over the economy against the other. Weeks before the protests, Rouhani publicly complained that large parts of the government budget went to religious institutions, largely seen as power bases of the hard-liners, seeking to deflect blame over the economy.


Man shot dead as Lebanese army disperse protesters

Updated 13 November 2019

Man shot dead as Lebanese army disperse protesters

  • The death is the second during the nationwide protests that have paralyzed the country

BEIRUT: A man was shot dead south of Beirut after the army opened fire to disperse protesters blocking roads, Lebanese state media said Wednesday, nearly a month into an unprecedented anti-graft street movement.
The victim “succumbed to his injuries” in hospital, the National News Agency said, the second death during the nationwide protests that have paralyzed the country.
The army said in a statement that it had arrested a soldier after he opened fire in the coastal town of Khalde, just below the capital, to clear protesters “injuring one person.”
Protesters have been demanding the ouster of a generation of politicians seen by demonstrators as inefficient and corrupt, in a movement that has been largely peaceful.
On Tuesday night, street protests erupted after President Michel Aoun defended the role of his allies, the Shiite movement Hezbollah, in Lebanon’s government.
Protesters responded by cutting off several major roads in and around Beirut, the northern city of Tripoli and the eastern region of Bekaa.
The Progressive Socialist Party, led by influential Druze politician Walid Jumblatt, said in a statement that the man shot dead was one its members.
A long-time opponent of President Michel Aoun, Jumblatt appealed to his supporters to stay calm.
“In spite of what happened, we have no other refuge than the state. If we lose hope in the state, we enter chaos,” he said.
The government stepped down on October 29 but stayed on in a caretaker capacity and no overt efforts have so far been made to form a new one, as an economic crisis brings the country to the brink of default.
On Tuesday morning, dozens of protesters had gathered near the law courts in central Beirut and tried to stop judges and lawyers from going to work, demanding an independent judiciary.
Employees at the two main mobile operators, Alfa and Touch, started a nationwide strike.
Many schools and universities were closed, as were banks after their employees called for a general strike over alleged mistreatment by customers last week.

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The UN’s special coordinator for the country, Jan Kubis, urged Lebanon to accelerate the formation of a new government that would be able “to appeal for support from Lebanon’s international partners.”
“The financial and economic situation is critical, and the government and other authorities cannot wait any longer to start addressing it,” he said.
The leaderless protest movement first erupted after a proposed tax on calls via free phone apps, but it has since morphed into an unprecedented cross-sectarian outcry against everything from perceived state corruption to rampant electricity cuts.
Demonstrators say they are fed up with the same families dominating government institutions since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.
In his televised address on Tuesday, Aoun proposed a government that includes both technocrats and politicians.
“A technocratic government can’t set the policies of the country” and would not “represent the people,” he said in the interview on Lebanese television.
Asked if he was facing pressure from outside Lebanon not to include the Iran-backed Hezbollah in a new government, he did not deny it.
But, he said, “they can’t force me to get rid of a party that represents at least a third of Lebanese,” referring to the weight of the Shiite community.
The latest crisis in Lebanon comes at a time of high tensions between Iran and the United States, which has sanctioned Hezbollah members in Lebanon.
Forming a government typically takes months in Lebanon, with protracted debate on how best to maintain a fragile balance between religious communities.
The World Bank says around a third of Lebanese live in poverty and has warned the country’s struggling economy could further deteriorate if a new cabinet is not formed rapidly.