Speaker’s long tenure embodies Lebanon’s political stasis

Speaker’s long tenure embodies Lebanon’s political stasis
Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press, in Beirut, Lebanon. (AP)
Updated 22 May 2018

Speaker’s long tenure embodies Lebanon’s political stasis

Speaker’s long tenure embodies Lebanon’s political stasis

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s longtime parliament speaker Nabih Berri often seems like a veteran schoolteacher with a class of unruly students, using threats and jokes and occasional gavel-pounding to keep the assembly in order.
The 80-year-old has held the job for a quarter-century, and is set to be re-elected as speaker for a sixth time on Wednesday, when the new assembly convenes after national elections earlier this month — the first in nine years.
That he faces 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.
“I don’t believe that there is anyone else who has the characteristics, shrewdness and skills to be parliament speaker more than he does,” said Fouad Saniora, a former prime minister from a rival bloc who had tense relations with Berri during his term.
Lebanon’s political system, built to distribute power among its various sects, mandates a Christian president, a Sunni Muslim 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 Shiite militant group Hezbollah, Berri is virtually untouchable. The two parties hold all but one of the 27 seats allotted to Shiites in parliament.
“This is the reality in Lebanon,” said Nabil Bou Monsef, deputy editor-in-chief of the leading daily An-Nahar. “As long as he is the man chosen by his sect to head the parliament, no other sect will veto him as this will lead to sectarian conflict. ... These are the rules of the game.”
Berri’s rise is unusual because he does not come from an established political dynasty. He was born in the African nation of Sierra Leone on Jan. 28, 1938 to a Lebanese trading family with origins in the south Lebanon town of Tibnin. He worked his way up, eventually becoming a lawyer, and says he ended four centuries of feudalism in southern Lebanon.
He was a follower of Imam Moussa al-Sadr, a charismatic Iranian-born cleric who led a Shiite revival in the 1960s that mobilized the long-marginalized community. Berri rose to prominence in 1976, when he became an active member of the politburo of Amal, the military wing of al-Sadr’s movement.
“I was influenced by Imam Moussa al-Sadr in every aspect,” Berri told The Associated Press in a recent interview in his office, which is decorated with an icon of the Virgin Mary and a picture of Berri meeting the late Pope John Paul II.
Berri was elected leader of the Amal movement in 1980 after al-Sadr disappeared while visiting Libya two years earlier. He forged close ties with Syrian President Hafez Assad and remains closely allied to Assad’s son and successor, Bashar.
Amal fighters battled Israeli troops when they invaded Lebanon in 1982, but failed to prevent them from reaching the capital, Beirut. The Shiite fighters later resorted to insurgent attacks, and along with Hezbollah took credit for the Israeli withdrawal in 2000. To this day, Berri says his greatest political achievement was setting up the “resistance.”
Amal struggled during Lebanon’s civil war, however, especially after Iran set up Hezbollah in the early 1980s, drawing Amal defectors into its ranks. The two Shiite groups fought each other on several occasions during the war, but eventually mended ties, and today form the backbone of a Lebanese coalition allied with Syria and Iran.
“When it comes to resistance (against Israel) and goals and everything, we are one body,” Berri said about his ties with Hezbollah. “It is not a Shiite thing. This is a national coalition.”
Berri became known in the West in June 1985, when he helped mediate the release of 39 American hostages after 17 days in captivity. They were held by Shiite extremists who had hijacked a TWA Boeing 727, killed a passenger — US Navy diver Robert Stethem — and demanded the release of 700 Arabs held by Israel.
In the years after the civil war, Berri emerged as a canny mediator who maintained friendly ties with the country’s various factions and worked to prevent them from relapsing into civil war. Known to his supporters as the “Istez,” a title reserved for lawyers, Berri plays an outsized role in naming presidents, forming governments and passing legislation, and his Beirut residence is invariably on the itinerary of visiting foreign dignitaries.
But he is also seen as part of a narrow political elite that has been unable to provide basic services. Nearly 30 years after the civil war ended, Beirut still experiences routine power outages, and a dispute over trash collection in recent years sparked mass protests, organized with the hashtag #YouStink drive, directed against the political class.
Critics accuse Berri of holding up the legislative process when it suits his needs, and his supporters have taken to the streets in violent protests when other factions have challenged him. Earlier this year they blocked Beirut streets with burning tires and trash bins after a leaked video showed the foreign minister calling Berri a “thug” in a closed meeting.
Berri, who has nine children and 26 grandchildren, insists he won’t follow the local tradition of keeping his job in the family, but the octogenarian also has no plans to step down.
“There is no retirement in politics,” he said. “As long as you serve your people and you can work, you will work.”


Israel says will help ensure a ‘new’ Iran deal protects interests

Israel says will help ensure a ‘new’ Iran deal protects interests
Updated 11 April 2021

Israel says will help ensure a ‘new’ Iran deal protects interests

Israel says will help ensure a ‘new’ Iran deal protects interests
  • Gantz hopes Israeli security would be safeguarded under any renewed nuclear deal
  • Austin was making the first visit to Israel by a senior Biden administration official

TEL AVIV: Israel will work with Washington to ensure any “new agreement” on Iran’s nuclear program will safeguard regional security, Defense Minister Benny Gantz told his US counterpart Lloyd Austin on Sunday.
The comments came as Austin made the first high-level US trip to Israel since talks resumed on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear accord, which the Jewish state fiercely opposed.
Gantz said “we will work closely with our American allies to ensure that any new agreement with Iran will secure the vital interests of the world and the United States, prevent a dangerous arms race in our region and protect the State of Israel.”
Austin, the highest-level envoy from President Joe Biden’s administration yet to visit ally Israel, said Washington would work with Israel “to advance shared security interest and priorities.”
Stressing America’s “iron-clad” bond with Israel, Austin said the US will “continue close consultations to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge and to strengthen Israel’s security.”
Austin’s visit came just days after the US said it had offered “very serious” ideas on reviving the hobbled nuclear agreement reached between Tehran and world powers, which was abandoned by former president Donald Trump in 2018.
Israel under hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been a fierce critic of the Iran nuclear deal, dating back to when it was being negotiated during Barack Obama’s administration.
Netanyahu, whom Austin was due to meet on his visit, applauded when Trump withdrew from the deal and imposed sanctions on Tehran, which responded by stepping back from several of its commitments under the deal.
In the latest breach of its undertakings in the troubled agreement, Tehran announced on Saturday that it had started up advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges.
President Hassan Rouhani inaugurated a cascade of 164 IR-6 centrifuges for producing enriched uranium, as well as two test cascades — of 30 IR-5 and 30 IR-6S devices respectively — at Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment plant, in a ceremony broadcast by state television.
An “accident” took place at Natanz on Sunday but caused no casualties or damage, the Fars news agency reported, citing officials.
In an address marking the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Netanyahu had said on Wednesday that Israel would not be bound to a nuclear deal that would enable the Islamic republic to develop atomic weapons.
“An agreement with Iran that would pave the way to nuclear weapons — weapons that threaten our extinction — would not compel us in any way,” said the veteran premier.
Biden has said he is prepared to return to the agreement, arguing the deal had — until Washington’s withdrawal — been successful in dramatically scaling back Iran’s nuclear activities.
But Washington has demanded Iran returns to compliance while Tehran has insisted on an end to all US restrictions, with each side demanding that the other make the first move.


Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Prince Hamza make first joint appearance since rift

Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Prince Hamza make first joint appearance since rift
Updated 11 April 2021

Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Prince Hamza make first joint appearance since rift

Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Prince Hamza make first joint appearance since rift

CAIRO: Jordan's King Abdullah and his half borther Prince Hamza made a joint appearance on Sunday attending a ceremony marking 100 years of the Hashemite kingdom’s independence. 

The royal palace released a photo with Abdullah II, Prince Hamzah, Crown Prince Hussein and other dignitaries at the grave of King Talal in Amman, Jordan's capital.

This is their first public appearance together since a rare palace feud last week.


Iran reports 258 coronavirus deaths, highest daily toll since December

Iran reports 258 coronavirus deaths, highest daily toll since December
Updated 11 April 2021

Iran reports 258 coronavirus deaths, highest daily toll since December

Iran reports 258 coronavirus deaths, highest daily toll since December
  • That brings the total number of fatalities from the coronavirus to 64,490
  • 21,063 new cases were identified in the past 24 hours, taking the total number of identified cases since the pandemic began to 2,070,141

DUBAI: Iran reported 258 deaths from COVID-19 in the past 24 hours, the health ministry said on Sunday, the highest daily toll since early December.
That brings the total number of fatalities from the coronavirus to 64,490 in Iran, the worst-hit country in the Middle East.
Health ministry spokeswoman Sima Sadat Lari told state TV that 21,063 new cases were identified in the past 24 hours, taking the total number of identified cases since the pandemic began to 2,070,141.
“Unfortunately, in the past 24 hours 258 people have died from the virus,” Lari said. State TV said it was the country’s highest daily death toll since Dec. 10.
Iran’s Health Minister Saeed Namaki, in a televised news conference, warned about more fatalities in the coming week if Iranians fail to adhere to health protocols. On Saturday, Tehran imposed a 10-day lockdown across most of the country to curb the spread of a fourth wave of the coronavirus. The lockdown affects 23 of the country’s 31 provinces.
Businesses, schools, theaters and sports facilities have been forced to shut and gatherings are banned during the holy fasting month of Ramadan that begins on Wednesday in Iran.


Iran calls Natanz atomic site blackout ‘nuclear terrorism’

Iran calls Natanz atomic site blackout ‘nuclear terrorism’
Updated 2 min 47 sec ago

Iran calls Natanz atomic site blackout ‘nuclear terrorism’

Iran calls Natanz atomic site blackout ‘nuclear terrorism’
  • Israeli media reports say cyberattack darkened Natanz and damaged the facility

DUBAI: Iran on Sunday described a blackout at its underground Natanz atomic facility an act of “nuclear terrorism,” raising regional tensions.
Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, stopped short of directly blaming anyone for the incident. Details remained few about what happened early Sunday morning at the facility, which initially was described as a blackout caused by the electrical grid feeding the site.
Many Israeli media outlets offered the same assessment that a cyberattack darkened Natanz and damaged a facility that is home to sensitive centrifuges. While the reports offered no sourcing for the evaluation, Israeli media maintains a close relationship with the country’s military and intelligence agencies.
If Israel caused the blackout, it further heightens tensions between the two nations, already engaged in a shadow conflict across the wider Middle East.
“To thwart the goals of this terrorist movement, the Islamic Republic of Iran will continue to seriously improve nuclear technology on the one hand and to lift oppressive sanctions on the other hand,” Salehi said, according state TV.
He added: “While condemning this desperate move, the Islamic Republic of Iran emphasizes the need for a confrontation by the international bodies and the (International Atomic Energy Agency) against this nuclear terrorism.”
The IAEA, the United Nations' body that monitors Tehran's atomic program, earlier said it was aware of media reports about the incident at Natanz and had spoken with Iranian officials about it. The agency did not elaborate.
Sunday' developments also complicate efforts by the US, Israel’s main security partner, to re-enter the atomic accord aimed at limiting Tehran’s program so it can’t pursue a nuclear weapon. As news of the blackout emerged, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin landed Sunday in Israel for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz.
Power at Natanz was cut across the facility, which is comprised of above-ground workshops and underground enrichment halls, civilian nuclear program spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi earlier told Iranian state TV.
Salehi's comments to state TV did not explain what happened at the facility. However, Natanz has been targeted by sabotage in the past. The Stuxnet computer virus, discovered in 2010 and widely believed to be a joint US-Israeli creation, once disrupted and destroyed Iranian centrifuges at Natanz amid an earlier period of Western fears about Tehran's program.
Natanz suffered a mysterious explosion at its advanced centrifuge assembly plant in July that authorities later described as sabotage. Iran now is rebuilding that facility deep inside a nearby mountain.
Israel, Iran’s regional archenemy, has been suspected of carrying out that attack as well as launching other assaults, as world powers negotiate with Tehran in Vienna over its nuclear deal.
Iran also blamed Israel for the killing of a scientist who began the country’s military nuclear program decades earlier.
Multiple Israeli media outlets reported Sunday that a cyberattack caused the blackout in Natanz. Public broadcaster Kan said Israel was likely behind the attack, citing Israel’s alleged responsibility for the Stuxnet attacks a decade ago. Channel 12 TV cited “experts” as estimating the attack shut down entire sections of the facility. None of the reports included sources or explanations of how the outlets came to that assessment.
“It’s hard for me to believe it’s a coincidence,” Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies, said of Sunday’s blackout. “If it’s not a coincidence, and that’s a big if, someone is trying to send a message that ‘we can limit Iran’s advance and we have red lines.’”


Libya launches COVID-19 vaccination drive after delays

Libya launches COVID-19 vaccination drive after delays
Updated 11 April 2021

Libya launches COVID-19 vaccination drive after delays

Libya launches COVID-19 vaccination drive after delays
  • The country's healthcare system has been strained by years of political turmoil and violence
  • Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh called it a "blessed day" in the fight against COVID-19 after receiving his shot

TRIPOLI: Libya's new unity government launched a long-delayed COVID-19 vaccination programme on Saturday after receiving some 160,000 vaccine doses over the past week, with the prime minister receiving his jab on live television.
While Libya is richer than its neighbours due to oil exports, the country's healthcare system has been strained by years of political turmoil and violence, and it has struggled to cope during the pandemic.
Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh called it a "blessed day" in the fight against COVID-19 after receiving his shot, without saying which vaccine he had been given. At least 100,000 of the doses that arrived this week were Russia's Sputnik V vaccine.
Dbeibeh's interim Government of National Unity was sworn in last month after emerging through a UN-facilitated process with a mandate to unify the country, improve state services and oversee the run-up to a national election in December.
Dbeibeh's government has framed the delivery of vaccines and the national roll-out as evidence that it is improving the lives of ordinary Libyans after replacing two warring administrations that ruled in the east and west of the country.
"Through the political consultations and the efforts of the prime minister, the vaccine is available," said Health Minister Ali Al-Zanati, who has said previously the government had so far ordered enough doses to inoculate 1.4 million of the country's more than six million people.
Libya's National Centre for Disease Control has said more than 400,000 people have registered for vaccination in more than 400 centres around the country.
Libya has recorded more than 166,000 coronavirus cases and nearly 3,000 deaths, though UN envoys have said the true figures are likely far higher.
"I feel sorry that the vaccine arrived late in Libya after thousands were infected. But better late than never," said Ali al-Hadi, a shop owner, adding that his wife had been sick with COVID-19 and recovered.
Many Libyans fear the vaccination campaign could be marred by political infighting or favouritism after years of unrest.
"We hope the Health Ministry will steer away from political conflicts so that services can reach patients," said housewife Khawla Muhammad, 33.