Protests force Lebanese parliament to postpone session, banks reopen

Protests force Lebanese parliament to postpone session, banks reopen
Anti-government protesters hit a police officer as they try to remove barbed wire that blocks a road leading to the parliament building in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019. (AP)
Updated 19 November 2019

Protests force Lebanese parliament to postpone session, banks reopen

Protests force Lebanese parliament to postpone session, banks reopen
  • Protesters have sought to prevent members of parliament from attending the session

BEIRUT: Protesters prevented Lebanon's parliament from holding its first session in two months on Tuesday, escalating a wave of demonstrations against rulers blamed for steering the country towards economic collapse.

Banks reopened after a one-week closure, with police stationed at branches and banks applying restrictions on hard currency withdrawals and transfers abroad.

The protests erupted last month, fuelled by corruption among the sectarian politicians who have governed Lebanon for decades. Protesters want to see the entire ruling class gone from power.

Lebanon's economic troubles have increased since then. Despite the depth of the economic crisis, the worst since the 1975-90 civil war, politicians have been unable to form a new government since Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri quit on Oct. 29.

Near parliament on Tuesday, gunfire was heard as several dozen protesters forced two SUVs with official plates and tinted windows to turn back as they approached the building, Lebanese television showed.

The vehicles sped away after they were struck by demonstrators chanting "Out, out, out!"

Parliament postponed the session indefinitely.

"This is a new victory for the revolution and we are continuing until we achieve our goals," said protester Abdelrazek Hamoud.

The session's agenda had included reelecting members of parliamentary committees and discussion of an amnesty law that would lead to the release of hundreds of prisoners. Protesters were angry the MPs were not tackling their demands for reform.

Security forces had fanned out before dawn, shutting down roads around parliament with barbed wire. Police scuffled with protesters who tried to remove a barbed wire barricade.

Ahmad Mekdash, a civil engineer, said: "They should be meeting right now to form a new cabinet and not to pass laws, especially laws that aren't urgent."

The economic crisis, rooted in years of government waste and corruption, has now filtered into the financial system which faces dollar shortages and a weakening of the pegged pound. Banks had mostly been closed since the protests started.

Though the banking association on Sunday had agreed a weekly cap of $1,000 on cash withdrawals from U.S. dollar accounts, some depositors found they could only withdraw a lesser amount.

Six customers at Bank Audi were told they could only take out a maximum of $300. Several customers at BankMed were told the cap was $400.

A banking source said the $1,000 figure had been set as a ceiling and for some customers it was less depending on the amount in their account.

"I have an account with $8,000 dollars and they won't let me withdraw above 300. They told me you can take $1,000 out only if your account has above $100,000 in it," said Bank Audi customer Charif Baalbaki, 43, a copywriter.

Bank of Beirut customer Khalid Maarouf, 40, who works in textiles, said he didn't know how he was going to come up with dollar payments he needed to make this month.

"I need $20,000 before the end of the month to make payments to people and I can only get $1,000 each week," he said.

Caretaker finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil said Lebanon was in "a critical condition" requiring a new government. But in the last few days he said there had been "no real new effort" towards forming one.

Hariri, who is aligned with Western and Gulf Arab states, wants to return as prime minister of specialist ministers devoid of any other politicians, while the Iran-backed Hezbollah and its allies say the government should include politicians.

Capital Economics said in a research note: "Pressure is growing on Lebanon's dollar peg and, in the event of a devaluation, the pound could fall by as much as 50% against the dollar."

The central bank has vowed to maintain its currency peg of 1507.5 to the dollar, in place since 1997. The dollar buying price on a parallel market was 1820-1830 pounds on Tuesday according to five currency dealers, about 20% higher than the official rate. 

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Lebanon govt hopes collapse amid heated exchanges

Lebanon govt hopes collapse amid heated exchanges
Updated 16 June 2021

Lebanon govt hopes collapse amid heated exchanges

Lebanon govt hopes collapse amid heated exchanges
  • Aoun has demanded a third of all Cabinet seats, effectively giving his team veto power over government decisions

BEIRUT: Efforts to form a government and end the political stalemate gripping Lebanon reached a dead-end on Wednesday amid heated exchanges between President Michel Aoun and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.

After Aoun’s political team, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), an ally of Hezbollah, announced that it had rejected Berri’s initiative to form a new government, the parliamentary speaker responded with a strongly worded statement accusing the Lebanese president of doing “what he has no constitutional right to do” by insisting on the blocking third in the government.

Aoun has demanded a third of all Cabinet seats, effectively giving his team veto power over government decisions.

Berri said that he had put forward the initiative “to help the Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri,” and accused Aoun of backing out of a pledge to support the formation of a new government.

“The president has no constitutional right to even one minister. He does not participate in voting, so how can he indirectly have votes?” Berri asked.

“The country is collapsing, institutions are deteriorating, and the people are suffering,” he added.

Addressing Aoun, the parliamentary speaker said: “You openly say that you do not want Hariri as prime minister. This is not your right; the decision to assign him is not yours, and the Parliament has voiced its decision loud and clear.”

In response, Aoun’s office issued a statement criticizing “statements and positions from various officials interfering in the process of forming a government.”

The statement also highlighted what it claimed were “abuses and direct targeting of the powers of the president.”

With hopes of a new government dashed, government and private sector trade unions called for a strike on Thursday to rescue Lebanon from the political deadlock and threat of economic collapse.

According to political observers, Aoun’s team prefers to keep the caretaker government in place to allow the country’s affairs to be run by the Baabda Palace and through the Supreme Defense Council, chaired by Aoun.

MP Mohammed Al-Hajjar told Arab News: “We are going through a very difficult stage. The president and the FPM do not value the constitution and are insisting on obstructing the formation of the government, taking the Lebanese people hostage for their personal interests.”

He said that it is clear Aoun and his political team want a government that is subject to their decisions until presidential elections are held.

Al-Hajjar said that Hezbollah “is standing idly by and this is unacceptable.”

He added that Hezbollah could “facilitate the formation of the government by putting pressure on its ally, but it has another agenda.”

Meanwhile, Charles Jabbour, head of the Lebanese Forces’ Media and Communication Service, said that while Hezbollah wants to protect its ally Aoun and his political team, the FPM is dissatisfied with Hezbollah’s position.

“This was revealed by direct statements made by FPM officials against Hezbollah,” he said.

Jabbour said that Hezbollah is “no longer a major force in this field. It is politically paralyzed and unable to do anything.”

However, he voiced concerns that the political impasse would worsen.

“There is a struggle over power and political positions, and cooperation with Aoun’s team is impossible,” he said.


Yemenis demand end to Houthi siege of Taiz as part of peace plans

Yemenis demand end to Houthi siege of Taiz as part of peace plans
Updated 16 June 2021

Yemenis demand end to Houthi siege of Taiz as part of peace plans

Yemenis demand end to Houthi siege of Taiz as part of peace plans
  • Residents of the besieged southern Yemeni city of Taiz and human rights activists said, the Houthis should stop their military operations and continued shelling of the city
  • Yemeni activist Abdullah Al-Sharabe: Ending the siege of Taiz unconditionally is the demand of all Yemenis, and no one opposes this human desire except the Houthis

ALEXANDRIA: Yemen human rights activists, politicians, journalists, and residents of Taiz have demanded that government and international mediators include the lifting of the city’s siege by Iran-backed Houthis in any peace initiative to end the war in the country.

Fearing being shut out of the current UN-brokered peace initiative that largely focused on Sanaa, residents of the besieged southern Yemeni city and human rights activists said the Houthis should stop their military operations and continued shelling of the city’s densely populated districts under any deal to bring the conflict to a close.

In a tweet as part of an online campaign to focus world attention on the Taiz siege, Yemeni activist Abdullah Al-Sharabe said: “Ending the siege of Taiz unconditionally is the demand of all Yemenis, and no one opposes this human desire except the Houthi criminals who imposed the siege.”

According to Yemeni and UN officials, and Western diplomats, the UN-brokered peace initiative calls for an immediate nationwide ceasefire, the reopening of Sanaa airport, the lifting of restrictions on Hodeidah port, and the resumption of peace talks between the Yemeni government and the Houthis.

But Taiz residents claim too much focus has been placed on easing restrictions in Houthi-controlled areas without including the Houthi siege as one of the peace conditions.

However, UN Yemen envoy spokeswoman, Ismini Palla, told Arab News that the Houthis would lift their siege of Taiz at the same time as the warring factions put into place a ceasefire.

“The proposed nationwide ceasefire in that plan aims not only to halt all forms of fighting but also result in the opening of main roads connecting the country from north to south, including Taiz, for the free movement of civilians, commercial goods, and humanitarian aid,” she said.

The Yemeni government said it would not agree to any peace plan that did not include lifting the siege of Taiz and removing Houthi checkpoints from Yemeni cities.

“Opening roads, ensuring freedom of movement for citizens, and lifting the siege on cities, especially the city of Taiz, are among the basic issues that the government puts at the forefront of its priorities,” the Yemeni Foreign Ministry said.

Facing stiff resistance from army troops and resistance fighters in the city, the Houthis have imposed a siege on Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city, since early 2015, in the process disrupting the distribution of vital humanitarian and medical assistance to thousands of hungry residents and turning a deaf ear to international calls to lift the blockade.

At the same time, the group has reportedly deployed snipers near its checkpoints to shoot any residents trying to enter or leave government-controlled areas of the city.

Speaking to Arab News from Taiz, Aqmar, a housewife, said people had been forced to use dangerous and unpaved roads to get food and medicines into the city and that the Houthi siege had pushed up transportation fares and exacerbated the suffering of the people.

“We travel only when there is an extreme necessity as bus fares are between 10,000 Yemeni rials ($40) and 15,000 rials per passenger,” she added.

She pointed out that over the years the siege had gone on, the Houthis had clamped down on freedoms of movement and that her sick grandmother who lived in a rural area outside of Taiz had died while on her way to the city to receive medical treatment.

Local rights groups claim Houthi shelling of the city has killed and wounded thousands of civilians over the past six years. Taiz Human Rights Center has put the civilian death toll from Houthi missile and artillery strikes at 1,462, including 443 children and 180 women, with 8,996 people left wounded.


Why Egypt’s Hamas policy changed after Israeli-Gaza conflict

Why Egypt’s Hamas policy changed after Israeli-Gaza conflict
Updated 16 June 2021

Why Egypt’s Hamas policy changed after Israeli-Gaza conflict

Why Egypt’s Hamas policy changed after Israeli-Gaza conflict
  • El-Sisi pledges half a billion dollars to rebuild besieged enclave after Cairo plays key role in brokering a ceasefire
  • Expert says country’s policy toward Gaza and official Egyptian relationship with Hamas are two different things

GAZA CITY: During the recent Israeli conflict with Gaza, a shift in Egyptian policy was evident in President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s pledge of half a billion dollars to rebuild the besieged enclave.
The unprecedented visit of the head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Service, Abbas Kamel, to Gaza, as an official envoy of El-Sisi, came as a major indication of the change in Cairo’s policy toward Hamas. 
The relationship deteriorated following the overthrow of former Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi, affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, in 2013.
Egypt played a key role in brokering a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas on May 21 following 11 days of cross-border fighting last month that left a trail of destruction with more than 250 dead and hundreds wounded. 
Cairo opened the Rafah crossing to dozens of Egyptian vehicles that entered Gaza to remove the rubble of destroyed buildings and pave the way for the reconstruction process. In addition, Cairo is also supplying goods to Gaza in light of strict Israeli restrictions.
However, Mukhaimer Abu Saada, professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, differentiates between the Egyptian policy toward Gaza and the official Egyptian relationship with Hamas.
He said Egypt’s role in Gaza is strategic due to the factors of history and geography. As for the country’s relationship with Hamas, it falls within the framework of “political tactics” to serve both sides.
Abu Saada believes the shift that appeared in the Egyptian policy toward Gaza rulers Hamas would not have taken place “without the green light from the US administration” following American President Joe Biden’s first phone call to El-Sisi. 
“Egypt and Hamas are beneficiaries of this transformation,” Abu Saada told Arab News. 
“Hamas, which has suffered greatly politically and financially after the years of estrangement that followed the overthrow of the late President Mursi, is keen to develop its relationship with the Egyptian regime.”
As for Egypt, Abu Saada said, it adheres to its position as a major regional player in the Palestinian arena, being the historical sponsor of Palestinian issues.
At the same time, the Palestinian Authority (PA) is not completely satisfied with the current Egyptian policy toward Gaza and the country’s openness to Hamas, he said, adding that this may be one of the main reasons behind the dialogue setback that was supposed to be launched in Cairo last Saturday.
“The PA, which has sought over the past four years to besiege Hamas politically and financially by imposing sanctions on Gaza, does not want Hamas to exploit the recent Israeli conflict in its favor through the Egyptian gate,” Abu Saada said.
Following Mursi’s ouster, the Hamas-Egypt ties deteriorated to the point that it was suggested in the Egyptian media that Hamas has supported the Salafists in Sinai and helped them carry out attacks in Cairo.
Ibrahim Al-Madhoun, a political analyst close to Hamas, believes that Egypt has a great opportunity to regain its regional weight. He also thinks Hamas is ready to identify with the Egyptian side if its demands are met, especially the lifting of the siege on Gaza and the cessation of Israeli attacks on Jerusalem.
Al-Madhoun does not see Egypt making a U-turn on Hamas, but he says it has raised the degree of its interest, concentration, and ability to move in vital files.
Hani Al-Basous, professor of political science and international relations, said the current Egyptian tactic with Hamas is based on recognizing it as a fait accompli. He said the Palestinian force has great weight, gained popular Arab momentum after the latest conflict, and it should be dealt with with new mechanisms and not with a new political orientation.


Italian, Tunisian presidents meet to discuss immigration

Italian, Tunisian presidents meet to discuss immigration
Updated 16 June 2021

Italian, Tunisian presidents meet to discuss immigration

Italian, Tunisian presidents meet to discuss immigration
  • Mattarella says conditions in Africa need to improve so migrants are not forced to make desperate decisions
  • Saied blames migrant problem in Mediterranean region on an unfair ‘distribution of wealth’ 

ROME: As the illegal migrant situation in the Mediterranean Sea continues to escalate — nearly 2,000 people have landed on the island of Lampedusa since Sunday — the presidents from Italy and Tunisia met in Rome to work on a solution.

Security policies “are necessary to fight against human trafficking”, but at the same time “conditions for development must be created in Africa so that people there do not feel compelled to risk their lives and emigrate to look for work or escape hunger,” Italian President Sergio Mattarella said during the meeting with Tunisian President Kais Saied.

Immigration was the key issue during Saied’s official visit to Italy, said Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, who signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Tunisia’s Foreign Minister Othman Jerandi.

“Tunisia is a strategic partner in the Mediterranean region on immigration issues and Libya,” Di Maio said in a press conference.  

Most of the migrants trying to reach Europe from North Africa depart from Tunisia and Libya. Over the past few years, Italy has provided both countries with equipment, resources, and ships in an attempt to thwart migrant crossings. But they continue to arrive on the shores of Lampedusa, located 105 miles southwest of Sicily, and on other tiny islands scattered across the Mediterranean.

“We must ask ourselves why a mother accepts for herself and her son the risk of becoming food for fish and then maybe to be exploited,” Saied said after the meeting with Mattarella. 

“The problem is that there is no fair distribution of wealth between the north and the south of the world.”

In an interview with RAI, the Italian state broadcaster’s news, Saied remembered how it was the Italians who used to immigrate to his country. The roles may be reversed now but the motive remains the same. 

“Those who migrate are in search of fortune, just as they were in the past,” he said.

Mattarella reaffirmed to his Tunisian counterpart “the great friendship that binds Italy to Tunisia.” He recalled “the great friendship and primary partnership” between the two countries who share “the values of democracy, a geographical proximity, and some common history.”

He also stressed that peacemaking and stabilization in Libya represent a priority of Italian foreign policy. 

“In order to achieve this, mercenaries and foreign troops must leave the country. Libya must be left to the Libyans,” Mattarella was quoted to Arab News by a source in the Italian administration.

While in Rome, Saied also met with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese. According to sources in the prime minister’s office, more assistance has been offered to Tunisia, but more “attention and effort in contrasting illegal migration will have to be enforced.”


Rights groups urge EU to protect life on sea route from Libya

Rights groups urge EU to protect life on sea route from Libya
Updated 16 June 2021

Rights groups urge EU to protect life on sea route from Libya

Rights groups urge EU to protect life on sea route from Libya
  • Estimated 20,000 people have died or disappeared in central Mediterranean in last decade
  • Human Rights Watch: ‘People are drowning while European leaders squabble’

LONDON: Leading rights groups have called on the EU to protect lives on the main Mediterranean route between Libya and Europe. 

Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International and the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) on Wednesday published an action plan to promote safe pathways on the precarious route from North Africa.

The 20-point plan gives guidance on how the EU could ensure safe and predictable disembarking opportunities and relocation responses for people rescued. 

“It is shameful and tragic that EU countries can’t agree on something as fundamental as saving lives at sea,” said Judith Sunderland, HRW’s associate Europe and Central Asia director. “People are drowning while European leaders squabble.”

An estimated 20,000 people have died or disappeared in the central Mediterranean in the last decade. According to the UN, some 664 people have died or gone missing so far this year. 

HRW accused the EU of “withdrawing responsibility,” noting that the bloc has since March 2019 been withdrawing its ships from areas where unseaworthy boats carrying migrants and refugees are most likely to be. 

Libya’s Coast Guard has intercepted and returned to the country more than 11,700 people this year, with up to 1,000 migrants returned on June 12 alone.

People recovered and returned to Libya face being detained in “nightmarish detention centers and experiencing abysmal conditions, violence, and forced labor,” HRW said.

It added that the EU should abandon its policy of assisting the return of migrants and refugees to Libya, and urgently adopt one that ensures migrants are relocated to a safe place. 

HRW called for new relocation arrangements so EU member states can share the responsibility of migration from Libya more equally.

EU heads of state are expected to discuss migration policy at the next European Council meeting on June 24-25 in Brussels.