Protests set to resume in Lebanon but activists are no longer united

A Lebanese demonstrator gestures during a protest against the collapsing Lebanese pound currency and price hikes, in Zouk, north of Beirut, Lebanon, April 27, 2020. (REUTERS)
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Updated 06 June 2020

Protests set to resume in Lebanon but activists are no longer united

  • Many who were part of October’s popular uprising say they will not take part in first major demonstration since the pandemic began

BEIRUT: Lebanon is gearing up for the biggest street protests in months, after the coronavirus pandemic stifled the popular movement that kicked off in October last year.

Activists have called on people from all walks of life to gather in downtown Beirut on Saturday to protest against the continuing deterioration in living conditions. However, many civil-society groups that took part in the previous demonstrations have announced that they do not intend to do so this time.
The enthusiasm of the public seems to be waning, even as the economic crises people are facing increase.
A few activists not affiliated with any organized protest groups assembled in Martyrs’ Square, in the heart of Beirut, on the eve of the rally.
“We are here to say that we still hold our positions on the failed power that has brought us to a worsening economic and social situation,” said Nazih Khalaf. “However, this time activists are divided; each group has its own opinion. This can be seen on social-media platforms. I fear that people will not take to the streets on Saturday.”
Ghina Jamil, a teacher of students with special needs, said: “I am independent and I want the governing authority to hear my voice. I do not care who the ruling class is; what I care about is getting my rights. I have two options: go onto the street and protest, or stay home and die of hunger and the taxes that burden us.
“I do not bet on people anymore. The government, shielding itself under the guise of a technocrat cabinet, managed to deflate protesters’ anger while the coronavirus outbreak brought the demonstrations to a screeching halt and stifled the popular movement, allowing the authorities to attract people by playing the card of sectarian strife.”
While those activists who remain motivated are preparing for the demonstration so, too, are the security services tasked with maintaining order in the heart of the capital. They have increased the barricades of barbed wire and iron doors blocking the way to the Lebanese parliament. Meanwhile, owners of those shops that remain in business are closing their doors in fear of possible riots.
On Friday night, protesters waved placards with slogans calling for early parliamentary elections, announcing that “there is no confidence in the ruling elite,” demanding “the recovery of looted money and fight corruption,” and complaining about increasing prices and the high exchange rate of the dollar.
There is a big difference between the popular uprising last October and this latest protest, according to Nizar Hassan, a researcher in social movements.
“The Oct. 17 uprising is over and we will not return to the previous situation,” he said. “It is a pity that the political class used the three-month grace period (caused by the pandemic) to restore political divisions.
“The first uprising united people of different sects, doctrines and ideologies around common demands — the authority is now trying to cause a rift between them.
“Past events are causing collective frustration and people no longer have the same beliefs they had on Oct. 17. They have chosen to coexist with what does not currently satisfy them.”
Hassan noted that one activists’ group demands the disarmament of Hezbollah but, he said, this “is not, in my opinion, an urgent demand today, and it will not affect the economic reality Lebanon is facing.”
On the contrary, he said, demands for the implementation of UN Security Resolution 1559, which calls for free and fair elections in Lebanon and the withdrawal of all foreign forces, prompted Hezbollah and its supporters to launch a violent campaign against the civil movement, accusing its participants of being Israeli agents and depicting them as being opposed to the resistance.
“I do not rule out the presence of security agencies working as part of this, because this led to the withdrawal of many groups, including those close to Hezbollah, from participation in the upcoming protest,” Hassan added.
“Some wealthy groups entered the civil movement as well and demanded a date for early parliamentary elections. When we called on Oct. 17 for early elections, it was one of many demands related to establishing a new election law — otherwise what is the point of holding elections under the current election law? This would simply recreate the same authority and give opportunistic groups the chance to exploit it to their advantage.”
Hassan said he still expects “a good number” of activists to take to the streets of Beirut on Saturday, but predicted that they will be making contradictory demands and tensions might flare as a result.
“I know that within each activist group there are two perspectives, which will lead to confusion,” he added.
Among those who have declared that their supporters will not participate in Saturday’s protest is MP Chamel Roukoz, the son-in-law of President Michel Aoun. He is not currently a member of Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement or its parliamentary bloc because “it gives priority to early parliamentary elections, whereas we want to modify the current election law because it leads to rich businessmen controlling the parliament.”
He added: “If the protesters want to overthrow the ruling elite I will not support them, because the responsibility lies with the government and the parliament, since the powers of the president of the republic are limited.”
Roukoz urged those who demonstrate this weekend “not to adopt provocative slogans, and to avoid problems between them and the security forces.”
There were already some signs of rising tensions in Beirut’s Tariq Al-Jdideh on Friday. An existing dispute was blamed for a confrontation between young men armed with sticks, knives and machetes, during which shots were fired into in the air. A number of shops and organizations in the area closed, fearing violence would escalate. An Internal Security Forces patrol and intelligence and army forces were dispatched to the scene and began an investigation.
The dollar exchange rate in Beirut on Friday was between LBP3,890 and LBP3,940, according to a daily statement issued by the Syndicate of Money Changers in Lebanon.
Money changers are expected to decrease the price of the dollar to LBP3200 in the next 10 days, in response to a Central Bank demand.


Tensions between Turkey, France pose threat to NATO alliance, warn experts

Updated 07 July 2020

Tensions between Turkey, France pose threat to NATO alliance, warn experts

  • Turkey ‘challenging’ international norms by breaking arms embargo on Libya, invading northern Syria, claims analyst

JEDDAH: Increasing tensions between France and Turkey were posing a threat to the cohesion of the NATO alliance, experts have warned.

Paris’ recent decision to suspend its involvement in the NATO Sea Guardian maritime security operation in the eastern Mediterranean following an incident between a French frigate and Turkish vessels, has highlighted the organization’s difficulties in maintaining order and harmony among its members.

Months of escalating dispute between France and Turkey came to a head on June 10, when Paris claimed that its La Fayette-class Frigate Courbet was targeted three times by Turkish Navy fire control radars while it was trying to approach a Tanzanian-flagged civilian cargo ship suspected of trafficking arms to Libya.

The cargo ship was under the escort of three Turkish vessels, but Ankara denied harassing the Courbet and demanded an apology from France for disclosing “improper information,” saying the ship in question had been carrying humanitarian aid.

The incident resulted in France pulling out of the NATO operation, partly aimed at enforcing a UN embargo on arms supplies to Libya, and accusing Turkey of importing extremists to Syria.

French President Emmanuel Macron said: “I think that it’s a historic and criminal responsibility for a country that claims to be a member of NATO. We have the right to expect more from Turkey than from Russia, given that it is a member of NATO.”

The classified report on the Courbet incident is expected to be discussed soon by member states of the alliance.

Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system has also angered some NATO members over concerns it could undermine Western defense systems and led to Turkey’s expulsion from the alliance’s F-35 stealth fighter jet program.

Seth J. Frantzman, executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, told Arab News: “NATO faces increasing challenges from its member state Turkey which behaves contrary to NATO’s mission and values.

“Turkey’s government has begun to violate international norms by breaking an arms embargo on the Libyan conflict and invading northern Syria, backing extremist groups, and bombing northern Iraq.

“Ankara has tried to strong-arm NATO into supporting it through threats to hold up a Baltic defense plan and also through threatening and insulting other NATO members.

“Turkey insinuated to the US that Turkey would brush US forces aside in Syria in 2019 if the US didn’t leave, it has escalated conflicts rather than reducing them, and threatened to send refugees to Greece while staking counter claims to the Mediterranean against Greek claims,” he added.

Frantzman pointed out that the controversy with France was a byproduct of this.

“NATO increasingly looks like it is being called upon to appease Ankara’s monthly crises that involve new military operations in several countries. Once a key and helpful ally of NATO, Turkey looks increasingly like it seeks to exploit its NATO membership, using it as a cover for military operations that undermine human rights, democracy, and international norms,” he said.

Turkey is seen as an important and strategic member of the military alliance. On its website, NATO says that all the organization’s decisions are made by consensus, following discussions and consultations among members. “When a ‘NATO decision’ is announced, it is therefore the expression of the collective will of all the sovereign states that are members of the alliance.”

However, recent disagreements within NATO led Macron to say that the alliance was “suffering brain death” over Turkey’s cross-border military offensive into northern Syria last year.

On Turkey’s unilateral behavior, Frantzman said: “This is part of a global rising authoritarian agenda but appears to be counter to the NATO mission that once ostensibly was about defending Western democracies from the Soviet totalitarian threat.

“This calls into question the overall NATO mission and whether NATO is now enabling Ankara’s authoritarian trend. NATO countries are generally afraid to challenge Turkey, thinking that without Turkey and with a US disinterested in global commitments, NATO would become a European club with an unclear future. For Russia that is good news as it supplies S-400 systems to Turkey, further eroding NATO,” he added.

Aaron Stein, director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, felt NATO would be able to manage the spat between France and Turkey.

“Libya isn’t really a NATO issue. It is out of the area for the alliance. I see this more as a bilateral dispute between two rival powers in the Mediterranean.

“What I worry more about is how NATO members, including both Turkey and France, are letting these bilateral squabbles seep into the North Atlantic Council. They should keep their fights to themselves.”