Thousands of Lebanese workers to strike over latest government spending cuts

Thousands of Lebanese workers to strike over latest government spending cuts
Lebanese workers march in Beirut to protest against misuse of public funds. Public and private-sector workers may go to strike next week. (AFP)
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Updated 10 December 2020

Thousands of Lebanese workers to strike over latest government spending cuts

Thousands of Lebanese workers to strike over latest government spending cuts
  • EU calls on Lebanon’s political leaders to listen to citizens’ concerns, implement reforms ‘without further delay’

BEIRUT: Thousands of public and private-sector workers in Lebanon are expected to down tools next week in a national strike over crippling government spending cuts.

Members of the country’s General Labor Union, which includes 43 unions and federations, will join a walkout on Wednesday in protest at the latest austerity measures.

Union leader, Bechara Al-Asmar, told Arab News: “This national strike is the beginning of the broadest moves the country will witness against the removal of state subsidies for basic materials.

“We are shouting in everyone’s face. We cannot stand by. If they (the country’s political leaders) form a government, there is no need to strike, but what is happening is further deterioration.

“The poverty rate in Lebanon, according to international statistics, has reached 75 percent, and these people receive 1 million (Lebanese) pounds ($660), which is no longer sufficient to pay an electricity bill, while the extreme poverty rate has risen to 40 percent.

“In the tourism sector alone, the total number of people who have lost their jobs has reached 110,000, and if banks implement the Central Bank’s circular for merging, 10,000 employees will become unemployed and there will be no job opportunities for them in light of the closure of other institutions,” Al-Asmar said.

There were angry street protests in Sidon following an announcement by Ali Ibrahim, head of the Union of Bakeries Syndicates, that the state had stopped subsidizing flour. Demonstrators blocked main roads and in Hermel tires were set alight outside the government palace.

One protester told Arab News: “I used to buy a thyme pie (a cheap popular food) for 1,000 Lebanese pounds. Today, after announcing the lifting of subsidies, they went up to 2,500 pounds. How can the poor survive? What awaits us next?”

During a press conference, Shadi Al-Sayed, head of the Public Drivers Syndicate in northern Lebanon, said: “The spark of anger will be from Tripoli if the ruling authority in Lebanon decides to kill the citizen in his livelihood.” He warned of street protests until “matters returned to normal.”

The Lebanese pound has lost 80 percent of its value since the beginning of the financial crisis in the country last year and Lebanese banks have imposed restrictions on their customers’ deposits.

Revenues are expected to decline sharply, as tax and non-tax income continues to fall due to the downturn in economic activity in Lebanon.

Hassan Diab’s caretaker government on Tuesday organized workshops to rationalize subsidies for fuel, flour, and medicines. A government source told Arab News: “Diab refuses to hold his government accountable for the consequences of the decision to lift the subsidies.”

Addressing the workshops, Diab said: “The caretaker government did not intend to lift the subsidies, but rather our approach is to rationalize the subsidies. Basic life matters for the Lebanese citizen, such as medicine and flour, are a red line for us.

“The difficult economic and financial conditions that Lebanon is going through are the results of many years of bad policies,” he added.

The workshops have been given a week to “complete a clear project” for tackling the financial crisis.

Al-Asmar said: “Instead of seeking to retrieve the looted funds and put an end to persistent corruption, the state is resolutely tending to lift subsidies on types of flour and will lift fuel subsidies by 40 to 60 percent in preparation for lifting it completely, while politicians and the Prime Minister-designate (Saad Hariri) are still procrastinating in forming the government, although it is the only passage for any international support for Lebanon.”

Head of Lebanon’s parliamentary health committee, MP Assem Araji, said the government hoped “to save $250 million through rationalizing the subsidies of medicines.”

George Brax, a member of the Lebanese Syndicate of Gas Station Owners, said: “Diab is trying to find a solution by securing the import of fuel from a foreign country (thought to be Iraq) without paying directly.”

Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Hariri on Wednesday held a second meeting within the space of 72 hours but failed to move forward with plans for the formation of a new government.

The Council of the EU expressed its growing concern about “the serious financial, economic, social, and political crisis that has taken hold in Lebanon and has continued to worsen in recent months.”

In a statement distributed by its embassy in Beirut, it said: “The EU calls on Lebanon’s political leadership to listen to the people as they articulate their aspirations and concerns, to take their demands seriously, and harness their inputs and implement reforms without further delay.”


Three Iranian dissidents to be honored by PEN America

Iranians wearing protective masks cross a main road in Tehran during the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. (AFP file photo)
Iranians wearing protective masks cross a main road in Tehran during the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. (AFP file photo)
Updated 47 min ago

Three Iranian dissidents to be honored by PEN America

Iranians wearing protective masks cross a main road in Tehran during the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. (AFP file photo)
  • The PEN gala is scheduled for Oct. 5 at its longtime venue the American Museum of Natural History, with Awkwafina serving as host

NEW YORK: Three imprisoned Iranian dissidents will be honored next month at Pen America’s annual gala.
The literary and human rights organization announced on Thursday that writer-filmmaker Baktash Abtin, novelist-journalist Keyvan Bajan and author-critic Reza Khandan Mahabadi are this year’s recipients of the 2021 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award.
All three are members of the anti-censorship Iranian Writers Association and are serving a collective 15.5 years on charges including endangering national security and “spreading propaganda.”
“Baktash Abtin, Keyvan Bajan, and Reza Khandan Mahabadi are embodiments of the spirit that animates our work at PEN America. They are writers who are called not only to offer prose and ideas on a page, but to live fearlessly — and sacrifice immensely in service of the liberties that underpin free thought, art, culture, and creativity,” PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel said in a statement.
“By taking up the mantle of leadership within Iran’s literary community, they have served as beacons for countless authors and thinkers whose ability to imagine, push boundaries, and challenge repression under the most dangerous conditions is fed by the knowledge that they do not stand alone.”
The PEN gala is scheduled for Oct. 5 at its longtime venue the American Museum of Natural History, with Awkwafina serving as host.


Spoons become a new symbol of Palestinian ‘freedom’

Palestinians shop at a market in the old city of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. (AFP)
Palestinians shop at a market in the old city of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. (AFP)
Updated 7 sec ago

Spoons become a new symbol of Palestinian ‘freedom’

Palestinians shop at a market in the old city of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. (AFP)
  • Prisoners carried out jail break with the utensil

JERUSALEM: The humble spoon has taken its place alongside traditional flags and banners as a Palestinian resistance symbol, after prisoners were said to have carried out one of Israel’s most spectacular jail breaks with the utensil.

When the six Palestinian militants escaped through a tunnel on Sept. 6 from the high security Gilboa Prison, social networks shared images of a tunnel at the foot of a sink, and a hole dug outside.
A hashtag, “the miraculous spoon,” suggested how the Hollywood-style feat might have occurred.
But whether or not the utensil had really been involved or its role was cooked up was at first unclear.
Then on Wednesday a lawyer for one of the fugitives who has since been recaptured told AFP that his client, Mahmud Abdullah Ardah, said he had used spoons, plates and even the handle of a kettle to dig the tunnel from his cell.
He began scraping his way out from the northern Israeli institution in December, the lawyer, Roslan MaHajjana, said.
Ardah was one of four fugitives later arrested after the army poured troops into the occupied West Bank as part of a massive manhunt.
All six were accused of plotting or carrying out attacks against Israelis.
Two men remain on the loose following the extremely rare escape. Israel has begun an inquiry into lapses that led to the embarrassing incident, which Palestinians see as a “victory.”
“With determination, vigilance... and cunning, and with a spoon, it was possible to dig a tunnel through which the Palestinians escaped and the enemy was imprisoned,” writer Sari Orabi said on the Arabi 21 website.
Palestinian cartoonist Mohammed Sabaaneh says the escape has served up “black humor” and exposed Israel’s security system to ridicule.
He has made several drawings featuring the utensil, including one titled “The Tunnel of Freedom.”
The issue has also stirred admiration outside the Palestinian territories, where spoons have been carried in demonstrations supporting prisoners detained by Israel.
In Kuwait, the artist Maitham Abdal sculpted a giant hand firmly clasping a spoon — the “spoon of freedom,” as he calls it.
Similarly inspired, Amman-based graphic designer Raed Al-Qatnani symbolically depicted six silhouettes taking a bridge to freedom, represented by a spoon.
For him, it also evokes the numerous hunger strikes undertaken by Palestinian prisoners to protest their incarceration.
In Tulkarem, a city in the West Bank occupied since 1967 by Israel, the escape brought back memories for Ghassan Mahdawi. He and another prisoner escaped from an Israeli prison in 1996 through a tunnel dug using not kitchen implements but nails.
He had been arrested for belonging to an armed group during the first Palestinian intifada, which lasted until the early 1990s.
“There’s nothing prisoners can’t do ... and there is always a flaw” in the system, said Mahdawi, who was rearrested and then released after a total of 19 years in custody.
In his view, the most recent escapees may have used tools other than spoons, obtained inside the prison, to carry out what every prisoner dreams of but few accomplish.
“To escape from an Israeli prison is something each inmate thinks about,” Mahdawi said.
To have done it with a spoon, he added, is something that “will go down in history.”


Ex-Algerian leader Bouteflika, ousted amid protests, dies

Ex-Algerian leader Bouteflika, ousted amid protests, dies
Updated 18 September 2021

Ex-Algerian leader Bouteflika, ousted amid protests, dies

Ex-Algerian leader Bouteflika, ousted amid protests, dies

ALGIERS, Algeria: Former Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who fought for independence from France in the 1950s and 1960s and was ousted amid pro-democracy protests in 2019 after 20 years in power, has died at age 84, state television announced Friday.
The report on ENTV, citing a statement from the office of current President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, did not provide the cause of death or other details.
Bouteflika had suffered a stroke in 2013 that had badly weakened him. Concerns about his state of health, kept secret from the Algerian public, helped feed public frustration with his rule that erupted in mass public protests in 2019 that led to his departure.
Earlier in his life, Bouteflika fought for independence from colonial ruler France, successfully negotiated with the terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal to free oil ministers taken hostage in a 1975 attack on OPEC headquarters, and helped reconcile Algerian citizens with each other after a decade of civil war between radical Muslim militants and Algeria’s security forces.


Erdogan and Putin to discuss Syria in Sochi

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi, Russia. (REUTERS file photo)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi, Russia. (REUTERS file photo)
Updated 18 September 2021

Erdogan and Putin to discuss Syria in Sochi

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi, Russia. (REUTERS file photo)
  • The March 2020 agreement followed weeks of fighting that brought Turkey and Russia close to conflict and displaced nearly a million people

ANKARA: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan will visit Russia later this month for talks with President Vladimir Putin about the violence in northwestern Syria, where Moscow and Ankara back opposing sides, two Turkish officials said on Friday.
Turkey supports fighters who sought to topple President Bashar Assad, while Russia has helped shore up Assad after a decade of conflict.
Both sides have complained about violations of a truce they agreed 18 months ago in the northwestern Idlib region, the last rebel bastion left in Syria, where Ankara says two Turkish troops were killed in an attack on Saturday.
“The main agenda point is Syria, namely Idlib,” a senior Turkish official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said of the planned talks in Russian resort of Sochi. “The conditions set out in the Idlib agreement have not been fully implemented.”
The March 2020 agreement followed weeks of fighting that brought Turkey and Russia close to conflict and displaced nearly a million people.
“There should not be any new instability in Syria,” another Turkish official said.
Erdogan’s planned two-day visit will follow his trip to the UN General Assembly in New York next week, the officials said, without specifying exact dates.
Despite backing opposing sides in both the Syrian and Libyan conflicts, Turkey and Russia have forged close cooperation in the defense, energy and tourism sectors.


Israeli grandfather says he saved, not kidnapped, grandson in Italy

Israeli grandfather says he saved, not kidnapped, grandson in Italy
Updated 17 September 2021

Israeli grandfather says he saved, not kidnapped, grandson in Italy

Israeli grandfather says he saved, not kidnapped, grandson in Italy
  • Eitan Biran's parents, younger brother and 11 other people all died when a gondola plunged to the ground in northern Italy in May
  • Italian media said Shmuel Peleg had driven with his grandson across the nearby border to Switzerland and flown on a private jet to Tel Aviv

JERUSALEM: The grandfather of a six-year-old boy who is the only survivor of an Italian cable car disaster said he was looking out for his grandson’s wellbeing by bringing him to Israel.
He did so against the will of the boy’s family in Italy.
Eitan Biran’s parents, younger brother and 11 other people all died when a gondola plunged to the ground in northern Italy in May. He is now at the center of a custody battle.
The boy moved in with his paternal aunt, Aya Biran, in northern Italy after the accident. A week ago his maternal grandfather, Shmuel Peleg, picked him up for a planned family trip but they never returned, according to the aunt.
Italian media said Peleg had driven with his grandson across the nearby border to Switzerland and flown on a private jet to Tel Aviv.
“What is good for the boy outweighs my personal interests,” Peleg said when told during an interview on Israel’s Channel 12 that Italian authorities are calling his action kidnapping.
“So I decided that I am saving the boy and bringing him to Israel,” Peleg said during the TV interview that aired on Friday. “I took a car, a KIA. I drove with Eitan. The passports were checked at the embassy in Switzerland. Approved. And we took off in a completely legal manner to Israel.”
The boy’s family in Italy has filed a petition in a Tel Aviv family court for his return. Their Israeli lawyer said the court had set a hearing for Sept. 29. It is required to make a ruling within six weeks.
A legal source has said prosecutors in the northern Italian city of Pavia had opened a kidnapping investigation. The prosecutors’ office declined to comment.
Israeli police have said they had received a complaint that a minor had been kidnapped and flown to Israel, and had questioned an unidentified 58-year-old man on suspicion of involvement.
Asked why he did not wait for an Italian court to make a decision, Peleg said “I must say that I lost faith in the Italian judicial system.”
Peleg’s family, through a public relations firm, said earlier in a statement that the Italian consul in Israel came to Peleg’s house to meet with Eitan.
“The message from the consul was that the foreign ministries are working to try to find a compromise between the families,” according to the statement.
Magistrates are still investigating why the cable car, on a line connecting Stresa on the shores of Lake Maggiore to the nearby Mottarone mountain, plunged to the ground.