Secular Lebanese student groups see political success amid national crisis

Secular Lebanese student groups see political success amid national crisis
Student movements at Lebanese universities and independent civic groups are reorganizing themselves with the goal of changing the ruling authority in Lebanon. (File/AFP)
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Updated 12 December 2020

Secular Lebanese student groups see political success amid national crisis

Secular Lebanese student groups see political success amid national crisis
  • Secular and independent clubs affiliated with the Mada network in Lebanon’s universities launched the “Declaration of Lebanese Students” on Saturday
  • Dollarization of tuition fees has led to a huge increase in the cost of higher education

BEIRUT: Student movements at Lebanese universities and independent civic groups are reorganizing themselves with the goal of changing the ruling authority in Lebanon.
Secular and independent clubs affiliated with the Mada network in Lebanon’s universities launched the “Declaration of Lebanese Students” on Saturday, in light of “the unprecedented risks threatening students, especially the crisis of the dollarization of tuition fees.”
That dollarization has seen tuition fees start to massively increase at institutions across the country, following decisions to adopt the Lebanese Central Bank’s new exchange rate of 3,900 Lebanese pounds to the dollar. The American University of Beirut (AUB) saw its tuition costs increase 160 percent alone as a result.
Lebanon has been in the grip of a currency crisis ever since the pound, previously pegged at 1,500 to the dollar, began to devalue rapidly as a consequence of political and economic mismanagement, blamed by many on the country’s elite.
Student elections at a number of private universities in Lebanon resulted in a series of unprecedented victories for independents, especially secular representatives, on representative councils this year, after decades of being held by students from the country’s ruling parties.
The representative of the Secular Club at Saint Joseph University, student Charbel Shaya, said: “The independent, unified student movement has turned the tables after student representation was confiscated by parties in power. I believe that networking between us has led to achievement, and the time has come to fight the battle of refusing the dollarization of tuition fees as a prelude to rejecting what the parties committed against us as people.”
Qamar Suleiman, a medical student at the University of Balamand, said: “Political awareness in universities is one of the means for change. Politics controls the corners of our lives, and engaging in student elections is a step toward creating independent secular groups that believe in social justice to improve student life and protect their rights.
“We want to impose a truly progressive and clear political discourse that establishes grounds for individuals capable of practicing political life in a sound manner after graduation,” he added. “The parties in power make us pay for things that we did not commit, but rather they did.”
Manal Suleiman, an engineering student at Notre Dame University, said: “Universities are the ones that should fear their students, just as governments should fear their people. Students today are reclaiming their role through independent student movements that aim for change.”
And Jad Al-Hani, from the AUB, said: “The retreat of the (main) parties in the student elections at the university was a declaration of defeat. The first battle we will fight is the battle against dollarizing tuition fees. We are headed toward an escalation in the coming days.”
On Saturday, the opposition member of Parliament, Brig. Gen. Chamel Roukoz, called on the Lebanese youth not to leave their homeland “in the custody of those who betrayed the land and the people.”
Roukoz, the son-in-law of President Michel Aoun, said: “The victory of student elections in universities is the best evidence of the failure of this authority, which today, more than ever, feels at risk of removal.”
Roukoz said during a meeting with his supporters, many of whom have participated in protests that have lasted months: “Two years after my entering the political arena, I see that the logic of obstruction overrides the logic of legislation — or legislation in the interest of profiteers … at the people’s expense. There is no intention in the foreseeable future to adopt any correct anti-corruption policy, nor any real financial, economic, social, and rescue strategy to address the crisis from which the Lebanese people are suffering.”
He described the leaders in Lebanon as failures, and said: “Building the homeland cannot be carried out by militias, that were the reason for the nation’s entry into a bloody civil war, nor by tailoring departments and institutions to suit the sects and their leaders.”
Meanwhile, the Lebanese Army was deployed near the residence of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri over fears he could be targeted by protesters.
In recent days, groups have tracked down political and economic figures, following them to restaurants and cafes to protest, accusing them of theft, including former minister Adnan Kassar, the wife of the governor of the Banque du Liban, Nada Riad Salameh, and the secretary-general of the Future Movement, Ahmad Hariri.
Elsewhere, trade unions affiliated with the General Labor Union are set to go on strike next Wednesday in rejection of any move to cut subsidies for basic goods.
Union leader, Bechara Al-Asmar, said on Saturday that “political conflicts do not bode well, but rather increase the tragedies of the Lebanese people. A minimum level of understanding is required to form a government that can handle the crises.”
In a report issued earlier this month, the World Bank warned in a report that “Lebanon is suffering from a dangerous depletion of resources, including human capital.”
The report highlighted that “a contraction of Lebanese GDP per capita in real terms and high inflation in 2020 will undoubtedly result in a substantial increase in poverty rates and will affect the population through different channels such as the loss of productive employment, decline in real purchasing power, and stalled international remittance.”


More blackouts ahead as Lebanon generators starved of fuel

More blackouts ahead as Lebanon generators starved of fuel
Updated 23 June 2021

More blackouts ahead as Lebanon generators starved of fuel

More blackouts ahead as Lebanon generators starved of fuel
  • National network run by Electricité du Liban is prone to blackouts as some areas only gets provided power for 2 hours a day
  • Many Lebanese pay a separate bill for a backup from neighbourhood generators run by private firms

BEIRUT: The owners of private generators that provide a vital backup to Lebanon’s decrepit power grid warned Wednesday of their own cuts due to lack of fuel as the country’s economic crisis deepens.
The national network run by Electricité du Liban is prone to blackouts and in some areas only manages to provide power for two hours a day.
That forces many Lebanese to pay a separate bill for a backup from neighborhood generators run by private firms.
With the Lebanese economy facing its worst crisis in a generation and the currency in freefall, private suppliers have warned they are struggling to secure enough fuel to keep running.
The crisis is so acute that on Wednesday the lights went out in a building belonging to the foreign ministry, forcing employees to stop work, Lebanese media reported.
“Generator owners in several regions started telling customers on Wednesday that they would not be able to provide electricity for lack of mazout,” a widely used petrol derivative, said Abdu Saadeh, head of a syndicate for generator owners.
“We had warned late last week that the stocks would start running dry... and so far we haven’t found a solution.”
Lebanon has been roiled since autumn 2019 by an economic crisis the World Bank says is likely to rank among the world’s worst financial crises since the mid-19th century.
The collapse has sparked outrage at Lebanon’s political class, seen as woefully corrupt and unable to tackle the country’s many difficulties.
Officials have blamed the current fuel shortages on stockpiling by traders and a surge of fuel smuggling into Syria.
Several people have been arrested on suspicion of smuggling in recent weeks, according to the police.
The central bank has set up a mechanism to subsidise fuels by up to 85 percent, but fuel importers have accused it of failing to implement the program.
The head of public Internet provider Ogero has warned that electricity cuts could also threaten Lebanon’s access to the web.


Egypt stresses need for negotiated settlement on Renaissance Dam 

Egypt stresses need for negotiated settlement on Renaissance Dam 
Updated 23 June 2021

Egypt stresses need for negotiated settlement on Renaissance Dam 

Egypt stresses need for negotiated settlement on Renaissance Dam 
  • Minister Abdel-Ati arrived in Juba, South Sudan, along with an official delegation for a five-day visit to hold talks on promoting bilateral cooperation, including in the field of water management
  • Abdel-Ati said Egypt was implementing projects in all Nile Basin countries and African countries, and that the projects implemented in South Sudan aimed to serve its people

CAIRO: Egypt is keen to complete negotiations on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) issue, a government minister said, as Sudan on Wednesday asked the UN Security Council to meet and discuss the dam dispute.

Ethiopia is pinning its hopes of economic development and power generation on the GERD, but Egypt fears it will threaten its water supply from the Nile. Sudan is concerned about the dam’s safety and its own water flow.

Mohamed Abdel-Ati, who is Egypt's minister of water resources and irrigation, emphasized his country’s persistence in preserving its water rights and achieving the benefit for all parties in any GERD agreement that was reached.

On his visit to South Sudan, where he met the First Vice President Riek Machar and Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Manawa Peter, he stressed the pursuit of a just and binding legal agreement that met the aspirations of all countries in development.

He also highlighted Egypt's flexibility in negotiations during the past few years which, he added, had been met with the “intransigence of the Ethiopian side.”

Abdel-Ati arrived in Juba on Monday along with an official delegation for a five-day visit to hold talks on promoting bilateral cooperation, including in the field of water management.

They discussed the latest developments on the Nile water issue and their countries' current positions on the GERD.

Abdel-Ati said Egypt was implementing projects in all Nile Basin countries and African countries, and that the projects implemented in South Sudan aimed to serve its people and achieve stability for them by solving drinking water problems and protecting against the dangers of floods.

He added that projects were currently being implemented in seven countries and that the number was expected to increase to 10 soon.

His remarks came as Sudan asked the UN Security Council to meet and discuss the dam dispute.

Foreign Minister Mariam Sadiq Al-Mahdi called on the council to hold a session as soon as possible to discuss the GERD and “its impact on the safety and security of millions of people,” Reuters reported, quoting a government statement.

She called on the council’s leader to urge Ethiopia to stop the “unilateral” filling of the dam “which exacerbates the dispute and poses a threat to regional and international peace and security.”

The Arab League’s envoy to the UN, Maged Abdel Fattah, said on Tuesday that Sudan and Egypt were working on a draft resolution to the council on the GERD if Ethiopia did not reach a deal.

Arab states would lobby for the draft resolution to be approved, he told Egyptian TV, adding that he did not expect world powers to block it.


World powers in new push for Libya peace

World powers in new push for Libya peace
Updated 23 June 2021

World powers in new push for Libya peace

World powers in new push for Libya peace

BERLIN: Germany and the United Nations are bringing together representatives of Libya with powers that have interests in the country at a conference Wednesday which aims for progress toward securing elections in the North African nation and the removal of foreign fighters.
The meeting at the foreign ministry in Berlin, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken among participants, follows up on a January 2020 conference where leaders agreed to respect an arms embargo and to push the country’s warring parties to reach a full cease-fire. Germany has tried to act as an intermediary.
Countries that have been involved in the process include the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, along with Italy, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
Ahead of the conference, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas noted that much has been achieved in the past two years. An October cease-fire agreement that included a demand that all foreign fighters and mercenaries leave Libya within 90 days led to a deal on elections, due to be held on Dec. 24, and a transitional government that took office in February.
But “many challenges still lie ahead of us,” said Maas. “For the further stabilization of the country, it is crucial that elections take place as planned and that foreign fighters and mercenaries really do leave Libya.”
He added that Wednesday’s conference launches a new phase “in which we no longer only talk about Libya, but in which we are now speaking with Libyan men and women about the future of their country.”
Blinken said that “we share the goal of a sovereign, stable, unified, secure Libya free from foreign interference — it’s what the people of Libya deserve, it’s critical to regional security as well.”
“For that to happen, national elections need to go forward in December and that means urgent agreement is needed on constitutional and legal issues that would undergird those elections,” he said at a news conference with Maas. “And the Oct. 23 cease-fire agreement has to be fully implemented, including by withdrawing all foreign forces from Libya.”
The US special envoy for Libya, Richard Norland, said it was important to start bringing all armed groups in the country under a joint military command. “When foreign forces leave, they’re going to need to be replaced by a viable united Libyan national military and police structure,” he said.
Meanwhile, aid group Doctors Without Borders said this week it was suspending its activities in two detention centers in Tripoli after “repeated incidents of violence toward refugees and migrants held there.” It said staff had witnessed guards beating detainees at one center and received reports of people being shot at in another.
Libya has been a key transit country for migrants from Africa trying to reach Europe, especially after the collapse of order when a NATO-backed uprising toppled and later killed longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. The oil-rich country was long divided between a UN-supported government in the capital, Tripoli, and rival authorities based in the country’s east, each backed by armed groups and foreign governments.
In April 2019, eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar and his forces, backed by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, launched an offensive to try to capture Tripoli. Haftar’s 14-month campaign collapsed after Turkey stepped up its military support of the UN-backed government with hundreds of troops and thousands of Syrian mercenaries.
Little progress has been made so far on getting foreign forces out of Libya. Jalel Harchaoui, a senior fellow at the Geneva-based Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime who follows Libya closely, said that it is the presence of foreign mercenaries, acting as a sort of deterrent, that has led to the current, if uneasy, peace.
“That’s what it comes down to, and of course it’s not politically correct to say,” he said. He cautioned that elections could deepen polarization if conducted too hastily.


Iran official says US has agreed to lift oil, shipping sanctions

Iran official says US has agreed to lift oil, shipping sanctions
Updated 23 June 2021

Iran official says US has agreed to lift oil, shipping sanctions

Iran official says US has agreed to lift oil, shipping sanctions
  • The talks adjourned on Sunday for a break
  • Raisi is due to replace Rouhani in August

DUBAI: Iran said on Wednesday that Washington had agreed to remove all sanctions on Iran’s oil and shipping, and take some senior figures off a blacklist, at talks to revive Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with global powers which are now on a pause.
The remarks, by outgoing president Hassan Rouhani’s chief of staff, were consistent with previous assertions by officials in Rouhani’s pragmatist camp that Washington is prepared to make major concessions at the talks, under way since April in Vienna.
The talks adjourned on Sunday for a break, two days after Iran held a presidential election won by hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi, the head of Iran’s judiciary who is on the US blacklist. Raisi is due to replace Rouhani in August.
“An agreement has been reached to remove all insurance, oil and shipping sanctions that were imposed by (former US President Donald) Trump,” presidential chief of staff Mahmoud Vaezi was quoted as saying by Iran’s state media.
“About 1,040 Trump-era sanctions will be lifted under the agreement. It was also agreed to lift some sanctions on individuals and members of the supreme leader’s inner circle.”
US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on Sunday there was still “a fair distance to travel”, including on sanctions and on the nuclear commitments that Iran has to make. Other Western and Iranian officials have also said the talks are a long way from a conclusion.
Iran agreed in 2015 to curbs on its nuclear program in return for the lifting of international sanctions. Trump abandoned the agreement three years later and reimposed sanctions, and Tehran responded by violating some nuclear limits.
The new US administration of President Joe Biden aims to restore the deal, but the sides disagree on which steps need to be taken and when.
Iranian and Western officials alike say Raisi’s rise is unlikely to alter Iran’s negotiating position, as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei already has final say on all major policy.
However, some Iranian officials have suggested Tehran may prefer an agreement before Raisi takes office to give the new president a clean slate.


Iran says US websites seizure unhelpful for nuclear talks

Iran says US websites seizure unhelpful for nuclear talks
Updated 23 June 2021

Iran says US websites seizure unhelpful for nuclear talks

Iran says US websites seizure unhelpful for nuclear talks
  • Iran's state broadcaster accused the US of repressing freedom of expression
  • EU negotiator Enrique Mora said on Sunday that those involved in the talks were "closer" to saving the Iran nuclear deal

TEHRAN: Tehran warned Wednesday that Washington's seizure of 33 websites run by Iran-linked media was "not constructive" for ongoing talks on bringing the United States back into a landmark nuclear deal.
The US Justice Department said it had seized 33 Iranian government-controlled media websites, as well as three of the Iraqi group Kataeb Hezbollah, which it said were hosted on US-owned domains in violation of sanctions.
Iran's state broadcaster accused the US of repressing freedom of expression, while the president's office questioned the timing of the move as talks on bringing Washington back into the 2015 nuclear agreement between Tehran and major powers are reportedly making headway.
"We are using all international and legal means to... condemn... this mistaken policy of the United States," the director of the president's office, Mahmoud Vaezi, told reporters.
"It appears not constructive when talks for a deal on the nuclear issue are under way."
The 2015 deal saw Iran accept curbs on its nuclear activities in return for an easing of sanctions, but in 2018 then US president Donald Trump unilaterally abandoned the agreement and ramped up sanctions, prompting Iran to pull back from its own commitments.
Trump's successor Joe Biden has signalled his readiness to return to the deal and state parties -- also including Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia -- have been negotiating its revival in Vienna since early April.
EU negotiator Enrique Mora said on Sunday that those involved in the talks were "closer" to saving the Iran nuclear deal but that sticking points remain.
The US action also comes just after Iranians chose ultraconservative cleric Ibrahim Raisi as president in an election the US State Department characterised as neither free nor fair.
Visitors to leading Iranian media sites like Press TV and Al-Alam, the country's main English- and Arabic-language broadcasters, as well as the Al-Masirah TV channel of Yemen's Huthis, were met with single-page statements declaring the website "has been seized by the United States government" accompanied by the seals of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the US Commerce Department.
The 33 websites were held by the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union (IRTVU), itself controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force (IRGC).
Both the IRTVU and IRGC have been placed on the US sanctions blacklist, making it illegal for Americans, US companies, and foreign or non-American companies with US subsidiaries to have business with them or their subsidiaries.
Kataeb Hezbollah, the Iraqi group which owned three sites that were seized, is a hardline military faction with close ties to Tehran that Washington has formally designated a terror group.
Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), the immediate parent of Al-Alam, reported that other web domains, including Palestine-Al Youm, a Palestinian-directed broadcaster, and an Arabic-language religious and cultural channel were among those seized.
Bahrain's LuaLua TV, a channel run by opposition groups with offices in London and Beirut, was also frozen by the United States, according to an AFP correspondent in the region.
IRIB accused the US of repressing freedom of expression and joining forces with Israel and Saudi Arabia "to block pro-resistance media outlets exposing the crimes of US allies in the region."
TV stations such as Press TV and Al-Alam switched to .ir domains and their websites remained accessible. They are also still present on social media, mainly Twitter, and their broadcasts have continued uninterrupted.
On the website of their political wing, the Huthis branded the action "American piracy and copyright confiscation".
"The government of the United States of America is banning the Al-Masirah website without any justification or even prior notice," they said.
Al-Masirah quickly established a new website, using its name but swapping the .net domain for .com.
Meanwhile LuaLua and Al-Masirah continued to broadcast new programs, AFP journalists said.
IRTVU was designated for sanctions last year for "brazen attempts to sow discord among the voting populace by spreading disinformation online and executing malign influence operations aimed at misleading US voters," the Justice Department said.
"IRTVU and others like it, disguised as news organisations or media outlets, targeted the United States with disinformation campaigns and malign influence operations," it said in a statement.
US officials meanwhile have tied Kataeb Hezbollah to rocket and other attacks on sites in Iraq where American soldiers and diplomats reside, and say the group is supported by Iran's Revolutionary Guards.
The Justice Department did not identify the US company or companies which owned the domains that hosted the websites, or explain how they had been able to host them contrary to sanctions.