Aoun and Hariri ease tensions but fail to solve Lebanon’s political deadlock

Aoun and Hariri ease tensions but fail to solve Lebanon’s political deadlock
Lebanon's president called Wednesday, March 17, 2021 on the prime minister-designate to form a government immediately or step aside as the country plunges deeper into economic crisis. (File/AP)
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Updated 18 March 2021

Aoun and Hariri ease tensions but fail to solve Lebanon’s political deadlock

Aoun and Hariri ease tensions but fail to solve Lebanon’s political deadlock
  • Hariri says new government could re-engage with IMF and build trust
  • Country faces economic collapse after drastic devaluation of currency

BEIRUT: Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri will meet again on Monday after they failed to resolve their differences over the formation of a new government during their meeting on Thursday.

Monday’s meeting, Hariri predicted, will “provide some answers regarding the possibility of forming a government as soon as possible.”

During the hour-long meeting on Thursday, both parties focused on easing the tension between them. “Our aim is to stop the collapse, and the meeting (sought) to ease the tensions that happened on Wednesday. I listened to the president and his remarks and we agreed to meet again on Monday,” Hariri said. “I will always remain honest. Today, there is an opportunity that we need to seize in order to reach a solution by Monday. We need to regain the trust of the international community. The current economic situation does not justify this rise in the dollar’s exchange rate, but the absence of prospects does. The goal behind this government is to halt the Lebanese pound’s collapse.”

Prior to Thursday’s meeting, the director-general of Lebanese General Security, Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, had visited politicians including Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri — the leader of the Amal Movement — to attempt to help find a path towards the formation of a new government. However, leaked information suggested Ibrahim's efforts were largely unsuccessful.

Aoun had, on Thursday morning, set an appointment at 3 p.m. for Hariri, asking him to come “carrying a government-formation vision that takes into account the requirements of balance, distribution and competence, drawn from the five months that have passed since his designation.”

Mustafa Alloush, vice president of Hariri’s party the Future Movement, said on Thursday, “Hariri carried with him a file containing the same government formation he had previously suggested and he is open to all discussions except the one related to the ‘blocking third.’

“For Hariri, the aim of this meeting was to keep the channels of communication open and prevent the situation from reaching the point of no return. Aoun was very clear on Wednesday that he does not want Hariri to head the upcoming government and presented him with the ‘blocking-third’ demand to get him to step down,” Alloush continued. “What Hariri did today was to calm President Aoun down and properly deal with the situation, but Aoun needs to retract his statement.”

Monday’s meeting is now seen by observers as critical: It will potentially either lead to a solution to the government formation deadlock and therefore save the country from total collapse, or result in a dramatic end to the 146 days that have passed since the parliamentary majority entrusted Hariri with the formation of a new government. The second possibility would be seen as a failure on the part of the entire ruling class to save Lebanon from its current crisis.

Rami Al-Rayes, an advisor to the leader of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) Walid Jumblatt, said the PSP is “keen to maintain stability, particularly in some sensitive areas that are geographically and demographically overlapping. This requires a higher level of coordination between the actors on the ground in order to contain any tensions that might get out of hand.” He added that Jumblatt had asked regional officials to “be vigilant and closely follow up with the various official and partisan actors to maintain stability.”

On Wednesday night, protestors who had blocked a road in Beirut clashed with armed individuals believed to be supporters of the Amal Movement. Shots were fired and several people were wounded.

The Future Movement issued a statement saying that it had no connection to those events, and asked all parties to “exercise restraint, cooperate with the security and military forces, and not be dragged into anything that could aggravate the tensions and spread chaos.”

Lebanese Army Command issued a statement saying: “It was an isolated incident that led to gunfire, injuring four people who were taken to the hospital for treatment while the military intervened and contained the situation.” The statement also called on everyone to “refrain from doing anything that could threaten civil peace.”

That incident did not stop supporters of the president heading to the presidential palace carrying Lebanese flags and the flag of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) — the party founded by Aoun and led by his son-in-law Gebran Bassil — later that night, after Aoun’s televised speech in which he said Hariri should abide by Aoun's government-formation conditions or step down.

Hariri responded by calling on Aoun to “be honest with the Lebanese people and explain the real reason why he is trying to disrupt the will of the parliament that names the prime minister-designate.” He also asked Aoun to “alleviate the suffering of the people by making way for early presidential elections.”

On Thursday, the dollar exchange rate dropped suddenly by 2,000 Lebanese pounds on the black market to between LBP12,900 and 13,000 to the dollar. However, this drop did not translate to reduced prices in the market place, reflecting merchants’ lack of trust in the state.

Protests continue, but, given the current circumstances, are generally limited to the blocking of some roads and roundabouts, along with the burning of tires.

Morocco, Algeria clash at UN General Assembly over Western Sahara

Morocco, Algeria clash at UN General Assembly over Western Sahara
Updated 28 September 2021

Morocco, Algeria clash at UN General Assembly over Western Sahara

Morocco, Algeria clash at UN General Assembly over Western Sahara
  • Algerian foreign minister: Region has ‘inalienable right to self-determination’
  • Moroccan counterpart: Algiers ‘perpetuating an invented regional conflict’

NEW YORK: Morocco and Algeria took their bitter dispute over Western Sahara to the UN General Assembly on Monday as they respectively addressed fellow world leaders.

Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra vowed that his country will continue to defend the “just causes of the people who are fighting for their fundamental rights, including the inalienable right to self-determination, particularly in Palestine and Western Sahara.”

But his Moroccan counterpart Nasser Bourita condemned what he called Algerian “interference” in Western Sahara, and reiterated his country’s commitment to finding a comprehensive settlement to the protracted conflict that “respects Morocco’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

He said Western Sahara’s 63 percent turnout in Morocco’s general elections earlier this month was the highest nationally, which shows Sahrawi attachment to the country’s territorial integrity.

Bourita urged the international community to back a “realistic, practical, permanent and consensual political solution” for the protracted crisis, saying such a solution will not be possible until Algiers “shoulders its responsibility for perpetuating an invented regional conflict.”

Algeria recently cut off ties and closed its airspace with Morocco as tensions over who controls Western Sahara have escalated between the two countries.

Rabat says the region is Moroccan territory, and last year the US recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in return for enhanced diplomatic ties with Israel.

Algeria has backed the Polisario Front, a separatist movement in Western Sahara vying for international recognition.

Decades after the end of the 1975-1991 war between Morocco and the Polisario Front, the latter announced last year that it was resuming armed struggle.

In his UN speech, Lamamra referred to the conflict as a “de-colonization” issue that automatically conjures up the principle of self-determination as “the only solution.”

He said: “Algeria believes that the right of the Sahrawi people to self-determination is inalienable, non-negotiable, and not subject to statutory limitation.”

Bahrain FM highlights country’s efforts to tackle pandemic’s economic effects

Bahrain FM highlights country’s efforts to tackle pandemic’s economic effects
Updated 28 September 2021

Bahrain FM highlights country’s efforts to tackle pandemic’s economic effects

Bahrain FM highlights country’s efforts to tackle pandemic’s economic effects
  • During UN address, Abdullatif Al-Zayani also spoke of the importance of the AlUla Declaration, and his country’s efforts to enhance human rights protections
  • Bahrain is also working to advance women’s rights ‘and to uphold the principles of equal opportunity and equality’ he added, and has made advances in criminal justice reforms

NEW YORK: In an address to the 76th session of the UN General Assembly on Monday, Bahrain’s foreign minister highlighted the work of authorities in his country to combat COVID-19, along with the efforts they are making to tackle the economic effects of the pandemic. These include a $12 billion stimulus package designed to protect jobs and support business sectors affected by the health crisis.

Abdullatif Al-Zayani also expressed appreciation for the close cooperation the nation receives from the UN. In particular he described the ongoing work to enhance a partnership with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to help guarantee and protect human rights in the Kingdom.

In August, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the office of the UN resident coordinator in Bahrain signed a declaration of intent to work together to prepare a national human rights plan. Al-Zayani said it is hoped that this will serve as a comprehensive framework for the implementation of government projects designed to protect human rights.

Bahrain has “worked to advance the rights of Bahraini women and to uphold the principles of equal opportunity and equality,” he added, including efforts to ensure wage equity between men and women.

The country has also made advances in criminal justice reforms, the minister said, including a recently passed “alternative sentencing” law touted as a “qualitative leap forward” in the reform and rehabilitation of offenders.

Turning to energy policy, Al-Zayani said Bahrain shares the international community’s concerns about climate change and its drastic effects, and has developed an integrated plan to increase the share of renewable energy as part of a sustainable development strategy to reduce carbon emissions.

He also spoke about the importance Bahrain places on commitments that form part of the AlUla Declaration, an agreement reached in January that resolved a long-running dispute between Qatar and neighboring countries, and which Bahrain considers essential for closer cooperation between Gulf nations.

Bahrain is also a signatory to the Abraham Accords, the agreements last year between a number of Arab nations to normalize relations with Israel. Al-Zayani said the Bahraini government views the signing of the accords as being in line with the vision of King Hamad Al-Khalifa to promote peaceful coexistence, dialogue and mutual respect in the region and among faiths.

He added that this does not mean that Manama has forgotten about the Palestinian people, however, and that the government continues to believe in the need for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East that guarantees the right of the Palestinian people “to live in a secure, stable and prosperous nation … with East Jerusalem as its capital, in accordance with the principle of the two-state solution.”

Al-Zayani also reaffirmed Bahrain’s support for Saudi efforts to achieve a ceasefire in Yemen as part of the process to reach a political solution to the crisis in the country and end the suffering of the Yemeni people.

He said his country condemns the continuing Houthi attacks in Yemen and on Saudi Arabia, describing them as a “clear violation of international humanitarian law.

The minister also spoke of the need for an “urgent settlement” of the Renaissance Dam dispute between Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia in a manner that preserves the water rights of Egypt and Sudan.

In Libya, Al-Zayani said the Bahraini government supports the withdrawal of all foreign forces from the country and the staging of elections that “reflect the will of the Libyan people.”

In the Western Sahara conflict between Morocco and southern separatists seeking independence, he reiterated Bahrain’s support for a political resolution that respects and preserves Morocco’s sovereignty.

Regarding Iran, Al-Zayani said the Middle East should be a region free of weapons of mass destruction and reaffirmed Bahrain’s support for international efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring the ability to develop nuclear weapons.

He urged Iranian authorities to help maintain regional stability and security by fully cooperating with International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors. The IAEA recently reported that Iran was failing to comply with UN-mandated international inspections at sensitive nuclear facilities.

Tehran faces UN rap over atom secrets

Tehran faces UN rap over atom secrets
Updated 28 September 2021

Tehran faces UN rap over atom secrets

Tehran faces UN rap over atom secrets
  • Rebuke by IAEA would kill off hopes of revived nuclear deal

JEDDAH: Iran is facing a humiliating rebuke from the UN nuclear watchdog for blocking inspectors’ access to a workshop that makes equipment for enriching uranium.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said it had been denied “indispensable” access to the TESA Karaj complex. Tehran claimed on Monday that the site was not covered by an agreement with the agency in September for its inspectors to service monitoring cameras and replace memory cards.
The complex makes components for centrifuges, and was hit by a sabotage attack in June in which one of four IAEA cameras there was destroyed. Iran removed them and the destroyed camera’s footage is missing.
The US said Iran should allow immediate access to the site or face diplomatic retaliation by the agency’s board of governors within days. “We call on Iran to provide the IAEA with needed access without further delay,” said Louis Bono, the US representative at the agency. “If Iran fails to do so, we will be closely consulting with other board members in the coming days on an appropriate response.”
The European Union also called on Iran to grant access “without any further delay.”
An IAEA resolution criticising Tehran is likely to kill off hopes of resuming talks aimed at reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Monday that Iran sought to dominate the Middle East under a “nuclear umbrella” and urged a concerted international effort to halt its nuclear activities.
“Iran’s nuclear weapons program has hit a watershed moment, and so has our tolerance. Words do not stop centrifuges from spinning,” Bennett told the UN General Assembly.
“The program is at a critical point. All red lines have been crossed, inspections ignored. They’re getting away with it. But if we put our heads to it, if we’re serious about stopping it, if we use our resourcefulness, we can prevail.”

Rabat’s only woman taxi driver busts social norms and stereotypes

Rabat’s only woman taxi driver busts social norms and stereotypes
Updated 27 September 2021

Rabat’s only woman taxi driver busts social norms and stereotypes

Rabat’s only woman taxi driver busts social norms and stereotypes
  • There used to be seven women licensed as taxi drivers in the capital, but they all stopped working except Hdidou

RABAT: Souad Hdidou is challenging social norms and busting stereotypes from behind the wheel as the only female taxi driver in the Moroccan capital Rabat and one of a few in the country.

Hdidou, 33, started work as a truck driver after dropping out of school and worked for a fish distribution company, but switched to taxis for the better pay and greater freedom, she said.

“I’m the kind who likes challenges,” Hdidou said.

She now earns enough to pay the mortgage on her flat near Rabat as well as supporting her family in the countryside and has built up a solid customer base.

“Mothers often trust me to pick up their kids from school when they’re busy,” she said. “I also receive calls to pick up women at night because they feel more comfortable with me.”

At the wheel of her blue sedan, sparkling clean and fragrant inside, and a heart-shaped talisman with religious verses dangling from the rear view mirror, Hdidou is a rare sight on Rabat’s roads.

“We need more women taxi drivers,” said Nouhila Asah a female client, adding that with Hdidou she can have a conversation and talk freely over the phone unlike when the driver is a man.

There used to be seven women licensed as taxi drivers in the capital, but they all stopped working except Hdidou. Female taxi drivers sometimes face sexual harassment in the form of unwanted advances, she said.

Even for men, the taxi business is tough in Morocco — most drivers have no access to state health and pension coverage, and want the government to reform the sector.

The taxi operating license is so costly that many “rent” it from well-off people who have the right connections. Hdidou said the cost of renting the license as well as car operating expenses account for up to 70 percent of her monthly revenue.

The head of the taxi drivers’ union, Mohamed Touiti, said he hoped the government would give drivers access to state social security.

For Hdidou, she’s taken a step toward fulfilling her childhood dream: “My wish is to work in international transport ... I am now in the process of getting different types of driving licenses. This is Souad’s life,” she said, laughing.

UAE FM rebukes external interference in Arab affairs

UAE FM rebukes external interference in Arab affairs
Updated 27 September 2021

UAE FM rebukes external interference in Arab affairs

UAE FM rebukes external interference in Arab affairs
  • Khalifa Shaheen Almarar vows his country will counter violent extremism wherever it appears
  • ‘We can’t ignore Iran’s development of its nuclear and ballistic missile programs’

NEW YORK: The UAE on Monday issued a forceful rejection of external involvement in Arab affairs, and pledged to counter the “scourge” of violent extremism wherever it appears.

Speaking on the final day of the UN General Assembly, Khalifa Shaheen Almarar, the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, also said the Middle East must be a region free from weapons of mass destruction.

“In order to succeed in our efforts to end the cycle of conflict in the Arab region, crude regional interferences in Arab affairs — especially in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq — must be halted,” he added.

“The illegal interferences have obstructed political processes, exacerbated humanitarian crises, and undermined regional and international stability.”

These regional problems, as well as transnational challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic, require a coordinated and cooperative approach from Arab countries and the international community, he said.

“We need wise leadership to advance multilateralism, and to develop a united international position to address all common global challenges. It’s also imperative to have a genuine political will to overcome this difficult historical juncture, which requires putting differences aside and strengthening relations between states,” he added.

“As a priority, we must generate international momentum to prevent conflicts and avert political crises before they escalate.” Among those conflicts that require concerted action, he said, is the war in Yemen.

“We’ve seen genuine initiatives in this direction, the latest of which was presented by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to end the war in Yemen. For these efforts to be successful, all parties must demonstrate commitment and determination,” he added, noting however that “the Houthi militias continue their provocative and aggressive actions.”

Almarar also called for an independent Palestinian state along the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, and urged Israel to stop building settlements on Palestinian land.

However, he praised the era of reconciliation that the Abraham Accords, which established relations between the UAE and other Arab countries on one side and Israel on the other, have ushered in.

Struck a year ago, those agreements “stimulate economic growth and advance prosperity and stability in the region, especially for the younger generations, who deserve to look to the future with optimism and hope,” he said.

The youth are threatened by the advance of extremist groups in the region, he warned. “Groups such as the Houthis, Daesh, Al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah continue their recruitment of new generations of young people,” he said. “As such, we won’t relent in our efforts to counter these scourges wherever they exist.”

Energy supplies, freedom of navigation and trade routes must also be protected, said Almarar, adding that the Middle East should be a region “free of weapons of mass destruction.”

In that regard, he said, reaching an understanding with Iran that effectively addresses the concerns of regional states is imperative, particularly because of the country’s advanced weapons programs.

“We can’t ignore Iran’s development of its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, as well as its interference in the region,” he added.

“Therefore, any future agreement with Iran should address the shortcomings of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action … and must involve the countries of the region.”

Three islands that Iran occupied illegally in 1971, he added, must also be returned to his country. “The UAE will never cease to demand its legitimate sovereignty over these islands,” he said.

Almarar also pledged to continue to work to fight climate change, which “remains one of the most pressing challenges.”

The UAE, he said, looks forward to the COP26 climate conference, hosted by the UK in Glasgow later this year, which will be vital in developing a “global response” to the challenge.

“The UAE seeks to work with its partners to find solutions and explore opportunities that reduce the effects of climate change, including seeking to host the COP28,” he added.