Jabs for votes: Lebanon’s oligarchs turn to Covid bribery

Jabs for votes: Lebanon’s oligarchs turn to Covid bribery
Anti-government protesters hit a member of police intelligence who was taking pictures of protesters, in Beirut. The man fled the scene on the motorcycle of a traffic policeman. (AP)
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Updated 10 June 2021

Jabs for votes: Lebanon’s oligarchs turn to Covid bribery

Jabs for votes: Lebanon’s oligarchs turn to Covid bribery
  • Saad Hariri organised a countrywide vaccination campaign with the help of his Future Movement in May
  • Lawmaker Elias Bou Saab, close to FPM, rented a private hospital for vaccination purposes & Lebanese Forces’ Antoine Habchi provided 1,600 jabs in Baalbek

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s cash-strapped leaders are bribing their base with free Covid-19 jabs ahead of next year’s elections, in what observers say is the latest variant on an old corruption trick.
The “vaccine for vote” system builds on decades-old patronage practices that have seen leaders buy their way into office by offering voters money or public sector employment.
But with state resources stretched to their limit by a severe economic crisis and international aid dwindling due to a failure to deliver promised reforms, politicians are turning to Covid jabs to stock up on political capital.
“Political forces are trying to directly or indirectly make themselves a part of the equation with regards to the vaccine campaign, primarily because it is a profitable investment,” said a member of the state-run National Vaccination Committee who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Prime minister-designate Saad Hariri, a leading figure in Lebanon’s Sunni community, organized a countrywide vaccination campaign with the help of his Future Movement in early May.
More than 7,000 people received at least one dose of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, said spokesperson Abdel Salam Moussa. Tens of thousands of new jabs are expected to arrive in the coming weeks, he told AFP.
The Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), founded by President Michel Aoun, and its Christian rival the Lebanese Forces, have also distributed jabs through private initiatives organized by members or affiliates.
Elias Bou Saab, a lawmaker close to the FPM, rented out a private hospital outside Beirut until March next year for vaccination purposes.
Last month, he said he would provide “20,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine to be distributed free of charge.”
Antoine Habchi of the Lebanese Forces provided jabs for 1,600 people in the eastern region of Baalbek. “The funds were raised from the diaspora,” he told AFP.
The Lebanese government, with the help of international agencies, provides free jabs of the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccine on a priority basis.
It started its vaccination campaign in February, but the rollout was initially slow, forcing many, including political leaders, to turn to private suppliers providing Sputnik doses.
With more than half the population living below the poverty line and the Lebanese pound sliding rapidly against the dollar on the black market, vaccines are a luxury for many.
Two Sputnik doses are sold to companies and associations for $38, which amounts to 500,000 Lebanese pounds at the black market rate, or around three quarters of the minimum wage.
Firas, a former insurance broker, had registered along with his wife for state-sponsored vaccination.
But when a political party offered him free jabs, he chose not to wait for the government.
“I have been unemployed for six months. How would I have afforded vaccines for two people?” said the 52-year-old, who declined to name the party that sponsored his Sputnik dose.
Out of nearly 900,000 people who have received vaccines in Lebanon, nearly 60,000 benefited from party handouts, said Mohamad Haidar, a health ministry adviser.
The powerful Hezbollah movement, an Iran-backed party that boasts major welfare institutions, including several hospitals, says it is not distributing vaccines.
With health minister Hamad Hassan hailing from its ranks, Hezbollah can rely solely on the state, said political scientist Hilal Khashan of the American University of Beirut.
According to a 2019 report by Transparency International, nearly one in two people in Lebanon is offered a bribe in return for their vote, while more than one in four receives threats if they do not comply.
With traditional party leaders going up against a revitalized opposition in elections next year, vaccine handouts could be “exploited for political ends,” said Julien Courson, the director of the Lebanese Transparency Association.
But vaccines aren’t the only honey pot.
Food prices in Lebanon have soared by up to 400 percent as of December and medicines are fast disappearing from pharmacy shelves.
Political patrons are stepping in to ease the blow.
The FPM will launch a platform for medicine exchange that will primarily benefit party supporters, said Marwan Zoghbi of the party’s coronavirus committee.
People with a surplus of a certain medicine will be matched with those who are in need, he said.
Hezbollah, which has long offered a wide array of social services, said in April that it is boosting the number of supporters who benefit from assistance.
Services include a shopping card for discounted food items sold at select discount stores.
But with Lebanon’s woes piling up quickly, political parties across the board will struggle to keep up.
“Lebanese clientelism is failing because the political system does not have material resources to dispense to sectarian leaders,” said Khashan.
“The pervasive poverty attests to the failure of the system and the inability of confessional leaders to provide for their impoverished followers.”


Former Jordan royal court chief faces trial over destabilization plot

Former Jordan royal court chief faces trial over destabilization plot
Updated 13 June 2021

Former Jordan royal court chief faces trial over destabilization plot

Former Jordan royal court chief faces trial over destabilization plot

CAIRO: Jordan's military court will start the trial next week of former royal court chief Bassem Awadallah and Sherif Hassan Zaid Hussein on charges of agitating to destabilise the monarchy, state media said on Sunday.

Prosecutors last week referred to court the defendants case. They were arrested in early April over allegations they had liaised with foreign parties over a plot to destabilise Jordan. 


Two thirds of eligible people in Dubai fully vaccinated against COVID-19

Two thirds of eligible people in Dubai fully vaccinated against COVID-19
Updated 13 June 2021

Two thirds of eligible people in Dubai fully vaccinated against COVID-19

Two thirds of eligible people in Dubai fully vaccinated against COVID-19
  • For six months the UAE has been running one of the world’s fastest vaccination campaigns against COVID-19

DUBAI: About two-thirds of people eligible for inoculation against COVID-19 have now received two doses of the vaccine in Dubai, the tourist and business hub of the United Arab Emirates, Dubai Health Authority (DHA) said.
Dubai is the most populous of the seven emirates that make up the UAE and has one of the world’s busiest airports.
For six months the UAE has been running one of the world’s fastest vaccination campaigns against COVID-19, initially using a vaccine developed by the China National Pharmaceutical Group (Sinopharm) and then adding the Pfizer/BioNTech and AstraZeneca shots and Russia’s Sputnik V.
DHA deputy director general Alawi Alsheikh Ali told Dubai Television late on Saturday that 83 percent of people aged over 16 — or about 2.3 million people — had now received at least one dose of a vaccine and that 64 percent had received two doses in the emirate.
The UAE recently said nearly 85 percent of its total eligible population had received at least one dose of a vaccine, without saying how many people had had both doses.
The UAE, which does not break down the number of cases by emirate, has seen a rise in the number of infections in the past month. It recorded 2,281 new cases on Saturday, bringing the total so far to around 596,000 cases. Daily cases peaked at almost 4,000 a day in early February.
DHA said 90 percent of the COVID-19 patients admitted to intensive care units in Dubai hospitals were unvaccinated, without specifying when that statistic was recorded.


Algerian parliamentary election results expected within days, authority says

Algerian parliamentary election results expected within days, authority says
Updated 13 June 2021

Algerian parliamentary election results expected within days, authority says

Algerian parliamentary election results expected within days, authority says

ALGIERS: The results of an Algerian parliamentary election in which fewer than a third of voters took part will be announced within a few days, the head of the voting authority said late on Saturday.
The ruling establishment has tried to use elections along with a crackdown on dissent as a way to end two years of political unrest, with Algeria facing a looming economic crisis.
Supporters of the “Hirak” mass protest movement said it showed the system lacked legitimacy. Two prominent journalists, Khaled Drareni and Ihsane El Kadi, and the opposition figure Karim Tabbou, were detained last week but released on Saturday.
Politicians said the turnout of 30.2 percent, the lowest ever officially recorded for a parliamentary election in Algeria, was “acceptable.”
“The election took place in good conditions. Voters were able to vote and choose the most suitable candidates to serve Algeria,” said election authority head Mohamed Chorfi on television.
The protests erupted in 2019 and unseated veteran President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, continuing weekly until the global pandemic struck a year later. After a year-long pause they resumed in February but police mostly quashed them last month.
Many Algerians believe real power rests with the military and security establishments who have dominated politics for decades, rather than with elected politicians.
“We have grown accustomed in the past to high turnout due to fraud,” said Arslan Chikhaoui, an Algerian analyst, saying the authorities had manipulated the results of elections before the Hirak protests to suggest greater enthusiasm.
After Bouteflika was forced to step down, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune was elected with a turnout of 40 percent. Last year he held a referendum on an amended constitution that gained only 25 percent of votes.
The old parties that traditionally dominated have been tarred with corruption and abuse scandals, giving space to independents and moderate Islamist parties that hope to gain a majority of seats in the new parliament.
Those that win a lot of seats are likely to be included in the next government.
During parliament’s coming five-year term, Algeria is likely to face a fiscal and economic crunch, after burning through four fifths of foreign currency reserves since 2013.
The government has maintained expensive social programs and the state’s central role in the economy despite plummeting oil and gas sales.
Reforms to strengthen the private sector contributed to corruption that fueled the Hirak. Spending cuts could trigger a new wave of protests against the ruling establishment.
Laws passed by the outgoing parliament to encourage foreign and private investment and strengthen the energy sector have so far had little effect.


Lebanon stops Syrians attempting illegal sea crossing

Lebanon stops Syrians attempting illegal sea crossing
Updated 13 June 2021

Lebanon stops Syrians attempting illegal sea crossing

Lebanon stops Syrians attempting illegal sea crossing

BEIRUT: The Lebanese army on Sunday said it intercepted a small boat carrying 11 people, mostly Syrians, attempting an illegal sea crossing out of the crisis-hit country.
A statement said a naval force spotted the boat off the northern port city of Tripoli and that its passengers were all detained and referred for investigation, the army added.
The boat was carrying “10 people of Syrian nationality and a Lebanese national,” it said.
Their journey’s end was not specified but neighboring Cyprus, a member of the European Union, has been a popular sea smuggling destination in recent months.
In May, the Lebanese army intercepted a boat near Tripoli carrying 60 people, including 59 Syrians.
Lebanon, home to more than six million people, says it hosts more than a million Syrian refugees.
They have been hit hard by widening poverty rates and growing food insecurity brought on by the country’s economic crisis.
In a report released this month, the World Bank warned that Lebanon’s economic collapse is likely to rank among the world’s worst financial crises since the mid-19th century.


Israel to swear in government, ending Netanyahu’s long rule

Israel to swear in government, ending Netanyahu’s long rule
Updated 13 June 2021

Israel to swear in government, ending Netanyahu’s long rule

Israel to swear in government, ending Netanyahu’s long rule
  • The Knesset vote will either terminate the hawkish premier’s uninterrupted 12-year tenure or return Israel to a stalemate

JERUSALEM: Israeli lawmakers are to vote Sunday on a “change” coalition government of bitter ideological rivals united by their determination to banish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from power.
The crunch Knesset vote will either terminate the hawkish premier’s uninterrupted 12-year tenure or return Israel to a stalemate likely to trigger a fifth general election since 2019.
Netanyahu, who is battling a clutch of corruption charges in an ongoing trial he dismisses as a conspiracy, has pushed Israeli politics firmly to the right over the years.
On Saturday night, around 2,000 protesters rallied outside the 71-year-old’s official residence to celebrate what they believe will be his departure from office.
“For us, this is a big night and tomorrow will be even a bigger day. I am almost crying. We fought peacefully for this (Netanyahu’s departure) and the day has come,” said protester Ofir Robinski.
A fragile eight-party alliance, ranging from the right-wing Jewish nationalist Yamina party to Arab lawmakers, was early this month cobbled together by centrist politician Yair Lapid.
On Friday, all coalition agreements had been signed and submitted to the Knesset secretariat, Yamina announced, a moment party leader Naftali Bennett said brought “to an end two and a half years of political crisis.”
But the ever-combative Netanyahu has tried to peel off defectors that would deprive the nascent coalition of its wafer-thin legislative majority.
If the new government is confirmed, Bennett, a former defense minister, would serve as premier for two years.
Coalition architect Lapid, who heads the Yesh Atid party and is a former television presenter, would then take the helm.
The anti-Netanyahu bloc spans the political spectrum, including three right-wing, two centrist and two left-wing parties, along with an Arab Islamic conservative party.
The improbable alliance emerged two weeks after an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist group that rules the Palestinian enclave of Gaza and following inter-communal violence in Israeli cities with significant Arab populations.
“We will work together, out of partnership and national responsibility — and I believe we will succeed,” Bennett said Friday.
Sunday’s crucial Knesset session is due to open at 4:00 p.m. local time (1300 GMT), with Bennett, Lapid and Netanyahu all set to speak before the vote.
Netanyahu has heaped pressure on his former right-wing allies to defect from the fledgling coalition while attacking the legitimacy of the Bennett-Lapid partnership.
He has accused Bennett of “fraud” for siding with rivals, and angry rallies by the premier’s Likud party supporters have resulted in security being bolstered for some lawmakers.
Netanyahu’s bombastic remarks as he sees his grip on power slip have drawn parallels at home and abroad to former US president Donald Trump, who described his election loss last year as the result of a rigged vote.
The prime minister has called the prospective coalition “the greatest election fraud in the history” of Israel.
His Likud party said the accusations refer to Bennett entering a coalition that “doesn’t reflect the will of the voters.”
Sunday’s vote arrives hot on the heels of police crackdowns on Palestinian protests over the threatened eviction of families from homes in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem to make way for Jewish settlers, a month after similar clashes fueled the latest war between Israel and Hamas.
It also comes amid right-wing anger over the postponement of a controversial Jewish nationalist march.
Netanyahu favored finding a way to allow the so-called “March of the Flags,” originally scheduled to take place last Thursday, to proceed as planned.
He took that position despite the original route envisaging the march unfolding close to flashpoint areas including the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, where clashes last month triggered the Gaza conflict.
The premier’s insistence saw his opponents accuse him and his allies of stoking tensions to cling onto power via a “scorched-earth” campaign.
If Netanyahu loses the premiership, he will not be able to push through changes to basic laws that could give him immunity in regard to his corruption trial.
The controversial flag march is now slated for Tuesday and ongoing tensions surrounding it could represent a key initial test for any approved coalition.