Violence seeps into Lebanese life due to economic crisis

With virtually no national welfare system, Lebanon's elderly are left to fend for themselves amid their country's economic turmoil. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
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With virtually no national welfare system, Lebanon's elderly are left to fend for themselves amid their country's economic turmoil. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
Violence seeps into Lebanese life due to economic crisis
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People wait to buy lemonade in Batroun, Lebanon June 5, 2021. Picture taken June 5, 2021. (REUTERS)
Violence seeps into Lebanese life due to economic crisis
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The owners of Lebanon’s private generators warned of their own power cuts due to lack of fuel as the country’s economic crisis deepens. (AFP)
Vehicles queue-up at a petrol station in the Balamand area on the coastal highway in near Beirut on June 21, 2021 amid dire shortages due to an ongoing economic collapse. (AFP / JOSEPH EID)
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Vehicles queue-up at a petrol station in the Balamand area on the coastal highway in near Beirut on June 21, 2021 amid dire shortages due to an ongoing economic collapse. (AFP / JOSEPH EID)
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Updated 24 June 2021

Violence seeps into Lebanese life due to economic crisis

Vehicles queue-up at a petrol station in the Balamand area on the coastal highway in near Beirut on June 21, 2021 amid dire shortages due to an ongoing economic collapse. (AFP / JOSEPH EID)
  • Fistfights turn into shootings as people clash over who gets to fill their tank first at gasoline stations

BEIRUT: Violence has seeped into daily Lebanese life due to the country’s severe economic crisis and a breakdown in official security, with fights and even shootings at gas stations.

Lebanon is experiencing an economic crisis that is likely to rank as one of the world’s three worst in more than 150 years, according to the World Bank.
There are shortages of essential items such as fuel and medicine, while bread has become more expensive after the Syndicate of Bakery Owners raised prices now that government subsidies on sugar and yeast have ended.
People are queuing for hours at gas stations, and fistfights turn into shootings as people clash over who gets to fill their tank first.
People are taking their own lives or destroying their sources of income in desperation.
A 25-year-old man named Mathew hanged himself in his apartment in the Keserwan area, while a man in Baalbek tried to commit suicide in his shop because of the debts he had accumulated. Another person set fire to his bean cart in a Beirut street after receiving an order to remove it. The cart was his sole livelihood.
Living conditions have deteriorated considerably amid a political deadlock over the formation of a new government. There is a dispute between Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri and President Michel Aoun about who should be in the new administration and what roles they should have, among other issues.
Hariri was named to form a new government last October but has yet to succeed. The government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned days after a massive blast in Beirut on Aug. 4 that killed more than 200 people and injured thousands.
One activist turned his aim at the country’s authorities, tweeting: “You have turned Lebanon into a jungle and put people at the mercy of thugs at gas stations. You have humiliated people in every detail of their lives. We place the scenes of shootings at gas stations in God’s hands because we have no one in Lebanon to complain to. They are all responsible without exception.”

HIGHLIGHT

There are shortages of essential items such as fuel and medicine, while bread has become more expensive after the Syndicate of Bakery Owners raised prices now that government subsidies on sugar and yeast have ended.

A resident from Beirut’s southern suburbs said that official security was no longer enough to deal with the chaos and violence that was finding its way into everyday life. “The official security forces, which have shared the task of providing security in the southern suburbs in recent years with Hezbollah and the Amal movement, have asked those in charge of these neighborhoods to participate in protecting the security of gas stations because the official security services are unable to cover all neighborhoods,” the resident told Arab News on condition of anonymity.
Self-security was not limited to Beirut’s southern suburbs, the resident added, but extended to Beirut and other neighborhoods, including Ain El-Remmaneh and Furn El Chebbak.
Fadi Abu Shakra, a representative of the union for fuel distributors and gas stations in Lebanon, spoke about the dangers of the new development.
“Some individuals who imposed themselves as in charge of security at gas stations are using extortion,” he told Arab News. “The riots and attacks in front of the stations are no longer bearable. The owners of over 140 gas stations refused to receive gasoline from the companies because they were exposed to extortion and beatings, and could not protect themselves.”
He called on the security services to protect the gas stations which, he said, were “only trying to do their jobs.”
But Brig. Gen. Anwar Yahya, a former judicial police chief, said that the Internal Security Forces were not responsible for “ensuring public order” in front of gas stations. “This falls within the responsibilities of municipalities, and there is a law that stipulates this,” he told Arab News. “But the municipalities are also suffering under low budgets. Some parties are involved in certain municipalities and they can assist them in such matters. However, when such individuals have a greater influence than the official security forces, the state’s stature diminishes.”
The economic crisis had affected the Lebanese armed forces, he added, and the international community’s cooperation to support them was “an expression of its fear” about the military “crumbling” under the pressure of events in Lebanon.
Security services have been submitting daily reports on their pursuit of people smuggling subsidized materials to Syria and on those being arrested for harming social and food security.
Yahya, who spent 39 years in the security field, said people expected the state agencies to provide protection and that the army remained the “ultimate salvation.”
“The most important thing is to speed up the formation of a government because people are hungry,” he added.
He stressed that, until the time came when there was a new government, an individual’s primary role was maintaining self-protection. “Among the preventive measures that citizens can take are locking doors and windows, applying the principles of neighborhood security, and informing the police of every emergency.”


As COVID-19 surges in Tunisia, oxygen is in short supply

As COVID-19 surges in Tunisia, oxygen is in short supply
Updated 04 August 2021

As COVID-19 surges in Tunisia, oxygen is in short supply

As COVID-19 surges in Tunisia, oxygen is in short supply
  • Traders have seized on an opportunity for profit, buying supplies of oxygen and other treatments and then renting them or selling them at higher prices
  • Tunisia consumed between 25,000 and 30,000 liters of oxygen daily before the pandemic

KAIROUAN, Tunisia: As Tunisia faces a surge of COVID-19 cases, demand for life-saving oxygen has grown higher than the supply, leaving patients desperate and family members angry at the government as they say they are forced to find oxygen on their own.
As the misery grows, traders have seized on an opportunity for profit, buying supplies of oxygen and other treatments and then renting them or selling them at higher prices. The profitable enterprise that is growing online has prompted citizens to call on authorities for intervention.
“I was subjected to various types of blackmailing. People were trading and brokering with everything. Believe me, with everything,” said Abdou Mzoughi, 43, whose nearly 80-year-old mother died June 26 from COVID-19 after he spent six days trying, but failing, to get the lifesaving oxygen treatment she needed.
“We were looking for a bed with oxygen in any hospital,” he said. He couldn’t even find her a place in a field hospital, or obtain a larger oxygen concentrator for at-home treatment.
The pandemic comes as the nation in North Africa — the only success story of the Arab Spring of a decade ago — finds itself beset by overlapping political and economic crises. Last month President Kais Saied fired the prime minister, froze the parliament and took on executive powers in what he says is a bid to save the country. He began ruling by decree after nationwide protests over the nation’s deteriorating social and economic situation — topped by the raging coronavirus epidemic.
Tunisia, with a population of 12 million, has reported more deaths per capita in the pandemic than any African country and has had among the highest daily death rates per capita in the world in recent weeks. More than 20,000 Tunisians have died so far, and the vaccination rate remains low.
Mzoughi said the market price of oxygen has more than doubled as demand grows in Kairouan, an ancient desert city that is considered among the holiest in Islam and is recognized by UNESCO for its rich architectural heritage. It is also one of the poorest cities in Tunisia.
Renting an oxygen concentrator can now cost up to $200 a week — an amount that Mzoughi roughly makes in a month with a steady job in the regional office of an online newspaper.
Now he visits his mother’s grave daily and describes still being in a state of shock over her death.
Private hospitals and clinics are also witnessing unprecedented pressure and intense demand for resuscitation and oxygen beds. That has caused a shortage of liquid oxygen in hospital tanks, and prompted the health authorities to request supplies from Algeria to enhance its strategic stock and avoid interruption in health units.
It has also led to the use of spare oxygen bottles, or the transfer of some patients to other hospitals.
Authorities have now ordered private clinics to contribute oxygen until there is a return to the normal oxygen supply pattern.
Tunisia consumed between 25,000 and 30,000 liters of oxygen daily before the pandemic. Now, the North African nation consumes 10 times the amount, between 230,000 to 240,000 liters of oxygen per day. Meanwhile, it’s production capacity is only at 100,000 liters per day, according to the Ministry of Health.
An especially moving video posted in mid-July on social media showed a man described as an official of Mateur Hospital, in the north, collapsing in tears because there was no oxygen for his patients. The video, posted by a Tunisian journalist, made the rounds at home and was widely picked up by French media.
However, the ministry denies claims that the health system in Tunisia is collapsing, saying it has received adequate aid from Arab and European countries, including oxygen machines, vaccines and field hospitals.


One killed in fire on military bus in Damascus - state media

One killed in fire on military bus in Damascus - state media
Updated 04 August 2021

One killed in fire on military bus in Damascus - state media

One killed in fire on military bus in Damascus - state media

BEIRUT: One person died and three were injured when a fire broke out on a military bus in a heavily fortified army compound in Damascus early on Wednesday, Syrian state news agency SANA reported.
One source at the site of the explosion suggested an electrical fault had set the petrol tank on fire, the agency reported.
The explosion happened in the bus while it was near the entrance of a heavily fortified Republican Guards housing compound in the west of the Syrian capital, SANA said.
Another source with knowledge of the matter, who asked not to be named, said at least five military personnel were killed and 11 other personnel were wounded in the blast.
Blasts in Damascus have been rare since forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad took control of rebel enclaves around the city.
Ten years into Syria’s conflict, President Bashar al-Assad has survived the insurgency which started with peaceful protests in March 2011.
He now holds sway over most of the country, helped by Russia’s military presence and Iran’s Shi’ite militias.
There have been several attacks this year on army vehicles in eastern Syria by suspected Daesh militants who still operate in the sprawling desert area. 


UAE expands provision of COVID-19 booster shots

UAE expands provision of COVID-19 booster shots
Updated 04 August 2021

UAE expands provision of COVID-19 booster shots

UAE expands provision of COVID-19 booster shots
  • The booster shot would be available to people considered at high risk three months after their second vaccine dose
  • The regional tourism and business hub has among the world’s highest immunization rates

DUBAI: The United Arab Emirates will start providing a booster shot against COVID-19 to all fully vaccinated individuals in the Gulf Arab state, the National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority (NCEMA) said on Tuesday.
It said on Twitter the booster shot would be available to people considered at high risk three months after their second vaccine dose, and six months for others.

The Gulf state, which has approved five types of COVID-19 vaccines, had in June begun providing booster shots to those initially immunized with a vaccine developed by the China National Pharmaceutical Group (Sinopharm).
The regional tourism and business hub has among the world’s highest immunization rates. Around 79 percent of the population of roughly 9 million had received one vaccine dose, while some 70 percent had been fully vaccinated, according to latest official data.


Amid anger and despair, Lebanon braces for port explosion anniversary

People on Tuesday put white roses on portraits of victims of last year’s Beirut port blast as Lebanon marks the first anniversary of the Aug 4 explosion. (Reuters)
People on Tuesday put white roses on portraits of victims of last year’s Beirut port blast as Lebanon marks the first anniversary of the Aug 4 explosion. (Reuters)
Updated 04 August 2021

Amid anger and despair, Lebanon braces for port explosion anniversary

People on Tuesday put white roses on portraits of victims of last year’s Beirut port blast as Lebanon marks the first anniversary of the Aug 4 explosion. (Reuters)
  • Legislative authority yet to decide on Judge Tarek Bitar’s request to lift the immunity of three MPs

BEIRUT: The families of the Beirut port explosion victims are reticent about revealing the steps they will take on Wednesday to commemorate the first anniversary of the explosion.

The massive blast — the country’s worst peacetime disaster — destroyed a large section of the capital on Aug. 4, 2020, killed at least 214 people, and injured more than 6,500.
It was caused when 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, which had been stored at the port for several years without proper safety precautions, ignited during a fire and exploded.
On the occasion of the first anniversary, UNICEF reported that six children were among the deceased as more than 1,000 children were also injured in the blast.
“All that can be said is that people are angry and will express their anger,” an activist among the groups that will participate in planned protests on Wednesday told Arab News on condition of anonymity.
“We will see some unexpected action if the security forces confront the protesters with violence. We know that tight security measures will be taken. Public institutions and administrations will be occupied and the sit-in will only end once the immunity is lifted for officials summoned by the judiciary in the port explosion investigation.”
The Lebanese parliament is yet to decide on Judge Tarek Bitar’s request to lift the immunity of three MPs accused in the Beirut port explosion: former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, former Public Works Minister Ghazi Zeaiter, and Former Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk.
Caretaker Interior Minister Mohamed Fahmy refused to lift the immunity of the defendant Abbas Ibrahim, director-general of the Lebanese General Security, last week. Only the Bar Association lifted the immunity of the accused lawyers. Judge Bitar had previously charged the three MPs, and former minister Youssef Fenianos, with “negligence” and “possible intent to murder” because they were aware of ammonium nitrate “and did not take measures to spare the country the risks of an explosion.”
The legislative authority has so far refrained from lifting the immunity of any politicians and has not authorized prosecuting security officials.
In addition, Judge Bitar also requested to question Ibrahim and Director-General of State Security, Maj. Gen. Antoine Saliba, as well as several judges.
Civil society groups appealed to Lebanese citizens this week and asked them to join victims’ families along with the civil defense and the fire fighting brigade, which also lost several members in the explosion.
A vigil is scheduled after the call to prayer, which will be followed by a mass held by the Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi. “The groups that will participate in the commemoration are retired soldiers, trade unionists, and self-employed professionals,” the activist said.

FASTFACTS

• The massive blast — the country’s worst peacetime disaster — destroyed a large section of the capital on Aug. 4, 2020, killed at least 214 people, and injured more than 6,500.

• It was caused when 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, which had been stored at the port for several years without proper safety precautions, ignited during a fire and exploded.

“They will head to several locations, the politicians’ residences included.”
He pointed out that the American University Hospital in Beirut alerted its emergency department to be on high alert for Wednesday’s protests.
Medical teams from the hospitals damaged in the blast, including Saint Georges, Hotel Dieu, Geitaoui, Rizk, and Wardieh hospitals will also gather at the port.
The victims’ faces will accompany people attending the vigil as they head to the port since volunteer artists drew the faces of many victims along the walls of the sidewalks leading to where the blast occurred.
Lebanon will mark the day of mourning on Wednesday as all institutions will be closed, including banks, restaurants, and cafes. The flags will be lowered and black flags will be raised above the buildings.
“I expect a major turnout because people are furious and those responsible for this crime must be held accountable. We will try to avoid getting injured, but we do expect some injuries among our ranks,” the activist said.
Activists took to social media to call on “soldiers and officers in the Lebanese army and the Internal Security Forces, whose salaries have become less than $70, not to protect the killers and suppress the angry people on Aug. 4.”
Lebanese expatriates in Paris, Geneva, Berlin, Barcelona, Brussels, Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver, New York, San Francisco, and Cleveland are organizing sit-ins to stand with Beirut.
Most notably, France and the UN are organizing an Aug. 4 international conference “to address the humanitarian needs of Lebanon’s most vulnerable people.”
The spokesman for the families of the victims, Ibrahim Hoteit, had given the politicians a 30-hour deadline, ending on Wednesday afternoon, to lift the immunity. He said in a press conference that the protests would be “a bone-breaking battle now that we are done with the routine peaceful movements.”
Political parties joined the commemoration of Aug. 4, but they did so on Aug. 2 and 3, in order to avoid any clashes between their supporters and other protesters.
Economic and living crises are ever-increasing amid the political deadlock.
These crises have exacerbated the citizens who lack electricity, medicine, and fuel, while they lost 90 percent of their income’s value in light of the Lebanese pound’s devaluation.
In a statement issued on the eve of the anniversary of the port explosion, the International Support Group for Lebanon (ISG) renewed its solidarity “with the families of the victims and all those whose lives have been affected.”
The ISG, which includes representatives of the UN, China, France, Germany, Italy, the Russian Federation, the UK, the US, the EU, and the League of Arab States, urged the Lebanese authorities to “swiftly complete the investigation into the port explosion so that the truth may be known and justice rendered.”
Meanwhile, Democracy Reporting International (DRI) accused the Lebanese authorities of “continuing to weaken the judicial investigations and prevent the lifting of immunity for MPs, ministers and security leaders who remained silent or tolerant of the presence of ammonium nitrate, and did nothing.”


Tunisian labor union urges new PM appointment to ease crisis

Supporters of the UGTT union, one of Tunisia’s most powerful political forces. (AP/File Photo)
Supporters of the UGTT union, one of Tunisia’s most powerful political forces. (AP/File Photo)
Updated 03 August 2021

Tunisian labor union urges new PM appointment to ease crisis

Supporters of the UGTT union, one of Tunisia’s most powerful political forces. (AP/File Photo)

TUNIS: Tunisia’s powerful labor union urged the president on Tuesday to rapidly announce a new government that should be small and led by an experienced premier, after he seized executive control in a move his opponents called a coup.

President Kais Saied has defended his actions as constitutional and said he will govern alongside a new prime minister during an emergency period, but nine days after his intervention, he has yet to name one.

“We can’t wait 30 days for the announcement of a government,” said Sami Tahri, a spokesman for the UGTT union, one of Tunisia’s most powerful political forces.

UGTT chief Noureddine Taboubi said later on state television later on Tuesday that the cabinet should be small and headed by somebody with experience, sending a positive message to both Tunisians and international lenders.

“We must speed up the formation of the government to be able to face economic and health challenges,” he said.

Saied’s sudden intervention on July 25 appeared to have widespread public support but raised fears for the future of the democratic system that Tunisia adopted after its 2011 revolution that triggered the Arab Spring.

On Tuesday Saied removed Tunisia’s ambassador to Washington, the latest in a string of dismissals of senior and mid-ranking officials over the past week including several ministers. He did not immediately name a replacement.

He is also still to announce a roadmap to end an emergency period that he initially set at one month but later announced could be two months.

A source close to the presidential palace in Carthage said earlier that Saied might announce the new premier on Tuesday. Sources have told Reuters that Central Bank Governor Marouane Abassi and two former finance ministers, Hakim Hammouda and Nizar Yaich, are contenders.

Saied’s most powerful organized opponent, the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, has meanwhile been riven by internal splits over its response to the crisis and its longer-term strategy and leadership.

Tunisians had over the past decade grown ever more frustrated by economic stagnation, corruption and bickering among a political class that often seemed more focused on its own narrow interests than on national problems.

The coronavirus pandemic ripped through Tunisia over the past two months as the state vaccination effort crawled, leading at one point to the worst infection and death rates in Africa. Pandemic counter-measures last year hammered the economy.

On Monday Saied replaced the finance, agriculture and telecoms ministers after having said last week that “wrong economic choices” had cost the country.

On Sunday he said there were contacts with “friendly countries” for financial assistance. (Reporting by Tarek Amara, writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by William Maclean and Mark Heinrich)