Dozens injured in Lebanon as protests turn violent amid rising tensions

General Joseph Aoun was speaking while inspecting the army units deployed in the Bekaa Valley. (AFP/File Photo)
General Joseph Aoun was speaking while inspecting the army units deployed in the Bekaa Valley. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 17 July 2021

Dozens injured in Lebanon as protests turn violent amid rising tensions

General Joseph Aoun was speaking while inspecting the army units deployed in the Bekaa Valley. (AFP/File Photo)
  • Army commander says the military is the only functioning institution in the country, and the nation faces a difficult political and social fate
  • Trade unions call on workers to prepare for civil disobedience; Arab League and UN chiefs say Lebanon is going from ‘bad to worse’

BEIRUT: Riots left more than two dozen people injured in Tripoli on Friday, including 10 soldiers, as tensions continued to rise in Lebanon.

“The situation seems to be getting worse, and things are about to escalate because we are facing a difficult political and social fate,” said Lebanese Armed Forces Commander Gen. Joseph Aoun as he inspected army units deployed to the Bekaa Valley.

Meanwhile the international community continued to call for progress in the country’s stalled political process. France, the EU and the US have urged Lebanese politicians to form a new government as a matter of urgency, and an international conference is being planned to support the efforts.

“All concerned parties need to work with urgency to put in place a government that’s able to implement reforms immediately,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Thursday night in a message posted on Twitter.

The Arab League said its secretary-general, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, and his UN counterpart, Antonio Guterres, had agreed during a meeting in New York that the situation in Lebanon is going from “bad to worse.”

The former said he hoped that “the international community will succeed in helping the Lebanese overcome the crisis.”

As he inspected his forces on Friday, Aoun told them: “Our responsibility is great at this stage. We are required to preserve the security and stability of the homeland and prevent chaos.”

BACKGROUND

The Arab League said its secretary-general, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, and his UN counterpart, Antonio Guterres, had agreed during a meeting in New York that the situation in Lebanon is going from “bad to worse.”

He said he considers the military to be “the only institution that is still active,” and added: “The army is the deterrent to chaos. I know that you will not allow anyone to invade our land, and you will not allow these circumstances to make you lose your sense of belonging to your homeland, your identity and your land.

“What we are experiencing today is a temporary crisis and it will pass.”




Saad Hariri

Private companies and institutions allowed employees to leave work early on Friday so that they could get home before roads were blocked.

Angry crowds took to the streets for a second consecutive day to protest against fuel shortages and the continuing steep rise in the dollar exchange rate on the black market.

Demonstrations had broken out across the country on Thursday, immediately after Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri announced his resignation after nine months of failed wrangling with President Michel Aoun over the formation of a new government.

The previous government resigned in August last year amid protests in the aftermath of the devastating explosion at Beirut’s port.

The Lebanese currency hit new lows in the wake of Hariri’s announcement, with dollars changing hands on the black market at a rate of more than 22,500 Lebanese pounds on Friday. The official government rate is just over 1,500 pounds.

The protests grew more fierce and violent on Friday, especially in poorer areas of Tripoli, such as Jabal Mohsen. Protesters destroyed property and burned tires. The army intervened, firing shots to disperse them.

According to the Lebanese Red Cross, dozens of civilian protesters were wounded as the army fired rubber bullets and rocks were thrown. Al Jazeera photographer Khaled Habshiti was injured by a grenade in Jabal Mohsen. The Red Cross said it sent three teams to help treat and move the wounded.

The angry activity and chaos on the streets stood in stark contrast with the state of inertia and anticipation that prevails on the political scene.

President Aoun has not yet set a date for parliamentary consultations to choose new prime minister designate to replace Hariri and resume the efforts to form a government. They are not expected to take place until after the Eid Al-Adha holiday next week.

Aoun said on Friday that “he will overcome the difficult circumstances.” He added that “nothing can bring the Lebanese down, even with all the hardships they are going through,” and he promised to “make all efforts to resolve the successive crises.”

Joanna Wronecka, the UN’s special coordinator for Lebanon, described the stalemate between Hariri and Aoun as a “setback” and expressed deep regret over “the inability of Lebanon’s leaders to reach agreement on the formation of a new government that is urgently needed to address the challenges.”

Adding that “there is no more time to lose,” she called for “swift measures to ensure the designation of a new prime minister, in line with constitutional requirements.”

Wronecka also stressed the need to form a government able to implement the reforms required to put Lebanon on the road to economic recovery ahead of free and fair elections in 2022.

The US State Department expressed concern over Hariri’s resignation. It said: “The political class need to put aside partisan differences, instead of trading blame, to form a government capable of addressing this concerning situation.”

The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said he regrets “the ongoing political gridlock in the country and the lack of progress in the implementation of the urgent reforms.”

The National Federation of Employees’ and Workers’ Trade Unions in Lebanon called on “workers, farmers and low-income members to form local committees whose mission is to prepare for civil disobedience.”

The federation described this as “the perfect, and only, option to bring the political class down and hold it to account in the streets.”

It added that politicians are responsible for “the lowest points of the economic collapse: starvation, death, poverty, unemployment, and a salary lower than $30.”

The volatile dollar exchange rate caused chaos in Lebanese retail markets. Many shop owners decided to close their stores because they were unable to set a stable price for goods. Other sellers put the sale of their products on hold avoid losses.

A black-market money changer told Arab News: “Trade has been limited to selling dollars, as people are eager to make profits.”

He added that he has been surprised by the “continuous increase of the dollar exchange rate, controlled by the electronic platforms, despite the low demand for it.”

The protests continued on Friday night and were not limited to pro-Hariri Sunni areas; they also took place in communities that traditionally support Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and his party, the Amal Movement.

An Amal supporter in Zokak Al-Blat told Arab News: “Aoun considers himself victorious. This must not persist.” He added that the president “must know that the resentment of the people is really great. He previously destroyed the country in order to remain president and what happened then? The same thing will happen now. He must not think, even for a second, that he is capable of controlling everything.”

A number of people in Beirut told Arab News that “the promise the president made to us has become true: we are living in hell.”

Tony, who owns a bakery, said: “If the situation persists, my family and I will starve. I laid off an employee because I was no longer able to pay him. The dollar exchange rate on the black market has reached 25,000 pounds and there is not one official that feels what we are going through.

“They told us we were headed to hell. They were right. This is hell. But what is next? Are there no solutions?”

Nadia, a Lebanese woman who was standing outside a public institution, said: “They all claim that they are worried about the country’s fate and that they are defending their sects and their interests.

“We do not want anything from them. Let them leave us alone. We cannot take it anymore.”

Mohammed, the owner of a barber shop, said: “The country is divided into two groups. The first group of people can take it because they are getting paid in fresh dollars. The second group, the one I belong to, is not even capable of leaving this cursed country.

“Politicians only care about their interests. The president is insisting on his son-in-law as the next president and Hezbollah controls us.”


Lebanon banks under fire as PM promises audit

Lebanon banks under fire as PM promises audit
Updated 20 min 15 sec ago

Lebanon banks under fire as PM promises audit

Lebanon banks under fire as PM promises audit
  • There are 63 banks operating in Lebanon with more than 1,000 branches and 25,000 employees

BEIRUT: The conduct of Lebanese banks amid the country’s worsening economic crisis has been defended by Salim Sfeir, head of the Association of Banks of Lebanon, who responded on Tuesday to criticism by MPs from the Hezbollah and Free Patriotic Movement blocs.

The condemnation of the country’s banks came during during Monday’s vote of confidence.

In a response statement, Sfeir said: “Banks invested their surplus of liquidity in the Lebanese Central Bank. Banks demanded the adoption of a law that establishes capital controls while the multiple formulas offered by others aim to legislate cash withdrawals and international transfers.”

Lebanon was hit by an unprecedented economic crisis in 2019, leading to the collapse of its currency and an inability to pay its debts. The country’s political class was accused of looting the country’s local treasury, siphoning off middle-class wealth and exercising authority without responsibility.

In its statement, the ABL urged the Lebanese Parliament “to speed up the reforms required by the international community,” and called on the new government to “start serious work” to launch international aid packages and put the country back on the international map “by enhancing communication with Lebanon’s friends from Arab and foreign states.”

It said: “There is a pressing need to stop the collapse. Therefore, the government must immediately commit to its obligations in accordance with its ministerial statement that noted a prompt resumption of talks with the International Monetary Fund to address the negative impacts of previous policies.”

It added that the government must begin talks with debtors, reform the banking sector and approve a budget — “all of which are clauses that the ABL has demanded since the start of the crisis.”

There are 63 banks operating in Lebanon with more than 1,000 branches and 25,000 employees.

According to Sfeir, the banking sector constituted “an engine of growth in the country through loans that outgrew the size of the economy.” He added: “The formal banking sector’s taxes are some of the major public treasury income items.”

A group of Lebanon’s bondholders — that include some of the largest investment funds in the world — also urged the new government “to start talks to restructure the country’s debts as early as possible to help deal with the crushing economic crisis in the country.”

Lebanon defaulted on its external debt in March 2020, leaving it unable to service a debt burden that was then worth more than 170 percent of its gross domestic product.

The group said it “hopes and expects the new government to promote a speedy, transparent and equitable debt restructuring process. Such a process will need the government to engage meaningfully with the IMF as well as Lebanon’s international creditors.”

At the end of the vote of confidence, Prime Minister Najib Mikati said: “Discussions with the IMF have begun. The talks are not a picnic and the fund is not a charity. This issue is not an option but a mandatory passageway that must succeed in order to serve as the first foundation toward salvation and the right way for Lebanon’s revival.”

He urged Lebanon’s Parliament to act quickly to approve a capital control law as early as possible, and promised to carry out “a forensic audit of all institutions and ministries without any exceptions.”

Mikati was quick to note the importance of the banking sector in any economic recovery: “I wish there were any banks left in Lebanon to help them. Do you know the reality of the banking sector? There is no economic recovery without banks.”

However, the prime minister added: “More than $10 billion was spent in the past on subsidies for banks — money that could have been used to build power plants, treat waste and construct roads.”


Why Lebanon’s hopes are fading for an independent Beirut blast inquiry

Why Lebanon’s hopes are fading for an independent Beirut blast inquiry
Updated 34 sec ago

Why Lebanon’s hopes are fading for an independent Beirut blast inquiry

Why Lebanon’s hopes are fading for an independent Beirut blast inquiry
  • Stalled inquiry into 2020 explosion in focus as UNGA 2021 session kicks off its high-level week
  • Analysts say probe will remain in limbo unless foreign powers put pressure on the government

CHICAGO: There is a growing belief among Lebanese political analysts that the investigation into the Beirut blast of Aug. 4, 2020 will meet the same fate as the probe into the Feb. 14, 2005 explosion that killed Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, and 21 others.

Two explosions at the government-owned Port of Beirut claimed the lives of 218 people, injured more than 6,500 and left 300,000 homeless. The explosions resulted from a fire in a warehouse containing ammonium nitrate and caused damage worth an estimated $3 billion.

Meanwhile, 12 years since it was officially establised, the Hariri investigation is in limbo. The sole individual indicted in absentia by the UN’s Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), a low-level Hezbollah operative called Salim Ayyash, has not been brought to justice.

Lebanese analysts warn the Beirut blast inquiry will also remain in limbo indefinitely unless international organizations and foreign powers put pressure on the government to allow a fully transparent investigation by an independent judicial system.

“The Beirut blast probe is not necessarily a domestic investigation with domestic implications and ramifications. It is also a global public opinion drive that will continue to evolve and involve international actors,” Christophe Abi-Nassif, Lebanon program director at the Middle East Institute, told Arab News. “Back in 2005, all it took was for the Hariri camp, the Future Movement and his son Saad Hariri to be satisfied with the arrangement.”

By contrast, the Beirut port explosion affected many families who have the power to demand the matter be fully investigated, Abi-Nassif said. “The families of the victims are at the heart of this investigation.”

On the first anniversary of the blast, Amnesty International, the international rights advocacy group, accused the Lebanese authorities of “shamelessly obstructing victims’ quest for truth and justice” in the months since the blast, actively shielding officials from scrutiny and hampering the course of the investigation.

In February, Fadi Sawan, the first judge appointed to lead the investigation, was dismissed after he summoned political figures for questioning. So far, the authorities have rejected requests by his replacement, Tarek Bitar, to lift the immunity granted to officials and to allow him question senior members of the security forces.

Leaked official documents indicate that Lebanese customs officials, military and security chiefs, and members of the judiciary warned successive governments about the danger posed by the stockpile of explosive chemicals at the port on at least 10 occasions during the six years it was stored at the port, yet no action was taken.

A wounded man sits on the ground waiting for aid at Beirut's port after the explosion. (AFP/File Photo)

MPs and officials are clinging to their right to immunity, effectively shielding suspects whose actions are blamed for causing the explosion, and denying thousands of victims the justice they demand.

Survivors of the blast and a raft of advocacy groups have revived their push for an “international, independent and impartial investigative mission” into the cause of the blast.

“An international investigation would not impede, but rather assist the domestic process,” they said in a joint statement delivered to the UN Human Rights Council on Sept. 15.

Although government interference in the investigation has been detrimental to its progress, Abi-Nassif believes that taking the matter entirely out of Lebanese hands would only harm its legitimacy.

INNUMBERS

* 300,000 - People left homeless. 

* 70,000 - Jobs lost after the explosion. 

* 163 - Schools destroyed. 

* 6 - Hospitals destroyed. 

* 0 - Number of people sentenced over blast.

Source: UN 

“On the one hand, you want international involvement because you want a lot of pressure exerted. On the other hand, you do not want to go down this path where you are giving grounds for Lebanese politicians to say this is clearly a plot to incriminate us, regardless of whether they are incriminated or should be incriminated,” he said. “This will be the leeway they use to try to dismantle the integrity of the investigation.”

Prominent among those who are convinced that the blast investigation has been stymied by the Lebanese political elite and that foreign powers have a responsibility to get the probe back on track, is Ed Gabriel, president of the American Task Force on Lebanon.

“Not much has been done. There has been an attempt to investigate the port through transparent judicial means in Lebanon. It has been held up by the parliament. There seems to be no consensus in the government,” Gabriel said.

“The good news is that the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati has taken the reins of power. The Mikati government seems very interested in a close working relationship with the West and is very tuned in with wanting to meet the immediate, short-term needs of the people.”

A man holds a sign showing the faces of the 2020 Beirut port blast victims as protesters and victim family members gather for a demonstration near the UNESCO palace in Beirut. (AFP/File Photo)

Like Abi-Nassif, Gabriel is of the opinion that Lebanon should ultimately lead the probe; however, he adds, international pressure in support of the probe’s independence will be critical to its success.

“Without the willpower of the Lebanese people and a government that responds to the needs of the people and the desires of the people, we won’t really get to the bottom of this,” he said.

“So, I think what is important is that the US speaks with a very strong voice, that it is a top priority that they investigate this explosion. If we are going to get anywhere with it, we need the cooperation of the Lebanese government. And they will only cooperate under the duress and pressure of the international community. Otherwise, I don’t think we will see justice in this case anytime soon.”

However, both Gabriel and Abi-Nassif are wary of international pressure being perceived as a deliberate effort to steer the probe toward Hezbollah, which is on the US list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. Many suspect the cache of ammonium nitrate at the Beirut port warehouse was somehow connected to Hezbollah’s regional activities.

“Domestic law, the domestic judiciary system, at the end of the day, is the most direct, most effective and probably the easiest way that Lebanon has to leverage and effectively reach the truth. And I am not discounting the role that international organizations have to play in this,” Abi-Nassif said.

Protesters and family members of the victims of the 2020 Beirut port blast gather ahead of a parliamentary meeting on the blast investigation. (AFP/File Photo)

“The minute that starts happening you will have voices in Lebanon, be it Hezbollah or others, crying wolf and saying that this is effectively just a plot to implicate the group, which is what we saw in the case of the Hariri STL.”

The blast investigation delay is just one of a multitude of problems that bedevil Lebanon, the other ones being political gridlock, economic meltdown, plummeting currency, soaring unemployment, the COVID-19 pandemic and fuel and electricity shortages.

Lebanon has been experiencing a socio-economic implosion since 2019. In the autumn of that year, nationwide protests erupted over rampant corruption among the political class that has ruled the country since the end of the civil war through a sectarian power-sharing system.

Public anger grew when an economic meltdown caused the nation’s currency to lose 90 percent of its value and the banks held depositors’ money hostage. Thousands of young people have fled abroad. Those who remain struggle to get by, often turning for help to a flourishing black market.

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Twitter: @rayhanania


Hezbollah threatens Beirut blast probe judge: reports

Hezbollah threatens Beirut blast probe judge: reports
Updated 21 September 2021

Hezbollah threatens Beirut blast probe judge: reports

Hezbollah threatens Beirut blast probe judge: reports
  • ‘Should he drift off the course, we will remove him from his position,’ says head of Hezbollah’s Liaison and Coordination Unit
  • Judge Tarek Bitar continues to question and subpoena former ministers and current MPs about the deadly Aug. 4, 2020 explosion

BEIRUT: Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the investigation into the August 2020 Beirut Port blast, received a threat from the militant Hezbollah group, according to Lebanese news reports.

Arab News learned that the head of Hezbollah’s Liaison and Coordination Unit, Wafiq Safa, visited Public Prosecutor Judge Ghassan Oweidat and the head of the Supreme Judicial Council, Judge Suhail Abboud, on Monday.

The motives behind the visits were unknown but Safa reportedly said, “Bitar’s performance has raised the ire (of Hezbollah) and we will keep a close eye on his work until the end, and should he drift off the course, we will remove him from his position.”

In response to the threat, Bitar said: “It is fine, I do not care how they will remove me,” according to Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation reporter Edmond Sassine.

Bitar, who issued several arrest warrants over the past few weeks pertaining to his investigation, set up sessions to question former ministers and current MPs Ali Hassan Khalil, Ghazi Zeaiter, and Nohad Al-Machnouk about their knowledge of the deadly Beirut Port explosion.

Bitar summoned Khalil for interrogation on Sept. 30 and Zeaiter and Machnouk and Oct. 1. The judge took advantage of the expiration of the extraordinary parliament mandate after the Najib Mikati government was granted the vote of confidence in a session held on Monday, and the automatic lifting of parliamentary immunities, pending the launch of the regular mandate in mid-October.

The Beirut Port explosion on Aug. 4, 2020, killed more than 200 and left 6,500 injured when thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate detonated along with quantities of seized explosives. The deadly blast destroyed the Beirut waterfront and its surrounding neighborhoods.

Bitar charged the former ministers with “a felony of probable intent to murder” in addition to “a misdemeanor of negligence” because they were aware of the presence of ammonium nitrate and “did not take measures to avoid the explosion.”

Parliament had previously refused Bitar’s request to question the current MPs and Prime Minister Hassan Diab, arguing that it was not within his jurisdiction and the case is the subject of prosecution before the Supreme Council for the Trial of Presidents and Ministers.

In August, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah questioned Bitar, who had summoned political and security officials for interrogation. 

“Where is the evidence?” Nasrallah asked. “Based on what is he accusing them of? Why has the judiciary not published the results of the technical investigation?”

Nasrallah further accused Bitar of “playing a political game,” saying that either he sticks to a clear, technical investigation, or the judiciary has to find another judge.


Biden renews offer to ‘return to full’ nuclear deal ‘if Iran does the same’

Biden renews offer to ‘return to full’ nuclear deal ‘if Iran does the same’
Updated 21 September 2021

Biden renews offer to ‘return to full’ nuclear deal ‘if Iran does the same’

Biden renews offer to ‘return to full’ nuclear deal ‘if Iran does the same’
  • US president uses first UNGA speech to say a sovereign and democratic Palestinian state is the “best way” to ensure Israel’s future

NEW YORK: President Joe Biden told the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday that the United States would return to the Iranian nuclear deal in “full” if Tehran does the same.
He said the US was “working” with China, France, Russia, Britain and Germany to “engage Iran diplomatically and to seek a return to” the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which America left in 2018.
“We’re prepared to return to full compliance if Iran does the same,” he added.

Earlier, an Iranian foreign ministry spokesman said negotiations between Iran and world powers should resume in the coming weeks.

During his first speech to the General Assembly, Biden said a sovereign and democratic Palestinian state is the “best way” to ensure Israel’s future.
“We must seek a future of greater peace and security for all people of the Middle East,” Biden said.
“The commitment of the United States to Israel’s security is without question and our support for an independent Jewish state is unequivocal,” he said.
“But I continue to believe that a two-state solution is the best way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish democratic state, living in peace alongside a viable, sovereign and democratic Palestinian state,” he said.
“We’re a long way from that goal at this moment but we should never allow ourselves to give up on the possibility of progress.”
More broadly, Biden said the US is not seeking a new Cold War with China as he vowed to pivot from post-9/11 conflicts and take a global leadership role on crises from climate to COVID-19.
He promised to work to advance democracy and alliances, despite friction with Europe over France’s loss of a mega-contract.
The Biden administration has identified a rising and authoritarian China as the paramount challenge of the 21st century, but he made clear he was not trying to sow divisions.
“We are not seeking a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocs,” Biden said.


Egypt seeks to strengthen relations with Libya

Egypt seeks to strengthen relations with Libya
Updated 21 September 2021

Egypt seeks to strengthen relations with Libya

Egypt seeks to strengthen relations with Libya
  • During a meeting in New York with Mohamed El-Menfi, chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya, Shoukry reiterated Egypt’s full support
  • Shoukry praised the efforts of the Libyan House of Representatives in preparing the electoral law as an important step toward holding presidential and parliamentary elections

CAIRO: Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry has affirmed his country’s keenness to strengthen relations with neighboring Libya.

This follows visits by officials from both sides and last week’s meeting of the Egyptian-Libyan Joint Higher Committee in Cairo.

During a meeting in New York with Mohamed El-Menfi, chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya, Shoukry reiterated Egypt’s full support for efforts to meet the aspirations of the Libyan people, stabilize the country and develop its various regions. 

Shoukry praised the efforts of the Libyan House of Representatives in preparing the electoral law as an important step toward holding presidential and parliamentary elections.

He also affirmed Egypt’s firm support for the preservation of Libyan sovereignty and opposition to foreign interference.