Black Friday in Lebanon: Steeper prices, weak currency, further poverty

People walk past a poster advertising the Black Friday sales at a mall in Dora, Lebanon November 26, 2021. (Reuters)
People walk past a poster advertising the Black Friday sales at a mall in Dora, Lebanon November 26, 2021. (Reuters)
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Updated 26 November 2021

Black Friday in Lebanon: Steeper prices, weak currency, further poverty

People walk past a poster advertising the Black Friday sales at a mall in Dora, Lebanon November 26, 2021. (Reuters)
  • Protesters break into Ministry of Social Affairs building as economic crisis deepens
  • Central Bank warns about black market currency mobile apps amid currency plunge

 

BEIRUT: Black Friday promotions in Lebanon that flooded social media seem to have failed to attract customers as the Lebanese pound hit a new low amid a worsening economic and political stalemate.

The currency was trading at 25,000 Lebanese pounds to the dollar on the black market on Friday. A further devaluation seems imminent amid the political instability.

Although many stores have extended the sales for the entire weekend, several people who headed to shops in search of good deals said: “It’s a hoax.”

Hassan, an engineer, said: “I went to a well-known appliance store where people used to queue for hours to be able to get in during previous Black Friday sales. The prices are much higher than the original brand stores. I left without buying anything.”

The minimum wage is now no more than $30, amid worsening economic conditions.

The head of the Beirut Traders’ Association, Nicolas Chammas, said: “It is too early to assess Black Friday sales. We need to wait until next week to see to what extent people’s purchasing power has declined.”

On Friday, the Central Bank warned against mobile applications offering exchange rates on the black market: “These are suspicious, illegal applications. Still, they are determining the exchange rate but do not reflect the reality.

“Rates change day and night, every day of the week, even during holidays; as if the parallel market is an organized market in the form of a stock exchange.

“Those operating these applications are serving other political and commercial interests. The judicial and security authorities have sought to control these applications at the request of the Lebanese government. Since many of them are based outside Lebanon, the Central Bank has demanded that international internet companies remove these applications from their networks.”

The Central Bank said that “the real exchange rate is announced daily by the Central Bank based on the current trading in the market, registered on Sayrafa platform.

“The Central Bank will follow up on this matter internationally and will hold companies such as Google, Facebook and others responsible for the harm these applications have on Lebanon and demand that they publish the official rate and the Sayrafa rate only.”

Activists expressed anger on social media, complaining about the absence of any prospect for political and economic solutions.

Some mocked the authorities for blaming the internet for the devaluation of the Lebanese pound: “Is cutting the internet the solution?”

In another sign of a worsening financial crisis, a small group of protesters broke into the Ministry of Social Affairs building near the Justice Palace in Beirut.

They removed a picture of President Michel Aoun, hung it upside down, then placed a banner over it bearing the slogan of the October 17 Revolution.

Protesters who entered the hall next to the office of the minister, Hector Hajjar, demanded that “an emergency operations room should be set up to address the unbearable living conditions.”

Hajjar demanded that the president’s picture be hung properly before agreeing to speak with the protesters.

One protester said: “I had to pay 600,000 Lebanese pounds in the pharmacy for a box of baby formula and two boxes of fever reducers. I get scared whenever I see my children walking barefoot around the house. I cannot afford to pay for medications if they get sick.

“My entire salary is the equivalent of three boxes of baby formula. What can I do? What happened to the ration card? Is the state waiting for us to die to take action?”

“We are consulting with the World Bank, the Ministry of Finance and Prime Minister Najib Mikati regarding financing the ration card, and I am part of the negotiations,” Hajjar said.

“Over 11 years, the ministry was able to provide support to 36,000 families,” he said.

“We will now start paying in US dollars instead of Lebanese pounds. We will visit 75,000 families and give about $12 million to the poorest. The money is an international grant,” said the minister.


Fears grow over Iran influence in Lebanon after Hezbollah, Amal Cabinet decision

Fears grow over Iran influence in Lebanon after Hezbollah, Amal Cabinet decision
Updated 16 January 2022

Fears grow over Iran influence in Lebanon after Hezbollah, Amal Cabinet decision

Fears grow over Iran influence in Lebanon after Hezbollah, Amal Cabinet decision
  • Ending of 3-month boycott serves an “external agenda,” analysts warn
  • Mikati said he would convene a Cabinet meeting as soon as Finance Ministry had sent through a draft budget

BEIRUT: A decision by Hezbollah and the Amal Movement to end a boycott of Lebanon’s Cabinet has led to speculation that Iran is making moves to control Lebanon’s political system.

Lebanese Forces MP Ziad Hawat said: “The order came from Tehran, so the ‘disruption duo’ decided to set the Cabinet meetings free. These are the repercussions of external negotiations.”

He added: “The ‘disruption duo’ pawned the country to the outside will. But the parliamentary elections are coming and the hour of reckoning is upon us.”

The two parties said on Saturday that they would take part in Cabinet meetings after a three-month boycott.

The decision came as a surprise to many, and positively impacted the currency rate on Sunday.

Reacting to the announcement, Prime Minister Najib Mikati said that he would convene a Cabinet meeting as soon as the Finance Ministry had sent through a draft budget.

He added that the decision “aligns with his personal repeated calls for everyone to participate in assuming the national responsibility in a way that preserves the national pact, especially during these critical times the country is going through.”

Mikati’s office noted the need “to set a recovery plan to launch the negotiation process with the International Monetary Fund.”

Some political observers said that the two parties are facing a political stalemate and popular pressure accusing them of escalating crises.

Parliamentary elections are around the corner and the two parties “want to absorb people’s resentment before the date of the said elections next May.”

Other observers linked the decision by the two parties to “regional developments regarding the Vienna talks.”

They believe that “the decision to disrupt the Cabinet meetings served an external agenda, specifically an Iranian one, and that perhaps they ended their boycott to demonstrate flexibility in the complicated negotiations.”

The two parties said in their joint statement on Saturday: “We announce our agreement to participate in Cabinet meetings to approve the national budget and discuss the economic rescue plan, and all that concerns improving the living conditions of the Lebanese.”

They claimed that the decision came “following the acceleration of events and the escalation of the internal political and economic crisis to an unprecedented level, with the collapse of the Lebanese pound’s exchange rate, the decline of the public sector and the collapse of citizen income and purchasing power.”

Hezbollah and Amal also mentioned in their mutual statement that their boycott was due to “the unconstitutional steps undertaken by Judge Tarek Bitar in the Beirut Port blast case — the gross legal infringements, flagrant politicization, lack of justice and lack of respect for standardization.”

Instead of Bitar presiding over the case, the two parties have requested that a parliamentary panel should look into the matter.

This requirement, however, has not been executed yet, as the prime minister has refused to “interfere with judicial operations,” with his party firmly backing Bitar.

Phalanges Party MP Samy Gemayel said that Hezbollah and Amal “think they owe us a favor by ending the boycott.”

He added: “They paralyzed the country for a year to form the government they wanted and they boycotted it to prevent justice from prevailing in the ‘crime of the century.’

“The Lebanese people are the ones paying the price. There’s no work, no electricity, no heating, no bread and no medicine,” said Gemayel.

He added: “Accountability for humiliating people will be achieved through the elections.”

In his Sunday sermon, Maronite Patriarch Bechara Al-Rahi commented on the latest development regarding Cabinet sessions.

“In the democratic system, the procedural authority shall operate according to the powers conferred upon it by the constitution, without being subject to any illegal pressure or condition,” he said.

He warned against “resorting to the disruption of parliamentary and presidential elections — scheduled for next October — for suspicious personal objectives.

“The Cabinet disruption, the political escalation, the continued provocation, the use of justice to undermine the opponents and the inversion of priorities reassure neither the Lebanese people nor Lebanon’s brothers and friends.”

Internet services were disrupted in Lebanon on Sunday because of diesel shortages, adding another essential service to the list of casualties of the country’s economic crisis.

The Energy Ministry, however, categorically denied an Israeli Channel 12 report entitled “Washington approves an agreement to supply Lebanon with Israeli gas.”

The ministry said that “the gas supply agreement between the Lebanese government and the Egyptian government clearly states that the gas must come from Egypt, which owns large gas quantities.

“This gas will pass through Jordan, and then into Syria, which will in turn benefit from it.”


Jeers as Iran officials blame Asadabad blasts on thunderstorms

Jeers as Iran officials blame Asadabad blasts on thunderstorms
Updated 17 January 2022

Jeers as Iran officials blame Asadabad blasts on thunderstorms

Jeers as Iran officials blame Asadabad blasts on thunderstorms
  • The governor of Asadabad had ruled out the possibility of thunderstorms as the source of the blasts
  • Over the past two years, numerous mysterious explosions and fires have occurred at military, nuclear and industrial sites in Iran

JEDDAH/DUBAI: Iranian authorities invited widespread ridicule on Sunday by insisting that large explosions in several areas in the west of the country were caused by thunderstorms.

Majid Mirahmadi, an official at the Interior Ministry, insisted: “After liaising with the relevant security and military agencies, it was determined that the sounds were caused by thunder and lightning and no special incident occurred.

However, the governor of the western town of Asadabad ruled out the possibility of thunderstorms as the source of reported loud blasts heard in several Iranian cities and towns.

One blast in the town of Asadabad caused panic among residents. “The intensity of the sound in some places was such that doors and windows of houses shook and people left their homes,” the Rokna news website said on its Telegram channel.

FASTFACT

Over the past two years, numerous mysterious explosions and fires have occurred at military, nuclear and industrial sites in Iran.

After several similar explosions in recent months, authorities said the Iranian military was holding unannounced air defense drills amid rising tensions with Israel and the US over Iran’s nuclear program.

Over the past two years, numerous mysterious explosions and fires have occurred at military, nuclear and industrial sites in Iran.

Two explosions at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility were clearly the result of sabotage.

Other explosions have taken place at missile sites, petrochemical plants, power stations and medical clinics. Previous explanations by the Tehran regime have included faulty safety procedures, human error, and, in one case, an earthquake.

Nevertheless, many analysts believe Iran is the target of a campaign of sabotage attacks by Israel as part of a “shadow war” between the two countries linked to Tehran’s nuclear program.

Most recently, in late 2021, there was a major explosion on an Iranian vessel docked at Latakia port in Syria, a fire broke out at an Iranian petrochemical factory on Khark Island in the Gulf, three people were injured in a fire at an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps research center west of Tehran, and a cyberattack crippled gas stations across Iran.

Israel has long threatened military action against Iran if indirect talks with Washington and Tehran fail to salvage a 2015 nuclear pact that then-US President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Tehran.

(With Reuters)

 


US and France discuss ways to promote Libya’s democratic process

US and France discuss ways to promote Libya’s democratic process
Updated 16 January 2022

US and France discuss ways to promote Libya’s democratic process

US and France discuss ways to promote Libya’s democratic process
  • Egyptian and Algerian foreign ministers met to discuss Libya, Sudan, Mali, and the Sahel and Sahara regions
  • Arab League chief and UN envoy to Libya also held talks

LONDON: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken held talks with his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian to discuss efforts to promote the democratic process in Libya, the State Department said on Sunday.
Efforts to lead Libya into elections at the end of December were thrown into disarray when the country’s electoral commission said a vote could not take place, citing what it called inadequacies in the electoral legislation and the judicial appeals process.
Blinken also spoke about the recent informal EU foreign ministers’ meeting, that was held in the western French city of Brest on Friday as part of the French presidency of the Council of the EU. 
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had reiterated following the meeting on Friday his view that talks to revive a 2015 Iran nuclear deal are progressing “much too slowly to be able to reach a result.”
“We now have to conclude and come to a decision: Either the Iranians want to complete this, in which case we have the impression that there will be flexibility in the Americans’ stance.
“Or they don’t want to complete this, and in that case we will be faced with a major proliferation crisis,” Le Drian said.
“There will be nothing more to negotiate if nothing happens,” he warned.
Negotiations to salvage the nuclear deal resumed in late November after they were suspended in June as Iran elected a new, ultraconservative government.
“Secretary Blinken reiterated the United States’ firm commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of continued Russian aggression and discussed US resolve to respond swiftly and strongly to any further Russian invasion into Ukraine,” the State Department also said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry met with his Algerian counterpart Ramdane Lamamra in Cairo to discuss developments in Libya, Sudan, Mali, and the Sahel and Sahara regions.
The two ministers stressed the need to intensify coordination within the framework of joint African action in a way that enhances efforts to achieve peace and security on the African continent, especially in light of the various security challenges imposed by the successive developments in the region, the Egyptian foreign ministry spokesman said on Facebook.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and his Algerian counterpart Ramdane Lamamra meet in Cairo. (Twitter/@MfaEgypt)

Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit stressed the importance of encouraging the Libyan institutions to assume their responsibilities toward the Libyan people during this important and critical stage that would lead to the desired electoral process.
He was speaking during a meeting with Stephanie Williams, the UN secretary-general’s special adviser on Libya, in the Egyptian capital, the Arab League’s General Secretariat said in a statement.
The two parties agreed on the importance of holding elections that will reflect the will of the Libyan people, while continuing the security, military and economic agenda.
(With AFP and Reuters)


Sudan doctors protest state violence in post-coup rallies

Sudan doctors protest state violence in post-coup rallies
Updated 16 January 2022

Sudan doctors protest state violence in post-coup rallies

Sudan doctors protest state violence in post-coup rallies
  • “During every protest they fire tear gas inside the hospital where I work,” one doctor, Houda Ahmad, said
  • “They even attack us inside the intensive care unit,” she added at the rally

KHARTOUM: Sudanese doctors protested Sunday against violent attacks by security forces targeting medical personnel during pro-democracy rallies following last year’s military coup.
“During every protest they fire tear gas inside the hospital where I work,” one doctor, Houda Ahmad, said at the rally in Khartoum.
“They even attack us inside the intensive care unit,” she added at the rally, where medical personnel carried pictures of colleagues they said had been killed.
The demonstration was the latest in the crisis-hit north-east African country, where protesters in the north also blockaded roads to vent their anger against an electricity price hike announced last week, and that has since been frozen.
Sudan’s October 25 coup led by military leader General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan derailed a fragile transition to civilian rule, that had started with the 2019 ouster of strongman Omar Al-Bashir following youth-led mass protests.
The military power grab has sparked an international outcry and triggered a new wave of street demonstrations, with another rally expected on Monday.
During the turmoil of recent months, prime minister Abdulla Hamdok was detained and later reinstated but then quit, warning that Sudan was at a dangerous crossroads threatening its very “survival.”
Deadly crackdowns have claimed the lives of 64 protesters, according to pro-democracy medics. A police general has also been killed in the street violence that has rocked Sudan, one of the world’s poorest countries.
The UN World Health Organization said last week there had been 11 confirmed attacks on Sudanese health facilities since November.
The WHO said it was “also aware of the interception of ambulances, medical personnel and patients during their attempts to seek safety.”
It called for the attacks to “stop now,” pointing out that they threaten health care services needed more than ever during the Covid pandemic.
Covid-19 is a “grave threat” for Sudan, where 94 percent of the population has not been vaccinated, said the WHO.
Sudan has confirmed 93,973 coronavirus infections and about 4,000 deaths. In September, it said 64 percent of about 1,000 health workers tested had been found to be Covid-positive.
Sudan’s 45 million people have also been dealing with a severe economic crisis and inflation approaching 400 percent.
On Sunday, hundreds blocked key roads in the Northern Province, 350 kilometers (229 miles) from the capital, angered by recent news electricity prices would double — a move that was then frozen, but not officially abolished.
“No vehicle will pass until the authorities have canceled this increase, because it signs the death certificate of our agriculture,” protester Hassan Idriss told AFP by phone.
The protests that led to the 2019 ouster of Bashir had started after the government decided to triple the price of bread.
During the recent protests, Sudan has also often shut down the Internet and moved to limit reporting on the unrest.
In the latest move it revoked the license of Al Jazeera Mubasher, the live TV unit of the Qatar-based network, accusing it of “unprofessional” coverage of protests, the channel said.
The United Nations is now seeking to organize talks involving political, military and social actors to resolve the crisis.
UN special representative Volker Perthes announced the bid last week saying it was “time to end the violence and enter into a comprehensive consultative process.”
The mainstream faction of the Forces for Freedom and Change, the leading civilian pro-democracy group, said Sunday it would accept the offer of dialogue if it were to revive the transition to civilian rule.
Sudan’s military in April 2019 put an end Bashir’s three-decade rule, leading to the arrest and imprisonment of the autocrat and many regime officials.
Bashir is also wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.
An imprisoned former foreign minister under Bashir, Ibrahim Ghandour, has begun a hunger strike along with several ex-regime officials, his family said Sunday.
They will only end it “once they have been freed or brought before an impartial tribunal,” his family said in a statement.
The public prosecutor’s office had recently ordered the release of several ex-officials, but Burhan instead ordered they stay in detention.
Ghandour’s family decried the “interference in judicial affairs.”
The protester movement however accuses Burhan, who was Bashir’s ground forces commander, of helping old regime figures come back to power.


Coalition in Yemen kills more than 280 Houthis in airstrikes on Marib, Al-Bayda

Coalition in Yemen kills more than 280 Houthis in airstrikes on Marib, Al-Bayda
Updated 16 January 2022

Coalition in Yemen kills more than 280 Houthis in airstrikes on Marib, Al-Bayda

Coalition in Yemen kills more than 280 Houthis in airstrikes on Marib, Al-Bayda
  • Coalition forces carried out 64 operations targeting the Houthi militia in Al-Bayda and Marib
  • A total of 30 military vehicles were destroyed during the operations

RIYADH: The Coalition to Restore Legitimacy in Yemen said on Sunday that more than 220 Houthi militants were killed in airstrikes on Marib province, Saudi Press Agency reported.
The coalition added that 17 military vehicles were also destroyed during 45 operations targeting the Iran-backed Houthi militia in the oil-rich Marib province over the last 24 hours.
The coalition also said it had carried out 19 other operations targeting the Houthis in Al-Bayda province, killing more than 60 fighters and destroying 13 vehicles.
Meanwhile, Yemeni Information Minister Moammar Al-Eryani said the government strongly condemned the targeting of a hospital in Taiz which provides services to thousands of people in the city with mortar shells.

“Since the coup, Al-Thawra Hospital and the government, private hospitals, schools, facilities, infrastructure, private objects, citizens’ homes in Taiz was subject to indiscriminate attacks by the militia, which killed and wounded thousands of civilians,in flagrant violation of international laws,” Al-Eryani said in a tweet.

He expressed his “regret” at the international community’s silence, including that of UN and US envoys, “regarding the war crimes and crimes against humanity against Taiz, which accommodates (the) largest population in Yemen.”

He called for “firm stances” to be adopted to stop the Houthis from shooting and bombing civilians and civilian objects in Taiz.