Lebanon reformists weigh choices after election surge

Special Lebanon reformists weigh choices after election surge
Supporters of Lebanon's Free Patriotic Movement carry flags and placards outside the party's office in Sin El Fil, Lebanon, May 17, 2022. (Reuters)
Short Url
Updated 19 May 2022

Lebanon reformists weigh choices after election surge

Lebanon reformists weigh choices after election surge
  • Analysts have added up MPs to figure out the size of the parliamentary blocs, which are divided between sovereign blocs and pro-Hezbollah groupings

BEIRUT: Newly elected reformist MPs in Lebanon are planning strategies following election breakthroughs that grant them significant sway in the parliamentary balance of power.

Thirteen reformist MPs in Lebanon who entered the legislative race on the values of the 2019 anti-establishment uprising, as well as 21 independent MPs, have entered the newly elected Lebanese Parliament.

Analysts have added up MPs to figure out the size of the parliamentary blocs, which are divided between sovereign blocs and pro-Hezbollah groupings.

Figures show that elected MPs may be positioned within 13 blocs divided into two opposite larger camps, forming the 128-MP Parliament.

The sovereign MPs can be classified based on their previous positions. A total of 68 MPs are opposed to Hezbollah. They include members from the Lebanese Forces Party, the Progressive Socialist Party, the Islamic Group and the Lebanese Phalanges Party, as well as independents and reformists.

Meanwhile, the pro-Hezbollah camp includes the party itself, the Amal Movement, the Free Patriotic Movement, the Marada Movement, the Tashnaq Party and Al-Ahbash, for a total of about 60 MPs.

There is much speculation about how the new independent MPs will deal with upcoming events, and how they will position themselves on the parliamentary map.

A political observer told Arab News: “We will see the true colors of every MP when topics related to core issues are discussed.”

The observer added: “Will these MPs change their stance regarding Hezbollah’s illegal weapons, although some have avoided addressing this sensitive issue in the past? Will these MPs be able to form a unified bloc that can influence decisions within Parliament, or will they remain independent, each working alone?”

Suleiman Franjieh, head of the Marada Movement and a candidate for the Presidency, appealed to reformist MPs, saying: “Do not place strict conditions on yourselves so that you do not become isolated, because theory is one thing, and practice is another.”

Fouad Siniora, former Lebanon PM, who backed a list in Beirut and whose candidates all failed to reach parliament, said: “Sovereign MPs must develop a correct vision for the future on how to confront Hezbollah’s domination and control in order to restore the Lebanese state.”

He added: “In 2008, the sovereign forces had won 72 seats in parliament, but Hezbollah at that time refused to form a majority government.”

Siniora warned against backing down as the March 14 forces did in 2009, which cost them their power.

A video shared on social media shocked voters in Tripoli and around the country. The elected MP Firas Salloum, who was on the Real Change list with the Islamic Group, was filmed celebrating his victory by dancing to a song supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The video prompted the Islamic Group to issue a statement renouncing Salloum. It said: “He does not represent us as he seemed proud of his affiliation to the criminal tyrant, who blew up the Al-Taqwa and Al-Salam Mosques in Tripoli, and killed our people in Syria.”

The statement demanded that Salloum resign “because he does not represent the city and does not resemble its people.”

Reformist MP Elias Jarada said: “Taking the revolution from the street to the Parliament necessitates adopting a policy of reaching out to all for dialogue so that the 17 October revolution becomes a model for dynamic political action. It is important to be realistic because parliament includes groups that represent other categories of the Lebanese people.”

Several reformist MPs rushed to convene with their groups to determine their next steps in Parliament.

Elected reformist MP Ibrahim Mneimneh, whose list won three parliamentary seats in Beirut’s second constituency, said: “The reformist MPs will be the revolutionary voice in parliament. We will not compromise with the criminal regime that destroyed our lives, and we will not compromise in the face of intimidation with weapons, nor over the sale of state assets, the money of depositors, or the path of justice with the Beirut port blast and the explosion in Akkar.”

Leaked news suggested that reformist MP Melhem Khalaf, former head of the Beirut Bar Association who took part in protests against state corruption and helped release detained protesters, could possibly be elected deputy parliament speaker, succeeding Elie Ferzli, who has held the position since 2000, but failed to reach Parliament in the recent elections.

Meanwhile, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who is seeking a new term, is reportedly making efforts to win over civil society, and supports having Khalaf as his deputy.

Major challenges await the newly elected house, the first of which is electing a speaker and a deputy speaker, followed by parliamentary consultations to assign someone to form a new government, then electing a new president in September or October after Michel Aoun’s term ends.

There are also significant legislative obligations, within the framework of reforms required by the international community to extricate Lebanon from its worsening economic crisis.


European Commission restores funding to Palestinan NGO

Shawan Jabarin, director general of Al-Haq. (AFP)
Shawan Jabarin, director general of Al-Haq. (AFP)
Updated 01 July 2022

European Commission restores funding to Palestinan NGO

Shawan Jabarin, director general of Al-Haq. (AFP)
  • The European Commission said in a letter to Al-Haq on June 28 that the suspension had been lifted “unconditionally and immediately” following an assessment by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF)

RAMALLAH: The European Commission has told Ramallah-based NGO Al-Haq Human Rights Organization that the 13-month suspension of €40,000 funding from the EU will be lifted after finding that the suspension was “illegal and was not devoid of political dimensions.”

Al-Haq is one of six Palestinian human rights organizations that the Israeli government declared on Oct. 19 to be “outlaws,” citing its association with the (leftist) Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which it classifies as a terrorist group. On May 21, Israeli authorities issued a military order to close Al-Haq’s headquarters.

Al-Haq was established 43 years ago. It received the prestigious Bruno Kreisky Prize for Services to Human Rights in June.

Shawan Jabarin, director general of Al-Haq, told Arab News: “The importance of the decision lies in the (fact) that we are trying to defend ourselves against a terrible machine that has friends in the European Commission and the European Union. Israel is working against us politically and ideologically, and we are working professionally. And the truth has triumphed over their political attempts.”

The European Commission said in a letter to Al-Haq on June 28 that the suspension had been lifted “unconditionally and immediately” following an assessment by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF).

“This decision is based on several elements, including OLAF’s assessment, which did not find sufficient ground to open an investigation. Specifically, OLAF concluded that there is no suspicion of irregularities and fraud affecting EU funds in implementing (Al-Haq’s) EU-funded project,” the letter stated.

In a statement issued on June 30, Al-Haq said: “Since its imposition in May 2021, it was clear that the suspension was not prompted by any genuine concerns about the possible misuse of funding. Under the direct responsibility of the Hungarian EU Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi, the suspension became a political initiative aimed at giving the Israeli government a tailwind in its attempts to disrupt and defame Palestinian civil society and to oppress the voices of Palestinian human rights organizations and defenders. No other conclusion can be drawn based on what we have experienced with this suspension in the past 13 months.”

Al-Haq had previously filed a case against the EC with the European Court and a hearing is scheduled to take place on July 4, Jabarin added.

Al-Haq said in its statement that it has no illusions about Israel’s escalating campaign to shrink civic space for human rights organizations and its attempt to silence human rights defenders in Palestine, the culmination of which was Israel’s decision in October 2021 to designate Al-Haq and five other leading Palestinian NGOs — Addameer, the Bisan Center for Research and Development, Defence for Children International — Palestine, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, and the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees — as “outlaws.” The five other organizations do not received funding from the EU.

“We have challenged the commission’s lousy faith performance from the start of the suspension, contesting its necessity and proportionality and demanding clarifications of the grounds and information on which the suspension was based. Until today, the Commission has failed to provide these clarifications,” Al-Haq’s statement read.

“Throughout 2021, the Commission consistently ignored our questions and requests. In early 2022, we appointed a Belgian lawyer to defend our rights vis-à-vis the Commission. On April 1, 2022, he launched an ‘amicable settlement’ procedure on our behalf, including our proposal on how the dispute between the parties should be resolved,” it continued.

“The decision to freeze funding was a crime against us,” Jabarin said. “The issue is not financial but political, in which the EU participated. Now the mistake has been corrected, as it has been proven that there is no misuse of money or financing for terrorism. This is a message to the Israelis and the European Union, who built their positions on false Israeli reports against us.”


Concern in Lebanon as mobile data rates surge

A Lebanese woman checks her phone in the capital Beirut. (AFP file photo)
A Lebanese woman checks her phone in the capital Beirut. (AFP file photo)
Updated 01 July 2022

Concern in Lebanon as mobile data rates surge

A Lebanese woman checks her phone in the capital Beirut. (AFP file photo)
  • National currency has lost 95 percent of its value

BEIRUT: The adoption of new tariffs for phone services and subscriptions in Lebanon has caused concern.

Pricing will now follow the dollar exchange rate on the Sayrafa platform, which is about LBP25,200. Prices used to be calculated according to the official exchange rate of LBP1,515.

The tariff raise came into force on Friday.

People woke up on Friday to text messages sent by telecom operators calculating their balances according to the Sayrafa exchange rate, surprised by the value of their balance tumbling to below $1.

In May, the Cabinet approved the decision to increase the tariffs and fees for landline, mobile calls, and the internet starting July 1.

They will be calculated by dividing the previous dollar bill by three and then paying it in Lebanese pounds per the Sayrafa platform rate.

But people are struggling to accept the new prices, despite the help offered to students and security services by telecom companies Touch and Alfa.

Rabih, a 17-year-old student, said: “I had LBP75,000 in my balance, which used to amount to $49 according to the official rate. The amount shrank today to 30 (US) cents.”

Based on comparison tables between the prices in dollars and the prices adopted now, prices have fallen by about 300 percent in dollars, while their calculation according to the Lebanese pound rate shows a significant increase ranging from 500 to 700 percent.

The Lebanese currency has lost more than 95 percent of its value, leading to significant price differences.

The price table circulated by telecom companies shows that a 30-day prepaid card which used to cost $22.7 — equivalent to about LBP34,000 per the official dollar exchange rate — now costs $7.58.

But, if calculated based on the Sayrafa rate, its cost rises to LBP191,000, which means an increase of about 560 percent.

The telecom companies confirmed that the step came in response to the “necessity to maintain the continuity of the telecom sector and the provided services, amid the economic and financial crisis and the increase of the high cost of power insurance for plants, and since this sector is one of the most important pillars of the national economy.”

Activists warned that “audio messages and videos should not be sent when using the 4G service because they will consume all phone data.”

Young people’s phones fell silent, with some preferring to stay at home because the cost of home internet services remains the same.

The Lebanese are thinking twice before downloading a video or picture using the 3G or 4G service.

People relying on this service hesitate before opening any video received. Sending morning flowers and evening greetings has decreased significantly in recent days.

Abbas, a private internet service distributor, said: “We raised our prices but all distributors agreed to calculate their prices according to the rate of LBP10,000 for the dollar instead of the Sayrafa rate of about LBP25,000 to compete with the Ogero service affiliated to the Ministry of Telecommunications and maintain our subscribers. Our prices took into consideration the costs of transportation, generator subscriptions, and employees. I don’t deny that some subscribers decided to opt for the Ogero service because it is cheaper than ours by LBP60,000.

“But they forgot that Ogero is suffering from fuel shortage, preventing it from securing the service around-the-clock. Many operators are forced to turn off their machines as a result of their inability to secure dollars to buy diesel and operate the generators.

“Moreover, Ogero faces problems in installing new internet cables because of the high transportation cost of employees who have to move around between the clients’ houses to offer their services.”

The lifestyle of the Lebanese is undergoing major changes, especially young people who now have to reconsider the time they allocate for talking on the phone and internet use.

Abbas said that coffee shops offering free internet had “significantly raised” their food and beverage prices to provide their customers with this service. “If they start incurring losses, they might start slowing down the internet to reduce its use.”

Rabih said that he and his friends had decided to stay at home to use the home internet for their phone calls and chats, even though the home internet bill had increased from LBP100,000 to more than LBP400,000.

He feared the lifestyle they had become used to might change, and he worried about the state of their education next year if they returned to remote learning.

Telecom services are the only ones falling under the official dollar rate. Other services are priced based on the black market exchange rate, while the remaining subsidized medicines are in line with the Sayrafa platform rate.

But the tariff increases have not triggered any reaction in the streets as happened in 2019 when the Ministry of Telecommunications discussed the possibility of imposing a $6 fee on WhatsApp.

It backtracked on this plan in response to public pressure.


Thousands rally in Sudan day after 9 killed during protests

Thousands rally in Sudan day after 9 killed during protests
Updated 01 July 2022

Thousands rally in Sudan day after 9 killed during protests

Thousands rally in Sudan day after 9 killed during protests
  • The US and others in the international community condemned the violence in this East African nation
  • Sudanese military authorities have met the protests with a deadly crackdown, which has so far killed 113 people, including 18 children

CAIRO: Thousands took to the streets Friday in Sudan’s capital, a day after nine people were killed in demonstrations against the country’s ruling generals.
The United States and others in the international community condemned the violence in this East African nation, which has been rocked by near-weekly protests since an Oct. 25 coup upended its fragile transition to democracy.
The rallies on Thursdays were the largest seen in months. Sudanese military authorities have met the protests with a deadly crackdown, which has so far killed 113 people, including 18 children.
In and near Khartoum, large funeral marches took place for some of those killed the day before, while others gathered after Friday prayers at mosques in the country’s capital. Online, photographs of the dead were posted, in some cases in an effort to identify them.
The Sudan’s Doctors Committee, a medical group that monitors casualties from demonstrations, said security forces shot and killed nine people, including a child, in or near Khartoum during the rallies on Thursday. The demonstrations coincided with widespread Internet disruptions. Internet monitors and activists say the government has crippled communications to prevent gatherings and slow the spread of news on days when large protest turnout is expected.
Sudan’s leading pro-democracy groups — Forces for the Declaration of Freedom and Change and the Resistance Committees — had called for nationwide protest against the coup. The takeover upended the country’s short-lived transition to democracy following the 2019 ouster of longtime autocratic ruler Omar Al-Bashir.
Since the coup, the UN political mission in Sudan, the African Union, and the eight-nation east African regional Intergovernmental Authority in Development group have been trying to broker a way out of the political impasse. But talks have yielded no results so far.
In a joint statement tweeted Friday the three bodies expressed “disappointment over the continued use of excessive force by security forces and lack of accountability for such actions, despite repeated commitments by authorities.”
Thursday’s protests also fell on the third anniversary of a 2019 mass rally that forced the generals to sit down at the negotiating table with pro-democracy groups and eventually sign a power-sharing agreement that was expected to govern Sudan during a transitional period, until general elections were to be held. The coup last October scuttled this arrangement.
Western governments have repeatedly called on the generals to allow for peaceful protests, but have also angered the protest movement for sometimes engaging with the leading generals. Pro-democracy leaders call for the generals to leave power immediately.
“We are heartbroken at the tragic loss of life in yesterday’s protests,” the US Embassy in Sudan said in a statement Friday. “We urge all parties to resume negotiations and call on peaceful voices to rise above those who advocate for or commit violence.”
From Geneva, the UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said she was alarmed by Thursday’s killings, especially “after the police had announced they would not use lethal force to disperse the demonstrators.”
“In no case is force permissible to dissuade or intimidate protesters from exercising their rights to freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly, or to threaten them with harm for doing so,” she said.
Police said Friday an investigation was launched after a video circulated online, appearing to show security forces prodding and kicking a badly injured protester in the street the day before. According to pro-democracy groups, the protester later died. In a statement released on the website of the country’s state-run news agency, police said the video shows security personnel violating orders to not approach demonstrations with firearms. It said those involved would be held accountable.
The country’s interior ministry, which oversees the police, has continuously denied the use of live fire on protesters, despite evidence from activists and pro-democracy groups to the opposite.


Briton jailed for fatal accident at Cyprus resort

Briton jailed for fatal accident at Cyprus resort
Updated 01 July 2022

Briton jailed for fatal accident at Cyprus resort

Briton jailed for fatal accident at Cyprus resort
  • The Famagusta district court also revoked the tourist's driving licence for 18 months
  • The Briton was involved in the killing of Camilla-Christina Pamdahl

NICOSIA: A Cypriot court jailed a 25-year-old British tourist for one year on Friday after convicting him of the hit-and-run death of a Swedish mother in a holiday resort on the island.
The Famagusta district court also revoked the tourist’s driving license for 18 months but authorities did not release his name.
The Briton was involved in the killing of Camilla-Christina Pamdahl, 46, who was on holiday with her five-year-old daughter, on May 4.
She was the victim of a fatal hit-and-run accident at a pedestrian crossing in the popular resort of Ayia Napa.
The Briton was found guilty of causing death due to a reckless or dangerous act, driving a vehicle under the influence of drugs, abandoning the scene of an accident and failing to report it.
The 25-year-old was driving a rented beach buggy at the time of the accident and fled the scene on foot, leaving the rental vehicle behind.
Police said the driver was nearly five times over the legal alcohol limit of 9 mg with a test reading of 44 mg. He also tested positive for cannabis in his system when arrested.
Ayia Napa is known for attracting partying British tourists every summer.


British government lobbying Iraq for archaeologist’s release: FM Liz Truss

British government lobbying Iraq for archaeologist’s release: FM Liz Truss
Updated 01 July 2022

British government lobbying Iraq for archaeologist’s release: FM Liz Truss

British government lobbying Iraq for archaeologist’s release: FM Liz Truss
  • Fitton’s family has criticized the British government for what it calls a poor response to the case

LONDON: The UK government is lobbying for the release of a British archaeologist imprisoned in Iraq, it was revealed on Thursday.

Jim Fitton was sentenced to 15 years in prison in June for attempting to smuggle artifacts out of the country, a crime that can also carry the death sentence.

Fitton’s family has criticized the British government for what it calls a poor response to the case, however UK foreign secretary Liz Truss told ITV News that work was being carried out to convince the Iraqi government to release the archaeologist.

“I know our ambassador is working on that, as is our ministerial team,” she said. “Ultimately this is a decision for the Iraqi authorities, but we’re doing all we can to secure this release.”

Fitton was found by Iraqi officials with a dozen small stones and bits of pottery from the desert on March 20, and was arrested as he tried to leave the country.

He asserted in his defense that he believed the items to be worthless and was merely taking them as a memento of his trip to Iraq. 

In court, he was charged and convicted — but another man also on trial with him, German national Volker Waldmann, was found not guilty.

Fitton has appealed in a bid to reduce his sentence or have his conviction quashed completely.

Fitton’s local member of parliament, Wera Hobhouse, said the Foreign and Commonwealth Office should have taken a stronger stance with Iraq to ensure his release.

“It seems that German officials took a much tougher stance and intervened a lot earlier, and were much more visible in their opposition, versus the Foreign Office (who) took the approach of softly, softly,” she told ITV.

“We have got two outcomes: One prisoner is now free, and Jim Fitton, our British citizen, is not free.

“So there’s quite a clear contrast, which makes one wonder whether the Foreign Office approach has been correct,” she added.

A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “We are providing consular assistance to a British national in Iraq, and continue to support his family. We are in contact with the local authorities.”