Mikati defies skeptics with new bid to form government

Mikati defies skeptics with new bid to form government
Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati confers with President Michel Aoun during a meeting at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of Beirut. (AFP)
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Updated 18 August 2022

Mikati defies skeptics with new bid to form government

Mikati defies skeptics with new bid to form government
  • 350 Lebanese judges on strike in protest over low salaries

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati has launched a new attempt to form a  government and end the political deadlock that has gripped the country for months.

After meeting President Michel Aoun on Wednesday, Mikati said: “I presented Aoun with a proposal for the government formation on June 29. We discussed it again today and I can tell you we are starting to see eye to eye.”

The meeting is believed to have improved relations between Mikati and Aoun, which soured after the latter claimed the proposed government formation robbed his political team of the ministries it wanted to keep.

Mikati briefed Aoun about a ministerial meeting that he called on Tuesday and held in his residence. Discussions did not take place in the official Cabinet hall since the government has been in caretaker mode following parliamentary elections in May.

The ministerial meeting focused on the issue of the customs dollar, and urgent financial and economic files.

A source in the PM’s office told Arab News: “Mikati was relieved after the meeting with Aoun. Although he did not want to reveal the details of the discussions, he hopes to form a government soon.”

The source said that during the ministerial meeting, Mikati sought to unify ministers’ views regarding the customs dollar between those who want to price it based on the rate of 12,000 Lebanese pounds to the dollar and those who want to adopt the Central Bank’s Sayrafa platform rate of 26,000 Lebanese pounds to the dollar.

The customs dollar is still priced at 1,507 Lebanese pounds to the dollar — the official price that has prevailed during the past three years of economic collapse.

The source said: “They will most likely settle on an average rate so that the customs dollar would be based on the rate of 20,000 Lebanese pounds to the dollar. Any decision in this regard requires the government’s approval, which can only happen if a new government is formed and gains Parliament’s vote of confidence. This needs to happen before September since Parliament would turn into an electoral body only as of Sept. 1.”

A political observer said: “The customs dollar needs to be settled and approved to feed the state treasury and limit the collapse.”

Unifying the customs dollar price is one of several conditions Lebanon must meet in order to complete its agreement with the International Monetary Fund, in addition to enacting the capital control law, restructuring banks and approving the 2022 budget.

Political observers fear constitutional crises related to the caretaker government managing the presidential elections may be fabricated, which could suggest that such a government is not eligible to take power in the event of a presidential vacuum, resulting in the current president remaining in office after the end of his term.

The Strong Lebanon Bloc, Aoun’s political team, warned in a statement on Tuesday of the danger of refraining from forming a government under various pretexts that allow a resigned government to take the president’s place if a new one is not elected within the constitutional deadline.

“Any attempt in this direction is rejected and allows constitutional chaos, which may create a custom that could lead to many new ones,” the bloc said.

It demanded Mikati form a new government, taking into account the president’s constitutional role in the process.

The bloc insisted that the presidential candidate should be from a parliamentary bloc with balanced representation, or be supported by significant parliamentary blocs, adding that it will not accept the nomination of those who have no representative capacity.

Meanwhile, more than 350 out of 560 judges have decided to stop work in protest against the withdrawal of a decision to pay judges’ salaries based on the rate of 8,000 Lebanese pounds to the dollar.

The Central Bank had adopted this measure to raise the value of the judges’ salaries, but was met with protests by public sector employees, who went on strike until they received pay rises.

The judges’ strike could have serious repercussions, and includes investigative judges and judges in the Public Prosecution Office, as well as members of the Supreme Judicial Council, the State Shoura Council and the Court of Audit.

Aoun addressed judges on Tuesday, urging them “to fight for their dignity and authority, and not fear the oppression of those in power.”

He asked the judiciary “to confront everyone who restricts their judgment in the case filed against Central Bank governor Riad Salameh, and in the Beirut port explosion probe.”

In Syria, mounting cholera cases pose threat across frontlines

In Syria, mounting cholera cases pose threat across frontlines
Updated 6 sec ago

In Syria, mounting cholera cases pose threat across frontlines

In Syria, mounting cholera cases pose threat across frontlines
IDLIB/HASAKA, Syria: A cholera outbreak that has claimed 29 lives in Syria is posing a danger across the frontlines of the country’s 11-year-long war, stirring fears in crowded camps for the displaced who lack running water or sewage systems.
First linked to contaminated water near the Euphrates river, the outbreak has now spread across the fractured nation, with cases reported in government- and rebel-controlled regions. In all, at least 2,000 cases have been reported so far.
“How am I not supposed to catch cholera with the sewage running right next to our tent?” said Sobha Al-Jadoue, 60, who lives in a camp for displaced people in the rebel-held Idlib region. “We can no longer sleep or sit because of the smells. A few days ago the sewage spilled into my tent.”
Cholera is spread by the ingestion of contaminated food or water and can cause acute diarrhea. While most of those affected will have mild or no symptoms, cholera can kill within hours if untreated, the World Health Organization website says.
The devastation wrought by the Syrian conflict has left the country particularly vulnerable, demolishing much of the infrastructure including water pumping and treatment plants.
Climate change has worsened water shortages.
“Because of the war there has been great destruction of the health infrastructure and infrastructure in general, so if it spreads in these areas — especially in the camps — it could have a grave health impact and kill a lot of people,” said Shahem Mekki, who runs a disease monitoring center in the area.
The war has killed some 350,000 people since it spiralled out of an uprising against President Bashar Assad in 2011. The World Health Organization says 55 percent of health care facilities in the country are not functioning because of the war.
The first cholera cases were detected on Sept. 5 in Deir Ezzor province, before spreading to other areas including the cities of Raqqa and Hasaka, said Jawan Mustafa, health director in the Kurdish-run administration of northeastern Syria.
He said there were more than 4,350 suspected cases of cholera in northeastern Syria, and 100 confirmed cases. “The cases are increasing but, fortunately, slowly,” he said.
Amshah Shehade, 45, said she brought her daughter to hospital in Hasaka due to diarrhea and dizziness, and that her grandchild had suffered the same symptoms. “It was caused by contaminated tank water,” she said.
Public awareness campaigns are underway on the causes, symptoms and prevention of cholera.
Eva Hinds, chief of communication at the United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, in Syria, said the agency and its partners had scaled up water trucking and chlorination in the cholera hot spots to ensure access to clean water.
“It’s time to act now. We are investing heavily in measures to prevent the further spread,” she said.

Sudan officials warn of disease from unidentified bodies

Updated 1 min 12 sec ago

Sudan officials warn of disease from unidentified bodies

Sudan officials warn of disease from unidentified bodies
CAIRO: Sudanese medical officials warned Monday that more than 1,500 unidentified bodies piled up in several of the country’s morgues could lead to an outbreak of disease, amid accusations the government is covering up their causes of death.
Among the deceased are believed to be pro-democracy protesters, who activists say were killed by government forces in their crackdown on demonstrations. They believe the failure to conduct proper autopsies is an attempt to conceal evidence of those killings.
Mahjoub Babaker, a forensic medicine and toxicology consultant for the country’s autopsy body, expressed concerns because of the proximity of one of the morgues to a market, saying the bodies “could spread cholera among local residents.”
At a press conference Monday, he and three other officials argued against the need to carry out independent autopsies, saying instead that there should be a mass burial of the bodies for public safety reasons. They announced a postponement of any autopsies in order to discuss matters with the deceased individuals’ families.
Reports of the backlog of bodies awaiting autopsy first emerged in May, with news videos released earlier this month showing piles of corpses kept in a building that appeared to have no refrigeration. Then, the country’s top public prosecutor authorized the mass burial of the bodies last month without an autopsy.
It came as the country faced an ongoing crackdown on anti-military protests after a military coup last year. In October, Sudan’s short-lived democratic transition was upended when the country’s leading general, Abdel-Fattah Burhan, deposed the government and locked up hundreds of officials and activists.
Pro-democracy groups and families of missing protesters have said the failure to conduct proper autopsies is an attempt to conceal evidence of the killing of hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators by Sudanese armed forces following the 2019 popular uprising that ousted long-time ruler Omar Al-Bashir. In June 2019, the Rapid Support Forces, a powerful armed paramilitary group, opened fire on a group of sit-in protesters in Khartoum, killing more than 100 people.
The prosecutor’s decision in May has sparked several demonstrations outside the morgues from pro-democracy groups.
On Sunday, the Sudanese Doctor’s Committee, which has tracked protester deaths and injuries since the coup, held a protest outside the prosecutors’ headquarters. In a statement, the group, called for all burials to be stopped until “a team of international, independent and reliable forensic medicine is retrieved, protecting the rights of the missing and their relatives, and seeking to reach the truth and achieve justice.”

Arab League, Egypt condemn repeated Israeli violations of Al-Aqsa

Arab League, Egypt condemn repeated Israeli violations of Al-Aqsa
Updated 3 min 16 sec ago

Arab League, Egypt condemn repeated Israeli violations of Al-Aqsa

Arab League, Egypt condemn repeated Israeli violations of Al-Aqsa
  • Tension increased at the compound on Monday with incursions into the area by hundreds of Jewish settlers
  • A statement from the Arab League said Israeli forces and settlers stormed Al-Aqsa and arrested several Palestinians stationed inside it

CAIRO: The Arab League and Egypt have condemned the storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque by Israeli forces and several settlers, holding the Israeli government responsible for igniting the situation.

Tension increased at the compound on Monday with incursions into the area by hundreds of Jewish settlers, under the protection of Israeli police, to mark the start of Rosh Hashanah.

Extremist Jewish groups continued calls to be allowed to enter the compound on Monday and Tuesday to celebrate the Jewish New Year.

A statement from the Arab League said Israeli forces and settlers stormed Al-Aqsa and arrested several Palestinians stationed inside it, to impose a temporal and spatial partition on the mosque, “which means changing the existing historical and legal situation.”

This continued policy on the part of the Israeli government, it said, is a “flagrant violation of international law” and a provocation for Palestinians and Muslims in general.

Ahmed Aboul Gheit, secretary-general of the Arab League, stressed that what happened was and “unacceptable crime,” and called on the international community to assume its responsibilities and confront the “dangerous Israeli escalation.”

He tweeted: “East Jerusalem is occupied land in accordance with international law and United Nations and Security Council resolutions, and it should not be treated as otherwise.”

Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the continuation of provocative practices in the vicinity of the Islamic holy sites in Al-Haram Al-Sharif area would heighten tensions and fuel violence.

It said Egypt condemns the repeated, escalating violations of the sanctity of Al-Aqsa Mosque, “carried out by Jewish extremist elements in full view of the Israeli occupation forces.”

It stressed that restrictions on the movement of Palestinian worshipers and their performance of religious rites, and the continuous attempts to change the legal and historical status of Jerusalem, remain a violation of international law and a dangerous escalation that undermines the chances of achieving a comprehensive settlement of the Palestinian cause and the two-state solution.

Adnan Al-Husayni, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Jerusalem department, blamed the Israeli government for any repercussions caused by the escalation.

Al-Husayni called on the Arab and Islamic worlds to take a serious stand in support of the Palestinian people in confronting the aggression of the Israeli occupation.

Teachers’ strike and soaring fees: Lebanon’s public school pupils miss class

Teachers’ strike and soaring fees: Lebanon’s public school pupils miss class
Updated 19 min 51 sec ago

Teachers’ strike and soaring fees: Lebanon’s public school pupils miss class

Teachers’ strike and soaring fees: Lebanon’s public school pupils miss class
  • Lebanon’s three-year financial meltdown has left public schools shuttered so far this academic year
  • Teachers wage an open-ended strike over their severely devalued salaries

DEIR QUBEL: School teacher Claude Koteich, her teenager daughter and 10-year-old son should have all been back in class weeks ago – but a crisis in Lebanon’s education sector has left them lounging at home on a Monday afternoon.
Lebanon’s three-year financial meltdown has severely devalued the country’s pound and drained state coffers, pushing 80 percent of the population into poverty and gutting public services including water and electricity.
It has also left public schools shuttered so far this academic year, with teachers waging an open-ended strike over their severely devalued salaries and administrations worried they won’t be able to secure fuel to keep the lights and heating on during the winter.
Koteich, 44, has taught French literature at Lebanese public schools for exactly half her lifetime.
“We used to get a salary high enough that I could afford to put my kids in private school,” she told Reuters in her living room in the mountain town of Deir Qubel, overlooking the Lebanese capital.
But since 2019, Lebanon’s pound has lost more than 95 percent of its value as other costs skyrocket following the government’s lifting of fuel subsidies and global price jumps.
From a monthly salary that was once about $3,000, Koteich now earns the equivalent of $100 – forcing her to make a tough choice last summer over whether to put her children back in costly private schools or transfer them to a public education system paralyzed by the pay dispute.
“I was stuck between yes and no – waiting for our salaries to change, or if the education minister wanted to fulfill our demands,” Koteich said.
By September, there had been little progress on securing higher salaries given Lebanon’s depleted state coffers. At the same time, her children’s private school was asking for tuition to be paid mostly in cash dollars to guarantee they could afford to pay for expensive fuel and other imported needs.
That would amount to a yearly fee of $500 per student, plus 15 million Lebanese pounds, or about $400.
“I found the number was very high and out of this world for me,” she said.
So as their former classmates don their private school uniforms, Koteich and her two children still have no clear idea when they will return to class.
Lebanon’s education system has long been heavily reliant on private schools, which hosted almost 60 percent of the country’s 1.25 million students, according to the Ministry of Higher Education.
However, the strain on households from Lebanon’s financial collapse has forced a shift: around 55,000 students transitioned from private to public schools in the 2020-2021 school year alone, the World Bank has said.
But public education has been historically underfunded, with the government earmarking less than 2 percent of GDP to education in 2020, according to the World Bank — one of the lowest rates in the Middle East and North Africa.
And the combined stresses of recent years – from an influx of Syrian refugees starting in 2011 to the COVID-19 pandemic and the port blast which damaged Beirut – has beleaguered schools.
“My students’ worries are beyond educational – they started to think about how they can make a living. This age is supposed to be thinking of their homework,” Koteich said.
The head of the United Nations’ children agency UNICEF in Lebanon told Reuters that about one third of children in Lebanon – including Syrian children – are not attending school.
“We have worrying numbers of an increase in children being employed in Lebanon, and girls getting into early child marriage,” said Edouard Beigbeder.
A UNICEF study this year found that 38 percent of households had reduced their education expenses compared with just 26 percent in April 2021. This trend makes a return to class ever more important.
Some hope schools will re-open in October, although there has been no such indication from the government.
“There’s a kind of race against the clock to ensure the first week of October, we will have the right kind of opening,” Beigbeder said.

Lebanese lawmakers to convene to elect country’s president

Lebanese lawmakers to convene to elect country’s president
Updated 27 September 2022

Lebanese lawmakers to convene to elect country’s president

Lebanese lawmakers to convene to elect country’s president
  • The country’s 128-member parliament votes for a president, who must be a Maronite Christian

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s parliament speaker on Tuesday summoned lawmakers for a session this week to elect the country’s next president, offering a glimmer of hope of a political step forward even as chaos roils this Mideast nation.

Parliament is to convene on Thursday, according to a memo from the speaker, Nabih Berri. Under Lebanon’s fragile sectarian power-sharing system, the country’s 128-member parliament votes for a president, who must be a Maronite Christian.

The six-year term of incumbent President Michel Aoun — a retired military general and an ally of Iran-backed militant Hezbollah group who was elected in October 2016 following a two-year stalemate — ends on Oct. 31.

Aoun’s successor is to be elected at a time when Lebanon is going through an economic meltdown and the government struggles to implement structural reforms required for a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

The crisis, which started in late 2019, has plunged three-quarters of the tiny Mediterranean nation into poverty and the Lebanese pound has lost 90 percent of its value against the dollar.

However, it is unclear whether legislators in a deeply divided parliament will be able reach a quorum for the session, raising prospects of renewed political paralysis.

In recent months, no majority or consensus candidate has emerged for the post of Aoun’s successor.

Sleiman Frangieh of the Marada Party, an ally of Hezbollah who calls Syrian President Bashar Assad a “friend and brother,” has the backing of some key parties but hasn’t received the backing of a major Christian bloc.

The other announced candidates, Tracy Chamoun, the granddaughter of a former Lebanese president running on an anti-Hezbollah platform, businessman Ziad Hayek, and writer and women’s advocate May Rihani have yet to receive any formal endorsements.

Hezbollah’s opponents, backed by the United States and Gulf Arab monarchies, are hoping to use their influence to ensure that Lebanon’s next president is not an ally of Hezbollah. Separately, 13 independent reformist lawmakers are lobbying to try to push for a reformist president who would prioritize reforms and pull Lebanon out of the quagmire.