Lebanon’s Parliament postpones municipal elections for a second time

Special Lebanon’s Parliament postpones municipal elections for a second time
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Lebanese lawmakers attending a parliament session, in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, April 18, 2023. (AP)
Special Lebanon’s Parliament postpones municipal elections for a second time
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Retired members of the Lebanese security forces and other protesters shout slogans during a protest demanding better pay and living conditions in Beirut, Lebanon, Apr. 18, 2023. (AP Photo)
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Updated 18 April 2023

Lebanon’s Parliament postpones municipal elections for a second time

Lebanon’s Parliament postpones municipal elections for a second time
  • Cabinet discusses pay boost for public sector
  • Tear gas used to disperse protesters

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Parliament on Tuesday voted to extend the terms of municipal council members and other local officials, delaying elections to avoid further political paralysis in the country.

Some members of the parliament, including from the Lebanese Forces party, boycotted the vote, saying elections were a right.

The Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections described the approval of the extension as “undermining the democratic process and the principles of good governance.”

The move is a reflection of the approach that the authority, with its executive and legislative branches, follows in dealing with the democratic process, depriving the Lebanese of their right to choose their representatives, LADE said.

LADE called on MPs opposing the extension to appeal to the Constitutional Council.

In a rowdy session, the MPs passed amendments to the Public Procurement Law amid rejection by civil society organizations that monitor the implementation of the law and ensure transparency in public procurement.

They say that the proposed amendments “distort the law and booby-trap it.”

Seventy-three MPs secured a quorum for Tuesday’s legislative session, although the parliament is constitutionally an electorate body until the election of a new president.

The quorum that was secured for the session is the one that the parliamentary blocs were unable to secure for six months in order to elect a president.

The presidency of the parliament justified the legislative session as necessary because of a deficit in financing the elections.

The session was attended by members of the government, Hezbollah and Amal Movement blocs and their allies, and the Progressive Socialist Party bloc.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati and a number of MPs exchanged accusations in an attempt to disown the political decision to extend the terms of municipal council members.

Mikati told the MPs: “All of you have lied to the Lebanese. The government is being blamed while the government is working. We confirmed our readiness to hold municipal elections.”

Mikati attacked the Free Patriotic Movement party, without naming it, for opposing holding legislative sessions and Cabinet meetings.

Mikati said: “If a party does not want to postpone the elections, it would not have come today to the legislative session. We had more important matters and you did not attend.”

MP Elias Bou Saab, from the FPM bloc, defended his submission of the proposal to extend the municipalities.

The MP added that “departments are closed, and there is no funding according to the government.”

MP Osama Saad said that the government “did not want to hold elections, misled public opinion and (is) now hiding behind parliament.”

Amal Movement MP Ali Hassan Khalil said: “We are postponing the elections so that there will not be a vacuum after the expiration date of the municipalities’ mandate on May 30.”

MP Ahmed Al-Khair defended the prime minister against the FPM MPs, saying: “You are not strong except against the prime minister, and when you attack him, we will respond to you.”

MP Melhem Khalaf, who has been holding a sit-in around the clock with MP Najat Saliba for three months inside the parliament hall, requesting a session to elect the president, left the hall while the legislative session was being held.

Khalaf told Arab News: “Today we have a blatant example of how democracy is undermined in Lebanon.

“We stress that the constitution stipulates that parliament — in light of the presidential vacancy — is an electorate body, not a legislative body, and therefore legislation is prohibited before electing a president.”

Khalaf said that Tuesday’s session “is an encroachment from one authority on another.”

MP Paula Yacoubian said that Tuesday’s legislative session “does not fall within the framework of necessary legislation, especially since the Cabinet said it would meet in the afternoon to secure funds to organize the elections.”

Yacoubian described what happened as “a farce.”

The MPs do not want the people to elect councils of local administrations so that the parties that control the municipalities do not lose their control over them, said Yacoubian.

The Ministry of the Interior, in its response to the “outbids” that took place in parliament, said that “the political will made the parties secure a quorum for the legislative session and agree to postpone the municipal elections, although avoiding the vacuum that the MPs invoked was supposed to happen by holding the elections instead of postponing them.”

The Cabinet – four hours after the parliament session ended — held a meeting that was supposed to discuss financing municipal elections and amending the wages of public sector employees.

The session was held in the wake of anger on the part of retired military members, public school teachers and public sector employees who staged a sit-in at Riad El-Solh Square.

The sit-in turned into a confrontation between riot police and the protesters.

Tear gas was fired at protesters who tried to cut through barbed wire in the vicinity of the government headquarters.

Retired Brig. Gen. Shamel Roukoz said: “People took to the streets because officials did not understand our demands through correspondence and statements.”

Roukoz, a former MP, stressed that “amending wages preserves the dignity of the soldier and the employee, especially retirees who served 40 years in public administrations and military institutions.”

Protesters are demanding a minimum salary of $350 or its equivalent in the national currency, i.e., LBP35 million.

According to the protesters, “the average cost of living today for each family has become LBP40 million ($400).”

Retired Brig. Gen. George Nader said: “The authority relies on patchwork solutions in its decisions. What we are calling for are solutions that are in line with the difficult economic conditions the country is going through.

“The value of salaries is declining day after day due to the fluctuation in the exchange rate of the dollar on the black market.

“Our salaries have collapsed and are no longer worth more than 4 percent of their value, which is unacceptable.”

After Daesh and bombs, refugee sisters sing of Kurdish sorrow

After Daesh and bombs, refugee sisters sing of Kurdish sorrow
Updated 03 June 2023

After Daesh and bombs, refugee sisters sing of Kurdish sorrow

After Daesh and bombs, refugee sisters sing of Kurdish sorrow
  • They have twice been driven from their family home in northern Syrian town of Kobani
  • Kurdish folk songs are our favorite type of music. They tell the plight of the Kurds, the wars, the tragedy of displacement and the killings

IRBIL: When the Syrian Kurdish sisters Perwin and Norshean Salih sing about loss, it comes from the heart.

Aged in their early 20s, they have twice been driven from their family home in the northern Syrian town of Kobani — once by the Daesh group, and again by the threat of Turkish bombs.
Now they have found a safe haven in northern Iraq’s Kurdish region, where they carve out a living by performing the often melancholy music of their people in a restaurant.
“Kurdish folk songs are our favorite type of music,” said Perwin Salih, 20, who plays the santoor, tambourine and Armenian flute. “They tell the plight of the Kurds, the wars, the tragedy of displacement and the killings.” The Kurds, a non-Arab ethnic group of between 25 million and 35 million people, are spread mainly across Turkiye, Syria, Iraq and Iran, with no state of their own.
They have long complained of oppression but endured special horrors during Syria’s 12-year civil war, especially the Daesh onslaught.
When the jihadists attacked Kobani in late 2014, and heavy fighting turned the town into a symbol of Kurdish resistance, the sisters fled across the border to Turkiye.
After several unhappy months in Istanbul, they moved to the mainly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir in Turkiye’s southeast where they continued their music studies.
They moved back home in 2019, after Syrian Kurdish-led forces drove Daesh out of their last territorial stronghold, with US backing. Turkiye has kept targeting parts of northern Syria in what Ankara says is a fight against Kurdish militants.
Once, the sisters say, mortar shells hit their family home, thankfully without exploding.
Late last year, when Turkiye launched major air and artillery strikes, the Salih sisters fled once more, this time to Iraq, where they and two more siblings now rent a modest two-room house in Irbil.
The two women said they grew up in a household of music lovers, with their mother singing to them before bedtime while their father played the tambourine.
But the trauma they have endured since has left deep scars.
“A vision of Daesh still haunts me,” said Perwin. “Men in black clothes, holding black flags, on a quest to turn life itself black.”
At a recent concert, Perwin played the flute while Norshean, 23, captivated the audience with a Kurdish folk tune about displacement.
“I am a stranger,” she sang softly. “Without you, mother, my wings are broken. I am a stranger, and life abroad is like a prison.”
Norshean, a classical music afficionado, also plays the piano, guitar and kamanja, an ancient Persian string instrument, and dreams of making it as a violinist.
But for now she has recurring nightmares of the jihadists.
“The Daesh still haunts my dreams,” she said. On their latest escape from Kobani, the sisters faced another nightmare.
At the border, Syrian soldiers demanded that they play, warning that they would confiscate the instruments if they didn’t like the music. “We cried while we played, and when we were done they smiled and said: now you can pass,” recounted Norshean.
The sisters now mainly perform at a restaurant called Beroea, an ancient name for the once-vibrant Syrian city of Aleppo.
Co-owner Riyad Othman said he was not surprised by the dangers the women have had to face.
A Syrian Kurd himself, he said his people “spend their entire life fleeing, estranged and suffering.”


Tunisian president proposes taxing the wealthiest

President Kais Saied. (REUTERS)
President Kais Saied. (REUTERS)
Updated 03 June 2023

Tunisian president proposes taxing the wealthiest

President Kais Saied. (REUTERS)
  • Saied did not say how such a plan might operate as employees’ taxes are deducted at source and many Tunisians in the private sector do not declare their full income

TUNIS: Tunisia’s President Kais Saied has proposed taxing the North African country’s wealthiest citizens as a way of avoiding what he has called the “diktats” of the International Monetary Fund.
Despite reaching an agreement in principle last October on a bailout package worth nearly $2 billion, talks with the IMF have stalled for months over demands to restructure public bodies and lift subsidies on basic goods.
Saied said during a meeting with Prime Minister Najla Bouden that the current subsidy system benefits all Tunisians, including the wealthy, a presidency statement said.


• Saied said that the current subsidy system benefits all Tunisians, including the wealthy.

• He floated the idea of ‘taking surplus money from the rich to give to the poor.’

He floated the idea of “taking surplus money from the rich to give to the poor,” citing a quote attributed to Omar Ibn Al-Khattab, one of Islam’s first caliphs.
“Instead of lifting subsidies in the name of rationalization, it would be possible to introduce additional taxes on those who benefit from them without needing them,” Saied added.
He said he believed such a mechanism would mean the country would not have to bow down to “foreign diktats.”
Saied did not say how such a plan might operate as employees’ taxes are deducted at source and many Tunisians in the private sector do not declare their full income.
The IMF has called for legislation to restructure more than 100 state-owned firms, which hold monopolies over many parts of the economy and in many cases are heavily indebted.
The country is going through a financial crisis marked by chronic shortages of basic food products.
Political tensions are also running high since Saied launched a sweeping power grab in July 2021, rocking the democracy in the birthplace of the Arab Spring revolts over 10 years previously.


UAE assumes Security Council presidency with vow to tackle ‘deep divisions, polarization’

UAE assumes Security Council presidency with vow to tackle ‘deep divisions, polarization’
Updated 02 June 2023

UAE assumes Security Council presidency with vow to tackle ‘deep divisions, polarization’

UAE assumes Security Council presidency with vow to tackle ‘deep divisions, polarization’
  • Emirati envoy pledges to ‘build bridges and find space for consensus’
  • Signature event will highlight role of climate change in fueling conflict around the world

NEW YORK: The UAE will continue to play a constructive role in creating space for agreement and consensus on the many important issues facing the Security Council, the Gulf country’s UN ambassador pledged as she assumed the presidency of the 15-member body for the second time in the UAE's two-year tenure.

Lana Nusseibeh said that apart from the familiar issues on the council’s agenda, which include Syria, Yemen, Palestine, Libya, Iraq and Sudan, the UAE will host a ministerial-level signature event on “Climate Change and Peace and Security,” which will be chaired by Mariam Almheiri, the Emirati minister of climate change and the environment.

“Climate change is the defining challenge of our time,” Nusseibeh told a press conference at the UN headquarters in New York.

“Its scale, its complexity and the responses it demands are really unprecedented. (And) we’ve seen clearly how climate change impacts (the Security Council’s) ability to maintain international peace and security,” she said.

“So many of the discussions on the council’s agenda speak to this alarming dynamic and that will be the core focus of our meeting.”

This link between climate change and international peace and security requires “a carefully calibrated role” for the council, and the UAE aims to “build a common view on what this role could be in the future,” Nusseibeh said.

In November, Dubai will host the 2023 UN Climate Change Conference, or COP28. Since 1992, the forum has brought together governments in an effort to agree on policies to limit global temperature rises and mitigate the impact of climate change.

The UAE has pledged to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2050, the first Middle Eastern government to make such a commitment. It was also the first country in the region to sign the Paris Agreement in 2016, and has also invested $50 billion in clean energy internationally, with a promise to invest an additional $50 billion by 2030.

“We’re really honored to be hosting COP28,” said Nusseibeh, “not only because it’s an existential issue for all countries, including the countries of the Middle East, but because we hope to be able to contribute with our long-standing experience in the field of climate change and renewable energy to the deliberation.”

Another ministerial meeting will tackle “the values of human fraternity in promoting and sustaining peace,” and will be attended by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed El-Tayeb.

Nusseibeh said that this event “couldn’t be timelier.”

She said: “It’s a time when the world is experiencing the highest number of armed conflicts since 1945, and across the globe we’re seeing an increasingly worrying rise in intolerance, hate speech, racism and extremism, all of which undoubtedly fuel violence and divide communities.”

The UAE envoy added that “these are threats to international peace and security, and they’re not limited to a single country or region.”

She said that the Security Council “has not always consistently addressed hate speech, racism and other forms of extremism as threat multipliers that drive the outbreak, escalation and recurrence of conflict.

“So, we think this is an opportunity to elevate that issue.”

Nusseibeh said the world “urgently needs political leaders to renew their commitment to peace, tolerance and human fraternity, and their actions should be reinforced by a whole-of-society approach centered on these shared values.”

On June 8, the UAE presidency will also host a briefing on “Enhancing Cooperation between the UN and the League of Arab States.” It will be chaired by Khalifa Shaheen, Emirati minister of state in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and will be attended by Guterres, as well as Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the Arab League secretary-general, who will deliver a brief.

During the UAE’s last presidency in March 2022, the Security Council welcomed “the strong cooperation between the UN and the Arab League,” and vowed to solidify the partnership.

Council members also highlighted the importance of “women’s full, equal and meaningful participation in the prevention and resolutions of conflicts and in peacebuilding, as well as the positive contribution of youth.”

Nusseibeh said that this month her country will continue to build on those commitments, including through promoting the role of women and youth, combating terrorism, and fostering a culture of tolerance to strengthen and sustain regional peace and stability.

UNRWA chief warns agency will run out of funds within months unless donors step up

Children ride their bicycles in front of a health center run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Gaza
Children ride their bicycles in front of a health center run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Gaza
Updated 02 June 2023

UNRWA chief warns agency will run out of funds within months unless donors step up

Children ride their bicycles in front of a health center run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Gaza
  • Philippe Lazzarini tells Arab News that it is high time to end the ‘dialogue of the deaf’ between donors and host communities, and reflect on what it means to be committed to Palestinian refugees
  • UN chief calls on donors to fully fund ‘one of the few rays of hope’ amid ‘darkening picture’ of 75-year conflict

NEW YORK: The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East is going through a “massive” financial crisis that threatens its very existence, the agency’s chief has warned.

Philippe Lazzarini said that UNRWA’s ability to “muddle through is slowly but surely coming to an end,” and predicted that by September it will have no cash to keep its schools, health centers and other critical services running.

Lazzarini was speaking in New York ahead of a pledging conference on Friday to support UNRWA organized by Csaba Korosi, president of the General Assembly.

The UNRWA chief said the agency is “about to implode,” lamenting the fact that even as the financial crisis deepens, some of its most committed donors have indicated they will “substantially decrease their contribution to the agency.”

He called on donors to “not take our ability to deliver services for granted,” adding that “sooner or later, we will reach a tipping point.”

UNRWA provides services to almost 6 million Palestinians registered in the occupied Palestinian territories and neighboring countries.

“I keep telling partners that UNRWA is not like any other UN humanitarian or development agency,” Lazzarini said.

“(The) uniqueness in this organization is that we are the only ones who are tasked to provide government-like services. We are, de facto, the ministry of education, the ministry of primary healthcare, the ministry of social services and the ministry of municipal services to one of the most destitute communities in the region — Palestine refugees.

“So, when we talk about adapting spending to resources, I am in no position to say, ‘Well, because we have 20 percent less resources, let’s ask 20 percent of our children to leave our schools.’ Based on which criteria? We have nearly 550,000 girls and boys in our schools. I cannot one year say that I will take 550,000 students and another year say I will take 100,000 students less and bring them back once the funding returns. That is not the way public-like services operate,” he said.

The agency has about 30,000 staff, most of them Palestinian refugees. It runs more than 700 schools for half a million children, and offers health, sanitation and social services, including food and cash assistance.

Palestinian refugees mostly live in often underserved camps that have been transformed into built-up residential areas in the occupied territories, as well as in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

Lazzarini said that over the past 10 years the agency’s resources have stagnated, while costs have increased in a region that has been hit by multiple crises.

“Expectations from Palestine refugees vis-a-vis UNRWA as being the only lifeline have also increased. (So) the tension between the costs and the resources has become more and more unbearable,” he said.

In the absence of a political process and in a context where the Palestinian-Israeli conflict “is not a priority anymore,” any decrease in UNRWA’s services would be perceived “as a weakening of the future rights of Palestine refugees,” Lazzarini said.

He urged donors to show “genuine political attention and commitment.”

Lazzarini told Arab News that UNRWA’s approaching 75th anniversary is a “perfect umbrella” to reflect on what it means to be committed to Palestinian refugees.

“This is a discussion that has not really taken place,” he said, adding that since he took up the post as commissioner-general there has been a “dialogue of the deaf” between host communities and donors.

“The donors usually tell you that you have to spend within your resource, but we keep saying, ‘Well, there is a limit to that. We have been involved in efficiency. It became austerity. And, today, going further would mean taking the decision to ask kids (to) be dropped from high school. This is something we cannot do.

“So, we need to have a proper discussion about what do we expect an agency like UNRWA to deliver, and once we agree on (that,) we become a predictable partner for the Palestinian refugees,” he said.

“This discussion has not yet taken place because there hasn’t been a political framework. But we as an agency cannot wait. Our worst enemy today is a status quo, and I’m looking at how to force a discussion, how a group of experts can come up with recommendations to be brought on the table and to be agreed with member states.”

In a statement to the pledging conference, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that UNRWA’s financial crisis comes against the backdrop of the deadliest year for Palestinians in about two decades.

Guterres expressed regret at not being able to attend the conference in person after he was called home to Lisbon because of a family emergency.

“Halfway into the new year, violence rages on without reprieve,” said Chef de Cabinet Courtenay Rattray, who spoke at the pledging conference on behalf of Guterres.

He reiterated the UN position that “there is no alternative to a political solution that realizes the vision of two states — Israel and Palestine — living side by side in peace and security, with Jerusalem the capital of both.

“The outlines of this solution are well known: They are laid out in United Nations resolutions, international law and bilateral agreements. But realities on the ground — from the continuing occupation to expanding settlement construction — are working against us.”

Rattray said that “in this darkening picture, UNRWA is one of the few rays of hope,” and urged member states “to nurture and sustain this hope,” and do their part to “ensure that UNRWA is fully funded.”

Lebanese opposition parties ‘reach consensus’ on presidential candidate

Lebanese opposition parties ‘reach consensus’ on presidential candidate
Updated 02 June 2023

Lebanese opposition parties ‘reach consensus’ on presidential candidate

Lebanese opposition parties ‘reach consensus’ on presidential candidate
  • Lebanon has been in constitutional crisis since Michel Aoun left the presidential palace seven months ago

BEIRUT: A Lebanese MP has said opposition parties have reached consensus on a presidential candidate, in an apparent breakthrough that could end a seven-month power vacuum.

Fadi Karam, of Lebanese Forces, told Arab News that “all signs were positive” that the Free Patriotic Movement, a one-time ally of Hezbollah, had agreed to endorse the nomination of Jihad Azour, currently the director of the Middle East and Central Asia Department at the International Monetary Fund.

“We reached an agreement with the FPM and we are looking for the right time to announce it officially,” he said after opposition parties met on Friday. “Each party might announce its stance, but what’s certain is that the FPM endorses Azour and will announce its stance individually.”

He said announcements could be made before Monday.

Karam added that Azour’s backers were “communicating with other parties, including the Progressive Socialist Party, the Moderation Bloc, and independents,” to secure more votes to secure the necessary 65 votes for Azour’s election. “Signs are positive,” he added.

Lebanon has been in constitutional crisis since Michel Aoun left the presidential palace seven months ago. There have been 11 failed election sessions by MPs since then, prompting the parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, to say that he would refuse another unless “at least two serious presidential candidates are presented”. He warned that “disruption and intimidation would be of no use or benefit.”

Hezbollah, the Amal Movement and their allies support the candidacy of former minister and head of the Marada Movement, Suleiman Frangieh. The FPM was Hezbollah’s ally before turning against it after it endorsed Frangieh’s candidacy.

Azour was first put forward by Christian parties and their efforts are now mainly focused on getting the FPM to approve his nomination.

Some other opposition parties meanwhile have supported Michel Mouawad.

Maronite Patriarch Bechara Al-Rahi is among the opposition forces pressing speaker Berri to schedule an electoral session.

“Berri should have called a meeting two months before the end of former president Michel Aoun’s term, but some people violate the constitution,” Al-Rahi said after returning from a trip to the Vatican.

He said the Vatican and France had asked him to “work internally with other components, so Christian parties would agree on a presidential candidate” and that he would speak to anyone, “including Berri and Hezbollah.”

Barbara Leaf, US assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, said that the US administration was considering sanctions on Lebanese officials for their continued obstruction in the election of a new president.

She added in a statement: “The administration is very disappointed in the current situation in Lebanon, and is cooperating with its local and European partners to push the Lebanese parliament to carry out its duties.

“The Lebanese people’s representatives failed at doing their job, and the parliament speaker failed at holding parliamentary sessions since last January to allow deputies to nominate presidential candidates and vote for them to elect a president.”

In a visit to Lebanon in March, Leaf had warned against “the collapse of Lebanon as a state” and said that time had “started to run out.” She was surprised that there wasn’t “any sense of urgency on the part of many political leaders and deputies.”

Reformist MP Waddah Sadek said he was confident that two “serious candidates” would be officially nominated by the end of this week.

“The first serious candidate is Frangieh. Before next Monday, the second serious candidate will be announced, after receiving the approval of many parliamentary blocs and deputies,” he said.

“We will be looking forward to a speedy parliamentary session next week. If anything happens and the quorum is lost, we will consider this a new obstruction and a blow to what’s left of the country’s democracy, if any.”

Independent MP Bilal Houshaymi affirmed his support for “the Christian parties’ agreement to nominate Azour, whose professional position at the World Bank allows him to lead Lebanon’s recovery out of the abyss.”

Houshaymi said Frangieh “isn’t accepted by most Christian parties at a time when he calls for consensus.”

He said Hezbollah wanted to carry on with its statelet within the Lebanese state, even if at the expense of other components.

Mohammed Raad, head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc, said: “The presidential election isn’t about the people, but rather about who wishes the resistance well and who stabs the resistance in the back.”

Raad said Hezbollah "supports Frangieh because we are confident that he will not stab the resistance in the back and he is capable of being a bridge of communication between us and the others, including our political adversaries. He is also capable of communicating with our Arab surroundings, as well as with countries concerned with Lebanese affairs.”

Those opposing Frangieh’s nomination “are prolonging the presidential vacuum period and they want to dominate the country at the service of its enemies,” he added.