Frankly Speaking: Can Lebanon ever have an ‘independent’ president?

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Updated 16 June 2024
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Frankly Speaking: Can Lebanon ever have an ‘independent’ president?

Frankly Speaking: Can Lebanon ever have an ‘independent’ president?
  • Ziad Hayek explains how he would fix the economy and break the political deadlock without Hezbollah’s support
  • Presidential candidate weighs in on relations with the GCC bloc and whether a war with Israel is now inevitable

DUBAI: People familiar with Lebanon’s sectarian politics and power camps are typically skeptical about the likelihood and success of a truly independent candidate for the presidency — a position that has been vacant since October 2022.

However, Ziad Hayek, who claims to be an independent, says that the current parliamentary climate makes it possible to stand successfully and work effectively as a president representing none of the main political camps.

“The makeup of parliament for the first time in Lebanon is such that it allows us to do that,” said Hayek during an appearance on the Arab News current affairs program “Frankly Speaking.”

“The two general factions that are defined by either pro-Hezbollah or against Hezbollah and pro-Western camp or pro-East, these two larger factions are almost equally divided in parliament. And neither side is able or has been able for the past year and a half to get their candidate elected. 

“And so I think that they need to come to terms with that situation. They need to focus on finding a president, a candidate that they can both feel comfortable with, and yet does not belong to either side.”

Challenged by “Frankly Speaking” host Katie Jensen on whether he really stands a chance of success without aligning himself with Hezbollah, Hayek said only an independent could help the country to break with the past.

“The focus that I have today is on making sure that I’m an acceptable candidate to all sides, because all factions have to be comfortable, and I wouldn’t want to be the candidate of either side. That’s why I’m running as an independent candidate,” he said.

“At the end of the day, we are not going to move Lebanon from the mud … unless we really get to understand the issues that all the parties face and air concerns and allay their concerns. So that applies to Hezbollah and it applies to all the other parties.”




Independent presidential candidate Ziad Hayek outlined his political and economic vision for Lebanon during an appearance on the weekly Arab News current affairs program “Frankly Speaking.” (AN Photo)

Hezbollah has significant support among the Shiite population of Lebanon and even among many Maronite Christians, including presidential contender Gebran Bassil — the son-in-law of former President Michel Aoun, who took office thanks to his backing of Hezbollah.

Given the political clout of Hezbollah and Lebanon’s other big parties, can an independent hope to break through? Hayek says it is precisely because these big hitters have consistently failed to get their own candidates elected that an independent can break the deadlock.

“Of course, I do understand that Hezbollah has an influential role in this election,” he said. “I don’t discount that. But so do other parties. Hezbollah has not been able to get its candidate elected so far, and neither have the other parties. 

“Yes, I do understand that people may think that my position is a bit unrealistic simply because Lebanon has not had this type of situation before. But I think it is in this situation that we have the opportunity to break away from the past and look to Lebanon’s future in a different way.”

Hayek is not new to Lebanese politics. In 2006, he joined the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, becoming secretary general of the Republic of Lebanon’s High Council for Privatization and PPP until he was nominated to be president of the World Bank in 2019. 

Having witnessed the devastating 2006 war, the financial crash of late 2019, the economic toll of the pandemic, the destruction of the Beirut port blast of Aug. 4, 2020, the government’s paralysis since October 2022, and now a low-intensity conflict on Lebanon’s southern border with Israel, one has to wonder: Why on earth would he want to be president? 

“I want this job because I really feel that this place is one of the best countries in the world with so much potential,” he said. “And yet the political discourse in it has been going in the wrong direction. And I would like to change that. 

“I’m hoping to be able to change the political dialogue, focus more on socio-economic matters, how to develop the country, how to develop its economy, rather than continuing the conversation that usually takes place about ‘this faction wants this guy’ and ‘this faction wants that guy.’

“None of these candidates have presented any program, any vision for the future. So I would like to change the way that the Lebanese public looks at politics in general, and focus on policies.”

Bridging the political divide in Lebanon’s multi-confessional system that emerged after the civil war would be a tall order for any experienced politician with a party machine to back them up.

Hayek is confident that his background in finance, helping governments balance their books and facilitate reform, makes him ideally suited to getting even the bitterest of rivals to work together for the public good.

“I have made a career of being able to work with people that everybody else said: ‘No, you cannot work with this guy. You cannot work with this group,’” he said.

“The Lebanese public in general is really yearning for somebody that can address the needs that it has and the daily needs of the Lebanese citizen, not just the geopolitics of America and Iran and all this conversation that really leads nowhere at the end of the day for the common person on the street.”




A smoke plume rises after rockets fired from south Lebanon landed near Kfar Szold in the Upper Galilee in northern Israel on June 14. Fallout from the Gaza war is regularly felt on the Israeli-Lebanon frontier, where deadly cross-border exchanges have escalated. (AFP)

Like it or not, Lebanon’s destiny is tied up in geopolitics. In fact, Hezbollah’s Iranian backers and their Israeli rivals have turned the country into a battlefield in their ongoing shadow war.

Since the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack on southern Israel triggered the war in Gaza, Hezbollah has launched daily rocket and drone attacks against Israel’s northern territories to draw fire away from its Hamas allies.

Israel has retaliated with its own air and artillery strikes against southern Lebanon, leading to fears of an escalation that could drag the wider region into a major confrontation.

Asked whether a full-scale war can be averted, sparing Lebanon a devastating Israeli invasion it can ill afford to fight, Hayek said he was hopeful “cooler heads will eventually prevail.” 

“Both the Israelis and the Lebanese, including Hezbollah, have to realize, all of us, that these wars lead nowhere,” he said. “It’s just destruction on both sides. And at the end of the day, this conflict has gone on for decades. And all these wars end with some compromise and some agreement on a ceasefire that lasts for a certain period of time. 

“We need to move towards finding a lasting peace. And the makings of that were already starting to happen when Lebanon reached an agreement on the delineation of the maritime borders with Israel. There was work that was continuing, helped along by the Americans.

“Unfortunately, this Gaza situation came up and changed things. But I think when the dust settles, we do need to go back to working on the task of making sure that we build a lasting peace. 

“For now, it is a terrible situation. There is no doubt about it. I think that cooler heads will eventually prevail as they always do in every conflict. And we will see some agreement between the parties.”

Nevertheless, the rhetoric from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has continued to grow more hostile and the spate of cross-border attack more deadly, leaving some to conclude a full-scale war seems inevitable.

“Israel knows that it is in its best interest not to engage in a war in Lebanon that it cannot win,” said Hayek. “Lebanon is not Gaza. It’s going to be a lot more difficult. It’s something that Israel has experienced in the past, and I don’t think the Israelis wish to escalate the war in Lebanon. 

“But continuing to play with fire, tit for tat and all of that, is not helpful because we are a hair trigger away from an escalation. I mean, any day there can be a strike that goes wrong beyond the normally accepted, currently accepted type of trading fire between the two parties. 

“And such a situation can lead to a very fast escalation that may draw even regional powers into the equation. And I think that nobody wants that, really.”

Even if the region is spared a major war, Lebanon still has to contend with a broken economy, rampant corruption, shattered infrastructure, mass unemployment, extreme poverty, and a generation of young people who have fled abroad.

If he becomes president, how would Hayek go about untangling such a colossal mess?




Asked during his appearance on Frankly Speaking whether a full-scale war can be averted, sparing Lebanon a devastating Israeli invasion it can ill afford to fight, Hayek said he was hopeful “cooler heads will eventually prevail.”  (AN Photo)

“I have presented a plan specifically for Lebanon to get out of its financial crisis,” he said. “It is built on converting the bank deposits into tradeable CDs (certificates of deposit) on the Beirut Stock Exchange to enable the capital markets to come back to life again. 

“It involves using some of the gold reserves to create funds for social development and for economic development. It includes regaining the ability of the government not to raise taxes but to collect taxes in order to pay for the services it needs to deliver to the Lebanese public. So I do have some ideas. 

“I think that the International Monetary Fund’s approval is very important because we do need the seal of approval of the IMF to regain the confidence of investors. But I think there are many ways to discuss with the IMF what could be acceptable to them as well as taking the Lebanese reality into consideration.”

Hayek also wants to see Lebanon revive its economic ties with the Gulf Cooperation Council bloc, allowing Lebanese companies to prosper from investment opportunities, in particular Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 agenda.

“The relationship with the GCC is crucial,” he said. “Those countries are the hosts of hundreds of thousands, or tens of thousands of Lebanese that are working there. So they are very important currently to our economy with the remittances of these people. 

“But also, of course, the Lebanese are contributing to the growth and development that is happening in the region because the Lebanese working there are highly educated, highly skilled, able to contribute in a big way. 

“This mutual relationship of benefits needs to be strengthened. I think that with Vision 2030 in Saudi Arabia and other plans in the UAE and other countries, these are big opportunities for the Lebanese, big opportunities for Lebanon to solidify its relationships with those countries and governments and projects and as well as for them to see that they already know that Lebanon has much to offer to contribute towards their success.”

 


Iran condemns Israeli attack on Yemen’s Hodeidah port

Iran condemns Israeli attack on Yemen’s Hodeidah port
Updated 5 min 10 sec ago
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Iran condemns Israeli attack on Yemen’s Hodeidah port

Iran condemns Israeli attack on Yemen’s Hodeidah port
  • Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman said the attack was “an expression of the aggressive behavior of the child-killing Israeli regime.”

TEHRAN: Iran has condemned Israel’s deadly retaliatory strike on the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah in Yemen that the miltia say killed six people and wounded dozens more.
Late on Saturday, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani “strongly condemned” the attack saying it was “an expression of the aggressive behavior of the child-killing Israeli regime.”
Israeli warplanes on Saturday struck the vital port of Hodeidah in response to a deadly drone attack by the Iran-backed Houthis on Tel Aviv, which killed one civilian.
The Houthis have since threatened a “huge” retaliation against Israel.
Kanani added that Israel and its supporters, including the United States, were “directly responsible for the dangerous and unpredictable consequences of the continued crimes in Gaza, as well as the attacks on Yemen.”
Regional tensions have soared since the start of the Israel-Hamas war in October, drawing in Iran-backed militant groups in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen.
Yemen’s Houthis, along with the Hezbollah group in Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza are part of a Tehran-aligned “axis of resistance” against Israel and its allies.
The Islamic republic has reiterated support for the groups but insisted they were independent in their decision-making and actions.


Archaeologists in Bahrain unearth Gulf’s earliest Christian structure

Archaeologists in Bahrain unearth Gulf’s earliest Christian structure
Updated 4 sec ago
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Archaeologists in Bahrain unearth Gulf’s earliest Christian structure

Archaeologists in Bahrain unearth Gulf’s earliest Christian structure
  • Located in Samahij, in the Bahraini city of Muharraq, the unearthed structure is considered “the first material evidence of this ancient community”
  • Digging at the site commenced at a mound within the Samahij cemetery, where archaeologists discovered the remains of a mosque.

DUBAI: Bahraini and British archaeologists say they have discovered what is believed to be the first Christian structure in the Arabian Gulf, dating back to the fourth century.

Located in Samahij, in the Bahraini city of Muharraq, the unearthed structure is considered “the first material evidence of this ancient community,” according to the Bahrain National Communications Center.

“While Christianity is not predominantly associated with the Gulf states today, the Church of the East, also known as the Nestorian Church, flourished in the region for centuries until the 7th century CE, coinciding with the widespread Islam amongst the communities in 610 CE,” the NCC said in a statement.

Archeologists said that radiocarbon dating of the Samahij site confirmed “the building was occupied between the mid-4th and mid-8th centuries CE, likely abandoned as Islam spread among the local population.”

Digging at the site commenced at a mound within the Samahij cemetery, where archaeologists discovered the remains of a mosque.

Further excavation revealed a large building with eight rooms, including a kitchen, dining room, workshop, and three living quarters. It is believed that the construction of the mosque on the site contributed to the preservation of the building below, the NCC added.

The findings suggest the building may have been the residence of the bishop of the local diocese, which included Samahij. Historical sources refer to this area as “Mishmahig” or “Mashmahig,” likely variations of Samahij.

Records also indicate a connection between the region and central church authorities, with one bishop dismissed in 410 and another condemned for challenging church unity in the seventh century.

The excavation project, a collaborative effort between the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities and a British team led by Prof. Timothy Insoll of the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at Exeter University, and Dr. Salman Al-Mahari of the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities, began in 2019 and culminated in these significant findings in 2023.

This discovery is unique due to its location in the heart of a modern, densely populated town, unlike previous Christian structures found in remote areas along the Gulf coast.

Notable finds include three plaster crosses, two adorning the building’s exterior and one possibly kept as a personal memento, along with wall carvings featuring a fish symbol and part of the “Chi Rho” symbol, representing “Christ.”

Al-Mahari explained that the excavation, now in its final stages, is an important piece of Bahraini history, providing valuable insights into the Christian presence in the region.

Initial studies suggested the site dated from the sixth to eighth centuries, but radiocarbon dating confirmed fourth century origins, making it one of the oldest Christian buildings in the Arabian Gulf. Recent findings include a clear Eastern cross on a plaster slab.

The excavation also revealed details about the building and its inhabitants’ lives. Constructed with stone walls coated in plaster and plaster floors, the building featured sockets and holes indicating door and seat placements. The kitchen contained built-in ovens with bases and storage areas. Artifacts suggest the inhabitants enjoyed a good standard of living, consuming meat, fish, shellfish, and various crops. The discovery of semi-precious agate beads and broken Indian pottery indicates the occupants were involved in trade, particularly with India. Small drinking glasses and 12 copper coins suggest the use of Sasanian Empire currency. Additionally, spindle whorls and copper needles hint at the possibility of cloth production for religious purposes.

Insoll said: “We stress the importance of this site and the need to preserve it, highlighting its historical and archaeological value.”

He added: “We were amused to find someone had drawn part of a face on a pearl shell using bitumen, possibly for a child who lived in the building. This is the first physical evidence of the Nestorian Church in Bahrain, providing a fascinating insight into how people lived, worked, and worshiped.”


Iraq to import electricity from Turkiye

Iraq to import electricity from Turkiye
Updated 21 July 2024
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Iraq to import electricity from Turkiye

Iraq to import electricity from Turkiye
  • PM Mohamed Shia Al-Sudani said the new line is a “strategic” step to link Iraq with neighboring countries

BAGHDAD: Iraq said Sunday a new power line will bring electricity from Turkiye to its northern provinces as authorities aim to diversify the country’s energy sources to ease chronic power outages.
The 115-kilometer (71-mile) line connects to Kisik power plant west of Mosul and will provide 300 megawatts from Turkiye to Iraq’s northern provinces of Nineveh, Salah Al-Din and Kirkuk, according to a statement by the prime minister’s office.
PM Mohamed Shia Al-Sudani said the new line is a “strategic” step to link Iraq with neighboring countries.
“The line started operating today,” Ahmed Moussa, spokesperson for the electricity ministry, told AFP.
Decades of war have left Iraq’s infrastructure in a pitiful state, with power cuts worsening the blistering summer when temperatures often reach 50 Celsius (122 Fahrenheit).
Many households have just a few hours of mains electricity per day, and those who can afford it use private generators to keep fridges and air conditioners running.
Despite its vast oil reserves, Iraq remains dependent on imports to meet its energy needs, especially from neighboring Iran, which regularly cuts supplies.
Sudani has repeatedly stressed the need for Iraq to diversify energy sources to ease the chronic outages.
To reduce its dependence on Iranian gas, Baghdad has been exploring several possibilities including imports from Gulf countries.
In March, a 340-kilometer (210-mile) power line started operating to bring electricity from Jordan to Al-Rutbah in Iraq’s southwest.


Yemen’s Hodeidah battles port blaze after deadly Israel strike

Yemen’s Hodeidah  battles port blaze after deadly Israel strike
Updated 4 min 49 sec ago
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Yemen’s Hodeidah battles port blaze after deadly Israel strike

Yemen’s Hodeidah  battles port blaze after deadly Israel strike
  • Houthi military spokesman Yahya Saree said the militia’s “response to the Israeli aggression against our country is inevitably coming and will be huge.”
  • The strike killed six people and wounded 80, many of them with severe burns

HODEIDAH: Firefighting teams on Sunday were still battling a blaze at the Houthi-run port in Yemen’s Hodeidah, hours after an Israeli strike on the harbor triggered a massive fire and killed six people, according to the militia.
Saturday’s strike on the vital port, a key entry point for fuel and humanitarian aid, is the first claimed by Israel in the Arabian peninsula’s poorest country, about 2,000 kilometers (1,300 miles) away.
It killed six people and wounded 80, many of them with severe burns, the rebel-run health ministry said in a statement carried by Houthi media.

On Sunday, Houthi military spokesman Yahya Saree said the militia’s “response to the Israeli aggression against our country is inevitably coming and will be huge.” 

Israel said it carried out the strike in response to a drone attack by the Houthis on Tel Aviv which killed one person on Friday.
More operations against the Houthis would follow “if they dare to attack us,” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said.
Following the strike, the Israeli military said Sunday it intercepted a missile fired from Yemen toward the Red Sea resort town of Eilat, noting that “the projectile did not cross into Israeli territory.”
Saree, the Houthi spokesman, said the militia had fired ballistic missiles toward Eilat, the latest in a string of Houthi attempts to hit the port city.
The militia announcement came as firefighters struggled to contain the blaze at the Hodeidah port, with thick plumes of black smoke shrouding the sky above the city, said an AFP correspondent in the area.
Fuel storage tanks and a power plant at the port where still ablaze amid “slow” firefighting efforts, said a Hodeidah port employee.
The port employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for security concerns, said it could take days to contain the fire, a view echoed by Yemen experts.
“There is concern that the poorly equipped firefighters may not be able to contain the spreading fire, which could continue for days,” said Mohammed Albasha, senior Middle East analyst for the US-based Navanti Group, warning that it could reach food storage facilities at the harbor.
Hodeidah port, a vital entry point for fuel imports and international aid for militia-held areas of Yemen, had remained largely untouched through the decade-long war between the Houthis and the internationally recognized government propped up by neighboring Saudi Arabia.
The Houthis control swathes of Yemen, including much of its Red Sea coast, and the war has left millions of Yemenis dependent on aid supplied through the port.
Despite Houthi assurances of sufficient fuel stocks, Saturday’s strike triggered fears of worsening shortages, which war-weary Yemenis are ill-equiped to handle.
The attack is “going to have dire humanitarian effects on the millions of ordinary Yemenis living in Houthi-held Yemen,” Nicholas Brumfield, a Yemen expert, said on social media platform X.
It will drive up prices of fuel but also any goods carried by truck, the analyst said.
Yemen’s internationally-recognized government, which has been battling the Houthis for nearly a decade, condemned the strike, and held Israel responsible for a worsening humanitarian crisis.
A statement carried by the official Saba news agency said the Yemeni government holds “the Zionist entity fully responsible for any repercussions resulting from its air strikes, including the deepening of a humanitarian crises.”
It also warned the huthi militia against dragging the country into “senseless battles that serve the interests of the Iranian regime and its expansionist project in the region.”


‘Deeply concerned’ UN chief calls for restraint after Israel’s attack on Yemen

‘Deeply concerned’ UN chief calls for restraint after Israel’s attack on Yemen
Updated 21 July 2024
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‘Deeply concerned’ UN chief calls for restraint after Israel’s attack on Yemen

‘Deeply concerned’ UN chief calls for restraint after Israel’s attack on Yemen
  • The internationally recognised government of Yemen also condemned Israel's airstrikes as a violation of international laws

DUBAI: UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed deep concern over Israel’s airstrikes on Saturday in and around the port of Hodeidah in Yemen.

Guterres called on all parties to “avoid attacks that could harm civilians and damage civilian infrastructure.”

In a statement, the secretary-general said that he “remains deeply concerned about the risk of further escalation in the region and continues to urge all to exercise utmost restraint.”

Israel’s stike on Hodeidah, apparently in retaliation for the Houthi drone strike on Tel Aviv earlier this week, left several dead and more than 80 people injured.

Houthi-run Al-Masirah TV reported that Israeli planes struck a power plant and a fuel storage facility.

Meanwhile, the internationally recognised government of Yemen on Sunday condemned Israel's airstrikes as a violation of international laws, holding Israel responsible for worsening the humanitarian crisis and strengthening Houthi militias.

The government, in a statement, urged the Houthis to prioritize national interests and engage in peace, while calling on the international community to support Yemen's authority and implement Resolution 2216.

The government also reiterated support for the Palestinian people and called for an end to Israeli aggression.