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.”

 


Israeli jets strike Houthi targets in Yemen in response to attacks, military says

Israeli jets strike Houthi targets in Yemen in response to attacks, military says
Updated 27 sec ago
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Israeli jets strike Houthi targets in Yemen in response to attacks, military says

Israeli jets strike Houthi targets in Yemen in response to attacks, military says
  • A news outlet run by Houthi militia says the strikes targeted oil facilities and caused fatalities
  • Houthis used a long-range drone to target Tel Aviv on Friday, killing one man and injuring others

AL-MUKALLA: Israeli warplanes struck the Houthi-held western Yemeni city of Hodeidah on Saturday, apparently in retaliation for the Houthi drone strike on Tel Aviv earlier this week.

Houthi-run Al-Masirah TV reported that Israeli planes hit a power plant and a gasoline storage facility, killing and injuring several people.

Images circulating on social media showed a massive ball of fire and thick fog billowing from the targets.

Mohammed Abdul Sallam, the Houthi chief negotiator based in Muscat, said the airstrikes targeted “civilian” facilities to “pressure them to stop supporting Gaza,” vowing to continue attacks on ships and Israel itself until Israel ends its war in the enclave.

“We emphasize that this brutal aggression will only strengthen the determination and steadfastness of the Yemeni people and their valiant armed forces in their support for Gaza,” he said in a post on X.

Other Houthi officials vowed to retaliate. “We will respond more violently and harshly to this Zionist-American orgy,” Abdul Sallam Jahaf, a member of the Houthi Shura Council.

On Friday, the Houthis launched an explosive-laden drone into a Tel Aviv residential area, killing one person and injuring at least 10.

Critics of the militia argue the Houthis will use the bombings to legitimize their rule and crush dissidents in regions under their control.

“An Israeli airstrike is precisely what the #Houthis have long sought to legitimize their power consolidation. This event offers a pretext for increased repression of the population & violence in #Yemen and beyond. The Houthis excel at inviting conflict to sustain their authority,” Nadwa Al-Dawsari, a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. said on X.


Sudan fire kills nine

Emergency services rescued several people who had been trapped on the ground floor of the building.
Emergency services rescued several people who had been trapped on the ground floor of the building.
Updated 50 min 26 sec ago
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Sudan fire kills nine

Emergency services rescued several people who had been trapped on the ground floor of the building.
  • At least four people remain in hospital but are in stable condition, the police said in a statement

PORT SUDAN: Fire tore through an apartment block in Port Sudan killing nine people in the city which the Sudanese army has made its base during fighting with rival paramilitaries, police said Saturday.
Emergency services rescued several people who had been trapped on the ground floor of the building when an electrical short circuit triggered the blaze.
At least four people remain in hospital but are in stable condition, the police said in a statement, without saying when the blaze took place.
Sudan has been gripped by war since April 2023.
The conflict between the regular army under Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, led by his former deputy Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, has left tens of thousands dead and forced more than 10 million from their homes, according to the United Nations.


US criticizes ICJ opinion on Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories

Israeli security forces close-off a main entrance to Huwara town in the occupied West Bank following attacks by Israeli settlers
Israeli security forces close-off a main entrance to Huwara town in the occupied West Bank following attacks by Israeli settlers
Updated 18 min 30 sec ago
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US criticizes ICJ opinion on Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories

Israeli security forces close-off a main entrance to Huwara town in the occupied West Bank following attacks by Israeli settlers
  • “We are concerned that the breadth of the court’s opinion will complicate efforts to resolve the conflict and bring about an urgently needed” peace: State Department

WASHINGTON: The US criticized “the breadth” of the top UN court’s opinion that Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories is illegal, with Washington saying it would complicate efforts to resolve the conflict.
“We have been clear that Israel’s program of government support for settlements is both inconsistent with international law and obstructs the cause of peace,” a US State Department spokesperson said on Saturday in an email.
“However, we are concerned that the breadth of the court’s opinion will complicate efforts to resolve the conflict,” the State Department added.
The International Court of Justice, or the World Court, said on Friday that Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and settlements was illegal and should be ended as soon as possible, delivering its strongest findings to date on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The State Department said the ICJ opinion that Israel must withdraw as soon as possible from the Palestinian territories was “inconsistent with the established framework” for resolving the conflict.
Washington said that framework took into account Israel’s security needs, which it says were highlighted by the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel by Palestinian Islamist group Hamas. Those attacks killed 1,200, with around 250 people taken as hostages, according to Israeli tallies.

Two-state solution
The advisory opinion by ICJ judges is not binding but carries weight under international law and may weaken support for Israel.
The State Department said the way forward was through direct negotiations.
“Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the regime associated with them, have been established and are being maintained in violation of international law,” ICJ President Nawaf Salam said on Friday while reading the findings of a 15-judge panel.
The court said Israel’s obligations include paying restitution for harm and “the evacuation of all settlers from existing settlements.”
Israel rejected the opinion and said a political settlement can only be reached through negotiations. The office of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas welcomed the opinion, which it called historic.
The State Department said it “strongly discourages” parties from using the ICJ opinion “as a pretext for further unilateral actions that deepen divisions or for supplanting a negotiated two-state solution.”
The ICJ case stems from a 2022 request for a legal opinion from the United Nations General Assembly. It predates Israel’s war in Gaza, which began after the Oct. 7 attacks and has killed almost 39,000, according to the health ministry in Gaza, which has been under Hamas rule, while causing a hunger crisis, displacing Gaza’s nearly entire 2.3 million people and spurring genocide allegations that Israel denies.
The ICJ opinion said the UN Security Council, the General Assembly and all states have an obligation not to recognize the occupation as legal nor “render aid or assistance” toward maintaining Israel’s presence in the Palestinian territories.
Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem — which the Palestinians want for a state — in the Six-Day War in 1967 and has since built and expanded settlements in the West Bank. 


Hezbollah, Hamas say launched rocket salvos at north Israel

Smoke rises from a fire after Hezbollah fired a barrage of projectiles towards Israel from Lebanon.
Smoke rises from a fire after Hezbollah fired a barrage of projectiles towards Israel from Lebanon.
Updated 20 July 2024
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Hezbollah, Hamas say launched rocket salvos at north Israel

Smoke rises from a fire after Hezbollah fired a barrage of projectiles towards Israel from Lebanon.
  • Hezbollah said it launched “dozens of Katyusha rockets” on Dafna, an area in Israel’s north, “in response to the attack on civilians”

BEIRUT: Hezbollah and its Palestinian ally Hamas said they launched rocket barrages at Israeli positions Saturday to avenge a strike that injured civilians in south Lebanon and the Gaza war toll.
Hezbollah has traded near-daily fire with Israeli forces in support of Hamas since the Palestinian militant group’s October 7 attack on southern Israel triggered war in the Gaza Strip.
Earlier Saturday, Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency said Syrian nationals, including children, had been injured after an “enemy drone targeted an empty four-wheel drive” near their tent, less than four kilometers from the border.
Doctor Mouenes Kalakesh who heads the Marjayoun government hospital said a woman and her three children, two of them minors, had been admitted for shrapnel injuries after the strike outside Burj Al-Muluk.
Among them was an 11-year-old boy in critical condition after he sustained shrapnel injuries and a head wound, Kalakesh told AFP.
Hezbollah said it launched “dozens of Katyusha rockets” on Dafna, an area in Israel’s north that the group said it was targeting for the first time, “in response to the attack on civilians.”
On Wednesday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah had warned his Iran-backed group would hit new targets in Israel if more civilians were killed in Israeli strikes.
Later Saturday, Hamas’s armed wing, the Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades, said they fired a rocket salvo from south Lebanon toward an Israeli military position in the Upper Galilee “in response to the Zionist massacres against civilians in the Gaza Strip.”
The Israeli army said a total of 45 “projectiles” had been fired from Lebanon Saturday afternoon, toward the occupied Golan Heights and the Galilee, reporting no casualties.
The army said it struck “the launcher... in southern Lebanon from which the projectiles were launched toward the Golan Heights,” also targeting “an additional Hezbollah launcher.”
On Thursday, Israeli strikes killed at least five people, including the commander of a Hamas-allied group in Lebanon, militant groups and a security source said.
On Tuesday, Lebanese official media said separate Israeli strikes in south Lebanon killed five Syrians, three of them children, with Hezbollah announcing rocket fire at Israel in retaliation.
The violence since October has killed at least 515 people in Lebanon, according to an AFP tally.
Most of the dead have been fighters, but they have included at least 104 civilians.
On the Israeli side, 18 soldiers and 13 civilians have been killed, according to Israeli authorities.


Israeli warplanes pound Houthi-held Hodeidah

Israeli warplanes pound Houthi-held Hodeidah
Updated 20 July 2024
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Israeli warplanes pound Houthi-held Hodeidah

Israeli warplanes pound Houthi-held Hodeidah
  • Houthi officials vowed to retaliate. “We will respond more violently and harshly to this Zionist-American orgy,” Abdul Sallam Jahaf, a member of the Houthi Shura Council

AL-MUKALLA: Israeli warplanes struck the Houthi-held western Yemeni city of Hodeidah on Saturday, apparently in retaliation for the Houthi drone strike on Tel Aviv earlier this week.

Houthi-run Al-Masirah TV reported that Israeli planes hit a power plant and a gasoline storage facility, killing and injuring several people.

Images circulating on social media showed a massive ball of fire and thick fog billowing from the targets.

Mohammed Abdul Sallam, the Houthi chief negotiator based in Muscat, said the airstrikes targeted “civilian” facilities to “pressure them to stop supporting Gaza,” vowing to continue attacks on ships and Israel itself until Israel ends its war in the enclave.

“We emphasize that this brutal aggression will only strengthen the determination and steadfastness of the Yemeni people and their valiant armed forces in their support for Gaza,” he said in a post on X.

Other Houthi officials vowed to retaliate. “We will respond more violently and harshly to this Zionist-American orgy,” Abdul Sallam Jahaf, a member of the Houthi Shura Council.

On Friday, the Houthis launched an explosive-laden drone into a Tel Aviv residential area, killing one person and injuring at least 10.

Critics of the militia argue the Houthis will use the bombings to legitimize their rule and crush dissidents in regions under their control.

“An Israeli airstrike is precisely what the #Houthis have long sought to legitimize their power consolidation. This event offers a pretext for increased repression of the population & violence in #Yemen and beyond. The Houthis excel at inviting conflict to sustain their authority,” Nadwa Al-Dawsari, a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. said on X.