Archive for the ‘ Lebanon ’ Category

From Beirut to Hong Kong, protests evoke global frustration

October 26, 2019

BEIRUT (AP) — In Hong Kong, it was a complicated extradition dispute involving a murder suspect. In Beirut, it was a proposed tax on the popular WhatsApp messenger service. In Chile, it was a 4-cent hike in subway fares.

Recent weeks have seen mass protests and clashes erupt in far-flung places triggered by seemingly minor actions that each came to be seen as the final straw. The demonstrations are fueled by local grievances, but reflect worldwide frustration at growing inequality, corrupt elites and broken promises.

Where past waves of protests, like the 2011 Arab Spring or the rallies that accelerated the breakup of the Soviet Union, took aim at dictatorships, the latest demonstrations are rattling elected governments. The unrest on three continents, coupled with the toxic dysfunction in Washington and London, raises fresh concerns over whether the liberal international order, with free elections and free markets, can still deliver on its promises.

THE PEOPLE STILL WANT THE FALL OF THE REGIME

Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese poured into the streets after the government floated a new tax on WhatsApp on the heels of an austerity package that came in response to an increasingly severe fiscal crisis.

The protests rapidly escalated into an indictment of the entire post-civil war order , in which a sectarian power-sharing arrangement has transformed former warlords and other elites into a permanent political class. In the three decades since the war ended, the same leaders have used patronage networks to get themselves re-elected again and again even as the government has failed to reliably provide basic services like electricity, water and trash collection.

A similar story has unfolded in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, where a government that distributes power and top offices among Shiites and minority Sunnis and Kurds has calcified into a corrupt stasis, with parties haggling over ministries as services and infrastructure fall into further ruin despite the country’s considerable oil wealth.

“Thieves! Thieves!” protesters in both countries chanted this week.

“Massive economic mismanagement coupled with spiraling corruption have pauperized large segments of the Arab people,” said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. “It is no wonder then that millions of Arabs are fed up.”

The protests in both countries target governments that are close to Iran and backed by its heavily armed local allies, raising fears of a violent backlash. Nearly 200 Iraqis have been killed in recent clashes with security forces, and supporters of the Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group have brawled with protesters in Beirut.

“There is no magical bullet or easy answer to the severe crisis of governance in Arab lands,” Gerges said. “The struggle will be fierce and long and costly, but there is no turning back.”

RISING UP AGAINST A RISING CHINA

Hong Kong’s protests erupted in early June after the semiautonomous city passed an extradition bill that put residents at risk of being sent to China’s judicial system. At one point, protesters said they had brought 2 million people into the streets.

Authorities were forced to drop the extradition proposal , which was triggered by the need to resolve the status of a murder suspect wanted for killing his pregnant girlfriend in Taiwan. But by then, the movement had snowballed to include demands for full democracy in the form of direct elections for the city’s top leader.

Since China took control of Hong Kong from Britain in 1997, the city’s leaders have been selected by an elite committee made up mostly of pro-Beijing tycoons. Local councillors and half of the Asian financial center’s legislature are directly elected, but the other half are chosen by representatives from the finance, tourism, catering, accounting and other industries, which adds to the public discontent over stifled promises of democracy.

Underlying the Hong Kong protest movement are rising fears about China’s tightening grip on the city and worries that Beijing is reneging on promises not to meddle with Hong Kong’s Western-style civil liberties, such as freedom of speech and an independent judiciary.

Protesters also fear China’s technology-powered authoritarianism. Wearing masks to conceal their identities, they have cut down “smart lampposts” and smashed surveillance cameras. They worry about artificial intelligence-powered facial recognition surveillance systems capturing their biometric data and sending it for processing by Chinese technology giants to track and identify them.

UNREST IN WEALTHY, DEMOCRATIC CHILE

On Friday, an estimated 1 million Chileans filled the streets of the capital Santiago, more than ever took to the streets during the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet or the democratic governments that came after him.

The protests were sparked by the subway fare hike but soon morphed into a mass movement against inequality in one of Latin America’s wealthiest countries. At least 19 people have been killed as protesters have clashed with police in recent days.

Protesters tried to force their way onto the grounds of Chile’s legislature Friday, provoking an evacuation of the building. Police fired tear gas to fend off hundreds of demonstrators on the perimeter as some lawmakers and administrative staff hurried out of the legislative building, which is in the port city of Valparaiso.

Marta Lagos, head of Latinobarometro, a nonprofit survey group in Chile, said the protests have exposed the shortcomings of the country’s political system. “There is a failure of the system of political parties in its ability to represent society,” Lagos said.

Struggling to contain the strife, President Sebastián Piñera’s administration announced increases in the minimum wage, raised minimum pensions by 20% and rolled back the subway fare increase.

He put a 9.2% increase in electricity prices on hold until the end of next year, but with analysts predicting his resignation and fresh elections, the consequences of that move could fall to his successor.

CATALAN PROTESTS TAKE A VIOLENT TURN

For years, Catalan separatists have held peaceful, festive marches, but the movement took a violent turn last week when protests erupted over the imprisonment of nine leaders who led a bid for independence from Spain in 2017.

That failed attempt left the separatist movement rudderless, with 12 of its leaders arrested and most of the rest fleeing the country, including former Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont.

New activist collectives have emerged in their place, including one calling itself the Tsunami Democratic, which uses its own app and encrypted messages to call for “civil disobedience.”

But one of its first calls to protest, after the Oct. 31 Supreme Court ruling jailing the leaders, turned into a massive siege of Barcelona’s international airport, with rioters clashing with police late into the night.

The group has borrowed some of its tactics and rhetoric from the Hong Kong protesters, and protesters in both places have staged demonstrations in support of one another, though most Hong Kong protesters have been careful not to push for independence from China — one of President Xi Jinping’s “red lines.”

That one movement is struggling against domination by one-party China while the other is rising up against a European democracy is a distinction that has been lost in the tear gas.

Associated Press writers Kelvin Chan in Hong Kong and Aritz Parra in Madrid contributed.

Protests rattle the postwar order in Lebanon and Iraq

October 26, 2019

BAGHDAD (AP) — Tens of thousands of people, many of them young and unemployed men, thronged public squares and blocked main streets Friday in the capitals of Iraq and Lebanon in unprecedented, spontaneous anti-government revolts in two countries scarred by long conflicts.

Demonstrators in Iraq were beaten back by police firing live ammunition and tear gas, and officials said 30 people were killed in a fresh wave of unrest that has left 179 civilians dead this month. In Lebanon, scuffles between rival political groups broke out at a protest camp, threatening to undermine an otherwise united civil disobedience campaign now in its ninth day.

The protests are directed at a postwar political system and a class of elite leaders that have kept both countries from relapsing into civil war but achieved little else. The most common rallying cry from the protesters in Iraq and Lebanon is “Thieves! Thieves!” — a reference to officials they accuse of stealing their money and amassing wealth for decades.

The leaderless uprisings are unprecedented in uniting people against political leaders from their own religious communities. But the revolutionary change they are calling for would dismantle power-sharing governments that have largely contained sectarian animosities and force out leaders who are close to Iran and its heavily armed local allies.

Their grievances are not new. Three decades after the end of Lebanon’s civil war and 16 years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the streets of their capitals echo with the roar of private generators that keep the lights on. Tap water is undrinkable and trash goes uncollected. High unemployment forces the young to put off marriage and children.

Every few years there are elections, and every time it seems like the same people win. The sectarian power-sharing arrangement that ended Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war distributed power and high offices among Christians, Shiites and Sunnis. It has mostly kept the peace, but has turned former warlords into a permanent political class that trades favors for votes. A planned tax on WhatsApp amid a financial crisis was the last straw.

In Iraq, a similar arrangement among Shiites and minority Sunnis and Kurds has led to the same corrupt stasis, with parties haggling over ministries so they can give jobs and aid to supporters while lining their own pockets. The devastating war against the Islamic State group only exacerbated decades-old economic problems in the oil-rich country.

“They (leaders) have eaten away at the country like cancer,” said Abu Ali al-Majidi, 55, pointing toward the Green Zone, home to government offices and Western embassies. “They are all corrupt thieves,” he added, surrounded by his four sons who had come along for the protest.

In Iraq, a ferocious crackdown on protests that began Oct. 1 resulted in the deaths of 149 civilians in less than a week, most of them shot in the head and chest, along with eight security forces killed. After a three-week hiatus, the protests resumed Friday, with 30 people killed, according to the semi-official Iraq High Commission for Human Rights.

In both countries, which share a history of civil strife, the potential for sustained turmoil is real. Iraq and Lebanon are considered to be firmly in Iran’s orbit, and Tehran is loath to see protracted political turbulence that threatens the status quo, fearing it may lose influence at a time when it is under heavy pressure from the U.S.

The Iran-backed Hezbollah in Beirut and the Popular Mobilization Forces in Baghdad have said they want the governments in both countries to stay in power. The protests against Iraq’s Shiite-led government have spread to several, mainly Shiite-populated southern provinces. In Lebanon, demonstrations have erupted in Shiite communities, including in south Lebanon for the first time.

Signs of a backlash against Tehran’s tight grip on both countries can already be seen. Among the protesters’ chants in Baghdad, one said: “Iran out, out! Baghdad free, free!” Protesters trying to reach the heavily fortified Green Zone were met with tear gas and live ammunition. Men in black plainclothes and masks stood in front of Iraqi soldiers, facing off with protesters and firing the tear gas. Residents said they did not know who they were, with some speculating they were Iranians.

In the south, headquarters of Iran-backed militias were set on fire. In central Beirut, Hezbollah supporters clashed with anti-government protesters. Supporters of the powerful group rejected the protesters equating its leader with other corrupt politicians. A popular refrain in the rallies, now in their ninth day, has been: “All means all.”

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned in a televised speech that the protests — although largely peaceful until now — could lead to chaos and civil war. He said they were being hijacked by political rivals opposing the group.

“We are closing the roads, calling for toppling the system that has been ruling us for the past 30 years with oppression, suppression and terror, said Abed Doughan, a protester blocking a street in southern Beirut.

After Friday’s deadly violence in Iraq, a curfew was announced in several areas of the south. Hundreds of people were taken to hospitals, many with shortness of breath from the tear gas. The current round of protests has been endorsed by nationalist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has a popular base of support and holds the largest number of seats in parliament. He has called on the government to resign and suspended his bloc’s participation in the government until it comes up with a reform program.

However, powerful Shiite militias backed by Iran have stood by the government and suggested the demonstrations were an outside “conspiracy.” Iraq’s most senior Shiite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, appealed for protesters and security forces to avoid violence. In his Friday sermon, he also criticized the government-appointed committee investigating the crackdown in the previous protests, saying it did not achieve its goals or uncover who was behind the violence.

As in the protests earlier this month, the protesters, organized on social media, started from the central Tahrir Square. The demonstrators carried Iraqi flags and chanted anti-government slogans, demanding jobs and better public services like water and electricity.

“I want my country back, I want Iraq back,” said Ban Soumaydai, 50, an Education Ministry employee who wore black jeans, a white T-shirt and carried an Iraqi flag with the hashtag #We want a country printed on it.

Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi has struggled to deal with the protests. In an address to the nation early Friday, he promised a government reshuffle next week and pledged reforms. He told protesters they have a right to peaceful demonstrations and called on security forces to protect the protesters.

Similarly, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri issued an emergency reform package few days after the protests began on Oct. 17 — a document that has been dismissed by protesters as “empty promises.”

Karam reported from Beirut and Krauss from Jerusalem. Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed.

Lebanon’s shrinking freedom of expression

Sunday 29/07/2018

BEIRUT – More than seven activists have recently been summoned by Lebanese intelligence services because they posted social media comments critical of pro-Syrian and Iranian-Lebanese politicians and parties. In the past two years, human rights groups have reported a threefold increase in the arrest, prosecution and questioning of activists and journalists.

The Lebanese penal code punishes libel and defamation of officials, a justification that appears to be increasingly deployed by security officials to question and prosecute activists or harass disgruntled citizens venting their frustration on social media.

Rawane Khatib and Khaled Abbouchi were summoned July 24 by the Lebanese office for cybercrime. They were accused of publicly criticizing Lebanese President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil.

In itself, that’s notable. However, it falls within the context of a wider security crackdown by Lebanese intelligence services, targeting people denouncing the actions of specific parties, activists say.

“Arrests and summoning (for interview) targets activists or journalists critical for the most part of Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, followed by President Aoun and Hezbollah,” said Widad Jarbouh, a researcher at the SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom at the Samir Kassir Foundation.

Mohammad Awwad, an activist known for articles disparaging Hezbollah, was arrested by the Lebanese General Security. He was released after he signed a document forbidding him from criticizing the three main political positions in Lebanon — the president, prime minister and the parliamentary speaker — as well as various religious figures.

Also in July, Elie el-Khoury, 25, was summoned by Lebanon’s cybercrimes bureau for questioning. Khoury had complained about the poor level of public services in Lebanon and accused Aoun of turning the country into his “family home.”

When Khoury’s lawyer intervened, the cybercrime bureau rescinded its request without explanation, Lebanese website Naharnet said.

Journalist Fidaa Itani was sentenced in absentia to four months in prison and fined 10 million Lebanese pounds ($6,550). Itani had called out Bassil on Facebook over his alleged racist policies towards Lebanon’s Syrian refugees.

The journalist, who is also a Hezbollah opponent, uncovered numerous cases of potential corruption in which Bassil was implicated.

Other infamous cases targeting activists and journalists include the prosecution of researcher Hanin Ghaddar affiliated with the Washington Institute. In April, after intense lobbying from both local political figures and the US Embassy, sources close to the matter said, the Military Tribunal reversed its verdict, referring the case back to the Military Prosecution.

The tribunal’s decision came after Ghaddar’s lawyer filed an objection to the court’s decision to sentence her client in absentia to six months in prison for comments critical of the Lebanese Army. A vocal critic of Hezbollah, Ghaddar accused the army of distinguishing between Sunni and Shia militants, suggesting it was more tolerating of the latter.

That same month, First Investigative Judge Ghassan Oueidat issued an arrest warrant for journalist Maria Maalouf for slandering Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.

However, elsewhere, Jarbouh noted, other segments of the population, typically those associated with parties aligned to Iran and Syria who threaten and attack activists remain untouched. “As an example, individuals who voiced death and rape threats against an American University student who was filmed protesting against the Syrian regime offensive on Aleppo two years ago were never summoned by authorities,” he said.

In May, another critic of Hezbollah, Ali al-Amin, who was running as an independent in parliamentary elections against the organization, was severely beaten. Amin is a Shia journalist and director of the news website “Al Janoubia” (“The South”). The perpetrators of the crime are yet to be identified.

“To date, most of the summons and arrests are the work of the office for cybercrime, the general security and the Lebanese army intelligence,” says Jarbouh.

SKeyes estimates that, over the past two years, arrests targeting activists and journalists increased from 10 to 30 per year. The rise in power of pro-Iran and pro-Syria figures in parliamentary elections appears to have translated into a shrinking of freedom of expression and repressive measures in Lebanon.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: https://www.middle-east-online.com/en/lebanon%E2%80%99s-shrinking-freedom-expression.

Lebanon holds first elections in 9 years

May 06, 2018

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon’s polling stations opened Sunday for the first parliamentary elections in nine years, with people lining up early in the morning to take part in a vote that is fiercely contested between rival groups backed by regional and international powers.

Sunday’s vote is taking place amid tight security, with army and police forces deployed near polling stations and on major intersections. Electoral campaigns have been tense as each group has mobilized its supporters, with fist fights and shootings occurring in several areas in recent weeks.

The main race is between a Western-backed coalition headed by Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group. The vote also reflects regional tensions between Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia and Iran, which back the rival groups.

The vote is the first since Syria’s war broke out in 2011. Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters to back President Bashar Assad’s forces, a move that has been harshly criticized by many Lebanese, mainly Sunni Muslims and Christians who see the group as pulling the country into regional conflicts.

The house’s term was supposed to expire in 2013, but lawmakers have approved several extensions since then, citing security concerns linked to the spillover from Syria’s war. Lebanese who support opposing sides in the war have clashed on a number of occasions, and Sunni extremists have carried out several bombings. The war next door driven more than a million Syrian refugees into Lebanon, straining the country’s economy and infrastructure.

There are about 3.6 million eligible voters, and early results are expected after polling stations close at 7 p.m. (1600 GMT). Some 586 candidates, including 86 women, are running for the 128-seat parliament, which is equally divided between Muslims and Christians.

This year’s vote is according to a new election law that is based on proportional representation, implemented for the first time since Lebanon’s independence in 1943. Voters will choose one list of allied candidates, as well as a preferred candidate from among them.

In the past, the winning list took all the seats in the electoral district. Hezbollah and its allies are likely to add more seats, while Hariri is likely to lose several. Some of his Sunni supporters see him as being too soft on Hezbollah, and the billionaire businessman has also faced criticism after laying off scores of employees from his companies in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.

Still, Hariri will most likely be named to form a national unity Cabinet after the vote. Rival sides can hardly govern effectively without each other, and are expected to recreate the unity government that currently exists, which includes Hezbollah.

The vote comes a week after Lebanese living oversees voted in 39 countries around the world for the first time ever.

Lebanese expats vote in parliamentary elections

April 29, 2018

SAO PAULO (AP) — Lebanese expatriates began voting Sunday in the first parliamentary elections held by the tiny Arab country in nine years The current legislature has extended its term several times, citing security threats linked to the war in neighboring Syria. Lebanon’s political system distributes power among the country’s different religious communities, and the main parties are led by political dynasties that fought one another during the 1975-1990 civil war.

Sunday’s vote in 33 countries comes two days after thousands of Lebanese voted in six Arab countries. The vote marks the first time that Lebanese are allowed to vote abroad. Millions of Lebanese live abroad, but Lebanon’s state-run news agency says the number of registered voters is 82,970. The voting inside Lebanon will be held next Sunday.

Australia has the largest number of registered voters, with about 12,000, followed by Canada with 11,438 and the United States with about 10,000. In Brazil, home to hundreds of thousands of citizens of Lebanese descent, many were casting their ballots in Latin America’s most populous nation.

“Today’s voting is very important because for the first time we will have a voice in Lebanese affairs,” said Leila Smidi a 30-year-old mother of four who has been living in Brazil for 11 years. She spoke shortly after casting her ballot at Lebanon’s consulate in Sao Paulo.

About 1,500 Lebanese expats in Brazil are expected to vote. Lebanese immigrants and their descendants today form a community estimated at about 7 million – larger than Lebanon’s population of about 4.5 million. Lebanese immigrants began arriving in Brazil in the late 19th century, fleeing the Turkish-Ottoman empire that ruled much of the Middle East.

Accomplished merchants, many settled in Sao Paulo — Brazil’s biggest city — and earned a living as traveling salesmen selling textiles and clothes and opening new markets. Eventually they opened their own textile and clothing shops and factories.

Today, many of their descendants are prominent in the arts, politics, business, communications and medicine. The best known Brazilian politicians of Arab descent are President Michel Temer, Paulo Maluf, who twice served as mayor of Sao Paulo and once as governor of Sao Paulo state, and former Sao Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad.

Sao Paulo is Brazil’s business capital, and one of its leading businessmen is Paulo Antonio Skaf, president of the powerful Sao Paulo State Federation of Industries and the son of Lebanese immigrants.

Among Brazil’s brightest literary stars is Milton Hatoum, the Lebanese-descended author of the acclaimed novel “The Tree of Seventh Heaven.” Also a descendent of Lebanese immigrants, film director and commentator Arnaldo Jabor offers his strong opinions on just about everything daily on the Globo radio and TV network.

This year’s vote is according to a new election law that is based on proportional representation, implemented for the first time since Lebanon’s independence in 1943. Voters will choose one list of allied candidates, as well as a preferred candidate from among them.

Lebanon’s 128-member parliament is equally divided between Muslims and Christians. The house’s term was supposed to expire in 2013, but lawmakers have approved several extensions since then. The main competition will be between two coalitions, one that is led by the Iran-backed Hezbollah group and the other by Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Western ally who holds Saudi citizenship and is a critic of Tehran.

Despite the rivalry between Hariri’s Future Movement and Hezbollah, both are part of the national unity government and will most likely be represented in the Cabinet formed after next week’s vote.

Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report from Beirut.

Lebanon calls for Turkey’s support for boosting security, infrastructure

February 1, 2018

The Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, yesterday called on the Turkish government to support Lebanon on enhancing its security and to invest in the country’s infrastructure renovation.

“I’ve asked the Turkish government to support Lebanon in its two national priorities, including enhancing the capabilities of the army and the security forces, and developing the country’ infrastructure sector,” Hariri said on Twitter.

Hariri noted that he had asked the Ankara “to help in encouraging the country’s private sector to participate in the government’s investment plan.”

“We [Turkish government] expect the private sector to fund a third of our investment plan,” he added.

The Turkish Prime Minister, Binali Yildirim, recently announced that Turkey was willing to boost bilateral relations with Lebanon on a number of issues, a move that Hariri welcomed.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20180201-lebanon-calls-for-turkeys-support-for-boosting-security-infrastructure/.

Lieberman threatens ground invasion in Lebanon

February 1, 2018

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman threatened to carry out ground invasion in Lebanon and push Beirut residents to live in shelters, Arab48 reported yesterday.

During a speech at the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Lieberman said: “Maneuvering is not a goal in itself. The goal is to end the war.”

“No one is looking for adventures, but if we have no choice the goal is to end [the fighting] as quickly and as unequivocally as possible,” he added. “Regrettably, what we have in all the conflicts in the Middle East is that without soldiers on the ground it does not come to an end.”

“Such operations demand great effort and unfortunately casualties too. All options are open and I and not enslaved to any viewpoint,” he added. “We must prepare for maneuvering on the ground too, even if we do not use it.”

“We will do so with full strength. We must not take one step forward and one step backward. We will move forward as fast as possible,” said Lieberman.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20180201-lieberman-threatens-ground-invasion-in-lebanon/.