Middle East & Arab World Lebanon August 2021-

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Hezbollah’s criticism of Saudi not in Lebanon’s interest – PM
(Reuters) – Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati Monday said criticism of Saudi Arabia by the leader of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah group did not serve the national interest or represent the country’s official stance.
Saudi Arabia and a number of other Gulf Arab states withdrew ambassadors and expelled Lebanese envoys in October and November over what the kingdom later said was arch-foe Hezbollah’s dominance of the Lebanese state.
Lebanese officials including President Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, and Mikati have called for dialogue with Saudi Arabia to resolve the diplomatic crisis, which has piled onto an economic meltdown now in its third year.
Saudi Arabia has called on Lebanon to end “terrorist Hebzollah’s” influence over the state. Mikati’s government contains several ministers backed by Hezbollah and its ally the Amal movement.
Mikati formed a government in September with the aim of negotiating an International Monetary Fund (IMF) support programme and kickstarting economic recovery.
But he has been unable to convene Cabinet since Oct. 12 amid demands by Hezbollah and Amal to limit the probe into the deadly August 2020 Beirut blast.

2021

4 December
France to work with Saudi Arabia to resolve Lebanon crisis
Emmanuel Macron says France and Saudi Arabia are committed to resolve diplomatic row between Riyadh and Beirut.
The kingdom and other Gulf states withdrew their ambassadors from Beirut last month, angered by a government minister who criticised the Saudi-led war in Yemen. The minister resigned on Friday.
Macron, who was in Saudi Arabia for talks with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, told reporters that Riyadh had committed to re-engage financially in the short term.
The kingdom and other Gulf states withdrew their ambassadors from Beirut last month, angered by a government minister who criticised the Saudi-led war in Yemen. The minister resigned on Friday.
Macron, who was in Saudi Arabia for talks with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, told reporters that Riyadh had committed to re-engage financially in the short term.

25 November
Lebanon’s central bank vows to cooperate with audit as pound dips
Lebanon is in the throes of the deepest economic crisis since its 1975-1990 civil war.
The audit is seen as a key condition for an International Monetary fund support programme and other foreign aid to stem Lebanon’s deepest economic crisis since its 1975-1990 civil war.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government, formed in September after a year of tortuous negotiations among Lebanon’s many various political parties, has struggled to carry out its business.
It has not met for more than 40 days, hampered by a push by the Iranian-backed armed Hezbollah movement and its allies to remove the judge probing the calamitous Beirut port blast in August 2020 that brought down the previous government.
[Governor Riad] Salameh told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday that the government had not yet agreed about the financial figures it would present to the IMF, a basic requirement to begin negotiations.

23 October
Dyer: Political class stubbornly refuses help as Lebanon founders
Five years ago, Lebanon still looked like a middle-class country with many poor people. Now it looks like a very poor country with a few rich people. The proportion of people living below the official poverty line has gone from 30 per cent two years ago to 80 per cent now.
Even the civil war of 1975-90 did less damage to the economy, despite destroying several hundred thousand lives and much of the nation’s infrastructure. “Even during the civil war, there was money and nobody starved,” as a Beirut bus driver put it.
The current disaster’s roots are in that war. It drove the Lebanese back into the relative safety of their own sectarian communities, Christian, Sunni Muslim, and Shia Muslim, and warlords arose to protect those communities.
By war’s end, they were the new political and financial elite, with well-paid militias to enforce their will on their communities. They became a corrupt, nepotistic club whose members co-operate to appropriate the Lebanese state’s wealth, however much they may hate each other.
That system worked smoothly into the 2000s, but it was visibly coming apart by the 2010s. There simply wasn’t enough money to share among the elites (politely termed the “political class”). Lebanon produces almost nothing, not even enough food for its people, and its imports are paid for with remittances, foreign aid and loans.
With not enough money coming in to sustain their immense patronage networks, the elites started taxing the poorer population more heavily, and in 2019, something snapped. Suddenly Beirut’s streets were full of protesters demanding fundamental change.
Lebanon is a former French colony, so French President Emmanuel Macron flew in and offered the Lebanese government $11 billion in return for structural reforms to root out government corruption. But the elites who benefit from that system are the government, in practice, so they said no.

17 October
Lisa Van Dusen: Lebanon’s Chaos: Not Quite Déjà Vu
(Policy Magazine) The life of Lebanon over the past four decades can be broadly catalogued in major explosions: The October, 1983, suicide bombings of the US and French peacekeeper barracks in Beirut that killed 307 people and led to the withdrawal of the multinational force; the 2,000-lb bomb that killed reformist Prime Minister Rafic Hariri on February 14, 2005 and left a 30-foot crater in the Corniche; and the August 4, 2020 Beirut port explosion of 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that killed 218, injured 7,000, left an estimated 300,000 people homeless and caused $15 billion USD in property damage.
Last year’s port explosion wasn’t the most morbidly ironic of the three — that prize goes to Hariri’s assassination for the date chosen by the perpetrators, which made it Lebanon’s Valentine’s Day Massacre. After 11 years of investigation into that assassination, the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon rendered its verdict that there was no evidence either Hezbollah leadership or the Syrian government — both long assumed to be suspects one and two — were involved in the murder. That verdict, delayed by the port explosion from August 7 to August 18, 2020, was followed last December by the sentencing in absentia of Hezbollah militant Salim Ayyash — whereabouts unknown — to five consecutive life terms for Hariri’s assassination.
Lebanon is now reliving the protracted national drama of the Hariri bombing and the corruption-besieged investigation into it, only with a much bigger crater, a much longer casualty list and the knowledge that this time, the catalyzing tragedy was generated not (that we know of at this writing) by tactical depravity but by its frequent sidekick, stupidity.

13-14 October
Deadly Clashes in Beirut Escalate Fears Over Lebanon’s Dysfunction
The fighting further traumatized the small Mediterranean country, a patchwork of sects that has tumbled into an abyss of devastating political and economic crises.
(NYT) Grave fuel shortages in recent months have left all but the wealthiest Lebanese struggling with prolonged power blackouts and long lines at gas stations. The country’s once vaunted banking, medical and education sectors have all suffered profound losses, as professionals have fled to seek livelihoods abroad.
Lebanese army arrests nine people after Beirut violence
President Michel Aoun vows to bring perpetrators to justice, as six killed by gunfire and more than 30 others wounded.
(Al Jazeera) Soldiers were deployed on the streets to contain the violence as an undeclared truce brought calm to the Lebanese capital, after nearly five hours of heavy gunfire.
Clashes had erupted as a rally organised by the Hezbollah and Amal movements to demand the dismissal of the lead investigator into last year’s port explosion turned violent.
Hundreds of protesters gathered at the Beirut Palace of Justice, calling for the removal of Judge Tarek Bitar, accusing him of political bias.
Tension over Beirut blast probe tips Lebanon into new crisis
(Reuters) – Growing tension over a judicial probe into last year’s Beirut port blast threatens to push Lebanon into yet another political crisis, testing Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s new government as it struggles to dig the country out of economic collapse.
More than a year since the explosion ripped through Beirut, killing more than 200 people, Judge Tarek Bitar’s efforts to hold senior officials to account for suspected negligence are facing mounting political pushback, much of it driven by the heavily armed, Iran-backed Shi’ite group Hezbollah.
The government does not have the authority to remove Bitar but could revoke a previous decision that transferred the probe to the judicial council, said Nizar Saghieh, head of the Legal Agenda, a research and advocacy organisation. This would be a major assault on “the separation of powers”.
Potential foreign aid donors have called for a transparent investigation into the blast, caused by a huge quantity of unsafely stored ammonium nitrate.
The U.S. State Department on Tuesday accused Hezbollah of threatening Lebanon’s judiciary. Hezbollah lawmaker Hassan Fadllalah said those remarks violated Lebanese sovereignty and showed “the level of intervention to control the Beirut port blast investigation”.

11 October
‘Unprecedented’ hunger in Lebanon as fuel crisis hikes food costs
Families skip meals and forgo staples as Lebanon’s paralysing fuel crisis causes food prices to skyrocket.
(Al Jazeera) The Lebanese government has gradually been lifting fuel subsidies since June and has increased petrol prices four times in under a month in a bid to deal with crippling shortages. At the same time, it has struggled to unroll a cashcard programme to replace the subsidies.
Meanwhile, Lebanon has been increasingly hit by extended blackouts as state-provided electricity dwindled to almost nothing, while diesel fuel prices for private generators have skyrocketed, too – if fuel can even be found in the first place.
Lebanon’s economy ministry announced earlier this week that they had raised the price of bread for a sixth time this year – partly due to the weakening local currency, but also due to the petrol and fuel crisis as transportation costs have soared.

4 October
Lebanon and IMF to restart technical talks on rescue funds
(Al Jazeera) Prime Minister Mikati intends to resume negotiations on a bailout package after discussions fell apart a year ago.
Lebanon PM Mikati among officials named in Pandora Papers
(Al Jazeera) Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh are among several Lebanese political and financial officials named in the Pandora Papers with wealth hidden in offshore tax havens, at a time when millions of Lebanese people cannot access their savings in the banks.
The Papers show that Mikati, the recently reappointed billionaire prime minister of Lebanon, owns a Panama-based offshore company he used to buy property in Monaco worth $10m.
His son Maher owns at least two companies in the British Virgin Islands, which he used to buy an office in central London for the Mikati family’s international investment company, the M1 Group, the investigation revealed.
Maher told Al Jazeera that “using offshore entities could be considered as forms of tax evasion for US and EU nationals but this is not the case for Lebanese nationals”.

28 September
Lebanon’s president displayed a typical lack of self-awareness.
By Steven A. Cook, Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and columnist at Foreign Policy
Of all the Middle Eastern leaders I wanted to hear from at this year’s United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) meeting, it wasn’t Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or even Saudi Arabia’s King Salman—it was Lebanese President Michel Aoun.
What does a leader of a country that has collapsed say to the world body?
Like many speeches during UNGA, Aoun’s did not break new ground. Most of the 17 minutes and 31 seconds of his prerecorded remarks were devoted to repeating the message that he and other Lebanese politicians have been repeating over the last year: Europe, the United States, wealthy Arab states, international financial institutions, and virtually everyone else must act to rescue Lebanon. …
About four minutes into his speech, Aoun denounced a “decades-long rentier-style financial and economic policy, coupled with corruption and waste and driven by financial mismanagement and lack of accountability,” that had “led Lebanon into an unprecedented financial and monetary crisis.”
For the last half-decade, Aoun has been president of Lebanon. When he was sworn in in 2016, he promised political and economic reform. Before he became head of state, Aoun was one of Lebanon’s political heavyweights through his Free Patriotic Movement.

23 September
Analysis: Who pays? Lebanon faces tough question in IMF bailout bid
By Tom Perry and Maha El Dahan
Analysts sceptical PM Mikati can do much before election
Goldman Sachs sees “a critical obstacle” to recovery
Source sees momentum for IMF deal, room for compromise
‘We are desperate for dollars,’ senior politician says
(Reuters) – In its bid for IMF support, Lebanon must address a question it has evaded since the economy imploded two years ago: how should it distribute the huge losses caused by its financial collapse?
Till now, the answer has been brutally simple: ordinary Lebanese have paid the price as they watched savings evaporate, the currency crumble and basic goods disappear from the shelves.
Lebanon has sunk deeper into trouble with no plan and no government until its fractious sectarian politicians ended a year of bickering and agreed a new cabinet this month.
The new prime minister, billionaire tycoon Najib Mikati, and his government need to acknowledge the scale of losses and work out how to share them out to deliver on a promise to secure International Monetary Fund assistance with economic reforms.
The financial system collapsed in 2019 because of decades of corruption and waste in the state and the unsustainable way it was financed. The trigger was slowing inflows of hard currency into the banking system, which lent heavily to the government.
Mikati may have a better shot in IMF talks than his predecessor partly because there is now broader political recognition – including, it seems, within Iran-backed Shi’ite group Hezbollah – that an IMF deal is the inescapable path to aid.

16 September
Lebanon gets IMF funding injection. How much will it help?
Lebanon was due to receive a fresh injection of IMF funding on Wednesday, but the new government has not yet said how they will use the money.
(Al Jazeera) Lebanon’s newly-formed government is expected to receive a desperately needed funding injection on Thursday, with a fresh $1.135bn allocation of the International Monetary Fund’s reserve asset known as Special Drawing Rights. But the windfall, though welcome, is a mere fraction of what the country needs to put its economy on some semblance of firmer footing.

14 September
Lebanon: New government, different faces, same old problems
Elie Abouaoun
(Middle East Eye) The reconstitution of political power and an independent electoral body are prerequisites for any substantive recovery in Lebanon. Until then, the country will lurch from crisis to crisis.
In Lebanon, an exasperated population cheers the formation of a new government after almost a year of tribulations and an unprecedented economic and social crisis.
By now, though, seasoned Lebanese politicians are experts in generating an exciting “shock factor” and the illusion of impending change by introducing a few ministers from outside the usual pool of names. These people generally have impressive professional qualifications, but lack the political clout to spark meaningful reforms or take the necessary bold actions. The 2021 Najib Mikati government is no exception.

14 August
Nobody’s running Lebanon, central bank boss says
(Reuters) – Lebanon’s central bank governor said nobody was running the country, hitting back after government criticism of his decision to halt fuel subsidies that have drained currency reserves.
In an interview broadcast on Saturday, Riad Salameh said the government could resolve the problem quickly by passing necessary legislation.
The worsening fuel crisis is part of Lebanon’s wider financial meltdown. Hospitals, bakeries and many businesses are scaling back operations or shutting down as fuel runs dry. Life grinds to a halt in Lebanon’s blackouts

6 August
Hezbollah launches rocket fire in response to Israeli air raids
Hezbollah claims responsibility for rocket fire a day after Israeli air raids amid an escalation of cross-border hostilities.

4 August
The blast that ripped through Beirut was a year ago.
But for many, the disaster continues.

‘No sense of safety’: how the Beirut blast created a mental health crisis
A year on from the devastating explosion, people are struggling to sleep and PTSD is widespread – amid economic chaos
With the country in meltdown, failed by the political class, its people are in the grip of a mental health crisis without adequate resources to deal with it. Lifeline, Lebanon’s emotional support and suicide prevention helpline, says the number of calls it’s receiving each month has almost doubled since May 2021 to 1,050. Widespread power cuts caused by fuel shortages are also now lasting up to 22 hours a day. Without electricity at night to power air conditioning, many people are struggling to get enough sleep during the hot and humid Lebanese summer.
What We Lost That Day
Personal reflections from victims of the Aug. 4, 2020, explosion at the Beirut port.
The explosion shattered houses, buildings, cars, trees, but also our mental health, our sense of security, our sense of the possible and impossible.
(NYT) On Aug. 4, 2020, at 6:08 p.m., at the end of a searing summer day, the earth shook, the buildings swayed and the sky roared.
Windows turned into daggers and furniture into shrapnel. The air itself became a battering ram. It felt as if the very world — our cafes, offices, homes and hospitals, our places of leisure and work and shelter — was rising up against us and trying to bury us alive.
In Lebanese Arabic, there is a saying: “The world stood up and sat back down.” It’s meant to describe chaos — a world turned upside down. This is what happened on that day almost one year ago, when Beirut was devastated by an explosion at a port warehouse. Everything slid out of place, and we’ve been unable to return anything to where it belongs.
How can we be expected to rearrange our lives around this still-smoking crater? How do we even begin to make an account of what we’ve lost?
A year after the blast, Lebanon fights for its future (podcast)
(Al Jazeera) What is left in Lebanon, after 12 months of almost indescribable crisis, is the fight to hold someone – anyone – accountable. There has been a yearlong fight to do just that, but with the economic freefall only getting worse, the paralysis seems to be deepening. Lebanon is no stranger to proxy conflicts, and now the investigation into the blast has become a surrogate fight for the future of Lebanon itself.
Here is why the EU should sanction Lebanon’s bankers
Sami Halabi, Director of Policy at the Beirut-based think tank Triangle
The banking sector is responsible for the current crisis in Lebanon. Sanctioning its leaders can help effect a solution.
As the painful anniversary was drawing nearer, the European Union announced a framework that “provides for the possibility of imposing sanctions against persons and entities who are responsible for undermining democracy or the rule of law in Lebanon”. The long-anticipated move is effectively a warning shot aimed at pressuring Lebanon’s intransigent elites into undertaking reforms.

3 August
A year after massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon’s crisis deepens
Opinion by Mohamad Bazzi, journalism professor, non-resident fellow at Democracy for the Arab World, and incoming director of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University
Lebanon’s political paralysis, financial crisis and stalled investigation might seem like separate problems, but they’re all the result of three decades of systemic negligence and lack of accountability, since the end of a 15-year civil war in 1990.
(CNN) With the country’s sectarian leaders and parties refusing to accept a government led by independent technocrats, Lebanon needs more structural change that would ultimately dismantle its religion-based “confessional” system. This could start with the parliamentary elections, which in the past have been gerrymandered in favor of the sectarian parties. That’s why it’s essential for the new government to adopt a fair election law — and for Lebanese to vote in record numbers.
There is some hope for reform: on July 18, a coalition of opposition and civil society groups won a landslide victory in elections for leaders of one of Lebanon’s largest unions, which represents 60,000 engineers and architects. The independents defeated candidates supported by some of Lebanon’s largest sectarian parties. It’s a small step, and it might not reflect the more complex legislative elections next year, but union elections in the Arab world are sometimes an early indicator of change.

The seven years of neglect, and 13 minutes of chaos, that destroyed Beirut
The Independent Special report: Speaking to Lebanese port officials, government sources, firefighters and eyewitnesses, and reviewing a dozen documents, Bel Trew, Oliver Carroll, Samira el-Azar and Richard Hall trace the paper trail of negligence and incompetence that led up to the devastating explosion (August 11 2020)

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