Protesters storm Beirut bank as fears over economy mount

Protesters shout slogans outside a branch of BLC Bank in Beirut on Saturday, December 28, 2019 to complain against nationwide imposed restrictions on dollar withdrawals and transfers abroad. (AFP)
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Updated 28 December 2019

Protesters storm Beirut bank as fears over economy mount

  • Lebanon is facing its worst economic crisis in decades
  • Protests against corruption and mismanagement have gripped the country since October

BEIRUT: Widespread anger at Lebanese banking restrictions boiled over on Saturday when dozens of protesters stormed a Beirut branch following its refusal to deliver employees’ salaries in US dollars.

The protest group, made up mainly of Communist Party members, occupied the BLC bank’s Hamra branch and staged a sit-in over what they described as “the false practices of the banks.”

Lebanon’s banks have imposed weekly limits on withdrawals of US dollars amid a shortage in liquidity as the country grapples with its worst economic and financial crisis in more than three decades.

The restrictions have added to mounting anger over job layoffs, salary cuts and rapidly rising prices.

The Communist Party later issued a statement saying that the sit-in resulted in “all customers receiving their money and deposits, which confirms the false practices of the banks, as the administration claimed that the dollar was not available inside the branch, which turned out to be untrue.”

On Thursday, protesters staged a sit-in outside the central bank and the Lebanese Banks’ Association building in protest against the banks’ policies amid unprecedented capital controls.

Banks’ strict controls on releasing hard currency have added to the liquidity crisis on top of an economic downturn. 

Meanwhile, attempts to form a national salvation government stalled after a number of Sunni political figures refused to accept ministerial positions in the leadership. The Future Movement, the largest Sunni parliamentary bloc, is boycotting attempts to establish a new government.

Nasser Yassin, acting director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, told Arab News that he had rejected a request to take up a ministerial position.

Yassin described the portfolio as a “suicide mission.” 

“I am not enthusiastic in the current circumstances,” he said.

Yassin said the offer of a ministerial position “has nothing to do with the representation of the movement, but rather because I am a Sunni figure, in light of other people refusing to participate in the government.”

He said: “The parties that have held power for decades lack any idea of justice and human rights. Nothing will change unless these politicians are removed from power and replaced by a new academic generation armed with new concepts that prevent them from using power to enrich themselves and exert influence.”

“What applies to politicians applies to banks as well since the private good has priority over the public good,” Yassin added.

Leader of the Lebanese Forces party, Samir Geagea, told a party meeting that the immediate solution would be “to form a government whose members are all independent technocrats because the economic wheel cannot be relaunched with the same forces present in authority.”

Muhammad Al-Hajjar, a member of the Future parliamentary bloc, said that although the incoming government appears to be technocrat, “in reality it is political.”

“I fear it will not gain the trust of the people and the international community, which monitors what is happening in Lebanon,” he said.


Turkey’s ties to Hamas risk hindering normalization with Israel

Members of the Stop Erdogan Now group protest outside the European Parliament in Brussels. The group demanded EU sanctions against the Turkish president. (Reuters)
Updated 37 min 38 sec ago

Turkey’s ties to Hamas risk hindering normalization with Israel

  • Ankara’s support for Hamas as well as its prioritization of Israel’s Palestine policies pose further challenges to already fragile relations with Israel

ANKARA: Amid speculations about a possible Turkish-Israeli rapprochement in the foreseeable future, Israel refuses to normalize relations with Turkey or return its envoy to Ankara until the activities of Hamas’ military wing in Istanbul end, Israeli news site Ynet reported on Monday.

This prerequisite prompted Ankara to bring forward its own conditions to reconcile with Israel. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters in Ankara on Monday that relations would be normalized if Israel were to halt “its illegal actions, such as annexations against Palestine.”

Ankara’s support for Hamas as well as its prioritization of Israel’s Palestine policies pose further challenges to already fragile relations with Israel. Hundreds of Hamas operatives allegedly live in Turkey.

If both countries are sincere about restoring diplomatic ties, it is still unknown to what extent they are willing to give concessions on these red lines and at what cost.  

In 2018, Turkey recalled its ambassador from Israel to protest against the US moving its embassy to Jerusalem, while the move was reciprocated by Israel who also recalled its own envoy in Ankara. 

In early 2020, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hosted in Istanbul Ismail Haniyeh, political chief of Hamas, and Saleh Al-Arouri, the group’s top military commander, who has a $5 million US bounty on his head, prompting objections from Israel and Washington.  

While Turkey considers Hamas a legitimate political movement that is elected democratically in Gaza, Hamas is seen as a terror organization by the US, EU and Israel. 

In October 2020, The Times claimed that the military branch of Hamas had set up a secret office in Istanbul to remotely plot cyberattacks against its foes and that Turkey even granted Turkish citizenship and passports to dozens of high-ranking Hamas members to facilitate their travel in Europe. However, Ankara denied the claims. 

Turkey categorically denies providing sanctuary to a Hamas office in Istanbul. 

Since 2015, Israel has been asking Ankara to crack down on Hamas operatives who are settled there. It was also known as one of the preconditions for Turkey’s entry into the Western coalition against Daesh. 

Selin Nasi, a researcher on Turkey-Israel relations from Bogazici University in Istanbul, recalls that Ankara had expelled Al-Arouri prior to the reconciliation deal of 2016 and pledged to limit the activities of Hamas offices in Turkey.

“If Ankara agrees to downplay its support for Hamas, this might pave the way for a thaw in Turkish-Israeli relations. For Israelis, Turkey providing shelter to Hamas members in the country has been a major bone of contention. Because they see Hamas as a terror organization, so this is a national security matter,” she told Arab News. 

A letter penned by Haniyeh late in December and sent to several presidents of Islamic countries, including Erdogan, recently made headlines in Turkey, as he warned the Turkish president against any overture to Israel, saying that any steps toward normalization would benefit “Zionism.” 

Alan Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for American Progress, thinks Erdogan’s motivation is mainly ideological due to the well-known affinity with Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated movements, but perhaps also partly political. 

“Turkey formally supports two states, whereas Hamas rejects Israel’s existence. Based on formal policy, Turkey should be much more supportive of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas than Hamas, and that’s manifestly not the case,” he told Arab News. 

Makovsky thinks that supporting Hamas is not a vote-getter in the traditional sense because Hamas has been rated very negatively by the Turkish public. 

According to Pew Research Center’s most recent survey from 2014, Turks hold a negative view of Hamas, with 80 percent disapproving of it and only 8 percent approving the group. 

“The one political benefit Erdogan derives from supporting Hamas — and it’s not insignificant — is that it helps to keep the Islamist portion of his ruling Justice and Development Party firmly bonded to the party itself, rather than drifting over to the Islamist rival Felicity Party,” Makovsky said.   

According to Makovsky, it would be unthinkable for the Israelis to re-exchange ambassadors when they are convinced that Hamas is conducting operational planning from Turkey.  

“I doubt Israel is eager to exchange ambassadors with Turkey in any case. From Israel’s point of view, it would simply be an unearned gift that would help facilitate Erdogan’s relations with US President Joe Biden,” he said.

He added: “Were Turkey to expel Hamas and pledge to cease receiving visits from the likes of Hamas former leader Khaled Meshaal and senior Hamas figure Al-Arouri, Israel would resume ambassadorial-level relations in a nano-second.”

Researcher Nasi thinks that Ankara is equally concerned about the domestic implications of revamping support for the Muslim Brotherhood, at a time when the Palestinian issue is at an impasse and, even worse, it is no longer on the international agenda.

“From a strategic perspective, the cost of Turkey’s pro-Muslim Brotherhood policy seems to have exceeded its benefits, undermining Turkey’s relations with Egypt and the Gulf countries, resulting in regional isolation,” she said. “Ankara has reached a critical point where it needs to decide whether or not to prioritize geopolitical interests over ideology.”

According to Nasi, recent statements by the Turkish foreign minister suggest that the government is trying to find a diplomatic opening by reframing the conflict around the Palestinian issue and shifting the emphasis to Israel’s partial annexation of the West Bank. 

“Indeed, the signing of the Abraham Accords last summer practically shelved Israel’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank. Therefore, the pre-condition that Cavusoglu mentioned on Monday has been already fulfilled,” she said. 

For Nasi, at the end of the day, it comes down to whether Turkey is willing to take a step toward strategic reorientation.