Hezbollah, Gebran Bassil under fire over Lebanese government paralysis

Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil is shown receiving a “missile gift” from the Hezbollah in this picture posted on www.lebanonfiles.com. (Courtesy: www.lebanonfiles.com)
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Updated 02 November 2020

Hezbollah, Gebran Bassil under fire over Lebanese government paralysis

  • The main obstacle to forming a government is Gebran Bassil, who has returned to his old demands,” says leading figure in Hariri’s Future Movement

BEIRUT: Frustration mounted in Lebanon on Sunday amid continuing paralysis in the formation of a new government, with fingers pointed at the Iran-backed Hezbollah group and Free Patriotic Movement leader Gebran Bassil as the source of the blockage.

Eleven days after former prime minister Saad Hariri was asked to resume office and assemble an administration of non-party technocrats, no date has even been set for a meeting with President Michel Aoun.

“We do not know if the obstructing parties actually want to form a government. It is about party quotas again, regarding the number of ministers and the rotation of portfolios,” senior Hariri adviser Hussein Al-Wajh told Arab News.

Dr. Mustafa Alloush, a leading figure in Hariri’s Future Movement, told Arab News: “The main obstacle to forming a government is Gebran Bassil, who has returned to his old demands.”

Hariri resigned as prime minister in October 2019 amid a wave of public protests over financial corruption, government ineptitude and a collapsing economy. Neither of his successors, Hassan Diab and Mustapha Adib, was able to restore stability, and Lebanon has been without a government since September.

At the prompting of French President Emmanuel Macron, Hariri offered to lead a technocratic Cabinet in an initiative seen as opening the door to desperately needed international aid and a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

Former minister Ahmed Fatfat told Arab News: “Hariri’s project is a mini-government of specialists, which would not be against anyone or against the country, but Hezbollah stands behind the play of Gebran Bassil.”

Health chiefs fear the government stalemate is compromising Lebanon’s ability to combat the spread of the coronavirus, which has infected more than 80,000 people and killed 637. Caretaker Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmy on Sunday rejected a recommendation by the government’s National Health Committee for a national lockdown, and instead imposed restrictions in 115 towns.

The head of the Doctors Syndicate, Sharaf Abu Sharaf, called for a “complete shutdown similar to the one that took place at the beginning of the virus outbreak.”

He said: “The capacity of hospitals to absorb patients has reached its limit, and the health, recovery and financial situation is very poor. The medical and nursing sector is witnessing a large migration out of Lebanon, and there are no incentives to persuade them to stay.”

Biden, Iraqi PM to announce end of US combat mission in Iraq

Updated 26 July 2021

Biden, Iraqi PM to announce end of US combat mission in Iraq

  • Plan to shift the American military mission will be spelled out in a broader
  • The Daesh is a shell of its former self since it was largely routed on the battlefield in 2017

WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi are expected to announce on Monday that they’ve come to an agreement to end the US military’s combat mission in Iraq by the end of the year, according to a senior Biden administration official.
The plan to shift the American military mission, whose stated purpose is to help Iraq defeat the Daesh group, to a strictly advisory and training role by year’s end — with no US troops in a combat role — will be spelled out in a broader communique to be issued by the two leaders following their White House meeting on Monday afternoon, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the yet to be announced plan.
The official said the Iraqi security forces are “battle tested” and have proved themselves “capable” of protecting their country. Still, the Biden administration recognizes that Daesh remains a considerable threat, the official said.
Indeed, the Daesh terror organization is a shell of its former self since it was largely routed on the battlefield in 2017. Still, it has shown it can still carry out high-casualty attacks. Last week, the group claimed responsibility for a roadside bombing that killed at least 30 people and wounded dozens in a busy suburban Baghdad market.
The US and Iraq agreed in April that the US transition to a train-and-advise mission meant the US combat role would end, but they didn’t settle on a timetable for completing that transition. The announcement comes less than three months before parliamentary elections slated for Oct. 10.
Al-Kadhimi faces no shortage of problems. Iranian-backed militias operating inside Iraq have stepped up attacks against US forces in recent months, and a series of devastating hospital fires that left dozens of people dead and soaring coronavirus infections have added fresh layers of frustration for the nation.
For Al-Kadhimi, the ability to offer the Iraqi public a date for the end of the US combat presence could be a feather in his cap ahead of the election.
Biden administration officials say Al-Kadhimi also deserves credit for improving Iraq’s standing in the Mideast.
Last month, King Abdullah II of Jordan and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi visited Baghdad for joint meetings — the first time an Egyptian president has made an official visit since the 1990s, when ties were severed after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
In March, Pope Francis made a historic visit to Iraq, praying among ruined churches in Mosul, a former IS stronghold, and meeting with the influential Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani in the holy city of Najaf.
The US and Iraq have been widely expected to use the face-to-face meeting to announce plans for the end of the combat mission, and Al-Kadhimi before his trip to Washington made clear that he believes it’s time for the US to wind down the combat mission.
“There is no need for any foreign combat forces on Iraqi soil,” Al-Kadhimi said.
The US troop presence has stood at about 2,500 since late last year when former President Donald Trump ordered a reduction from 3,000.
The announcement to end the US combat mission in Iraq comes as the US is in the final stages of ending its war in Afghanistan, nearly 20 years after President George W. Bush launched the war in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
The US mission of training and advising Iraqi forces has its most recent origins in former President Barack Obama’s decision in 2014 to send troops back to Iraq. The move was made in response to the Daesh group’s takeover of large portions of western and northern Iraq and a collapse of Iraqi security forces that appeared to threaten Baghdad. Obama had fully withdrawn US forces from Iraq in 2011, eight years after the US invasion.
The distinction between combat troops and those involved in training and advising can be blurry, given that the US troops are under threat of attack. But it is clear that US ground forces have not been on the offensive in Iraq in years, other than largely unpublicized special operations missions aimed at Daesh group militants.
Pentagon officials for years have tried to balance what they see as a necessary military presence to support the Iraqi government’s fight against IS with domestic political sensitivities in Iraq to a foreign troop presence. A major complication for both sides is the periodic attacks on bases housing US and coalition troops by Iraqi militia groups aligned with Iran.
The vulnerability of US troops was demonstrated most dramatically in January 2020 when Iran launched a ballistic missile attack on Al-Asad air base in western Iraq. No Americans were killed, but dozens suffered traumatic brain injury from the blasts. That attack came shortly after a US drone strike killed Iranian military commander Qassim Soleimani and senior Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis at Baghdad International Airport.
The US military mission since 2014 has been largely focused on training and advising Iraqi forces. In April, in a joint statement following a US-Iraqi meeting in Washington, they declared, “the mission of US and coalition forces has now transitioned to one focused on training and advisory tasks, thereby allowing for the redeployment of any remaining combat forces from Iraq” at a time to be determined later.
Monday’s communique is also expected to detail US efforts to assist the Iraqi government’s COVID-19 response, education system and energy sector.

Mikati to be designated as Lebanon's PM for third time

Updated 6 min 27 sec ago

Mikati to be designated as Lebanon's PM for third time

  • This will be the the third attempt within a year to form a government amid deepening political and economic turmoil

BEIRUT: Lebanese businessman Najib Mikati is set to be nominated as Prime Minister for the third time after securing 73 votes, more than two-thirds of parliament's votes.

Parliamentary consultations to designate a new Prime Minister kicked off this morning, with Mikati receiving an outright majority of support from MPs while 36 MPs either boycotted the session or abstained. 

Former premier Saad Hariri, who stepped down earlier this month, voted for Mikati along with the rest of his parliamentary bloc. MP Elie Ferzli, who serves as Deputy Speaker of the Parliament, also backed Mikati. The Marada Movement, Hezbollah, Amal Movement and the Progressive Socialist Party also voted for Mikati.

Earlier in the day,  Mikati met with President Michel Aoun briefly before exiting without giving any statements. The Lebanese Forces, the country's second-largest Christian bloc, refrained from voting for anyone, in line with its previous stance since mass protests kicked off in late 2019.

MP George Adwan, a member of the LF's bloc, said his group will not "cover any government from the current political class." The Free Patriotic Movement, the party Aoun founded and the biggest parliamentary bloc currently, also refrained from voting for anyone. 

MP Osama Saad, an independent MP from Sidon, also abstained. MP Fouad Makhzoumi, meanwhile, voted for Nawaf Salam, a Lebanese diplomat, jurist, and academic.

This will be the the third attempt within a year to form a government amid deepening political and economic turmoil.
The country has been without a fully functioning government since then-prime minister Hassan Diab resigned in the wake of the Beirut port explosion that killed more than 200 people last August.
Despite an economic crisis branded by the World Bank as one of the world’s worst since the mid-19th century, political squabbling has repeatedly thwarted progress, with two designated premiers failing to form a cabinet since then.
Talks have begun in the presidential palace at 10:30 am and will run until the afternoon with a final pick announced by the end of the day, said the official National News Agency.
Three of Lebanon’s former prime ministers — Hariri, Fouad Siniora and Tamam Salam — on Thursday said they would endorse Mikati’s candidacy.
The 65-year-old political veteran will be expected to deliver a lineup that satisfies political leaders jostling for cabinet shares and ministerial portfolios.
It could take months before an actual government is formed, but crisis-hit Lebanon, grappling with soaring poverty, a plummeting currency and shortages of basic items from medicine to fuel, can ill afford any delays.
International donors led by former colonial power France have pledged millions of dollars in humanitarian aid, but conditioned it on Lebanon installing a government capable of tackling corruption.
But even as international pressure mounted, with threats of European Union sanctions against them, Lebanese politicians have failed to make any serious progress.
France this month said it would host an aid conference on August 4 to “respond to the needs of the Lebanese, whose situation is deteriorating every day.”
The date of the conference coincides with the first anniversary of the port blast which is widely blamed on decades of negligence by the country’s ruling class.

(With  AFP)

Tunisians celebrate government ousting with cheers, fireworks

Updated 26 July 2021

Tunisians celebrate government ousting with cheers, fireworks

  • Tunisia’s military stop Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi from entering the parliament building early on Monday
  • ‘The president was very brave ... we know this is not a coup’

Soon after Tunisia’s President Kais Saied said he had ousted the government, tens of thousands of people poured into city streets to applaud a move decried by his critics as a coup.
As they cheered, ululated, honked car horns and let off fireworks, Said’s supporters revelled in his decision and in the perceived downfall of the moderate Islamist Ennahda, the biggest party in parliament and his main political opponent.
It showed how a decade after Tunisia’s 2011 revolution that introduced democracy, street activism remains a potentially powerful force — and one that could lead to confrontation after Ennahda called for people to protest against Saied.
Tunisia’s military stopped Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi from entering the parliament building early on Monday, a witness said, after Saied declared he had frozen the body’s activities.
The crowds late on Sunday were defying a COVID-19 curfew as they gathered in local neighborhoods and cities throughout the North African country and along the main Habib Bourguiba avenue in Tunis that has long served as the epicenter of any protests in the capital.

A military vehicle drives on a street as supporters of Tunisia's President Kais Saied gather after he dismissed the government and froze parliament, in Tunis, Tunisia July 25, 2021. (Reuters)


Thousands of people including many families walked along the tree-lined avenue, raising national flags, dancing and lighting red flares.

“The president was very brave... we know this is not a coup,” said Amira Abid, a woman in Tunis’ town center as she kissed a Tunisian flag.

Soon afterwards, Saied himself arrived to meet jubilant supporters in the very street where the biggest protests took place in 2011 during a revolution whose own democratic legacy now hangs in the balance.
Saied’s critics fear his move to dismiss the government and freeze parliament is part of a shift away from democracy and a return to the autocratic rule of the past — concerns he rejected in public statements as he denied conducting a coup.
As helicopters hovered above the crowds supporting his move, the people on the streets cast Ennahda as the cause of Tunisia’s failures over the past decade to overcome political paralysis and achieve prosperity.
“Today, today, Ennahda ended today,” sang young men in the Omrane Superieur district of the capital.
Nearby, as families stood with their children and raised their phones to the record the moment, a man walking with his daughter said “today is our Eid (holiday).”

Tunisian president ousts government, freezes parliament in move critics call a coup

Updated 26 July 2021

Tunisian president ousts government, freezes parliament in move critics call a coup

  • Kais Saied says he will govern alongside new PM
  • Parliament speaker calls for people to enter streets against ‘coup’

TUNIS: Tunisia’s president dismissed the government and froze parliament on Sunday in a dramatic escalation of a political crisis that his opponents labelled a coup, calling their own supporters to come onto the streets in protest.
President Kais Saied said he would assume executive authority with the assistance of a new prime minister, in the biggest challenge yet to the democratic system Tunisia introduced in a 2011 revolution.
Crowds of people quickly flooded the capital and other cities to support Saied, cheering and honking car horns in scenes that recalled the revolution, which triggered the Arab Spring protests that convulsed the Middle East.
As his supporters filled the central Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the epicenter of the 2011 revolution, Saied joined them in the street, state television pictures showed.

Crowds gather on the street after Tunisia's president suspended parliament, in La Marsa, near Tunis on July 26, 2021. (Social media / Layli Foroudi via REUTERS)

However, the extent of backing for Saied’s moves against a fragile government and divided parliament was not clear, as Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi called on Tunisians to come into the streets to stop what he called a coup.
Saied, in his televised statement announcing his move, had warned against any violent response.
“I warn any who think of resorting to weapons... and whoever shoots a bullet, the armed forces will respond with bullets,” he said in a statement carried on television.
Hours after the statement, military vehicles surrounded the parliament building as people nearby cheered and sang the national anthem, two witnesses said. Local media reported that the army had also surrounded the state television building.
Years of paralysis, corruption, declining state services and growing unemployment had already soured many Tunisians on their political system before the COVID-19 pandemic hammered the economy last year and coronavirus infection rates shot up this summer.
Protests, called by social media activists but not backed by any of the big political parties, took place on Sunday with much of the anger focused on the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, the biggest in parliament.
Ennahda, banned before the revolution, has been the most consistently successful party since 2011 and a member of successive coalition governments.
Its leader the parliament speaker Ghannouchi, immediately labelled Saied’s decision “a coup against the revolution and constitution” in a phone call to Reuters.

Tunisian Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi labeled President Kais Saied's freezing of parliament as a “a coup against the revolution and constitution.” (REUTERS/File Photo)

“We consider the institutions still standing, and the supporters of the Ennahda and the Tunisian people will defend the revolution,” he added, raising the prospect of confrontations between supporters of Ennahda and Saied.

After calling for people to come onto the streets in protest in a video message later in the night, Ghannouchi said the parliament would meet in defiance of Saied’s move.
The leader of another party, Karama, and former President Moncef Marzouki both joined Ennahda in calling Saied’s move a coup.
“I ask the Tunisian people to pay attention to the fact that they imagine this to be the beginning of the solution. It is the beginning of slipping into an even worse situation,” Marzouki said in a video statement.

Crowds numbering in the tens of thousands stayed on the streets of Tunis and other cities, with some people setting off fireworks, for hours after Saied’s announcement as helicopters circled overhead.
“We have been relieved of them,” said Lamia Meftahi, a woman celebrating in central Tunis after Saied’s statement, speaking of the parliament and government.
“This is the happiest moment since the revolution,” she added.

Tunisian police run towards demonstrators to quell an anti-government protest in Tunis on July 25, 2021. (REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi)

Police used teargas to disperse people who tried to storm the Ennahda headquarters in Tunis late on Sunday.
Saied said in his statement that his actions were in line with Article 80 of the constitution, and also cited the article to suspend the immunity of members of parliament.
“Many people were deceived by hypocrisy, treachery and robbery of the rights of the people,” he said.
The president and the parliament were both elected in separate popular votes in 2019, while Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi took office last summer, replacing another short-lived government.
Saied, an independent without a party behind him https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/tunisian-president-is-political-outsider-accused-coup-2021-07-26, swore to overhaul a complex political system plagued by corruption. Meanwhile the parliamentary election delivered a fragmented chamber in which no party held more than a quarter of seats.

A man reacts as police officers detain a demonstrator during an anti-government protest in Tunis, Tunisia, on July 25, 2021. (REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi)

Disputes over Tunisia’s constitution were intended to be settled by a constitutional court. However, seven years after the constitution was approved, the court has yet to be installed after disputes over the appointment of judges.
The president has been enmeshed in political disputes with Mechichi for over a year, as the country grapples with an economic crisis, a looming fiscal crunch and a flailing response to the pandemic.
Under the constitution, the president has direct responsibility only for foreign affairs and the military, but after a government debacle with walk-in vaccination centers last week, he told the army to take charge of the pandemic response.
Tunisia’s soaring infection and death rates have added to public anger at the government as the country’s political parties bickered.
Meanwhile, Mechichi was attempting to negotiate a new loan with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that was seen as crucial to averting a looming fiscal crisis as Tunisia struggles to finance its budget deficit and coming debt repayments.
Disputes over the economic reforms, seen as needed to secure the loan but which could hurt ordinary Tunisians by ending subsidies or cutting public sector jobs, had already brought the government close to collapse.


King Abdullah II: Jordan previously attacked by Iranian-made drones

Updated 26 July 2021

King Abdullah II: Jordan previously attacked by Iranian-made drones

  • He said Iran’s nuclear program affects Israel as it does the Gulf, and its ballistic technology has improved dramatically
  • The king called for a return to the negotiating table and get the Palestinians and Israelis engaging again

LONDON: Jordan’s King Abdullah II said on Sunday that his country had previously been attacked by Iranian-made drones, adding that there are many concerns related to Iran’s activities in the region.
Speaking during an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, the king said: “Jordan always supports dialogue…(but) there are legitimate concerns in our part of the world on a lot of portfolios that the Americans are hopefully going to discuss with the Iranians.”
He said that the nuclear program affects Israel as it does the Gulf, and the Tehran regime’s ballistic technology has improved dramatically, adding that attacks on US bases in Iraq and cross border attacks on Saudi Arabia from Yemen are witness to that.
“(Attacks on) Israel from Syria and Lebanon to an extent, and what misses Israel, sometimes lands in Jordan.
“And add to that increased cyberattacks on many of our countries, the fire fights on our borders have increased almost to the times when we were at the high end with Daesh and unfortunately, Jordan has been attacked by drones that have come out, that are Iranian signature that we have had to deal with in the past year or so and escalated,” he said.
On the Iranian nuclear talks in Vienna, which have been postponed until the new government in Iran settles, he said: “I have a feeling that where the American position is and where the Iranian position is, is somewhat far apart,” adding that Jordan would like to address these regional concerns with the Iranians at those talks, and bridge that gap.
King Abdullah is currently in the US on a two-week visit where he met with US President Joe Biden last week, the first Middle East leader to visit the White House since the president was sworn in at the start of the year. The king first met Biden when he was crown prince and the latter was a senator.
“President Biden I have known since I was a young man visiting the Congress with my father, when he was a young senator, so this is an old friendship. And my son has known the president; as Joe Biden was the vice president, my son used to go and visit him at his house and in his office, so it’s a family friendship.”

He said: “As the first leader from that part of the world, it was important to unify messaging, because there are a lot of challenges. So, it was important for me not only to meet with the Palestinian leadership after a war, which I did, with Abu Mazen (Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas); I met the prime minister; I met General (Benny) Gantz.”
He said the most recent 11-day war that rocked Gaza was different to the previous ones as it was a “wake-up call” for the Palestinian and Israeli people, adding that he thinks the the next war is going to be even more damaging.
The king called for a return to the negotiating table, to build on the two-state solution, and get the Palestinians and Israelis engaging again.
“I think we have seen in the past couple of weeks, not only a better understanding between Israel and Jordan, but the voices coming out of both Israel and Palestine that we need to move forward and reset that relationship.”
On recent sedition trials in Jordan, the king said he was saddened that one of the people involved in the plot was his brother and that certain individuals used his brother for their own agendas.
Jordan’s military State Security Court sentenced Bassem Awadallah, a former chief of the Jordanian Royal Court, and Sharif Hassan bin Zaid, a distant member of the royal family, to 15 years of hard labor each on July 12 for their involvement in the high-profile sedition case.
Awadallah and Bin Zaid were arrested on April 3 along with 15 other people suspected of involvement in the case, which also involved Prince Hamzah bin Hussein, a half-brother of King Abdullah.
“The intelligence services, as they always do, gather information, and they got to a point where they had legitimate concerns that certain individuals were trying to push my brother’s ambitions for their own agendas, and decided, quite rightly, to nip it in the bud, and quietly.
“If it had not been for the irresponsible manner of secretly taping conversations with officials from Jordan or leaking videos, you and I would not be having this conversation,” the king said.