Lebanon a country of exceptions that needs a new vision

Lebanon a country of exceptions that needs a new vision

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News relating to last week’s lockdown decision in Beirut quickly made the rounds on social media. The official dispatch stated that “30 arrest warrants had been issued in Achrafieh, that there was a 90 percent compliance with the decision in Beirut, and that the army requested shops that had opened in the Dahyeh suburb to comply with the closure decision.”
The reason the dispatch was shared on social media was that the use of “arrest warrants” in one area of the city contrasted with the “request to comply” in the other. In a single simple sentence, and in a grave and dangerous moment, a sovereign decision to close non-essential businesses — whether right or wrong — was applied with force in one part of the city but could not be enforced in another. This is Lebanon today.
It is a good summary of the political, social, health and security situation in Lebanon. This selective state authority is what is bringing the country down. The fact that the authorities declared a state of emergency but the army could not enforce the lockdown or extend its full authority to Hezbollah-controlled areas is the reason for the demise of Lebanon. To restate the obvious, it is through its military arsenal, which threatens the state and the well-being of its citizens, that Hezbollah encourages disobedience to everything sovereign.
This is exactly where corruption starts and is even permitted. Hezbollah then extends this permission to those close clan leaders who can also extricate themselves from state decisions. Lebanon is, in short, a country of exceptions. If it is the exception that proves the rule, according to the well-known saying, in Lebanon it has become “the rule justifies the exception.” Today, it is Hezbollah’s exception that trickles down and destroys the state’s sovereignty.
State sovereignty and citizens’ well-being are continuously eroded by these exceptions. The other exception that led the country to collapse was the banking sector — although banking cartel would be a more appropriate description. It is now clear that, beyond Lebanon’s health and sanitation crises, the financial crisis will also deepen. Next in line are US-denominated deposits, which are about to go through the expected “haircut,” but it is still unclear who will bear the biggest burden and how it will be applied. This day will come soon, as the peg to the dollar is expected to end, especially if an agreement with the International Monetary Fund is to be reached. This unpegging measure, which in fact would not be a bad move in the long term, will increase import costs and squeeze the most fragile parts of the population into greater poverty. Without supporting measures, which do not currently seem to be planned, it will have catastrophic humanitarian consequences.
This means that Lebanon’s situation will get even worse and that the black-market economy will grow in parallel with bigger security incidents. One can expect the state’s authority to continue to be eroded, especially as it will not be able to meet its commitments. Chaos might ensue, but in the meantime one can only expect the control of Hezbollah and its criminal organizations to grow. We will eventually see a return to a geographical sectarian division of the country, with each group protecting their own.
Between the collapse of the economy and the pandemic’s spread, the youth that revolted in an attempt to bring change in October 2019 has been crushed. They have been reduced to slogans and virtual opposition on social media. Their last slogan, which stated that Lebanon is ruled by a religious militia and a corrupt political class, does not even describe the country properly. This slogan exonerates Hezbollah, as it shares the blame with the corrupt political class, when in fact the latter is an obedient subordinate. This slogan should only be that the country is occupied by an Iranian militia. Understanding that this is a foreign occupation might be futile at this stage, but it is still important.

The simple action of publicly analyzing and presenting solutions shines a light on government opacity and mismanagement.

Khaled Abou Zahr

As the situation worsens, many brilliant Lebanese from all over the world are presenting — just for the love of their country — some smart and sharp ideas on how to create new initiatives to save Lebanon. These unsolicited concepts range from the implementation of renewable energies to practical solutions to exit the financial crisis. They all share the desire to make processes in the country more efficient and transparent. This is exactly what the current regime does not want to see, as it thrives on opacity and division and so will never take them into consideration. However, the simple action of publicly analyzing and presenting solutions shines a light on this opacity and mismanagement. Even if small, this is a net positive.
It is time for Lebanese from all over the world to take this one step further and start building a concrete framework for a new Lebanon. This might sound unrealistic, but it is how one can start to build a new vision. The youth that revolted in 2019 lacked this framework and political vision, and as a result were crushed.
A political vision with a strong governance framework, even if only on paper, is something real to aim for and develop. This should be a collaborative work that integrates the knowledge of Lebanese minds: Including lawmakers to write a new constitution, economic and business experts to implement economic and social policies, designers and architects to give meaning and depth to this vision, and those who are suffering to say what they need.
A plan and a vision would also be the best way to gain support and create momentum for people to rally around. There is an urgent need for this new road map to be created, even if it is only a distant dream. I am a strong believer that, sooner or later, a free, sovereign and independent Lebanon will emerge — one that respects and protects all its citizens, no matter their beliefs, and where all citizens respect and protect their civic duties. The Lebanese need to believe it too. Stranger things happened in 2020, so why not this at the beginning of 2021?

  • Khaled Abou Zahr is CEO of Eurabia, a media and tech company. He is also the editor of Al-Watan Al-Arabi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view

Shops shut and streets empty as Lebanon enters strictest COVID-19 lockdown

Police officers on Beirut Corniche, as Lebanon tightened its lockdown and introduced a 24-hour curfew to curb the spread of COVID-19, Lebanon, January 14, 2021. (Reuters)
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Updated 14 January 2021

Shops shut and streets empty as Lebanon enters strictest COVID-19 lockdown

  • Virus patients struggling to breathe wait outside hospitals — hoping for a bed or a even chair to open up
  • The surge in coronavirus cases began in late August, a few weeks after the massive explosion at Beirut port

BEIRUT: It was a choice between containing a spiraling virus outbreak and resuscitating a dying economy in a country that has been in steady financial and economic meltdown over the past year. Authorities in Lebanon chose the latter.
Now, virus patients struggling to breathe wait outside hospitals — hoping for a bed or a even chair to open up. Ordinary people share contact lists of oxygen suppliers on social media as the the critical gas becomes scarce, and the sound of ambulances ferrying the ill echoes through Beirut. Around 500 of Lebanon’s 14,000 doctors have left the crisis-ridden country in recent months, according to the Order of Physicians, putting a further strain on existing hospital staff.
On Thursday, Lebanese authorities swung the other way: They began enforcing an 11-day nationwide shutdown and round-the-clock curfew, hoping to blunt the spread of coronavirus infections spinning out of control after the holiday period.
The curfew is the strictest measure Lebanon has taken since the start of the pandemic.
Previous shutdowns had laxer rules and were poorly enforced. Now, residents cannot leave their homes, except for a defined set of reasons, including going to the bakery, pharmacy, doctor’s office, hospital or airport — and for the first time they must request a permit before doing these things. Even supermarkets can only open for delivery.
While Lebanon still somehow managed to keep cases to an average of fewer than 100 per day until August, it now leads the Arab world in number of cases per million people. Today, the number of daily COVID-19 deaths is more than 13 times what it was in July. On Jan. 9, over 5,400 infections were reported, a record for the small country.


This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

While its neighbors begin vaccinating their populations — including Israel whose campaign promises to be among the world’s speediest — Lebanon has yet to secure a first batch of shots. Once a leader in the health sector among Middle Eastern countries, Lebanon has been stymied in its effort to get vaccines by repeated bureaucratic delays partly due to the fact that it has a caretaker government.
Parliament is expected to meet Friday to vote on a draft law to allow importing the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, with the first deliveries expected to arrive next month.
“This is the result of deliberate decisions made by irresponsible and immoral politicians,” said Sami Hanna, a 42-year-old businessman who was waiting for his turn to enter a pharmacy earlier this week, looking for pain relievers, anti-depressants and blood pressure medicine for his elderly parents.
“This is how we spend our days now, begging,” he said, adding that his next mission was to look for bread, which was out of stock because of panic-buying before the curfew set in. “It is too little too late.”
The surge in coronavirus cases began in late August, a few weeks after the massive explosion at Beirut port that destroyed parts of the capital, including several hospitals with virus patients.
The explosion was caused by a fire that detonated nearly three tons of poorly stored ammonium nitrate that had been sitting in a port warehouse for years — the kind of mismanagement that is typical of a corrupt political class that fails to provide even basic services for its people.
The virus surged in the chaos of inundated hospitals, funerals and protests that followed.
Further complicating efforts to rein in the virus, politicians have been unable to agree on a new government since the old one resigned in the wake of the port explosion, effectively ensuring the country’s continued unraveling.
But in December, as most governments around the world tightened lockdowns, Lebanon went the other way, allowing restaurants and nightclubs to reopen with barely any restrictions in place. An estimated 80,000 expats flowed to the country to celebrate Christmas and New Year with loved ones — many of them Lebanese who skipped visiting in the summer because of the devastation wrought by the explosion.
“The holiday season should have been the time for lockdown. The season of crowds, shopping and parties,” said Hanna Azar, owner of a money transfer and telephones shop. “They opened it to allow dollars into the country and now they want to close. Especially in this economic crisis, people don’t have money to eat.”
Many hospitals have now reached maximum capacity for coronavirus patients. Some have run out of beds, oxygen tanks and ventilators. Others have halted elective surgeries.
Last week, Lebanon imposed a 25-day nationwide lockdown and a nighttime curfew to limit the spread of the virus, but many sectors were exempted and enforcement was lax, as in the past. Many businesses, including hair salons, welcomed customers behind shuttered storefronts. In some areas of north and south Lebanon, it was business as usual.
With hospitals on the brink of collapse, the government then ordered an 11-day nationwide curfew starting Thursday, triggering three days of mayhem as crowds of shoppers emptied shelves in supermarkets and bakeries.
On Thursday, police manned checkpoints around the country, checking motorists’ permission to be on the road.
Halim Shebaya, a political analyst, said the government still has no clear strategy and cautioned that it would be difficult to bring the numbers down this late in the game.
“The main issue now is the absence of trust in the government and authorities and managing a pandemic necessitates the presence of public trust in measures taken by the authorities,” he said.
Still, Rabih Torbay, who heads Project HOPE, an international global health and humanitarian organization, said time is of essence and urged authorities to take any step that might help curb infections.
“Every day that goes by the country is sliding further into the abyss,” 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 19 January 2021

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.