Egypt will make ‘all possible efforts’ to help resolve crisis in Lebanon

Lebanese Prime Minister designate Saad al-Hariri meets with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Beirut, Lebanon April 7, 2021. (Reuters)
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Updated 07 April 2021

Egypt will make ‘all possible efforts’ to help resolve crisis in Lebanon

  • During visit to Beirut, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said the political deadlock is affecting the stability of both countries and the wider region

BEIRUT: Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said on Wednesday his country will “continue to exert all possible efforts alongside the Lebanese political parties to overcome the crisis facing the formation of the new government.”

Shoukry, who was visiting Lebanon for the first time since the explosion the destroyed Beirut’s Port eight months ago, denounced “the ongoing political deadlock preventing the formation of a government of specialists capable of meeting the needs of the brotherly Lebanese people and achieving stability, not only for Lebanon but for the region and Egypt.”

Shoukry passed on a message from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to his Lebanese counterpart, President Michel Aoun, that “stressed Egypt’s solidarity with Lebanon and its support of the efforts exerted to form a new government, as this would open the door for regional and international support and therefore serve the common interests of the region’s countries, but primarily those of the brotherly Lebanese people.”

Shoukry added: “The political framework of the upcoming government is ruled by the constitution, the Taif Agreement and the full commitment to those documents, considered the main pillars of stability.”

This latest attempt to encourage Lebanese politicians to make progress comes 167 days after Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri was instructed to form a new government to replace the one that resigned shortly after the Beirut explosion. Politicians have so far failed to reach a consensus as a result of Aoun’s reported determination to secure a blocking third — control over a third of cabinet portfolios for his allies, which would give them the power to veto any proposal that requires a two-thirds majority. Hariri refuses to grant this.

While the political deadlock continues, the financial crisis in the country deepens. A few days ago, Caretaker Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni warned that “the reserve dedicated to financing basic imports is depleting and may dry up completely by the end of May, unless we reduce subsidies by issuing ration cards to about 800,000 needy families.”

The agenda for Shoukry’s visit did not include meetings with Caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab, head of the Free Patriotic Movement Gebran Bassil, Caretaker Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe or any Hezbollah officials.

Instead he met Hariri, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Maronite Patriarch Bechara Al-Rahi, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, Kataeb Party leader Sami Gemayel, and Marada Party leader Suleiman Frangieh. A scheduled meeting with Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces, was canceled after Geagea tested positive for COVID-19.

Shoukry praised Berri for his “role and his initiative aimed at putting an end to this crisis, while preserving the solid political and legal foundation by abiding by the constitution and the Taif Agreement.”

And after his meeting with the Maronite patriarch, he said: “We have agreed with Al-Rahi on the importance of rapidly forming a government to implement the required reforms, paving the way for regional and international support.”

Egypt has backed an economic-reform initiative launched by French President Emmanuel Macron during a visit to Beirut soon after the explosion, and indicated that it is ready to work with Paris to ensure it is successfully implemented by a new government formed by a political consensus.

Aoun’s office said the president “commended the role undertaken by Egypt, under the leadership of El-Sisi, to help Lebanon address the various crises it is facing, particularly the governmental crisis.” He also expressed the hope that “the efforts will bear positive results through committing to the constitutional and distribution rules upon which the Lebanese system is built, and including all of the Lebanese parties without exclusion or discrimination.”

During a televised speech on Wednesday, Aoun stressed “his commitment to a forensic audit in order to hold accountable those who have stolen the money of the Lebanese people and state.”

In January, Mount Lebanon’s prosecutor, Ghada Aoun, charged the Governor of Lebanon’s central bank Riad Salameh over allegations relating to the use of foreign currency reserves.

Also on Wednesday, ministers gathered at the Ministry of Defense to discuss the demarcation of northern maritime borders, after a Syrian-Russian gas-exploration agreement ignored more than 750 kilometers of Lebanese borders.

“The parties agreed on the importance of the Lebanese authorities acquiring the official documents in order to set up a communication mechanism with the Syrian authorities,” the ministry said. “This stresses the position Lebanon has conveyed to the Syrian authorities repeatedly since 2010 and deposited at the UN.”

Foreign Minister Wehbe said on Tuesday: “President Aoun held a phone call with Syrian President Bashar Assad, during which he discussed the demarcation of the northern maritime borders with Syria and stressed that Lebanon will not accept the undermining of its maritime sovereignty.”


Guelleh re-elected president of Djibouti with 98.58% of vote: official count

Updated 10 April 2021

Guelleh re-elected president of Djibouti with 98.58% of vote: official count

DJIBOUTI: Ismail Omar Guelleh was re-elected for a fifth term as president of Djibouti with more than 98 percent of the vote, according to provisional results announced by Interior Minister Moumin Ahmed Cheick Friday night.
“President Ismail Omar Guelleh obtained 167,535 votes, which is 98.58 percent,” he told public broadcaster RTD, adding that confirmed results would be released soon by the Constitutional Council.


US put forward ‘very serious’ ideas to Iran on reviving nuclear deal: official

Updated 10 April 2021

US put forward ‘very serious’ ideas to Iran on reviving nuclear deal: official

WASHINGTON: The United States offered “very serious” ideas to Iran on how to revive a nuclear deal during talks in Vienna but is waiting for Iran to show the same “seriousness,” a US official said Friday.
“The United States team put forward a very serious idea and demonstrated a seriousness of purpose on coming back into compliance if Iran comes back into compliance,” the official told reporters as talks broke for the weekend.
But the official said the United States was waiting for its efforts to be “reciprocated” by Iran.
“We saw some signs of it but certainly not enough. There’s still question marks about whether Iran has the willingness to... take the pragmatic approach that the United States has taken to come back into compliance with its obligations under the deal,” he said.
President Joe Biden supports a return to the 2015 agreement trashed by his predecessor Donald Trump under which Iran drastically scaled back nuclear work in return for promises of sanctions relief.
Iran has demanded that the United States first lift all sanctions imposed by Trump, which include a sweeping unilateral ban on its oil exports, before it falls back in line with obligations it suspended.
The US official indicated that the major stumbling block in the initial talks was not the order of compliance but rather which sanctions were under discussion as Iran is demanding an end to all US restrictions.
Iran’s position is “not consistent with the deal itself because under the deal the US retains the right to impose sanctions for non-nuclear reasons, whether it’s terrorism or human rights violations or interference with our elections,” the official said.
“All sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPOA and are inconsistent with the benefits that Iran expects from the JCPOA we are prepared to lift. That doesn’t mean all of them because there are some that are legitimate sanctions,” he said, using the acronym for the accord’s official name.
Iran refused to meet directly with US negotiator Rob Malley during the talks led by the European Union, whose envoys shuttled between the two sides in different hotels. Talks are set to resume in the same format next week.

Video shows Israeli police beating lawmaker at protest

Updated 09 April 2021

Video shows Israeli police beating lawmaker at protest

  • Police seen punching lawmaker Ofer Cassif and trying to put him in a headlock
  • Jerusalem's police chief has ordered an investigation into the incident

JERUSALEM — A video circulating online shows Israeli police punching a member of parliament and wrestling him to the ground at a protest against planned evictions in east Jerusalem on Friday.
The video shows a scuffle between Israeli police and Ofer Cassif, the only Jewish member of the Joint List, an alliance of Arab parties in Israel’s Knesset.
The police can be seen punching him and trying to put him in a headlock before dragging him to the ground. One of the officers can later be seen briefly kneeling on his chest.
Cassif was left with a swollen eye, his shirt torn.
Ahmad Tibi, a fellow lawmaker from the Joint List, was among those sharing the video of the scuffle on Twitter, calling it a “brutal assault” and a violation of parliamentary immunity.
Israeli police said in a statement that Cassif attacked the policemen, who used “reasonable force” in response and released him as soon as they identified him as a member of parliament.
It said Jerusalem’s police chief, Doron Turgeman, has ordered an investigation into the incident.
Cassif was taking part in a weekly protest in the mostly Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where rights groups say dozens of people are at risk of being evicted after a long court battle with Jewish settler groups.
Jewish and Palestinian activists have been holding small weekly protests against the threatened evictions.
Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 war and annexed it in a move not recognized by most of the international community. Israel views the entire city as its unified capital, while the Palestinians want east Jerusalem to be the capital of their future state.
An Israeli court recently ordered the eviction of 58 people, 17 of them children, from seven houses in Sheikh Jarrah, according to the Israeli anti-settlement watchdog Peace Now.
The families are Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation who Peace Now says took up residence in the neighborhood under an agreement with Jordan, which controlled east Jerusalem from 1948 until 1967.
Peace Now says settler groups are pushing for their eviction by arguing that the land belonged to Jews prior to 1948. Israel supports the return of Jews to lands they lost in the 1948 war while barring Palestinians from doing the same.
Some 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes in what is now Israel during the 1948 war. They and their descendants now number more than 5.8 million and are scattered across the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
Their fate is one of the most divisive issues in the Middle East conflict.


German firms unveil lavish post-blast Beirut port plan

Updated 09 April 2021

German firms unveil lavish post-blast Beirut port plan

  • Plan put forward by two German firms envisions moving port activity away from city centre and re-urbanising damaged areas
  • German team admits corruption that has defined Lebanese politics for decades was an obstacle

BEIRUT — A German delegation on Friday unveiled a spectacular multi-billion-dollar project to rebuild Beirut port and its surroundings but admitted it was contingent on far-reaching government reforms.
Swathes of the port and adjacent neighborhoods were destroyed when fire ignited poorly stored ammonium nitrate on August 4, causing one of the world’s largest ever non-nuclear explosions and killing more than 200 people.
The ambitious German project was met with skepticism by some observers who argued Lebanon’s leaders were showing no sign of providing the most basic conditions for foreign investment.
The plan put forward by two German firms envisions moving most port activity away from the city center and re-urbanizing the most damaged areas.
Speaking at a press conference in Beirut, Colliers Germany managing director Hermann Schnell listed “affordable housing for families, green space and good infrastructure” among other features.
The project envisions beaches and a “central park” alongside restored architectural heritage, all wrapped in a plan that would generate 50,000 jobs and billions in profit.
The German pitch saw an “opportunity for a new city,” mapped out in a presentation that featured what it said were successful examples of redeveloped ports in cities like Cape Town, Bilbao and Vienna.
Lars Greiner of Hamburg Port Consulting (HPC) said the concept would “develop the port precinct of Beirut into a world class, state-of-the-art port” that would be more automated, cost-efficient and ready for regional trade growth.
The private initiative is the first large-scale, comprehensive plan after last year’s blast and has the support of Germany, whose ambassador attended the press conference.
Other international players are also working on alternative or complementary proposals.
French shipping giant CMA CGM, which leads container operations in Lebanon, submitted its own master plan in September.
“Such a huge project... can only be built if there is accountability and transparency,” German ambassador Andreas Kindl said at the news conference.
The project envisions the creation of a trust overseen by independent international appointees to manage funding from the European Investment Bank and other investors.
“I don’t see these proposals... becoming reality anytime soon,” economist and anti-government activist Jad Chaaban told AFP.
“Who today is prepared to invest one penny in a country whose collapse is in full swing, which has no government and defaulted on its debt?“
The German team admitted the corruption that has defined Lebanese politics for decades was an obstacle.
“What’s on the table is incredible... The only thing that you really need to do is make sure that there is transparency, that’s it,” HPC managing director Suheil Mahayni told AFP.
“We don’t dream, we have a clear vision... But if some pre-conditions are not fulfilled and don’t allow full transparency, it’s not going to work,” he said.


Iraq toughens coronavirus restrictions ahead of Ramadan

In this Sunday, March 28, 2021 file photo, people wait to receive a COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in Baghdad, Iraq. (AP)
Updated 10 April 2021

Iraq toughens coronavirus restrictions ahead of Ramadan

  • Public commitment toward heeding virus prevention measures ‘almost non-existent in most regions of Iraq’
  • Iraq began administering vaccines in late March, but rollout has been slow owing to low demand

Iraqi authorities on Friday locked down entire neighborhoods in Baghdad and said it would shut down shops employing people who have not been vaccinated, as it grapples with its highest coronavirus caseload yet.
Ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins next week and is normally accompanied by family gatherings and mass prayers, concrete barriers have been placed across the capital.
An 8 p.m. curfew has been in place for several weeks, alongside a 24-hour curfew on the two weekend days of Friday and Saturday, and the measures will remain in place during Ramadan.
But since February 2020, masks and other protective measures have been largely shunned by citizens, while people have flouted curfews to gather in large numbers, including for pilgrimages.

BACKGROUND

The number of cases detected daily has hit new highs, peaking at up to 8,500, compared to 6,500 two weeks ago.

The concrete barriers were put in place at the request of the anti-coronavirus governmental committee, after a sudden rise in COVID-19 cases.
The number of cases detected daily has hit new highs for several consecutive days lately, peaking at up to 8,500, compared to 6,500 two weeks ago.
Iraq has long grappled with medicine and hospital shortages, undermining care for those who fall seriously ill with the disease.
The country of 40 million inhabitants has received nearly 400,000 vaccine doses so far, mainly through the Covax program, which is supporting lower and middle income nations to procure vaccines.
But many Iraqis are opposed to vaccination. The Health Ministry announced on Friday that it would “close commercial centers, shops, restaurants and private medical centers where employees have not been vaccinated.” It also called on travel agencies to avoid “selling plane tickets to anyone who does not have proof of vaccination.”