Jabs for votes: Lebanon’s oligarchs turn to Covid bribery

Anti-government protesters hit a member of police intelligence who was taking pictures of protesters, in Beirut. The man fled the scene on the motorcycle of a traffic policeman. (AP)
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Updated 10 June 2021

Jabs for votes: Lebanon’s oligarchs turn to Covid bribery

  • Saad Hariri organised a countrywide vaccination campaign with the help of his Future Movement in May
  • Lawmaker Elias Bou Saab, close to FPM, rented a private hospital for vaccination purposes & Lebanese Forces’ Antoine Habchi provided 1,600 jabs in Baalbek

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s cash-strapped leaders are bribing their base with free Covid-19 jabs ahead of next year’s elections, in what observers say is the latest variant on an old corruption trick.
The “vaccine for vote” system builds on decades-old patronage practices that have seen leaders buy their way into office by offering voters money or public sector employment.
But with state resources stretched to their limit by a severe economic crisis and international aid dwindling due to a failure to deliver promised reforms, politicians are turning to Covid jabs to stock up on political capital.
“Political forces are trying to directly or indirectly make themselves a part of the equation with regards to the vaccine campaign, primarily because it is a profitable investment,” said a member of the state-run National Vaccination Committee who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Prime minister-designate Saad Hariri, a leading figure in Lebanon’s Sunni community, organized a countrywide vaccination campaign with the help of his Future Movement in early May.
More than 7,000 people received at least one dose of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, said spokesperson Abdel Salam Moussa. Tens of thousands of new jabs are expected to arrive in the coming weeks, he told AFP.
The Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), founded by President Michel Aoun, and its Christian rival the Lebanese Forces, have also distributed jabs through private initiatives organized by members or affiliates.
Elias Bou Saab, a lawmaker close to the FPM, rented out a private hospital outside Beirut until March next year for vaccination purposes.
Last month, he said he would provide “20,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine to be distributed free of charge.”
Antoine Habchi of the Lebanese Forces provided jabs for 1,600 people in the eastern region of Baalbek. “The funds were raised from the diaspora,” he told AFP.
The Lebanese government, with the help of international agencies, provides free jabs of the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccine on a priority basis.
It started its vaccination campaign in February, but the rollout was initially slow, forcing many, including political leaders, to turn to private suppliers providing Sputnik doses.
With more than half the population living below the poverty line and the Lebanese pound sliding rapidly against the dollar on the black market, vaccines are a luxury for many.
Two Sputnik doses are sold to companies and associations for $38, which amounts to 500,000 Lebanese pounds at the black market rate, or around three quarters of the minimum wage.
Firas, a former insurance broker, had registered along with his wife for state-sponsored vaccination.
But when a political party offered him free jabs, he chose not to wait for the government.
“I have been unemployed for six months. How would I have afforded vaccines for two people?” said the 52-year-old, who declined to name the party that sponsored his Sputnik dose.
Out of nearly 900,000 people who have received vaccines in Lebanon, nearly 60,000 benefited from party handouts, said Mohamad Haidar, a health ministry adviser.
The powerful Hezbollah movement, an Iran-backed party that boasts major welfare institutions, including several hospitals, says it is not distributing vaccines.
With health minister Hamad Hassan hailing from its ranks, Hezbollah can rely solely on the state, said political scientist Hilal Khashan of the American University of Beirut.
According to a 2019 report by Transparency International, nearly one in two people in Lebanon is offered a bribe in return for their vote, while more than one in four receives threats if they do not comply.
With traditional party leaders going up against a revitalized opposition in elections next year, vaccine handouts could be “exploited for political ends,” said Julien Courson, the director of the Lebanese Transparency Association.
But vaccines aren’t the only honey pot.
Food prices in Lebanon have soared by up to 400 percent as of December and medicines are fast disappearing from pharmacy shelves.
Political patrons are stepping in to ease the blow.
The FPM will launch a platform for medicine exchange that will primarily benefit party supporters, said Marwan Zoghbi of the party’s coronavirus committee.
People with a surplus of a certain medicine will be matched with those who are in need, he said.
Hezbollah, which has long offered a wide array of social services, said in April that it is boosting the number of supporters who benefit from assistance.
Services include a shopping card for discounted food items sold at select discount stores.
But with Lebanon’s woes piling up quickly, political parties across the board will struggle to keep up.
“Lebanese clientelism is failing because the political system does not have material resources to dispense to sectarian leaders,” said Khashan.
“The pervasive poverty attests to the failure of the system and the inability of confessional leaders to provide for their impoverished followers.”


Israel launches official probe into deadly festival stampede

Updated 20 June 2021

Israel launches official probe into deadly festival stampede

  • Some 100,000 people, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, gathered for the April 29 holiday festival despite coronavirus restrictions
  • Experts had long warned the Mount Meron complex was inadequately equipped to handle the enormous crowds
JERUSALEM: Israel’s government approved Sunday the establishment of an independent state commission of inquiry into a deadly disaster at a Jewish holy site in April that left 45 people dead.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the commission would investigate major safety shortcomings that led to a deadly stampede at Lag Baomer celebrations on Mount Meron.
It will be headed by a current or former senior judge, and its members selected by the country’s chief Supreme Court justice.
Some 100,000 people, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, gathered for the April 29 holiday festival in northern Israel despite coronavirus restrictions limiting outdoor assemblies to 500 people, and longstanding warnings about the safety of such gatherings. The state comptroller’s office had previously issued a pair of reports in 2008 and 2011 warning that the conditions at Mount Meron were dangerous.
Hundreds of people funneled through a narrow passageway descending the mountain’s holy site during the festival. A slippery slope caused people to stumble and fall, precipitating a human avalanche that killed 45 people and injured at least 150.
The police launched an investigation into the disaster, but to date have yet to make any arrests.
The government said the commission would investigate the officials “who made the decisions that led to approving the event and determining the framework that was approved and its terms.”
Powerful ultra-Orthodox politicians reportedly pressured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other government officials to lift attendance restrictions at the religious festival.
Experts had long warned the Mount Meron complex was inadequately equipped to handle the enormous crowds that flock there during the springtime holiday, and that existing infrastructure was a safety risk.
Netanyahu’s political allies, including ultra-Orthodox lawmakers, walked out on a Knesset committee hearing that discussed forming an investigation last month. Families of the mostly ultra-Orthodox victims of the disaster had called on Netanyahu to take action and form an independent state commission to investigate the incident.
Bennett said at the start of his newly formed government’s first Cabinet meeting that “the responsibility is on our shoulders to learn the lessons to prevent the disaster to come.”
“The commission cannot bring back those who died, but the government can do everything to prevent an unnecessary loss in the future,” he said.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz, one of the ministers who advanced the motion to launch the commission, said in a statement: “We must make sure that a tragedy of this nature never repeats itself. The taskforce’s purpose is, above anything else, to save human life.”

New compensation offer made over Suez Canal blockage — lawyer

Updated 20 June 2021

New compensation offer made over Suez Canal blockage — lawyer

  • The Ever Given container ship has been anchored in a lake between two stretches since it was dislodged on March 29
  • The Suez Canal Authority (SCA) demanded $916 million in compensation before lowering it to $550 million

ISMAILIA: The owners of a giant container ship that blocked the Suez Canal in March have made a new offer in a compensation dispute with the canal authority, a lawyer for the authority said on Sunday.
The Ever Given container ship has been anchored in a lake between two stretches of the canal since it was dislodged on March 29. It had been grounded across the canal for six days, blocking hundreds of ships and disrupting global trade.
The Suez Canal Authority (SCA) demanded $916 million in compensation to cover salvage efforts, reputational damage and lost revenue, before publicly lowering the request to $550 million.
The Ever Given’s Japanese owners Shoei Kisen and its insurers have disputed the claim and the ship’s detention under an Egyptian court order.
Negotiations had been continuing until Saturday, SCA lawyer Khaled Abu Bakr told a court hearing in Ismailia over the ship’s detention.
The ship’s owners had put in a new offer, he said, without giving details. The SCA’s chairman previously said Shoei Kisen had offered to pay $150 million.
The court had been due to rule on the case on Sunday but Shoei Kisen’s legal team asked for a postponement to allow more time for negotiations, one of their lawyers said.
This week UK Club, one of the ship’s insurers, said it was engaged in “serious and constructive negotiations” with the SCA, and was “hopeful of a positive resolution to these negotiations in the near future.”

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Lebanon’s Hezbollah hails Raisi’s election win in Iran

Updated 20 June 2021

Lebanon’s Hezbollah hails Raisi’s election win in Iran

  • Raisi, a former judiciary chief, won nearly 62 percent of the vote in Friday’s election

BEIRUT: The head of Lebanon’s powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah on Sunday congratulated ultraconservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi on winning Iran’s presidential election, describing him as a “shield” against Israel and other “aggressors.”

Raisi, a former judiciary chief, won nearly 62 percent of the vote in Friday’s election on turnout of 48.8 percent, after his most prominent rivals were either disqualified or pulled out of the race.

“Your victory has renewed the hopes of the Iranian people and the people of the region who see you as a shield and a strong supporter... for the resistance against aggressors,” Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said in a statement.

Hezbollah, long designated a terrorist organization by the United States, forms an “axis of resistance” against Israel together with Iran and Syria.

The Lebanese movement fought a devastating war with Israel in 2006, and its fighters have also battled against rebels trying to oust the regime of Syria’s President Bashar Assad.

Assad, whose government counts Iran as one of its top allies, wished Raisi “success in his new responsibilities... and steering the country in the face of external pressure.”

Hezbollah, a powerful force in Lebanese politics, also has close ties with the Islamist Palestinian group Hamas which rules the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip.

Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said “Iran has always been a main, strong and real supporter of the Palestinian resistance and our national cause” as he congratulated Raisi.


Bassil attacks attempts to form the Lebanese govt

A demonstrator carries a national flag during a protest against mounting economic hardships, in Beirut. (Reuters/File)
Updated 21 June 2021

Bassil attacks attempts to form the Lebanese govt

  • The politician criticizes Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, and the head of the Lebanese Forces Party, Samir Geagea

BEIRUT: The head of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), Lebanese MP Gebran Bassil made a speech on Sunday attacking all attempts to form a government. He declared his rejection of the “three-eight formula that is being worked on to form a government of 24 ministers.”

Bassil, an ally of Hezbollah, said that “actual parity between Muslims and Christians is through having 12 ministers named by Christians and 12 ministers named by Muslims, not eight ministers named by Christians and 16 ministers named by Muslims.”
Bassil, who was described by the British newspaper The Times as “the most hated man in Lebanon,” strongly criticized Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Hezbollah’s main ally, as well as the head of the Lebanese Forces (LF) Party, Samir Geagea, the rival Christian party on the Lebanese political scene, accusing him of failing to defend the Christian interests.
Bassil said he had decided “to seek help from his friend Hassan Nasrallah, secretary-general of Hezbollah,” as he accepts what Nasrallah believes about forming a government.
“Bassil seemed to open the battle for the parliamentary and possibly presidential elections by presenting himself as a sole defender of the Christian community’s rights.”
The coordinator of the Rally for Sovereignty, Naufal Daou, said that “Bassil’s request for Nasrallah’s assistance is ... rather an attempt to bully through weapons and a recognition of Nasrallah’s authority in exchange for some positions and quotas.”

FASTFACT

Hezbollah activists celebrated on social media the victory of Ebrahim Raisi in the Iranian presidential elections.

Daou addressed Bassil by saying: “Isn’t it better ... to seek the assistance of the Lebanese constitution and Lebanon’s true Arab friends in the interests of the Lebanese people instead of resorting to arms? The constitution is a reference, not a party that owns weapons.”
A member of the parliamentary Strong Republic bloc, MP Wehbe Qatisha, said that Bassil “has entrenched himself in sectarianism.”
Former MP Fadi Karam said that Bassil and his team “ruined the country, destroyed the state, and devastated the people through their alliances with the enemies of freedom and with the axis of humiliation and backwardness.”
Bassil affirmed that “our intention is to restore the role they took from us between 1990 and 2005,” referring to reducing the powers of the presidency in accordance with the Taif Agreement for the benefit of the Council of Ministers. He accused the other parties of not respecting the text of the agreement.
A few hours before Bassil’s speech, Maronite Patriarch Bechara Al-Rahi in his Sunday sermon called on “the Lebanese people to be vigilant.”
He strongly criticized “the ruling political group ... for its inability to rule the people and the country. Officials are blocking the formation of the government under the pretext of powers. What powers are you looking for? ... Our problem is not a lack of powers, but a lack of responsibility,” he said.
Al-Rahi stressed that “our army is always ready to confront any breach of security, and the time has come for the state to clarify its position and recognize the army as the sole legitimate party that is responsible for Lebanon’s security, sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity.”
Meanwhile, Hezbollah activists celebrated on social media the victory of Ebrahim Raisi in the Iranian presidential elections.


Libya’s Haftar closes border with Algeria

Updated 20 June 2021

Libya’s Haftar closes border with Algeria

  • The armed forces has closed the Libyan-Algerian border and declared it a military zone
  • Most of the country is still controlled by armed groups

TRIPOLI: Forces loyal to Libya’s eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar have closed the border with Algeria, they said on Sunday, after major deployments of his forces to the south underscored his continued role despite efforts to unify the country.

Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) last week sent troops into the southern city of Sebha, which was already allied to eastern forces, and then on Saturday to a southern border crossing with Algeria.

“The armed forces has closed the Libyan-Algerian border and declared it a military zone in which movement is prohibited,” said the Moral Guidance Department, an LNA media unit.

The nearly 1,000-kilometer (620 miles) border between Algeria and Libya cuts through mostly uninhabited desert and has few crossings.

Haftar was put onto the back foot last year after the collapse of his 14-month offensive against Tripoli, while a new unity government backed by a UN-facilitated peace process has called into question his political position.

However, despite progress toward a political solution for Libya after a decade of violence and chaos, most of the country is still controlled by armed groups, corruption is rampant and the outside powers involved in the conflict have not withdrawn.

Progress is expected on Sunday in implementing the terms of a military cease-fire in place since September, with the planned reopening of the main coast road across front lines, and foreign powers will convene in Berlin this week for Libya talks.

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