Lebanon appoints Najib Mikati as new PM-designate

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Lebanon's new Prime Minister-Designate Najib Mikati, talks at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon July 26, 2021. (Reuters)
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Lebanese President Michel Aoun, left, meets with former Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, at the presidential palace, in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, Monday, July 26, 2021. (AP)
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Updated 27 July 2021

Lebanon appoints Najib Mikati as new PM-designate

  • Exchange rate drops but living conditions continue to deteriorate
  • The country has an opportunity, says former PM Saad Hariri

BEIRUT: Lebanese MPs have tasked former Prime Minister Najib Mikati with forming a government, ending a year of political deadlock that has crippled the country.

Mikati, who has been prime minister twice before, received a majority of votes from MPs during parliamentary consultations held on Monday by President Michel Aoun to appoint a Sunni figure to assemble a rescue government.

Saad Hariri quit earlier this month as prime minister-designate after almost 10 months of trying to form a government amid the country’s economic and financial collapse, as well as the challenges presented by the pandemic and the devastating aftermath of the Beirut port explosion. He and Aoun blamed each other for the failure to agree on a cabinet lineup.  

Mikati won the votes of the most prominent blocs, including the Future bloc, Hezbollah's bloc, the Progressive Socialist Party bloc, and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri's bloc.

But the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) bloc, which is the political group affiliated with Aoun, refrained from nominating anyone as the FPM and Mikati failed to see eye-to-eye on the 2011 government’s political performance.

Mikati spoke to reporters shortly after he was appointed and said he would work to form a government and implement a French plan to save the country from its crippling financial crisis.
“I don’t have a magic wand and can’t perform miracles... but I have studied the situation for a while and have international guarantees,” Mikati said.
“We are in very difficult situation ... it is a difficult mission that can only succeed if we all work together,” he added.
France’s plan includes a government of specialists capable of initiating enough reforms to attract foreign aid. 

The positive political atmosphere was reflected in a sudden drop in the black market exchange rate to about LBP16,000 to the dollar, after exceeding LBP22,000 during the past week.

Economy Minister Raoul Nehme asked importers and business owners to “reduce prices as quickly as possible before Tuesday morning.”

He warned that “severe penalties” would be taken against those who committed “price manipulation or fraud.”

But many believed that Mikati had already tried and failed in the past, while others said he was part of the same ruling system and would not be able to achieve reforms.

“We are cautiously looking forward to the possibility of Mikati's success in forming the government after former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Ambassador Mustapha Adib failed to do so in less than a year,” political observers told Arab News, saying that Mikati would not give himself a long time to form a government. “If any obstacles arise, he will immediately step down,” they added.

Mikati comes to office as the Lebanese continue to struggle with deteriorating living conditions.

The European Union on Monday urged Lebanon’s political elite to form a government without delay.
“It is now of crucial importance that a credible and accountable government is formed in Lebanon without delay, one that is able to address the severe economic and social crises the country is facing,” the EU said in a statement.
“We call on the Lebanese political leaders to cooperate and allow for the swift formation of a credible and capable government, in the interest of the people of Lebanon,” it said. 
France urged the formation of a “competent and capable” government in Lebanon to carry out reforms 
The foreign ministry said it was “urgent” to form such a government and implement reforms “essential to the recovery of the country,” calling on “all Lebanese leaders to act in this direction as quickly as possible.”

People blocked roads on Monday, protesting about power cuts, a lack of medicine and medical supplies, and a lack of diesel to run private generators even on the black market.

Former MP Fares Souaid tweeted on Sunday: “In one of the most reputable hospitals, a girl got her eyelid stitched up without local anesthesia because the hospital did not have any.”

A man in Tripoli poured petrol over himself and set himself alight in the middle of the street in protest at his living conditions. 

“The country has an opportunity today,” said Hariri. “As you can see, the exchange rate is decreasing, and that is what’s important.”

During their meeting on Sunday, the former prime ministers laid down the foundations and principles to support Mikati’s mandate to form a government “of independent, non-partisan specialists, by steering clear of the dominance of political parties, under pretexts of blocking thirds or others that force governments to resign, provided that this government is harmonious and united, enjoys the confidence of the Lebanese and the Arab and international communities, and can lead Lebanon during the next stage.”

After meeting Aoun as part of the parliamentary consultations, Hariri said he nominated Mikati because he would follow the constitutional path agreed upon at the meeting of the former prime ministers and would form a government as soon as possible.

“We should not stop at petty things while the country needs a government,” he added.

Aoun met a delegation from the French Senate on Monday and said the next government would be a rescue government. One of its tasks was to also supervise the parliamentary elections next May, he added.

There were media reports that Mikati met FPM leader Gebran Bassil MP, who is Aoun’s son-in-law, on Saturday as part of the preliminary meetings before the parliamentary consultations.

Mikati's office and Bassil's office denied claims they had discussed the distribution of ministerial portfolios in the lineup that Mikati would put together and that Bassil wanted the Ministry of Interior, which would supervise the parliamentary elections.

(Reuters, AFP, and AP)

French FM applauds Middle East diplomacy, warns of Iranian transgressions

Updated 13 sec ago

French FM applauds Middle East diplomacy, warns of Iranian transgressions

  • Le Drian lauds August’s Baghdad Convention but warns Iran has repeatedly breached its nuclear commitments under the JCPOA
  • Minister laments ‘breach of trust’ by the UK and US over scuppering of a French submarine deal with Australia

NEW YORK: French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has celebrated progress in diplomacy in the Middle East and promised that France will continue to take an active role in ensuring the region remains stable.

In a wide-ranging press conference held on Monday and attended by Arab News, Le Drian also lamented the recent “breach of trust” by the UK and US over the sale of submarines to Australia.

France had originally been slated to supply submarines to Australia as part of that deal, but Canberra did a U-turn in favor of an agreement with the US and UK, in what some have called an embarrassment for the French.

“In the Middle East, stability and security shall be the heart of our priorities. These require a regional dialogue, including in the unprecedented format of the Baghdad Conference on Aug. 28,” Le Drian said.

The Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership brought together many of the key powers in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Qatar, and Iran for dialogue aimed at easing security tensions in the region. France also attended the summit and has taken an active role in mediating conflict and disputes in the Middle East, in some form, for centuries.

“It was an exceptional meeting because those who attended were not used to sitting at the same table,” said Le Drian, who is currently in New York for the UN General Assembly’s week of high-level meetings.

“We managed to launch some sort of new spirit and to gather some support for a willingness to reduce regional tensions in an unprecedented format.”

Iran’s presence at the conference, he continued, may be seen as a “positive signal,” but he said that he would convene a meeting of the joint commission of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) because, “regarding Iran, we note that the negotiations were interrupted at the request of Iran and we need to make sure that, this week, we try to launch some positive momentum or negotiations to resume.”

The JCPOA, widely referred to as the Iran nuclear deal, saw heavy restrictions and monitoring placed on Tehran’s nascent nuclear program in return for much-needed sanctions relief. Iran and the US, which also left the deal, have been in negotiations for years over a bilateral return to the deal, but those have stalled in recent months.

“In the meantime, Iran keeps breaching some commitments that they made within the JCPOA,” said Le Drian, who also warned that “time is playing against the potential (nuclear) agreement because, as time goes by, the Iranian authorities are speeding up their nuclear activities.”

The minister also addressed the latest developments in Afghanistan, recently seized by the Taliban after 20 years of US presence in the country.

He said that France and its European partners had sent across a number of “very clear requirements” of the Taliban. Those include allowing people to leave the country if they wish, preventing the country from becoming a haven for terrorists, facilitating the delivery of humanitarian assistance in the country, and ensuring the rights of minorities, women, and journalists are upheld.

“Should the Taliban fail to meet these requirements, they will ban themselves from the international community,” Le Drian said.

He also supported the allocation by the UN of €100 million ($117,289,000) to Afghanistan and pointed out that the Europeans had already pledged over €600 million in humanitarian aid for Afghans.

Much of Le Drian’s attention throughout the conference, however, was focused on the recent news that Australia would scrap a lucrative deal with France to buy French-made submarines, and instead form a pact with the UK and US to purchase nuclear submarines.

That deal has proved highly controversial in France and across mainland Europe, and resulted in a diplomatic row between the longtime allies.

Le Drian said that Presidents Macron and Biden will “discuss the matter very frankly” when they speak.

Syrian migrants allowed in by Merkel vote to choose her successor

Updated 21 September 2021

Syrian migrants allowed in by Merkel vote to choose her successor

  • Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to open the door to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in 2015 was a defining issue of Germany’s last federal election campaign in 2017

BERLIN: Tarek Saad is keen to help other Syrian refugees who have fled the war in their homeland to make a new home in Germany and he sees the federal election on Sept. 26 as an opportunity to do just that.

Saad is campaigning in his adopted state of Schleswig-Holstein on the Baltic coast for the Social Democrats (SPD), a party he joined in 2016, just two years after he arrived in Germany bearing two gunshot wounds he had survived in Syria.

“I thought the things making my life difficult must be tormenting others as well. To overcome them as quickly as possible, one should be in a political party,” said the 28-year-old student of political science.

“Our parents lived under a different political system for long years (in Syria) ... This is an opportunity to develop a new generation (in Germany),” said Saad, who like many refugees will vote for the first time as a German citizen.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to open the door to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in 2015 was a defining issue of Germany’s last federal election campaign in 2017.

Not all newly naturalized refugees are as clear as Saad about their voting intentions.

“I am happy to have this opportunity but I am being cautious and maybe I won’t vote,” said Maher Obaid, 29, who lives in the town of Singen near the Swiss border.

Obaid, naturalized in 2019, said a lack of clarity among the parties on foreign policy issues, especially Syria, was behind his hesitation.

The number of Syrians who have acquired German citizenship rose by 74 percent in 2020 to 6,700, federal statistics show. The total number of Syrian refugees is estimated to be much higher, at over 700,000, but getting citizenship requires time and effort.

A 2020 study by the Expert Council on Integration and Migration (SVR) found that only 65 percent of Germans with a migration background voted in 2017, against 86 percent of native-born Germans.

Language fluency and socio-economic situation were two factors determining migrants’ participation, along with the length of their stay, the study found.

“The longer a person stays in Germany ... the more likely they are to feel they understand and can participate in political life,” it said.

Historically, migrants from southern Europe and Turkey who came as guest workers saw the Social Democrats as the party that best represented their interests, a study by the DIW research institute showed.

By contrast, Syrians were more likely to support Merkel’s conservatives who shaped the migration policy from 2013 to 2016 when the majority of them arrived in Germany, the study found.

But with Merkel bowing out of politics after 16 years at the helm, many Syrians are now making different calculations.

“Syrians should be very smart ... What Merkel did was right but what is her successor doing?” asked Abdulaziz Ramadan, head of a migrant integration organization in Leipzig who was naturalized in 2019.

An informal poll among members of a Syrian migrants’ group on Facebook showed most would now vote for the SPD, followed by the Greens, if they were entitled to vote. The option “I don’t care” was the third choice.

Mahmoud Al Kutaifan, a doctor living in the south-western city of Freiburg, is among the few Syrians who were naturalized in time to vote in the 2017 election.

“Out of emotion, I voted then for the party of Mrs. Merkel because she supported refugees,” he said.

While he has not regretted that decision, he, like many other German voters pondering the post-Merkel era, is unsure how to cast his ballot this time round.

“The election date is approaching but I honestly haven’t decided yet.”

EU joins outcry over Houthis’ execution of nine men

Updated 21 September 2021

EU joins outcry over Houthis’ execution of nine men

  • Britain said the executions demonstrated “indifference to human dignity & blatant disregard for fair trial & due process.”
  • The Houthis’ Foreign Ministry dismissed the criticism as “interference in domestic affairs” and accused the United Nations and the West of turning a blind eye to the “coalition’s crimes.”

ADEN: The European Union joined a chorus of international criticism on Monday over the execution of nine men by the Iran-aligned Houthi movement in Yemen following their conviction for involvement in the killing of the group’s top civilian leader.
Saleh Al-Samad, who held the post of president in the Houthi-controlled administration which runs most of northern Yemen, was killed in April 2018 by a Saudi-led coalition airstrike in the port city of Hodeidah on Yemen’s west coast.
A Houthi court found the nine men, including one who was a minor when he was arrested, guilty of spying and sharing sensitive information with the Saudi-led coalition. They were executed on Saturday by firing squad.
Pictures and videos of the executions have been widely shared on social media, which showed military officers shooting the nine men in the back in Sanaa’s central public square.
In a statement condemning the executions, an EU spokesperson said there had also been reports of irregularities in the judicial process and allegations of mistreatment.
“The European Union strongly opposes the death penalty at all times and in all circumstances. It is a cruel and inhumane punishment ...” said the statement.
Earlier, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued a similar statement in which he also called for a moratorium on use of the death penalty in Yemen and for a peaceful negotiated settlement of the conflict there.
The US Embassy in Yemen condemned what it called “a sham trial following years of torture and abuse” by the Houthis. Britain said the executions demonstrated “indifference to human dignity & blatant disregard for fair trial & due process.”
The Houthis’ Foreign Ministry dismissed the criticism as “interference in domestic affairs” and accused the United Nations and the West of turning a blind eye to the “coalition’s crimes.”
Samad was the most senior official to be killed by the coalition in the years-long war in which the Houthis are fighting forces loyal to the internationally-recognized government based in the southern port city of Aden.


Two militant commanders killed in Syria drone strikes

Updated 21 September 2021

Two militant commanders killed in Syria drone strikes

  • The strikes targeted a vehicle on the road leading from Idlib city to Binnish further north

BEIRUT: Drone strikes Monday killed two militant commanders close to Al-Qaeda in the Idlib region of northwest Syria, a war monitor said.
The raids were carried out by the US-led international coalition battling militants in Syria and Iraq, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
But the coalition told AFP it had not carried out any strikes in Idlib province on Monday.
The strikes targeted a vehicle on the road leading from Idlib city to Binnish further north, the observatory said.
Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP that one of the commanders killed was Tunisian while the other was from Yemen or Saudi Arabia, without identifying the group they belonged to.
The Idlib region is dominated by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate, but rebels and other militants are also present.
Militant factions have been the target of Syrian, Russian, US and international coalition strikes in the past. Nine militants were killed in October 2019 in Russian airstrikes on Idlib province, while a US strike a month earlier killed at least 40 militant leaders.
Syria’s war has killed around half a million people since starting in 2011 with a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests, spiralling into a complex battlefield involving foreign armies and militants.

Palestinian artist depicts the ‘ticking bomb’ of Gaza

Updated 20 September 2021

Palestinian artist depicts the ‘ticking bomb’ of Gaza

  • Abeer Jebril paints ballet dancers because ‘I see her as an icon of beauty and power’

GAZA CITY: Palestinian artist Abeer Jebril’s paintings show ballerinas chained in barbed wire, dancing on rocks, or facing barricades to mirror what she calls the “ticking bomb” reality of women in Gaza.
Jebril, 35, hopes her portraits will bring attention to the social and political problems women face in Gaza, home to two million people and devastated by wars and economic restrictions.
“The reason I chose the ballet dancer is that I see her as an icon of beauty and power,” said Jebril, who is inspired by Degas, the French Impressionist.
“It shows what the woman feels, lives, faces and how she is chained, it shows what she feels in Gaza to the audience.” she said.
One of her paintings depicts a dancer with her feet chained in barbed wire. Another is stepping on rocks while a third woman wraps her body around a grenade. “Men and women are both in chains under the occupation,” Jebril said.
She said her paintings also shed light on how “women suffer from the dominance of men and the inability to have a say on issues that matter.” Men and women, Jebril said, “live in a ticking bomb in Gaza,” not knowing what will happen next.
Jebril said she got ideas for her paintings from moves by international ballet dancers and those of her 11-year-old daughter Maya, who dances ballet.
Her portaits, created using painter’s knives, have been displayed in galleries in some European and Arab countries.
“I felt despair seeing paintings displayed outside Gaza when I couldn’t be there. I so much had hoped to have stood next to them,” she said.