Saied vows new electoral code, transition team

Tunisian President Kais Saied waves to Tunisian citizens as he delivers a speech during his visit to Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, Monday, Sept. 20, 2021. (AP)
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Updated 22 September 2021

Saied vows new electoral code, transition team

  • The North African nation was widely seen as a model for budding democracies but has failed to cure chronic unemployment

TUNIS: Tunisia’s president has announced plans to draft a new electoral code and appoint a transitional leadership — and to hang on to the exceptional powers that he seized in July.

President Kais Saied promised that the new initiatives would respect Tunisians’ hard-fought rights and freedoms and democratic constitution. While many Tunisians welcome his moves, human rights groups and some others are concerned about the future of the only country to emerge from the turbulent Arab Spring uprisings with a new democratic system.

Saied spoke to supporters in the impoverished town of Sidi Bouzid, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, where many people are disillusioned with the country’s failure to solve economic and social problems since overthrowing its repressive leaders a decade ago.

He defended his July 25 decision to suspend parliament, fire the prime minister and seize executive powers, which he said was needed to save the country amid unrest over financial troubles and the government’s handling of Tunisia’s coronavirus crisis. He invoked a special constitutional article allowing such measures in the event of imminent danger to the nation, and said they would be in place for 30 days. But they have been extended until further notice.

“Danger still hangs over the country and I cannot leave it like a puppet in the hands of those who act in the shadows, and of corrupt people,” Saied said. He accused unidentified players of “conspiring to cause chaos and confusion” in Tunisia, and said, “There is no question of going back.”

He promised a new electoral code to hold lawmakers more accountable to constituents, and transitional arrangements to run the country before he names a new prime minister. He did not detail them.

Two years after protests, Lebanon activists set sights on vote

Updated 13 sec ago

Two years after protests, Lebanon activists set sights on vote

BEIRUT: Two years after a now-defunct protest movement shook Lebanon, opposition activists are hoping parliamentary polls will challenge the ruling elite’s stranglehold on the country.
Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets from October 17, 2019 in an unprecedented countrywide and cross-sectarian uprising.
Their demands were for basic services and the wholesale removal of a political class they accused of mismanagement and corruption since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.
But as the country sank further into economic turmoil, made worse by the coronavirus pandemic, what demonstrators called their “revolution” petered out.
Many then saw a probe into the cataclysmic 2020 Beirut port blast as the best chance to bring down Lebanon’s hereditary political barons, but even intense international pressure in the explosion’s aftermath failed to make them change their ways.
Last week, feuding parties turned Beirut into a war zone, with heavy exchanges of fire killing seven people in a flare-up sparked by a rally against the main investigating judge.
Lawyer and activist Firas Hamdan is one of many to say that the elections, set for next year, will be a new opportunity for people to raise their voices against the authorities.
“We tried everything — protests in a single location and across regions, demonstrations outside the central bank and near the homes of officials, following lawmakers and officials into restaurants and coffee shops, and blocking roads — but all to no avail,” he said.
Instead now “the parliamentary elections will be a pivotal moment in confronting the system — even if not the final battle,” he added.
Hamdan said the polls would allow people to choose between those who want to actually “build a state,” and a tired ruling class “that only knows the language of arms, destruction and blood.”
It will be a “face-off between thieves and murderers, and citizens who deserve a chance at state building,” said the lawyer, who was hit in the heart by a lead pellet at a demonstration last year demanding justice over the port blast.
The protest movement has given birth to a clutch of new political parties, as well as attracting support from more traditional ones such as the Christian Kataeb party.
Each has its own vision of how to achieve change, but all largely agree on the importance of the upcoming elections.
Zeina El-Helou, a member of new political party “Lana” (For Us), said it was time to “move on from the nostalgia of throngs of people in the streets chanting” for change.
Activists needed instead to work on “managing frustrations and expectations” for the future, she said.
The political battle would be tough, as it opposed two sides of “unequal means,” she said, referring to her side’s limited financing or access to the traditional media for campaigning, and to gerrymandering giving establishment parties the advantage.
The various opposition groups have yet to decide how they will take part in the upcoming polls, and some observers have criticized them for failing to coordinate their efforts effectively.
Voters, meanwhile, are busy battling to get by on deeply diminished incomes, amid endless power cuts, price hikes and shortages of everything from medicine to petrol.
Maher Abu Chakra, from the new grouping “Li Haqqi” (For My Right), said the polls would likely not change a thing but it was “important to take part.”
“It’s a first step on the path to lasting change.”
But he too acknowledged the challenges.
“When people’s priority becomes making sure they can provide basic needs, they’re less ready for confrontation” in politics, he said.
Tens of thousands have been laid off or have taken pay cuts since the start of the crisis, and many people have been deprived of their own life savings, which have become trapped in the banks.
In some cases, traditional parties have managed to wheedle their way back into voters’ homes by giving them food, fuel or medication, or even paying their electricity or water bills.
Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut (AUB), said the old political system was “still alive and well.”
The people, however, were suffering from “social fatigue” and had “understood change wouldn’t be so easy,” he said.
Rima Majed, assistant professor of sociology at AUB, said people were leaving the country because they had lost hope in any political change.
Fed up with constant blackouts and shortages, thousands of fresh graduates and better-off families have packed their bags and quit Lebanon in recent months in search of a better life abroad.
“It’s deluded to believe that elections can change the system,” she said.

Senior Al-Qaeda leader killed in US drone strike in Syria: Pentagon

Updated 23 October 2021

Senior Al-Qaeda leader killed in US drone strike in Syria: Pentagon

  • US official says Al-Qaeda uses Syria as a safe haven to rebuild, coordinate with external affiliates, and plan external operations

WASHINGTON: A senior Al-Qaeda leader was killed in a US drone strike in Syria, the Pentagon said on Friday.
The strike comes two days after a base in southern Syria, used by the US-led coalition fighting the Daesh group, was assaulted.
“A US airstrike today in northwest Syria killed senior Al-Qaeda leader Abdul Hamid Al-Matar,” said Central Command spokesman Army Major John Rigsbee in a statement.
There were no known casualties from the strike, he said, adding it was conducted using an MQ-9 aircraft.
“The removal of this Al-Qaeda senior leader will disrupt the terrorist organization’s ability to further plot and carry out global attacks,” he said.
At the end of September the Pentagon killed Salim Abu-Ahmad, another senior Al-Qaeda commander in Syria, in an airstrike near Idlib in the country’s northwest.
He had been responsible for “planning, funding, and approving trans-regional Al-Qaeda attacks,” according to Centcom.
“Al-Qaeda continues to present a threat to America and our allies. Al-Qaeda uses Syria as a safe haven to rebuild, coordinate with external affiliates, and plan external operations,” Rigsbee said.
The ongoing war in Syria has created a complex battlefield involving foreign armies, militias and jihadists.
The war has killed around half a million people since starting in 2011 with a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests.

Algeria rejects Western Sahara talks

Updated 23 October 2021

Algeria rejects Western Sahara talks

  • Morocco sees the entire Western Sahara as an integral part of its territory and has offered autonomy there while firmly ruling out independence

ALGIERS: Algeria on Friday ruled out returning to roundtable talks over Western Sahara, days after the UN appointed a new envoy for the conflict. “We confirm our formal and irreversible rejection of the so-called roundtable format,” Algeria’s Western Sahara envoy Amar Belani told the APS news agency.

Algiers is seen as the main backer of the Polisario Front, which seeks independence in the disputed territory, mostly controlled by Algeria’s arch-rival Morocco.

The International Crisis Group wrote this month that “Rabat considers Western Sahara a regional issue and the Polisario an Algerian proxy”, meaning Morocco wants Algeria at the table in any talks.

But some Polisario officials demand a return to bilateral talks on what they see as “a struggle by a colonized population for national liberation from a colonial power”, the ICG report explained.

The last UN-led peace talks in 2019 involved top officials from Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and the Polisario.

But they were frozen after UN envoy Horst Kohler quit the post in May 2019. He was finally replaced this month by veteran diplomat Staffan de Mistura. The Security Council is expected to renew the mandate of peace mission MINURSO by Oct. 27, and possibly call for new roundtable talks.

But Belani said Algeria had told the council it rejects the “deeply unbalanced” and “counterproductive” format, warning it would thwart De Mistura’s efforts.

He accused Rabat of trying “to evade the characterization of the Western Sahara issue as one of decolonization and to portray it as a regional, artificial conflict”.

Tensions have mounted between Rabat and Algiers since Morocco last year normalized ties with Israel and won US recognition of its sovereignty over the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony rich in phosphate and Atlantic fisheries.

Algeria, which has long supported the Palestinian cause as well as the Polisario, in August cut diplomatic ties with its rival over “hostile actions,” including alleged spying on its officials — accusations Morocco dismisses.

The standoff also came after the Polisario declared a three-decade cease-fire “null and void” after a Moroccan incursion to break up a blockade of a highway into Mauritania.

Belani urged the UN to treat the issue seriously. “We must recognize that the risks of escalation are serious,” he said. “Peace and stability in the region are at stake.”

Foreign aid lost in Syria exchange rate distortions

Updated 23 October 2021

Foreign aid lost in Syria exchange rate distortions

  • The currency manipulation deprives Syrians, most of them impoverished after a decade of war, of much-needed funds

BEIRUT: Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government has used distorted exchange rates to divert at least $100 million in international aid to its coffers in the past two years, according to new research.

The currency manipulation deprives Syrians, most of them impoverished after a decade of war, of much-needed funds. It also allows the Damascus government to circumvent sanctions enforced by Western countries that hold it responsible for most of the war’s atrocities.

“Western countries, despite sanctioning Syrian President Bashar Assad, have become one of the regime’s largest sources of hard currency,” said the report published this week by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based research organization that focuses on international public policy issues.

“Assad does not merely profit from the crisis he has created,” the report added. “He has created a system that rewards him more the worse things get.”

On Friday, the UN acknowledged that exchange rate fluctuations have had “a relative impact” on the effectiveness of some of the UN programs, particularly since the second half of 2019 when the Syrian currency took a nosedive.

Francesco Galtieri, a senior Damascus-based UN official, said his office received the report on Thursday. “We are carefully reviewing it, also to openly discuss it in the coming weeks with our donors, who are as concerned as we are that the impact of the assistance to the people in Syria is maximized,” Galtieri, team leader of the Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria, said.

The authors of the research published on Wednesday said the amount of aid lost and diverted to Syrian government coffers as a result of the national currency fall is likely to be more than $100 million over the past two years. The data they used to calculate the amount was limited to UN procurement and does not include aid delivered through other international aid groups, salaries or cash assistance.

Sara Kayyali, who researches Syria for Human Rights Watch, called the findings shocking and said donors can no longer ignore the fact that they are effectively financing the Syrian government and its human rights abuses. She said UN procurement processes did not meet due diligence standards, from a human rights perspective.

The Syrian pound has been hit hard by war, corruption, Western sanctions and, more recently, a financial and economic collapse in neighboring Lebanon.

Friday prayers resume in Iran after 20-month hiatus due to COVID-19

Updated 23 October 2021

Friday prayers resume in Iran after 20-month hiatus due to COVID-19

  • The government says more than 28.2 million people have so far received a second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine

TEHRAN: Mass Friday prayers resumed in Tehran after a 20-month hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, state TV reported.

The prayers at Tehran University, a gathering of religious and political significance, came as authorities warned of a sixth wave of the coronavirus, which has so far claimed 124,928 lives in Iran and afflicted more than 5.8 million.

On Saturday, schools with fewer than 300 students are also due to reopen. Also starting on Saturday, government employees, except those in the armed forces, will be barred from work if they are not vaccinated at least with a first dose, according to a government circular released earlier this week.

The government says more than 28.2 million people have so far received a second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Today is a very sweet day for us. We thank the Almighty for giving us back the Friday prayers after a period of restrictions and deprivation,” said Mohammad Javad Hajj Ali Akbari, Tehran’s interim Friday prayer imam who led the sermons.

Worshippers had to heed social distancing and use face masks during the gathering, a forum where officials present a unified front in the weekly sermon, a duty that rotates around senior members of Iran’s conservative clerical establishment.

Most worshippers brought their own prayer rugs and clay tablets used during prostration, said the broadcast.

It added Friday prayers were also performed in several other Iranian cities.

Health Minister Bahram Einollah said earlier this week that it was a “certainty” that Iran would face a sixth wave next week. The warning came even as the country has accelerated its vaccination drive.

Einollahi added that his country was well-prepared for the new surge.

Schools with more than 300 students will re-open on Nov. 6, Alireza Kamarei, spokesman for Iran’s Education Ministry, said earlier this week, adding that it was not essential for students and teachers to be vaccinated. He said 85 percent of the country’s teachers and 68 percent of students had so far been inoculated and that classrooms were well ventilated.

Required social distancing will remain at least one and a half meters.