Attempt to elect Lebanese president ends in farce with half of MPs casting blank ballots

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In the 45-minute session, 122 MPs out of 128 attended it. Six were not present during the vote. (AFP)
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Updated 30 September 2022

Attempt to elect Lebanese president ends in farce with half of MPs casting blank ballots

  • Hezbollah and allies cast blank ballot papers then halt proceedings by walking ou
  • President Michel Aoun’s term ends on Oct. 31, so the post is likely to be left vacant

BEIRUT: An attempt to elect a new president of Lebanon ended in farce on Thursday when Hezbollah MPs and their allies cast blank ballots, then walked out of the parliamentary session.

In a 45-minute session, the powerful Iran-backed Shiite group Hezbollah cast blank ballots, as did its allies the Shiite Amal Movement and the Free Patriotic Movement of outgoing President Michel Aoun, totalling 63 of the 122 lawmakers who attended.

Thirty-six voted for MP Michel Moawad, the son of a former president and staunch opponent of the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement.

Eleven MPs voted for Salim Edde, a businessman and son of the late Michel Edde who held ministerial positions from 1966 to 1998.

Ten MPs voted for the state of Lebanon and one voted for Mahsa Amini, the young Iranian woman who died after being arrested by Iran’s morality police for not wearing hijab “appropriately,” to express solidarity with protesters against the regime in Iran.

One MP voted for “the approach of Rashid Karami,” the former premier who was assassinated in a helicopter explosion during the civil war in 1987.

When Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri called for a recount, dozens of Hezbolla lawmakers and allies left, breaking the session’s required quorum.

Hezbollah’s sway over parliament has diminished since the group and its allies lost their majority in a May election which left an even more splintered legislature.

Berri did not announce the date of a new session. He said he would call a new session only once he saw consensus on a candidate.

“If there is no consensus, and if the next president does not receive 128 votes, we will not be able to save either parliament or Lebanon. When I sense consensus, I will call for a session,” he said. He said the quorum must be 86 MPs in order to hold any future election session.

“The country is in a deep and hard crisis...which requires agreement on a consensus president, not a president of confrontation,” said Hezbollah MP Ibrahim Moussawi.

But independent MP Firas Hamdan said the consensus sought by Berri was to blame for Lebanon’s troubles. “We are spinning in the same circle. This poses a danger to us, to the country and to the economy,” he said.

Fragile system

Incumbent President Michel Aoun’s six-year term ends on Oct. 31, so the post is likely to be left vacant as Lebanon plunges further into economic chaos.

Under Lebanon’s fragile sectarian power-sharing system, the office of president is reserved for a Maronite Christian.

The failure pointed out deep political divisions that threaten prolonged political paralysis and a leadership void at time where Lebanon is suffering an economic meltdown and has struggled to reach an agreement with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout.

Parliament’s deep divisions between Iran-backed Hezbollah and allies, traditional political adversaries, and a dozen reformist legislators continues to intensify. In recent months, no majority or consensus candidate in Parliament has emerged.

Lebanon has also been without a full-fledged government since May, and currently functions in a limited caretaker capacity under Prime Minister Najib Mikati.

How the MPs voted

The Democratic Gathering parliamentary bloc, headed by Taymour Jumblatt, voted for Michel Moawad as he “believes in the Taif Agreement” according to the bloc’s member Hadi Abu Al-Hosn.

Independent MPs voted for “Lebanon” and independent MP Karim Kabbara said that he voted for “the approach of Rashid Karami who was a statesman who believed in the law, institutions and coexistence.”

Anti-Hezbollah MP Moawad said that he did not expect a new president to be elected in the first session. He stressed that consensus “cannot be built with arms outside the (control of) state nor by imposing ideologies.”

Lebanese Forces Deputy Chief George Adwan said that “casting a blank vote shows the ruling political class is in disarray and the opposition did not have a sovereign candidate; Some opposition MPs also cast a blank vote.”

Senior Hezbollah legislator Mohammad Raad said the crisis-hit country’s parliamentary blocs are in the “early stages” of finding a president who would “bring stability to the country.”

“The blocs need to discuss and develop an understanding over a possible consensus candidate,” Raad told the press.

Independent lawmaker Halime Kaakour, meanwhile, blasted lawmakers for what she called a “negative calm with no consensus,” fearing a prolonged delay in electing a new president.

“The Constitution says it’s the majority of votes,” she told reporters. “I think it’s no longer a logical approach to try to reach a consensus in a country that continues to collapse.”

Most candidates who were tipped to be among the frontrunners did not receive any votes, most notably Sleiman Frangieh of the Marada Party, an ally of Hezbollah who calls Syrian President Bashar Assad a “friend and brother.”

Over the past three years, three-quarters of the tiny Mediterranean nation’s population slipped into poverty, as the country’s infrastructure and public institutions continue to crumble. The Lebanese pound has lost 90 percent of its value against the dollar, decimating the purchasing power of millions struggling to cope with rampant inflation rates.

Lebanon has been scrambling for over two years to reform its inefficient and wasteful economy, combat corruption, and restructure its demolished banking sector to reach an agreement with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout program. The IMF has recently criticized Lebanon for its slow progress.

Last week’s joint statement of Saudi Arabia, the US and France on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York stressed that it was “critical to elect a president who can unite the Lebanese people.”

(With Reuters,  AP and AFP)


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Russia sends reinforcements to northern Syria

Updated 57 min 51 sec ago

Russia sends reinforcements to northern Syria

  • The move by Damascus ally Moscow comes after Ankara launched air strikes on Kurdish targets in Syria and Iraq on November 20
  • Residents of Tal Rifaat, a Kurdish-held pocket north of Aleppo, told AFP that Russian troop reinforcements had reached the city

QAMISHLI, Syria: Russia deployed troop reinforcements Wednesday to an area of northern Syria controlled by Kurdish fighters and government troops, residents and a war monitor said, amid fears of a Turkish ground incursion.
The move by Damascus ally Moscow comes after Ankara launched air strikes on Kurdish targets in Syria and Iraq on November 20, a week after a deadly Istanbul bombing that it blamed on Kurdish militants, who have denied responsibility.
Residents of Tal Rifaat, a Kurdish-held pocket north of Aleppo, told AFP that Russian troop reinforcements had reached the city.
Tal Rifaat lies 15 kilometers (nine miles) south of the border with Turkiye. Kurdish forces control the city and surrounding villages, and Russian troops were already present in the area.
Residents said Russian forces had set up roadblocks at a nearby village separating it from positions under the control of Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel proxies.
Turkish proxies control areas surrounding Tal Rifaat from the north, while Russian-backed Syrian troops control zones mostly to the south.
After carrying out a series of air strikes, Turkiye has threatened to launch a ground incursion into northern Syria, including the Tal Rifaat pocket as well as Kobani and Manbij further east.
Kobani and Manbij are under the control of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which include the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), one of the groups Turkiye accuses of being behind the Istanbul bombing.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said Russia was also reinforcing its troops at a government-controlled air base near Tal Rifaat.
The reinforcements could be an attempt “to stop or put off the Turkish operation,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
Kurdish-led forces in northern Syria have called on Russia to dissuade Turkiye from launching a ground offensive against them, their commander said on Tuesday.
The Observatory said Russian reinforcements had also reached the outskirts of the border city of Kobani.
Russian troops deployed in some Kurdish-controlled border areas of northern Syria following a 2019 agreement that sought to avert a previous Turkish incursion threat.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last week that Turkiye was more determined than ever to secure its border with Syria from attacks by Kurdish fighters, threatening a ground operation “at the most convenient time.”
Since 2016, Turkiye has carried out successive operations against Kurdish forces in northern Syria that have installed its proxies in several areas along the border.

Earthquake of magnitude 5.6 strikes southern Iran; felt in UAE — EMSC

Updated 30 November 2022

Earthquake of magnitude 5.6 strikes southern Iran; felt in UAE — EMSC

  • Iranian state TV reported that rescue teams were dispatched to the quake-hit area and added there were no casualties

DUBAI: An Earthquake of magnitude 5.6 struck southern Iran on Wednesday and was felt in the United Arab Emirates, the European-Mediterranean Seismological Center (EMSC) said.
Iranian state TV reported that rescue teams were dispatched to the quake-hit area and added there were no casualties.
The quake was at a depth of 10 km (6 miles) and about 88 km northwest of Ras Al Khaimah City in the UAE, EMSC added.

Three teens among 15 Iranians facing death penalty: Judiciary

Updated 30 November 2022

Three teens among 15 Iranians facing death penalty: Judiciary

  • Iran has been rocked by street violence since the September 16 death of Mahsa Amini
  • A group of 15 people was charged with "corruption on earth" over the death of Ruhollah Ajamian, a member of the Basij paramilitary force

TEHRAN: Three Iranian teenagers are among 15 people who could face the death penalty over the killing of a pro-government paramilitary force member, the judiciary said Wednesday.
Iran has been rocked by street violence since the September 16 death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian of Kurdish origin, after her arrest in Tehran for an alleged breach of the country’s dress code for women.
A group of 15 people was charged with “corruption on earth” over the death of Ruhollah Ajamian, a member of the Basij paramilitary force, the judiciary’s Mizan Online website reported.
Prosecutors allege Ajamian, 27, was stripped naked and killed on November 3 in Karaj, a city west of Tehran, by a group of mourners who had been paying tribute to a slain protester.
Initially, on November 12, Mizan Online announced charges for 11 people over Ajamian’s killing, including a woman.
But on Wednesday, as the trial opened, it said 15 defendants in the case had been charged with “corruption on earth” — a sharia-related charge that is a capital crime in the Islamic republic.
“Three of the accused are aged 17” and their cases would be dealt with by a juvenile court, the website added.
An Iranian general said on Monday that more than 300 people have been killed in the unrest, including dozens of security force members, and thousands have been arrested, among them around 40 foreigners.
More than 2,000 people have been charged with offenses, according to the authorities.
At least six people have so far been sentenced to death, their fates now depending on the supreme court which rules on appeals.

Rights group: 47 children among at least 378 killed in Iran protest crackdown

Updated 30 November 2022

Rights group: 47 children among at least 378 killed in Iran protest crackdown

  • The Islamic republic has been gripped by protests that erupted over Amini’s death on September 16
PARIS: Iranian security forces have killed at least 378 people — including 47 children — in a crackdown on protests sparked by Mahsa Amini’s death, a rights group said in an updated toll Saturday.
The Islamic republic has been gripped by protests that erupted over Amini’s death on September 16, three days after her arrest for an alleged breach of the country’s strict dress code for women.
The protests were fanned by fury over the dress rules for women, but have grown into a broad movement against the theocracy that has ruled Iran since the 1979 revolution.
“At least 378 protesters, including 47 children, have been killed by the oppressive forces since September 16,” Iran Human Rights director Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam said.
The figure represents an increase of 36 since the Norway-based group issued its previous toll on Wednesday.
It includes at least 123 people killed in the province of Sistan-Baluchistan, on Iran’s southeastern border with Pakistan, 40 in both Kurdistan and Tehran provinces and 39 in West Azerbaijan province.
Iran Human Rights warned that the regime had been mounting a “campaign of spreading lies” ahead of a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council next week.
“They have two goals by attributing the killing of the protesters to terrorist groups like Daesh,” Amiry-Moghaddam said, referring to the Daesh group.
“They want to use it as an excuse for more widespread use of live ammunition,” he said.
“And they also want to influence countries in the UN Human Rights Council who will gather on November 24 in a special session considering establishing an independent investigation and accountability mechanism” over the crackdown in Iran, he added.

Egyptians call on British Museum to return Rosetta Stone

Updated 30 November 2022

Egyptians call on British Museum to return Rosetta Stone

CAIRO: The debate over who owns ancient artifacts has been an increasing challenge to museums across Europe and America, and the spotlight has fallen on the most visited piece in the British Museum: The Rosetta Stone.
The inscriptions on the black granite slab became the seminal breakthrough in deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics after it was taken from Egypt by forces of the British empire in 1801.
Now, as Britain’s largest museum marks the 200-year anniversary of the decipherment of hieroglyphics, thousands of Egyptians are demanding the stone’s return.
‘’The British Museum’s holding of the stone is a symbol of Western cultural violence against Egypt,” said Monica Hanna, dean at the Arab Academy for Science, Technology & Maritime Transport, and organizer of one of two petitions calling for the stone’s return.
The acquisition of the Rosetta Stone was tied up in the imperial battles between Britain and France. After Napoleon Bonaparte’s military occupation of Egypt, French scientists uncovered the stone in 1799 in the northern town of Rashid, known by the French as Rosetta. When British forces defeated the French in Egypt, the stone and over a dozen other antiquities were handed over to the British under the terms of an 1801 surrender deal between the generals of the two sides.
It has remained in the British Museum since.
Hanna’s petition, with 4,200 signatures, says the stone was seized illegally and constitutes a “spoil of war.” The claim is echoed in a near identical petition by Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s former minister for antiquities affairs, which has more than 100,000 signatures. Hawass argues that Egypt had no say in the 1801 agreement.
The British Museum refutes this. In a statement, the Museum said the 1801 treaty includes the signature of a representative of Egypt. It refers to an Ottoman admiral who fought alongside the British against the French. The Ottoman sultan in Istanbul was nominally the ruler of Egypt at the time of Napoleon’s invasion.
The Museum also said Egypt’s government has not submitted a request for its return. It added that there are 28 known copies of the same engraved decree and 21 of them remain in Egypt.
The contention over the original stone copy stems from its unrivaled significance to Egyptology. Carved in the 2nd century B.C., the slab contains three translations of a decree relating to a settlement between the then-ruling Ptolemies and a sect of Egyptian priests. The first inscription is in classic hieroglyphics, the next is in a simplified hieroglyphic script known as Demotic, and the third is in Ancient Greek.
Through knowledge of the latter, academics were able to decipher the hieroglyphic symbols, with French Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion eventually cracking the language in 1822.
‘‘Scholars from the previous 18th century had been longing to find a bilingual text written in a known language,’’ said Ilona Regulski, the head of Egyptian Written Culture at the British Museum. Regulski is the lead curator of the museum’s winter exhibition, “Hieroglyphs Unlocking Ancient Egypt,” celebrating the 200th anniversary of Champollion’s breakthrough.
The stone is one of more than 100,000 Egyptian and Sudanese relics housed in the British Museum. A large percentage were obtained during Britain’s colonial rule over the region from 1883 to 1953.
It has grown increasingly common for museums and collectors to return artifacts to their country of origin, with new instances reported nearly monthly. Often, it’s the result of a court ruling, while some cases are voluntary, symbolizing an act of atonement for historical wrongs.
New York’s Metropolitan Museum returned 16 antiquities to Egypt in September after a US investigation concluded they had been illegally trafficked. On Monday, London’s Horniman Museum signed over 72 objects, including 12 Benin Bronzes, to Nigeria following a request from its government.
Nicholas Donnell, a Boston-based attorney specializing in cases concerning art and artifacts, said no common international legal framework exists for such disputes. Unless there is clear evidence an artifact was acquired illegally, repatriation is largely at the discretion of the museum.
‘‘Given the treaty and the timeframe, the Rosetta Stone is a hard legal battle to win,’’ said Donnell.
The British Museum has acknowledged that several repatriation requests have been made to it from various countries for artifacts, but it did not provide The Associated Press with any details on their status or number. It also did not confirm whether it has ever repatriated an artifact from its collection.
For Nigel Hetherington, an archaeologist and CEO of the online academic forum Past Preserves, the museum’s lack of transparency suggests other motives.
‘‘It’s about money, maintaining relevance and a fear that in returning certain items people will stop coming,’’ he said.
Western museums have long pointed to superior facilities and larger crowd draws to justify their holding of world treasures. Amid turmoil following the 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak, Egypt saw an uptick in artifact smuggling, which cost the country an estimated $3 billion between 2011 and 2013, according to the US-based Antiquities Coalition. In 2015, it was discovered that cleaners at Cairo’s Egyptian Museum had damaged the burial mask of Pharaoh Tutankhamun by attempting to re-attach the beard with super glue.
But President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s government has since invested heavily in its antiquities. Egypt has successfully reclaimed thousands of internationally smuggled artifacts and plans to open a newly built, state-of-the-art museum where tens of thousands of objects can be housed. The Grand Egyptian Museum has been under construction for well over a decade and there have been repeated delays to its opening.
Egypt’s plethora of ancient monuments, from the pyramids of Giza to the towering statues of Abu Simbel at the Sudanese border, are the magnet for a tourism industry that drew in $13 billion in 2021.
For Hanna, Egyptians’ right to access their own history should remain the priority. “How many Egyptians can travel to London or New York?” she said.
Egyptian authorities did not respond to a request for comment regarding Egypt’s policy toward the Rosetta Stone or other Egyptian artifacts displayed abroad. Hawass and Hanna said they are not pinning hopes on the government to secure its return.
‘‘The Rosetta Stone is the icon of Egyptian identity,’’ said Hawass. ‘‘I will use the media and the intellectuals to tell the (British) museum they have no right.’’