Frankly Speaking: Can Lebanon ever have an ‘independent’ president?

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Updated 16 June 2024
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Frankly Speaking: Can Lebanon ever have an ‘independent’ president?

  • Ziad Hayek explains how he would fix the economy and break the political deadlock without Hezbollah’s support
  • Presidential candidate weighs in on relations with the GCC bloc and whether a war with Israel is now inevitable

DUBAI: People familiar with Lebanon’s sectarian politics and power camps are typically skeptical about the likelihood and success of a truly independent candidate for the presidency — a position that has been vacant since October 2022.

However, Ziad Hayek, who claims to be an independent, says that the current parliamentary climate makes it possible to stand successfully and work effectively as a president representing none of the main political camps.

“The makeup of parliament for the first time in Lebanon is such that it allows us to do that,” said Hayek during an appearance on the Arab News current affairs program “Frankly Speaking.”

“The two general factions that are defined by either pro-Hezbollah or against Hezbollah and pro-Western camp or pro-East, these two larger factions are almost equally divided in parliament. And neither side is able or has been able for the past year and a half to get their candidate elected. 

“And so I think that they need to come to terms with that situation. They need to focus on finding a president, a candidate that they can both feel comfortable with, and yet does not belong to either side.”

Challenged by “Frankly Speaking” host Katie Jensen on whether he really stands a chance of success without aligning himself with Hezbollah, Hayek said only an independent could help the country to break with the past.

“The focus that I have today is on making sure that I’m an acceptable candidate to all sides, because all factions have to be comfortable, and I wouldn’t want to be the candidate of either side. That’s why I’m running as an independent candidate,” he said.

“At the end of the day, we are not going to move Lebanon from the mud … unless we really get to understand the issues that all the parties face and air concerns and allay their concerns. So that applies to Hezbollah and it applies to all the other parties.”




Independent presidential candidate Ziad Hayek outlined his political and economic vision for Lebanon during an appearance on the weekly Arab News current affairs program “Frankly Speaking.” (AN Photo)

Hezbollah has significant support among the Shiite population of Lebanon and even among many Maronite Christians, including presidential contender Gebran Bassil — the son-in-law of former President Michel Aoun, who took office thanks to his backing of Hezbollah.

Given the political clout of Hezbollah and Lebanon’s other big parties, can an independent hope to break through? Hayek says it is precisely because these big hitters have consistently failed to get their own candidates elected that an independent can break the deadlock.

“Of course, I do understand that Hezbollah has an influential role in this election,” he said. “I don’t discount that. But so do other parties. Hezbollah has not been able to get its candidate elected so far, and neither have the other parties. 

“Yes, I do understand that people may think that my position is a bit unrealistic simply because Lebanon has not had this type of situation before. But I think it is in this situation that we have the opportunity to break away from the past and look to Lebanon’s future in a different way.”

Hayek is not new to Lebanese politics. In 2006, he joined the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, becoming secretary general of the Republic of Lebanon’s High Council for Privatization and PPP until he was nominated to be president of the World Bank in 2019. 

Having witnessed the devastating 2006 war, the financial crash of late 2019, the economic toll of the pandemic, the destruction of the Beirut port blast of Aug. 4, 2020, the government’s paralysis since October 2022, and now a low-intensity conflict on Lebanon’s southern border with Israel, one has to wonder: Why on earth would he want to be president? 

“I want this job because I really feel that this place is one of the best countries in the world with so much potential,” he said. “And yet the political discourse in it has been going in the wrong direction. And I would like to change that. 

“I’m hoping to be able to change the political dialogue, focus more on socio-economic matters, how to develop the country, how to develop its economy, rather than continuing the conversation that usually takes place about ‘this faction wants this guy’ and ‘this faction wants that guy.’

“None of these candidates have presented any program, any vision for the future. So I would like to change the way that the Lebanese public looks at politics in general, and focus on policies.”

Bridging the political divide in Lebanon’s multi-confessional system that emerged after the civil war would be a tall order for any experienced politician with a party machine to back them up.

Hayek is confident that his background in finance, helping governments balance their books and facilitate reform, makes him ideally suited to getting even the bitterest of rivals to work together for the public good.

“I have made a career of being able to work with people that everybody else said: ‘No, you cannot work with this guy. You cannot work with this group,’” he said.

“The Lebanese public in general is really yearning for somebody that can address the needs that it has and the daily needs of the Lebanese citizen, not just the geopolitics of America and Iran and all this conversation that really leads nowhere at the end of the day for the common person on the street.”




A smoke plume rises after rockets fired from south Lebanon landed near Kfar Szold in the Upper Galilee in northern Israel on June 14. Fallout from the Gaza war is regularly felt on the Israeli-Lebanon frontier, where deadly cross-border exchanges have escalated. (AFP)

Like it or not, Lebanon’s destiny is tied up in geopolitics. In fact, Hezbollah’s Iranian backers and their Israeli rivals have turned the country into a battlefield in their ongoing shadow war.

Since the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack on southern Israel triggered the war in Gaza, Hezbollah has launched daily rocket and drone attacks against Israel’s northern territories to draw fire away from its Hamas allies.

Israel has retaliated with its own air and artillery strikes against southern Lebanon, leading to fears of an escalation that could drag the wider region into a major confrontation.

Asked whether a full-scale war can be averted, sparing Lebanon a devastating Israeli invasion it can ill afford to fight, Hayek said he was hopeful “cooler heads will eventually prevail.” 

“Both the Israelis and the Lebanese, including Hezbollah, have to realize, all of us, that these wars lead nowhere,” he said. “It’s just destruction on both sides. And at the end of the day, this conflict has gone on for decades. And all these wars end with some compromise and some agreement on a ceasefire that lasts for a certain period of time. 

“We need to move towards finding a lasting peace. And the makings of that were already starting to happen when Lebanon reached an agreement on the delineation of the maritime borders with Israel. There was work that was continuing, helped along by the Americans.

“Unfortunately, this Gaza situation came up and changed things. But I think when the dust settles, we do need to go back to working on the task of making sure that we build a lasting peace. 

“For now, it is a terrible situation. There is no doubt about it. I think that cooler heads will eventually prevail as they always do in every conflict. And we will see some agreement between the parties.”

Nevertheless, the rhetoric from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has continued to grow more hostile and the spate of cross-border attack more deadly, leaving some to conclude a full-scale war seems inevitable.

“Israel knows that it is in its best interest not to engage in a war in Lebanon that it cannot win,” said Hayek. “Lebanon is not Gaza. It’s going to be a lot more difficult. It’s something that Israel has experienced in the past, and I don’t think the Israelis wish to escalate the war in Lebanon. 

“But continuing to play with fire, tit for tat and all of that, is not helpful because we are a hair trigger away from an escalation. I mean, any day there can be a strike that goes wrong beyond the normally accepted, currently accepted type of trading fire between the two parties. 

“And such a situation can lead to a very fast escalation that may draw even regional powers into the equation. And I think that nobody wants that, really.”

Even if the region is spared a major war, Lebanon still has to contend with a broken economy, rampant corruption, shattered infrastructure, mass unemployment, extreme poverty, and a generation of young people who have fled abroad.

If he becomes president, how would Hayek go about untangling such a colossal mess?




Asked during his appearance on Frankly Speaking whether a full-scale war can be averted, sparing Lebanon a devastating Israeli invasion it can ill afford to fight, Hayek said he was hopeful “cooler heads will eventually prevail.”  (AN Photo)

“I have presented a plan specifically for Lebanon to get out of its financial crisis,” he said. “It is built on converting the bank deposits into tradeable CDs (certificates of deposit) on the Beirut Stock Exchange to enable the capital markets to come back to life again. 

“It involves using some of the gold reserves to create funds for social development and for economic development. It includes regaining the ability of the government not to raise taxes but to collect taxes in order to pay for the services it needs to deliver to the Lebanese public. So I do have some ideas. 

“I think that the International Monetary Fund’s approval is very important because we do need the seal of approval of the IMF to regain the confidence of investors. But I think there are many ways to discuss with the IMF what could be acceptable to them as well as taking the Lebanese reality into consideration.”

Hayek also wants to see Lebanon revive its economic ties with the Gulf Cooperation Council bloc, allowing Lebanese companies to prosper from investment opportunities, in particular Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 agenda.

“The relationship with the GCC is crucial,” he said. “Those countries are the hosts of hundreds of thousands, or tens of thousands of Lebanese that are working there. So they are very important currently to our economy with the remittances of these people. 

“But also, of course, the Lebanese are contributing to the growth and development that is happening in the region because the Lebanese working there are highly educated, highly skilled, able to contribute in a big way. 

“This mutual relationship of benefits needs to be strengthened. I think that with Vision 2030 in Saudi Arabia and other plans in the UAE and other countries, these are big opportunities for the Lebanese, big opportunities for Lebanon to solidify its relationships with those countries and governments and projects and as well as for them to see that they already know that Lebanon has much to offer to contribute towards their success.”

 


Iraq eyes drawdown of US-led forces starting September, sources say

Updated 8 sec ago
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Iraq eyes drawdown of US-led forces starting September, sources say

  • The US currently has around 2,500 troops in Iraq at the head of a more than 80-member coalition that was formed in 2014 to repel Daesh as it rampaged across Iraq and Syria
  • Washington and Baghdad initiated talks on the future of the coalition in January amid tit-for-tat attacks between Iran-backed Shiite Muslim armed groups and US forces that were sparked by the Israel-Hamas war

BAGHDAD: Iraq wants troops from a US-led military coalition to begin withdrawing in September and to formally end the coalition’s work by September 2025, four Iraqi sources said, with some US forces likely to remain in a newly negotiated advisory capacity.
The Iraqi position is being discussed with US officials in Washington this week at a security summit and there is no formal agreement on ending the coalition or any associated timetable yet, the Iraqi sources and US officials said.
US State Department spokesperson Mathew Miller told a news briefing that both sides were meeting in Washington this week to determine how to transition the US-led coalition’s mission based on the threat posed by Daesh, adding he had no further details.
US-led forces invaded Iraq in 2003, toppled former leader Saddam Hussein and then withdrew in 2011, only to return in 2014 to fight Daesh at the head of the coalition.
The US currently has around 2,500 troops in Iraq at the head of a more than 80-member coalition that was formed in 2014 to repel Daesh as it rampaged across Iraq and Syria.
They are housed at three main bases, one in Baghdad, one in western Anbar province and another in the northern Kurdistan region.
It is unclear how many troops would leave under a deal, with Iraqi sources saying they expected most to eventually depart but US officials saying many may remain under a newly negotiated advise and assist mission.
US officials are keen to have some military footprint in Iraq on a bilateral basis, in part to help support its presence across the border in Syria, where it has around 900 troops.
The issue is highly politicized, with mainly Iran-aligned Iraqi political factions looking to show that they are pushing out the country’s one-time occupier again, while US officials want to avoid giving Iran and its allies a win.
There are also concerns about Daesh’s ability to regroup.
The jihadist group was declared territorially defeated in Iraq in 2017 and in Syria in 2019 but still carries out attacks in both countries and is on track to double its attacks in Syria this year compared to 2023, the US military said.
The group and its affiliates have also in recent months carried out attacks in Iran and Russia, as well as in Oman last week for the first time.
While the coalition’s mission is to advise and assist Iraqi forces in the fight against the Daesh, Western officials say the US and its allies also see its presence in Iraq as a check on Iranian influence.
Washington and Baghdad initiated talks on the future of the coalition in January amid tit-for-tat attacks between Iran-backed Shiite Muslim armed groups and US forces that were sparked by the Israel-Hamas war.
An agreement to draw down the coalition could be a political win for Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani, who has been under pressure from Iran-aligned factions to push out US forces but has sought to do so in a way that balances Iraq’s delicate position as an ally of both Washington and Tehran.

 

 


Israel strikes on Yemen port: what is the damage?

Updated 28 min 56 sec ago
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Israel strikes on Yemen port: what is the damage?

  • The attack destroyed most of the port’s fuel storage capacity of 150,000 tons, leaving the Hodeida governorate with an overall capacity of 50,000, the US-based Navanti Group said, citing merchants
  • The ship “remains operational,” but “all 780,000 liters of fuel stock was likely destroyed,” said Pierre Honnorat, WFP’s Yemen country director, adding that all the agency’s staff were safe and accounted for

DUBAI: Israeli strikes on Saturday hit a power plant and fuel storage facilities in Hodeida, the main port under the control of Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
Here is what we know about the damage caused by the attack, which set oil tanks ablaze for days and came a day after the first fatal strike by the Houthis in Israel.

Saturday’s long-distance strike, the first by Israel on the Arabian Peninsula’s poorest country, hit the Hodeida harbor, a key gateway for fuel and international aid into Houthi-held parts of Yemen.

A satellite image shows a closer view of burning oil tanks after an Israeli air strike on Houthi military targets in Hodeidah, Yemen, July 21, 2024. (REUTERS)

The Houthis, who control swathes of the country including much of its Red Sea coast, said the attack struck fuel storage facilities at the harbor, killing six people, all of them port employees of the Yemen Petroleum Company.
A nearby power plant was also targeted, according to the rebels.
AFPTV images showed huge flames and black smoke spiralling into the sky from burning oil tanks at the port. Debris covered the dock where equipment was damaged.
High-resolution satellite images taken by Maxar Technologies showed flames consuming a heavily damaged fuel storage area, which still appeared to be burning on Monday, according to an AFP correspondent.

Debris litters a loading dock a day after Israeli strikes on the port of Yemen's Huthi-held city of Hodeida on July 21, 2024. (AFP)

A Hodeida port employee who was at the harbor the day of the attack said several tanks exploded sequentially.
But “the port, with its dock, containers, and ships, is intact,” said the employee who spoke on condition of anonymity over security concerns.
Analysis of satellite imagery from Planet by Dutch peace organization PAX showed at least 33 destroyed oil storage tanks, said Wim Zwijnenburg, a project leader with the organization.
“We expect (to find) more damage, as not all storage tanks are visible because of heavy smoke” from the fire and burning fuel, Zwijnenburg told AFP.

According to Zwijnenburg, the bombing has resulted in tens of thousands of liters of oil burning.
“Localized coastal pollution is expected from wastewater and leaking fuel,” said the expert, who specializes in the environmental impacts of war.
Maritime security firm Ambrey said satellite imagery following the strikes showed “extensive damage to the oil products storage facilities,” clarifying, however, that “the bulk terminal storage facilities appeared to be unaffected.”
The attack destroyed most of the port’s fuel storage capacity of 150,000 tons, leaving the Hodeida governorate with an overall capacity of 50,000, the US-based Navanti Group said, citing merchants.
The Israeli army on Sunday published a video showing them hitting two container yard cranes at the harbor.
The Navanti Group said five cranes are now “most likely non-operational.”
Ambrey said two merchant vessels were alongside the yard at the time the cranes were hit, but it did not specify if they were damaged.
The British agency had earlier observed four merchant vessels in the port at the time of the strikes and another eight in the anchorage.
“No vessel arrivals or departures have occurred since the Israeli attack on Hodeida,” Ambrey reported on Monday.

The World Food Programme on Monday told AFP that there had been “minor” damage to a crane on one of its aid vessels in the port and that its fuel storage facility was impacted.
The ship “remains operational,” but “all 780,000 liters of fuel stock was likely destroyed,” said Pierre Honnorat, WFP’s Yemen country director, adding that all the agency’s staff were safe and accounted for.
“WFP will source enough fuel supplies to ensure this loss has no significant effect on our operations,” he said.
Yemeni port authorities have said Hodeida “is operating at its full capacity,” according to the rebels’ Saba news agency.
“We are working around the clock to receive all ships and there is no concern about the supply chain and supplies of food, medicine, and oil derivatives,” port official Nasr Al-Nusairi was quoted by Saba as saying on Sunday.
A Houthi transport official on Monday said “work is underway to receive and unload food and fuel shipments within 24 hours.”
While firefighting teams were still struggling to contain the blaze at the harbor, a fire that erupted at a nearby power plant was nearly under control on Monday, according to Mohammed Albasha, the Navanti Group’s senior Middle East analyst.
“Repairs have started” as electricity gradually returns to the city following outages over the weekend, the analyst said.
 

 


Israelis due in Doha for talks on Gaza truce requests

Updated 52 min 4 sec ago
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Israelis due in Doha for talks on Gaza truce requests

  • The source said the points were negotiable and an agreement was “doable,” provided Israel does not remain in Gaza “indefinitely” and a solution is found for the Philadelphi corridor, with Egyptian mediators leading these efforts

DOHA: An Israeli delegation will travel to Doha on Thursday to discuss new demands for a Gaza truce and hostage-prisoner exchange, a source with knowledge of the talks said.
The delegation would meet with mediator Qatar’s Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani to discuss three Israeli requests, including control over the return of civilians to northern Gaza, the source said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of talks.
Qatar, along with Egypt and the United States, has been engaged in months of behind-the-scenes efforts to broker a Gaza truce and a hostage-prisoner swap.
A proposed cessation of hostilities focuses on a phased approach, beginning with an initial truce.
Recent discussions have centered on a framework outlined by US President Joe Biden in late May, which he said had been proposed by Israel.
The source said Israel had requested its forces remain in the so-called Philadelphi corridor, a 14-kilometer (8.5-mile) stretch along the Gaza-Egypt border, and that it controls the return of displaced Gazan civilians to the north of the Palestinian territory.
Israel has also asked that its troop positions in Gaza be resolved before the truce begins, the source added.
The source said the points were negotiable and an agreement was “doable,” provided Israel does not remain in Gaza “indefinitely” and a solution is found for the Philadelphi corridor, with Egyptian mediators leading these efforts.
But the source said Israel’s return with extra demands was “a recurring theme” in the talks and Israel had “moved the goalposts.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left for Washington on Monday under significant domestic and international pressure to agree to a truce and hostage-prisoner exchange in Gaza.
Despite this pressure, Netanyahu maintains that increased military pressure on the militants is the best route to a deal.
On Sunday, the premier’s office said he was sending a negotiating team for new talks on a truce deal.
Except for a one-week truce in November, during which 80 Israeli hostages were freed in exchange for 240 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons, talks have repeatedly foundered over differences between the parties.
 

 


Civilians pay the price for Sudan’s civil war

Updated 23 July 2024
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Civilians pay the price for Sudan’s civil war

  • They face ‘horrendous levels of violence’ from both sides, medical charity says

JEDDAH: Civilians in Sudan are facing “horrendous levels of violence” in the country’s 15-month civil war, the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres said in a report published on Monday.

“The price paid by civilians in this war qualifies a conflict seemingly between warring factions as a war on the people of Sudan,” the charity said.

Fighting broke out in April 2023 between the regular army under Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces led by his former deputy Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, usually referred to as Hemedti.

Tens of thousands of people have been killed and more than seven million displaced. Both sides have been accused of war crimes including deliberately targeting civilians, indiscriminate shelling of residential areas and blocking humanitarian aid, and there is a threat of famine.

“The population has faced horrendous levels of violence, succumbing to widespread fighting and surviving repeated attacks, abuse, and exploitation,” Medecins Sans Frontieres said.

Vickie Hawkins, the charity’s general director in the Netherlands, said: “Nowhere is safe for communities trapped in Sudan conflict hot spots. Patients recount horrific stories of inhuman treatment and violence, perpetrated by armed groups.”
These included “forced defections, looting and arson, degrading interrogation, arbitrary arrest, abduction, and torture on a systematic level,” she said.

While many aid organizations closed operations in Sudan because of the war, Medecins Sans Frontieres continues to operate in eight states across the country. It has treated thousands of conflict injuries, most caused by explosions, gunshots and stabbings.


Israel’s Netanyahu requests meeting with former President Trump, Politico reports

Updated 22 July 2024
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Israel’s Netanyahu requests meeting with former President Trump, Politico reports

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has requested an in-person meeting with former President Donald Trump while in the US this week, Politico reported on Monday citing people familiar with the outreach.
Netanyahu and Trump’s teams have met in recent days to explore the idea of a meeting but Trump has yet to agree, the report added.