Rear View – Lebanon in review (20 December 2020)
14 Dec: PM Declines Questioning in Port Probe
Caretaker prime minister, Hassan Diab, declined to be questioned by judge Fadi Sawan, who charged him and three former ministers with negligence over the Beirut port blast, Reuters reported. Judge Sawan has met pushback from influential parties including Hezbollah and Sunni leader Saad al-Hariri, underlining the political hurdles facing the investigation. Lebanese are still waiting for answers four months since one of the biggest non-nuclear blasts on record.
Some politicians accused Sawan of being selective and overstepping his powers by charging ministers. Others, including the head of the Beirut Bar Association, said the move showed courage.
The caretaker interior minister, Mohammed Fahmi, said he would not enforce any arrest warrants for Diab or the other officials if they refused to be questioned. “And let them pursue me if they wish,” Lebanese newspaper al-Joumhouria quoted him as saying.
14 Dec: President & PM Designate Hariri Trade Blame
Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri traded blame last week over a delay in the formation of a new government, as arguments ensued over the unethical horse-trading of political ministries.
Four months since Lebanon’s last government quit in the wake of a huge explosion, the main parties have been unable to agree on a cabinet because each political party has a vested interest in retaining control over the most lucrative portfolios. This gives them direct access to siphoning funds out of Government coffers and into their pockets. All this as the country sinks deeper into a crippling financial crisis.
The financial crisis came to a head last year after decades of corruption and bad governance, sinking the currency by some 80%, freezing savers out of their deposits and causing poverty to soar.
Major decisions have been set to one side amid the political paralysis, notably what to do about subsidies on basic goods including fuel, which are being imported using the central bank’s dwindling foreign currency reserves.
15 Dec: Education Council Tells Unis: 1,515LBP=$1
The Council of Higher Education held a meeting on Tuesday chaired by Education Minister Tariq Majzoub, to discuss the financial crisis that has struck all private universities after announcing dollarization of tuition fees two weeks ago. The council recommended maintaining “the Lebanese Pound and price tuitions at the official rate for Lebanese students of $1= LBP 1,515.”
Student took to the streets on Dec 19 in a “Student Anger” through Hamra Street in Beirut, with demonstrators chanting against the commodification of education and demanding government support for the national university.
When the students reached Bliss Street, outside the AUB, they were confronted by the army and riot police, who used tear gas to disrupt the protest. AUB President Fadlo Khuri stood silent as the students were attacked.
16 Dec: COVID-19 Vaccines to Arrive in 2-Months
Lebanon is expected to sign a deal this week for supplies of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine and is set to receive the first batch within two months, caretaker health minister Hamad Hassan said.
A surge in infections is straining Lebanon’s healthcare system. Adding to the pressures, the economic meltdown has prompted many doctors to emigrate and raised concerns that subsidies on medicines will be removed. Lebanon, with an estimated population of 6 million, has reported 1,210 deaths as a result of COVID-19. Despite the nation’s dire shortage of foreign exchange, the government expects to sign the $18 million deal for supplies of the vaccine.
17 Dec: Hezbollah Files Claim Against Ashraf Rifi
Lawyer Jihad Othman of the Assembly of Hezbollah Lawyers filed a legal complaint against former minister Ashraf Rifi, in a bid to silence the minister and intimidate anyone else who made any formal accusations against the party and its role in the port explosion.
Lawyer Hussein Hashem, head of the assembly, had earlier filed a claim on December 9 against Bahaa Hariri on the same grounds. The Loyalty to the Resistance Bloc had submitted its first lawsuit on December 4 against former MP Fares Souaid and the Lebanese Forces website through its deputy Ibrahim Al-Mousawi, who promised that “other lawsuits were on the way.”
20 Dec: MEA to Accept Fresh Dollars Only
Lebanon’s national airline will stop accepting payment in US dollars from deposits in local banks, its chairman announced, intensifying questions about the real value of $87bn of deposits in Lebanon’s stricken banking sector.
“We will start selling our tickets in fresh dollars,” said chairman Mohamad el-Hout, distinguishing real dollars transferred from abroad and free of severe banking restrictions from the assets denominated in US dollars trapped in Lebanon’s moribund banks. A decision to reject “local dollars” by MEA could make travel unaffordable for Lebanese people lacking a foreign income.
20 Dec: Vulnerable Migrant Maids Repatriated
Despite numerous bureaucratic hurdles, local charities have raised funds to safely repatriate hundreds of migrant maids to home nations including Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and Nigeria. The maids who had been left destitute due to the economic crisis, COVID and the blast, were the lucky ones, as thousands more remain in limbo and desperate to go home.
Lebanon hosts around 250,000 foreign workers, who are employed under the country’s Kafala sponsorship system which binds them to one employer and can lead to abuse, say human rights groups.
21 Dec: Hezbollah Fear US Strikes as Trump Exits
Party of God members are watching the clock and the skies over Dahiyeh in southern Beirut, as the frequency of Israeli jets streaking overhead, in direct violation of Lebanese airspace, has sharply increased over the past few weeks.
They fear that President Trump, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in collusion with Israel, have an agenda to decisively act against Iran and Hezbollah before Biden is inaugurated on 23 January 2021, and the easiest and least controversial target is to bomb the vulnerable and already devastated Lebanon.
Th Guardian reported interviews with mid-ranking Hezbollah members revealed that they believed the actions were spurred by the belief that the incoming US administration would attempt to renew the nuclear deal with Tehran. Israeli attacks on Iranian targets inside Syria and Lebanon have been a near weekly occurrence since early 2017.
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