As elections approach with the promise of a different makeup of Lebanon’s parliament, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have sent their ambassadors back to Lebanon after months of break in diplomatic relations between Lebanon and the Gulf Arab countries.
The Saudi ambassador, Walid al-Bukhari, and Kuwaiti ambassador, Abdel Aal al-Qanai, returned to Lebanon over the weekend and were received by Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati in what appeared to be a significant thawing of frosty relations.
Then, on Monday, al-Bukhari hosted the French, US and British ambassadors to Lebanon along with Mikati and the heads of various Lebanese political factions, such as Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, Sami Gemayel and others, for an Iftar dinner, yet another sign of the bettering relations between Lebanon and the Gulf.
However, the dinner, looking rather lavish in contrast with the current state of the Lebanese economy, came at a somewhat unfortunate time.
While the leaders were breaking their Ramadan fasts, Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah was giving one of his fiery speeches, taking particular aim at the elections. Once again, the US is to blame, this time for an alleged conspiracy to work with “other parties” in order to postpone the elections so Washington’s allies would gain more traction.
“There is talk of postponing the parliamentary elections, even for a few months, so that the conditions of the other party can be improved, and we have the right to accuse the US Embassy and political forces in the other party of trying to disrupt the elections,” the Hezbollah leader said.
Moreover, Nasrallah also accused the Saudi government of interfering in the 2009 elections, claiming that an unnamed Saudi official told him Riyadh had paid people not to vote.
“I had heard from a Saudi official that hundreds of millions of dollars were spent in the 2009 elections and withholding the vote in some districts was in exchange for $500, pointing out that electoral money may be spent hugely in these elections, and this began with the pretext that people are in need and many may resort to selling their votes,” Nasrallah said.
Nasrallah’s ally Nabih Berri sent a representative to the feast, and some of Hezbollah’s members were present as well.
Luna Safwan, a journalist and commentator, jokingly posted the now viral photograph of the dinner, saying that they “aren’t exactly helping themselves.”
Well there aren’t exactly doing helping themselves ? pic.twitter.com/VJaQVankYg
— Luna Safwan – لونا صفوان (@LunaSafwan) April 11, 2022
A supporter of Suleiman Frangieh’s Marada Movement, an ally of Hezbollah, posted on their social media the picture of the dinner with a caption saying “The Saudi ambassador whistled to Geagea to bow his neck and he sprinted to the embassy.”
There were also some more serious responses to the dinner coming from Hezbollah supporters.
“The symbols of corruption and its sponsors in one picture,” Ali Fawaz, a Hezbollah activist, posted on Twitter. “Thank you to the stupidity of Saudi Arabia for this reckless political performance.”
رموز الفساد ورعاته في صورة واحدة..
شكرا لغباء السعودية على هذا الاداء السياسي الارعن pic.twitter.com/glXMVYmNzo
— علي فواز (@alifawaz_) April 11, 2022
An explosion in Sidon: At 2 am Tuesday morning, an explosion blew through the village of Banaafoul near the city of Sidon.
The building, which served as the municipality headquarters and scout center for Nabih Berri’s Amal Movement, was demolished in the explosion, killing Ali al-Raz, son of the village’s mayor Tawfiq al-Raz. At least 7 people were wounded.
The cause of the explosion is currently unknown, with security officials saying that it could have been caused by diesel that had been stored in the building while others speculated the cause might have been weapons storage.
The Amal Movement, in a statement following the explosion, expressed its condolences to the al-Raz family and the wounded and said that electrical friction caused a fire to start, which “exploded the oxygen bottles stored in the building, which were designated for Corona cases in the town.”
The excuse is exactly the same one that Hamas used when a mosque blew up in Bourj al Shemali Palestinian refugee camp in December 2021.
Got an eye on you (sorta): The European Union’s election observers completed a six-day visit to Lebanon.
The mission will deploy 30 observers to monitor the poll to ensure that they are run fairly and without any instances of fraud.
György Hölvényi, Chief Observer of the European Union Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) stated that the mission is “impartial and is independent of the European institutions” and that they are only there to evaluate the process and not to determine any winners.
“We are not here to interfere in the process, we are not investigators,” he said.
We are not sure why Mr. Hölvényi got so defensive, but we know things don’t generally go very well in elections in his native Hungary either. In fact, the OSCE monitored the elections in Hungary earlier this month for fear that there would be fraud, and several organizations in fact accused the government in Budapest of fraud. Therefore, it would be rather awkward for a commission he is heading to observe fair elections in another country.
György Hölvényi is an MEP from the right-wing Christian Democratic People’s Party, a satellite of Viktor Orban’s Fidesz that hasn’t been able to make it to the Hungarian parliament without its larger ally since 1998.
The great unifier: Suleiman Frangieh, head of the Marada Movement, and Gebran Bassil, head of the Free Patriotic Movement and son-in-law of President Michel Aoun, met on Friday at the behest of Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah in order for the two Christian leaders to set aside their differences and unify.
Frangieh and Bassil have been at odds since Aoun was elected president in 2016. Less forgiving analysts say that the reason is that they both want to be president. But Hezbollah, their ally, has other plans. The Party of God wants to ensure that its allies are unified to maintain their majority in Parliament.
If Marada and the FPM are able to at least unify for the elections, it would give Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces, a staunch opponent of Hezbollah, less room to win seats and upset Hezbollah’s growing political power.
Hezbollah, which faces little opposition in its electoral districts, has been focusing its efforts primarily on supporting allies and making sure that the Lebanese Forces do not gain a stronger foothold in Parliament and the Christian community.
Frangieh and Bassil are also expected to make runs for the presidency later this year, potentially putting more strain on their relationship.
The French election: Lebanon is not the only country holding contentious elections this year. French President Emmanuel Macron is looking not only to win reelection but to become the first French president re-elected in 20 years.
After the first round of elections, held on Sunday, Macron won 28.6 percent of the vote, with his far-right adversary, Marine Le Pen, winning 23.6 percent of the vote.
The two will now go head-to-head in a runoff election scheduled for April 24.
Macron has been a vocal supporter of Lebanon and coming to its aid since the August 4 explosion, promising billions of dollars for the country if its politicians enact certain reforms.
Le Pen, on the other hand, has not expressed much interest in helping Lebanon, or anyone else for that matter. Her election would likely anger many Lebanese over her anti-Muslim statements and actions.
Lebanese support for Macron was apparent in the exit polls following the first round of the election, with French citizens in Lebanon overwhelmingly voting for Macron, with 52 percent in favor of the sitting president and only 11 for his right-wing rival.
Quite the difference between French voters in Tunisia and those in Lebanon.
In Lebanon, Macron got 52%, Le Pen 11% and Mélenchon, the main left-wing candidate in the election, 9%.
The far-right got a total of 18% of the votes in Lebanon, against 8% in Tunisia. https://t.co/xFK3F6GO8B
— Nader Durgham | نادر درغام (@NaderDurgham) April 11, 2022
A deal with some strings attached: After months of negotiations, Lebanon and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have finally reached a staff-level deal for Lebanon to receive $3bn worth of Special Drawing Rights over a 46-month period.
The IMF aid is contingent on the passing and implementation of several reforms, specifically to the country’s banking sector. Deputy Prime Minister Saadeh al-Shami, who worked with the IMF from 2008 until 2013, urged politicians to pass the necessary reforms as quickly as possible.
“Time is precious, and there is a lot to be done in the coming months,” al-Shami said in a statement. “The more we delay on the necessary reforms, the heavier price the national economy will pay, and as a result the people.”
Lebanon’s politicians have not been exceptionally quick when it comes to passing reforms, even with the incentive of billions of dollars dangling overhead.
Following the August 4 Beirut port explosion, French President Emmanuel Macron had offered to release billions of dollars from the Cedre conference as long as Lebanon implements reforms.
That was in 2020. In 2022, the Lebanese are hoping that elections will bring transformative reforms.
Stuck in committees: Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri referred a proposed capital control law to joint parliamentary committees so that they can study the law before putting it to the floor for a full vote. The cabinet passed the bill two weeks ago, as an IMF commission was visiting Lebanon.
Lebanon is in need of a capital control law after the banks imposed informal controls, cutting people off from their money or only allowing them to access limited amounts.
Since the crisis began in October 2019, Parliament has failed to pass any such law, with a previous version having been rejected and having to be amended, despite it being a basic prerequisite to receive any form of aid from abroad.
The dollar is (still) king: Students from the Lebanese American University protested the university administration’s plans to “dollarize” tuition starting in the Fall 2022 semester.
With people unable to access their dollars and the cost of buying them from exchange houses going up by the day, it has become practically impossible for students to be able to pay for their education in dollars.
According to the university, the decision was made due to the fact that their expenses are paid primarily in dollars, making it impractical for them to continue accepting payments in Lebanese Pounds.
The university allegedly prevented journalists from entering the campus to cover the protest.
جامعة LAU منعت اي صحافي من دخول الحرم الجامعي لتغطية اعتصام الطلاب ضد قرارها باستيفاء الرسوم والاقساط الجامعية بالدولار الفريش بدءا من الخريف!!.الاعلام ليس مكسر عصا او اداة لتغطية انجازات المؤسسات واحتفالاتها. الاعلام مع قضايا الطلاب ويغطي وجعهم ايضا. لماذا المنع؟. ارحموا الطلاب! pic.twitter.com/B2wCJCOCmC
— Salman Andary (@salmanonline) April 6, 2022
The doors remain closed: Teachers from the Lebanese University, Lebanon’s only public university, are continuing their protest for a fourth week amid lack of funding for the university.
Professors and staff are poorly paid, as the university has been receiving only a fraction of the necessary funding.
Students attending the university have expressed support for the teachers, but are also aware that the university is on the verge of collapse, threatening their education and their futures.
For many, the Lebanese University is their best option to get higher education as it is significantly more affordable than private universities.
For more on the protests and how people are being affected by the university’s lack of funding, be sure to check out Dana Hourany’s story here.
That dangerous parsley: Minister of Economy and Trade Amin Salam and Minister of Agriculture Abbas Hajj Hassan were ridiculed online for an April 7 visit to a vegetable market in Beirut while surrounded by heavily armed bodyguards.
One user called the event “the night of parsley’s arrest.”
ليلة القبض على الخسة pic.twitter.com/f8OrBL76se
— ziad itani (@ZiadItanioff) April 7, 2022
Another celebrated the “arrest of coriander, a despicable agent among the group of parsley.”
ليلة القبض على كزبرا عميلة حقيرة بين مجموعة بقدونس pic.twitter.com/0hwSh6D3W5
— Fatima Kobeissi?? (@FatimaKobeissi3) April 7, 2022
However, you never know. You never know who may hide among the veggies.
Podcasts: Ronnie Chatah continues to host members and candidates of opposition groups on The Beirut Banyan. This week, he hosted Maher Abou Chackra, the former candidate for LiHaqqi in the Chouf, to discuss LiHaqqi from its formation until now, the elections and his withdrawal from the elections.
In this week’s Sarde After Dinner, Raymond Nader, who claims to have met Saint Charbel on November 10, 1994, and that the popular saint left a third-degree burn in the shape of his hand on his arm, joined Medea Azouri and Mouin Jaber to discuss the incident, the hypocrisy of religious and political figures in Lebanon and Saint Charbel’s global impact.
The Happy Hour Show is also back, with Ramzi Abou Ismail sitting down with Rachel Karam to discuss escaping labels, dealing with public criticism and Karam’s personal journey and views on the upcoming elections.