HomePoliticsBriefingGoing through the motions

Going through the motions

Of a fourth vote to elect Lebanon’s next president, Israel’s courts reject attempts to stop maritime border agreement, Lebanon passes some banking law changes, fluctuating dollar rate in Lebanon, cholera outbreak worsens, Australia pulls its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Hamas returns to Syria, government releases footage of Evin prison fire, companies flock to Saudi Arabia and Israel prepares for fifth elections in four years. Your weekly update from Lebanon.

Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri (C) opens the 4th session to elect a new President in Beirut on October 24, 2022. Lebanon failed for a fourth time to elect a successor to President Michel Aoun before his term ends next week, with lawmakers divided over a candidate opposed by Hezbollah. Parliament speaker Nabih Berri called for another vote on October 27 as the crisis-hit country, already governed by a caretaker cabinet, hurtles towards a imminent power vacuum. Photo: Joseph Eid, AFP

For the fourth time, Lebanon’s Parliament has failed to elect a new president.

No one was really surprised by this. In fact, it would have been more of a shock if they were actually able to select someone.

Once again, the majority of the votes were blank ballots, with MP Michel Moawad coming in second and the academic, Issam Khalifa, also receiving 10 votes despite saying that he did not want to be nominated. The remaining ballots only had phrases such as “New Lebanon”.

Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri called for a new session on Thursday, October 27, just four days before the current president, Michel Aoun, is due to leave office.

But what is the point of holding the vote if it is just going to be the same as the last four times?

There is no consensus around any particular candidate. Most believe that Lebanese Forces head Samir Geagea, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement and son-in-law of the president Gebran Bassil, and Suleiman Frangieh, leader of the Marada Movement,  are the three real candidates, but their names have yet to be put to a vote, most likely because none of them have enough backing to actually win.

The “change” MPs continue to refuse to vote for any real candidate. They may be 13 votes, but those votes could be the difference that pushes a candidate over the threshold to be elected. They need to negotiate with the other parties or find a serious candidate that they can back or else their “protest” votes are only adding to the problem.

At this point, Parliament is basically just going through the motions of holding elections as a form of political theater, with little substance to it at all.

There is only a week before Lebanon is plunged into a major political crisis where there is not only no president, but no government as well.

Instead of just holding elections to make it seem like they are actually doing something, the politicians need to set aside their political differences and work together to avert this crisis.

If not, there will likely be untold consequences for the crisis-stricken country.

In Lebanon

Quashing challenges: Israel’s High Court struck down challenges by conservative and ultranationalist groups against the country’s maritime border agreement with Lebanon as the two countries count down the days until representatives from Israel and Lebanon meet in the southern city of Naqoura to sign the deal.

The majority of politicians in Lebanon and Israel have touted the deal as “historic” and mutually beneficial, but some conservatives in Israel have questioned the legitimacy of such an agreement, arguing that a caretaker government does not have the authority to alter its country’s borders.

Lebanese politicians have said that the deal will be the solution to the country’s problems, in particular the ongoing economic crisis, but experts have said that Lebanon would first need to enact significant economic and financial reforms if the country wants to reap the benefits of any natural gas found in the Qana Prospect.

Lebanon and Israel are expected to sign the agreement before the end of the month, when Aoun’s term ends.

Half measures: In the waning hours of October 18, Lebanon’s Parliament passed some of the reforms required by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to unlock billions of dollars in relief.

The changes include amendments that allow for an expanded number of individuals and groups that are able to request that banking secrecy be lifted.

While this is a step towards meeting the IMF’s requirements, it is still far short of what the international body is demanding, such as anti-corruption and money laundering measures, and financial and economic reform.

Lebanon has been in the midst of the worst economic crisis that the world has seen in around 150 years according to the World Bank, but the country’s politicians have done little to nothing during this time to implement any changes that would help to pull the country out of the dire situation.

Fluctuating lira: Lebanon’s national currency, the lira, strengthened on Sunday after the Central Bank announced that it would begin selling dollars on Tuesday.

After reaching a record low of 40,700 to US$1, the lira made significant gains, reaching, at its height, around 35,000 to US$1.

These gains are likely to be temporary as the Central Bank has infused dollars into the market in the past the bring down the exchange rate only for it to increase once it stops doing this.

This also depletes Lebanon’s already low foreign reserves and presents the risk of worsening the situation if they get too low.

The first storm: Lebanon saw its first storm of the season on Sunday with thunder, lighting and rainfall that led to flooding in some areas.

The coastal highways saw congested roads as rain filled the streets some areas.

In Zouk, the torrential rain led to one car being entirely submerged with its passengers inside. Two were rescued by another passenger, while another, an 80-year-old man, was later found dead.

Lebanon often experiences severe storms in the winter that, because of the country’s ailing infrastructure, often see several fatalities.

Another one bites the dust: “Change” MP Waddah Sadek announced that he was leaving the Change Bloc in Parliament, making him the second of the opposition MPs to leave the bloc.

Earlier this month MP Michel Douaihy, another “change” MP, said that he was leaving the bloc.

The Change Bloc was formed following the May 15 parliamentary election that saw 13 candidates ride the wave of the October 17 uprising into Parliament.

However, the group is incredibly diverse with many differing opinions, making it hard for them to form a coherent political bloc.

For more on the collapse of the Change Bloc, you can read my recent story about Douaihy’s departure and what the 13 need to do to be effective politicians here.

Cholera update: Lebanon’s cholera outbreak vastly expanded last week with there being 239 reported cases and at least 10 confirmed deaths.

The spread of the disease is no longer wholly concentrated in the country’s north, with cases being reported in the Burj el-Barajneh refugee camp in Baabda and even cases as far south as Sidon.

So far, little has been done to combat the spread of cholera outside of advice from the Ministry of Public Health on how to avoid contracting it.

The Ministry also said that it will cover “100 percent” of the costs for cholera patients at governmental hospitals.

For more on the cholera outbreak, check out my colleague Philippe Pernot’s recent story here.

In the region

Recognition revoked: Australia’s foreign minister, Penny Wong, said that her country would no longer recognize West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a move that angered Israeli politicians.

This was a reversal from the previous Labor government under Scott Morrison who, following the trend set by former US President Donald Trump, recognized the western half of the city as being the capital of Israel.

Wong, in a statement from the Australian capital Canberra, said that “Jerusalem is a final status issue that should be resolved as part of any peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian people.”

In response, Israel’s caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid said that he hopes that “the Australian government manages other matters more seriously and professionally.”

The prodigal son returns: Two senior officials from the militant group Hamas visited the Syrian capital Damascus last Wednesday in an apparent reconciliation between the group and the Assad regime.

Hamas was forced out of Syria after the start of the decade-long civil war when the group backed the armed opposition against Assad.

The reconciliation between Hamas and the Syrian regime had been mediated for months by Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah.

Syria, prior to the 2011 uprising, had served as a base and refuge for Hamas.

The mystery of the fire at Evin Prison continues: Iranian authorities released CCTV footage reportedly from inside the notorious Evin Prison on the day that a fire broke out inside its walls.

No unrest or violence was visible in the footage but showed detainees rushing through cell doors while some men appeared to be panicking as smoke began to fill the cells.

Authorities insist that the fire was not related to the ongoing nationwide protests.

Evin Prison holds many of Iran’s political prisoners, including some of those who have been arrested since the start of the protests.

Countdown to election day: Israel’s fifth election in four years is a week away and the long-serving former right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is widely expected to win the most seats during the November 1 election.

No party is expected to win an outright majority of 61 seats or more, however, Netanyahu’s Likud party is believed to win the most out of any other party.

In order to form a government, this will likely require weeks of negotiations to form a coalition.

For years, Netanyahu has been courting the right and far-right in Israel, something that could help return him to power after being ousted last year.

Unintended consequences: Russia has been forced to scale back its forces in Syria as Putin’s invasion of Ukraine enters its ninth month.

Among the changes made by Russia in Syria, the Assad backer has redeployed an estimated 1,200 to 1,600 soldiers along with its S-300 air defense system. The Russian S-400 air defense system remains in Syria.

The removal of the S-300 drastically reduces Russia’s leverage over Israel which regularly performs airstrikes in Syria to, according to Israeli authorities, combat Iran and Hezbollah.

Israel has limited its support to Ukraine in an attempt at avoiding angering Russia, which could hinder Jewish immigration from Russia to Israel as well as make it harder for Israel to strike supposed Iranian and Hezbollah installations in Syria.

Think of their reputation: American companies are flocking to Saudi Arabia to attend the Future Investment Initiative, more commonly known as Davos in the Desert, despite a continued feud between the US and Saudi governments over oil production.

According to the event’s organizer, they received so many requests to attend from American companies that they had to start turning them down.

In response to the event, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that companies should think about Saudi Arabia’s reputation before attending such an event.

Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund offers billions of dollars in investments and any company looking to get in on the action views attendance at Davos in the Desert as a prerequisite to receiving any of the highly coveted funding.

What we’re reading

Cholera in Syria: For several months now, Syria has seen a widespread cholera outbreak with over 10,000 people being infected. NOW contributor Mouneb Taim spoke with officials about this worsening health crisis.

The dinner: After it was announced that the Swiss Embassy in Lebanon would host a dinner between Lebanon’s various political factions prior to talks in Geneva, a controversy ensued. NOW’s David Isaly found that the dinner was nowhere as controversial as it was made out to be.

Going to the far-right: For years, Benjamin Netanyahu has been courting Israel’s far-right in order to gain support and remain in power. The New York Times’s Patrick Kingsley looked at how the far-right politician Itamar Ben-Gvir could play kingmaker in the country’s fifth election in four years.

Cracking down on minorities: When Mahsa Amini, also known by her Kurdish name Jîna, was killed after being taken into custody by Iran’s morality police, it set off nationwide protests. The Washington Post’s Miriam Berger and Sanam Mahoozi looked at the country’s Kurdish minority population and how they have been targeted by the regime since the start of the protests.


Podcasts: Lebanese artist Alfred Tarazi sat down with Médéa and Mouin for the latest episode of Sarde after dinner to discuss how art and memory intertwine in Tarazi’s work, the parallels between Germans following World War II and Lebanese after the end of the Civil War, and how art imitates life.

Until next week, follow NOW Lebanon on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn, and subscribe to our weekly newsletter. And stay safe.