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Silencing the press

Attempts to intimidate the press, Frangieh visits France, Saad Hariri accused of sexual misconduct, Ogero strike suspended, fighting in Parliament, suspicious airport deal ended, Lebanon on one time, new US sanctions in Lebanon and Syria, EU promises aid for reforms, tensions rise between Israel and Iran and a new military force in Israel. Your weekly update from Lebanon.

Retired servicemen clash with soldiers outside Lebanon's central bank during a demonstration demanding inflation adjustments to their pensions, in Beirut on March 30, 2023. Photo: Joseph Eid, AFP

Lebanon has often been lauded as one of the most liberal countries in the Middle East, with people in the country able to live relatively free lives.

However, every once and a while the country’s illiberal tendencies rear their ugly head.

This comes in many forms, such as the crackdown and harassment of the LGBTQ+ community or, more recently, attempts to intimidate the press.

On Friday, Jean Kassir, one of the founders of Megaphone, was informed by two state security officers who had intercepted him in his car that he needed to appear for questioning at the Central Inspection Directorate at the state security office on Saturday.

The reason? State prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat was investigating him for a post that Megaphone published about Beirut Port explosion investigator Judge Tarek Bitar charging Oueidat in his investigation.

That same day, Lara Bitar, editor-in-chief of The Public Source, was also ordered to appear before the cybercrimes division for questioning after a lawsuit was filed against the outlet by the Lebanese Forces for an article that details the environmental crimes that the party committed during and after the civil war.

These cases are disturbing for several reasons, one of which is that state security agencies are being used to go after journalists even though they do not have the legal jurisdiction to target the press.  

Oueidat targeting Megaphone also does little to make people forget that he was charged by Bitar and, in fact, has the opposite effect. Anyone reporting on the targeting of Kassir is likely to mention the context, calling attention back to Oueidat’s

The lawsuit by the Lebanese Forces is even more baffling.

Since the start of the popular uprising in October 2019, the Lebanese Forces have been attempting to rebrand as a party of the opposition and the people; a party that was once a part of the ruling elite but has reformed to fight this same elite.

This lawsuit undoes any goodwill that the LF might have gained, as it shows that they are in fact very much still a part of the ruling elite. Attempting to intimidate and silence the press is not something that a party that believes in freedom would do.

These recent attacks on the press illustrate how delicate press freedom is in Lebanon, and the protest staged in front of the Justice Ministry in Beirut today in support of the journalists indicates the people will not stand for government suppression of the truth.

The press shall not be silenced.

In Lebanon

Frangieh in Paris: Marada leader and presidential hopeful Sleiman Frangieh visited France over the weekend in the hopes of winning some international support for his presidential bid and ending the deadlock that has seen Lebanon without a president for 154 days.

During his visit, he reportedly tried to send assurances to the Saudis, who have staunchly opposed his candidacy, that he would accept any prime minister they desired, would not allow a blocking third in the government, would ensure that economic and financial reforms were implemented, crack down on drug smuggling and would work towards bettering the Lebanese-Saudi relationship.

The problem with this is that, at this point, the Saudis do not seem to care about what any Lebanese official has to say. To start, Frangieh is backed by Hezbollah, something that is already a dealbreaker for the Saudis, but, on top of that, Saudi Arabia seems uninterested in Lebanon’s woes, and is not eager to use any more political and financial capital than necessary.

Short of a surprise deal being reached, Frangieh’s candidacy seems to be going nowhere, meaning that Lebanon is back to square one, with little chance of electing a president in the near future.

Soldiers clash: Retired soldiers clashed with the security forces outside of the Central Bank in Beirut on March 30 to demand that their pensions be adjusted amid the ongoing economic crisis.

The retired soldiers have been protesting for much of the economic crisis as their pensions have become increasingly worthless.

For many of the soldiers, it is a matter of them having spent their careers serving their nation, only to be forgotten after they retire. Many have had to find new jobs to make up for the lost value of their pensions.

The soldiers have been some of the most active and vocal activists during the economic crisis.

Hariri accused of sexual misconduct: Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri is being sued in the United States by two flight attendants who are accusing the Lebanese politician of sexual assault.

The two women claim that Hariri raped one of them and imprisoned, sexually assaulted and sexually harassed both of them.

The lawsuit adds that Hariri abused his position at Saudi Oger for his own sexual gains and that he repeatedly victimized both of the women.

Hariri’s press team strenuously denied the claims, saying that these two women have unsuccessfully tried to sue Hariri multiple times in New York and that “this is nothing but a defamation campaign orchestrated by two women who are looking for financial gain.”

Qatar in Lebanon: Qatar’s assistant foreign minister for regional affairs, Mohammed Abdel Aziz al-Khulaifa, made a one-day visit to Beirut on Monday where he met with caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati to discuss the presidential elections.

Following the meeting, Mikati expressed appreciation for Qatar’s support for Lebanon in electing a president and that the government was working on managing and finding a solution to the economic crisis.

In addition to Mikati, he was also expected to meet with Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri and the heads of various political parties.

Qatar is part of the “Group of Five” that met in Paris to discuss Lebanon’s situation. All five nations, which also includes the US, France, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, agreed that nothing could be done to help Lebanon until a president is elected.

Ogero strike suspended: After a little over a week, employees at the state telecommunications company Ogero announced that they would be ending their strike.

The announcement was welcomed by caretaker Telecommunications Minister Johnny Corm who urged for the government to meet to address the demands made by the Ogero employees.

The employees were demanding better pay amid the ongoing economic crisis, and had threatened to remain on strike unless their needs were met, something that could have potentially seen Lebanon’s internet services go dark, while the government threatened to send the army in to take control of Ogero.

It remains to be seen if the government will meet to address the needs of the employees and if what they offer will be sufficient to prevent a new strike.

House of drama: Lebanon’s Parliament saw a heated exchange between several MPs last week, with shouts and slurs reportedly heard from outside of the legislative chamber.

During the session, Amal MPs Ghazi Zeaiter and Ali Hassan Khalil became entangled in a verbal tussle with Kataeb MP Samy Gemayel and “change” MP Melhem Khalaf in which Khalil called Gemyael the “son of a traitor,” a jab at his father Amine Gemayel who was backed by the US and Israel for the presidency following his brother Bachir’s assassination in 1982, and Zeaiter telling Khalaf that they were “not worth my shoe.”

According to Gemayel, deputy Parliamentary Speaker Elias Bou Saab ensured that apologies were given following the debacle.

Lebanese politics are often viewed through a comedic lens, with the country’s politicians often being ridiculed for what they say and do. Such incidents do nothing to help their image. 

Airport deal ended: Caretaker Transportation Minister Ali Hamieh announced on March 30 that a “mutual agreement” struck between the Lebanese government and the Dublin Airport Authority International to build a second terminal at the Beirut airport has been scrapped after significant backlash from NGOs and MPs.

The deal was heavily criticized for not first going through the procurement authority, with opponents of the deal saying that it reeked of corruption.

The construction of the new terminal would have cost over $120 million and DAA International would have benefited from its profits until 2052. The new terminal was expected to open in March 2027.

No further plans for the construction of a new terminal have been announced.

On-time: As of midnight Thursday, Lebanon has once again been on a unified time, ending one of the stupidest and most pointless crises in the country’s history.

The crisis, which lasted four days, saw the country split into two time zones after the government decided to postpone daylight savings time for one month until the end of Ramadan, while a significant portion of the country refused to go along with the government’s decision.

On Monday, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati said that Lebaon would adhere to daylight savings time after 48 hours.

Now, with the government unifying the two time zones, the next step would be unifying the handful of different exchange rates and getting the country out of the economic crisis.

Sanctioned: The United States, in coordination with the United Kingdom, announced sanctions against Syrian and Lebanese nationals in accordance with the Caesar Act and for drug smuggling.

Those sanctioned include Khalid Qaddour, who is close to Bashar al-Assad’s brother Maher, Samer and Wassim al-Assad, cousins of Bashar, Imad Abu Zureik, for helping participate in the Syrian drug trade, Hassan Daqqou, nicknamed the “King of Captagon” and Noah Zaiter, for drug and arms smuggling.

Both Daqqou and Zaiter are alleged to operate under the protection of Hezbollah.

Reforms: The European Union commissioner for crisis management, Janez Lenarčič, stated in a press conference following a visit to Lebanon that the EU would provide the country with more than $65 million in humanitarian assistance, but that any significant aid would be contingent on a successful deal with the International Monetary Fund.

Lebanon has received pledges of billions of dollars in support from the international community, but none of it will be released until reforms are implemented and an IMF deal is reached.

The IMF is promising $3 billion in a bailout package, but this also requires significant economic and financial reforms on the Lebanese side, something Lebanese politicians have been dragging their heels on for years.

In the region

Iran vs Israel: Israel shot down a drone coming from Syria on Sunday just hours after Israeli airstrikes on the Syrian city of Homs.

The drone is believed to belong to Iran.

This came after another Israeli airstrike on the Syrian capital of Damascus on Friday which killed Milad Heidari, an Iranian military advisor. Meghadad Maghani, an advisor for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, also was killed as a result of the strike.

This has been the most significant escalation between Iran and Israel, with many expecting Iran to retaliate for the killing of its personnel.

A private militia: In exchange for temporarily halting the judicial reform legislation that has seen a large portion of the Israeli population come out in opposition to the government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir that he could create a national guard force that answers directly to him. The unsettling move  was approved by the Israeli government on Sunday.

While Ben Gvir claims that the new force, which will comprise of active military personnel and volunteers, is meant to protect Israel during “national emergency situations,” critics believe that it will act as more of a private militia for the minister.

Ben Gvir has never served in Israel’s military, a legal requirement with few exceptions, after being deemed too extreme to serve and was also convicted of supporting terrorist organizations and anti-Palestinian incitement.

It will likely be several more months until the new force is up and running, but most are skeptical that it will be used for its officially stated goal, with Palestinians in particular worried about what the extremist minister might use it for.

Palestinian killed at al-Aqsa: A Palestinian man was shot and killed by Israeli police at the Chain Gate entrance to the al-Aqsa mosque compound, creating worries of rising tensions amid the Ramadan and Passover celebrations.

Accounts of the incident differ, with the Israelis claiming that the man had seized a police officer’s gun and started shooting, forcing them to kill him in self-defense. On the other side, Palestinian media says that he was killed in a scuffle with the police after he tried to intervene to prevent the assault of an Arab woman.

There is no video evidence to corroborate either claim.

Over 90 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces so far this year.

Military powers revoked: After several decades, the US Senate has pulled back powers awarded to the executive branch in 1991 and 2002 that allowed the president increased war powers, something that traditionally belonged to the legislature.

The bill now goes to the House of Representatives and, if approved, would require President Joe Biden’s signature, which he has expressed willingness to do.

By revoking the war powers, Congress hopes to put an end to the US involvement in “endless wars” in the Middle East.

Despite some opposition, the legislation is expected to pass.

What we’re reading

Ramadan and the crisis: The economic crisis has drastically affected people’s lives in Lebanon, with 2023 seeing the crisis going into overdrive. I wrote about how the economic crisis has muted this year’s Ramadan celebrations.

The bank is closed: Saudi Arabia used to throw money around the Middle East like it was going out of style. Now, though, the New York Times’s Vivian Nereim and Vivian Yee found that Saudi Arabia is being much more frugal when it comes to investing money in any country.


Podcasts: NOW’s Managing Editor Makram Rabah joined Médéa Azouri and Mouin Jaber in the latest episode of Sarde after dinner to discuss the 1860 conflict between the Druze and Maronites in Mount Lebanon and how it connects to Lebanon’s civil war, the narratives surrounding Bachir Gemayel and Kamal Joumblatt, the Iran-Saudi rapprochement in Beijing, and where Walid Joumblatt fits into all of that.

Ronnie Chatah sat down with Albert Kostanian from Kulluna Irada in the latest episode of The Beirut Banyan to discuss the return to sectarian discourse in Lebanon, the post-October 17 political and economic landscape, and what the “change” MPs should be doing.

Until next week, follow NOW Lebanon on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn, and subscribe to our weekly newsletter. And Happy Easter to all of those celebrating next Sunday!