HomePoliticsBriefingTough talk but no action

Tough talk but no action

Of dividing Beirut, port fires, an indictment for gruesome killings, updates on Luna Safwan, a car accident in Arsal, Lebanon’s maritime border dispute, a worsening wheat crisis, Biden’s trip to the region, a film production in a former IS stronghold, continued instability in Syria, talks in Iran, and increased pressure on the LGBTQ+ community. Your weekly update from Lebanon.

(L to R) Asaad bin Tariq al-Said, Omani Deputy Prime Minister for International Relations and Cooperation Affairs and the Special Representative of the Sultan; UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan; Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi; Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa; US President Joe Biden; Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman; Jordan's King Abdullah II; Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani; Kuwait's Crown Prince Meshal al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah; and Iraq's Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhemi pose together for the family photo during the Jeddah Security and Development Summit (GCC+3) at a hotel in Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah on July 16, 2022. Photo: Mandel Nhan, Pool, AFP

With every week, there is a new controversy, and this week is no different.

Though Lebanon has settled into an uneasy calm since the May 15 elections, some of the same recurring issues are rearing their heads, with new issues also reaching the surface.

The most recent controversy for this week is the possible division of the Beirut municipality. Given the crises that have struck the city in the past couple of years, most recently, the water shortage in some areas, certain politicians are using these issues as a pretext to change the political and administrative landscape of the city.

In addition to this, a number of fires have broken out at Beirut’s ruined silos, which were the epicenter of the August 4 port blast. The cause of the fires is unclear, but the Lebanese state’s response to them has been lackluster, to say the least.

Widening the scope, every publication focused on the Middle East has been expected to comment on Biden’s recent visit to the region, but what is there to say?

US policy toward this part of the world has been a long history of failure, and after Trump promised to pull out of the “endless wars” in the region, the American public has been content to see the US extricate itself from the Middle East.

This fatigue by the American electorate was a driving reason for the Biden administration’s decision to complete Trump’s withdrawal plan for Afghanistan, which ultimately led to the return of the Taliban to Kabul. 

As the US seeks to form an anti-Iran alliance between Israel and the Gulf states, geopolitics continues to get in the way.

The war in Ukraine has forced the US back to the table with countries like Saudi Arabia, which the Biden administration pledged would be made a pariah state.

It seems certain that Saudi Arabia’s leadership has remembered that comment and is content to see the US suffer high gas prices, something to which American voters are particularly sensitive.

Biden will have to provide a lot more than kind words to Israel and the Gulf states if he truly wants to see the US withdraw from the Middle East.

In Lebanon

Dividing Beirut: There has been a push recently to divvy up Beirut into separate municipalities. Some of the newly-elected opposition MPs, such as Ibrahim Mneimneh and Melhem Khalaf, have commented on the issue, opposing the possible division but received backlash on social media.

Many commenters on Mneimneh’s Tweet argued that the more administrative sectors, the easier it would be to collect taxes and focus on accountability. Some even cited Paris as an example of a city that Beirut should attempt to emulate, administratively speaking.

Khalaf received similar comments, using the same arguments deployed against Mneimneh.

Opponents of the division have indicated that it is a cynical power grab by largely Christian politicians, using recent crises as a pretext for the possible division. It seems that both the Lebanese Forces and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) are on the same page regarding the issue.

The change would likely make East Beirut its own municipality, making it easier for politicians in the area to dominate its local politics. 

Port fires: Fires broke out at Beirut’s destroyed port last week, and the government has done little to deal with them, finally trying to extinguish them over the weekend.

On Saturday, July 16, helicopters were seen over the port dumping water on the smoldering blazes, but it seems it did not fully extinguish the fire.

The government blamed the fermentation on “materials in the vicinity of the silos” as the cause of the fire and said it was working on the issue.

The civil defense noted that the government forbade anyone from approaching the silos, a section of which seem to be on the verge of collapse,  due to the surrounding danger.

Some on Twitter had indicated that the government could be attempting to expedite the destruction of the port.

After almost two years, no accountability has been achieved regarding the port blast.

Indictment in the South: A Beirut judge charged two accused perpetrators of the brutal murders of Basma Abbas and her daughters as Rima, Tala, and Manal in the southern town of Ansar this past March.

The two men were previously identified as Hassan Fayad and Hassan Ghannash, with Fayad admitting to the murders.

If convicted, the two could face the death penalty, although there has been a moratorium on executions since 2004.

Lebanon’s court system is notoriously slow and often corrupt, so it is still unclear how long their trial will last and what the result will be.

Trial of Luna Safwan harasser postponed again: Luna Safwan gave an update regarding the trial of her harasser.

Safwan, along with four others, sued the harasser last year, but the case has continued to stall.

On top of that, her harasser made a counterclaim for defamation, resulting in Safwan being told by authorities not to post about him on social media.

Safwan’s story is unfortunately a ubiquitous one for female journalists, as NOW’s former managing editor, Ana-Maria Luca, wrote last month.

Car accident in Arsal: The civil defense announced on Sunday, July 17, that a car crash in Arsal killed eight people from one family after a truck loaded with rocks collided with a number of cars in the Wadi Atta locality.

Five others were injured, with some of them in critical condition.

The truck’s brakes reportedly failed, and it collided with another car, killing a father, mother, four children, and their son-in-law from the al-Fulaiti family.

Car accidents in Lebanon have actually decreased, largely due to the ongoing fuel crisis, but this has obviously not prevented accidents such as this one from occurring.

Border dispute: The dispute regarding Lebanon’s maritime border continues, with Hezbollah’s General Secretary, Hassan Nasrallah, threatening war with Israel if a future deal with Lebanon’s southern neighbor is not favorable.

American envoy Amos Hochstein is expected to visit Beirut in the next two weeks.

Interestingly, Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai joined in on calls for the US to put additional pressure on Israel to achieve a quick agreement.

As the pressure mounts, Hezbollah has increased its drone activities on the border, with reports from today, July 18, that Israel shot down another drone that flew into northern Israel.

I wrote about this issue last month, and I recommend you check it out if you would like more information.

Wheat crisis: Lebanon’s wheat crisis has continued to worsen as the war in Ukraine grinds on.

Lebanon received the majority of its wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine, which has been complicated due to the war. The price of bread in the country has skyrocketed, with many families worrying about how to feed themselves.

Lebanon’s political dysfunction also continues to cast doubt on the government’s ability to actually deal with the looming crisis, as other issues, like the LGBTQ+ community and the potential forced return of Syrian refugees, are used as distractions from what may ironically be called “bread and butter” issues.

In the region

Biden’s visit to the Middle East: President Joe Biden visited Israel and Saudi Arabia last week during his visit to the Middle East, but he has little to show for the trip.

Outside of signing an anti-Iran agreement with acting Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, Biden tried to convince Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) to increase oil production.

Though the Saudis did pledge to increase supply and try to stabilize the oil market, it is unlikely that it will have a serious effect on global oil prices in the short term.

Biden allegedly brought up the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi to MBS, but the Crown Prince rebuffed him, asking what the US had done about the recent killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.

In Israel, Biden indicated that, regarding Iran, the military option was on the table, but overall the President prefers diplomacy. Israel has been very hawkish on the nuclear issue, and Biden’s words are unsurprising as he tries to reel in the US’s regional allies, which have become unsure of the US’s influence in the Middle East.

In Lebanon, the FPM has welcomed Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia, as Arab Gulf states, Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq pledged their support for Lebanon in Jeddah. 

Movie shoot in former IS territory: Hajar al-Aswad, a Damascus neighborhood just south of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, will be the set for an upcoming Chinese film production inspired by China’s 2015 evacuation of Chinese and other foreign citizens from the war in Yemen.

The film has been named Home Operation.

As Yemen itself was deemed too dangerous for shooting, the movie, produced by Jackie Chan, will be shot in a part of Syria that was formerly held by the Syrian rebels and then the Islamic State (IS).

Yarmouk and the southern Damascus suburbs became a battleground in 2012, when the rebels launched a massive operation to storm the capital. The offensive ultimately failed, and rebel pockets were besieged by the Syrian army in 2013.

In 2015, IS managed to capture the area but was eventually expelled in 2018, when the Syrian government cleared Damascus.

Allegedly, it was cheaper for the production to be set in an area that had already been destroyed by war than to create a fake set.

The film’s production has received backlash on social media, with many lauding the decision and saying that it will help whitewash the crimes of the Syrian government.

Considering that China has been a diplomatic ally of the Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad, complaints regarding the production will likely fall on deaf ears.

Continued instability: Though the war in Syria has largely become a frozen conflict, fighting and instability continue throughout the country.

In the north, Turkey persists with its threats of a military operation against the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with the Syrian government and Iran reinforcing SDF positions in Tal Rifaat and Manbij. 

At this point, there is little to indicate that the US or Russia have greenlighted such an operation, and the current tensions have only resulted in a closer relationship between the SDF and the Syrian government.

Some commentators have pointed out that the real winners in this situation are Iran and IS. Iran wants to strengthen its position in SDF-held territory east of the Euphrates, and IS can use the redeployment of SDF fighters to the border to its advantage.

In the south, a vicious security vacuum continues in Daraa, as assassination and attacks are carried out unabated. Over the weekend, there was a large IED attack in Tafas targeting a former rebel commander.

There are even rumors that the government will launch an operation in Daraa soon, but there has not been any serious movement as of yet to confirm this.

Talks in Iran: Russian President Vladimir Putin will head to Tehran on Tuesday, July 19, to meet with Turkish President Recip Tayyib Erdogan and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.

The three are set to discuss Syria as part of the Astana peace process, but some think that it may be a sign of a Russian greenlight for another Turkish operation into northern Syria.

The meeting comes only a week after Biden’s visit to the region and is just another example of the geopolitical factions involved in the Middle East.

Turkey has continued to play Russia and the US off against each other to improve Ankara’s position in the region and on the global stage.

Pressures on the LGBTQ+ community: In recent weeks, the LGBTQ+ community has encountered increased repression in Lebanon and the rest of the region.

In Iraq, there have been calls to criminalize homosexuality, as Iraq is one of the only countries in the Middle East to not have explicit laws targeting non-heteronormative sexualities.

In Saudi Arabia, rainbow flags have been targeted.

In Egypt, a hashtag asserting the gender binary gained traction, and 17 men were put on trial for “debauchery.”

Finally, in Lebanon, a country considered to be one of the most friendly to the LGBTQ+ community, has also cracked down on queer spaces and representation.

My colleague, Dana Hourany, wrote about this topic earlier this month.

What we’re reading

A troll goes viral: Assad Abu Khalil trended on twitter last week under the hashtag, “Assad Abu Khalil Eat Shit.” NOW spoke to a twitter account that parodies Abu Khalil’s social media antics.

Force return: The Lebanese government has amplified its calls to forcibly return Syrian refugees to Syria. I wrote about this issue last week.

A constant threat: Women across the Middle East have been murdered recently in high-profile killings. NOW’s Dana Hourany covered this chilling trend.

The roots of extremism: We must reflect on how young Muslims in the West are wooed by extremism, and the answer is not as simple as some think, writes Tam Hussein for Newlines Magazine.


Podcasts: In this week’s interaction of Sarde after dinner, Medea Azouri and Mouin Jaber sat down with Aziza Sbaity, “the fastest woman in Lebanese History.”

There was also a new episode of the Beirut Banyan where Ronnie Chatah spoke with photographer Nabeel Yakzan about the pictures that he takes.

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