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Egypt’s options dwindle as Nile talks break down

Egypt’s options dwindle as Nile talks break down

New Delhi Times Bureau on October 23, 2019, produced this article on a more and more obvious fact, that of Egypt’s options dwindle as Nile talks break down. The Nile basin is the greatest in geographical extent of the transboundary water resource and makes it vital that the neighbours to carry on talking regardless. They should sit and agree with some understanding. But we have this situation instead, all as described below.


The latest breakdown in talks with Ethiopia over its construction of a massive upstream Nile dam has left Egypt with dwindling options as it seeks to protect the main source of fresh water for its large and growing population.

Talks collapsed earlier this month over the construction of the $5 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which is around 70% complete and promises to provide much-needed electricity to Ethiopia’s 100 million people.

But Egypt, with a population of around the same size, fears that the process of filling the reservoir behind the dam could slice into its share of the river, with catastrophic consequences. Pro-government media have cast it as a national security threat that could warrant military action.

Speaking at the U.N. last month, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi said he would “never” allow Ethiopia to impose a “de facto situation” by filling the dam without an agreement.

“While we acknowledge Ethiopia’s right to development, the water of the Nile is a question of life, a matter of existence to Egypt,” he said.

Ethiopian President Sahle-Work Zewude, also speaking at the U.N. General Assembly, said her country believes “the use of the river should be (decided) according to international law and fair and equitable use of natural resources.”

Egypt has been holding talks for years with Ethiopia and Sudan, upstream countries that have long complained about Cairo’s overwhelming share of the river, which is enshrined in treaties dating back to the British colonial era. Those talks came to an acrimonious halt earlier this month, the third time they have broken down since 2014.

“We are fed up with Ethiopian procrastination. We will not spend our lifetime in useless talks,” an Egyptian official told The Associated Press. “All options are on the table, but we prefer dialogue and political means.”

Egypt has reached out to the United States, Russia, China and Europe, apparently hoping to reach a better deal through international mediation. The White House said earlier this month it supports talks to reach a sustainable agreement while “respecting each other’s Nile water equities.”

Egypt said it has accepted an invitation from the U.S. to meet in Washington with the foreign ministers of Ethiopia and Sudan to break the deadlock.

Mohamed el-Molla, an Egyptian Foreign Ministry official, said Cairo would take the dispute to the U.N. Security Council if the Ethiopians refuse international mediation.

That has angered Ethiopia, which wants to resolve the dispute through the tripartite talks.

An Ethiopian official said the packages offered by Cairo so far “were deliberately prepared to be unacceptable for Ethiopia.”

“Now they are saying Ethiopia has rejected the offer, and calling for a third-party intervention,” the official added. Both the Ethiopian and the Egyptian official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the talks with the media.

The main dispute is centered on the filling of the dam’s 74-billion-cubic-meter reservoir. Ethiopia wants to fill it as soon as possible so it can generate over 6,400 Megawatts, a massive boost to the current production of 4,000 Megawatts.

That has the potential to sharply reduce the flow of the Blue Nile, the main tributary to the river, which is fed by annual rainfall in the Ethiopian highlands. If the filling takes place during one of the region’s periodic droughts, its downstream impact could be even more severe.

Egypt has proposed no less than seven years for filling the reservoir, and for Ethiopia to adjust the pace according to rainfall, said an Egyptian Irrigation Ministry official who is a member of its negotiation team. The official also was not authorized to discuss the talks publicly and so spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Nile supplies more than 90% of Egypt’s freshwater. Egyptians already have one of the lowest per capita shares of water in the world, at around 570 cubic meters per year, compared to a global average of 1,000. Ethiopians, however, have an average of 125 cubic meters per year.

Egypt wants to guarantee a minimum annual release of 40 billion cubic meters of water from the Blue Nile. The irrigation official said anything less could affect Egypt’s own massive Aswan High Dam, with dire economic consequences.

“It could put millions of farmers out of work. We might lose more than one million jobs and $1.8 billion annually, as well as $300 million worth of electricity,” he said.

The official said Ethiopia has agreed to guarantee just 31 billion cubic meters.

El-Sissi is set to meet with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, on Wednesday in the Russian city of Sochi, on the sidelines of a Russia-Africa summit. They may be able to revive talks, but the stakes get higher as the dam nears completion.

Ahmed told Ethiopian lawmakers Tuesday that negotiations are the best chance for resolving the Nile deadlock and that going to war is “not in the best interest of all of us.”

“Some say things about use of force,” he said, referring to Egypt. “It should be underlined that no force could stop Ethiopia from building a dam. If there is a need to go to war, we could get millions readied. If some could fire a missile, others could use bombs.”

Late on Tuesday, Egypt said in a statement it was “shocked” and “surprised” by Ahmed’s remarks, which came just days after he was awarded the peace prize.

The statement said it was inappropriate to talk about military options in dealing with the dispute and that it thought the peace prize would have prompted Ethiopia to demonstrate political will, flexibility and “goodwill toward a binding and comprehensive legal agreement that takes into account the interests of the three countries.”

Ethiopia hopes to finish the much-delayed project by 2023. The dam’s manager, Kifle Horro, said the project is now 68.5% complete and preparations are underway to finalize power generation from two turbines by next year.

The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, warned earlier this year that the “risk of future clashes could be severe if the parties do not also reach agreement on a longer-term basin-wide river management framework.”

In recent weeks there have been calls by some commentators in Egypt’s pro-government media to resort to force.

Abdallah el-Senawy, a prominent columnist for the daily newspaper el-Shorouk, said the only alternatives were internationalizing the dispute or taking military action.

“Egypt is not a small county,” he wrote in a Sunday column. “If all diplomatic and legal options fail, a military intervention might be obligatory.”

Anwar el-Hawary, the former editor of the Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper, compared the dispute to the 1973 war with Israel, in which Egypt launched a surprise attack into the Sinai Peninsula.

“If we fought to liberate Sinai, it is logical to fight to liberate the water,” he wrote on Facebook. “The danger is the same in the two cases. War is the last response.”

Credit: Associated Press (AP) | Photo Credit : (AP)

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Popular and unprecedented Movements in the MENA

Popular and unprecedented Movements in the MENA

After the advent of the current popular and unprecedented movements in the MENA region streets, there seems to be no end in view. Some are calling for a radical change of system, the international community is having a detached view, at least formally, about this or that country. But there is Canada, which, through its ambassador in Algiers, has notably demonstrated support for this movement of street demonstrations, last June. Few NGOs have recently denounced the arrests of activists, journalists and the violation of freedoms, very few capitals have bothered to comment on “The Algerian Turmoil”, events taking place in Algeria for eight months now.

This apparent detachment reflects the difficulty for many countries to position themselves vis-à-vis a country that has probably been decreed anaesthetized. A country where the stakes, both economic and geostrategic, do not appear to be that important.

The lockdown of the media field in Algeria has increased in recent weeks and even goes beyond national borders. Following a complaint filed by the Algerian authorities with the France domiciled company, Eutelsat, Al Magharibia TV has stopped broadcasting since Tuesday afternoon 15 October 2019. “The Algerian government has put pressure on the company to take this step,” Al Magharibia TV officials said, citing a document from satellite service providers.

Popular and unprecedented Movements in the MENA

How about those TV channels dedicated to the Kurdish or any other MENA region’s socio-political movements as alternatives to the officially backed ones?

It is a real war waged by the Algerian authorities against all conventional mass media and social networks that continue to resist the established order in its mission to provide news of any free movement such as the Heerak to the national and international public. As a reminder, Al Magharibia TV is a British domiciled television channel created in early 2011 by Algerian businessmen. Initially, although the channel promoted ideology close to political Islam, it has become an audiovisual platform for the entire Algerian opposition, establishing itself in the North African media scene as a daily coverage provider of the on-going Heerak.

Popular and unprecedented Movements in the MENA

In all MENA region countries, be they Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Libya, and countries of the GCC, usage of censorship, site blocking, closure of Facebook pages, pressure on satellite service providers, cancellation of accreditation to foreign journalists, arrests of national and international journalists, all means are good at silencing dissenting and autonomous voices.

Practices that are beginning to worry about human rights NGOs as well as United Nations institutions. In the meantime, “all necessary legal measures will be taken to restore the channel’s (Al Magharibia) broadcast,” reassures its management. The latter condemns the approach of the government and EUTELSAT. For the chain’s officials, only justice could make such a decision.

TV and radio channels, the first victims

Public and private television channels, as well as public radio stations, are the first victims of this lockdown. After the resignation of the Algerian Head of State last April, the TV channels were instructed not to cover all streets demonstrations every Friday and Tuesday and to refrain from inviting on people who oppose the planned roadmap.

Gradually, all television channels in Algeria gave in and worse, some channels have become springboards for the regime’s propaganda.

Foreign correspondents under embargo

After the national TV channels, the government took care of the international press correspondents. The director of AFP office in Algeria, Aymeric Vincenot, was ordered last April to leave the country.

Foreign media wanting to cover the Heerak were not allowed to come. Applications for accreditation of international media in Algeria remain unanswered. Things don’t stop there, Algerian journalists working freelance with foreign media are monitored and summoned by the security services.

Allies, Investors, Protesters press for Change in Lebanon

Allies, Investors, Protesters press for Change in Lebanon

Lebanon pushed to the brink, faces reckoning over graft after allies, investors, protesters press for change in the country as per Jonathan Spicer, Tom Perry and Samia Nakhoul, Reuters News in this ECONOMY‘s article dated 21 October 2019.

Demonstrators hold Lebanese flags as they gather during a protest over deteriorating economic situation, in Beirut, Lebanon October 18, 2019.
Demonstrators hold Lebanese flags as they gather during a protest over deteriorating economic situation, in Beirut, Lebanon October 18, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

BEIRUT – Lebanon is closer to a financial crisis than at any time since at least the war-torn 1980s as allies, investors and this week nationwide protests pile pressure on the government to tackle a corrupt system and enact long-promised reforms.

Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri‘s government on Thursday hastily reversed a plan, announced hours earlier, to tax WhatsApp voice calls in the face of the biggest public protests in years, with people burning tyres and blocking roads.

The country – among the world’s most indebted and quickly running out of dollar reserves – urgently needs to convince regional allies and Western donors it is finally serious about tackling entrenched problems such as its unreliable and wasteful electricity sector.

Without a foreign funding boost, Lebanon risks a currency devaluation or even defaulting on debts within months, according to interviews with nearly 20 government officials, politicians, bankers and investors.

Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said in a televised speech on Friday that he gave a paper at an economic crisis meeting in September saying Lebanon needed “an electric shock”.

“I also said that what little remains of the financial balance might not last us longer than the end of the year if we do not adopt the necessary policies,” he said, without describing what he meant by financial balance.

Beirut has repeatedly vowed to maintain the value of the dollar-pegged Lebanese pound and honour its debts on time.

But countries that in the past reliably financed bailouts have run out of patience with its mismanagement and graft, and they are using the deepening economic and social crisis to press for change, the sources told Reuters.

These include Arab Gulf states whose enthusiasm to help Lebanon has been undermined by the growing clout in Beirut of Tehran-backed Hezbollah, and what they see as a need to check Iran’s growing influence across the Middle East.

Western countries have also provided funds that allowed Lebanon to defy gravity for years. But for the first time, they have said no new money would flow until the government takes clear steps toward reforms it has long only promised.

Their hope is to see it move towards fixing a system that sectarian politicians have used to deploy state resources to their own advantage through patronage networks instead of building a functional state.

A crisis could stoke further unrest in a country hosting some 1 million refugees from neighbouring Syria, where a Turkish incursion in the northeast this month has opened a new front in an eight-year war.

“If the situation remains, and there are no radical reforms, a devaluation of the currency is inevitable,” said Toufic Gaspard, a former adviser to Lebanon’s finance ministry and former economist at its central bank and the International Monetary Fund.

“Since September a new era has begun,” he added. “The red flags are large and everywhere, especially with the central bank paying up to 13% to borrow dollars.”

The first reform on Beirut’s agenda is one of the most intractable: fixing chronic power outages that make private generators a costly necessity, a problem many see as the main symbol of corruption that has left services unreliable and infrastructure crumbling.

Hariri, in a televised speech to the nation, said he had been struggling to reform the electricity sector ever since taking office. After “meeting after meeting, committee after committee, proposal after proposal, I got at last to the final step and someone came and said ‘it doesn’t work’,” he said.

Presenting the difficulties of implementing reform more widely, Hariri said every committee required a minimum of nine ministers to keep everyone happy.

“A national unity government OK, we understand that. But committees of national unity The result is that nothing works.”

Underscoring the pressure from abroad, Pierre Duquesne, a French ambassador handling so-called CEDRE funding, is traveling to Lebanon next week to press the government on the use of offshore power barges, a banker familiar with the plan said.

Duquesne wants the barges included in the electricity overhaul plan, the person said, requesting anonymity.

Duquesne could not immediately be reached for comment.

The contents of the 2020 budget will be key to helping unlock some $11 billion conditionally pledged by international donors under last year’s CEDRE conference. But a cabinet meeting on the budget set for Friday was cancelled amid the protests.

‘TAX INTIFADA’

Hariri’s government, which includes nearly all of Lebanon’s main parties, had proposed a tax of 20 cents per day on calls via voice-over-internet protocol (VoIP) used by applications including WhatsApp, Facebook FB.O and FaceTime.

In a country fractured along sectarian lines, the protests’ unusually wide geographic reach may be a sign of deepening anger with politicians who have jointly led Lebanon into crisis.

Fires were smoldering in central Beirut, where streets were scattered with glass of several smashed shop-fronts. Tear gas was fired on some demonstrators.

The newspaper an-Nahar described it as “a tax intifada”, or uprising. Another daily, al-Akhbar, declared it “the WhatsApp revolution”.

“With this corrupt authority, our kids have no future,” said protestor Fadi Issa, 51. “We don’t just want a resignation, we want accountability. They should return all the money they stole. We want change.”

As confidence has faded and dollars have grown scarce, new cracks have emerged between Lebanon’s government and its private lenders, according to several of the bankers, investors and officials who spoke to Reuters.

After years of funding the government with the promise of ever higher rates of return, the banks – sensing the country is approaching collapse – are pressing for it to finally deliver reforms to win over donors.

Most said Lebanon would likely feel more economic and financial strain in the months ahead but avoid haircuts on deposits or a worst-case sovereign default.

Yet Beirut’s years of failure to deliver reforms and the new determination among its traditional donors to press for them has left even top officials, bankers and investors divided over whether a devaluation is in store for the Lebanese pound.

“You need a positive shock. But unfortunately the government thinks reforms can happen without touching the structure that benefits them,” said Nassib Ghobril, head of economic research and analysis at Byblos Bank.

Lebanon must promote reforms to increase capital inflows, he said.

“We can’t keep going to the Emirates and Saudis. We need to help ourselves in order for others to help us.”

CLOCK TICKING

This month, Moody’s put Lebanon’s Caa1 credit rating under review for a downgrade and estimated the central bank, which has stepped in to cover government debt payments, had only $6 billion-$10 billion in useable dollars left to maintain stability.

That compares with some $6.5 billion in debt maturing by the end of next year.

The central bank says its foreign assets stood at $38.1 billion as of Oct. 15.

An official told Reuters Lebanon has only $10 billion in real reserves. “It is a very dire situation that has five months to correct itself or there will be a collapse, around February,” he said.

Hariri’s government may have only a few months to deliver fiscal reforms to convince France, the World Bank and other parties to the CEDRE agreement to unlock $11 billion in conditional funding.

The head of regional investments for a large U.S. asset manager said Lebanese officials are privately saying a plan that addresses short- and long-term electricity shortages will be announced before year-end, after which the government will raise tariffs.

But critics say no concrete steps have been taken despite energy ministry statements that the plan is on track.

Hariri left Paris last month with no immediate cash commitment after visiting French President Emmanuel Macron. Likewise this month he left Abu Dhabi empty-handed after meeting Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.

Lawmakers in Beirut struggled to explain what happened in Abu Dhabi after Hariri claimed the United Arab Emirates had promised investments following “positive” talks.

EYES ON HEZBOLLAH

Investors, bankers and economists say at least $10 billion is needed to renew confidence among the Lebanese diaspora whom for decades have underpinned the economy by maintaining accounts back home.

But so far this year, deposits have shrunk by about 0.4%.

The government has sought a smaller cushion from Sunni Muslim allies to buy some time. But to secure funding from the UAE or Saudi Arabia, Beirut would likely have to meet conditions meant to weaken Shi’ite Hezbollah’s hand in Lebanon’s government, said several sources.

Hezbollah, which faces U.S. sanctions, is seen to be gaining more control over state resources by naming the health minister in January after last year’s elections brought more of its allies into the legislature.

Some say Saudi Arabia, UAE and the United States are motivated to hold out on Beirut as part of their wider policy seeking to weaken Iran and its allies which have been fighting proxy wars with Gulf Arab states on several fronts.

“Their tolerance of Iran and Hezbollah has lowered significantly. The ‘Lebanese exception’ is gone,” said Sami Nader, Beirut-based director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs.

“The balance has tilted and we are now at odds with our former friends because Hezbollah now has the upper hand politically.”

The former regional head at a major Western bank put it bluntly: “People have lost patience with the corruption in which a frozen Parliament with no authority is simply divvying up the pie among politicians.”

“But at the end of the day the Lebanese political class usually succeeds in convincing allies that they should not let the system collapse and bring civil war again,” he added.

WANING TRUST

Lebanon, straddling the Middle East’s main sectarian lines, was historically the region’s foreign-exchange hub into which deposits flowed, especially since 1997 when its currency was pegged to the dollar at 1,507.5 pounds.

But after a reckoning in August and September in which the cost of insuring Lebanon’s sovereign debt surged https://tmsnrt.rs/2MORZfM to a record high, things have changed.

Depositors, including the diaspora drawn by rates much higher than in Europe or the United States, are pulling funds in the face of Lebanon’s swelling twin deficits, inability to secure foreign funding, and unorthodox central bank efforts to attract dollar inflows.

Among Lebanon’s 6 million citizens, trust has worn thin.

Depositors can no longer easily withdraw dollars, and most ATMs no longer provide them, forcing people to turn to so-called parallel FX markets where $1 is worth more than the official peg.

“I am with the protesters,” said Walid al-Badawi, 43. “I have three children, I am a taxi driver, I work all day to get food for my kids and I can’t get it.”

Gaspard, the central bank’s former research head, said foreign exchange was easy even through Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. There was also always a balance of payments surplus – until 2011 when deficits began to grow, reaching $12 billion last year.

LOST RESOLVE AT BANKS

Three events precipitated the crisis of confidence that for years seemed inevitable: a series of central bank efforts since 2016 to keep growing deposits with rates of more than 11% on large deposits; a public sector pay hike last year that raised the budget deficit to more than 11% of GDP; low oil prices in recent years that have weakened Gulf allies.

In a report on Thursday, the IMF described Lebanon’s position as “very difficult,” adding “substantial new measures” are needed to protect it and reduce large deficits.

As dollars have dried up, banks have effectively stopped lending and can no longer make basic foreign-exchange transactions for clients, one banker said.

“The whole role of banks is to pour money into the central bank to finance the government and protect the currency,” he said. “Nothing is being done on the fiscal deficit because doing something will disrupt the systems of corruption.”

The resistance from banks has been subtle but telling given their central role in financing the government.

When Beirut proposed a $660 million reduction in debt service costs in its 2019 budget, banks never signed up to the idea. They have also been less enthusiastic about subscribing to Eurobonds including a planned $2-billion issuance later this month, officials said.

Without reform, “banks agree we can no longer support the public sector,” said Byblos Bank’s Ghobril.

(Reporting by Jonathan SpicerTom Perry and Samia Nakhoul; Additional reporting by Yara Abi Nader and Ellen Francis in Beirut and John Irish in Paris; Editing by Hugh Lawson) ((jonathan.spicer@reuters.com; Reuters Messaging: jonathan.spicer.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net @jonathanspicer))

Palestinians turning to pets caring for emotional comfort

Palestinians turning to pets caring for emotional comfort

Gaza’s growing pet population stretches scant vet resources these days because of a greater number of Palestinians turning to pets caring for emotional comfort is more and more noticeable in the minuscule strip. In effect, populations of the tightly enclosed Gaza strip appear to have discovered that dogs and pets generally can help one get through tough times.

GAZA (Reuters) – Palestinians in Gaza are increasingly turning to domestic pets for emotional comfort from the harsh realities of the economically-depressed enclave but the growing animal population is stretching ill-equipped veterinarian facilities.

Gaza's growing pet population stretches scant vet resources
Palestinians turning to pets caring for emotional comfort
Palestinian woman Talya Thabet teaches a dog obedience commands in the central Gaza Strip October 16, 2019. Picture taken October 16, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Some 130 veterinarians work in Gaza but the lack of animal hospitals means most have to turn to regular medical facilities and even to Israel to help care for ailing pets.

At Imad Morad’s veterinary clinic, shelves are filled with pet food and medicine and his equipment includes an ultrasound machine. But for further care, he depends on human medical facilities.

“We send blood and urine samples to human labs for examination. It wasn’t until two years ago when they started taking our requests. We also use them for X-rays,” Morad said.

In some rare cases, cats have been sent for treatment in Israel, which maintains tight restrictions along its border with the Islamist Hamas-run territory.

Unlike cats, dogs are considered unclean in Islam and are usually kept outside, but there is no ban on them.

Dog ownership, however, is becoming more popular and pet food is increasingly available in shops. Owners walking their dogs on Gaza’s streets are now a common sight.

“When someone raises a pet he feels like getting a new friend in his or her life, a friend who cares for him or her more than usual human friends do,” said Saeed el-Aer, a retired civil servant who trawls the streets carrying a bag full of food and medicine, looking for abandoned cats and dogs.

At a Gaza pet shop, its owner, Baha Ghaben, said opening the business had been a risk.

But, he said: “We were surprised at the large number of people who raised pets at home. I sell between ten to twenty animals a month.”

Writing by Nidal al Mughrabi and Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Emelia Sithole-MatariseOur Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Street Demonstrations more frequent in the MENA region

Street Demonstrations more frequent in the MENA region

“The people want the regime to go,” chant hundreds of thousands of protesters in Algeria . . . reported The Economist back in March 2019, before adding that protesters in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia and the Palestinian territories have also demanded better governance of late. Five years after the region’s authoritarians silenced it, the Arab street is regaining its voice. Street demonstrations more frequent in the MENA region are spreading like wildfire to reach lately Lebanon. Today, in Algiers, it is the 35th Friday of streets protests that are out pounding all pavements in all towns and villages of Algeria.


Published on October 18, 2019, by Gulf News under the title Why are Lebanese protesting? These sort of street demonstrations are getting more and more frequent in the MENA region.


Calls mount for the government to resign as schools close in protest on Friday.

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Demonstrators gather during a protest over deteriorating economic situation, in the port city of Sidon, Lebanon October 18, 2019.Image Credit: REUTERS

Dubai: Nationwide protests paralyzed Lebanon on Friday as demonstrators blocked major roads in a second day of rallies against the government’s management of a severe economic crisis and proposed new taxes.

The protests were the largest since 2015, and could further destabilize a country with one of the highest debt loads in the world.

The protests could plunge Lebanon into a political crisis with unpredictable repercussions for the economy, which has been in steady decline. Some of the protesters said they would stay in the streets until the government resigns.

Schools, banks and businesses shut down as the protests escalated and widened in scope to reach almost every city and province.

Hundreds of people burned tires on highways and intersections in suburbs of the capital, Beirut, and in northern and southern cities, sending up clouds of black smoke in scattered protests. The road to Beirut’s international airport was blocked.

On Thursday, throngs of people converged near the government headquarters in downtown Beirut,  in one of the largest such demonstrations in years, calling on politicians currently debating a proposed austerity budget to step down and hold early elections.

After a night of fury, fires were still burning in some rock-covered streets and new protests broke out in the north.

“The people want the fall of the regime,” protesters gathered in central Beirut chanted. Others shouted: “ thieves, thieves.”

Why are Lebanese protesting?

Citizens are angry over plans to impose a levy on WhatsApp calls.

On Thursday, the minister of information announced plans by the cabinet to enforce a 20-cents-per-day fee for Internet phone calls, including on WhatsApp and Facebook.

He also revealed a proposal to be discussed by ministers to raise value-added tax to 15 percent by 2022.

Lebanon has seen a wave of protests recently, driven by dire economic conditions made worse by the country’s financial crisis.

https://twitter.com/JoshuaPotash/status/1184926630432653312

It is one of the most heavily indebted countries in the world, and recently the government declared a state of economic emergency. The government says it is seeking ways to fight deficit, but meanwhile, the country’s currency, pegged against the dollar, remains under pressure.

The proposed Internet-phone fee, seen as a new revenue stream, was revoked after the protests. But it was not enough to appease the protesters.

What is the state of Lebanon’s economy?

The economic stakes have rarely been higher for Lebanon, a tiny country that straddles the geopolitical fault-lines of the Middle East, since the end of the 15-year civil war in 1990.

One of the most indebted countries in the world, it is struggling to find fresh sources of funding as the foreign inflows on which it has traditionally relied have dried up.

Promises of assistance from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which has pulled Lebanon back from the brink in previous crises, has failed to materialize.

Expatriate Lebanese, long a backbone of the economy, are remitting less money as confidence in the government’s financial management plummets.

Copy of 2019-10-18T053905Z_221027832_RC15CDBB0B20_RTRMADP_3_LEBANON-ECONOMY-CALLS-1571378947391
Demonstrators burn tires in Jounieh.Image Credit: Reuters

The International Monetary Fund projects Lebanon’s current-account deficit will reach almost 30% of gross domestic product by the end of this year.

As violence flared, it issued a new report predicting that economic growth, stagnant at 0.3% in 2018, would continue to be weak amid political and economic uncertainty and a severe contraction in the real estate sector.

What do citizens say?

“We came down here because we want to bring down this corrupt regime that has been burning us for over 50 years before they even burned the trees,” said a 26-year-old accountant who identified himself as Kareem.

Kareem was refering to a devastating string of blazes that ripped through Lebanon’s mountains earlier this week.

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Aftermath of Lebanon’s wildfires.Image Credit: AP

“We shouldn’t have to depend on Cyprus or Turkey or Iran or Hezbollah,” he said, referring to Cyprus sending helicopters to help with the fire.

“Nothing is going to change until the whole country protests.”

“I haven’t had a job in three years,” said Abed, a 40-year-old construction worker who said he blames everyone in the government.

The country is burning. They’re burning our country, they’re burning our trees. We don’t even have a helicopter that can put out fires. We paid $15 million for them to park them aside.

– Mohammed, protester

“The country is burning,” his friend Mohammed, 31, said. “They’re burning our country, they’re burning our trees. We don’t even have a helicopter that can put out fires. We paid $15 million for them to park them aside.”

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Lebanese police fire tear gas at demonstrators.Image Credit: AP

His voice shaking with anger, Mohammed continued: “We don’t have water. We don’t have tourism. Our beaches are abandoned, stolen, looted.”

He listed the names of the country’s prominent politicians: Prime Minister Saad Hariri, parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri and Nasrallah. “These are all thieves that need to be in jail as soon as possible.”

How have politicians reacted?

Walid Jumblatt, the main leader of Lebanon’s Druze sect, told a Lebanese TV channel after the protests that he spoke to Hariri and told him that they were in trouble. “I prefer we leave and quit together,” he told the LBC channel.

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Debris piles up in Beirut after Thursday night’s protests. Image Credit: Reuters

Interior Minister Raya al-Hassan said the prime minister has not made a decision, adding that he would speak later on Friday.

“If the government falls, any other government that follows will not have better options than the ones in front of the current government,” she told a local news channel. “Changing the government is not a solution, and if it fell then collapse will be inevitable.”

-With inputs from agencies

The World’s First AI Research University in Abu Dhabi

The World’s First AI Research University in Abu Dhabi

The UAE has added another feather to its cap. After appointing the world’s first artificial intelligence minister, it has established the world’s first AI Research University in Abu Dhabi at Masdar City.

ABU DHABI, UAE, Oct. 16, 2019 / PRNewswire/ — Abu Dhabi today announced the establishment of the Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI), the first graduate level, research-based AI university in the world. MBZUAI will enable graduate students, businesses, and governments to advance artificial intelligence.

MBZUAI Board of Trustees launching the world’s first graduate level AI university.
MBZUAI Board of Trustees launching the world’s first graduate level AI university.

The University is named after His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, who has long advocated for the UAE’s development of human capital through knowledge and scientific thinking to take the nation into the future. MBZUAI will introduce a new model of academia and research to the field of AI, providing students and faculty access to some of the world’s most advanced AI systems to unleash its potential for economic and societal development.

His Excellency Dr. Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, UAE Minister of State, who has been appointed Chair of the MBZUAI Board of Trustees and is spearheading the establishment of the University, said: “The Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence is an open invitation from Abu Dhabi to the world to unleash AI’s full potential.”

“The University will bring the discipline of AI into the forefront, molding and empowering creative pioneers who can lead us to a new AI empowered era,” he added.

Experts from around the world have been selected for the University’s Board of Trustees. They include MBZUAI Interim President, Professor Sir Michael Brady, professor of Oncological Imaging at the University of Oxford, UK; Professor Anil K. Jain, a University Distinguished Professor at Michigan State University, USA; Professor Andrew Chi-Chih Yao, Dean of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Information Sciences at Tsinghua University, Beijing, China; Dr. Kai-Fu Lee, a technology executive and venture capitalist based in Beijing, China; Professor Daniela Rus, Director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), USA, and Peng Xiao, CEO of Group 42.

Over the next decade, AI is set to have a transformational impact on the global economy, with experts estimating that, by 2030, AI could contribute nearly $16 trillion to the global economy[1] and account for nearly 14% of the UAE’s GDP[2].

Professor Sir Michael Brady, Interim President of MBZUAI, said: “We are now at a turning point in the widespread application of advanced intelligence. That evolution is – among other things – creating exciting new career opportunities in nearly every sector of society. At MBZUAI, we will support students to capture those opportunities and to magnify their contribution to the field of AI globally.”

The University will offer Master of Science (MSc) and PhD level programs in key areas of AI – Machine Learning, Computer Vision, and Natural Language Processing. All admitted students will receive a full scholarship, monthly allowance, health insurance, and accommodation.

Graduate students can now apply to MBZUAI via the University’s website. The first class will commence coursework at MBZUAI’s Masdar City campus in September 2020.

For more information, please visit www.mbzuai.ac.ae.