Belfast (Dir Kenneth Branagh, 2021)
Lebanese voters are signalling a desire for change as generally witnessed and felt by all after the country’s latest parliamentary elections.
Lebanese voters are signalling a desire for change, with Hezbollah and its allies losing ground across the country in a parliamentary election.
Just as the recent election in Northern Ireland brought a boost for the non-sectarian Alliance Party, Lebanon’s election saw significant gains for political representatives untethered to sectarian politics. Like Northern Ireland, Lebanon’s political system is set up to share power. Its new parliament will have various sectarian blocs, revolving around Hezbollah and rival party Lebanese Forces, and a sizeable non-sectarian group campaigning on economic issues, social justice and accountability.
Hezbollah, a pro-Iranian Shia-based party, emerged in 1982 largely in response to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. It gained prominence after the end of Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990) and its share of parliament seats started rising in the 2000 elections. After the departure of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005, its alliance with key political players such as the other Shia-based political party, Amal, and the Christian-based Free Patriotic Movement allowed it to gradually block major policy processes deemed detrimental to its interests such as negotiations on its demilitarisation.
The Hezbollah bloc has lost ground to rivals across the spectrum. Results indicate that the pro-Thawra opposition candidates have made significant gains, capturing up to 13 seats. The Thawra name harks back to October 2019, as the state’s economy went into freefall, when an uprising of ordinary citizens, often called the Thawra, campaigned for all sectarian leaders to resign and for rights for foreign domestic workers, women and LGBTQ+ people.
In this election, the Lebanese Forces party has used widespread anger against Hezbollah and its allies to increase its number of parliamentarians. Lebanese Forces has positioned itself as the main faction willing to contest Hezbollah in the power-sharing government.
Opposition gains have been secured even in areas traditionally seen as Hezbollah strongholds. In 2018, Hezbollah and its allies won 71 seats, making it the biggest faction in the parliament. Hezbollah emerged from Sunday’s election weakened as many voters blame the party for hindering an independent investigation into the Beirut port explosion which killed more than 200 people.
This national election took place as Lebanon struggled with a series of crises beginning in 2019, including an economic meltdown that left more than 75% of the population below the poverty line, in what the World Bank ranks as among the three most severe economic collapses anywhere since the 19th century. The country is also dealing with the aftermath of the port disaster. More recently Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has pushed millions close to starvation because of Lebanon’s heavy dependence on Ukrainian wheat.
Lebanon’s political power-sharing system is deliberately designed to protect the entrenched interests of the state’s powerful sectarian leaders. All seats in the 128-member parliament are reserved on a sectarian basis and the powerful factions have often functioned on behalf of other powers, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.
For its supporters, the power-sharing system gives guarantees of political representation to the main groups and ensures that no faction can control the government.
Critics point to a number of drawbacks with the system. Some Lebanese people are reliant on their sect leaders to distribute basic services, such as healthcare. Lebanon is further crippled by paralysis and dysfunction, with the government rarely passing any new laws.
Yet, despite many barriers to change, we may be beginning to see cracks in the system to allow anti-sectarian and independent opposition candidates to emerge as a serious force in Lebanon.
While the protests eventually ran out of steam, it built a platform for a political movement that has now gained independent parliamentary seats.
While it is tempting to suggest that Lebanon’s election has ushered in significant change, caveats are required. Voter turnout was 41%, lower than in 2018. This may point more to apathy and disillusionment than hope.
Obsolete electoral laws have not kept pace with people’s lives, and may have been a factor in the low turnout. In Lebanon, people must vote in the constituencies where they were born. With fuel prices rising and a crumbling transportation system, many could not travel to their birthplace hours away.
This result could lead to political stalemate and confrontational power-sharing. The parliament could turn into a polarised arena where parties with opposing agendas are supposed to share power. The main factions are likely to disagree on the new speaker of parliament and on the allocation of executive ministerial positions, making it difficult for the council of ministers to address the disastrous economic situation.
Factions are also likely to disagree on the new presidential candidate set to replace current president Michel Aoun five months from now at the end of his term.
Yet there is still room for optimism. The success of these independent candidates demonstrates that anti-sectarian politics can succeed in an environment designed to prohibit it flourishing. Unlikely breakthroughs in sectarian strongholds represent notable and exceptional gains.
Independent candidates have not had the array of tools at the disposal of the major sectarian parties. They do not have the economic clout to court votes or have links to powerful media networks to echo their message. They also can’t ask for support from powerful states, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. Their candidates are more likely to be harangued and attacked by sectarian factions.
Nevertheless, their victory in Lebanon’s elections has powerful implications. It is one of the key achievements of the 2019 Thawra movement, a landmark episode that many had dismissed for not having achieved very much.
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The above-featured image is that of Damascus by France 24.
The Syrian architect and writer on the idea of home in Branagh’s Belfast, smart Arab horses in Homs and the joy of lentils in Damascus
Belfast (Dir Kenneth Branagh, 2021)
I watched this at home recently – there are no cinemas in Homs. It’s a film about war and love and friendship, about difficult decisions in a time of crisis. I liked the story and how real the actors made it, but also the way it handled the theme of home, which I very much related to – how the family was torn between staying and leaving. The whole dilemma of what to do, and how different people deal with similar questions and end up with different answers, was explored so well. It’s a great movie.
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
This is a story set in a fictional version of England many centuries ago. It’s about grudges, and Ishiguro writes about this without naming the feeling, creating a fictional creature – the buried giant – for it as a reference. It’s also about a family’s journey to discover this feeling, and to find a way towards forgiveness. What I loved about this story is the indirect and imaginative way it has of dealing with hidden feelings that we bury deep down in our psyche, and how to access them.
I don’t go out much to busy places, and because of the war we don’t have many places to go. But I do go and ride every day at the equestrian club in Homs. My horse is called Salah al-Din. He’s a very strong horse from a special breed – Syrian Arab horses are among the best in the world for strength, endurance and performance. They are really smart animals and very independent and spirited, which is a humbling experience on a daily basis. The social aspect of the club is disastrous; it’s all about the horses.
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey (Apple TV+)
Samuel L Jackson gives a phenomenal performance in this TV series. He plays an old man suffering from dementia who takes an experimental medicine that gains him a few days of lucidity. He uses those precious moments to access his memories and explain to himself the nightmares he had, which are related to racism. The show deals with different questions with great sensitivity, and in the end it’s about true friendship and genuine feelings. For me, it’s the story of the human mind and how precious this gift is.
Georges Wassouf is from a rural area near Homs, but his career took off from Beirut. I just love his music – he has a poignant way of speaking about love and a fantastic way of bending the lyrics to express the music. It’s also lovely how his artistic character is so closely related to his real-life character. He’s a very accessible figure who lives among his people, and he didn’t change his lifestyle in a way that would separate him from his own small village. Ahla Ayam El Omr, which translates as Life’s Most Beautiful Days, is one of my favourite of his songs.
Homs restaurants are rubbish, but there are plenty of good ones in Damascus. The one that I really like is Naranj, in the old part of the city where the Muslim and the Christian quarters merge. The food is great and the menu is very much based on what’s in season. The breads come right out of the oven, hot and delicious, and I would recommend the lentil dish harrak isbao, which means “the one that burns your fingers” because it’s so delicious that you will dive straight in.
The news of more than a month now has been and still is that of Ukraine. The refusal of the latter to get in step and put itself in the lap of the big brother gives us all this crash of landscapes and other nuisances of the country’s built environment. What if Russia played all its cards except that of Global Warming. Explanations on Russia and Climate Change benefits can play in its favour. After all, Climate Change is Cataclysmic — but not apocalyptic, to say the least.
The above-featured image is for illustration and is of WorldAtlas.
Indeed, it is easy to see that with this, Russia with a good part of its now sterile land set aside because covered with snow for most of the year, will be thawed and possibly turned and transformed into a good land and potentially farms.
Climate change is therefore not negative as it should be for the rest of the planet’s network. Canada, the Scandinavian countries, Iceland, and Greenland must also benefit.
On the other hand, it is the opposite that is confirmed day by day in its southern parts. Would this hint at a redistribution of food production around the world?
As everyone should know today, arctic poles and tips of glaciers are melting, seawater rising, temperatures going up, semi-arid lands drying up, desertification advancing in bordering areas, and countless natural disasters among many others are the convincing results that dominate our planet. Few can deny these anymore.
So, the great Russia, which is only great because it is adjacent to this huge and vast Siberia. This one with frozen ground and/or covered with snow all-year-round had never allowed any large-scale human settlement, except for some exploitation of natural resources at great expense, here and there.
Global warming is remedying all this. That said, with or without the blessing of the rest of the world, Russia may end up with vast tracts of agrarian mounds. A situation that will prevail once this skirmish is concluded with not only this direct impact on Russia’s geography but also on its future position as a food giant.
With a little luck, Ukraine could be able to find itself but with some modestly in the same position of a major supplier of food to the world and if it incorporated into the EU, it will be able to turn the latter, into another great of the new “Food Power”.
In conclusion, we seem to be at the dawn of a novel distribution of world food shares with the ultimate heavy price still on the countries of the south.
The top featured image of Reuters is not only for illustration but meant to draw some attention to one of the most important cause of this traumatic situation of Egypt as well as that of many countries in the MENA region. Russia-Ukraine crisis poses a serious threat to Egypt, that with an over-population still on the rise, has a limited but diminishing arable lands area. Building on farmland coupled a certain lack of control of all real estate developments bear on the lower social classes; those supposed to be at the forefront of food production.
By Kibrom Abay, The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) ; Clemens Breisinger, The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) ; David Laborde Debucquet, The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) ; Joseph Glauber, The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) , and Lina Alaaeldin Abdelfattah, The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could create a global food security crisis. It is disrupting agricultural production and trade from one of the world’s major exporting regions. This threatens to drive rising food prices still higher and create scarcity, especially for regions most dependent on exports from Russia and Ukraine.
Particularly affected is the Middle East and North Africa – or MENA – region. These Arab countries consume the highest wheat per capita, about 128 kg of wheat per capita, which is twice the world average. More than half of this comes from Russia and Ukraine.
As agricultural and food security experts, we have explored the impacts of the war on the wheat market, focusing on Egypt.
Wheat is a key food item for Egypt, representing between 35% and 39% of caloric intake per person in the last few years. And wheat imports usually account for about 62% of total wheat use in the country.
Despite the government’s efforts following the global food crisis in 2007 to 2008 to diversify sources of cereal imports, the vast majority of cereal imports, between 57% and 60%, come from Russia and Ukraine.
A number of key policy actions are needed that will reduce dependence on Russia and Ukraine in the short term. This will help Egypt’s agriculture and food system to become fairer and more resilient – an absolute necessity in the context of looming threats from climate change, water scarcity and conflict.
Egypt is the world’s largest importer of wheat. It imports a total of 12 to 13 million tons every year. With a population of 105 million, growing at a rate of 1.9% a year, Egypt has become increasingly dependent on imports to meet food needs.
Imports of cereal crops have been steadily increasing over the last three decades at a rate higher than that of domestic production.
Egypt’s wheat market and trade regime is largely controlled by government agencies. The General Authority for Supply Commodities, operating under the Ministry of Supply and Internal Trade, usually handles about half of the total wheat imported, while private trading companies handle the other half.
Government agencies are already feeling the impact of the war, which has led to recent cancellation of tenders due to lack of offers, in particular from Ukraine and Russia.
Still, there is no fear of shortage in the coming weeks. In early February, Egyptian MoSit Minister Aly Moselhy said that the country held sufficient inventory to cover five months of consumption. But the outlook beyond that is less clear.
With the abrupt closure of Ukraine ports and current maritime trade in the Black Sea – wheat is transported across the Black Sea – Egypt will have to find new suppliers if Ukraine is unable to export wheat this year and if sanctions against Russia impede food trade indirectly.
Such opportunities are, unfortunately for Egypt, limited.
Currently, wheat producers in South America – Argentina in particular – have larger than usual surpluses from the last harvest available to export. Overall, however, it will be difficult to expand the global wheat supply in the short run. About 95% of the wheat produced in the European Union and about 85% of that in the United States is planted in the fall, leaving those regions little room for expanding production in the near term.
In addition, wheat competes with crops such as maize, soybeans, rapeseed, and cotton, all of which are also seeing record high prices. In combination with record-high fertiliser prices (also exacerbated by the Russia-Ukraine conflict), farmers in some regions may favour less fertiliser-intensive crops, such as soybeans.
About 20% of world wheat exports come from the Southern Hemisphere (primarily Argentina and Australia) which typically ship from December through March.
In addition, Canada and Kazakhstan are large producers that harvest in the fall. Over the coming year and beyond, their exports may be able to make up much of the deficit created by the loss from Ukraine production, but at a higher cost due to longer shipping routes and increased transportation costs triggered by higher oil prices.
Rising global wheat prices hit a 10-year high at US$523 per ton on March 7. This is a serious problem for the Egyptian government’s budget and a potential threat to consumer purchasing power.
Even just before the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war, prices of commodities in Egypt were increasing. The war has started adding further pressure and consumers are feeling these impacts.
Some countries have already imposed export restrictions in response to rising prices. These trends, coupled with disruptions in Russia’s and Ukraine’s exports, will likely add further upward pressures on prices going forward. Even under the most optimistic assumptions, global wheat prices will remain high throughout 2022 and the trend is likely to persist through 2023, given limits on expanding production.
The Egyptian government has been spending about US$3 billion annually for wheat imports. The recent price increase could nearly double that to US$5.7 billion. This, in turn, threatens Egypt’s Baladi bread subsidy program. This program provides millions of people with 150 loaves of subsidised bread per month. About 90% of the production cost is borne by the government at an annual cost of US$3.24 billion. The program requires about 9 million tons of wheat annually about half of the total wheat consumption in Egypt and three-quarters of Egypt’s wheat imports.
In the short term, Egypt needs to diversify its food import sources.
The government is actively exploring this option, while also increasing planned procurement from domestic sources by 38% over last year’s figure. The government has just announced a new and relatively higher buying price for domestic wheat from farmers.
In addition, the government has decided to ban exports of staple foods, including wheat, for three months to limit pressure on existing reserves.
In the long term, Egypt needs to explore options for reducing the gap between domestic supply and demand. Here are some of its options.
Boosting domestic wheat production will be challenging, as Egyptian farmers are already achieving high yields, relying on high input and water use. While there are some opportunities to expand arable land, modernise farming systems and improve water management practices, the country’s principal focus should be to adapt the farming system to address imminent water shortages and climate change threats and increase resilience, rather than unsustainably expanding production.
Reducing the high consumption and waste of bread has significant potential. Egyptians on average consume about 145 kg of wheat per capita annually – double the global average.
Improve the efficiency and targeting of the Tamween food subsidy program. This provides beneficiaries with ration cards for various foods. The program absorbs a large share of imported wheat and vegetable oils. Reforming it could reduce inefficiencies in the wheat sector and the cost of running the program.
In conclusion, the Russia-Ukraine war poses a big challenge to global food security and particularly difficult obstacles for Egypt. The short-term and long-term impacts will of course depend on how the war unfolds and affects exports from Russia and Ukraine over the coming months and years. Impacts on Egypt will also depend on other countries’ responses to global price hikes and cereal shortages.
Egypt can mitigate some of these impacts with short-term actions as outlined above, but major global shocks like the Russia-Ukraine war are also reminders of the need of longer-term reforms and solutions.
Kibrom Abay, Research Fellow, The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) ; Clemens Breisinger, Senior Research Fellow, The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) ; David Laborde Debucquet, Senior Research Fellow, The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) ; Joseph Glauber, Senior Research Fellow, The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) , and Lina Alaaeldin Abdelfattah, Senior Research Assistant, The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)
Iraq’s discontent has like for most countries of the MENA, been there for all to see. In effect, many of these depend on Russia and Ukraine, the two warring parties for their wheat supplies. How to fix that or how to begin fixing it is not exactly a downhill walk in the park. Here is Bamo Nouri‘s explanation.
Iraq has been seeing protesters take to the streets as food prices spiral upwards because of the Ukraine war. Around 500 people protested in Iraq’s southern city of Nasiriyah a few days ago as flour suddenly rose in price by nearly a third. With food-related protests subsequently taking place in Albania and Sri Lanka, the ripple effects of the war are spreading.
Iraq’s markets were largely unaffected by the surging inflation in months gone by. But Iraqi officials have confirmed that the Russian invasion has massively increased the cost of the region’s food and is also causing shortages. Flour prices are up from IQD35,000 (£18.29) for a 50kg sack to IQD45,000 (£23.52), rice by 10%, and cooking oil has doubled in price. Iraqi consumers have been stocking up fast because of fears of further shortages and price rises, and Iraqi traders have capitalised on the situation to increase their profits.
The Iraqi government has already put measures in place to tackle shortages, distributing food to those in most need, as well as rationing food during the upcoming month of Ramadan. Rapid government measures also include a monthly allowance of around US$70 (£53) for pensioners with incomes of less than one million Iraqi dinars (£522) per month to help them afford food, as well as for civil servants earning less than half a million Iraqi dinars.
Additionally, a temporary suspension of customs charges on consumer goods, construction materials and international food products has been introduced for a period of two months to help keep prices down. In Iraq’s Kurdish region, the Kurdistan regional government has introduced emergency measures including store closures in Erbil, the region’s capital, to stop rogue traders overcharging.
Imports from Russia and Ukraine, two of the world’s largest exporters of energy and agricultural products, have been massively reduced. The situation has also been exacerbated by neighbouring Iran and Turkey, which according to Iraqi sources have restricted food exports to Iraq to prioritise their own national stocks.
Despite Iraq being part of what is known as the fertile crescent, a region famed for its high-yielding farmland and access to water, a series of interventions in the last three decades have depleted the area’s water supply and crops. These range from Saddam Hussein formally drying out Iraq’s marshes, to water flow restrictions from Turkey and Iran causing severe drought. These events had already put pressure on Iraq’s agriculture sector and reduced internal production of food.
Iraqis have been holding demonstrations regularly since the US occupation of 2003, mostly against government corruption, the lack of basic services, mass unemployment and in recent years the interference of Iran. Iraq’s latest prime minister, Mustafa Kadhimi, an independent, was elected after protests in October 2019 as Iraqis rejected the old parties. https://www.youtube.com/embed/O2_PUPyzvqY?wmode=transparent&start=0 Food protests in Iraq.
Distrust in the political system continues. In Iraq’s latest October 2021 Iraqi parliamentary elections, the lowest-ever voter turnout in post-2003 Iraq was recorded at 41% – creating a legitimacy crisis for Iraq’s yet-to-be-announced next government.
The key issue is that there is no clear progressive national government strategy, which in turn severely impedes development and weakens the Iraqi state, especially in the face of challenges such as global food price rises. However, what makes this particular protest noteworthy is that it comes at a time when all governments may be expected to do more to support their populations as prices spiral worldwide.
Given that two of the key drivers of the Arab Spring were the high cost of food and other goods, and restricted access to water, the latest protests may have worldwide significance. Iraqis may be the first in a global movement of protests over price rises as the Russia-Ukraine conflict continues.
Albania became the first country to follow in Iraq’s footsteps with protests, then Sri Lanka, amid warnings from the World Bank that Ukraine war-related inflation could drive other protests and riots.
While some other governments have already intervened with subsidies, there is also an argument that energy providers should act more responsibly in such times of crises. For example, Exxon, Chevron, BP and Shell recorded their highest profits in seven years in 2021, which they attributed to surging oil prices as post-pandemic demand increased but suppliers struggled to keep up.
The cost of food has provoked outrage throughout history. The 2007 and 2008 food crises triggered riots in Haiti, Bangladesh and Mozambique. Even in the French revolution, when Parisians stormed the Bastille on July 14 1789, they were not just looking for arms, they were looking for grain to make bread.
Highlighting these important lessons from history to drive more responsible government and corporate power may be pivotal in preventing political unrest and instability. There is little doubt that both governments and corporations need to do more to make sure that food is affordable for their citizens, or face the consequences.