BEIRUT- Lebanese politicians are watching on as the economy collapses and protests turn angry, a senior U.N. official said on Wednesday, rebuking a ruling elite that has failed to agree a government or rescue plan for a country in deep crisis.
With banks tightly limiting access to cash, lenders were targeted in a night of violent protests in Beirut’s Hamra district. Bank facades and ATMs were smashed and dozens of people wounded in confrontations with police.
Heavily indebted Lebanon has been in trouble since the government was toppled by the resignation of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri in October as a result of protests against corruption and bad governance that are root causes of the economic woes.
Political rivalries have obstructed a deal on a new cabinet even as the crisis hits ordinary people: the Lebanese pound has lost around a half of its value while anger at banking controls have led to rows and violence in branches.
“Another day of confusion around the formation of a government, amidst the increasingly angry protests and free-falling economy,” Jan Kubis, U.N. special coordinator for Lebanon, wrote on Twitter. “Politicians, don’t blame the people, blame yourselves for this dangerous chaos.”
Kubis appeared to credit central bank governor Riad Salameh, saying he had sought “extraordinary powers to at least somehow manage the economy while those responsible watch it collapsing”.
“Incredible,” he wrote.
Salameh asked for extra powers last week, saying he wanted to standardize the banking controls.
“BEGGING” IN THE BANK
The long-brewing economic crisis snowballed last year as hard currency inflows slowed down, leading to a shortage of dollars needed to finance the state’s deficit and import needs.
The violence in Beirut’s Hamra area was some of the worst since anti-government protests began in October. Security forces fired tear gas outside the central bank to disperse protesters who pelted them with stones and fireworks.
One man hurled a car battery at the glass facade of a bank as another hit it with a metal pole, Reuters TV footage showed. On Wednesday morning, glass was being swept up at one vandalised bank as workers tried to fix a broken ATM at another.
A woman on Hamra street who gave her name as Hind said she supported protests against banks. “I have been coming here for the last three days and only could take $300 … we are begging, working 55 years to come and beg at the end,” she told Reuters.
“I was expecting what happened yesterday. Unfortunately the chaos is because of the politicians,” said Hamra shopkeeper Mohammad al-Rayyes.
The banking association condemned the attacks as the work of a “mercenary mob” and not the “real revolutionaries of Lebanon” seeking reform. It condemned the “severe and irresponsible tardiness in forming a new government”, saying this made it look like banks were responsible for deteriorating conditions.
The powerful Iranian-backed group Hezbollah and its political allies last month nominated Hassan Diab, a little-known former minister, to form a new government after the failure of efforts to forge a deal with Hariri, a traditional ally of the West and Gulf Arab states.
(Additional reporting by Issam Abdallah and Ellen Francis; Writing by Tom Perry Editing by Giles Elgood and Mike Collett-White) ((firstname.lastname@example.org; Reuters Messaging: email@example.com))
Here is a snapshot of life as it happens in every corner of the MENA region’s countries. This particular one is about Kuwait’s that are going through the traumatic phase of government change. And if that is enough, Kuwait got year of rain in one night, as well as some snow, as shown below. Anyway, Muna Al-Fuzai elaborated this story that could easily have happened anywhere between the Atlantic and the Gulf.
This week, Kuwait was occupied with the new government formation and rain that caused the closure of some roads and flooded streets and houses, which angered the people. It was truly a week of anger, as rumors and bad news abounded. We are on the threshold of a new week and the rain has ended, but the repercussions of the new government formation and the peopleصs reactions are indicators that must be taken into consideration.
Well, a government has gone and has been replaced by a new government with some new and controversial names, while others have been given more powers, But I believe that the general public wants to see a change in approach and not only faces.
I think many governments are failing to win the peopleصs approval because they believe that they are more understanding of peopleصs needs than the people themselves, and this is the biggest mistake many governments make worldwide these days. Changing the governmental approach in dealing with the needs of citizens and expats is the solution. Words and good wishes should turn into practical implementation of applicable work plans in a fair manner for everyone. Promises, unfortunately, are no longer sufficient to address the Kuwaiti situation now.
What do people want? I believe a person in Kuwait wants to live comfortably, whether citizen or expat, and I do not mean financially only, but morally and humanely. We also have to be aware that there is an oppressed segment, which is the category of retirees and expats who have not received their salaries for months. Then there are those who receive زfictionalس salaries, and “bedoons” who are suffering a lot in silence. So there are mistakes and imbalances that need immediate treatment.
That is why governments do not usually succeed in facing public anger because people do not know what is going on behind closed doors, but they see a reflection of what is happening on the ground. So, dissatisfaction with the new government formation is not surprising but expected. After the new ministers took the oath of office, the level of popular approval was very low, and this can be measured from discussions, tweets and statements by various people and their attitudes. Some parliamentary statements were even objectionable.ت
I guess the challenge soon will be between the new government and the Kuwaiti street, simply becauseتthe governmentصs performance will be under the microscope 24/7, and people will use social media platforms to express their dissatisfaction with any bad performance or statement or even a tweet by a minister.
I do not want to be drowned early in pessimism, but the indicators are difficult. The government wants to succeed, but it does not have many options or a guarantee of success. Therefore, the government must prepare to act immediately to correct the mistakes of the past and explicitly fight corruption.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region significantly improved its T&T competitiveness since the last edition of the TTCI. With 12 of the 15 MENA economies covered by this year’s index increasing their score compared to 2017, the region was able to slightly outpace the global average in competitiveness growth. This is particularly important given that, in the aggregate, T&T accounts for a greater share of regional GDP than in any of the other four regions. MENA is also the only region where international visitor spending is greater than domestic visitor spending. Yet despite improved competitiveness and a strong reliance on T&T for overall economic growth, MENA continues to underperform the global TTCI score average.
MENA’s below-average competitiveness is primarily a result of low scores on indicators related to natural and cultural resources and international openness. The region’s historical and religious heritage and geographic features create the potential for significant natural and cultural tourism; yet, while some individual nations come close, no MENA country scores above the global average for natural resources and only Egypt and Iran score above for cultural resources. In fact, the entire region’s score in both of these areas has fallen in recent years. More needs to be done to expand habit protection and heritage sites. Moreover, digital demand for MENA’s natural, cultural and entertainment demand is fairly low, indicating potential gaps in marketing and traveller perceptions. One potential reason for this gap is continued safety and security concerns. Eleven MENA countries rank within the bottom 40 for terrorism incidents, with two among the worst 10 countries globally. Further, the region is plagued by geopolitical tensions, instability and conflict. Security concerns also play a role in why MENA members are some of the most restrictive when it comes to international openness, with only Qatar, Oman and Morocco making significant improvements. Consequently, travellers often face barriers when visiting the region, while the aviation and overall T&T sector is stifled by limiting bilateral air service and regional trade agreements.
More positively, stability, safety and security have started to recover throughout the region, slightly reducing travel fears and underlying one of the key reasons for the recent pickup in arrivals. Furthermore, it seems that there has been greater recognition of T&T’s importance, with broad regional improvements in T&T prioritization, including increased government funding and more effective marketing campaigns to bring back or attract new visitors. Greatly enhanced environmental sustainability also has the potential to pay dividends for natural assets (note that environmental sustainability comparison is influenced by the use of new data to measure marine sustainability). In addition, prices have become more competitive among countries within the region, amplifying MENA’s single biggest advantage relative to the global average. As one of the world’s main producers of fossil fuels, MENA includes some of the world’s lowest fuel prices, with some governments offering subsidies. Moreover, many of the region’s economies offer visitors greater purchasing power (especially Egypt, Algeria, Iran and Tunisia), which has been increased by lower exchange rates. Yet it is reductions in ticket taxes and airport charges as well as lower hotel prices that have primarily driven regional price competitiveness in recent years.
Infrastructure has also improved, with particularly impressive growth in the number of airlines and route capacity. Despite these gains, world-class infrastructure remains concentrated among the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. The Gulf countries have been able to use their natural resource wealth, central geographic location and relative security to develop world-class T&T infrastructure, defined by quality airports, ports, roads, tourist services and some of the world’s leading airlines. These efforts are in stark contrast to some other MENA nations that—due to a lack of investment and ongoing instability—have yet to develop competitive infrastructure, especially regarding air transport. Similarly, the region’s above-average score on the Enabling Environment subindex is due to the performance of the Gulf countries and Israel, which have developed economies, strong business environments, ICT readiness and some of the highest scores in safety and security. Finally, most regional economies also score near the bottom when it comes to female participation in the labour market, depriving the T&T industry of a greater labour and skills pool.
The Middle East subregion is by far the more competitive of the two subregions, outscoring North Africa on nine pillars. Thanks to the Arab states of the Persian Gulf and Israel, the subregion is wealthier and more developed than the North Africa subregion. Consequently, it is no surprise that the Middle East scores above the global and regional averages on indicators related to enabling environment and infrastructure, with particularly high ranks on ICT readiness and business environment. Nevertheless, the subregion does trail the world and North Africa on T&T prioritization and policy and natural and cultural resources. In particular, many Middle East nations score relatively low on the International Openness and Natural Resources pillars, which represent the subregion’s greatest disadvantages relative to global competition. One of the Middle East’s highest-scoring pillars is Price Competitiveness, with some economies leveraging their fossil fuel abundance to offer lower fuel prices. Since the 2017 edition of the report, the subregion has improved across all pillars of T&T policy and enabling conditions, safety and security, ICT readiness and much of infrastructure, but declined or stagnated on other pillars.
This year, eight out of the subregion’s 11 members improved their TTCI score since 2017. Oman demonstrated the greatest improvement, moving up eight places to 58th. MENA’s safest (3rd) country recorded the subregion’s fastest improvement for its human resources and labour markets (103rd to 65th), and is among the most improved when it comes to international openness (116th to 97th), environmental sustainability (109th to 57th) and overall infrastructure (60th to 52nd). Yet some of the improvement in environmental sustainability is exaggerated due to new marine sustainability metrics. In contrast, the UAE had the Middle East’s largest decline, falling from 29th to 33rd, including the biggest percentage decline in score on the Safety and Security pillar (falling from 2nd to 7th) and Ground and Port Infrastructure (19th to 31st) and the subregion’s only decline on Environmental Sustainability (40th to 41st). Nevertheless, the country remains in the lead in the Middle East and is MENA’s top TTCI scorer, leading on ICT readiness (4th), air transport (4th) and tourist service (22nd) infrastructure. The Middle East’s—and MENA’s—largest T&T economy is Saudi Arabia (69th), which scores above the subregion’s average on most pillars, but near the bottom on international openness (137th). Plagued by ongoing conflict and a lingering humanitarian crisis, Yemen (140th), ranks at the bottom of the global index.
North Africa scores lower than the Middle East, but demonstrates far greater improvement in overall competitiveness. The subregion outscores the Middle East on five pillars and bests the global average on four. North Africa is the most price competitive subregion in the world, with three out of its four members among the 12 least-expensive economies covered in the report. North Africa’s greatest advantage relative to the Middle East is its natural and cultural resources—although it still underperforms the world on both the Natural Resources and Cultural and Business Travel pillars. The subregion also bests the MENA average in prioritization of T&T and environmental sustainability, areas where it has improved since 2017. On the other hand, North Africa has underdeveloped infrastructure and T&T enabling environment, contrasting some of the high performers in the Middle East subregion. In particular, North Africa trails when it comes to tourist service infrastructure and ICT readiness. The subregion’s strong rate of improvement is due to enhanced safety and security, overall T&T policy and enabling conditions and air transport and ground infrastructure.
All four members of the North Africa subregion increased their TTCI scores over 2017. Egypt (65th) is the subregion’s top scorer and its largest T&T economy. The country is also MENA’s most improved scorer. Egypt is price competitive (3rd) and has MENA’s highest score for cultural resources (22nd). Its improvement comes from increases on 11 pillar scores. These include the world’s second-best enhancement of safety and security (130th to 112th), albeit from a low starting base. Morocco (66th) demonstrates North Africa’s slowest improvement in TTCI performance. The country is a close second to Egypt when it comes to overall competitiveness, boasting the MENA region’s top TTCI scores on natural resources (63rd) and North Africa’s best enabling environment (71st) and infrastructure (69th). However, TTCI performance improvement is tempered by declining safety and security (20th to 28th), which remains well above the subregion’s average, and a deteriorating combination of natural and cultural (41st to 54th) resources. North Africa’s lowest scoring member is Algeria (116th), which nonetheless did move up two ranks globally. The country ranks low on business environment (118th), T&T prioritization (132nd), tourist services infrastructure (136th), environmental sustainability (133rd), natural resources (126th) and international openness (139th). On the other hand, Algeria is one of the most price-competitive countries in the world (8th).
The image above is strictly for illustration only.
DETROIT — In a Wednesday teleconference, leaders from the U.S. Census Bureau briefed media outlets that serve the Middle Eastern/North African (MENA) communities on the status of the 2020 Census, describing the efforts underway for all people to be accurately counted and the opportunity for individuals to apply for temporary jobs supporting the operation.
The U.S. Constitution mandates that a census of the population be conducted every 10 years. Census Bureau population statistics inform how billions of dollars in federal funds are allocated for critical public services like hospitals and healthcare clinics, emergency response, schools and education, and roads and bridges.
The 2020 Census will also determine how many seats each state gets in Congress and guide the drawing of local political boundaries. In mid-March 2021, households will receive an invitation to participate in the census with an option to respond online, by mail or by phone.
“We are working closely with state and local governments, the business community, civic organizations, nonprofits and the faith community to accomplish our goal of counting everyone, including young children and babies,” said Marilyn A. Sanders, Chicago regional director for the U.S. Census Bureau.
Sanders underscored that census responses are confidential and protected by law.
“We do not share your information with law enforcement agencies or immigration officials,” she said.
Sanders also provided an update on the recruiting for the 2020 Census operation, emphasizing the importance of hiring census workers to work in the communities in which they live.
“We are offering competitive pay, flexible schedules and the opportunity for individuals to make a difference in their own communities for the next 10 years,” she said.
With a team of multicultural audience experts advising on campaign messaging and strategy, VMLY&R is the marketing communications partner for the 2020 Census. VMLY&R Strategy Director Basem Hassan explained his marketing campaign’s research process and insights.
“We are relying heavily on trusted voices in the MENA community to help ensure everyone understands what is at stake in the 2020 Census,” he said.
The Census Bureau officials were joined at the briefing by Nada Al-Hanooti, executive director of the Michigan office of Emgage, and Rima Meroueh, director of advocacy and community engagement at ACCESS, who addressed why the MENA communities should fully participate in the 2020 Census.
Al-Hanooti also encouraged Arab Americans to apply as census takers to help build confidence in the operation among the community.
No inclusion of MENA category on the census form
After the conference, The Arab American News reached out to Hassan to discuss a MENA-related census issue that has come under recent criticisms. The new census form will not include a separate MENA category, despite decades-long calls to change the bureau’s policy.
As of now, respondents will have to pick between two racial categories, White or Black, and then include their country of origin or the country of origin they choose to identify with.
Hassan said that in his nationwide research of MENA communities, he found this racial categorization to be a criticism and not necessarily a barrier to MENA populations engaging with the census.
The bureau conducted research in 2015 into the inclusion of a separate “Middle Eastern or North African” category and found including such a tick box would in fact “helps MENA respondents to more accurately report their MENA identities” and that it was optimal to use a dedicated MENA response category.
Despite these findings, the bureau did not take on MENA as a category. Hassan cautioned that this omission should not be construed as an under-representation of MENA in census data.
Race question on the 2020 Census form. Middle Eastern and North African respondents will be asked to pick a race and then include country of origin or ethnicity.
“The instruction for MENA, because we are so diverse, is to select the ethnicity that we most identify with,” he said. “When one writes their country of origin, the bureau has a way of tracking that back to a MENA category.”
“If we as a community come out en masse and be counted, it can only help,” he added. “If we’re not present and counted, it will be harder to demand that we be a tick box on future census forms.”
More information on a complete and accurate count of MENA on the 2020 Census will be released in an FAQ supplement in the coming weeks. For now, the country of origin subcategory under the race tick box is critical towards the MENA count.
The census in Dearborn
The Dearborn community came together at a Census 2020 kick-off event at the Ford Community and Performing Arts Center on Wednesday.
Dearborn’s Economic and Community Development Department Deputy Director Hassan Sheik spoke along with Dearborn Mayor Jack O’Reilly, Zaineb Hussain from Wayne United and Linda Clark, a representative from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Speakers stressed the importance of a complete count in Dearborn, helping the mayor and Wayne County achieve this count, and the importance of informing the community of the confidentiality of census data.
Wayne County residents can apply to be census takers or field representatives, both of which are hourly jobs, or salaried regional technicians.
On a hot Saturday in August, the parking lot of the Middle Eastern Immigrant and Refugee Alliance in West Ridge is filled with the sound of festivities. Kids jump in a bouncy house, Arabic pop music blares on the speakers, and a group of aunties chat as they watch over their charges. The organization, formerly known as the Iraqi Mutual Aid Society, hosts this yearly event as a way to connect the families they serve with the rest of the immigrant community.
Children gather round a foldable plastic table with a tawula set, playing a Turkish version of backgammon popular throughout the Middle East. Among them is Asal Alshammari, 11, who lives in West Ridge with her grandparents and sister. She immigrated to America with the rest of her Iraqi family after living in Dubai for nine years. Since moving to Chicago, Alshammari has been puzzled by the way Americans categorize race. “I identify myself as Middle Eastern, but [on school forms] it says I’m white, and that’s kind of confusing,” she says.
Sometimes she’ll even whip out her smartphone to show other kids at school exactly where Iraq is located: western Asia. “If someone says, ‘Oh, you’re white,’ I tell them ‘No, I’m Asian.’ But they’re always like, ‘What? You don’t seem Asian,’ because I have blue eyes from my grandpa,” she says. Alshammari wishes there were a box that was a better fit for people from countries like Iraq, Syria, and Libya, and she’s not alone.
As the 2020 U.S. Census approaches, local groups are working to ensure there’s an accurate count of their communities. But the census has never included any racial or ethnic category for Middle Eastern or North African communities. That, along with the current climate of fear surrounding immigration status, is a big challenge for folks hoping a full census count can help the community build political representation and gain access to crucial social services.
More than 20 years ago, when the federal government made major changes to the way race and ethnicity are reported on official forms, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget recommended additional testing on a category that would be called Middle Eastern North African, or MENA. Without a MENA option on the form, people from this region usually chose the white category, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 Race and Ethnicity Analysis.
In a 2015 community forum held by census officials to discuss the MENA category, participants indicated that “MENA responses should not be classified as White. They thought classifying this group as White makes them invisible in the data, even though they face discrimination in many aspects of society.”
With the support of advocacy groups like the Arab American Institute, the census bureau began testing a potential MENA category addition in 2015, and in 2017 released preliminary results that stated, “The use of a distinct Middle Eastern or North African category appears to elicit higher quality data for people who would identify with MENA.”
Despite all this, the bureau announced in 2018 that a MENA category would not be included in the 2020 census, claiming that “more research and testing is needed” since some in the MENA community felt that the designation should be treated as an ethnicity rather than a race.
“Some of us identify as white, some as Brown, some as Black,” says Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute. “We don’t necessarily need a category that reduces us to one race, but we do need visibility, inclusion, and to be seen as a group of Americans with needs and not just the focus of counterterrorism programs or political bigotry.”
With the decision made, local groups serving MENA residents in the Chicago region are now focused on ensuring that their community participates, period.
An accurate count is essential, they say, since census numbers determine the allocation of funding for services like cultural diversity training for institutions that interact with the community. Though federal funding formulas are complex, a George Washington University study in 2018 estimated that for every Illinois resident not counted, the state would lose $840 in Medicaid funding.
In Cook County, where an estimated 100,000 residents are of Middle Eastern, North African, or Southwest Asian descent according to a Los Angeles Times analysis, outreach efforts are beginning. It won’t be easy, says Imelda Salazar, an organizer for the Southwest Organizing Project, noting that many MENA residents are descended from immigrants or are immigrants themselves. Salazar says outreach to immigrants in general is difficult given the Trump administration’s policies, including increased restrictions on who can seek asylum and the executive order restricting entry of foreign nationals from some Muslim-majority countries.
“We give a lot of know-your-rights trainings and we tell people, Do not open the door [for Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents],” she says, which makes it hard to allay their anxiety about opening the door for census workers. To try to dissipate these fears, SWOP precedes many of its workshops with a conversation about current deportation and detention issues and then talks about the legally mandated confidentiality of U.S. Census data. Salazar emphasizes that “fear won’t take us anywhere” and that if “we really want to build power, we need to be counted.”
Distrust of the federal government is particularly salient in the sizable Arab American community of Bridgeview, a southwest suburb. In the 2018 documentary The Feeling of Being Watched, Bridgeview native Assia Boundaoui uncovered evidence that Muslim residents were under FBI surveillance as far back as 1985 as part of a counterintelligence effort known as Operation Vulgar Betrayal.
With Trump administration policies like the public charge rule and the Muslim ban, some people have become wary even of receiving public benefits, according to Nareman Taha, cofounder of Arab American Family Services, a nonprofit social service agency in the southwest suburbs. They’re afraid the government is collecting their personal information through the institutions that dole out benefits.
“Clients would come and say, ‘Close my file. I don’t want anything from the government. I don’t want food stamps. I don’t want medical cards,'” she says. “And these are people who are working poor, they’re eligible. . . . Imagine that detriment and the impact that had on families.”
To counteract that fear, groups like AAFS are relying on the relationships and trust built over years working within communities.
AAFS founded the Arab American Complete Count Committee, which meets at their office, and they are local members of the national Yalla Count Me In campaign—both are aimed at increasing census participation. AAFS is asking people to mark the “other” box on the form and write in “Arab” or their country of origin, in the hopes that when the Census Bureau reevaluates the MENA category there will be evidence to support its inclusion. Other groups, like the Arab American Action Network, say they have not yet decided what to recommend; they’re planning more conversations with community and national partners before making a decision.
Though race and ethnicity data in the census are rarely tied directly to federal funding, local organizations say that if the data were available, it could help them raise money from other sources and draw publicity for their work.
When Hatem Abudayyeh of the Arab American Action Network raises funds for the group’s work to protect youth against discrimination in schools, he says government representatives and donors will ask questions like, “What are the academic levels? How do they do in school? What are their literacy rates?”
“We were in a coalition with Black and Latino organizations, and they all had these stats about how Black and Latino kids were being suspended and expelled from school at much higher rates than whites for the same alleged activities,” he explains. “And we didn’t have any numbers for the Arab kids, even though anecdotally we knew that those things were happening to Arabs as well.”
Taha, at AAFS, says most of their funds come from state government, corporations, foundations, and private donors. The group has been encouraging local universities and other nonprofits to collect data using the MENA category to help them make the case for the services they provide, like domestic violence prevention and immigration legal consultation. One funder, the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, did just that, adding a MENA category to collect better health data statewide.
Some organizations rely on their own surveys or draw noncensus data from sources like Chicago Public Schools. CPS conducts an annual survey asking what languages are spoken in students’ homes, and Arabic was the third-most common non-English language in 2019, preceded only by Spanish and Cantonese, according to data City Bureau received through a public records request.
Laura Youngberg, the executive director of the Middle Eastern Immigrant and Refugee Alliance, says her group was able to use CPS data to advocate for federal and state grants that support its youth and family services. “It’s a battle of like going back to the state and saying, your data is wrong,” she says. “This is the correct data [from the school district]. This is why we deserve to have funding.”
The census category gets at “the bigger issue of, how does a community define itself and how the families define themselves,” Youngberg says. Better data around MENA communities could improve language access for Arabic-speaking people, increase visibility and political representation, and contribute to a larger sense of belonging.
Beyond the census, Taha wants to push for the MENA category at the state level, asking newly elected governor J.B. Pritzker, “How would you recognize the Arab American community? I mean, you came to us when you needed our votes.” Now, more than ever, her community needs to be counted.
Sarah Conway contributed reporting.
This report was produced by City Bureau, a civic journalism lab based in Woodlawn. Learn more and get involved at citybureau.org.
What happened in Geneva this Wednesday, in terms of finally bringing peace to Syria, could not be more significant: the first session of the Syrian Constitutional Committee.
The Syrian Constitutional Committee sprang out of a resolution passed in January 2018 in Sochi, Russia, by a body called the Syrian National Dialogue Congress.
The 150-strong committee breaks down as 50 members of the Syrian opposition, 50 representing the government in Damascus and 50 representatives of civil society. Each group named 15 experts for the meetings in Geneva, held behind closed doors.
This development is a direct consequence of the laborious Astana process – articulated by Russia, Iran and Turkey. Essential initial input came from former UN Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura. Now UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen is working as a sort of mediator.
The committee started its deliberations in Geneva in early 2019.
Crucially, there are no senior members of the administration in Damascus nor from the opposition – apart from Ahmed Farouk Arnus, who is a low-ranking diplomat with the Syrian Foreign Ministry.
Among the opposition, predictably, there are no former leaders of weaponized factions. And no “moderate rebels.” The delegates include several former and current parliament members, university rectors and journalists.
After this first round, significantly, the committee’s co-chair, Ahmad Kuzbari, said: “We hope that our next meeting could take place in our native land, in our beloved Damascus, the oldest continuously inhabited capital in history.”
Even the opposition, which is part of the committee, hopes that a political deal will be clinched next year. According to co-chair Hadi al-Bahra: “I hope that the 75th anniversary of the United Nations next year will be an opportunity to celebrate another achievement by the universal organization, namely the success of efforts under the auspices of a special envoy for political process, who will bring peace and justice to all Syrians.”
Join the patrol
The committee’s work in Geneva proceeds in parallel to ever-changing facts on the ground. These will certainly force more face-to-face negotiations between Presidents Putin and Erdogan, as Erdogan himself confirmed: “A conversation with Putin can take place any time. Everything depends on the course of events.”
“Events” seem not to be that incandescent, so far, even as Erdogan, predictably, releases the whiff of a threat in the air: “We reserve the right to resume military operation in Syria if terrorists approach at the distance of 30km to Turkey’s borders or continue attacks from any other Syrian area.”
Erdogan also said the de facto safe zone along the Turkish-Syrian border could be “expanded,” something that he would have to clear in minute detail with Moscow.
Those threats have already manifested on the ground. On Wednesday, Turkey and allied Islamist factions launched an attack against Tal Tamr, a historic Assyrian Christian enclave 50km deep inside Syrian territory – far beyond the scope of the 10km patrol zone or the 30km “safe” zone.
Poorly-armed Syrian troops pulled out under fierce attack, and with no apparent Russian cover. The Syrian military on the same day issued a public statement calling on the Syrian Democratic Forces to reintegrate under its command. The SDF has said a compromise must be reached first over semi-autonomy for the northeastern region. Thousands of residents in the meantime fled farther south to the more protected city of Hasakeh.
Two facts are absolutely crucial. The Syrian Kurds have completed their pull out ahead of schedule, as confirmed by Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu. And, this Friday, Russia and Turkey start their joint military patrols to the depth of 7km away from the border, part of the de facto safe zone in northeast Syria.
The devil in the immense details is how Ankara is going to manage the territories that it now actually controls, and to which it plans to relocate as many as 2 million Syrian refugees.
Your oil? Mine
Then there’s the nagging issue that simply won’t go away: the American drive to “secure the oil” (Trump) and “protect” Syrian oilfields (the Pentagon), for all practical purposes from Syria.
In Geneva, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov – alongside Iran’s Javad Zarif and Turkey’s Mevlut Cavusoglu – could not have been more scathing. Lavrov said Washington’s plan is “arrogant,” and violates international law. The very American presence on Syrian soil is “illegal,” he said.
All across the Global South, especially among countries in the Non-Aligned Movement, this is being interpreted, stripped to the bone, for what it is: the United States government illegally taking possession of natural resources of a third country via a military occupation.
And the Pentagon is warning that anyone attempting to contest it will be shot on sight. It remains to be seen whether the US Deep State would be willing to engage in a hot war with Russia over a few Syrian oilfields.
Under international law, the whole “securing the oil” scam is a euphemism for pillaging, pure and simple. Every single takfiri or jihadi outfit operating across the “Greater Middle East” will converge, perversely, to the same conclusion: US “efforts” across the lands of Islam are all about the oil.
Now compare that with Russia-Iran-Turkey’s active involvement in a political solution and normalization of Syria – not to mention, behind the scenes, China, which quietly donates rice and aims for widespread investment in a pacified Syria positioned as a key Eastern Mediterranean node of the New Silk Roads.
Iraq’s recent wave of protests against poverty, a lack of basic services, unemployment, and the interference of Iran in the country’s domestic affairs showed a country at the end of its tether. Official figures put the number killed in the violent crackdown of protesters at 157.
The problems for Iraq are deep-rooted and institutional, and if not addressed may yet escalate into a full-scale revolution. What’s needed is reform of the country’s 2005 constitution, which was written during a period of political instability after a war and occupation ridden by conflict. The only way for Iraq to have a chance at prosperity and peace is by addressing its flawed foundations which were heavily influenced by the occupiers.
Iraq’s 2005 constitution, which was influenced by the US, failed to create a unified, representative government. Ambiguities within the document have been abused by those in power and it has exacerbated sectarian divisions within Iraq’s politics. The constitution created a system in which public sector and government roles are allocated based on sect and ethnicity.
Iraq has become a nation that is for the few and not the many, as unrepresentative Iraqi political elites bid to share out its resources. Millions of Iraqis are left unrepresented and without prospects.
While the majority of citizens are discontented and struggling, Iraq’s elites remain fortified and continue to govern through a system known as “wasta”, which involves serving those you favour and hold close, such as friends and family. Divides along ethnic and sectarian lines remain a key theme when identifying the causes of disagreement between competing sects who unite to form political blocs in Iraq’s government.
The lengthy government formation process that takes place after elections is dependent on the division of key state institutions based on ethnic and sectarian identities. To achieve this, political parties form blocs with and against each other to achieve their goals, with the biggest becoming the governing bloc. Although Iraqi elites are divided based on ethnicity, sect and religion, this race for power – and with it the ability to distribute and share the country’s resources – creates a unity between elites.
For example, in three separate parliamentary elections since 2003, the winning candidate has not become prime minister. In the 2014 elections, Nouri al-Maliki, as the head of the State of Law coalition, won the largest number of seats in parliament, yet due to disagreements over government formation and the fight against Islamic State, he was replaced by Haider al-Abadi. In the 2018 elections, Muqtada al-Sadr’s Saairun coalition won a majority, but it was eventually Adil Abdul-Mahdi, an independent, who was chosen as prime minister.
Ministerial fiefdoms where political parties are given ministries in exchange for support to form governing blocs have created a dysfunctional government. It means there is no clear governmental strategy, which in turn severely impedes development.
The mechanics of this power-sharing system are illustrated by coalitions of oligarchs who use public institutions to distribute favours to clients. Political parties control government procurement and reconstruction contracts, who either auction them off or set up shell companies to award contracts to themselves. These contracts are then sub-contracted, or simply never fulfilled, with funds ending up being drained in the process, ultimately benefiting a narrow Iraqi elite. Iraq was ranked 168 out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s 2018 corruption perception index.
In order for Iraq to ever be able to meet the growing demands of its people and the challenges of prospering on the global stage, immediate political reform is needed. The reform process must directly address the rushed and divisive constitution. This needs to be followed by the democratisation of Iraq’s institutions and the re-creation of Iraq’s national identity so the country can escape the worst of its sectarianism and become more unified as a nation.
Without all of these issues addressed with equal importance, the cycle of adversity will continue as Iraq will remain a reactive as opposed to proactive nation.
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.
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.”
The political impasse in which Algeria has been mired for more than seven months would result in a sharp economic slowdown in the short term. This Algeria’s Political deadlock and economic breakdown that the World Bank forecasters have reached is by any means comprehensive but could be read as some sort of alert.
The institution expects non-hydrocarbon sectors, as well as all oil and gas-related activity, to run through an air hole this year; which should have some unavoidable consequences on the country’s GDP growth. In effect, in similar way to other developing countries, it is expected to come down to 1.3% in 2019 from 1.5% the previous year.
“Uncertainty policy is expected to lead to a slowdown in the non-hydrocarbon sector in 2019,” reads a World Bank report released last Thursday. The Bretton Woods institution has not failed to highlight the impact of the arrests of business leaders on investment morality grounds or lack of these, and more generally, on the economy. “Business leaders from various sectors were arrested in connection with corruption investigations, which has disrupted the economy due to sudden changes in the direction and supervision of these companies, as well as uncertainty over investment,” the same report said. Since the beginning of the crisis, a wave of arrests affected the business community, public institutions, banks and social bodies alike. This blocking situation had worsened over the weeks; appropriation sets did not meet, officials at the level of economic administration were careful not to take the slightest risk. That is to say how violent the shock wave was. The impact on the economy could be disastrous as the situation continues to worsen by the day. As such, the World Bank (WB) estimates that “the pre-election period also risks further delaying the fiscal consolidation process scheduled for 2019, increasing the budget deficit to 12.1% of GDP and increasing the risk of a more abrupt adjustment in the future.” For the WB, widening budget and current account deficits is almost inevitable. While the fiscal deficit would be unlikely to be reduced internally, “on the external front, the current account deficit is expected to widen to 8.1% of GDP, mainly due to a significantly larger trade deficit.”
Investment is being impacted
“As the course of political events is expected to have an impact on economic activity, it is also expected that more resources will be allocated to social measures, to the detriment of public investment spending,” the Bank predicts. The report, stating that “private sector activity and investment will be affected by political disruptions and an unfavourable business climate, as well as disruptions caused by delays in payment of workers in several industries.” This is the case, since the draft Finance Bill 2020 foresees a sharp decline in capital expenditure, to the tune of 20.1%, while operating expenses and social transfers are maintained as they are. WB experts are merely saying out loud what Algerian economists and operators are thinking, warning of a situation that could go along if solutions to the political impasse run out. “The delays at the end of the political impasse and political uncertainty could further damage the country’s economy, leading to increased imports and further dwindling foreign exchange reserves,” concludes the WB report. Moreover, macroeconomic indicators are unlikely to improve at any time under current political conditions.
Economic growth to only 1.9% in 2020
Moreover, against a background of falling capital spending and low morale among investors, the growth of the Algerian economy would be only 1.9% in the year 2020. A stagnation is due in particular to the “slow” growth of the hydrocarbons sector, combined with the contraction in economic activity, which has limited growth in non-hydrocarbon sectors, according to the WB’s economic monitoring report released on Thursday. “Growth in the hydrocarbon sector has been slow, with economic activity contracting by 6.5% and 7.7% in 2018 and the first quarter of 2019, respectively, partially off-sparing the effects of the slight increase in non-core growth 3.4% and 3.9% in 2018 and the first quarter of 2019, respectively,” the WB noted. The tiny increase in investment in the first half of the year (4.9%) was driven by public investment in construction, public works and hydraulics, as a result of the expansion of social housing programmes, the WB said. Furthermore, the institution believes that “the recent discovery of a new gas field suggests a rebound in gas production and exports, but only in the medium term, and if and only if the framework for investment in hydrocarbons lends it to it.” The World Bank is merely bringing water to the government’s mill, which has called the enactment of the new hydrocarbon law urgent.
Streets demonstrations in the vast and populous countries of the MENA region’s Algiers, Khartoum, Cairo and finally, Bagdad chasing some long-time running democratic awakening appear to be stalling. However, these capital cities of the so-called republics’ populations seem to be going through a quasi-general disenchantment with their respective establishments because of all the prospects for future development in political and security terms have become uncertain given this sudden but not surprising worsening regional situation. Like throughout all these countries, Iraq protests expose the fallacy of the country’s democracy. Technological advances in the world and their penetration in the MENA region could definitely be behind all these upheavals.
Whether these media as social or just digital distribution of news, they did help to connect citizens and build linkage to an unprecedented level. Government organisations always in desperate need of credibility fell short to keep up with how fast the region’s peoples demands of more democracy, etc. This article elaborates on the specifics of Iraq’s.
Violent crackdown against Iraq protests expose fallacy of the country’s democracy
When Muhanad Habib, a 22-year-old Iraqi from the Sadr City district of Baghdad, posted on Facebook in late September, he probably didn’t imagine that his demands for a better life and basic rights would be met with bullets.
It will be a huge and angry public revolution in Baghdad … We will take to the streets protesting … Enough silence about what’s going on in Iraq. We cannot just watch Iraq being destroyed when we have armies of jobless and poor.
This was how it all started. Angry youth from Baghdad took to the streets. Unaffiliated with any political party or with well-known activists, the protesters – the majority of whom were born in the late 1990s or early 2000s – despaired about any prospect for change in Iraq.
Yet, Salih’s statement raised questions about who is actually running the Iraqi state. And despite his and international condemnation, the crackdown continues on the ground.
Calls for a homeland
Endemic corruption, unemployment, flawed institutions and poor public services linger in Iraq and have prompted protests since 2011, including notably in Basra in 2018. The recapture of Iraqi lands from the grip of Islamic State (IS) gave many Iraqis hope that lessons would be learnt about the repeated failures which gave rise to IS, and that those in power would take sincere steps to reform. But that hope has been diminishing every day.
The most recent protests came in the wake of multiple smaller demonstrations by different groups, including PhD graduates, doctors and engineers in September 2019.
They followed government actions that caused widespread anger. Impoverished people were outraged at a recent state campaign to destroy unlicensed properties and market stalls across Iraq, leaving many homeless and jobless.
It also followed the removal of a key general, Abdul Wahab Al Saadi, from his position as commander of the Counter-Terrorism Service, followed by his demotion to a lower post at the Ministry of Defence. The marginalisation of a figure admired for his role in the military campaign against IS enraged many Iraqis.
The new generation want a homeland. “We want a respected homeland,” and “I am taking to the streets to get my right,” were among the slogans on display during the protests. “The issue is not about water or electricity, but about a homeland,” shouted another protester.
The immediate crackdown of the protests has surprised, shocked, and shaken Iraqis. The suppression turned a protest about anti-corruption and unemployment into an uprising against the status quo and what participants see as foreign interference, particularly from Iran.
Tear gas, live ammunition, and snipers were used to quell the protesters. As one protestor put it: “They did things to us they never did to IS. They beat and insulted us. They used live fire and grenades. What have we done? All what we are asking for are our rights and all people’s rights.” The protestor’s words were used as the opening of a new rap song titled “Iran’s tails” released in the wake of the crackdown by an Iraqi expat in solidarity with the demonstrators.
The violent oppression and state’s authoritarian measures to cover up the carnage are reminiscent of the days of Baathist rule and former president Saddam Hussein’s oppression of a 1991 uprising. In 2019, such measures included an internet blackout across Iraq except in the Kurdistan region, curfews in Baghdad and other provinces in the south, and blocked roads leading to Tahrir square in Baghdad where demonstrators gathered. Comparisons were also made with IS, who also cut off the internet in Mosul when Iraqi troops were advancing to retake the city in 2016.
Offices of media agencies covering the protests were attacked and reports emerged of protesters, activists and journalists being threatened and arrested.
By disconnecting Iraqis from the outside world, the authorities in Iraq tried to control the circulation of videos that showed civilians killed in broad daylight. But they also pushed the narrative of Iran-backed political parties and officials: that “intruders” – an implicit reference to Baathists or actors backed by an external agenda – were responsible for riots. A similar narrative was echoed by Iranian media outlets to undermine the legitimacy of the protests, accusing foreign powers of being behind them, an indirect reference to the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Despite the internet blackout, which remains partially in place, footage of the live shooting at the protestors and ambulances carrying the wounded were shared on social media as some Iraqi protesters resorted to innovative methods with the help of Iraqi expats to reveal the scale of the violence.
The heartbreaking scenes caused uproar among the Iraqi diaspora who protested in several countries around the world in solidarity. But for people inside Iraq, many still don’t know the scale of the atrocities as they haven’t been able to access social media sites.
The fallacy of democracy
Since the fall of Hussein’s regime in 2003, successive governments have failed to put an end to Iraqis’ grievances. Time and again, only empty promises were made, and superficial measures taken. The electoral system has helped to produce and perpetuate a hybrid form of kleptocracy, authoritarianism and kakistocracy – a government run by the worst, or most unscrupulous people. Armed groups, tribes, foreign powers and religious clergy have all maintained this system.
The latest protests may have been suppressed but they revealed that democracy in Iraq is nothing but a facade. What sort of democratic government kills its own people, taking away their hopes and dreams? And can it still be called legitimate? Reacting indifferently to the deadly crackdown of innocent people in Iraq, the world needs to at least recognise that the root causes of Iraq’s ills are in the post-2003 system itself.