Lebanese voters are signalling a desire for change

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Lebanese voters are signalling a desire for change as generally witnessed and felt by all after the country’s latest parliamentary elections. 

Lebanese election sees significant gains for independent non-sectarian politicians

By John Nagle, Queen’s University Belfast and Tamirace Fakhoury, Aalborg University

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.

Relatives of victims of the August 2020 Beirut port blast carry their pictures during a protest near the port. Reuters/Alamy

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.

In recent years, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese have voiced dissent by taking to the streets to demand an end to the state’s corrupt leaders, branded by protesters as “thieves”.

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.

John Nagle, Professor in Sociology, Queen’s University Belfast and Tamirace Fakhoury, Associate Professor of Political Science, Aalborg University

Read the original article.

On my radar: Marwa al-Sabouni’s cultural highlights

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On my radar: Marwa al-Sabouni’s cultural highlights

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

Marwa al-Sabouni

Marwa al-Sabouni is a Syrian architect and writer. Born in Homs in 1981, she was living in the city when the civil war broke out in 2011 and remained there with her young family throughout the worst bombardments. In her memoir The Battle for Home, published in 2016, al-Sabouni wrote about the vital role that architecture plays in the functioning of society and how Syria’s future could be shaped by its built environment. In 2021, she published a second book, Building for Hope: Towards an Architecture of Belonging. Al-Sabouni is guest co-director of this year’s Brighton festival, which runs until 29 May.

1. Film

Belfast (Dir Kenneth Branagh, 2021)

From left: Caitriona Balfe, Jude Hill, Lewis McAskie and Jamie Dornan in Belfast. Photograph: Rob Youngson/Focus Features

 

 

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.

 

2. Novel

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.

3. Sport

Homs Equestrian Club

Marwa al-Sabouni’s horse Salah al-Din, a Syrian Arab.

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.

4. TV

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey (Apple TV+)

Dominique Fishback and Samuel L Jackson in The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey. Photograph: TCD/DB/Alamy

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.

5. Music

Georges Wassouf

Watch a video for Georges Wassouf’s Ya Al Zaman.

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.

6. Restaurant

Naranj, Damascus

Naranj restaurant in Damascus. Photograph: Peter Horree/Alamy

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 Guardian

 

How will MENA countries hit FDI targets? 

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Emerging market investments are shrinking. How will MENA countries hit FDI targets? 

By Amjad Ahmad in Atlantic Council

As the pandemic-fuelled liquidity begins to wane and the reality of inflation and higher interest rates sets in, many economies will face considerable challenges.  Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries are vying to attract global investors and increase Foreign Direct Investment (FDI).  Yet, capital flows are reversing from emerging to developed markets—specifically in the United States, where interest rates are rising to levels not seen since 2018.  The year 2018 is illustrative: during that time, emerging markets experienced substantial capital outflows as international investors reduced their exposure and consolidated their risk into emerging economies with fewer perceived risks, given their proactive and progressive economic policies.

Attracting foreign investors into emerging market economies has always been difficult.  Nevertheless, thanks to the extended period of near-zero interest rates, emerging markets were blessed with investors hungry for higher returns. The plentiful supply of money coupled with historically low yields in rich countries led investors to explore higher yields in riskier markets across various assets, including public equities, public debt, private equity, and venture capital.  The lower cost of capital allowed investors to finance opportunities that otherwise would have been unfeasible.

Unfortunately, the party is over, and the pain is just beginning.  The US Federal Reserve has started an aggressive interest rate hiking campaign, which will likely be the sharpest rise in interest rates since former chair of the Federal Reserve Paul Volcker’s war on inflation from 1979 to 1982.  Many economists believe this will likely lead to a recession in the world’s biggest economy.

A US economic slowdown or a recession couldn’t come at a worse time for emerging markets, particularly those in MENA, where most are fighting chronic unemployment, especially among youth and women, slowing growth, and higher debt levels.  Large oil-exporting countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — are better positioned given heightened commodity prices. However, their lack of interest rate autonomy given the dollar peg limits their ability to deviate their monetary policy from that of the United States.

Additionally, the global demand destruction cannot be ignored as the post-pandemic surge in demand levels off, with consumers beginning to feel the pinch from inflation and rising interest rates.  This may put a damper on global energy demand and tourism. Inflation also impacts global emerging markets, causing a perfect storm for the arrival of tough economic times.  Currency depreciation against the dollar is increasing the cost of imports and repaying foreign currency debts for banks, companies, and governments, many of which racked up significant debt during the pandemic.

Research suggests that the impact of US monetary tightening on emerging markets will vary depending on the factors for the change. Interest rate hikes driven by US economic expansion will likely lead to positive spillover effects that benefit more than hurt emerging markets and, therefore, are neutral on capital flows.  On the other hand, interest rate hikes to fend off inflation will likely lead to emerging markets disruption.  Here, there are two key points to mention.  First, there is a more significant effect on emerging markets from rising interest rates due to inflation than those due to growth.  Second, emerging economies with stable domestic conditions and policies tend to fare better and experience less volatility. In a global economic environment with slower growth, higher cost of capital, and a shrinking capital pool for riskier assets, discerning international investors will consolidate their investments in the highest-quality emerging markets.

The Goldilocks moment experienced in markets over the past couple of years is subsiding.  Geopolitical risk, inflation, and US interest rates are all rising. In addition, two crucial macroeconomic trends will impact the future capital flows to emerging markets.  First, globalization policies that have focused overwhelmingly on cost efficiency and rationalization will now focus on resiliency and values-based investments.  At an Atlantic Council event on April 13, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen articulated a blueprint for US trade policy, stating, “The US would now favor the friend-shoring of supply chains to a large number of trusted countries that share a set of norms and values about how to operate in the global economy.”

Second, Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) issues are gaining more attention with countries and companies putting them on the agenda.  For an indication of what’s to come, consider Total, the French oil and gas giant, marking its shift to renewable energy and rebranding to TotalEnergies, as well as Engine No. 1, a US impact hedge fund, hijacking ExxonMobil’s board to drive a green strategy at the company.  As a result of the confluence of these complex issues on top of challenging macro-economic concerns, investor appetite for emerging market assets is weakening.  It will become more discerning in the coming years.

But all isn’t lost.  There will be divergent outcomes and risks depending on the domestic conditions of each emerging market.  Thoughtful investors will continue to seek opportunities in emerging markets, especially in private markets, where the predominant share of opportunities exists.  However, as financial conditions tighten, differentiation between emerging markets will increase. MENA countries can better position themselves amongst others competing for capital by:

  1. Attracting and empowering strong policymakers to make dynamic and bold decisions that complex changes in the global economy require. Deepening the bench of talented policymakers should be another priority.
  2. Driving policies supportive of private sector development and investment. Reducing government-owned enterprises and providing ample space for private companies to grow and prosper on an even playing field is critical to building a dynamic economy.
  3. Continuing to nurture the nascent entrepreneurial ecosystem. Entrepreneurial economies are consistently more resilient and lead to better outcomes over the long term.
  4. Enhancing regional and international economic integration through bilateral and multilateral agreements with more robust economies. Proactive engagement with multilateral financial institutions will also increase financial stability and resilience.
  5. Standardizing policies according to global norms for greater regional and international integration. Investor appetite is greatly improved in emerging markets that adopt regulations and standards from developed countries.
  6. Increasing transparency and reducing uncertainty around laws and regulations. Investors and companies need more clarity on the game’s rules in order to play it confidently and competently.

Several MENA countries continue to take bold steps to improve their global competitiveness. One such example is the privatization programs of government-owned enterprises in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE to increase liquidity in local capital markets, improve transparency, and expand private sector participation.  Those countries that maintain their momentum will be clear winners in the coming years. History is rich with evidence that economic challenges are followed by periods of historic gains.

Amjad Ahmad is Director and Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s empower ME Initiative at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.  

Twitter: @AmjadAhmadVC.

 

Iraq food protests echo early stages of the Arab Spring

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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 food protests against spiralling prices echo early stages of the Arab Spring

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.

Unrest over food prices is growing. EPA

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.

Turkey and Iran restrict exports

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.

A legacy of the US occupation of Iraq is an elitist political system. Iraq’s political leaders compete to portion out the country’s income, giving favours to friends and family.

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.

Protests start to spread

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.

Bamo Nouri, Research fellow, City, University of London

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Why is turning to Saudi Arabia for oil so controversial?

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The reasons are many but the British Prime Minister who according to the latest BBC piece of international broadcast, decided to visit some of the Gulf leaders to mainly talk about ending reliance on Russian oil and gas, will discuss energy security and other issues in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates today. But because critics have expressed concerns about the human rights records of these two countries, he pledged to also raise certain human rights issues although fostering some understanding between the Saudis and the West has always been left to the next day.

Let us here have a look at the supply of oil and gas issue that seems at this stage in contradiction with the latest world trend of distancing all advanced economies from fossil fuels.

Meanwhile, the EU leaders appear to be subtly trying to gain and eventually incorporate the aggressed nation within their ranks; it will certainly increase their “Food Power” vis a vis the rest of the world.


Why is turning to Saudi Arabia for oil so controversial?


UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has defended a trip to Saudi Arabia, saying “the widest coalition” is needed to end reliance on Russian oil and gas.

But maintaining close ties with the Gulf kingdom is controversial among critics of its human rights record.

Why is Saudi Arabia so important for oil?

The US, UK and EU have announced that they will buy less Russian oil and gas, because of its invasion of Ukraine. However, prices have rocketed.

Saudi Arabia is the largest producer in the oil cartel Opec and has the spare capacity to help lower prices by increasing supplies.

It means Western countries need its goodwill and to keep on friendly terms with its ruling family.

Read more on the BBC‘s article.

The above-featured image is for illustration and is of the BBC.

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