Lebanon Daily News Brief 11/20/20

DAILY NEWS


Alvarez & Marsal Terminates Contract to Conduct BDL Forensic Auditing
The Daily Star

Lebanon Hires Firm to Clear Dangerous Material From Shattered Beirut Port
Reuters

Israel Accuses Lebanon of Changing Stance on Maritime Border
Naharnet

 

OPINION & ANALYSIS


The Same Old Song in Lebanon – Who’s Left to Trust?
Jean AbiNader

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans.

The Same Old Song in Lebanon – Who’s Left to Trust?

It is dispiriting to have to write AGAIN that while the people of Lebanon increasingly suffer from multiple crises, or as US Ambassador Dorothy Shea said, “They are now beyond that, they are catastrophes,” the powers-that-be continue to drive the country into failure. The most recent indication of their disregard for the welfare of the people is the handling of the investigation at the Port of Beirut.

The FBI has already submitted an inconclusive report, and details are not yet public from the French investigation. But as was noted previously, both investigations were stymied by the government which limited their scope and depth by excluding senior officials and putting the focus on the blast itself and not the security or political conditions that allowed the situation to occur in the first place. Concerns about corruption, unanswered questions about the owners of the shipment, the details of the origination and destination of the ammonium nitrate, and whether or not the entire contents were at the Port or if some had been siphoned off over time, are left unanswered.

Of course, there has been no formal follow up of the various theories as to what the combustible material was doing there in the first place: if it was feedstock for bomb-making, if there was complicity or at least willful ignorance on the part of officials from the security agencies and LAF that have facilities at the Port, if it was ignited by some external foreign or domestic party, or any of the many conspiracies that linger around the disaster story.

Two stories this week bring up the latest missteps in ongoing investigations. The first concerns the classified report from Lebanon’s elite Information Branch intelligence agency, which is a branch of the Internal Security Forces (ISF). It found many state officials and security agencies responsible for the August 4th explosion that killed almost 200 people, injured more than 6,500, left more than 300,000 homeless, and caused damages reported to exceed $8 million to repair. The 350-page report was prepared by the Information Branch, military police, and investigators from the judiciary.

The report allegedly blames the Beirut Port Authority and Customs for leaving the ammonium nitrate in unsafe conditions for almost seven years. Badri Daher and Shafik Merhi, current and former heads of customs, are particularly named since they could have acted on their own to remove the chemical, a charge they are contesting. Others under scrutiny are the Cases Authority which represents the government, the directorate of land and maritime transport at the Ministry of Public Works which oversees the port, and Army Intelligence and the State Security agency, both of which have offices at the port.

While some 25 low- and mid-level administrative and security officials have been detained in connection with the explosion, current and former ministers and security chiefs were questioned as “witnesses” rather than as suspects. This was the decision of the lead investigator Judge Fadi Sawan despite the claim that many top officials – including ministers of finance, public works, and justice and Lebanon’s president and prime minister – knew of the presence of the volatile materials.

This was the same procedure followed in the Information Branch report which did not hold any current or former ministers responsible. The judge claims that they are out of his reach due to the immunity from prosecution enjoyed by top officials. Despite the deaths and damage, those who have been detained are charged with willful neglect, punishable by a maximum five-year prison sentence. To add to the confusing nature of the investigation, Judge Sawan took issue with the conclusions in the Information Branch report that assigned responsibilities for the explosion, which he considered his prerogative as lead investigator. The expectation is that the French report will also be limited to lower level officials.

It was noted by the media that Sawan was the third choice for lead investigator into the explosion. “The council of judges that picked him was majority-appointed by Lebanon’s executive branch. They rejected the justice minister’s initial proposal to have a judge known for his independence lead the investigation.”

Meanwhile, many survivors of the explosion and the families of victims have called for some form of an international investigation into the explosion, as have groups such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Legal Action Worldwide (LAW), and the Beirut Bar Association. They said an international probe is the only way to ensure accountability, given the politically exposed nature of Lebanon’s courts.

Not to be settled anytime soon

The investigation into the Central Bank is also running into obstacles, according to a Naharnet.com article. Prosecutor Ghada Aoun took the Special Investigation Commission at the Central Bank of Lebanon to task for impeding her investigation. “The Special Investigation Commission is being exploited. It has not responded to my request a year ago for a statement of account,” said Aoun in telephone remarks. She asked the SIC for a statement of account disclosing the banking secrecy of fuel importing companies and a number of persons involved in the case of the fuel import fraud. “The Commission is the most important body to detect corruption and theft of public funds but it fails to attend to its responsibilities,” she said, accusing it of “procrastination on this issue.” So, sadly, there is nothing new in Lebanon as winter approaches and poverty and despair are on the increase.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon.

Lebanon Daily News Brief 11/13/20

DAILY NEWS


Beirut Explosion: 100 Days On, Calls Grow for International Inquiry
Michael Safi
The Guardian

Msharrafieh: Lebanon’s Refugee Plan Adopted at Damascus Conference
Naharnet

Lebanese Pound Falls Due to Uncertain French Envoy Talks
The Daily Star

OPINION & ANALYSIS


How the Biden Administration Will Impact Middle East Economies
Amjad Ahmad
Atlantic Council

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans.

Lebanon Daily News Brief 11/11/20

DAILY NEWS


Lebanon, Israel in Third Round of Sea Border Talks
Arab News

Frantic Search After Medicines Vanish from Lebanon Shelves
Sarah El Deeb
Associated Press

Lebanon Appeals to International Community to Help Return Refugees
Naharnet

Lebanon Will Give Monthly Cash to Families Until the End of 2020
Hussein Yassine
The 961

OPINION & ANALYSIS


Will a Biden Administration “Build Back Better” in the Middle East?
Sarah El-Shaarawi interviews Rami Khouri
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP)

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans.

Managing Resources – Policy Challenges in Lebanon

One of the subtexts in concerns of the demonstrators in Lebanon is the exploitation of public lands and general disregard for environmental protections. Despite decades of warnings by various NGOs and international organizations, Lebanon’s leadership continues to allow wide-spread illegal use of public lands, especially beachfront property. They allegedly profit from awarding licenses that contravene existing land-use statutes and take shares in companies that are ruining coastlines, highways, mountains, valleys, and waterways throughout the country.

This environmental degradation and misuse, as well as the lack of investment in water management including recycling and treatment, has left the Lebanese people with an age-old solution – purchase drinking water from retailers and wholesalers at high prices, now almost unreachable due to the fall in the value of the lira. A study from the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut (AUB), noted that “Gaps in the public sector have allowed the rapid growth of private water providers: 75% of water expenditures by citizens, or $300 million, goes towards feeding the private sector [suppliers].”

The explosions at Beirut Port only exacerbated an already deteriorating situation. According to a UN press statement, “Jihan Seoud, Energy and Environment Program Manager at the UN Development Program’s (UNDP) Lebanon office, described the impact of the explosion as a major concern, particularly as Beirut’s environment was already ‘in a dismal state’ before the disaster.” She went on to point out that “The destruction of the Port of Beirut has created up to 800,000 tons of construction and demolition waste in the city, and it is likely to contain hazardous chemicals, given the types of material known to be normally stored there, such as pesticides, pharmaceutical products, industrial chemicals, lead from vehicles, and various types of heavy metals.”

So in addition to the destruction of foodstuffs, medicines, and agricultural supplies, the blasts have wrought environmental havoc that will continue to affect public health for a decade. And it is not only groundwater and the seafront that is under duress. “Beirut’s waste management systems are now at breaking point, with one of the two plants serving the city severely damaged in the blast, as more goes directly to landfill sites, one of which is nearly full. Ms. Seoud told reporters that the city could be facing another municipal solid waste crisis soon if this issue is not resolved,” according to the UN statement.

Even before the extensive damage in the port area, urban planners and environmental professionals have been producing studies on the need for infrastructure rehabilitation and reconstruction that takes into consideration a holistic approach to urban design. Experts are recommending that Beirut and other municipalities are rebuilt in a transparent, inclusive, and accountable manner that balances needed investments in sustainable quality living standards as well as commercial and transportation priorities.

The recommendations include being mindful of the environment by taking into consideration elements such as solar power, energy efficiency measures, and climate-resilient building designs. These proposals dovetail with a recent study by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) showing that Lebanon has the potential to produce 10 times the amount of energy it’s currently producing. The study estimates that Lebanon has the ability to generate around 30% of its total energy needs by making use of its available renewable energy sources. Not only is Lebanon’s energy sector in its current state very uneconomical and ineffective, but its heavy reliance on private generators is also exacerbating a serious air pollution problem.

As is commonplace in Lebanon, there are existing studies going back more than 10 years that promote investments in renewable energy. “However, even though local studies confirmed that Lebanon has plenty of alternative energy sources that can be used to effectively produce 12% of basic local needs by 2020 – and 30% by 2030 – not much progress has been made in that regard,” according to the same study.

The 2018 CEDRE donors’ conference included approximately 250 projects in the electricity, water, and waste management sectors requiring an investment of some $16 billion over the next 12 years. They are awaiting the outcome of forming a new government to make the reforms needed to tap into IMF and CEDRE funding.

Current projects are also stymied by the lack of transparent governance. The most recent case is the World Bank withdrawing funding for the Bisri Dam project southwest of Beirut. First approved for a $617 million loan from the World Bank in 2014, it was planned to provide reliable water to over 1.6 million people in the Greater Beirut/Mount Lebanon area. Although supported by the political elites, it was vociferously opposed by environmentalists and local residents fearing irreversible damage to the region’s rich ecosystem.

Saroj Kumar Jha, World Bank Mashreq regional director, said that “Given strong stakeholder concerns about the [Bisri Dam] Project, the World Bank has requested the Government of Lebanon to launch an open and transparent public dialogue to address the concerns raised by citizens and civil society groups.” He also announced the re-channeling of $45.5m from two other projects’ funding to help with Lebanon’s efforts to combat the coronavirus outbreak which – compounded by the ongoing economic crisis – has trapped the country in an “unprecedented crisis.”

Without a government committed to widespread and serious reforms including transparency and an independent judiciary, it will become more challenging to secure any international support to remedy Lebanon’s economic and environmental disaster. For a country once called the Paris of the Middle East, it is truly a setback of massive proportions.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon.

Lebanon Daily News Brief 11/10/20

DAILY NEWS


Lebanon to Go Under Full Lockdown from Saturday: Diab
The Daily Star

Food and Cash Aid is Vital if Lebanon Goes Back into Lockdown
Aya Majzoub
Human Rights Watch

Lebanon Central Bank Plans to Introduce Digital Currency in 2021
Dana Khraiche
Bloomberg

Shea Says Bassil Told Her of His ‘Willingness to Break with Hezbollah’
Naharnet

OPINION & ANALYSIS


Lebanon’s Outlook and What Has Happened to the Country’s Media
Sarah El-Shaarawi interviews Rami Khouri
Arab Media & Society

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans.

Lebanon Daily News Brief 11/9/20

DAILY NEWS


Lebanon’s Bassil Rejects US Sanctions as Unjust and Politically Motivated
Reuters

More Lebanese Officials to Face Sanctions After Gebran Bassil
Ephrem Kossaify
Arab News

Hassan Says Full Lockdown ‘Crucial’ to Strengthen Healthcare Capabilities
Timour Azhari
Naharnet

Study Reveals Lebanon can Produce Ten Times the Energy it Does Today
Hussein Yassine
The 961

OPINION & ANALYSIS


Deconstructing the Lebanese Central Bank’s Ponzi Scheme
The Economist

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans.

This Week in Lebanon

NOVEMBER 7, 2020
Lebanon’s Medicine Shortage
Basic Good Subsidies to Cease
Beirut Port Silos to be Demolished

 

Lebanon’s Medicine Shortage
In the midst of a severe economic crisis, Lebanon is facing a medicine shortage. A warning from the central bank regarding shortages of hard currency for essential imports like medicine has triggered panic buying while both patients and wholesalers stockpile medicines. The health ministry recently requested pharmacists to limit sales to keep important medicines on the shelves. (Financial Times)

ANALYSIS

“The outpouring of compassion and support for the Lebanese people following the disastrous August 4th explosion has been remarkable. The Lebanese American community and several US NGOs have donated more than $30M in medicine and medical supplies so far, with more on the way. This is now proving to be a long term need that must continue in the months ahead. It is important for the government to stand aside while we carry on this people-to-people exchange through trusted NGOs in the US and Lebanon. Roadblocks and threats of taxation by the Lebanese government are disheartening. Again, the Lebanese Armed Forces have stepped in to ensure that the people of Lebanon receive the badly needed supplies donated by US communities.”
-ATFL President Edward M. Gabriel


Subsidies on Basic Commodities to Cease After 2020
Lebanon’s central bank lift subsidies on basic commodities by the end of this year. Lebanese are concerned about prices of goods like fuel, medicine and flour as an increasing percentage of the population faces poverty. Economists say that Lebanon needs between $600 and $800 million per month to import these goods. Central bank governor Riad Salameh has announced that the bank will not be able to continue subsidies for these basic commodities beyond the end of 2020. (Al-Monitor)

ANALYSIS

“With inflation soaring to more than 120%, goods rising to 370%, the poor accounting for more than 55% of the population, and extreme poverty tripling in the past year to 23%, Lebanon is in deep crisis. Subsidies on wheat, fuel, and medicine were across the board and not apportioned according to need. Now the country’s foreign reserves are at a disastrous point and subsidies will end this year. Lebanon’s economy is a shadow of its former self and there is still no leadership to enact needed reforms.”
-ATFL Policy Director Jean AbiNader


Beirut Port Silos to be Demolished
Caretaker Economy Minister Raoul Nehme announced that the Port of Beirut silos will be demolished following the damage incurred by the August 4th explosion. The silos are at high risk of collapse and because of their endangerment to pubic safety they will be torn down. After the ruined grains are removed, the silo structures will be demolished by the Lebanese Army in coordination with engineers in Lebanon and abroad. (The 961)

ANALYSIS

“Without the solid structures that made up the port silos, the devastation of August 4 would have been far greater. Now what’s left must be torn down due to structural damage. Will the leadership manage to let this go forward without arguing about how to divvy up the contracts while Beirut burns? It is a dilemma for the incoming Prime Minister how to assemble a government committed to Lebanon’s future and able to be effective in implementing reforms.”
-ATFL Policy Director Jean AbiNader

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans.

Lebanon Daily News Brief 11/6/20

DAILY NEWS


The United States Designates Lebanese Political Leader Gebran Bassil
Secretary Mike Pompeo
US State Department

Lebanon Customs Chief Formally Arrested in ‘Captagon Prince’ Case
Timour Azhari
Al Jazeera

Lebanon will Demolish Beirut Port Silos that Protected the Rest of Beirut
Hussein Yassine
The 961

Geagea Says Hariri Using Same Old Approach in Formation Process
Naharnet

Lebanon’s Rami Kadi Named UN Goodwill Ambassador for Sustainable Fashion
Arab News

OPINION & ANALYSIS


Deconstructing the Lebanese Central Bank’s Ponzi Scheme
The Economist

Contentious Path for Lebanon’s Forensic Audit
Jean AbiNader

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans.

Lebanon Daily News Brief 11/5/20

DAILY NEWS


Lebanon Gets More Time to Meet Audit Demand by Creditors
France 24

Syrian Refugee Sets Himself Ablaze Outside UN Offices in Beirut
Naharnet

Syria’s Assad Says Billions Locked in Troubled Lebanese Banks Behind Economic Crisis
Suleiman Al-Khalidi
Reuters

OPINION & ANALYSIS


Contentious Path for Lebanon’s Forensic Audit
Jean AbiNader

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans.