- Massive protests have swept across Lebanon for nearly a week.
- The protests started over proposed taxes on WhatsApp, among other things, but have morphed into calls for an overhaul of Lebanon’s entire political system.
- The protests have largely been peaceful, and many have described them as an unprecedented showing of unity in a country normally divided along sectarian lines.
The Situation in Lebanon
Massive protests in Lebanon entered their sixth day on Wednesday with no signs of abating.
The demonstrations started last Thursday after the government announced new taxes, including a $6 monthly fee for calls on free apps like WhatsApp.
In Lebanon, the protest quickly evolved into broader calls for economic and political reforms.
Lebanese Political System
To understand what’s going on and what the protestors are asking for, we have to take a look at Lebanon’s political system.
In Lebanon, power is spread out among the three largest religious communities: Christian, Sunni, and Shia. Because of this, the political system is very sectarian— meaning that leaders govern based on religious differences and divides.
For nearly 30 years now, that political system has largely been credited with keeping relative peace. Now, protestors are saying that it has created corruption and allowed elites to maintain power and enact policies that benefit them and make them wealthier while the rest of the people suffer.
Meanwhile, many of those policies have put Lebanon in the middle of a massive financial crisis, with some economists warning that it could face a complete economic collapse.
Lebanon also has one of the world’s highest debt to GDP ratios, and that massive debt means the government does not have as much money or resources to address social and economic problems.
Many in Lebanon’s lower and middle classes experience power and water cuts almost daily, forcing huge swaths of people to pay high fees to access private generators and buy bottled water.
Even when the water is on, it is highly polluted due to a trash crisis that started in 2015 and has never been fully resolved.
Unemployment is also very high, especially among young people, and many are also upset that the ruling elite have done little to stop forest fires that have been raging all over the country in recent weeks.
On top of everything, Lebanon has a massive population of Syrian refugees, which is currently estimated at 1.5 million. That number could grow as hundreds of thousands are of people in Northern Syria are being forced to flee due to the Turkish incursion.
Protests Ramp Up
Although many have been upset for a while, Lebanon’s politicians have used sectarianism to control their populations and prevent different religious groups from unifying against them.
All of that now seems to have changed.
While smaller protests have gone on throughout Lebanon for weeks now, the government’s decision to raise and implement more taxes seems to be the straw that broke the camels back.
Many perceived the move as the elites— who have done nothing to help people already paying tons of money for basic services in the midst of an economic crisis— basically telling the general population to give them more money.
During the first few days of protests, thousands of people in cities all over the country came out to demonstrate. Young people, most of whom were men according to reports, protested by lighting fires, smashing windows, and chanting against the government.
Protestors reportedly clashed with police, who responded with tear gas. The government quickly scrapped the WhatsApp tax after the protest started, but it was too late.
A New Kind of Protests
Things started to change Saturday when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets all over the country for peaceful protests— the largest Lebanon has seen for nearly 15 years.
People usually divided along sectarian lines have come together to demonstrate against their own leaders, calling for them to step down and for a wholesale change of the political system.
Those protests were different from other recent protests all over the world. For one, the peaceful demonstrations that started Saturday and have continued ever since are just that— peaceful.
There have been few reports of any violence at all, both among protestors and with the police. In fact, many protestors and reporters on the ground have described the demonstrations as a huge celebration largely marked by hope and joy.
“I feel euphoric,” One protestor in the capital city Beruit told NPR. “For the first time, I see the people of my country standing united together against this tyranny. I’m very proud to say I’m Lebanese because the Lebanese people are not scared anymore.”
Despite the hope and optimism, the underlying anger and frustration that brought the Lebanese people together of course still remains.
Government Response & Continued Protests
In response to the protests, several government ministers and deputies have reportedly stepped down.
On Monday, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced a list of reforms which included: no new taxes, cutting government officials’ salaries in half, privatizing the telecom industry to cut down on cellphone plan costs, overhauling the electricity sector, and eliminating some governmental bodies, among other things.
During a speech following the announcement, Hariri told the demonstrators, “Your movement is what led to these decisions that you see today.”
But protestors did not seem to buy it. Many believed it was an empty promise, while others did not want the same people who got the country into the place it is now to be the ones to try and fix the problems they largely created.
Following Hariri’s speech, thousands of people gathered outside his office in Beruit. People chanted “revolution, revolution!” and “the people want to bring down the regime!”
With the protests still ongoing, the mood reportedly still seems optimistic. However, many are watching carefully to see what happens next and if that mood will change.
Regardless, this is a huge deal and an unprecedented showing of unity among different groups of people in Lebanon.
France Denies Claim That It Planned to Track Muslim Children After Misinformation Goes Viral
- Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Human Rights, Shireen Mazari, repeated a false claim on Saturday that went viral after French President Emmanuel Macron proposed a new law last week.
- That law is meant to help eradicate terrorist radicalization by restricting homeschooling and by assigning all children ID numbers that allow their attendance in school to be tracked. The false claim states that only Muslim children will be given ID numbers and tracked.
- On Sunday, Mazari retracted her comment and admitted that it was inaccurate.
- Macron’s recent comments regarding terrorism and Islam, as well as his attempts to use the law to crack down on “Islamic separatism,” have drawn strong condemnation from Muslim-majority countries and Islamic groups.
France Propose ID System for Students
France’s foreign ministry had to clarify a proposed law on Sunday after a false claim regarding it went viral and was later propped up by Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Human Rights.
That claim alleges France is proposing to identify and track only Muslim children in the country. In reality, the law France has proposed would not single out Muslim students.
Instead, it would give every child a student identification number that would then be used to track their attendance in school. According to French President Emmanuel Macron, who outlined the details of the law last week, this is meant to help eradicate terrorism in the name of Islam, which he described as “Islamic separatism.”
Public school students already receive an identification number in France. If this bill were to become law, it would expand the system to include private school students, as well as homeschool students.
Another provision of this bill would place major restrictions on homeschooling, so much so that it would only be granted in limited exceptions. Macron has justified this portion of the bill by saying that children who are homeschooled are in danger of being radicalized.
He’s also said that children from super conservative Muslim families are being removed from school, as well as being indoctrinated at sporting and cultural associations.
In October, France suffered three major terrorist attacks — including the beheading of a teacher, the killing of three at a church in Nice, and the shooting of a priest in Lyon. Since 2015, in total, 276 people have been killed in 72 terrorist attacks in France. That includes 12 who were killed in a 2015 attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo after it published cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.
False Claim Goes Viral
The facts behind this proposed law were already fairly controversial, even among non-Muslim groups; however, the matter quickly escalated once the false claim concerning Muslim children hit the internet.
Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Human Rights, Shireen Mazari, contributed to that spread on Saturday when she claimed on Twitter that, “Macron is doing to Muslims what the Nazis did to the Jews – Muslim children will get ID numbers (other children won’t) just as Jews were forced to wear the yellow star on their clothing for identification.”
In that tweet, Mazari also linked to an article that backed up the false claim.
On Sunday, Mazari continued to condemn France and Macron, despite the French foreign ministry’s attempts to correct the misinformation she had tweeted.
Earlier, it had denounced her comments as full of “blatant lies, imbued with an ideology of hatred and violence.”
“Such slanderous comments are disgraceful at such a level of responsibility,” it added. “We reject them strongly.”
“Pakistan much rectify this statement and return to the path of dialogue based on respect.”
France Sets the Record Straight
On Sunday, the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs explained that the bill is not targeted at Muslim children.
“Any so-called information pertaining to alleged intent to register children being schooled in France based on religion, belief or origin, is absolutely false,” it said on Twitter.
“It is, if anything, a mean to combat any sort of discrimination which has no place in France,” it added.
Following a letter from the French Envoy to Pakistan, which included an updated correction in the article Mazari had cited, Mazari finally walked back her claims. In addition to noting that the article has now been updated to reflect the fact that this bill is aimed at all children, not just Muslim ones, she also deleted her original tweet.
France’s Relationship With the Muslim World
As Business Insider noted, this is just “the latest episode in a tense feud between France and the Muslim world that has been brewing for the past five years.”
In fact, just last month, Macron called Islam “a religion in crisis all over the world.” He said the introduction of new laws would help prevent radicalization.
Those comments then led to a number of majority-Muslim countries calling for a boycott of French goods.
“What is Macron’s problem with Islam?” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said. “What is his problem with Muslims?”
Erdogan added that Macron needs “mental [health] checks.”
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said Macron had “attacked Islam” and “hurt the sentiments of millions of Muslims in Europe and across the world.”
Macron is an ardent defender of secularism (i.e. the separation of church and state). While he said that he understands Muslim people’s frustration and anger over physical depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, he’s stressed that such depictions are fully legal.
“I will always defend in my country the freedom to speak, to write, to think, to draw,” Macron said earlier this month.
The French cabinet will hear the school identification bill on Dec. 9.
See what others are saying: (Aljazeera) (Business Insider) (NBC News)
Thai Pro-Democracy Protesters Shot After Clashes With Police and Royalists Near Parliament Grounds
- Dozens of pro-democracy protesters were hurt during clashes with police and royalist counter-protesters Tuesday night.
- Protesters were demanding the removal of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha and are frustrated that lawmakers hadn’t voted on draft amendments to the constitution.
- Other demands included calls for widespread electoral reform as well as changes to Thailand’s notoriously draconian lese-majeste laws, which criminalize any speech about the royal family.
- Thailand’s current electoral system was set up after a coup d’etat in 2014, which led to a military-drafted constitution in 2017 that left the army with many executive and legislative powers.
- The system led Prayut, the leader of the 2014 coup, to retain the Prime Ministership in 2019, despite only getting about 24% of the votes.
Thai Protests Dramatically Escalate
Nearly 50 protesters were injured in Thailand Tuesday night after police used tear gas, water cannons, and allegedly fired shots into a demonstration attempting to enter Parliament grounds.
Police say they never fired any shots into the crowd, neither live ammunition nor rubber bullets, despite a viral video indicating they may have. Regardless, police promised to investigate the shooting.
Pro-democracy protesters, police, and royalist supporters clashed over draft constitutional amendments that Thai lawmakers agreed to debate between Tuesday and Wednesday.
Royalists say these changes to the constitution would undermine it and the stability the Thai military sought after initiating a coup d’etat in 2014. Pro-democracy protesters were frustrated both because the amendments don’t go far enough to address their concerns over the current electoral system and because lawmakers didn’t put any of the amendments to a vote last night.
The Party King of Thailand
At the heart of the protest are two issues: the monarchy and democracy itself.
In Thailand, the monarchy is generally well-liked and highly revered, with the royal court refusing to interfere with politics as it is ‘beneath’ them.
However, there are still things for Thais to criticize that they can’t because of extremely strict lese-majeste laws. These laws criminalize any speech about the royal family, particularly the king, with hefty fines and upwards of 15-years in prison.
To understand how strictly these laws are adhered to, take the story of the first wife to the current king, King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun.
He sought a divorce, and she refused to agree to it, so he took her to court and blamed her for the dysfunctionality of the marriage. Because of the lese-majeste laws, she couldn’t defend herself as it would mean accusing the then-crown prince of doing something wrong, meaning she lost by default.
A dissolved marriage is hardly a rallying cry for protesters, but his other actions have led many Thais to say he debases the monarchy and is an embarrassment. In particular, King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun has a reputation as a partier and womanizer. He rarely spends time in Thailand, and in 2020 has spent just about 16 days in the country, despite widespread unrest and destabilization. He spends most of his time in Germany.
He has been married multiple times, not uncommon in traditional royal marriages as alliances with lords and dukes are reforged. However, that system of marriage hasn’t been necessary or used for about 100 years, since Thailand transformed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one.
Even so, the king has brought back another relic from Thailand’s royal past; a Royal Noble Consort. In the past, such a consort was another method (and form of polygamy) that allowed the royalty to retain alliances with important families in Thailand. His current consort isn’t generally disliked as a person herself, but the institution is considered backward in modern Thailand and a possible way for the king to assert his royal authority.
The Royal Noble Consort, Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi –a former army officer– gained the role shortly after his coronation and just months after the king married Suthida Bajrasudhabimalalakshana, another former army officer. Sineenat faced trouble at court, was exiled, and completely disappeared from the public eye, sparking rumors of imprisonment or death before reappearing in the king’s good graces in August 2020 and regaining her titles.
His treatment of the consort has led Thais to wish they could criticize such actions without facing severe jail time. On top of this, the king has been known to take photos that don’t look “kingly.” For example, he was filmed in Germany shopping in a crop top and was later photographed in Germany with Queen Suthida, before their marriage, in a short crop top and pants low sitting pants.
Is Thailand Democratic?
Despite the king’s antics, the fulcrum of the protests is really the issue of democracy in Thailand.
Currently, Thailand is ruled by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who protesters claim has an illegitimate hold on power and is incompetent.
Prayut is a former general and first came into power after he and the army staged a coup d’etat in 2014 after six months of political deadlock and tensions in the country. The army took over executive and legislative functions, and in 2017, they repealed almost all of the former constitution and made a new one.
In 2019, Thailand held elections for the first time since the coup, elections which were based on the 2017 constitution and decried as fundamentally undemocratic.
The 2017 Constitution, made by the military, changed how voting is done in Thailand. It made a system and gerrymandered maps that would heavily favor their preferred candidates. The system helped Prayut win the Prime Ministership with just under 24% of the votes and less than half of the seats in the House of Representatives.
Such a result was possible because the 2017 constitution still gives the military many overarching power, and part of that includes choosing all 250 members of the Senate. Those senators, along with the House’s representatives are who choose the Prime Minister, meaning that even though most Thais didn’t want Prayut in charge and his party didn’t hold the majority in the House, he was still the man who won.
This system has been the catalysts for the last five months of protests and calls for reform. Additionally, some groups also push for changes relating to education and LGBTQ+ rights.
Politicians are expected to continue debate over constitutional changes into Wednesday night. Any votes made won’t be confirmed until another vote a month from now, which gives times for lawmakers to reconsider and will likely sparking further protests.
Another possibility is that lawmakers set up a committee to draft a new constitution, which could take between months and a year. Such a move could sap the energy from pro-democracy protests as such committees often take between a month and a year to release a draft version.
See what others are saying: (DW) (Associated Press) (The Guardian)
A “Full-Scale Humanitarian Crisis” is Unfolding in Ethiopia Over Conflict in Tigray, UN Warns
- Ethiopia is engaged in a conflict with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, a former ruling party that controls the Tigray region.
- The fighting stemmed from rising ethnic tensions and the TPLF holding an election despite a central government ban because of COVID-19.
- TPLF then attacked a military base, and the central government has responded with attacks of their own. The conflict could soon escalate as Ethiopian forces head towards the Tigray capital of Mekelle.
- The fighting has already created tens of thousands of refugees, with that number expected to rise.
- The TPLF has considerable military strength of its own, so it’s likely there will be many military casualties in the coming days.
Growing Humanitarian Crisis
The U.N. Commissioner on Human Rights warned Tuesday morning that fighting in the Tigray region of Ethiopia could be a “full-scale humanitarian crisis.”
Fighting began on November 4 after the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) attacked an Ethiopian military base near the local capital of Mekelle. Tensions between the TPLF and the central government have been strained as of late. The TPLF, which has widespread support in Tigray, held elections in September in defiance of a central government order against doing so because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The conflict has created tens of thousands of refugees to date, with the U.N. saying at least 27,000 Tigrayans have arrived in neighboring Sudan as a result of fighting in western Tigray. Additionally, both sides accuse the other of human rights violations. Amnesty International has released details of some atrocities; such as the stabbing and hacking to death of 500 civilians.
Local witnesses told Amnesty International that the atrocities were conducted by TPLF forces, while they accuse the Ethiopian army of conducting the attack and welcome an independent investigation. Amnesty International couldn’t verify the claims as telecommunications and internet are currently cut off in Tigray, according to NetBlocks, which monitors internet-access around the world.
One refugee described a similar attack to Al Jazeera, saying, “These people are coming with knives and sticks, wanting to attack citizens. And behind them is the Ethiopian army with tanks. The knives and the sticks aren’t the problem, it’s the tanks.”
“They struck and burned the entire place.”
Civil War on the Horizon
The conflict threatens to grow to a possible civil war in Ethiopia, as a temporary halt to hostilities was ended Tuesday. That move came after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced on Facebook that the TLPF leadership failed to meet a three-day deadline to surrender.
“The final critical act of law enforcement will be done in the coming days,” he added.
That “final critical act of law enforcement” includes airstrikes on alleged military targets near Mekelle, although there are widespread reports of civilian casualties. The casualties will likely escalate as fighting increases. Until this point, fighting has been relatively light as TPLF forces pull back to more defensible positions and more favorable mountainous terrain.
Unlike many militias around the world, the TPLF is heavily armed and experienced. For decades it was the dominant party in Ethiopian politics before the rise of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. When Abiy formed a new coalition government, the TPLF declined to join, preferring regional power structures over Abiy’s push for a centralized government.
Tigrayan and TPLF members made up the majority of Ethiopia’s army, and their forces gained valuable combat experience against Eritrea in a decades-long conflict. Additionally, Tigray was the region where much of the fighting took place, meaning many important military installations and materiel are located there.
Ethiopia, for its part, does have a major advantage in man power and access to more advanced weaponry, such as the Ethiopian Air Force.
Many leaders fear that the conflict could destabilize the region, especially as the TPLF has openly admitted to bombing an Eritrean airport. Ethopia and Eritrea just ended their long time conflict in 2019, something Abiy won a Nobel Peace Prize for.
Leaders from nearby Uganda and Kenya are both calling for peace and negotiations, but that seems unlikely. Ethiopian war goals include the TPLF handing over its top leadership. Minister of Democratization Zadig Abraha told Al Jazeera, “The TPLF raided our Northern Command, it looted our artillery, and it also surrounded our soldiers and taken hostage of them. What government would possibly negotiate [after all that]?”
While TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael said on Tuesday, “This campaign cannot be finished. As long as the army of the invaders is in our land, the fight will continue. They cannot keep us silent by military force.”