- 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.
E.U. and U.S. Sanction Russian Officials Over Navalny Detention
- The E.U. and U.S. coordinated new sanctions against seven Russian officials tied to the current fate of activist and Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny.
- More efforts are expected to follow, with officials claiming that 14 Russian entities tied to the manufacturing of Novichok – the rare nerve agents that supposedly poisoned Navalny – are the next to be sanctioned.
- Despite the sanctions, Biden’s administration hopes to be able to work with Russia on other world issues, such as nuclear arms in Iran and North Korea.
- Navalny himself isn’t likely to benefit from the sanctions as he’s serving a 2.5-year prison sentence in one of Russia’s most notorious penal colonies.
Coordinated Efforts by E.U. and U.S.
The U.S. and E.U. both announced coordinated sanctions against Russia Tuesday morning over the poisoning, arrest, and detention of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny.
In particular, seven senior officials are targeted by the sanctions.
- Federal Security Service Director Aleksandr Bortnikov
- Chief of the Presidential Policy Directorate Andrei Yarin
- First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office Sergei Kiriyenko
- Deputy Minister of Defense Aleksey Krivoruchko
- Deputy Minister of Defense Pavel Popov
- Federal Penitentiary Service director Alexander Kalashnikov
- Prosecutor General Igor Krasnov.
Both the E.U. and U.S. also plan to add fourteen entities that are involved in making the extremely deadly Russian nerve agent Novichok.
First Step For Biden
These sanctions are the first such action by the Biden administration against Russia and seem to be a tone shift from the previous administration. The Trump administration was considered relatively soft on Russia and only enacted a few sanctions over election interference, which were only softly enforced.
One U.S. official, according to NBC News reportedly said, that “today is the first such response, and there will be more to come.”
“The United States is neither seeking to reset our relations with Russia nor are we seeking to escalate,” the official went on to add.
The man at the center of all this, Alexei Navalny, has been an outspoken critic of Putin who was arrested when he returned to Russia from Germany after being treated for Novichok poisoning.
He was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison over alleged fraud crimes and is reported to have been sent to one of Russia’s worst penal colonies outside of the city of Pokrov to serve out his term.
Biden Faces Criticism Over U.S. Airstrike in Syria
- On Friday, the U.S. conducted an airstrike against an Iranian-back militia in Syria after it shot rockets into northern Iraq and injured U.S. service personnel.
- The airstrike marks the first in Biden’s presidency, and while normally a routine response, it caused particular backlash against the president, who campaigned on getting out of “forever wars” in the region.
- Many felt like Biden was more concerned with bombing people in the Middle-East than he was with passing his $1.9 trillion stimulus package, which was being debated by Congress at the time.
- The targeting of an Iranian-backed militia likely didn’t help efforts to start informal talks with Iran on Sunday in an effort to reignite the Iran Nuclear Deal.
Striking Back Against Militias
The U.S. military conducted an airstrike on an Iranian-backed militia in Syria on Friday, marking it as the first such airstrike under President Joe Biden’s term.
The airstrike was conducted as retaliation after the militia launched rockets into northern Iraq; killing civilians, contractors, and injuring a U.S. service member as well as other coalition troops.
Despite airstrikes being a routine response for such situations over the last 20 years, the decision caused Biden to face intense backlash in the U.S.
For many, it set the tone and seemed to contradict some of his earlier stances when running for office. In 2019, for instance, Biden made it clear that he wanted to get out of Iraq as soon as possible, as well as speed up the removal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. However, such airstrikes are often blamed for further entrenching the U.S. in the region.
Biden received criticism across the political spectrum, with only a few conservatives praising the airstrike as a necessary move to protect U.S. troops.
In Congress, many Democrats called the move unconstitutional, a stance the party has had since at least 2018 when Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said a similar airstrike conducted by President Trump required the approval of Congress. The Biden administration pushed back against this, sending a letter to Congress on Sunday saying the president had the power to use limited force without the body’s approval via the War Power Act.
Public Perception in a Downward Spiral
Many Americans have mocked Biden for seemingly feeling comfortable enough to use his executive power to bomb militias while also expressing apprehension toward using that same power to forgive student loans.
Others pushed back against the idea that the airstrike was a form of defensive retaliation
“This latest Biden airstrike is being spun as “defensive” and “retaliatory” despite its targeting a nation the US invaded (Syria) in response to alleged attacks on US forces in another nation the US invaded (Iraq),” wrote one user on Twitter, “You can’t invade a nation and then claim self-defense there. Ever.”
Some of the biggest criticism the president received came from those who said it seemed like his priorities were off-base. Because while the airstrike was conducted, Congress was debating his $1.9 trillion stimulus package.
Civil Rights activist Ja’Mal Green, for instance, tweeted, “We didn’t flip Georgia Blue for Biden to air strike Syria. We flipped Georgia Blue for our $2,000 Stimulus Checks.”
However, it’s worth noting that there’s not much Biden can do right now to push his stimulus package through Congress, other than attempt to convince some on-the-fence senators like Joe Manchin (D-WV). Still, the perception of confused priorities was enough to anger many.
All of this likely didn’t help when the E.U. foreign policy chief, on behalf of all the countries who signed the Iran Nuclear deal, attempted to convince Iran to engage in informal talks to try and restart the deal on Sunday. A proposal was shot down by Iran.
“Considering the recent actions and statements by the United States and three European powers, Iran does not consider this the time to hold an informal meeting with these countries,” said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh
Nigerian Gunmen Kidnap Over 300 Students From Boarding School
- Gunmen abducted 317 girls from a Nigerian boarding school early Friday morning, making it the second major abduction in the northwest area of the country in over a week.
- Militants loaded some girls on trucks while others were walked into the nearby Rugu forest, which covers hundreds of miles and is spread over three states.
- Authorities believe these abductions are being carried out by armed bandit groups seeking random rather than the jihadist groups in the region.
- According to terror analysts, kidnapping is quickly becoming one of the most thriving industries in Nigeria and has led to 10.5 million Nigerian children being out of school – the most of any nation.
Abductions Before Dawn
Gunmen abducted 317 students early Friday morning from the Nigerian Government Girls Secondary School in Jangebe, Zamfara state.
They entered the building shooting, although it’s clear if anyone was hurt, and forced many girls onto trucks while others into the nearby Rugu forest, which covers hundreds of square miles and crosses multiple states. Some girls escaped, but by morning it was clear to the local community that hundreds were taken.
Zamfara police and security forces, backed by Nigerian army reinforcements, said they are in pursuit of the abductors.
This abduction is the second in a little over a week in the northwest area of the country. At the Kagara Government Science College in Niger state, dozens of schoolboys were abducted on February 17.
In December, 344 boys in Katsina state were also abducted before being freed a week later. At the time, the kidnappers claimed a ransom had been paid, a common motivation for such abductions, but security forces say the children were freed after they had surrounded the group.
Was the Kidnapping for Ransom?
Many abductions have a monetary aspect, with ransoms quickly being demanded; however, it’s currently unclear if Friday’s events were carried out by local bandits looking for a payout or one of the nation’s myriad of jihadist groups that occasionally take hostages.
Most are leaning towards believing this was a kidnapping for ransom due to it quickly becoming the nation’s most thriving industry, according to Bulama Bukarti, a terror analyst and columnist of northern Nigeria’s largest paper.
Unfortunately, the constant kidnapping in less-stable parts of the country, along with economic hardships, have caused parents to pull their children out of schools. Currently, there are more than 10.5 million Nigerian children out of school, the most of any nation. The issue is so prevalent that 1 in 5 of the world’s unschooled children are in Nigeria.
The government has struggled to respond to the rise of kidnappings, with officials both on the civilian side and within the military unsure of how to proceed. On one hand, there are those who want to deal with the issue head-on and attack kidnappers, but others want to try and resolve the issue with dialogue.