- 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.
Coronavirus Cases and Deaths Rise
- The new coronavirus that originated from Wuhan, China has now killed at least 81 people and more than 2,700 cases have been detected worldwide.
- Most of the cases are in China, though low numbers have been found in other nations, including the United States.
- Wuhan’s mayor has offered to resign in wake of criticism for the Chinese government’s response to the health crisis.
- The United States, France, and Japan have all announced plans to evacuate their citizens from Wuhan and bring them home on limited-capacity flights.
The coronavirus outbreak that began in the Chinese city of Wuhan significantly worsened over the weekend, bringing the death toll to at least 81 and the confirmed number of cases to over 2,700.
The majority of the cases have been found in China, but several have been detected in other nations across four continents, including the United States, Australia, Taiwan, Japan, and France.
On Sunday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed three newly-detected cases of the novel coronavirus in Southern California and Arizona, bringing the overall number of infected people in the U.S. to five. The other cases were found last week in Washington and Illinois.
“It is likely there will be more cases reported in the U.S. in the coming days and weeks, likely including person-to-person spread,” the CDC wrote.
“While this is a serious public health threat, CDC continues to believe the immediate risk to the U.S. general public is low at this time,” it added.
No deaths from the coronavirus have been reported outside of China.
Chinese Government’s Response
In efforts to control the outbreak of the novel virus, plans have been made to rapidly build a new hospital and travel bans have been imposed around the nation, affecting millions of people.
As conditions have worsened, Chinese officials are facing criticism from people saying that their response to the outbreak was too slow.
Zhou Xianwang, Wuhan’s mayor, defended himself in an interview with the state broadcaster CCTV, saying that he had to wait for authorization from Beijing officials before he could make certain critical information public.
Regardless of this point, Mayor Xianwang also offered to step down from his position and said that he and Ma Guoqiang, the city’s Communist Party secretary, will resign and take the blame if it will appease the public.
Xianwang’s comments were broadcasted the same day Premier Li Keqiang, China’s second-highest ranking official, arrived in Wuhan to inspect regulation efforts of the disease. His visit is seen as a move to prove the central government’s adequate involvement with this crisis.
In further attempts to impose the travel bans, the Chinese government extended the Lunar New Year holiday by three days. The weeklong celebration started on Friday and was supposed to end this Thursday, but the spreading virus threw a wrench in many people’s travel and celebration plans. Now employees won’t have to return to work until Feb. 3.
International Evacuation Plans
Despite China’s imposed travel bans, other nations have devised plans to evacuate their citizens from high-risk areas and bring them home.
The U.S. Department of State announced its plans to bring select consulate staff members and other American citizens from Wuhan to San Francisco on a flight on Jan. 28.
“This capacity is extremely limited and if there is insufficient ability to transport everyone who expresses interest, priority will be given to individuals at greater risk from coronavirus,” the Department said.
France’s government is arranging similar plans to bring French nationals back from the Wuhan area via air travel. Once these passengers return, they will be required to spend a maximum of 14 days in quarantine.
Japan also said they would be chartering at least one plane this week to bring citizens home from Wuhan.
See what others are saying: (New York Times) (CNN) (CBS)
China Rushes to Build New Hospital as Coronavirus Spreads
- Chinese authorities announced plans to build a 1,000-bed hospital in Wuhan by Feb. 3 to treat patients of a deadly new virus that has killed at least 26 people.
- More than 800 cases of the never-before-seen strain of the coronavirus have been detected.
- The majority of the cases are in China, though some have been found in other countries, including the United States.
- Officials hope the new hospital will help alleviate some of the pressure on China’s healthcare system, which has been overwhelmed in the wake of the outbreak.
Race to Build Hospital
In the wake of the new coronavirus outbreak that has killed at least 26 people, China announced plans on Friday to quickly build a 1,000-bed hospital to treat patients of the epidemic.
The hospital is being constructed in Wuhan, where the deadly “2019-nCOV” virus originated and is scheduled to be completed by Feb. 3. Images and video from Chinese media show dozens of workers preparing the site.
China’s healthcare system has been strained by the outbreak. At least eight hospitals across Wuhan have called for protective medical gear donations, according to the Associated Press, citing notices online. Video footage has emerged showing health facilities packed with people desperate for help.
“I am scared because this is a new virus and the figures are alarming,” an unnamed doctor told BBC. “The hospitals have been flooding with patients, there are thousands, I haven’t seen so many before.”
The expedited Wuhan hospital is reminiscent of another project that China undertook almost two decades ago. In 2003, when the nation was swept up by the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus that spread to 28 other countries and killed nearly 800 people, a hospital was built from scratch in Beijing in just under a week.
The Wuhan structure is modeled off the Xiaotangshan SARS hospital in Beijing and is being made from prefabricated buildings that help with fast assembly.
What is the Coronavirus?
The outbreak causing all the panic is a novel coronavirus — a strain of the coronavirus that has never been seen before. According to the World Health Organization, coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to more severe ailments. SARS is a member of this family.
Coronaviruses can be transmitted between people and animals. The novel coronavirus was suspected to have come from a seafood and live animal market in Wuhan, which has since been closed for disinfection. The new strain is particularly intimidating because it is not yet known how it affects people or how to treat it.
At least 12 Chinese cities near the center of the outbreak have been placed on a travel lockdown to prevent further spreading of the virus, affecting roughly 35 million residents. The lockdown comes just ahead of one of China’s most important holidays, Lunar New Year, throwing a wrench in many people’s celebration plans.
More than 800 cases of the virus have been detected and a few have been found in countries beyond China, including the United States. On Thursday, the World Health Organization said the new virus has not yet reached a level that makes it a global health emergency.
See what others are saying: (Wall Street Journal) (Guardian) (The Washington Post)
Brexit Officially Becomes Law in the United Kingdom
- British Parliament passed a final Brexit withdrawal agreement on Wednesday.
- The following day, Queen Elizabeth gave the bill her royal assent, a formality that turns a bill into law.
- While the European Parliament is set to make the U.K.’s divorce from the European Union official next week, the U.K. still has a long journey ahead in laying out a new relationship with the EU and countries like the United States.
Brexit Becomes Law
After a bitter three and a half year struggle that resulted in the resignation of two prime ministers, protests, elections, and multiple delays, the United Kingdom has officially signed a Brexit withdrawal agreement.
Queen Elizabeth gave her royal assent to the bill on Thursday, a formality that gave the agreement the rule of law. Her signature came after parliament passed the agreement Wednesday evening.
In December, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party gained an 80 seat majority in Parliament’s elected lower house, the House of Commons. The massive win was seen as a mandate that the United Kingdom wanted to divorce itself from the European Union, and Johnson’s victory gave him the ability to pass the withdrawal agreement through the Commons with ease in early January.
The bill was then sent to the non-elected upper house, the House of Lords. On Tuesday, the Lords passed the bill back to the Commons with several amendments attached. Notably, one of those amendments included a provision that would have protected the rights of refugee children to be reunited with their parents if their parents were in the U.K. post-Brexit.
On Wednesday, the Commons used its majority to reject those amendments and tossed the bill back to the Lords. The Lords, lacking a majority to pass the amendments, passed the bill to prevent the U.K. from missing its current Jan. 31 deadline.
Before the U.K. officially leaves the EU, however, the EU’s parliament will also need to vote on a final approval of the withdrawal agreement. That vote is expected to happen Jan. 29, and like the Queen’s royal assent, this stage is also largely being viewed as a formality, with it easily expected to pass.
When it does, the U.K. will officially end its 40-year relationship with the EU.
Reaction to Brexit’s Passage
Unlike the raucous and theatrical debate normally associated with Brexit, the withdrawal agreement’s final passage was largely by the numbers and met with little resistance.
Thursday, when Deputy Speaker Nigel Evans announced in the Commons that the Queen had given her royal assent, only a handful of members of parliament either threw cheers or jeers. Likely, this is a consequence of December’s sweeping elections.
However, that doesn’t mean MP’s and other lawmakers haven’t stifled their strong feelings for the agreement’s passage.
Just after the royal assent announcement, Scottish MP Ian Blackford said the U.K. is facing a “constitutional crisis” because the legislatures in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland don’t support Brexit.
On Wednesday, member Alf Dubs—who had proposed the child refugee amendment—expressed his frustration on Twitter.
“It is bitterly disappointing that after a victory in the Lords, the government have voted down my amendment in the Commons,” he said. “What could be more humane than asking that unaccompanied child refugees stranded in Europe be able to join relatives in this country?”
To note, one of the reasons Dubs is so passionate about the amendment is because he came to the U.K. as a child to escape Nazi persecution shortly before the start of the Second World War.
On the other hand, on Wednesday, after Parliament passed the withdrawal agreement, Johnson said in a statement, “At times it felt like we would never cross the Brexit finish line, but we’ve done it.”
“Now we can put the rancour and division of the past three years behind us and focus on delivering a bright, exciting future – with better hospitals and schools, safer streets and opportunity spread to every corner of our country,” he added.
What Happens Once the Divorce Becomes Official?
Following next week’s expected divorce, the U.K. will begin an 11-month transition period with the EU that is currently scheduled to end on January 1, 2021.
During that time, it will continue to follow most of the EU’s rules, but it won’t actually have any decision-making power in the EU.
The U.K. and the EU will also continue to hash out details of what their relationship will look like after that transition period. For example, that includes things like an ambitious free-trade deal, agriculture, and security.
As for negotiations, those are expected to start either sometime next month or in early March, but like how Brexit saw multiple extensions, a lot of EU officials believe this transition period will also need to be extended. Many believe 11 months is too short of a time frame to completely work out all of the details. Johnson, however, has refused to agree to any extensions.
At the same time, Johnson has also been vocal about getting a free-trade deal with the U.S. While in Davos at the World Economic Forum, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin also indicated the U.S.’s desire for a trade deal, saying, “It’s an absolute priority of President Trump and we expect to complete that within this year.”
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross also said that a trade deal shouldn’t be too hard because the U.S. and the U.K. have similar economies.
But the U.S. and U.K. are also currently in a disagreement over a so-called “tech tax.” That riff stims from the U.K.’s plan to introduce a digital services tax on tech companies like Facebook and Google. Mnuchin then threatened to retaliate by potentially slapping a tariff on U.K. car exports.