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Between Missiles and Flour: The Inside-Outside Game of Hezbollah in Lebanon

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The Hezbollah is armed. Gunfire of Hezbollah and Amal supporters became audible on Beirut’s streets on early Sunday morning on June 7, 2020 after protesters called for the realization of the UN Resolution 1559 from 2004 which requires the disarmament of all militias. Several people were wounded. Actually, the nation-wide protests which started in October 2019 due to the dramatically grave economic situation in Lebanon carried the unprecedented feature of cross-sectarian support. However, the demonstrations on June 6, 2020 were thought to be dominated by parties opposing to Hezbollah because some protesters mentioned directly the Shiite militia when they called for its disarmament.  This created a division among the demonstrators because the original aim of the protests was to overcome the sectarian system by chanting “All that mean all”, when it comes to their demand that politicians resign. By doing so, they avoided targetting certain sectarian groupings. Hezbollah and the Christian parties allied with them are getting more and more under pressure due to the economic disaster the small multireligious country is experiencing currently. The economic crisis depicts one of the biggest threats to Lebanon’s stability since the end of the civil war in 1990 and jeopardize its stability. The Lebanese pound lost more than the half of its value in exchange to the US Dollar, the unemployment rate climbed up to approximately 35% and about 45% of the population has to live now below the poverty line. The state’s budget deficit raised to more than 150% of the GDP. While the Lebanese currency remains to be in the free fall, the demonstrations against corruption and sectarianism has continued after the violent clashes of June 7, 2020.

The Inside-Game Of Supply And Demand

The pressure in Hezbollah’s game inside Lebanon is rising. Their long-term coalitions which made it possible for the Shiite militia to dominate the Lebanese political system after 2008 and especially after the elections in 2018, start to crumble. The internal pressure grows because of supply shortages of electricity and food. A blame game about responsibilities has started for example in the electricity field. Sometimes the parties even fall back on somewhat bizarre offers in order to meet the expectation within the patronage system of clientelism. Other times, oppositional parties from the Christian bloc, which were part of the current Lebanese political proportional representation as well, held Hezbollah responsible for the miserable economic situation and questioned their actions in Syria. By taking advantage of inner-sectarian struggles in the Druze community, reigniting unity against Israel among Christian or simply by paying better salaries to converted fighters, Hezbollah sought to extend their influence outside the Shia community in the past. After the 2018 elections the Shiite militia was able to gain a dominant role together with its allied parties. Although Hezbollah showed at least some resources during the Corona Crisis, the US sanctions against Iran continue to influence the budget of the Iran-supported militia. Therefore, Hezbollah’s social services like extra food or other additional subsidies for fighters had to be cut, also amid the corona pandemic. Some analysts say that Hezbollah tries to bypass the manifold crisis in Lebanon with their own parallel systems like the quasi-bank-system “Al-Qard”, an electric generator supply, and by opening towards new products like Marijuana. Moreover, Hannin Ghaddar claims that the Shiite groups seeks to get rid of Nabih Berri, the head of the partially competing and simultaneously partnering Shia party  Amal.  Protests took place in Shia dominated cities and parts of Beirut as well.

Lebanon is very dependent on food imports because, despite of the fertile Beqaa valley, the country is not able to meet the demand of its citizens and the Syrian refugees living in tents. Lebanon continued to host the largest number of refugees relative to its national population, where 1 in 6 people was a refugee (figures from 2018. Just refugees under the mandate of UNHCR, the ones under the mandate of UNRWA are not included). However, importing food with a weak domestic currency entails several obstacles, some prices have already doubled and some importers consider stopping the trading of certain imported products if no profit can be extracted from it. Hezbollah tried to step in this gap by expanding its smuggling activities between Syria and Lebanon and by substituting some imports with cheaper and tax-free imports from Iran. But the militia provides petrol and flour to their Syrian allies who are facing serious economic problems because of the sanction resulting from the US Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act. New protests broke out even in as-Suwaysa, a city controlled by Assad because of exploding prices for food. Hezbollah’s Nasrallah lashed out at the USA because of the sanctions. Petrol and flour have been subsidized by the Lebanese state. Despite of that, the smuggling activities now are conducted quite more openly than before with truck convoys using the main roads and in daylight. At the verge of the economic precipice the Lebanese state’s economy is approaching the losses caused by the smuggling are immense. Just recently, talks with the IMF about a potential bailout for Lebanon have started. Hezbollah formally supported the start of talks as a member of the central government, but at the same time warned against conditions which would violate the Lebanese sovereignty.

The Outside-Game Of “Resistance”

Lebanon’s sovereignty is the reason for Hezbollah to remain the only militia after the civil war which have not been disarmed. The so-called „Resistance“ against Israel has built the ideological ground for the Shiite terroristic group since its establishment in the 1980s during Israel’s occupation of Lebanon. Hence, the main source of the legitimacy of Hezbollah’s preeminent role has to be located in the field of foreign politics. Over the years the preeminent role of Hezbollah’s arms within Lebanon created a military dualism and constant power scrambling between the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and the militia.

The outside-struggles of Hezbollah are continuous. The so-called “resistance” against Israel experienced a peak last year. Several Israeli airstrikes in Syria and in Beirut and skirmishes at the Israeli-Lebanese border, when Hezbollah blew up an armed vehicle of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), erupted after the IDF unveiled material about a missile production place in the Beqaa valley. The Iranian efforts to equip Hezbollah with precision-guided missiles would pose a major threat to Israel’s air defence system because even if the system would shoot down 99 % of the missiles, the remaining ones would hit a target with a very high probability. This led to a serious situation close to war-like confrontations. Both sides had already climbed up the ladder of verbal escalations. Nasrallah denied the existence of such a programme and accused Israel of being aggressive, whereas Israeli officials warned Nasrallah not to put the whole Lebanon at stake by launching an attack against Israel. Since some of the targets and delivering routes from Iran to Hezbollah went through Syria, Russia had to enter the stage to calm down the heat. Though the situation has cooled down compared to the last summer, still several incidences at the border or airstrikes take place. However, both sides try to avoid casualties and thus a large-scale war. The hostility between Hezbollah and Israel is something more than a border conflict. Nasrallah’s perception of the USA and Israel as mutual agents towards each other shows that “resistance” fight is the founding base for the militia. Two regional coalitions clash with each other in Syria. Will the Israeli intelligence be able to distinct flour from weapons in convoys?

“War on Iran is war on all the axis of resistance. War on the Islamic Republic means the entire region will be set on fire.” – Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah made this deterrent vow. Israel und the USA seek to reduce Iran’s influence in Syria. Turkey wants to secure its own influence area against Assad, and it even might have comparable strategic aims against Hezbollah’s influence like Israel has. The USA, Israel and Turkey are against the Assad regime. However, Russia and Hezbollah support the Assad regime together with Iran. It should not be forgotten that the war in Syria went on despite the corona crisis. Yet, maybe Iran and Hezbollah shifted their strategies in the face of the corona pandemic and its financial consequences for Iran and Lebanon. Assad’s regime made a great step towards regaining its territories in Syria. Nonetheless, Assad’s Syria is still on war with Israel, and the US recognition of Israel’s sovereignty on the Golan Heights have not changed anything about this status and neither did Assad or Israel with negotiations, nor had Assad the resources to engage in escalation with Israel during the war in Syria. Now the two partners in the “axis of resistance” have to figure out the next steps with the Assad regime, while Syria’s economic situation is rapidly deteriorating. Israeli and American sources claimed that Iranian forces have retreated from Syria.

Hassan Nasrallah indeed declared the threat of a “great war” against Israel during the speech on the 20th anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, however, he also gave the priority to the still fighting armed groups in Syria. The formal approval of talks with the IMF can be interpreted so as Hezbollah and Iran are missing the financial potential to bring up an alternative for Lebanon’s state finances. In the same announcement on TV Nasrallah addressed domestic problems inside Lebanon like for instance fighting corruption. Nevertheless, it is important to recap Hezbollah’s internal activities in Lebanon based on parallel structures partially competing with the Lebanese state which include smuggling or corruptive clientelism. These networks are challenged by the corona crisis and the devasting economic situation. Would it be surprising if Hezbollah return to its foundational ideology of “resistance” by acting out the resistance outside Lebanon instead of trying to solve structural problems inside the country Hezbollah are part of themselves? The militia’s aim is to preserve the current status quo which secures their legitimacy. It is for this reason that the group has become hostile against the protests.

Conclusion

Inside Lebanon several regional and external actors assert their influence on Lebanese politics. Among them are the two regional rivals: Iran and Saudi-Arabia. Therefore, an almost constant struggle for power balances between sectarian groups marks the Lebanese history – amongst them the two prominent ones: Iranian-supported Hezbollah and Hariri’s alliance backed by Saudi-Arabia. This is nothing new. Hezbollah is playing an inside-outside-game with Lebanon. The Shiite party and terroristic group is gambling on two fields: inside Lebanon within the government and outside Lebanon with fights against Israel and others in the face of the looming risk of war due to a single error. Polls of 2019 show, how the Lebanese people perceive the situation: on the one hand, the vast majority of them consider Israel the greatest threat; on the other hand, the three most important challenges in the eyes of the Lebanese are the economy, corruption and public services, and not foreign interference. The news of 2020 are a stand-off with Israel, an unsure situation in Syria, a devasting economic situation amid the pandemic and huge cross-sectarian protests on the streets of Lebanon. These developments challenge Hezbollah’s internal and external influence currently conducted by means of deterrence, providing services and clientelism. If these means fail, one major strategic asset will remain for Hezbollah against their competitors inside and outside of Lebanon. They are armed.

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Middle East

Why is Melih Bulu Seen as a Pro-AKP “Trustee” Rector?

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Photo: Youth Committees / Twitter

The new year started under the shadow of social tensions triggered by Melih Bulu’s appointment to the rectorate of Bosphorus University by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Professor Melih Bulu had founded the Sarıyer district organization of the incumbent AK Party in 2002. Bulu who in 2015 became a candidate for being a deputy from AK Party could not gain nomination to run in the elections. Bulu also worked as a rector in two private universities before: İstinye University and Haliç University.

On December 31 2020, Bulu was the rectorate of Haliç University. The abrupt appointment of Bulu as the rector to Turkey’s most prestigious university prompted a major outrage since the move was regarded as a direct interruption of academic freedom.

Melih Bulu’s appointment to the rectorate of Bosphorus University caused a large unrest among Bosphorus students, graduates and scholars. In addition, people coming from different sectors of society who are critical of Erdoğan administration have also joined the “anti-Bulu” protest campaign on social media. After Bulu’s appointment, Bosphorus University students protested the appointment on social media by using the hashtag #KayyumRektörİstemiyoruz (“We don’t want a trustee rector”). For a couple of days, students of Bosphorus University have been making protests calling Bulu to resign. However Bulu posted an announcement on his Twitter account saying that he will embrace everyone and he is very excited and happy for his new duty.

After Bulu’s appointment, not just his political identity affiliated with AK Party was put under debate but also his academic background was put under scrutiny as well. Allegations of plagiarism against him broke out especially on Twitter. Bulu defined these allegations as “slander” and argued that this was the literature survey part of his PhD thesis and said, “I did not write some parts between quotation marks. We did not have something written available. There were different citation rules but I put it in the bibliography section.”

According to the Global Academic Freedom Index Turkey has only 9.7 points out of 100 and it is in the rank of 135 out of 144 countries. Turkey is in the similar level with Syria and Turkmenistan.

In previous weeks, journalist Cüneyt Özdemir hosted Bulu in his live Youtube programme and in live broadcast, Bulu saluted the students from the window of his office at rectorate building while the students yelled asking for his resign and this act of Bulu caused surprises and ironies on social media. Amid this environment, on January 5, a group of Bosphorus University academics staged a peaceful protest by standing with their backs to the rectorate building during the handover ceremony for Bulu. The academics of Bosphorus University  made a public statement underlining that this appointment is a practice introduced for the first time after the 1980s military tutelage.

Their full statement is as follows:

“’We don’t accept, we don’t give up!’

On January 1, 2021 at midnight, an academic outside Bogazici University community was appointed as rector, which is a practice introduced for the first time after the 1980s military tutelage.

This is yet another case of many ongoing anti-democratic practices since 2016, aiming at abolishing rectorial elections. We do not accept it as it clearly violates academic freedom and scientific autonomy as well as the democratic values of our university. We refuse to compromise the principles the University Senate officially stated in 2012:

1. To enhance scientific research and social development, it is indispensable that universities be free from any pressure or influence from a person or an institution and not be used as a political tool.

2. For academic freedom, it is imperative that decision-making processes be delegated to democratically elected academic administrators and boards. All academic administrators including the Rector, Deans, Directors of Institute, Directors of Schools and Department Heads can be appointed only after being elected by the university community.

3. As universities are autonomous constitutional establishments, it is vital that university instructors and/or university boards decide on academic programs and research policies, which is an essential prerequisite for scientific freedom and creativity.

We strictly adhere to the principles above and we pledge to follow them up with all the other members of our university community.”

On the other hand, police forces detained more than 20 university students in home raids after the protests against the appointment of Bulu. In the mainstream pro-government media actors’ coverage of these events, it is argued that the detained people are not students, but they are members of illegal organizations whereas Canan Kaftancıoğlu, the Republican People’s Party’s current provincial president in Istanbul rejected this and argued that they are students.

According to Althusser (1971), the modern state keeps the authority and control through two main systems: Repressive State Apparatuses & Ideological State Apparatuses. One of  areas concerning the ideological state apparatuses is known as education. In this regard, Erdoğan’s appointment of Bulu can be seen as a step of using ideological state apparatuses.

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Morocco Increases Pressure on Hezbollah by Arresting One of its Alleged Financiers

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At a time when global attention is focused on the fight against the pandemic and the global effort to vaccinate populations, terrorist organizations and organized crime are trying to take advantage of the situation to carry out operations to finance their operations. In this context, Morocco’s announcement of the arrest of an alleged international con man linked to Hezbollah is considered a success for the Moroccan security services.

According to an official statement relayed by the Moroccan Official Agency, a suspect was arrested last Wednesday by the National Brigade of the Judicial Police (BNPJ). The 57-year-old Lebanese national is linked to the Hezbollah movement, an organization supported by Iran and considered as a terrorist group by the United States, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. During the search conducted by the Moroccan police force, following intelligence and investigative work carried out by the Directorate General of Territorial Surveillance (DGST), investigators found European passports – French and Italian – as well as identity documents listed in the Interpol database as stolen. The suspect was taken into custody and brought before the King’s Prosecutor in order to continue the investigation, in partnership with Interpol and the countries involved in the alleged identity document thefts.

U.S. Recognition of Moroccan Sovereignty over Western Sahara

Moroccan authorities believed the suspect used these false identities to present himself as holding important roles in multinational corporations to defraud victims with promises of juicy deals and quick profit. While it is unclear at this stage of the investigation whether the international swindler intended to raise funds for Hezbollah, the arrest comes at a particularly crucial time for Morocco, following the recognition by the United States of America of Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed territory of Western Sahara on December the 10th, and the resumption of diplomatic relations with Israël. After this recognition, The US announced a 3 billion dollars investment plan to help Morocco boost its economy and development, as well as the opening of a regional office of its “Prosper Africa” initiative. Moreover, this Sunday, the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker came to Western Sahara on the 9th of January to inaugurate a U.S. consulate in the coastal city of Dakhla, alongside the Moroccan minister for foreign affairs, Nasser Bourita.

Morocco Broke off diplomatic relations with Iran in 2018

Since 2018, Morocco has vigorously denounced Hezbollah’s alleged links with the Polisario Front separatist movement, and broke diplomatic relations with Tehran in the process, as explained by the Think-Tank Atlantic Council . Although both Iran and Hezbollah immediately refuted Morocco’s accusations regarding the organization’s alleged links with the Polisario Front, Rabat continued to increase its pressure and has since taken substantive action to curb the actions of the organization’s agents. In March 2017,  Kingdom arrested at the Casablanca airport Kassem Tajjedine, described by the Americans as the main financier of the organization. The latter was wanted for fraud, money laundering, and financing of terrorist activity, according to Reuters. Tajjedine was extradited to the US where he was sentenced to five years in Prison, and was released on July 2020 as part of a secret US-Iran deal.

Morocco is considered a stable country in North Africa, both on the political and economic level, as well as an important Hub for doing business in Africa and Europe. Over the last twenty years, the Kingdom had a steady growth rate of its GDP at around 4% and built top-class infrastructures, including the largest African port in Tangiers, 2000 Miles of Highway, a High-Speed train between Tangiers and Rabat, and the largest solar station of Africa in the south of the country.

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Egypt’s search for a fig leaf: It’s not the Handball World Championship

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Photo: Flickr/Ninian Reid

Hosting major sports tournaments can confer prestige on a country, but in the case of Egypt, the 2021 Handball World Championship will do little to repair its relations with the US, Italy and states in the Gulf, argues James M. Dorsey in this analysis.

***

Egyptian general-turned president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi sees the 2021 men’s handball world championship in Cairo and Alexandria as an opportunity to put his best foot forward at a time when Egypt’s relations with its closest regional and global partners are encountering substantial headwinds.

Successful hosting of the championship, the first to involve 32 rather than 24 competing teams, would also serve to  counter criticism of the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Egyptian health minister Hala Zayed recently admitted that many more Egyptians contracted the virus than the government has so far reported. A successful hosting would further put a crown in the feather of Egyptian-born International Handball Federation (IHF) president Hassan Moustafa.

Egypt has put strict pandemic-related precautionary heath measures in place for the tournament from the moment teams, officials, and journalists arrive at Cairo International Airport. The measures apply to training, lodging and media arrangements as well as the transport to and from hotels and the championship’s four designated match venues. Egypt is determined to ensure that the championship does not turn into a spreader of Covid-19.

That concern prompted the IHF and Egyptian authorities at the last minute to shelve a plan to allow fans into the four venues that include the Cairo Stadium Sports Hall, the New Capital Sports Hall in Egypt’s newly built desert capital east of Cairo, the Dr Hassan Moustafa Sports Hall in Giza, and the Borg Al Arab Sports Hall in Alexandria.

The IHF said the decision was taken “considering the current COVID-19 situation as well as concerns that have been raised, amongst others by the players themselves.”

Critics charge that Egypt is hosting the tournament even though it seems unable to meet the basic requirements of medical personnel who are on the frontline of the fight against the pandemic.

Doctors and nurses have protested against the high number of infections in their ranks because  they lack access to sufficient personnel protection equipment and are threatened with imprisonment if they fail to report to work despite the risk to their lives.

Symptomatic for Mr. Al-Sisi’s brutal crackdown on any kind of criticism, several doctors have been arrested on terrorism charges for voicing their grievances.

Putting aside the fact that the impact of a handball tournament pales when compared to the prestige of hosting a mega-event like the World Cup or the Olympic Games, the handball tournament is unlikely to provide much of a fig leaf for Mr. Al-Sisi’s hardhanded repression of anyone voicing an opinion but his sycophantic supporters.

That is particularly true for the incoming administration of US President-elect Joe Biden that has not only promised to emphasize human rights in its foreign policy but also needs to do so in its bid to repair America’s image and restore its credibility, severely damaged by four years of Donald J. Trump, widely viewed as an authoritarian who undermined foundations of democracy.

Similarly, the tournament will not change perceptions in Italy and much of Europe that hold Mr. Al-Sisi’s intelligence service and law enforcement responsible for the kidnapping, torture and killing of Giulio Regeni.

A 28-year-old postgraduate student at Cambridge University, Mr. Regeni had been researching Egypt’s independent unions before he went missing in late January 2016. His body was found in a ditch so badly mutilated that his mother could only identify her son by the tip of his nose. He reportedly had sustained a broken neck, wrist, toes, fingers, and teeth before his death, while initials were carved into his severely burned and bruised skin.

Relations between Egypt and Italy last month deteriorated further when Egypt’s public prosecution closed its investigation into Mr. Regeni’s murder, rejecting Italian prosecutors’ findings that accused four Egyptian security officials of responsibility for his death.

Mr. Al-Sisi’s abominable human rights record may not be of concern to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia but equally the tournament will do little to repair cracks in his relationship with the two Gulf states, his main financial backers.

In a move that will not have gone unnoticed in Gulf capitals, Egypt anointed the newly opened, Qatari-owned St. Regis hotel on the banks of the Nile River in Cairo as one of the tournament’s key logistics nodes, including its media center.

Qatari Finance Minister Ali Sharif al-Emadi landed in Cairo last week to inaugurate the hotel hours after a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit lifted a 3.5-year long Saudi-UAE led economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar, in which Egypt as well as Bahrain participated. Mr. Al-Emadi was the first Qatari Cabinet official to visit Egypt since the boycott was imposed in 2017.

Showcasing the hotel was meant to counter-intuitively signal to Saudi Arabia and the UAE Egypt’s concern that reconciliation with Qatar involved far too many concessions, including dropping demands for the closure of Qatar’s state-funded, freewheeling Al Jazeera television network and a halt to support of political groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egypt was forced to reluctantly agree to lifting the boycott even though it accepted continued Qatari investment and Qatari gas supplies over the last 3.5 years.

Egypt also felt sidelined by the UAE and Bahrain’s establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel. The move deprived Egypt of its role as Israel’s primary official diplomatic conduit to the Arab world at a moment that the Al-Sisi regime is seeking to put its best foot forward in anticipation of Mr. Biden taking office.

Mr. Al-Sisi’s concerns are compounded by Emirati support for Ethiopia with which he is at odds over the construction of a dam on the Nile that threatens Egypt’s water supply; the UAE’s growing influence in neighboring Sudan; plans to link the UAE and Israel through a pipeline that would compete with Egypt in selling gas to Europe; and Emirati interest in the port of Haifa that could create an alternative to the Suez Canal.

All of this could undermine Egypt’s position as a key pillar of US Middle East policy and persuade the US to further shift the focal point of its broader Middle East and North Africa policy to the Gulf.

Mr. Al-Sisi has sought to pre-empt an incoming Biden administration by releasing prisoners, highlighting his good relations with Egyptian Christians, and hiring US lobbying firms to plead his case to the Biden camp as well as Capitol Hill.

Hosting a handball world championship is a minor maneuver in the mountain that Mr. Al-Sisi is trying to move, particularly one that Mr. Trump tarnished by describing the Egyptian leader as “my favorite dictator.” That is a label a handball tournament is unlikely to alter.

Author’s note: This article first appeared on Play the Game

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