Why Lebanon’s Protesters Are Back

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As the coronavirus lockdown eases, demonstrators respond to the country’s worst economic crisis since the civil war.

Foreign Policy

Welcome to While You Weren’t Looking, Foreign Policy’s weekly newsletter focused on non-coronavirus news.

Beyond the pandemic, here’s what we’re watching this week: Renewed economic protests rock Lebanon, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro faces his biggest political challenge yet, and Czech officials are placed under police protection amid reports of a Russian poison plot.

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Lebanon on the Brink

As Lebanon begins to ease its coronavirus lockdown, the country’s anti-government protesters are returning to the streets. While last fall’s demonstrations were characterized by music and dancing, protests turned violent this week as Lebanon plunges deeper into an economic catastrophe that has been years in the making.

Angered by the collapse of the Lebanese pound and rising poverty, protesters across the country set fire to banks, shut down highways, and clashed with soldiers on Monday. Dozens were injured after the military used live ammunition, rubber bullets, and tear gas to disperse the crowds. At least one person is reported dead, and 54 soldiers have also been wounded.

Revolution of hunger. In October 2019, people across Lebanon took to the streets to protest rampant corruption and an ailing economy, prompting Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his cabinet to resign. A new technocratic government was formed in January by Prime Minister Hassan Diab, but observers noted it still had ties to the country’s elite that oversaw years of economic mismanagement—now compounded by coronavirus shutdowns. Lebanon is facing its biggest economic crisis since the end of the civil war in 1990.

The Lebanese pound has been pegged to the U.S. dollar since 1997, but dollars are now in short supply. Many have been forced to turn to parallel exchange markets, where the currency has lost 50 percent of its value since last summer, slashing wages and savings in half. Food prices have soared by as much as 67 percent, and the Lebanese government estimates that three-quarters of the population are now in need of aid, the Guardian reports.

Long road ahead. Lebanon has one of the highest debt ratios in the world, and in March it defaulted on its loans for the first time. On Thursday, the Lebanese government approved a rescue plan to overhaul the economy and lay the groundwork for negotiating a bailout package with the International Monetary Fund. “If we get [IMF support], and God willing we will, it will help us to pass through this difficult economic phase, which could be three, four, or five years,” Diab said.

An IMF loan is widely seen as Lebanon’s only way out of what Diab has called economic “free fall.” The country is expected to ask for $10 billion, but the final amount will be subject to negotiation with the IMF, Diab said on Thursday. IMF loans usually come with strings attached, however, and those could necessitate unpopular fiscal reforms—leading to further political uncertainty.

What We’re Following

Bolsonaro’s woes. On Monday, Brazil’s supreme court authorized an investigation into alleged corruption and obstruction of justice by right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro after the respected Justice Minister Sérgio Moro stepped down. In his resignation speech Moro accused Bolsonaro of firing the head of the federal police to hamper ongoing investigations into members of his family. The investigation authorized by the supreme court is the biggest political challenge yet for Bolsonaro, who was elected in 2018 on an anti-corruption platform.

Rodrigo Maia, the speaker of the lower house of Brazil’s National Congress, has so far held off calls for impeachment—but he has called for a full investigation. Brazilians are divided on the question of impeachment, but that could change as Brazil heads toward a recession and grapples with Latin America’s worst coronavirus outbreak, spurred in part by Bolsonaro’s own denialism over the virus.

El Salvador’s crackdown. El Salvador’s government has launched a brutal crackdown against imprisoned gang members after President Nayib Bukele said that a recent spike in homicides had been orchestrated by those already behind bars. Gang leaders have been placed in solitary confinement, while rival gang members have been placed in the same cells in a bid to prevent gangs from communicating, a move that Human Rights Watch warns could spark prison riots.

Photos show near-naked inmates forced to sit pressed up against one another on the floor while their cells are searched. José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch, described the conditions as “cruel and inhumane.” El Salvador has one of the world’s highest homicide rates, but murders dropped significantly in March amid lockdown measures. That period of relative calm was shattered last weekend, with 29 people murdered on Sunday alone—the deadliest day since Bukele took office last June.

Russian poison plots? Three officials in the Czech capital of Prague, including the city’s mayor, have confirmed that they are under police protection following reports that a Russian man with a diplomatic passport entered the country earlier this month carrying the deadly poison ricin. I reported for FP this week on how a decision by Prague officials to remove a statue of a Soviet World War II hero from a city park has pushed relations between the Czech Republic and Russia to their lowest point since the fall of the Berlin Wall, with suspicions of cyberattacks and assassination plots mounting.

Separatists in Yemen. Separatists in the south of Yemen on Sunday declared self-rule in the port city of Aden and other provinces. The move could spark renewed conflict with the U.N.-backed government. Since 2017, the separatist Southern Transitional Council has periodically sought independence, culminating in a “civil war within a civil war” in 2019, which ended with a Saudi-brokered deal. This latest bid for self-rule is likely to complicate Yemen’s multifaceted civil war.

Keep an Eye On

Ramadan TV drama. Two Saudi-produced soap operas have broached the topic of normalizing ties with Israel, raising speculation that they could be a prelude to a shift in relations. One of the series explores the Jewish history of the Gulf, while in the other a character says that “Israel is there, whether you like it or not.” Ramadan soap opera specials have long been used by regional leaders to shape public attitudes. Experts told Bloomberg that the idea of Saudi Arabia normalizing ties with Israel was a long shot, but the shows could be the first step in introducing the idea to the Saudi public. In recent years Israel has found common ground with the Gulf states over shared concerns about Iran.

U.S. Marine marooned in Moscow. This week, Russian prosecutors concluded the presentation of their case against former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who has been imprisoned in Moscow since December 2018, when he traveled to Russia for a friend’s wedding. Prosecutors say he possessed classified information and have charged him with espionage. If found guilty, Whelan faces up to 20 years in prison. He has denied the charges. In letters to family members obtained last year by FP, Whelan said that he believed his arrest was retaliation for U.S. sanctions on Russian companies. The trial is set to resume on May 13.

Kim Jong Un’s absence. There is no sign of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and conflicting reports about his well-being prevail. Last seen on April 11, Kim has missed two of the country’s most important political events, fueling speculation that he might be gravely ill—or hiding out from the coronavirus in the sea resort of Wonsan. Writing for FP, Jessica Lee explains where North Korean analysts turn for the most credible information about life in the closed-off country.

Kim has no clear successor. If he’s dead or incapacitated, North Korea could be plunged into crisis, Doug Bandow writes for FP.  

Odds and Ends

Guess who’s back. Authorities in the Georgian breakaway territory of South Ossetia will temporarily rename their capital Stalinir, a tribute to the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, ahead of the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. The moniker will be used in tandem with the city’s current name, Tskhinvali, during events to mark the war’s end on May 9.

Authorities in another breakaway republic, Ukraine’s Donetsk region, also announced (link in Russian) that they would reintroduce the name Stalino for the city of Donetsk for the anniversaries. Despite his responsibility for mass atrocities, Stalin is still revered in parts of the former Soviet Union for his role in defeating Nazi Germany.

…And who’s not quite back. The publication of former National Security Advisor John Bolton’s much anticipated memoir, The Room Where It Happened, has been pushed back to June 23, more than three months after its original release date. No reason for the delay was given, but publication has already been delayed by the White House’s review process. Bolton never testified during President Donald Trump’s impeachment process, but leaks to the New York Times suggest he may have further details about Trump’s knowledge of efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate his Democratic rival Joe Biden and his son.

That’s it for this week.

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