Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in CNN’s Meanwhile in the Middle East newsletter, a three-times-a-week look inside the region’s biggest stories. Sign up here.
The coastal highway that connects Lebanon’s northern-most tip to the country’s south is peppered with gaping potholes. The stench of landfill hangs in the air as emaciated men rummage through dumpsters, their faces smudged with dirt.
Towering above the wreckage wrought by nearly three years of economic collapse are endless rows of election billboards. Some show relatively unfamiliar candidates fielded by new political groups. But most display the looming faces of politicians from decades-old sectarian parties. Nearly all of the campaign slogans promise “change.”
The irony is not lost on anyone in a country where negligence by the political elite nearly destroyed the capital in the biggest non-nuclear explosion in history.
On Sunday, Lebanese citizens will vote for a new parliament for the first time since an October 2019 uprising demanded the fall of a century-old political order. The path to political change has been rife with challenges, and whether this year’s election will deliver a new political makeup is far from certain.
But this is a moment of reckoning for Lebanon’s political elite. The establishment they represent is a microcosm of the region’s decades-old fault lines, pitting groups backed by the archrivals Iran and Saudi Arabia against each other. Change in Beirut’s political order could mark a first step in extricating the country from its hodgepodge of proxy conflicts, and produce a ripple effect in a region where protest movements have so far failed to effect political change.
A lot has happened since Lebanon’s protesters took to the streets in 2019, toppling three-time Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s national unity government and leaving a political crisis in its wake. A financial tailspin pauperized nearly three quarters of the population, according to the United Nations. A banking crisis saw the life savings of many Lebanese vaporized. Meanwhile, the kleptocratic elite allegedly moved billions of dollars out of the country, prompting Western authorities to launch investigations into the country’s once-celebrated central bank governor Riad Salameh. Then, the Lebanese woes culminated in a giant explosion in the heart of their capital in August 2020, after improperly stored chemicals ignited at Beirut’s port, laying waste to many of the city’s neighborhoods and killing more than 200 people.
Lebanon’s elites have acknowledged their collective political bankruptcy while desperately trying to escape responsibility for their individual failures – and their support base hasn’t held them to account. Election rallies by the Iran-backed Hezbollah drew tens of thousands of people on Monday. Their rivals – such as the right-wing Christian Lebanese Forces – have also mobilized thousands of volunteers. Meanwhile, anti-establishment groups have seen infighting that prevented them from creating a unified electoral coalition, diminishing their chances of success at the polls.
Yet activists have been rigorous in their campaigns for change on social media and on the ground. Tens of thousands in Lebanon’s large diaspora voted last weekend and the turnout was manifestly higher than the 2018 elections, with many saying they voted for non-establishment groups.
Images of voters in long lines snaking outside Lebanese embassies and consulates abroad flashed on national TV stations, heartening those who have lost hope, and raising the specter of a protest movement making inroads into mainstream politics.
An overwhelming desire for change in Lebanon, and in the region at large, is undeniable. Whether that translates into a political shift is another question – one which the election results could help clarify.
United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan dies at age 73
The UAE announced that flags would be flown at half-staff for a period of 40 days, starting Friday, and work would be suspended in government and private sectors for three days.
- Background: Sheikh Khalifa’s role had been largely ceremonial since he suffered a stroke and underwent surgery in 2014. Since then, his brother, Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, has been the de-facto leader of the UAE, handling day-to-day affairs for the Gulf state.
- Why it matters: Under Sheikh Khalifa’s rule, the UAE became a Middle Eastern economic and military powerhouse. It conducted military interventions abroad and invested billions of dollars into the global economy, but also engaged in bold diplomacy by normalizing relations with Israel. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, known by his initials MBZ is expected to continue in the late president’s path.
EU says talks with Iran “positive enough” to reopen nuclear negotiations
The EU’s foreign policy chief said Friday that he believed there had been enough progress during consultations between his envoy and Iranian officials in Tehran this week to relaunch nuclear negotiations after two months of deadlock.
- Background: Talks to revive Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers have been on hold since March, chiefly over Tehran’s insistence that Washington remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from its list of groups designated as terrorist organizations.
- Why it matters: If a nuclear deal is reached, it would lift sanctions on Iran, adding over a million barrels of Iranian oil to the world market as Western states seek to dampen a rise in oil prices caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine. Middle Eastern states with capacity to raise production have so far refused to do so.
Israeli police use batons to beat people carrying Al Jazeera journalist’s coffin
Israeli police used batons to beat crowds carrying the coffin of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh within the yard of the St. Joseph hospital in Jerusalem on Friday. The coffin was rocked and pushed back into the hospital before it was allowed to leave towards its final burial site in the Mount Zion cemetery. Police roadblocks were set up near the hospital.
- Background: The Palestinian-American journalist was shot dead on Wednesday while reporting on Israeli military raids in the West Bank city of Jenin. The Washington Post reported that Israeli military investigators have taken guns away from some Israel Defense Forces (IDF) troops as part of an investigation into three shooting incidents on the day.
- Why it matters: One incident, according to the Washington Post source, took place “on a street roughly 150 meters (about 490 feet) from the spot where Abu Akleh was killed.” The source said that this incident was “the more probable to be involved in the death of Shireen.” In the incident under investigation, the IDF troops were in a vehicle and at least one armed Palestinian man was shooting at the vehicle, the source said. Military investigators are trying to determine where Abu Akleh was during that exchange, according to the source.
What to watch
The legacy that slain Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh leaves behind is “resoundingly clear,” said CNN’s Eleni Giokos. Watch CNN’s special tribute to the late Al Jazeera journalist here:
Around the region
A Syrian refugee who fled the war in his country nine years ago has become a millionaire thanks to his coding skills.
In a story of perseverance and drive, Mahmoud Shahoud, 32, won the $1 million prize at Dubai’s One Million Arab Coders initiative, beating 256 other competitors from 50 countries.
The Dubai government initiative aims to raise digital literacy in the Arab world by teaching 1 million young people from the region to code. Six projects by Arabs from around the world tried to develop the most innovative coding project this year.
Shahoud fled Syria in 2013 and settled in Turkey, where he now lives, according to Abu Dhabi’s The National newspaper. He signed up for the free training provided by the initiative that allowed him to create Habit 360, an app that helps people to start, track, and organize habits and routines. It’s currently only available on the Google Play store, where it has been downloaded more than 100,000 times.
The coder intends to give away half his winnings to help orphaned Syrian refugees, and the rest will go towards establishing his own tech startup in Dubai, where he plans to move, according to the newspaper.
Five runners-up also won $50,000 each for their projects, with apps like Muhammad Al-Iskandarani’s Muaahal program, which helps individuals to qualify in all fields through simplified education, and Iman Wagdy’s 3lfraza app, which delivers fresh food prepared by women at home.
By Mohammed Abdelbary