Parliament is scheduled to convene for the second round of presidential elections today at 11 a.m. in an attempt to determine President Michel Aoun’s successor before the end of his term on Oct. 31. Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) leader Gebran Bassil announced his party’s parliamentary bloc would “probably not” attend today’s session, after casting blank ballots in the first round of voting last month. The first voting session, attended by 122 of the 128 deputies, resulted in 64 blank votes, 36 votes for MP Michel Moawad (Independent, North Lebanon III), 11 votes for Murex co-founder and L'Orient-Le Jour shareholder Salim Eddé and 12 protest votes. On Sunday, Hezbollah Deputy Secretary-General Naim Qassem called for the formation of a new cabinet before the presidential election. Despite optimistic announcements of swift government formation, Lebanon’s ministers are nearing their fifth month of caretaker capacity. Disagreements between caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati and President Aoun are the reported cause of delays, with the two bumping heads over the prerogatives of a caretaker cabinet in the event of a presidential vacancy. "The top priority now remains the election of a new head of state, because the presence of a president is fundamental for the formation of a new government and not the other way around," Aoun said Friday. “What is happening with the presidency has also happened with the government, only worse,” Supreme Sunni authority Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdel-Latif Derian said that same day, condemning a perceived intervention “in the shadows” aimed to induce “an imposed vacancy.”
President Michel Aoun — citing momentum from the resolution of the maritime border dispute — revived plans for the mass repatriation of Syrian refugees by announcing yesterday that their gradual return would begin next week. Caretaker Minister of the Displaced Issam Charafeddine told L’Orient Today that the repatriation of refugees was based on “a voluntary return plan” for those “who can safely return.” In July, Charafeddine first announced the plan to repatriate “15,000 displaced people” per month, drawing criticism from international refugee rights groups. "UNHCR is not facilitating or promoting the large-scale voluntary repatriation of refugees to Syria," a UNHCR spokesperson yesterday told L'Orient Today. Charafeddine’s return plan floundered amid reduced enthusiasm from caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, interpreted as a response to pushback from donor countries and international organizations. Nonetheless, Mikati broached the topic of Syrian refugees in a letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres scapegoating the displaced and claiming that “the repercussions of the Syrian displacement crisis and its cost on the Lebanese economy … makes it extremely difficult to address the economic crisis.” The UN's official stance is that Syria is not safe for mass returns.
“International organizations will bring support to all the infrastructures that provide water to the camps of the displaced Syrians,” caretaker Environment Minister Nasser Yassin said as Lebanon recorded its first cholera death yesterday. Twenty-six cases of cholera have been detected in Lebanon — in Akkar, North Lebanon, and the town of Arsal, in the northern Bekaa. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Programme, and The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHRC) “will ensure sewage stations and pumping water are supplied with diesel, especially in the camps in Baalbeck, Akkar, central Bekaa and west Bekaa," said Yassin. Chlorine will also be provided to disinfect the water, he added. Meanwhile, caretaker Health Minister Firas Abiad conducted a tour in Arsal to inspect the sanitary situation and highlight the importance of awareness campaigns to curb the spread of the disease.
“Thousands of families threatened by poverty if banks close their doors,” read signs at a protest of bank employees outside the Grand Serail in Beirut yesterday. Protesters called for improved security measures while banks remain closed following a spree of holdups by depositors forcibly demanding their own funds. Employees called for improved security measures and announced their refusal to work under the pressure of the threats. The Association of Banks in Lebanon announced last Friday that branches would again close indefinitely, after a brief, partial reopening at limited branch capacity and requiring customers to make appointments. Sali Hafez and two of her accomplices — whose holdup of a Sodeco Blom Bank kicked off 15 other similar incidents — are scheduled to attend a second hearing session before Beirut's first investigative judge Charbel Abou Samra, who released Hafez on conditional bail after a first hearing last week.
“There was no concrete evidence to arrest them,” said lawyer Eliane Fakhry, confirming the release of the last Ain al-Rummaneh residents held in connection to the Oct. 14, 2021, Tayyouneh clashes. “Three-quarters of [detained Ain al-Rummaneh residents] were at home when the clashes took place, the others were simply defending themselves,” Fakhry added. The clashes are thought to have broken out when Ain al-Rummaneh residents opened fire on marching Hezbollah and Amal Movement supporters, reportedly from the Chiyah neighborhood, calling for the deposition of Judge Tarek Bitar, the lead investigator in the Aug. 4, 2020 port blast probe. Nineteen Ain al-Rummaneh residents were arrested after the clashes and charged with "murder, attempted murder, inciting sectarian discord and forming an armed group," Fakhry said. Three people from the Chiyah neighborhood are also still in detention. The clashes left seven people dead, including six men close to Hezbollah and Amal and a civilian woman, while several dozen were injured.
“The people’s anger is great and their concern is greater,” Bebnine mayor Zaher al-Kassar said, as families of transit migrants currently detained abroad blocked a road in Akkar to protest “the state’s procrastination” in repatriating their relatives. “The situation of our children in Greece and Turkey has become difficult and can no longer be tolerated,” protesters said. Kassar called on authorities to act on promises they made two weeks ago to expedite communication with Greek and Turkish authorities, which are allegedly demanding a release fee. Detention by foreign authorities is only one of the perils faced by irregular migrants, whose departures from Lebanon more than doubled for a second year in 2022 in an attempt to flee increasingly bleak economic conditions. More than one hundred people drowned after a failed migration attempt last month.
In case you missed it, here's our must-read story from yesterday: “Maritime border: The complete text of the agreement between Lebanon and Israel.”
Compiled by Abbas Mahfouz