Facing long lines and bread shortages, Lebanon's government has been forced to give private importers $15 million to bring more wheat into the country. But it's a short-term fix for a government that is broke and waiting for the IMF to approve a bailout deal. And nations across the Middle East may be looking for similar solutions as they struggle with the fallout from Russia's invasion of Ukraine—both countries are key wheat producers, and exports are effectively cut off by the war. Oxfam is warning that wheat reserves could run out within weeks in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Mercy Corps reports that food prices are up in rebel-held northwest Syria, where food security was already a major concern. Last month Egypt put a cap on unsubsidized bread prices before they could get too high. Yemen, which imports the vast majority of its food, is of particular concern as it already has so many hungry people and is heavily dependent on Ukrainian wheat. Last week, UNICEF said that "the number of malnourished children [in the region] is likely to drastically increase."
Heavy rains, wind and snow have hit displaced people living across northern Syria hard this month, as camps flooded and tents collapsed. Forecasts predict even lower temperatures in the coming days. Three children are already reported to have died—one when snow caused a family's tent to collapse; two more when a heater set their tent on fire. These deaths have become a tragically predictable feature of the Syrian war, as a large number of the country's 6.7 million internally displaced people live in shelters that can't withstand winter weather. The same is true for many Syrian refugees in places like neighboring Lebanon, who are forced to brave the cold in makeshift settlements. Fuel is costly and can be hard to come by, so some people take dangerous steps to stay warm. As Sherine Ibrahim, country director of CARE Turkey, said in a statement on Jan. 18: "During the cold winter, mothers are usually the last ones to eat, and children are usually the first ones to freeze."
As before, thoroughly controlled elections were held in Syria on May 26, with completely predictable results. Regime officials have declared Bashar al-Assad the winner with 95.1% of the vote. This is even higher than the 88.7% claimed by Assad in 2014, Syria's first presidential ballot since his father Hafez died in 2000 (who had held even more thoroughly controlled elections only rarely after taking power in a 1970 coup d'etat). Assad ran against two nominal challengers, with another 49 candidates disqualified. State TV and official news agency SANA promoted Assad relentlessly; his posters were displayed on walls and billboards throughout regime-controlled territory.
Frustration over a strict COVID-19 lockdown and a collapsing economy exploded into protests in Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli, where a government building was set aflame on the night of Jan. 28, and several days of clashes between security forces and demonstrators left one person dead and more than 100 injured. Lebanon is in the midst of a 24-hour curfew, with even supermarkets closed—a measure that authorities defended as necessary given a surge of coronavirus cases that has left the healthcare system struggling to cope. But crippling poverty is on the rise in Lebanon—thanks to an ongoing financial crisis, compounded by the global pandemic and an August explosion at the Beirut port—and some argue that the strict containment rules go too far. Some local aid groups say they have been denied permission to bring help, including much-needed food, to vulnerable families.
US-mediated talks opened Oct. 14 between Israel and Lebanon, aimed at resolving the long-standing maritime border dispute between the two countries. At issue in the talks, held in Lebanon's coastal border town of Naqoura, is an 860-square-kilometer patch of the Mediterranean Sea where each side lays territorial claim. The conflict stems from differing demarcation methods: Israel marks the border as being at a 90-degree angle to the land border, while Lebanon marks it as a continuation of the land borderline. The issue grew more pressing with the discovery of abundant hydrocarbon reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean's Levant Basin. Lebanon, which sought to pursue gas drilling off its coast, submitted its demarcation of the maritime borders to the UN a decade ago, claiming this area as within its Exclusive Economic Zone. Israel called this an infringement of its rights, and submitted its own version of the border demarcation to the UN.
As rescue workers continue to look for survivors amid the rubble of a massive explosion that killed a reported 130 people in Beirut's port on Aug. 4, the humanitarian implications of the blast in Lebanon's capital will likely not be clear for some time. At least 4,000 people are said to have been wounded, and the death toll from the blast could still rise. Hospitals have been struggling to deal with the influx of injured people as buildings collapsed and windows shattered throughout central Beirut. While the exact cause of the explosion is unclear, government officials said it was related to a large amount of ammonium nitrate confiscated years ago and stored at the port. Ammonium nitrate can be used as both a fertiliser and in bombs, but must be mixed with another substance to ignite.
Three years after her arrest and torture by security forces in her native country, Egyptian LGBT activist Sarah Hegazi killed herself in exile in Canada on June 14, prompting an outpouring of sympathy and anger on social media. Hegazi, 30, an openly gay woman and rights advocate, was among a group of activists arrested in September 2017 after raising a rainbow flag at a Cairo concert of the Lebanese indie band Mashrou Leila, which includes gay members. Hegazi was charged with joining an illegal group promoting "deviant thought." She fled to Canada after being released on bail in January 2018. The incident was followed by a harsh crackdown on Egypt's LGBT community.
In countries across the world, the impoverished are in the paradoxical position of being disproportionately impacted both by COVID-19 and by the police-state measures imposed in response to the pandemic—and consequent economic pain. In Lebanon, which had been in the midst of a national uprising before lockdown orders were imposed in March, protests have been re-ignited just as the lockdown is being eased—and with far greater rage. Violence escalated April 28 in the northern city of Tripoli as residents angered by the country's economic collapse set banks on fire and met volleys of tear-gas from security forces with barrages of pelted stones. The outburst came at the end of a massive funeral procession for a young man who died the previous day, apparently after being shot in a street clash with army troops. Mirroring a similar incident in Venezuela last week, mourners dubbed the deceased "Martyr of the Hunger Revolution." (WaPo, Foreign Policy)