Venezuelans Protest Against Dictator Maduro In 4th Week, Protesting Starvation

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF REUTERS NEWS AGENCY)

By Brian Ellsworth and Diego Oré | CARACAS

Venezuelans erected barricades with garbage and even bathtubs on Monday and snarled traffic with mass “sit-ins” along major thoroughfares to press their demand for early elections as anti-government protests entered a fourth week.

Ten people have been killed during clashes this month between security forces armed with rubber bullets and tear gas and protesters sometimes throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails.

At least 10 people have also died during night-time looting.

President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government accuses foes of seeking a violent coup with U.S. connivance, while the opposition says he is a dictator repressing peaceful protest.

The opposition’s main demands are for elections, the release of jailed activists and autonomy for the opposition-led congress. But protests are also fueled by the crippling economic crisis in the oil-rich nation of 30 million people.

“I have an empty stomach because I can’t find food,” said Jeannette Canozo, a 66-year-old homemaker, who said police used rubber bullets against protesters blocking a Caracas avenue with trash and bathtubs in the early morning.

Demonstrators wore the yellow, blue and red colors of Venezuela’s flag and held signs denouncing shortages, inflation and violent crime as they chanted: “This government has fallen!”

In the capital, they streamed from several points onto a major highway, where hundreds of people sat, carrying bags of supplies, playing card games, and shielding themselves from the sun with hats and umbrellas.

In western Tachira, at another of the “sit-ins” planned for all of Venezuela’s 23 states, some played the board-game Ludo in the street, while others played soccer or enjoyed street theater.

At protests in southern Bolivar state, a university professor gave a lecture on politics while some people sat down to play Scrabble and others cooked soup over small fires in the streets.

The demonstrations were largely peaceful by mid-afternoon, although there were some scattered reports of security forces dispersing people with tear gas.

“In the morning they appear peaceful, in the afternoon they turn into terrorists and at night bandits and killers,” senior Socialist Party official Diosdado Cabello said. “Let me tell them straight: we’re not going, Nicolas (Maduro) is not going.”

WORST UNREST IN THREE YEARS

This month’s unrest is Venezuela’s worst since 2014 when 43 people died in months of mayhem sparked by protests against Maduro, the 54-year-old successor to late leftist leader Hugo Chavez.

The latest protests began when the pro-government Supreme Court assumed the powers of the opposition-controlled congress. The court quickly reversed course, but its widely condemned move still galvanized the opposition.

The government’s disqualification from public office of two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who would be an opposition favorite to replace Maduro, gave further impetus to the demonstrations.

“I’m staying here until 6 p.m. We’re simply warming up because the day will come that we are all coming to the street until this government goes,” said Gladys Avariano, a 62-year-old lawyer, under an umbrella at the Caracas “sit-in.”

More than 1,400 people have been arrested this month over the protests, with 636 still detained as of Monday, according to local rights group Penal Forum.

Facing exhortations from around the world to allow Venezuelans to vote, Maduro has called for local state elections – delayed from last year – to be held soon.

But there is no sign the government will allow the next presidential election, slated for late 2018, to be brought forward as the opposition demands.

Given the country’s economic crisis, with millions short of food, pollsters say the ruling Socialist Party would fare badly in any vote at the moment.

Trying to keep the pressure on Maduro, the opposition is seeking new strategies, such as a silent protest held on Saturday and Monday’s “sit-ins”.

While some small demonstrations have been held in poorer and traditionally pro-government areas, most poor Venezuelans are more preoccupied with putting food on the table.

(Additional reporting by Andreina Aponte, Carlos Garcia Rawlins and Efrain Otero in Caracas, and Anggy Polanco and Carlos Eduardo Ramirez in San Cristobal; Writing by Girish Gupta and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Tom Brown and James Dalgleish)

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A Young Prince is Re-imagining Saudi Arabia

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

A Young Prince is Reimagining Saudi Arabia

Two years into his campaign as change agent in this conservative oil kingdom, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appears to be gaining the confidence and political clout to push his agenda of economic and social reform.

The young prince outlined his plans in a nearly 90-minute conversation Tuesday night at his office here. Aides said it was his first lengthy on-the-record interview in months. He offered detailed explanations about foreign policy, plans to privatize oil giant Saudi Aramco, strategy for investment in domestic industry, and liberalization of the entertainment sector, despite opposition from some people.

Mohammed bin Salman said that the crucial requirement for reform is public willingness to change. “The most concerning thing is if the Saudi people are not convinced. If the Saudi people are convinced, the sky is the limit.” he said.

Change seems increasingly desired in this young, restless country.

A recent Saudi poll found that 85 percent of the public, if forced to choose, would support the government rather than other authorities, said Abdullah al-Hokail, the head of the government’s public opinion center.

He added that 77 percent of those surveyed supported the government’s “Vision 2030” reform plan, and that 82 percent favored entertainment performances at public gatherings. Though these aren’t independently verified numbers, they do indicate the direction of popular feeling, which Saudis say is matched by anecdotal evidence.

“MBS,” as the deputy crown prince is known, said that he was “very optimistic” about President Trump. He described Trump as “a president who will bring America back to the right track” after Barack Obama, whom Saudi officials mistrusted. “Trump has not yet completed 100 days, and he has restored all the alliances of the US with its conventional allies.”

A sign of the kingdom’s embrace of the Trump administration was the visit here this week by US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. While the Obama administration had criticized the Saudi war in Yemen, Mattis discussed the possibility of additional US support if the Houthis there don’t agree to a UN-brokered settlement.

(Writer’s note: I traveled to Saudi Arabia as part of the press corps accompanying Mattis.)

Mohammed bin Salman has been courting Russia, as well as the United States, and he offered an intriguing explanation of Saudi Arabia’s goal in this diplomacy.

“The main objective is not to have Russia place all its cards in the region behind Iran,” he said. To convince Russia that Riyadh is a better bet than Tehran, the Saudis have been “coordinating our oil policies recently” with Moscow, he said, which “could be the most important economic deal for Russia in modern times.”

There’s less apparent political tension than a year ago, when many analysts saw a rivalry between Mohammed bin Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who is officially next in line for the throne.

The deputy crown prince appears to be firmly in control of Saudi military strategy, foreign policy and economic planning. He has gathered a team of technocrats who are much younger and more activist than the kingdom’s past leadership.

Reform plans appear to be moving ahead slowly but steadily. Mohammed bin Salman said that the budget deficit had been cut; non-oil revenue increased 46 percent from 2014 to 2016 and is forecast to grow another 12 percent this year. Unemployment and housing remain problems, he said, and improvement in those areas isn’t likely until between 2019 and 2021.

The biggest economic change is the plan to privatize about 5 percent of Saudi Aramco, which Mohammed bin Salman said will take place next year. This public offering would probably raise hundreds of billions of dollars and be the largest such sale in financial history. The exact size of the offering will depend on financial-market demand and the availability of good options for investing the proceeds, the prince told me.

The rationale for selling a share of the kingdom’s oil treasure is to raise money to diversify the economy away from reliance on energy. One priority is mining, which would tap an estimated $1.3 trillion in potential mineral wealth.

The Saudi official listed other investment targets: creating a domestic arms industry, reducing the $60 billion to $80 billion the kingdom spends annually to buy weapons abroad; producing automobiles in Saudi Arabia to replace the roughly $14 billion the government spends annually for imported vehicles; and creating domestic entertainment and tourism industries to capture some of the $22 billion that Saudis spend traveling overseas each year.

The entertainment industry is a proxy for the larger puzzle of how to unlock the Saudi economy. Changes have begun.

A Japanese orchestra performed here this month, before a mixed audience of families. A Comic Con took place in Jeddah recently, with audience dressing up as characters from the TV show “Supernatural” and other favorites. Comedy clubs feature sketch comedians (but no female stand-up comics, yet).

These options are a modest revolution for a Saudi Arabia where the main entertainment venues, until recently, were restaurants and shopping malls. The modern world, in all its raucousness, is coming, for better or worse.

King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh hosted a Monster Jam last month with souped-up trucks. There are plans for a Six Flags theme park south of Riyadh.

Maya al-Athel, one of the dozens of young people hatching plans at the Saudi General Entertainment Authority, said in an interview that she’d like to bring a Museum of Ice Cream, like one she found in New York, to the kingdom.

“We want to boost the culture of entertainment,” said Ahmed al-Khatib, a former investment banker who’s chairman of the entertainment authority. His target is to create six public entertainment options every weekend for Saudis. But the larger goal, he said, is “spreading happiness.”

The instigator of this attempt to reimagine the kingdom is the 31-year-old deputy crown prince. With his brash demeanor, he’s the opposite of the traditional Bedouin reserve of past Saudi leaders. Unlike so many Saudi princes, he wasn’t educated in the West, which may have preserved the raw combative energy that is part of his appeal for young Saudis.

The trick for Mohammed bin Salman is to maintain the alliance with the United States, without seeming to be America’s puppet. “We have been influenced by US a lot,” he said. “Not because anybody exerted pressure on us — if anyone puts pressure on us, we go the other way. But if you put a movie in the cinema and I watch it, I will be influenced.” Without this cultural nudge, he said, “we would have ended up like North Korea.” With the United States as a continuing ally, “undoubtedly, we’re going to merge more with the changes in the world.”

Mohammed bin Salman is careful when he talks about religious issues. So far, he has treated the religious authorities as allies against radicalism rather than cultural adversaries. He argues that extreme religious conservatism in Saudi Arabia is a relatively recent phenomenon, born in reaction to the 1979 Iranian revolution and the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Sunni radicals later that year as a reaction to the Shi’ite radicalism.

“I’m young. Seventy percent of our citizens are young,” the prince said. “We don’t want to waste our lives in this whirlpool that we were in the past 30 years. We want to end this epoch now. We want, as the Saudi people, to enjoy the coming days, and concentrate on developing our society and developing ourselves as individuals and families, while retaining our religion and customs. We will not continue to be in the post-’79 era,” he concluded. “That age is over.”

The Washington Post

Egypt And U.S. Share Comprehensive Efforts To Combat Terrorism

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

Cairo – Conflicts in the Arab region, most notably in Syria, Libya and Yemen, should be resolved, stressed Egyptian Foreign Affairs Minister Sameh Shoukry.

The minister added there is a possibility to contain terrorism through Western intelligence agencies, not just military operations.

Speaking to Asharq al-Awsat, the FM said that certain known factories are providing terrorist organizations with arms and equipment, calling for serious and effective cooperation to end this.

Shoukry pointed out that the US administration shares the same vision as Egypt in countering terrorism. He also discussed the situation in the region and the importance of giving people a chance to end their struggles and solve their problems.

When asked if there were any initiatives for a solution in Yemen, Shoukry replied that they are monitoring the UN envoy and other countries’ efforts to establish a resolution according to the agreed bases, such as the outcomes of the national dialogue, the Gulf initiative and supporting the legitimacy.

On terrorism, the FM stressed that Egypt will continue to fight it, especially after the two attacks on the Tanta and Alexandria Churches earlier in April.

Shoukry stated that he believes terrorism is expanding because the international effort that has been established did not succeed in containing terrorism, except in Iraq recently.

He added that the situations in Syria and Libya are complicated and terrorist organizations are spreading in Africa. He also cited the frequent attacks in Europe and Egypt that are evidence of the continued presence of these terror organizations.

According to the minister, the international community should “credibly tackle the matter because it is impossible that these organizations receive weapons and support unbeknownst to the western intelligence.”

Shoukry said: “If there a real international will to fight terrorism, then the international community should begin with determining how these terrorist organizations receive all these advanced weapons and equipment.”

The FM said it is “impossible” that intelligence agencies are unable to trace and determine the parties and states responsible for backing terrorist organizations. He added that this is crucial for the credibility of anyone who says they are fighting terror.

Commenting on Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi’s recent trip to the US, Shoukry explained that it took place shortly after US President Donald Trump came to office and when the US policy was still being shaped.

He did say however certain concepts were agreed upon, like fighting terrorism.

When asked whether Egypt will continue to unite all three Libyan parties, Shoukry stressed that his country never did and never will stop trying to unite Libyan parties. He explained that there are three institutions in Libya: presidential council, the parliament and the state’s council, which will form a committee to agree on the amendments needed to the Sukhayrat agreement.

He added that this constant effort with Libyan leaderships, which have met with Egyptian officials in Cairo, will continue until they are successful.

The minister stressed that Egypt aims to have natural relations with regional countries according to certain bases, which include mutual respect for sovereignties.

Furthermore, Cairo does not interfere in internal affairs and does not support organizations that back terrorism.

The FM was in Sudan recently on a visit, which he described as having “positive outcomes”.

He stated that it was an opportunity to review bilateral relations and the outcomes of the meetings of the joint high committee. He also explained that Egypt and Sudan agreed on a mechanism for political dialogue and discussed the regional situation.

The minister stated that bilateral relations might have had some misunderstandings or misinterpretations, which drove brotherly relations off their track.

When asked if the past has been forgotten, Shoukry stressed that Cairo is committed to a strategic ties with Sudan, which goes beyond any special relationships, adding: “Egypt does not conspire against or interfere in the affairs of any state.”

On Ethiopia, Shoukry said that both Cairo and Addis Ababa requested better coordination and asked for more frequent meetings. He explained that this could make it clearer to the public that issues are being discussed frankly and openly.

When asked about the Egyptian-Ethiopian relations, Shoukry said that Ethiopian FM Workneh Gebeyehu conveyed his country’s prime minister’s message to Sisi during his recent visit to Cairo. He added that the visit was an opportunity to discuss the importance of the mutual relations which are based on respect and common interests.

The Ethiopian FM stressed publically that his country will not take any move that could harm Egyptian interests. Meanwhile, Shoukry confirmed that Egypt is concerned with the Ethiopian development efforts, expressing Egypt’s willingness to be part of it through investments.

Shoukry said that the two countries agreed on dialogue to reach an ongoing mechanism to hold meetings every two months in order to discuss any misunderstanding or misinterpretation that could lead to wrong assumptions.

Sierra Leone: VP Sam Sumana Has His Diplomatic Passport Withdrawn

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE ‘GLOBAL TIMES’ FROM CHINA)

MANJOROKA

The Return Of VP Sam Sumana & The Withdrawal Of His Diplomatic Passport

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By Sorie Fofana………………………..

During his Presidential campaign in the run-up to the 2007 Presidential and Parliamentary elections, Hon. Ernest Bai Koroma made series of overseas trips to Europe and the United States of America.

As Leader of the Opposition and APC Member of Parliament, he was entitled to a Service Passport.

During one of his foreign tours, he arrived in London on his way to Freetown. On the day he was due to fly out of London, Mr. Koroma realized that, he needed some consular assistance at the Sierra Leone High Commission in London.

V.P. Sam Sumana

V.P. Sam Sumana

The Consular Section at the Sierra Leone High Commission in London normally closes to the public between 1pm and 3pm. Unfortunately it was during that break period that, Mr. Ernest Bai Koroma and some of his supporters in the UK arrived at the Chancery Building at 41 Eagle Street, Holborn, London in 2006.

Normally, no one is allowed in the building (especially in the Consular Section) during that time (1pm and 3pm).

One of his supporters, Alim Bangura (he is now one of his body guards) had accompanied him to the Chancery Building on that day.

Alim was (is) a very good friend of mine. He telephoned me to complain that, they needed access to the Consular Section but they had been denied such access. I came down from my office to meet with them. It was quite a relief when Mr. Ernest Bai Koroma saw me. I never knew that, he was the one that needed consular assistance.

Alim told me that, Mr. Koroma wanted some consular assistance but they had not been allowed into the building because of the break period.

I allowed them in the building and took them to the Consular Section and explained to the Assistant Consular Officer that, Mr. Koroma needed urgent consular assistance as he was due to fly out of the United Kingdom that day. And I introduced him as a Member of Parliament and the Leader of the Opposition in Sierra Leone.

The Assistant Consular Officer said that, he needed to be instructed before he could offer any sort of assistance to Mr. Ernest Bai Koroma.

I told him that, as a diplomatic staff, I could guaranty that Mr. Koroma was what he said he was.

After I insisted that, he must obey my instruction, the Assistant Consular Officer agreed to render the much-needed assistance to Mr. Ernest Bai Koroma.

I accompanied them out of the building and advised them to use the tube instead of driving in the crawling London vehicular traffic to Gatwick International Airport.

One year later, Mr. Ernest Bai Koroma visited the High Commission in London as the elected President of the Republic of Sierra Leone.

The Assistant Consular Officer did not go to work on the day President Koroma officially visited the Chancery Building at 41 Eagle Street with a retinue of his newly appointed Cabinet Ministers including Alhaji Alpha Kanu (Presidential Affairs Minister), Hon. Alhaji Ibrahim Kemoh Sesay (Minister of Transport and Aviation) and Mrs. Zainab Hawa Bangura (Minister of Foreign Affairs).

The rest, as they say, is history.

Sam Sumana’s Return

After almost one year in self-imposed exile in Ghana, the elected former Vice President of Sierra Leone, Alhaji Chief Samuel Sam Sumana returned home on Thursday April 13, 2017. He received a tumultuous welcome from his supporters, both at Lungi and in Freetown.

VP Sam Sumana was driven in a huge motorcade to his private residence at Hill Station.

Diplomatic Passport

As Vice President, Chief Sam Sumana was a diplomatic passport holder. His spouce is also entitled to a diplomatic passport.

It is understood that, on arrival at Lungi International Airport on Thursday 13th April, 2017 VP Sam Sumana’s diplomatic passport was withdrawn from him by a senior Immigration official apparently acting on orders from State House.

Is This The Way To Treat A Former Vice President?

Why did the government decide to withdraw VP Sam Sumana’s diplomatic passport at the Lungi International Airport? Why didn’t the government authorize the Immigration Department to write to VP Sam Sumana, officially withdrawing from him the privilege of carrying a diplomatic passport?

Why didn’t the government wait until the passport expires and decide not to renew it again? This is not the way to do politics. Absolutely not!

How would President Koroma feel if he leaves office and all his privileges and entitlements are withdrawn from him?

How many sacked Ministers and diplomats have retired their diplomatic passports to the Immigration Department after they left office?

Sam Sumana: The Presidential Candidate

A new political party or movement calling itself C4C (Coalition for Change) has chosen VP Sam Sumana as their Presidential candidate for the March 7, 2018 elections. No matter what anybody says, VP Sam Sumana has suddenly become a key stakeholder in the politics of Sierra Leone. Afterall, he is no longer an ordinary Sierra Leonean. He has served as Vice President of Sierra Leone for almost seven years. Such a man cannot be easily dismissed. He is a Politician with a strong political base.

Those people in the APC who are victimizing and even harassing their opponents in other political parties must not forget that, they will not be in power forever.

The outcome of the 2018 elections can go either way. So, people like Albert Logus Koroma and Karamoh Kabba must be very careful the way that they conduct themselves during this election campaign period.

Those victimizing and molesting Ambassador Alimamy Petito Koroma, Hon. Ibrahim Bundu and others in the APC should think twice and remember that, nothing last forever.

May common sense prevail!

Coexistence In The Middle-East (And Every Where else On Earth): Or Self Inflected Armageddon?

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY  ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

Opinion

Coexistence Is the Last Chance to Avoid the Precipice

Last week, Egypt’s Coptic Christians cancelled Easter celebrations in mourning for those who were killed in two separate terrorist explosions targeting churches in the cities of Tanta and Alexandria.

In Iraq too, new maps are being drawn by sectarianism, while minorities shrink and ethno-religious fabric change under the violence perpetrated by Iran on one side and ISIS on another.

Likewise, we openly witness how shredded Syria has become, and under the eyes of the international community, it is well on the road of partition and population exchange– finally, the less said the better it is when the subject matter is ongoing events in occupied Palestinian territories.

Given this painful regional climate, the ongoing arguments about Lebanon’s future electoral system become a travesty, not much different from the ‘crowded’ field of Iran’s presidential elections where neither votes nor abundance of candidates mean a thing against what the Supreme Leader utters and the elitist Revolutionary Gaurd the (IRGC) dictates.

In Lebanon, the Middle East’s ‘democratic’ soft belly, the Lebanese’ daily bread and butter is endless and absurd arguments and counter-arguments about what the most appropriate electoral system should look like in upcoming parliamentary elections. This is not actually new. Moreover, true intentions behind what is going on have nothing to do with what is being said, whether the intention is escalation or hypocrisy.

The real problem is that the Lebanese are acutely divided on several basic issues regarding conditions of coexistence, political representation and even the meaning of democracy.

For a start, one must ask oneself whether the next elections – regardless of what system is adopted – are going to produce any change in the status quo? Is there any common Lebanese vision as to what the country’s identity is among the ostensible ‘allies’, let alone political adversaries and those dependent on foreign backing and sectarian hegemony?

Then, one may also ask – given defective mechanisms of governance – would ‘state institutions’ still be relevant and meaningful? Would any electoral law be effective in the light of accelerating disproportionate sectarian demographics, and the fact that one large religious sect enjoys a monopoly of military might outside the state’s umbrella, while still sharing what is underneath that umbrella?

The other day in his Easter sermon the Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Bechara Ra’i said “the (Lebanese) Christians are nobody’s bullied weaklings, but are rather indispensable (!)…”. This is tough talk indeed, but it too is not new.

From what is widely known about Cardinal Ra’i, even before assuming the Patriarchate, is that he is highly interested in politics, and that political views are as candid as they are decisive. On Syria, in particular, he has been among the first to warn the West against and dissuade its leaders from supporting the Syrian uprising; when he claimed during his visits – beginning with France – that any regime that may replace Bashar Al-Assad’s may be worse, and thus it would better to keep him in power.

The same path has been followed by current Lebanese president Michel Aoun, who was strongly backed by Hezbollah, to the extent that the latter forced a political vacuum on Lebanon lasting for over two years.

Of course, Hezbollah, in the meantime, had been imposing its hegemony over Lebanon, fighting for Al-Assad in Syria, and training the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen as part of Iran’s project of regional dominance. In promoting this ‘project’ globally, but particularly in the West, Iran has given it the themes of ‘fighting terrorism’ – meaning ‘Sunni Muslim terrorism’- and ‘protection of minorities’ within the framework of a tactical ‘coalition of the minorities’.

A few days ago Aoun said during an interview that “the aim behind what is taking place in the Orient is to empty it of Christians and partition the region into several states”. Again, this is not something new, as it used to be said on the murder and kidnapping road blocks during the dark days of the Lebanese War between 1975 and 1990. Those days the fears of uprooting were common and widespread; reaching the climax within the Christian community with rumors that the mission of American diplomat Dean Brown was to evacuate Lebanon’s Christians to Canada, and within the Druze community during ‘the Mountain War’ (1983-1984) that they would be expelled to southern Syria.

However, Aoun, as it seems, has not been quite aware of who was applying the final touches on population exchange, and drawing the map for the ‘future’ states he has been warning against. He has simply ignored the full picture, turning instead, to repeat old talk in order to justify temporary interests that are harmful if not fatal to minorities, rather than being beneficial and protective.

In this context, come the ‘try-to-be-smart’ attempts to impose a new electoral law in Lebanon as a means of blackmail, as if the country’s sectarian ‘tribal chieftains’ are naïve or debutants in the arena of sectarian politics. The latest has come from Gebran Bassil, the foreign minister and President Aoun’s son-in-law, when he expressed his “willingness to entertain the idea of a Senate, on the condition that it is headed by a Christian!”. This pre-condition was quickly rejected by the Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri on the basis that the presidency of a Senate, as approved in “Taif Agreement” – which is now part of Lebanon’s Constitution – was allocated to the Druze; and thus, what Bassil had suggested was unconstitutional.

It is worth mentioning here that all suggestions regarding the future electoral law have ignored the issue of a Senate. It was has also been obvious that another item in the “Taif Agreement” was being intentionally ignored too, which is adopting ‘Administrative De-Centralization’.

However, if some Lebanese parties feel uncomfortable with the idea of ‘De-Centralization’, more so as both Iraq and Syria seem to be on their way to actual partition, it is not possible anymore to separate Lebanon’s politics from its demographics.

The latter are now being affected by radical and everlasting demographic changes occurring across the country’s disintegrating eastern borders with Syria. These include what is being reported – without being refuted – about widespread settlement and naturalization activities in Damascus and its countryside. Furthermore, once the population exchange between Shi’ite ‘pockets’ of northern Syria and the Sunni majority population of the Barada River valley is completed, the new sectarian and demographic fabric of Damascus and its countryside would gain a strategic depth and merge with a similar fabric in eastern Lebanon.

This is a danger that Lebanese Christians, indeed, all Lebanese, Syrians, Iraqis and all Arabs, must be aware of and sincere about. The cost of ignoring facts on the ground is tragic, as blood begets blood, exclusion justifies exclusion, and marginalization undermines coexistence.

Nation-building is impossible in the absence of a free will to live together. It is impossible in a climate of lies, while those who think they are smart gamble on shifting regional and global balances of power.

Eyad Abu Shakra

Eyad Abu Shakra

Eyad Abu Shakra is the managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat. He has been with the newspaper since 1978.

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Sessions: We’ll fund the wall ‘one way or the other’

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF CNN)

Sessions: We’ll fund the wall ‘one way or the other’

Story highlights

  • Sessions said they can get the money for the wall
  • Trump promised Mexico would pay for it

Washington (CNN) Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Sunday he does not expect the Mexican government to outright pay for President Donald Trump’s border wall, but there are a number of ways to extract the billions of dollars needed to build it.

Sessions made his comments in an appearance on ABC’s “This Week,” where he was attempting to square Trump’s promise that Mexico would pay for the border wall with Mexico’s firm position to the contrary.
“We’re going to get it paid for one way or the other,” Sessions said.
Trump took to Twitter on Sunday morning to say the wall would stop drugs and the gang MS-13. He also said that Mexico would pay for the wall “in some form.”
Trump promised during the campaign that within his first 100 days as president he would get Congress to pass legislation fully funding the wall and establishing mandatory minimum prison sentences for people illegally entering the US after already being deported. That promise, one of many in his “Contract with the American Voter,” said Mexico would reimburse the US for the cost of the wall.
Trump has also threatened to target remittances, or cash transfers from people within the US to people in Mexico.
Sessions referenced a Treasury Department watchdog report during the Obama administration that said excess payments of about $4 billion a year were going to people that shouldn’t get them, and he said reining in the problem could lead to savings over time that could pay for the wall.
“These are mostly Mexicans,” Sessions said. “And those kind of things add up. Four billion a year for 10 years is 40 billion.”
The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration issued a report in 2011 saying people who were not authorized to work in the US were paid $4.2 billion in refundable tax credits in one year.
The Justice Department did not respond Sunday to a question asking if the report is the one Sessions referenced. The Treasury inspector general also did not return a request for information on whether any actions were taken following the release of the report and if more up-to-date figures exist.
An internal estimate from Customs and Border Protection put the cost of the wall at $21.6 billion, while an estimate from Democrats on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee said the wall could cost as much as $66.9 billion.
Sessions implied other actions at the border and in trade could pay for the wall, although he said he did not expect the Mexican government itself to foot the bill.
“I don’t expect the Mexican government to appropriate money for it,” Sessions said. “But there are ways that we can deal with our trade situation to create the revenue to pay for it. No doubt about it.”
The Trump administration has requested a $1 billion “down payment” from Congress to begin construction of the wall. Administration officials in televised interviews on Sunday said funding for the wall is a priority in budget negotiations ahead of a potential government shutdown Friday, but stopped short of saying Trump would not accept a bill that didn’t include the funding

Russia hacked Danish defense for two years, minister tells newspaper

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE REUTERS NEWS AGENCY)

Russia hacked Danish defense for two years, minister tells newspaper

Russia has hacked the Danish defense and gained access to employees’ emails in 2015 and 2016, NATO member Denmark’s defense minister told newspaper Berlingske on Sunday.

The report comes at a time when several Western governments, including the United States, France and Britain, have accused Russia of resorting to hacking to influence elections — allegations Moscow has repeatedly dismissed as baseless.

A report from the Danish Defense Intelligence Service’s unit for cyber security said “a foreign player” had spied against Danish authorities and gained access to non-classified documents.

It did not name the country behind the espionage, but Foreign Minister Claus Hjort Frederiksen told Berlingske it was Russia.

“It is linked to the intelligence services or central elements in the Russian government, and it is a constant battle to keep them away,” Frederiksen told the newspaper.

A spokeswoman from the Danish Defense Ministry confirmed that the minister had been quoted correctly but said he would give no further comments for the time being.

Spokespeople at the Kremlin were not available to comment on Sunday.

Frederiksen told Berlingske the hacking had been possible due to insufficient security around emails with non-classified material, something that has since been improved.

The group behind the attack went under the name APT28 or Fancy Bear and was one of two groups which allegedly gained illegal access to U.S. democrats’ emails last year, according to Berlingske.

Frederiksen said in January that Denmark plans to increase military spending in response to Russian missile deployments in the Baltic region that it perceives as a threat.

(Reporting by Teis Jensen, additional reporting by Maria Kiselyova; editing by Clelia Oziel)

In an era of profound cultural transformation, elections and referendums have very real consequences

 

THE WEEKEND ROUNDUP 

In an era of profound cultural transformation, elections and referendums have very real consequences ― such as the repeal of environmental regulations or crackdowns on press freedom. But as much as they reveal how markedly divided societies are at this historical moment, they settle little. For those who are nostalgic for an ideal past, the challenges of a complex future wrought by globalization, digital disruption and increasing cultural diversity remain unresolved. For those looking ahead, there is no going back. The present political reaction is only the first act, not the last. It is the beginning, not the end, of the story of societies in fluid transition.

The recent Turkish referendum, like Brexit and U.S. President Donald Trump’s election, fits a pattern of a territorial divide. Residents in large cities and coastal zones linked to global integration and cosmopolitan culture represented just under half of the vote; rural, small-town and Rust Belt regions linked more to the traditions and economic structures of the past were just over half. But there is also a major difference. The populist, nationalist narrative that won the day in Great Britain and the United States championed the “left behind” and splintered the unresponsive mainstream political parties. In Turkey, the day was won by a conservative, pious and upwardly mobile constituency already empowered by some 15 years of rule by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party. The cultural duel there, backed up by neo-Islamist and nationalist statism, will thus be more intense than elsewhere.

In an interview following the historic vote in her country, novelist Elif Shafak says, “The referendum has not solved anything. If anything, it deepened the existing cultural and ideological divisions.” She also laments the decline of Turkey’s long experiment as a majority-Muslim country attempting to balance culture, secularism and Western democracy. “This is the most significant turning point in Turkey’s modern political history,” she declares. “It is a shift backwards; the end of parliamentary democracy. It is also a dangerous discontinuation of decades of Westernization, secularism and modernization; the discontinuation of Atatürk’s modern Turkey.”

Writing from Istanbul, Behlül Özkan explains the details of the constitutional referendum, how the playing field was tilted in Erdoğan’s favor and how it will have massive implications for Turkey’s future. He also emphasizes the historic importance of Turkey’s reverse. Özkan cites the political theorist Samuel Huntington who, in an essay decades ago on transitions from authoritarian rule, once defined Turkey as a clear example of a one-party system becoming more open and competitive under the constitution put in place by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. It is rare in history to move in the other direction, as Erdoğan has now accomplished.

Also writing from Istanbul, Alev Scott believes Turkey is in for “a decade of paranoia under a modern-day Sultan” who was unnerved by the slim margin of his victory. Noting a widely circulated photograph of the president at his moment of triumph, she saw a man not “celebrating victory” but “a man alarmed by near-defeat.”

Even as critics within Turkey and others abroad expressed concern over the extinguishing of democracy, Trump again showed his affinity for strongman politics by calling to congratulate Erdoğan on his victory. Yet, as with other countries from India to Argentina, there is likely another element as well to this potentially budding bromance. Sam Stein and Igor Bobic report on ethical issues raised by Trump’s business ties with Turkey. In 2012, Erdoğan joined Trump and his family to mark the opening of Trump Towers Istanbul.

China’s Government Renames 6 Cities In Norther India: They Say They Have The Right

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE HINDUSTAN TIMES)

China hits back, says it has ‘lawful right’ to standardise names in Arunachal

INDIA Updated: Apr 21, 2017 16:55 IST

Arunachal Pradesh

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang at a news conference in Beijing in October 2015. Beijing says Arunachal Pradesh is part of South Tibet with close Buddhist links, and its official map show the state as part of South Tibet. (Reuters File Photo)

China on Friday asserted that it was its “lawful right” to standardise official names for six places in Arunachal Pradesh, while its state-run media warned that India will pay “dearly” if it continues to play the Dalai Lama card.“China’s position on the eastern section of the India- China boundary is clear and consistent,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said at a media briefing here while reacting to India’s assertion that Arunachal Pradesh is its integral part.

“Relevant names have been used by ethnic Momba and Tibetan Chinese who have lived here for generations. So it is a fact that cannot be changed. To standardise these names and publicise them is a legitimate measure based on our lawful right,” he said.

Lu also countered India’s charge that China was inventing names to make its territorial claims over the area legal.

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India on Thursday hit out at China for giving Chinese names to six places in Arunachal Pradesh, saying assigning invented names to towns of the neighbour does not make illegal territorial claims legal.

External affairs ministry spokesperson Gopal Baglay in New Delhi had also asserted that Arunachal Pradesh is an integral part of India.

Earlier, the Global Times, in an op-ed article, said India will pay “dearly” if it continues the “petty game” of playing the Dalai Lama card and dismissed as “absurd” New Delhi’s reaction to China’s renaming of six places in Arunachal Pradesh.

“It is time for India to do some serious thinking over why China announced the standardised names in South Tibet at this time,” said the article titled ‘India playing Dalai card worsens territorial spats with China’.

The daily said “playing the Dalai Lama card” was never a wise choice for New Delhi.

“If India wants to continue this petty game, it will only end up in playing dearly for it,” the daily warned.

“South Tibet (Arunachal Pradesh) is historically part of China and name of the places there is part of the local ethnic culture. It is legitimate for the Chinese government to standardise the names of the places,” it said.

China claims Arunachal Pradesh as ‘South Tibet’.

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China on Wednesday had announced that it has “standardised” official names for six places in the northeastern state and termed the provocative move as a “legitimate action”.

The Chinese move came days after Beijing lodged strong protests with India over the Dalai Lama’s visit to the frontier state.

Lu had earlier said that the Chinese government was conducting the second nationwide survey on geographical names, “an important task to standardise the geographical names in the languages of ethnic minority groups.”

He had also said that more standardised names will be announced later.

Highlighting China’s stand on the border dispute, the Global Times said, “China has been making efforts to solve the territorial disputes with India, but over the past decades, India has not only increased migration to the disputed area and boosted its military construction there, but it also named Arunachal Pradesh, China’s South Tibet, as a formal state of India in 1987.”

The India-China border dispute covers the 3,488 km-long Line of Actual Control (LAC). While China claims Arunachal Pradesh as South Tibet, India asserts that the dispute covers the Aksai Chin area which was occupied by China during the 1962 war.

South Korea and Japan Feel Betrayed By “The Clown” (Trump)

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF SOUTH KOREAN NEWS AGENCY TPM)

Let’s stop for a moment and note that President Trump and his skeletal foreign policy team have accomplished the fairly difficult feat of deeply alienating South Koreans (and seemingly many Japanese as well) while notionally protecting them from the threat of a militaristic and aggressive North Korea.

As the AP noted here yesterday, countries in the region are looking at Trump as, to quote the AP, “Unpredictable. Unhinged. Dangerous.” Consider that this is in a confrontation with Kim Jong-un. North Korea under the Kim dynasty has specialized in extremely provocative, high risk gambits. Thirty four years ago, they blew up several members of the South Korean cabinet in a bomb attack in Rangoon. Kim Jong-un apparently just had his half brother killed in a poison attack in Kuala Lumpur. Trump has strong competition in the unpredictable and unhinged and dangerous department.

But what’s really driving anxiety and anger is this issue with the confusion over the whereabouts of the Carl Vinson and its carrier strike group. As I argued yesterday (and as I think is consensus opinion), the false impression seems to have been more a matter of internal confusion than intentional deception. But the South Korean press and public seems to see it very differently. Headlines in South Korea are saying that Trump lied and as this article in the Times put it, “South Koreans feel cheated after U.S. Carrier Miscue.”

Of all Trump goofs and scandals, this seems to be one of the more innocent ones in terms of intent. Maybe we’ll learn otherwise but I don’t think this was intentional. But when you’re talking tough and getting into stand offs over nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles and a major global city vulnerable to overwhelming artillery fire, you’ve got to have your shit together. You need clarity about what you’re doing and you need to be know what you’re doing and appear to know what you’re doing. Deception is an inherent part of military affairs. Strategic ambiguity is too. But if you’re going to be bluff or deceive, you need to make sure people think you were doing it on purpose. Small errors and confusions can have very, very big consequences. We can parse different quotes from the White House and Pentagon and see how the confusion arose. But step back. When you find out that the global hegemon ‘said’ its ships were in one place when they were actually thousands of miles away, that seems either weirdly duplicitous or stupid in a way that invites mockery or fear.

Here’s text from the Times about one South Korean paper’s coverage …

On Wednesday, after it was revealed that the carrier strike group was actually thousands of miles away and had been heading in the opposite direction, toward the Indian Ocean, South Koreans felt bewildered, cheated and manipulated by the United States, their country’s most important ally.

“Trump’s lie over the Carl Vinson,” read a headline on the website of the newspaper JoongAng Ilbo on Wednesday. “Xi Jinping and Putin must have had a good jeer over this one.”

“Like North Korea, which is often accused of displaying fake missiles during military parades, is the United States, too, now employing ‘bluffing’ as its North Korea policy?” the article asked.

Then there’s this from the political front …

“The 50 million South Koreans, as well as many common-sensical people around the world, cannot help but feel embarrassed and shocked,” said Youn Kwan-suk, spokesman of the main opposition Democratic Party, which is leading in voter surveys before the May 9 presidential election.

The quote from the Democratic Party spokesman centers not just on the Carl Vinson goof but a statement from President Trump claiming that Korea “used to be part of China.” The quote actually comes from the full quote version of his description of that ‘nobody could have known how complicated Korea could be’ exchange he had with President Xi of China at Mar a Lago. Quoting the President from his interview with the Wall Street Journal …

He then went into the history of China and Korea. Not North Korea, Korea. And you know, you’re talking about thousands of years …and many wars. And Korea actually used to be a part of China. And after listening for 10 minutes I realized that not — it’s not so easy. You know I felt pretty strongly that they have — that they had a tremendous power over China. I actually do think they do have an economic power, and they have certainly a border power to an extent, but they also — a lot of goods come in. But it’s not what you would think. It’s not what you would think.

To the extent we can collapse thousands of years of history into simple yeses and nos, Korea was never part of China. It’s a complicated question if you want to dig into it because the two countries’ histories are deeply intertwined. But again, short version: Korea was never part of China. And Koreans, with a strong sense of national identity, certainly don’t think that Korea was ever part of China. It must be even more bewildering and jarring to see that the President thinks this on the basis of a ten minute conversation with the President of China.

To get the full picture of what happened here, it’s important to understand that the reports of the carrier group returning to Korean waters stirred pretty intense anxiety in the first place. That doesn’t mean it was a good or bad idea. Stand-offs provoke tension even when they’re necessary and well-thought-out. But people in the region seemed to be more afraid of precipitous action from President Trump than North Korea – already a bad sign. Finding out that the US either lied or miscommunicated internally about where its ships even were just adds more fuel to the fire.

At the moment, there seems to be an active debate in the region about whether the deception was intentional and whether the US’s two key regional allies were in on it.

As one Japanese expert quoted in the Times puts it, “When it comes to matters that concern Japan, the two militaries communicate essentially in real time.” Given the depth of the US-Japan security relationship, it would be hard to believe this isn’t the case. (Hard for me to believe it’s not the same in the US-ROK (South Korea) military to military relationship.) This same expert argued that by letting the misconception persist, the Japanese were in essence cooperating with the US deception aimed at overawing the North Koreans – one that in a narrow sense may actually have worked. But this means or seems to mean that the Japanese and South Koreans were tacitly furthering a US deception or misdirection – not realizing that it wasn’t so much a deception on the US part as simply a confusion within the US government. As another Japan expert, Narushige Michishita at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo puts it with some understatement: “Whatever the case, whether it was deliberate misinformation or a miscommunication between the Pentagon and the White House, it’s quite serious. It undermines the credibility of U.S. leadership.”

Just as a point of perspective, here’s the online front page of The Korea Times, an English language Korean news publication, that I just grabbed as I was writing.

International misunderstandings happen. It is always surprising to see, even in the gravest historical crises, how much of a role chance and accident play in outcomes, sometimes tragic outcomes. That said, this is the kind of stuff that happens when you have a clown serving as President, large numbers of top position at the key departments unfilled and a climate of back-stabbing and organizational chaos.

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