Week of April 27

People inspect a bank set on fire overnight by protesters following a demonstration over the country’s deteriorating economy despite a coronavirus lockdown, in the Lebanese northern city of Tripoli on April 28, 2020. Credit: Photo by Ibrahim Chalhoub/AFP via Getty Images

Impoverished and Hungry, Lebanese Protesters Return to the Streets 

On Monday, protesters in Lebanon gathered once again, shouting “We are hungry,” and facing off with security forces during demonstrations in major cities. Lebanon is facing its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war, now compounded by a nationwide lockdown to stem the spread of the coronavirus. The Lebanese pound has lost more than half of its value, and prices have soared. Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, the World Bank projected that 45% of people in Lebanon would be below the poverty line in 2020. Now, the government believes that up to 75% of people are in need of aid, Social Affairs Minister Ramzi Musharrafieh told CNN.

One demonstrator, Fawaz Fouad al-Samman, died on Tuesday morning after sustaining gunshot wounds during clashes with the army in the northern city of Tripoli, his sister and a fellow protester said. The hospital that treated Samman’s wounds confirmed his death to news outlets. Protesters dubbed the 26-year-old as “the martyr of hunger.” In a tweet, the Lebanese army said it was “deeply sorry for the falling of a martyr” during Monday’s protests and said it has opened an inquiry into the death. The military added that rioting was carried out by “infiltrators,” and stated that it “will not tolerate any person in breach of security and stability.”

The country’s most vulnerable have experienced particular hardship as a result of COVID. According to the International Rescue Committee, 87% of refugees in the country lack food, and a majority fear eviction. Migrant rights activists point to growing unemployment among largely Asian and African female migrant workers, which has forced them out of homes and into crammed tiny apartments which they share with other workers. And, while the government has received some credit for largely succeeding in preventing a major outbreak of the virus, it has been criticized for mishandling its aid program for the country’s poor. Aid distribution has been repeatedly delayed due to political wrangling. 

Ramadan Drama Featuring Jewish and Muslim Co-existence Causes a Stir

This publicity photo shows a scene from “Umm Haroun,” a Saudi-made television series aired during Ramadan that has sparked controversy by offering a positive depiction of a Jewish community in the Gulf that existed before the creation of Israel. Credit: MBC Group

Reuters reported on the hoopla surrounding a Ramadan drama series that features normalized relations between Muslims and Jews in a fictional Gulf Arab state between the 1930s and 1950s that began airing on Friday, April 30th. The show is part of Saudi-controlled MBC’s lineup for the Muslim holy month, when viewership typically spike while families take time out from their usual schedules to fast during daylight hours.  “Umm Haroun”, is a period drama about the trials of a Jewish midwife in a multi-ethnic community. The show has received both criticism as an attempt to promote Arab “normalization” with Israel and praise for a rare exploration of the Gulf’s social history. 

The show’s writers, Bahraini brothers Muhammad and Ali Abdel Halim Shams, told Reuters that it had no political message. “People have spoken and judged before seeing it,” said Muhammad. “The message focuses on the ways of Muslims centred on showing love, good intention and peace to non-Muslims.” Furthermore, MBC spokesman Mazen Hayek said Umm Haroun’s main message was a human one – a nurse who heals people “irrespective of any consideration.” “It also focuses on tolerance, moderation and openness, showcasing that the Middle East was once a region where acceptance of one another was the norm versus the twisted interpretation and stereotyping of the region by hardliners and extremists, over the last decades.” 

Detained Egyptian Film Director Dies in Prison

Middle East Eye reported that on Friday Egyptian film director and photographer Shady Habash died in Tora prison in Cairo, according to human rights groups and advocates. Habash, 24, had been in prison since March 2018 over directing a song mocking Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Ramy Essam, who performed the song, made a post on Facebook about his friend’s passing: “Shady Habash has died. Shady was the kindest and bravest of people. He never hurt anyone. May God have mercy on him.” Middle East Eye has not been able to verify independently the reason behind Habash’s death, but a number of reports suggested that his death was avoidable.

Human rights advocate Abdelrahman Ayyash claimed that “Shadi got very sick in his prison cell, his [fellow] inmates cried for help for some time, but guards and officers had not intervened until his last breath.” The media outlet reached out to the Egyptian government for comments but received no immediate response. Habash and his colleague Mustafa Gamal were arrested following the release of a song that indirectly referenced Sisi, the former defense minister who came to power after a military coup ousted president Mohamed Morsi in 2013.

The name of the song, “Balaha”, is a derogatory nickname for Sisi, in reference to a character from a classic Egyptian movie known for being a compulsive liar. A statement by the singer, himself in exile, claimed that the Habash had nothing to do with the song’s content or message. Charges brought against Habash and Gamal include membership of a “terrorist group,” spreading false news, abuse of social media networks, blasphemy, contempt of religion and insulting the military. They both had been in pre-trial detention pending investigations since their arrests. Sisi has regularly jailed critics, including secular and Muslim Brotherhood politicians, journalists, and human rights defenders. Hundreds have died in custody through medical negligence or other poor detention conditions. MEE reached out to the Egyptian government for comments but received no immediate response. 

Afghan Government Investigates Claims of Torture and Drownings by Iran Border Police

The New York Times reported that the foreign ministry of Afghanistan said on Saturday that it was investigating claims that dozens of Afghan migrants detained in Iran were tortured by that country’s border guards and thrown into the Harirod River that flows between the two countries, where many of them drowned. Afghan news media reported that about 50 migrants being illegally smuggled into Iran – a frequent destination for Afghans escaping the war and seeking work – were caught by Iranian border guards. The reports included grainy cellphone footage showing a half-dozen corpses. Details were conflicting, but several reports suggested that as many as half the men had drowned or were unaccounted for. Iranian diplomats in Afghanistan rejected the claims based on the initial information, but promised to investigate further, Iran’s Fars news agency reported. About three million Afghans — a mix of refugees and illegal migrants — live in Iran, but in recent months, as the coronavirus gutted Iran’s economy, the flow was reversed: between January and April, about 240,000 Afghans had returned from Iran.

Palestinian workers from the occupied West Bank city of Hebron carry belongings as they cross Mitar checkpoint on their way to work in Israel. Credit: Abed Al Hashlamoun/EPA via Aljazeera

Israel Begins to Ease Covid Movement Restrictions for Palestinian Workers

On Sunday, Israel reopened a number of border crossings following an agreement with the Palestinian Authority (PA) to allow thousands of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank to seek employment opportunities, primarily in construction and agriculture. The move came in conjunction with an easing of restrictions that were in place to curb the spread of Covid-19 in Israel, which has so far recorded 16,185 positive cases and 229 deaths. Meanwhile, the PA had registered some 353 infections, many of which were believed to be contracted by workers who cross over to Israel. Under the agreement, workers will remain in Israel for “at least three weeks,” said Al Jazeera’s Nida Ibrahim, adding that workers “usually would go and come back on the same day – but after the outbreak, the agreement is that they go in and stay there.” 

Palestinian workers in Israel bring in about $2.5 billion in revenue each year to the PA’s weakened economy, according to the story. Since early March, the PA has closed schools and has imposed a state of emergency to ensure physical distancing was being observed, which led to a near-complete halt of movement.

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