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Israeli Spy Network Uncovered in Lebanon

Israeli Spy Network Uncovered in Lebanon
Israeli model and actress Bar Refaeli playing a Mossad agent in the French-Israeli movie 'Kidon,' based on the story of the assassination of Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh in Dubai.Credit: AP

Three men have been arrested by Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces in the town of Ghazieh following raids on two houses there, and two more have been picked up in the towns of Qana and Bint Jbeil, the Arabic publication Elnashra reported on Thursday. All are suspected of spying for Mossad and reportedly hail from the town of Beresheet.

The men allegedly provided critical information and communicated with their employer through encrypted online messaging, according to information supposedly obtained through interrogation.

The report on their capture also described how they were paid through the receipt of “dead letter drops” – packages placed for them in remote areas they were notified about through online messages.The Lebanese military prosecution has reportedly brought in the Information Branch intelligence unit to find out if there were others involved in the spy ring, or whether the members worked with other people involved with espionage.

Last month, Lebanese security forces reportedly captured another man suspected of spying, of facilitating the entry of other Israeli spies into the country, and even of conducting targeted killing operations for Mossad. According to Arabic newspaper al-Akhbar, he was not associated with the 17 Israeli spy networks recently busted in Lebanon, one of the largest crackdowns on such activity since 2009. The spy rings, which allegedly operated independently of one another, were apparently responsible for collecting information on both Hezbollah and Palestinian groups in Lebanon.



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Middle Eastern Countries Hedge Their Bets on a War That Isn’t Theirs

Middle Eastern Countries Hedge Their Bets on a War That Isn’t Theirs
Israeli armoured vehicles take part in a drill in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, near the border with Syria, on August 4, 2020. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP)

When the United Nations gathered at the very start of March to issue a resolution against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the votes were overwhelmingly in favor.

But in the days after, as the list of sanctions spearheaded by Washington were outlined, a stark divergence emerged between the West and the rest. Sanctions – the main punishment for Russia’s attack on its neighbor – were being primarily applied by European and North American countries. The rest of the world was hedging their bets on Russia, issuing political condemnation but not participating in economic pain.

Nowhere was this more obvious than in the Middle East, where even traditional US allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel have been circumspect, reluctant to offer either full-throated criticism of Russia, or unequivocal support for the Western-led sanctions program.

Each, in their own way, has looked at a changing world and wondered if the Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador might have spoken for them when he said, “We do not consider that [this war] concerns us.” Middle Eastern countries have their own reasons, of course, for not following America’s lead, but most have to do with the wars of the region. Vladimir Putin’s intervention on the side of the Assad regime in Damascus has put Russia at the very center of Turkish foreign policy considerations; the two countries also have close defense and energy ties.

The same is true for Israel, which is now constrained in its movements over Syrian airspace by Russian fighter jets. A rift with Russia could allow Iranian forces and those of Hezbollah to operate all the way up to Israel’s de facto borders. Russian defense systems at its base in Syria are even affecting commercial air traffic at Tel Aviv’s airport.

Differences between the White House and Saudi Arabia and the UAE are well-known, and stretch back beyond the Ukraine war. But the two major Arab oil suppliers have seemed reluctant to simply agree to an increase in oil output, which would pressure Russia while also easing pressure on American consumers, perhaps seeking political concessions.

Nor is it only the Middle East.

Of the 35 countries which abstained from the March 2 UN resolution, a majority were from Africa. Many in Africa – both in politics and among the people – still remember the role the Soviet Union played in struggles against colonialism. In other places, such as Angola, which abstained, there are still close business connections between the two countries. Russia’s defense industry, still the largest supplier of arms to sub-Saharan Africa, also plays a role.

The other notable abstention was India. Both of the world’s two most populous countries abstained, but China, as an aspiring superpower, had its own reasons, to do with opposing the US-led global order. India’s calculations, however, are closer to those of Middle Eastern countries. There are long-standing defense relations with Russia, and there is the hard realism of recognizing how close Russia is geographically to India. As close as India wants to be to the US, it also faces a tricky balancing act in Asia – trying to retain some influence with Russia so that Moscow doesn’t tilt too close to Beijing.

What the war in Ukraine, and in particular the swift and united use of sanctions by the West, has exposed is a changing world, but one whose new contours are not yet clear.

Such a direct and prolonged land war on the very borders of Nato was unexpected. In terms of its effect on geopolitics, some have compared it to the September 11, 2001 attacks, or the Iraq invasion.

Yet the political camps of this war are not quite as clear cut as those at the time of those two events. For one thing, at the time, a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union and before China had completed its rise to a global power, the United States and the West were the only game in town. The world looks very different now, with two failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an ignominious scramble by the superpower to get out of the latter just last year.

Many countries are simply not sure what this new world might look like. They are not seeking precisely to match the Non-Aligned Movement of the Cold War, but are perhaps not sure they can completely throw their lot in with one side or another – especially considering the so-far opaqueness of China’s involvement.

That is the difference between the West and much of the rest of the world. They don’t support Russia directly but they also don’t feel this war is a direct threat to them – at least not yet.

Instead of viewing it as an event that fundamentally reshapes geopolitics – and that therefore requires an unprecedented response – many countries still view it through the lens of their own national interests. In other words, as shocking as the war seems in Europe, it is politics as usual elsewhere.

That explains why even countries like Turkey that, in a hypothetical major conflict with Russia, would be very close to the front lines – and which remains the second largest army in the Nato alliance that would fight that war – is engaged in strategic balancing.

Most of the countries that abstained from the UN vote or voted in favor of it only to subsequently quietly decline to apply sanctions on Russia have used a version of the formulation that both sides ought to talk peace or that war solves little. But the formulation is merely a rhetorical gloss on a much deeper political difference between the West and the rest: For most of the rest, they don’t believe that Ukraine is their war.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.


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Israeli Forces Kill 2 Palestinians in West Bank Clashes

Israeli Forces Kill 2 Palestinians in West Bank Clashes
Palestinian mourners carry the body of Nader Rayan, 16, who was killed by Israeli forces during a raid at Balata refugee camp during his funeral in the Balata refugee camp near the West Bank city of Nablus, Tuesday, March 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

Israeli forces killed two Palestinians and wounded several others during separate raids in the occupied West Bank, the Palestinian Health Ministry said Tuesday.

Israel’s paramilitary Border Police said its forces came under attack while arresting suspected militants.

The health ministry said 16-year-old Nader Rayan was shot and killed, and three other Palestinians were wounded, in a raid in the Balata refugee camp in the northern West Bank city of Nablus.

Another Palestinian, Alaa Shiham, who was in his 20s, was killed in Qalandia refugee camp, just outside of Jerusalem. The ministry said six other Palestinians were wounded in Qalandia and taken to a hospital.

The Border Police said forces entered Balata to arrest a suspect who had an M-16 assault rifle in his possession. As they left, a group of Palestinians hurled stones and firebombs at them. The Border Police said forces “neutralized” a Palestinian who opened fire on them.

The Border Police said it arrested two wanted men in Qalandia before coming under attack by residents who hurled heavy objects from rooftops. It said the forces opened fire to disperse the demonstrators. There were no reports of any injuries among the Israelis.

Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war, and the Palestinians want it to form the main part of their future state.

The internationally recognized Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the occupied West Bank and coordinates with Israel on security matters, condemned the raids.

Israel says its military and police operations are aimed at combating terrorism, while the Palestinians view them as a means of maintaining a nearly 55-year military occupation that shows no sign of ending.

Israeli and Palestinian officials have held meetings in recent days aimed at reducing tensions ahead of Ramadan, which is expected to begin in early April. Last year, the Muslim holy month was marred by protests and clashes in Jerusalem that helped ignite an 11-day Gaza war.



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Ukraine Conflict Complicates Final Phase of Iran Nuclear Talks

Ukraine Conflict Complicates Final Phase of Iran Nuclear Talks
In this photo released by the official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during a televised video conference with an audience in the city of Tabriz commemorating the 1979 Islamic Revolution, in Tehran, Iran, Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022. Khamenei vowed that his country would ramp up development of its civilian nuclear energy program, as major world powers continued delicate talks in Vienna to revive Tehran’s landmark nuclear deal. Khamenei asserted that it had no interest in nuclear weapons. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

With the world riveted on the ghastly Russian invasion of Ukraine, the negotiators trying to resurrect the 2015 Iran nuclear deal have been working away in Vienna. Reports over the past two weeks indicate that the final issues are quietly being resolved. Iran’s team has flown back and forth to Tehran to get guidance and to brief the politicians on the technical issues, and the US is signaling cautious optimism that they’re in the final phase.

Reinstating the agreement would extend the timeline of a potential Iranian rush to make an atomic bomb to six to 12 months. As it stands, the demise of the original deal means Iran could have enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon in just three months, having accumulated stocks of the material and impeded inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Most likely the outcome will be a return to the terms of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement, not more, not less. That means the original calendar with its various timelines would remain in place; restrictions on various Iranian activities would expire at different deadlines, from 10 to 25 years from the original implementation. That may disappoint some who hoped for a “longer, stronger” deal that would add new provisions and extend the timelines. For others, the erosion of the constraints on Iran caused by President Donald Trump’s withdrawal in 2018 has put priority on simply restoring the 2015 agreement, despite its shortcomings. Even some of those who lobbied against the deal in 2015 concede that it provided more security by slowing down Iran’s activities, and that Trump’s bluster that “maximum pressure” would somehow produce better results, proved to be a failure.

But the war in Ukraine could affect the diplomacy in several ways. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Saturday that Russia wants to see what accommodations can be made on the new sanctions imposed on Moscow, so that Russia and Iran can resume trade and military-technical cooperation that would again be permitted under the restored agreement. Other parties to the Iran talks resist linking the two issues, and expect Russia to support the diplomatic process on its own terms, not as leverage to lessen the impact of the Ukraine sanctions. Secretary of State Antony Blinken insisted on Sunday that the sanctions on Russia “have nothing to do with the Iran deal.”

Iran could be motivated to complete the process because it would be able to resume oil trade, currently sanctioned because Iran stopped complying with its obligations under the nuclear deal. Iran might see political as well as economic benefit in filling some of the gap in the global oil market caused by the new sanctions on Russia. It would be an important sign of Iran’s return to normality as a trading partner and energy provider, even while it is still subjected to limits on its nuclear activities. But such changes would not have immediate effect. It would take some time for Iran to roll back its stocks of enriched uranium, by transferring them to Russia or other partners. Expanding its oil production by one million barrels a day would also take several months, according to energy experts.

A third effect from the Russian war on Ukraine is the role of Israel. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is trying to position Israel as a mediator or at least an interlocutor, given its strong ties with all the affected parties. His recent visit to Moscow was coordinated with Washington, and Israel may see the Ukraine crisis as an opportunity to burnish its credentials as a middle power with diplomatic clout. Israel’s political leaders remain highly critical of the Iran deal, insisting that it is not tough enough, but many of the country’s respected former national security officials have made it clear that Israeli security was better served with the agreement in effect, and regret the aggressive way Israel lobbied Washington under Trump to pull out of the deal. Bennett’s bark may be worse than his bite: He will continue to speak against the deal, but in ways that signal that Israel will accept the outcome of the process.

It is still unclear if domestic politics in Washington or, to a lesser degree, in Tehran, will present further obstacles to the restoration of the agreement. President Barack Obama managed to keep Congress from blocking the agreement through a complicated consultation mechanism. Some members of Congress may call for a new congressional review, but most experts believe that, in the absence of any new features, the deal would not trigger the same process as occurred in 2015, and that, in any case, it would be difficult to block its implementation. Iran’s new leaders, who took office last summer, do not seem concerned about a demand for a formal approval process in their Majles. In 2015, the rulers were able to orchestrate a cursory parliamentary debate, with no risk of an unfavorable outcome.

The possible, if not likely, return to the JCPOA will be a positive step for international and regional security. On Sunday, the IAEA and Iran announced progress on restoring cooperation. Gulf Arab countries, which objected to the JCPOA for not addressing other problems with Iran’s regional positions, are also open to dialogue with Tehan over issues of deep disagreement. These gradual steps are welcome news at a time when the norms of international security are under such acute stress.

By Ellen Laipson is director of the international security program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Virginia. She is a former vice chair of the US’s National Intelligence Council.


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The Bill For Tunisia’s ‘Waithood’ is Long Overdue

The Bill For Tunisia’s ‘Waithood’ is Long Overdue
Tunisian clothing, textiles factories hard-hit by pandemic. GETTY IMAGES

For decades, young Tunisians have struggled to move beyond what American political scientist Diane Singerman refers to as “waithood,” the limbo where university graduates in the Middle East and North Africa idle as they look for employment. Today, the frustration of those unemployed youth epitomizes the predicament Tunisia finds itself in as the country searches for light at the end of the long social and economic tunnel.

Despite politicians’ promises to create jobs and correct development imbalances after the toppling of the Ben Ali regime in January 2011, 30 percent of university graduates remain unemployed. Tunisia’s sluggish economic growth of the last decade has hobbled the government’s ability to hire graduates – or anybody else for that matter. In the absence of reforms, the private sector has also suffered.

The International Monetary Fund and other foreign lenders are now pressuring Tunisia to introduce meaningful reforms, which would include reducing the share of the state budget devoted to civil service salaries – a ratio considered one the highest in the world. There are already 650,000 public service employees in a population of less than 12 million and that does not  include the 150,000 workers in state-owned companies. And despite recent expressions of satisfaction over “progress” in the “technical” round of talks between the government and the IMF, the coming months are unlikely to be any easier for Tunisia.

Ripple effects from Ukraine, including higher oil prices and more expensive grain imports, will add to the country’s economic challenges. On the way to securing a $4 billion loan deal to fill the country’s 2022 budget gap, Prime Minister Najla Bouden must assemble a reform package that will satisfy the IMF while keeping social upheaval in check. Her cabinet has been floating suggestions that include cuts to price subsidies and public service job cuts. 

Those in power today must surmount a legacy of unrealistic expectations nurtured by successive governments. At one time, the late President Beji Caid Essebsi thought Tunisia deserved to receive a full-fledged Marshall Plan from the West as a reward for having sparked the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. Nothing resembling that came through.  

Some post-2011 administrations vowed to reinvent the socioeconomics of the country. Instead, they used international loans to pay workers’ salaries, provide subsidies, and shore up the finances of failing government-owned companies. Populism trumped budget realities while creating a monstrous debt problem. 

Nothing illustrates better the country’s unused potential than the large number of high-level cadres who are emigrating in droves. Tens of thousands of doctors and engineers have left for Europe and Gulf countries. Less fortunate Tunisians are trying the path of illegal emigration through Italy. 

There are obvious trepidations about the needed reforms and many fret over the possible social repercussions. President Kais Saied has said that passing on the costs of austerity measures to the poor is “a red line,” which he is unwilling to cross. Foreign donors know the country is walking on thin ice, given that the unemployed and the poor, including many who used to belong to the middle classes, are unwilling to continue footing the country’s bills.

It will not be easy for the government to strike compromises with the powerful UGTT labor union, which has just come out of its general congress buoyed by the re-election of its leadership. The union will bargain hard to protect the old system of entitlements and ensure that reform measures do not further penalize workers. Unsure to what extent its members will be willing to accept sacrifices, the union has already drawn lines in the sand over price subsidies and preservation of public enterprises.  

Another challenge during the months ahead is the likely instability linked to the country’s fractious politics. Considering recent statements by the UGTT’s leader Noureddine Taboubi, the union is jockeying for a more assertive political role. “Time is up,” Taboubi said in a recent interview, insisting that “concessions” are needed to end political feuding. 

But that is easier said than done. It will be particularly tough to reenact the events of 2013, when the trade unions were part of a civil society National Dialogue Quartet, which pulled the country from the brink of civil war. The quartet’s efforts eventually earned Tunisia a Nobel Peace Prize and a lot of political mileage that was quickly squandered. 

Then, there is the external front. Some foreign donors hope President Saied will use his high stock in terms of public opinion to sell the painful reforms to the public. While he prepares the country for a referendum and early elections by December, the president is likely to insist on social measures that would mitigate the impact of the economic reforms.  

At the same time, most Western powers don’t know what to make of Saied. There appears to be ambivalence towards the Tunisian leader who invoked “exceptional measures” in July to suspend parliament and rule by decree.  Despite pressures, Saied has not budged from his position and seems unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future. Western governments are likely to remain on wait-and-see mode. Responding with aid cuts is not viewed as an option, given that it could destabilize the country.

Meanwhile, most Tunisians know the solution to the country’s woes starts and ends at home, with the building of common ground that would allow the nation to minimize and manage the turbulence ahead. The costs of prolonged “waithood” for unemployed youth, inadequate management of the economic crisis, and strife-driven politics have been high. And the bill is long overdue.

Oussama Romdhani

By Oussama Romdhani is the editor of The Arab Weekly. He previously served in the Tunisian government and as a diplomat in Washington.


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Iran’s Supreme Leader Weighs in on Root Cause of Ukraine Crisis

Iran’s Supreme Leader Weighs in on Root Cause of Ukraine Crisis
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the Islamic Republic's second supreme leader. AFP

Ayatollah Khamenei said foreign powers’ influence brought Ukraine to a tragic tipping point.

The supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, claims that Ukraine fell victim to American policies aimed at creating crises around the globe. Khamenei cited Washington’s influence as the “root cause” of the current military conflict in Ukraine.

In a series of statements published on Tuesday both by Iranian media and on the supreme leader’s Twitter page, Khamenei said the “US dragged Ukraine to where it is now.

Among Washington’s actions that he thinks led to the military confrontation with Russia were America’s alleged interference in the Eastern European nation’s “internal affairs” in the form of “creating color revolutions and toppling one government and putting another in power.

Khamenei noted that Iran “supports ending the war in Ukraine.

Iran’s supreme leader also said the latest dramatic events in Ukraine should serve as an important lesson to other countries. One of the two key conclusions that can be drawn according to Khamenei is that America and Europe’s support for other countries is just a “mirage and not real.” The cleric went on to liken “today’s Ukraine” to “yesterday’s Afghanistan,” in that both nations were “left alone” by the US and Western governments.

The other important lesson which Khamenei said could be learned from the Ukrainian crisis is that the “people are governments’ most important support.” He proceeded to claim that the “people of Ukraine” did not really “approve of the government.” According to Iran’s supreme leader, had the Ukrainian government enjoyed popular support, it would not have found itself in the current situation.

For years now, Iran has been languishing under sweeping sanctions imposed by the US and its Western allies, mostly over its nuclear program. Russia has now also been targeted with a raft of unprecedented sanctions by the US, EU, Canada, and several allies in Asia. The punitive measures came in response to Russia launching a military offensive in Ukraine on February 24, which, according to President Vladimir Putin, is not an attempt to occupy the country, but rather to “demilitarize and denazify” it. Ukraine and its allies, however, see these claims as a mere pretext for an “unprovoked” invasion.

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Life in Lebanon Is Certainly on a Precipice. But It Is Not a Failed State

Life in Lebanon Is Certainly on a Precipice. But It Is Not a Failed State
Lebanon is on the brink and has been for a while. For years, the Lebanese economy has struggled under the weight of excessive national debt and the politics of sectarianism. AP PHOTO

For the past two decades, February 14 has marked a moment of reflection for many in Lebanon, the anniversary of the 2005 car bomb attack that killed the former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and finally led to the end of Syrian occupation.

This year the date was more poignant because his son Saad, who subsequently took on his father’s leadership of parts of the Sunni community, announced his withdrawal from politics.

In his resignation address, Hariri sounded a pessimistic note. “I am convinced that there is no room for any positive opportunity for Lebanon in light of Iranian influence, national division and the withering of the state,” he said. He told members of parliament he expected the situation to get worse, and advised the Future Movement, of which he was leader, not to contest elections this year. All in all, a pessimistic political outlook.

The economic outlook is similarly grave. Despite last week’s approval of a government budget, the economy is in full meltdown, with the Lebanese pound having lost more than 90 percent of its value. Poverty is widespread and many Lebanese have seen their savings wiped out; others are frozen out of bank accounts.

With so much on a downward trajectory in the country, it is little wonder that the descriptor “failed state” has once again made the rounds, sometimes even by those within the country. But while catchy, it is lazy and platitudinous – nor even very helpful. There are usually four ways analysts decide if a state has failed, summed up as: Borders, utilities, guns and government.

Can a state protect its borders; can it provide basic utilities and services; can it govern people across its territory, and does it have a monopoly on the use of force?

The last is often seen as the most important. States that cannot police themselves, where there are groups within their territory that can arrest, imprison and even kill citizens who are not part of the state are usually candidates for failed states.

Judged like that, Lebanon could certainly qualify as a failed state: There is no monopoly on the use of violence, as Hezbollah’s vast military resources sit outside of state control. But the same is true in many other countries. Ukraine has part of its territory in Crimea occupied. Many countries across the Sahel don’t control their borders.

In truth, many of the countries called failed states over the past few years – Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen – had not disintegrated to the point where the state could no longer function. Indeed, in Syria, even though parts of the country were beyond the regime’s control, there was never a point in the past 10 years when the authorities in Damascus could not control parts of their territory and population – and, tragically, still order the military to carry out attacks. If Syria was a failed state, many Syrians might mutter darkly that it wasn’t failed enough.

The archetypal failed state – the one for which the designation was created and the only one to which it could reasonably be applied – was Somalia in the 1990s. After a coup toppled the dictator Siad Barre in 1991, rival militias turned on each other, then on humanitarian workers, then on the United States. Two decades would pass before a centralized government resumed.

Apart from the obvious criticism that the designation “failed state” is inherently political, it is also not especially helpful. Is Lebanon on a precipice, socially, politically and economically? Undoubtedly. But designating the country a failed state is really a rhetorical act; it does nothing to change the facts on the ground, nor the way the international community responds. It may, I suppose, provoke urgency – although it hasn’t so far. If it’s not accurate to describe Lebanon as a failed state, it may still be right to say it has failed as a state.

That is to say that while the idea of Lebanon as a multi-confessional society remains accurate, the political construction of that state is problematic. It’s this wrapper of a political structure, a sectarian structure put in place in 1990 after the civil war, that has caused many of today’s problems. It isn’t unreasonable to say that that particular method of organizing the state has failed.

The reason is apparent to anyone who has looked at Lebanon’s history since the Taif agreement that ended the conflict. For decades, the sectarian system has ensured that no national identity could emerge. Instead, Lebanon’s political development was frozen along religious lines, and anyone who questioned that system was bullied by threats of a return to civil war.

That certainly was the conclusion of the mass protests that started in 2019, led by a new generation eager to sweep away the sectarian system. It is a shame that, three years on, that movement is still spluttering and hasn’t been given the support – within and without Lebanon’s borders – that it deserves.

It isn’t obvious what the consequences of Hariri’s withdrawal from public life, and his public declaration that he has no faith in the elections, may be, but they are unlikely to be as far reaching as he would like – at least on the evidence of the past two years.

Life in Lebanon is certainly on a precipice. These are dark days for the country. But if Lebanon is failing, it is because the state has failed it.

Faisal Al Yafai

By Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.

This article was produced by Syndication to publish on Telegraf.

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