Dozens of Lebanese protesters held a brief sit-in inside a bank in Beirut and another in the country's south on Saturday, part of their focus on banking policies they complain are inefficient and corrupt.
Lebanon is facing its worst economic crisis in decades, while protests against corruption and mismanagement have gripped the country since October. The local currency has taken a nose dive, losing more than 40% of its value after over 20 years of being pegged to the dollar. Banks are imposing unprecedented capital controls to protect their deposits amid a deepening confidence crisis. Meanwhile, layoffs and salary cuts are becoming the norm while politicians bicker over forming a new government.
Dozens of protesters entered a private bank in the commercial Hamra district in Beirut, protesting capital controls and insisting that no one would leave without the money they came for. Banks have put a withdrawal ceiling of $200 a week on most accounts, while totally blocking outside transfers.
"Thieves! Thieves!" two dozen protesters chanted, some sitting on counters and others on the floor. Bank staff watched and security guards did not interfere.
The protesters later helped a woman with a cane get to the second floor, again shouting that she wouldn't leave until she got the money she needs. The protesters posted videos of their actions on a Twitter account linked to the protest movement.
At another bank in the southern town of Nabatiyeh, a dozen protesters entered the branch chanting "Down with bank rule." Inside the bank, a citizen complained about how he can't withdraw money to pay for his son living abroad as well as his employees, yet the bank continues to charge him for a loan he took. "Enough of that!" the man said, according to another video posted on Twitter.
The protesters have also organized a campaign called "we are not paying" asking depositors not to pay their loans amid the tight capital controls.
The anti-bank protests were fanned by recent comments from the Central Bank's governor saying he doesn't know how much more the local currency will lose its value. Riad Salameh's comments to reporters Thursday deepened panic in the highly dollarized economy.
Lebanon imports most of its basic needs, and is one of the world's most indebted countries. Some protesters are calling for banks to finance imports instead of servicing debts.
Lebanese officials have asked foreign countries and financial institutions to help secure needed capital for imports. Donors have called for major reforms before extending help — a request that will likely be delayed amid infighting between political groups over the shape of a new government.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned on Oct. 29 and continues in a caretaker capacity.
The prime minister designate, Hassan Diab, was named on Dec. 19, and is backed by the militant Hezbollah group and its allies. However, he has failed to win the backing of the main Sunni Muslim groups.
Some protesters have also rejected him, saying he is still part of the ruling elite they accuse of corruption.
Later on Saturday, about 300 protesters rallied outside Diab's house in Beirut, chanting: "We don't want Hassan Diab," or "Don't dream of it, Diab." One protester told the gathering, which included many who traveled from the northern city of Tripoli, that from now on the protests would take place outside Diab's home until he withdraws.
Nicole Meyer endured years of sexual abuse allegedly at the hands of her former school principal. She's had to watch as her alleged abuser fled her residence in Australia for Israel, evaded justice for years and is now undergoing a protracted extradition process that critics have deemed a farce.
The lengthy, Kafkaesque legal saga over the sex crimes suspect's fate has not only agonized Meyer but is testing the relationship between Israel and one of its closest allies, Australia. Malka Leifer's case is still far from resolved and even Australia's pro-Israel Jewish community is losing patience.
"When time and time and time again the process is just not moving forward, it's increasingly more difficult," said Meyer, 34, who lives in Melbourne. "Israel has an obligation to do the right thing."
Meyer and two of her sisters allege Leifer abused them while they were students at an ultra-Orthodox school in Melbourne, and there are said to be other victims. In 2008, as the allegations surfaced, the Israeli-born Leifer, a trusted teacher and school principal in an insular religious community, left her position at the school suddenly and returned to Israel, where she has lived since.
The Associated Press does not typically identify people who say they are victims of sexual assault unless they grant permission, which Meyer has done.
In Australia, Leifer now faces 74 charges of sexual assault related to accusations brought forward by the three sisters. A judge in a civil suit against Leifer, 53, and the Adass Israel school where she taught, awarded Meyer's sister more than $700,000 in damages. Meyer and another sister settled out of court.
But in Israel, justice has been slow. Critics say the legal proceedings have been marred by needless delays and laughable hiccups and have even roped in a government minister in what has embarrassed the country in front of its stalwart ally.
The legal quagmire has driven a wedge between Israel and Australia, a country the Jewish state relies upon for diplomatic support against what it views as anti-Israel sentiment in international organizations. The Leifer case repeatedly comes up in discussions between the countries' leaders as well as in debates in Australia's parliament. Its twists and turns have exasperated some lawmakers.
"I do not doubt the independence and the integrity of the Israeli legal system, nor do I doubt the commitment of the Israeli Ministry of Justice to pursuing this case. But enough is enough. This case has gone on for far too long," Dave Sharma, a member of parliament for the ruling Liberal party and former Australian envoy to Israel told the Australian Parliament in October.
After Australia filed an extradition request, Leifer was put under house arrest in 2014 and underwent the beginnings of an extradition process that ended in 2016 when a mental health evaluation determined she wasn't fit to stand trial.
Leifer was again arrested in early 2018 after an investigation claimed to have caught her leading a seemingly normal life, contrary to what she told the court she was capable of as someone with a mental illness. The court asked for another psychological review and she has since been held in Israeli custody.
Since her initial arrest, the court has heard Leifer's case dozens of times. At the last hearing this month, a panel of psychiatrists set to deliver its ruling on Leifer's mental state said it needed more time because it appeared the panel was unaware of the scheduled hearing. A new hearing is set for Jan. 14, but with a separate trial over her extradition yet to begin, and appeals expected, it's unclear when, if ever, Leifer will face justice in Australia.
"It's really difficult to verbalize how we've seen this case evolve. I'm really left speechless," said Manny Waks, an advocate on behalf of the victims who has closely monitored the case. "Just a lack of professionalism, incompetence."
Perhaps most damning has been the alleged involvement in the case of Israel's ultra-Orthodox deputy health minister, Yaacov Litzman. Israeli police recommended charges of fraud and breach of trust be brought against Litzman for suspicions that he pressured ministry employees to skew Leifer's psychiatric evaluations in her favor. Israel's state prosecutor is expected to decide whether to file formal charges, though Litzman denies wrongdoing.
Both the Israeli Justice Ministry and the Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the Leifer case.
Leifer's lawyers warn that politics risks tainting the legal process.
"We call on all those related to the issue to act responsibly and to let the justice system in Israel, which is among the grandest in the world, carry out its work without prohibited pressure tactics," Tal Gabay and Yehuda Fried said in a statement.
On a first-ever visit by an Israeli leader to Australia in 2017, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel has "no better friend" than Australia and called the country's staunchly pro-Israel Jewish community "unusually committed" to the Jewish state.
But that support has started to crack in the wake of the Leifer proceedings. Australian Jews and community organizations have spoke out against the country's handling of the case.
"As each court appearance passes without resulting in an extradition order, further trauma is inflicted on the survivors and the integrity of Israel's institutions is undermined," said Anton Block, who recently stepped down as head of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry.
Meyer said having justice run its course is the only thing that will bring her closure.
"I expect Israel to send her back," said Meyer. "It's an expectation that if they don't fulfill, I don't have an understanding of how I'll move on."
Iran-supported groups in Iraq blasted the country's president Friday over his refusal to designate a prime minister candidate nominated by the Tehran-backed bloc in parliament.
Groups affiliated with the Fatah bloc accused President Barham Salih of implementing an American will to pull the country into chaos.
Salih has said he refused to appoint Asaad al-Eidani because of broad opposition by the anti-government protest movement. Protesters poured into the streets Wednesday demanding an independent candidate.
Demonstrators first took to the streets Oct. 1 to call for the overthrow of Iraq's entire political class over corruption and mismanagement. The mass uprisings prompted the resignation of former Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi late last month. More than 450 people have been killed since October, the vast majority of them protesters killed by security forces firing tear gas and live ammunition.
The decision by Salih on Thursday not to appoint al-Eidani and his offer to resign threaten to plunge the country into further political uncertainty amid nearly three months of unprecedented mass protests.
A statement issued by the Hezbollah Brigades, or Kataeb Hezbollah, criticized Saleh's move as "suspicious" adding that he "violated the constitution by refusing to carry out his duties by naming the person who was chosen by the parliament's largest bloc."
Salih said in a statement issued by his office that he would not name al-Eidani, the governor of southern Basra province, as the country's next prime minister "to avoid more bloodshed and in order to safeguard civil peace."
"We know that he is carrying out an American will that aims to pull the country toward chaos," a statement by Hezbollah Brigades read. The statement said no one should be allowed to name a prime minister candidate who is "known to be an agent of the Americans."
Legislator Odai Awad is a member of the Iran-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or League of the Righteous. He described Salih in an interview with a local TV station as a coward and said "every Iraqi should spit in the face of the president for what he did."
In a sign of the country's deep divisions, Iraq's most powerful religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, did not give his usual Friday sermon this week and no reason was given for the move although it appeared that the cleric did not want to take sides. Al-Sistani's representative, Ahmed al-Safi, gave only a religious sermon on Friday.
Concentrated in Baghdad and the mostly Shiite-inhabited south, the protests have since evolved into an uprising against Iran's political and military influence in the country.
Protesters issued a statement Friday saying that "the blocs of corruption" are doing all they can so that the candidate for the prime minister's post is part of the "detestable sectarian sharing."
According to Iraq's constitution, the largest bloc in parliament is required to nominate the new prime minister, who then has to be designated by the president. A deadline to name a new prime minister has been missed twice over disagreements on which is the largest bloc in the parliament following last year's elections
Secretary General of the Arab League (AL) Ahmed Aboul Gheit has warned against the negative impacts and risks of foreign intervention in Libya.
In a statement released by the AL late on Thursday, Aboul Gheit voiced his concern over the serious escalation in the conflict-stricken country, reiterating his call for "immediate de-escalation."
He also urged all Libyan parties to engage in talks in order to end military operations and reach an agreement on cease-fire "to pave the road for political solution."
Aboul Gheit highlighted the pan-Arab body's rejection to all "forms of foreign interference in Libya's internal affairs," saying the AL will continue to exert efforts to settle the Libyan crisis.
The AL's statement came after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said earlier that Turkey will send troops to Libya at the request of the UN-backed Libyan government as soon as next month.
Meanwhile, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi highlighted the importance of putting an end to the illegal intervention in Libyan affairs during phone calls with his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte late on Thursday.
Egyptian and U.S. presidents agreed that they reject "foreign exploitation" in Libya.
Al-Sisi told Conte that Egypt has a fixed position that supports the stability and security in Libya and the activation of the will of the Libyan people.
The Egyptian president also expressed his country's support for "the efforts of the Libyan National Army (LNA) in fighting terrorism and obliterating terrorist organizations that pose a threat not only to Libya but also to regional security and the security of the Mediterranean region."
For his part, Conte underlined Italy's keenness on reaching a settlement of the current crisis in Libya and restoring stability in Libya as well as the strength and efficiency of its institutions.
Egypt is concerned about its 1,200-km western border with Libya where militants and the smuggling of arms have been active since 2011.
Al-Sisi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel also discussed last week means of combating terrorism and extremist militias that threaten not only Libya but the entire Middle East and Mediterranean region.
On Sunday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and his Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias discussed in Cairo the importance of exerting efforts to restore stability and security in the war-torn country.
On Tuesday, Shoukry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov agreed on the importance of averting aggravation of the situation in Libya as the region has continued to see tensions since the controversial Turkish-Libya maritime border and security agreement.
The maritime deal could give Turkey access to a contested economic zone across the eastern Mediterranean Sea, igniting more tensions between Turkey on one hand and Egypt, Cyprus and Greece on the other hand.
Since the ouster and killing of the former leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has been locked in a civil war that escalated in 2014, splitting power between two rival governments: the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) based in the capital Tripoli and a government in the northeastern city of Tobruk which is allied with the self-proclaimed LNA led by Khalifa Haftar.
Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, France and Russia support Haftar's LNA, while the GNA is backed by Italy and Egypt's regional rivals Turkey and Qatar.
Haftar has been leading a military campaign since early April in and around Tripoli, attempting to take over the city and topple the UN-backed government.
Moroccan authorities have sentenced a Youtuber who criticized the king to prison, and detained a journalist-activist who defended anti-government protesters in a tweet.
Freedom of speech advocates say the moves Thursday reflect growing pressure against those who use social networks to express anger at economic and social problems.
A court in Settat handed a four-year prison sentence to Mohammed Bekkaki for referring to Moroccans as donkeys and criticizing King Mohammed VI, in a video posted on YouTube in November. The royal family is widely revered in Morocco, and criticizing the king is a criminal offense.
Also Thursday, journalist and activist Omar Radi was detained in Casablanca and charged with insulting a judge. Radi's arrest was prompted by a tweet six months ago criticizing a Moroccan court's decision to hand maximum prison sentences to leaders of mass demonstrations in the poverty-stricken northern Rif region.
The Casablanca court refused to grant Radi bail pending the next hearing Jan. 2, said activist Khalid El Bekkari, who was in the court when Radi was charged. If convicted, Radi could face up to a year in prison and a 500 euro ($555) fine. It was unclear why the arrest occurred so long after the original tweet.
Radi was also part of Arab Spring protests in Morocco in 2011 that pushed against corruption and abuse of power and limits on free speech, and he has continued to defend human rights since then.
Morocco, long known for its stability in the Arab world, adopted constitutional reforms in response to the Arab Spring, but the country is still struggling with poverty, corruption and unemployment.
Freedom of expression is guaranteed in the Moroccan constitution, but with limits. Authorities say some social media users are pushing those limits too far, sometimes for personal gain.
But rights activists say authorities are trying to cover up their inability to solve Morocco's problems.
"There is a strong escalation against freedom of expression by authorities, shown by the successive arrests and trials of bloggers and social media users to express their anger over the deteriorating social and economic conditions," the Moroccan Freedom Now association said in a statement after Radi's arrest.
Last month a rapper known as Gnawi went on trial over a video in which he insulted the police. His supporters viewed his arrest as punishment for another, hugely popular YouTube video that rages against Moroccan powers-that-be and criticizes the country's widening economic gap.