Lebanon's protesters and top politicians held competing Independence Day celebrations Friday, reflecting the deepening rift that has beset the country grappling with its worst political and economic crises in decades.
The top leadership attended a truncated military parade which was relocated to the headquarters of the Defense Ministry from central Beirut, occupied by protesters.
The mood was somber at the brief parade as a little over a dozen regiments marched before the country's president, parliament speaker and prime minister, who sat under a red canopy. The three only exchanged a few words and left separately. An official celebration at the presidential palace was cancelled. There were no foreign dignitaries in attendance and no display of tanks or equipment.
It was the first joint appearance by the three since the prime minister resigned three weeks ago, citing a deadlock with political rivals in meeting protesters demands. Since then, the politicians have continued bickering, deadlocked over a new government and showing little ability to adapt in the face of more than a month of nationwide protests demanding an end to business as usual.
Separately, the protesters later held a boisterous parade at Martyrs' Square, near the waterfront boulevard where the formal celebration is traditionally held. The area has been occupied by protesters since mid-October and is closed off to traffic.
Industrialists, doctors, students, expatriates, musicians, and mothers marched down a main street leading to the square, organized in more than 40 groups, built as "regiments" by the protesters to mirror the military parade.
Lara Hayek, a university staffer, said they wanted to hold popular celebrations where the army does it every year.
"This year we decided that independence is also for the people. We started this revolution. It is a people's revolution, a nation's revolution. All the people want to express that."
The demonstrations began Oct. 17 against proposed taxes on WhatsApp calls but turned into a condemnation of the political elite who have run the country since the 1975-90 civil war. Protesters blame them for years of corruption and mismanagement.
Young people have been at the forefront of the leaderless protest movement, facing a plunging economy and high unemployment and left with few options other than emigrating. The protesters call for a new government and elections outside of the traditional sectarian-based power-sharing agreement.
The politicians "don't want the country to change. They want it to stay the same and they want us to leave," said one protester who appeared in the square dressed as Charlie Chaplin and gave her name only as Joyce. "I am an actress. I don't want to leave this country. I want to stay here, work and live in Lebanon."
She raised a banner that read: "You people have the power to make life free and beautiful."
A white banner was hung between two trees inviting protesters to "be creative" about how they want to commemorate independence. One person scribbled: "This is a popular Independence Day. Independence from a corrupt authority. November 22 with a different flavor."
During the celebrations, protesters planned to re-install a new large cardboard fist labelled "Revolution" in Martyr's Square after a previous one was burned down overnight by unknown vandals.
Videos and photos circulating on social media showed the fist — which has been a symbol of the uprising — catching fire at dawn Friday. Protesters who were camped out in the square rushed to the site of the blaze. A single protester stood there, defiantly raising his fist in the air beside the charred emblem.
The top political leaders have been deadlocked over forming a new government since the Western-backed prime minister, Saad Hariri, resigned on Oct. 29.
Hariri said he has hit a dead-end with his partners in the government, dominated by the Iran-backed Hezbollah group, and has called for an apolitical emergency government. His rivals in the president's party and its ally Hezbollah want to preserve their electoral wins and Hariri, as the face acceptable to the world.
The two sides have sparred publicly. Hariri said the party of President Michel Aoun is acting "irresponsibly" while Aoun's group said the acting prime minister is holding the Cabinet hostage: "either me or no one else."
Late Thursday, Aoun said in a televised address that a consensus on forming a government remained far off because of "contradictions that control Lebanese politics." He didn't elaborate.
Mahya Yaha, a senior analyst with Carnegie Middle East Center, said the political elite is acting "as it were business as usual," engaging in closed-door horse trading to form a new government while seeking to maintain power.
"Today, Lebanon's politicians fear that the demographic and social tide is turning against them. And when the country's political forces that have exercised power for a long time come to believe that their eclipse is inevitable, they will fight to preserve the privileges they have acquired, at whatever the cost," she wrote. "This could include resorting to violence in any form necessary."
Meanwhile, there is always the temptation of Lebanon factions turning to their foreign backers, Yaha said, which risks transforming the country into the focal point for a showdown between the United States, Iran and Russia.
"This would be disastrous for the Lebanese," she wrote Friday.
The internet slowly trickled back on in Iran on Friday after a dayslong shutdown by authorities amid protests and unrest that followed government-set gasoline prices sharply rising, as the U.S. sanctioned the country's prominent telecommunications minister over the outage.
A week after the gasoline hike, the loosening of the internet shutdown suggests Iran's government believes it put down the demonstrations that rapidly turned violent, seeing gas stations, banks and stores burned to the ground. America's top diplomat urged demonstrators to send videos "documenting the regime's crackdown" as the U.S. sanctioned Iranian minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi.
Amnesty International said it believes the unrest and the crackdown killed at least 106 people. Iran disputes that figure without offering its own. A U.N. office earlier said it feared the unrest may have killed "a significant number of people."
Jahromi, the first government minister to be born after Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, is widely believed to be considering a presidential run in 2021. In sanctioning him, the U.S. Treasury noted he once worked for the country's Intelligence Ministry and "has advanced the Iranian regime's policy of repressive internet censorship."
"Iran's leaders know that a free and open internet exposes their illegitimacy, so they seek to censor internet access to quell anti-regime protests," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.
Jahromi, known for his social media persona, did not immediately respond to the sanctions but has increasingly criticized President Donald Trump on Twitter, a service long blocked in Iran. Being sanctioned may raise his profile among hard-liners.
Writing on Twitter in Farsi earlier Friday, Pompeo asked demonstrators to send the U.S. videos of violence by authorities in the protests to a special channel of the encrypted message app Telegram, widely used among Iran's 80 million people.
"I have asked the Iranian protestors to send us their videos, photos, and information documenting the regime's crackdown on protestors," Pompeo followed up in another tweet in English. "The U.S. will expose and sanction the abuses."
It's unclear what further sanctions America can levy as it has already crippled Iran's crucial oil exports and other industries since President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers in May 2018. The U.S. also has sanctioned Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other top-ranking officials.
That decision has led Iran to break the accord's enrichment, stockpile and centrifuge limits over months of wider tensions that have seen attacks across the Mideast that the U.S. blames on Tehran. Iran denies being behind many of those assaults, though it claimed shooting down a U.S. military surveillance drone and seizing several oil tankers.
Starting on Saturday, Iran shut down the internet across the country, limiting communications with the outside world. That made determining the scale and longevity of the protests incredibly difficult.
Since Thursday, that outage began to slightly lift. By Friday, internet connectivity stood at around 15% of normal levels, according to the monitoring group NetBlocks.
"Iranians need the real internet back so they can communicate and prosper," NetBlocks said.
That concern over the shutdown also was reflected in a statement Friday by U.N. human rights experts, who expressed their own alarm about the situation. They said authorities "may have used excessive force against those participating in the protests."
"A countrywide network shutdown of this kind clearly has a political purpose: to suppress the right of Iranians to access information and to communicate at a time of rising protest," the experts said. "Such an illegitimate step deprives Iranians not only of a fundamental freedom but also basic access to essential services."
On Friday, the streets of Tehran were quiet, though a heavy presence of anti-riot security forces and police stood guard on the streets.
Ebrahim Raisi, the head of Iran's judiciary, warned in a speech in Tehran that consequences await violent demonstrators.
"Those who in recent days misused the atmosphere and the people's demands and concerns, instigated riots in the society, created insecurity, made the hearts of women and children tremble, attacked public property and looted people's belongings, they and their masters must know that a harsh punishment is awaiting them," Raisi said.
Already, a hard-line newspaper has suggested protest leaders could face executions by hanging. Raisi reportedly served on a so-called death panel during the mass executions of political prisoners in 1988 in Iran after the end of its long war with Iraq. Raisi has never publicly acknowledged his role in the executions, even during his failed presidential campaign in 2017.
Meanwhile, the deputy head of Tehran University told the semiofficial ILNA news agency he hoped students detained during campus protests over the fuel price hike will be released Saturday. Several dozen were believed to be held and some already have been released.
"We do not currently know which authority has detained the students," Tehran University Vice Chancellor Majid Sarsangi told ILNA.
Among those on the streets have been members of Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, whose members and volunteers are answerable only to Khamenei himself. The acting commander of the force, Gen Ali Fadavi, boasted Friday that his force could "manage the riots within 48 hours," the semiofficial Fars news agency close to the Guard said.
However, Fadavi offered a warning as well.
"The riots are not the last one and it definitely will happen again in the future," he said.
Authorities say a man from a Gulf Arab country who was travelling from Egypt to Saudi Arabia has been detained at the Cairo airport, allegedly attempting to take banned pills into the kingdom.
A statement from the airport authorities on Thursday says security officials found dozens of illegal pills in his luggage. Egypt prohibits the import and export of narcotic drugs.
The passenger, who was not identified, provided a prescription and proof of medical need. He is being examined by a doctor to verify his condition.
Last week, a French passenger was arrested at the Cairo airport for allegedly attempting to smuggle over a thousand pills of outlawed painkillers.
Benny Gantz, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's challenger, said Wednesday that he has failed to form a government by the midnight deadline as the country's conflicts with Iran and Syria deepen.
Gantz said he has informed President Reuven Rivlin of his decision and returned the mandate to form a government that the president had given him last month, increasing the prospects for the third elections in Israel in less than a year.
In public remarks, Gantz, leader of the centrist party of Blue and White and Israel's former military chief, accused Netanyahu of refusing a unity government.
He said Netanyahu had refused to drop the demand for parliamentary immunity from a series of corruption investigations in which he is a main suspect.
"This is a dangerous and unprecedented attempt in the history of Israel to prevent the people of Israel from having the government they have voted for," Gantz said, referring to the Sept. 17 elections, in which his party won the largest number of the votes.
He blamed Netanyahu for "entrenching himself in an interim government for over a year" to avoid indictment.
The race could be shaken up by the expected indictment of Netanyahu due to corruption charges.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is set to file fraud and breach of trust charges and an announcement could come as soon as Thursday although there was no immediate confirmation from the Justice Ministry.
Netanyahu, who has denies all wrongdoings, accused his opponents of a witch-hunt. With the exception of prime minister, Israeli law requires public officials to resign if they are charged with a crime.
Netanyahu was tasked by the president with forming a new governing coalition ahead of Gantz because he was supported by a larger right-wing bloc. But, like Gantz, he failed to gain a 61-seat majority needed to form a coalition in Israel's 120-seat parliament.
Israel's political system has been paralyzed since the closely-fought election on Sept. 17, in which no party won enough votes to form a majority coalition in the 120-seat parliament.
The elections were the second time Israelis cast their votes in five months. Netanyahu failed to form a coalition government following the April election, which led to the second elections in September.
Amid the political deadlock, Israel has launched a wide-scale offensive against Iranian targets in Syria on Wednesday in response to missiles fired into Israel the day before.
The rockets fired into Israel's north were by "an Iranian force," a statement released by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) said, adding the retaliation "struck dozens of military targets of the Iranian Quds Force and the Syrian Armed Forces."
Syrian media reported over 10 deaths in the airstrikes and additional damage.
Tensions on Israel's northern border with Syria have been running high in the last year with several incidents between forces of the two countries.
The timing of the current clash came a week after a major escalation between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in the Gaza Strip on Israel's southern border.
Israeli kingmaker politician Avigdor Lieberman on Wednesday refused to endorse a candidate for prime minister, blaming both the contenders engaged in a tense standoff that has paralyzed Israeli politics and pushing the country toward a likely third election in less than a year.
Lieberman's comments came ahead of a midnight deadline for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rival, Benny Gantz, to form a coalition. Without Lieberman, Gantz appears unable to secure the required majority in parliament to be prime minister.
If Israel is forced into a third election, it would be entering uncharted waters, with opinion polls already predicting a very similar deadlock. But a new campaign could benefit the embattled Netanyahu, who is expected to be indicted on corruption charges in the coming weeks. Netanyahu would be best-positioned to fight any charges from the prime minister's office.
Lieberman, who heads a small secular, ultranationalist party, triggered the September election after refusing to join Netanyahu's traditional allies of hard-line and religious parties following earlier elections in April. The do-over vote left Netanyahu's Likud and Gantz's Blue and White party both short of a required majority in the 120-seat parliament without Lieberman's support.
Lieberman, who hails from the former Soviet Union, has objected to the outsize influence of ultra-Orthodox religious parties and has urged Netanyahu and Gantz to join him in a unity government as a way out of the stalemate. But Gantz and Netanyahu have refused to bend on their core conditions for such an arrangement.
After weeks of negotiations, Lieberman told reporters he wouldn't align with either party on its own.
"I made every effort. I turned over every stone," he said. "There were no significant gaps, they were mainly personal gaps and after it all, at least for now, it seems we are heading for another election."
Lieberman said he objected to Netanyahu's alliance with "messianic" religious parties, while he also accused Gantz of reaching out to religious parties and not negotiating in good faith.
"Who is to blame in this situation? Both parties together" he said. "There was an impressive blame game from both parties, but at the end it was a blame game, with no real will to take tough and dramatic decisions."
Gantz was given the opportunity to form a government last month after Netanyahu failed in the task.
A former military chief, Gantz has a midnight deadline to present a potential coalition government. If he fails, as expected, the country enters the final 21-day period for any candidate to present a majority before new elections are called.
But after weeks of failed talks, the odds of any candidate succeeding in forming a government appear low.
Both Gantz and Netanyahu have expressed a willingness to sit together in a unity government. But they could not agree on a power-sharing agreement.
Gantz's Blue and White party refuses to sit under Netanyahu while he faces such serious legal problems. Netanyahu refused to drop his alliance with smaller nationalist and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties.
A dizzying array of mediations and creative political machinations failed to break new ground and a Netanyahu-Gantz meeting late Tuesday night produced no headway, resulting in just more mudslinging.
Netanyahu has lambasted Gantz and his fellow former military chiefs in Blue and White for dangling the prospect of a minority government in which Arab lawmakers would provide outside support without officially joining the coalition.
His comments have drawn accusations of racism and incitement, including a speech by Israel's President Reuven Rivlin, who criticized Netanyahu's "ugly" comments about Arabs.
A minority government could end Netanyahu's decade-long grip on power. But the hard-line Lieberman ruled out any alliance with the Arab lawmakers.
Barring a last-minute development, it looks like Gantz will be forced to inform Israel's president that he has no government to present — just as Netanyahu did before him — setting off the final 21-day period before new elections are called. The past two have been inconclusive and polls indicate the result of a third will not differ significantly.
"The truth must be said: Netanyahu is rejecting unity and will do anything to deteriorate us to a third election within a year," Gantz wrote on Facebook. "I am ready to make compromises for the benefit of the citizens of Israel but not to cave on our core principles."
Looming above the entire process is the long-expected announcement on Netanyahu's corruption indictment that could remove him from the equation and potentially provide a long-sought way out of the impasse.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has recommended that Netanyahu be indicted on fraud, breach of trust and bribery charges in three separate cases. His final ruling has long been anticipated and is expected in the coming weeks, perhaps sooner. Though Netanyahu will not be compelled by law to step down immediately, it will certainly harden the opposition's stance.
Rising regional tensions could also force the sides into compromise.
Israel carried out a wide-scale offensive against Iranian targets in Syria early on Wednesday in response to rocket attacks against it. Eleven people were reported killed, including seven non-Syrians who were most likely Iranian.
Israeli security officials expect Iran to respond, which could set off a direct confrontation, a week after the most intense fighting in Gaza in years. Against such a backdrop, the prospect of another dreaded election would weigh heavily on an already weary public.
Rivlin, among many others, has pleaded with the sides to find some sort of compromise to avoid another costly and divisive election campaign and even offered a power-sharing plan in which Gantz and Netanyahu would rotate as prime ministers. But among their other difference, they failed to agree on who would go first.