The governor of Lebanon's Central Bank sought to calm nerves on Monday amid a worsening economic and financial crisis, pledging to work on safeguarding the stability of the national currency and protecting bank deposits.
Riad Salameh told reporters at a packed press conference that the bank will keep defending the currency peg, stable since 1997. He said there won't be any capital controls or a haircut on customer's bank deposits.
As he spoke, dozens of protesters outside the bank on Beirut's Hamra Street blocked the road, chanting "down with the rule of the banks!" as riot police looked on.
Already facing an economic crisis, Lebanon's financial troubles worsened since nationwide economically driven mass protests erupted last month, paralyzing the country and keeping banks shuttered for two weeks. Depositors have rushed to withdraw their money since the banks reopened last week, with the country's various lenders imposing varying capital controls that differ from bank to bank, fueling the turmoil.
Though it's still pegged at 1,500 pounds to the dollar, the Lebanese pound is trading at up to 1,900 to the dollar on the black market, a devaluation of nearly 30% from the official rate.
"The Central Bank aims to protect the stability of the pound and we have the capability to do that," Salameh said, acknowledging at the same time the difference in price in currency exchange shops, which he said was due to market demand.
He described it as a "phenomenon" that will go away when demand diminishes.
Salameh said Lebanon is a dollarized economy — and "if there are no dollars in the market, then we don't have an economy."
He said a mechanism has been put in place to protect deposits and keep banks afloat. He ruled out capital controls, saying the central bank does not have the legal authority to do that, but that banks should continue to do what makes sense in these "exceptional times" to manage liquidity.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has appointed Naftali Bennett, one of the leaders of the New Right party, as the minister of defense.
According to local media reports on Friday, Netanyahu offered Bennett the position at their meeting in the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, and Bennett accepted it.
The appointment is expected to be approved at the upcoming government meeting.
Netanyahu, leader of the Likud party, currently heads a provisional caretaker government, after he failed twice to form a coalition following two general elections held on April 9 and Sept. 17, respectively.
The mandate to form a government has passed to Benny Gantz, head of the center-left wing party Blue and White which gained 33 seats in the second elections.
Should Gantz fail to form a unity government together with the Likud, elections may soon be held in Israel for the third time in a short period.
Bennett is known for his far-right views and has criticized Netanyahu several times for not acting aggressively in the Gaza Strip after the Palestinian rocket attacks.
Iran's state TV is saying the number of injured people from a magnitude 5.9 earthquake on Friday has jumped to 520 from more than 300.
Saturday's report said the updated figure followed the end of rescue operations in more than 80 remote villages Tark county in Iran's Eastern Azerbaijan province, some 400 kilometers (250 miles) northwest of the capital, Tehran.
It said 28 were hospitalized and the rest released with minor injuries, adding that the death toll has remained at five people.
Iran experiences an earthquake per day on average. In 2003, a magnitude 6.6 earthquake flattened the historic city of Bam, killing 26,000 people.
In 2017, a magnitude 7 earthquake struck western Iran and killed more than 600 people and injured more than 9,000.
Singer Tania Saleh grew up amid a civil war that robbed her of her childhood, of her friends and neighbors and of the Lebanon she so loved. For years, she has sung the pains of sectarian schisms.
"You Lebanese have created 10 or 12 gods ... You divided me. You aggravated me. You parceled me out and you became divided," one of her songs says, imagining a conversation with God. "He who wants to pray ... must understand that God, the creator, has not made one sect better than the other."
Based on a poem written in 1975, the year the war broke out, the lyrics still felt searing and relevant enough for Saleh to add to an album in 2017.
Now, the 50-year-old hopes younger Lebanese can make her country dance to a different tune, one that transcends sectarian divisions. She is inspired by the mosaic of protesters who have come together in the past weeks from across the religious, political and geographic spectrum, united in disdain for a political class they say has cheated them of a decent future.
"The new generation is not like us," she said. "We have seen too many tragedies and so we are scared."
The demonstrators have provided those eager to see the country move past its sectarian legacy with a glimpse of what can be. But Saleh says she has no illusions about how long that path will be. Those aspirations are increasingly being put to the test by a system that delicately balances among 18 officially recognized sectarian groups.
The system is locked into the country's politics. The posts of the president, prime minister and parliament speaker are given to the biggest communities — Maronite Christian, Sunni Muslim and Shiite Muslim. Most political parties are explicitly based on sect, and politicians pass out patronage and jobs to their communities.
It is also engrained in society, where many fear domination by other sects and one sect's gain can be seen as another's loss.
Looming over everything is the fear new violence might erupt if anyone wrecks the balance.
That threat resonates less with a generation that has little or no memory of a war that ended in 1990. The protests erupted over proposed new taxes but snowballed into calls for the entire political elite to go. For them, sectarian power-sharing is bound together with corruption and mismanagement that has impoverished them and left infrastructure so decrepit that power outages hit every day.
Hiba Farhat, a 31-year-old Shiite protester, said politicians pit sects against each other so "people would say, 'Ok, I accept corruption and I accept this leader; I just need him to protect me from the other sect.'"
Slogans like "the era of sects has ended" and "a revolution against fear" are scrawled in graffiti and proclaimed on banners. At a recent protest, demonstrators poured into Beirut squares in response to calls to keep unified.
Wearing a flowing black robe and a light-colored scarf framing her face, 25-year-old Huda Wissam smiled and swayed to the tunes of national songs as others rhythmically stomped their feet. With her was her 15-year-old brother and 20-year-old sister.
"I am veiled and when I see a Christian smiling at me, I get reassured that we have shed off sectarianism," said Wissam, a Sunni Muslim. "The challenge is for us all to remain together, Christian, Muslim, Shiite or Sunni ... then we will succeed."
Her father, she said, wanted her to stay out of protests, warning, "This will lead to a civil war."
"He doesn't want his children to become victims for something that won't happen. He has given up, but we won't," she said. "I don't want to wait until I am my parents' age and then there would be nothing I can do."
On a recent night, a small group of protesters sat on a sidewalk by the bell tower of a church in the northern Beirut suburb of Jal el-Deeb and took stock of how far they have come.
"The grudges that they have planted in us, our generation has put an end to them. I no longer feel sectarianism. Lebanon comes first," Charbel Elie, 32, told the group.
He wanted to know what the protesters had gained.
"Today, we don't ask what sect you belong to and what area you're from," and fear of criticizing leaders has been broken, replied Nayla Geagea, an activist and lawyer. She walked them through constitutional steps to forming a new government.
A 75-year-old man in the circle spoke up to say he had no questions but wanted to apologize to the younger generation for the country they were inheriting.
"We will fix it, uncle," someone yelled.
But protesters have had to keep sectarianism from fragmenting their own ranks. Geagea pointed out that when the prime minister stepped down — one of the demands of protesters — some made it look like the demonstrators were targeting his Sunni community. "We have to defeat this rhetoric," she said.
Amid grumbling over roadblocks and fears of economic collapse, men shouting Shiite religious slogans and chants in support of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah confronted protesters in one instance.
Some Shiites who initially joined demonstrations have stayed away after Nasrallah — even as he expressed sympathy for protesters' demands — accused foreign powers of exploiting them to undermine Hezbollah and warned against dragging the country into civil war.
Tensions between opposing Christian factions have also run high. Some supporters of President Michel Aoun accuse rivals from the rightwing Lebanese Forces movement of seeking to topple him. The two sides fought each other brutally in the final years of the civil war.
Aoun backers held a demonstration to support him and the president has called for unity. "The sectarian system will not get toppled through protests," said one of them, 27-year-old Elias Khoury. "It will get toppled when the hearts, not the laws, change."
The two are tangled together — a social mentality clinging to sect and a political class whose power depends on sectarianism.
"When you ask for the dismantling of the political sectarian system ... you're basically asking the current political elite to commit group suicide. They're not going to do that," said Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center.
The young "want basic, fundamental rights and for them they really have nothing to lose," she said. "They recognize that this system hasn't worked for their parents; it is not working for them."
Saleh, the singer, said she takes hope from a generation she feels is not as sectarian. Her son, she said, doesn't care to know the faith of his schoolmates.
Just like her art, her life has been colored by Lebanon's intricacies.
Her world changed at only six. The civil war broke out and school friends and neighbors started disappearing. The Christians fled to other areas. Born to a Sunni father and a Shiite mother, Saleh would go out sometimes with a cross dangling around her neck, a statement of defiance to the fighters who stole the normalcy of her life.
The war pitted Palestinians against Lebanese, Christians against Muslims, Christians against Christians and every other combination possible.
As battles raged, Saleh and her family left too, again and again and again. They bounced from home to home, escaped briefly to Kuwait. These memories are seared in her mind. Her mother begging armed men to let them drive through. Listening every day in Kuwait to iconic Lebanese singer Fairouz belt out "I love you, oh Lebanon."
"There is no hope for me to enjoy a proper country," Saleh said. "But the hope is for our kids and grandkids. Let them start now better than waiting for when it's too late."
Iran is acknowledging for the first time it has an open case before its Revolutionary Court over the 2007 disappearance of a former FBI agent on an unauthorized CIA mission to the country, renewing questions over what happened to him.
In a filing to the United Nations, Iran said the case over Robert Levinson was "on going," without elaborating.
It wasn't immediately clear how long the case had been open, nor the circumstances by which it started. However, it comes amid a renewed push to find him with an offer of $20 million for information from the Trump administration amid heightened tensions between Iran and the U.S. over Tehran's collapsing nuclear deal with world powers. That's in addition to $5 million earlier offered by the FBI.
The Associated Press on Saturday obtained the text of Iran's filing to the U.N.'s Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.
"According to the last statement of Tehran's Justice Department, Mr. Robert Alan Levinson has an on going case in the Public Prosecution and Revolutionary Court of Tehran," the filing said.
It did not elaborate. Iran's Revolutionary Court typically handles espionage cases and others involving smuggling, blasphemy and attempts to overthrow its Islamic government. Westerners and Iranian dual nationals with ties to the West often find themselves tried and convicted in closed-door trials in these courts, only later to be used as bargaining chips in negotiations.
Iran's mission to the U.N. did not immediately respond to a request for comment and its state media has not acknowledged the case.
The Washington Post first reported on the ongoing case.
Levinson disappeared from Iran's Kish Island on March 9, 2007. For years, U.S. officials would only say that Levinson, a meticulous FBI investigator credited with busting Russian and Italian mobsters, was working for a private firm on his trip.
In December 2013, the AP revealed Levinson in fact had been on a mission for CIA analysts who had no authority to run spy operations. Levinson's family had received a $2.5 million annuity from the CIA in order to stop a lawsuit revealing details of his work, while the agency forced out three veteran analysts and disciplined seven others.
Since his disappearance, the only photos and video of Levinson emerged in 2010 and 2011. He appeared gaunt and bearded with long hair, and was wearing an orange jumpsuit similar to those worn by detainees at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay.
The video, with a Pashtun wedding song popular in Afghanistan playing in the background, showed Levinson complaining of poor health.
Rumors about him have circulated for years, with one account claiming he was locked up in a Tehran prison run by Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard and U.S. officials suggesting he may not be in Iran at all. Dawud Salahuddin, an American fugitive living in Iran who is wanted for the assassination of a former Iranian diplomat in Maryland in 1980, is the last known person to have seen Levinson before his disappearance. Iran has offered a series of contradictory statements about Levinson in the time since. It asked the U.N. group to close its investigation into Levinson in February, saying "no proof has been presented by the claimant in this case to prove the presence of the aforesaid in Iran's detention centres."