Archive for October, 2019


September 28, 2019

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan’s presidential polls closed Saturday amid fears that accusations of fraud and misconduct could overwhelm any election results, while insurgent attacks aimed at disrupting voting in the country’s north and south caused dozens of casualties.

An upsurge in violence in the run-up to the elections, following the collapse of U.S.-Taliban talks to end America’s longest war, had already rattled Afghanistan in the past weeks. Yet on Saturday, many voters expressed equal fear and frustration over relentless government corruption and the widespread chaos at polling stations.

A deeply flawed election and contested result could drive the war-weary country into chaos. Many Afghans found incomplete voters’ lists, unworkable biometric identification systems aimed at curbing fraud, and in some cases hostile election workers.

Ruhollah Nawroz, a representative of the Independent Complaints Commission tasked with monitoring the process, said the problems are countrywide. Nawroz said he arrived at a polling center in the Taimani neighborhood of Kabul, the capital, at 6 a.m. and “hour by hour I was facing problems.”

Polls opened at 7 a.m. local time and closed at 5 p.m. after the Independent Election Commission (IEC) extended polling by one hour. Preliminary results won’t be out until Oct. 17, with a final vote count on Nov. 7. If no candidate wins 51 percent of the vote, a second round will be held between the two leading candidates.

Voter Hajji Faqir Bohman, who was speaking on behalf of disgruntled voters at the Taimani polling center, said the polling was so disorganized and flawed that even if his candidate wins “I will never believe that it was a fair election.”

The leading contenders are incumbent President Ashraf Ghani and his partner in the five-year-old unity government, Abdullah Abdullah, who already alleges power abuse by his opponent. Cameras crowded both men as they cast their vote earlier in Kabul, with Ghani telling voters they too had a responsibility to call out instances of fraud.

A young woman, Shabnam Rezayee, was attacked by an election worker after insisting on seeing the voter’s list when she was told her name was not on the list. Rezayee said the worker hurled abuses at her, directing her insults at her ethnicity. She then punched and scratched her.

When it ended and the attacker left, Rezayee found her name on the list and voted. “I am very strong,” she said. In Kabul, turnout was sporadic and in the morning hours it was rare to see a crowded polling center. Afghans who had patiently lined up before the voting centers were opened, entered in some locations to find that election officials had yet to arrive by opening time.

Imam Baksh, who works as a security guard, said he wasn’t worried about his safety as he stood waiting to mark his ballot, wondering whom he would vote for. “All of them have been so disappointing for our country,” he said.

The government’s push to hold the vote was in itself controversial. In an interview with The Associated Press last week, former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who still wields heavy influence, warned that the vote could be destabilizing for the country at a time of deep political uncertainty and hinder restarting the peace process with the Taliban.

On Saturday, one of the first reports of violence came from southern Afghanistan, the former spiritual heartland of the Taliban. A bomb attack on a local mosque where a polling station was located wounded 15 people, a doctor at the main hospital in the city of Kandahar said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak with the media.

The wounded included a police officer and several election officials, along with voters. Three were in critical condition. In northern Kunduz, where Taliban have previously threatened the city — even briefly taking control of some areas — insurgents fired mortar rounds into the municipality and attacked Afghan security forces on its outskirts, said Ghulam Rabani Rabani, a council member for the province.

Rabani said the attacks are to “frighten people and force them to stay in their homes and not participate in the election.” He said ongoing fighting has wounded as many as 40 people. Tens of thousands of police, intelligence officials and Afghan National Army personnel were deployed throughout the country to protect the 4,942 election centers. Authorities said 431 polling centers will stay closed because it was impossible to guarantee their security since they were either in areas under Taliban control or where insurgents could threaten nearby villages.

At one polling station in Kabul’s well-to-do Shahr-e-Now neighborhood, election workers struggled with biometric machines as well as finding names on voters’ lists. Ahmad Shah, 32, cast his vote, but said the election worker forgot to ink his finger — which is mandatory to prevent multiple voting by the same person.

“What sort of system is this?” he asked, frustrated that he had risked his safety to vote and expressed fear that fraud will mar the election results. “It’s a mess.” Still, 63-year old Ahmad Khan urged people to vote.

“It is the only way to show the Taliban we are not afraid of them,” he said, though he too worried at the apparent glitches in the process. In Kabul traffic was light, with police and the army scattered throughout the city, stopping cars and looking for anything out of the ordinary. Larger vehicles were not being allowed into the capital on Saturday, which is normally a working day but for the elections was declared a holiday.

Campaigning for Saturday’s elections was subdued and went into high gear barely two weeks ahead of the polls as most of the 18 presidential candidates expected a deal between the United States and the Taliban to delay the vote. But on Sept. 7, President Donald Trump declared a deal that seemed imminent dead after violent attacks in Kabul killed 12 people, including two U.S.-led coalition soldiers, one of whom was American.

While many of the presidential candidates withdrew from the election, none formally did so, leaving all 18 candidates on the ballot. Elections in Afghanistan are notoriously flawed and in the last presidential polls in 2014, allegations of widespread corruption were so massive that the United States intervened to prevent violence. No winner was declared and the U.S. cobbled together the unity government in which Ghani and Abdullah shared equal power — Ghani as president and Abdullah as chief executive, a newly created position.

Constant bickering and infighting within the government frustrated attempts to bring in substantive legislation as security, which has been tenuous, continued to deteriorate, frustrating Afghans and causing many to flee as refugees.

Neighboring Pakistan, routinely accused of aiding insurgents, said it was re-opening its borders with Afghanistan after receiving a request from the Afghan defense minister to allow Afghans to return home to vote. Pakistan had announced the border would be closed Saturday and Sunday.

Associated Press writer Mukhtar Amiri in Kabul, Afghanistan contributed to this report.

September 28, 2019

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghans headed to the polls on Saturday to elect a new president amid high security and Taliban threats to disrupt the elections, with the rebels warning citizens to stay home or risk being hurt.

Still at some polling stations in the capital voters lined up even before the centers opened, while in others election workers had yet to arrive by poll opening time. Imam Baksh, who works as a security guard, said he wasn’t worried about his safety as he stood waiting to mark his ballot, wondering who he would vote for.

“All of them have been so disappointing for our country,” he said. The leading contenders are incumbent President Ashraf Ghani and his partner in the 5-year-old unity government, Abdullah Abdullah, who already alleges power abuse by his opponent. Cameras crowded both men as they cast their vote, with Ghani telling voters they too had a responsibility to call out instances of fraud.

Fear and frustration at the relentless corruption that has characterized successive governments ranks high among the concerns of Afghanistan’s 9.6 million eligible voters. Even in the early hours of voting, complaints had begun to be raised such as polling stations in the posh Wazir Akbar region opening late and biometric machines, aimed at curbing fraud, not working.

In the northern Taimani neighborhood of mostly ethnic Hazaras, two-thirds of the voting registration papers had yet to arrive and angry voters were told their names were not on the list. Abdul Ghafoor, who spoke on behalf of dozens of men waiting to cast their ballot, said that of about 3,000 registered voters only 400 appeared on the list that had arrived at the center.

Ghafoor said he was told to return at 2 p.m. and that he would be allowed to vote even if his name was not on the list and without using the biometric machine. “But how can they do this? My vote won’t count if I am not on a list,” he said.

In Khoja Ali Mohfaq Herawi mosque in Kabul’s well-to-do Shahr-e-Now neighborhood, election workers struggled with biometric machines as well as finding names on voters’ lists. Ahmad Shah, 32, cast his vote, but said the election worker forgot to ink his finger — which is mandatory to prevent multiple voting by the same person.

“What sort of system is this?” he asked, frustrated that he had risked his safety to vote and expressed fear that fraud will mar the election results. “It’s a mess.” Still, 63-year old Ahmad Khan urged people to vote.

“It is the only way to show the Taliban we are not afraid of them,” he said, though he too worried at the apparent glitches in the process. Tens of thousands of police, intelligence officials and Afghan National Army personnel have been deployed throughout the country to protect the 4,942 election centers. Authorities said 431 polling centers will stay closed because it was impossible to guarantee their security since they were either in areas under Taliban control or where insurgents could threaten nearby villages.

In Kabul traffic was light, with police and the army scattered throughout the city, stopping cars and looking for anything out of the ordinary. The Taliban said they would take particular aim at Afghanistan’s cities.

Outfitted in bullet-proof vests, their rifles by their side, soldiers slowed traffic to a crawl as they searched vehicles. Larger vehicles were not being allowed into the capital on Saturday, which is a usual working day but for the elections was declared a holiday.

Neighbor Pakistan, routinely accused of aiding insurgents, announced it was closing its borders with Afghanistan Saturday and Sunday to further protect security in the war-weary country. Campaigning for Saturday’s elections was subdued and went into high gear barely two weeks ahead of the polls as most of the 18 presidential candidates expected a deal between the United States and the Taliban to delay the vote. But on Sept. 7, President Donald Trump declared a deal that seemed imminent dead after violent attacks in Kabul killed 12 people, including two U.S.-led coalition soldiers, one of whom was American.

While many of the presidential candidates withdrew from the election, none formally did so, leaving all 18 candidates on the ballot. Elections in Afghanistan are notoriously flawed and in the last presidential polls in 2014, allegations of widespread corruption were so massive that the United States intervened to prevent violence. No winner was declared and the U.S. cobbled together the unity government in which Ghani and Abdullah shared equal power — Ghani as president and Abdullah as chief executive, a newly created position.

Constant bickering and infighting within the government frustrated attempts to bring in substantive legislation as security, which has been tenuous, continued to deteriorate, frustrating Afghans and causing many to flee as refugees.

Associated Press writer Mukhtar Amiri contributed to this report.

October 29, 2019

GENEVA (AP) — Iran and Russia on Tuesday criticized and scoffed at Trump administration plans to protect oil deposits in Syria, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accusing Washington of “illegal” actions.

Lavrov joined Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Geneva to lend support to U.N.-backed talks among Syrian government, opposition and civil society delegations on the country’s constitution starting Wednesday.

The most pointed comments at their joint news conference addressed new Pentagon plans to increase efforts to protect Syria’s oil fields from both the Islamic State radical group and the Russian- and Iranian-backed Syrian government, even as U.S. forces are withdrawn from other parts of the country.

“Well, it seems that the United States is staying to protect the oil — and at least President Trump is honest to say what the United States intends to do,” said Zarif with a smile. Lavrov accused the United States of looking for a “pretext” to protect the oil deposits. He said any “exploitation of natural resources of a sovereign state without its consent is illegal,” according to a translator of his remarks in Russian.

Cavusoglu, however, remained focused on a top priority for Turkey in Syria: Ensuring that Kurdish fighters whom the United States supported to help drive out ISIS don’t threaten Turkish interests. Ankara has long argued the Kurdish fighters are an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has waged a guerrilla campaign inside Turkey since the 1980s. Turkey, U.S. and the European Union have designated the PKK as a terrorist organization.

Turkey has led a military incursion into northeastern Syria to create a 30-kilometer (19-mile) “safe zone” between Kurdish fighters and the Turkish border. Cavusoglu reiterated the hopes of Turkey — along with much of the international community — that Syria won’t split apart. He suggested that areas now controlled by Turkish forces and their allies in Syria could one day be “handed over” to the Syrian government, especially if the talks enhance prospects for peace and stability.

“When times come that the Syrian regime, at the end of this political process, is capable enough to protect the country’s territories and eliminate the terrorist organization (PKK) from that, I think all the territories should be handed over to Syria,” he said. “This is the territory of Syria.”

October 16, 2019

Moroccan anti-normalization activists have expressed their anger as a former Israeli interior minister attended an international symposium in Marrakech and gave a presentation, a move the activists described as a “crime of penetration”.

Former Knesset member Meir Sheetrit attended the World Policy Conference, which was held last weekend in Marrakech. The event was attended by ministers and officials from Moroccan and all over the world, according to Al-Quds Al-Arabi.

The Morocco Observatory Against Normalisation with Israel said the presence of Sheetrit is a “new Zionist crime of penetration”, denouncing conferences in Morocco that allow current and former Israeli officials to attend.

No Arab country has established formal political, economic, or cultural relations with the occupying state, except for Jordan and Egypt, which have signed peace agreements with Israel.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20191016-anger-as-israel-official-attends-morocco-conference/.

October 16, 2019

Israeli authorities have opened a natural spring in southern Jerusalem to visitors, “but on the explicit condition that Palestinians not be allowed to enter the site”, reported Haaretz.

The decision by police yesterday meant that the Ein Hanya spring “was kept under heavy guard by the police and Border Police, which even closed the road leading to Palestinian towns”.

Meanwhile, “hundreds of Israelis visited the site”, said Haaretz.

As described by the paper, Ein Hanya “is one of the largest and most important natural springs in the Jerusalem area”.

While it is located within Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries, Palestinian residents of neighboring village Al-Walaja “regularly visit it”.

Much of Al-Walaja’s land has been confiscated by Israeli authorities over the decades, with village land straddling the 1967 ‘Green Line’

The official opening of the spring as a tourism site was subject to repeated delays, thanks to “a dispute over whether entry fees should be charged”, as well as the “police’s demand that Palestinians not be allowed to enter”.

Police have also insisted that a checkpoint be relocated further south, “so that it would separate Palestinian towns from the spring”, at an estimated cost of 12 million shekels ($3.4 million).

The spring has now opened for just three days, before closing again “until the checkpoint is moved”.

According to Haaretz, “over the past few days, police have stepped up enforcement against Palestinian farmers seeking to work land near the spring”, and have “even forced a farmer to leave”.

Shaul Goldstein, the nature authority’s director, “said his agency has no objection to Palestinians visiting the spring, nor does it have any interest in moving the checkpoint.”

However, he noted that “since Ein Hanya is located in Jerusalem, from the defense establishment’s perspective, any Palestinian who goes there is in the capital illegally.”

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20191016-israel-opens-natural-spring-to-visitors-except-palestinians/.

October 16, 2019

CEYLANPINAR, Turkey (AP) — Russia moved to fill the void left by the United States in northern Syria on Tuesday, deploying troops to keep apart advancing Syrian government forces and Turkish troops. At the same time, tensions grew within NATO as Turkey defied growing condemnation of its invasion from its Western allies.

Now in its seventh day, Turkey’s offensive against Kurdish fighters has caused tens of thousands to flee their homes, has upended alliances and is re-drawing the map of northern Syria for yet another time in the 8-year-old war.

Russia moved quickly to further entrench its role as a power broker after U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the pullout of American forces in northeastern Syria. The American move effectively abandoned the Kurdish fighters who were allied with the U.S. and cleared the way for Turkey’s invasion aimed at crushing them.

Desperate for a new protector, the Kurdish administration struck a deal with the Russia-backed government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose forces on Sunday began moving into Kurdish-administered areas to shield them against Turkey.

Syrian troops waved flags after they rolled into Manbij, a flashpoint town west of the Euphrates River that Turkey had been aiming to capture and wrest from Kurdish control. Video by Russian journalists with the troops showed what appeared to be an abandoned outpost where U.S. forces had been stationed.

A U.S. military spokesman, Col. Myles B. Caggins, confirmed U.S. troops had completed their pullout from Manbij. During the withdrawal, contacts were kept open with the Turks and Russians to ensure the several hundred American forces there got out safely, U.S. officials said.

U.S. troops have had outposts in Manbij since 2017, when they went in to avert a battle over the town between Turkish and Kurdish fighters. Now Russia was playing that role. Outside Manbij, Russian troops patrolled front lines between Turkish and Syrian army positions to keep them apart, Russia’s Defense Ministry said.

“No one is interested” in fighting between Syrian government troops and Turkish forces, said Alexander Lavrentyev, Moscow’s envoy for Syria. Russia “is not going to allow it,” he told Russian state news agencies.

Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters Washington is “deeply concerned” that Russian troops are patrolling between the two sides. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu spoke to U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper to discuss “issues of mutual interest in the context of situation in Syria,” the Russian Defense Ministry said in a brief statement, without elaborating.

Russia has been a staunch ally of Assad for decades and entered the Syrian conflict in 2015, providing air power that eventually turned the tide of the war in his favor. The Russian military has shipped weapons to Damascus, trained thousands of troops and put its advisers in key Syrian military units.

In the first week of the Turkish assault, at least 154 fighters from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have been killed, as well as 128 fighters from Turkish-backed Syrian factions , according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitor of the war. It said at least 69 civilians have been killed in Syria. Turkey says six of its soldiers have died, as well as at least 20 Turkish civilians killed by Kurdish mortar fire across the border.

Despite the Syrian and Russian deployments, Turkey insisted it would capture Manbij. Asked on Sky News if Turkey’s military was willing to fight Assad’s army, Vice President Fuat Oktay said, “We hope it’s not going to happen, but again we are determined to get control over Manbij.”

Mortar fire from Manbij killed two Turkish soldiers and wounded seven others, the Turkish Defense Ministry said. An Associated Press team later saw up to 200 Turkish troops along with armored vehicles crossing near Manbij and Kobani, a border town that is not yet secured by Syrian forces. Farther east on the border, Turkish and Kurdish forces were in heavy battles over the town of Ras al-Ayn, captured by Turkish troops days earlier.

A U.S. official said the approximately 1,000 U.S. troops being withdrawn from northern Syria will reposition in Iraq, Kuwait and possibly Jordan. The U.S. forces in Iraq could conduct cross-border operations against the Islamic State group in Syria as they did before creating the now-abandoned partnership with Syrian Kurdish-led forces, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive planning for a U.S. pullout.

After opening the way for the Turkish assault with its pullout, Washington is now trying to restrain its fellow NATO member. Trump on Monday announced sanctions aimed at Turkey’s economy. The U.S. called on Turkey to stop the offensive and declare a cease-fire, while European Union countries moved to broaden an arms sale embargo against their easternmost ally.

Trump was sending Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser Robert O’Brien to Ankara to try to begin negotiations to stop the fighting. Pence said Trump spoke directly to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who promised not to attack the border town of Kobani, which in 2015 saw the Islamic State group’s first defeat in a battle by the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters.

Erdogan made clear, however, that he had no intention of halting the Turkish offensive. “They say ‘declare a ceasefire.’ We could never declare a ceasefire,” he told reporters. The U.N. Security Council planned a closed meeting Wednesday on the situation, requested by Germany and other EU members. “Everybody hopes that … we can do something to bring back the parties to the peace process,” said the current Security Council president, South Africa’s U.N. Ambassador Jerry Matjila.

NATO ambassadors also will meet on Wednesday in Brussels on Turkey’s offensive, said alliance Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. Erdogan defended Turkey’s offensive in a column in the Wall Street Journal, urging the international community to support Ankara’s effort to create what it calls a resettlement “safe zone” for refugees in northeastern Syria, or “begin admitting refugees.”

“Turkey reached its limit,” Erdogan wrote of the 3.6 million Syrians in his country. He said Turkey’s warnings it would be unable to stop refugee floods into the West without international support “fell on deaf ears.”

Turkey said it invaded northern Syria to create a zone of control the entire length of the border and drive out the Kurdish fighters, which it regards as terrorists because of their links to Kurdish insurgents in Turkey.

Instead, after the Kurds’ deal with Damascus, a new de facto carving up of the border appeared to be taking shape. Turkish forces control the beginnings of a truncated zone roughly in the center of the border about 100 kilometers (60 miles) long between the towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ain.

Syrian government troops were moving into or increasing their presence in areas on either side of that enclave, including Manbij to the west and the cities of Qamishli and Hassakeh in the far northeastern corner of Syria.

Though they gain protection from the Turks by the deal with Damascus, the Kurds risk losing the virtual self-rule they have enjoyed across the northeast — the heartland of their minority community — ever since Assad pulled his troops from the area seven years ago to fight rebels elsewhere.

The U.N. humanitarian aid coordinator said at least 160,000 civilians in northeastern Syria have been displaced amid the Turkish operations.

Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed.

October 11, 2019

Facebook on Wednesday deleted the page of the Palestinian Information Center (PIC) in a move, the news site says, which is part of its war on Palestinian content on social media networks.

The site’s management said Facebook provided them with no prior warning before deleting the page, which had nearly five million followers, without any justification.

They called on Facebook to reinstate the page and stop its battle against Palestinian content, saying they have contested the ban.

The Palestinian Information Center has previously been forced to suspend posting on Facebook after the social media giant banned the accounts of some of its directors. Member of management have also seen their accounts deleted and removed.

The blocking of the PIC’s page comes as part of an extensive campaign in recent weeks that included many Palestinian social media platforms.

The Palestinian Information Center was founded in December 1997 in Arabic, as the first Palestinian news site, dedicated to advocating the Palestinian cause and the Arab conflict with the Zionist occupier. It is biased in favor of the rights of the Palestinian people and their sanctities and the legitimate right to resist the occupier by all legitimate and internationally guaranteed means. It is the only Palestinian site that broadcasts its material in eight languages.

Earlier this week, journalists and activists in Palestine launched a social media campaign against Facebook’s censorship of Palestinian content.

Using the hashtag FBblocksPalestine, the drive hopes to bring to light “the threat posed by Facebook against Palestinian content, and to make it public, as well as reveal the double-standard policy of Facebook management in dealing with Israeli and Palestinian incitement on its site,” says Eyad Rifai, head of Sada Social Centre which is running the drive.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20191011-facebook-takes-down-page-of-palestine-news-site/.

October 26, 2019

BEIRUT (AP) — In Hong Kong, it was a complicated extradition dispute involving a murder suspect. In Beirut, it was a proposed tax on the popular WhatsApp messenger service. In Chile, it was a 4-cent hike in subway fares.

Recent weeks have seen mass protests and clashes erupt in far-flung places triggered by seemingly minor actions that each came to be seen as the final straw. The demonstrations are fueled by local grievances, but reflect worldwide frustration at growing inequality, corrupt elites and broken promises.

Where past waves of protests, like the 2011 Arab Spring or the rallies that accelerated the breakup of the Soviet Union, took aim at dictatorships, the latest demonstrations are rattling elected governments. The unrest on three continents, coupled with the toxic dysfunction in Washington and London, raises fresh concerns over whether the liberal international order, with free elections and free markets, can still deliver on its promises.

THE PEOPLE STILL WANT THE FALL OF THE REGIME

Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese poured into the streets after the government floated a new tax on WhatsApp on the heels of an austerity package that came in response to an increasingly severe fiscal crisis.

The protests rapidly escalated into an indictment of the entire post-civil war order , in which a sectarian power-sharing arrangement has transformed former warlords and other elites into a permanent political class. In the three decades since the war ended, the same leaders have used patronage networks to get themselves re-elected again and again even as the government has failed to reliably provide basic services like electricity, water and trash collection.

A similar story has unfolded in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, where a government that distributes power and top offices among Shiites and minority Sunnis and Kurds has calcified into a corrupt stasis, with parties haggling over ministries as services and infrastructure fall into further ruin despite the country’s considerable oil wealth.

“Thieves! Thieves!” protesters in both countries chanted this week.

“Massive economic mismanagement coupled with spiraling corruption have pauperized large segments of the Arab people,” said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. “It is no wonder then that millions of Arabs are fed up.”

The protests in both countries target governments that are close to Iran and backed by its heavily armed local allies, raising fears of a violent backlash. Nearly 200 Iraqis have been killed in recent clashes with security forces, and supporters of the Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group have brawled with protesters in Beirut.

“There is no magical bullet or easy answer to the severe crisis of governance in Arab lands,” Gerges said. “The struggle will be fierce and long and costly, but there is no turning back.”

RISING UP AGAINST A RISING CHINA

Hong Kong’s protests erupted in early June after the semiautonomous city passed an extradition bill that put residents at risk of being sent to China’s judicial system. At one point, protesters said they had brought 2 million people into the streets.

Authorities were forced to drop the extradition proposal , which was triggered by the need to resolve the status of a murder suspect wanted for killing his pregnant girlfriend in Taiwan. But by then, the movement had snowballed to include demands for full democracy in the form of direct elections for the city’s top leader.

Since China took control of Hong Kong from Britain in 1997, the city’s leaders have been selected by an elite committee made up mostly of pro-Beijing tycoons. Local councillors and half of the Asian financial center’s legislature are directly elected, but the other half are chosen by representatives from the finance, tourism, catering, accounting and other industries, which adds to the public discontent over stifled promises of democracy.

Underlying the Hong Kong protest movement are rising fears about China’s tightening grip on the city and worries that Beijing is reneging on promises not to meddle with Hong Kong’s Western-style civil liberties, such as freedom of speech and an independent judiciary.

Protesters also fear China’s technology-powered authoritarianism. Wearing masks to conceal their identities, they have cut down “smart lampposts” and smashed surveillance cameras. They worry about artificial intelligence-powered facial recognition surveillance systems capturing their biometric data and sending it for processing by Chinese technology giants to track and identify them.

UNREST IN WEALTHY, DEMOCRATIC CHILE

On Friday, an estimated 1 million Chileans filled the streets of the capital Santiago, more than ever took to the streets during the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet or the democratic governments that came after him.

The protests were sparked by the subway fare hike but soon morphed into a mass movement against inequality in one of Latin America’s wealthiest countries. At least 19 people have been killed as protesters have clashed with police in recent days.

Protesters tried to force their way onto the grounds of Chile’s legislature Friday, provoking an evacuation of the building. Police fired tear gas to fend off hundreds of demonstrators on the perimeter as some lawmakers and administrative staff hurried out of the legislative building, which is in the port city of Valparaiso.

Marta Lagos, head of Latinobarometro, a nonprofit survey group in Chile, said the protests have exposed the shortcomings of the country’s political system. “There is a failure of the system of political parties in its ability to represent society,” Lagos said.

Struggling to contain the strife, President Sebastián Piñera’s administration announced increases in the minimum wage, raised minimum pensions by 20% and rolled back the subway fare increase.

He put a 9.2% increase in electricity prices on hold until the end of next year, but with analysts predicting his resignation and fresh elections, the consequences of that move could fall to his successor.

CATALAN PROTESTS TAKE A VIOLENT TURN

For years, Catalan separatists have held peaceful, festive marches, but the movement took a violent turn last week when protests erupted over the imprisonment of nine leaders who led a bid for independence from Spain in 2017.

That failed attempt left the separatist movement rudderless, with 12 of its leaders arrested and most of the rest fleeing the country, including former Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont.

New activist collectives have emerged in their place, including one calling itself the Tsunami Democratic, which uses its own app and encrypted messages to call for “civil disobedience.”

But one of its first calls to protest, after the Oct. 31 Supreme Court ruling jailing the leaders, turned into a massive siege of Barcelona’s international airport, with rioters clashing with police late into the night.

The group has borrowed some of its tactics and rhetoric from the Hong Kong protesters, and protesters in both places have staged demonstrations in support of one another, though most Hong Kong protesters have been careful not to push for independence from China — one of President Xi Jinping’s “red lines.”

That one movement is struggling against domination by one-party China while the other is rising up against a European democracy is a distinction that has been lost in the tear gas.

Associated Press writers Kelvin Chan in Hong Kong and Aritz Parra in Madrid contributed.

October 26, 2019

BAGHDAD (AP) — Tens of thousands of people, many of them young and unemployed men, thronged public squares and blocked main streets Friday in the capitals of Iraq and Lebanon in unprecedented, spontaneous anti-government revolts in two countries scarred by long conflicts.

Demonstrators in Iraq were beaten back by police firing live ammunition and tear gas, and officials said 30 people were killed in a fresh wave of unrest that has left 179 civilians dead this month. In Lebanon, scuffles between rival political groups broke out at a protest camp, threatening to undermine an otherwise united civil disobedience campaign now in its ninth day.

The protests are directed at a postwar political system and a class of elite leaders that have kept both countries from relapsing into civil war but achieved little else. The most common rallying cry from the protesters in Iraq and Lebanon is “Thieves! Thieves!” — a reference to officials they accuse of stealing their money and amassing wealth for decades.

The leaderless uprisings are unprecedented in uniting people against political leaders from their own religious communities. But the revolutionary change they are calling for would dismantle power-sharing governments that have largely contained sectarian animosities and force out leaders who are close to Iran and its heavily armed local allies.

Their grievances are not new. Three decades after the end of Lebanon’s civil war and 16 years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the streets of their capitals echo with the roar of private generators that keep the lights on. Tap water is undrinkable and trash goes uncollected. High unemployment forces the young to put off marriage and children.

Every few years there are elections, and every time it seems like the same people win. The sectarian power-sharing arrangement that ended Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war distributed power and high offices among Christians, Shiites and Sunnis. It has mostly kept the peace, but has turned former warlords into a permanent political class that trades favors for votes. A planned tax on WhatsApp amid a financial crisis was the last straw.

In Iraq, a similar arrangement among Shiites and minority Sunnis and Kurds has led to the same corrupt stasis, with parties haggling over ministries so they can give jobs and aid to supporters while lining their own pockets. The devastating war against the Islamic State group only exacerbated decades-old economic problems in the oil-rich country.

“They (leaders) have eaten away at the country like cancer,” said Abu Ali al-Majidi, 55, pointing toward the Green Zone, home to government offices and Western embassies. “They are all corrupt thieves,” he added, surrounded by his four sons who had come along for the protest.

In Iraq, a ferocious crackdown on protests that began Oct. 1 resulted in the deaths of 149 civilians in less than a week, most of them shot in the head and chest, along with eight security forces killed. After a three-week hiatus, the protests resumed Friday, with 30 people killed, according to the semi-official Iraq High Commission for Human Rights.

In both countries, which share a history of civil strife, the potential for sustained turmoil is real. Iraq and Lebanon are considered to be firmly in Iran’s orbit, and Tehran is loath to see protracted political turbulence that threatens the status quo, fearing it may lose influence at a time when it is under heavy pressure from the U.S.

The Iran-backed Hezbollah in Beirut and the Popular Mobilization Forces in Baghdad have said they want the governments in both countries to stay in power. The protests against Iraq’s Shiite-led government have spread to several, mainly Shiite-populated southern provinces. In Lebanon, demonstrations have erupted in Shiite communities, including in south Lebanon for the first time.

Signs of a backlash against Tehran’s tight grip on both countries can already be seen. Among the protesters’ chants in Baghdad, one said: “Iran out, out! Baghdad free, free!” Protesters trying to reach the heavily fortified Green Zone were met with tear gas and live ammunition. Men in black plainclothes and masks stood in front of Iraqi soldiers, facing off with protesters and firing the tear gas. Residents said they did not know who they were, with some speculating they were Iranians.

In the south, headquarters of Iran-backed militias were set on fire. In central Beirut, Hezbollah supporters clashed with anti-government protesters. Supporters of the powerful group rejected the protesters equating its leader with other corrupt politicians. A popular refrain in the rallies, now in their ninth day, has been: “All means all.”

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned in a televised speech that the protests — although largely peaceful until now — could lead to chaos and civil war. He said they were being hijacked by political rivals opposing the group.

“We are closing the roads, calling for toppling the system that has been ruling us for the past 30 years with oppression, suppression and terror, said Abed Doughan, a protester blocking a street in southern Beirut.

After Friday’s deadly violence in Iraq, a curfew was announced in several areas of the south. Hundreds of people were taken to hospitals, many with shortness of breath from the tear gas. The current round of protests has been endorsed by nationalist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has a popular base of support and holds the largest number of seats in parliament. He has called on the government to resign and suspended his bloc’s participation in the government until it comes up with a reform program.

However, powerful Shiite militias backed by Iran have stood by the government and suggested the demonstrations were an outside “conspiracy.” Iraq’s most senior Shiite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, appealed for protesters and security forces to avoid violence. In his Friday sermon, he also criticized the government-appointed committee investigating the crackdown in the previous protests, saying it did not achieve its goals or uncover who was behind the violence.

As in the protests earlier this month, the protesters, organized on social media, started from the central Tahrir Square. The demonstrators carried Iraqi flags and chanted anti-government slogans, demanding jobs and better public services like water and electricity.

“I want my country back, I want Iraq back,” said Ban Soumaydai, 50, an Education Ministry employee who wore black jeans, a white T-shirt and carried an Iraqi flag with the hashtag #We want a country printed on it.

Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi has struggled to deal with the protests. In an address to the nation early Friday, he promised a government reshuffle next week and pledged reforms. He told protesters they have a right to peaceful demonstrations and called on security forces to protect the protesters.

Similarly, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri issued an emergency reform package few days after the protests began on Oct. 17 — a document that has been dismissed by protesters as “empty promises.”

Karam reported from Beirut and Krauss from Jerusalem. Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed.