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UAE plans to scrap monopolies of some big merchant families – FT

A general view of JBR from the Bluewaters Island in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, December 08, 2021. REUTERS/Satish Kumar

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Dec 26 (Reuters) – The United Arab Emirates government has told some of its biggest business families that it plans to remove their monopolies on the sale of imported goods, the Financial Times reported on Sunday.

The government did not immediately respond to Reuters’ requests for comment but state news agency WAM quoted a Ministry of Economy statement saying a draft law on commercial agencies was still in its legislative cycle and “it is still too early to give details”.

The cabinet referred the draft to the Federal National Council for discussion and possibly more amendments, it added.

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The FT report said the proposed legislation would end the automatic renewal of existing commercial agency agreements in the Gulf state, giving foreign firms the opportunity to distribute their own goods or change their local agents.

“It no longer makes sense for individual families to have such power and preferential access to easy wealth,” the report quoted an Emirati official as saying. “We have to modernise our economy.”

The proposed law must be approved by the Emirati leadership and the timing for that remains uncertain, the report added.

Over the past year the UAE, a growing economic rival of Saudi Arabia, has taken measures to make its economy more attractive to foreign investors and talent.

Earlier this year, UAE said foreigners opening a company will no longer need an Emirati shareholder or agent, after it made changes to UAE company law.

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Reporting by Akriti Sharma in Bengaluru; Additional reporting by Maria Ponnezhath; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Emelia Sithole-Matarise

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As Other Arab States Falter, Saudi Arabia Seeks to Become a Cultural Hub

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — A pregnant Saudi woman, far from home, finds herself stalked by inner and outer demons. A wannabe Saudi vlogger and his friends, menaced by the internet’s insatiable appetite for content and more mysterious dangers, try to escape a dark forest. At a wedding, the mother of the bride panics when her daughter disappears with all of their guests waiting downstairs.

These were just a few of the 27 Saudi-made films premiering this month at a film festival in Jeddah, part of the conservative kingdom’s huge effort to transform itself from a cultural backwater into a cinematic powerhouse in the Middle East.

The Saudi push reflects profound shifts in the creative industries across the Arab world. Over the past century, while the name Saudi Arabia conjured little more than oil, desert and Islam, Cairo, Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad stood out as the Arab cultural beacons where blockbuster movies were made, chart-topping songs were recorded and books that got intellectuals talking hit the shelves.

to promote pro-government themes.

In many ways, the region’s cultural mantle is up for grabs, and Saudi Arabia is spending lavishly to seize it.

At the Red Sea International Film Festival, held on a former execution ground, Jeddah residents rubbernecked as stars like Hilary Swank and Naomi Campbell strutted down a red carpet in revealing gowns, and Saudi influencers D.J.-ed at dance parties.

All this in a country where, until a few years ago, women were not allowed to drive, cinemas were banned and aspiring filmmakers often had to dodge the religious police to shoot in public.

CineWaves.

Although Saudi Arabia’s population is about a fifth of Egypt’s, the Saudis are more affluent and wired, making them more likely to pay for streaming services and movie tickets. At about $18, a ticket in Saudi theaters is among the most expensive in the world.

But the kingdom only allowed cinemas to reopen only in 2018 after a 35-year ban. Before that, Saudis escaped to nearby Bahrain or Dubai to go to theaters.

Now, the country has 430 screens and counting, making it the fastest-growing market in the world, with a target of 2,600 screens by 2030, Mr. Abdulmajeed said.

Film Clinic, a Cairo-based production company.

Several Saudi-Egyptian collaborations are in the works, and an Egyptian “Hangover”-style comedy, “Wa’afet Reggala” (“A Stand Worthy of Men”), was the highest-grossing release in Saudi Arabia this year, beating the Hollywood blockbusters.

Saudi productions may also continue to draw acting, writing and directing talent from Lebanon, Syria and Egypt — and will most likely need to do so to reach non-Saudi audiences, said Rebecca Joubin, an Arab studies professor at Davidson College in North Carolina.

“With Saudi opening up, they say in Egypt that it’s saving Egypt’s movie industry,” said Marwan Mokbel, an Egyptian who co-wrote “Junoon,” the Saudi horror film about the vlogger that premiered at the Jeddah festival.

Shahid, its Dubai-based Arabic counterpart.

That has created a big market for Arabic-language content.

Netflix has produced Jordanian, Egyptian and Syrian-Lebanese shows, with varying degrees of success, and just announced the release of its first Arabic-language feature film, “Perfect Strangers.”

Syrian and Lebanese studios that used to depend on gulf financiers — who, they complained, often forced them to water down their artistic ambitions by nixing political themes — are also turning to web series and Netflix for new funding and wider audiences.

a hip alternative to the somnolent broadcast television. Mohammad Makki recalled dodging the police, guerrilla style, to film the first season of his show “Takki,” about a group of Saudi friends navigating Saudi social constraints, a decade ago. Then, it was a low-budget YouTube series. Now, it is a Netflix hit.

“We grew up dying to go to the cinema,” he said, “and now it’s two blocks from my house.”

Saudi women in the industry faced even greater challenges.

When “Wadjda” (2012), the first Saudi feature directed by a woman, was filmed, Haifaa al-Mansour, the director, was barred from mixing in public with male crew members. She worked instead from the back of a van, communicating with the actors via walkie-talkie.

“I’m still in shock,” said Ahd Kamel, who played a conservative teacher in “Wadjda,” which portrays a rebellious young Saudi girl who desperately wants a bicycle, as she walked through the festival. “It’s surreal.”

As a young actress in New York, Ms. Kamel hid her career from her family, knowing they, and Saudi society, would not approve of a woman acting. Now, she said, her family pesters her for festival tickets, and she is preparing to direct a new film to be shot in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi political, religious and cultural sensitivities are still factors, of course.

Marvel’s big-budget “Eternals” was not released in Saudi Arabia — or in Qatar, Kuwait or Egypt — because of gay romantic scenes. Several of the non-Saudi films screened at the Jeddah festival, however, included gay scenes, nudity and an out-of-wedlock pregnancy.

Hisham Fageeh, a Saudi comedian and actor, said officials had told him future films should avoid touching directly on God or politics.

Sumaya Rida, an actress in the festival movies “Junoon” and “Rupture,” said the films aimed to portray Saudi couples realistically while avoiding onscreen physical affection.

But the filmmakers said they were just happy to have support, accepting that it would come at the price of creative constraints.

“I don’t intend to provoke to provoke. The purpose of cinema is to tease. Cinema doesn’t have to be didactic,” said Fatima al-Banawi, a Saudi actress and director whose first feature film the festival is funding. “It comes naturally. We’ve been so good at working around things for so long.”

Vivian Yee reported from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and Ben Hubbard from Beirut, Lebanon. Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, and Nada Rashwan from Cairo.

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On Syria’s Ruins, a Drug Empire Flourishes

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Built on the ashes of 10 years of war in Syria, an illegal drug industry run by powerful associates and relatives of President Bashar al-Assad has grown into a multi-billion-dollar operation, eclipsing Syria’s legal exports and turning the country into the world’s newest narcostate.

Its flagship product is captagon, an illegal, addictive amphetamine popular in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. Its operations stretch across Syria, including workshops that manufacture the pills, packing plants where they are concealed for export, and smuggling networks to spirit them to markets abroad.

An investigation by The New York Times found that much of the production and distribution is overseen by the Fourth Armored Division of the Syrian army, an elite unit commanded by Maher al-Assad, the president’s younger brother and one of Syria’s most powerful men.

Major players also include businessmen with close ties to the government, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, and other members of the president’s extended family, whose last name ensures protection for illegal activities, according to The Times investigation, which is based on information from law enforcement officials in 10 countries and dozens of interviews with international and regional drug experts, Syrians with knowledge of the drug trade and current and former United States officials.

found 84 million pills hidden in huge rolls of paper and metal gears last year. Malaysian officials discovered more than 94 million pills sealed inside rubber trolley wheels in March.

hub of hashish production and a stronghold of Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militant group that is now part of Lebanon’s government.

While the pharmaceutical Captagon contained the amphetamine fenethylline, the illicit version sold today, often referred to as “captagon” with a lowercase c, usually contains a mix of amphetamines, caffeine and various fillers. Cheap versions retail for less than a dollar a pill in Syria, while higher quality pills can sell for $14 or more apiece in Saudi Arabia.

After the Syrian war broke out, smugglers took advantage of the chaos to sell the drug to fighters on all sides, who took it to bolster their courage in battle. Enterprising Syrians, working with local pharmacists and machinery from disused pharmaceutical factories, began making it.

Syria had the needed components: experts to mix drugs, factories to make products to conceal the pills, access to Mediterranean shipping lanes and established smuggling routes to Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.

As the war dragged on, the country’s economy fell apart and a growing number of Mr. al-Assad’s associates were targeted with international sanctions. Some of them invested in captagon, and a state-linked cartel developed, bringing together military officers, militia leaders, traders whose businesses had boomed during the war and relatives of Mr. al-Assad.

Mr. Khiti and Mr. Taha. It called Mr. Taha an intermediary for the Fourth Division whose businesses “generate revenue for the regime and its supporters.”

Captagon is still produced in and smuggled through Lebanon. Nouh Zaiter, a Lebanese drug lord who now lives mostly in Syria, links the Lebanese and Syrian sides of the business, according to regional security officials and Syrians with knowledge of the drug trade.

A tall, longhaired Bekaa Valley native, Mr. Zaiter was sentenced in absentia to life in prison with hard labor by a Lebanese military court this year for drug crimes.

Reached by phone, Mr. Zaiter said his business was hashish and denied that he had ever been involved with captagon.

“I have not and will never send such poisons to Saudi Arabia or anywhere else,” he said. “Even my worst enemy, I won’t provide him with captagon.”

sewn into the linings of clothes.

In May, after Saudi authorities discovered more than five million pills hidden inside hollowed out pomegranates shipped from Beirut, they banned produce from Lebanon, a major blow to local farmers.

According to The Times’ database, the number of pills seized has increased every year since 2017.

The street value of the drugs seized has outstripped the value of Syria’s legal exports, mostly agricultural products, every year since 2019.

Last year, global captagon seizures had a street value of about$2.9 billion, more than triple Syria’s legal exports of $860 million.

Law enforcement agencies have struggled to catch the smugglers, not least because the Syrian authorities offer little if any information about shipments that originated in their country.

The name of shippers listed on manifests are usually fake and searches for the intended recipients often lead to mazes of shell companies.

The Italian seizure of 84 million pills in Salerno last year, the largest captagon bust ever at the time, had come from Latakia. Shipping documents listed the sender as Basil al-Shagri Bin Jamal, but the Italian authorities were unable to find him.

GPS Global Aviation Supplier, a company registered in Lugano, Switzerland, that appears to have no office.

Phone calls, text messages and emails to the company received no response, and the wealth management firm that the company listed as its mailing address, SMC Family Office SA, declined to comment.

Greek investigators have hit similar roadblocks.

In June 2019, workers in Piraeus found five tons of captagon, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, inside sheets of fiberboard on their way to China.

Seehog, a Chinese logistics firm. When reached by phone, she denied knowing anything about the shipment and refused to answer questions.

“You are not the police,” she said, and hung up.

There was one more clue in the documents: The sender was Mohammed Amer al-Dakak, with a Syrian phone number. When entered into WhatsApp, the phone number showed a photo of Maher al-Assad, the commander of Syria’s Fourth Armored Division, suggesting the number belonged to, at least, one of his fans.

A man who answered that number said that he was not Mr. al-Dakak. He said that he had acquired the phone number recently.

Loukas Danabasis, the head of the narcotics unit of Greece’s financial crime squad, said the smugglers’ tactics made solving such cases “difficult and sometimes impossible.”

While officials in Europe struggle to identify smugglers, Jordan, one of the United States’ closest partners in the Middle East, sits on the front lines of a regional drug war.

“Jordan is the gateway to the Gulf,” Brig. Gen. Ahmad al-Sarhan, the commander of an army unit along Jordan’s border with Syria, said during a visit to the area.

Overlooking a deep valley with views of Syria, General al-Sarhan and his men detailed Syrian smugglers’ tricks to bring drugs into Jordan: They launch crossing attempts at multiple spots. They attach drugs to drones and fly them across. They load drugs onto donkeys trained to cross by themselves.

Sometimes the smugglers stop by Syrian army posts before approaching the border.

“There is clear involvement,” General al-Sarhan said.

The drug trade worries Jordanian officials for many reasons.

The quantities are increasing. The number of Captagon pills seized in Jordan this year is nearly double the amount seized in 2020, according to Colonel Alqudah, the head of the narcotics department.

And while Jordan was originally just a pathway to Saudi Arabia, as much as one-fifth of the drugs smuggled in from Syria are now consumed in Jordan, he estimated. The increased supply has lowered the price, making it easy for students to become addicted.

Even more worrying, he said, is the growing quantity of crystal meth entering Jordan from Syria, which poses a greater threat. As of October, Jordan had seized 132 pounds of it this year, up from 44 pounds the year before.

“We are now in a dangerous stage because we can’t go back,” said Dr. Morad al-Ayasrah, a Jordanian psychiatrist who treats drug addicts. “We are going forward and the drugs are increasing.”

Reporting was contributed by Niki Kitsantonis in Athens; Gaia Pianigiani in Rome; Kit Gillet in Bucharest, Romania; Hannah Beech in Bangkok; and employees of The New York Times in Damascus, Syria, and Beirut, Lebanon.

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Commodities

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  • Most of combined release would come from U.S. stocks – Citigroup
  • Japan restricted in how it can use its releases
  • OPEC+ has been slowly adding supply back to the market
  • U.S. leading effort to release barrels to cool prices

TOKYO/NEW DELHI, Nov 22 (Reuters) – Japanese and Indian officials are working on ways to release national reserves of crude oil in tandem with the United States and other major economies, but the timing of such a release remains unclear, seven government sources with knowledge of the plans told Reuters.

Such an announcement could come as early as Tuesday, according to a source familiar with the discussions, but White House and U.S. energy department officials said no official decision on a release had been made. read more

U.S. President Joe Biden has asked China, India, South Korea and Japan for a coordinated oil stocks release as U.S. gasoline prices soar and his approval ratings slump ahead of next year’s congressional elections.

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The U.S. government has been unable to persuade OPEC+ to pump more oil, with major producers arguing the world was not short of crude.

OPEC and other producers including Russia, known collectively as OPEC+, have been adding around 400,000 barrels per day to the market on a monthly basis, but have resisted Biden’s calls for more rapid increases, arguing the rebound in demand could be fragile.

The threat of a coordinated release, along with new coronavirus-related lockdowns in Europe, has knocked the wind out of crude oil’s rally. Brent crude was last trading at $79.30 a barrel, down more than $7 from a peak reached in late October.

Citigroup analysts estimated in a note that the United States could release anywhere from 45 million to 60 million barrels from its reserves that would bring forward about 20 million in already approved sales. The bank said a combined release could be at “on the order of 100-120 million bbls or higher.”

One source familiar with the discussions, however, said the input from China and other countries is still very much up in the air, and that nations like India and South Korea would be likely to contribute a small amount of barrels.

Such a move could compel OPEC+ to also reassess whether it would continue its current course of steady increases, said Joseph McMonigle, Secretary General of the Riyadh-based International Energy Forum (IEF).

“If they are going to make a change, it will be because of unforeseen external factors, such as these lockdowns in Europe, any kind of strategic release, and shifts in jet fuel demand,” said McMonigle. The IEF is the largest international organization of energy ministers and includes Saudi Arabia, the United States and Russia.

The increase in COVID cases in Europe supports recent comments from the likes of OPEC Secretary General Mohammed Barkindo, who said the market will soon be facing a surplus. In that case, OPEC members with more room to boost output may instead prefer to maintain current production or even reduce it.

“An SPR release could easily backfire,” said Troy Vincent, market analyst at DTN.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida signalled his readiness to release stocks over the weekend. read more

Three Indian government sources said on Monday they were holding consultations with the United States on the release of oil from strategic reserves.

Japan, the world’s fourth-biggest oil buyer, is restricted on how it can act with its reserves – made up of both private and public stocks – which typically can only be used in times of shortage.

One Japanese source said the government was looking into releasing from the portion of state-held stocks outside the minimum amount required as a legal workaround.

Japan’s oil reserve held 145 days’ worth of daily petroleum consumption at the end of September, according to official data, well above the minimum 90 days required by law.

Japanese private companies including refiners hold about 175 million barrels of crude and oil products as part of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR), enough for around 90 days’ consumption, according to state agency Jogmec.

India holds about 26.5 million barrels of oil in its SPR.

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Reporting by Yoshifumi Takemoto, Ritsuko Shimizu and Aaron Sheldrick and Nidhi Verma; Additional reporting by Jeff Mason and Tim Gardner in Washington and Jessica Resnick Ault in New York; Writing and additional reporting by Kantaro Komiya; Editing by Louise Heavens, Kirsten Donovan, Mark Potter and Richard Pullin

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Middle East

Nov 21 (Reuters) – The woman who was engaged to marry Jamal Khashoggi has asked singer Justin Bieber to cancel his scheduled Dec. 5 performance in Saudi Arabia’s second-largest city Jeddah, urging him to not perform for the slain Saudi journalist’s “murderers.”

Hatice Cengiz wrote an open letter to the singer published on Saturday in the Washington Post in which she urged Bieber to cancel the performance to “send a powerful message to the world that your name and talent will not be used to restore the reputation of a regime that kills its critics.”

President Joe Biden’s administration released a U.S. intelligence report in February implicating Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Khashoggi’s 2018 murder in Istanbul but spared him any direct punishment. The crown prince denies any involvement.

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“Do not sing for the murderers of my beloved Jamal,” Cengiz wrote. “Please speak out and condemn his killer, Mohammed bin Salman. Your voice will be heard by millions.”

Bieber, who is Canadian, is among a group of artists scheduled to perform as Saudi Arabia hosts the Formula One Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in Jeddah.

“If you refuse to be a pawn of MBS, your message will be loud and clear: I do not perform for dictators. I choose justice and freedom over money,” Cengiz wrote, using the crown prince’s initials.

Human rights groups have urged the performers to speak out against human rights issues in the kingdom.

“Saudi Arabia has a history of using celebrities and major international events to deflect scrutiny from its pervasive abuses,” Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.

The advocacy group urged the performers, who also include rapper A$AP Rocky, DJs David Guetta and Tiesto and singer Jason Derulo, “to speak out publicly on rights issues or, when reputation-laundering is the primary purpose, not participate.”

Khashoggi, a Saudi-born U.S. resident who wrote opinion columns for the Washington Post critical of the Saudi crown prince, was killed and dismembered by a team of operatives linked to the prince in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul.

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Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Will Dunham

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As Western Oil Giants Cut Production, State-Owned Companies Step Up

Kuwait announced last month that it planned to invest more than $6 billion in exploration over the next five years to increase production to four million barrels a day, from 2.4 million now.

This month, the United Arab Emirates, a major OPEC member that produces four million barrels of oil a day, became the first Persian Gulf state to pledge to a net zero carbon emissions target by 2050. But just last year ADNOC, the U.A.E.’s national oil company, announced it was investing $122 billion in new oil and gas projects.

Iraq, OPEC’s second-largest producer after Saudi Arabia, has invested heavily in recent years to boost oil output, aiming to raise production to eight million barrels a day by 2027, from five million now. The country is suffering from political turmoil, power shortages and inadequate ports, but the government has made several major deals with foreign oil companies to help the state-owned energy company develop new fields and improve production from old ones.

Even in Libya, where warring factions have hamstrung the oil industry for years, production is rising. In recent months, it has been churning out 1.3 million barrels a day, a nine-year high. The government aims to increase that total to 2.5 million within six years.

National oil companies in Brazil, Colombia and Argentina are also working to produce more oil and gas to raise revenue for their governments before demand for oil falls as richer countries cut fossil fuel use.

After years of frustrating disappointments, production in the Vaca Muerta, or Dead Cow, oil and gas field in Argentina has jumped this year. The field had never supplied more than 120,000 barrels of oil in a day but is now expected to end the year at 200,000 a day, according to Rystad Energy, a research and consulting firm. The government, which is considered a climate leader in Latin America, has proposed legislation that would encourage even more production.

“Argentina is concerned about climate change, but they don’t see it primarily as their responsibility,” said Lisa Viscidi, an energy expert at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington research organization. Describing the Argentine view, she added, “The rest of the world globally needs to reduce oil production, but that doesn’t mean that we in particular need to change our behavior.”

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Apple Security Update Closes Spyware Flaw in iPhones, Macs and iWatches

The consortium did not disclose how it had obtained the list, and it was unclear whether the list was aspirational or whether the people had actually been targeted with NSO spyware.

Among those listed were Azam Ahmed, who had been the Mexico City bureau chief for The Times and who has reported widely on corruption, violence and surveillance in Latin America, including on NSO itself; and Ben Hubbard, The Times’s bureau chief in Beirut, Lebanon, who has investigated rights abuses and corruption in Saudi Arabia and wrote a recent biography of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

It also included 14 heads of state, including President Emmanuel Macron of France, President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly of Egypt, Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan, Saad-Eddine El Othmani, who until recently was the prime minister of Morocco, and Charles Michel, the head of the European Council.

Shalev Hulio, a co-founder of NSO Group, vehemently denied the list’s accuracy, telling The Times, “This is like opening up the white pages, choosing 50,000 numbers and drawing some conclusion from it.”

This year marks a record for the discovery of so-called zero days, secret software flaws like the one that NSO used to install its spyware. This year, Chinese hackers were caught using zero days in Microsoft Exchange to steal emails and plant ransomware. In July, ransomware criminals used a zero day in software sold by the tech company Kaseya to bring down the networks of some 1,000 companies.

For years, the spyware industry has been a black box. Sales of spyware are locked up in nondisclosure agreements and are frequently rolled into classified programs, with limited, if any, oversight.

NSO’s clients previously infected their targets using text messages that cajoled victims into clicking on links. Those links made it possible for journalists and researchers at organizations like Citizen Lab to investigate the possible presence of spyware. But NSO’s new zero-click method makes the discovery of spyware by journalists and cybersecurity researchers much harder.

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Collapse: Inside Lebanon’s Worst Economic Meltdown in More Than a Century

TRIPOLI, Lebanon — Rania Mustafa’s living room recalls a not-so-distant past, when the modest salary of a security guard in Lebanon could buy an air-conditioner, plush furniture and a flat-screen TV.

But as the country’s economic crisis worsened, she lost her job and watched her savings evaporate. Now, she plans to sell her furniture to pay the rent and struggles to afford food, much less electricity or a dentist to fix her 10-year-old daughter’s broken molar.

For dinner on a recent night, lit by a single cellphone, the family shared thin potato sandwiches donated by a neighbor. The girl chewed gingerly on one side of her mouth to avoid her damaged tooth.

“I have no idea how we’ll continue,” said Ms. Mustafa, 40, at home in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city, after Beirut.

The huge explosion one year ago in the port of Beirut, which killed more than 200 people and left a large swath of the capital in shambles, only added to the desperation.

and the central bank unable to keep propping up the currency, as it had for decades, because of a drop in foreign cash flows into the country. Now, the bottom has fallen out of the economy, leaving shortages of food, fuel and medicine.

All but the wealthiest Lebanese have cut meat from their diets and wait in long lines to fuel their cars, sweating through sweltering summer nights because of extended power cuts.

long lines at gas stations, where drivers wait for hours to buy only a few gallons, or none at all if the station runs out.

hampered the investigation into the port explosion, and a billionaire telecoms tycoon, Najib Mikati, is currently the third politician to try to form a government since the last cabinet resigned after the blast.

Mustafa Allouch, the deputy head of the Future Movement, a prominent political party, said, like many other Lebanese, that he feared that the political system, intended to share power between a range of sects, was incapable of addressing the country’s problems.

“I don’t think it will work anymore,” he said. “We have to look for another system, but I don’t know what it is.”

His greatest fear was “blind violence” born out of desperation and rage.

“Looting, shooting, assaults on homes and small shops,” he said. “Why it hasn’t happened by now, I don’t know.”

The crisis has hit the poor hardest.

Five days a week, scores of people line up for free meals from a charity kitchen in Tripoli, some equipped with cut off shampoo bottles to carry their food because they can’t afford regular containers.

Robert Ayoub, the project’s head, said demand is going up, donations from inside Lebanon are going down, and the newcomers represent a new kind of poor: soldiers, bank employees and civil servants whose salaries have lost the bulk of their value.

In line on a recent day were a laborer who had walked an hour from home because he couldn’t afford transportation; a brick layer whose work had dried up; and Dunia Shehadeh, an unemployed housekeeper who picked up a tub of pasta and lentil soup for her husband and three children.

“This will hardly be enough for them,” she said.

The country’s downward spiral has set off a new wave of migration, as Lebanese with foreign passports and marketable skills seek better fortune abroad.

“I can’t live in this place, and I don’t want to live in this place,” said Layal Azzam, 39, before catching a flight to Saudi Arabia from Beirut’s international airport.

She and her husband had returned to Lebanon from abroad a few years ago and invested $50,000 in a business. But she said that it had failed and that she worried they would struggle to find care if their children got sick.

“There’s no electricity. They could cut the water. Prices are high. Even if someone sends you money from abroad, it doesn’t last,” she said. “There are too many crises.”

Drone footage by David Enders and Bryan Denton. Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.

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Tunisia’s Democracy Verges on Collapse as President Moves to Take Control

CAIRO — Tunisia’s fledgling democracy, the only one remaining from the popular revolutions that swept the Arab world a decade ago, trembled on the brink of collapse Monday after its president sought to seize power from the rest of the government in what his political opponents denounced as a coup.

The president, Kais Saied, who announced the power grab late Sunday, did not appear to have completely succeeded in taking control as of Monday evening, as chaos enveloped the North African country. But many Tunisians expressed support for him and even jubilation over his actions, frustrated with an economy that never seemed to improve and a pandemic that has battered hospitals in recent weeks.

With Syria, Yemen and Libya undone by civil war, Egypt’s attempt at democracy crushed by a counterrevolution and protests in the Gulf States quickly extinguished, Tunisia was the only country to emerge from the Arab Spring revolutions with a democracy, if a fragile one.

But the nation where the uprisings began now finds even the remnants of its revolutionary ideals in doubt, posing a major test for the Biden administration’s commitment to democratic principles abroad.

statement. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, in a phone call Monday with Mr. Saied, encouraged him “to adhere to the principles of democracy and human rights,” a spokesman said.

Defying the Tunisian president, the prime minister, Hichem Mechichi, said he would hold a cabinet meeting even after Mr. Saied announced the dismissal of him and several ministers. Parts of Parliament said they would meet virtually even as soldiers cordoned off the Parliament building.

But the danger remained that Mr. Saied would back up his power grab with greater force, whether by further deploying the military or arresting top officials.

“This is a very concerning development that puts the democracy at great risk of unraveling,” said Safwan M. Masri, executive vice president of Columbia University’s Global Centers network, who studies Tunisia. Referring to Mr. Saied, he said: “An optimistic scenario would be that the Parliament and the Constitution and democratic institutions would prevail and that he would be forced out of office. But I would not bet any money on it.”

Already, the president has announced that he was assuming the public prosecutor’s powers and stripping lawmakers of immunity.

whether the revolution was worth it.

Protests and strikes frequently racked the country, and popular discontent widened the gap between elites who praised Tunisia’s democratic gains and Tunisians who simply wanted to improve their lot.

The coronavirus pandemic made things worse by devastating Tunisia’s tourist industry, an important economic engine. The virus has shaken the government and the health system even further in recent weeks as Tunisians have died of Covid-19 at the highest rate in the Middle East and Africa.

On Sunday, demonstrators across Tunisia called for the dissolution of Parliament, giving Mr. Saied some popular cover to announce that night that he was firing Mr. Mechichi, freezing Parliament for 30 days and assuming executive authority.

Tarek Megerisi, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “They blame them for all the country’s problems and think that they need to be removed.”

The showdown was a long time coming, with Mr. Saied locked since his election in political infighting with Mr. Mechichi and the speaker of Parliament, Rachid Ghannouchi.

Mr. Saied has been hinting for months at expanding his authority by refusing to swear in ministers and blocking formation of a constitutional court, raising alarm among opponents and political analysts.

In response to chaos in Tunisia’s Covid-19 vaccination rollout last week and a surge in cases that has overwhelmed hospitals, Mr. Saied stripped control of Tunisia’s coronavirus response from the Health Ministry and handed it to the military.

On Sunday night, Mr. Saied cited Article 80 of the Constitution, which he said permits the president exceptional powers. He said he had consulted both Mr. Mechichi and Mr. Ghannouchi and held an emergency meeting with other officials before acting.

Mr. Saied said he was doing so to preserve the country’s “security and independence and to protect the normal operation of state institutions.”

Article 80, however, accords the president such powers only if the country faces an imminent threat and only after the prime minister and parliament speaker have been consulted. Mr. Ghannouchi denied that he had been.

In a statement, Mr. Ghannouchi deplored what he called a “coup” and described the suspension of Parliament as “unconstitutional, illegal and invalid.” The assembly “remains in place and will fulfill its duty,” he said.

In a televised statement, Mr. Saied said, “This is not a suspension of the Constitution.” And he sounded an ominous warning to adversaries: “Whoever fires a single bullet, our armed and security forces will retaliate with a barrage of bullets.”

Videos posted to social media showed crowds cheering, honking, ululating and waving Tunisian flags after the president’s actions Sunday night, the dark night lit up by red flares. Other videos showed Mr. Saied wending through cheering supporters along the main thoroughfare of Tunis, where revolutionaries gathered during the 2011 protests.

The next step for Tunisia is unclear. The country has so far failed to form the constitutional court, called for in the 2014 Constitution, that could adjudicate such disputes.

In his statement, Mr. Saied said cryptically that a decree would soon be issued “regulating these exceptional measures that the circumstances have dictated.” Those measures, he said, “will be lifted when those circumstances change.” He also fired the defense minister and acting justice minister on Monday afternoon.

Tunisia’s divisions reflect a wider split in the Middle East between regional powers that supported the Arab revolutions and the political Islamist groups that came to power at the time (Turkey and Qatar), and those that countered the uprisings (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt). While Turkey and Qatar expressed concern on Monday, the others remained quiet.

Reporting was contributed by Nada Rashwan from Cairo, Lilia Blaise and Massinissa Benlakehal from Tunis, and Michael Crowley from Washington.

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