The World Today for March 02, 2020

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NEED TO KNOW

LEBANON

Bankrupt, and Dancing

Capital controls, the collapse of the local currency and high distrust in banks have led more people in Lebanon to turn to bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. Al Jazeera wrote an intriguing story about how bitcoin transactions are now the new normal in coffee shops.

Lebanon’s economy is collapsing. Debt is 160 percent of GDP, one of the worst ratios in the world. The country hasn’t faced a challenge like this one since the 1975-1990 civil war. “You’re in the middle of a banking crisis, a currency crisis, a debt crisis, and all of that has led to an economic crisis,” Nafez Zouk, an analyst with the market research firm Oxford Economics, told CNBC. “It’s not every day that you have a country having to deal with all of those things at once.”

Since October, popular protests have been putting more pressure on leaders to find solutions, even forcing ex-Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign. The protesters gathered in Martyrs’ Square in Beirut to protest against the political class and the financial system and call for early elections and other reforms in the highly corrupt country, Foreign Policy magazine wrote.

Patronage costs Lebanon almost 10 percent of GDP, wrote Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, in World Politics Review. Inequality is shocking. The richest 1 percent of the population earns 25 percent of the national income. Around 220,000 people have lost their jobs since the protests began.

The protests have quieted down a bit since January when Prime Minister Hassan Diab, a professor at the American University of Beirut and former education minister, took office. He has his work cut out for him, Al-Monitor explained. Sometimes the protests have become dance parties, wrote the New Yorker, celebrations of unity among the Lebanese as well as a reminder to the elites that people won’t be happy until something changes.

France has offered to help Lebanon financially. That offer might reflect a US-led effort to counter Iranian influence in the region, reported Reuters. Iran backs Hezbollah, the organization that maintains a political wing that participates in the Lebanese government and a terrorist wing that uses Iranian support to commit violence. Coincidentally, the French oil giant Total is also beginning oil exploration off the Lebanese coast, the Associated Press reported.

Hezbollah is among Prime Minister Diab’s backers. The party opposes the International Monetary Fund giving the country technical assistance, saying it’s an imperialist tool, another Reuters story wrote. Diab, meanwhile, has accused his enemies of seeking to block the foreign aid he needs to clean up the mess, reported the Daily Star, a Beirut-based English-language newspaper.

Everyone might as well dance.

WANT TO KNOW

AFGHANISTAN

Zugzwang

The United States signed a landmark deal with the Taliban over the weekend to end almost two decades of war even as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani objected to a key condition of the agreement, the BBC reported.

“There is no commitment (by the Afghan government) to free 5,000 Taliban prisoners…and this cannot be a prerequisite for talks…,” President Ghani said Sunday, a day after the agreement was signed in Qatar.

The prisoner exchange is a condition for direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, due to start March 10, according to the deal.

The president’s objection throws up a potential roadblock to the agreement, which took 18 months to negotiate. The deal paves the way for a full withdrawal of all US and coalition troops.

Even so, Ghani said that the “reduction in violence” period that was a precondition for the deal would continue, possibly until a full ceasefire can be negotiated.

The Taliban now controls or has strong influence over more Afghan territory than at any point since the war began in 2001. More than 100,000 Afghans have been killed or wounded since 2009 when the UN began documenting casualties.

SLOVAKIA

Ordinary People

Slovakia’s opposition led by the pro-European Union Ordinary People party (OLANO) took the lead in parliamentary elections this weekend, a victory fueled by voter anger over corruption and the murder of a journalist investigating high-level politicians, Reuters reported.

Results released Sunday showed that OLANO won 25 percent of the vote, routing the ruling center-left Smer, which has dominated the political scene for more than a decade. Smer won 18 percent, its worst result since 2002.

“We take the result as a request from people who want us to clean up Slovakia…,” OLANO leader Igor Matovic said, according to Reuters.

Meanwhile, the far-right, anti-Western People’s Party failed to make predicted gains, winning less than 8 percent.

The political shift in Slovakia began with the 2018 murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée, which set off the biggest protests in decades and forced Smer Prime Minister Robert Fico to resign even as his party continued to govern.

SYRIA

Tit, Tat, and Terror

Turkey shot down two Syrian warplanes inside northwestern Syria Sunday, the latest in a series of escalating direct military clashes that is causing the largest single wave of displacement in the nine-year Syrian civil war, the Associated Press reported.

The downing of the planes followed an attack by the Syrian military on a Turkish drone in the Idlib region, Turkey said in a statement. Meanwhile, Turkey said it has “neutralized” more than 2,200 Syrian troops, 103 tanks, and eight helicopters and warned of an “imminent” operation against Syrian forces unless they pull back from Turkish lines by the end of February.

The clashes started after forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russian airpower, began a new offensive last year to capture Idlib from opposition forces, which are backed by Turkey.

The fighting has also forced almost a million people, mostly women, children and the elderly to flee, many to the Turkish border, a situation UN officials have called “a humanitarian horror story.”

On Saturday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan opened Turkey’s western borders to refugees heading toward the European Union. As a result, more than 13,000 people were stuck at Turkey’s land border with Greece, which barred entry to the refugees, the UN said.

“We will not close the gates to refugees,” Erdogan said. “The European Union has to keep its promises. We are not obliged to look after and feed so many refugees.”

Turkey hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees.

DISCOVERIES

Simply Evolving

All animals need to breathe in oxygen to survive, scientists have long thought, but that doesn’t seem to be the case for the parasitic Henneguya salminicola.

The tiny parasite lives within the muscles of salmon, and is being hailed as the first known multicellular “animal” that doesn’t require oxygen to survive, CBS News reported.

Researchers at Tel Aviv University made the discovery accidentally while sequencing the “Henneguya” genome.

They wrote in their study that the organism, which is composed of fewer than 10 cells, lacks any mitochondria. Mitochondria are the power houses of cells and capture oxygen to create energy through aerobic respiration.

The parasite causes white fluid-filled cysts in salmon, known as “milky flesh” or “tapioca” disease, but it’s relatively harmless.

Researchers are still unclear about how H. salminicola generates energy, but the discovery that it lacks mitochondria has changed the way scientists view the animal kingdom.

“Aerobic respiration was thought to be ubiquitous in animals, but now we confirmed that this is not the case,” said lead author Dorothee Huchon.

The authors suggest that due to its anaerobic environment – living without oxygen – the parasite lost its ability to breathe as it evolved and became an “even simpler organism.”

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