Lebanon on the brink: political gridlock, economic torpor and the machinations of pro-Syrian Hizbollah have once more pushed the crossroads of the Middle East to the edge of collapse.

• In Egypt Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is coasting towards victory in presidential elections, keeping policy vague and democracy off the agenda.

• A plan by Pope Francis to celebrate mass in a Jerusalem room believed by Christians to have hosted the Last Supper has brought criticism, controversy and conspiracy theories worthy of a Dan Brown novel.

• While the public interest case against Pfizer’s takeover of the UK’s AstraZeneca is weak, the tax case for it is compelling, says Tony Jackson.

• The New York Times tells the tale of the plight of those left behind after the elopement of Afghanistan’s Romeo and JulietRead more

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By Toby Luckhurst

  • New “blockbuster” drugs provide hope for a cure to Hepatitis C – an illness which now kills more in the UK than HIV.
  • Neil Buckley explores the tent city that has sprung up in Kiev’s Independence Square to house, feed, and protect the anti-government protesters.
  • Al Jazeera journalist Abdullah Elshamy has begun a hunger strike to protest his detention without charge at the hands of Egypt’s military regime.
  • The New York Times reports on life without government in Lebanon.
  • Syrian government officials are facing anger from Syrians in Switzerland – the first time the regime has engaged with those directly suffering from the conflict.

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By Toby Luckhurst
  • David Gardner explores the rebirth of the security state in Egypt, expressing fears that the west will once again support the governments that foster “Islamist delirium”.
  • James Fontanella-Khan interviews Romanian labour minister Mariana Campeanu, who warns that the exodus of the young and the skilled is beginning to seriously affect the economy. While net migration has balanced, the government is attempting to encourage home young workers with business incentives and mortgage subsidies.
  • Syrian architect Omar Abdulaziz Hallaj and his wife Syndi have opened their Beirut home to Syrian refugees, in an attempt to provide advice on practicalities of life in Lebanon but also to “keep the idea of the country alive”.
  • A Q&A with the filmmakers behind Oscar-nominated documentary “The Square”, chronicling over two years of Egyptian protests in Tahrir Square.
  • Anne Barnard writes in the New York Times that government promises of ceasefires are viewed with suspicion by Syrians, due to the army habit of using ceasefires to establish authority over rebel towns.

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Scene of the huge car bomb explosion that rocked central Beirut, killing Mohamed Chatah and at least four others on December 27, 2013 (Getty)

The bombing in the heart of Beirut on Friday morning, which killed leading Sunni politician Mohammed Chatah, was no random terror attack or communal reprisal. It was a targeted assassination, which would have required careful reconnaissance, detailed intelligence, and complex logistics.

The blast that destroyed Chatah’s car, leaving little but shredded metal and a torn vehicle license that identified its owner, took place not very far from where Rafik Hariri, former prime minister and the towering figure of modern Lebanon, was assassinated by a vast bomb in February 2005Read more

The twin blasts that devastated Iran’s embassy in Beirut this morning mark a new and menacing stage in the spillover of Syria’s civil war into Lebanon – just as a major battle is getting underway in the Qalamoun hills bordering the two countries. Read more

Residents gather at the site of an explosion in Beirut's southern suburbs, stronghold of Hizbollah, July 9, 2013. AFP/Getty

Hizbollah has brushed off the European Union’s decision on Monday to blacklist its “military wing” as a terrorist organisation. Well, it would, wouldn’t it.

The Shia paramilitary group issued the mandatory rhetorical broadside. “It looks as if the decision was written by American hands and with Israeli ink”, it said, to which “the EU only had to add its signature”.

In fact, as Hizbollah would surely know, it takes a great deal more than that for the EU’s 28 member-states to reach a consensus on anything at all. Read more

♦ The FT’s David Gardner argues that Hizbollah has become a state above the state in Lebanon: “The group has a strategy towards Lebanese institutions: fill them, keep them empty, or make them unworkable.”
♦ By lengthening the storage time for aluminium, Goldman Sachs adds millions a year to its coffers and increases the prices paid by manufacturers and consumers.
♦ The government practice of tapping undersea cables has continued since the 1970s – the Atlantic looks at how it works.
♦ After decades of blistering construction, China could overtake the US as the world’s wealthiest nation in terms of built assets as early as next year.
♦ US Gen Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, told the Senate Armed Services committee that there are few good options in Syria – and explained why, analysing the cost of each option. Read more

A view of Qusair (AP)

It would seem that Qusair, the rebel-held town astride the strategic corridor between Homs and the northeast Lebanese border, has fallen to forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. Syrian state media, and al-Manar, the TV station of Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia allied to the Assads, have made the claim. But the situation on the ground was looking desperate for the rebels, despite their attempts to resupply the city. And officials in Damascus have been contacting journalists in the region since late last week, confident they could lay on a propaganda coup once this now emblematic town fell.

Here are some preliminary thoughts on the significance of this battle:

* The fall of al-Qusair is a serious blow to the rebels’ disparate forces. It cuts one of their supply lines from Lebanon to Homs; it restores government control over the Damascus-to-Aleppo highway; and, critically, it reconnects the capital to the north-west coast, the heartland of the Alawite minority around which the Assad clan has built its dictatorship and security state; Read more

The battle raging in al-Qusair, about 15km east of Lebanon’s northern border, looks ominously like a turning point in Syria’s civil war. If the Assad regime can recapture this strategic corridor from the rebels, it will, on the face of it, be a morale-boosting triumph.

It will also almost certainly flatten the few remaining barriers to this bloody conflict turning into an out-and-out sectarian fight between Sunni and Shia that will graft an uncontrollable regional dimension onto what began as an Arab Spring struggle for freedom from tyranny.

Militarily, the narrow corridor between Homs and the Lebanese border is a great prize for both sides. The Homs Gap, as it is sometimes called, has always been the natural gateway from the Syrian coast to the interior; not for nothing did the Crusaders build a line of castles there (including the magnificent Krak des Chevaliers, reportedly already damaged by regime shelling). Read more

One of the many alarming aspects of Syria in recent days – amid reports of ethno-sectarian cleansing and chemical weapons use – has been the brazen behaviour of two of the proxy warriors in the conflict: Hizbollah and Israel.

The Shia Islamist movement’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, almost boasted in a speech broadcast last week that his forces were helping to prop up Bashar al-Assad. Then, over the weekend, Israel’s air force blasted targets in Damascus that anonymous US and Israeli officials suggested were Iranian rockets destined for Hizbollah.

This accelerating spiral of proxy warfare – and these are but two of the actors driving it – is becoming a menace not just to a fast disintegrating Syria but to the region. Read more

Coming up We’re pulling together some of the best reads on the “Iron Lady”. Read more

Israeli soldiers stand guard at an army post in the annexed Golan Heights on January 31 (JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Israeli soldiers stand guard at an army post in the annexed Golan Heights on January 31 (JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Reports that Wednesday’s Israeli air strike somewhere near Syria’s border with Lebanon was on an arms convoy destined for Hizbollah have been denied – sort of – by the Syrian regime and its paramilitary Lebanese ally.

Throughout Wednesday, Hizbollah, normally prodigious in its denunciations of any and all Israeli aggression on its al-Manar television station, maintained the stoniest of silences. Today, al-Manar moved swiftly to endorse the account given by Syria’s state news agency: that Israeli warplanes had hit a military research facility in Jamraya, near Damascus.

There is no cast-iron corroboration of anything at this stage. Israel is saying nothing. But beyond fuelling fears that Syria’s civil war will spread, Israel’s actions have led to some interesting statements. Read more

The world news desk brings you the best reads from around the world…  Read more

A promotion shot for Homeland

Episode two of the second series of US hit TV show Homeland (“Beirut is Back”) caused anger in the Lebanese government for its depiction of central Beirut. Lebanon’s tourist minister Fadi Abboud even threatened legal action against the producers.

The episode was shot in Tel Aviv and showed former CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Clare Danes) with dyed brown hair, brown contact lenses and a veil for her safety.

The Israelis, meanwhile, were unhappy that Tel Aviv had been used as a substitute for its enemy’s capital.

News flash for those who have never been to Lebanon: a third or so of Lebanon’s population is Christian. And both Muslims and Christians can have fair skin and blue eyes. And unlike other Arab states, in Lebanon Muslim women do not have to wear the veil by law.

Homeland may only be fiction, but its portrayal of Lebanon has done little to change the stereotype of Arabs in Hollywood as gun-toting, fanatical terrorists who pray five times a day. Indeed, when it comes to Arab characters in movies, Hollywood sometimes seems to have only one kind: bad. Read more

I’m told that the UN-backed special tribunal for Lebanon will, within days, hand down indictments over the 2005 killing of former premier Rafiq Hariri. Pan-Arab papers have been speculating about this. Diplomatic sources say the speculation is justified.

This is an explosive case that is being closely watched all over the region. Read more