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Beirut summit: Arab nations aim for free trade zone, Syria aid | News

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Beirut, Lebanon – The Arab Economic and Social Development Summit has kicked off in Lebanon’s capital, Beirut shortly after the arrival of Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani at the city’s Rafic al Hariri Airport.

The economic meeting, a prelude to the actual Arab League summit taking place in Tunisia in March, has been overshadowed by political rifts and poor attendance among Arab heads of state, many of whom pulled out at the last minute.

The 20 countries taking part in the summit on Sunday will be making a joint statement on a 29-item agenda that ranges from discussions on an Arab free trade zone and the economic impact of Syrian refugees on host countries.

In addition to the Qatari head of state, only Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz joined the Lebanese President Michel Aoun at the official summit meeting. Other countries have sent prime ministers and foreign ministers as representatives at the meeting.

The summit has been marred by divisions among Lebanese politicians and regional leaders over the reinstatement of Syria into the 22-country Arab League and the status of Syrian refugees in host countries.

Although it has a lower profile than the Arab League summit, the meeting has attracted heads of state in previous years since its launch in 2009.

But after Libya decided to boycott the summit following an incident which saw members of the Amal party, an ally of the Iran-backed Hezbollah, tear down and burn its flag near the summit venue last week, leaders’ attendance began to trickle.

Amal, a Shia group, is opposed to Lebanon having ties with Libya because of the disappearance of Imam Musa Sadr, the movement’s founder, during an official visit to the country in 1978, then under Muammar Gaddafi’s rule.

Refugees and war

In addition to a joint Arab League statement which will be announced on Sunday, Lebanon’s President Aoun is expected to issue a separate one on the status of Syrian refugees in the country.

“The president is expected to issue a statement today regarding the refugees and displaced people in Arab countries. He’s also expected to launch an initiative with regards the reconstruction in devastated countries,” the Lebanese presidency’s general director, Antoine Choukair told Al Jazeera.

President Aoun hopes his initiative will help set up a funding structure to rebuild Arab countries devastated by wars. Discussion during pre-summit meetings have focused on the rebuilding of Somalia and Yemen, although the fund is expected to include Syria as well.

A major point of contention ahead of the summit has focused on whether Syria should be reinstated as a member of the Arab League following Syrian President Bashar al-Assad taking control over most of his war-torn country.

While Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil called for Syria’s return to the Arab League during a pre-summit meeting on Friday, the group’s Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit told journalists at a press conference that there was no agreement over Syria’s return.

Part of the contention around Syria also relates to Article 13 of the proposed summit statement, which discusses the return of Syrian refugees to their homeland.

While Lebanon, which hosts hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, called on Friday for their return to Syria, other countries have been divided over the wording of the article with some Arab ministers insisting that this discussion must be linked to a political solution in Syria.

Lebanon’s economic challenges

The summit takes place amid increasing political and economic instability in the Mediterranean country.

A civil society group and the Lebanese Communist Party plan to stage a march at noon from Sunday from Babir, a deprived area in Beirut, to the ministry of finance.

Demonstrators say they want an end to the dire economic situation in the country, which they believe the summit will do little to alleviate.

“We are sending a message to those in power to tell them they are fully responsible for Lebanon’s economic breakdown,” Ayman Moue, an activist involved in organising the protest, told Al Jazeera.

“We cannot count on this summit to improve the economy in Lebanon. It will not have any positive changes,” he added.

With legislators unable to agree on a new cabinet since a general election in May, Lebanon’s economic challenges have been compounded by its political instability. Protests demanding change have been ongoing for months.

Observers believe the summit’s poor attendance reflects a missed opportunity on Lebanon’s part to improve its economic and political standing.

“The attendance of Arab leaders would have supported Lebanon, a failing state economically and politically, and would have helped it relaunch itself on the Arab stage to how it was like before the Syrian crisis,” Mohanad Hage Ali, a political analyst at Carnegie Middle East Center, told Al Jazeera.

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Ottawa families give mixed reviews for online schooling

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So, how’s it going with online school? Families reached by CBC Ottawa seem to have mixed reviews. 

Masuma Khan is a mother of two. Her seven-year-old, Hana Wyndham in Grade 2, is attending French immersion virtual school. Masuma is grateful it’s an option, but can’t help notice a lot of down time.

“There’s a lot of, ‘are you on mute?’ In terms of the amount of learning that’s actually happening, it does seem to be not that high,” said Masuma.

Parents who kept their children at home this fall are in the minority, but they still form a significant chunk of families in Ottawa.

In the city’s largest school board, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB), about 27 per cent of elementary students and 22 per cent of high school students chose online learning. The Ottawa Catholic School Board says roughly a quarter of its students are online.

For Masuma, the decision to keep her daughter home was complex: extended family members are immunocompromised and she worried the in-person learning environment would be unpleasant because of precautions. She also felt her daughter might benefit from being supported at home.

“She doesn’t necessarily enjoy school. I also found out during the pandemic that she was being bullied [last year],” said Masuma. “So I thought, why not try from home?”

To help her daughter socialize face-to-face with other kids, Masuma enrolled Hana in Baxter Forest School, an alternative education program where kids spend most of their time outside, one day a week. Hana also attends virtual Arabic classes two days a week after school. 

Masuma’s husband and Hana share the living room work space, and Masuma admits he does the lion’s share of helping their daughter stay on task. There is a possibility that he’ll be required to return to his office in the new year.

“When he goes back to work … it’s probably going to be a little bit more difficult.”

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No school closures after Christmas holiday break, says Ontario education minister

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Ontario elementary and secondary schools will not close for an extended winter break, says Education Minister Stephen Lecce.

Closures aren’t needed given Ontario’s “strong safety protocols, low levels of (COVID-19) transmission and safety within our schools,” Lecce announced Wednesday afternoon. He said he had consulted with Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams and the province’s public health measures advisory table.

That ended speculation about school buildings remaining closed in January for a period of time after the Christmas break.

Earlier in the week, Lecce told reporters the government was considering having students spend “some period out of class” in January, perhaps switching to online learning.

In a statement, Lecce said that even though rates of community transmission of COVID-19 are increasing, “schools have been remarkably successful at minimizing outbreaks to ensure that our kids stay safe and learning in their classrooms.”

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Windy start to the week in Ottawa

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OTTAWA — It’s a blustery Monday in the capital with wind gusts of up to 50 km/hour expected throughout the day.

Environment Canada is forecasting a high of 4 C with a 60 per cent chance of showers or flurries before the wind dies down later this evening.

There’s a chance of flurries on Tuesday as well with a high of -1 C. The overnight low will dip to an unseasonal -9 C.  

Wednesday’s high will be just -5 C with lots of sunshine.

Seasonal temperatures return for the rest of the week..

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