Friday, March 30, 2007

United in death

This week, Brigitte and I gave our condolences to good friends of us, minister Mohammad Khalife and his wife for the passing away of her mother. He is, or rather was, the minister of health in Siniora’s government but he has stepped down recently when all the Opposition ministers gave up their posts.

It was the first time I attended segregated condolences: the women were sitting on one side and the men on the other. I’ve been to Muslim condolences before, but the segregation was new for me. To be honest, it was a modern version because both men and women were in the same room, whereas the more traditional form prescribes separate rooms.

This can be problematic in case you don’t know both sides of the family. Sometime ago, the parent of a female friend died, so I should go to the condolences, but I didn’t know her family at all. If I would show up, I wouldn’t be able to give my condolences to her because she would be in the woman’s section. In the male section, nobody would know me and I would know nobody. This is perhaps an unlikely scenario for Lebanese because they would always find people they know, but for a foreigner it is more of a challenge. In the end, I decided not to attend the condolences since it would have been a useless exercise. Instead, I opted to give my condolences directly to her later on.

Another interesting aspect of Muslim condolences is the presence of a sheikh (or if there is no sheikh, it would be the kareh, which is the Arabic title for the reader) who recites the Quran. It gives a sacred touch to the occasion and is actually quite nice. They usually have beautiful voices and sometimes the reciting becomes almost singing.

During condolences, the sheikh would typically insert little breaks every ten minutes or so to give visitors the opportunity to enter and leave because it is obviously considered impolite to give your condolences while the sheikh is reciting the Quran. In other situation, no intermittences are used. If you ever visit the grave of Rafiq Hariri, e.g., you will hear a constant reciting of the Quran, played back from tape.

However, in this case there were so many visitors that the concierge of the building was urging people to move on. So, I went to the right side, Brigitte to the left and we each paid our respect to the family. It was strange to not be able to give your condolences to the minister’s wife. But after sitting a while in the room, you could notice men who would go over to the woman’s site and vice versa. So that’s what we did as well.

The minister was surrounded by many of his political adversaries. Nassib Lahoud, erstwhile candidate president, but lately out of the picture (“Lebanon is not ready for another Lahoud”, as someone noticed) , was talking for quite some time with Khalife and Atef Majdalani, member of the Hariri bloc, was standing in line to accept condolences, almost next to the minister.

Minister Khalife is known for his non-partisan stance and is respected by politicians from all sides. He is also well-liked by the people from left to right: the Daily Star published a survey a few months ago that gave him the highest score across sects of all ministers. You wish the condolences on Wednesday are the foreboding of a new Lebanon: expert people who are trying to do their job to the best they can not hindered by political baggage, simply working together with their opponents to better the situation of the country.

Too bad the current situation is so divisive. Even worse that it takes a funeral to bring people together.

Solida: a rectification

The president of Solida, Marie Daunay, has pointed out some errors in a previous blog entry on Solida. Especially the part about Solida being linked to the Opposition is not true because Solida is neutral and not linked to any political organization.

Also, my suggestion that Solida didn’t do much for Lebanese prisoners held in detention by Syria couldn’t be further from the truth: Solida has pointed out the miserable fate of those prisoners since October 1997 when it was still a taboo to talk about this topic. See here for more details.

Clearly, these were mistakes on my part and I hereby offer a sincere apology to Marie Daunay, the Solida organization and anyone else who was offended by the errors.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Rules in Lebanon – Part I

The first impression any visitor to Lebanon would get is that this country simply has no rules. Traffic is a total nightmare, apartment buildings are seemingly empty or disheveled since many years and the concept that appointments are meant to be kept has not yet arrived in this part of the world.

Little do these visitors know! After a few months (or years, depending on your observation skills), you start to pick up a lot of rules. Too many rules, even. And it’s way too easy to break them.

Like saying ‘Yes, please’ in response to being asked if you want coffee. No matter how much your body is craving coffee, you always have to say “No, thanks”. The host will have to repeat the question at least twice before you can finally accept.

It seems quite unpractical to go through these motions every time, but once you understand the concept of pride in the Arab world, it sort of starts making sense. Even if you’re very thirsty and would really like that cup of coffee, pride forbids you be come across as too eager, for that could easily be mistaken for begging. And the last thing a Lebanese wants to seem is desperate.

Speaking of coffee, if you are the host, never ever make the mistake of serving it first. Coming from Holland, I am used to start an evening with friends with at least two cups of coffee. It gives you energy to entertain your guests. After finishing the coffee, you would move on to soft drinks, wine or whatever. Not so in Lebanon. Here, they serve you coffee last!

During my first few visits to people’s houses, this was quite confusing because I thought the hosts were rather impolite. I remember constantly thinking “When is that darn coffee coming?”, only to get it at the end, right before you leave. What good would that do? Those midnight coffees sure would keep you awake at night. After a few visits that provided the exact same experience, I couldn’t help it and complained to Brigitte about this whole coffee etiquette.

She started laughing and explained that she always feel the Dutch are impolite with their coffee being served first! Huh, what gives?

Turns out that all the Lebanese serve coffee (or tea) as the last thing to their guests. It’s like a pick-you-up before you head home again. So she always had the impression that the hosts in Holland don’t have time for the guests and want them out of their house as fast as possible because they serve the coffee minutes after the arrival of the guests.

Another similarly confusing difference in rules is whether or not you should finish your plate. In Holland, you always finish your plate when you’re invited in someone’s house for dinner. It shows how much you have enjoyed the food: an empty plate is the best compliment a cook can get.

Like the coffee, it’s exactly the opposite in Lebanon. Here, if you finish your plate it means that you didn’t get enough. An empty plate is a sure sign for the host to put some more food on your plate…so you can imagine my first meal at my mother-in-law: I kept on eating and she kept on pouring!

Both of us were really trying to be polite, but at a certain point I had to blink first: my stomach was getting upsettingly full. Luckily Brigitte understood what was happening and she could convince her mother to stop giving food to me. Anyone who knows the generous hospitality of the Lebanese will know how much convincing that took!

After a while, you learn how to deal with this and you simply leave something on your plate. This is still impolite in my eyes, but luckily no one else interprets it this way. Besides, when in Rome, do as the Romans. It’s fascinating to learn about these hidden rules which you can only observe through experiencing a different culture. Thank God the Lebanese are nothing like the Dutch and vice versa.

Stay tuned for more Lebanese rules in Part II!

Friday, March 23, 2007

Close encounter with a bomb

Yesterday at 9:30 AM, a janitor found a bomb at the American University of Beirut. Despite the article on is writing, the bomb was not ready to go off. Instead, it consisted of 1 piece of TNT with a wick. The wick was not lit and a detonator was not present, according to AUB statements.

Anyway, what was scary is that I passed the same site at around 9:25, roughly 5 minutes before the bomb was found. That makes me part of the legion of people who have had a similar experience: a close encounter which a bomb.

I noticed this phenomenon after the bombing of Hariri. Suddenly, you heard stories of people who had passed the bomb site minutes before it went off, escaping death as a result. Or you heard stories of people who were supposed to be there exactly when the bomb went off, but luckily got stuck in traffic which delayed them with a few life saving minutes.

A great story was told by the owner of the local grocery store in our mountain village Qartaba. Last summer, he was driving with his supply truck on the highway the morning the Israelis blew up the bridge close to Jbeil. For weeks after, he told all his customers that he could see the bombs falling from his rear view mirror! Just by seconds he had escaped death. Hamdullah, or rather Grace à Dieu since Qartaba is a very Christian town.

He even showed his mesmerized audience a crack in his back door window. Never mind that his 20+ year old car had already plenty of crashes and cracks, but that specific one was due to the explosion. From being the local grocer, he became a Resistance fighter overnight, or at least something very important for he survived a direct attack from the enemy.

Too bad I don’t have a similar spectacular story to tell. Me, I was just driving past to drop of my wife who is a doctor at the American University Hospital and then took the road that passed the place where the bomb was found (close to Issam Fares Hall, next to the hospital).

Thank God / Hamdullah / Grace à Dieu nothing happened. It was only a warning since the bomb was not set to detonate. That also explains why a janitor was able to find it: the perpetrators wanted the notice to reach its destined audience. The bombs you don’t find are the ones you really have to worry about.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Brammertz: Tribunal at earliest in 1 year

During the presentation of his interim report, Chief UN investigator Brammertz has asked to start the Tribunal only after all his research work is done. He estimates to need at least one more year.

What to think of this delay? Surely, he is working as fast as he can and surely he would like the Tribunal to start as soon as possible. That’s what makes his estimate even more serious: the 1 year time frame can easily be wishful thinking.

It’s interesting e.g., to read his report in which he wrote that the team is faced with delays due to the large number of Arabic pages that need to be translated: 500. Is that really such a huge number, worth mentioning in an official UN report as a motivation for extension?

It’s too bad for Lebanon that it has to wait so long, especially since quite a few were hoping to see the UN Tribunal take place much earlier. Then again, perhaps this delay will calm down emotions of the various politicians. The pro-government block has less reason now to push Berri into convening parliament as soon as possible.

The first sign of this realization was perhaps demonstrated today by Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh who mentioned other reasons to convene Parliament besides the UN Tribunal. He is right of course, a country would need a working parliament to function and there are plenty of issues to be dealt with.

The Merchant's Militia

Feeling the brunt of the Opposition’s occupation of Downtown the most, the merchants have held a meeting with Siniora to discuss the situation and have asked the government for financial support. According to the Daily Star, the government has met some, but not all of the demands of the merchants. No surprise there since that’s usually how it goes in negotiations. What was striking however, was the following paragraph of this article:

“BCD merchants, however, say they will not wait indefinitely before taking action. A number of owners have finished consulting with attorneys on their compensation lawsuit and have only to complete necessary documentation before filing, said Aishti CEO Tony Salameh, who is leading the band of BCD business owners. Salameh, who gave the most positive reaction to Siniora's speech among the entrepreneurs, said he has already had to talk his colleagues out of a plan to remove the opposition's tents by force.”

So it seems they were already planning to do what the government should have done long time ago. Demonstrations are fine and should be allowed for sure, but blocking off the city center since December 1? That’s a different cup of tea. Even more when you realize the tents are almost empty except for a few guards. On any given day, there are perhaps what, 50 to a 100 people inside the camp. And they’re able to shut down the commercial center of Lebanon.

How easy would it be to set up a Merchant Militia. Recruiting should be a piece of cake. Simply say to everyone: Want your job back? Get rid of the occupiers!

Not that such a thing would ever happen. Not in this country that lives by the golden rule of "no winners and no losers". Mind you, this rule is strictly for politicians only. Normal people lose out every day, unfortunately.

Michael Young: Engaging Syria

Syria's 'engagers' can't ignore Brammertz
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, March 22, 2007

Why is it that in the matter of Syria, the Europeans are such gluttons for punishment? Last week, the European Union foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, traveled to Damascus to "engage" the regime of President Bashar Assad and deliver a message that the key to Syria's salvation was a change in its behavior toward Lebanon. The Syrian response came almost immediately: Nothing has changed or will change in Lebanon, whether with respect to the Hariri tribunal or Lebanese sovereignty.

The EU "dialogue" with Syria comes at a complicated moment. The Assad regime has felt a whiff of fresh oxygen through various recent foreign offers to talk. Last week the United States organized a conference in Baghdad on Iraq's future at which the Syrians were invited. The Arab summit is coming, and some optimists still think that they can reconcile the Syrian and Saudi leaders. And the EU, keen to do something, even something futile, recently decided to turn the page with Syria. However, when the French balked, the consensus was to send Solana as sole European representative - to preserve EU unity and prevent the kind of amateurishness that surrounded the Belgian foreign minister's visit to Damascus earlier this month, during which the Syrians denied they would hand suspects over to the Hariri tribunal. The minister, Karel de Gucht, expressed "disappointment" with the Syrian position - a word that will clutter the European lexicon on Syria in the months to come. Assad also told Solana he was not interested in concluding an association agreement with the EU, denying the Europeans more leverage over Damascus.

The Europeans, but also the Americans and Arabs, must be much clearer on where discussions with Syria are going, because the implications of engagement have just become much starker. In his latest report, the United Nations investigator Serge Brammertz all but confirmed that Syria was involved in Rafik Hariri's assassination. After explaining the political context affecting relations between Hariri on the one hand and Syria and its local allies on the other in the period leading up to the former prime minister's murder, investigators wrote, in paragraph 63 of their report: "[A] working hypothesis is that the initial decision to kill Hariri was taken before the later attempts at rapprochement [between him and Syria and other Lebanese officials] got underway and most likely before early January 2005. This leads to a possible situation in the last weeks before his murder in which two tracks, not necessarily linked, were running in parallel. On one track, Hariri was engaged in rapprochement initiatives and on the other, preparations for his assassination were underway."

Brammertz's caveats notwithstanding, what the investigator is saying is quite obvious: Despite efforts to bridge the differences between Hariri and the Syrians, the assassination plot remained on course; therefore the Syrians and their Lebanese allies continue to be prime suspects in Hariri's killing. Why would Brammertz bother to mention these two developments together if he didn't have a strong suspicion that they were linked - though he mentions the possibility that perhaps they were not? And even then, his wording can be read to mean other things: for example, that those planning Hariri's murder simply ignored the parallel reconciliation efforts; or perhaps that those engaged in such efforts were sincere, and were not trying to lull Hariri into a false sense of security in order to make his elimination easier. The latter point could be a significant one if we recall that in the weeks leading up to February 14, 2005, Hariri was meeting regularly with Hizbullah's leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.

The Syrians know the implications of the UN report, which is why the Assad regime seems to have taken a strategic decision to confront the international community, whatever the costs. Allowing the Hariri tribunal to go forward in any way, the Syrians plainly believe, will spell disaster. Better to reject everything and shift the tricky burden of creating the tribunal under Chapter VII of the UN Charter onto the Security Council's shoulders. That's what makes an Arab, European or American breakthrough with Syria unlikely; and it's why we should expect no progress in Lebanon until the tribunal issue is resolved. The dialogue between parliamentarian Saad Hariri and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri was a charade designed to satisfy the Saudis before the Arab League summit and calm the Lebanese street. On Tuesday, Berri feigned outrage with the majority's behavior, partly to cover for the fact that neither Syria nor Hizbullah has given him any margin of maneuver to arrive at a mutually acceptable deal with Hariri. Nothing indicates we will soon emerge from the current crisis.

It is a good time to impose guiding principles for future European, American, and Arab engagement of Syria when it comes to Lebanon. The Bush administration in particular cannot afford to leave its Syria policy vague. The possibility of a strong electoral backlash against the administration's behavior in the Middle East in two years' time could mean that even the consensus on Lebanon in Washington will break down. Syria is hoping to outrun the international community, and the only way to avoid this is for the latter to unite around some basic tenets.

The first is a statement by the five permanent members of the Security Council affirming that the Hariri tribunal will be established, whatever the circumstances, even under Chapter VII if necessary. Failing to create the tribunal, the five must insist, would cast doubt on their own credibility. This line is generally accepted today, even if no state, including Lebanon, is eager to set up a tribunal under sole UN authority. But Syria is playing brinkmanship. A statement dashing Syrian hopes would help in this regard, and Russia is the best placed to deliver it.

A second guideline is to inform Syria that it can expect no serious exchanges on matters of concern to it until it meets several specific benchmarks. It must give its Lebanese allies the green light to vote in favor of the Hariri tribunal during the current session of Parliament; and it must offer guarantees that it will cease interfering in Lebanese affairs, arming Hizbullah, and using faux Al-Qaeda groups like Fatah al-Islam to advance its aims. These conditions are hardly onerous. After all, they are spelled out in Security Council resolutions starting with Resolution 1559, so concerned states would only be implementing international law.

A third guideline is to demand that Assad himself, or Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, unambiguously declare that Syria accepts the authority of the Hariri tribunal, supports its immediate establishment, and will agree to place any Syrian suspect at the tribunal's disposal. And fourth, the permanent five in particular must reaffirm that there can be no negotiations with Syria over Lebanon that would, in one way or another, contradict prior Security Council resolutions and undermine Lebanese sovereignty. Any deliberations with Syria involving Lebanon must be largely limited to implementing Security Council resolutions.

Until such principles are formalized by the Arab states, the EU, the US, and Russia in their dealings with the Assad regime, Syria will continue to hold Lebanon hostage. It makes no sense for states to back an investigation into Hariri's assassination while pretending that it's business as usual with a regime that, once again, has been fingered as the prime suspect in the crime. The Syrians have been more consistent on that front than those wanting to talk to them. At least they make no pretence of appearing innocent. Assad has shown he won't give anything up. Can the international community face down his challenge?

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Lebanon's Comedy Train

Here are some statements from politicians that show once again how close laughter is to tears.

From the Daily Star:
Hizbullah's number two, Sheikh Naim Qassem, said the "main goal" of the sit-in was to tell the world that Lebanon "is in trouble." Rather than intending to "paralyze" Lebanon, Qassem said that "the sit-in is meant to denounce all attempts to paralyze Lebanon on the political, social and economic levels."

Just for clarification: by paralyzing Downtown, you are actually demonstrating against paralyzing. Boy, do I feel stupid for not getting this.

Nabih Berri, in the same article:
"It is possible for me to convene a ... session. And if they had not done this act today, I would have called the session sooner," he said, referring to the gathering of pro-government MPs. "But now I want to call it later."

Err, wait a minute. Yesterday was the first day that Berri could convene parliament, according to the Constitution. So what exactly does he mean by calling the session sooner? He was willing to ignore Constitution? Nah, not him.

And what’s with the time warp: if the pro-government ministers had not acted yesterday, Berri would have called the session sooner. Right, ok, I see… but, but, but… he could only find out yesterday, and by then it was already too late to call a session sooner.

Unless the famous fortune teller Michel Hayek was giving him private consultations. But the quality of his predictions is doubtful at best, especially when you notice that his own website cannot be found. Don’t know about you, but I don’t trust seers who can’t find their own things.

Clearly, I must be missing the point and even more obvious am far short of possessing the eminent intelligence of the Saudi ambassador to Lebanon, who said in the same article:

In the first of many statements on the news conference held by the speaker, Saudi Ambassador Abdel-Aziz Khoja described Berri's comments as "sensible…Speaker Berri's speech clarified matters”

Now, that’s annoying when you’re really trying to understand someone and utterly fail…only to hear someone else say that it’s actually quite sensible and clarifying. What’s worse: this was only 1 article. Imagine how you’d feel after finishing the whole newspaper!

Part time democracy, full-time remunerations

Just read this article that was published yesterday on

“Parliament convenes twice a year in two ordinary sessions -- the first starts mid-march until the end of May and the second from the middle of October through the end of December”

That’s only 5 months of democracy!

Unless the other 7 months are filled with extraordinary sessions (as if!), Lebanon is having a part-time democracy. No wonder the Lebanese politicians are not known for their decision-making capacities. It doesn’t really hurt their wallets, though: for every tour of duty, they get 4,000 USD a month in life-long payments. Given that the minimum wage is Lebanon is roughly 300 USD a month, they are making a cool 12-fold as pension.

This is cumulative by the way: every time you get reelected, you get another 4,000 USD a month. Politicians which have been Member of Parliament for 3 times, e.g., are getting 12,000 USD a month in payments. Of course, they are also getting their regular salary; you wouldn’t want them to starve, now would you?

During the last elections, it was rumored that a minister seat was for sale for roughly between 100,000 USD and a quarter of a million USD. The candidate would buy his or her place on a list through which election was guaranteed. This looks like a lot, but with the generous pension scheme, such an investment would be recouped in no time.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Siniora's November mistake

With most of the blogs about Lebanon being ferociously anti-Hezbollah, allow me to ask a simple question: why didn’t Siniora give the Opposition more time to read the draft for the UN Tribunal back in November 2006?

The official reason why the Shiite ministers left the government was that they hadn’t been given enough time to translate the English draft into Arabic and to analyze it. At the time, many Lebanese were joking about this. Indeed, it’s hard to believe that the Shiite ministers don’t read well-enough English to read a UN draft. Still, why would it have been a problem for Siniora to give the Opposition some time for a proper translation and some discussion with their parties? Why the rush?

By denying the Opposition to prepare themselves for the debate in the cabinet, Siniora gave the Opposition a perfect argument to leave: a debate you are not allowed to prepare for is not worth having.

Sure, it’s easy to understand the frustration of Siniora who knew very well that the lack of Arabic translation was a mere excuse for further delay. The death of Pierre Gemayel must have motivated him even more to barge through with the UN Tribunal.

But the game of politics is often too subtle for this kind of power play behavior and what matter are appearances. Now, we can only wonder what would have happened if Siniora would have taken the high road and would have given the Opposition, say, two weeks extra time to decide on their position.

Interesting enough, the Opposition has never really clarified its stance at a later stage. Even now, its official position is unknown. In that sense, one could argue that Siniora’s rush back in November has slowed down the process up until now. And once again, his actions illustrate the gap between being morally right and getting what you deserve.

Brigitte in the news!

(for those new to this blog, Brigitte is my wife)

Visiting mental-health volunteers open local eyes about revolutionary treatment for post-traumatic stress

Facilitators from France and America hold workshop for members of Lebanese Psychological Association

By Iman Azzi

Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Volunteers from the self-described mental health equivalent of Doctors Without Borders arrived in Lebanon this week, facilitating a workshop for Lebanese therapists which introduced a post-trauma recovery treatment that relies on the blink of an eye.

The method is called Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR), and was discovered in 1987 by Dr. Francine Shapiro. Shapiro noticed that thinking about a disturbing moment prompted her eyes to move more spontaneously. After numerous studies, EMDR has been proved effective for the treatment of post traumatic stress disorder.

"The nice thing about this method is that it is client-centered. The client goes where they need to go ... It allows a person to tap into their healing capacity because sometimes it get stuck," said Peggy Moore, a trainer from the EMDR Institute's Humanitarian Assistance Program (HAP). "It seems to work cross-culturally; we've had to make some tweaks of course."

HAP was established after the deadly 1995 bombing of US government building in Oklahoma City, when several EMDR-trained psychiatrists volunteered to help the victims and it became evident that EMDR trainers needed their own NGO base.

HAP volunteers make up a global network of clinicians who travel anywhere there is a need to stop suffering and prevent the after-effects of trauma and violence. With several branches around the world, HAP professionals have treated people in the aftermath of a major earthquake in Turkey, the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. This is Lebanon's first workshop on EMDR, but it is one that Moore said she has been thinking about for years.

"I've been trying to get this to happen for a long time. This is a dream come true," said Moore, who from her home in New Mexico followed the 2006 summer war on the news and was eager to provide help in any capacity to the Lebanese.

Moore first came to Lebanon in 1961 as a university student from the US state of Missouri, spending her junior year abroad at the American University of Beirut. After a travel ban for American citizens was lifted, Moore returned in 2000 before the current trip.

"I was so angry with my government," Moore said, referring to the US position during the 2006 conflict.

Hoping to be able to help in some small way, she contacted Brigitte Khoury, a clinical psychologist and professor at AUB, to see what could be done. Khoury told her to wait until the violence had ended.

"No one could even think of treatment. We were still in emergency mode," Khoury said. "This [workshop] came at a very good time. Last minute, it all fell into place."

Moore was joined by two facilitators from HAP-France, Pauline Guillerd and Ann DeWailly. The participating members from the Lebanese Psychiatric Association (LPA) were divided into French and English working groups.

Guillard said that during the war, HAP-France raised funds to help civilians on both sides of the border during last summer's war with Israel but was eager to do some on-the-ground training as well.

"A portion of the money went to Israel but most was sent to Lebanon," Guillard said.

Israel has its own HAP branch with therapists trained in EMDR so training was not necessary. "It was important to have an impact on both countries."

The first day of the three-day workshop introduced EMDR to the LPA members, while also setting the stage for a deeper involvement of the process in the coming days.

"Today we were installing a safe place. The process can be very destabilizing so you need to make sure they have a safe place to return to," Guillard said.

The final two days will see the participants learning how to use EMDR as well as experiencing the therapy firsthand.

"There is such a thirst for learning new skills here. Most times we have to travel outside," said Khoury, who studied at Stanford University.

Like the other Lebanese participants, Khoury is new to EMDR but expressed great hope in the application of the method.

In terms of emergency mental care in Lebanon, Khoury admitted there was a shortage that was, sadly, only discovered due to the war. "We realized too little, too late. No single body was prepared for emergency mental health," she said.

"EMDR has been proven to be effective," said Moore. "If we can help people heal then perhaps we can bring a little peace to the world and help individuals bring peace to themselves."

Monday, March 19, 2007

Phoenicia White

Lebanon is a country that never ceases to amaze. Look at the latest offer of the posh Phoenicia hotel. They have launched the “Phoenicia White” service, which you can best describe as a drive-through Laundromat. Simply call them to have someone waiting for you, drive up to the lobby, deliver your dirty laundry and pick it up the next day.

It’s a brilliant move because they have the facilities already. Instead of letting the washers and driers be sitting idle because there are hardly guests, they figured it’s smarter to put them to use. Gotta love the commercial instincts of the Lebanese!

And the prices? Well, they’re quite reasonable, especially considering the Phoenicia hotel is among the top, if not the top hotel in Lebanon. Dry-cleaning a full suit costs you 8 USD and dry cleaning a lady’s blouse will set you back two and a half USD. That's not much above the market rate of dry cleaners in Hamra.

Ah, if only politics was run like private companies...

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Syria is the new Israel

On the eve of the day that brought together over a million people a year ago, the Lebanese government announced that 4 prisoners have confessed to being responsible for the bus bombs on February 13, which was the eve of that other special day in Lebanese history. Purely a coincidence of course…

It’s fascinating to read how writes about these confessions. Without any evidence, the journalist makes wild claims about Syria’s involvement. It’s perfectly clear to Nahar that Syria is the big boogeyman. As such, it has pretty much taken over the position from Israel.

The Lebanese love to blame others for the misery in their country. Quite a few refer to the 1975-1990 not as a civil war, but as ‘la guerre des autres’, ‘the war of the others’. It’s a nice euphemism to deny any responsibility and instead blame the atrocities on others. What does not really help support this statement is that most Lebanese who got killed during this period were actually killed by Lebanese, but well, these are considered to be mere details by the denialists.

What boosted this perception even further, was that Israel decided to join the fighting. This proved to be a very effective deflector for any blaming on Lebanese militias. From that moment on, the whole situation was Israeli’s fault. Most Lebanese e.g., now consider the Sabra & Shatila massacre to be the full responsibility of Israel, conveniently forgetting that it was actually a Christian militia doing all the fighting.

Or what about the War of the Camps, which killed many more people than Sabra & Shatila, and was strictly a fight between various Muslim factions?

I remember hearing a Lebanese minister blaming Israel for the environmental problems somewhere in the north of Lebanon. He didn't explain how Israel could have possibly affected the water quality up north, but simply mentioning Israel was enough to ignore the violations of some factory that actually polluted the water stream nearby. No one even asked the question if perhaps the factory owner was more to blame than Israel.

This was fall 2001, when I was new to Lebanon. Lebanese politicians and other public figures level blind and often plain ignorant accusations against Israel with an amazing frequency. I’ve heard similar accusations so much more ever since, that you don’t notice them after a while.

But now there is a shift going on. More and more, Israel is being replaced by Syria as the source of all bad things that happen in Lebanon. Anything goes wrong? Blame it on Syria. It is becoming the Lebanese version of the Universal Theory that explains all.

Take a look at this recent article on the Nahar website about the confession of four prisoners, mentioned at the beginning of this blog entry. The title already is a fabrication. Neither the anti-Syrian government nor the pro-Syrian president have officially accused Syria of being behind the bus bombings, but that doesn’t stop Nahar to use it as a title. How did they come up with this? I’m guessing they held an opinion poll among Christian taxi drivers…

Later on, the article states that the four arrested belong to a group with the “objective of carrying out terrorist attacks to destabilize Lebanon”. Not that there’s any proof to support these accusations, but hey…it’s Syria so anything goes.

I am not defending Syria in any way, but I am placing question marks about journalistic values when it comes to reporting about the country. Sure, neutral journalism is an oxymoron in itself, but what we’re seeing here is the other end of the scale. Lebanon is a country that is rightfully proud of their relative press freedom within the Arab world. However, articles like the one discussed here, counteract this image. It shows Lebanese journalists who are obsessed with their own little issues instead of pursuing such a beautiful goal as the Truth.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Bombs everywhere

Although the situation in Lebanon seems to be improving because of apparent successful talks between Nabih Berri and Saad Hariri, the bomb scare is still very much present. Almost every day, the police find bombs, most of them ready to explode.

Like yesterday, when the Naharnet reported that a man was arrested in Sidon, carrying a 200 gram bomb hidden in a chips bag. You wonder how the police noticed this, but well, they did. Also, the same article mentions the Lebanese army found a mortal shell fastened to a rocket propelled grenade near a school in Nabatiyeh.

Despite the serious topic, and pray to God no bombs will kill/hurt anyone, there’s always time for a little smile. See the below picture I copied from Rampurple:

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Hezbollah’s getting a free lunch

Today was another day of demonstrations, dubbed Appetite for Life. The March 11 Movement (11 as in: right between March 8 and March 14, get it, get it?) is supposedly neutral and their point is that both the government and the Opposition should get their act together and should start working towards solving the current problems. This is a sympathetic idea, of course. Too bad, though, that they leave the actual implementation of their position as an exercise for the reader, but unfortunately that’s a common trend nowadays among Lebanese politicians.

Today’s demonstration was intended to make a statement that life must go on. Being truly Lebanese, they decided the best way to symbolize this appetite for life: a good Sunday lunch in Downtown. Such lunches are the core of family life in Lebanon and can easily take the whole afternoon. March 11 was therefore spot on with their implicit message that without a decent Sunday Lunch, Lebanon would cease to be Lebanon.

Just like the other two March movements, March 11 didn’t want to risk having a low turnout. Remember the day of strike the Opposition announced, and then blocked off all major roads, just in case people wouldn’t listen to them and would try to get to work anyway? Right, March 11 wasn’t stupid either, so they offered a free lunch to all participants and sure enough, quite a few people showed up. After all, who would turn down a free lunch?

Not the Opposition people in the tents anyway. They have been occupying the center of Beirut since December 1 and have caused the closing down of almost all restaurants in Downtown Beirut. Logically, you would think that they would be against the March 11 initiative to revive Downtown that they almost choked to death. But no, a substantial part of the people and their extended family enjoying the free lunch was from the tents. After they finished, they went back to the camp to continue their tent-in. It was a nice break from an otherwise boring routine. After all, there’s not much to do in the tents except playing back gammon and smoking nargileh, the famous water pipe.

Nasrallah said in a speech Friday that they will continue the tents as long as there is no solution, so he’s not softening up. Too bad for all the employees who lost their jobs in the restaurants and shops: no one’s buying lunches for them.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

US criticize prison treatment in Lebanon

Coincidence or not, but hardly two weeks after the Lebanese action group Solida made noise about the security chiefs still in prison for their alleged part in the killing of Rafiq Hariri, the US State Department released its annual report on human rights. The report takes also aim at the detention of the 4 heads of the Lebanese security apparatus who, according to the report, are being kept in prison without a formal complaint.

If keeping 4 high flight-risk suspects in prison who were directly responsible for failing to protect Hariri is already against human rights, you can only wonder what the US would say about oh, um, let’s say Guantanamo Bay…A typical case of kettle, pot, black

Changing positions in Lebanon

How fast the situation can change in Lebanon…or rather, how difficult it is to get a good reading on what’s happening. In my previous blog entry, I stated that the Hariri block was not willing to give the Opposition a veto right and that the Christians were in favor of using the Chapter 7 solution, which would allow the UN to directly install the Tribunal without approval of the Lebanese parliament.

As it turns out a few days later, the positions have changed: Hariri himself declared to be against giving a veto to the Opposition and the Maronite patriarch himself said that he was against using the Chapter 7 route. So what gives?

As for Hariri, it seems that he didn’t expect the backlash against his earlier position from both his Sunni supporters and the Christian pro-government block and so he was quick enough to “clarify” his stance.

The patriarch’s position is more intriguing. You would think he has no problem with putting pressure on the Opposition to push the UN Tribunal through. Christian leaders such as Samir Geagea and Amin Gemayel have stated previously that they wouldn’t mind a Chapter 7 resolution. Normally, they would make sure to be in synch with the patriarch, but the recent statement of the patriarch clearly differs.

Mustapha of the Beirut Spring blog has a reasonable explanation. According to him, the patriarch wanted to solidify his own grounds, now with a Saudi brokered reunification on hand between the Sunnis and Shiites. Afraid of becoming irrelevant in this greater scheme, he wanted to make sure the Christian position would not get lost. And he has good rights to be worried. Consider e.g., the last elections during which most Christian politicians were elected by Muslim voters.

The best way to prevent this from happening would be to use small election districts, but that’s not going down well with the Shiites, who due to their increasing number would benefit the most from large voting districts, preferably one district for the whole country.

Speaking of the election law, it’s quite illustrative to hear nothing anything about this anymore. Remember the huge demonstrations earlier before the previous government was toppled and the subsequent victory of the current parliament and cabinet? They all promised that the revision of the Election Law was their top priority. Whatever happened to those pledges? If memory serves me right, they did install a committee to come up with a proposal, but that proposal got lost along the way.

On a more positive note, Saad Hariri and Nabih Berri have been holding talks to discuss the various stumbling blocks between them. Berri, a fox as sly as can be versus Hariri who is politically greener than the neighbor’s grass. Let’s see what will happen, and let’s see how often Hariri has to “clarify” his positions again.

Amazingly enough, Siniora is not invited to these talks, nor is Nasrallah. More and more, it looks as if Siniora is losing control in Lebanon. Another invitation he didn’t get was to attend the Arab Summit at the end of the month., That was quite interesting, since Saudi Arabia is organizing the Summit and you would think Siniora to be close to the House of Saud. Even Siniora’s suggestion a few days ago that Saudi Arabia should appoint a critical minister as part of the 20-10-1 solution, didn’t help him much. This minister would prevent the government as well as the opposition from having a veto vote and is thus crucial. Outsourcing the choice of one’s pivotal politician is not really a strength of believe in one’s country.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Michael Young: Deal with Syria

Deal with Syria, but first impose Lebanese sovereignty
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, March 08, 2007

Add Belgian Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht to the list of dignitaries who have left Damascus biting their fists in frustration. After meeting with his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moallem, on Tuesday, de Gucht said he was "disappointed" that Syria would not surrender its nationals to a mixed tribunal being set up to try suspects in Rafik Hariri's assassination. Moallem added: "If the United Nations wants anything of Syria, then it must talk to Syria and base the statutes of the tribunal on Syrian law."

That's revealing coming from a regime that supposedly had nothing to do with Hariri's murder, and that often affirms its "non-involvement" in the resultant judicial process. Thanks to Syria's continued refusal to concede anything on the tribunal, the Lebanese crisis continues. This coming weekend the Syrians will get a chance to practice more of their brand of diplomacy when Iraq's neighbors meet in Baghdad to discuss the country's future. The United States should not give Syria an opportunity there to break free from the tribunal, which provides the only real leverage over President Bashar Assad to change his regime's behavior.

It is perhaps understandable that a number of policymakers and analysts in the US feel the Bush administration's present policy of isolating Syria is going nowhere. Their framework for saying so is Iraq. My friend David Ignatius expressed this view in the commentary published above, pointing out that the "administration should also start a real dialogue with Syria - and in the process shelve any half-baked ideas about regime change that may be lurking in the Old Executive Office Building. The Syrians pose a deadly threat in Lebanon, which is all the more reason to be talking with them." Isolation, the argument goes, also isolates the US. If Washington negotiates, it can use its weight to bring about desirable outcomes.

There are several problems with this assumption when it comes to Syria. The first is that opening a new page with Syria is premature. If the aim of negotiations is to advance one's aims, then Syria has shown no willingness to consider those of the US and the UN - who told Syria in late 2004 that it was time to end its interference in Lebanon's affairs and recognize Lebanese sovereignty. To talk now, while the Syrians threaten Lebanon on a daily basis, would validate their claim that threats work, and that Syria can bring envoys to its door by spawning instability in Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories. That's precisely the wrong message to send. The right message is that Syria can only put an end to its isolation once it accepts international law - which in Lebanon means accepting the tribunal and giving up on the dream of reimposing its hegemony over the country.

That's why defending the Hariri tribunal is so essential. The body has international backing, which means that the credibility of the five permanent members of the Security Council is tied into its success. By initiating a dialogue with Syria, by therefore implying that the crime the tribunal is seeking to punish shouldn't reflect badly on relations with Damascus, the US would empty the tribunal of its meaning. Why give up this weapon when it can make future negotiations more successful?

The quid pro quo demanded of Assad would be a simple one, and the Saudis and the Egyptians have already floated it in one way or another: Any effort to narrow the Hariri tribunal's statutes, or even to improve relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria, requires that Syria first change its conduct in Lebanon. Nor is isolation of Syria necessarily failing. Even Syrian allies like Iran and Russia can see that Assad's stance on the tribunal is untenable and might cost them politically. Iran is said to have agreed with Saudi Arabia on the principle of establishing the tribunal, even if it won't take a position that might alienate Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin allegedly told the Saudis that if the tribunal were blocked in Lebanon, Russia might abstain in a Security Council vote to place it under the authority of Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

A second problem with the invitation to dialogue with Assad is that there is no evidence Syria will get the message and alter its behavior. Here is the Catch-22: If you engage Syria, Assad will assume this is due to his intransigence, which will encourage him to remain intransigent in the expectation that this will bring more rewards. The Saudis and Egyptians know the pitfalls of this logic, but also see the Syrians caught in a more sinister vicious circle: Because Assad is weak he must export instability, which is only isolating him further in the region, making him even weaker.

The Europeans, never shy about engaging Syria for the sake of engagement, particularly with so many troops deployed in South Lebanon, are also beginning to see the light. De Gucht's regrets echoed those of the European Union's representative in Beirut, Patrick Laurent. He recently admitted that the EU had "tried everything [with Syria], as did many others, employing both gentle means and pressure." To no avail.

A third reason to be wary of engaging Syria is that Assad doesn't have the confidence to carry through on many of the demands that would be made of him. The Syrian president can intimidate his domestic foes, but his authority rests on a narrower power base than his father's. He can talk to the Israelis, but it's doubtful that he can reach a final deal with them, since peace would mean substantially dismantling the security apparatus that keeps him in office. He can pretend to help stabilize Iraq, but knows that actually doing so would mean that Syria becomes less relevant. He can claim to have played a positive role in the Mecca accord between the Palestinian factions, but he knows that this only came after he failed to sponsor such an agreement himself. Today, Assad fears a Hamas exit from the Syrian orbit, which is one reason why he has been trying to place pro-Syrian groups in a Palestinian national unity government.

And, most important, Assad knows that if he were to give up on Lebanon finally and unconditionally, he might face the wrath of those within his own regime who silently blame him for the debacle of 2005. But this all begs the question: Why, therefore, should Syria abandon Lebanon at all, or capitulate in Iraq and in the Palestinian territories, if nothing is to be gained from these concessions?

The reason is that Assad, though weak, would thus be able to win his long-term political survival. Such steps would buy him Arab and international forbearance. A new attitude would mean less resistance to a narrowing of the Hariri tribunal's statutes, more vital investment in Syria, a beneficial Syrian relationship with the US and the EU; and, once Assad can broaden his power base, peace with Israel. But building up Assad's confidence and then expecting him to relinquish his cards makes no sense. If a power struggle with Syria is unavoidable, so be it. With major Arab states, the US, the UN and the Europeans on the same wavelength, it will be tough for Assad to impose his will - unless the bell of dialogue saves him first.

That's why the US should remind Syria at the Baghdad conference that deeper contacts remain undesirable. Dealing with Iran on Iraq may be inevitable; dealing with Syria is not, particularly after Assad burned more bridges to the Sunnis by trying and failing to seize control of the Iraqi Baath Party. The Syrians have to be made to realize that their regime can only last if they make fundamental concessions in the region. Assad is too brittle to demand more than recognition of his survival.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Politics in Lebanon: a whiter shade of gray

Politics in Lebanon are a great spectator’s game. Take the last few days for example. Uncertainty is running high once again in Lebanon now that the recent talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran did not seem to produce the desired results. Before the meeting was held, many people from across the political spectrum were expressing their hope that a solution was in sight now more than ever.

Some went even further, like resigned Hezbollah minister Mohammad Fneish who told reporters that a solution has been reached and threatened to escalate the anti-government actions if anybody would oppose this. Except for the threat, it was good to hear on Monday this announcement of the solution to the current crisis. People were getting their hopes up that the Saudi-Iranian talks did, indeed, have positive results.

Both countries wield a lot of influence in Lebanon since Saudi Arabia has the ear of the Sunnis, while Iran obviously has the close attention of Hezbollah. Now with these two sponsors of Lebanese politics agreeing with each other, a local solution must be in the making.

But…it ain’t over until the fat lady sings. Sure enough, a few clouds appeared on the otherwise cleared up sky. It started yesterday with the Saudi minister of foreign affairs who said that the talks between his country and Iran did not necessarily mean a change in the Lebanese situation. Although he didn’t say the talks with Iran ended without results, he didn’t specify a concrete achievement either. So where did that leave Lebanon?

Nabih Berry tried to salvage the situation yesterday by stating that he would announce a solution within a few days, but after the non-committal statements from Saudi Arabia, nobody really shared his optimism anymore.

Things got worse when the outlines of a possible solution became clear. To no one’s surprise, Hezbollah wants a blocking vote in parliament in return for their support of the UN Tribunal. Rumors have it that Saudi Arabia and Iran were in agreement over this. If true, this would mean that the Sunni politicians (Prime Minister Siniora and other members of the Hariri block) are willing to give Hezbollah this veto right, much against the wishes of the Christians and the Druze, who are vehemently opposing this.

For Hezbollah to have a blocking vote, they need more than 1/3 of the ministers’ seats. Out of the current 30 ministers, they would need at least 11 to realize their veto right. The pro-government parties have thus far offered a solution of giving Hezbollah 10 seats with 1 neutral minister. This would not give a veto right to Hezbollah. However, it would take away the veto of the pro-government parties also because they get only 20 seats, 1 short of having a veto right.

If anything, the Saudi-Iranian talks have had one result, namely the increase in suspicion of the Christians and Druze about the motives of the Hariri block. The stance of Saudi Arabia willing to give Hezbollah the veto right in return for their support of the UN Tribunal, has lead Christians and Druze politicians to doubt the reliability of their Sunni colleagues. The latter, it seems, will sacrifice anything to realize the UN Tribunal with the support of Hezbollah, while the former wouldn’t mind accepting outside help in realizing the Tribunal by using a Chapter 7 resolution, which would bypass Lebanese parliament.

As always in Lebanon, both sides are right and wrong at the same time. That’s what makes this country such a fascinating one: you really have to think hard to get a grasp of what’s going on…and even then you’re more often wrong than right.

The Sunnis would be right to get the support of Hezbollah for the UN Tribunal. As argued before on this blog, Lebanon’s political system is a delicate balance of power and fundamentally based on cooperation. This system collapses once a major group like Hezbollah is outside the political scene, like what’s happening now. The whole country has come to a standstill. Pushing through the UN Tribunal by using the Chapter 7 solution, would not change anything. Yes, the UN appetite for justice would be served, but at what expense for the Lebanese? Also, bypassing the Lebanese parliamentary system via a Chapter 7 resolution, means giving up faith in the democratic system in Lebanon. Furthermore, giving in to Hezbollah now will be compensated by the outcome of the UN Tribunal, which is expected to be devastating for Syria and thus would reduce Hezbollah’s influence accordingly.

The Christians and Druze would be right by saying that Hezbollah has lost the recent elections, even though they shaped the elections as much as they could to their liking. Out of respect for democratic rules in Lebanon, Hezbollah should not be “rewarded” with a veto right for losing the elections and subsequently ruing the country. Furthermore, what’s to guarantee that Hezbollah would not repeat their destructive actions next time they don’t agree with the majority opinion? In their minds, Hezbollah is not fit for democracy and is using undemocratic means to get what they want. Giving in now means giving up on the rule of law and would allow Syria back in.

As can be seen, “right” and “wrong” are quite unpractical concepts in Lebanon. Nothing here is black and white, it’s always a whiter or darker shade of grey.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Cartoon from l'Orient-Le Jour

Translation: Samir Geagea: "I only would like know why this road is exempt from bombs"

Lebanese parties are all talking…to themselves

There was a flurry of speeches and press conferences this week of pretty much everybody who’s anybody in Lebanese politics. We had Jumblatt in America saying that Condoleezza Rice herself promised him that the US will not let Lebanon down. We had Sarkozy in France saying that Lebanon is surrounded by enemies, hinting towards Syria. We had statements from Saudi Arabia and Iran saying that they will do their best to reach a solution. We had EU president Solana say that they might go for a Chapter 7 resolution to force the UN tribunal upon Lebanon. And so on, and so forth.

Once again, it seems that the fate of Lebanon will be decided outside Lebanon and without the Lebanese. It feels like you’re a suspect and your lawyer is plea-bargaining with the public attorney without taking into consideration your point of view.

What’s even more striking is the fact that none of the concerned parties are directly talking to each other…or even talking at all. The Opposition is amazingly silent. Remember the loudly spoken threats to escalate by using civil disobedience? Nobody mentions this anymore. Michel Aoun is unusually silent as well. And even Suleiman Franjieh seems to have lost his appetite for attention by making wild statements.

Then again, on the government side, people are equally silent. They don’t seem to be working on some sort of solution. Instead, they limit themselves to the obligatory statements that they are always ready to listen. It would be better if they’d indicate a readiness to speak!

What can be the reason for the current lull in Lebanon’s political scene? Emile Khoury from L’Orient-Le Jour gave some reasons in his article yesterday. The most striking argument is that Hezbollah does not want to cut loose president Lahoud. This will offend supporter Syria and it would paint Hezbollah as unreliable, an image they want to avoid at all cost. Furthermore, one should never give up old shoes before buying new ones. What if the new president is worse for them than Lahoud is now?

Another argument that flows from the first is that Hezbollah does not want to speak right now because it would indicate a readiness to negotiate about the topic at hand: a veto right in return for a new president. Once they start down that road, the outcome might jeopardize their friendly ties with the Christian segment represented by Michel Aoun. Hezbollah is relying heavily on their good relationship with Michel Aoun, but once it becomes clear that he will not become president, this cooperation could dissolve easily. That would leave Hezbollah even more isolated in Lebanon. Understandably, they are in no hurry to reach this outcome by starting negotiations right now.

So, for now, Hezbollah is in a wait-and-see mode. They are increasingly putting pressure on the government by their occupation of downtown (always interesting to see how people turn into the very thing they hate the most, like pedophiles who were abused themselves) and with success: the merchants in downtown are preparing a lawsuit against the government to get compensated for the losses they have incurred. Time is on Nasrallah’s side and he’d be a fool not to take advantage of this.

Where does that leave Siniora? He’s in a difficult position: he’s receiving support from pretty much everybody in the western world, but he’s also learning a tough lesson. Being right is in no way a guarantee of getting what you deserve. It must be very touching for him to get a supportive phone call from Rice, as the Daily Star mentions today, but what good does that do when you cannot convert your moral high grounds into concrete results?

For now, he seems to be pinning his hopes on the talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, both of which have an agenda of their own. That’s not very reassuring for those who were hoping that the Lebanese could reach a conclusion by themselves.