Thursday, August 30, 2007

Flying Terrorist clip in YouTube's Top 20

A video clip of a terrorist at the Nahr al Bared camp who got blown up and that was accidentally shot by "Flying Dutchman" Harald Doornbos, has made it into the Top 20 on YouTube! If you haven't seen it, go do it now, pretty impressive stuff

Anyone feeling sorry for the guy who got blown up and now possibly misses out on all the virgins waiting for him, don't worry: there's plenty of those at YouTube:-)

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Check your intelligence at the door

Sometimes, people who read this blog complain that it is too cynical of leader X. Especially coming from a foreigner, they feel the criticism is unjust and does not take into consideration the difficult times the country is in. Usually, this is followed by a compliment on that humorous article of leader Y…sigh

To a certain extent, I can understand the complaints. Yet, in many cases, the criticism is quite selective: don’t you dare talk negative about X, but go ahead and make fun of Y. What is this poor blogger to do?

Well, at a minimum this blog could try to balance things out. Either you have a critical stance towards no one, or to everyone. This carries the danger of angering every single reader, but somehow I hope that the visitors who come here are a bit more open minded than the typical hard core supporter of leader X or Y.

In order to readjust the scales that might have tipped towards March 14 in the past, here are two articles I couldn’t help but noticing. The first is the recent statement of the Maronite patriarch who warns against not holding the presidential elections on time. The alternative could be war and obviously he is concerned about this possibility. So far, so good.

But then he continues and says that the March 14 politicians should hold the elections as per the Constitution, which he interprets as first holding a session whereby the new president is only elected if he gets two-third of the votes. If this does not result in a winner, then the next round would require only a simply majority. In his words: "But if a half-plus-one (vote) was adopted in the first electoral session, this is very dangerous," Sfeir cautioned. "Because the other camp could claim this to be a violation of the Constitution which would prompt them to respond similarly." first we have a symbolic round of voting with the 2/3 requirement and we all know this will result in nothing. Once we have completed all the figures de manège we then would move on to what the electoral session is really about: a vote with a simple majority.

Is anyone in the March 14 camp buying this logic? Would anyone really think the Opposition wouldn’t see through this blatant attempt of form over substance and thus could be fooled into attending the presidential elections against their wills?

Another example of this sort of dumb-dumber-dumbest thinking is the recent press conference from the camp of Walid Jumblatt, namely that MP Skaff has to prove he didn’t sell land to Iran. Obviously, this is a big concern since the Druze are afraid a significant part of their lands is being bought up by straw men of Iran. The underlying fear is that Hezbollah is trying to establish a country within a country.

This fear is quite understandable, but the demand put on Skaff to prove his innocence is not. If Jumblatt can prove it, let him prove it. If not, let him simply keep silent. People, even your enemies are still innocent until proven guilty.

Besides, even if proven true, it would be highly unlikely that Skaff is violating any Lebanese law, so why attack him like this? And why not attack all his fellow Druze who have already sold their land (some would add ‘and their soul’) to supposedly Iran?

People who don’t know me might think I get really upset or even angry about the daily stupidities happening in Lebanon. Luckily, that’s not true. In fact, I find them amazingly comical and I am comforted that most of my Lebanese friends laugh at least as hard as I do every time sound bytes like this hit the news.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Quote of the Week

Aoun, first requesting that the patriarch and the grand mufti speak out about the presidential election and then saying: "I am not going to listen to religious clergymen who daily interfere in politics and give their views."

Man, making fun of politicians is just too easy in Lebanon:-)

On doing groceries

Many times, life in Lebanon is full of surprises, both negative and positive. Politicians making a fool of themselves on TV, strangers welcoming you for lunch if you only stop to ask for directions in some remote area, really anything can happen. Doing groceries is no exception.

Take yesterday, for example. Here I was shopping for the weekend in the supermarket. There was a woman in front of me at the cashier and my cart was pretty full. A Philippine maid walks up with only one pack of bread and asked politely if she could go first. “Sure”, I nod, “no problem”.

Then, right before it’s the maid’s turn, her boss shows up…with a cart even fuller loaded than mine! She bypasses me and simply puts her cart next to the maid. Now that’s a demonstration of assertiveness you seldom see in Lebanon. Agreed, forming a decent queue is a serious challenge for most, but sending your maid to stand in line with only one bread so the other would give up his spot, is of a different level altogether.

Now what to do? Humbly accept or stand firm? The Dutch are known for their rudeness and besides, this was simply too much, so the choice was easy: I was not giving up my spot! So, politely and softly I said “Sorry, Madam?”, trying to get her attention. Nothing happened, apparently she didn’t hear me.

I tried again, this time raising my voice a bit higher: "Madam, afwan!?". Still no response. This was getting too weird, and time was pressing since it was almost my turn…with the emphasis on ‘my’…no way I was letting her get ahead of me. Things were personal now.

Complicating factor was that she was veiled, so maybe she was not allowing herself to interact with strange men. But surely that would be to my advantage: I tapped her politely on the shoulder, expecting her to react from a man’s touch…still no response whatsoever.

Drastic measures were called for by now and I decided to push her cart forcibly out of the line and maneuver my own cart back into its old spot. Now that got her attention alright! She started talking fast and aggravated in Arabic. Nodding understandingly, I listened to her (not that I speak Arabic) but obviously didn’t move my cart.

When she was finished, I replied by saying something like “ana houn able enti madam”, trying to make her understand that I was here before her. As if she didn’t know! This only resulted in her getting angrier and she even started pushing back her cart. It was amazing to see this docile, timid woman turn into a scolding b*tch who suddenly had no problem whatsoever with connecting to me.

Perhaps it goes to show how much pent-up anger people have here in this country, perhaps she happened to have a bad day or perhaps this was just her baseline behavior. Who knows?

Luckily, one of the guys who wrap up the groceries came to my defense and told her that actually, yes, I was there first and he directed her behind me. Realizing that she has caused quite a scene calmed her down a bit. All the while muttering under her breath, she took her cart to another lane. Problem solved and wearily thinking ‘Well, I got myself something to blog about’ I went home.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Creative women don't exist in Lebanon

Interesting article today in the Daily Star about the "Creative Man of the Year". Whatever happened to using the more p.c. term 'person'? Now it seems as if there are no creative women in Lebanon.

To confirm this stereotype and sexist idea one could easily pick up in Lebanon, just read this Reuters article about a lingerie show. Surely enough, the models are Ukrainian and not Lebanese, but blogging about that hypocrisy requires more time than I have now. So you'll have to do with the article and the foto:

The presidential race – Part 98…give or take a few

Many things seem to have happened during the last week regarding the presidential election. It’s hard to keep up with all the statements, meetings and press conferences made/organized/given by the various parties, but let's give it a try nonetheless.

First, there was the interview given by the patriarch. As mentioned in my previous blog, he was willing to adapt the Constitution in order to allow army commander Michel Suleiman to be appointed. Many see his candidacy as backed by Syria.

It could even be a covert attempt to weaken the Lebanese army through ‘corrupting’ the army leader by getting him politically involved. A neutral army is a strong army whereas a politicized army would be weakened from within. This would serve Syria well since the Nahr al Bared fight, which is a proxy conflict between Syria and Lebanon, surely didn’t go as planned.

The nestor of journalism in Lebanon, Ghassan Tueni, picked up on this and responded sharply to the patriarch’s statement and wrote that the army general can give orders, but not rule. This was a play of words on the slogan used by the army “The order is yours to give”. Michael Young added to this that the best way for Michel Suleiman to serve the country is to stay on as army commander and to reinforce the army after the heavy losses at Nahr al Bared.

Then, we had a meeting of the Christians of March 14, partly rebuking the patriarch by focusing on the fact that any candidate must be “made in Lebanon”. Suleiman, the reasoning goes, has made most of his career under Syrian tutelage and is thus partly if not all “made in Syria”.

This meeting was criticized by former premier Salim Hoss for being Christian-only and it was considered by some as another sign of a possible breakup of March 14 for leaving out the Muslims to decide on the next president. This impression was already fueled by the recent dispute over the Declaration of Children’s Rights, signed by Siniora’s government. Since this declaration only applies to Muslim children, the patriarch and others around him accused the Muslim Siniora of islamization of Lebanon.

An initial response by the camp of Michel Aoun was in support of the patriarch’s acceptance of a Constitutional change. This was surprising since Aoun is running for the presidency himself, so why help facilitate your opponent? However, in a later statement, Aoun himself distanced himself from the patriarch saying that the Constitution should not be changed and thus reaffirming his candidacy.

A few hours after the Christians of March 14 had their meeting, the Christians of March 8 organized their own get-together. According to the March 8 spokesman, this was not, I repeat not, in response to the March 14 meeting, it just happened to be so closely together. [As a side note: Is it me or do others also crack up when seeing people making statements like this? The way people have a tendency to waste energy and time on non-issues never ceases to amaze me in this country.]

During this meeting Aoun claimed that he is the true leader of the Christians, a claim that can be easily disputed: despite his victory of the Metn seat a few weeks ago, a closer study of the results show that Aoun did not get the majority of the Christian votes but got elected because of the non-Christian voters.

Still, Michel Aoun had a point when he said that any president of Lebanon should have the support of all Lebanese. How can March 14 elect someone who will alienate one third of the population, namely the Shiites? In that sense, Aoun is the only Christian candidate so far who openly reaches out to the Shiites, or at least those represented by Hezbollah.

Parallel to these events, the USA stated that they would not accept a change of the Constitution and added that any candidate should not have ties with terrorist organizations. This was a clear hint that they would not support Aoun because he signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Hezbollah and thus has ties with what the USA call a terrorist organization.

In response to the USA’s interference in local politics, Hezbollah lashed out and stated that they would not accept any president who is part of the American security. Hezbollah went on to warn that the Lebanese people will soon “lose their patience and jump out to attack the government”. This statement, made by Sheikh Nabil Kawook, leader of Hezbollah in South Lebanon, didn’t get much attention, but it was threatening nonetheless.

The latest development is a statement made by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt who suggests waiting with electing a new president until after October 14. According to him, the Constitution allows the Lebanese parliament to elect the president with a simple majority if by that date no candidate has been agreed upon.

This is yet another reading of the Lebanese Constitution, which by now closely resembles the Bible or Quran: every reader can find his own truth in them.

The mostly heard interpretation is that Parliament should meet with a two-third quorum of the MPs. The voting itself requires only a simply majority. If no candidate gets the majority of the votes after one round, a next round will be held with the quorum requirement lowered to 51% of all MPs being present.

The Opposition states that the requirement of the two-third quorum is not only applicable to the presence of the MPs, but applies to the actual voting as well. That is, a candidate will only win if he secures two-third of the votes and two-third of all MPs are present in Parliament to cast their votes.

Yet another interpretation is that the two-third quorum applies to the voting but not to the attendance, which is ruled by the 51% rule. Thus, a Parliament session can be organized as long as 51% of its members are present. Then, a new president can be elected if two-third of the currently present MPs reach an agreement on a single candidate.

Confused? You shouldn’t be. Rest assured that the final outcome could easily be completely different than anyone expected. All you have to do is go ‘aaahhh’ when the rabbit is pulled out of the magician’s hat.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Suleiman’s chances diminishing

How fast the pace of change in Lebanon: last week it seemed that army commander Michel Suleiman was destined to become the new president. Since yesterday, however, opposition against his candidacy has increased so much that his chances are becoming less and less.

The role of the religious leader of the Maronites in Lebanon, patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, is quite interesting. Last weekend, he stated in an interview that he would support Suleiman, even up to the extent of changing the constitution to allow him to become president. In earlier statements, the patriarch had always maintained that adapting the constitution is a red line. So what made him cross his own imposed red line?

During the interview the patriarch said that the only reason for changing the constitution could be to save the country. Well, yeah, “saving the country” sounds pretty vague and leaves ample room for interpretation: the various parties in Lebanon have various ideas about saving the country and the patriarch’s statements didn’t clarify much as to why specifically now the constitution should be changed to allow Suleiman to become the next president.

Maybe the patriarch was trying to unite the Christian forces in the March 14 alliance to unite around a strong candidate. By dangling the frightening prospect of a junta in front of their eyes, the patriarch might have hoped to create a sense of urgency.

If those were his ulterior motives, then chapeau bas: within a few days after the patriarch’s speech, this is exactly what happened. Yesterday, the March 14 Christians announced that they will come up soon with one candidate for the presidency. Interesting enough, they added two things: that the candidate must be ‘made in Lebanon’ and vetted by the patriarch. The first requirement is pretty much a rebuke of the patriarch’s support for Suleiman, whom many consider a Syrian lackey. Perhaps to reduce the possibility for any hard feelings, the second condition must make the patriarch feel good again.

What is almost funny, if it weren’t so serious, were the comments by Samir Geagea during the press conference the meeting of the March 14’ Christians was over. He mentioned that they have tried to reason with Michel Aoun, but that he refused to withdraw his own candidacy. With a strong hint of regret, Geagea concluded that he had to resort to democracy. What a pity this must be for a former warlord, indeed.

Michel Aoun in the mean time is in a difficult position. In response to the patriarch’s comments, his party supported the idea of having Suleiman run a military government. Even more kudos for the patriarch for eliciting Aoun to admit that he would be willing to consider giving up his presidential ambitions.

Now, he won’t give them up for a March 14 candidate, but still, the mere admission was already quite something and seemed to have weakened his position that his ambitions were non-negotiable. Aoun is unlikely to feel good right now about reacting so hastily to the patriarch’s statements.

It will be interesting to watch future developments: Will he be able to keep on supporting a Syrian-backed Suleiman, especially if Suleiman would be fully supported by Hezbollah? Or would he break with his allies and make a run for the presidential post himself? My money would be on the latter option, but then again, nothing in Lebanon is certain and predicting politics here is like predicting the weather: best to be done in hindsight.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Lebanon is heading for a junta?

After much denial and vague comments, Suleiman has stated yesterday that he is available to lead Lebanon in case the current MPs cannot agree on a new president. Strangely enough, it seems that both sides are somewhat pleased with the prospect of yet another general ruling the country.

It’s understandable that the Opposition is glad to have Suleiman in charge of a transitional government. After all, he has made most of his career when Lebanon was under Syrian tutelage and it’s hard to believe one can rise to the highest military post without being loyal to the hand that feeds you. Obviously, the situation has changed now that Syria has left Lebanon, but can anyone be blamed to think that a 30 year relationship is not destroyed overnight?

Also, it’s easy to see that a transitional government is the upbeat to a national government whereby the Opposition would have a veto right.

In addition, Suleiman’s comments yesterday as to who is behind Fatah al-Islam must have appeased the Opposition: according to Suleiman, Fatah al-Islam is only linked to Al Qaeda and Syria has nothing to do with it. Unfortunately, he doesn’t provide any evidence and he seems to ignore the origin of the huge amount of heavy weaponry in the camp, which many believe was delivered via Syrian soil. Still, by removing Syria from the equation, he is freer to come down hard on Fatah al-Islam without upsetting the Syrian allies too much.

Finally, it is noteworthy that the tents in Downtown are still there, even though the Christian side is empty except for one tent. This one tent is still no reason to remove the road blocks in front on Virgin. You can not possibly hold Suleiman responsible for not cleaning out the tents, but still…how much did the army really do to remove the tents?

Or what about the violent demonstration earlier this year when the road were blocked with burning tires for a long time, much longer than necessary. By not intervening, the army allowed the demonstrators to paralyze Beirut quite a bit longer than would have been the case had the army acted. It was a disturbing sight to see only a handful of kids being able to block the airport road, e.g., for the whole day with the army standing by and doing nothing.

Photo 1: Posters of Suleiman are popping up

Then again, the March 14 forces also have reason to be pleased with Suleiman: he ignored orders from president Lahoud during the huge demonstrations after the murder of Hariri, which in turn led to the fall of the cabinet of Omar Karami. Other than that, Suleiman has not done much for March 14 per se, but getting rid of a hated pro-Syrian government was already plenty in their eyes.

A paranoid mind would now perhaps suggest that Suleiman’s announcement of yesterday fits perfectly well in the Opposition’s plan. First, Suleiman distances himself from the Opposition by allowing the March 14 forces to demonstrate and by letting them even remove the government. Any hardcore conspiracist would see this as a strategic offer to win the trust of March 14.

Subsequently, lots of bombs started to go off which left the average Lebanese scared and unprotected. Then, just in time, for the upcoming presidential election, fighting broke out in Nahr al-Bared which allowed Suleiman to rise as a strong man who was restoring order. By crushing the Fatah al-Islam fighters, he could shine and was able to increase the prestige of army and him even more. The Nahr al-Bared unrest has boosted his image and has defined him as a true savior of the country.

Photo 2: A banner in honor of the army: "The blood of the army's martyrs should be in the conscience of every Lebanese. So it's time to give them our support..."

As a bonus, the government was brainless enough to organize elections in the heartland of the Maronites, which were won by Aoun, thereby increasing the uncertainty as to who should succeed Lahoud.

All these events lead to but one outcome: Suleiman should become the next leader of a unified Lebanon. Hey, the Lebanese might even be so fed up with the political mess that they wouldn’t mind if he brought along some of his army buddies. People might say: “Let’s get rid of those wishy-washy politicians altogether and get some real men™ in power!”.

It would leave the paranoid mind to conclude that Lebanon is heading for a junta and that most Lebanese are accepting this with their eyes wide shut.

Update: See The Ouwet blog for his post which expresses similar concerns

Update 2: See also here for additional information on Suleiman's ties to Syria

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Hezbollah minister back to work

Yesterday, the Lebanese station LBC stated that the foreign minister Fawzi Salloukh went back to work...for one day only, just enough to give a few high positions to buddies of his, overruling the decisions made by his stand-in Tariq Mitri...sigh...

Lebanese Carlos Slim richest man on earth

Move on over Bill Gates and make way for Carlos Slim, the now richest man in the world. With an estimated fortune of 59 billion USD, Carlos beats Bill by a cool 1 billion. He is born and raised in Mexico, but his father moved to Mexico in 1902 which makes Carlos Lebanese.

See here for a background article on Carlos Slim.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Will the real Christian leader please stand up?

Now that the Interior Ministry has released the final voting count for the Metn, it has become clear that Aounist Camille Khoury has won. Interesting enough, neither Nahar, nor Tayyar (!), nor the Daily Star found this piece of info worthwhile enough to mention the morning after at 7:30 AM. Luckily, CNN does a better job.

So there we are: Michel Aoun has won the Metn elections with 39,534 against 39,116 votes acording to the press release of the Minister of Interior. A difference of 418 votes, or half a percent difference. Regardless, the victory is Aoun's and despite all the sympathy that went out to the opponent Amin Gemayel for succeeding his murdered son, the Metn people have preferred Aoun.

Gemayel has already announced to contest the outcome, especially the handling of voting boxes in the Armenian polling stations. My advice would be to get over it and to accept the outcome of the democratic elections. Especially the complaint from March 14 circles that Aoun has had bus loads of voters brought in from Syria sound either naive or hypocritical since the March 14 were always in favor of giving Lebanese residing abroad the right to vote. So don't complain to see your wish come true.

Cynics will say that Aoun got his victory thanks to the support of the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party, the pro-Syrian politician Michel Murr and the pro-Syrian Armenian party Tachnaq. Supporters of Aoun, however, would say that he is able to reach out to other parties, even to erstwhile enemies whereas March 14 candidate Gemayel was unable or unwilling to form such alliances.

Much has been speculated about the reasons why March 14 has called out for this election. Looking back one can only note that it has not been the best decision possible: Amin Gemayel has lost face and his chances for a political return (some even speculated of him running for president) are pretty much decimated for the time being.

Like Michael Young wrote in his latest column, these elections have weakened the Christian community. The question arises why no one has foreseen that it would. Was March 14 really thinking Michel Aoun wouldn't have the guts to launch a counter candidate? Or forget about 'guts' even, he was fully in his rights to do so and right up his alley since he is always rallying against the system of 'family politics' in Lebanon where seats stay within families and newcomers hardly have a chance to enter the political arena. Knowing all of this, who couldn't have known that he wouldn't run?

The elections could have been a ploy to weaken Michel Aoun before the presidential elections, assuming that March 14 expected him to lose moral credibility if he would run and that he would lose subsequently. While the first objective was achieved according to many Christians (going against the patriarch is a sure way to go), the second goal was missed. In fact, this can be enough to compensate the loss in moral standing.

The Christians who voted for him will feel vindicated, while others might give Aoun the benefit of the doubt next time...oh...let's say in a few weeks when the presidential elections take place. All in all, this whole election was not a smart move of March 14. The argument of March 14 to have by elections after Walid Edo was killed, sounded plausible at the time, yet now we know different.
Lawyers use to say that you should never ask a witness a question unless you know the outcome. Politicians should never organize optional elections unless they know the results as well.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

A new job

Dear readers,

This is to inform you that I have started a new job today at the American University of Beirut where I will be responsible for setting up an IT audit function as part of the Internal Audit department.

New kids, new job, it couldn't be better....better find me a huge piece of wood to knock on:-)