Monday, December 31, 2007

Raid on Crystal: old wine in new bags

According to Lebanese media Saturday evening, the son of the head of the General Security apparatus couldn’t get a table at Crystal, one of the most exclusive nightclubs in Lebanon. No wonder: it was very busy in Beirut and without reservations it was impossible to find a table in any place. Still, the son got angry and called his dad who didn’t hesitate to raid Crystal. Supposedly in search of illegal workers…

What’s making this story even sadder is that his dad, General Wafid Jezzini, was appointed by March 14 to replace Jamil Sayyid who was arrested in connection with the murder of Rafiq Hariri. Supposedly, these appointments were about making a fresh, clean start. If this is how Lebanon deals with rooting out misbehavior, it will never get anywhere.

It will be interesting to see if Siniora will hold son and dad accountable for the loss of revenue for the owners of Crystal and for the inconvenience for the guests. Imagine being searched while having a drink with friends in a nightclub. It would be nice to think that 2008 will bring justice to those that deserve it. More likely, though, Lebanon will remain a place where you can get away with anything as long as your daddy is considered above the law.

One remarkable thing, though: it was covered by most, if not all, TV stations whereas such an incident would not have hit the news in previous years. Somehow, the Cedar Revolution has liberated the Lebanese journalists, albeit it to a limited extent: printed media such as L'Orient-Le Jour, the Daily Star or do not cover the story. One wonders why...

To answer the last question: l'Orient did cover it extensively the next day in their Jan 1 newspaper and mentioned that the Minister of Interior will launch an investigation into the matter. My guess was that it happened too late to be included in the edition of Dec 31. The website of the Daily Star, however, still does not have the story.
See also which has, finally, picked up on the story.

Correction: As readers have mentioned in the Comments section, General Jezzini does not belong to the March 14 camp but was appointed by former president Lahoud. As I understand, this was the first time a non-Christian held the highest post within the General Security department and it was the topic of much debate back then.

And another correction : As Josey Wales has pointed out, General Jezzini was the second non-Maronite officer to hold this post, the first being his predecessor Jamil Sayyed.

And another update: My blog has made it to the LA Times website, check it out here!

Friday, December 28, 2007

Promotion after death?

According to Marwan Hamadeh, the government has approved the promotion of soldiers who died in action, also known as 'martyrs'. Besides the obvious point that the term martyr shouldn't be used for people who are simply doing their jobs, it is interesting to note that it seems that when you die in the line of duty, you get promoted.

One wonders why this is, perhaps to ensure a higher pension for the surviving family members? Let there be no misunderstanding: they sure deserve every penny they get and more. It's just that I never heard of this. I wonder what the rules are for this, like what are the criteria for a soldier to die a martyr's death? Would accidents/incidents also be covered? And accidents outside combat, say, during training? Would you get a smaller promotion if you become handicapped or is the promotion only valid for those soldiers who died?

Granted, these are not the most pressing questions right now, it's just a strange motivational instrument to have you promoted once you die.

Radar control in Lebanon

Anyone following the news these days must be getting increasingly hopeless. The politicians on both sides are talking tough but, as mentioned before, push rarely comes to shove in Lebanon. Yesterday was another fine example of this when Samir Geagea threatened to go ahead with simple majority two weeks from now. As if he’s going to make good on that threat.

You can’t blame him, he’s only a Lebanese living in a country where accountability does not exist and where you can get away with pretty much anything. So imagine my surprise when I noticed a couple of radar control posts on the highway towards Byblos, north of Beirut. “Let’s go catch some bad guys”, the police must have thought. A lofty idea, but the implementation has left some to desire as shown in the picture below.

Photo 1: Some angry driver made sure the camera wouldn't flash again?

To be honest, it seems that they have been there for some time, but I have never noticed them until a few days ago. Anyone expecting people to slow down, must not get their hopes up too high, or up at all. More often than not, initiatives like these didn’t go anywhere. Pass by the crossroad in front of BankMed’ head office, e.g., and notice the cameras that supposedly catch people running a red light. The first few weeks after installation, that crossing reminded you of a 70’s disco with the stroboscopic lamps flashing like crazy. Sure enough, though, no tickets were ever issued and the cameras have been decommissioned since.

One can only wonder why there is never a follow-through on traffic tickets. After all, it would be so easy. Every year, all cars older than 3 years need to go to the Mechanique, a place where they inspect the technical safety of your car. This in turn is needed for the obligatory car insurance. So why not link their computer system with the police’s system holding the traffic violations? Simple make people pay any outstanding tickets before they can get through the checkup.

Lebanon could do the same at the borders: you shouldn’t be able to leave the country with outstanding tickets. With more stringent controls like this plus the necessary cameras and speed traps, the budget deficit would be history in no time!

Or would it…

Photo 2: Even the best camera in the world wouldn't catch this license plate:-)

Saturday, December 22, 2007

All we want is peace on earth in Lebanon

With the Adha behind us and Christmas & New Year ahead of us, many people have turned off from politics. The latest postponement didn’t really surprise or interest anyone. All we want is no more killings, no more bombs…simply having a wonderful Christmas time. Let’s hope it’s not too much to ask.

The Lebanese are fed up and tired with the political mess. They don’t care anymore about the wisdom of March 14 to suggest Michel Suleiman and thereby giving March 8 another blocking option. They don’t care anymore for George Bush making powerful statements, thereby giving Syria exactly the influence it wants. They don’t care anymore about Michel Aoun stating that he is still a candidate if Suleiman is not elected…all the Lebanese want to believe is that nothing will ruin their Christmas.

Photo 1: Add from CityMall that captures the Lebanese spirit quite well

Monday, December 17, 2007

How to circumvent the Constitution

Lebanon is the land where the tables are often turned. Non-issues become huge problems whereas actual hindrances are typically ignored or down-played. Take a look at the latest developments surrounding the election of a new president: everybody seemed to agree on Michel Suleiman weeks ago, but the country still doesn’t have him as president. What’s up?

The “problem” was that in order for Suleiman to be elected president, the Lebanese Constitution has to change by the government. However, the Opposition has always maintained that the current government is illegal, so they couldn’t possibly accept that same government to change the Constitution, could they? As per Lebanese Logic©, they turned this non-issue into the most existential crisis possible, see also my previous post.

The only way out was to come up with a solution that would not require the Constitution to be changed, but rather to be ignored. According to today’s L’Orient-Le Jour, it seems that they have identified the magic bullet to end the current mess: a precedence where a person was appointed MP against the Constitution.

Back in 2002, Myrna Murr wanted to run for parliament to replace Albert Moukheiber. However, she was not allowed to run because she was head of the Metn municipality at the time. The reason quoted back then for her to run anyway, was that Moukheiber’s death created an emergency so serious that it warranted the shoving aside of the Constitution. If memory serves me right, he died of old age and he didn’t hold any special position in Parliament that would warrant ignoring the Constitution.

Anyway, the serious problem of adjusting the Constitution has now been solved: if the death of a regular MP was enough to bypass the Constitution, then surely the current crisis would be reason enough for politicians of both sides to participate in group-raping Lebanon’s most important set of laws.

What’s even worse is the support of US envoy David Welch who seems to support this approach. Lebanese politicians being caricatures of themselves doesn’t surprise me, but the Americans cheering them on? Of course, there is no surprise there either. Yet, it is another dream shattered on the rocks of cynicism. Normally, a country gets the leaders it deserves, but somehow Lebanon deserves better.

Update: See also Lebanonesque's blog for a similar article with additional background information.

Update 2: The presidential election has been postponed for the 9th time until Saturday, December 22

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Recent history of Lebanon - Part 8

Here is part 8 of the recent history of Lebanon. The previous installment of this series can be found here.

It was worth noting that the Christians were left out of the coalition forming process, including Aoun. As a result, he started campaigning mostly against other Christians and did so quite successfully: he obtained 21 out of 58 seats in the Metn, the most Christian election district of Lebanon. His victory was even bigger when you realize that out of these 58 seats, over 20 seats go to non-Christian MPs.

It is safe to say that Aoun alone prevented the anti-Syria parties led by the son of the murdered Hariri, from obtaining the two third majority in Parliament. This is an important cut-off with respect to overruling the president. In Lebanon, the president can reject a draft law and send it back to Parliament. However, if Parliament accepts the law for a second time with a two third majority, the President must sign it. Hence, were March 14 to obtain this important two third majority in Parliament, they would have been able to bypass the president altogether.

Aoun was quite popular among Christians, but what also contributed to his success was the lack of unity among the Sunnis, the Druze and the Christians affiliated with March 14. There was hardly agreement on a common agenda and as a result, everyone retreated into their trench lines. The sly fox Jumblatt had no trouble with the relative inexperienced Saad Hariri. Add to this the centuries old mistrust between Christians and Druze, fueled by cruel mass murders during Lebanon’s civil war and it was no wonder that the Christians were left out of the loop.

An additional reason for Aoun’s popularity was the series of attacks and explosions in Christian areas prior to the elections. Although hardly anyone got killed because most bombs would go off late at night in mostly empty buildings, it was a very effective way to instill fear into the public mind. Aoun jumped on this after every attack by proclaiming that the government was not able to protect the normal citizens. What they needed was a strong leader like himself.

In hindsight, the exclusion of the Christians resulted in the fact that Lebanon missed a historical opportunity for achieving a real change. Jumblatt might have achieved a victory for himself by dividing the Christians in favor of his own influence, however, as commentators wrote, he had not only weakened the Christians but the country as well. Unfortunately, Jumblatt showed that he is no exceptional politician. Lebanon has only known very few politicians who were able to rise above their own sect and truly cared for all Lebanese. Most Lebanese agree that Rafiq Hariri was such an exception. Most Lebanese also agree that Jumblatt is not.

In the end, the outcome of the elections must have been shocking for all those hoping for change: former militia leaders Jumblatt and Berri were firm in the center of power, supplemented with another bloodthirsty warlord, Michel Aoun.

Still, most Lebanese were not disappointed at all. They were glad many pro Syrian candidates had lost, including the son of president Emile Lahoud. These and other outcomes were mind blowing enough in itself since normally the son of a president would be elected under the Lebanese political system of power sharing among tribal lords. What was noted by some columnists, though, was the rapid change of many politicians from pro-Syria to anti-Syria. But overall, the Lebanese didn’t seem to mind. They were glad that so many politicians made a lot of bold statements against Syria.

It is important to realize that the roles between government and Opposition became reversed due to the outcome of the elections. March 14 belonged to the Opposition prior to the elections, but ended up in government due to the election results. Likewise, March 8 (mostly Hezbollah and Aoun) became the Opposition after the elections. The landslide change in the political scene was not the result of new faces, but rather due to the shifting of positions of the existing politicians.

Daddy, wayn Tigi?

This morning Brigitte and I woke up by the sound of a new SMS message. Turned out to come from LibanCall, a news service that sends SMS alerts regarding Lebanese events. Having these messages at 7:15 AM is not a good thing and sure enough it said there was an explosion in Baabda, next to the presidential palace.

A wailing Ray Charles singing ‘Hear we go again’ got stuck in my mind. Another car bomb; an all too familiar scene. Obviously, we rushed to the TV and started watching. Janine, who was awake by then, walked into the TV room and saw mommy & daddy watch TV. What a treat! Normally, she only watches TV before going to bed, but finally, mom & dad must have seen the light, you could hear her think. Only problem: it wasn’t Tiji, her favorite channel that has French animated children programs.

So here we were watching the latest developments while Janine, now fully awake, was standing in front of the TV demanding/asking/begging us to switch to Tiji. “Wayn Tiji, daddy?” (“daddy where is Tiji”), followed by the cutest ‘pleeezzze’ that always cracks me up.

After a few minutes and realizing there was nothing much to see anyway, we gave in and let her watch Tiji instead of the chaotic images from the crime scene. And there she was, happily watching a cartoon, oblivious to the events outside…”born in a world where love survives”. Now, if only all the Lebanese politicians would watch Tiji with their kids for half an hour everyday, then this world would be a better place.

Later on, I dropped her off at her kindergarten. Amazingly beautiful, quite mild weather. The streets in Hamra were rather empty which added to the almost serene atmosphere. The contrast between the mild, pleasant weather and the harsh, raw murders reminded me of another sunny, mild day: Feb 14, 2005. It’s funny how the memory works.

I won’t bother now with the intricacies of the murder of the general who was in charge of the Naher al-Bared events. For more details, background and speculation, check out the excellent blogs of Blacksmiths of Lebanon and Beirutspring.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Istiqlaal or Istighlaal?

Lebanon, always a house divided, is finding out the hard way that being independent (Istiqlaal) is not as easy as it once seemed on that beautiful day in March, 2005. It looks as if that the country is in an abusive relationship with its past: you know you should leave, but the exploitation (Istighlaal) of yesteryears sure feels comfortable as well. It’s like the Russians wanting communism back…oh sweet nostalgia.

Both March 14 and March 8 have little to show for after all their demonstrations, heated arguments and bold statements. A recent low was the outright dismissal by March 14 of Aoun’s proposal to review the election law. Remember the first priority of Siniora when he became Prime Minister? Right: to revamp that same law. As always, to truly enjoy some good ol’ nostalgia, it’s better to ignore historical facts and to indulge in a little amnesia instead.

What’s an equally important character trait for any politician in this country is the strong belief in one’s self-importance. With Suleiman’s presidency as good as certain, most people would naturally conclude that the bickering is over and that all politicians can go back to work now. Alas, it’s never that simple, not in Lebanon anyway where politicians never miss a chance to stress how much needed they are.

Like, the current debate is whether or not the required constitutional amendment has to pass by the government. Obviously, it should pass by Siniora but that would imply the Opposition acknowledges the legitimacy of his cabinet. This is a difficult step for March 8 to make as they have always maintained that Siniora’s government is illegal.

March 14 refuses this. With all the ideals they have already given up during the last two years, suddenly, they show a spark of passion. Not that it really carries any relevance anymore, but hey: a victory is a victory, no matter how petty. So expect once again strong declarations about the highly urgent matter of amending the constitution in the correct way.

The amendment itself is no longer topic of discussion. One could even cynically wonder if it ever has been. The presidency comes cheap these days. Remember Lahoud refusing to step down because he felt that the president should not bow to popular pressure because that would bypass the constitution? He was right about that and many Christians understood his position, even though they might not have agreed with him.

Still, that inevitably led to a Catch-22 situation: by staying on to protect the dignity of the presidency, Lahoud has made it abundantly clear that the presidency has become obsolete since the country didn’t stop functioning despite having an isolated president who was no longer involved in the government for over two years.

One would think, therefore, that it is high time to fully restore the position of the president. Sneaking in a candidate by means of changing the Constitution somehow doesn’t seem the right way, though. It feels as if the position is up for grabs and what’s more, no one really knows what the position of Suleiman is on crucial topics.

So far, he has mostly refused to take explicit sides and stated that he will only do so after being elected president. Basically, this boils down to electing a candidate whose positions are unclear and you just have to pray they match yours, which some bloggers feel will not be the case. Electing a president by the people, like in the USA, suddenly doesn’t seem such a bad idea anymore.

Going back to the original question: will Lebanon choose for Istiqlaal or Istighlaal? Well, the politicians and the press will surely find this a fascinating question that requires many more talk shows on TV, but the average Lebanese already knows the answer: the country will get a little bit of both, with the independence part sufficiently watered down to not make a difference anymore.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

The beauty of Lebanon

With all the political ugliness of, oh, the last three years, it is easy to forget how beautiful Lebanon actually is. Last weekend, I took a drive across the country, roughly going north on the highway, then up to Qartaba. From there, I continued to Ouyouni Al Siman and via Farayah, I went back to Beirut. As always, it was a mesmerizing experience.

Most Lebanese, including Brigitte, prefer loud noise above silence. So off she went to the German Christmas Bazaar which apparently was crazy busy. Me, I took the car and went for the silence. Looking for a place that the Bible so aptly describes as “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was barren, with no form of life”. While driving from Qartaba into the Bekaa valley, my first reaction always is “ hrm, seems like God has forgotten a few spots here and there:-)”.

Photo 1: "God has missed a few spots while he made Lebanon"

The road takes you through a landscape one expects on the moon: lots of rocks and hardly any vegetation anymore. You feel like you’re sitting on top of the world and there’s absolutely no one else mad enough to drive along the same road. In other words: simply perfect!

Everywhere you look, you see…well…vast stretches of emptiness. It makes you feel very small, almost humble, and as such it should be a standard prescription for anyone feeling stressed out by the ever-increasing chaos of the country. Even with the increased fuel prices, it’s still a lot cheaper than Xanax. Pity the Lebanese who have never been here.

Photo 2: Endless roads ahead...perfect!

At the crossing of Ouyouni Al Siman, the soldier at the checkpoint was inspecting an oncoming car in much detail, so I already got all the papers ready. Imagine my disappointment when he simply nodded me through while saying "tfaddel, estaaz" ("you can continue, sir"). It happens every time: ever since I came to Lebanon, they never once asked me for my papers. Either I must look really reliable or they don’t want to bother with Westerners. I hope the first, but fear the latter.

Photo 3: Far away, some snowy mountain tops...

Going up from Ouyouni Al Siman towards Farayah, the road was barely passable: already plenty of snow has fallen and with the precipitation of today, the mountain pass surely will be closed. The virgin snow on both sides of the road and sometimes partly on the road gave the trip an almost mystical quality: here I was driving around while somewhere down in Beirut, politicians were anxiously fumbling around like kids around a birthday cake. How irrelevant!

Photo4: Our CR-V in the Lebanese snow. Honda should pay me!

Upon arriving back home, Brigitte asked me how the drive was. “Completely uneventful”, I answered, and that was just how it should be.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Anti-smoking campaign in Lebanon

Yesterday, the American University of Beirut has declared various areas of its campus to be officially smoke free. This makes it one of the first companies in Lebanon with an official smoke free policy.

The importance of having smoke free zones has also caught up with the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Tourism. Together with the Lebanese Society of Family Medicine, they have set up an on-line survey regarding smoking in restaurants. If you feel restaurants should or should not have smoke free areas, then feel free to fill out their survey here.

So far, 90+ percent of the respondents have indicated they would favor a non smoking zone in restaurants. I wish they would have added the question if a restaurant should be fully smoke free, like in the USA and certain countries in Europe. But that might be stretching it for Lebanon, a country that welcomes you with security guards at the airport who are smoking right beneath the non-smoking signs

Kouchner can stop

Kouchner can stop helping the Lebanese with finding a new president. Here's one that easily outperforms any human candidate:

And no, this was not a serious suggestion, just me being totally amazed at this video clip:-)

Plus ça change

The below e-mail is making the rounds in Lebanon. It is a quote from a book published in 1870 and it is surprisingly accurate in describing today's state of Lebanon.

Written by W.M. Thomson, Protestant minister, in "The Land and the Book", published in London in 1870.

"Lebanon has about 400,000 inhabitants, gathered into more than six hundred towns, villages and hamlets...The various religions and sects live together, and practice their conflicting superstitions in close proximity, but the people do not coalesce into one homogeneous community, nor do they regard each other with fraternal feelings. The Sunnites excommunicate the Shiites - both hate the Druse, and all three detest the Nusairiyeh. The Maronites have no particular love for anybody and, in turn, are disliked by all. The Greeks cannot endure the Greek Catholics; all despise the Jews.

And the same remarks apply to the minor divisions of this land. There is no common bond of union. Society has no continuous strata underlying it, which can be opened and worked for the general benefit of all, but an endless number of dislocated fragments, faults, and dikes, by which the masses are tilted up in hopeless confusion, and lie at every conceivable angle of antagonism to each other. The omnific Spirit that brooded over primeval chaos can alone bring order out of such confusion, and reduce these conflicting elements into peace and concord.

No other country in the world, I presume, has such a multiplicity of antagonistic races; and herein lies the greatest obstacle to any general and permanent amelioration and improvement of their condition, character, and prospects. They can never form one united people, never combine for any important religious or political purpose; and will therefore remain weak, incapable of self-government, and exposed to the invasions and oppressions of foreigners. Thus it has been, is now, and must long continue to be a people divided, meted out, and trodden down."

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

When even the LF don't believe anymore...

It's a sad, sad state Lebanon finds itself in. Even the Lebanese Forces don't believe in the country anymore, at least not enough to organize a congress here. Instead, they held it in Cyprus, see picture:

Monday, December 3, 2007

Looks like we’ve got ourselves a president

After much delay, it finally seems the political powers in Lebanon are coming to an agreement over the new president: army commander Michel Suleiman. Yesterday, the March 14 movement confirmed that they, too, are in favor of amending the Constitution to allow Suleiman’s career move. Most Lebanese are quite happy with the prospect of having the general to be the next president. Are they right?

There is much to say in favor of Suleiman as well as against him and by both sides, see also my previous post. That fact alone confirms that he would be a good compromise candidate. He is also a general-cum-politician who has hardly made any gaffe. One only needs to look at the two others, Lahoud and Aoun, to appreciate the strategic insight and diplomatic gifts Suleiman clearly has.

Still, there are those who argue that Suleiman is too much of a compromise, that he is not the strong Maronite leader who will pull Lebanon out of its miserable state. Instead, they argue, now would have been a good time to push through March 14’s reform agenda with full force. That’s a good idea were Lebanon a democratic country, but with the Lebanese appetite for conflict avoidance, the high road would lead to nowhere.

Let me illustrate this avoidance behavior with a typical example most Lebanese can relate to: the lack of electricity and the resulting lack of ‘mazoot’ (gasoline) to fire up the building’s generator. Our building, e.g., has a generator to provide all apartments with electricity in case of power cuts. Obviously, it needs gasoline to work, which in turn needs the people living in the building to pay their share.

Somehow, there are always people who are not willing to pay. “OK, let’s cut them off. From now on, anyone who doesn’t pay for electricity will not receive any. Simple as that”, I remarked to a few neighbors who had gathered around to discuss the problem a few weeks ago. Shocked, they looked at me. “No, we cannot do that, they will sue us!”, was their immediate response. “Sue us for what? For them not getting something they didn’t pay for?”, I responded. But that argument was lost on my otherwise very friendly and intelligent neighbors.

The careful observer of Lebanese mores will note many more of such occasions where the people in this country never push through, always back off, afraid of conflict. The mere thought of anyone suing them, or more generally, think negatively of them, is enough to give in. Push never comes to shove in this part of the world. As a result, our non-paying neighbor is enjoying free usage of the generator.

You can see similar patterns in Lebanese history, especially during the Civil War. There were quite a few moments where one party could have made a decisive move against the enemy, but then backed off. The Lebanese even have an expression for it: “No winners and no losers”. It was partly this behavior that made the Civil War drag on for so long.

It is the same behavior that is making Michel Suleiman the best candidate possible right now. All others are simply too confrontational. What Lebanon needs most of all is a president who can hold things together, it doesn’t need a president who will make bold moves. Never before, a Lebanese president has been very strong and influential and the Opposition is smart enough to not allow for such a candidate now.

Interestingly enough, March 14 agrees with them, even after all that has happened the last two years and despite all their tough stances. Is this a sell-out or a realistic appraisal of the situation? In a fully democratic country, it would be the first. Then again, each patient needs its own medicine and right now the only thing that could make Lebanon better would be the consensus embodied in a person like Suleiman.