Thursday, May 31, 2007

Lahoud the next Milosovich?

After much ado, the U.N. Security Council approved of the Hariri Tribunal yesterday. Good news for Lebanon, but it might not bring immediate stability for the country. Given that special investigator Brammertz has received an extension of his mandate until June 2008, it’s likely the Tribunal will take another year to commence.

It's apt to be a rocky, unstable year. The initial reaction of Syria doesn't bode well. Its UN ambassador is predicting that this decision will worsen the situation in Lebanon, so expect more bombs and what have you. Not that Syria is behind this of course...

Still, it’s a start of justice in the Middle East and that’s already something. It was interesting to see that Russia and China withheld their votes. Russia is usually quite close to the Syrian regime but somehow it prefers the relationship with the West above being tight with Assad. The same movement can be seen on the Iranian front where Russia is now taking a less hands-off approach.

What’s a bit strange, though, is that Russia has protested against the shipping of arms to Lebanon by the US. Still, this has not affected their position in the Security Council. Good for Lebanon and a warning sign for Iran and Syria that they better shape up.

What’s even more interesting is the position of Qatar. This country is usually quite in line with the U.S., especially that the US are expanding their airbase in Qatar. So what’s up: a close military cooperation with Great Satan and yet they don’t follow the US in the Security Council? It must have something to do with Qatar being a dictatorship itself and the country is not ready to have the UN interfere in what it perceives as Lebanon’s domestic (doh!) affairs.

Justice is still a new concept in the Arab world and that alone is already an excellent reason to be glad that the UN has pushed through with the Hariri Tribunal. It will be the first time a political murder will be brought to trial in Lebanon and possibly in the Middle East, with the obvious exception of the various show trials that were held in the past.

Syrian president Assad has already announced that he will not cooperate with the Tribunal. That doesn’t really matter, actually: a conviction in absentia will harm his reputation in the Arab world and will weaken his position at home, despite his miraculous popularity: more than 97% of the Syrian population has voted for Assad’s reelection this week. Blessed is a country where less than 3% of the population is too sick or old to leave the house…

Prediction: if Assad gets convicted by the Tribunal, the Syrian opposition might try to take advantage of his weakened position which could result in bloody repression by a president who’d do anything to stay in power.

Talk about staying in power. It’s going to be interesting to see how Lahoud will handle himself. Right now, he enjoys presidential immunity, but he has to step down on November 22. After that, he’s fair game for the UN prosecutor. Will he be another Milosovich? That humiliating prospect alone might be a reason for him to try to hang on to the presidential seat, or at least negotiate a form of protection. But it’s doubtful he will escape justice, or at least one can always hope so.

Monday, May 28, 2007

From a distance...

My apologies for not posting any news on the blog for the last week, but I am currently in The Netherlands for a small operation. This gives me the opportunity to be on the outside looking in…and that’s not easy at all. Strange as it may seem, but being in dangerous Lebanon is by far better than being in safe Holland.

It’s the same feeling expressed many times by people who left during the July War, namely that in hindsight they preferred to stay in Lebanon. Anxiety runs much higher when you’re away: Information is sparse and you miss the feeling of control over the situation. Especially in my case it’s tough because my wife and daughter are in Lebanon. You wish you could do more, but all you have left is to read the Internet (long live blogs! They truly have the most information) and to thank God or Allah for Skype.

What’s even more unreal is watching the news in Holland. The top story last week was a monkey called Bokito who severely maimed a female visitor. She was quite a fan of the gorilla since she visited him at least 4 times a week for a couple of hours. See the video where she’s almost French kissing Bokito, were it not for the glass. Immediately, the question arose if the woman had not somehow contributed to her misery by seeking such close contact with the monkey. Tons of experts gave their opinions and lots of blah-blah-blah.

At times like these you realize how blessed the Dutch are, and the whole western world for that matter. While the Lebanese are deciding if they should send their children to school the next day, the Dutch are analyzing the ins and outs of the gorilla’s behavior. Like anybody cares!

Ah well, I am "comfortably numb" on pain killers to really care right now. Once the initial discomfort wears off, I’ll blog again from abroad. It shouldn’t take too long, so stay tuned:-)

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Good advice: “Don’t let them screw you!”

I must be wearing my lucky underwear these days since I had another very pleasant encounter with the Lebanese bureaucracy. This time I needed a so called sijil adlee, which is a statement of good behavior and it proves you don’t have a criminal record.

First, I had to find the place. This can be a challenge because Lebanese are good at many things, but giving clear directions sure isn’t one of them. This time, though, it miraculously worked out fine: First go to the main Philips store, then straight until you see a McDonald’s at your left. This is where you take a left and then you can park behind the Winston cigarette store. Who needs a route planner in the car when you have directions like that!

I went in and asked for the sijil adlee. Sure enough, no one spoke English so here we go, I thought. But no, one guy behind the counter yelled across the room to one of his colleagues who could speak a little English and almost more importantly, he was very nice and helpful.

First, he wanted my name. This was a small problem because of the fact Dutch people often have multiple middle names, whereas the Lebanese usually have one middle name only, typically their father’s name is used as a middle name. But after talking back and forth, we were able to solve this: all my middle names were added to my first name. Ah, if everything was so simple in life…

Then, he wanted stamps. This is the common way to pay for government transcripts and other official documents. You have to buy stamps which they meticulously stick on the document you ask for. Normally, the fees are small so you need only few stamps. But sometimes, it can get really impractical, e.g., the official deed of our house has many, many, many stamps. I still remember the official sticking them to the paper. He had to add another paper just so the stamps would fit. Quite a cumbersome way to collect the official government fees.

For a sijil adlee you only need two stamps of 1,000 Lebanese pounds. God only knows why they didn’t invent a 2,000 stamp, but like God, the government’s ways are not for humans to understand. The whole stamp business can be difficult to comprehend for foreigners, but thanks to my English speaking government employee, everything was crystal clear: go to the Winston store and buy stamps for 2,000 pounds only. “Don’t let them screw you!!”, he added proudly and with a big smile. What was even funnier was the accent: like some bad ass dude from an American movie.

Still, it is good advice when buying stamps because many times they overcharge you if you’re not careful. It’s not really related to being a foreigner, since Lebanese themselves are also complaining about the fact they often have to pay more for an official stamp, even though the price is clearly printed on the stamp.

Thanks to the tip, I came prepared to the store with my 2,000 Lebanese pounds already in my hand so they didn’t even try to scam me. Anyway, even if they do, the best advice is simply refuse to pay, play stupid and make a commotion if necessary.

The guy asked me later how much I paid, and he nodded approvingly when I told him. Of course, I thanked him for his tip and for his professional behavior and told him I wished everybody would be like him. Some days just roll smoothly and this government employee sure contributed to it.

Monday, May 14, 2007

O Journalist Where Art Thou?

The last few days have been quite comical: to hear Hezbollah MPs complain that the illegal government is not doing enough with respect to repairing war damage and compensating individuals. You’d think they want the government to stop working altogether! Ah well, money makes the world go round.

With Hezbollah increasing pressure on the government with respect to the compensation of the victims of the July War, you wonder why no one is asking why Hezbollah is not doing much in this respect, too.

Remember their early promise to fully compensate all victims and to rebuild Lebanon? And remember their representatives distributing US dollars they had received from Iran, oh irony!

How come not one journalist is following up on this? Why doesn’t no one go to the South and see what has happened to the Hezbollah promises that all victims will be repaid, whatever religion? There are persistent rumors that mostly the Shiites have benefited, at least those who are loyal to Hezbollah. If you happen to be pro Amal or, even worse, a Christian, then forget about getting any Iranian dollars.

It’s strange to see the lackluster interest of journalists in this topic. What would be easier than to go the destroyed villages and ask around how much money people actually have received and how much of the destroyed schools, water, electricity and roads have been repaired? Granted, the Daily Star has a weekly article about the transparency and accountability in Lebanon which also focused on the repairs after the war, but all in all, the topic has been largely ignored.

On a related note, it would be a good opportunity for Michel Aoun to gain back some of his Christian support if he would lobby for Hezbollah money to be disbursed to the Christian victims in the South and the ones whose houses were damaged during the attacks on the four bridges north of Beirut. But no, he kept silent on this. Now, he’s arguing that certain Shiite villages in the Bekaa and in the South are not getting enough government support. Well, this is not really going to warm the hearts of his Christian supporters who are still spending much time in the divine traffic jams to pass the destroyed bridges.

To be fair: the government has also made many promises regarding repairing the war damage and compensating individuals and businesses. Both sides made promises and it seems both sides are not really keeping all of them. Yet, if you listen to the Opposition’s indignation, you’d think this must be the first Lebanese promise ever that was not kept!

Friday, May 11, 2007

New concept: how about doing your job?

Today, the Daily Star quoted Shiite leaders as saying they insist on the 2/3 quorum for the presidential elections on September 25. In case the quorum is not reached, they will consider any decision to be illegal. In other words: if the Opposition doesn’t like their chances of pushing their candidate through, they will simply stay away

Let any employee try this at work: if you don’t like it, just stay home! Let’s see how long you would last. Assuming that the politicians are “employed” by the people, how about simply kicking out any politician who’s refusing to do his job?

Come to think of it, Lebanese residing in Lebanon are officially required by law to cast their vote during elections. How about a similar requirement for MPs to oblige them to vote during parliamentary sessions? The law is difficult to uphold for millions of voters, but surely it would be possible to monitor 128 MPs.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The next Lebanese president

Three interesting newspaper stories came out during the last few days regarding the next Lebanese president. As usual, they all contradict each other, so it’s up to the blogosphere to make sense out of them.

First, there was Michel Aoun who suggested that the president should be elected by all Lebanese. This got him a lot of criticism because usually the Christians decide on the next president. The president has to be Maronite in Lebanon and Christians feel it’s unfair to let Muslims decide on their president.

Aoun, however, has always stressed his party does not represent Christians only, but is intended for all Lebanese. Hence his proposal to let all Lebanese decide on the next president. Sounds fair, doesn’t it? Only thing is that I can’t help but thinking that Aoun has a second agenda with his proposal. He must know that he has lost much of his support among Christians ever since he became buddies with the pro-Syrian Hezbollah.

The general who launched the War of Liberation to free Lebanon from Syria back in the late 80s is now sleeping with the enemy, or so many Christians say. By opening up the presidential election to all Lebanese, Aoun wants to ensure the backing of the Shiite vote, which together with the remaining Christian voters he still has, will most likely be enough to elect him.

Second, let’s suppose Aoun is sincere when he states that his party is for all Lebanese and not just for Christians only. How does that add up to an article in yesterday’s L’Orient-Le Jour, where Ibrahim Kanaan, the number 2 of Aoun’s party, was quoted: “Comme l’a dit le général Aoun, seulement 16% des chrétiens on pu élire leur représentants.” (Like general Aoun has said, only 16% of the Christians were able to choose their representatives).

Now, that’s interesting. First, Aoun claims he is for all Lebanese and thus the president should be elected by all, then he is quoted by his second man as complaining about the fact that the Christians are unable to choose their representatives. Of course, he will respond that members of parliament are representing only their voters while the president should be above parties and thus can be elected by all Lebanese.

But somehow this argument seems like a stretch. Surely Aoun knows the importance, if only symbolic, of the presidency: many Christians see it as a guarantee of Christian influence in a country increasingly dominated by Muslims.

A third article that didn’t clarify much was appeared yesterday, also in l’Orient-Le Jour. In it, Samir Geagea was quoted as saying that Aoun as president would be possible if certain conditions were met. Wow, arch enemy Geagea is willing to see Aoun become president, now that’s news!

Surely enough, Naharnet had a completely different story, namely Geagea saying on behalf of March 14 that they would never accept Aoun as president. Yup, that’s more like it. It seemed that l’Orient-Le Jour was a bit too optimistic. Geagea went on to say that March 14 will be deciding on the next president and that in fact it has already reached consensus over who it will be.

As usual in Lebanon, he didn’t specify the name yet. Anyone living long enough in this country, will notice that the Lebanese love nothing more than talking in riddles and giving each other secret handshakes.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Lebanon’s government can be professional

Despite popular belief that the Lebanese government is either corrupt or incompetent, and most likely both, there is one big exception to the rule: The Sûreté Générale. This is where all foreigners have to go to in order to renew their residence permits. And they renew them in a highly efficient and professional manner.

Today I had to go do my paperwork there. As always, things went very smooth. They have put up huge posters that list all required documents. This is a major step against corruption because it informs citizens exactly of what is needed for a residence permit. Other governmental agencies don’t have this level of transparency, which can be very frustrating. For sure you will be missing a certain paper here or a stamp there.

It’s almost a funny process: The government employee starts to look painfully at a certain document, usually all written in Arabic so the foreigner can’t read it. As an experienced actor and with much regret in his voice, he then informs you that a stamp is missing. “Ai, too bad, because now you have to restart the whole procedure”, he kindly adds.

This leaves you with two options: either go home and get the damn stamp or ask him if he can somehow solve it because you are in a hurry and surely he would appreciate the urgency. “Of course”, you add slyly, “I understand if there are certain extra costs involved to fast track my application”.

The last option is well, let’s say culturally attuned to Lebanon, but it’s not easy to do, especially when coming from a country like Holland where such behavior could lend you in jail. The first option, while fully legal, usually results in yet another paper missing next time you bring him the missing stamp. It can literally take many visits to the ever gentle employee to finally get all the papers and the stamps.

None of this at the Sûreté Générale, though. The whole process is clear and really highly professional. One glitch occurred, however, when I submitted my application. First, he asked me what profession I have because the residence paper is linked to your job. So I told him ‘Auditor’. Then I gave him my passport pictures. The rules on the huge billboard in the hallway require two passport pictures, which I meticulously had brought with me.

But no, he looked at them and shook his head: “Not nice picture”. First I thought he was joking so I wittily replied: “I told you I am an auditor, not Mr. Lebanon so I don’t care for a nice picture”. He laughed but that didn’t change his opinion, the pictures were not nice. Impressive, because usually a nice comment or a little joke goes a long way in Lebanon, but not here, not now.

After a bit going back and forth, it turned out that the pictures had to be in color and mine were black and white. “But I am wearing a black suit with a white shirt and a very dark, almost black tie. My eyes are grey and my hair is white…so what good would a color picture do?” Again, he laughed but again my joke didn’t change his opinion. I had to go to a photographer to get color pictures.

And you know, I was highly impressed with this: there is no room for negotiation at the Sûreté Générale. The rules are applied without exception. Very good indeed. If only all government branches were as professional as the Sûreté Générale, this country could go places.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Only in Lebanon: wind tips over tractor

Today's price for most the unlikely story goes to the Daily Star for reporting that strong winds have caused an agricultural tractor to tip over and hurting the driver who got stuck underneath.

It must be a mix up between the tragedy in Kansas, USA where a tornado has destroyed a whole town and the south of Lebanon where strong winds have cause some minor damage to the plastic and thus feeble green houses.

Somehow I always wonder what the editor of the Daily Star is doing and why he wouldn't prevent this highly unlikely story from being published...Guess he wants me to have something to blog about :-)

French elections in Lebanon

Quite a large part of the Lebanese community is fervently French, perhaps even more so than the French themselves. The years of colonization has made a lasting impression on the Lebanese: they sent their kids to the French schools, they speak French at home and bien sur they follow the French Idols, or Star Ac for short.

Sometimes, when walking around in east Beirut you can almost fool yourself of being in Paris. The street signs are a copy/paste of the French system, the shops advertise their products in French and people greet you with a friendly bonjour instead of the Arabic marhaba.

After buying the Lebanese newspaper, all written in French, you can have your morning coffee at a nice bistro and at night you can go to your favorite French restaurant for a typical French menu, adjusted for the French elections this time. That’s right: the Lebanese were highly involved in the French elections. Many Lebanese have a French passport which entitles them to vote and they did so en masse.

See, e.g., the below advertisement of a restaurant that organized a special Election Night with a fitting menu. All courses are somehow related to the elections and the place had a big TV to follow Antenne 2’s election program yesterday night. I don’t know if the place was packed, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were.

There is the cuteness factor of the French influence on daily Lebanese life and the positive effects it has on the cuisine: having a pain au lait, munching some camembert and sipping French wines…yum! However, there is also the downside of this influence. It is always a bit sad to hear a Lebanese declare in perfect French that they are not Arabs, but Phoenicians.

Sure, it is somewhat understandable that some Lebanese, mostly Christians, feel they were conquered by the Arabs long, long time ago. Still, to complain about this in the language of another conqueror is well…strange. At least, let them complain about it in Phoenician!

But yeah, some Lebanese are quite picky in choosing their foreign masters. Just like it always cracks me up to hear Hezbollah complain about foreign influence while they have no problem accepting millions of dollars in cash and weapons from Iran. And that’s just sad: to realize that the Lebanese are so internationally orientated they forget about the interests of their own country sometimes.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Divine underwear...err...lingerie

Couldn't help but notice this huge billboard right after McDonalds on the Dora highway towards the north:

The translation says: "He'll make love, not war". Now, if only all Opposition's wives would buy from Nai, the world would be a better place:-)

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

A new stand up comedian is born: Michel Aoun

Who can read today’s article on Naharnet without bursting into laughter? Aoun is quoted as saying that in a democracy, you have a majority and a minority, so any call for unanimity is undemocratic

So that’s why the opposition (Aoun + Hezbollah) want their veto right. That’s why they don’t respect the fact they lost the last elections and are thus the minority at the moment. That’s why they are constantly calling for a unanimity government.

Err, wait a minute, that’s not "why" at all. Oh man, it must be difficult for the real stand up comedians in Lebanon: how can you make a joke of someone who’s already making a fool of himself?

Pilgrimage to Lady of Lebanon

As always in the month of May, many Lebanese Christians try to visit the Lady of Lebanon church which has a huge statue of the Virgin Mary. May is dedicated to Mary, apparently as a strategic move to incorporate non-Christian events that took place.

Tradition prescribes to walk all the way up to the church. This is a steep climb of around 10 kilometer in length and it leads from sea level up to 600 meter high, so it’s not for the untrained. Try to walk at your local gym for 10 km at an incline of 6% and you'll know the challenge.

Still, a lot of people were walking up yesterday when we visited the church, a practical example of the strength religion provides :-) Because of Brigitte’s pregnancy, we relied on the power of our car instead and we went up driving. The church itself can only be described as a huge concrete monstrosity, but the view from up above is gorgeous. You can see all over the Bay of Jounieh and because of the height, there was a pleasantly cool breeze.

It’s very difficult to say, but it seems that more people than last year were visiting. Perhaps it is the result of the increasing religious divide in Lebanon, or perhaps it was just a nice day yesterday to undertake the trip. Who knows, but busy it was. You can climb up all the way on the statue of Virgin Mary along a small staircase, but that would take a long time with so many people. Instead, we walked around a bit and said our prayers in the various chapels.

After the visit, we decided to have lunch on one of the little eateries alongside the road leading to the church. Big mistake since Janine was having diary all night long and also Brigitte was having a bad case of food poisoning. Most likely it was the tabbouleh, the typical Lebanese salad. I didn’t have any of it and had no problems afterwards. Tip for next time: stick to the traditional food on this mountain road: the sage. These are little pancakes with either cheese or zaatar, a popular mix of spices.

Despite the bad food, which tasted great actually, there were plenty of things to enjoy. First of all the view, which was simply gorgeous. Second would be the table next to us, with a huge family having lunch. There were two little kids who were playing outside, much to the dismay of their father because they were close to the road. First, he went outside and, with much brouhaha (shouting, giving tough sounding orders, acting as if he’s fully in control), he ordered the kids back into the restaurant. His prestige as a father was saved when the kids reluctantly returned inside, only to be lost a few minutes later when they sneaked out again.

So what to do next? Well, his answer was simple: he picked up the two kids and put them back into the restaurant and then simply locked the door and took the keys! No one could enter or leave anymore, including the two kids who as soon as their father put them down on the ground, sprinted towards the door, only to find it solidly locked.

A few minutes later, new guests arrived. It could have been a Candid Camera episode to see the faces of the group when they tried the door and it was locked. The restaurant owner didn’t know what happened so he was also perplexed: someone has locked up his restaurant!

So after a bit of shouting back and forth (“who has the key to my place?”), the father went to the door and opened it again…with two little kids in his footsteps who took the opening of the door as a signal that they could play outside again. At that point, the father did what fathers do best under these circumstances: give up and let the maid watch over the kids.

Search for Opposition blogs

Does anyone know about Opposition blogs in English? I've searched around but it's pretty much impossible to find pro-Hezbollah or pro-Aoun blogs in English. Why is that?