Thursday, November 29, 2007

Consensus is building up around Suleiman

Just two days after bloody riots in Tripoli between Sunnis and Shiites, the Future Movement has announced its readiness to change the Constitution in order to allow army commander Michel Suleiman to become president. It makes one wonder how spontaneous these demonstrations were, exactly.

What’s more, it were the Sunnis pressing for Suleiman, not the Christians. Using the threat of more clashes, it feels like Lebanon is pushed into accepting Suleiman.

Question is how acceptable would the army commander be? There are quite a few possible answers, depending on who you’d ask. Even then, every side might give conflicting answers.

Hezbollah, e.g., might like Suleiman for allowing them to occupy Downtown for already one year coming Saturday. In addition, Suleiman has made his career under the tutelage of Syria and can thus be assumed to be loyal to the Syrians.

Then again, they might distrust him for the Nahr al-Bared clash because he crossed one of Nasrallah’s famous red lines by entering the Palestinian camp. Furthermore, that fight was considered a proxy war with Syria/Iran and Suleiman had no problem fighting Hezbollah’s main sponsor. Sure, he might have made anti America statements throughout the conflict criticizing the USA for a perceived lack of support and he has said after the fighting was over that the rebels were not linked to Syria, but still, he did put up a hell of a fight and became a hero in the process.

Also, Suleiman was eager to extend the power of the army throughout the south of Lebanon and has made life so much harder on Hezbollah. All in all, Suleiman has restored the image and effectiveness of the army at the expense of Hezbollah. After all, why would you need the Resistance when you have Suleiman?

The March 14 forces could say the reverse of all of the above and explain it to their advantage. That makes it difficult to evaluate general Suleiman. He has shown so many faces that he can be considered a friend of anyone. Isn’t there this Arab expression saying that people who are anyone’s friend are everybody’s enemy?

If true, March 8 and March 14 have to decide whether they hate Suleiman less than the other party. It’s a rather dubious way of filling the highest position in the country and this might be the biggest problem yet with Michel Suleiman. March 14 has always insisted in electing a strong candidate for president to push forward their agenda. Now, however, they would settle for the compromise candidate pur sang. Perhaps that’s what Lebanon needs, but it would be a sell-out for March 14 and a clear victory for March 8.

Oh, and there this thing about changing the Constitution. Right now, Hezbollah’s politicians are making a lot of noise about it, but rest assured recent history has shown that no one really cares about it. Politicians usually play dress up with principles as long as it suits them and would have no problem stripping down naked if that’s what the situation calls for.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Upcoming conference in Annapolis, Lebanon

It is often said that politics in Lebanon are actually defined abroad. Sometimes, the Lebanese use it as a convenient excuse to avoid accountability for their own actions. Many other times, however, there is a certain truth to it. Take a look at the upcoming Middle East conference in Annapolis Beirut.

First, it was used by America to push forward with the election of a president. It didn’t really matter if he was neutral or with March 14, as long as there would be a new president in time for America to have an example of how democracy can work in the Middle East.

When it became apparent that no easy solution was available, that same America started pressing for avoidance of chaos, even at the expense of delaying the election of a new president. Imagine if Lebanon would experience a coup d’état right before the Annapolis conference. That would seriously hurt America’s sales pitch for democracy when all this beautiful system to run a country would bring, was chaos and disorder in Lebanon. It also wouldn’t really convince other Arab countries to warm up to majority rule instead of dictatorial leadership.

With Lebanese decisions being taking abroad, the Lebanese naturally have developed a fear of being sold out by foreign powers. Their beautiful little country is often, in their eyes, nothing more than a bargaining chip used by the international power brokers. A good example would be the lead-up to the first Gulf War. The United States, needing Syria’s support, allowed the latter to take an even fuller reign of Lebanon than it already had.

Another good example would be Syria’s presence early in Lebanon’s civil war. Its entering Lebanon was tacitly supported by America with the understanding that Syria would end the Palestinians attacks on Israel. It must be said, Syria did an exemplary job, even leading up to the expulsion of Yassar Arafat’s PLO from Lebanon and into exile to Tunisia.

Despite the current hostilities between the USA and Syria, the Lebanese are not fooled. They know that America can easily change its position the moment it feels it would benefit their policies. They also know that Syria is likewise opportunistic and has proven to America to be quite loyal in the execution of its part of the deals. Is there a reason now to be afraid Lebanon might yet be again on the brink of a sell-out?

A clear ‘Yes’ would be the answer when reading the column of Émile Khoury in today’s l’Orient-Le Jour. He is quoting sources saying that the Syrians have recently made a rather tempting offer to America. Among other things, the Syrians propose to give up their support for Hamas, which is important since Hamas’s political leader Mechaal is based in Damascus. Furthermore, Syria offers to establish embassies with Lebanon, delineate the Lebanon-Syria border, and to officially acknowledge the Lebanese identity of the Shebaa farms.

Wait, there’s more! Syria also has put on the table their willingness to severe relationships with Iran, to stop supporting armed Palestinian factions inside Lebanon and even pressure Hezbollah into regulating its arms.

That’s almost too good to be true. It sure must be tempting for the United States and for president Bush in particular who is dying to leave a mark on history by achieving a break-through in the Middle East before the end of his term next year. Getting Syria to do all of the above, would easily qualify as such.

So what does Syria want in return? Nothing too much it seems, just to be allowed to “play a positive and important role in guaranteeing safety and stability in Lebanon”. However, this would almost certainly mean that Syria wants to use its renewed influence in Lebanon, if granted, to block the UN Tribunal into the assassination of Rafiq Hariri and others. Despite its claims to be innocent, Syria would rather not use the opportunity of a legal court to prove its innocence.

The question then becomes for the Lebanese whether Bush will succumb to the temptations offered by Syria at the expense of finding the truth about the killing of a few people, or that he would truly leave a mark on history by forcefully supporting nascent democracy in Lebanon as well as vigorously rejecting the sanctioning of terrorism embedded in accepting Syria’s proposal.

Hezbollah’s real objective?

According to Philippe Abi-Akl in L’Orient-Le Jour of today, Hezbollah’s (hidden) agenda for the presidential stalemate is to reopen the Taif accord in order to adjust the balance of Muslims and Christians from 50-50 to two-third versus one-third. This would better reflect demographic reality in Lebanon.

Muslims and especially the Shiites would be right to claim more influence under the current political system in Lebanon, since they are growing faster than Christians. In fact, it is difficult to explain why Christians should hold 50 percent of the Parliamentary seats while they are roughly 25 percent of the population. And that shows exactly the problem of this system: political influence based on religion is in fact influence based on simple demographics. By guaranteeing a fixed amount of seats per sect, it is no wonder people start demanding additional seats if their sect grows faster than others.

As such, the system is doomed, if only due to the fact that sects that are becoming smaller would be hard pressed to give up some of their seats, giving rise to conflicts. Still, as long as the system is based on demographics, this is the one threat that cannot avoid. If anything, the Christians would be smart to start thinking about a viable alternative because sooner or later, they will lose the race against demographic shifts in favor of Shiites and, to a lesser extent, Sunnis.

A first step should be to cut the umbilical cord between religion and politics in Lebanon. Why is it that voters only vote for politicians of the same faith? As argued before on this blog, there is nothing wrong with allowing religion in politics, in the sense that religion can inspire politicians on an individual basis. But politicians should not try to extent their influence over religious matters, nor should religious leaders try to extent their influence over politics.

Once voters realize that a politician of a different faith can equally well, or (shock!) even better, represent their interests, the next step would be to remove the fixed amount of seats per sect. This would force politicians to reach out to voters outside their religion. The fear of minorities, like the Christians, that they would be dominated by Muslims, could and should be countered by Christian politicians appealing to the Muslim voter. Similarly, a Muslim politician could attract Christian votes by offering a non-threatening program.

Parallel to these steps should be the implementation of truly anti-corruption measures to do away with the system of ‘wasta’ whereby positions and favors are extended to friends, often within the same religion. The moment politicians lose this tool to attract votes, would be the moment they would be forced to actually start running for office by means of solid programs voters could identify with regardless of religion.

Right now, this is wishful thinking for most Lebanese, especially the Christians. Yet, the logic of the demands to change the distribution of seats will only become stronger as time passes by. Christians still have a respectable amount of influence, if only by sheer number of Parliamentary seats. Therefore, if they want to avoid losing even more power by a possible adjustment of seats, they’d better act fast.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Lebanese politicians reach agreement!

Today was another day of hope as leaders from both March 8 and March 14 reached an agreement. Not on the president alas, still some issues to work out there, but they are in full sync with respect to postponing the vote with yet another week to November 30. Who said Lebanese politicians don’t agree on anything?

Well, enough irony for now, back to reality, although it’s difficult to tell the difference these days. First, there was the road show of Bernard Kouchner who thought he could single-handedly mold those pesky Lebanese into a model of democracy. Little did he know. He started out happily enough, ignorance is bliss, alright. But every additional day he spent in Beirut’s kaleidoscope, the grimmer he became.

Another big shot negotiator who nobody really took all that serious was Arab League secretary Amr Moussa. Normally, this guy is one huge beacon of optimism and it’s next to impossible to hear him say anything even remotely close to being downbeat. Imagine yourself in a typical “the rain won’t stop and the car won’t start”-situation, only to hear good old Moussa in the back of your mind, saying: “hey, cheer up, at least you got a car!”

There is literally nothing that can bring this guy down. Or well, nothing...two days around Lebanese politicians and Moussa, perhaps for the first time in history, told the press that the situation was hopeless. That sure sent a clear message to the Lebanese that the situation must be really, really bad.

Apparently, this realization also hit home with Michel Aoun who yesterday renounced his candidacy. He must have felt that the situation called for drastic measures to force an opening and so he made a bold move: he would step down as a candidate, in return for electing a neutral president, a neutral prime minister and a unity government with the pro-Syria parties having 45% of the seats. That seemed a tall order to fill, but given Aoun’s immense desire to become president, it sort of made sense.

What was interesting, though, was how Bernard Kouchner described Aoun’s proposal to the press yesterday: “Earlier today Michel Aoun made a proposal, the sincerity of which I leave for you to judge…” Here was a man speaking who had given up faith in the Lebanese. In other words: another Westerner bites the dust.

It must have been a puzzling experience for Bernie, after all, it would be so easy to think that the Lebanese with all that Arab blood flowing in their veins, are big on pride. Take one look too long at anyone’s daughter or sister and you could be having big problems. But somehow, the idea of speaking the truth has not yet been linked to pride and respect. In the western world, being called a liar is about the worst thing that can happen to you, but here they really don’t care too much about a few broken promises here and there.

Was it true what An Nahar wrote earlier that Westerners will never understand Lebanon and thus are not suitable as negotiators? It would only seem reasonable since the Lebanese logic, its norms and values are sometimes opposite from the West. However, it would imply that the Lebanese do understand the situation themselves; a rather hopelessly idealistic notion. Hence, it would be safe to conclude that a western negotiator would be as good or as bad as an oriental mediator.

Despite Aoun’s big step to give up his presidential aspiration, March 14 was quick to dismiss his proposal. That was to be expected since they have been rallying against a union government ever since parliamentary elections two years ago. For March 14 to let go of its dreams at the last minute was just too much to ask.

The result is a postponed Parliamentary session to elect the next president. In the mean time, Prime Minister Siniora and his team take over the presidential responsibilities and function as a care-taker government until the next president takes office. The Opposition has let it known that they will not oppose Siniora as long as they don’t elect the next president with a simple majority vote.

For now, that is good news since it means that no riots, or worse, will take place. The bad news is that the uncertain situation keeps on dragging on. Just like removing a band aid: the slower you tear it off your skin, the more it hurts. Perhaps it would be better to call Hezbollah’s bluff and see if they really want to stage a coup d’état. Then again, the repercussions could be disastrous in case they actually would do just that.

It’s just my personal impression that Hezbollah supporters might be reaching the limits of their patience. Their Tent City hasn’t resulted in anything, time after time the majority doesn’t seem to listen to their concerns and Shiites in general don’t have as much political power as their sheer number would justify. On top of that, their Divine Victory of last summer didn’t translate either in additional influence. Can you truly blame any Shiite who claims they have been left out in the cold and that all their talks got them nowhere? There is this sense that a large part of the Shiites, and possibly Aoun supporters, too, want nothing more but some real action. “Enough talking already, time to kick butt”, seems to be an increasingly strong current among the Opposition.

All in all and for better or for worse, March 14 should not try to force their presidential candidate upon the Opposition and instead keep the communication lines open. Or, as Amr Moussa would say in his happier days: “The current situation provides a wealth of opportunities for improvement!”

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Recent history of Lebanon - Part 7

Here is part 7 of the recent history of Lebanon. The previous installment of this series can be found here.

Despite the rumors about a backroom deal between Michel Aoun and the Syrian regime, he was still highly popular when he returned to Lebanon. Being a former general, most people still called him General and his supporters were convinced that he would deal effectively and strongly with the corrupt political establishment. His renewed presence in Lebanon caused a small panic among the Opposition: what was the General up to?

At first, he tried to contact the Opposition leaders, who like him, were strongly opposed to Syria. These attempts, however, didn’t result in anything because they couldn’t agree on the exact number of ministers of Aoun’s party after the elections.

Another cause for the failure of the cooperation with March 14 was that the General failed to see that Lebanon had changed drastically after the murder of Hariri. Many felt that it was his death that had triggered the departure of Syria from Lebanon. Yet, during his very first speech upon his return, Michel Aoun claimed full responsibility for removing the Syrians, as if Hariri hadn’t died a martyr for the cause. Statements like this, made him unpopular among many March 14 supporters. They felt he took credit for someone else’s achievements, especially for the suffering by those Lebanese who had stayed in Lebanon and had experienced the brunt of Syria’s presence. Scornfully, people talked about the luxurious life in Paris that the General has lived before coming back to his own country.

Contributing to his fall out of grace with many Lebanese, was the fact that he kept on supporting president Lahoud, who had lost most of his prestige and was the subject of much ridicule at the time. Most leaders of March 14 wanted Lahoud to make way for a less pro-Syria candidate, but Aoun felt that in order to protect the dignity of the presidential seat, Lahoud should be allowed to fully serve his term.

The strongest criticism against Lahoud was leveled by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and Sunni leader Saad Hariri, who was forced into the spotlights after the killing of his father. Aoun reasoned that any Maronite president, even Lahoud, should not step down because of non-Maronite pressure. While valid in theory, the reality of those days was such that these nuances were not much appreciated within March 14.

Still, Michel Aoun brought various points to the attention of the other politicians that could hardly be denied. Especially his constant hammering against corruption resonated with many voters. Also, Aoun reminded the Lebanese time and time again that most of the March 14 politicians were part of the government before and were functioning just fine under Syrian tutelage. He questioned their sudden change of heart and accused them of being opportunistic.

Another point that Aoun scored was the way the March 14 rallied against the election law. Lebanon is quite unique in that the election law that defines the electoral districts is constantly changing in order to favor the government. By changing the geographic boundaries of these districts, it is possible to substantially change the outcome of the elections. It was said, e.g., that most Christian members of parliament were elected by non-Christians because the electoral districts were set that in most districts the Christians formed a minority. It was no wonder that Aoun, a Christian leader himself, would have seen changes to the electoral law in order to increase the fairness of the representation of the Christian politicians.

March 14, however, decided not to pursue a change right now, despite their influence in Parliament and government. One has to remember that many of March 14 were members of parliament and they could have argued forcefully for change. But when push came to shove, they reneged on their promise to change the electoral law, mostly because both Sunnis and Druze were favored by the law, and went ahead with the old law, a product of the Syrian area. For Aoun this was a clear indication that the current clan of politicians was highly corrupt and part of the problem, not the solution.

The General certainly had a point, especially when rumors started claiming that Jumblatt had agreed with Berri that the latter could keep his post as president of Parliament in return for supporting Jumblatt’s party during the elections. Furthermore, coalitions were formed during the elections between Hezbollah and various anti-Syria Sunni politicians. The ever-flexible Lebanese politicians didn’t lose sleep over exchanging the high road for a short cut to Parliament.

The next episode can be found here.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Syria will close border with Lebanon next week

Latest rumor: Syria will close down the borders with Lebanon next week in anticipation of unrest during the presidential election. It's only a rumor and I was unable to find any links to stories that might corroborate this, but still, if you need anything from Damascus, this would be a good time to get.

Palestian camp in Beirut on fire?

The latest news on Naharnet is that clashes broke out in Bourj el-Barajneh on Friday between the mainstream Fatah movement and Ahmed Jibril’s radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. Automatic machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades were used in the clashes that broke out around noon. Also, Ain el Helweh is heating up.

Wow, and then to think that only a few weeks ago, my father and I drove through most of the camp! We were looking for the Hezbollah Divine Victory Museum, but we took a few turns too early and there we were: in the smack of Bourj el-Barajneh. It sure made for a shocking visit because of the poverty of the camp. After driving around and getting completely lost in the inner mazes of the camp, we finally found the exit. On to Haret Hreik to visit the Musuem, but that turned out to be closed down already.

Now, only a few weeks later, riots have broken out. Must be a coincidence, right? Well, I'd like to think so, too, but we also went to the south of Lebanon last year, a few weeks before the July War broke out. Must also be a coincidence. Yet, some people think differently and feel I must be a spy:-) Good thing to realize that spies are usually less obvious, let alone would blog about their adventures. Then again, this could be the best cover possible. See Michael Totten's article on being labeled a spy.

The riots in Bourj el-Barajneh were predicted by many people. I don't have the link ready, but L'Orient-Le Jour has written about it a few days ago. It predicted that Ahmed Jibril might ignite the camp in order to remove any anti-Syria people and so open up a direct line between the south and the center of Beirut. This would be in preparation of the upcoming presidential election, scheduled for next week.

Anyway, let's hope things quiet down quickly in the camps. So far, it looks as if it's only an internal Palestinian matter and that the Lebanese army is not involved, so no repetition of Nahr al Bared.

Recent history of Lebanon - Part 6

Here is part 6 of the recent history of Lebanon. The previous installment of this series can be found here.

The mass demonstrations of March 14 could not but result in a clear victory during the May elections; at least, that was the thought shared by most Lebanese. There was a small problem, though: What did March 14 want, exactly?

Besides being anti-Syria, what else did they stand for? Many points remained unclear, such as the position of president Lahoud. Some people within March 14 felt strongly about his resignation while others were not so opinionated on this matter. The fragile unity that was created on March 14 was already under threat of falling apart over such issues.

And thus the March 14 politicians did what all Lebanese politicians do best: make powerful speeches with many demands but ignore to work on implementing their own suggestions. Calling for Lahoud to step down, but not mentioning who should replace him. Saying things should be better from now on, but being silent on the details. Strongly demand a full review of the current political framework but not saying how it should be changed. And so on and so forth.

As an immigrant in Lebanon, it is easy for me to criticize the country, especially in hindsight. Yet, it was striking to see how much the average Lebanese was blinded by the Cedar Revolution: Syria was gone, others openly calling for Lahoud to step down, leaders saying that the political system is corrupt…what a sudden freedom!

Only a few months before, people would have laughed at you if you suggested that Syria should leave Lebanon and the police would have arrested you if you insulted the president. Now, however, we had people on TV stating that Lahoud was a bad president and that he should leave because of incompetence. Also, a true avalanche of pictures and movies appeared, mostly on the Internet and distributed by e-mail, containing cartoons of Lahoud and other politicians making fun of them. At first, these were passed along carefully and secretively out of a realistic fear of being arrested. Later on, people shook off their concerns and started forwarding these pictures as much as they could.

The euphoria of ‘breaking the law’ cannot be overestimated: one has to realize that Lebanon, despite claiming to be the only democracy in the Middle East (or at least, in the Arab world), had only little freedom of speech. Journalists were arrested for insulting the president. Also, the insulting of ‘friendly countries’ like Syria was forbidden and punishable by prison. So, to start sending pictures that were clearly insulting to Lahoud (e.g., Lahoud wearing a bathing suit in the colors of the Syrian flag, the president depicted as a dog, Lahoud being raped by Assad, etc) could surely be considered a change of scenery, to say the least.

Perhaps a direct result of this euphoria was a lack of in-depth analysis when evaluating the performance and plans of the March 14 opposition. Nothing was criticized; instead, everything March 14 did and didn’t do was welcomed with open arms. Or rather, the Lebanese were too busy enjoying their new-found freedom to even bother with the plans of March 14. Vice versa, the opposition politicians were not forced by the public to come up with anything relevant.

An additional factor in the optimistic chaos at that time was the return of Michel Aoun. He has always been somewhat of a controversial figure. First, by accepting the position of prime minister. This post is normally reserved for a Sunni Muslim and many felt Aoun should not have accepted it when the president at the time, Amine Gemayel, offered it to him. Second, by using the Lebanese army, which had been neutral up until that time, for fighting a war that was impossible to win against powerful Syria. This war was considered to be more of an ego trip for Aoun than a serious attempt to improve the situation for the Lebanese. From a strategic point of view, it was a senseless undertaking that ended thousands of lives of soldiers and civilians, and one which tarnished his reputation.

Still, his anti-Syria politics has brought Aoun much support among the Lebanese population, especially among Christians. Also among Muslims he has gained quite a bit of support for using the army to stop the various militias that were plundering the country. His politics can be described as anti-establishment and this also helped boost his popularity: finally a politician who dared to criticize the other politicians, most of them considered to be part of an elite group who are only looking out after themselves. For sure, this was a message that resonated well across sects with the average voter.

After his failed War of Liberation he was offered exile by France where he lived a comfortable live in Paris while making strong anti-Syria statements every now and then. Because of criminal charges against Aoun, he couldn’t return to Lebanon out of fear of being arrested upon arrival. Hence, when the public prosecutor dropped the charges, he went back immediately. And just in time as well: he returned early May 2005 and could thus participate in the elections scheduled for later that month.

This triggered many rumors: why would the pro-Syria government all of a sudden drop all charges and allow this staunch anti-Syria politician to run for Parliament during these crucial times. Could it be that a backdoor deal was made whereby Aoun was allowed to return on the condition of dropping his anti-Syria rhetoric?

See here for the next episode.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Video game with Lebanese politicians

With thanks to FaiLasooF's blog, see here for a video game starring Lebanese politicans. For once, you can become the puppeteer. Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Recent history of Lebanon - Part 5

Here is part 5 of the recent history of Lebanon. The previous installment of this series can be found here.

The period right after the murder of Rafiq Hariri turned out to be chaotic, to say the least. First, there was Tent City with its demonstrators constantly under the threat of being removed by force, politicians and other leaders making statements that were, literally, unheard of before and then the unexpected submission of Prime Minister Omar Karami. All throughout these weeks, the Lebanese were increasingly open about their demand that Syria should leave the country.

As is usual in a confused situation like this, rumors were flying everywhere. Most of them could be ignored outright, but suddenly the buzz was that Syria was considering retreating out of Lebanon. “Could this rumor be true?”, the Lebanese were wondering. The story gained more steam when the next rumor was heard: Syrian president Assad would give a speech before his parliament to make a ‘special announcement’.

This sealed it for many Lebanese. Assad would talk about the Syrian withdrawal. Yet others were not that sure. There had been so many wild rumors before, and this one was the wildest by far, so surely it couldn’t be true. The Syrians had been in Lebanon since 1976 and why should they leave now? The speech by Assad was broadcasted live on most Lebanese TV stations and the rumors turned out to be true: Assad confirmed that Syria would reduce its troops with the aim of full removal soon.

The reactions were as to be expected: many cynical Lebanese pointed out that ‘soon’ could easily mean ‘for as long as it pleases Assad’. Others were worried that the Syrian exit would bring even more chaos. After all, they had been a stabilizing factor in Lebanon since so many years.

Contrary to what most expected, the Syrians did withdraw amazingly fast from Lebanon. It was less than a month after the murder on Rafiq Hariri that Hezbollah and other pro Syrian parties organized a ‘Goodbye Party’ to thank Syria for all the dedication and sacrifices it had made to ‘bring peace and stability’ to Lebanon. The turnout on March 8, 2005, was nothing less than huge: an estimated 500,000 people came to Downtown. Assuming there are some 3.5 million people living in Lebanon, it meant that 1 in 7 Lebanese participated in the Goodbye Party. Never before had Lebanon witnessed such a large gathering of people.

Despite this enormous success, the event made painfully clear how isolated the pro Syrians were in Lebanon: most of the people present were Shiites while many other Lebanese scoffed at the Goodbye Party since they were glad the Syrians were out. Another fact also became clear, namely that the Shiites were a force to be reckoned with, perhaps even more so now that Syria has left. In that sense, the demonstration on March 8 sent a clear message for the upcoming elections that Syria might have left Lebanon, but that 1 in 7 Lebanese were still highly favorable to their neighbor.

That message was not lost on the other Lebanese and in response to the Goodbye Party they organized their own demonstration a week later: on March 14, 2005, more than a million people gathered in Downtown Beirut to demonstrate for a Lebanon clear from foreign influence, especially Syrian’s. A little bit less than 1 in 3 Lebanese participated in the demonstration, much more than the week before. It was said to be the largest demonstration ever in the Arab world, both in absolute numbers as in percentage of total population.

To be fair to both demonstrations, though, not everybody agreed to these numbers: the March 8 demonstration was said to have somewhere around 150,000 demonstrators, while the March 14 was estimated to be around 300,000. These approximations were based on aerial pictures and assumption as to how many people fit a square meter. But facts often lose out when myths are needed and so both demonstrations would go down in history as having such high amounts of people attending.

While the demonstration on March 8 was organized by pro government parties and was thus not hindered by the Lebanese authorities, the demonstration on March 14 was officially declared illegal by President Lahoud and the rumors were that he had given the army orders to prevent the gathering of people in Downtown on that day. Like before in Tent City, many people were somewhat afraid as to what might happen: would the army act against innocent civilians?

At first, it did seem that the authorities had taken plenty of preventative measures to block the flow of demonstrators towards Downtown: road blocks and barbed wire were erected on all roads and they were manned by armed soldiers. However, when faced with such an overwhelming amount of unarmed Lebanese, often whole families including toddlers, the army commander decided against stopping the people.

This made for great television and the anti Syria stations were repeatedly broadcasting footage of soldiers opening up the barricaded and removing the barbed wire, or pointing out alternative roads so the demonstrators could access Downtown easier. It was a clear message to the public to join the demonstrations now that it became visible that the army would not act. It also contributed to the ‘Power to the People’ feeling of that period and it reduced the status of President Lahoud ever further. After all, it was his instruction that was so openly discarded by the army.

At the end of the day, the Lebanese scene was enriched with two new expressions: the March 8 Movement that was pro Syria and the March 14 Movement that was anti Syria. The schism everyone thought they could overcome after the murder of Rafiq Hariri had become all too real. Nothing was left of the desire for unity that was so intensely expressed in Tent City only a few weeks ago.

See here for the next episode.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Elections postponed until after elections

To hardly anyone’s surprise, the presidential elections scheduled for today, have been postponed again, this time to November 21. That’s only 1 day before the new president has to be sworn into office. According to Lebanon’s Constitution, the new president has to take office on November 22.

Not to worry, though: Given that most Lebanese systematically arrive late and seldom plan ahead, there might still be plenty of time. Making reservations in restaurants, e.g., can be done the same day, even for the more popular ones. Compare that to the Spanish restaurant El Bulli which is fully booked all through 2008. Not so in Lebanon. Here, life is less structured and more flexible. The Lebanese are used to doing things the last minute and it’s exactly this feat that comes in handy now.

To put a 'scientific' spin on things, the Lebanese politicians excel in task avoidance, a concept that can be defined as follows: “The political game, where the winner is the player who, while looking busy, most consistently avoids being associated with any decision.” The players can choose from various strategies:

A. Avoidance of Information Contamination: knowledge, in any quantity, is a dangerous thing. Since you might be required to act upon it, it’s best not to know. This can be observed sometimes in Lebanon where people are exquisitely vague in both stating and demanding information. Best to leave topics untouched. If party A is not going to give information, party B will not press for it. An actual example in Lebanon would be the hesitation to share with and demand from the other party what candidates they deem acceptable for the presidential position.

B. Avoidance by Changing Subjects. Everybody knows there is never enough time to discuss everything so the more frequent you change subjects, the less you can actually discuss. As a result, fewer decisions can be made. A perfect example was seen yesterday in Nasrallah’s speech: he introduced the concept of national elections followed by election of the president. Obviously, with only 10 days to go, this is not a realistic proposal. Yet, it fulfills the purpose of using up time that would otherwise have to be dedicated to discussing the real issues.

The optimal way of changing subjects while coming across as coherent is to focus on strategic issues if the current issue is more of an administrative nature and vice versa, all the while insisting that the new issue must be solved first before going further. This strategy is followed by people who love to claim that “First, we have to set out an overall strategy before going into details” alternated with “Let’s make sure the details are fully covered before we make any drastic change in strategy”. In both cases, the most important outcome is obvious: to avoid action.

C. The Rushing Strategy: this is based on two complementary situations that always occur: either there is not enough time to make a decision (so let’s not rush to make one, we need more time) or there is ample time to make a decision (so let’s not rush to make one, we have more time). It’s a sure winner and will work anytime, anywhere.

Again, the Lebanese presidential elections are an excellent example of this: since the extension of Lahoud’s term back in 2004, everybody knew the deadline of November 22, 2007 was coming. First, the politicians played the ‘there is enough time’ strategy and so one postponement followed the other. No one should be surprised that come November 21, they decide to switch to the alternative strategy of claiming that there is not enough time to make a decision. That’s the beauty of this strategy, it works every time!

Now, even when playing one’s hand carefully by applying a mixture of all three strategies to postpone any and all action, a decision could slip through. The most important thing to remember is not to panic. Contrary to what you might feel at the time you become aware of this gruesome notion, it’s not the end of the world; in fact, it presents you with one final strategy:

D. Judicious Absence. This strategy is based on being absent when the decision is scheduled to take place. If you’re not there, you can not be held responsible later on for that decision. As the reader has already realized, this strategy is also widely and successfully applied in Lebanese politics. In fact, the politicians in this country are such experts in the game of decision avoidance, I bet the next postponement will say that the elections are now rescheduled to take place until after the elections!

Recent history of Lebanon - Part 4

This is Part 4 of the Recent History of Lebanon. See also Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

After politicians started calling people to join the demonstrators in Tent City, the news media started covering the event: the Lebanese TV stations provided live broadcasts and other international media (CNN, Al Jazeera, BBC) were also present at Martyr Square. If the massacre on Tiananmen Square was to repeat itself, then it would be before the eyes of the world.

The Lebanese stations started broadcasting live during Sunday afternoon and kept at it until the next night: more than 30 hours live television from one location only; it could easily be a record. Was it because of the presence of all the press that the president decided not to order the army to remove the demonstrators? In any way, by Monday morning 6 AM, no one came to enforce the deadline for removal of the tents.

Parliament was scheduled to meet that afternoon, Monday February 28, 2005, to discuss among other things, the current situation regarding the demonstrators occupying downtown. This session was also broadcasted live on TV. Many stations split their screen in two: On the left side of the screen you could see the parliamentary session and on the right side one could see the reaction of the demonstrators to the various speeches by the politicians: applause for those speaking in favor of the demonstration and a huge booing for those politicians who expressed concerns. Given the closeness of the demonstration site to the House of Parliament, the politicians inside the House could hear the reactions to their speeches immediately.

At the end of a long session, Premier Omar Karami addressed parliament. The speech was rather long winding and seldom to the point, until he suddenly stated that he would resign his position…for a moment it was silent on Martyr Square, it seemed as if people couldn’t believe their ears…followed by a thunderous cheering. For the first time in (recent?) history, an Arab leader has given up his position by peaceful popular pressure: the Cedar Revolution had started.

The next period was filled with euphoria. The Lebanese started to feel that changes could be right around the corner, after all, no one had really expected Omar Karami to step down. Arab leaders are known for many things, but listening to their people is seldom one of them. In that sense, Karami did something unique in Lebanese history and something he hardly received credit for.

People gained hope that now that Karami was gone, the Syrians might follow. Also, many proposals for political change were floated, corruption should end and the state institutions should be reorganized dramatically to clean them up once and for all. The long nights in Tent City burning candles while chanting "Give peace a chance" seemed to have paid off: Paradise was right around the corner.

Still, despite the ecstasy of the demonstrators, the common people were more careful. It was remarkable, e.g., how empty the streets were during this period. There is the famous legend about the Lebanese that they still would go out even if the bombs are falling, but that proved to be quite an exaggeration. Most people preferred to stay home and anxiously watched the TV to follow the news. The average Lebanese was negative about and afraid of the future: the Syrians would never leave and the situation could explode any moment.

What was also interesting to note, was the role of the Lebanese TV stations. Normally, they excel in broadcasting brainless shows with plenty of dance and music. Now, however, they were programming in-depth political talk shows that lasted the whole evening every evening. This was not your typical 5 minute interview followed by commercials, but more like 4 hour long interviews and discussions. Obviously, the stations were in mourning right after the murder of Rafiq Hariri so the lack of stupid shows was to be expected, but still, it was impressive to see how serious the Lebanese can be.

See here for the next episode.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Road planner for Lebanon

The Daily Star mentioned today that there is a new site with road maps and a trip planner for Lebanon. Anyone who has ever explored the roads in Lebanon trying to find landmarks like Baalback, the Qana Museum or even the Cedars knows that this is a mission impossible due to lack of road signs. A good map therefore is essential. Does this site help?

For a guy like me who loves nothing better than to drive around aimlessly in remote areas, Lebanon is among the best countries in the world: there are hardly any useful signs to point you to the right direction, so you have to reach your destination by trial and error. More often than not, this leads you to places that are actually much more interesting than the intended target.

Last year during spring, e.g., my dad and I found this beautiful newly asphalted road leading south from Rachaya, straight past Mount Hermon and almost directly to the border with Israel. The road started and ended in the middle of nowhere, what made it even more mysterious. Must have been some EU money gone astray.

Or who has ever visited the Shebaa village (the farms were off-limit, but the village is freely accessible) or the Pyramid of Hermel, or took the most northern crossing into the Bekaa valley, or visited Ras Naqoura and were stopped by Unifil troops? Yup, not too many Lebanese can say they have…and I wouldn’t have either were it not for the lack of road signs and quality maps.

It is therefore with mixed feelings that I went to see the site Imagine you would get crystal clear maps directing you exactly to your destination…B O R I N G! Luckily, the site is as difficult to navigate as the average Lebanese road. The concept of the website is quite unclear, but after some puzzling, it is meant to be a trip planner, not a map per se.

This means that you have to set your starting point. You can do this by landmark or by city. The landmark option is possibly included for those visitors who don’t know in which city they live, but they know exactly next to which landmark they are. Too bad, the most essential landmarks are not included: the MacDonalds, Burger Kings and other fast food joints.

By the way, the restaurants that are mentioned are completely unknown to me and possibly due to a mistake: ever heard of the Ras al-Sarafand Resthouse or the Bouhayrat Jezzine restaurant, which are supposedly located in Beirut?

In any case, my advise would be to select your starting point by city. Not that it makes it much clearer: when you select Beirut as a city, you then have to select the area…which is indicated by the comment “---Select City---“, where you can select Hamra, Cola, etc. The next step would be to set your trip duration, first in days, then in number of hours per day. If you select more than 1 day, the site asks you if you want to stay in a hotel or return to your starting point, which is a nice feature.

After this information, you get to heart of it: selecting your actual destination points. You can select multiple sites to visit and the website will give you the best road. Anyone looking to go to Tripoli is out of luck: the city with the most beautiful souq in Lebanon is not included. That must have had something to do with the recent fighting in Nahr al-Barad. Also, if you’re a Muslim looking for a mosque, you’re out of luck. Hardly any such destination exists. Christians, on the other hand, have plenty of choices since it seems pretty much all churches are included as a possible destination.

Photo 1: Detailed map of the road

Other than this strange bias, the selection options are pretty extensive: you can select by city and what’s more by theme. Simply select the destination and tell the website what kind of places you want to see in between: Culture & History, Kids & Families, Religious places (surprise!), etc. You can delve even further in each category by selecting a sub theme. Under Culture & History, e.g., you can specify if you want to see arts, cuisine & wine, traditional crafts, etc. Quite impressive and it’s also fun to browse through this comprehensive list of tourist places.

Upon finishing entering the various destinations, the site will calculate the road. All throughout this process you have to be patient because the website is s.s.s.l.l.l.o.o.w.w.w.w. Every selection you make takes a long time to process. Too bad because it really doesn’t have to be this way. Try YahooMaps or GoogleMaps for comparison and see how fast they process your choices.

After you have been given plenty of time to mull over the advantages of other mapping sites, the road calculation finally results in a verbal description of the road, which is broken down into way too many segments. Instead of simply saying: “Go straight until X”, they give you each and every little crossroad or changing of names of the road you’re on, only to say that you have to keep going straight. Such advices are repeated sometimes every 100 meter which makes the description rather messy.

Photo 2: Elaborate and often confusing directions

What about the map, then? Finding your bearings on the map is difficult. You can click on arrows around the map and the map gets redrawn…which takes forever and is quite cumbersome. To move north, you have to keep on clicking the arrow at the top of the map. Another option is to select a little hand and then you can drag the map around, which is slightly faster.

Photo 3: A high-level map of the selected road

The largest shortcoming of the site is that you cannot easily print the map to take it with you on your trip. You can only print either the whole trip, which is way too high level, or you can print detailed parts of the trip. However, this means breaking up the maps in numerous detailed maps by painfully navigating and printing each section.

A complicating factor in this already difficult enough process is that the map does not center on your roads. Unless you have a few hours to spare, you wouldn’t want to even try finding back your roads. It’s too bad that the makers of the website didn’t include a simple “Print Road” option. Also, the maps don’t really look like maps since it only contains the roads and sight-seeing locations. Don’t bother looking for terrain indicators, villages/cities that are colored and all other lay-outs you expect from a regular map.

Photo 4: Example of clear mapping lay-out from GoogleMaps

The biggest question, perhaps, is why the makers didn’t hook up with existing websites, like GoogleMaps, Yahoo Maps, others? Instead of reinventing the wheel, Google etc. would love to add the data on Lebanese roads and locations to their site, so users could benefit from the superior services offered by these sites. This seems like a missed opportunity to truly help tourists visiting Lebanon and Lebanese exploring their own country.

All in all, despite my sometimes harsh tone throughout the article, it’s easy to see how the website could be useful. The makers have gone through an extensive effort to collect all the data on tourist sites in Lebanon. For now, though, the website is still quite rough on the edges. Hopefully, these are simple startup problems and will be fixed soon. If the makers would focus on improving the quality of the maps, make the verbal directions shorter and would add the important option of printing the map in an easy way, the website would increase a lot in functionality.

Still, there is plenty to explore and to learn about Lebanon by going through the extensive list of destinations. You can select destinations you never heard of, create a route and see descriptions and pictures for each to learn more about them. That alone should be reason enough to add this site to your favorites.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Recent history of Lebanon - Part 3

The murder of Rafiq Hariri triggered an enormous response. Ever since the extension of president Lahoud’s term and the murder attempt on Marwan Hamadeh, the situation was tense. The UN Resolution 1559, which, among others, required all militias to give up their arms, also increased the anxiety in Lebanon. This resolution was targeted towards the various small Palestinian factions possessing arms as well as to the arms of Hezbollah, or at least the latter was heavily debated.

Before, nobody in Lebanon even dared to criticize Hezbollah let alone ask them to give up their guns and with good reason: it was the Resistance that kicked out almighty Israel and thus had gained a lot of respect among all Lebanese. Who would dare to question the Resistance after everything they had done to protect Lebanon?

The answer to that question would be: an increasing amount of Lebanese who felt threatened by the same arms that only a few years ago protected them against Israeli assaults. The full support Hezbollah gave to the extension of Lahoud and to the presence of Syrian troops, only led to more Lebanese questioning Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon. It felt that the wind was a-changing and everybody but Hezbollah noticing it.

Regardless, in a spontaneous reaction to the murder of Hariri, anti-Syria protesters started a sit-in on Martyr Square in the center of Beirut and very close to the Parliamentary Building. The demonstrators were a mix of pretty much all religions and political currents, all joined together by Hariri’s tragedy. Differences were put aside and they merged to a single theme: a demand to know the truth.

Every day people came to downtown to join the sit-in, which in a day has become a full blown tent city. It was remarkable to see the fraternity that occurred: Christians, Druze and Sunnis were openly discussing with each other, which was already a feat in Lebanon. What’s more, erstwhile enemies even agreed with one another. Never before did Hariri have such an effect on Lebanon. Tent City became a place to discuss, listen to speeches, and enjoy live music.

Side note: an amusing detail was the installation of a night guard to ensure men and women were sleeping separately from each other. Also, alcohol was strictly forbidden. This was in response to accusations from pro-Syria parties that Tent City was a place full of sins and parents should not allow their kids to be in such a vicious location.

Things got tense after a week or two when president Lahoud ordered the tents to be removed. His order came in on Sunday afternoon Feb 27, 2005 and requested the demonstrators to leave Martyr Square before Monday morning 6 AM. He wanted to clear the area prior to a Parliamentary session scheduled for later that Monday. Lahoud added that he would not hesitate to deploy the army to make certain that Tent City would no longer be in place.

In response to Lahoud’s call for removal, anti-Syria politicians came on TV calling on all Lebanese to come to the downtown area in Beirut with the purpose of getting so many people down there that no one, not even the army, could remove them anymore. The inspiration for the courage to dare the President and the army was the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine and the Rose Revolution in Georgia, only a little while ago. There, those people have shown that peaceful demonstration can be successful in getting rid of a government and the Lebanese hoped to repeat this in their own country.

The call of the politicians to join the demonstrators in Tent City had a huge effect. The whole evening, people flowed from everywhere in Lebanon to Beirut and were welcomed with much cheers and enthusiasm. The event was broadcasted live on TV by the major stations. There was live music, water and food was distributed for free and it seemed nothing could go wrong.

Yet, not everybody was so optimistic. The more careful spectators feared a repeat of quite another revolution: the Student Revolution on the Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989 that was ruthlessly crushed by the armed forces. Lahoud’s warning to use force when necessary was difficult to believe, but one never knows. History wouldn’t repeat itself, would it?

See here for the next episode.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Buying a book in Lebanon

It was Brigitte’s birthday yesterday and she had expressed interest in the latest book by Fouad Khoury: Invitation to laughter. So I figured I just pick it up during my one hour lunch break. There are plenty of bookstores around AUB so that shouldn’t be a problem, right? Uh-huh, think again.

First, I went to a large bookstore nearby. The man behind the cash register was talking on the phone and motioned that he would be finished in only a second. So I waited and although I hardly understand Arabic, the many number of times I heard him say ‘habibti’ in a supposedly smooth voice (sounded more like creepy, actually), made me wonder who exactly he was talking to. Certainly not to his wife, which would fit remarkably well with a quote from Fouad Khoury’s book that Arab men "love to make love, but not to love". And if they make love, they prefer to do so with a woman other than their wife.

Anyway, after 5 minutes or so, he finally hang up and asked how he could help me. So I inquired if he had the latest book of Fouad Khoury. Immediately, he looked hurt. “But of course we have his book!. We have all the books you will ever need, my friend! Just one second, I will call my boss on his mobile”. Given his assertiveness I almost felt guilty by apparently implying he didn’t have the book I was looking for. Not that I was aware of this, but hey, maybe he was the sensitive type who gets really offended by little things.

Anyway, my guilt was soon replaced by renewed frustration because his boss didn’t know for sure where the book was located in the store. He was on his way, though, to help find it “But you do have it, right?”, I asked him. Again a hurtful look and the assurance that “of course we have this book by the famous Fouad Khoury! He is a very popular writer and we have all his books, my friend!” was the proud response. It was just a matter of finding the book and that of course, required the presence of the boss himself.

While we were both waiting for the boss to arrive, I asked him where the books of Lebanese writers are located so we could already start looking. Ah yeah, that was a brilliant idea and he enthusiastically pointed me in the right direction. “Here we have all the books you need! Feel free to look my friend!” By that time, I might have still been his friend, but he stopped being mine quite a few minutes ago.

Still, I started browsing through the shelves holding the Lebanese books. Unfortunately, there was no book of Fouad Khoury. So I turned to the guy and asked him about this. “Ah, you see, that is why I have requested my boss to come over”, was the answer, followed by his goodhearted expression “…my friend!”. Again, waiting for some 5 minutes and still no boss. At that point, there was one thing left to do: give up and try your luck in a different store.

In the second store, I was welcomed by a pleasant owner who immediately knew which book I was referring to. He also added that Fouad Khoury had passed away last year and that his wife had finished the book. But no, he didn’t have the book. “In fact”, he told me, “you will not find this book anywhere in Lebanon because it is not for sale here. You can only buy it in England, nowhere else, sir”. Just because of the ‘sir’ instead of ‘friend’ I liked him already, but his story that the book is not available in the Lebanese market sounded difficult to believe, especially since the book was mentioned in the AUB Bulletin magazine.

By that time, I was about to forget about the whole d*mn book, but it was the birthday of Brigitte so on I went to yet another bookstore, Books & Pens, off of Bliss Street. Already anticipating another negative experience, I asked the sales clerk if he had the latest book of Fouad Khoury. “Sure”, was the laconic answer and he gave me a copy right away…leaving me behind in complete shock realizing I just bought a book in this store without any hassle. All I could utter was “Thank you…my friend!”

Aoun threatens with coup d’état

Michel Aoun is in the news again, this time by threatening that the Hezbollah led opposition will take over all the government institutions if the new president is not a consensus candidate…all in the best interest of Lebanon of course since Hezbollah has solemnly promised that they would never use their weapons against Lebanon.

Well, so much for that promise, then again, not too many Lebanese would expect Hezbollah to stay quiet if the March 14 parties would elect a new president by simply majority. Still, it is yet another notch on the anxiety level for most people living here. What’s almost ironic is the quote of Aoun saying: "We have given up a lot of our demands. What is left for us is to pack our bags and leave the country," Aoun said.”

It will remind people of the other time Aoun left Lebanon at the end of the civil war. At the time, he was forced to leave after waging a war against Syria, this time he is suggesting he is forced to leave for supporting Syria too much. How things can change! Also interesting to note is that this interview came right after a meeting between Aoun and Hariri in Paris, which supposedly resulted in a breakthrough. So much for that breakthrough as well.

In the mean time, the progress made in the presidential election process is quite shady, to say the least. On the one hand, we have Condoleezza Rice saying that March 14 should not settle for a consensus candidate, while on the other hand Sarkozy is trying to convince Bush to accept such a candidate. Also, the Maronite patriarch seems to prefer a consensus candidate.

Regardless of the hopeless situation Lebanon finds itself in, there is one person still very upbeat about positive results: Nabih Berri said yesterday that he was optimistic about how the situation was progressing. Still, that didn’t stop him from hinting at a possible delay of the upcoming Parliamentary session, scheduled for coming Monday. Reason is that yet another negotiator will sink his teeth in the Lebanese political mess. This time, a senior Arab League official will give it his best.

For the mere mortals in this country, all that is left to do is to wait and see what rabbit the magician will pull out of his hat. Don’t expect it anytime soon, though. The current political maneuvering is the equivalent of the game children play: whoever blinks first loses.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Heatwave in November

Unbelievable: 31C on November 6 in Beirut. See snapshot below:

WHO: Bird flu in Lebanon...NOT!

A few days ago, I received an SMS on my cell phone with the following text from the World Health Organization (WHO): "Bird (pandemic) flu is dangerous. WHO recommends seasonal flu vaccination. Flu vaccines are still available. For more info ask your doctor or call 01-397039”

Huh? Seasonal flu vaccination can help against the bird flu? Now that’s a first. And what’s all this with putting the fear of God in the Lebanese by implying that the WHO is saying there might be bird flu in Lebanon, so better get your shot fast!? Sure, the text is not saying that exactly, but SMS’es are typically not carefully read so chances are this would be the impression you’d have after reading this message.

And that would be simply misleading. After all, the general consensus is that the regular flu shot does not protect you against the bird flu. Even the WHO does not mention the flu shot when advising people who live in areas that have bird flu.

Intrigued, I called the number to get some answers. Surprise, surprise, the phone number belongs to a pharmaceutical company (which I won’t repeat, you have to call them yourselves to find out). They were happy to sell me the regular flu vaccine. Granted, they were honest enough to immediately distance themselves from the WHO. Still, they didn’t mind suggesting that getting a flu shot wouldn’t hurt.

Such a statement would be true for specific groups in society that are more vulnerable, like the elderly, people who could transmit the disease (like nurses) or people who could be affected severely by a regular flu. If you are in good health, there is normally no reason to take the flu shot.

To be fair, though, scientific consensus seems to move towards the idea that the benefits of the flu shot outweigh the downsides and thus we should all get the shot. Still, would that warrant a marketing campaign based on referring to the bird flu?

Recent history of Lebanon - Part 2

Below is part 2 of the recent history of Lebanon. Part 1 can be found here.

Despite the successful extension of president Lahoud’s term, the genie was out of the bottle. Syria’s presence in Lebanon was increasingly debated and criticized among the Lebanese, with the possible exception of the large Shiite community that saw a partner in Syria against western influences. More and more, the Lebanese got convinced that the Syrians, after some 30 years, have overstayed their welcome. E.g., the Lebanese were fed up with the disrespectful treatment they received from Syrian soldiers at checkpoints. Add to this the frustration resulting from the mere fact that a foreigner could decide if you could continue your journey or not, and all of a sudden it all became too much to handle for many Lebanese.

All those years before, most people didn’t really have a problem with Syria’s presence, or at least, they didn’t discuss their concerns openly. Now, however, the frustration started to pour out and people started to believe that there was a possibility of removing, or at least reducing, the presence of Syria inside Lebanon.

It was highly interesting to witness this change. Perhaps it could be compared to the fall of the Wall in Germany which resulted when the people in East Germany suddenly distanced themselves from the regime they supported wholeheartedly only little time before. When I came to live in Lebanon in 2001, many Lebanese would defend Syria and its president. Or rather, they would speak highly of his father and with regret in their voices, would say that his son still has things to learn. But never did I hear criticism.

In fact, politics in general was not something to discuss outside a close circle of friends and relatives. The newspaper the Daily Star was a good reflection of this attitude: president Lahoud was never criticized, instead, all of his visits and visitors were elaborately mentioned in Lebanon’s only English newspaper. But this attitude among the Lebanese changed when UN resolution 1559 was accepted. Suddenly, politics became the focus of much discussion.

The situation escalated with the failed murder attempt on Druze minister Marwan Hamadeh on October 1, 2004 who had resigned only three weeks earlier to protest the extension of the president’s term. Gradually, Lebanon became divided in the months after the extension of Lahoud. One side was in favor of Syria's presence while the other side was against this presence. The first camp consisted mostly of the Shiites complemented with some individual Christians and Sunnis, while the other camp consisted mostly of Sunnis and Christians.

Parliamentary elections were scheduled for spring 2005 and the campaigns of both sides fueled the fire even further. The anti-Syrian candidates spoke strongly against Syria and president Lahoud, only to be matched by pro Syrian candidates who accused their opponents of collaborating with America and sometimes even with arch enemy Israel. The Lebanese must have been surprised and possibly ashamed of hearing their leader bicker with each other.

A low was reached with the murder of ex-Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri on Valentines Day 2005: a 1000kg bomb killed him and 21 others. Although there was no evidence, many people accused Syria of being behind this attack. His funeral witnessed a massive turnout and observers noted that many Christians and Druze participated. In live and death, Hariri brought opponents together and it has been speculated that this was one of the reasons for his murder: Hariri became too powerful of an opponent to Syria by forging allies between the Sunnis, the Christians and the Druze, something that was long thought impossible.

The Syrians, who ruled Lebanon per the divide-and-conquer strategy, felt they lost control within the country due to Hariri’s successful reconciliations between otherwise divided Lebanese groups. Most if not all political analysts predicted a major victory for Rafiq Hariri’s party during the upcoming elections and although he has never spoken against Syria, his support for Syrian influence was understood to have become ambiguous. Hariri never satisfactory explained, e.g., why he gave up his seat after the reelection of Lahoud, which lead people to speculate as to his political stance.

Still, Hariri was not outspoken against Syria and that made his murder all the more ruthless. Many saw it as a clear signal to Syria’s opponents in Lebanon. Yet, the Lebanese wondered if the killing of Rafiq Hariri would further Syria' presence or was it the straw that broke the camel’s back…?

See here for the next episode.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Recent history of Lebanon - Part 1

During the coming days, I will post my interpretation of the recent history in Lebanon. It is a translation of a series of articles posted on my Dutch blog about a year ago, supplemented by the history of the last year. The series will consist of roughly 15 episodes, so stay tuned!

In order to gain insight in what has happened during the last two years in this country, it is useful to use a leitmotif to explain the various events. As always, there are plenty of themes available one could use to describe and explain history and Lebanon’s history is no exception. You could focus on the relationship between Sunnis and Shiites, the ever shrinking influence of Christians in Lebanon, the geopolitical situation in the Middle East, etcetera. There are many options to choose from, that much is clear.

In this series of articles, I will look at Lebanon’s history through the prism of the relationship between Lebanon and Syria. Not because it will result in the best possible explanations, but it is mostly a choice forced upon me due to my limited knowledge. Obviously, I will try to be as neutral as possible, but please keep in mind I am not a journalist, historian or otherwise professionally engaged in following events in Lebanon. Therefore, please accept my apologies beforehand for all the mistakes and errors that the series of articles no doubt will have.

In order to appreciate the current political situation, we have to go back to fall 2004, the year in which the six year mandate of President Emile Lahoud expired. It was up to the Lebanese parliament to appoint a successor which led to much maneuvering taking place prior to Lahoud’s expiry date. The Lebanese president has to be a Maronite Christian and thus the head of the Maronite church was heavily involved in the process of finding a suitable successor.

The concept of separation between State and Religion is as good as unknown in Lebanon and many politicians frequent the Maronite patriarch to ask for his advice and opinion. Despite the differences within the Maronite community, most of the Maronites agreed on one thing: the next president should take a more independent stance towards Syria. Especially the patriarch has consistently been fighting against the Syrian dominance in Lebanon and he was hoping that a new president would be different from Lahoud, whom many Maronites saw as pro Syrian.

The Syrian dominance started in 1976 when they arrived in Lebanon to separate the then fighting groups after the start of the Lebanese Civil War and they haven’t left since. This gave them a period of almost 30 years to establish a secure power base and to be in control of Lebanon. Many Lebanese felt their country was reduced to nothing more than a province of Syria since all the decisions taken by the Lebanese government were only effected after Syria would approve. Lahoud was considered to be a symbol of the power neighbor Syria held over Lebanon since he was seen by the inner circles of the Maronite church as unwilling and possibly unable to stand up against Syria.

Many people started to get worried when it became clear that Syria intended to extend the term of Lahoud. Not only the Maronites were concerned, but other groups as well, especially the Sunnis. By constitution, the prime minister of Lebanon has to be a Sunni Muslim, a position held by Rafiq Hariri at the time. He was a business man who almost single-handedly rebuilt the downtown area of Beirut that was left in shatters after the 15 year long civil war. The relationship between Hariri and Lahoud was quite problematic with the former hoping to get more power after the exit of Lahoud.

Another group that was upset about Syria’s intentions to extend Lahoud’s term was the Druze, led by Walid Jumblatt. His father, Kamal Jumblatt was killed during the civil war, most likely at the initiative of Syria. This has left his son little warm feelings for Lebanon’s neighbor. The only group that did not object was Hezbollah. They felt that Lahoud, despite being a Maronite, understood the sisterly relationship between Syria and Lebanon and has always supported the Arab cause

The matter of the extension of the presidential term, and especially the fact that the Lebanese government was considering changing its own Constitution at the instigation of a neighboring country, got international attention which resulted in the UN resolution 1559 on September 2, 2004. It called for a “free and fair electoral process” and for the foreign forces (read: Syria) to leave Lebanon, which many understood as a slap in the face of Lahoud’s ambitions and Syria that was considered to be the puppet master behind the scene.

OK, problem solved, you’d say: with so much internal opposition against Lahoud’s extension as well as the international concerns which resulted in an UN resolution, it would be impossible for Lahoud to stay on as president, right?

Nah…that would have been too easy. Nothing is what it seems in Lebanon and despite many objections beforehand, most politicians crumbled under pressure and voted in favor of changing the Constitution to allow for Lahoud’s extension. Jumblatt and some independent Christian MPs opposed the change, but all others agreed to the change. The others, including the party of Rafiq Hariri did not have the courage to go against Syrian interests and it shows how strong of a grip Syria held over Lebanon at that time.

Interesting enough, though, Hariri decided to leave his position shortly after, or, depending on one’s political stance, was pressured into doing so and was succeeded by Omar Karami, a staunch defender of Syrian’s interests in Lebanon. For the casual observer, it seemed as if Syria has won the battle and that order was restored. After all, Lahoud got his extension plus they got the bonus of having a prime minister who was close to Syria. Hence, from Syrian perspective it seemed that all was quiet on the western front…

See here for the next episode.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

How to bypass roadblocks in south Lebanon

Readers wondering why there were no postings on this blog, rest assured: my parents were visiting and thus I had no time to post anything. Not that nothing happened, on the contrary: when asked what my father wanted to see, he responded casually “Oh, I don’t know, what about the South?” “Yeah OK”, I responded carefully, “Saida is beautiful”…

But that was not what my dad had in mind: he was thinking of way more south than that, like border-with-Israel kinda South. There was only one problem: the UN and the Lebanese army have restricted access for all foreigners to the utmost southern part of Lebanon. You can apply for a permit at the police headquarters in Saida or Tyre, but the processing can easily take a few days if not more. So that was not an option for us.

What to do? Well, there was only one thing left we could do: take advice from Barney the dinosaur: “The only time we ever fail is when we just give up”. I am watching this Barney DVD together with our daughter Janine roughly two times a day for roughly the last 6 months so after a while you get really familiar with Barney, much more than you could ever dream of:-) In any way, we decided to just go south and see what would happen.

Sure enough, there was a checkpoint south of Tyre near to Ras el Ain and we couldn’t go any further. Too bad because the original plan was to reach En Naqoura and from there on continue to Bent Jbeil. So we turned around, went back a little bit north to see a road going land inwards. Via Saddeqine, Srobbine, Beit Lif and Ait ech Chaab we reached Rmaich.

Photo 1: The Lebanese-Israeli border from Rmaich in South Lebanon

This is the most southern somewhat larger village in the South and sure enough we could see the Israeli border. It also got us on the road from En Naqoura to Bent Jbeil and suddenly we realized that we had done it: avoided the checkpoints of both the Lebanese army as well as the United Nations. Yay, Michel Suleiman for president….NOT! Anyone who cannot even stop a few Dutch tourists from entering the highly restricted zone, is not able to prevent Hezbollah from reestablishing themselves close to the Israeli border. There was a checkpoint along the way, but the soldier was talking to traffic from the other side and behind us was a huge UN truck, so he didn’t even look at us.

Right next to this checkpoint was a huge field of what could be poppy plants used to produce heroine. They had harvested them, so there was not much left of the plants, but see for yourself. It’s hard to believe they can grow heroine only a few meters away from the Lebanese army, so it might not be poppy plants after all. Perhaps it is cannabis, see also the picture of Harald's blog article which seems similar.

Photo 2: Strawberry Fields Forever...?

Now that we were illegally in the restricted zone, might as well make the best of it, so off we went to see Bent Jbeil. All the earlier news stories reported that this town was completely destroyed during the July War. Not one stone was left on the other, or so the reports came back. Yet, when you enter Bent Jbeil, the damage is not really all that obvious except for a few areas in the city center. Most houses are still standing, albeit with signs of damage, meaning they were not built newly after the war.

Photo 3: Bent Jbeil: The Capital of Liberation

What to think of this? You want to believe that Bent Jbeil was hit hard and yet the evidence a year later tells you differently. How come journalists never picked up on this? It would be so simple to write a “Bent Jbeil: One year later” story, but it seems no one has done that. Better to keep the myth alive of total destruction than to admit that the initial reports were way too dramatic? Once again, it proves that the truth is the first victim of war.

Photo 4: A fully destroyed building in Bent Jbeil in between other houses

What we did notice, though, was the large amount of cement trucks and all the restoration work going on. People are working hard to rebuild their houses, not only in Bent Jbeil, but all through the South. Usually, these are projects funded by the Gulf States or the European Union. Even restaurants are being rebuilt with foreign funding. Too bad this one was closed:

Photo 5: EU funds to rebuild restaurant in the South