Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Tayyib, yalla bye

Frequent visitors of this blog will have noticed a lack of new postings. Reason is that I have changed jobs which does not leave me with enough time and focus to keep up the blog. So, it’s time to say goodbye and to thank you, my reader, for giving this blog your time of day. It was a great experience and I’ll never forget the first time I was asked if I was the same Riemer as the guy that writes the blog. Ah, the sweet taste of pride:-)

Lebanon Update started in Dutch, and was a direct result from the outbreak of the July War in 2006. Later on, I switched to English to reach a larger audience. I am proud to say that this worked out well: after a while, Lebanon Update started to receive 500-700 hits per day. This might be small potatoes compared to the more professional blogs about Lebanon, but for this amateur the numbers showed that other people share my love and fascination for Lebanon.

Being a blogger was an interesting experience. Often, people would ask me how I came up with all the topics for my articles…a question that always amazed me: there is so much to write about Lebanon! Many stories have been left untold, lots of events have never been published.

I tried to limit myself to one article per day, so the articles would build up….often only to be permanently deleted because some major incident happened. All in all, any journalist suffering from writer’s block should stay in Lebanon for a while, there’s just too much to write about.

Another question people usually asked was how much time it would take to write a typical article. Without being snug about it, but the answer is that it wouldn’t take me much more than 5-10 minutes. After forming a blog entry ‘in my head’, the physical act of typing it up was simply that: typing it up. Lucky for me I am not a professional writer, so I could get away with the rough edges, the spelling errors and the grammatical mistakes that resulted from not polishing the articles.

Blogging is a highly addictive activity and it is with fear for withdrawal symptoms that I bide you all farewell. I had a great time writing the blog, hope you had a great time reading it. Tayyib, yalla bye.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

All Lebanese prisoners freed from Israel's jails

Yesterday saw massive festivities in Lebanon to celebrate the release of all Lebanese prisoners from Israel. Sure, there are those who are quick to point out that the price of their release has been enormous, just as quick as Hezbollah leader Nasrallah was quick to point out that the release of all prisoners was the original goal of the July War.

And he made sure the rest of the Arab world knew that it was thanks to Hezbollah they were released. One can only imagine how the average Arab felt when watching a proud Nasrallah saying that resistance is often the only way to get Israel to act, as opposed to diplomacy as is so often suggested by their leaders. Most likely, they would have gotten the implicit message that their leaders are weak whereas Hezbollah was strong.

Still, it requires some mental acrobatic maneuvering to hear Nasrallah claim that this results vindicates Hezbollah for any blame for the July War. Gone are the days back in August 2006 when Nasrallah expressed regret for the ‘unexpected’ harsh Israeli reaction. In the end, the goal justified the means.

Now that all Lebanese prisoners (dead and alive) have been released to Lebanon, this chapter can be closed. There are still some remaining issues, though. Still, hopefully the coming home yesterday of so many Lebanese will contribute to a more solid quiet on our southern front and not the starting shot of yet another round of violence now that Hezbollah can freely revenge Mughnieh.

Monday, July 14, 2008

First Lady's first visit to...Qartaba

If you were the First Lady of Lebanon, where would you have your first public appearance as (incoming) First Lady? That's a no-brainer: Qartaba of course! That quaint little mountain village, dubbed The Bride of Jbeil and already home to so many first-things, was the proud hostess of first lady Wafa Suleiman last weekend, who opened an nargileh place and playing area/swimming pool for kids.

Photo 1: First Lady Wafa Suleiman in Qartaba on July 5, 2008

Her visit can be described as highly efficient as it took less than 30 minutes to attend a few speeches by the locals and to cut the ribbon. Unfortunately Wafa didn't give a speech herself and she left right after the opening ceremony was concluded. But then again, being selected for the first visit is already a huge honor in itself.

Photo 2: Toute Qartaba went to see the First Lady

The first speaker made a passionate plea to improve the quality of the road leading up to Qartaba, hoping perhaps that the First Lady would bring up the topic with her hubbie later that night.

However, none of such 'wafa-wasta' was needed as the next speaker, the chairman of CDR, was quick to mention the planned road improvement project: within two to four years time, Qartaba will be connected to civilization by a much wider road. Blessing or curse? Only time will tell.

Photo 3: The World Bank funded the nargileh place...sahtain!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Sowar: Snapshots of the Civil War

As part of the "Let Us Not Forget" campaign to keep the memory alive of the Lebanese Civil War, the Sowar magazine (lit: "photo's") has dedicated its latest edition to war photography. What is it with photo's from war zones that always make them so fascinating to watch, to study, to absorb?

Sowar's choice is no exception: the pictures are carefully contributed by top photographers, including Pulitzer prize winner Bill Foley, and show the various stages of the Civil War. My favorite is included below, and if you are in Lebanon, be sure to pick up a copy of this magazine at your local bookstore.

Photo 1: A militia member playing the piano at the Holiday Inn rooftop restaurant in 1975

Berri likens SSNP to justice squanderers

Naharnet quotes Berri as saying that "Whoever squanders justice and the justice ministry should accept the whole Syrian Social National Party (SSNP) in the cabinet, not just Ali Qanso". In other words, once you start squandering justice, you might as well invite the SSNP to the party.

....Hrm...Interesting to see how Berri likens the squandering of justice to SSNP's participation. Slip of the tongue, error of the journalist, or a heart-felt opinion?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

So who's blocking who?

Finally and after much delay, the Opposition has given its names and posts it wants in the new government and still there is no cabinet. Why? Because now it's March 14's turn to bicker about the distribution of their seats. What on earth have they been doing the last five weeks?

For once, Aoun is making sense when he says that they don't have the right to delay for even five minutes the line up of the new government.

Syria hints at disarming Hezbollah

The other day, this blog was speculating about the possible rift between Hezbollah and Syria and presented four pieces of 'evidence': the killing of Mughnieh in Damascus under the eyes of the always alert Syrian secret service; the documents president Suleiman suddenly found regarding Lebanese ownership of the Shebaa farms; the canceling of the national strike by the Syrian controlled Labor Union early May, after which Hezbollah took over West-Beirut; and the resurrection of Fatah al-Islam leader al-Abssi

Now, we can add a fifth piece: Syrian president Bashar Assad openly saying that Hezbollah should disarm once peace in the Middle East has been reached. With Syria and Israel talking, such peace might be closer by than you'd think. Hezbollah must be feeling the pressure to disarm, hence they started adding new conditions, such as liberation of all Lebanese and Palestinian detainees from Israel's prisons.

A simple regional peace alone is no longer good enough for Hezbollah, while Syria is now saying that such peace actually should be good enough reason to put down their arms. If any March 14 politician says the exact same thing, Hezbollah is quick to label him as a traitor to the Resistance. Now let's see how they will react to Assad's words.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Composition of new cabinet according to Nahar

If we are to believe Nahar, the new cabinet is pretty much a done deal now that the Opposition has formally stated the seats it requests. Unless I (and Nahar) am missing something, it would be a no-brainer for Siniora to accept their suggestions. The Opposition does not want any of the core ministries, such as Justice, Foreign Affairs, Finance, or Economics. How come?

Take a look at Aoun's shopping list, e.g. His bloc wants to have the following 5 posts:

  • Telecommunications (Gebran Bassil);
  • Social Affairs (Mario Aoun);
  • Agriculture (Elias Skaff);
  • Energy (Alan Tabourian);
  • Deputy Premier (Issam Abou Jabra).

Well, Siniora, by all means, give it to him...and quickly before he changes his mind and realizes that these posts aren't really that important. Being responsible for Energy won't get you any votes since most people complain, rightfully so, about the lack of electricity for often 12+ hours a day. And the post of deputy premier doesn't come with much power either.

Hezbollah is even less demanding and is willing to settle for only two posts, namely that of Labor and that of Youth & Sports. Ayup, that's the right set of posts to promote one's platform! And what a 'reward' for May's actions.

Berri is equally modest when requesting the usual Health ministry and Interior. No more talks of Foreign Affairs for his brother Mahmoud. Was he used as a threat to get the Interior ministry? Not likely, Berri would have gotten Interior without much problems anyway.

If Nahar is correct, it would imply the Opposition has pretty much given up on this cabinet. Why is that? Do they know it's not going to last long? Don't they want to take on responsibility to create some form of deniability during next year's elections? If so, then why take the Energy position?

It doesn't make sense: after all the delays and objections to settle for something so little as this. Only future will tell what the real reason is behind this unexpected and sudden submissive behavior.

Friday, July 4, 2008

1960 Election law won't benefit Christians

What better day to talk about democracy than on the Fourth of July? And yes, let’s leave it as an exercise to the reader to decipher if this is meant ironic or not. In any case, the other day L’Orient-Le Jour’s columnist Emile Khoury provided a highly interesting analysis of the impact of the 1960 Election Law the opposition wants to be reinstated. Conclusion: While marginally better than the current one, it still would leave the Christian candidates at the mercy of the Muslim voters.

The reason for this is that most electoral districts under the 1960 law still would have a majority of Muslims in them and thus they would ultimately decide which Christian candidate they’d like the best. According to the stats quoted by Khoury, roughly 40 out of the 64 "Christian" districts are dominated by Muslims. In other words, only 24 out of 128 seats are directly decided by Christian voters whereas the Constitution grants Christians 64 seats.

So why is that a problem? Personally, I would favor the abolishment of the confessional voting system which in my view undermines democracy. In fact, it has been argued that Lebanon is not a democracy for this very reason. [Note to self: blog about this in the near future.] Still, if a country wants to have a confessional system, it better be a representative one.

All Lebanese would agree that the current law used during the last election was anything but a fair law. But the thing is, the new law won’t bring much improvement. Yet, especially Michel Aoun is lobbying feverishly in favor of the 1960 Election law, which in his mind would address the problems of the current law.

So what’s wrong with the current law? For starters, it didn’t get Aoun the expected victory, which according to his followers, is already a major indication something is fundamentally wrong. But seriously (which I already was, actually), the 1960 Law won’t change the fact that Christians will be overruled by Muslims…again.

The opposition must know that their fight for the 1960 Law is merely a fight for fight’s sake. Is Aoun used again by Amal and Hezbollah into fighting for something that won’t improve the situation of the Christians and perhaps would only benefit the Shiites? Now that we know the 1960 Law won’t bring much to the Christians, it would be interesting to see whether it would strengthen the position of the Shiites.

See also this blog for another analysis of Aoun’s position.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

So Mughnieh is now revenged?

Ever since the murder of Hezbollah's leading operative Imad Mughnieh, the Lebanese and the Israeli's have been concerned about the act of revenge by Hezbollah. The organization was expected not to take lightly the killing of one of its most important fighters. Many feared that a gruesome attack against Israel by Hezbollah could easily trigger another round of war.

"Luckily", it seems the revenge wasn't as bad as expected, assuming the news is correct that the bulldozer attack yesterday in Jerusalem was meant as retaliation for Mughnieh's death. Letting a new organization claim responsibility gives Hezbollah the freedom to distance itself from the act and yet hurt Israel where it hurts, namely in the capital Jerusalem.

Icing on the cake would be Hezbollah's present to the Palestinians of demonstrating them a brand new tactic that might inspire plenty of others to creatively use similar vehicles to wreak havoc.

All innocent deaths are terrible, obviously, and anyone in their right mind would feel sorry for the victims of yesterday's action, but still, it's a safe bet to assume many people on both sides of the Lebanon-Israel border will sleep a little bit better tonight...unless of course Hezbollah wouldn't be using a third party to do their revenging for them, after all, what's the honor in that? If true, we still have to wait for its own response.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Waiting for the big quake

Officials are denying it, so it must be true: the next big Lebanese earthquake is right around the corner. The last few months has witnessed already some 500 (!) minor shakes and tremors, according to Israeli experts. If they can feel it over there, then maybe these quakes are not so minor after all.

For those Lebanese who don't like to panic (um, yeah, right, as if there are any!), please tune to your local expert. Lebanon's National Council for Scientific Research chaired by George Tohme who recently received an honorary doctorate from AUB, has stated there is no reason to worry. Their secretary said that earthquakes are impossible to predict. He then continued that there is no evidence to suggest a large earthquake will strike soon.

Uh-huh. Makes you wonder what he would have said in case there was evidence. Would earthquakes be predictable then, after all? Anyway...

Some people claim that the best method to predict an earthquake is to look at its history because earthquakes tend to happen with a certain frequency. In Lebanon, e.g., major earthquakes happen every 80 years, or so history teaches us. The last big one occurred in 1927, already 81 years ago. Yes, that's right: if history's any guidance, we're one year late for an earthquake!

The pattern for the truly big ones, shows yet another disturbing rhythm, namely every 1500 years, give or take a few. The last superquake to hit Lebanon was back in 550. It wiped out the coastal line of Lebanon and completely destroyed Beirut and Tripoli. Experts claim that 4 such quakes have hit Lebanon during the last 6,000 years before.

Lots of things to worry about. Good thing we have our beloved politicians to keep our mind off of things!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

So where is that heat wave?

Two days ago, the weather girl of one of the Lebanese TV stations showed it would be a whopping 37C on Thursday. That would be extremely hot for Beirut. I once downloaded he temperature data from the website of the Beirut airport and the maximum was 37C, which happened only once in the covered period of 20 years. Most common maximum temps in summer are 32-33C.

Today, it's hot but not that hot. What makes it bearable in Beirut is the breeze. So what gives with the expected 37C for tomorrow? Well, rest assured. The Accuweather website shows a high of 26C only for Thursday! The forecast was off by 11C.

Photo 1: No heat wave, only a cool 26C expected for tomorrow

BTW, check the expected temperature at the end of the forecasting period: 35C! Yup, it's going to be bad, real bad! Just for fun, check this graph for the coming days/weeks and you'll notice the temperature always goes to extreme highs towards the end in summer and to extreme lows in winter. They must be accommodating their Lebanese customers who thrive in a climate of fear mongering!

See below for the following expected temperatures for the coming period:

Photo 2: Feel free to PANIC: heat wave expected 15 days from now!!!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The end of the Doha truce

For those who were optimistic that the truce reached in Doha last month would put Lebanon back on track, the recent events must have come as a surprise: everybody was so optimistic and didn't we expect a new government to be formed within "a few days"? Berri was certainly right with his analysis a few days ago that the cabinet should have been formed within the first week.

Not that Suleiman seems to be worried. According to the president-elect, he is "not in a hurry to form a cabinet", the reason being that the government is "the doorway to national reconciliation and not to national dispute". In other words, he intends to adhere to that good old Lebanese tradition of no winners, no losers. By pushing forward too rapidly, he might lose the opposition in the process.

Berri in the mean time has suggested to form a transitional government, which is code-speak for having another round of presidential elections a year from now. It sure would be nice for Aoun as it would give him another shot at the presidential seat. Given his high age, waiting another six years for Suleiman to step down will be next to impossible.

Not that such a transitional government is too likely, mind you. The Constitution does not mention any deadline for forming a new government. In theory, Suleiman can be president-elect indefinitely.

One can only wonder what the purpose was of the fighting in Tripoli during the last two days. Was there a purpose or was it just some local resentment boiling over, a possible pay-back for the events in May when pro-Syrian groups in and around Tripoli were attacked by Future movement supporters. Given the fact that it were Hezbollah supporters who started the fighting, it would be logical to assume an invisible hand steering the events.

Hezbollah has gotten under increasing pressure recently to give up their weapons in case the Shebaa farms will be either liberated or placed under UN command. A few years ago, Hezbollah used to state that this liberation was the condition under which they would disarm. However, they have changed their mind. Not only has Hezbollah announced they will keep their weapons regardless of the outcome of the Shebaa issue, it has added a new condition, namely that all the Palestinians should return home; which is code-speak for never ever ever I promise I swear.

Just for good measure, Hezbollah has accused the government to conspiring against Hezbollah. In all reality, it seems the positive atmosphere of Doha is no longer here. Worrisome articles of a mass weapons influx in Lebanon, Hezbollah expanding its territory, possible another round of clashes in the Bekaa and the actual fighting in Tripoli add to the renewed feeling of doom. But please don't tell the tourists.

Monday, June 16, 2008

So why did Hezbollah use their weapons?

There's this question that still needs answering: why did Hezbollah rock the boat back in May? After all, things were going just swell for the Party of God. Downtown was comfortably occupied, a political solution was not anywhere in sight and the government of the hated Siniora was brought down to its knees.

Hezbollah's violent overtaking of West-Beirut changed all that. Downtown is booming once again, leaving the Hezbollah followers empty-handed and quite possibly increasingly angry as most of them can't even afford a coffee in the expensive restaurants. A political solution is within reach and March 8 is talking to Siniora with all the due respect they can muster. So what exactly did Hezbollah gain?

As Michael Young has pointed out, by using so much violence against their fellow Lebanese, Hezbollah has effectively rendered itself toothless. Sure, last week saw the warning by the Opposition of escalation if the new government wasn't formed soon, but no one is taking this seriously. It's hard to imagine another round of airport blockade or another battle in West Beirut. In fact, the Opposition's warning could be read as a heart-felt plea for PM Siniora to start sooner rather than later!

So now that the dust has settled and the last echoes of Hezbollah's weapons have faded away, it's time for that simple question: what, exactly, has Hezbollah won by its actions back in May?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Syria ready to finish off Hezbollah?

Rumors about Syria wanting to get rid of Hezbollah have been spreading increasingly since the killing of Hezbollah strategic mastermind Mughnieh in Damascus. Now, good ol' shaky Abssi (back from the dead) has vowed revenge against those who started the sectarian war that has lead to the takeover of West-Beirut, saying that suicide bombers would not spare God's enemies wherever they are.

Assuming Syria's sponsoring Fatah al-Islam, it seems natural to conclude that Assad has had it with Hezbollah. They must be wanting that peace with Israel pretty badly.

Addendum: a friend wanted to add another argument in favor of the idea that Syria is trying to ditch Hezbollah, namely the "new documents" that president Suleiman apparently has received that would provide additional support for the claim that the Shebaa Farms belong to Lebanon. A plausible theory would be that these documents came from Assad. Is this Syria's way to make Hezbollah even more irrelevant?

Addendum II: someone pointed out another event that supports the theory that Syria has had enough of Hezbollah, namely the cancelling of the national strike by the Labor Union on May 7. Interesting enough, I had written about this angle, but subsequently forgotten about it.

Monday, June 9, 2008

La guerre des autres; or...THE MEDIA DID IT!!!!!

Nothing in Lebanon is ever the fault of those actually responsible. Accountability has been trdade down a long time ago for accusability in this country: don't worry about who did what, rather focus on who to blame the easiest.

As a mere theoretical example and for illustration purposes only, let's assume we have a political party laying siege to half the capital through military means, would we blame this party for using arms against fellow Lebanese?

Hah, that one's easy: of course not! How about spreading the blame: all politicians are to blame leaving no one in particular to pinpoint the blame upon, you say? Good thinking, you're getting the hang of it. But, but, but, we'd rather see someone or something actually receiving the blame, we don't want any loose ends.

So how about the press?! Let's blame them for the violence, the hatred and the destruction Lebanon suffers from. The press is weak, always divided and, most importantly, they can't fight back because they depend on us, the readers for their existence. This means they care for us, unlike politicians who do fine without us. In fact, they'd prefer to have as little as possible to do with the ones voting them in office.

Good, so the press it is. Now that we have established our victim, let's see what we should accuse them of. Not that it really matters all that much because usually the accusation alone suffices for most Lebanese, but let's wrap things up nicely. No loose ends, remember?

This one is a bit tricky. Sure we can accuse them of being biased, but whoever said the press needs to be neutral, right? So let's first come out and claim just that: the media are supposed to be neutral. If we say this loud enough and repeat it frequently enough, people will accept this preposition without a problem. After that, we'll be able to blame them for being biased.

"Too obvious, Riemer. No one's gonna buy that!", you say? Well, think again. And psst...be sure to ignore the quote of professor Nabil Dajani who had the nerve to say that "The Lebanese media is only reinforcing existing attitudes and accentuating them, but not forcing them". Tsk, too much common sense is not a good thing, especially when it would lead to the clearly unwanted conclusion that perhaps the Lebanese get the press they deserve...oops!

Friday, June 6, 2008

Learning English the hard way

The Lebanese impress many a foreigner with their superb mastery of languages. In fact, quite a few Lebanese are more fluent in English or French than in their own (step)mother tongue Arabic. That's even more amazing considering the study material. Take a look at the below pictures, that come from a Strawberry Shortcake picture book so little kids learn English while they play.

The first picture is innocent enough, even making the Arabic sound more flowery in English. Quite a feat since Arabic is known for its beatiful and colorful expressions.

Photo 1: The Arabic says: Strawberry loves to study", the translation in English is certainly more flowery:-)

Photo 2: A study that loves, a candy that provides...notice your mind understanding already!

Photo 3: Now try to figure out this one...and don't peak at the Arabic!

Photo 4: Increasingly difficult to translate: the Lebanese friends I asked had no idea what 'hamadryad' means, but were able to tell me that the Arabic text says that kitties are very happy in the spring. They must have heard about the Doha Truce!

Photo 5: What??? Strawberry getting kinky??

Photo 6: Ah, that explains all!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

It’s official: inflation Lebanon reaches 35%

The Lebanese Central Administration of Statistics has published the inflation figures for the first quarter of 2008, see L’Orient of last weekend (link already gone). They confirm what all Lebanese already knew, namely that the inflation is seriously out of control. The costs of food and non-alcoholic drinks, e.g., have increased with over 35% on annual basis.

One can only hope that our beloved leaders will take actions to bring the inflation back under control. A very good first step would be to allow supermarkets to compete with one another in Lebanon. Ever noticed that most prices are pretty much the same every supermarket you go to? Experts have told me that no one is competing with one another.

There’s this unwritten agreement to keep the prices as high as possible. This results in profit margins between 15 to 40% for most items whereas in, say, The Netherlands, margins are typically less than 2%. Dutch supermarkets compete heavily with each other and often sell various items at a loss. These items, the so-called loss leaders are used to get customers inside the store who then would also buy other, profitable items.

Not so in Lebanon. The best offer you can get are those bundled offers whereby they literally bundle a free item to another item with adhesive tape. This is the result of strict agreements with the distributors who set the prices and bundling is a way to circumvent it. In comparison, the Dutch supermarkets are free to sell items at any price they want which results in significantly lower prices.

A first step would be easy to do for the next government: curtail the power of the distributors by allowing supermarkets to compete on prices. If, say, Spinneys wants to sell Coca Cola at a (near) loss, then by all means it should be allowed to do just that. Given the average profit margin of 25% for Lebanese supermarkets, imagine how many customers a new player could attract by accepting only a 5% profit margin.

Until the Powers That Be read this blog (and they just might!), we’ll simply have to keep forking over up to 40% profit to the supermarket owners.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

One photo, all the Lebanese problems

Now with downtown open again, the sight of the Lebanese parliament at Place d'Etoile against the backdrop of the Al-Amin mosque explains the problems with Lebanon: with religious buildings being taller, bigger and certainly considered more important than the Parliamentary building, it's no wonder peace will always be the next step.

Photo 1: Al-Amin mosque in Downtown Beirut with on the left (somewhat out of sight) the Parliamentary building

And please, don't get me wrong. I have nothing against Sunnis, it's just that this huge mosque makes the buildings of the Lebanese state so insignificant. If the Lady of Lebanon church was not at Harissa but in Downtown, it would have made a similar picture.

Monday, June 2, 2008

ABC ad gone wrong

The latest ad of ABC's shopping mall is either very humble or just plain wrong. Take a look at the text of the ad below:

"Step into a world of glamour and style where the ordinary becomes extraordinary and the standard becomes spectacular"

Hrm...shouldn't that be the other way around, namely that the extraordinary is standard at ABC? It's like a car rental company saying that their compacts are called full-size from now on:-)

Photo 1: Recent ABC add...humble or just plain wrong?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Interview with me in German magazine

For those who read German, here's an interview with me for the German magazine Readers Edition. Memorable quote:
“Es ist traurig festzustellen, dass es so viel leichter ist den Frieden zu beenden als die Gewalt zu stoppen.”

translation: "Unfortunately, it's easier to end the peace than to stop the violence".

In German, it sounds much better obviously. No wonder they had so many philosophers:-)

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Well, someone's reading this blog:-)

Just in: the Internal Security Forces will be banning all political flags in Beirut. This announcement came a few hours after my post on the SSNP flags in Hamra that offend many Lebanese. Coincidence? Of course not!

Well, erm, perhaps, but hey, if the Lebanese can make believe that peace is just around the corner, so can I believe the Powers That Be read this blog:-)

It's quite an amazing decision btw: not only does the ISF prohibit political flags, they also ban motorcycles as of 6PM today and provocative activities. What's next? Put 'm up against the wall? And all that for a government that's no longer in power after Suleiman got elected president.

It sure is a reminder of the mid 1990's when the government started censoring the press and shut down all TV stations except 4: The only 'political' TV station that was still allowed back then was Future TV because Hariri was the Prime Minister at the time. LBC could continue broadcasting but was forced to cut its ties with the Lebanese Forces, whereas such demands were not made upon Future TV.

They made it even illegal to report anything else than the scores of sports events because of riots that occurred among the fans. Any description of how the match went would only inflame people.

So, here we are today: no more political flags, no more motorcycles and no more "provocative activities". Now see, that last one is kinda tricky. People tend to find many activities provocative, most certainly when they don't agree with the thoughts behind it.

An orange tie? Up against the wall! A PLO shawl? Up against the wall! A picture of your favorite religious leader on your car window? Up against the wall!

You might think why does this blog article have such an innocent title, even has a smiley in it? Surely this topic is too serious for that?! Yes, i know, but that's only to throw them off track! With a title like this, they might skip it (fingers crossed), which would be a Good Thing™ this time since it doesn't look they can handle criticism all too well.

You think they stop at motorcycles? Hope you're right, but don't be too surprised if you wake up one day to find that media such as newspapers, TV stations and blogs are next.

Designer weapons in Lebanon

Just received some pictures from a friend that show designer weapons, apparently from this blog. Given the Lebanese penchant for fashion and violence, there must be a market for this:-)

Syrian Social Nationalist Party going strong in Hamra

Right after Hezbollah's take over of West-Beirut, flags and graffiti of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party appeared everywhere, especially in Hamra. Despite the name, it was founded in Beirut by the Lebanese journalist/philosopher and Greek-Orthodox Antoun Saadeh.

Every year, the party organizes a memorial celebration for one of its main achievements: the killing of two Israeli soldiers in Hamra. Interesting enough, they don't celebrate one of their more remarkable achievements: the killing of Bashir Gemayel by an SSNP member 1982. Anyway...

Below are some pictures I took today that shows the SSNP is still going strong in Hamra, despite the fact that many Lebanese don't hold warm feelings towards their black flag.

Photo 1: Our new president anxiously looking at the SSNP flag in front of AUB's Main Gate

Photo 2: A brand new banner in Hamra: "the SSNP congratulates Michel Suleiman for holding the army together and is sure he will also hold Lebanon together in unity"...hrm...so much for the SSNP's ideals of joining Lebanon with Syria?

Photo 3: Even an SSNP flag right in front of the 'Hariri building' which was just finished before the fighting and subsequently demolished. Apparantly, the building was a donation of the Hariri foundation to some syndicate and thus no longer belongs to Hariri. Still, the glass front was completely smashed anyway. It seems that the SSNP have set up offices in the abandoned gas station a few meters before this building. Be careful when trying to take pictures, though: the men hanging around there sure didn't appreciate me taking a photograph, so I didn't.

Photo 4: A common sight these days: freshly washed flags of the SSNP everywhere you go in Hamra.

Photo 5: If the SSNP flags get to you, just walk 50 meters further to enjoy a nice view on the Mediterean Sea. You'd have to ignore the billboard though, showing a model in a cute SSNP-black bikini. One more color that has been politicized...sigh

Monday, May 26, 2008

Suleiman’s balancing act

If anyone still doubted that general Suleiman would not possess the necessary political skills to run this country, they’d be reassured by his inaugural speech yesterday. A first hint appeared right at the start of his speech: he called for a minute of silence to remember all the martyrs, but continued speaking after only 20 seconds. Military precision has made way for political flexibility.

More seriously, his speech was a careful mix of all the necessary ingredients to keep everybody happy. When speaking about the resistance, e.g., he was (deliberately?) speaking in the past tense: the Resistance played an important role; it did accomplish many things in the defense of Lebanon.

But he didn’t go overboard in praising the Resistance. And how could he? It would be equal to admitting that the Lebanese army he headed for so many years was not doing its job of protecting its citizens. Compare Suleiman to Lahoud and the difference is clear: Lahoud never had a problem with the army’s subservience to Hezbollah’s arms.

By doing so and by stressing the past tense when speaking about the Resistance, Suleiman seemed to make it clear that the resistance’s role lies in the past. From now on, it’s time to formulate a national defense strategy that would incorporate Hezbollah’s arms.

At the same time, Suleiman was clever enough to recognize the importance of the continuing occupation of the Shebaa farms (and the Kfarshouba farms? - is there a renewed focus on the the last group of farms, now with the Syrian-Israeli peace talks possibly leading to placing the Shebaa farms under UN control?) in order to please March 8.

A similar balancing act could be seen when talking about Syria. He stated that diplomatic relationships should be established as well as demarcated borders, but he was careful to only speak of Lebanese held in Israeli prisons and thus avoiding the thorny issue of Lebanese in Syrian jails.

Also, he was clear in stating that the UN Tribunal will be fully supported by his government. Sure enough, the March 8 politicians were not applauding while their March 14 colleagues almost gave Suleiman a standing ovation at this point during his speech.

Another point of interest was his support for the Lebanese Diaspora, saying that they should have a right to nationality. It’s unclear what this entails exactly, but it could be seen as support for giving the Lebanese abroad voting rights.

Suleiman’s political litheness shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, he was the army commander who ignored president Lahoud’s direct orders to prevent a (back then) anti-government demonstration and who prevented the removal of the first Tent City by March 14 supporters. If anything, the Lebanese should take comfort in the fact that having a political able person as the president is a soothing thought.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Lebanon has Tower of Pisa

For those who claim that Lebanon has, had or should have all the good things this world has to offer, here's another item to add to that collection: their own version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Take a look at this picture on the frontpage of L'Orient-Le Jour of the Habtoor Tower in Sin-el-Fil after part of the road next to it, slided away:

Photo 1: Habtoor Tower as out-of-whack as the Tower of Pisa.

Rest assured, though: this tall building did not almost fell over, it's the photographer who forgot to make sure the picture is properly aligned with the horizon. It makes you wonder though why no one at the newspaper prevented this picture from being published as it clearly gives a distorted image. Well, perhaps that's not always a real concern here in Lebanon.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Divine Discount, a party and a Bikini Bootcamp

A clothes store on Rue Hamra that was demolished during the Hezbollah attack of Beirut last week, offers a divine discount:

Photo 1: "Due to the burning of the store...everything for 12000 LL" (8 USD)

But, Lebanon wouldn't be Lebanon if most people have already gotten over it. In other words: time for a "Beirut Back to Life" party, today between 6-9 at Hamra Terrace:

Photo 2: "Back to life...back to reality"...or at least the version most Lebanese prefer

And you know for sure things are back to normal if you find a flyer for a Bikini Boot Camp at your car:

Photo 3: Flyers are also back to normal

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Foreigners decide on Lebanon’s fate

For some reason, Lebanon’s problems are always solved outside Lebanon. After Cairo, Taef or Chateau de la Celle Saint-Cloud, Lebanon’s fate was decided in Doha this time. No wonder, if you realize that Lebanon was build on the famous Pact of 1943, which was possible only after Maronite president Khoury solemnly promised he won’t refer back to France, while Sunni premier Solh wouldn’t ask other Muslim countries for assistance. Quite a way to start the country’s independence!

In all the years since, nothing much has changed. Every time Geagea e.g., accuses Hezbollah of creating a state within a state, one cannot help but think of the mini-state the Lebanese Forces has created back in the Civil War with western support. His militia controlled most of north Lebanon and was even raising taxes.

Likewise, it’s always hilarious to hear Hezbollah accusing Siniora of being the Great Satan’s slave, while accepting millions of dollars from Iran and Syria. Pot, kettle, it’s the usual story in Lebanon.

So why was it that a change of scenery could solve the two year old political problems that brought Lebanon to a stand-still? How come Lebanese politicians are so pathetic when it comes to solving problems in their own House, which has been solidly locked the last two years?

Shrug, who knows what truly motivates Lebanese politicians. What’s more, the regular Lebanese people don’t make much sense either. Why is everybody so desperately happy all of a sudden? If anything, you’d expect people to be angry: waiting for two years while the economy went rapidly downhill and for what, a solution that could have been reached so much earlier. Instead, the country seems to be filled with people thinking happy thoughts. Delusion sure is a solid foundation for resilience.

God only knows how much the true costs have been of the last two years of the politicians’ pride and stubbornness. But that’s all forgotten now. The Lebanese are ready to go out again, or at least those who can still afford it, Solidere stock prices have gone up and the tourist sector is already busy preparing for a huge summer.

So leave it to this foreigner to be worried despite Doha. There’s still this Mughnieh thingy to be revenged and there are still these Syria-Israel peace talks to be torpedoed. Let’s see when one and one becomes two.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Veto irrelevant if MPs would only do their job

Now that the Doha talks have resulted in a veto-right for the Opposition and a so-called unity government, fears are that this will set an example: regardless the outcome of the next parliamentary elections, the government will default into one where losers have equal powers to the winners. So why bother voting anymore?

This is a bizarre question since people seem to have forgotten it is not the ministers that pass laws, but the MPs. What’s more, they can also propose their own laws. As such, the composition of the Chamber is what matters, not that of the Council of Ministers.

The Lebanese Constitution is quite clear on this. Take a look at Article 18, e.g.:

“The Parliament and the Council of Ministers have the right to propose laws. No law shall be promulgated until it has been adopted by the Chamber.”

In other words, there is nothing stopping the Parliament to come forward with its own law proposals. As such, March 14 can still push their agenda, simply by submitting law proposals to their fellow Chamber members.

What about approving of the laws, then? For this, we have to consider Article 34 that speaks of the required quorum:

“The Chamber is not validly constituted unless the majority of the total membership is present. Decisions are to be taken by a majority vote. Should the votes be equal, the question under consideration is deemed rejected.”

So for a law proposal to pass, all is needed is a simple majority vote by the Chamber. As it stands, March 14 holds this majority. This means it can propose and vote on its own law proposals without having to bother with March 8.

Even if the president uses his veto right, the Chamber can overrule him by simple majority, as per Article 57:

“The President of the Republic, after consultation with the Council of Ministers, has the right to request the reconsideration of a law once during the period prescribed for its promulgation. This request may not be refused. When the President exercises this right, he is not required to promulgate this law until it has been reconsidered and approved by an absolute majority of all the members legally composing the Chamber…”

“But, but…”, the reader might counter, “you forgot the veto right of the minority that was now agreed upon in Doha!!”

Nope, I did take it into consideration, it’s just that this veto right is irrelevant. Despite all the brouhaha in the press and among the Lebanese public, a close reading of the Constitution does not mention the sacred two-thirds of ministers except in Article 65 sub 5, which relates to decisions of “basic national issues”, such as changing the constitution. Such majority is not required for anything else!

So why all this talk about the two-third veto right? My guess would be that the Chamber of Deputies until now has hardly come up with a proposal of their own and just limits itself to approving the laws that the Council of Ministers presents to the Chamber. If so, this would give March 8 the option to veto out any concept law it doesn’t like to prevent it from reaching Parliament.

But there’s a simple way around it:

Let MPs start exercising their constitutional right to propose laws.

As explained above, it will neatly and legally circumvent any veto right March 8 mistakenly thinks it has.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

What Doha should really be about

Now with Hezbollah showing its true colors by having raised its arms against fellow Lebanese despite repeated promises to the opposite, that has left many convinced that its role as Resistance has come to an end, it’s time to talk about the last remaining political taboo in Lebanon: peace with Israel.

For some odd reason, the mere topic alone triggers a strong Pavlov reaction among certain Lebanese who simply refuse to even think about it. Peace with Israel is the unthinkable, unspeakable topic one should never ever bring up. Well, for those readers still with me, here are the arguments.

If Hezbollah would truly care about the wellbeing of the Shiite population, having peaceful, open borders with our southern neighbor is a no-brainer. It will stimulate trade, would offer job opportunities and many villagers would be able to make a nice living out of tourism: the south of Lebanon is among the most beautiful regions.

Consider me a hopeless romantic, but if anyone really wants to feel how the earth must have been when Jesus (or Mohammad for that matter) was walking it, the south of Lebanon still offers that unique feeling. Opening up the borders with Israel would attract many tourists who’d like to visit the places of miracles in Lebanon: Qana where Jesus turned water into wine and Jiyeh where Jonah was spit out by the whale.

It’s an illusion to think the old adagio “War is good for business” holds any truth, except for those in the weapons industry. Peace would be good for all other sectors of Lebanon. The Palestinian areas are a good example of the relationship between peace and economic prosperity: the Palestinians had it the best (all relative, of course) when violence was absent and had it the worst when violence peaked.

A second argument is the obvious exception Lebanon occupies right now with respect to Israel’s borders: all other neighbors have made official peace or a de facto peace, like Syria which border with Israel is among the most peaceful in the Middle East. There is no reason why Lebanon should carry the full burden of the Arabs, often token, aggression towards Israel. Go anytime to the Gate of Fatme (the closest point to the border of Israel) and watch the Arab tourists throwing stones at Israel while their family is busy taking pictures of 'hero dad' to realize how empty the idea of Resistance has become.

The third argument would be Hezbollah’s attitude: what have they done ever since the withdrawal of Israel in May 2000 to fight Israel? Pretty much nothing, a conclusion that’s confirmed by Hezbollah’s disastrous actions in July 2006 which has hardly hurt Israel but has brought plenty of havoc to Lebanon.

The most concrete results of Hezbollah continuing “resistance” was the release of a large number of their prisoners a few years back. Certainly, this was an achievement worth celebrating, but wouldn’t such talks be much easier among friends?

But what about the Shebaa Farms? Ah yeah, the Shebaa Farms: supposedly property of Syria but donated to Lebanon so it could continue pressuring Israel. Talk about a poisoned pill. Despite many requests, Syria has never officially confirmed it has donated the Farms to Lebanon, reason for Israel to consider the area officially Syrian. So why should Hezbollah hold all of Lebanon hostage over a gift Lebanon has not officially gotten? If anything, place the Farms under UN mandate, like Sinioria has proposed after the July War.

In conclusion, given that all Arab states are quite careful to avoid attacking Israel, realizing that Lebanon is the odd one and knowing that peace with Israel will bring wealth and prosperity to the Shiite population in the South, the Doha Talks will best be used to convince Hezbollah that its role of Resistance is highly counterproductive for its own people and should be ended.

It’s easy to dismiss this article as written by a foreigner who has no clue as to the true emotions connected with this topic. True, I am a foreigner and most certainly, I am missing out on a lot of emotions. And that, actually, might be a good thing when it comes to this highly controversial topic. Isn’t it time to let go of decades old emotions and evaluate the case by its merits?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Dissecting the Arab Committee’s Statement

The Arab Committee that is tasked with finding a diplomatic solution for the stalemate in Lebanon has announced a six step plan. These steps are as follows (my comments in red):

1) A return to the status quo before the clashes broke out on May 5, when the government announced two decisions against Hizbullah.

OK, so that means March 14 refuses a unity government whereas March 8 insists on this. Not that Hezbollah really needs to have a veto right mind you. The last few days have shown that they can block government decisions quite effectively by taking it to the street.

"The immediate end to any form of armed presence, the withdrawal of all armed militants from the streets and the opening of all roads as well as the airport and the port."

All roads? Including the ones in Solidère currently blocked? Don’t think so.

The deal stipulates a "return to normal life with the army taking charge of civil peace and the running of public and private institutions."

What?? The army will be in charge of running public and private institutions? Would that include such things as ministries, schools, newspapers, etc.? Looks like a major decision to me which should never have been taken by foreigners.

2) A re-launch of a national dialogue to restore confidence among the rival parties leading to the formation of a national unity government and a new electoral law.

Uh, wait…national unity government, what about the first point that said we return to the status quo? Has March 14 been that quick to sell out its major principle? And whatever happened to Hariri's statement that he refuses to negotiate while the other side has a weapon on the table? Disarmament of Hizbullah is no longer on the agenda?

"This accord will be crowned with the end of a sit-in in the center of Beirut on the eve of the election of consensus candidate General Michel Suleiman president."

Perhaps the translation is not fully correct, but if the removal of Tent City is considered a ‘crowning’, well…isn’t that the world upside down?

3) "Dialogue begins as soon as this accord is announced and as soon as the first point is implemented, in Doha on Friday, (May) 16, under the auspices of the Arab League. The dialogue will continue until an accord is struck."

As soon as the first point is implemented. Right, let’s see how soon the Lebanese army can take over all public and private institutions. Um, wild guess: never.

4) All sides to refrain from any resort to violence to achieve political goals.

Great point, who wouldn’t agree with this? Certainly not Hezbollah, which claimed that the latest violence was not politically motivated but purely as a defense of its own weapons. So they might still resort to violence as long as it’s not to achieve political goals. "No problem, Sir!"

5) "Launching a dialogue (also in Doha) to shore up the authority of the Lebanese state throughout the country and its relations with the different parties in Lebanon in order to guarantee the security of the state and its citizens."

Ah yes, the good old illogic of having discussions outside Parliament to strengthen that same institution. Makes sense to anyone who’s a politician I’m sure; the rest of us have given up long time ago to understand this train of thought.

6) All political leaders to refrain from using language that might incite political or sectarian violence.

Uh-oh, limiting freedom of speech right after the demolition and restart of Future TV, way to go Arab Committee! Still, inciting hate is never a good thing so let’s hope we are spared from those annoying speeches and overly biased press coverage.

Now that we’re at it: how about a goodwill measure and let the army remove all these Syrian National party flags and posters of Bashar Assad in Hamra?

Breaking news: Arab leaders love democracy!

Perhaps it’s just me, but hearing Arab countries speaking of Lebanon always makes me crack up: they either express their support for Lebanon’s democracy or they formulate their support for the opposition, both of which is remarkably absent in their own countries.

Sure enough, Syria expressed its approval of Hezbollah’s actions. It’s always good to hear such support for opposition. If Hezbollah tried to do even a tenth of what it is doing in Lebanon, the Syrian regime would crush it. Hama anyone?

Ah yes, cynicism…the default tool for someone who’s unable to appreciate the intricacies of life. Well, I’m in a self-bashing mode today, so here’s a bit more of it:

Let’s all rejoice upon the news that the Shiites were brandishing their weapons yesterday after Siniora announced the government had withdrawn the two proposals. It was heartwarming to see their response to decisions by a government they don’t recognize.

And let’s wait for the pictures of the first airplane to land at Rafiq Hariri Airport after Hezbollah’s blockade. September 4, 2006 anyone?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Impossible negotiations

Saad Hariri’s speech today on his reopened TV station was as defiant as can be. He likened Hezbollah to gangs for shooting at stores, apartments and his TV stations. Also, he called Hezbollah criminal and he consequently referred to Hezbollah’s action as an attack on Beirut.

If the above points were not enough, he mentioned that he will not negotiate while the other side brings a gun to the table, he confirmed that March 14 will never sign the country over to Syria and Iran and accused Hezbollah of having launched an open war on Beirut instead of Israel.

Well, that’s quite a going-in position for tomorrow’s negotiations under “leadership” of Qatar. Despite his strong statements which almost surely will not bring any diplomatic solution any closer, Hariri of course expressed his faith in the negotiations nonetheless. In fact, he went all out during his press conference to mention that if the talks fail, a civil war might be next.

On the other side, we find March 8 who refuse to talk to the current government because they consider it unconstitutional. In addition, they have obtained such a clear military victory in West-Beirut, they might not be inclined to discuss things too long. Their position will be that Siniora must resign or else…

It certainly looks like March 14 is not willing to give in, so what would happen next? How far would Hezbollah be willing to go? Already, there are no more enemies left in West-Beirut and the Shouf mountains because March 14 have transferred their offices to the Lebanese army. So how would Hezbollah be able to exert additional pressure? Set the Christian areas aflame? And if not, can Hezbollah still back down and not lose face?

From Hariri’s press conference, it certainly looks he is daring Hezbollah that if they want to stage a coup, then the only way is to take the Serail by force. Events like this tend to create their own dynamics where no one is able to back down anymore. Hezbollah surely must have thought through the consequences of its recent actions, so the question becomes what they intend to achieve.

It’s hard to believe they assumed Hariri would simply back down after his TV stations and offices were destroyed: they must know that a person whose father was murdered has passed a point of no return when it comes to dealing with the alleged murderers. The same goes for Jumblatt whose father was murdered by Syria beyond any question.

Hezbollah must therefore realize that these two leaders will never accept anything else but a free Lebanon. Likewise, it must have calculated the next steps already, most likely none of them will be peaceful. Pray to God the next few days and weeks will prove me wrong.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Hezbollah’s failed "Shock and Awe"

After taking over West Beirut and destroying the TV stations and offices of Hariri, what will be Hezbollah’s next steps? They have the momentum right now which inevitably means time is against them. And that’s an interesting turn since up until now it was Hezbollah that was benefiting from delay. Not anymore.

The longer the delay of political results, the less sense the recent violence will have made. In a remarkable copy of Great Satan’s tactic of “shock and awe” tactics, Hezbollah thought it could bomb March 14 into submission. And, similar to America’s initial victory, Hezbollah strikingly occupied West Beirut in some 24 hours.

But that’s only the first stage, what’s more important is what will happen next. America’s precedent doesn’t bode well for Hezbollah as the almighty US of A were unable to translate their military might into real influence. It’s doubtful Hezbollah will be more successful.

For one thing, Hezbollah has alienated most Lebanese with its fighting against fellow Lebanese, despite promises to the opposite. Also, the fact that March 14 is ceding control over its various quarters to the military makes it difficult for Hezbollah to launch another round of violence if the government doesn’t give in. Because during that next round Hezbollah would have to take on the Lebanese army.

In retrospect, March 14’s rather unexpected giving up its locations to the Army was quite a smart thing to do, assuming Hezbollah won’t fight the army’s present in March 14’s regional offices. This effectively takes away the violence option from Hezbollah.

That leaves Hezbollah with two problems: one is that time is running out so they have to take the initiative, something the guerrilla organization doesn’t have much experience with: changing from countering Israel’s aggression towards defining the agenda requires a change in approach that it might find difficult to make.

Second, up until now, Hezbollah has pretty much always used violence as its strategy of last resort negotiations. Now with the Army stepping in, that card is of the table, leaving Hezbollah with little choice but to explore new ways of getting what it wants: true dialogue.

In the mean time, we can expect more violence across Lebanon. Aoun must have looked on with jealousy at what Erslan has achieved in the Shouf mountains: most if not all PSP offices and weapons of his archrival Walid Jumblatt have been confiscated by the Lebanese Army, simply by calling in Hezbollah special forces to fight the PSP militias.

No doubt Aoun will be tempted to also ask Hezbollah to fight his opponents: the Falangists and the Lebanese Forces. If the latter two organizations are smart, they’d follow the example of sly fox Jumblatt and turn over their weapons and offices to the Army as well.

Jumblatt has realized it sometimes takes courage to be a coward and he has been able to look further than the first round. Let’s see if history will agree with him.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

So many stories

We live in the Information Age and never this is truer than when violence enters the streets of where you live. All day long, we watch the news and talk on the phone to friends for the latest snippets of news. You wonder how people experienced wars a century ago when instant news was not available.

For one thing, it must have been more quiet. Being here in the mountain village, we are far from the fighting. Yet, the cell phone and the TV bring all of it straight to our living room. Blessing or a curse? Impossible to answer. It’s great to hear news about what’s happening in Beirut, but then again, the news from friends and TV stations often contradicts each other.

Are the roads open or not? Is Hamra safe or not? Are shops open or not?…you hear different answers every time. So many TV stations (well, one less after Hezbollah ‘defended its arms’) and yet no clear answers to these basic questions that are in the minds of so many people.

What stays with you are the personal stories we hear from friends. Like, one of our Sunni friends wanted to buy toilet paper in the local grocery store right next to his house. The owner is Shiite and they always have gotten along fine. He went into the store and asked for some toilet paper. Our friend couldn’t reach it himself since it was put up way high, like they do in these little stores (dekaneh) in Lebanon.

Guess what the owner told him? “Sorry, we ran all of out toilet paper”. “But I can see it right up there!”, our friend replied. However, no matter what he said, the owner wouldn’t sell him toilet paper. It was only until later that our friend realized the store owner didn’t want to sell to Sunnis anymore.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Déjà vu all over again

“Déjà vu all over again”…again panic shopping for food, again wondering how to pack your life in the trunk of your car, again back in our mountain house in Qartaba during a war like situation. Last time, it was the Israeli aggression; this time around we are here because of Hezbollah’s broken promise of not using their weapons against their fellow Lebanese.

For most people affected by the violence, the difference between the Jews and Hezbollah won’t matter much. War is war and who does what is only relevant once in safety.

Hezbollah has pretty much crushed all resistance and has torched down the buildings of Future TV and the Hariri Organization. God only knows what these buildings have to do with fighting Israel, but perhaps the Party of God has inside information on this. To the rest of the Lebanese, it must have become crystal clear that Hezbollah has been fighting their Lebanese over…over what exactly? A few phone lines and to keep a friend in position as head of Airport Security. That guy surely must have some wasta with Nasrallah!

From the snippets of news from friends and the TV, it seems that Hamra is teeming with Hezbollah fighters as well as people from the Syrian Nationalist Party. The latter party has been busy putting up posters of Syrian president Bashar Assad and of their own party in an attempt to turn back the clock to before April 2005.

A journalist friend told me he has never seen so many Hezbollah fighters in the streets. And believe you me, this journalist has seen his share of militias. It confirms that Hezbollah has been planning this for some time and it certainly explains the smirks of Nasrallah during his press conference two days ago. Only two days ago, it seems more like two weeks.

Hezbollah has proven to be the most powerful militia by far. Future Movement’s fighters didn’t stand a chance. And who would have thought they would be able to stand up against Hezbollah that withstood Israel’s aggression for a month with relative ease?

What was typical for Lebanon is that Hezbollah could easily have pushed all the way through. They could easily have pulled Jumblatt out of his Clemenceau palace and Hariri out of his Qoreitem’s. And hey, while they were at it, they could have stopped by the Serail palace to get rid of Siniora as well.

But they didn’t. So many times in Lebanese history, the most powerful party backed down from full victory and Hezbollah showed to be no exception. Somehow that is reassuring inasmuch Hezbollah will hopefully realize that military might does not necessarily translate into political power.

It will be difficult, though, for Hezbollah to return to the negotiation table. They are the ones holding the guns and we all know the guy with the gun is always right. Surely, there is no need for the Opposition to restart negotiations. They have shown to be in full military control and it must be quite tempting to start dictating orders. And yet, negotiation is the only road to a solution.

Lebanon is a notoriously divided country and hardly ever a country filled with different religions was held together by force. Actually, come to think of it, hardly ever a country successfully existed that consisted of different religions in equal proportions. We can only hope Lebanon is an exception to this unwritten rule. Fifteen years of civil war as well as the events of the last few days do not exactly inspire hope, though.

Friday, May 9, 2008

The eye or the end of the storm?

We woke up to a quiet Beirut. At times, we could hear sporadic gunshots, but other than that, no more noises. The TV quickly showed us why: Hezbollah had gained a decisive victory in its battle against the pro-government militias and now dominated Hamra, Clemenceau and Qoreitem.

Still, the calm of the situation didn’t change our mind to go up to our mountain house in Qartaba and we started packing as soon as we could. By 11 we were on the road heading towards the port because that was the only road still open to go north.

Hezbollah and Amal militias were everywhere, walking around proudly on Bliss Street (our Bliss) and the Corniche. The army, true to style, had remained neutral and was calmly chatting with some of the fighters. Some civilians were back on the streets and even a few stores were open. The call for prayer sounded, but it’s doubtful many people attended the services

After going through the tunnel towards the port in front of the Phoenicia hotel, we hit another roadblock of burning tires. The strangest thing happened: the people standing next to the roadblock were giving instructions on how to bypass it. They were very polite, helpful and good humored. After following their directions, we were soon back on the sea road and before long we had left Beirut.

Later on we heard that soon after, they blocked the sea road altogether, so we were lucky to still have been able to get through. Dunno if this is true, but it made clear that roads were opened and closed at random: Hezbollah in the role of Israeli soldiers leaving us like Palestinians grateful for an open road.

The northern highway was not very busy; possibly due to the fact that the fighting yesterday and last night was limited to certain areas only. Friends of us who live in other parts of town hardly noticed anything.

The news from Beirut was mostly “good news”, in the sense that most of the fighting seemed to be over. Yet, we couldn’t help but wonder if we were witnessing the end of the storm, or only the eye of it. In the latter case, we’d better embrace ourselves for another round of fighting. It’s doubtful, however, which group would dare to take on the superior power of Hezbollah?

Thursday, May 8, 2008

A night under fire

It didn’t take long after the speeches of Nasrallah and Hariri for the fighting to start. And this time for real. All night long, we heard a lot of gunshots, with intermittent heavy explosions from RPGs and what have you. Apparently, the Hezbollah fighters were attacking the palace of Hariri in Qoreitem and that of Jumblatt in Clemenceau, leaving us right in the middle.

Sure, for those people living right next to these palaces, the situation must have been even worse, but still, it was bad enough already for us. Even more so because the building next door has been occupied by Future Movement fighters from the north of Lebanon since the last few months. Quite a few trucks were rushed into the garage of the building, supposedly filled with arms.

You can imagine our worries that they would start fighting from that building, making our building an easy victim of so-called “collateral damage”. For a long time, the building was quiet, but around 11PM, we heard gunshots being fired from it. This must mean that they had Hezbollah fighters in sight who were going through our street. The last thing we needed was our street to turn into a battle zone!

Obviously, we could only interpret from the sounds we heard since we had closed all our shutters and didn’t dare to take a peek outside. Let other people be heroes, we take comfort in the knowledge that the world also need people to be saved.

All the while we were watching the news on TV, showing us what we could hear outside already. At around midnight we went to bed, tired of a long, stressful day filled with panic shopping, echo’s of gunshots and loud explosions. Israel must be pleased with Hezbollah’s 60th Anniversary present.

A working class hero is something to be

After yesterday’s Grey Wednesday which saw little action, only a few wounded and none killed, it seems that any optimism of a peaceful solution of the conflict between the government and the opposition is misplaced. The whole day, a constant flow of news came in about yet another road closed and yet another clash between Sunnis and Shiites.

Was it out of frustration of the meager participation yesterday that today saw a continuation of the road blocks using burning tires? Was it the announced speech of Hezbollah leader Nasrallah who most likely wanted to speak to a country on the brink of destruction? Is it true that Hezbollah was not amused by the supposedly Syrian-inspired refusal of the Labor Union to cancel the demonstration yesterday?

It certainly seemed quite calculated of Nasrallah to speak a day after the national strike. Waiting one day gave him time to adjust his speech according to the latest developments. However, the lackluster interest yesterday must have posed a problem: how to come across as a strong leader when yesterday showed that he could hardly motivate his supporters, including Aoun’s, to block roads?

Something had to be done and extending the road blocks for one more day was perhaps the only option left open to him. That would show the government that Hezbollah is a party to reckon with…not that anyone doubted this already. But having only one day of “national chaos” wouldn’t impress anyone. Even more so since it was actually limited to certain Shiite areas in Beirut and not even close to last year’s Black Tuesday event. What if he would instruct his followers to keep on blocking the roads, including the airport? That would surely send a message home.

And so we witnessed another day of road blocks annoying the few motorists who had dared to leave their premises. Most people simply stayed home and watched TV to follow the news, anxiously waiting for the speech of Nasrallah.

He started with explaining the importance for Hezbollah of having its own communication system via landlines. Cell phones are easily intercepted and using the public lines would offer the Israeli and American agents within the government an excellent opportunity for wiretapping. The way he went into technical detail almost felt like attending college all over again.

Bottom line was that those private lines are extremely important and that the baddies in the government even offered to exchange the Hezbollah network in return for breaking up the tents in Downtown: if Hezbollah would remove Tent City, it could keep their phone lines. He sounded hurt and insulted by this proposal, but all he accomplished was to sound like “Nasrallah in Wonderland” looking full amazement at the world around him.

However, what became crystal clear is that he didn’t want to back down from his original demands: to keep the private network and to maintain the head of the airport security. Unlike last year when he came on TV and urged his followers to put down their weapons and to go home, this time around he was raising the stakes even higher.

According to Nasrallah, the government has declared war on the opposition by demanding the head of airport security to be transferred and to end the private communication lines. He seemed to relish in this declaration stating that he was more than ready to step up to the plate. In reaction to questions from journalists after, he clarified that conform earlier promises, Hezbollah would never raise their weapons against fellow Lebanese…unless it was to defend its own weapons. Quit a loophole there.

It was striking to see a very confident, relaxed Nasrallah. He was smiling a lot, cackling at comments from journalists and he seemed to enjoy himself all throughout his press conference. This was in stark contrast with some of his previous speeches that showed a tense, solemn Nasrallah.

What we saw today was a man who had made up his mind and felt good about it. A working class hero is something to be. Like John Lennon once sang: "you got to learn how to smile as you kill". Despite all his smiling, his speech was filled with dangerous implications and promises. I couldn’t help but thinking that he knew something the rest of us didn’t.

Only an hour later, Saad Hariri went on TV to give a speech of his own and, of course, to respond to Nasrallah’s TV appearance. If only our beloved leaders would talk to each other directly instead of via TV! Hariri called upon Nasrallah directly to stop the violent clashes, calling him by his name many times during his speech. Now let’s hope Hariri’s call for a peaceful solution will not be in vain.

Honest panic shopping

Brigitte and I were shopping and during the long wait for the checkout in yet another supermarket, she decided to get a cold drink from the fridge area and some nuts since she was hungry. Shopping from 10 to 2 does that to you.

To my surprise, after she finished the drink, she put the empty can in the shopping cart in order to pay for it. And she was not alone, other people did the same. Compare that to Holland! Quite a few times, I’ve seen customers eating and drinking items and simply throwing the wrappers away…something that the honest Lebanese no doubt feel is totally unmannered. And they would be right.

Strangest thing, though, to panic shop and do so honestly. Question for the reader: how come a country filled with honest people who are careful to pay for all they buy, is having such problems collecting the electricity bills, let alone be on the brink of another civil war? Really, honest people shouldn’t have to panic shop, they really shouldn’t have.

Creative shopping

Shopping today in west-Beirut (yup, unfortunately it’s time for those terms again) was a crazy affair because everybody was thinking it a pretty good idea to stock up on essentials and do so at our, repeat our store. First, you had to wait 15 minutes for a shopping cart to become available, then add another 45 minutes easily for checkout.

There are ways around it, though: I witnessed a man with only some items in a shopping basket. He went straight to the cashier and asked the customer over there if he could go ahead of him. Having a full shopping cart, who would refuse someone who only wants to buy a few items? In other words, he was gracefully allowed to cut in line.

To my surprise, some 5 minutes later, the same guy appeared again with only a few items in his basket and the same scene unfolds. He had chosen another checkout line to avoid anyone recognizing him and sure enough, it worked smoothly.

This was repeated once more in yet another line after which he must have had bought all he wanted because I didn’t see him again. You’ve got to admire the smart Lebanese!

Note to reader

Dear reader,

I have been unable to post the last few days because we went to our mountain house in order to escape the fighting that takes place in Hamra. We are all fine and enjoying an unexpected stay in the mountains in Qartaba, which is in the Jbeil region.

I have continued blogging and will post the articles (antedated) below.

A picture says more than a thousand words

See the picture on the front page of L'Orient-Le Jour this morning:

Photo 1: Given to us by the city of Tehran to the noble Lebanese people

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Grey Wednesday so far

Many people expected a Black Wednesday today because of the labor union demonstrations that could turn into riots and worse. So far, though, the situation is relatively calm. Sure, people are blocking the roads by burning tires but it seems to be limited to Shiite areas only. Despite Aoun's support for the demonstrations, he has been unable to mobilize his supporters, or so it seems: all roads in the Christian areas are open.

What's equally interesting is that his TV station, O-TV, is not covering the events. You would expect them to be fully "out there" to film every burning tire but they have chosen otherwise, at least up until 9:30 or so. Funny enough, they were broadcasting video clips glorifying the Lebanese army. One of the clip even showed the Army fighting some guerrilla warriors who looked suspiciously like Hezbollah fighters!

Switching to NBN at 8:30 brought aerobics lessons: half naked women showing their sweaty skin while doing their exercises. Always make me wonder what their female target audience thinks of this. Anyway...only after 9AM they started showing footage of the demonstrations. A subtle snub to the union and Hezbollah?

Flipping to Hezbollah's Manar TV showed the most remarkable "reportage" of the day: people getting out of their cars, removing the burning tires and driving through. Surely that must not be the image they want to give of the demonstrations! Whereas normally the TV stations would repeat any video they have in a loop until the reporters bring them new material by car (most stations cannot afford live satellite uplinks), I didn't see this clip anymore.

Sure enough though, Hezbollah mostly has some, quite photogenic, footage of burning tires against the backdrop of the Lebanese Serail, where Siniora is holding office.

True to political beliefs, the March 14 TV stations (LBC and FutureTV) mostly showed people driving in their cars and tried to avoid showing any roadblock: wishful thinking that all is fine.

Compared to Black Tuesday of January 2007, my first impression is that things are not as bad: the road blocks are limited to certain, mostly Shiite areas only, it seems limited to Beirut so far and Christian areas are not participating at all.

The labor union has called off the strike for today due to lack of protesters...apparantly becaue they couldn't reach the demo site due to the roadblocks. Anyway, Grey Wednesday is becoming even more of a lighter shade.