Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Syria-Israel peace at expense of Lebanon

A highly interesting article from Stratfor explains why the peace talks between Syria and Israel are actually making sense. It also covers the Hezbollah angle, which would be left out in the cold if such a peace would ever come in place. Worrisome enough, Stratfor predicts that Lebanon will pay the prize: Syria will be back in control in return for peace with Israel.

Since the article is rather long (but worthwhile and free after registration), here’s a summary.

At first sight, the idea of peace talks between Israel and Syria seems far stretched. Only a month ago, everyone was witnessing a build-up to another regional war, and now all of a sudden there are indications peace talks are happening. What makes such talks even more amazing is that Syria announced them through Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem during his visit in Tehran, standing next Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, an ally of Syria whose government rejects the very concept of peace with Israel.

Furthermore, relationships between Iran and the United States are very low at the moment and any deal between Syria and Israel would defang Hezbollah. This would remove an important strategic card from Iran. Given that Syria’s only ally in the Muslim world is Iran, why would they upset their best friend? Also, Hezbollah is a major source of income for Syria given its drugs trade, so why would Syria be inclined to give this up?

To formulate the start of an answer, it is necessary to look at the bigger picture: the geopolitical realities in which Israel and Syria exist.

As for Israel, Egypt and Jordan are not a threat since there are peace treaties all sides are careful to respect. The only real threat comes from the Palestinians. However, they have been effectively ‘divided and conquered’ by setting up Hamas against Fatah. The more they fight amongst themselves, the less they pose a security concern for Israel.

Also, the Palestinians are not exactly loved by Jordan and Egypt given their wariness about an increase of the Muslim Brotherhood and similar radical Sunni movements in both countries. As for Syria, they have crushed the Brotherhood in Hama and have since been vigilant to repress any insurgence. Also, they have fought many bloody battles with Fatah in Lebanon. The Syrian support for Palestinians is restricted to lip service only.

That leaves only one real threat to Israel from its surrounding neighbors, namely the rockets of Syria and the possibility of another war with Hezbollah.

As for Syria, it is only concerned about the border with Israel since Iraq and Turkey are no threats to them. Assad knows that Israel is happy with him in power. If he would ever be toppled over, chances are that a radical Sunni movement would take over and this would create more instability. From Israel’s point of view, it is far better to deal with a terrified and insecure Syrian government more concerned with maintaining internal control than a confident and popular Syrian government with the freedom to look outward.

The Syrian invasion in Lebanon at the start of the civil war — as well as most Syrian operations in Lebanon — was not about security, but about money. Lebanon, the descendant of Phoenicia, has always been a vibrant economic region (save when there is war). It is the terminus of trade routes from the east and south and the door to the Mediterranean basin. It is a trading and banking hub, with Beirut in particular as the economic engine of the region. Without Beirut and Lebanon, Syria is an isolated backwater. With it, Damascus is a major player.

As such, Syria’s closest ties among Israel’s foes are not with the two major indigenous Palestinian factions, but with the Shiite group Hezbollah. The Syrians have a somewhat tighter religious affinity with Hezbollah, as well as a generation of complex business dealings with the group’s leaders. But its support for Hezbollah is multifaceted, and anti-Israeli tendencies are only one aspect of the relationship. And Hezbollah is much more important to Syria as a tool for managing Damascus’ affairs in Lebanon.

The issue boils down to Lebanon. In a sense, the Israelis had an accommodation with Syria over Lebanon when Israel withdrew. It ceded economic pre-eminence in Lebanon to the Syrians. In return, the Syrians controlled Hezbollah and in effect took responsibility for Israeli security in return for economic power. It was only after Syria withdrew from Lebanon under U.S. pressure that Hezbollah evolved into a threat to Israel, precipitating the 2006 conflict.

What appears to be under consideration between the supposed archrivals, therefore, is the restoration of the 2005 status quo in Lebanon. The Syrians would reclaim their position in Lebanon, unopposed by Israel. In return, the Syrians would control Hezbollah.

For the Syrians, this has the added benefit that by controlling Hezbollah and restraining it in the south, Syria would have both additional strength on the ground in Lebanon, as well as closer economic collaboration — on more favorable terms — with Hezbollah. For Syria, Hezbollah is worth more as a puppet than as a heroic anti-Israeli force.

This is something Israel understands. In the last fight between Israel and Syria in Lebanon, there were different local allies: Israel had the South Lebanese Army. The Syrians were allied with the Christian Franjieh clan. In the end, both countries dumped their allies. Syria and Israel have permanent interests in Lebanon. They do not have permanent allies.

The big loser in this game, of course, would be the Lebanese. But that is more complicated than it appears. Many of the Lebanese factions — including most of the Christian clans — have close relations with the Syrians. Moreover, the period of informal Syrian occupation was a prosperous time. Lebanon is a country of businessmen and militia, sometimes the same. The stability the Syrians imposed was good for business.

The one faction that would clearly oppose this would be Hezbollah. It would be squeezed on all sides. Ideologically speaking, constrained from confronting Israel, its place in the Islamic sun would be undermined. Hezbollah would have the choice of fighting the Syrians (not an attractive option) or of becoming a Syrian tool.

Either way, Hezbollah would have to do something in response to any rumors floating about of a Syrian deal with the Israelis. And given the quality of Syrian intelligence in these matters, key Hezbollah operatives opposed to such a deal might find themselves blown up. Perhaps they already have.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

OTV: Zero TV

Just heard a friend referring to OTV (Orange TV) as Zero TV...perhaps this joke has been going around since Aoun's station started. It makes you wonder why on earth anyone came up with this name, given it's so easily abusable.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Berri does it again

Speaker of the house Nabih Berri is considered a sly, political fox by both friends and enemies. To further his reputation, he has pulled off what no one thought possible: get part March 14 on board for another postponement of the parliamentary sessions, get part of March 14's approval of dealing with Hezbollah's weapons "in the long run" and sow division within March 14 at the same time.

So what happened? Yesterday, the Lebanese Parliament was supposed to meet for the fiftieth 18th time to elect a president. However, not enough Members of Parliament showed up to have a two-third vote, among which Saad Hariri. Other MPs were out of the country as well, mostly for security reasons. While this is understandable, it's also quite strange not to even bother to show up for doing your job. Alternatively, why not be "on standby", say in Cyprus, ready to be flown in the moment it would be clear a session would be held?

As a result of the failing quorum, Berri held a side meeting with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt instead , which the latter described as "excellent" afterwards.

Outcome of this meeting was to hold further rounds of dialogue and to deal with Hezbollah's weapons in the long run. Jumblatt, not stupid either, must know that this goes against his previous positions as well as against other March 14 members, such as one of his closest allies Marwan Hamade, also a Druze and considered to be number two right after Jumblatt. Hamade called further dialogue a masquerade and thus clearly opposed Jumblatt on this one. So why did Jumblatt make the promise of dialogue outside Parliament in an "excellent meeting" with the person responsible for closing the House in the first place?

To add salt to injury, a meeting of western and Arab leaders in Kuwait called for the immediate election of general Suleiman. Lebanese often complain that their country is run from abroad. But let's be honest: leaving it up to the Lebanese themselves only results in "excellent meetings" full of promises to postpone crucial questions.

The solution? Sell Lebanon to Kuwait :-)

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Pictures of sexy swimsuits in Arab world

Apologies for the annoying title, but Internet logic prescribes to use these kind of words to attract the most traffic. Anyway, it's spring in Lebanon and that means new billboards, filled with the latest swimsuit models. It always amazes me to see such huge pictures of half naked women in an otherwise conservative country, let alone the region.

And it's not only a spring thing. Somehow, the Lebanese always find a reason to put up these borderline erotic pictures. In spring, they have women in bikini, in autumn they feature seductive lingerie to keep you warm during those long winter nights. Anyway, this post is just to share with you the sight I see these days when walking to work:

Photo 1 & 2: Swimsuit ads in Hamra

Interesting enough, such explicit billboards are usually placed in Christian areas and not so much in Muslim sections, assuming Christians are more open-minded than Muslims. Based on my personal interactions with people from both faith, I sincerely doubt that this stereotype is true, as it could easily be argued that even if this somehow were the rule, there are so many exceptions that the rule would be hardly relevant anymore.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

AUB launches channel on YouTube

From the press release: "The American University of Beirut (AUB) has become one of only a handful of universities worldwide to launch a dedicated channel on YouTube, the enormously popular video-sharing website."

So far, only 20 universities worldwide have set up a YouTube channel, so that puts AUB right up there in the lead. AUB's YouTube channel can be viewed here.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Lebanon’s hypocrisy

This week was quite astonishing in terms of hypocrisy, even for those used to the Lebanese way of stir frying facts and fiction. Two events stood out: Siniora’s calling for a thorough investigation of the Israeli incursion in the south of Lebanon and the Halat mass grave.

As for the first event, no one seemed to remember that only a few weeks earlier, reports came in about a Syrian incursion in the Bekaa valley. No outcry, no objections, but the moment Israel crosses the border, all hell breaks loose. Just to be clear, I think any self-respecting country should object to such incursions, but why the strange silence on Syrian actions?

Things only got worse the last few days. Some pro Aoun MPs were saying that there might be a mass grave near Halat. Since this territory was controlled by the Lebanese Forces, there was a clear underlying accusation from Aoun to Samir Geagea, the leader of the Lebanese Forces.

Two hypocrisies were striking: one, the prosecution of journalists who dutifully reported these severe statements made by MPs. Why wouldn’t a reporter write about MPs claiming there is an undiscovered mass grave in Lebanon? Sure, these journalists might not have been fully neutral in their coverage and might even have shown some...(sensitive people please look away)...bias! Imagine that!

The second one is the fact that Lebanese Forces supporters immediately started asking for Aoun to fess up locations of mass murders committed by his people. Remember the speeches Geagea gave when he was released from prison in 2005? All full of closure with the past, let bygones be bygones…except for one thing: giving the families of victims peace of mind by telling them what happened to their sons. Instead of accusing Aoun of hiding the truth, why doesn’t Geagea come clean on all the crimes of the Lebanese Forces?

Let me throw in a bonus hypocrisy: the poor search that was executed by the Lebanese government. It even triggered a response that they should have searched three meters to the left and right. Imagine this true, that they’d fail finding this mass grave because their search area should have been 3 meters wider? Could it be that the Lebanese government doesn’t want the mass grave to be found?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Jumblatt whining about winning elections

The election within the Order of Engineering last weekend was a clear victory for the March 14 candidates. You'd think Druze leader Jumblatt must be estatic with joy, but the opposite is true: he denounces the results. Why? His candidate, a Shiite, lost.

A political leader who turns out to be a sour far no problem. In fact, any serious leader should have the drive to win. It's more his comments afterwards that are so striking:

"The mathematic victory has no value whatsoever if it is the result of a politics of exclusion. This outcome (the loss of Jumblatt's candidate - RB) is the result of a new tendency of marginalization that prevails above the many deadlines, a marginalization that contradicts at least the path taken by March 14. That means openness to all communities, including the Shiite community" (translation by me)

OK, exercise for the reader: find quotes from Hezbollah complaining about exactly the same thing, namely a marginalization and exclusion of the Shiites due to to "mathematic victories"!

Democracy normally is about winning based on numbers, as in whoever gets 51% wins. Come to think of it, democracy is quite mathematical. However, March 8 already dissed this principle some time ago. Now it seems Jumblatt is ready to join their ranks by complaining about illusionary (oh sorry: 'mathematic') victories.

The answer, my friend, is...

See this recent post of Jeha's Nail

Friday, April 11, 2008

Should Lebanon peg to the Euro?

Yesterday, Prof. David Cobham, visiting from the Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, gave a lecture at AUB on the question if Lebanon should peg to the euro instead of to the American dollar. It’s an interesting question especially now that the dollar is increasingly losing value against the euro.

Prof. Cobham’s answer was that Lebanon would be wise to start using the euro instead of the dollar to peg the Lebanese pound to. His arguments were quite compelling, namely that Lebanon is doing significantly more business with the Euro zone than with the United States, and calculations made by his team have shown that Lebanon could witness a 50% increase of trade if it were to switch the pegging currency.

Sounds like a no-brainer, right? It makes you wonder what the governor of the Central Bank, Riad Salameh, has been doing all these years! Well…I suppose it boils down to a matter of trust: who would you trust more, Salameh who has a proven track record in handling the Lebanese economy, or a visiting professor who applies some western-based theory on the Lebanese situation he’s hardly familiar with?

Interesting enough, in a recent interview, Salemeh was asked the question if Lebanon should switch to euros. His answer, in short: no, Lebanon has benefited much from the dollar. According to Salameh:

“The weakening of the dollar confers more competitiveness on the Lebanese economy, because we are dollarized. 77% of our transactions are in US dollars in the country. And all the costs of the country are related to the value of the dollar. So a weakening of the dollar makes all Lebanese sectors working with external markets more competitive.”

That would be true if Lebanon would be mostly exporting its good since the lower dollar would make the Lebanese goods cheaper. However, given the lack of natural resources and manufacturing facilities in Lebanon, it must import more than export. Knowing that most of our trade is with the Euro zone, this means Lebanon is importing in expensive euros while exporting in cheap dollars. Salameh’s answer, therefore, is difficult to comprehend.

Again, the question, slightly rephrased: who would you trust more, a governor who’s defending himself against having missed the boat or a renowned expert on international economics who’s taking a fresh look at Lebanon?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Key witness not missing after all

The Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Seyassah reported today that they received a phone call from key witness Siddiq saying he has gone into hiding due to threats. Given that the French are stating they don't know his whereabouts, Siddiq must have little faith in the French police to protect him. And rightfully so since they didn't protect him in the first place.

In line with the confusion key witness Siddiq caused at the time right after the murder of Hariri when he made damaging statements, retracted them and made them again and got sued by the Lebanese government in the process, he has again been occupying the spotlights.

After many feared him dead, including his own brother, it seems he's still very much alive and ready to testify at the Hariri Tribunal. The fact that Siddiq's brother's accusations were printed in a Syrian newspaper, which are under tight state control, is an indication that even Syria didn't know whether or not he was alive. After all, why would they say Siddiq is dead, a claim that would be refuted the moment he opens his mouth, as has happened now?

So much for speculating about Syria's involvement. Then again, Siddiq was informed by Lebanese authorities about three attempts against his life. One can only assume Lebanon would have cc'ed the French on this and yet this was not reason enough for them to place Siddiq in a witness protection program.

So, let's see. We have had an incompetent prosecutor Brammertz, who "ought to be prevented from exercising any legal profession, so deleterious his performance has been in Lebanon over a full two years" according to one of Lebanon's top legal minds, Chibli Mallat. We have a successor, Bellemare, who seems to be repeating Brammertz' work without adding anything new and thus is effectively wasting two years of precious time.

What's more, he seems to be steering away from the political motivations behind the killing of Hariri and is now talking about a criminal network. On top of that, he has asked for a six month extension and has yet failed to indict anyone. He is certainly right that "justice can't be rushed", but there's much to say for timely justice as well.

And finally, we have France not protecting key witnesses who stay there thinking they'd be safe. It makes you wonder how much the international community really wants this tribunal to happen.

Oh yeah, almost forgot: there's Condi Rice saying that the USA has stopped all negotiations with Syria over the Tribunal. Key word here is 'stopped': this implies both countries were negotiating up until now about how to get Syria off the hook in return for concessions.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Another witness disappears

According to the French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, a key witness to the Hariri Tribunal has disappeared. His fate is unknown, although rumors have it that he is in Abu Dhabi. This is yet again a major blow for the Tribunal. What's interesting is that Michael Young already mentioned this disappearance on April 1, quoting former minister Wiam Wahab.

Why would it take France a full week to confirm the whereabouts of this key witness? It seems they weren't really watching him, let alone protecting him. That's a worrisome message to send to potential witnesses who are currently reluctant to come forward.

And forward they might come, especially now with the disappearance of this key witness Siddiq. Most people will assume that Syria is behind it, getting rid of unwanted witnesses. Imagine you are a lower rank security official and somewhat connected to the Hariri events. Would you fear for your life? Absolutely. But would you turn to France for protection? Well, not so quickly anymore.

The best thing France can do is to immediately launch an extensive witness protection program to capture on the increasing fear amongst possible witnesses. This program should be open to anyone who steps forward. It should be clear that France will do its utmost best to protect witnesses and their families. Unless that happens, the strategy of intimidation could easily pay off and the removal of Siddiq would be only the first of a possibly long line of vanishing witnesses.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

New cinema website in Lebanon

The other day I received an e-mail introducing a new website called Cineklik that covers cinemas in Lebanon. Usually such ads are ignored unless the website is either very good or very bad. Cineklik belongs to the first category.

The website is refreshingly simple and logical to use: you can search by movie or by theater and at all times you can go to either selection. Select a movie and see in which theaters it plays, or select a theater and see what movies are running.

In addition, you can see a small synopsis of each movie and it lists the contact details for each cinema. On top of that, you can opt for receiving news about upcoming movies via RSS. In other words "Keep it simple and stupid", and that's how we like our websites, here at Lebanon Update.

So is there nothing that could be improved? Ah, but of course there is! For instance, the website only lists the movies playing at the main chains of theaters in Lebanon, ignoring the art houses, movies shown at universities and so on. Why not include those movies as well? It would add value to the site and make it the one place to go to.

Another improvement would be to remove the comments/reviews from visitors as they are annoying, seldom informative and potentially ruinous: It takes one joker to start posting movies' plots in the comments section to kill the fun for those who haven't seen the movie yet. Why not include professional reviews by linking to movie reviews already available on the Internet?

Last, it would be nice to have a search option by category, so you can see all comedies or action movies, e.g.

But the above suggestions are relative minor issues for an otherwise very useful site. So if you are a movie buff and you want to stay current with Lebanese movies, be sure to add Cineklik to your favorites.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Oprah coming to Lebanon!

Three days ago, the AUB student magazine Outlook reported that the famous Oprah Winfreh will come to Lebanon to accept a honorary doctorate from AUB. Great news, obviously. Unfortunately, the Outlook website is down, so I've scanned the article and posted it here below (click on it for larger version):

...and yes, I know...but it doesn't hurt to dream, does it?

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

April's Fool Joke in Lebnaon

Check here.

EU talks with Hezbollah...uh...or not

A friend informed me that a Lebanese newspaper reported last week that the Dutch ambassador has had a meeting with Mr. Moussawi, who is the Hezbollah guy-to-go-to for anything that has to do with international affairs. Now that’s news: an EU country talking to a representative of a blacklisted organization!!

To note, I am not a reporter, but like most bloggers there’s always this desire to stumble across hard hitting news and being the first to report it. To be a blogger or journalist, you must possess a strongly developed sense of self-importance: what I have to say, matters. In fact, it matters so much I want a larger audience than that guy in my bathroom mirror every morning. However pathetic it may sound, but the thought ‘The world needs me!’ should be the attitude for any journalist/blogger.

So imagine my excitement when I heard about that article: what’s better news than having an EU country ignoring the EU guideline of not talking to organizations they consider being terrorist? The apparent reason was to be proactive about the anti-Koran movie Fitna that was about to be released. Still, would that be a good enough reason for talking to people you call terrorists? Hell no! Pulitzer here I come!!

First step was to get confirmation from the Dutch embassy, but they denied flat out that the ambassador has had any contact with any Hezbollah representative whatsoever. Uh-oh…not good. If I’d be truly paranoid, this would confirm the story even more: of course they’d be denying the fact that they’d be breaking all the rules! But, I happen to see them regularly and the Dutch ambassador with his staff are truly nice, professional people who wouldn’t have any reason to lie.

Yup, I know: such a trust in people counts as a huge disqualifier for journalism! So I had to continue searching for The Truth™. How about giving the newspaper a call that originally published the article? Good thinking Riemer, you rool!

[Like any blogger/journalist, you have to fully believe in yourself. Even after seeing a story being destroyed upon hearing the flat-out denial from a key player, you have to pick yourself up and keep on going. Self-delusional thoughts of your own importance are crucial in this field. The world needs you, remember!…one can only wonder how this affects the overall quality of news providing in general]

So I called the newspaper to get at least a confirmation that the article describing the meeting between the Dutch ambassador and the Hezbollah representative had indeed been published last week. That turned out to be quite a challenge.

- “Hi, I am Riemer Brouwer and I am from Holland. Your newspaper has published a story about the Dutch ambassador…”
- “Afwan?”, the operator asked, followed by some Arabic
- “Do you speak English?”
- “uh…wait”

After waiting for a few minutes, they had located a person who could speak English. “Yes sir, how can I help you?”. So I launched into my question all over again and asked him if he could remember this article.

- “Uh sorry, no article like that. Not written by me”
- “Perhaps one of your colleagues wrote it?”, I tried
- “Uh, sorry, I don’t know”
- “OK, who would know?”
- “Uh sorry, I don’t know”, was again the answer
- “Can I talk to your boss, perhaps he knows”
- “Uh sorry, he is on a lunch break, try after 5PM, then he will be back”

I called the newspaper at around 2PM, so that’s quite a nice lunch break they’re having. Obviously, the assistant should have told me that his boss was out hunting down a scoop or something equally sexy, but his honesty was actually much more interesting.

At 5 o’clock I called again and asked directly for his boss. Luckily, he spoke English albeit barely. Luckily, he was also very friendly, especially when I told him I was from Holland and writing about Fitna . Unluckily, he couldn’t help and gave the impression he had no clue what I was talking about. “Dutch ambassador? Who? Fitna movie about Islam from Holland? Movie, what do you mean?”

So I explained a bit more, but it felt like talking to a wall. It’s an experience shared by most foreigners in the Arab world: it can be amazingly difficult to have a normal conversation with someone who doesn’t know and thus doesn’t trust you, especially over the phone. It’s almost always necessary to meet with the person, sit down and have coffee with him and after this huge waste of time you can ask your question.

My attempt to get information over the phone from a guy who has never met me was therefore doomed to fail. Sure enough, after a few minutes, the man defaulted into the familiar “Uh sorry, I don’t know” answer.

Seriously frustrated by now, I decided to give up. Hard-hitting journalism is just not for me. Hence, any real journalist looking for a scope, this might still be it: EU talks with Hezbollah. Feel free to write about it…no, wait, change that in: You must write about it. Remember, the world needs you!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Traffic lights in Hamra

Hamra these days is regaining some of its old glory: pubs, restaurants and night clubs are opening left, right and center. It will even have its own traffic lights soon! They are currently constructing them all over. If you take the Abdel-Azziz road, which leads down from Rue Hamra to the start of Bliss Street, you can already see them. Or simply look at the pics below.

Photo 1: Brand new lights on the corner of HSBC, Hamra

Photo 2: Construction has started for the next crossroad on Rue Abdel-Azziz.

There is one question looming in the back of everyone's mind, though: how are they gonna make cars or foot traffic (note the cute little lights for pedestrians) adhere to the lights? See, you can put all the traffic lights, stop signs and what have you, but the average Lebanese is quite a freedom-orientated fellow. Certainly, he won't be limited to stopping for some traffic lights, life has more to offer than that!

What about cameras that take pictures of all cars crossing a red light, you ask? Well....they tried that once on the crossroad in front of BankMed, going up from the Phoenicia Hotel. It was quite a sight to see: at night, you felt like you were in an early 80's dancing hole with the stroboscope going berserk. However, all the typical cabrio driver would do was fix her/his hair, cos you want to look your best on the picture.

My guess is that soon enough they will put police officers on the crossroads to ensure the cars are actually stopping for the traffic lights. Waste of money, you say? My, my, aren't we the critical one, today!

But yeah, you would be right, though. If they'd just place a police officer from the start, there wouldn't be any need for the traffic lights in the first place. But that requires logic, planning and all those other boring words. Nah, life has more to offer than that!