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" 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.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Aoun defending Christians...

I don't want readers of this blog to think I am biased against Michel Aoun, it's just that his statements are great fodder for bloggers. Frequent visitors will remember quotes from Jumblatt, another politician who's always good for a remarkable quote or two.

Case at hand is Michel Aoun's speech he gave yesterday, during which he renewed his attacks against the patriarch by accusing him of "conspiring against the Christians and seeking to marginalize them." Aoun bases this on the fact that the patriarch gives the highest priority to electing a Christian president.

Alrightie...the top Christian Maronite leader arguing for electing a Christian president surely must be working against the interests of the Christians!

Grace a Dieu
we have Aoun to defend the Christian interests by wanting to visit Syria and being happy with having Hezbollah being active in Christian areas. And the strangest thing, no doubt Aoun's preference of Assad over Sfeir makes perfect sense to his followers.

Cleaning house...or well...

In a surprise move, the government has decided to relieve the airport security chief from his function because of his alleged close ties to Syria.

In the same breath, March 14 wants general Suleiman, who made most if not all of his career under Syrian tutelage, to become the next president...

Still, the quote of the day is for Michel Aoun who said that during tomorrow's demonstrations, riots will be banned. Only thing is, his and March 8's definition of riots versus legitimate protest is rather vague: blocking roads with burning tires, shooting at Lebanese's all part of exercising one's democratic right according to March 8. You really have to wonder what March 8 considers to be "riots"...

Monday, May 5, 2008

Those Google ads

After reviewing my last post on sexy lingerie in Lebanon, I noticed the ads Google placed beneath it. Normally, such ads are related to the topic of the article. In this case, the ads below the article must have been triggered by the excitement/seduction always, the reader can choose which advertisement arouses more:-)

More sexy lingerie from Lebanon

Thanks to the +961 blog, here are some pictures from the most famous lingerie show in Lebanon: the one high up in the snow, at the Intercon hotel Mzaar in Farayah. To make this copy-cat article less obvious (psst, don't tell anyone!!), I selected some other photo's. Do check out +961, though, his pics are truly hilarious.

BTW, it's pretty common these days in Holland to refer to places with their area code, like instead of writing Amsterdam, people simply write 020. It saves space and time while SMSing. Good to see it has also caught on in Lebanon.

Photo 1: A typical Lebanese beauty shows the latest collection...oh wait...perhaps she's not Lebanese. Actually, most if not all models who show a little flesh are not Lebanese. Prudishness is quite close to hypocrisy here: we don't want our own daughters to be seen like that, but boy, do we like to watch those sexy foreign chicks or what!

Photo 2: Yep, those stockings should help her keep warm. But really, I pity those girls who are walking around in sub-zero temperatures...brrr!

Photo 3: And here we are thinking it is about the latest has to do with some whiskey brand. Bad idea btw, drinking alcohol while in the cold...