Archive | January, 2011

Jumblatt attacks tribunal as threat to Lebanese security

23 Jan
Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Progressive Soci...

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Tariq Alhonmayed, editor-in-chief of Asharq al-Awsat, on Wednesday wrote “the time has come to reform Lebanon the hard way, and the International Tribunal is the best way to do this.”  It does indeed look like mediation efforts in Lebanon have reached boiling – or rather, breaking – point.  Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Qatar, the US, France – each has thrown in their pennies’ worth and promptly backed away before any more hard-earned cash (substitute status/reputation/time) is lost.  Each, while worrying aloud about the effect war or violence in Lebanon may have across the region, has decided that the attempt to find a solution is fruitless, at least for now.  Western-affiliated countries continue to stress the importance of the tribunal; supporters of Arabian empowerment, who tend also to be anti-Western, continue to back Hezbollah, meaning that they also follow its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, in denouncing the UN tribunal as “an Israeli project.”

How can such divergent perspectives be reconciled? Given that even the international mediators – naturally not as emotionally involved in Lebanese domestic affairs as are the key players – cannot come to a resolution, it is hardly surprising that a successful compromise between the March 8 and March 14 camps has yet to be reached.  But Alhonmayed’s comment demonstrates just how much further there is to go.  His proposed solution is based around the justice that will come out of the International Tribunal.  But this is exactly the problem.  Will it be justice, if the accused party (most likely Hezbollah) believes the tribunal to be biased? Will its verdict carry any weight? Will it have any power to condemn the guilty party? Although by international law accused criminals can be tried in absentia, academic Franklin Lamb has pointed out that this is in danger of breaking Lebanese law and may not be upheld.  There is strife between the UN investigators conducting the inquiry.

And even if the tribunal’s verdict is straightforward and a guilty party is tried, the bulk of the problem remains.  Hezbollah take the very existence of the tribunal as a personal affront.  They also see it as an insult to Lebanon.  For them, supporters of the tribunal are Westophiles, unpatriotic.  Saad Hariri, of the March 14 camp, has backed the tribunal: it is, after all, investigating the murder of his father.  But his decision has cost him the premiership and it now looks unlikely he will be re-elected.  Leader of the Druze sect Wallid Jumblatt, who just days ago declared his staunch support for Hariri (currently caretaker PM) announced on Friday that his party “will stand firm in support of Syria and the resistance [Hezbollah].”  Jumblatt is known for his reversals of support; a pragmatist and patriot, his allies depend upon who offers the Druze a better deal and what seems most promising for Lebanon.  His decisions tend to be intelligently calculated and he is influential.  His backing of Hezbollah is troublesome for Hariri, and not only because Jumblatt has 11 MPs in his bloc.  If Jumblatt, generally agreed to be a moderate, backs Hezbollah, undecided public support may conclude that, in fact, Hezbollah does seem to offer a better option.  Hezbollah now have 62 allies in parliament; Hariri has 60.  65 are needed for a new government to be legitimate.  Hezbollah, the party of “the resistance” for so long, are fast becoming the party with the largest claim to legitimacy – and to power.  And if they govern Lebanon, whatever the International Tribunal uncovers is unlikely to have an affect.  Which brings us back to Alhonmayed’s hope.  Whether for better or worse, the UN tribunal will not reform Lebanon.


Nasrallah’s eloquence

18 Jan
Hassan Nasrallah on TV

Image by Kodak Agfa via Flickr

Hassan Nasrallah took to Al-Manar TV on Sunday night to speak of recent developments in Lebanon and to clarify the part Hezbollah has played.  In a clever move that implied his willingness to communicate and to maintain openness and honesty with the Lebanese people, Nasrallah explained the background to the failure of the Saudi-Syrian settlement, which happened so rapidly and took so many by surprise.

“It is the right of all the Lebanese to know and … facts can always uncover the schemes being prepared for our country,” he said.

Nasrallah, Secretary General of Hezbollah (Party of God), said that his group had always supported the Saudi Syrian effort to end tension in Lebanon in light of the STL probing of those responsible for the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005.  He even said that “we bargained on this effort as all the Lebanese who sought welfare for Lebanon.”  Such a claim is in direct opposition to the claims made last week by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when eleven ministers resigned from the cabinet and effectively dissolved the government.  Her response was that such an action would not be committed by anyone with the interest of Lebanon in their hearts and as their goal.

Mrs Clinton also pointed out that opposition to the UN tribunal is an opposition to justice for the Lebanese.  Hezbollah, who pride themselves on being patriotic, have been keen to emphasise that they are not against the tribunal in itself, but the politicised symbol it has now become.  Nasrallah has long labelled it “an Israeli project” and claimed that it will indict Hezbollah because that would be the most convenient conclusion for enemies of the group.

Nasrallah said on Sunday: “We said that we refused a politicized indictment and we consider ourselves as its target.  However, Lebanon is our country and we adhere to safeguard it. We reached the following conclusion.  We put Lebanon aside through three items: the government withdraws Lebanese judges from the STL, stops funding it, and cancels the understanding memo between it and the international tribunal. These three items do not cancel the STL, regardless of our opinion of it.”

These, according to Nasrallah, were Hezbollah’s terms for the Saudi-Syrian settlement; he said also that the Saudis agreed.  “There was a positive atmosphere but the Saudi king’s illness slowed down the process and negotiations were taking place via telephone.  Two weeks ago, we had confirmation that the king underwent a successful operation and that he was recovering and willing to move forward with the effort to reach an agreement.  We were told that the king [Saudi King Abdullah] will send for Hariri to come to the US to put the final touches on the agreement.  Then Hariri made his statement saying the deal was cut months ago; this needs to be verified, but nevertheless it’s good. Then Hariri goes to the US, holds some meetings, and without prior notice he calls the Syrians to tell them that he cannot continue with this effort.”

Nasrallah’s explanation suggests that Hariri’s claim that the deal had been in place for months and that Hezbollah had neglected their promises was false.  Nevertheless, Nasrallah is careful to sound relaxed by this (“nevertheless it’s good”) as though Hezbollah’s reputation little mattered in the larger matter of progressing the terms of the settlement.  He gives the idea that Hezbollah allowed their integrity to be called into question for the sake of maintaining amicable relations with Hariri – in other words, for the good of Lebanon.  Whether true or not – Hezbollah are not a group likely to allow their dignity to be compromised – Nasrallah certainly does the job of laying blame at Hariri’s door effectively.  He makes Hariri sound untrustworthy, whimsical and, worst of all, not ready to sacrifice some of his own desires for the country he governs. 

Naturally this is mere prelude to Nasrallah’s real culprits: the USA and Israel.  The USA, he says, did something to reverse Hariri’s course.  Whether they exercised power over him or lead him to fear, they influence him into cancelling the settlement.  According to Nasrallah’s presentation, then, it was the “meddling” of the US that prevented the settlement from taking place; this, he said, was because they did not want an Arab settlement taking place.

“It is obvious that the Americans and the Israelis were against the Arab effort and they bargained on its failure because they had in mind that the crisis was complicated and eventually, they will not need to interfere.  However, when they realized that the process was yielding positive results, they interfered in a decisive way.  This is why the efforts stopped so suddenly.”  This is also why, Nasrallah added, opposition ministers decided to resign from the government.

In blaming Hariri for the settlement’s failure, whether because of America or not, Nasrallah is discrediting a man he believes must be removed from the picture of Lebanese politics.  He paints him as an American pawn not to be trusted in order to undermine support for his possible re-election as prime minister.  “There is no doubt that certain Lebanese parties had worked extensively to thwart the Arab effort and lashed out at the King because they sensed he was very serious in completing the understanding.  Either Hariri and his team did not want to proceed with the deal but had to under Saudi pressure, and eventually went to the Americans and others to pressure the Saudis to stop the effort, or they were supporting the king but the American will was against it.  Either way, Hariri and his team have established the fact that they cannot be trusted and is not reliable to help Lebanon or lead the country out of any impasse.”

He discredits Hariri further by refraining from stating exactly Hariri’s own terms in the SS settlement, saying only that “the Lebanese will discover that among them is a term or two in line with Lebanon’s interest; beside this, all other terms serve the interest of Hariri’s political and security team.”  And of course: “Still, we dealt with them very positively.”

Nasrallah ended his speech with a warning.  It is one which, apart from a sentence blaming Israel that comes so unexpectedly and so unsupported by evidence it can only sound absurd, showcases his persuasive eloquence impressively.

Hezbollah “will not let anyone damage our reputation and dignity and we will not allow anyone to conspire against us or accuse us of spilling the blood of martyr Rafik Hariri. We will act according to what will be released. How? It depends on our estimation of interests. I have no doubt that Israel killed Hariri and carried out the assassinations in Lebanon. We have confronted wars of all kinds, military, security and assassinations. I reassure those who are still after this project that they are miscalculating. Consultations may bring back Hariri, but this is the beginning of a new stage. We tell those who believe they can use the indictment to target the resistance that they are extensively miscalculating.”

“I will have another speech in light of what Bellemare will issue in the next couple of days,” Nasrallah concluded.

This article is written neither to condemn nor support Hezbollah, merely to demonstrate the intelligent rhetoric of its leader.  Whether one agrees or not is a separate matter.

Lebanon: what now?

17 Jan

Communication is necessary: Much of the commentary about Lebanon since the collapse of Hariri’s government on January 12th has unfortunately fallen into one of two categories: either pro-US and anti-Hezbollah, or the opposite.

Some commentators – such as Tony Badran ( and Jonathan Spyer ( – see the messy political situation in Lebanon as a way in which America might extend its influence there, thereby minimising Iran’s sway.  Spyer descirbes Hezbollah as “a long-term Iranian project designed to build the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Arab world by engaging in conflict with Israel.”  Although various pro-US commentators see Lebanon in terms of Iran or as a means to destroying an Iranian enemy, Hezbollah, who have Iranian support, are at their core and in their essence Lebanese.  Hassan Nasrallah, the militant group’s charismatic leader, would raise unamused eyebrows at the notion of his party as the “project” of anybody.

Badran states that “the notion that a compromise with Damascus on an issue as critical as the STL was possible … was silly.” On the contrary, the notion that such a compromise is silly, is sillier.  Whether one likes it or not, Syria is a crucial player in Lebanese politics; denying that does not make it go away.  As one of Hezbollah’s key supporters, Syria must necessarily be consulted in order for a realistic solution to be found.  Badran also fails to recognise the irony of sentences such as “This is where the US has to step up and take the lead … the Obama administration would do well to keep these ever-increasing cooks [Syria, France, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar] out of the Lebanese kitchen.”  It is for the Lebanese – as, to continue the metaphor, head chef – to choose which cooks they allow in their kitchen.  America is a player with a strong sphere of influence and therefore must be one of the ‘cooks’, but for the Lebanese to devolve decision-making power to a country that has so little sympathy for one of Lebanon’s most significant and certainly most powerful political parties, Hezbollah, would be absurd.

Michael Williams, UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon, pointed out last week that “my work [as the representative of the UN Secretary General] would be impossible without a dialogue with Hezbollah.”  Dismissing the party, whether as a terrorist group or a group with whom compromise should not be sought, will not allow the situation in Lebanon to progress.

Hezbollah expert Sa’ad Ghorayeb said that “ideally, Hezbollah wants Hariri [Sa’ad, son of the murdered Rafik] as prime minister, it wants to maintain resistance to Israel, it wants the U.S. to stop intervening in Lebanese affairs, and it wants civil peace and coexistence.”

However, Hezbollah’s hope for the ending of American intervention in Lebanon is little more than wishful thinking.  It was reported yesterday that the Obama warned Lebanese President Michel Suleiman that the nomination of a March 8 (Hezbollah) camp candidate to form a new Cabinet would jeopardize all U.S. aid programs to Lebanon and the basis of partnership between the two countries.  In other words, if Hezbollah get their way – which would be a democratic move, however unpopular with foreign powers – the US will, at the very least, respond with an intense destabilisation campaign.

The statements were accompanied by US National Security Advisor Tom Donilon’s assertions that the United States is committed to diplomatic efforts to tackle the Lebanese crisis, including French ones aimed at forming an international group to support the Lebanese government.

Much of the US’ anti Hezbollah rhetoric works on the idea that Hezbollah cannot present itself as a resistance group while it is preventing the tribunal from “discovering the truth about the assassination of a prominent figure in Lebanon’s history.”

Meanwhile the importance of the international community continues to be demonstrated.  Walid Jumblatt spent the weekend in Syria, in talks with President Bashar al-Assaad on the political crisis.  The two men stressed the “importance of staying aware of the risks foreign interventions carry in the region and that the region’s inhabitants be the ones to make decisions and reach solutions.”  Jumblatt has said that he will again nominate Hariri for the PM role.

On Sunday meanwhile, diplomats from the United States, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Spain and Russia all pledged their countries’ support for Lebanon’s stability.  Caretaker Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri met with Secretary General of the Spanish Presidency Bernardino Leon, in the presence of Ambassador Juan Carlos Gafo, as well as Egyptian and Russian ambassadors Ahmad Fouad al-Bidiawi and Alexander Zesypkin.  US Ambassador Maura Connelly, who met Sunday with Zahle MP Nicholas Fattouch, reiterated her country’s support for the divisive UN tribunal probing the death of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

An unidentified European diplomat told AFP on Friday that France had requested the formation of an emergency “contact group,” consisting of representatives from Syria, Saudi Arabia, France, the US, Qatar, Turkey “and possibly other countries with a stake in Lebanon.”

Caretaker Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar announced this morning that he expected the prosecutor of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon to refer the indictment in Hariri’s assassination case to the pre-trial judge on Monday.

It has been said over the last two days that the STL will indict Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Wali al Faqih (jurisconsult or Supreme Religious Leader) for issuing the order to assassinate Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.  President al-Aassad, and his brother-in-law, Syrian Intelligence Chief Assef Shawkat, also reportedly played key roles in organizing Hariri’s assassination.

The talks on forming a new Lebanese government which were due to begin this morning have been postponed for one week, according to a statement from President Suleiman’s office.  Lebanese politicians said that the consultations on a new government could be delayed because of a summit in Damascus later today, where the leaders of Syria, Qatar and Turkey will discuss Lebanon’s political crisis.

A Step Back, A Step Forth …

13 Jan

Lebanon has entered a new phase of government – and yet one that has never been older.

President Michel Suleiman formally accepted the resignations of eleven cabinet ministers this morning, finalising the dissolution of the government.  He called on the cabinet to continue in a caretaker capacity until a new government has been formed.  Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri, son of former PM Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005, will continue in his position in the meantime.

Hezbollah, who timed their resignation from the cabinet yesterday to clash with Premier Hariri’s meeting with US President Barack Obama, have called for a new prime minister to take Hariri’s place.  Hassan Nasrallah, head of the Shi’a militant group said that the resignations had taken place because the “expected result of the international tribunal for the former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri is aimed at the resistance [Hezbollah].”

Describing the younger Hariri as “part of the problem, not the solution,” Hezbollah also said that it would not allow him to remain Prime Minister.  “He is not fit to have this responsibility, as experience has proven.”

Nasrallah did, however, discount any chance of a civil war, saying “there will never be a war between the Sunnis and Shi’ites.”

War is indeed unlikely.  The last thing any Lebanese want is a return to the civil strife of 1975-1990.  And the country can function surprisingly well without a government: society do not rely on their politicians to keep things running smoothly.  Lebanon has a history of continuing in spite of its government rather than because of it.

Foreign powers pose the greater threat to peace.  Follwing yesterday’s resignations, the White House released a sharp statement describing the March 8 coalition as “demonstrating their own fear and determination to block the government’s ability to conduct its business and advance the aspirations of all of the Lebanese people.”

Quite how the US administration can claim to know those aspirations is muddling.  The rhetoric itself is clumsy: “all”? One thing most commentators like to trumpet about Lebanon is that it is ‘sectarian,’ ‘diverse,’ a ‘country of contrasts.’  With a good 30% of the country, if not more, backing Hezbollah, such a statement can only emphasise how little America understands Lebanon’s political and religious complexities; or, worse, how little it is willing to give the impression it understands.  Having long described Hezbollah as a terrorist group, the US has no wish to allow it legitimacy.

Indeed, the statement seems to ignore the fact that Hezbollah were part of the government.  The problem arose from a disagreement within the government as to how to handle the UN tribunal investigating the elder Hariri’s assassination.  Hezbollah wanted Lebanon to withdraw all support; Hariri wanted the tribunal to continue.

While Lebanon may be used to being government-less, this is undeniably a step backwards.  As Arab League chief Secretary General Amr Moussa said today in Doha, “we don’t want Lebanon to get back to square one. We thought we already left this station.”  He was accompanying US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on her tour of Doha.

Yesterday Clinton described her tour of the Middle East as an “apology tour” aimed at undoing the damage caused by the Wikileaks release of 250,000 US diplomatic cables.  Wikileaks had revealed that some Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, were urging a tougher line against Iran.  The cables also disclosed Saudi suggestions for a pan-Arab force to crush Hezbollah.

Moussa, however, pointed out that Hezbollah – and indeed many Lebanese – hopes for an Arab resolution are unrealistic.  “All of us, Arabs, Europeans and the United States will have to work together in order to reach a kind of compromise that would maintain the possibility of having a stable government in Lebanon,” he said.  He also called for the tribunal to continue, saying that it should be “above politics.”  “Justice should have its way and Lebanon must have a government,” he added.
Today’s As-Safir, a daily Lebanese newspaper, said in an editorial “Lebanon entered a new phase yesterday, an open-ended one characterized by a profound and long-term political and governmental crisis.”  An-Nahar, another daily, agreed that there was “no easy way out of Lebanon’s new political crisis.”  “No one is under the illusion that the open crisis will come to an end anytime soon.”  However, most Lebanese press do agree that full-scale violence is unlikely.

So what next? Hezbollah has a majority in the 128-member Parliament, which enables it to put forward a candidate of its own for prime minister.  Today at noon, pro-Hezbollah MP Mohammed Raad announced that the opposition will name “a personality with a history of national resistance to head the new government.”  Under Lebanon’s constitution, the PM post go to a Sunni.  It is rumoured that Hezbollah will propose the longtime Sunni leader Omar Karami.

With the failure of the previous government, Hezbollah support on the ground is thicker than most assume.  Some are hoping that Hezbollah will assume power and implement its 2009 Manifesto.  Various Lebanese civil society NGO’s have urged Hezbollah to do more for Lebanon’s increasingly fragile environment, as well as fix Lebanon’s water, electricity and infrastructure problems.  The group had also promised to end the corruption in which many of Lebanon’s politicians are involved.  There is also speculation that, if Hezbollah rule, Palestinian refugees will be granted the rights – and the paperwork – to work and own a home.

Lebanese Government Collapses

12 Jan
Coat of arms of Lebanon

Image via Wikipedia

The collapse today of Lebanon’s unity government was the latest development in tensions stemming from the UN-backed tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The power-sharing government was fourteen-months old and had taken five months to form.  Compiling thirty ministers, a third were needed to resign in order for the collapse to be effected.  Ten ministers allied to Hezbollah handed in their resignation after demanding that current Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri call a Cabinet meeting to discuss the tribunal or face the consequences.  Independent Shia MP Adnan Hussein followed suit shortly afterwards, dissolving Hariri’s government at around 17.00 Beirut time.

Premier Hariri was at the time in New York meeting President Obama.  It is likely that the resignations were timed to coincide with the meeting and cause optimum embarrassment to Hariri, leaving the most powerful man in the world in a meeting with an ex prime-minister.

Hariri will now head a caretaker administration while President Michel Suleiman consults parliamentary blocs to seek agreement on an acceptable new figure.  Hezbollah has called on the president to form a new government.

How did this happen?

One could say that it has been a long time coming.  Speculation has been floating for months about the “crisis” in which Lebanon might soon find itself immersed.  The UN tribunal was likely to find Hezbollah responsible for Rafik Hariri’s death, an indictment that would drastically undermine Hezbollah’s standing as a lawful opposition party with Lebanon’s best interests at heart.

Hezbollah has long called for Lebanese support for the tribunal to be withdrawn, with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah dismissing the tribunal as an “Israeli project.”  Hezbollah and its allies – a key one being Christian leader of the Free Patriotic Movement Michel Aoun – see the tribunal as essentially destructive.  They claim that it is a tool for spreading strife in Lebanon and within the Lebanese and as such should be dismissed.

The position is understandable.  Two of the cabinet ministers were members of Hezbollah and a further eight were allied to the Shi’a militant group.  The tribunal was partially funded by the Lebanese government, so that Hezbollah were effectively supporting their accusers or, as they saw it, taking part in their own humiliation.  March 8 wanted the Cabinet to stop payment of Lebanon’s share toward the financing of the STL, withdraw the Lebanese judges from the tribunal, end Lebanon’s cooperation with the STL, and prosecute the “false witnesses” linked to the UN probe into Rafik Hariri’s killing.

For the Western-backed Hariri and for Hezbollah, supported by Iran and Syria, it was a question of dignity.  Sa’ad Hariri could not allow the tribunal to be dissolved because he would be allowing the murderers of his father their freedom; he would also be seen to be shying away from the course of justice.  Hezbollah could not allow the tribunal to continue because it was an insult to their credibility and to their denial of involvement in the elder Hariri’s assassination.  Hezbollah felt that it was a direct statement of accusation from Premier Hariri’s government.

Saudi Arabia and Syria have since July been in talks to reach a settlement that would please both supporters of Hezbollah and of Hariri.  The talks were lauded as the best chance for the conflict to resolve: it would be an Arabic settlement and not a Western one.  Yet on Friday Premier Hariri told Saudi newspaper Al-Hayat that the Saudi-Syrian agreement had been finalised long ago and that Hezbollah had not lived up to its side of the deal.(

With the accusation coming while Hariri was in the USA and involved in high-profile talks with the world’s most powerful politicians, among them Obama, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Saudi King Abdullah and UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon, Hezbollah seem to have decided that the matter had come to a head.  The involvement of these foreign powers, all of whom support the tribunal and none of whom are sympathetic to Hezbollah, clearly made Hezbollah feel that its significance in the destiny of Lebanon was in danger of being curtailed from outside.  Hezbollah has been on the US State Department’s List of Terrorist Organizations since 1999 and holds little trust for the West in general.  The absence in the talks of its allies, namely Syria and Iran, will not have reassured Hezbollah that its corner, too, is being fought.

On Monday, Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television reported that the March 8 coalition had given President Suleiman and Premier Hariri 24 hours to convene a cabinet meeting or it would take action on its own.  A March 8 delegation – including Marada Movement leader MP Suleiman Franjieh, Amal Movement MP Ali Hassan Khalil, Energy Minister Gebran Bassil and Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s aide Hussein Khalil – had met with Suleiman at Baabda Palace.  Afterwards Hezbollah Minister Mohammad Fneish spoke on behalf of the March 8 opposition and told the media: “After we positively dealt with the Syrian-Saudi initiative and provided it with chances of success, it unfortunately reached a dead end due to US meddling and the other camp’s [Premier Hariri] failure to find a solution.”

“American intervention and the inability of the other side to overcome American pressure” had effectively ended the settlement, he said.  When asked why the talks collapsed, Fneish said: “Ask Mrs Clinton.”

Fneish also emphasised Hezbollah’s “keenness on not letting the country continue to suffer the current paralysis.”  Hezbollah largely defines itself as acting in the interest of Lebanon.  Fneish concluded that the March 8 opposition would take the appropriate decision based on the answer they received from the Hariri.

On the same day MP Aoun announced that the Saudi-Syrian initiative had “reached a dead end”, blaming Hariri’s March 14 alliance for its failure.  He also pointed out that “we [the March 8 coalition] have supported the initiative because we cannot be against efforts seeking good.  But the mediators have cautioned us that we must assume our responsibilities as Lebanese in order to reach a solution.  We demand a Cabinet meeting at which we will propose all the ideas we want.”

Hariri’s response to the demand was an urge to the Lebanese to keep calm.  “Despite the developments of the last few hours, we will use all possible means to keep channels open to all the Lebanese to reach solutions that guarantee stability and calm and preserve national unity,” he said in a statement from New York.  He also said that he and President Suleiman were in talks over Hezbollah’s call for a Cabinet meeting.

However, the Wednesday deadline arrived with no meeting called.  At 17.00 local time – just as Hariri would be shaking hands with Obama – the ten ministers resigned.  They had warned that they would do so in an earlier statement.

“This cabinet has become a burden on the Lebanese, unable to do its work,” Jibran Bassil said.  “We are giving a chance for another government to take over.”  Bassil also said the ministers decided to resign after Hariri “succumbed to foreign and American pressures” and turned his back on the Syrian-Saudi efforts.

Environment Minister Mohammad Rahhal, an ally of Hariri’s, said that Hezbollah’s threat to topple the government was aimed at paralysing the state and forcing Hariri to disavow the tribunal.

Clearly it was the involvement of foreign powers in the governing of Lebanon that had frustrated, and probably insulted, Hezbollah.

Hillary Clinton on Monday described herself as “deeply worried about the efforts to destabilize Lebanon.”  In a statement evidently referring to Iran and Hezbollah, she said, “I’ve also been working with the Saudis, and the French and the Egyptians, and others, to try to make sure we stabilise Lebanon and prevent any outside interest or anyone within Lebanon who is getting direction from outside interests from taking steps that will destabilise Lebanon and perhaps provoke conflict.”  Her allies are sadly lacking in allies of Hezbollah, without whom no settlement can take place.

The attitude exhibited by politicians such as Juan Carlos Gafo, the Spanish ambassador to Lebanon shows a greater awareness of the delicate handling the situation requires.  “There is a general view on these [Saudi-Syrian] negotiations that all parties are committed to coming up with a regional solution,” he said. “This commitment arises from the need to stabilize the region and not to cross any red lines.  There are some points that only Lebanese have to agree on to secure their country’s stability.”  “Only the Lebanese know how to solve their own problems.”

In a similar vein, UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Michael Williams said he welcomed Saudi-Syrian efforts to maintain stability in Lebanon, but stressed that dialogue among Lebanon’s feuding parties was essential to resolve the crisis.

Sheikh Nabil Qaouk, deputy head of Hezbollah’s Executive Council, had warned last week of obstruction to peace in Lebanon by the US.  “America’s interest is to deepen internal divisions and drag Lebanon to strife.”  The animosity that Hezbollah so evidently feel towards the US’ involvement in Lebanese internal affairs should perhaps have been borne in mind when a peaceful solution was trying to be reached.  Hezbollah saw American involvement as “meddling” and also, in light of the 2006 war, as offensive.

Aoun said that rival Lebanese factions should work together to reach a Lebanese solution for the crisis. He said the failure of the initiative was not a failure for Syria, Saudi Arabia or the United States. “Rather, it was a Lebanese failure. Therefore, a solution has now become the responsibility of the Lebanese,” he said.

Meanwhile, Hariri thanked Saudi King Abdullah and Syrian President Bashar Assad for their efforts to bolster stability in Lebanon.  “Hope is pinned on all brothers and friends to help Lebanon pull through this difficult phase. Hope is also pinned in the first place on the wisdom of the Lebanese and their leaders. We all have sought to avoid being dragged to reactions,” Hariri said, in a clear reference to the action taken by Hezbollah.

“This phase requires from all of us the highest level of wisdom and responsibility because the primary beneficiary from divisions among the Lebanese is the Israeli enemy,” he added.

Hariri: “commitments not fulfilled”

11 Jan
Hariri memorial shrine.

Image via Wikipedia

 It’s your fault!

 No, your fault!

 No, your fault!



Unfortunately, this is the game the March 8 and March 14 camps have been playing over the last few days.  The impact of the Saudi-Syrian settlement that aimed to calm tensions between supporters of Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri and supporters of Hezbollah has so far been limited.  Despite what some fear-mongerers believe, both sides desire peace – but they also covet dignity.  Neither camp wishes to be the one to make the first move and, in all likelihood, neither really wants to fulfil their side of the bargain.

The precise clauses of the settlement have not been made public, but it seems that Hezbollah had pledged to withdraw the Syrian arrest warrants issued a few months ago against a number of members of Lebanon‘s majority, especially Hariri’s work team, which has damaged ties between the two sides.  In return for the withdrawal, Hariri would announce that he would not accuse Hezbollah of the assassination of his father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, even if the indictment in the investigation did accuse some members of the party.

The commitments also encompass general stability, internal security, along with Hezbollah avoiding using its weapons on the internal scene as stipulated in the Doha agreement.  As the Borj Abi Haidar clashes of August 2010 demonstrate, this last has not been implemented.

In remarks referring to Hezbollah, Hariri has pointed out that “commitments [were] not fulfilled by the other camp.” Rather than leading by example, however, he has refused to observe his own commitments until Hezbollah observe theirs.  Hariri has called on Hezbollah to take the initiative, while Hezbollah have responded that it should be the Prime Minister who acts first.

Why the stalemate? The trouble is rooted in the very fact of the STL’s existence.  Hezbollah see the tribunal as a personal insult; Hariri feels that he would be insulting the memory of his father if he stopped the tribunal from going ahead.  Each side fundamentally disagrees as to what constitutes a soothing in political tensions.  Hezbollah has taken this to mean a straightforward dissolution of the STL; Hariri’s focus is on limiting the impact that the findings of the STL can have, whatever they may be.

A spokesman for March 14 said that “regardless of the speculation over Hariri’s statements on what is required of the other camp, these assumptions should not eliminate the fact that the settlement has been reached.”  But a settlement that neither party observes may as well not exist.

Ali Hassan Khalil, Amal MP, retaliated to Premier Hariri’s claims by accusing him of not cooperating with the settlement.  According to An Nahar newspaper, Speaker Nabih Berri asked Khalil to clarify with Hariri the steps the March 8 alliance should take to help the progression of the settlement.  Hariri replied that “they know what to do.”  Hezbollah emphasised their readiness to cooperate, apparently still desiring clarification.  They were “surprised to hear some officials close to the prime minister taking negative stances” and therefore hindering the settlement, according to Khalil.  Such political gaming might go some way to answering why so many other countries have become embroiled in Lebanon’s continuing political saga.

With both parties reluctant to take the first step towards fulfilling these pledges, the stalemate seems set.

Meanwhile President Michel Suleiman is optimistic that a settlement in Lebanon’s political crisis will soon emerge.  He has emphasised hopes that the Saudi-Syrian solution will help reactivate the national dialogue and the normal functioning of the Cabinet.

Sources from the Presidential Palace in Baabda have reported that complete coordination is ongoing between him, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and House Speaker Nabih Berri.  Lebanon’s government shares power between religious sects: the President is Christian, the Prime Minister Sunni and the Speaker Shi’a.

Suleiman stated that the Lebanese are aware that no side can benefit from an escalation in tension.

The US, Syria, Saudi Arabia, France; where did Lebanon go?

10 Jan
President Barack Obama walks with French Presi...

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Who is in charge of Lebanon? Anybody who can answer that question knows more than most.  We’re not even talking Suleiman, Hariri or Hezbollah here; it could be Hillary Clinton, or the Saudi King Abdullah; Ban-Ki Moon or Nicolas Sarkozy.  Everyone wants a piece.

Today saw a meeting between US President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy – and, unsurprisingly, the situation in Lebanon was on the dialogue table.  Both America and France have been keen to emphasise their desire for calm in the country.  In fact, so have most of the principal players.  According to a Washington spokesman, the Syrians have promised the US that “their interest lies in a stable Lebanon and that Syria would be the first affected from instability in Lebanon.”  The “first affected” gives it away a little; what about Lebanon?

Each country with an interest in Lebanon is focusing on pointing out to the other influential countries that their aim in and for the region is peace.  They promise one another this even while they suspect the other of lying.  Hezbollah, Syria and Iran (one side) and Hariri, Saudi Arabia and the US (the other side) are all promising one another that their priority is Lebanon’s wellbeing – which means peace.  Unfortunately the lack of trust between sides has left the words ringing hollow.

Saudi Arabia and Syria have for months been involved in talks aimed at calming tension caused by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s investigations into Rafik Hariri’s death.  While the precise clauses of the Saudi-Syrian settlement have not been made public, the impact the agreement has so far had has not been promising.  Both camps, March 14 and March 8, have accused the other of backtracking on their commitments.  So far no progress has been made.

The US and France, meanwhile, took care today to stress their support for the tribunal, saying that it cannot be toppled and that any agreement must not come at the expense of the indictment.  Both Sarkozy and Obama have acknowledged the important regional role played by Saudi Arabia and Syria, as well as the contribution France itself can make.  But the influence of Iran on both Hamas and Hezbollah is also very much on the minds of foreign powers.  According to Kuwaiti daily al-Anbaa, Sarkozy is hoping that a settlement will not strip Lebanese Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri of his authority and demands.  Neither, though, does he wish for the settlement to compromise Hezbollah or remove the group’s arms.

Al-Anbaa also pointed out that the American administration has not been pleased by Sarkozy’s approach of receiving members of the Lebanese opposition such as Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun, a key ally of Hezbollah.

But French sources have warned that “any security shake-up would be useless politically and would lead to dangerous consequences for those who stirred it.”

All of which comes at a time of apparent détente in America’s relationship with Syria.  Obama recently appointed Robert Ford to the position of US Ambassador in Syria.  The West, clearly, sees its role in the Middle East as fundamental.  This article ( shows how very much in the US’ interests it is to be seen to have good relations with Middle Eastern powers.

We might call it telling that Hariri’s meeting with Ban-Ki Moon, in which he pleaded with the UN Secretary General to end all violations of Lebanon’s borders, took place in New York.  The Lebanese PM with a South Korean UN head, talking about Israel? Yep, the US is probably in there somewhere.

Hariri’s meeting with Clinton “excellent”

8 Jan

Yesterday Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri headed to New York to meet with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the current political deadlock in Lebanon.  Because Lebanon’s government share power between the three major religious groups (Christian, Shi’a and Sunni), political talks have been more or less halted as tension rises over the UN probe into the 2005 murder of Rafik Hariri.

Hariri told pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat that the New York-based talks were geared towards “boosting the mediation efforts that are a guarantee to Lebanon’s stability.”  He also said that Saudi-Syrian mediation had led to an agreement in November but accused the Shiite militant movement Hezbollah of not fulfilling its side of the deal.  “Any commitment on my part will not be carried out until the other party (Hezbollah) implements what they agreed to.”

The Syrian-Saudi deal apparently calls for clear steps to ease tensions in Lebanon and reduce rhetoric among the rival political parties. “All of the steps centre on a single objective which is domestic stability and the ability of Lebanon to absorb the indictment,” a government official said.   However, the official also said that such hopes have, so far, been thwarted.  “The government has been paralysed for months and the political leaders should be able to discuss issues and that has not been happening.”  He blames Hezbollah, pointing out “the ball is in their court.”  The accusation, however, risks escalating the situation further, as one ‘side’ continues to blame another.

In a sign of hope for the country as regions all over the Middle East struggle against attempts to divide people according to their religious beliefs, Sa’ad Hariri told Al-Hayat that the chances of Lebanon’s renowned sectarian political system.  “Anyone who thinks that a government other than a national unity government can revive this country needs to think again.”

Clinton also met with Saudi King Abdullah, who is in New York recovering from back surgery, and in reports published today described her talks with both men as “excellent.”

Harb’s Proposed Ban

7 Jan
Lebanon Jul -06

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Lebanon‘s Labor Minister Boutros Harb last week proposed a fifteen year ban of property sales between Muslims and Christians.  The draft law follows growing concerns about the dwindling number of Christians in the Middle, and apparently aims to offer protection for Lebanon’s Christian community.  Harb, a Christian, told news website Naharnet that “there are suspicious sales of Christian lands as if there is a tendency to uproot Christians from their areas.”

Nevertheless his proposal does not outlaw the sale of land by Christians to wealthy Muslims from Saudi Arabia and other Arabian Peninsula countries who have invested heavily in the Lebanese real estate sector.

Critics have thus far responded with claims that the proposed law is discriminatory and unconstitutional, as well as being economically impractical.  Some have called the proposal fear-mongering.  Kamel Wazne, head of the Center of American Strategic Studies, called the draft law “a direct violation of the constitution and the coexistence that is part of the constitution.”  However, others have welcomed the proposal, especially given the Saturday’s attack on Egypt’s Coptics as they left midnight mass.

Harb’s proposal comes in the face of whispered fears about Hezbollah, Lebanon’s Shi’ite militant group, taking over Christian areas.  Such whispers have become more numerous since the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, though they have been discounted by Defense Minister Elias Murr (one of Hezbollah’s most outspoken rivals) in secret American diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks.

There has been no consensus of the number of Lebanese Christians since the 1930s, though it is estimated that the Christian population, once a majority, now makes up about a third of the Lebanese population of four million.

Harb today explains his motives as “raising the alarm bells” against “an unhealthy situation … Lebanon symbolizes coexistence between the various religions and if one pillar of this coexistence crashes, the whole country falls.  I want to preserve Lebanon’s diversity.”

Hezbollah lawmaker Mohammad Fneish, who is also against the  proposed law, told Lebanon’s Daily Star on Sunday that he empathised with rising concerns over rising emigration but thought that Harb’s proposal would not address the root of the phenomenon.  “We should look for the reasons behind the emigration of Lebanese and particularly Christians and act accordingly.  Among these reasons is the lack of stability, destructive political ventures and economic recession.”

The proposal has also sparked fears because it recalls the religious strife that ruled Lebanon during the 1975-1990 Civil War.  One Christian Maronite church official recalled that in 1984 a Shiite religious leader issued an edict forbidding the sale of Muslim property to non-Muslims, due to fear of a sudden Shiite exodus.  The official, who asked to remain anonymous, said that “every time a community in Lebanon feels threatened it has this kind of reaction.”  In comments suggesting that the draft law is disproportionate, he said that he did not believe Christians were being systematically targeted.

However, Edmond Gharios, head of the municipality of Chiyah, a suburb of Beirut that is religiously mixed, said that the money being offered for property is the principal motivating factor in spurring Christians to depart from their homes.  “The civil war encouraged the Christians to emigrate in large numbers and money is now helping accelerate that process.”

Lebanon is currently in a state of political paralysis and the subject of much international speculation as it waits for the UN Special Tribunal to deliver a verdict on the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri.  With the tribunal sparking fears both international and domestic that war may follow if Hezbollah is implicated in the assassination, there is also renewed attention upon any tension, however minute, between Lebanon’s varying religious groups.

However, Michel Suleiman, Lebanon’s Christian president, has emphasised his desire for “harmony and brotherhood” both in Lebanon and in the wider Middle East.  In comments to Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak following the New Year’s Eve Coptic bombing, Suleiman said that the bombing “is part of the terrorism policy, which rejects the other and aims to undermine the religious coexistence that characterises the Arab world.”  Sa’ad Hariri, Lebanese Prime Minister, also called for a “unified stance” following the attacks, saying that “any attack on Muslim-Christian coexistence [should be considered] an attack on Arab national security.”

Whatever the tension, speculation and fear-mongering, one thing seems clear.  Lebanon’s key figures do not want another war.

Blair: Middle Eastern religion is “regressive”

5 Jan

When asked whether there was risk of renewed war in Lebanon on World at One earlier today, Blair replied that the Middle East’s religious policies were regressive.  This is in some parts true: Saudi Arabia is a one-religion state; Iran’s practice of religious freedom sometimes seems to be little more than an exercise in irony; events over the last month in Egypt show that even in countries with a traditionally higher level of tolerance, tension is resurfacing.  Last week 21 people were killed and 97 injured in a suicide attack outside a church in Alexandria as they were leaving a mass to welcome in the New Year.

But Blair’s sweeping comment did not refer to the country posed in the question.  Lebanon is generally recognised as the most liberal of Middle Eastern countries, with a policy of religious freedom that extends much further than mere words.  The majority of Lebanon’s population is Muslim; approximately a third is Christian.  One can wear what one likes regardless of the area one is in: the hijab is frequently seen in Ashrafieh (historically a Christian area) and legs and hair are also seen in Dahieh, a Shi’ah area.  The role of Lebanese president is reserved especially for a Maronite Christian (the Prime Minister is always Sunni and the Parliament Speaker Shi’ah).  Lebanon’s people are in general passionate about their religions; they are not, though, generally searching for a fight, hoping for war, or seeking to kill their religious opposites.  Muslims, Christians and Druze live alongside one another, generally in peace.  While the media is sure that war is shortly to descend in Lebanon, Lebanese inhabitants are hoping and praying that it does not. Ramzy Baroud described the Special Tribunal, investigation the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005, as “seen by many in the region, including Hezbollah itself, as a roundabout attempt to subdue the Lebanese resistance to Israel.”  For war to break out in response to the Tribunal’s findings would be seen as playing into the hands of Israel and indeed the US.

The reaction of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was not “regressive.”  He called the Coptic attack an attack on “all Egyptians”.  Such a statement refuses to cement a potential division between Egypt’s Muslim and Christian elements.  Likewise, in Cairo, activists both Muslim and Coptic held a protest to show solidarity with those who were killed.  Muslim clerics paid a condolence visit to the Coptic leader, Pope Shenouda.  Schools and universities across Egypt held a minute’s silence to honour the dead.  Were these acts regressive? Blair’s statement merely suggests a Western superiority in its attitude towards religion that is false.  It is not all of the Middle East and not all of any Middle Eastern country’s population that favours religious extremism.  Al-Masri al-Yom, an independent Egyptian daily, reported after the attacks: “we believe that if the national fabric is solid enough, no foreign faction could set a fire in our midst.”  Such solidarity is impressive and progressive.

If the West continues to lump together religious faith with religious extremism, while continuing to hold a position of superiority that assumes the Western system, whatever its flaws, is impeccably better than the Middle Eastern, there is little hope that Western involvement in Middle Eastern politics can have any fruitful influence.  (Nor that the West will allow itself to learn, where it can, from the Middle East.)  Assistance and support cannot work from above.