Thursday, May 28, 2009

Michel Aoun, in service and out

Admire Michel Aoun’s capacity to say the most contradictory things, and not dissolve into laughter when he does so. Yet admiration is not the first thing that comes to mind when witnessing how the general’s supporters will applaud his political acrobatics, oblivious to his paradoxes.

Take Aoun’s denunciation of Michel al-Murr this week. Before a delegation from Murr’s village of Bteghrine, the general observed that there was what he called a “feudalism of services” (iqtaa al-khadamat), powerful politicians who garnered political support in exchange for services rendered – in the case of Murr services rendered most often through his intercession with the state bureaucracy and judiciary. The essence of such leaders, Aoun implied, was corruption and favoritism. Their time was over, Aoun promised, if voters would only show they were not afraid to vote them out of office.

Did those in Aoun’s audience, as they cheered, stop to consider that not long ago they were not only allied with Murr, but twice benefitted from his network of services in the Metn – when he called in his chips during the 2005 election, and again during the 2007 by-election, which saw Camille Khoury beating out Amin Gemayel? Murr is no choirboy; in fact his alliance with Aoun after 2005 was a blot the Change and Reform Bloc persistently tried to explain away by saying, “We can change Michel al-Murr;” but somehow it really seems the height of hypocrisy for Aoun to dismiss Murr on the grounds of principle when the general was previously so dependent on his long electoral and administrative arm.

However, let’s look at this very useful concept of a “feudalism of services,” and see how effectively Aoun has prevented his own people and political allies from engaging in such a role. When Aoun was negotiating over the formation of the government last year, he proved as eager as anyone to gain services ministries. He and his allies did rather well in that category. His son-in-law took the prize catch by being handed the telecommunications portfolio. Another follower, Mario Aoun, got a second major service ministry, social affairs. Aoun’s ally, Elias Skaff, whose domains in the Bekaa are feudal in scope, received the Agriculture Ministry, permitting him to distribute favors to his rural electorate.

As for Alain Tabourian of the Armenian Tashnaq party, which is also allied with Aoun, he received the Energy and Water Resources Ministry. This was perhaps not the most desirable of portfolios – given how it is a crippling black hole of graft – but when it comes to favors, a minister can look the other way on unpaid bills, so it must be counted as a net plus for Aoun. Tashnaq had initially asked for social affairs, but the general had already reserved that for Mario Aoun, knowing the advantages that could be derived from it. George Kasarji of Zahle subsequently expressed Tashnaq’s displeasure with the decision, but to little effect.

Of course, Aoun would insist that he placed his men in these ministries to improve services, not to use them for political ends. Indeed, if I think hard I might say I feel an improvement in social and agricultural affairs; don’t you? Don’t you feel the change and reform? As for telecommunications, cellular prices have gone down, to the discredit of Gebran Bassil’s predecessors, but we will have to see how high the cost of the gesture is, and it is not negligible. And by the way, are you finding it as difficult as I am to get through to someone you want to talk to on the first dial?

Can anyone else among Aoun’s allies be counted in that apparently contemptible category of a “feudalism of services”? Well, if Sleiman Franjieh returns to parliament, and he will, he too has the qualities of a “feudal” leader in the Zgharta-Al-Zawiyeh area, and we might recall the popularity he earned in the North when he was health minister. And then there is Aoun’s main ally, Hezbollah; no one could accuse it of being feudal, but that’s because it has gone so much beyond that in its ability to use services as a source of esteem from and control over its devotees.

Unlike Aoun, however, we shouldn’t be hypocritical about these things. Providing services is the essence of Lebanese patronage politics. We may dislike it, but the fact is that most Lebanese go along with the system for a variety of different reasons, to the extent that they often judge their politicians on that basis. To Aoun’s credit, his supporters have tended to rally to him more out of conviction than because he offers them favors, although his placing people in services ministries suggests he’s not persuaded that will last indefinitely. Ironically, that conviction is equally visible among those who prefer the Lebanese Forces, the main rival of the Aounists, which also has a fairly limited patronage network.

Then there is the fact that Aoun appears to have no problems relying on the patronage of others to bolster his political initiatives. The general insists that everything he spends comes from the contributions of Aounists. Somehow, that argument is difficult to swallow as we marvel at his massive advertisement campaign for the elections. Since Aoun wants change and reform, and since he has identified the “feudalism of services” as an obstacle to reform, perhaps, he could do something different and publish his movement’s accounts, proving to us that he is not dependent on the services and assistance granted to him by outsiders, but is, instead, entirely reliant on his supremely generous partisans.

There was a time when Aoun’s used the word “audit” a great deal. Open your books, general, let us feel the change. Let us audit you, so that we can bring ourselves to believe what you say.

The Consequences of a Hezbollah-Led Opposition Victory in Lebanon's Elections

Michael Young, Opinion Editor, Daily Star, Beirut
Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor,

As Lebanon heads for its parliamentary elections on June 7, Michael Young, an editor for Beirut's Daily Star newspaper and a leading observer of the Lebanese political scene, says U.S. policymakers should hope for a draw. "The least destabilizing option would be essentially a stalemate" between the Hezbollah-led opposition and U.S.-backed candidates, Young says. American politicians have made it clear that a victory by the Hezbollah-led coalition would be counter to western interests, and during a visit to Beirut on May 22, Vice President Joe Biden said future American aid could be tied to the outcome (WashPost). Young says Biden's message was simple: "If Lebanon votes right," as Washington sees it, "then there would be advantages to Lebanon." Though Hezbollah is a major force in Lebanese politics, the United States defines the Shiite Muslim political group as a terrorist organization. In 2008, following a wave of violence, Lebanon's parliament approved a national unity cabinet, giving Hezbollah and its allies eleven of thirty cabinet seats. Young says that if the opposition wins, Lebanon would also likely lose economic support from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Persian Gulf states.

Lebanon holds its election for its 128-seat parliament on June 7. Both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on April 26 and Vice President Joseph Biden on May 23 made short but highly publicized visits to the country talking of the importance of free elections. Biden in fact strongly suggested that American aid to Lebanon might depend on whether the pro-American government is returned to office. Why is this election so significant?

It's significant because there is question as to whether, if the Lebanese opposition wins, this will give Hezbollah decisive control over policy in Lebanon. And of course, while Hezbollah will only really win this election in alliance with other groups in the opposition, including the Christian followers of Michel Aoun [leader of the Free Patriotic Movement Party], the fact that Hezbollah has significant weapons arsenal, a private militia, and considerable influence over the commanding heights of the Lebanese state, would give it an advantage that other groups don't have. That's the big fear--that if the opposition wins, Hezbollah would have considerable say over the future policy of Lebanon.

What would a Hezbollah-led government be like? Would it be closely aligned with Syria and Iran? That's the great fear in Israel and the West, right?

That's the fear. It would be a bit more complicated though because it would not be just a victory of Hezbollah. It would be a victory of Hezbollah and its political allies. What would actually make a victory of the Lebanese opposition possible is that Hezbollah's Christian ally, Michel Aoun, a former general, would need to get well over thirty seats in the new parliament. He now has about twenty-two. So in a way, assuming the opposition wins--and I'm not at all convinced that this is necessarily going to happen--Hezbollah would not govern directly. It would participate in the government, it would play a key role in forming the government, but at the same time, I don't think it would form a majority in the government. It would probably use others, political allies of Syria, as well as allies of Michel Aoun. This would indeed be a much friendlier government to Syria, no doubt about it, but we have to also ask a key question: How easy will it be for the opposition to form a legitimate government? Because in Lebanon the prime minister is by common agreement a Sunni. It would be very difficult for the opposition to find a legitimate Sunni to sit at the top of an opposition government.

Now explain that a bit.

From the time of independence in 1943 and even before then, Lebanon has basically enshrined a sectarian system of government whereby the president of the republic is a Maronite Christian [currently Michel Suleiman, former commander-in-chief of the Lebanese Army], the prime minister is a Sunni Muslim [currently Fouad Siniora], the speaker of parliament is a Shiite Muslim [currently Nabih Berri], and on down the line you have certain posts which are for certain communities or traditionally reserved for certain communities. The Taif Accord of 1989, which ended the civil war in Lebanon, changed the ratio in the Lebanese parliament, which had been 6 to 5 in favor of the Christians, to a 50-50 ratio [between Christians and Muslims].

What are the chances that Siniora will be reelected?

Siniora is very unlikely to be the future prime minister. If the Hezbollah-led opposition wins, Saad Hariri [a Sunni], leader of the so-called March 14 Alliance, which came into office after the assassination of his father-- former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri-- has already said quite firmly that he would not participate in a future government. And he would certainly not lead such a government. Not only Hariri, but also his political allies, and particularly his Sunni political allies, would probably be very reluctant to join or to head an opposition government. If the opposition wins, Hezbollah and its allies will have to find legitimate Sunnis to be in their government. They'd have to find a legitimate Sunni prime minister, which I believe will be virtually impossible. Any Sunni who sits at the head of an opposition government will probably find himself isolated within his own community.

So this will be a fascinating time then. Is this going to cause some political chaos or take months to get an agreement?

If the opposition wins, Lebanon will indeed enter into a period of long instability. If there is a substantial victory by the March 14 forces, in alliance with so-called independent candidates, you'll also have a period of instability. The "independents" are primarily Christians who have said they are neither with March 14 nor with the opposition.

A large victory by either side would be destabilizing. The least destabilizing option would be essentially a stalemate, which would mean a modest victory by a coalition of March 14 with the independents, in which any future government would be probably headed by Saad Hariri or by one of his political allies. But at the same time, given that this victory would have been modest, you would have to give the opposition some kind of role in the government--it would be a national unity government of some sort.

What is the difference between the government, the majority, and the opposition right now?

Ever since 2005, when the Syrians were forced to withdraw their forces from Lebanon, Lebanon has been caught in a big dilemma: what to do with Hezbollah. Here you have an armed militia that is in many respects more powerful that the state itself militarily and that controls essential aspects of the state. The fundamental problem has been: How do you arrive at a new social contract where Hezbollah agrees to disarm? Hezbollah has refused to disarm. This has thrown the system into great instability because what it really says is that a sovereign Lebanese state cannot emerge.

What has complicated matters is that Lebanon, in a way, is a window for the region. Hezbollah, as a local ally of Iran and of Syria, has also allowed both Syria and Iran to continue to influence the situation in Lebanon. At the same time the March 14 Alliance has aligned itself much more closely to the United States. So Lebanon is a microcosm of regional rivalries.

So if the current government, the March 14 Alliance, wins the election with just a small majority to keep stability, nothing would really change as far as Hezbollah is concerned.

We should not expect a victory by March 14 and the independents to alter the situation with respect to Hezbollah. The question of Hezbollah's arms will not be resolved locally by the Lebanese. It would have to be resolved regionally, and even then I'm very skeptical at this point that there will be any progress on this front in the foreseeable future. Lebanon will continue to be buffeted by the contradiction inherent in Hezbollah's presence. Lebanon cannot be a sovereign state, or even begin to function as a sovereign state, or begin to talk about political reform and about a new social contract in the country while one party, Hezbollah, continues to hold weapons.

Why do you think Secretary Clinton and Vice President Biden made personal visits to Lebanon? Does the United States see the election as holding a big stake for U.S. influence in the region?

They understood that it was important to come to Lebanon and to encourage voters, and particularly voters in the Christian community, because that's where the election is going to really take place. The majority of the Sunnis are with Saad Hariri and March 14; the vast majority of the Shiites are with the opposition. The final balance in parliament is going to be a function of the vote in the Christian community. Secretary Clinton and Vice President Biden came to Beirut both to send a message that if the Lebanese chose to vote for the opposition, and particularly if the Christians chose to vote for Michel Aoun, and help the opposition score a victory, then this will have very negative consequences for Lebanon.

There is very little doubt that the United States, while it wouldn't cut its diplomatic relations with Lebanon, would certainly downgrade them. They sent the world a message that Lebanon would find itself isolated even within the Arab world because countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but particularly the Gulf countries who have economically helped Lebanon, would be much less likely to help Lebanon in the event of an opposition victory. The message they were bringing is a fairly simple one. If Lebanon votes right, as they see it, then there would be advantages to Lebanon. After all, Biden was the highest U.S. official sent to Lebanon in decades [Vice President George H.W. Bush visited in 1983]. The idea was we're willing to help you and we're willing to help you at a high level. Remember also that even before the Clinton and Biden visits, President Obama called President Suleiman on February 27.

Has there been much polling of Christians or of the whole electorate?

There has been polling, but the polling is inaccurate. I don't think that ultimately one should rely too much on polling. The vote in the Christian community is volatile, it can go either way. There is a large percentage of Christians who don't necessarily like Michel Aoun, and who don't necessarily like March 14 but who are in a way undecided, who don't know who they should vote for, or who in a way would vote for both sides. Lebanon has a list system so you can mix your candidates. But by and large, many Christians find themselves lost between March 14 and the Aounists.

Why is Michel Aoun, a former general, a leader of Lebanon in the past, throwing in his lot with Hezbollah?

Aoun is basically an opportunist. He wants to be president of the republic, and he failed at that when the Doha agreement [worked out by Qatar to end fighting in Lebanon] in May of last year stipulated that the president would be Michel Suleiman. This was a very bitter defeat for Aoun whose entire strategy, since he came back to Lebanon in 2005 from exile, was that he would become president. He now believes that if he can get a decisive victory he would have one of the largest blocs in parliament. He feels that would give him the legitimacy to constitutionally challenge Michel Suleiman's election and take his place.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Audette Salem and the betrayal of memory

Last Saturday, Audette Salem was hit by a car, and died soon afterward in hospital. By then she had become as much a symbol as anything else, the mother of a boy and girl, Richard and Christine, kidnapped in August 1985, along with their uncle, Georges, none ever seen again. Audette had been a stalwart at the tent set up by family members of the disappeared outside the ESCWA building in the downtown area. Until the end she believed her children were still alive, and in a final act of consideration a DNA sample was taken for identification purposes in case she was right.

Some friendships go far enough back that it's difficult to remember when they started. I first met Richard sometime in the 1970s, and together with a cousin of mine with whom he was very close, we would spend almost every Saturday afternoon in a Beirut movie theater. My first nip of single malt scotch was from a bottle he crossed half of Beirut to purchase, and I still resist the urge of darkening the memory of that inveterate, jovial hedonist with the tragedy of his disappearance.

A few details return. At the start of the 1982 Israeli siege of Beirut, the talk in the Salem household was not of war and death, but of the proper way to make polenta. I was again at their house on the day the news of the Sabra and Shatila massacres came out, and spent half and hour with Richard looking at the repugnant photographs in the newspapers, before leaving hurriedly when the Israelis blocked off the neighborhood in search of weapons. Of Christine, I remember only her shyness and that our bulky glasses would clink when we greeted each other with a kiss.

I remember, too, their uncle Georges, proud of being in fine form though he was over 70. And I remember his wife Claire, the daughter of a prominent Palestinian family, who, after her husband was gone, spent almost a decade in a no-man's land of old age, with nothing to look forward to and her past abruptly deleted. A woman of few words and discreet generosity, she was yet an eloquent reminder of the bestiality of individuals who, in a few moments, could destroy a pulsating network of lives.

I never shared Audette's optimism about her children being alive, but one has to admit that there was much about the case that was never explained. What was the motive behind kidnapping two youths, she in her teens, he barely out of them, and an old man? There were many abductions in those days, but almost never did they involve females. The bodies were not recovered, though that, too, perhaps was a recurring phenomenon; few bodies were ever recovered at the time, even though the murderers had little enough respect for the living to be ashamed of dumping the dead.

Over the years the families of the disappeared have been engaged in a struggle on several fronts, in a general way focused on three objectives: to define the legal status of the disappeared for essential practical reasons related to clarifying property, succession, and personal status issues; to discover, quite simply, what happened to their loved ones and close a psychological parenthesis; and to demand some form of public recognition for the wartime victims - and, given the disappearance of Lebanese citizens into Syrian prisons after 1990, the postwar victims.

On the latter two issues in particular, much more could and should be done by the authorities to help the families. Even after all this time, there is plenty of information about the fate of the victims out there. There are still police reports and former militiamen, even former militia leaders, who, if the context and mechanism is right, can provide indispensable insights and information into the abductions. It would be a mistake to assume these were all the result of pervasive anarchy. Militia leaders had more control over their men during the 1980s, but also more knowledge over what they were doing, than anyone can imagine.

By the same token, the Lebanese state must make elucidation of the fate of those who disappeared into Syria a priority in relations with Damascus. The Syrians have told Lebanese officials in the past that there are no Lebanese alive anymore, a view the Lebanese have parroted. Both sources are unreliable. Don't expect the Syrians to give an accurate accounting of those whom they illegally arrested, brutalized and killed; and don't expect the Lebanese to have special insights into those the Syrians arrested, brutalized or killed, since this was not even information Syria's intelligence services necessarily shared with each other, let alone with outsiders. That's why Lebanese representatives should bring up with Syria not just whether those who disappeared are alive or dead, but what happened to them and how their bodies can be returned to their families for burial. The Syrians will stonewall; the Lebanese should not.

Then there is official recognition. Why has it been so difficult to create a space honoring the wartime dead and disappeared? Next year, Lebanon's postwar period will be a generation old; yet there is not a single memento in the capital to suggest that anyone has an interest in remembering a national trauma that killed over 100,000 people. One need not embrace a truth commission for Lebanon - and I don't - to argue in favor of conceding something valuable to memory. Surely, it must be one of the terrible insults of our peacetime that the families of the wartime and postwar victims, despite their age and torment, have been compelled to set up a dilapidated tent in an isolated corner of Beirut to attract attention to their cause. Their stridency and aggressiveness is a source of irritation to the authorities. But can it be any different given the way the political class in its entirety has shown a disgraceful lack of imagination and compassion in dealing with individuals who, in the end, only refuse to abandon their humanity?

However, I concede, with great guilt, how little I saw of Audette in the past 15 years. Memory is a difficult thing to keep alive. That's why she, like her comrades, in refusing to forget, in pursuing her logic all the way, in manning her tent through fair weather and foul, and ultimately dying at its door, was worthy of so much better than the hand she was dealt.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Christian confusion is Lebanon's loss

It is a sign of the confusion in Lebanon's Christian community today, particularly the Maronite community, that the outcome of the parliamentary elections will probably not be determined until the very last minute, when indecision is no longer an option. On a range of vital issues, the Christians seem lost. They disagree over the meaning of what would constitute a Third Republic; they cannot reach a consensus over relations with Lebanon's Muslim communities; their leaders are fighting over who will be best placed to be the interlocutor with regional powers; and as they contemplate their communal decline, the reaction is either to quixotically seek to recover their past power, or to imagine scenarios of renewal in schemes of self-isolation.

As a pro-Hariri Christian parliamentarian observed recently, the elections are turning into a battle between the "two Michels" - Michel Sleiman and Michel Aoun. However, their rivalry is likely to endure afterward, when it comes time to discuss more fundamental matters related to Lebanon's future, particularly political reform. Here's a prediction: Discussion of reform will go nowhere, in part because such a conversation cannot conceivably progress while the representatives of one community, the Shiites, hold the heavy guns; but reform will also be derailed by Maronite infighting, further weakening Christians in general and alienating them from the country they were so instrumental in creating.

Take the matter of establishing a Third Republic. What does it mean, let's say, for the Aounists? They insist that their ambition is to create a state embodying change and reform. Perhaps, but you don't need a new republic for that. What Aoun and his acolytes are getting across is that their republic will constitutionally grant Christians more power ("Will return to Christians their rights," as Aounist spokesman tirelessly tell us).

The notion is bizarre, even absurd. If there was one thing the Sunni and Shiite communities agreed upon throughout our 15-year Civil War, it was that Christian, particularly Maronite, power needed to be curtailed. This is why Aoun has mentioned the idea of creating "thirds" in Parliament, so that Christians, Sunnis and Shiites each get a third of representation. His assumption is that once that happens, the Christians would be in a better position to leverage this in exchange for enhancing the Maronite president's prerogatives, while using the Shiites to compel the Sunnis to accept an amendment of the Taif Accord, which, as Aoun (mistakenly) believes, handed executive power to the Sunni prime minister.

What about Sleiman? The president has been more ambiguous. He has made statements saying the president's prerogatives have to be increased, but always framing his arguments in practical terms. The post-Taif system is inefficient, he says, and one reason is that the presidency's powers are ill-defined. However, Sleiman is sending a double message, trying to rally Christians to his side and positioning himself as the main Maronite actor in any eventual implementation or amendment of Taif.

Neither Aoun nor Sleiman has articulated how Christians might benefit from the full implementation of Taif. The president has gone furthest in showing the accord to be beneficial to Lebanon (in contrast to Aoun and an alarming number of March 14 Christians, who see it as, quoting Nadim Gemayel, "a Christian surrender"); however Sleiman is afraid of crossing a line that might cost him communal backing. This continued discord over what is the foundation of Lebanon's current social contract will prove to be the undoing of the Christians unless they soon reverse the situation.

The Maronites are also proving incapable of taking a united position on Syria, but also other regional states having influence in Lebanon, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. Aoun's visit to Syria several months ago brought him a margin of maneuver in Damascus, and a free trip for the family, but it won't mean he will replace Sleiman as the main contact with the Assad regime. The Syrians like cacophony, and are more than delighted to use Aoun against Sleiman and Sleiman against Aoun, even if they accept that it's important to keep Sleiman on their side, as his approval will provide whatever they do in Lebanon with a sheen of official legitimacy.

Where does that leave Aoun? The general's ties to Hizbullah have morphed into some sort of relationship with Iran. Yet for Christian leaders to use their foreign ties largely as a means of propping themselves up domestically, and communally, cannot bring any benefit to Lebanon. Sleiman is justified in wanting to be the main Christian intermediary with Syria, after all he is the president, but only if his primary reason for doing so is to bolster Lebanese sovereignty, or what remains of it. Instead, there is a risk that the president may be tempted to use his Syrian ties to better contain the sway Aoun enjoys through his alliance with Hizbullah, and therefore Iran. The Christians would, thus, transform themselves, not for the first time, into a regional football, to the national detriment.

By the same token, Aoun's continued broadsides against Saudi Arabia as a way of attacking the Future Movement and the Sunnis, like his closeness to Qatar, ensure that if the opposition wins the elections, Saudi funding to Lebanon will dwindle. Aoun is not alone responsible for the country's fragmentation between different regional patrons. However, he, like most other Christian leaders, needs to be especially sensitive to how the regional balance of power affects his community's fate, because no one in the Middle East is overly committed to its political survival.
The most fundamental transformation the Christians must engage in is a psychological one.

Lebanon's Muslim communities, in contrast to the regimes of the region, are very keen to avoid a Christian collapse. The imbalance this would create in Sunni-Shiite relations, the negative way this would affect the country's openness and diversity, the weight of perennially pessimistic Christians trying to find an exit from Lebanon through emigration or voluntary seclusion, are all things the Muslims fear, and rightly so. Yet they cannot seem to find a credible, dominant Maronite partner, or partners, to help lay the groundwork for a more durable contract between Christians and Muslims.

The problem is that the Christians, or a majority of them, need to reconcile with Taif first. In their zeal to discredit the accord, they find themselves on a high-wire without a net. The Muslims don't want the Christians to fall, but if they do no one will pick them up again.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Enjoying the Charles and Michel mud fight

Some weeks ago I made a decision that since I was not going to derive deep meaning from the parliamentary election campaign, the least I could do was amuse myself while following its twists and turns. That’s when I decided to buy and read Ad-Diyar on a daily basis.

To “read” the newspaper may be putting things rather ambitiously, as that would presume someone actually made an effort to write the articles. Once you’ve seen the main headline, not much more is demanded than to scan the barely literate text underneath it. You might glance at photographs of owner Charles Ayoub himself in the newspaper, after all he is a candidate in Kesrouan, though precisely why he will frequently print three of them on the same page is unclear.

On Monday morning, Ad-Diyar seemed to have hit the bottom when the newspaper’s headline responded to what Michel Aoun had said in an interview on Sunday evening. Ayoub called Aoun a “thief” (which is what Aoun had called Ayoub), then concluded with this inimitable line: “Your Madness for Power Decapitated Lebanon to the Extent that You Compared Yourself to Jesus Christ, Though You Are Judas”.

Charles Ayoub is not likely to have an award for journalistic excellence named after him. Many people groaned at the crude exchange between him and Aoun; however this was as close as we were going to get to the truth about an election process wrapped in concentric layers of hypocrisy and smugness. With candidates, virtually all candidates, adopting the pose of regal statesmen, Ayoub let the cat out of the bag, showing that behind that fa├žade it was about vulgarity, as big boys and girls fight over small seats. What a delicious image, that of Aoun vainly trying to project himself as a reformer above the political fray, while Ayoub dragged him and his candidates down into the sludge pit.

That’s not to say that the June elections are without meaning, or that the focus on slogans belies the import of the battle. The vote will determine what Lebanon will be like in the coming years, and given what is at stake in the country today, whether the gains of the Independence Intifada of 2005 are reversed. However, the import of the battle does not make the emptiness of the slogans less glaring, or the grandiosity of the candidates easier to stomach.

Is there any way for the Lebanese to improve the quality of their election campaigns? A few years ago, as a presidential election loomed, the lawyer Chibli Mallat decided to stand for the post and had the luminous idea of exposing his program to the public. There was much disbelief in reaction to this, and Mallat’s campaign was ultimately interrupted by the instability in Lebanon and his departure from the country. But the fact was that those who scoffed really only made fun of themselves, because they admitted that any candidate who went to the trouble of taking them seriously had to be an eccentric.

Isn’t it far more eccentric that many of our future parliamentarians are being shuffled around like cards this pre-election period, one minute in a list, one minute out, and that we accept this without question? Maybe we deserve blunt instruments like Ayoub, because in the end we consent to an electoral system where, aside from a few leaders, those speaking in our name are time and again nonentities whose political choices we know little about, and that we don’t need to know about because they are unlikely to take independent decisions once in parliament.

Until the Lebanese protest against the way they are made to vote, we will all have to manage with a legislature top-heavy with people having nothing to say. Some may cringe at the mediocrity of political debate in the country. But we only get what we deserve, which is why Ad-Diyar remains my morning reading and Charles Ayoub my Bob Woodward, though I admit that this thought does make me slightly ill.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Accountability time for UN investigators

The release of four Lebanese generals by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon considering the murder of Rafik Hariri has shocked many in the March 14 majority, prompting them to assume that there will be no justice for the late prime minister. That may end up being true, but it's too early to affirm such a thing; and the generals' liberation came as no surprise.

If anyone, or anything, came out of the decision looking worse off, it was not the Lebanese judiciary; it was the United Nations commission that has spent the last four years investigating the crime, and which, after 2006, managed to add nothing new to its file on the generals to justify their continued detention. Months ago judicial sources in Beirut knew their release was imminent, precisely for that reason. We can, of course, assume that there was nothing to add, but anyone who recalls the behavior of the generals after the Hariri assassination (the clumsy efforts at altering the crime scene mentioned by the first UN investigator, Peter Fitzgerald, or the highly suspicious distribution of the video of Ahmad Abu Adas, who claimed responsibility for the killing) could not readily make such a case.

It is time to ask what in heaven's name the Belgian investigator, Serge Brammertz, did during his two years in office. This question has repeatedly surfaced among members of the Lebanese judiciary, outside observers, and, most compellingly, Brammertz's predecessor, Detlev Mehlis. In an interview in January 2008, Mehlis damningly observed that he had not "seen a word in [Brammertz's] reports during the past two years confirming that he has moved forward. When I left we were ready to name suspects, but [the investigation] seems not to have progressed from that stage."

The Belgian did identify "persons of interest" in his reports, but Mehlis quickly cut that idea down to size as well by observing that "a 'person of interest' is definitely not a suspect. If you have identified suspects in a case like this one, you don't allow them to roam free for years to tamper with evidence, flee the country, or commit similar crimes."

Was Mehlis correct? It's difficult to say, but it's far more difficult to make the contrary argument when Brammertz and his successor, Daniel Bellemare, have together spent three and a half years looking into Hariri's assassination, yet we still remain many months away from any kind of formal legal accusation. Time, like silence, can be eloquent, and since 2006 the UN investigation has eaten up an ever greater amount of time while its commissioners have become increasingly silent on their alleged progress.

There are compelling signs to suggest that Brammertz did little of consequence while in Beirut. He unnecessarily reopened the crime scene when there were already three reports suggesting that the explosion that killed Hariri had been above the ground. Brammertz focused too much on analysis of the crime, at the expense of a police investigation that would have required identifying suspects, comparing their testimonies, making arrests, playing suspects and witnesses off against one another, and going to the heart of the matter on who killed Hariri. For the investigators there was little doubt about who committed the crime; all it took was competently following that thread down the decision-making hierarchy. We're still waiting.

What does the freeing of the generals tell us about the UN investigation? Unfortunately, it hits at a central contention presented by both Fitzgerald and Mehlis, namely that when Hariri was eliminated in an extensive conspiracy, the Lebanese security and intelligence services were acting with and under the auspices and authority of the Syrian intelligence services. By releasing the generals, Bellemare admitted he could not fit the four into that relationship. Yet such a relationship cannot seriously be doubted by anyone who knew how the Syrian-led system in Lebanon functioned, which really points us more to the failings of the UN commission, Brammertz's in particular, than to the inaccuracy of Fitzgerald's and Mehlis' findings.

In his submission to the pre-trial judge, Bellemare wrote, in a footnote to paragraph 13, that a "very limited number of documents" were provided by the UN commission in the response to the pre-trial judge's request on whether to hold or release the generals - the vast majority coming from the Lebanese. This tells us that the international investigation offered up very little on the generals, who until yesterday happened to be the only suspects held in the crime. So, Bellemare today has the dubious honor of presiding over a four-year investigation with almost no suspects, and none in custody.
Is it time to write off the Special Tribunal for Lebanon? Almost, but we shouldn't be too hasty. Bellemare would have liked to delay the start of the tribunal in order to complete his investigation. It was the Lebanese who insisted he take on his prosecutorial duties earlier rather than later, because they couldn't handle the pressure of detaining the generals much longer. In so doing, they set in motion a legal process that was always, potentially, going to end with the generals' release. Once Bellemare had the four in hand, the tribunal was given a limited period of time to decide their fate.

But does Bellemare have enough to put together an accusation that will stand up in court? Only time, more time, will tell. Bellemare's own competence is also something to watch, since he has never prosecuted a political crime of this nature. Perhaps the assassination of Wissam Eid, the Internal Security Forces officer who was working on telephone intercepts, implies progress was being made elsewhere. However, the right questions aren't being asked: If Bellemare gets nowhere in the end, then precisely at what stage, and why, did the UN investigation fail Lebanon?