Friday, February 26, 2010

A smoking ban? Fine, but only with choice

Never put it beyond Lebanon to adopt a terrible idea just because it arrives from abroad. The country is now debating whether to impose a smoking ban in public places, and anti-smoking groups can smell blood.

The Middle East was always considered resistant to such an innovation. However, last year both Syria and Turkey, countries with high percentages of smokers in the population, banned smoking inside public facilities, and Lebanese parliamentarians have said they would discuss a smoking ban in the coming months. Oddly, one of those who announced this was Atef Majdalani, doctor, but also a committed cigar smoker.

I share Majdalani’s fervor... but only when it comes to Cohibas. The debate over second-hand smoke is often passionate, and in many respects it has already been won by the non-smokers. However, as Lebanon considers the possibility of a ban, the real question should be a different one. Should a smoking ban be universal, or should it permit choice?

In virtually all countries it is the absolutist argument that has won out. Smoking bans in public are universal, barring sidewalks and outdoor seating areas. This effectively creates a disparity between the rights of smokers and non-smokers. But a question that never seems to arise is why that’s the case. Why can’t there be facilities that are officially open to smokers and others to non-smokers, and then let the market decide?

How would this differ from what we already have? After all, nothing prevents a restaurant owner today from preventing smoking in his or her establishment. In fact there would be a subtle but significant difference after a government ban. The ban could be complete in private and government offices, let’s say, while restaurants, bars and cafés would be officially labeled as smoke-free or smoke-friendly, which would become a part of their brand identity. Over time this would determine the nature of their clientele and whether they could survive financially.

If, as non-smoking evangelists claim, everyone prefers to spend their evenings smoke-free, then gradually the restaurants, cafés and bars will switch over to banning smoking. On the other hand, if the argument is false, the Lebanese will still be able to choose between facilities allowing smoking and others that do not, with no one really suffering.

But the authorities in most countries never allow choice, and their favoring the rights of non-smokers over smokers is to a large extent the result of the smoking-ban activists’ ability to inject moralism into their arguments. “If you light up in my presence,” the non-smokers will intone, “you are killing me.” But if that is true, then surely there are many other similar examples of unintentional homicide. When I start my car, am I not also contributing to someone’s early demise? And surely we have all had a few days knocked off our lives by driving behind those private buses the government has licensed that operate on unfiltered fuel oil.

There is no doubt that Lebanon would feel the impact of a smoking ban less than other places. Even in the depths of winter, people can sit outside in relative comfort. Not for us those dispiriting European or American scenes of human beings huddling and shivering on sidewalks outside office buildings and eateries, sneaking a puff in sub-zero gales.

But let’s come back to the moral argument, and take it a bit further. If smoking kills – in other words if it kills other people, but also the smokers themselves – this raises a host of interesting questions. If I’m victimizing someone else by smoking, then presumably a smoking ban inside public facilities is not enough; the state should ban all smoking that in one way or another might harm others. Even at an outdoor table, my burning cigar might stain the lungs of some unsuspecting innocent nearby.

Anti-smoking evangelists, of course, would like nothing better than to ban smoking everywhere, even in the privacy of one’s own home, since ultimately they regard cigarette or cigar smoke as polluting the general atmosphere. In this they behave like any religious zealot would, attributing righteousness and universality to their actions, therefore identifying dissenting voices as immoral. The state is right not to condone such excess, and would anyway be unable to implement it.

But there is a more pernicious side to the non-smoking argument that very much leads to potential intrusion into people’s lives: that by lighting up, smokers increase health costs across society, therefore non-smokers have the right to protest the actions of smokers. If we follow this rationale, though, we might soon find that any activity deemed “unhealthy”, such as drinking one glass too many, overeating, or even cooking with butter rather than margarine, becomes fair game for health missionaries.

This is an exaggeration, you say; but the reality is that in recent decades individual health habits have come to be judged by others with insufferable intolerance. A person who fails to exercise or who delights in fatty foods is frequently the target of jokes, or just quiet contempt. In some places overweight passengers can now be banned from flights, because taking up too much room is deemed legitimately punishable. In many homes in the West people don’t serve spirits anymore, with dinner party guests being made to stand around daintily sipping wine.

Thank heavens that Lebanon is too undisciplined a place to ever plummet to such depths. Because of that, let’s do something different before imposing a smoking ban. Let’s give people a choice. The innate pluralism of the Lebanese makes that approach the most sensible.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Is Bellemare slowly preparing to bail out?

An interesting news item has appeared lately in several Arabic newspapers, including the local Al-Liwaa. Reports, citing Lebanese judicial sources, suggest that the prosecutor of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, Daniel Bellemare, will soon instruct his Beirut office to issue legal orders to interview “Lebanese personalities,” whose testimonies he can use to build up indictments. Bellemare will supposedly ask the Lebanese to select 300 soldiers to implement the summons orders.

The story has not been confirmed by Bellemare’s office, so it’s right to be careful. However, the story makes rather more sense than all those other leaks about the tribunal’s work, and this for several reasons: It was always viewed as a distinct possibility by observers that Bellemare might hold a round of interviews in the interim before issuing indictments, if indeed indictments ever come. And an analysis of the tribunal’s work indicates why such a course of action might be necessary.

We can assume that Bellemare does not have enough to indict anyone today, otherwise he would have already issued indictments. Nor does his legal strategy appear to be a factor in the delay. Had Bellemare been near to issuing indictments, it is highly doubtful that his chief investigator, Naguib Kaldas, and the tribunal’s registrar, David Tolbert, would have announced that they were leaving at the end of this month.

If Bellemare does not have enough to indict, that means he is still pursuing an investigation to gather the information required to draft accusations that can hold up in court. There are essentially two sorts of information the prosecutor must rely upon: old information that he and his predecessors assembled during their years of work; and information that Bellemare’s investigators must pull together starting now. However, unless we missed something, there appears to be no police investigation taking place today in Lebanon, or anywhere else for that matter. The staff in the Beirut office has been drastically reduced, with most investigators having either been released or living in The Netherlands.

It follows from this that Bellemare and his team are relying on what United Nations investigators collected previously, including testimonies, telecommunications intercepts, forensic evidence, and so on. But if the prosecutor still remains unable to build indictments on the basis of that information five years after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, it is probably a safe bet to argue that he desperately needs new material. No one doubts that Bellemare knows who committed the crime, and the particulars of how it was carried out. But that’s not necessarily enough to indict, which requires testimony based on fresh leads, arrests, and, most important, suspects willing to point the finger at other suspects.

In that context, the reports that Bellemare intends to bring witnesses in make more sense. Aside from the practical fact that such an undertaking creates the impression that the prosecutor is doing something amid growing doubts that the UN investigation has advanced since 2006, it would serve three other crucial purposes.

First, it might allow Bellemare to supplement his apparently thin testimony files, particularly when it comes to Lebanese participation in the Hariri assassination. Still, it doesn’t seem especially probable that the prosecutor will get much more out of such a process than he and his predecessors did from questioning witnesses earlier, unless he plans to question new witnesses. That seems to be the real point of the exercise.

Which leads us to the second purpose. There are unconfirmed reports that Bellemare has had trouble bringing in witnesses during the past year to give testimony, because they have refused his summons. The story is that the prosecutor asked the Lebanese authorities to assist him, but given the nature of the parties he sought to question, the authorities replied there was little they could do to help. If that is correct, a new round of summons may just be a way of putting the Lebanese on the spot and compelling them to take on their responsibilities in the investigation.

Which leads us to the third purpose. If the Lebanese do not bring in the witnesses whom Bellemare asks them to bring in, or even some key figures among them, this could provide the prosecutor with a pretext to announce that he does not have enough in hand to bring indictments. The blame, however, would fall on the Lebanese, not on Bellemare and the United Nations. Lebanese officials should be aware of the prospect for such a scenario, and probably are. Which is why you have to wonder whether the judicial sources who leaked about Bellemare’s alleged scheme did so to derail it – or to shift the onus onto his shoulders.

Whatever the answer, if Bellemare does call in new witnesses, this will be more a maneuver on his part than anything else. At this late stage the prosecutor knows very well who will offer testimony and who will refuse to do so. And he knows this because he spent a year as commissioner of the UN investigating team before becoming prosecutor. If he forces the issue now, his primary objective would be to justify his own failure.

In recent weeks, the former justice minister, Charles Rizk, has appeared on television talk shows to discuss the Hariri investigation, which took place largely during his days in office. Though Rizk expressed optimism about the outcome of the investigation, that was merely a gloss over his pointed criticism directed against the work of Bellemare and his predecessor Serge Brammertz. Rizk’s main beef was that the two men had placed the burden of detaining suspects, above all the four generals, on the Lebanese judiciary, without having enough proof to validate this.

Charles Rizk is both intelligent and experienced. His statements may indicate that, somewhere, he is beginning to smell a rat, and doesn’t want to be made the fall guy for the poor work of the UN commission. If Bellemare is preparing to shift the blame onto the Lebanese for the absence of indictments, Rizk perhaps decided to beat him to the punch. You really have to wonder if the tribunal can still be effective in this atmosphere.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Nausea and the Jdeideh incident

I realize that Hezbollah tends to provoke strange reactions in people, but somehow found myself ill prepared for the statement of the Aounist parliamentarian Nabil Nicolas last Monday at a commemoration held at the St. Joseph school in Jdeideh for three assassinated Hezbollah officials – Imad Mugniyah, Ragheb Harb and Abbas al-Moussawi.

In his speech Nicolas opined, after mentioning Hezbollah’s dead, that Christians considered the “first martyr against the Jews to be Jesus Christ.” He then compared what had motivated Hezbollah’s martyrs with the Christian impulse to sacrifice, “especially as the Maronites have begun Lent, which is considered the month of resistance by Christians.” His colleague, Camille Habib, Michel Aoun’s spokesman, sounded a similar note, declaring that he hoped that St. Maroun would ensure that “we can get to Jerusalem and beyond, and beyond Haifa,” echoing a statement by Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, during the 2006 war.

Nicolas’ theology was off, as was Habib’s geography, but the real question is whether the Aounists, when they speak in this way, expect us to take them seriously. Indeed, do they expect Hezbollah to take them seriously? In wanting to sound even more like Hezbollah than Hezbollah itself, the Aounists come across as members of a frightened minority, keen to curry favor with the more powerful than they by adopting their rhetoric.

The Jdeideh incident provoked consternation among Christians. It shouldn’t have, at least for the reasons it did. The reaction of many people was that Hezbollah should organize its political gatherings in Shia areas, not in predominantly Christian ones (though there is a more solid case to be made that the party should not do so in Christian religious schools, or in any schools for that matter). A former parliamentarian, Fares Soueid, expressed this logic by asking whether “the Kataeb or the Lebanese Forces could hold a ceremony to honor the martyred president, Bachir Gemayel, at [the] Rawdat al-Shahidayn [mosque] in the southern suburbs.”

Unfortunately, that’s precisely the logic that has allowed Hezbollah to consolidate its mini-state in the past 15 years. Where there is recognition of enclosed sectarian areas, there is also implicit legitimization of Hezbollah’s exclusive domination of Shia-majority areas. They’re there, we’re here, the argument goes, and by staying that way everyone is happy. If Lebanon is ever to become a real state, such thinking must end.

But since we won’t resolve that problem just yet, let’s focus on the rationale of those like Nicolas and Habib, and their Aounist followers, who have in recent years embraced Hezbollah in the most uncritical of ways. When Michel Aoun and Nasrallah signed their “understanding” at the Mar Mikhail Church in Chiyyah in February 2006, Aounists defended the document as an agreement between equal parties. There was some reason to accept the interpretation. Aoun headed a large bloc in parliament, and while Hezbollah had the weapons, it was dependent at the time on its new Christian partner to break out of its isolation.

But then things began to change. Although Aoun continued to portray himself as a prime defender of the Lebanese state, he endorsed Hezbollah’s behavior during the 2006 war, which the party provoked without consulting the Lebanese government or its own partners. Aoun also upheld the party’s right to retain its weapons, linking disarmament to an end of the Mideast conflict, even though he had provoked a devastating inter-Christian war in 1989-1990 to disarm the Lebanese Forces.

Aoun also retreated from what he had earlier said about the assassination of the former prime minister, Rafik al-Hariri. Where the general had repeatedly blamed Syria in 2005, in an interview with Marcel Ghanem in March 2006, soon after signing his understanding with Hezbollah, he shifted the blame onto “fundamentalists”, by which he meant Sunni fundamentalists, drawing attention away from the more likely culprits.

And when Hezbollah began its protest in the downtown area in December 2006 to forcibly remove a constitutionally legitimate government, Aoun, the erstwhile defender of the state, went down with the party. Worse, during the 18-month crisis that followed, when Aoun sought to impose himself as president to succeed Emile Lahoud, Hezbollah supported his efforts, but never once formally endorsed him as its candidate. In the end it was the party’s acceptance of Michel Sleiman during the Doha Conference of June 2007 that shattered Aoun’s presidential dreams.

In other words, at every stage Hezbollah set the agenda and Aoun followed, even when doing so meant undermining his declared principles or ambitions. So to watch as the Aounists now bend their religious symbolism out of shape to make it more compatible with Hezbollah’s political symbolism is truly nauseating. Michel Aoun has obliterated any semblance of an independent personality in his interaction with the party.

What Soueid should have asked is not whether Hezbollah would allow a ceremony in the southern suburbs to honor Bachir Gemayel; but rather whether Hassan Nasrallah would have paid tribute to Bachir (whose takeover of the presidency Michel Aoun helped engineer) in the same way that the Aounists did to Mugniyah. In its leaders’ oratory Hezbollah never concedes anything on its worldview, even to its allies.

When Nicolas compared Imad Mugniyah to Jesus Christ, the party faithful in the audience must have felt contempt for the Aounist parliamentarian. After all, even Hezbollah does not consider Mugniyah a prophet. What fools we’re friends with, they must have gleefully thought.

Beirut must brace for a UN Iran vote

The Lebanese government, cobbled together from disparate elements, has had a predictably fitful start. However, one headache may be looming that will severely test Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s ability to maintain unity in the ranks: a UN Security Council vote on sanctions against Iran.

Lebanon is currently the Arab representative on the council. For now the Lebanese are gambling that China’s refusal to approve sanctions will derail a vote. However, in recent days American officials have sounded more upbeat about China’s agreeing to, or at least not vetoing, a sanctions resolution. For example, last weekend US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she believed the Chinese would go along with the project, despite their reservations. Vice President Joseph Biden echoed that thought on Sunday, when he declared “we’ll get the support of China to continue to impose sanctions on Iran.” It was a more cautious national security adviser, Jim Jones, who said “we need to work on China a little more,” before adding, “[O]n this issue, they cannot be nonsupportive.”

That’s bad news for Lebanon, which may find itself in a similar situation to that of Yemen on the eve of the 1991 Gulf war against Iraq. At the time the Yemenis, also sitting in the Arab seat on the Security Council, voted against a war resolution, then paid a heavy political and financial price for that choice. The consequences are likely to be less dramatic in Lebanon’s case, but the potential for damage still remains high.

If Lebanon votes in favor of a sanctions resolution, it will incur the wrath of Hizbullah; if it votes against a resolution, it risks provoking the ire of Arab states who want to see Iran contained, above all Saudi Arabia. And if Lebanon announces beforehand that it will abstain, the decision, if poorly promoted diplomatically, might provoke criticism that it is being wishy-washy, while the permanent Security Council members will be angry not to have the sole Arab representative supporting them. A choice to abstain could also lead to politicization of the vote issue, which would be used as leverage against Hariri and his majority, not least by a Syrian regime that relishes playing on Lebanese contradictions for its own political benefit.

What are Lebanon’s options? The only realistic option is for Beirut to very carefully prepare the ground for regional and international acceptance of a Lebanese abstention. Voting for or against a sanctions resolution will only split the government, and the country, forcing a confrontation that can only be resolved through the compromise of an abstention.

So an abstention it is, but with all the difficulties raised earlier. On the Security Council Lebanon is more than just Lebanon; it is the representative of the Arab consensus, or lack thereof. Few at the United Nations will sympathize if Beirut begs off taking a clear position because this might provoke domestic discord. Many will complain that the Lebanese should have been aware of the dilemmas involved when they stood for the Security Council seat. In fact, that was the attitude last year of Walid Jumblatt, who wondered how Lebanon would handle an Iran vote. It’s not as if our politicians can say they were taken by surprise.

All the Lebanese government can do at this stage is convince the permanent five and the Arab states of why an abstention is preferable. The argument, which it should develop as soon as possible, then make privately to avoid a divisive public discussion, could go something like this: Lebanon, alas, reflects the contradictions of the region. By abstaining, it could, first, cover up Arab divergences over Iran. Lebanon is also going through a necessary process of reconciliation, backed by the Arab world. Instability in the country serves no purpose, and instability will follow from a yes or no vote on sanctions. Lebanese instability also raises the probability of regional strife, whether between Sunnis and Shiites, or between Lebanon and Israel given the recent threats exchanged by both sides. This can only profit Iran, which is adept at exploiting regional polarization. We understand your worries, but you have to understand ours.

Ultimately, all parties in Lebanon would accept an abstention. They have no choice. However, the danger is that a loud public debate before the voting happens could be exploited by various sides to raise the heat on the government, perhaps on unrelated matters. It will be very difficult for Hariri to avert this, since among his Cabinet partners several have an interest in undermining his policies to advance their parochial agendas.

The role of Syria will also be interesting to watch if a Security Council vote becomes inevitable. Where there is Lebanese dissension, Damascus usually likes to heighten it, before selling the solution to all sides. We can assume that the Syrians will ask their allies, for example Nabih Berri, to persist in their demand that Lebanon vote against a sanctions resolution. Hizbullah will obviously do the same. Saad Hariri will find himself in the midst of a mess, and the Syrians will turn to the Saudis and promise to settle everything. They will bring Berri around, as well as Hizbullah – both of whom always intended to accept a Lebanese abstention anyway – in the process discrediting the government, the prime minister, and the very notion that the Lebanese can settle their problems without Syria.

That’s why Hariri must act quickly and quietly to get the ball rolling on endorsement of the Lebanese position, before this is overwhelmed by partisan politics and Syrian manipulation. Trusting in a Chinese veto is not a policy; it’s a prayer that might very well not be heard.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

A U.N. Betrayal in Beirut

(published in the New York Times, Feb 13, 2010)

FIVE years ago today, the former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri of Lebanon was killed, an assassination that set off the “cedar revolution” and forced Syria, the principal suspect in the crime, to withdraw its army from the country. Meanwhile, global public outcry led the United Nations Security Council to initiate an international investigation, the first of its kind.

Half a decade later, however, the Hariri case has made little progress toward justice. Lately, Syria has reasserted its power in Beirut after years of trying to destabilize a government dominated by its political foes. In December, Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s prime minister and Rafik’s son, met with Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, acceding to the reconciliation between his own political sponsor, Saudi Arabia, and Damascus — making Lebanon less likely to point the finger at Syria for the killing.

But the more significant problem actually lies within the United Nations investigation itself. While it has been upgraded to a special tribunal, sitting near The Hague, it has suffered from questionable leadership, lost key members and last year had to release suspects for lack of formal indictments.

The United Nations investigation team was set up in 2005 by Detlev Mehlis, a German prosecutor who had investigated the 1986 La Belle discotheque bombing in West Berlin. Mr. Mehlis had few doubts about Syria’s involvement, and said so in his first report. He asked for President Assad’s testimony (over Syrian protests), interviewed Syrian intelligence officers in Vienna and arrested suspects. When Mr. Mehlis stepped down from his position in December, 2005, he felt he had enough to arrest at least one of the intelligence officers.

However, the investigation wilted under his successor, the Belgian judge Serge Brammertz. Mr. Brammertz issued uninformative reports and displayed a lack of transparency that discouraged potential witnesses, unsure of whether he had solid evidence in hand, from coming forward; he wasted time by reopening the crime scene to determine the kind of blast that had killed Mr. Hariri, which three earlier specialist reports had already established; he failed to follow through on the interviews with the Syrian officers; and though he met with President Assad, he apparently did not formally take down his testimony.

He also brought in more analysts to examine the technical details of the crime, rather than more police investigators with the experience to compare testimonies, make arrests and unravel the perpetrators’ chain of command. After two years, Mr. Brammertz failed to identify any new suspects beyond those Mr. Mehlis arrested, notably four senior Lebanese security officials (whose continued detention he nevertheless reconfirmed).

“The investigation has lost all the momentum it had in January 2006” when Mr. Brammertz took over, Mr. Mehlis told me in 2008. “Unfortunately, I haven’t seen a word in his reports during the past two years confirming that he has moved forward. When I left we were ready to name suspects, but he seems not to have progressed from that stage.”

Mr. Mehlis wasn’t alone in his concern. Two senior Lebanese government officials closely involved with the United Nations investigation also later expressed their misgivings about Mr. Brammertz to me; one of them said that he had “taken the public for a ride” and echoed criticism that his investigation was top-heavy with analysts.

Mr. Brammertz, who stepped down at the end of 2007, declined my request for a response to Mr. Mehlis. More disturbing, the United Nations itself has remained silent, even though Mr. Brammertz’s successor, Daniel Bellemare of Canada, has suffered his own setbacks. Last April, despite having acquired prosecutorial powers, he was forced by the tribunal’s bylaws to release the imprisoned suspects pending an indictment. Mr. Bellemare deserves blame for taking on such a weak case in the first place, effectively legitimizing his predecessor’s shoddy work. But the onus surely lies with Mr. Brammertz, and with those at United Nations headquarters who never held him to account.

The tribunal has also suffered from the departures of key officials. The first registrar (the equivalent of senior administrator for the tribunal), Robin Vincent, left because of differences with Mr. Bellemare. His successor, David Tolbert, will step down later this month. The costliest exit, however, will be that of the chief investigator, Naguib Kaldas, a respected Australian policeman, officially because his contract has ended and he has been promoted at home — though word has it he was expected to renew.

At the least, these developments raise doubts about the prosecutor’s capacity to lead a complicated investigation and to get along with colleagues; they also indicate that indictments aren’t forthcoming, which may explain why top officials are finding it so easy to depart from a landmark tribunal.

Any murder case takes time, but there’s reason to believe that investigative incompetence or international political pressure, or a combination of both, has played a role in slowing down, and even rolling back, the search for Mr. Hariri’s killers. Whichever it is, the United Nations has done little to ensure success. In our interview, Mr. Mehlis recalled that the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, had warned him that “he did not want another trouble spot.”

The impetus to identify Mr. Hariri’s assassins is gone; not only has Lebanon sought rapprochement with Syria, but the Lebanese public’s expectations, after years of an inconclusive inquiry, have hit rock bottom. Foreign governments fear the instability that might ensue if Mr. Bellemare issues indictments, so few will regret it if he doesn’t. But the United Nations pushed for the Hariri investigation; its integrity is tied up with a plausible outcome. If that’s impossible, there is no point insulting the victims by letting the charade continue. Better to send Mr. Bellemare home.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Is the Ethiopian crash turning into a major scandal?

Airplane crashes often produce maelstroms of spin, efforts by all the parties concerned to shape the information in their favor. We are in the midst of that today over the Ethiopian Airlines disaster, and Lebanese officials are not emerging from the mess looking particularly good.

In recent days, two ministers have said contradictory things about the crash. On Tuesday, the health minister, Muhammad Jawad Khalifeh, declared that the Ethiopian airplane had been brought down by an explosion, though he hastily added that this was not the result of a bomb. A day later, the information minister, Tariq Mitri, tried to put a different interpretation on his colleague’s statement by saying that Khalifeh meant the aircraft had exploded upon impact with the sea – something the health minister decidedly had not said. Indeed, Khalifeh went to great lengths to graphically explain why the explosion had occurred in midair.

On the day of the crash, a Defense Ministry source had also indicated that the Ethiopian airliner disintegrated in the air, even as President Michel Sleiman, with no evidence in hand, was ruling out a terrorist attack. Instead, Lebanese officials began highlighting that the pilot had diverted from the flight path given to him by the control tower, while earlier this week there was an anonymous leak to Reuters, by a source allegedly “close to the investigation”, suggesting that analysis of the first black box sent to Paris indicated that pilot error was behind the downing.

We can assume that all this information is either speculative or designed to draw attention away from possible Lebanese responsibility in the catastrophe. Until a full inquiry is conducted abroad, it’s best to remain skeptical. In fact only Ethiopian Airlines has shown a modicum of seriousness until now, issuing a statement on Wednesday declaring that it did not rule out any cause for the accident, including sabotage, and that it was too early in the investigation to arrive at conclusions.

Yet there is one aspect of the case that has not been highlighted, but whose importance may yet emerge later on. It is no secret that Hezbollah has considerable sway over the airport and that the state’s exercise of authority in the facility often requires party consent. Recall the clash between the March 14-led government and Hezbollah in May 2008 over the head of airport security, Wafiq Choucair. At the time the government had dismissed him, only to see the party reverse the decision by force.

Nor has there been any news for over a year about what happened to Joseph Sader, the Middle East Airlines employee who was kidnapped within spitting distance of the airport entrance, and whose fate has been scandalously ignored by the authorities since then.

Whatever happens at the airport in light of the Ethiopian air crash will be of acute interest to Hezbollah. If the airliner was brought down because of a bomb, this could focus international attention on the facility, which may have significant consequences for how the party conducts its future affairs there. Even if the crash was the result, let’s say, of a technical mistake by the ground maintenance crew, that too has the potential of leading to growing outside demands for better supervision of the airport complex.

The Lebanese state has to be very careful – far more careful than it has been – about how it manages the situation. If there is a perception in Europe and the United States that it is trying to draw attention away from developments at the airport, thereby indirectly covering for Hezbollah, that could severely damage the government’s credibility and that of the airport itself as a reliable travel hub. The consequences for Lebanon’s aviation industry, and ultimately for tourism, could be quite damaging.

That’s not to suggest that Hezbollah had anything to do with the crash. On the contrary, the episode was surely a headache the party could have done without. And that’s assuming that someone in Hezbollah, or close to it, was not the target of a bomb attack. However, we can ask whether Hezbollah’s portraying the crash as a Shia tragedy (for in part it was) did not have something to do with its desire to compensate for the fact that anything taking place at the airport tends to be placed at the party’s door.

Or more cynically, by depicting the tragedy as one for the community, was Hezbollah warning Lebanese investigators in particular that they had better look elsewhere for the truth than within the airport’s confines?

Whatever the answer, the state has displayed borderline incompetence in the Ethiopian airline affair. From the president on down officials have repeatedly preempted the conclusions of an inquiry through statements they could not prove. But being faulted for incompetence could be the least of their worries. If they are seen in foreign capitals as having manipulated the realities of the crash for domestic political reasons, Lebanon could find itself at the center of an international scandal.

Idealism and the Hariri commemoration

The debate over whether to attend the commemoration this weekend of Rafik Hariri’s assassination has divided the March 14 faithful. Some will be present on Sunday, others not. But at a moment like this one it is worth recalling what the Independence Intifada of 2005 was really about.

It was about Lebanon itself – its contradictory, antagonistic, pluralistic, paradoxically liberal instincts, but also the sectarianism that gave rise to all these characteristics. There is an argument today that the ideals of the Independence Intifada were betrayed by the politicians back then, and again last year when they followed up the March 14 victory in legislative elections with an endorsement of Hizbullah’s weapons and a Saudi-imposed reconciliation with Syria that, to some degree, overturned the gains made five years ago. This reasoning is justified but incomplete.

The essential driver of the Independence Intifada was sectarianism. We surely have to qualify that thought by acknowledging the essential role played between February 14 and March 14 by an educated, mostly Christian middle class that kept alive the daily protests at Martyrs Square, in conjunction with youths from all communities who manned the tent city there. By and large the primary motives of these people were idealistic, not sectarian, and without them holding the ground, the security services would have easily stifled the dissenters.

However, there were three defining days in the weeks after the Hariri assassination, and their particular power derived from the fact that they emerged from the recesses of Lebanon’s sectarian makeup, with its particular genius for imposing equilibrium. The first was the Hariri funeral; the second, the March 8 rally organized by Hizbullah to “thank” Syria; and the third, the then-opposition’s rejoinder on March 14.

While the funeral was “national” in character, and multisectarian, both the large numbers involved and the moment’s particular impetus were the consequence of massive Sunni participation, as the community came out in force to condemn the murder of a Sunni leader. March 8, in turn, was primarily a Hizbullah-led Shiite reaction to weeks of anti-Syrian behavior, perceived as a challenge to Hizbullah and therefore to the Shiites.

Then came March 14, the ultimate distillation of Lebanon’s chaotic pluralism. Everyone was united in wanting Syria out, but then things became more complicated. The large numbers of Sunnis participating did so as a riposte against the Shiites the week before. The Aounists were principally concerned with bringing back their leader from his exile in France. The supporters of the Lebanese Forces were there above all to secure Samir Geagea’s release from prison. And buffeted by these diverse currents were individuals who may well have shared each or all of these aims, but whose primary purpose was to defend the vision of a Lebanon that could transcend its discord and do away with the overbearing political leaders to forge a modern, progressive, representative society.

In retrospect, this group was a minority. Undoubtedly many at Martyrs Square would have supported such a vision if asked. Yet when it came time to act upon it, they went in other directions. The politicians proved far more popular than the idealists presumed, and even before legislative elections took place in May and June 2005 their parochial calculations had won the day. At best, one could say that sectarianism, by imposing equilibrium on all, by balancing off contending political or social forces, created spaces in which Lebanese liberalism could thrive – a paradoxical liberalism, to be sure, for being built on often illiberal institutions.

That’s why the discussion today about the meaning of the Hariri commemoration seems so detached from reality. It is largely occurring between the idealists. One can only respond by saying two things: there will be a good turnout this Sunday because the leaders, keen to gain approval for their latest policies, will ensure it; and this detail will reconfirm how marginal the idealists are in shaping what happens next in Lebanon.

But since bitterness is in the air, let’s at least give the idealists their due. In 2005 they were at the forefront demanding the truth about who had killed Rafik Hariri and all those who followed him – from Samir Kassir to Wissam Eid and including the Lebanese and foreigners who died in numerous bomb attacks. Today, the prospect that the guilty will be punished seems negligible. And by the guilty we mean those who gave the orders, not the underlings who committed the crimes, knew about them and failed to stop them, or who tampered with evidence.

Last week, Lebanon was honored with a visit by the president of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, Antonio Cassese. He reassured us that the tribunal was ready to perform, but that there was no deadline for indictments. Explaining the ongoing delay, Cassese observed: “All acts of terrorism are much more complicated than war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.” Why? Because “[t]errorist acts involve secret cells. There’s no clear chain of command or hierarchy.”

Perhaps he knows what he’s talking about, but the first investigator appointed by the United Nations, Detlev Mehlis, had less murky a reading of things. As he explained in a 2006 interview: “The Hariri case is an unusual one. Usually in investigations you start at the bottom and work your way up. In the Hariri case we started pretty much at the top and worked down. We had an accurate view of how the assassination took place from above, but less clear a view of what happened on the ground.”

In other words, Mehlis had a fairly lucid sense of the chain of command and hierarchy, requiring only a competent investigation at the bottom to fill out the empty spaces. We didn’t get one from Serge Brammertz, and even if Daniel Bellemare eventually finds something, he will very likely not point a finger at the real perpetrators in the Syrian regime.

The “Truth” was a potent slogan back in 2005, but the Lebanese, both leaders and obedient followers, are in a different mood today. That’s why the Hariri commemoration feels so hollow to so many. The idealists may have read too much into events five years ago, but they were entitled to expect justice for the victims. Even that is being denied them today.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Enough, already, with the Jumblatt obsession

Syria’s ongoing humiliation of Walid Jumblatt continues, even as the Druze leader insists that he has completed three-quarters of his road to Damascus. But as a friend of mine recently remarked, with cheerful derision, it’s the final quarter that is the longest.

Last week, while on a trip to London, Jumblatt told the daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat that he would not apologize publicly if the Syrian regime demanded that of him. He made the statement to the paper’s columnist, and his Druze coreligionist, Walid Abi Mershed, amid signs that the Druze community is deeply uneasy with Jumblatt’s recent political retreats, especially his visit to the home of Wiam Wahhab in Al-Jahiliyeh.

What is it the Syrian regime is asking of Jumblatt? Apparently two things. It wants him to apologize for a comment he made to David Ignatius of the Washington Post, which Ignatius published in a column in January 2006. Replying to a question about what he wanted from the United States, the Druze leader had observed: “You came to Iraq in the name of majority rule. You can do the same thing in Syria.” Bashar al-Assad, ever sensitive to the charge that he sits atop a system of minority rule, has demanded that Jumblatt’s act of contrition be addressed to “the Syrian people”.

Jumblatt is willing to do that. More complicated is another step the Syrians want him to take, namely issuing a personal apology to Assad for a speech Jumblatt made in February 2006, in which he referred to the Syrian president as a “monkey”, a “snake” and a “crocodile”. Jumblatt had hoped that this would be resolved through a visit to Damascus by one of his representatives, and the Syrians initially agreed to such a formula. However, they later changed their mind and are now said to be insisting that the apology precede the arrival of any Jumblatt envoy.

Worse, they apparently want the apology to come out in an interview with an Al-Jazeera television interviewer whose sympathies for Hezbollah and Syria are well-known. Jumblatt is reluctant to go along with this because he may be put on the spot, but mainly because he has no desire to see his apology beamed out to the Arab world as an Al-Jazeera exclusive, on a station belonging to the leading Gulf rivals of Saudi Arabia. Jumblatt cannot afford to alienate the Saudis, which explains why he rejected a public apology to Syria via the Saudi-owned Al-Sharq al-Awsat.

How sincere is his rejection? Jumblatt acknowledges that his recent actions are unpopular among the Druze, but he will forge ahead anyway. His primary aim is to slowly prepare for the leadership accession of his son, and this he cannot do against Assad, who rules over some 100,000 Druze. Jumblatt is not about to step down – his proclamations of retiring to Normandy to write his memoirs notwithstanding – but nor can he miss the train of reconciliations between Lebanese politicians and Syria.

Jumblatt doubtless hopes that by raising the ante with Assad, he might force better terms for an eventual visit to Damascus. The Druze leader’s advisors are suggesting that Hezbollah has been tasked with bridging the gap between him and Syria. That’s doubtless true, but Jumblatt’s case is said to be in the hands of a senior Syrian official who has traditionally dealt with Shia affairs, which means that Damascus is closely monitoring, and manipulating, whatever happens. And at some stage the mortification of Walid Jumblatt may become counterproductive.

Why is that? For three reasons primarily. First, because a Jumblatt discredited among the Druze is ultimately less useful to Syria than a Jumblatt more squarely on Syria’s side. Second, because Jumblatt has the swing votes allowing him to turn March 14 from a majority in parliament and the government into a minority (even if there are those in his parliamentary bloc disinclined to follow him). And third, because every Syrian rebuttal of Jumblatt pushes him a bit closer to his partners in March 14 who insist that his groveling toward Syria has been disastrous.

Jumblatt’s desire to settle with Syria is bad news for Lebanese eroding sovereignty, and we should perhaps welcome Syrian small-mindedness toward the Druze leader. However, we have to be honest: It’s not a Jumblatt visit to Damascus that will break the back of March 14. Among those who had once opposed Syria, Saad al-Hariri remains more powerful than the Druze leader; and Hariri met with Bashar al-Assad in December to far less opprobrium than that being directed against Walid Jumblatt.

Through his visit Hariri sought to reinforce Lebanese independence, but the price we can expect to pay in exchange for his nonetheless major climb-down – particularly when it comes to abandoning the search for the assassins of Rafik al-Hariri, Samir Kassir, George Hawi, Gebran Tueni, Pierre Gemayel, Walid Eido, Antoine Ghanem, Wissam Eid, and all the others killed with them or in wayward bomb attacks – is far more onerous than what Jumblatt will ever have the capacity to make Lebanon pay.

Sooner or later the Syrians will reach a modus vivendi with Jumblatt, and he will have to go along. But we would be silly to imagine that this will represent an earth-shattering moment. That moment already happened at the presidential palace in Damascus two months ago when Hariri shook Assad’s hand, and somehow the Lebanese failed to notice, or pretended not to notice. If the Syrians are in no hurry to welcome Jumblatt, that should tell us something about the Druze leader’s true influence.

We should not let the Jumblatt saga detract from the real story in Lebanon today: The Syrians are back, and we seem helpless to stop them.