“Umm…the Dog Ate my Agenda”

Editor’s Note: Yes, we know that the font’s messed up.  Blame wordpress for not allowing a simple copy and paste from a word document. Not Rob.

Last year, Syria and Lebanon finally agreed to establish diplomatic ties.  The decision was hailed as a political breakthrough, with significant credit given to French President Nicolas Sarkozy for his efforts to coax Syria.  But many expressed doubts as to the ease with which the decision would actually be implemented.  Since the two countries had gained their independence from France in the 1940’s, there have been no embassies and no recognition by Syria of Lebanon’s sovereignty.  Syrian governments always considered Lebanon as something of a historical mistake, and saw it as part of geographic and historic Greater Syria. For this reason, while the Syrian decree to open diplomatic channels of communication was lauded, it was not without scepticism as to how genuine the move truly was.

The locality of the Syrian embassy will be the trendy neighbourhood of Hamra in Beirut, close to the Lebanese American University and the American University of Beirut. The building which will house the Syrian embassy in Beirut raised the Syrian flag on 26 December, 2008.  But there is still no Syrian ambassador working there.  There has been a great deal of speculation as to who Syria will appoint in the past few months, and two names that were floated were those of Makram Obeid, current Syrian ambassador to Spain,  and Collette Khoury, Bashar el Assad’s literary advisor and a francophone poet and novelist.  In early January 2009, news stories started circulating quoting diplomatic sources as saying that the choice had fallen on Collette Khoury, and that the official announcement would be made by Bashar to French president Nicolas Sarkozy during a state visit by the latter.  Since those stories however, there has been no announcement confirming Collette Khoury’s appointment, or anyone else’s appointment for that matter.  The office where the Syrian embassy will be located is presently being run by three Syrian diplomats and is not yet fully operational.  This perceived dilly-dallying on the appointment of an ambassador by Syria hardly serves to counterract the impression that it is still not truly committed to dealing with Lebanon through diplomatic channels and to recognizing its smaller neighbour as a fully independent and sovereign state.

As to Lebanon’s choice for its ambassador to Syria, that fell on Michel Khoury. Yesterday, Monday, 17 March 2009, a Lebanese delegation attended the official inauguration of its first ever embassy in Damascus.  Ambassador Khoury will only take office in April and until then, Rami Murtada will head the embassy as chargé d’affaires.

One would think that the opening of an embassy by a direct neighbour, and in a context as meaningful as this one, would merit some kind of Syrian attention.  After all, surely the Syrian government was aware that this would make international headlines, just as the initial announcement did in 2008?  Interestingly, not so.  There was a conspicuous absence of an official delegation by the host nation.   The reason? “Ooops, we forgot… or something….”  Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem  stated at a joint news conference with Amr Moussa, head of the Arab League, that the absence was not intentional.  It’s just that, well,  the Syrian government thought the inauguration was taking place on Sunday, not Monday.  This begs the question:  did the Syrian delegation show up on Sunday all suited up, only to realize they were a day early?

Diplomacy is often jokingly referred to as the world’s second-oldest profession.  The principles, formalities and rules governing it are so detailed and have become so entrenched in state practice that they were written down in an international treaty known as the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.   Article 4 (1) of the Vienna Convention obliges state to send their ambassadors’ accreditations to the host country’s government, and to obtain the host country’s approval:

Article 4

1. The sending State must make certain that the agrément of the receiving State has been given for the person it proposes to accredit as head of the mission to that State.

Not only that, but the Vienna Convention also requires that the sending state notify the host country of the appointment of members of a diplomatic mission, of their arrival and their departure, of the arrival and departure of the diplomats’ family members, and even of  the arrival and departure of their private servants:

Article 10

1. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs of the receiving State, or such other ministry as may be agreed, shall be notified of:

(a) The appointment of members of the mission, their arrival and their final departure or the termination of their functions with the mission;
(b) The arrival and final departure of a person belonging to the family of a member of the mission and, where appropriate, the fact that a person becomes or ceases to be a member of the family of a member of the mission;
(c) The arrival and final departure of private servants in the employ of persons referred to in sub-paragraph (a) of this paragraph and, where appropriate, the fact that they are leaving the employ of such persons;
(d) The engagement and discharge of persons resident in the receiving State as members of the mission or private servants entitled to privileges and immunities.

If the host country has to be informed of private servants’ arrivals and departures, should it not, a fortiori, also be informed of when an embassy opens? Granted, the Convention doesn’t specify how far in advance the host country has to be notified. But given the geographic proximity of the two countries, the political importance of the event, the regional and international press coverage, not to mention all the legal formalities a sending country has to follow, it is a little difficult to believe a Syrian government official when they  pretend not to know when an embassy on their own territory was scheduled to be inaugurated.

The Daily Star quotes Mouallem as saying that he had not been informed of the opening, but had “heard the news in media”.  Am I the only person who finds it a bit odd that a Foreign Minister heard of an embassy opening in his own country, through the news?  To be honest, I’m not so fussed about a  Syrian delegation not attending the opening. It’s the pretension, founded or not, that the Syrian government didn’t know when the opening was set to take place.  Surely, there must have been some kind of communication as to this politically important event between Beirut and Damascus?  Wouldn’t the Syrian Foreign Ministry have received an invitation to attend?  Or at least some kind of notice along the lines of: “By the way,  we’re thinking of opening an embassy on Monday…” ? Should we conclude that this was just another snub by older brother Syria towards its little neighbour?  Or are there simply excusable administrative errors in diarizing events in the Foreign Ministry’s calendar?

The Judges of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon

Blackstar, Esq,  MediaShack’s Legal Analyst, continues her coverage of the Lebanese Special Tribunal.

Naharnet and Al Mustaqbal report today that Justice Antonio Cassese, has  been appointed presiding judge of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.   Justice Cassese was the former presiding judge of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and one of the most eminent and published scholars of public international law.

Professor William Schabas’ blog speculated a few weeks ago that another former judge from the ICTY and the Amsterdam Court of Appeal, Justice Bert Swart would be appointed to the Tribunal, as well as Justice Howard Morrison.  Justice Morrison practiced as a defense lawyer for 9 years at the ICTY and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), and is now a UK Circuit judge.  He has the prestigious status of being a “QC”, or Queen’s Counsel.

The Tribunal is meant to have a total of  9 judges (or 11 including alternate judges):

  • one pre-trial judge (an international)
  • three trial judges (one Lebanese and two international)
  • five appellate judges (two Lebanese and three international)
  • plus two alternate judges (one Lebanese and one international).

On the prosecution side, the Chief Prosecutor is Daniel Bellemare (an international), but Lebanon is meant to appoint a Lebanese Deputy Prosecutor.  As it turns out, there’s a stalemate at the cabinet level about who to appoint.

We’ll have more on the appointments as events unfold.  Also Part II of the series “Why the Special Tribunal for Lebanon was Created” will be up in a few days.  It will look at the legal and political reasons behind the creation of the Tribunal.

Update on Russian MiG donation to Lebanon

A few months ago, Rob and I discussed Russia donating  10 MiG-29 fighter jets to Lebanon (read here and here).  The cost of maintenance was back then considered a serious issue  for (and probably by) the Lebanese government.  As it turns out, so too it was for the Russian government.

Russia has apparently failed to invest enough roubles to make its military hardware operational.  A few weeks ago, AP and several newspapers, including Al Nahar and The Moscow Times, started publishing reports that the planes are too unsafe and unreliable for use, and a word of warning was sounded out to the Lebanese:

“Lebanon has been advised to “wait” before accepting MiGs after reports that at least a third of Russia’s fighter jets are unsafe and should be written off or repaired.”

Apparently, Russia had tried to pull a similar act of generosity towards Algeria recently.  That didn’t last very long, as Algeria returned 15 MiG 29’s back to Russia, citing “poor quality”.

Bringing the Shia into the Fold?

Yesterday both Blackstar  and Abu_Muqawama  posted on the UK’s attempt to open up lines of communication with Hezbollah. I don’t think its signifigant and I participated in a long 91 comment discussion at Mr. Muqawama’s site which was quite good until about the last 40 when the whackjobism of a few individuals……

Anyway, speaking of Hezbollah, I recommend this  article on Lebanese Shias at Islam Online, which seems to have recently expanded its coverage of Shias.  Readers might be wondering why this is significant?  It’s because Islam Online is affiliated with Sunni cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi so its pretty much an exclusive Sunni organization.  It’s office is in Cairo, all the employees there are Sunni, and Sheikh Al-Qaradawi caused a controversy when he made some_negative_comments about the Shia last September.   One thing that has always stuck out (at least to me) is that the section on Islamist movements totally ignores Shia groups.  But during the last week I’ve noticed two articles on the Shia ( also see here)  whereas I can’t remember reading any before.   Is this some kind of attempt by Sheikh Al-Qaradawi to repair relations with the Shia? Or am I reading way too much into it? If anyone knows, I’d be interested in hearing.

Talking to Hezbollah

The Obama administration seems to have ushered in a welcome wind of change (well, for now).  The British government this week has announced that it is opening up talks with low-level officials from Hezbollah’s political wing. The UK had cut off all ties with both the military and political wings of the party in 2005, and had added the military wing to its list of “banned organizations” in July 2008.

While the US has officially distanced itself from this policy change (see this article from Hezbollah’s Al Manar), it seems to have very subtly opened the door for it to take place. President Obama after all has very recently started calling for reconciliation talks between the Taliban and the US. An anonymous State Department source quoted in the Al Manar article also states that the US might find the UK-Hezbollah talks beneficial.

There’s a great Op-ed today in the New York Times by Roger Cohen which discusses these policy reversals:

“Like Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah has long been treated by the United States as a proscribed terrorist group. This narrow view has ignored the fact that both organizations are now entrenched political and social movements without whose involvement regional peace is impossible.

Britain aligned itself with the U.S. position on Hezbollah, but has now seen its error. Bill Marston, a Foreign Office spokesman, told Al Jazeera: “Hezbollah is a political phenomenon and part and parcel of the national fabric in Lebanon. We have to admit this.””

The Cohen piece is highly recommended reading.

Why the Special Tribunal for Lebanon was Created (Part I) Rafiq el Hariri: Why the Big Fuss?

Note: This post is the first part in a series explaining why the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which opened its doors on March 1, 2009, was created. Today’s post explains why Rafiq el Hariri was such an important personality on the national, regional and international scenes. Check back in the next few days for a discussion of the Western powers’ reasons and interest in prosecuting those responsible for Hariri’s assassination.  

        Lebanon’s Most Important Financial Asset

In his heyday, Rafiq el Hariri was one of the richest people in the world. A self-made billionaire, he had spent most of his adult life building a corporate empire in Saudi Arabia, and at the end of the civil war in Lebanon, moved back to his home country where he became the de facto re-builder of run-down Beirut. The tiny enclave of architecturally re-furbished (yet strangely character-bereft) buildings that make up today’s downtown Beirut is the product of Hariri’s efforts to revamp one of the most dilapidated part of the city through the company Solidere, of which he was the largest shareholder.

Solidere succeeded in turning the area into a huge tourist attraction and a crucial economic asset for the country, yet at the same time, attracted widespread criticism. First, because it did so by expropriating the original landowners and compensating them with shares worth much less than the expropriated property’s value. As if this were not enough, the share plummeted in value a few years later in 2001 (from about $17US per share to $3US per share). Although the price climbed back up eventually, Solidere’s questionable corporate practices in the process of reconstruction (as an example, Hariri’s fortune went from being valued at $4.3 billion US in 2005 to $16.7 billion US in 2006 by Forbes, with no explanation by his family as to how it could have quadrupled in one year), its perceived and actual superiority over the government on the reconstruction issue, suspicions of influencing the judiciary in court actions brought against it by its opponents, as well its disregard for individual and property rights, and freedom of press attracted the scorn of many. Read the great article “The Reconstruction of Downtown Beirut in the Context of Political Geography” by Professor Heiko Schimd which discusses the politics of the reconstruction with great detail and background. In light of this, it’s easy to condemn Solidere and Hariri. On the other hand, despite these accusations, it’s worth wondering whether without them, what little renovations were carried out in the city would ever have been carried out. Hariri was also noted for his philanthropic activities and channelled significant sums of money towards financing the education of tens of thousands of Lebanese students. In all, it’s not easy to make a black or white qualification of him. The good and bad sides of his legacy should merely be considered as a hole.

Fr   From Mr. Lebanon to Mr. Anti-Syria

Hariri coupled his financial capital to equally weighty political capital, and became one of the major, if not the major, player in Lebanese politics. He was Prime Minister from 1992 to 1998, and then again from 2000-2004. He developed strategic ties and friendships with big international players, such as former French President Jacques Chirac (who made his affiliation clear when he attended Hariri’s funeral, but snubbed the pro-Syrian politicians including then President Emile Lahoud), and more or less became Lebanon’s face both inside and outside Lebanon. Both periods of his premiership took place under the Syrian mandate, that is when Syria more or less had turned Lebanon into a fiefdom and had a say in, well, everything.

I open an important contextual parenthesis here: Without getting into the nitty gritty of Lebanese constitutional law and at the risk of oversimplifying, it’s important to mention that the Taef Agreement which put an end to the civil war changed the balance of power by transferring many of the President’s powers and his executive authority (the President being always a member of the Maronite community) to the Prime Minister (always a Sunni) and the Council of Ministers (ie the cabinet). This reform was an attempt to more accurately reflect the demographic changes which had taken place in the country since the country’s sectarian power sharing system had been devised in the earlier parts of the 20th century (and going back as far as the 1860s). For a more detailed background discussion on this, see Hassan Krayem’s article The Lebanese Civil War and the Taif Agreement.

I close the parenthesis now and return to Hariri’s tenure as Prime Minister, or more correctly, President of the Council of Ministers. Despite being “in bed” with the Syrian government for a considerable period, Hariri eventually fell out of favour with Bashar el Asad. He had too much clout for the Syrians not be concerned, and they tried to balance him out by strengthening their main ally, President Lahoud. The Syrians circumvented the changes brought about by Taef by propping up Lahoud at the expense of the Council of Ministers. To get an idea of the tug of war between Lahoud and Hariri, see the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin’s “dossier” on Lahoud. When you read this dossier however, keep in mind that the MEIB is published by the US Committee for a Free Lebanon, a right-wing lobby group which includes Fouad Ajami and Daniel Pipes among its recommended experts. It nonetheless offers a detailed account of the power struggle between Lahoud and Hariri, and the former’s relationship with the Syrian government.

In the summer of 2004, as Lahoud’s term was drawing to an end, it became clear that Syria planned for Lahoud to stay on despite constitutionally being barred from doing so (Article 49 (2) of the Lebanese Constitution limits the President to one six-year term in office). Syria therefore began piling on pressure for a constitutional amendment to be passed which would allow Lahoud’s term to be extended by another three years. Hariri initially opposed the extension. But as the story goes, he was summoned to Damascus and had a very brief meeting with Bashar el Asad, who threatened to “break Lebanon” on Hariri’s head if he blocked the extension. Hariri allegedly had such a shock from that meeting that his nose started bleeding. Under pressure, he voted in favour of a bill setting out the amendment.

On September 3, 2004, Parliament approved the amendment, allowing for Lahoud to extend his term in office until November 2007. On September 9, 2004, Hariri told journalists he intended to resign in protest over the extension, which he officially did on October 1, 2004. Over the next weeks and months, Hariri formed an impressive cross-sectarian opposition coalition group which brazenly began denouncing Syria’s role in Lebanon. From the richest man in Lebanon, to the most powerful politician in Lebanon, Hariri transformed himself yet again, this time into the most visible and most important critic of the Syrian mandate. He thus came to embody all the frustrations which had been accumulating in Lebanon against the Syrian regime, and became both the symbol and the leader of anti-Syrian sentiment.

Lebanese Justice, Dutch-Style

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon opened its doors to the world yesterday.   After a tedious investigation which has lasted for the past 4 years, Daniel Bellemare, the last head of the United Nations International Independent Investigation Commission (UNIIIC) and now Chief Prosecutor of the Tribunal, has moved along with his team to The Hague, where the trial for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq el Hariri, the 22 others who were killed with him, and any other attacks  which are connected to and of similar nature and gravity  to the Hariri attack, will begin.

Distinguishing features of the Tribunal

The Tribunal is unique in many ways:

I       It’s a tribunal “of an international character” but it’s not a UN tribunal, meaning: it will not be funded by the UN but 49% by Lebanon and 51% by international donors, and its judges will be picked based on pre-determined quotas from among Lebanese and international magistrates;  it will not try international crimes as defined by the Rome Statute which set up the International Criminal Court like crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide and aggression.  Instead, it will be the first international tribunal to try individuals for the domestic crime of terrorism as defined in the Lebanese Penal Code;  Similarly to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, it has been imposed on Lebanon by way of a Chapter VII UN Security Council Resolution (read the text of Resolution 1757 here) instead of a treaty. To better explain this last point: international tribunals can be set up by way of a treaty between the UN and the country concerned.  This means that the country concerned accepted the creation of the tribunal.  In Lebanon’s case, due to a domestic political stalemate, the withdrawal of Hezbollah and Amal-appointed ministers from cabinet, and an ensuing constitutional crisis,  the Lebanese government did not ratify the treaty in time, which led the UN Security Council to issue a Resolution under the UN Charter’s Chapter VII, a chapter which allows measures to be imposed on member states by the Security Council when international peace and security are threatened (read the text of Chapter VII here).

Polarization and Politicization

The Tribunal has become an intensely polarizing institution in Lebanon.  Certain segments of the population support the Tribunal and view it as a means to bring those responsible for the assassinations to justice.  Other segments see the Tribunal as yet another manifestation of Western meddling in domestic Lebanese affairs.  The discourse on the Tribunal locally has become very heated which has had the effect of politicizing it to a phenomenal level.   In this kind of atmosphere, the media and the political parties’ role of information, misinformation and lack of information has succeeded in turning the Tribunal’s politicization into a self-fulfilling prophecy: in Lebanon today, support for or against the Tribunal clearly pits a person in one or other of the main political camps. It also contributes to severely affect public perceptions of the Tribunal’s role, purpose, and impartiality.   Indeed, in discussions with various actors from the legal community who have either been directly involved or keen observers of the Tribunal, a common sentiment has been the frustration with the outreach program (or lack thereof) and information campaign to familiarize the Tribunal to the Lebanese public.

This is not to say the Tribunal is not discussed. On the contrary, it’s discussed daily on news programs and newspapers. It is currently perhaps one of the two or three main sagas in Lebanon’s political life (another one being the upcoming elections). But the attitudes towards it are starkly contrasting, and there is no neutral channel through which it is discussed. One of the rare good-content information channels is this blog set up by the Lebanese Center for Human Rights, a local NGO (not to be confused with the Institute for Human Rights, which is an organ within the Beirut Bar Association). But in most other arenas, the Tribunal has turned largely into a rallying banner, a symbol of either something very good or something very bad. In many ways, the Tribunal has been hijacked and made a hostage of the political agenda of the various parties in Lebanon. In light of this context, it is worth wondering whether the trial(s) which will eventually take place at The Hague and any ensuing judgments will be hijacked and made hostage in the same way.

UNIIIC

UNIIIC, more specifically UNIIIC under its first investigator Detlev Mehlis, has arguably been a contributing factor to some segments’ distrust of the Tribunal. Mehlis issued a damning first report in which he implicated high-ranking officials from the Syrian government and the Lebanese security services in the Hariri assassination. On the basis of his conclusions, four Lebanese generals were arrested and remain incarcerated to this day, despite the fact that no charges have been brought against them. Mehlis was and continues to be roundly criticized, not so much for his conclusions, but for the manner in which he conducted the investigation. Indeed, despite the criminal investigation being ongoing, not to mention of supreme political sensitivity, his report did not shy away from publicizing facts which perhaps should have remained privileged. The report named witnesses, described confessions from suspects who later on recanted their stories, and some of whom disappeared, Hollywood spy-movie style. The Mideast Monitor describes some of these dramatic developments. When Daniel Bellemare was interviewed three weeks ago, he was pressed on whether the revelations and investigative methods of previous investigators (read Mehlis) hamper or prejudice his task. Bellemare diplomatically declined to comment on his predecessors’ work. The lingering impression however remains that Mehlis seriously complicated subsequent investigators’ work.

One criticism was therefore that Mehlis revealed too many of his investigation’s findings. But also, it turns out, Mehlis revealed too much Mehlis. He was in Beirut and decided to enjoy the city’s more epicurean offerings. It’s hard to hide surprise when a respectable academic and journalist describes him as a “playboy” (but I did learn not to quizzically to ask: “really?!” after the second time I heard it). Mehlis apparently became a fixture on the chic restaurant scene, and showed off a glittery lifestyle. Of course restaurant choice can hardly be equated with improper investigating. It nonetheless did serve to alienate him, and by extension UNIIIC, from the public. It also negatively affected the perception of his professionalism and dedication.

Mehlis was first replaced by Serge Brammertz (apparently Mehlis was pressured to resign: see this piece from Wednesday’s L’Orient Le Jour), and then by Bellemare, both of whom chose not to go the playboy route and assumed a very low profile, both personally and professionally in their investigation.

What’s next?

Kind of a wait-and-see game. No one knows who will be indicted, no one knows whether the indicted will be handed over by whatever state they reside in, it’s also not clear when the trial will begin.

Conclusion and Disclaimer

There’s a lot more to be said about the Tribunal. I’ve left out a lot of issues and facts in the post which are just as important as what was mentioned. Don’t take it as a bias. For now, consider this a partial introduction and a prelude to posts to come.

 Blackstar is an international lawyer based in London.

Traffic Week: On Automotive Darwinism

If you’ve lived in the West long enough, you’re sure to have participated at some point or other in conversations about who’s traveled to the scariest driving country. This usually comes up as something of a feat of strength along the lines of: “I survived a taxi ride in Cairo, I can survive any kind of driving”, the challenge to which is typically: “Cairo? Oh, but I’ve seen how they drive in Dakar, and Beijing, that’s even worse.” The barometer of comparison is of course, Western driving culture.

I unfortunately don’t escape this pattern. I’m typically in a bit of an automotive shock when I travel from a country where drivers respect the rules of the road to one where anarchy seems to reign ( I use the word anarchy here with the due dose of sarcasm- of course there is some kind of system of rules in these countries, it’s just not a Western one). In most Western cities for example, you would never see a taxi driver passing a cigarette to another taxi driver while they’re both rolling next to each other at 50 km/hour on a busy motorway. And until I had witnessed that from the backseat of the cigarette-soliciting taxi in Cairo, I had never even wondered whether this was legal or not. Two Fridays ago in Beirut, I had the rare privilege of being driven in an armour-plated 4×4 which belonged to a public official. Although I was childishly relishing the experience, I kept snapping out of it every 25 seconds by the gasping fear that the vehicle was about to collide with oncoming cars as it whizzed in and out of lanes without signalling and that it would then roll over and off the road, tumbling down the mountain to the bottom of the valley where I would find my untimely death.

To be sure, driving behaviour in Lebanon in 2009 is leagues ahead of what it was in the 1980’s, when road chaos was just one victim of the breakdown of central authority because of the war. Back then, traffic lights were as decorative as the uncollected litter and indeed did not work at all. Today traffic lights do show their alternating colours, and Lebanese traffic police have begun to pull cars over and hand out tickets for violations. But the frenzied manoeuvring, whenever possible (ie when there’s no police being visible and looking menacing), is very similar to what it was back then.  So when a relative of mine a few days ago realized there’s no traffic police standing at the intersection, she most certainly seized the opportunity to keep speeding right through despite a red light.

What is wrong with driving in these countries? Is reckless driving symptomatic of a wider societal malaise? Is it merely a behavioural illustration of populaces that are less inclined temperamentally to respect order and defer to rules? Is there such a thing as “automotive” Darwinism with some cultures being “automotively civilized” and others being “automotively developing”?  While my life was flashing before my eyes at a rate of twice a minute in that 4×4 two weeks ago, I thought: the reason people drive this way, is because they can get away with it. A Lebanese will drive on the dotted line separating the lanes on a Beirut motorway, but you better believe that when that same person is driving one week later in Paris, or London, or Montreal, he most certainly will not. Why? Because either a) he will get ticketed within 2 attempts of doing something which is expressly prohibited by the law, or b) he will hear from his entourage of their experiences being ticketed for prohibited behaviour. To be very honest, when I’m driving in Europe or North America, the only reason I stop at a red light despite the fact that it might be past midnight and the intersection completely deserted, is because of the fear that a police car might be hiding behind a tree waiting to catch me, and also, because of the memory of being caught before. The knowledge that a sanction is very likely and prohibitively expensive is a very powerful deterrent. The perfect illustration of this can be found in this BBC video showing a car gingerly going up a one-way street, while a traffic policeman is busy yawning and stretching his arms above his head. When you watch that video, don’t focus on the car. Focus on the policeman. Because the problem I’m discussing doesn’t lie in a refusal to comply, it lies in the negligence to enforce. Anyone who dares say that reckless driving in these countries is “part of the culture” is only looking at the car in the BBC video, instead of looking at the yawning policeman. That policeman is yawning instead of ticketing because he is inadequately trained. Obviously the police academy did not spend enough time teaching him the importance of his public appearance, his maintenance, his ethical duties to stop and punish every single traffic violator, in short, how to fulfill the tasks for which he was posted to that location. The yawning policeman is also probably overworked: this video could very well have been filmed in August instead of February, when the desert sun pounds your head like a ton of lead, making you not only miss cars going the wrong way, but possibly also  elephants re-enacting a choreography from Fame. Many taxi drivers in Egypt are accountants, teachers, pharmacists, who supplement their income by working extra shifts driving a cab. If the traffic policeman is as overworked and underpaid as the taxi drivers are, his motivation to properly do his work is probably as low as his chair.

In Lebanon, while cars are being pulled over and fines are being slapped on motorists, it’s probably not frequently enough and for amounts that will hurt the wallet enough to prevent a repeat offense. Ghassan Rahbani, a member of the younger generation of Rahbani brothers (the famous musical duo who composed Fairouz’s songs), was on a talk show recently. He told a story of being stuck in traffic and honking his horn out of frustration. The police pulled him over and fined him 5,000 LL (about US $3). He asked the policeman if he had change for a 10,000 LL note, which the policeman did not. So Ghassan gave him the 10,000 LL note and honked a second time. This story got a lot of laughs on the show, but it illustrates how the fines are not taken seriously enough to correct the at-fault behaviour because the amounts are so ridiculously small. Similarly, my relative who burned the red light wasn’t scared of doing so because she had never been caught and fined before. She didn’t have the memory of a stinging punishment to stop her from committing an offense. Driving in Lebanon has improved because a concerted effort has been made and continues to be made to control and regulate the driving culture and implement a universal respect for the rules of the road. But until this is done with enough uniformity, without any impunity, and with fines that are important enough to act as deterrents, motorists will still think they can get away with it.

So, the moral of this post is: let’s stop talking about reckless driving, let’s stop suggesting that people from the Middle East or other developing countries are genetically predisposed to becoming bad drivers, let’s stop talking about Egyptian motorists being “under a lot of pressure” and Lebanese motorists still suffering the post-traumatic stress symptoms of the war. Because these same people travel every year to Europe, North America, Australia, where they drive just as soundly as any John Smith or Franz Schweizer. Let’s start talking instead about inadequate and insufficient enforcement. And by enforcement, I should make clear that we should not only look to policemen, but beyond them as well. The policeman is only as good as the police academy training he got, and the training can only be up to a standard that is allowed by the funding from the responsible authorities. And let’s not forget, the policeman does not write the laws, he only upholds them. Ultimately, it’s the Ministry of Justice and Parliament who should be legislating with enough sophistication and concern for the health and safety of motorists to develop an automotively developing country. And they should back that up with sufficient willingness to enforce their legislation to cause a trickle down effect that will wake up the yawning policemen of the Middle East.

Political Posters in Lebanon

For those interested in the nexus between the visual arts and politics, an interesting new publication is being featured in the book review sections of many magazines and newspapers. “Off the Wall” by  Zeina Maasri is a compilation of the political posters  that graced the bullet-riddled walls of Lebanon during the Civil War and vied for the eyes of the politically affiliated and unaffiliated alike .  The book is getting positive reviews both in Western and Middle Eastern media, and is definitely an intriguing take on the study of the war.  Many of the posters are available for viewing on the American University of Beirut’s website.

Catering to Carter

Granted I’m a little late, but I’ve finally gotten around to writing about something that was in the news last week and which I thought was important and interesting. Jimmy Carter, whose Carter Center enjoys considerable respect for its professionalism in election monitoring, visited Lebanon for four days last week. His main purpose was to meet with various party representatives as groundwork for election monitors to be sent in spring 2009 to observe the parliamentary elections.

Carter’s offer to send monitors was made of his own volition. This has incited some criticism in the blogging world about Carter’s offer being unsolicited, and of Carter himself being a useless and powerless actor in the Middle East drama. I don’t really agree with this. Elections in Lebanon, and in most if not all countries in the world, regularly suffer from sporadic irregularities to outright fraud (and I’m not just talking about places like Zimbabwe…hanging chads anyone?). Why should third parties observing elections be bad? If they’re not there, irregularities might take place. If they are there, their mere presence might dissuade some of these practices from taking place. How can it hurt the Lebanese state from coming out of the elections with a “clean” report card from the Carter Center? It could be a useful tool to encourage anything from more aid to foreign investment.

Carter went around meeting a lot of people. In fact, he had stated that he wanted to meet as many as possible. Michel Aoun, the main Christian politician from the opposition March 8 camp, accepted the invite. His ally Hezbollah however, refused. The reason for this was weak, to put it mildly. Hezbollah has a policy of not meeting with present or past US presidents, or to be more accurately “anyone from a US administration which supports Zionist terrorism”. What’s funny about this, of course, is that Carter published a book in which he labels the Israeli policies in the Occupied Palestinian Territories as being equivalent to apartheid, and has met with the top Hamas official Khaled Meshaal in Damascus a while ago. If Hamas is meeting with Carter, then surely Hezbollah could have shown more flexibility. Regardless, the party still came out saying that they do not oppose election monitors, so long as the monitoring is approved by the Cabinet.

Aoun’s Historic Visit to Damascus

Lebanese Christian leader Michele Aoun has just completed a historic trip to Damascus.  Aoun had already been  aligned with Hezbollah and Syria for at least … two years (?)  so the signifigance is that he actually visited Syria itself.    I don’t want to steal Blackstar’s thunder  so  here’s some  broad points I noticed in the media today: 

Not surprisingly, Daily Star Beirut heavily criticizes Aoun as does pro-Saudi  Asharq_Al-Awsat.   On the other hand, generally pro-Syria (or at least anti-USFP)  Al-Quds Al-Arabi  is thrilled and calls it a huge  diplomatic_victory for Syria  who supposedly  now has with it “half the Lebanese Christians, especially the Maronites (Aoun, Frangieh and the independents), half the Sunnis and Druz , and all the Shia.” 

But if  Al-Quds editor Abdel Bari Atwan is happy, others question his analysis.  In the comments section,  one person called it “completely untrue” that half the Sunnis are now with Syria.  Another left this comment in English:

 would like to inform Mr. Abdul Bary Atwan that after Aoun’s trip to Demascus, he lost alot of his supporters who know what Syria realy wants from this visit, It wants to show lebanon that it will continue to interfere in its internal affair, and God knows what it is preparing for the lebanese. So Mr. Atwan after this visit Syria is losing most of its chrisian supporters, as much as it is losing the syrian christians who refused the syrian order to celebrate Oun’s visit

The Seven Villages

Most of us following Middle East news or Lebanon news know a few things about Hezbollah: it emerged in the early 1980’s during the heyday of the Lebanese civil war; its external allies are Iran and Syria; it is likely the strongest and best-trained armed group in Lebanon right now, on par or surpassing the Lebanese army itself; and because of this, it claims to be Lebanon’s stalwart and necessary defender against Israeli aggressions. Many of us are also aware that Hezbollah has established several conditions in order for it to voluntarily disarm its military wing.   Briefly, until 2000, the main condition for its military existence was the occupation of southern Lebanon by Israel.   Following Israel’s redeployment outside of southern Lebanon, Hezbollah emphasized the fact that it had to maintain its military character as the Shebaa Farms, a fertile parcel of land of about 22 km² (8 sq mi) remained occupied by Israel.  (For the sake of a more complete picture, I should also add that Hezbollah cites the regular violations of Lebanon’s airspace by Israeli fighter jets as  another reason for it to keep its arms). 

In the past few months, Hezbollah officials have begun citing if not an entirely new demand, then certainly a less frequently-branded one.  I’m talking about the territorial claim over “The Seven Villages”.  Heard about it? I hadn’t.  It seems that there are seven villages and twenty farms lying just within Israel’s northern border, and which Lebanon has historically claimed as Lebanese, albeit with much less fanfare than its other grievances against Israel.   Nicholas Blanford, a Beirut-based journalist and author of a book on the Hariri assassination that I haven’t quite finished_reading_yet , has a 17-page  study posted on the Now Lebanon website in which he explains the “Seven Villages” demand.

The study is quite an intriguing historical review of the events, negotiations, communications and most crucially, cartography, done by the British and French in the early 1920’s, along with a description of the Zionists’ involvement in these interactions. I highly recommend reading Blanford’s paper, but for those who are eager for the punch line of the story, Blanford concludes that the Seven Villages should have been included in the Lebanese state created by the French.  However, he predicts that raising this issue of re-drawing the borders of northern Israel/southern Lebanon might open the door for Israel to make demands of its own regarding territory it thinks should be part of Israel.   Although Blanford does not expressly say it, his implicit suggestion here seems to be that Lebanon should drop any claims it might have on the Seven Villages because this would complicate any peace talks with Israel.  He specifies that because Lebanon’s past behaviour suggests that it has tacitly accepted its present borders, Israel is unlikely to concede the concerned territories. 

I might be incorrect in interpreting Blanford’s last paragraphs as I have, however, I cannot help but think of two of the most elementary rules of any negotiation:  1)  if you don’t ask for something, you’re no likely to get it; and 2) always ask for more than what you think you will or can get.  In this vein, although I recognize that the idea of incorporating the Seven Villages into Lebanon is quite illusory,  I would never recommend that a party relinquish some of its demands before negotiations even begin simply because it might complicate the bargaining, or because the other party might retaliate with its own demands.  Why not keep the Seven Villages on the list of items to be negotiated with Israel, and use them as bargaining chips for obtaining something that might be more of a priority to Lebanon, like the Shebaa Farms?   For the time being though, it’s safest to say that the Seven Villages are just an added element to what Blanford aptly calls the “psychological warfare” between Hezbollah and Israel.

France Trying to Get “Back in the Game”

Editor’s Note:  Taking over the Lebanon desk at MediaShack will be Blackstar, an international lawyer based in London. 

French Prime Minister François Fillon is presently in Lebanon for a two-day visit with a full program of diplomatic activities. While his own office has described_the_trip as one aimed at helping the re-launching of economic life of Lebanon (Fillon is accompanied by fifty French business leaders and will meet with local businessmen), it appears more logical to view it as part of Sarkozy’s foreign policy agenda of re-launching France as a power-broker in the region. Economics aside, Fillon’s visit is important for two things:

I.  He will be signing, on France’s behalf, a military cooperation agreement in virtue of which France will provide training to Lebanon’s army.

This first item is attached to the (attempted) consolidation of France’s political role within Lebanon.  If anything, there seems to be a sense that France should supplant the US as the go-to foreign power when tensions arise locally and an outside arbitrator is sought.   Couple this with Sarkozy’s pro-Mediterranean foreign policy, and France’s historic and cultural links with Lebanon, the political capital invested might actually convert into a much greater influence in Lebanon’s internal matters, and perhaps one less polarizing than that of the US.

Another thing to wonder about regarding this Franco-Lebanese military cooperation agreement is how it will be viewed by the US and, by extension, Israel.   As has been discussed  previously on Media Shack,  the US has provided and has promised to continue providing the Lebanese army with tactical support and equipment.  This support has largely been seen as insufficient to prop up the army enough to drive Hezbollah’s military arm out of business.  The question to ask, therefore, is whether the US will try to impede or put conditions on France’s promised support to the Lebanese army.   The information available so far is that France is providing “training”.  Perhaps this will be felt as less threatening to Israel from a security perspective than shipments of sophisticated weaponry and technology.

II.  What intrigues me more about Fillon’s visit, however, is a snipet  from Naharnet  which basically states that France supports Lebanon holding talks with Israel about the “normalization” of Hezbollah.

My scouring of Middle Eastern and French media headlines could not provide me with any more details on this point.   For one, it seems strange that France tells Lebanon to talk to Israel when the subjects of any negotiations between the two so intimately and directly concern Syria and cannot be settled without Syria’s involvement.  Also, what is meant exactly by  “normalization”? Both in theory and in practice, Hezbollah is “normalized” in Lebanon.  But how can a party within a state be normalized vis-à-vis another state? And what exactly can or should France to do to assist in this?  I think regardless of the angle from which you look at the word, the obvious definition in this context would be the demilitarization of Hezbollah, and perhaps we can accuse the editors at Naharnet of dodgy semantics. There might be more reporting on this tomorrow as Fillon’s trip unfolds. If any readers have found anything else on this subject, I’d be very interested in seeing it.

Trends to watch in Egypt

I’ve been meaning to blog about specific articles on these topics but I keep procrastinating.  Here are a few trends  to watch out for in Egypt:

1) Gamal Mubarak vs Ahmed Azz:  Proving your Street Cred
Everyone assumes that Gamal is going to make a run at the Presidency, whenever that might happen.  To do so succesfully,  Mubarak  must gain a certain level of public support, which he could do.    What’s holding him back is the widespread public perception that the Egyptian government is run by corrupt self-serving millionaire businessmen.   Gamal Mubarak’s challenge is to prove his “street cred.” 

Two major NDP players and symbols of Big Business are well known to the Egyptian public.  The first is real-estate and construction mogul Talaat Mustafa, who is now on trial for the murder of Lebanese pop singer Suzanne Tammem.  If he is convicted and goes to jail (he currently faces the death penalty) this would probably help Gamal Mubarak because it’s hard (or at least harder) to argue that the Fat Cats are above the law when one of the most powerful is sent to Death Row for a crime that wasn’t even committed in Egypt.  As Dia Rashwan put a few months ago “they are sacrificing a member of the family to save the family.”

The second figure is Ahmed Azz, a traditional politically ally of Gamal,  who (allegedly) monopolizes the steel industry, and  is probably the number one symbol of Fat-Catism.   Say the word monopoly in EGypt and people will think you are referring to Ahmed Azz.    Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, without saying Azz’s name, has made statements arguing that Monopolistic practices are not permitted in Islam.   Any politician trying to prove their populist credentials (anywhere in any country) will try to distance themselves from billionare industrialists.   Selling yourself as different is essential.   Al-Dostor had an article last week talking about tension between the two (looking for link).  In the future, look for Gamal Mubarak to try and sell himself as “different” as part of a future Presidential candidacy.  

2) The Lebanon File: From the Foreign Ministry to the Mukhabaret
I have heard this from many different people and sources:  the balance of power within the  Egyptian foreign policy establishment seems to have shifted in favor of  Omar Suleiman’s Mukhabaret (Intel) and not the Foreign Ministry. 

The Lebanon file is one place where this is playing out.   Al-Dostor had a recent article titled “Has the Lebanon file moved from the Conriche Al-Nile to East Cairo?  (The Egyptian version of “From Foggy Bottom to Langley).    Egypt wants to renew its role in  Lebanon.   Lebanese President Suleiman will visit Cairo next month and Egypt is trying to restore its relations with Hezbollah, which is being handled by Suleman’s people.   Al-Dostor noted how Suleiman’s number two recently paid a visit to Beirut in an effort to coordinate these meetings. 

The shift in power  is most clear on the Israel-Palestine file.  Egypt doesn’t talk to its own Muslim Brotherhood, so its very difficult politically for them to meet, at the political level, with the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood (HAMAS).  Hence, meetings between Egypt and Hamas have been almost exclusively at the Security (ie Suleiman’s people) level.

3) Dia Rashwan’s Proposal for How to Deal with the post-Mubarak political scene:
The noted Egyptian political commentator Dia Rashwan has recently put forth a political “action plan” for Egypt’s opposition.  He has some very interesting ideas which Media Shack readers will want to hear about.  Mr Egypt is currently putting together a post on this topic.  Stay tuned.