Is he or isn’t he?

So consensus has been reached – or has it? Yesterday it was announced (entirely unrelated of course to the Syrian-US meeting at Annapolis, which only coincidentally happened to be held on the same day…) that Michel Aoun supported the candidacy of the commander in chief of the Lebanese Armed Forces, who is widely seen as a ‘neutral’ figure, largely because of his proven commitment over the past year to keep the army from taking sides in the political standoff. Today, it turned out that al Assad’s – oops, sorry: Aoun’s support was conditional, the condition being that Suleiman appoint a ‘neutral’ new prime minister. Rather than taking a hurdle away that is more like just placing it a few meters further. So now, after finding a neutral christian president, the two sides are going to have track down a neutral sunnite prime minister – the two sides of course being Syria and the US, as the utter irrelevance of their local representatives has now been established beyond any doubt. Berri obligingly postponed the date for the parliamentary approval routine for the sixth time in a row, to December 7th. Meanwhile, Lebanese politicians keep reciting their mantras of defending the sovereignty and assuring the independance of the country. Nobody bothers to listen anymore. The upside of this utter powerlessness of the political elite is, however, that they are unable for now to unleash their various random geezers with guns to terrorize the population, and people can at least get on with their lives while the politicos do their haggling over dividing the loot.

In sadly related news, meanwhile, check out this article on Menassat about the Syrian censorship excesses ravaging the country’s internet these days. They recently stooped down to new depths by blocking Facebook, for heaven’s sake (which, in today’s Middle East, is much like abolishing the postal service.. ). If the level of censorship is a measure of the regime’s self-confidence and security, Bashar must be pretty nervous right now. The house of Saud, on the other hand, as I can personally testify from right where I am sitting now (a Starbucks branch in Jeddah) is showing every sign of security and supreme self-confidence…


The void…

A very amusing but also insightful analysis written by Marc Sirois appeared in today’s Daily Star:

‘Lebanon woke up without a president on Saturday, and yet the sky did not fall. There was no technical reason why it should, and as most of the last three years of Emile Lahoud’s tenure showed, the presidency has become a largely symbolic office whose relevance for day-to-day governance is almost non-existent. If the status quo were to remain in place, therefore, the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora could almost certainly be expected to keep doing what it (and previous cabinets led by previous prime ministers) have always done: provide substandard services, squander public money, and/or condemn future generations to perennial indebtedness.’

A similar (albeit more nihilistic) approach to The Void is displayed on the Bilad ash-Sham blog, which today features a hilarious interview with the empty Presidential Chair.

Government: who needs it?

Look at the evidence: both Belgium and Lebanon have been without a functioning government for considerable periods of time now – has life stopped? Has anything broken down or stopped working? Have any wars broken out, new problems appeared? Nope… But look what happens when the politicos reappear on the scene:

“We don’t want a civil war. We want the economy to thrive. The politicians are all thieves and they should go,” said Said al-Homsi, who works in a central Beirut flower shop.

“They are all crooks, looking out for their own interests and paying no attention to the people,” said Daaibis.

“I want them to get this over with,” said a woman who gave her family name as Hazimeh. “The country needs to breathe and relax, like any other country. We don’t feel safe. Everyone is tense and apprehensive and we are paralysed,” she added. She apologised for the channel to which the television behind her was tuned — a political channel interviewing a politician. “My colleague left it on. I never watch the news. I watch songs and videoclips and soap operas,” she said.

The people don’t want war. Look, we are Christian and Shi’ites all sitting happily together here,” said Rose Kodjikian, an elderly Armenian Christian.

A view from Lebanon

A knowledgeable Lebanese friend now in Beirut analyses the situation as follows:

‘I read your latest blog on wordpress & i agree with most of it except that in my opinion Lahoud’s action 2nite was left somehow as shades of grey… in the sense that he did not go the full 9 yards by dissolving the cabinet and handing powers to a military council but rather just took off the security decisions from it… thus here the word is that he didn’t provoke fully the cabinet by making it seem like a coup d’etat (especially that the army chief refused to take power of country) & also he took that step to assure the opposition that the armed forces will not be in the hands of Siniora to oppress them but rather it’s left to the army’s discretion to run the security… now for tonight my biggest fear is a word that majority sympathizers will launch fireworks to mark their joy about the stepping down of Lahoud & this might create incidents since the situation is very edgy & volatile streetwise & the army tanks are everywhere… but politically they seem to have agreed to open a gate of hope with statements from Jumblatt which are mild & securing (it’s not known if it’s a manoeuvre to blame it later on Aoun or if he’s being sincere so as not to cause bloodshed) unlike the apparent stance of Lebanese Forces who are still on the verbal assault & Hizbollah vice versa… General opinion is saying that they are waiting for Annapolis & what might come up especially that our neighbours the Syrians seem to have received some concessions by having the Golan Heights featured in talks…’

State of emergency

As we say in Flemish: the bullet is through the church… Lahoud has just now (4 hours before the end of his term at midnight) declared the state of emergency and handed over power to the army, i.e. to Suleyman. Strictly constitutionally, the executive power should have gone to PM Siniora’s government, but Lahoud has a point when he argues that ever since the withdrawal of Hezbollah and Amal’s ministers in december 2006, Siniora’s government is unrepresentative (of the shiites, i.e. some 40% of the population) and therefore illegal. Siniora’s cabinet in turn has declared Emile Lahoud’s declaration illegal:

“The president of the republic declares that because a state of emergency exists all over the land as of Nov. 24, 2007, the army is instructed to preserve security all over the Lebanese territory and places all the armed forces at its disposal,” presidential spokesman Rafik Shalala said.

The statement instructed the army “to submit the measures it takes to the Cabinet once there is one that is constitutional,” he said.

Saniora’s government, which has been meeting in Beirut as the announcement was made at the presidential palace in suburban Baabda, rejected the announcement.

“It has no value and is unconstitutional and consequently it is considered as if it was not issued,” said a government spokesman, who asked not to be identified because an official announcement has not yet been made by the prime minister.

The spokesman said the constitution stipulates that the Cabinet — not the president — has the authority to declare a state or emergency and to give the army the authority to take over security.

“Any decision not issued by the Cabinet has no constitutional value,” the spokesman told The Associated Press.

The hours of truth…

The Leb politicos did it again: plunging the country and its population into dangerous uncertainty for no good reason other than that they can’t agree on how to divide the spoils and lucrative government posts among each other and don’t want to be the one to give in. A French friend of mine recently compared Lebanese politics to Lebanese traffic. He said: ‘Look, over here (we were in Sanaa, Yemen at the time) people also drive into one-way streets the wrong way, just like in Beirut, but if they meet another car driving in the right direction, they’ll back off and give way. In Lebanon, neither car moves and they just stand there honking their horns, flashing their lights and shouting at each other for hours, until they either get moved by angry drivers behind them, or removed by a passing cop.’ That’s a pretty apt way to describe the current political situation – and just like the drivers in the above scene (which I have witnessed many times in Beirut) don’t give a flying baby shit about the rest of the traffic that gets blocked, the politicians don’t seem to care about the dangerous and explosive situation they are creating in generating this power vacuum. As I am currently in Riyadh, I have to rely on reports friends and colleagues send me from Lebanon. Here’s a random grab.

Balint: ‘Yep, we’re flooded, absolutely pushed under the waves by all sorts of military or semi-military types, including tough-looking civilian blokes who now turn up here and there claiming to be ‘the policeman here,’ asking for identification and going through your stuff. how easily this country can go back to its militia-ridden ways, it is quite amazing. I was up in the Chouf mountains the other day doing touristy things and it’s full of PSP militiamen, blokes with kalashnikovs hanging around every corner. Old Jumblatt doesn’t feel terribly safe even in his mountain hideout, i reckon.’

Nayla: ‘Bart !!!!!!! Leb is in a real danger thats why we are not going to Gemmayze a lot !!!! Honestly i am really angry and depressed cos it seems that i wont be able to go out till the elect a fucking president !!!!’

Up-to-date press reports can be found here and here and the most worrying of them all is here, claiming that Samir Geagea (whose nickname among his Lebanese Forces followers is ‘el hakim’ – ‘the doctor’ – although ‘Doctor Death’ would be more accurate given his civil war past, which is even more insanely murderous than that of his fellow ex-warlords) apparently sees his chance to play a national role again: he calls on parliament to convene right after midnight tonight – when Lahoud’s term expires – to elect a new president. As the opposition – March 8 – already boycotted this morning’s session, that would mean only the (currently) anti-Syrian part of parliament – March 14 – would show up and presumably, in the absence of Berri, elect a president of their choice by simple majority. Which would basically constitute a semi-legal coup, and which would meet with an ‘appropriate response’ from the opposition. Worst case scenario. Slightly better case scenario: Lahoud (as he announces according to the same article) relegates some or all of his powers to Suleyman and the army. Which would also constitute a semi-legal coup, but at least the power would be in the hands of a fairly responsible man who has been strictly guarding the army’s neutrality all through the current conflict. Best case scenario: everybody accepts the current situation for the time being and works out a last-minute compromise by next Friday. In any case, the coming few hours will turn out to be crucial for the immediate and quite possibly the long-term future of Lebanon – and that of its neighbours.

Lebanese Arabic-language press translations

Electronic Intifada, an excellent website focusing on the plight of the Palestinian people, has recently started an Electronic Lebanon section. This provides regular press overviews with English translations of the Arabic-language papers, which are by far the more interesting ones in Lebanon. Today the overview include this translation of part of an opinion piece written by As’ad Abu-Khalil in al-Akhbar:

Al-Akhbar , 17 November 2007, As’ad Abukhalil, “The primary absentee: Social justice in Lebanon”:

One topic remains absent from the cacophony of disagreements, talks and mediations dominating the interaction between the pro-government coalition and the opposition, namely the goal of achieving social justice.
The subject of social justice is a political one in Lebanon even if one doesn’t adopt a Marxist framework. And the issue of social justice has become intertwined with that of sectarian conflict due to the link established between sectarian mobilization with that of class struggle (and vise versa) during the pre-Civil War period. During that period, the National Movement [the broad coalition headed by leftist forces] championed in its mandate the concerns of the poor and the suffering, and this was behind the movement’s success in infiltrating the ranks of the various sects. But class worries were soon forgotten during the Civil War, and many of the movement’s leaders enriched themselves during the war. The movement failed to establish a social services network (the same way the PLO did, albeit under extreme corruption aptly managed by Yasser Arafat).
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