Warplanes and cellphones

It kind of becomes boring to repeat it, but Israeli warplanes make daily and routine incursions into Lebanese airspace, occasionnally feasting the population on sonic booms. The Lebanese army just as routinely shoots at them, but without any real anti-aircraft guns, they never hit anything of course. Rarely mentioned in the European press, but regularly so in both the Lebanese and Israeli papers. In fact, the IDF last week actually entered Lebanese territory overland on several different occasions – just a few hundred meters or so, as a provocation…

The infamous upcoming privatization of Lebanon’s cellphone network has been delayed again, indefinitely this time, for lack of a president and/or active parliament to supervise the bidding. The opposition is against the sale, not based on any socialist or otherwise ideological principles, mind you, but because, as they left the government and boycott parliament, they wouldn’t be able to share in the spoils. Currently, the network is run by two companies, Alfa and MTC Touch (at least one of which is owned by Ogero, part of the Hariri group), who charge some of the highest prices for mobile calls worldwide. ‘With little more than a million subscribers, the cellular networks generate over $850 million in revenues, making it the second source of income to the government after the VAT.’ (Lebanon has some 4 million inhabitants by the way, so that’s one in four owning a cellphone – if you don’t count the between fifty and a hundred thousand foreign aid workers, peacekeepers, journalists, diplomats, military advisers and other UN personnel roaming the country, that is).

The privatization of the networks is one of the conditions Lebanon has to fulfill to receive the aid promised at the Paris III conference (fundraising event, rather) held after the Israeli July war of 2006 to help finance reconstruction efforts. It’s worth noting that not only countries, but also organizations like the World Bank and even private banking consortia took part in this gala dinner event. It’s a good illustration of how war profits corporations (through the international and governmental institutions owning or representing them): first they sell the weapons to destroy, then they make money in the reconstruction, and on top they themselves lend the money needed to pay them – for both the weapons and the reconstruction – at an appropriate interest rate, of course. And then they impose ‘liberalization’ of the economy as a condition to grant the loan… One person who took this lesson to heart was Hariri: he combined his prime ministership with his position as the head of Solidere (the public/private reconstruction company) and his position as majority shareholder in a number of banks. In a move that makes Berlusconi look like a paltry hobbyist, he succeeded to first order the reconstruction projects, then award them to his own company (for which they were tailormade in the first place) and finally have the state borrow the money to pay his company from his own bank – again, at a handsome interest of course… And that’s not even mentioning the dubious way Solidere managed to expropriate many small Beirut house and land owners at the end of the civil war, buying valuable downtown property for a handful of shares in the company when they were worth nothing, buying them back immediately for peanuts from the destitute owners and enjoying the dividend now that they’re worth a lot. And after all that, he still managed to die as a national hero… It’s a useful exercise to compare the gigantic national debt he left Lebanon with at the end of his terms as prime minister to the family fortune of the Hariri’s…

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