Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Let the conspiracy theories begin

[Originally posted at NOW]

Though you would barely know it from reading your Twitter feed today, a car bomb detonated in Tyre late yesterday afternoon, wounding the mayor of Yaroun, a tiny southern village just a few hundred meters from the Blue Line. While some outlets are calling it an accident, others including al-Jadeed say it was an assassination attempt – a prospect made all the juicier by reports that the victim, Hassan Moussa Awada, was a Hezbollah affiliate.

Since we don’t and probably never will know for sure what happened, let’s run down the various possible scenarios:

Israeli assassination attempt

Yaroun is a mixed Shiite-Christian village to the east of Rmeish, approximately 1km from the Israeli border and 2km from the Israeli villages of Yir’on and Bar’am. Moreover, it’s about 5km south of the famous Hezbollah fortress town of Bint Jbeil, where Nasrallah gave his victory speech following the Israeli withdrawal in 2000, and which the Israelis tried and failed three times to capture in the 2006 war.

Yaroun has also been used as a rocket launch site by Hezbollah in the past. A Human Rights Watch report investigating the 2006 war found that Party militants fired rockets from “several places inside the village,” resulting in overwhelming Israeli retaliation that “virtually completed destroyed” it and killed at least 5 civilian residents.

It seems almost certain, then, that Yaroun’s mayor would have to be on friendly terms with Hezbollah, if not indeed a party member. Perhaps Israel had a score to settle or merely saw a window of opportunity and took it.

Hezbollah assassination attempt

By the same token, Mayor Awada would be an equally endangered man if he was not on friendly terms with Hezbollah. With such a major increase in Israeli aerial incursions in recent weeks, the Party may be taking no chances with those it doesn’t fully trust.

Organized crime

The former Israeli occupation zone in the south has for decades been home to a murky underworld of Mafiosi, warlords, drug bosses, agents, double-agents, hitmen and gangsters in general. The celebrated case of Ramzi Nohra is only the tip of the iceberg. I don’t wish to make disobliging speculations about Mayor Awada’s character – for all I know he is a man of unimpeachable integrity. But in the shadows of the occupation zone, anything is possible.

Sheer accident

Of course, this could all be perfect nonsense, and Mayor Awada may have been the victim of a tragic accident – faulty gas canister, freak engine malfunction, you name it.

Whatever the case, I wish him a swift and complete recovery, and hope that any crime involved is met with full and firm justice.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

A new golf course in Lebanon?

[Originally posted at NOW]

While Lebanon’s vastly diverse geography and climate allow for almost every kind of sport and recreation at some time of year, one game that has never quite managed to flourish in the country is golf. Since its opening in 1923, the Golf Club of Lebanon in Beirut’s southern suburbs has remained the only course in the country. 90 years later, the French Mandate-era complex is something of an anachronism in the impoverished Ouzai neighborhood, whose bare-brick shanties surround the course and even sprawl onto the grass in places. Of its few thousand members, only a minority are said to be regular players.

This may be set to change, however, as plans to build a new course in the hills of Roumieh, 18km east of Beirut, are currently under negotiation. The Lebanese architectural and engineering firm Khatib & Alami is partnering with British golf architects Swan Golf Designs (SGD) with an aim to build an 18-hole course that will, in the words of a press release, offer “views of the capital city to the Mediterranean beyond” and “be set within the indigenous forest with holes sweeping through the valleys, making the most out of the changes in elevation that the spectacular location affords.” It will constitute part of a wider development also comprising residential real estate and a hotel.

At present, the plans are still “very much in the preliminary stages of negotiations with the various ministries,” according to SGD course architect Howard Swan. “We’re currently going through some environmental negotiations and impact assessments.” In terms of the overall timeline, Swan told NOW, “we hope that toward the end of the year there might be a chance that we get started [on construction],” though “it depends on the government and how long the negotiations take to get the approvals.”

One such approval will need to come from the Ministry of Environment. While Roumieh is perhaps best known for its crowded and often chaotic prison, it is also home to a sizeable pine tree forest.

“We don’t want to be an obstacle for development in any part of Lebanon,” Environment Minister Nazem al-Khoury told NOW. “But environmental issues and conservation are our priority. Because this is a big project […] we have to have an EIA – an environmental impact assessment.

“Of course, they [would] need to pull out some trees,” said Khoury. Accordingly, one scenario being discussed is for the developers to pay for reforestation elsewhere. “We could count all the trees that are going to be pulled down, and replant them,” he told NOW.

Though the Roumieh municipality website describes preservation of its forest as a “major objective,” village mayor Louis Khater Abi Habib told NOW he had no objections to the plans. “Definitely, if they can do it, why not? We will support it, obviously.”

Indeed, Swan said he did not foresee environmental factors being a problem. “Not at all, [the government has] been very supportive.” He argued that a golf course is an environmental asset; a “lung in the city,” that could be “maintained positively for the environment, creating new habitats.” It is in Roumieh’s interests to support the project, he added, as “there is not too much open space left in that particular area.”

Minister for Tourism Fadi Abboud took a similarly upbeat view of the project. Though he hadn’t been informed of the plans when NOW mentioned them, he described the news as “music to my ears.”

“We need golf courses, they are very important for tourism. In the [United Arab] Emirates, particularly Dubai, they’ve taken golf very seriously, and in all honesty they’ve succeeded. We have the right weather, we have the right terrain, and we should take it seriously too. If this is happening, I’m very happy.”

Asked if he thought the course would get government approval, he replied, “Why not? A golf course should be not only accepted, it should be [fast-tracked] quickly. There is no reason not to.”

Mayor Abi Habib, however, told NOW that commercial feasibility considerations may end up derailing the project. “I don’t know whether it will ever take off because it has a lot of complications. The terrain is very steep, and for a golf course you need a lot of flat area, so it’s going to take a lot more land than would normally be needed.”

The mayor went on: “I think they’re having second thoughts about the whole thing.” Khatib & Alami, whom Swan said are currently studying the commercial feasibility, was not immediately available for comment.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Sehnaoui, philosopher-minister, pens rebuttal to British ambassador

[Originally posted at NOW]

The best argument I’ve yet heard in favor of Telecoms Minister Nicolas Sehnaoui was an interesting one in several respects, not least of which was that it came from a card-carrying member of a party that is no friend of the March 8 coalition. After a handful of drinks, over which we discussed lighter topics, my friend turned quite grave at Sehnaoui’s mention.

“You have to understand something,” he began. “As a Lebanese minister, you don’t have to do anything. You can stay home seven days a week, rake in the money, and nobody will hold you to account. Yet this guy actually tries to improve the telecoms network here. It’s astonishing.”

This came to mind when last night Minister Sehnaoui again went beyond the call of duty, penning a 600-word rebuttal to a blog post by the British ambassador to Lebanon, Tom Fletcher.

Fletcher’s post, aptly titled ‘Beirutopia’, imagined a radically transformed Lebanon in 2020, in which offshore gas revenues rival Qatar’s, there is full peace with both Israel and post-Assad Syria, citizens enjoy not just round-the-clock electricity but a city train, and the March 8/14 divide and even sectarianism itself have both been transcended.

Sehnaoui “really appreciated” Fletcher’s effort, being “a strong believer in the power of imagination” himself, but was feeling “a little devious” and wanted to propose some amendments. First, Fletcher should “acknowledge” that the “resistance paradigm” (i.e. Hizbullah’s weapons) has to stay until the Lebanese army has the means to face up to Israel itself. Second, Fletcher should “acknowledge” that Lebanon cannot give citizenship to “450 thousand Palestinians” (Fletcher didn’t say it should), who would be better off either back in Palestine or the “much wealthier” Gulf states. Other injunctions included “acknowledge the rights of the Christians” to retain the Presidency, while yet working toward “secular democracy”.

And then there was the question of Syria, where Sehnaoui turned cryptic. “I am sure the Western countries love Lebanon at least as much as Syria. So whatever they are doing to show their love to Syria please help make sure they don’t assassinate Lebanon along the way by mistake.”

Fletcher was quick to reply on Twitter: “Powerful arguments, Minister. Let’s keep debating”.

Yet this is not, of course, a “debate” in the sense of a disinterested discussion of Lebanon’s national interests. The two men, lest we forget, are not professional scholars or intellectuals but politicians, paid to advance the rather narrower interests of their leaders. Their exchange is interesting, therefore, only insofar as it reveals something about the politics of the British government and the Free Patriotic Movement, respectively.

In the former case, perhaps the most intriguing line, amid the generic pro-democracy, pro-business rhetoric, is the one about Israel. By envisaging the Lebanese-Israeli peace treaty happening a year before the establishment of Palestine, Fletcher suggests British policy is for each Arab country to negotiate with Israel bilaterally, rather than unite to push through a single, comprehensive agreement. Though Lebanon is of course free to pursue such a course if it wants to, Western encouragement of it involves a weakening of Arab leverage over Israel that ultimately forestalls, rather than precipitates, a just settlement for all involved (and primarily Palestinians).

Sehnaoui’s reply, on the other hand, is a fascinating example of the cognitive dissonance required to be at once the servant of an Islamist militia and a crusader for Christian sectarianism. The “resistance” talk is naturally pure lip service, as anyone familiar with FPM leader Michel Aoun’s pre-2006 position knows well. Yet even when affecting anti-Zionism, Sehnaoui can’t quite get it right: his idea of transferring Palestinian refugees to the Gulf is one that Netanyahu himself would be proud of.

As for the Syria comment, if it’s to be understood as a criticism of Downing Street’s rhetorical support for the opposition, one can only say that no mere Cameron speech could hope to match the “love to Syria” evinced by Aoun’s patron in Damascus.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Alcohol ban marks Egypt's further decline

[Originally posted at NOW]

It has often been said that the test of a nation’s moral stature is its treatment of the poor. An alternative, and arguably no less reliable, barometer of societal well-being is the situation of alcohol, and its enthusiasts.

In a heady moment of collective madness fuelled by ascendant Protestant fundamentalism, the USA banned drink entirely from 1920 to 1933. The resulting boost to organized crime was only one of innumerable disasters inflicted on that country by its religious right, which generally continues to “abstain” from Bacchic indulgence today. A decade later, the Nazis sternly discouraged all consumption of the “genetic poisons” of booze and tobacco, and even went so far as to sterilize full-blown alcoholics.

More recently, and closer to home, the monstrous regimes of Saudi Arabia and Iran totally proscribe the fruits of the grape and grain, and routinely sentence imbibers to death. It’s perhaps of little surprise that their proxies around the region also take a dim view of the “Satanic” potations. Indeed, whenever Islamism is preparing to menace a society, it tends to announce its arrival by ecstatically smashing up some settings of conviviality. It happened here in Beirut in the 1980s, and it’s by no means uncommon now for alcohol proprietors in “conservative” neighborhoods to be bombed. Similar pogroms heralded the rise of Tunisia’s newly liberated Salafi-jihadis, who have since moved on to assassinating political opponents.

And now comes the depressingly unsurprising news that Egypt, the birthplace of modern Arab secularism and the nahda (“awakening”) of the 19th century, has announced the beginning of the end of alcohol sales. “We cannot allow [liquor] stores spreading debauchery in our society,” was the unsmiling declaration of the vice-president of the New Urban Communities Authority.

Much like the recent efforts to ban pornography, if this initiative succeeds, I wager that it too will be remembered – to borrow a phrase from a different, though not dissimilar Egyptian – as another milestone in the road of a once-great nation’s decline.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Hands off: Women rally worldwide against Egypt assaults

[Originally posted at NOW]

Though the three men smoking cigarettes on the balcony of the Egyptian embassy probably didn’t realize it, the scene they were witnessing on the street below them Tuesday evening would also be seen by their consular colleagues in 36 cities across the world.

Responding to an online call from the Uprising of Women in the Arab World organization, some 30 activists gathered outside the embassy in Bir Hassan to rally against what they called the “sexual terrorism practiced on Egyptian female protestors.” Carrying placards and a large banner depicting Umm Kulthoum as a protestor, they took on Egyptian accents as they chanted, “Strong women in Tahrir, harassers in prison!,” “Down with the government of the [religious scholar]!,” and “Harassment will lead you nowhere, try again and I will break your hand!”

Similar protests were also held at 6pm outside three dozen Egyptian embassies in the Levant, North Africa, Europe, the USA, and the Far East.

“We are here because we directly relate to the harassment and rape that Egyptian women are being subjected to, because we are subjected to similar violence in our own countries as well,” said Diala Haidar to NOW at the protest. “It’s time for us to stand up in solidarity in all matters related to women’s issues in this region.”

Other demonstrators emphasized the same point. “I came to protest the violation of women’s bodies and minds and privacy in all the Arab countries, not just Egypt, because we have a lot of violations going on in Lebanon that we don’t talk about,” said Ghina Daou. “I’m here to defend those women who don’t have a voice to speak.”

Though sexual harassment has been among women’s grievances in Egypt for years, recent weeks have seen an alarming increase in the brutality of assaults. On January 25th, at a demonstration in Cairo’s Tahrir Square marking the second anniversary of the revolution that overthrew dictator Hosni Mubarak, over 20 women were separately attacked by mobs of hundreds of men, who stripped their clothes, molested them, beat them, and even cut their genitals with knives.

“One of the women on January 25th had to have a hysterectomy. Another ended up in intensive care,” said Bridgette Auger, a journalist who has reported from Egypt since October 2011 and was herself a victim of a group assault last June. Since the revolution, there has been “a shift in the mood [in Tahrir],” she told NOW, as well as in the organization of attacks. “You really feel that something is going on.”

Indeed, premeditated sexual assaults have “become a tactic to use against protestors, to push them away from political life,” according to Farah Barqawi, one of the organizers of Tuesday’s demonstrations. “Terrorizing these female protestors is the easiest way to keep them away from Tahrir,” she told NOW.

Predictably, opinions vary as to who exactly is organizing and funding the mobs. “Some of course are blaming the [Muslim Brotherhood], some accuse Salafists and fundamentalists in general, and some on the [Brotherhood’s] side are accusing fellow revolutionaries,” said Barqawi. At Tuesday’s protest in Cairo, demonstrators invoked [President Muhammad] Morsi’s name in relation to the attacks, chanting “Women ousted Mubarak, women will bring down Morsi.” In doing so, they appeared to point a finger at the Brotherhood.

Activists stress, however, that the phenomenon is not limited to Egypt, highlighting Syria in particular as a worrying case. Areen al-Asmi, organizer of the Damascus chapter of Tuesday’s protest, told NOW that “we Syrian women encounter sexual harassment and even rape by men from both sides [of the military conflict].” Those who have sought refuge outside the country fare little better: “In refugee camps outside Syria, people are buying women’s bodies. Syrian women in Jordan are forced into prostitution and trafficking.” Due to obvious security concerns as well as fears of arrest, Asmi said the Syrian response to Tuesday’s call was to be a strictly electronic one, confined to individuals’ homes.

What, then, should governments do to address these widespread abuses? “Our main request is to establish and enforce a very strict law against sexual harassment, assault and rape, whether in daily life or during protests, and to bring aggressors to court instead of carrying out virginity tests on the victims,” said Barqawi.

“Second is to try as much as possible to stop these attacks. There is no justification whatsoever for police standing and watching what’s happening in Tahrir, while groups of volunteers are doing their work for them. Even if they don’t receive orders, what are the police waiting for? What did they learn about ethics and protection in all their years of training?”

However, with Egypt’s only current legislative authority, the Shura Council, issuing statements Monday explicitly blaming women themselves for sexual assaults, it may be some time yet before such measures are undertaken.

Yara Chehayed contributed reporting.

Will the Pope now face trial?

[Originally posted at NOW]

The preeminent human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC, whose career is so distinguished that he is one of only three experts nominated to the UN’s Internal Justice Council (that is, he polices the world’s police), wrote a regrettably neglected book in 2010 in which he argued that, in his legal opinion, Joseph Ratzinger (known until yesterday as Pope Benedict XVI) ought to be put on trial for crimes against humanity.

As Robertson and many others have noted, Ratzinger personally aided and abetted the rape of children – by shielding perpetrators from punishment; bribing victims and their families into silence; and placing unsuspecting children in the “care” of known rapists, who predictably went on to re-offend. This history is extraordinarily well-documented. We have, to take one of dozens of examples, the infamous letter of 2001, penned in Cardinal Ratzinger’s own hand, in which he threatened to excommunicate any bishop anywhere in the world who informed local police of child rape cases, which were to be handled exclusively by the secretive courts of Canon Law (the Catholic version of shari’a), hushed up in “perpetual silence”.

Indeed, so solid is the evidence against Ratzinger that the Vatican doesn’t try to contest it, basing its defense instead on his alleged legal immunity as a head of state.

This defense was always disputed by Robertson, who noted that Vatican “statehood” was premised entirely on a sleazy quid pro quo with the mass-murderer Benito Mussolini.

But after yesterday’s news, that debate no longer matters. Pope Benedict XVI has become Joseph Ratzinger again; a fallible, non-divine, non-King. Robertson is already on the case, so to speak, writing that Ratzinger now loses whatever immunity he might once have claimed, and has thus become completely fair game. His concluding words are tantalizing ones for all who hold the protection of children from rape to be of greater concern than preserving the powers of religious authoritarians:

“There are many victims of priests permitted by Cardinal Ratzinger to stay in holy orders after their propensity to molest was known, and they would like to sue the ex-pope for damages for negligence. If he steps outside the Vatican, a court may rule that they have a case.”

Friday, February 8, 2013

Syrian defector in Lebanon faces uncertain fate

[Originally posted at NOW]

A 30-year-old Syrian army defector in Lebanon faces possible torture and even death after being sentenced Monday by a Lebanese military tribunal to two months’ imprisonment and a 100,000LL ($67) fine followed by deportation, for the crime of entering the country illegally.

Muhammad Tlas, a former officer from Al-Rastan who had joined the rebel Free Syrian Army, was arrested on 6 December 2012, while taking an injured comrade to a Lebanese hospital, according to Nabil al-Halabi, laywer and executive director of the Lebanese Foundation for Democracy and Human rights (“Life”), who publicized Tlas’ case in a press release Tuesday.

When the military tribunal delivered its sentence Monday, preparations were quickly made to deport Tlas on the grounds that his two month detention had already been served, said Halabi. “He is now being kept in a General Security prison in the Beqaa Valley,” he told NOW. General Security could not be reached for comment.

In spite of these steps, the Lebanese government has hinted it may not enforce the deportation order. Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said Wednesday that though he had “not examined this case […] such extraditions are generally not carried out.” And on Thursday, President Michel Suleiman said on Twitter that, in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, no Syrians would be deported to Syria.

Indeed, according to Marie Daunay, president of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights (CLDH), the organization that assigned a lawyer to Tlas’ case, he has not yet been deported and probably will not be.

“It seems to have been the policy of the Lebanese authorities in the past few months not to implement deportation orders for Syrians, due to the policy of dissociation from the Syrian conflict,” she told NOW.

Nadim Houry, deputy director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) for the Middle East and North Africa, also told NOW that while Tlas’ fate remains uncertain, “most deportation orders in Lebanon against Syrians are not carried out. The last one we are aware of was…in August.” On that occasion, Lebanon deported 14 Syrians – some of them believed to be opposition activists – earning criticism from HRW and a number of foreign embassies.

Regardless, Daunay condemned the decision to sentence Tlas to any punishment in the first place. “The decision…made by the military tribunal is in contravention of Article 3 of the Convention Against Torture. This violation happened even though this point was raised in court by the defense lawyer.” Article 3 of the Convention, to which Lebanon is a party, states that “No State Party shall expel, return (‘refouler’) or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.”

Moreover, Daunay criticized the continued detention of Tlas, in spite of Charbel’s and Suleiman’s statements. “He is still pending deportation, even though he should already have been released.”

Houry agreed, telling NOW that “From [HRW’s] end, the first key principle here is no deportations for anyone fearing persecution or torture in Syria. That obviously includes someone who defected or decided not to do his military service. That’s a clear obligation; these deportations cannot take place.

“The second key principle is no detention of any Syrian, or person from Syria such as a Palestinian refugee, merely for being in the country illegally.”

Indeed, Halabi told NOW that, in the majority of cases, defecting Syrian officers and refugees alike had no choice but to enter Lebanon illegally.

“Whenever there is conflict in some area, it is impossible for rebels to pass through checkpoints and passport control; they have to escape and take illegal ways to a safe place. One cannot condemn refugees as illegal immigrants.”

“The Turkish and Jordanian governments acknowledge the impossibility of refugees passing through legal check points, and they establish refugee camps in many places. Yet the Lebanese government is still following and arresting refugees for illegal entry. This is unacceptable, on a legal and humanitarian level.”

Moreover, “the Syrian embassy stopped renewing passports, so now we have a situation where refugees cannot go back to Syria, don’t have the freedom of mobility in Lebanon and cannot travel with expired passports. Something has to be done.”

Yara Chehayed contributed reporting.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Iran steps up harassment against BBC journalists

[Originally posted at NOW]

Marg bar Ingilis! – “Death to Britain!” – is the exuberant chant said to customarily interrupt the Friday prayers at Tehran University campus; the concluding line in a triumvirate that also includes two other villains whose names will surprise no one. As a Brit, I’ve never known whether to be embarrassed or proud to see my dilapidated second-rate nation elevated to the high table of evil in this way – most Islamists tend to overlook our contributions to the global conspiracy against God. Yet in Iran, the Supreme Leader continues to insist that it is the Cameron cabal, more so than the Obama oligarchy and even the Netanyahu nexus, that really runs the show – a paranoid anachronism that was already being satirized by Iranian writers before the 1979 revolution.

The latest iteration of this sheer lunacy is the campaign of physical intimidation and hysterical libel waged by the theocracy against the family members of people accused of working for the BBC. The Persian arm of the British state media outlet is banned in Iran, having been accused of everything from hosting spies and Iranian dissidents to trafficking drugs to converting staff members to Christianity and Baha’ism to manufacturing the ‘Green Movement’ protests that followed the disputed elections of 2009.

Accordingly, the BBC states it has no staff inside the country; its Persian service being operated from London.

Nonetheless, the Iranians have this week arrested a number of alleged BBC staffers. A clue to the more likely identity of the detained lies in a report from BBC director Mark Thompson on Friday that the sister of an expatriate BBC employee was arrested and held in solitary confinement last week, one in a series of recent abuses against family members of BBC Persian journalists.

Needless to say, the mullahs’ intentions in doing all this, with parliamentary elections just a month away, are not particularly difficult to divine. All one can do is salute the extraordinary courage of all Iranian journalists who continue to speak precious truth to their regime’s dreadful power.