Thursday, January 23, 2014

Galloway's attack on Nawaz plumbs new depths of hypocrisy

[Originally posted at NOW]

I have twice had the honor and pleasure of interacting with Maajid Nawaz; first when he was kind enough to sign my copy of his remarkable memoir, Radical, at the 2012 Edinburgh Book Festival; and second when I interviewed him by phone shortly afterward in NOW’s own pages. On both occasions the winsome charisma and quick intelligence for which he’s renowned were in full evidence.

We didn’t agree on everything – he is a believing Muslim who opposed any kind of intervention in Syria – but these facts, if anything, only make it more outrageous that he should have become the target this week of a takfir campaign launched by Islamist fascists after his tweeting of a cartoon along with the words: “This [...] is not offensive & I’m sure God is greater than to feel threatened by it الله أكبر منه.” The former Hizb ut-Tahrir zealot turned counter-Islamist democracy activist, who recently succeeded in convincing the head of the anti-Muslim ‘English Defence League’ skinhead mob to step down, has now received “credible” death threats, and has felt compelled to issue a statement of “regret.”

Loathsome as this assault is, it’s perhaps only to be expected from the Islamists, who are at least open about their utter rejection of “godless” liberalism and “man-made” democracy. In a sense, their behavior here is fitting, even reassuring (to discover anew that one has made an enemy of the theocratic far-right is, or ought to be, a source of satisfaction). Much less stomachable, however, was the solidarity offered to the scrofulous thugs by MP George Galloway, who took it upon himself to tweet:

“No Muslim will ever vote for the Liberal Democrats anywhere ever unless they ditch the provocateur Majid [sic] Nawaz, cuckold of the EDL.”

It’s just astounding what the man gets away with. Bad enough that Galloway – who is actually a sectarian Roman Catholic, who argues against Scottish independence because the resulting peninsula would contain too many Protestants – supposes himself eligible to speak on behalf of “Muslims.” Far worse that, in so doing, he equates all “Muslims” with the crackpot fringe minority represented by Nawaz’ would-be-murderers (precisely the sort of vile smear that was, incidentally, the stock-in-trade of the EDL).

Yet it’s his rancid hypocrisy that most churns the gut. Galloway has spent the best part of the last three years defending Bashar al-Assad, whose merciless regime has slaughtered tens of thousands of Muslim civilians, as an enlightened and secularist bastion against the “takfiri fanatics” and “beasts” of the Syrian opposition. America, he now tells us, is “in bed with al-Qaeda.” But whenever Galloway is back home, it’s precisely the brethren of those very same takfiris and fanatics who are his dearest comrades. Indeed, he’s even dabbled in the takfir business himself, slandering his Muslim rival in a recent by-election as a hopeless alcoholic, and thundering thuggishly that “God KNOWS who is a Muslim. And he KNOWS who is not […] I, George Galloway, do not drink alcohol and never have. Ask yourself if the other candidate in this election can say that truthfully.”

Then again, there’s a warped sort of consistency here (and not just because, before Galloway started disliking al-Qaeda, he was lauding them as a “resistance” force in Iraq). Much like America’s televangelist millionaires, one never quite knows whether ‘Gorgeous George’ sincerely believes the things he says, or if he’s just doing too well for himself to stop now. There’s reason to think it’s the latter; in other words that he’s found a highly lucrative niche as the go-to propagandist for whichever mass-murderer is the international community’s bogeyman-of-the-day.

For example, a 2007 British parliamentary inquiry found “strong circumstantial evidence” that Galloway received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Saddam Hussein regime; money siphoned out of the UN Oil-for-Food Programme that was, incidentally, supposed to buy relief for Iraqi civilians rendered destitute by years of international sanctions.

And since becoming an MP again in 2012, Galloway has been forced to disclose some other fascinating sources of income, including at least $119,000 a year for his twice-monthly show on the staunchly pro-Assad al-Mayadeen TV station here in Beirut, as well as “several £20,000 ($33,000) payments for presenting programmes on Press TV,” the Iranian state channel, from which platform he memorably declared last year’s chemical weapons attack outside Damascus to have been the work of al-Qaeda in cahoots with Israel (and then lied about it in parliament). No doubt impressed with what they saw, and realizing the potential value of his services, the Putin regime has since given him a weekly slot on their RT channel, in return for as-yet-untold sums.

But at the same time, there’s also reason to believe that what he says comes largely from genuine conviction. He certainly goes above and beyond the call of duty of a mere mercenary. His record on LGBT rights, for instance, is notoriously shady – he both denies that Iran executes gays and says the ones it does execute are either rapists or pedophiles. Rape itself, as it happens, is something he’s willing to pardon as long as the right people are doing it – commenting on the Julian Assange allegations, Galloway shrugged that “not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion.” And his support for censorship has been expressed repeatedly and unambiguously: “Of course in this country there’s freedom of speech, but it cannot be an unlimited freedom of speech and other freedoms must trump it, including the freedom not to be terrorized in your own home, not to have your prophet insulted, your religion insulted.”

Perhaps these too are purely cynical statements, calibrated solely to win votes and fatten pockets. But I’m tempted to think Galloway is also one of those authoritarians still lurking on the ostensible left for whom the very idea of liberal democracy is a bourgeois abomination. There’s far more “revolutionary” excitement, after all, in the Castros and Chavezes and Saddams of the world, whose despotism, no matter how bloody, can always be excused for the good of the cause (even when “the cause” is nothing more than petty dynastic perpetuation). Ultimately, for Galloway no less than the Islamists, Nawaz’ original sin was committed the moment he put down the black-and-white flag of the caliphate, and turned his back on totalitarianism tout court. It’s incumbent on all who wish to live neither in Stalinist nor Salafist serfdom to offer their full support to Nawaz, and their full contempt to his adversaries.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Landfill conflict resumes as deadline passes

[Originally posted at NOW]

Activists cut entrance to Naameh landfill once again after failure to resolve dispute.

NAAMEH, Lebanon – Climbing the quiet, winding road up the first slopes of the Aley mountains from the town of Naameh, 20km south of Beirut, the air is distinctly less fresh than one would expect from a sparsely populated, densely forested expanse. “The smell isn’t too bad at the moment, the wind’s coming from the sea,” says Tariq Gharz Eddine, mukhtar (representative) of the nearby village of Baawerta. “But wait half an hour, and you’ll end up with a pounding headache anyway.”

Sure enough, it wasn’t long before an unpleasant combination of headache, sore eyes, and a foul taste in the mouth set in. The cause was the large landfill, some 4km further up the road from where NOW spoke to Gharz Eddine Monday afternoon, at the site of a sit-in held by local residents and environmental activists since Friday.

In protest against what they allege is unlawful and hazardous abuse of the landfill by Sukleen, a private waste management firm, the demonstrators blocked the road leading to the site’s entrance, in response to which Sukleen ceased collecting trash in Beirut, causing large piles of waste to accumulate and spill onto streets all over the capital. After discussions with Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam, the protestors agreed Sunday evening to reopen the road for 48 hours, after which they would close it again if a “solution” was not reached. Sukleen subsequently resumed operations in Beirut, and the excess trash has now been collected.

However, this temporary truce came to an abrupt end Tuesday evening, according to Gharz Eddine, who told NOW Tuesday afternoon that a meeting between activists and Caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel had failed to resolve the dispute, and so the sit-in would indeed cut off the road once again as of 6 p.m. “You will not see any more of these passing through here,” said Gharz Eddine with a grin, gesturing toward a Sukleen truck on its way to the landfill Monday, when NOW asked what would happen if no solution was reached in 48 hours.

How exactly Sukleen will react this time to the residents’ blocking the road once more is unclear. Pascale Nassar, Sukleen’s communications manager, told NOW Tuesday afternoon she had received “no news” regarding the discussions with Charbel, and could not say what the company would do in the event that access to the landfill was again denied. “It depends on the final decision. We will plan accordingly,” said Nassar.

The dispute dates back to the late 1990s when, activists say, Sukleen signed a contract with then-Environment Minister Akram Chehayeb to operate a landfill in the area for 10 years, with a maximum quantity of 2 million tons of waste to be deposited therein. Today, more than 15 years later, the landfill is still in use, and houses some 20 million tons of trash, according to Gharz Eddin. (NOW was unable to visit the landfill itself, and Sukleen’s Nassar told NOW she could not provide or verify any details concerning the original contract signed with the government or the quantity of trash currently in the landfill by the time of publication.)

Adding to local residents’ anger, reports say it was agreed in 2008 to provide them compensation of $6 for every ton of trash deposited in the landfill – which, based on Gharz Eddin’s figures, would amount to some $120m – none of which has been paid to date.

Yet perhaps the most serious concerns raised by residents and activists pertain to the environmental and health hazards posed by the landfill, which have allegedly caused increases in several serious illnesses, including cancer.

“First, there is contamination of the earth, because the garbage produces a heavy, acidic liquid called leachate. This is spreading over a growing area – now around 300,000 sqm – and it’s generating a lot of toxic gas,” said environmental activist Mark Daou.

“In addition, there’s a lot of random dumping; of hospital waste, medicines, batteries, electronics, a lot of bad stuff. That generates damage immediately, and then in the medium and long term the toxic residues will remain in the soil,” added Daou.

As for health-related effects, Daou told NOW that in addition to respiratory illnesses, the landfill has caused a “very noticeable” increase in the number of cancer sufferers in the local area, including “many” who have no history of the disease in their families. Though no formal studies have been undertaken to substantiate a link between the landfill’s emissions and cancer, Daou believes the anecdotal evidence is persuasive.

It was with all this in mind that activists began to oppose Sukleen’s management of the landfill in the first place. Their proposed solution – which was rejected during Tuesday’s meetings – is twofold: first and foremost, the eventual closing of the landfill; but second, the sorting and selling of certain kinds of trash before it reaches Naameh in order to lessen the quantities added in the meantime.

“The sorting of trash into different categories – nylon, plastic, etc. – and then selling it is not something we cannot implement,” said Gharz Eddin. “It’s something that’s been implemented all over the world, and it can be implemented easily in Lebanon.”

“The government could actually make money doing this. If they don’t want to be responsible as a government, we can implement it. It could be a business.”

Luna Safwan contributed reporting.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Right and wrong: British conservatives, still falling for Assad

[Originally posted at NOW]

Reviled though he might officially be by David Cameron’s right-of-centre cabinet, Bashar al-Assad has never been short of friends in the fustier, more bucolic hinterlands of authentic, red-blooded British reactionism.

Everyone knows of the now-bankrupt British National Party leader MEP Nick Griffin’s “fact-finding” trip to Damascus in June, which was short on facts but long on things like warm handshakes with Assad’s prime minister and praise for the “better job” Hezbollah has done than London’s policemen in “dealing with ‘British’ Jihadi cut-throats.”

But while Griffin may be a crackpot – he has since washed up in Athens, where he denounced the government’s “totally illegal” crackdown on the “patriots” of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn crime gang – his way of thinking on Syria is shared by somewhat saner conservatives, like Peter Hitchens, who has insinuated the 2011 protests were a foreign conspiracy and said the region-wide refugee crisis is “largely [Cameron’s] fault.”

And it’s a sign of how much further this rot has spread that yesterday’s Telegraph brought us a column titled, “If we’re not talking to President Bashar al-Assad, we should be.” The writer, veteran foreign correspondent Con Coughlin, welcomes the news that Western governments are “finally persuaded” that the fall of Assad is not in their “countries’ long-term security interests” (“Better late than never, I say”), and are thus seeking to work with Damascus to combat the Islamists among the opposition’s ranks “who pose the greatest threat” to the West. He refers to recent claims by Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Moqdad that western intelligence services had indeed done just that; claims which are quite believable in the current zeitgeist in which Assad’s continuing rule is said out loud to be, in former US ambassador Ryan Crocker’s words, the “least worst option.”

Coughlin, at least, has the honesty to admit his is not a moral argument but one of realpolitik (or “common-sense,” as he prefers). How could it not be, when the atrocities committed by Assad – chemical weapons attacks, airstrikes, SCUD missiles, aerial barrel bombs, cluster bombs, and what Michael Weiss has called terror-famines – are so many multitudes vaster than anything seen from the rebels? What Coughlin is really saying is that Assad, while naturally far worse for mere Syrians, can at least be relied on to leave our civilians alone, which is all that counts.

This would be a repellent thing to say at any point in time, but is especially distasteful coming just a month after the cold-blooded murder of a British surgeon, Abbas Khan, by his Syrian regime jailors, who had passed the previous eight months beating, burning, and electrocuting him until his weight dropped to a childlike five stone (32kg). To this day, the regime continues to humiliate not just Dr Khan’s family but the entire British government with its ludicrous claim that he committed suicide, only days before a scheduled release that his mother spent six terrifying months in Damascus trying to secure, and to which he was known to be looking forward tremendously.

Yet the Khan murder is only the most recent example of Assad’s danger to “us” as well as “them,” which has been amply demonstrated over the course not of years but of decades. Perhaps Coughlin has forgotten the last-minute discovery of a bomb on the tarmac at Heathrow in 1986, planted there by a Syrian national on orders from the Syrian embassy in London, which later harbored the would-have-been-bomber.

And it’s certainly odd, given Coughlin’s aversion to “Islamist fanatics,” that he would overlook Assad’s frantic funneling of al-Qaeda fighters into Iraq after 2003, where they helped kill nearly 200 British troops. His glossing over Assad’s history of incubating jihadist cells in Lebanon, for use whenever expedient against whoever is convenient, including the Lebanese army of whom Britain is supposed to be an ally, is similarly curious.

But perhaps strangest is Coughlin’s apparent insouciance at Assad’s watertight alliance with Hezbollah, the formidable jihadist militia whose kidnapping of British and other civilians in the 1980s supplied the material for one of Coughlin’s own books. All behind us now, perhaps. What, then, about Hezbollah’s refusal to hand over its members indicted by UN prosecutors for the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister; its continuing violation of UN Security Council Resolutions 1559 and 1701; or its intimidation of UN peacekeeping units in south Lebanon? None of Britain’s business, evidently. Not that that stops Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, from making Britain his business. In a rousing war speech on Jerusalem Day last year, the Sayyid made special mention of Coughlin’s compatriots, promoting them to the uniquely villainous status of being worse than both the Greater and the Lesser Satans:

“Today, we want to say to all of them: to America, Israel, and the English… [pauses for emphasis, smiles] they’re the most cunning at [manipulation] [applause erupts]”

Nasrallah may have his hierarchy of enemies, but for Western policymakers, picking favorites between Sunni and Shiite jihadists doesn’t suggest itself as the most thoughtful approach. Coughlin is undoubtedly right to raise concerns about what passes for “moderation” among Syria’s rebels nowadays. But it’s a complete non sequitur – not to mention a moral outrage – to jump into bed with Assad, Hezbollah and Iran in response. If Britain doesn’t want to help Syria’s rebels, the least it can do is not bolster their enemy; an enemy which, in Syria more than anywhere, is certainly not its friend.

[Correction: An earlier version of this text mistakenly ended with "the enemy of which, in Syria more than anywhere, is certainly not its friend". This has been amended as above]

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Speaking on Monocle 24 about Hermel suicide bomb, start of STL trial

I spoke to Monocle 24 radio earlier today about the suicide bombing in Hermel (since claimed by Jabhat al-Nusra) and the opening of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon trial. Episode available here (I come on at 18:34). 

A SCAF coup in Gaza?

[Originally posted at NOW]

According to a Reuters exclusive published today, the military dictatorship which ousted the former Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi last July and subsequently drove his Muslim Brotherhood support base underground – jailing journalists and extinguishing over a thousand civilian lives in the process – hopes now to engineer a repeat of the experience in the Gaza Strip.

“Gaza is next,” an anonymous senior security official told the news agency. “We cannot get liberated from the terrorism of the Brotherhood in Egypt without ending it in Gaza.”

The plan, according to various officials cited in the report, is to use opponents – both militant and civilian – of the Brotherhood-affiliated Hamas government in Gaza to ignite a “first spark” of protests, modeled on the ‘Tamarrod’ [‘Rebel’] movement that opposed Morsi in Cairo last summer, in order to provoke a violent crackdown that would ultimately lead to Hamas’ downfall. “Surely, the world will not stand still and allow Hamas to kill Palestinians. Someone will interfere,” as one source explained it.

To that end, a protest has been scheduled in Gaza for 21 March. Of course, how many people will actually show up is anyone’s guess – a previous attempt, last November, to stage a Tamarrod-branded demonstration in the Strip flopped entirely. It’s difficult to see how much influence the Egyptian generals can actually exert through Hamas’ domestic opponents, almost all of whom are either in jail or have been tortured and intimidated into silence.

Indeed the entire scheme seems basically ludicrous, and not just logistically. There’s no doubt the Hamas regime is a brutal theocracy; a coupling of the fundamentalism of Saudi Arabia with the iron fist of Saddam Hussein. And yet, the Egyptian experience of the past six months leaves rather a lot of room to doubt whether the putsch envisaged by Sisi’s gangsters offers the liberal and democratic alternative Gazans hope for.

Sharon death only partial solace for Shatila survivors

[Originally posted at NOW, with Luna Safwan]

NOW speaks with Palestinian survivors of the infamous 1982 massacre.

SHATILA, Lebanon: On Monday afternoon, only a few hundred kilometers away from Beirut, the recently-deceased former Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, was being laid to final rest in the Negev desert, where he was eulogized by national and international dignitaries as a “great leader” whose “memory will forever be kept in the nation’s heart.”

But in the mud-caked, bare-brick labyrinth of narrow alleyways in Beirut’s Shatila refugee camp, some streets scarcely wide enough for one adult to pass, Sharon’s name was remembered by the Palestinian residents for something other than greatness.

“I was 12 years old at the time. I remember standing right here,” said one resident who gave his name only as Fadi, pointing to the rusted metal doorway of his apartment on one of the camp’s numberless streets. “It was nighttime, and there were lights flying high up in the air. And I was wondering, who’s making these lights? And why?”

It was September, 1982. The answer to Fadi’s question, we now know, is that the lights were flares, fired by Israeli troops who had occupied the city weeks earlier following a bloody ground and air assault campaign masterminded by then-Defense Minister Sharon. The flares provided illumination for Lebanese militiamen, allied with Israel at the time, who entered the camp and committed perhaps the most infamous massacre of the 15-year civil war, in which over a thousand civilian men, women, and children were killed with the knowledge of the Israeli forces encircling the camp. Many of the victims were raped and hacked with blades. An official Israeli inquiry later found Sharon “indirectly responsible” for the massacre and recommended that he be removed from his post. To his critics, he would forever be known as the “Butcher of Beirut” thenceforth.

On top of the wardrobe in his bedroom, 83-year-old Hajj Abu Ahmad al-Salhani still keeps a remarkable memento of the slaughter that nearly claimed his life. “This is one of the actual weapons they used on us,” he tells NOW, holding up an old workman’s tool with a hammer’s head on one end and an axe on the other.

Salhani becomes visibly agitated when recounting the events, fidgeting nervously with an intense stare in his grey eyes.

“I was in a taxi when it started,” he tells NOW. “When I got home, we started hearing people talk about a massacre happening. Later, I found out the taxi I was in was stopped at a checkpoint, and we never heard anything about the others in it again. The taxi driver’s name was Ahmad Hishme.”

“My sister lost her husband in that massacre. I was one of the lucky ones,” he adds, his eyes moistening.

67-year-old Hajj Abu Imad al-Masri had an equally near miss with the Lebanese militiamen.

“That night I saw women and children running, screaming about a massacre,” he told NOW. “Sharon’s forces were set and ready on the Kuwait embassy, along with the Saad Haddad militia [the ‘South Lebanon Army’]. They came in from al-Rihab Street with axes, and managed even to get to al-Gaza Hospital, where they slaughtered a lot of people.”

“We had small underground shelters, where we were able to hide families.” Even so, they weren’t always beyond the militiamen’s reach.

“I remember the story of a guy we called ‘the survivor,’” said Masri. “He was hiding along with 25 families in an underground shelter and insisted on going out to get cigarettes. They caught him [and] he ended up telling them about the shelter. They took all the men aside, took their wallets, and then made them all face a wall. They executed all of them, except ‘the survivor,’ who took 15 bullets but didn’t die.”

Yet for all the pain still clearly evoked by the memory of the massacre, the Shatila residents with whom NOW spoke said Sharon’s death was of little consequence to their overall plight.

“Personally, I would rather he stayed in a coma,” said Ziad Himmo, general secretary of the camp’s Popular Committee. “Or was just tossed into a field, like what happens to our people.”

Asked if he would have wanted to see Sharon face trial for war crimes, Himmo told NOW this would be missing the point.

“It’s not just about Sharon. The whole Zionist state is the problem.”

“I have no feelings about the death of Sharon,” said Salhani. “What about Saad Haddad? And Antoine Lahad [Haddad’s successor]? A lot of people should be held accountable.”

The insinuation that justice was still yet to be served was summarized by Masri.

“Israel should be held accountable, and not only Sharon, which is why his death means nothing to me. But who will hold Israel accountable? The same countries trying to help it become stronger now?”

Sunday, January 12, 2014

What is March 14's new "civil resistance"?

[Originally posted at NOW]

Coalition launches new campaign to “liberate” Lebanon from Hezbollah’s arms, but some supporters remain skeptical.

At the funeral of slain former ambassador and March 14 minister Mohamad Chatah in Downtown Beirut on 29 December, a leader of the anti-Damascus bloc and former close colleague of Chatah’s declared the birth of a new chapter in the coalition’s nine-year-long campaign to rid the country of Syrian influence.

“We have decided to embrace civil resistance,” said Future parliamentary bloc leader and former prime minister MP Fouad Siniora. “O martyr Mohamad Chatah, [Lebanon] after your assassination will not be the same as before it.”

The phrase “civil resistance” – a jab at March 14’s arch-rival, Hezbollah, which styles itself on its flag as “the Islamic resistance” – has since become the official name of the coalition’s new campaign, which will seek to combine grassroots activism, measures at the domestic parliamentary level, and lobbying of the international community to “liberate” the country, in Siniora’s words, from “illegitimate arms.”

“It is a non-traditional way to say no to the illegal arms in Lebanon,” said Fares Soueid, head of the March 14 General Secretariat. “We tried all the traditional channels between 2005 and 2012: the dialogue table; the national coalition government; the Doha Agreement. After our failure to reach any agreement or compromise with Hezbollah concerning the building of the state […] we are shifting to civil resistance,” he told NOW.

What this will mean in terms of specific policy measures and actions is yet to be finalized. The only step confirmed by Soueid to NOW was a total suspension of ties with Hezbollah, the party-cum-militia implicitly blamed by Future Movement leader MP Saad Hariri for the assassination of Chatah on 27 December.

“We are not going to make the same mistake as the European Union, of dividing Hezbollah into a political and military branch. For us, there is only one Hezbollah, which works in politics with a gun in its hands.”

Beyond this, another likely component, according to Soueid, will be an effort to leverage March 14’s international relationships in order to pass a new UN Security Council resolution to “assure the neutrality of Lebanon” with respect to ongoing turmoil in the region – particularly the Syrian conflict, in which Hezbollah is a significant paramilitary participant, and to which Chatah’s assassination has been linked by various analysts.

The coalition may also decide to once again boycott parliament, said Soueid, as they did for several months following the October 2012 assassination of police intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan. Mass street demonstrations might also be organized. “These are all [options] in our hands,” Soueid told NOW.

Asked how long the campaign would last, Soueid implied it was open-ended.

“We are talking about civil resistance. It’s not like a medical prescription, it’s a process. So we are going to begin slowly, but surely, and we are going to win.”

The launch of the campaign has been met with mixed reactions from March 14 activists at the grassroots level. Some are enthusiastic, spreading the word on social media – dedicated Facebook and Twitter pages have been created – and even spray-painting graffiti in support.

“There’s always more that can be done, but actually this time, we are doing our maximum,” said Karim Rifai, a March 14 activist prominent on the ground. “We consider that we are mobilizing people for the last sprint,” he told NOW.

“It’s the only way out of what we’re in,” said Walid Fakhreddine, head of the March 14-aligned Democratic Left Movement. “It’s a serious campaign, and more is yet to come, but nothing is going to be made public beforehand. In the upcoming two or three days, there will be announcements of further actions.”

Others, however, took a less hopeful view, questioning the campaign’s strategic clarity and the coalition’s commitment to seeing it through to fruition.

“Until now, I don’t think they were able to translate ‘civil resistance’ into anything tangible,” said Sara Assaf, another longtime grassroots March 14 activist. “I think the problem is it’s just a slogan that was launched, and then as usual they will not really translate it into any efficient action on the ground.”

Moreover, Assaf queried the sincerity of the campaign, in light of recent reports that March 14 is contemplating forming a new cabinet in partnership with Hezbollah after all.

“You cannot come and launch a slogan like ‘civil resistance’ and say you took a major decision to ‘liberate Lebanon from the occupation of illegitimate weapons,’ as Siniora said, and then days later start bargaining on a government with Hezbollah. It doesn’t make sense […] This would be covering Hezbollah in its sectarian war in Syria, at a time when the Special Tribunal for Lebanon [trial] is due to start,” Assaf added.

“The contradiction here is huge and it’s very disappointing for people like me and many others in the March 14 public.”

Other still are doubtful that the “liberation” envisaged by Siniora is possible at all, in the face of powerful international obstacles.

“The title is big, and it’s a very nice title, but so far it’s just that,” said Mustafa Fahs, a political analyst sympathetic to March 14’s broader goals. “Circumstances today are very difficult, and go way beyond this title.”

“There is a regional conflict today, and we in Lebanon are merely tiny details in it.”

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Lebanon, where jihadists may roam

[Originally posted at NOW]

On Saturday, what appeared to be a claim by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), perhaps the most terrifying jihadist group in the world at present, to have carried out Thursday’s suicide bombing in Beirut’s southern suburbs began circulating online. Assuming it’s genuine – and at least one analyst is skeptical – this would be the first confirmed ISIS attack on Lebanon, and likely not the last: the statement added the bomb was but “the first small payment of the heavy cost which awaits these immoral criminals [Hezbollah].”

This is obviously troubling for all sorts of reasons, not least being the timing. It comes scarcely two weeks after the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, the official Syrian al-Qaeda subsidiary and ISIS’ most formidable rival in the theocracy stakes, told Al Jazeera that his men too have now arrived in Lebanon, where they will “protect the Sunnis” from the “Party of Iran.” That announcement coincided with the release of a video showing the mujahideen of the all-new ‘Jabhat al-Nusra in Lebanon’ franchise launching ten Grad rockets at Hermel, accompanied by a press release now helpfully published on the group’s Twitter account.

A coincidence, possibly. But Abu Muhammad al-Jolani’s 50-minute interview on the Arab world’s premier TV station put Nusra back in the limelight at a time when ISIS was making an increasingly catastrophic job of hearts-and-minds management in northern Syria (the further bungling of which would lead to this weekend’s extraordinary wave of attacks by numerous rebel brigades on ISIS positions across the country). The urge to one-up Nusra’s ballistic theatrics would only have been natural. Strikingly, Saturday’s ISIS statement even concluded with exactly the same quote from the Qur’an as did the Nusra one; selected – presumably not at random – from a chapter titled al-Munafiqun (“The Hypocrites”.)

In other words, Lebanon may soon become (if it isn’t already) an open arena of intra-jihadist showmanship and competition, in which ISIS, Nusra, the Abdallah Azzam Brigades, and any other takers outbid one another’s bona fides in the currency of civilian blood. Of course, in strictly military terms, this wouldn’t make a great deal of sense – Syria is still the battle that matters, and the road to Damascus doesn’t run through Dahiyeh any more than the path to Jerusalem went through Jounieh. Yet for the purposes of things like raising funds, attracting recruits, and general branding, jihadists still have a toxic sort of incentive to murder a lot more Lebanese civilians.

Back in August, a few days after the first in what has now become a series of deadly car bombs in Beirut’s southern suburbs, I suggested there were three necessary (if not sufficient) measures to prevent such a senseless descent into sectarian slaughter: full cooperation between feuding security agencies; containment by Sunni powers of the extremists among their ranks; and the immediate and full withdrawal of Hezbollah from Syria.

Five months later, we’ve seen almost nothing to suggest progress on the first two fronts. As for the third, consider what the Party of God’s Sheikh Nabil Qaouq had to say yesterday on the subject: “No matter what the size of crimes and car bombs reached, we will not change our position in Syria.” That is a challenge, I fear, that Lebanon’s new jihadist arrivals will be only too happy to take up.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

What now for cabinet formation?

[Originally posted at NOW]

Lebanon’s nine-month-long absence of a government, which briefly looked as though it might come to a resolution earlier this week, now appears set to persist even further following Thursday’s deadly car bombing in Beirut’s southern suburbs, which came just six days after the assassination – also by car bomb – of former minister and ambassador Mohamad Chatah.

Efforts overseen by Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam to form a cabinet have long been stalled by irreconcilable conditions and counter-conditions imposed by the country’s two key political blocs. The March 8 coalition has demanded a one-third share of ministerial seats to guarantee veto power over any decisions deemed unwelcome, while March 14 has in turn rejected the participation of Hezbollah in the cabinet so long as the party is fighting in neighboring Syria, in contravention of a bipartisan agreement reached in June 2012 to “dissociate” Lebanon from the Syrian conflict.

Nevertheless, Salam and President Michel Suleiman had reportedly decided to form a so-called “fait accompli” cabinet, composed of 14 neutral figures, by 8 January. That proposal has now seemingly been shelved – at least for the moment – in light of Thursday’s attack, with Salam telling one local paper Friday that he was giving parties one more chance to agree on an alternative option. Should they fail to do so, however, a number of sources suggested the fait accompli cabinet could become a reality once again.

“The Dahiyeh bombing definitely slowed down the cabinet formation process,” said an adviser to a current caretaker minister who requested anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the press. “President Suleiman will now launch new efforts toward a ‘national unity’ government” – the option favored by Hezbollah and the Progressive Socialist Party, among others, under which all major parties would be represented – “to see if there is any change in March 14’s position.”

“But if these efforts fail, Suleiman and Salam will likely go back to the fait accompli option. This could happen as soon as 15 January,” he told NOW.

Other sources, however, suggest the fait accompli proposal will remain inherently unviable for the foreseeable future. For one thing, there are fears it could trigger violent clashes reminiscent of those in May 2008, when March 8-aligned gunmen occupied much of Beirut after deadly gun battles with March 14-affiliated opponents. On several occasions over the past few months, Hezbollah officials and their supporters in the local press have appeared to either imply or directly threaten such an outcome. On Monday, March 8 sources reportedly told the Al-Akhbar newspaper that a fait accompli cabinet would be opposed by Hezbollah “even if it meant storming the Grand Serail,” the seat of the prime minister.

“They are threatening [violence], definitely,” said former MP Mosbah al-Ahdab of the Democratic Renewal (Tajaddod) Movement. Ahdab characterized the March 8 stance to NOW as follows: “Either you accept a cabinet with a blocking third, or a cabinet that they call ‘national unity’ that is impossible to implement... [Otherwise,] we will go down to the streets.”

Another problem with the fait accompli option, according to Future Movement MP Bassem al-Shab, is opposition to it from the Maronite Patriarch, which is of particular significance in light of the ostensibly impending presidential elections.

“Salam and Suleiman are unlikely to go for such a cabinet when the Maronite hierarchy is against it,” Shab told NOW. “If there is a fait accompli cabinet, it means for sure there won’t be presidential elections, because one side will boycott them.”

For that reason, Shab suggested the cabinet formation question may be sidelined until consensus is reached on the next presidential candidate, the election of whom will require a new cabinet in any case, according to the constitution.

“If there’s no government, there may be an incentive to find a common [presidential] candidate which would open the way to a new government. I think it’s going to push all parties to agree on a common candidate.”

The death of a statesman

[Originally posted at NOW, co-written with Ana Maria Luca]

NOW explores Mohammad Chatah’s political role and the possible reasons behind his assassination.

On his way to a political meeting of the March 14 coalition, Former Lebanese Finance minister Mohammad Chatah tweeted, “Hezbollah is pressing hard to be granted similar powers in security and foreign policy matters that Syria exercised in Lebanon for 15 years.” Within minutes, a car bomb exploded in Downtown Beirut, and Chatah was dead. It damaged six buildings around the Starco building, killing five other people and wounding scores in one of the most crowded business and administrative areas of Beirut.

It was political statements like his last tweet that led to Chatah’s assassination, friends, analysts, and fellow politicians told NOW. Chatah did not have a very important position in government anymore, but he was one of the political strategists of the Future Movement and the March 14 coalition. Considered a Sunni moderate, he was also a very vocal political adversary of Hezbollah and of Syrian government influence over Lebanese politics.

“He had a very dynamic role. He was a man of principle, was very involved in the decisionmaking in March 14. His killing will definitely complicate the mission of the Sunni moderates in this part of the world,” Mosbah al-Ahdab, prominent Sunni politician from Tripoli, told NOW.

“Mohammad’s mind never stopped thinking. The only way they could stop him from thinking was to kill him,” journalist Nadim Koteish, Chatah’s close friend, also told NOW.

Born Mohamad Baha Chatah in Tripoli in 1951, he attended the local Evangelical primary school and the International College secondary school in Beirut. He obtained a BA in economics from the American University of Beirut in 1974, and later a PhD in the same field from the University of Texas in 1983. Upon completing his postgraduate studies, Chatah joined the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington D.C. as an advisor to the executive director. In 1993, he returned to Lebanon as Vice Governor of the Central Bank, a post he would hold until becoming Ambassador to the United States in 1997.

In 1999, with his ally the former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri no longer in power, Chatah returned to the IMF in Washington as an advisor on external relations. He would remain there until Hariri’s 2005 assassination, at which point Chatah moved back to Lebanon for good, serving as a chief advisor to Prime Ministers Fouad Siniora and Saad Hariri, as well as Minister of Finance from 2008 to 2009. He remained a senior aide to both Future Movement officials.

Chatah was also a prominent public figure, regularly appearing on radio and television and posting frequently on his blog and Twitter account, where he would write on Lebanese political and economic affairs, the Syrian conflict, Palestine, the Arab uprisings, and Western foreign policy, as well as jokes and other light-hearted topics.

Hours after the bomb went off, analysts and politicians were still trying to make sense of what the former minister’s assassination meant for the Lebanese political scene. Some interpreted Chatah’s assassination as a message to politicians in the pro-Western March 14 coalition, especially Saad Hariri, who has been in exile for over two years for fear he might be assassinated.

Future MP Khaled Zahraman told NOW that “the assassination aims at intimidating and threatening March 14… We see in this assassination a resemblance to prior assassinations like al-Hariri’s and other assassinations that are investigated by the STL,” he added.

The trial of the case of Rafiq Hariri’s assassination is due to start mid-January in the Hague. The prosecutors charged four Hezbollah members and supporters with the crime.

Moreover, according to Koteish, the former minister was very active in the past few months in supporting a neutral Lebanese government. Chatah played an important role in the debate among political factions in recent weeks, acting as a political messenger between political leaders in the negotiations for forming Tamam Salam’s government. “He was more than a messenger: he was one of the most prominent Lebanese political engineers,” he added.

Zahraman stressed that the bombing was a message sent to intimidate the entire political faction Chatah was part of. “This is a new phase. The assassinations which we witnessed between 2005 and 2008 were trials by the Syrian regime to cause fractions in the internal Lebanese affairs through igniting sectarian divisions and clashes. It seems that the Syrian regime’s trials have failed earlier, so they are now using the methods of assassinations again now to provoke more fractions and tension,” Zahraman said.

Analysts don’t expect a great impact on the Lebanese Sunni community. “Whoever killed Chatah was very smart,” Koteish argued. “Mohammad Chatah was not a prominent Sunni figure whose death would translate among the Sunnis as an attack on the Sunni community. He was a Lebanese moderate figure,” Koteish said.

Luna Safwan contributed reporting.