A Lebanese Abroad

Opinions from an opinionated Lebanese abroad about Lebanon's politics, business and the future of a United Lebanon.

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Monday, June 27, 2005

It's Berries (oops Berry) Season!

In light of the continuous absurdities of the Lebanese political scene, some humor won’t hurt. It just occurred to me that June marks the beginning of the “berries” season, and this is why Berry will be our next Speaker.

Many similarities between the several berries and our unique, one-of-a-kind, organically grown Berry.

Straw-Berry: Straws needed to suck-up fortunes of others from a distance.
Cran-Berry: Cran-ky until he gets his way.
Blue-Berry: He will lie to you until you’re blue in the face.
Black-Berry: Oh, that’s a simple one. He always black-mails you.
Rasp-Berry: Definition of a “rasp”: A coarse file with raised, sharp points on its surface.
Goose-Berry: That’s an obvious one. He’s loose as a goose.
Mul-Berry: He will continue to “mull” things over until we are really confused.
Elder-Berry: Isn’t it getting elderly to have stayed so long as the Speaker?

So, here we have it. Our own Lebanese Berry patch.

The only problem is that in warm climates, apparently berries can grow all season long.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Open Letter to Saad Hariri Subject: Next Tuesday's Vote

All the Lebanese in Lebanon and abroad are in suspense, awaiting the Parliament’s first session and the ensuing election of its Speaker.

We look up to you as Lebanon’s next savior, following the footsteps of your brave father. We understand that your block holds the tipping power for the choice of the Speaker of the Parliament.

Please, remember not to bring back the same Speaker that for 12 years exemplified pro-Syrian co-operation, made your father’s life as a Prime Minister miserable several times, and contributed to the venomous environment that eventually killed him.

Please do not make the mistake to fall into the low standards of compromise which has plagued the Lebanese political scene, where politicians routinely make deals with each other, regardless of the national interest.

And if you become Prime Minister, you would represent the people’s choice, not only the Sunni’s choice. So, please make the Speaker’s choice a national choice, not just a Chi’a choice, and please help make the President’s choice a national choice, not just a Maronite choice.

Leaders have to rise to the occasion and often make the hard choices over the easy ones. We know you will make the hard choice, and we will look-up to you with even greater admiration because we know that if you make the right decision, it will be your decision, not the result of back-room deal-making.

Lebanon’s future is now in your hands, as it recently was in your Great father’s hands.

Please do not disappoint us.
[You can sign the Petition endorsing this letter here.]

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Are We Expecting Too Much from the Parliament?

On the heels of Michael Young’s excellent analysis on the causes and effects of George Hawi’s assassination, I re-drew the list of challenges facing Lebanon from my previous blog Holding Their Feet to the Fire, and categorized them into a Difficult and an Easier pile. Upon reviewing that list, what struck me was that the Lebanese Parliament may be holding much of the powers necessary to enact most of these changes. And I wonder if we are not expecting too much from such Parliament given its appearance in what Michael Young describes as the "Syrian-led system minus the Syrians" and I previously called it "same old system without Syrians".

What’s difficult:
- Hezbollah’s fate, arms and position (Hot potato)
- Abolition of confessionalism (Boiling potato)
- Abolition of sectarian politics (Very Hot potato)
- Relations with Israel (Hot potato, might cool down quickly depending on Syria)
- Ending corruption (They all talk about it, wash their hands from it and treat it as if it only happens to others but not them. It’s a complex labyrinth with many hot potatoes along the way.)

What’s easier:
- Providing security (it’s a cornerstone for the economy but is gridlocked by on-the- ground reforms)
- Changing the electoral law (the debates will be heated, but it boils down to a known outcome)
- Replacing the President (Just as they voted to extend his mandate, they could shorten it)
- Not re-electing Berri (It’s all in their hands)
- Normalizing relations with Syria (Debates will start there to define them)
- Re-jolting the economy, tourism and construction (An effective Parliament sends the right messages of confidence to the world and improves the macro-economic factors which have been low)
- Lowering the debt (The Prime Minister could take the lead (as Hariri did), but it will take more than creative financing schemes which just delay the problem)
- Freeing Geagea (A very easy matter, perhaps their first vote)

So does it look like we are expecting too much from the Lebanese Parliament?

Are the MPs going to become Super Parliamentarians overnight and pass whatever is “logical” versus whatever is compromised upon (as in the past)?

Will the (next) Prime Minister be strong enough to take ownership of some of these issues and drive them, or will he/she “keep their hands off” these hot potatoes?

Are we going to be content by keeping an isolated President for 2 more years where he is certain to continue his lame duck record?

And are we going to fall into Berri’s hyper muscular machinations and keep him because he was a “great Speaker”, according to this nauseating defense of his record that appeared today in The Daily Star, penned on his behalf by Bilal Charara, General Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Lebanese National Assembly?

Doing what is easy is necessary, but not sufficient.
Doing what’s difficult will define Lebanon’s future.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Why doesn't Lebanon have a Rudy Giuliani?

When Rudy Giuliani arrived at the September 11th scene in New York City and in the days after, he really showed the world what leadership was about.

At a time when the world's greatest city reeled in shock and horror from a devastating terrorist attack, Mayor Giuliani stepped into the searing void of grief and took upon himself the weight of millions of New Yorkers' pain. He did it without regard for his own safety, and then, without regard for his own needs, sought out all who suffered in all parts of the city for 20 hours a day or more. He visited Ground Zero two to three times a day, picking his way through the rubble of both World Trade Center towers and half a dozen other collapsed buildings. He trekked to hospitals and relief centers. He consoled widows, widowers and survivors, and anyone suffering from anxiety and fear. He spent every day like a true New Yorker, jumping out of his official van to grab a slice of pizza for lunch or dinner, or a cup of coffee for breakfast, all while keeping up a whirlwind pace, all day, every day.

Giuliani stood steadfast, unequivocally in command, showing a daily mastery of the details of rescue and recovery, while keeping a worried citizenry informed about the pace of the work, and the rising toll of victims. In the days that followed, he became a ubiquitous presence at funerals, wakes and memorial services, not only in the five boroughs but in communities up and down the Hudson River and across Long Island. Some days, he attended as many as eight or nine services, trying ultimately in vain to do what he had always done, attend every funeral for a fallen New York City firefighter or policeman. He even appeared on "Saturday Night Live," the New York-based comedy television program, to issue a declaration that the city was back in operation. He also spoke to the U.N. General Assembly's meeting on terrorism, calling the attack a "direct assault on the founding principles of the United Nations itself." A New Yorker by birth and blood, he became the voice and the soul for all New Yorkers, and for all Americans, and for all those citizens of the world who love the city as he does.

What does Prime Minister Mikati do when he arrives at the scene of Samir Kassir’s killing? After he almost fainted (and reportedly put a handkerchief to his mouth), he starts “condemning” the perpetrators, then he gets haggled by the by-standers, then he leaves the scene, and nobody knows what specific action he took, except ordering an immediate investigation. Big deal, right?

What does Prime Minister Mikati do after the slaying of George Hawi? He is "stunned", "blames conspirators", “denounces the crime”, which “is aimed at destabilizing Lebanon and turning attention away from democratic achievements”. Duh?

Lack of Leadership = Lack of Confidence = Lack of Security

Why doesn’t Lebanon have a Rudy Giuliani?

Monday, June 20, 2005

Holding Their Feet to the Fire: The End of a New Beginning

I am buoyed by the optimistic comments about the elections being a turning point in Lebanon’s history. Indeed, these are historic times, and Lebanon can look forward to a better future. However, we must temper our optimism because as much as Hariri’s death was the beginning of the end for Syria, the elections were just the end of a new beginning for Lebanon.

  • Phase I consisted of “Let’s unite to get rid of the Syrians”.

  • Phase II was about elections maneuvering: “Let’s get elected now, no matter what”.

  • Phase III must be about “Let’s build a New Lebanon”. Participants: Lebanese in Lebanon and Lebanese abroad, politicians and Western and Arab countries that want to help.

  • In terms of governance, we went from an old system with Syrians to the same old system without Syrians (yes, Taef is outdated). Now the hard work begins. Can we move to a new system? Can the same old players move us to the new system, or will the people have to go back to the streets to express their dissatisfaction with the status-quo?

    We must not assume that our politicians will solve these problems on their own. In my opinion, the real meaning of March 14 has been already taken with a grain of salt.

    A friend of mine put it succinctly: “The only real changes that will happen are the ones the people who took to the streets will come up with. There will be no miracle from the top down. The only improvement is that we replaced criminal/crooks by crooks. At least people will not get killed and tortured if they want to get organized, and Syrian influence will be hopefully purged. It is not a solution, but it is a start. “

    My dear friends…it’s a start. We have a beachhead. Let’s not confuse it with the solution. We must elevate the standards that we want for this country of ours. Lebanon’s society (most of it) is largely modern. Its banking system is modern. Its universities are modern and secular. But can our politicians rise above the third-world type of governance they have been accustomed to? Is it such a tall order to get rid of corruption and usher efficiency in services, the respect of the individual and the emancipation of a civil society?

    The hard work is still ahead. Lebanon has several monumental challenges if it wants to rise up to its full potential. If it doesn’t and prefers the easy route by choosing the lowest common denominators, then we will see our future in the rear view mirror. We must face the hard work now, and make the difficult, fundamental decisions that will define Lebanon’s future: Hezbollah, confessionalism, sectarian politics and Israel’s relations. These are the tough ones compared to the easier ones: changing the electoral law, replacing the president, normalizing relations with Syria, re-jolting the economy, lowering the debt and freeing Gaegea. Doing the later list will move us forward, but it will not get us over the hump, fundamentally speaking.

    I do hope the next government will take their tasks seriously. Actually, very seriously. Extremely seriously. No more confusing us. Just serve us, like we elected you to. Like most other politicians in developed countries do. That’s why it’s called “public service”, and it means that. It’s not a right. It’s a privilege that comes and goes, like the wind.

    My dear friends…as the saying goes: let’s hold their feet to the fire. This means they will be accountable with high standards. We must leapfrog into the 21st century. The Lebanese are extremely talented and creative, but talent is often wasted, creativity is often applied towards the wrong objectives and discipline and trust are almost always lacking. Let’s change that.

    Change is what we want. Change has only started. We should only accept real change from now on. Nothing less, but a lot more. Those politicians that were re-elected have taken an unspoken oath that they are to be trusted. We are giving them a second chance if they want to get rid of corruption and implement reforms. We want Lebanon to regain its full respect worldwide, not just as a beacon of hope for other democracies, but as a successful economic power in its own league. We want Lebanon to be a model of co-existence between religions and cultures and a peaceful country practicing good relations with all its regional neighbors.

    The dream of an economically and influentially powerful Lebanon is within reach. We are starting with a new slate, new hope, new Parliament- eager to work, and a new opposition that will keep them on their toes.

    For us, we should hold their feet to the fire. Not more, but no less.

    Tuesday, June 14, 2005

    Paradigm Shift in the Opposition

    After Aoun’s victory on Sunday, several newspaper headlines were getting it wrong in labeling the “opposition”:

  • ”Aoun success sets back main anti-Syrian opposition” (via AP)

  • “Switching General hurts Lebanon Opposition” (via AP)

  • “Lebanon Christians deal blow to anti-syrian coalition” (The Christian Science Monitor)

  • “Returning Lebanese General Stuns Anti-Syrian Alliance” (New York Times)

  • “The coming days look bleak for the opposition” ((The Daily Star)

  • Of course, these were all meant to highlight the defeat of the “former” anti-Syrian gang: the Kornet Chehwan gathering. But the reality is that the meaning of the word “opposition” is changing.

    Whereas the previous opposition was an opposition to Syria, the new opposition is an opposition to whoever is governing, in the classical sense. So, for now, Aoun appears to have become “the new opposition” to the status-quo, to corruption, to sectarian politics, etc., i.e. he is the real paradigm shift in Lebanon’s politics.

    Having a handful of previous Syrian cronies on his list doesn’t make him pro-Syrian. Aoun said last week: “I spent 15 years in exile, is it sensible that I strike a deal with a country that just left Lebanon and a regime that is falling apart. Does it make sense?” He astutely brought the last few remaining ex- pro-Syrian softies together so they don’t go stray and do more damage elsewhere; so he is controlling them now.

    It is also worthy to note that not all those that voted for Aoun and his list are FPM’ers; they were just patriotic and related to the man’s honesty and real patriotism. Let’s dispel this myth one more time: you don’t have to be a Free Patriotic Movement member to have voted for Aoun or to support him. This message also applies for the Northern voters.

    We owe Aoun a lot of respect because he is the only leader that was elected because of what he did and what he believes in, not because of who he is, where he came from or who his parents were.

    Friday, June 10, 2005

    Turning up the Heat on Syria and Hezbollah: Good News-Bad News

    Today’s headlines focus on increased U.S. suspicions that Syria is planning more politically motivated assassinations in Lebanon. These concerns were also echoed by Jumblatt in an interview here.

    In addition, L’Orient-Le-Jour has reported in today’s edition that the U.S. Congress International Relations Commission is proposing a bill whereas it will remind Lebanon that UN Resolution 1559 must be applied in its entirety, including the disarmament of Hezbollah. This law is due for a vote at the end of June, and will apparently allow 120 days for its enactment, after which U.S. aid to Lebanon may be adversely affected.

    These two events may have serious implications for Lebanon’s future and its relations with the United States.

    First, the bad news.

    This renewed call for implementing UN Resolution 1559 will probably be perceived by some Lebanese political circles as another heavy handed U.S. involvement. In addition, it might embolden Hezbollah who, feeling their back to the wall might overact and do something “stupid” in the South in order to gain sympathy from the population.

    And with Syria, these U.S. accusations have some semblance of U.S. rhetoric against Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. It appears that a new “case against Syria” is being mounted, whereas the US is bent on proving that Syria is a destabilizing factor in the region and the last stumbling block to Middle-East peace. The evidence is part in Syria and part in Lebanon.

    This has dramatic implications for Lebanon and only with an eventual Hezbollah disarmament will there be any good news.

    The Lebanese political leaders will have to stop “dancing” around the Hezbollah issue and face it head-on with more logic, and less emotions. This will put pressure on the next Lebanese government who will have to take the Hezbollah case seriously and deal with it from a position of strength, not one of weakness. With Syria out of Lebanon, and with Iran facing even more international pressure, Hezbollah’s co-sponsors are being neutralized, therefore giving the group ample chance to save face by losing its arms, but keeping its identity.

    It appears that the Hezbollah issue will be the first real test for the next Lebanese government. They will not be able to ignore it anymore. The Lebanese government will have to show real leadership and take the carrot that the U.S. is handing out. Not doing so would be irresponsible and might drive the country back into chaos while gravely discrediting the Cedar Revolution.

    Sunday, June 05, 2005

    Exposing Lebanon's Democracy: The Biggest Flaw Was Not the Election Law

    While only a month ago, many were still claiming that the Election Law of 2000 was the main stumbling block to fair elections, judging by the way the elections have been conducted so far, it’s not the Law that would make the election more fair, but rather the election process itself.

    Even a new Law would not have changed the habits of our existing politics which are to “nominate” rather than elect most officials. It’s really the dozen or so “leaders” that decide who they want on their lists and present it to the Lebanese people as a “fait accomplit”, almost a way to confirm their nomination. This has nothing to do with any law, districts or province subdivisions. And this shuts out or disadvantages most other candidates that may be more qualified than the ones that are “chosen”.

    And it has become so obvious now that the greatest lie given to the Lebanese people was that it was a game of “Laws”. It simply was not. If the Law had a flaw, the process has an incurable virus.

    The other farce is the staggered process over 4 weeks. It allows too much maneuvering and adjusting in response to the previous results, like a step-wise election that is not needed. Why can’t a country of 4 million vote in one day when most others with 100 million+ can do it in one single day?

    The real truth is that- the Lebanese politicians can’t react in one day to events that may be counter to them. Sudden elections results would leave them scrambling and give them less control. It would be like a sudden ending to a real race, whereas they prefer the game of poker, where there’s always another round where they can sharpen their bluffs and backroom alliances.

    The sad truth is that Lebanon's "democracy" has been exposed: these elections are for the politicians, not for the people.

    Saturday, June 04, 2005

    Reflections on Assassination of Kassir

    Like many, this crime and its motives have been on my mind over the past two days. So many questions, so few answers.

    In hindsight, Samir Kassir was the Dean of the Opposition because he started to speak out so early into the process of Syrian hegemony over Lebanon. He had the courage to say it, while most of us were afraid to utter a word. Many of us are still writing anonymously because we know that we could be within harms way.

    But perhaps, if there were more voices like Kassir's, perhaps if there were more bloggers and writers out there 10 years ago, perhaps if we were all as courageous as he was, perhaps the Syrians might have left earlier? We can't change the past, but we can learn from it.

    This means that we should be get intimidated but rather continue to speak out the truth under the assumptions of freedom of speech. It is Syria's government that is the anomaly, not the freedom loving Lebanese people.

    Two days prior to his death, Samir Kassir said on a French TV that "some Syrian intelligence still existed in Lebanon, but their abilities to harm have been curtailed".

    Could his death be a cowardly response to such comments?

    Friday, June 03, 2005

    Thousands More Kassirs: A Message to the Lebanese and Syrian Governments

    While it will probably be hard to find direct evidence about this hideous crime linking the Lebanese and Syrian government, in reality, they are both responsible. The first one for not preventing it, and the second one for being the source of it.

    What struck me about the coverage of Samir Kassir’s assassination is a report in the L’Orient Le Jour citing a well dressed woman lashing out at Prime Minister Mikati while he condemned the perpetrators as he arrived at the crime scene: “Is that all you can do? What is the purpose of these condemnations? They never stopped honest people from getting killed. You are a shame. What are you doing here? Go hang yourselves, you group of useless people who can’t stop honest people from getting murdered.”

    If I was PM Mikati, that kind of statement would have jolted me. I would have come back to my office and started to shake down the security and intelligence apparatus of the Lebanese government, right away.

    Why do we never find who killed anybody? Why there never seems to be any evidence that springs out or any lead that appears, every time a tragedy hits Lebanon? Why are the assassins and their means always stronger than the police’s ability to investigate them? Why don’t we have highly skilled investigators that have the abilities required to do what is expected of them?

    Of course the Lebanese government is ultimately responsible for these murderous acts. Their job is to prevent them from happening. And if they can’t, they should let other more competent officials take the helm. Where is the government’s program for creating and implementing more security so that Lebanese can live in peace?

    Regarding Syria, if criticism of their government was a major motive for the assassination, then Syria has a long list of journalists all over the world that have been criticizing that regime. Just Google the words “Syria regime” and you get thousands upon thousands of articles criticizing Syria’s regime. They add-up to an order of magnitude the number of editorials or passages that Samir Kassir penned, critiquing the Syrian regime. Does this mean that all these authors are in danger too?

    Syria’s archaic government is the source of murders like this, whether they like it or not, and irregardless of whether they keep denying it. Their regime is the cause. It is archaic and pre-historic in relation to the evolution of governments around the world. By its proximity, Lebanon is the first recipient of the Syrian virus. For all the good things Syria claims to have done for Lebanon, there are thousand other bad things that overwhelm the previous list.

    The February 14th Hariri assassination emboldened politicians and the people of Lebanon that lashed out against Syria instead of being intimidated. It created hundreds of thousands of Hariri’s. Similarly, the assassination of Samir Kassir will unleash a tsunami of more articles and editorials and renewed calls against the Syrian regime. It will create thousands more Kassir’s. If February 14th was the catalyst for the Syrian government’s departure from Lebanon, June 2nd might be the catalyst for their departure from Syria.

    Wednesday, June 01, 2005

    How Absurd Can Lebanese Politicians Be?

    Here’s a typical example. Foreign Minister Hammoud (a remnant from the previous pro-Syrian Karame government) is complaining about “foreign interference” from Brussels where he is meeting with EU officials.

    He called for a halt to the foreign interference in the internal affairs of any country under the pretext of promoting democracy, adding that he favored "the exchange of advice."

    Minister Hammoud was over-reacting to reports in the Lebanese press (which were later categorically denied by the U.S. Embassy) that U.S. Ambassador Feltman had entered a polling station in Beirut (whereas in reality he waited outside,while Senator Biden made a visit, as an inspector).

    How absurd of a statement could that be? Especially that in the meantime, it has been reported that 3 Syrian intelligence officials were in the North to help candidates win pro-Syrian seats. So, in Hammoud’s logic, it’s OK for Syria to continue to interfere, but it’s not OK for the U.S. to “promote” democracy. The linkage to Ambassador Feltman alleged visit to a polling station was just a pretext to attack the U.S. again.

    And what is wrong in promoting democracy? Is our democracy so perfect that Hammoud is advocating that we don’t need lessons in democracy in Lebanon? Hammoud’s comments are so typical of Lebanese politicians. By these types of statements and actions, they are showing that they are no different in their mentality than the Mubarak’s, Assad’s and other Arab dictators. The only difference is they were disguised under the name of Lebanese democracy.

    I hope that these types of Lebanese politicians have no more influence in the affairs of the country.