Meet the Lebanese Press: Guess games and plotters

Pro-government politician Walid Jumblatt attends the Beirut funeral of MP Antoine Ghanem, assassinated in a car bombing, 22 September 2007. (Matthew Cassel)

Electronic Lebanon is pleased to introduce Meet the Lebanese Press, a twice-monthly review of what is making the rounds in the Lebanese press and the pundits’ take on it.

The roller coaster of speculations in the Lebanese press about the outcome of shuttle diplomacy among Lebanese politicians and world leaders over the presidential file reached a significant low last week only to climb back into a new high over the weekend.

Following the visits of top officials in the governing coalition of March 14, namely Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblatt, to Washington (which has replaced Damascus as the “fortune-teller” of the country’s political future) hopes of a compromise were dashed. The visitors reiterated their uncompromising demands for the next president to hail from the March 14 movement. But those hopes were slightly revived following the initiative by the Christian Maronites’ top priest, Patriarch Sfeir. Sfeir summoned the Christian notables of March 14 and the opposition, in separate meetings, to get them to agree on a single candidate to avert a further undermining of Maronite power in Lebanon traditionally represented in the seat of the presidency. This adds a further dimension to the already complicated power game by international and regional players. The March 14 Christians are in an unenviable position. Electing a president with a simple majority is in line with their alliance with the US and the Hariri camp. But it sets a historic precedent that wipes out whatever prestige and credibility that position holds. This is why pressure by the West to derail a compromise has to be strong enough to overcome this dilemma. As Jihad El-Zein argues in Al-Nahar, the Christians torn between two visions of Lebanon may have a pivotal role to play as a broker of a settlement, but as the articles of Talal Salman in As-Safir and Ibrahim El Ameen in Al-Akhbar suggest, that role can only make or break the push for a compromise if the Christians set their ambitions and escalating measures like arming aside, and external players decide that the region is too volatile and it is better to sideline Lebanon at this stage and settle scores in a different place and a different time.

News about the presidential crisis took a back seat for one day when reports surfaced of an exchange between Hizballah and Israel. The former handed over to the latter the body of a drowned Israeli civilian that the Mediterranean current had cast onto the Lebanese shore in return for handing over the bodies of two Hizballah fighters and a Lebanese man captured during the 2006 summer war.
While little was said about the exchange, even less attention was paid to a series of explosive articles in Al-Akhbar about the proceedings of an investigation by the Lebanese intelligence into the alleged role of 13 people in the assassination of Rafiq Hariri. The “confessions” of the suspects, who say where extracted under torture, paint a confusing but chilling picture of the possible links between radical Islamic groups engaged in the Iraqi resistance or al-Qaida operations in Iraq and the plot to kill Hariri. The confessions suggest several possible scenarios of what happened. One is that of a genuine plot by Salafi groups to kill Hariri deemed by them as a persecutor of such groups in Lebanon and an ally of the anti-al-Qaida Saudi regime. Another is that of a sophisticated scheme by Syrian authorities to plant false leads and at the same time use these groups operating in its territory to get rid of Hariri. Still another is of an attempt by Hariri groups in Lebanon, possibly in collaboration with US and Saudi authorities, to bury these leads and exclude them from the international investigation so that they can continue to use the killing as a political weapon against Damascus. Whatever the case may be, author of the series Fidai Itani wonders why members of the Group of 13 (as they are called) are still languishing in a jail in Beirut and not being tried.

As-Safir, 15 October 2007, Talal Salman:

The current crisis is too big to be resolved by individuals or a group of individuals in Lebanon. For this crisis is criss-crossed by all the developments and transformations of the region in light of declared or undeclared wars that erupted in the wake of the US occupation of Iraq … and if we factor in the attempts to erase the historical and geographical realities of Palestine under Israeli occupation, with full and declared backing of the American administration, we expose further dimensions of the internal crisis that is too dangerous to be summed up in the choice of the lucky one to become the president of this republic that is safeguarded by an equilibrium and shaken by its absence among the external and just internal political powers.

Al-Akhbar, 12 October 2007, Ibrahim El- Ameen, “The signs of confrontation are overshadowing signs of compromise”:

It appears that signs of a presidential consensus have experienced a major setback. The statements made by MP Saad Hariri in the United States does not point to the same degree of readiness [to compromise] that he exhibited prior to his traveling and meeting with high ranking American officials. The problem is not in the calculations of the Bush administration, but in the apparent conviction in the minds of leaders and activists of the Lebanese governing coalition that … the Americans do not interfere in Lebanese affairs and that Syria is the party opposing a quick settlement designed to avert the worst. Well-connected sources point out that internal obstacles are not easy to overcome anymore. They point out to news of [certain groups] arming themselves as part of what is being described as “psychological and practical preparations for a confrontation if an agreement is not reached.

Sources also warn of the unprecedented climate of agitation among the youth segments loyal to the feuding political parties, and argue that reports of the troubles that take place in small neighborhoods and what is said in religious centers or party offices or even family gatherings bode ill, and if there is no major political transformation, the bases will be ready to explode and it is difficult to speak of the Lebanese learning from past experiences.

An-Nahar, 11 October 2007, Jihad El-Zein:

The [Christian] Maronites summoned by the Patriarch [Sfeir] belong to two opposing camps … The Christians of March 14 reason that the Maronites have always been allies of the West, France, throughout history and up until today and Britain and the US in contemporary times. And they reason that the Maronites have always maintained political and religious ties to the Vatican, itself an indivisible part of the West. Therefore, who would the Maronites align themselves with if not with the West? This is their natural position historically and politically and this should be the more so given that their enemy Syria marginalized them during the latter’s administration of Lebanon for a long period of time.

In the other camp, Michael Aoun and his Christians say Lebanon and the region are not what they used to be. The West has handed over “power” in Lebanon to the group that controls the Sunnis and that which controls the Druze. As such, the old equation stating the “obvious” tie of the Maronites to the West does not hold anymore. This line of reasoning by the Free Patriotic Movement argues that the danger facing the Christians in Greater Syria comes from Sunni fundamentalism, and so there is no reason to antagonize the Syrian regime after it was expelled from Lebanon. Perhaps there is a role for the Lebanese Christians that can amend the current unfolding of events particularly during the period of presidential “elections.”

Al-Akhbar 20 October 2007, Fidai Itani, “Confessions of a Salafi Group”:

The most prominent element in the investigation is perhaps the testimony of Faysal Akbar [one of the suspects], who narrates how Ahmed Abu Adas carried out the assassination, then retracts his testimony. And in both versions, Akbar offers the names of the assassins (Abu Adas in the first version and Abu-Mukatel the Saudi in the second.) But the investigator then moves away from these two contradictory stories. And after all that the group had confessed to, and after confirming that its members are part of the Iraqi resistance, an investigative order is issued to look into “the suspected crime of planning to carry out terrorist acts and belonging to a terrorist group.” And the investigation falls into a big contradiction as it paints the group as an extremist gang whose members are unemployed and who possess low cognitive skills while facts attest to their excellent scientific knowledge, their mixing with different intellectual environments, and the marriage of one of them to a Shi’ite woman, as well as the group’s clandestine pursuit to own a hospital in Syria to tend to the injured coming from Iraq. So which parts of the detainees’ confessions are we expected to believe, the killing of Rafiq Hariri or supporting the Iraqi resistance?

The question that the judicial and political authorities who intervened in the investigation must answer is: If those [suspects] belong to al-Qaida, why delay their prosecution for over a year? And if they were involved in carrying out the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, why have they not been sent to stand trail before the international tribunal, and if they were not involved, what is the source of their confessions?

Hicham Safieddine is a Lebanese Canadian journalist.

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