No salvation without real reform
By Ghaleb Kandil
Those who refuse any democratic reform of the Lebanese political system polemicize about the relevance of the organization of a constituent congress. They join, so, advocates of the formula implemented after the Taif Agreement, which has been grafted a host of ’fait accompli’ imposed by Hariri’s era, as well as those who support the current formula, which encourages foreign interference in Lebanese internal affairs.
Yet the idea of the referendum and the election of the president by universal suffrage is a practical proposal that could break the polarization in the Parliament, whose delicate balances lead to two scenarios: the first is an agreement on the election of a centrist president, who sees the emergence, most often, a president who gives priority to its ties with the West and the Arab Gulf states on the best interests of the nation. This type of president is, therefore, sentenced to manage the crisis, delaying radical solutions to the political, economic and social problems Lebanon is facing. The second scenario is to wait regional and international compromises that allow the election of a ’consensual’ president, as was the case after the wars of 1958 and 1975 and after the Taif Agreement.
Relying on the popular will is the most vivid expression of democracy and the election by the people of the President of the Republic would be followed by a strengthening of the powers of head of state and a rebalancing of the executive.
The formation of the Higher Commission for the abolition of confessionalism, stipulated by the Constitution, and the application of proportional representation in the electoral law, are two reforms blocked by the paralysis of Parliament, due to the balance of power within it.
In addition, reforms ending the dictatorship of hard capitalism and erasing the legacy of haririsme is a need whose urgency appeared with the debates that accompanied the debate on the salary raise in the public sector.
Since the Taif agreement, the voices calling for a new social contract demand to stop the process of destruction of the middle class. But no practical step has been taken in this direction.
The organization of a constituent congress is the only way to implement economic, social, constitutional and political, radical reforms, necessary to ensure lasting stability in the country. Such reforms would strengthen Lebanon’s position in regional and international equations, taking as a basis the best interests of the nation. They would finally confirm the choice of the resistance in Lebanon, challenged by U.S., Western and Gulf states pressure.
NAWAF MOUSSAWI, Hezbollah MP
«It is natural that any presidential candidate would be in accord with the resistance, without which the [Lebanese] land and people would not have been liberated. Any presidential candidate must include in his political platform a plan to free what remains of occupied Lebanese territory, to preserve the country’s natural resources, and to defend Lebanon against aggression and Israeli threats.»
ASSEM ARAJI, Future bloc MP
«Vacuum in the presidency of the republic will take place and for a few months. March 8 coalition, especially Hezbollah, is disrupting the election of a new head of state by falsely putting Michel Aoun in the forefront as a potential candidate in order to reach the election of a consensus president who does not represent anyone. The Future Movement is still adamant about the candidacy of Samir Geagea, until this decision is unanimously changed within March 14 and another leader from the alliance is nominated, whether it were Amin Gemayel or MP Boutros Harb.»
• Sidon’s Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp witnessed an armed deployment of Islamists on Saturday following rumors of the death of a man from the camp. Radical Islamist masked men loyal to the Abdullah Azzam Brigades deployed between the Al-Fawkani Street and the Vegetables Markets, until Jabal al-Halib. Tension gripped the camp after Alaa al-Hojeiri was rumored to have died, after he had been injured during an attempted murder two days earlier.
• The Judicial Council charged eight suspects with belonging to the terror jihadist group Fatah al-Islam on Friday. The Islamists were identified as Shaker Youssef Hassan al-Absi, Othman Mohammad Ibrahim, Walid Hassan al-Bustani, Mahmoud Ibrahim Menghani, Mohammad Saleh Zouawi, Younes Khaled Shebli, Nouri Nasr al-Mahmoud al-Hajji, and K.Kh, who is a minor. Absi, Menghani, Zouawi, Shebli and Bustani were charged with heading terrorist Fatah al-Islam networks and cells. Absi was also charged with calling for Jihad, “backing Sunni control over Tripoli,” and declaring the city an Islamic emirate. Absi, the leader of the Fatah al-Islam extremist group that battled the Lebanese army in Nahr al-Bared in 2007, has believed to be dead since 2008. His organization said that Syrian security forces killed him late 2008, however no confirmation of his killing exists.
• The health of a detained prominent member of the Al-Qaeda-linked Abdullah Azzam Brigades is deteriorating and is reported to be suffering from a dangerous and contagious virus. After Jamal Daftardar was arrested and taken to Kamed al-Lawz military hospital for treatment, he began to show the signs of the virus which he caught while fighting in Syria before coming to Lebanon, according to a judicial source.The source added that Daftardar’s deteriorating health led to placing him in quarantine and bringing in his mother. Early in April, charges were pressed against Daftadar for his alleged involvement in crimes perpetrated by another Abdullah Azzam Brigades member, Naim Abbas. Daftardar was apprehended in a raid on the Western Beqaa town of Kamed al-Lawz in mid-January.
• A convoy comprised of ten cars and a bus drove through the Metn area of Dbayeh north of Beirut carrying Syrian flags and pictures of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian government has been gearing up for the upcoming presidential election scheduled for June 3 that is expected to see the incumbent Assad win yet another term.
AL JOUMHOURIA (LEBANESE DAILY CLOSE TO MARCH-14 COALITION)
(MAY 10, 2014)
During a meeting with Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil, Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai voiced his hope that the Change and Reform bloc would attend the upcoming parliamentary session to elect a new president.
"The patriarch believes in the necessity of providing a quorum for the presidential election session, and this what he said to Bassil," spokesperson of the Maronite Patriarchate, Walid Ghayyad, told Al-Joumhouria. "The patriarch told Bassil that electing a president before May 25 requires the attendance of all MPs at the sessions, especially the Christian MPs. He also asked Bassil to convey his wishes to [Change and Reform bloc leader MP Michel] Aoun," Ghayyad added.
AL AKHBAR (LEBANESE DAILY CLOSE TO THE LEBANESE RESISTANCE)
HIYAM KOSSAYFI (MAY 9, 2014)
Though the Lebanese are anticipating May 25, the constitutional deadline for electing a new president, regional and international powers aren’t concerned with this date. They are only interested in maintaining security and stability in the country.
Despite the intensive political mobilization to hold the presidential elections before May 25, political forces are now aware that a presidential vacuum is on the horizon. In fact, current efforts are nothing but mere formalities aiming to save face at a time when regional and international positions insist on linking the Lebanese presidency to the events in the region.
Interestingly, rhetoric warning of a vacuum in the executive branch has escalated in the past few days amid a sudden Christian enthusiasm to hold the elections on time. However, no change has occurred involving events that have been taking place on Christian, Lebanese and regional levels for months, and eventually the president is going to leave the Baabda Palace without a successor.
In fact, the insistence of all political forces to join the current government - though it was only expected to last until the elections of a new president - is a sign that the country is heading toward a power vacuum.
General Michel Aoun has been aware for a month that he isn’t going to be the future president. No matter how hard the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) negotiators try to open a new page with the Future Movement, under the auspices of the church or regional powers, Future officials may never forget the FPM’s rhetoric against them.
Aoun should have launched an initiative to bring Christians together in order to save the presidency, rather than opening channels with the Future Movement, and hearing from former Prime Minister Saad Hariri that he has to reach an agreement with his fellow Christians.
Lebanese Forces leader, Samir Geagea, also knows that he isn’t going to be elected president, even if he receives the votes of all March 14 MPs. In fact, a large group still opposes Geagea’s presence on the political scene, so what should be said about his candidacy as president?
For his part, President Michel Suleiman has ruled out the idea of extending his mandate after burning all bridges with Hezbollah and other parties. Also, deep inside, the president knows that despite all the praise he is receiving from March 14, they haven’t forgiven him yet for postponing parliamentary consultations in 2011, which eventually led to designating Najib Mikati as prime minister.
Maronite Patriarch Beshara Boutros al-Rai knows that the patriarchate lost its role following its support for the Orthodox electoral law, as well as committing a series of other mistakes, including its failure to produce an electoral law and not holding the legislative elections on schedule.
Maronites have been aware for months that electing a new president is no longer up to them, it isn’t even up to Lebanon, because there hasn’t been a regional green light yet. In fact, everything we have witnessed until this day signals a vacuum as regional and international efforts are not constrained by the May 25 deadline.
Recent developments, as well as meetings held in Beirut and in foreign capitals, reveal that a presidential vacuum is today more of a regional necessity rather than an expression of a Lebanese failure to elect a new president. More time is needed to reach a regional settlement that would put matters into perspective in the countries where Sunnis and Shias intersect, namely in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
Since President Barack Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia, the United States has been seeking to create a regional balance between Iran and Saudi, giving each influence in the region in the meantime, before designating their shares.
Since the 5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran, the United States has refrained from any sharp intervention in the Sunni-Shia struggle, which would explain the nuclear agreement with Iran and the chemical one with Syria.
This settlement plan can also explain the repositioning of the Syrian army, alongside Hezbollah, on one hand and the opposition forces on the other in well-defined geographically strategic regions.
In the past few days, opposition forces pulled out of Homs and the government retook control of the city, which further promotes the scenario discussed a few months ago that gave vital geographic regions to the Syrian regime.
The unfolding events in Homs are part of a well-planned and thoroughly executed regional blueprint. Meanwhile, a status quo is being created in opposition regions that can be used by regional powers to pressure the regime. Although political decisions are being taken smoothly, violence is the only means possible to implement such decisions on the ground.
In the meantime, Syrians will head to the polls to elect their new president, while Iraqis await the results of the legislative elections to find out whether they are going to have a new prime minister or if Nouri al-Maliki will keep his post.
In Lebanon, it is all about maintaining security, even by force. This is reflected by the decrease of violence and the many arrests.
Also, no political party has been informed about the name of a candidate that represents a compromise of regional and international positions. Most officials have been actually told to maintain stability as much as possible before reaching a presidential vacuum, which is deemed crucial to sort out the players in light of the the new rules of the game. Only then, will parties be compelled to consider new equations and options.
March 14 recently started suggesting the idea of a consensus candidate, knowing that its suggestion will remain local because it still lacks a regional cover.
AL AKHBAR (MAY 9, 2014)
All of a sudden, frontline commanders in Tripoli began to fall. One by one, they surrendered to the army intelligence. The deal, conducted in stages, was announced in a theatrical manner. But will they be released soon and will the blood of their victims have been shed in vain?
Security forces reached a compromise with frontline commanders in Bab al-Tabbaneh, where they would surrender voluntarily, in return for a short stay in prison. The deal got underway with the commander of al-Baddawi neighborhood, Omar Ibrahim aka Amer Arish, turning himself in to the army intelligence three weeks ago.
Ibrahim is suspected of having been involved in two major cases, the attack on Minister Faisal Karami’s convoy and the formation of an armed terrorist gang. This is in addition to being an accomplice to several incidents of kidnapping, extortion, and setting fuel tanks on fire on their way to and from Syria.
However, his interrogation has almost come to an end. Ibrahim was quickly transferred to al-Qubbah prison, under orders from a senior officer. At the same time, Minister Karami dropped his personal charges against him and is working on closing the case permanently. Information also suggested that the accusations of terrorism and forming an armed gang against the Baddawi commander will be put under wraps in preparation for his release soon.
The rest of the commanders followed suit under the guarantees of the deal. According to information obtained by Al-Akhbar. Saad al-Masri, Ziad al-Saleh (aka Ziad Allouka), Khaled al-Qawwas, Omar al-Mheish, Hassan Srour, and Ali Sharkas turned themselves in on May 7. They were followed by the son of Baal al-Darawish a neighborhood commander, Mohammed al-Hilweh, aka Abu Daas, and a third suspect called Ahmed al-Abboud, who also surrendered to military intelligence.
According to the sources, "they are all in the pocket," meaning they are under control. The only thing that sets them apart is the magnitude of their involvement and their actions in the incidents witnessed by Tripoli recently.
However, there is an even more dangerous group, according to security sources. They are led by Osama Mansour, aka Abu Omar, and and the group includes Mahmoud al-Nuhaili (Abu Jamal), Mahmoud al-Hallaq, Khaled al-Rai, and Shadi al-Mawlawi, who are still at large.
The sources maintain that the deal was set in advance, especially since the subpoenas did not include Future Movement official and retired colonel, Amid Hammoud. He was not even summoned for questioning about some of the security incidents in which his name was mentioned. Following the explosion of the arms warehouse in Abu Samra in February 2012, rumors went around that Hammoud was involved in the incident.
In this regard, sources claim that several of those detained at the Information Branch of the Internal Security Forces (ISF) replied to the question about the source of the money and arms which they had received. "The money is from [Justice Minister] Rifi and the weapons from Amid Hammoud," they indicated. The same information was given by another commander, Hatem Janzarli, who was detained by the army at an earlier date. In his testimony, he said he had received money from Rifi, in addition to Sheikh Salem al-Rafai.
On the other hand, the sources described a meeting held at Minister Rifi’s home, attended by one of the most prominent suspects, Faisal al-Aswad, in addition to Tripoli municipality member Khaled Soboh, Sheikh Kamal al-Bustani, and others. The meeting discussed the fate of the suspects and Rifi replied, "they are our sons and we will not leave them no matter what happens."
Thus, Tripoli is turning the page on the frontline commanders, albeit temporarily. However, the decision to put an end to this show was and still remains in the hands of the security forces. They are using the suspects as a card that can be used at any time. On the other hand, it is as if they are telling them: "Congratulations on your efforts. You can stop now. But keep your fingers on the trigger in case we need you."
The news came as a positive shock to Tripoli. It was shared by the city’s residents, who felt relieved, and the remaining suspects, who are still on the loose. The surrender of the major commanders meant that those who are left are less significant and could either turn themselves in or remain fugitives.
"Turning the page on the clashes and fugitives in Tripoli in this manner only needed a political decision," political sources told Al-Akhbar. "Had this decision been taken from the start, it would have saved the city the tragedies and human and material losses incurred during over five years. This proves that the slogans previously raised to maintain the tense security situation in the city were empty words.”
An Islamist source commented on the issue by saying, "these commanders are merely a bridge to be crossed to start arresting Islamist suspects, who are known by name and are wanted dead or alive."
In the meantime, intelligence agents arrested Ali Mostafa Ramadan (aka al-Range), a frontline commander in Jabal Mohsen. The government’s commissioner at the military court, Judge Sakr Sakr, charged 10 people from Bab al-Tabbaneh, including five detainees who were involved in recent incidents in Tripoli. He referred them to First Military Investigative Judge Riad Abu Ghaida.
AL AKHBAR (MAY 5, 2014)
Israel does not recognize Jerusalem as being Palestinian. According to the Zionists, this land is their capital and they want their counterparts to thank them for allowing them to live on its eastern outskirts. Visiting the occupied lands is only possible by complying with the occupation authorities, who are in charge of letting people in or keeping them out. No matter by whom, such visits could be used to promote normalization in any case, especially if the visitor is an Arab. So how about if the visitor was the head of the Church of Antioch and All the East?
The late Coptic Pope Shenouda III refused to travel through Israel to visit the Holy Land, so he prohibited all Copts from visiting Jerusalem, as long as it remains under occupation. This was also the position of every Lebanese patriarch since 1948, although they appointed bishops at the head of the [Jerusalem] Diocese.
This month, however, Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rai will break the taboo, under the pretext of accompanying Pope Francis in is his tour of the region. But Lebanese public opinion is split between those who defend Rai’s patriotism and those who oppose the visit because it violates the Lebanese constitution. Rai is a Lebanese citizen, regardless of having become a religious figure.
However, the majority of political parties are still hesitant to give their position, including Hezbollah. Sources from [the seat of the Maronite patriarch in] Bkirki told Al-Akhbar that there had been "indirect correspondences" between the two sides. "[Hezbollah] expressed wishes that the Patriarch would not visit the Holy Land," the sources said.
"[Hezbollah] does not want to raise media controversy over the issue, because they are not interested in creating a dispute with Rai." But their message "has reached the Vatican." In conclusion, the sources replied that Vatican will ask Rai to only accompany the Pope to Jordan, "to safeguard Lebanon’s special situation."
However, sources close to Hezbollah categorically denied that the party had sent a message to Rai, "neither directly nor indirectly. And if such a message reached Rai through a friend, the party had nothing to do with it and knew nothing about it." The sources also maintained that Hezbollah has not yet decided how to treat the issue in the media.
Officially, the visit is still scheduled to happen. The Christian Gathering (a gathering of Lebanese bishops and Christian politicians) is expected to announce its opposition. It will hold an emergency meeting to issue a statement, "expressing the opinion of the Christians of Lebanon and the Levant regarding the timing and connotations of the visit, at a time when peace negotiations are stalling," according to a member in the Christian Gathering.
The source indicated that the position will be founded on that of previous patriarchs who refused to pass through the occupation authorities. However, the source refused to accuse the patriarch of anything. "He just wants to play a pivotal role, which goes beyond the Lebanese borders. But this does not justify the visit [to Israel]."
According to the same source, Rai should not be compared to Arab countries or "heads of sects" who have "a quasi-relationship" with the occupier. Nor should the visit "be justified by the presence of a Maronite diocese in Jerusalem. No one spoke of Bishop Paul Sayyah. Taking care of the congregation used to happen without media fanfare, contrary to Rai’s visit."
Maronite bishops, on the other hand, believe that the visit will be pastoral and not political. "But this is not an excuse," the source continued. "What would it mean for Christians if their patriarch visited a land considered by Israel to be its capital? The benefits from the visit are nill." However, this is "not an accusation of treason."
It is still difficult to find a Christian politician who clearly rejects the visit. Most March 14 politicians defended Rai’s prospective visit to Jerusalem. The other side is silent, except for the former head of the Phalange, Karim Pakradouni, who wishes that Rai would reconsider his visit, "since he will be extremely embarrassed during the visit."
Pakradouni said the step was more of an adventure and not a mere visit. He expected that Rai might change his mind when he returns to Lebanon. "It will not help the Christians there and there are many risks," he explained. "It could turn into another May 17 [agreement between Lebanon and Israel under the Amin Gemayel government in 1983 that was later abrogated]. We have enough problems and we don’t need this."
On the other hand, former deputy speaker of parliament, Elie Ferzli, defended the visit in his own way. He said he is currently "waiting." He delved into history and concluded that the issue should not be "from the perspective a Lebanese patriarch visiting the Holy Land. Israel is behind the campaign against the Christian presence there and experiences starting in 1948 are proof of its intentions."
According to Ferzli, the Israelis want to achieve three goals out of the visit. First, "harming Christians and saying that the Muslims are to blame, thus reviving Islamophobia." The second goal is "emptying the region, which witnessed the birth of Christ, to become a place without a soul." The third goal would be to "destroy the Levantine Church, allowing Israel to propose the equation of Mecca for the Muslims, the Vatican for the Christians, and Jerusalem for the Jews." This forced the Vatican to ask for a "Levantine cover, which is the Lebanese Maronite Church." Still according to Ferzli, the Vatican did not decide to plan the visit without an objective, "it is working on a long-term strategy. The issue cannot be put in a narrow framework."
AL MUSTAQBAL (LEBANESE DAILY OWNED BY HARIRI FAMILY, 11 MAY 2014)
Kataeb Party leader Amin Gemayel described the series of visits he made to the leaders of opposing political parties as being “necessary,” and said that it led to positive results. “One of the tour’s advantages was that it made it possible for me to hold a national, affective meeting with [Change and Reform bloc leader MP Michel Aoun] to find points in common,” Gemayel told Al-Mustaqbal on Sunday.
However, he noted that his meeting with Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt did not result in the latter changing his stance regarding the presidential election.
“We cannot expect that one meeting with Jumblatt would [make him] reconsider his position, and it is normal that he holds on to his candidate, MP Henri Helou.”
Gemayel went on to reiterate that this series of meetings with the country’s top leaders was not aimed at nominating him as a presidential candidate.
ASH SHARQ AL-AWSAT (SAUDI DAILY, MAY 11, 2014)
Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea said that a vacant presidential seat would be better than giving up the country to Hezbollah.
"Hezbollah is trying to give us two choices. Either we give the country to a president of [Hezbollah’s] choice or there will be a power vacuum," Geagea told As-Sharq al-Awsat. "A power vacuum would be better than giving up the country to Hezbollah," he added.
Geagea reiterated that he was willing to pull out of the presidential race if the opposition, the March 8 coalition, agreed to elect another president who belonged to the March 14 coalition who shared hisplatform and ideas.
AFP (FRANCE-PRESS AGENCY, 11 MAY, 2014)
Campaigning began Sunday for Syria’s June 3 presidential election expected to return Bashar al-Assad to power, as the regime marked a symbolic victory with the exit of rebels from Homs.
In Damascus, campaign posters lauding Assad hung on shopping streets and in public gardens, in the run-up to the country’s first multi-candidate presidential vote.
The election is being staged despite a raging civil war, with dozens of people dying across the country every day.
Assad, who is competing for his third seven-year term, came to office in 2000, after the death of his father and predecessor Hafez al-Assad, who had been in power since 1970.
He faces two competitors, both largely unknown, who qualified from a pool of 23 who sought to run against Assad.
Maher Abdel Hafiz Hajjar is an independent MP and former communist party member from the country’s second city Aleppo, and Hassan Abdullah al-Nouri is a Damascus businessman who was a member of the internal opposition tolerated by Assad’s government.
In the capital, a few posters for Nouri’s campaign could be seen, calling for a "battle against corruption" as well as a "free economy" and the "return of the middle class."
His campaign reels have also aired on state television.
But Assad’s campaign posters dominate the landscape, with dozens showing the Syrian flag overlaid with the word "together" and his signature.
In a public garden near the commercial center of Salhieh, photos of the president hung alongside pictures of Lebanon’s Hezbollah chief and Assad ally Hassan Nasrallah, and Hafez al-Assad.
In the Sabaa Bahrat neighborhood, one billboard hung "by citizens of Syria" proclaims: "We won’t close our eyes until we have said yes to the ophthalmologist," a reference to Assad, an eye specialist by training. "We vote for you, 2014," it adds.
Elsewhere, posters read "Our Bashar, we will not accept a president other than you. We have chosen you, you have our loyalty."
Outside the capital, posters declaring "with our blood, we elect Bashar al-Assad" are hung at the country’s border with Syria, and his campaign billboards line the highway leading to Damascus.
Assad’s campaign has also began online, under the slogan "Together," with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram accounts all set up to promote his run.
The Facebook account had garnered 65,000 likes by Sunday morning, and the Twitter account nearly 1,000 followers.
The campaigning begins just days after Assad’s government claimed a symbolic victory in the central city of Homs, where it retook the Old City after a deal granting rebels there safe passage out.
Under the deal, the last of around 2,000 fighters and civilians left the Old City on Friday, and the government moved back in.
Just one neighborhood of the central city now remains under opposition control.
Over the weekend, the army swept the evacuated area for explosives and began clearing streets filled with rubble from homes and other buildings destroyed in the fighting.
Residents, some of whom had not seen their neighborhoods for nearly two years, began to stream back in, many finding their homes destroyed.
On Sunday, state news agency SANA said crews were removing earth embankments in parts of the Old City and residents were continuing to return, albeit temporarily, to inspect the damage and retrieve belongings.
At the Church of the Belt of the Virgin, in the Old City of Homs, the faithful gathered for a mass and prayers of thanks for "the return of security in Homs," state television said.
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