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Lebanon

Talk of civil strife and government collapse has become rife as the intense pressure over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon continues to build. Paul Salem the Director of Carnegie recently wrote that, “The tensions over the special tribunal for Lebanon are threatening to push Lebanon to collapse.” You can be forgiven for thinking how did we get here again? What the hell are these “false witnesses”?! I thought Syria did it? Have they still not found the assassins? The STL has had a long and convoluted journey and you can be forgiven for forgetting all the different aspects. So here are 10 things you need to know about the STL:

1. Syria is pretty much now in the clear over the assassination of Rafiq Hariri. The STL is not likely to indict members of the Assad clique. Saad Hariri recently told the media that Syria did NOT assassinate Hariri Snr. and that previous accusations against Syria were “political”.

2. Instead the STL is expected to indict Hezbollah members for the assassination of Rafiq Hariri in 2005. Not surprisingly Hezbollah are pissed at this possible indictment.

3. Hezbollah meanwhile are pointing the finger at Israel and claiming that the STL itself is part of a Israeli-US project.

4. Central to the STL controversy is the issue of false witnesses. The UN led investigations took evidence from two self proclaimed Syrian intelligence officers Husam Taher Husam and Muhammed Zuhair Siddiq. It was from evidence from these two “intelligence officers” that the UN International Independent Investigation Commission (IIIC) – the predecessor to the STL – arrested the four Generals. Gary Gambill best explains this complex drama: here. Syria has just issued 33 arrest warrants in absentia in the false witnesses case. This list includes Detlev Mehlis, former head of the U.N. commission investigating Hariri’s murder, and his aide Gerhard Lehmann….and round…and round….and round we go. The investigator becomes the investigated. One does wonder if this is a form of job creation. Any bets for an investigation of the accusations against the investigators being investigated?

5. The arrested four Generals went on to spend four years in jail without any charges being brought against them. Even the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in March 2008 called the four generals’ detention without charge “arbitrary” and “unjust.” Beautiful example of the UN’s inability to connect the dots…The generals were released from jail in April 2009. For more information on the Generals see here.

6. General Sayyed one of the released generals has caused a particular storm since his release. Apart from calling for the toppling of the Hariri government the General caused a great uproar in Lebanon when he was received at the airport by armed Hezbollah “bodyguards”.

7.Tensions are particularly high over the funding of the STL. Fifty-one percent of the tribunal is funded by voluntary contributions, while 49 percent is funded by Lebanon. Hezbollah unsurprisingly does not want the Lebanese government to continue to fund the tribunal. Thus far the Lebanese government has made four payments to the tribunal with cabinet debating whether to approve funding for 2011.

8. How did this begin again? The UN International Independent Investigation Commission (IIIC) was established to assist Lebanese authorities in their investigation of all aspects the terrorist bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in Beirut 14 February. This was part of UN Resolution 1559 (2005). In 2006 the tribunal was expanded to cover the eleven other assassinations and attempted assassinations since the Hariri assassination.

9. It was Resolution 1664 (2006) that established the Special Tribunal for Lebanon that began operations on 1 March 2009.

10. The STL has got Lebanon, the region and the international community (i.e. the US and Europe) in a bit of a fix. It is going to take a lot of creative thinking and even more painful contortions to get out of this current fix. Stay tuned.

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I have been very happy of late to see that Lebanese civil society is mobilising to save Lebanon’s built environment. While it is a little late (according to the Lebanese Culture Minister of the 1,200 old mansions and buildings inventoried in 1995 a mere 400 survive) there is an increasing awareness of the importance of architecture to Lebanese identity. Even the government has decided to step in on the act creating a hotline for people to call in and report historic buildings due for demolition. There has at last been an active response to the realisation that Beirut (in particular) has basically sold its historical urban fabric to  greedy urbacidal developers who subsequently destroy anything on their new plot of land and erect a 20/30/50 (depending on what they can get away with) tower. Hopefully the debate over Beirut’s – and Lebanon’s – built environment will increase before it is all squandered.

One added aspect that always frustrates me among civil society activists on this issue is that those buildings considered worth saving are always restricted to those of the Ottoman era. I have written extensively on Beirut’s rich built environment and the city has made an extensive, indigenous and important contribution to the Modern Movement. This is also rapidly being destroyed and I hope civil society activists will also expand their calls to preserve these buildings as well.

Here is an article I wrote for the Guardian a while back on the battle for Beirut’s buildings:

The built environment of Beirut is rapidly changing, and this transformation is destroying much of the city’s rich architectural fabric. Surrounded by the new towering Beirut is the unique and heavily scarred structure of the Egg.

Built by the Lebanese architect Joseph-Philippe Karam in 1965, and dubbed “the Egg” due to its curved form, it is the only surviving building in the downtown area from Lebanon’s vibrant avant-garde movement. Much of the rest of this heritage was destroyed during the civil war (1975-1990), a legacy marked on the outer skin of the Egg.

The Egg, after surviving the war, may not survive the recovery. Beirut’s booming real estate market is resulting in the removal of Beirut’s unique built heritage to make way for the ubiquitous skyscraper. The threat of the Egg being destroyed sparked a wave of emotion among many Lebanese increasingly distressed at the continued demolition of their architectural heritage. There has been substantial online activism andmedia attention to stop Abu Dhabi Investment House, the owners of the site, destroying the Egg. The activists are also vexed by the fact that it is a company from the Gulf that will decide whether the structure will be removed or not. Comments such as “Our identity and culture as Lebanese is not for sale for Gulf millionaires,” capture the frustration.

The Egg is at the centre of a battle over the future of Beirut and the type of city it should become. Beirut has a wonderful and prolific architectural heritage, as does Lebanon as a whole. Although the city has been plagued by successive urban planning failures, a quality urban fabric of Ottoman and French colonial-style buildings did establish itself. As an independent Lebanon entered the 1950s a layer of significant modernist buildings was added. This continued into the 1960s and Beirut, by the end of that decade, had a internationally significant and unique body of modernist architecture. This rich heritage, built mainly by Lebanese master builders and architects, is being squandered.

READ ON HERE

My latest piece for http://www.allvoices.com is on Lebanon’s built environment. The destruction of Lebanon’s built heritage is a very disturbing negative aspect of the very good business that is real estate development. Without an effective state the ability to enforce protection measures the continued destruction of Lebanon’s rich built environment will erode away to the chaotic city that is already emerging:

Lebanon has seen remarkable boom in real estate construction over the past two years. Construction sites dominate Beirut and the sound of drilling emanates from all parts of the city. Real estate investment is derived from a large part of the Lebanese economy which has achieved a growth rate of 7 percent in 2009 and looks to continue growing this year. While many have been enjoying the rich dividends from these real estate investments, the unplanned and unrestricted developments are causing many people to lament the state of the built environment in Beirut.

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The parked car that was smashed up by a drink driver the next morning

I admit to drinking and then driving home in Lebanon. It is something I would not even contemplate doing in the UK and shows how stupid and lemming like I can be. And I don’t want to be a hypocrite but far too many people drink drive in this country and drink to levels where they cannot even walk straight and then drive home. For the second time outside my house a car smashed into one of the cars parked alongside the street. I was woken up by the now to familiar screech and bang. The guy could not even walk straight when he got out of the car, he was completely wasted. Matt Nash did a nice article on Lebanese roads in 2008:

The law has been amended but remains flawed. For example, it does not make seatbelt use mandatory, and only in 1995 was driving drunk outlawed, though the amendment concerned does not define “drunk.”

When this guy got out the car completely wasted he was not arrested by the ISF who were promptly on the scene but instead ordered to give his insurance details. This will not be a great suprise to anyone, as Fady Gebrane, president of the traffic-safety-focused NGO Kunhadi told Nash:

“First of all it doesn’t tackle everything,” he said. “For example, drunk driving is not included, which is the second [leading] reason for accidents in Lebanon.”

What is amazing is that there is so little discussion about this issue. Type into google “drink driving lebanon” and little to nothing comes up concerning Lebanon, it is all about drink driving in the US. It is amazing that in a country where around 2/3rds are not even supposed to drink alcohol that there is no outrage at the number of accidents that are caused by drink driving. In the UK drink driving is a mortal offence and a subject that gets a lot of air time. That guy who crashed outside my apartment in Beirut would have been dragged out of his car and marched straight to jail in the UK; not asked for his address and his insurance details like it was an ordinary accident!

This post is a tribute to NIR ROSEN who has written a fabulous article for FP on the US Marine barracks bombing in 1983. He completely hits the many nails of misconception that many political commentators have as to the causes of violence in the Middle East and as to why there is such anger in the region towards the US. As he concludes: “Stop killing Muslims, and there won’t be any Muslims who want to kill you.”

Rosen reconstructs the barrack bombing masterfully and why the US was attacked:

A short history lesson is in order: The 1983 bombing, in which suicide bombers driving explosives-laden trucks killed 241 U.S. military personnel and 58 French servicemen, was in response to an American attack. The United States, at McFarlane’s behest, chose to back one side in Lebanon’s civil war. ... At this point, the United States became just another militia in the Lebanese civil war.

What Rosen is saying is not new or original it is well documented that the US attacked and was then attacked. But why do highly intelligent Americans still think they were completely innocent? Is there a complete lack of self reflection, or ability to admit that the US has and continues to completely screw up?

As the headline reads for Rosen’s piece:

Don’t blame Hezbollah for the Marine barracks bombing. The United States is at fault, for becoming a combatant in Lebanon’s civil wa

While I continue to maintain that the current cabinet crisis is due to the telecommunication ministry, I have not explained the other major factor holding up the formation of a cabinet and explains Sfeir’s intervention: the battle within the Christian community.

A Lebanese friend of mine pointed out the obvious that Sfeir’s intervention was because the March 14 Christians, who Sfier openly supports, are very concerned that they will be given the short end of the deal with March 8 and Aoun in any deal to end the cabinet crisis. The same old issue of Geagea and Gemayel wanting important cabinet positions to represent the fact that they are the strong men of the Christians. Also of course because they feel as part of the winning coalition of March 14 that won the elections they deserve more prominent positions in the cabinet than Aoun. This was articulated when Gemayel was angered by the first cabinet that Hariri proposed, which would have given Kataeb the tourism ministry. This it was believed was not a “significant” ministry. Aoun of course wants the telecommunication ministry for his allies, i.e. Hezbollah, and the interior or justice ministry to show that he is worthy of being the Christian strong man. The FPM claim that they represent half of the Christians (which is more or less right) and have more parliamentary seats to show for it than Kataeb or the Lebanese Forces.

The battle for monopoly of representation among the Christians continues and has no doubt added to the delay. But I think the Christians are disenfranchising themselves rather than prolonging the crisis. If it is in the interests of everyone else to form a cabinet then the Christian leaders would be dragged along kicking and screaming.

Saad Cafe

Political affiliations are very personal in Tripoli and during the June elections throughout my travels in Lebanon the visual battle of dominance was most intense in Tripoli. Images of the big men were everywhere, making the city a peculiar site of thousands of heads staring confidently and reassuringly at you or just above you.

Then yesterday in Tripoli the support for the big man reached a new level….yes you guessed it….the Cafe Saad.

Personally the Rafik Cafe, although maybe a bit macabre, I think would not only have more of a ring to it but love or hate the guy he has achieved/done enough in his life to warrant someone naming a Cafe after him. But the Saad Cafe?? You are giving the man his glory before he has even entered the battle field! And on his way to the battle field has not been the most classy of entrances …. but credit to the man he brushed him self off and the fall was enough to keep most of his grace.

Surprisingly enough I did not share my views with the goateed regulars of Cafe Saad. I have heard that political debate among the regulars can be a bit one sided but you can get great deals on real estate!