Commentary by Tamer Mallat – 27 June 2012
Much has been written in recent weeks concerning the spike in violence and criminality in Lebanon since the start of the new year, and yet, most accounts have gone to great length to avoid pinpointing blame on one faction or another. The recent attempts to jump-start a new round of national reconciliation sessions, known as Lebanon’s infamous “National Dialogue”, has increased pressure on the belligerents of this seemingly cursed country to tone down their rhetoric. Worse, it has become symptomatic for different factions, neutral and partisan alike, to downplay the severity of recent calamities, all in the name of National Dialogue and illusionary stability. However, the majority of those represented in Lebanon’s executive arm of government are to blame for the deterioration of the ailing country’s situation.
Two parallel tendencies, rarely considered in the same light, embody the de facto workings of the current cabinet. One concerns the instrumentalization of legal tools at the disposal of government ministries, and the other is linked to the shadowy manipulation of informal, albeit complicit, networks in the street.
From illegal decrees aimed at pillaging Lebanon’s heritage, the tolerance and lack of action of government institutions towards the violations of the Lebanese army against citizens, the constant aggressions and killings of journalists, the silence behind attacks and kidnappings of Syrian nationals working in Lebanon, the widespread electricity shortages, to the increase in crime rates across the country, Lebanon’s government seems disinterested, if not complicit in the escalation of a boiling internal situation.
However, two disturbing incidents in the last twenty-four hours have come to mark the apotheosis of a year of bad government.
Yesterday, two unrelated, yet structurally linked events left many in a state of indignation. In the morning of the 26th of June, gunmen attacked the headquarters of al-Jadeed television, setting it ablaze. Wissam Alaaeddine, a man with a criminal record, was arrested in relation with the attack. In the evening following his arrest, thugs of unknown political affiliation closed off roads across Beirut and burned tires to protest his arrest. While Interior Minister Marwan Charbel has said that Alaaeddine will not be covered politically, and political parties have refused to be associated with him, a look at the perpetrator’s Facebook page reveals him to be a sympathizer and supporter of Bashar al-Assad. The attack on al-Jadeed comes barely a week after the station’s reporter, Ghadi Francis, was allegedly beaten up by a Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party member. In April, an al-Jadeed cameraman, Ali Shaaban, was shot dead by a Syrian army sniper in the north of Lebanon.
Another event that sparked great anger across Lebanon was the illegal destruction of a 2,500 year-old historic port in downtown Beirut. Free Patriotic Movement’s Culture Minister, Gaby Layoun, signed a decree yesterday ordering the demolition of the priceless site. The decision had not yet been published in the Official Gazette, as stipulated by the law. The order to demolish the port is thus null and illegal, as laws and decrees do not take effect before publication in the Gazette. Moreover, all decisions that appear in the country’s Official Gazette, related to such matters, are subject to a two-month appeal limit, during which no action can be taken. However, the motives behind this move should be seen as a strike against the rule of law in Lebanon.
Just one month ago, the Conseil d’État struck down a similar ministerial decree bearing Layoun’s signature that ordered the destruction of a millennia-old hippodrome, also located in Beirut’s Centre Ville. With the highest administrative court setting a precedent against ill-warranted ministerial practices, the culture minister’s action represents nothing other than a direct challenge to the work of Lebanon’s judiciary. This move also comes just a few weeks after the cabinet signed a decree granting permission to a Saudi prince to purchase land exceeding the limit allowed for foreigners in the region of Harissa, sparking outrage within Lebanon’s Christian community.
Such tendencies represent a worrisome evolution of tactics employed by incumbents, not so different from those used under both Syrian and Israeli occupation. This may well be a declaration of war between the judiciary and reckless politicians.
It is in the backdrop of these two events, that the question of accountability must be raised. While the author of an article published yesterday expressed understanding at the seeming resignation of Lebanon’s security forces in the face of politically backed criminal activity, the government remains the institution that is responsible for ensuring security and good governance in the country.
While security, or the lack thereof, on a local level and the corrupt practices in the executive branch may seem unrelated, it is necessary that they be understood within the same framework. What this government has illustrated is its capacity to further destabilize and divide the citizens of a country already struggling to live in harmony. On the one hand, by allowing mundane criminal activity to proliferate, an encouraging message is sent to those in the country waiting for an opportune moment to strike, most often on the behalf of sinister agendas. It goes without saying that this form of violence is informal, but has also been instigated by the trigger-happy soldiers of an army ready to cover the crimes of its battalions, as any militia would do for its members.
Lastly, the disregard of the law through its manipulation, further weakens a state already battered by decades of war and instability. If the work of the remaining independent institutions of the state is no longer respected, then it can be said that this government has succeeded in further weakening Lebanon’s already fragile institutions.
Tamer tweets @tmallat.