Friday, October 15, 2010

The UN road to decline

I always thought that Lebanon’s membership in the UN Security Council was a bad idea. Sensitive issues (such as the Iran sanctions) were bound to strain our domestic politics, and the tangible benefits are few.

New research by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith of New York University, reported in the November issue of Foreign Policy, supports my view:

  1. Relative to other countries, temporary members of the Security Council see economic growth drop 3.5 percent and score 2 percent lower on the widely used Polity ranking, which measures levels of democracy. 
  2. They also see press restrictions increase 3.1 points on Freedom House’s 100-point scale.

The reason? Security council membership is a great opportunity to practice the type of political prostitution at which the Lebanese excel.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Howls of a wounded beast

While visiting Washington yesterday, I  was surprised to read this in the Washington Post:

"Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sought to pull Lebanon firmly into his country's fold Wednesday in a visit that underscored the growing power of Tehran and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah ."


Iran is not a "growing power". It has an imploding economy.  Years of economic mismanagement mean that the economy cannot create enough jobs to stabilise the rapidly rising rate of unemployment.  International sanctions are also working wonders in compounding the economic decline. I recommend reading this recent Wall Street Journal article, which documents the collapse of the riyal in the black market. Iran's economy is not going to converge with Zimbabwe's any time soon, but Ahmadinejad has his hands full dealing with his own unpopularity back home.

I would not be too complacent and assume that Hizbollah will decline in perfect tandem with Iran.  Nasrallah runs an efficient operation that delivers the best bang for Ahmadinjad's increasingly precious buck. I doubt they will reduce funding to Hizbollah. Nonetheless, Hizbollah's main crutch is getting weaker, not stronger.  The cacophony of rhetoric out of Tehran and Dahiyeh is the howling of a wounded beast, not a threat that should make us tremble.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Legalize Harry!

One of the facts that struck me while reading the article on censorship laws in Lebanon on is that Harry Belafonte is banned in Lebanon.  I would not be surprised if many Lebanese don't know Harry Belafonte. His career peaked a long time ago, and he was mostly known in America.

I know his music well because it is the soundtrack of my childhood. My mother loves him. She still can't stop listening to his music and thinks he is the sexiest man that has ever lived. He is certainly sexier than my dad.

Yet, as a result of Lebanon's Kafkaesque laws, he is banned. The issue, presumably, has to do with his support for Israel.  When you google his name, however, you come across such articles from Mondoweiss:

The organizers of the Toronto Declaration – No Celebration of Occupation are pleased to announce that more than 1000 people from around the world-including many Israelis-have signed on in protest of TIFF’s City-to-City Spotlight on Tel Aviv. New signatories include music and cinematic legends Harry Belafonte ....... Leading intellectual figures Noam Chomsky, Judith Butler and Anne McClintock have also recently endorsed the declaration....

I raise this example as yet more evidence of the absurdity of Lebanese censorship laws, in unlikely event that anyone is still in doubt.

Obviously, the rules are unenforceable.  I'm happy to say that somewhere in downtown Beirut, as I write this, there is an 80 year old lady that is still breaking the law by singing along to this anti-Arab propaganda:

"Work all night on a drink of rum
Daylight come and me wan' go home
Stack banana till de morning come
Daylight come and me wan' go home
Come, Mister tally man, tally me banana...."

Let's hope Minister Mitri is able to get some sensible reforms done.  

Minister Mitri is listening

Minister Mitri has very promptly and kindly responded to my email of the letter I just posted. The following is his response:

"Thank you so much for your message. Could not but agree on enhancing transparency and on the need to overhaul censorship laws.

Tarek Mitri "

I would like to echo Mustapha at Beirut Spring:  The Minister is gracious and open to suggestions. If you have concrete suggestions send them to 

Media Reform Through Transparency: Open Letter to Minister Mitri

Dear Minister Mitri,

Thank you for inviting suggestions regarding the new media law, which I learned about through Beirut Spring. I am writing an open letter in order to share my views with my readers.

I have high expectations of the law because you are the one taking this initiative forward.  Your track record has been laudable.

A concrete suggestion I have is to enhance the credibility of our news outlets by increasing transparency. One way to achieve this would be requiring all publications (as well as TV and Radio) that receive financial support from political parties or politicians to disclose these sums as a percentage of their budget or capital.  The exact financials need not be disclosed, as the ratio is sufficient for readers to be able to gauge the extent to which a publication is being supported either through a subsidy or an equity stake. This disclosure should be done in every issue.

These types of disclosures are standard practice in the publications of investment banks, when they publish research on an company and may have a conflict of interests.  While it is true that the political affiliation of most papers is somehow "known," for some it is not so clear.  Full disclosures are a useful daily reminder to readers.

Your previous positions on censorship are commendable. I have in mind, for example, your position on the screening of Waltz with Bashir. This is not because such censorship is both wrong and unenforceable, but in this particular case it is helping to perpetuate dishonesty about our own history (please see my post about Sabra and Shatila).

I hope the new media law will be an opportunity to completely overhaul the censorship laws. A recent article on, a gay Arab website highlights some of the Kafkaesque outcomes of our current rules: even the Australian comedy Priscilla Queen of the Desert is banned because of homosexuality!

Equally troubling is the number of movies that remain banned because of "Sympathy for Jews." All I can say about this one is to suggest a look at Facebook. You will find that the Beirut Maghen Abraham Synagogue, which will soon re-open, already has more fans than Michel Aoun. It's comforting to think that the Lebanese people are more mature than the Lebanese laws!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The H.L. Mencken Guide to Hezbollah Politics

What did Mencken say?
Jamil Sayyed
It is even harder for the average ape to believe that he has descended from man.
Michel Aoun
Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence.
Politicization of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon
It is hard to believe that a man is telling the truth when you know that you would lie if you were in his place.
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon
Injustice is relatively easy to bear; what stings is justice.
Supporting Lebanese Government Institutions.
Platitude: an idea (a) that is admitted to be true by everyone, and (b) that is not true.
Hassan Nasrallah
The demagogue is one who preaches doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots.
Nasrallah speaking to supporters only via CCTV
I never lecture, not because I am shy or a bad speaker, but simply because I detest the sort of people who go to lectures and don't want to meet them.
To die for an idea; it is unquestionably noble. But how much nobler it would be if men died for ideas that were true!
“False Witnesses”
The penalty for laughing in a courtroom is six months in jail; if it were not for this penalty, the jury would never hear the evidence.
Nawaf Moussawi
The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.
“The Zionists did it”!
The capacity of human beings to bore one another seems to be vastly greater than that of any other animal.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Our Man in Damascus

Ambassador Michel Khoury must be busy, but not intellectually challenged these days. Just look at the daily number of politicians heading to chat with their Syrian counterparts. His days must now be filled entirely with protocol inconsequentialities, and no policy substance.

Luckily, there is a perfect job opening. The United Nations will soon appoint a Space Ambassador for Extraterrestrial Contact Affairs.  That's right. This will be the Chief Dude to go to if Aliens arrive and want to chat. While he waits for the Aliens to arrive, Ambassador Khoury can at least entertain himself with a good book, rather than negotiating seating arrangements at the Tishreen Palace. 

But Ambassador Khoury needs to hurry up, as a Malaysian Astrophysicist might soon get the job.  

The architecture of delusions* or The Sursock Rave

I am intrigued by the flurry of news stories and blogs on the issue of preserving Beirut’s architectural heritage.  Some of them are thoughtful, some of them are romantic.  While, it is sad to see some areas of Beirut change from quaint homes to high-rise eyesores, we also need to recognize this phenomenon for what it is: this is the price of progress.  Progress is good.

Architecture changes by necessity
There aren't many cities that have managed to maintain their quaint traditional character over time, while simultaneously growing their economy.  The examples are really few.  One can think of the medieval small cities of Central Europe, such as Zurich. But the population of Zurich is the same as that of the Dahiyeh, and for much of its history it was difficult for outsiders to own property.  There is also the almost feudal London, where a few families own large swaths of the city, and new property “owners” are actually buying a lease for 99 years.

The truth is that many Beirut old homes are simply uneconomical.  This reality should be lost on no-one, especially the founder of the Association for the Protection of Lebanese Heritage, Lady Yvonne Sursock Cochrane herself.  She rents out her own house  as a venue for parties and weddings.

Most of Beirut’s old houses, though, are not as lavish as the Sursock house, and cannot be used for such purposes (even if there is a need for more wedding party venues!).  They are too expensive to turn into restaurants, and awkward to transform into viable residential or commercial space.  A friend recently tried very hard to find an old property that could be transformed into a hostel, but the mathematics made it an unattractive proposition.

Property rights are paramount
This is not to suggest that Beirut's old architecture is doomed. It is not. Solidere has done a laudable job at preserving what is possible from the rubble of our civil war.  Other creative architects have also helped incorporate façades or elements of old buildings into new structures. But it is quixotic to demonstrate and light candles in Gemmayze over a few old buildings. Some of them are beautiful, some are dumps. But who is to decide, let alone tell an owner that he/she cannot use their property to its maximum value?  Maybe Gemmayze can join Solidere, or follow its example?

Luddites of aristocracy?
I respect the intentions of the demonstrators, and I think that some economically sensible solutions can be found. However, I am perplexed by the asinine proclamations of one of the leaders of this movement, Lady Sursock Cochrane. She raves:

"Beirut used to be a city of gorgeous mansions and gardens and now it has become a boring heap of high-rises and construction projects"

Huh? Are we talking about the same city? Rue Sursock used to have a some gorgeous mansions, and a few crass homes. There were also a lot of crappy stone houses in Beirut, as well as quite a few chicken and goats.  Beirut has happily changed beyond recognition, and a lot of the change has been for the better.

Most of her statements are in fact at best delusional, but this sort of stuff strangely seems to work for some reporters such as  Tyler Brûlé. In a revealing interview about Beirut architecture she did for Monocle, she also claimed that Lebanon has gone from bad to worse since the Ottomans (Anyone remember reading about the famine that killed a fourth of the population?).  She also blamed the French for ruining industry in the mountains, thereby causing villagers to move to Beirut (actually, the main industry in the mountains, silk, went belly-up after the development of cheaper technologies in Japan).  She concludes by asserting that the only hope for Lebanon's future is the formation of a confederation with Syria (I would l-o-v-e to see the results of a referendum on this one).  In Britain, she would be known as a Luddite, or Prince Charles.

If Lady Sursock-Cochrane is uncomfortable with all this change, I would recommend that she take solace in the early 19 century words of Lord Byron: "A man of eighty has outlived probably two [new schools] of architecture...."

Activists for Beirut architecture need a more serious spokesperson.

Treat the problem, not the symptom
The solution cannot be found in isolation. Halting the demolition of an old building is a short term palliative, but in the medium term economic realities will always win.

The real solution to the real estate market problem can only be found in addressing its root causes: the perverse incentives created by onerous regulations in some areas, and the lack of regulation in others.  The lack of serious efforts in urban planning has increased pressures on a handful of areas.  Our Byzantine inheritance laws have created some insurmountable problems, leaving some prime properties in a derelict state. Then there are the rental laws, zoning laws....etc...etc.  It's good to hear that the Ministry of Culture has taken notice over some of these issues, but a good place to start is reforming existing laws, rather than introducing new ones. Fewer laws will also mean fewer opportunities for corruption.

*With apologies to Alain de Botton.

Update Regarding Minister Nahass's participation in ITU Conference

This is to follow up from my two postings on Minister Nahass's participation in the ITU Conference in Mexico next month.

I am happy to say that Minister Nahass has now informed the ITU to amend the Lebanese delegate list, and remove the names of his family members.

I wish Minister Nahass a very successful trip. I also hope he comes back from Mexico with a re-invigorated enthusiasm for reforming and privatising the Telecom sector.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Questions to Minister Nahass

After seeing some discussions of the Nahass family vacation/travesty in Mexico, I want to clarify my views, so that there is no misunderstanding:

I don't think that an anonymous person commenting on my blog under the name of Mayasa and giving me a random phone number of a purported travel agent is sufficient to quell doubts in my mind over whether or not our Telecom Minister's trip to Mexico involves corrupt financial practices.  I don't know.

More importantly, I don't even care to know whether public funds are being used for a family vacation or not. If it is tant pis, if it is not tant mieux.  There is enough corruption in the country that a couple of airline tickets are a drop in the bucket. I realise this is a cavalier attitude, but this is only because I think there are bigger issues at stake.

The real questions to my mind are:

1. On what grounds does our esteemed Minister believe his wife and daughters make appropriate representatives of the country at this particular conference?

2. What sort of message does our esteemed Minister believe he is sending to the world by registering his family as representatives of the Ministry of Telecommunications?

3. Does our esteemed Minister believe that representatives of other countries will take Lebanon's representation seriously when they see the laundry list of Nahass names?

I think it is an insult to all conference participants that our minister decides to turn Lebanon's delegation into a family reunion.  At best it betrays an astonishing lack of professionalism, and at worse it shows that he does not take other delegates seriously. This is what is truly shameful.  Other delegates I have talked to are already shocked!

Why is our esteemed Minister doing this? Does he believe that the official receptions can be efficiently turned into cheap family picnics? Or is he concerned that no one from any other delegation is going to talk to him and he does not want to get lonely?

I will monitor any updates of the delegates list, and will update you if the Minister removes his family members' names from the list.

Update: If you came here through a direct link, please see this.

Wisdom, continued

This week's selection of quotables from the best and brightest political minds of the Middle East:

"the Zionist regime is a very small entity on the map and doesn't really factor into our decisions."  Mahmoud Ahmadinajad speaking to reporters in New York over a breakfast of (presumably Halal) Lox and Bagels

"Iran and Lebanon enjoy very good ties … We support Lebanon's unity and its advancement," Mahmoud Ahmadinajad

"And why not, I would support this." Walid Jumblatt, in an interview with Michael Young, on the possibility of Syrian troops coming back to Lebanon

“We stress that protecting the state would be done through the protection of its institutions"  Hizbollah MP Hassan Fadlallah

"Just like many of the arrest warrants, they have only come into force after a long time," unnamed "Prominent" lawmaker in reference to an arrest warrant against Jamil Sayyed, as reported by Naharnet

"We are keen to protect Lebanon from this strife and we will not allow the aims of the July war to be passed through the international tribunal, which Israel is banking on to compensate for its 2006 defeat," Hizbollah's Sheikh Nabil Qaouq

"If the indictment was issued as an accusation against Hizbullah, that would mean that an international decision was taken to ignite Sunni-Shiite war in the country," MP Suleiman Franjieh

“Prime Minister [Saad Hariri]’s approval to hold direct negotiations [between the Palestinians and] Israel does not reflect Lebanon’s official position [on the issue].” MP Ali Fayyad

"[Any group in Lebanon that] abides by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s (STL) [pending] indictment will be dealt with on the basis that it is one of the tools of US-Israeli aggression." Hizbollah MP Moussawi

Michel Aoun was especially prolific with his words of wisdom this week:

"[Jamil Sayyed's] cause is the biggest case of this century."

“a Mideast without Christians would be a world controlled by evil...”  (NB. Is this guy now implying that his allies, Hizbollah, are evil?)

"spread the culture of openness and not intimidation." in a letter lecturing the Pope

"...let no one ask us to remain calm. We are very calm"

Finally, I really could not decide which of the following is the Most Delusional Statement of the Week:

“[Western states] want to terminate the Resistance that is confronting Israel to naturalize [Palestinian refugees in Lebanon]" Michel Aoun

"That some segments within the U.S. government orchestrated the attack to reverse the declining American economy and its grips on the Middle East in order also to save the Zionist regime. The majority of the American people as well as other nations and politicians agree with this view."  Mahmoud Ahamadinajad on 9/11

"the Lebanese have learned from their past experience -- that they are one people that will not divide no matter what.....Lebanese national unity is the strength of the Lebanese society," Former PM Salim Hoss
(h/t A Purple Monkey for spotting Hoss)

Friday, September 24, 2010

How many Nahass's does it take to make a phone call?

Here is how our tax Liras are at work:

Lebanon is participating in the International Telecommunication Union Plenipotentiary Conference in Guadelajara, Mexico next month.  Wonderful!

Glancing at the list of participants, I found the following numbers for official (government) delegates instructive:

Finland, home of Nokia: 8
Kuwait, home of Zain (MTC): 6
Germany, Europe's largest economy: 8
Egypt, the Middle East's most populous country: 7
Saudi Arabia, the Middle East's largest economy: 10

Lebanon: 12

Ah, but I wish that's all that is odd about the list! Here are four names from the Lebanese delegates list:

Anyone notice a pattern here?  According to his Facebook "fan" page (he has 432 fans), Magida must be his wife. I hear that Zeina is his daughter. I have no clue who is Yousra, but let us give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she is a telecom prodigy.   Now it is fine if the Minister is taking the family for a trip to Mexico at his own expense. But is our government actually paying for these "official delegates"?  I did not go carefully through the names of every single delegation, but from what I did see, no other Minister has his wife registered as a delegate.  

For those of you that don't speak Arabic, our Telecommunication Minister's name (Nahass) actually means Coppersmith. I cannot help but wonder when we will be upgrading those old copper wires to some fibre optics.

UPDATE: Please click on comments section to view remarks from someone who may be connected to the Minister, and my follow-up comments.

UPDATE 2: If you came here through a direct link, please read this: Questions to Minister Nahass

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Assad: The Opera, Now playing at a theatre near you

Barack Obama's enthusiasm for peace in the Middle East has lead him into repeating the same mistakes as many of his predecessors. In due course, he will reach the same conclusions for himself: the Assad regime cannot be co-opted with promises of normalised relations, nor pried away from its soul-mate Iran.

Syria has a regime with no principles or ideology other than self-perpetuation. It can only survive by propagating one conspiracy theory after another, and a culture of permanent distrust. Engagement is bound to yield no results because they need enemies to survive. Without enemies to blame for their failures, the regime will need to answer the demands of its own population for greater freedoms. They can't afford to have many friends. Anyone serious about understanding the prospects of engagement with the Assad regime should first look at the track record of this "young reformer." I recommend starting with an excellent recent survey of his years in office by Human Rights Watch - Syria: A Wasted Decade.

Saudi Arabia has hopped wholeheartedly on the Obama bandwagon. King Abdullah's consequent rapprochement with Assad has now led him into pushing Hariri into his own ill-timed and ill-conceived rapprochement with Syria, but this in turn led the Saudis into The Perfect Syrian Trap. Syria promised Saudi Arabia that it will respect Lebanese sovereignty. It started to pretend to be distancing itself from Hizbollah, by staging a shoot-out involving its own dispensable agents Al-Ahbash. Hizbollah increased their threats against the Lebanese state. Sunni-Shiite tensions are rising, and Saudi Arabia has started getting alarmed about what it perceives as a threat to its pet cause - the Sunnis.  Saudi Arabia is now itself dependent on Syria to ensure stability in Lebanon and the security of the Sunnis. What other choice do the Saudis have? There is nothing in recent statements from Hizbollah to suggest room for reconciliation over anything.

Meanwhile in Damascus, Assad serenades Lebanese politicians with Bizet's Habanera:

L'amour est enfant de Bohème,
il n'a jamais, jamais connu de loi;
si tu ne m'aimes pas, je t'aime
si je t'aime, prends garde à toi!

Unfortunately for Lebanon's few scrambling democrats, the White House seems to be occupied by a Chamberlain, not a Kennedy.  As the Lebanese stare into the abyss, however, they should remember they have no one to blame other than themselves. We had free and fair elections. Yet, in a show of political immaturity eclipsing Argentina's, we chose not to hold our elected representatives accountable for anything at all. Nary a pipsqueak complains in Parliament, and MPs unhappy with the state of affairs simply pack-up and go to Paris.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Wisdom, Part II

This week's quotables from the Middle East's finest political minds:

"Members of the Liberation and Development bloc avoid getting involved in debates with other politicians"  MP Ali Khreis

"the Israeli war machine has started to take new security and media faces in a bid to ignite civil strife in Lebanon through the machinations the enemy depends on after it became incompetent in the battlefield before the Resistance's might." Hizbollah MP Hasan Fadlallah

"But if we were dealing politely, we would tell him (Jamil Sayyed) that if someone steps on our foot we shall step on his neck,”  Unnamed Senior Police Officer quoted by Al-Diyar

“Monkeys are running the country.” Former head of Lebanon’s General Security Jamil Sayyed

 "I demand citizens not to obey the Police Intelligence Bureau because it is an armed gang" Generalissimo Michel Aoun

"We are carrying out an intellectual revolution against corruption," Generalissimo Michel Aoun

"[Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir] is our first and last religious reference," Suleiman Frangieh in reference to the man he thought was getting horny while meeting women activists.

Jumblatt called on his supporters to respect the State and the law "at least in our areas."

"Sayyed and Hizbullah abide by the law … We are very keen on the state..." Hizbollah sources to Al-Sharq Al-Awsat

"My farms rice crop has never been better because of the rains. Almost ready now, huge robust grain practically no canal water was required" Salmaan Taseer, governor of Pakistan's Punjab province on Twitter

"why are Palestinians making big fuss about settlements now when we've been building settlements since Oslo began in 1993"   Israeli government spokesman on Twitter

Finally, the deepest insight of the week:

"Hizbullah should abide by the rule of law otherwise we will reach lawlessness." Mustaqbal bloc MP Serge Toursarkissian

Friday, September 17, 2010

Inconvenient Truths: Remembering Sabra and Shatila

I realise that what I have to say is unpopular.  Since I don't particularly care about being popular, I say it: on a day like this I have more respect for Israel than for Lebanon. They may have treated the Palestinians more brutally, but they have been more honest about it.

1.  The terrible reality:  I still remember exactly what happened when the news broke that hundreds of unarmed Palestinian civilians were massacred in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps between 16 and 18 September 1982. I was in London, where I took refuge from Israel's invasion of Lebanon. I was eating ice cream and watching TV. I was proudly wearing my Bachir Gemayel T-Shirt. I was also wearing a Phalangist button-pin, complete with the Cedar and "God-The Nation-The Family" slogan.  I flinched and turned off the TV.  I had spent 4 days mourning the assassination of my hero, Bachir, and did not want to hear more bad news. I was ready for something different. Grace Kelly died the same day as Bachir, and there was a celebration of the life of Princess Grace taking place near Greek Street. For a sexually-charged 18 year old, Soho is always a priority.  I walked to Soho and had a few drinks. I had sex in a public bathroom with an Afrikaner whose name I did not know, and walked back home feeling very happy.  

I did not think about the Palestinians at all, even though it was "my party" that massacred them.  Somewhere in my head, I blamed it on the Israelis. This is the easy and convenient Lebano-Pavlovian reaction to anything gone wrong. I was, of course, too young to understand that I was part of a fascist movement, let alone understand what fascism was about.  These were days of blind nationalism. I did not understand that slogans like "God-The Nation-The Family" were full of terrible ideas, regardless of whether you believe in a god or not.  Freedom or Liberty are not part of the party slogan.

2. The ease of forgetting:  We have forgotten how many Palestinians were massacred on that day. The Israelis claimed precisely 460. The Palestinians claimed equally precisely 3500.  But the truth that will always haunt us is that we didn't care to find out for ourselves.  We were not like the Nazis. We did not keep records.  Shortly after the war ended, we appointed the perpetrator of the massacre, Elie Hobeika, as Minister for Social Affairs.

3. Truth and Reconciliation:  We can learn some good tricks from the Afrikaners. We could follow some of the steps of South Africa's post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  Our high school history books make a giant leap of vacuous prose from our 1943 Independence to the 1991 Taif Accord. We still can't agree on what exactly happened in between.  "History is written by the victors" wrote Winston Churchill. We emerged from civil war with a slogan of  exhaustion: "No victor, no vanquished."  How do we write our history? We don't know.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The curious case of Lebanon's Daily Star

The fact that Lebanon's Daily Star has been a sinking ship for some time comes as little surprise to anyone who watched their return as The Undead from a brush with bankruptcy last year.  It is a shame. As Lebanon's only English language daily, the Daily Star has a great market position in the language of choice of many Lebanese and expatriates.

Their reporting ability is limited, and non-Lebanese news is based mostly on a simple aggregation of newswires. That could be a viable business model. Many people still prefer the romance of a Broadsheet with their morning coffee over Google Reader.  The problems arise when they express opinions.   

I was outraged last week by their Editorial over the Koran-burning brouhaha. Today's editorial is even more outrageous.  "Hariri and Sayyed are both wrong," opines  Jamil Mroue:

"Like any other Lebanese citizen, Sayyed now has a right to seek legal recourse if he was in fact detained for four years without charge solely on the basis of what he has termed “crimes of slander.” The former general may have exceeded this right by making unbecoming statements that could constitute slander or incitement, but he remains entitled to use any and every legal means available to seek out reparation. Likewise, Hariri is entitled to see his father’s killers brought to justice – just as the premier maintains the right to lodge legal action against anyone, including Sayyed, who may have slandered him by unfairly accusing him of manipulating the investigation into the assassination.

"But the fact that both men have sought justice outside the umbrella of Lebanese courts – Sayyed through a lawsuit in Damascus and Hariri through an international tribunal – illustrates how little faith both men have in the very judiciary that they have done so little to support. And if two men with such a high degree of access to power have come to such conclusions, what does that say about the ability of the average citizen to achieve justice in the Lebanese courts?"

Comparing the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in the Hague with Sayyed's lawsuit in Damascus is bizarre to anyone with an IQ over "Borderline Deficiency". I don't think the Daily Star is run by idiots, or by people with deficient English language skills.  Something else is at play here. What could it be? The clues lie in Mroue's own words: describing Sayyed's vitriol as "unbecoming statements that could constitute slander or incitement."  

"Unbecoming....that could "?  The man is reported to have said:

"Monkeys are running the country"
"It's not enough for Hariri to admit that he erred, he has to pay the price of his mistakes"
"I swear on my honour that I [will] take.. [my rights] with my own hand,”
He called on the people to “revolt against authority and attack officials in their houses”

This could not "potentially constitute...incitement." This is incitement.  Arguing otherwise is at best a reflection of intellectual sloth, and at worse outright dishonesty.

The problem with the Daily Star seems to be that they are so desperate to avoid losing more readers, that they have decided to stick to what they believe are "balanced" views, fearful of upsetting any reader.  The result is that their Editorials are largely piffle that is unlikely to please any reader.   

I guess it is time to remove the Daily Star Editorials RSS feed from my Google Reader.  

Sunday, September 12, 2010


This week's quotables from the Middle East's finest political minds:

"I like to retaliate by burning a book that you Americans hold dear, but the only book you care about is Facebook." - Mahmoud Ahmadinajad

The burning of Korans is "orchestrated by the Zionist regime after being defeated in its efforts against Muslims and the Islamic world." - Iran Foreign Minister Mottaki

No one can use "force or trickery to compel Hizbollah to accept certain facts that would change the course of things" - MP Mohammed Raad

The Internal Security Force is an “illegitimate branch that has no law, kidnaps people for months and spreads rumors about them.” - "Generalissimo" Michel Aoun in reference to the arrest of one of his men who confessed to spying for Israel

“Justice and the truth are important, but the stability of the country is more important.”  Walid Jumblatt, in a statement to Bernard Kouchner reported by Al-Hayat

MP Sami Gemayel deserves "crucifixion on a pole in the Pride and Dignity Square." - Hizbollah website statement

"After all you have done to Syria, Bashar Assad hugged you rather than hanging you to death." -  Jamil Sayyed on Saad Hariri

...and finally, the understatement of the week:

“I understand that Hariri [wants to develop] the best relations with Syria.”  - Dory Chamoun

Friday, September 10, 2010

What do Moslems, Jews and Fags have in common?

The Westboro Baptist Church announced on its infamous God Hates Fags website that they will burn copies of the Koran as well as US Flags tomorrow, and called Pastor Terry Jones a "false Prophet."

For those of you unfamiliar with the WBC, these are the same people that claimed that 9/11 was a "gift from God" and punishment for sodomy. They are the same guys that said of the Holocaust Memorial in DC: "American taxpayers are financing this unholy monument to Jewish mendacity and greed and to filthy fag lust."  They are the same people who famously picketed the funeral of "Matthew Shepard," a gay victim of a hate crime, saying he will burn in hell.

Their statement, which argues that the only "job" left for Moslems is to kill the Jews (pdf), concludes with:

"God hates Doomed america! God hates Muslims! We will burn your Koran and bloody-Doomed-american-fag-flag (whore Old Glory) to remind you it’s so!"

Well, as an Atheist Fag I am not unhappy with this event. Seriously.  No statement from Obama or Clinton or FBI visit is going to change their mind. I hope that no Administration official humiliates him/herself by trying.  Meanwhile, I do hope this event gets a lot of publicity, and that Moslems in the Middle East who are outraged by the Koran-burning take note that their holy book is burning along with the American Flag and, much more importantly, no American law or official can stop this from happening. This is exactly why America is so admirable.

The Lebanonisation of US politics

It was sad to read this morning that Pastor Terry Jones has decided to "temporarily halt" his plans to burn Korans in Florida. This is not because I wanted to see Korans burned, but because I am saddened by the real reason they are not being burned.

There is much confusion about what happened yesterday. First, the Pastor said that he reached a quid pro quo deal with Imam Musri that involves a halt to the "Ground Zero" mosque in New York. Apparently, this was a "sign from God" that the Pastor was waiting for. Then it immediately emerged that there is no such deal. Pastor Jones said that Imam Musri lied to him. Imam Musri said that the Pastor lied to save face.

The quid pro quo link between burning the Koran and building a mosque was not immediately obvious to a mediocre mind like mine. However, it was obvious to the beautiful mind of Sarah Palin, who wrote on her Facebook page:

"People have a constitutional right to burn a Qur'an if they want to, but doing so is insensitive and an unnecessary provocation – much like building a mosque at Ground Zero"

Whatever transpired between the Imam and the Pastor is irrelevant. What is relevant is that the Pastor has nonetheless decided to stick to his decision not to burn Korans tomorrow, even though there is no deal.  This implies that he has caved into to the pressure from various branches of government, which included statements from Obama, Clinton, Eric Holder, Robert Gates, Gen. Petraeus, as well as several visits by the FBI.

This is a shameful episode for US politics. It reminds me of the recent decision by some Moslem Lebanese TV stations to stop airing a mini-series about the life of Christ, after some churchmen were offended.  As I argued in a previous post, the only victim of all of this is freedom of expression.

It is unfortunate for Moslems that none of their leaders have the foresight, creativity or courage of some Moslem commentators.  It is very sad to see US politicians acting like their Lebanese counterparts.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Farewell, March 14

I stopped using 1403 as the pin code for my ATM card this week.

I feel it is pointless to pretend that the March 14 Alliance still exists.  Today, Fares Soueid confirmed that I am right:

“We were not upset with Hariri’s statements, but we are assessing the circumstances that led him to voice such remarks,”

So, basically he is saying that the March 14 Alliance, in which the Prime Minister's party is a cornerstone, had no idea that the PM is about to make a statement turning around a key policy of the last 5 years. Worse still, Soueid is saying that they don't even have an idea of what the PM is thinking!

Clearly, there is no substantive policy discussion within the party alliance. What exactly is the point of the alliance then, and why should we continue to make-believe?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Learning the wrong lessons from 9/11

It is sad that media attention has helped cast the shadow of a small, irrelevant church in Florida over the remembrance of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 this year.

The plan by the curiously named Dove World Outreach Center  to burn copies of the Koran is being roundly denounced across the US. Hillary Clinton finds it "disgraceful." Attorney General Eric Holder finds it "idiotic and dangerous." General Petraeus too finds it "dangerous," and hints darkly at how this might complicate his troops' mission in Afghanistan.

In the Middle East, the press is predictably aghast. Jamil Mroue of Lebanon's Daily Star, a reliable indicator of the average thought process, writes in his editorial "Koran burners threaten the US":

"The planned action of the church could in the end threaten the achievements – some of them universal in their reach – of US civilization. This incident highlights the treacherous balancing act that the branches of government must perform in building and maintaining a society of free citizens who do not destroy one another."

He goes on to talk about averting the planned burning, followed by some silly statements on the US "record of aggression."

Wow. Dude. Chill out!

It is hard to know who is worse: Pastor Terry Jones who is burning the Koran, or those condemning the burning and would rather see freedom of expression stifled for the sake of political expediency.

It is facile to argue that 9/11 was just an attack on the US. If it was about US power, the attacks would have simply focussed on the Pentagon and (if the high-jackers of United 93 had succeeded) elsewhere in Washington.  The attack on the World Trade Center was an attack on a conspicuous representation of the way of life of the most advanced society in the world. It was an attack on the values of the Enlightenment that made that society as enviable as it is, by a gang that would rather see civilisation go back 1000 years, rather than move forward by 1.

Mr. Mroue is dead wrong to talk about the "precipice of a clash of civilisations." It is not about a clash between two civilisations. It is about a clash between civilisation and anti-civilisation.

The only acceptable commemoration of 9/11 is to uphold the very values that were targeted by the attacks. Freedom of expression, however irritating, is sacrosanct. Burning the Koran harms no one. No Molsem will be harmed. No Moslem will have his right to worship abridged in any way. No one should really care if a bunch of pyromaniacs in Florida burn a few books. This is all absurd.

Moslems that are offended by Pastor Jones, and believe in freedom, should consider the words often attributed to Voltaire: I disagree with what you say, but will defend to death your right to say it.  A good slap in the face of Pastor Jones would be for Moslem organisations to speak in defence of his right to burn the Koran.  If it becomes a trend, "smart-money" Moslems might consider investing in a  Koran-printing business....

When government by auto-pilot is better than active government

Finance Minister Rayya al-Hassan submitted the 2011 budget law proposal to the cabinet yesterday.

This would be good news, in normal circumstances...after all 2011 is 3 months away. But this is Lebanon, which is rarely normal, and the event did raise some justified skepticism. After months of bickering, the  2010 budget proposal was referred to Parliament by the President last month!

Lebanon was very lucky to have spent most of this year on auto-pilot based on last year's budget.  To understand why, you need to look no further than the Ministry of Finance's website:

In a year when economic growth has been strong, increasing tax revenue, Lebanon agreed on a budget that would increase spending even faster.  While sitting on top of one of the highest debt to GDP ratios in the world, the budget proposes a Primary Deficit, which will imply a further increase in the debt burden.

The environment of low interest rates and rapid growth enjoyed by Lebanon this year, is only partly due to skill in economic management. The truth is that Lebanon was more lucky than good: lower global interest rates and a primary surplus allowed this happen.  If the budget had been approved early in the year, Lebanon could only have enjoyed its current level of economic growth if it had been more lucky than bad.

I do not pin the blame on the Ministry of Finance. The Cabinet has shown itself throughly incapable of agreeing on anything other than the lowest common denominator. In economic terms, this invariably means increasing spending for this Ministry or that, but few meaningful restraints anywhere.  To be sure, the country needs to increase spending in some areas, but it can't afford to do so without some serious cuts elsewhere.  Most of us can think of entire government departments that can (and should be) shut down without any loss of service or convenience to anyone.

This is an instance where no agreement by the Cabinet would have been far better than agreement.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Bubble, Bubble, here comes trouble...

A story carried by Bloomberg today notes that Beirut is the 10th most expensive city in the world for expat housing:

"The city is ahead of Paris, Abu Dhabi, Amsterdam, Geneva and Rio de Janeiro and behind Singapore, Osaka, New York City, Moscow, Hong Kong and London...."

Actually, the phenomenon is not just for expat housing. I suspect that when average home prices are compared to average incomes in Lebanon, US sub-prime buyers would appear financially prudent.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Is civil war inevitable?

It is difficult to explain Hariri's statement to Al-Sharq Al-Awsat today simply in the context of "a new page in relations with Syria":

"At a certain stage we made mistakes. We accused Syria of assassinating the martyred premier, and this was a political accusation."

There certainly wasn't a dearth of evidence pointing to Syria. By asserting it was a political accusation, Hariri is playing into the hands of those (like Hizbollah) who are attempting to discredit the entire investigation.  He then says:

“ There are people who misled the investigation, and they have caused harm to Syria and Lebanon…these false witnesses ruined the relationship between the two countries, and politicized the assassination”

But an early part of the investigation included statements from a large number of Lebanese politicians who recounted their understanding of the last meeting between Assad and Rafiq Hariri. Is Saad Hariri saying his allies were lying and were all involved in a political ambush of Syria?

Syria does not appear to be publicly pressuring Hariri into an apology, judging from the number of meetings he has had with Assad over the past year. At first glance, the timing and nature of this statement don't make any sense, unless it is motivated by something else. My gut feeling is that there are two explanations (that are not mutually exclusive):

1.  The statement was somehow scripted in Riyadh and little thought was invested into it by Hariri's office in Beirut.  Indeed, I find it interesting that Hariri's office in Beirut had no comment on the statement, according to the Huffington Post.

2.  Hariri fears the risk of civil war are very high, and good relations with Syria are necessary to protect the Sunnis from an impending showdown with Hizbollah.

Judging from the political rhetoric since the Burj Abi-Haidar clashes, the second explanation appears most likely.   As one friend presciently put it 2 years ago: "Hizbollah and the Sunnis will go to war. Hizbollah will beat the shit out of the Sunnis, who will have no choice but to cry to Damascus for help. Beirutis will end up welcoming Syrian troops with flowers."

I hope that I'm very very wrong, and we never see that nightmare again.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Champions of Democracy

While I was in Beirut a few days ago, I somehow missed this interesting and unusually good piece of news about the country. The Lebanese Interior Minister received an award from the International Foundation for Electoral Systems.  In this context, Former President Jimmy Carter said:

"I have supervised more than 83 elections in 83 countries worldwide but the best I have seen were in Lebanon [in 2009]."

I wonder what he thinks of the candidates, though.

Insidious politics of hate

Iran and Hizbollah are in full swing today marking "Al-Quds/Jerusalem Day." A gesture of support to the Palestinians? No. Think again.  For those of you unfamiliar with its history, Al-Quds day is an annual event on the last Friday of Ramadan, established by Khomeini in 1979:

"I invite Muslims all over the globe to consecrate the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan as Al-Quds Day and to proclaim the international solidarity of Muslims in support of the legitimate rights of the Muslim people of Palestine."

Note that non-Muslim Palestinians have been conveniently excluded from the Grand Ayatollah's support.  Presumably such infidels don't deserve support. If his intention was to express support for Palestine at all, there is no reason why Khomeini could not have chosen to mark the same day as all Palestinians do (namely Nakba Day).  This day is different. It is simply about anti-Zionism. In other words, this day is not for something, it is just against something.  It is a bit like the political views of a "Facebook friend" of mine:

This fellow is not unique.  I never bothered to ask him what he actually believes in, as opposed to what he doesn't believe in -- it would be a futile exercise. 

To mark this fine occasion, Khamenei was busy on Twitter with his idea of constructive support to Palestinians precisely at the time they are negotiating in Washington: 

Nasrallah, meanwhile, is pretending to be a sage with words about the "big picture", namely that everything  somehow involves - you guessed it - a Zionist and American conspiracy:

"The American and Zionist intelligence [agencies] are connected with all the suicide operations that targeted the Iraqis."  

"What happened in Bourj Abi Haidar is pure loss..... This was an individual incident that developed in a regrettable way and has no background. Whoever considered the incident to be an expression of an Iranian-Syrian dispute is frustrated. They are little tools in the failed American project."

...and, of course,  the Special Tribunal is also a conspiracy targeting the "Resistance." etc etc.....

I suppose he is hoping for an end like Mel Gibson's Conspiracy Theory: if he keeps seeing a conspiracy in everything for long enough, at some point he may actually stumble upon one, in which case he will feel vindicated.  

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A central bank that looks forward to high inflation?

I should thank Mustapha at for drawing attention to an article published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute that praises Riad Salameh's skills as Lebanon's central banker.  Mises was the professor and mentor of my all-time hero: Friedrich von Hayek. You can imagine my excitement as I clicked on the link.  
Mustapha is a polite, glass-is-half-full kind of guy. For the positive interpretation, read his blog. I'm not an optimist (and only occasionally polite):
There is a sophomoric analysis of the Lebanese banking system that puzzlingly talks about banks reserve ratios, lending practices, as well as the debt, but where the author seems totally oblivious to the fact that much of the debt is owned by the banks!  He also seems oblivious to the fact that banks were effectively forced to buy the debt on more than one occasion at below-market rates.  
These glaring oversights aside, the author presents a startling quote from the Governor, which he suggests is prescient, though "unconventional":
"The future expectations of inflation are going to diminish the real value of [the public] debt, which is stated today at around $48 billion. And the present value or the real value of that debt will look less important in the next four or five years, as the purchasing power of currency is going to be depleted worldwide."


Is the Governor looking forward to high inflation as an exit from Lebanon's debt burden?  This is a very very strong statement. A look at the original interview in Executive Magazine shows that the quote is taken out of context.
The real revelation in all of this is that the Mises Institute, which purports to be "the world center of the ... libertarian political and social theory" has become a source of complete piffle.  I'll stick to readings from the Hayek Institute.  

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

There is no reason to celebrate Palestinian rights

There is an Arabic expression that I sometimes find useful:

"خذ الحكمة من أفواه المجانين" 

Loosely translated, it means: "seek wisdom from the mouth of the insane."  In this spirit, I would like to recall something that the mad messianic Generalissimo in Rabiyeh said a month ago:

"We can't issue a law that gives the Palestinians the right to own property.....we can issue a law to reclaim properties owned by foreigners"

He is of course dead wrong to suggest that we can - or should - seek to reclaim property sold to foreigners, but he is right make a link between the two. How can Lebanon bar Palestinians from owning property, but allow other foreigners to do so?

There is something fundamentally flawed with the law that Parliament passed today, granting Palestinians the right to work in Lebanon.  It stinks of continuing discrimination against one particular nationality. It is also absolutely the wrong move for two reasons:

  • It continues to bar Palestinians from jobs that require membership in a syndicate, a medieval guild-like system that should be abolished for everyone. 
  • It continues to bar Palestinians from owning property.

What is the law doing exactly? It is allowing Palestinians to take basic jobs, but bars them from more professional jobs, such as doctors or lawyers.  Basically, the law is telling skilled, potentially successful professionals that they are encouraged to move to another country.

Furthermore, by denying Palestinians the right to own property, we are telling every entrepreneurial Palestinian that even if you are successful, you can't buy a house. What sort of incentive is that? Why should this person bother being entrepreneurial at all? Property rights underpin the most essential incentives for an economy to work.

The problem with the law originates in the way the debate was framed in the first place, by the reliably schizophrenic Walid Jumblatt.  This law should not have been presented to parliament as a call for Palestinian "rights" - as though it was a charity endeavour - when knows that there continues to be underlying resentment towards them among a large part of the population. Rather, Parliament should be discussing "Lebanon's" interests.  It is in our interest that the Palestinians are economically successful because that will only strengthen our economy.  It should also be the right of any Lebanese business to employ the best person for a particular job - be they Palestinian, French or Indian. We should also have the right to sell property to whoever is willing to pay the highest price, be they Palestinian, Saudi or Extraterrestrial.  We would be doing ourselves a disservice by not welcoming Palestinian investment in our country with a red carpet.

It is true that Palestinian groups routinely violate Lebanese laws, and have yet to accept to disarm. But holding an entire population of 400,000 hostage for the actions of a few thousand thugs is the sort of collective punishment one would expect from Saddam or Stalin. This is not acceptable behaviour by the sort of democracy Lebanon aspires to be.

The listener's best friend

Every event needs a Miss Sweetie Poo.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Une bonne occasion de se taire

It is unfortunate that there wasn't a Jacques Chirac in Koraytem yesterday to tell Hariri that he missed a good opportunity to remain silent.  Everyone was expecting him to say something regarding the outrageous claims of Hassan Nasrallah.  Instead, he decided to use the opportunity to explain why he chooses to remain silent:

The premier highlighted the fact that he had abstained from making statements "throughout the last period." 
"I will continue like that because I want calm, because through calm we can talk to and hear each other, but through screaming, no one would be able to hear the other. We want to calmly discuss everything we approach in this country," Hariri added.

Run that by me again? Are you saying we can talk by saying nothing? Or are you saying that the only things you have to say are inflammatory? Can't you reply to screams calmly? More importantly, are you distancing yourself from the few reasonable replies to Nasrallah by your supporters?

The attempt to sabotage the work of the Special Tribunal is a bigger threat to the rule of law than the actual assassination of Rafik Hariri, Basil Fuleihan, Gebran Tueni, Samir Kassir et al.  It is also part of a transparent but insidious attempt to break the country's engagement with international efforts created specifically to help Lebanon (such as UNIFIL).  If Nasrallah was simply concerned about getting off the hook, he can easily do what Qaddafi/Kadhafi did with Lockerbie and blame it on a few rogue operatives.  I am sure there is no shortage of patsies in his "martyr"-generating death machine.  

Hariri got it all wrong when he said “I am concerned .... because I am Rafik Hariri’s son."  March 14 was triggered by Rafik Hariri's assassination, but was not just about mourning his death. It was about a much bigger issue: establishing a democratic, independent country. Enforcing the rule of law and bringing terrorists to justice is a most critical part of this process.  There is no room for silence.

I miss Jacques Chirac.