Brand Gebran Bassil

The ambitious and mysterious plans of the FPM’s number two.

There are many things that can be said about the recent, rather clumsy publicity stunts of acting minister Gebran Bassil. It’s not everyday that a man who fails to get elected in a constituency declares himself a hero on billboards at the entrances of that constituency. And it’s not everyday that a divisive Lebanese politician gets portrayed as a heroic cartoon character in a booklet funded by the Lebanese tax payers.

We will be hearing a lot of outrage from the opposing political camp in the next few days, but what’s interesting to us is why Mr. Bassil is doing all of this and what he is expecting to get.

Transition planning

By now most of us know that Mr. Bassil is Michel Aoun’s choice for leading the FPM after he’s gone. Hezbollah have also shown that Mr. Bassil is someone they like doing business with, considering his friendliness to Iranian commercial interests. But Mr. Bassil still has some legitimacy issues to deal with in his party.

The Free Patriotic Movement has formal bylaws and regulations that decide who gets promoted in the ranks. Other bigwigs in the party have arguably better claims to the leadership (not least because of their abilities to win important elections). Sensing Mr. Bassil’s potential vulnerability, Mr. Aoun and his allies have sought to raise his profile and differentiate him from the rest of the FPM apparatchik. As a thought expermient: Can you imagine glorifying billboards or cartoon characters for Minister Nicolas Sahnaoui, an FPM minister who arguably did better for his ministry than Mr. Bassil did for his?

Intriguing possibilities

There’s also a more interesting but still speculative possibility. It came to my mind as I was driving by Batroun a few days ago and saw all the fawning billboards (about 5 of them) of his excellency.

What jumped to my mind was not what I saw, but what I didn’t see: Any trace of the orange color or the FPM logo. The billboards were professionally designed and it seemed to me that there was a conscious effort not to use the orange color.

If you add to that the fact that most of the glorifying material is focusing on Mr. Bassil’s person and not on the FPM, we can come up with two interesting theories:

  1. Mr. Bassil and Mr. Aoun are planning together for a potential revolt in the FPM that could result in the breaking up of the party.
  2. Mr. Bassil, empowered by Hezbollah, Iran and oil money, is getting ready to become his own man and slay the father figure on his way up.

❊ Nasrallah's Pitch to the Lebanese

Today, the charismatic leader of Hezbollah had a tough mission ahead of him. He had to explain to the Lebanese people why his party will ignore the STL’s indictment, and as a bonus, to portray this as the reasonable course of action to take.

The format Sayyed Nasrallah chose was a prime-time televised speech in which he presented his defense to the Lebanese, aided by audio-visual material. He chose a calm tone and he was clearly aiming for the hearts and minds of those who are still undecided on the STL. (Full speech in English as translated by Qifa Nabki)

Discrediting the whole process

Sayyed Nasrallah’s main aim was associating the tribunal with America, Israel and March 14. He tried to achieve this by doing the following:

  • Accusing Israel of tampering with electronic evidence. 97 Personal computers used by the investigating team, he claimed pointing to an “Israeli customs document”, left Lebanon through Israel instead of taking the regular channels like the airport and harbors
  • Accusing STL investigators, prosecutors and consultants of being corrupt, of being receptive to bribery by great nations and billionaires with agendas. He demonstrated this by displaying a grainy footage of what appears to be Detlev Mehlis’ number 2 receiving a bribe
  • Discrediting STL consultants and Judge Cassesi himself of being CIA agents, Hezbollah haters and “friends of Israel”. He tried to achieve this by highlighting individuals who appear to have conflicts of interests in this process
  • Pointing out the improbable coincidences between STL leaks and March 14 political expediencies and needs. He cited leaks that conveniently happened before elections and March 14 marches.

So why not present these evidences to the tribunal itself?

Sayyed Nasrallah argues that the STL is predisposed (by the choice of people in it) to be against his party, and that submitting to its legitimacy would be a preposterous act of naiveté. He said that the entire process is a plan that was concocted specifically to get rid of the resistance. He brings up the case of Jamil el Sayyed, the Lebanese General who was jailed for 4 years by and then released with no evidence and no recourse to fair judicial compensation.

Did the Lebanese buy his arguments?

I would be delusional if I wrote that the Lebanese will immediately see through Sayyed Nasrallah’s presentation. After all, his logic is appealing to many who are predisposed to believe conspiracies and macabre Israeli agendas. Notwithstanding western propaganda, the man himself is likable and appears reasonable and genuinely interested in avoiding strife between the Sunnis and Shiaas in Lebanon.

The flies in the Sayyed’s ointment

There’s a problem however. His “evidence” is more show than substance. Consider for instance the 97 computers he said exited Lebanon through Israel. I will assume for a moment that the Israeli document that he displayed was genuine (Update: It’s not. According to Annahar, the document in question does not belong to the STL investigation but to the UNTSO, another UN body). The real question is: Who cares about the computers? The entire data of the investigation, the stuff that really matters, can fit in no more than a few DVDs, copies of which would have probably existed in different locations. Even if the Israelis did tamper with the computers, the data redundancy would have immediately revealed the tampering and exposed the Israelis. Are the Israelis so dumb to take such a risk?

The grainy footage of a man taking money doesn’t mean anything. He could be simply being paid expenses, or his salary, or even checking out some evidence in the form of fake money. Where is the proof that he is being bribed?

Judge Cassesi’s friend told a Jewish conference that Mr. Cassesi is a “friend of Israel”. How does that incriminate Cassesi himself? His friend was excusing the judge’s absence from the conference, an absence that was probably designed to prevent the very conflict of interest he is now being accused of.

In other words, Sayyed Nasrallah’s defense would not be satisfactory in any court of justice worth its salt. Mr. Nasrallah chose the easy court: The court of Lebanese public opinion that is easily impressionable and forgiving.

That whole conspiracy thing

What does Sayyed Nasrallah wants us to believe? He wants us to believe that Israel, a few years ago, prepared a master plan to kill Rafik al Hariri, Samir Kassir, Gebran Tueni, Walid Eido, George Hawi, George Ghanem, Pierre Gemayel and dozens of Lebanese, all figures who are political enemies of Syria and Hezbollah. It has brilliantly achieved this without being caught by the Syrians, the Lebanese state or Hezbollah.

After that, Israel fabricated an entire legal process, staffed it with thousands of professionals from many countries, and then rigged the whole thing to slant it against Hezbollah, the enemy it could not beat on the field.

I will hang on to the Tribunal and I will dismiss Sayyed Nasrallah’s explanation for one reason only: There must be a more simple answer to the question: Who killed Rafik al Hariri and the other martyrs..

❊ Crappy "Centrism" on the Tribunal

Mr. Walid Jumblat has just made a press conference on the Tribunal that sounded very much like PM Najib Mikati’s statement on the matter. From these speeches one can detect a pattern, a new sort of “Mikati centrism” emerging on how to deal with this important international matter.

How to be a Mikati centrist on the Tribunal

Here is a guide for all politicians who wish to speak the language of Mikati centrism:

  1. Use as many weasel words as you can. The aim is for different words to sound different to different audiences. Words like “responsibly” and “realistically” are especially desirable
  2. Make it sound as if hell on earth will open in Lebanon if the government deals directly and seriously with the tribunal. Use words like fitna (deep division) tashannoj (tension) and ihtikan (bottled up emotions)
  3. Try as much as possible to evoke martyr Hariri’s quote “Nobody is larger than his country”. The idea you are trying to convey is that even Mr. Hariri himself would have given up justice for stability. Bonus for using the opposition’s godfather against them
  4. Focus as much as possible on the fact that the indictment targets individuals, not parties or sects. Maybe if you repeat this often enough, Hezbollah will ignore the fact that you’re dealing with the tribunal, and the people will forget that individuals need political orders from the top to carry out missions as huge as assassinating a Prime Minister
  5. Remind everyone of the dangerous time the region is living in, and of the importance of stability in Lebanon
  6. Try to remove all the politics from the tribunal. Make it all a technical and legal issue. Maybe by doing this people will talk about it less and it will be relegated to simple technical discussions among lawyers

Why this won’t work

Mikati centrism is just a new iteration of the “no winners, no losers” Lebanese dictum. The false belief that you can somehow make everyone happy even in zero sum situations. In this case, the logic is taken to an extreme of trying to appease both the prosecutor and the accused. This won’t work because it’s a case of kicking a can down the road. In the end, something will have to give.

The big elephant in the room

The question to ask is this: If Hezbollah didn’t have all these weapons. If Hezbollah is not all that powerful, would have everyone been so “centrist” about this? Isn’t the weasel word “fitna” just a way of saying that Hezbollah will start shooting people if they get upset? Those centrists should ask themselves: Are they really being wise and responsible as they believe they are? Or are they simply cowards who want to appease the big guys with the guns?

The "Cabinet of Curiosities"

Karl Sharro has a pretty interesting analysis of the new Lebanese government.

On the greatly exaggerated rumors of the death of Harirism:

Despite the FPM’s and Hezbollah’s loud proclamations about the end of Harirism, Mikati’s appointment was in fact an attempt at rescuing Harirism ‘sans-Hariri’. In other words, let’s not rock the boat too much. Note that the major economic posts in Mikati’s cabinet have all went to businessmen and industrialists not economists or academics.

On trying new things:

I called this ‘the Cabinet of Curiosities’ because in many ways it breaks away with convention to overcome the paralysis in the Lebanese political system and the failure of March 8 to offer a solid programme of governance. The unequal number of Sunni and Shiite minsters is one of those ‘innovations’, dispensing with the token gesture of appointing women ministers is another. The one distinctive aspect about it is that it created a de facto parliamentary opposition for the first time in a long while in Lebanon.

Do read the whole thing and let me know what you think…

Saudi Arabia Makes Pitch For Arab Leadership By Confronting US & Israel Over Palestine

Prince Turki al Faisal:

Saudi Arabia will not stand by while Washington and Israel bicker endlessly about their intentions, fail to advance their plans and then seek to undermine a legitimate Palestinian presence on the international stage.

In September, the kingdom will use its considerable diplomatic might to support the Palestinians in their quest for international recognition. American leaders have long called Israel an “indispensable” ally. They will soon learn that there are other players in the region — not least the Arab street — who are as, if not more, “indispensable.” The game of favoritism toward Israel has not proven wise for Washington, and soon it will be shown to be an even greater folly.

There will be disastrous consequences for U.S.-Saudi relations if the United States vetoes U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state.

A few notes:

  • Leave this page, go read the entire article, then come back. It’s worth it.
  • This is very strong language for a diplomat. This is the diplomatic equivalent of a violent threat
  • This article is not meant for Arab consumption, it’s intended for an audience of American decision makers.
  • One could be tempted to dismiss this as typical Saudi empty posturing, but this time things really are different. The Saudis are threatened on two fronts: Iranian ambitions and the Arab spring. Saudi Arabia needs a bold and real showdown with the US (and as Mr. Faisal wrote, the Saudis have a lot of strong cards to play) to prove that it’s a real Arab leader
  • There was a recent much discussed article in the Post on a Saudi recalibration of its relationship with washington in the region

This is really one to watch. Can Washington afford a real confrontation with Saudi Arabia?

Today's Deaths Were Not About The Nakba

Jim Muir for the BBC:

In past years, Syria has prevented Palestinian protesters from getting anywhere near the sensitive Golan border, where Damascus has in the past scrupulously respected its truce agreement with Israel [...] The unusual flare-ups on the Golan and on the Lebanese border came as President Bashar al-Assad’s regime moved into its third month of confronting its biggest internal challenge in more than 40 years of rule by his family and the Baath Party. It would be hard not to see a link between the two developments..

The same thing applies to south Lebanon:

If Hezbollah had not wanted the display of Palestinian refugee militancy at Maroun al-Ras on the south Lebanon border with Israel to happen, it would not have happened.

In case you still didn’t get it: The Palestinians and Lebanese were the pawns in a dirty game to save the neck of the Assad regime.

Islamist Rule of Syria a Self-fulfilling Prophecy

Amanda Paul for Today’s Zaman (Turkey):

this ongoing violence from the security apparatus will only serve to evoke an equally violent response from the Sunni majority in Syria. As moderates rarely lead such violent movements, it can be expected that extremists will. Thus those who say that we should not pressure Syria because the successor to Assad may be an extremist Sunni regime are offering a self-fulfilling prophecy

Bingo.

Turkey's Geostrategic Roller Coaster

Good reporting and analysis from Anthony Shadid on Turkey’s exposure to the Arab Spring:

Before the so-called Arab Spring unleashed by revolution in Egypt and Tunisia, Turkey was a catalyst in an emerging realignment of the Middle East, charting a foreign policy often independent of the United States in a region bereft of any country that matched its political stature. Now the unrest on its borders is undermining years of diplomatic and economic investment, forcing Turkey to take a more assertive role as its vision of economic integration runs up against the threat of growing instability.

I find it fascinating to watch how non-Arab regional actors are dealing with the Arab Spring. From Israel’s worried hands-off approach, to Iran’s double standards and Turkey’s really complicated entanglements. In reality, this is all just one big mess and everything is up for grabs. Exciting times we live in..

Leaving The Sinking Ship

Alhayat is reporting that the political leadership of Hamas will be leaving Damascus for Doha.

If confirmed, this is big news. One of the Syrian regime’s strength was its ability to gain regional leverage by exporting instability. Harboring the political leadership of Hamas in Damascus meant that no peace with the Palestinians can happen without Assad’s approval.

The fact that Qatar is the next home of Khaled Meshaal is also testimony to Qatar’s regional ambitions. The tiny emirate has been playing a very high stakes game in the region and is actively growing its influence using aggressive diplomacy. The Hamas politbureau is only the latest addition to its growing repertoire of key trump cards..