Friday, 30 July 2010

The power behind the throne


Lebanon is famous for being the site of combat-by-proxy. Throughout the country’s history we’ve seen groups funded, allegedly, by any number of external actors slugging it out.

Today, two of those external actors, well, Syria was quite recently very much an internal actor, have come to Beirut to make nice.

In an effort to douse the flames on the latest intra-Lebanese kerfuffle, The Eye Doctor and the King have rocked up in Beirut. Saudi Arabia and Syria are “committed” to ensuring that Lebanon doesn’t implode this summer. Obviously, having enjoyed the incessant drone of the vuvzelas, Assad and King Abdullah aren’t in the mood to watch Sayyed Hassan and his detractors go head-to-head.
 Vuvuzelas - The key to regional piece


That’s nice of them.

Lebanon – The perfect holiday destination, where you can battle for regional dominance and enjoy a mojito.

Now, if someone could set that to music, I think we’ve got a new jingle for the Tourism Ministry.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Diplomacy 101


Two bits of idle ranting … one international, one Lebanese…

Was quite amused to see big Dave wade into the foreign arena with his colossal size 12’s on display. Cameron clearly failed Diplomacy 101. “Screw you Israel, screw you Pakistan, but Turkey? Yeah, we like you. You’re alright. Kurds? Never ‘eard of ‘em. Now, Turkey, if you could just toddle off and chat to I’madinnerjacket about Tehran’s nuclear plans, that’d be fabulous. EU membership? Sure. It’s just around the corner.”


DM's, perfect attire for the aspiring diplomat

Now … I’m no fan of any of the three countries mentioned above … but … this man is “my” (note the use of inverted commas) Prime Minister.

Note to Dave: The littlest dog barks the loudest. Unless you have the nerve and ability to back up what you’re saying, don’t say it.

Kudos on the Gaza remarks, but who are we kidding, it’ll be back to kid gloves fairly soon.

Ah … Lebanon.

As much as I love you, your schizophrenic nature makes living here akin to dating Glen Close. Sure, was probably good in the sack, but then she was also partial to boiling your family pet. There’s even an endearing term for the girlfriend in her honour.

One minute we’re looking forward to summer, the World Cup, England’s premature exit, drinks on the beach and leaving the office at 4.00. …  The next minute the annual, “It’s summer, therefore there must be a war” theories start emerging. Now, of course, this is all compounded by the fact that it’s a World Cup year … meaning that, if history is anything to go by, we should all be stocking up on tinned food and bottled water.

And, as a contemporary of mine noted, registering with the embassy would be a good idea. – I note that should the time come, it would be my second evacuation. I’m sure Cyprus has something to recommend it, apart from the ability to conduct civil marriages, but Akrotiri Airbase, where we stayed on the way home, is a little Spartan.

Well, this time around all the talk is of a civil war as opposed to the more recent type. You’ll have to pardon my cynicism, Lebanese predictions are all a little too doom and gloom for my tastes.

Whatever your take on the upcoming report on the Hariri assassination, it promises to be an interesting ride until the allegations, counter claims and conspiracy conspiracies resolve themselves. Zionists, Syrians, Americans, Shiite Lebanese or Sunni Lebanese, Martians, whoever’s behind it all, perhaps it was best to let sleeping dogs lie?

Monday, 12 July 2010

One for the cheap seats


And now we have Frances Guy, British Ambassador to Lebanon apologizing for something that was blatantly obvious to anyone with half a brain.

The problem with diplomatic blogging
The problem with diplomatic blogging is that you risk being anodyne or controversial. Clearly in the last few days I have been the latter. This was not my intent. My comments on the late Sayid Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah have now been removed because they were leading to confusion about British policy. I would like to be clear. I have no truck with terrorism wherever it is committed in whoever’s name. The British Government has been clear that it condemns terrorist activity carried out by Hizballah. I share that view. I believe that it should be possible for Hizballah to reject violence and play a constructive, democratic and peaceful role in Lebanese politics, in line with UN Security Council Resolutions, including UNSCR 1701. This is something I discussed often with Sayid Fadlallah when we met. 
The blog was my personal attempt to offer some reflections of a figure who while controversial was also highly influential in Lebanon's history and who offered spiritual guidance to many Muslims in need. I recognise that some of my words have upset people. This was certainly not my intention. I have spent most of my career in the Arab world working to combat terrorism, and the extremism and prejudice which can fuel it. I am sorry that an attempt to acknowledge the spiritual significance to many of Sayid Fadlallah and the views that he held in the latter part of his life has served only to further entrench divisions in this complex part of the world. I regret any offence caused.

Ambassador, if anyone was offended by your statement, then they're an idiot and not worth your concern.
Like I said, it seems the Republican bias is alive and well.
What a joke.

Friday, 9 July 2010

No grey


I’ve been reading, with increasing disgust, about the firing of Octavia Nasser, CNN’s Middle Eastern Editor.


So, she gets fired for Tweeting the following: “So sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah.. One of Hizbollah’s giants I respect a lot..”


She then clarifies by writing the following:


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"Here's what I should have conveyed more fully:


I used the words "respect" and "sad" because to me as a Middle Eastern woman, Fadlallah took a contrarian and pioneering stand among Shia clerics on woman's rights. He called for the abolition of the tribal system of "honor killing." He called the practice primitive and non-productive. He warned Muslim men that abuse of women was against Islam.


I met Fadlallah in 1990. He was willing to take the risk of meeting with a young Christian journalist from the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation. Fadlallah was at the height of his power. As I was ushered in, I was told that he would not look at me in the eye and to make it quick as there was a long line of dignitaries waiting.


The interview went 45 minutes, during which I asked him about Hezbollah's agenda for an Islamic state in Lebanon. He bluntly told me that was his group's dream but there would be room for other religions. He also joked at the end of the interview that the solution for Lebanon's civil war was to send "all political leaders without exception on a ship away from Lebanon with no option to return."


He challenged me to run the entire interview on LBC without editing. We did.


This does not mean I respected him for what else he did or said. Far from it.


It is no secret that Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah hated with a vengeance the United States government and Israel. He regularly praised the terror attacks that killed Israeli citizens. And as recently as 2008, he said the numbers of Jews killed in the Holocaust were wildly inflated.


But it was his commitment to Hezbollah's original mission - resisting Israel's occupation of Lebanon - that made him popular and respected among many Lebanese, not just people of his own sect.

In 1983, as Fadlallah found his voice as a spiritual leader, Islamic Jihad - soon to morph into Hezbollah - bombed the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 299 American and French peacekeepers. I lost family members in that terror attack.


And it was during his time as spiritual leader that so many Westerners were kidnapped and held hostage in Lebanon.


When the Lebanese Civil War ended in 1990 with Syria taking full control of Lebanon, Hezbollah was and remains the only armed militia in Lebanon. Under Syria's influence however, Hezbollah - declared a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union started becoming even more militant, with designs beyond Lebanon's borders to serve agendas for Syria and Iran.


Fadlallah himself was designated a terrorist by the U.S. Treasury Department.


In later years, Hezbollah's leadership apparently did not like Fadlallah's vocal criticism of Hezbollah's allegiance to Iran. Nor did they like his assertions that Hezbollah's leaders had been distracted from resistance to Israeli occupation of portions of Lebanon and had turned weapons against their own people.


At first, he was simply pushed to the side, but later wasn't even referred to as a Hezbollah member. Rather, he was referred to as the scholar - the expert on Islam - but nothing more. During the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, his honorary title "Sayyed" - indicating that he's a descendant of the prophet - was dropped any time he was mentioned on Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV and other Hezbollah media outlets.


Through his outspoken Friday sermons and his regularly updated website, Fadlallah had a platform to spread what many considered a more moderate voice of Shia Islam than what was coming out of Iran. Immensely popular in Lebanon among the various religious groups, he also had followers across the region including in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain and even as far as Morocco in northern Africa."

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So, Nasr’s gone.


And now the attention has turned to the British Ambassador to Lebanon:


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"To say that it's deeply unprofessional and wholly inappropriate for a representative of the British government--a close ally of the U.S. and France, plus a supposed friend of Israel--to be publicly honoring Fadallah is a gross understatement."


"CNN have just sacked their Middle East editor Octavia Nasr after she tweeted that she ‘respected’ Fadlallah. Idiots and moral cretins may have written up Fadlallah as ‘progressive’ or (my favourite) ‘complex’, for heaven’s sake, because he supported Muslim women’s rights and abortion. But how can Britain employ an ambassador to Lebanon who gushes her devotion to a spiritual godfather of global terror, jihad and Jew-hatred?"


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Here’s a cached version of her blog, the original has been deleted:


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The passing of decent men

One of the privileges of being a diplomat is the people you meet; great and small, passionate and furious.  People in Lebanon like to ask me which politician I admire most.  It is an unfair question, obviously, and many are seeking to make a political response of their own.  I usually avoid answering by referring to those I enjoy meeting the most and those that impress me the most.  Until yesterday my preferred answer was to refer to Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, head of the Shia clergy in Lebanon and much admired leader of many Shia muslims throughout the world.  When you visited him you could be sure of a real debate, a respectful argument and you knew you would leave his presence feeling a better person.  That for me is the real effect of a true man of religion; leaving an impact on everyone he meets, no matter what their faith.  Sheikh Fadlallah passed away yesterday.  Lebanon is a lesser place the day after but his absence will be felt well beyond Lebanon's shores.  I remember well when I was nominated ambassador to Beirut, a muslim acquaintance sought me out to tell me how lucky I was because I would get a chance to meet Sheikh Fadlallah. Truly he was right.  If I was sad to hear the news I know other peoples' lives will be truly blighted.  The world needs more men like him willing to reach out across faiths, acknowledging the reality of the modern world and daring to confront old constraints.  May he rest in peace.


The blog is here.

 ---
Are we really saying that there is no room at all for the grey? Is everything black and white?


I would suggest that the majority of those criticizing Fadlallah have never been to the Middle East, let alone been involved in dealings with religious figures and the organizations they are associated with.


Fadlallah was a moderate.


That he was not moderate enough for the tastes of those wishing to sell newspapers is irrelevant.


It is a gross simplification to boil things down to “you're either with us or against us”. It simply does not work.


Anyone living in Lebanon understands that.


I’ve just lost an enormous amount of respect for CNN.


People talk about Liberal media bias … on the evidence of this Conservative media bias is alive and well.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

I’m in the wrong field…


Ok, the other week we had people telling us that Beirut’s cars were causing pollution and harming our health.

This week we’ve got Lebanon’s Transport Minister telling us that the roads are awful and that they endanger our lives.

And people get paid to pontificate on these issues.

Seriously, where do I sign up?

And then there’s the audacity exhibited by the Middle East Society of Asphalt Technologies for even showing their face in the country. It beggars belief.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Stones and glasshouses


Hezbollah is talking about suing the US government and Lebanese NGOs that accept American money.

The reasoning behind this is that the US, through these NGOs, is slandering the organization and tarnishing its image.

The gist of the claim is that the US, through the NGOs, is brainwashing Lebanese youth against the party and intervening in internal Lebanese politics. The irony of this isn’t lost on most commentators, given that, allegedly, major donations to the party originate in Iran.

Pot, meet my friend, kettle.

It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.