It is no coincidence that the crackdown came just a few days after a historic visit by Maronite Christian Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir to the predominantly Druze Shouf region. This event underscored the extent to which Lebanese Christians and Muslims have set aside sectarian differences in pursuit of national goals and objectives. For the Syrians, who have frequently told Western officials that their continued military presence in Lebanon is a hedge against sectarian divisions, this overwhelming display of national unity was viewed as an unacceptable attempt to embarrass Syrian President Bashar Assad ahead of the Francophone summit in Beirut this fall.
It is also no coincidence that the crackdown was launched while Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was out of the country on a state visit to Pakistan, or that Hariri and his allies in the cabinet were kept in the dark about preparations for the crackdown by members of the security establishment.
While the legitimacy of successive puppet governments handpicked by Syria to run the country since 1990 has been questionable in the eyes of most Lebanese, the legality of the political process remained largely intact until now. In order to secure continued American and European acceptance of its authority over Lebanon, Damascus has hitherto maintained the veneer of a functioning democratic system in the country. Whereas the Syrian regime's rule over its own population has been arbitrary and lacking all but the most rudimentary pretenses of representative governance, its control over Lebanon has been channeled through executive, legislative and judicial institutions that appeared to function more or less constitutionally [see How Syria Orchestrates Lebanon's Elections in the August 2000 issue of MEIB]. While the individuals who held the reins of power in Lebanon were carefully vetted by their Syrian patron, governmental institutions operated within a framework of checks and balances.
This has now changed. During the course of this latest crisis, Syrian officials and the Lebanese military-intelligence complex have repeatedly circumvented the Lebanese cabinet and seized direct control over the country. The mass arrests of "enemies of the state," the beatings of protestors by plainclothes security units, and the televised "confession" of a detained suspect all derive from the resounding failure of Bashar Assad's efforts to shore up Syrian hegemony over Lebanon through peaceful means. However, this power play has encountered tremendous opposition from Lebanese civil society and even within the Lebanese political establishment.
Speaking before an ocean of white-turbaned Druze sheikhs, Sfeir declared that the history of Maronite-Druze communal conflict, which led to outbreaks of fierce violence in 1860 and 1983-84, was consigned to the past. "The curtain has been lowered for good on this black past and now we must close ranks to defend freedoms and human rights in Lebanon." Sfeir also praised the Druze leader's late father, Kamal Jumblatt, who was assassinated by the Syrians in March 1977 after contesting its military intervention in Lebanon, as "a victim of his honesty and being true to himself."
Sfeir's resounding calls for forgiveness, reconciliation and tolerance were matched by Jumblatt, who declared that past wars between Maronites and Druze were "gone forever." The Druze leader repeatedly reassured Christian residents of the Shouf, most of whom have remained displaced due to the fighting in 1983-84, that they will soon be able to return to their homes. The two leaders held a lengthy closed-door meeting afterwards at Jumblatt's residence.1
The Patriarch's visit was, of course, motivated by more than a mutual desire for reconciliation. Sfeir and Jumblatt have both become vocal opponents of Syrian hegemony over the last year and have found this stance to be enormously popular among their constituents. The visit was clearly calculated to cement this political alignment. The Syrians had very good reason to find this threatening.
The Hammer Falls
The first signs of a crackdown came on August 5, when five members of the Free National Current (FNC), a nonsectarian nationalist movement headed by Michel Aoun, a former army commander and prime minister who was ousted by Syrian military forces in October 1990, were arrested in Beirut while distributing the movement's weekly newsletter.
That evening, in an apparent snub against the Syrians, Prime Minister Hariri once again urged Aoun to return to Lebanon during a television interview broadcast by NBN. "I still stand by my guarantee that nothing will happen to him." When Hariri first made such a call in January, the Lebanese judicial and security agencies (both of which are tightly controlled by Damascus) promptly contradicted him and pledged to arrest Aoun on charges of usurping authority during his tenure. After a sharp rebuke from the Syrians, Hariri quickly backed down and refused to comment on the issue. A similar pattern has emerged with respect to other hot button issues - Hariri attempts to assert his authority vis-à-vis President Emile Lahoud and the security agencies (e.g. by questioning the wisdom of Hezbollah attacks against Israel), then backs down temporarily after being berated by Damascus and its Lebanese allies.
On August 7, security forces began a massive sweep against the FNC, arresting over 140 of its members, including the group's national coordinator, Nadim Lteif, his second in command, Hikmat Deeb, and FNC spokesman George Haddad. Security forces also stormed offices of the banned Lebanese Forces (LF) party in the Antelias quarter of east Beirut and arrested around 40 activists, including senior LF official Salman Samaha. Toufic Hindi, an advisor to the LF's jailed leader, Samir Geagea, was later arrested at his home. Altogether, nearly 250 people were taken into custody by the end of the day.
One of the detainees who was later released, Dr. Mario Aoun, an endocrinologist and head of the FNC Shouf branch, gave details of the raid in a subsequent interview with the Beirut daily Al-Nahar. "We were in the meeting and suddenly they stormed the offices . . . they asked us to stay behind the tables and took away our mobile phones. Then they started ransacking the offices and computers and they took us all down and stuffed us like sardine cans in army trucks," recalled Aoun.
Most of the FNC detainees were taken to the Defense Ministry at Yarze, east of Beirut, where they were packed together in a 120 square meter sun-baked holding cell. "They took our watches so that we lost track of time and gave us only one bottle of water to quench our thirst. We slept on the floor with no mattresses or blankets," said Aoun. "We did not know why we were arrested. They did not tell us anything and cut us off from the outside world," he added.
Hours later, Lebanese Interior Minister Elias Murr said that ongoing interrogations of the suspects "were beginning to reveal a plot to partition the country, by using the opportunity of a possible Israeli strike . . . It is a very serious project, which could have put the country in a very dangerous situation."4
In fact, MEIB has learned that the black-shirted figures were members of a "security guard company" owned by Elie Hobeiqa, a Lebanese former militia warlord with close ties to Syrian intelligence. Although they are technically Lebanese nationals, many of them are newly-naturalized Syrians (who can be moved to do amazing things when threatened with the revocation of their citizenship).
Shortly after the fiasco outside the Justice Palace, Lebanese officials announced that Toufic Hindi and other high-ranking LF officials had been in contact with Israeli officials and produced a video tape of Hindi's interrogation which appeared to confirm the allegation. Two journalists said to have been in contact with Israel were subsequently taken into custody [see An Israeli-LF Plot? in this issue of MEIB].
During his interrogation, Lteif denied that he or any other members of the FNC had been in contact with Israel, but reportedly told military examining magistrate Abdullah al-Hajj: "I believe that the Syrian presence constitutes an encroachment on Lebanon's sovereignty. This is my personal conviction and I have declared it in public time and time again." Afterwards, Hajj indicted Lteif on charges of "committing acts, authoring writings and making speeches . . . which could expose Lebanon to aggression and disturb its relations with a sister country," punishable by 3 to 15 years in prison. The indictment also accused Lteif of "communicating false or exaggerated news that tend to weaken the nation's morale and patriotic feeling."5
The severity of the charges filed against Lteif and other FNC activists led an estimated 1,000 Lebanese to apply for immigration visas at the Australian and Canadian embassies during the first week of the crisis. Patriarch Sfeir, who has expressed disapproval of the massive outflow of Christians from the country in recent years, reportedly began pressuring the embassies not to grant visas to the mostly Christian applicants.
However, on August 20 Chief Military Prosecutor Nasri Lahoud ordered the release of Lteif and dozens of other FNC activists still in detention after they were required to pay a fine of 3 million Lebanese liras (around $2000). The release, Lahoud said, was intended to "to avoid the issue of the extended provisional arrest being used by some groups as a political football." Responding to fierce criticism of early statements by the judiciary which hinted at FNC involvement with Israel (an allegation which even the movement's critics denounced as preposterous), Lahoud declared that "there was no prior assumption . . . that the [released] detainees were involved in a conspiracy with the enemy's intelligence services."6
Uproar in Lebanon
Prominent political elites across the sectarian and ideological spectrum immediately condemned the crackdown and accused President Emile Lahoud of transforming the country into a police state and plotting to undermine the dramatic display of Christian-Druze reconciliation that took place in the Shouf. Others questioned the constitutionality of the crackdown, noting that the Constitution stipulates that the cabinet must authorize all actions taken by the army.
Christian political and religious leaders exhibited virtual unanimity in reaction to the arrests. "It looks like the regime and the intelligence branches are out to sabotage the historic results of my Shouf visit. The state is giving the impression that it rejects Maronite-Druze reconciliation," proclaimed Cardinal Sfeir during a speech televised live from his summer residence in Diman on August 8. "I believe those who kidnapped our sons harbor evil in their hearts . . . When I think about who plunged this sword in the hearts of mothers I weep for this country," said Greek Orthodox Archbishop Elias Aoude. The Qornet Shehwan Gathering, a coalition of mainstream Christian political figures, released a statement accusing the government of "launching a coup d'etat against national reconciliation and scheming to sabotage the climate of dialogue, pragmatism and moderation" that prevailed during Sfeir's visit. MP Nassib Lahoud's Democratic Renewal Movement said that "the real aim of the campaign of arrests is to break the wave of openness reflected in the Maronite patriarch's visit to the Shouf . . . [and] strike at what remains of the democratic system in Lebanon, paving the way for establishing an oppressive security regime."7 "The state should have joined and trumpeted this reconciliation festival," wrote Gibran Tueni, the editor of the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar. "Instead, it foolishly struck back with vengeful hate."8
Likewise, many prominent Sunni Muslim political figures expressed opposition to the crackdown. "The authorities made a huge mistake by arresting some young people because of their beliefs and positions . . . we don't believe that repression is the way to deal with the opinions of others," said former Prime Minister Selim al-Hoss.11 While most Shi'ite political and religious figures declined to criticize the arrests, leftists such as former MP Habib Sadeq staunchly condemned them.
National and local professional associations almost unanimously condemned the measures. The Beirut and Tripoli Bar Associations declared a nationwide strike and urged all lawyers to stay away from the courts for two straight days. The president of the Tripoli Bar Association, George Mourani, went so far as to call the crackdown "a coup d'etat against democracy." The Federation of Lebanese Engineers and the Physicians syndicate held emergency meetings to condemn the arrests.
Unqualified support for the crackdown came only from unabashedly pro-Syrian political figures and organizations. The Lebanese branch of Syria's ruling Ba'ath party praised the "measures" taken by the Lebanese armed forces to "preserve and protect the march of civil peace in the country."12
The crackdown inspired a number of demonstrations among the Lebanese diaspora. An estimated 500 Lebanese Canadians demonstrated outside the Lebanese embassy in Ottawa on August 13 and a similar protest took place near the Lebanese consulate in Montreal. On August 24, around 8,000 Australians of Lebanese descent held a candle light vigil in Sydney to demonstrate support for Lebanese democracy. Other demonstrations by Lebanese in Washington and London drew hundreds of participants.
American reaction to the crackdown against opponents of the Syrian occupation was initially subdued, despite the fact that one of the detainees, attorney Fadi Barakat, is a US citizen. Asked about his reaction to the arrests after his arrival in Lebanon on August 9, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Satterfield told reporters that he preferred not to comment on the issue, but added quickly that "the US government has always regarded very positively the support and deep pride with which Lebanon and the Lebanese have historically regarded freedom of expression," a remark that seemed to deliberately imply that the current state of this freedom in Lebanon was not endangered.13
As the crisis escalated, however, American officials suddenly began to explicitly criticize the crackdown. The head of the Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan section at the US State Department, Richard Erdman, reportedly told Lebanon's Ambassador in Washington, Farid Abboud, that his government should abide by the international civil and political rights conventions it has signed. On August 22, the US embassy's deputy chief of mission in Beirut, Carol Kalin, met with Justice Minister Samir al-Jisr and stated that "the detentions violated the law and undermined freedoms."14 It was widely speculated that this abrupt turn around in US reaction came after Hariri asked American officials to condemn the crackdown.
The Vatican, which has rarely criticized the Syrian regime or its Lebanese client state since the early 1990's, condemned the crackdown in unusually explicit terms. "There are serious political tensions in Lebanon after a wave of arrests that is an obstacle to national dialogue," said Pope John Paul II after noon prayers at his summer residence outside Rome on August 19. "The values of democracy and national sovereignty must not be sacrificed to temporary political interests," he added. "A pluralistic and free Lebanon is an asset for the entire Middle East region. May everybody help the Lebanese preserve it and make it bear fruit."15
The Regime Divided
After the August 7 arrests, Lebanese cabinet ministers loyal to Hariri and Jumblatt publicly complained that Interior Minister Elias Murr and the chiefs of the country's military-intelligence complex had overstepped their authority. "The intelligence services should have at least warned government members," complained Information Minister Ghazi Aridi on August 8.16 "What is the source of decision-making? Who shoulders responsibility for what happened? Who rules Lebanon?," declared Minister of State for Administrative Development Fouad Saad.17 Other members of the Hariri and Jumblatt camps, such as Justice Minister Samir al-Jisr, Minister of State Pierre Helou and Minister for the Displaced Marwan Hamade, expressed similar reservations.
Hariri returned from his visit to Pakistan on August 8 and maintained a conspicuous refusal to comment on the turmoil which took place in his absence. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who has aligned with Jumblatt and Hariri against Lahoud and the security establishment in recent months, also remained tight-lipped, though a member of his parliamentary bloc, MP Abdel Latif Zein, declared that the arrests "contradict the principles of public freedoms set down in the constitution."18
When the cabinet convened on August 9, President Lahoud and several stridently pro-Syrian ministers promptly demanded that Hariri and his allies approve the release of a cabinet decree endorsing the arrests. According to an account of the six hour debate published by Al-Nahar, Hariri initially refused to lend political cover to a crackdown that he had been deliberately made unaware of, declaring "I refuse the stratagem of dictating fait accompli."
Ultimately, the majority of the ministers agreed upon a vaguely-worded statement which praised the army as the "guarantor of civil peace and defender of the nation's dignity," but did not explicitly endorse the arrests and asserted the cabinet's constitutional authority over the security services.
Allies of Hariri and Jumblatt weighed in squarely against the closure. "No one will close MTV as long as I am shouldering my responsibility, " Information Minister Ghazi Aridi reportedly declared during the August 9 cabinet session. The motion was defeated.19
The following week, Damascus successfully pressured the Lebanese parliament to approve amendments to the Criminal Procedures Law that revoked measures previously introduced to shield suspects from prolonged detention without trial. "I know the amendment motion is unconstitutional," a solemn Hariri told his parliamentary colleagues, "but I am going along with it because otherwise there will be a political crisis the country can do without." Although the amendments were passed on August 13, dozens of MP's stormed out in protest prior to the vote and several openly pleaded with Hariri and Parliament Speaker Berri to resist "external" pressure [see Parliament Reluctantly Caves into Syrian Pressure in this issue of MEIB].
As political commentators and editorialists across the political spectrum lambasted the parliament vote as a mortal blow to democracy, Damascus broke its official silence regarding the crackdown and openly pledged support to Lahoud and the Lebanese military. "President Assad has reaffirmed Syria's absolute support to President Emile Lahoud, to the commander of the Lebanese army, and to the Lebanese government, people and resistance," Syria's official news agency announced on August 14.
Hariri traveled to Damascus on August 16 and met with Assad for nearly three hours. Although the prime minister refused to comment on the talks, he was clearly upset by what he heard. Upon returning to Beirut, Hariri told a cabinet meeting that there have been "major unjustified excesses" during the crackdown which would not go unpunished. Afterwards, the cabinet released a statement acknowledging that "mistakes" were made during the crackdown and pledging to prosecute security agents who used "excessive force." Significantly, however, President Lahoud did not attend the cabinet meeting (as is usually the case unless he's out of the country), nor did his key supporters in the cabinet, such as Interior Minister Murr, Health Minister Suleiman Franjieh and Minister of State Talal Arslan. That evening, Hariri and his family left the country for a ten day vacation on the Italian resort island of Sardinia. "I leave without any worries," the premier told Al-Nahar before boarding his plane.20
On August 19, Syria further underscored its support for the Lebanese military-intelligence complex by unexpectedly dispatching around 100 truckloads of soldiers across the Masnaa border checkpoint into Lebanon. Emboldened by this demonstration of support from Damascus, Lahoud ordered the release of most of the detainees on August 20 and held a two-hour meeting with Patriarch Sfeir in Diman in apparent effort to win Christian support for his faction of the regime. However, Aridi held a news conference and declared that those who ordered the crackdown "must be put behind bars." This led Telecommunications Minister Jean-Louis Qordahi, a pro-Lahoud member of the cabinet, to denounce Aridi's comment as a "personal vendetta."21
Shortly thereafter, Hariri summoned Aridi and three other loyalist cabinet ministers - Finance Minister Fouad Siniora, Minister of the Displaced Marwan Hamade, and Minister of Administrative Reform Fouad Saad - to Sardinia and the four quickly departed on board the prime minister's private jet.
As Hariri prepares to return to Lebanon on August 26, the local media is reporting that Damascus has brokered a "cease-fire" between the opposing factions of the Lebanese regime. "Lebanon is in a good shape. What happens of differences from time to time internally remain always within control, remedied by consensus and by acting as a cohesive government task force," Lahoud told visitors at his summer residence in Beiteddine. Even Qordahi adopted a conciliatory tone, proclaiming his war of words with Aridi to have been a "passing summer cloud" in an otherwise "friendly relationship" with the minister of information.22
The consensus among political analysts in Lebanon is that the Syrians have temporarily reined in the Lebanese military-intelligence complex, fearing that the economic impact of this latest political crisis will further strengthen public opposition to the Syrian presence. Indeed, the crisis has already had a devastating effect on the Lebanese economy, particularly the value of the Lebanese pound. During the first week of the crisis, the Lebanese Central Bank sold around $350 million in dollars to support the currency. Moreover, there has been a significant flight of capital since the crisis began, estimated at over $250 million. "Major clients of the most important Lebanese banks gave orders to transfer a part of their deposits to foreign branches," said one banking official quoted by AFP.23
While the acrimonious struggle between the Lahoud and Hariri camps of the Lebanese regime may have been temporarily papered over to avert a complete economic meltdown, this month's crackdown is nevertheless a political watershed. The Syrian-authorized arrest sweep launched by the military-intelligence complex heralds the failure of Syria's attempts to appease the Lebanese opposition by putting a kinder and gentler face on its military occupation. While Syria's partial withdrawal of forces from Beirut in mid-June [see Under Duress, Syria Pulls Troops out of Beirut in the June 2001 issue of MEIB] may have solidified Western backing for its continuing military deployment in Lebanon, it did little to undermine the growing chorus of voices inside Lebanon itself calling for a complete pullout. When Israel withdrew from central Lebanon in the mid-1980's, resistance to its continuing occupation of south Lebanon did not diminish as expected, but increased and intensified. Assad is learning the same harsh lesson.
The crisis also highlights Syria's resounding failure to co-opt the Christian political establishment in Lebanon. Former Lebanese Foreign Minister Fouad Boutros, who for the last nine months had been acting, at Assad's invitation, as an intermediary between the Syrians and the Maronite church, announced earlier this month that he would not continue his mediation efforts. "I consider my basic assignment in this regard to be over, as it would have no bearing in the current climate," said Boutros in remarks published by Al-Nahar.24
1 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 6 August 2001.
2 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 10 August 2001.
3 Tele-Liban TV (Beirut), 8 August 2001.
4 LBC Television, 8 August 2001.
5 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 15 August 2001.
6 The Daily Star (Beirut), 22 August 2001.
7 The Daily Star (Beirut), 9 August 2001.
8 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 11 August 2001.
9 The Daily Star (Beirut), 9 August 2001.
10 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 14 August 2001.
11 The Daily Star (Beirut), 9 August 2001.
12 Syrian Arab Republic Radio (Damascus), 8 August 2001.
13 The Daily Star (Beirut), 10 August 2001.
14 The Daily Star (Beirut), 23 August 2001.
15 AFP, 19 August 2001.
16 Agence France Press, 8 August 2001.
17 The Daily Star (Beirut), 9 August 2001.
18 The Daily Star (Beirut), 10 August 2001.
19 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 11 August 2001.
20 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 17 August 2001.
21 The Daily Star (Beirut), 22 August 2001.
22 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 25 August 2001.
23 AFP, 18 August 2001.
24 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 11 August 2001.