Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 6   No. 4 Table of Contents
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April 2004 

The Fattoush Phenomenon
by Ziad K. Abdelnour


Western observers who wish to better understand Lebanon's labyrinthine politics would do well to closely examine a rather mundane incident that took place in Beirut recently. Although unmentioned in the Western media and only briefly covered in the local press, it reveals a great deal about the underlying dynamics of Lebanon's political order.

The incident began on April 5, during a vigorous parliamentary debate on the 2004 budget, when Zahle MP Nicolas Fattoush took the floor and declared that the entire tenure of President Emile Lahoud had been decidedly unproductive, and that the president and Interior Minister Elias Murr had violated laws and threatened freedom in Lebanon during his tenure. Although similar charges had been made by other deputies during the debate (Kesrouan MP Neamatallah Abi Nasr demanded the cabinet's immediate resignation), Fattoush had violated a time-honored parliamentary "red line" in Syrian-occupied Lebanon - he had criticized the president by name. Moreover, he had done so at a time when Syria is contemplating whether to impose an unconstitutional extension of Lahoud's tenure when his six-year term in office expires this fall.

When word of Fattoush's remarks reached Lahoud, according to Lebanese press reports, the president promptly picked up the phone and lodged a complaint with Syrian officials, who "decided to put an immediate end to this episode."[1] Hours later, Beirut MP Nasser Qandil, known for his close ties to Syrian military intelligence, took the floor (out of turn - he was not scheduled to speak), accused Fattoush of "political sedition," and warned that it is "not permitted to transform the Chamber into a barricade across which members could try to settle certain personal accounts."[2] One journalist present noted: "Judging from the silence and long faces that followed . . . it was evident that parliamentarians from all sides had understood the Syrian message and were ready to act accordingly."[3] The following day, Fattoush issued a "clarification," saying that he had not meant to attack anyone, but his troubles were not over. Late that evening, Army intelligence agents arrested several of his aides and bodyguards in midnight raids in and around Zahle, ostensibly on drug trafficking charges.[4]

These incidents underscore first and foremost that, contrary to Western media portrayals, Syria's political domination of Lebanon is more absolute than ever before. While Syrian human rights abuses in Lebanon were far more egregious in the early 1990s than they are today, tens years ago a Lebanese MP would not have elicited such a harsh Syrian reprimand merely for criticizing the president (or any other senior government official) by name. Moreover, Syria's handling of Fattoush's insubordination attracted little media attention and evoked hardly a whimper of protest from fellow politicians, even those in the opposition - such quiet displays of collective submission by Lebanon's entire political class have become more and more frequent.

The Fattoush episode also illustrates that Syria's satellite regime has become extremely high-maintenance - Syria is finding it necessary to arbitrate, reprimand, or otherwise directly intervene in the day-to-day affairs of government much more often than ever before. During the past year, Syrian officials have been called upon to settle at least a dozen festering policy disputes between Lahoud and Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Since he assumed power in 2000, Syrian President Bashar Assad has frequently lectured Lebanese politicians about the need for their government to become more self-regulating, but his vision of hands-off Syrian hegemony in Lebanon is still a pipe dream.

A third characteristic of Lebanese politics revealed by the Fattoush affair is the tendency of postwar elites across the ideological and sectarian spectrum to base their political allegiances almost solely on the pursuit of private gain. Fattoush, a former tourism minister and supporter of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, is not a member of the "opposition" as the term is understood in the West. Indeed, he had little to say about the government's stifling of freedom and arbitrary exercise of power until last year, when he abruptly began denouncing political interference in the judiciary. What brought about the French-educated former law professor's sudden political conversion was the Interior Ministry's closure of a lucrative, but environmentally unsound, rock quarry owned by his brother. Qandil was quite correct - Fattoush was trying to settle personal scores.

Fattoush's hope of winning an exemption for his brother's rock quarry is quite typical of what motivates Lebanon's political class. The recent scandals at Al-Madina Bank and Electricite du Liban underscore quite vividly how rampant government corruption is in Lebanon. Even long-standing members of the mainstream "opposition" in Lebanon are mostly cut from the same cloth - their impassioned government criticism is more a reflection of their exclusion from the spoils of government than anything else.

In sharp contrast to other Arab states, those who have attained political power in Lebanon do not share an overarching ideological consensus, cultural worldview, or even common interest that overrides private ambition. Indeed, it is the unbridled pursuit of individual gain that holds Lebanon's political order together. The Syrian occupation is simply an unpleasant manifestation of this dysfunction. When Israel occupied Beirut in 1982, it found Lebanese politicians to be just as accommodating as they were when Syrian troops marched in eight years later. If ever Lebanon's political elite were to decide that national sovereignty is more important than rock quarries, Syria would have great difficulty controlling Lebanon.


  [1] The Daily Star (Beirut), 7 April 2004.
  [2] Monday Morning (Beirut), 12 April 2004.
  [3] The Daily Star (Beirut), 7 April 2004.
  [4] Al-Nahar (Beirut), 8 April 2004.

2004 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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