Lebanon between the Megaphone and the Gun

Lebanese army soldiers evacuate civilians caught in sniper fire in the Lebanese northern coastal city of Tripoli on November 30, 2013 (GHASSAN SWEIDAN/AFP/Getty Images) Lebanese army soldiers evacuate civilians caught in sniper fire in the Lebanese northern coastal city of Tripoli on November 30, 2013 (GHASSAN SWEIDAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Lebanese army soldiers evacuate civilians caught in sniper fire in the Lebanese northern coastal city of Tripoli on November 30, 2013 (GHASSAN SWEIDAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Lebanon's Al-Jadeed TV channel recently aired a show that accused the country's Customs Administration of corruption. Last week, Riad Kobeissi, an investigative journalist with the channel, requested interviews with customs officials. After being turned down, he showed up in front of the Customs Administration’s headquarters with a megaphone to reiterate his demand. Within minutes, the authorities sent in armed men who assaulted him and his team, broke their camera, and forced him into their offices.

While Kobeissi was being detained, fellow journalists rallied to his support. The Lebanese Army deployed several troops to the site, and after some time the Customs Administration smuggled Kobeissi out of a back door and drove him to the Palace of Justice, where he was interrogated. Hours later, Kobeissi emerged, free, defiant, and wagging his finger at the Customs Administration, saying that its chief had better resign—or else.

At face value, the Kobeissi fiasco tells a story of governmental overreach in grabbing a journalist. But the debacle, most of which was broadcast live, also exposes a much deeper problem.

Journalists around the world enjoy a bully pulpit. They speak on TV or on the radio, or they write in print. Many of them are recognized both in their communities and beyond, which makes Kobeissi's megaphone rally an unprofessional act of provocation. Kobeissi could have leveled all kinds of accusations of corruption against the Customs Administration and then simply said the authority had turned down his requests for interviews. Such a tactic, often employed by media worldwide, would have been enough to raise public ire and condemn the Customs Administration.

Then came the customs authority's failure. A border authority can use force against anyone who breaks the law, but only on ports of entry and borders. The fact that the administration's men are licensed to carry AK-47s does not grant them the right to assault Kobeissi, detain him or interrogate him. If the Customs Administration was annoyed by Kobeissi's megaphone, it could have called the police. Had it felt Kobeissi's report was unfair, it could have taken him to court for defamation. But beating him up was a reprehensible act of sadism.

Then there is the army. Even though not at fault in this incident, the troops it deployed had no instructions. They simply waved at cars to keep moving. The army did not confine the demonstrating journalists to any assigned areas. It did not release Kobeissi, who was detained by unauthorized armed officers.

Then Kobeissi was released, to the cheers of his media colleagues. His threats against the Customs Administration—at the entrance to the Palace of Justice, no less—smell of a society that has become drunk on violence, and perhaps addicted to it. Given his aggrieved tone, who will believe Kobeissi's reporting is objective when they see him swearing revenge for what seems to be personal vendetta against the customs agency?

A few days later Army chief Jean Kahwagi visited the Palace of Justice, where he met with the nation's most senior judges. The visit was not related to the Kobeissi fiasco. After the visit, Kahwagi —who is positioning himself to succeed President Michel Suleiman in 2014—said that the military and the judiciary were inseparable. Perhaps Kahwagi meant it as a statement of friendship, but one wonders how this presidential hopeful can fail to see the problem of the army visiting with judges, let alone his failure to show an understanding of the principle of the separation of powers.

Against such a background, in a state where officials—both military and civilian—show no understanding of their roles or the legal limitations to their authority, and where journalists think they can double as activists with megaphones, it becomes clear to an observer why Lebanon is in such a dire situation.

Leaving aside Hezbollah's mighty militia and how its existence and activities undermine the state, Lebanese officials show no understanding of how a state functions, even in issues where Hezbollah is not involved. Those who are entrusted with holding the authorities accountable, like the media and civil society, are even worse.

Over the past few weeks, the northern city of Tripoli has seen intensive fighting between Sunnis and the Alawites. The judiciary has accused Alawite leader Ali Eid of facilitating the bombing of two Sunni mosques, and has accordingly summoned him to court. Empowered by his militia and his alliance with Hezbollah, Eid refused to show up. Families and friends of the Tripoli bombings' victims, calling themselves "Blood Guardians" (awliya al-dam), have said if the state doesn’t put Eid on trial and punish him, they will exact revenge themselves—which they have been trying to do for weeks.

The state, meanwhile, has deployed the army as a deterrent force between Sunni and Alawite neighborhoods. The army has no will to uphold the judiciary's order, despite the "friendship" between the two.

If the army ever intervenes to stop the fighting, it would probably tilt the balance in favor of the Alawis against their victims. Kahwagi is eyeing the presidency, and he would not let minor events—like a mini civil war in the north—stop him since Hezbollah can veto his candidacy if the Alawites ever lose.

Lebanon is a mess. Its biggest problem is the armed, unfair and unstoppable Hezbollah. But even if Hezbollah vanished one day, the Lebanese—like the Iraqis, the Libyans and the Syrians—seem unprepared to run their own failing state.

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.

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