Political tension escalates in Lebanon as insults and accusations fly

Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Al-Hariri gestures during a news conference in Beirut on Nov. 13. (Reuters)
Updated 02 December 2018
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Political tension escalates in Lebanon as insults and accusations fly

  • Wiam Wahhab’s rhetoric resembles the campaigns that targeted former PM Rafik Hariri
  • Jumblatt suggested that Wahhab was “sending out orders” through his statements

BEIRUT: Tension is rising in Lebanon following disparaging comments made by former minister Wiam Wahhab about Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his late father, former Premier Rafik Hariri. 

Wahhab, a Druze, is a member of the March 8 Alliance, which also includes Hezbollah and is aligned with the Syrian regime.

A video emerged a few days ago of a gathering at which Wahhab could be heard making personal insults against certain individuals. Although he did not specify whom he was targeting in the video, it is widely assumed that he was referring to the Hariris.

Wahhab also targeted the president of the Progressive Socialist Party, Walid Jumblatt.

Supporters of both sides have taken to the streets in recent days. Wahhab’s supporters led motorcades to Moukhtara, the small town in which Jumblatt resides, on Thursday night. Jumblatt’s response was that “Moukhtara is a red line, whatever the regional balance.”

The Lebanese Army stated it had “seized 25 vehicles and arrested 57 of the people participating in the motorcades and confiscated their weapons and ammunition,” adding that the detainees and the seized weapons and ammunition had been referred to the relevant judiciary, and an investigation had commenced.

Officials from the Future Movement and the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) stated that Wahhab’s rhetoric “is way out of line and resembles the campaigns that targeted former PM Rafik Hariri and (president of the PSP and leader of Lebanon’s Druze Walid) Jumblatt prior to the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005.”

Jumblatt suggested that Wahhab was “sending out orders” through his statements.

Allies of Hariri filed a lawsuit against Wahhab, accusing him of “stirring strife and risking civil peace,” which was accepted on Friday by State Prosecutor Samir Hammoud.

Wahhab was referred to the Information Department of the Internal Security Forces (ISF) for investigation. Wahhab’s lawyers refused to receive a summons for their client on Friday.

On Saturday afternoon, ISF officers went to Wahhab’s residence in Jahlieh to bring him in for questioning. Wahhab was not there, but one of Wahhab’s aides, Mohammad Abou Diab, was shot in what the ISF claim was unilateral fire from “unidentified gunmen” after Wahhab’s supporters began firing “randomly.” The ISF claims its officers did not open fire. Abou Diab later died from his wounds.

In a televised statement, Wahhab accused Hariri, Hammoud and ISF director general Maj. Gen. Imad Osman, of “planning to assassinate him” and spoke of “an insult to his dignity.” He said: “Blood has been shed — who will bear responsibility for it?” Wahhab also warned Hariri that Lebanon is on the path to “war,” and said the prime minister should negotiate with Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah.

Jumblatt met with the prime minister on Saturday evening. Talking to the press afterwards, Jumblatt said that events had put “the dignity of Lebanese citizens” at risk.

“The state has done its duty and we support it. We cannot continue to tolerate this abnormal situation,” he said. “We stand by PM Saad Hariri and reject any attack against him or his position, just as we reject the use of insults, especially at this stage, which requires discretion and not offensive discourse.

“I hope the government can be formed without (violence) slipping into the streets,” he added, referring to Hariri’s struggle — ongoing since May 24 — to form Lebanon’s government.

A senior PSP official said Jumblatt was convinced Wahhab’s campaign against Hariri was part of a plot by the Syrian regime, adding that “an outside party” is hindering the formation of Lebanon’s government.

Moustafa Allouch, a member of the Future Movement’s political bureau, told Arab News: “The blood that was shed in Jahlieh is the responsibility of whoever caused it and used people as human shields.” He called on the ISF to conduct a criminal investigation to find out who had shot Abou Diab.

“What Wahhab has done is an offense that stirs sectarian strife, and what happened in Jahlieh is that Wahhab sold the life of his supporter to cover the charge against himself,” Allouch added. “Wahhab deserves to go to prison for a long time because he knew what the repercussions of his discourse would be.”

Another Future Movement member, Rola Tabash Jaroudi, told Arab News: “What happened reflects the low level of political discourse in Lebanon, and counts as an insult to the government, the prime minister and Lebanon as a whole,” adding that “the perpetrator must be held accountable.”

She also warned that the Lebanese people “can no longer tolerate this kind of pressure and provocation” and stressed the need for the government to be formed as quickly as possible, urging all parties to “withdraw unfair demands.”

UAE Ambassador to Lebanon Hamad Saeed Al-Shamsi, said, “We must stand by PM Saad Hariri, and all the people of Lebanon must understand that it is in their country’s interest to have the government formed, especially as (Lebanon hosts the Arab Economic and Social Development Summit in January). How can Lebanon participate effectively without a government?”


Normalcy restored in Egyptian Sinai city, but danger lurks

Updated 11 December 2018
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Normalcy restored in Egyptian Sinai city, but danger lurks

  • Authorities are building a wall around the city's airport after militants rocketed a helicopter used by the then defense and interior ministers
  • The pervasive security, and the great lengths to which the military went to protect the journalists, suggest danger may not be far away

EL-ARISH, Egypt: Mohammed Amer Shaaban stood over trays of fresh fish at his tiny store in the coastal Sinai Peninsula city of El-Arish, pointing to his right and left while recalling the tough days when Daesh militants operated with impunity.
"They killed a Christian who owns a knife shop there and an informant over there. They also killed one of my cousins," he said.
"We have enjoyed some stability and peace for the past six or seven months," added the 48-year-old father of five as some two dozen journalists descended on El-Arish's fish market as part of a rare, army-organized trip.
The trip was chiefly designed to show off signs of normalcy in El-Arish, northern Sinai's largest city, as evidence that the military's all-out offensive against militants launched nearly 10 months ago has succeeded.
But in the city and the surrounding deserts, the signs of war are difficult to miss, particularly the enormous security presence. The Associated Press was required to submit the photos and video accompanying this story to Egypt's military censor, which did not say two weeks after submission if or when the material would be released.
The carefully scripted trip included visits to an indoor arena packed with thousands of screaming schoolchildren, a new housing project, a school and a factory. No one is claiming the militants have been defeated, but there have been no major attacks for several months, save a recent ambush of buses carrying Christian pilgrims to a remote desert monastery south of Cairo that left seven dead.
The fight against militants in Sinai has gone on for years, but the insurgency gathered steam after the 2013 ouster by the military of a freely elected but divisive president, the Islamist Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Authorities have since shut down almost all underground tunnels that they suspected militants used to smuggle fighters and weapons into Sinai from neighboring Gaza, ruled by the Islamist Hamas group since 2007.
They also razed to the ground much of the town of Rafah on the Gaza border in a bid to deny the militants a safe haven and stop its use as cover for tunnels. Elsewhere in northern Sinai, olive orchards have been bulldozed to deny the militants sanctuary.
A brutal militant attack on a Sinai mosque that killed more than 300 worshippers a year ago — the deadliest such attack in Egypt in living memory — prompted general-turned-president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to order a major offensive.
The operation, with thousands of troops backed by tanks, jet-fighters and warships, got underway in February. Security forces almost completely sealed off northern Sinai, causing shortages of food and fuel. The siege was eased in May, allowing normalcy to gradually return to the mostly desert region, especially in El-Arish.
Barely a year ago, militants in El-Arish killed suspected informants in broad daylight, set up bogus checkpoints, shot Christians in their stores, snatched clerics and members of the security forces to later dump their bodies on the streets. Now traffic is heavy, families are out in public, stores are filled with goods, and school classes are packed with children.
The military is eager to tout the changes.
"Terrorism will be completely defeated in a matter of a few months," announced Mohammed Abdel-Fadeel Shoushah, a retired general who serves as the governor of northern Sinai. "Now we are focusing on development, which is the basis of security."
For now, though, El-Arish shows enduring signs of conflict.
A Pharaonic-style building across the road from the governor's heavily guarded office has almost every one of its windows shattered. Some streets are blocked by sand berms, while others are sealed off by concrete blocks. Unfinished buildings are everywhere in the city, parts of which look deserted. Many of the date palms in the city look like they have received little care for years.
Authorities are building a wall around the city's airport after militants last December rocketed a helicopter used by the then defense and interior ministers while parked on the tarmac. The ministers were unharmed, but one officer was killed in the attack.
Another wall with heavily fortified watch towers is being built on the southern reaches of the city to prevent militants from infiltrating through dense olive orchards.
The pervasive security, and the great lengths to which the military went to protect the journalists, suggest danger may not be far away. The reporters traveled in armored cars with gunners in full combat gear perched atop, and a signal-jamming vehicle tagged along as a precaution against roadside bombs. The top officials in the convoy were protected by heavily armed policemen in black fatigues and ski masks.
In late October, militants twice attacked workers employed by the company building the wall just south of El-Arish, killing at least six and wounding 16. Earlier in November, security forces killed 12 militants hiding in unused buildings in El-Arish.
"Stay put in the vehicle and don't come out and wander around," an armed plainclothes police officer sternly warned reporters during one stop. "It is not as safe as you might think," he said, pointing to the expanse of desert on one side of the road.
The magnitude of the counterterrorism task becomes apparent during the nearly 200-kilometer (125-mile) journey through the desert from the east bank of the Suez Canal to El-Arish.
All along the road are military positions. At some, tanks are buried in the sand for protection with only their turrets showing. Soldiers on watch towers in the middle of nowhere cut forlorn figures against a backdrop of desert. The checkpoints create long lines of vehicles. Helicopters occasionally hover above.
El-Arish resident Hassan Mahdi, a lawyer who came to Sinai from a Nile Delta province as a young boy nearly 30 years ago, said the restored security is a welcome change.
"To be honest, life was very, very difficult here," he said. "Businesses were relocating out of Sinai in search of security and many things were in short supply. Not anymore."