Global News Journal
Beyond the World news headlines
The case of Salah Ezz el-Din, a Shi’ite Lebanese financier who has been accused of embezzlement and alleged to have defrauded Shi’ite investors, including Hezbollah officials, of hundreds of millions of dollars, has Lebanon in a stir.
But what’s more shocking than the amount is the overwhelming trust that his investors still have in him. That is, no doubt, due to Hezbollah’s approval of him.
There are even some Hezbollah officials who invested with him, although the group’s leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has denied any direct links with Ezz el-Din.
This is one of a series of post cards by Reuters reporters looking at how the financial crisis is playing out for ordinary people across Europe, Middle East and Africa.
On an Easter break in south Lebanon with visitors from Britain, we see scores of election posters lining the highway ahead of the June 7 parliamentary poll — the first big test of stability here since a Qatari-brokered deal last year calmed an internal crisis that had dragged Lebanon towards renewed civil war. Vague slogans on the slickly produced adverts promise change, democracy, resistance (to Israel) and much else beside. But the election will change little. Power might shift a bit
between Lebanon’s dominant alliances — one backed by the West and Saudi Arabia, the other by Syria and Iran. But voters have scant choice as the sectarian power-sharing system allows party leaders to do deals that stitch up most seats in advance.
When Lebanese Interior Minister Ziad Baroud issued a memorandum giving Lebanese citizens the option to remove their sect from civil registry records, it seemed like a step towards removing deeply embedded sectarianism from Lebanon’s social fabric.
The country has been convulsed by bouts of sectarian violence, most notably the 1975-90 civil war, in which 150,000 people were killed, and more recently last May when a power struggle spilled into armed conflict and supporters of Shi’ite Hezbollah briefly took over parts of Sunni western Beirut.
Who remembers the Google Wars website that was doing the viral rounds a few years back – a mildly amusing, non-scientific snapshot of the search-driven, internet world we live in?
It lives on at www.googlebattle.com where you can enter two search terms, say ‘Lennon vs. McCartney’ or ‘Left vs. Right’, and let the internet pick a winner by the number of search hits each word gets.
Lebanon’s beaches, ski slopes and nightclubs exude glitzy modernity. Its educated elite appears cosmopolitan and sophisticated. But beneath the gloss lie deeply traditional aspects of a society reluctant to shake off a sectarian power-sharing system in which loyalty to one of Lebanon’s 17 religious communities takes precedence over citizenship.
Nothing illustrates this better than star-crossed lovers.
Take Laure and Ali, who began dating six years ago after a chance encounter at university in Beirut when they were both 21. She studied political science and now works for an international aid organization. He is a computer and communications engineer.
Lebanon, once a byword for violent anarchy, remains a country where the rule of law is patchy, to put it kindly. But Interior Minister Ziad Baroud, a youthful reform-minded lawyer who was appointed in July as part of a national unity government, is determined to change that, or at least to make a start. He has told the traffic police to do something about the cheerful but sometimes lethal chaos that pervades the roads.
Few Lebanese normally bother with seat belts or crash helmets. Speeding with a mobile phone glued to your ear or an infant in your lap comes naturally. Double or triple parking is the norm, lane discipline an alien concept and right of way determined by who gets there first or who drives a bigger vehicle. Scooters fizz everywhere, a law unto themselves.
Hungary has negotiated a $25 billion economic rescue package with the IMF, the EU and the World Bank. What else is new? As that non-Hungarian philosopher of gamesmanship Yogi Berra put it, it’s ”like déjà vu all over again”.
Consider the words of historian Paul Lendvai who wrote: ”Its economy in tatters, Hungary accepts a loan of 250 million gold crowns.” “Fiscal stability was restored, a currency reform was introduced…and after a modest upswing the value of industrial production stood 12 percent higher…”
In downtown Beirut, resurrected from the rubble of the 1975-90 civil war, one is spoilt for choice of smart restaurants, trendy bars and lively clubs. Performances by sexy Lebanese divas and belly dancers contribute generously to Lebanon’s gross domestic product by attracting Gulf Arab tourists enchanted with Lebanese talent and beauty — not necessarily in that order.
There is isn’t a single international designer who has not found his or her way to Beirut’s elegant boutiques and jewellery shops. On the other hand, Lebanese designers such as Elie Saab are dressing Hollywood stars these days.
One of the problems with countries like Syria – secretive and authoritarian – is that whenever a bomb goes off or someone is assassinated, the list of possible suspects is extensive.
One can draw up a long list of enemies who could have plotted and carried out Saturday’s rare car bomb attack on a major road near a Syrian state security complex and an intersection leading to a famous Shi’ite Muslim shrine. The blast, which killed 17 people including a brigadier general and his son, poses another test to Syria’s reputation for keeping a tight grip on dissent and maintaining stability in a troubled area.
Hezbollah literally rolled out the red carpet to welcome home five prisoners released by Israel in a U.N.-mediated exchange deal. Securing the release of the last five Lebanese held by Israel was a major triumph for the group, which in turn handed over the bodies of two Israeli soldiers captured in a 2006 raid into Israel.
Having achieved a long-held goal, Hezbollah is holding up the exchange as further evidence that its uncompromising, armed approach to dealing with Israel brings results, directly challenging the policies of Arab leaders who have engaged in negotiations or signed peace treaties with the Jewish state. The New York Times called the prisoners’ homecoming a triumph.