Lebanese Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud resigned yesterday following a bizarre showdown involving two different branches of the Internal Security Forces, Minister of Telecommunications Charbel Nahhas, and Baroud himself.
March 14 is calling it a Telecoms Ministry-launched coup against the executive branch of the Lebanese government; March 8th is calling it an ISF-launched coup against the state. Who’s right?
There are many conflicting accounts of what actually took place (see here for a translated round-up of the Arabic press’s lead stories) but the basic chronology seems to be as follows:
- Nahhas (who is a member of the Free Patriotic Movement’s cabinet bloc and a staunch ally of Michel Aoun) sent a team to dismantle some equipment housed in a building affiliated with the Telecommunications Ministry.
- Ashraf Rifi, general of the Internal Security Forces, sent a large group of policemen to secure the building and prevent the telecommunications team from accessing the equipment.
- Nahhas then sent a letter to Ziyad Baroud, asking him to order Rifi to have his men stand down. (Technically, Rifi reports to Baroud, as the ISF is under the jurisdiction of the Interior Ministry).
- Baroud did so, and Rifi ignored him, arguing that his orders came from a superior authority (more on that later).
- Nahhas also somehow managed to get a second branch of the ISF that is responsible for embassy protection (see here for the ISF website) to accompany him to the building where he tried to access the equipment himself.
- Rifi’s men prevailed, but not before the entire sad spectacle was caught on television: two branches of the same police force staring each other down, with one minister prevented from accessing a building connected with his own ministry and another minister issuing orders to his subordinates to no avail.
I’ve been in touch with government officials and other political insiders since yesterday evening, trying to piece together the factors that led to this showdown and to assess the fallout. Here are some preliminary observations:
The first questions that spring to mind, of course, are: (1) what was this mysterious equipment that Nahhas was prevented from accessing? (2) on whose authority did Rifi cordon off the building and ignore Baroud’s orders? On these issues, al-Akhbar provides some help background. It seems that the telecommunications equipment was a gift from the Chinese government in 2007. The Saniora government licensed Ogero (the state-owned company that is responsible for maintaining the telecommunications infrastructure and which has had a deeply antagonistic relationship with the current Telecoms minister) to set up a third telecommunications network in Lebanon. Why they chose to do so at that time remains unclear, but Rifi claimed to have been operating under the executive order of Saniora’s government when he disregarded the orders of Baroud to allow Nahhas access to the equipment.
It is highly ironic (as Mustapha at Beirut Spring astutely pointed out yesterday) that the ordered dismantling of a telecommunications network should again provide the spark for a tense confrontation between Lebanon’s two political blocs. When the Saniora government attempted to pull the same trick on Hizbullah in 2008, we all recall what happened.
As far as the political fallout is concerned, Nahhas and Michel Aoun look like the clear winners here. Ashraf Rifi has long been accused by March 8 politicians of running the ISF like a March 14th militia accountable only to Saad al-Hariri. Baroud’s resignation makes that reading very attractive to many Lebanese who are uncomfortable with the idea of a military officer ignoring the directives of perhaps the most popular civilian leader in the country (i.e. Baroud).
It should also be pointed out that Baroud (a friend of this blog whom I admire a great deal) has long been unhappy in his position at the Interior Ministry. His freedom of movement has been severely curtailed and he has had virtually no authority over many of the security-related fiefdoms that he is supposed to oversee. He has supposedly come very close to resigning on multiple occasions, but was likely prevented from doing so by President Suleiman, who needed a trustworthy ally in this all-important ministry. Yesterday’s events, however, were too egregious for Baroud to ignore. My personal feeling is that he made the right move.