My, my, my… what a tangled web we weave.
The embattled Lebanese MP Okab Sakr treated us to a dizzying piece of political theater today (reminiscent in all of its finger-pointing and high inflection to the most spirited performances of the great master himself) and promised that there would be more to come, thereby threatening my hopes of getting anything done at work over the next couple of weeks.
To recap: Sakr had recently been the subject of an “exposé” by OTV and al-Akhbar, who published an audio recording of the Zahle parliamentarian apparently coordinating (by telephone) arms transfers to Free Syrian Army commanders. For about a week, the Aounist media gleefully celebrated the scoop as a journalistic coup and the end of Sakr’s career as the impresario of March 14th messaging and inevitable heir to Nabih Berri’s throne.
Was it Okab’s absence from the limelight over the past year that led his opponents to somehow forget his formidable political talents, or was it willful amnesia? In either case, whoever was behind the scoop gambled that the short game (playing fast and loose with out-of-context audio clips) was aggressive enough to turn back any counter-attack by March 14. My sense is that they probably miscalculated, although who knows what the next episode of Okabgate will bring?
(I can’t help but feel, by the way, that if the tables were turned and Hizbullah officials were the ones accused of aiding an armed insurrection against a brutal dictatorship, Sayyid Hasan would have gone on the rhetorical offensive a long time ago, owning up to his party’s military and moral support for a just cause.)
Here’s a quick outline of the press conference:
1. Audio and video recordings, plus some photographs were stolen. We will explain the details of this operation at a later stage. (0:2:45)
2. Sakr channels Nasrallah in the build-up to his revelation of the first complete tape that was stolen and then edited down.
3. The critical introduction (that was missed in the material aired on OTV):
Sakr’s interlocutor (who is Abu al-Nu`man, a militant not part of the FSA, and one of the people holding the kidnapped Lebanese Shiite pilgrims for ransom) demands weapons and Sakr says he’s not in the weapons business. Abu Nu`man says to him: “We’re not asking for much. All we need are some basic equipment to get rid of this son of dog [i.e. Bashar]. We don’t want money or anything. Surely you with all of your international contacts to Saad al-Hariri, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and America, etc. can manage that.” In response, Sakr gets annoyed and says: “I can get money, aid, medicine, but not weapons. And by the way, you’re supposed to be in the opposition, so why are you talking like you are getting all your information from Syrian state TV? We are not weapons dealers. We can connect you with the FSA and we can provide political support and money and coordination, but not weapons… I don’t know anything about weapons and I don’t have weapons to give you.”
At this point, Abu Nu`man reiterates to him that they are totally surrounded by the Syrian army and that they badly need weapons. This is where the OTV clip began. A resigned Sakr says: “Ok, what kinds of weapons do you want? Tell me precisely.” The segue, to my mind, is still quite strange. He had just finished telling him that he’s not in the weapons business, and now he’s taking delivery orders? At any rate, the OTV clip ends with Abu Nu`man telling Sakr what kinds of ammunition and weapons they want and where the drop-off point should be. The original clip goes on to reveal a befuddled Sakr asking for clarification about where this is and who all the mysterious people involved are.
4. Sakr explains the new information for the assembled journalists. He promises to provide all of the complete tapes so that it can be verified that they haven’t also been doctored and played around with.
5. The second tape, in which Okab promises milk, vegetables, and other supplies for Syrian refugees. He goes on to say that Saad al-Hariri has been instrumental in providing aid to Syrians in Homs, etc. He calls the resistance a joke that has forfeited all honor and dignity, quoting Ali ibn Abi Talib. (Oh yeah, he went there…)
6. The third tape: In this one, Okab speaks on the phone with Luay al-Miqdad, the spokesperson for the Higher Revolutionary Council of the FSA in Turkey. Okab is recounting to Miqdad his discussion with Abu al-Nu`man, or maybe someone else, in which the guy demanded a certain amount of ammunition in exchange for three Lebanese prisoners. They joke darkly about the situation.
Then something strange happens (at 0:32:28). We suddenly find ourselves in the second clip that OTV published, in which they argued that Okab was speaking with Saad al-Hariri. In the new context, it’s clear that this is not Hariri at all but actually Luay al-Miqdad. But there’s still something weird about it, as it appears that Saqr’s team dropped the “forged” clip into the middle of another clip, maybe creating a new forged clip? I’ll have to listen a little more closely, but there’s clearly something fishy going on. For one thing, the 10-second segment where Luay is saying “Allo? Allo?” and Okab coughs is repeated in two different places (at 0:31:35 and again at 0:32:28), so someone definitely engaged in a little cut and paste.
[Update: OTV has released a preliminary response to the Okab Sakr press conference which includes the following audio analysis of the third tape discussed above. For once, I agree with OTV... there's something totally wrong with the "complete" tape presented by Sakr. It's clearly been stitched together from two different tapes. On the other hand, it seems that they've quietly admitted that the unknown interlocutor is not Saad Hariri but rather Luay al-Miqdad.]
7. Sakr claims that he had been told about the tapes a long time ago and that there was an attempt to make a deal over them. Instead, he went out of his way to give his opponents the confidence that they could bring him down, by going on Future TV and making his statements about not being a merchant of blood. In other words, he provoked them into going forward and releasing the tapes so that he could ambush them with the press conference today. (Are your heads spinning yet?)
8. Sakr attempts to prove that the cut-and-paste operation did not take place by the intelligence officials who stole the original tapes, but rather by the media office (i.e. al-Akhbar, on the order of Ibrahim al-Amin) that published them.
9. More gems from Nahj al-balagha, followed by an explanation of why Sakr was recording his own calls with people. It seems that these clips were recorded 7 months ago when the Lebanese pilgrims had first been kidnapped and nobody knew where they were. At that time, Saqr and Hariri were getting calls from all kinds of people (majmu`at samesra) who claimed to have the Lebanese.
10. A message to those who are calling for Sakr to be stripped of his status as a Shiite. More proverbs from Ali and even some poetry by Mozaffar al-Nawwab. I can’t tell you how much I’m enjoying this…
11. A message to Michel Aoun, dripping with more invective and Biblical references than you can shake a stick at.
12. Questions from the press pool. Sakr promises to sue OTV and al-Akhbar. A journalist asks Sakr why anyone should accept the interpretation he’s presented today, given that there are people saying that there are more tapes that will be aired soon that prove his involvement in weapons dealings. Sakr further emphasizes his commitment to Lebanon because he has been working to free the Lebanese pilgrims. He promises to provide information about how the tapes were stolen.
I’ve run out of time… I’ll finish off the rest of this tomorrow…