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Frances GuyAmbassador to the Republic of Lebanon, Beirut
I got a Christmas card which said in French "the cedars create unanimity". Well maybe it was a political point but it made me think. The Cedars of Lebanon as symbol is poignant. It is an indigenous species that is listed as endangered. Quite - where do so many different confessional groups live in relative harmony? It takes a long time to grow, growing initially at less than 10 inches a year but reaching over 20 metres. The oldest trees in Lebanon are over 1,000 years old but there are oh so few of them. I took a visitor to the Barouk cedar reserve this holiday. Cold, snowy, stark and stunning. We went back to the plantation of new trees planted about 5 years ago. "But they have hardly grown!" said my guest. So all those who have planted a tree and put their name to it are investing in a future that is far away. Combine that with the fact that it is difficult to propagate; a Lebanese cedar can only be produced from a seed from a female cone and that can take up to 30 years for a tree to produce.
The Cedar of Lebanon likes deep soil in slopes facing the sea. It needs light and moisture. It grows to be majestic and it has contributed to so many different civilisations; the Phoenicians used it for ships; the Egyptians for ships and its resin for mummification; the Ottomans and the British were more prosaic but the railways benefitted. There are few cedars left in Lebanon but they are magnificent and could yet really be a symbol of unity, hope and strength. But that strength needs nurturing and it needs a commitment now to that future for the generations far in the future who will share our gaze on this ancient symbol.
There are nearly 60 Palestinian veterans in Lebanon who served with the British army during the 2nd World War. The tragic irony of their situation is heart-wringing. After loyally serving the Union Jack, in 1948 they were forced to flee their homes when the state of Israel was created. Some of them have been in refugee camps in Lebanon ever since. They are getting old (even those who joined up too early at the age of sixteen are over 80 now) and in need of medical attention.
This week we had a visitor from the Royal Commonwealth ex-services League. He was here to visit some of the veterans in their homes and oversee the work that is done on the League's behalf to give some assistance to these men in need. I am proud that a system is in place to give these brave men some comfort. I am less proud that 60 years after their flight from their homes, diplomacy has so far failed to find a solution to the Arab Israeli conflict. The Royal Commonwealth ex-services League is helping nearly 20,000 veterans all round the world. As they say, these people weren't forced to join up, they chose to. That's why the league is trying to help them. Their quiet dignity in the midst of hardship and poverty is to be admired and respected.
The problem with diplomatic blogging is that you risk being anodyne or controversial. Clearly in the last few days I have been the latter. This was not my intent. My comments on the late Sayid Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah have now been removed because they were leading to confusion about British policy. I would like to be clear. I have no truck with terrorism wherever it is committed in whoever’s name. The British Government has been clear that it condemns terrorist activity carried out by Hizballah. I share that view. I believe that it should be possible for Hizballah to reject violence and play a constructive, democratic and peaceful role in Lebanese politics, in line with UN Security Council Resolutions, including UNSCR 1701. This is something I discussed often with Sayid Fadlallah when we met.
The blog was my personal attempt to offer some reflections of a figure who while controversial was also highly influential in Lebanon's history and who offered spiritual guidance to many Muslims in need. I recognise that some of my words have upset people. This was certainly not my intention. I have spent most of my career in the Arab world working to combat terrorism, and the extremism and prejudice which can fuel it. I am sorry that an attempt to acknowledge the spiritual significance to many of Sayid Fadlallah and the views that he held in the latter part of his life has served only to further entrench divisions in this complex part of the world. I regret any offence caused.
Don't you love Arabic cartoons? One of the guards in front of the Embassy this morning greeted me by asking if I had seen the cartoon that did the round of the TV channels last night. Pierre Sadek on al Mustaqbal had me in front of a Union Jack making the case for holding municipal elections on time, and making a play on the spelling of my name. But besides that the cartoon that caught my eye this morning was the one in An-Nahar of a bomb ticking in the pupil of the eye of Ain el Helweh (pretty eye - in Arabic - the name of the most notorious Palestinian camp in Lebanon). How well to sum up the irony of the position and the difficulty of dealing with the problems in the camps.
I do genuinely love the expressiveness of Arabic cartoons. I had one on my wall for a long time of an egg timer on its side - time blocked waiting for the national dialogue. I took it down when the national dialogue started again after President Sleiman was elected. I wonder if I should be putting it back up... but I am sure some cartoonist will express that particular frustration soon much better than I can in words.
There are only a few countries left in the world who do not allow 18 year olds to vote. It seems a reasonable gesture to the modern state that Lebanon strives to become to agree this step. But nothing in Lebanon is straightforward. To reduce the voting age requires an amendment to the constitution. So its agreement has been tied (if informally) to the introduction of overseas voting. A long debate is likely to continue.
The British Lebanese Association celebrates its 25th anniversary this year 2010. Amongst other endeavours it runs a small scholarship programme for Lebanese seeking to do specialist subjects in the UK. I join them on 10 February for a small celebration in the House of Lords. I am struck by how this community is passionate both about being British and about being Lebanese.
The plane back is once again full of Lebanese flying back from the UK and Canada for a week or two or less to visit grandparents, aunts and uncles. The ties of this large very disparate diaspora are strong and many of them send important remittances back home regularly. I ask my neighbours on the plane if they would vote if they got the vote. All of them would. And yet, Lebanon is not home anymore, these people have all built their lives elsewhere 30years on from the civil war, very few will return. Lebanon’s loss, the rest of the world’s gain.
Nine ambassadors accredited to Beirut are women. WE get together now and again to compare notes. We share our concern about this get out clause. Our Pakistani colleague reminds us that when Pakistan introduced a 33% quota for women in both parliamentary and district elections, they made it conditional that all places reserved for women were filled by women. If no women were available the places would remain vacant. This ensured that women were found!
I get a chance later in the day to ask the Prime Minister about it. The Minister of Interior is present too. He assures me (and others listening) not to worry. Women will stand and if parties don't put up women candidates, then there will always be enough independent women to put themselves forward. He is right. Why should we doubt the willingness of women to seize this opportunity. Oh independent Lebanese women prove us right! Still why always make it difficult? Surely the Pakistan example is worth considering...
The sky is clear this morning and the cranes at the Port of Beirut were lined up in a row as though in salute to the calm sea. Yesterday was different and we all woke up to the tragic news of the Ethiopian airlines crash. Something too fundamental about falling out of the sky. Somehow even in this country of many tragedies used to dealing with death of all sorts, this has touched everyone. As one friend put it, this is when you realise that Lebanon is a small country and everyone will know someone who was in the plane. Yes, we all do. And yes the pain of their loved ones is unbearable.
The Lebanese Government have done a good job. Getting the rescue operation going quickly, calling in help where needed (including a British helicopter from Cyprus – thank you for helping look for bodies in the sea off Lebanon again) and subduing unnecessary speculation. In this country of man-made tragedies it is more difficult to believe in natural disasters. All the more reason to squash all speculation until the facts are known.
Amongst those we used to meet in London and elsewhere were the representatives of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). They were gentle religious men who were concerned about the increasing violence in Iraq. Today the current leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (SCIRI's successor organisation), Amar el Hakim is in Lebanon. He has seen all the religious and political leaders and publicly talked about the importance of reconciliation with all religious factions. I am honoured to be included in a meeting at the Iraqi Embassy with him. For one hour he answers questions mostly about Iraq's democracy and the forthcoming elections. Yes.A religious Arab leader pontificating about the value of the democratic process and the need for inclusion and credible candidates. It was a joy to behold. I will take all the flak I have to about neo-colonialism to participate in other such discussions.
The debate is now on: can Lebanon learn from the Iraq model of democracy, of proportional representation, guaranteed quotas for minorities and women and open parties? and/or can Iraq learn from Lebanon's so-called consensual democracy?
Amar el Hakim spends time suggesting that in multi-confessional societies first past the post majority take all systems don't work because you can't afford to exclude more than 40% of the population, especially when they represent clear religious groups. The problem for me, at least, is how to balance this genuine need for representation and consensus on the fundamentals with an essentially competitive system which ensures accountability to the population? more anon...
As an Ambassador you occasionally get to do things that make you proud of your country. On Friday I participated in a citizenship ceremony. We don't do too many of these in Beirut so we like to make a bit of a fuss; flowers, flags, photos for the family. How many British passport holders really give much thought about what it means to be British? What do you think you have to do when you get a British passport? Swear allegiance to the monarch? Yes, of course. But what else? Did you know that you pledge to uphold democratic values? I like that bit. Ok we don't define what that means, but let's keep the definition broad and let's remember that it is every citizen's duty to uphold those democratic values. If we remembered this now and again perhaps we can better defend the fundamental freedoms that we cherish.
The theme is accentuated for me later in the day. I go to a lecture given by former Prime Minister Selim Hoss. Whatever your political complexion in Lebanon you are likely to respect PM Hoss as one of the few non-corrupt politicians in Lebanon. He has on his wall at home a saying which translates something like: a public servant is strong until he asks for a favour for himself. It is always a pleasure to listen to Mr Hoss. He doesn't disappoint the packed gathering. He gives us a 30 minute summary of his experience in government in Lebanon. He concludes that Lebanon appears to be a democracy but in reality it enjoys many freedoms but little democracy. Lebanese have freedom to express themselves, freedom to think, freedom of movement, freedom to work and freedom to demonstrate. But without the rule of law and its imposition, Lebanon cannot be a democracy.
I think we can rightly continue to be demanding. Lebanon has gone through many traumas but 20 years ought to be enough time to reconstitute the state and begin the imposition of the rule of law. With a Minister of Justice committed to root out corruption in the judiciary, this national unity government is well placed to start.
It is that time of year. Those who have heard me speak about the subject know that I am a fan of former Prime Minister John Major's aims to ensure that Honours are given to those who truly deserve it and to ensure that unsung heroes are as equally deserving as top majors. In my time in Beirut it has been my great privilege to convey an Honorary MBE to one of the members of my staff, Paul Khawaja, for services to British export. And I have been pleased to see the award of two other MBEs for services to the British community during the 2006 evacuation.
In this year's New Year's honors list, the strength of Lebanese/British relations is recognised in the award to Dr Claude Serhal for services to archaeology. For me Claude is a living symbol of the strength of British/Lebanese relations and the devotion of expat Lebanese for their home country. This award is a just recognition of that dedication. Reading the announcement, it doesn't say much "Dr Claude Doumet Serhal for services to archaeology". Let's elaborate... for 15 years of services to British Lebanese archaeology...for keeping the excavation at Sidon alive, for helping demonstrate to the people of Sidon and Lebanon (and the UK) the extraordinary history of this eastern edge of the Mediterranean.
Anyone who has met Claude, especially if you have gone to the dig in Sidon one summer in the heat and the dust and walked around the layers from the Bronze Age on, will know that her enthusiasm and her dedication have kept this site going and helped lead us all to understand better our forefathers. I am pleased that the British Embassy played its own part in awareness raising about this project more than a year ago, helping Claude and her team show a film about their work and raise funds to continue the excavation.
The good news is that there is money now to build an onsite museum and with Claude's help and that of the British Museum as well as the people of Sidon, this future museum will make the history of the Mediterranean accessible to visitors. And it will continue the transformation of historic Sidon. If you have never visited. Do. There is a wonderful day trip to do taking in the two crusader castles, the old souks, the soap museum and the archaeological site for which Claude has been justly recognised.
The British Council in Lebanon recently ran a survey to test public knowledge of the Council and what it does. One of the questions asked about scholarships. Regrettably very few of those asked knew that the British Government runs any scholarship programmes in Lebanon. We have decided therefore to launch a campaign to increase knowledge and to improve the quality of candidates applying. In fact, as in many countries of the world, the Embassy runs a small scholarship programme for post-graduate studies called Chevening scholarships. This year we are sending four students on a range of courses - two to London and two to Leeds. We host a small reception so that former students can meet the new ones and give them tips. This is always useful, Brits just don't understand how impossible to comprehend some of our habits are! Lebanese are on the whole worldly wise but even some of them had found the first few weeks very difficult. I also have the Ambassadorial pleasure of handing out some certificates to returning fellows (these are people in mid-career who have attended specialised three month courses - we are looking for more candidates for those too!). Everyone is happy. Everyone thinks British education is great. Makes you want to do more to promote it.
After the top level visitors it was a breath of fresh air to get out of Beirut on 12 June and go as far north as I could to visit a small project in a village in Akar. Akar is among the poorest areas of Lebanon. The land is rocky and not much grows apart from olives. The Syrian border is close and it is easier to get to Homs in Syria than it is to Tripoli in Lebanon. When I asked the villagers what people "do" in the village, they replied we join the army. I knew this before intellectually but it is a different thing to be confronted with it. On army pay they earn enough "not to live (splendidly) and not to die (in misery)" as one of them put it. Lives are simple but not unpleasant. The air is fresh, everyone has their own olives and olive oil. The school, where we had the small project with UNDP, is offering some classes in English and computers for the community. One of the women who offered us lunch was pleased with her new skills. And the army gives people a sense of loyalty - a profound loyalty to the nation that I had not truly met in Lebanon up until that point. I am no military person and have no family in the armed forces although clearly at work I have come across many of Britain's finest soldiers. But I was touched by this loyalty and the total lack of any complaint about anything. It is common in all walks of life these days to hear complaints about rising prices, about politicians, about the British legacy etc etc.. Here were men who had lost friends, been severely wounded - at least one we met had lost a leg -but they thanked us for coming to visit and thanked the EU for helping provide an olive press and didn't complain. No wonder President Sleiman has some faith in the future when this is the calibre of people he has been working with throughout his life. Diplomats really do need to get out and about to understand
Amongst diplomats at least there is some sense of anti-climax. We had dared hope that the lead up to the Arab summit in Damascus might produce a political solution - a Presidential rabbit out of the hat as it were. But instead we are left in the same place with a commitment to follow through on an Arab League initiative that should have delivered by now. Luckily the brave who persevere behind the scenes to create compromise are still beavering away. The best most people hope for though these days is a continuation of the status quo - no descent into violence but no new hope for the future either.
As a sign of the times a member of the British Council staff tells me that you can measure political uncertainty by the level of applications for International English Tests. Of course, teaching English is about giving Lebanese access to the world in order to help Lebanon not to flee it. It is always a pleasure to meet teachers of English from public and private schools across the country.Today the British Council was promoting their Go4English website designed to help teachers throughout the Arab world.The teachers are keen but with less than 4% of public primary schools with computers you begin to realise that the danger is we might only reach an elite population. I leave the meeting with lots of requests for books and a sense that a happy classroom depends on a motivated teacher - who just might not have a computer to help him or her.