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Lebanon: The Banana Republic Torn Between “Two Presidents”

Alia Ibrahim- Lebanese writer and journalist
September 3, 2020
Michel Aoun seems to be focused on a single matter that concerns nobody else but him, which is the ‘injustice’ directed at him, his faction, his son-in-law, and his family. He’s playing the role of the leader of a country that is about to die on its 100th birthday. This Lebanese shallowness is what ended up allowing Macron’s star to shine…

The entire 50 years between the declaration of the third republic in France and the banana republic in Lebanon can be summarized in the 48 hours or less that separated Emmanuel Macron’s press conference and Michel Aoun’s television interview.

The preparations that preceded the “President’s” appearance in the Pine Palace, just like what had happened in Baabda Palace, aimed at benefiting from the perks of interviews with public figures. This means promoting his ideas and influencing public opinion on one hand, and avoiding the challenges and traps posed by the journalists, the ones in charge of holding those in power accountable, on the other.

There are no more similarities.

In Form

For the second time in less than a month, Macron appeared to be the only political figure who was aware of the responsibility of providing the Lebanese people with answers, to cushion the pains developed by the port crime and its impact on their future.

Unlike Aoun, Macron did not address the Lebanese people through a filmed, edited, and tuned Television interview, but instead spoke to them in a live press conference, the last item on the agenda of his visit.

In the Banana Republic, the accountability of state officials, even over the matter of a quasi-nuclear explosion, takes place under the slogan “let bygones be bygones.”  

To be fair, Aoun is not the only one in Lebanon who avoids press conferences. Most of the Lebanese politicians replace press conferences with television interviews, ones in which they chose the screen that would air them, alongside their conditions, themes, and questions. Once on air, they roll out their speeches, reciting their same-old opinions, promises, threats, and strategies to the public, without providing an opportunity for anyone to question them or even discuss the subject in further detail.

Macron choosing to provide journalists with the opportunity to ask questions is not some sort of unique exception, but rather a minimum requirement in a democratic game where no one is considered above accountability. Still, the contrast we witnessed, in the difference between how Macron acted and the actions of the Lebanese leaders, including the President, resulted in elevating the French guest into a position that entitled him to lecture them about the importance of respecting press freedom, and the role the media plays in the developed societies.

The French President’s lessons included enabling an MTV reporter to be the first to ask a question as a local journalist, which was probably not a coincidence. It seemed almost like an indirect response to Baabda Palace’s decision to punish MTV and prohibit its reporters from entering the Presidential Palace, and from covering parliamentary consultations. The Palace’s decision was taken in response to MTV’s referring to Aoun without his title, or the word “his excellency”, in its news intro.

Again, this is not an exception. What the Presidential Office did in Lebanon would be considered a violation of law in countries that empower press freedom. Even Donald Trump, the president who has repeatedly expressed his disdain for the press, cannot set the terms for media coverage on press conferences inside the presidential office in a country like the United States.

The examples are too many to list, the most famous of which is the case that CNN won after its chief reporter, Jim Acosta, was banned from entering the White House, and got his press pass cancelled after a quarrel between him and Trump. Despite having more than 50 journalists who work for the channel that have passes that allow them to enter the White House, CNN insisted on defending their right to choose the person representing them, and the journalist’s right to ask any questions he deems appropriate. The channel was able to sue the President and imposed its terms.

In Dialogue

In the courtyard of the Pine Palace, Macron answered the journalists’ questions and gave a political speech that provided practical explanations to a number of leaks, analyses, and messages evoked by his visit.

The details of the press conference, including giving the opportunity for both local journalists and those accompanying the President to ask questions, were carefully controlled by a media team.

This, however, does not mean that the content of the questions was controlled.

All the questions, from the fate of the investigations into the crime at the port, to the fate of Hezbollah’s weapons and the accusation against France of floating the Lebanese political class by imposing a prime minister or early elections or sanctions threats, were asked within a frame that allowed the journalists to challenge their interviewee.

In Baabda Palace, Aoun sat on a table next to a presenter that he had personally chosen, just as he had chosen the TV channel that broadcasts the recorded interview, where they had previously agreed on the topics to be discussed during the interview.

Ricardo Karam, a non-provocative person, is undoubtedly experienced in interviewing politicians and people with power and money. However, the safe content he presents is far from any journalism that seeks to establish accountability. During the Interview with President Aoun, Karam tackled a number of sensitive matters like the Free Patriotic Movement’s (FPM) political coverage of Hezbollah’s weapons, suspicions of corruption related to Aoun’s spoiled son-in-law Gebran Bassil, the delay in the results of the investigations into the crime at the port, and Aoun’s inability to visit districts like Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael unlike his French counterpart. Nevertheless, raising these questions does not mean that the journalist’s job has been done, since Karam seemed to be content with the President’s initial responses and did not ask any follow-up questions. In other words, Karam provided his guest with an opportunity to promote his policies and stopped there, without any questions. Even the documents placed on the table in front of him turned out to be a copy of a previous speech made by President Aoun, and not notes prepared by Karam to be discussed with his guest.

The interview almost seemed as if it were conducted with a retired official who had quit the public sphere years ago, not with a President of a Republic who supposedly controls all the powers in the country, less than a month after a crime that destroyed, killed, and left thousands of citizens homeless.

The interview almost seemed as if it were conducted with a retired official who had quit the public sphere years ago, not with a President of a Republic who supposedly controls all the powers in the country, less than a month after a crime that destroyed, killed, and left thousands of citizens homeless.

In Content

Within his press conference, Macron was keen to address the Lebanese people and to reassure them. During the French President’s visit, which began by a visit to Fayrouz’s house, he wanted to insist on embracing the few elements that the majority of the Lebanese agree on. He concluded his visit by reciting the lyrics of Fayrouz’s song, “From My Heart a Greeting to Beirut,” which he spoke in Arabic. Moreover, he made sure to talk about his visit to the Port; his elaboration and attention to detail led to a delay of over an hour to his meeting in Baabda Palace, which probably wasn’t a coincidence. He also did not forget to mention his planting of a Cedar tree, and his singing with the students of St. Joseph school. He also got emotional as he mentioned Tamara Tayah’s name; the young girl who lost her mother in the blast, whom he’d embraced after she gifted him a pendant shaped like the map of Lebanon, that her late mother had designed. Macron wore it like a decorative medal on his suit. Aside from Macron’s real intentions, he has at the very minimum exhibited his extensive experience and sensibility, the ones that enabled him to gain the trust and affection of the public, representing one of the main requirements in leading a successful political life.

During the Baabda Palace meeting, Michel Aoun was totally detached from the tragedy that devastated the people he is supposed to be ruling, even though he appeared clearly and forcefully touched. When the Lebanese President was asked about a face, a name, or an incident that had personally affected him, he was unable to mention a single thing. He could not remember the scene of Elias Khoury’s friends carrying his white coffin, nor Qartaba’s bride mourning her husband, her brother, and her cousin.

However, Michel Aoun was indeed focused on a single matter, that concerned nobody else but him, which was the injustice directed at him, his faction, his son-in-law, and his family. He was like the leader of a country that is about to die, on its 100th birthday.

This extreme Lebanese shallowness has enabled Macron’s star to shine without the need to master any exceptional skills. He was just an ordinary president in a country governed by a law that he cannot breach, and a set of values that he cannot violate, in the presence of the free press that often questions him, that he can’t oppress. That is the only difference.

The altercation between Macron and Le Figaro journalist Georges Malbrunot following the press conference at Baabda Palace was very important, despite its downsides, as opposed to the smiling Ricardo Karam presenting a white flower to “Mr. President” on behalf of the Lebanese people.

In the Banana Republic, the accountability of state officials, even over the matter of a quasi-nuclear explosion, takes place under the slogan “let bygones be bygones.”

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