Insults and Apologies

As the Lebanese well know, small sparks can start big blazes

By Abdel Bari Atwan

When someone makes a mistake, it is usual for them to offer an apology. That applies in the Arab world and everywhere else. But not it would seem in Lebanon, or, to avoid generalising, at least not in some cases.

We refer here to Foreign Minsiter Gebran Bassil, who described Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri as a “thug” and then sufficed with expressing regret, but refused to utter the word “apology” which could have eased the fury and ferment which now prevail on the Lebanese scene.

Bassil, President Michel Aoun’s son-in-law, was caught making the remark on a videotape which was then leaked by a woman active in the rival Phalange Party. It sparked a crisis between the president and the parliament speaker, with the latter’s Amal Movement supporters taking to the streets to hold angry protest demonstrations, sometimes marked by violence.

Berri wants Bassil to deliver a public apology to the Lebanese people, on the grounds that he insulted them all by deriding the head of their elected legislature. Aoun for his part has been a model of calm and restraint, saying that one mistake was followed by another – the first being the “unacceptable” description of Berri as a thug, and the second being to send rioters onto the streets. He urged all to forgive and forget for the sake of preserving Lebanon’s stability, noting that he had personally risen above all manner of insults, slander and portrait-burning to which he has been subjected over the years.

This dispute between the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), which Aoun founded and leads, and Berri’s Amal Movement, threatens to ignite sectarian tensions ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled to be held in May. It could also lead to the collapse of the fragile government led by Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri and cause a political crisis in the country at a sensitive moment.

In one incident near the FPMs Beirut headquarters clashes broke out and gunfire was exchanged between FPM and Amal supporters. Other parts of the capital and southern towns such as Nabatiyeh witnessed angry protests in which tyres were set alight and barricades put up to block main roads.

As the Lebanese well know from bitter experience, big blazes are often started by small sparks.

On Tuesday, the FPM issued a statement warning Amal that continued escalation of the situation might force its own supporters into a confrontation and that it would not stand idly by. Amal reacted by sending its followers onto the streets in response to this challenge.

The crisis has been snowballing and getting worse by the day. If it is not contained and defused by the intervention of wise and level-headed mediators, it could develop into sectarian clashes that make Lebanon revert to instability and the breakdown of security. The country does not need to be to be dragged into wars. It has enough on its hands with a stifling economic crisis and an explosive regional situation. And many are the players who keenly await any chance to pour fuel on the sectarian fires that smoulder under the ashes.

The solution lies in mediation by the wise men of Hezbollah and the personal intervention of its leader Hassan Nasrallah to bring the two sides – allies in the same political camp — around the table to talk and clear the air. Bassil should offer a clear apology, Berri should admit that his supporters were wrong to cause havoc on the streets, attack FPM premises and torch portraits, and the pair should go together to the presidential palace to meet with Aoun.  It is befitting of an elder statesman, which doubtless to Berri, respond to an apology with one of his own

Nasrallah is respected by both parties, and should act to defuse the quarrel as quickly as possible for the sake of Lebanon’s security and to spare its people bloodshed.