Hizbullah is holding an unlicensed rally on Friday, which is expected to attract hundreds of thousands of their supporters celebrating their “divine victory” over Israel. The Lebanese Interior Ministry, which normally issues permits for such mass gatherings, has not even been approached or asked for permission. Security for this rally will be handled by Hizbullah, the militia that many still insist is not a state within a state.
Meanwhile, acting Interior Minister Ahmad Fatfat told The Daily Star on Wednesday that the organizers of Friday's rally had not "asked for permission or for a license from the Interior Ministry to hold such a rally." Rally organizers are required to ask for permission to do so from the Interior Ministry and submit information on the nature of the gathering, who will be attending and the location for the demonstration and routes to be used. Once a license is given, the Interior Ministry puts in place security measures to prevent any clashes that may arise between attendants or rabble rousers. Fatfat said the ministry "will not seek a confrontation [on the lack of such a license] ... but there are procedures that the organizers must follow."
Hizbullah’s “media officer”, Hajj Rahal, told the Daily Star that his party coordinated with the Defense Ministry on “security and traffic flow.” Yes, the defense ministry is now coordinating traffic flow with a militia.
Fatfat, you will recall from a previous post, had acknowledged that his ministry has been unable to exercise control over the various security agencies in the country, which are infiltrated by Hizbullah, Amal and Syrian intelligence. This has caused some concern with UNIFIL, which complained that the people handling security in the country have not changed since the Syrian era, and that much vital information such as names of people entering and leaving Lebanon by land, air and sea are still sent to Hizbullah, Amal and naturally, Syrian intelligence.
Fatfat tried this week to address the UNIFIL concerns and, no, not by removing some people from power, but through creating a mechanism by which all agencies attached to his ministry can exchange and share information. The minister issued resolution 2403 creating a committee to work on establishing an electronic database accessible by the various departments and agencies, including General Security (which controls the nation’s ports of entry and keeps records of visitors and hotel residents), and the directorate of personal status, department of motor vehicles, and the directorate of Palestinian refugees affairs.
These agencies, all theoretically falling under the authority of the interior ministry, together control sensitive information about Lebanese citizens and the activities at the border, the ports and the airports. During the Syrian era, the General Security directorate was the most powerful of them all, controlled by Jamil Al-Sayyed, now in jail suspected of playing a role in the Hariri assassination.
Naturally, no real investigation into any security incident in the country can take place without some information sharing between those agencies, something that is not taking place, due mostly to reluctance on part of the those agencies to release and share information with internal security and the ministry, now controlled by March 14. The Interior Ministry’s new intelligence branch, whose head was nearly assassinated recently, was in part an attempt to create a security body loyal to the minister. But the ministry is still in need of full access to vital information, or at least it needs to make sure that some of this information is secured. You may remember how Brammertz in his last report filled a couple of pages describing the inefficiency of Lebanon’s security agencies and their inability to solve crimes—every single investigation into the assassinations that took place since Marwan Hamadeh had come to halt. Evidence is tampered with, information is hidden and nobody seems to know who is in control.
Fatfat’s automation project was quickly labeled as a coup by the pro-Syrian media, and Nabih Berri has vetoed it, saying that “these matters don’t work with us and we will not agree.” Fatfat, who over the past two days, has been defending his decision to automate information sharing (by doing this, he forces it to happen), accused “some” of trying to “assassinate him politically” and vowed to go ahead with it and shut down the “security shops” in his ministry. He went as far as accusing some of the security officials in those agencies of “leaking information” in exchange for money or for political reasons.
Berri is worried that the Interior Ministry’s intelligence branch (literally translated as information branch) would gain more power, and wants it to answer to General Security, headed by Wafiq Jizzini. According to al-Mustaqbal, Jizzini has recently refused to attend a meeting at the Interior Ministry to regulate and automate the entry process of Syrian nationals into the country. He also reportedly declined to meet with Prime Minister Siniora and ignored a written request by Fatfat to show up at the ministry within 30 minutes.
Friday’s show will be a reminder that this government is not in control. The people who will accuse the government of treason continue snubbing the state’s institutions, taking unilateral decisions on behalf of the entire population, and sharing sensitive security information with their foreign allies. I would like to believe that Siniora and Fatfat will fight this one out to the end. There are signs that they are. UNIFIL is one way they are doing it, and there are indications that Siniora will be counting on them where the country’s own security services will fail (perhaps intentionally). Hizbullah’s officials are unhappy with the mandate given to the German naval force that will monitor Lebanese waters. And the heavy French weapons are also a sign that this government is serious about disengaging the south from Hizbullah’s conflicts. But UNIFIL can only do so much. The real fight is internal, and tough decisions have to be made. Maybe 2403 is the magic number. My guess is that it isn’t, and one of the reasons is a March 14 fallacy called Nabih Berri.
Update. (Thursday) The cabinet has adopted resolution 2403 and urged Fatfat to take disciplinary measures against any employee who refuses to carry out his orders, in reference to Jizzini.
The Daily Star reported Hizbullah's opposition:
Hizbullah lashed out at acting Interior Minister Ahmad Fatfat on Thursday, accusing him of attempting to sneak through a "secret security network" that would grant unrestricted access to intelligence and security files for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).
Proposal 2403 stipulates providing UNIFIL free access to all security-related information, in addition to information on foreigners entering and leaving the country. The plan would group General Security, State Security and the information unit of the Internal Security Forces. If the proposal is approved, UNIFIL will be able to access security and intelligence data via the Internet.
I am not sure how accurate the Daily Star reporting is on this subject, especially the part about "accessing intelligence data via the internet." And from what I gathered, 2403 may have been motivated by a UNIFIL request, but it is not exclusively a UNIFIL tool. As I argued above, this is really about reining in the security agencies and bringing them under the authority of the interior ministry. A very late but necessary step.
Update 2. (Friday, 8 am) Fatfat went ahead and suspended Jizzini this morning for 20 days. A deputy in Nabih Berri's block, Ali Hassan Khalil has accused Fatfat of trying to establish a "new security regime". Berri's argument now is that Fatfat is acting interior minister and doesn't have the authority to make such decisions. The Hizbullah and Amal ministers, however, did not vote against Fatfat's resolution yesterday during the cabinet session, which featured a long explanation by Fatfat that apparently won them over... until this morning (LBC News)