Lebanon's Politicians: Avoiding the Assassins
Tripoli - Guards with AK-47s patrol the perimeter of Mosbah Ahdab's flat in Tripoli. "I'm effectively a prisoner" he says, in a U.S.-v-Iran proxy war waged on Lebanese soil.
The forty-six-year-old Ahdab is an independent member of the Lebanese Parliament, known for his steadfast opposition to Iranian and Syrian influence here. He consistently opposed the current Syrian-backed President Emile Lahoud, whose term expires next week.
Ahdab worries that Syrian-backed assassins are targeting him. The shutters of the flat are all closed. Cameras survey the streets all around. And he travels only in the middle of the night in a long convoy, which he enters through a specially designed tent so snipers or bombers can't tell which car he's in.
Ahdab is convinced he can outlast his assassins. But he worries that U.S. interest in Lebanese democracy might not wait with him. Ahdab wants America and the West to keep a sharp eye on Lebanon, oppose political murders, and support democracy. But he doesn't want the U.S. to engage Lebanon as a proxy battlefield, which is what Iran and Syria, he says, are goading it to do.
The numbers worry him. If a few more of Ahdab and his allies are killed before the election the anti-Syrian bloc will lose its slim majority in parliament, making the election of an anti-Syrian president far less likely.
Ahdab comes from a successful business family which owns the buses running between Beirut and Tripoli along with some construction interests. So his home isn’t a bad place to be stuck. Plush sofas and Lebanese artwork line the walls of his expansive living room facing the ocean. Fresh flowers pack the vases. And he carries a portable buzzer that allows him to call his butler for wine or food at any time.
The flat has become his political headquarters. From here Ahdab greets other politicians, businessmen, reporters, and artists. Over our five hours together, nearly a dozen guests pass through. His young wife, fifteen years his junior, engages them all in banter, mostly about the upcoming election, while their energetic five-year-old daughter zips around the guests on a Barbie-brand scooter.
She's safe inside, but when the elections come next week, all bets are off. Ahdab's sending his family abroad to be extra secure.
Ahdab's not the only one holed up in expectation of the elections. My room in Beirut overlooks thefive-star Phoenicia Hotel, which reportedly houses nearly forty other MPs also protecting themselves from potential assassins.
Amphibious tanks squat on the streets, and snipers peer out of an adjacent, abandoned building to protect the MPs. They overlook the spot in front of St. George's Hotel where former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed in a massive explosion nearly three years ago, serving as a grim reminder of the stakes.
Ahdab and these MPs are part of the March 14th Coalition, whose members led over a million Lebanese in the Cedar Revolution, which led to Syria's military withdrawal from Lebanon after nearly three decades.
Now those who oppose March 14 politicians like Ahdab accuse the movement of serving America's interests, but Ahdab shrugs off the criticisms saying they don't stick to him, or resonate with voters.
As a businessman, he sees U.S. support and investment in Lebanon as a potential asset. And he doesn't think adopting an "anti-American" mantle will do him or his country much good.
He wants to bypass America-talk, which he believes diverts attention from local concerns. "Americans have the idea that their Middle East allies have to oppose them publicly" to succeed, he says, but he should serve as a counterargument.
Lebanon is a small country with approximately 4 million people. It's often used as a staging ground for regional conflicts. "The [Iranian] Ayatollah Khamenei said 'We'll beat the Americans in Lebanon' because he's invested 18 billion dollars in Hezbollah, and Iran isn't willing to give this away," Ahdab says. But Hezbollah as an armed movement has stopped representing Lebanese interests, he says, and he eventually wants it disarmed, not for America's good, but for Lebanon's.
The solution isn't war between the U.S. and Iran, he emphasizes, or even America's demand that the new president immediately enforce UN Security Council Resolutions 1559 and 1701, calling for Hezbollah to give up its arms.
Ahdab does say he wants America to stand by the ideal of democracy. He believes Lebanon can be the example of democracy the U.S. wants to see in the Middle East. But America must let the Lebanese work among themselves to realize it on the ground.
That's why he's here in Lebanon, avoiding the assassins, and waiting to cast his vote.