Siniora's Nasty Little Trick

When the second war in Lebanon ended, Fouad Siniora's government made a moving appeal to Lebanon's three largest cement companies: He asked them to reduce the price of their cement by $10 per ton, to make the job of rebuilding the country somewhat easier. Two companies agreed and lowered the price; the third, the Siblin Cement Company, refused.

From the standpoint of the companies that agreed, the decision has serious economic implications: The price of a ton of cement in Lebanon is $75, and since these companies produce five million tons of it annually, a $10 reduction is a sharp blow to their cash flow. The board of directors of the company that refused is headed by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and one of its partners is the Hariri Group. Siblin's refusal is something every cement manufacturer in Lebanon understands: It is motivated by the desire to prevent the Syrians from profiting at the expense of their political rivals in Lebanon.

The arithmetic here is really quite simple. Huge quantities of cement - according to some estimates, 300,000 tons per year - are smuggled into Syria, where the price per ton is $130, almost twice what it is in Lebanon. This includes a customs payment of $30 per ton that is demanded by the Syrian government. Damascus also determines the quota of imported cement. Thus, each ton that is brought illegally into Lebanon represents a loss of revenue not only for the Syrian government, but also for cement manufacturers in Lebanon who resent the smuggling of cheap Lebanese cement into Syria's markets.

Siblin decided not to be a party to such deals. However, this is only a symbolic gesture, which holds no economic significance for the company. The reason is that Syria has for a long while already banned the import of Siblin's cement as well as its sale, via Syria, to Iraq, which has become a major buyer of Lebanese cement. Damascus launched this whole cement war because of the statements and the anti-Syrian policies of Jumblatt and his Hariri Group partners.

Prior to the second war in Lebanon, the Syrian boycott had no impact on Jumblatt, who sold his cement to neighboring European countries and thereby circumvented Damascus' attempt to exert economic pressure on him. However, when the war began, combined with Israel's maritime blockade on the export of products from Lebanon, Jumblatt - despite his public and strident anti-Syrian stance - found himself encircled by Israel, which logically should have been supporting him.

In the meantime, the problem has been solved and the blockade has become less stringent. Nonetheless, this episode clearly demonstrates the impact of the "personalized" pressure tactics Syria employs on Lebanon's politics and economy even after Damascus' withdrawal.

Thus, when an opportunity came along to pay Syria back, Prime Minister Siniora and his supporters, including Jumblatt, lost no time in teaching Damascus a lesson, albeit a short-term one.

Two weeks ago, Siniora played a small but nasty trick on Syria when he received the draft of the United Nations' proposal for the establishment of an international tribunal to try Rafik Hariri's assassins. Normally, Siniora would have submitted the proposal to President Emile Lahoud, brought it to the attention of the speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, Nabih Beri, and transferred a copy of it to Hezbollah's representatives in the cabinet. But Siniora decided, first and foremost, to discuss the document with his friends and only afterward did he show the proposal to Lahoud and Beri. Syria, which was thus kept ignorant of the proposal's text, sharply reprimanded its friends in Lebanon.

Did Siniora know that the delay in presenting the document would cause the collapse of his government? Apparently, he did. He was well aware that Hezbollah (and Syria) had no intention of conceding on the issue of the creation of a national unity government in which Hezbollah would have a veto, and that is why he played his little trick.

Actually, Siniora was afraid that if he presented the proposal to his rivals, they would try to delay its approval and drag him and the government into lengthy discussions that might have ultimately taken all the punch out of the document, which he himself drafted together with UN representatives. Apparently, Siniora wanted at least to guarantee approval of the cabinet resolution regarding the international tribunal before political developments led to his government's collapse.

Now the dispute is a legal one: Is Siniora's cabinet minus the Shi'ite ministers who resigned earlier this week still a legal government and is its decision to ratify the tribunal proposal binding, or has the resignation of the Hezbollah ministers depleted it of its legal standing? President Lahoud has wasted no time in declaring that the government has lost its legal status. In doing so, he is trying to minimize Syria's loss of face. However, Siniora for his part proclaimed that he was not accepting the ministers' letters of resignation and that even if they have resigned, his government still retains its legal status.

In any event, Siniora's decision has created a dilemma for Hezbollah. If the Shi'ite ministers can link their resignation to their demand for suitable representation for Shi'ites, that is one thing. However, if the resignation is seen as a protest against the decision to accept the draft of the text regarding the tribunal's establishment, they could be accused of having acted unpatriotically.

The Lebanese public knows that Syria is the primary guilty party in the assassination of Hariri. Thus, after resigning from the cabinet to protect Syrian interests, Hezbollah will find it difficult to defend itself in the face of the accusation that it is acting on behalf of foreigners. This consideration might, in the final analysis, make Siniora and Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah decide to launch yet another round of talks instead of organizing protest demonstrations.

Some people in Damascus might be asking themselves today whether it might, in fact, have been a bad idea to prevent Jumblatt from selling his cement in Syria.

"This is a wonderful achievement because we have nonetheless managed to be included in the list of the 3,000 top universities in the world," writes Ali Saad al-Mousi in the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan, about the recent achievement of King Saud University in Riyadh.

The problem is that the university is in 2,990th place, and that is why Al-Mousi is complaining. To clarify the extent of the problem, he makes the following suggestion: "We should learn from the example reported in a brief news item carried by the newspapers from the beaches of the Zionist enemy. According to that item, the mayor of an Israeli town has decided that the schools in his community will teach Chinese starting with the next school year." Al-Mousi goes on to explain that for this purpose, 50 Chinese teachers were "imported" to this Israeli town and devised a complete curriculum.

"In contrast, what are we doing here in Saudi Arabia about developing our education system?" Al-Mousi laments. "While the mayor of a town in Israel has the authority to determine what the students in his community will learn, our education authorities are faced with social hurdles that prevent them from changing even one line in the textbooks used in our schools."

For example, he argues, whenever articles are critical of the state of education in Saudi Arabia, they are not aiming to improve the education system, but instead to condemn any intention of copying or capitulating to the West.

Writes Al-Mousi: "One lecturer in the faculty of medicine, for instance, proposes the creation of a separate faculty of medicine that would have only female students and which would teach only gynecology and obstetrics. Or how about a sheikh officially appointed by the government who demands that an official television station cancel its mathematics and science programs because they are a waste of our students' time?" Other examples are cited in this article in the Saudi paper, attacking the shortcomings of the country's education system and presenting Israel as a model to be emulated.

It is certainly refreshing to see items like these appearing in an official Saudi newspaper.

Adnan Abu Ouda, head of the royal court during part of the reign of the late King Hussein, who also held the information portfolio in the Jordanian cabinet, decided last week to pay a sudden visit to Canada. Abu Ouda, who was removed from his prestigious position in 2000 because he did not see eye to eye with a number of court officials on several issues, explained that his trip to Canada was connected with family affairs. However, he was apparently referring to his dispute with another "family": the royal one. That is the only logical explanation for his decision to disconnect his cell phone, or for his refusal to pick up his home phone.

This is not the first time Abu Ouda, a 73-year-old native of Nablus, has loudly expressed his protest against the policies of the Jordanian government and the palace toward Jordanians of Palestinian background. Nor is Abu Ouda the first person to maintain that Jordan discriminates against citizens of Palestinian background. In a long interview he granted the Al Jazeera television network last month, for example, he repeated his argument that King Abdullah II is not doing enough to promote political equality for the country's two major ethnic groups.

Apparently, what really infuriated the palace was Abu Ouda's claim that 60 percent of Jordanians are Palestinian. This demographic statistic has always rankled the palace, which for years has maintained that the Palestinians account for no more than 43 percent of the population. In other words, the palace recognizes the fact that Palestinians represent a major and sizable segment of the population, but denies that they are a majority. Thus, when this argument was voiced by someone who is supposed to know the truth, fears again emerged that Jordanians of Palestinian origin would not only demand better jobs and greater representation in parliament, but might also have more far-reaching political ambitions. Some people have even claimed that Abu Ouda is working for the Jews, who want to turn Jordan into the Palestinians' alternative homeland.

The immense sensitivity to this issue has even led one Jordanian to sue Abu Ouda. The man in question is not a government official, but rather the mufti of Jerash, who argues that Abu Ouda must be placed on trial for undermining the kingdom's unity. A few days later, the Jordanian state prosecutor's office announced that the public's interest would not be served by an indictment against Abu Ouda. After all, why open a Pandora's box and why risk the chance that Abu Ouda could emerge triumphant from the legal proceedings?

Nonetheless, Abu Ouda's statement is still causing serious ripples in Jordan, especially in the court of King Abdullah, who has been criticized by his political rivals for allegedly not providing assistance to the Palestinian people, for boycotting Hamas (since well before Hamas won the last general election in the Palestinian Authority), and for banning demonstrations against Israeli policies in the territories and especially against the mass killings in Gaza last week.

The last thing the king needs right now is a public debate on the issue of the Palestinians' demographic clout in Jordan.