15 September 2006

A BBC/TV lead story on Tuesday 29 August reported that Kofi Annan was booed in Beirut. Very interesting for assembled world media. Not good for the Secretary General. Not good for the U.N. And -- knowing that cool vindictiveness despite Mr. Annan's agreeable smile -- not good for Lebanon.

That unfortunate display could have been avoided, with a little more care and a little less dismissiveness of people's feelings.

As the last official visit by Mr. Annan to that region, it could have been his swan song, a welcome ticket to a statesman like exit after those Annus Horribilis. Taking along U.N.-accredited reporters was an excellent idea. Having Ahmad Fawzi to deal with them was equally commendable. Feeding them with information, giving them access to host country officials was a welcome move. But then they've got to see SUBSTANCE. Hello, Happy to be Here and Goodbye are wonderfully jolly themes for a few photo opportunities. But there are questions of WAR and PEACE, LIFE and DEATH, DESTRUCTION and RECONSTRUCTION, BLOCKADES and KIDNAPPINGS, that have to be dealt with -- CAREFULLY, SERIOUSLY and TO THE POINT.

An "advance team" of those distinguished envoys did not help. Actually, it proved counterproductive. Terje Roed Larsen sounded like an unguided missile and Veejay Nambiar (supposedly heading the team) didn't utter a sound. While the Secretary General in New York was hopeful, Larsen was threatening. While the Deputy Secretary General was reassuring about troops on the ground within a couple of weeks, Larsen was predicting at least three months of risky vacuum. Although the media-obsessed Norwegian was not involved in the actual preparations for UNIFIL II, he was all over the Lebanese channels and newspapers headlining more violence and destruction to come. That raised serious questions whether Mr. Larsen was really speaking for the U.N. and if not, whom -- or what -- was he working for.

Naturally, the Secretary General was very well received officially. Arab rulers love him and shower him with gifts and awards. He lends them some sort of international legitimacy and they offer him whatever support he may indicate. That's very good for passing a resolution, getting a contribution, or securing an airplane for smoother travel. What really matters at the end is PUBLIC perception. Survivors amongst those rulers would pay more attention to potential popular unrest than to a transient photo opportunity. And regardless of what one or two of his staff tell him, Arab public perception is that Mr. Annan was imposed by Ms. Madeleine Albright with Israeli support after a report by Arab Secretary General Boutros Ghali on a massacre in Qana, Southern Lebanon.

Lebanese government was looking forward to receive the Secretary General with every welcoming signal. Prime Minister Siniora who had gained national stature (and the world's admiration) for his enlightened leadership and unflinching courage has been in touch with Mr. Annan throughout the war and the adoption of Resolution 1701. In an extraordinary respectful gesture, all members of the government, all cabinet ministers, were invited to join the first meeting with him. Many of them who profoundly dislike Terje Roed Larsen suppressed their anger at seeing him next to the Secretary General, behaving as if he owned the place. But then Mr. Annan did not bring much to the table. With his usual smile and soft-spoken voice, he responded to every request with a future promise. Full Israeli withdrawal? He will raise it with the Israelis; but, in the meanwhile what about the two Israeli soldiers? Lifting the Israeli blockade? He fully sympathizes and will explore in Jerusalem; meanwhile, what about close monitoring of borders and, indeed, what about the two soldiers? Would he join the Prime Minister in visiting some destroyed villages in UNIFIL area while on the way to Naqoura? He would look into it with his advisers. Any prospect of freeing Lebanese prisoners in an indirect exchange? He will certainly see to it that the issue is not unmentioned.

Mind you, the Lebanese are very polite with foreigners but fairly capable of sizing them up. Five thousand years of history taught them how to blend lavish hospitality with a swift ability to sense where their visitor was coming from. The government had considered one or two tributes which -- they were given to understand -- Mr. Annan would appreciate. The Minister of Education Tarek Mitri, who had ably represented Lebanon during the Security Council debate that lead to the omnibus resolution, was thinking of naming a library in Beirut after the visiting Secretary General. More important was the MEDAL he was looking forward to receiving under the admiring gaze of international media representatives for his greatly appreciated services to the host country. It is officially called the Cedars Medal of National Appreciation of the First Degree. Apparently with every passing intervention, particularly with Terje and Veejay smiling knowingly, the degree of national appreciation was decreasing to the point of diminishing returns. Maybe the medal could be considered later, some thought, but not right now. Another hurdle to that medal had to do with a sudden decision by Mr. Annan to abruptly change his program in order to exclude the President. Well, it is the President of the Republic who will have to sign the desired award. No President, no medal.

When preparing to visit Lebanon, the Secretary General asked to see the President, Prime Minister and Parliament Speaker. Later, he sought to cancel with the President. The Lebanese Foreign Ministry sent a memo asking for the cancellation's reason. The response came that Mr. Annan was making a working visit not a ceremonial one and will be mainly dealing with the Prime Minister with whom he has been in regular touch. The Foreign Ministry responded that according to the Constitution, the Lebanese President is not merely a ceremonial presence but a basic partner in decision making. No government foreign policy decision could be taken without his approval. An informal response added a reminder that when Mr. Annan visited in 2000 he mainly dealt with the same President, Emil Lahoud, whom he had invited only last year to attend the 2005 General Assembly General debate and again invited him for the forthcoming September session. President Lahoud is expected to address the Session on September 21. Furthermore, Mr. Annan and Mr. Lahoud go a long way back since the current Secretary General was head of Peacekeeping and the current President was the head of the army. Canceling the appointment therefore was interpreted politically -- that Mr. Annan was surrendering to pressure from U.S. and France upon the request of the Hariri family.

All politics is local. Having snubbed the President, the Secretary General should have been cautious in making his next moves around Lebanon. Mr. Lahoud is not only a former military commander, or fully supported by Syria, or ran the country apparatus for eight years. He is also supported by Hezbollah, which made an official visit to thank him for his stand following the general cessation of hostilities. A potentially explosive atmosphere was already in the air when Mr. Annan arrived in Beirut. It was seriously compounded when he insisted on bringing along Terje Roed Larsen who carries lots of baggage in Lebanon. There are those who accuse him publicly of being an Israeli proxy. Others, like former Parliament Speaker, Baalbeck MP Hussein Hasseini, the official godfather of the Taif accord, has called for a parliamentary meeting to discuss Larsen's unwarranted interference in internal affairs of the country. Even the few politicians who welcome his contacts whisper that they suspect him but hope to use him like he hopes to use them. Most newspapers have questioned his credibility and his source of reference. Arab media "oracle," Al-Ahram chief editor Hassanein Haikal elaborated in Al-Jazeera why he thought Larsen was bound by the Israeli political line. Mr. Larsen had already raised the temperature by statements he made during his advance visit. When the Secretary General insisted on conducting delicate negotiations with the government and with influential Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri with Larsen at his side, he was unnecessarily injecting a suspicious atmosphere. There was no one around him to advise otherwise. Gere Pedersen, a fellow Norwegian, would have to at least try to explain away his compatriot, although -- contrary to a prevailing impression -- he is not "Larsen's man." A junior assistant, Salman something, is a former Larsen aide placed in Beirut specifically to report back. Veejay Nambiar is too new -- and too cautious -- to intervene except to explain the difference between "tripping point" and "tipping point." The only Arab around, Ahmad Fawzi, wisely stuck to his effective role as lead Spokesman.

In the prevailing atmosphere, the last thing Mr. Annan needed during his only popular "test" visit under the gaze of world media was to take along an explosive psychological time-bomb like Larsen with him to the Israeli-destroyed Southern suburb of Beirut. As Hezbollah Parliament member Ali Ammar welcomed him, assisted in the background by its leaders' special political advisor Hussein Khalil, Larsen popped out of the car, looking for his place in that photo op. On hearing his name repeated by media announcers, crowds mainly of women and kids first gasped then booed, started to shout damning curses and wailing not only at the most disliked envoy, but also at the undeserving Secretary General. Within four minutes, Mr. Annan was swiftly whisked away in a black Mercedes. In a comprehensive interview in As-Safir on 5 September, Sayyed Nasrellah said Hezbollah members were taken off guard by the popular outburst; "we were keen on dealing with the Secretary General properly and respectfully," he said, speculating that "perhaps the presence of Terje Roed Larsen provoked the crowd."

Ironically, Kofi Annan would have normally received a popular welcome, if properly prepared, in that neighbourhood where some inhabitants carry the Arabic version of Annan's name. During a visit in the year 1998, his wife Nanne visited a social centre in that generally poor neighbourhood. She received a hero's welcome. Some women hung on to her and wouldn't let her go until she promised a future visit. Perhaps she could have helped this time.