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The Daily Star's acquisition is encouraging.
The Daily Star's acquisition is encouraging.

Read all about it in the Daily Star

A revitalised Daily Star reveals the realities and contradictions of life in Lebanon.

I recently picked up the Beirut Daily Star to see what changes had been made to the English-language newspaper since it was acquired by the Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri. Nadim Ladki, the former Reuters Beirut bureau chief, has been appointed editor-in-chief, which is a bit of a coup, while the fresh, new design is very much like that of the International Herald Tribune, with which the Daily Star partnered until the 2006 war. All very pleasing really, given that the paper had struggled in recent years, becoming a shadow of the publication that had been resurrected by the then-owner Jamil Mroue back in 1996, and of which I was part of the first generation of editorial staff that he hoped would "report the heartbeat of the Middle East".

Fourteen years later, Jamil, the eldest son of the paper's founder Kamel Mroue, who was shot at his desk in 1966 by an unhinged Nasserite, and whose family already sold the pan-Arab Al Hayat to the Saudis, has sold his 60 per cent stake in the paper to Mr Hariri. And while it may represent a watershed in the history of Lebanese print media, the acquisition, assuming the paper does not become a Future Movement mouthpiece (that it is published in English should spare it that fate) is encouraging. It is another reflection of the sunny optimism that is beating down on a Lebanon where the banks are offering just under 6 per cent interest on lira deposits and property prices are going bonkers.

The Daily Star's revitalised business pages reflect this buoyant mood. We read, not surprisingly, that Lebanon's top 12 banks, the so-called alpha banks, have released healthy nine-month figures, while the Association of Engineers of Beirut and Tripoli has announced that during the same period, construction permits for 13.1 million square metres had been signed off. Lebanon may not have the infrastructure to cope with all this new-build, but in true Lebanese fashion that bridge will be crossed in good time, once the money is in the bank and the roads are gridlocked, of course.

Meanwhile, Eid al Adha is upon us and the tourism minister Fadi Abboud expects the number of foreigners visiting Lebanon this year to exceed two million. Mr Abboud has just returned from London, where he had been attending the World Travel Market, trying to sell Lebanon to the world. While he was there, the minister - who in July told Executive, the Lebanese business monthly, that he considered Lebanon the destination "for the connoisseur" and not what he called the "fish and chip" crowd - gave a candid interview to The Independent in which he complained of Middle East Airlines' unusually high fares and said he would personally champion any bids by the Ryanairs and easyJets of this world to fly to Beirut.

Funnily enough, he also made an intriguing comment on the law that currently denies entry to anyone with an Israeli stamp in his or her passport. Mr Abboud advised tourists planning a trip to Israel before coming to Lebanon to ask Israeli officials not to stamp their passport. "We are grown-ups," he said. "We do not want to punish people who decide to visit Israel. It's not the end of the world." It was a staggering statement, given Mr Abboud's political allegiances.

He is a member of the opposition Change and Reform bloc, which counts Hizbollah among its allies. Hizbollah, which as we all know is not predisposed to the idea of Israel, would never condone such a comment. Indeed, in its eyes, anyone visiting both Israel and Lebanon must be up to no good. But in this simple exchange, between a minister who in "normal" life is a highly respected industrialist and a western newspaper in a major foreign capital, lie both the reality and the contradictions that currently define Lebanon.

On home soil, Mr Abboud is not allowed to be so candid. His ministerial portfolio is relatively junior in the Lebanese pecking order, but his relative worldliness makes him an ideal opposition spokesman. His most recent domestic statements have been on the illegality of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), the court created to bring to justice the murderers of the former prime minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others on February 14, 2005 as well as subsequent victims of political killings.

The STL is understood to be preparing to issue indictments to Hizbollah members for their alleged role in the seafront outrage that gouged a huge crater in front of the famous St Georges Hotel, while Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah's secretary-general, has said that it will "cut off the arm" of anyone that seeks to harm the Resistance.

With these words Mr Nasrallah, whose fighters did what they had always said they would never do by turning their guns on their fellow Lebanese during an attempted coup on May 7, 2008, is sending a message of intent to the Lebanese government. Come after us and we will resist the state. Mr Nasrallah has already declared the STL an Israeli instrument and anyone supporting it to be working with Israel against the Resistance. High stakes indeed; and yet for some reason I can't help think that he is bluffing.

This gut feeling was inspired after a phone call from Gareth Smyth, the former Financial Times Tehran correspondent, who asked me if, given that Beirut-bound money makes up 22 per cent of all MENA remittances, did I think anyone would rock the boat and spoil the party.

If my guess is correct, we should listen to the London, rather than Beirut, Mr Abboud. Mr Nasrallah is all out of options. He knows he cannot stage another show of force without irrevocably corrupting his party's brand equity. He also knows that the business community, even those businessmen within his own Shia community, will condemn him if he plunges the country into chaos.

That said, whichever way we go, you can read all about it in The Daily Star.

 

Michael Karam is a publishing and communication consultant based in Beirut

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