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Questions of Privacy, Politics and Murder in Lebanon Text-Message Row

BY Lisa Goldman | Wednesday, December 19 2012

“If you think you understand Lebanese politics, it hasn’t been explained properly.” – A popular Lebanese saying.

During the first week of December, the Daily Star Lebanon, an English-language broadsheet published in Beirut, reported that the telecoms minister had refused a request from the Internal Security Forces (ISF) for over 3.7 million mobile phone users’ text messages.

The ISF needed the text messages for the period September 13-November 10, 2012, they said, in order to facilitate their investigation into the assassination of Brigadier General Wissam al-Hassan, who headed the ISF’s Information Branch, more informally known as the Intelligence branch.

Al-Hassan died in a massive car bombing outside an upscale shopping mall in the predominantly Christian Achrafieh area of Beirut on October 19, 2012.

Minister Senhaoui told the Daily Star that he refused to hand over the text messages out of concern for the privacy of Lebanese citizens:

“It violates the Constitution and the law,” he said. “Should we tell the Lebanese that we have suspended the Constitution and abolished their freedoms?” he asked. “Not a single country in the word would accept [the approval of such a request],” he added.

In addition to privacy issues, Senhaoui told the Star he was concerned that the person or group that controls the data “will control the country.”

Senhaoui’s sentiments on privacy are valid and laudable, but Lebanese politics is unusually complex and motivations are not always clear.

The current government is a multi-party coalition dominated by Hezbollah, the Shi’a party headed by Hassan Nasrallah, and the Free Patriotic Movement, with the latter headed by General Michel Aoun. This coalition, often referred to as the March 8 Alliance, is vaguely allied with Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria, which occupied most of Lebanon from 1976 until 2005.

The opposition March 14 Alliance is named for the date in 2005 when hundreds of thousands of anti-Syrian Lebanese converged in Beirut for a peaceful protest called the Cedar Revolution, ultimately forcing the Syrians to withdraw their military presence from Lebanon. The 2005 protests were sparked by the assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, who opposed Syria’s presence in Lebanon.

A 2011 Canadian television documentary called Who Killed Rafik Hariri? offers compelling evidence that the ISF had gathered sufficient data to prove Hezbollah’s direct involvement in the assassination.

Brigadier General Wissam Al-Hassan was supposed to have been traveling with Hariri when the powerful roadside bomb that killed the prime minister exploded, leaving a massive crater on one of Beirut’s major roads. But the intelligence officer had taken the day off, which some thought was suspicious. Al-Hassan was regarded as an active supporter of the March 14 movement — i.e., an opponent of Syria and thus of Hezbollah, but now some suspected he was secretly allied with the March 8 Coalition.

Others posit that he was assassinated by Hezbollah for his involvement in the investigation of the Hariri assassination.

Ayham Kamel, a London-based Middle East analyst with the Eurasia Group, says he has not seen any evidence to support the theory that Hezbollah was behind the assassination of Wissam Al-Hassan. But by requesting the mobile text messages, the ISF creates the impression that it has evidence implicating Hezbollah and its allies. Tacitly, they are implying that if the government refused the request it must have something to hide.

“In the past,” explained Kamel, “Violations of privacy in the name of security were not questioned by the March 14 coalition and its supporters. But now, with Aoun and Hezbollah in the government, they have issues with invasion of privacy — and this gets a lot of traction. It’s popular with their supporters, but also with many other factions. The attitude now is that the security service can have some access, but not unfettered access.”

Both arguments, said Kamel, have merit. Certainly this was “not a straightforward debate” — both sides were spinning and both had their own agendas.

“But the privacy and security issues are legitimate and this is not purely a political issue,” he summed up.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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