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Cablegate: Lebanon: Information Minister Says "Mutual Suspicion and Mistrust" Could Delay Elections

VZCZCXRO5926
PP RUEHAG RUEHBC RUEHDE RUEHKUK RUEHROV
DE RUEHLB #1374/01 2621417
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 181417Z SEP 08
FM AMEMBASSY BEIRUT
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 3092
INFO RUEHEE/ARAB LEAGUE COLLECTIVE
RUCNMEM/EU MEMBER STATES COLLECTIVE
RUCNDT/USMISSION USUN NEW YORK 2942
RUEHNO/USMISSION USNATO 3156
RHMFISS/CDR USCENTCOM MACDILL AFB FL
RHEHAAA/NSC WASHDC

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 BEIRUT 001374
SIPDIS

DEPT FOR NEA/FO, NEA/ELA
ALSO FOR IO ACTING A/S HOOK, PDAS WARLICK
P FOR DRUSSELL AND RRANGASWAMY
USUN FOR KHALILZAD/WOLFF/SCHEDLBAUER
NSC FOR ABRAMS/RAMCHAND/YERGER/MCDERMOTT
E.O. 12958: DECL: 08/12/2018
TAGS: PREL PGOV PTER PINR ECPS UNSC SY LE
SUBJECT: LEBANON: INFORMATION MINISTER SAYS "MUTUAL SUSPICION AND MISTRUST" COULD DELAY ELECTIONS

Classified By: Ambassador Michele J. Sison for reasons 1.4
(b) and (d).

SUMMARY
-------

1. (C) Minister of Information Tareq Mitri told the
Ambassador on September 16 that there is a possibility that
the 2009 elections could be delayed because mutual suspicion
and mistrust continue to plague the national unity
government. Mitri cautioned that recent events touted as
"reconciliation" (i.e., in Tripoli and between rival Druze
factions) were better described as "treaties" engineered to
keep further violence at bay, rather than as a form of
forgiveness. He expressed concern that the parliament was
being replaced as the appropriate forum for discussion and
law making; and complained the cabinet was spending far too
many hours discussing issues that should fall under the
purview of the parliament. The media, Mitri believed, has
exacerbated some of the political conflicts and said he is
focused on crafting a new "code of conduct" for the media.
The ministry also is exploring ideas to improve Lebanon´s
public television programming, he said. Mitri was clearly
not enthralled by his new portfolio and was counting the
days. End summary.

DELAYED ELECTIONS
ARE A POSSIBILITY
-----------------

2. (C) Minister of Information Tareq Mitri told the
Ambassador, accompanied by Poloff, September 16 that the 2009
parliamentary elections could be delayed due to mutual
suspicion and mistrust between the political factions. The
majority, he said, does not trust that Hizballah is doing its
part to dissipate violence. In addition, the daily violence
occurring in the Bekaa, Beirut, and other regions is creating
fear among voters, he said. If the present security
environment continues unchanged until the time of the
elections, Mitri believed voters would not vote, rhetorically
asking, "Why should they?"

3. (C) Mitri revealed that during the drafting of the
national unity government´s ministerial statement in August
2008 there was a "difficult discussion" related to language
concerning the next elections. Hizballah, he said, objected
to the inclusion of language that stated elections would not
take place if the security situation was unstable. Minister
of Labor Mohammad Fneish (Hizballah) reportedly said, "This
is Lebanon, not Plato´s republic." Conversely, Mitri said he
argued that Hizballah appeared to want to delay the elections
by not reining in its fighters. (Note: Ultimately,
paragraph 15 of the adopted ministerial statement made no
reference to voters´ ability to exercise their rights without
intimidation, threats, or violence. End note.) However,
Mitri believed significant tension and mistrust remain.

"TREATY" vs. "RECONCILIATION"
----------------

4. (C) Mitri said recent events touted in the press as
"reconciliation" initiatives (i.e., the September 2008
Tripoli agreement between rival Sunni and Alawite factions
and reports of reconciliation between Druze leaders Walid
Jumblatt and Talal Arslan) are better described as "treaties"
or agreements. One of the meanings of "reconciliation" in
Arabic, he said, assumes a sort of interpersonal dimension;
one that approaches forgiveness. However, these agreements,
he suggested, are primarily political in nature and represent
an attempt to keep violence from spiraling out of control
with no sign of the underlying tension abating.

IS PARLIAMENT BEING REPLACED?
---------------

5. (C) Mitri was dour in his assessment of parliament. The
parliament, he said, is not functioning properly. He
complained that the cabinet of ministers was spending "hours
and hours" deliberating on divisive issues that should fall
under parliament´s purview. Even the National Dialogue, he
said, is a sort of replacement for parliament. Although the
National Dialogue could be an avenue to debate some of the
important issues, Mitri believed Michel Aoun and Hizballah
will deliberately attempt to sidetrack the discussion.

6. (C) Mitri acknowledged that Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri
had publicly stated his intention to move forward with a
broad legislative agenda. However, he said, only the
electoral law is under serious discussion. He believed an
electoral law would pass without a problem; the trouble would
be implementation, he said. Mitri feared the government
would become bogged down in political bickering over the
course of the next eight months, rather than focusing on
important issues, including electricity and water, he said.

MEDIA NEEDS A "CODE OF CONDUCT"
-----------------

7. (C) Mitri told the Ambassador that it is "not fun to be in
this ministry." He said the ministry is huge, but its role
and vocation are undefined. One of the projects he will
spend the most time on, Mitri said, is drafting and
implementing a "code of conduct" for the media. According to
Mitri, the media is partially responsible for exacerbating
conflicts in Lebanon. Even though most media outlets have
strong political affiliations, Mitri said they should still
have "professional ethics."

8. (C) The code of conduct Mitri envisioned would not be
legally binding. However, he said he will spend the next two
months gathering support and input from unions and civil
society to make the message stronger because he had no
expectation that politicians would support such a decree.
Mitri proclaimed that "name, shame, and blame" can be very
effective in a country like Lebanon; perhaps more than going
to court, he said. When asked if Hizballah´s Al-Manar
network would respect such a code, Mitri said "probably." He
said Al-Manar was not the worst of the networks, rather it
was the new pro-Syrian, opposition network, Al-Jadeed. Mitri
characterized Al-Jadeed as "having a taste for the
sensational and sarcastic" that was causing more problems,
Mitri opined.

COMMENT
-------

9. (C) Mitri was clearly unenthralled by his new portfolio.
Prior to the election of President Sleiman, Mitri served as
Acting Foreign Minister and also had served as Minister of
Culture. September 16, he said, was "Day 67" of the current
government and he was not sure if he should be congratulated
for being able to move out of the Grand Serail (where many
ministers were holed up during the 18-month political vacuum)
or "given condolences."
SISON

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