Monday, 31 October 2016

Former General's homecoming: the band plays on

As Michel Aoun becomes President of Lebanon, my Eyewitness sketch of his homecoming to Beirut in 2005, after 15 years of exile in France - first published in The Daily Star on May 9 2005.

By Michael Glackin
Beirut -- Eyewitness
The assembled members of the Kfarzebian-Kesrouan brass band stood resplendent beside the podium in their uniforms. Their ages looked to range from 17 to 70, and they were occasionally guilty of the odd bum note. But what they lacked in finesse they made up for in sheer volume, particularly if, as I was, you were standing right in front of them beside the stage.
Like the thousands of others gathered in Beirut's Martyrs' Square, the Kfarzebian-Kesrouan band had come to welcome home Aoun, Lebanon's prince-across-the-water, and to his followers as near a messiah as you can get in politics.
Most of the overwhelmingly young and largely Christian crowd gathered in the square would barely have been school age when the man his opponents dub "Napol-Aoun" was airlifted to safety out of Beirut by the French government, to a long exile in Paris.
The Martyrs' Square statue, which by now must be the most-climbed structure outside the Himalayas, had a huge photograph of the former general in his military uniform hoisted to the top of it and, as always happens on these occasions, was bedecked in Lebanese flags.
The Kfarzebian-Kesrouan band, which in addition to its trumpets and drums is also the proud owner of the largest Lebanese flag I have ever seen, tried hard to compete with the appearance of a loud thudding beat booming from giant speakers on the stage. But at the first sighting of Aoun's motorcade approaching the square, the crowd went wild, which also unleashed a fresh enthusiasm in the band that heartily banged and blew new life into their instruments.
Suddenly the music stopped. The crowd chanted Aoun's name and Martyrs' Square caught sight of the general for the first time in 15 years as he appeared from backstage. My new-found friends in the band struck up another loud tune before finally giving in to the power of the speakers, which were by now playing the national anthem at a level that could probably be heard in Damascus.
Wearing a suit and tie and standing behind a bullet-proof screen the former general, who cut such a dashing figure as a uniformed commander during the 1980s, looked more like a chubby middle-class businessman. Luckily none of his allies on stage tried to hoist him on their shoulders as his army colleagues used to do in the old days.
Oddly enough, when Aoun finished his speech it was met with polite applause rather than the rapturous cheering that preceded it. The gathered masses got more enthusiastic after their hero left the stage, dancing to more loud music blasting out from the stage. At that point my friends in the band gave up the ghost and downed their instruments to have a cigarette. "We go home for a drink now," they told me. "He's back and we were here to greet him. That is all that matters." It was indeed.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

A U.K. malodorous wind of change

By Michael Glackin
The Daily Star
Wednesday, October 12 2016

If you thought barrel-scraping pandering to populism was limited to political discourse in America think again.
While the sickening spectacle of Donald Trump securing the Republican Party nomination for U.S. President has dominated the world's headlines, the type of xenophobia represented and fueled by the mega mouth businessman is on the increase everywhere. Even in the home of the so called "mother of parliaments".
Last summer's vote for the UK to leave the European Union - so called Brexit - appears to have fired the starting gun on a frantic political race to the bottom, with the government increasingly trying to appeal to voters basest instincts in much the same way as the Hair Fuhrer has done in the U.S.
Last week Home Secretary Amber Rudd, the minister responsible for law and order in the UK, gleefully announced that companies would in future have to publish lists of all their foreign workers. Her department later threatened to "name and shame" British companies that employed too many non UK nationals.
Thankfully, the backlash was ferocious. Steve Hilton, a one time adviser to former Prime Minister David Cameron and oddly enough a vocal supporter of Brexit, called Rudd's plan "divisive, repugnant, and insanely bureaucratic", adding: "Hey Amber, for your next brain­wave, why not announce that foreign workers will be tattooed with numbers on their forearms?"
Tamara Rojo, the Spanish-born director of that most English of institutions, the English National Ballet, made a similar point: She said: “After 20 years contributing to this great country and having been recognized with a CBE [Commander of the British Empire award], how long before I am made to sew a star on my clothes?”
To be perfectly fair, comparisons with Nazi Germany are somewhat wide of the mark - even allowing for the fact that 13th century England was the first European nation to require Jews to wear a visible cloth badge (prompted by the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 which demanded Jews and Muslims wear special dress since you ask).
At any rate, within days of Rudd's crass announcement government ministers hit the airwaves to announce they had abandoned the policy. Well sort of.
Cabinet minister Michael Fallon insisted businesses would not have to publish the number of foreign workers they employ. However, he added they could still be made to "report their numbers" to government in order to help establish areas where there are shortages of British workers.
The problem here is that any sort of "foreigners list" has more than a faint whiff of the goosestep about it, particularly when set against the backdrop of other recent government announcements.
Just before Rudd revealed her plans, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt insisted the National Health Service would slash large numbers of foreign doctors working in the UK and hire British ones in their place. Hopefully the Lebanese orthodontist treating my teenage daughter will be allowed to remain in his job long enough to fit her train tracks before he's placed on the next plane out of here.
Just to ensure no foreign worker was left untouched by this malodorous wind of change, it also emerged last week that UK based foreign academics can no longer serve as advisers to the government on EU affairs. The move is understood to be due to concerns that sensitive information could be leaked to the governments of EU member states during Brexit negotiations.
Considering Prime Minister Theresa May has already shown most of her Brexit cards to the EU the ban looks pretty daft. She has already pledged to invoke article 50, the mechanism which will trigger the formal two-year process for Brexit, within the next six months. She has also made clear her willingness to sacrifice the UK's access to the EU free trade market in order to avoid having to accept the free movement of EU labour - the so called "hard Brexit".
There's not much left to leak after that, something the currency markets have already figured out - sterling has fallen to a 31 year low since the prime minister made those announcements.
On one level you can see where the government is coming from. The message from last summer's Brexit vote was clear. Those who voted to leave the EU want tighter curbs on immigration. It is right that the government should take note of this.
However, confronted with disaffected voters the government appears willing to say and do anything, regardless of the cost to the economy, and regardless of the fact that its policies are legitimizing a growing intolerance towards foreign workers.
Make no mistake, the EU referendum campaign unleashed a wave of bigotry in the UK, evidenced by the assassination of Jo Cox, a vocal pro EU member of parliament (and a champion of Syrian refugees). Her assassin shouted "Britain First" at her as he shot and stabbed her in broad daylight on the street outside her local library a week before the Brexit vote.
Official government figures reveal that in the three months since the UK voted to leave the EU there has been a sharp increase in reported hate crimes against ethnic minorities and foreign nationals, as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.
You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to detect the government's sudden ill-conceived plans to crack down and "get tough" on foreign workers, whether they are waiters, carpenters, doctors, or academics, is pandering to people with extreme tendencies. Indeed there is a strong danger that it is feeding and even tacitly vindicating those who are carrying out attacks in increasing numbers on foreigners in the UK.
Worryingly, a day after Rudd announced her plan, an opinion poll revealed 60 percent of the public supported her. Only 25 percent opposed the plan. That support comes despite the fact that the number of UK nationals in work is at its highest level in almost 20 years.
The politics of snarling and sneering is no substitute for substance and leadership. A hate filled lunatic fringe may have captured the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower, but that's no reason for the government of the UK to embrace it. The barrel-scraping has to stop. In an increasingly unstable world the UK requires leadership, not mob rule dressed up as government.
Michael Glackin, is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 12 2016.