HomePoliticsDossierThe golden cage

The golden cage

“This is a five-star prison. But still it is a prison.”

In the universe of contemporary Lebanese politics, the Phoenicia Hotel is positioned near the center. Just meters away towards the Mediterranean is the hollowed-out core of the St. Georges hotel, still in ruins from the car bomb that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri – the event which set much of the past two and a half years in Lebanon into motion. In the nearby Place de l’Etoile, the Lebanese parliament building stands idle.  The Hezbollah-led tent camp is only a short walk away, as is Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and the Grand Serail.

But today, the Phoenicia itself is arguably the most important of these landmarks, as the temporary home of over 40 MPs from the March 14 alliance.  These deputies form the nucleus of the government’s power: Their votes are counted on to elect a president sympathetic to March 14, and their slim majority in parliament maintains the Siniora government.

The issue of the security of pro-government MPs re-emerged when many of them returned from summers abroad to attend the parliamentary session of September 25.  Since 2005, six MPs have been assassinated, including four from the current parliament. The September 19 assassination of MP Antoine Ghanem reinforced the belief that no March 14 MP was safe from the terror campaign.  “Ghanem was not killed because he was particularly outspoken against Syria.  He was not killed because he was a first-tier leader in the Kataeb,” remarked Future MP Bassem Shab, a Phoenicia resident. “He was killed because he was available.”

Most Future Movement and Progressive Socialist Party MPs currently live in the Phoenicia.  Some members of the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb Party are also staying at the hotel, with many residents predicting that more will arrive in the near future.  For Future MPs, the decision to relocate to the Phoenicia was not left to individual discretion.

“It was not a personal decision to choose this place,” explained Future MP Mohammed Kabbani, who is staying at the Phoenicia.  “It was the leadership of the bloc which chose the Phoenicia because of its location.”  Due to its proximity, the army and security forces are able to shut down the road leading to parliament on the days Speaker Berri decides to call a session.  The MPs are then transported to parliament in armored cars.

Though the MPs’ security situation may be dire, they do not live a life of hardship within the five-star hotel.  The physical comforts could make even the most unapologetic materialist blush.  Flat-screen TVs hang on cream-colored walls, a complimentary plate of baklawa sits on a marble table, a plush white rug lies across the light-brown hardwood floor.  The room service menu reveals dinner options such as grilled lamb cutlets, Atlantic lobster, and Indian prawn curry.

Nevertheless, March 14 MPs do not conceive of their stay as a vacation.  “It is as if we are prisoners in a five-star hotel,” stated Kabbani.  “This is a five-star prison.  But still it is a prison.”

Only the MPs themselves are allowed to reside in their wing of the hotel, separating them from their family and friends.  Many rooms are shared by two MPs, undoubtedly the first time since university – if even then – that many have had a roommate.  “There are so many things you miss,” commented PSP MP Akram Chehayeb.  “You miss your room, small library, garden and your family.”

MPs combat isolation by holding regular meetings among themselves and staying in close telephone contact with their staff outside.  Chehayeb starts his day at six in the morning with a trip to the hotel gym and turns on his telephone at eight-thirty to talk with his office in Aaley.  “I have a group working with me on the problems of the people, about the schools, the hospitals, things like that,” he explained.  In the evening, Chehayeb meets with fellow members of the Progressive Socialist Party to discuss the recent political developments.

Even after a new president is elected, there is no guarantee that the March 14 MPs will be able to return to their homes.  Compromise or not, the pro-government MPs provide the votes that guarantee March 14’s fragile hold on power.  The Syrian regime may conclude that the easiest way to remove its rivals is also be the least subtle: The murder of enough pro-government MPs could give the opposition forces a chance to seize control of parliament.  Consequently, the confinement of pro-government MPs could continue for the foreseeable future.  When asked when he expected to go home, Shab demurred.  “We approach the situation with baby steps.  Next we have the presidential elections.”

The ultimate losers in the confinement of the March 14 leaders at the Phoenicia are not the MPs themselves, but the people who elected them as their representatives.  The MPs knew the occupational hazards they faced when they were elected in 2005, and there are certainly Lebanese who face greater hardships than being permanent guests in an opulent hotel.  But it is a revealing indicator of the Syrian regime’s brutality that Lebanon’s majority is unable to travel freely in the country they were elected to govern.  Isolated from everyday life, Lebanese politics inevitably becomes more of an elite game than usual – decisions are made by a small coterie of political leaders, strategists, and the talking heads on televisions news programs.  It is increasingly difficult for normal Lebanese to influence this world.

There is an illusionary quality to the surrounding luxury in the Phoenicia.  The MPs are aware that, though they are living comfortably today, they are one security slip-up from the same fate as their murdered colleagues.  Nevertheless, Akram Chehayeb refused to engage in self-pity.  While his granddaughter Yasma toddled around the room, chased by his wife Salma and daughter Lama during one of their frequent visits, Chehayeb described the security precautions as one more sacrifice necessary to continue the gains since 2005.  “We want to remain alive to succeed in our cause,” he said.  “To let the international court progress, and to defend the cause of our six friends who were killed by the Syrian regime.”

Salma Chehayeb, sitting next to her husband, reaffirmed her determination as well.  “I believe in what he’s doing, and I believe in God,” she said. “We are not afraid.  The safety of the country is more important.”

Though they may be captive in the Phoenicia, these prisoners intend to continue rattling their cage.

David Kenner was a special reporter with NOW Lebanon. He tweets @DavidKenner.