The Middle East's Latest Police State

11/25/2011 05:24 pm ET | Updated Jan 25, 2012
  • Patrick Galey Journalist and writer focused on the Middle East. Reported for five years for a variety of publications from Beirut and Cairo.

It was a dispute that left scores dead. When in May 2008 the Lebanese government attempted to dismantle what it alleged was a Hezbollah espionage network at Beirut's international airport, rival militias took to the streets of West Beirut and other parts of the country and reenacted a microcosm of Lebanon's 15-year civil war.

Although the fighting had been prefigured by months of political standoff, it demonstrated in the starkest possible manner Lebanon's entrenched spying culture.

An issue that never really went away reared its head again this week, in two ways. Firstly, Hezbollah announced that it had "blinded" American intelligence operations, following the party's apprehension of alleged CIA operatives. Former U.S. officials admitted that its spy network on Hezbollah had been severely compromised.

But it was another development, one which flew largely under the radar, that is the most intriguing -- and worrying.

Over the weekend Interior Minister Marwan Charbel announced the establishment of a wiretapping center at Beirut's Telecommunications Ministry.

Charbel promised that the wiretapping operation would not impinge on civil liberties, and would instead target only criminals and terrorists. "No one is allowed to intercept phone calls unless it is through this room," he added.

With that announcement, Lebanon transformed from a country in which each party, embassy and intelligence agency operates its own monitoring network to an officially-sanctioned police state.

It is no secret that Hezbollah, in particular, has long maintained a parallel telecoms network, linking nexuses in its strongholds across the country and monitoring suspicious activity. The party stresses this is for the purpose of counterespionage against Israeli infiltration in Lebanon. There are sporadic dissenting voices, but after the events of May 2008, it remains a given that Hezbollah can spy on people.

Nor is it alone in this. Western and Arab diplomats will cheerfully tell you (off the record) that a number of international missions monitor conversations across the country, as do domestic organizations. It's a poorly kept secret that it's hard to keep a secret in Lebanon.

But an official wiretapping service is an altogether different beast. Ministers were keen to point out that the center conforms to Lebanese law, that the monitoring service is a matter of national security. This is not satisfactory. Even though the official announcement was evidently conceived to give the entire process an air of openness and transparency, questions remain over the exact operational integrity of a network that could conceivably access every phone in Lebanon.

How will personnel be selected? What will be done with the data after investigations are through? On what basis, precisely, will the Interior Ministry decide that telecoms monitoring is necessary? And, given the periodical chaos that engulfs Lebanese network providers, where is the guarantee that companies handling data will keep it to themselves?

There are clearly hitches inherent in the newly launched system, just as there are obvious ethical problems with openly invading civilian privacy. But both pale into insignificance compared with the body that will harness investigations based on wiretaps; the Lebanese judiciary is hardly famed for its impartiality.

It is not enough to say that monitoring operations are being conducted in the name of national security, when such a term is defined by courts that pay scant attention to legal and civil liberties. I have written before about Lebanon's jail 'system'. Law enforcement tends to involve locking people away as a first step; it only tries them when it has the time.

It might be easier to have faith that a government wiretapping system will be responsibly implemented were it not in the hands of trigger-happy authorities with little or no accountability.

With events in Syria threatening civil unrest in Lebanon, with an ever-ready opponent to the south, and with a government on the verge of fracture, there is no reason to believe security forces will keep their word in listening to every one of the public's.