Beirut: Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces, under the command of General Ashraf Rifi, apprehended the pro-Syrian former Member of Parliament and Cabinet Minister Michel Samaha in the wee hours of Thursday morning “for security reasons.” Both of his homes, in Beirut’s Ashrafiyyah district as well as in Khinsharah [Khenchara], Metn, were searched for evidence that may yet implicate him in alleged crimes. It was unclear whether he was formally arrested or simply taken in for questioning over a sensitive judicial matter.
Conflicting reports circulated throughout the day as to the reasons why authorities moved to detain Samaha. The former Information Minister was being interrogated by ISF Intelligence Branch officers on allegations that he may be involved in a collaboration scheme with Israel, or in assassination attempts on the lives of leading personalities, to spread ethnic tensions in the country. While impossible to verify, contentions that Samaha may have teamed up with operatives eager to murder Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri or the vocal Al Mustaqbal bloc’s representative, Khaled Al Daher, could not be dismissed. Neither Berri nor Daher commented as Gulf News went to press, but the verbose northerner who hailed from the Akkar region was particularly upset following the May 20 execution-style deaths of two prominent Sunni clerics, Ahmad Abdul Wahid and Mohammad Mirhib. The killings provoked Sunni protesters, led by the visibly angry Daher, to launch severe criticisms of the regime of Bashar Al Assad, accusing the Syrian regime of interfering in internal Lebanese politics.
At 64, Samaha’s checkered pro-Ba`ath views were legendary, as he stood out among several pro-Syrian Lebanese officials who seldom missed an opportunity to praise Damascus, and which drew American sanctions in 2007 for “contributing to political and economic instability in Lebanon”. Washington identified him as one of several figures—along with former Defence Minister ‘Abdel Rahim Murad, former Public Works Minister Ass‘ad Hardan, former [and current] State Minister ‘Asim Qansu, former parliament member Nasir Qandil and former Environment Minister Wi’am Wahab—who supposedly diminished the work of constitutional institutions and the process of democracy in Lebanon.
Though he served as minister of information twice — in the 1992 and 2002 Rafiq Hariri governments—Samaha almost always prided himself for the very special relationship he enjoyed with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In fact, after he left government service, Samaha handled the Damascene’s public relations operations in both the US and France, as well as facilitating the return of General Michel Aoun into the Assad cocoon long before the March 8 leader’s return to Beirut in the aftermath of the Hariri assassination on February 14, 2005.
In recent months, and as a direct consequence of the Syrian Revolution, Samaha openly sought the leadership position of the Syrian-Lebanese Higher Council, which is currently headed by Nasri Khoury, even if the Council’s effectiveness was significantly diminished after serious clashes between the Syrian and Lebanese armies along the undemarcated borders.
Importantly, and unlike Qandil and Wahhab, Samaha maintained his high-profile association with the Ba`ath Party, continuing to play a vital role in fostering mediation channels between Assad and March 8 Christian leaders. His close relationships with Jamil Sayyed, the pro-Syrian former head of General Security who was kept under arrest for four years on behalf of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, as well as even closer ties with Buthaynah Sha‘aban, President Assad’s media advisor, might now not be enough to safeguard Samaha.
If Samaha is indicted on serious criminal charges, the accusations may well mimic the fate that befell Antun Sa‘adih, the Lebanese nationalist philosopher, writer and politician who founded the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, and who was detained, tried by a military court, and executed on July 8, 1949.