Beirut: Although Nouhad Al Mashnouq, the Minister of Interior, tried to quell security concerns in the aftermath of the BLOM Bank headquarters bombing on June 12, the cabinet once again postponed a discussion of the sorely contentious fate of the State Security agency that became an orphan institution after senior government officials abandoned it.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Tammam Salam convened the cabinet in the absence of three resigned ministers — Ashraf Rifi (Justice), Alain Hakim (Economy) and Sejaan Qazzi (Labor) — amid growing tensions within the ranks, presumably to finally tackle hot files, including the OGERO Telecommunications scandal, but it decided to postpone discussions on the topic for two weeks.
Telecommunications Minister Butros Harb was tasked with preparing another detailed report within 15 days about OGERO’s situation and, more important, on the various tasks and jurisdictions enjoyed by Director-General Abdul Moneim Youssef to determine if there is any conflict of interest.
On Wednesday, State Security chief Major-General George Qaraa issued a decree — which was duly forwarded to the Prime Minister — in which he “retired” his deputy, Brigadier general Mohammad Tufaili, because, Qaraa insisted, Tufaily “reached the retirement age stipulated by law”. The two officers seldom got along and this may actually be a case of personality clashes although far more sinister sectarian reasons were also at play.
Qaraa is the only Christian officer that holds any internal security responsibilities, something that has not gone unnoticed in a country where all senior positions are apportioned along sectarian lines.
Speaking to reporters before the cabinet session, Education Minister Elias Bou Saab (Free Patriotic Movement) ruled out that the fate of these two State Security officers would be tackled any time soon, hoping that both would avoid decisions that might “create obstacles and paralyse the government” further, which implied that FPM ministers may not accept an imposed settlement.
For now, the lingering dispute between Qaraa and Tufaili has, for all practical purposes, paralysed the State Security agency and deprived it of funding as Minister of Finance Ali Hassan Khalil, who was absent from the cabinet meeting on Thursday, rejected Qaraa’s requests. Qaraa is backed by the FPM and other Christian ministers while Tufaili is reportedly backed by Khalil, Nouhad Al Mashnouq, and the ministers of the Progressive Socialist Party.
The dispute took on an ugly sectarian dimension in recent months as Christian political parties and ministers described Qaraa’s exclusion from high-level security meetings at the Grand Serail [Government House, which is the seat of the government] along with the financial “siege” that is imposed on the agency by Khalil as an “encroachment on the rights of Christians in state institutions”.