Argument

Mr. Omnishambles

Is David Cameron about to get laughed out of office?

LONDON — A government may survive unpopularity, apathy, even scandal, but ridicule is another matter. Yet this is the present, sorry predicament that David Cameron's government finds itself in. As it marks ("celebrates" is clearly the wrong word) two years in power this week, the British prime minister's Conservative government is adrift in the polls and struggling to retain the electorate's respect. The depth of Cameron's predicament was made all the more apparent last week when, in an effort to put recent woes behind him, the prime minister tried to, as the hackneyed phrases have it, "draw a line" or "move on" from recent woes by "turning the page" and relaunching his government. However clever this strategy might have seemed in No. 10 Downing Street, it sent a quite different message to the country: A successful government needs no "fresh start" -- far less a total relaunch.

So when Cameron and his coalition partner, Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, held a chummy news conference on May 8 in a tractor factory -- a venue chosen to demonstrate their commitment to boosting manufacturing and getting Britain back to economic growth -- they only succeeded in highlighting the unwelcome fact that Britain isn't working at present and, with the country suffering a (modest but painful) double-dip recession, growth seems but a distant prospect. They may still build tractors in Essex, but unemployment is at its highest in 15 years.

Nor have events elsewhere in Europe assisted an embattled prime minister. Election results in France and Greece, plus fresh turmoil in Spain and the Netherlands, have highlighted these as dismal times for incumbents. Worse still, from Cameron's perspective, is that so-called "austerity" is becoming unfashionable across Europe. Even if Cameron is correct to insist that Britain must reduce a deficit that -- even in these leaner times -- runs at 8 percent a year, the mood and fashion appears to be turning against him.

There is little prospect for relief. Polls show Cameron's Conservatives trailing Labour by as many as a dozen points; worse still, just 65 percent of 2010's batch of Conservative voters say they would back Cameron's party if an election were held next month. In such circumstances, a government needs all the support it can muster.

Yet Cameron's government has lost more than its share of friends. And what support it once had seems to be deserting it in droves. Backbench Tory MPs complain the prime minister and his chancellor, George Osborne, are "incompetent" or, just as bad, "out of touch." Meanwhile, even the right-wing press has turned on the prime minister. The Daily Telegraph -- a paper sometimes nicknamed the "Torygraph" -- now complains of about a "lack of basic competence" and warned that "Cameron cannot simply write off his party's unpopularity as the natural mid-term response to an administration bent on constraining public spending at a time of economic stagnation. In recent months, his Government has been shown to be flawed in gravely worrying ways."

For its part, the Daily Mail (perhaps the most influential paper in Britain) thundered that "the country will not forgive a government which fails to take the brave steps required to fix the economy and give the country a hope of a brighter future. Mr Cameron remains a man of genuine appeal and undoubted ability. He has three years until the election to prove his economic competency and his Tory principles. But the clock is ticking."

With friends like these, who needs enemies? The right has tired of the compromises imposed by the coalition government and wants the prime minister to rediscover his inner-Thatcherite. That means dropping plans for legalizing same-sex marriage or reforming the House of Lords and instead concentrating on cutting everything and anything. It means slashing public spending, taxes, immigration, regulations, and welfare. The papers note, with approval, that Boris Johnson was reelected as London's mayor on a populist conservative platform. When Boris -- as he is universally known -- returns (as it is presumed he will) to the House of Commons when his mayoral term is up, he will inevitably be seen as a rival and potential successor to Cameron.

Rather than suppose that Cameron's problems stem from the failure of austerity, the British right complains that Cameron has not been tough enough on public spending. Increased debt repayments and higher welfare payments -- the cost of rising unemployment -- mean that core government spending has only been reduced by 2 percent since the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats replaced Gordon Brown in No. 10 Downing Street. In fact, Osborne's timetable for deficit reduction has slipped and now looks more like that proposed by Labour prior to the 2010 election than it does to Osborne's own original plans. A deficit that was supposed to be eliminated by 2015 will instead survive until at least 2017.

The chancellor, in fact, bears a heavy responsibility for Cameron's troubles. His recent budget was swiftly declared an "omnishambles." This withering phrase, borrowed from the satirical TV show The Thick of It (penned by the same team bringing Veep to HBO), became an omni-purpose description of a government that has lost its way. Although the budget lifted some low-paid workers out of the burden of income tax, it also dragged millions of middle-earners into higher tax brackets while cutting income taxes for the wealthiest 3 percent of Britons. Added to that, changes in regulations governing serious subjects (such as tax relief for charitable donations) and trivial matters (slapping value-added taxes on hot meat pies or pasties) dominated headlines for days.

Meanwhile, the government's relationship with Rupert Murdoch's media empire threatens fresh embarrassment at every turn. On May 15, Rebekah Brooks, previously editor of the Sun and chief executive of Murdoch's British newspaper holdings, was charged with conspiring to pervert the course of justice. Her husband, the racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks and a schoolboy friend of Cameron, was also charged as part of the ongoing police inquiry into the phone-hacking scandal that persuaded Murdoch to close the News of the World and withdraw his bid to increase his shareholding in the satellite TV company BSkyB.

Cameron's determination to win Murdoch's support once seemed a prudent political investment. That worm has turned; now it seems like a gross, unsavory miscalculation that no longer seems appropriate in a political climate in which Murdoch has, at least temporarily, been declared persona non grata. Cameron's government was happy to allow Murdoch to purchase BSkyB (a position that antagonized every other media company in Britain), and the discovery that the minister charged with ruling -- in a "quasi-judicial" manner -- on the bid appeared to be in regular discussions with Murdoch's representatives further fuels the suspicion that the government was flying too close to the Murdoch sun.

Last week, Cameron's former chief spin doctor, Andy Coulson, appeared at the judicial inquiry that is currently investigating links between politicians, the media, and the police. Coulson, a former editor of the News of the World, survived relatively unscathed, but his mere appearance reinforced the extent to which the Tories were linked to Murdoch's empire.

Nor did the embarrassment end there. The fact that the prime minister sent a text message to Brooks commiserating with her when she was forced to step down from her post at News International was bad enough. Worse still came the news that, as part of their regular text-friendship, Brooks had to tell Cameron that LOL appended to the end of text messages is not, in fact, generally understood to stand for "Lots of Love." (It means, for any reader not familiar with the youth-inspired conventions of text-speak, "Laugh Out Loud.") One can only imagine how awkward and deeply satiric some of his messages must have been perceived.

These discoveries, seemingly trivial, help foster the impression of a prime minister simultaneously out of touch with ordinary people and far too close to "powerful special interests," whatever they are. No wonder the government is struggling to make itself heard. If these were happier economic times, then much of this could be dismissed as just the usual political froth and chatter that's a large part of the Westminster universe. But, of course, these are not happy, sunny, economic times. Consequently, every setback, every presentational blunder, every set of dreary economic figures reinforces the suspicion that something has gone wrong and that Cameron's government is adrift and urgently requires a new rudder.

In time, and with some luck, the ship of state may yet be righted. The government will hope that Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics produce a feel-good factor to cheer Britons. Perhaps these summer entertainments will prove a tonic, but most of all, the electorate wants economic growth and a government that appreciates the difficulties faced by ordinary voters. As Cameron's government reaches half-term, the message, delivered by voters and the newspapers alike, is simple and stern: Must Do Better.

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Argument

Lebanon's Little Syria

Bashar al-Assad's enemies and allies are battling it out in the flashpoint city of Tripoli.

Most Lebanese certainly wished otherwise, but it was only a matter of time before the bloodshed that has overwhelmed Syria for the past 15 months arrived at their doorstep. The conflict has now come to the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, which possesses a social fabric and history that make it fertile ground for the long-awaited proxy war between enemies and allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

The latest conflagration was triggered by the May 12 arrest of previously unknown Sunni Islamist activist Shadi al-Mawlawi and five others by Lebanon's General Security Directorate (GSD). Within hours of Mawlawi's arrest, Sunni protesters took to the streets, blocked the highway, and burned tires to demand his immediate release -- a call joined by the city's politicians and clerics. The standoff soon spiraled out of control: Armed men deployed in the poor Sunni district of Bab al-Tabbaneh, battling with gunmen of the adjacent district of Jabal Mohsen, which is inhabited by staunchly pro-Assad members of Lebanon's small Alawite community. So far, the conflict, which has escalated to include rocket-propelled grenade and mortar attacks, has left five people dead and more than 100 wounded.

But there's more to this conflict than meets the eye. It seems that GSD officers mounted a trap -- Mawlawi was lured to a social services center under the pretext he would receive health care -- and had no valid warrant at the time of the arrest. The agency later leaked that Mawlawi had returned days ago from Syria, where he allegedly partook in the rebellion, though it is impossible to confirm these claims. Lebanon's Sunni prime minister, Najib Mikati, a native of Tripoli, called the manner of the arrest "unacceptable," adding that he "rejected and condemned [it]" during a meeting of Lebanon's Higher Defense Council, the top body in charge of internal and external security. Notwithstanding this torrent of words, a military prosecutor charged the six men on May 14 with belonging to an "armed terrorist organization" and "plotting to carry out terrorist acts inside and outside of Lebanon." A Lebanese newspaper on May 15 quoted intelligence sources saying Mawlawi confessed to the accusations.

The arresting party is, to say the least, controversial. GSD is one of Lebanon's many competing security agencies, and it is perceived as the internal arm of Hezbollah. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, who previously served as Hezbollah's and other Shiite factions' go-to man in military intelligence, heads the organization, which has a broad mandate that includes monitoring political activity, foreigners, and the media. An anti-Assad Lebanese parliamentarian on May 14 laid the blame for the conflict squarely at Ibrahim's feet, accusing him of "following a Syrian agenda in Lebanon."

In the absence of any history of impartial justice -- other security agencies are similarly corrupt and dominated by other sects -- Tripoli residents have focused their anger on the GSD for overstepping its authority. One friend in the city angrily asked me on May 14: "Does the Internal Security Forces [an agency seen as sympathetic to anti-Assad groups and the Sunni community] dare arrest someone in the south or Dahiyeh [the Hezbollah-controlled suburbs of Beirut]? No. So why is General Security even operating here?"

Lebanon's own pathologies have been exacerbated by the bloody crisis next door. Northern Lebanon has been particularly welcoming of the Syrian opposition, rebels and refugees alike. This is not surprising. The region suffered greatly during the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, notably in the 1980s when a brutal war arrayed Islamist and Palestinian factions against the ultimately victorious Syrian military and its Lebanese Alawite allies.

Tripoli and the Sunni-dominated north, in general, have predictably become an anti-Assad and anti-Hezbollah bastion since Syrian troops withdrew in 2005. Since the outbreak of the Syrian uprising, the city and its suburbs have seen many pro-revolution rallies, and many roads are decorated with anti-Assad slogans and flags, some espousing extreme sectarian views. Unsurprisingly in this city on the edge, which is also plagued by poverty and state neglect, deadly clashes have repeatedly occurred between Sunni and Alawite gunmen in recent months.

On my visits to the areas even closer to the Syrian border, further north and east of Tripoli, the local population's enthusiasm for the revolution was unmistakable. This was particularly true in the region of Wadi Khaled, from where one can see the Syrian city of Homs and which has provided shelter for many of the refugees fleeing the military crackdown on that city and nearby villages. In the absence of the state, traditional networks supply the help needed. Syrian refugees stay in mosques and private homes; members of the Free Syrian Army regroup and find respite; and injured civilians and rebels receive medical care and sustenance.

Assad's Lebanese allies have tried, unconvincingly, to paint all this activity as the work of Islamist radicals. Asked about the accusations by the pro-Assad Lebanese defense minister that al Qaeda was running the smuggling to Syria, a village chief laughingly responded, "We are doing all what this villain says, except that we are not al Qaeda or extremists."

He has a point: Residents of Wadi Khaled belong to tribes living on both sides of the border, and they support the Syrian rebels out of kinship rather than religious ideology. Smugglers in the area once transported cheap Syrian goods and gasoline into Lebanon -- when the uprising erupted, they simply reversed the flow. Now they carry everything from weaponry to medical equipment and drugs across the minefields that the Syrian regime has laid along the border, bringing goods and supplies to the hot zones around the western Syrian cities of Homs and Qusayr. It should come as no surprise that the Lebanese Navy recently seized a ship bound for Tripoli from Libya that was carrying arms presumably destined for Syria.

The more radical Sunnis reside further to the south, in the rugged mountains of Dinniyeh and in the slums of Tripoli (though, of course, many moderate Sunnis live alongside them as well). There, the Salafi influence is visible to anyone who drives through. In December 1999, Islamist militants fought fiercely against the Lebanese military, backed by Syrian forces. Dozens were killed and hundreds arrested. In 2007, a shadowy jihadi group, Fatah al-Islam, took over the Palestinian camp of Nahr al-Bared and battled the Lebanese Army for four months. Hundreds were killed in vicious fighting, and the camp was almost entirely destroyed. According to Lebanese intelligence, Fatah al-Islam members are now fighting alongside the rebellion in Syria, where a few were reportedly killed in April. The irony is not lost on many Lebanese who suspect, with good reason, Syrian intelligence of having contributed to its rise.

Ever since Syria's uprising began, Hezbollah and its allies in the Lebanese government have wanted to see a more forceful state crackdown on anti-Assad activities. This, however, would fatally destabilize a government over which they wield decisive influence -- alienating their shrinking number of Sunni allies at the risk of further inflaming sectarian passions. For his part, Prime Minister Mikati has tried to tread a thin line between assuaging his Sunni constituency and his pro-Assad allies in government, touting a shaky policy of neutrality and "dissociation" from developments in Syria. This has not prevented Lebanon's security agencies from monitoring, harassing, and even aiding in the rendition of Syrian dissidents, to the anger of the country's large anti-Assad constituency.

The possibility that the violence in Tripoli will spread across Lebanon remains limited, but the situation is undeniably deteriorating. Mikati's strategy depends on the ability and willingness of each faction to control the more destructive tendencies of its followers. As the case of Tripoli demonstrates, however, this is easier said than done: Sunni groups, feeling triumphant or angry, may think (mistakenly) the time is opportune to strike a blow against their rivals at home, as well as Assad abroad. Hezbollah, militarily strong but politically on the defensive, may decide that preemptive action is warranted. Any of the two scenarios would throw Lebanon into a sectarian hell.

Tripoli's descent into violence reveals two other ominous trends: the fragmentation of Sunni politics and the weakening of its mainstream politicians. Mikati, who came to power by displacing the vehemently anti-Assad Saad Hariri in January 2011, is one contender for the loyalties of Lebanon's Sunnis, as is the Lebanese finance minister, Mohammad Safadi, another Tripoli native and wealthy candidate for the premiership. Hariri remains a powerful figure, but his standing has taken a hit because of his lackluster performance and a long absence from the country. All three are increasingly seen as weak, indecisive defenders of their sect.

This provides an opening for radical Sunni groups. Tripoli already plays host to several competing Salafi factions. Incredibly, one group -- Harakat al-Tawhid -- is aligned with Hezbollah. Most, however, are vehemently anti-Shiite and anti-Alawite. Omar Bakri Muhammad, a Syrian Salafi cleric who was expelled from Britain for his support for al Qaeda and a darling of the Western media for his fluency in English, resides in Tripoli. Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, a previously unknown Salafi cleric from the southern city of Saida, has emerged as a vociferous champion of Syria's revolutionaries and a challenger of Hariri's political dominance in the city.

The Sunni gangs fighting on the streets of Tripoli are not jihadi outfits -- yet. Rather, they are a mishmash of armed political activists, religious militants, and neighborhood strongmen who think they are protecting their communities. But the growth of Salafi movements would not only adversely affect Lebanon's fragile equilibrium -- it could well taint the Syrian revolution. It would provide Assad with timely evidence that his domestic opponents are not struggling for freedom and democracy, but are allied with violent, foreign Salafists who object to his government on fundamentalist religious grounds.

In the meantime, the Lebanese military has been called in to rescue Tripoli. The Lebanese Army is generally seen as the country's least politicized and least sectarian security force, though this image suffered when it stood idle as Hezbollah and its allies invaded Beirut in May 2008. Its deployment on the streets of Tripoli may contain the clashes for the moment, but it will merely serve as a Band-Aid -- the military will neither seize weaponry nor arrest militiamen involved in the fighting, thus doing nothing to prevent the same bloody cycle from repeating itself.

The sad fact is that there are precious few saviors willing to guide Lebanon through this crisis. The military on which many Lebanese have pinned their hopes reflects, rather than transcends, the country's many ills. Nor can the Lebanese count on their politicians -- the Syrian crisis has crystallized the existing divides in Lebanon, with each side hoping that its allies next door will come out on top in the conflict. It looks like all sides will be disappointed -- with little prospect of a game-changing development, the Syrian revolution will likely gain in complexity and violence, slowly dragging Lebanon down with it.

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