By Radwan Mortada
Many Lebanese politicians and government officials have expressed alarm after a recent decision by authorities to downsize their posses of bodyguards and official escorts. But is there any truth to the politicians’ claims that their lives are in danger?
Not at all, according to security officials. Cutting back on the bodyguards and vehicles assigned to these dignitaries is meant to end the unnecessary sense of pomp and privilege bestowed upon them. The goal is to do right by hundreds of soldiers and internal security officers who have been turned into servants for certain families at an annual cost of at least $17 million to the Lebanese taxpayer.
Within Lebanon’s two major security establishments, the armed forces and the Internal Security Forces (ISF), senior officers spend the bulk of their efforts “domesticating” their subordinates. Soldiers and low-ranking ISF officers are assigned to the “escort army,” developing such skills as picking vegetables and running household errands.
These officers become adept at dishwashing, and are even employed as “hookah boys,” fetching hot coals for their superiors. Other chores include chauffeuring their superiors’ wives, babysitting their kids, and even chaperoning their teenage daughters on social outings.
What respect can army soldiers and ISF officers command when they are exploited in this manner? What is happening in the ISF and the army is nothing short of a scandal. Regulations set aside a maximum of 180 officers for VIP security escort services, while the actual number employed is closer to 800, not to mention the 18 security vehicles placed at these VIPs’ disposal, which is also a violation.
The bloated number of security escorts is not limited to one political side. Both March 8 and March 14 are in the business of exploiting the ISF, even though this institution suffers from a personnel shortage.
For instance, 129 ISF officers are assigned to former prime minister Saad Hariri’s protection detail even though he has been abroad for the past two years. Hariri’s ally Fouad Siniora is assigned 56 officers. In other words, the two men alone hog 200 military and ISF personnel for themselves.
Similarly, 86 officers, including three of a higher rank, serve in Samir Geagea’s security detail, which also uses seven ISF vehicles. Twenty-five security officers guard Geagea’s wife, MP Strida Geagea, and fellow Lebanese Forces MP Antoine Zahra.
Amin Gemayel’s security detail includes 54 officers, as well as ten to protect his son Sami. Meanwhile, 30 officers protect the home of caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati in Tripoli.
Druze MP Walid Jumblatt is no exception. The ISF data shows that 43 soldiers and ISF officers serve in his security detail, in addition to 16 protecting his ally MP Marwan Hamadeh, and eight serving with his other ally MP Akram Chehayeb. All three “socialist” MPs are in breach of the law, which assigns no more than four official escorts each.
In Rabieh, 34 officers protect MP Michel Aoun, and 11 protect his son-in-law Gebran Bassil. In Zghorta, 19 officers serve in MP Suleiman Franjieh’s protection force. MP Boutros Harb is escorted by 17 officers, while MPs Ahmad Fatfat and Michel al-Murr are protected by 13 officers each.
Hezbollah MPs did not abstain from this practice either. Nine officers protect minister Mohammad Fneish, compared to six protecting Minister Hussein Hajj Hassan. Amal’s minister Ali Hassan Khalil is protected by 11 official escorts.
Many judges have accepted for themselves this unlawful privilege. as well. ISF data shows that a total of 49 current and retired judges, the supposed protectors of law and justice, break the law and use up to ten times the allowable number of official security escorts.
For instance, 290 officers and 20 vehicles are at the disposal of these judges, even though they are not entitled to more than 22 officers by law. The lion’s share of official escorts goes to judges working with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, with 122 officers and higher-ranking officers and ten security vehicles assigned to judges Ralph Riach, Walid Akoum, Afif Chamseddine, Jocelyne Tabet, and Micheline Braidi.
In the meantime, when it comes to official protection from the Lebanese government, the Saudi Embassy leads other diplomatic missions, with 57 officers and one armored vehicle assigned to the Kingdom’s mission.
Former director-generals are afforded the same treatment, with 120 officers assigned for their protection, along with 28 government vehicles. Former ISF director-general Ashraf Rifi leads the bunch, with 77 officers and 24 vehicles assigned to him at the beginning of his retirement, before the detail was reduced to a third of its size under pressure from the ISF command.
The memorandum of service No. 2232/204 issued on 2 October 2012, allocates two officers to a former ISF director-general (a driver and an escort). In the event said director-general had handled sensitive cases during their service, a maximum of 16 officers can be assigned following an agreement between the current and former directors-general.
When compared with the number of security personnel stationed amongst the general public, these violations appear all the more egregious. The Burj al-Barajneh precinct’s 100,000 residents are assigned nine officers. The Hermel precinct, home to 50,000, is manned by just seven.