Boundaries of taste crash down in Lebanon when manners and respect are lacking

Lebanon's politicians and public servants have been responsible for some spectacular workplace lapses in recent weeks.

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Boundaries are very important to us Arabs. The Palestinians and the Syrians have been demanding theirs from Israel for decades, while the Lebanese, no slouches themselves when it comes to land disputes, have been sticking it to the Jewish state for as long as I can remember because of a slither of land in south Lebanon few knew even existed.

And yet when it comes to matters personal, we tend to have no concept of the notion of boundaries, from irritating but ultimately harmless comments about how much weight we might have put on, to the more problematic instances of sexual harassment.

Our politicians and public servants, those who are supposedly meant to set an example of decorum and probity in all areas of life, have been responsible for some spectacular lapses in recent weeks, incidents in which the whole notion of boundaries has been vapourised, leaving even the most cynical Lebanese more than a little thunderstruck by the audacity of the lapses.

A few weeks back, the foreign minister Gebran Bassil, during a meeting at the United Nations in New York, was filmed making suggestive gestures worthy of Benny Hill when he described Caroline Ziade, a senior diplomat at Lebanon’s UN mission, to his clearly embarrassed guests.

Those who know the Lebanese workplace will not be surprised by the comments but they will nonetheless have been disappointed by such a display from a senior public figure and representative on the international stage.

That apparent gaffe was trumped last week by the MP and former minister of state, Nicolas Fattoush, who was accused of physically assaulting a female clerk at the justice palace in Beirut. The popular version of the story goes something like this. Mr Fattoush, a lawyer by profession, tries to file a legal complaint on behalf of his client (we are later told by an outraged Mr Fattoush that his client is the wife of the tourism minister, Michel Pharaon, who has apparently had enough of her husband’s alleged philandering) but is told to wait in line by the by the now famous Manal Daou, a clerical officer at the palace. Mr Fattoush reminds her he is an important man and can’t wait. The file must be submitted as a matter of urgency.

This, how shall I put it, Route 1 approach to getting things done in Lebanon might have worked with a more compliant public, but his veiled threats apparently cut no mustard with the heroic Ms Daou, who insisted that Mr Fattoush wait in line like everyone else. He then apparently blows his stack and, according to some local press reports, repeatedly punched Ms Daou in the throat. Classy.

It is a version most Lebanese would love to believe, if only because Mr Fattoush is seen by many as the archetypal hard-core Lebanese politician.

But there is no conclusive evidence that Ms Daou was mercilessly pummelled, although there clearly was a loud altercation and no doubt a bit of pushing.

Mr Pharaon, a scion of a prominent Beirut Greek Catholic family is not without influence and it is entirely conceivable that Ms Daou, was as Mr Fattoush claims, instructed to make it as difficult as possible for him to file the complaint on time.

On Friday, the Beirut bar association took the brave decision to strike Mr Fattoush’s name from its list of members for violating what it called “the law regulating the profession, the bar association’s by-laws and the profession’s ethics”. We hope this was done for all the right reasons and not some political vendetta.

But whatever the reason for the unseemliness, it was yet another reminder of our inability to respect boundaries of boundaries. Whether Mr Fattoush, whose volatile temper is well known, was set up, or whether a wounded Mr Bassil was, as he said at the time, simply gripped by a sudden burst of national pride in extolling the outward virtues of the Lebanese diplomat to his opposite number and meant no harm, the Lebanese public have clearly had enough with an incompetent, petulant and ultimately uncouth political class.

The answer to all of this, as far as I can see, must be related to funding. The American University of Beirut has recently appointed a “Title IX Coordinator” as part its continuing efforts to stamp out gender discrimination and harassment in all educational programmes and activities under Title IX (hence the name presumably) of the Education Amendments of 1972. Crucially the appointment is mandatory and linked to the monies the university receives from the US federal government.

Basically the university must adhere to the standards of behaviour in the workplace we would all love to see and which are taken for granted in the West, otherwise funding will be reviewed.

Fining hooligan and lecherous MPs for conduct unbecoming? Why not? Just an idea.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton

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