In Lebanon, pro and anti-Syria camps face off over a cement factory

Row over proposed plant raises questions over resurgent Syrian influence and environmental protection

Quarries near Ain Dara on April 30. The site is called Dahr al Baydar. Sunniva Rose / The National
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A Lebanese businessman’s quest to build a massive cement factory with plans to export to Syria has led to violent demonstrations between his opponents and supporters, in a fight that epitomises the small country’s long-lasting political rivalries and rising anxiety over the irreparable consequences of environmental damage.

The fight has focused on Ain Dara, a relatively obscure village of only a few thousand residents but strategically located near the Beirut-Damascus highway.

Pierre Fattouche, a discreet business tycoon with interests across several countries including Armenia and South Sudan, wants to build Lebanon’s biggest cement factory close to the village.

Nestled between pine trees at an altitude of more than 1000 metres, Ain Dara sits at the point where the Chouf district – the heartland of the small yet fiercely independent and politically influential Druze community – meets the Bekaa valley, controlled by Hezbollah, an Iran-backed political party that also wields significant regional weight via its armed militia and actively supports the Syrian regime.

Construction, one of the main drivers of the Lebanese economy, has slowed down in recent years. But Mr Fattouche is eyeing the Syrian market, where he has good relations with the ruling Assad family. Damascus is less than a two-hour drive from Ain Dara.

After eight years of civil war, more than a third of Syria's infrastructure has been destroyed. Syrian president Bashar Al Assad said last year that reconstruction would cost between $250 billion (Dh918bn) and $450bn.

But Mr Fattouche’s cement project has met with resistance from the start. He had had initially set his sights on his hometown Zahle, about 30 kilometres east of Ain Dara. In 2015, local politicians drove him out, citing environmental fears.

Now, a small group of activists in Ain Dara are trying to do the same. They say the factory, expected to produce about 3 million tonnes of cement a year, would harm underground water reserves and pollute the air.

Lebanon already suffers from severe pollution which was highlighted by the garbage crisis in 2015 that sparked massive protests.

Abdallah Haddad, a retired engineer and the most vocal anti-Fattouche activist, also accuses the businessman of operating stone quarries near Ain Dara for the past 25 years without a valid licence, of corrupting one of the village's former mayors, Sami Haddad, and of having caused irreparable environmental damage to the mountain nearby.

Mr Fattouche and Mr Haddad deny these claims. The latter says he will sue Mr Haddad for defamation.

But what started with a group of concerned villagers protesting against corruption and environmental degradation has transformed into a political battle between pro and anti-Syrian politicians.

As Damascus’s influence on Lebanese politics picks up again with Mr Al Assad consolidating his grip on Syria, the war of words between his supporters and critics has returned with a vengeance.

Lebanon and Syria have a complicated love-hate relationship. Lebanese politicians who side with Damascus argue that their country needs strong ties with its more influential neighbour. Their opponents accuse the Assad regime of human-rights violations and of meddling in Lebanese politics. In 2005, Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon after 29 years of occupation following allegations of involvement in the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

Because Ain Dara is located in a Druze majority region, the community's leaders have been the most vocal about the cement factory project, despite the village being predominantly Maronite Christian.

Lebanon’s most prominent Druze politician, Walid Joumblatt, is a fierce critic of the Syrian regime and of Mr Fattouche. He calls the quarries and the cement factory project an “environmental crime” and accuses the tycoon of pursuing Assad interests in Lebanon.

Quarries near Ain Dara on April 30. The site is called Dahr al Baydar. Sunniva Rose / The National

In what looks like a tactical political move, Mr Joumblatt’s rival in the Druze community, Talal Arslane, has recently rallied behind Mr Fattouche.

On June 10, a peaceful protest in front of the proposed site of the cement factory turned into an armed confrontation. The state-run National News Agency reported that four men were wounded after Fattouche supporters threw stones at protesters and fired shots into the air.

Three men affiliated to Mr Arslane were imprisoned after the clashes, although it is not clear whether they were the ones that fired shots. A few days later, some of their comrades blocked the highway, asking for them to be freed. Mr Arslane did not respond to a request for comment.

Last week, one of Mr Joumblatt’s closest aides, Industry Minister Wael Abou Faour, accused Mr Fattouche of pitting Druze leaders against each other.

In a radio interview, he said that “there is a battle between us and the Syrian regime … Unfortunately, some Lebanese mercenaries are used by Fattouche under the guise of employees to create “fitna” [disorder] in the mountain.”

Citing health and environmental concerns, in late March Mr Abou Faour cancelled the permit for the cement factory awarded in 2015 by his predecessor, Hussein Hajj Hassan, a Hezbollah member.

But in a spectacular turnaround, the State Council revoked Mr Abou Faour’s decision, giving Mr Fattouche the green light to build his factory.

As each side hardens its positions, it remains unclear how Mr Fattouche will start building his factory without facing protests and potentially, more violence.

Disappointed by the political turn the cement factory project has taken, some Ain Dara residents say they want all politicians out of the picture. Hassan Zeitouni, a history teacher and local environmental activist, does not believe that either Mr Joumblatt or Mr Fattouche have the village’s best interest at heart.

“Joumblatt suggested sending garbage to Ain Dara during the 2015 garbage crisis, which would have been disastrous because it would have leaked into our underground water reserves," he said.

Mr Zeitouni campaigns for the quarries to be closed, and for the village to invest in eco-tourism to boost its income. Despite being strategically located near a highway and the Chouf environmental reserve, “there is not a single restaurant or hotel in the village”, he said.

But when The National visited Ain Dara and its surrounding quarries in late April, accompanied by then-mayor of the village, Fouad Haidamous, eco-tourism projects seemed very far off.

Quarries near Ain Dara on April 30. The site is called Dahr al Baydar. Sunniva Rose / The National

Rubble-filled trucks drove along the dusty road leading to the quarries, a desolate landscape still speckled with snow. Besides Mr Fattouche, a dozen or so smaller owners also operate quarries in the area.

Simmering tensions were clearly visible. The Ain Dara municipality had dumped piles of sand several metres high to stop Mr Fattouche from bringing in machinery to start building the cement factory. Security guards said that it is expected to be built near the entrance to the quarries.

During a brief meeting earlier in that day in Zahle, after a press conference given by his brother, politician Nicolas Fattouche, Pierre Fattouche advised The National strongly against visiting Ain Dara, saying that it was unsafe because Mr Joumblatt's men had blocked the road.

He also claimed that there were ISIS militants in the area, even though the last ISIS pockets in Lebanon were eliminated two years previously and were nearly 100 kilometres north-east of Ain Dara, near the Syrian border.

Pierre Fattouche refused to discuss his cement project in detail, but his brother answered a few questions before the businessman abruptly ended the interview.

“It’s the state’s responsibility to allow us to access our land to implement our permit," Nicolas Fattouche said, in reference to the permit that was granted in 2015 to build the cement factory.

Asked why the Fattouches could not access their land, he said that “Joumblatt, Abou Faour, Akram Chehayeb” were stopping them – Mr Chehayeb is another pro-Joumblatt minister in the current government.

“Does Sibline not pollute? We do not even have a factory yet. This country is astonishing," he said, in reference to Mr Joumblatt's cement factory in the Chouf. The former minister said that he believed that Mr Joumblatt opposed his brother's plans because he was afraid of competition.

MP Nicolas Nahas, Sibline director until 2010, dismisses those claims, arguing that it is the country’s smallest cement factory and that as long as Mr Al Assad is in power, Sibline would not export to Syria.

Nicolas Fattouche said it was an “honour” to be friends with Mr Al Assad, who had fought terrorism in his country.

Mr Zeitouni, the history teacher, believes that the odds are still slightly in favour of the cement factory's opponents. But with Hezbollah and Syria pushing for it, he says the balance of power could change at any moment, opening up a potentially lucrative business for Mr Fattouche and consolidating Syrian influence in the Chouf.