Goodbye Ziad Baroud, you’ll be missed

Perhaps the only surprising thing about caretaker Interior Minister Ziad Baroud’s departure last week was how long it took to come.

The former lawyer and erstwhile darling of the previous, ill-fated cabinet has had a lot to put up with since his nomination to the post following 2008’s Doha Accord. An instinctive reformer and human rights advocate, dealing with the outright civic fecklessness of successive administrations fronted by clan chiefs and millionaires must have shredded his patience on a daily basis.

His portfolio, as well as being one of the most hotly contested this time around, is also one of the most challenging. Baroud, as Lebanese Minister of Interior and Municipalities, was charged with, among other tasks, maintaining civil security, working out Lebanon’s traffic conundrum, monitoring the state of the country’s hellish prisons, stimulating electoral reform and coordinating civil defence missions.

Faced with a cabinet obstinately divided and systemically inert, Baroud worked manfully with limited resources and even more limited intelligence of ministry colleagues.

As a technocrat, in power due to merit rather than lineage, Baroud was always going to be in the minority, his intellectual clout drowned out by dozens of zaims, a civil jetty to a hurricane of tribal ignorance and arrogance. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Baroud learned his politics in the classroom, not of the battlefield or at the feet of wealthy ancestors.

Two anecdotes I know of Baroud are worth mentioning here, as forlorn and admiring glances into the political career of a man who eventually yielded to the ridiculousness of the system and the ineptitude of those who dwell within it.

December 2009. The ISF, due to glaring and constant structural deficiencies, were once again making a hash of Beirut’s already woeful traffic. Baroud was just one of the thousands caught in the snarls as police tried to get a handle on the situation, marking off roads that were to be closed for the following day’s marathon. Instead of sitting in his blacked out Mercedes – as you can bet dozens of other big cheeses and probably a handful of the political class were – Baroud took matters to hand. The Interior Minister, much to the obvious chagrin of his bodyguards, got out of his car, rolled up his shirtsleeves and started directing traffic himself. Imagine Hariri or Nahhas or Raad or anyone else you care to think of doing likewise.

The second story is more recent, when Baroud was a caretaker and, as was made quite obvious to him through discussions between PM designate Najib Mikati and President Michel Sleiman, an outgoing minister. He had just spent the last 48 hours attempting to mediate between rioting inmates at Roumieh, Lebanon’s largest and most overcrowded prison, and brutal security forces, already slipping from his grasp. He had lost men in the overnight riots, and three prisoners were killed for rising up following yet another crackdown. I got him on the phone just before Sunday lunchtime.

He sounded weary and started with the caveat that he hadn’t slept in days and so would not be his most talkative. (I’ve always found Baroud very personable, and he geninuely thinks about your question rather than spouting the normal “national unity/security is a red line/we will not rest until…/look at his history/there are forces blocking progress” bullsh*t).

Despite clearly being in dire need of rest, Baroud talked to me for three quarters of an hour, in the process offering numerous meaningful and easily executable immediate salves for the prison system. He acknowledged that his ministry had been left behind by this, but did so in a way that nailed the real cause of reform snags, without apportioning blame. I could tell he was genuinely appalled by what he’d seen and a little sickened by the way he was being forced to the fringes of the debate.

It’s no surprise he found last week’s ISF-Telecoms Ministry fracas more than he could bare. Chain of command completely interrupted, his position terminally undermined and his good disposition and education totally cast aside by one-time allies. Baroud – and I believe this fully – is entirely blameless in his departure.

It is as depressing as it is apt that Lebanon’s best politician has jumped ship when the rest of the ruling classes seem intent on sinking the whole rotten vessel.

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