How hard is it to be a Lebanese cop? Can laws be enforced when law enforcement live in fear of losing their jobs? I share conversations I’ve had with Lebanese police in my latest column for Bold Magazine.
By Habib Battah
As a pedestrian in Beirut, nothing gets under your skin like a car parked on the sidewalk, forcing you to walk into the street to get around it. So recently, when a brand new Maserati was blocking the sidewalk on Bliss Street, I was happy to see two police officers approaching with a thick book of parking tickets protruding from one’s side pocket. But the police simply walked around the car and continued on their way. I caught up with them and asked why they had not done anything. At first they played dumb. “Which car, where?”
After much cajoling they finally smiled: “Look this is Lebanon. You need to change the top first,” one said, in what seemed to be a reference to parliament. But what did that have to do with an everyday street violation? You have the ticket book, why not just enforce the law, I pleaded. The officers chuckled. “Do you know what they will do to us if we enforce the law? What if the guy is connected? Who knows what will happen to you. Maybe they will transfer you to Saida or Tripoli, far from your friends and family.”
Sadly, it is a response I have heard many times before from many a policeman on Lebanon’s streets. I’ll never forget the time I watched an officer get verbally insulted in downtown Beirut at a time when the city streets were cordoned off during the 2007 sit-in by opposition campers. The officer was monitoring one of the city’s entrances and asked a man to provide ID – a routine request at the time. The man angrily refused, threatening the officer. “Do you know who I am! I am military intelligence. Don’t you ever question me again!”
I watched in disbelief a few meters away as the cop backed off and the plainclothes man walked through, cursing him as he went. What if the man wasn’t who he said he was; and even then, how dare he treat another officer that way. “What can I do,” the cop told me sheepishly. “What if he was someone important? Why do I want to mess with that? Maybe he will send me away.”
More recently on a busy intersection in Hamra, I witnessed an officer directing traffic as two young teenage boys careened around the corner in front of him in a big black SUV blaring a police-style siren to push through traffic. He barely flinched as this duo committed what would seem the most egregious of all offenses: impersonating law enforcement itself. When I asked him, the cop on duty said: “Are you crazy? I can’t touch them. Every car that starts with the number 600 belongs to Berri” – a reference to the current speaker of parliament.
If fear of punishment from senior officials discourages police from enforcing the law, then the surprise dismissal of Captain Michel Moutran last May seems to lend credibility to that argument. Fresh from the US with a master’s degree in highway traffic safety, Moutran was appointed to head the Interior Ministry’s Traffic Management Center (TMC). He decided to set up a Twitter account late last year to communicate road conditions to citizens by publishing screenshots from the center, which has cameras set up across the city.
“I thought we should share with the public what we know, otherwise there is no point to what we were doing,” he said in reference to the TMC, which was set up three years ago.
The account garnered over 40,000 followers in six months and inspired similar moves by traffic management centers in France and Italy, Moutran says proudly. And it wasn’t long before some of those followers began tweeting traffic updates of their own, many of them documenting violations they had photographed on their cell phones. In a surprising move, TMC began retweeting those pictures, including images of police officers parking their cars on the sidewalk, or driving motorcycles without helmets among other offences. Moutran says 40 officers were issued violations, in addition to many other vehicles whose plate numbers were identified in tweets documenting abuse.
But last month Moutran announced on Twitter that he would no longer be running the TMC account, which he described as his “baby” without giving a reason. An online uproar ensued with many accusing the ministry of firing him for doing his job. Soon, the Arabic hashtag “#WeWantCapt.MoutranBackBecause” began trending nationally in Lebanon.
During a phone interview, Moutran offered no comment when asked if he had gone too far or upset senior officers, saying only: “We are not a perfect country, we are not a perfect institution, we have a long journey to walk. We have to be pragmatic, we are not in an ideal state.” He said he was not fired but “transferred” to a new officer training position, while maintaining a role of public relations manager at TMC.
Moutran says officer fears of being punished for doing their jobs are misplaced, “exaggerated” or may be an “excuse” to avoid tough jobs. But he also admits that the force is so over stretched it can only focus on traffic directing rather than enforcement of laws, with many intersections receiving up to 8,000 vehicles per hour, while they were designed to accommodate a third of that number. He says the number of cars, at about 1.5 million, needs to be drastically reduced through public transport solutions and that the current number of traffic police – at around 600-700 – needs to be increased by at least 30 percent. Automated technologies such as camera ticketing need to be boosted although 800 tickets are issued per day, he says. But at least half are not delivered due to poor addressing – yet another enforcement challenge.
There is also a problem of jurisdiction with Internal Security Forces handling most violations while municipality police often neglect their duties to issue street tickets, Moutran says, adding that more training is needed all around. Some of that training has begun according to press releases and a new billboard campaign around Beirut, which shows officers holding up babies to celebrate 153rd anniversary of the ISF.
Of course this will do little to convince those who have accused the police of human rights violations, torture and deplorable prison conditions. At a recent university job fair, the police handed out new brochures to students, offering a kinder face to the force, touting new training and citizen engagement programs. When asked about torture and abusive practices, one of the officers replied: “No, no, that was the past, those days are over now.”
But perhaps the Lebanese police face problems that the training of foot soldiers cannot resolve. Perhaps a training of higher level commanders and members of parliament and their families is also in order: a training on the rule of law from the highest levels of power to many well-connected or even average citizens whose often obnoxious defiance does not make a thankless officer’s job any easier.
This column was first published in the July-August issue of Bold Magazine.