Lebanese national Omar Harfouch, banned from his own country for appearing with Israelis at a European parliamentary event, offers hope during dark times.At the end of March, the International Movement for Peace and Coexistence organized a conference in the European Parliament that considered the threats to European safety and security posed by the rise of radicalization and extremism in Europe – often imported, from the Middle East in particular. It was co-hosted by four members of the European Parliament from the three main political groups, with a range of expert speakers from different countries.
Harfouch, a Lebanese national resident in France for the past 30 years, came along to the conference as the founder of the Third Lebanese Republic, a new political movement seeking a non-confessional, non-sectarian secular state based on the values of liberal democracy, justice and equality. Harfouch briefly explained his track record of campaigning for human rights, including having organized a symposium on women’s rights in the European parliament itself. He then asked to speak.
We were impressed by what he told us, so we agreed.
He spoke for three minutes. He said that MEPs needed to consider who the terrorists are that pose a threat to the security of Europeans; where they come from; and most importantly who finances them.
Following the war in Syria, 1.5 million Syrians have made their way into Lebanon as refugees. In response, the EU has transferred one billion euros to help mitigate the huge cost of meeting their needs.
Harfouch explained that much of this money has been squirreled away into the pockets of corrupt politicians and other officials who have bought yachts, planes, luxury houses and other trappings of fraud.
But the key point he wanted to make was that this money – EU taxpayers’ money – is being used to fund terrorism.
Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood appropriate some of this money to pay lone wolves who have left Syria and Lebanon as migrants to the EU. They pose a clear and present threat.
He said that the EU must be more careful about to whom it gives its money and must monitor where it is going. This message is timely since the EU continues to provide financial aid to Lebanon and corruption continues. It is, however, not only financial misfeasance that plagues the country.
Little did we know that among the 100-plus attendees were two young people filming his speech and texting throughout the event. Their video found its way the same day to the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar which is commonly acknowledged to be close to Hezbollah, Iran’s deadly proxy in the country. The newspaper has since led a sustained campaign against Harfouch, accusing him of consorting and colluding with an enemy state.
The fallacious basis of these claims is that the conference was addressed by representatives of Israeli NGOs: the International Legal Forum and NGO Monitor. Omar Harfouch had no contact with them before, during, or since, but that has not stopped a military court from opening proceedings against him for treason since Israel is considered an enemy state and Israelis – all Israelis – enemy agents.
Harfouch is committed to opposing corruption and promoting human rights in a secular, non-sectarian state. He claims to have been actively involved in securing ongoing legal proceedings for money laundering in Monaco against acting Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a billionaire telecoms mogul (in Syria and Lebanon) and Lebanon’s richest person. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, Mikati duly signed an arrest warrant for Harfouch, who will be imprisoned if he ever returns to Lebanon.
Lebanon in a social and economic meltdown
Lebanon is in a social and economic meltdown and desperately needs stability if it is not to implode even further. Instability poses a continuing real and present threat to Israel. It is encouraging therefore that Harfouch has gone on record stating that his party seeks peace with Israel through normalization. On Lebanese TV he said that Lebanon needs to recognize Israel and not view it as an enemy state, while adding realistically that this would be difficult.
The Middle East needs credible agents of change if there is to be any chance of enduring peace and coexistence. Few could have predicted the ground-breaking achievement of the Abraham Accords, save those who have been working behind the scenes for years. Few, similarly, foresee official recognition of Israel by Lebanon and fewer still, future travel between the two countries. But this and more is what Harfouch wants to see, and for that, he should be applauded.
He is back in the European Parliament at the end of June speaking at a symposium on the role of the EU in advancing human rights in Lebanon. Let’s hope that for the good of all, the EU follows Harfouch’s advice and takes stronger measures to ensure public money does not end up – yet again – funding terrorism.
The writer is the CEO of IMPAC, a Brussels-based international NGO, accredited at the European Parliament, promoting human rights and democratic values. @IMPACoexistence