Despair to Dancing in Qatar

By Alia Ibrahim
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, May 26, 2008 11:18 AM

DOHA, Qatar -- Eighteen months of political deadlock, nine days of blood, five days of negotiations, three airplanes and another country. This is what it took to solve Lebanon 's latest political crisis, which almost ended in a new civil war.

One week ago, Lebanon's leaders were put on two planes and taken to Qatar. A third plane took the media. I was there. The tension was so high, the conflict so deep, the wounds so fresh, and the accusations so strong.

Everything happened in haste.

We arrived on Friday around 8 p.m. There was no time for a break, we were told. From the airport, we were transferred directly to the Sheraton of Doha, the Qatari capital. Everything was ready. Posters, in red and white and green, read Lebanese National Dialogue. Press passes held the same title. Opposition leaders were in one room, and pro-government figures in another. The prince of Qatar walked the opposition leaders to a hall where their rivals were gathered. Cold hands shook and then everybody moved to the meeting room. A welcome session lasted 15 minutes, then everyone was sent to their rooms.

The opening session the next day lasted less than two hours.

A souvenir picture, cold handshakes and then everyone was sent to their rooms, again.

I learned later that the prince of Qatar signaled Saad Hariri, who inherited leadership of the Sunni Muslim community from his slain father, to move next to speaker Nabih Berri, a Shiite opposition leader, for a picture. Hariri answered with a shrug of his shoulder, the prince didn't insist and Berri was annoyed.

Soon, in the same session, Lebanese leaders pledged to the prince to stop trading accusations through the media. To help the leaders keep that pledge, the Qatari organizers placed checkpoints within the hotel to isolate the journalists. Everyday, a new pass was required to gain access to the lobby where the politicians were sitting.

The first day, the pass was red with the word "Media." The next day, it was green with the words "accompanying delegation." Journalists managed to get those. In the afternoon, the card remained green but it had to bear your name. Journalists managed to get those, too. The next day, all cards became invalid. Journalists weren't allowed in. Full stop.

To me, having to go live on TV, meant going back and forth between the media lounge and the lobby. I did all I could to stay in the "kitchen". I called Lebanese officials, spoke to Qatari officials, pretended to be an MP, smuggled myself in with a group of ministers after they had visited the media lounge, got invited to personal lunches, and went on TV saying the Qataris are suppressing the media. Most of what I heard inside was off the record, everyone was really serious about this pledge, but I had to be around.

It soon became clear how things were unfolding. Lebanon's problems, in the lobby of the Sheraton hotel, seemed to be banal. A violinist, a pianist and the sound of water fountains imposed a serene mood that seemed to calm everyone, at least in appearance.

The Qatari prime minister had moved to the Sheraton and played shuttle diplomacy between leaders. Those meetings lasted until early in the morning every day, mostly in the hotel suites, but also in the lobby.

Bin Jassem, would go to the buffet, with a smile addressed to all but to no one in particular, then retire to a calmer place, and meet with leaders separately. One of the most complicated issues being discussed was the electoral law to be adopted in the upcoming parliamentary elections, and I was told that Bin Jassem became a professional on electoral districts. The problem we learned was about the Armenian seat in Beirut, and people started joking that the seat of Agob Parkradonian will decide the fate of the region's nuclear weapons.

Every night, politicians gathered in the lobby, with journalists. The editor- in-chief of the country's leading newspapers were also there, waiting until the early hours of the morning to decide on their headlines.

On the second night of negotiations, Saad Hariri retired around 2:30 a.m. With a gesture of his fingers, he said that we're almost there. The next morning the opposition issued a statement that made it clear that no progress had been made at all. At lunch, Hariri said that we were back to square one. Don't worry, I'm not leaving Qatar without a solution, he said.

But that afternoon, it became clear the Qataris weren't planning to host an open-ended dialogue. Qatar TV spread the word that a press conference was going to be held. The word spread that they were going to announce the failure of negotiations and that they were going to point to the side they held responsible.

Like everybody else, I was petrified. We started hearing about security breaches in Beirut. The press conference was postponed to the next day. And on that day, the journalists took their seats. Those wishing to ask questions registered their names. Two seats were placed for Bin Jassem and Amr Moussa, head of the Arab League, and an organizer kept saying in minutes the Sheikh would arrive.

Everybody was worried.

Next to me sat Nada Abdel Samad, the BBC correspondent in Beirut. She wrote, 20 May, 2008. She then scratched 2008 and wrote 1975, the year the civil war began. This is how everybody felt. We're going back to a conflict.

The minutes were long and heavy. Few people spoke. We waited. And then, a Qatari minister entered the room, said the committee had come up with two scenarios for a solution, that one side had demanded additional time to think about it, and that 24 hours were given to that party.

At about 3 a.m. the next day, Ali Hassan Khalil, an opposition lawmaker, entered the lobby and said that a deal was done, and that parliament could convene any time now to elect a president. Twelve hours later we were on our way back to Beirut, and on the trip back, cheerfulness overtook exhaustion.

The cameramen and photographers started singing and dancing. The tension that only a few days earlier could almost be touched was gone, and I could swear that I even caught a glimpse of the Hezbollah security guards with us on the plane -- their guns around their waists -- smile a few times.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company