The Arrest of Michel Samaha: A Bold Mysterious Move
By: Firas Choufi
Published Friday, August 10, 2012
Former minister and intelligence operative Michel Samaha was arrested by a police strike force on Thursday morning. Many see his detention and the still-unknown accusations against him as punishment for his extraordinarily close ties to the Assad regime.
Jiwar, Metn - Former Minister Michel Samaha was still in bed on Thursday morning when 40 members of the “Strike Force” belonging to the Information Branch of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF) broke into his home.
Shards of wood and a broken lock on the ground outside the door attest to that. The policemen broke the front door and did not notice that Jenna, the housekeeper, had opened the kitchen door leading to the garden right before dawn.
A few minutes after 8am, the elite force had entered Samaha’s bedroom. He got up and asked to change his clothes, while they were filling his belongings into the four forensic evidence boxes they had brought with them.
His wife Gladys was distraught after she said an officer threatened to put her in the car and gag her mouth. He warned her not to object to the inspection of the rooms, hallways, underwear closets, her husband’s tie rack, and even the juice and wine bottles.
They collected all the cellphones including Jenna’s, two DVD players, two satellite TV receivers and their remote controls. They also took some pieces of paper with Samaha’s handwriting, a few books, and an old AK-47 which has been sitting in the shoe closet for more than 30 years.
Samaha had planned to spend the summer in his hometown, returning to Lebanon from Paris two weeks ago. He and Gladys went to Jiwar in Metn while his daughters stayed in his Achrafieh apartment in Beirut.
The latter was also raided. Gladys had to wait for a while before she could hear her daughters’ voices. The police would not let her contact them.
At 8am, the mayor’s cell phone rang. “Quick, the police are surrounding the minister’s house,” someone from town told him. He arrived as fast as he could but the minister had already left.
The mayor, George Samaha, takes us back to 1979, when members of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) militia came to arrest Michel. He was then a member of the Phalange politburo and a newlywed.
The SSNP knocked on the door and his mother came out. She berated them, but they did not say a word to her and waited for her son. “Do not worry mother. I will be gone for a few hours and come back,” Samaha had assured her.
But this time, the mayor describes how the officer tried to persuade him to sign a paper saying that the door was not broken and that the arrest happened in his presence.
In making the comparison, the mayor wanted to point out the difference between the two incidents – one at the hands of the “so-called militias” and the other by the “so-called state,” as he put it.
A relative heard us and laughed sarcastically. He said they found “12 [Israeli] Merkava tanks” in the basement. Samaha’s relatives did not believe a word of what was being said in the media. If the Information Branch had told them Samaha was from their village, they would not have believed them.
Former General Security chief Jamil al-Sayyed, falsely accused and imprisoned for the assassination of Rafik Hariri, was among the first public figures to arrive at Samaha’s home. He proceeded to the living room to comfort Gladys.
Switching between several live broadcasts, the most refined word he used was “hooligans.” Sayyed castigated former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, [attorney general] Judge Said Mirza, and ISF intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan. Whenever he raised his voice before the microphones, he would be cheered by the townspeople.
At the door, he advised Gladys to move to Beirut. “Work over there will be easier. The media will be close to you,” he told her.
She asked him how long he expected her husband to be detained, as someone had just said that sources indicated he would be out in a matter of hours. “They told us hours or days too, but we stayed for four years,” Sayyed replied.
Even Jiwar’s Phalangists could not believe that Samaha was arrested. Some of them suggested that if he had been a terrorist, his supporters would have closed the roads and protested in public squares, regardless of his innocence or guilt.
If Samaha had not been a Christian with little political backing, nobody would have dared arrest him, they whispered to the media.
Syria’s Number One Man in Lebanon
In his Sodeco office, where the tables and chairs are blocked by hundreds of books in different languages and on different subjects, Samaha never answered phone calls from journalists unless he needed them. If he did answer someone he had been avoiding, he would tell them he was a personal assistant and would leave a note for the minister.
But a journalist would quickly forget to reproach him for such behavior after being showered by kisses, taken into his Phalangist arms, and welcomed into his house.
At home, Samaha would move between his three computers gracefully, while changing his thick eyeglasses. Some of the books are covered with yellow highlights that Samaha never tires of quoting.
He was born in 1948 and received his first Phalangist Party membership card in 1964. He had a brief stay in the Khinshara branch (next to Bikfaya, north of Beirut,) before becoming the head of the secondary school department in the Phalangist student section. Like other party intellectuals, he never carried weapons or got entangled in the militia’s military outfits.
He was closer to former president Amin Gemayel than to his brother Bashir. Amin had appointed him as his media advisor, which led him to become the chairman of the board of Tele Liban, Lebanon’s official television station.
His creativity in political theorizing encouraged the Phalangist leadership to send him to Damascus with Karim Pakradouni and Joseph Abusharaf on their many visits to Damascus.
There, his first close friendship was struck with Syrian brigadier general Mohammed al-Khawli. He then turned against Amin Gemayel and joined the breakaway Lebanese Forces (LF) faction led by Elie Hobeika.
According to someone familiar with the secrets of that period, Hobeika’s intricate security relations allowed Samaha to make serious contacts with some French intelligence operatives.
In 1985, he began to play two roles – one as a Lebanese political operator and the other, as a Syrian-French intelligence operative. He agreed to market the 1985 tripartite agreement between the LF represented by Hobeika, Nabih Berri’s Amal Movement, and Walid Jumblatt’s PSP on the eve of its signing.
He was kicked out of LF-controlled areas on 15 January 1986. Even after his mother died, the LF, then controlled by Geagea, would not allow him to enter Achrafieh to bid her farewell.
At the same time, his relationship with French intelligence grew stronger, especially as he spent more time in Paris, where his family lived.
His influence in France started to grow as his friends in the French administration became more powerful. One of them, Claude Gueant, became general secretary of the Elisee under Sarkozy.
In Syria too, he gained access to the top leadership, as his friend Bouthaina Shaaban became Assad’s media advisor. Syrian media even changed his title from “the assistant to Syrian presidential advisor Bouthaina Shaaban” to “Syrian presidential advisor for French affairs.”
Between 1990 and the breakup of his relationship with France, every single French delegation to former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, and current president Bashar al-Assad, was received by Samaha.
But his strong relationship with the Syrian regime did not help Samaha on his home turf. After capturing the Catholic parliamentary seat in North Metn in 1992, he lost it in 1996 and in 2000, under the watchful eyes of Syrian intelligence.
In Lebanon, he was resurrected when his friend Elias Hrawi became president (1989-1998). It was Samaha’s golden age. Hrawi made him the information minister, then tourism minister for six months, then information minister again from 1992 until 1995.
Rafik Hariri brought him back as information minister during the term of Emile Lahoud (1998-2007). But Samaha and Hariri were only friends on the surface. They both hated each other because Hariri was always stepping on Samaha’s toes, positioning himself as an alternative mediator between Syria and the West.
Regardless of his leadership and official posts in some parties, an informed source describes Samaha as Syria’s number one man in Lebanon. Certainly, in the last five years, he was the one with the greatest knowledge of what was being concocted in Damascus’ halls of power.
Samaha was often criticized for exaggerating the information he was privy to, promoting scenarios that would enthrall audiences. In his office, information was often sparse but analysis abundant.
March 14 stalwarts like Amin Gemayel and Walid Jumblatt despised him. His neighbor Michel Aoun kept his distance. Even his haters among March 8 cannot be described as a minority.
He would spend time in the Damascus Sheraton lobby receiving visitors – be they Syrians, Lebanese or foreign journalists. Even after the outbreak of the Syrian crisis, Samaha was the only serious conduit of the regime’s tales about insurgents and the Islamic nature of the revolution to foreign media.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.