ARSAL, Lebanon: The man that is rumored to be the new Lebanese mediator for the tricky file of the Arsal hostage crisis is a man with a reputation for calmness, rationality and sobriety. Although the Lebanese government has yet to appoint him officially, Health Minister Wael Abu Faour’s appointment of Ahmad Fliti did not come as a surprise to some – Arsal’s deputy mayor has become well known in the northeastern town.
Fliti, who holds a master’s in informatics from Beirut’s Bir Hassan Vocational and Technical Education Institute, is described by those who know him as a man who truly understands the considerations and interests of his community, something that can be attributed to his early career as a minimarket owner in downtown Arsal.
Working in a down-to-earth retail business job won Fliti the support of his fellow citizens, with whom he has managed to establish a strong relationship thanks to his negotiation skills.
All of these attributes led Fliti, who is now in his mid-40s, to holding a leadership position in the Fliti family, the second-biggest in Arsal.
When Fliti eventually decided to run for membership on the municipality council, he allied himself with Ali Hujeiri. Like Fliti, Hujeiri is the most prominent member of his family, but his family is the largest and the most powerful in Arsal.
The combination was a winning one, and both managed to succeed in the elections, leading to Fliti becoming deputy mayor and Hujeiri the mayor.
So when news got around that Fliti would be appointed to hold talks with militants, not everyone was on board with the decision. Fliti the “zaim” (leader), as he is called by some in the town, has largely been acting in the shadows of Hujeiri and wasn’t very well known on a national level.
Over the past years, Hujeiri has been the one in the media spotlight and has consistently taken the lead on following up on Arsal-related issues, especially following the Syrian crisis and the huge influx of refugees to the town that accompanied it.
The mayor has also been working on defusing security tensions and problems both inside the town and in the neighboring areas, mainly the Shiite towns of Labweh, Nabi Othman and Maqneh.
But some of Hujeiri’s moves seem to have been poorly calculated.
Sometimes he took positions seen as ad-hoc and controversial, particularly by Arsal’s Shiite neighbors, and has been accused of supporting the Syrian rebels.
As a result, Fliti became the natural next candidate for consideration, a fact bolstered by the work he has been doing in various fields.
Primarily, he has been keeping up with the Syrian refugees file by communicating with international aid organizations, communities representing Syrian refugees and concerned political factions.
His work with refugees was aimed at putting an end to the security tensions between his hometown and the neighboring areas, which have pointed to the presence of an extra 40,000 people, mostly Sunni, as a huge security threat.
In addition, the limited media frenzy that Fliti was subjected to compared to his boss worked in his favor, gaining him more respect and an untarnished reputation.
All this culminated in the decision earlier this week by Abou Faour – under the command of Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt and with the backing of Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk and Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi – to commission Fliti to become a mediator in hostage talks with ISIS and Nusra Front.
Militants from the two groups captured at least 37 servicemen in Arsal when they briefly overran the northeastern town in early August. They have since released eight and killed four, with 25 policemen and soldiers now remaining. The issue has become a major source of unrest in Lebanon, with the hostages’ families regularly protesting in central Beirut and blocking roads across the country to demand faster government action.
A number of actors have been involved in the mediations to date, including General Security chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, a mediator appointed by Qatar, the Muslim Scholars Committee and Sheikh Moustafa Hujeiri.
But the Lebanese government has so far been unable to resolve the crisis. It recently reportedly agreed on a swap deal between the hostages and the release of Islamists from Roumieh prison, but has not yet settled on the details of the process.
Fliti told The Daily Star the decision came as part of a call made by Abu Faour, but he believed it was not finished as he had yet to be officially appointed by the government.
He met with ISIS on the outskirts of Arsal Sunday, and although he has not yet made face-to-face contact with the Nusra Front, he said he was open to anything they suggested.
The deputy mayor also expressed his optimism over the possibility of a positive outcome, adding that he sensed good intentions from ISIS to find a solution for this problem but that the course the file takes will lie with the government.
Fliti is now stuck between a government that has not reached a consensus about how to deal with the file, and extremist militants whose agenda is vague and unknown.
He will need his optimism in the months to come.