BEIRUT: The internationally recognized Libyan government announced Monday it would boycott the Arab economic summit in Lebanon, after supporters of Speaker Nabih Berri’s Amal Movement tore down and burned a Libyan flag.
Berri’s supporters Sunday night ripped a Libyan flag from a flagpole hanging near the venue where the Arab Economic and Social Development summit will be held and replaced it with the Amal flag. The same day, Amal MP Ali Bazzi said the Libyan delegation would not be permitted to enter Lebanon at any cost.
Shortly thereafter, Libyan Foreign Minister Mohammad Siala told Libya al-Ahrar TV that the country’s delegation would not participate in the summit “to protest the offending of the Libyan flag,” though the official withdrawal announcement was not made until Monday.
Siala also cited threats that the delegation would be turned away at the airport, according to remarks carried by the Lebanese state-run National News Agency.
The Amal supporters’ actions drew widespread criticism.
Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit said in a statement: “It is not acceptable in any situation ... for a flag to be burned of any Arab state, especially if this happens on Arab land.”
Libyan newspaper Ewan Libya reported Monday that the Libyan High Council of State had called for diplomatic ties with Lebanon to be frozen. In the Libyan capital, a group of people gathered at the entrance of the Lebanese Embassy, removed the “Embassy of Lebanon” plaque and tied up a Libyan flag, Lebanese Ambassador to Libya Mohammad Sukaina told Al-Jadeed.
The ambassador added, however, that Libyan politicians “understand Lebanon’s rejection to having a Libyan delegation at the summit,” and said he doubted that any further escalation would take place.
Berri and his political party are opposed to Lebanon having ties with Libya because of the disappearance of Imam Musa Sadr, the movement’s founder, and two of his companions during an official visit to the country in 1978, when Moammar Gadhafi ruled it.
Berri had previously announced his opposition to Lebanon’s hosting the summit. In addition to Libya’s participation, he cited the fact that Lebanon’s government is in caretaker status, and also called for Syria to be allowed to participate, despite the country’s membership in the Arab League having been frozen since 2011, following the outbreak of the civil war.
In an apparent attempt at damage control, Lebanese caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil toed the diplomatic line, condemning the Amal supporters’ actions while simultaneously calling for Libya to assist in uncovering the fate of Sadr and his companions.
In a letter to his counterpart, Bassil “expressed his absolute rejection of the actions that affected the State of Libya and its participation [in the upcoming summit], which do not reflect his position and the position of Lebanon,” a statement from his office reported.
The foreign minister stressed the need for Lebanon’s relationship with Libya to be corrected, but without letting go of “our national duty to find out the fate of Imam Musa Sadr and his two companions.”
Bassil called on his Libyan counterpart to provide all necessary assistance to find out Sadr’s fate, “reiterating his regret for what happened [regarding the flag incident] and stressing that it would be dealt with.”
Despite the developments of the past couple of days, those responsible for organizing the summit, which will be held Jan. 19-20, pushed ahead and announced the security and logistical measures that will be taken over the weekend.
Most of Downtown Beirut will be blocked off to cars, and roads to and from Beirut’s airport and Downtown will have specific traffic instructions. About 7,500 security personnel from the Lebanese Army, the Internal Security Forces, General Security and State Security will work to ensure the safety of participants and local residents.
During a televised news conference, the summit’s chief spokesman, Rafik Chelala, announced that all logistical and security preparations have concluded.
“This summit is taking place in Beirut at a time where our region is undergoing major transformations and our societies are facing many challenges,” Chelala said, adding that the summit will show Lebanon’s role in uniting “bonds of brotherhood.”
Lebanon has adopted “Prosperity is a Factor of Peace” as the title of the summit to lend importance to development and economic issues, and to support efforts to find solutions to the root causes of conflicts.
Antoine Choucair, the chairman of the summit’s organizational committee, said during the press conference that “President [Michel] Aoun is considering launching a development initiative for Arab countries to promote prosperity in the Arab world.”
As for the contentious issue of Syria’s potential participation in the summit, the organizers said that the “Cabinet of Arab Foreign Ministers decides who will participate in the summit, not the organizing committee or the host country.”