Published August 2012 // BOLD MAGAZINE

By Habib Battah

Much of what has been said or written about Lebanon’s shamefully unreliable internet connection, which remains one of the world’s slowest, has focused on the actions of one man, Abdel Moneim Youssef. As the the head of state-owned telecom operator Ogero, Youssef has been openly accused– both in the press and among other government officials– of holding the entire country hostage by shutting down Lebanon’s proverbial tap to the rest of the world.

More specifically, Youssef has allegedly refused to release desperately needed bandwidth to local internet service providers from a state-of-the art fiber optic submarine cable, which cost the government some $45 million to install in late 2010. Yet throughout most of 2011 Lebanon’s use of the line, named the India Middle East Western Europe (IMEWE) after its transcontinental route, remained dormant, leaving most households connecting at decade old dial-up speeds until late last year.

The charges against Youssef as an obstructor have been carried by several media outlets and can be traced back to successive telecom ministers, who have repeatedly disavowed him in news conferences and interviews with the press including The Daily Star, Executive Magazine, LBC television and others. The news site Al Akhbar recently claimed Youssef’s actions have cost the treasury a loss of $2 million per month

But technically speaking, the would-be rebellion of Youssef would appear to defy logic. His firm, Ogero is no way a private company– it even says so on the “about us” section of its website, which reads “Ogero is 100 percent owned by the state and acts under the supervision of the (Telecom) minister.” How then has Youssef been able to defy his own direct supervisor? Oddly enough–or perhaps predictably in Lebanon’s case– the Ogero chief has been appointed to supervise himself. Not only does he serve in the dual roles as both chairman and general manager of Ogero, Youssef is also the general manager of the telecom ministry’s Operations and Maintenance Directorate, the body that supposedly oversees Ogero. All this, it would seem, has created a virtual Youssef led, managed and operated fiefdom over Lebanon’s ability to communicate with the rest of the world. So could this be the case and if so, what motivates Youssef’s reported intransigence?

A rare photo of Youssef at an MOT facility. Credit: Al Akhbar

The general public deserves answers to such questions and they need to come from Youssef himself, but as I and many others have learned, Lebanon’s telecom guru has made it a principle to generally avoid questions from the press. For years now, the line “Youssef could not be reached for comment” has become a regular feature on the pages Executive magazine. The local business monthly has provided some of the most detailed coverage of the sector, producing several full length investigations quoting a range of ministers, high level bureaucrats and business leaders, all except of course the elusive Youssef. I too was not allowed to speak to him when writing a piece for The Daily Star at the height of the IMEWE stalemate last year. For several days, no one answered the phones at the lines listed on the “contact us” section of Ogero’s website. I eventually resorted to dialing the national operator at 1515 and pleading, much to the amusement to the men on shift, for help connecting to their the boss’s office. Finally I was patched through to an advisor, who very kindly noted my information and promised an answer “within 48 hours.” Eventually he informed me Youssef was ill. Days later I was told he was on vacation. Finally my calls–I put in about a dozen for good measure– were no longer answered.  

In my frustration, I have reached out to other telecom officials during interviews: Why does Youssef not return my calls? Have you spoken to him? What is he like? To my surprise Youssef opponents, even the current telecom minister himself, have marveled over the man’s intellect and intimate knowledge of the national telecom architecture. One of the minister’s advisors Antoine Boustany, referred to Youssef as “very clever” and  “a friend” lamenting that he was no longer returning his calls either. A CEO of a Lebanese ISP told me if I was lucky enough to land a meeting, Youssef would prove to be “one of the most intelligent people you’ll ever meet.”

It has never been clear to me to what extent this chorus of praise was related to technical know-how or machiavellian prowess, but Youssef would clearly be in a position to visualize Lebanon’s network like few others. He has played an influential role at Ogero since it was revamped in the early 1990s and tasked, under the late prime minister Rafik Hariri, to rebuild the tattered mess of telecommunications that existed at the civil war’s end. (Anyone living in Lebanon at that time can remember that just getting a dial tone could take 20 minutes). Youssef and Ogero have been linked to the Future Movement, now led by Hariri’s son Saad. But how could the billionaire pro-business Hariri clan desire to be linked to the man who is allegedly stopping Lebanon’s link to the global economy?

In off-the-record discussions, I have found some Hariri supporters and friends to be as baffled by the phenomenon of Youssef as I was, with many claiming he was widely disliked even among allies.  Hoping for clarity, I decided to reach out to another Youssef, the Beirut MP Ghazi Youssef who is a frequent defender of Ogero and a leading voice in the Future Movement. He seemed surprised by my inability to reach the Ogero chief and promptly swiped open an Iphone and began dialing what he said was Youssef’s number. But alas, the goose chase would continue as moments later the MP briefly scowled at the screen in his palm, raising his eyes to explain: “It’s off.”

Still I asked why he thought Ogero’s Youssef was allowed to occupy so many positions, essentially allowed to police himself. The MP responded by blaming  Lebanon’s sect-based political system, which mandates quotas even for bureaucratic positions.

“He was the only Sunni with the qualifications and the background,” he said.

But even on a Sunni-only playing field, many reject the premise of that argument. “I think that’s unfair to the Sunni people to say there was only one person to fill that position,” said Imad Tarabay, the head of wireless ISP Cedarcom Mobi–a response echoed by many in the industry.

Less curious about Youssef’s repeated appointments and motivations is the current telecom Minister, Nicolas Sehnaoui who has repeatedly accused the Ogero head of political sabotage. The charge, which was also made by Sehnaoui’s predecessor, is that the Hariri camp has been trying to force the failure of both telecom ministers due to their membership in the Free Patriotic Movement of Hariri rival, retired general Michel Aoun. Were this true, it would mean the former prime minister had chosen his political future over the well-being of millions of Lebanese who are now forced to accept one of the slowest connections on earth and be among the last and least advantaged nations to join the emerging knowledge economy. If so, one would assume Minister Sehnaoui could easily capitalize on the social outrage that would ensue by widely publicizing the details of the alleged sabotage in the media.

Yet perplexingly, when asked to clarify Youssef’s so-called obstructions during a recent interview, Sehnaoui refused to delve into details.

“I’ve been biting my tongue for nine months not to make too much tension about it,” he said, during an interview at his home in May. His advisor Firas Abi-Nassif added that such disclosure may cause confusion among the public: “The details are huge, the complexities are huge,” he said.

“Anybody who is extremely competent in the field in the field will know 100 percent who is right and who is wrong,” Abi Nassif said. “And by one twist of matters they will either get people lost or try somehow to convince them otherwise.”

But why not be transparent then, put it all out there, online?

“The information is not simple. It gets complicated in bureaucratic circles,” Abi Nassif responded.

Sehnaoui interrupts: “What’s the question? Almost everyone is in Lebanon convinced that Abdel Moneim Youssef is a guy that stops progress. This guy has no credibility.”

He added: “Seven ministers have passed and seven ministers wanted to take him out, and two of them were ministers from Future Movement. No one can deal with him, he has a character problem.”

Taken at face value, these statements would seem to indicate that Youssef’s relationship with his presumed backers in the Future Movement is complicated by competing interests. But why speculate on such matters in the first place? Why not make all the data transparent, so that the public can pinpoint where exactly the bottlenecks between Youssef and the Ministry lie?

Sehnaoui smiles. “People in Lebanon are not interested in details at all. It would be a dream country if people were interested in details. I would have won the election in 2009 and I would surely win in 2013 and my party would have (all) 128 MPs (in Parliament) if people were interested in details.”

Sehnaoui’s argument, a staple among the country’s ruling class on both sides of the political divide, is that the public votes in a strictly  “sectarian” fashion. Any suggestion that things could be changing with the tumult erupting across the region was dismissed as “too optimistic.”  

“There’s no popular pressure in Lebanon,” Sehnaoui said. “It doesn’t exist.”

And yet so many Lebanese politicians have been actively trying to shape their public image, particularly on social media sites such as Twitter, where studies have shown Sehnaoui to be among the most active.

In fact it was on Twitter that a campaign began last year to kill proposed legislation that called for the regulation of the Lebanese blogosphere by banning “unethical” topics and mandating that all websites be registered with the government. The campaign known as “Stop LIRA (Lebanese Internet Regulation Act)” gained so much momentum in tweets and blog posts that Information Minister Walid Daouk agreed to meet with leading activists. Following a meeting with the group of young web developers known as Ontornet, Daouk announced that such registration would be “optional” and that the law would undergo further review. It’s hard to imagine that a minister would have expressed similar caution in the absence of such an uproar, and the prospect of it continuing on very public social media sites.     

Ontornet, an Arabic play on words meaning “slow-net” (because users have to wait so long to connect) has spearheaded an effort to call for transparency and accountability by publishing technical data on Lebanon’s politicized connectivity issues. Government officials have recognized the group’s popularity and agreed to interviews with its members, which have been published on Ontornet’s blogs as text and audio files. Those interviewed include the current and past telecom ministers, but not surprisingly, Ontornet has not managed to interview Abdel Moneim Youssef.

Ontornet joins a growing list of grassroots citizen activist networks including the Facebook group “Lebanese Want Fast Internet” which counts over 47,000 members and “Allo Fail” a new Facebook initiative which has gathered nearly 2,000 members after only month in operation.
These groups provide citizens an unprecedented feedback channel in dealing with the culture of impunity that has dominated Lebanon’s telecom sector, a cash cow generating over $2 billion per year. But the tide may be turning in favor of greater accountability.

For example, while the Ministry has touted the doubling of internet speeds last year, promising an imminent rise to global standards, sites like Ontornet have released data charts that indicate Lebanon’s internet packages remain among the slowest and most expensive in the region, let alone the world at large. And while a stream of statements from the Minister’s office have claimed that Lebanon’s internet users are “happy” with their current connection speeds, online surveys by Ontornet and Lebanese Want Fast Internet have indicated widespread dissatisfaction.

The Ministry’s claims have also been challenged in the mobile sector, where it has said 3G services, which were introduced to Lebanon last year (over a decade behind the rest of the world) had leapfrogged subscribers into the future. Yet the walls of Facebook pages such as AlloFail are full of complaints about lack of coverage including screen shots, speed tests and customer service horror stories. Lebanon’s cell companies have been watching the citizen complaint sites closely and are beginning to respond to customers. Unanswered complaints are re-posted by members and unsatisfactory responses are parodied or ridiculed. Recent local television news coverage of AlloFail is sure to increase its popularity, and with it the reach of bad publicity produced by unhappy subscribers.

Despite the Minister’s less than optimistic view of public pressure, he too recently agreed to grant an interview with the AlloFail initiative. Clearly, and contrary to the popular belief among the ruling class, citizen pressure groups are increasingly demanding answers– and detailed ones at that.  One wonders how long officials who evade their questions will continue to be tolerated.
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