BEIRUT — In the “boy, that’s chutzpah” category, former director of the Lebanese Surete Generale (General Security), Jamil Sayyed, has made a new appeal for his release by calling for a “Lebanese Emile Zola” to stand up for him. If you’re not familiar with that reference, Zola was the writer who defended the falsely accused Alfred Dreyfuss in the ugly “l’Affaire Dreyfuss” in France in the late 19th century, which saw the Jewish French Army captain wrongly imprisoned for treason.
It occurred in a time of virulent anti-Jewish sentiment in France at the time — as was common in most of Europe, frankly — and while it wasn’t the whole reason for Dreyfuss’ problems, his being from a wealthy and old Jewish family didn’t help matters.
Zola’s role in this was to publish his famous open letter — the J’Accuse! letter — in the hopes of sparking a libel trial and getting the facts out on Dreyfuss. It worked, and Dreyfuss was eventually acquitted, released and went on to become a knight in the Legion d’Honneur and fight for France in World War I.
Sayyed, on the other hand, was a much-feared individual before the end of the Syrian occupation in 2005, and ran one of the more powerful and fearsome security services in the country. Many, many Lebanese dissidents were thrown in jail and tortured under his watch. A lot of them died.
That he is now comparing himself to Dreyfuss must be one of the more ironic developments in Lebanon, a country largely lacking in ability to perceive irony. If there’s any hope of justice in the world, l’Affaire Sayyed will have a markedly different ending from the one 109 years ago — and one worth remembering, too.