Tuesday, December 21, 2010

WikiLeaks, Pew and Hezbollah

Not one leak from Wiki about the Middle East, not even a single cable, qualifies as a shocker.

Beyond the gratification of catching rabbits in the headlights that has brought a big, toothy smile to the grumpiest of faces, we are today exactly where we were before Julian Assange hung, for all to see, our dirty Arab laundry.

That Elias (nicknamed Lulu) al Murr, the Lebanese (Christian) Defense Minister, felt free to advise our Israeli neighbors to hit, in the next war, only Shiite areas and spare “sympathetic” Christian ones, that he so kindly informed the American Ambassador to Lebanon that Shiites join the army to eat, while Christians do it for country, frankly, came as no surprise to most Lebanese. It was not so long ago that some of us were harrumphing openly about the odor of Shiite piss in the center of Beirut, when Hezbollah set up and manned much of the tent city in 2006 and 2007.

In effect, what Murr had downloaded to American ears, he and his ilk—and there’s plenty of them—were burping over dinner tables and expelling in drawings rooms for more years than one dares count. Which explains why Murr is still Defense Minister, why President Michel Suleiman, who chose him as part of his quota in the cabinet, did not feel compelled to issue a this-has-nothing-to-do-with-me statement, why Hezbollah has yet to pillory Lulu (must not be the optimal time to play this chip) and why life just goes on in this “prototype” of a country. It’s also why a smirk, and never shock, claims us for keeps when we’re done reading the day’s batch of disclosures.

Still, how could information so passé and predictable be so delicious? Well, first off, there is that Gotcha! moment that never fails to satisfy, especially us Arabs, precisely because it’s only the people high up who are always having all the fun.

Tell the truth, how lucky was John Brennan, President Barack Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, to be privy to the advice of Saudi Arabia’s king Abdullah on Guantanamo’s released detainees?

His Majesty: “You should put an electronic chip in the legs of those detainees. It really works. We do it to eagles and horses.”

Brennan: Humm... Nifty idea. Except that horses don’t have good lawyers.”

Besides, it’s one thing to know that hypocrisy (not to mention sheer idiocy) is alive and well in politics, it’s quite another to see it live, in action, and not to have to wait for the rare slip up or the history books.


But now that things might come to a head, once more, in Lebanon, WikiLeaks’ exposures do serve as a useful reminder of the very thorny terrain that meets the many-turbaned Hezbollah beyond its own diehard Shiite expanse. A terrain which the last, and just published, Pew Research Center Survey of Muslim Attitudes (April-May 2010) has rendered in telling numbers.

Of these results, three summarize succinctly the delicate realities that the Shiite movement has to work with as it erects different shields to protect it against various indictments that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon is almost sure to issue against it for the murder of Rafiq Hariri: an extraordinary 94% of Lebanese Shiites have a “favorable opinion” of Hezbollah, while an equally potent 84% of Sunnis and 79% of Christians do not.

Adding a coat thick with meaning to these three brass tacks is the survey’s gauge of passions for and against the group: whereas 31% of surveyed Lebanese have “a very favorable” opinion of it, a heftier 51% have a “very unfavorable” one.  

And although the available report does not isolate the percentage of those Shiites who have a “very favorable” opinion as opposed to those who are “somewhat favorable,” which would give us an idea about how that 94% divides up between the real enthusiasts and the tepid ones, it is reasonable to conclude from the above data that much of the fervor that holds up the 31% comes from the Shiite community itself.

In simpler language: at home, Hezbollah is pretty much on its own. While it clearly can snuggle up content in the embrace of its folks, the rest of the country is lined up against it.

Not particularly irrelevant sentiments for the resistance as it revs up to deal with an anticipated offensive of the legal kind by the Special Tribunal and possibly of the opportunistic variety by an Israeli foe with one eye cast on its northern borders and the other gazing far at the Persian horizon.  

To those who have puzzled over the Party of God’s insistence, up to barely a minute ago, on aggressively upping the ante against Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri (reject the court or else!) at a time when it supposedly needs to be searching for a happy middle ground in a hostile climate, therein lies their answer: Hezbollah knows that, in Lebanon, it has already lost much of the non-Shiite audience, and whatever mediums there are, none looks remotely happy. With its back very close to the wall, the movement thought it might as well try some relatively high stakes tactics.

Moreover, Hezbollah also figured that, iffy as the situation clearly is, it’s still not doing too badly. Enveloped by the love of its “people,” stacked up to its teeth in arms, protected by devoted worriers, surrounded by foolish Lebanese adversaries and backed by crafty Syrian and Iranian allies, the party felt that it could afford to rattle the other side with some very intimidating maneuvers.

And so, as the Syrians and Saudis huddled to hammer out a solution, forefingers wagged, eyebrows locked lips, tenors rose, warnings were issued, “cell phone” evidence was bashed, false witnesses were displayed as proof of foul play, the cabinet was brought into a veritable standstill and red lines were drawn. Hezbollah was signaling that it is indeed agitated, pumped up and ready for action.   


This is where WikiLeaks and Pew’s survey reenter the scene and make a stronger stand.

Serious as the court challenge might be to Hezbollah--and, judging by its behavior, the evidence looks like it might well be packing a punch--its options are, in fact, very limited and chancy.

Although the movement has, as of late, retreated into quieter rhetoric, the gossip is that it would not hesitate, and is even planning, to take over Lebanon to “cut off the hands of the conspiracy.” But the truth is, if Hezbollah actually pursues this path, it would fire up rather than snuff out the plot against it.

Hezbollah’s juggling of its many intertwined identities is not easy in the best of times; in bad ones it can be downright perilous. This, after all, is a force that is at once a social movement, a single-sect political party, a member of parliament and the cabinet, a resistance against Israel and a strategic bridgehead for Syria and Iran.

By turns, and by choice, it is Shiite, Lebanese, Persian and Arab, depending on the day and the argument. It holds serious political sway but is very happy not to reign except over its own dominions. In many ways, it supersedes the Lebanese state but, for insulation, still craves its political cover. It likes to parade as if in no need of legitimacy but fights tooth and nail for every supportive parliamentary decree and cabinet edict.

It is feared but not liked, even by the followers of Maronite Michel Aoun, its most critical local ally. The Sunnis hate it, and those few who side with it for love of the resistance or dislike of the Hariris will decline—as they did during the violence of May 2008—to side with it if it directs its weapons against their sect.

Ponder the advice given only two days ago by ex Prime Minister Selim Hoss, a traditional Sunni friend of Hezbollah’s and perhaps one of Lebanon’s mildest and most decent politicians: “We believe that the resistance is one of the necessities of life…for the Arab people so long as Israel is bent on a policy of aggression, confrontation and unbridled greed. So let the resistors beware that they have no business in the internal affairs of Lebanon and that their main focus should be on the southern borders.” (Al Hayat newspaper, December 20, 2010).

Pointing its guns inside a very divided Lebanese house would dangerously expose and overburden Hezbollah at a time when it should be at its most lithe and lightest, not only for its sake but for those of Syria and Iran.

This leaves the Party of God with action of the strictly civil and political type: massive peaceful street demonstrations, collective resignations from the cabinet, parliamentary votes of no confidence.

No more and perhaps much less, depending on what Syria And Saudi Arabia work out on Sa’ad’s and its behalf. 

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Changing the Conversation

All this frenzied sparring going on in the Middle East makes you think small. In the instant. Day by day, the better to catch an oblique, do or die nuance, a hidden turn in a one-way, face-down tumble. Miss a moment, a word, a gesture, and, God forbid, you might just be missing the purpose of it all. The temptation is to keep tabs, in the hope that the tally somehow will weave a story worth knowing.

But frankly, as needlepoint intricate as this book’s authors would like to think it is, there is nothing remotely subtle in the narrative. On its surface lives a certain kind of senselessness that is at once immovable and incapacitating. In the deep of it runs, like a violent undertow, that incessant matter of religion.

Politics here has become nothing more than a very heated argument between warring faiths and sects. Even among members of the same creed and tribe the race is on in the name of prostration and reverence.   

Islam, in the Middle East, is a brooding king harangued by too many squabbling princes. Ours feels like a march of folly, to borrow some from Barbara Tuchman, and irony is almost beside itself that none other than religion is actually leading the throngs.

Massacres in Iraqi churches; rumored simulations of a Hezbollah take over of Lebanon; unabashed and apparently daily conversations between AhmadiNejad and the hidden Mahdi; talk by the Egyptian Muslim Brothers’ Supreme Guide of “cleansing the system since we carry within us the pure water of the heavens;” women in Hamas’s Gaza being banned from smoking shisha in public cafes…These are just a sample from the latest entries in a years-long running account of puerile, sex-obsessed fatwas, pious rants and sectarian bloodletting.

In this way, the utterly silly has been conspiring with the downright unnerving in the behavior of decision makers from whose hands the lives of so many of us hang. And would that politics here were local and its devastating aftereffects pressure point precise. Would that we the people were mere innocent bystanders and victims without a single bone in this dogfight.

Words like secularism have become blasphemy, privacy in faith proof of heresy. Religion is now practically interchangeable with identity; it has become our highest attainment and our lowest common denominator.

If you are looking to lead and compete in politics nowadays, this is the only game in town. There are no independent forces here—at least none that our best public opinion polls can identify--that amount to anything more than a few brave voices whispering every once in a while from the sidelines, “Is it too much to ask?”

I suppose it hasn’t occurred to our leaders and fundamentalist gatekeepers, who are apoplectic about Israel’s reassuringly blunt Loyalty Oath--which makes allegiance to a Jewish Israel compulsory for non-Jewish aspirants to citizenship--that it made more sense to welcome Israel into the region’s Muslim fold rather than condemn it as an outcast.

After all, what could possibly be offensive to them about this new Israeli measure, which crows atop a growing pile of Israeli laws that scream of discrimination, when searching our own legal codes for examples of religious prejudice would be like picking one’s way through a cotton field in season.

What are we lamenting when we protest this latest show of Israeli bigotry? That they have finally officially come out in the open as one of us?

It seems almost beside the point, in the midst of all these deathly my God is better than yours rows, that people here are actually very hard at work at the business of living—and with barely a serious or sensible public policy in sight.

Water, electricity, a proper education, health, the need to create at least 50 million new jobs over the next 10 years if we are to stay put, rich estranged from poor, living galaxies apart…All beside the point. And we haven’t even broached the testier issues of transparency, the rule of law, women’s rights…

In Egypt, you can almost hear the sound of fragile dreams being crushed by a state and an Islamist opposition doing battle over everything that actually does not count.

And so it goes, with varying degrees of pain and embarrassment, in practically every other Middle Eastern destination.

In Bahrain, the few Sunnis battle way too many Shiites, cosmetic reforms going the way of the fight’s other casualties.

In Iraq, the goose that is threatening to lay a million golden eggs, sectarian wrangling has been turned into a fine, if hideous, art.

In Lebanon, close to four million people flail this way and that, like hapless crowds on a sinking deck. As the entire country flounders between clashing cults, the well off work, curse, travel and obsess about the tumult; the poor curse, scramble for crumbs of a living, fret and wait.


These are the lifeless landscapes you are sure to behold if you were standing and peering down.

Crouch and you begin to brush against the faint gusts of wind delicately working their way through them.

Over the last few years, NGOs, by the hundreds—literally—have been sprouting in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan…offering everything from balsam for the destitute to step-ups and beachheads for those who have the remotest readiness (and chance) to want out.

Everywhere you go, there is a loud buzz, growing louder still: entrepreneurship conferences in Dubai (I’ve just come back from a superb one), business incubators in Palestine, youth activism in Amman...
It feels as if civil society is awakening from a decades-long slumber to fill a void carved wide by cruel, old hands.

The private sector is not too far behind. Though still palpably dormant and happy to follow the state’s cue (and orders), you can see it, slow and shy, walking into arenas long abandoned by derelict governments.  

Corporate Social Responsibility is making an appearance on every other company’s website and advertising material. Social entrepreneurship is now our sexiest piece of jargon, an enticing presence in the parlance of the rich and powerful.

Charity has always had a nice pull in this part of the world, but it is becoming at once generous and bottom-line smart to offer the less fortunate a sustainable leg up.

And did you notice? Nary a mention of politics in these circles, except for a few daring bloggers giving officialdom a very mild case of the runs. 

Engagement is seeking different friends, since Democracy and her daughters (political parties, elections, protests, rallies…) have turned out to be pretty rough company.

As is typical of noise that begins as a restless stirring that promises to be a trend, it is almost impossible to tell where this is all going, what it signifies and how far it might reach. As usual, Western commentators have brought out their pens in celebration of the change that is coming. And, as usual, they’re way too excited by the hype.

Serious doers are being lumped with chatty ones, marketing gimmicks are being applauded as a thing of substance (remember that glossy ad campaign that became Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution?).  

The US wants a piece of whatever it is we are witnessing. Islamist movements 
are walking around with pensive faces and raised eyebrows. Traditional leftists are screaming that this is neoliberalism in disguise blurring sacred divides. Populists are furious that money is daring to exhibit a conscience with a plan. The state is looking for an angle…

Yes, I am exaggerating for effect…but not that much.

The hullabaloo aside, all that one can say in these very, very early hours with near certainty is that it would appear that an increasing number of very determined and visionary individuals are trying very hard to change the conversation.

That’s it for now.

For their sake, the urge is to mount the table and scream down at the nattering, heedless pundits: “Will you shut up for once and just listen!”

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Transcend This!

Basra, Iraq, during the electoral festivities

Casual Notes on the Jordanian, Lebanese and Egyptian Parliamentary Elections.
Truly, the seasonal migration to electoral la-la land is by far the most joyous of our trips in this Middle East. Thankfully, the moment is upon us yet again in Jordan (November 9) and Egypt (November 20), and we’ve barely had time to get over the last ones in Iraq (March 2010) and Lebanon (June 2009).

The passport photos usually do the trick, but it’s the slogans that clinch it for you every single time. A quick car ride through Amman’s circular street life and a big, fat album of reasons for Jordan’s still barren marriage with democracy falls in your lap. A moving queue of funny looking people, a medley of hilarities, and you immediately grasp why, after 21 years of parliamentary elections, Jordan is no more democratic today than it was in 1989, when the golden age of political liberalism officially commenced.

“Jordan is for all Jordanians, and all Jordanians are for Jordan.”
“Your voice equals your honor.”
“Yes, total respect is correct.”
“Yes, the nation is for everyone.”
“Daughter of the nation, sister of everyone.”
“Authority (al Haibah) is paramount.”
“The Right of Return is sacred.”
“Without slogans.”
“Let your voice boom.”

“The roads are for the streets and the streets are for the roads.”
“Yes, yes, and yes, yes.”
“Yes before no, and two no’s don’t equal yes.”
“We know you, you know us, give us your vote.”

(The last four are a friend’s personal contribution to the national effort).

Nothing in these panoramas of idiocy is alien or new. Watching them whizz by you is like a moment of déjà vu that keeps rewinding itself. This has been—and, one seriously suspects, shall be—Amman and Baghdad and Beirut and Cairo and…during every electoral fest.

The tendency on the part of well meaning folks inside and out is, of course, to blame the powers that be. But I think they’re way too miserly. In nonsense alone, this is a recurring embarrassment of riches for which a good chunk of the country’s elite is no less to blame than the state itself. If Jordan disappoints today, it disappoints because of them just as much as it does because of its government. If this is a carnival of fools, the jokers are not only the ones composing the silly tunes, they’re the ones dancing to them.

The odd thing is that as far as pretenses go—a regional indulgence of serious mass appeal—our elections don’t do too well. For all the vote buying, the feasting, the sectarian agitation, the busing en masse and the under-the-table, behind-the-curtain deals, voters are always the dullest guests in these parties. From Egypt’s eternally depressed but not necessarily depressing 20-25%, to Jordan’s somewhat more perky 41% (1989) to 54% (2007) range, to Lebanon’s typical split-the-difference 53%, voter turnoff is always outpacing voter turnout. And we all know, because living here makes us know, that this apathy is not that of the satisfied and comfy.

Really, how extraordinary is it that in a recent poll in Jordan, 62% of those polled stated that “they accepted or agreed with the new [electoral] law,” although 66% “were entirely unaware” of it? Who said Jordanians don’t have a sense of humor?

Which brings to mind the best banner yet of any election (I forget the year), made in—where else?—Egypt:

“Iddi sotak aw matiddihoush,
al-Nabawi Ismail mayhimmoush”

“Whether you cast your vote [for me] or not
Al-Nabawi Ismail cares not.”

(The proud owner of the slogan is none other than al-Nabawi Ismail himself, Egypt’s one time interior minister).

So the obvious question is: for whose eyes is this pretense, because it clearly is not for us?

If you’re in Jordan, you might want to head northwest to Lebanon for an answer.


In September 2010, The International Foundation of Electoral Systems (IFES), an outfit that busies itself with, well, matters electoral, awarded Mr. Ziad Baroud, our Interior Minister, The Charles T. Manatt Prize.

Apparently, IFES was genuinely—and, one has to add, rightly--impressed with the low violence and efficiency of the June 2009 parliamentary elections in a notoriously violent and inefficient locale.  If only for the relatively smooth running of the electoral show, Mr. Baroud, by far the most digestible Lebanese interior minister yet, deserved one of those Kindergarten gold stars on his forehead.  

But (read this paragraph very slowly) in awarding Mr. Baroud the prize, IFES, without even a hint of irony—as is often the habit of all clueless Western organizations--stated that its purpose is to “highlight that democracy work transcends political parties and national borders.”

Remember that Japanese giggling box that sounds like a bunch of cackling chicken?

Indeed, who better than Baroud for this honor, since Lebanon does not have anything remotely resembling a political party and since our national borders stand now where they’ve always stood, as mere markers of a betting arena? Might as well get a prize for it, we’ve been doing this kind of transcendental democracy work for so long; come to think of it, since that glorious day when “independent” Lebanon came to be in 1943.

Don’t think this is a joke, as hilarious as it all is. Over $1 billion dollars was spent on the 2009 Lebanese elections, $900 million of which came straight from Saudi Arabia’s coffers into Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s March 14 camp. This in a country of four million, give or take, with a GNP of  $31 billion and approximately 3.2 million eligible voters, 53% of whom voted. For a touch of context, you might want to give the cost of the 2008 US presidential race a fleeting thought: $2.3 billion, expenses and all.

That this obscene amount of money was spent on a contest whose results were preordained to be utterly meaningless in a tiny, systemically confessional state, where so-called parliamentary and cabinet majorities can never govern without the active acquiescence of the so-called minorities, is remarkable commentary on the importance of window dressing in a country that is itself a window dressing.

It would be unjust, though, to pick on IFES alone, when we should be picking on them all. As is the case with IFES, for the European Union, the Carter Center and countless other Western agencies in the democratic licensing business that congratulated Baroud on a job well done but counseled “more reforms,” democracy is the sum of so many items on a score sheet. Just because the elections don’t matter, are bought, are unrepresentative, have practically no bearing on policy and say practically nothing (or all the wrong things) about a country’s actual progress on the democratic footpath doesn’t mean that efficiency, order and all around good effort on voting day don’t count.

I mean, without these scores how would the West be able to tell the difference between the goner and the redeemable amongst us? Frankly, this alone makes it all worthwhile.

Dead serious business, the “work of democracy” for our regimes and a West desperate to keep the conversation going, lest we all be found out. As dead serious and deadly, in fact, as the peace process itself. Imagine the carnage if the halls should ever fall silent.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Tick Tock!

There is not a single unhappy story in Lebanon that knows how to keep its hands to itself. This summer’s bad news, which has been raining on everybody’s party, is like a bacchanal of forebodings.

But then, it’s not unusual for this country to let it all hang out. Unlike the people, problems here do not live bubble-like in parallel worlds; they’re so close to one another, they’re like one family.

So it goes without saying that the recent public health warnings about conjunctivitis, typhoid and scabies are of a piece with the blood curdling Burj abu Haidar September clashes that pitted Shiite Hezbollah, a Syrian ally, with Sunni Ahbash, a fundamentalist Syrian-sponsored group.

They’re certainly of a piece with the trickles of electricity that light up the life of only a trickle of Lebanese, the mountains of garbage that tower over us at the entrance to every other city and village as monuments to our carelessness and indignity, with the cities of modern concrete that have wiped clean entire vistas from our past…

Of a piece with the press conferences by Shiite Hezbollah’s Hassan Nassrallah and Shiite Jamil al Sayyed, the former head of the General Security Bureau, that have made ridiculous the once fearsome prospects of the Rafiq Hariri International Tribunal and a punching bag of a dumbstruck Sunni prime minister.

Of a piece with so-called Syrian-Saudi arrangements—SS, as Nabih Berri, the speaker of our venerable parliament, aptly calls the combo--that signify nothing more than an audacious Syrian comeback and a very embarrassing, and telling, Saudi retreat.

Of a piece with the “national unity” government of a brood of sects that long ago laughed these two words out of the room.

And these pieces, few and scattered though they are from a much larger heap, do very well in explaining the mechanics of how Lebanon actually does not work, and hence how it actually refuses to be.


My depiction is not exactly unpopular—it’s in good company here-- but, it has to be said, the competition is fierce. A favorite Lebanese mantra (the last line of defense every time we’re about to drop another notch or two) is that the damage wrought by habitual sectarianism, ubiquitous corruption, an on-paper-only state and ugly, destructive behavior all around is actually beside the point, because--look! Just look at it, won’t you?—the country keeps rising from the ashes and going about the business of living.

And what a living! For every sign of impending doom, for every recital of failure or sound of a crash, an example of Lebanese ingenuity or hipness is brought out of the bag by way of a comeback, as if to say, there is that…but then there is this. Jekyll and Hyde breaking the china and painting the house at one and the same time. Daylight chasing the demons of the night. The final comforting picture is that of an army of Houdinis magically escaping the plots hatched against them, or sheer Lebanese grit always pulling itself up by the bootstraps and dusting itself off after every bruising knock out.

Of course, the showcase itself is none other than swinging Beirut (check out Tyler Brûlé’s accolades). I mean, if we’re so bad, how come we’re so hot? It must be in our genes, this instinct to beat the odds, trick, wrong foot, mock our ill fortunes. And what other Eastern city dares display, with such gusto, this remarkable range of liberal moods in a desert of messianic conservatism? 

Some commentators go so far as to argue that Lebanon’s deep-to-the-bone sectarianism, as illiberal and noxious as it may seem, forces a stasis that automatically rises like an impregnable separation wall in the face of any sect that connives for more than its designated space.   The happy result is a terrible mess, yes, but one that is infinitely more benign and way more freethinking than, say, Hassan Nassrallah at the helm.  

There’s a noble cause to rally the crowds around!

And the state? Why, in God’s name, would you insist on it, or miss it even, if you never had any use for it in the first place? Besides, in a region where bad governance reigns like the plague, isn’t it the damndest feeling to run around stark naked in this Hobbsian jungle?  


These arguments may not be out-and-out silly, but they’re like pats on Lebanon’s back after a merciless street fight with the facts.

And the fact is, Lebanon is for show, not for real. True, once upon a time the show was more than enough to keep the reel turning, but here’s the thing: with time, the performance is getting progressively poorer and more unseemly. The Lebanon of today is not where it started 67 years ago, as problematic as it was then. We’re not at the beginning of the experiment; we’re way past the end. We might have had people guessing a couple of decades back. Now the margin for bluffing is practically nil.  

A dear friend told me not so long ago, “God, no matter what, this place keeps coming back and ticking along.”  Perhaps, but the ticking sounds he has been hearing recently are not a clear sign of stubborn life, they are the tick tocks announcing the sure approach of midnight.

From Bahr Lubnan’s recently launched environmental awareness campaign. Timely!

Monday, August 16, 2010

What It All Means

On the International Tribunal Investigating Rafiq Hariri’s Assassination
Since the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri has, over the course of five years, deteriorated from a genuine political thriller into a typical Lebanese farce, let me start at The End and jog forward from there: the file of the international tribunal that was set up to investigate the murder has been slammed shut.

The investigation that initially threatened to topple the Syrian regime and promised to squeeze out a tiny bit of the puss that keeps Lebanese politics at fever-pitch has fizzled into yet another embarrassing example about how utterly silly and unnervingly dangerous Lebanon can be.  For a very short while there, right after the murder, you thought you were watching the Manchurian Candidate, only to discover, barely months into the act, that you were in fact sitting through Robert Moore’s Murder by Death. Plenty of giggles, but, alas, no David Niven, Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, or Truman Capote on this set; just the usual hooligans running amuck in Lebanon’s theater of the absurd.

Extraordinarily, but never surprisingly for us Lebanese, everything that could go wrong with the investigation did—and, as a friend kindly pointed out, everything that could have gone right did not. Key witnesses turned into false; three intelligence chiefs were arrested only to be released after three evidence-poor years; a chain of cell phones making a chain of calls right before and after the hit, once deemed damning, has just been relabeled as dodgy after the discovery of an Israeli-sponsored spy ring that, from all appearances, had infiltrated our telecom system… By the time old, crucial allies, like the Druze’s Walid Jumbulatt, had defected a few weeks ago, the tribunal was practically friendless and defenseless.

And now, the coup de grâce: an enthralling two-hour long press conference by Siyyed Hassan Nassrallah, the head of Hezbollah, who, with aerial footage of Israeli espionage in action, spies’ testimonies about suspicious Hariri-related chores and tasks and a load full of oomph and logic, first reduced the heretofore ironclad case against Syria and (as of late) the Party of God itself into a series of question marks, sinister schemes and doubts, and then, by way of a bonus for those who have long been waiting to wipe it in March 14’s face, graciously asked the other camp to put its tail between its legs and carry out the mercy-killing itself.

It’s over! It remains for the constantly overwhelmed and the ever so underwhelming Sa’ad Hariri, the son of the late Rafiq and the current prime minister of Lebanon, to take up Nassrallah on his offer, which, after all, would be only the last of many he has taken up from friends and patrons that have so far seen him sleep in Bashar Assad’s Damascene den.


But what does it all mean?

Well, for the moment at least, it means two things of infinite more significance than the tribunal and who actually killed Rafiq Hariri.

For Israel and Lebanon, it means that a moody year has just turned even more unpredictable. Recently, many of the people living in our underworld courtesy of the Jewish state have been popping up like bubbles out of a swamp. The revelations, including Nassrallah’s blow-by-blow, point to an Israeli infestation of state and society. One hundred fifty individuals are already under custody, the biggest catch of whom is Fayez Karam, a former head of the military’s counter-espionage unit, a principal member of Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and one of the General’s closest confidantes.  

Since covert war became Israel’s battle of choice against Hezbollah after the 2006 faceoff, the policy implications for both are, to say the least, very serious and potentially venomous. No doubt, Israel is already very hard at work revisiting the rules of engagement.

(As an aside: if you are even vaguely familiar with Arab political folklore, I don’t have to tell you that all this is sweet vindication for our conspiracy theorists. Who would dare snigger or roll their eyes now when Hezbollah talks of “environments that cradle spies and traitors.”)

For us Lebanese and for our competing sponsors, it means that in the game of politics, Sa’ad and his entourage are no match for Hezbollah and its Nassrallah. Not that many of us did not know this from the start, and not that this will have any impact on our rock solid sectarian loyalties. But it just so happens that there is much more that goes on in Lebanon than sectarian nitpicking, and in that high stakes regional contest those who are lined up behind Hezbollah must be feeling somewhat more confident about the odds.

Over the past five years, the Shiite movement’s mistakes--the offensive finger wagging, the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers, the guns turned in the direction of Beirut and the mountains, the financial scandals…--have been many. But the party’s more recent impressive tactics (and Nassrallah’s own performances) show a team that evaluates and learns from yesterday’s lapses. A feat that seems entirely too daunting for Sa’ad, whose reputation as a featherweight began to take shape when he literally disappeared (rumor had it that he had a breakdown) for an entire week after Hezbollah’s men came calling in May 2008, and finally established deep roots on that supposedly historic day in 2009, when his government received Parliament’s vote of confidence and he proceeded to literally laugh his way through a speech as breathtaking in its ineptness as he clearly is in his. 

Thursday, July 29, 2010

On the PA, Hamas and that Matter of Palestinian Resistance

Rarely are surface impressions as riveting as they are this stark simple.


“Truncated archipelago,” was Dr. Rashid Khalidi’s distressingly apt description of the Occupied Palestinian Territories in his 2009 piece on “The Crisis of the Palestinian System.” But the fourth snapshot, coming as it does at the end of this visual abstract of the evolving political geography of the Palestinian-Israeli tragedy, stands like the latest entry in a catalogue of Palestinian retreats and regrets.

Palestine—a fading thumbprint. Look at it, won’t you! There are plenty of doorsteps on which the Palestinians can lay blame for this sorry presence on the map. Certainly their leadership’s is no less deserving than Israel’s. It’s a long, winding, nasty patch of history, but if we were to choose that one miscalculation since 1967 that helped keep a people’s nationhood a figment of their imagination, it would have to be the mistaken conviction by the PLO in 1993--inexcusably picked up by Hamas in 2007--that to rule, under Israeli occupation, is in fact to lead.

But enough of that. So much has been written about the temptations of power that turned two so-called resistance movements into satraps over the Occupied Territories. To dwell on the mistakes and abuses of that period would be like pressing a full set of fingers on an unbearably painful injury. Suffice it to say that in the thick chronicles of this conflict there are plenty of Israeli moves that qualify as chutzpa, many among them, it has to be said, helped see the Zionist dream become a robust reality. But using the Oslo Accords, presumably a framework for liberation, to farm out an occupation that became indefensible (and progressively more costly) after the first mostly nonviolent intifada (1987-1993) is one of those remarkable Israeli tactical achievements that, from the start, had all the makings of strategic folly. Equally, the role that Yasser Arafat and then Hamas willingly, even enthusiastically, played in this book on how to change a liberation organization into a local enforcement agency has marked the Palestinian cause itself with an unforgivably unkind legacy. 

And yet, as debilitating as chronic dispossession has been to the nationalist cause of the Palestinians, it is only one of their problem’s many intertwining surface realities. What the four snapshots are missing are the human heartbeats—Israeli and Palestinian—that make silly putty out of thumbprints. Place these on the landscapes above and watch an apparently clear win for Israel turn into a moral and demographic muddle. 


It has been, then, a rotten game for the Palestinians, but it is far from over. Their struggle for a state may yet have its day. And herein lies perhaps the most daunting challenge for them, for they enter a new kind of battle with Israel as would an orphan into the hazards of life.

All the serious studies that have been done on the PA and Hamas differ on many points but agree on one: when it comes to that most essential question of resistance, both groups have all but written themselves out of the equation. The rhetoric of engagement versus the rhetoric of armed struggle--this is the trivial difference between the strategies of the PA and Hamas towards Israel. Both latch on to language for cover the way an old hag makes for a towel after an open-air shower. In deed, though never in words, the two are simply out of breath and out of answers. However, theirs is more than a bankruptcy of policy and vision. As Dr. Khalidi writes, “In the wrenching divide that has grown between Fatah and Hamas, and in the growing fissures within Fatah, and between the ‘old Fatah’ and the PA [the Palestinian Authority], there reside the seeds of a dissolution of the Palestinian political system...”

Palestinians are indeed suffering a crisis of existential proportions. They have to plow the future in burning fields guarded by two ghastly custodians.  And pouring ink about Hamas’s tenacity in Gaza and Prime minister Salam Fayyad’s technocratic focus on “institution building” in the West Bank misses the crux of this besieged nation’s dire situation: if all that Gaza and the West Bank aspire to be is an efficient prison, then clearly Hamas and the PA have cornered the market for wardens. But the Palestinian people do aspire for and deserve nothing less than their own full-fledged state, and it is blue-sky clear that neither the PA nor Hamas have the faintest idea how to lead the way. Worst still, at this very mature stage of the conflict, when the longstanding two-state solution is giving way to forbidding scenarios that warn of death and mayhem, both leaderships have already begun fortifying their own side of the fortress.

Oftentimes the predictable defense by these two outfits starts and ends with an expression top heavy with symbolism and emotion for Palestinians: steadfastness--sumud in Arabic. Every band-aid or balsam applied by the PA and Hamas under occupation carries that proud stamp. In all fairness, for a frightened, miserably insecure, despondent people the quick fixes and remedies are not exactly negligible. So if you’re in the mood to distribute kudos, be my guest… But lest we be seduced by linguistic subtleties, there is a difference between sumud and stabilizing a punishing status quo. To get credit for the former, the two regimes require all the facilities of the Arabic language and the capacious love of supporters. As for the latter, the glory is all theirs to claim.

The Palestinian people know this. If you were to match on-the-ground insights with the accumulating power of numbers, the trends are not that hard to detect. Neither the PA nor Hamas can credibly claim anywhere close to a popular mandate (the latest PSR poll gives Hamas 38%, its best showing yet since three years, and the Fayyad government 48% approval ratings, mostly for improved security and order), while the field reports point to rising dissent and increasing oppressiveness as standard operating procedure between the two systems and their people.

For far too long, day-to-day has been the Palestinians’ modus operandi. And when approval ratings of the PA and Hamas rise or fall, they don’t with liberation or resistance in mind. Bottom of the list is where these two linger every time the average Palestinian is asked to place in order of importance the weight of their burdens.


Now that the Territories have been swathed in darkness it is time for that faint ray of hope. Nil’in, Ma’sara, Budrus, Bil’in, Jayouss, Umm Salamouneh: these are just some of the Palestinian villages that are giving the strongest hint in years that Palestinian civil society still has a pulse. As if in response to the utter failure of leadership in those who were supposed to look out for it, recently it has been galvanizing its own forces against the occupation. As if in response to Fatah and Hamas’s weapons of choice of years past—mind numbing aimless chatter, ever-erect white flags, senseless violence and all—the new generation of community organizers and activists has opted exclusively for legal recourse, civil disobedience and nonviolent protests.

Since many of the villages lost land and livelihood to Israeli settlements and the deliberately invasive Separation Wall, their targets are land theft and settler encroachments. There is no critical mass yet, the skeptics and booby traps are many, there is no real independent party support (just independent voices) and much work is required for the current activism to coalesce into civil disobedience on a society-wide scale. But this budding grassroots effort is sending out a medley of messages that could well be announcing a seismic shift in the Palestinian-Israeli divide.

The loudest and certainly most meaningful of these messages is an insistent pragmatism that embraces nonviolence as the only effective answer to an Israeli occupation that thrives on, even provokes, Palestinian fury to justify to itself and explain away to others its hideousness and feed its rapacity. The implications of this chosen path are as consequential for the PA and Hamas as they are for Israel. For this activism is reaching beyond the usual politics, beyond borders, beyond its own kin and beyond yesterday’s failed experiments and pain. It’s still a toddler, but it’s glaringly aware of the PA and Hamas’s infirmities and it knows the Israeli occupier’s intention and method only too well.


This is not 1987. Much has changed since the first largely nonviolent Palestinian intifada in the Occupied Territories erupted and Yasser Arafat, after having been caught totally off guard by it, piggybacked on it and then came in through Oslo and stemmed its already ebbing tide. If 1987 was prologue, then 2010 is epilogue. Over two decades of “self-rule” have passed since 1993, punctuated by corruption, 60,000 intelligence and security agents, systemic violations of human rights, a second very violent intifada, suicide bombings, more settlements, more settlers, less and less land, over 500 Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank, Israeli redeployment from Gaza, a coup d’état, occupation by remote control, spastic missiles that aim nowhere and everywhere across the Green Line from a destitute cul-de-sac that totally depends on Egypt and Israel for dear life, devastation, an existence from hand to mouth, ruptures, sieges, cease fires …

It’s a very deep ditch that has been dug by the PA and Hamas, and everything about it says serious political vacuum. Palestinian civil society, as exhausted and browbeaten as it is, is taking baby steps into it. And as difficult as prospects for a free future may seem, there is actually much that activists and organizers can work with when gauging the chances for it: the fluid demographic situation in Palestine, the changing geopolitical map in the region, the darkening visage of Israel and her growing estrangement from old allies, the strengthening affinities between them and Israel’s own civil society in fighting the nonviolent fight, increasing civic activism in key Western countries on behalf of Palestine--and ironically, but perhaps most significantly, the dimming star of both the PA and Hamas.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Of Rants and Raves

April post deleted by accident
They’re at it again. Israel and its regional nemeses, along with the usual augurs on both sides of the mountain, are writing for the Middle East a new epochal storyline: The balance of power has shifted and the next confrontation between Israel and its antagonists will “change the face of the area.”
Meanwhile, every few weeks our newspapers’ front pages are host to assassinations, foiled plots, deportations, mysterious explosions, car bombs, arrests, pointing to a Jean le Carrè underworld of espionage and sabotage in the shadows of the world most of us like to pretend is the only real one.
The sequence of threats and counter threats has been rather entertaining to watch. First, the ominous conclusions in Israeli dailies and by Israeli think tanks that Hezbollah has crossed all the old redlines and rearmed with weapons that pose an unprecedented threat to the Jewish state. Then, a thunderous growl by the Israeli government that it will wreak havoc on the body and soul of Lebanon should—repeat—should Hezbollah attack, followed by a dire warning that the coming faceoff could very well be fought simultaneously on the Lebanese, Syrian, and Iranian fronts. And last, the reassurance by this same government that war is not on the agenda.
As if by design, the mind-numbing tune that sources admiring of the rejectionist camp (Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas) have been replaying goes something like this: Hezbollah has shattered all the old redlines and Israel has lost the deterrence card. Nassrallah does not lie: The next battle, should—repeat--should Israel attack, will unleash hell on the “Zionist entity,” and the result will be a radically altered geopolitical map. So talk of war is just subterfuge by a furious Israeli state for which war against Lebanon is no longer a cakewalk. To add zest to their euphoric predictions, these same sources also state, with the smug confidence of the tipped off and clued in, that the next war most likely will encompass Lebanon, Syria, and Iran.
Once a cycle is complete, a new one almost identical to it starts.
Such extraordinary synchronicity across the divide! It’s like being stuck in an echo chamber.
For examples of this symphonic harmony, check out the war scenarios recently shared by Yedioth Ahronoth’s Nahum Barnea, after which you’re liable to believe that Israel, and the region with it, is inching closer to the Day of Judgment. Then, switch to Al Akhbar’s Ibrahim Amin’s almost daily forecasts, after which you’re liable to believe that all it will take is one final Karate kick for the edifice of Zionism to crumble.
Of course, we—as in we the spectators who are meant to be privy only to the blather that serves as a veneer for what is really going on behind closed doors--must look like chumps hypnotically turning our heads this way and that to catch this tit for that tat, waiting to see if these are indeed the drums of a new kind of war we are hearing, or just the usual fart load of rhetoric.
Trouble is, fear for our clashing titans has always been good for business. These people have muscles they need to flex, followers they need to keep pumped up, armor they have to stack up. Alas, you won’t be getting anywhere close to the truth from their influence peddlers. All I can tell you is that out here in Lebanon many are experiencing an acute case of the jitters. In the south, the mood is downright somber. They feel another one coming.
Personally, I am quite happy to bet that it isn’t, not anytime soon, that is. All the action between Hezbollah and Israel—and clearly there is plenty of it--is already taking place way off the stage and out of the camera’s sight. For the Americans, the Iran file is still open, not to mention the Iraqi and Afghani ones, and hence for the Israelis there is no green light. For Hezbollah, the best offense, now that it is a principal sectarian player in a very sectarian arena, is defense. As for Syria, mano-a-mano type fights has not been its thing for a good while now, and short of a very compelling invitation from the Israelis to join the tussle, it will be content to watch (and help) from the sidelines.
Besides, if—repeat--if the US and Europe move into combat mode against Iran, I seriously doubt they will be asking Israel to do the honors. No insult intended, of course.
Still, as infantile and manifestly self-serving as the rhetoric is, don’t dismiss it out of hand because underneath all this dizzying noise about Armageddon there is a quiet hum of meaningful messages flying back and forth between the two camps. The short of the messages from Hezbollah is that it wants to be an armed resistance as well as a political force of a somewhat more mainstream flavor. Knowing very well the natural friction between this odd couple, Hezbollah has conceived a new and rather original definition to resistance, in the hope that it will set a new and positive tone in the relationship: Armed struggle is no longer about liberating occupied land, but about protecting the one that has already been liberated.
For this Shiite movement, to which goes the credit for harassing the Israeli army out of southern Lebanon in 2000, the idea is simple: In the absence of a real Lebanese state and in the presence of the Zionist enemy (see the last post), Hezbollah shall stick to its guns. However, aware that the national consensus around the resistance during the Israeli occupation of the south has given way to a sectarian consensus against it after liberation, the Party of God understands that it must protect its back. Therefore, it is signaling to one and all that the new and improved purpose of its arms and army is not to liberate the remaining patches of occupied (presumably) Lebanese land, the Shebaa Farms and the town of Ghajar, precious as they are, but to defend the entirety of Lebanon against Israeli aggression.
In other words—ones that Hezbollah is always implying but is loath to utter outright--gone are the days of hit and run surprise attacks and kidnapping of Israeli soldiers, for which Hassan Nassrallah himself apologized in the aftermath of the 2006 war in spite of his divine victory over Israel. Even in his latest fiery speech on the occasion of the third anniversary of the assassination of Imad Mughnieyh, a death that has yet to be avenged, the message was, “If you are going to…we will,” as if to say that now that we can reach your heart and rip it the way you have been ripping ours, we won’t unless you do it first.
Put another way, Hezbollah would like to go legit. It wants to join the status quo, not overthrow it. The deterrence card, if indeed it is finally in the Islamist movement’s hands, does alter the longstanding terms of engagement, and that is precisely the point. Without deterrence, Israel would have made sure that Hezbollah’s dual identities would be ruinous for it and Lebanon, as previewed in the 2006 round; with it, Hezbollah figures it got itself (but not necessarily Lebanon) some pretty thick cover.
You won’t hear it from any source close to the resistance, but the first lesson it learned from 2006 is that it cannot, under any circumstance, appear to be the one to start a showdown. What do you think Nassrallah’s mea culpa was for, basking though he was in the glow of a triumph. Which explains why the gentleman keeps reiterating every chance he gets that his finger is actually on the trigger but he won’t be pulling it first.
Of course, there are two obvious questions that are desperate to be asked here. If in fact Hezbollah has turned the tables on Israel, why is it trumpeting such a strategic achievement and surrendering with such zeal the surprise element? And why is Israel happy to play its part in this advertising campaign? Pardon me for asking, but why are these two letting all of us in on it?
I don’t dare keep reframing these incessant questions, lest I be accused of undermining national morale, but what the hell: If, as Hezbollah says, the foundations of the “Zionist entity” have become fundamentally vulnerable—a claim that is making quite a few of the Islamist movement’s protagonists downright giddy and almost itching for a fight--why not silence and slyness in preparation for deliverance? Why the ear-piercing shrieks, the daily chatter, the furious chest pounding? I mean, if Hassan Nassrallah is nothing like Gamal Abdel Nasser, why the blatant mimicry, then?
My guess is because Hezbollah knows that 2010 is nothing like 1967, and so does Israel. It’s not that the Shiite group has reached strategic parity with Israel, it’s that it does not have to in order to inflict pain on the Jewish state like no Arab regime has before. If just a few of Hezbollah’s new long range, guided missiles hit their targets—and in the absence of a missile shield, they will--the battle will have been won, even if Hezbollah is forced to declare it from a Lebanon razed to the ground. And so, it shall be another divine victory for God’s party. Victory because it dared, victory because it could, and—this is crucial—victory because it will not have pulled the trigger first.
It has thus become imperative for Israel to puff up and broadcast the threat from Hezbollah and its regional patrons and allies. It needs to justify the severity of the next attack, prepare the Israeli public for the reality that a chunk of the country is today well within the reach of the enemy, and reconfigure what, in this new age of missile technology, have become near-obsolete benchmarks of victory.
Therefore, until the next violent collision—and it will not be any day soon--Israel’s war of choice will be of the deep cover kind. In fact, this has been the modus operandi between it and Hezbollah ever since 2006. The murder of Hamas’s Mahmoud Mabhouh in Dubai was a rare, intimate glimpse into an intense war by other means that has been raging in all sorts of places only pieces of which reach the front pages of our newspapers. If only for this reason, the exposure of the Mossad team and its method was at once embarrassing and extremely inconvenient for Israel.