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!”