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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Small Fry


Two weeks ago, at a small dinner party, a friend of mine chided me for ignoring Lebanon in my posts. “Why the silence?”

“Small fry, it’s because we’re small fry,” was my comeback.

I am hiding the varnish in this post because I suspect that sugarcoating very embarrassing realities in the midst of swirling events would only serve to further confuse an already confusing situation.

Political earthquakes in other Arab countries have pushed us out of the limelight. But it’s the cruel contrast between entire nations finally rising to the occasion and us sinking deeper into our Lebanese morass that has exposed us for the tiny people that we are.

Watch us now squabbling over ministries, fighting over quotas and under the table deals as other people clamor for dignity and citizenship. While we twist in the wind, they’re busy unleashing it against once omnipotent systems.

If you have been wondering as of late about our civil society, the answer is literally standing there desperate for you to catch it. Legend has it—at least among those who have concocted it out of their vivid imagination—that, in 2005, Lebanon rose first and sang away Syrian domination. True, more than one third of the population did come out, some of them genuinely (if naively) on the lookout for progressive ideas, but then, as with everything Lebanese, a possibly interesting moment turned into a hoax. Quickly enough, the Sect spread its wings, lest any of its children take themselves seriously, and swept them back into the fold.

Lebanon today withers precisely because there is no civil society fighting for it. There are just civic-minded individuals, lone voices in a cold, hostile, terrible sectarian wilderness. Guess how many Lebanese heeded the call for a civil state a few days ago? 2000.

No wonder, nearly everybody is shrugging us out of the picture. Even al Akhbar, the leading local daily, has relegated us to its midsection. Siyyed Hassan Nassrallah himself huffs and puffs about occupying Galilee if—that is if--Israel dares attack, but the warning falls on Arab politics much like pennies on a carpet.

Funny thing is, right about when Tunisia happened, Lebanon itself was hit by yet another political tornado. But juxtaposed against the mighty sight of Tunisia, we looked like the spoilt crybabies of the region.

As I write, not even Lebanon’s naval gazers, including quite a few of its own occupants, can muster the strength to waste time on this one.
****
Still, as my friend pleaded, we are part of this neighborhood and, satisfying as ignoring us is, Lebanon does deserve a couple of lines on its predicament if only because it is the go-to place when powers want to make a point or pick an argument.

So, here are a few lines on the latest:

Last month, in quick sequence that is astounding for the oft slumberous pace of Lebanese politics, the Syrian-Saudi deal over the special tribunal for the assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri collapses under US (and some Saudi) pressure, Hezbollah and its allies resign from Sa’ad Hariri’s cabinet and, when all were looking straight ahead, out from the other end emerges ex-Prime Minister and current parliamentarian Najib Mikati (by any measure neither a particular friend of Hezbollah’s nor a staunch ally of Syria’s) to get 69 out of 128 parliamentary endorsements and sets out to form a new government.

Sunni Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri, son of the slain Rafic, head of the largest parliamentary bloc and the mightiest man in his sect is not only brought down but thrown out by the Shiite Party of God and Syria’s Bashar, with barely a growl from his Sunni clan, a peep from Riyadh and the briefest of wait-and-see-statements from the White House.

One of the thickest redlines that zigzag through every artery of this country is thus crossed and the only ones boohooing are Sa’ad and his March 14 chums. By way of coups, they really don’t come smoother than that.

Hezbollah and Syria’s arm-twisting was transparent and, it goes without saying, predictable.  The quick footwork was the surprise. When everybody thought the “coup” would be loud, rough, all-or-nothing, possibly even bayonet lead, and made their calculations accordingly, the Shiite movement and our Syrian neighbor went creative. 
Not that Mikati is close to forming a cabinet, mind you. After all, why would Syria help us pretend that we can run things by ourselves when we clearly can’t? To those cursing it, I say salute it instead. 
****
When mulling over the nonsense that goes for politics in this place, there are three conclusions you should seriously flirt with, neither one of which, by the way, signals anything remotely intriguing about its future.

Let’s start small: the Hariri House rose with Rafic and it died with him. The feather-like fall of a Sunni prime minister at the hands of a Hezbollah-led, Syrian directed coalition means that Saudi Arabia—partly because of the unnerving incompetence of Sa’ad the son—is revisiting its old Hariri-driven Lebanon policy. A 20-year tradition has thus come to an ignominious end, none more so than for the family itself. From here on, expect the Saudis to reach out to a wider circle of Sunni faces in representing its Lebanese interests.

This doesn’t in any way imply that the Hariris are retiring from politics—although one hopes they’re inching closer to that option--but it does indicate that, as of now, it is perfectly reasonable for the public to shrink this overinflated balloon back down to size.

More than this, the ease with which presumably screaming-red sectarian lines were trampled upon confirms that the ground rules of Lebanese politics are fictitious, pretty much like the country itself, and are little more than expressions of the moods and whims of foreign patrons. It sounds like I am stating the obvious, but, believe it or not, there are still many who think that the local scene and its complex web of conventions actually count. They do, until they don’t. There are no real internal guideposts for the way of things, only external ones.

And that’s only one of so many reasons why we’re such small fry.

That’s not my angry voice you’re hearing in this piece, it’s the sound of my heart breaking.

 

12 comments:

Fouad Hamdan said...

Amal!

This is a wonderful analysis, and it breaks my heart, too, when I see in what state Lebanon is.

March 14 vs. March 8, Shia-Sunni hatred, dysfunctional institutions, non-future feeling, violence, etc. The list is long.

But 2,000 people peacefully protested last Sunday against the system. They demanded an end of sectarianism.

This is hope.

We must believe that ending sectarianism, the root of all our problems in Lebanon, is possible. The 2,000 believe it is possible!

It is possible to pull down this system.

We should join the 2,000 and ask others to do so.

This may be a historic chance.

Fouad

Dina H. Sherif said...

Oh my God Amal, as I was reading your post all I kept on thinking to myself was your heart is really broken over Lebanon... just like my heart was broken over Egypt for so long... I thought she's not angry, she is sad. And then I read your last sentence... Here's the thing... a friend of mine recently said when it is dark enough, you will eventually get to see the stars. who knows? maybe when you least expect, lebanon will stop being "small fry"?

Marwan Elkhoury said...

Sectarianism and confessionalism are long overdue concepts that should not be in our vocabulary any more as defunct. But we're stuck with it. I believe that NOW is the time to move further from that and request devolution of powers to the people through regular referendums on various issues of general interest. We have to capitalize on the Jasmine Revolution that is sweeping in the Arab world to change our political system and Constitution in Lebanon not for the short term but radically for the devolution of power to the people and away from corrupt, inept and greedy leaders who have utterly failed in their mission as their one and only one interest is to maintain themselves in power through dividing its amorphic people into sectarian divisions, spreading fear of mutual extermination and provoking it when needed. Kifaya. Power to the people.

Marwan Elkhoury said...

Sectarianism and confessionalism are long overdue concepts that should not be in our vocabulary any more as defunct. But we're stuck with it. I believe that NOW is the time to move further from that and request devolution of powers to the people through regular referendums on various issues of general interest. We have to capitalize on the Jasmine Revolution that is sweeping in the Arab world to change our political system and Constitution in Lebanon not for the short term but radically for the devolution of power to the people and away from corrupt, inept and greedy leaders who have utterly failed in their mission as their one and only one interest is to maintain themselves in power through dividing its amorphic people into sectarian divisions, spreading fear of mutual extermination and provoking it when needed. Kifaya. Power to the people.

Marwan Elkhoury said...

Sectarianism and confessionalism are long overdue concepts that should not be in our vocabulary any more as defunct. But we're stuck with it. I believe that NOW is the time to move further from that and request devolution of powers to the people through regular referendums on various issues of general interest. We have to capitalize on the Jasmine Revolution that is sweeping in the Arab world to change our political system and Constitution in Lebanon not for the short term but radically for the devolution of power to the people and away from corrupt, inept and greedy leaders who have utterly failed in their mission as their one and only one interest is to maintain themselves in power through dividing its amorphic people into sectarian divisions, spreading fear of mutual extermination and provoking it when needed. Kifaya. Power to the people.

Diva said...

Lebanon has never had a strong government in my recollection save for the Hooveresque recollections of the Fuad Chehab days..The idea of a Lebanese entity since the dark days of the Ottoman empire has always been a foreign initiative, or unfortunately, a collection of foreign initiatives. That has now been superimposed by more immediate and brutal regional ones. Fiction or reality, the Lebanese individual exists. He and she have learned how to survive and overcome when other fabricated states around it have benefited from its perennial misfortunes. Hapless and bovinely subservient at alternate times to a collection of colonial powers in their heads and bank accounts, the Lebanese as political beings will never make it to the level of awakening finally taking root in North Africa and the Gulf. The long overdue uprisings culminating in shedding the shackles of past injustices of one ruling party or of ruthless military regimes has not been their conditioning. They have had the experience and wild tumble of a simultaneous cocktail of all of them. Depending on sect, material interest or lust for power the Lebanese will never emerge as a civic minded whole but will always include a limp army of disjointed and irreconcilable addicts and puppets. The one scarecrow are Hizbullah's weapons, a two-edged sword said needed to fight Israel but also kept to alter the sectarian map at the point of a gun. On the bright side, as governments come and go and Lebanon remains as marginal as ever, this small fry status as infuriating as it is has given the population time to breathe. Being he best shot in town always turns one into a target. Neighboring regional countries love to hate Lebanon...its is a basket case, now. It is true and frustrating. As Pablo Neruda said: Our wine is bitter, but it is ours.. Coasting on cruise control after about 35 years of turmoil is not ideal nor exemplary nor what we should strive for. It has allowed the traumatized to heal themselves, the artists to work in daylight, and for culture which has always endured to catch up with the times...

Jumana said...

Very sharp analysis Amal, and a needed independent voice.

sami said...

I still think you should form a political party but should you remain adamant not to do so then how about writing a weekly newspaper column?
Sami

Amal said...

This is my column in my own newspaper. I am my own editor and my own boss. What would a newspaper column give me that I don't already have? Readership? Not necessarily judging by the very low turnouts these days.

As for a political party, you still insist on seeing me off. Cruel man.

Fares said...

You would think that the Lebanese of all people would have a vested interest in building a civil society that functions as a medium between the different sects and the state. It would bring sanity and perspective to people.

I think everyone is over Lebanon and the cry wolf howls we are used to hearing every other day now...

Is Jordan worthy of a post, Amal?

Amal said...

That is the tragedy of Lebanon.

As for Jordan, you're spot on agin. It does merit a post.

Mira said...

Very insightful. I think that the majority of your Lebanese readers will agree with me in saying that Lebanon is a country that must see the winds of change as we are standing on the precipice of no return.