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.