Friday, November 8, 2013

Is Civil War Coming to Lebanon?

Every Sunday morning, no later than eight and not earlier than seven, when the cars are taking a breather and Beirut is mute, I take an energetic sprint through the streets of my neighborhood. Depending on the route I choose for that day, I either start or end the walk by passing under the Fouad Chehab Bridge, otherwise famous as one of the civil war’s favorite sniper haunts. It could be the unusual silence of Sunday, but every time I walk that 20-meter stretch, it’s as if I am mingling with the dead.

It’s a peculiar feeling for a Lebanese who did not live the war and whose family was spared the worst of it. I can count a couple of distant relatives among the 150,000 lives lost. I can count a male friend as a casualty—beaten to a pulp by a militiaman at one of the city’s many roadblocks; a female friend who was “encouraged” at another checkpoint to give a lift to a Syrian man, Kalashnikov in hand, only to hysterically (and hilariously) plead her way out of a detour that was sure to end with a sexual assault.

For far too many Lebanese, this is kids stuff. And, frankly, as forbidding as my Sunday thoughts are, they are without roots. They drop in like casual visitors and soon enough drift away with the lazy tick tocks of the day. Ask those who survived our 17-year sectarian strife about the remnant scars and they begin to hurt afresh with the incessant pain of the deepest wounds. Watch them when a new round of violence is about to erupt: ire, blunt and furious, locks their faces in a permanent scowl.

You wouldn’t think that Lebanese have grown tired of internecine conflict, judging by the dangerous antics of the likes of Sidonese Sunni Sheikh Ahmad Assir, or the chest pounding of Hassan Nassrallah, or the shrill tone of March 8 and 14 (not a single Cicero, I am afraid, on these shores). And you certainly wouldn’t think that, judging by the latest car explosions in Sunni Tripoli and Shiite Southern Suburbs. After all, that’s how the bloodletting started in 1975.

And yet, 37 years on, it is clear to most of us that the war and the shape of the peace that ended it have pretty much pocketed their main goals, turning Lebanon into a rent-a-cause kiosk, a minor theater of a sort where the big boys get to vent every once in a while or register a point against the opposite side; and yes, why not, since this is Lebanon, a staging post for all manner of illicit transactions and trades. Ours has become too much of a zaroub (back alley) to be home to an event as grand as that of a civil war.   

However amnesiac the Lebanese may seem about their tragedies, this is an exhausted people. Perhaps one of the more intriguing outcomes of two decades of combat is a collective mood that can tolerate turbulence only if it comes in fits and starts, or, if you like, a chronic instability that releases itself every other year with a few hard slaps. Degradation of life continues apace, of course, people here and there die, each sect crawls deeper into its trench, but wholesale collapse is averted precisely because nothing remains, in fact, intact. Lebanon is a nation dismembered, a polity in shards.

On the face of it, you might argue, this actually bodes trouble of the very loud, serious and prolonged kind. But ever since the official end of the fratricide in 1990, Lebanon has been lurching onward, from one blow to the other, with a chorus of observers warning of impending disaster, only for this slice of the Levant to lurch some more under a barrage of new blows. Count them! Israel’s assault in 1996; the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005 and the targeted killings that ensued; the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel; the offensive against the Nahr al Bared Palestinian camp up north in 2007; the descent on West Beirut by Hezbollah et al in 2008…

The backdrop, it goes without saying, is the nonlethal confrontations that bespeak of an utterly broken political system: March 8‘s resignation from Fouad Saniora’s cabinet and the tent cities of Hezbollah and Michel Oun’s Tayyar downtown that followed in 2006-2007; the parliament that for months would not convene and the president that for months could not be elected; the joke that is the parliamentary elections, sullied by fraud and a flood of money to achieve nothing more than a balance of bad intentions; the Hariri Tribunal’s pursuit of Hezbollah as the party that pulled the trigger; the clandestine spy wars between the Shiite behemoth and Israel, the mounting public debt and the mismanagement of the economic file… And now the close to one million Syrian refugees, the Sunni-Shiite collisions along some of Lebanon’s demarcation lines, the ineffectual March 8 government…

By any measure, these should be signs of a people on the brink of another suicidal trajectory. But then, as I wrote above and countless times before, we are not a people and this is not a country. The tragicomedy is that which has killed us bit by bit saves us from all out bloodshed.

Before you feel the need to utter the name with indignant insistence. Imploding Syria matters, and it will overturn the entire picture, but only if it dissolves—state and borders. And should that happen, no doubt, we shall all be meeting up back at the proverbial drawing board.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Don’t Worry About Hezbollah, It’s Doing Just Fine

When Syria erupted in 2011, the potential damage to Hezbollah became immediately apparent. The downfall of President Bashar Assad and a tidy win for the region’s Sunni powers and their American patron would not only have denied the group geographic depth and logistical routes vital to its effectiveness as Iran’s projection in the area, but it would also have located it, Shiite force that it is, in a stretch of very hostile Sunni expanse.

At best, it was thought, Hezbollah, cut off and encircled, would pragmatically turn definitively Lebanese and exclusively political; at worst, it would resist, invite even further isolation and exposure and become existentially vulnerable against its Sunni Syrian and Israeli neighbors. The first scenario implied containment; the second, military defeat, possibly even elimination. Both betrayed a thirst for very neat outcomes from a hopelessly messy Syrian situation.

That was then. But although it is very clear by now that a clean victory in Syria—for any of the warring parties—borders on the fantastical, thanks in part to the artfulness and tenacity of Assad’s friends and dithering and incompetence of his enemies, most commentators have yet to abandon their habitual predictions of gloom and doom for the Shiite movement.

The argument that animates this prognosis is that Hezbollah’s recent boldfaced plunge into the Syrian morass has shorn it of its nationalist credentials, undermined its resistance against Israel and entangled it in a dangerous Sunni-Shiite conflagration that is depleting its resources and encouraging Jihadist wrath against its people. In short, the very raison d'être of the organization is now under threat, and with it, Iran’s own strategic interests.

But such conjecture imagines the Syrian crisis wreaking havoc only on Hezbollah’s plans, as if all holds still for its antagonists, when the reality is that the past two years have scuttled everybody’s idea of a narrative in the Levant. Pick through Hezbollah’s opponents one by one and you would be picking through one-time possibilities that lie now in shambles: March 14, hailed at birth as the “civil” coalition that engineered Syria’s ouster from Lebanon in 2005; Saad Hariri, Saudi Arabia’s man and Lebanese Sunni zaim (boss); the opposition in Syria…

You don’t have to be privy to members-only conversations or strain yours ears too close to the ground to hear March 14’s leaders complain about dire financial need, about Saudi chagrin with Hariri’s leadership and, extraordinarily, about Hezbollah’s offers of support (many taken with thanks) to cronies of a cash-strapped Hariri in critical cities like Tripoli.

Reliable whispers have it as well that Saudi fury with the fiascoes of Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, head of intelligence and the man with the Syrian and Lebanese files, has rendered Lebanon unmentionable in the presence of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. Among Bandar’s many bizarre tactics, none has been more unnerving--even to the Kingdom’s keenest Lebanese allies--than his insistence on anointing the very objectionable Samir Geagea (yes, that would be the war criminal) as President.

Such an interesting panorama, and we haven’t even touched on the tensions that have begun to creep into the longstanding US-Saudi alliance as the Obama and Rouhani administrations attempt a paradigm shift in American-Iranian relations. It’s been a while since we’ve heard Saudi Arabia rail publicly against the US the way it has over the super power’s recent reticence in Egypt and Syria. Moreover, I am not sure there is a word more accurate than panic to describe Saudi reaction to an Iranian-American detente.

Mainstream commentary here tends to obsess about how disappointed crucial allies, like Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are in a fickle and retrenching America. But more consequential to the Middle East, frankly, is how unimpressed the US has been with the delivery of these countries, especially on Syria. And should an over burdened US be looking for regional stabilizers as it retreats, it would want, in this post-uprising climate, to look beyond the Arab Gulf and, say, Egypt for assistance. It is, of course too early in the day to declare a radical change in US policy—there are just too many unknown variables and caveats. Suffice to say, as Roger Cohen has helpfully offered, one is hard pressed in the current turmoil to point to a regime more in command of itself than the Iranian one.

The bottom line is that everybody’s in a sweat in the region. To posit that Hezbollah could have done without the distractions and risks borne out of its direct involvement in the Syrian debacle is to state the obvious. It cannot feel too good to be fighting Sunni insurgents as the “great Satan” and Israel look on with much gratitude. But in a  environment that has turned virulently more sectarian, Hezbollah’s Shiite constitution is actually more the boon than the drawback conventional wisdom paints it.

In times when Sunni extremists have become uncontrollably violent against minorities from Pakistan to Iraq, it is of considerable comfort to Lebanese Shiites--including those not particularly sold on Hezbollah’s agendas--that they have an army to protect them. The suggestion that this army’s operations in the war raging next door have needlessly drawn Jihadist vengeance against it and its followers is, well, not credible in full view of unprovoked Sunni slaughter of Shiites in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan. Hezbollah has therefore had very little trouble convincing its compatriots that Jihadists were sure to be heading for them even if the group had opted for   neutrality or non-interference in Syria.

The truth of the matter is that when the Syrian uprising collapsed as a civil and national project, so did Hezbollah’s own quandaries in having to side with brutality against revolution.

This is a very nervous sectarian moment in the Middle East. But as Toby Matthiesen pointed out in a recent piece in Foreign Policy, “vicious sectarian hate speech,” an enduring component of Arab politics, precedes Syria’s bloodshed. Insisting that Iran and Hezbollah should have wisely retired in silence to the sidelines of this Sunni-Shite conflict is to grossly underestimate the role their Shiism plays in shaping their rejectionist axis. And while it is indisputable that these two players have had to move Israel to the periphery of their vision as they deal with Syria, the shift comes, in fact, as the last in a series of adjustments.    

Ponder this: of the many conundrums that have beset Hezbollah since its inception in 1982, none has been more intriguing than the paradox of retreat in victory. With the stunning withdrawal of Israel in 2000 from Southern Lebanon came an avalanche of unrelenting questions about the purpose of an exclusively Shiite arsenal. With the robust performance against Israel in 2006 came devastation, the UNIFEL and the Lebanese army as buffers on the Southern border--to boot, Hassan Nassrallah’s famous had-I-Known apology. With the 2008 whipping of West Beirut came the rude transformation of a presumably noble resistance pointing its rifles outward into a militia thuggishly using them inward.

Long before it crossed the borders to do battle for Assad, Hezbollah had been contending with the burdens that came with too many identities to match too much ambition by a formidable political party-cum-social movement-cum-resistance-cum-army based in an embarrassingly silly state pretending to represent a flagrantly sectarian country.

Considering these herculean responsibilities and the lamentable state of its nemeses in this marvel of a Mediterranean enclave, I would hazard that the Party of God is fairing much better than most of us are willing to concede.

Happy Eid!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A Couple of Words About Innocence In the Arab World

Rather bizarrely for a man of letters known for his utter lack of innocence (and I say that with much admiration), Elias Khouri declared the other day in Al Quds al Arabi Newspaper that “the time of innocence has ended.”

I am not sure whom he had in mind when he opened his piece thus, because I don’t recall that innocence had ever come visiting on this side of the Mediterranean. In Lebanon, his and my hometown, especially, the term is so alien we always opt for “tourist” by way of a put down.

And still, it clobbers you every single time, death on the face of a child. Nothing touches a hard heart quite like innocence snuffed out. But then, what currency has more political purchase for hard hearts at war than the visage of toddlers stopped dead in their tracks? People tend to think it’s the race for the moral high ground that imbues such images with such import, when in fact it’s equally the race away from it: in their name, revenge is excusable, slaughter even, permissible. After all, the reasoning goes, it was because of them that innocence in us is lost.

I don’t know if the recent display of Syrian youth in their white shrouds, so serene and so dead, gassed into oblivion signals a new twist in Syria’s epic collapse. But I do know that whichever way the politics turn it will do so over a mass of shards.

Should this have been the purpose of the West, as our conspiracy theorists claim, then it must be the most bitter irony for them that Assad, on cue and as promised, brought the whole Syrian house down. Even if he were, in the end, to win this battle royale, they need but for a minute imagine a shattered Syria over the next 20 years and they will know that the deed, if indeed it was ever that, is done. Conspiracy or not, Syria, that old country, is already gone.

Sure, with a victory in hand, Hezbollah and Iran will have retained their foothold in this Godforsaken queen of the Levant. And, for the West, what exactly would be wrong with that? At a minimum, Iran and Assad will own the fight against Sunni Jihadists, with the US et al content to watch and tinker (sometimes even help) from the sidelines. By way of an explanation for Western reticence, there is none more compelling than that.

If Syria is the plague, what of the danger to the neighbors, one might ask. Indeed what of them? The obvious truth is that the region is floundering about in rivers of morass. Even the most likely scenarios stand on shifting assumptions. We have an Arabic saying for when we are unable to pin down the future: “For every event, a conversation.”

But there is one fact we can hold on to as we look ahead. When the dust settles—as it always does—only Syria and the dreams of those who truly loved it will have died. The whole lot of them—the Assads, Hezbollah, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Israel, Turkey, the US...—feel free here to add all your favorites--can crow over the remains, happy that whatever Syria is, it is not the other camp’s.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

In Shorthand, Main Takeaways from Egypt’s June 30

For Egypt and all those who have a stake in its future, the real significance of June 30 is located in the rubble of Mohammed Mursi’s first presidential year. And lying dead or seriously injured among Egypt’s human victims are so many of conventional wisdom’s own children.

To identify those and bury them is not to lay claim to a disturbingly unruly future, but to have a much humbler respect for its promise.  

We can go on endlessly about the immediate details that attach to the volatility that is currently tearing at Egypt: the constitutional crisis, the haplessness of the Muslim Brotherhood, burgeoning economic problems, the stubborn resilience of the so-called deep state, the factionalism that plagues the opposition… But there are trends that run like wild currents underneath this ceaseless tug of war. They will not tell you what is immediately next for Egypt, but use them as guideposts and they will help you better interpret the long days ahead.

1.   It is finally time to concede that Islamism is not an easy shortcut into the political and social fabric of Egypt. Formidable though it is, Islamism neither commands this country’s society nor its politics.

And hence the assumption (even hope) by the powers that be that the Muslim Brotherhood will stabilize and reign in polities in transition is proving dangerously shortsighted and ill-considered.

For more insight about the trials and travails of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, check out Winter in Cairo by Marc Lynch.

2.   The main challenge to Islamism is post-Islamism. Secularism does not belong anywhere—yet!—in the raging debate between Egyptians. The chief opponents mobilizing against political Islam are true, bona fide believers who have embraced Islam’s role in the public arena and are now keen on establishing their rights under it. The push, in other words, is for a more generous interpretation of Islam’s exhortations and a more rigorous recognition of its serious limitations as a “solution” to life’s mundane problems. This trend is not new and it is not sudden, but has been decades in the making.  

For more insight on post-Islamism, check out Asef Bayat’s two must-read books: Making Islam Democratic and Politics as Life

3.   Grassroots activism matters. The notion that mighty international and local forces dictate events and the rest of us just live them is plain wrong. People working bottom up can bend wills and win a seat at the table.

Moreover, the official opposition is but one gauge of Egypt’s tense mood. And much like all other traditional political actors they’re not leading but scurrying behind the people’s manic trajectory.

For more insight on the pulse of the Egyptian people, check out Mona al Ghobashy’s Egyptian Politics Upended, Mariz Tadros’ Egypt’s Unfinished Transition or Unfinished Revolution and my own post, Don’t Peep at Egypt Through the Keyhole.

4.   We already know that the ballot box is not a byword for democracy, and it certainly is not a guarantor of legitimacy. More significantly and of infinite more relevance to a case study like Egypt’s, elections under murky, helplessly complicated, skewed electoral rules in climates that resist the fundamental benchmarks of transparency and efficiency give the winners little more than the pretense of victory.

For more insight on the oft neglected issue of the electoral process, check out How to Win an Election and Lose a Presidency by the Atlantic Council’s Nadine Wahab.

Enough said. 

Friday, May 31, 2013

On Lebanon and Akram Zaatari's Letter to a Refusing Pilot

All countries living on the edge overflow with paradox. Because of war or famine or internecine conflict or fratricide or the hell of it all, humanity gets to showcase its demons only to egg on the angels. Like that, destruction wrestles with creation, lunacy with sobriety, gunfire with poetry.
Like that, Lebanon seems to have been living day in, day out. Twenty years after the supposed end of the civil war, our sectarianism remains as treacherous as it is vulgar. Not from nothing the video parties in Tripoli to watch Qatari or Saudi sponsored Sunni fighters munching on   Alawite hearts. Not lost on us either the sight of Hezbollah mothers ululating sons “martyred” while beating Sunni Syrian heads to the ground. All, of course, courtesy of the regional struggle for power in Syria in which Lebanese, dependable proxies that we are, play the foot soldiers.

And yet, as is the wont of Lebanon, this month alone saw Beirut host the Hay Festival, Ashkal Alwan’s Home Works Forum, the Samir Kassir Beirut Festival and the Inaugural Conference of the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship. To cap it all, a group of art patrons has just launched the Lebanese Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, with a singular work by the ever so conceptual (and remarkable) Akram Zaatari.

No need to juxtapose the colliding images for message and meaning. It’s a stale technique and, anyway, this is not about the push and pull that wracks our so-called Lebanese identity. These ostensible paradoxes, two decades into this post-war situation, actually beggar a fundamental question: Are our creative energies little more than forced vigor in an otherwise severely impaired nation, or do they, in fact, betray a part of Lebanon no less real than its maladies?
In other words, are we part lie, or are we actually an extreme type of Gemini?

Let me go even further: Close to 100 years on, is Lebanon more than a name, more than a space between four borders? Battered, yes, but whole. If it is, then ours is indeed a land of anomalies and absurdities.
If it is not, then we are the inhabitants of countless hamlets simply sharing the same geography and partaking, for convenience, of the same atrociously inefficient and corrupt state bureaucracy. Which would mean that the only lie here is Lebanon, and the only paradox is our reflexive refusal to treat it as such in full view of this stark reality.

Convoluted? Not really.

For years I have maintained that cosmopolitan, freewheeling Beirut floats like a bubble above tragic landscapes; that the blithe pretense is all ours and the dire truth is, say, Akkar’s. The contrast was always meant to betray much more than the usual class divides and periphery-center alienations that plague many a country. It meant to question the very right of this tiny patch of Beirut to claim a presence as valid as Lebanon’s other selves.

I was wrong. My mistake all along was in assuming, when it came to this argument, that Lebanon may be mad, but it is one and distinct, the actual sum of its many bizarre pieces. And so I thought that if there is an overarching Lebanese paradox, it is simply in the way the genuine accommodates the contrived, or in the way fiction mingles with fact.

It’s above my pay grade to critique Akram Zaatari’s Letter to a Refusing Pilot, but my gratitude to him all the same for nudging me to revisit a matter I had long ago tucked away in the attic of my mind. A conceptual piece, the film shows with almost unbearable grace that all politics is very personal in anguished locales.

It is ironic that Zaatari composed this Letter for Lebanon’s Pavilion, because it flouts all boundaries as it looks back and inward. The high school, which his father ran and which an Israeli pilot refused to bomb in 1982, only to be brought down by another, is the bond that ties the narrative even as it deconstructs it.

His beginnings.
Imagination as flight and sanctuary.
Sidon, his city.
War, loss, survival, youth as a continuum.
The skies that could be so unforgiving and the sea that could be so merciful.
People disobeying orders on contested terrains.

These are the Letter’s frames.

It’s not surprising that Zaatari’s quest holds fast onto Albert Camus’, “I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice.”

Do we not love Lebanon when we love the justice of letting her go?