Monday, July 30, 2012

Stalemate in Sidon

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon, with Bassem Nemeh]

In his private portacabin in his Sidon sit-in, Ahmad al-Assir tells NOW Lebanon that, despite the recent violence, nothing will prevent him from continuing to block the highway (NOW Lebanon/Alex Rowell)

Reclining on a leather armchair in the air-conditioned portacabin erected in the middle of his Sidon sit-in on Friday afternoon, Ahmad al-Assir seems remarkably relaxed when the explosions start. An aide bursts in with a walkie-talkie, saying two stun grenades—he uses the word for “bomb” in Arabic—have been thrown at us by a passing car. Outside, dozens of men begin shouting frantically. The Salafist cleric casually instructs him to seal the surrounding roads. “Scared?” he asks us with a teasing smile.

It is only the latest in a series of apparent tit-for-tat exchanges between Assir’s supporters and local opponents. On Friday, residents burned tires to block the road near al-Murjan roundabout to protest Assir’s sit-in, now in its fifth week, which he vows to continue until the government takes “serious” steps to eliminate non-state weapons, chiefly Hezbollah’s. Shortly afterward, Assir led hundreds of supporters to the nearby coastal road, briefly blocking it, in defiance of explicit warnings from security officials not to leave his sit-in. These demonstrations came a day after fights broke out between Assir supporters and passersby, again on the coastal road, in one of which an AFP photographer was beaten by the Internal Security Forces (ISF). Late Thursday night, members of the Popular Nasserist Organization (PNO) smashed shop windows in response to the beating of a PNO affiliate by Assir’s supporters. And last Sunday, a live grenade was thrown by an unidentified man at Assir’s sit-in, damaging five cars.

Assir described Thursday’s events to NOW Lebanon, admitting that it was one of his supporters who threw the first punch. “Before sundown, a Nasserist came to our roadside demonstration and started hurling insults at the ISF, the army and us. He then started blaspheming, and this is something we could not accept during Ramadan. A brother punched him in the shoulder, and then the ISF immediately stepped in to break it up. When it died down, he turned his car and sped toward me in an attempt to run me over, but the ISF stopped him. They impounded his car as a tool to commit a crime, but after [PNO leader] Osama Saad and others called and exerted pressure—and of course with the dominance that comes with [non-state] weapons—it was released. We have pressed charges of attempted murder.”

He accuses the PNO of a widespread harassment and vandalism campaign since then. “On Thursday night, groups of Nasserists started closing roads and targeting veiled women and bearded men. They vandalized shops belonging to our young men, such as the al-Amir Rashid restaurant and others. They even attacked people who aren’t associated with us, like the imam of the [Hajj Bahaeddine] Hariri mosque. The son of Nadim Hijazi, who runs Jamaiyat al-Istijabat al-Salafia [Association of the Salafist Response] was beaten with a rifle butt. So the young men of the Istijaba took to the streets, possibly with arms.

“[Friday] morning, they set fire to the car of a young girl because she was wearing a veil. Now they are destroying our cars [referring to the stun grenades that went off during the interview].” For Assir, the PNO’s belligerence is a natural consequence of what he sees as the fundamental problem of non-state weapons. “It is impossible that Saad would do all this without the arms and cover given to him by [Amal leader and Parliament Speaker] Nabih Berri and [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah.”

Esmat Awwas, media spokesman for the PNO, tells a somewhat different version of Thursday’s events, accusing the ISF of sympathizing with Assir’s supporters. “Assir’s demonstration on the coastal road naturally led to congestion. Add to that the Ramadan fast and the heat, and a few verbal exchanges took place between Assir’s people and those stuck in traffic,” he told NOW. “Assir’s people then attacked two men in their cars, Ali Skafi and Hassan Jradi, and the ISF aided them in the attack. They were acting as if they were Assir’s helpers and were carrying out his orders.” Awwas denied any knowledge of the stun grenades thrown on Friday.

Assir rejects the accusation. “Some say that I collaborate with the ISF, with the fire department, traffic control, the army. Are all of these my accomplices? One of the men at the sit-in, who comes from Shebaa, was falsely accused of buying a Kalashnikov clip by the military intelligence, and he has been held for a month now. Even if it were true, why is the army targeting a man from occupied territory when there are so many other weapons on the street?”

The coming days look set to be tense for Sidon, with both sides vowing to redouble their efforts against the other. “There is consensus in the city that Assir’s sit-in is causing great damage in terms of security, stability and the economy,” said Awwas. “We agree that we must be rid of this abnormal phenomenon. So we call on all parties to join a general strike on Monday.”

Assir, however, is unflinching. “We took a decision at the start of Ramadan to go on a march after every sermon, because there has been no response to our demands. We will no longer accept the dominance of those holding weapons. There is not a power in Lebanon or the whole world that can stop us from demonstrating peacefully.”

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Refugees tell of horror in Damascus

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon, with Bassem Nemeh]

In a school nestled in the heart of a sleepy village on the eastern extremities of the Bekaa Valley, 22 Syrian families have been sleeping on straw mats since fleeing the violence of their homes last Thursday. Unlike other Syrian refugees in Lebanon, who tend to hail from the Homs vicinity, these new arrivals are from Damascus, which saw an extraordinary surge in violence last week when the opposition Free Syria Army (FSA) launched a major assault on government forces. While more affluent Damascenes took to hotels in Beirut and the mountains, these families had no choice but to take their chances with Lebanese hospitality.

Mostly women and children, their fear is as palpable as it is understandable—they are, after all, just ten minutes from the Syrian border. When NOW Lebanon arrived, a television crew tried in vain to convince them to talk on camera. They were very reluctant to speak to us too, and absolutely refused to be photographed. “Those who have spoken to the media or who are active online get killed,” explained one. “If they cannot find them, they kill their families and loot their houses.” But once they open up, they talk for hours.

And they tell of horror. “The stench of dead bodies is unbearable,” said Abu Firas, who left Damascus three days ago. “There are tanks everywhere. Hay al-Midan and al-Qaa are completely surrounded and are being constantly and indiscriminately shelled by armored vehicles and the air force. The Palestinian camp is totally wrecked. Corpses, with clear signs of torture, are left in bins in residential areas.”

“I was at a funeral in Zamalka when we heard an explosion and gunfire,” said Abu Ibrahim. “We thought it was a scare tactic, but then people around me started getting shot. Two people died.

“Duma is now the second Homs,” said Abu Sami. “They destroyed their own capital; it’s like a scorched-earth policy. It doesn’t even matter if you’re anti-regime or not—my neighbor is a loyalist and his car got burned.”

“In al-Tadamon, we were under constant bombardment until we left a few days ago,” says Umm Rashid. “The regime tried to take my husband away, saying he was a weapons dealer, but he was released due to a mistaken identity, they said. My brother-in-law wasn’t so lucky—he was kidnapped by the army for 45 days and came back tortured.”

They describe a heavy, but ill-equipped FSA presence in Damascus today. “The FSA is certainly fighting, but what can they do against tanks?” asked Abu Firas. “They only have light arms or, at best, an RPG. One fighter runs down a side-street and a regime plane bombs the entire neighborhood.”

As for the regime, they say it is being aided by paid criminals and even foreign forces. “The only ‘armed gangs’ are the shabiha, the regime’s thugs,” said Abu Firas. “The ones stationed by my house used to be prisoners; I know them by name. Now they wear civilian clothes but are given rifles and bulletproof vests by the regime.”

“They are not only Syrians,” claimed Abu Ammar. “There are also [prominent Iraqi Islamist cleric Muqtada] al-Sadr’s people and around 20,000 Iranians.” Another, Muhammad, said he’d seen shabiha members wearing headbands with Persian writing.

Though impossible to verify, such claims are interesting in light of the fact that, unlike those from other cities who sided with the opposition from the start of the uprising, many Damascene refugees said they weren’t initially hostile to President Bashar al-Assad. Now, however, they speak of FSA fighters with awe. “If the regime were fighting the Israeli army, we would have stayed with Bashar until death. But now, we would join the FSA if we got a chance,” said Abu Ibrahim. “The regime forces you into opposition,” agreed Umm Rashid.

Though they aren’t currently living in squalor, their economic security will deteriorate the longer they remain in exile. And as questions are raised about NGOs’ abilities to provide for their needs, some refugees decline to register for aid in the first place. At another school-turned-refuge in an adjacent village, NOW saw refugees refusing to disclose their names to UNHCR workers, fearing the information would end up in Syrian government hands. At present, their aid comes mainly from the ICRC, the Danish and Norwegian Refugee Councils, and local Islamic charities.

Yet how long they can subsist on these funds is uncertain, and few are expecting a swift return. “Of course we want to go back, but it doesn’t look like that is going to happen soon,” said Umm Rashid. “I have a home and some land, so naturally I want to return,” agreed Abu Firas.

“But from what I’ve seen, it will take 10 years for the violence to end.”

The above names have been changed at the interviewees’ requests.

Beirut leftists turn ire on Putin

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

“Anti-imperialism,” as a political persuasion, is one about which it usually pays to be suspicious. Those who shout loudest about the self-interested realpolitik of Western governments are more often than not ready to excuse comparable, or even greater, crimes at the hands of rival empires. Theirs is a long-standing tradition, whose milestones have included lauding the “resistance” credentials of Supreme Leaders in Tehran, fellow-travelling with tyrants from Stalin to Mao, and even opposing war with Hitler on the grounds that Churchill was no better (see Nick Cohen’s magisterial 'What’s Left?' for a comprehensive account of this sorry history).

So it was a very pleasant surprise indeed to find a rare display of genuine anti-imperialism outside the Russian embassy in Beirut on Tuesday evening. Around 20 people of a manifestly leftist bent had gathered to protest Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intractable support for the gore-drenched Syrian regime. They held up signs to passing cars on Corniche al-Mazraa saying things like “Russia: We want your vodka not your weapons.” One placard, which ought to give Hassan Nasrallah something to think about, equated Putin’s policy on Syria with America’s on Israel. They then proceeded to throw paper planes over the barbed-wired walls surrounding the embassy compound, each one unfolding into a list of names of murdered Syrians.

Can one draw any meaningful conclusions with such a pitifully small turnout (there were more journalists than demonstrators, and far more security officers than journalists)? Perhaps not. But it would be nice all the same to think the Lebanese left was increasingly breaking ranks with the despot-friendliness that too often taints its name (those who haven’t read it yet, please see Amal Saad-Ghorayeb’s blog, in which she describes her politics as simultaneously “anti-imperialist” and “Greater Syria nationalist”). More of this please.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Is Assad finished?

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

What with Wednesday’s assassination of three senior members of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle (a fourth, National Security chief General Hisham Ikhtiyar, died of his wounds on Friday); the takeover of major Syrian border crossings to Turkey and Iraq by rebel units on Thursday; the accelerating pace of high-level army defections; and reports of members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect fleeing to their traditional coastal heartland; it’s perhaps unsurprising that analysts are wondering aloud whether the regime is in its final days. While experts contacted by NOW Lebanon varied in their confidence of a quick victory for the opposition, they also argued that what will follow the defeat of the regime may prove no less vexing, for Syrians and the international community alike.

Michael Weiss, Syria specialist at the London-based Henry Jackson Society and occasional NOW contributor, believes that recent developments rule out the possibility of the regime’s survival. “Whatever else happens, the one safe bet is that Assad is finished,” he told NOW. “The fact that the rebels have gained control of the borders is huge. Turkey and Iraq, the way I think about them, are the [militant opposition] Free Syria Army’s barracks and weapons supplier, respectively. And another thing that people aren’t saying enough about is that the Turks have already created a de facto buffer zone along the border. Any helicopter that comes within three miles is chased away by Turkish F-16s.

“But the variables of how Assad will be finished are key. I’m not willing to make any long- or short-term prognostications at this point, simply because he could still use fighter jets, he could still deploy chemical weapons.”

Other commentators were somewhat more cautious. “I think it’s too soon to conclude that we’ve seen the end of the regime, but it seems very clear that the momentum has shifted in the opposition’s favor and the regime is now very much on the defensive,” said Steven Heydemann, senior advisor and Syria specialist at the United States Institute of Peace. “It has become almost impossible to imagine how Assad himself or the regime will recover from the setbacks of the past week.”

And Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, believes that the regime itself may outlive its current president. “Assad is finished, but I don’t know what ‘finished’ will look like or how long it will take; he might be finished, but the regime might not be. In terms of the end of the regime’s grip all over Syria, yes, that’s come to an end, but in terms of it existing on this planet, that could continue for a while over a smaller geographic area.”

Indeed, the week’s events have revived speculation that Assad may look to carve out an Alawite enclave in his co-religionists’ historical heartland along the Mediterranean coastline. A number of Alawites have reportedly already relocated to the so-called “Sahel” region.

But Heydemann is unconvinced. “I have to say that I don’t find that a very likely scenario, although I’m aware of indications that some preparations for that kind of move have been made. I have very significant reservations about the viability of that scenario, and it seems to me that even if key figures within the regime do decide to take a kind of last stand or try to establish some sort of semi-autonomous zone around Latakia, it’s going to prove almost impossible to sustain, and it strikes me as a very short-term strategy at best. My own feeling is that if the regime loses Damascus, it’s finished.”

Weiss was similarly skeptical, adding that there are large Sunni populations throughout the coastal region that would not readily submit to such an outcome.

Moreover, NOW has previously reported on myriad further economic and political impediments to such a move.

Elsewhere, the purported increased likelihood of a rebel victory has also sparked concerns about what are believed to be substantial quantities of chemical and biological weapons held by the regime. According to Charles P. Blair, senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, Syria’s “massive” arsenal includes “large stockpiles of deadly nerve agents, including VX, the most toxic of all chemical weapons,” in addition to blistering agents, mustard gas and “Scud missiles carrying warheads loaded with sarin nerve agent.” Tabler argued in print on Thursday that these weapons “could fall into the hands of Sunni extremists” as the regime’s control wanes.

However, for now at least, such scenarios are hypothetical. What, then, remains to be done for the rebels to clinch victory? “I believe it is critical for the opposition to continue activities that threaten the regime’s survival,” said Heydemann. “The only conditions that are likely to produce any sort of negotiated transition are those in which the regime is finally and decisively persuaded that it will not survive, and that the international supporters of the regime are persuaded that they need to back a process in order to prevent the country from entering a period of chaos and conflict.”

Weiss suggests a more direct approach. “The rebels need to storm the presidential palace, and they need to kill Assad and prove to the Syrian people that he’s dead. Then, they either need to kill or in some way incapacitate the remaining Baathist leadership.

“But in some ways, toppling the regime is the easy part. What happens the day after?”

Friday, July 20, 2012

A Damascene conversion

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

Wednesday’s surprise assassination of three key members of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle may be the most tangible military setback for the ruling regime since the armed uprising began in mid-2011. Though opposition sources contacted by NOW Lebanon disagreed over the details of the attack, as well as the precise extent of its military significance, they were united in believing it heralded a decisive shift in momentum for the rebels.

It remains unclear who carried out the attack. It was first claimed by an obscure Islamist faction, Liwa al-Islam, and later by the Free Syria Army umbrella group. However, these claims were dismissed by Maher al-Esber, a Syrian opposition activist with ties to local coordination councils, who sees them as political jockeying for street credibility. “They are trying to outbid each other. Each group wants to be seen as the one doing everything, when in fact they hear about these operations in the media,” he told NOW. “In reality, these attacks are usually organized by a single person, perhaps with the aid of an accomplice. The people who carry them out are later surprised to hear on the news that someone else has claimed them.”

For his part, Syrian Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Bassel Haffar, who divides his time between Istanbul and Aleppo, believes the operation was more sophisticated. "I expect this was a joint operation by more than one group,” he told NOW. “An operation this big requires a coordinated effort on the intelligence and security levels.”

In any case, opposition sources agreed that the blow to the regime was substantial. Haffar told NOW that, “[The victims] were the regime’s premier line; leaders whom Assad depended on for his and his family’s security. They also have influence outside Syria – heading activities in the region in countries like Jordan and Iraq. There is no doubt that their assassination has considerably destabilized the regime.”

However, while Esber agreed that “This is huge,” he cautioned that the bulk of the regime leadership remains intact. “There are still more dangerous [figures], such as Jamil Hasan, head of the Air Force Intelligence Directorate; Mohammad Deeb Zaytoun, chief of the Political Security Directorate; Abdel-Fattah Qudsiyeh, head of the Military Intelligence Directorate; and Ali Mamluk, head of the General Security Directorate. These are important people who are still on the ground.”

Nevertheless, Damascus-based activist Ahmad al-Midani anticipates a number of further victories for the rebels in the near future. “I expect to see major defections soon and possibly even the fleeing of remaining regime figureheads who might seek political asylum in countries still backing the regime, such as Russia or China,” he told NOW. “I expect victory will come soon, in a few days or weeks.” As it happens, on Wednesday the Guardian reported “immediate” defections in “[regime] units regarded as “diehards”” as well as the fleeing of several tank units.

But Esber believes the regime can hold off for longer. “Whoever thinks this is over does not understand the way the regime works. These heads can all be replaced. They have tens of aides still completely loyal to Bashar al-Assad.”

Indeed, Haffar expects a considerable escalation of violence on the regime’s part. “Already, the retaliation in Damascus has been fierce, and approximately 200 people have been killed across the country since the attack. We are witnessing an unprecedented aerial presence in a lot of cities. Escalation is the regime’s language at this phase.”

If correct, this is likely to accelerate what is already a rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation on the ground in Damascus. “The siege on most neighborhoods continues, although there are reports of the regime partially withdrawing from Hay al-Midan, which has been stifled for the past four days,” says Midani. “We couldn’t even get bread in for local families and FSA fighters. Even the Red Crescent has had to close its hospice doors due to overcrowding.”

Despite these setbacks, the psychological impact of Wednesday’s attack may prove the most meaningful. Esber says morale among the opposition rank and file has never been higher. “The people’s adrenaline is at a high, while the regime’s is at a low. The Syrian people needed something like this.”

Bassem Nemeh contributed reporting.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

BBC: Does Israel walk a thin line with West Bank oil drill?

[My first piece for the BBC]

Meged-5 oil field

RANTIS, WEST BANK - While the search for oil beneath Israel has been going on for years, the most recently drilled well in the Meged oil field, on the edge of the West Bank, is raising concern that it might draw from untapped Palestinian reserves.

After a 10-minute uphill hike through the rocky fields of the West Bank village of Rantis, we reach a summit where we rest, panting in the 40-degree heat.

A hundred metres (330ft) in front of us lie the wired fence and gravel track of the Green Line - the perimeter of the West Bank and Israel.

To our left lies Ben Gurion airport; beyond that, Tel Aviv and the Mediterranean. But it is for a different view that we have come here.

"It hasn't been on for the last few days," says Bilal, a Rantis local and student at Bir Zeit University.

"And you can't see too much in the daytime anyway. But at night - boof!" He gestures as though throwing a fistful of confetti into the air.

He is referring to the large black pipe inserted vertically into the earth, not more than 500 metres away, out of which a steady, blazing flame has been periodically sighted for about a year now.

It is in fact a gas flare, part of the Meged-5 oil well, owned and operated by Givot Olam Oil Ltd, currently the sole player in Israel's tiny onshore oil and gas production sector.

"I happened to be driving past when all of a sudden I saw this huge flare on the Green Line," recalls Hafez Barghouti, editor of the Palestinian al-Hayat al-Jadeedah, who first broke the story in Ramallah.

"I was sure it must be gas. So I called the mayor of Rantis and he said, 'Yes, the Israelis are drilling oil and gas.'"'No man's land'

While this may seem uncontroversial on the face of it- the flare is, after all, within Israel proper - its proximity to the Green Line raises ethical questions.

"Geology doesn't follow geography," explains Dr Samer Naboulsi, a veteran petroleum engineer at a leading oil firm in Dubai.

Graphic created by BBC
"Looking at the site of the flare, and the shape of the overall field, it's clear that this extends into the West Bank. And even when extracting from the Israeli side, it'll be draining Palestinian reserves.

"This is why the international convention is to establish a 'no man's land' - typically many kilometres wide - along national borders in which neither party may extract without the other's consent."

Dr Walid Khadduri, a former director at the Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) and editor-in-chief of the Middle East Economic Survey (MEES), also criticises Israel's unilateral approach.

"Ordinarily in such a situation, both parties would reach a mutual agreement to divide the field and the associated revenues and costs in an equitable manner.

"This was the case between the UK and Norway, for example. Without such an agreement, things can get messy - look at Iraq and Kuwait," he says, referring to Iraq's 1990 invasion of its southern neighbour following a dispute over the transnational Rumaila field.

Moreover, the drilling would seem to contravene the Oslo Accords, which call for "co-operation in the field of energy, including an energy development programme, which will provide for the exploitation of oil and gas [and] will encourage further joint exploration of other energy resources".

Givot Olam refused to comment, but an Israeli government official dismissed the claims as "yet another attempt to politicise everything".

"We are engaging in exploratory digging within Israel. While we are hopeful, there is at present no conclusive indication as to whether commercially viable quantities will be found, or precisely where," the unnamed official told the BBC.

"The commercial implications, including over the Green Line, are unknown. It is surprising that a Petroleum Engineer in Dubai already knows more than the people on the ground at this early stage."'Highly profitable'

The Palestinian Authority (PA) meanwhile has shown little interest in pursuing what is potentially a substantial strategic and economic opportunity for the West Bank.

A technical report issued by the UK-based consultant Greensand Associates in 2010 concluded that "the Meged Core Area has robust economics... and could be a highly profitable venture if the predicted well production volumes prove to be achievable and sustainable."

The reserves of the Meged-5 well alone have been estimated by Givot Olam at over 1.5bn barrels - not a huge find but certainly enough to make a difference for the chronically energy-poor West Bankers (the UK, by comparison, has around 3bn barrels of proven reserves). The company says it extracted 800 barrels a day during a test period last year.

Yet there appears to be neither the will nor the ability on the Palestinian side to take action.

"I met [PA President Mahmoud] Abbas shortly after discovering the flare and told him about it," says Mr Barghouti. "He shrugged. He wasn't interested at all."

A report in the Chinese state media, however, quoted PA official Abdullah Abdullah as condemning the drilling, saying the organisation "will not stay cross-handed. We will take urgent procedures that may include suing Israel in international courts."

Even so, Mr Khadduri points out the considerable practical obstacles to an effective Palestinian initiative. "An obvious problem is that they simply don't have the expertise.

"Historically, there has never been a Palestinian oil industry. This is all very new."

And there is also the more fundamental question of whether Israel would recognise the Palestinians' right to any part of the field in the first place.

"They regard that entire section of the West Bank as Israeli territory," says Mr Barghouti. "Including Rantis. They refer to it as the 'Kfar Sava area'."

Mr Khadduri also says Israel has repeatedly derailed Palestinian efforts to extract gas from the sizeable fields off the coast of Gaza.

All of which suggests that a rare opportunity for mutually beneficial Israeli-Palestinian cooperation is likely to be missed.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Interview with Joumana Haddad

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon. A version also appeared at The Aspen Institute]

To the annoyance of her many critics, Joumana Haddad is fast becoming one of Lebanon’s most recognized authors on the international circuit. Two years after the release of I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman, Haddad is set to release her second book – Superman is an Arab: On God, marriage, macho men and other disastrous inventions – this September. NOW Lebanon met with the polemicist, poet and publisher at her office in downtown Beirut’s An-Nahar building.

Apart from writing the new book, what have you been up to since Scheherazade?

Joumana Haddad: I published a children’s book in Italian, and I’ve been working on the new issue of the magazine Jasad [“Body”], which I’m publishing this summer. And mainly I’ve been travelling to talk about Scheherazade because working on the book doesn’t finish with the writing; there’s a whole new life to it, which is meeting people and getting feedback, and I love doing that. I enjoy this interaction with the readers.

I understand that Jasad has run into advertising difficulties.

Haddad: Can you believe it? I worked with three advertising agencies and none has managed to find me clients. All of them said it’s too daring, and I thought, “What the hell? We’re in Beirut!” Walk down the street and tell me what’s daring in Jasad that isn’t out there. It’s continued mainly because of the sales, but after two years you can’t go on without ads. I don’t want to make money out of it, but it deserves to survive.

So, Superman is an Arab. Explain.

Haddad: I thought there was a need to tackle manhood, not only womanhood, because, as you might know I’m a third-wave feminist, which means I don’t believe in women’s solidarity; I believe in human solidarity. I believe in partnership between men and women, and if our suffering is going to change it won’t be by women alone.

And it hit me that in the Superman story I always preferred Clark Kent, because he’s real. And I think many of our leaders and religious representatives here in the Middle East think of themselves as invincible supermen.

But why an Arab? I expect this will offend some people.

Haddad: That’s the least of my worries! I hope they get offended because even though I’m not writing to offend, I don’t mind provoking when it can push people to do something about it.

I’m sure that when it comes out, people will tell me, “He’s Italian too because we have such people in Italy,” and so on. But to me he’s an Arab because I belong to the Arab world, and I’m seeing so many supermen around, whether they’re people next door or people I work with. And what can you say about someone like [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah? He thinks of himself as Superman – at a minimum.

And God is a superman – that’s my first enemy, the monotheist God. That’s the first Superman we need to get rid of.

As in Scheherazade, religion gets a lot of attention in Superman. Why?

Haddad: I’m a person who believes in human rights, in equality between men and women, in a non-discriminatory world. That alone means I can’t believe in a monotheistic religion. Because if you go back to the texts and practices of Christianity, Islam and Judaism you find misogyny, very patriarchal systems and values, terror and blood, all in the name of a God who lectures about mercy and love but has nothing to do with either of them.

One chapter is called “The disastrous invention of marriage.” This is new.

Haddad: No it’s not! [Laughs] The way it’s practiced now I think this institution cannot survive. In countries where divorce is easy, the number of divorces is increasing. In countries where it’s difficult, the number of affairs is increasing. So this needs to be re-thought, and again, the influence that religion wields over this and the amount of money and power it gets from it is also something for us to ponder.

Why do you think you provoke such a hostile reaction from women?

Haddad: I think you should ask them! At first it used to sadden me, to tell you the truth. But now I’ve stopped measuring myself by the approval of others. What’s important for me is that I’m convinced about what I’m doing. It’s very liberating, because though approval feels good, it can also be poisoning.

And like I said in Scheherazade, women are often their own worst enemies. My fiercest critics are women.

Another chapter is called “The disastrous invention of getting old.”

Haddad: Well I’m 41. I wanted to talk about this misinformed quest for youth and beauty we have. It’s about facing my grey hairs, which I like. People should be happy with themselves, though I know it’s not easy.

Is this especially true in Lebanon?

Haddad: I think so, because of this culture of the image. People here only pretend to live. If you see them and think they look happy and rich and cool, you’ve made their day. They don’t care whether they’re really happy inside. It’s the culture of seeming good rather than feeling good, which is a very suicidal way to live.

Why is Lebanon so different from, say, Syria or Jordan in this respect?

Haddad: Lebanon has always been freer in some ways. But all these women who think they’re liberated don’t have their rights respected at the level of laws. It’s terrible how much women are discriminated against here; they’re second-class citizens. So they are pushed toward these cheap liberties – you can wear what you want! You can dance till four in the morning! – to distract from the real struggle: the laws on violence, marital rape and numberless others.

Some critics accuse you of writing for a Western audience.

Haddad: This is horrible, because I try to defend human rights, secularism, women’s rights, sexuality, and these people say these are “Western” values, which means Arabs don’t believe in these things. I say these are universal things; I don’t think we should give the West the monopoly on them.

Do you take an interest in Lebanese politics? Are you March 14, March 8, etc.?

Haddad: I’m against the herd syndrome. Nobody represents me but myself. I am definitely against March 8, but I’m very critical of March 14, too. I think we have lost a big momentum. I was one of those [on March 14, 2005] who marched to Beirut – from Jounieh – and that was the first time in my life I did anything like that. Now I don’t regret that because I believed in that moment, but there’s been an inability to deal with such a historic moment.

So I’m an independent. I don’t want to have to choose between a terrorist Iranian regime and a backward Wahhabi one, either with Hezbollah or the Salafists, with one stupid, corrupt criminal against another. This is against being a responsible, thinking human being.

Do you support any Lebanese activist movements?

Haddad: Yes, but for example when I support the secularists, or a women’s march, I’m more interested in the civil laws aspect. There should be one law of personal affairs for every citizen. We can’t call ourselves a republic or a democracy until this is the case. Some secularists prefer to start on the political front – i.e. changing the balance of power – but we can’t do that until people stop thinking of themselves as Christians, Sunnis, Shia, etc.

Superman Is An Arab will be published in English by Westbourne Press on September 1.

Syria's divided opposition: A convenient truth?

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

For the Syrian opposition, Friday’s Friends of Syria meeting in Paris rounded off what was certainly an eventful week, if not necessarily a productive one. The conference, which brought together representatives of over 100 countries (with the notable exceptions of key Syrian allies Russia and China), came six days after a meeting of world powers in Geneva, the end product of which was rejected by both the Syrian government and the main opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) bloc; and just two days after an Arab League-sponsored meeting in Cairo, boycotted by the militant Free Syria Army (FSA) opposition group, among other factions, in which disagreements were spirited enough to result in fist fights.

The repeated failure of such meetings to satisfy the various established groups seeking to change the Syrian regime suggests an exacerbation of what has come to be a defining characteristic of the opposition: their deep disunity. According to Maher al-Esber, a Syrian activist with close ties to the opposition, these fractures persist primarily because of the differing interests of the opposition’s political and financial sponsors. “The major problem is that there’s no support for the SNC as a whole,” he told NOW Lebanon. “That is, the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, or other movements that exist both within and without the SNC, support their groups only. Money goes not to the institution itself but to individuals within it, who have their own political ambitions for the future Syria.”

Esber also cites the special case of the Kurds, who differ fundamentally with their Arab co-oppositionists on the question of national identity. “Some groups within the Kurds are trying to guarantee some independence in the future Syria, which conflicts with the idea of a united Syria.” Indeed, following the exit of a Kurdish group in Cairo on Tuesday, National Kurdish Council spokesman Abdul Aziz Othman said, “The Kurds withdrew because the conference rejected an item that says the Kurdish people must be recognized […] This is unfair, and we will no longer accept to be marginalized.”

This stance appears to have bred resentment among non-Kurdish oppositionists, including Esber, who claims that the Kurds “have not really fully contributed to the revolutionary movements inside Syria.”

The Kurdish dispute aside, Henry Jackson Society Syria specialist Michael Weiss sees the dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood as a chief source of discontent. “From the very beginning, the US outsourced the formation of the Syrian political opposition to Turkey, and what they wound up with was an umbrella organization controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood. This was sort of an inevitable outcome if the Turks were to be so heavily involved. So, yes, the SNC needs to be expanded and diluted at the executive levels, but the Brotherhood’s influence also needs to be reduced. They are not representative of the will of the Syrian people.”

Esber believes the international community should take measures to pressure the opposition to unite. However, SNC spokesperson Alia Mansour laments what she sees as the excessive attention paid to the opposition’s divisions. “Not everything is about how divided we are. The international community is to blame as well. We did not hear the world constantly asking the opposition in Libya or Egypt or Tunisia to unite itself. All this focus on us is just aiding the regime. Whatever our differences, we all have the same basic goal, which is to get rid of [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad.”

Weiss agrees, arguing that the vast majority of new splinter groups lack credibility on the ground. “The SNC is still the only game in town, because it’s been quasi-recognized by international parties. The only other vehicles that need to be brought on board are the tribal groups and the Kurds. Once these three are combined, the rest of the minorities will follow.”

Ultimately, both Mansour and Weiss believe the international community is using the opposition’s divisions as a convenient excuse to avoid making more robust commitments. “The world is always talking and never giving us anything practical,” says Mansour. “Today, in the three hours they’ve been talking [in Paris], more than 20 people have been killed. These are all just ways of wasting time before the American elections.”

For Weiss, “If the West is serious and sincere when it says the opposition must unite and negotiate a political solution, we should all commit suicide, because we’re being governed by lunatics. There is no political solution for Syria, and [US President] Barack Obama knows it. They’re just kicking the can down the street until after the November election. The only political solution they care about is the one in Washington.”

Nadine Elali contributed reporting.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

"Progressives", spare us

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

What exactly is it about those who describe themselves as “progressives” that sends me into such snarls of revulsion?

It isn’t just the California campus accent I hear every time I read it – the kind that throws half a dozen question marks into every sentence (“My name is Karen? and I find it really offensive? when you’re insensitive about somebody’s voice like that?”).

Nor is it that I depart significantly from the typical “progressive” in politics itself. When MJ Rosenberg writes that, “For progressives like me […] there is no choice but to vote for Obama”, I don’t at all disagree with his conclusion.

No, what I think piques me most is the profound insult the word implies about my (and your) intelligence. “Excuse me,” I want to say, “but I’ll decide what’s ‘progressive’ by myself, thank you.”

After all, is there a political person on earth who doesn’t believe their stance or ideology offers humanity a better alternative? Hitler sincerely believed that ridding the world of Jews was doing the rest of us a great service. Lenin thought that establishing a totalitarian police state was a supremely virtuous act. American Christian fundamentalists, messianic Jewish settlers and Lebanon’s very own Islamists all believe that they alone hold the secrets to progess, or Progress.

In their own, milder way, the “progressives” are every bit as tribal as the violent fanatics. And they are equally blind to the ironies incurred at their own expense. George Galloway was undoubtedly correct when he described Israel’s Operation Cast Lead as a “crime” and “massacre” - words that would presumably outrage many a right-thinking “progressive” New York Times reader. And George W. Bush was also undoubtedly correct when he said in 2005 that the Syrian regime “[uses] murder as a tool of policy” - something that Max Blumenthal, “progressive” par excellence, couldn’t bring himself to write until 12,000 dead Syrians later.

“Progressivism”, then, need not always be the friend of progress. Such reflections, however, are unavailable to the morally certain “progressive”, who deals not in honest self-examination but in smug self-congratulation.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Lebanese Christian rivals finally unite - on need to oppose Muslims

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

When it comes to trivial issues – Hizbullah’s arsenal; the Special Tribunal; the thousands killed in Syria; etc. – Lebanon’s Christian politicians never quite seem able to agree how to tackle them. What a relief it is, then, to see that they can set aside their differences and unite on the question that really matters: the religious beliefs of state electricity employees.

As yesterday’s parliamentary session came dangerously close to resolving one of the country’s current crises by approving the full-time employment of Électricité du Liban contract workers, the ever-scrupulous Energy Minister Gebran Bassil noticed that some 80% of said workers were not in fact adherents to the Christian faith. This important finding quickly rallied lawmakers from the Kata’eb and Lebanese Forces parties to his side, bringing the arch-rivals together for the first time in what must be years. They subsequently agreed to boycott today’s session, swiftly resulting in its cancellation, a move described as “imperative” by Kata’eb sources and “the least we can do” by a Change and Reform source.

Some will no doubt argue the move is entirely in accordance with the country’s (largely unwritten) constitution. I’m certainly not qualified to disagree. But if correct, it’s worth taking a step back and marveling anew at the profound destructiveness of the entire sectarian edifice. A problem that exacerbates not only the country’s energy crisis, but its physical insecurity (EDL employees, if you haven’t noticed, have been among the more agitated tyre-burners in recent weeks) is moments away from being fixed, before being felled once again because some of the people involved subscribe to the ‘wrong’ religion. As we say in the UK: Christ Almighty!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Inside the Salafist "intifada"

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon, with Luna Safwan]

Salafi cleric Ahmad al-Assir addresses supporters at the Saida sit-in (Alex Rowell)

As Ahmad al-Assir brings a lengthy and emotive sentence to a close from the pulpit, a voice pipes up from the middle of the crowd: “To heaven we go! Martyrs by the millions!” The Salafist cleric has earned a reputation for divisive rhetoric, but here at the sit-in he launched on Wednesday on a main road in his hometown of Saida, the audience is gripped. “Take your hand down, O Nasrallah, you are not greater than Allah!” cries another voice, referring to the Hezbollah secretary general, and suddenly 500 people are echoing the chant and clapping their hands excitedly. “Go forward, O Assir, we are all with you for change!” goes a third one.

Supporters of Assir listen to his Friday sermon (Alex Rowell)

After the speech, in which Assir reiterated his refusal to unblock the road despite numerous requests from local political and religious notables, NOW Lebanon spoke to him about the reasons for the protest and his followers’ possible next steps.

“The issue of non-state weapons has reached a point where we can’t take it anymore,” he said, referring to the Resistance’s arsenal. “Lebanese dignity is being taken for granted. Our patience has its limits. We will keep the road blocked until, at the very least, we see evidence that the weapons situation will be taken seriously by the government.”

He added that the protest was also a reaction to intimidation of his co-religionists in Saida. “Saida is controlled by Hezbollah’s thugs, who continually insult us and our mosques. Everyone who goes to our mosques is being threatened. This must stop.”

Asked what he meant by remarks that he will “escalate” the protest if this goal isn’t achieved, Assir was evasive. “I don’t like to reveal the steps I’m going to take before I take them.”

NOW also asked whether he would take complaints about the protest from locals into consideration. “From the days of Adam until today, there has never been a demand that everybody agrees on. This [issue] is my pain, and it’s my right to raise my voice. If others don’t share my pain, they are free not to join. Some asked me to open the road again, and I told them, ‘Sorry, I’m not convinced.’”

Also present was Omar Bakri Muhammad, former head of the Islamist Hizb al-Tahrir party in London, who is now banned from the UK. “It’s my duty as a Muslim to support a just cause,” he told NOW when asked what brought him to the sit-in. “We are asking peacefully for an end to non-state weapons because we can’t take anymore. And this is not just about Hezbollah; this applies to everyone, whether you’re Muslim or Christian, a supporter of the atrocities in Syria or of the Free Syria Army.”

Attendees at the sit-in tended to voice similar concerns. “We want our dignity back, not only for ourselves but for all of Lebanon,” said Rima Shaaban, who stood with other female supporters in a designated women-only area. “We simply want all weapons to be with the army, as is the case in any other country.”

“We share Assir’s demands,” said a young man. “To live in freedom and dignity, with no person or group above any other. This is what Lebanon should be; a place for peace and tourism, not weapons and war.”

“We want to be under the protection of the army,” added another man. “We definitely are not for disrespecting the army.”

Elsewhere in Saida, however, some residents are less enthusiastic about the whole enterprise. “None of us want roads to be closed,” said a grocer on the main road. “If I’m forced to close my shop, who would notice? This is not the way to solve these issues. It should be done with dialogue. People shouldn’t take to the streets like this. It scares people, and this is not the image we want for our country.”

Others are sympathetic to Assir’s general message, but have reservations about his confrontational approach. “I definitely agree with his demands as far as weapons are concerned. But to face up to Hezbollah, which is so powerful, you need to be equally powerful. It’s his right to protest, and it’s a correct demand, but I don’t know if he really has the necessary strength.”

Whether or not Assir’s “intifada,” as he calls it, ends up yielding tangible results, it’s clear that the cleric’s various initiatives in recent months have established his name on the Sunni Islamist street. “Assir has broken down the barriers of fear,” says Bakri. “No longer do the Sunnis in Lebanon feel fear. Now, for the first time, they are able to speak out.”