Thursday, November 29, 2012

What's next for March 14?

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

Wednesday’s postponement until January of a national dialogue session scheduled for Thursday demonstrated the continuing failure to break the political deadlock into which the country plunged after October’s dramatic assassination of intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan.

In the days following Hassan’s killing, which groups including the March 14 coalition and Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) blamed on Syria, March 14 announced a complete boycott of all government and parliamentary activity until the current cabinet, led by Prime Minister Najib Miqati, was dissolved.

One month later, however, the cabinet remains intact and even appears to have a degree of support from March 14’s international allies, including the United States and the European Union, who have expressed fears of a power vacuum.

Accordingly, March 14’s boycott tactic has faced criticism even from those sympathetic to its broader vision. A leading independent politician with close ties to March 14 told NOW Lebanon that he preferred not to comment on the boycott, “because I would be forced to criticize it, and now is not the time to do that.”

Recently, both President Michel Suleiman and the PSP have been trying to coax March 14 back into all-party talks.

How exactly March 14 could be induced to embrace dialogue, however, is unclear. One option, proposed by former MP Mosbah al-Ahdab of the independent Tajaddod Movement, is for the coalition to launch a separate initiative on its own terms. “A solution would be for them to set the points that should be taken into consideration and agreed by the other side in order to launch a new dialogue,” he told NOW. “We’re back to square zero, we need to start all over again, and I think they should be setting a priority list, or let’s say starting points, for a new discussion.”

However, Dr Imad Salameh, political science professor at the Lebanese American University, believes nothing short of the cabinet’s collapse will bring March 14 to a dialogue table. “March 14 has no way out other than confronting the current government,” he told NOW. “For years, March 14 has been trapped over and over into senseless dialogue in which it always ends up making concessions. That’s why the resignation of this government is a pre-requisite for further dialogue.”

Certainly that was the view of March 14 partisans interviewed by NOW at the sit-in opposite Beirut’s Grand Serail on Tuesday evening. Since October 20 – the day after Hassan’s assassination – around half a dozen tents have been erected outside the Prime Minister’s office, and the activists who have spent their days and nights there told NOW they aren’t budging.

“The only compromise we will accept is that the government goes. Nothing less,” said Jihad Naamani of the Future Movement. When asked if he felt the sit-in was achieving its goals, Naamani said, “Yes, just by keeping our camp alive and having lots of people coming down every night for meetings and seminars, we are accomplishing our part of the goal.” While admitting that the government had succeeded in fending off March 14’s demands thus far, Naamani asserted that the cabinet would fall “within two or three months” at the most.

Contra Ahdab, Salameh argues the onus is in fact on March 8, not March 14, to break the deadlock. “The way out is not March 14’s responsibility as far as I’m concerned, it’s the responsibility of the current government and those who control it, particularly Hezbollah. If [the latter] want to yield a fair share of power and control of security apparatuses, which seem to have totally slipped into the hands of [March 8], then March 14 will have reason to negotiate.”

PSP secretary-general Zafer Nasser, however, questions how such an agreement could be reached without March 14 agreeing to talk in the first place. “One cannot offer anything to them if they don’t participate in dialogue,” he told NOW. “One has to sit with them and talk so they offer something and the other party offers something. You cannot tell them, ‘Here you go, this is a settlement’ and then ask them to attend dialogue. They would say, ‘Why attend dialogue if a settlement has already been reached?’”

To this, Salameh retorts that March 8 shares the blame for the lack of talks. “The media says [that March 14 is the one blocking dialogue], but in actuality one should ask what are the issues being discussed? Are we going to negotiate whether Hezbollah’s arms will become subject to government control? Are we going to negotiate a new government? Are we going to negotiate the restructuring of the security apparatuses?” Without these items on the table, says Salameh, dialogue “will only lead to additional concessions on March 14’s behalf and will strengthen the position of the government and Hezbollah.”

Amani Hamad contributed reporting.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

UK to Abbas: "Don't mention the war (crimes)"

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

In keeping with its long-standing tradition of benevolence to the people of Palestine, on Monday night Her Majesty’s Government graced PA leader Mahmoud Abbas with yet another hearty shoulder-clap of British goodwill. Summoning the lovable spirit of Basil Fawlty, Whitehall backtracked on its prior disinclination to act pursuant to Security Council Resolution 242 (sponsored, incidentally, by British UN ambassador “Lord” Caradon) and offered to vote for Thursday’s Palestinian statehood bid, on the condition that the Palestinians surrender the right to pursue war crimes charges against Israel.

It added that Abbas would further be expected to immediately resume peace talks with Israel “without preconditions”, i.e., without asking Israel to so much as halt (never mind reverse) its expropriation and settlement of Palestinian land.

Such is what passes for “balance” in today’s debased status quo, in which one side is permitted to continue violating international law unmolested, while the other is denied even hypothetical means of redress. What amazing strides of progress have been made, 95 years on from the Balfour Declaration.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Free Pierre

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

Is Lebanon a police state? The question isn’t as absurd as it might initially seem. For while the country’s liberal and democratic reputation is largely deserved – and it is plainly worlds away from the carnivorous regimes of its neighbors – every now and then the authorities conduct themselves in ways more reminiscent of Pyongyang than Paris.

The assault of artist and activist Pierre Hashash on Wednesday, in which he was allegedly apprehended by plain-clothed army intelligence and beaten with rifles on his head in broad daylight in Batroun, is but the latest example. According to eyewitnesses, Hashash was outside a Dunkin Donuts café when four men approached him. “You know who we are? We’re going to show you who we are”, was all they said before the violence began. His sister told NOW Arabic that he is currently in the Qobbeh prison in Tripoli, where he is being denied medical care.

It remains unclear why exactly he was “arrested”, if the above actions can be so described. One version has it that he insulted army commander General Qahwaji on Facebook, a charge denied by his family. Others note that he received a call from someone purporting to be the military police ten days before the assault, summoning him to their office, after which he posted the following to Facebook: “Dear security institutions’ officials, [just] let me and people like me be. He who wants something from me [must] legally and officially inform me through the police. Enough. Maybe the anonymous is really anonymous and intends to make my fate anonymous as well” (Original Arabic transcript viewable here ). It’s also possible that he had already displeased the Establishment with his politically-themed (and, incidentally, excellent) rap songs and quixotic attempts to run for parliament in Batroun and Tripoli.

Needless to say, speculating as to the “reason” for the assault is beside the point. It is flagrantly illegal to use such brutality against serious criminals, let alone innocents. If the authorities wish to earn the respect that they so often demands of their citizens, then Hashash’s immediate release, along with a full, transparent investigation into this misconduct – with justice served to all individuals involved – is a minimum requirement.

For the latest info on the case, follow the #FreePierre hashtag on Twitter and the ‘Support Pierre’ page on Facebook.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Interview with Walid Jumblatt

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

As we shuffled into a lavish sitting room in his Ottoman-era mansion in Moukhtara first thing Tuesday morning, Walid Jumblatt’s day job was already underway. We joined what soon became a line of people waiting, for whatever purpose—requesting tuition fees for children, resolving a dispute with the neighbors in Clemenceau—to meet the Druze chieftain. When he entered, his tall, lanky frame stooped as he walked, his facial expression half-annoyed and half-amused, as though incredulous at having to deal with such banality.

After speedily acceding to a few requests, he ushered us into another sitting room, adorned with (among other things) a floor-to-ceiling portrait of slain Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. In general, walking through the house feels like touring Istanbul’s Dolmabahçe Palace. “But I don’t have the Bosphorus outside,” he replied when NOW Lebanon remarked this. “It’s a beautiful city. The only other city as beautiful, until they destroyed it, was Aleppo.”

Such was the tone for much of our conversation with the enigmatic Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) leader. His reputed political acumen—along with his less-flattering notoriety for abruptly switching allegiances—have earned him the nickname “the weathervane”; a man “whose every premonitory move [is] dissected by those trying to get a sense of Lebanon’s political winds,” as Michael Young once put it. If that is so, then there appears to be an uncertain breeze in Moukhtara today. For though he tells NOW that he is “not March 8,” those in the March 14 coalition hoping for Jumblatt jumping ship once again to their side may well be in for disappointment.

There were reports over the weekend that the PSP is planning an initiative to ease internal strife and promote dialogue. Why did you decide to do this?

Jumblatt: We have an initiative parallel to the efforts of the President Suleiman who is calling for dialogue. We just want to help President Suleiman. At the same time we have consulted with Prime Minister Miqati and [Parliament Speaker] Nabih Berri. We have to find a way to get out of this blockade where nobody is speaking with anybody, and the only way to reach that is launching an initiative. I hope it will succeed, I don’t know. I have charged my comrades in the party to go and visit all the political parties and actors possible, starting tomorrow, from March 14 to March 8 to independents.

Why did you not join March 14’s recent boycott of the cabinet?

Jumblatt: Why should I join them? I’m not March 14!

But you openly blamed Syria for the assassination of Wissam al-Hassan.

Jumblatt: Yes, and they are blaming Miqati. Miqati did not kill Wissam al-Hassan. I’m sorry, I refuse categorically all the accusations of March 14 against Miqati.

The day after Hassan’s death, we saw PSP flags at the March 14 Youth rally.

Jumblatt: They have removed those flags. This is a small trap fixed by some idiots. We are not March 14. And I’m not March 8. I’m just in this coalition trying to fix up things as much as I can, taking into account the environment which is terribly sectarian, and some people don’t care, it seems. They’re just attacking here and there; they don’t care about the possible sectarian strife that could engulf Lebanon.

Which people are you referring to?

Jumblatt: Some high-ranking leaders. Because in this country everyone is becoming high-ranking, nobody is low-ranking.

What do you think of the Ahmad al-Assir movement?

Jumblatt: When the moderate Future Movement is absent, any vacuum is filled, so this is why Sheikh Saad [Hariri] should come back and lead what his father did: the moderate Sunni trend.

How are your relations with Hariri?

Jumblatt: We are friends on personal terms but we differ on political issues. We speak occasionally.

Regarding Hassan’s assassination, do you think any Lebanese parties were also involved?

Jumblatt: I just accused the Syrian intelligence. Of course they have partners and agents here. But I’m not going to accuse a political party, like others did, because they don’t care if there is sectarian strife. And I was very clear, just as with the murder of Rafiq al-Hariri, that if Hezbollah has enough evidence that Hariri was killed by the Israelis, as Sayyed Hassan claimed at one point, then let him present this evidence to the international tribunal. I’m not going to accuse any party because my concern is that civil strife must stop.

So even if you have suspicions, you’re not going to voice them so as to maintain stability?

Jumblatt: I do not have suspicions. I am not a lawyer or a prosecutor. You have an international tribunal where people can go and present evidence.

If you believe the Syrian regime is killing senior Lebanese officials, then why do you support the “dissociation” policy? Shouldn’t Syria be considered an enemy state, like Israel?

Jumblatt: Syria being an enemy state? Not at all, I’m sorry. This is a monstrosity. We are accusing the regime, but Syria is Syria, Syria is our background, Syria helped us during the civil war, it fixed the balance inside Lebanon, it helped create the Taif Agreement, it supported the resistance. We have to distinguish between the regime and the people. And the army, which fought very bravely against Israelis during the 1982 invasion.

So the regime itself should not be considered an enemy?

Jumblatt: OK, if it is, then what? Tell me what can we do? This is the nineteenth month of the Syrian revolt and the whole international community is just doing nothing. They are watching Syria being systematically destroyed. It seems the “Friends of Syria” don’t care about Syria.

How can the Syrian conflict be ended?

Jumblatt: Well, if you have a solution, tell me. Just after the battle of Baba Amr, I called everybody in the West that I know—the British, the French—to help the rebels to get adequate weapons to shoot down helicopters. They said, “We can’t do it because it will end up in civil war.” And at that time, the civil war began.

How do you feel about the Druze in Syria?

Jumblatt: I’m concerned about Syria. The Druze are Syrian people. I don’t look at the sectarian aspect.

If there is no intervention in Syria, what happens?

Jumblatt: Nobody asked for intervention in Syria; just helping the Syrian rebels. Now it’s chaotic, because everybody is intervening in his own way, from the Arab world and from individuals, and now we have the situation whereby yesterday in Aleppo some so-called free brigades announced they don’t want to be part of the Doha Agreement, they have announced the “Islamic Emirates” in Aleppo. This is the disorganized help of the Arab and Western world because everybody is sponsoring somebody else. And what’s the result? Total chaos.

Do you worry about a Sunni-Shiite war in Lebanon?

Jumblatt: When I say sectarian strife I’m speaking about some Sunnis and some Shiites. This cannot be solved except by sitting at a table and talking to each other. That’s it. And if some in March 14 still insist that the weapons of Hezbollah can be delivered at any price? No. The weapons are a very sensitive issue, and these weapons should be part of the defensive strategy that is being elaborated by President Suleiman. One day these weapons could be part of the Lebanese army, but that cannot be at the push of a button, we have to wait. I mean it took the Irish 20 years to decommission the weapons between Protestants and Catholics. Now here it’s a much more difficult issue.

You said recently that it will take a new Taif Agreement to resolve Hezbollah’s weapons. What did you mean by that?

Jumblatt: I was assaulted, directly by everybody, by all the excited people of March 14. I did not say that. Even if I said that, it was a slip of the tongue. [Laughs]

In that case, how do you advocate resolving the issue?

Jumblatt: You have to adequately address the Shiite community. You have to speak to them. But at the same time, some have committed a big error, because they have been ordered, by the Iranians, I don’t know, to go and fight inside Syria for the regime. But this is not their policy, this is the policy of Iran. I hope that one day the Iranians will change and address the Syrian people and not the regime, because they are losing a lot of support for their stance. At the same time, some parties of March 14 also are arming the rebels, so the policy of [dissociation] should be addressed to both parties; to Hezbollah and March 14.

Regarding elections, is there an electoral law you favor?

Jumblatt: I’ve not been consulted by anybody. I just hear rumors that some high-ranking people want 50 districts, and others want proportional representation. I have not been consulted. I am ready to discuss to see. Because some people have already started fixing their Armani dresses to become president.

Do you feel the law needs to be changed?

Jumblatt: Of course, one day we have to fix up a modern law, but to do that you have to fix up a modern Lebanon, and to fix up a modern Lebanon, my father spent 19 years trying to do it, and he failed to deconfessionalize the system. I mean we are not even able to fix the civil marriage issue, which is stupid. We oblige the young Lebanese people to go to Cyprus, to Istanbul, to Paris, but here we don’t allow it because the clerics, Muslim and Christian, are against it. They have privileges; they get money to separate the people.

Going back to elections, if we assume the 2009 law is used again, you will likely win in Shouf and Aley, so the question on many minds is whether you will align with March 8 or 14?

Jumblatt: I will align with myself for the time being. I stick to my own belief that we have to fix up a kind of middle ground to avoid this terrible division between 14 and 8.

Do you foresee any changes in Christian districts?

Jumblatt: I have no idea, I don’t work on statistics. They work, they are obsessed with statistics. Michel Aoun and Samir Geagea are obsessed, I really don’t care. My concern is how to deal peacefully with each other.

After Hassan’s assassination, do you fear assassination yourself?

Jumblatt: I have never spoken about myself, like others, who like to speak about themselves, and to have bodyguards and huge convoys. Like my father, I have relied on destiny. I am here just because I like it.

So you’re not more or less afraid than before?

Jumblatt: I was never afraid. When you get afraid like others you get paralyzed mentally.

Do you think the Gaza conflict might affect Lebanon?

Jumblatt: No, Gaza just proved once again that the arrogance of Israelis can just be destroyed, [like] when the Israelis invaded Beirut in 1982. This myth of Israeli superiority is again buried by the rockets of Hamas, by the people of Lebanon, seven times. So it’s a myth, but what can we do, this state is based on a big fallacy supported by the West. One day, the West will discover that the huge amount of money they spend on Israel is just a catastrophe. Because only a peaceful solution based on two states can—maybe—reach some stability. I think maybe it’s too late, because now with the settlers there’s no space for two states.

So you prefer a one-state solution?

Jumblatt: Well this was an intellectual approach by people like Edward Said, but consider now the right-wing tendency of most Israeli society and the absence of the peace movement, except one wise guy, he’s a friend of mine and we correspond with each other, Uri Avnery, and I always read his articles and send comments. Amos Oz too, and Amira Hass, she’s excellent. But the peace movement which demonstrated in Tel Aviv after Sabra and Shatila and caused Sharon’s downfall is no more.

You wrote this week that Gaza could lead to a “new status quo.” What did you mean?

Jumblatt: After the 1973 war came the Camp David agreement, which separated Egypt from the Arabs. But now Gaza is fixing up a new formula. The inner land of Egypt is Gaza, and the Egyptians are always concerned about the fate of Palestine. So Gaza is defying the old order. Same thing in Golan, one day the ceasefire agreement of 1973 will be changed by [whoever] comes in control of the Golan Heights. Lebanon will also have a new status quo [once] we get back the occupied territories of Shebaa. Israel is no more safe from its surroundings. Later on, I hope that King Abdullah will fix up reforms. But the surroundings of Israel have changed. Fortunately that’s good.

Are you worried about the rise of Islamists across the region?

Jumblatt: No, not at all. We cannot change the Arab world. Do you want somebody to convert them? To what? We have to take into account the rise of Islam, be it Shiite or Sunni, and try to see the future and develop, not only culturally but economically. We have so much wealth in this Arab world spent stupidly on buying weapons or treasury bonds. We can have our own development in all the Arab world.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Justin Salhani contributed questioning.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

IDF cheerily live-tweets infanticide

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

I don’t know about you, dear reader, but if I were the spokesman for a formidable military institution that had, just moments ago, used its sophisticated killing equipment to end the lives of several civilians, including an 11-month-old baby, I might make a point of presenting a solemn face to the world (if not indeed an embarrassed and even contrite one).

Not so the spokespeople for the Israeli army, who, after yesterday’s launch of “Operation Pillar of Defense” against Gaza, began an extraordinary Twitter campaign of self-congratulation, self-pity, and “jokes” couched in the breezy language of adolescent computer gamers besting their digital adversaries. Here is a selection of their more galling efforts:

@IDFSpokesperson: We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead.

@CaptainBarakRaz: #HamasBumperStickers I fired ten rockets and all I got was this lousy bumper sticker (Re-tweeted with a “LOL” by fellow official spokesperson @MajPeterLerner)

@NathanWurtzel: #HamasBumperStickers Honk If You’re About to be Taken Out by an Israeli Air to Surface Missile (Re-tweeted by @CaptainBarakRaz)

@IDFSpokesperson: Ahmed Jabari: Eliminated.

This trash is in addition to the usual bluster about “surgical” strikes and the unmatched morality and “purity” of the “Israel Defense Forces”. Surgical, like removing a sore tooth with a spade. Pure, like the Red Army memorialized by Vladimir Putin on his most recent visit to the Holy Land.

Elsewhere, it was also dispiriting to see Zionist backers of the Syrian opposition hastily trying to change the subject to Bashar al-Assad – the mirror image, in other words, of the pro-Assad “leftists” who prefer not to dwell on the crimes of the shabbiha. Hamas is certainly not the Free Syrian Army, but a dead child is a dead child. Fortunately, as has been so often the case in the past twenty months, Syrians themselves produced the finest moral clarity:

@NuffSilence: Innocent civilians, whether Israelis or Palestinians, should be a red-line. Why is this so hard to grasp?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Has Assir turned militant?

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon, with Amani Hamad]

The street outside Ahmad al-Assir’s mosque in Sidon doesn’t look the way it used to. What was once a nondescript side street in the Abra neighbourhood now has an army checkpoint at its entrance. And on Monday afternoon, despite Interior Minister Marwan Charbel’s claim that the army would “open fire on anyone” carrying non-state arms in the city, NOW Lebanon saw three young bearded men nonchalantly standing at the entrance to the Bilal bin Rabah mosque, AK-47s in hand.

Those, however, were as nothing compared to the arms on display at Sidon’s Martyrs Square moments later. As some two thousand mourners gathered at Martyrs Mosque for the funeral of the two Assir supporters killed in Sunday’s clashes, Assir arrived with an entourage of about a dozen guards wielding shotguns and a variety of automatic rifles. Though visibly alarmed, the nearby army and Internal Security Forces units made no efforts to apprehend the gunmen.

Such unabashed militancy is a significant departure for the man who previously took pride in non-violence (“I don’t foresee my movement using weapons of any sort under any circumstances,” he once told NOW) and launched a five-week-long protest against all non-state arms. Indeed, if one version of Sunday’s events is to be believed, Assir and his supporters have transformed into aggressors.

At the site of the clashes in Taamir Ain al-Hilweh, where the blood of deceased Assir supporter Lubnan al-Azzi still shines on the tarmac, some local residents placed the blame for the violence squarely on Assir. “About eight cars arrived at the top of the street,” said one youth who declined to give a name. “They got out of the cars and started screaming ‘Allahu akbar’ [‘God is greatest’] and ‘Hay ala al-jihad’ [‘Come to holy war’]. Assir pulled out a gun, and his men were armed with machine guns, pump-action shotguns and knives.” Pointing to a Hezbollah poster honoring a member killed in the July 2006 war, they shouted, “Take the photo of these pigs down,” another youth told NOW.

It was then that Assir’s supporters “began to shoot at random,” these residents alleged. They were unable to explain, however, who fired back, and how two of Assir’s supporters came to be killed. “It was not clear who fired back in retaliation,” said one. “[Assir’s men] could have died from random shots fired by their own side.”

Other residents further down the street, however, tell a different version of events. “It began when Assir’s supporters tore down the banner. After that, a group of people who are not from the area opened fire on Assir’s supporters,” after which the latter responded, accidentally killing an Egyptian national, Ali al-Sharbini.

NOW got a similar story from Muhammad Kaddoura, an Assir supporter outside the Bilal bin Rabah mosque who said he was not there at the time. “As soon as [Assir’s men] got out of their cars, they were fired at. It was an ambush for the sheikh. The security forces knew that we were peaceful, and they didn’t do anything to stop it.” Assir himself declined to comment to NOW, saying he was busy and distressed.

However, a video of the clashes obtained by LBC suggests errors in both of the above versions of events. For one, a man strongly resembling and presumed to be Assir is not holding a firearm – indeed, none of the people surrounding him can be seen holding any. For another, the Hezbollah banner is clearly still erect when the shooting begins. Though many shots can be heard, the source of the fire cannot be determined from the video.

Whatever the truth, Sunday’s bloodshed seems likely to harden hostilities in Sidon between Assir’s supporters and his detractors. As mourners marched Monday through Sidon’s main streets, from Martyrs Square to al-Karameh Square via Nejmeh Square, they chanted “There is no god but Allah, [Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan] Nasrallah is the enemy of Allah!" and “You pig, take your dogs and leave us, the people want to announce jihad!” among other slogans. Time will tell whether renewed efforts to defuse the city’s political and sectarian rivalries prove successful.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Egypt's porn law only further endangers women

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

In a shameful effort to appease the country’s muscular new Salafist bloc, Egypt’s prosecutor-general ordered yesterday the implementation of a 2009 court order banning access to pornographic websites.

As Islamists rejoiced (MP Ali Wanis, for example, hailing this “first step towards applying Islamic Law in Egypt”), the apparent liberal response was to see the move either as a threat to free speech or as an eccentric but basically benign distraction from the more urgent tasks of creating jobs and battling corruption.

It is those things, to be sure, but it’s also something much more dangerous. No one who has lived, as I have, in a country that bans pornography (the UAE in my case) can have failed to observe the warping effects of this kind of deprivation. It’s a fairly well-established rule that the more a thing is prohibited, the more people will want it, and the cause-and-effect mechanism in this context can manifest itself in very ugly ways.

Unable to see feminine flesh second-hand in the privacy of their homes, frustrated men will find themselves inclined to search for the real thing in public. I can’t statistically prove the link between sexual prohibition and sexual assault (largely because what little data do exist on the UAE are compromised by the substantial underreporting of rape; fuelled in turn by a “justice” system that imprisons and even lashes the victims themselves – a separate scandal altogether), but Cairo already has quite a reputation for the latter, and I see no case for believing this new law will lessen that. (Though an ingenious new campaign to brand the city’s gropers and grabbers with a spray-paint stencil declaring “I’m a harasser” seems more promising.)

More generally, if the Gulf countries have anything to teach Egyptians, it’s that transforming a liberal society into an Islamist one is much like cooking an egg into an omelet: a process not easily reversed.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

What Obama's win means for Lebanon

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

With the announcement Wednesday morning of incumbent Barack Obama’s defeat of Republican challenger Mitt Romney in the US presidential elections, a natural question for many Lebanese is what the consequences, if any, will be for them and their country, and how those might have differed had Romney been the victor.

Though analysts contacted by NOW Lebanon have divergent views on the specific implications of Obama’s win for Lebanon, none believed the outcome would have a direct impact in the short term; any effects that could potentially unfold being indirect and longer-term.

Some argue the result will make next to no difference whatsoever. “I do not think there will be any difference regarding Lebanon,” said Riad Kahwaji, head of the INEGMA think tank. “The US has already been leading from behind when it comes to Lebanon, granting the leading role to France. [French] President Hollande’s visit to Lebanon on Sunday was a clear indication who leads the way in the country from the Western side,” he told NOW.

Elias Muhanna, assistant professor at Brown University and author of the Qifa Nabki blog, largely agrees. “There is no evidence of a substantial difference between Obama and Romney on foreign policy. The third presidential debate demonstrated that on this area, the candidates are very difficult to tell apart. What that means for Lebanon is an extension of the status quo,” he said.

Others, however, argue that a Romney victory would ultimately have been in Lebanon’s better interests. “There are two elements to consider here: the Lebanon policy of a Romney administration and the Syria policy of a Romney administration. Both would have been to the benefit of Lebanon,” said David Schenker, director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“We don’t have anything on record from Romney about Lebanon, but if we look at the people involved in his campaign, such as Eric Edelman and Elliot Abrams, these were very big supporters of the pro-democracy March 14 movement during the Bush administration,” he told NOW. The Obama administration, on the other hand, “really dropped the ball in 2009 by not having any creative ideas or a vision about how to consolidate the election victory of the pro-West March 14 coalition.”

As for Syria, Schenker argues that Romney’s support for “the arming of the Free Syrian Army to try and end the Assad regime was a real big distinction between the two candidates. It’s been 20 months so far, and I think everybody can acknowledge President Obama’s policy of focusing solely on the hapless Syrian National Council was really a waste of time. By not providing sufficient support to the opposition fighters on the ground, the largely secular opposition has lost ground to jihadists and more militant Islamists. And that is certainly to Lebanon’s detriment, particularly vis-à-vis the future of post-Assad Syria.”

Romney did indeed say during the third presidential debate that the US should “make sure [Syrian opposition fighters] have the arms necessary to defend themselves.” Other analysts, however, are less convinced that he would put these words into action. “[Romney] spoke in strong neoconservative terms while seeking the Republican Party nomination, but has shifted to more centrist, cautious views as he bids for independent and centrist voters in the general election […] on Syria and Iran he has generally endorsed Mr Obama's cautious approach while vaguely suggesting that he would be tougher,” wrote Paul Salem, director of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center.

Obama’s victory may also allay fears that US funding of the Lebanese Armed Forces—typically amounting to some $100 million per annum—would be reduced under a Romney administration, given the latter’s campaign pledge to reduce foreign aid.

However, Kahwaji believes this question hinges not on the US president but on the Lebanese cabinet itself. “The US funding of Lebanon depends on the cabinet. When March 14 was in power, there was a great deal of spending and military support. After the Hariri cabinet collapsed and a cabinet considered to back by Syria, Iran and Hezbollah was formed, there was a significant reduction in military aid. To this day, US is no longer sending heavy weapons,” he told NOW.

As for Iran itself, analysts were in agreement that a Romney administration would have been more likely to take military action against the Islamic Republic, with the strong possibility of consequent battles between Hezbollah and Israel. That scenario, they believe, is now less probable given Obama’s re-election.

Amani Hamad contributed reporting.

The baby and the bathwater [deleted NOW editorial]

[This editorial - not written by me - was removed from the NOW Lebanon website on the evening of 6 November, about 24 hours after its initial publication. Following complaints from staff, as well as a campaign of (perfectly justified) ridicule on social media, it has been (sort of) replaced, hidden behind an older editorial with a bizarre disclaimer. I re-post it here not merely out of principle, but because I believe it's an excellent piece of writing.]

If we are to believe a report in al-Joumhouria newspaper on Monday, French President François Hollande and Saudi Arabian King Abdullah, in a meeting also attended by former Lebanese PM and Future Movement leader Saad Hariri, will not back current Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Miqati if a new government is formed.

Do the Lebanese not have a say in any of this? We should worry at the carefree way in which Lebanon’s future is always being decided by outside actors, no matter who they are. The region is already polarized between the Sunni and Shiite communities in a dangerous standoff between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Such horse-trading will only serve to entrench further the sense that foreign powers control Lebanon’s destiny and that each side of the political divide is justified in having its regional backer.

Another worrying aspect was the presence of Hariri, a man who must surely concede that his role in Lebanese political life must now be confined to the margins of Sunni politics. He is living in LaLa Land if he still feels that the Lebanese public would welcome him back with open arms and see him as their salvation. In fact, it would be scandalous if he stood for parliament in the next general elections, let alone offer himself as a candidate for the premiership. (Ditto Nayla Tueni and the rest of the absentee MPs who, by their negligence, have done their best to snuff out the flame that was March 14 and insult the intelligence of the voters who sent them to Najmeh Square).

For it is not enough to simply oppose March 8’s fiendish agenda and make all the right noises about democracy, independence, sovereignty and the sanctity of the state. March 14 members must also take seriously their roles as public servants. The recent deterioration of infrastructure and the apparent collapse of law and order during August have woken up the public to the fact that if they want a functioning, safe, peaceful and prosperous country, and if they want laws enacted, it will not happen if the people they elect to achieve these ends are nowhere to be seen.

Which brings us back to the issue of Miqati and his suitability for the premiership. When he accepted to lead the Hezbollah-dominated government in the spring of 2011, many saw him as an opportunist who would trade what was left of Lebanon’s integrity for a place in the history books.

In reality and with hindsight, he has not done a terrible job. He has advanced the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (despite the Syrian dream of killing the process altogether) and spoken out against Syrian violations of Lebanese territorial integrity. Given the fact that he has had to work with a cabinet of which Hezbollah and its obstructionist allies in the FPM are a part, he has made a decent fist of holding things together.

Hollande and the rest of the international community are right to condemn the current government, which has set new standards in uselessness, but we should avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater. With the exception of former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, Miqati is arguably the best candidate we have to lead this country in troubled times. In the meantime, the Lebanese must fight to wrestle their destiny from the hands of those who see Lebanon as a strategic asset instead of a sovereign nation, and all our MPs, without exception, should show up for work.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Romney's frightening fundamentalism

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

I’ve watched this five times now, and I think what shocks me more than the Mormon beliefs themselves (which, though certainly crazy, are not much more ridiculous than “ordinary” Christianity) is the aggressive, almost thuggish manner in which Romney defends them when they’re challenged. The furious glare; the belligerent lurch forward; the rapid rise in speech volume and speed: all the classic symptoms of a quick-tempered confrontational character are on display. And to what end?

Clearing up the details of how Christ, when he returns, will divide his time between Jerusalem and the State of Missouri.

Interesting, and very useful, to know what matters most to the potential future commander-in-chief.

Will the Sassine bomb sway the Christian vote?

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

When a car bomb laden with over 60 kilograms of TNT gutted the sleepy residential impasse of Ibrahim al-Munzer St. on October 19, it did not merely kill an intelligence chief, his driver and a luckless bystander. Situated scarcely a hundred meters from the bustling Sassine Square—where dozens of glass panes were instantaneously shattered—the blast also drove chaos and terror into the symbolic heart of Beirut’s Christian community.

Seated on the crown of the Ashrafieh hill and orbited by offices, cafés, schools, churches and a mall, Sassine Square is the social and commercial hub of the district. In terms of political orientation, while a large monument to slain President-elect Bashir Gemayel of the Lebanese Forces (now the leading March 14 Christian party) stands in the Square’s center, it is also often adorned with flags of the rival March 8-aligned Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). Indeed, in the most recent parliamentary elections of 2009, March 14 pipped March 8 to victory in Ashrafieh by fewer than 3,000 votes out of a total of 91,000 registered voters.

Such close competition raises the question of what, if any, will be the effects of the bomb on Christian voters in next year’s elections. Assuming the electoral law used closely resembles the 2009 law, as analysts expect it will, then Ashrafieh (technically called “Beirut I”) will once again be a key “swing” district, one of a handful upon which the entire outcome hinges. That the other “swing” districts—chiefly Metn, Zahle and Koura—are also predominantly Christian underscores the paramount importance of Christian voting in determining the overall winner.

For some analysts, the clear loser in this regard following the bomb is March 8. “It is definitely going to realign voting practices among the Christian community, especially concerning [FPM leader Michel] Aoun,” said Charles Chartouni, professor of politics at Université Saint Joseph and the Lebanese University. “I’m not saying voters will necessarily go toward March 14 candidates, but Aoun will definitely lose some voters,” he told NOW Lebanon.

This, Chartouni believes, is due to a perception among Christians that the blast was orchestrated by Aoun’s major allies. “I’ve spoken to a lot of people in Ashrafieh lately, and they are in no doubt that a kind of joint venture between Hezbollah and Syria is behind the assassination. What has hurt people most is that the criminals responsible didn’t care about the fact that these people are living in dense areas and thus the damage can be devastating. If intelligence services want to fight among each other, in a country like ours and in a situation like ours, it’s somewhat understandable, but to forget about civilians and the welfare of people in the neighborhood is considered insulting and disrespectful.”

Key March 14 Christians such as LF leader Samir Geagea and Kataeb chief Amin Gemayel have indeed explicitly accused Hezbollah and Syria of carrying out the bombing. Aoun, on the other hand, has declined to make any accusations, saying,“I will wait for the result of the investigation.”

However, a perusal of the Orange Room, an FPM-affiliated online forum, suggests Aoun’s supporters believe March 14’s reaction to the bomb will in fact work in March 8’s favor. “[March 14] shot themselves in the foot,” said one user in reference to the clashes between March 14 partisans and security forces following the October 21 funeral of the bomb’s target, Internal Security Forces Information Branch head Wissam al-Hassan. “[March 14] Christians are [going to] lose a lot of support,” agreed another. “Islamic flags in [Ashrafieh and Free Syrian Army] flags over [Martyrs Square] is [sic] a big no-no.”

In a similar vein, FPM-aligned Metn MP Ghassan Moukheiber compared the funeral scrap and the subsequent violence in Tripoli and Tariq al-Jdeideh to Hezbollah’s “black shirts” demonstration in 2011. “Storming the Serail and the presence of armed men the day after added ‘black shirts’ of a certain political party confronting ‘black shirts’ of another party. Therefore, there is an equality in the rhetoric of ‘black shirts’,” he told NOW.

However, Antoine Haddad, leader of the March 14-aligned Tajaddod Movement, rejects this equivalence. “The attack on the Serail was a spontaneous one. I’m not reducing its importance here, but it’s not on par with the assassination itself, and it will not have an effect on elections, whereas the link between the assassination and the [Michel] Samaha case will,” he told NOW, referring to the senior Damascus ally who pleaded guilty in August to plotting terror attacks in Lebanon in coordination with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Many Lebanese have speculated that Hassan’s assassination was revenge by Syria for the intelligence chief ordering Samaha’s arrest.

As regards the Islamic flags mentioned on the Orange Room, Chartouni isn’t convinced these will cost March 14. “There is no doubt that Christians are very apprehensive about Islamic militancy. But at the same time this won’t outweigh the fact that assassinations have been committed for seven years now, mostly in Christian areas, in which the victims were always on one side of the divide [i.e. March 14]. And the involvement of Michel Samaha has further confirmed the connection with a Syria-Hezbollah joint venture.”

Of course, this may all prove academic, given that no electoral law has yet been approved for 2013. With tensions already high and the war in neighboring Syria showing little sign of abating, much can change in the next few months. As Haddad put it, “there is a long time yet before the elections.”

Agnes Helou and Amani Hamad contributed reporting.