Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Sehnaoui, philosopher-minister, pens rebuttal to British ambassador

[Originally posted at NOW]

The best argument I’ve yet heard in favor of Telecoms Minister Nicolas Sehnaoui was an interesting one in several respects, not least of which was that it came from a card-carrying member of a party that is no friend of the March 8 coalition. After a handful of drinks, over which we discussed lighter topics, my friend turned quite grave at Sehnaoui’s mention.

“You have to understand something,” he began. “As a Lebanese minister, you don’t have to do anything. You can stay home seven days a week, rake in the money, and nobody will hold you to account. Yet this guy actually tries to improve the telecoms network here. It’s astonishing.”

This came to mind when last night Minister Sehnaoui again went beyond the call of duty, penning a 600-word rebuttal to a blog post by the British ambassador to Lebanon, Tom Fletcher.

Fletcher’s post, aptly titled ‘Beirutopia’, imagined a radically transformed Lebanon in 2020, in which offshore gas revenues rival Qatar’s, there is full peace with both Israel and post-Assad Syria, citizens enjoy not just round-the-clock electricity but a city train, and the March 8/14 divide and even sectarianism itself have both been transcended.

Sehnaoui “really appreciated” Fletcher’s effort, being “a strong believer in the power of imagination” himself, but was feeling “a little devious” and wanted to propose some amendments. First, Fletcher should “acknowledge” that the “resistance paradigm” (i.e. Hizbullah’s weapons) has to stay until the Lebanese army has the means to face up to Israel itself. Second, Fletcher should “acknowledge” that Lebanon cannot give citizenship to “450 thousand Palestinians” (Fletcher didn’t say it should), who would be better off either back in Palestine or the “much wealthier” Gulf states. Other injunctions included “acknowledge the rights of the Christians” to retain the Presidency, while yet working toward “secular democracy”.

And then there was the question of Syria, where Sehnaoui turned cryptic. “I am sure the Western countries love Lebanon at least as much as Syria. So whatever they are doing to show their love to Syria please help make sure they don’t assassinate Lebanon along the way by mistake.”

Fletcher was quick to reply on Twitter: “Powerful arguments, Minister. Let’s keep debating”.

Yet this is not, of course, a “debate” in the sense of a disinterested discussion of Lebanon’s national interests. The two men, lest we forget, are not professional scholars or intellectuals but politicians, paid to advance the rather narrower interests of their leaders. Their exchange is interesting, therefore, only insofar as it reveals something about the politics of the British government and the Free Patriotic Movement, respectively.

In the former case, perhaps the most intriguing line, amid the generic pro-democracy, pro-business rhetoric, is the one about Israel. By envisaging the Lebanese-Israeli peace treaty happening a year before the establishment of Palestine, Fletcher suggests British policy is for each Arab country to negotiate with Israel bilaterally, rather than unite to push through a single, comprehensive agreement. Though Lebanon is of course free to pursue such a course if it wants to, Western encouragement of it involves a weakening of Arab leverage over Israel that ultimately forestalls, rather than precipitates, a just settlement for all involved (and primarily Palestinians).

Sehnaoui’s reply, on the other hand, is a fascinating example of the cognitive dissonance required to be at once the servant of an Islamist militia and a crusader for Christian sectarianism. The “resistance” talk is naturally pure lip service, as anyone familiar with FPM leader Michel Aoun’s pre-2006 position knows well. Yet even when affecting anti-Zionism, Sehnaoui can’t quite get it right: his idea of transferring Palestinian refugees to the Gulf is one that Netanyahu himself would be proud of.

As for the Syria comment, if it’s to be understood as a criticism of Downing Street’s rhetorical support for the opposition, one can only say that no mere Cameron speech could hope to match the “love to Syria” evinced by Aoun’s patron in Damascus.

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