Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Palestinian refugees from Syria shortchanged on aid

[Originally posted at NOW]

Beddawi's narrow streets are packed with playing children (NOW/Alex Rowell)

In a makeshift office in the heart of the Beddawi Palestinian refugee camp, furnished only with worn sofas and an almost antique desktop computer, Muhammad Hussein takes deep drags of a cigarette to steady his emotions as he talks.

“The feeling cannot be described. We see Syrians being treated like human beings while we are being humiliated. We are reminded that wherever we go, we are Palestinians, and our dignity is being stepped on.”

Hussein is one of an estimated 20,000 Palestinian refugees to have fled the warfare in neighboring Syria and made for one of Lebanon’s camps – in this case Beddawi, a 1-square-kilometre concrete and steel maze on the northeastern outskirts of Tripoli. Unlike Syrian refugees, who receive aid from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Palestinians are handled by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), whose self-described “limited response” to the influx has left the new arrivals increasingly resentful. Last Monday, residents led by the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) demonstrated outside the camp’s UNRWA office to protest what they see as unjust discrimination vis-à-vis their Syrian counterparts.

In Beddawi’s DFLP headquarters – where NOW interviewed Hussein – party official Atef Khalil explained the ordeal facing incoming Palestinian refugees. It begins the moment they reach the Masnaa border crossing, where Lebanese General Security charges a 25,000LL ($17) entrance fee per head. Hussein, a Safad native who lived in Damascus’ Yarmouk camp until fleeing in December, showed NOW his entrance card with a stamp confirming his payment of the charge. Thereafter, General Security will demand 50,000LL ($33) from him every three months. Syrians, by contrast, may enter Lebanon free of charge.

When they get to Beddawi, new arrivals then face an extraordinary shortage of housing. Six years ago, the camp hosted some 15,000 refugees. That number doubled almost overnight during the 2007 conflict in the nearby Nahr al-Bared camp, and stands today at over 40,000 by Khalil’s estimate, including some 800 families recently arrived from Syria. Every refugee NOW spoke to in the camp named housing as their number-one concern, followed closely by food provisions and medical assistance. One family home comprised 40 people squeezed into just three main rooms.

To be sure, UNRWA has offered new arrivals various forms of aid, as part of its Regional Syria Humanitarian Response Plan. Once in December, says Khalil, they handed out $40 in cash and a $25 supermarket coupon to each refugee. He adds they have also arranged for some children’s education, repaired an old building in the Ain al-Hilweh camp and provided heating equipment to those refugees in the Beqaa Valley.

A recent UNRWA report details more fully the components of its response plan, stating it has so far provided new Palestinian refugees in Lebanon with non-food items such as mattresses and blankets, emergency health care, emergency education, and protection against arrests and forced return to Syria. Furthermore, UNRWA spokeswoman Hoda Samra told NOW that on one occasion in November, they distributed $50 winter clothing vouchers to refugees in the Beqaa.

However, the report also notes that, “Unfortunately, UNRWA has not yet been able to provide food or cash assistance, which has raised sensitivity among the [refugees] who feel discriminated against compared to provisions being made to Syrian refugees.” (UNHCR provides registered Syrian refugees with a monthly 45,000LL [$30] supermarket coupon in addition to non-food items – aid Syrians, in turn, say is insufficient.) UNRWA has pledged to appeal for $13 million between January and June 2013 to address these shortcomings, with around $8 million earmarked for cash assistance.

The key reason for the discrepancy between UNHCR’s provisions to Syrians and UNRWA’s to Palestinians, according to Samra, is financial. “We raised an $8 million appeal in September that was not well-funded,” she told NOW. “And then we had to revise the appeal in December to $13 million, out of which we so far have about 50 percent. This means we’ve been unable to provide half of the services that we intend to.”

To make matters worse, the $13 million appeal was designed to cater for 20,000 new refugees. On a visit to Lebanon last week, UNRWA Secretary General Filippo Grandi said that number had already been reached, with more than 200 arriving every day. This means UNRWA’s current budget, which is already underfunded by half, would be insufficient to meet refugees’ needs even if it were fully provided.

“Unfortunately, that’s true, and we’ll have to revise accordingly,” said Samra. “When we budgeted for 20,000 new refugees, there were only about 10,000 in the country. Unfortunately, we reached the 20,000 figure very quickly. So now we will first have to receive what we appealed for, and then appeal for more.”

Both Samra and Khalil are hopeful that Wednesday’s international donor conference on the Syrian crisis in Kuwait will yield a funding windfall. Various nations have pledged a total of $1.2 billion to help refugees across the region, $18 million of which Samra says could go to UNRWA in Lebanon.

Unless and until these funds reach the refugees themselves, however, the mood in the camps seems likely to deteriorate further.

Amani Hamad contributed reporting.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Rushdie's revenge

[Originally posted at NOW]

In confronting the question of the relationship between politics and literature, one tends to run up against two key rejectionist camps. On the one hand sit the no-nonsense utilitarians; the hard-nosed wonks who view the reading of fiction as a frivolous, even vaguely effeminate, waste of a serious thinker’s time. On the other are the ostentatious aesthetes; the artistic puritans for whom political involvement is always and everywhere a vulgarity and barbarism.

Few writers better exhibit the poverty of both these extremes than Salman Rushdie, the political novelist who has, by both choice and circumstance, spent a hefty portion of his career embarking on some eminently literary politics. His new 630-page memoir, titled Joseph Anton after the name he adopted during nine years of hiding, is among other things a testament to the perils but also the necessity, and indeed the virtues, of being fully engaged on both literary and political fronts.

Starting - as Rushdie does - with the literature, one of the joys of Joseph Anton is the insight it gives into the practical process of writing a novel, as well as the more intangible development and maturation of the novelist’s mind itself. The seeds of what would become his most famous work (if not necessarily his most distinguished one,) The Satanic Verses, seem to have been planted during his Bombay childhood by his father Anis, a mostly nasty, cantankerous drunk who nevertheless cultivated a highly rational critique of his discarded Islam; a lesson in skeptical inquiry that evidently impressed itself upon his son. (The very name ‘Rushdie’, invented by Anis to replace ‘Dehlavi’, was taken from Ibn Rushd, the 12th-century Andalusian polymath who was, in the author’s words, “at the forefront of the rationalist argument against Islamic literalism in his time.”)

Equipped with Anis’ intellectual curiosity and irreverence, young Salman took a fancy to an obscure history course on the life of the Prophet Muhammad, whilst at Cambridge University in the 1960s, in which he learned about what were uncontroversially called the ‘Satanic Verses’. These are the heterodox Islamic scriptures that would appear two decades later, only lightly fictionalized, in the supposedly ‘offending’ passages of the novel that bore their name. It’s instructive to reflect, as he does, that the story of the verses is “essentially admiring of the Prophet of Islam and even respectful toward him” – an irony naturally lost on many of the fanatics that didn’t read the novel.

Elsewhere, the search for what he calls “the sweet recess of the mind where fiction lurked” takes him on an "odyssey” to India, where the 20-hour bus rides, vomiting chickens and peculiar Keralan storytelling techniques provide the raw materials for the Booker Prize-winning Midnight’s Children. In retrospect, one wishes there had been rather more of these pages in Joseph Anton, and less of the name-dropping celebrity-basking that populates the closing chapters (“Hugh Grant kissed him;” “The movie star Will Smith told him […].”)

On that note, now seems as good a time as any to get the book’s other shortcomings out the way: the inexcusable writing of the entire text in the third person (barring a single, erroneous sentence); the profligate use of the exclamation mark; the jarring, unnatural Americanisms ('sidewalk', 'freshmen', 'soccer' - presumably the doing of a fiendish editor); and the highly dubious assertions (e.g. the repeated claim – refutable even by the briefest Wikipedia search – that Ayatollah Khomeini started the Iran-Iraq war.)

All these flaws and more, however, can be tolerated thanks to the extraordinary drama of the story itself. This is about much more than the elite protection squad (not just “licensed to kill,” but “licensed to do so on his behalf,”) the armored Jags, the flights to the US on military jets. It is nothing less than a first-hand account of the definitive free speech battle of the 20th century. And Rushdie makes full use of the opportunity to name his allies and, more gratifyingly, shame his antagonists.

It’s never exactly been a secret that when a blood-drenched dictator put a price tag on the head of a novelist on February 14th, 1989, a number of distinguished voices on both the left and right decided the emotions of the former were worth more than the rights of the latter. Nor has it gone unnoticed that those voices grew no quieter when Rushdie’s Japanese translator was murdered, or when his Norwegian publisher was shot, or when three Iranians were found conspiring to kill him in Britain in 1992, or when the Egyptian columnist Farag Fouda and the Algerian writer Tahar Djaout were both murdered by Islamists, or when other writers like the Turkish Aziz Nesin, the Bengali Taslima Nasrin and the Egyptian Alaa Hamed were jailed or otherwise persecuted for “offending” the godly. But not until now has it been definitively established just how shockingly wide and, so to speak, high the capitulation to fascism went.

Informed readers will already have known about the sinister fatuity of characters like Germaine Greer, John le Carré, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Cat Stevens, and of course the entire Islamic, Christian and Jewish religious establishments when it came to the Rushdie “affair”. But I for one hadn’t realized the list also included Prince Charles, Rupert Murdoch, Roald Dahl, Louis de Bernières, Naguib Mahfouz (who initially defended him) and even (how could you!) Kingsley Amis. Tariq Ali lied, for presumably self-promoting reasons, about going to dinner with him. Alexander Cockburn attacked him hysterically in print. The Oxford University Press refused to publish an extract of his (from Midnight’s Children, for Christ’s sake). And Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the 'Iron Lady' herself, ignored and essentially disowned him, perpetually afraid of upsetting an Iranian government whose proxy guns in Lebanon were holding Britons hostage.

Indeed, Lebanon is more involved – and implicated – in Rushdie’s ordeal than most Lebanese probably realize. Hussein Musawi, founder of the Islamic Amal militia that would later merge with other Islamist factions to form Hezbollah, took something of a personal interest in the 'cause', threatening to kill the British hostages if the fatwa wasn’t carried out and even proposing sparing one of their lives if Rushdie were delivered to Beirut. In London, Rushdie was told by British intelligence that Hezbollah was trying to cut out the middleman and kill him themselves as late as 1998. This seems far-fetched, although wilayat al-faqih doesn’t leave much room for disobeying the Supreme Leader’s orders, and as recently as 2006 an irate Hassan Nasrallah could be found articulating his disgust that the 'apostate' was never liquidated.

With that said, there were also Lebanese fighting on his behalf. The novelist Hanan al-Shaykh seems to have never wavered in her many years of friendship with him, and another novelist, Elias Khoury, wrote in 1993 that “[Rushdie] personifies our solitude [and] his story is our own,” sentiments also echoed in print by Amin Maalouf. Indeed, this was the position of Arab and Muslim writers and intellectuals generally: Edward Said, Adonis, Mahmoud Darwish, Emile Habibi and literally dozens more of the finest pens in the region put their craven Western counterparts to shame by squarely and unambiguously fighting for Rushdie’s freedom of speech – a liberty they had reason to know could never be taken for granted.

As it still cannot. Though Rushdie now lives a considerably freer existence, the “affair” refuses to die. Just this Monday, a group of Indian Muslim clerics demanded the exclusion from this year’s Jaipur literary festival of speakers who had read passages of the Verses last year – an act that was itself a protest against death threats that had prevented Rushdie himself from appearing at the festival.

More generally, not a day goes by anymore that an artist or journalist or publisher isn’t being menaced by religious fanatics – in Tunis, or Gaza, or Riyadh, but equally in Amsterdam or Copenhagen – and yet we continue to be told, every time, that taking care not to 'offend' the thugs is the priority. Incredibly, proposals for a worldwide ban on 'blasphemy' are being taken seriously by the United Nations, with secretary-general Ban Ki-moon among the many enthusiasts. When Hamid al-Thani, the Qatari theocrat and Muslim Brotherhood patron told the General Assembly that “freedom should not […] become a tool to hurt and insult the dignity of […] sacred beliefs,” he was saying what almost no world leader would dare dispute nowadays, least of all the US President, who condemned “all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others” while the body of his ambassador to Benghazi, murdered in a frenzy of piety, was still warm.

Fortunately, books like Joseph Anton offer us another option – the humorous instead of the stern; the ironic instead of the fanatical; the literary instead of the philistine. And they also offer a welcome deterrent to future fatwa sympathizers and would-be censorship-enablers: the prospect of one day having one’s name disgraced, in cold print, for all of posterity to see.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Jokes aside, this is the sheerest sectarianism

[Originally posted at NOW]

Few things will lighten up a morning like the news that a convoy of 500 Salafists, led by one of the most controversial clerics in the country, has been prevented by irate Christian mountainfolk from enjoying a day on the ski slopes.

Yet this is distinctly black comedy if it is indeed funny at all. Astonishingly, the mayor of the town in question, Kfardebian, has defended the roadblock – which involved the use of a bulldozer and had to be dissolved by the army – on the grounds that it might harm the tourist season. Never mind that, at $27 a ticket, Ahmad al-Assir’s entourage would net a $13,500 windfall for the Mzaar resort. Nothing, apparently, could be worse for business than the ghastly sight of hundreds of Muslims everywhere.

Granted, Assir is the head of a quasi-militia. And he has proven himself more than capable of stirring up sectarian ugliness when required (remember this?). But to forcibly prevent him from using a public road to enjoy Lebanon’s most famous winter activity – on a national holiday, no less?

That is the sheerest sectarianism, not to mention the cheapest political hypocrisy. One wonders: would Mr Aqiqi be equally willing to stop a 500-strong Hizbullah contingent from passing through his town?

Ennahda under pressure in Tunisia

[Originally posted at NOW, one of a six-part series looking at the Arab Spring two years later]

The second anniversary of the revolution that overthrew Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the former military officer and now convicted criminal who presided over Tunisia for 24 years, was for most citizens an occasion of resentful anger rather than joyous celebration.

In the capital on January 14th, two years to the day after Ben Ali’s exile to Saudi Arabia, some 8,000 demonstrators took to Bourguiba Avenue, the same boulevard they had filled during the revolution, to protest the perceived failures of the new government coalition, led by the Islamist Ennahda party. With riot police standing by, they chanted, “No to religious dictatorship” and “Where is the constitution? Where is democracy?” As against this, only some 2,000 turned up to voice support for the incumbents.

This, however, was but a tame reenactment of the far more heated scenes witnessed elsewhere in the country in preceding weeks. In late November, the rural town of Siliana, about 130km southwest of Tunis, saw unprecedented violence from security forces, who fired shotguns at unarmed demonstrators calling for economic and infrastructural development. Over 220 people were wounded, including journalists, and the government’s conduct earned a public rebuke from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Similar unrest was also witnessed in other impoverished towns south of the coastline, including Sidi Bouzid, the birthplace of the Tunisian revolution and, arguably, the entire “Arab Spring.”

Such pronounced turmoil in these interior regions has largely taken analysts by surprise. Of particular significance is the rapid decline in government support within the former Ennahda bastion. “It’s interesting, if you take the votes from the October 2011 elections, you wouldn’t think these regions would now be up in arms against Ennahda, because most of them in fact had a majority of seats go to Ennahda,” said Dr Mohamed-Salah Omri, a Tunisian professor at Oxford University’s Oriental Institute.

“If you go there now, however, Ennahda is hardly there at all anymore. It’s very significant how people have turned against their representatives there,” he told NOW.

This reversal is fuelled primarily by the lack of economic and corruption-related reforms, says Omri. “The main grievance here is that promises were not fulfilled, and some of the old practices were continuing in terms of appointments of people close to the party, and so on.”

While economic frustration is felt all over the country, in Tunis and other more cosmopolitan areas nearer the coast there are further concerns about threats to human rights and individual liberties emanating from an increasingly muscular Islamist contingent to which the Ennahda party is accused of turning a blind or even quietly approving eye. Recent months have seen a series of moves to prosecute artists, actors, TV producers and journalists for such crimes as “harming public order and morals” following protests, some of them violent, by Salafist activists.

Salafists have also notably attacked Sufi shrines, hotels serving alcohol, and the US embassy, where four were killed in riots against the allegedly blasphemous “Innocence of Muslims” film.

Wafa Ben Hassine, a Tunisian writer, law student and former editor-in-chief of Tunisia Live, believes the ruling coalition is not doing enough to guard against the Salafists’ rise.

“[They] cannot become a threat if the state establishes well-developed institutions that ensure the rule of law. Given that the government isn’t doing the best job at facilitating this process of institution building, the spread of violent narratives may become more commonplace,” she told NOW.

Omri, however, is somewhat more sanguine. “I’m personally not pessimistic because I think so far a certain balance has been kept. Tunisia has a strong civil society and an emboldened and independent media that have been successful in getting the government and the Islamists to climb down on a number of key issues.”

As an example, Omri points to recent amendments to the draft constitution, where Ennahda’s demand to recognize Islamic Sharia as the “source” of legislation was dropped after negotiations.

A Human Rights Watch report issued Wednesday, however, said the new draft constitution continues to “threaten human rights.”

And indeed, the country may soon face an altogether more serious danger from religious extremism. On Monday, security forces arrested 16 suspected members of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the town of Kasserine, near the Algerian border, seizing explosives among other materiel. This followed a statement last week by President Moncef Marzouki that “Tunisia is becoming a corridor [for jihadists] between Libya and Mali.”

Omri is inclined to agree. “The news that 11 of the attackers of the gas plant in Algeria [last Wednesday] are from Tunisia, that’s a very high number. Tunisia is a corridor for militants, in the sense that I don’t think they ever managed to control the border with Libya. In fact, I think Tunisia may be the most vulnerable of the nearby countries - in terms of security and the army, it is the weakest link.”

Ben Hassine concurs, emphasizing the “Libyan weaponry that is all over the country,” adding that “security is definitely something that the Tunisian media need to report on more often and on a consistent, more regular basis.”

The AQIM threat aside, however, the average citizen’s primary concerns will continue to be economic, says Omri. As far as Salafist influence goes, he says “the ‘street’ is not with them. And certainly the media and elites aren’t either. So there will be a new re-alignment, I think.”

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A note on the Al Akhbar/STL question

[Originally posted at NOW]

One never knows quite how seriously to take the emissions of Al Akhbar’s editor-in-chief Ibrahim al-Amin – a caricature of the puritanical, prolier-than-thou pseudo-leftist; who laments the collapse of the Soviet Union; who says with a straight face that all Lebanese who oppose Hizbullah’s private arsenal are “working for Israeli military intelligence”; who could outbid even George Galloway in admiration for the careers of Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad – but his recent attempts to excuse the publication of the names, photographs and addresses of 17 alleged witnesses in the upcoming Special Tribunal for Lebanon trial are not much to chuckle about.

On Sunday, he published the first of two responses to STL spokesman Marten Youssef’s criticism of Al Akhbar’s conduct at the SKEyes Media Coverage of International Justice conference over the weekend, in which he argued that the public had a “right” to know the information, before changing the subject to the litany of alleged foul play on the part of the prosecution (or, as Amin calls it, the “international campaign of fabrication targeting the Resistance”).

In his second piece on Monday, Amin boasted that “We Will Not Be Silenced”, painting Al Akhbar as heroic whistleblowers, hounded and demonized once again by the global conspiracy “to damage the Resistance”.

Of the many points to make against this outrageously misplaced self-pity and dishonesty, let’s take just the two most obvious:

- A whistleblower is someone who exposes the crimes of the powerful, on behalf of the powerless and innocent. Al Akhbar, by contrast, put the powerless and innocent in potentially lethal danger, the only possible consequence of which is the protection of the guilty and powerful.

- Youssef’s criticism did not come from some morally compromised political bias, but from basic, fundamental respect for the process of international justice. As someone who attended all three days of the MCIJ conference, I can confirm that Youssef’s was not a minority opinion – all legal experts present, most of whom had extensive experience in international tribunals such as the ICTY and ICTR, and had no personal connection to or stake in Lebanese politics, were of the unanimous opinion that anything jeopardising the protection of witnesses was condemnable and a potential breach of the law.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Tripoli sliding into lawlessness

[Originally posted at NOW]

Rami Nasser and his friend had been slightly apprehensive about riding their motorbikes through Tripoli late last month, but it had been three weeks since the last bout of armed clashes had subsided, and a local friend assured them the situation was calm. As they were soon to discover, however, the definition of “calm” in Tripoli can be flexible.

“We were on our way to see a friend in Minyara [north of Tripoli] around noon,” Nasser told NOW. “When we entered Tripoli, we kept to the main roads. Everything looked very normal; the streets were full of people. Then, just a hundred meters or so after passing the Abu Ali Roundabout, on which the army had heavily deployed, we suddenly saw about five young guys blocking the road in front of us, shouting at us to stop.

“They started pushing our bikes and then one put a gun to my friend’s head, so he got off the bike and handed him the keys. At this point we thought it was a robbery. The five turned into over 20 within less than a minute. I thought about just slamming on the gas and trying to get away, but then one took out a handgun, cocked it, put his finger on the trigger and held it right to my face. So I got off and gave him the key too.

“Then, after we took our helmets off, a man looking like a sheikh – with the Salafist beard and shaven moustache – walked up and looked at our faces and told the guys, ‘No, no, it’s not them, let them go.’ So they gave us back our keys, and as we turned around, one shouted, ‘You should thank your god nothing happened to you. Go!’”

Abandoning the Minyara plan, Nasser and his friend made for a nearby army base to report what happened. They received a mostly indifferent response. “They didn’t care. They told us, ‘Good thing you made it out unharmed; they could have taken the bikes, they could have shot you,’” said Nasser.

“When they tried to write a report, they realized they didn’t have a pen, and they had to buy one from a nearby supermarket. And while they did this they told us to park our bikes inside their barracks, in case the guys came to check if we were talking to the army. It was really ironic, because we were with the army and they were afraid of them, not vice versa.”

To this day, Nasser has heard nothing back from the army regarding the report, and still doesn’t know why he and his friend were held up by the gunmen, though an army intelligence officer at the time suggested they were looking for two people on motorbikes who had recently “done something” against them.

Nor were the army the only ones to shrug at what happened. Ordinary pedestrians, some of whom had stopped to watch as the gunmen closed around the bikers, simply carried on with their days once Nasser and his friend fled the scene.

“It was as if it were a totally normal, everyday thing to put guns in people’s faces,” he told NOW.

Indeed, such occurrences do appear to be increasingly typical of the city that Tripoli has become – heavily weaponized, largely lawless, and violently divided along political and sectarian lines. Local resident Mustafa Ramadan told NOW that the notorious antagonism between the Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen neighborhoods has only made things worse.

For example, “A few weeks ago, a young man was walking through Tabbaneh, and someone decided he was a fighter from Jabal Mohsen who had killed Sunnis in the recent clashes,” said Ramadan. “So right then and there, in broad daylight, he pulled out a handgun, shot the guy dead and ran away. A few hours later, they discovered it was the wrong man.

“You can get killed nowadays just for looking like people.”

Why has it become like this? According to former Tripoli MP Mosbah al-Ahdab of the Tajaddod Movement, the problem is that the gunmen are politically covered. “The security institutions are more protective of fighters than civilians,” he told NOW. “You know, someone like me, if I request permits for my own protection from the Lebanese army, I have problems getting them. But they throw them right and left to all those fighters.”

Moreover, “The only money that comes into Tripoli is for buying weapons, on both sides, to create insecurity and to create an atmosphere that has nothing to do with the traditions and social fabric of Tripoli. This is an agenda that is regional; it has nothing to do with the state of Lebanon.”

Therefore, the solution, says Ahdab, is “to have a big decision coming from the government to say no more weapons and to protect civilians, rather than giving instructions to the security institutions to protect fighters.

“But if there is no political decision, nothing can be done, and unfortunately there has not been one. A blind eye is being turned to what’s going on.”

Some of the above names have been changed for security reasons.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Still think the Queen is irrelevant?

[Originally posted at NOW]

Perhaps the most common counter-argument heard, whenever we British republicans lament that our state is still officially headed by an unelected and unaccountable tribe of painfully mediocre Protestants, is that the royal family no longer wields any “real” power in the 21st century. Just yesterday I attended a discussion with a Harvard professor of government, who at one point asked whether theocracy was necessarily incompatible with the kind of economic success historically enjoyed by the UK. When I pointed out that the UK was and still is a theocracy - the Queen being the leader not only of the state and the army but of the Church of England too - I was met with a round of polite chuckles. Everyone “knew” I must have been joking.

Yet I don’t find anything especially amusing about today’s landmark revelations, which were only exhumed from official secrecy after a court order fiercely resisted by the Cabinet Office, that since 1962 Buckingham Palace has been invited to turn down at least 39 bills – invitations that it has occasionally accepted, including on such non-trivial decisions as whether to go to war.

Nor is it just the Queen. Her son Charles, who talks to plants and says science is bad for the “soul”, has been offered personal veto power over 20 pieces of legislation, an arrangement described by constitutional lawyers as a “nuclear deterrent”.

These are seriously damning disclosures. Legal scholar John Kirkhope put it mildly in saying, “There has been an implication that [the royals’] prerogative powers are quaint and sweet but actually there is real influence and real power”.

Real influence and power, that is, granted to someone whose sole qualification is being the eldest son (or, if there are no boys, daughter) of the “correct” Protestant clan. What could be more brazenly barbaric, more irrational, and more embarrassingly undemocratic?

Why Lebanon's economy fails: Interview with Harvard Prof. James A. Robinson

[Originally posted at NOW]

What makes one country richer than another? How is it that some states, despite having ample natural resources and hard-working populations, lag behind others without such benefits? Are politics, culture, religion or geography to blame? And how can a dysfunctional economy reverse its fortunes?

In the sleek, sea-view Hamra offices of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS) on Monday morning, these were among the questions addressed by James A. Robinson, the David Florence Professor of Government at Harvard University and recent co-author of “Why Nations Fail." NOW took part in a roundtable discussion with Robinson led by LCPS Director Sami Atallah, after which the below follow-up questions were asked.

The core argument of “Why Nations Fail,” says Robinson, is that it is political institutions above all that determine economic prosperity. He cites the examples of post-apartheid South Africa, and the US vis-à-vis Latin America, to dismiss cultural and geographic explanations, respectively. Though he confesses he is “not an expert on the Middle East,” he believes his findings on Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa are universally valid, rejecting the idea that Islam or anything particular about Arab culture are of relevance. Wherever you look around the world, he says, “Politics are the crucial thing that determines economic growth.”

Specifically, Robinson distinguishes between “inclusive” political systems, which incentivize and reward a broad section of society for their productivity, and “extractive” ones, which divert economic gains toward an elite minority. Before the British Industrial Revolution, he says, all governments were extractive, and average incomes varied little from country to country. Ever since then, average incomes have both increased significantly and become significantly more unequal across countries, with inclusive systems at the top and extractive ones dragging behind. The key to achieving prosperity, therefore, is “the transition from extractive to inclusive institutions.”

Within the region, he cites Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt and Bashar al-Assad’s Syria as classic examples of extractive systems. That they have both faced a popular challenge, he says, makes him “much more optimistic about the Middle East than before,” though he is concerned about the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s attempts to concentrate power too narrowly among themselves at the expense of broader inclusivity.

As for Lebanon, he calls it a “fascinating” and perhaps unprecedented example. “For 2,000 years no one managed to dominate Lebanon.

“There’s no useful European model for comparison.”

NOW: You recently co-wrote an article enumerating ten ways that states fail. Lebanon’s problems seem closest to your Colombia and Somalia examples; i.e., a weak, almost absent central state and little law and order. How can these be tackled?

Prof. James A. Robinson: That’s a very hard question. If you think historically about how states are formed, it usually involves one group in society managing to effectively dominate the others. Which usually means, as in the English case, it’s part coercion and part buying people off. After the War of the Roses, Henry VII had so weakened the aristocracy that he demilitarized them and created a monopoly on violence. And then he bought them off by incorporating them into the state.

Does that model work here? It’s hard to think of the Maronites, or the Shiites, or whoever, creating a coercive monopoly over the other groups, disarming them and going down the British road. But there’s no reason that every country has to go down that road.

It seems here they’ve been trying to find a constitutional solution to the problem, but the difficulty is that no group wants to create an effective central state because they’re just too scared that it’ll be dominated or captured by other groups. And so you’re in this perpetual flux, whereby those who know power is changing to their benefit have no incentive to hand it over, while those who know it’s changing to their disadvantage don’t want that to be formally acknowledged.

How do you stabilize that situation? I don’t think the British model is relevant for thinking about Lebanon. Maybe the current system does offer some advantages. After all, Lebanon’s communities have been coexisting for over 1,000 years. In some ways it seems to be outside interference that exacerbates the problems. If everybody just left Lebanon alone, I think it would be much better off.

NOW: It’s interesting you mention demilitarization, because as you may know, at the end of the Lebanese civil war, every militia agreed to disarm with the exception of Hezbollah, whose arsenal today is substantial. What effect does that have?

Robinson: Well I think that’s probably a very bad thing, because then there is no equality of arms. You would hope to have no arms at all, of course, but an equality of arms is at least better than asymmetry, which then raises the fears of all the other groups and leads to them arming in turn.

NOW: You’ve also written recently on Israel and Palestine. Why are Israelis so much better off than Palestinians?

Robinson: Israelis are so much better off because they’ve imported so many resources; education, human capital, technology and so forth. They also have highly inclusive institutions, while Palestinian ones tend to be more extractive. At the same time, Israel has throttled Gaza, where there’s no movement of labor and highly limited trade. And they’ve done the same, to a lesser extent, in the West Bank.

Friday, January 11, 2013

A feud in the corridors of Sunni power

[Originally posted at NOW]

A long-brewing feud in the corridors of Sunni power took a turn for the worse this week, in spite of mediation efforts undertaken Monday by the community’s premier representatives, with a group of Future Movement MPs describing Grand Mufti Sheikh Muhammad Rashid Qabbani as a “dictator” and “tyrant” in a statement Wednesday.

The controversy was first triggered by Qabbani’s call last year for elections in the Higher Islamic Council, the clerical body in charge of Dar al-Fatwa, the Sunnis’ officially established religious authority. The call was rejected by 21 of the 32 members of the council reported to be loyal to the Future Movement, ostensibly on the grounds that it was unconstitutional. The Mufti has dismissed this claim, accusing the 21 members of “working on dividing the Muslim [community] for political reasons.”

Elections, if they were to occur, could impact not only the Sunni community, but all Lebanese. The council’s role is not limited to Sunni religious affairs, such as issuing fatwas and managing the awqaf [financial assets] – it also holds considerable sway over national parliamentary decisions, according to lawyer Nabil al-Halabi. For example, a 2011 draft law that sought to criminalize domestic violence was blocked by Dar al-Fatwa on the grounds that it “violat[ed] Islamic law.”

From a strictly legal perspective, it appears both sides in the current dispute have grounds to argue their cases. On the one hand, the Mufti is correct in saying that the current term of the council members has expired, according to lawyer and council member Muhammad al-Mrad. Indeed, the term expired in 2009, but has been extended by decree every year since then due to agreement among members that extraordinary circumstances in the country made the holding of elections undesirable.

By the same token, however, Mrad told NOW that elections cannot be held without the consent of all council members. “It is not possible to call for elections without referring to the council. The council is the authority that decides whether the extraordinary circumstances are still present. Any call for elections by the Mufti must be based on a council decision that these circumstances are over.”

According to Halabi, the Mufti argues in turn that since the council’s term has ended, it has become a “caretaker” one, which does not have the legal authority to reject his call for elections.

However, protocol was also violated in other ways, according to Mrad. “Article 12, Item 2 of the 1955 decree stipulates that the electoral check lists must be published in the first month of every year. The Mufti cannot call for elections” since this has not been done.

In any case, beneath the legal dispute lies deepening political antagonism that may be the key driving force of the rift. Over the past year, the Mufti and the Future Movement have waged a public war of words over a number of issues, with Future accusing the Mufti of favoring their March 8 opponents, and the Mufti in turn accusing them of “slandering” him, “disregarding [his] dignity” and trying to “take away [his] powers.”

“Undoubtedly, there are political problems such as [the Mufti’s] receiving a Hezbollah delegation [and] the Iranian and Syrian ambassadors,” Halabi told NOW. “Some consider this a dangerous sign that the Mufti may take the council to another path that does not serve the interests of the Sunni sect.” Indeed, in their statement Wednesday, Future MPs accused the Mufti of “serving [Iran] and [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad’s regime.”

The Mufti dismisses these allegations as “lies”, saying, “I am not one to be on one side and move to another like politicians.”

Others, including Mrad, believe the Mufti is maneuvering to extend his own term for the rest of his life. “I think there are personal calculations for the Mufti. His insistence on holding elections [aims] to provide a certain majority in the council, in order to extend his term for life. The law gives him the right to choose 8 members and there is someone who promised to provide him a majority,” that “someone” being “well-known parties that are controlling all issues,” likely a reference to Hezbollah and/or Syria.

The Mufti denies this too, saying via a Dar al-Fatwa statement that he would leave the institution when his term ends on September 15, 2014, and “go back home […] [A]ny other talk is just rumors and fabrications.”

At present, PM Miqati is trying to push through a solution that would see the current council remain for two to three months, after which time the elections would be held. While Qabbani has accepted the proposal subject to minor adjustments, it remains to be seen whether it will satisfy the Future Movement.

Amani Hamad contributed reporting.

[Video] Ex-NOW journalist films Syrian refugee documentary

[Originally posted at NOW]

In what we at NOW are interpreting as evidence of the excellent mentorship she received during her tenure here, the young journalist and activist Luna Safwan has just released a brief but very fine documentary video on the Syrian refugees of Aarsal.

Over the course of six visits to the remote northeastern Beqaa town, Luna has interviewed dozens of the estimated 1,800 Syrian families seeking refuge there in hastily-built bare brick constructions (they cannot be described as “houses”). In the documentary, we meet the mayor of the town as well as a mother and wife who enumerates the daily battle for survival, but most memorable are the conversations with the children, who, despite recounting the horrific violence that led them to flee Syria, speak cheerily of their hopes of becoming doctors and pharmacists when they grow up. Indeed, at times, the footage is reminiscent of Mai Masri’s classic ‘Children of Shatila’.

Incidentally, the documentary could hardly have come at a ‘better’ time, as there has never been a more perilous period for Syrian refugees in Lebanon than right now. Luna did her filming on December 29th. Since that date, a deadly storm has buried almost all of Lebanon in freezing floods and snow, claiming at least four lives. One shudders to think how Luna’s interviewees are faring today, but to give us an idea, NOW’s Raphael Thelen will be filing a report from his own trip to Aarsal within the next few days.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

A new (sort of) twist in Saqrgate

[Originally posted at NOW]

In a new development that isn’t quite as interesting as it might at first sound, former General Security chief Jamil as-Sayyid has given Lebanon’s general prosecutor a CD purporting to contain four audio recordings of phone calls between MP Oqab Saqr and an “armed group in Syria”.

Saqr, you will recall, was in December the subject of a high-profile ‘exposé’ by OTV and Al Akhbar, who published calls between him and the Free Syrian Army in which he appeared to be negotiating the provision of arms at the behest of former PM Saad Hariri. In a somewhat grandiose press conference, Saqr retorted that the media outlets had tampered with the tapes, revealing what he said were the complete recordings, showing he had in fact been negotiating humanitarian aid.

OTV replied that he in turn had doctored the evidence, by which point few people knew who to believe – though in an oddly underreported development, an independent British company called Audio Forensic Services commissioned by al-Jadeed TV (not exactly known for pro-Hariri leanings) to investigate the tapes played by Saqr at his Istanbul press conference found them to be authentic, i.e., not edited. Saqr and Hariri subsequently launched a lawsuit against OTV and Al Akhbar for defamation and inciting sectarianism.

That was as much as was known yesterday. Do Sayyid’s new recordings change anything? Not really. Even assuming they’re genuine, they implicate Saqr only in negotiations to transfer funds and communication equipment to the rebels – not weapons. And that Sayyid freely admits their source is Syrian state television does not exactly recommend their credibility. Whether or not Saqr is in fact arming the rebels (and whether or not it would be such a bad thing if he were), as far as hard evidence is concerned, there remains considerable room for reasonable doubt.

Previous posts on this topic: ‘The Saqrpunch’

Thursday, January 3, 2013

British Christians: Assad's accidental friends

[Originally posted at NOW]

While Bashar al-Assad’s Western apologists have traditionally hailed from circles described (or at any rate self-described) as leftist, in recent weeks a new clique of apparatchiks has surfaced from a rather different quarter – the cobwebbed upper crust of British Christian conservatism. A series of reports for such august right-of-center publications as The Telegraph and The Spectator have combined shoddy journalism with vulgar appeals to the tribal emotions of their reactionary Christian readership to dangerously distort the narrative of recent events on the ground in Syria.

Take, for instance, Mary Wakefield’s dispatch from Lebanon for the Spectator in October. Wakefield drives to the border town of al-Qaa to interview Christian refugees from nearby Syrian towns, who recount lurid stories of mass atrocities committed by the Sunni rebels, including one execution with a syringe of diesel by a man muttering, “Die slowly, you Christian dog” (a quote appropriated by Wakefield for her title).

What Wakefield barely mentions, and doesn’t elaborate on, is that these interviews were conducted in the presence of one Dr Bassam El-Hachem, an academic and “big hitter in Lebanon’s FPM party”. As anyone who follows Lebanese politics knows, the FPM is the largest component of the incumbent pro-Damascus March 8 cabinet; a party whose leader has repeatedly described Syria as the most democratic country in the Middle East. And as anyone who has interviewed Syrian refugees knows, they would not dream of expressing pro-opposition sentiment in the presence of a senior party member of one of Assad’s major allies. (So consuming is their fear of the regime that I once saw a group refuse to give their names to UNHCR.)

Later, Wakefield pays a visit to the Melkite Archbishop John Darwish in Zahle (or, as she writes it, “Zhaleh”), who expounds on the rebel “jihadists” and their role in the Israeli conspiracy to partition Syria. More on him later.

Then came Terry Waite’s catastrophic effort in the Telegraph last month, in which he embarked on what he called a “mission of peace” to Hizbullah, his captors for five years during the civil war. He almost exactly emulates Wakefield’s itinerary: first the long drive to al-Qaa “to see for myself the plight of the many Christian refugees”, and then the chat with Archbishop Darwish in Zahle (which Waite proves capable of spelling).

Intriguingly, we learn that Darwish is a “strong backer” of the 2006 Memorandum of Understanding between the FPM and Hizbullah, described gushingly by Waite as “one of the most remarkable developments in Lebanon in recent years […] Christian[s] and Muslims working together for a united Lebanon”. The potential implications of this on Darwish’s opinions of the Syrian conflict are left unexplored by Waite, but it’s not difficult to see how he reaches the conclusion that the Arab Spring “has now been hijacked by extreme jihadists”.

This sentiment continued yesterday in a Guardian piece by Rupert Shortt, religion editor of the Times Literary Supplement whose latest book is titled ‘Christianophobia’. Taking a very dim view of the Arab Spring in general (apparently it has “given way to a Christian winter”), he asserts that Syrian rebels “want all traces of Christian life to be erased”, citing the murder of a priest in Qatana that, we are led to believe, was carried out by Sunni Islamists.

In fact, nothing is known about Father Fadi Haddad’s killers. The regime blamed “terrorists”; the opposition blamed the regime. Like so many of Syria’s “disappeared”, we may never find out the truth. Yet Shortt takes the regime line at face value and portrays the atrocity as typical rebel conduct.

Implicit in all of this is a grotesque form of sectarianism, which sees Christian Syrian refugees as more worthy of sympathy than their vastly more numerous Sunni counterparts (you don’t have to drive all the way to al-Qaa to meet a Syrian refugee). In turn, it insidiously breathes life into the false narrative of Assad as “protector” of the minorities (just as he’s the “protector” of the Palestinians, when he isn’t air-striking their camps) and the last bastion against an Islamist tsunami. This is both an intellectual disservice to readers and a moral insult to those risking death for a freer Syria.