May 2009


Today, al-Akhbar released a transcript (with some omissions) of the closed meeting between Walid Junblat and the Druze sheikhs which had been previously leaked on youtube in April. The original leak offered a rare glimpse of the everyday politics of sectarianism in Lebanon. And while the leak might have been more sensational, today’s transcript contextualizes better Junblat’s aim in the meeting: convincing those present to work the Druze rank and file into accepting coexsitence with the Shi`a (read Hizballah).

Steps towards reconciliation between Junblat and Hizballah have been in the making since the Doha meeting this past summer. Junblat immediately issued several overtures which culminated in Na`im Qasim revealing Hizballah’s decision to open up to Walid Junblat and suggesting that a meeting between Junblat and Nasrallah is possible after — and probably also in light of — the elections. Junblat’s attempt at smoothing the Druze wrinkles of last May might very well be a preparation for such an eventuality.

What I find most interesting, however, is the argumentation method Junblat used to convince those present of helping him with his goal: reconciliation or bloodshed. Pursuant to his summary of “we have the sea, we have Israel, and we have Syria,” he said:

ولما كانت الحرب، كنت أطلب الذخيرة، كان حافظ الأسد يلبّي طلبي سريعاً (الواحد بدو يذكر المساوئ والمحاسن) كانت قوافل الذخيرة تأتي من جديدة يابوس حتى حمّانا… صحيح خضنا الحرب، لكن اليوم ماذا أفعل؟ من أين أحصل على الذخيرة؟ من البحر؟ أو من إسرائيل؟ لا، من إسرائيل لا…

When there was [civil] war, I used to ask for munitions and Hafiz al-Asad would swiftly fulfill my request (one has to remember both the good and the bad characteristics). Caravans of munitions used to come from Jdaydit Yabus to Hammana. It is true we went to war, but what do I do today? Where do I get munitions from? From the sea? Or from Israel? No, not form Israel…

A structurally similar line of “alliance with Hizballah or bust” was forwarded during the “debate” between Ibrahim Kanaan and Sami Gemayel on Kalam al-Nas last Sunday (if you can stand 2+ hours of shouting, you can watch it here). Responding to Gemayel’s (read, Kataeb’s) one trick pony of “the state über alles” and to the accusation that the Free Patriotic Movement is providing cover for Hizballah’s project for Islamicizing Lebanon, Kanaan responded that the alternative to coming to an understanding with Hizballah would be “committing suicide” (towards the end the episode).

Earlier in the Kalam al-Nas debate (a cross between a cockfight and a bad domestic argument), Kanaan accused Gemayel’s party of waging “a campaign of fear” when it comes to Hizballah (عم بتخوفوا الناس). That much is obvious. From billboards, to slogans, to speeches… capitalizing on the events of May 7th has pretty much been March 14th ticket this electoral campaign. But one has to ask oneself, are not alliances and rapprochements with Hizballah, when framed as Junblat and Kanaan frame them, also campaigns of fear? Hizballah, it seems to me, can be a very useful and flexible tool.

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Elections' Most Recent: Transparent Ballot Boxes (Source: www.annahar.com)

Elections' Latest: Transparent Ballot Boxes (Source: http://www.annahar.com)

Following his article on electoral campaign advertisements, Ghassan Su`ud has another report this time on campaigning on the Internet. It is in Arabic, but it provides links to websites most of which have an English version (even francophone candidates are converting to English. What is the world coming to?).

Interestingly, Hizballah was among the first political parties to ride the Internet wave back in 1997, by first providing material to al-Mashriq and then, later, going off on their own. Things are different today. While March 14, the Free Patriotic Movement, the Lebanese Forces, and the Kataeb have expended a lot of energy — and done so early on — to present their candidates and an “elections” section on their websites, Hizballah is playing it low key and has candidate blurbs only in Arabic. Future Movement followed suit more recently by adding a candidate section to its personality-cult website. And, apart from the advertisement at the bottom, I did not find any evidence on Amal’s website of an upcoming election.

This could be partly explained by the parties’ conceptions of the percentage of their electorate residing abroad and their dependence on the Internet. There is also the newly found savviness for corporate identity and image-management since the Cedar Revolution and its concomitant breed of graphic design tools. Most importantly, I do not think it is a coincidence that most of the electoral websites mentioned in Su`ud’s article belong to Christian candidates — specifically candidates running in Matn and Beirut 1 (Ashrafiyah, Rmayl, Sayfi). The parties with the most engaging websites are also invested in the results of the elections in these districts. Incidentally, Matn and Beirut 1, along with Zahlah, are the only real battlegrounds in the upcoming elections.

A couple of days ago, Khaled Saghiyah’s article in al-Akhbar questioned — very politely and very tactfully — Hassan Nasrallah’s description of the 7th of May (2008)  as a “glorious day for the resistance.” Saghiyah does not split hairs on the by now well-rehearsed argument that Hizballah and its allies’ swooping down on Beirut was a necessary evil. Instead, he appeals to the politician in Nasrallah — rather than the military strategist — asking whether calling May 7th a glorious day might be a tad insensitive in a country such as Lebanon:

Not everything can be measured in terms of military cost. May 7th may have cut short a road to a longer civil war and even more victims, but the politician who wants to affirm his ability to rule the country cannot justify civic violence (even if he regards it as necessary) by gloating and glorifying. He does it, rather, with sadness and pain.

Saghiyah has hit the nail on the head with this one. He pin-points the indefensible in Nasrallah’s logic — i.e. indefensible in the terms and rhetoric that Nasrallah has set for himself. At a time of extreme polarization, he also manages to frame what amounts to a “criticism from within,” a very rare creature these days.

Saghiyah points explicitly to the polarization generated by the discourse on both sides and suggests that it might have been a factor in the increased spying activity for Israel. A friend of mine recently remarked on the effect this polarization has had over the past few years on the attitude of some Amal members/friends. It used to be, according to this friend, that these individuals took great care to differentiate themselves from what they viewed as Hizballah’s silly Islamism. Their worn-out mantel of “secularism” has been cast. Identifying today proudly as “matawilah” and drunk on the spoils of that glorious day, they proclaim their readiness to “take over” Beirut once and for all.

In case you have missed it, Min Beirut… bil 3arabe has an elections special: short clips from various Rahbani plays.

Though the Rahbani’s are mostly remembered as blue-eyed (or, alternatively, cynical), dream weavers of a non-existent (Christian) Lebanon, there is a sharper side to them. Some of this sharpness comes out in these Min Beirut clips. The second clip from Lulu, with its liturgical twist towards the end, is particularly delightful.

The Disciples of the Third Republic
A few days ago, the Free Patriotic Movement released its electoral program: Towards the Third Republic (http://forum.tayyar.org/program/electoral.pdf). The concept is not new, Aoun discussed it at least as far back as 2001 (http://www.aawsat.com/details.asp?section=4&article=22281&issueno=8088). But the FPM has brilliantly capitalized on it for this electoral campaign. The idea was elaborated on by Kanaan in an interview with al-Akhbar a while back (http://www.al-akhbar.com/ar/node/60100). Briefly put:
1st: the weak, post-independence republic. According to Kanaan characterized by the political classes  inability “to protect Lebanon from regional push and pull. For the traditional political Lebanese school is built on internal power-sharing without a view of a regional, strategic role for Lebanon. So, this feeds the internal contradictions turning Lebanon into a battle ground for settling the scores.”
2nd: the corrupt, post-taef republic. The Taef, again according to Kanaan, solved the first republic problem by inserting the need for an external valve, Syria, “whose role was to reign the rhythm of the political system, the adversary, and governance.”
3rd: the suggested, FPM third republic. In contrast to the first it is a strong state that shields Lebanon from the regional game and internal division and, in contrast to the second, it is a transparent and accountable system of governance.
There is much, much to say about this – both its ingeniousness and its contradictions – but I will just mention a few things I thought were interesting.
First, any periodization serves a purposes and is not self-given. For a different kind of periodization see for example Fawaz Traboulsi’s (leftist) periodization History of Lebanon with (1) mercantile period, (2) pro-western authoritarianism, (3) Shiabism and (4) crisis. In this instance, FPM’s periodization serves to orchestrate history as a series of movements culminating in an interpretation of the present as a moment of crisis due to weakness and corruption. Even more so, with its emphasis on a stable, almost final epoch, the third republic, it is almost messianic. This element of messianism is buttressed by a major backbone of the campaign advertisement deriving from a new testament verse (“But let your words be yes, yes, and no, no; for anything which adds to these is deception.” Matthew 5:34-37) So does Kannan’s use of the expression “rusul al-jumhiriyah al-thalithat” (disciples of the third republic)
This periodization is also informed by a derivative kind of history, one that references the history of France, the longest and first stable republic after a century of upheavals. Rajeh al-Khouri is right to ask why the third republic is stable (link). The answer is simple: because the third republic is stable. Of course, together with the “Sois belle et tais tois” (link) campaign advertisement and the new testament reference, it pins down the audience it is trying to appellate.
There is one last point to the periodization in question, and that is the less obvious de facto acceptance of a specific version of Lebanon’s post-independence history. The problem with this Lebanon, according to the third republic vision, is not its corruption, not its social and economic inequalities, not its marginalization of a large segment of its population. Although the electoral program diagnoses some problems that can be traced to the “first republic” (most prominent, the rural neglect), discursively – as far as I know – problems of corruption and bad management are only stressed in relation to the post-Taef (read, Hariri) period. The main problem with the “golden period” of Lebanon’s history is its weakness. As such, the FPM vision of history diverges from the “Maronite” history of Lebanon shared by its adversaries only in the

Last week, the Free Patriotic Movement unveiled its electoral program: Towards the Third Republic… (pdf). Aoun has discussed this concept at least as far back as 2001. But the Free Patriotic Movement has brilliantly capitalized on it for this electoral campaign. A while back, Ibrahim Kanaan elaborated in an interview with al-Akhbar on the three republics:

1st: the weak, post-independence republic. Characterized by the political classes’ divisions and thus inability “to protect Lebanon from regional forces.”

2nd: the corrupt, post-Taef republic. The Taef, again according to Kanaan, solved the first republic problem by inserting the need for an external valve, Syria. More importantly, this republic was corrupt and the cause behind the national debt.

3rd: the projected, FPM third republic. Characterized by a strong state, in contrast to the 1st, and a transparent and accountable system of governance, in contrast to the 2nd. Their impressive electoral program elaborates on how the party aims to achieve this vision.

tayyar_stable_3rd

There is much, much to say about the concept of the third republic – both its obvious ingeniousness and its less obvious assumptions – but I wanted to share a few things that struck me regarding its overall periodization.

First, any periodization is, of course, neither self-obvious nor given and, more often than not, serves a specific version of history. In this instance, FPM’s periodization builds on an existing one. It orchestrates history as a series of movements culminating in an interpretation of the present as a moment of crisis resulting from weakness and corruption. Even more so, with its emphasis on a stable, almost final epoch — “the third republic is stable” (see image) — this version of history borders on the messianic. The element of messianism is further buttressed by a major backbone of the electoral campaign deriving from the new testament verse “Fal yakun kalamukum na`am, na`am, la, la” (“But let your words be yes, yes, and no, no; for anything which adds to these is deception.” Matthew 5:34-37). As if to further stress this point, in the al-Akhbar interview Kannan uses the expression “rusul al-jumhuriyah al-thalithah” (apostles of the third republic) to describe the party.

Second, this periodization is also informed by a derivative version of history, one that references the history of France, particularly the longest and first stable republic after a century of upheavals, la Troisième République. A Rajeh al-Khouri Op-Ed in al-Nahar asks: why is the third republic stable? The answer is simple: because la Troisième République was stable. But this is not merely a matter of translation. Together with the “Sois belle et vote” campaign advertisement and the new testament references, this leaves little doubt as to what audience will not only understand, but, more importantly, react to this as an “appellation,” to borrow from Althusser — i.e. recognizing themselves in an external projection that is in fact a barely disguised reflection of their inner conditioning. The function this performs — whether purposefully or not, whether successfully or not — is the reproduction of ideology.

There is one last point to the periodization in question, and that is the less obvious de facto acceptance of a specific version of Lebanon’s first republic. The problem with this Lebanon, according to FPM’s vision, is not its corruption, not its social and economic inequalities, not its marginalization of a large segment of its population. Although the electoral program diagnoses some problems that can be traced back to the first republic (rural neglect, for example), discursively, problems of corruption, bad management, and neglect are primarily stressed in relation to the post-Taef (read, Hariri) period. The main problem with the “golden period” of Lebanon’s pre-civil war history is, according to the third republic vision, primarily the weakness of the state. As such, whereas the FPM vision of history upon which “the third republic” builds diverges only in the more recent past from the “Maronite” history shared by its adversaries, it clashes dramatically with that of its allies.

politician_grades

Today’s al-Akhbar had an interesting article about the results of a survey conducted by Kamal Feghali (reproduced in table form above). Respondents in the 18 electoral districts were asked to grade politicians’ political performances on a scale of 0 to 10. Sulayman received the highest marks, followed by Baroud (only Baroud’s highest and lowest scores are given in the article). The remarkable thing is that despite “bir-rouh bid-damm” most other political leaders, both zu`ama and neo-zu`ama, do not fare as well. Another interesting result, pointed out in the article, is that Nasrallah is ahead of Hariri in majority Christian districts and even ahead of Aoun among the Christians of Akkar, Zahleh, and Baalbak. In addition, Jubran Basil reaps better results than Aoun in 13 of the 18 districts.

This all leads the article to conclude that the Lebanese value the performance of the “active minister” and thus show a bias in favor of the state and neutrality.  That is quite a jump! The scores respondents gave performances may have political relevance if one were to assume that political performance actually impacts political choices. And in Lebanon, I do not see what one has to do with the other. Still, respondents of all sects were able to point out a common set of achievers and grade them accordingly. That such a value system might exist, as the survey suggests, alongside the other set of considerations that ultimately shape political choices is in and of itself intriguing.

First off, I apologize for the hiatus on this blog. Teaching responsibilities and other personal reasons have placed it on the back-burner for a while. Thanks for continuing to stop by. This hiatus has a particularly unfortunate timing given the fact that we, the Lebanese, are about to dramatically change the course of our history on June 7. It is true. I saw it on the advertising campaigns of the various parties!

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the elections this time round are the election campaign ads. A new era has been inaugurated by the Cedar Revolution. The musty, dime-a-dozen posters have lost their luster in the age of graphic and web designers. And as various fellow bloggers agree, Aoun’s FPM has had the most brilliant output. You can read more about these adventurous times on +961 and Remarkz, especially Bech’s post on campaigningBeirut/NTSC has extensive coverage that attempts to crack the code of campaign ads. For analysis of a different sort and interesting debates in the comments section, check out the indispensable and indefatigable Qifa Nabki, if you have not already.

More soon… inshallah.