June 2009


The Lebanese media is reporting that a 30-year old woman died and three more people were wounded in Ayshah Bakkar this evening as a result of fire exchange between Hariri and Berri supporters. The army is now in control of the area with orders to shoot at anyone carrying arms in the vicinity. The Corniche (seaside promenade), which is just off the neighborhood where I am staying, is unusually quiet for a Sunday night and I have seen two columns of army tanks rumbling by this evening.

This might come as a surprise given the prevailing mode of reconciliation after the elections, but tensions are still running deep beneath the smooth surface. The reason, according to al-Akhbar, is that Syria and Saudi Arabia cannot agree on the details surrounding Lebanon. Some of the tension seeped through in Thursday’s parliamentary session for the election of speaker and deputy speaker of parliament. At most 24 of Hariri’s bloc, “Lebanon First,” voted for Nabih Berri. The disappointment of receiving 90 votes instead of the expected 100+ was obvious on Berri’s face. The reply came swiftly during the ensuing election of deputy speaker Farid Makari, who received 74 votes — meaning that only a handful of opposition members voted for him.

The lightness with which politicians took the election in parliament was so far removed from the seriousness of the situation. A vote went to the deceased singer Farid al-Atrash, another to the deceased Sabri Hamadah, a third to the “parliament,” and so on so forth. Extremely cute. The naming of Saad al-Hariri yesterday to form a government, together with the blow that Berri and the opposition felt they were dealt on Thursday, raised the level of tension on the streets last night — while the parliamentarians were still wiping tears of laughter from their eyes.

Tension peaked this evening and al-Mustaqbal and Amal members took to their guns and rockets in Ayshah Bakkar. It is, after all, one big laugh. The perpetrators bear full responsibility for the murderous outcome, no doubt. But until they be held responsible for it — which they probably will not — their representatives bear the responsibililty. The murder of an innocent passerby, Zeina M., and the wounding of three others should, therefore, be declared the first act of the parliamentary flying circus.

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The not-so-surprising reelection of Nabih Berri as head of parliament yesterday reconfirmed the laws of gravity: whatever goes up, comes down. This law, it seems, keeps coming as a surprise to those firing bullets of celebration into the air. More surprising than the reelection of Berri, at least. Five Sixteen people were reported injured by the descent of bullets that had ascended into the air in joy — one of those, ironically, the technical director of NBN (Nabih Berri Network) who was in the vicinity of Berri’s residence in Ayn al-Tinah.

What I was not aware of, however, was another aspect of the law of gravity: it applies only to the inhabitants of Jemmayzah and Ashrafiyah. This according to one of our young and promising lawmakers, Nadim Gemayyel:

… some have insisted on expressing their joy with celebratory bullets, which filled with despair the hearts of citizens in Ashrafiyah and Jemmayzah, wounded during their movements on the streets and between schools.

… we show deep solidarity with the injured in Ashrafiyah and environs, hoping that the parties concerned would put under control these practices which are inherited from the days of the war and are not suitable for our present and our society’s outlook towards a better Lebanon.

My heart is already swelling with pride at this new generation leading our Lebanon towards a better future, with an outlook that goes beyond “the citizens of Ashrafiyah and Gemmayzah.” And in the spirit of stretching Lebanon’s history back to where we dare not look, here is a little reminder about revolverism from the archives.

Since I arrived in Beirut last week, the Internet connection at home has been either unreliable or completely non-existent. Uploading photographs has been near impossible, but eventually it will happen. In the mean time, I wanted to share this before the connection disappears again.

Someone I know runs a website that contains Hizballah material. This renders him susceptible to all sorts of insults and love letters in times of crisis, such as the summer of 2006. It did not take long before the trouble in Iran brought him into its orbit and he received the following email yesterday, presumably from Iran:

Assalamu Aleikum va rahmatullah va barakatuhu

I just wondered if it’s true that you sent soldiers to our country to kill our people..people who helped your people in any way… many here say that they brought Lebanese soldiers…it’s very cruel of you to do that if you really did it .. any way i dont agree with helping other countries and to give even a rial of mine as long as we have poor people in our country and they are forced to sell their children or dignity because of poverty….it’s not fair.. I believe you’re just like other selfish politicans who are stuck in the ridiculous political world  ….I wonder how you will meet Imam Zaman or even God?!!!!

The reference is to the news that 5,000 members of Hizballah had been helping brutally suppress demonstrators in Iran. The source for the Der Spiegel article is supposedly Voice of America, but I have been unable to locate the piece of news on their website.

Abu Muqawama debunks this story, but I think it is worth stopping at another aspect of the email quoted above. The logic set out in it — that the Iranian government is helping the Lebanese people at the expense of the poor in Iran — is one I have heard several times before from Iranian friends and acquaintances. Of course, in the true tradition of Lebanese navel-gazing, the bitterness that support for Hizballah generates inside Iran matters little when discussing our politics.

For some reason, some native intellectuals insist on adopting the reductionist model of backwardness vs. progress to explain politics in Lebanon today. The latest incarnation is an op-ed by Hazim Saghiyah (not to be confused with the nephew, Khalid) published in Meow Lebanon. Referring to an electoral speech delivered by Jubran Basil, Saghiyah explains:

This distinction between “the materialism of the West” and “the spiritualism of the East” is not new, nor is it monopolized by the Lebanese. What is new is that it is now emanating from a political party [the Free Patriotic Movement] that continuously expresses its attachment to modernity and to “reform and change.” But Hizballah has already, in its last electoral program, announced “fighting vice” as one of its points […]

[…] There are therefore, regardless of the election and its results and away from politics in its daily and common conception, signs of a cultural alliance, one might say, between the two parties of Mar Mkhayel [signatories of the memorandum of understanding]. And the direct enemy of this alliance is: freedom and progress.

For an intellectual, Saghiyah is incredibly ignorant of Middle Eastern intellectual history. The distinction between the materiality of the West and the spirituality and values of the East is not meeting its modernist and reformist counterpart for the first time. It is precisely the product of a modern condition and a modern reorganization of knowledge that attempted to shore up and define a disempowered “East” against a politically, economically, and militarily powerful “West.” A counter-Orientalism, if you will, belonging to the time of al-nahdah (late 19th century Arab “renaissance”).

But what is more interesting is the political expediency to Saghiyhah’s intellectual musings. By branding the Free Patriotic Movement and Hizballah as the darkest relics of the past, their opponents emerge as champions of “freedom and progress.” On what he means by that, he explains: “[…] the most important foundations and characteristics of Lebanon, as in opening up to the Arab and western worlds, as well as in its economy and prosperity.” When defined in this truncated manner, one is tempted to follow up with the conclusion that Gulf states are beacons of freedom and progress!

This watered down definition eschews — perhaps unwittingly — more common and fundamental aspects of “freedom and progress” such as democratic practices and representation, freedom of the press and the media, a redistribution of economic opportunities, a structure of rights and duties, etc… etc… Naturally so, because if Saghiyah were to highlight these instead, one would be hard pressed to find a place for March 14 in their midst. But the only way to grant March 14 the cultural legitimacy and civilizational mission that it claims for itself — without questioning it or questioning the regional power structure behind it — is to cast its opponents as partners in an anti-modern, cultural alliance.

Though these cultural claims to civilization are not new in Lebanon, they have persisted over the past few years in a very bare and highly politicized form. Today, however, there were hints in the Lebanese media of a possible reshuffling of alliances that is to take place in the coming weeks. If this reshuffling were indeed to happen, it would be interesting to watch where leftists-turned-liberals such as Hazim Saghiyah will turn to next.

In case you are still wondering why exactly Minister of Interior, Ziad Baroud’s proposal for pre-printed ballots was vehemently opposed by Amal, Hizballah, the Lebanese Forces, and the Future Movement:

What happens is that the campaign machines themselves print a list of candidates that they want you to put in the ballot box, and distribute it. That sounds harmless, but it’s the key device to track votes. Most people vote in villages, where you have rarely more than 2,000 voters, who are further subdivided by sect and by family register numbers. So if in a given voting room you have ten major families, they will distribute ten different versions of the same list to those families — different in font, name order, etc. During vote count, the election monitors of the various candidates inspect any single ballot paper, and they track exactly how many copies of what version ended up in the box. And after the elections, they may come to the head of that family and tell him: hey — we promised you to pay the tuition for your nephew, we settled your cousin’s hospital bill — why didn’t you guys vote for us?

There is another ingenious device to insure people vote the way they are supposed to or paid to: the “rent-an-ID” method. Basically, you are paid a certain sum of money in return for giving up your national identity card until election day. Then, on the appointed day, you are met by a representative who hands you your ID and a ballot, making sure you drop the latter “as is” (mitil/zayy ma hiyyi).

Just when you thought you had seen the last of him, here he goes again. With elections in Lebanon and Iran within a week of each other, why not reflect on democracy:

There are rumors about large amounts of Saudi money floating in to support the victorious March 14 coalition, but so what? Hezbollah gets at least $200 million a year from Iran. It is striking that the losers are not crying foul; they too agree the election was fundamentally fair.

As long as everyone agrees that foreign interference and ridiculous amounts of money being thrown around are the order of the day, it must be free and fair elections. Just another day in the life of Elliot Abrams. Read all about it.

With Amal and Hizballah reaffirming their presence in their districts and Sulayman Franjiyah reconsolidating his fiefdom in Zgharta, the biggest losers in these elections have been the Free Patriotic Movement. Though they still represent a considerable chunk of the Christians, the shock of the decline since 2005 against all expectations and predictions is still reverberating.

Critiques of “what went wrong” abound, and Khalid Saghiyah rises to the occassion again with a sharp one. He criticizes ongoing attempts to justify the electoral loss, including the appeal to the popular vote, stressing instead the need for introspection on several levels: the sectarian discourse, the divisive electoral law, and the “glorious day” (May 7th, 2008).

But he also nails down other blunders:

  • Hizballah’s resignation when it comes to its Sunni allies, who have been left to their own devices. Hizballah “bet instead on the Christian horse” leaving the Sunnis feeling besieged.
  • The inability to transform the memorandum of understanding from an “alliance” into an “understanding” over common political and national grounds, leaving a glaring gap between “the public” of Hizballah and that of the Free Patriotic Movement.
  • The “anthem against corruption” remained sensational and vague. He points out that while Aoun’s discourse on corruption might “tickle the feelings” of the middle class, it is out of tune with the popular classes that are dependent on the channels of corruption and clientalism. I think this observation can also be used to critique the approach of idealist, typically middle class alternatives for governance — such as secularization, centralization, etc — which ignore the realities on the ground, be those engendered by choice or lack of it.
  • The opposition’s inability to concretize its slogan of “building the strong, capable, and just state.” In fact, when it came to ministerial appointments, the selection of electoral candidates, and the paucity of their political programs, the opposition repeated the mistakes of the governmental majority.

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