August 2009


Ghassan Su`ud has an article on elite marriages in Lebanon with a fascinating list of who is married to whom. It is interesting that a lot of these marriages cut across not only regional and local political divides, but, as the article points out, also sectarian ones. The latter is the case with the recent marriage between Nayla Twayni, recently elected member of parliament and daughter of assassinated Jubran Twayni, and Malik Maktabi, host of the show Ahmar bil Khatt al-`Arid — a recent episode of which provoked the ire of Saudi authorities into shutting down the LBC office in Jaddah. Since the Twaynis are a well-known Orthodox family and the Maktabis are Shiite, the marriage was cited by some as a living example of coexistence in Lebanon.

Rather than testify to some evasive form of Lebanese coexistence, however, these intersectarian marriages point to a double standard in the lives of some elite. Though her choice of spouse would lead one to expect a political career free of sectarian jingoism, when Nayla Twayni was campaigning in Ashrafiyah last spring, she more than once responded to attempts at undermining her “Orthodoxness” with counterattacks stressing al-`asab al-urthuduksi. The expression translates to “Orthodox vein,” which signifies a sense of belonging to a group. But the Arabic word `asab has a heavier thud to it, sharing its root with words such Ibn Khaldun’s `asabiyah, `asabi (nervous or quick to anger), and ta`assub (fanaticism). It remains to be seen, though, whether the same `asab will be struck with the electorate when the politician in question is a female entering into wedlock with a man with whom she will be spawning Shiite children.

If the recent election and marriage of Nayla bring some flagrant contradictions into relief, they are by no means unique to her. One is left wondering: is this a simple case of the elite cynically and hypocritically catering to and exploiting mass sentiments? Perhaps. But the use of this double standard of identification does not separate the elite form the masses as much as it separates the elite from themselves. The sort of individualism that we normally associate with European liberalism — the freedom to make one’s personal choices — finds an echo only in the personal aspect of the lives of the elite. In their public lives, however, their perpetuity remains bound to a system that reproduces them as an elite. This entails not only reproducing them as a category of the population — and hence the vigorous patriarchy — but also reproducing the communities that make them relevant as political leaders. The political significance of, say, the Pharaon family would be put to the test if there were no electoral body to be summoned as an “Orthodox” body to vote for members of the family as representatives — lack of political acumen notwithstanding.

As such, this public aspect of the political elite cannot be reduced to a cynical mask, for it is an integral aspect of their existence and probably even self-image as leaders. This dichotomy — between the personal and the political — is an ironic reversal of Hannah Arendt’s ideal types of the public and private spheres. With a suspicion of the private — the sphere of necessity, constraint, sameness, and passions — Arendt saw in the public realm as exemplified by the Greek polis the place for the exercise of decision, freedom, difference, and reason. In the case of the Lebanese elite, private lives are open to the virtues of the public sphere, as Arendt sees them, while their public lives are entangled in a most murderous web of political passions.

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After the initial head start in the government formation process, the word now is that there will be no new government in Lebanon before the end of Ramadan (late September). Here are a few theories — each colored by a certain position in the political spectrum — being floated around by the Lebanese press on why Saad al-Hariri has so far failed to put together a government:

1. Michel Aoun is making impossible demands, such as demanding to have the Ministry of Interior and insisting that his nephew, Jubran Basil, continue in his current position as Minister of Telecommunications despite the fact that Basil was not elected into parliament. These impossible demands relate directly to Syria’s most recent attempt at gaining a foothold in the Lebanese arena. This attempt is also manifest in the Syrian insinuation that Saad al-Hariri should visit Syria before — as opposed to after — the formation of a Lebanese government. Hizballah’s silence can only be interpreted as tacit complicity. Moving forward is dependent on a new round of Saudi-Syrian negotiations.

2. It is less about Syrian hegemony in Lebanon and more about the regional order. Saudi Arabia and Syria are finding some trouble in their negotiation process. Those who ascribe to this theory can be split into two camps: (1) those who believe that Saudi Arabia is reacting to an all-too-rapid US-Syrian rapprochement and (2) those who believe that the US is pulling the reigns on the rapprochement between Syria and Saudi Arabia in order to get something out of it. Either way — Lebanon being a chip in the regional negotiations and all — this has come in the way of the formation of a new government. Moving forward is dependent on Saudi-Syrian-US negotiations.

3. Saudi Arabia and Syria have handed Lebanon the 15-10-5 government formula (these seats going to March 14, the opposition, and the president respectively), but Lebanese politicians are simply squabbling amongst themselves over the particular allocation of the various ministerial posts.

Walid Junblat’s defection from the March 14 camp has attracted the attention of many friends and sympathizers outside Lebanon. From a wide-ranging history that moves from freedom fighter to war criminal to garbage man in New York to neo-con and back, people as different as Lebanon “expert” Lee Smith and UN’s Michael Williams have decided to freeze Junblat into how they like to see him and how they have seen him over the past four years. Smith and Williams have more in common when it comes to Junblat, as both refer to him as “Walid Beik.” After embracing his quasi-feudal status, both men also excuse Walid Beik’s move as a political exigency necessitated by the special position of his clan in Lebanon. And are not all Lebanese clans “special,” I wonder?

But I agree with Lee Smith on one thing: Walid Junblat is no weather vane. He is no cynical know-it-all who coldly calculates his every move and strikes without others knowing what hit them. After all, March 14 has been deadwood for more than a year now. And Walid Junblat did not complete his turn suddenly; he has been preparing his people for it since early this year. Nor was he the only one to soften up over the last year. The heat before the elections was a necessary sectarian galvanization to capture the vote. But apart from that, the rhetoric has gone down a few decibels over the past year.

No, Junblat is no weather vane. The composition of the government (15-10-5 by most accounts) has already been agreed on by Saudi Arabi and Syria. Some say as early as late June/early July. The “S-S,” as the two are referred to these days, have smoothed many ripples lately and the mutual  flirtation between Saad al-Hariri and the Syrian regime right after the elections was evidence of that. So much flirtation, in fact, that there was a hue and cry among Hariri’s Christian allies when the idea that he might visit Damascus before the government was formed was floated around.

With the outcry against Junblat’s “betrayal” fading away, perhaps it can now be assessed more calmly. Saadallah Mazraani has done exactly that in an overview of the Beiks historical turns. But a short term effect of Junblat’s latest turn has not received much attention: With Junblat’s daramturgy, Saad al-Hariri’s task suddenly became easier. Hariri’s visit to Damascus is no longer discussed in terms of “if,” but rather in terms of “when.” That is not the function of a weather vane. I would venture and say that, as far as the relationship between Damascus and Hariri goes, Walid Junblat is, in fact, a bottle of champagne. Cheers!