Sunni politics in Lebanon

There are three main (intersecting) orientations “mainstream” Sunni politics perceives (or deal with) more radical militant movements such the brief hollywoodean movement of Sheikh Asir, Jubhat al Nusra or Da’esh (ISIS).

1- To secretly feel that they are scoring points against their more traditional political enemy that is Hizbullah

2- To despise them but have no long-term political breath to do much about it and to prefer adopt piecemeal approaches, co-opting these groups for popularity/electoral reasons

3- To practice ostrich politics or avoid looking at the elephant in the room.

In either case, this is untenable especially with more powerful groups such as Da’esh that are highly strategic in their movements and that, by looks of it, definitely plan to eat little by little the border “Sunni” region of north Lebanon.

This will require a political consensus that neither the weak army institution of the army nor the various political force could muster during the short but turbulent history of  the tiny republic of Lebanon.

So if I want to be completely pessimistic, I see that the consociational democracy formula, which is slightly reworked arrangement of the “strength of Lebanon is in its weakness” motto (Pierre Gemayel’s infamous statement), may pave the way for larger Sunni politics. It just happens that it comes (as is often the case) in a very violent and brutal way).

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Woman win case to pass on citizenship

A woman, Samira Sowaidan has won a case, with her lawyer Souha Ismail, to be able to pass on her Lebanese citizenship to her four kids. Samira got married to an Egyptian man working at the Beirut port in 1985, and currently lives in Borj Hammoud. Her husband died in 1994, and this automatically meant that her kids were born in a country and lived all their life in it while paying annual charges for living visas or ‘iqamat’. At some point she could not pay this amount anymore while piling up the number of jobs she had to do to get enough money, now that her husband was not here to support.
It took an energetic and determined lawyer, and a judge famous for his ‘humanistic’ approach to ruling, John Qazi, to create a new status-quo when available texts clearly did not give the possibility for a woman to pass on her Lebanese nationality.
So now the decision is in the matters of the State, i.e. the prime minister in this case. Will they accept the judge’s ruling?

There is no State in Lebanon ok? Fix your conceptual frameworks

Yet another analysis of Hizbullah very sneakily undermining the functioning of the State of Lebanon, this time by none other than the only Muslim writer of the French Colonialist-nostalgics, chauvinistic and socially elitist Lebanese newspaper L’Orient le Jour. I don’t understand this guy by the way, Mahmoud Harb. Doesn’t he realize how anti-Muslim this newspaper is? Is this some new kind of ‘gentrification’ occurring here in the Middle of the East? Ironic innit?

It may never become boring to emphasize that these analyses assume very comfortably that there is a State in Lebanon. This trend of thinking assumes that if some political actor changes his behavior then the State would re-institute its ‘rule of law’ that it is dying to perform. Which means that Hizbullah should just ‘play by the rules’, here rules being the textbooks rule emulated from State-practice in the West. But here, the rules are different, indeed have nothing to do with rules elsewhere because there simply is no State in Lebanon and there is no rule of law because ALL the actors on the Lebanese scene undermine the possibility of having a State by their VERY presence and specific political activity in this delimited geography.

Hizbullah is neither a culprit nor a Samaritan in this game. They face the same problem others political actors would face which is the fact that the State cannot give them what they want. Because it is simply not functioning, and that even if they want to make it function they would clash with the interest of others.

Indeed friend and relatives, this is why every political actor in Lebanon constantly balance between having sudden drives of taking-over the State and establishing centralized decision-making, which would create more sense of talking about a ‘State’, and just letting things go and try to carry on with what is available, using that semblance of a State when possible, and using parallel structures when one has to. It is not a joyful decision, but one that is made out of frustration. This last statement is key to the discussion.

The problem is the identity card not the sect!

There is a little clarification at the end of this post.

Some people voiced satisfaction over the idea that the sect was removed from the personal status register (it was already removed from the identity card). I don’t find this that extraordinary. If anything, this consecrates an even more irrational and ill-founded idea of ‘being Lebanese’.

I don’t see why people cannot be happy to be called Maronite, Sunni or whatever but must find it very normal and ‘just’, probably more ‘modern’ to be called “Lebanese”. I seriously wonder which tradition precedes the other and which has richer claims over “authenticity”.

The confessional narrative itself is not what is to blame but how it is used to advance political interests. Confessions like any other form of imagined belonging to a community (such as nationalism) will draw boundaries of differentiation but not especially create conflict. Differentiation can also mean respect for differences, curiosity and knowledge.

The nineteenth century saw the rise of confessionalism as a political framework to resolve conflict. It is the later creation of the “Lebanese State” that kind of dealt the most severe blow. Some Lebanese historians like to think that the confessional system itself is the real evil. I think that it is the creation of the Lebanese State which has solidified one political style of preferential confessionalism that has really messed things up. Were it for the creation of an Arab state or a Syrian one after the fall of the Ottoman empire, we may have seen a different outcome. But then again, colonialism and the ‘westernization’ of institutions in what was called the Middle East had already paved the way for a gloomy future.

So the solution is not to remove the sect from the identity card in order to conform more and more to a replicated version of European nation-statehood, more homogeneous and so more discriminatory to whatever escapes the liberal paradigm.

The solution is to reform the idea of an ‘identity card’, create other types of legal and institutional mechanisms that are more elastic in order to accommodate for the different sources of tradition. The idea of an Islamic state could go in this direction, but for now owes too much of its intellectual elaboration to Western conceptions of polity.

If the Ottoman system or any pre-capitalist Islamic system should be praised it was because of an elastic sense of ‘identity’, or naming not based on a system of rights but that of belonging to a community of tradition that has texts, ‘rituals’ (to use a Western terminology) and ways to create virtuous human beings. It does not mean it always worked in terms of avoiding conflict but it looks like it avoided way more clashes than in the age of nation-state, ‘human rights’, democracies, and being catalogued on an identity card.

Clarification: I did not mean to say that there is something more authentic about being defined by the confessional label. I just meant that one is not better than the other (the national one). In the first place I am questioning the problem of ‘definition’.

Democracy for you

What is mostly fascinating in Lebanon is that it presents an excellent example of the fictions of democracy. It renders visible the inherent tension between power/authority necessary for rules and decisions to be taken and people’s ‘bread and circus’ the democratic processes where unlike the Roman setting, here, we are made to believe that ‘everybody has an opinion that has to be taken into consideration’.

But authority discriminates inherently. State (and Nations) are built on this fundamental principle. Language, histories, territory, etc change based on this inherent violent founding act.

People are quite content to talk about democracy, liberalism, and the right to choose a leader, when the most basic violation has already happened: that people are defined by the very authority they think they are choosing, the very way authority is structured in the first place. In this case, people never choose, they are born and grow up in a conditioning state, established by the local legislative contexts and the relation to a history, a past they inherited from others before them.

Do you choose to be an American, a Lebanese, or anything else that authority sanctions before you are even born?

And in effect, Lebanon is a flagrant example of this because it has several layers of conditioning hierarchies while championing the discourse of democracy and rights et al. First there is the absurd positing of Lebanon as an entity with a State that barely functions. Today, no one questions this fact. Second, the confessional system which in the way it was established here (I will draw your attention to the radical difference with the Swiss case in a later post) precludes the possibility of building a State. Democracy here (the actual act of voting in the legislative and municipal elections) is set to strengthen this status-quo by renewing the acceptance of this newly conceived ‘society’, or ‘civil society’ (another absurd term), of the prevailing divisive and discriminatory system (to the different ‘confessions’ of the territory, and to who is conceived as ‘non-Lebanese’).

Democracy, in the case of Lebanon, has this added element that it fosters, year after year, the schizophrenia of people that must answer to the jurisdiction of that State.

The Salafi spectre and some other conclusions

Fida’ Itani is back with this haunting idea that behind every weakening of Mustaqbal, there is a strengthening of Sunni Salafi groups that are more anti-Shi’a than anti-Israeli. I do agree with his analysis, in the fact that there is an increasing anti-Shi’a sentiment in the country. But I do also think that anti-Shi’a feelings have always existed and shared by the population at various level, social, economic and political. I wonder how much these groups can have political clout, and I don’t know how much their alleged ideology (judging from the quotes Itani provides) is really sustainable in the future. Also this demonization of “The Salafi” is very much akin to the one made of Hizbullah. Now that Hizbullah is supposed to be ‘the good guy’ wanting to build cooperatively the “Lebanese State”, the frontiers of the sanctified and not sanctified has been broadened. That said he makes a good point, and weakening Mustaqbal is certainly a lose-lose situation.

The opposition cannot weaken a party, humiliate him, etc, and then claim it wants to share power the traditional Lebanese way. This is the biggest contradiction of Hizbullah: It wants to play by the rules of the game (confessionalism, consociationalism, etc.) but uses vanguard party methods of takeover. The biggest problem of Hizbullah is that it is not a state-within-a-state it is a much better functioning State than the Lebanese State at any point of it history, yet wants to bring itself down and play by the rules of the figments of a State that is the Lebanese State. This political schizophrenia (present in Tayyar to a certain degree) may turn out to be more detrimental to the stability of the political system.

March 14

A lot of people ask me why I don’t write anymore. I don’t like writing when a lot of things are happening at the same time. This tends to obscure my attention. Also I prefer things to cool down before I can talk about them. For example, I won’t write on Imad Mughnieh’s assassination before next week I guess. But I have a lot to say about it. The other reason why I don’t write is that I am trying to write a thesis. This means saving thinking-typing skills for this activity.

The other thing is that I started teaching at the American University of Beirut and I must say that everyday I feel like writing pages on this fascinating experience. What I am exposed to here, in terms of student life style, intellectual background, faculty interaction, the politics of the university, but also teaching in itself, is just so overwhelming. For someone who thinks his main activity is ‘observation’, well, AUB is like a microcosm of “Lebanon”. A microscosm of post-colonial discourse too. I hope to write more on that.

Let me leave you now with an anecdote. Do you know what happened on March 14 apart from a ‘cedar revolution’? On March 14, boys and girls, Israel invaded Lebanon for the first time in 1978. On this day houses were destroyed in some parts of the south, people got killed, etc. and on March 14 1995, the parliament issued a book entitled 14 March: Lebanese International Day for the South and Western Bekaa with a foreword by Berri. I’m sure this book was the result of the works of Amal and Hizbullah affiliated Parliamentary members, but I’m still investigating on it because it has a huge archive of Israeli aggression on Lebanon (prisoners, territory, water, etc). The main idea here is that these guys are actually contributing to the writing of Lebanese “causes” and history through the use of the sanctified institutions (Parliament).

Isn’t it a bit ironic? The conflicting histories of the “Lebanese” entity.