Israel and Hizbullah: A quick round up

This is a summary of the latest events between Israel and Hizbullah. It starts when Hizbullah’s SG Hassan Nasrallah engaged in a long description of Hizbullah’s readiness to fight Israel even if involved in the Syrian quagmire, on Mayadeen TV. Obviously, I would be simplifying if I started the story then, as it is involved in a general buildup of coalitions in the regional arena. Israel’s actions are partly a result of freaking out when Nasrallah boasts about Hizbullah’s capabilities and partly to test if the new regional situation can work on its favor.

There seem to be no doubt that this preemptive strike comes as a direct reaction to this interview. It is also possible that this interview was pushed for in order to send clear messages to Israel based on intelligence reports that Hizbullah must have been getting around the Israeli military brewing something. But then military initiatives bring to light new possible alliances. Israel finds in Jabhat al-Nusra (it’s ugly like ISIS but with a different costume) a reliable ally or at least someone who wouldn’t stand in its way.

Hizbullah’s retaliation is then inevitable, if anything in order to avoid war: thus, today’s attack on what Hizbullah’s media characterized as being Israel’s “Golani” troops. This also mean that enemies have tested each other’s capabilities. The success of Hizbullah’s operation will determine the likelihood of escalation. As of now it looks quite successful. Then, the balance of power has been restored after having been tested, and given the regional situation, it seems doubtful that there will be more escalation in the very short term. But let’s see what the spring or the summer brings.

Raï in Jerusalem

Maronite-Cardinal-Beshara-Rai-Getty-1The new Christian maronite patriarch Cardinal Bechara Boutros el Rai, has been making some bold moves since the beginning of his mandate. First his visit to Syria in the midst of the conflict degenerating, and now his decision to visit Jerusalem as the Catholic pope has schedule a Middle East tour, all show that Rai wants to re-assert some form of power for Christians in the Middle East. Now I don’t know why everyone on the left side of the political spectrum (whatever that really means nowadays) lashed out at Rai, I think this visit is deemed to be considered as involving novel strategies that inscribes Rai as the most Arab of Christian Maronite authorities since the coming of the French in the region.

Rai kept on repeating, as he defended his controversial trip to Jerusalem, that he was going strictly for religious reasons. But then Rai added “I am going there to say this is our city, I am going home, and I am going to see my people. We have been present in Haifa and Galilee long before Israel.” Now that’s cleverly said as it contributes in a way to challenge the sovereignty of Israel over this chunk of land. Holy land is not to be possessed by nation-states. But that’s the Khomeinist rationale as explicited by his Jerusalem Day commemoration. That’s probably why Hizbullah was not so vociferous about Rai’s visit, opposing it publicly but quickly silencing the subject at the media level.

In the land where “non-state actors” prosper with or without the support of official states, what better way of producing political leverage than to use the various institutional tools at one disposal. Rai seems here to have learned from Hizbullah who uses Iran to further the interest of their community in Lebanon, producing political actions that can spill over outside of Lebanon.

Rai’s power material and symbolic springs from two different directions. His constituency and the various implications of the confessional system in Lebanon, and his institutional affiliation to the Catholic church based in the Vatican. This means that if Rai wants to bolster his position he can act on both these fronts. His recent visit to Jerusalem is clearly an attempt at gaining leverage through the organizational hierarchy of the Catholic Church especially now that the latter elected somewhat of a “third world” oriented pope. And in so doing, Rai can gain more independence as a figure representing a community that is not delimited by nation-states (Maronites in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, etc).

By using the “religious” card, his institutional affiliation to the Church, Rai reminds contemporary societies that communities are still represented by institutions that transcend State boundaries (in this case Israel and Lebanon). Most importantly, they remind us that where State fail to provide solutions for communities, other institutions can be used. Given the type of power the Catholic Church has, this is probably the best political move they can do. And by saying that his motivation are non-political and strictly religious, these are religious motivations that are strictly political.

It remains to be seen the extent to which Rai’s move manifest an action that transcends the State, it is still framed by State-related political calculations, in this case, the power leverage Christian can get in Lebanon.

Illusions of Terrorism and Democracy

XU*5034480The recent bombings in Beirut elevates Lebanon to the ironic status of a democratic country, in the modern Western sense of the term. Sadly, this is no privilege at all, more of a burden really. As I argued earlier, Terrorism as a particular form of carrying out political action is only possible if certain democratic structures are part of society’s general culture. Terrorism targets the feelings of civilians because the latter can, through this particular human disposition, extract concessions from political elites.

After 2005, most assassinations in Lebanon involve a mix of vendetta types of violence that target political actors and this “democratic” form of politics. Vendetta types of violence do not necessarily target the feelings or views of a specific group of people, only political actors. Terrorism though does and is peculiar to the modern age. There is no terrorism without some form of democratic politics as understood through liberal ideals of representations (such as individualism, freedom of choice, mass consumption economy, etc.) and the political setting of the Nation-State. Wherever there were terrorist attacks in the non-Western world, it is noticeable that they always involved a political message either to foreign countries (say attacking touristic sites, nightclubs), or local political regimes that are democratic in the sense that the “feelings” of their societies can have a direct bearing on the political process.

Yet even though nowhere before have we been faced with the immediacy of distant death, nowhere before have we been so distant to killings that are incurred by people who are trying to send a message to us. In effect, terrorism targeting civilians is not targeting the people who were actually killed but potentially any people that are part of a political delineated community (here the Shi’i community but also the Lebanese, and so on). Terrorism in this sense is one of these rare instances where violence is used on a person or group who is not the real target.

To come to the recent suicide explosion in Dahyeh, I’m not here analyzing the political message sent to the elite (Hizbullah’s political party, or whoever is incurring such attacks) or to the constituency of a political movement or organization. I’m more interested in what people actually do about it. Although people can be “terrorized” by what is happening they seem helpless as to what to do about it. Can they really force political actors to change their course of actions?

Then, Terrorism is doomed because on the one hand it assumes that the feelings that civilians have, fueled by media strategies, are going to influence political elites to do something about it, and on the other hand, it assumes that civilians feelings are in themselves a motive of political change. Raw emotions do not create interesting change at the political level. Only does reason. And it is reason that is the stuff from which political decisions are made.

This is why terrorism is a victim of the media effect, and democracies or ideals of democracies are experienced as a spectacle in today’s societies. In our modern political systems that are animated by the technological and media industry, “feelings” and “emotions” understood in a raw sense are the primary human traits that is meant to dictate political action. This is why terrorism exist. In the absence of such human predisposition, terrorism would not be a viable weapon.

Here lies one of the contradictions of the culture of democracies and how they are the source of  their own misery. Democracies as they function today involve a politics of emotions that traditionally was never linked to politics as such. It does not mean that traditionally, feelings where not getting in the way of correct handling of political matter, far from it. War practices always involved forms of cruelties that surely were triggered by specific types of emotions and feelings and in turn triggered these types of feelings. But never, were feelings used in a way were curtailed by higher forms of politics that ordered the way agreements were reached, successions were arranged, or war were started.

Sri Lanka: Al-Akhbar’s lesson to Lebanon

p12_20130713_pic1The peculiar thing about the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar is that they do not really publish news as such but commentaries on news. They assume that you have read or watched the news already and they build on it. If you’re looking for “what happened” on a particular day, the last place you want to go to is Al Akhbar because you won’t find much at that level. Instead you may probably have literary exercises, political positions, twisted analyses, based all on material you are supposed to already know.

I once asked a journalist at Al Akhbar why they inflict on readers this frustrating experience and he answered that in fact, according to statistics (the sanctified word), readership goes up with this type of writing.

In any case, I write this post because for once Al Akhbar published an article, although within the frustrating “polemicist” category, on Sri Lanka’s state and economy, but that still makes great points for Lebanese. The main point of the writer Muhammad Nazzal, is that although Lebanese people think highly of themselves and very lowly of the Sri Lankis who work practically as slaves for them, Sri Lanka as a country fares ten times better than Lebanon in virtually all areas: Industry, agriculture, trade, food, education, public infrastructure, political system.

The endearing discoveries of Nazzal are still worth mentioning: Phone bills are way cheaper, Internet much faster. Also the literary exercises so dear to Al Akhbar journalists are not bad this time as shown by this nice comparison: “The white lines on the roads of Sri Lanka rival with the whiteness of the peaks of Sannine and the Cedars”.

According to Nazzal, instead of privatizing the whole sea coast like the clever Lebanese did, in order to make sure the average citizen was strictly forbidden from enjoying the most natural resource in the world, the sea, Sri Lankis kept their coast, which Nazzal notes is ten times larger than the Lebanese, completely public in order to allow unhindered access to whosoever wishes. As a matter of fact, I can add here that Cyprus did the same – with municipalities of each city managing the coastal area where constructions are prohibited and where a small fee is paid by both locals and tourists to the state when if they wish to hire an umbrella or sunbed – not if they wish to access the beach.

One learns from Nazzal that Sri Lanka has a great history spanning millenniums, and that Sri Lanka, unlike Lebanon, just successfully formed a government after decades of wars and communal divisions, based on a representative electoral law (even though just like Lebanese they have different communities who perceive themselves as rivals).

More importantly, Sri Lanka is sustained by what it produces. The agricultural sector of Sri Lanka is in bloom, whereas in Lebanon one imports virtually everything, especially primary commodities – something every country should at least be producing to a certain extent, and what Lebanon does not import it destroys with horrible quantities of pesticides and chemicals.

The list here is endless and this article is really worthy of being read in full. So, what’s the big difference between Sri Lanka (and Cyprus actually), and Lebanon? Lebanon has no state but a bunch of warlords finding new ways to keep extracting resources from the economy and society, although every once and a while they clash and they have to re-arrange the rules of the game in order to continue.

My other theory is that whereas Cyprus and Sri Lanka were colonized by the British, Lebanon was colonized by the French, and this made a huge difference throughout time. But that is the subject of another post…

Feltman’s response to Al Akhbar

Former US ambassador in Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman responded in the NY Times today to the allegations made in a previous article in the same newspaper on Al Akhbar about waking up every morning and getting upset after reading  Al Akhbar.

Feltman answered! There is something quite desperate in this act. Check the argument: Actually, Al Akhbar is not that heroic because it does not criticize Hizbullah’s SG Nasrallah just like Syrian Tishreen will never criticize Bashar al Assad.

Apart from the fact that no one talked of heroism, well, there is a tiny detail here: Al Akhbar is not owned by Hizbullah, and actually does criticize Hizbullah virultently. Check for example the corruption case of Salah Ezzedine. Needless to say that this point was made in the original NYT article, so what is Feltman babbling about. Does he want attention?

Does it occur to Feltman that defending or supporting Nasrallah may come from a conviction (heroic if he likes this word) that the guy is a leader to be respected, and that this probably reflects a large chunk of the Lebanese population and beyond?

From then on, Feltman’s answer loses all sense of logic and becomes plain stereotyping. Feltman confuses Western journalists, with Al Akhbar ones, lifestyle like drinking wine with political choice of supporting the resistance. This dimension is not even worth it to be explored, it has been done countless times on this blog.

And what did you know about Samir Kassir and Gebran Tueni? Just because they got killed makes them heroic? Is this how you guys work? Now that they are useless as such and can’t do much except through the way their image is being manipulated by your media, yes, they become heroic…

Besides, Feltman forgets that journalists of Al Akhbar and other press outlets as well as TV stations were killed by Israeli fire? Are these considered more or less heroic act? I guess it depends who kills or on which arena you fall.

But above all as I was saying, Feltman’s answer sounds like someone’s desperate for attention. One could hear him shout: “no, someone hear me, I am that ambassador they’re talking about, and I did not have a belly ache, they aren’t so impressive believe me!” Well, someone is angry because he was not ‘received’!

American ambassadors, they come here, don’t understand anything about the politics of the place (except through the specific ideology their administration feeds them to implement). Then they leave, still ignorant, imbued by the stereotypes they could gather from this or that dinner they had the chance to go to, wondering why their projects did not work.

Update: For a more elaborate answer, just found Angry Arab’s.

Meow …

This report is intended solely for the official use of the Department of State or the Broadcasting Board of Governors, or any agency or organization receiving a copy directly from the Office of Inspector General. No secondary distribution may be made, in whole or in part, outside the Department of State or the Broadcasting Board of Governors, by them or by other agencies or organizations, without prior authorization by the Inspector General under the U.S. Code, 5 U.S.C. 552. Improper disclosure of this report may result in criminal, civil, or administrative penalties.

Now Lebanon is produced by Quantum Communications, some of whose contracts with the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (originally the Middle East Television Network, but renamed in 2005) are described in the OIG-DOS report sourced above. The report was conducted due to ‘irregularities’ in the contracting process.

MTN/MBN was created in 2003 by the Emergency War Supplemental under the authority and funding of the Board of Broadcasting Governors, a US government-funded ‘independent agency.’ Soon thereafter, al Hurra was on the air. It has a budget of about $100 million a year from the BBG’s total budget of about $700 million (Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Sawa, Radio Farda, Radio Free Asia, Radio Marti, TV Marti, as well as al Hurra). There may also be additional revenue streams, but I am not sure.

Quantum Communications, along with Brand Central (which also received MTN/MBN contracts), Vertical Middle East and Firehorse Films comprise the Quantum Group, which is headed by Eli Khoury, who also directs Saatchi-Levant. He is also a founder of the Lebanese Renaissance Foundation, a DC-based group that lobbies the US federal government. The LRF has paid DLA Piper about $1 million for lobbying services since 2007 (the DOJ’s very incomplete online FARA (Foreign Agent Registration Act) database includes no Lebanese principals — Brazzaville has five!).

Quantum has had a slew of corporate and government clients (Jordan, Lebanon, IDAL, etc.), so it is difficult to know how much of their business comes from the US government. Perhaps very little, perhaps a great deal.

The IOG-DOS refers only to some initial MTN/MBN contracts in 2004 worth some $4.5 million, so it is unclear how much business Quantum has done through al Hurra. Saatchi-Levant also won a State Department contract for the now-defunct Hi Magazine.

Quantum has also been engaged in Iraq. For example, it has produced a series of television ads under the name of a phantom organization, the Future Iraq Assembly. The ads are available on Youtube and are similar to ads that also ran in Lebanon. Most observers believe the spots are funded by either the Defense or State Department.

It is unclear if Quantum was involved in any contracts related to al-Iraqiya. The station, part of the Pentagon “Free Iraq Media” plan, was initially the product of SAIC and served the needs of the Coalition Provisional Authority. In 2004, however, the Pentagon awarded a new contract for Iraq media to the Harris Group, who subcontracted the work out to the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC) and a Kuwaiti media company.

Interestingly, Firehorse Films seems to have been around since the early 1990s, producing documentaries about cultural matters. Anyway, post-2003, it has produced a film about al-Zarqawi for LBC, a documentary about religious minorities in the Middle East (yes, the Maronites play a starring role) for al Jazeera, and a documentary about the life and death of Arab nationalism. While I have no idea if these productions have made up the bulk of its work, they do suggest an interesting political line, no?

Is it art, the ‘market,’ political conviction or government subcontracts that is driving demand? I just cannot say, but imagine that like most collective human endeavors, it is a mixture of all those things.

More to come on the Pravdas of the Pradas.

Royal Math: One Plane = One Election …

livinlarge

When his Royal Highness needs to get some work done, he can take the elevator up to his boardroom and play with the touch screen TV’s or the holographic projection system.

And finally in the lineup of ludicrous additions – get this – the well being room has a floor made from a giant screen, showing what the plane is flying over.

Total price? About $488 Million Dollars.

Via M.

I suppose each Royal has his preferred plaything: a pimped out airplane, a French politician, a Mediterranean country of four million — you know, basically whatever tickles one’s fancy.

Anyway, I thought about doing a post about how impressed I was with Saad Hariri’s performance. I felt that I really underestimated his leadership of the Sunni community and Future’s ability to effect discipline on the herds of cats that roam Lebanon’s plains.

Such an analysis will have to wait, though, until we can tally the cost of Lebanon’s election for Hariri and the Saudis (over $700 million in this account). Of course, we will have to add whatever the Americans threw into the effort and then subtract whatever the increase from the Iranians. And still we need to know more about Aoun’s pockets (do they still accept French Francs in Lebanon???). Actually, call me crazy, but I would not be surprised if a lot of Arab money (including some Saudi) ended up in Opposition hands.

If after making these adjustments, it turns out that this election was several times more expensive for the Saudis than the previous one, then M14 is more shaky than ever.

I don’t intend this post as a diss of Hariri (I find the idea of Saudi remote control as dumb as Syrian remote control or Iranian remote control — think transactionally, people!). And, frankly it requires great political skill to bilk one’s patron — foreign or not, in Lebanon or not. One must not only open the purse, but also earn the trust to spend the coin (politics everywhere is about money, but it also about access and trust — these last two are what one might call the human dimension). Rafik had that trust, but it took him a lifetime of strenuous and scrupulous effort to build it up.

It is still unclear if Saad has fully gained this inheritance, but he has certainly passed the first hurdle and given that many did not think he would even do that is a credit to his political skills and will undoubtedly earn him greater entree and greater trust in the Saudi realm. In the coming months, we will see if he has made wise purchases on the Lebanese scene (the federalists can, in some ways, be an especially unruly bunch).

And if any of my Lebanese friends are feeling a bit low about any of this, take pride in knowing that your electoral whims are becoming more expensive by the day! That’s gotta be ‘worth’ something, right?

Actually, maybe that’s what independence really is: the moment your vote becomes too expensive for export.

In our globalized economy, however, I wonder if post-colonial ‘states’ can ever erect enough protectionist boundaries to effect such a ‘national’ result. Still, history is a strange midwife so I won’t rule anything out just yet (see, I just might be a M14er after all!!!)

Obviously, the formation of the government will reveal some of this wheeling-and-dealing, but maybe we should also post someone in the south of France next week to see which Lebanese seem especially happy with Sunday’s result.

It may not be whom you would expect.

Sleeping with the Enemy …

Elias Muhanna, the man behind the blog Qifa Nabki, is a Lebanese blogger whose commentary has appeared in The National, Foreign Policy and other publications.

Et-tu, QN?

Just teasing.

If there is any instance of celebrity deserved in the Lebanese blogosphere, this is surely the case. Funny how he apparently emerged from the dungeons of Syria’s Comment to such commanding heights.

Ph’d-schmee-h-deee is all I have to say.

Why Lebanon is definitely not Switzerland

I have been cooking up this post for so long now, ever since the Swiss president paid us a visit, and yet before that, I was thinking that it is time to set the record straight. Yesterday, the leader of the Lebanese Forces Samir Geagea (who we love to talk about on this blog, and here (also here) some background reading) presented his Defense Strategy plan. And again, ever since, because it is always about picking up from the past, ever since Hizbullah’s SG Hassan Nasrallah in a goodwill gesture, mentioned that if one needs to talk about Hizbullah’s weapons, one should first discuss a workable “Defense Strategy plan”, everybody from all ends of the political spectrum seem to have defense plans.

But how the hell would the LF have a Defense plan? Against who? The Syrians? Since when did they perceive the Israelis as their enemy, and since when, oh since when, anything past the ‘Christian cantons’ did matter to them? Well, I mentioned the key word here, Cantons, because Geagea took this as an opportunity to propose to follow the Swiss model of ‘7iyadiyeh’ (neutrality), that is the word used I am still working out how did the ‘Defense Strategy plan’ made him think of Switzerland. First, this is an interesting slip from the original Christian isolationist ideological version, couched in Western-State-building jargon: Federalism. One has to be in tune with fashionable words. “Defense Strategy”, “Consensualism”, that is the stuff one wants to hear on the Lebanese political arena. Basically today, in this tiny shit hole called Lebanon, you don’t talk about Federalism anymore, you just say ‘the Swiss model’, even though no one knows anything about Swiss history and their lack of neutrality that spanned for centuries when their State was being built. But let me address all this by branching out and picking up from the footsteps of that lovely Swiss president who came to visit us some time ago.

Some time in October 2008, when Swiss president Pascal Couchepin listened to his Lebanese counterpart talking about the years of sectarian strife in the Lebanon, Talal Salman reports that Couchepin simply answered “not to worry”, that Switzerland experienced ‘civil war’ for more than a hundred years, only to come down to the conclusion that “people realized that they had to live together whether they want it or not”.

Couchepin was maybe trying to be ‘civil’, or ‘diplomatic’, or maybe he just did not know (just like any other politician) ‘what people think’. The only ‘civil war’ (labeled as such by the official authorized versions of Swiss history) lasted a mere 27 days at some point in 1847, marking a transition between one form of rule and another. This does not mean that people were not divided inside the country for centuries, who knows, probably till now. But the Swiss State actually grew to become strong as it engaged and won battles thanks to a long-time feared army. How come this is so there but not here? How come poor little Lebanon could not have a strong army, or a strong state? When one comes to think about it, not only do we have the ‘divided people’ criteria in common (multi-confessional society) but we also “have banks”, and we tried to remain ‘neutral’ during the “Israeli-Arab conflict” just like Switzerland during the Word Wars. Worse, we actually speak the same language whereas they don’t even do that in Switzerland!

In order to understand this seeming paradox, let’s go back a little. First of all, this ‘We’ I am using refer to political Maronitism who was the first to join the nods that made up this highly imaginative comparison. Political Maronitism basically loved the ‘neutralit’ argument, the ‘confederation’ setting, all supposed to justify their isolationist stances.

In the middle of the twentieth century, theories flourished on what makes up the particularity of Lebanon and one of them, very dear to Christian elites (that was subsequently very much internalized by Muslims as well) was the idea that Lebanon is the Switzerland of the Middle East. Although I would think that the ideological wind will shift hegemonic nationalist discourse towards one based on the idea of “resistance”, we still hear a lot of people from all sorts of social backgrounds saying that Lebanon is like Switzerland more or less. One of the highly useful aspects of this ideological construction is that it could ultimately legitimize the idea of a federal state and of a inoffensive army. As used to say Pierre Gemayel (father of Kataeb cum LF), the strength of Lebanon is in its weakness. In the ideological euphoria of the 50s and 60s we hear people talk about ‘confederation’, a laughable term in Lebanese standards judging by how the actual Swiss confederation came into being, through wars, and the strengthening of an army.

The first irony to mention here is that Switzerland may be the oldest ‘state’ or political arrangement alive today. What is called the Old confederacy was instituted in 1291, so roughly when say the Ottoman empire was starting to enjoy monopoly over what can be labeled as “Islamic” territory. So yes, one cannot say the same thing about our dear Lebanon who in fact is a late colonial creation (compared to India say, or Latin American states). But more importantly, the Swiss confederacy emerged ‘from within’, as an alliance between several commercial hubs (city-states) that facilitated trade between them. This alliance became so strong that it could military rival neighboring powers. These dudes were so keen on having their interests (namely economic) preserved and trade channels unchallenged by the conquering fantasies of neighboring kings that they ended up agreeing on a political formula. We are very far from Lebanese standards: Lebanon is created by a colonial power (France) and strongly lobbied by one paranoid sect of the Middle East (the Maronites) that happened to be quite concentrated in a particular mountainous region, as an alleged mean to protect itself from, yet at the same time dominate the other neighboring sects and groups.

This basic difference is just huge. First and foremost it foreclosed the possibility of initial ‘homegrown’ contract or agreement. And in the first place there was no need for any such agreement because only the Christians were calling for this isolationist stance, while other groups were content with having some kind of a pan-Arab form of rule. So even if the Christians wanted, with the best intentions at heart, to have an agreement with the different non-Christian groups convincing them of the economic and political utility of the creation of the Lebanese entity, that would not have worked in the first place. So it locked the project of building a State and sharing power through outside alliance to protect the divisions in place.

But ideologies flourished. The analogy to the Swiss model was used to legitimize other segmenting drives. It brought substance to the idea that Lebanon’s economy strive through the strength of its banks, another laughable statement judging from how poorly they fair today. The whole ‘service economy’  argument, developed by lauded ideologues such as Michel Chiha, all these pieces were fitting in this big puzzle called ‘the Swiss model’ , that the Lebanese were creating for themselves, imagining a Switzerland of their own, each group to his own benefit.

And yet the biggest difference still remained at the ‘existential’ level:  Switzerland’s various groups came together to protect themselves against outside intervention, whereas in Lebanon it is the various local groups who pick outside actors to protect them against ‘inside intervention’!

There are so many unexplored sites when one opens this highly ridiculous analogy. I prefer to focus on a couple of points as this post is already too long. But just as another area that could be explored, it seems flagrant to me why Federalism as an ideology, a system of thought (but not as a de-facto option, the distinction is huge) is so alien to Hizbullah’s political culture. The idea of Federalism in Lebanon, ferociously lobbied by Christian elites can only emerge from there, from an isolationist trend that in the first place led to the establishment of the State of Lebanon. And that’s isolation from within, against the ‘other’ within the delineated territory, and that is one of the crucial difference with Switzerland. The way Hizbullah dealt with the ‘other’, the way also it conceptualized itself in re-action to the ‘other’ followed diametrically opposed trajectories than the Christian one. I will write more on that later.

And I leave you with this brilliant line from a Chinese newspaper article writing on Couchepin’s October visit to Lebanon:

This was the first visit of a Swiss leader to Lebanon, however, the Swiss model has been seen as convenient to apply to Lebanon due to the similarity of having various factions in the same country.

Don’t you love the “however”? If you thought the Americans don’t know where Lebanon is on a map, well, see how the next superpower looks at the miserable 10,542 km2

Autonomy, independence and other treacherous words

Even Fawwaz Trabulsi, in his new book, The Modern History of Lebanon, thinks that Mount Lebanon (The ‘Imara that is) enjoyed some ‘degree of autonomy’, since the 16th century. I have a problem with the concept of “autonomy”. I am reading the Arabic version of the book, that Trabulsi himself wrote (he originally wrote in English), where he uses the word ‘istiqlal’. First of all, if it is administrative autonomy we are talking about then yes, as long as you were paying your taxes and aligning ‘foreign policy’ (if that meant anything for confessional feuds) with Ottoman’s interest, you can call the rest of the bothersome task of making these people agree on things an autonomous process. But that’s without counting the numerous wheeling and dealings that Ottoman, French, British, etc. diplomats had to go through to make the system work.

Nothing different from Syrian ‘occupation’, or before that French Mandate and its sequels. The only thing that probably helped foster the “Lebanese” political model is the slowly crystallizing sectarianism that still changed in modes of action after the fall of the Ottoman empire.

But I want to go beyond that. No historian is able to go out of reading history without using present concepts. Instead of trying to locate a ‘starting point’ in Lebanon’s history, why not look at how the different imaginative spheres that created the idea of “Lebanon” or “being Lebanese” changed over time (according to changing political social and economic factors). Then we could probably fix this particular way of writing history. For me, evaluating ‘degrees of autonomy’ is falling in this trap because it emanates from a very present concern, a concern of justifying Lebanese statehood ‘now that it exist’.

My grand uncle passed away recently at the age of 101. There is a lot to be said about this man who was a diplomat and who saw the rise of the present political state, unfortunately, I never had a chance to talk to him and lately he was kind of tripped out. Everybody in the family directly affected by his heritage was eagerly waiting for this moment. He was the proprietor of a beautiful old house in Amchit built by my Great great grandfather (The grandfather of my grandfather let’s say). Anyway, now cousins and what have you are snatching their percentage share of the house. I went there two days ago to see an uncle who was packing stuff, and I stumbled on a picture of my ancestor with his Turkish tarboush, his Ottoman long mustache, his Sherwal and nice collarless jacket. He had this virile, piercing look while holding in one hand one of his kid and in the other, his wife, who’s semi-veiled by the way: the black long veil that Maronite women wore in villages.

This Great great grandfather had made a door inside the house with an Ottoman inscription and the Ottoman crescent and star on top of it. Now why would he do such a thing? Next to his picture, my uncle had put up a picture of his son (the son of the GGgfather, grandfather of my uncle), taken probably 20 or so years later, dressed in a European suit, with French style hair of the 1920s, and kind of a feminine allure. Between one epoch and the other there is the fall of an immense administrative edifice, and the rise of a new one, the nation-state.

How did my Great great grandfather think of himself? Probably that he was an “Ottoman subject’, a Maronite Christian, an Arab (?) whatever that signified for him at the time, a silk and salt trader who needed to be on good terms with Ottoman political circles and many many other things that reminds us that the concept of ‘identity’ is so phony. It does not mean that my GGGfather thought highly of the Ottoman empire, or maybe he did, and all that does not really matter. The point is that he was trapped in a completely different worldview, he was playing by very different rules of the game to ‘become’ what he wants to ‘become’.

So What did “Lebanon” mean to my GGGfather? Surely not what it means to Fawwaz Trabulsi or to any “Lebanese” subject today, including me. How can we recapture what it meant to him and how it was different from what it meant to his son twenty years later, during the French mandate?

Before the concept of Independence!

As some of you know, today is ‘independence day’ for what came to be called the “Lebanese”. This time I won’t bother you with my sentences. I’ll just translate Ziad Rahbani’s column that sums well my point of view (bear in mind that the joke is made in the Arabic language and that the gist is completely lost, but the idea I want to arrive at is fortunately not, so yes I prove again that I am desperately boring):

– Ok but before the Israeli planes, dad, who was violating Lebanese airspace?
– Nobody was violating it.
– You mean that our sky was free and clean?
– no, it was not our sky
– How come?
– It was the British planes violating Syrian airspace
– What has Syria got to do with it?
– Son, do you at least know that today is independence day?
– Yes I know
– Fair enough, but apart from that, it does not seem you know much.
– What do you mean?
– Because before this celebration day, we were at rest from all the meanings of independence and from its skies, and from the violation of our sky by Israel, and the skies of the school I send you to, and from your sky! Do you understand my son?!

The Saga Continues …

Confrontations between Hamas and Fatah members erupted in at least two Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon over the weekend, raising fears that the situation in the Palestinian Territories might spill over into Lebanon’s camps.

The Salafi Connection

“There’s a relationship between ourselves and Sheik Saad when it’s needed,” Shahal said. “The biggest Sunni political power is Hariri. The biggest Sunni religious power are the Salafis. So it’s natural.”

"Skool’s Out"

The City International School in Beirut let preschoolers out one week early, at the request of parents who had made sudden travel arrangements for the summer or were leaving the country permanently due to the political uncertainty, said one administrator on condition of anonymity. The school is popular with expatriate families.

One 17-year-old boy rolled his eyes when asked why school was out early this summer. “Because of the weather,” he said, then added: “Why do you think? It’s the political situation.”

Populist words from a Lebanese mafioso? Or a sign of things to come?

Lebanese Christians, wary of the rise of militant Islam in their country, will have to retaliate if they are targeted, a leading politician warned yesterday.

“These extremists must be finished, we cannot allow them to grow. Addressing this imported phenomena is the responsibility of our Muslim compatriots,” he said, warning that “Lebanese Christians, who are the basis on which this country was built, will not sit idle if their existence and dignity are threatened.”

Addressing the Al Qaida-inspired Fatah Al Islam and other militant groups, which recently threatened to target Christians, Gemayel said: “Don’t play with fire,” to the cheer of the crowd.

“Like they massacred the army, I want to see the army massacre them,” added his friend, 21-year-old Moussa Youssef, sitting across from him. As for the thousands of civilians still in the camp, he added, “The innocent have already left.”

Defining a state …

Avraham Burg, former Knesset speaker and former head of the Jewish Agency says “to define the State of Israel as a Jewish state is the key to its end. A Jewish state is explosive. It’s dynamite.” In an interview in Haaretz Weekend Magazine, he said that he is in favor of abrogating the Law of Return and calls on everyone who can to obtain a foreign passport.

(Thanks Hassan)

I would also add that defining Lebanon in terms of a confessional state is also (one of) the key(s) to its end. But as to whether the major players care depends on the losses or gains that will come their way.

Do You See What I See …?

Take a real close look at these pictures. What seems wrong or incongruent? Very serious, here.

Definitive Proof of Fatah al-Islam’s Connection to the Evil Empire …

Yankees Go Home!!! What more proof could anyone need?!? Everybody knows Bashar al-Assad still hates Bucky Dent, so please stop with the Damascene conspiracy theories.

In the more serious political world of calling balls and strikes, let me say that this is additional proof that Fatah al-Islam are not hard-core jihadis, but rather pay-a-day foot soldiers of a very local — and idiotic — concern. That a Lebanese version be rather awkward in its branding makes sense in the land of “adi-b-as” bags.* Hence the odd charm, non?

I would imagine that most groups or individuals that the USG, the media and others identify as Al-Qaeda are much the same. Just mercenaries, and like soldiers of fortune past and present they dabble in (or are dabbled in) the cultish arts for institutional and/or political purposes.

In other words, give me $5,000 and I will find you a man ready to die for the Easter Bunny.

* Thanks, prince of zion.

Here Come the Americans: Are Heifers in the Hold …?

SUBJECT: Partial Resumption of Travel to Lebanon to Promote Peace and Security

By virtue of the authority vested in me by 49 U.S.C. 40106(b) and for the purpose of promoting peace and security in Lebanon, I hereby determine that the prohibition of transportation services to Lebanon established by Presidential Determination 85-14 of July 1, 1985, as amended by Presidential Determination 92-41 of August 17, 1992, and Presidential Determination 98-32 of June 19, 1998, is hereby further amended to permit U.S. air carriers under contract to the United States Government to engage in foreign air transportation to and from Lebanon of passengers, including U.S. and non-U.S. citizens, and their accompanying baggage; of goods for humanitarian purposes; and of any other cargo or materiel.
All other prohibitions set forth in the above-referenced Presidential determinations remain in effect.
You are directed to implement this determination immediately.
You are authorized and directed to publish this determination in the Federal Register.

GEORGE W. BUSH

I know, I know. You were thinking there are already enough CIA guys poking around in Lebanon. What’s a plane load or two more? Surely, I jest. Really, for now, I think this is just about getting more American cows into Lebanon, if you know what I mean.
More seriously, this is yet another symbolic act, a kind of psy-op for the policy wonks to tell their wives about. It seems to me there is a very serious fight going on in Washington over the direction of US policy in the region — you get a bit of this from the more insane rantings from the two sides’ reactions to the Scooter Libby sentencing. Yet at the current moment, there seems to be an eerie confluence around Lebanon policy. The Foggiest of Bottoms and the CIA likely believes they can simply wear out Hizbullah politically with financial and military aid (and they are probably right), while the OVP may still prefer to send Lebanon’s cannibals after them with newly-sharpened knives. The domestically-battered OVP is likely in the position to cede some ground here, as the State plan serves their needs of putting Hizbullah on the defensive as a potential first step toward more aggressive action. Similarly, State likely sees diplomatic value in media reports of the OVP’s irrational belligerence. Guessing how this will play out is impossible as it will depend on who wins the bigger battle over Iran policy. That being said, both sides are likely to see value in keeping up the pressure.
If these moves and others are successful in weakening Hizbullah politically, it will likely draw Hizbullah closer to Syria and here the Americans have the sordid boon of perhaps their most precious asset in Lebanon: anti-Syrian venom (enter some elements of M14, stage right). This will be exceedingly difficult for Hizbullah, as its efforts to balance support from Syria with the needs of its domestic allies and foes will just get harder to manage.
If the Americans are smart — and some of them are, these pys-ops will also include some tentative attempts at more kinetic action. This, of course, is where things get scary, as even small flames in a small village like Lebanon can quickly lead to all the houses burning down. Neither the Americans, nor the Israelis are ready to send Lebanon into the abyss just yet, so this will likely involve one-off attempts to keep the anti-Syrians barking and Hizbullah mentally busy, with the side hope of gathering some intelligence about Hizbullah’s intelligence gathering machine in the LAF, at the points of entry, and with UNIFIL — something both the Israelis and the Americans seemed to utterly lack during last summer’s war on Lebanon.
I said last summer that resisting the Israeli militarily would be child’s play for Hizbullah when compared to what would come next if they held off the IDF. I think that is probably true and that we are going to soon see just how smart and how patient Hizbullah really is. The squeeze cometh … Stay tuned.

Shadid is back …

While some analysts see the military’s battle against the militants as a way to forge a stronger state, others worry about the prospect of its failure. The threat of civil war still looms large over this always fractious country, but the violence and paralysis may suggest a broader breakdown: not civil war, but entropy, where the country becomes hopelessly mired in instability.

Decisions …

“The decision to wage this battle is heroic,” Aridi quoted Murr as saying during the meeting. “It is aimed at rescuing Lebanon and the Lebanese.”

So I guess there was a decision made. Not to nit-pick the words that one person quoted another person as saying, but as a decision analyst, I can’t help but wonder how that decision was made? What were the premises? What alternatives were considered? How did they evaluate all the possible outcomes? How did they assign risk? What information did they use? etc.

Just curious, is all …

The Beat goes on …

Zaki said that he did not find a single closed door during discussions with Lebanese officials, adding that Defense Minister Elias Murr has instructed the army that “he does not want a single innocent civilian casualty.” According to the Palestinian Red Crescent, 23 Palestinian civilians have been killed in the fighting.

Summer Luvin’ … Got Me So Bad …

Lahoud said such steps were needed to ensure a “good summer season.”

Fishy "Improvements"

The statement quoted Makkawi as saying the government “had executed part of its national and ethical duty toward our Palestinian brothers by making such achievements.”

“Even after the end of the summer 2006 war with Israel, the government continued to provide camps with the necessary aid,” it said, adding that UNRWA has rebuilt 350 Palestinian homes.

Two simple comments (which probably need elaboration):

1 – Lebanon has no “national duty” to help the Palestininans, but the Lebanese do have a moral one to provide non-Lebanese (Palestinians included) with civil and social rights.

2 – The concept of “aid” disappoints me in that it is used to build walls around the potential for change. If the government – past, present, future – really wants to parade achievements they are proud off, they need to remove restrictions that being a Palestinian in Lebanon brings.

Yawn …

It seems someone woke me up from my nap with news from New York. Why do they do that? Be a dear and close the door on your way out … Thanks … zzzz ….

A Do It Yourself World …

There used to be a most hilarious strip club* just two blocks from the bail window of the Manhattan Detention Center. And while our efforts to have it named a historic landmark by the proper authorities in New York City failed to keep it from being shuttered in favor of some trendy bar, it lives on in the tall tales of the those in the know, then and now.

What has this to do with Lebanon? Well, I would like to share my memories of Hamra’s al-Jazz and similar establishments in Lebanon at some point on this blog, but today my mind drifts toward Fatah al-Islam and the shadowy world of home-made porn.

For those unaware of the Manhattan club’s lost charm, we used to say: imagine I told you had 30 minutes to create a strip club in your unfinished basement and your clientele would be those who had just posted bail after spending a week in the company of men for whom the laws of polite society had remained somewhat of an abstraction.

If your mind is beginning to churn over the possibilities therein, let me now provide you with this most telling video purportedly produced by the boys of Fatah al-Islam. If this indeed is the enemy, I will sleep soundly knowing that those who obviously don’t take themselves seriously are surely not worthy of my seriousness.

Indeed, if anything is to disrupt my slumber, it is the glossy, perfumed nonsense of those who would have me take them seriously. They are the true purveyors of pornography, fraudulently trading on the air-brushed plasticity of my most sordid fantasies and fears. I would ask them to leave us work-a-days alone. We are better off with our beer and baby-powder.

* A million points to anyone who knows the name of the club.