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.

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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 …

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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.