Welcome to European Tribune. It's gone a bit quiet around here these days, but it's still going.

Want to understand Lebanon?

by the stormy present Sat Jan 27th, 2007 at 04:32:20 AM EST

Read this.

The protests are being portrayed in much of the Western media as a sectarian battle, or a coup attempt--engineered by Hezbollah's two main allies, Syria and Iran--against a US-backed Lebanese government. Those are indeed factors underlying the complex and dangerous political dance happening in Beirut. But the biggest motivator driving many of those camped out in downtown isn't Iran or Syria, or Sunni versus Shiite. It's the economic inequality that has haunted Lebanese Shiites for decades. It's a poor and working-class people's revolt.

An important article from the diaries -- whataboutbob


I get a little frustrated by popular misconceptions about what's happening in Lebanon -- and not just misconceptions in the media, but on blogs, including a recent post on Daily Kos that was lauded on the front page but woefully lacking in some critical information; the comments were even worse.  Everyone acts like they know what they're talking about, but very few people do.

That's one of the reasons I don't write much about Lebanon here, even though I know the place reasonably well.  It's impossible to really know all of it, and impossible to talk about with any sophistication without including a raft of background and disclaimers about absolutely everyone involved.  Nothing is ever, ever, ever simple in Lebanon.

So it is with great pleasure that I can recommend this article by Mohamad Bazzi, which ran in The Nation earlier this month.

A major theme highlighted by the protesters is that Siniora is backed by the Bush Administration--and that alliance did little to help Lebanon during last summer's thirty-four-day war between Israel and Hezbollah. A few days into the sit-in, Hezbollah hung a large banner from a building showing Siniora embracing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, over a collage of dead Lebanese children Photoshopped onto his back. It reads, "Condy--Thanks," a reference to Siniora's meeting with Rice during the war, when US officials refused to endorse a quick cease-fire. "Thank you for your patience Condy, for some of our children are still alive," it reads.

But in most conversations with people at the sit-in and protests, economic concerns quickly emerge: Siniora's government is corrupt, has failed to reduce Lebanon's crippling $41 billion public debt and has done little to improve people's lives. Shiites are especially forgotten in the country's economic planning. Many at the sit-in have been out of work for years, or lost their jobs after the recent war.

"Our country is getting poorer, and Siniora's government is not talking about it," says Hadi Mawla, a 22-year-old graphic design student who came from the dahiyeh on the protest's first day, which drew hundreds of thousands to downtown. "Our standard of living is falling, while other Arab countries are improving. We Lebanese used to make fun of other Arab countries. Now they have great big cities like Dubai. And we're going to end up like Egypt--with a very poor class, a very rich class and nothing in between."

This class battle transcends sectarian boundaries. Hezbollah has formed an alliance with the Free Patriotic Movement, led by Maronite Christian politician and former army commander Michel Aoun. With this coalition Hezbollah is trying to prove that it's not a purely sectarian party, it's not seeking to impose an Islamic government and it's willing to ally not just with nationalist Sunnis but also with Christians. Because Aoun stresses honest government, accountability and economic equality, he and Hezbollah seemed like a natural fit. By playing up its alliance with Aoun--and downplaying its partnership with the notoriously corrupt Shiite Amal party--Hezbollah can reinforce the reputation for honesty shared by many Islamist movements in the Middle East.
To many Shiites, Hezbollah's ascendance put them on the political map. There's a word Lebanese have used to put down a Shiite: mutawali, which roughly translates into "country bumpkin." It's a term freighted with meaning--of dispossession, prejudice, deprivation. But Shiites have appropriated it and now use it with pride. "During the civil war, we mutawalis were insulted and put down. Hezbollah gave us a new sense of dignity, and that's the most important right we can have," says Mawla, the graphic design student. "Hezbollah made it possible for us to stand, without fear, and shout from the rooftops that we are mutawalis."

It's a long article, and I encourage everyone to go read it in full.  (And, for the record, it's much better than anything Robert Fisk has to offer....)

As for what's been happening in the last three days... as Bazzi says, it's a dangerous time.  My view is that the leaders of both sides have been playing a very dangerous game of brinksmanship, spreading misinformation and exacerbating the political divisions in a matching pair of cynical power plays.  The rhetoric has gotten angrier and more intransigent, and there is no sign that either side is willing to compromise.  The leaders are manipulating their followers, pushing buttons that should not be pushed.

Something needs to change, but I hope against hope that it does not happen through violence.

To close, more Bazzi:

Locked in a state of perpetual conflict, Lebanon today faces the same choice it had in 1990, when the civil war ended. It can replicate the political system that it had before--based on corrupt sectarian warlords dividing up the spoils of the war they perpetuated--or it can try to produce a stronger and more egalitarian system, one that isn't based on religious divisions and that won't consign its largest sect, the Shiites, to the care of an Iranian-funded religious party.

We can only hope.

Display:
I wish we had some Lebanese people to comment on the situation, but we don't....
by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 09:12:02 AM EST
At times there are dots in Lebanon, on the sitemeter map - so there are people from there lurking. Would be nice if they participate in this discussion.

And thanks tsp for another good diary.

by Fran on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 09:33:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Some of those dots might be me, since I go back & forth a lot.  But I hope you're right, I hope we have a few Lebanese (or Lebanon-based) lurkers who might come out and join the discussion....
by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 11:13:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Great diary. You should repost your comment from the breakfast thread as well. I think it really adds to the picture.

What frustrates me is that the gap I see between this piece and other pieces is the same gap in large sections of Western commentary on "Muslim lands." That is, analysis of class and economic drivers to the conflict.

Thanks for linking to an interesting article.

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 10:26:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks, Metatone.  I think you're right, a lot of the coverage of the so-called "Muslim world" is fairly one-dimensional, without much realization of the ways in which all the issues that matter are really connected to each other.
by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 10:48:39 AM EST
[ Parent ]
here a local point of view (in French)

http://tokborni.blogspot.com/index.html


Le gouvernement mène le Liban à la guerre civile

Suivre les informations depuis la France est assez déprimant: nos médias traitent les affrontements inter-libanais comme s'ils tombaient du ciel: des événements apparemment dus à la faute à pas de chance ou à la passion arabe pour la guerre tribale.

Asia Times seems to think that the CIA is involved in the recent events :

http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/IA27Ak02.html


According to The Daily Telegraph, the US Central Intelligence Agency has authorized covert action against Hezbollah in Lebanon and plans to support and fund its opponents so that they unite to wipe out the Shi'ite movement before it spreads Iranian influence in Lebanon. Reportedly this plan remains secret and is only known to some US congressmen, President George W Bush, and certain Saudi officials, who support it.

The intelligence report reportedly reads: "There is a feeling in both Jerusalem and Riyadh that the anti-Sunni tilt in the region has gone too far." It adds that "by removing Saddam, we've shifted things in favor of the Shi'ites, and this is a counterbalancing exercise", Then, making matters worse were statements coming from Washington showing mild enthusiasm about a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement on Lebanon.

US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said: "We certainly wouldn't support any effort to try to negotiate something over and above the heads of the Siniora government." He added, "As for any political arrangements or accommodations that Prime Minister Siniora might come to with the various factions in Lebanon, those are going to be decisions for him to make. But we won't work with individual ministers from Hezbollah and we won't meet with them."

While flying to attend Paris III, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, an outspoken critic of Hezbollah, said: "What you saw [Tuesday] was irresponsible in the violence that erupted." Then topping it all with his State of the Union Address, President Bush compared Hezbollah to al-Qaeda, speaking of an "epic battle between Shi'ite extremists backed by Iran and Sunni extremists aided by al-Qaeda". He accused what he called "Hezbollah terrorists" of "seeking to undermine Lebanon's legitimately elected government".

original article here :

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/01/10/wleb10.xml

It authorises the CIA and other US intelligence agencies to fund anti-Hizbollah groups in Lebanon and pay for activists who support the Siniora government. The secrecy of the finding means that US involvement in the activities is officially deniable.

The Bush administration hopes Mr Siniora's government, severely weakened after its war with Israel last year, will become a bulwark against the growing power of the Shia sect of Islam, championed by Iran and Syria, since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
.......

The finding, drawn up at the White House by National Security Council (NSC) officials, is a sign of Mr Bush's growing alarm at the threat posed by Iran, which has infiltrated the Iraqi government and is training Shia insurgents as well as supplying them with roadside bombs.

A former US government official said: "Siniora's under siege there and we are always looking for ways to help allies. As Richard Armitage [a former deputy US secretary of state] said, Hizbollah is the A-team of terrorism and certainly Iran and Syria have not let up in their support of the group."

both the blog and the articles tend to corroborate a lot of foul play going on there.

by oldfrog on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 03:39:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
HOW STUPID CAN THEY BE?!?!?!?!

<speechless>

Gah.

<splutter>

I should be surprised, but I'm not, really.  There have been rumors (always unconfirmable) for some time that the US has been arming the pro-government forces.  Regardless of whether that's actually true, it's clear that the claims that "everybody but Hezbollah is disarmed" are no longer true, if they ever were.  Everyone's known for ages that the Lebanese Forces still has weapons of some type buried up in the mountains -- some of them threatened to "bring them down" during the Danish Embassy-burning clashes.  And the last time I was in Beirut, there was an odd story in the newspaper about a property dispute in a Druze village that someone (a member of Walid Jumblatt's party, if I remember correctly) tried to settle with a rocket propelled grenade.

Gah.

If the CIA and Israeli intelligence weren't run by absolute utter idiots, they'd know to just stay the fuck home and not fan these flames.

GUYS!  YEAH, YOU, IN THE TRENCH COAT!  LISTEN TO ME!!  KNOCK IT OFF!  YOU'RE MAKING A HUGE MISTAKE!!!!

Shit.

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 08:42:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Oh yeah... for Lebanon blogs, there's an aggregator at news.beiruter, which includes mostly English-language but some French and some Arabic blogs.  A lot of them are pro-government, but not all.

There's also some interesting multimedia up at the Lebanese Blogger Forum, which used to be more diverse than it is now, but it seems that some of the members have fallen out with each other over... what else, politics.

If you don't watch anything else, watch this.

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 09:07:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You can always go to the Angry Arab News Service.

"Beware of the man who does not talk, and the dog that does not bark." Cheyenne
by maracatu on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 09:11:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I did actually link to him in the diary (the Robert Fisk comment) and I think the Angry Arab is right a lot of the time.  But I also think he is not terribly representative of most Lebanese....

He seems to have taken a "pox on all of your houses" approach, and I think the country might benefit if more people did that, but so far, most people are sticking with their various leaders, whether they deserve support or not.

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 09:35:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
We Lebanese used to make fun of other Arab countries. Now they have great big cities like Dubai.

Sort of.
If in need of a refresher course about what's happening in Dubai,

After Shanghai (current population 15 million), Dubai (current population 1.5 million) is the planet's biggest building site: an emerging dreamworld of conspicuous consumption and what the locals boast as `supreme lifestyles'.

one could do worse than reading this sobering article.
by balbuz on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 10:16:02 AM EST
Absolutely, but I think we can all see how attractive it looks from a bombed out city block in Beirut.
by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 10:28:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You are absolutely correct, and the labor-related inequalities alone in Dubai would make anybody's head spin.

But many Lebanese who go to Dubai as educated and multi-lingual managers end up doing a bit better in the socio-economi-strata sweepstakes than they do at home.  For them, Dubai is somewhere you go to earn a good living, if not a fortue.  Opportunites to do either of those things at home are limited.  At home, they get mired in the system, while elsewhere (including Dubai) they get a chance to transcend it, or at least move up in it.

Almost all of the ambitious university students I've ever spoken to in Beirut say they plan to go abroad when they graduate.  It's just thought of as necessary; if you want to really succeed, you have to leave.  So "Dubai" becomes shorthand for "anywhere with more opportunity than here."

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 10:40:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
By request, here's my comment from this morning's Salon de News...

--

Washington Post: Rival Groups Clash in Beirut Streets
Four Killed in Battles Sparked by Argument at University; Army Imposes Curfew

   BEIRUT, Jan. 25 -- The Lebanese army imposed a curfew on the capital Thursday after hundreds of government supporters and foes wielded rocks, molotov cocktails and sometimes guns in street battles that dragged on past nightfall. Four people were killed and 150 wounded, officials said, many of them soldiers who at times stood helplessly between the two sides.

    The clashes, which began in a university cafeteria and spread to the surrounding neighborhood of Tariq Jedideh, offered a bitter contrast to the optimism of an international conference in Paris, where more than $7.6 billion was pledged to help Lebanon's economy recover from last summer's war between Israel and the Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah.

    As the grants and loans were announced in Paris, bursts of gunfire echoed along the airport road here and columns of black smoke rose from burning cars. The clashes were some of the worst since Lebanon's 15-year civil war ended in 1990 and followed violence Tuesday that left three people dead.

    Hundreds of Hezbollah followers, in red and blue helmets, poured into Tariq Jedideh, a Sunni neighborhood, many of them carrying sticks and chains. At one point, their opponents burned a Hezbollah banner, an act that spoke to the jarring rise in tension between Sunni Muslims, largely aligned with the government, and Hezbollah supporters since the crisis began two months ago.

    The army and security officers deployed in force after the clashes erupted, but often fired into the air or simply gave way. For hours, crowds surged at each other, then retreated, usually separated by soldiers crouched behind armored personnel carriers. More clashes ensued elsewhere, as Sunni crowds firebombed the headquarters of a party allied with Hezbollah and Shiite youths rampaged along a downtown street lined with bank headquarters.

This was all over the television yesterday.  The networks were switching back and forth between the street battles in Beirut and the Paris donors conference; Al Jazeera, though, (both the English and Arabic channels) chose not to go live to the final Paris press conference, where Siniora made a few remarks about the violence and restoring calm.  They kept their talking heads on instead, which I thought was an odd decision.

In Beirut, much to my astonishment, I actually saw somebody I know on CNN for a few seconds; he was either running away from something or towards something, I couldn't tell.  But he's not a student at the university, nor does he live in the neighborhood where the battles took place, so that's a sign that the fighting attracted "reinforcements" of a sort -- partisans drawn to the battle simply because it was a battle.  I think that's a very disturbing sign.

This is what my friends & I have been worrying about since the opposition protests started; the atmosphere is so tense and so polarized, and the rhetoric has grown so unyielding, that we've all been afraid that something as simple as a traffic accident could spark something like this.  Which is exactly what happened -- apparently it started as a lunchtime fight in the cafeteria between two students.  Now four people are dead, and people are talking about it becoming "like Iraq."

Nasrallah issued a fatwa late last night ordering people off the streets, and it seemed to have a coded message regarding the army and security forces that I didn't quite grasp, something along the lines of "they will bear full responsibility for the situation."

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 10:53:50 AM EST
Regarding R. Fisk: From the angry arabs article, it seems like Fisk has succumbed to the "foreign correspondence disease". The easiest way for a foreign correspondent to churn out articles is always to hob-nob with the rich and powerful. I recognise it the most myself from Norwegian correspondents lost in the Beltway when reporting from the US. Whenever they do NOT just steal headlines from WP or NYT they make a big deal out of the fact that they are ACTUALLY talking to people on the street or travelling somewhere. Quite sad.

The criticism is also pretty similar to some leftist critique I have seen of foreign correspondents in Venezuela: http://www.narconews.com/print.php3?ArticleID=571&lang=en

As for Fisk himself, I still think that he does a better job than the vast majority of the international media, no matter where he goes. On the other hand I have never been a fan-boy of his, and don't really understand why just doing ones job somewhat properly should be so praiseworthy. I am generally wary of prophets.

by Trond Ove on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 11:35:21 AM EST
Regarding R. Fisk: From the angry arabs article, it seems like Fisk has succumbed to the "foreign correspondence disease". The easiest way for a foreign correspondent to churn out articles is always to hob-nob with the rich and powerful

It's a different form of foreign correspondent's disease. Fisk is a longtime resident of Lebanon, and has understandably come to have a personal political identity in his adopted country. In general Fisk's reporting is characterized by a strong sense of identification with some of those he is reporting on. In general that means Arabs, but with respect to Lebanon it means the current governing coalition. Given that Fisk is both an excellent reporter and wears his political biases on his sleeve, it's not much of a problem.  What you're referring to is the Friedman political disease, and that's not the case with Fisk. Ironically, Friedman made his reputation as an excellent Middle East correspondent, was close friends with Fisk, and back in the eighties was the ME reporter that the American and Israeli right loved to hate. Then he got rich, became a jet setting op-ed columnist, and rapidly deteriorated into what you're describing, and is now utterly useless.

by MarekNYC on Sat Jan 27th, 2007 at 12:40:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I am so appreciating your contributions stormy...and learnng a lot in the process too. Thank you!!

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 11:51:39 AM EST
as the Nation article, but you might also find Zogby's piece about Lebanon on Huffington Post interesting.

He actually makes some of the same points, just not as well.

by Matt in NYC on Sat Jan 27th, 2007 at 04:43:59 AM EST
Oh, good article, thanks for bringing that to my attention.  I would have missed it.

I especially agree with this statement:

the simple fact is that "taking sides" in Lebanon is a no-win proposition. By aggressively taking sides, the US has exacerbated the sectarian divide. The US has not only further weakened its already fragile standing in the country (due to its widely discredited support for Israel's behavior and the war in Iraq), it has also hurt, rather than helped, the very government it has sought to support.

And this...

For there to be compromise some fundamental considerations must be addressed. Lebanon's "jerry-rigged" confessional system must be reformed/abolished in recognition of the country's changed demography. Together with this, the central government must be strengthened, with the recognition that there can be no armed groups outside of a truly representative government's control. Finally Lebanon's constitution must enshrine the principles of the country's "special character" which provides for respect and protection for Lebanon's diverse constituencies. There can be no tyranny of the majority - however, that majority is defined.

What is needed now is for Lebanon's leaders and their international backers (including the US) to recognize that the country is a tinderbox with everyone playing with matches. It's time to back away from confrontation and define an agenda that saves Lebanon - before it's too late.

... raises some very important questions, e.g. what would a fair and functional system in Lebanon look like?  I don't know anybody with the answer to that question.  We talk about it, but nothing so far has been workable.

Someone said to me there last month that the old pre-war system didn't work (obviously - it led to the war), and the post-war Taif Accord system only seemed to work because the Syrians were there to enforce it, but a strictly majoritarian democracy wouldn't work either.... What Lebanon needs to figure out is what will work.  And in order for anything to work, the leaders are going to have to stop thinking about preserving their own power and start thinking for real about the good of the country.

Sadly, I doubt that most members of the current crop of them are really capable of that.

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Sat Jan 27th, 2007 at 04:58:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Beirut Spring thinks it's becoming "irrelevant who started the fire and who's fanning the flames":

The spiraling violence that left many dead and injured in Beirut yesterday seemed to have surprised the let's-block-roads-and-burn-tires-and-provoke-people crowd; Nabih Berri and Hassan Nassrallah appeared genuinely freaked out as they made their "please calm down and go back home" televised fatwas.

[...]March 8 seemed to be surprised by the violence. But were they really?

Nassrallah's "If I only knew" speech comes to my mind. The pro-Syrians are consolidating their reputation for their uncanny ability to be shocked by things everyone else sees coming.

Too much PR energy is being spent on a blame-game that rings increasingly hollow. When you and your opponent are pumping sectarian fuel in your media, it becomes irrelevant who started the fire and who's fanning the flames (although Al-mustaqbal gave us a hint this morning: A Syrian and a Palestinian sniper who were shooting at the crowds were caught by the army yesterday.)

The opposition can't forever talk about peaceful demonstrations and then burn tires and provoke people. They should know that people out there would be more than happy to let us kill each other (I say Syrians, they say Americans).

It is true that usually religion is simply a proxy for something else that is wrong where there is strong "sectarian" conflict.  In Malaysia, for example, the religious lines are drawn almost completely along racial lines, and it's really all about race and economics (where the ethnic mostly-Muslim Malays, about 60% of the population, are still benefitting from an economic subsidy paid for by the ethnic non-Muslim 40% Chinese and Indian).  At the same time, the economic issues wouldn't mean much if they didn't have a racial and religious divide to articulate us vs. them.

However, in Lebanon, so many outside political forces have their finger in the pie, I think it's possible the economic issues, rather than being the driver, are merely the tool of those outside parties.  Similar to, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has nothing to do with religion, but it also isn't merely economic.  The Lebanese and Palestinians are just pawns in a much larger game over there, and the players are willing to use economics if they have to.  Without getting into Israel's responsibilities toward her own citizens, don't you think the Arab countries could make life much better for Palestinians if they wanted?  Or that the Shi'ites in Lebanon wouldn't have better material lives if Hezbollah and Syria didn't think it was better to keep them unhappy?  It's totally sad.

The other example I can think of is Afghanistan, where Sunni and Shi'ite are also divided completely on ethnic grounds and in reality the theological differences just don't matter.  They hate each other because they are not in the same ethnic group, not because Shi'ites use representational artwork and Sunnis do not.  To the extent where the Shi'ites look distinctively more oriental.  Of course, there is a long, long history of economic second-class citizenship for Shi'ites, but the current conflict is not just because of disgruntled poor people.  In a way, the economics are incidental.

In Lebanon, I think it's possible the economics are incidental.  And even if they are not, the way economic disparity and discontentment came about is likely to be politically motivated.

by z----- (pasdejunk AT gmail DOT com) on Sat Jan 27th, 2007 at 05:33:18 AM EST
Heh.  Did you notice how he says "it's irrelevant who's fanning the flames" and then makes sure to tell us who he thinks is fanning the flames?

First rule of understanding Lebanon:  Never believe anything anybody tells you, at least if they're talking about the other side.  Mustapha from Beirut Spring is a supporter of the March 14 Movement (that's the government) and what he writes needs to be understood from that perspective.

I'm not saying that invalidates what he's saying, I'm just saying that both sides say things that put them in the best light and the other side in the worst.  All of it needs to be taken with a huge helping of salt.

We've been hearing these "reports" (more like rumors) of Syrians and Palestinians being "arrested" for all kinds of nefarious activities for months -- it literally happens every single time that March 14 supporters are involved in any kind of violence, and there were reports of scores of arrests around the time that the opposition protests started.

When the young Amal supporter was killed in Sunni/Shia fighting shortly after the protests started, everybody said four Syrians were arrested, but from what I can tell they had absolutely nothing to do with it -- they just happened to live in the neighborhood (believe it or not, there are still plenty of Syrians working here) and made convenient scapegoats for the death of an opposition member who wasn't even protesting.

The newspaper he cites, Al-Mustaqbel, is owned by Saad Hariri's Future Movemnet and toes the party line.  It's just as much of a propaganda outlet as Al-Manar.  Just about all the different groups have their own media outlets, including newspapers and radio stations and satellite television stations.  You can't even watch the news in Lebanon without getting hit upside the head by somebody's agenda.

I can't tell you how many doom-and-gloom rumors I was hearing when the protests first started, none of which turned out to be true.  (My favorite:  Hezbollah was supposed to have obtained Lebanese Army uniforms and was smuggling ladders into the protest tent camp so they could use them to storm the Serail in the middle of the night.  Which, of course, was absolute nonsense.)

You get mirror-image stuff from the opposition.  They are personally vilifying Siniora, calling him "like Osama or Saddam" and saying he was drinking Champagne in the US embassy with Condoleezza Rice during the entire summer war; you seriously hear stuff like "he was partying and having a good time with his good friend Condi while we were dying, he was conspiring with the Israelis during the war..." etc.  Which, of course, is also utter nonsense.

My point is that this is the status of the political "dialogue" at the moment -- it consists almost entirely of both sides spreading vicious and inflammatory lies or half-truths about each other.  It's sickening.  And yes, it is fanning the flames.  Hell, it's more like pouring kerosene on the flames.

Ok... In the following remarks, I am not going to respond to your comments about Israel and the Palestinians, because (a) I know a lot more about Lebanon than Israel/Palestine, and (b) that is a subject for another diary; it is related to the situation in Lebanon, but not central to it, no matter how much some people (again, from various sides of the debate) would like to believe that.

the economic issues wouldn't mean much if they didn't have a racial and religious divide to articulate us vs. them.

You are underestimating the economic issues.  The divisions are quite stark, and the economic situation isn't good for any segment of the population.  It's not just Shiite students who feel their options are limited, it's everyone.  The economic issues would be a hugely important matter no matter what the confessional implications; they become thornier and more dangerous because they are accompanied by a confessional division.

The Lebanese and Palestinians are just pawns in a much larger game over there, and the players are willing to use economics if they have to.

Look, I don't want to be rude because you seem like a very thoughtful person, but that's just nonsense.  Yes, the Lebanese factions may all have their various external alliances, and for those allies this does resemble a proxy war, and yes, there is a history going back hundreds of years of foreign powers fighting for supremacy by using Lebanon as their battleground and Lebanese as their cannon fodder.

But none of the Lebanese factions are mindless tools or pawns of those outside forces.  They use the external alliances to bolster their internal power and legitimacy, but they do not simply follow orders.  That's just more propaganda lobbed by each side against the other -- "well, we're not really tools of the Americans and the Saudis, but they're just tools of the Iranians and the Syrians.."  "oh no, we're fighting for Lebanon's interests, we are not beholden to Iran or Syria, not like those lackeys of the Americans and the French and the Saudis over there..."   Gah.  Again, it's just nauseating -- and all untrue.

These people make their own decisions, and they do what they belive to be in their own interests, and in the interest of the country.  They just have very different ideas about what's in the interest of the country.

I know that it's fashionable in the US to believe that Hezbollah is just taking marching orders from Iran and Syria, but I really don't believe it's true.  It's much more complicated than that.  First off, ideologically, Hezbollah has nothing in common with Syria; its collaboration with Damascus is really just pragmatic, and its leaders are not terribly comfortable about it.  (And that's probably true of the Syrian regime in reverse as well.)  Second, while under its earlier leadership Hezbollah was essentially an implement of Tehran's foreign policy, that hasn't really been true for a long time.  Hassan Nasrallah has changed a lot of things.  He is a much smarter leader than his predecessors.

Or that the Shi'ites in Lebanon wouldn't have better material lives if Hezbollah and Syria didn't think it was better to keep them unhappy?

Again, that's just too simplistic.  Yes, the Shi'ites in Lebanon would probably have better material lives if Syria had really tried to give it to them, but that's one of the reasons why the relationship between Syria and Hezbollah is so uneasy.  And Hezbollah does not want the Shi'ites to be poor and unhappy; it does, however, want to be the only one who's doing something about it.  And up till now, none of the other factions has tried very hard to change that.

In Lebanon, I think it's possible the economics are incidental.

They really aren't.  I don't know how to convince you of that.  They are central.  Lebanon is a merchant society, going back centuries.  Economics is everything.  The economy is the casual coffee-shop chatter, and the pub talk, and the taxi-driver banter.

When you talk to people about the effect of the war, everybody (especially the pro-government side) talks about what the war (and, by extension, Hezbollah) did to the economy, and that's also the single biggest complaint that the March 14 supporters have about the current protest campaign -- that it's shutting down the downtown, hurting the economy.  The tourists are gone, the hotels are empty, people have been laid off from their jobs.  (Oh, and then there are all those thousands of people who still don't have homes.  That's sort of an important issue too.)

When the economy was booming, some people were willing to put up with a lot of stuff (e.g. corruption, infrastructure problems) that they wouldn't have been inclined to have put up with otherwise -- and the fact that a huge percentage of the population was left out of that economic boom is a very key factor in (a) Hezbollah's support level, and (b) why the opposition supporters are so disgruntled.

And even if they are not, the way economic disparity and discontentment came about is likely to be politically motivated.

Well, that's partly true, but it doesn't change the fact that the economic disparity and discontentment are there.  In fact, it makes them worse.

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Sat Jan 27th, 2007 at 05:33:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks stormy for these insights.
They are in line with what union-people told me this weekend.
The Paris-donor meeting was a huge support for Siniora but could not hide that the promises that are made are conditional: more privatizing (telecom, energy, Middle East Airlines(MEA) and more are in the plans).
It looks indeed like only the rich are winning...
From what I see here: there is a federation of unions (GLC) proposing a number of things: higher minimum-wages and more social security. Their voice seems completely lost in the mass-media.


The struggle of man against tyranny is the struggle of memory against forgetting.(Kundera)
by Elco B (elcob at scarlet dot be) on Sat Jan 27th, 2007 at 06:30:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Hi Elco B.  Wow, were you at the Paris donor meeting?  I would be really interested in hearing more about that... Can you do a diary on it?

The privatization issue is controversial but important.  The opposition supporters (and a fair number of the government's own supporters) believe there will be a vast amount of corruption in the privatization process, and past experience certainly indicates that to be likely.  I once asked a friend of mine, a staunch March 14 supporter, about the amount of corruption invovled in Rafik Hariri and Solidere's rebuilding of downtown, which nobody even bothers to deny; his response was, "But he paid the money back!  That's how great he was!"  :-0

But things really do need fixing.  The telcom sector is a mess -- internet connectivity is the worst I've ever seen, and cellphones (both lines and calls) are shockingly expensive compared to most other places.

The GLC is affiliated with the opposition and is the group that called the strike last week....

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Sun Jan 28th, 2007 at 05:53:42 AM EST
[ Parent ]
That's totally helpful.  And you weren't rude.

I think we are talking in the same language but differing in terms of degrees.  I did not have the intention when posting of going into the same depth as you did, and I don't disagree with your comments.  I was, however, saying that it's not possible only to say that economics are what is wrong over there.  My point was that the situation belies many other issues, of course.

by z----- (pasdejunk AT gmail DOT com) on Mon Jan 29th, 2007 at 03:51:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]


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