Friday, July 11, 2014

Smell of victory - Hamas is benefitting from the latest clash between Israel and Palestine

The Israeli campaign in Gaza is ongoing, so it may be premature to designate winners and losers just yet. However, from the perspective of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the fighting until now has allowed both to attain a number of political and military objectives at a crucial time in inter-Palestinian relations.

The latest Gaza war has been very different from previous ones by virtue of the weapons the Palestinian groups have deployed. Whereas Hamas and Islamic Jihad mainly bombed Israeli localities near the Strip in the past (because their weapons didn’t allow otherwise), today they have the capability of targeting Israeli cities such as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Plainly, a significant rearmament effort took place during the years of chaos in Egypt after January 2011, with Iran apparently the main supplier. Syrian long-range M302 rockets have also made their way into Gaza, probably through Iranian or Hezbollah channels, though that remains to be confirmed.

This signals that Hamas has rebuilt its relationship with Iran since the two parted ways over the conflict in Syria. Hamas had an interest in this. It has lost much revenue over the past year, since the removal of Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi, because the authorities in Cairo (effectively Egypt’s military) closed most of the smuggling tunnels into Gaza. These tunnels earned Hamas some $200 million annually in tax revenues.

The current conflict shows Iran the value of its Palestinian ally while allowing it to test its weaponry. Though Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system has been successful in shooting down longer range rockets, Hamas’s implicit message is that as the quality of its weapons improves, Israel’s success rate in protecting its cities will decline and casualty rates will rise.

That may be true or it may not be. With Abdel Fattah al-Sisi now president of Egypt, Hamas’s ability to import better arms will continue to be hindered. However, for Hamas the question is one of perception. The movement saw its relative power decline in recent months, and if it can show, as it has, that its military capabilities have improved, that goes a long way toward reversing the appearance of growing ineffectiveness.

In fact, Hamas sees Gaza as a means of underscoring the political marginalization of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. With the failure of the American-sponsored “peace process” evident to everyone, Abbas’s credibility has been severely damaged. Nor have Palestinians, angry as they are with Israel’s continued refusal to compromise over its settlements, regarded Abbas’s collaboration with Israel favorably.

While Hamas may not bring Palestinians many gains by launching rockets at Israel, the movement’s actions in recent days contrast sharply with Abbas’s futility. Hamas is seen as having retaliated for the killing of a Palestinian youth (and may have provoked that killing if indeed it was behind the murder of three Israeli teenagers). It forced Israelis everywhere to flee by bringing the war to their doorsteps. This has resonance with a Palestinian population suffering daily from Israel’s occupation.

It is conceivable that, in the long term, the latest round in Gaza will help impose new thinking in Israel. There is a line of reasoning that the only way to make Israelis accept a new template for dealing with the Palestinians is to show them that their occupation will only bring escalating risks. Therefore, with Israeli cities now under attack, the only long-term solution with the Palestinians is to end the occupation and make peace.

That may be true, but neither Hamas nor the Israeli government has shown much inclination to embrace that logic. Hamas may have changed with regard to a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, but  it still refuses to recognize Israel. This means that it does not really see the Gaza conflict as part of a wider process of negotiations leading to an eventual settlement, while its efforts to undermine Abbas, who can talk to the Israelis, reduce the likelihood of a successful negotiating track.

For now, Hamas’s priorities appear to be less ambitious: to show how vulnerable Israel has become; to reinforce its ties with Iran, restoring a source of financing and improved weaponry; and to show how irrelevant Abbas and Fatah are, allowing Hamas to eventually take control of the Palestinian national movement.

The fact is that Israel has few means to respond to this. Israel’s international standing has taken a hit in recent years, with its right-wing government widely viewed as unwilling to make any concessions for peace. At the same time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offers no alternative project out of the deadlock, even as his assumption that there is a military solution to the Hamas problem is rejected even in Israel.

In other words, Hamas benefits from the political bankruptcy of Israel’s government. Netanyahu may order his troops into Gaza in the coming days, but even if he does, then what? Holding on to the territory is hardly an ideal option, while destroying buildings and then leaving will only ensure more of what we have today.

If Israel’s short-term goal is to push the international community to isolate Hamas, then this has probably failed. Most governments, even the Obama administration, have accepted Hamas in a Palestinian unity cabinet. If the party emerges stronger after Gaza, many governments will not want to ignore it. In other words, Netanyahu’s strategy will have backfired.

We will see in the coming days if Hamas’s sense of accomplishment is justified. The movement has learned from Hezbollah that merely surviving an Israeli onslaught can be played up as a victory. As for Netanyahu, what does he need to do short of destroying Hamas to declare an Israeli victory? It’s not at all clear. That’s why Hamas feels so confident.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Lebanon pays a heavy price for the continuing Syrian crisis

With Syrian refugees in Lebanon estimated at around 1.1 million, if not higher, there is growing fear among Lebanese that their country will pay a long-term price for this presence, similar to the one Lebanon paid for the Palestinian refugees who arrived after the Arab-Israeli war of 1948.

The problems are two-fold: how to address the short-term needs of the refugees and how to regulate their presence until they can return to Syria, if they return. On the first, international aid to Lebanon has been woefully inadequate, given that the refugee population is now equivalent to 20 per cent of Lebanon’s entire population.

The United Nations asked for $1.89 billion for the refugees in 2014, but only around 22 per cent of that sum has been paid. The refugee presence has put further pressure on Lebanon’s already highly inadequate infrastructure: electricity rationing has increased dramatically this summer, while Lebanon is suffering from a serious water crisis exacerbated by a dry winter.

Moreover, the World Bank has estimated that the Syrian conflict cost Lebanon $2.5 billion in lost economic activity in 2013 alone. A downwards trend has been recorded since the Syrian conflict started in 2011. With Lebanon’s national debt rising, and the debt to GDP ratio at well over 150 per cent, there are genuine worries about national bankruptcy.

Even more disturbing are the lasting dangers of the refugee presence and the demographic imbalance this may create in Lebanon. A majority of the refugees are Sunnis who oppose president Bashar Al Assad and come from regions the regime is not eager to repopulate while the conflict continues.

That is not to say that the Syrians will settle in Lebanon, but the prospects of their return within the coming three to five years seems doubtful given that Syria will doubtless remain unstable. And yet so sensitive is the issue of the permanent settlement of non-Lebanese that Lebanon’s constitution specifically bars it.

Even if Syria’s regime recaptures Aleppo and holds the major cities between Damascus and the north, it may prevent the refugees from returning. There have been unconfirmed reports of regime efforts to change sectarian demographics in Homs. Even if this is untrue, Mr Al Assad’s intelligence services will not give rebels an opportunity to redeploy along the Damascus-Aleppo axis by infiltrating a population of returning refugees.

In an effort to address the refugee crisis, Lebanon’s foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, has suggested that refugee camps be built inside Syrian territory to house those who fled to Lebanon. This would require the approval of the Syrian government, however, and Syria’s ambassador to Lebanon recently shot down the idea publicly, even if Mr Bassil suggested he had heard something different when the two met.

Yet the reality is that Syria’s regime is in no hurry to lessen the hardship in Lebanon, since its survival strategy is to export instability to its neighbours, forcing the international community to deal with it. Nor do Mr Al Assad and his acolytes relish becoming responsible for hundreds of thousands of refugees when they are engaged in an existential battle.

Another problem with Mr Bassil’s proposal is that international law prohibits placing refugees near the border of the country from where they have fled, as this may put them at risk of retaliation. At the same time, the minister opposes the establishment of refugee camps deeper inside Lebanon, fearing this would only make their presence in Lebanon permanent.

Refugee camps can also become islands of insecurity when dominated by factions pursuing a political agenda. That is precisely what happened with the Palestinians, and it proved disastrous for Lebanon in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

There is as well a rising fear in Lebanon that more extremist Islamist groups may exploit the Syrian refugee population. Given the recent spate of bomb attacks and security incidents in the country, few officials will willingly advocate the creation of areas that may slip out of the state’s authority.

But there are also problems with not building camps. For one thing, it makes it more difficult to obtain international aid. A structured environment facilitates the organisation of assistance, reassuring international donors who fear corruption and waste when help is distributed haphazardly.

A camp, if properly secured and managed, can also be a means of better controlling security. The problem is that the Lebanese are not particularly adept in this regard. There are doubts that the Lebanese Army and security agencies are properly trained to watch the camps while also respecting the refugees’ rights.

With many Syrians wary of the army’s ties with Hizbollah, the refugee population may also actively oppose efforts by the Lebanese state to control their environment. This is harmful when a successful refugee programme must involve trust and collaboration between a refugee population and a host country.

The head of Lebanon’s General Security agency, Abbas Ibrahim, was recently quoted as saying that Lebanon would probably be obliged to set up refugee camps, despite opposition inside Lebanon. Mr Ibrahim may be right: as the war in Syria drags on and international aid agencies plan for the long haul, Beirut may have to end the chaotic way refugees live in Lebanon.

Mr Ibrahim also may mean that as the political hazards associated with the refugees increase, with Sunni-Shia tensions in the region at an all-time high, it would be best to concentrate Syrians in locations where such problems can be contained. There are definite downsides, but the reality is that there are no good options for Lebanon today. The country usually pays heavily for reflecting the region’s contradictions.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Imperial IRS - How Fatca forces Lebanon to disregard its own laws

This week the United States began implementing the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, or Fatca. The legislation will be applied worldwide, but in many countries it has raised legal issues since Fatca can violate domestic legislation. Lebanon, whose banks have readily embraced Fatca, is one such place.

In reality, Lebanese banks didn’t have much of a choice. Fatca has been imposed by the United States on banks and other financial institutions internationally, obliging them to report to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) on their American account holders with accounts above $50,000. If the financial institutions are deemed non-compliant, 30% of their gross payments from American payers are to be withheld. This can be onerous; hence, all financial institutions whose transactions go through the United States have no alternative but to accept Fatca.

What this means specifically is that at the end of every year banks will inform the IRS about their American clients, reporting the total sums in their account, interest, and transactions. In that way, the IRS believes, it will become extremely difficult for Americans overseas to underreport, or not report, their income in order to evade taxes.

However, there are several problems with Fatca. One involves principle. The legislation mandates hitherto-unprecedented intrusion into the private affairs of Americans overseas. Few things are more private than an individual’s personal financial accounts or business relationships, and what Fatca does is to tear away the blanket of privacy and demand that foreign financial institutions effectively spy on their American clients.

There are two very clear messages in the Fatca legislation, and they are quite disturbing: the first is that the American government does not trust its own citizens, and therefore will push them into a surveillance system operated by foreign entities; and second, that no financial institution – or country – has the latitude to refuse to implement Fatca because the United States could close off their access to the American market. For anyone transacting in US dollars, this is the kiss of death.  

In other words, Fatca is effectively an instrument of financial imperialism, while also being a very blunt mallet used against America’s own citizens. For critics of Fatca, a democracy should not be engaging in such wanton behavior, especially as the highly invasive oversight it imposes on Americans’ accounts would never be accepted by citizens in the United States.

But there is also something else: Fatca forces countries to ignore their own legislation, and the IRS knows this. In many countries, reporting on bank accounts, particularly to a foreign authority, is not legal. While that may be changing in a world where governments are increasingly agreeing to an exchange of financial information on citizens and are hunting for tax revenues, it suggests there is more to Fatca than meets the eye.

In Lebanon, for instance, banking secrecy remains in place, even if it has been gradually eroded over the years. There is also a legal principle known as the “right to an account,” which means that banks cannot deny an individual an account. While these principles have been imperfectly applied, they yet remain foundations of the Lebanese banking system and speak to the more fundamental liberal philosophy underpinning it.

Fatca undermines both. The reporting conditions effectively deny banking secrecy to Americans, who are obliged to waive their right to confidentiality. And if American clients refuse to waive that right, their accounts can be declared recalcitrant and banks can choose to close them. This, in turn, is contrary to the right to an account principle enshrined in Lebanese law.

But Fatca also imposes extra-territorial conditions. If an American is married to a Lebanese citizen and the two hold a joint account, the financial institution must report on both account holders. That means Lebanese banks are tasked with reporting on the transactions of Lebanese clients simply because they are married to Americans. From a legal perspective this is highly dubious, and could push Lebanese to demand that the authorities apply the law and protect them from IRS scrutiny.

It is to clarify such legal ambiguities that the United States has signed what are known as inter-governmental agreements, or IGAs, with foreign countries, to circumvent their domestic legislation. Many governments have gone along with this, but Lebanon has not signed an IGA. What this means is that financial institutions in the country are likely to be maneuvering in a legal gray zone for the foreseeable future.

The banks’ attitude has been realistic. Between the dire threat of American financial retaliation and the need to respect Lebanese law, they have regarded the former as the greater priority. And the Central Bank has not persuaded them otherwise, telling the vulnerable Lebanese banks to deal directly with the IRS.

Given the unevenness of Lebanon’s judiciary, rare are those who go to court to challenge legislation. That’s why banks prefer to focus on the present, while waiting to address any legal challenges when and if they present themselves.

As for the American authorities, they care not at all about the effects of Fatca. Foreign banks have paid large sums of money to be compliant, and will defer most of the costs onto their clients. How strange that the US Treasury, in order to enforce American tax law, has imposed an onerous system demanding that other countries disregard their own legislation.  

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Watching the Aoun movie while we wait

You have to hand it to Michel Aoun. He can say whatever he wants, no matter how foolish or contradictory, and still retain the backing of a substantial number of Christians.

Take Aoun’s latest proposal for a presidential election. The general called earlier this week for the president to be elected in two rounds of popular voting. In the first, Christians alone would vote. Then the top two candidates would go on to a second round, where all Lebanese – Christians, Muslims and others – would choose a president.

At the same time, Aoun again declared his support for the so-called Orthodox proposal, in which each religious sect would elect only its own parliamentarians. His rationale was that, under the current 1960 law, most Christian parliamentarians were being brought in by Muslims. “This is not fair,” Aoun said. “When every religious group elects its own officials, we are ensuring justice and fair representation.”

So essentially, we have two proposals that apply opposite principles. When it comes to the presidency, Aoun is willing to give the clear Muslim majority in Lebanon the power to bring in a Maronite president, in that way bypassing Parliament, where Christians and Muslims are represented equally. But when it comes to parliamentary elections, Aoun intends to neutralize the Muslim majority that he will otherwise empower on the presidency.

It all makes perfect sense. Of course, Aoun would argue that the key lies in the two-stage presidential process, which presumably gives Christians the right to filter their two leading candidates in the first round. Perhaps, but the scheme, aside from raising serious legitimacy questions in a consociational system, is such that there are no guarantees either candidate will represent a majority of Christians, let alone that the winning candidate will. Far more significant is that Aoun opens the door to the principle of allowing Lebanon’s Muslim majority to effectively use its numbers to determine political outcomes. That means undermining confessional parity in the post-Taif institutions, which Christians regard as a protection, given their minority status.

With Aoun, we learned long ago that duplicity in the service of self-interest is no vice. More than any other Christian politician, he helped destroy his community, along with Samir Geagea, in the last years of the Lebanese war, in what began as a struggle against a Syrian regime he now backs. Aoun can still rally communal support, but this tells us more about the desperate mindset among Christians than about the man’s merits.

Aoun’s proposal has been panned, and understandably so. What is it about Aoun and Geagea that in the past year has made them back election proposals, presidential or parliamentary, that, while they may bring them some political benefit, are destined to harm Christian interests in the long term? The Christians can no longer afford politicians who mobilize them in their internecine battles.

For now, the most startling embodiment of Maronite fortunes is the absence of a president. And once again, Aoun has been pushed into the forefront of a confrontation in which he counts for relatively little. In reality, the agenda is being set by Hezbollah, with Aoun a useful facade to delay a final decision on a president and probably to protect the party’s favorite candidate.

Aoun, no idiot, senses this, and is trying to exploit what limited margin of maneuver he has to force the issue on his candidacy. But it is clear that Saad Hariri, even if he wants to maintain a good relationship with the general, has no Saudi backing to endorse Aoun. Walid Jumblatt has also sought to block Aoun, fearing that any Aoun-Hariri rapprochement would jeopardize his own balancing act in the center of the political spectrum, while ultimately threatening his authority in the Chouf.

Hezbollah has allowed this situation to play itself out, knowing that it would block the election process, buy the party time, and increase the frustration necessary to bring in a candidate of its choice, which many observers believe is Army commander Jean Kahwagi. The security threats in recent weeks, while real, have also been played up to make Kahwagi more appealing to the public and to foreign governments that have doubts about him.

Hezbollah may also want more time to decide because the regional situation has again become unpredictable. With the offensive by the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and the Sunni uprising in Iraq, the party is under greater pressure. Iraqi Shiite militias have returned home to fight ISIS, forcing Hezbollah to fill the void in Syria. For its part, Iran is scrambling to impose some order on the Iraqi chaos, even as the country fragments between its Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish components.

In this context, Hezbollah faces two sets of problems. On the one hand, Lebanese divisions make an early resolution to the presidential deadlock in a way the party favors highly improbable. On the other, with the situation in Iraq so volatile and Hezbollah heavily committed in Syria, it’s better for the party to perpetuate a Lebanese vacuum until Iran and Hezbollah can shift the tide regionally. At that stage, Hezbollah would seek to impose a new balance in Lebanon that reflects this reality.

There are many uncertainties in such a scenario, which is probably why we can expect a further delay in parliamentary elections scheduled for November. With everything stalemated, the prospect of a consensus over a new electoral law seems very remote. Nor is Hezbollah keen to return to the 1960 law, which may lead to a Parliament similar to the one we have today. This would force the party to be dependent on the centrists, which it doesn’t want.

Lebanon is set for many more months of much ado about nothing. But before anyone assumes we are entering an uncontrollable vacuum, the reality is that we are in a well-planned holding pattern. Michel Aoun is the in-flight entertainment while we wait, courtesy of Hezbollah.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

As Iraq fractures, is this the start of regional collapse?

Massoud Barzani, the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, has released a statement stating that a referendum would be held to determine the fate of the disputed province of Kirkuk before its possible integration into Kurdistan. This has much wider implications than are immediately visible.

Kirkuk’s status has been a matter of dispute for decades. The late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein sought to change the ethnic make-up of the province by increasing the Arab population and driving out Kurds and Assyrians. After Hussein’s removal in 2003, the status of Kirkuk continued to divide Kurds and the government in Baghdad.

The deadlock was broken in recent weeks by the offensive of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), now renamed the Islamic State, and its takeover of the city of Mosul. Iraqi security forces withdrew from Kirkuk as a consequence and Kurdish Peshmerga forces moved in to fill the vacuum.

With the province having fallen into the Kurds’ lap, and the central government in disarray, no one believes that Kirkuk will return to Baghdad’s authority soon, or ever. Mr Barzani’s promise of a referendum will have little reassured those who know the Kurds will seek to win the vote at all costs.

Yet this is only the first stage in a process likely leading to Kurdish independence. In an interview with the BBC’s Jim Muir, Mr Barzani has said that as Iraq is effectively partitioned, it is the Kurds’ right to achieve independence: “Are we supposed to stay in this tragic situation the country’s living? It’s not me who will decide on independence. It’s the people. We’ll hold a referendum and it’s a matter of months.”

Yet Mr Barzani will have to be careful about regional reactions to the emergence of an independent Kurdistan. Traditionally, Turkey, Iran and Syria have opposed any such outcome, fearful that this would encourage their own Kurdish minorities to pursue greater autonomy or independence. But the regional situation has greatly changed, altering attitudes all around.

Turkey is the main economic and oil outlet for Iraqi Kurdistan, and over the last decade Kurdish-Turkish relations have substantially improved, making Ankara more amenable toward Kurdish independence. Huseyin Celik, the spokesman for the ruling Justice and Development Party, has told the Financial Times: “In the past an independent Kurdish state was a reason for war [for Turkey] but no one has the right to say this now.”

Mr Celik used a logic similar to Mr Barzani’s, arguing that Iraq was breaking apart, and if “Iraq is divided and it is inevitable, [the Kurds] are our brothers…” That said, there continue to be disagreements within Turkey over policy toward Turkey’s own Kurds, even if prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government believes that Iraqi Kurdish dependency on Turkey would place a Kurdish state in Turkey’s area of influence.

Iran, in turn, has more reservations about the idea of Kurdish independence. The Islamic Republic has repeated that it supports the unity of Iraq and opposes separation and partition. According to the daily Al Hayat, in a recent meeting between Iranian officials and the prime minister of the Kurdistan region, Nechervan Barzani, the Iranians expressed their “worry” about recent developments involving Kurdistan.

As for Syria, there is no effective government there to oppose Kurdish aspirations. Some Kurdish groups are closer to the Kurdish Workers Party of Abdullah Ocalan while others are closer to Massoud Barzani. The closer ties between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds, like the possibility of a successful peace process between the Erdogan government and Turkey’s Kurds, could potentially reduce tensions between Syria’s Kurdish factions.

If that were to happen, Iran could find itself in a situation it would not completely control. The Iranians do not want Turkish influence to grow among Kurds, while the Kurdish faction with which Tehran is closest, Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, has been neutralised somewhat by the fact that Mr Talabani had a stroke in 2012 and has been in Germany since.

Mr Barzani will doubtless tread carefully before declaring Kurdish independence. But if the Kurds do have their own state, this will serve not only to reinforce the separatist desires of Kurds everywhere, it will be the strongest confirmation yet that the post-First World War borders of the Middle East are collapsing.

There is a growing realisation, and consensus, that neither Syria nor Iraq is likely to be put back together again. Not only have sectarian and ethnic divisions worsened dramatically in both countries, but there are no competent and conciliatory leaderships in place to reunite either. The ineptitude, brutality and maximalism of the regimes in Iraq and Syria are as much an obstacle to national unity as are their social divisions.

This has given rise to fears that the countries of the Middle East, particularly those with mixed sectarian or ethnic societies, are heading toward fragmentation. Almost none has a social contract to regulate communal relations, other than Lebanon perhaps, so the region is poorly equipped to resist such momentum.

The legitimacy of borders is often a function of the legitimacy of states. ISIL’s effort to erase the Syrian-Iraqi border may be a temporary phenomenon, but Iraq’s Sunnis will not want to fall under a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad again. As for the Kurds, whatever their tactical retreats in establishing a state, they broke psychologically with Iraq long ago.

We often hear that we are witnessing the end of the Sykes-Picot agreement. In fact we are witnessing the end of the willingness of communities to be part of states incapable of reforming or meeting their citizens’ aspirations. In the face of irreconcilable differences, divorce becomes more appealing.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Bombs away - Will terrorism in Lebanon bring in a new president?

Perhaps it’s my natural skepticism, but there is something terribly fishy about the bomb explosions that have hit Lebanon in the past week.

Most noticeable in all three incidents is that they were somehow thwarted by one or the other of Lebanon’s security services. All took place after the offensive in Iraq by the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which sent shockwaves throughout the Middle East. And all come at a sensitive time for Lebanon, which has been unable to elect a president to replace Michel Sleiman.

However, this is very little to go on. But it’s a fact that while the security services, bolstered by those of Hezbollah, were unable to prevent any of the bomb explosions that took place earlier this year in the southern suburbs, despite myriad checkpoints, in the space of a week they have repeatedly, if not interrupted attacks, forced alleged bombers to detonate their loads early.

It’s possible that the security services have gotten a hold of accurate intelligence information, but that doesn’t apply to the blast in Tayyouneh, which occurred after an alert officer from General Security became suspicious of a driver. As for the bomb in Dahr al-Baydar, the versions of the story told by General Security Director Abbas Ibrahim and the Internal Security Forces (ISF) did not match, and indeed tended to contradict one another.

During this period the intensity of the panic has been multiplied, propelled by reports of terrorism cells being uncovered in Tripoli, purported threats against Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri followed by his cancellation of an Amal conference last week, and statements, with little corroborative evidence, that we are witnessing a terrorism offensive by ISIS.

This sense of panic has been further intensified by arrests of foreigners in Beirut hotels and elsewhere. Last week two Tunisians were interviewed by Al-Jadeed after spending the morning detained by the ISF. They were among the more than 22 people brought in on the day of the Dahr al-Baydar explosion. Far from being hardened jihadists, the pair was in Beirut to attend an Arab nationalist conference. Reports the next day indicated that several of those detained had been set free.

So where is all this leading? A great deal remains unclear or elicits skepticism: security services that behave like James Bond; official explanations that are immediately questionable; assassination lists that keep getting longer; and the near-automatic presumption that ISIS cells are involved.

That is not to say that ISIS is a victim or that there are no terrorist cells in Lebanon. Far from it. ISIS is a real threat to the region, and would readily use terrorist actions to build on its credibility. But until now the evidence in Lebanon seems to be limited. All we have are suspicions, warnings of plots, but nothing that definitely tells us what is true and what isn’t.

Maybe that’s why certain Lebanese politicians view the panic in Lebanon as a manufactured effort to affect the outcome of the presidential election. In this view, Hezbollah and its allies seek to bring in a candidate of their choice to the presidency, thereby using the two elections scheduled this year – the presidential and parliamentary elections – to reinforce their hold over the country. According to this narrative, the Party finally feels that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is relatively secure in power, and would like to reflect that reality within Lebanon.

In this context, Hezbollah has an interest in taking advantage of the security situation, and even in heightening the fear level. The theory is that Hezbollah has two favorite candidates in its scabbard: the army commander, Jean Qahwaji, and Michel Aoun. To impose them on the political scene, the argument goes, their elevation must be justified by the unstable security situation, making the public more willing to embrace either man.

Neither Aoun nor Qahwaji has been accused in any way of involvement in this purported conspiracy. And given Interior Minister Nouhad Mashnouq’s allegiance to March 14, he is hardly someone likely to be complicit in such a scheme.

And yet one thing can be said if this theory is true: it is not Aoun who would benefit most from a public backlash against the climate of insecurity in the country, but rather Qahwaji, as army commander. Therefore, putting both men in the same basket may be misleading. Hezbollah may be keeping the prospect of an Aoun presidency alive both to neutralize the general, who avidly desires the post, and to absorb potential reactions against Qahwaji, who may remain the party’s first choice as president.

Indeed, Aounist suspicions of such a scenario were evident in an ambiguous piece penned by Jean Aziz last week in Al-Akhbar. Aziz, who is close to Aoun, looked back at how the Nahr al-Bared battle was used to bring Sleiman to power in 2008, blocking Aoun. His implication was that the latest violence may be used in the same way, though Aziz underlined that he was not accusing Jean Qahwaji of complicity in such a move.  

Too many pieces of the puzzle are missing to decisively conclude what is going on. But there does seem to be a calculated intention to scare the Lebanese after months of relative calm. Maybe that’s a response to a real threat from terrorism, or maybe someone is simply letting things happen to exploit this politically. Whichever it is, there is more than meets the eye to this affair.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Fouad Ajami, or the death of a paradox

The death of Fouad Ajami prompted me to reread an email he sent me in late 2011. I had just written an obituary of Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi, and Fouad send me a note saying: “Do me a favor please, after 24 years and don’t ask me what the number means, I would love for you to write an obit of me!”

I’m not sure whether Fouad was ill at the time, but it’s difficult to understand his message as anything but a witty reference to the cancer that carried him away this week. I had graduated 24 years earlier from Johns Hopkins, where Fouad was my professor, yet had foolishly failed to grasp his meaning. Now I may, and I find myself writing what I insisted at the time I hoped never to write.

I first met Fouad in September 1985 after arriving at Johns Hopkins. I wasn’t sure what to make of this spirited man who, once he knew I had just come from Lebanon, began talking about the mobilization there of the Shiite community, before handing me a copy of an article he had recently written on the topic for Foreign Affairs titled “Lebanon and Its Inheritors.”

In those two years I would become Fouad’s friend and for a time serve as his graduate assistant, a task that required me to do only two things: Find the age of the Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and go to the National Archives and copy all American diplomatic correspondence pertaining to Antoun Saadeh, the founder of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.

Ajami’s singular gift was to add narrative texture to his observations of the Middle East. There was a literary bent to the man that gave a sweeping quality to his writings. Some disliked this, saying it allowed for no nuance. Yet rare are the writers on the region, among them Edward Said, a man revered by Ajami’s detractors, who caught the region’s impulses as subtly and brilliantly as he did, against a backdrop of larger historical forces.

The most notable example was Ajami’s early recognition of the significance of the Shiite revival. In this regard his biography in 1985 of Lebanon’s Musa Sadr, titled “The Vanished Imam,” was ahead of its time, showing what would become an Ajami paradox: his exhilaration with the phenomenon of Shiite affirmation alongside misgivings about specific Shiite political actors such as Hezbollah or Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

However, it was Ajami’s views of America that would come to define him more than anything else. His adversaries would lazily brand him a “neocon.” But what really mattered to Fouad was not American power per se, but the fact that it might be used to transform the Middle East democratically. That may have been too idealistic by half, but it was born of his deep frustration with an Arab world that, for most of the time he had studied it, could not break free from suffocating authoritarianism and sterility.

I believe this view of America was at the heart of his rift with Said, like him an Arab immigrant who had gained prominence in the country. Ajami could never quite stomach someone who had earned recognition thanks to his life in New York, only to build on this through perpetual condemnation of America and its role in the Arab world. Where Said reaffirmed his Palestinianness at every occasion, Ajami invariably spoke of himself as an American, even if he never rejected his Lebanese identity and retained until the end a complicated relationship with his birthplace.

All of Ajami’s books were in most ways outstanding, but his admirers will perhaps remember “The Dream Palace of the Arabs” with the greatest intensity. As the subtitle suggests, the book is about an Arab generation’s odyssey, one that ended in failure and disappointment – the generation that came of age in the 1950s, weaned on Arab nationalism and hope that the region could be transformed for the better as a consequence. Yet Ajami began his book with an account of the suicide of the Lebanese poet Khalil Hawi in 1982 in reaction to Israel’s invasion of his country. For him Hawi’s act of desperation was a requiem for that generation, exemplifying the shattering of Arab expectations.

This had particular resonance for me, as I had been in Beirut at the time of Hawi’s suicide. While I felt no great sympathy for Arab nationalism, having spent years watching Lebanon laid waste almost as much by inter-Arab mendacity and rivalries as by the destructiveness of its own people, Ajami’s narrative of defeat only reflected accurately what I and others had seen all around us. As a chronicler of this desolate reality, Ajami had few peers.

Not surprisingly, Fouad’s last book was on Syria. By that time the America he knew had changed, its president and people willing to witness the Syrian carnage without flinching. “In reckoning with the evils of the Syrian regime, American power was either naive or willfully indifferent,” he wrote last February. It must not have been easy for Fouad to hear moral censure of the supporters of the Iraq War by Americans who had no moral compunction about allowing the slaughter in Syria to continue unabated.

You wonder what Fouad felt at the end about the country he had embraced so completely. His articles became more caustic, his condemnation of President Barack Obama’s inaction sharper. Fouad’s Arab solidarity seemed to be reimposing itself as dominant against an elusive America he had romanticized, one distancing itself decisively from the world he knew best. Perhaps his odyssey, too, ended at a roadblock of disenchantment.