Friday, December 30, 2011

Sunnis, Shia, and Saad

It will soon be a year since Hezbollah and its allies brought down the government of Saad Hariri, through fair means and foul. But no one walked the former prime minister to Lebanon’s door and told him to get lost. That decision he appears to have implemented freely.

Last April, Hariri left Beirut, allegedly for security reasons. Yet even those in his circle no longer employ that lame excuse when justifying why Hariri has been gone for so long. Explanations abound and some may be true: Hariri’s patronage power is not what it was because of cash flow problems; the former prime minister’s Saudi patrons do not want him in Lebanon while the situation in Syria festers, to avoid his being dragged into the conflict, and they with him; or, more prosaically, Hariri prefers to be outside Lebanon while Najib Mikati is prime minister, to return in strength if the government falls.    

Whatever the answer, or combination of answers, there is a far more serious problem that Hariri, and Hariri alone, must address: A good chance exists, if the vacuum in the Sunni community persists, that extremist elements will emerge to seize the communal initiative. Already, in Saida a hitherto unknown cleric, Ahmad Assir, is bringing in the crowds with worrisome anti-Shia rhetoric, and will almost certainly have to be reckoned with in future elections.

That may not bother the Saudis, but it really should bother Hariri. Any form of religious fanaticism challenges the vision that he and his father purported to champion--that of a free-wheeling Lebanon, open in all directions, pluralistic, tolerant, and stable. The principal beef leveled by the Future Movement against Hezbollah, and a legitimate one, is that the party has in one way or another undermined all those qualities depending on the circumstances.

What are Saad Hariri’s options? He surely recognizes that his absence is harmful to his political prospects. If the Saudis are behind his decision to stay away, then he has to choose between being a Lebanese politician and a Saudi ally. If Hariri opts for the first choice he may lose in the short term; but he has enough political capital in his community to then impose his choices on the Saudi sponsors.

In the end, Hariri was elected by Lebanese in 2005 and 2009. There are those who paid a price for their allegiance during the unsettled period in between. The former prime minister owes something to his political base, and that obligation cannot be repaid from afar.

Then there is the patronage pretext. The Future Movement’s finances have been under stress in the last year and more. Projects that were to be financed by Hariri money have been on hold, and the former prime minister’s political debts are said to be substantial. Saad Hariri will not soon be dining in soup kitchens, but personal wealth and political money are not the same thing, even if they do overlap.

Then there is the question of what Hariri’s cash flow problems tell us about Saudi attitudes toward him. There was much idle speculation in the past that the Saudis had turned against the former prime minister, only for them to award him a lucrative contract soon thereafter. The relationship is doubtless a complex one, rendered more complex by the changes in the kingdom resulting from succession questions. If so, Hariri may be right not to rock the boat, but that calculation is made on Saudi, not Lebanese, time.

His supporters in Lebanon would again reply that the last they heard, and voted, Hariri was Lebanese. Patronage goes a long way in our political system, but given the polarization in the country, Hariri can offer something else that is compelling, by way of ideas. That he has limited financial reserves to toss around may not be so damaging if he recasts his role, depicting himself as the head of an apprehensive Sunni community which he intends to guide through hard times.

For Hariri and his acolytes to contemplate such a project, they must break away from their focus on the shortcomings of Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government, and clarify what they stand for, not against. Their being reactive has allowed Mikati to retain the upper hand, the dysfunctional nature of his cabinet notwithstanding. March 14 has offered no credible riposte to the fact that Mikati has delivered precisely where the previous majority said he could not deliver.

But one thing Mikati does not have is the political weight to reassert control over the menacing fringes of his community. Only Hariri can do that, and the effort requires him to be in Lebanon, working his networks carefully to compensate for the fact that many of the Islamists are funded by Gulf countries. The uprising in Syria has become sectarian, with ominous repercussions for the Lebanese communities, among them greater tension between Sunnis and Shia.

And that’s not all. If Hariri’s uneasy Christian partners see the Sunni community drifting toward the zealots, they will begin re-examining their political alliances. This may conceivably shatter the coalition Hariri spent years trying to build and hold together.

Hariri and his entourage insist the former prime minister is not down and out. Politically he has no reason to be, not least if the regime of Bashar Assad disintegrates in the coming months. But Hariri can’t afford to be Godot--someone many Lebanese will wait for, without assurances that he will reappear. Serious politics is about the here and now, not an indefinite future. Hariri must come home, whatever the cost, to help contain the sectarian antagonisms rising all around.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

An ideology has taken on life of its own in these uprisings

'A spectre is haunting Europe," wrote Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto, "the spectre of communism." The revolutions of 1848, which led the two men to publish their historic pamphlet, may have been defeated by the forces of the status quo, but Marx and Engels' choice of words was quite appropriate: vast movements of emancipation are often propelled by something thoroughly intangible, an overpowering spirit of change.

Looking back on the Arab revolts this year, that detail is worth remembering. Journalists and academics have sought to explain what happened through quantifiable yardsticks - a youth bulge, disparities between elites and the poor, rising unemployment and so on. But these factors would have counted for little without a meta-narrative unifying and channelling popular frustrations across the region, infusing them with a determination to overthrow their oppressors.

When Tunisians ousted the kleptocratic regime of President Zine El Abedine Ben Ali last January, this was initially regarded as a happy coincidence. Even the outbreak of protests in Egypt soon thereafter did not immediately appear to represent the onset of a wave sweeping the region. Or perhaps it did, and the less imaginative, or the less romantic (and I count myself among them), failed to grasp that the narrative of emancipation had already taken hold.

Yet the fall of President Hosni Mubarak focused even the dullest minds on that reality. The historian Robert Conquest used a luminous term as the title of one of his books, "the dragons of expectation", borrowed from a collection of old Norse poems. For Mr Conquest, otherworldly expectations, bolstering a sense of unqualified ideological truth, were frequently behind the great crimes of the 20th century. However, we can employ that expression less pessimistically in the context of the Arab uprisings, to convey what has happened in many Arab societies, overwhelming, dragon-like, everything before it.

When protesters in Tunisia and Egypt prevailed against their security apparatuses, Arabs elsewhere began inserting themselves into that grand narrative, as success in two countries seemed preordained to bring success in others. That moment was essential, with Libyans, Syrians, Yemenis and others carried forward by transnational momentum of which they saw themselves a part. Here is when one discovers the courage to go into the streets, and when regimes react with the brutality that brings even more people out into the streets.

The role of media has been significant, principally in transmitting the meta-narrative. Social media in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria have played an important mobilising role, while highlighting that there are domains that regimes do not control. Arab satellite channels, above all Al Jazeera, have transported the dragons of expectation from one society in rebellion to the next, heightening outrage through their use of dramatic footage, reinforcing the interpretation of events as one of victims winning out against consuming injustice.

The influence of the stations was demonstrated when Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, reflecting the political uncertainties of the regimes financing them, took weeks before siding with the protesters in Syria. This prompted the Syrians to demand more attention, and before long Al Jazeera, partly a prisoner of the narrative it had helped propagate and could not abandon for fear of losing its credibility, took sides. The station was far less militant over Bahrain, to its detriment, but the violence in Syria was of a scope that permitted no ambiguity.

Powerful narratives often displace others. Recall how at the end of January, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad sat with the Wall Street Journal and offered a sanguine assessment of his rule. Arabs were up in arms elsewhere, but not in Syria, Mr Al Assad pointed out, because Syrians had an ideology and a cause, so that on foreign policy they were closely aligned with their regime. "When there is divergence between your policy and the people's beliefs and interests, you will have this vacuum that creates disturbance," the president said.

Here was one irony wrapped in another. Mr Al Assad recognised the sway of ideas, but did not imagine that ideas would soon threaten his rule. And there was a greater irony. The president did not foresee that the narrative he held up as a basis for why he and the Syrian people were in purported harmony - their common embrace of a narrative of resistance to America and Israel above all - would count for little in the face of demands by Syrians for internal transformation.

That's the real message from the Arab world this year. Societies may sympathise with foreign policies opposed to the West, the United States and Israel, but they no longer will allow regimes to use foreign antagonisms to validate stifling, sadistic, security-dominated political systems at home. Nor will they tolerate giving foreign matters precedence over their own welfare and that of their children.

That is why, at some stage, the meta-narrative of emancipation cedes way to more worldly concerns. That is the trickiest part. Once you've got rid of the tyrant, what social contract does a society put in his place? In Egypt and Libya, societies are struggling with the answer, while in Tunisia the consensual resort to institutions has helped clarify one. In Syria, the repression is ongoing with the emancipatory narrative continuing to undermine Mr Al Assad's authority.

Whatever the outcomes in the Arab world, the impulse of liberty, once unleashed, justifies itself. Thank those Arab leaders who are confronting angry populations for having allowed that impulse to take on a life-force of its own, so that barricade by barricade it is devouring them.

The Arabs’ touch turns Syria to lead

Is it remotely reassuring that the Arab League is dealing with the crisis in Syria? For a partial answer, note that the Arab observer mission in the country is headed by a Sudanese general who participated in his government’s brutal campaign in Darfur. He described his first day on the highways as “very good,” only hours after Syria’s security forces perpetrated their latest outrage in Homs.
Recall that until two months ago, the Arab states allowed the massacre to continue. There was a lack of unity over Syria, but also a hope in several capitals that the criminal enterprise that is President Bashar Assad’s regime would prevail, denying a fresh victory to those striving to change their leaders in other parts of the Arab world.

Score the latest round to Damascus. In November the tide was in the other direction. Arab sanctions had been agreed, including a cutoff of transactions with Syria’s central bank and a suspension of Syrian membership in the Arab League. Assad initially delayed accepting a five-point Arab plan, which includes withdrawing the army and security forces from Syrian cities, releasing prisoners, and deploying observers to determine if the plan is being implemented. He backed down when the Arab states threatened to go to the United Nations Security Council, buying Damascus valuable time to undercut the Arab plan.

We know what will happen next. The Syrians will turn every issue into an object of exasperating negotiation, assuming the observers do their job right, which is improbable. Nor are there enough observers to make a difference. Even if the mission rises to 200-300 monitors, that remains far too low. There have been disturbances in dozens of large urban areas throughout Syria, not to mention in suburban and rural districts. That means major agglomerations will host only a handful of observers at best. The regime will run rings around them, a reality facilitated by the cynical Arab decision to allow the monitors to be transported by the very security services they are supposed to be monitoring.

Then there is the prisoner release dimension of the Arab plan. In Lebanon we well remember how difficult it was to determine the number of Lebanese in Syrian prisons, because Damascus invariably lied about the figures. The Assad regime will greatly downplay the numbers of Syrians it has incarcerated, and the observers will almost certainly not get a mandate, or display the will, to independently verify this. The regime will release prisoners here and there, in full view of the observers, and arrest new waves of victims elsewhere.

If the Assad regime is lucky, it will be able to stretch the process out long enough for Arab states to push for a start of negotiations with the opposition, another facet of the Arab plan. Why would this be to the regime’s benefit? Because if it can pursue its repression in the interim period unchallenged, agreeing to negotiations would allow it to kick off a long, fruitless phase of talks permitting it to claim it is sincere about the Arab project, even as this opens up cracks in the opposition.

But which opposition? That, too, will provoke extensive maneuvering, as the Assads will look to pick their interlocutors, and as different segments of the opposition disagree over whether to negotiate or not. The Syrian National Council will doubtless refuse to sit with the regime, which may carry political costs, as this could be portrayed by Bashar Assad as an effort to undermine the Arab plan. Here, the president and his acolytes may widen the breach in Arab ranks.

The problem is that Arab incompetence, even if it strengthens the hand of the Syrian leadership in relative terms, will make much more likely further militarization of the intifada. There is no going back in Syria, certainly not to the squalid kleptocracy that a smug Bashar Assad thought was unshakeable last January, when he boasted of his regime’s popularity to The Wall Street Journal. Either the Arab plan eases Assad out of power, or we are heading toward a struggle even more vicious than what we are witnessing today. National interest dictates that regional states, above all Turkey and Iraq, will seek to shape what is taking place on the ground and ensure that they don’t lose out when the carnage ends. If that happens, the Security Council will become the only available venue to address Syria, since we will then have a textbook threat to international peace and security.

Much will depend on how the Arab states interpret their mandate. The Arab League’s secretary general, Nabil Elarabi, has noted that the organization will issue an early assessment of whether the Syrian regime is cooperating with its plan. If that denies Syria the means to deceive its Arab brethren, fine. But rebuilding an Arab consensus against Assad rule will be difficult, and going the next step up to the Security Council is something many Arab regimes want to avert.

Qatar has taken the lead on Syria, but may find itself isolated. The Egyptian military council, which is trying to consolidate its authority, opposes the trend of transformation in the Arab world. No less so Saudi Arabia, which has had little sympathy for the upheavals all around, and would relish a Qatari reversal. Iraq has sided with Assad, while other countries, among them Turkey, may fear too sudden a Syrian collapse to firmly sponsor internationalization of the crisis.

Syrians are right to regard Arab intervention as bad news. And Assad was right to presume that a break in the Arab momentum against his regime could become a turning point in his political survival. He gains from the militarization of the intifada. In an armed conflict, Assad believes, the winner imposes his own legitimacy. Many Arab leaders, whose own legitimacy rests on intimidation, may alas agree.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Bye-bye Bellemare

Little was said in Beirut after Daniel Bellemare, the prosecutor of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, declared that he would not renew his contract when it expires next February. Regardless of what you will hear from Lebanese supporters of the institution, the development represented a fresh setback in a long-awaited trial process.

Bellemare cited health reasons for his decision, and his apparently extended stay in Canada is not the first time the prosecutor has had to interrupt work because of an, as yet unidentified, ailment. However, this is not an imaginary illness, just as the late Antonio Cassese’s cancer was not imaginary, despite speculation from some in Beirut. 

Unlike Cassese when he stepped down as tribunal president, Bellemare did not time his statement with the tribunal’s appointment of a replacement. The prosecution is functioning, but the possibility that there will be an interval between the termination of Bellemare’s mission and the arrival of someone else, like the fact than a new prosecutor will need time to become familiar with the file and may alter the legal strategy, suggests we may not see a trial soon.

There are other uncertainties as well. The tribunal’s indictment of four Hezbollah members will not be an easy one for the prosecution to make stick. An accusation based on so-called “co-location” analysis of telephone communications is largely circumstantial. Even if the evidence is compelling, the defense will find wide spaces to challenge the prosecution’s case on technical grounds, assuming of course that no stronger proof is presented to buttress the indictment.

We might also ask how the difficulty of the case will affect the search for a successor to Bellemare. An ambitious young judge may prefer to stay away from a trial that has a better than even chance of turning into a legal setback. That would favor a retired judge, as some observers of the tribunal have predicted. The risk in that case is that we will have someone brought out of mothballs with little professional incentive to aggressively deepen the investigation. At the same time, he or she may have a fine curriculum vitae, but not the experience of terrorist crimes necessary to expand the inquiry and win a trial.

And expanding the investigation is necessary at this stage. What we have is a crime without an articulated motive. We know that four Hezbollah members allegedly participated in the assassination of Rafik Hariri, but until now the special tribunal hasn’t told us why. That may be remedied, but for it to be remedied we need more indictments in what was a broad conspiracy. But to get more indictments, we need a forceful investigation building on motive.

Don’t’ hold your breath when it comes to a forceful investigation. However, might there be other indictments? Perhaps. Some believe there will be other suspects named, though at the operational level. Bellemare’s departure does not bode well if we’re expecting substantial progress in the coming months, or even beyond that. Had Bellemare intended to issue a second round of indictments, he would likely have announced them when informing the public of his exit--after agreeing with the special tribunal on a replacement. That Bellemare put out his departure statement without touching on indictments, and without a replacement being named, may be a hint that if there are further indictments, they will await a new prosecutor. 

Understandably, skepticism reigns. I wager that the special tribunal will never indict, or at least not convincingly indict, senior decision-makers in the Hariri assassination. The reason for this is that the United Nations investigation went through two irreconcilable  approaches. The strategy of the first commissioner, Detlev Mehlis, was to begin at the top and identify senior officials who were involved in the crime, before moving downward to the operational level.

Serge Brammertz, Mehlis’ Belgian successor, overhauled that strategy, exploring from the bottom up. He also focused on analyzing the crime scene, but much less on arresting suspects. Shortly before leaving, he admitted to his Lebanese counterparts that his investigation had not substantially progressed. To dispel doubts about this, remember that Bellemare needed a full two and a half years more to produce a final indictment. And even then he designated only four men from the middle and lower rungs of the conspiracy, on the basis of telephone data initially evaluated by two Lebanese police officers, Samir Shehadeh and Wissam Eid, not by UN investigators.

Bellemare’s return to Canada may slow the trial, but it will not, otherwise, cause more damage to an investigation that was flawed from the moment Brammertz took over. That doesn’t exonerate Bellemare from accepting, and defending, a botched enterprise. But such dissembling has been par for the cours

Thursday, December 22, 2011

An enemy of totalitarianism the Mideast misunderstood

In February 2009, Christopher Hitchens gave a talk at the American University of Beirut titled Who are the real revolutionaries in the Middle East? As he later wrote in his last book, Arguably, a collection of essays: "I did my best to blow on the few sparks that then seemed dimly perceptible." He praised individuals best embodying democratic change in the region, from the Egyptian academic Saad Eddin Ibrahim, to the Kurdish foes of Saddam Hussein, to the Lebanese who had overthrown Syrian hegemony in 2005.

Yet the AUB talk was a bad-tempered affair. Many in Hitchens' audience had come to castigate a man who supported the war in Iraq and whom they blamed for siding with American neoconservatives. Others accused him of ignoring Palestine. Hitchens reminded them that he had written a book with the late Edward Said on the Palestinians, and pointedly asked: "Could there have been any greater degradation for Iraq than being under the control of a psychopathic family?"

For Hitchens, who passed away last week, the episode left a bitter aftertaste. The hostility of those in attendance represented "another round in a long historic dispute … between the anti-imperialist left and the anti-totalitarian left. And in the case of any conflict, I have increasingly resolved it on the anti-totalitarian side."

Hitchens was right to frame the issue in those terms, but he was also too kind by half. He did not mention that most of those counting themselves among the anti-imperialist ranks have repeatedly evaded discussion of how one might have better dealt with the barbaric leadership of Saddam Hussein, who was directly or indirectly responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of people.

It makes no sense to disapprove of the American invasion of Iraq on moral foundations, while offering nothing in return for how the international community might have countered the Baath regime's daily outrages against morality. That disconnect was at the heart of Hitchens' thinking on Iraq, as it is in the broader discussion of humanitarian intervention in foreign policy. Anti-imperialism has often been used by autocrats in the developing world to rebuff western disapproval of their abuses, on the grounds that such condemnation constitutes a form of neo-imperialism.

Such hypocrisy was too much for Hitchens, even as he never abandoned his roots in the political left, or for that matter his anti-imperialist impulses. Quite simply, he did not regard the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as imperial ventures, and appears to have been vindicated by the American withdrawal from Iraq last week. Hitchens believed that it was foolish to see all states as somehow morally equivalent. There were states that responded to the will of their citizens, no matter how imperfectly; and there were those that imprisoned their citizens for expressing the slightest dissent. He preferred a world shaped by the impositions of the first group.

Those affirming that Hitchens had shifted to the right showed little grasp of the subject at hand. Liberal interventionism has tended to be an exigency of the left, not the right. Conservatives have traditionally respected state sovereignty, which holds that regimes can do what they want at home, as long as they preserve stability beyond their borders.

When American neoconservatives came onto the political map in the 1970s they were better known for advocating Washington's tolerance of friendly dictators. That was the point of a much-discussed article at the time by a Georgetown academic named Jeane Kirkpatrick. She so pleased a future president, Ronald Reagan, that he made her his ambassador to the United Nations.

Ms Kirkpatrick's article understandably divided the neocons, some of whom saw the duplicity in opposing communism for its denial of freedom while also backing a multitude of despots because they happened to be anti-communist. This was a difficulty Hitchens didn't remotely face, as he was consistent in his opposition to dictatorship. That neocons embraced democratic interventionism after the 9/11 attacks showed not that Hitchens had drifted to the right, but that neoconservatives had drifted left.

Nor did Hitchens display any conservative reflexes in his controversial attitude towards religion. His atheism was well-known, and he viewed it as an extension of his anti-totalitarianism. Articulating what he called an "anti-theist" stance, Hitchens maintained that the image of God as represented in many religions was, essentially, that of an absolute ruler. This led him to transcend non-belief to assert that one could not possibly accept such a God.

Hitchens dedicated Arguably to three Arabs - a Tunisian, an Egyptian and a Libyan - people he believed had played instrumental roles in unleashing the succession of revolts this year. By then he knew that he was dying and wanted to leave readers with a sense of his priorities.

The Middle East preoccupied Hitchens more than anything else during the last decade of his life, because of 9/11. It must have been satisfying to be proven right on the intensity of the anti-totalitarian strains in the region, against all those, his AUB detractors at the forefront, who in their fixation on American perfidy utterly missed the rumblings of domestic discontent around them.

Much has been made of Hitchens' admiration for the author George Orwell. But I've always been taken by his regard for the historian and poet Robert Conquest, the great documenter of Joseph Stalin's purges. In his poem In Place, Conquest describes the memory of the First World War dead as "the shadow nothing tames". Mourn Christopher Hitchens, in death a shadow untamed.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Military man

A few weeks ago, as Army Day and Independence Day approached, someone, no doubt at the instigation of a pushy army officer, decided to hang up a gigantic portrait of the army commander, Jean Kahwaji, above Sassine Square in central Ashrafieh. Regardless of Kahwaji’s merits or demerits, this struck many people as remarkable excess on behalf of an individual who is, after all, a mere employee of the state.

Imagine for a moment the absurdity if the director general of the Social Security Fund were to do the same thing; or the governor of the Central Bank. To be fair to Kahwaji, he’s not the first to allow his mug shot to decorate a thoroughfare. The faces of former President Emile Lahoud and current President Michel Suleiman filled our skylines when they led the battalions, and were usually far more invasive than that of the present commander.

Somehow the Egyptians, or at least those who returned to Tahrir Square a few weeks ago, got it right. You cannot have genuine transformation in the Arab world in the overbearing shadow of soldiers. The sacrifices of the military – real or, more often, imagined, given how Arab armies usually plunder the state –do not entitle the institution to a blank check of popular sympathy and obedience.

Jean Kahwaji is no Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi; nor is he even ruling over Lebanon. Indeed, if there is one criticism we can level at our armed forces it’s that they do not hold the monopoly over the use of violence in the country. Rather, the army commander, like his predecessors (and no doubt his successors), simply dreams of becoming president. After all, our last two heads of state have hailed from the military, and Lebanon went through two years of trauma between 1988-1990 because a third army commander sought to exploit the conflicts he ignited to ease himself into the presidency.

Lebanon is a paradox in some ways. Here is the one country that mostly elected civilian leaders during its post-Independence years, unlike a majority of other Arab countries. Until 1998, when Lahoud was appointed by Syria, only one other army commander, Fouad Chehab, had been head of state, and his election was the consequence of a compromise to end the 1958 conflict, reached largely outside Lebanon’s borders. Chehab was an estimable man, refusing to accept an unconstitutional extension of his mandate, but that did not prevent his comrades in arms from abusing their power.

And yet it appears these days that the country can do no better than a beret when it goes in search of new presidents. How demoralizing it is for the Lebanese, who pride themselves on their civil institutions, to have to look no further than an officer as their national representative. How demeaning to know that when a new army chief takes over, a military cabal begins maneuvering to get him elected, hoping that it will ride to Baabda on his coattails.

Kahwaji is as entitled as another Maronite Christian to become president. The problem comes when an army commander uses his position to campaign for the job. Nothing politicizes the army more, raising the probability that security decisions are taken with the presidency firmly in mind. Gone, it seems, are the bluff, blunt military men, straight as arrows. Lebanon’s army commanders have become as agile as ballet dancers, able to walk through raindrops without getting wet.

This must end for the good of the country, and the army. Article 49 of the constitution obliges grade-one civil servants and those in equivalent positions aspiring to stand for the presidency to retire from their post two years before an election. In practice, that condition was ignored before the elections of Lahoud and Suleiman. Parliament would do best to amend the article and extend that period to six years, to ensure that officials do not prepare their candidacy while still serving under the president they hope to replace. The article may yet be ignored, but the amendment process will inject seriousness into it, making the rule more difficult to disregard.

A second proposal, and it may not mean much beyond the symbolism, is to cease referring to military figures who have taken on civilian responsibilities as “general”. This should apply as much in media citations as when these individuals are addressed publicly.

Is there any reason why we should still call Sleiman, Lahoud, or Change and Reform bloc leader Michel Aoun, for that matter, by their rank, when they have moved beyond the military establishment and are in positions where they represent, or have represented, the country as a whole? To refer to an individual as “general” is to underline his association with an institution that is, constitutionally, under civilian authority. There is no reason not to recognize that hierarchy by identifying such figures through their non-military titles. Furthermore, to continue giving officials a military rank has intimidating overtones, since the army, among many other things, is an instrument of intimidation.

Finally, it would be very useful if the government prohibited, once and for all, the habit of allowing state representatives to hang up their portraits publicly. You might have trouble forbidding images of the president, parliament speaker, and prime minister (though there is no reason not to do so), but it should be easier to impose such a ban on other functionaries, including the army commander.

It’s not personal. Jean Kahwaji is no worse than anyone else, and may be better than many. But as much as Lebanon tries to behave like a banana republic, there is no reason for our governing institutions to encourage such behavior. As Lebanese, we are entitled to ask that civil servants be more modest. After all, they allegedly work for us.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Lebanon's intifada offers lessons for the Arab Spring

There has been a tendency to regard the emancipatory impulses in the Arab world this year as unique. It's as if there was 2011, and before that, lethargy. That's not quite accurate. A look back at Lebanon in 2005 provides a useful prism through which to examine what is happening in societies now intoxicated by the fragrances of liberation.

In 2005, following the assassination of former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, most Lebanese, except the Shia supporters of Hizbollah, demonstrated for a month at Martyrs Square. They accused Syria, with some justification, of being behind Mr Hariri's killing, and demanded a Syrian military withdrawal from Lebanon and an overhaul of the Syrian-dominated Lebanese political order. A combination of domestic and outside pressure forced Syrian President Bashar Al Assad to pull his army out, terminating 29 years of Syrian hegemony.

This was no mean feat, regardless of the uncertain outcome of what the Lebanese called the Independence Intifada. The Syrians sought to reimpose their writ in Beirut, and with their Hizbollah allies almost succeeded in doing so. Yet despite this, large pockets of resistance to Syria and its partners remained and Mr Al Assad never regained what he had lost in 2005.

Four salient realities of Lebanon's Independence Intifada have been replicated in Arab upheavals today: the use of a public space for protest; a demand that those in charge of the instruments of repression be replaced; acceptance of the necessity of foreign intervention to counterbalance the dictator's clear advantages; and a tendency to question the accomplishments and legitimacy of the revolts in light of their potentially unsatisfactory aftermaths.

In all the Arab uprisings, there was a rapid realisation of something the Lebanese grasped in 2005 (and others before them), namely that a successful protest movement must control a public space from which it can operate. Whether Martyrs Square in Beirut, Tahrir Square in Cairo, or Pearl Roundabout in Manama, protestors instinctively seek out a space where rallies can be held, towards which people can converge, which is accessible to media, and that retains, or can be infused with, symbolic relevance. Most importantly, such spaces must stay off limits to the authorities, effectively becoming "liberated" spaces.

Protecting the autonomy of such areas usually leads to the establishment of tent cities, maintained by youths, even as the authorities seek to deny access to those spaces. Sometimes this official response is successful, as in Bahrain; sometimes it is a fiasco, as in Tahrir Square. In Martyrs Square, the Lebanese Army and Internal Security Forces tried to do the same, but failed when they were unwilling to resort to violence. Moreover, Mr Hariri's tomb is at the square, so it was difficult for the security forces to seal off the area.

At times, these spaces of protest can be entire cities, or large parts of them, as in Libya and Syria. Benghazi became the headquarters of an opposition council that, ultimately, was recognised as Libya's government. In Homs, the Assad regime has repeatedly sought to crush rebellious quarters, but has been unable to do so. This shortcoming has only further emphasised that it has lost ground, which can be calamitous for an absolute leadership ruling through fear.

A second message from Lebanon in 2005 was that the street can impose change on the agents of repression. The Lebanese protests led to the resignation of senior security officers. This was perhaps the first time in the Arab world that citizens, as opposed to a monarch or president, successfully ousted intelligence and security officials.

In Egypt, the inability of protesters to dent the state's security edifice created a problem that lingers to this day. The army sacrificed President Hosni Mubarak to save itself, and largely succeeded. The same is true in Yemen, where family members of President Ali Abdullah Saleh still control major security organs. In Libya the opposite occurred. The destruction of Muammar Qaddafi's army and security apparatus left a vacuum that the new Libyan government is having trouble filling.

A third message from Lebanon was that international intervention is often necessary to equalise the relationship between protesters and their rulers. In 2005 the Lebanese appealed to the international community, and even perpetuated a David and Goliath narrative to appeal to western media. This earned them animosity among many Arabs, who did not like it that protestors loudly welcomed the backing of President George W Bush. Yet outside support was crucial in keeping the security forces in line when managing the protests.

In many ways the debate has been resolved. From Libya to Syria to Egypt, oppositions have welcomed, indeed called for, foreign assistance against their oppressors. A key factor is that the insurrections began from within, which endowed outside intercession with legitimacy. This has only underlined a point the Lebanese embraced in 2005: in the uneven struggle with a superior foe, all means are justifiable to secure one's emancipation.

And finally, the instability in Lebanon that followed the intifada of 2005 substantially marred the magic of that moment. Political divisiveness, the summer war of 2006, and the nearness of civil conflict in 2008, all made observers reconsider the validity of what had happened.

However, such a benchmark seems excessive. No matter what the outcomes in Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen, they cannot invalidate the endeavours of those desiring change. Overthrowing a suffocating political order is admirable in itself, whatever the costs. Credit the Lebanese for understanding this paradoxical point before their Arab brethren did.

What if the Syrians had still been here?

The tendency among many Lebanese today is to deride the Independence Intifada of 2005. This is a result of the high expectations unleashed, then dashed by Lebanon’s factionalism and sectarianism. Yet we should ask, in light of the revolt in Syria, where would Lebanon have been had the protests six years ago not pushed the Syrian army and intelligence services out of the country?

The question is not academic. Lebanon 2005 has been denied its due as a precursor of Arab uprisings this year, even though the popular demands at the time were very similar to what we are witnessing today. A reason for this is that the aftermath of the Lebanese intifada against Syria was, to put it kindly, uncertain. Rather than emerge into a new morning of emancipation, the Lebanese grew apart, within a year were caught up in a war with Israel, and within three found themselves on the cusp of civil war.

And yet judging emancipatory moments by their outcomes can sometimes play surprising tricks, because the unintended consequences are invariably good and bad. It’s best to evaluate such moments on their own merits, and few acts are more laudatory than seeking the replacement of an authoritarian leader and the criminal enterprises with which such individuals surround themselves.

However, that does not mean that we cannot engage in some alternate history, and conclude that the Lebanese were fortunate to see the back of the Syrians six years ago. The reason is that, otherwise, Lebanon, far more so than it is today, would have become a main instrument in the Assad regime’s suppression of its own people.

Recall what happened in 2003, when the Americans invaded Iraq. Though less threatened than now, the Syrians engineered a Cabinet reshuffle that brought in the most ghoulish of their underlings to surround Rafik Hariri, who remained prime minister. Their calculation was that the potentially dangerous American military presence to the east required that Syria reinforce itself in Lebanon and not allow the country’s volatile dynamics to undermine Syrian interests. Much the same logic went into President Bashar Assad’s decision to extend Emile Lahoud’s mandate in 2004.

Assad tried to replicate that logic when he ordered the Lebanese to form a government last June. However, there was a vital difference. Syrian weapons were no longer in Lebanon to enforce Cabinet unity and decisions. Hezbollah’s strength notwithstanding, the party is incapable of imposing unanimity on its refractory countrymen, and indeed has turned into a lighting rod for its political foes.

Had Syria’s army and intelligence services still been in Lebanon, several things would likely have happened. Syrian victims of the violence at home would have been unable to flee across the border into Lebanese territory. Syrian opposition figures would have been hunted down in Beirut in a more efficient way than they presently are. Lebanon’s political and economic systems would have been on a tighter Syrian rope, precipitating a potentially devastating standoff with the international community, possibly harming the banking sector. And Syrian troops and agents would have had to expand their repression to those Lebanese sympathizing with the Syrian protesters, particularly in northern Lebanon, where the Sunni community staunchly backs its brethren in places such as Homs and Hama.

Lebanon would have become a Syrian battering ram in its dealings with the Arabs and the West. Domestic animosities would have been exacerbated, with one group of Lebanese employed by Syria to intimidate the other. As is their way, the Assads would have ensured that if they were destroyed, Lebanon would be as well.

While the government of Najib Mikati and President Michel Sleiman have closely toed the Syrian line in recent months, they have done so with a wary eye on the Lebanese opposition. The prime minister has been, at best, a hesitant Syrian partner, as he knows well that his political base in Tripoli loathes the Assad leadership. Even Hezbollah has been careful not to overstep the boundaries, because the party appears to be preparing alternative options if the Syrian regime falls. Once Assad goes, Hezbollah has no interest in being dragged into sectarian strife with a reinvigorated Lebanese Sunni community.

Such contradictions, oddly enough, have shielded Lebanon from the Syrian crisis. With a foot in each camp, the Lebanese have until now sailed through the Syrian maelstrom relatively unscathed. There are limits to what Syria can do to destabilize Lebanon by firing warning shots at the international community and Israel. Assad can order his collaborators to plant an occasional bomb along the Tyre road against U.N. patrols, or fire rockets across the border. But at some stage these actions merely discredit his friends in Beirut, or push Hezbollah into an unwanted confrontation with Israel.

There are negatives, of course. By most accounts, weapons are being smuggled from Lebanon into Syria. The vacuum in the north is favoring militant groups, particularly in the Sunni community. These are serious developments. Ideally, the state must take advantage of this situation to better assert itself, without favoritism, in areas where its influence is limited. But that won’t happen soon.

Lebanon dodged a bullet by removing the Syrians when they did. This should not be the yardstick for approval or disapproval of what happened six years ago, but it is useful for re-evaluating what occurred. Perhaps Bashar Assad himself might engage in that exercise. How much more potent would the crushing of his own citizens have been had he not lost Lebanon in 2005.