Friday, June 29, 2012

Pointless days for Hezbollah

You have to wonder when Prime Minister Najib Mikati will use the single weapon he has, a threat of resignation, to impose some order on that ghastly assemblage some insist on calling a government.

When March 14 demanded that Mikati resign some weeks ago, the idea sounded, justifiably, terrible. The fighting in Tripoli had started, and it was no time for Lebanon to enter into a governmental vacuum. Nor, in the present political mood, is there any chance that Hezbollah and Michel Aoun will accept a technocratic, or a neutral, government to replace the one that they dominate. In other words, the proposal of March 14 was political, designed to embarrass Mikati, and made in the full knowledge that it would not be taken seriously.

However, Mikati has done himself no favors since then. The situation has morphed from ruinous into catastrophic. A major part of the problem is that Hezbollah appears to be going through a schizophrenic seizure, as it tries to both stabilize the political system and has simultaneously destabilized it, so as to guarantee that it retains the initiative over a perceptibly disgruntled Shia community.

What does Hezbollah offer its flock these days? It dominates the government, but cannot even give its supporters electricity. In recent weeks the cutting off of roads has troubled the party, as it has struggled to contain the spontaneous rage, and it may even be seen as partly responsible for the abysmal condition of the power sector.

At the same time, the crime rate in Lebanon, especially in Shia districts, has sharply risen. Shia throughout the Middle East, notably in the Gulf, have been targeted as pariahs because of their alleged sympathy for Iran. Hezbollah has been unable to liberate the Shia pilgrims kidnapped in Syria. And almost daily there seems to be an armed confrontation in the southern suburbs, usually between untamed Bekaa families, which Hezbollah has been unable to prevent.

Does this mean the party is losing support? Perhaps not in a decisive way. But it does show that Hezbollah can be just as mediocre when it comes to governing Lebanon as anyone else, even as the patience of the Shia community is fraying. The party can manage big issues, but has never been adept at managing smaller bread and butter issues.

Which makes you wonder: Is the mobilization of Shia youths in recent days on behalf of Wissam Alaeddine, the arsonist caught after trying to set the Al-Jadeed TV station alight, an effort by Hezbollah and the Amal Movement to create an artificial crisis that re-imposes communal solidarity and detracts from their own shortcomings?

It’s difficult to say, but what a disgraceful step down it has been for the purported paragons of the Resistance. Here they are deploying rowdy youths to block roads, making life miserable for all Lebanese, in order to release someone caught on tape committing a crime. The Israelis must be quivering in their boots. Next year in Jerusalem!

And who is it that the Hezbollah and Amal boys are actually demonstrating against? The very government that Hezbollah put together and wants to keep in place until parliamentary elections next year. When the party’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, affirms that he aspires to a “strong state,” he has to explain how the forcible release of Alaeddine would enhance the state’s credibility.

For that matter, how might the Mikati government, or the security forces and army, look after such a decision? Mikati must resign if this blackmail stands. If Alaeddine walks, then I walk, the prime minister has to warn Nasrallah. And if Mikati is reminded that Shadi Mawlawi, who was detained in Tripoli several weeks ago, was released thanks to pressure from the Sunni street, then the prime minister should ask Hezbollah whose side they’re on, before reminding them that Mawlawi’s arrest was a provocation by Syria in coordination with the party, using an organ of the state over which Hezbollah has influence.

Some might argue that Mikati doesn’t have the latitude to resign. The prime minister would respond that he cannot, in good conscience, leave behind a void. Both statements may be true. But the cabinet’s worst enemy is the cabinet itself. We are watching spontaneous combustion, and Mikati is being burned beyond recognition.

Hezbollah’s strategy is to win a parliamentary majority in the elections next year. The party’s intention is to anchor itself in the political system to better navigate through the aftershocks of the Assad downfall. Yet everything its followers are doing is alarming the Christians, whose electoral choices will decide who controls parliament. No one has been more discredited by the road closures and the ambient thuggery in Beirut than Michel Aoun, while his son-in-law has become a lightning rod for discontent in the streets.

Intimidation is Hezbollah’s way of setting markers around its Lebanese foes at a time of great volatility. The Al-Jadeed assault was a reminder to media outlets that criticism of Hezbollah and Amal, or interviews like those with Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, who has been unsparing in his attacks against Nasrallah, is forbidden. But Hezbollah cannot possibly emerge from these sordid scraps looking better off. Rarely has the party seemed so pointless, and one gets a sense that its followers, loyal as they may be, sense this.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Syria's fragile neighbours still fear Assad's waning power

Here was an irony that only a Syrian nationalist could appreciate. This week it was reported that some 200 Syrians had crossed into Turkey's Hatay province to escape the regime of President Bashar Al Assad. The group included a general, two colonels, two majors and about 30 other soldiers. The province was once a part of Syria, before being occupied by Turkey in 1938 and annexed. For decades, Syrian nationalists have considered Hatay stolen territory.

Now it has become a place of salvation for many Syrians, but also a focal point of the growing tension between Damascus and Ankara - exacerbated in recent days by Syria's downing of a Turkish warplane. On Tuesday, Nato met to discuss the incident, and the signs are that Turkey is moving towards further military involvement in Syria, even as all countries along Syria's border are looking for ways to shield themselves from the fallout of the escalating conflict there.

The destruction of the aircraft came after less publicised antagonistic measures by Syria and Turkey, each of which constituted a casus belli. The Syrian regime has allowed the Kurdistan Workers Party, which has long been engaged in an armed insurgency against Ankara, to set up bases along Syria's border with Turkey. The Turkish government, in turn, has permitted the transit of weapons through its territory to the Syrian opposition, and hosts numerous opposition figures.

After the Nato meeting, Turkey amended its rules of engagement along its southern frontier, announcing that if Syrian troops approached the area, they would be considered a threat. This probably means the Turkish army will set up a de facto safe haven inside Syrian territory, under the umbrella of its guns, in which the opposition will be free to act. For now, this avoids a ground offensive that would alarm Syria's Kurds and most probably bring Ankara into direct confrontation with Iran, a leading backer of Mr Al Assad.

The Syrian regime has tried to destabilise the countries across its borders, particularly Turkey and Lebanon, to protect itself. From Mr Al Assad's perspective, if the international community comes to view the end of his regime as the precursor of a regional explosion, then outside states will back off from pushing for his departure.

This strategy has elicited international anxiety, but it is already turning into a game of diminishing returns. The dynamics of the emerging war in Syria are primarily internal, even if external actors are seeking to protect their stakes in the country. In other words, whatever Mr Al Assad does is only heightening the animosity to his leadership at home, even as his forays into destabilising the region will only confirm that he is a menace who must be toppled.

If there is any international consensus over the Syrian situation, it is that the conflict should not spill over into Syria's neighbourhood, particularly Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, which are vulnerable because they are all religiously and ethnically mixed.

The state of affairs in Lebanon has well illustrated the dangers of a breakdown, but also the unexpected defence mechanisms guarding against this. Syria was almost certainly involved, through its Lebanese partners, above all Hizbollah, in creating a political stand-off that led to armed clashes in the northern city of Tripoli several weeks ago. Yet Hizbollah, even as it has backed Mr Al Assad in line with its Iranian patron, is also keen to avert a sectarian confrontation in Lebanon, which might ultimately swallow the party.

That is why Hizbollah, for reasons of self interest, has played a crucial role in advocating an continuing national dialogue between Lebanese politicians and parties. No one has any expectations that this will lead to long-term amity, but the sessions are supported by a population profoundly fearful of civil conflict. Hizbollah will bolster the Assads, but it knows that the regime may not be long for this world. Therefore, the party has to prepare for the aftermath and ensure that it does not find itself isolated in Lebanon.

Lebanese efforts to neutralise the unrest in Tripoli and the after-effects of frequent transgressions by Syria's army along the border have shown that Syria's influence in Lebanon is waning. However, the relationship between the Lebanese religious communities is hardly reassuring. For the foreseeable future, the country will have to deal with a Sunni community invigorated by Mr Al Assad's difficulties, and a Shia community bracing for the loss of an ally whose downfall will raise fresh fears of communal marginalisation.

On Tuesday, for instance, gunmen apparently affiliated with the Amal Movement attacked a television station that had broadcast an interview with a Salafist sheikh who has been highly critical of the two Shia parties. Precisely what role the leaderships of the two parties had in the violence is unclear, but it did show how precarious the security situation in Lebanon has become.

In an effort to express European concern, last week three European foreign ministers - Karl Bildt of Sweden, Nikolay Mladenov of Bulgaria and Radoslaw Sikorski of Poland - visited Beirut together. One message they brought was that the Lebanese have to pursue the national dialogue. The Europeans, and indeed most other countries, are notably worried about the passage of weapons into Syria through Lebanon. But preventing this is not easy. Sunnis in the north of the country will not end assistance to their Syrian brethren when they see that Hizbollah has for years benefited from weapons supplies delivered through Syria, and retains near autonomous military status.

The grinding collapse of Syria will continue to buffet the countries nearby. But amid the gloom there are glimmers of common sense, as no one truly wants to follow Syria's path. Common sense, and fear, are not enough to guarantee peace, but sometimes they go a long way.

Must we admit to a civil war in Syria?

Few political debates are more divisive than the one over whether a country is in a civil war. When the killing began in Lebanon in 1975, many Lebanese took offense at the suggestion that this was a civil war. The same was true of Iraqis after the American invasion in 2003. Now, it is Syria that is dividing opinions. So, is Syria in a civil war?

When one moves beyond the emotional aspect of the discussion, the question is not academic. If we cannot properly define a given situation – and the “we” here applies to everyone from policymakers to journalists to Syrian citizens themselves – then we cannot determine the best methods required to address this situation.

Lebanon is a classical example. So powerful was the impulse of the Lebanese to regard their war as one in which they were the mere victims of foreign powers, that there was never any impetus to push forward a postwar reconciliation process. Yes, the Lebanese war did mutate into a succession of conflicts by proxy. Yet this would never have been possible had Lebanese antagonisms not been present.

The late Ghassan Tueni unwittingly contributed to the wall of denial by publishing a book in 1985 titled “Une Guerre Pour les Autres.” In English, this translates into “A War For The Others.” What Tueni meant was that the Lebanese, by fighting among themselves, had effectively become stand-ins for outside actors. However, many people transformed that phrase into “the war of the others,” suggesting that the Lebanese were innocent bystanders in their own disintegration. For years Tueni tried to correct that impression, to no avail.

If societies dislike admitting that they are in a civil war, because it only highlights their destructive impulses, the term is also resisted by politicians and foreign mediators. That’s because conceding the actuality of a civil war limits one’s diplomatic options.

This was evident last week when three European foreign ministers visited Beirut. One of them was noticeably loath to admit that Syria was caught up in a civil war, preferring to describe the situation as one of a savage regime repressing its population. No one had ever believed otherwise. However, state repression, particularly in mixed societies, does not necessarily preclude the presence of civil war.

On the contrary. Take an undeniable instance of civil war, albeit in an ethnically homogeneous country, namely the American Civil War. The Confederacy always interpreted that conflict as a textbook case of hegemony by the North, which had denied the Southern states their constitutional right to secede from the Union. Whether the argument was justified is irrelevant. Civil conflict is frequently the consequence of perceived misrule by a leader or a political or ethnic elite.

There is no black or white definition of civil war. There are degrees of civil war. Those who deny that a civil war is taking place in Syria employ one classification to make their case. They point out, rightly, that we haven’t reached the point of full-scale institutionalization of conflict. We do not see Syrian society mobilized for war, with the Free Syrian Army having rationalized its forces, systematically managing a leviathan of warfare against Bashar Assad’s regiments. We are nowhere near the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, for example, where military campaigns were the work of embryonic states.

But that may be too narrow an outlook by half. Syria may be in the throes of a civil conflict that has not reached a full-fledged civil war. But it makes little sense to reduce the country’s condition to a simplistic narrative of the Assads against the rest. The Alawites from the start have viewed the conflict as a test for communal survival, as have other minorities; and the regime’s crimes have gradually compelled many in the opposition to withdraw to their sectarian identity, even if there are those profoundly reluctant to do so. To simply wish away the civil and social dimensions of the struggle is to set oneself up for bad surprises in the future, when Syria will have to rebuild.

For example, is it in any way sensible to assume that the day after the Assads’ collapse, Syria will rediscover its equilibrium and regain its mislaid unity? Centrifugal impulses have been released, and they are exceptionally potent. Even if Bashar Assad were to flee Damascus tomorrow, a triumphant opposition would face an armed Alawite community seeking greater autonomy in a new Syria. Without doubt the Kurds would refuse to revert to their marginalized status of the past, and would demand some form of self-rule as well. Syria will not soon return to where it was in February 2011, if it ever does.

These are matters that have fundamentally civil consequences, by going to the heart of national identity and cohesion. Syria could fall short of what Lebanon went through during its civil war, as Iraq did. But that does not mean that we have the luxury of engaging in a misdiagnosis. Whether it is the diplomats or the nongovernmental organizations, or above all the Syrian population, all will one day need to collaborate in repairing a fractured and alienated society.

Maybe that is what the Assads wanted. They and their homicidal, kleptocratic clique merit the worst fate. But 15 months into Syria’s revolt, Syrian society is in a very different place than where it once was. Profound rifts have opened up, and they will have to be closed with sensibility and precision. If acknowledging the reality of civil war can help do so, then so be it. A definition should not hold us up.

Friday, June 22, 2012

General electric

I invite you, dear reader, to shine a light (battery power, of course) on a conversation you surely had with the Aounists when Gebran Bassil was first handed the energy portfolio. Invariably, the loyal followers would assert that Lebanon at last had a competent minister.

Competent Bassil doubtless is, though not quite in the way his admirers meant. But when it comes to ameliorating the lot of the Lebanese, Michel Aoun’s son-in-law has been a calamity. Among those most aware of this are Hezbollah’s supporters (and not only them), who are taking to the streets daily to curse his ineptitude.

Earlier this week Aoun himself came to the defense of the son he never had. An irate general declared that everyone was to blame for the abysmal electricity output, which was doubtless correct. Yet if we follow his logic, we can apply that excuse to many other problems the Lebanese have confronted in recent years—problems that Aoun has blamed entirely, without reserve, on his political foes.

More interesting was the undertone of Aoun’s complaint. He was clearly flustered by the fact that the electorate of his Hezbollah partners has been particularly aggressive in denouncing the power cuts, behind walls of burning tires. Remember when the general ordered his followers to block roads to bring down Fouad Siniora’s government starting in 2006? Those tactics are apparently harder to stomach when directed against his own.

Aoun and Hezbollah need each other, and they will continue to collaborate, particularly in the parliamentary elections next year. However, their interests have diverged under the tattered umbrella of Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government. Nor can the party particularly relish what will likely happen in 2014, when it comes time to choose a successor to President Michel Sleiman.

Many Aounists still believe, against common sense, that their leader will succeed Sleiman as the next president. And they still believe, against past evidence, that Hezbollah will help carry the general to Baabda. In 2008, the party supported Sleiman’s election, and it did not do so because it was pressured to give up on Aoun; Hezbollah did so because it was never its intention to gratify Aoun’s presidential ambitions, even as the party hypocritically, but always in a deniable way, suggested that he was the prime candidate.

Who will be Hezbollah’s choice in two years? Many believe he is Jean Kahwaji, the army commander. Alas, Kahwaji has perpetuated that dismal habit of allowing officers to put up giant portraits of him, in what is an effort to start his election campaign early. Evidently, there are no credible Maronites outside the military, so that at every new presidential election we must face an epidemic of khaki.

Certainly, Kahwaji can pretend to be Lebanon’s savior these days, as the army occupies itself by intervening in gun battles, opening roads, fighting with Palestinian refugees, and what have you. As in 2006 to 2008, the armed forces seem to be the last rampart between what passes for normality and chaos, so expect the army commander to exploit this for all it is worth, just as Sleiman did previously.

How will Aoun react? The general is anxious about his political future. According to Aounists in the Keserwan district, the movement has lost considerable momentum there. Electoral alliances in several districts of Mount Lebanon—with Hezbollah in Baabda and Jbeil, and with the Armenians in the Metn—could decisively bolster the Aounists’ fortunes, but it would also make them vulnerable. If Aoun needs Hezbollah to win a majority in Mount Lebanon next year, his latitude to compel the party to then elect him president will be greatly diminished.

Aoun has only himself to blame. Hezbollah has played him like a fiddle for years, but its links with the general have given him leverage that he never properly took advantage of. Twice, he won a majority of Christian seats in parliament, but has yet seen his appeal decline. Aoun has more ministers in this government than any single Christian politician has ever had, and yet he has made an absolute mess of things—alienating almost all of his cabinet allies, displaying unprecedented greed and annoying even Hezbollah.

And soon, if he is still among us when the next president is selected, Aoun will have to swallow the additional insult of seeing the presidency escape him for a second (even a third) time. That won’t ameliorate his relationship with Hezbollah, but don’t expect the general to find anyone to burn tires in the streets on his behalf.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

When the dictator dies a footnote

Did it really matter on Wednesday whether Hosni Mubarak was clinically dead, completely dead, or alive and dying in a suite at a military hospital in Maadi? The death of a dictator is a dramatic moment in the life of a country, and usually one of great duplicity.

Take the death of Syrian President Hafez Assad in June 2000. There were, of course, the requisite street weepers lamenting the departure of the all-embracing father. And yet the burial ceremonies were devoid of sentiment, of any genuine sense of loss. Thirty years of Baathist grayness bequeathed a mourning period of comparable grayness, interrupted by a brief yearning that the son might bring Syria color. But the pampered children of tyrants are usually tyrants themselves, and Bashar Assad has not disappointed in that regard.

Assad’s death reminded us of that of Joseph Stalin. Behind the frenzied sobbing was an unstated frisson of rebirth. When he died in 1953, the Soviet leader left behind a terrible feeling of emptiness, for having filled so much of the nation’s space during three decades of rule. But then many realized that it was not about space, but about oxygen – the oxygen that Stalin had sucked up from his own society; and with his death the population breathed more easily again.

Moammar Gadhafi was the rare Arab autocrat (Iraq’s Nuri al-Said was another) who did not die in his bed – an exception confirming the rule. The revenge he faced was terrible, but it was also unsatisfying. For societies wishing to transcend dictatorship, the ritual slaughter of the leader makes the deconstruction of the previous order much more difficult. How useful it would have been to see Gadhafi before a tribunal, disclosing the myriad networks and methods that kept him on top for so long, exposing those who had facilitated his dominance. Instead, Libyans were offered the sight of a decomposing corpse.

And yet Egypt’s version of authoritarianism was surprisingly subtle. For decades we imagined that Hosni Mubarak was the pharaoh. He was, but over and around him were the timeless mechanisms of the Egyptian state, there to serve the leader, but also to reject him when his hubris threatened to undermine the edifice as a whole.

Mubarak’s desire to hand over to his son Gamal was never going to succeed. Egyptians did not overthrow a dynasty in 1952 to bring another back in the second decade of the 21st century. When the people turned their rage on Mubarak in January 2011, the military considered its options. At stake were the armed forces’ vast interests in Egypt’s economy, but also their annual dividend from the United States. The president tried to maneuver and linger in office, but he failed. The generals gave him a shove and eventually put him on trial, allowing him to be sentenced. But they also had his sons and a bevy of intelligence chiefs declared innocent, avoiding too broad a discrediting of the political system they had so diligently upheld.

Dynastic succession is a way of cheating death, and one of the strange realities of absolute leaders is how tense is their relationship with death. For a long time Arab societies never mentioned death and illness when referring to their leaders. Gadhafi was obsessed with his health, and reportedly pursued eternal youth through various potions; Assad hid the fact that he was dying until the day he expired; Mubarak was no better, even as he increasingly resembled a wax doll in the months before stepping down; and senility was not enough to persuade Tunisia’s President Habib Bourghuiba to retire, until he was ousted by Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, part of whose legitimacy was initially based on the fact that he was young and spry.

A fundamental aspect of supreme power is the concealment of death. Death is the vulnerability that despots cannot afford to emphasize because it renders them human, and there has to be something supra-human in the imposition of absolute authority over the lives of others.

That is why the profoundest innovation of the Arab uprisings in the past year is that they have obliged despots to confront the reality of their own mortality. Gadhafi provoked a civil war whose logical finale was always going to be either his triumph or his physical elimination. Bashar Assad is marching in the same direction. From the moment Mubarak left the presidency, but opted to remain in Egypt, he knew that his demise would become a public concern, and therefore escape his control. Ben Ali and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh may have fled in time, but the revitalizing nectar of power is no longer theirs.

Mubarak doesn’t seem to matter any more. As the Egyptian armed forces impose their writ, prompting mass protests from those who fear that the gains of 2011 are being reversed, the old man has become a footnote. Democracy requires much more than this to take hold, but one facet of a more democratic Egypt – or a Syria, Libya and Yemen – is when the death of a leader does not compel society to suddenly stop in its tracks in anticipation of an indefinite future.

The generals, not the dictator, hold the keys to the regime

It is strange how many people today seem surprised by the actions of the Egyptian armed forces, who have consolidated their political supremacy in recent days at the expense of parties and civil organisations that supported the so-called revolution of January 2011.

That's because virtually nothing in what occurred a year and a half ago spelt revolution. Yes, President Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down, and was later arrested with his sons and other officials. But even this, plainly, represented a tactical retreat by the military to preserve its political and economic stakes in the system.

Conflicting reports yesterday indicated that the Mr Mubarak may be at death's door, but after three decades in power, his demise might have little import for Egypt's future. The true test of the success of the Arab uprisings was always about whether they replaced the old order's instruments of repression - principally the army and the security forces, but also the judiciary - with accountable institutions. Amid loose talk of a democratic Arab dawn, there was a tendency among many to trust too much in the intangible democratic genius of the people. Egypt's military council has poured a bucket of cold water on that optimism.

What is it the council intends to do? The dissolution of the Islamist-led parliament, the passage of an interim constitution that concentrates great power in the hands of the military, and the continued imposition of martial law are unquestionably a barely disguised coup. While no winner has officially been declared in Egypt's presidential election, the measures taken by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces suggest it is preparing for a possible victory by Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate.

According to news reports, the generals will also name the chief of staff of the future president. The military has revived a special national defence council tasked with overseeing security matters, which it will effectively control. Moreover, under the interim constitution, the president has no oversight of the armed forces and the defence minister. Last year, the generals unsuccessfully sought broad prerogatives, which they have now imposed by writ.

That the armed forces could take so provocative a series of steps is not unusual. Post-colonial Arab militaries have been particularly adept at introducing thoroughly outrageous mechanisms of domination, usually ingrained in the social make-up of their societies. In Egypt, the state has historically been strong and society more or less homogeneous, allowing the military to take on the attributes of a supra-national body, extending its tentacles even into the economy.

In Syria, we have also been witnessing the durability of the institutions of repression, albeit from a very different angle than in Egypt. The Syrian army and security forces, or rather the praetorian units with the most sway, are there to uphold Assad family rule, and that of the relatively small clique around them, most of whom are members of the Alawite sect. Yet this power has also rested on a vast, carefully weighed bodyguard of officially institutionalised restrictions and counterweights, which transformed civilian rule (other than that of the senior political leadership) into a chimera.

Years ago, I interviewed an influential Syrian civilian official. In the midst of our conversation, the telephone rang. It was clear from the exchange that an officer was on the other side of the line, and needed a favour. The official actually stood up and spoke with painful deference. Here was as useful an illustration of the embedded superiority of the men with guns as I would ever get.

Ironically, Syria may have a somewhat better opportunity to revamp its army once President Bashar Al Assad leaves office than Egypt has had. While there is more carnage to come, Mr Al Assad's armed forces and security organs, after all the blood that they have shed, cannot conceivably anchor themselves in the system by managing, and hijacking, a political changeover. Rather, the core of any new military institution will be the disparate elements of the Free Syrian Army.

There are definite dangers in such a reality. As the Libyan experience has shown, when a conflict abruptly ends with the fall of a dictator, it can become very difficult for the civilian authorities to reimpose their will over the military actors. The armed opposition to Mr Al Assad is fragmented, and if that persists the centrifugal forces in Syrian society may come to define the post-war order. On the more positive side, we are bound to see a cleaner break with the past than in Egypt.

Even as western countries continue to sterilely debate what should be done about Syria, they don't seem to appreciate enough that a political transition, to be democratic and tolerant, must begin today. If Syria is to enjoy a pluralistic post-Assad era, respect for representative civilian rule, and reform of the army and intelligence services, then any delay in initiating that process may be ruinous.

The splits within the Syrian National Council have not helped. But this need not hinder outside programmes that could ameliorate coexistence in Syria and give hope to the refugees. Some have suggested creating a police force in exile, to take over security once the refugees return. Much could be done to facilitate social reconciliation and contain the understandable impulse that many will feel to resort to revenge once the Assads are overthrown.

In that regard, Egypt provides a cautionary tale. Many observers were so overwhelmed by their profound desire to see change in Cairo, and by the huge crowds, that they didn't realise that they were watching a conjuring trick manipulated by the officers, an illusion designed to perpetuate what had existed before. Follow the money, but follow the guns as well, before predicting too clement an Arab Spring.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

No escape from Taif

The National Dialogue sessions are to resume later this month, and the March 14 coalition hopes to bring to the table the matter of Hezbollah’s weapons. Will that undermine the ongoing discussions? Probably not, as there seems to be widespread support in Lebanon for the politicians and political parties to keep channels open.

Yet how might March 14 best address the issue of weapons? One idea that I have long advocated is to shift the parameters of debate with the Shia community and put on the table a quid pro quo: In exchange for implementing Taif, which, by deconfessionalizing parliament, would give Shia greater representation commensurate with their numbers, Hezbollah would be asked to approve a verifiable mechanism to place its weapons under the authority of the state.

Moreover, an open forum on constitutional reform could be proposed to raise a wide variety of additional outstanding issues between the communities. This would include addressing Christian worries about deconfessionalization, establishment of a Senate, formulation of a fairer parliamentary election law and more.

March 14 understandably hesitates when it comes to such proposals. In early June, Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, called for the convening of a constituent assembly that would be tasked with studying ways to build “a true state” capable of providing its citizens with security and economic stability. Whenever Hezbollah talks about security, you know that its overriding objective is to impose a means to legitimize the party’s retention of its weapons.

There are two other fears that March 14 has, and they are equally reasonable. When Nasrallah mentions a constituent assembly, he is, plainly, talking about constitutional changes outside the parameters of the Taif Accord. What would that entail? Most likely, some suggest, a three-way division of seats in parliament between Shia, Sunnis, and Christians (with adjustments for the smaller communities), an idea that has also been floated by Michel Aoun. March 14 believes that Nasrallah and Aoun regard this as a means of installing a structural two-thirds to one-third majority over the Sunni community.

A second worry is that if one begins to talk about integrating Hezbollah’s weapons into the Lebanese state, this will not mean very much if the party comes to control the army and the state. Indeed, Hezbollah’s ambition is to do precisely that, as its strategy today is focused on winning parliamentary elections next year, and following that a year later with the election of a president it favors.

However, Nasrallah is facing a more complicated situation than he imagines. Let us examine the three-way division of power idea. The reality is that a majority of Christians will never endorse such a mad scheme, because it would only formalize their numerical decline by overhauling the current 50-50 ratio of Christians to Muslims in parliament, while handing them nothing tangible in return.

The notion that Christians view their long-term salvation in an alliance with Shia is also absurd—or, for that matter, with the Sunnis. Communal politics is about shifting alliances and interests, not about ganging up on a single community. As ludicrous is the assumption that Aoun influences most Christians in making such choices. Maronites in particular are divided over the fundamental challenges of Lebanese political life, so that prospects for a consensus over a three-way division of parliament seem remote.

But if Christians aren’t willing to see their parliamentary representation cut down in a three-way scheme, some might respond, why would they go along with Taif, which mandates the abolition of sectarian quotas entirely? That’s not an easy question to answer, but Taif has two things going for it: First, it outlines the creation of a Senate, in which the 50-50 communal ratio is preserved, reassuring the Christians; and second, the deconfessionalization of parliament would apply to all communities, meaning Christians would be part of a larger process that offers advantages and disadvantages to all.

In other words, officializing a three-way communal split in parliament introduces rigidity into the system: Christians could never aspire to more than a third of seats, and may find themselves hopelessly outvoted if Sunnis and Shia unite. In contrast, Taif has a sectarian safety net, through a Senate, while imposing no caps on communal representation. And it is not a momentary pastime, the product of a short-term interpretation of political circumstances today as defined by Nasrallah and Aoun.

What of the argument that if Hezbollah controls the state and the army, any plan to place the party’s weapons under the authority of the state and army becomes meaningless? In fact, the state and army are houses of many mansions, mirroring the impossible complexities and contradictions of Lebanese society. It would be hubris on the part of Hezbollah to assume that it could put an indefinite lock on state institutions, especially on an army that has substantial numbers of Sunnis in its ranks. If the party were to accept any measure of state control over its weapons, this would be a valuable wedge to exploit.

March 14 should direct an arms-versus-expanded-political-representation proposition at Shia in general, not just at Hezbollah. This may seem unimportant, even counterproductive, since Hezbollah remains so influential among its coreligionists. However, it is necessary to underline that, ultimately, any negotiations over reform should transcend specific politicians and organizations, and aim toward a broader social contract within and between communities. There is no reason to restrict participation in a national reform project to the major representatives of the communities.

We shouldn’t expect breakthroughs when it comes to Hezbollah’s arms. But March 14 must reaffirm the importance of Taif as the framework for any future negotiations over power-sharing. If that means tying Taif into a debate over weapons, all the better. Nasrallah and Aoun are trying to run away from Taif. We mustn’t let them.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Syrian crisis allows for rare common ground in Lebanon

On Monday, Lebanese political leaders met in the context of an irregular series of gatherings known as the National Dialogue. This was prompted by rising tensions in the country, particularly in the northern city of Tripoli and the neighbouring Akkar region, which have been buffeted by the violence in Syria.

In a final statement, the dialogue participants, who will meet again later this month, agreed that it was necessary to control the Lebanese-Syrian border and "keep Lebanon away from the policy of regional and international conflicts and spare it the negative repercussions of regional tensions and crises". They also voiced support for the Lebanese Army and security forces and affirmed their backing for the Taif Accord, which ended Lebanon's civil war.

There has been much cynicism over the dialogue sessions, which began in 2006. The process was initiated after the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005, the primary objective being to find common ground between the rival political alignments - the March 14 coalition on the one side, and the March 8 coalition and Michel Aoun on the other.

This ambition was never met. While verbal agreements were reached on several contentious issues, they were never implemented. The leading bone of contention has been Hizbollah's weapons, and the inability of the sides to agree over a so-called "defence strategy", a squaring of the circle in many ways that would reconcile Hizbollah's insistence on retaining its arms with the March 14 demand that these be placed under the authority of the state.

This time, the backdrop to the dialogue was different. The conflict in Syria has divided the Lebanese, with most Sunnis strongly opposed to the regime of Bashar Al Assad, while Hizbollah and Mr Aoun back the Syrian president.

There has been great instability along the Lebanese borders with Syria, and Damascus has accused Lebanese Sunni villagers of providing sanctuary to Syrian opposition combatants, and permitting the passage of weapons.

Last month, in what was a deliberate scheme engineered by the Syrians and Hizbollah, agents of the General Security directorate, which coordinates closely with Hizbollah and Damascus, arrested a Sunni Islamist in Tripoli. The objective was to provoke a backlash by Islamists in the city and show that Tripoli is a Salafist stronghold, bolstering the Syrian regime's narrative that it is facing a concerted Salafist onslaught inside Syria and from Lebanon.

The trap worked, and since then there has been recurrent fighting between Sunni and Alawite neighbourhoods in Tripoli. This is a running sore that Mr Al Assad will likely use to keep threatening Lebanon.

There is also fear that the rot may spread elsewhere. The rural Akkar district also hosts Alawites and Sunnis, while some weeks ago the tension spread to Beirut, where supporters of the Future Movement of Saad Hariri fought with a pro-Hizbollah Sunni group.

Hizbollah, even as it helped ignite fires in Tripoli, has been careful to avoid sectarian confrontations elsewhere. For instance, when Shiite pilgrims were captured in Syria in late May and their protesting families blocked roads in Beirut, the party's secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, intervened vigorously to put an end to these actions.

There is a good explanation for Hizbollah's sudden devotion to concord, and to the dialogue sessions. The party knows that Mr Al Assad's regime is not long for this world, and it needs to brace itself for the aftermath. It intends to do so by focusing on winning a majority, with its partners, in parliamentary elections next year. Such a victory would allow it to have a lock on the commanding heights of the state and to bring a friendly president to office in 2014.

For elections to take place, though, Hizbollah needs to ensure that Lebanon averts a civil war. That is one reason why President Michel Suleiman found leverage to resume the dialogue meetings. There was another. A few weeks ago, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, reflecting anxiety in the Arab world that the Syrian crisis might spill over into Lebanon, urged the Lebanese parties to engage in a process of understanding.

The king's declaration created a dilemma for Mr Hariri and his Future Movement, as well as other March 14 leaders. March 14 initially erred by suggesting that it would not participate in a dialogue, before agreeing to do so. This waffling came as the coalition took another controversial decision of pushing for the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Mikati's government, when many Lebanese saw this as a recipe for disaster.

Notably absent from the dialogue is Samir Geagea, the Lebanese Forces leader. Mr Geagea explained his non-attendance as the result of Hizbollah's lack of seriousness on the agenda. In reality, he was playing a tactical game, momentarily taking his distance from his comrades in the Future Movement and from Saudi Arabia, at a time when not a few Christians are uneasy with the Salafist phenomenon in Tripoli, and some are looking with jaundiced eye at Mr Geagea's intended electoral alliance with the Sunnis.

For all the shortcomings of the National Dialogue, the Lebanese are in need of a forum to bring together their political chiefs. Most importantly, practical mechanisms are needed to settle problems that emerge on the ground, particularly in Beirut. No one in Lebanon wants to succumb to a Syrian civil war, and that alone is a worthy basis on which to pursue engagement.

Ghassan Tueni takes our reinvented past

It’s not easy to write something fresh about the late Ghassan Tueni. The prerogative of men like him, who have filled up large, invigorating spaces in Lebanon’s modern history, is to have their complicated lives grounded down to more manageable and mundane generality. Yet what was most unnerving about Tueni’s death was that he took with him a large fragment of our idealized past.

I would wager that it was the photographs of Tueni that caught the rapt attention, and envy, of most readers as they read his obituaries. Here were celluloid windows into a Lebanon of another time, one which we are reminded has been lost forever, peopled by the founding generation of our unsettled republic – Tueni, Raymond Edde, Bishara al-Khoury, Camille Chamoun, Kamal Jumblatt, Fouad Chehab, Saeb Salam and many others – all men of the world, a cigarette or cigar in hand, for whom power seemed to bring especial vigor, standing in lustrous black and white contrast to the degraded grays of today.

How real is this image? Lebanon’s old political class was a more interesting collection than what we now have. But there is also much exaggeration. When even Tueni’s photos from the Civil War years elicit tremors of nostalgia, we can assume that this says more about our present frame of mind than about the existence of any golden age.

Ghassan Tueni lived a life of hyperreality. In him the differences between fact and representation were frequently blurred. His personal suffering became an absolute representation of suffering; his passion for journalism and politics became the unconditional form for such passion; and his myriad ambiguities and contradictions became the essence of ambiguity and contradiction, pointless to disentangle.

In trying to draw a straight line through Tueni’s life, many commentators missed the point. Yes, he was a man of visceral liberty, but could also be an autocratic father to his newspaper. He was a believer in God, and yet his fierce struggle for life, when all those around him were dying, revealed underlying doubts about what came afterward. He was the most ecumenical of men, and yet his affirmation as a Greek Orthodox could be overpowering. And Tueni was a man of genuine integrity, but also someone drawn to the roguishness and hardness of politics and politicians – to that other side of himself that proved so essential in preparing for the political, professional and personal trials that he faced for decades on end.

There was great substance to Tueni, but no assessment would be complete without an allusion to style. It is to his style that the Lebanese tended to react most intensely, in the same way that so many non-Lebanese admirers did. For Ghassan Tueni, style became a part of his aura, therefore a vital component of his influence. There may have been an element of vanity in his splendidly cut suits, his striped ties, the golden ring on his little finger, and the leonine hair, but it really was far more than that; these were the natural complements of a man who best embodied the refinement and worldliness we have come to project onto our earlier generations.

My first real contact with Tueni came at a day-long conference in 1993 organized by the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies for the 50th anniversary of Lebanon’s Independence. The conference brought together authors who had written papers for a magazine that I then edited, The Beirut Review. No one expected Tueni to stay for more than the 15 minutes necessary to present his text. Instead, he spent the entire day, and it was a hot day, shedding his jacket, rolling up his sleeves, and briskly commenting on his colleagues’ manuscripts.

Style aside, this was plainly someone who was moved, above all, by ideas, by the energies that interaction released. Nothing is more tedious than people who dislike other people, or more heartening than those who are the contrary. Tueni was always a valuable guide into Lebanon’s past, whether factual or imagined, precisely because (though he practiced an often solitary profession) he needed to circulate among people and thrived in a life watered by society.

Some deaths take with them an era, and that was true of Ghassan Tueni’s. Many prominent Lebanese have died in recent years, among them Tueni’s son Gebran. Ghassan himself had been ill for years, his body bent in half, his liveliness slowly fading, and his consciousness not nearly as quickly. Yet at this moment in our national history, his death sounds a note of terrible finality, stirs up an ominous sense that Lebanon is on its own as it heads into an indefinite future.

In their darkest hours, the Lebanese could always fall back on their romanticized past for fortification. But that undervalued exercise only works when those embodying the past are still among us. Ghassan Tueni is no longer. As one of the last to go, he leaves us hanging in a netherworld of sorts, striving to find a part of ourselves in old photographs.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Messages in a battle

Now and then a deliciously embarrassing story surfaces to expose the dubious transactions at the heart of human ambition. This week it was the revelation in The Daily Telegraph that American journalist Barbara Walters had done favors for someone who had helped land her an interview last December with President Bashar al-Assad.   

That someone is Sheherazad Jaafari, the daughter of Bashar Jaafari, Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations. Not long after interviewing Assad, Walters sought to give Sheherazad an obliging push so that she could enter Columbia University. She contacted one Professor Richard Wald to see if he could be of assistance, writing of her protégé: “She is brilliant, beautiful, speaks five languages. Anything you can do to help?” Walters also sent Sheherazad’s résumé to Piers Morgan’s staff at CNN to see if she could be hired as an intern.

Walters acknowledged that there was a conflict of interest after the Telegraph published her email with Sheherazad. These were allegedly handed to the paper by a Syrian opposition group. Recall that Sheherazad Jaafari’s name first popped up in an earlier round of leaked emails published by Al-Arabiya and The Guardian in March. She was one of two young United States-based women with whom the Syrian president apparently maintained close contact.

In the grander scheme of things, Walters’ behavior was not overly egregious. True, it didn’t say much about her distress when it comes to Syrian suffering, but her career, like that of most interviewers, has surely been built on Olympian doses of back-scratching. It is equally possible that Walters did what she did because she felt guilty about conducting a tough interview with Assad, for which Sheherazad was ultimately held responsible. “I am in so much trouble here,” Sheherazad wrote on December 8, 2011, a detail that evidently troubled Walters. 

More disconcerting when one reads the emails is Sheherazad’s personality, above all her straightforward mercenary instincts. The girl is shameless, willing to say anything to propel her career forward. In preparing Assad for the Walters interview, for instance, she observed that the “American psyche can be easily manipulated when they hear that there are ‘mistakes’ done and now we are ‘fixing it.’’’

Sheherazad went on to advise the Syrian president to mention “what is happening now in Wall Street and the way the demonstrations are been suppressed by police men, police dogs and beatings.” And in a sentence remarkable for its cynicism and dishonesty, she recommends that he argue that “Syria doesn’t have a policy to torture people, unlike the US. We can use Abu Ghraib in Iraq as an example.”

And this from a mere 22-year-old. Of course, Sheherazad has someone to inspire her. Her father has been the most public face of the Syrian regime in the West. To say that he has not uttered a single truthful word on events in Syria during the past year, while defending the barbarously indefensible, would be to understate his offenses.

Going through Sheherazad’s correspondence with Walters, one finds much at which to wince: Her calculating reference to the ABC interviewer as a mother to “your adopted child (me)”; her efficient dispensation of niceties to cut to the matters preoccupying her, namely ensuring that Walters would get her the Piers Morgan job and extract a positive response from Columbia (“If there is any way you think you can give my application a push I would really really appreciate it. You did mention that you know a professor there.”); and her affected earnestness when explaining, “I really want to start building my future here [in the United States],” again as a way of prodding Walters to pick up that damned phone on her behalf. 

What is the larger message here? Is there one? Perhaps not, but no less that the correspondence between Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma released earlier this year, the latest missives show members of a Syrian ruling class profoundly out of touch with their own people. It goes beyond Asma al-Assad’s passion for Christian Louboutin shoes or Bashar’s iTunes choices; it’s about a group of insular, self-centered, pampered individuals living a succession of unadulterated lies, straddling cultural worlds and behaving deceitfully in each.

Absent from the gamut of emails is any sense of the carnage in Syria, or empathy for an impoverished, humiliated and insulted population that has, additionally, been made to suffer from the depravities of Bashar al-Assad’s death squads. It is strange how intensely contemptuous are the senior members of the Syrian ruling elite of those hailing from poor, rural origins—origins once their own. Here we have the upshot of the Baath revolution, and it is fitting that the revolt broke out when those rural communities, understanding how closed were their horizons, decided that enough was enough. 
They won’t soon be applying to Columbia or looking to join Piers Morgan’s staff, but I would wager that they will be the ones inheriting Syria before long. And when that happens, their resentment will be uncontainable.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Western 'realists' inspire the deadly stalemate in Syria

You knew it was just a matter of time before Henry Kissinger would take the dismal path on Syria. In an article published in the Washington Post last week, the onetime American secretary of state argued against outside intervention in the Syrian crisis, but then failed to admit how the foreign policy approach that he has advocated for decades is partly responsible for the calamities there.

Mr Kissinger is a political realist, for whom foreign policy is primarily defined by the pursuit of national interest. He remains an advocate of the post-1648 political order that emerged from the Treaty of Westphalia, which enforced sovereignty as a principle of inter-state relations and "separated international from domestic politics". This system has perpetuated stability, the former secretary of state has long held, and has been sustained by mechanisms of equilibrium - or what is known in the political jargon as a balance of power.

However, Mr Kissinger is worried that the recent Arab uprisings, among other international developments, are leading to new demands that are undermining the post-Westphalia system. There is an "increasing appeal - most recently in Syria - of outside intervention to bring about regime change, overturning prevalent notions of international order", he writes. The diplomacy generated by the Arab upheavals, he believes, "replaces Westphalian principles of equilibrium with a generalised doctrine of humanitarian intervention".

In other words, conflict is increasingly viewed through a prism of values, specifically the need to spread democratic standards. "Outside powers demand that the incumbent government negotiate with its opponents for the purpose of transferring power. But because … the issue is generally survival, these appeals usually fall on deaf ears. Where the parties are of comparable strength … outside intervention, including military force, is then invoked to break the deadlock."

The battle between political realists and those advocating a more value-based foreign policy is hardly new. In my days as a student, the fault line was defined as being between realists and liberals. This distinction lost much of its meaning during the first decade of the 21st century, when many liberals found themselves siding with realists in opposing the interventionist policies of President George W Bush, in particular what was perceived as democratisation by force.

In truth, it was during the 1990s that the concept of humanitarian intervention developed a momentum all its own. The conflicts in Bosnia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone, with their appalling costs in human life, acted as reminders that states were obligated to act on moral grounds.

Today, this principle is referred to as a "responsibility to protect". The problem is that such involvement rests on a foundation of absolutes. If states intercede to prevent crimes in one place then they must do so everywhere to remain morally consistent.

This is Mr Kissinger's worry as he watches events unfolding in Syria. If states are invariably destined to remove conditions deemed a violation of universal principles of governance, he asks, does this mean the US is "obliged to support every popular uprising against any non-democratic government, including those heretofore considered important in sustaining the international system?"

God forbid, one can hear Mr Kissinger rumbling in his Teutonic monotone. In office he had no qualms about dealing with autocrats, realists like himself. Christopher Hitchens's ferocious The Trial of Henry Kissinger, a denunciation of the secretary's misdeeds in Chile, Cyprus, East Timor, Bangladesh and Indochina, remains a bracing polemic against a man whose reputation has seemingly flourished in direct proportion to his cynicism.

But what is most objectionable in Mr Kissinger's Washington Post article is how selective it is. In defending international steadiness against the excess of humanitarian intervention, he downplays how realist attitudes are at odds with what we are witnessing today in the Arab world. Mr Kissinger seems unaware that the separation between domestic and foreign policy has become increasingly artificial.

Surely that was one powerful lesson from the Arab uprisings last year. In an age of proliferating media, the boundaries between national experiences have been greatly blurred. Nor does Mr Kissinger examine how extensively authoritarian systems are sustained by silence. It was possible for Hafez Al Assad to crush the revolt in Hama in 1982 because no one knew the magnitude of the butchery until it was over. In contrast, Bashar Al Assad, if he falls, will probably have a detailed indictment awaiting him.

Mr Kissinger also fails to consider how the realists' coddling of dictators under the guise of upholding state sovereignty generated the profound frustrations that have pushed Arab societies into the streets. Perhaps that's why oppositions in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Bahrain and Syria have remained so wary of western countries, even when they have requested their assistance. Rare was their tormentor who did not receive the red-carpet treatment in America or Europe on the grounds, as Mr Kissinger would affirm, that they were considered important in sustaining the international system.

Mr Kissinger is on firmer ground when he argues that the conditions for international intervention in Syria are not ideal. There is no consensus on what should come after the Assads, especially if the conflict there turns into a regional proxy war; and there is little domestic will in the West to embark on another open-ended military campaign to stop "one human tragedy" that might "facilitate another".

But Mr Kissinger does not come across as a man preoccupied with tragedy. What he outlines is a form of non-interventionism almost certain to perpetuate Syria's suffering. Sometimes, assertions of perspicacity and caution are mere excuses for intentional inaction. Realism offers no salvation for Syria.

In defense of Hosni Mubarak

Now that I’ve caught your attention, let me hasten to add that I have no intention of defending Egypt’s former president. The old despot was corrupt and thoroughly deplorable. For decades, Mubarak turned his security services against his own population. His legacy, in most respects, was one prolonged serving of national cretinism.

And yet, when we compare Mubarak or his equally sinister onetime counterpart from Tunisia, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, with the likes of Bashar Assad and Moammar Gadhafi, there are differences. It may be useful to examine these differences more closely to see if they can be of benefit as Arab societies strive to reimpose civil structures on what had been (and in some cases still are) authoritarian orders.

Mubarak and Ben Ali were thugs, but they were not mass murderers. The Egyptian president stepped down before unleashing – or more likely because he was incapable of unleashing – the army against protesters in January 2011. Ben Ali took to the clouds, his stolen goods firmly in hand. Both were undeniably responsible for the deaths of innocents, and Mubarak’s conviction last week was nothing if not fair; but they did not butcher their populations and provoke civil wars to stay in office in the same way that Gadhafi did and Assad is doing.

Why is that? Most probably because of the fact that Egypt and Tunisia are traditionally countries of institutions, where the structures of state and society, for all their myriad shortcomings, extend beyond the supreme leader and his clan. Many of these institutions were co-opted by Mubarak and Ben Ali, discredited, intimidated and manipulated; but they also had a prior life of their own, an institutional memory, that the persecutor in chief could never entirely overcome.

When Mubarak sought to install his son Gamal as his successor, something in the Egyptian psyche snapped. This was an ambition too far, reckless hubris by a man who, ultimately, was a mere byproduct of the system, yet who somehow imagined that his 30-year reign entitled him to bend Egypt to his personal preferences.

As protesters took to the streets, Mubarak became a liability to the corporate interests of the military, which had much to lose by protecting the president. It was the army that gave Mubarak the final push, to preserve its stake in the system. There was nothing altruistic about this, even as Egypt’s complex institutional edifice meant that a full-scale massacre was never in the cards. Mubarak was expendable.

If we imagine a continuum of authoritarian systems, they tend to be defined by two extremities. At one extremity are systems where the absolute reference when it comes to the law, or what passes for law, is the leader. At the other are systems built on a scaffolding of regulations and state bodies lending legitimacy to repression. Most authoritarian leaderships combine the two: There are domains controlled by the leader, but there are also those where a judicial veneer is in place to stifle dissent, but also to avoid the inevitable resort to force.

For a long time Syria was such a place. In order to perpetuate his own rule and that of his minority Alawite community, the late Hafez Assad adopted multiple layers of behavior, bureaucracy and ideology to bolster his regime. Arab nationalism, in the guise of Baathism, was there partly to detract from the minority status of the leadership, and to act as an instrument to co-opt large swathes of Syrian society. The conflict with Israel bought the Syrian president Arab credibility and funding, while Syria’s hegemony over Lebanon earned it regional leverage. Syrian prisons were full, but when offered a choice between violence and negotiations to resolve his problems, Assad usually preferred the latter – albeit negotiations destined to assert his will.

And yet there was never any doubt who was the final arbiter on most issues. Syrian institutions had no latitude to question Assad. The army and security apparatus was there to defend the Assads and their political-military clique, not Syrian society. Outside the reach of the ruling family there was virtually no autonomous political space.

Bashar Assad’s mistake was to make this increasingly apparent over the years, even as he alienated his young and impoverished society in other ways. The worst thing a despot can do is to highlight the absoluteness of his supremacy over humiliated subjects. For instance, in Deraa, rather than seek a peaceful solution occasioned by his cousin Atef Najib’s arrest of protesting children, Assad went for his guns. Moammar Gadhafi, similarly, transformed Libya into an extension, a plaything, of his demented, kleptocratic family. When Benghazi rose, his reflex was to threaten carnage. For Gadhafi and Assad, anything short of total submission was existentially dangerous.

Does this tell us something useful about places such as Egypt or Tunisia? To an extent yes, because it affirms that even in degraded political systems, it is yet beneficial to have time-tested institutions in place that can mediate between society and the leadership. Mubarak’s control over the army and judiciary often seemed unlimited, but in retrospect the reality was more complicated. When he departed, both had to face pressures and dynamics imposed on them by society, to which they simply could not respond with unqualified suppression.

The struggle against authoritarianism will be a long one, but civil societies in the Arab world must focus on creating spaces of institutional independence in order to safeguard their liberty. That’s easier said than done, but revolutionary moments allow for such aspirations. There is nothing to regret in Mubarak and Ben Ali. However, they left behind systems easier to reform than Libya’s and Syria’s, and enough survivors for this to happen more serenely.

Friday, June 1, 2012

The ballot blues

There is a consensus that the outcome of Lebanon’s parliamentary elections next year will be greatly affected by the situation in Syria. That’s a sensible conclusion to draw, but it should not detract from the fact that the March 14 coalition would do better to start preparing for elections now, independently of Syrian developments.

As Hezbollah observes its ally, Bashar al-Assad, struggling for political survival, it is devising a fallback plan to protect itself if the Syrian regime is ousted. The party is focused on winning a parliamentary majority, which would select a new president a year later and then take full control of the apparatus of the state. This is a strategic necessity for Hezbollah, and therefore denying the party and its allies such a victory should be a strategic necessity for March 14.

Among March 14 devotees, particularly in predominantly Christian areas, the mood is upbeat. They sense that Michel Aoun has lost ground, and that some of the political alignments that have afforded him considerable electoral punch are fraying. They will argue, for instance, that Aoun may no longer benefit from the block Armenian vote in the Metn. How the Armenian Tashnaq Party leans will, in part, be shaped by the behavior and survivability of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, where a sizable Armenian community resides.

That assessment could be correct. The results in the predominantly Christian districts of Mount Lebanon—specifically Baabda, the Metn, Kesrouan and Jbeil, as well as Aley and the Chouf, where Walid Jumblatt rules—will probably define who ultimately holds a parliamentary majority. But would Bashar’s fall, assuming his regime does go within the coming year, necessarily harm Aoun’s chances of remaining the politician with the largest Christian bloc?

March 14 could err on the side of hubris by answering in the affirmative, providing Aoun with a decisive advantage. The reality is that if elections were held today, the general would still likely win the largest bloc of Christians, despite his setbacks. Here is why.

Even if we accept that Aoun’s popularity has regressed, this does not mean that March 14 has gained. There are anecdotal signs that the Lebanese Forces have expanded their base of support in Mount Lebanon, but winning the vote involves a complex game of alliances that Samir Geagea would have trouble managing alone. Aoun will benefit greatly from unified Shia backing in Baabda and Jbeil, and his prospects for a victory in Jezzine are relatively high, since the alternative is a list of candidates backed by the parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, who is not liked among Christians in the district.

In the Metn the Armenians may yet go their own way, but there is no overriding motivation for them to do so. If Aoun is the dominant player, why should they abandon him? Tashnaq has been talking to Michel al-Murr lately, but this need not be at Aoun’s expense. Remember that during the last elections in 2009, the Armenians voted for Murr even though they were represented in the Aounist list.

As for Sami Gemayel, he, too, will probably win reelection. However, the Gemayels are arguably more wary of their professed allies than of their adversaries. The Kataeb Party quietly views the Lebanese Forces as a political competitor, since both fish in the same electoral pond. Sami Gemayel rightly feels that he can appeal to the Aounist base in the Metn, but if he expects to win only his own seat (as opposed to bringing several candidates in on his coattails), he doesn’t want to have to compete with a Lebanese Forces candidate over that seat.

In the Kesrouan, where traditional politics tend to dominate, it will be equally difficult to unseat Aoun. That does not mean that the general’s list will not be vulnerable to individual challenges. In 2009, for instance, Carlos Eddé made a surprisingly strong showing in the district. Past parliamentarians, such as Mansour al-Bon, continue to have followers, and family rivalries can affect voting patterns. However, because party politics are less influential in the Kesrouan, electoral jockeying could undermine a concerted March 14 campaign.

In the districts of Aley and the Chouf, March 14 may have the upper hand, but only through a door opened by Walid Jumblatt. The Druze leader is flirting with March 14 because he needs Sunni votes in the Chouf and for his candidates in Beirut and the West Bekaa. However, once elections are over, his interests and those of March 14 may yet diverge. Jumblatt, if he strides the middle as he has in the past three years, can become the kingmaker in a new government.

To win an election, one needs money. March 14, by the admission of its own partisans, does not have a great deal to spare these days, with Saad Hariri outside of Lebanon. These are early times, however, and the checks may begin arriving in early 2013.

However, it will require a bit more to persuade voters to choose the candidates of the former majority. Hezbollah and Aoun are exposed enough, their project of governance discredited enough, that March 14 has a valuable weapon to deploy in its own favor. But unless, and until, it can show that its project is more credible than that of the current majority, and convince a public whose cynicism is at an apoplectic high, the election consequences may disappoint.