Worried Lebanese

thought crumbs on lebanese and middle eastern politics

Archive for February, 2010

The need to expand and subdivide Beirut

Posted by worriedlebanese on 19/02/2010

Greater Beirut (don't mind the colours) courtesy of the AUB

What is needed: For more than thirty years, people have been talking about Greater-Beirut. The question was raised about the same time as other metropolitan areas throughout the world were discussing their expansion.

Since then, Greater London came into being, Paris got itself a Mayor and there is talk of creating a Greater Paris… As for Beirut… nothing new on the horizon. The Lebanese capital is exemplary in its provincialism, corruption, mismanagement,  underdevelopment, lack of democracy,  and paucity in social and cultural services.

A couple of weeks ago, the FPM proposed to subdivide the capital into three municipalities, reinforcing the Prefect’s power (a non-elected state official subordinate to the Minister of Interior) and stip the mayor of Beirut of the very little power he actually has. This is certainly the sloppiest proposal for change any party could make. It was interpreted as a step toward “partition”, and an attack on “sunni interests” (the mayor has been traditionally reserved for a sunni since the 1940s, and the whole municipal council has been part of the Hariri clan’s private preserve since the late 1990s).

So here is a proposal that would have been easier to accept and that would have started a new and positive dynamic: the creation of the municipality of Greater Beirut, in which the capital is expanded, northwards, eastwards and southwards to include all of Beirut’s close suburbs. This expansion will integrate into the municipality: industrial, recreational and residential areas, that would allow Beirut to offer more services to its inhabitants. Its population will undoubtedly triple, while its surface will almost be multiplied by 10.

With the necessary administrative and electoral reforms that would accompany this move, an area such as “Dahié” would finally be integrated to the center and not remain peripheral. This would undoubtedly change the dynamic between sunnis and shiites.

What we are getting: The idiotic consensus surrounding the principle of proportionate representation seems to have infected the government that has decided to apply this principle (heavily funded by the European Union and promoted as our panacea with no real debate surrounding it) to the municipal elections. Beirut will neither be subdivided nor expanded. The parity between Muslim and Christian council members will be lost, because it was ensured by an informal agreement that is neutralised by the principle of proportionate representation. Instead of the 50% christian/50% muslim, it is more likely that we’ll have a 60% muslim, 40% christian division of the municipal council (if the sunni opposition to Hariri is neutralised), or possibly  65% to 70 % muslim share if the sunni “traditional” families and islamists receive the same support as they did in 2004. The Hariri clan will undoubtedly  keep its control of the city. With the proportionate law, they can hope for 50 to 60% of the municipal council and the mayor. Most of the inhabitants of Beirut will remain disenfranchised, public services will remain poor and the divide between “Beirut” and “Dahie” will remain as strong as ever.

Advertisements

Posted in Democracy, Diversity, Lebanon, Propositions | 3 Comments »

Language contre language

Posted by worriedlebanese on 13/02/2010

A la différence de ses collègues, Anne-Marie el-Hage ne semble pas avoir de prétentions journalistiques. C’est en tant que citoyenne qu’elle grogne dans les pages de l’Orient Le Jour, puisant de son expérience,  de sa vie quotidienne (c’est à peu près ce que font tous ses collègues du journal, mais passons).
Aujourd’hui, elle nous donne rien moins qu’une petite leçon sur le language! Cette leçon porte sur le language confessionnel au Liban, mais en réalité elle se révèle une excellente leçon en language journalistique libanais.
Sa leçon se compose en deux parties: une définition suivie d’une illustration. La définition est très vague et se réduit à une typologie extrêmement floue qui distingue entre un language confessionnel ordinaire (“quotidien”) et un language confessionnel “discriminatoire” (“qui dérape”).

  1. Le language confessionnel ordinaire est pour elle la conséquence du système confessionnel. Cette présomption en forme de rapport de causalité lui permet de faire l’économie d’une définition, d’une illustration et d’une démonstration.
  2. Le language confessionnel discriminatoire est celui qui l’intéresse. Elle s’y attarde un peu plus puisque tout le mal qu’elle pourrait en dire se rapporteront à l’illustration par un rapport de transitivité simple (encore une fois, aucun besoin de démonstration). Anne-Marie el-Hage préfère l’énumération à la définition. Dans cette catégorie valise qu’elle a créé, elle inclut les “blagues déplacées”, les “convictions-clichés”, les discours haineux de la guerre, les “attaques verbales contre des chefs religieux”, “l’affront à la communauté”, et “l’incitation à la haine”. En somme, elle jette dans la même catégorie les préjugés (et leurs multiples expressions), les propos qui accompagnent des actes meurtriers et la fameuse notion pénale libanaise d’incitation à la haine confessionnelle (en fait beaucoup plus vague dans le texte arabe إثارة النعرات الطائفية et dans la pratique juridictionnelle) qu’elle évoque dans une lecture qui semble extrêmement large et donc répressive.

Après ce semblant de définition du language confessionnel, notre citoyenne syndiquée attaque finalement le sujet qui la taraude et qu’elle présente comme une illustration du language confessionnel “qui dérape”: le prêche d’un prêtre maronite dans une banlieue chrétienne de Beyrouth. C’est par ces mots qu’elle plante le décor et ce sont les informations les plus précises de l’article. Nous ne saurons rien sur le nom du prêtre, de l’Eglise ou même du quartier: l’étiquette confessionnelle suffit aux yeux de l’auteur. Et elle poursuit ce flou dans la description des événements: le prêtre serait coupable “d’attaques verbales contre des chefs religieux d’une communauté musulmane du pays, éclaboussant au passage la communauté dans son ensemble”, ce qui relèverait d’un “affront à la communauté”. Nous ne serons évidemment rien sur ce que le prêtre a dit. L’article ressemble au dispositif d’un arrêt d’une cour de cassation, succinct, abstrait, définitif. Anne-Marie el-Hage traduit les faits en language abstrait, elle les qualifie (comme on le dit en language juridique), rappelle la règle et tranche.

Les lecteurs du journal ne sauront rien sur les propos du prélat. On ne leur donne pas l’occasion de se faire leur propre idée des mots et de l’argument de la personne dont le journaliste parle. Le sujet principal de l’article s’efface devant la figure du journaliste qui se pose en juge. Si le sujet l’intéresse,  c’est au lecteur d’aller chercher les faits en se renseignant auprès de proches, en rapprochant quelques indices essaimés  dans l’article d’autres informations trouvées ailleurs. Mais, à vrai dire, la seule piste que le lecteur pourra prendre est confessionnelle (car c’est finalement la seule que le journal lui laisse)… Et l’information la plus facile à trouver (ailleurs que dans l’article évidemment) est l’identification de “la communauté musulmane”. En gros, la seule information qui transparaît dans cet article est “un prélat s’attaque à une communauté musulmane”… ce n’est pas de l’info c’est une manchette… une manchette sans article! N’est-ce pas un bon exemple du language journalistique libanais? Ne serait-ce pas justement cela l’incitation confessionnelle?

Pour ne pas agir comme elle, voici l’article incriminé: Dérapage verbal par Anne-Marie El-HAGE (13 février 2010).

Posted in Culture, Discourse, Idiosyncrasy 961, Intercommunal affairs, Journalism, Lebanon, Semantics, Values, Version Francophone | 1 Comment »

Amalgames: variations sur le discours anti-confessionnel

Posted by worriedlebanese on 12/02/2010

Voici quelques arguments que j’ai exposé sur un autre blog: chroniques Beyrouthines qui traitait de la question de la Laïcité au Liban:

Premier commentaire: un appel pour plus de nuance!

Comment voir clair dans un débat d’idée lorsqu’on met sous un simple mot (laïcité) une bonne dizaine de questions: la représentation des communautés, la pluralité du statut personnel, la séparation entre l’Etat et les institutions religieuses, la neutralité religieuse de l’espace public, la sécularisation de la culture, l’égalité devant la loi, les libertés religieuses et la liberté de conscience, le traitement égal des institutions religieuses…

Que des Libanais ne connaissent pas très bien l’histoire de France ou les paradoxes de la laïcité française, passe encore, mais un petit effort du côté français tout de même.

En France l’écrasante majorité des fêtes officielles sont religieuses (catholique évidemment), le jour de repos officiel correspond au jour de repos catholique, le ministre de l’intérieur est également ministre des cultes (et approuve la nomination des évêques… catholiques). Toutes ces belles cathédrales sont propriété de l’Etat, leur restauration et leur maintient sont donc financés par le budget public… et pourtant elles sont affectées pour l’écrasante majorité au culte catholique! La France a une longe tradition de soutien de missionnaires à l’étranger… soutien qui perdure: Regardez du côté de l’ambassade de france, et vous verrez un soutien de la mission laïque… mais aussi du collège protestant, de l’Université Saint Joseph (et jusqu’à sa fermeture de l’Ecole de l’Alliance Universelle Israélite)… Et ceci est également vrai pour la France d’Outre mer et une partie de la France métropolitaine. La France laïque subventionne des facultés de théologie!!!
Et qui est en France le premiere bénéficiaire en matière éducative de subventions publiques: les écoles catholiques…
Faut-il aussi rappeler que la France connaissait sur son territoire national jusqu’à l’indépendance algérienne et le pluralisme personnel et le système de représentation communautaire…

Du côté libanais, nous avons une stricte séparation sur le plan éducatif. L’Etat est le premier éducateur (au niveau scolaire et universitaire) et ne subventionne aucune institution éducative religieuse (sauf si elle est gratuite… et dans ce cas il le fait au même titre que pour les écoles gratuites non religieuses). L’Etat libanais n’intervient pas dans l’éducation religieuse. La tentative de Rafic Hariri de le faire à jusqu’ici échoué (alors qu’en Syrie, par exemple, l’Etat subventionne les facultés de droit religieux… et le droit islamique et une des sources de la législation…).
Le Liban est le seul Etat au Proche-Orient (hormis la Turquie, mais la laïcité de cette dernière n’exclut pas la reconnaissance de l’Islam sunnite comme religion nationale) dont le droit ne se réfère à aucune tradition religieuse (même Israël s’y réfère).
Au Liban, la question de la foi est indépendante de la question de l’appartenance communautaire (elles font l’objet de deux articles distincts de la constitution, n’en déplaise à Ziyad Baroud). Aucune autorité n’a le droit d’examiner la foi d’un citoyen libanais, c’est pour cela qu’une autorité religieuse ne peut radier l’appartenance communautaire de ses ouailles mécréantes (alors que ceci est possible en Egypte), et que les tribunaux étatiques peuvent examiner toute fraude à la loi excepté la fraude à la loi religieuse puisque ceci reviendrait à examiner la foi du citoyen (donc bonjour la fraude… le citoyen n’est pas prisonnier de la loi religieuse mais peut la manipuler à volonté…). Et enfin, le pon pon: l’Etat Libanais reconnaît depuis les années 1930 l’existence d’une communauté de droit commun que les autorités française ont rapidement vidée de sa substance et qui attend toujours d’être organisée. Il suffit qu’une simple loi soit votée… à l’instar de ce qui a été fait durant les années 1990s avec les Aléouites (et les Coptes)… pas très dur la procédure… mais bon, il faut quand même que quelqu’un réclame son établissement.

Deuxième commentaire: Aller au-delà des slogans et des amalgames

L’Etat libanais existe bien, il est même énorme! c’est le premier employeur, le premier banquier (le système bancaire privé a été intégré au public à travers le système de la dette), le premier éducateur (premier réseau d’écoles, plus grande université…), le régulateur de toutes les activités économiques rentables. Donc oublions les slogans de nos politiciens. L’Etat libanais existe, et n’a pas besoin d’être bâti, en fait, il aurait besoin d’un peu de dégraissage… Notre problème n’est pas dans son existence mais dans son fonctionnement et les problèmes de fonctionnement ne sont pas dus aux déficiences de la loi mais à sa violation continue (par ces même politiciens qui clament haut et fort qu’il n’y a pas d’Etat).

– Les quotas communautaires n’expliquent pas l’incompétence des fonctionnaires et politiques
La question de la compétence et d’appartenance communautaire ne sont plus contradictoires. Je suis sûr qu’on peut trouver des gens compétents pour toutes les fonctions de l’Etat dans toutes les communautés. En revanche, il y a un souvent un conflit entre la compétence et la fidélité à un politicien… Du temps de l’occupation syrienne, Berri, Joumblatt et Hariri choisissaient aussi des ministres chrétiens… ces ministres n’étaient pas toujours très compétents… D’ailleurs Hariri continue à le faire, mais bon.

– La majorité des partis ont une base ethno-communautaire est un fait vérifiable. Mais ce n’est pas en soi un problème. C’est à la rigueur leur problème et dénote d’un certain souci au sein de la société auquel if faudrait peut-être écouter et répondre au lieu de condamner. Personnellement, je m’en fous s’il y a un parti des blondes, un parti des femmes, un parti des mecs qui souffrent d’une calvitie ou de problèmes érectiles… Le fait que ces partis libanais aient une base clientéliste est le véritable problème.

La lutte contre les préjugés, rien avoir avec la laïcité
L’exemple du couple mixte (qui a du mal à se faire accepter) et de la fille pas-si-bien-élevée (qui n’aime pas trop les gens d’une autre confession) n’ont rien avoir avec la laïcité. C’est un problème de préjugés, et ni les institutions étatiques ni le système scolaire publics sont responsables de ce préjugé. Au contraire, les deux luttes activement contre ces préjugés. Crois-moi, on trouve autant de préjugés sur certaines religions dans les pays laïques (comme la France ou la Turquie) qu’au Liban. Et ces préjugés sont très importants au Liban et il faudrait lutter contre. Et les plus graves aujourd’hui sont entre Chiites et Sunnites. C’est vraiment effrayant. Et ce n’est pas en prônant la laïcité qu’on le fera. Ces deux questions sont étrangères l’une à l’autre.

– Distinction ne signifie pas discrimination
Quant au fait de distinguer entre les différents groupes de la société, personnellement, je n’y vois pas de problème tant que l’appartenance au groupe est volontaire (c’est pour ça que je milite pour la reconnaissance de la communauté de droit commun qui existe dans les textes depuis 1930!!!!) et tant qu’il n’y a pas de discrimination… et le tout en luttant activement contre les préjugés. Mais je n’ai pas non plus de problème (de principe) pour abolir les quotas… mais à condition qu’ils résolvent des problèmes au lieu qu’il n’en créent. Sans quotas, la municipalité de Beyrouth serait aujourd’hui exclusivement sunnite et d’obédience haririenne. c’est pour cela qu’il y a des quotas informels (sans base juridique) pour Beyrouth. Encore une fois, je n’aurai pas de problème avec cela, mais cela aura des conséquences désastreuses sur le plan social et politique. Les non-sunnites se sentiront exclus, il aura des discriminations entre quartiers (ce qui existe déjà au demeurant)… et ce sont surtout les quartiers chiites et arméniens qui en souffriront… la ville sera complètement détachée de sa pluralité et de plus de la moitié de ses habitants… Est-ce que c’est cela qu’on veut? Personnellement, je suis pour la réintroduction d’un siège reservé aux étrangers et à la parité homme-femme au sein du conseil municipal… donc à plus de quotas.

Posted in Anticonfessionalism, Civil Society, Culture, Discourse, Lebanon, Prejudice, Religion, Secularism, Version Francophone | 3 Comments »

Subdividing Beirut… issues raised and matters forgotten

Posted by worriedlebanese on 05/02/2010

For Lebanese reformists, there are two ways to approach the coming municipal elections: either as an opportunity for electoral reforms, or a first step towards decentralisation. The Minister of the Interior, Ziyad Baroud, has obviously opted for the first perspective. He is using every occasion possible to present himself as Minister of electoral reforms (a role he has yet failed to live up to) and has up to now “solved” the paradox of his position, that of holding the position of “Minister of centralisation” (Minister of the Interior), and “Minister of decentralisation” (Minister of municipalities, the only elected decentralised authority in Lebanon), by sacrificing the second to the first.

Ziad Baroud has been ignoring the specific stakes of municipal elections, forgetting about their local and national significance, and using them as an opportunity to introduce the changes he wants to make for the parliamentary elections: applying proportional representation, quota for women and immigrant vote in elections with no (official) communal representation.

Sub-dividing Beirut into electoral districts or municipalities?

The Free Patriotic Movement, on the other hand, has opted for the second choice. It sees the coming elections as an opportunity to push forward decentralisation, but not a very liberal one. It has put forward two ideas:

  • Dividing the municipality into three separate municipalities, following the same division and joining together the same “neighbourhoods” as the 2009 parliamentary elections. And transforming the Beirut municipality into a federation of municipalities.
  • Dividing the municipality into three electoral districts, without subdividing the municipality into smaller units.

These proposals are actually two versions of the same. They answer the same concerns and both ignore extremely important issues. They both express specifically christian political concerns: democratic representation of christian voters, guarantees for a large christian representation within the municipal council (this concern had been addressed by Rafic Hariri, personally without any institutional guarantee), guarantee the interests of christian neighbourhoods (mostly ignored by the municipality up to now).
Both proposals do not address important issues such as the socio-economic coherence or relevance of the districts, the will of Beirut’s inhabitants and issues relating to democratic governance, and the international attractiveness and competitiveness of Beirut. We’ll look into these four points in more detail:

Coherence and Relevance of the districts or municipalities proposed. The districts are not really based on neighbourhoods. Beirut is so centralised that it hasn’t organised any subdivision. The only ones you find are the postal divisions and the cadastral divisions. What electoral pundits call neighbourhoods (the ones you see on the map) are actually the cadastral divisions of the capital that are equally used by the Ministry of the Interior in its civil registries and  its electoral rolls (that are based on the registries and not on the place of residence).
The problem with the proposal is that it doesn’t address the specific problems that an area such as Solidere poses to Beirut: the Downtown area is managed by a private company that assures many services, most of its inhabitants were displaced by the war and their return was prevented by the creation and the management of Solidere, the area Solidere manages falls in the three proposed districts.

It doesn’t address the problem of the disparities between the district it proposes. The first proposed district is absurd. Almost half of it is part of Solidere and is largely uninhabited by local voters (the Marfa’ cadastral zone). Medawar is a mix of port facilities, semi-industrial zones and wasteland and small residential pockets socio-economically linked to the second district (they form with “Remeil” cadastral zone, the neighbourhood known as Gemayzé and Mar Mikhael). The second proposed district is coherent (even if it is a slightly truncated), it represents an area that is known as “Ashrafieh” which is the politically correct term that replaced “East Beirut” where most of Beirut’s Christians relocated in the 1970s and 1980s. The third proposed district is extremely large, populous and socially fragmented and disparate. It roughly coincides with the former “West Beirut” that became almost exclusively Muslim but fragmented throughout the war and since. People usually subdivided into 4 parts: Ras Beirut (a region that includes Ain el Mreiseh), Solidere and two fragmented regions that include Jneh,Tariq el Jdide, Mar Elias, Sabra-Chatila, Basta, Mazra’a and Musaitbe.

The will of Beirut’s inhabitants. This is a notion that is completely foreign to the current Lebanese system. You do not vote according to where you live, but according to where you are registered at the Ministry of Interior! Following this principle, less than 50% of Beirut’s inhabitants vote, and most of its voters do not live in Beirut (they either reside abroad or in Beirut’s suburbs). I personally haven’t heard of such a system in any democratic country but in Lebanon it is considered to be normal, and no one seems to question it. I had brought this anomaly up on many occasions, at university, in academic circles, in conversations with Ziyad Baroud when he was still an activist, within LADE. I usually got a “yes, this is important” but it was never seriously discussed.

This division of Beirut into three electoral districts or municipalities is actually quite popular in “Ashrafieh”, but in the other proposed districts it is highly unpopular, and the FPM didn’t do anything to make it popular there because the orange party fails to take into consideration the concerns of  Lebanese Muslims.

Democratic governance. The executive power in Beirut is divided between the Mayor and the Governor. The former is elected, the second is appointed. The FPM’s proposal doesn’t see anything wrong with that. In its most ambitious proposal, it actually reinforced the Governor, a non elected civil servant that is administratively linked to the Ministry of the Interior, but that is always handed to a Greek-Orthodox, while Beirut’s Mayor is always taken by a Sunni (even though by law there are no communally reserved seats in municipalities or public administrations). The FPM’s proposal takes one step towards decentralisation and another towards increased centralisation. Odd, don’t you think?

So basically, not only this proposal doesn’t make Beirut’s governance more democratic, but it also upsets the intercommunal arrangement by reinforcing one side against the other.

International attractiveness and competitiveness of Beirut. Now this issue only seems to interest Solidere, but for Solidere, it’s more about marketing Beirut and advancing the attractiveness of Solidere (and Solidere International) than working on policies to enhance the role and capacities of the capital in the global economy. The rest of the country is completely unconcerned by this issue. This is the central point that I will be writing on in my next post… stay tuned.

Posted in Idiosyncrasy 961, Intercommunal affairs, Lebanon, Levantine Christians, Pluralism, Political behaviour, Propositions | 3 Comments »

Beirut’s municipal elections: formal rules, informal arrangements and incongruous reforms

Posted by worriedlebanese on 03/02/2010

Marwan Rechmaoui's Beirut Caoutchouc

Many questions are under discussion these days surrounding the municipal elections, one could argue that it’s kind of late to launch such fundamental political debates knowing that we’re only a couple of months away from the election day.

  • lowering the voting age from 21 to 18.
  • introducing a quota for women (20%)
  • introducing  a system of proportional representation.
  • allowing expats to vote in Embassies.
  • modifying the administrative division of Beirut.

Preceding each election, the Minister of the Interior, Ziyad Baroud, tries to push for some reform even though he is handed the files a couple of months before the elections. He failed to do much for the parliamentary elections in 2009. The only notable changes he made concerned spending and media coverage (and removing the only “dynamic” feature of the Lebanese electoral system: multiple electoral days), and they had no legal effect whatsoever. So I wonder what he’s going to pull off this time. Not much, I’m sure.

I won’t be discussing all the points I mentioned earlier in this little post. I’d rather stick to one point, that of modifying the administrative division of Beirut. This question is particularly interesting because Beirut is by far the country’s largest, most populated and wealthiest municipality, but also its weakest (the executive powers are shared with the Muhafiz and the municipality has no say on the downtown that was handed to a private company). One could add that its importance lies in what it represents to people. It is often referred to as the “heart” of the country, a “reduced version” of the country, its most “advanced region”, the “symbol of coexistence”…

The current mechanics: between formal rules and informal arrangements

  • The Ministry of Interior prepares the voting rolls regardless of the will of the voter or the place of their residence. People are registered on the voting roll of the place their father was registered, unless they modify their “family” registration number (which is also done by the Ministry of Interior according to a lengthy and complicated procedure).
  • It calls for the election of 24 representatives, regardless of their communal belonging. No seat is reserved for a specific locality or community.
  • Candidates run individually and those who gather the most votes fill the 24 seats.

Now these are the legal rules. Rafic Hariri added some informal arrangements. None of them are legally binding. They are informal rules of the game that are followed because their sponsor has the clout and the power to enforce them. His power comes from his wealth, from his patronage network, from the active mobilisation of his community (on whom he can impose these rules) and on the fact that he proposes to the Christians an offer they cannot refuse (if he didn’t enforce the parity rule on his voters, he could impose a mostly or even totally sunni municipal council).  So here are the informal rules that Rafic Hariri devised, and that his son Saad Hariri has espoused:

  • People have to vote for complete lists.
  • The lists are composed of 12 muslim and 12 christian candidates.
  • The list’s sponsor chooses the head of the municipality and all the other candidates.

Ziyad Baroud, Minister of (incongruous) electoral reform?

  • Adopting a closed-slate system.
  • Adopting the proportional representation system.
  • Allowing expats to vote in Embassies.
  • Lowering the voting age from 21 to 18.

The whole idea behind Ziyad Baroud’s proposition is that he will be introducing positive reform to the election system, setting an example that would be later extended to the parliamentary elections. This idea is based on the assumption that the proportional representation system is the fairest, the most progressive and the most adapted to Lebanon (three assumptions that are actually easy to refute with a simple simulation game). In practical terms, the Minister of the Interior would be comforting any list that Hariri is backing (not that he needs it) because he will be imposing closed lists on people (the most difficult task for a list sponsor to acheive). But the other effect of the proportional representation is that it will probably prevent the outcome of communal parity, and by doing so, it will be encouraging on the long run communal mobilisation (this is from where Hariri’s power hails, if other leaders want to join, they have to replicated it, the system of proportional representation with no communal quotas will reward them for that) and proportionate communal representation (a simple simulation game would show that too).

The following post will deal with the Orange proposition.

Posted in Idiosyncrasy 961, Intercommunal affairs, Lebanon, Pluralism, Politics, Propositions, Reform | 2 Comments »

Envisioning Beirut… beyond the municipal elections

Posted by worriedlebanese on 03/02/2010

I will be writing this week a three part series on Beirut and the municipal elections.

  • I’ll start with a general overview of the debate and Ziyad Baroud’s proposal.

Beirut’s municipal elections: formal rules, informal arrangements and incongruous reforms

  • Then I’ll look into the FPM’s proposal.

Subdividing Beirut… issues raised and matters forgotten

  • And I’ll finish the series with my very own proposal

Posted in Discourse, Diversity, Idiosyncrasy 961, Intercommunal affairs, Lebanon, Pluralism, Political behaviour, Politics, Propositions, Reform | Leave a Comment »

Deconstructing March XIV®

Posted by worriedlebanese on 02/02/2010

March XIV® or February 14th? Tapping into emotions to fill a void

This post is long overdue. I’ve been announcing it for almost a year now and Sunday’s Bristol meeting encouraged me to get it over with. Let’s go beyond slogans, mottos and other striking and memorable phrases that are used to refer to March XIV®; let’s look into what exactly lies beneath the label.

In its most literal meaning, March XIV® refers to a specific day, March 14th 2005, in which an unprecedented number of Lebanese citizen took the streets, peacefully, to demand the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. Crowds from all over the country converged around Martyrs Square, where a temporary podium was set up from which politicians could harangue a relatively small audience ; probably less that 10% of the people amassed around the square could hear them. But that didn’t matter much. People were not here to listen, but to throw their weight behind a politician or an idea; they were here to make numbers, to assert that a majority of Lebanese was with the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and supported an international inquiry into the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri.

This event was undoubtedly a memorable one, an estimate of 1 million people (about a quarter of the national resident population) converged to the city center…  but there were many memorable events during those months of 2005:  the assassination Rafic Hariri, his burial, the sleep-in calling for the resignation of the government, the sunday demonstrations, the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, the political assassinations, the return of General Aoun from exil… Interestingly enough, only three dates are commemorated today: February 14th (commonly referred to as St Hariri day), March 14th (national folklore day), May 7th (Orange Tsunami day). The most iconic is undoubtedly March 14th. Why? The reason is very simple, it has become a national myth, one that reflects on two of the elements it refers to: the political coalition and the “public” that marched down to the city center on that sunny spring day.

March XIV® as a national myth. National myths usually refer to a distant past with legendary figures and acts. In our case, we’re dealing with an instantaneous myth, one that refers to the present. This feature has become a rather common phenomena these days. We saw it all across Eastern and Central Europe in the 1980 and 1990s, the most iconic event is obviously the fall of the Berlin Wall. These events share many things in common, they are extraordinary, they are supported by visual material, they were quickly branded and exploited by entrepreneurs, and they are considered as watershed moments. Their promoters believe that they represent important values and make an inspiring narrative that can serve as an important symbol (“lieu de mémoire”) that brings the nation together. One ingredient is essential for an instantaneous myth, and that’s emotion! Not only this ingredient must be present on the day of the event, but it should be nurtured and sustained.

The massive demonstration of March 14th obviously has all these features. And the emotions that is aroused were nurtured throughout the year thanks to the political discourse and a servile media.

Representing a crowd as a unified audience

The public of March XIV®. One fourth of the resident population is quite a lot of people. And it becomes a very interesting audience to refer to because of its numeric importance and the fact that it shared the same “moment”. Tapping into that feeling can help any politician reach this audience and manipulate the people’s feelings, hopes, fears and expectations. It’s not actually the emotion that is nurtured or sustained, but the emotional response. The characteristics of the initial emotion is of no importance, what is important is to convince the audience that it is the same as the one that is being triggered, that what is being prompted is simply its actualisation (while in fact, it’s the other way round, the memory of the initial emotion is modified and the present emotion is projected onto the past).

What is fascinating with instantaneous myths is that they are interactive. The audience is part of the production. It surely is the weakest player in this interaction, nevertheless it is still a player. Its collaboration is needed if the myth is to survive. This gives instantaneous myths a reflexive dimension. The participants need to think of themselves as participants and act accordingly. They have to nurture the myth socially and psychologically, even if it is by repeating a mantra. And truth to tell, there are a lot of mantras surrounding March XIV®. One of the most important one has to do with the participants themselves, the public of March XIV® or its audience جمهور اربتعش ادار. So you repeatedly hear about jamhour arbata3sh adar in the media, in coffeeshops and living-rooms. But is there such a thing as a March XIV® public. Obviously not. But like all abstract categories they work as long as people believe in them. But this can only work as long as there is an authority that supports this category, recognises it. And so politicians and the organic intellectuals actively supported this category, selling it as a cristallisation of the “majority of Lebanese” (annulling the other part), “the Lebanese in general” (insinuating that those who didn’t participate were less Lebanese) or the “Democratic Lebanese” (insinuating that those who refrained from joining were undemocratic), while it was an aggregate of individuals and groups motivated by many different things: personal initiative, group pressure, communal mobilisation, political mobilisation… Some people took their cars and walked to Martyr’s Square, others received calls inviting them to go, or were pressured or convinced by their socio-political network or several private TV channels that made a live coverage of the event, and regularly announced where one could take the free bus to Beirut. Many people wanted to participate in this event that was already being marketed and labelled as a groundbreaking event.

Once the label of March XIV® and the Jumhour of March XIV® were well established, their use became quite practical to reorder the political landscape. Lebanese political groups or communities could be brought together or separate once needed by simply granting them the label or depriving them of it. In 2006, the politicians who controlled the label (most importantly the Future Bloc and Walid Jumblatt and his followers) took the Shiite component out of March XIV® in a process I call tighyib تغييب (making absent those who were present), at first this was implicit, but then it became very explicit (during the governmental crisis). The same thing happened to the FPM, an important component in the March 14 mobilisation, and the only party at that time that called for a complete withdrawal of Syrian troops (the Future Movement and the PSP at that time was ready to settle with a redeployment to the Beqaa valley). The same techniques were used to symbolically bring together people who had no ties with each other of any kind (political, geographic, communal) and put them under one label. The label was practical in blurring the sharp division one found in the crowds that gathered on March XIV®. A friend had qualified the event as a tribal confederation. And people were admonished to hide their true political colours. I actually witnessed several battles around political banners: people wanted to march under their own banners (party flags), but their leaders forbade them to do so to give an image of unity and because they were afraid that some banners would demobilise their own group (I remember several clashes with the Lebanese Forces when they showed their colours; at that time were considered political pariahs, and totally “infréquentable”).

La quadrature du cercle: the leaders of March XIV... what do they say about too many cooks?

The March XIV® coalition. One couldn’t think of a more heterodox group of politicians. Two things united them: their slogans, and their opposition to another group (either a rival within a community or a geopolitical opponent). A non-identifiable political object was created to support the “independents” (those who did not have a large or autonomous socio-political clientelist network): the secretariat of March XIV®.

As for the strength or coherence of the coalition, I have written a dozen posts on it and wouldn’t want to bore you by repeating myself. The length of this post should do this job.

Posted in Civil Society, Communication, Discourse, Diversity, Intercommunal affairs, Lebanon, Political behaviour, Politics, Semantics, Values | Leave a Comment »