Worried Lebanese

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Archive for the ‘Diversity’ Category

Les collèges électoraux confessionnels entre le تفو (tfou) et le نيعئ (nya32)

Posted by worriedlebanese on 20/02/2013

Hier, les commissions parlementaires conjointes, réunies sous la présidence de Nabih Berri, ont approuvé l’article 2 de la proposition de loi électorale suggérée par le “Rassemblement Grec-orthodoxe ». Cet article introduit deux nouveautés dans le droit électoral libanais: Il change le mode de scrutin et redéfinit les collèges électoraux. Effectivement:
– un mode de scrutin proportionnel remplace le mode de scrutin majoritaire que le Liban a connu jusqu’à maintenant.
– des collèges électoraux confessionnels remplacent les collèges électoraux pseudo-territoriaux (en réalité patrilinéaire et patriarcaux: le citoyen n’étant pas intégré au collège électoral de son lieu de résidence mais à celui de ses aïeux ou de son mari) auxquels nous nous sommes habitués.
Notons que l’accueil de ses deux changements a été diamétralement opposé. Le premier est applaudi, surtout au sein du monde associatif et journalistique, où un consensus très large s’est constitué autour de ce mode de scrutin bénéficiant d’un préjugé favorable et promu comme “plus démocratique”. Le second quant à lui a suscité une vague d’indignation, surtout au niveau de la presse et de la blogosphère. 
Ce changement dans la définition des collèges électoraux est indéniablement difficile à digérer. Non seulement il contredit notre tradition électorale et constitutionnelle, mais il s’oppose de manière brutale à notre idéologie d’État qui est anti-confessionnelle. Il est donc à ce titre triplement dérangeant, mais aussi triplement révolutionnaire.

Une redéfinition allergène et indigeste801657_52511123783
Les objections à l’établissement de collèges électoraux confessionnels sont nombreuses. Certaines se basent sur des principes que cette redéfinition des collèges électoraux violerait d’autres s’appuient sur les effets attendus de cette réforme électorale. Les examiner de manière individuelle prendrait trop de temps, surtout qu’il faudrait expliciter les nombreuses suppositions sur lesquelles elles se fondent et rappeler les ambiguïtés de notre système juridique et politique.
Certaines objections sont si farfelues et l’analyse déformée (par des considérations tenant plus à la cohérence idéologique de l’auteur que de ce qu’il observe), que j’étais d’abord tenté de “défendre” ou de “justifier” les collèges électoraux sur base confessionnelle. Mais à vrai dire, j’avais été moi-même choqué par cette proposition lorsqu’elle a été présenté par le “Rassemblement Grec-orthodoxe ». Donc au lieu de répondre aux arguments que d’autres personnes ont formulé, j’ai décidé d’analyser les raisons pour lesquels cette proposition m’avait choqué.
1. L’objection normative: le collège électoral confessionnel comme enfermement: l’établissement de collèges électoraux sur une base confessionnelle restreint le choix de l’électeur aux membres de sa propre communauté-confessionnelle. En d’autres mots, elle le renvoi non seulement à son appartenance confessionnelle, mais elle limite son choix électoral aux membres de sa confession. Notons que notre système électoral renvoi déjà l’électeur à sa confession à travers la manière dont le Ministère de l’Intérieur organise les registres d’électeurs auprès des bureaux de votes. Effectivement, cette organisation des registres se fait généralement sur une base confessionnelle: les électeurs relevant de communautés différentes tendent à voter “à part” même s’ils appartiennent au même collège électoral. (Notons que ce choix particulier d’organisation des registres n’a aucun intérêt sur le plan juridique, mais il se révèle pratique sur le plan politique dans les conflits autour de la représentativité confessionnelle de certains hommes politiques).
Ce n’est donc pas tant le renvoi à l’appartenance communautaire qui dérange dans cette loi, mais le fait qu’elle limite le choix des électeurs aux membres de leurs communautés. Ceci est ressenti comme un « enfermement supplémentaire » du citoyen dans sa communauté-confessionnelle, cette fois-ci sur le plan électoral. Mais est-ce que le fait de voter pour des candidats appartenant à d’autres communautés le “libère” pour autant? Et à quel prix se fait cette impression de “libération” sur le plan de la représentation de certaines communautés et de la représentativité de certains députés? C’est en somme les deux questions auxquelles le “père” de cette loi, Wael Kheir, nous renvoi.
2. L’objection socio-culturelle: inadéquation de ce type de collège électoral à l’inscription socio-culturelle de certains votants:  Cette proposition se révèle particulièrement problématique que pour deux types d’individus: ceux qui ne s’inscrivent pas dans leur groupe d’appartenance communautaire (c’est le cas des personnes qui n’ont pas été socialisées dans un groupe communautaire spécifique ou ceux qui le rejettent), et ceux dont le groupe d’appartenance ne correspond pas à celui de leur confession (celui qui ont été socialisées dans un groupe communautaire mixte). C’est en examinant le deuxième type d’individus que l’on réalise le caractère paradoxal de cette proposition de loi. Alors même qu’elle a été élaborée et promue à l’intention des communautés chrétiennes, elle contredit de manière flagrante leur réalité socio-culturelle. Effectivement, le degré d’intégration (ou d’interpénétration) de la majorité des confessions chrétiennes tant sur le plan social, spatial, économique, culturel et politique est tel que leur division en collèges électoraux distincts est difficile à justifier. Mais est-ce qu’elle met en danger ce rapprochement, cette interprétation? Est-ce qu’elle brisera les familles mixtes ou décourageras les mariages mixtes? Est-ce qu’elle aboutira à l’éclatement des partis politiques dont les cadres et la base recouvrent sur plusieurs confessions chrétiennes (CPL, FL, Kataeb,PNL, BN) ou plusieurs communautés religieuses (ex: PSNS)? Ce sont des questions qui sont intéressantes à poser du fait qu’elles peuvent être vérifiées. Une chose est certaine, le système confessionnel n’a pas freiné ce rapprochement et cette interpénétration qui semble augmenter d’une génération à une autre.
3. L’objection conservatrice: le bouleversement de la tradition électorale libanaise: La loi électorale libanaise traduit une certaine conception du “partage du pouvoir” (power sharing) fondée sur le principe de la diversité communautaire dans la représentation politique, la mixité communautaire dans l’élection des représentants et la collaboration trans-communautaire pour l’accès au pouvoir. Effectivement, Toutes les circonscriptions actuelles sont plurinominales, et la majorité est mixte aussi bien au niveau du collège électoral que des sièges parlementaires à pourvoir. Ceci oblige des politiciens appartenant à certaines communautés à s’allier à des politiciens appartenant à d’autres communautés, à courtiser des électeurs appartenant à plusieurs communautés et à envisager comme rivaux principaux des candidats appartenant à leur propres communautés (car c’est contre eux seuls qu’ils concourent). Les effets escomptés de ce système électoral sont multiples: au niveau de la classe politique, il est censé produire une élite trans-communautaire rompue aux alliances trans-communautaires (puisqu’elle doit son accès au pouvoir à une délibération trans-communautaire). Au niveau du discours, il est censé encourager la modération communautaire (puisque l’extrémisme coutera des voix aux politiciens). Au niveau de l’exercice du pouvoir, il est censé conduire à la neutralité communautaire des politiques publiques… Or, les effets escomptés de notre système politique ne se produisent plus ou ont été dévoyés. Comment alors justifier notre attachement à ces mécanismes? Peut-on continuer à refuser d’examiner les raisons de cette neutralisation des effets et ne pas explorer d’autres pistes?

Posted in Anticonfessionalism, Civil Society, Diversity, Idiosyncrasy 961, Lebanon, Levantine Christians, Reform, Version Francophone | Leave a Comment »

Is Lebanon a failed state?

Posted by worriedlebanese on 15/07/2011

“By most common metrics Lebanon is essentially a failed state”. With these words Ghassan Karam began a post on Hezbollah on one of his blogs: Rational Republic. And as you might expect, that sentence started my blood boiling. Failed state?! by what common metrics?! I asked him the question and started looking into the indicators commonly used to assess if a State is failed or not…

Lebanon's evolution on the Failed State Index

The expression went mainstream thanks to the US’s foreign policy, notably its military interventions in Somalia (Restore Hope in 1992) and in Afghanistan (Enduring Freedom in 2001). Noam Chomsky in his book Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (Metropolitan books, 2006) being the semanticist that he is, showed the uses and abuses of this qualification by the American administration. So we know that the expression was quite useful to the US. But does that condemn the expression to an instrumental use in politics? Can it help us otherwise better understand the countries that are designated as “failed states” ? Let’s look into some indicators before trying to see how pertinent and significant it is to call Lebanon a failed state. I came across these indicators developed by the Fund For Peace for its annual index of Failed States: Demographic Pressures, Refugees & IDPs, Group Grievances, Human Flight & Brain Drain, Uneven Economic Development, Poverty & Economic Decline, Legitimacy of the State, Public Services, Human Rights & Rule of Law, Security Apparatus, Factionalized Elites, and External Intervention.

Looking into their index, we notice that they ranked Lebanon #43 in 2011, after ranking us #34 in 2010, #29 in 2009, #18 in 2008. So basically, we’re climbing higher and higher in the ranking… so things are looking good for us, if we trust these results. But do we? Does anyone feel a sense of positive progress in Lebanon? I know I don’t. So either my impressions are wrong or the Fund For Peace rating lacks accuracy or pertinence.
I’m not going to look into the relevance of each indicator, nor the way that each one has been measured. I’m just going to point out to two basic problems in this type of approach:

  • Its normative aspect. Lying behind the stated indicators are the assumptions on how a state should be.  And quite obviously, this model doesn’t take into account multi-ethnic societies where national identity cannot erase communal identities, and civic ties do not eliminate communal ties. But these are not necessarily mutually exclusive categories, regardless of what our “analysts” or should I say doctrinaires keep on rehashing.
  • Its dependence on exterior, or visible markers while some dynamics are less overt but sometimes more significant. How much informal politics can it monitor or grasp? How deep is its access to information?

A blog entry is no place to look into the accuracy of such processed data or the pertinence of the indicators. But let’s me say a word about the usage of this designation.

“Failed State” as Name-calling: anti-confessionalism’s new cloak
Those who claim that Lebanon is a failed state are usually the same people who argue that there is no citizenship (or citizen rights) in Lebanon… This approach is actually quite prevalent in Lebanon. A friend of mine sums it up under the heading “وين الدولة” (“where is the state”) which is often heard on television and on the streets when citizens voice their grievance. This claim about the state’s absence is equally widespread in academic and NGO circles. And so we hear “نحو المواطنية”، “بناء دولة القانون والمؤسسات”، “القيام بالدولة “، “من اجل المواطنية”… as if neither state nor citizenship existed. This approach is undeniably normative. It goes beyond expressing one’s dissatisfaction with the state’s performance. Actually, it circumvents this question by denying the very existence of the state or citizenship. The reason why the state’s existence (or citizenship) is denied is not grounded on facts. Any liberal would rightly argue that there is actually too much state in Lebanon. It’s an abstract, normative judgement based on a specific idea of what a State (or citizenship) should look like. It all boils down to the fact that many people are displeased by some feature of the Lebanese state that they attribute to what people call “confessionalism”, or more derogatorily  “sectarianism” or more neutrally “communalism”. So all this name-calling is actually grounded on a dislike of communalism in all its manifestation, social, legal, political. Paradoxically, the same people who combat communalism pride themselves in Lebanese diversity. So basically, they want to celebrate plural society but fight any of its manifestations.

Posted in Anticonfessionalism, Discourse Analysis, Diversity, Idiosyncrasy 961, Lebanon | 2 Comments »

Talal Arslan’s resignation remembered

Posted by worriedlebanese on 28/06/2011

A friend of mine under another post asked me to comment on Talal Arslan’s resignation. Here are my thoughts on that issue, ones I have actually already expressed on facebook:

Minutes after the announcement of the new government, Talal Arslan resigned from the government. This resignation highlights a lot questions surrounding the whole formation process. Who negotiated with whom and on what. Very little “information” was “leaked” to the media during those 5 months that separated the designation of the PM and the announcement of the government. There was a lot of bickering and accusations, but very little information. So one can legitimately wonder why Talal Arslan waited till the announcement of the government to announce his resignation. The timing actually begs many questions. We will look into them before analysing the arguments he used to justify his move.

1. Didn’t Arslan know he was allotted a “state ministry” before the announcement of the government? A state ministry is Lebanon is one that carries no portfolio. In other words, the Minister of State has no ministry working for him/her. Some ministry of states can actually have a “specialized office” that functions as a small ministry (that’s the case of OMSAR, the Office of the Minister of State for Administrative Reform). The only thing this position entitles the designated minister is a vote in the Council of Ministry. Politically, this is quite meaningful because the Council of Ministers is, constitutionally, the official executive power in Lebanon. However, the reality of the executive power lies elsewhere (since Rafic Hariri expanded the Prime Minister’s position, and the Speaker plays a key role within the state administration). So, effectively, the position of a Minister of State carries very little leverage on the practical level (that is for access to state resources and state employment). I personally doubt that Arlsan wasn’t informed of the fact that he wasn’t given a portfolio. The political class has always been disdainful toward the weak, but I don’t think the Prime Minister or Arslan’s allies didn’t inform him of the result of their negotiation. But then, who know…
2. Even if he did know, was there any other way for him to reject this allocation? Arslan heads one of the smallest blocs in parliament, one that he owes entirely to his rival within his community (Jumblatt) and to his allies from other communities (FPM & Amal). This puts him in no position to negotiate with his allies or rival.
3. Why was he allocated a ministry without a portfolio? His political weight doesn’t entitle him to more. This allocation actually reflects his standing within his community and within the Lebanese political class. Unfortunately for him, this position doesn’t offer him any perspective to change his situation and reinforce himself politically.
4. What does the resignation offer him? It “safeguards his honor”. As the heir of the Arslan house, granting him a ministry of state was in a way demeaning. To put things into perspective, we have to remind ourselves that the “Arslan house” is the supposed “traditional” rival of the Jumblatt house, and that Kamal Jumblatt actually neutralized its power base during the 1958 civil war. Let’s also keep in mind that Talal Arslan’s mother is a Jumblatt and Walid Jumblatt’s mother is an Arslan.  .

Saving Face in the most inelegant of ways
Now, let’s first look into how he justified his move. Here’s what Talal Arslan declared upon resigning:

” آسف للتعاطي غير اللائق بما يسمى بوزارات سيادية وغير سيادية وبالتمييز العنصري فلا يمكن ان اوافق بان يُعامل الدروز او الكاثوليك او العلويين او الاقليات بهذا الشكل.”

“I’m sorry about the inappropriate way of dealing with the so-called top ministries and other ministries, and about the ethnic discrimination. I cannot condone the way the Greek-Catholics, the Druzes, the Alawites or the minorities have been treated”.

His argument doesn’t hold. In the allocation of portfolios, Nagib Miqati has actually treated these communities in the exact way Saad Hariri had in 2009, with Fattoush replacing Pharaon, Manjian replacing Ogassapian, Arslan replacing Abou Faour… In both governments, minorities (i.e. Latin and/or Protestants) were not represented, and Alawites have never been represented in any government in Lebanon.
Talal Arslan actually points out a real problem (and challenge) in Lebanese politics, but his real problem with Miqati is that he didn’t give him a portfolio.

Last week, Miqati and Arslan agreed that the seat that Arslan relinquished would remain in the hands of Arslan’s party. Al-Liwa’ reported that the position will probably be filled by Arslan’s brother-in-law, Marwan Kheireddine… This solution is quite an interesting one. It shows the lack of political imagination (and innovation) within our political class. A possible solution would have been to split one the ministries and hand a part of it to Arslan. He could have been awarded the Ministry of Municipalities and Decentralization (that could have FINALLY been detached from the Ministry of Interior), or the Ministry of Emigrants (post that Talal Arslan already had in 1998 and that could have been detached from the ministry of Foreign Affairs, though I doubt that Nabih Berri would have agreed to that). It also confirms the extent to which family ties have become the most secure relationship in contemporary lebanese politics.

Posted in Discourse Analysis, Diversity, Intercommunal affairs, Lebanon, Patronage Networks | Leave a Comment »

Credo in form of a decalogue (changes I believe in)

Posted by worriedlebanese on 15/07/2010

Some people have very rightly said that my approach to “Laïque Pride” (among other things) is too negative and that instead of simply criticising, I should be presenting some alternatives. So I took two hours to think about it and came up with this decalogue.
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1. I believe that we should pressure the parliament into establishing the “communauté de droit commun” that was recognised in the 1930s!!!! And allow it to have its own institutions and its own laws in matters of mariage and inheritance, and also its own courts. In other words Create a democratic and liberal “op out” mechanism to communal membership.

2. I personally think the Lebanese state should stop financing the muslim clergy and the muslim courts, because it is discriminatory towards non-muslims and it contradicts the principle of separation between religion and state. In other words Enforce the principle of  separation between State and Religion.

3. I also believe that the civil inheritance law that applies to Christians should be abolished because it is patriarchal and discriminatory. I believe Christians should be allowed to have their own inheritance laws (the catholic inheritance law for instance is more liberal than the secular Lebanese inheritance law), just like Muslims do… In other words: Enforce the principle of equality between communities.

4. I believe that the “clergy” has the right to express its political opinion, like all other citizens do. And that we have the right (and the duty) to criticize it when we don’t agree with it. However, the Muslim “clergy” BY LAW doesn’t have the right to express political views because it holds the status of “state agent”. If it wants to benefit from this right, it should set itself free from the state. In other words Enforce the principles of rule of law.

5. I also believe that people who belong to a community should pay a specific tax for this community (like in Germany) in order to to finance each community’s institutions (courts and non-clerical representative institutions) and give it the means to have a properly trained personnel (most importantly judges)! And where there are taxes, there’s accountability! In other words Guarantee a greater autonomy to communities.

6. I also believe that pressure should be made on state courts to reinterpret Law 534 of our criminal law that doesn’t mention homosexuality but speaks of sexual relations that are “contradicting the laws of nature”… I believe this sentence’s interpretation should be restricted to bestiality… and not include adultery, homosexuality and what have you: In other words “upgrade” Personal Freedom to international standards.

7. I also believe that there should be NO censorship. And that the censorship board should be replaced by a rating board (like in the US). I believe freedom of opinion and information should be guaranteed. For this we need a new legislation and excerpt  a lot of pressure on our political class (that controls the media and restricts the creation of new media). In other words “upgrade” Freedom of Expression to international standards.

8. I believe that military courts should not be allowed to try civilians. And that even soliders should be given the right to oppose a military court’s ruling by bringing the case to a higher civil court (Constitutional court, Court of cassation, Council of State or preferably a common supreme court that replaces them). In other words Extend the principle of Due Process.

9. I believe that the history of communities should be taught in schools because people are extremely ignorant about these things and they replace their lack of knowledge with prejudice. Our students should learn about communal persecutions, conversions, liberal and conservative religious movements… They should learn about the dhimmi laws, and that they were not always applied. They should learn about religious extremism (how Syriac and Protestant converts were persecuted by the Maronite church, how Chrisitans, and non orthodox Muslims were persecuted by the Mamlouk, how the Eastern Catholic churches were latinised by Rome and missionaries, how the Oriental Orthodox clergy were discriminated against by the Greeks (and how the Arab speaking orthodox clergy revolted in the 19th century, how the Iranian clergy and schools changed the Lebanese Shiites religious practice, what sunni religious reformers proposed in the 19th century… In other words, Replace prejudice and ignorance with knowledge.

10. I believe that the confessional system can be reformed… But this reform should keep in mind the basic principles on which this system is based: inclusiveness and diversity. That’s why all recognised communities should have a representative in Parliament! Today, the rule applies only to 11 communities out of the 17 established communities (the “communauté de droit commun” just like the Ismaeli community is recognised but not established, once it is established it will become the 18th community). Moreover, we should have a law that sets a procedure for the recognition of other religious communities (the Czech law is quite a good one). I also believe that there are competent people in all communities and that “confessionalism” shouldn’t be an excuse to choose the most corrupt or the least competent of them, or an excuse to strengthen the power of patrons over people who belong to their community (within the state and outside it). In other words, Enforce the principles of Inclusiveness and Diversity inherent in Confessionalism.

When are we going to start doing something about these issues instead of parroting an almost centennial discourse that is produced and manipulated by politicians and that leads to nowhere?

Posted in Diversity, History, Intercommunal affairs, Islam, Judaism, Levantine Christians, Memory, Patronage Networks, Personal, Prejudice, Reform, Religion, Secularism, Values | 6 Comments »

La “droite” libanaise essaie de limiter les dégâts

Posted by worriedlebanese on 24/06/2010

Une bonne semaine après la “bombe Joumblatt” (l’expression est de Philippe Abi Akl, l’Orient-Le Jour, 23/6/10), je suis à me demander si Walid Joumblatt n’avait pas plutôt raison de qualifier la sois-disant “droite” libanaise de la droite la plus bête au monde. Depuis quelques jours, elle s’efforce à “limiter les dégâts” que la séance parlementaire du 15 juin a eu sur son “image”.

Voici les déclarations de quatre politiciens chrétiens (de deuxième et de troisième rang) sur la question des droits civiques et sociaux des Palestiniens du Liban qui illustrent bien cette tentative maladroite qui au lieu de réparer les dégâts jette une lumière sur le problème de fond.

La palme d’or revient à Fares Soueid dont la mauvaise fois peut rivaliser avec celle de Walid Joumblatt, avec le talent en moins. Pour lui, en ce qui concerne la cause palestinienne, le Liban « a dépassé les anciens clivages », alors que tout dans le débat parlementaire de mardi dernier signalait le contraire. Et comme ceci n’était pas suffisant, il nous explique comment la réconciliation s’est faite entre les ennemis d’hier, l’OLP et la “droite” libanaise représentée par le parti Kataeb. Pour lui, c’est une sorte de valse à trois temps: D’abord «l’OLP a pris l’initiative en 2007 d’admettre sa responsabilité dans la guerre civile au Liban. Cette initiative a permis une purification de la mémoire de la guerre et a réconcilié entre eux les anciens adversaires ». Ensuite,  le parti Kataeb organise un congrès sur le thème « Vérité et réconciliation » en 2007  auquel s’est associé Abbas Zaki (l’ancien représentant de l’OLP au Liban). Et au final, la communauté sunnite qui, durant la guerre, affirmait que les milices Palestiniennes étaient « l’armée des musulmans » a également dépassé cette étape. Le résultat pour Fares Soueid est évident: « la cause de la Palestine concerne tous les Libanais, et non une communauté à l’exclusion des autres ». Croit-il vraiment à ses bobards? Dans l’affirmatif, c’est inquiétant, dans la négative, c’est navrant.

Ensuite, nous trouvons le député Atef Majdalani qui se rabat sur un discours ‘juridicisant’ pour essayer de justifier sa position inconfortable au sein du courant du Futur (bloc parlementaire à 2/3 musulman plutôt favorable au vote immédiat des amendements des droits des Palestiniens du Liban): Il a rappelé aux Palestiniens qu’à l’exercice de tout droit fait pendant le respect d’un devoir. Cette logique vaut pour les droits politiques. Peut-on vraiment l’étendre aux droits sociaux sans compromettre nos principes fondamentaux? Evidemment pas, mais le flou du raisonnement est manifestement tellement comfortable pour Atef Majdalani!

Enfin, Michel Pharaon et Boutros Harb invitent le gouvernement à se saisir de la question des droits des Palestiniens en invoquant un argument institutionnel: la séparation des pouvoirs et des fonctions… argument absurde dans un régime parlementaire basé sur le principe de collaboration des pouvoirs, qui de plus est connaît un gouvernement d’union nationale dans lequel les 2/3 de l’assemblée est représentée. La logique derrière leur argument m’échappe. Après tout, le gouvernement représente la quasi totalité des blocs parlementaires, et les mécanismes décisionnels sont similaires dans les deux instances et butte sur les mêmes problèmes: clivage confessionnel et partisan, politisation extrême, concentration du pouvoir entre les mains d’une dizaine de Zu’ama qui commandent quasiment l’ensemble des députés et des ministres.

Enfin, le propose de M. Massoud Achkar se distingue par son honnêteté intellectuelle. Ce dernier estime la question extrêmement délicate, « compte tenu des données démographiques et des équilibres du pays ». Il lance des pointes à Joumblatt en demandant de mettre ces questions  «à l’abri des surenchères et des intérêts personnels » et surtout qu’elles soient abordées sur le plan technique « loin des médias », « afin que la présence exceptionnelle et provisoire des Palestiniens au Liban ne devienne pas permanente et ne pèse pas sur la société libanaise ». Il souligne donc la raison de “l’inquiétude de la droite” auquel faisait référence Joumblatt (c.f. billet d’hier), dénonce la démarche démagogique de Joumblatt (s’il voulait vraiment faire avancer la question des Palestiniens, il aurait agit différemment (en s’adressant directement aux Chrétiens et à “leurs” politiciens pour les rassurer), et reformule l’aporie de la présence Palestinienne au Liban (un provisoire qui dure depuis 62 ans!). S’il avait rajouté la mémoire chargée de la guerre qui est marquée par l’absence de réconciliation entre les Chrétiens et les Palestiniens du Liban (n’en déplaise à Fares Soueid), il aurait souligné toutes les questions qui restent à  assainir entre ces deux groupes.

(à suivre… Demain la suite)

Posted in Culture, Discourse, Diversity, Lebanon, Palestinians, Version Francophone | Leave a Comment »

Photo-romance

Posted by worriedlebanese on 28/04/2010

I knew nothing of the play before stepping into the theatre. All I had was some fond memories of some of Rabieh Mroué’s and Lina Saneh’s earlier works. I expected to find something both interesting and exasperating: Interesting because of the work, talent and intelligence the couple invest in their works; exasperating because of their political militant stands, that of the self described Lebanese left with its contradictions and complacency.  What I found was an enthralling contemporary play both in subject matter and in form. It combines 3 elements: photography (projected as an outdated photo-story), acting and music (played by Charbel Habr), masterfully interacting with each other. Instead of one story, one finds three distinct ones: that of a playwright and a lawyer going through a script to see if the copyrights are respected, that of the italian story that the script is based on (Ettore Scola’s “Una Giornata Particolare”), and that of the Lebanese adaptation of the play (presented as a photo-story).

The play met some critical success in the Avignon Festival in 2009. It just came back from Paris where it was performed in French. It was presented to a Lebanese audience for the first time this week. Judging from the applause it got at the end of the performance, I think it was quite appreciated by the usual mix of artsy crowd and socialites.

Some critics have described it as a political play, scrutinising each and every one of its political references. I personally don’t believe that this dimension is particularly significant. Sure one finds many references to contemporary Lebanese politics (the massive demonstrations, Hezbollah…), but they are dealt with humorously and only one of their feature is really taken into account, the eclipse of the individual and the rise of masses as the only significant civic actors. One critic went back to Ettore Scola’s film and saw in the play a criticism of fascism. But fascism is all about unity. What defines Lebanese politics is its fragmentation and its recurrent bipolarity. Sure there is the mass phenomenon and the cult of “virile” leaders… but with the absence of unity, and the necessary absence of diversity and a fragmented and shared public space, one cannot push the comparison too far.

Posted in Culture, Diversity, Lebanon, Political behaviour | Leave a Comment »

This is not a Table…

Posted by worriedlebanese on 14/03/2010

Magritte wouldn’t have said it any better! The most notable decision that came out of the national dialogue table was its relabeling. President Michel Suleiman proclaimed that it will no longer be called “National Dialogue Table” but “National Dialogue Committee”.
This name change signals a will to institutionalise what can be described as an official informal institution. To understand what the dialogue table is about, one has to look at its short history.

How it all started
The National Dialogue Table came about on March 2nd 2006. At that time, two of the state’s institutions had been neutralised: the Constitutional Court and the Presidency. The ruling coalition (composed of the Quadripartite alliance and some of its members’ allies) was starting to split between two blocs that threatened two other state institutions (the government and the parliament). The first meeting was convened by the Speaker, Nabih Berri and gathered 14 leaders. This reunion short circuited the state’s institutions and made them seem superfluous (which they were soon to become). The national dialogue helped redefine and shift the power structure in Lebanon: it was no longer in the state’s institutions but belonged to the communal leadership. It brought the country back to the 1970 and 1980s when the militia leaders succeeded in paralysing the state and holding the country hostage to their individual interests and collective deliberation. The National Dialogue table is in many ways the resurrection of the National dialogue committee (1975-1976) and the  Geneva (1983) and Lausanne (1984) conferences. It follows the same basic principle and objective : formalising the distribution of power in the country. For an interesting comparison check out Mary Jane Deeb and Marius Deeb’s article “Internal negotiations in a centralist conflict: Lebanon” in William Zartman’s Elusive Peace (1995).

What has changed since 2006?
One has to admit that we owe the state’s resurrection to this National Dialogue Table, when it spawned the Doha agreement in 2008 (May 16 – May 21), its only efficient meeting. However, we owe this efficiency to a Qatari team that set up the agenda, convened the meeting and brokered the deal. Interestingly enough, the only true accomplishment of the National dialogue table was neither mentioned by the President (on March 9th 2010) or by the final statement of March XIV (on March 14th 2010).
What changes has the National Dialogue Table undergone since 2006? The most obvious change is its expansion and the shift in its chairmanship. Instead of the original 14, it now regroups 20 people. Most of the original members are the same, but Qornet Shehwan is out (Butros Harb had to be expelled to realise that the National Dialogue Table was meaningless) and so are the Orthodox dinosaures (Michel Murr and Ghassan Tueni). The dialogue roundtable is no longer a roundtable but a committee! It is no longer convened by the Speaker but by the President who not only chooses its members but sets its agenda and publishes its statement. But some things never change: its decisions are still too general and it has no mechanism to implement them.
On the other hand, much has changed in the country: All state institutions are back on track: the country has a national unity government, a consensual president, a resurrected constitutional council (mediocre as ever) and a convening parliament. With all these institutions working again, do we still need a National Dialogue Table? Has Michel Suleiman given it a thought? Did he even notice that the meeting he convened and the name that he gave it bear a striking resemblance to  that which was assembled on september 24, 1975. It was called the National Dialogue Committee and gathered 20 people…

Posted in Diversity, Intercommunal affairs, Lebanon, Patronage Networks, Pluralism, Political behaviour, Politics, Semantics | Leave a Comment »

How to destroy the Dialogue Table?

Posted by worriedlebanese on 03/03/2010

I wish I were able to leave the question mark out of the title. But I honestly don’t think anyone has a chance of ridding the country from this “official informal institution”. Any law student would tell you that’s a contradiction in terms, a state institution cannot be informal, and an informal committee cannot have an official status. That’s probably true, but our political class isn’t afraid of absurdities.

Composition
Now here’s the composition (for the past two days, the press has been debating quite lengthily the Table’s composition, but I only found one source that actually stated everyone’s name (as we all know the local press isn’t interested in hard data, it’s interested in opinions):

The communal Zu’ama:
– Nabih Berri, MP, Speaker, former warlord, Shiite Super-Za’im and head of the Amal patronage Network
– Saad Hariri, MP, Prime Minister, Sunni Super-Za’im, Representative of the Hariri Clan and head of the Future patronage Network
– Michel Aoun, MP, former commander-in-chief of the army, Christian Super-Za’im, head of a sprouting patronage network
– Walid Jumblatt, MP, former warlord, Druze Super-Za’im, head of the PSP patronage network
– Hassan Nasrallah (current warlord and head of the Hezbollah patronage network) represented by Mohammad Raad (MP)

Second rank Zu’ama
– Amin Gemayel, former President, son and brother of a former warlord, father and uncle of two MPs, Kataeb Leader hoping to re-establish his patronage network
– Sleiman Franjieh, MP, former warlord, head of the Marada patronage network
– Hagop Pakradounian, MP, Armenian Za’im, head of Tashnag patronage network.
– Samir Geagea, former warlord, husband of MP, Lebanese Forces leader, arguably the head of the fastest growing patronage network.
– Talal Arslan, MP, Druze Za’im, head of the Democratic Party patronage network.

Others (Billionnaires, and other notables)
Najib Mikati (MP, former PM)
Mohammad Safadi (MP, Minister)
Fouad Siniora (MP, former PM)
Farid Makari (MP, Deputy Speaker),
Elias al-Murr (Deputy PM and Defense Minister)
Michel Pharaon (MP, former Minister of nothing)
Jean Ogassapian (MP, Minister of nothing )
Assaad Hardane (MP, former Minister)
Fayez Chahine (Dean of Law Faculty and proud son of Zahle)
and… Michel Suleiman (President, former commander-in-chief of the army)

Simple stats:
Gender composition: 20 men, No women!!

Communal distribution: 4 Sunni (3 billionaires), 5 Maronite, 3 Greek-Orthodox (the dinosaures are out), 2 Shiite, 2 Druze (both half Jumblatt, half Arslan), 2 Armenian, 2 Greek-Catholic. IOW 14 christans for 6 Muslim, a ratio unheard of, even in the 19th century when Christians made up about 84 % of the population.

Patronage networks represented: All except one! Michel Murr’s network that he hasn’t handed down to his son, Elias Murr who is a new member of the National Dialogue Table.

Blocs represented: All of Lebanon’s parliamentary blocs are represented!
– Blocs part of the ruling coalition:

Lebanon First (30 MPs): 4 (Hariri, Siniora, Makari, Ogassapian),
Reform and Change (18 MPs): 1 (Aoun),
Development and Liberation (13 MPs): 1 (Berri),
Loyalty and Resistance (12): 1 (Raad),
Democratic Gathering (12 MPs): 1 (Joumblatt),
Lebanese Forces (8 MPs): 1 (Geagea),
Kataeb (5 MPs): 1 (Gemayel),
Zgharta (4 MPs): 1 (Frangieh),
Armenian (2 MPs): 1 (Pakradounian),
Tripoli (2 MPs): 1 (Safadi),

Blocs that are not part of the ruling coalition:

Nationalist and Patriotic (4 MPs): 1 (Hardan),
Unity of the Mountain (4 MPs): 1 (Arslan),

Independents (11 MPs)
2 (Miqati, Pharaon)
Others (non-parliamentarians)
3 (Michel Suleiman, Elias Murr, Hage-Chahine)

Chessboard players represented:

March XIV: 8 (Lebanon First, Lebanese Forces, Kataeb, Tripoli, “Independent”)
Orange: 2 (Reform and Change, Armenian)
Jumblatt: 1 (Democratic Gathering)
Centre: 4 (Miqati, Suleiman, Murr, Hage-Chehine)
March 8th: 5 (Loyalty and Resistance, Liberation and Development, Zgharta, Unity of the Mountain, Nationalist and Patriotic)

Regions and cities represented by “their” communal “representatives”

Tripoli: 2 Sunni notables
Saida: 1 Sunni Super-Za’im, 1 Sunni notable
Zahle: 1 Greek-Catholic notable (future politician)
Beyrouth: 1 Greek Catholic notable. No sunni (Hairi should count for Saida in these equations), No Greek-Orthodox
Koura: 1 Greek-Orthodox notable
Northern Mount Lebanon: 1 Maronite Super-Za’im, 1 Maronite Za’im, 1 G-O notable
Historic Mount Lebanon: 2 Maronite Zu’ama
Southern Mount Lebanon: 1 Druze Super-Za’im, 1 Druze Za’im
Nabatieh: 1 Greek-Orthodox notable, 1 Shiite notable (representing a Za’im)
South: 1 Shiite Super-Za’im
Beqaa: None
Baalbeck-Hermel: None
Akkar: None

Posted in Diversity, Idiosyncrasy 961, Intercommunal affairs, Lebanon, Patronage Networks, Pluralism, Political behaviour, Politics, Semantics | 2 Comments »

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.

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

Peace, moral stands and choosing one’s audience

Posted by worriedlebanese on 16/01/2010

You can't expect better from a phone with a disabled flash. Gideon Levy (left) & Eyal Sivan (right)

Gideon Levy is in France these days promoting his new book, a collection of articles he wrote on Gaza (from 2006 to 2009) translated into French and published by La Fabrique. He gave a lecture this thursday at Columbia University’s parisien address (an amazing compact campus).

Moral support for a marginal[ised] group
I’ve been following Gideon Levy’s writing on Haaretz’s english edition for four or five years now, so I’m quite familiar with his approach to the conflict. Nothing of what he said was new. He wasn’t actually here to inform the public on thing they didn’t know. Those who were present were quite familiar with the conflict. This was quite obvious from their questions. And it was quite expected because of the networks through which his lectures (and book signings) were promoted. His discussion of Gaza meant to explain his moral stand, one that he shared with the audience. His voice is a lonely one in the Israeli media. And those who were present at this little gathering also represented marginal group: jewish/israelis who were supportive of Palestinian rights (what’s left of the “peace camp”), pro-Palestinian individuals who still had faith in Israel… Each person seemed to be leaning on the other to feed the little hope they still held in their hearts.

A scandalous blond (and failed party pooper)
Many of the people in the audience were jewish, some were even Israeli. Next to our covert Lebanese group was a very conspicuous Israeli (ashkenazi) group.  And all except one person seemed to share Gideon Levy’s moral stand. This became quite visible when this person spoke out. She could have been Arielle Dombasle’s twin sister (who had seen another plastic surgeon). She confessed that she’d a bit nervous about coming here, and that she was hurt by the way the lecturer had portrayed Israel and Israelis. She said that Israelis too were hurt and were suffering, and he didn’t speak of that. She also added that Palestinians too were responsible of many wrongdoing and that he didn’t mention that either. As she was speaking her mind, you could feel the negative vibes radiate out of the audience. People were whispering to each other their contempt for her position… and they were expecting a strong reaction from Gideon Levy, one they could brush her remarks off and aplaude to. And that’s just what they got!

Gideon Levy saves the day
Our lecturer was quick to point out that her arguments didn’t hold because they called for an artificial balance in an extremely asymmetrical situation. He argued that you couldn’t be “balanced” when one side has one of the world’s strongest armies and the other under-equipped and untrained fighters… when one side is still the occupant and the other the occupied (an argument he developed during his lecture)… when one territory is the main battleground (indiscriminately)… when the death and destruction is so high on one side and so low on the other…
And as expected, the public applauded… for the first time in this Q&A session.
I obviously agreed with most of his arguments. And I understand why his reaction was so swift and razor-sharp. In many academic conferences and intellectual debates relating to Israel/Palestine, you increasingly have a group of well trained pro-Israel advocates within the audience who either disrupt the conference, try to destabilise the speaker or deviate the debate or the discussion. I’ve seen them operate on several occasions and they are extremely efficient. But Arielle’s twin was obviously not one of them. She shares with them the same point of view and probably the same sources of information, but she was here alone, to (somewhat) listen and to share her divergent point of view. She was one of those people Gideon Levy had been talking about, one of those people who support each and every Tsahal action, who believe it is the most moral army in the world (“couldn’t it be the second or the third?” asked Gideon Levy, “right after Liechtenstein’s?”)… and he obviously couldn’t reach out to her. She didn’t hear him and he didn’t know how to make his voice heard.

Here lays the biggest challenge of what is left of the Peace camp: instead of find a way to make itself heard, it should find a way to make people listen. Instead of talking to a supportive audience that agrees with all that it stands for, it should be seeking ways to reach out to another audience, THE other audience. And it can only do that by going through their networks. This will undoubtedly be a tough challenge… yet it’s probably the only challenge worth taking.

Posted in Civil Society, Communication, Diversity, Israel, Palestinians | 4 Comments »

And Hermes gazed at Walid J.

Posted by worriedlebanese on 13/01/2010

You’ve probably heard of the last reconciliation spree Walid Jumblatt has embarked on. After meeting with second rank Hezbollah and Amal representatives in Choueifat, he headed to Rabieh to mend fence with Michel Aoun. Editorialists and other pundits have been commenting on what was said behind closed door (in truth what was probably said, but they’d never confess to have unreliable and second hand information), and trying to decipher the intent behind each word the two Zu’ama used in their public declarations following their meeting. I wouldn’t go into that because as Martin Gore philosophically wrote “words are meaningless and forgettable”. Even if they declared that the sky was pink, it wouldn’t make it any less blue now would it?

Reinforcing informal arrangements, communal representations & segregated space

What is important is to see how the politicians are expressing themselves and how they interpret their own acts. Following the meeting in Chueifat (that gathered ), Jumblatt declared that “the Choueifat reconciliation healed a wound which almost destroyed historic, humane and political communication between the Mountain, Dahieh and Beirut if the conflict had expanded” (بإتمام مصالحة الشويفات يختتم جرح كاد يدمر التواصل التاريخي والإنساني والسياسي بين الجبل والضاحية وبيروت لو توسع). His use of these three locations is quite interesting. Each term refers implicitly to a communal group and an area under the control of one communal leader. This reinforces the image of a spatial segregation between the three communities and the link between one leader that effectively controles the territory and the community that he supposedly represents.

  • The Mountain refers to the Druze, even though it is an extremely mixed area that is effectively controled by Walid Jumblatt.
  • Dahieh (which means the Suburb) refers to the Shiites, even though it is still somewhat mixed (with a strong presence of Palestinians and a residual presence of Christians, Sunnis and Druze), and it is effectively controlled by Hezbollah.
  • Beirut refers to the Sunni, even though they make approximately 35% of its inhabitants, and it is [in]effectively controlled by the Hariri clan.

With this simple coded reference, the leader reinforces an (inaccurate) image of communal homogeneity and confirms a (very real) informal spatial division of three easily recognisable leaderships. Let’s not forget that Dahieh and the Mountain do not constitute an administrative unity but each is formally divided into multiple municipalities that are regrouped together in larger administrative units (Baabda, Aley, Chouf). So the reference brushes away the administrative divisions and puts forward the limits of each leaderships territory.

Asserting supernatural powers

All these reconciliatory meetings are very nice social events in which the atmosphere is cool, everyone is optimistic and positive, and the coffee is excellent. The agreement that comes out of them never seems to translate into actions and nothing is done about the past grievances. The words are meant to wash everything away and what is declared is meant to take effect immediately. So in this case, when the communal leaders declare an intercommunal reconciliation is declared, then the intercommunal reconciliation is realised. Now how do they do it?

The answer is simple, through this declaration, they assert that they are first rank politicians and that they are communal leaders (a feature that the Lebanese institutional system doesn’t allow and doesn’t recognise… but that’s another story). Not only they are communal leaders, but they are the true representatives of their communities, so their actions (or pronunciations) are those of their respective communities. In other words, when they pronounce intercommunal reconciliation they assert that they are the true voices of their communities. More than that, they assert that they are the true representatives of their communities. What is fascinating about this is that this pretense is not backed institutionally, our institutions do not recognise such a quality (it actually uses many political and legal tools to avert it). But our politicians act as if they are accorded this legal fiction of representation that allows them to act for the public good even when their acts are opposed by those who they are supposed to represent. Walid Jumblatt showed this belief of his when he said “It is true that I’m loosing in popularity, but I want to achieve a true reconciliation” (وصحيح أني أخسر شعبياً، ولكن أريد أن نصل إلى مصالحات حقيقيّة). This statement is truly fascinating. He’s actually saying that he can achieve true reconciliation even if the group that he represents are hostile to his action.

What to bring as a present when invited to lunch?

Well, José Saramago’s Gospel According to Jesus Christ, Obviously! This is the book that Walid Jumblatt offered Michel Aoun when he came along with half of his parliamentary group to have lunch with him in his home in Rabieh. When asked why he chose that book, he answered slyly that he didn’t know. No one commented that such a book would have never passed by our state’s censorship (if they were doing their work effectively) because it is considered to be totally sacrilegious. And truth to tell, it is not much different from Salman Rushdie’s Satanic verses in its approach to religion (God is completely narcissistic and cynical, Jesus listens to the devil, the devil is shocked by God’s cruelty, Angels are replaced by drunken soldiers or a dream, Jesus harms unintentionally and has a prolonged affair with Maria Magdalena, he has a favourite sheep… one that the devil almost convinces him to have sex with for release…). Would Walid Jumbatt have offered Rushdie’s book to Saad Hariri or Nabih Berri? I wonder.

What do you think he meant to do (or prove) with this gift?

Posted in Communication, Discourse, Diversity, Idiosyncrasy 961, Intercommunal affairs, Lebanon, Pluralism, Political behaviour, Religion | 2 Comments »

A Syrian approach to Judaism… a clear case of incoherence?

Posted by worriedlebanese on 11/01/2010

I dug up quite an interesting book in Damascus, unexpectedly. I was looking for a specific book on Palestinians and discovered this unusual book on judaism! Two sides of the same coin? Maybe.

The book is relatively new, it was published in 2008. Its author, Shamseddine Al-Ajlani, follows quite an interesting approach. Instead of focusing on one subject or following one hypothesis (like books usually do), he juxtaposes many chapters, each tackling a different topic relating to Syrian Jews. This 450 page book has an encyclopedic scope and brings together a great variety of documents: pictures of Syrian Jews since the 1920s, pictures of synagogues, and even pictures of Syrian Jews living in Holon (Israel). It tackles the participation of Jews in Syrian national politics and even blood libels in the 19th century.

If you read the chapter on the two 19th century cases of blood libel, you would find the author conspirationalist and antisemitic. He seems to believe that the charges were true and that those who were arrested were actually guilty and that they owe their release to the power Jews had over Western Europe. The author’s view isn’t surprising, it is the most dominant view in Syria today. But it is rather bewildering to find in a book that contains a very positive chapter on Jewish participation in Syrian national politics, and another chapter on the ties that remain between Israeli Jews of Syrian origin and what the author considers to be their homeland (Syria).

So when your “anti-semitism” siren blows, don’t jump to conclusions. There’s nothing systematic in what is expressed. You will find other elements that will spark a totally different signal. The Middle East is not Europe. Intercommunal relations are viewed as being complex just as they are experiences. You will find acceptance and rejection coming from the same source. That’s probably why a synthesis becomes impossible. It will reduce all contradictions to one idea, one that would contradict the daily experience of each person, just as it would contradict the national experience.

Posted in Conspiracy, Culture, Discourse, Diversity, Identity, Intercommunal affairs, Israel, Religion, Syria | 5 Comments »

A Shiite exception? (part one)

Posted by worriedlebanese on 10/01/2010

"Dahieh for beginners", extract from Umam's exhibition: Collecting Dahiyeh

"Dahiyeh for beginners" from Umam's Collecting Dahiyeh

Is there such a thing as a Shiite exception in Lebanon? This is the theme of a heated debate I had with a friend yesterday… a debate that stretched for almost two hours non stop! And we could have kept going for another hour or two if I didn’t have to rush out to meet someone.

What is meant by Shiite exception? Is this community different from the 16 others that share the same land and make up the same national society? His answer was yes. Mine was no.

But what made it so different? What particular circumstances was it living through, what structural feature or socio-cultural dynamic did it have that others lacked? His answer was pretty simple: Hezbollah, a spreading culture of death, a political leadership that was clerical (a feature that makes it “untouchable”, shielded from criticism), and a mobilised community behind it.

I agreed with all his points but didn’t see what was exceptional about that. Most communities were mobilised behind their leadership (zu’ama). The culture of martyrdom is quite widespread, even the leftist group that this guy belonged to had transformed one of its members into a martyr and started a cult around him. Most politicians are backed by their clergy, and if they do not back them, they replace them with more compliant clerics (this has become the rule in three muslim communities for the past decade. The autonomy of the christian churches makes the relation between clerics and politicians much more complex). As for a dominant party with a strong social network that has an ascendancy on most spheres within one community, this is also true for the Sunnis (with Mustaqbal and the Hariri clan), the Armenians (with Tashnag) and the Druze (with Ishtiraqi and the Jumblatt dynasty).

He sort of agreed with me but insisted that the Shiite exception comes from the particularities of Hezbollah and the resonance it has in the shiite community (for structural and cultural reasons). Let’s check its particularities first: it is an armed, religious, communal party with a strong social network and media support. Now that’s a strong argument. The particularity of Hezbollah is that it combines the strongest features of  the most important parties and militias the country has ever seen: it is the most religious of all parties, it is the most powerful of all militias we have known, it has the most efficient social network, it is the most adaptive political structure we have seen, it has one of the most charismatic leaders the country has know… It’s a sort of “best of”, and all these features combine to enhance  its strength and appeal. What makes its strength is its coherence, internal and external.

Posted in Civil Society, Culture, Discourse, Diversity, Intercommunal affairs, Lebanon, Pluralism, Religion | 2 Comments »