Wednesday, 7 December 2011

What is Fanaticism?

Every couple of weeks, I stumble across a statement by a Hizbullah public figure defending the Syrian state, as the latter deals with an ongoing uprising-turned-insurgency. Recently, Hizbullah Minister Muhammad Fneish had the following to say on the issue: "The uprising in Syria resembles other uprisings in the Arab world in terms of popular demands for reform. But the difference is that Syria has always been in confrontation with the Zionist entity."

I must admit that I find Hizbullah's honesty rather refreshing, even though Syria has not always been in 'confrontation with the Zionist entity'. Hizbullah admits that the Syrian people harbour legitimate demands for political reform. Also, on a purely humanitarian level, I would imagine that a party that has fought, killed and died to liberate land and prisoners cannot but sympathise with the men, women and children being killed in Syria. After all, Hizbullah has (rightly) defended the rights of Libyans, Egyptians and Bahrainis among others to protest against their governments, and condemned ensuing state violence against civilians. Further, on a political and strategic level, Hizbullah probably recognises  Syria as a fair-weather friend at best; Baathist Syria has fought Hizbullah in Lebanon, engaged in indirect negotiations with Israel, and been anything but consistent in its hostility towards the Western powers.

Still, power is power, war is war, and a militia like Hizbullah cannot survive without the open supply line of weapons and the strategic depth that Syria provides - especially since it can now count half the Lebanese as enemies in addition to Israel. This is why Hizbullah's defence of the Syrian regime is so matter-of-fact, and can be paraphrased as: "Yes, we don't like them much either, and we're not happy that they're killing their citizens, but they give us weapons and so we're with them till the bloody end."

Leaving aside the questionable morality of prioritising its military autonomy over the suffering of millions of Syrians (call it the tragedy of politics), I feel that Hizbullah has dug itself into a bit of a hole. It is probably unrealistic to expect Hizbullah to condemn the Syrian crackdown publicly, and in any case the party's pro-Syrian statements are aimed not at the likes of me but at its own followers, who must be feeling at least slightly uncomfortable with the conduct of Hizbullah's allies in Syria. Still, to me, it was never preordained that whomever replaced the Baathist state, even if it was a Sunni-dominated state (which it probably would be), would have ditched the Syrian marriage-of-convenience with Hizbullah. If anything, a Syria governed by a state whose every policy was not aimed at protecting the interests of a vulnerable minority would conceivably be even bolder in its opposition towards Israel and support for Hizbullah. Of course, now that Hizbullah has voiced its unwavering support for the Baathist state, and may well be doing its dirty work against Syrian dissidents in Lebanon, the party can forget about receiving any support from Syria if Assad and friends are overthrown.

And so Hizbullah and Syria are stuck with one another, and there will surely be more outrageous statements by the former defending the latter as the death toll in Syria rises. The party of the oppressed defending the oppressors, because it needs weapons to fight the Israelis along with any Lebanese who get any ideas about disarming it. Now that's commitment. Or fanaticism. And perhaps fanaticism is nothing more than a single-minded commitment taken to its logical extreme. What was it that Winston Churchill said about a fanatic? A person who can't change his mind, and won't change the subject.

Friday, 23 September 2011


Today, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is set to submit a demand to the UN Security Council for recognition of a Palestinian state in its 1967 borders.

It's an interesting time to be Palestinian, or Arab for that matter. The US will veto the bid, given strong Israeli opposition to it. Israel will oppose any bid for statehood which it does not negotiate itself. One could argue that some Arab countries would oppose it as well (though not openly of course). After all, the Palestinians have fought and struggled against Arab states as much as they have against the Israelis, and neither Jordan, Egypt or Syria has ever made a meaningful effort to establish a Palestinian state. Finally, in a touch of delicious irony, Hamas opposes the initiative to establish a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders - because that would imply the acceptance of Israel within its 1967 borders.

Some would argue that I'm missing the point, and that going to the UN is simply a way of asserting Palestinian national rights and placing Israel on the diplomatic defensive. Fair enough. Nobody expects the UN to grant the Palestinians statehood without US support and even if it did, well, it wouldn't change the reality that the West Bank and Gaza are either occupied or blockaded by Israel (and Egypt in Gaza's case). And it does place Israel in an awkward diplomatic position, and it could lead to protests in the occupied territories, and possibly another intifada. I'd think the Israelis already have their hands full dealing with the uncertainties of the political upheaval in the Arab world.

I personally don't believe that a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine would be a solution at all. A Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank would be controlled by Israel: Israel would control movement between the two territories, "Palestine's" foreign policy and military, and its borders. Palestinians would be totally economically reliant on access to the Israeli market for survival, which Israel would be free to deny at will. Last, but certainly not least, Hamas controls Gaza and opposes a two-state solution for its own ideological reasons, but also because it recognises that a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders would not be Palestinian, or would not be a state. At my own peril, I have to agree with Hamas about those points, even if I reject their ideology and strategy of firing pathetic rockets at empty fields. I'm all for a one-state solution: Arab-Jewish, secular, consociational, whatever. Deal with it. You broke it, you fix it.

Still, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians care about my views, nor should they. I can sympathise with any Palestinian attempt to salvage any political rights whatsoever, however compromised or limited. It's the Israelis' behaviour that I find puzzling. If I were an Israeli statesman, I would be concerned that the regimes whose stability is critical to my country's security are facing serious challenges. I would be losing sleep over the spread of popular uprisings across the Arab world. I would be worried about Egypt, and the fact that I could not longer depend on unconditional and unrelenting Egyptian cooperation over security issues, including containing the Palestinians. All things considered, I would be far more concerned with these developments than with expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank, or with the inevitable rise of a nuclear Iran that cares very little if at all about the Palestinians, or indeed the Levant and its people. I would give the Palestinians their statelet and move on, secure in my qualitative military superiority, nuclear deterrent, and the unconditional support of the world's sole superpower.

Of course, as a Lebanese I'm not too upset that Israel is not pursuing its national interest. I can't help but feel a little lucky that Israel's political leadership has to be amongst the most petty and myopic in the world. But then, by that measure, I'm sure the Israelis must feel equally lucky to have the Arabs as enemies.

Sunday, 11 September 2011


They say silence is golden. 'They' certainly don't hang about in Lebanon though, or convince many Lebanese politicians.

Three days ago, the Patriarch of Lebanon's Maronite Christians shared his views on the situation in Syria in an interview with AFP. He expressed his fears that a transition there may threaten Christians, his views on President Bashar al-Assad as open-minded and familiar with Western practices, and his insistence that the president be given a chance to implement promised reforms.

The patriarch is not an MP or minister, but he is no doubt aware of his substantial political influence and the fact that, regardless of whether they agree with him, he speaks on behalf of Maronite Christians. In other words, he is a politician. Nothing wrong with that, of course, and he is entitled to his views (though whether he's entitled to speak about matters in Syria on behalf of 'the Christians' is debatable).

Hizbullah Secretary General Hasan Nasrallah has also offered his views on the situation in Syria, refusing to describe it as a popular uprising and asking that President al-Assad be given a chance to implement reforms. General Michel Aoun, a man of strong opinions, has also denied that a popular uprising is underway in Syria, and insisted that the state is doing what any state would do: maintaining order and security.

I don't wish to argue whether or not what is happening in Syria is a popular uprising. Frankly, it's not for me - or any non-Syrian - to make a call on that. But here are some facts, as opposed to opinions: people are being killed in Syria, civilians and security forces; the state in Syria is facing a serious threat to its survival; and no one, including the regime or protesters, knows exactly how this is all going to pan out.

Given the high degree of uncertainty and the seriousness of the situation in Syria (and therefore in Lebanon), if I were Aoun, Nasrallah or especially the Maronite Patriarch, I would be hedging my bets. If the state survives in Syria, it will not be because these men voiced their support for it. It will be because the cohesion and discipline of loyalist armed forces held for long enough to crush and/or outlast the protests. On the other hand, if the Syrian state collapses then men like Aoun, Nasrallah and the Patriarch will pay a heavy political price. Therefore the rational thing for them to do at this stage is to say nothing. Which they seem absolutely incapable of doing.

Of course, they are not the only Lebanese politicians cursed with an inability to shut up and wait when it comes to grave matters outside of their control. Hardly a day goes by (actually, not a single day goes by) without members of the March 14 coalition reminding us of the importance of the International Tribunal for the assassination of former PM Rafiq Hariri, and of supporting it unconditionally through thick and thin. Needless to say, the fate and course of the Tribunal will not be decided in Lebanon or by Lebanese, whatever one thinks of it

Silence, please. For your sakes and ours.

Friday, 9 September 2011


This is my first blog post. Like most ideas that manage to hold my attention for longer than thirty seconds, it was inspired by a conversation with an intelligent friend, and by a question.

Why do we like democracy? By ‘we’, I mean me as well. I’m just as drawn to and moved by the idea of political liberty and participation as I believe most people are. Still, being Lebanese and all too aware of how divided and dysfunctional Lebanon’s politics are, I can’t afford to worship democracy. You grow to be skeptical about that sort of thing.

Lebanon is not, of course, a liberal democracy. It’s a consociational one, which is a fancy way of saying its politics are the outcome of conflict and compromise between religious sects. Unlike voters in France or the United States, for example, I am a Sunni Muslim (or a Maronite, or Druze, or Shia, or member of one of the other fifteen officially-recognised religious sects) first, and a citizen of Lebanon second. Come to think of it, I couldn’t be a citizen of Lebanon without belonging to a sect - nor could anyone else. Where would I fit? How would I vote and for whom? How would I know who to temporarily (always temporarily) fight or befriend?

It’s all terribly confusing, and sometimes I can’t help but yearn to be just a citizen, voting for this-or-that political party based on ideology, or even economic interests. Refreshingly simple. A lot of Lebanese feel this way from time to time, and who can blame them? Yet every time I catch myself longing to be a loyal civic participant in politics, I can’t help but ask: What is it about liberal democracy that makes it so appealing?

Let’s consider the short period of human history in which liberal democracies have existed i.e. since the 20th century, when the vote was extended to all the adult population. Liberal democracies are organised on the principle of majoritarianism: citizens participate in politics by voting for elites who make decisions on their behalf. The outcome is decided by counting how many people favour person X over person Y. Every few years, the process is repeated and then everyone goes back to their lives and lets the politicians do the politicking.

Before anyone calls me a cynic and starts going on about Athens, the golden age of democracy, and the roots of civic participation, I would remind them that in Athens, you only voted and were only a citizen if you were male, a land-owner, and not a slave. In Athens, when the majority of voters decided to go to war, every citizen had to put on their armour, grab their weapon (you had to bring your own armour and weapon) and go kill or be killed. There were no ‘conscientious objectors’. If you wanted the privilege of voting, you had to take the good with the bad. And ‘leaders’ were chosen by a random lottery draw. Elections were seen as thoroughly undemocratic, because Athenians recognised that the richest and/or most manipulative candidates would always win (sound familiar?) And it’s hard to think of anything as blind and fair as the luck of the draw. Now that was a democracy. 

So what’s so special, or legitimate, or appealing, about counting people, comparing counts, then going home? Why is that any better than Lebanon-style democracy? In Lebanon, we don’t bother much with the counting: only Christian politicians face real competition, since we already know who everyone else is going to vote for. The Sunnis will vote for Hariri, the Shia for Hizbullah, the Druze for Jumblatt. Once we get through the boring counting bit, the sectarian horse-trading begins and, ideally, some sort of ugly compromise is reached. Honest, straight-to-the-point, comfortably predictable, wonderfully diverse... and utterly dysfunctional.