Thursday, June 28, 2007

Will the “Inheritor” inherit again?

If the USA have the Kennedy’s, then Lebanon has the Gemayel family: both are plagued with death. After getting his parliamentary seat because his uncle died, Amin Gemayel inherited the presidential seat upon the murder of his brother. Now, it looks that the Inheritor might again become a member of parliament if he gets elected to take the place of his murdered son.

His adversaries have nicknamed him the “Inheritor”, implying he only got to high places because of the death of others. It’s a strange accusation coming from a country where the last names of politicians seldom change: power is typically passed on from father to son. The only difference with Amin Gemayel would be the timing. Instead of waiting for his family members to retire, he was forced into positions of power by tragedy.

“Forced?”, isn’t there something as a free will, couldn’t he have said no? That’s a good question and the answer would be “actually, no, you can’t”. There is so much pressure put on sons, brothers and even wives to take over the position of a deceased politician, that it’s next to impossible to decline. They even have a special expression for wives who take over the parliamentary seat of their husbands: the Women in Black.

The old, traditional political families, like the Gemayel’s, or popular new ones, like the Hariri’s, can only survive because of their popularity within their own base. If they would go against the expectations of their direct voters, it would mean the end of their influence. Some say this is pure democracy whereby politicians truly represent their voters, others would call it clientelism. Either way, the people expect the position of head of powerful political families, called zaim or feudal lord, to go from one generation to the next.

This is why Saad Hariri, e.g., couldn’t say no, although he was a successful businessman, had no experience as a politician and most likely had no intention of becoming the number one on Syria’s hit list. Within one day, life as he knew it was over and he became, quite literally, a prisoner, trapped in the expectations of others.

This system of inheritance also has an interesting side effect, namely after the death of a leading politician, images of him and his son will appear almost instantly. It’s like the father wants to demonstrate his approval of his successor. Whereas in the western world it would be held against you to be the ‘son of’, in the Arab world, this is the biggest plus you will have.

A variation to this theme appeared a few days ago in the streets: a picture of the murdered Pierre Gemayel, draped in the Lebanese flag. It’s no coincidence that these pictures started almost together with the decision of holding by-elections to replace him. It seems they went all out with this one: Pierre kissing the Lebanese flag as a sign of his patriotism.

Somehow, this picture is as ironic as can be because the last thing political families think about is the country. Nationalism is something strange to Lebanon, instead people protect the interest of their families, their villages and their faith before anything else. On the list of priorities, protection of the country is somewhere way down.

Not that this stops any side from claiming that they are the most patriotic of course. Only problem is, when two opposing camps both claim to be nationalistic, surely one side must have gotten it wrong. Nationalism in Lebanon is like religion: they all claim to defend the one and only ‘truth’.

That’s why it is always a bit threatening when Hezbollah solemnly promises not to raise their arms against fellow Lebanese, but will only use them to defend the country, leaving unclear what takes priority: the country or the people in it? What if they decide one day that certain Lebanese are harming the interest of the country? Would they use their arms against these ‘traitors’ then?

Anyway, it will be interesting to watch the campaign for the vacated seats. It is an unwritten rule not to contest seats that became available because the seat holder died. Now, however, it seems that this gentlemen's agreement no longer applies. Michel Aoun has already instructed his party to prepare for elections. One wonders why he would even want to win this seat, belonging to a government he deems is illegal. Ah more inconsistency in the daily life of political Lebanon.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Mission Impossible Part 2

Sometimes, it’s plain awful to be right. My prediction that the fighting is not yet over became painfully true on Sunday when the army engaged in heavy fighting with yet another Islamic-inspired group. One soldier died and 6 militants were killed. Just when you have cornered one group, another bunch of militants appear, it’s like fighting a dragon with multiple heads.

This new group is called Ahl al Hadith (lit: Partisans of the Hadith, writings containing words of the prophet Mohammad), consists of 200+ members and was in the possession of some serious weaponry: grenades, ammunition, electronic booby-trap equipment, binoculars and camouflaged army clothes. What’s worse, they are not related to Fatah al-Islam. It makes you wonder how many more groups there are in Lebanon who freely can dispose of such arms. Most likely, “Quite a few” would be a low estimate.

On top of that, 5 Spanish UN troops were killed during a roadside attack on their vehicles. The initial reaction of Spain was to reaffirm their commitment to Lebanon, but you can’t help but wondering how many more dead they are willing to accept. Try to explain to the family that their son (all between 18 – 21 years old) died for “the good cause”. What cause would that be exactly?

Speculations run wild as to who is behind the attack in the South. Was it the usual suspect Hezbollah or was it Fatah al-Islam revenging their slain brothers or was it yet another Palestinian group? As if that would really matter since Syria would be behind all three options anyway.

When you speak to supporters of the Opposition, you hear a similar line of usual suspects: surely, it must be Israel looking for a pretext to start another July war. And there’s always America, perhaps they want to stir things up.

As usual, it will remain unclear who was behind the attack on the UN. Yet, is it really a coincidence that this attack happened a week after the Syrian Foreign Minister said that Syria cannot guarantee the safety of the UN troops in Lebanon because it doesn’t have a presence there? At the time, this was widely understood as an implicit threat: either let us back into Lebanon or suffer the consequences. Well, we now know what they were hinting at.


In my previous blog entry I mentioned the possible ambitions of the army chief Suleiman. However, the L’Orient-Le Jour wrote Saturday that Suleiman has made clear he will not be entering politics, least of all as member or head of a parallel government. That’s good to hear. Apparantly, also Michel Aoun has hinted that he does not favor such parallel government. Also, that’s good to hear. After all, what good would “democracy” be if the losers decide to create their own parallel government?

Friday, June 22, 2007

Mission accomplished?

The defense minister has declared yesterday that the mission against Fatah al-Islam is pretty much over and that the army has won. Hrm, sounds suspiciously similar to George Bush’s statement on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln when he declared the Iraqi mission to be completed.

Back then, both Saddam Hussein and Osama bin-Laden were still on the loose. This time, Fatah al-Islam chief Shaker Abssi is still nowhere to be found.

Reports from the front also indicate the fighting is not yet over and you have to wonder what will happen now. Will the army catch the leaders of Fatah al-Islam, will the Lebanese state bring them to justice, or will it be another case of ‘no winners, no losers’?

Remember that the army commander Michel Suleiman, who was appointed under Syrian tutelage, could be thinking of becoming the next president and thus would need the support of the Opposition. What better way to get that support by not pressing too hard and by allowing the leaders to escape? That would assume a rather nasty attitude of Suleiman who would be willing to accept the deaths of his men go unpunished simply for his own rise to political power.

Of course, these are all speculations. For all we know, the army is truly pissed at the loss of the lives of so many soldiers and wants revenge no matter what. But somehow, keeping all options open, especially the more cynical ones, never fails to pay in this country.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Amal is heating up

The Shiite political party and erstwhile militia Amal seems to be shifting gears in Beirut, in the sense that they are painting their local offices and are putting up various wall paintings. Not a big deal, you might say, just a few paint jobs here and there. But anyone knowing the usual lack of paint in Beirut, cannot help but noticing the freshly painting Amal quarters, see pics below:

Photo 1: This is the Amal office in Ain Mreisseh, overlooking Zeitoun Street

Photo 2: A freshly painted Amal logo on a wall right behind the Sunni Ain Mreisseh mosque, or behind the McDonald's, if you're less culturally inclined. The background color should be dark green btw, but my camera isn't working too well. The two men are sayyed Musa al Sadr and ayatollah Khomeini

In addition to these paint jobs, I’ve picked up various unconfirmed stories about Amal members who become increasingly visible in typical Sunni areas, like Mazraa or Tariq Jedideh. This has already led to incidents between the Sunni residents and groups of Shiite youth. According to Nahar, one Sunni was killed during a quarrel over a parking spot. The article mentioned that in no time two large groups came together to join the fight: one group Sunni versus a group of Shiites.

Likewise, Sunnis are seeing cafes and pool halls being opened in “their” areas, which are run by Shiites. Most of the time, these places are empty because not many Sunnis would frequent a Shiite owned place if there are plenty of Sunni alternatives available.

Other stories about similar riots have popped up but didn’t make it into the newspapers. It seems that Lebanese newspapers are cautious to publish articles of riots between groups of different faiths. A few months ago, there were similar tensions with lots of shooting back and forth in certain areas such as Hadath, yet the newspapers kept silent about it. If only the nights were as calm as the editors, everybody could sleep!

Coming back to Amal. What does it mean, these paint jobs and these newly opened cafes? Without a doubt it’s a provocation: opening up a Shiite café right in the smack of a Sunni neighborhood sure is saying something. The atmosphere in the country is getting tenser every day and even a few buckets of paint or a café here and there can easily contribute to this.

For many Lebanese, it brings back memories of militias which were active during the Civil War. After the war, they became more or less hidden, almost invisible. But now, they’re back out in the open, fixing up their offices and well…getting ready for battle?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Going down in a blaze of glory…not

Imagine you are the president of a country and nobody likes you. Obviously, for most Lebanese, this is difficult to imagine since their president is doing a fine job. But for those readers: try to imagine nonetheless: imagine being a president who’s getting on in age and wanting to leave a positive legacy. What would you do to change your popularity? Would you grab a golden opportunity or would you remain inert and not do a thing?

Imagine what would have happened if you would have stood besides your own army and would have supported them fully. Imagine you would have spoken out against the terror that is hitting the camps in which the least protected live. Imagine you would have paid your condolences to the soldiers who died protecting the country you’re president of. Imagine you would have slammed your fists and said: “Enough is enough!”

Yeah, imagine that…

…then your people would have seen a president who would have changed his image 180 degrees. From being helpless and powerless, you would have turned yourself into a great leader, a person who rose to the occasion when his country needed him most. Sure, you might not have lived to see the day, but in all earnestly: so what? You’re already getting quite old, so death is no longer a far away stranger. Besides, it’s better to die as a martyr than as a coward.

Most likely, the people would have forgiven you for your past errors and apathy. They would have welcomed you back into their midst: the president would not only be the leader but also the true son of the country he lives in.

But well, all that remains of this dream is the sour disappointment when you open your eyes again. Not many leaders can actually change at high age. Perhaps Sharon was the only one in recent history when he withdrew from Gaza. That was a step which went against everything he has stood for in the past and yet he saw it was the right thing to do. Sad to see how pale our leaders stand in comparison.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Giving Palestinians a future to live for

Despite the messy situation in Nahr al Bared, maybe, just maybe, something good can come out of it. For the first time in recent history, the armed Palestinian factions have sided with the Lebanese army against the ‘infiltrators’ inside the camps and have thus shown to actively support the Lebanese state.

Given that the current fighting is in fact a proxy war directly between Syria and Lebanon, one could even conclude that the Palestinians are placing more faith in Lebanon than in Syria. That’s quite remarkably considering Syria hosts the leader-abroad of Hamas and is suspected of shipping arms to the various militants in Palestine.

What’s perhaps even more remarkable is why not more Palestinians have sided with the Fatah al-Islam and have started fighting against the army of a country that doesn’t really do anything for them. Palestinians cannot travel, cannot own property and are excluded from most jobs in Lebanon. Why would people defend a country that treats them like dirt?

Perhaps it was the change of course of the current government. One of the first decisions Siniora took was to expand the range of economic sectors Palestinians could be working in. At the time, Lahoud and Hezbollah strongly opposed this law because he feared this would chip away at the holy right of return. As if anyone still expects to go back to Palestine…

A more likely reason for his objection would be that the Palestinians can always be used as a tool of pressure by Syria: by heating up the camps, it could pressure Lebanon into compliance. However, now with the Palestinians siding so openly with Lebanon against Syria, this tool seems to have lost its value.

Whatever the reasons for their support in Nahr al Bared, it makes clear that the Palestinians, or at least their leaders, are betting on Lebanon for their future. Let’s not disappoint them. Anyone with a future, a job and a mortgage will not readily take up arms, but people with nothing to loose are obviously quite susceptible to extremists. Let the Palestinians have jobs, let them travel, let them become productive members of the Lebanese society. Sure, let them also retain the right of return, but what if they like it better in Lebanon? Would that really be a problem?

To prevent any unwanted change of the sectarian balance, Lebanon shouldn’t give the Palestinians voting rights and passports. Just treat them like any Arab country treats immigrants: give them a residence and work permit and that’s it. Nothing special, no biggie.

It might not prevent any and all rebellion against Lebanon, but continuing to treat the Palestinians as animals locked up in their camps will surely be less effective. Instead of a past to kill for, Palestinians need a future to live for!

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Quick update

Dear readers,

The last few days some of you have asked if everything is OK and expressed their worries because I haven't been blogging much. Rest assured, I am fine. I am still recovering from the operation, but everything is going as the doctor says it should. Thank you for your attention and kind e-mails.

The main reason for not blogging, besides the lack of focus due to the pain killers, is the situation in the Nahr el Bared camp. What to add to the excellent coverage from Blacksmith and other blogs? In these times, blogs proof their value more than ever. Whereas regular journalists write their story once a day and are published the next day, the blogs provide almost real-time updates of the battle.

Highly impressive indeed and it makes you wonder why people read newspapers any longer. Even the blogs of traditional journalists are often better than their articles. See Harold's blog as a good example.

As a tribute to Blacksmith, please find below a commentary from their blog by Jade that sums up my feelings exactly:

=========start quote==============
The Lebanese government, in conjunction with UNSC Resolution 1559 has called for the disarmament of all non-state militias in Lebanon, but has been hampered in its efforts at implementing the resolution by a series of actions (no less than a war last summer) by Hizballah and its allies that have crippled the functionality of the country's political institutions.

Earlier in this conflict, Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah had sought to cripple the Lebanese Army's ability to respond to the security crisis in Nahr el Bared by declaring that the Army should not enter the camp and that it was a "red line".

Today, and throughout this entire crisis, all the Lebanese stand united in their support of the Lebanese Army and in defiance of the campaign of terror that Fatah al Islam's primary backers in Syria have attempted to unleash on the country, and in defiance of the hand-binding that Hassan Nasrallah and the state-within-a-state he is the Secretary General of has attempted to impose on the Lebanese Army.

We live in an imperfect country but we want to work through its institutions to fix it. We want our Army to be strong, we want it defend us, and we want it to have a monopoly on arms in the country.

Today we salute all those fighting for Lebanon in Nahr el Bared, and all those who have fallen in our name. You make us proud.

=========end quote==============