Thursday, July 19, 2007

I Am Not Neutral

By Joseph El-Khoury

Neutrality would be classed as a ‘Bad Word’ in the Lebanese dictionary; if Saeed Akel ever got himself to writing one. We are known as a passionate opinionated people with a fiery Mediterranean temper. A British journalist once remarked how shocked he was at the way the Lebanese displayed openly their political allegiance whether through their discourse or the use of party symbols. By not belonging to a political, religious or ideological ‘Front’ you had de facto eliminated yourself from any purposeful conversation around a table of equally self deluded ‘politicized’ Lebanese.

In fact I am not neutral. Far from it. I have held solid socio-political convictions for many years. My main deficit recently has been not to find enough common ground with any of the parties on the political scene. In a nutshell I am offered a simple choice between a Sunni-Druze-Christian alliance in tune with the US and a Shiite-Christian axis supported by the objectionable Iranian and Syrian regimes. The prospect of a tamed Middle East ruled by corrupt pro-western monarchies and at the mercy of Israeli economic and military domination does not reassure me. On the other hand the combination of Mullahs and Baathists excites me even less. Despite their best effort to throw Hugo Chavez of Venezuela in the mix to spice things up, I still need a lot of convincing.

Faced with this dire choice many of my friends have indeed taken sides claiming that this was a time for priorities in what is a global conflict between democracy…and democracy. If you happen to belong to the Shiite, Sunni or Druze community then it is usually straightforward: you join your respective camps while rationalising your mostly tribal and sectarian decision through the use of meaningless academic rhetoric. If you happen to be Christian and things get complicated you resolve it by developing a mystical attraction to the not yet graduated Dr Geagea or an unhealthy obsession with the less than successful General Aoun.

The rest of us, if lucky, can aspire to be neutral in the sense of peace or environmental activists who choose to ignore the absurd but real circus happening on our screens and in our streets. Others, like, me, will vent their anger on the World Wide Web hoping for an alternative.


Anonymous said...

All excellent point. Our need to belong to one group vs another are greatly expressed in our flashy display to specific political parties by use of non so symbolic symbolic representation. It almost feels that we either have something to prove or are generally too weak and lack self assurance or confidence.

You don't see this kind of display at least not in the States or in Switzerland where I've spendin/am spending a great deal of time.

I think your arguments are another indication that we need to push the conversation to another level. Create opportunities for more regional and local governance and start promoting a more credible media - probably through the internet - that calls for the need for better leadership and accountability at the more local level as well as a more credible media. All of which I believe, would create the foundations for a stronger national leadership, one that understands that its sustainability depends on a clear and detailed work agenda, implementation of well thought of policies, and approval of the citizens.


Maysaloon said...

I understand that your article is a vent of frustration for what is happening and nothing more. In fact, I identify with it a lot and enjoyed reading it.

My criticism is elsewhere today however. Our friend Marwan helpfully demonstrates yet again the type of hairdresser politics which European 'NGO's' and Anglosaxon Liberals pass off for analysis these days.

Now once you snap out of the instant trance that Marwan's last paragraph induces and read what he's talking about, you start to wonder which part of the planet he's talking about?

"Create opportunities for more regional and local governance"

"credible media - probably through the internet"

"better leadership and accountability"

"sustainability depends on a clear and detailed work agenda...etc. etc"

OK Marwan, what next? What is this and how can you actually relate any of what you said to the reality in Lebanon, or any political reality anywhere in the world? I'm sorry to come down so hard on you but please, don't lap up everything that Western European 'intellectuals' produce on politics. The quality can vary enormously.

This is a problem with having a blog called "arabdemocracy", some comments become more painful to read than a Tom Friedman book on globalization. Or any book on globalization for that matter.

Anonymous said...

Wassim - I would have really appreciated if you stated your discomfort with my propositions on improving the state of governance in Lebanon as opposed to attacking me personally, the millions that happen to be living in the west, and those that disagree with your views.

Your condescending tone won’t score points with me as you may suspect, neither will it encourage me to resort to name calling and cynical perfectly worded English rhetoric. This is indeed surprising coming from someone brutally vocal about his dislike of Anglo-Saxon liberal values. I am not your friend and if this is your way to build new relationships albeit virtual or leave good first impressions on strangers, I strongly suggest you reconsider your strategies.

Suffice to say that whatever political or social argument I make is based on my own interpretations of the situation in Lebanon at this time. I am Lebanese after all, I grew up in Lebanon, and I have had the opportunity to travel significantly and live throughout my country, the Arab world, European countries, and these United States. I have never worked or interacted with European NGO’s nor do I take any media be it in America, Europe, or Asia for granted. The commonalities you see between my views and the views of those organizations that you appear to proudly loath is merely a coincidence.

In order for Lebanon to regain credibility among its citizens, I believe the Lebanese should demand that the government moves from a heavily centralized system to a more decentralized system, hence my call for a more regional and local governance.

The fact that decisions are upheld or contested in Beirut is unhealthy for the country as a whole. The central government should address the issues related to national security and foreign affairs, but issues related to infrastructure investments, public schools, utilities, public healthcare, etc. should be left at the discretion of cities and regions. Those cities and regions would be in charge of collecting taxes which would in turn be used to budget various types of needs at the more local level while forwarding a portion of tax revenues to the state to support investments in programs of national caliber including defense, security, and disaster relief and assisting improved worthy areas. The creation of more local governance would set the stage for more competition for key leading positions at the local level.

Local governance could also help develop a new generation of media outlets with primary emphasis on more local issues with additional attention to national concerns. The conversation would therefore move from a very broad spectrum to more local relevant concerns.
Today members of parliament are voted to office for almost a lifetime. This is primarily due to lack of competition as well as absolute power. With local governance in place, members of parliament would be compelled to better understand the needs of their respective regions and work with the locals to address their needs, and bring those to the national front. Failure to do so would probably result in potentially loosing the next round of elections; hence more accountability and better leadership.

There are no stances that I need to snap out of, I am certain. There is nothing therein contained that conflict with the realities in Lebanon. The situation in Lebanon is the result of unpractical policies and should not be maintained. I am not suggesting that local governance would solve all problems in Lebanon, but it would probably gradually assist in improvement the situation, unless of course, this conflicts with your own personal agenda.


Arab Democracy said...

First of all. Thank you for your comments

I am too familiar with the terms used by Marwan (governance, productivity, accountability) having worked for years in the UK.
They can be used ad nauseaum to justify the unjustifiable and have acquired a symbolism in certain circles that outweigh itheir true meaning.

Nonetheless Marwan has a point in that if these processes found a better hold in the mind or Arab masses they would be less willing to accept the outrageous oppression they are subjected to in the name of this or that cause. How we achieve this is another story? Many have tried and failed.

My simple suggestion from my post is that we confront bad politics and sectarian parties with ethical politics and modernist secular parties with democratic principles externally and internally. The tendencies among Arab middle classes is to praise depoliticization and condemn political parties as part of the problem altogether.

Do these parties actually exist in an Arab country?


Maysaloon said...

I'm sorry if I was overly harsh on your comment. My point is exactly that of Joseph, which is how does one expect to apply these issues in the region and more importantly, what isn't being considered?

I most certainly did not attack you personally, only your choice of words, which is not the same thing. I think a closer look at my comments will demonstrate that. I don't however, believe in dilly dallying nicely around a subject.


Anonymous said...

Wassim - Your point is really a dot. Why? By the time you got to the point, you had called me superficial(Hairdresser politics) and annoying. I am all about you not dilly dallying nicely around the subject, bass ma tbahdelne along the way.

I don't claim to know it all Wassim and believe you me having read Joseph's comments over time I continue to be the reminded of the extent to which he and I disagree on various subjects but I look for his input as well as others like him for new and intelligent perspectives.

Your blog seem to indicate you are one with a brain and a trouble maker. You and I could probably disagree on various fronts but let's keep the conversation at a high standard.

Sorry to hear about your inability to travel to Syria for a vacation, trust me I know how it feels, I've been in your shoes once two years ago.

All the best

Anonymous said...

dear joseph,
i think that we r all yearning to belong somwhere, we feel this "prolongement" inside us, we can see these roots, but unfortunatly, as u said, we r confronted to a system that is more "mafieux" in one side, and ambigous in the other...

Anonymous said...


i think u r "caricaturizing" the situation in lebanon.

i think today, there r real questions that the lebanese should answer. u cannot remain neutral towards hezbollah's weapons for instance...


Arab Democracy said...

Indeed I am caricaturizing the situation but my point is very serious.

None of the parties is presenting a viable solution to the current deadlock. More worryingly none of them is capable of implementing its own vision without leading the country into chaos and civil war.

I happen to have an opinion on Hezbollah's weapons: I dont agree with any militia/resistance movement or whatever u call them retaining their weapons. The problem is that the confrontational but clumsy approach of the March 14th alliance in addition to their flirtations with the neocon agenda have reinforced Hizbullah within the Shiite community and beyond.


Anonymous said...

I can think of one party that has a vision, that shouldn't lead the country into chaos. But again, that would result into pushing other meaningless parties to the sidelines; which given the tribal mentality - hidden under channel clothes and ray ban glasses - of many in Lebanon; this would never be acceptable.

The problem with the March 14 alliance is not only limited to the current broad national crisis. It expands to include the way it handled the 2006 war and its aftermath, the abuse of the legal and political system, and the disregard of popular discontent.

While I believe that many of us in Lebanon don't subscribe to one party or another necessarily, at the end of the day, come voting time, you have to choose the best candidate available.

The March 14 candidates look very in their armany suits and well ties ties. They are impressive in their abilities to set meeting with the various leaders in the world; however they have no clear agenda on a vision for the future of this country and its people, one that recognizes the need for a government that reflect the realities on the ground. Let's start by saying the opposition is significant and the government ought to listen to them. I mean really listen to them.