Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Thing About Ziad Baroud

By Joseph El-Khoury

I resisted the urge to join the Ziad Baroud’s fan club on Facebook as I generally believe in supporting ideas rather than individuals in position of authority; although I have to say I came close to praising him in private as the saviour of our otherwise decrepit republic.

Understandably at least 25000 of my compatriots appreciate the interior minister. In excess of 20 Facebook groups are dedicated to showing appreciation to his performance and his policies, with one group of 40 members from both sexes declaring him’ very cute!!’

The thing about Ziad Baroud is that he is unremarkable in so many ways. He is not particularly charismatic; he speaks in a funny accent and is rather technical in his approach. I suspect that these unthreatening ‘qualities’ were at least partly behind him getting the job in the first place, sponsored by President Suleiman. While the Maronite scene is buzzing with young aspiring scions of political families, this young minister from Kesrwan went about his business, delivering an exceptionally well organised election process in the most challenging of conditions. Navigating carefully between a sceptical majority and a suspicious opposition, he kept his public interventions succinct and to the point. Nevertheless, judging from his long history of activism within civil society, the man is not lacking in opinions and has made his views clear on a number of issues relating to citizenship and human rights.

His term in office can be described as the highlight of the previous government, dwarfing the gesticulations of a Gebran Bassil and the posturing of a Mohammad Shatah. Unfortunately the bipolarity that the Lebanese revel in leaves little space for conscientious ministers like him. We hear rumours that he will not be returned to his post or to another one, amidst competition for the interior ministry between the Future movement of Hariri and Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement.

In the absence of a civil and political movement to embrace these secular upright characters, we remain in a situation where fan clubs are created and poems recited to this rare phenomenon in post-Taef Lebanon. I fear a time where Ziad Baroud keyholders become fashion accessories and a dedicated museum is attracting crowds to his hometown of Jeita.

Beyond the irony, I pity a country that idolises a civil servant for doing his job.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Moody Beyk

By Joseph El-Khoury

Walid Joumblatt is the archetypal Lebanese politician. Born in an illustrious feudal dynasty, he also inherited a political mantle following the assassination of his father in 1977 in the form of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP). As is frequently the case in this scenario, the son of the ‘Mouallem’ had little to prove to his followers to gain their loyalty, which he has since retained. In addition, Joumblatt’s recognition has an international dimension, since his formation is an integral member of the Socialist International. The fact that socialism and progressive ideals are as alien to him as vodka to a Mollah do not seem to bother his International friends, who are happy to accept that the Druze sect is THE progressive element within Lebanon. Clearly Papandreou (Greek President of the Socialist International) and co are yet to visit Moukhtara, where the Beyk will have to work hard to convince them of the Lebanese flavour of socialism. But all the above confusion can be forgiven in the ill defined ideological spectrum of the Levant where brands and labels are often mere excuses to create a political party when one is needed. What is more worrying is the trend for the Beyk to change his mind again, and again....and again.

Walid Joumblatt changes him mind over crucial and essential matters. He does it unexpectedly, publicly and frequently offends. The task of damage limitation is then carried out by one his side-kicks (most recently Mr Rami Rayess), who will explain, justify and sometimes go as far as apologise. The Beyk’s status will remain undiminshed among his people, since Lebanon does not operate in an age of modern accountability. Objections to style or content will remain contained within the Druze family. The ‘cool’, liberal and cultured lord of the mountain can certainly engage you in stimulating debates, but in politics his behaviour is a reminder of the times when the fate of entire nations where decided according to the whims of Emperors and the mood swings of Monarchs. Mr Joumblatt might be an astute reader of regional and international shifts in the balance of power but his accumulation of faux pas over the past few months is quickly becoming indefensible. This might be a unusual opportunity to request from a politician that he refrains from speaking his mind.

Building on months of conflicting signals to his revolutionary partners (in reference to the so-called Cedar Revolution),his latest suggestion to revive the 2005 Sunni-Shiite-Druze alliance (also known as quadripartite alliance) has infuriated Christian politicians, who have basically been asked to tone down their infantile bickering while the grownups do business. The message could not have been heard louder within a Christian community paranoid over its fate and vulnerable to radicalisation. The sad fact is that Jumblatt is correct: In an ultra-sectarian Lebanon, the weakened Christians have a choice to either remain quiet or become pawns in a conflict opposing the Sunnis and Shiites, and in regional terms the Saudi-Egyptian axis vs. the Syro-Iranian one. Their prominence in the electoral period has quickly subsided since the nomination of Hariri to the post of prime Minister. In an interesting twist of events, and probably at the behest of his seasoned advisors, the latter is seeking to recreate the conditions that surrounded the golden age of his father’s reign on the Lebanese scene in the late 1990s. In this context a rapprochement with the Syrian regime is inevitable at the cost of breaking up the March 14th Alliance, which remains to be consumed in full. The Beyk finding himself in an uncomfortable position has found no better option than to recycle old tunes of Arab Nationalism and anti-Imperialism. His less than convincing turn-around has less to do with the Palestinian cause than to deflect attention from his own flirtations with pro-Americanism. Nonetheless his statements will offend and tempt the Christians into further isolationism.

At a time of an emerging Sami Gemayel, a steadfast Michel Aoun and a resurgent Samir Geagea, Walid Jumblatt can be credited with ensuring that the future of Maronite politics is anything but progressive.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Dalia Khamissy: Social Arab Lens

By Joseph El-Khoury

Through a random succession of events I ended up at Dalia Khamissy’s presentation of her work in a Central London basement Last Thursday. Dalia’s talk was part of photo-forum, a monthly meeting of London based photographers. The setup was informal and the atmosphere generally friendly and supportive. Dalia was last to speak, preceded by Two British photographers whose personal work revolved around the theme of England and the English. Their work was inspiring and though provoking. The contrast between their romanticised views of a peaceful England could not contrast more sharply with what followed. It felt like the equivalent of switching your TV dial from BBC4 to Al-Jazeera without blinking. Dalia suitably prepared the crowd for the switch, apologising in advance for dampening the mood. And in fact carried out by emotion, she went on to apologise again at a later stage, when it was probably unwarranted. All in all, she presented 3 sets of pictures related to 2 past series and an ongoing project.

Her first series consisted of pictures taken in the year that followed the 30 day war that swept through South Lebanon in July 2006. For a second, Dalia struggled in introducing the theme to an unknown Western audience comfortably eating crisps in the dark. Was that an Israeli aggression, a Lebanese-Israeli war or a conflict between Hezbollah and the IDF on Lebanese soil? Ultimately, she stuck to basics and introduced the facts: 2 soldiers kidnapped on the border, Israeli bombardments and I shot the result. Dalia focused on a narrow but essential aspect of the devastation by shooting pictures of the inside of village dwellings that sustained significant destruction. Now open air exhibits and mostly gutted out these living rooms nonetheless retain some elements (sofas, chairs, phones, carpets)that remind us of their previous function as someone’s living space, intensely private and personal. The sometimes uncomfortable sensation of voyeurism is offset by an excellent use of lighting and colours with predominance for the Green walls so common across Lebanese villages.

Voyeurism, unavoidable in decent photojournalism, is also present in her second, and in my opinion, most personal series. As she explained to the audience, in 2004 Dalia spent a number of weeks within a refugee camps set up on the Iraqi-Jordanian borders. This self funded initiative allowed her to spend the time necessary to make herself as inconspicuous as possible, connecting at every level with the refugees; a group of Iraqis, Palestinians and Kurds displaced by the events in Iraq. Her Black and White pictures are high contrast, reflecting the scorching conditions in one of the hottest places on earth. Interestingly, it is not so much sadness that is projected in her portraits, rather a mixture of resignation and disappointment.

Her final 3 photos, part of an ongoing project is original both in its concept and in its design. She managed to explain in a few sentences the complexities of Lebanese citizenship law, which denies women from passing on their nationality to their foreign husbands and their common children. Having passed that hurdle, she wowed them with 3 separate portraits of 3 women dominating a living room, with husbands and children thrown in out of focus. The universality of the theme is emphasised by the choice of households from a range of social and religious background. The discussion overran and the chair forced us to wrap up but I am hopeful that Dalia’s conceptual creativity and technical ability were well received by this tough to please London crowd.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Are we Obsessed with Michel Aoun?

By Joseph El-Khoury

The idea for this piece came to me following a number of accusations levelled at writers on this blog but also more generally at anyone who criticises or opposes the general. At the risk of sounding pedantic I will remind our readers that obsession, clinically, is not a term to be used lightly. In fact it is a very specific type of thought characterised by discomfort, involuntary recurrence and the generation of anxiety if resisted. So, apart from exceptional clinical cases, I suspect that neither supporters nor opponents of the general are ‘obsessed’ with him; a better word would be ‘preoccupied’. This preoccupation is built around the notion that he is central to events currently shaping the country’s future.

Indeed Aoun has worked hard to place himself at the centre of political developments between 1988 and 1990 then again since his return from exile in 2005. Love him or loathe him, the general has already reserved his place in Lebanese history. This over personalisation, not uncommon in Lebanese politics (Bachir Gemayel, Moussa El Sadr and more recently Rafik Hariri and Hassan Nasrallah) has become the norm over the past few years. In my discussions with his supporters I am left with the impression that they regard him as a guiding light and a father figure. Poems addressed or dedicated to him on the Tayyar’s website also reveal a messianic adoration among a hardcore group of believers. But these facts tell us more about sections of the Christian community than it does about Aoun, although interestingly he has not attempted to discourage this type of behaviour. To the contrary, his interaction with his subordinates reveals an omnipotent chieftain who prefers to surround himself with courtesans rather than cultivate an atmosphere of critical accountability within his own party. The Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) seems to operate democratically among the lower and middle echelons with Aoun’s leadership immune from normal organisational processes. In adopting, by choice or otherwise, this model of absolute enlightened leadership for himself he should also readily accept the drawbacks; for every personal praise will be mirrored by a personal attack.

Among the March 14th Media, the online NowLebanon has proved itself particularly virulent in its personal attacks, despite a veneer of editorial sophistication. Concerned by the general’s appeal among large sections of the population, particularly women and the youth, the unashamedly pro-American website launched a systematic campaign aimed at damaging Aoun’s image. In January of this year they released a lengthy report rich in facts and figures, illustrated with fancy charts and colourful photography that claimed to inform the public about the Free Patriotic Movement and its leader. The report had a limited distribution and more importantly did not reach its intended audience, those who were least likely to turn to NowLebanon for information. Objectively the report was a departure from the usual cheap rhetoric and an attempt at providing quantifiable evidence of one’s argument. If true, the revelations clearly established that Michel Aoun and his inner circle were no different from those they sought to overthrow. Alas, the trend was short-lived. Soon after, a number of writers from various related publications resorted again to the lyrical use of expressions such as ‘madness’ and ‘mental instability’ to describe the general’s behaviour. Not satisfied with lay local opinions on the subject matter they recently enlisted the help of a certain French psychoanalyst who writes for a commercial publication in Nice (France) and is sold to us as an ‘expert’ on Lebanon. In an exclusive, the analyst Jean Luc Vannier was asked to comment on a video clip released by the FPM following the latest Lebanese elections. Through the skilled use of Psychoanalytical Jargon, Vannier masks what is essentially a misleading political opinion rather than a scientific one. Aoun is described as bordering on the ‘psychotic’ and suffering from a ‘megalomaniac delusion’. While I question its use to explain Aoun the man, the video itself is worth commenting on. It draws absurd and simplistic parallels between various historical figures (Marie Curie, Mahatma Ghandi) that, misunderstood for many years, made exceptional contributions to the human experience. Among this already random mix emerges a Michel Aoun opposed by the small minded and the ignorant. The makers of the film could be suspected of ‘psychosis’ only if Robert Fisk had not drawn similar parallels between Aoun, Ahmadinajjad and Kaddafi in an Independent article during the Iranian election crisis. Scale and proportionality are lacking in both examples.

Personally, I might object to the general’s behaviour, positions and discourse but I am radically against the cheap use of mental illness and irrationality to make up for weak political arguments. Whether Michel Aoun is mad or irrational is irrelevant when he commands the respect and loyalty of millions. Indeed if he was to be proven mad one day, his opponents should bury their heads in shame for having failed, in their rationality, to defeat the general in the hearts and minds of many Lebanese.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Aisha Bakkar 2009: The Warning Signs

By Joseph El-Khoury

The recent street battles in the district of Aisha Bakkar followed a series of celebratory display of fire power by the fans of the speaker of Parliament Nabeeh Berri and the supporters of newly appointed Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Both factions had been at it in the past but these clashes had a special flavour. Not only did they come after a period of pre-electoral truce but they also resulted in the death of an innocent 30 year old mother of five. The casualty, Zeina el Miri, was a Lebanese national of Kurdish background and a Haret Hreyk resident. In the chaos that gripped this crowded Beirut neighbourhood it is unclear who shot her and how. Nonetheless, the late Zeina being Sunni her death was obviously capitalised on by the Sunni faction involved in these clashes. Less than 24 hours later, her body was being carried by young men through the streets of Beirut wrapped in an Islamic Flag, incidentally also the flag of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The symbolism in the choice of flag was not lost on everyone; the sectarian conflict is well underway in Lebanon and has stopped surprising. I mentioned a few months ago that the Sunni-Shia confrontation has in fact been relentless, but reinvents itself by taking a variety of forms that prevent it from degenerating into all-out-war just yet. The internal bickering among Christian political forces has so far served as a buffer, allowing a proxy political debate of some sorts, which culminated in the recent parliamentary elections.

Now that these have re-generated almost identical conditions, plus or minus a few MPs here and there, the tight balance between the communities is only maintained by regional consensus. As is common in the Middle East, this consensus is volatile and has the potential to disintegrate at any point in time. The Christian ‘buffer’ is unlikely to be a permanent fixture. While there is little risk of them being dragged into direct armed confrontation, isolating themselves from the consequences is not an option either. Despite years of civil war, Lebanon’s sects still reside in interwoven networks of neighbourhoods and villages. The separation was never complete given the size and the landscape of the country. This proximity is a source of hope for a more integrated future but in the current climate also a powder keg. In that Walid Joumblat’s astute efforts to neutralise the impact on his own sect, the Druze, might prove futile.

The sectarian leadership has proven once again that it is neither willing nor able to dampen the tension on the streets. In a scenario reminiscent of 1974-75, he army finds itself a ‘peacekeeping’ force with limited mandate and only intervenes after blood has been shed. Bab El Tebbaneh-Jabal Mohsen, Tareek El jdeede and now Aisha Bakkar. The flashpoints multiply within a stone throw from the more affluent areas where business continues as normal.The behaviour of Nabih Berri and Saad Hariri following the events was laden with hypocrisy. Akin to tribal chieftains they made a few phone calls to re-establish order and pacify the hearts. The profiles of the two leaders couldn’t be more different. One a veteran self made warlord, the other the 39 year old heir of a politico-financial dynasty. At first glance, Berry has the experience of backstreet politics but might be reluctant to engage his ally Hezbollah in another tactical suicide in Beirut. Hariri on the other hand, having no doubt learned the lessons of May 7th 2008, when his supporters suffered a heavy defeat at the hands of the Amal-Hezbollah, is likely to surround himself with advisors with ‘civil war’ qudos. This mentality on both sides is in direct contradiction to the ‘spirit of the statehood’ that they invoke in their speeches.

All is not well in the country of the Cedars. The taboos are falling, slowly but convincingly and a generation of militiamen is being bred under our eyes. The path to war is not yet irreversible but to ignore the warning signs amounts to criminal negligence.