Friday, December 10, 2010

A Scandalous Lack of Scandal: Why Wikileaks failed to impress in Lebanon

By Karl Sharro 

Republished with permission from Karlremarks

First things first: the attacks that brought down Al-Akhbar newspaper’s website today are a despicable action that is as pointless as it is stupid. Firstly, any hope of stemming the flow of information on the internet is a delusion and secondly those attacks will only reinforce the idea that the leaked information that Al-Akhbar published should be repressed. To me, freedom of speech in the Arab world is much more important than political disagreements and we should all support Al-Akhbar against those attacks.

Many people got really excited when Al-Akhbar started publishing the material it obtained from Wikileaks, predicting ‘catastrophe or even worse’ as I read somewhere. Such predictions reveal the astounding level of naivety that characterises many ‘commentators’ today, particularly the younger generation of bloggers who seem to be far more immersed in the online world that nurtured Wikileaks than in Lebanese politics. The real surprise is that some seasoned observers would make the same mistake of transferring the Hollywood world of Wikileaks to the Lebanese context.

For example, the general director of Al-Akhbar Ibarhim Al-Amin ‘wondered critically why Hezbollah has been silent regarding the scandal of Ilyas Murr in Wikileaks’, as As’ad Abu Khalil put it. If you have been living in a nuclear bunker for the past few weeks, the documents published in Al-Akhbar revealed that the Minister of Defence and Deputy PM Murr had given advice to Israel through American representatives on how to conduct an upcoming confrontation with Hezbollah, in addition to several other ‘juicy’ revelations. Al-Amin picked up on Murr hinting to the Americans that Imad Mughniyeh, a Hezbollah military leader who was assassinated in Damascus, masterminded the political assassinations of March 14 members. Al-Amin ended his article with a pertinent question about Hezbollah’s position regarding the leaks.

But what are the revelations exactly? Lebanese leaders conspire against each other with foreign powers? Big surprise! This has been going on since the country was established, and everyone knows it. In fact, given the routine accusations of treason and the usual conspiracy scenarios, some of the politicians came out looking a bit less conspiratorial than the public would have normally assumed. The suggestion that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon is politicised? Did we need the leaks to figure out that it was designed as a tool for political revenge and a stick with which to beat Syria?

But the real surprise to me is that so many observers still fail to comprehend the nature and limits of sectarian politics in Lebanon. The confessional system is based on mutual mistrust, it’s predisposed a priori towards the institutionalisation of suspicion. This is expressed in all the arrangements that mediate the relationships between the large confessions and that control power-sharing. But the system can only function under a veneer of politeness that decrees that these antagonisms should never be expressed in public and should always be referred to metaphorically. Thus, we must all pretend that the May 7 events were not a blatant sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, as you could easily find out on Youtube, but a ‘political’ conflict.

These well-nurtured relationships of mutual suspicion have always served to reinforce the power of confessional leaders, bringing them to the surface would in a curious way undermine this form of authority. Once the masks fall, there would be no way of managing those relationships through politics and the only option becomes war. Thus, when Al-Amin asks Hezbollah to recognise the leaks and act on them he’s asking for Hezbollah to wage war. Thankfully, Hezbollah’s leadership has the wisdom to avoid such a prospect.

Furthermore, those who expected the leaks to have a bigger impact have underestimated the extent to which the ‘solution’ to the STL indictment dilemma has now been handed over to the Saudis and the Syrians. The Lebanese factions have little control over this process now, aside from their ‘wish lists’ that they have left with their guardians in Damascus and Riyadh. Nothing else can explain the complicity of both political camps to maintain the current internal inertia in the face of the pressing urgency of this political impasse. We will no doubt a new distribution of roles once the dust has settled, ushering in a new era of externally-sponsored coexistence. The scandal here is not the leaks, but the miserable inability of Lebanese leaders to sort out their own problems.

But there’s a wider problem here that concerns the leaks themselves. Despite all the excited buzz we’re hearing about ‘the truth’, the leaks are not the truth. They are how American diplomats view the world. That in itself is not the truth about anything. Information on its own does not become a truth unless placed within a coherent narrative about what their meaning and significance is. Such narrative has been remarkable in its absence in this case. This is not to say that they should not be made public, but the mere fact of making them public on its own does not make them relevant without a coherent narrative.

And it’s in this last aspect that Al-Akhbar has failed to use the leaks in a meaningful way, it merely replicated what Wikileaks did on a smaller scale. Even the layout of the leaks page on Al-Akhbar resembled a shopping website instead of a newspaper: masses of data categorised for easy consumption. In its eagerness to modernise, Al-Akhbar has tended to replicate uncritically trends in the Leftist Western press at the expense of engaging with the Lebanese political context. It would do well to question its political affiliations in this scandal-resistant nation and perhaps look more critically at the events of the last few years. We have enough information to make judgements about Lebanese politics; what we lack is the principled stance not the data.

In solidarity, critically, with Al-Akhbar.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

"اتركوا شجرة واحدة لحبل مشنقتكم"

داليا عبيد

"اليوم حريق وغداً غريق والحكومة في إجازة شهود الزور" هو أحد الشعارات التي رفعها صديق عزيز لي على صفحة الفايسبوك. أول عبارة قالها لي عندما سألته عن أحواله: انه بخير، ما زال صامدا في لبنان ويستخدم هذه الشبكة الالكترونية "لفشّ الخلق". لم أريد أن أتطفل عليه أكثر وأسأله عما يدور في باله من أفكار تضعه في دائرة المتأففين ولكني فهمت الجواب من العنوان ورسمت له صفحة أسباب تقهره بسبب تماسه المباشر معها وتقهرني بسبب بعدي عنها والتماسي اليومي لها عبر صفحات الصحف الصادرة في بيروت.

سوف يبدأ صديقي من أخبار اليوم الطازجة ليخبرني بأن لبنان كله كان على موعد البارحة مع الحرائق الطبيعية التي حرقت قلوب الناس على رزقهم وعلى المواسم الضائعة أصلاً. سيضغط على أحرف حاسوبه ليقول لي بأن الغصة عمت في قلبه على "ذهب" لبنان الأخضر الذي يقضم سنة بعد سنة وبأن دموعه جفت في عينيه وهو يبتهل المطر الذي تأخر. سيفكر قليلاً ويعود ويقول لي بأن كتاب التاريخ اللبناني لم يكن الوحيد المخيب لأماله المتسعة بل انضم إليه اليوم كتاب الجغرافيا الذي خذله وتمرد على معلوماته حول مناخ لبنان وطبيعته ومياهه العذبة !

سأسأله عن دور الحكومة، سيجيبني بأنها غاشية وغائبة في كوما القرار الظني وبأنها غير مبالية حتى بيومياتنا. ومن ثم سوف يبدأ ليقول لي بأننا تحولنا إلى أشباه أحياء، بأن المسارح والمقاهي وصالات السينما وملاعب الفوتبول قد أسقطت من ذاكرتنا ومن حساباتنا، بأننا لم نعد نخرج حتى للعشاء في الخارج لأن القدرة الشرائية قد هزلت مرة واحدة، بأننا ما زلنا نشم رائحة الشعر المحترق كما شممناه منذ عشرين عاماً عند انكبابنا على احد الكتب للدراسة أو للقراءة على ضوء الشمع الأبيض ذاته الذي نعرفه منذ أيام الحرب الأهلية، بأننا ما زلنا نخرج لشراء المياه المعبأة للشرب وبأننا عدنا لشراء مياه الاستعمال أيضا، بأننا ما زال نقدم الشهداء بالرغم من الاستقرار المؤقت، نقدمهم ذبيحة لإله السرعة والتهور، بأننا ننتظر حرباً وبأننا اعتدنا على تجهيز أمتعتنا فقط في أوقات الحروب أو في الساعات التي تسبقها. سأسأله إن كان بخير، إن كان يشكُ من أمراض، سيقول لي لم نعد نعرف ماذا نأكل وماذا نشرب وماذا نتنفس ولا أريد أن اعرف إذ كنت بخير أو لا، لا أملك مالاً كافياً لهذا النوع من الكماليات! سأسأله عن أخبار الأصدقاء المشتركين، سيقول لي بأن الطريق إلى مطار بيروت سالكة حاليا وبأنه يودع يومياً الطامحين إلى النفاذ بجلدهم، كما فعلت أنت تماماً، وقد اعتاد على ذلك منذ سنوات مراهقته .

سأسأله عن الناس وعن الأفراح والأعياد، سيقول لي بأنه احتفل بعيد البربارة مؤخراً وبأنه "هشل" مع الناس مقنعاً بوجوه الرؤساء والوزراء والنواب.

سأسأله عن صديقته الجميلة وعن علاقتهما وعن زواجهما المحتمل، سيضحك كثيراً ويقول لي أن بمقدورهما شراء حائط أو أكثر بقليل، وبأن "الموعد مرجأ كالمطر" يا صديقتي.

سأتوقف، سأتنهد، سوف أحزن وقد لا تجف دمعتي. سوف أعود واكتب له واسأله عن أخبار الحرائق المائة والعشرين، لن يجيبني مباشرة بل سيكتب شعاراً جديداً على حائطه المجاني يودعني به قبل أن يخلد إلى النوم في هذه الليلة السوداء. باحتراق متجدد وبصرخة مبحوحة تصل اليَ، حيث أنا في هذه البلاد الباردة، سيقاوم نعاسه ويقول لي ولجميع الرواد على الصفحة الالكترونية:

"اتركوا شجرة واحدة لحبل مشنقتكم".


Sunday, December 5, 2010

Should we be happy that Qatar won the world cup bid?

By Lama Bashour

 Republished with permission from Lama's scrapbook

As soon as the announcement that Qatar will host the 2022 World Cup was made, I tweeted that I had "no clue how I feel about this". A few days and articles later, I think I have a clearer assessment. There were so many pro and con arguments made that it was quite difficult for me to filter out the pettiness and fake pride. But all in all, the discussion centered around 4 main issues that I will briefly describe.

Human rights: Some claimed that Qatar does not deserve to host the World Cup because they have a lousy human rights record, and even called on its boycott. Homosexuality is illegal. Gender equality is far from achieved. And it is illegal to drink in public (I don't know why people use this argument here.) The counter-argument, well-made by Brian Whitaker, is that things are not as bad as described and to be fair, homosexuality was illegal in the UK when they hosted the World Cup in 1966. Now of course the last statement is no excuse and I personally have zero tolerance for any kind of discrimination, be it sexual preference, gender or race. However, it seems to me like a double standard to be using Western moral criteria in this context. Just because Qatar has not reached the level of development that Britain has, it should not preclude it from participating in international activities. If this really was a big deal to the world, why not stop all diplomatic ties with Qatar, or at least stop buying their gas?

Environment and sustainability: This is a very relevant issue for me and to be honest it was the first thing I thought of when I head they the Qataris were bidding. I mean seriously, sports in 50 degree weather! Do we need more air conditioning in our world? And what are they going to do with all those new stadiums? What a waste! I guess that's a pretty good argument, on the surface of it. But you know what? Cold countries use underfloor heating in their stadiums. So what's the difference? And Qatar has promised carbon-neutral technology, as well as modular stadiums that will be given to developing countries after the tournament. Now whether they actually fulfill this promise or we end up with another Masdar initiative is besides the point. We are not in a position to judge.

Corruption: I am not gonna go too deep int that. So far all I am getting is hearsay with no conclusive evidence on what actually happened. Do I think some Qatari officials used back-doors to get this vote? It's very likely. But I believe that this is purely a FIFA problem. If they want to improve their reputation, they need to re-evaluate the way they process their bids. Maybe even give a justification of their final selection, instead of simply announcing a name.

Political stance: Now this is the trickiest one, at least for someone like me, who takes things very personally. Qatar's political manoeuvrings have been less than principled, especially in the past few years. Qatar is home to the Arabic satellite TV station most critical of the west, yet it hosts a US military base on its soil. It gives unwavering support to Hizbullah and plays the peacemaker in times of trouble, but has diplomatic relations with Israel and is not too shy about it. It claims to be home to all Arabs (in competition with Saudi Arabia) but has the audacity to shun an entire population of Arab Jordanians because of petty differences with their King. Who still does collective punishment these days? Oh right...

So basically, and in short, Qatar hosting the World Cup is not a sign of the apocalypse. It is no the worst thing that ever happened to football or the world. I say, good for the Qataris. But as a conscientious Arab woman, I say this: It means nothing to me.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Citizens on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown

By Joseph El-Khoury

This statement could apply to many citizens across the Arab world. It could apply to the Egyptian voter who is contemplating a 97% domination of parliament by the political party affiliated to the Mubarak presidential monarchy. It could apply to the average Iraqi who had to wait 8 months for the formation of a government that looks suspiciously similar to the previous one. And so on and so on...

But closer to my heart and to my immediate concern, the Lebanese ‘citizen’ is facing a catch 22 situation like never before. For those who are not familiar with the expression it refers to a famous book by American writer Joseph Heller first published in 1961, which uses the context of military bureaucracy to denounce the absurd and irreconcilable choices inherent to modern humanity. The catch-22 (or double-bind) faced by the Lebanese relates to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, set up by the UN to investigate the murder of former PM Hariri and other politicians. I have been trying to sum up the latest on the subject in one paragraph, as deconstructing complex subjects into meaningful digestible parts is the best way to approach them.

To sum up, a tribunal is set up and is accepted, with some reluctance, as legitimate by all major political forces. This tribunal works painfully slowly for over 3 years to deliver ‘the truth’, which is sold to us as some Holy Grail that once found would herald an era of reconciliation and stability. The opposition in the meantime goes about its usual business dropping occasional platitudes on its support for justice in its broadest sense. Early in 2009, information starts leaking over the direction taken by the investigation and its potential findings. Some Hezbollah members are apparently implicated. We are reassured initially that these are rogue individuals with a heightened sense of personal initiative. We then find out that there are quite a few of them. The Party of God’s response is to condemn en-block the tribunal, the investigators, the witnesses, the backers and funders, the UN, its Lebanese proponents and lately everyone who cooperates with it. Even more recently we are told that whatever the content of the indictment, it is void and null. In essence, Hezbollah and a large proportion of the Lebanese official power structure no longer recognise it as a judicial authority.

The speculation over the indictment is probably not baseless and the frustration sensed following the release of the BBC Documentary and the CBC piece on it indicate that the rumours are not far from the truth. And here are the possible scenarios from this point onward, not in any particular order:

-If the tribunal does indict these so-called Hezbollah members and the Party of God chooses to sacrifice them in a Syrian-Saudi brokered deal, the accumulating clouds slowly dissipate and we remain stuck in a chronic instability over the essential issues facing the country (The Resistance, Israel, the relationship with Syria, Palestinian settlement)

-If the tribunal does indict these so-called Hezbollah members and the Party of God chooses to launch a civil disobedience movement followed by military escalation, the accumulating clouds thicken and the country faces bloodshed that will be mitigated by the absence of a counter-force to Hezbollah’s military superiority. Follows a de-escalation process brokered by Syria and Saudi-Arabia that results in the same chronic instability mentioned earlier

-If the tribunal does indict some random characters, possibly a radical Islamist group not linked to Hezbollah or Syria, we move on to the next contentious issue and remain in chronic instability.

-If the tribunal chooses to disband itself, having wasted millions and kept us on edge for years, we remain in chronic instability

-If the actual killers, motivated by a crisis of conscience, surrender themselves to the authorities to face justice and thus saving us the suspense of the trial proceedings, we remain in chronic instability.

So where does this leave this average Lebanese citizen...

With a massive headache and a case of severe neurosis reminiscent of the 1981 play by Ziad Rahbani “Film Ameriki Taweel’ (Long American Film). As for defense mechanisms, in the absence of a defense strategy, Unconscious Displacement is a possibility. This could come in the form of a tactical but costly war with Israel, which might seem a lesser evil to some than a full blown intra Lebanese implosion...while real solutions are pending.