Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Syria: from keystone to cornerstone

By Jade Salhab

You might dislike President Bachar el Assad but he is ironically the best-positioned person to steer a non-sectarian transition to democracy in Syria and the Arab world.

If there is anything we learned from the incredible cataclysm in the Middle East, it’s the following: the quest for freedom and dignity is a) universal and b) inevitable. Democracy - the natural offspring of this quest - can be postponed by oppression but it eventually strikes back… sometimes with a vengeance.

And this is precisely the problem.

As a young Lebanese political activist, I have seen first-hand how brutal the Syrian regime can get. It has managed to survive for twenty-five years by oppressing its people with an efficiency that the Stasi would have envied.

Among other techniques, being a member of the Alawite minority ruling over a Sunni majority, Assad’s father used the imposition of a secular state to protect his rule. In 1982, he went as far as bombarding Hamah – much like Gadhafi indented to do – killing 10,000 people in order to repress a conservative Sunni rebellion.

There is a real risk that today’s uprising against the Syrian regime converges into a vengeance against the secular state altogether. Much of the revolts taking place in Syria now are not lead by Tahrir Square-like modern youth, but by orthodox Sunni activists who are pursuing an embedded sectarian agenda. Will the young Assad use comparable violence to repress today’s Sunni rebels?

I doubt he will: he too learned from Egypt and Libya. But this puts us in a dilemma:

What if the success of these protesters leads to the breakout of a radicalized sectarian discourse in Syria? Will this favor true Arab democracy?

Let me be clear, I do not discount the legitimacy of the protester’s action, nor do I plead for the continuation of repression in any shape or form. But I do think that there is a real need, and a real chance, for a third way in Syria.

This third way lies in the hands of President Assad alone.

Bachar El Assad is a young potential reformer who has not (yet) been able to overcome the established authoritarian apparatus he inherited from his father. Despite early attempts, he was first forced to concede to the ways of a rigid and powerful establishment, with which he eventually became too comfortable. But the uprising in Tunisia and Egypt was a game-changer that made the Syrian regime face its unsustainability and provided the reformist instincts of the president with the tangible arguments he needed to counter his own establishment - and hesitation.

The young president has enough political capital with the majority of the Syrian people to propose a third way and stand up to both extremes – authoritarian apparatchiks and regressive Sunni conservatives. Indeed, the Syrian people need their President to lead them towards democracy without having to endure the havoc they are dreadfully observing around them.

As he attempts to find his way to democracy, however, the increased internal and external pressure might put president Assad on the defense again, preventing any ‘orderly transition’.

Two things need to happen for such a transition to still strive:

First, President Assad has to resolutely decide to implement radical democratic reforms without further delays or excuses. This carries a significant but inescapable risk: democracy would give a platform to both divisive sectarian movements and the separatist Kurdish one, which may complicate the building of a truly secular democratic state by undermining his agenda. Still, the president has to take this risk.

Second Assad needs to be accommodated by the international community who will have to choose to stand by him, not against him. To this extent, western policymakers will have to understand that a modern and democratizing Syria does not necessarily mean a pro-western, anti-Iranian Syria. Indeed, the west often confuses long-term interests with short-term politics: a democratic Syria is highly contagious to its neighborhood and could pretty quickly favor similar evolutions in Iran – let alone depriving it from a crucial ally. A democratic Syria, however, will not change it’s stance on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and should not be required to do so in return of western support of democratization. The west has to learn to accept democracies with which it disagrees: Syria is a good place to start.

If we dare to hope that the concerned leaders will act wisely, President Assad could reform his own pivotal autocratic regime, therefore removing a keystone from a shaking Middle Eastern order. He would, instead, turn Syria into the cornerstone of a new emancipated, sovereign and democratic Arab world.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Syria: Scenarios and Civil War

By Jihad Bitar

Protests in Daraa-Syria”; When I read this ticker in my favorite news channel, I can’t honestly say I did not feel goose bumps. As a Lebanese, anything that happens in Syria directly affects my country and probably the entire geopolitical (dis)equilibrium that has characterised the Middle East since the last Israeli-Arab wars of 1973.

Four days after the Daraa spark, I counted twelve cities where unrest was happening. Busy with the very rare YouTube videos and the inevitable contradictory death toll, news channels forgot to analyze the essential question: what next for Syria, and what  about the impact on the region.

Syria is not Egypt and even less Tunisia. In these two North African countries, the revolts featured distinctive social demands: jobs, a future and freedom. In Syria, these three basic demands are complicated by an extra sectarian flavor. Syria’s 75% Sunni population is ruled by Bashar Al-Assad’s Alawites who make 10% of the population.

Social demands mixed with sectarian unrest ia a usual recipe for disaster: a special kind of one, civil war.

Daraa is an interesting city for the start of the revolution. It is close to Damascus, and its population is a mix of Sunni, Alawites and Druze. As anyone who has ever lived through civil war would tell you, trouble always starts within mixed areas which act as point of frictions: living side by side with the 'other' ferments jealousy, anger and hatred. Daraa exploded, Aleppo and Lattaquia followed; two other highly mixed cities. The Sunni citizens of these towns are usually more religious, and have more reasons to imitate their Egyptian and Tunisian Sunni “brothers”.

The first reaction of the regime has been to bring down to the streets the pro-Assad protesters, and contrary to Egypt’s Moubarak or Tunisia’s Ben Ali, the Syrian regime does have real supporters: the Assad’s own Alawites, but also most of Syria’s Christians and Shiite minorities. The Druze community- well advised by their cousins in Israel and Lebanon- will probably wait to see how things turn before taking a stand.

I remember long talks with my Syrian friends, telling me how many of the Alawites from Lattaquia for example, were armed by the regime, and how the roads between Sunni dominated cities and others were on purpose never fully operational: call it “trouble insurance”, but the regime has always been prepared for when that “Sunni” pride day would come. The regime and its supporters are very aware that a “simple” change of power will not – and cannot- happen peacefully. The only way out is probably war, civil war.

While that civil war scenario is – in my opinion – the most likely, three others exist.

In the first, and as the protests gain momentum, the Alawites tribal heads could decide to drop the Al-Assad family. Fearing for the future, these traditional leaders – who also lost part of their power at the hands of the ruling family- might conclude that joining the protest momentum is the best way to “protect” the community. The Christians and hesitant Druze groups would then be forced to do the same. The domino effect would then be terminal for the current regime.

In the second, the Syrian regime analyzes that most foreign countries have no interest in seeing the regime fall, and cracks down on the protest the hard way, the Hama way. In 1982, Bachar Al-Assad’s father had ended a similar revolt by killing an estimated 5,000 people. Most countries remained silent, as Syria’s stability was –and still is- a guarantee for all the countries in the region. Al-Assad will then be free to break the revolt. But in 1982, there was no Facebook, Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabiya ; information is the enemy of dictatorships.

In the third, Al-Assad decides that dropping Iran and getting close to Saudi-Arabia is his best bet to “calm” Sunnite protests. While the regime will probably try this path – as early reports of last minute meetings between Saudis and Syrian leaders show – it is doubtful that it will impact or calm the protesters. The Syrians might find this path to be a dead-end.

The rest of this article analyzes the regional impact in case the civil war scenario does unfold. Part of the proof lies in an unnoticed tweet by BBC’s correspondent in Syria – Lina Sinjab – she reported that protesters had arrested Iranian and Hezbollah operatives working alongside the Syrian security forces.

Syria is Iran’s best friend in the region and the main conduct for Iranian weapons to Hezbollah. Iran can simply not afford to lose the Al-Assad regime. As the BBC Tweet showed, Iran will spend the right amount of money, effort and men to keep the Syrian regime alive. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia will not accept to sit down and watch its arch-enemy Iran take over Syria. The Saudis will probably send weapons and support to the protesters. Syria would then – ironically- become a new Lebanon (not the other way around) and fall into civil war.

If the current Syrian regime falls, one can expect the following impact on the region:

- Reconciliation between Hamas and PLO in Palestine: the changes in the region will weaken both their sponsors, and drive the Palestinian people to request more from their leaders. Both Hamas and PLO leaders might have no choice but coordinate.

- Depending on how things turn out in Syria, Iran will have to choose between either 1) negotiating with the Saudis and Americans, or 2) going full speed with a destabilization of the region: and eventually a regional war.

- Iran’s repositioning will impact Hezbollah’s choices: 1) Use its weapons to negotiate a constitutional settlement that favors it, or 2) Decide that taking over Lebanon is its best long term choice, before losing its vital Syrian weapons conduct. Lebanon’s civil war could then get re-ignited, and the country  heading towards a de-facto federation.

- Saudi Arabia’s Shiite community will be pushed by Iran to stand-up to the Monarchy. Expect more trouble in the oil rich – and Shiite dominated- eastern region of Saudi Arabia.

- Israel’s best interest would be to wait and see how the events turn out. But as Lebanon’s civil war history has shown, anarchy at Israel’s borders increases the possibility of “independent” groups firing rockets at Israel. The Israeli reaction might further put pressure on the Israeli government to “act”.

In all the scenarios, the region is bound for some tough times: nothing new in the book’s cover, but all new in its content.

Monday, March 21, 2011

حملة إسقاط النظام الطائفي: التحدِيات

خالد برّاج

حسناً فعل الشبّان و الشابات بإطلاق حملة إسقاط النظام الطائفي في لبنان و جميلة تلك اليافطات التي رفعت في التحركات مطالبة بنظامٍ علماني بديلاً عن نظامنا الطائفي العفن, الصورة بحدِ ذاتها جميلة و معبِرة في بلد يُراد فيه الطائفي كأساس و العلماني كإستثناء.

و بغض النظر عن إختلافنا الفكري أو السياسي مع بعض المشاركين في التظاهرات من أحزابٍ أو جمعياتٍ شبه حزبية فإنّه من الممكن التأسيس على هذه الحملة كوسيلة ضغط بوجه النظام و عملائه ( و أقصد هنا نظام 1943 و تعديلاته أمّا العملاء فهم السياسيين من "موالٍ مستجد/معارض سابق" إلى "معارضٍ مستجد/موالٍ سابق") إلاّ أنّ الحملة في مرحلة إختبار مفصلي و الطريق معبّد بالأشواك و لعلّ بوادر تلك الأشواك ظهرت إلى العلن للمرّة الأولى في مظاهرة يوم الأحد 20/03/2011 علماً أنّ في الخفايا ما يدلّ على أكثر من إشكالية و منها ما ينسف جوهر هذا التحرُك من أساسه و يجعل عنوانه جميل و برّاق لكن محتواه فارغ أو على نقيض مع عنوانه.

و هنا تبرز الإشكاليات الحقيقية التي على القيميين و المشاركين في الحملة و المظاهرات العمل سريعاً على إزالتها و تخطِيها و يمكن تلخيص تلك الإشكاليات بالنقاط التالية:

أ‌- شعور البعض أنّ الحملة ليست بعيدة عن التجاذب و الإنقسام السياسي الحاصل في البلد بالرغم من تأكيد القيِيمين على الحملة و المتظاهرين أنّ الحملة لا تستهدف سياسي معيّن أو طرف سياسي واحد بل أنّ الحملة هي بوجه جميع السياسيين من فريقي 8 و 14 أذار و من خلفهما النظام الطائفي المهترىء (الأفضل هنا إستعمال عبارة الزعماء السياسيين لما تحتوي تلك العبارة على مدلول طائفي/مذهبي/إقطاعي/زبائني)

ب‌- محاولة الزعماء السياسيين (لا جدوى من إعادة تكرار عبارة الطائفيين فهي من المسلّمات) سرقة التحرّك عبر تأييده أو إرسال بعض أعضاء المكاتب السياسية للمشاركة في التحرّك/المظاهرة و قد ظهرت في وسائل الإعلام منذ بدأ التحركات عبارة جديدة يمكن إضافتها إلى قاموس العبارات السياسية اللبنانية و هي "عضو المكتب السياسي الأستاذ أو السيِد أو الحج فلان الفلاني شارك في صورة مستقِلة" و ذلك بالرغم من وجود الضادين في تلك العباراة (عضو مكتب سياسي و صورة مستقلة).

ت‌- إشكالية سلاح حزب الله لما يشكِل هذا السلاح من معوقات فعلية من الناحية العملية (بغض النظر عن الإنقسام الحالي حوله بين طرفي النزاع في لبنان و الأطماع الإسرائيلية الدائمة من إجتياح أو عدوان) و ذلك للأسباب التالية:

1. أولاً: للتعارض مع مفهوم القوة العامة (من شرطة و جيش إلخ...) التي تختصر الأمن و تمتلك حصرية السلاح في الأنظمة الحديثة و أي بناء لدولة أو نظام سياسي يجب أن يلحظ بشكل أساسي مبدأ حصرية السلاح بيد القوة العامة التي هي ركن مركزي في بناء السلطة العامة.

2. ثانياً: لكون السلاح أساساً هو بيدِ حزب ديني على خلاف جزري و عقائدي مع مفهوم الدولة العلمانية (و ليس من باب المصالح كعيِنة كبيرة من الأحزاب و السياسيين اللبنانيين), هذا لا يعني أنّ الحزب يؤيِد النظام الطائفي الحالي و لكن نظرته للنظام تختلف بل تكاد تكون نقيضة للدولة العلمانية و هي تلتقي إلى حد كبير مع نظرة التيارات الإسلامية "السنِية" لشكل و مفهوم الدولة (الرجاء مراجعة أدبيات الحزب منذ نشوءه إلى يومنا هذا فيما يخصّ الطائفية و نظام الحكم في لبنان).

3. ثالثاً: لإرتباط هذا السلاح بالصراع في المنطقة.

4. رابعاً: لإرتباط الحزب العضوي بالجمهورية الإسلامية في إيران و تأكيده مراراً على أهمية هذا الإرتباط من الناحية الدينية و الفقهية و الفكرية و السياسية.

ث- إشكالية الإستثناءات في التعبير عن رفض النظام الطائفي و الزعماء الطائفيين و هنا يلاحظ أنّ بعض المتظاهرين يفضِلون التصويب على زعماء معيّنين و إستثناء آخرين علماً أنّ طائفية كل الزعماء هي واضحة إلى العلن و لعلّ الإشكال الذي حصل يوم الأحد 20/03/2011 أثناء رفع يافطة تنتقد فيها أحد الزعماء و الأسلوب الميلشيوي الذي أقدم عليه بعض "اللاطائفيين" لإنتزاع تلك اليافطة خير دليل على ذلك.

الحملة تواجها تحدِيات كبيرة و منزلقات وعرة و لعلّ حجم المشاركة في تظاهرة الأمس هي خير دليل على وجود وعي عند مجموعة كبيرة من اللبنانيين (و منهم من الأصدقاء و الرفاق الذين نعتز بصداقتهم و نضالهم) بأنّ الخلل يكمن في نظامنا الحالي و إنّه قد آن الأوان للإنتهاء من مقولة " النظام يعيد إنتاج نفسه بوسائل أخرى" كما حصل في محطات 1958, 1969, 1973, 1990, 2000 و إنتخابات 2005 و إتفاق الدوحة 2009.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The No-Fly Zone in Libya: Hijacking the Arab Uprisings

Karl Sharro

Republished with permission from KarlRemarks

Last night’s UN Security Council’s decision to authorise military action in Libya was greeted with almost universal jubilation revealing how confused the anti-imperialist camp has become. The very same people who had been opposed to the US invasion and continuing presence in Iraq and Afghanistan cheered the decision that will supposedly prevent Qaddafi from massacring his people. This also revealed the left’s lack of faith in revolutionary politics: overnight the Libyans were turned from subjects attempting to take control of their destiny into victims in need of protection. The most troubling aspect of this is the willingness to recognise the West’s moral superiority, failing to acknowledge that Western intervention has been actively propping up authoritarian Arab regimes for decades. The no-fly zone is nothing to celebrate, on the contrary it signals a major turning point that will hand the West the initiative allowing it to ensure its interests are maintained in the region. It will also undermine the legitimacy of the autonomous Arab uprisings as they begin to be associated with Western sponsorship. We have entered a new phase with direct Western intervention that will pose serious threats to the pursuit of freedom in Arab countries.

There is no doubt that many people who support the no-fly zone are driven by good intentions, and it’s tough to watch Gaddafi’s forces regain ground and advance towards Benghazi without feeling the need to ‘do something’. This is particularly understandable given the early success of the Libyan uprising and the sense of expectation it created, contrasted with the current frustration of seeing Gaddafi about to crush the democracy movement. Yet, it is very important to resist the temptation to intervene at any cost. Let’s not forget what the uprisings are about: people attempting to shape their destiny. In other words, they are about autonomy, self-determination and the manifestation of popular will. No matter how well-intentioned outside intervention is, and Western intervention in the region has proved to be far from well-intentioned, it contradicts those principles. 

The celebrations that erupted on the streets of Benghazi following the announcement of UNSC resolution 1973 were seen by many as legitimising this intervention, since the people of Libya are asking for intervention then the UN decision becomes credible, so the argument goes. Again it’s understandable that the rebels when facing the prospect of defeat would reach out for any form of help, but this does not justify military intervention, whether sanctioned by the UN or not. The UN and Western governments are deciding for themselves which voices to listen to in Libya in a clear contradiction of the principles of sovereignty and self-determination. The dubious nature of the decision to override Libya’s sovereignty is only amplified by the near-silence over the crackdown on the protests in Bahrain, which has hardly moved Western governments to act. Of course intervention in Bahrain would be equally illegitimate and ill-advised, but it reveals the West’s hypocrisy and opportunism in taking the moral high ground over Libya while ignoring the situation in Bahrain, where the West’s regional allies are actively participating in putting down the uprising. 

The astounding aspect of the West’s rush to intervene in Libya, led in particular by David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy, is how quickly the lessons of the Iraq invasion and its catastrophic aftermath have been forgotten. The UN and Western governments have sought to make distinctions between the two Libya and Iraq by sanctioning all military action but ruling out an invasion, in an attempt to portray this as a humanitarian intervention rather than regime change. But the utter folly of this distinction is remarkable. The most that a no-fly zone would achieve is a stalemate. Gaddafi’s forces would be prevented from making any advance and attacks on civilians would be stopped, but given the meagre military capabilities of the opposition, they will not be able to achieve victory either. How long would be after that when the calls for further intervention would be intensified, in a situation that we have witnessed several times before from Bosnia to Iraq? The West having already committed itself would be unable to withdraw from the situation, eventually making an invasion a very likely prospect. Not that there is a distinction anyway, the UN resolution is a declaration of war on Libya that can only escalate in magnitude. 

Already there are voices making the case for such an increased intervention. Today David Aaronovitch, one of the main cheerleaders of the Iraq war, wrote an article in The Times arguing that ‘the price of inaction in Libya is far too high’. Aaronovitch’s article clearly reveals the prism of risk through which the West now primarily regards events in the world, as he put it: ‘if we don’t bomb Gaddafi’s tanks, Europe is likely to face a wave of refugees and a new generation of jihadis’. Like the argument for the Iraq war, this reveals the precautionary approach that drives Western pre-emptive interventions. In the case of unpopular leaders like Cameron and Sarkozy, it’s also about trying to find a moral sense of purpose abroad to compensate for their lack of credibility at home. Obama was convinced to tag along after his earlier hesitation, with the attractive prospect of compensating for his incompetent handling of the Egyptian uprising and his failure to reign in his allies in the Gulf. But, in effect, this is a recipe for disaster as the intervention has neither a clear purpose nor a desirable outcome that could be achieved without further military intervention. 

The West was undoubtedly caught off-guard with the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, and the actions of Western governments over the past few weeks have revealed astonishing levels of incompetence. They also revealed the extent to which their influence in the region has deteriorated, robbing them of the ability to dictate the course of events. Enforcing the no-fly zone over Libya will allow the West to portray itself in a better light and take back the initiative, but in effect it is only likely to complicate the situation on the ground further. The legitimacy of the Libyan uprising can only be undermined through its association with Western powers, while Gaddafi will be able to deploy the anti-Western card that he is so adept at. It will also weaken the autonomous impulse of the Arab uprisings, replacing popular action as a means for political change with Western sponsorship and protection. This can only mean the return of imperial influence under a different guise. The no-fly zone represents an attempt at hijacking the Arab uprisings and opposing it should become a political priority.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Syria and Lebanon: The secret plan unveiled

Jihad Bitar*

Let me start by saying that I do not really have access to any secret plans. Working in communications, I understand the importance of a teasing title in attracting readers. After all, yet another article about Syria and Lebanon can be as exciting as a report on our president Michel Suleiman weekly visitors.

That said, this article does compile some secret information: and by secret, I mean information you probably had no time to assess, even though it was all readily available. My job as a media analyst and “dissector” has taught me how to read between the lines of any political event: analyze semantics and cross information. My team and I use tools developed by social and media scientists, and these tools do unveil some secrets:

Syria’s approach to gaining more influence in Lebanon involves a constitutional change. Any political analysis of Lebanon and Syria’s regional role must take this into account.

Prior to the June 2009 legislative elections, Michel Aoun visited Syria. A few weeks later, billboards – orange billboards (Aoun’s FPM party’s color)- appeared in all of Lebanon with the slogan “The Third Republic”. Lebanon currently lives under the Saudi sponsored Taef agreement – that “ended” Lebanon’s 1975 war- the 2nd Republic. Any communication expert would tell you that no advertiser would put such a “pivotal” political statement without a direct recommendation from the client. The message- such a few weeks after the visit to Syria- was very clear: the March 8th alliance (pro-Syrian and Hezbollah, of which Aoun is part) was promoting a change in the constitution.

Lebanon’s Head of Parliament, Nabih Berri, is a Shiite political figure very closely aligned with Hezbollah’s politics. But Berri is more Syria’s ally than Iran’s. If Hezbollah represents the Iranian influence, Amal (Berri’s party) is Syria’s main ally. A shrewd politician, Berri is known for his double language. What he says is not always what he aims for. Semantic analysis of his speeches has shown quite a few references to the “need to change the way things are structured in Lebanon”. Berri’s repetitive calls for the end of the sectarian system – even though he is one of its main figures- further highlights his ultimate objective for changing the constitution. The frequency of these “system” speeches are actually correlated with visits by Berri’s main political advisor to Syria.

On the 13th of March 2011, the March 14th coalition (pro-Saudi Arabia and USA) held a major anti-Hezbollah rally in Beirut’s central square. Pro-March 8th media attacked the event and tried to portray it as a failure. Orange TV (Aoun’s television) estimated participants at 25,000, while Mustakbal TV (owned by Saad Hariri) at 800,000. My own estimate ranges between 250,000 and 350,000. Walid Joumblatt, the Druze leader that recently switched from March 14th to March 8th (and close to Syria), criticized the event as promoting sectarianism. Interestingly enough, his party’s website ran an op-ed that same evening, describing the rally as “highly successful”, and “showing that the weapons should never be used internally” (a direct reference to Hezbollah’s usage of its weapons in the local political conflict, the main point March 14th leaders were addressing). The ambiguity of Joumblatt’s position actually reflects Syria’s own little secret game: attack March 14th openly and severely, but without destroying them completely. This attitude highlights Syria’s real intentions to weaken March 14th while keeping them powerful enough to stand-up to Hezbollah (another Syrian ally, but under Iranian supervision).

Syria wants the conflict between the two sides to always require it’s intervention to calm things down (as reflected by the self proclaimed role of two close Syrian allies, President Michel Suleiman and Prime Minsiter Nagib Mikati), but for many reasons the current constitutional structure does not guarantee Syria’s long term control: Taef was built as a system dealing with Christian/Muslim equilibrium – with Syria’s military presence as referee. A new constitution will mainly tackle the current Sunnite/Shiite rift that is shaking Lebanon and the whole region, and Syria wants to continue playing the referee – even without the presence of its 30,000 troops.

This Syrian attitude is also reflected in its regional policies. Syria is the Iran’s closest ally (the Shiites’ main sponsor), but is trying very hard to get close to Saudi Arabia (the Sunnites’ main sponsor) and to the United States and the European Union. This attitude provides Syria with three key benefits:

- Regain control of Lebanon (by playing the ultimate referee between Sunnites and Shiites)

- Shield itself from any potential regional conflict (between Iran and Saudi Arabia – directly or through proxies)

- Make itself – and its regime- indispensable as a power broker in the region

To achieve this referee role, Syria needs to continue doing what it has always done best: let the left hand light the fire, so the right hand can intervene and turn it off. This is exactly what it is currently doing in Lebanon. The next fire will probably be a sharp rise in tensions between Hezbollah and Mustakbal (the main Sunnite party), and the constitutional change will be the water that extinguishes it. A Hezbollah war with Israel could be the sparkle.

The success of this strategy depends on another key factor: Hezbollah and Iran’s own ambitions. For the Iranians, Lebanon is just another fighting ground between them and the Saudis. Iran’s influence is reaching Yemen, Kuwait and even the Saudi oil rich regions (populated by Shiites). Saudi Arabia has answered by “invading” Bahrain (in a civil war status between Shiites and Sunnites). Syria’s next move will also depend on how Iran will play its Hezbollah card.

While this chess game unfolds, Syria is facing its own internal problems. Some protests (even though small) have been reported. Syria is not Tunisia, but then again who said Tunisia would ever fall that fast.

*Jihad Bitar is a communications, media and political analyst based in Beirut. Follow him on twitter @JihadTweet

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Lebanese Vicious Cycle

Bassem Hassan and Joseph El-Khoury

On the 6th anniversary of the March 14th 2005 demonstration that led to the formation of the eponymous movement, a range of speakers reminded the crowds of the apparent threat that Hezbollah poses to the Lebanese entity. It is clear that a well organized, grassroots supported, religiously based quasi-fascist militia is incompatible with the concept of a secular democratic state, to which all claim to aspire. The trouble is that, far from being merely an Iranian import, Hezbollah is just another natural product of the Lebanese system to which these speakers belong. Hezbollah today is no different from what the Christian Lebanese Forces and the Druze PSP were during the civil war (i.e. well organized, grassroots supported, religiously based quasi-fascist militias). In fact the Shiaa Islamist movement today is the "highest" form of self-sufficient structure that all sects aspire to. Hariri’s Future Movement itself clumsily and rather unsuccessfully attempted to emulate that model between 2006 and that fateful day in May 2008. For decades now and the sectarian system engenders and nurtures these structures because effectively it its message to the people is: "look, you belong to sect X, so go agree on a leader among your own people, then our leaders will talk to your leaders and sort it out"!

Ironically, is that the propagandists in the March 14 camp are playing precisely into Hizbollah's hands with their new ad campaign and their rolled up sleeves attitude. This could be for one of three reasons:

1) They only care about reinforcing their own support base, which has been slowly eroding. So, they want to preach to the converted whom they fear may have lost faith or simply got tired and scared.

2) They are an incompetent bunch who don't understand the current prevailing political psychology of the Shia community.

3) They are actively seeking a confrontation as part of a yet unclear strategy.
Obviously a combination of the above is not to be ruled out.

The bottom line is, as we have repeated in the past, the current confrontation is part of a positive feedback loop that the sects use to essentially regenerate the system that serves them as political entities in the first place. The one thing that may be a game changer this time around is that the balance of power (and we don't just mean military) has shifted so far in one direction that dramatic events may be on the horizon. At this stage all what Hezbollah seems to be successfully capable of engineering is Shia political autonomy. The ‘La Ayre’ counter-campaign, which politely translates as “Couldn’t give a toss” typically exemplifies that state of mind.

The questions now are: How far is the day when the temptation of a full blown take-over is simply too great to resist, and what would be the consequences?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Liberal illusions of March 14th

Joseph El-Khoury

In preparation for their planned show of force on their birthday, or at least the day before, the 14th March camp in Lebanon ( self-defined as liberal, pro-western and patriotic) have launched an all guns blazing online campaign heavily reliant on social media.This is mostly done through the blog page  ayyawatan (what type of homeland?) which prominently feature posters allegedly comparing a Hezbollah dominated state to the one of the Hariri led alliance.



So far so good! ...until further scrutiny reveals that the latter vision is strongly inspired by the perspective of the traditional Chrsitian Right. (To be understood the one that fought the civil under the banner of the now defunct Lebanese Front). This is not particularly surpising as the communication team at the heart of this campaign is likely to include Kataeb or Lebanese Forces affiliated individuals. But portraying 'their Lebanon' as a fully westernised Middle Class paradise where blue eyed children spend their weekend skiing just smacks of complete lack of sensitivity. How is it not a PR disaster after a 15 years civil war was fought over the country's identity and affiliation with the Arab world. This approach is also a major rebuff to recent calls from within the movement to appeal directly to the Shiite power base.

One particular poster that has mysteriously disappeared showed side to side a distressed elderly veiled lady hugging a crying child and another younger casually dressed model hugging her similing progeny. It caused outcry from a number of circles, which might explain its withdrawal.

Still, some of the ones in use are only slightly less offensive in my opinion. I wonder at what point the Hariri communication machine will understand that playing the dichotomy card (Good vs.Evil, Life vs. Death, Ugly vs.Beautiful, Poor vs.Prosperous) can only alienate a substantive section of the population across the sectrarian divide, that  have neither experienced nor aspire to the 'Switzerland of the Middle East'.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Madness of King Muammar

Joseph El-Khoury

In addition to entertaining us Arabs with his antics and word games for decades, Gaddafi can be credited with turning everyone from the milkman to the news presenter into a diagnostician of mental illness. Words such as ‘nutter’ and ‘madman’ became ‘delusional’ and ‘psychotic’ in the hands of those more sophisticated twitter crowds. The consensus being that the dictator of Libya for the past 40 years is indeed clinically insane. And there lies the problem. This ‘madman’ has been ruling a country of 6 million inhabitants with an iron grip, has managed to fund every single revolutionary movement and subversive outfit throughout the 70s and 80s (From the Abu Nidal group to the Basque ETA passing by the Irish Republican Army), has charmed 2 US presidents and challenged many more while finally turning friend of the West in the trade deal of the Century. And what does that say about us then, the rest of humanity, blessed by sanity and mental equilibrium but until 2 weeks ago bending backward to accomodate the Libyan ruling clan's outrageous behaviour. Few have actually attempted to, publicly at least, get to the bottom of Gaddafi’s modus operandi. I suspect that much more of that effort is being done behind closed doors within intelligence agencies where psychological analysis if foreign dignitaries is a routine exercise. Nonetheless, I have my doubts over how successful Western experts have been at studying human psychology outside a narrow Western context. Indeed one former UK ambassador urged analysts to view Gaddafi’s speeches from the angle of his target audience: His supporters and foes on Libyan soil, which he respectively attempts to embolden and terrorise. Using direct, unconditional street language might look strange to a Washington official but not to a militiaman in Green Square.

On one hand Gaddafi’s eccentricity is not in contention and independent of any cultural relativism. The man is capricious and unpredictable. But these are personality traits common to many and not signs of madness, at least not the type that diminishes one’s executive functioning and ability to skilfully manipulate and lead. The difference between Gaddafi and the common man is that he is able (and enabled by others) to live his fantasies in a very public manner and on a scale that impacts on the Libyan people and on the international scene. We have to remind ourselves that this man of humble background reached absolute power aged 27, faced little opposition from the start and is granted the status of patron of an international revolutionary movement for decades Based on what I have seen and heard so far, I suspect Gaddafi is neither psychotic nor on drugs (Interesting that he uses the same accusation for the rebels opposing him). His smile to Jeremy Bowen as he unashamedly declares that the Libyan people loved him is similar tactical posturing to his son’s tongue-in-cheek comment that Libya was ‘the most democratic country in the world’ which earned him laughs and applause at the LSE.

The way to read Gaddafi is to remember that absolute monarchs/leaders have always behaved irrationally/emotionally the way we all do sometime. In the absence of any systems of checks and balances the people find themselves at the receiving end of such behaviour. World history is littered of such figures from Alexander the Great to the Roman emperors and medieval Kings to modern day autocrats. Unfortunately for us, the Colonel is an all too common 20th century dictator with a superficial penchant for theatricality. Dismissing him as an ineffective ‘nutcase’ is simply an insult to the Libyan people shedding blood and tears to oust him from power.