I’ve been off the blog for a while, so here’s an extensive roundup of what has happened lately.
Firstly, formation of the national unity government: much quibbling and parlaying has been going on without any actual result, although Siniora yesterday promised ‘good news’ for the middle of the current week (but someone or other has been promising the same thing every few days). On the other hand, Rice is making a ‘surprise visit’ to Beirut today, so any kind of bad shit could be about to explode. (US leaders always make ‘surprise visits’ to countries where they know they will in all probability suffer an assassination attempt or two if they’d make an ‘announced visit’, and after their visit, ‘stuff’ invariably happens.) Depending on which source you care to read, the obstacle to the formation of the government is either the ‘opposition’ – in particular Aoun, or the ‘majority’, through instigating ‘political violence’ and then blaming it on the opposition. In the first case, Aoun/the opposition camp (again, depending on the sources) either adamantly claims or studiously tries to avoid the important but immensely problematic finance and foreign affairs ministries. It is not easy to determine which is actually the case, especially given the tendency of even the most unimportant political figures on either side of the political landscape to come out with confusing, nonsensical or just plain empty statements at any given moment. In any case, as yet little or no actual progress seems to have been made.
On the front of ‘political violence’ – and the parentheses are not accidental, because any small incident happening in Lebanon – a country where the majority of the population is well-armed, remember – is blown out of proportion and turned into a ‘political’ issue whenever it suits any of the political figureheads in the country. To give a concrete example, at the beginning of the week of hostilities in May, there were reports about ‘clashes between fighters of the opposition and the majority in El Mina’ (the mostly christian port area of Tripoli). An inhabitant of El Mina whom I know, and who had actually witnessed the ‘clashes’, later explained to me that it was basically two guys who had a drunken night brawl about a girl. One of them went home, returned with a gun and shot at the other. Nothing else actually happened in El Mina (as opposed to other parts of Tripoli) during the entire conflict. The violence of the previous week seems to be mostly in the same category, often also involving different families or clans continuing age-long feuds, sometimes – especially in the Bekaa valley – actually triggered by the police or army trying to arrest someone for decidedly unpolitical crimes with their family coming out in force to prevent the arrest. Whenever things like this happen in mixed sectarian areas (roughly 60% if not more of the country, really), it is easy enough for whomever is so inclined to paint it as a ‘political’ clash, especially as the political divisions (except among the christians and druze) largely run along sectarian lines anyway. The most amusing incident happened in Chiyah (part of Dahiyeh), where traffic on a main thoroughfare was blocked for 30 minutes while army sappers demined a black and red handbag which turned out to be loaded with… female underwear. If it wasn’t just a case of accidental handbag loss (or theft), it was the best practical joke I’ve seen in the country so far – the female underwear detail in Hizbullah-controlled Dahiyeh being an especially hilarious touch… On a less jocular note, it would however be unwise to ignore the real bitterness and feelings of humiliation, especially among (also non-islamist) sunnis, resulting from Hizbullah’s recent show of force, as well as the psychological effects of regular violence, continued political instability and lack of personal security or stable future prospects on the population at large.
In other news, Israel now seems to be willing to swap 4 jailed Hizbullah fighters as well as Samir Kantar for the two Israeli soldiers that it killed 1300 Lebanese people for… and more are getting mutilated and dying on an almost weekly basis as a result of the million(s) of cluster bombs Israel dropped all over the south of the country after a ceasefire was already negotiated. By the way, al-Ahram published this rather interesting article about the impending suicide/implosion of ‘Israel as we know it’. I often half-jokingly, half-seriously, give people asking me why I came to the Middle East the answer: ‘to witness the end of Israel’. This usually raises a few incredulous laughs. However: ‘When Amnon Rubinstein speaks, many people in Israel listen. As an intellectual who has held the posts of minister of education and of justice, Rubinstein commands the respect of the Israeli elite regardless of their intellectual and political leanings. And yet Rubinstein surprised Israelis when in an interview with Hebrew Radio in mid-April he anticipated that the Israeli state would not survive. Rubinstein is not the only person to have reached this conclusion. On the eve of the 60th anniversary of Israel’s establishment, Israeli intellectuals teemed with pessimistic predictions about the future. An increasing number of politicians and Zionists have begun to openly express the belief that the entity of Israel is on a path to oblivion. Since these predictions were made public, the Israeli press has dubbed them “visions of the end of time”. They have gained weight because they undermine the appearance of confidence that Israel’s leaders are keen to convey at any opportunity, but also because their proponents have played important decision-making roles or have long been connected to the establishment and are not merely members of elite intellectual circles on the margins of society. These intellectuals explain that their conclusion results from three basic factors: external threat; lack of confidence in the state’s future; and severe polarisation among society’s components. Rubinstein holds that Israel has failed to counter Arab threats, in particular failing to extinguish the desire of Palestinians to obtain their rights in struggle against Israel.’ The article also offers a rare insight into the internal racism of western (ashkenazim) jews directed at their eastern (sephardim and mizrahim) and African (falasha) co-religionists, as well as about the large community of Russian immigrants refusing to integrate, and the tensions between the religious and secular segments of Israeli society. Incidentally, it also quotes a few excellent examples of the well-known jewish variety of black humour.
With all the talk (and it is real) about jihadis flooding into the country to open up the next al-Qaeda front (anyone but Israelis are seemingly justified victims for them, with a marked preference for fellow muslims), the biggest hazard facing UNIFIL troops in Lebanon remains the traffic, it seems. Meanwhile, firefights and worse regularly keep erupting in and around Palestinian refugee camps, the preferred hideout in Lebanon for jihadis and assorted criminals of all kinds. The various Palestinian factions in Ain al-Hilweh seem to have – wisely albeit belatedly -agreed to cooperate on expulsing foreign (read: international jihadi with an emphasis on Saudi) ‘elements’ from their midst.
Analyses and articles: Franklin Lamb is an unusually optimistic – if not naive – observer of all things Lebanese, but he is well-informed on the Hizbullah-front and often comes up with interesting information from sources neglected by most journalists and analysts. In this interview at least he makes a lot of sense: ‘Franklin Lamb: Contrary to Israeli reports, those (Hizbullah and allied fighters) who moved into Beirut did not come from the South of Lebanon, from the Bekaa nor were they necessarily the ‘first team.’ Most were reserves with regular full time jobs in Beirut and the surrounding area. Most came in cars and vans just three miles south of Hamra from the Jnah, Ouzai, Ghoberi, Dahiyeh area. They moved along the seafront past the Coral Beach Hotel, along the only free public beach in Beirut, Ramlet al Baida, along Corniche Mazra and fanned out up the inclines to the right into West Beirut streets. It did not require much more than 20 minutes to reach their forward positions. Others, including Amal and the National Syrian Socialist Party came from the new airport road and from the southeast and east.
Potentially the ‘Hezbollah model’ has application in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, if oppositions there can replicate the Hezbollah model of study, analysis, caution, patience and determined, disciplined execution. Hezbollah is not essentially a Shia phenomenon, it is a rapidly expanding resistance and justice movement and that it what makes it so lethal to colonialism and occupation enterprises such as Zionist Israel and hegemonistic America during the current period.’
Karim Makdisi offers this economic analysis on Electronic Intifada: ‘Lebanon is facing several critical issues. First, there is a tremendous social and economic crisis in this country, there is a 45 billion dollar debt, one of the largest debts per capita in the world, resulting from over a decade of neo-liberal economic policies that simply didn’t work throughout the 1990s. In truth there is little opposition towards the economic policies that the government is putting forward, that is to say that the opposition in Lebanon is more or less in agreement with the government in regards to social and economic policy. Both the opposition and the government have attempted to sweep the main social and economic issues facing Lebanon under the carpet. (…) Over the past couple years unemployment rates have gone up between 15-20 percent, as Lebanon’s economy is suffering due to major internal political crisis or military conflict in this country. Also there is a tremendous emigration happening, especially young people or youth who are leaving in droves, in search for jobs, a better life, a bit more stability than is possible to find in Lebanon today. Poverty has risen dramatically in Lebanon in recent years, especially in areas outside of Beirut, in northern Lebanon, in southern Lebanon, in the Bekka valley and also in certain Beirut suburbs. (…) State services from electricity, to phones, to water have all suffered also. Today there are many electricity cuts, also many water shortages and the summer season hasn’t yet began where traditionally there has always been regular water shortages and electricity cuts, so in this regard many are expecting a severe summer. Also Lebanon is experiencing an environmental catastrophe today, both resulting from the Israeli attack in 2006 but also more generally an environmental disaster brought upon Lebanon over the past years. Lebanon’s coastline has been almost entirely privatized or destroyed due to pollution. Lebanon’s mountains are also being privatized. Many forests in Lebanon have been cut up. Air pollution is very, very high, while multiple important international environmental agreements have not been implemented in Lebanon. (…I)t’s clear that today in Lebanon many social, environmental and economic indicators have simply been plunging in the past several years. This is not simply due to the political crisis over the past couple years, which has clearly made things much worse, but also due to very bad policies created during the 1990s within the supposed boom period for Lebanon. All these major issues haven’t been addressed by either side. Even the opposition, including Hizballah, except on the margins doesn’t really mention or talk about the economic crisis.’