Defending education in times of war and occupation: Iraqi academics

The Brussells Tribunal,  the University of Ghent-Menarg, Vrede vzw and others organise a conference on Iraqi academics and their struggle to defend education and independent scholarship under occupation. Between March 9th and 11th, numerous academics and journalists, including Dahr Jamail and Raymond Baker, will report on the current state of intellectual life and the right to education in Iraq and discuss solutions. The third day is devoted to workshops. For registration and info go here.

Israel is a colony, remember?

I have been asked to spread the word on this conference, which aims to return the discussion of the zionist problem to its proper framework, which is that of a colonial issue. This used to be the way it was approached by academics and activists alike, way back when the world was not yet exclusively seen through the lenses of neo-liberalism and religious fundamentalism. Not to mention, in academic circles, through the lens of post-colonialism…



SOAS Palestine Society Conference Organizing Collective

On 5-6 March 2011, the Palestine Society at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London will hold its seventh annual conference, “Past is Present: Settler Colonialism in Palestine.” This year’s conference aims to understand Zionism as a settler colonial project which has, for more than a century, subjected Palestine and Palestinians to a structural and violent form of destruction, dispossession, land appropriation and erasure in the pursuit of a new Jewish Israeli society. By organizing this conference, we hope to reclaim and revive the settler colonial paradigm and to outline its potential to inform and guide political strategy and mobilization.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is often described as unique and exceptional with little resemblance to other historical or ongoing colonial conflicts. Yet, for Zionism, like other settler colonial projects such as the British colonization of Ireland or European settlement of North America, South Africa or Australia, the imperative is to control the land and its resources — and to displace the original inhabitants. Indeed, as conference keynote speaker Patrick Wolfe, one of the foremost scholars on settler colonialism and professor at La Trobe University in Victoria, Australia, argues, “the logic of this project, a sustained institutional tendency to eliminate the Indigenous population, informs a range of historical practices that might otherwise appear distinct–invasion is a structure not an event.”

Therefore, the classification of the Zionist movement as a settler colonial project, and the Israeli state as its manifestation, is not merely intended as a statement on the historical origins of Israel, nor as a rhetorical or polemical device. Rather, the aim is to highlight Zionism’s structural continuities and the ideology which informs Israeli policies and practices in Palestine and toward Palestinians everywhere. Thus, the Nakba — whether viewed as a spontaneous, violent episode in war, or the implementation of a preconceived master plan — should be understood as both the precondition for the creation of Israel and the logical outcome of Zionist settlement in Palestine.

Moreover, it is this same logic that sustains the continuation of the Nakba today. As remarked by Benny Morris, “had he [David Ben Gurion] carried out full expulsion–rather than partial–he would have stabilised the State of Israel for generations.”[ii] Yet, plagued by an “instability”–defined by the very existence of the Palestinian nation–Israel continues its daily state practices in its quest to fulfill Zionism’s logic to maximize the amount of land under its control with the minimum number of Palestinians on it. These practices take a painful array of manifestations: aerial and maritime
bombardment, massacre and invasion, house demolitions, land theft, identity card confiscation, racist laws and loyalty tests, the wall, the siege on Gaza, cultural appropriation, and the dependence on willing (or unwilling) native collaboration and security arrangements, all with the continued support and backing of imperial power.

Despite these enduring practices however, the settler colonial paradigm has largely fallen into disuse. As a paradigm, it once served as a primary ideological and political framework for all Palestinian political factions and trends, and informed the intellectual work of committed academics and revolutionary scholars, both Palestinians and Jews.

The conference thus asks where and why the settler colonial paradigm was lost, both in scholarship on Palestine and in politics; how do current analyses and theoretical trends that have arisen in its place address present and historical realities? While acknowledging the creativity of these new interpretations, we must nonetheless ask: when exactly did Palestinian natives find themselves in a “post-colonial” condition? When did the ongoing struggle over land become a “post-conflict” situation? When did Israel become a “post-Zionist” society? And when did the fortification of Palestinian ghettos and reservations become “state-building”?

Such an alignment would expand the tools available to Palestinians and their solidarity movement, and reconnect the struggle to its own history of anti-colonial internationalism. At its core, this internationalism asserts that the Palestinian struggle against Zionist settler colonialism can only be won when it is embedded within, and empowered by, the broader Arab movement for emancipation and the indigenous, anti-racist and anti-colonial movement-from Arizona to Auckland.

SOAS Palestine Society invites everyone to join us at what promises to be a significant intervention in Palestine activism and scholarship. For over 30 years, SOAS Palestine Society has heightened awareness and understanding of the Palestinian people, their rights, culture, and struggle for self-determination, amongst students, faculty, staff, and the broader public. SOAS Palestine society aims to continuously push the frontiers of discourse in an effort to make provocative arguments and to stimulate debate and organizing for justice in Palestine through relevant conferences, and events ranging from the intellectual and political impact of Edward Said’s life and work (2004), international law and the Palestine question (2005), the economy of Palestine and its occupation (2006), the one state (2007), 60 Years of Nakba, 60 Years of Resistance (2009), and most recently, the Left in Palestine (2010).

For more information on the SOAS Palestine Society 7th annual conference, Past is Present: Settler Colonialism in Palestine:

SOAS Palestine Society Organizing Collective is a group of committed students that has undertaken to organize annual academic conferences on Palestine since 2003.


[i] Patrick Wolfe, Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology: The Politics and Poetics of an Ethnographic Event, Cassell, London, p. 163

[ii] Interview with Benny Morris, Survival of the Fittest, Haaretz, 9. January 2004,

Don’t even try – you can’t beat us…

From today’s Daily Star: “Those concerned about the lack of a government in Lebanon can take heart – the country is unlikely to come near the record-breaking 250 days without a coalition that Belgium is almost certain to reach Friday. At least that’s what Belgium’s bicycling ambassador to Lebanon, Johan Verkammen, thinks. In an interview with The Daily Star, Verkammen joked of the record, whose current holder is Iraq on 249 days, that “once we have a record, we want to keep it.” On a more serious note, he said he thought it was unlikely Lebanon would be without a government as long as Belgium. “I have the impression, although of course you never know, that talks have advanced already on the formation of this new government.” Regarding the probability that Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati will form a government without the March 14 coalition, Verkammen remarked that “it’s not up to [non-Lebanese] to say what kind of coalition should be in the government in Lebanon. Certainly coming from Belgium where we know how difficult it is, you will not hear me saying how the Lebanese should do it.” The lack of a governing coalition is not the only parallel between the two outwardly-different countries. Belgium’s system of government divides power between the federal government, the country’s three linguistic communities, and its three regions.
Lebanon’s confessional system, which comprises 18 confessional groups, is different and perhaps more complex than Belgium’s, but Verkammen said that “it’s perhaps a little easier for us [in Belgium] to understand how to manage this diversity within a country, with different communities.” Verkammen attributed the current Belgian deadlock to controversy over institutional reforms. “As you can see from the crisis in Belgium [democracy is] always a work in progress, it’s always evolving,” he said. “But if you can make it evolve according to the wishes of the people, and through democratic dialogue, that’s fine, I think.”

Meanwhile in the background…

It is easy right now, with revolutions going on and riots and protests raging all over the Arab world, to lose sight of the ongoing Israel-Hezbollah conflict. Yet challenges have recently been flying over and back on both sides, with Ehud Barak claiming in a speech on an IDF base that ‘we may have to go back in soon since Hezbollah seems to have forgotten the lesson we taught it in 2006 (sic)’ and Nasrallah retorting that ‘if you attack Lebanon again, we will liberate Northern Galilee’. Now both of these statements reveal nothing new. I have argued in this blog before that Israel is hidebound on a self-destructive, suicidal course. Its leaders are very akin to the Mubaraks and Ben Alis of this world: they are so used to having their every whim attended to without a whimper of criticism or protest, that they have long ago lost the ability to think clearly and see reality for what it is. In Barak’s case: despite facts on the ground and the Winograd commission’s conclusions about the dilapidated state of the IDF, he refuses to concede that the fourth strongest army in the world, with all its hi-tech gadgetry, was utterly unable to even seriously dent a group of lightly-armed but determined guerillas. All the IDF managed to do in 2006 was what it is actually good at: massacring unarmed civilians, preferably from a mile up in the sky. As soon as they were confronted with actual trained fighters, it was they who took a beating and were forced to retreat dismally licking their wounds. Even their much-vaunted Merkava tanks were no match for Hezbollah. But as some dude in the US state department once said: the Israelis are like a guy who sets fire to his hair and then bangs his head with a hammer to put out the flames. They are unlikely to actually learn from their mistakes and will continue to underestimate their enemies. On the other hand, I have long argued on this blog that the logical next step for Hezbollah – not the type of people to get conceited and overly confident to the point of being blinded to all signs of reality – in any coming conflict would be to actually invade Israel. The mere psychological effect of the zionist state actually losing land for the first time in 70 years or so would be devastating enough to bring an  end to this religious colonial adventure. Having in all probability lost the support of the Egyptian dictatorship – depending on the outcome of the ongoing events – and additionally facing a situation where their other dictator friends in the Arab world, from Jordan to Saudi Arabia to Morocco, are now politically unable to be seen as even passively supporting any Israeli military adventures, the odds are in any case stacked against them much more than in 2006 or even 2008. Do not underestimate how the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions have galvanised minds both in the Arab world and in Europe in favour of the Arab ‘street’ (as opposed to its republican and monarchic dictatorships), or the importance of Bahrainis, Algerians, Libyans, Yemenis and Jordanians shedding their fear of their own regimes. With Palestinians already protesting both Fatah and Hamas – who both play a major part in protecting Israel – and Arabs in general emboldened and furious, going to war now would be the worst choice the zionist state could make – and if history isany guide, there is therefore a high likelihood that that is exactly the choice it will make. Don’t forget that Israel could have had peace for over ten years already, with all member states of the Arab League and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, not to mention the UN backing the Saudi proposal for peace within the 1967 borders. Israel has consistently refused to even discuss this perfectly sensible option, just like it has consistently refused Syrian peace offers in return for the Golan Heights, and just like it keeps legitimising and strengthening Hezbollah by occupying the Shebaa farms and Ghajjar.

As Nick Noe puts it on Mideastwire today: “[An Israeli attack on Lebanon] is precisely what Hizbullah has said it very much wants… And I am convinced that this is indeed a genuine, shared strategic approach among key figures in the Party. In this changing strategic balance, Hizbullah seems to be calculating that a large ground invasion – as is being pumped up in Israel on a daily basis, i.e. the reason they “lost” the last war is because they did not punch hard enough into lebanon in 2006 with boots on the ground – that this movement which Barak confidently bellowed today will be a gross miscalculation on the part of the IDF… and would lead to the IDF’s effective collapse.”

Nick sees three possibler scenarios: “This is one end game: Hizbullah leaderships desired endgame I would submit. The other one is that Israel and the US change their negotiating positions enough re: Syria and the Palestinians and undercut the Resistance Axis…. or the third end game where Israel realizes it cannot reasonably ATTACK, it sits back behind its walls and domes and de-legit campaigns and steadily enough people emigrate from Israel, there is enough internal decay and division, that the Jewish state of Israel demographically collapses…”

Theoretically, these are indeed all possible endgames, but I think the US and Israel are too ideologically entrenched and power mad to go for the second option, while the third is not a realistic option because Israel cannot keep its various feuding factions united without the common enemy and regular warfare. In short, I do think the Israelis are getting desperate right now, and that additionally are blind, irrational and suicidal enough to lash out wildly at the nearest enemy ignoring all consequences of their actions. I am furthermore convinced that they will not only lose that war, but will lose ‘their’ country in doing so. But then, I have also regularly argued on this blog – and even more to friends and colleagues in Beirut – that the Arab populations were about to explode and that revolution was around the corner. Nobody listened then and I am not expecting anybody to listen now…

Sharia4Belgium against Hezbollah, wtf?

So we went to this demo in Brussels today in support of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions. Many Belgian Arabs and quite a few white Belgians showed up, maybe a thousand people in all at the most busy moment towards the end. It was a friendly affair most of the time, with people genuinely supportive of the cause while representing only themselves, but there were a few annoying aspects to it. Firstly, and this is not new, there were a lot of flags of all kinds of obscure leftist groupuscules using the demonstration to show off their presence – which is fine in itself, even if the actual revolution is grassroots and not depending on any ideology. The Egyptian and Tunisian communists – like their counterparts in Venzuela and Bolivia – have of course been totally overtaken in speed and proven utterly irrelevant, left to moan together at the bar – all fifteen of them – about how the masses just totally ignore all the conditions set by Marx and Lenin as to how true revolutions should come about.Whatever, this is hardly new.

More annoyingly – although most people just ignored them – there were two small competing sections of  religionists. On the one hand, there were the Hezbollah fans – who insisted on turning the demo into a kind of ashura event, beating their chests and shouting ya Hussein. On the other hand, even more annoyingly, there were the Saudi-sponsored total dickheads of Sharia4Belgium, who carried Saudi flags into an anti-Mubarak demonstration and actually started harrassing the Hezbollah shia section. I mean, seriously, while on Maidan Tahrir the muslims are forming one front with the copts, back here in Brussels the brainwashed wahhabi idiots choose this opportunity to start sectarian infighting with the only muslim group which has actually been able to defeat the supposed common enemy… Great going! And so totally compatible with the demands of their Saudi sponsors, who are desperately trying to keep Mubarak in power, in close coordination with the Israelis and Americans. It is hilarious, by the way, to see that of the ten or so guys – no women in sight of course – who make up this way-out sect, and who seem to be genuinely convinced that they will be ruling Belgium – under sharia law no less – in a matter of years if not months, half are white converts from Antwerp. I mean, as doomed causes go, you can’t go much better than this. The only thing Belgians ever massively come out onto the streets for, is to protest attempts to impose a national closing hour for bars, and you want to impose sharia on this country? Hell yeah and good luck to ya. This confirms my theory that salafist groups are becoming exactly like late-twentieth century anarchist and communist groups: a bunch of wild-eyed youths preaching to each other at closed events, totally irrelevant to anything that is really happening out there. Come the revolution, the jihadis and salafis are found at the same bars as the communists, moaning how nobody ever listens to them. Only they can’t even wallow in drink to forget their utter irrelevance…

By the way, contrary to all our expectations, even Belgian state television (VRT) resisted the opportunity so enthusiastically provided by these sharia dickheads who got electrified whenever they saw a camera, to put the entire demo in a bad light by concentrating on them. Instead, they were cut out of the report completely, as was the Hezbollah faction.

Global revolution…!?

It is one of the ironies of life that my wife and I decided, after some thought, not to call our daughter, born on December 18th, Thawra (Arabic for ‘revolution’) after all. As it turns out, the name would have been more apt than we could have imagined, as she was born on the first day of the Tunisian uprising – only hours after Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself in Sidi Bouzid and ignited what will probably turn out to be the end of global domination by the ‘west’. Caring for our first baby has kept me away from the blog since then, but as we are settling down into semi-organised family life, new posts will be appearing…

As the powers that be look on in shock and awe – and those most shocked and awed are the ones most blinded by their hubris, i.e. the US and Israel, as well as their puppet regimes in the Middle East who can see the end draw near – the dictatorship of Tunisia was brought down by people power, with the Mubarak regime now well on the way to follow, while in Lebanon a pro-US government was brought down democratically by parliament. Human beings the world over are now enjoying watching the arrogant and ruthless US and Israel – powerless to stop this democratic revolt against their trusted dictator stooges – reduced to scrambling to save whatever scraps of influence they can hold on to. As the dominoes fall and revolts spread to Yemen, Jordan and Lybia (not to mention Albania), the choices of the powers that be seem to be reduced to only two: committing genocide against an entire continent or admitting defeat. It is well to remember that Zbigniew Brzezinski predicted exactly this scenario not so long ago. Hubris leads those in power to ignore even the sincere warnings of their own trusted servants: Brzezinski is to US geopolitical power plays what George Soros is to global speculation: involved in it up to his neck, and to some degree responsible for creating and maintaining the entire structure, but also lucid and intellectually honest – not to mention vain and machiavelist – enough to realise it and admit it publicly. Brzezinski wrote in December 2008: ‘For the first time in human history, almost all of humanity is politically activated, politically conscious and politically interactive… The resulting global political activism is generating a surge in the quest for personal dignity, cultural respect and economic opportunity in a world painfully scarred by memories of centuries-long alien colonial or imperial domination… The worldwide yearning for human dignity is the central challenge inherent in the phenomenon of global political awakening… That awakening is socially massive and politically radicalizing… The nearly universal access to radio, television and increasingly the Internet is creating a community of shared perceptions and envy that can be galvanized and channeled by demagogic political or religious passions. These energies transcend sovereign borders and pose a challenge both to existing states as well as to the existing global hierarchy, on top of which America still perches…

The youth of the Third World are particularly restless and resentful. The demographic revolution they embody is thus a political time-bomb, as well… Their potential revolutionary spearhead is likely to emerge from among the scores of millions of students concentrated in the often intellectually dubious “tertiary level” educational institutions of developing countries. Depending on the definition of the tertiary educational level, there are currently worldwide between 80 and 130 million “college” students. Typically originating from the socially insecure lower middle class and inflamed by a sense of social outrage, these millions of students are revolutionaries-in-waiting, already semi-mobilized in large congregations, connected by the Internet and pre-positioned for a replay on a larger scale of what transpired years earlier in Mexico City or in Tiananmen Square. Their physical energy and emotional frustration is just waiting to be triggered by a cause, or a faith, or a hatred…

[The] major world powers, new and old, also face a novel reality: while the lethality of their military might is greater than ever, their capacity to impose control over the politically awakened masses of the world is at a historic low. To put it bluntly: in earlier times, it was easier to control one million people than to physically kill one million people; today, it is infinitely easier to kill one million people than to control one million people.’

And while we are all sitting glued to our screens, elated and fascinated, watching people power rise in the least expected of places, we should start thinking about its implications here in Europe. After all, Belgian citizens, for example,  for all the democratic veneer decorating our society and political system, are just as powerless to decide their own fate as the Lebanese, Egyptians and Tunisians are under their dictatorships.  Even when we manage to influence or force the hand of our local politicians, unelected European commissioners or the global shareholder class will still thwart or undermine whatever we achieve here. The revolution will only succeed if it is truly global.

Little-mentioned facts

It is always good to spread and repeat documented historical facts that are never mentioned in today’s mass media because they don’t fit in the preferred framework these media are set up to promote. So here goes with some of them, put in a Q&A format by Reese Ehrlich over at the ever excellent Information Clearing House:

‘1. Isn’t it true that while not all Muslims are terrorists, all terrorists are Muslims?
Well, just asking the question reveals a lot about how those in power have manipulated our concept of terrorism. To begin, I point out that plenty of non-Muslims have carried out terrorist acts. Here’s a partial list. Timothy McVeigh was convicted of detonating a truck bomb in front of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, which resulted in 168 deaths. He was Catholic. In 1994 Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish-American Israeli settler in the West Bank city of Hebron opened fire on Muslim worshippers, killing 29 and wounding 150. He died at the scene, and his grave later became a pilgrimage site for extremists in Israel. Murderers of abortion doctors in the US frequently carry out their crimes in the name of evangelical Christianity. In 2010, in a protest against federal government policies, Joseph Stack flew a plane into an Austin building housing IRS offices. He came from a Christian background and ranted against all religion. I understand if you didn’t think of those examples right away. We’ve been conditioned to think of terrorists as foreigners, or people trained by foreigners, preferably dark skinned people with a grudge against the West. But a white guy with a bomb trying to kill civilians for political purposes is still a terrorist. Targeting civilians with political violence is terrorism, whether carried out by individuals, groups or governments. But the US government and major media have so distorted the word that virtually anyone who uses violence to oppose US policy is branded a terrorist. Conversely, anyone using violence against civilians to support US policy is a freedom fighter.

2. Yeah, but didn’t Arabs and Muslims initiate the use of terrorism?
Actually, no. Zionists fighting in Palestine prior to the formation of Israel pioneered many modern day terrorist tactics. In 1947 an extremist Zionist group called Lechi, also known as the Stern Gang, was the first to use letter bombs. It mailed them to British Cabinet members. The Stern Gang assassinated major British diplomats and the chief UN mediator trying to negotiate a two-state solution in 1948 Palestine. The Irgun, another Zionist extremist group, planted bombs in Arab East Jerusalem, seeking to kill civilians and drive Palestinians out. Arab insurgent groups also planted bombs intended to kill civilians and used other terror tactics against Jews. In 1954 Israel became the first country to hijack an airplane for political purposes. It seized a Syrian civilian plane in a failed effort to trade hostages for Mossad intelligence agents captured by the Syrians. Nor did Muslims originate suicide bombings. That dubious honor belongs to the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, who were Hindus.’

STL vs Hizbullah update

I have been too busy settling in Brussels and working to blog a lot lately, but things seem to be coming to a head in Beirut. A gynaecologist’s office seems to have been the symbolic battleground for the prevailing forces to finally meet out in the open. There is more and more talk of the ‘opposition’ M8 preparing to topple the government and perhaps repeat the May 2008 scenario – with results nobody could possibly predict. Rami Khoury wrote a lucid analysis of the situation in yesterday’s Daily Star, cutting straight to the essence of the problem: ‘Stripped to its core, this tension between Hizbullah and the STL is a microcosm of the overarching fact of the modern era in which Western-manufactured Arab statehood has generally failed to gain either real traction or sustained credibility; thus it has fallen on groups like Hizbullah to play a leading role in confronting Israeli and Western power in a manner that most Arab governments have been unable or unwilling to do. Therefore we live through this historic but frightening moment when a century of confrontation reaches a pivotal juncture: the collective will of the Western-dominated world (the Security Council-created STL) confronts the strong rejection and public resistance of the only Arab group (Hizbullah) that has forced an Israeli military withdrawal and confounded the Israeli armed forces, while transcending Arabism and Islamism, religiosity and secularism, Arabs and Iranians, Shiites and Sunnis, and assorted Lebanese Christians and Muslims.’

Angry Arab just returned from a visit to Lebanon and Syria and has this to report (in his usual off-hand stream-of-consciousness ranting style but also with his rare inside knowledge and understanding): ‘There is much nervousness about what is happening and what will happen.  It is all about the Hariri tribunal and its much anticipated–not by me–decision.  The US Middle East Zionist policy making apparatus is up in arms: because the March 14 movement is in such disarray.  Jeffrey Feltman foolishly assumed that his visit to Lebanon (in the wake of his visit to Saudi Arabia) will be sufficient to revive a corpse.  Feltman even thought he was being witty when he called on the Iranian president to learn from Lebanon’s “pluralism”.  I wonder if he dared to ask the Saudi Wahhabi king to learn from the pluralism of Lebanon too.  Feltman is furious at the transformation of Walid Jumblat: one of the most skillful–and most unprincipled–politicians in Lebanon.  His value is not so much in the size of his constituency which is very small, but in his abilities in political rhetoric and sloganeering.  The best gift that Hizbullah has ever attained–outside of Iranian support–is the stupidity of Sa`d Hariri.  This is the talk of the town.  You hear Sunnis and Shi`ites, pro-March 8 and pro-March 14 all talk about the stupidity of this lucky or unlucky man–depending on the outcome.  It is not that he has not shown any signs of progress or learning or even accumulated experience but he has squandered one political opportunity after another.  He is mocked widely for spending so much time outside of Lebanon.  He leaves for Al-Riyadh to receive orders form the Saudi King or his lieutenants at the drop of a hat.  He has even squandered his fortune in stupid business moves: he bought the share of his brother Baha’ only to lose much of it later.  But make no mistake about it: I learned that much of the Hariri expenditure in Lebanon is in fact Saudi money–and mostly from the budget of Prince Muqrin who may be replaced soon, probably by a son of Prince Salman.  There is so much going on in Lebanon: just like Lebanon in the 1950s, so many foreign and domestic intelligence services are in conflict in Lebanon.  This is a place infested with spies–not only Israelis.  I am told one of the spies for Israel (who has not been arrested for lack of evidence) is a high ranking Lebanese Army officers who was slated to succeed Jean Qahwaji as commander-in-chief (Qahwaji is bitterly anti-Israel and fiercely anti-Lebanese Forces.  He has sent a private message to Lebanese Forces that any attempt to “descend on the ground” will be met by force by the Army).’

Interview with Angry Arab

My interview with professor Asad Abu-Khalil is now published on the MEPEI website here. It concentrates mainly on the geopolitical situation in the greater Middle East and the much-vaunted shift in the power balance from a US-dominated scene to a more multipolar situation where China, Brazil, Iran, Russia and Turkey seem to be playing ever more important roles. Abu-Khalil roundly contests the validity of this view and states that very little has changed on the ground yet. Part of our talk is nevertheless devoted to discussing the imminent end of Israel-as-we-know-it, which we both agree is not very far off. The interview took place in July, and so more recent developments, e.g. concerning the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, are not mentioned. An excerpt: ‘The US still is able to impose its will on issues dealing with Israel, and on economic issues, the US is still able – with the help of the oil producers – to decide on matters of production and such. Israel still on behalf of the US can do what it wants. What’s true is this, for electoral reasons, the US is currently so preoccupied by Afghanistan first, and secondly, by Iraq, that is willing to allow certain manoeuvres by its enemies. However, that is not going to allow for any changing of the rules according to which, Israel rules supreme in the Middle East region, while Arab dictatorships continue to act on behalf of the US empire. ‘

Three years in the third world…

Here’s a piece I wrote during the Lebanese heat wave of late August. I have been promising some of you to publish it as soon as I left the country. It is a stream-of-consciousness rant which pretty much encompasses my experiences living in Lebanon for three years. I was in a lousy mood, so the negative aspects prevail. Soon I hope to write a positive counter-rant about all the things I loved about living here – but meanwhile, here goes:

‘Forgive me if I’m ranting. In the course of the three years I have been writing this blog, I have usually reported on local and regional politics, as well as social and cultural issues, as a more or less disinterested and objective, detached observer. At least that has been the ideal – and like any ideal it is unattainable even while you strive to approach it as closely as possible. But even so, objectivity does not necessarily equal neutrality, and like anyone else I have developed sympathies and dislikes by being a close observer and a ‘privileged witness’. But after three years in this country, in which I have evolved from the comfortable position of an outsider just-passing-through to a long-term resident getting ever more integrated in the fabric of Lebanese society, there are a few things I need to get off my chest.

Contrary to what you might conclude from reading the international press, the issue currently occupying the minds and raising intense emotions among the Lebanese (and residing foreigners) is not the coming indictment of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon or the possible cut-off of military aid by US Congress – it is a much more basic and important issue. Demonstrations are taking place all over Lebanon, some of them turning violent, to protest… the lack of electricity. Power cuts are ubiquitous all over Lebanon. Even in the best of times, most parts of Beirut experience power cuts of three hours a day, poorer parts of the city spend six to twelve hours a day without electricity and outside Beirut many parts of the country get a mere six hours a day of supply. In the present heatwave, this is insufferable, and it is severely compounded by the fact that Electricite du Liban (EDL) announced a few weeks ago – just like that, without even bothering with an excuse or a reason – that electricity would be rationed even more. The reasons for this are many and, like everything else in Lebanon, mired in a web of corruption, cronyism and party politics as inextricable as the bunches of electrical wires you can see all over the country dangling across the streets. The power infrastructure is hopelessly inadequate and antiquated, and no government has invested in it for decades, apart from some ad hoc repairs after the 2006 war. Electricity is stolen on a large scale, and contrary to what some M14 figures like to repeat like a mantra, definitely not only in ‘opposition areas’ (never mind that the ‘opposition’ is actually part of the national unity government now – for those wrongly insisting to see themselves are ‘the majority’, M8 remain ‘the opposition’). Neither are these ‘opposition’ areas, like Dahiyyeh, the ones that ‘refuse to pay their electricity bills’ – or at least not more than any other areas. In fact, both electricity theft and non-payment of bills are largely confined to the political and business elites of this country and their proteges, the same corrupt wheeler-dealers who never experience power cuts in their luxurious villas and tasteless palaces. Not coincidentally, they also control the generator mafia that benefits from the cuts and protect the thieves that cause the chronic shortage of money of EDL – to the point where ministries run by those benefiting from the generator mafia actually refuse to pay the fuel bills for EDL, thus augmenting their own income. Anyone living close to even a minor politician’s house anywhere in the country will confirm that they are mysteriously free from power cuts. Beirut areas like Quraytem (where Hariri’s palace is) or Clemenceau (where Junblatt has his town house) of course never experience power cuts and neither does the Grand Serail in downtown (the government’s HQ). Anyone else might as well be living in blockaded Gaza or post-US Iraq.

In truth, the images the international media so much like to project – ad nauseam – of scantily clad girls in beach clubs and rich kids showing off daddy’s Porsche Carrera in the bars of Gemmayzeh are not a true reflection of the life of the large majority of the Lebanese population, which is actually desperately poor and living largely on remittances from family members working in the GCC countries, Europe, North and South America and even Africa, with some occasional handouts of whatever sectarian politician they are paid to vote for. This large majority of Lebanese – at least 90% – no matter whose side they are on politically, is permanently hit by power cuts – which actually cost you three times: first you have to pay the regular EDL bill for having power part of the time, then you have to pay the local generator mafioso to have electricity for the rest of the time (usually that bill is higher than the EDL bill even though typically you only get a measly 5 amp, not even enough to run an AC or washing machine), and then you pay again when you have to replace your fridge, AC, TV, laptop etcetera much more often because the daily power cuts destroy them in the long run… Oh, and of course you have to buy that equipment from dealers who have a monopoly license to import them – i.e. it again benefits the corrupt cronies who refuse to provide proper services. It is the same story with the crap roads full of potholes destroying cars at an unnecessarily high rate, and who holds the import licences for the car brands? You got it…

Typical for the total lack of interest politicians show in the well-being of their electorate, neither parliament nor the government bothered to hold an emergency session to try and solve the electricity problem, even while tyres were being burnt, roads blocked and police forces attacked by outraged demonstrators from Akkar in the north to Sour (Tyre) in the south. For all their ‘Lebanon First’ sloganeering and despite the few hundred dollar bribes they give you at election time, for all their rhetoric of protecting whatever sect they pretend to represent and despite all their promises, they just don’t give a fuck about you, my Lebanese friends…

Another issue, while we’re at it, is the impossibly high cost of mobile and international calls in this country – mobile phone calls here are the most expensive in the world in absolute terms, let alone relative to the local wages. Lebanon is the only country in the entire world, to my knowledge, where people are forced to communicate using missed calls because their prepaid credit runs out in a matter of – literally – minutes. There are only two mobile providers licensed in Lebanon, Alfa and MTC, who cartel the prices between them and thereby provide an incredible quarter of the annual government income. The protection racket goes so far and is so blatant that parliament recently tried to pass a law criminalising and blocking Skype and other internet telephone software just to safeguard the ridiculously high prices monopoly landline provider Ogero (owned by – who else – PM Hariri!) charges for international calls. This in a country where every family has to send some of its sons and daughters abroad to earn an income which can actually sustain the family, as Lebanon offers only scarce and ridiculously underpaid jobs, no social security to speak of, a systematically underfunded public education and health system and private hospitals which routinely leave people to die in front of their doors who don’t have either health insurance coverage or enough cash on them.

All this makes Lebanon the worst possible combination between capitalism and communism: you pay capitalist prices for communist (or worse) services… In essence, all these are manifestations of one and the same problem that affects this country in many different ways: the state, as far as it even exists, is not actually there to provide services to the citizens and guarantee their rights. And we are not just talking the south or the Bekaa here, we are talking about the entire country. It is not just Hezbollah who have set up a ‘state within the state’, these set-ups exist all over the country: every sect, feudal landlord, ‘former’ civil war militia and ‘political party’ runs their own. The actual national ‘state’ is only there to fill the pockets of the political elites and their cronies and protect their interests. That is why even major highways are full of potholes and unlit at night. That is why there is still no broadband available here, even though the slow and unreliable internet ruins the economy and stops many businesses from expanding. That is why in the one Middle Eastern country with plentiful water resources, the population suffers semi-permanent water shortages in their houses, while broken pipes are flooding the streets for days on end elsewhere. That is why the police rarely show up when you call them and are uncooperative and uninterested when they do, yet refuse you entry to their office when you show up wearing flipflops or shorts in the middle of a heatwave, because it shows ‘lack of respect’ for this institution that does nothing to deserve it. That is why bureaucrats can arbitrarily deny you any papers you are legally entitled to when you don’t want – or can’t afford – to bribe them. That is why Lebanese pay twice the price for their passport than Belgians, even while their average income is only a quarter of that in Belgium – and then the bureaucrats have the nerve to open a criminal case against you for ‘negligence’ when your passport gets damaged and you simply apply for a new one – at full cost of course. Incredibly, if you are found to have been ‘negligent’, you will be denied a new passport for six months – an illegal proposition even by Lebanon’s own defunct laws! That is why there is an army which has never protected the country from any foreign invasion or attack, yet insists on putting up roadblocks all over the country creating even more traffic jams than the crap roads already do, then mans them with soldiers who rarely bother to check anything more than the decolletes of women drivers and passengers. That is why any and all shopkeepers, taxi drivers, car mechanics, internet providers or satellite TV pirateers can rip you off at will with crap services and expired products sold at extortionate prices while you can get no redress anywhere because the police and the courts are as corrupt as the elite circles they serve or belong to and who will at all times protect each other at the expense of ordinary citizens.

I guess all this is pretty much the essence of what is meant by the expression ‘the third world’. Because however much the Lebanese bourgeoisie and political elites try to project the image of Lebanon as modern, developed and democratic, it is none of these. In actual reality it is a corrupt, underdeveloped, backward fief of feudal landlords and former warlords masquerading as parliamentarians while running what passes for the ‘state’ as their personal cash cow. It is a country where women count for nothing and can’t even pass on their nationality to their children, let alone their husbands. It is a country where theocrats rule, civil marriage is non-existent and the personal life of even the most secular and atheist Lebanese is governed by medieval church laws or the sharia. It is a country where the large majority lives in crushing poverty and counts for nothing, while suffering a tiny rich elite to flaunt their ridiculous unearned wealth in their faces. It is a country where appearance and external form means everything and actual meaningful content is buried and neglected. It is a country where foreign maids are routinely kept as slaves by many families and just as routinely commit suicide because it is the only way out of their misery. If they try to run away, they are chased by the police (ah! here is one thing the police actually does!) and either returned to their ‘owners’ or locked up in inhumane conditions under a highway bridge in Adliyeh. It is a country where Palestinian refugees are treated only marginally better than they are in Israel. It is a country where every newspaper, magazine and TV station is owned by one political party or another and they all toe the party line with incredibly biased and dishonest reporting. The rest are vanity publishers in the pay of some Gulf prince or other. It is a country where the few independent journalists who actually do their job are arrested for digging up corruption scandals and where the president sues ordinary citizens who criticise him on their facebook pages. It is a country where the CEO of a major bank (SGBL) has an opponent shot openly in a nightclub and then simply flies his private jet to Milan undisturbed. It is a country where your car gets stolen in Beirut and you can buy it back in one particular village in the Bekaa valley which everybody knows but which never gets disturbed by the police. It is a country which exports large amounts of hash and heroin to large parts of the world yet locks its own citizens away for years when they smoke a spliff. It is a country where something as simple as actually using an existing parking garage to relieve a neighbourhood of desperate parking problems takes a decade of tow-tugging between businessmen, local and national authorities about how to divide the loot of the potential parking fees. It is a country whose politicians routinely crow about sovereignty and pose as nationalists while taking money from foreign governments to keep the country underdeveloped and subservient to the highest bidder. It is a country which sells out and wastes its scarce natural resources and destroys its environment on a massive scale to enrich the few while making life a misery for everybody else. Its capital is given over to Saudi and Emirati project developers who destroy the wonderful old architecture and the social fabric of the community for greed, building more luxury holiday flats that are empty for eleven months a year, while rents become unaffordable and over a million Beirutis have to drive miles out of the city to find something vaguely resembling a park or a green spot. No wonder the majority of Lebanese prefer to flee their native land and live abroad. I will soon follow their example.’