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.

Wikileaks and Lebanese elections

What many of us had already observed and revealed back then: ‘President Suheil Yamout of the Future Institute (…) aims to fly some ten thousand Brazilian citizens who also hold Lebanese passports back to Lebanon to vote this March, providing up to USD 10,000 in financial support to each one to make the trip. The Future Institute also mentioned that a likely 50,000 Lebanese will self-finance trips back to Lebanon in the spring to participate in the March elections. They are coordinating with Saad Hariri (son of the Prime Minister assassinated in 2005, leader of the Lebanese Future Movement) to ensure that they maximize these votes in the right districts.’

And still M14 manage to lose the popular vote and then – after Junblatt’s defection – their parliamentary majority as well. Faut le faire…

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.’

Junblatt: you just gotta love him…

After earlier this year announcing his absence from a National Dialogue session as he preferred to ‘read Ibn Khaldoun’s Muqaddima over the weekend’, Lebanon’s most deliciously flexible postmodern militia leader and feudal landlord – oh, and president of the Progressive Socialist Party and MP of course – now comes out congratulating ‘all political forces that managed to overcome all their endless differences and put them aside to dedicate themselves completely to the people’s concerns and problems. Civil strife has disappeared due to the excessive political awareness exercised by all sides. Social demands have been fully met and the country’s petroleum policy has been completed. Talk of an astronomical rise in food product prices is just hateful campaigns. Meat is only dedicated to one segment of the Lebanese population, while the rest can satiate their hunger with political speeches, press conferences, and television debates, as they are a daily sustenance that compensates for the benefits of other food products. Continuous understanding and dialogue has been adopted by all political powers and a unified strategic vision over Lebanon’s identity and regional role has been established after 60 years of discussion, a number of wars, and hundreds of deaths and wounded.’ (Links to naharnet who kind of spoil the effect by adding the words ‘he said sarcastically’  after every statement. Oh, really?)

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).’

Ahmadinejad and Murdoch

So he didn’t go to the Park of Iran and didn’t throw a stone over the border after all: ‘Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ended a two-day visit to Lebanon by meeting with Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. The overnight meeting took place at the Iranian embassy in Beirut’s Bir Hasan neighborhood. Nasrallah proudly presented to Ahmadinejad an Israeli rifle seized during the 2006 Israel-Hizbullah war.(…) Before the late Thursday meeting with Nasrallah, Ahmadinejad predicted the demise of arch-foe Israel from Bint Jbeil, Hizbullah’s bastion in south Lebanon, only four kilometers (2 miles) from the Jewish state. “The whole world knows that the Zionists are going to disappear,” he said to thunderous applause before a frenzied crowd in Bint Jbeil. “The occupying Zionists today have no choice but to accept reality and return to their countries of origin,” he added.’

In another interesting development, a Lebanese court has just issued an indictment in the long running case over the ownership of the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC), originally the mouthpiece TV station of the Lebanese Forces. The judge indicted ‘[LBC’s] chairman Pierre Daher, members of the board and the affiliated companies on charges of embezzlement and fraud. The indictment noted that Daher as LBC’s chairman was entrusted with shares that are actually owned by the LF. Daher moved the assets and shares of the television, sold its films archive and increased the capital without his personal financial contribution, in addition to bringing new shareholders and establishing affiliated companies, said the indictment, adding that Daher has procrastinated in returning the assets to the owners despite the legal warnings, which is considered a crime of embezzlement. The judge sought three years in prison for Daher on the aforementioned charges.’ Board member Raif al-Bustani and several LBC-affiliated companies were also indicted. Judge Aneisi referred the indicted individuals to Beirut’s criminal judge who is supposed to set a date for trial.’ It is useful to remember that the ‘new shareholders’  include Saudi prince Walid bin Talal and Rupert Murdoch and that the ‘affiliated companies’ mentioned are Kingdom Holdings and Newscorp. To be continued…

On a side note, the International Crisis Group has released a new report on Lebanon called: ‘New crisis, old demons: the forgotten lessons of Bab-Tebbaneh/Jabal Mohsen’, in which it is argued that the state of tensions between these two dirt-poor neighbourhoods of Tripoli (one sunni, one alawi) serves as a barometre for Lebanon’s general state of affairs. A rather academic-analytic argument, but not without its merits. Incidentally, for some strange reason, my own posts on the matter (here and here, written when there was an actual low-grade urban war going on between the factions back in June 2008, and the related ‘Halba in Akkar’ here) are perennial favourites which keep gathering hits for the blog. So maybe other people have drawn the same conclusion too. At some point, I plan to write a post on the ‘greatest hits’ on this blog and the most common search terms used to find it. I can already reveal that ‘Hassan Nasrallah and Haifa Wehbe’ and ‘King Abdullah and Hind Hariri’ are among the high scores…

Nejad in Beirut

You wouldn’t know it from reading the international media – definitely not the Belgian ones, whose entire foreign news section today and yesterday is dedicated to the good news story of the Chilean miners – but the president of Iran has just crossed through Beirut in an open motorcade and refused to stand behind the bulletproof glass cases provided while he gave his speeches. I would like to see a US or Saudi leader do that in Lebanon… It is hardly surprising that crowds lined up in Dahiyyeh to give him a hero’s welcome, of course. What is surprising though are statements by the likes of Samir Geagea and Antoine Zahra congratulating him on his ‘moderate’ statements and even sunni arch enemies Jamaa al Islamiya claiming that ‘Ahmadinejad’s calm speech in Lebanon will positively reflect on the domestic situation after his visit ends.’ Sounds like either some bags of dollars have been changing hands or the Lebanese Forces have – for the first time in their history – made a political choice that actually makes sense and could be to the advantage of the people they claim to represent. Those international media that do mention the visit predictably concentrate on Ahmadi Nejad’s announced tour of the southern border and Israel’s equally predictable reaction to this ‘provocation’. For some more considered thoughts and reporting, read Qifa Nabki: ‘This is a very circuitous way of saying that I found myself wondering today, as I listened to Nasrallah’s speech welcoming Ahmadinejad to Beirut, whether Iran is trying to step out of Hizbullah’s shadow in Lebanon. That sounds odd to hear, given the nature of their relationship. But I think that it’s not that far-fetched to imagine that Iran’s ambitions include winning over non-Shi’a Lebanese through a mixture of investment projects, military aid, assistance in energy exploration and infrastructure development.’

Or read the Leveretts: ‘If Iran today has substantial soft power in the Middle East—as we believe it does—it has that power in no small part because it has picked winners rather than losers as its allies in key regional theaters.  Whether we speak of Hizballah in Lebanon, HAMAS in Palestine, or Shi’a Islamist parties in Iraq, Iran’s regional allies are genuine political forces—that is, forces that win elections because they represent important and unavoidable constituencies with legitimate grievances.  And, in many cases, those allies engage in what their constituents believe is thoroughly laudable resistance against what those constituents see as America’s (and Israel’s) hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East.’

Juan Cole is spot-on too: ‘On Wednesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed large and adoring crowds in the southern Shiite suburbs of Beirut, which had been intensively bombed by Israeli fighter jets in summer 2006, and then subsequently rebuilt, in part with Iranian aid. Ahmadinejad pledged that Iran will support Lebanon in any future case of aggression against the small Levantine state of 4 million persons. Americans who are surprised at Lebanese appreciation of Iran should remember that when the Israel-Hizbullah war broke out in summer 2006, the Bush administration initially actively opposed a ceasefire that could have saved hundreds of Lebanese civilian lives and could have spared billions of dollars in infrastructure. When someone is being intensively bombarded from the air and you attempt to put off a ceasefire, you are not a friend of the country being bombed.’ Cole also wrote this op-ed at Truthdig: ‘Ahmadinejad has just pledged to invest nearly half a billion dollars in Lebanon’s electricity and water systems to aid the economy, which has grown 8 percent this year and has made impressive strides in rebounding from the disastrous effects of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War. Iran is a major backer of the Hezbollah Party, though it does not need Tehran to function. Hezbollah is a bona fide Lebanese political party and is part of the current national unity government, with two Cabinet seats and influence over policy. Its small paramilitary of a few thousand fighters, backed by an arsenal of small rockets, has been recognized by the Lebanese government as a sort of national guard for the south of the country. A crisis between Hezbollah and the government of the Sunni Muslim prime minister, Saad Hariri, looms, since a tribunal may blame Hezbollah operatives for the 2005 assassination of the prime minister’s father, Rafiq Hariri. Ahmadinejad may hope to broker an agreement that would forestall civil conflict between Shiites and Sunnis.’

And now go back to the rescued Chilean miners.

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.’

Sorry is just not going to be enough…

A very interesting and aggressive press conference took place this morning. It was held by Jamil Al Sayyed, one of the four Lebanese generals who spent four years in jail accused of – though never charged with – complicity in Hariri’s assassination. Their detention rested entirely on the testimony of what have turned out to be false witnesses. The man attacked Saad Hariri personally and comprehensively, going to the point of demanding that the Hariri memorial on Martyr’s Square be removed because it is situated on land stolen by Solidere, Hariri’s public-private project development company which expropriated thousands of Lebanese home owners in its effort to rebuild downtown Beirut – with money borrowed by then PM Rafiq Hariri from his own banks to pay his own company, debts to be repaid by the Lebanese state at a handsome interest rate of course. Sayyed announced judicial actions – so does Hizbullah by the way, as well as Syria which has announced arrest warrants for a number of March 14th characters including PSP personality Marwan Hamade, who has reportedly already fled to Paris. Sayyed accused Saad Hariri, among many other things, of spending a quarter of his father’s inheritance on fabricating and compensating false witnesses which he plucked from Lebanese jails and promised plastic surgery and lifelong financial security. He actually went as far as saying ‘the Lebanese people should reject the status quo and work on change even if that requires the toppling of the government by force in the street.’

It will be interesting to see Saad Hariri’s reaction to these accusations – which by the way are uttered by a man who has a lot of accurate inside information and powerful backers. It is amazing that the March 14th forces even thought they would have been able to get away with a four-year long concerted political attack on their large and powerful neighbour – while being at war with their only other neighbour – without suffering consequences. It has been clear since May 2008 at least that their US, French and Saudi backers were not prepared to actually go to any serious lengths to protect them. The (relative) defeat of the neocons in the US by means of Obama’s election should have dispelled any lingering doubts on the matter. The forward-looking Junblatt was the first to defect from the camp after the 2009 parliamentary elections (and seems to have handsomely shifted all personal blame on his lieutenant Hamade while apologizing personally and profusely to president Assad). Saad Hariri’s Future movement has followed suit for all practical purposes, shying away only from officially announcing its retreat.  Since the formation of the national unity government (in itself an admission of defeat by M14), the army now officially stands with Hizbullah – and therefore with Syria and Iran. Bashar Al Assad has visited Lebanon for the first time since 2005 – and significantly he was accompanied by the Saudi king Abadallah – and Iran’s Ahmadinejad is to follow on October 13th, reportedly planning to visit the Israeli border. He might well enjoy an afternoon in the family-oriented picnic site ‘Park of Iran’ overlooking Israel – which In the Middle of the East described earlier here – and which finally seems to be discovered by the international media (by VOA first, for some weird reason). The 150-odd Israeli collaborators and spies who have been apprehended in Lebanon over the past two years and are in the process of being tried, are another indication of the shift in the political equilibrium. To be continued for sure.