Monday, February 25, 2008

Sins of the Sons...

Moussa is back in town, but he may already have failed; since the basic motivations of all remain unchanged, his dog and pony show may well find no takers. But the show hides some worrying gathering clouds; some closer to home, some further away.

Wither the State

In the immediate, the Lebanese state institution is in really bad shape. After so much messing around, the constitution has been all but destroyed, and what was left of the state is slowly withering away.

At this stage, whether the feuding clans may not want war is immaterial; each side underestimates the other’s resolve, each overestimates its own cohesion, each misunderstands its own allies’ true motivations... The result of this brinkmanship may bring the country’s final demise. The bickering has (further) weakened the state’s institutions, and as respect for the rule of law withers away, the pissing contest is gotting messier. The warlords may even lose control over their pawns as various factions fight over turf.

Hezb’s adversaries are not necessarily Lebanon’s friends, and they may even love watching the mess, at least in the short term. They know that the destruction of the Lebanese economy will not strengthen Nasrallah’s state within a non-state; by killing its host, a parasite brings on its own demise.

The Clouds Further Away

In the medium term, however, Lebanon will feel the aftershocks of Mughnieh’s assassination, especially because of Hezb’s acknowledgement of him as a leader. Mughnieh is now being “marketed” as an über-terrorist, who caused trouble far and wide. The prosecution is gatherings its dossier, and in addition to the stuff he actually did, we have;

1- There he was in Kuwait. Not only was he kidnapping a few planes, but he was also apparently organising some local branch of our national “resistance”. Yes, Kuwait has long been liberated, but you never know…

2- He appeared also in Iraq, where his tracks are well documented, and where he made a few locals unhappy. One of them may yet be implicated in assassination attempts against local officials, with support from the Iranians… Or something…

3- He was involved in the Khobar attack. Apparently, the local Bin Laden franchisee did not do that deed… Or at least, not yet; we’ll find about this later.

4-… ?

No, climate Change may not be pinned on him, but expect to see a few more “revelations” over the coming few days.

Mughnieh was no boy-scout, but neither was he Fantômas… All this “marketing” hints that something larger has been set in motion with his death. They may loom large in Lebanon, but both Hezb and Syria are bit players in the larger regional game, with far larger interests at play in the region.

The Syrians appear to understand this now, but they too far gone down the impasse to heed any warnings. They are bravely trying to avoid accusations for treason, either by claiming incompetence, or by accusing those devious Lebanese of the killing. But they have upset far too many people, and even Al-Jazeera may not be able to spin this one for them; March 14th or Siniora as the Godfather?

Nasrallah may find that anger is a poor policy guide. He can still motivate ‘em, but quite a few now realize that, while Syria is driving him towards a precipice, but so is Iran expending them for larger goals… For all practical purposes, and in spite of all the talk, he has cut himself off from the rest of Lebanon. And now, as the prosecution gathers its “evidence”, he will now be associated with Mugnieh’s alleged crimes. This will find him cut-off from the rest of the Arab world, with far too little of Lebanon left for him to hide behind…

So, will the sins of the sons be visited upon the fathers?

…And when?

(H/T Fubar)

Monday, February 18, 2008

What Now

Last week was typical of Lebanese and Arab politics; there was an assassination, but nothing else really happened. For all the mobilization and the firing speeches, the rival mass demonstrations/commemorations proved to be little more than pissing contests by the local "Alpha Males".

Alpha Male

It is now clear that neither “side” has what it takes to follow through their rhetoric. Case in point;

1- Two years ago, after it shied away from storming the Serail, the Hezb-axis let its demonstration fizzle in the tent-swamp. It was clear, even before “day one”, that Hezb could not have followed through anyway. So why start at all?

2- This Valentine, having succeeded in making yet another show of force, those who claim March 14th did not rise to its true spirit, and failed to push through a presidential election. It was clear that they could have easily pushed through, and forced their backers to accept the fait accompli. So why not follow through?

The logic of confrontation does not allow for much Goldilocks logic, and the chest pounding can only go so far; you either fight to win or you don’t fight at all.

So, if either of the two sides acts like their main aim is the other’s defeat; Why don’t they follow through on their rethoric?

And if they really can’t follow through; why don’t they compromise?

Led by Marionettes

Whatever their individual merits, those who “lead” either side are acting like marionettes, reacting to outside events with little initiative of their own. But as we are not the only ones being misled; our puppeteers are much diminished, and they may also have strings of their own, as shown by last weeks’ assassination of Mughnieh.

The whodunit part is unclear, and some even draw interesting parallels with Abou Nidal’s demise in Iraq, but Tony’s many threads do clarify that debate. But regardless of the “man behind the myth”, Mughnieh was far from a retiree.

Aside from the debate, the raw facts still reveal a lot. Regardless if the “Butler did it” or not. Regardless of Mughnieh actual role in Hezb, or the “über terrorist” label that was bestowed upon him (… w’zkirt! eh staha Rambo!). The fact is that the assassination “uncovers” both Syria and Iran’s units in the area.

1- “They” could have killed him in Lebanon, before he crossed in Syria. But “they” chose to do so in Syria, and not just anywhere. And this has two implications.

The First implication is internal; they chose one of the most secure sites in the country, and close to a few other “key” locations. Such impunity may indicate that the infiltration of the Syrian regime extends beyond Khaddam and Kanaan; in his self-gratifying housekeeping, Bashar missed a few spots.

2- The Second implication is external. Syria always claimed it “collaborated” with the United States in its war on terror. It’s going to have a hard time wiggling out of this one, and there’s much egg on the face of any Presidential Candidate willing to engage the regime and their illustrious advisors… this is especially the case since Mughnieh was on Interpol’s list. His presence in Syria exposes the Syrian regime’s lies and obfuscations and weakens it further on the “Arab front”. Crucially, it creates doubt in the mind of its Iranian allies/paymasters at a critical moment in their “regional expansion”. At the very least, it will be hard for his regime to argue for a place at the table in the future. At worst, the Iranians will now be pondering hard their future investment prospects. The Syrians will miss those supports on the long run, since few Americans can now seriously consider “engagement” as an option. And as they look for alternatives, pity the neighbourhood, and its weakest link; Lebanon.

3- Iran has officially embraced Mughnieh. To its supporters and clients, this was the honourable thing to do. To others, this was yet another proof of its duplicity. Either way, Iran’s foreign minister’s eulogy can now serve as a documented proof of Iran’s “support of Terror”, thus proving the American’s leitmotif.

4- Hezb has now confirmed that Mughnieh had been its true leader all along, and thus undoing all their past “branding” workAnd even worse. This will prove to be a dreadful mistake; aside from a few peccadilloes in Lebanon, the world’s officialdom has implicated Mughnieh in attacks against the United States, Argentina, Saudi Arabia, global warming… OK, that last one may not stick... But the fact remains that, whether it is all true or not is beside the point; at this stage, he is now guilty until proven innocent. And since “jesmo labbiss”, and he is not around to clarify matters and clear his name, military-security bureaucracies will grind away unhindered.

Say AAAA…llah!

Consider this apparently innocuous snippet, which may soon be recurring with alarming frequency;

This week, the FBI sent a notice to 18,000 police agencies warning them to remain vigilant about [Hezb]. ABC News has learned that [Hezb] has maintained a sizeable presence in the United States. In fact, at one point last year, the FBI had more than 200 active cases involving suspected [Hezb] members [As in “card carrying members”, eh?].

To those neo-sectarians amongst us, know this; All Lebanese look alike. Whether we are Druze, Maronite, Orthodox, Sunni, Shiite, Scientologist, Devil worshippers… We will be branded a potential terrorist. And a foreign connection is no protection, especially if you are born in Beirut, or carry a recognizable Lebanese/Arab name.

Now that Nasrallah has declared war to the world, we Lebanese will ultimately pay the price of his embrace of Mughnieh, much like the Palestinians paid the price of Arafat’s embrace of Saddam. I am not sure if Palestine will ever be "liberated", but if you though the July war was bad, we’re in for an upgrade, and maybe even a helluva ride down memory lane.

Many in the Lebanese Diaspora will find this out the hard way. But at least, we will all be in treated "equally";

We'll all be standing in the same line-up

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A Hot Valentine...

Tomorrow’s shaping up to be steaming hot… And not in a good way, with the populace of “this” and “that” side geared up to a “clash of martyrs” on lover’s day.

A Valentine Breakup?…

At best, the latest events may yet unravel the country’s Gordian knot of intersecting interests, and cure our national “electile dysfunction”. Indeed, a quick round downtown shows that they are turning the entire place into some sort of fortress. Tomorrow will determine how plausible this scenario is; on one hand, Nasrallah may have indeed overplayed his hand, and we're indeed far from "we're all Hezb'O now"...

But Nasrallah is not fool; he “is only too aware” that “the Lebanese do not want another civil war”, and “has been using it to his advantage”. In Imad Mughniyeh, he may have lost the real brains behind his brawns, but the assassination and its precision shows that this ugly "game" of ours has grown in complexity, and escalated far beyond Lebanon (if it ever was local). This would mean that the local context matters little in our reading of events, and local actors matter even less. And so, born-again Lebanese they may be, but those who claim March 14th are at least partially sincere in their claims of wanting to avoid war (at least more than the other market offering). And in order to avoid bloodshed, they may be only "allowed" to posture, as Hezb'O is only allowed to grieve and protest. And they will all have little option but to merely inaugurate Chrysanthemums, and say each a few prayers for "their" martyrs…

Or in this case, inaugurate a couple of new monuments that just sprang up around the Saint George area; they should have been completed by this afternoon.

Valentine's Red...

Regardless of the outcome, one wishes the big boys will pause their pissing contest for that day, and grant us one last day of “insouciance” in the middle of the surrounding gloom. But then again, Valentine day started as a Christian recuperation of a Roman/Pagan fertility festival/celebration, only to turn into a marketing (re)fabrication.

In any case, red is the colour of the day, after all… So, to those of you enjoying the sights of downtown, be careful; those who commemorate Hariri’s assassination by Sisterly Syria (duh…) may face many still mourning the murder of Mughnyeh, who was just recently carried out by the Evil Zionist Empire (duh2…)…

And if it does not strike you as odd that, on the eve of lover’s day, the Lebanese strand ready to take revenge on one another for crimes committed by others, against other, then welcome to the beautiful world of “Rhinoceros”.

I am not sure if the fat lady will ever sing, or whether she will sing tomorrow, but I am certain she’s already having a good laugh at our expense.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Apes on the Titanic

Politics in Lebanon tends to be so noisy. Rather than tuning it out completely, I often "mute" the sound when one of our politicians does his thing on TV.

There a logic to this; almost invariably, politicians lie. However, their body language almost always tells the truth. Yes, it is a proven fact that politicians make lousy poker players; after all, with a few exceptions, they’re essentially salesmen/showmen, adapted to strutting their stuff to a willing public. And beyond this, the non-verbal component of their communication is well documented, and can teach you a lot about the underlying message.

There is a lot one can do with "home equipment" in this respect... By “muting” the shows, one can filter out the “noise”, and by escaping their eloquence, one can focus on body language. Those who don’t understand the language benefit from an added advantage, since they can use the additional information provided by the variations in tonality… Kinda like an anthropologist watching (inner) apes, and correlating utterances to mental states.

I tested such a method in our Lebanese zoo, and (briefly) zapped in and out on the two speech “events” this week; HassAoun’s duo and Saad’s solo performance.

In the little “love-in” duet, I could not help but note how Aoun was acting subservient to Nasrallah; his eyes drifting constantly to the “Syed”, looking for approval, signalling with his hands in sign of deference, even crouching in his chair, lowering his shoulders ever so slightly when he was not sure of his point. In contrast, Nasrallah was acting approvingly, like a master proud of his disciple. Not having the sound on, I could not really ascertain whether Aoun was also adjusting his speech pattern and tone.

The solo performance came later. Saad appeared confident and strong, and far less hesitant than before. What followed was ever more interesting; his partisans starting to shoot in the air, to celebrate their boss’ speech. The message send to Hezb was clear, since more than simple fireworks were used…

Still, there must be more optimal ways of displaying one’s power… Such a persistent ignorance of the laws of physics remains galling after so many years of evolution; even our lesser cousins have long figured this out… Luckily, no one got hurt this time around. However, as Newton’s law was demonstrated again, a stray bullet hit the car of one unlucky consul on the road to the airport. The guys must have been firing “southward”, apparently.

What next? Well, the speeches told me nothing, but the context invites caution. Combine this plethora of instruments, the increased brazenness and overconfidence, and you get the feeling that, as the orchestra is gearing up to play, the fight over the best seats has began.

Too bad the concert hall is on the Titanic.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Electile Dysfunction

When a system fails, it appears to do so suddenly. But in general, real failure had already begun long before the cracks appeared.

Le vase où meurt cette verveine

D'un coup d'éventail fut fêlé ;

Le coup dut effleurer à peine :

Aucun bruit ne l'a révélé.

And so it goes for the Lebanese system, with the cracks that appeared last Sunday, during a riot initiated under false pretences. One can only hope that the army’s inquiry, led by a certain General Kassem (no, not Naim) will not be a whitewash, but the political stakes are too high. On one side of the divide, we see Hezb calling for a full inquiry into a riot it has started, and even for the death penalty. On the other side, we see a divided country struggling to remain afloat in the midst of deepening economic crisis. It does not help that the main actors of this drama are increasingly irrational, as Ghassan Karam points out;

Very few rational people will place high expectations on economic performance when they simultaneously choose to implement a policy of economic disruptions, risk enhancement and increased instability. The Lebanese opposition, however, have adopted exactly such a policy. They create unstable conditions, promote acts that disrupt economic activities, encourage actions that discourage investments, contribute to lower level of economic welfare and a lower level of tax revenues collected by the authorities. Yet they martial their forces to demonstrate against the governments inability to provide services that they have obstructed through their own activities. Go figure.

With such lack of rational thinking, no wonder that it now matters little that the first victims were shot from the back, from “their” side; the army is discredited for trying to keep the peace. And General Suleiman faces a tough choice if he maintains his candidacy; finding the truth may be politically inconvenient, but fudging it may destroy the army… How does one expect soldiers to keep the peace if they are going to be punished for doing their job?

Mais la légère meurtrissure,

Mordant le cristal chaque jour,

D'une marche invisible et sûre

En a fait lentement le tour.

Such an Electile Dysfunction (H/T to Dr. C.A. for the Diagnosis) can only be a symptom of the deeper disease that ails our “Representative Republic”. Many would add that the system had already failed long before the events of this week. And most would agree that it is all caused by our mass schizophrenia, itself caused by the accumulation of mental dichotomies forced upon Levantine minds by our consociational-sectarian system…

In this context, those divinely inspired leaders are risking destroying the army for the small “benefit” of scuttling the Suleiman candidacy. They may not feel much need for it now, but time will prove otherwise. The postponement of Suleiman’s election means that any election has been effectively cancelled. And this condemns Hezb to play for keeps.

Son eau fraîche a fui goutte à goutte,

Le suc des fleurs s'est épuisé ;

Personne encore ne s'en doute ;

N'y touchez pas, il est brisé.

In this case, the game has already been lost before it began. Playing it will change nothing, since it does not matter who takes over the Presidential Suite if you’re on the Titanic.

True, as the local branch of the Pasdaran, Hezb is a powerful force. However, as it moves down this road, it cannot limit its goals to “conserve” its weapons and privileges; it has to go after the whole enchilada. And this is where the trouble lays. In the immediate, while Hezb’s Sunday foray was damaging, a few useful cretins still provide Nasrallah and his flock with a very useful Christian fig leaf, egged on by their hatred of Geagea. But on the long run, there will be few takers as they realize Hezb’s real motives. As Michael Young cautions;

[Hezb] is, perhaps unintentionally, pushing Shiites into a confrontation with the rest of Lebanese society to protect itself, and nothing could be worse for the community. […] In 1975, the Christians had their own Kerbala complex, one that dictated stubbornness in the defence of Christian prerogatives, which at the time were regarded as an existential red line. In the process they lost their control over the state. […] But Kerbala, as one astute analyst has put it, is hardly something the Shiites should want to remember, as it ended in a massacre and defeat.

However, some of Young’s logic is dangerously flawed. This is more than a fight between “the Shiites” and “the Others”; it is a fight for the survival of any secular hope in the Arab world. And partly for this reason, many would dispute his simplistic notion that the past war was merely between “the Christians” and “the Moslems”. The dynamics of the past wars were far more complex and involved many still secular forces, as demonstrated by the fact that when the Syrians took over, they found many willing Christian allies.

Therefore, such flawed logic’s real danger is that a different conclusion can be drawn from the one proposed by Young; the Christian defeat was due to disunity, not to Arab unity against them. After all, others were also able to win against similar odds… This is the logic I see used by many of the more “reasonable” Shiite supporters of Hezb; since “the Christians” lost because of their disunity, the Shiites can only prevail because they are united…

Souvent aussi la main qu'on aime,

Effleurant le coeur, le meurtrit ;

Puis le coeur se fend de lui-même,

La fleur de son amour périt ;

But such simplifications are a poor policy guide; even united, the Shiites” remain a minority, and Hezb’s monopoly has ensured that few credible alternatives remain. Unlike “the Christians”, “the Shiites” have no “Plan B”. Regardless of their relative weight, size does not really matter in this context, for two reasons.

First, it is a sad trait of our Lebanese lobster basket that, as one group reaches some sort of prominence, the others unites to confront them, ensure all stay in the same quagmire. Because of Hezb’s monopoly of “Shiite Representation”, the “group” in question is perceived to be an entire community. As a result, all the others will gang up on it, and the coming conflict will gain a uniquely sectarian dimension. The early warning signs are there …

Second, this time around, a sectarian fight in Lebanon will lose any of the secular pretence of the past one. As such, it will easily spread into the neighbourhood, particularly Syria where “the Alawites” are still ruling over “the Majority Sunnites”. And as the rot spreads into Syria, the contradictory sectarian interests of any “coalition” against “the Shiites” would grow, and render it unstable. This will further accelerate the division process, and soon sectarian group will split apart.

Toujours intact aux yeux du monde,

Il sent croître et pleurer tout bas

Sa blessure fine et profonde ;

Il est brisé, n'y touchez pas.

Our "neighbours" from hell make too much of their own stability; they forget that our flawed little country merely reflects the ills of the entire region. We’re a “message” they better head, lest the sectarian rot that infects us spread far and wide, across our increasingly porous borders. And do not mean the usual stuff...

To our South, some are starting to debate the significance of their own national identity. However, little progress will be made in the face of immediate urgencies and steadfast incompetence, and the society risks falling into an increasingly reductionist logic…

To our east, north, and beyond, any debate is effectively stifled. Few would argue for a need for change of some sort, but fewer would dare implement it. Pace the odd morphine shot or state visit, change will come as hard facts creep in. The system has failed for all practical purposes. The collapse is just a matter of time.

Just like those two poor souls in Iraq, the region’s inhabitants are gullibly letting others lead them to their demise… the only hope for the Lebanese smarten up

And that's the only real cure for Electile Dysfunction