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lebanese liberals

octubre 10, 2006

un articulo de una amiga periodista sobre los liberales y sociodemocratas libaneses, y seguido por una respuesta de un amigo profesor sobre la composición de clase/política en el líbano. todo en inglés, me temo…

Twilight of Lebanon’s liberals
Secular Arabs like Druze leader Walid Jumblatt worry that the Israeli invasion will push Lebanon into the arms of the fanatics.

By Kate Seelye

Aug. 07, 2006 | Walid Jumblatt is in a funk. The leader of Lebanon’s Druze sect was never an upbeat kind of guy at the best of times. Even during the height of Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution, which he helped to engineer, the Sorbonne-educated Marty Feldman look-alike wore an expression of eternal exasperation. And that was after helping kick the Syrians out of Lebanon.

These days he’s really down. Jumblatt is haunted by dark visions of what Lebanon will become once Israel has finished bombing his country to smithereens.

Seated inside his 18th century palace, hung with portraits of his late father, Kamal, an Arab socialist with a fondness for Buddhist philosophy, Jumblatt junior conceded defeat.

“The fanatics have won the day,” he said gloomily, as we drank sangria in a vaulted stone room lined with Oriental pillows. “The Israelis are arrogant and won’t admit they’ve lost, but they have. Hezbollah can afford this tactic of burnt earth.” “We’re squeezed,” he concluded, “between Karbala and Masada.” Jumblatt allowed himself a slight smile for coining the expression and then sighed heavily. By invoking Karbala, the Iraqi city where the Shiite saint Hussein and his followers were massacred, Jumblatt was referring to the Shiite glorification of martyrdom. Masada, the hilltop fortress where ancient Israelites committed mass suicide rather than surrender to the Romans, symbolizes the Israeli penchant for viewing every fight as a fight to the death.

Physically, Jumblatt seems far removed from the current conflict. He fields a steady stream of phone calls, but he has been largely confined to his Chouf mountain redoubt for the past year and a half after receiving assassination threats. Most of the Chouf, which is southeast of Beirut, has been spared Israeli airstrikes. It’s PSP territory — the acronym for Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party — and turbaned mullahs and bearded fighters are not welcome here. But Jumblatt is a political animal and he clearly sees which way the winds are blowing. His Druze stronghold is crawling with displaced Shiites, who have fled the fighting further south. And Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has been hinting that leaders like Jumblatt will pay the price for not backing the cleric’s fight against Israel.

“They have taken the whole country hostage,” Jumblatt said, referring to Hezbollah and its allies, Syria and Iran. “They have succeeded in stealing our dreams of a year and a half ago.” That’s when Lebanon’s liberal, independence movement, known as the March 14th forces, demanded a Lebanon free of Syrian occupation. And then the man who helped lead the Beirut Spring went quiet. His phone, for once, went quiet too. The silence grew painful.

March 14, 2005, doesn’t feel that long ago. That day, Jumblatt and his allies rallied a million Lebanese in downtown Beirut with their call for “freedom, sovereignty and independence.” Standing behind a bulletproof shield, Jumblatt, dressed in his usual stovepipe jeans, gave one of the most rousing speeches of the day with his passionate attack against the Syrian “dictator.” It was a heady moment for all.

But largely absent from the crowd that March 14th were Lebanon’s Shiites, who make up some 40 percent of the country. Hezbollah and its hundreds of thousands of followers, mainly the poor and disaffected who have benefited from Hezbollah’s largess, remained clearly in Syria’s camp. Damascus, after all, had been one of Hezbollah’s main patrons, helping to serve as a conduit for the thousands of Iranian missiles now stored in caves, bunkers and basements around Lebanon. That in turn gave the Shiites, who had long borne the brunt of Israel’s many invasions into southern Lebanon, a sense of security. It also gave them a status and clout they had historically been denied by Lebanon’s other large sects, like the Sunnis and the Christians.

After the June 2005 elections, the first elections relatively free of Syrian interference in 30 years, Lebanon’s fragile pro-Western government pondered the challenge of how to deal with Hezbollah. Newly elected Prime Minister Fouad Siniora was under U.S. pressure to disarm the group. Jumblatt himself didn’t seem especially concerned about Hezbollah’s weapons just a year ago. He defended the group’s right to fight for the Shebaa Farms, a disputed piece of land occupied by Israel. But many of his allies were worried. They knew that the presence of an independent armed militia accountable to Tehran and Damascus was going to be a problem for the new Lebanon. But how to disarm a powerful militia, with ties to Iran and Syria, given Lebanon’s weak army and divided government? No one quite knew, but a series of national dialogues ensued.

Later that night, seated on his stone terrace, under the Chouf’s starry skies, Jumblatt claimed he had told Washington to squeeze Syria harder if it wanted Lebanon’s fragile new democracy to survive. But, as always, American officials didn’t listen. Now the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis is on the rise, says Jumblatt, thanks to a series of American policy mishaps in Israel, Syria and Iraq. Lebanon is in shambles. And Arab moderates, as always, are the losers.

“Who are the liberals who will stay here now?” he asked morosely. “They will leave. We will have the fanatics ruling, not just in Lebanon, but in the whole Arab world.”

Not everyone here is as pessimistic as Jumblatt, but most Lebanese liberals are angered and bewildered by the recent turn of events. Few can make sense of the U.S.-backed Israeli campaign to destroy a populist guerilla group militarily. “I know Hezbollah started the fight by capturing two Israeli soldiers,” said 30-something business manager Howeida Saad, in her strappy T-shirt, “but did Israel have to go this far? Why not negotiate the return of captured soldiers, as Israel has in the past?”

“If a military solution was in order, why not attack Damascus or Tehran, Hezbollah’s backers?” asked long-haired American University of Beirut graduate Tarek Zeid. “Why destroy Lebanon, the only free, pluralistic, entrepreneurial glimmer of hope in the Middle East?” he added. “Why bomb its glistening new airport, its recently built bridges and roads? … Couldn’t there have been some other way?”

The questions get repeated night after night, at dinner after dinner, in the few Beirut restaurants that dare to open these days. And most of my Lebanese acquaintances come up with the same answer — because Israel hates Lebanon and America doesn’t give a damn.

Oussama Safa heads the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, a liberal think tank in a Beirut suburb. He finds the current military campaign tragic and ironic. He said the most likely victims are the Siniora government and its allies like Jumblatt, not Hezbollah.

“There used to be a joke that this is the ‘Condi Rice government,'” he told me in his book-lined office. “It was born with very strong Arab and U.S. pressure.”

But today, the “Condi Rice government” is under siege, by sea, land and air. It’s set to run out of fuel to run its power stations in just under a week. There’s almost no gasoline for cars or generators. The fuel crisis is so dire that the prestigious American University of Beirut hospital, which never closed during the 15-year civil war, is talking about the possibility of starting to discharge its patients.

Safa says the U.S. and Israel are destroying Lebanon in order to rebuild it, free of Hezbollah. But that’s not going to work, said Safa. “I don’t think we can recover.”

And while Lebanon’s weakened government staggers under the weight of the current assault, Hezbollah seems to flourish. Its rockets continue to rain down on Israel; its fighters keep Israel’s crack army bogged down along the border; and its ever-present Al Manar TV station continues to beam speeches by Hassan Nasrallah, despite Israeli efforts to smash both the leader and his propaganda arm.

Around the Arab world, Hassan Nasrallah is being hailed as the new Saladin, the Muslim fighter who took Jerusalem back from the Crusaders. For hundreds of thousands of displaced Lebanese Shiites, deprived of their homes and possessions, traumatized by war and death, Hezbollah is the answer to their pain.

In Sidon, a wheelchair-bound refugee from the southern town of Srifa recounted how her convoy was strafed by the Israelis — after the Israelis had ordered civilians to flee. Seven of her relatives died, she claimed.

“We were waving white flags,” Zeinab Aita cried, “and they still shot us. They’re barbarians. They have no respect for humanity.” Aita then cursed the U.S. for supplying Israel with its bombs, pledged her two young sons to Hezbollah, and vowed she would fight with her own hands against the forces of evil.

For many Lebanese, these stories of grief and extremism are familiar ones. “Don’t the Israelis and the Americans remember 1982?” asked a Lebanese colleague. That summer, Israeli troops invaded Lebanon to smash the Palestine Liberation Organization. Some 20,000 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians were killed and a year later Hezbollah was born in response to Israel’s ongoing occupation. “It’s like they never read their history,” he said.

On a recent weekend, wealthy Lebanese who haven’t yet fled the country did what the Lebanese have learned to do so well after years of civil war — escape. At a private swimming club some five miles north of Beirut, women in gold lamé bikinis lounged on deck chairs, working on their tans, while their partners lazily crawled the length of the club’s 100-meter pool. Waiters served cold bottles of Corona beer and chilled arugula salad. The war seemed very far away, until the sound of helicopter blades filled the air.

Two enormous choppers appeared on the horizon out at sea and flew straight over the beach club, as in a scene from “Apocalypse Now.” One peeled away back out to sea and the second landed on the grounds of the American Embassy in the hills just above the club. Everyone in the pool stopped to watch the spectacle for just a moment and then returned to swimming laps. Assistant Secretary of State David Welch had just landed in Beirut on a diplomatic mission. But no one seemed to care. It’s not like it would make a difference anyway. Lebanon’s liberals know they’re very much on their own.

— By Kate Seelye

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What think you? I was struck by the extent to which it paints Lebanese liberals as privileged elites. What about professionals and intellectuals, small businesses, labor? While I assume these classes lead much more comfortable lives than farmers or low-skilled labor, surely Lebanese liberals are not limited to the old aristocracy?

Thanks for your continuiing updates; stay safe,

Gary S
Thailand

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Re: surely Lebanese liberals are not limited to the old aristocracy?

Dear Gary, Greetings from Beirut to Bangkok! I finally got around to reading the article you sent me and please allow me to send my response to a few others as well.

I think the key sentence in the article below, with respect to your question about the class base of politics is the following sentence: “Why destroy Lebanon, the only free, pluralistic, entrepreneurial glimmer of hope in the Middle East?”

What one must realise when looking at Lebanon from the outside is that concepts of “Left” and “Right”, as they are understood both by classical liberal and Marxist thinkers, just don’t work here. Jumblatt is not a socialist, or social democrat for that matter, I don’t know what his PSP is doing in the Socialist International in the first place. They say all politics is local, in Lebanon, all politics is tribal, i.e. based on family-clan and confessional affiliations, loyalties and patronage networks. This holds true for people whose thinking one would call in the West liberal, leftist or conservative.

There simply is no Left in Lebanon in the traditional European sense of the word.

Liberals, e.g. those supporting globalisation WTO-style or backing the introduction of secularism and the abandonment of the religious courts, which rule the private lives of everyone living in Lebanon (family status law) – “get the government and organised religion out of the bedroom and the boardroom” – are to be found in most confessional camps, including the Shi’ia. In any extended family like my own, the relatively liberal, traditional Ras Beiruti, middle class Dabbous clan, you will find many liberals, along with conservatives, perhaps a few religious fanatics and even a sprinkling of leftists. But when it gets right down to it, the only thing that matters is first and foremost, family loyalty, and second, confessionalism! The handful of exceptions confirm the rule.

I think it would be worth our while to redefine the categories “Liberal”, “Conservative”, “Leftist”, even “Fascist” and “Fundamentalist” for that matter, for use in Lebanon and the greater Middle East. I have the feeling the Condi Rice is applying her Cold War training and experience to the conflict with the radical Muslim right; this really can’t work.

I have taught a 300 level (uni undergrad juniors, i.e. students in their c. 3rd to 5th semester) course at Notre Dame University (www.ndu.edu.lb) for five years now, titled “Political Ideologies.” What I have noticed is that students just don’t get it. We use Andrew Heywood’s “ideologies”, which is excellent. But I have the feeling that there remains a huge gap between what they read and what we talk about in class and the reality on the ground. I even created an additional module of the Catholic social movement, imagine Rerum Novarum is practically unknown in Lebanon.

As far as the term “Liberal” is concerned, perhaps it would be best to go item-by-item: e.g. women’s rights, minority and immigrant’s rights (NB: many “Leftists” & “Liberals” in Lebanon aren’t even abolitionists, e.g. they hold Asian maids in their homes under conditions termed by the ILO to be modern slavery), cultural pluralism, environmentalism, and now the big one, social justice for the poor.

There is not one single political party in Lebanon that is willing to take up the challenge of Hizbollah and organise the working poor and lower middle class into secular, progressive self-help organisations, along the lines of the Social Democrats in Europe during the first half of the 20th century.

Hizbollah is a state-within-a-state because the Leftist and Liberals just don’t care about their classical progressive constituencies, when seen from a class perspective. This is something that the international NGOs here also don’t get, or don’t care about. Most of what we have here is either charity or chic posturing, to impress foreign donors, with no real substance or sustainability.

The reconstruction phase that (InShallah) is up and coming with the end of the war will only make matters worse, much worse! because:

1) the Conservatives, Liberals and Leftists will steal between 1/3 and 50% of the international funds to service their patronage networks;
2) most of the real work in the secular camp will be done by a handful of well meaning, idealist charity workers;
3) Hisbollah will shoulder the brunt of the work in the trenches, doing what really counts for the poor and endangered middle classes in the south, southern suburbs and Bekaa, where most of the lower income people live.

I agree, Lebanon is lost, but having admitted that, why give up!

Hope this was of help, Eugene

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