Walid's Wanderings

Reflections on life, good-and-evil, family, humanity, and anything else that occurs to me, usually when I travel. Right now I am on a 6-year trip through Lebanon, the homeland I had never really lived in before.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Yalla Bye

Word has come down to us co-conspirators ;-) to stop all anti-government actions for the holidays, so here's something completely different. Why do so many Lebanese say "Yalla bye!" when taking theire leave? I mean, "Hi, keefak, ca va" on a T-shirt is good for a chuckle, but "Yalla bye" is actually really heard pretty much everywhere. It finally occurred to me why.

Our native tongue, Arabic, recognizes many distinctions that other languages do not. For insatance the distinction between a singular noun, a plural noun and a dual noun. The only example of a triple distinction in English is for comparative and superlative adjectives (good, better, best). The Arabic-language distintion that bears on "Yalla bye" is the distinction between leave-taking and god-speeding. To take our leave from assembled company or from a household, in Lebanon we might say "Bi Khatirkon" (= don't forget to think about me/us) and in Egypt they might say "astaathen ana ba'a" (= I beg to [to take leave] now.) To wish godspeed to a person deprating from assembled company or from a household, in most Arab countries we say "ma3 el salameh" (= travel safe) with the appropriate vowels for our dialect, except in the in the Arabian Gulf, where they say "fi aman Allah" (= in God's care).

Now professional linguists are known to search for (and make whole lifetime careers out of) patterns that guide our use of a language without being consciously known to the speakers of the language. I think the following is one of them, and if someone can help me find the right keywords I would be glad to do a scholar.google search and figure out if it is an original observation or not. Arabic speakers cannot stand the confusion of the two types of goodbye. Even when we use the hugely popular, shorter, European-derived "bye", it jars the mind to use the same word in two contexts. Hence "Yalla bye" if you want to leave present company, and the equally powerful "OK bye" in order to give leave to someone who is leaving. Take notice next time you catch yourself following this convention and let me know if I am wrong.

Further proof: some smart-alec, some time between Napoleon's Egypt campaign and World War 2, thought it would be a good thing to translate the French "au revoire" into "ila alliqaa". Of course "until we meet again" does not carry the distinction between the leave-taker and the leave-giver. Result? Whenever you hear "ila alliqaa" or "ilalliqaa" you can be sure you are listening to a Mexican soap opera or a Japanese cartoon that has been dubbed into Arabic. It seems that the same little studio somewhere with the same voice talent does all the dubbing, and their resident linguist is probably the only person in the world who thinks real Arabic ever sounded like that.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

If You Love Lebanon, Set It Free

Hear Hear. The titla above, and the article below (apart from the bold references to Shia interests), sounds like it may have been written by a linguistically endowed member of Michel Aoun's inner cirlce. In fact, it was written by "Robert Grenier, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency’s counterintelligence center" and published in the New York Times today. I assume that pasting a copy here in my blog qualifies as "fair use" given the small readership that I have. If my readeship should suddenly grow, than I can only proffer the excuse that people like Robert Grenier write Op-ed articles in the New York Times to get the biggest possible audeince for a bold idea, and I'm thus on his side if I send it to everyone I know.


ONCE more, Lebanon is in political crisis. This time, we are told, it pits “Syrian- and Iranian-backed” Shiite parties (Hezbollah and Amal) and the Christian faction led by Michel Aoun against the “Western-backed” Christian, Sunni and Druze groups that support the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

These very descriptions — citing one external backer or another as a mark of political identification — illustrate the fundamental problem Lebanon must overcome. Call it the Lebanese Disease: rather than sorting out their differences internally and addressing the fundamental injustices at the heart of their disputes, the Lebanese constantly look to outsiders to gain an advantage over their rivals.

Naturally, any advantages thus gained are short-lived, for both the Lebanese and their foreign backers. In the end, the only result is greater popular suffering and instability in Lebanon and the entire Middle East.

Only the Lebanese can cure themselves of this disease, but a bit of enlightened self-interest on the part of the “Western backers” — primarily the United States and France — would greatly help. It may seem counterintuitive, but the best hope for American interests in the Middle East is not to isolate and minimize Hezbollah, but to further integrate it politically, socially and militarily into the Lebanese state.

Let’s dial back half a year, to the start of this latest crisis. The immediate reaction of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel to the cross-border attack by Hezbollah on Israeli troops was his most honest. This was not, he said, an act of terrorism — it was an act of war. And, issues of proportionality aside, it was quite justifiable to hold the Lebanese government to account.

The honesty of that initial reaction, however, was quickly replaced by the old formula to which Israel has resorted since 1978. Israel did not intend to attack Lebanon, its spokesmen insisted, but was just trying to help the Lebanese by attacking Iran-controlled Hezbollah. This was a polite way of saying to Mr. Siniora: We’re going to rid ourselves — and you — of Hezbollah, for which you should be grateful, and you’d better make sure they don’t rise again.

Now let’s try to view this from the perspective of a Lebanese nationalist. To acquiesce to the American-Israeli formula for Lebanon would be to accept that one’s nation should be entirely supine before a neighbor; that any time the Israelis decided to react to a limited provocation or threat, the only defense one could mount would be the tearful pleas of a powerless prime minister.

Thus it should not be surprising that many Lebanese, including Mr. Siniora, at least temporarily put aside their factional mistrust and embraced Hezbollah as the sole available means of national resistance. This, along with Hezbollah’s surprisingly successful resistance, has permanently changed the political calculus of the nation.

For one thing, it is harder today to suggest to Lebanese nationalists that Hezbollah is simply a mindless proxy for the Iranians. Throughout the Middle East, religious extremism and Arab nationalism are becoming identical, with the former becoming the only effective means of pursuing the latter. This is true of the Sunni extremists in Iraq and throughout the Arab world, as well as of the Shiite extremists of Hezbollah in Lebanon, whose resistance to the Israelis, clearly motivated at least in part by a desire to support the Sunni Palestinians, has paradoxically made them a hero of the Sunni Arab street.

Likewise, Hezbollah’s support of the Syrian presence in Lebanon — which should be anathema to any Lebanese nationalist — should be seen less as obeisance to a neighbor than as the cynical price the group must pay to ensure its logistical link with Iran.

As Hezbollah becomes more enmeshed in Lebanese politics, however, domestic political considerations will become increasingly influential in its calculations — a tendency that should be encouraged. Indeed, the closing stages of last summer’s war provided a fleeting opportunity for the Beirut government to gain a greater measure of state control over Hezbollah.

The hardship caused to average Lebanese by its recklessness meant that the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, had some explaining to do. He quickly admitted that the raid had been a mistake. And his desire for a cease-fire, gained through the external political engagement of Mr. Siniora, put the prime minister in a relatively strong position to demand Hezbollah’s cooperation in demonstrating that it was being brought under at least the partial control of the state.

On the other hand, the potent demonstration of Hezbollah’s ability to resist Israeli forces gave many Lebanese nationalists, even Sunnis, a new desire to preserve the radical group in the service of all Lebanon.

Given a more farsighted leadership, these two factors could have given the Lebanese an impetus to forge a new political compact for the country. It has long been obvious that the Shiites are under-represented in Lebanon’s complicated power-sharing arrangements. In return for a greater measure of political representation for Shiites, Mr. Siniora could have insisted that Hezbollah’s militia be brought under some sort of state control — perhaps as a sort of home guard for the south, with its fighters under the command of senior officers drawn from the Lebanese armed forces.

This sort of overarching agreement would not have been easy to reach, and it would be naïve to suppose that somehow the Hezbollah leadership would allow itself to be totally stripped of control of its militia overnight. But its involvement in Lebanese politics since the summer has already brought discernible changes in Hezbollah’s attitudes and behavior. Its leaders understand that if they want to influence the policies of the state, they will have to accommodate the interests of other religious groups and political factions. This change of attitude would, over time, undoubtedly have a moderating effect. In sum, if Hezbollah were given a greater stake in Lebanon, it would progressively become more Lebanese.

WHICH brings us back to the barricades now dividing the center of Beirut. All sides are indulging themselves in an orgy of historical recrimination, and stoking fantasies that they can achieve their goals through confrontation. Not only would a civil war be a disaster for all Lebanese, but among the ever-present foreign backers, the United States would lose most.

Tacitly encouraging civil war is seldom wise, and particularly when the side with which one is affiliated cannot win. It should be obvious that American — and Israeli — interests are best served by a unified Lebanese state that has clear control over its people and its territory. We now know that Hezbollah is not going to be eradicated, nor its influence reduced.

So the only way of making the Lebanese government accountable is to encourage the progressive, moderating integration of Hezbollah into the political, social and military fabric of the state.

How could Washington help this happen? Well, for one thing, we should give up talk of greatly enlarging the multinational force in southern Lebanon, and convince the Europeans to do likewise. Fortunately, the plan to insert such a force this fall foundered when the French (wisely) decided they were not up to the task of disarming Hezbollah, although smaller numbers of European troops are apparently headed there soon. It is folly, particularly with lightly armed foreign forces, to try to get regional actors to do things that they see as fundamentally against their interests.

Second is to end the proxy battles between foreign powers. I don’t know what the Americans are telling the Lebanese government privately, but the public statements are disappointing. Last month the White House issued an official statement citing “attempts by Syria, Iran, and their allies within Lebanon to foment instability and violence” and insisting the United States would “continue its efforts with allied nations and democratic forces in Lebanon to resist these efforts.” In other words, we’re still trying to rile Lebanese sentiment as a wedge against our enemies in the region.

A far more genuine American commitment to Lebanon would focus on helping the parties to come up with a reasonable formula to redress the under-representation of Shiites in the power structure while getting greater government control over Hezbollah’s war-making capacity. Make no mistake: Hezbollah is no friend to America. As a former United States intelligence officer, I know there are a few accounts yet to be settled with that organization. But Washington will never achieve its objectives in the Middle East — including its obligation to ensure Israel’s long-term security — unless it puts emotions aside and deals realistically with facts on the ground. Like it or not, Hezbollah is one of those facts. A less-than-pliable but strong government in Lebanon would be far preferable to no real government at all, which is what we have now.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Is Syria holding the remote control?

Perhaps the most effective slur against the opposition is that they are doing Syria's bidding. Most Lebanese remember to well how the Syrian occupation destroyed their livelihoods with a combination of zero government accountability and economic corruption.

Most Lebanese also very fondly remember how one man, Rafik Hariri, was able to come up with a formula that kept our economy growing in spite of Syrian occupation. Somehow, Hariri managed to create investment opporutnities for lots of people, over and above the opportunities for personal profit for himself and his loyalists, as well as enough to bribe all the parasites to leave us all alone, from the Syrian generals to the Lebanese warlords. It was easy for us to believe that the departure of the Syrians would allow the growth to continue minus the corruption, allowing us as a nation to start repaying our loans instead of increasing them forever. Instead, we got Saad Hariri, whom I do not know personally, and to whom I do not feel inclined to attribute any qualities, good or bad. All I can judge is his actions, and perhaps I can speculate on why it is understandabel and human for him to act that way. Saad inherited a system from his father, but, like all heirs, he did not inherit the memory of having built that system and of having made decisions that influenced the design of the system. The same can be said for Bashar Al Asad, or even for myslef had I decided to contonue my own father's business. We see what is working today, and we try to plug the leaks and change the oil and keep it going as best we can. Now the system that Saad inherited was a necesssary compromise between the need for growth and the need to pay blackmail to the Syrians. But with the Syrians gone, a man with Rafiq Hariri's reputed business acumen would have seen the need to rein in the corruption because the need to pay all that blacklmail was no longer there, and the need for economic growth for the whole nation was greater than ever. Instead, Saad Hriri decided that his chief ally and advisor in the world was Walid Jumblatt, a chief bribe-taker from the days of the Syrians. The corrupt system that was siphoning off Lebanon's past economic growth and strangling hopes for its future economic growth remained in place. According the Forbes' survey of the wrold's wealthiest individiuals, the combined fortune of the Hariri family tripled in less than one year. The skimmed profits were coming in, but the bribes going out were much reduced.

Now this is the system that Saad Hariri and his new (and old) bribe-taking allies are cementing in Lebanon for perpetuity using the tools invented by the Bush administration in the US. The rules of democratic fair play are observed, so the press is not censored and torturing political opponents is not reagrded as a legitimate debating tactic. But, electoral districts are drawn to the liking of a slim ruling majority, and all institutions capable of standing up for the rights of those outside the slim parliamentary majority are legally re-populated with bought-and-paid-for individuals. It is far from certain that Lebanon's newborn constitional balance will survive this attempt as well as the 200-year-old constitution of the USA did.

Of course the Syrains would like nothing better than a share of the revenue stream created by this system, and given the relative sizes of Syria and Lebanon, no Lebanese would benefit if this were to happen. The Syrians and their professed think-alikes also want to avoid being put on trial for Rafiq Hariri's murder. But neither of these demands is carried by the leading tributaries of the opposition. Fiscal transparency is the main condition of the FPM, which goes against the Syrian regime's will, and a coherent defense strategy for Lebanon is the main demand of Hezballah, which happens to concide with Syrian best interests. Best of all, both of these sides are willing to help the other get its goals in exchange for support for its own goals. This is a true alliance of cooperating equals, indicative of how a health democratic government should work. It's an added bonus if both goals are good for Lebanon, but whether or not they are is another topic.

So, yes, Syria holds a remote control for the smaller parties of the opposition, because those parties want exactly what Syria wants. But the main tactic of the Saad Hariri bloc, which is just as bad for Lebanons future as Syrian reoccupation, is to confuse the demands of the opposition to move forward and furhter away from the practices of the days of Syrian hegemony, with a cartoon image of three million blind mice who wants nothing more than to move backwards to the embrace of the knife-wielding farmer's wife of full Syrian hegemony. The tactic is working, becasue the feelings against the bad old days of Syrian occupation are so strong that many are not willing to consider exactly what it was about Syrian occupation that made our children leave Leabon to find work and our businesses close down for lack of connections and our phone calls to our departed children or our suffering business suppliers cost from twice to ten times as much as they should. Families are split between their feelings of learned revulsion (agains Syrians) and their understanding of where these feelings came from (economic strangulation.) I hope that more and more people see that being stangled with invisible carbon monoxide is in the end just as bad as being strangled with a hemp rope areound your neck and another around your wrists and another around your ankles. Only open, transparent, representative government can save us from both fates.

Monday, December 11, 2006

It's simple ; It's complicated

With access to all the satellite TV stations controlled by different factions, I hear rousing speeches from both sides of the current debate in Lebanon all the time. Some come close, but none so far have convinced me to change my view that the current cabinet is bad for the democratic future of Lebanon, and that the current opposition is more in tune with the true best interests of virtually every third party affected. I find the main distinction to be a simple one.

Why Simple?

Lebanon is faced with a governing coalition that has won fair and free elections using techniques that are 100% in tune with democratic best practices as observed in the world's most powerful democracy. Votes reliably for the ruling coalition were distributed so as to dilute the votes of potential opponents, and potentially neutral parties were wooed by campaign promises that were not intended to be kept. The single electoral victory is used to cement control over other institutions that could sand in the way of permanent one-party control first the constitutional court, and next the presidency. The ruing coalitions also exercises its authority to grant lucrative no-bid contracts to its own members and their relatives. All indications are that this status quo is inte4nded to be prolonged indefinitely by retaining control of electoral districting and by manipulating the alternating election dates (presidency, parliament) to pass on the baton of control. A cloud of obfuscation is thrown by appealing to solidarity in a war against an invisible enemy, and opponents are smeared as conscious or unwitting supporters of the powerful invisible enemy.

On the other side is a coalition of everyone else not directly benefiting (or still hopeful of future promised benefits) from the largesse of the ruling coalition. The opposition has succeeded in bringing together ex-fundamentalists who renounced fundamentalism and espoused multi-confessional coexistence, ex-communists who now believe in free and fair elections, and ex-fascists who are not sure where they belong yet but, being a tiny minority, have not yet been called to sign a memorandum of agreement on fundamental principles as the previous parties did.

Put that way, the choice is simple. But there are complicating factors, some genuine and some, in my personal opinion, spurious.

What's complicated

I hardly know where to start. If only I could make this part of my blog post a Wiki and all of you can add any comments you have until the best possible picture of the ruling coalition's message emerges. What about Iran? What about Syria? What about all the assassinations? What about Israel's right to exist within recognized boundaries? What about international terrorism? What about the Sunnis and the Shiites? What about ignorance, poverty, and deodorant malfunction?

Inside my head I have a way to deal with all these complications. First I eliminate the nonsensical. If someone does not agree with me that we are all human beings worthy of equal rights and considerations, then meet me outside. For the rest, please be quiet about why the Syrians cannot be trusted because they are Syrians, the Iranians cannot be trusted because they are Persian/Shiite/short, the Sunnis cannot be trusted becasue of Bin Laden and King Saud and Hosni Mubarak, the Shiites cannot be trusted because their Hejab is black instead of white, the Israelis cannot be trusted because they are imperialist zionist pigs who do not eat pork because it would be cannibalism, and so on so forth. It is people's policies that matter, not their ethnicity. If you act like the Syrians acted when they ruled Lebanon, then you are my enemy, even if you have a Harvard tie and a Cambridge accent. And if you take me in when I am homeless and feed me when I ma hungry and medicate me when I am sick, then why should I care if you pray towards the south or towards the north, or if you cross yourself form left to right or from right to left?

This leaves two main issues: connections to international terrorism (against Israel) and to foreign dictatorial ideologies, Syria's Baath and Iran's "wilayat al faqih". Both issues ar pretty hard to resolve from a distance, because the argument against both accusations requires access to good reporting about the day-to-day practices of the coalition that has bound the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), which opposed Syrian presence in Lebanon but does not feel obliged to liberate Syria form the Syrians, and Hezballah (HA), which opposed Israeli meddling in Lebanon and which adheres to strict rules of engagement when they cheer the Palestinian factions that continue to fight in Israel. The way I see it, if I do not like the behavior of my neighbor, I can move away, remove the neighbor, or change his behavior. In allying itself with the FPM, HA has changed the last of the behaviors that many Lebanese opposed. A decade ago, HA declared that is will only seek an Islamic state by providing a good example, not through violent means. Since then, it has declared that the multi-confessional nature of Lebanon makes it impossible to have an Islamic system. However, the latest change was declaring the popular will as expressed by democratic elections supersedes the right of clergy to rule. This is exactly the kind of Shiite jurisprudence that the free world would yield its biggest oil well to see espoused by Iran, or even by the Iraqi Shiite militias. Conversely, it can be argued that Aoun's pre-1991 statements that Syria is a land of palaces and dungeons is long forgotten in the crucible of today's opposition coalition, which professes neutrality (as opposed to hostility or admiration) towards Syria in Syria, and vehement opposition to any return to Lebanon.

And what about terror and Israel? I have argued that HA's power to deter Israel from motoring into Lebanon at will is a prerequisite for true peer-to-peer negotiations and a model for resolving all the different branches of the Arab-Israeli conflict. If you read carefully the text of the US law that defined terror organizations, you will find that an organization accused of past terrorist acts must cease to have any military capability before it is taken off the list. Present or future terror intent is not necessary for the classification to be renewed. Now HA denies that is was institutionally liable for the terror attacks against American civilians in the 1980s, and I do not personally believe these denials. It denies complicity in training Iraqi militias and bombing Argentina, and here I am inclined to wait until proof is given, because I recognize Israel's advantage in spreading these allegation. But the real point is that HA cannot disarm without an alternate guarantee of safely against Israeli retaliation. Unlike the Baath or other parties that are predicated on opposition to non-Sunni domination of any areas of the past Islamic empire, HA is not unwilling to coexist with an Israel that respects their rights. If the long-running offer by Palestinian Hamas to have an indefinite truce with Israel is ever accepted, HA will have no bone to pick with Israel, and when that happens you will see how quickly all the accusations of terrorist activity will cease. I feel that HA has already renounced terrorism, and the only obstacle to universal recognition and applause of this renouncement is the dispute with Israel, which is not in the hands of HA to unilaterally resolve.

So I continue to support the opposition. One might add that a coalition where different points of view continue to coexist with some points of mutual agreement and some points of mutually accepted difference will be vastly more effective in uncovering the truth about the assassinations, and in bringing the guilty to account, than a coalition held together by temporary advantage.


It might be tempting to believe that the existing institutional checks and balances will prevent the worse excesses of opportunistic rulers as long as some semblance of a democratic principle is being followed. Didn't the US Democrats win both houses of congress in the US when the harmful policies of the Bush administration became to obvious to ignore? Not necessarily, and not in Lebanon. We are still experimenting with a new constitutional balance that was selected in 1991 and never put in practice since due to Syrian occupation. Unlike Lebanon's previous constitution, there is no provision for dissolving parliament or for dismissing the cabinet. These powers are reserved for a monarch in the UK and for the president in France, and though rarely use4d, constitute a restraining force against a party rule system where the parliamentary majority elects the president and approved the cabinet. This new constitution of ours may or may not sand up to the strain under which the ruling coalition, lacking a popular mandate, is putting it. The time to ensure that the parliamentary majority acts according to the best interest of the popular majority is now, not later, if we want to maintain the main benefit of democracy: peaceful transition of power.

In addition, the lucrative no-bid contracts that we are talking about in Lebanon are not just distant defense-budget allocations. We have already ceded to the same clique monopoly power over mail (20 pounds to the US costs 200 dollars), mobile phones (12 cents per minute, any time, plus $35 per month even if you use no minutes) and garbage collection ($120 per ton of household waste.) The Syrians were blamed but, today, almost 2 years since they left, the same people are still collecting the same rates on it goes. ("The rope is on the tractor", in an idiomatic bilingual mis-transliteration pun!) Now were are looking at a monopoly on generating and distributing electricity, and regular land-line phones, to be transferred to the same clique. There is no mention of true privatization in the sense of a publicly-traded shares in these massive enterprises, or even regulation by an accountable independent agency.

We need rulers who are accountable to a public majority in these crucial times, and this is worth marching for.

Friday, December 08, 2006

I don't get it

I was busy when Hasan Nasrallah gave his speech, but I listened to a re-run later. I do not understand the bloggers who are angered by it - except if they only heard the snippets on CNN. The way I heard it, the guy was saying "I have proof that XYZ tried to kill me personally, and nevertheless in the intertest of preserving our nation for our chilrdern, I forgive them all and ask for a partnership that can best represnt the will of the Lebanese people." Of course he sounded angry when he described some of what his opponents did. The real message of the speech was how far this party has come since 1982. Their deep will to be an accepted part of the Lebanese body politic has wrought this change. This was helped enormously by the lucky coincidence that the first other Lebanese party to deal with them in a spirit of mutual trust and cooperation was the dyed-in-the-wool proponents of Eurpoean enlightenment though, the Free Patriotic Movement.

What I see on the other side is an unholy alliance of House of Bush and House of Saud, parroting the rhetoric of democracy and practicing paint-by-numbers hegemonic ideals. And of course an audience that remains confused by all the arm waving.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Elevated Debate

The following comment is from one guy writing on another guy's blog. I moved the debate here to avoid being buried under less relevant issues.
If Hezbollah is so democratic...try something for me. Take your fellow protesters and march down to Dahieh and surround Nasrallah's compound (if you can even get that far), then demand that he turn over his weapons to the Lebanese Army. The moment he does that, I'm willing to give him 1/3+1 in the cabinet, or whatever it is he is demanding, and call for early parliamentary elections (since he claims the majority is on his side).
Think he'd take that deal? Think he'd listen to 200,000 protesters? I have my doubts.
My response: Lest the impression is given that I am avoiding a direct answer to a direct question, I will give the "short answer" first: "I honestly have no idea: can't presume they will and can't presume they won't."

To make a more reasoned response, I must distinguish between three elements of the question:

  1. Is having arms outside the armed forces compatible with democracy?
  2. Is a popular march an accpetable way to express a majority opinion? and
  3. Would Hezbollah respond to a true majority opinion?
These three point have already been addressed by Hezbollah's rhetoric, and, as I said, I only claim to be sufficiently convinced by those claims to take them at face value.


Having those arms deployed in a non-traditional guerilla organization is the only guarantee of their effectiveness in fulfilling their stated goal: deterring Israel. Why do we need to deter Israel? For many in Lebanon, this is a stupid question, but for most of us here in the blogosphere who have Jewish friends and who read American news, the question deserves a response credible to our world view. My argument is that Israel has used it superior arms to dictate terms in any negotiation. Even if you do not buy into threats of an expansionaist Israeli empire, you must admit that Israel's best interests do not always concide with Lebanons, even if both were at peace and both had governments truly reflective of theor people's actual develpmental needs. I doubt that Israel wants to steal Lebanese water, but I recognize that they may have an interest in purchasing some, and I recognize that the balance of power today would allow them to dictate a price. I doubt that Israel wants to send the Falashas to build settelments in Tyr, but I recognize that Israel does not want to admit that it owes anything to the Palestinians in Tyr and the rest of Lebanon. Since Heballahs unique organization has proven the only way to stop Israel from doing anythin it wants militarily in South Lebanon, I do regard that the preservation of this deterrent, until it is replaced by an equally powerful deterrent, is essential to the realization of goals legitimately held by a vast majority of Lebanese citizens. (e.g 95% of Lebanese percent do not want the Palestinians permanetly housed in Lebanon - I belong to the other 5% but we are talking about democracy here and I support the 95%'s right to get their way.) Hence the arms are more than merely compatible with a system of government that allows the expression of these popular goals. I have previously argued that Hezballah is the only instance in todays world of a "well organized militia" as per the definition implied in the US constitution, so I will not rehash that arguemtn here.


Marching is a last resort when the proper institutions for determining popular will have been subverted. If you grant that you can fool some of the people all the time and all of the people some of the time, I propose that an unscrupulous minorty can gain full an permanent control of democratic institutions. While all of the pople are fooled, you group the "some of the people" whom you can fool all the time with people you cannot fool into electroal districts so that they constiture a majority in those districts, and those districts constitute a majority of districts. Institutions that allow this policy to go unchallenged cannot protect democracy in the modern Western sense - they would be more like democracy in the ancient Greek sense, which dies every time the majority elect a tyrant. Marching in the streetes is a last resort when an unscrupulous minorty threatens to destroy the system and refuses to heed any other calls to desist from them scheme, e.g. by allowing the parliamentalry minority to safeguard its rights or by letting an impartial commission re-draw electoral districts. I maintain that this is what the opposition inLebanon today is doing. With the support of a lot of jealous despots, but that is another story. In its actions as a whole, the opposition is on the side of democracy (in the modern Western sense) and the cabinet is not.

When faced with a sincere attempt to engage them, Hezballah has many times in the past changed their policies without having to give up their core beliefs. Hezballah realized that the Lebanese people did not want private American citizens kidapped, and the practise stopped. Lebanon cannot be a theocracy like Iran, and Hezballah has indeed long since dropped the goal of forming one. Hezballah supported Syrian presence in Lebanon while the Syryans were here, but when they left Hezballah listened to their fellow citizens and now oppose their return. The Lebanese army and the Unifil are in south Lebanon only after seeking and getting guarantees from Hezballah that they would not be attacked - hardly supportive of the thoery that only weakness on the ground precipitated a capitulation by Hezballah.

It is also the stated objective of Hezballah to be part of a coordinated defense strategy for Lebanon, as long as the representatives who express the will of Lebanon are truly representative of the Lebanese people. Case in point: when Hezballah joined the Siniora government (as part of the 1/3+1 formula which was since subverted by the defection of two pro-Lahoud ministers), the ministerial statement approved by all said that the release of Lebanese prisoners in Israel was to be sought by all means as amatter of Lebanese government policy. Hezballah captured two soldiers in an effort to implement this policy, and only after other means had failed. They did not attack Israel in retaliation for actions against Gaza or against humanity - they did so with more support from the recognized representatives of all the Lebaense people than the US had support for invading Iraq based on the expressed will of the nations in the UN. So I am convinced that Hezballah will continue to only ue its arms in a manner consistent with teh stated will of the Lebanese people, not of what they or Syria think that the will of the Lebanese people should be. I think this is something we can all build on, if only people dropped their knee-jerk oppostion to Hezballah as an entity and considered its trajectory instead.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

And they dare say that our protestors are not as photogenic as theirs?

Random Observations

As I drove into Beirut today, the most eerie feeling was the lack of reception for the BBC station on my radio. Was that an omen? As I approached the camp-in zone, black-unifromed army personnel were re-routing traffic around the area, and traffic was on the light side of normal. The side of the overpass overlooking the tents was also under guard, possibly because it had been turned into a parking lot, and possibley to prevent someone throwing stones.

The other main thing I noticed was that the canadian maples planted alongside the Lebanese Canadian bank. Their leaves were just starting to turn.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Karl Popper

By sheer concicence, I ran across the following passage in my work-related reading. Isn't my job the best?
We may distinguish between two main types of government. The first type consists of governments of which we can get rid without bloodshed — for example, by way of general elections; that is to say, the social institutions provide means by which the ruler may be dismissed by the ruled, and the social traditions ensure that these institutions will not easily be destroyed by those who are in power. The second type consists of governments which the ruled cannot get rid of except by way of a successful revolu tion — that is to say, in most cases, not at all. I suggest the term `democracy' as a short-hand label for a government of the first type, and the term 'tyranny' or 'dictatorship' for for second. This, I believe, corresponds closely to traditional usage. But I wish to make clear that no part of my argument depends on the choice of these labels; and should anybody reverse this usage (as is frequently done nowadays [emphasis mine]), then I should simply say that I am in favour of what he calls `tyranny', and object to what he calls `democracy'

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Little Suleiman Frangieh gave a speech

I never liked the guy much, ever since I learned of his existence after his father was gunned down in a gangland-style home invasion when he was 2 and I was maybe 8. But today his speechwriters came up with a turn of phrase that I felt compelled to translate. He said:

"History usually remembers kings and sovereigns much more than it remembers their subjects. But today I say to you, no matter how little money you have left, no matter how small your homes are, not matter how great your physical needs, today you are the sovereigns. You are the sovereigns because you all came here to voice your individual opinions about the government that derives its legitimacy from the people. As for them, no matter how huge their bank accounts, filled as it they are money that is yours, and no matter how splendid their mansions, they are the subjects because they do not have the freedom to decide their own course of action without instructions from their masters."

Hear hear.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Taking to the streets

So far it's only been television and blogs for me, but I have a mind to go report live from the massive demonstration downtown. I was there for the March 14 2005 demonstration, and I remember distinctly that the majority of the people did not choose to go down to the downtown sit-in until it had gone on for several weeks. The impetus was a direct challenge by another party that spoke against the original demonstrators. People like me, with children and jobs to worry about, finally felt moved on the 14th of March 2004 to stand besides the smaller numbers who had been demonstrating in order to show that we agree with theier stand.

What was that stand? It was a realization that Syria's occupation of Lebanon was not only trampling our rights to due process if we tangle with the government and our rights to voice our opinions unimpeded if we disagree, but also stealing our economic future by making impossible to challenge corruption in high places. So we went down and chanted "Syria out!".

Today Syria is out and opinions are expressed more freely. But the degree to which the fruits of our economic labor goes to enrich others rather than to ensure the future of our children is up by a modest amount, and the degree to which we see it happening before out eyes instead of being able to wish it away is up several degrees of magnitude. We wanted Syria out so we could throw out the corrupt Lebanese who were installed by them, and instead the same corrupt Lebanese switched sides faster than we could and became the darlings of the democratic world without having to even pretend to shed their economic corruption. No one even tried to change the monopoly status of the companies owned by ex-ministers. No one dared add one line to the script that pits the nationalist thief, who wants to charge us double for electricity to pay his governemnt-connected fuel brokers, against the internationalist thief, who wants to privatize the electric grid by selling it to a single well-connected party on a no-bid basis and chage us triple. So we are mad.

What do we hear when we decide to move against this same government whose actions made us mad before when the Syrians were behind them? We do not hear the whoosh of water cannon to disperse the
demonstrators. Instead, we hear a chorus of disapproval against the demonstrators from all corners of the earth. And what convincing and well-though-out arguents do they have against the Lebanese demand to make our government accountable to us, the people of Lebanon? Here's a list

  1. Name Calling: To some, the name "Hezbollah" is an epithet in and of itself. To others, the designation made by Bush and co. that "Hezbollah is a terrorist organization" is all that is needed to determine which side right is on. Others still resort to circularity: Hezbollah is bad because they listen to the Iranians, and Iran is in th eaxis of evil because they support Hezbollah. What is lost in all this is any consideration of who did what when and of who is asking whom for what now.
  2. Appeals to Racism: Those funny-accented men from the south. Those women with the funny scarves. How can they have a voice?
  3. Attribution of ulterior motives: The Syrians ordered this. The Iranians want this happen. Totally forgettin what it is about the Syrians or the Iranianans (apart from the name recognition factor - see above) that we hold reprehensible.
  4. Democratic facade: The "institutionally correct" was to amend the cabinet is for parliament to give a vote of no confidence. Actually, the first thing this parliament did when it came into power was to dissolve the Lebanese equivalent of the supreme court. The next thing thing they want to do is to replace the president. I personally would not mind if the president was replaced, but it is not clear to me how you can call something a democracy if one gerrymandered election gives the same people power to replace the cabinet, the president AND the supreme court, even after the very people who voted that parliment into power take to the street to demand a new division of electoral districts?
  5. Scare tactics 1 - fear the unknown: "Things will go to hell." "You never know who has guns stashed away." And my favorite, by no less democratic a luminary than Egypt's own riot-averse Mubarak: "If thing go any further, then Arab forces will intervene to help out the government, and Iranian forces will intervene to spite the Arabs, and Lebanon will be the only victim." Funny how the rhetoric is more inflamed than Pres. Lahoud's prediction that "someone naughty boy will toss a firecracker" at the March 2005 demonstration. Did not deter us then and will not deter us now.
  6. Scare .tactics 2 - fear the known: Hezballah has arms, so they (a) should, (b) eventually would, and (c) count on others' fears that they might .... turn them against someone. Again, the actual requests (more transparent government), past actions (clever leverage of weapons as deterrance agains a more powerful foe) and present methods (peaceful demonstration) matter less to anyone who makes or buys these arguments than how they feel about whomever is saying them.
So if anyone sees me at the demonstration tomorrow or next week, know that I am there to demand a more transparent government. I want a clear decision on how our next parliamentary elections will be run. I demand a proper voice to the Lebanese people, as opposed to the foreigh ministers of Europe and the tail-between-the-legs neocons of Washington and the dictators of the Arab world, in the running of the country. I am not overjoyed at the company I will be keeping in making these demands, but they are the ones with whom I have to share a homeland. As long as this homeland institutes rule of law, any of them who actually do steal, murder, or rape, as opposed to voicing an opinion that I find distasteful, will be held accountable.