Across the Bay

Monday, March 14, 2005

The Semantics of Numbers

    "for the eye sees not itself
    But by reflection, by some other things."
    -- Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

One of the most interesting things to observe in the aftermath of Hizbullah's rally, and the opposition's counter-rally today, was not the numbers per se, but how those numbers were interpreted by commentators, especially by western Third Worldists.

In a post on H&R, Charles Freund made an interesting point:

[T]he groups that have been demonstrating in Cairo and Kuwait are far, far smaller -- hardly "crowds" at all -- but they yield greater potential political meaning: That such popular-empowerment groups have assembled at all represents a challenge to long-standing, top-down political norms. Indeed, the significance of the Egyptian Kifaya protests is not that they involved tens of thousands of marchers, but that they were an unanticipated phenomenon that quickly went from negligible to noticeable. No one doubts that Egypt's Mubarak could conjure up a counter-crowd of a million people to chant his name, but that wouldn't change the significance of the smaller protest gatherings.

Just such a conjured counter-crowd is what marched Tuesday in Beirut. The Hizbollah crowd that gathered to protest U.S. and French pressure for a full Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon (and also against UN Resolution 1559, which would disarm Hizbollah) has impressed some Bush critics by its size. The size of the crowd matters -- it reflects the strength of the crowd's organizers -- but so does the nature of the crowd. Indeed, the point of such conjured crowds is that they are about their organizers far more than they are about their participants.
Different crowds, different meanings.

This is an important reminder to people smitten by numbers. It's not that numbers don't matter, it's that the meanings people assign to them often do nothing but expose their underlying ideological premises.

For a quick example, take a look at your reliable third-worldists. The consistently repulsive Helena Cobban is one such commentator. In one of her most recent gems, she wrote that the opposition's massive rally today "may equal that pulled together by Hizbullah last Tuesday..." (Emphasis mine. In fact, it was at least double in size if not more). Another is the pitifully hilarious As'ad AbuKhalil, who has derided the opposition as hapless "Hummus" revolutionaries, who don't quite live up to the proletarian standards set by his hair. Perhaps at the top of the list is Baathophile and Asad spokesman, Patrick Seale, who recently made this typically stupid statement:

The Lebanese opposition - and especially the Maronite Christians among them - are in danger of imagining that, once Syria withdraws, their former dominance can be restored. They sometimes forget that they lost the civil war and that, in the meantime, other political forces have arisen which in terms of numbers, discipline and armed strength, dwarf their own.

Those people took the numbers of the Hizbullah rally and dumped all their ideological biases on it, from proletarianism, to third-worldism, through pseudo-Marxism, crypto-Arab nationalism, etc.

So you often heard statements like "in a real democracy, Hizbullah would sweep the elections and run the country" (or take the statement by hipster parody prof. Mark LeVine, that Hizbullah was "the most democratic force" in Lebanon).

What this means is that these people translated the numbers to mean something entirely different. This was all based on hilariously exaggerated demographic statistics regarding the Shiites, like Angry Hair's "at least 55%" or Cobban's "just below 50%"! Ironically, it was Juan Cole who got it right, placing the Shiites' numbers around the 35% mark (unless he needed to up it for ideological reasons to 40%, and equating the Christians with the Maronites, bring their total number to 20%.) Basically, if we're to reduce this to a sketch, it would be something like this: Shiite crowds => Shiite majority => Hizbullah majority => Hizbullah should run the country (were it only a "real" democracy and not that consociational nonsense!).

So what I would like to do is assess these two claims: that Hizbullah is "the most democratic force" and that is indeed an under-represented majority that would otherwise "sweep" the country and run it. (This absurd and incredibly faulty claim was echoed even by Tim Cavanaugh, whom I respect greatly, in an otherwise excellent post.) The underlying notion is the the extent to which Hizbullah wants to become a full-fledged Lebanese party.

The first thing that all these commentators fell prey to is Hizbullah's consistent tactic of "intimidation rallies." Hizbullah (especially since after the Israeli withdrawal) has a habit of organizing rallies and marches in their neighborhoods (esp. on Ashoura, but also on "Jerusalem Day") to instill two notions: 1- we are organized and disciplined (and ideologically dedicated) and 2- we are numerous. I would add a third point: we are the only ones armed!

Obviously the ideologically sympathetic commentators were impressed. The Lebanese never were. The reason is simple. It has nothing to do with a minority oppressing the majority or any of that inapplicable nonsense. It has to do with the fact that Hizbullah is the only armed force in the country beside the army! Hizbullah runs it own areas and the military (Syrian and Lebanese) or government officials don't go there (there is an incident where a minister was turned back because he didn't get authorization from Hizbullah to visit. Another incident included the Hizbullah guys beating up a government official and breaking the window of his car.)

You don't further your political weight through what is nothing less than blackmail! Well you could, but that's hardly democratic! Unless of course, you're Mark LeVine and Helena Cobban!

Hizbullah's pro-Syrian rally is to be viewed similarly. If Hizbullah was thinking that they will use the Syrians (and their numbers) to dictate change in the system (as Cavanaugh read it) in order to overhaul it, they were sorely mistaken. What
Lebanese in their right mind would accept change under these circumstances and under effective threat by the only armed militia in the country, who'se siding with the occupying force and using it for leverage?! And that's democracy!?

In a consociational democracy like Lebanon, which is the best system in a segmented society (as the Iraqis figured out), the last thing you do is intimidate in the other communities. That is the one thing that will certainly harm you! Just ask young Muqtada Sadr or the various "insurgent" Sunnis in Iraq. Or, simply ask a Lebanese Sunni politician, Hani Hammoud, as Neil MacFarquhar did the other day:

"[I]f he [Nasrallah] turns himself into a local political player and keeps repeating 'We want Syria,' pretty soon you will find that not just 50 percent of the Lebanese, but even 50 percent of the Shiites will start asking, 'Why does that militia still hold its weapons?' This is the risk," Mr. Hammoud concluded.

That means, if you want to enter the Lebanese game (which Nasrallah has been playing for a while now, while maitaining his contempt for it in rhetoric), you need to play like the rest. After all, no steroids are allowed anymore.

In other words, you negotiate, you don't sit on top and dictate with the implicit threat of force and Syrian backing. Not even the far more numerically superior Iraqi Shiites did that in Iraq. No Lebanese will take it from Nasrallah. In fact, this might be the way to read recent regional and international attitudes toward Hizbullah recently. If Hizbullah thinks it can conjure up a regional card (Syrian and Iranian backing), it has to remember that the Sunni regional powerplayers Saudi Arabia and Jordan won't sit idly by. This was the message of this As-Siyassah story the other day. It quoted a high official from a major "Gulf country" (read Saudi Arabia) who said that it would be unacceptable to sit and watch a Syrian-backed Shiite "attack" on their Sunni natural allies in Lebanon, and leaving them to be assassinated and intimidated. The source went on to say that the Saudis promised the visiting Walid Jumblat full support for the opposition.

On an international level, the EU parliament labeled Hizbulah a terrorist organization, which should be seen as the price of convincing the US to tone down on Hizbullah. But that means that the world (including Russia, also after meeting with Jumblat) is saying that the only way you will be acknowledged as a Lebanese political force, is if you act as a Lebanese political force, and not a regionally active militia. This is precisely what the opposition has been saying to Hizbullah, and now it has received regional and international backing.

If so, then Hizbullah will compete like everyone else in Lebanese politics. Which brings us to this majority business that will supposedly allow Hizbullah to "sweep" elections. Let's go along with Juan Cole (I can't believe that in this case he is the reasonable one!) and say the Shiites are anywhere between 35-40%. I think they're on the lower end, but let's be generous. Let's say they're 40%. How is 40% a majority!? What about the other 60%? Even if you are working with the above-mentioned sketch, how can you dimiss that? Whether they got 800,000 people on the street, or 10,000, is irrelevant.

The vast majority of those 60% are on the other side (today's demonstration featured a visibly high Sunni element, which should put to rest once and for all the stupid notion espoused by Seale as well as the idiotic Angry Hair and the repugnant Cobban that this is somehow a Maronite/minoritarian bid to retake power). Furthermore, these 60% also represent the majority in terms of groups: Christian, Druze, and Sunni, and some independent Shiites. Does "democracy" mean that the Shiites get to flip off the rest of the Lebanese because they may be 40%!? That's democracy?! This entire majoritarian logic doesn't even apply in Lebanon.

But let's go further. Out of the Shiites, how much does Hizbullah control or represent? 50-60% of the Shiites (don't forget Amal, the Asaad family, the independent secular Shiites dispersed in the COmmunist party and other leftist parties, etc.)? This translates to 20-25% (assuming the total 40%) of the Lebanese population (that's how it is now. No telling how long they can maintain this popularity.) That entitles them to "run the country!?" In this sense, I find myself --egad!-- partially agreeing with Juan Cole:

Hizbullah cannot sweep the elections... The most that could happen would be that Hizbullah defeats the other Shiite party, AMAL, and takes over the Speaker of the House position.
Hizbullah is a party of the poor, is puritanical and often frankly fanatical. I wouldn't want to live under it. But it probably represents a good 1/3 of Lebanese politically and is a force to be reckoned with. It cannot simply be ignored or dismissed as a terrorist organization.

As it stands, they (Hizbullah, not the Shiites) have 10% of the parliamentary seats. This doesn't count the MPs from other sects who are aligned with them, running on their lists, and effectively advancing their interests (what's called "real representation"). So they in fact are represented much more closely than people suggest. Also, ironically, they were restrained by Syria in some places when they were forced to make place for Amal, Syria's other ally, so they may win more in independent elections (but also, they were helped by the Syrians at other times, like the '96 elections, where the Syrians forced people not to run against them or make coalitions that would weaken them, so let's not leave that out, that much of their power comes courtesy of Syrian manipulation).

But the point is that whatever changes to the Lebanese system, they cannot be made under these circumstances, with Hizbullah being the only armed group in the country! Also, it can't be made while Hizbullah pursues, as a Syrian proxy, a regional agenda that holds the country hostage. It can't be made by a party that refuses to pay taxes, and which runs its own canton (see below)!

The Lebanese system is not really that rigid. It's based on talk, compromise, and playing politics. We can talk about bicameralism, rotation of the top offices, review of the Taef structure (which needs it anyway). This is not done through mob rule, or through using Syrian power.

What this also means is that Hizbullah needs to come down from the heights of "resistance cloud nine" and play local politics, not intimidation with dreams of regional relevance at the expense of the Lebanese, as Michael Young pointed out in a recent op-ed in the DS. This is also the meaning of the EU parliament's decision, and this is what Hizbullah has to make up its mind on.

As Michael Young said, summarizing much of my arguments above:

Nasrallah is hoping the choice can be deferred to a distant future. The lengthy timetables for the Syrian withdrawals from Beirut and the Bekaa Valley, touched upon Monday between presidents Bashar Assad and Emile Lahoud, are intended to allow Syria, once its soldiers depart, to leave behind a Lebanese government and Parliament it controls. As Assad himself indicated in his weekend speech, he has every intention of ensuring, if not enforcing, close Lebanese-Syrian ties. Borders can be porous things, so Damascus is wagering that once its forces return home international attention on Lebanon will abate, so that Syria will be able to continue arming and supporting its Lebanese allies under the table. At the top of the edifice will sit Lahoud, buttressed by the security services, with Hizbullah acting as the regime's Praetorian Guard. Former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri being gone, no Lebanese will be capable of advancing a project for independent statehood.  

Yet the plan won't work, both because a majority of Lebanese will reject it and because the international community will prevent it.

I add to that that Hizbullah's bargaining power with the Lebanese interior will be weakened, not strengthened, by such a move. The far more numerous Iraqi Shiites (who are a real majority) didn't work that way, so no one will take it from Hizbullah, who doesn't even represent all the Shiites. Hizbullah should've avoided this as a "Muqtada as-Sadr" move, doomed to fail.

Finally, LeVine never bothered to explain how Hizbullah is a "democratic force." It's an Islamist party. In a democracy, it will have to put out an agenda. In a country like Lebanon, an Islamist agenda will be resisted tooth and nail. People always fall back on Hizbullah's "social services" as some sort of legitimizing element. The flip side to that, is that they have established a state within a state, where the Lebanese army and officials cannot operate. Also, to continue on the theme of having their cake and eating it too, they don't pay taxes or bills, as this quote from the Neil MacFarquhar piece put it:

Even Shiite critics argue that Hezbollah must reconcile its long-held stand as a body of persecuted outsiders with its yearning for more stature before it tries to lead the nation.

The issues, says Waddah Sharara, a Lebanese University sociology professor, start with small, symbolic matters like the fact that most people in Hezbollah neighborhoods refuse to pay their electric bills - but never get cut off.

On a larger scale, Lebanon's potential will be hobbled as long as Hezbollah remains a possible source of instability, he argues.

"Hariri paid for all the windows broken by Syria and Iran via Hezbollah, but even he realized it could not continue," said Mr. Sharara, adding that Sheik Nasrallah espoused "a political program for a community, not a state."

In fact, Hariri and Hizbullah had several clashes on this point, which dovetails with Michael's op-ed as well. But it extends beyond Hizbullah. Nabih Berri has made so much money from the "Fund for the South" which he controls and the Shiites haven't seen a dime from it. So, there is (as there always was) the issue of self-criticism and blaming oneself for one's ills. Their leaders have played the card of poverty for ages yet never spent a dime on reconstruction and development. They complain that the state services don't reach them and at the same time they forbid the state from entering their controlled areas! They have kept the south dead even after the Israeli pull-out. You can't have it both ways. This is what frustrated Hariri. You can't keep the logic of perpetual war with Israel and hold the rest of the country (including the Shiite areas) hostage. You can't play the card of poverty while being responsible for its continuation. Jihad Zein took them to task on this in a recent column in an-Nahar. You can't talk about being a Lebanese party while running a canton, not paying taxes or bills, maintaining instability with Israel, but still expecting to get all the benefits! But you could, I guess, expect some idiot ME studies professor or some third-worldist journalist to call you a "democratic force" regardless!

Readers must be reminded that all this status was created and enhanced under direct Syrian tutelage. Syria was the one who silenced Hariri and the rest every time they complained and tried to change things (Hariri, before being eventually killed by the Syrians, used to get embarrassed constantly by Hizbullah, with Syrian blessing, every time he made pledges about calming the southern. In one such instance, a couple of guys fired a rocket at his TV station. Now, they just killed him.) Syria created and maintained this order. Now Syria is leaving. How will Hizbullah react? WIll they continue along the lines of their pro-Syrian rally, hoping to maintain the status quo as the "praetorian guard" of the Syrians, or will they fully play Lebanese politics? The ball is in their court now. Let's wait and see. But if this opposition rally says anything today it says that the Lebanese won't be intimidated.