Across the Bay

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Syria, Who?

Josh Landis in his latest post today, makes a couple of excellent points on post-Syrian Lebanon, setting the record straight on how the media is presenting Aoun's victory (they're just confused as hell! I thought about it when I heard it on CNN World!). Writes Josh:

Is Aoun pro-Syrian or anti-Syrian? This is the wrong question. Aoun's triumphal win with formerly pro-Syrian allies on his list in the heavily Christian and anti-Syrian Lebanon Mountain only goes to show how unimportant Syria has become in Lebanon today.

This is an excellent point. I tried to make that point in an update to my "Meaning of Aoun's victory" post below: "Anyway, alliances always shift and vary and break down in Parliament, so there should be a return to lively political life (even if Syrian allies will return. The realities are different now) after the Syrian-era stagnation and disgust."

But Josh articulated it best. This is an immense achievement and one that's being denied the Lebanese (see my comments on the Whitaker piece in that same update below). Oh, it's back to business as usual in Lebanon. Well, yeah! That's the way it should be! People have this ultra-purist romanticized notion of government when it comes to Lebanon. But deal making and "horse trading" is precisely what politics is about and what it should be about. It should not be scorned, it should be praised. As Josh put it: "That is what politicians do and must do." But people are more infatuated with the ideological and the poetic. They like "causes" much better than they like politics. Causes, or what Ghassan Tueni termed the "Che Guevara era," have ruined Lebanon, politics is what made it an oasis. (For the Tueni quote, see Ajami's Beirut: City of Regrets, p. 40.)

I always feel that the closest thing in European literature to Lebanese politics are the writings of Machiavelli. I find him to be quintessentially Levantine. It's no surprise that Lebanese (Mount Lebanon) history is tied with Florence around that time (Fakhreddine).

Josh rightly praises the return of local politics in Lebanon, after that long period of Syrian-imposed stagnation, when Lebanon was slowly becoming an image of that horrid Baathist spectacle next door (or as Harris put it, see quote below, it was contradicting the direction of the history of modern Lebanon.):

Aoun's win demonstrates that Lebanese have local Lebanese issues on their mind now, which is a good sign.
...
The game in Lebanon is no longer about Syria.

Some have even spoken of a "divorce" between Lebanon and Syria. I don't think that's right, but even Jumblat himself said that dealing with Bashar's regime cannot continue as if nothing has changed. Bashar has to realize that and change his behavior. Can he do that, or even afford to do that? I doubt it, and he hasn't shown any signs to that effect (in fact, he's shown the opposite). It's also perhaps related that Syria's trying to look to Turkey and even Iraq for economic deals, maybe to substitute for the loss of Lebanon. That too, is cutting against the grain of reality.

But then comes Josh's finest insight:

Lebanese stability depends on a strong understanding between Sunnis and Maronites.

Readers might remember that I've made similar comments repeatedly. This is key. That's the center of Lebanese politics. That's what Saad needs to realize, even if Jumblat refuses to come to terms with it (see Nicholas Nassif's article and my comments below).

Josh continues:

Christians played a key role, if not "the" key role in driving Syria out. No matter how much some hate to admit it, the Christians have been the real policemen of Lebanon's independence ever since they laid the foundations of the present Lebanese nation using French troops. Many Muslims viewed this effort as treason against the "greater Arab nation," which was to have its capital in Damascus. (Admittedly this is a grand simplification, but Muslims have been of two minds about their separate and distinct identity as Lebanese. Sure, we can blame this on the Christians for pressing Phoenicianism to absurd extremes. It takes two to tango. But Muslim "dual" identity has been at the heart of Lebanon's weakness.)

Perhaps the biggest change brought about by the Hariri murder and recent Lebanese Intifada is that Muslims finally said "no" to Syria and unification Arabism, just as they said "yes" to Lebanonism. They did this in a loud and clear voice standing side by side with fellow Christian Lebanese and raising the red and white flag emblasoned with a cross and crescent. Keeping the focus on maintaining and building the Christian-Muslim alliance is what will build a better and more stable Lebanon.

Recently, Lebanese blogger Mustapha touched on this crucial issue with an excellent post:

A few years ago, if a random Lebanese were asked to prototype a Sunni politician, he would probably say something like: “ibn 3aileh” (from a respected family), “za3im” (clan-leader), Pro Arabist, slightly Islamist and pro Syrian. Think Omar Karami, Salim el Hoss, Tammam Salam…etc
Not anymore. Today, That image was replaced by that of a democratic-minded, millionaire, presentable, Lebanon-loving businessman that reaches across to all sections of the Lebanese society. Ibrahim Bairam laments in a report in Al-Jazeera, the loss of the Sunnis’ role as “the protectors of an Arabic Lebanon.”

The role of the Christians and the critical (historical) turning point for the Sunnis was also pointed out in Michael's recent excellent op-ed (see link below):

The Christians' anger was understandable. They recalled that after Rafik Hariri's funeral, it took a month of anti-Syrian protests mainly by Christian groups and smaller numbers of Jumblatt supporters for the Sunni community to go into the streets. It was the Christians and the Druze, not the Sunnis, who daily kept the flame of outrage alive, culminating in the massive March 14 demonstration. But rather than earn recognition for this, the Christians argued, they were betrayed by Jumblatt and Hariri.

Now you understand how problematic it was for Hizbullah and Berri to come out in favor of keeping the Syrians, and how quickly they had to reinterpret that move in order to control the damage. It also remains to be seen if Hizbullah will indeed fully buy into this narrative (and I'm not talking about whether Hizbullah will accept to join the government or run for parliamentary elections. This is about way more than that.). That's why it's important for the Shi'a to break away from the Amal-HA duopoly, and they will in the upcoming elections in the years to come. They already showed signs of that this time around before they were hamstrung by the 2000 election law.

The current parliament has the four main sectarian blocs. But this is not enough. More diversity will continue to appear within each bloc, and political haggling will continue. That will only be for the good of Lebanon.

Finally, Josh makes a comment about the latest episode between the Syrian authorities and an Islamist group. See my "what's the deal?" post below, and the latest update I added. To repeat, despite my dismissive tone, I did say that this episode could very well be real, since the situation in Syria now is very unstable, and it has all the elements for being real. The timing and how that will be used by the Syrians, which I highlight in the post, is what I was commenting on. Just to be clear.

Also, I loved Josh's defense of Michael Young and his excellent commentary on Lebanon. Kudos. Michael has recently received cheap shots on this site and elsewhere by cowardly anonymous commenters, and insecure intellectual dwarves with sites. They don't reach his ankle.

Update: Ibrahim Hamidi reports that the Syrian government signed a deal with a UN development program aimed at transforming the role of clerics and religious institutions away from fundamentalism and towards development through using modern media and school curricula (see Josh Landis' excellent article on the latter), and literature and conferences.

How ironic. Sometime last year Buthaina Shaaban wrote a typically dishonest op-ed jumping all over Condoleezza Rice for her remarks about madrassas and incendiary clerics. Shaaban tried to use Arabic etymology to ridicule Rice saying that Rice didn't know that madrassa simply meant "school":

Rice spoke about the necessity of educational reform by saying that ‘the madrassas are a big difficulty' (not knowing probably that madrassa simply means school and therefore what she is saying is that she could do without schools in the Muslim world).

I wonder what Buthaina has to say now. Just read the whole thing. It's really telling (and she's essentially been repeating it ever since). (See also this piece in the NYT today.)

Perhaps Bashar is feeling the heat that his misadventure with Jihadists in Iraq might blow up in his face. Clearly there are other reasons as well, linked to how to deal with the MB, the drive to control "sectarianism" (note how he and Buthaina have been repeating their refusal of dealing with the ME on the basis of ethnic or sectarian identities, etc.) and so on. The question is will this have any effect, especially coming from an Alawi president.