Across the Bay

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

A Very Bad Sign

This was only a matter of time. Hizbullah starting trouble not just in the Shebaa Farms, but also in the Golan, and [this was omitted in the English] in the vicinity of Kiryat Shmona. After getting the free gift from Jumblat, they're cashing in to maintain their dying image, the only thing left. Jumblat pontificated today that any new cabinet has to be built on the fixed principles of "rejecting UNR 1559 and protecting the resistance. Participation is based on that principle, or there will be no participation."

These are the old bankrupt games whose results are well-known. Let's continue to indulge Hassan Nasrallah's fantasies, and his blackmail of the rest of the Lebanese and holding them hostage to safeguard his own narrow interests. Now let's see how the people that really matter, those who hold our financial future in their hands, will respond to this masturbatory, yet all-too predictable, move.

Update: I wonder if the move is related in any way to this report I found in Al-Seyassah (PDF, Arabic. Starts here, bottom left, continued here, also bottom left). It claims that Annan is optimistic that UNR 1559 will be implemented in stages, and that the Lebanese Army will be sent to the south after the formation of the new cabinet. This will be done in conjunction with Hizbullah, and will not affect the Party's deployment in the south or the working arrangement under which they have been operating. If the report is true, then this could be either a show of force and escalation ahead of the disengagement from Gaza (see comments), or a reminder that they will still be able to operate regardless of the presence of the Army.

Update 2: More details from Haaretz (hat tip, Avi. See comments).

Update 3: As always, Jonathan Edelstein has an insightful analysis of this latest move (also see comments). Jonathan ties it to the Aoun-Hariri rapprochement, among other things. His view is shared by this JPost report:

Hizbullah might also be concerned with the agreement reached on Wednesday between Saad Hariri, son of late prime minister Rafik Hariri, and Christian leader Gen. Michel Aoun, who only recently returned to Lebanon after 15 years in exile for fighting against the Syrians. The reported alliance between the two would give the anti-Syria groups a strong and stable parliamentary majority without the need for Hizbullah's MPs.

Also, in an earlier comment to one of Jonthan's posts, I raised the possibility of the impact of the election of Ahmadinejad, which was seen by Hizbullah as a great relief especially after Rafsanjani hinted at the eventual disarmament of Hizbullah, which left them quite nervous. Though I agree with Jonathan that all such matters are in the hands of Khamenei and not any president, this is one of the things I had in mind when I referred to recent developments emboldening Hizbullah in my comments below. Gabriel Ben-Dor, quoted in that JPost article also shares this view:

"In the midst of all these changes, the results of the presidential elections in Iran could not have come at a better time for Hizbullah, after the setbacks vis-a-vis the Syrian withdrawal and the outcome of the Lebanese elections," Ben-Dor said.
"Hizbullah is also determined to try to subvert the disengagement process that, if it goes ahead successfully, could lead to a relaxing of tension in the region generally, which would make Hizbullah less important and far less relevant."

Update 4: Michael Young weighs in:

The election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran will have pleased Hizbullah - no less happy, surely, with seeing the back of Mohammad Khatami's turban. For the moment, the party knows its anchors in Tehran have been reinforced (perhaps prompting its attack in the Shebaa Farms yesterday), since the new president has no beef with Hizbullah's paramount Iranian sponsor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. However, to presume so linear an advantage would be a mistake: the Ahmadinejad victory, together with the speed bumps ahead in Lebanon, suggests Hizbullah is in for a period of turbulence.

First, Iran. There is no doubt that for now Hizbullah has bought some serenity - not that it was greatly troubled before Ahmadinejad's victory. However, with hard-liners in control of all the major Iranian power centers, Hizbullah may paradoxically have to guard against finding all its eggs in one basket, in anticipation of the conservative order eventually breaking down. Moreover, whereas the previous divisions in the Iranian political-religious hierarchy encouraged a more nuanced Western approach to the nuclear issue, the current setup may undermine that, by extension prompting less international flexibility on Hizbullah's disarmament.
...
Politically, Hizbullah has gained in recent weeks. It reaffirmed its authority in the South and the northern Bekaa (though it did so by backing, with others, an election law eradicating all independent rivals), and is now owed much by Walid Jumblatt, who averted a cataclysm in the Baabda-Aley district thanks to Hizbullah's votes. The party has even managed to convince its more gullible cheerleaders that the successes were a referendum in favor of Hizbullah's pursuing the armed struggle - conveniently ignoring the limited geographical scope of that endorsement, and the reprehensible gerrymandering that made it possible.

Its short-term achievements aside, Hizbullah is today seeking to ward off military menopause because it knows that without the armed struggle it loses its reason for existing. Hizbullah faces three dilemmas today, all of them exacerbated, oddly enough, by its triumph against Israel in southern Lebanon in May 2000; and unless the party can revamp itself, it will continue to descend deeper into a situation it controls less and less.

Michael seems to share my "Hizbullah-becoming-another-Amal" scnenario:

A second dilemma affects Hizbullah in its domestic context. The leaders of the party believe their appeal is the fruit of militancy, commitment and effectiveness. It certainly is to an extent, but while Hizbullah regards patronage as something inferior, cheap, it is mainly the assistance networks the party has set up and the ability to play the state bureaucracy as well as anyone that have allowed it to purchase long-term loyalty. In other words, devoid of patronage, Hizbullah is diminished vis-a-vis its electorate; with it, the party feels diminished in its self-image.

Hizbullah's third dilemma is ideological. In 1992, the party resolved an ideological ambiguity when it agreed to participate in parliamentary elections - suspending its opposition to the Lebanese state as a substitute for an Islamic Republic. The decision, taken by Nasrallah, was pragmatic, and today is considered by the party faithful as seminal. Indeed, Hizbullah often comes across as a secular organization, with Nasrallah speaking little about God. Yet if Hizbullah accepts a secular order, of what importance is its religious core down the road? The party is left with two choices: to either go back to being a Shiite religious party, which would limit its horizons and lose it much appeal in the sectarian Lebanese context; or to become another Shiite secular party, like Amal, which would undercut its revolutionary Žlan, turning it mainly into a dispenser of favors.

The way to avoid these dilemmas, Hizbullah feels, is to pursue the armed struggle, to keep succeeding, and to hope for the best. Circumstances change with time, and if the party can keep on course - retaining its weapons in the interim - things may turn to its advantage, particularly in facing UN Security Council Resolution 1559. Already, Ahmadinejad's election victory must have been interpreted by the party as a sign of improving fortunes; the agreement by Lebanon's Parliament to re-elect Nabih Berri as speaker was another such example, even if Nasrallah legitimately considers himself the kingmaker in that relationship.

Michael's note on deconfessionalization may have been why Jumblat (link above) included the formation of a committee to discuss that prospect, as stipulated by the Taef, as a requirement for the new cabinet. But besides Michael's note on allowing other Shiite voices to emerge, this is all variable (see comments). Setting up a committee doesn't mean abolishing the system any time soon. No one will accept that, first on the list is Jumblat himself! In fact, if indeed the condition is the disarmament of the party, and the rise of various Shiite rivals, and if this happens in conjunction with the diminishing of their patronage network due to state authority being spread to the south and the Bekaa and through investment and devlopment, then deconfessionalization would actually be a bad deal for Hizbullah. They would risk becoming not just another Amal with Islamist baggage, but, as Jonathan Edelstein put it (see comments): a "permanent minority party." The 2000 law probably allowed Hizbullah to get its peak representation in Parliament. The political context in Lebanon is inherently variable, and I just don't think all these attempts to secure an overblown size through blackmail will actually bring about what Hizbullah desires, which is why they will continue to hold on to their weapons as their only constant (I certainly don't buy the notion that they're holding on to their weapons in order to secure a larger piece of the pie for all Shiites. That contradicts their crushing of all other Shiite voices through the 2000 law. They have their own narrow intersts in mind, period.) Michael's questioning of the extent of their representation among Shiites is also apt. That's why I'm not sure if I fully agree with Michael on Nasrallah as kingmaker in the relationship with Berri. Yes, Berri needed their backing, but they need his protection. If they were so confidant they could win (as their groupies believe), why didn't they run alone and takeover his seats and secure a much larger share of seats, without having to be indebted to anyone, or relying on anyone?

As Michael concluded: "Hizbullah's future will be uncertain for as long as the party cannot define a peaceful role for itself in an exclusively Lebanese context. Sectarian politics, to work, need to be modest; it's Hizbullah's turn to show it agrees."

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Ballots over Beirut

Make sure to read Lee Smith's latest in the Weekly Standard:

It is unclear, then, how this grouping could be described precisely as being the anti-Syria opposition, or Aoun as pro-Syrian. Aoun, for his part, made common cause with several politicians who had profited handsomely from Syrian control, but he is hardly, as Jumblatt describes him, a "little Syrian tool."

"This was all propaganda," says Khazen. "As though people voted in favor of a pro-Syrian figure. The Western media was as responsible as the Lebanese media for spreading this nonsense. For the voters this was a nonissue. Syria had no role, no agenda, no candidates."

Still, Syria will continue to have an interest in Lebanon, as will other states, including France, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. The Lebanese are accustomed to the fact that foreign powers will always play a role in this small country, but those interests with any luck will now begin to be articulated through legitimate bilateral relationships, not political assassinations. And it is up to Lebanese officials to leverage those interests in order to serve Lebanon.

After a 30-year hiatus, the Arab world's original democracy is practicing real politics--deal-making, coalition-building, horse-trading. Of course, after so long under the gun, the Lebanese are entitled to expect something more than just politics. The national unity on display after the assassination of Rafik Hariri was a useful narrative. It galvanized both the Lebanese and an international community that looked on with sympathy and admiration for a country where Christians and Muslims marched together peacefully to determine their own political future. "People have a lot invested in the idea of national unity," says Lebanese analyst Elie Fawaz. "But the fact is that the Lebanese have unequivocally expressed that they are unified in their opposition to violence as a means of settling political issues."

Simply because Muslims and Christians don't march hand in hand every day doesn't mean that civil war is in the offing. The test of a democracy is not how much people agree on the same things, but how much space is given for debate and the contest of competing interests. To put it another way, as Aoun told me, "Lebanon's national unity, democracy, is expressed through a diversity of opinion." As with national unity, many Lebanese have had overly high expectations of Aoun, first when he took on Syria and again now. He's neither the country's savior nor its sole liberator; rather, he's an important, indeed singular, element in Lebanon's renascent democracy.

On the issue of labels ("opposition" or "pro-Syrian" vs. "anti-Syrian"), see Stacey's last post. There's been a lot of sloppiness in this regard. Case in point I think has been John Kifner's reporting for the NYT (which was also noted by Mickey Kaus on Tuesday. Hat tip, Kyle).

For nice post-election analysis, see Michael Young's piece for TCS, and his latest op-ed in the DS, which also reflected on George Hawi's assassination.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Bashar al-Assad's Lebanon Gamble

Make sure to read William Harris' latest article on Syria and Lebanon. It's excellent, and required reading. His final paragraph fits well with my frustrated plea in my previous post right below:

On the one hand, given the political wasteland created in Syria since the 1960s, regime decomposition may be disorderly. On the other hand, the costs of perpetuating Syrian interference in Lebanon will be enormous for both countries. Syrian interference undercuts the Lebanese economy and, as the assassination of Hariri demonstrated, also its political stability. Simultaneously, the Syrian adventure in Lebanon has increasingly isolated Syria internationally and in the Arab world while at the same time catalyzing corruption among the ruling elite. With the passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1595, international credibility is on the line.

N.B.: Reader Firas left a comment to my previous post right below about Saad and Jumblat, saying that Rafik Hariri would've silenced Jumblat and engaged in dialogue with the rest of the political forces. I responded with the following from Harris' article:

Rafik al-Hariri was the architect of the opposition campaign. His bid for a personal alignment with the two major Maronite Christian personalities, Sfeir and Aoun,[68] the latter until recently living in exile in Paris, had the potential to bind Sunni Muslims and Maronites, each with close to 25 percent of Lebanon's population, as nothing else could.

Without Hariri the risk has grown of a less coordinated opposition, all the more so since Aoun's May 7 return from exile. Hezbollah has been able to reach out to Christian and Druze politicians to try to erode their united front. Aoun has appeared tempted by the idea of a Maronite-Shi‘ite connection. While such reconciliation might appear beneficial to Lebanon, it could undercut the Christian-Sunni-Druze convergence.

In a tight Maronite-Sunni alliance, Jumblat's a junior partner, although, and this should be said, both the Sunnis and the Christians annointed him a national leader, and acknowledged his leadership. But that's his complex, like his father, as Michael Young wrote almost exactly one month ago in the Daily Star. Now he's the center of attention. But he won't be for long. Jumblat is trying to bump off Aoun and Sfeir and replace them with Berri and Nasrallah. But, if indeed the Shiites play with Aoun, then Jumblat would really have eaten it big time. The coronation of a diastrous set of moves. I have a feeling the Shiites will stick it to him. The Sunnis and the Shiites are anyway not on good terms. But all this stupidity by Jumblat, for what? At what price?

Addendum: Also, Harris made an excellent and accurate remark about the electoral weight of the Sunni-Christian-Druze alliance, that it "could draw between 60 and 70 percent of voters in free and fair elections, regardless of election system.[54]" This is very important especially in light of all the hysterical numbers thrown around by Hizbullah groupies (the "at least 55%" or the "just under 50%") etc.

Addendum 2: Harris points us to this article by Gary Gambill from Feb-March 2004. The title: "The Myth of Syria's Old Guard." These quotes from Harris' piece fit perfectly with what I've been writing here:

While sometimes viewed by Western analysts as a potential reformer, Bashar showed himself to be the patron behind Lahoud's crackdown. Old guard Syrian personalities such as Vice-President ‘Abd al-Halim Khaddam had little to do with Lahoud. Khaddam was principally associated with Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, who knew nothing about the security move.[14] These circumstances lend credence to Middle East Intelligence Bulletin editor Gary Gambill's interpretation that Bashar, rather than any Syrian old guard, was the terminator of the 2000-01 relaxations in Beirut and Damascus.[15]
...
In Damascus, Bashar al-Assad is reportedly contemplating damage control by reinventing himself as a political reformer, unloading responsibility for his disaster in Beirut on corrupt associates and relatives.[65]

Addendum 3: This quote from Harris was also interesting, in relation to Jumblat: "Lahoud's downfall would impel Hezbollah into a Lebanese compromise over its arms and political role."

Hizbullah has come out against the removal of Lahoud. So, perhaps there's another indication of the silliness of Jumblat's moves (leaving aside the electoral consideration that their votes made sure that Aoun didn't break Jumblat's list in Aley-Baabda).

When Will this Stop?

Another car bomb assassination in Beirut. This time, it was the former leader of the Communist Party, George Hawi.

This was I think both a vendetta as well as a warning by the Syrians: anyone could be next. It was also particularly audacious as it happened on the same day when a major pro-Syrian security official, Lahoud's top aide, Mustapha Hamdan was being interrogated by the UN investigator.

My question is, how long will this kind of behavior by Bashar be tolerated without serious action? The US is waiting for Bashar to change his behavior in exchange for his survival. Clearly, it's not a deal he's getting or interested in. He still thinks he can get the French back, cut a deal on the Golan and Lebanon, and revive talks with Israel, ignore the Hariri investigation, and make economic deals with Europe, as if nothing happened.

So now what's the next step? How long will this be tolerated?

N.B.: I wanted to write something about the Hariri victory in the North, but I didn't have the time, and after Hawi's assassination, I am not in the mood, even when I disagreed with most everything Hawi stood for, especially during the war. However, you can see my comments to Jonathan Edelstein's post as well as his excellent remarks. Also see Robert Mayer's post-election post, as well as the one at the Lebanese Political Journal. The latter got a lot of heat from readers, but it shouldn't be totally dismissed (see the Al-Balad pieces below). Jumblat is right now a very negative and dangerous player in Lebanon. He's the one playing with sectarian fire, and the only one making incendiary sectarian statements (ignoring of course how Hizbullah used religious obligation -- taklif shar'i -- on Shiite voters). He's trying to blame it on Aoun, but this whole mess is all his doing, and for what? What did he get out of it? Lahoud isn't going anywhere neither is Berri, neither is Aoun for that matter. He made stupid moves.

Anyway, the kind of sectarian games played in the north were really unfortunate and problematic. Somone has to make sure Jumblat quiets down. I'm not sure Saad will be the one to do it, but he certainly needs to. Also, it seems that Mikati will be back as PM. Also, as I told Jonathan, Aoun wants to try to amend the powers of the Speaker when it comes to deadlines of putting laws on the floor of the Parliament (like how he delayed the discussions of the new election law), and even try to shorten the term of both Lahoud and the current Parliament (see the Al-Balad pieces below).

Also, I may have overestimated the power of the LF, even in the north.

For good Arabic-language coverage, see the following articles from Al-Balad (here, here, here, and here).

In the end, I think there's still good balance in this parliament, and good diversity in the Christian camp. Let's just hope someone talks some sense to Jumblat and remind him that he doesn't rule Lebanon, and he's no kingmaker.

Addendum: Raja's post is also worth reading. These two quotes in particular stood out:

3. Electorally, Amal and Hizballah are in the same situation they were before the elections. It doesn't seem like they've improved or gotten worse off. In fact, it seemed like the South was (electorally) a whole different country that was isolated from all the turbulence and excitement that took place in the rest of Lebanon. One of things I'd like to see soon is increased fluidity in the South. Amal and Hizballah have completely suffocated the region politically.

7. And finally, I've realized that the one political persona who represents Lebanon's complexity and even its political impotence is Walid Jumblatt - Michael Young articulated that point best in one of his better Op Ed pieces which was published prior to the elections. For all his outspokenness, and gusto, I've also realized that Jumblatt has very little power on the ground. He wanted to get rid of Lahoud, but he was vetoed. He didn't want to deal with Berri in the beginning of the whole "intifada," but it seems like political realities drove him to do otherwise. He wanted desperately for his buddies in Qornet Shehwan to make it, but that didn't fall through. He didn't want Aoun to become a political player, but it happened nonetheless.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Northern Alliances

Although I don't usually play the prediction game, I'm going to venture and say that the Karami-Frangieh-Aoun alliance is going to eat it in the North. Here's why I think that.

There are two reasons, in my view. One Sunni, one Maronite.

One of the reasons Aoun won in Mt. Lebanon was the perception that many of the Christians on the Hariri-Jumblat list were token, and not truly representative. It was seen as Jumblat trying to bamboozle the Christians in favor of Berri-Nasrallah, an alliance that never sat well with the Christians (the former is the poster child of corruption and nepotism, the latter a fanatic who threatens violence and who mobilized followers to defend Syria).

Now, however, a similar situation is shaping up for the Sunnis in the North. Sunnis allying themselves with Frangieh and Aoun are seen as unrepresentative (even if otherwise respected, which also applies to the Christian candidates in Mt. Lebanon). Secondly, Aoun has stayed in the background in the North, because if he says something it may be construed as sectarian and anti-Sunni. So he's not fielding the Sunni candidates, and he's not doing the talking. Karami is. Therefore, I think there will be a significant Sunni turnout in favor of Hariri (unlike the 25% in Beirut).

Related to that is the Christian element. Unlike the Matn, the North is the heartland of the Lebanese Forces (Geagea's party). Karami is the only hurdle before the release of Geagea from prison. As this report points out, Karami may be tempted to attack the Hariri-LF alliance by using people's emotions and past history with the LF, and the killing of Karami's brother (which was blamed on Geagea). In fact, he probably won't even have to say anything explicitly. The same goes for Frangieh, whose family has a long dark history with the LF, and his hometown and Geagea's hometown are historical rivals, so there are also local issues. Aoun on the other hand has no roots there. Not only that, the history of the LF with Aoun is also one of confrontation.

All this will likely mean a strong mobilization for the LF, who want their leader out of jail (i.e., want Karami defeated), and want Frangieh and Aoun defeated. So, beside the Sunni element, this is also a matter of determining size in the Maronite camp between the LF and Aoun. How strong and how united are the LF?

Both have strong grassroots organization, only the LF has an edge on its home turf in the North. The Frangieh-Aoun list will try to substitute that by using the SSNP followers who are strong in the Koura region (esp. among the Greek Orthodox), and who also have a bloody history with the LF. Here's where the SSNP's ties to Syria will mobilize the Sunnis and the LF to vote heavily against them. The Communist party is also running with Aoun, but their weight is marginal. In other words, these guys aren't Michel Murr and the Tashnag (Armenian party) who ran with Aoun in the Matn, and their opposition is mobilized, both in the Sunni camp and the Maronite camp.

The downside of this of course is the heightened rhetoric, which will draw on old wounds. That could get dangerous in an area known for vendettas. On the other hand, strengthening diversity of representation in the Christian camp will limit Aoun's capacity to claim total representation. Some will say this weakens the Christians. Perhaps, if we're following the Amal-Hizbullah logic and how they brutalize their community electorally. But it is a sign of democratic health. And, if used wisely without confrontation and isolation, it might build necessary bridges to Aoun in Parliament. If not, and if it's used openly as a way to make sure Aoun never reaches the presidency, without proper dialogue, it might create problems, because Aoun will still have a significant bloc.

Another downside, some may say, would be issue of Hizbullah's weapons. The Hariri-Jumblat bloc has so far refused to act on the matter. Aoun is clear on disarming the Party, even if through dialogue and not confrontation. If weakened in parliament, he could be circumvented and presented in extremist sectarian terms. In the end, Hizbullah will continue to play its poisonous game. If a coalition exists against its weapons, it will play the Shiite card and threaten violence. If that coalition
doesn't find a coherent approach, it would attack Aoun as a Christian agent of America and Israel (as it did with the Christian protesters on March 14th). All this emphasizes the desperate need for a change in the Shiite scene, and why this election law was a disaster most notably for the independent Shiites. Hizbullah simply cannot remain armed. It destroys all the balance.

So let's wait and see how this turns out. But I'll stick my neck out and predict an Aoun loss. If I'm proven wrong I'll welcome all the egg on face, and make an omelette.

The Seale and the Lion

Michael Young wonders whether Arabism's cheerleader, Patrick Seale, has turned his back on Bashar Assad.

However, Michael notes the rise of a new "Sea Lion" (double pun alert!): Flynt Leverett. Of course, I reserve the rights to royalties for this theory, since, as some of you may remember, I noted this change of the guards not too long ago. I called Flynt the "new Patrick Seale: Assad biographer and confidant."

Flynt was given the exclusive privilege (if it can be called that) of being allowed entry to the back rooms of the Baath Party Congress (an access no other Westerner had, nor for that matter, did the Syrian people!). Meanwhile, as Michael notes, Seale has maintained a telling silence on that sorry Summer spectacle in Damascus.

Let's see if Flynt's career sinks along with that ship. There's always the Daily Show, where Flynt told us that we should hope that Bashar doesn't turn out to be a Fredo, but a Michael Corleone, if indeed we want to pursue serious diplomacy. That's right. Let's hope we get the privilege of doing business with the most ruthless, calculating, soulless, lying murderer of the family, who thinks (and wants others to think) that he's better or different than his father, whereas in fact he is worse. That, we are told, will be good for business... Flynt's, that is.

Jumblat's Mess

Hizbullah just came out against the removal of Lahoud from office. A bit awkward for Hariri and Jumblat, wouldn't you say!?

On the other hand, Aoun is more than willing to remove Lahoud, and to lend his parliamentary weight to amend the constitution and shorten Lahoud's stay, as long as a "proper" alternative is agreed on. But Hizbullah is against it, because Aoun said he wants Hizbullah's weapons to be surrendered to the Army!

Jumblat's little game with Berri now looks set to bring back both Berri and Lahoud! I.e., he benefitted Berri, and got nothing in return! HA will not oppose Berri, and now, won't oppose Lahoud! Needless to say, Lahoud immediately seized on that and upped the Hizbullah propaganda, picking up on the Palestinian refugees issue, the Shebaa Farms, and that Israel poses a continuing threat and still violates Lebanese airspace, etc.

I hope this means, contrary to the opinion of the second piece (link #2), that Hariri and Jumblat will work with Aoun and the Patriarch some more. In any case, people have to tread very carefully now. The piece said that such a move would polarize the Shi'a, and HA-Amal would make sure of that, if they feel that their interests (Berri's return as Speaker, and HA's weapons) are threatened by a Hariri-Jumblat-Aoun parliamentary alliance. See what a nice mess Jumblat created!? Polarized the Christians by thinking he can step all over them by using Berri, and now he can't get rid of Berri!

By the way, I still love Jumblat! No kidding! He's a piece of work! But, as Michael put it, he's dangling from his own rope. Let's see if a compromise could be reached.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Groupie Gone Wild

If you want an example of how Helena Cobban's writing on Lebanon is little more than ideological advocacy, laughable fantasy, topped with selective or erroneous data (with a dash of missionary contempt), take a look at this post on Aoun.

It shows just how little Cobban understands the topic at hand, and how she substitutes that with silly Third-Worldist advocacy for Hizbullah (if there were emoticons, you'd see hearts and flowers every time Hizbullah is mentioned).

I repeat, Cobban's commentary on Lebanon is practically useless. You could instead just read Hizbullah's website or watch Al-Manar TV. You might in fact get better insight into what the Party actually says, as opposed to what Cobban wants it to be.

Addendum: For more details as well as important insights from readers, please check out the comments.

Update: Stacey picks up the discussion on the supposed similarities between Hizbullah and the FPM, and the difference between secularization and deconfessionalization.

Let me highlight again what I pointed out in the comments. Aoun has stated that secularization is first a "cultural project" before it is an electoral or administrative law. I.e., you don't eliminate sectarianism in society by changing the law! In fact, the latter option without the former would be extremely dangerous, as it would mean sectarianism without a mechanism of sharing power in a multi-communal country.

Also, on the issue of cooperation between Hizbullah and Aoun in parliament, it will depend on priorities. Priorities now for Hizbullah are its weapons. Aoun just reasserted his position on CNN last night: "Hizbullah needs in the end to hand in its weapons to the Army, because we cannot unite the country with two armies and two decision-making processes on Defense. There should only be one. Afterwards, we can deal with the external aspect of the problem."

In light of that, it's no wonder that Naim Qassim (Hizbullah's #2) opposed the removal of President Lahoud, who has given the Party political cover, and supported the completion of his term!

Update 2: I found this very interesting story in Al-Hayat today. Apparently, Lebanon's top Shiite cleric Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah is very upset at the abuse of religious "legal obligation" (taklif shar'i). I'm almost certain this is in reference to what I mentioned in the comments about Hizbullah using those "legal obligations" to instruct voters on how to vote (i.e., you are religiously required to vote for this list and not that one). Fadlallah's relation to Hizbullah is a bit of a mystery. While commonly referred to as the Party's spiritual leader, his role, and in fact his relation overall to the Party, is uncertain. Some have said that he's been at odds with the leadership and has been sidelined.

Anyway, so much for Cobban's secularization!

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Irresponsible Comment

Naseer Asaad's commentary on the meaning of the Christian vote for Aoun is disturbing. It's not just that he swallows Jumblat's dangerously incendiary remarks, it's also that al-Mustaqbal is Hariri's paper and has good circulation among Sunnis. I won't dwell on every point, and I'll be brief, as most of the comments are already known. But the feeling I got out of it was that no matter what the Christians do, they're always considered a fifth column, and that needs to stop immediately. It's a completely irrational accusation too, as evident by its inherent contradiction. Hizbullah (as well as Arabists and groupie Third-Worldist journalists) call them agents of Israel and the Western powers. Now, Asaad and Jumblat are calling them "a fortification for Syria." Well, pick one!

But what's really insulting to me, is that Naseer seems to think we're idiots. And it's doubly insulting coming from an independent Shi'a who tried to run against Hizbullah and was squashed because of the deal between Jumblat-Hariri and Berri-Nasrallah. So, the Christians are now protecting Syria, but the massive Hizbullah-Amal pro-Syrian demonstration and Nasrallah's mugshots with the murderer Rustum Ghazaleh (to whom he offered a gift in appreciation!) are ok?! Shame on you. Christians were the first to call for Syrian withdrawal, well before Hariri's murder. How dare you?

Naseer is upset that Aoun allied himself with Murr and Frangieh, but Jumblat's alliance with Berri and Nasrallah is ok?! Don't insult my intelligence. In fact, FPMers publicly denounced Aoun's alliance with Murr. Where were their counterparts in the Jumblat-Hariri camp?

Now Jumblat is calling the northerners to vote "against those who had a hand in Hariri's killing." Fine, we're all against those people. I just wish he had said something right after Nasrallah frenched Ghazaleh, the biggest suspect, at his house and gave him a farewell gift on top.

I know that election talk is always tense, but there has to be a little bit of responsible behavior on the part of the commentators, and also, a little bit of respect for the readers. If anything, Naseer's piece solidified the notion that Christians were to be marginalized in the deal with Berri-Nasrallah, if the sins of those two are so easily forgiven (even as Nasrallah threatens to kill anyone who dares remove their weapons), while the Christians are now stigmatized, and never seem to get it right, even as they were the main target of the Syrian mukhabarat all throughout the 90s. A little respect, if you don't mind, Naseer. And you, of all people, should know. This is why I and Michael Young have said that Jumblat is playing with fire. This kind of rhetoric is unacceptable.

The upside is that Saad's rhetoric has so far been the calmest, and he's the one that matters. I'm routing for Saad!

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.

Sorcerers and Apprentices

Michael Young puts Aoun's victory in the wider Lebanese context with his usual clarity and insight. Required reading.

Two things in particular stood out for me. One was this comment:

If Aoun's victory did anything, it derailed Hariri's chances of becoming the next prime minister. He would have had to be so in order to oust Lahoud, but because Christians will stand by the president in the coming months (unless Aoun leads the overthrow), the idea is dead.
...
A possible by-product of Aoun's crowning is that he will accelerate the process of his desired entry into the presidency. There is little ambiguity in that he seeks to return to Baabda, and has pragmatically regarded his alliance with Lahoud as the ticket. However, Aoun did not anticipate quite so stunning a victory, and his ego and impatience - no trifles in the first place - may have been decisively tickled. Not only is the general presently the foremost presidential candidate, he may conclude that Lahoud is an obstacle better gotten rid of early. This may lead to hostility between the two men, one that might be prematurely settled by a UN report on the Hariri assassination that is critical of the president.

The "unless Aoun leads the overthrow" part is interesting. Indeed, I made a similar comment in response to a reader: "So, I think Lahoud's ouster has taken a set back. Unless... they can strike a deal with Aoun, agreeing to support him for president if he backs them on ousting Lahoud."

Reader/blogger Mustapha has just alerted me to these statements by Saad Hariri:

"If Gen. Aoun is genuine about change, if Gen. Aoun wants change, we need to change everything. We need to change a symbol of making Lebanon a police state, which is the most dangerous issue that Lebanon has faced."

Is this reaching out to Aoun for his backing to oust Lahoud? It's certainly possible. It should be noted that Jumblat is still sulking and trading punches with Aoun. So Hariri is donig this independently of Jumblat, another necessity that Michael pointed out. If this is indeed the case, and at this point it's too early to tell, then there are two other figures that need to be addressed: the Patriarch and Nabih Berri.

First, Berri. Does Hariri's reaching out to Aoun to see if he would back him in ousting Lahoud mean that Hariri has given up on Berri's return as Speaker? Michael thought that Berri is not likely to return to his post, and that was one of the casualties of Aoun's victory:

Lying in shambles, too, is the plan to extend Nabih Berri's mandate. In trying to build a coalition against Lahoud, Jumblatt and Hariri promised the Parliament speaker four more years. To go through with that project today would be disastrous for communal relations. Hariri would be wise to desist from provoking the Christians further, and only with great difficulty could he name a speaker from within his own movement. Since Hizbullah is still too controversial to do so in the face of UN Security Council Resolution 1559, the smart money is on the former speaker, Hussein al-Husseini.

That was the second thing that stood out for me in Michael's piece. If indeed this is how Hariri is thinking, that means he's setting himself apart from the incendiary tone of Jumblat on this issue. That's good until the latter calms down and accepts the fact that he miscalculated.

As for the Patriarch, it may be a different story. Michael writes:

One already discerns the prospective interplay within a new Christian triumvirate of Aoun, Lahoud and Sfeir. The Maronite patriarch, by mobilizing Christians against the 2000 law, was partly responsible for Aoun's victory. But he's also deeply worried about the general's sudden rebirth as principal communal representative. Aoun is no conciliator, and for Sfeir this can only damage Christian-Muslim relations. That's why the patriarch will side with Lahoud against Aoun if the two generals open fire on one another. His hope is that three years down the road, particularly after Samir Geagea is released from prison, alternative power centers will have emerged from within the Christian community.

That may be true. The question is, can Hariri, Aoun and the Patriarch manage to reach an agreement on Aoun and the presidency? Jumblat's ego may come in the way but he faces the following dilemma: what does he hate more, Lahoud or Aoun? Can he live with Lahoud till the latter finishes his extended term, and settle on a QS candidate (Nassib Lahoud or Butros Harb) or can he live with Aoun as president? That last question is relevant to all involved, actually. Will Hariri decide to ride Aoun's "reform" slogan and use it to continue the purge of the Syrian order, starting with Lahoud? All that remains to be seen.

The Patriarch however has more than a Aoun-Lahoud duke-out to worry about. Aoun's resounding victory over other potential presidential candidates (namely Nassib Lahoud, as Michael pointed out) should be of concern (especially with his alliance with the repugnant, but powerful, Murr). Who says he won't manage to do it again in 2007, even with Geagea out of jail? Won't that attempt at isolating him lead to more fireworks? Who knows.

There's also one more party left out of this equation: Hizbullah. Now that things didn't work out according to plan, and with Aoun holding a significant bloc in Parliament (and he's adamant about not having militias running around), where will Hizbullah stand on Lahoud. Under the Syrians, they had excellent ties with him, and he gave them cover, and they sided with him against Hariri all the time. Clearly things have changed now, but will they hold on to him just to prevent Aoun from reaching the presidency? Again, we'll have to wait and see, especially when the Hizbullah issue is next in line in implementing UNR 1559.

Harry Potter's got nothing on this!

Monday, June 13, 2005

The Meaning of Aoun's Victory

I was thinking about Aoun's win, and reading through a few emails from Josh picking up on a discussion we had with a third party on Aoun. I also found the beginning lines of this Naharnet piece and this piece by Nicholas Nassif interesting, and even this piece by Talal Salman, with whom I rarely agree on anything.

The Naharnet piece starts like this:

Gen. Aoun has scored overwhelming election victories that projected him as a national leader towering over his own Christian community on equal footing with Druze overlord Walid Jumblat, Sunni standard-bearer Saad Hariri and the undisputed chieftains of the Shiite Sect -- Hizbullah Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and Speaker Nabih Berri.

Nassif wrote:

Aoun's victory restores the dual Druze-Christian leadership in Baabda-Aley which Jumblat had monopolized since 1992.

And Salman wrote:

The "Tsunami," as he was called by Jumblat, has turned into the "fourth leadership" among the sectarian leadership, with one exceptional characteristic: he was elected [ed.'s note: as opposed to being appointed by allies]. He now is the frontrunner of the Christian leadership, or specifically, Maronite leadership.

He had started by writing:

It could be said now that the sectarian balance has been achieved. The Christians have given birth, under Maronite leadership of course, to their leadership that has the mandate of representing them in the line of sects, after a long absence.

Salman blamed the Muslims for this result! What is going on?! Well, it's simple. What Salman is referring to (and so is Nassif), is the Syrian-imposed order in the 90's (note Nassif's reference to 1992, the first election under the Syrians) where Christians never got their popular leadership into Parliament. Qornet Shehwan was the closest thing (under the Patriarch's wing), but it too was sidelined by the Syrians.

Aoun is by no means the representative of all Christians in Lebanon (that's elementary). But, what he has become representative of now is the idea of "non-appointed" Christians in Parliament. What that means, like Naharnet said, is that just like HA-Amal pick their own people, and Jumblat picks his own people and Saad picks his own people, Aoun picked his own people but, and here's the difference, the people brought them to parliament without the "blessing" of HA-Amal, Jumblat or Saad, or without "winners by default."

Like all the quoted pieces said, this establishes a balance in parliament between all the sects without one thinking that it was "picked" by the others without its constituents having a say.

Jihad Zein wrote about something similar to this a few weeks back (and I quoted him back then). He said that Hizbullah was interested in "bumping off" the Christians from the emerging Druze-Sunni-Christian majority, and reinserting itself in their place. The Christians get appointed by them. They don't set the terms.

The Christians saw Jumblat's deal with Berri and Hizbullah in that light (rightly or wrongly. And there was a bit of necessity in there too because Berri was ready to do away with the elections indefinitely). Aoun, or should I say the Christian people who voted for him, even when they don't necessarily like everything about him, said, "to hell with that." "We got screwed in the election law (and so did, by the way, as Samir Qassir pointed out before his murder, all the independent Shi'a who got screwed by the reassertion of the Berri-HA duopoly), but you're not selecting our candidates on top of that. We choose." Now there's balance: the aim of consociationalism ("no victor, no vanquished" as paraphrased by Ghassan Tueni, see previous post).

I must repeat that I am not a Aoun fan. And I'm not sure I agree with Salman that now the Patriarch can relax as Aoun has become the point of reference of the Christians. For one, several Qornet Shehwan people did get in (including some, ironically, on Aoun's ticket, as with Dr. Farid el-Khazen). The LF got screwed in that it didn't get to pick its candidate (see my post on Hizbullah's maneuvers below), and had to compromise in Baabda-Aley to placate Hizbullah's "sensitivities" (even while the latter are blasting the LF on their TV as Israeli agents). But the Patriarch is still a point of reference, only no longer alone. He'll work with Aoun. The Patriarch is the real pragmatic politician of Lebanon.

With this balance in Parliament (notice how even the bloc sizes are quite even, awaiting for the north of course. Hariri will likely be the one with the edge [and likely PM], but also the one with the Jumblat wildcard! But the rest are very well proportionately represented according to size), the National Pact can be resumed, awaiting the next election, when we'll hopefully have a good law. Also, when Geagea will come out, the LF will feel better as well. Then we can start talking on equal footing to see how we can move forward (hopefully, by reforming the system -- NOT abolishing it -- perhaps by introducing bicameralism in the midterm, etc.).

Not quite how we wanted things to work out, but the dynamism is good. On the one hand, like I told Josh, it broke away from Zaimism (and the top-down relationship between the elite and the constituents that sometimes marks consociationalism) in an important way. The people decided to challenge the intra-elite dealings by electing a populist candidate (regardless of what they think of him, and I for one don't like him!). This was a bottom-up decision, not top-down (as with the QS, LF and Hariri-Jumblat).

It was a message. Jumblat should calm down (his talk about the defeat of "moderates" is bull. "Moderates" means the ones he picked! And kudos to Aoun for his calm and conciliatory message after his win), cut his losses, and not do something stupid. This is the reality of Mount Lebanon. Just embrace it. It's your natural playground. As Ghassan Tueni said, it's the heart of historical Lebanon, and as Nassif said, it's the way it always was and should be: a Druze-Christian partnership.

Update: Hariri will have an uphill battle in the North, as Aoun is gearing up for another battle, in alliance with Karami and Sleimen Franjieh (sigh...). Hariri is likely to do very well with the Sunnis, but Aoun is also likely to either make it close, or break through. This will only solidify the reality of a closely balanced Parliament (Jonathan Edelstein, as usual, read this correctly), and while Hariri will still have the edge, he won't have a crushing majority. 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 (which mirrored itself in the Baath Party Conference freak show.) I am reminded here of William Harris' line from his Faces of Lebanon:

Subordination to the Syrian interior contradicted the whole direction of Lebanon's modern history. p. 325.

So all those now talking about how horrible it is that the Lebanese "lost" the unity of March 14th, like this condescending, pseudo-romantic piece by Brian Whitaker can relax (which reminds me more of the "we are all Americans" after 9/11 turning into "what happened to the America we [non-Americans] loved? What did Bush do to it?" i.e., when Americans went back to business while outsiders were looking for it to be modeled after their own fantasies and desires. When it doesn't fit that, it becomes somehow a botched effort! Oh they just got the Syrians out, how boring! That's not what we had in mind for you people! It's not enough that the Lebanese have a strong sense of sovereignty, while maintaining internal pluralism, and now they finally can get rid of a heavy burden. It's just not good enough!).

March 14th restored the right path of Lebanese modern history. Now let's do business, with each other and for each other.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Breaking News: Aoun Headed for Upset Win

No sooner had I finished my earlier post, that I read the news that Aoun is headed for an upset victory. As Abdallah Iskandar noted in the piece quoted in the post below, this election was going to determine "sizes." Aoun has now managed to present himself as a true wildcard. They can no longer ignore him in Parliament, regardless of his electoral alliance with Arslan. What that will mean for the Bristol opposition's Parliamentary majority, Hizbullah's weapons, and Lahoud's ouster, also remains to be seen.

Update: Aoun's FPM website has a breakdown of the vote count so far. I looked at the Baabda-Alley results so far, and it's a very interesting picture. Aoun, it seems as of yet, did not sweep the list. He apparently is breaking through Jumblat's allied list. The greatest upset would be Arslan's possible breakthrough. Two Maronites from the Aoun-Arslan list, one of them from Aoun's FPM, also broke through. The rest (8 in total) are from Jumblat's list, including the LF Edmond Naim, Amin Gemayyel's Phalangist Antoine Ghanem, and Future Movement's Greek Orthodox candidate, Antoine Andraos. The Democratic Gathering's Henry Helou is winning one of the Maronite seats.

In the Shouf, Jumblat's list is winning all but one Maronite seat that's going to the Aounist, Mario Aoun. That region has no Shiite candidates.

The Christian opposition's greatest defeat however seems to be in the Matn region. All but one seat, Pierre Gemayyel, are going to Aoun's list. The real misfortune there is that the insufferable Michel Murr and his Armenian ally Hagop Pakradounian, are winning. But also, presidential hopeful Nassib Lahoud is losing.

Zahle (Bekaa) is truly where Aoun's alliance with Elias Skaff is sweeping votes. So far, everyone ahead is on this list. Also, Aoun's list is currently ahead in all the slots in Keserwen-Jbeil.

The voter turnout in the mainly Christian area of Keserwen-Jbeil is said to have reached 60%, dwarfing Beirut and the South.

Let's see how all this looks by tomorrow.

Update 2: According to An-Nahar, Aoun-Arslan didn't break through in Baabda-Aley. So apparently Hizbullah kept their promise. We'll have to wait for tomorrow's official results.

Jumblat is pissed and claimed this a loss for Christian moderation, and threw a nasty jab that this was a replay of Syrian intervention in 1976, which claimed to be on behalf of Christians, but then never left. He also made the curious claim that the Syrians will now try to regain control over Lebanon through selling out Hizbullah and its weapons to the Americans. And that they (namely Bashar and Lahoud) cunningly brought in Aoun to specifically target Hizbullah. Incendiary stuff. He's pissed. Yet, the Shouf went all to him, and apparently so did Baabda-Aley (we're not sure if one candidate of the Aoun list managed to break through or not), and his coalition list won in the western Bekaa-Rashaya (kicking out two really annoying pro-Syrians, Elie Ferzli and Abdel-Rahim Mrad). And it seems that Zahle eventually showed a breakthrough for Nicholas Fattoush, backed by the Bristol opposition, which spoiled Aoun-Skaff's sweep.

But if this is a signal from Jumblat, it's not a good one, because it means that he'll go deeper into the Amal-PoG camp to try to get what he wants. Ghassan Tueni is taking a more balanced position, seeing the dynamism of this round (not seen anywhere else) as good for Lebanese democracy, and in one sense, he is right. Aound also sounded conciliatory and said he won't isolate anyone, but he won't be isolated either. Let's see what happens.

Hizbullah Maneuvers

A couple of days ago, my compadres (in more ways than one) over at the Lebanese Bloggers wondered whether there was a shift in Nasrallah's rhetoric that points to a possible slow shift in policy:

Sayyid Nasrallah's speech today in the Bekaa was very different than his other speeches. He addressed the crowds by letting them know that Hizbullah's role as a party must change; that the party must be engaged in Lebanese politics and affairs. He also called for the implementation of the Taif Accord. (And two days ago he even talked of Bashir Gemayyil's 10,452 km2.) This was new rhetoric to my ears; well new as compared to what has been said and done prior to last Sunday at the eve of the elections in the South. Sayyid Nasrallah is breaking it slowly to the Hizbullah crowds the new reality that his party will be facing. What does this new language mean? Why the quick shift?

Doha, who wrote the post, didn't offer an answer to her questions at the end. So what is Nasrallah doing? Is this linked to a possible shift in positions on the weapons issue? I don't quite believe that. I found the following articles helpful in trying to make sense of Nasrallah's latest rhetorical acrobatics.

The first one, chronologically, is Nicholas Nasif's in An-Nahar.

Nasif read Nasrallah's use of Gemayyel's slogan as a sign of further intransigence, not openness. He also, correctly, tied it to the electoral alliances, especially after the telling break in the Beirut elections on the part of Hizbullah, many of whose voters broke from Hariri's list and backed one of his rivals. That episode (which by now I'm leaning towards believing was intentional to send a message) deeply disturbed Jumblat and Hariri, and they intensified their meetings with Nasrallah in order to prevent its reoccurence in the far more crucial Baabda-Alley elections.

The intl' community will refuse to reengage in this useless conversation regarding the Seven Villages which are well documented as Palestinian lands, following the partition in 1948, and they then became Israeli lands. At any rate, they're not Lebanese so that they could be reclaimed. This is the same argument of the intl' organization regarding the Shebaa Farms which it considers Syrian until the Lebanese government proves, with documents, that it isn't.

But Nasrallah neglected a 100% Lebanese village in Syria's hold, the village of Nekhayleh, the hometown of a former Lebanese PM, Khaled Shehab, which Syria took from the Lebanese state and told the government not to hold on to it when the "Blue Line" was drawn in 2000. Syria, it's been told, has also asked Hizbullah not to mention it.
...
Away from the current debate, or the one to come, regarding the fate of Hizbullah's weapons, there is information that it might, in the next phase, tie it to the weapons of the Palestinian camps, in what could be seen as a new explosive maneuver both internally and externally, and one that Nasrallah had hinted at.

Therefore, tying the slogan of full sovereignty, launched by Bashir Gemayyel, with the Seven Villages reflects, at minimum, a pessimistic outlook by Nasrallah to the inter-Lebanese dialogue on Hizbullah's weapons. It's as if he doesn't want there to be a dialogue.

That last part is certainly true. While talking about dialogue, Hizbullah has basically lifted the main issue (the weapons) from the table! So it's a non-starter.

Nasif continues:

A bigshot politician indirectly described the post-election phase as awkward and embarrassing for everyone, inside the new government and outside it, because there are heavy leftover files that are waiting, among which, beside the security issue, is the issue of the weapons of Hizbullah and the camps, and the Syrian-Lebanese relations, and the economy. He reckoned that it would be difficult to embark on internal reform due to out of control spending amidst scandals that have turned state institutions into hospitals and social security and aide funds and managements that spend on 7 million people in a country of 4 million.

This last part is linked to the Syrian patronage, but also to the nepotism of people like Nabih Berri, who perhaps is the most notorious abuser of state funds. But he's certainly not alone. These are the files that everyone believes Emile Lahoud will make public should he feel threatened.

Nasif concludes that while the French and the Americans will not be split on the Lebanon file, there might be disagreements on how they approach Hizbullah's weapons, even if they both agree that the Party should be disarmed:

The French believe Hizbullah's weapons are a ticking time-bomb threatening domestic stability, and should be diffused with care. However, such a position would naturally lead to more intransigence on Hizbullah's part as long as it's confident that no one could impose on it the implementing of the Resolution, either by force or for free.

The last part is certainly true, which is why Nasrallah feels comfortable threatening people (although some have tied his revelation of holding 12,000 missiles to Syria's flexing of muscles, and broader regional politics), and which is why he made those comments about the Lebanese Army (see below).

But I'm not sure there's that much difference of opinion between the French and US, even if one follows Nasif's logic. Indeed, even Bidermann (see right below) writes:

Lebanese and Syrian supporters of Hezbollah hope that the Europeans, who have not put Hezbollah on the list of terrorist organizations, will be less focused on disarming the group. But Western diplomats in Damascus say there is very little that divides the U.S. and the EU at the moment on 1559 and that there is little prospect that international pressure on Syria will ease.

The question remains one of mechanism. No one has the answer for that as of yet. But Nasif's reading of Nasrallah's recent maneuvers isn't optimistic.

The second, very good, analysis is by Walid Choucair in Al-Hayat, also two days ago. Choucair focuses much more on the electoral angle, and sees Nasrallah's speech mainly from that angle. However, he comes closest to Doha's view on "breaking it slowly" to Party loyalists. The question, however, is what "it" is. Choucair says "it" is only selling the alliance in Baabda-Alley with the Lebanese Forces, whom the PoG has demonized (until this very day, including during the recent anti-Syrian protests) as collaborators with Israel and untrustworthy traitors (see also the latest provocation in LF heartland of Ashrafieh).

Now all of a sudden, they're being asked to vote for Jumblat's list whole, and not repeat what they did with Hariri in Beirut. That means voting for LF candidates. Choucair points out that Nasrallah pushed for not having a direct member of the LF run on the list. The LF agreed and decided to run someone affiliated with them, but not one of their well-known figures. In fact, the Hariris also cooperated with the Hizbullah-Amal list in Sidon, managing to convince lots of Sunnis to vote, even when Bahia Hariri had already won. This was a gesture of goodwilll by the Hariris despite the unexplained break on Hizbullah's part in the Beirut elections. There are several reasons for this. For one, they hope this would keep a veneer of unity with Hizbullah, keeping their loyalty for the Baabda-Alley election. Also, it was keeping ties with Berri, who allowed Bahia Hariri on his list for the Sunni seat even when she will clearly back the Hariri bloc in Parliament. But he got to use her to prevent the appearence of an isolated, and low, sectarian Shiite vote (as most Christians boycotted, and Sunnis weren't at all interested in coming out to vote). The Hariris also want to keep ties with Berri in case he comes back as Speaker in a Parliament where they will have the largest bloc. Berri of course used that to his advantage, and so did Hizbullah, making it seem as if this was a referendum on the Party's weapons. It's obviously not that simple.

Choucair noted that the leadership of the Party wants to maintain the cooperation with the PSP, Future Bloc, and Amal in order to fend off the future challenges that will face it, "or else, each one will go their separate way." Considering that the Hariri-Jumblat blocs are likely to be the largest, or at any rate very influential, in Parliament -- and thus will be needed to maintain the veneer of national unity around Hizbullah -- it behooves Hizbullah to back them in Baabda-Alley and to order their followers not to break the list. Choucair said that the Party already backed pro-Syrian candidates (Hardan and the Baath's Qassem Hashem) in the South (even when the Hariris refused to vote for the SSNP candidate in the south), and Marwan Phares and Nader Sukkar in the northern Bekaa, so they will have more leeway (!) in Baabda-Alley. Or so Jumblat hopes. As Choucair notes, Jumblat was fearful that the PoG would cave in to Syrian pressure and vote for Talal Arslan or others on the Aoun-Arslan list (and that remains to be seen!). Choucair said that Jumblat himself was pressured to include Arslan on his list, but he refused.

Choucair sees the measured openness to the LF as part of the Party's awareness of its need to open up to all Lebanese parties in order to protect its weapons. He quoted an MP as saying that the Party's leadership is aware of the changes, so if the Syrian Baath is trying to find ways to change and reach out to America, and if the Iranian presidential candidate Rafsanjani is running on reopening dialogue with America, then the Party ought to realize the changes. As Nasrallah himself said, the cirucmstances in 2005 are different than what they were in 2000.

But notice that Nasrallah's reasons either way are completely tied to considerations to Syria and Iran. It has nothing to do with the internal scene. So when analysts make a leap to the domestic scene, I remain skeptical. The maneuver with the LF slogan is not meant as an opening up to the LF to protect the Party. The Party doesn't care about the Christians' say in this, as long as they can secure Hariri and Jumblat, i.e., the majority in Parliament. In fact, as Nasif's piece shows, even that, while desirable, is not certain to make a difference if it's not attained, as the mechanisms are still absent.

Nasrallah knows he can't rely on the LF to rally around the Party to protect its weapons. Nasrallah barely trusts Hariri, Jumblat and Berri (that's why the first two were afraid he would backstab them and vote for Aoun and try and break their majority in Parliament -- and that remains to be seen tomorrow)! Again, the more convincing arguments are its regional ties, more specifically Iran, and we have not seen any development on that end that would indicate a willingness to give up the weapons.

Finally, there's a good summary in Al-Hayat today. Abdallah Iskandar raises points not dissimilar to what I've raised here:

Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah declared that Hizbullah will integrate more and more in the political process, after adopting the late president Bashir Gemayyel's famous slogan about liberating the 10452 Km2, which is Lebanon's official area within its internationally recognized borders. This means that it will translate its current weight into a domestic role on the one hand, and submit to the conditions of this game, on the other. In that case, aside from the political formula aimed at keeping it as a military power independent of the state, this weapon will break the balance that's supposed to exist between the various parties.

If indeed a formula is reached where the weapons become subject to the state's authority, then the question will be the function of the Party which has justified its existence and continuity with armed resistance. The other question is about its concept of political action, as it is a fundamentalist Shiite party in a multicommunal country that cannot be ruled by one sect, let alone one party within one sect.

It all remains to be seen, but if people were thinking that this is about more than trying to keep the weapons (at all cost, even playing the most sectarian of cards), I think they got it wrong. You don't believe me? Read what Nawaf al-Musawi said.

The Myth of Incorruptibility

Ferry Biedermann has an article in Salon.com on Syria, Lebanon, and the US. This section on Hizbullah, a veritable credo for people covering Lebanon, is simply nonsense:

In Lebanon, the anti-Israeli, Shiite Islamist Hezbollah movement has been the one of the few parties widely considered to remain free of the taint of the system. It is not known to be corrupt, as many of the other political groupings are said to be, and until recently it did not engage in the political horse-trading that is the Lebanese system of government. This time around that image has been tainted, said Saad-Ghorayeb, who is an expert on Hebzollah. "The party has finally been forced to play by the rules of the Zaïm system," Saad-Ghorayeb said. She is referring to the many political deals Hezbollah was forced to make in an attempt to stave off pressure to disarm following the withdrawal of its Syrian protectors.

Hezbollah is the only Lebanese group that retained its arms after the end of the country's 15-year civil war in 1990 and the Israeli army's withdrawal from the south in 2000. It has been able to do this by marketing itself as the "resistance" to Israel, which gives it the legitimacy to retain its arms and run a state-within-a-state in the south.

But Saad-Ghorayeb said that the party has now become just one of Lebanon's many regional and sectarian political players, which base their strength on a captive bloc vote and use it to skim off income from the state and businesses. In Hezbollah's case, the corruption is not thought to be direct. Rather, it has been tainted by its newfound alliance with the more moderate Shiite Amal movement, which many regard as deeply corrupt.

The part about Zaimism is certainly true. I've said this before, and I think Anthony Shadid referred to it as well not too long ago. But to imply that this is only recent and that it came about begrudgingly and because they hooked up with Amal (and that's recent?)? Puh-lease. This is why Hazem Amin's piece on the Hashish in the Bekaa and the breaking of tribal authority (replacing one traditional set of zaims with another) and the use of Hizbullah's "social services" to buy off Hashish farmers who have been hurt by the state's banning of Hashish farming, etc. is so important (see also his other piece on the south). Not corrupt?! Give me a break... They've been doing this for years. The only place their incorruptibility (and non-sectarianism) exists is in their propaganda, and in the writings of groupie journalists who are infatuated by them, and who see them as some sort of latter day continuation of the workers' movement or something.

But this is why the quotes I pasted in my post below on Hizbullah ("Nervous Hasan") are important. Without the weapons, what exactly differentiates Hizbullah from Amal (beside of course their historical stance on the Islamic state)? That's why when they tell you our image (as an armed "resistance group") matters, they mean it. When they say, we need to attract the young and the former fighters in Amal, they mean it. They want to play it both ways. That's what they've been doing.

What's the Deal?

What exactly is behind this most recent clash in Damascus between the authorities and an Islamist group?

Excuse me for being skeptical, but when I'm told by the Syrians that the name of the group is the same as the one that claimed to have killed Hariri, my eyes begin to roll. In fact, if you read the readers' comments at the bottom of the Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat (linked right above) you'll see that I'm not alone in my skepticism.

It wouldn't be the first time the Syrians had a perfectly timed theatrical "Islamist episode." This was without a doubt the most dramatic, but readers might remember the rockets fired in Mazze not too long ago. I'm not claiming anything, I'm just saying.

There's more. Ibrahim Hamidi reports in Al-Hayatthat now Islamist MP Muhammad Habash is claiming to have received threats from a Salafist group on his cell "right before the kidnapping of Sheikh Muhammad Maashouq al-Khaznawi." Habash also tied that group with other incidents in Syria, such as the killing of a police officer in Homs, at the beginning of the year. Hamidi also runs through the various names of this group.

An-Nahar has more details. The film of the operation that ran on Syrian TV showed that one of the killed Islamists, both of whom were Syrian, held a Saudi driver's license. They also showed a document with the hierarchical structure of the group, with the various functions of each one laid out.

One document had that the Jihad of the group has to follow priorities. Topping the list is deposing the "authoritarian regimes" of Syria, and "Christian Maronite Lebanon," and "Hashemite Jordan." The document added that attention should be turned to the "dictators" in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and Iraq, "whose people have been plagued with Crusaders."

Soon thereafter, three people in Hama "disappeared" and a fourth was arrested, all were suspected of conducting "Salafist Islamist activities."

So what is going on? All this comes against the background of a "fight over Islamists" in Syria between the opposition and the regime. Nick Blanford, in a piece in the DS, explains:

Although there is widespread suspicion of the Muslim Brotherhood because of its past association with violence, analysts say it would be a mistake to write off the strength of the Islamists.

"The regime needs to acknowledge the Islamists," Moubayed said. "Unless they are given an outlet to voice their frustrations they will move underground and present a challenge in Syria. This is a very strong danger."

The authorities have been holding their own dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood, issuing them with passports and allowing some to return home.

"The government believes that the Americans and the opposition are courting the Muslim Brotherhood and they won't allow that. They want the Muslim Brotherhood to themselves," said Joshua Landis.

Against such a background, as well as the rumoured Saudi interest in deposing the Alawite regime, one can speculate endlessly on the meaning of this latest drama. One doesn't need to even deny the reality of the incident to do so either. Are there armed Islamists in Syria, some of whom might be getting ideas? Sure. Could this be a sign of turmoil inside Syria? Definitely. But could all this be spun by the regime to send out domestic (to the people in general, and the opposition specifically), regional (Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan), and international messages, perhaps in the range of "without us, you get this, all of you, Syrians, Lebanese (wink wink), Saudis and Jordanians, and Americans (especially if you're getting ideas)"? Without a doubt.

Amidst growing talk about incorporating Islamists who have renounced violence, comes this episode in Syria. Staged? Perhaps, though not necessarily unreal. Well timed? Certainly. Spin material? Well, naturally. But who knows what's really going on. I'm eager to hear what Josh and Ammar have to say about it.

Addendum: i forgot to add this report by Hamidi a couple of days ago. In it, he reported that one of the recommendations of the Baath congress was to "strip" the Muslim Brotherhood along with the "unpatriotic opposition that has foreign ties," i.e., Farid Ghadry's people.

Update: You thought Mustapha was bad? You thought Bashar's speech was bad? You ain't seen nothing yet. Bouthaina Shaaban is the prom queen. Those who read Arabic should (if they feel like heartburn) check out this totally insane (not to mention incredibly stupid) op-ed in Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat. This is pure foaming at the mouth nuttiness. If this is the new face of Syria's government, then I say to my dear neighbors, Congrats! You've hit the jackpot! If you thought it couldn't get worse, you were wrong! Welcome to the "new guard" era! It's ten times shittier than the old and ten times more ideological and hardcore Arabist! So not only is Bouth-Bouth accusing the CIA and the Mossad of killing Hariri (yawn), and Kassir, but of preparing more assassinations in Lebanon! Wait, there's more. The Bouth also said that the US is behind the Jund al-Sham group that just had a showdown with the Syrian authorities, and which was the subject of this post. Bouthi accused the US of funding and arming them! Now, if you're not totally convinced that the whole thing was staged, you at least get an idea about what I said about "spin material."

Bouthaina Shaaban: the evolutionary peak of the Baath.

Update 2: Josh Landis thinks the episode is real. I must add here that despite my dismissive tone, I did say that I thought this could very well have been real. All the elements exist for it to be real. But was the timing excellent for the Syrians to spin it out of control? Absolutely. And they did.

Cole-lectibles

So "Han Solo" (or Juan Colo, whichever you prefer) is again trying to dupe his readers on his position on the Iraq war. What's the spiel this time? His position was "complex." But of course. We wouldn't have it any other way. How complex? Stay with me on this one:

[He] thought it was a terrible idea, but declined to come out against it because [he] believed that if Saddam's genocidal regime could be removed by the international community in a legal way, that some good would have been accomplished."

John, you fox you (or should I say wookie?)! Love the multilateral cover, and the downplaying of the removal of Saddam ("some good"). You don't become MESA president for nothing you know.

But unfortunately, it ain't good enough. Let's revisit my "Cole-lected Sayings" from Nov., 2004, shall we?

For one, the "some good" that could come out of the war was, in April, 2003: "a great good thing that it [the regime] is gone." And, as he says in the one piece he decided to use as "evidence" in his post, he will be "ecstatic" to see Saddam go.

But how much of a "terrible idea" was it for John? Well, in March 2003, John told us: "I remain convinced that, for all the concerns one might have about the aftermath, the removal of Saddam Hussein and the murderous Baath regime from power will be worth the sacrifices that are about to be made on all sides."

Yes, a horrible, terrible idea, that had him convinced will be worth all the sacrifices (that he's been diligently collecting on his site) that were about to be made on all sides.

But the thing is, as I wrote in that post, there's absolutely nothing special about Cole's pre-war positions. He wanted to see Saddam go (i.e., he didn't object to the war), but was nervous about it, like all of us are when we're about to go to war! It's no more "complex" a position than that of any pro-war person in the United States (because he was clearly NOT anti-war, no matter how badly and acrobatically he wants to portray himself as such)!

If anything, much of what made him nervous was actually wrong (typical MESA). Take a look at some of the stuff he laid out in that post:

- "Serial wars with Iraq, Iran, Syria, N. Korea, and ultimately China"? Well, 1 out of 5 ain't bad. But hey, anything to take a swipe at Neocons.

- Juan's chorus line about what drives Al-Qaeda:

The Israeli dispossession of the Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza; the almost daily shooting by the Israeli army of innocent noncombatants; the progressive colonization of Palestinian territory by--let us say--idiosyncratic settlers from Brooklyn (all of this is on t.v. every day over there); the harsh Indian police state erected over the Muslims of Kashmir; the economic stagnation and authoritarian policies of many Middle Eastern governments that are backed by the US; and the poverty and prejudice Muslim immigrants to places like France and Germany experience daily.

I would snicker right about now, but there's more. Cole was conflicted about invading Iraq, but he advocated invading the West Bank and Gaza to "liberate the Palestinians."

- This one's my favorite. It was Juan's daily mantra during the stand-off with his (romanticized) hero, "the young Shiite nationalist" (as he calls him to this day) Muqtada Sadr. It's the "Shiite international" theory:

What will happen if US bombs damage the Shiite shrines, the holiest places for 100 million Shiite Muslims in Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan, India, Bahrain? What will happen if there is a riot in a shrine city like Karbala and US marines put it down by killing rioters? Do we want 100 million Shiites angry at us again?

Although it's not mentioned here, there's another version of this theory. That one held that every time Israel killed a Hamas leader, the US would see a hellish increase in violence and "stir up Islamist forces against the US in Iraq," etc.

- Then Cole really showed how little he understood Saddam's Iraq, when he maintained the myth of "secular Arab nationalism" with regard to the Sunnis. How Cole spun that was the kicker: the US invasion will cause the Sunni middle class to "lose faith" in secular Arab nationalims. Why? Because the Baath would be overthrown! I mean, seriously...

- Then some more typical shrill Cole scenarios that never materialized:

What will happen if we give the Turks too much authority to intervene in Kurdistan, and fighting breaks out between the Turks and the Iraqi Kurds, and if the Iraqi Kurds turn against the US?

I'll be kind and not linger on this, because this was before the war (although the barely veiled self-important reference to "prophecy" at the end just begs to be made fun of). Although, the contempt for the intelligence of the military and the planners is typical, and telling (as if the US didn't know that Kurds and Turks weren't best buddies!).

Nevertheless, he was going to be "ecstatic" to see Saddam go, and it was going to be "worth it." Well, you know, some good was bound to come out of it.

Well, hopefully the next time he'll decide to revise and spin his position on Iraq, he'll have better luck. May the force be with you, Juan Colo.

Update: Martin Kramer delivers the knock-out punch.