Across the Bay

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Lebanon: Communalism and Democracy

My colleague Raja over at the The Lebanese Bloggers recently posted on Lebanese democracy and the effects of Communalism (also referred to as "sectarianism" or "confessionalism") on that democracy.

It's a topic that's been hotly debated for years in Lebanon, and among people writing on Lebanon. I myself have made my position clear on this blog. I am for the system for the foreseeable future. But I am also for amending it in ways that would make it more dynamic, and curtail some of its most unsavory aspects, as well as create new institutional spaces in the system.

The latter point was addressed by Michael Young in his latest op-ed. Michael's piece, by the way, should be read by my Lebanese colleagues who are screaming foul in disillusionment. In fact, he is addressing them directly, drawing back on Lebanon's history since 1943:

In other words, the recurrent Lebanese desire for harmony - the very same that followed the March 14 demonstration - has more often than not been frustrated in our recent history, leading to widespread disillusionment based on an unwillingness of Lebanese to grasp that their system rests on the insistent articulation of differences.

Two things can be said about this: a system of negations can be far more resilient and steady than people imagine, so that the absence of unity that followed the parliamentary elections last year was regrettable, but par for the course with respect to national stability. The sectarian system, precisely because of its acknowledged shortcomings and the anxiety it produces among Lebanese, is one also one where, in moments of crisis, sectarian representatives fall into line and play their allotted roles in re-establishing an equilibrium. That's what happened after the recent rioting in Christian areas, and it's what happened after every random bomb blast last year, all of which occurred in predominantly Christian areas, so that the political costs to the perpetrators soon surpassed the advantages.

A second aspect of the general disappointment with national disunity is that it shows there is a platform on which to build unity - if only politicians displayed audacity. Sectarianism won't dissipate in a night, or a decade, but more can be done to weaken its worst aspects. If March 14 showed anything, it was that that the death of someone like Rafik Hariri could alter age-old sectarian reflexes. Other developments, short of death, might too. Everything from introducing civil marriage to creating a civil category where citizens are identified not by their religious sect, but as members of an officially recognized secular community, must be tried.

The mechanisms of the sectarian state are cumbersome, and demoralizing when the political murder that the Lebanese are commemorating today seems to radiate much discord amid the concord. But Lebanon's "arrangement" has its assets, which we should bear in mind while mentally reviewing the past year. Hariri and all the others surely didn't deserve to die, but the system remains greater than the sum of its parts, and the sum of its deaths.

In other words, Michael's position is similar to mine, and I would say similar to Raja's. The system has its faults, some of which can perhaps be amended and improved, but overall, it is not only a resilient reality, it is, or can be, a good arrangement. Here I quote my friend and fellow blogger Stacey Yadav, who recently wrote the following:

The most compelling argument I've encountered this year about consociational institutions in Lebanon is Samir Khalaf's "Civil and Uncivil Violence in Lebanon." In this book (Princeton, 2002), he argues that institutional power sharing did not cause the war, and that those who claim that it did (and thus disparage Taif for only modifying the principle of power-sharing without full deconfessionalization) are taking a short view of history. Instead, he presents what I found to be considerably compelling evidence of at least 5 different institutional agreements (each with a different confessional balance) that were applied to CONTAIN conflict. In effect, for Khalaf, skewed representation (at one point, Muslim overrepresentation, then Christian overrepresentation, etc...) is the required cost of civil peace.
...
I guess this means that what I would say, were I asked, would be something like, "we can adjust ratios and we can deconfessionalize much of the civil service, but the core confessional agreement is there to protect us all."

The last paragraph resonates with what Michael proposed, regarding civil marriage or establishing a quota in Parliament for independents not wishing to run according to Communal categories. This is certainly not uncommon, as my other friend (and ace, when it comes to these comparative institutional arrangements) Jonathan Edelstein has shown on his blog:

The models to which Lebanon might look in representing the secular population include not only Fiji but New Zealand. The New Zealand political system has consociational elements in that the Maori are entitled to separate electoral representation, but individual Maori can choose for themselves whether to register on the communal roll or the general roll. The number of Maori electorates is, in turn, determined by the number of voters who register on the communal roll. In Lebanon, voters could likewise be permitted to choose whether to register as members of a confessional group or simply as Lebanese, with open parliamentary seats being distributed in proportion to those who make the latter choice. This would enable the Lebanese to choose the pace at which to implement non-sectarian politics, which is itself a long-term goal of Taif.

I could go on and talk more about mechanisms of consociationalism (esp. as they relate to conflict resolution or post-conflict societies. See on that the excellent essay [pdf] by Helga Binningsbo, and what it says about grand coalitions, for instance.) or deal more in depth with power-sharing (on which I'm currently reading several items), but I think the way it was presented by Michael and Stacey sums it up rather well.

But I will point to a recent article by Barry Rubin in the Journal of Democracy (17.1 [2006] 51-62). The article is entitled "Dealing with Communalism." Although the section on Lebanon is rather poor, especially when it comes to statistics, Rubin raises some of the points we've been discussing:

But the communal factor can also act as a force that makes democracy more viable. The parties and groups that communities organize to represent their interests within the arena of democratic political competition are likely to be far larger and stronger than the existing tiny nongovernmental organizations and individual intellectuals who currently serve as the most visible advocates of reform within Middle Eastern societies. If and when these large parties and groups begin to grasp that they will need to make deals among themselves in order for each to have the best chance of securing its own interests, the temptation to grasp after total power will become less intense and the pluralism and tolerance that representative government requires will take root.

Although of course, what Michael has proposed is to create an opening and safeguard a space for these organizations and individuals within the communal system.

Essentially, Rubin acknowleges reality on the ground, which is what I try to do. My point has always been that Communalism need not be mutually exclusive with a strong overarching Lebanese identity. In fact, we have seen this quite clearly in Lebanon especially now with the slogan of "Lebanon first" which is dominating the political discourse, even as communalism remains strong.

This is one of my main points of contention with contemptuous Lebanon bashers. Their notion of nationhood, I argue, is actually a throwback to 19th c. European "volkish" organic states. Thus, the Lebanese are doomed, because their primary identities are communal, and the national identity is interpreted through that lens. My point is that the understanding of the Lebanese state should follow a different model. It should be seen as more "contractual." Lebanon as a state is the sum of its communities. That is why Lebanonist narratives such as the "haven of minorities" are actually quite true and insightful in their explanation of the notion of Lebanon as a homeland.

At the end of the day, the proof is in the pudding: Lebanon, despite the disaparaging attacks on its openly communal system, has provided an overarching Lebanese identity which crystallized in the demonstrations on March 14 (alongside its communalism) and again on February 14, 2006 (and even in the March 8 rally, where a point was made by brandishing only Lebanese flags). Meanwhile, when it comes to the control model of Syria, which is supposedly non-sectarian (a laughable falsehood if there ever was one), we are hearing apologists telling us that if Assad should fall, the communities would massacre each other. (On the engineering and manipulation of Syrian national identity and pride by the regime, see this piece by Hazem Saghieh.)

For more (not fully thought out) musings on the issue of "Lebanon first," and the emerging "patriotisms," see Jihad el-Zein's latest piece.

Ghassan Tueni also seems to be thinking about these matters in his latest op-ed. He proposes seriously thinking about implementing the two clauses in the Taef Accord dealing with the establishment of an Upper House (bicameralism) and a committee to look into the possibilities of phasing out the communal system altogether. The first point is something I have proposed before (and don't bother looking for a real argument about it in Tueni's piece). I think such an institutional arrangement could address some of our outstanding issues. However, beyond readjusting ratios, the power of each Chamber needs to be discussed (I may post a brief note on this shortly). As for the second point raised by Tueni, I think we can establish whatever we want, I don't think it would lead anywhere anytime soon. No one in Lebanon is challenging the power-sharing formula at this stage, even if there are complaints about certain aspects that seem to paralyze the government (which, by the way, is not necessarily because of Communalism in the strict sense. We see this in all coalition-based systems. Raja points out Germany for instance. Interestingly, the rationale behind the system in Germany is similar to the one in Lebanon: preventing the rise of a dictatorship. See Marcus Walker and David Crawford, "Germany's Political Crisis Has U.S. Roots; State Governors Wield Veto Power in Post-World War II System to Prevent Rise of Dictator." Wall Street Journal. Sep 21, 2005. pg. A.10).

This leads me to another issue. Rubin writes in his article:

Yet a pluralist jostle of communalist groups, each seeking to promote each its own vision of life and set of interests, could become not an impediment but actually an avenue toward the growth of democratic modes and orders in the Arab world.

Two points: 1) I would like to focus on the "vision of life and set of interests" part. And 2) I want to strongly dispell the notion that the "communalist groups" are monolithic, and have a single vision or a single set of interests, or a single representative party.

One thing we're seeing today in Lebanon is that despite the communal aspects, the debate is really about policy. Furthermore, the parties are not fully representatives of their respective sects. So there is no full identification between a certain policy and sect. Although, that danger exists, and it is inherent in the perilous call for a cabinet of "poles" (advocated by Hizbullah and Aoun). Remarking on the latter approach, and the behavior of HA in the cabinet at the time, Rafiq Khoury, in an op-ed in the Lebanese daily Al-Anwar on 12/2/05, wrote:

The most dangerous kind of political pluralism is the collection of closed, complete "units" [i.e., unitary poles]. And the worst kind of consensual democracy is "consensus" on what is imposed by a strong party. What we are implementing today is the most dangerous and the worst, in a very critical stage.

Perhaps the following remarks by Ghassan Tueni are also relevant and shed more light on the limits of some consociational provisions, especially the grand coalition (see Jonathan's remarks here):

National dialogue, for it to be democratic, does not mean "everyone agreeing on everything." This is impossible humanly and systemically. Besides, it almost paves the way to estbalishing a totalitarian, i.e., dictatorial, system.

This brings back to mind Michael's note on "difference" in the Lebanese system. It also recalls something found in another approach to pluralist societies: the Integrative Approach, advocated by Donald Horowitz (author of Ethnic Groups in Conflict, [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985]).

The most intriguing aspect of the Integrative Approach is its reliance on inter-group cooperation, fostering political organization that cross-cuts communal loyalties. I think we do see that now in Lebanon. More important in my view, is the encouragement of intra-communal competition. I believe this is key for Lebanon, and it is the reason I strongly oppose a cabinet of "poles" whereby each sect would be represented by one party. It is also why I think the situation in the Shiite community, encouraged by the 2000 electoral law, is a travesty.

Ironically, the champion of this approach in Lebanon has been MP Dr. Farid el-Khazen. It is ironic because he is a member of the Aounist parliamentary bloc! He recently reiterated his position:

Each Christian party has its position and role, and this kind of diversity is normal. The domination by one faction of a whole confessional community would be an abnormal situation. The communities are today lacking in equilibrium.

This political diversity needs to be replicated and encouraged in Lebanon. Ideally, it would lead to inter-group cooperation based on views and programs. It would also prevent the paralysis brought on by grand coalitions, if these coalitions represented communities by one party per community, whereby one party monopolizes the community's representation. Under those circumstances, any disagreement or non-cooperation with that particular party would translate into an isolation of an entire community, and increase communal tensions.

As you can see, my inclination (based on closer observation of Lebanese political practice) is towards a complex power-sharing formula that essentially combines elements of both approaches. I believe that, and not the complete abolition of the communal system, is the option we should be exploring. And so I join Michael in telling my Lebanese colleagues: Lebanon's "arrangement" has its assets, and the system remains greater than the sum of its parts.

Better still, let me end with a verse from a song by Ziad Rahbani: "Oh Generation whose heart aches for its country, trying to fix the hell out of it. The country works as is; it is what it is!"

(يا جيل قلبه على بلده قاعد يظبط بسماه بلد ظابط مثل ما هو هيدا هو هيدا اياه)

It is time for us to "grasp," as Michael put it, that our system "rests on the insistent articulation of differences." It's one of the basic premises of identity. Differences, if properly managed, don't necessarily negate a nation.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Mideast Monitor

I am very pleased to announce to you the launching of a new online publication, Mideast Monitor, edited by the formidable Gary Gambill.

The inaugural issue contains an article by me on Saudi-Syrian relations after Hariri. Be sure to also read Gary's excellent article on Bashar. Addendum: The issue also contains an English translation of the joint memo between Aoun's FPM and Hizballah.

Update: Gary points out in his article that the "old guard" myth that Bashar milked (and that people still indulge) has been quite resilient:

In spite of these failings, Assad's benevolent underdog image proved to be remarkably resilient, as most Western observers assumed that a cabal of aging hardliners within the regime was obstructing his authority. The so-called "old guard" theory was flatly contradicted by the readily observable monopolization of political and economic power within Assad's inner circle during the past five years, but it dovetailed neatly with his habitual claims to be unaware of or powerless to prevent wrongdoing that draws Western criticism. For a time, misperceptions permitted all manners of sin for Syria's young ruler.

How true. I picked up this link from Josh's latest post. It contains two quotes by an analyst called Imad Sara (but Josh did not use these quotes) that show just how pathetic this myth really is, and how willing some people still are to indulge it (hell, Flynt Leverett wrote a book about it and made a career out of it):

"Shara's appointment, the biggest change in the reshuffle, indicates an obvious change in Syria's foreign policy," political analyst Imad Sara told Xinhua.
...
"The [ministerial] reshuffle shows Assad's resolve to isolate the old guards who impede his reform efforts both in the political and economic process," analyst Sara said.

Yes, of course. Quite obvious! Tsk tsk tsk. I mean if Bashar so much as burps, these guys will run and explain how that was proof that his inner reformist was trying to squeeze himself out from that iron grip of the "old guards!" Aren't people embarrassed to use that term anymore? Or do they, like the regime, take us all for fools?

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Why the Embassies Burned

A few important items on the matter. First, a sharp article by Lee Smith in the WS.

Lee wonders why "only in Damascus and Beirut have institutions -- embassies or consulates -- representing Denmark and Norway been attacked"?

He reminds readers that "Syria is an authoritarian state where nothing happens on the street unless the regime permits it to happen. Actually, that's something of an understatement--the government almost always determines and drives public actions. So, many of the Damascus protestors venting their pious outrage likely either work for Syrian security services or are rent-a-mobs being paid to riot."

As for motives, he offers three possibilities:

[W]hy is Syria so hostile to a Europe that is by comparison much more accommodating? There are at least three possible reasons: (1) To prevent the international community from bringing down Syria's ruling regime; (2) To raise money for Hamas; (3) To warn against interfering with the Iranian nuclear program.

Indeed, regarding #2, it was Bashar who was first to scream that the Arab League should foot the bill for Hamas if the EU decides not to subsidize them anymore. Of course, the message behind that was -- besides the lame attempt at reviving Syria's status as the "beating heart of Arabism" and "citadel of resistance" -- that Hamas should not succumb to the conditions set forth by the EU (and later, Egypt) and recognize Israel and cease terrorist attacks. In other words, Bashar was solidifying his position in the Iran axis of upheaval and rejectionism.

Read the whole article for more. But Lee's essential thesis is also held by people like Olivier Roy, and Italy's deputy prime minister and foreign minister Gianfranco Fini.

Fini said the following about Syria: "I'm about to make a serious but grounded accusation: I think that at this stage Syria poses a serious threat. I'll take my responsibility for this statement ... I can't believe that in a country like Syria demonstrations that lead to violent attacks by armed men on embassies and consulates are not tolerated by local authorities." Fini added, "When countries like Syria, Iran and, God forbid, Palestine are led by groups of fundamentalists, we can't but face similar consequences."

Roy saw that Syria's act was motivated by "scores [it has] to settle with the Europeans." Roy pointed to France's "very hard-line" positions over Syria's influence in Lebanon and Iran's nuclear activities.

Last but not least is Martin Kramer's take, and his proposal as to what the EU should do:

Seek the answer in the palaces, not the streets. Some Muslim governments have come under intense pressure from the Transatlantic alliance. They have reacted by seeking to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe. Iran needs a divided West to avoid sanctions over its nuclear program. Syria needs it to escape accountability for the Hariri assassination. Hamas and its Muslim Brotherhood allies need it to break an embargo of the new Hamas principality. Egypt and Saudi Arabia need it to escape Western demands for reform.

Since the United States refuses to be intimidated, the focus has been on Europe. And for embattled regimes, the cartoon affair has been an Allah-send. The palace-dwellers aren't interested in Danish apologies or expressions of media regret. They want to be paid off in political coin for dousing the fire. Until they are, Danish and other embassies will burn. Syria and Iran especially need a Europe cowed into meek submission, which may be why the worst violence rocked Damascus and Beirut.

Europe must stand firm and united, lest it become a tributary of despots and fanatics. European states should close their embassies in Damascus and Beirut, in solidarity with the Danes.

Another crucial point is that the US and the EU should remain united in their positions. After all, as Lee said, this is "practically an act of war."

Addendum: Ammar Abdulhamid is on the same page:

[W]e should not fail to see the emerging bigger picture here. We should not fail to take under consideration Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s defiance of the international community, nor Muqtada Sadr’s pledge to fight for Syria and Iran, nor Khalid Mishaal’s assertion that Hamas will never acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. The Axis of Evil, minus N. Korea, is making a move here and is throwing the glove in the face of the international community.

No, this is not a simple petty defiance, but a calculated move based on the assumption that the international community, for all its current bluster, has no choice but to yield. After all, this Petulant Lot may not be wrong in assuming that it holds, if not hordes, all keys to regional stability.

So, what will the international community to do?

Ammar's proposal is one I agree fully with. To deal a blow to this alliance, you focus on its weakest link: Syria.

Update: For more from Olivier Roy, see here (French). Here's a translated bit on the Damascus riots: "It is evident that these demonstrations are entirely manipulated by the authorities. It's revenge for the European pressure on the Syrian presence in Lebanon. The EU has firmly intervened on that file, especially the French. The message is clear: they tap the Danes to say stop the European intrusion in the region."

Update 2: More still from Roy, in Le Monde: "La carte des émeutes montre que les pays touchés par la violence sont ceux où le régime et certaines forces politiques ont des comptes à régler avec les Européens. La violence a été instrumentalisée par des Etats et des mouvements politiques qui rejettent la présence des Européens dans un certain nombre de crises au Moyen-Orient. ... Ici, il s'agit d'une manoeuvre purement politique pour reprendre la main au Liban en s'alliant avec tous ceux qui se sentent menacés ou ignorés par la politique européenne. ... Au Liban, la France — et donc aussi l'Europe — a pris soudainement une position très dure sur la présence syrienne, qui a exaspéré le régime de Bachar Al-Assad: il se venge aujourd'hui en organisant en sous-main les attaques contre les ambassades (qui peut imaginer qu'une manifestation spontanée et incontrôlée puisse se dérouler à Damas aujourd'hui?)."

Monday, February 06, 2006

Juan Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Juan Cole, being the perennial "expert" on everything, decided to once again stake a foothold in Lebanese affairs. The result, as always, is that his foot found its way deep down his mouth. So once again, we're treated to a spectacle of disingenuousness, inaccuracies, wild assumptions, insinuations, anti-Bush hysterics, apologetics, dogmatic ideological nonsense, and flat out stupidity. There's of course Cole's psychological complexes that come into play, where he needs to hold on to discredited theories that he himself put forward a year ago to maintain his sense of infallibility.

Juan wastes no time. The dishonesty hits you directly in the first paragraph: "The protests therefore are probably not mostly purely about religion." Get that? Probably, not mostly purely. OK folks? Just in case you were wondering. Certainly, not probably, Juan is most purely full of mostly pure hot air. Anybody with a brain and access to what the protesters themselves have been saying knows full well that this has nothing to do with "anti-imperialism," as Juanito put it. That's just his ideological bias, and the useless orthodoxy of Middle East Studies in America.

Then Cole pukes out some nonsense about Lebanon, most of which I won't bother with (like the dramatic nonsense about how the desperate attempts by the clerics were "drowned out by gunfire from the Lebanese security forces." Juan Ricardo reporting on the ground. Beirut, Lebanon). It was hilarious how dogmatic spasms find their way into anything this poseur writes. So of course, somehow he had to tie the riots with George Bush and the Iraq war! What is the other central dogma of these types? The Palestinian cause. So, true to form, Juanito throws this gem at us: "In reaction to the on-going dispossession of the Palestinians in Lebanon, and to the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, a few Sunni Lebanese and Palestinians have joined radical jihadi currents."

Mmmmm, yeeees. Why the hell not!? You see folks, the reason why there are Jihadis among Sunnis in Lebanon is because of the dispossession of the Palestinians and the ocucpation of Iraq! But this is normal from a man who firmly believes, and has said repeatedly (and he cites himself on this issue!) that the lone Lebanese hijacker on 9/11, Ziad Jarrah, became a Jihadi because he "held a deep grudge" against Sharon for the 1982 invasion, which "traumatized" him, and consequently (yes, the plot is rather thick), pushed him to "hate the US so much" as to try to fly a plane into a US building. And Cole knows this through direct necromancy. I'm baffled that anyone on this planet takes this joker seriously.

Cole also necessarily has to dabble with Lebanese demographics to show how much of an expert he is. So he spits out baseless numbers left and right. Numbers, I might add, that contradict earlier numbers he himself put out one time when he decided that he was a Lebanon expert for the day. You see, one time in March of last year, the Shiites according to Q-Juan-tum Mathematics, "may now be 40%," or, in another formulation, "may be as much as 40 percent." On another day in that fine month of March, 2005, Cole decided that the Shiites were "probably over 40 percent." I mean, why the hell not!? But apparently, within the span of one year, the Shiite population of Lebanon, diligently tracked by the paramount demographer Cole, miraculously increased by 5-10%!

The miracle doesn't end there. This is Juanderland, after all. With the miraculous increase in Shiite numbers, the Sunnis, according to Cole's well-documented statistics, also increased by 5% in a matter of 11 months! Back in March 2005, apparently the month when Juan was deeply mastering all things Lebanese, he concluded that the Sunnis were "probably" (mot du jour) 15% of the population. Today, after updating his statistics, he "informs" us, always with the ubiquitous "probably," that the Sunnis are 20%! Oh Juander of Juanders!

Then come the apologetics for the Syrian thugocracy, because, you see, it's a "secular Arab nationalist" regime. Of course, it doesn't hurt if by making such dishonest insinuations, he attempts to confirm his earlier theories as truths! We are informed that the Hariri assassin (there was only one guy, you see), in reference to Abu Adas, was from this group of Jihadis, who only became Jihadis because of the dispossession of the Palestinians and the Iraq war! Why would someone from that group kill Hariri, Juan doesn't inform us. We'd have to check his earlier crackpot theory. Of course, the Mehlis report and the whole trajectory of the investigation has completely dismissed the notion of Abu Adas being the mastermind of anything. So Cole disingenuously throws the "he may have been working for someone else." Priceless! I mean, the guy is one of a kind!

But then it gets even better and more explicit. Here's where the "probably" disappears from the lexicon, and the whole arsenal of certainty -- the "Informed" in Informed Comment -- steps in. Cole dismisses as "cynical" Washington (it's all about Washington after all) and anti-Syrian Western propaganda, any accusation that the Syrian regime was involved in the riots and the torching of the embassies in Damascus. He chastizes these cynical Western bastards for playing "power politics with the incident." "There is no proof," he screams (unlike, for instance, his airtight statistics, forensics, and necromancy). And to completely put us in our place, he pulls out his own counter-proof: it all just "seems unlikely." That's right son. For real real. Tell it like it is: "It seems to me more likely that Muslim radicals took advantage of the protest to incite a mob than that the Syrian Baath deliberately unleashed arsons on the Danes." How you like me now?

To hell with what Syrian dissidents themselves are saying. It's that goddamned Muslim Brotherhood fo' shizzle.

And so on and so forth. Another dazzling post by our "expert" on everything. Here's my advice to Juanito: Stick to what you pretend to know.

What Happened in Beirut?

Some people took my last post as a quick and easy "Syria did it" bailout. It's actually not that simple, even when it seems clear that Syria was involved. At this point, and the picture is far from complete, here's what I think happened in Beirut. You'll find that this dovetails rather well with Michael Young's take, even as it expands a bit on it.

The Hariri version can perhaps be gathered from Naseer al-Asaad's latest column. This is the picture he draws: there were two different groupings: the traditional Sunni establishment and the Jamaa Islamiya (the MB) on one side, in a planned peaceful demo encouraged by the Sunni establishment and the Hariri party. On the other hand, this was quickly taken over by the Syrian-infiltrated hordes that were sent to sabotage: the Ahbash, Tawheed, Palestinians and Syrians, and even some Alawis from the north. Asaad claims the second group was operating under Syrian orders.

I'll give him this: there is no way that Hariri and the Sunni establishment would summon the Ahbash et al. They're simply enemies. As Young notes, Hariri is not close to the Jamaa either. Here Michael's theory is intriguing. Perhaps the Hariri party figured they would bolster the demo (which would have been under the auspices of Dar al-Iftaa', the traditional Sunni establishment, close to Hariri) with the Jamaa.

As Michael noted, that may explain why the security was lax. If this was a planned demo, the assumption was that it would be peaceful. However, it's quite clear that it was bad judgment -- stupidity, rather -- to use such an inflamed volatile event to show people up. Asaad claims that as soon as the violence began, the demonstrators affiliated with the Dar al-Iftaa' and the Jamaa left. Perhaps (this al-Hayat report also quotes sources saying the same thing). But there is also something here that may support this version. It's clear in some of the footage that there were clerics (seemingly from the Dar al-Iftaa') that were trying to stop the riots.

While I cannot say about the Jamaa, I think it's a fair assumption that those responsible for the carnage, who came down with the intent, and likely, the orders, to spread mayhem, were groups out of the control of Hariri and the Sunni establishment. I mean with 76 Syrians and 35 Palestinians arrested (and most of these, according to al-Hayat, are from the PFLP-GC, which is completely a Syrian tool, as well as from other Palestinian Salafi groups), not to mention the Ahbash who answer directly to Syrian intelligence, it's not a wild claim by any stretch of the imagination to say that the Syrians were directly involved. There is even a point of sorts in Jumblat's question: why did this same type of violence only happen in Syria and Lebanon? (And in Lebanon only after the Syrian regime orchestrated the carnage in Damascus. And Landis' lame attempt at portraying it as the regime taken by surprise is utterly bogus, as usual.)

The conventional wisdom is that a few days before February 14, the Syrians took this opportunity to scare the Christians off from the Hariri Sunnis, and break the back of the March 14th alliance, and perhaps dissuade people from participating in the upcoming commemoration ceremonies. Another point is my friend's in my last post, which is to show that the Sunni street is really fanatical, an excellent message for internal Syrian consumption as well.

But I wonder if one of the messages was to directly challenge Hariri, and in the Sunni realm in particular. After all, this was precisely the function of the Ahbash under the Syrian occupation. Don't be too quick to dismiss that either. Bashar is such a reckless thug that he even played this very dangerous sectarian game with the Druze with Jumblat! He has been launching a campaign against Jumblat within the Druze community in Syria and through one Druze sheikh in Lebanon (and his Druze cronies in Lebanon). It's been happening for a while too. Jumblat's reply to it has been classic -- and hilarious. Every so often, Jumblat would leak a letter to Future TV to be highlighted in the news. The letters come from all kinds of Druze communities, including the Syrian Druze community in Stockholm, the Druze of the Golan, etc. The letters pledge allegiane to Jumblat and one of them, from the Syrian Druze in Stockholm, even described the community as Jumblat's "soldiers."

It's often forgotten that Bashar is a sectarian thug. His Arab nationalist tripe and the condescension towards Lebanon sometimes clouds that even among analysts. But the whole logic of the system in Syria is sectarian. Some Syrians just like to think that it isn't to delude themselves. But unlike Lebanon, there is no mechanism to absorb it in Syria. This leads to the main reason why I and others say (contra [pseudo-]"realists" and Bashar cheerleaders) that Bashar is not only not a source of stability, but he is its total antithesis. He is a main source of instability. What Bashar (and his father before him) does is export that internal sectarianism across the border. And he will continue to do that because that's the only way for him to maintain his rule. Which is precisely why at the end of the day, Bashar must hang.

Addendum: Here's Fouad Ajami on Syria and the riots: "And when you are talking about these two capitals, Beirut and Damascus, you're really talking about the cynical youth on the part of the Syrian regime of this incident.

This is not about religion; it's not about the prophet. It's not about these cartoons. It's about the determination of the Syrian regime to use cynically this episode and to so[w] disorder in Lebanon and to make Syria itself, which is under the gun for all kinds of high crime, to make it seem like the embattled heart of the Arab and the Islamic world."

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Burning Embassies

After the Syrian regime helped burn down the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus yesterday (with utter transparency I might add), the trend moved to Lebanon today.

Of course, unlike with Syria, in Lebanon's case the government had nothing to do with it, although it failed miserably, yet again, in handling the situation. A knowledgeable friend writes the following on the two episodes, and those who may have been involved in the Beirut riots:

Clearly this sort of thing [referring to what happened yesterday in Damascus] happens in Syria only when the regime decides it should happen. (There was a similar episode with the US embassy in Damascus in 2000.) Worth noting that Denmark has been on the Security Council for the past year and voted for all the resolutions dealing with Syria and Lebanon. The regime may trying to have it both ways: on the one hand, it says to the Danes, among others, that the Syrian regime can "reach out and touch you" with impunity. On the other hand, they may yet hope to use this, as they've used other incidents over the past year in Syria and Lebanon, to make themselves look like a indispensable bulwark against fundamentalism and chaos, to survive the Hariri investigation. But their role in this is just too transparent for any serious observer to buy the second line.

Today's riots in Beirut were surely connected to yesterday's in Damascus, and appear to have had multiple objectives. The mass of demonstrators seems to have been infiltrated by groups like the Ahbash and Tawheed, and those were probably the ones behind the violence. The Syrians probably still have enough agents, sympathizers, and tools here to cause problems on this scale.

The image to be conveyed was that Lebanese Sunnis are all fanatics, and that the community as a whole is out of control -- a useful optic for the regime in Damascus. The provocations made in predominantly-Christian neighborhoods will help keep things on the boil here, which is also in the regime's interest.

The Interior Ministry was virtually absent the whole morning. The images of ISF Land Cruisers being overturned and trashed, and of fire engines being commandeered by the protesters while the Danish consulate burned are a major humiliation of the government. Michel Aoun's argument criticizing the Siniora government's handling of security will only strengthen after this.

The Ahbash are the group infiltrated by and beholden to the Syrian regime. They were used by the regime to bully the traditional Sunni establishment, and they were used in the Hariri assassination. The Syrians have been increasingly using the Islamist (and al-Qaeda affiliates) element in Lebanon. The relationship of the regime with militant Salafis is not at all how it presents it. The West is not duped by this all-too-transparent show, no matter how much Landis wishes it to be the case in his latest stupid post. The reality is actually the opposite. The "bulwark against Islamists" charade no longer holds water.

Update: Michael Young's take over at Reason's Hit and Run. See also this older piece of his in TCS, which dealt with Syria and Islamists.

Update 2: Breaking news: I just heard on Future TV that the Interior Minister, Hasan Sabe' submitted his resignation to the cabinet. He did not wait for a response, and left the session. He told journalists that among those arrested today from the rioters were 76 Syrians and 38 Palestinians as well as 25 without passports (bedouins). There were also something like 130 30 Lebanese arrested (I can't remember the exact number). Addendum: This Reuters reports claims there were 38 Lebanese arrested.

There has got to be accountability for this travesty.

Update 3: Some of the things Aoun said in reaction to the riots lend credence to Michael Young's theory about the Future Movement (the Hariri party) sharing part of the blame.