Sunday, January 28, 2007

Rami Khoury on Lebanese Crisis

Here is an analysis of the Lebanese situation that echos my sentiments exactly. Rami Khouri is one of my favorite commentators. His opinions are always balanced and reasoned, never shrill.

Enough abuse of the streets in Lebanon

By Rami G. Khouri
Daily Star staff
Saturday, January 27, 2007

Just as it was half a century ago, Lebanon is once again a pioneer and pace-setter in the Arab world, though this time the direction of movement may be toward destruction and incomprehensible violence. For years Beirut and Lebanon were known as the Paris and Switzerland of the Middle East, reflecting their freewheeling leisure activities, liberal culture, human talent in banking, education and engineering, and their open, welcoming capital that accommodated exiled politicians from all parts of a very ideo logical Middle East.

This week, those who rule Lebanon and Beirut seem to be saying that they are also capable of being the Afghanistan and Mogadishu of the Middle East, characterized by inter-communal warfare and collapse of law and order, brought on by the irresponsibility that all sides have practiced in bringing the country to the brink of inter-communal clashes.

The street clashes in Beirut and other parts of Lebanon last Tuesday, and again on Thursday, have left over half a dozen people dead and several hundred wounded. Events Thursday led to a night curfew in Beirut, and heightened fears that the situation could turn into full-fledged sectarian warfare. This occurred, paradoxically or deliberately, during the week that many countries in the world met at the Paris III gathering and pledged over $7 billion to assist Lebanon in its economic recovery program.

The tragedy of the current clashes among angry politicized youths and spontaneous neighborhood and sectarian gangs is that neither side is totally right or wrong. The opposition led by Hizbullah and the Free Patriotic Movement has already been widely blamed for escalating tensions to their current dangerous level, and is more likely than the pro-government side to lose politically if things persist in the current direction of tension and clashes.

Hizbullah has already elicited criticism by many Lebanese that it recklessly triggered the war against Israel in July 2006 that destroyed much in Lebanon and set back the country's economy for many years. The party is now widely accused of pushing its legitimate demands beyond reasonable limits, and acting more like a tyrant on a rampage than a respected and powerful opposition that operates through the existing political and constitutional system.

Hizbullah and its smaller partners in the opposition are correct to point out that the ruling political elite that has dominated Lebanon for the past two decades has irresponsibly raised the national debt to some $41 billion, and is taking on more debt through the Paris III mechanism. They are correct to demand more integrity, efficiency and rationality in state policies, less corruption and nepotism, and a more effective defense system. They also raise some reasonable concerns about aspects of the tribunal being established to try those who will be accused of killing the late prime minister, Rafik Hariri.

These are relevant issues that require serious debate and resolution, which Hizbullah and its junior partners should have forced through the political structures that exist, such as Parliament, the Cabinet, the judicial system or the several national dialogue sessions. Instead, they detracted from the validity of many of their grievances and concerns by pushing their street protests to the point of widespread disruption of life and a weakening of the economy. Their tactics, and the response they triggered from pro-government groups, stoked the flames of sectarianism, unleashing haphhazard groups of young men with guns and sticks roaming the streets of Beirut looking to fight or to destroy cars and property.

There is nothing special about Lebanon's current predicament in terms of the wider Arab world. It is just another Arab state that has suffered the tensions inherent in a situation where the central government and institutions of statehood are weak and inefficient, and most citizens turn instead to their religious, tribal or ethnic identities. The problem is compounded by support from external forces - Iran and Syria behind Hizbullah, and the United States and France behind the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and the parliamentary majority - which creates deep suspicions among the Lebanese themselves.

Lebanon's strong external support, as demonstrated in the Paris III pledges, should be a blessing for the country.

The structural reforms in state finances that will be enacted as part of this process should also benefit all Lebanese. There is a chance this will not happen now, which could plunge the country into years of low-intensity conflict and simmering tensions - well below the level of the 1975-1990 civil war, but enough to keep Lebanon mired in perpetual mediocrity and stagnation.

The stakes are very high, and very clear. Lebanon is at an ominous moment of reckoning, and sadly its fate might be determined by the vagaries of gangs of angry and fearful young men with sticks and guns. The modern Arab state is tested once again, and is not doing very well.

Rami G. Khouri writes a regular commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Sticks and Stones...and Bullets: Lebanon on the Slippery Slope

I never trusted the intentions of Hizbullah and their allies. How can you when they have at their disposal, should politics fail, a standing army more powerful than the country's armed forces. Yet, I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. I supported their right to object to the policies of the standing government and to do so peacefully but what happened in the last two days was thuggish intimidation pure and simple. Organizing massive a blockade of all roads with mounds of dirt and flaming tires, the wanton destruction and burning of cars and the forceful prevention of people from reaching their work or the airport is not peaceful protest. The message was clear:" we have played nice so far, but this is what can happen when the gloves come off!"

Yet even now as the violence escalates out of control, Nasrallah is talking from both sides of his mouth. On the one hand he issues a fatwa to have his followers get off the streets and respect the Army and the security forces. On the other, he arrogantly says that he has the power and the guns to topple the government, but he will refrain from doing so - for now. If this is not a violent threat, I don't know what is.

Among the supporters of the opposition are Lebanese -Christians and Shia- who feel disenfranchised both economically and politically. They have real grievances and object to the course in which their country's developement was set in the 90s, a course that has resulted in a shrinking middle class and an ever widening gap between rich and poor. However, their leaders, Nasrallah and Aoun, while giving lip service to the grievances of their consituency, are only interested in one thing, power.

The images of the past two days are disturbingly familiar to anyone who remembers Beirut in 1975. Nasrallah admitted that he overplayed his hand with the Israelis last Summer, he is doing it again, this time with his own compatriots. If Lebanon descends yet again into the abyss of civil war, Nasrallah bears full responsiblity.

Monday, January 22, 2007

What's a Lebanese?

The article below appeared recently in the New York Times and deals with the disparate national historical narratives that children in Lebanon are taught and its effect on national identity. These are issues I tackled in previous posts, but they have become even more relevant after last summer's war and its continuing political ramifications.

The Lebanese need a national dialogue to directly confront the demons of the civil war. They need a South African style truth and reconciliation that would finally bring closure to civil war. They also need to decide on a common national identity, one that weaves together the historical narratives of the individual communities. Without that any short term political fix is destined to fail.

A Nation With a Long Memory, but a Truncated History

New York Time: January 10, 2007

BEIRUT, Lebanon, Jan. 9 — History classes across the globe serve two purposes — they educate the young and they shape national identity. They also often sidestep controversy to avoid offense.In Lebanon, textbooks generally avoid mention of such leaders, and of events since the early 1970s, especially the country’s long civil war. It is the same here as elsewhere, but the controversy being avoided is the vicious, 15-year civil war that started in 1975 in which Lebanon kidnapped, killed and bombed itself nearly into oblivion.

The bizarre results are evident in any schoolbook here — history seems simply to come to a halt in the early 1970s, Lebanon’s heyday. With sectarian tensions once again boiling here, some educators fear that the failure to forge a common version of the events is dooming the young to repeat the past, with most of them learning contemporary history from their families, on the streets or from political leaders who may have their own agendas.

“America used the school to create a melting pot; we used it to reinforce sectarian identity at the expense of the national identity,” said Nemer Frayha, the former director of the Education Center for Research and Development, a research organization that develops Lebanon’s curriculum. “From the start, I am forming the student as a sectarian person, not as a citizen. And what’s worse is that the people who are encouraging this are the intellectuals themselves.”

Students are frustrated by the omissions, knowing they are getting a distorted view of the past. “We keep asking them when we’re going to learn the real history,” said Fatima Taha, a ninth grader at Hara International College, a secondary school in Beirut’s southern suburbs. “The history just suddenly stops.”

Private schools, which educate about half the country’s one million or so students, teach history based on books of their choosing, but approved by the Ministry of Education; public schools teach about two hours per week of history, based on textbooks virtually unchanged since they were written in the 1960s and 1970s.

In one textbook, the students get to know the Ottomans as occupiers; in another, they read about them as administrators. In some, they study the French as colonialists; in others, they study them as a examples to emulate.

In some Christian schools, history starts with the ancient Phoenicians, whom many Christians believe are their original ancestors, and the dawn of Christianity. In many Muslim schools, the Phoenicians are glossed over and emphasis is placed on Arab history and the arrival of Islam.

Whether Lebanon was occupied by the Ottomans, subjugated by the Ottomans or was simply a principality of the Ottoman Empire depends on the sect and region, much like whether the French, who oversaw the country until the 1950s, are depicted as colonialists, administrators or models of emulation.

“If they would just give us a national history, this country’s entire outlook would change,” said Jawad al Haj, Hara’s principal. Mr. Haj, who says two of his students were killed while fighting Israel last summer, has banned his students from attending protests in Beirut, fearing they could be indoctrinated by various political parties.

He has also prohibited any talk of politics inside his school, and is especially strict on any hint of sectarianism. About half of his 1,500 students are Shiites and the rest are mainly Sunnis, along with a few Christians.

“The kids need realities, a history they can believe in,” he said. “Otherwise, they will never learn the meaning of citizenship.”

Under the 1989 Taif accords that ended the civil war, Lebanon was supposed to unify its history and civics curriculums with the hope of building a national consensus and a more solid national identity.

Nearly two decades later, however, the history and civics curriculums are the only subjects that have not been revamped, still seen as the third rail of Lebanese politics. Beginning in 1997, a committee put together by the Ministry of Education spent three tumultuous and argumentative years trying to arrive at a common history curriculum.

In 2000, it released guidelines for a new curriculum that sought to depoliticize the history, several committee members said, focusing on the effects of scientific and economic development on the country, with lessons in sociology and economics in addition to teaching techniques of historical analysis.
(Continued Here)

Monday, January 08, 2007

Apartheid Any Way You Slice It

From the firestorm of protests that followed its publication, one would think that Jimmy Carter's book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, was a rabid anti-Israeli manifesto. Instead, it is a very understated, painstakingly balanced look at the situation in Palestine. Carter writes very much like he speaks; soft spoken and understated to a fault. Yet this rather short, cursory summary of the history of the conflict as seen through his eyes manages to get one point very clearly across, a point that, though self-evident to the rest of the world, seems not to have penetrated the American narrative of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict due primarily to the deep-rooted assumption that Israel is invariably the victim in this conflict. The point is that Israel has and continues to systematically dispossess Palestinians of their land under the false pretense of security.
It is perhaps Carter's ability to get this point across without sounding strident or shrill that most enrages critics like Alan Dershowitz who have, predictably, slapped him with the anti-Semitic label, among others. That smear campaign is unlikely to work as Carter is one of the most respected men in the United States.
Whatever one thinks of Carter's presidency and the merits of the Camp David accord, his sincerity, honesty and forthrightness are beyond reproach. His achievements after his presidency with his work at the Carter center, on a global scale, in monitoring elections and mediating conflicts have been outstanding.
What Carter said in this book has been said many times before. What is novel, for an American readership, is the fact someone with the stature of Jimmy Carter is now saying it.

First World and Other World Science

Several weeks ago I was in Seattle, one of my favorite American cities, to attend a conference for advancing research in a rare crippling disease that I have been studying for more than a decade. This being Seattle, the sky was grey and the air wet, as we convened in a swank conference room overlooking a garden in a sprawling privately-funded research institute with gleaming laboratories packed with the most advanced equipment that money can buy.

As I sat there among a dozen invited researchers discussing the intricacies of the unusual genetic mutation in this particular disease, my mind wandered. Being essentially a clinical researcher, some of the discussion about little known genetic mechanisms went over my head anyway, but this is not why my mind wandered. Being of multiple worlds and always feeling somewhat of an outsider, I have the habit of mentally stepping out a particular situation to look at the bigger picture.

The bigger picture is that this was a “First world”scene; one of security, wealth and virtually unlimited resources to allow these scientists the luxury and comfort to concentrate their intellect in the pursuit of apparently esoteric scientific questions. The other part of the big picture is a scene of equally gifted minds in Second and Third World settings whose intellectual output is limited by preoccupations with inadequate wages, insecurity and limited resources.

Such is the fate of many scientists in the Arab world. But although money is necessary, it is not sufficient in itself to spur on scientific pursuits; you need to have a culture that values progress and rewards innovation. While among the “brotherly” Arab nations many are not wealthy enough to commit to scientific endeavors, the few that are obscenely rich lack the will. It seems to me that these countries would tire after two generations of trying to outdo each other in extravagant, wasteful displays of wealth, and would start investing in projects that will contribute to the betterment of their own people, the people of the region and mankind as a whole. An indoor skiing slope and a man made island as a playground for the world’s super rich do not qualify as such projects.

Where are the regional cancer research institutes? the biotechnology hubs? the Arab silicon valley or the alternative energy research institutes for when the oil runs out?

(Photo: Cattails in winter by AK)