A few months ago, my friend Joshua Landis wrote an essay for this blog called “The Great Sorting Out,” which generated one of the more interesting discussions we’ve hosted. I’ve been thinking about Joshua’s argument ever since, and trying to make sense of what I find to be right and wrong about it. This piece at The New Yorker tries to address obliquely some of those issues, but perhaps there is more to say in a later essay as well.
Here’s the first paragraph or two. Come back here to comment, if you wish.
Iraq and Syria’s Poetic Borders
The late historian and critic Tony Judt once described Europe before the First World War as “an intricate, interwoven tapestry of overlapping languages, religions, communities and nations.” After the period between 1914 and 1945, as a result of war, ethnic cleansing, and border drawing, a new, more stable Europe emerged, in which “almost everybody now lived in their own country, among their own people.” Thirty million were uprooted and dispersed by Stalin and Hitler between 1939 and 1943, a process that was repeated after the defeat of the Axis armies. Germans, Poles, Balts, Croats, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Slovaks, Romanians, Turks, and many others were shunted around the continent. The result was “a Europe of nation states more ethnically homogenous than ever before.”
Is a similar process of nation formation taking place in Iraq and Syria today? As in Europe, borders were drawn all over the Fertile Crescent following the First World War, and many of those borders have now become notional abstractions as millions of refugees flee conflict zones in Mosul, Aleppo, Homs, and Raqqa. The demographic map of the region is in flux, and analysts have wasted little time in declaring that the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham augurs the death of Sykes-Picot, the British-French treaty that established many of the Middle East’s modern borders, its creations now unstitched and exposed in their artificiality. (continue)
Some responses from readers:
Very interesting question QN, put in another way: are we in a period of nation formation like Europe was almost a hundred years ago? Or are we in a period of nation dismantling like Europe is going through now? this begs a different set of questions: are different regions subject to different trends or are there global phenomena or fashions in ideas which find variations in different regions?
So according to one sort of thinking, the Levant would be lagging behind Europe and what we see today is the Levant catching up with Europe and dividing into tidy and neatly organised ethnically homogeneous states after the evil or ignorant colonialists drew the map in a rather messy way mixing Shiias with Sunnis, Kurds, Maronites and others producing such a disordered region.
I am of the school that thinks that history does not move in such an orderly manner and the primary movers are ideas rather than material or concrete elements. The 20th century state as we know it is being dismantled globally and it is not as homogeneous as we might think it is, even in Europe.
At the end of 2011 I evaluated the year as a turning point where the 20th century was being dismantled and that there was a link between all the riots we saw that year on a global. http://nytweekly.com/columns/intelarchives/01-13-12/
Lebanon skipped the 20th century and was considered a failed state by its standards, it may now be ahead of the game while the rest of the region dismantles what they successfully achieved and have to get used to the idea of living without it. Lebanon spent most of the 20th century arguing about whether to become a ‘proper state’ or not.
Syria, Lebanon and Iraq were ideas or concepts before they became states. This was the reverse of many other state-formations, where ideas (of France, Britain, Egypt, etc.) were molded to fit political faits accomplis. The sudden creation of the post-World War I states meant that these ideas had to be given content and material form on short notice, in a haphazard fashion, and in unfavorable circumstances. The *idea* of Syria or Iraq was more attractive than the reality of the Assad family fiefdom and Saddam Hussein’s rule-by-Tikrit. And so (helped along, again, by unfavorable regional and international circumstances including foreign invasion) they both fall apart.
Benjamin Thomas White:
Josh’s earlier post was thought-provoking, but problematic. Notwithstanding his statement in the comments section that “I didn’t use the word “primordial” and I wouldn’t”, the argument rests on the assumption that the ‘nationalities’ it describes were there, waiting to be disentangled (Winston Churchill’s word for it) and sorted into nation-state boxes.
It also seems to veer into anachronism when it states that the Germans expelled from eastern Europe “had lived in these countries stretching from Poland in the north to the Ukraine and Romania in the South for hundreds of years”: this seems to assume that Poland, Ukraine, Romania, and the countries in between had actually been ‘countries’—ie, independent states—for hundreds of years. They, and Germany, had all emerged in the period since 1870.
If we want to understand what happened then, and be in a position to draw meaningful comparisons with what’s happening now, it’s at least as useful to start with the internal development and external clashes of states, and see how that affected populations and the way they understood themselves. Doing that enables us to see just how much effort states had to put, not just into massacring or expelling populations they came to consider as disloyal, foreign, or unwanted, but also into hammering populations they wanted into ‘nations’. This was done by means ranging from the schoolroom to aeriel bombardment: it’s still within, or barely beyond, living memory that teachers would beat Breton schoolchildren for speaking Breton and not French in the classroom, and Turkey’s attempts to persuade Kurds that they’re ‘mountain Turks’ have been extremely brutal into the much more recent past. (For that matter, repressive states have probably done as much as Kurdish nationalists to persuade the religiously diverse speakers of two related languages that they share one ‘Kurdish’ identity—by no means a finished process.)
Of course, the populations persecuted or expelled by one panicking dynastic empire or emergent nation-state often ended up in a state that wanted them—but this doesn’t mean that that state was simply ‘theirs’ or that they belonged to it, wa khalas. West Germany had to do a lot of work to make expellees from eastern Europe lose their Polish or Czech accents; into the 1970s Anatolian Greeks in Greece were still marrying among themselves, and not with ‘Greek’ Greeks (among whom the term ‘turkospouroi’, ‘Turkish seed’ was often used to describe the transferees), while the work of persuading Greek-speaking Cretans, say, whose ancestors had converted to Islam several centuries earlier that they were and always had been ‘Turks’ and must speak Turkish took the Turkish Republic generations—during which time some of the most emphatic missionaries of the Turkish national project were from families which only a generation or two earlier had been Circassian, Daghestani, or Balkan. More recently, post-unification Germany often used some pretty crude criteria when deciding which Russian-speaking immigrants from Kazakhstan to accept as ‘Germans’. For many modern national groups, it took the shared experience of mass displacement, occurring at one or several points across the period Josh discusses, to accelerate—if not begin—the process of political self-definition as a ‘nation’.
So Tony Judt’s point that in Europe after the late 1940s “almost everybody now lived in their own country, among their own people”, like some of Josh’s arguments, seems misguided, unless it’s hedged about in the original by qualifications (which it may be, as Judt was usually pretty sharp about these things). It ignores too much history. And I haven’t even dwelt on just how debatable it really is that the post-1945 European nation-states were mononational. In France, durable immigration from colonial possessions had already begun before the war, but the much larger part of France’s immigrant population—which by 1930 was proportionately the largest in Europe, despite France’s status as the locus classicus of the nation-state—was from other European countries: Russians, Italians, Belgians, Poles, Spaniards, Portuguese, and others, all in numbers ranging from many tens of thousands to a million (not counting those who were naturalized as French).
You might think that further east, especially east of the Iron Curtain, immigration was less a feature of post-1945 nation-states—and perhaps that’s true. But the extremely large numbers of people of each state’s ‘nationality’ living outside the state mean that it’s no truer to say that “almost everybody now lived in their own country, among their own people”. When over half a million Poles moved to Britain after Poland’s accession to the EU a decade ago, it was widely heralded (or condemned) as the largest and fastest wave of immigration in British history—but something like 700,000 Poles, mostly people who’d served in the Allied armies and their families, moved into Britain in the late 1940s rather than going, or being sent, ‘back’ to the new-look, partly relocated Poland. This influx dwarfed the ‘Commonwealth migrations’ that began at around the same time (while Britain, incidentally, continued to be a major exporter of emigrants in this period, to Australia, the USA, South Africa). A lot of Poles lived in Poland—’in their own country, among their own people’—in 1950, some of whom had out of desire or necessity passed for German during the Nazi occupation. But the number of Poles who didn’t live in Poland—the post-1945 Poland whose existence as a modern national state, albeit on a somewhat different tract of land, could only be traced back to 1919 (the same year that Alsace and Lorraine became ‘French’ after fifty years of being ‘German’)—was probably in the millions: certainly over a million between Britain and France, let alone the US, Canada, and so on.
Apologies for the very long comment: this has obviously been on my mind since I read the original post. The point is that the twentieth-century European experience (or the nineteenth-century Balkan experience) of state formation and population displacement doesn’t offer any neat lessons for what’s happening in the Levan now. The seemingly ‘solid’ post-1945 European nation-states—and, pace Nadim, I’m not convinced that they’re being dismantled right now, though they’re certainly being re-tooled—depended for their stability on American and Soviet dominance, military and diplomatic, and at least in western Europe on superpower financial backing too; more, I’d argue, than on their debatably ‘mononational’ character. The EU has—as it was intended to—provided a supranational framework for them since the cold war ended, as Alan Millward argued, though it’s had its problems recently. In the Levant at the moment there’s no prospect of either a stable, superpower-backed ‘freezing’ of the state system (one reason it’s collapsing) or of a locally-based regional framework emerging. Everything is up for grabs, including control of individual states. The clashes over and between states will be understood by the populations of the region in different ways and will affect them in different ways; different actors will try out different ideologies and practices in order to mobilize support—whether that’s machine-gunning Yazidis in the name of the Caliphate, barrel-bombing cities in the name of Syrian or Arab unity, or, heaven help us, attempting to maintain a national or international dialogue for the sake of peace and democracy.
In the meantime, QN’s short and poetic article reminds us that mental and cultural geographies don’t depend only on the existence of a state authority, and aren’t formed only by violence.
The Wikipedia page for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has a sidebar displaying the group’s banner, coat of arms, force strength, and a list of its allies and opponents.
Among ISIL’s many enemies are included the following powers and their own enemies:
- The Syrian Armed Forces and the Syrian Opposition
- The Saudi Armed Forces and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard
- The United States, Hezbollah, and al-Qaeda
- The Iraqi Shi’a militias, the Kurdish Peshmerga, and virtually every other fighting force in Iraq and Syria.
Given the impressive consensus of antipathy this group has generated over the past couple of years, one wonders whether a common, tacitly coordinated response to its actions will emerge among its opponents.
Today, ISIL is expelling Christians from Mosul, besieging Yazidis in Sinjar, destroying Muslim shrines all over Iraq, and fighting the armies of three different Arab states all at the same time. What has the response been? A few hundred US military advisers in Baghdad, a billion dollars in aid to the Lebanese army, a few clashes here and there…
The reality is that the graphic above tells only a small part of the story. At various moments, ISIL has: (a) been openly allied with many of the groups on the opponent list such as the Islamic Front, Jabhat al-Nusra, and Al-Qaeda; (b) benefited financially and logistically from other groups such as Saudia Arabia’s intelligence services and armed forces; (c) benefited obliquely from mutually-beneficial arrangements, such as selling oil and electricity to the Syrian government; (d) and benefited from the simple fact of its strategic value to the US-backed Sunni Arab powers’ fight against the Assad regime, Hizbullah, and Iran.
If anyone wants to cook up a graphic that reflects this reality, I’ll add it to this post. In the meantime, the comment section is open to a discussion of what kind of military/diplomatic response, if any, is in the works, and what else might be done in the meantime.
I recently caught up with a friend of mine, Camille Otrakji, who is the founder of Creative Syria, Mideast Image, and was a longtime blogger for Syria Comment before some… artistic differences emerged, right around the spring of 2011. Camille has been working on something called “The Syrian Dialogue Project” and I thought some readers might be interested in checking it out.
One of Camille’s strengths is bringing Syrians with different backgrounds and political views together to discuss difficult subjects. He has been doing this for years, since before the outbreak of the Arab uprisings. Have a look at some of the previous efforts below, and read on for a brief interview with Camille.
- The Syrian Think Tank: Established in 2006, and featuring commentaries by Patrick, Seale, Joshua Landis, Rime Allaf, Murhaf Jouejati, Ammar Abdulhamid, Imad Mustapha, Sami Moubayed, etc.
- Creative Forum: Including 40 of the top Syrian bloggers and activists
- OneMideast: Read about it here.
QN: Describe the overall concept of the Syrian Dialogue Project.
Otrakji: We started working on Phase 1 of the project in summer 2012. At the time we had a simple but significant objective: To better understand Syrian public opinion beyond the two dominant narratives (revolution’s and government’s) that were highly misleading in the manner the two sides tried to project them on the entire population. We recognized the highly complex makeup of the population and therefore felt the need to explore the various ways through which different Syrians aspired to move toward a better future.
We invited ten figures from the opposition and ten others from the supporters of the government. We welcomed anyone who did not support (at least not actively) foreign intervention in Syria. Their task was simple: tell us what, in their opinion, did the Syrian people want to change, and what they wanted to preserve. Participants provided us with 73 answers which we summarized in 20 (many were repetitive or very similar). So our end product in phase 1 was a list of “top 20 things the Syrian people have on their mind today”. (Arabic PDF here, English PDF here)
Our methodology did not exactly provide the reliability of conducting a scientific poll inside Syria and among Syrians in exile, but we still got a much more realistic, balanced and comprehensive list of answers, compared to the highly simplistic assumptions promoted by the politicians with agendas.
QN: Sounds like OneMideast.org, but focused on Syrian internal reform rather than Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations. What happened after Phase 1?
Otrakji: In 2013 we started working on Phase 2. By that time Syria was deep into the conflict’s cycle of violence and destruction and all the Syria conferences and workshops were being held in various world capitals but they all left a lot to be desired. Many were sponsored by outside powers mostly interested in ensuring they will have the lion’s share of influence in post-conflict Syria: Qatar+Turkey, Saudi Arabia, France, the US, and Iran. The conference in Iran was open to both opposition and government supporters. All other conferences wee strictly for opposition supporters.
Inside Syria the government called on the opposition to engage in dialogue but because of the general lack of trust in the intentions of the Syrian leadership and because they (opposition) had unrealistically high expectations regarding the near-certainty of an imminent toppling of the Syrian regime, no one accepted to talk to the government.
Conferences that were held usually ended in serious disagreements. At best they managed to issue at the end a generic half page communique that was a carbon copy of similar declarations from previous conferences stating participants’ commitment to a democratic Syria that respected minority rights and wanted peace and prosperity.
In phase 2 of our project we felt the need to move away from worn out slogans and from narrow interests of other groups. Syria needed solutions and not propaganda or utopian declarations. We invited Syrians who specialized in each of the 20 subjects/areas we identified in phase 1 (“Top 20 things on the mind of the Syrian people”). Our participants’ assignment was to write proposals for solutions in their area of interest. Solutions needed to be feasible and not very difficult to implement given the limitations of Syria’s challenging situation today. We recognized that at best we can hope to come up with ideas and proposals that might create a finite, positive momentum in various fields such as political reforms, educational reforms, fighting sectarianism, redefining Syria’s foreign policy objectives, humanitarian assistance, national reconciliation, and making Syria more secure.
QN: Who are some of the participants, and what have they written about?
Otrakji: Here’s a list of some of the contributors:
- Talal Atrache (a former AFP and RFI correspondent in Syria) has written about fighting sectarianism
- Omar Hallaj (former CEO of the Syria Trust, Asma Assad’s group of NGOs), on dialogue and conflict resolution.
- Barah Mikhail (senior research fellow, FRIDE), on regional and international strategic choices in Syria
- Munif Atassi (former senior program manager at Northrop Grumman; currently at Cognosante), on the role of education in Syria
- Nabil Mouchi is a Swedish economist of Syrian origin. He writes about political reform
- Khaldoun Khashanah is a US-based head of a financial engineering department and risk analysis specialist. He has written a complex essay on how to proceed gradually and safely toward democracy in Syria.
- And finally an article by myself about failures in communication by all political actors in Syria (including the two Assads)
All of these articles are in the process of being translated to English and will be available soon on the project website.
QN: How can these types of dialogue projects move beyond just talking to actually doing? And how can others get involved?
Otrakji: Everyone says they are ready for meaningful dialogue. But that has not happened yet. We have contacts among decision makers from both sides, inside and outside Syria. They now have access to analysis and proposals by highly qualified Syrians (doctors, lawyers, political and defense analysts, top academics, social scientists, engineers, journalists, authors and former political prisoners) who volunteered their time and energy without any financial backing from any party. Our group is made of talented and true patriots who knew there will be no personal reward for their hard work.
We invite anyone who is working on conflict resolution in Syria to take a look at the 25 detailed proposals we published so far. We expect more to be published in the future as many contacted us wanting to participate. We are open to proposals by those who expertise in one of the areas we listed on the site. We also welcome everyone’s participation by voting on the various topics and proposals for solutions. Provide us with comments and feedback that can help fine-tune each proposal where needed.
On May 13, 2008, Yuval Diskin, the director of the Israeli Internal Security Service, Shin Bet, met with U.S. Ambassador Richard Jones to discuss the prospect of a “cooling down” period with Hamas. The conversation was recorded in a government cable released by Wikileaks, and sheds some light on the military strategy that Israel has pursued in Gaza since 2008, including three major confrontations with Hamas: Operation Cast Lead (2008-09); Operation Pillar of Defense (2012); and Operation Protective Edge (2014).
I have pasted the relevant portion of the cable below:
¶15. (S) [Shin Bet chief] Diskin said that Israel does not like the tahdiya [truce] — seeing it as a means whereby Hamas and other groups can regroup and re-arm — but also dislikes the current situation. The ISA, he said, believes that the best option now is a large-scale ground incursion into the Gaza Strip that allows the IDF to take over the southern part of the Gaza Strip and to stop smuggling and increase pressure on Hamas. “If you do this, it will cause big problems for Hamas’ survival in the Gaza Strip,” he said. “We can do it,” he added. He continued: “None of us like the idea of a military operation in the Gaza Strip, but we also believe we cannot avoid it. I do not believe in this ‘cooling down’ that the tahdiya would afford. Even if it starts, it will not last long. The way we are now treating the current situation is not effective. It is a waste of time, money and life. A ground invasion may lead to loss of life, but would be more effective. We need to be ready to take over the southern Gaza Strip and hold on to it for as long as necessary. Months and years if need be. Strategically, all of us understand that we cannot avoid the Gaza Strip if there is to be a roadmap and a peace process.” Diskin added, “My job is to tell the inconvenient truth. I am glad that others are finally realizing that the situation in the Gaza Strip is intolerable and getting worse every day. The situation in Lebanon makes it easier for us to make our case. We need to be very tough in dealing with the problem of the Gaza Strip. Egypt will not resolve the problem for us, and Abu Mazen will not and cannot.”
The current strategy in Gaza seems to be more or less in line with what Diskin described in 2008. Against this backdrop, Israel has maintained that it is committed to the peace process, and that its actions in Gaza are somehow consistent with that commitment. As one hears time and again, the wars against Hamas are wars against a party dedicated to the destruction of Israel, “the Palestinian version of Al-Qaeda,” as Benjamin Netanyahu put it during his visit to Washington in 2011.
Is Hamas dedicated to the destruction of Israel? Its 1988 Charter, one is frequently reminded, makes that clear: “There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through jihad (holy war). Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors. The Palestinian people know better than to consent to having their future, rights and fate toyed with.”
On the other hand, anyone who has spent any time at all paying attention to the Arab-Israeli conflict is quite aware that Hamas started distancing itself from this document within a few years of its publication. Today, after repeated overtures to the West and Israel that it will end the conflict in exchange for peace within the parameters of the Arab Peace Initiative, the Hamas charter has all the relevance of an adolescent anarchist phase in a politician’s history. Was that really Hamas? Sure. Is that Hamas today? No.
In the 1970s, Israel viewed the PLO in much the same way it views Hamas today. Its security services assassinated PLO figures to prevent back-channel diplomacy efforts between the Palestinians and the US. The preferred strategy has almost always been the one summarized in the cable above: “We need to be very tough in dealing with the problem…”
Here’s a quick round-up of statements made by Hamas officials over the past 15 years on the subject of peace with Israel. I’ll let you come to your own conclusions.
May 17, 1999 – “In an interview, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of the terrorist Islamic resistance movement Hamas, called last week for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and for the first time suggested he might recognize Israel’s right to exist. But he threatened to continue terrorist activity if there’s no movement. In a major departure from all previous statements of Hamas policy, Yassin said Thursday that the conflict could be ended if Israel withdrew from Gaza and the West Bank of the Jordan River. Israel captured both areas in the 1967 Six-Day War. Yassin offered an immediate end to Hamas attacks on Israeli targets following such a withdrawal and said relations with Israel should be left to future generations to decide.”
“Sheik Yassin is recognizing here for the first time Israel’s right to exist within the 1967 borders,” said Ehud Ya’ari, a leading Israeli analyst of Middle East affairs. “Until now, the sheik has only offered a 10-year recess in the conflict. He is now apparently suggesting deferring the resolution of the conflict to the decision of future generations.”
January 26, 2004 – “A top official of the main Palestinian militant group, Hamas, has said it could declare a 10-year truce with Israel if it withdrew from territory occupied since 1967. Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi said late yesterday Hamas has concluded it was “difficult to liberate all our land at this stage, so we accept a phased liberation…We accept a state in the West Bank, including Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. We propose a 10-year truce in return for (Israeli) withdrawal and the establishment of a state,” he said by telephone from hiding in the Gaza Strip.”
February 2, 2006 – “”One of the last surviving founders of Hamas”, Mahmud al-Zahhar, told a French newspaper that Hamas’s demands for Israel’s destruction was a “myth” invented “by the United States and the Zionist media”. It is “ridiculous” to assume “that a small organization like Hamas could destroy a state such as Israel, which has nuclear weapons”, Al-Zahhar said in an interview with the French newspaper Liberation website, published on 2 February. He said Hamas’s priorities include “the restoration of order and discipline”. “We will disarm the gangs and mafias that provoke chaos,” he said. Al-Zahhar remained defiant on the question of aid, saying: “If necessary, we will use our own resources.” He defended Palestinian “right to resist”, saying “Resistance will end once the violence of the occupation ends.”
February 9, 2006 –“Hamas yesterday offered a long-term ceasefire if Israel withdraws from all land occupied in 1967. The announcement by Khaled Meshaal, one of Hamas’s most senior leaders, was its clearest policy statement since winning the Palestinian general election last month. Mr Meshaal was speaking before a crucial Hamas meeting in Cairo on how the Islamist movement will form the new Palestinian government. While he promised a possible “long-term ceasefire” he refused to commit the organisation to a full renunciation of violence, which is demanded of Hamas by the international community and Israel.
Its charter warns that Israel faces elimination by Islam and calls for holy war or jihad against non-Muslim claimants of Palestine. Mr Meshaal said he wanted to send a message to the Israeli government that Hamas would be ready to talk if Israel met conditions that included a withdrawal to the 1967 boundaries. Hamas would then “possibly give a long-term truce with Israel”, he said.
February 27, 2006 — “In an interview with The Washington Post, Ismail Haniyeh, the top Hamas member in the Palestinian parliament and the man tapped to serve as prime minister, suggested that Hamas had no hatred of Israel and was prepared to consider recognition of the Jewish state as long as Israel pulls back to its 1967 boundaries and allows for the creation of a Palestinian state. Such recognition is considered a prerequisite by Israeli officials as well as much of the international community for Hamas’s place at any negotiating table.
But in the flurry of attention following the interviews indicating a more pragmatic bent, Mr. Haniyeh either retracted or clarified the statement, saying that his position had not been accurately portrayed.
Haniyeh told reporters in Gaza Sunday that he “did not tackle the issue of recognizing [Israel] in my interview with the Washington Post.” Rather, he restated the Hamas position that was outlined by the group’s founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, and which other senior members of the organization have repeated in the weeks since the group’s surprise victory on Jan. 25: If Israel withdraws from land it captured in the 1967 war to make way for a Palestinian state and allows Palestinian refugees to return, Hamas would consider a long-term truce, or hudna.
May 24, 2006 – “Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh’s recent comment that peace was possible if Israel withdrew to the 1967 lines was a step toward recognizing Israel’s right to exist and was likely timed to coincide with a meeting of EU officials in Brussels to discuss funding to the Palestinians a European diplomatic official told The Jerusalem Post Tuesday.
Haniyeh in an interview with Ha’aretz Monday said If Israel withdraws to the 1967 borders peace will prevail and we will implement a hudna for many years. He said his Hamas-led government was “prepared to maintain a long-term cease-fire with Israel.”
June 28, 2006 — Hours before Israeli troops moved back into Gaza last night, Hamas, the militant Palestinian movement, made a historic policy reversal by signing up to an agreement implicitly recognising the right of the Jewish state to exist.
Hamas hailed the policy U-turn as ending weeks of tense negotiations with the other main Palestinian political force, Fatah, which had spilt over into violent clashes on the streets.
”It is the beginning of a new era in common and united work on all political questions, the resistance and the internal situation,” Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas spokesman, said.
Various Hamas spokesmen stressed that there was no outright recognition of Israel, although they could not deny the historic importance of the agreement.
April 21, 2008 — Hamas said today it would accept a Palestinian state on land occupied in the 1967 war, but it would not explicitly recognise Israel.
Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas, said the group would “respect Palestinian national will even if it was against our convictions”, an apparent reference to a referendum on a peace deal.
His comments came at a news conference in Damascus, Syria, after a rare series of meetings between the former US president Jimmy Carter and Hamas Islamists in the West Bank, Cairo and Damascus.
At an earlier press conference, Carter said Hamas would accept a two-state peace agreement with Israel as long as it was approved by a Palestinian referendum or a newly elected government.
May 5, 2009 — “The leader of the militant Palestinian group Hamas said Monday that its fighters had stopped firing rockets at Israel for now. He also reached out in a limited way to the Obama administration and others in the West, saying the movement was seeking a state only in the areas Israel won in 1967.
”I promise the American administration and the international community that we will be part of the solution, period,” the leader, Khaled Meshal, said during a five-hour interview with The New York Times spread over two days in his home office here in the Syrian capital…
… [He] urged outsiders to ignore the Hamas charter, which calls for the obliteration of Israel through jihad and cites as fact the infamous anti-Semitic forgery, ”The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Mr. Meshal did not offer to revoke the charter, but said it was 20 years old, adding, ”We are shaped by our experiences.”
December 2, 2010 — “Hamas would respect any peace deal reached between Israel and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, provided it is approved in a global Palestinian referendum, the top Hamas official in Gaza said Wednesday.
In a rare news conference for foreign media, Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister of Gaza’s Hamas government, staked out seemingly pragmatic positions. He said Hamas seeks dialogue with the West and wants to be “part of the solution, not the problem.” He also denied Israeli allegations that Al-Qaeda operates in Gaza and that Gaza militants planned to carry out attacks in neighboring Egypt.
February 2, 2012 — “Khaled Meshaal, 55, the Hamas leader in exile long based in Syria, went to Jordan to see Western-backed King Abdullah, whose father made peace with Israel in 1994. He may move his headquarters there or to the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar, which brokered his first visit since Jordan expelled Hamas in 1999.
From the Gaza Strip where he serves as Hamas’ Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh, 48, set off for talks with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian President Israel’s sworn enemy.
Iran is displeased with Hamas’ failure to support Tehran’s main Arab ally Syria in its crisis. A diplomatic source says Iran has provided no funds to Hamas since August.
Analysts believe Mr. Meshaal has decided to end his close association with Syria to pursue reconciliation with the pro-peace Fatah movement of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority President, and to soften his anti-peace stance.
“Meshaal has been showing a tendency towards more flexibility. He is sincere about accomplishing reconciliation and he was flexible about President Abbas’ peace moves,” said Hani Habib, a Gaza political analyst. “His position did not go down well with Gaza leaders.”
Israeli analyst Matti Steinberg of Haifa University says Mr. Meshaal “quite clearly wants to advance reconciliation with Fatah” and to speak about a Palestinian state within the lines created by the 1967 Middle East war, rather than recovering the Palestine that existed before Israel’s creation in 1948.
He is also ready to suspend the jihad against Israel and go along with Mr. Abbas’s idea of “popular resistance” through non-violent mass protests, Mr. Steinberg said. Hamas hardliners insist on the right to “armed resistance.”
A couple of weeks have elapsed since Gaza was “drawn into the center of Mideast strife” and the chorus of outrage has grown louder, with several Nobel peace laureates calling for a military embargo against Israel and a US Secretary-of-State famous for his “who-moi” moments giving an impromptu shot across the bow from a hot mic. Will it matter? Does it ever?
The cravenness of some US-based newspapers on the situation is just mind-boggling. I don’t like blaming “The Media” for every last open pothole in Middle East politics because there are many good reporters working on the ground who have their hearts and minds in the right place.
But the headlines have been nauseating. “Hamas: Israeli soldier captured” screams CNN, reserving a mention of 87 dead Palestinians for the subtitle. “2 Israeli soldiers killed in Gaza clash” says the Washington Post, adding “Death toll tops 330 as Hamas militants step up attacks.” As a friend commented on Facebook:
The 330 Palestinian lives (the overwhelming majority of which are innocent civilians) are not as worthy or important to the American press as 2 Israeli lives. In fact, they do not even deserve to be named (Palestinians). Whereas the Israelis are named and described as having been “killed,” the Palestinians are just “dead”– either they mysteriously stopped breathing, or they are responsible for their own killing, or Hamas is to blame (as is insinuated).
If you want to help in a small way, here is a list of aid organizations. Beyond the present crisis, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement — which has emerged as one of the most visible and effective methods of nonviolent advocacy for Palestinian rights — is organizing a military embargo petition. Read more here.
Finally, here is Hanan Ashrawi, one of the most eloquent spokespersons for her people’s rights, discussing the situation on ABC News.
ANERA (American Near East Refugee Aid): An NGO with offices in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, and Jordan, working in the region since 1968.
PCRF (Palestine Children’s Relief Fund): A non-political, non-profit organization dedicated to addressing the medical and humanitarian crisis facing Palestinian youths in the Middle East, since 1991.
MAP (Medical Aid for Palestinians): Delivers health and medical are to those worst affected by conflict, occupation, and displacement. Offices in Beirut, Ramallah, Jerusalem, and Gaza City.
UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency): funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions, providing assistance for some 5 million registered Palestinian refugees.
Oxfam: Fighting poverty around the world.
KinderUSA (Kids in Need of Development, Education, and Relief)
Lebanese politics often resembles a game of FreeCell to me. Or, for the millennials among us: 2048, which I often catch my students playing on their phones before class begins. For long stretches, the board is locked down. There is an occasional opening, a small shift in the grid, but it comes to nothing. Hardly anything moves for several rounds as the prospect of a game-ending rigor mortis looms. Then, a fortuitous tile appears and suddenly the whole board becomes a slurry of synergies.
We commentators dignify such moments with terms like “grand bargain” but I often feel that coincidence has more to do with it than anything else. Is the vacancy of Lebanon’s presidential palace a story of irreconcilable ideological differences and fragile political coalitions, or is it a function of the fact that there are no compelling reasons for any stakeholder to abide by any precedent, deadline, or authority?
I was discussing this question with a friend of mine over lunch in Beirut a few months ago. At the time, it was the Prime Minister’s office that was vacant rather than the President’s. Lebanon, I observed to my lunch companion, is like an out-of-work, out-of-shape, depressed, recently divorced, middle-aged man who stays home all day watching the World Cup and can’t find his phone charger. (Obviously, the FreeCell analogy had not yet occurred to me…)
The missing phone charger would appear to be the least of his worries, but in fact it’s the psychological key to his predicament. Not being able to find the charger means that he cannot charge his cell phone, which means he cannot take calls from his friends or his family or his creditors, which means, finally, that he can’t face up to his situation. Lebanon’s inability to hold an election — parliamentary, prime ministerial, or presidential — without several months of fruitless “negotiations” tells a similar story. Outside the door, there is a refugee crisis, a burgeoning jihadi movement, a simmering conflict in neighboring Syria, and the fourth-highest public debt-to-GDP ratio in the world. Is it any wonder that Lebanon’s political elites can’t find the phone charger?
The latest “solution” to the crisis being touted by the FPM is a popularly elected president, to replace the Ta’if-based system of electing a president in Parliament. Michel Aoun believes that the same majorities that gave the March 8 alliance a 55% popular vote victory in 2009 (despite losing the electoral math) would carry him into office as well. Naturally, no one is biting on the M14 side. Another unhelpful three of clubs, when what we really need is that two of hearts… yeah right.
A few weeks ago, it seemed that we were nearing one of those synergistic moments on the presidential FreeCell board, as Saad Hariri and Michel Aoun reported several “positive meetings”. What scuttled the initiative is anyone’s guess.
Then again, even if a Hariri-Aoun deal brings either GMA himself or one of his relatives to Baabda, the election would trigger the dissolution of the cabinet, at which point another prime minister and cabinet would have to be nominated and elected, followed by the November parliamentary elections (which will trigger the dissolution of the infant cabinet and the election of yet another one, at which point we should be ready for a new president again…)
Clever Lebanon. Just as it finds its missing charger, it discovers that it’s an old Nokia one that doesn’t work with its new iPhone. May as well go back to watching the World Cup.
There’s a report out about the situation of Syrian students in Lebanon, authored by a specialist team of researchers affiliated with the University of California at Davis, the Carnegie Corporation, and the Institute of International Education. I know a couple of the authors very well and vouch strongly for their knowledge of the region’s politics, societies, and languages. This is a terribly sad situation, and one worries about the long-term consequences of having such a large and under-served refugee population in a country as small and overburdened (infrastructurally, economically, psychically) as Lebanon.
Among the key findings worth noting are the following points:
- The overwhelming majority of displaced Syrian university students in Lebanon are not continuing any form of higher education or advanced training.
- The crisis of a “lost generation” will grow worse as Syrian students in Lebanon will be unable to complete high school.
- There is an opportunity here for private education providers in Lebanon to open up their enrollments to Syrian students but there is some reluctance to do so on the part of higher education institutions.
- Syrian faculty face very high barriers to entry at Lebanese academic institutions.
Read the full report here.
As one Iraqi city after another has fallen to the jihadi juggernaut that is ISIS (or ISIL), military and intelligence experts have been baffled by the group’s stunning victories on the battlefield. Whether humbling the US-trained Iraqi army, surviving relentless bombardment by the Syrian Air Force, or fighting toe-to-toe with Hizbullah and IRGC special forces commandos, this motley crew of unkempt radicals and rootless cosmopolitans in medieval garb is a YouTube-sharing, hashtag-tweeting, fatwa-issuing paradox.
That is, until now. High-level sources at the Pentagon have confirmed to The Qnion that they have unlocked the secret to ISIS’s (or ISIL’s) success: a medieval Islamic manual on the art of war, long thought to have been lost.
“It’s of a piece with their old-timey kind of aesthetic,” said one source who commented on condition of anonymity. “They wear the clothes, they’ve got the black banner, they’ve got the project to re-establish the caliphate. We’ve seen all this before. But what makes ISIS (or ISIL) different is that they’ve also got this ancient text, which has become a total game-changer.”
Unlike other jihadist groups which have been undone at times by sophisticated counter-insurgency (COIN) strategies deployed by the US and its allies, ISIS (or ISIL) has managed to escape unharmed.
“This text is a kind of counter-counter-insurgency (CO-COIN) manual,” says noted COIN expert Andrew Muxe. “It’s COIN kryptonite.”
The contents of the medieval manuscript are a closely guarded secret. However, Iraqi troops have recovered fragments of its teachings copied into the diaries of fallen ISIS (or ISIL) jihadists. The Qnion’s star reporter Bala Tafnis was able to access these fragments, which we translate below in a Qnion exclusive.
On holding territory upon capturing it – The learned sage Abu Uthman Abd al-Malik ibn Zayd al-Kufi (may he rest in peace) said: “After the conquest of a village or hamlet or town is complete, round up all the men and adolescent boys and give them two choices: (1) either to be put to death in a grisly mass execution; or (2) to pretend to be dead while witnesses from nearby villages are brought to the site of the “grisly mass execution,” at which point many of them will faint from terror and have to be revived and sent back to their homes where they will spread the news of your horrific military prowess. In the meantime, the men and boys whose lives had been saved will be so grateful to you that they will spread word of your mercy and magnanimity. This maneuver is known to the ancient sources as a “win-win”.
Finally, once they have spread word of your mercy and magnanimity, round up the men again and put them to death in a grisly mass execution.”
On confusing your opponents – The esteemed shaykh and wonder of his age Abu l-Fada’il Ibn Zubayr al-Qayrawani (may he rest in peace) said: “Let there be great confusion about your origins, your creed, your objectives, and especially your name. Let all who attempt to refer to you be struck by a confounding paralysis. Cultivate ambiguity.”
On winning the population to your side – The learned jurist and poet Abu Hamza al-Balkhi (may he rest in peace) said: “No sooner than you have finished pillaging and rampaging in a given territory, set your sights upon improving the living conditions of its inhabitants. Collect garbage from the street corners, direct mule traffic, sweep the public spaces, organize poetry festivals, and hire entertainers to provide levity and mirth for the villagers. Make their lives so wonderful that they will deplore the return of the Sultan’s rule. Anyone who complains that things aren’t actually so much better than they used to be should be decapitated.”
On material support – The scholar and preacher Ibn Zakariyya al-Baghdadi (may he rest in peace) said: “The Sultan will contrive to choke off your supply lines and to turn the population against you by starving you of resources. Retaliate by seizing the Sultan’s properties in the countryside and selling his own goods (cattle, musk, camphor, precious gems, and so on) back to him at a premium. He will not be happy about it, but that is not any of your concern.”
On relations with other rebels – The theologian and astronomer Shihab al-Din Hasan al-Marwazi (may he rest in peace) said: “Your success will inspire other groups to imitate you and follow your example. Make alliances with these groups in the interests of fighting a common enemy. Over time, your ruthless strategies will begin to disturb them. Seize the moment to accuse their leadership of being Byzantine stooges or Sasanian flunkies, and draw their fighters into your ranks.”
On recruitment – The bookseller Jamal al-Din al-Iskandari (may he rest in peace) said: “The Sultan will, from time to time, open the doors of his dungeons to release the foulest, most bloodthirsty, and mentally unbalanced prisoners in the hope that they join your movement and sully your cause with their twisted antics. Welcome these prisoners with open arms, for they make the best fighters.”
On projecting historical gravitas – The historian Abu Ali Ibn al-Zajjaj (may he rest in peace) said: “Each time you pass from one territory to the next, commission a poet to write an ode about the meaningless of old borders, and the dawn of a new imperium. This will impress people, even if they don’t know what you mean.”
See below for an excerpt from my latest piece for The New Yorker, on Disney’s translation of its hit musical Frozen into Modern Standard Arabic. We’ve discussed this subject before on this blog. If you’re interested in reading earlier discussions, check out the following comment sections:
After reading the New Yorker piece, be sure to come back here to comment.
Translating “Frozen” into Arabic
For the past few months, I’ve lived my life to the soundtrack of Disney’s mega-hit musical “Frozen.” I wake up to the sound of my two daughters singing the Oscar-winning power anthem “Let It Go” at the top of their lungs as they get dressed for school. By breakfast, we’re on to “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” followed by the peppy duet “Love Is an Open Door.” Between bites of oatmeal, my four-year-old chimes in with well-rehearsed counterpoint as her older sister closes her eyes and solemnly belts out the reprise to “For the First Time in Forever.”
On a scale of infectiousness, these songs are pestilential. This is a good thing; “Frozen” recently became the fifth-highest-grossing film of all time. The story of two orphaned princesses—Elsa (aloof, traumatized, cryokinetic) and Anna (headstrong, starved for companionship)—in the fjord-riven realm of Arendelle, the film spent many years in development, as one producer after another tried to adapt Hans Christian Andersen’s dark fairy tale “The Snow Queen” into something Disneyesque. The result looks almost nothing like the original story, thanks in part to “Let It Go,” which prompted a re-write of Elsa’s character and turned her from a frigid hermit into a spunky feminist. (keep reading)
Lebanon failed to elect a president this week, but the failure was rather dignified by recent standards. Unlike the 2008 election — preceded by twenty months of government paralysis, public demonstrations, a parliament building locked by its Speaker, and several high-profile assassinations — it was a relief to watch 124 parliamentarians show up at the Chamber of Deputies last Wednesday and cast their votes.
Most commentary over the past couple of weeks has centered on the maneuverings of the likely candidates. Would Saad Hariri cut a deal with Michel Aoun? Has Samir Geagea successfully transformed himself from a convicted war criminal to a respectable presidential contender? Is there a ghost candidate waiting in the wings? One can dream…
I have to admit that I’ve found these discussions unsatisfying. More relevant than the matter of who the next president will be is the question of whether Lebanon needs a president at all, a quarter century after the Ta’if Agreement.
Consider the President’s powers and duties (articles 49-63 of the Lebanese Constitution). Apart from serving as “the symbol of the nation’s unity” and safeguarding “the constitution and Lebanon’s independence, unity, and territorial integrity,” the President of the Republic does very little without the say-so of the Council of Ministers. He or she accredits ambassadors and promulgates laws, but doesn’t have a vote in cabinet, cannot select a Prime Minister without binding consultations with the Parliament, cannot dissolve Parliament without permission of the Council of Ministers, and cannot effectively block a law from being passed.
Before Ta’if, the Presidency was far more powerful than it is today, at the expense of both the Chamber of Deputies and the Prime Minister’s office. If there is one thing that unites Lebanon’s Christian parties, it is their revanchist attitude toward Ta’if and their demand that the President’s powers be restored. This seems very unlikely today, but I agree that some drastic reform of the position needs to be considered.
One problem is the way in which presidents are elected, which — like the process by which cabinets are put together — is far too vulnerable to spoilers masquerading as political consensualists. This is partly the fault of the constitutional language describing the process. In the first round of voting, a candidate needs an extraordinary majority (two-thirds, or 86 votes) to be elected. In subsequent rounds, an ordinary majority (51%, or 65 MPs) is sufficient. What happens, though, if no political bloc commands a majority in Parliament, as is often the case? And what if one bloc declines to participate in the session, denying a quorum? The Constitution provides no answer to these questions, and as we saw in 2007-08, this can be a problem. As a wise friend recently put it to me: “A constitutional vacuum is one thing; a vacuous constitution is another.”
On the other hand, it’s short-sighted to approach the question of presidential powers from an exclusively constitutional basis. The Speaker of Parliament’s powers are very limited as far as the Lebanese Constitution is concerned, and yet Nabih Berri has wielded them to great effect. Conversely, we’ve seen the powers of the Prime Minister (who is, textually speaking, primus inter pares) effectively eroded since 2005 with the introduction of the blocking third in the Council of Ministers and the ever-lengthening cabinet formation period.
From this perspective, President Michel Sleiman has similarly been able to do more with his limited powers than the Constitution suggests. Ziad Baroud’s nomination as Interior Minister in 2008 was apparently a Sleiman demand, and the work on a new electoral law for 2013 was carried out by another of his appointees, Marwan Charbel. However, whenever the Commander-in-Chief made the mistake of expressing his opinion on military matters, he was quickly put in his place.
Twenty-five years after Ta’if inaugurated Lebanon’s Second Republic and nearly nine years after the Syrian departure gave us a new, mysterious set of protocols (what I like to think of as Lebanon 2.5), it is time to rethink the country’s principal institutions and symbols. The President today is responsible for safeguarding a Constitution that is consistently ignored, convening a national dialogue process that is ineffectual, and leading a Christian community that no longer thinks of itself as a single political unit. In this context, why should the identity of the President matter?
In other news, I’m happy to report that I’ve just wrapped up my teaching for the year, and I should have more time to devote to blogging again. Please forgive the long hiatus.
A couple of months ago, I caught up with my friend Bassam Haddad, Director of Middle East Studies at George Mason and a co-founder and editor of Jadaliyya, and interviewed him for Guernica Magazine. The introduction is below, followed by a link to the main body of the piece.
Also, here’s a crowdsourcing challenge to the Lebanese expatriate readers: I’m going to be in Cambridge, MA this weekend, giving a talk to the annual convention of the Lebanese Collegiate Network. My brief is to give advice to students and young professionals who want to “further develop their understanding of life and society in Lebanon,” and to “enrich their connection to Lebanon” through their studies and work in the US. If you have an opinion on this topic, post it below. How many of you return regularly to Lebanon? How often do you go? Are you involved in any cultural, humanitarian, or political organizations? How do you stay in touch with the day-to-day, if at all?
In the fall of 2010, I was crossing a crowded hotel lobby at the Middle East Studies Association convention in San Diego when a friend introduced me to the writer, editor, and scholar Bassam Haddad. “Bassam is starting a website,” she said. “You should know each other.” He slipped me a business card with the word Jadaliyya (Arabic for “dialectic”) on it. “There isn’t much online yet,” Haddad explained. “We just launched.”
A few weeks later, Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, setting off a mind-bending chain of uprisings from Libya to Yemen. In the four years since, dictators have fallen, elections have been held, constitutions drafted, political parties established and banned, and presidents elected and jailed, as millions have protested and millions more have become refugees of civil conflicts. Meanwhile, Jadaliyya—which Haddad co-founded and co-edits with several other writers—has emerged as one of the most widely read sources of commentary on the politics, literature, history, and culture of the Middle East. More specialized than a mainstream periodical but more nimbly attuned than an academic journal to the evolving microclimates of expertise on the Middle East, Jadaliyya now reaches nearly two million readers each week, and is run by a growing network of volunteers around the world. Together they commission and publish a couple hundred articles every month—opinion and analysis, poetry, criticism, news roundups, book reviews, conference reports—in four languages: English, Arabic, Turkish, and French.
In the context of contemporary debates over the irrelevance of the academy, the corporatization of higher education, the end of scholarly publishing, and the disruption of old media by new media, Jadaliyya seems to be portentous of something. Is this the perfect marriage of informed scholarship and public engagement, or is it just a larger bubble of academics speaking to each other and few others? In our many conversations, Haddad has appeared allergic to both the trivialization of the region’s complexities by the mainstream media and the obscurantism of much academic writing. “We are trying to publish the most interesting work,” he told me over coffee in Beirut a couple years ago, adding, “but we don’t need every last footnote.” (keep reading)
Just a note about a talk I’m giving tomorrow evening at Brown, in the Medieval Studies lecture series. It’s at 5:30pm in Providence, in case any Boston-area medievalists are interested. And here’s an essay on a related topic (“Why was the 14th century a century of Arabic encyclopedism?”) that just came out a few months ago in a edited volume from Cambridge Univ. Press.
We return to regular programming this weekend.
Lebanon’s War in Syria
The birth of a new government in Lebanon is often greeted with ironic festivity. People pass around trays of baklava and bowls of meghle, a spice pudding served when a baby is born. For a week or so, respectable newspapers turn into society tabloids, which I pretend not to read. Who visited whom to offer congratulations on his new ministerial appointment? Which two former rivals had a “great lunch” and vowed to work together in the national interest? A few news cycles’ worth of political play-by-play dramatize the decisive moments of the negotiations, leaning hard on obstetric metaphors.
“The labor pains began on Wednesday night, but only a few of us knew about it,” one insider told me. “By Thursday, it was clear that the government was coming, but there were a few complications on Friday. Then everybody woke up on Saturday morning to a brand-new government.” (Keep reading)
After nearly eleven months (329 days to be exact), Lebanon has a new government. Some thoughts are forthcoming about why the process took so long, what happened to facilitate it, and what this suggests about a shifting regional picture on the situation in Syria, but in the meantime, here are some quick observations:
- There are twenty-three men in the cabinet and one woman. (Update: Alice Shabtini is a judge who previously headed the Military Appeals Tribunal, and was reportedly President Michel Sleiman’s preferred candidate to head the Judicial Supreme Council. As the head of the Military Affairs Tribunal, she played a role in knocking down the sentence of Fayez Karam to just two years, despite being convicted of collaborating with Israel. Fun fact…)
- The two main blocs (March 14 and March 8) are each represented by eight ministers, while the Prime Minister, the President, and Walid Jumblatt control another eight ministers between them, in the so-called “centrist” bloc.
- The one-third share for each bloc is designed to prevent passage of any significant legislation by denying quorum to the cabinet. This innovation dates back to the Doha Accord of 2008 and has more or less guaranteed the paralysis of the executive branch ever since.
- In addition to the one-third share, it appears that each bloc also has a mole in the centrist bloc, whose sole function is to help bring down the government if one side decides to resign. (A cabinet falls when more than one third of its ministers resign). March 14’s mole is Ramzi Jreij; March 8th’s mole is Abd al-Muttalib Hennawi. In other words, this probably isn’t an 8-8-8 cabinet but a 9-9-6 cabinet. Why both blocs have agreed to keep up appearances is not yet clear.
The list of ministers is below, but I’ve also made a graphic that you can download (see above).
- Ghazi Zeaiter (Public Works – AMAL)
- Ali Hassan Khalil (Finance – AMAL)
- Mohammad Fneish (Parliamentary Affairs – Hizbullah)
- Hussein Hajj Hassan (Industry – Hizbullah)
- Arthur Nazarian (Energy — Tashnaq/C&R)
- Gebran Bassil (Foreign — FPM/C&R)
- Elias Abu Saab (Education — FPM/C&R)
- Raymond Arayji (Culture — Marada/C&R)
- Boutros Harb (Telecoms — M14)
- Michel Pharaon (Tourism — M14)
- Nouhad Mashnouq (Interior — Future)
- Nabil de Freige (Administrative Reform — Future)
- Rasheed Derbas (Social Affairs — Future)
- Ashraf Rifi (Justice — Future)
- Sejaan Azzi (Labor — Kata’ib)
- Alain Hakim (Economy — Kata’ib)
- Tammam Salam (Prime Minister)
- Samir Moqbel (Defense & Deputy PM — PM’s share)
- Mohammad Mashnouq (Environment — PM’s share)
- Ramzi Jreij (Information — President’s share / likely M14 mole)
- Alice Shebtini (Displaced — President’s share)
- Abdelmotleb Hannawi (Youth & Sports — President’s share / likely M8 mole)
- Akram Chehayeb (Agriculture — Jumblatt)
- Wael Abu Faour (Health — Jumblatt)
The former Lebanese security chief, Jamil al-Sayyed, is the Marshall Islands’ new ambassador to UNESCO, AFP reported today. Among the benefits of this post (in addition to approving nods and kind words from fellow guests at cocktail parties), is the diplomatic immunity it confers upon its holder, who may or may not be the target of prosecution by the U.N. Special Tribunal for Lebanon, later this year.
The Qnion has learned that since Mr. Al-Sayyed’s appointment was announced, several other ex-spymasters, security officials, army generals, and former defense ministers announced their interest in serving as ambassadors to UNESCO.
“We’ve just been inundated by requests,” said Ms. Fiona Weatherby, a program officer at the headquarters of the humanitarian organization in Paris. “It’s very puzzling.”
New rumored appointments include former Tunisian security czar Ali Seriati, who has been mooted as the UNESCO ambassador for the Pitcairn Islands (population: 56). Unconfirmed reports also indicate that Habib el Adly, the disgraced and imprisoned long-time Minister of the Interior under Hosni Mubarak is petitioning to become the official envy of Tokelau, a tiny island in the South Pacific (area: 10 km2).
“Don’t get me wrong, I think this is really admirable,” said Weatherby. “The idea that these men could discover their humanitarian streak so late in life is… well, it’s inspiring is what it is.”
UNESCO would not confirm or deny any of the nominations besides that of Mr. Al-Sayyed. However, one high-ranking official at the organization who asked to remain anonymous did suggest that representatives of the late Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon had lobbied intensively for him to be named as the UNESCO ambassador from the Cocos Islands (population: 596) before his death last month.
“We considered the request long and hard,” the official confided, “but the fact that he had been in a coma for eight years made it tough to accept the application.” He added: “It was one of those 50-50 calls. Could have gone either way.”
Reporting by Youssef Tafnis for the Qnion
There has been some movement in recent days on the cabinet formation stalemate. Saad Hariri agreed to join a national unity government with Hizbullah, a welcome development after months of deadlock.
How many months precisely? Nearly ten. Tammam Salam was appointed PM-designate on April 6, 2013. As you will recall, Lebanon’s previous premier Najib Mikati spent five months forming his government in 2011 (which was about how long Saad Hariri took to put together a cabinet after the 2009 parliamentary elections.)
In view of these historical trends, I thought I’d tally up the total amount of time that Lebanon has spent since the 2009 election under a caretaker government. All told, in the 1702 days since June 7 2009, Lebanon has spent 625 days (or 37%) under a caretaker government.
Here’s the breakdown:
- Saad Hariri: Took office on November 9, 2009 after 155 days (since the June 7, 2009 election).
- Najib Mikati: Took office on June 15, 2011 after 153 days (since the collapse of the Hariri cabinet on January 12, 2011)
- Tammam Salam: Has been trying unsuccessfully to form a government for ten months (actually 317 days since Mikati’s resignation on March 23, 2013)
(Note that I have calculated the figures above from the end of one cabinet to the formation of a new one, which includes both the amount of time that a PM-designate spends putting together his cabinet as well as the previous period of appointing a PM-designate.)
In other words, Salam’s difficulties have precedents rooted in well-documented structural flaws of the Lebanese system, which has proven to be unworkable in the years since the departure of the Syrian army. For some context on this particular problem (cabinet formation), here are some links to my commentary from years past.
Hariri cabinet formation process (June-November 2009)
- The Looming Kerfuffle
- Coalition of the Unwilling
- Saad Hariri Takes the Helm
- Is that a Silver Bullet in Your Pocket?
- Hariri For Government Formation Without Hastiness
- Calling all FPMers
- The Constitutional Backdrop to Lebanon’s Cabinet Deadlock (Sept. 15, 2009)
- Aoun Drops Demands; Opposition Adds New Member (Qnion)
- All for None (The National)
Mikati cabinet formation process (Jan-June 2011)
- No Victors in Lebanon (Foreign Policy)
- Who Will Be Lebanon’s Next Prime Minister? Doing the Parliamentary Math
- Day of Hypocrisy
- Should Hariri Join Mikati’s Government?
- Lebanese Cabinet Stalemate: 2011 Edition
- Lebanon’s New Government
- Mikati’s Cabinet and the 2013 Elections
Salam cabinet formation process (March 2013 – today)
- Mikati’s Resignation Signals the Collapse of the Lebanese Idea, Renewed Civil War, and the End of the World as We Know It
Update: If we push the start date of this experiment back to the day the Karami government fell following the Hariri assassination in February 2005, we end up with a similar quotient of around 37% of the last nine years without a functioning government, because we’d have to include the twenty months of no government during the Hizbullah sit-in from November 2006 until May 2008.
I’ve written something for The New Yorker’s literary blog about the fire at the Sa’eh Bookshop in Tripoli. The first paragraph is below, followed by a jump to the site.
Letter from Lebanon: A Bookshop Burns
On a Friday night shortly after New Year’s, a group of men broke into an antiquarian bookshop in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli and set it on fire. The shop belonged to Father Ibrahim Sarrouj, a Greek Orthodox priest. A longtime resident of Tripoli’s old Serail neighborhood, he had amassed a large collection of books—rare first editions of scholarly texts, novels in different languages, dictionaries, encyclopedias, out-of-print magazines—in the forty-plus years since he opened for business. The fire burned for under an hour before it was discovered, but an untold number of books were destroyed.
Tripoli is a mess. Just a few miles from the Syrian border and comprising a religiously mixed population, it’s become one of the most dangerous places in Lebanon. Sunnis and Alawites—variously at odds since the Lebanese civil war and now feeling the stakes of their feud deepened by the existential conflict next door—lob mortars and rocket-propelled grenades at each other’s neighborhoods while car bombs explode outside congregational mosques. A preponderance of religious and political powerbrokers in the city has made it difficult for the Lebanese Army to establish order. Radical Islamists—previously a kooky fringe in Lebanese politics—attract more support each day from Tripolitans incensed by Hezbollah’s involvement on the side of the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war, which has brought over a million refugees into Lebanon. Meanwhile, the princes of the alleyways (as neighborhood strongmen are sometimes called) vie for influence with the city’s other grandees, including two Sunni billionaire politicians and a former security czar. (keep reading)
Whether you regard the Special Tribunal for Lebanon as a transparent (if expensive and plodding) search for the truth about the Hariri assassination, or a Zionist conspiracy against the last bastion of anti-imperialist resistance in the Arab world, today is a historic day. The UN court that was established to try the men accused of killing 22 people in an explosion that changed the course of Levantine political history will be called to order this morning in Leidschendam.
The proceedings will occupy us for the next several months. To get your bearings, here’s a primer on the STL that I put together a couple years ago. In addition to the links in that post, I’d also have a look at the following subsequent writings.
- Nasrallah Comments on the STL Indictments (July 2, 2011)
- The Case of the Four Generals (July 24, 2011)
- Western Intelligence and the Arab Revolutions (July 29, 2011)
- Co-Locating with PMPs: An Assessment of the STL Indictment (August 17, 2011)
- Al-Akhbar’s Recent UN Tribunal Coverage Likely Based on Pure Speculation, Not Actual Reporting (October 22, 2011)
- Just another day in Lebanon (NY Times, Nov. 23, 2011)
- Hizbullah, Mikati, and the STL Funding Showdown (Nov. 23, 2011)
To read everything I’ve written on the subject, see here.
Yesterday, following the suicide bombing in Haret Hreik, Hizbullah’s deputy secretary-general Naim Qassem warned that Lebanon was on “the road to ruin”. Such statements have become just as routine as the security incidents that prompt them. Political figures and newspaper columnists tell us daily that Lebanon risks opening the gates of hell, that it teeters on the brink of the abyss, that the worst-case scenario will soon be upon us. Grave euphemisms and portents of doom pretend to invite a sober accounting of the situation, but they actually function as palliatives to keep the grittiest realities at bay.
A member of my family has the habit of asking me to predict Lebanon’s future. “Is it safe to go out in the streets today?” she asks me. “Is this neighborhood secure?” “What’s going to happen next?” Much to her annoyance, I am allergic to prognostication, but in light of the recent events at Starco and in al-Dahiya, and in the vain hope that such an exercise might have some apotropaic value, I’ve broken custom and written the following essay. Whether it is of any relevance to Lebanon’s future or just a reflection of my dark mood is for you to decide.
What is the worst-case scenario? Let’s dispense with the PG-rated version and be adults, shall we? In 2014, Lebanon’s worst-case scenario begins with a sequence of car bombs targeting various mosques, embassies, and party headquarters in al-Dahiya, Tripoli, Sidon, and downtown Beirut. The tit-for-tat bombings rapidly become more brazen and spectacular, going after busy residential and commercial areas, major hotels, and even that long-discussed assassination attempt of a Shiite leader that Nabih Berri has been warning us about for years. (The Esteez escapes unharmed, natch.)
By early March, the civilian death toll is in the several hundreds. Hospitals are filled to capacity; calls for blood donations are announced daily; the economy totters; the banks eye their softening credit ratings; foreign nationals are recalled; sales of alcohol, weapons, and drugs skyrocket; schools are closed two days out of five.
Strained to capacity, the Lebanese Army stands by as Hizbullah re-establishes its security cordon in South Beirut and various Sunni “neighborhood watches” take control of large swaths of Tripoli. Salafist suspects are arrested and a prison riot at Roumieh results in the deaths of a dozen security guards and a near jail break. Ahmad al-Assir releases a fire-and-brimstone videotape (from somewhere in northern Syria, it is said) vowing revenge and calling for jihad against the Lebanese Army.
Hizbullah’s mood remains defiant as the party doubles down on its commitment in Syria, cycling hundreds of fighters in and out each month. Nasrallah continue to speak of an existential struggle in Syria, while hinting darkly at the consequences of forming a government without his party’s involvement. Roads to ruin, gates of hell, you get the idea…
Meanwhile, the UN prosecutors for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon begin presenting their case against Hizbullah. Each day, the M14 press reports on a new batch of evidence linking Mr. Ayyash and co. to the Hariri assassination. The M8 media yawns and dismisses the spectacle as an Israeli pantomime for external consumption, even as they blame the deteriorating security situation at home on a foreign conspiracy. Coincidentally, open season is declared again on March 14th-allied politicians, military officials, and media figures. Many of them leave the country. When they return, they are surveilled by nameless assassins and liquidated in their decoy cars.
With the arrival of spring, Syria’s masses stumble out of their beleaguered winter fastnesses, only to find the skies full of barrel bombs, hurtling down at them from Syrian Army helicopters. The death tolls are sickening. Tens of thousands of civilians flee across Syria’s borders each week. The refugees in Lebanon now amount to a third of the country’s population. There are more destitute Aleppan Sunnis living in refugee camps than there are Lebanese Druzes, Alawites, Evangelicals, Protestants, and Roman Catholics combined. People mutter sourly about adding “refugee” to Lebanon’s list of official communities and granting them seats in Parliament.
Militias begin to form in the camps despite the siege-like efforts of the LAF to contain them and the constant surveillance of Hizbullah intelligence and Syrian mukhabarat. When an ISIS-linked group tries to declare one of the camps an Islamic state and impose sharia law, Lebanon’s Christians and Druzes decide they’ve seen enough. The LF, Kata’ib, and PSP quietly resuscitate their wartime paramilitary units and begin covert training programs to transition their truant children from Call of Duty to real mountain combat.
By early autumn, clashes between Syrian refugee militias in Lebanon, Tripolitan platoons led by the umara al-aziqqa, SSNP fighters, and Hizbullah black-shirts are routine. There’s a security incident every other day. A suicide bomber attacks the funeral of a major Hizbullah commander killed in Syria, killing dozens of mourners. Two days later a high-ranking intelligence official from a Gulf Arab state is assassinated in his hotel room in a Central European country.
As the year draws to a close, Lebanon exists in a state of low-intensity civil war. The Army has begun to fracture along sectarian lines. Saudi-bought French weaponry begins to arrive, but the army’s arsenals are raided by militia groups, and sophisticated bomb jamming devices begin appearing on the tops of warlord convoys in the refugee camps. Hizbullah fears it is over-committed in Syria so Iran sends IRGC special-ops groups to man command stations in case of an Israeli attack, which looks increasingly likely as Abdullah Azzam Brigade rocket attacks into northern Israel become a weekly occurrence. The refugee crisis grows worse by the day. The borders are un-policeable. The economy is in free fall. Even Skybar has to initiate an evening happy hour to attract weekend revelers.
The struggle grows more “existential” despite the reality that, as in Syria, there is less and less to fight over with each passing day. This is the worst-case scenario.
Happy New Year.
I met Mohamad Chatah in late 2011. I was in Beirut for a couple of weeks, interviewing politicians and civil society members for a research project on bicameralism and consociationalism, and a mutual friend put us in touch. He had been interested in the idea of a Lebanese senate for many years, and so he invited me to meet him at Center House, not far from where he was killed this morning.
Mr. Chatah was a Lebanese economist, minister, ambassador, and senior adviser to the Hariri family. In the course of our discussion, he struck me as curious and flexible in his thinking, a realist uninterested in pie-in-the-sky ideologies. We chatted about the political situation, about blogging, and about my doctoral research, and then moved to a discussion about his ideas on the role a senate might play in Lebanese political life. Some of those ideas informed my working paper on bicameralism for Stanford’s Program in Arab Reform and Democracy (see link above).
Like many other countries, Chatah suggested, Lebanon was caught between an ethic of individualism and communalism. “We don’t have a geography that allows for a federal system. And we also like to think of ourselves as equal individuals in a nation. That is a principle or a value that is well entrenched. At the same time, we are communities… And we’re old enough and wise enough to know that history does not dissolve the lines between communities.”
There was no unitary structure of government, to Chatah’s mind, that could respect individual equality, communal equality, and the importance of communal borders. Political confessionalism, he argued, was an inevitability in Lebanon for the time being, but it could be tamed to make the system function more efficiently and equitably:
I don’t want to get rid of confessionalism; I want to put it in its proper place… There’s no way to remove confessional quotas from the system unless you force it through with some kind of authority. Once you think of political sectarianism as an evil that we should do everything possible to get rid of… I think that’s the wrong way to think about this country. I want to base any system that comes out of this structural reform on certain realities that we are confident of, and I’m confident that these demarcation lines between Sunnis and Shia and Christians and Muslims will be with us for a long time. I don’t want to base the system on an unrealistic world. As desirable as it may be, that’s not something that serves as a model.
If communalism is inevitable, I asked Chatah, why bother with a senate? Why add another layer of bureaucracy to a system that is already choked with inefficiency and sectarian-flavored gridlock? As he himself admitted, Lebanon “is not easy to keep together; the fault lines are an extension of most of the religious and cultural fault lines in the world today.”
Chatah’s interest in a senate, and in structural reform more broadly, was because “the basic tools of democracy are not working now. All of the links between the people, the MPs, the ministers, and their decisions are broken in Lebanon. Cabinets are formed in a way that is not related to the outcome of the elections, and cabinets can’t take decisions even when they’re formed.” A senate, he argued, would provide the necessary communitarian assurances, while giving space to the Parliament to get things done.
The next several days will be full of speculation about who wanted Mohamad Chatah dead. There will be a great deal of tail-chasing commentary about motives and mysteries, “which side benefited most from the assassination” and which side was weakened by it. Was his death a message to President Sleiman and March 14 to drop their campaign for a neutral cabinet? Was it a message from Syria to the international community that it still has the ability to create havoc in Lebanon, in the build-up to the Geneva conference? (The most laughable theory is already in circulation in the press, insinuating that his death was related to something he tweeted about Hizbullah on the morning of his assassination. Why not scan the rest of his Twitter feed for other culprits, from Christmas-hating jihadists to Ziad Rahbani…)
Another very sad day in Beirut. I’d like to express my condolences to Mr. Chatah’s family and friends. May he rest in peace, and may his killers be brought to justice.