Monthly Archives: July 2012

Lessons from Lebanon: need for reconciliation after the Arab Spring

Once again, my latest column for openDemocracy (original here, other columnists’ articles here). This piece owes a large part to my SOAS thesis on the topic of the ‘how and why’ of mobilising forgiveness in post-conflict societies. It was a bit difficult to cram my thoughts into a short article as I think there’s a lot to say on this subject, including questions about why reconciliation is so little discussed and how to mobilise these concepts in the post-revolutionary states of the Arab Spring. Thoughts, as ever, still evolving, so if you have any ideas on this please get in touch.


With the swearing in of a new president in Egypt last week, many were quick to point out that this step is just the beginning of the country’s transition towards being a functioning democratic state. This is true not only because of the emerging power struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, but also because of the challenges the new government will face in bonding former adversaries together into one viable nation.

The post-revolutionary states of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia have exacted punishment on their previous dictators – be it through exile, imprisonment or death – but autocracies are made up of more than one man. The ousted presidents were held in place not just by the security infrastructures they built around themselves. They were also endorsed by significant proportions of the populations who supported them for a multitude of reasons, including economic benefit, political ideology, and tribal loyalty.

Consequently, the memory of abuses does not fade with the removal of the figurehead, and the existence of large numbers of supporters of the previous dictators is a considerable problem for the new governments. Seeking out and punishing all those involved in the oppressive machinery of the old regimes can crumble state institutions (as in the case of the ‘de-Ba’athification’ of Iraq), and breed further grievance and perceived victimhood amongst these sympathy pools. Conversely, a lack of public recognition of their roles in abuses will create dissent among those who suffered under the old regimes.

Lebanon’s long history of conflict serves as a powerful example of the danger of failing to reconcile former enemies. This country has never recovered from the divisions and mistrust, along axes of religious and political identity, bred by decades of war and foreign occupation. Enmity therefore continues to simmer, and each community here believes that they have suffered the most. This is a considerable part of the reason why political groups in Lebanon refuse to disarm, and why the country is seemingly never free from political crisis and violence. The recent clashes in Tripoli are as much a symptom of the failure to reconcile as they are anything to do with Syria. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon, set up to investigate the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, is the country’s only real attempt to deal with past political crimes. But by focusing only on the offences committed against one political bloc it breeds discord and grievance rather than building national unity.

Troublingly, despite encouragement from the UN there has been a similar lack of focus on reconciliation across the post-revolutionary societies of the Arab Spring. As the sheen of revolution starts to tarnish, the harsh realities of reconstructing a nation in the face of economic and social challenges will stir memories of suffering and abuse. Resentment will not just be held by those who suffered under the old regimes, but also those who lost out in the revolutions and even those revolutionaries who find themselves side-lined in new democratic governments. This is equally true for Tunisia and Libya, and should the rebels win in Syria, they would similarly have to placate Assad’s many supporters to have any hope of building a stable nation.

One way for new governments to walk the tightrope of competing grievances and victimhoods after such political sea-change is through the establishment of truth and reconciliation commissions. In South Africa, after the fall of the apartheid government in 1994, the TRC provided a platform to air and admonish the crimes of both sides, and to grant amnesties for some of those who confessed their roles in abuses. Such an approach gives a platform to not only provide some restorative justice to victims, but also to highlight remarkable cases of personal forgiveness and build a new, inclusive and forward-looking national narrative.

If the revolutions of the Arab world are to succeed in building prosperous, egalitarian nations, then the revolutionaries must find a way to bond former oppressors and oppressed together in this process. The alternatives, a grievance-fermenting ‘victor’s justice’ or attempts to forget or repress the past, may doom states to emulate Lebanon and spiral into dangerous cycles of competitive victimhood and potentially even future violence.


Palestinians in Lebanon: Weathering Syria’s encroaching storm

Another article from my openDemocracy Arab Awakening column a couple of weeks back (original here and the other articles here). Regarding the clashes in Nahr el Bared following the shooting of a young man by the Lebanese army, the situation has now returned to relative calm and the suggestion is that Palestinians will no longer require a permission to enter the camp (though the blockade continues and they will have to produce ID) as of July 15th. We shall see…


The effect of Syria’s conflict on its 486,000 Palestinian refugees has been largely unreported since Assad’s crackdown in the Latakia camp last year, though several hundred are thought to have fled the country to Jordan last month. In Lebanon too, the Palestinian camps are starting to feel the shockwaves emanating from Syria.

According to UNRWA, the main provider of assistance to Palestinian refugees, there are some 455,000 Palestinian refugees registered in Lebanon, with most distributed among the 12 refugee camps across the country. One camp in particular is afflicted by the tensions affecting the north. Beddawi camp, with a population of approximately 16,500 – not including the many thousands still displaced from nearby Nahr el Bared camp, which was largely destroyed in fighting between the Lebanese Army and Fatah al Islam in 2007 – sits atop a hill a bullet’s fly from Jabal Mohsen, one of the communities at the centre of the June clashes in North Lebanon.

For an outsider, the blasé reaction that many residents have to the fighting on their doorstep is startling. While watching a football match with a friend in the camp, a couple of days after the major clashes of June 1-3, I could hear gunfire ringing out from the neighbouring community. His low-key response was simply to duck down behind a concrete wall to watch the match, tutting slightly, and the game went on as normal.

As it turned out the salvoes I heard were the result of the Army firing back at shooters from the Jabal Mohsen area, aiming in the opposite direction to the camp. But when intense fighting erupts in Tripoli, the camp’s proximity puts the residents’ safety at considerable risk. After each round of clashes, the next day’s topic of discussion usually includes tell of where bullets have come down on the roofs and streets of the area. In the last round of clashes one 11 year old girl was shot in the back (according to rumour, by a sniper) and another resident was injured by shrapnel.

I have written before about the differing opinions of the camp residents regarding events in Syria (and by extension Lebanon). Yet despite containing both vehement (and often armed) supporters and opponents of Assad, Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps have stayed largely free of the pro/anti Assad turmoil affecting some Lebanese communities.

Perhaps this is because they have enough problems of their own to contend with. Restricted employment and property ownership rights in Lebanon, combined with UNRWA’s continued budget deficit, mean that Palestinians here face considerable and chronic socioeconomic, educational and health challenges. Last Thursday’s attempted car bomb in Ain el Hilweh, and Friday’s clashes between Palestinians and the Lebanese Army in Nahr el Bared camp – which left at least one dead and several injured – also demonstrate the distinct internal and external security issues facing camp residents quite aside from Lebanon’s wider troubles.

The Beddawi and Nahr el Bared residents I speak to are largely vocal about the need to maintain stability and unity in the camps in the face of Tripoli’s current woes, but see the current fighting there as a predominantly ‘Lebanese problem’. That being said, posters from Assad supporters and opponents can be seen throughout the camps, and reports that several Fatah al-Islam members escaped Ain el Hilweh camp last month, allegedly to fight with the Free Syrian Army in Syria, suggest that Palestinians are not wholly disconnected from this context. Whether they desire it or not, if Lebanon continues to be drawn into Syria’s deepening crisis, the Palestinians may find it increasingly difficult to maintain their current distance.

More ruminations on nations’ rumours

It’s fair to say that my last article got a lot more attention than I was expecting. I just came across this piece from the Beirut Spring blog which raises some of the criticisms and concerns about it, and thought it worth trying to clarify some of my arguments. My response is below:

Hi Mustapha,

I just came across your blog regarding my article and thought I would take my opportunity to respond to some of your points. Better late than never I suppose! Let’s get stuck in:

I’d first like to point out that no, I don’t think the ‘battle for the narrative is more dangerous than the battle on the streets’. Neither do I think that the problems of people’s histrionics on twitter and facebook are the ‘biggest problem’ as you suggest I do. But even as side-issues to Tripoli’s (and Lebanon’s) woes last month I think they are deserving of comment. I would agree with you that these platforms can allow a way for people to release steam and discuss politics. This is a vital aspect of democracy, and wherever people are using social media to debate views and open dialogue way this should be applauded. But the issue I was seeking to address is more the problem of people taking what they have seen online and on twitter as ‘truth’, and the problems of deliberate and accidental misinformation in spreading fear and discord.

Take the recent trouble up at Nahr el Bared as an example – at the time twitter was acting as a game of ‘Chinese Whispers’, meaning that after a few hours the truth (clashes between Palestinian youth and Lebanese Army after a funeral leaving one killed and several injured) had become a ‘Palestinian youth uprising in Lebanon’ (with death tolls above 10) in the eyes of some on twitter.  Others had reported that the Lebanese army had started firing on the funeral precession. I’m sure you can see how this might be a problem – the lack of fact-checking, and people’s willingness to spread rumour can increase fear and feelings of urgency, causing people to get restless and potentially feed into cycles of violence. I’m not suggesting that twitter and facebook cause violence, or even that they are the major contributor – but I would say that they can act as a force multiplier, and help limited clashes metastasise unnecessarily. Thankfully the violence in Nahr el Bared soon calmed down, but in sensitive events where tensions run high, a rumour can be a dangerous thing. You raised a good example of the Rwandan genocide, so here’s a quote regarding the events leading up the genocide from this history of the country:

“In this mood ethnic violence increases steadily, and is often ratchetted up a sudden notch – as when, in March 1992, Radio Rwanda spreads a deliberately false rumour that a Tutsi plot to massacre Hutus has been discovered.”

I’d also like to point out that my article was not suggesting that facebook and twitter are flat out forces for disharmony, though they run the risk of being used this way – the article is rather a response to the excessively glowing report that social media has received over the last year, certainly with regards to its use as a vector for political change. I was trying to point out that twitter is just an extension of people’s psychology and can be used for antisocial as much as pro-social ends. It can be a powerful tool to help people mobilise protest and bring change and progress, but there are plenty of messages of hatred spread on there too. These things might ‘balance out’ over time, but in times of fear or crisis, the demonising voices are often much louder.

I think the most important thing to point out is that I do not, in any way, endorse censorship. That was not the focus of my article (or mentioned anywhere in it), but I do believe that there problems exist for social media and there are things we can do to help this. Social media and the internet more widely are vast new sources of news and information that we, as human beings, are still learning to get to grips with even decades after their inception. The fact is that the sheer volume of information that is available means that entirely new skills are needed to sort fact from fiction.

(I should also point out that the suggestion by one of your readers that I somehow think that there are some cultures that are not ‘ready’ for social media is pretty dreadful mis-reading of my article. The truth is that this is a problem everywhere – and these problems of social media were just as evident in the London riots of last year, for example. Here’s a great interactive piece on that from the Guardian:

I seem to remember a study in the UK which found that young people believed that google ranked results by accuracy – a basic mistake, but it shows a need for better internet literacy. I therefore don’t argue for ‘self-restraint’ so much as better teaching of critical thinking and analytical skills (in schools) to help everyone be able to fact-check what they find online. I don’t want to hammer this point too much (but it’s easy to be misinterpreted as having some sort of colonialist agenda when working abroad!) but I believe these skills are necessary absolutely everywhere as we run to catch up with sweeping technological and communications change. Furthermore, with effort I believe it would be possible to build a norm of healthy scepticism or fact-checking in Twitter etc. Some people’s attempts to get tweeters to put #TBC on unconfirmed rumours during some of the clashes in May and June are a great example of this, and should be encouraged.

One other point (from one of your readers) re: internet penetration. I’d respond that not everyone needs to be online for social media rumours to have a negative effect. The nature of offline social networks means it will only take one person connected to twitter/facebook to spread those rumours to the rest of their cluster. We all do this, everywhere – think about any conversation where you tell a group of friends about something you read online and it sparks up conversation on some political issue. I’ve seen the process at work here up in Beddawi too – it’s common for one person to show everyone else in a café some picture from Syria that got posted on facebook. Certainly tends to start some lively political discussions.

Anyway, I hope this clears up some of my thinking. As your readers have pointed out, I’m certainly no journalist! There were lots of thoughts to get into 500-ish words and I’m eager to continue fleshing them out through dialogue.  I would say, again in response to your readers, that I have been living in Jabal Beddawi, on the outskirts of Tripoli, for six months working for a local NGO. My background is as a researcher focusing on, among other things, political violence and (offline) social networks. I can’t pretend to have learned enough in my time here to comment with any great authority on Lebanese society or politics, and so my writing is simply a reflection on my observations since I’ve been here. I’m eager to keep learning though, so please keep the dialogue up!

Hwyl fawr,