Monthly Archives: October 2012

Syria’s Slippery Slope: The danger of clichés in Lebanon

John Rentoul, writing for The Independent, has a blog dedicated to “Questions to Which the Answer is No”, where he identifies and deconstructs lazy ‘questioning’ headlines in newspapers. Far be it from me to attempt to muscle in on his work, but there is one question which has dogged Lebanon recently, no more so than in the last few days when it has been asked by seemingly every news anchor in the UK, which deserves similar scrutiny: “Is Syria’s unrest spilling over into Lebanon?

Last Friday, a devastating car bomb ripped through a residential street in Beirut’s Achrafiyeh neighbourhood, killing three and injuring over 100. The following days saw street protests outside the government buildings and Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square, as well as lethal clashes in both Beirut and the northern city of Tripoli. The violence has since died down, as it has countless times before, though the political fallout continues.

No sooner had the dust from the bombing settled, than Western news outlets began touting it as fresh evidence of the creeping infection into Lebanon of Syria’s civil strife. There is certainly a possibility that Syria had a hand in the attack. Its target, Wissam al-Hassan, was an important member of the anti-Syrian March 14th alliance. He was responsible for investigating a series of assassinations in Lebanon in which the Assad regime and its Lebanese allies are implicated, as well as spearheading the arrest of Michel Samaha, a pro-Syrian former minister accused of plotting assassinations in the country, possibly also at the behest of the Syrian regime.

There can similarly be no doubt that events in Syria have a real effect on Lebanon and the radicalisation of certain sections of its population. One only need look at the abundance of ‘Free Syrian Army’ flags (far outnumbering Lebanese flags) in videos of the protests outside the Grand Serail the day after the bombing, or plastered around the Sunni areas of Tripoli, to see the importance of events in Syria to some people in Lebanon. But restricting the discussion of these events to one of whether Lebanon will be ‘sucked into’ the Syrian crisis belies the complexity of what is really occurring in Lebanon. It ignores the historical animosities between Lebanon’s various communities and political units and the current flow of political wrangling, and plays into the hands of those in Lebanon who would seek to use the Syrian civil conflict to justify their own discord-sewing actions. Perhaps most dangerously, such language removes agency from the Lebanese themselves – making them out to be the inevitable victims of someone else’s war, rather than the potential agents for peace and change within the country.

My six months in Lebanon was barely enough time to scratch the surface in terms of understanding the complexity of Lebanese politics and history and how they relate to current events. I also have to admit to similar use of the Syrian conflict as an easy lens for understanding and writing about Lebanon’s problems, and the complexity of Lebanon’s situation means that I understand how journalists fall into the trap of seeing Lebanon purely through the easy, ready-made template of Syria. But there is a real danger to this approach if publics and governments begin to see it in the same terms, and act on the basis of this. Words, as we are often told, have power. Lebanon’s political problems need addressing if it is to remain stable in the face of its current troubles, but discussing these problems as an inevitable consequence of another country’s war will do nothing to help this process.

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No Olympic truce in Tripoli

…and here is the second, my final piece for openDemocracy from 29 July – just after returning to London from Lebanon.

Sadly my time in Lebanon has come to an end, at least for now. This week I have returned to the UK at a time when the eyes of the world are on London for the 2012 Olympic Games. I am living close to the Olympic Park, and the spectacle of the Games has electrified not just this area of the city, but the whole country.

Aside from the obvious values of competition and fair play, the Olympics also seeks to carry a message of peace. The tradition of the ‘Olympic Truce’, begun in the ancient Greek games to allow athletes to travel to and from the games safely, was revived by the International Olympic Committee in 1992, so that the Olympics might become an opportunity to promote peace and friendship across the nations. For this year’s games, the 193 UN member states unanimously co-sponsored an Olympic Truce resolution, calling for all nations to cease hostilities and seek reconciliation for the duration of the games.

But there has been no Olympic Truce back in Tripoli, North Lebanon. As the fireworks of the opening ceremony went off in London, gunfire was resounding once again in Tripoli. There has been sporadic shooting in the city in the two weeks since I left, and the most recent fighting, which has injured 12, has once again renewed local fears of escalating deadly clashes in the city of the sort last seen in June.

Granted, these disputes are internal rather than international, but the ideals of the Truce are equally applicable at the local level. The Truce-related initiatives this year have reflected this by seeking to promote “local solutions to local problems”:

“Preventing conflict and building peace requires the involvement of the local communities who are most affected. We are looking for opportunities to work with host governments, communities, faith groups, civil society and the media to build relationships across boundaries.”

The continued violence means that another opportunity for dialogue and reconciliation has been lost. It may be too much to ask that the fighters in Tripoli’s rival neighbourhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen forget their animosity. But just as sport allows for regulated competition through shared rules and structures, Tripoli’s fighters should be encouraged to compete and cooperate though the formalised systems of political participation.

The lack of an Olympic Truce in the city does not, however, mean that there are no peace initiatives in Tripoli. As has happened following previous clashes, some residents have sought to manifest their desire for peace in their city through dignified public demonstration in front of Tripoli’s Serail. The Olympic Games may be of limited relevance to many people’s day-to-day lives, but there are still plenty who embody its values and hope for a peaceful future for the city, and more widely for Lebanon.

Lebanon, Lebanoff: a nation in danger of stagnation

I’m finally updating the blog with my final two columns from the openDemocracy Arab Awakening section so that they’re all in the same place. Here is the first of those, from 16 July:

Sometimes it feels as though Lebanon is programmed to grind to a halt.  Beirut is infamous for its rush hour gridlock, and Lebanese people discuss traffic the way Brits discuss the weather. But recent months have seen this problem exacerbated by a seemingly unending series of road-blocking protests, where assorted protesters burn tyres and restrict traffic to make their voices heard. Barely a day goes by without such demonstrations strangling Lebanon’s traffic, and they cover an astonishingly varied set of grievances, including events in Syria, perceived abuses by the army, workers’ contracts, arrests, prisoner releases, petrol prices and even the eviction of vegetable sellers from their old selling grounds. Sunni Sheikh Ahmad Assir’s on-going sit-in protest on the highway into Saida, against Hezbollah’s arms, has garnered the most attention by virtue of its duration (now entering its third week) and continued aggravation for those living/working in the south. Remarkably, Saida merchants who have lost business due to the sit-in carried out their own road-blocking counter-protest this week.

But it’s not just traffic that isn’t flowing as it should. This month has seen the worsening of the country’s chronic electricity crisis, with blackouts exceeding 20 hours per day in some areas, due to severe power rationing from the state-owned Electricite du Liban, and faults at power plants. Only the privileged can afford to pay for generators to guarantee uninterrupted power supply, and so many have no choice but to accept darkness. As the summer heat starts to swelter here, power outages also mean it is hard for poorer families to keep food and their homes cool.

Even the internet ceased to function this month when almost the entire nation was knocked offline for the better part of three days after an undersea cable ruptured. That this happened on the same day that a UN report declaring access to the internet to be a human right only served to make the timing of this outage more embarrassing for the powers that be (though admittedly the UN report focused more on the intentional blocking of the internet for political ends). Lebanon’s internet is notoriously slow at the best of times, and provision exists in a state of near-monopoly. In a service-based economy like Lebanon’s, such problems cause not only frustration for the inhabitants, but also notable harm to businesses. From my own work I can testify to the loss of productivity that organisations such as NGOs can face with long internet outages.

Lebanon’s infrastructure has been damaged by repeated conflict, with the country even now still reeling from the destruction of civilian infrastructure (including power and water plants and transport infrastructure) by Israel in the 2006 war. A lack of investment, institutional inertia and crippling political gridlock mean that a solution to these problems is not immediately in sight.

People here generally discuss these difficulties with remarkable good humour, albeit with a tinge of exasperation and frequent curses directed at a government incapable of solving them. But in truth such stagnation is starting to bite, not only in terms of day-to-day frustration, but also the economic woes to which it is both contributor and symptom. Solutions need to be found, not least because in conflict-stalked countries like Lebanon such frustrations can get all-too-easily tangled up with political grievances and stir resentment and unrest.