Tag Archives: politics

Lebanon: The trouble with Tripoli

This is my first bi-weekly column for the Arab Awakening section at openDemocracy.net. You can find the original here, and I strongly suggest taking a look at the excellent articles from my fellow columnists here: http://www.opendemocracy.net/arab-awakening/this-weeks-window-on-middle-east-may-21-2012. I’ll be posting my columns on Lebanonsense after they go up there, and will hopefully still have time to update this blog with other thoughts and photos as I go.


Last week clashes erupted across Tripoli, North Lebanon, killing nine and wounding over 50 more  . At the time of writing the fighting has abated, with the army presiding over a fragile peace, but some fear these hostilities are a sign of Lebanon’s infection by the violence in neighbouring Syria and consequent descent into conflict.

When I went through Tripoli as the initial protest was just starting up, Sunni Islamists were beginning a sit-in on Tripoli’s al Nour square, blocking the main road through the city. They were demonstrating for the release of Shadi al-Mawlawi, an activist who had purportedly been lured by security services under false pretences  and arrested for association with a terrorist group.

Road-blocking protests are common here, and it is often possible to tell whether there are problems in Tripoli by the increased traffic diverted through the road outside my workplace northeast of the city. This protest, however, unravelled into a series of fire-fights centred on the pro-Assad Alawite community of Jabal Mohsen, and the opposing Sunni community of Bab al-Tabbaneh. These two districts, separated appropriately enough by ‘Syria Street’, have a Montague and Capulet-esque history of violence between them, and such clashes are treated by locals as a fact of life. Nevertheless, the increased intensity, duration and spread of the fighting this time are cause for concern.

International media have tended to frame this as ‘spill-over’ from Syria  . The civil conflict there certainly has an impact here, and the two communities justify their fighting with reference to events unfolding across the border. Nevertheless the story in Tripoli is more complex than simple metastasization of Syria’s violence. North Lebanon is home to a majority-Sunni population who suffered considerably under the Syrian occupation of Lebanon that ended in 2005. Animosity and resentment therefore existed toward the Syrian-associated Alawites long before the uprising across the border. But a more important root to the current violence is the poverty blighting these communities. It is no secret that Tripoli is neglected in terms of investment, education, public services and employment compared to Beirut. Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen are not just the centre of ideological animosity, but also among the most deprived communities in Lebanon, with approximately 20% of men  there being unemployed.

Ideological difference, competitive victimhood, cramped geography and socioeconomic deprivation make for a dangerous mix, and many here see the fighters as pawns of higher political powers seeking to secure their influence in Lebanon ahead of next year’s elections. Of those I have spoken to, some regard al-Mawlawi’s arrest as intentional provocation by pro-Assad interests seeking to goad Lebanon towards supporting the regime, and its associates in Lebanon, by fomenting strife in the north. Others suggest that the protesting Salafists were awaiting an excuse for a show of strength, and al-Mawlawi’s arrest provided just such an opportunity. Whoever is seen as the main agitator, people fear that increasing brinksmanship is a sign that both groups perceive zero-hour as fast approaching, and that wider conflict is unavoidable.

Lebanon’s population has almost incalculable variation – and polarisation – along religious, political and community lines. Tripoli is a microcosm of that, and the stark economic and social realities for many living here make these divisions all the more salient. The chances of Lebanon-wide conflict remain low, restrained by the still-fresh memories of the destruction of the civil war. Nevertheless Syria’s turmoil will continue to cause ripples, as disenfranchised and frustrated communities frame their distress in terms of political grievances. If Tripoli is to avoid spiralling into further chaos, efforts must be made to understand and deal with underlying issues, rather than dismissing the violence as an unavoidable side-effect of Syria’s internal strife.

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‘No More Heroes’: The death of musical protest

NB: For each artist I’ve mentioned I’ve linked to a YouTube video of one of their political songs (and included a Spotify playlist here: http://spoti.fi/GIc8M1), so you can have a listen while you read, should you be so inclined. All except for Bob Dylan, because apparently he, or Sony Media Entertainment, don’t believe in this whole YouTube thing. They’re right though, you know. YouTube will never catch on…

‘What ever happened to protest songs?’ The thought has stayed with me for a couple of days now, ever since my media player’s shuffle – my eternal nemesis and occasional best friend – threw up ‘Tomorrow is a Highway’ by Pete Seeger. In the UK, amid unemployment, record public spending cuts, NHS reforms and ‘granny taxes’, some people are rather miffed. There have been strikes and street protests, opposition groups such as UK Uncut have formed, and those opposing cuts use media – old and new – to fight their corner. Around the world, from the Occupy movement to the Arab Spring, people are fighting for rights and justice. But there’s something missing.

Every resistance period in the latter half of the 20th Century had a soundtrack. 1960s to early 70s America, the era of McCarthyism and civil rights and anti-war protest, produced an incredible number of powerful, enduring political songs. Their writers and singers crossed pretty much every genre boundary: Folk and Country (Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Odetta, Richie Havens), Soul and R&B (Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Edwin Starr), Rock and Pop (Creedence Clearwater Revival, Buffalo Springfield, The Beatles, The Doors), and even Reggae (Jimmy Cliff, Delroy Wilson).

Later periods of protest similarly saw politicised music. The late 70s – early 80’s saw a wave of ska and punk bands who railed against the politics of the day (The Clash, The Specials, The Beat, and the Sex Pistols being the most obvious). As the decade progressed and Thatcherism hit full-swing in the UK, so did musical opposition, with Folk once again all playing its part in popular resistance against Thatcherism (Rory McLeod, Elvis Costello, Billy Bragg). International political events were covered too, with songs about South African apartheid, the Iranian Revolution and the Cold War. Similarly the late 80s to early 90s saw the renaissance of Hip-Hop-as-activism, highlighting popular anger against police brutality and social injustices affecting black communities in the US (N.W.A., Public Enemy, 2Pac, KRS-One)

So, given the many problems and crises of the 21st century so far – two disastrous wars easily comparable with Vietnam, the global recession, climate change – where is the soundtrack? Why are there no popular songs dedicated to the Occupy movement? Or songs from Western musicians about the Arab Spring? The only political music since the millennium that comes easily to mind are the pro-American country singers in America such as Toby Keith, and the admittedly long list of songs about 9/11. Though there were some protest songs in the 00’s, and taking into account the powerful effects of nostalgia on memory, none can be said to have the achieved mass-popularity or enduring status of previous eras.

In fact, what political music the decade did produce tended instead tended to come from older artists, filling a gap left by the politically apathetic or uncertain current generation of artists (Billy Bragg again, UB40). Those songs made by our generation’s musicians that are ostensibly political (e.g. Muse) are self-consciously presented by artists without discussion of context or agenda, meaning that any political message comes through as confused and oblique.

A possible reason for the lack of political music is the increasing commercialisation of the industry. The argument goes that, as record companies want to increase their profits as much as possible, they aren’t going to risk allowing bands to make overtly political statements which could divide their audience. Commercialisation is not new to music, however. After all, the most successful song of the Woodstock summer of 1969 was ‘Sugar, Sugar’ by manufactured bubblegum-pop band ‘The Archies’. The availability of modern non-commercial outlets (including YouTube) and the ease of self-publicity and promulgation through social media mean that the opportunity is there for artists to break away from commercial interests and create political anthems for our age. But why is this not being used? There are notable exceptions, such as the ‘Andrew Lansley Rap’ which protested NHS reforms last year and the work of occasional Rap-Satirist Dan Bull, but these are few and far between.

There are also examples of bands which try to promote a political perspective, but their artists now tend to use their celebrity to carry the message more than their music. Those who try, such as Bono or Chris Martin, have been successful in many of their aims, but are often sneered at and attacked for perceived excesses of piety and holier-than-thou attitudes. Our society loves to hate celebrities, and so the inevitable outcome of trying to use fame to promote a political viewpoint is now that people will thrill to find a way to discredit and point out inconsistencies and hypocrisies.

Maybe this can help explain why protest music has died. Having seen cycles of protest and disaffection for so many years, maybe society has simply stopped believing that things will be different. Perhaps we are also more selfish than at any point in our history. In the UK, the most powerful civil disobedience of the last 10 years has not been a protest or a demonstration – it has been a riot. And though the UK riots of last year had manifold subtle political and social causes, the ultimate direction behind it was not to change the status quo, or even to vent anger and frustration. Instead, the protest centred on ownership: trainers, televisions and trolleys full of food from Lidl.

Music is important to protest. It carries messages, speaks our minds, and motivates us to action by activating our emotions. Perhaps in some ways political music has been usurped by technology, with social media now the main vector for popular political communication. But there is more to it than that, and I suspect that the same cultural and psychosocial processes that are dampening directed political mass-protest in the West also inhibit its musical representation. Local and global political struggles mean that the ground is furrowed, ready for a new musical movement. Will we see one? Only time will tell.

PS: Clearly this article only really focuses on protest in the West. There is a significant musical component to the message of the ‘Arab Spring’, with the MENA region rising to a mixture of traditional political and religious songs with Rap and Hip-Hop. Sadly my Arabic and knowledge of local music isn’t good enough to delve deeply into this, but I can at least attest that every protest I have seen in my time here (usually pro- or anti-Assad) has involved demonstrators hooking up huge amps and blaring out chants and songs. It appears that the soundtrack of resistance is not silent everywhere.

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Debates on Syria – a view from the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon

It can be hard as an outsider to see what keeps people killing. Our news channels are filled with images of death and destruction from Homs and Idlib, with estimates that as many as 7,500-8,000 civilians have died in the whole of Syria so far. We see protests – students and fighters, men and women – crying out for freedom. Yet the government continues the oppression with impunity, now seeming to move from town to town, making no distinction between civilian and combatant.

A lot of these images come to us through Arab media outlets like Al Jazeera. With ever-decreasing trust in British media and a growing public understanding of cultural distortion and bias, there is a thirst for something ‘real’. When we see Al Jazeera, Qatari-owned and serving largely-Muslim populations, it seems to be the best way to access ‘reality’ amidst the drama of the Arab Spring. That trust is not always shared by people in the Middle East, however, who are wary of an entirely different set of biases.

Sat in a barber’s shop in one of the oft-forgotten Palestinian refugee camps here in Lebanon, I got talking to a friend who told me why he supports Assad. It is his firm belief that the Syrian rebels are being armed by Gulf States who sought influence in Syria. He switched on the TV in the shop, and showed me Syrian state news, at that moment showing an apparently peaceful Homs and interviews with locals who said such things as “God praise the army” and “Now we are free from the terrorists”. The segment ended on a light-hearted scene, with the reporter signing off from inside the scoop of a digger helping to repair some of the damage. Quite different from the panicked scenes we are used to from the media we access back home.

He also told me of another report that had been showing on Syrian news the last few days, purportedly showing Al Jazeera reporters adding drama to their reports by timing them to coincide with the sound of bombs, and even bandaging children in hospitals and telling them what to say in interviews. It’s hardly surprising that the mouthpiece media of a violently oppressive regime would to seek to manipulate opinion and discredit rivals, but it did serve as a reminder that, for people here, Al Jazeera is seen as a pro-Gulf propaganda voice in a sea of many competing accounts. The diverse array of news outlets means that people can, and will, choose the narrative that best fits what they already believe.

On civilian deaths his response was troublingly blasé, regarding them as unavoidable collateral damage in a legitimate urban war against insurgency, something all the more chilling as a reminder of the official Western line in Iraq and Afghanistan. His final point though was something I couldn’t escape easily. How can Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar demand democracy and representation in Syria when their own people do not have such privileges? And why do they pursue to a violent solution, seeking to arm the rebels, rather than pressuring for dialogue and reform?

My friend’s opinions were surprising – he’s a kind, calm and thoughtful guy, and not the deranged fanaticist we may expect from a vehement Assad supporter. By contrast one fierce opponent of the Syrian regime I spoke to was much more violent in his language when asked his opinion: “[Assad] has to go. When they catch him, they should do what they did to Gaddafi and kill him. But before they kill him, they should fuck him. I should be there when that happens.”

It can be confusing living in the Middle East. The sheer number of narratives, identities and competing power interests mean it is difficult to settle on a firm understanding of events. I have no doubt where my sympathies instinctively lie in Syria – empathy for people’s suffering and belief in self-determination and democracy mean I hope for change in what is undoubtedly a brutal regime, though I don’t necessarily trust the intentions of all the rebels – but it is increasingly unclear how best to get to a solution that would bring long-term peace. The case for intervention seems strong, but the nature of power, identity and influence in the region means we run the risk of replacing one type of oppression for another. Alternatively, the slow transition to reform the Assad has offered seems disingenuous and unlikely to lead to the sorts of freedom so desired by his opponents.

Ultimately, it is fear that keeps people killing. For soldiers on the ground, it may be fear that defection would be suicide. For those seeking revolution, it is fear of destruction and continued oppression. But the supporters of the regime, many of them ordinary men and women inside and outside of Syria, have fears too. They fear violent retribution at the hands of the rebels should the regime fall. They fear the ulterior motives of foreign powers (Gulf States, Israel, the West), perhaps no surprise given the history of external control that has determined so much of people’s lives in the region. As the difficult rebirths of Libya, Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt show, finding a solution that can allay everyone’s fears will be very difficult indeed.

PS: For anyone interested in what I consider to be the best hope for Syria, and there’s no reason you should be, I would recommend ICG’s briefing paper on the topic. The field is too divided for a military solution but the status quo is hardly acceptable and will probably lead the state to fail in the long-term. I think ICG over-state the centrality of Russia in this, as the regime is probably too strong for the rebels to effectively overcome even without Russian support, but getting them onside with a genuine all-party negotiated solution would definitely be a huge step. Russia have today started to change the tone of their usual embuggerance stance on Syria and said they would support Annan’s peace plan, but how much difference this makes remains to be seen.

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