Friday, March 11, 2011

An Odd Calm In Beirut

By Marc Lynch
This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 10/03/2011

I've spent the last few days in Beirut, thanks to a kind invitation from the American University of Beirut to give a talk about the role of the new media in the wave of Arab uprisings.  I took advantage of the trip to meet with a wide range of Lebanese politicians and political strategists, journalists and academics, as well as some local NGO specialists and some of that "youth" you hear so much about these days. And a really crazy taxi driver, but that's another story.  The highlight, perhaps, was the young woman at Saad Hariri's office, who had absolutely no idea who I was before I introduced myself, carefully perusing The Middle East Channel on her laptop.  

What struck me most about my conversations was the sense of calm, even complacency, in the Lebanese political class about the stability of the political scene and of their relative insulation from the wave of Arab protests.   Across political trends, few seemed especially worried that Lebanon would experience any kind of protest wave, or that the forthcoming indictments by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon would lead to any particular turbulence. Indeed, there was little sense that they were especially affected by the Arab revolutions.  I can't quite decide whether to be reassured by this confidence that Lebanon really was different, or worried that it reflects an out-of-touch political elite about to be rudely surprised.  

The argument for Lebanon's relative insulation from the Arab protest wave has some merits.  The confessional system means that there is no single, consensus focal point for discontent, and great difficulty in organizing any kind of cross-confessional movement. Egyptians could all agree that Mubarak must go and Tunisians could agree on Ben Ali, but Lebanese would have to focus on the relative abstraction of the confessional system (I really don't think that Hezbollah's weapons can be such a unifying focus for popular mobilization, despite the hopes of the March 14 strategists).  There had in fact recently been a youth protest against the confessional system, but almost everyone I talked to dismissed the call as unrealistic --- an admirable goal for the distant future, but impractical today and probably a trojan horse for Shi'a power-seeking according to some of the Christians.

Besides the deep structure of the confessional system, many pointed to the intensely polarized, bipolar nature of the current political Lebanese system as an obstacle to such a popular movement.  Also, the crowded television media environment in Lebanon means that al-Jazeera can't command the same kind of overwhelming attention which it attracts in other Arab countries.  Finally, for what it's worth, many in the March 14 camp argued that the Cedar Revolution had already been the Lebanese version of today's Arab uprisings.  I don't know... is this more convincing than the "Egypt isn't Tunisia" talk of which we heard so much in the days before January 25?

I was more surprised at the extent to which the Tribunal's reportedly upcoming indictments are now taken in stride, in sharp contrast to the hysteria a few months ago about impending civil war. I heard from both sides of the political divide that the constant discussion of the likely indictments of Hezbollah has in a sense neutralized it as an issue.  It's already been so thoroughly aired that there won't be a major shock, people on both sides suggested, and neither side has any interest in seeing an escalation to street violence.  Even March 14 partisans grudgingly acknowledge, for the most part, that the Tribunal now suffers from a credibility problem -- even if they didn't like what I wrote about it a few months ago, bitterly dispute the critique, fervently hope for justice to be done, and blame it on Hezbollah propaganda.  

The main way that my contacts see the Arab uprisings affecting Lebanon is through their impact on the broader regional environment and particular actors.  Tunisia didn't matter much to them, but the fall of Mubarak and Omar Suleiman removed their role from the Lebanese arena.  I heard less about Libya than about Bahrain, which most seemed to view through a sectarian lens, and concerns about Saudi Arabia and Jordan.  There is some concern about what Israel might do, but it doesn't seem to be a pressing issue. Interestingly, I heard little support for the notion that regional events were increasing Iran's power, even from people from whom I might have expected it, and even less for the idea that the uprisings were good for the United States.  And almost all insisted repeatedly and urgently that the United States needed to push Israel towards serious peace talks with the Palestinians if it hoped to see moderate or pro-American forces succeeding in the new Arab environment.  

This isn't to say that the political scene is quiet, of course.  Elite politics goes on with all its intensity and gamesmanship. March 14 has decided to not join the new government of Najib Mikati, and seems somewhat liberated by the luxury of political opposition. They plan a large rally for Sunday which will focus on the issue of Hezbollah's arms.  There is the usual bickering and in-fighting over government portfolios, and the usual polarization.  But all of this seems to be understood as elite politics as usual. 

Frankly, it seems odd for Lebanon to feel so calm while the whole Arab world is in turmoil.  And after watching so many other Arab publics join in the protest wave, I can't help but wonder whether the elites are misjudging the potential for different forms of mobilization.   Strange times....  

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