Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Statue Of Liberty In Beirut

Lebanon requires a symbol to reawaken the concepts of equality and freedom in citizens amid all the political turmoil
By Joseph A. Kechichian
It used to be that Lebanon was the only Arab country that boasted genuine freedoms even if discrimination co-existed with liberty. While a Constitution guaranteed basic rights, the 1943 National Pact between Christians and Muslims etched freedoms for all, even if foreign interventions dampened its essence. Notwithstanding a bloody civil war, which cost the lives of over 100,000 civilians, the very spirit of liberty was seldom eradicated in the land of the cedars.
Ironically, and for well over 75 years, Beirut welcomed Arab dissidents while most of its elite were forced to emigrate. Today, serious demographic and socio-economic challenges mean that Lebanon is threatened by a new foe, just as Tunisians, Egyptians, Yemenis, Libyans, Syrians and others usher in epochal changes that literally ensure multiple awakenings.
Many are poised to surpass the Lebanese especially as the latter insist on destroying the freedoms that allow every dopy idea to find plenty of airtime.
With a new government in place, several competing programmes are now advanced to demonstrate competence where only incompetence prevails, and to sell a wary public seafront property in wastelands. It was ironic, for example, to read Energy Minister Gebran Bassil’s As-Safir interview in which he promised drilling for oil and gas resources by late 2012, even as Lebanon is in the middle of an international dispute over maritime borders with Israel.
The comical Bassil promised that the government would not be straddled with a drilling bill, allegedly because the designated company would assume all costs. In his perpetual zeal to impress a bewildered public, the minister did not identify the company that would, presumably, invest in disputed waters.
Regrettably, most Lebanese dismissed Bassil as a third-rate buffoon, although that was wrong. Rather, most should watch him like hawks, because of potential financial gains for those who sign lucrative contracts.
Bassil is not the only opportunist suffering from political amnesia. Prime Minister Najeeb Mikati embarked on equally problematic initiatives to distinguish himself from his predecessor. Ostensibly, the Sa’ad Hariri-led national unity government, which was painstakingly “created” after the Doha Accords, skirted major concerns though everyone seems to have forgotten conditions that prevented Beirut from accomplishing anything substantive.
Politics aside, the Lebanese continue to hammer for basics, including day-long electricity everywhere, the harnessing of water supplies instead of seeing the precious liquid go into the Mediterranean, delivering fast internet connections, and addressing the spiralling cost of living for a population that is still divided between the haves and the have-nots.
Whether Mikati and his team will manage to address these basic demands, not to mention horrible traffic, rising fuel prices, uncontrolled construction that literally removes mountains of forests only to replace them with luxury homes — at a time when there is a shortage of affordable housing — remains to be seen.
Above all else, however, the challenges that face Lebanon’s political elite are existential. Few officials dare to address glaring problems and while it was not possible to do so under Israeli and Syrian occupations, Beirut can no longer afford cosmetic changes. No one should be naive enough to assume that one party or one community can reconcile warring factions.
Regrettably, the Lebanese killed each other during the long civil war, though the army never actually opened fire on any demonstrators. Still, it is fair to ask what may be preventing the Lebanese today from respecting the law and, equally important, to wonder how Beirut can get out of its doldrums?
At the risk of sounding naive too, and to put it crudely, the primary reason why the Lebanese seem stuck in their positions is the absence of a living or fixed symbol that defines liberty for them.
When one visits New York harbour, Lady Liberty is there to greet you and, despite the vagaries of the ill-thought-out Patriot Act that stripped Americans of cherished freedoms, many still look up to the ideals she holds.
Visitors to Paris are greeted by the Arc de Triomphe, which honours those who fought and died for France in both the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars though the French also boast the Declaration of the Rights of Man.
Likewise, St Petersburg in Russia displays the huge Bronze Horseman statue of Peter the Great, which is a symbol of liberty for the city. Similar icons exist elsewhere.
Beirut needs a symbol of its own and while the old Martyr’s Square (Sahat Al Shuhadah) was briefly re-christened Liberty Square (Sahat Al Huriyyah) in 2005, few associate the majestic now bullet-riddled four statues there with freedom.  The old commemoration honoured Lebanese nationalists who were hanged during the First World War by Ottoman authorities in what was a quest for independence.
The time is ripe for architects to come up with a brand new symbol for Beirut, to restore its values through a new compact and a major arch  The Arch of Liberty — that will inspire a new generation to love the country.
Today, the challenges facing Lebanon are not limited to Hezbollah’s weapons, but also to the 1943 National Pact itself. While the 1989 Taif Accords amended the compact slightly, the country must reinvent the very idea of equality between all, with new symbols that will re-awaken in every citizen a hunger for, as well as the pursuit of, liberty. Until it is realised.
-This commentary was published in The GULF NEWS on 28/07/2011
-Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is a commentator and author of several books on Gulf affairs

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