Saturday, January 15, 2011

Lebanon: In Precarious Position, Once Again

By Musa Keilani
This commentary was published in The Jordan Times on 16/01/2011
The dichotomy between the Arab masses and their political leaders can be found in Lebanon: the official support goes for the Hariri groups while the masses regard Hizbollah as the only power worthy of support.

The crisis in Lebanon resulting from the dispute between the political camps of Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the Islamic movement Hizbollah comes at a time when the Arab world is trying to lift the logjam in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. A wasted exercise that might indeed be, but efforts to arrive at a fair and just solution to the Palestinian-Israeli problem simply cannot be given up.

The Lebanese crisis, resulting from opposite positions over the work of the UN tribunal investigating the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2006, is indeed worrisome. An eruption of armed violence cannot be ruled out; some pundits suggest that Hizbollah, the strongest military force in Lebanon, and its Christian ally Michel Aoun might seek to seize control of key parts of the country.

The United States and its allies in Europe are aware of the danger and are taking measures to deal with the eventuality of Hizbollah using military force to paralyse Lebanon. Hizbollah, which is riding high on support from Iran and Syria, is unlikely to succumb to warnings and pressure from the West. It is bent upon having its way in the country.

Equally strong is the US determination not to let that happen. The administration of President Barack Obama is backed by European and Arab countries in this context. According to reports in the Israeli press, Obama has ordered US warships to support the Sixth Fleet stationed in the eastern Mediterranean with the USS Enterprise carrier and its strike group with 6,000 sailors and marines aboard and 80 fighter bombers. The USS Bainbridge missile destroyer is also in the area. France is also beefing up its naval strength in Eastern Mediterranean.

The moves, which took place over last weekend and continued through the week, were meant to be a signal to Iran and Hizbollah that the US-led West is prepared to use military force to defend the government of Saad Hariri. Now that Hizbollah and its allies have brought down the government, it seems that they are determined to go ahead with their plans. They might be aiming at securing better political strength through the crisis.

No one wants a new civil war in Lebanon and an intervention by Israel, which is waiting for the right opportunity to destroy Hizbollah might backfire. However, the crisis in Lebanon is very serious. It is yet another reflection of Iranian interference in Arab affairs.

The most visible sign of Iranian moves in Lebanon is the repeated declarations by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which is investigating the Hariri assassination, and its rulingsare not valid since they serve “foreign interests”. Iran ignores that the STL is backed by the UN and was created in response to a request by the sovereign government of Lebanon.

There might indeed be politics involved, but that does not negate the fact that political assassinations should not be tolerated and those behind such actions should be brought to justice. At the same time, no one should tamper with independent investigations that could lead to a fair and just conclusion.

Israel, which is itching to “avenge” the humiliation it suffered in its 2006 war against Lebanon, has been beating the drums of war against Hizbollah for some time. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week that Hizbollah has in its possession as many as 60,000 missiles and rockets, all of Iranian and Syrian origin. Former head of Mossad Meir Dagan asserted that only 10 countries in the world have the firepower equivalent to that of Hizbollah’s.

According to an Israeli report, “it is definitely on the cards for an Iranian-Hizbollah move in Lebanon provoking a US-French military response to evolve into a clash between Hizbollah and Israel, providing an opportunity for the destruction of Hizbollah’s mighty missile arsenal”.

Obviously, it is not as much the crisis over the STL as the push against Hizbollah that is at play in Lebanon.

Many around the world, including Arab countries, applauded Hizbollah when it not only withstood the Israeli onslaught in 2006 but also took the war to Israeli cities and towns. Since then, however, Hizbollah has sought only to impose its will on the country.

There has to be a peaceful solution to the crisis in Lebanon, but not at the cost of sacrificing democratic principles and the broader national interests of the country. Ideally, external powers should stay away from interference in any country’s internal affairs.

In the case of Lebanon, Hizbollah and its allies seem determined to draw in Iranian intervention; the record of Lebanese groups is such that it would not take much for them to react to that move and reciprocateby drawing their guns and starting to fire away, forcing the international community to intervene.

In Peril: The Arab Status Quo

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters
DOWNFALL Tunisian protesters drove President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali from power on Friday.

Last week, Lebanon found itself on familiar ground. Yet another iteration of a six-year crisis over who will rule the country paralyzed an already feeble government. Lebanese were anxious but not distraught: During the crisis, they have spent more months without a functioning government than with one, and have survived.

Sudan was on the brink of partition, as black Africans in the south were voting for independence from their Arab rulers in the north, with whom they have fought two of history’s bloodiest civil wars. Iraq is not quite the old order, but even there, the legions who follow the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr — marginalized, edgy and determined to inherit the country — poured into the streets of a sacred city to welcome back their leader, who soon made clear that he would be a force with which American allies in Iraq would have to reckon.

Most recently and most spectacularly, Tunisia was swept up in protests over joblessness, corruption and too many years under one of the heaviest hands in the Arab world, forcing a dictator to flee and electrifying the Arab world.

“The people have woken up and revolted against you,” a polemic in Arabic on Facebook told President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. “We’ve said our opinion: We hate you. The Tunisian people will not be oppressed. Resign immediately!”

It’s still early, but 2011 may prove the year that the status quo in the Middle East proved untenable and began falling apart.

In the streets of the Tunisian summer getaway of Hammamet, in the seething quarters of Sadr City or in the claustrophobic neighborhoods of Beirut, hopelessly divided by the most primordial of religious and clan loyalties, Arab states looked exhausted, ossified and ideologically bankrupt, surviving merely to perpetuate themselves. Never has the divide between ruler and ruled seemed so yawning, and perhaps never has it been so dangerous.

“What we are witnessing is the collapse of the Arab state,” Alfadel Chalak wrote in his column Friday in the leftist Beirut newspaper As Safir, channeling a sentiment often heard these days. “Wherever we look across the Arab world, we see wars. We see civil wars, wars among ethnicities, wars between sects and ethnicities, wars among sects, and wars among authorities, sects, ethnicities and the poor,” Mr. Chalak wrote. “Wars among an Arab world that doesn’t have an elite or leadership that draws strategies and tactics that lead to salvation. Therefore, it looks as if we are going to witness for years and maybe decades to come a great deal of devastation, destruction and killing.”

On Dec. 1, 2006, hundreds of thousands of supporters of the Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah poured into Beirut’s tony downtown, itself a symbol of the country’s recovery from a 15-year civil war that stopped in 1990 but was never really resolved. The demonstrators, backed by Iran and Syria, were challenging the government and its supporters, who were backed by the United States, France and Saudi Arabia. Soon the protesters gathered around the statue of one of Lebanon’s founders, Riyadh al-Solh, posing a question that was asked at Lebanon’s independence in 1943 and so often since:

What kind of Lebanon?

The collision of two Lebanons that had co-existed uneasily since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 manifested itself again in a new crisis last week that is really a version of the old one. Despite a truce reached in Doha in 2008 — truce being a relative term here — the same questions have gone unanswered: whether Lebanon hews to a culture of resistance to Israel or accommodation with it; whether Hezbollah’s allies or the government’s exert more influence; whether Hezbollah itself — and by default, the Shiite Muslim community it represents — reigns supreme; and finally, though hardest to decide, which side gets to define the way that Lebanon imagines itself.

The constant in all those disputes is the utter inability of the state to arbitrate.

“The rules are still being negotiated,” said Peter Harling, an analyst with the International Crisis Group in Damascus, Syria. “The Doha agreement was a truce and nothing more than a truce with a temporary set of rules, but fundamentally, the rules that will define the balance of forces — or the power-sharing formula, if you want — between the players in Lebanon are still being negotiated.”

Lebanon’s dysfunction is an extreme case. Its system of spoils — power divided rigidly among religious communities — offers protections to minorities but makes a sham of a broader notion of citizenship. But the failure of the state here is by no means unique. Iraq’s government, still populated by exiles who returned after the American invasion of 2003, has shown a remarkable inability to resolve that country’s most pressing questions. You only have to listen to the curses directed at it every time the electricity goes out (which is often). In Egypt after the church attack, the state television blared nationalist anthems that did little to drown out the deep frustration at a proud nation’s decline. The protests in Tunisia seemed to be a metaphor: At some point, you can only bear so much.
“Transitions are pending,” said Robert Malley, an expert on the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group in Washington. He listed the reasons for the beginning of an end: “The loss of energy, the loss of steam among many of these so-called moderate Arab countries, the loss of any purpose around which they can rally other than the simple survival of the regimes themselves.”

In a way, dynamism in the Arab world has simply gone elsewhere. It could be argued that Iran and Turkey, non-Arab states that aggressively pursue divergent aims in the Middle East, play far greater political roles in the Arab world than any single Arab state. Hassan Nasrallah, the stentorian secretary general of Hezbollah, regularly wins popularity contests in the region. (The leaders of Iran and Turkey fare well, too.)

Mr. Malley said their momentum stemmed from a sense of mission: “They do seem to have some purpose around which they are rallying.”

The miserable state of affairs in the Arab world is often seen here as the detritus of Sykes-Picot, the 1916 agreement that was the highlight of Britain’s and France’s deceitful machinations to divvy up the spoils of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. They drew borders that forged only more divisions (Lebanon), imposed monarchs where their families had no roots (Jordan and Iraq), and created a climate of conspiracy in a region where conspiracies are still hatched. The creation of Israel followed, helping give rise to Arab national-security states that claimed legitimacy through their conflict with it.

The United States is also blamed here for helping distort the more modern version of these polities, by failing to end the Arab-Israeli conflict, rejecting engagement with Islamist movements and helping prop up governments like Egypt’s and Saudi Arabia’s that seem incapable of reforming themselves. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton scolded some of those allies last week for that lack of reform, though forgoing mention that some of the most dictatorial are some of America’s closest allies.

What is said about Western mistakes seems true enough, but it lacks a certain self-reflection on the states’ own failures.

For a while, the charisma and popularity of bygone leaders like Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt and Abdel-Karim Qassem in Iraq might have masked the states’ failures. Though harsh and oppressive, they are still viewed with nostalgia in their countries, not least because their successors seem so timid and lackluster. The moment back then was headier, too, buoyed by post-colonial optimism. Whatever else can be said about Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia, it is hard to imagine an Arab leader ostentatiously drinking orange juice on television during the month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. “A modern nation cannot afford to stop for a month every year,” he declared. Right or wrong, the gesture was dramatic, though it earned him plenty of enemies.

Today’s notion of drama is the man who overthrew him, Mr. Ben Ali, offering this concession to angry protesters: He would not serve as president for life. The protesters were not satisfied.
The states have failed to foster pluralism and a universal sense of citizenship. Miserable governance fosters narrower identities as Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and so on. Lebanon’s illness — rigid identities that breed parochial chauvinisms — is becoming less and less the exception.

More tangibly, the many educated young remain frustrated. They might have the basics a state provides, but no future, that bygone notion that tomorrow will be better than yesterday. That is Tunisia, in a potential glimpse ahead.

“What’s happened is there’s been an accumulation of frustration and some anger and some bitterness, a combination of a lack of political rights, shrinking economic opportunities, abuse of power, the dominance of the security state, all these things,” said Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. “We’ve kind of passed the tipping point.”

Why Couldn't The United States Change 'Syria With A Smile'?

By David Kenner
This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 15/01/2011

As protesters overwhelmed former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's security forces in Tunis, the regional office of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), the George W. Bush administration's signature democracy promotion organization, watched as its mandate was fulfilled in the most unlikely of places. It is, to say the least, an awkward bit of symbolism. MEPI defines its mission as "develop[ing] more pluralistic, participatory, and prosperous societies." And in the country where it is based, the Tunisian people proved themselves to be uniquely and spectacularly unhappy with their regime.

But according to current and former democracy promotion advocates in the U.S. government, the decision to base MEPI's offices in Tunisia was made because the embassy had enough free space to accommodate its staff, and the country was thought to be stable enough to not interfere with the organization's sometimes controversial work.

Scott Carpenter, a former deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bush administration who oversaw the creation of MEPI, said that the Ben Ali regime was "constantly paranoid" about the organization's presence in the country, and never allowed it to undertake significant democracy promotion programs. As a result, "we were doing a lot of stuff very, very quietly - not to say covert, but very quietly," Carpenter said.

The Ben Ali regime's hostility to any efforts to open up the political system was attested to by other Western diplomats who served in Tunis. Alan Goulty, who served as the British ambassador in the country from 2004 to 2008, said that the government would constantly raise the specter of terrorism to discourage any contact with Tunisian opposition figures.

"There was one explosion in 1987 of a bomb, where a British lady was wounded and lost her leg," Goulty said. "I lost count of the times that Tunisian officials, 15 years later, reminded me of that incident to justify their claims that the Tunisian opposition, whatever form it took, was terrorist."

In theory, the European Union should have had considerable economic and political leverage to convince the Ben Ali regime to liberalize. Trade between EU member states and Tunisia in 2009 was in excess of $20 billion - by comparison, total U.S. imports and exports to the country were valued at around $800 million. The EU association agreement with Tunisia also provided a ready-made avenue for discussion human rights and political liberalization. In practice, however, EU efforts in the country were anemic at best.

"Frankly, the EU always pulled its punches [on democracy promotion], because of the need to operate unanimously," said Goulty. "And a different approach was taken by [our] Mediterranean partners, principally France and Italy, who believed that the best way forward was to get close to the regime and further one's economic interests."

In fact, the primary contribution that the United States made to Tunisia's recent unrest was neglect. As U.S. relations with the other North African states improved over the past two decades, the relative importance of Tunisia as a U.S. ally in the region declined. U.S. diplomats may not have had much success promoting liberalization in the country, but the national security implications of the fall of Ben Ali's regime raised steadily fewer concerns in Washington.

David Mack, currently a scholar at the Middle East Institute, served as the deputy chief of mission of the U.S. embassy in Tunisia from 1979 to 1982. "If you go back to the time when I was there, our relations were disappearing with Libya, we had poor relations with Algeria, and strained relationships in many parts of the Muslim world," he noted. "But the reality is that today Tunisia plays a smaller role overall in U.S. strategic political calculation."

However, diplomats insisted that Tunisia's apparent stability under Ben Ali did not cause them to underestimate the population's grievances with his regime. A prescient June 2009 cable released by WikiLeaks criticizes the "sclerotic" regime, which it says has "lost touch with the Tunisian people." The same memo complains that "make it exceptionally difficult for the US Mission to conduct business" and meet with regime opponents.

Those who spent time in the country seconded that assessment. "The place was so sterile -- you just feel people's fear, and the complete lack of dynamism in the society," said Carpenter. "Within the State Department we used to refer to it as ‘Syria with a smile.'"  

Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution

By Mona Eltahawy
This commentary was published in The Washington Times on 15/01/2011

For 23 years, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali presided over the most tightly run ship in the Arab world. So perfect a police state was his Tunisia, with its ubiquitous informers and portraits of the president, that no one predicted Ben Ali's ship could capsize.

But capsize it did Friday, after a 29-day popular uprising against unemployment, police brutality and the regime's corruption. It was the worst unrest since Ben Ali took over.

Not once in my 43 years have I thought that I'd see an Arab leader toppled by his people. It is nothing short of poetic justice that it was neither Islamists nor invasion-in-the-name-of-democracy that sent the waters rushing onto Ben Ali's ship but, rather, the youth of his country.

Their rage at political and economic disenfranchisement spilled over last month with the desperate act of an unemployed man. Mohammed Bouazizi, 26, distraught when police confiscated his unlicensed produce stand, set himself on fire on Dec. 17 and died on Jan. 3. Soon, several other unemployed youth tried to commit suicide, and at least one of them did. Is there a more poignant portrayal of what ails the Arab world than images of its young people killing themselves as their leaders get older and richer?

Human rights groups say more than 60 people have died in clashes with Ben Ali's security forces since Dec. 17, but Bouazizi's self-immolation has come to symbolize what many are calling the Jasmine Revolution.

Tunisia is a typical Middle East country in that its population is composed largely of young people. Half the population is under 25 years of age and so have known no leader other than Ben Ali, who was only Tunisia's second president since it gained independence from France in 1956.

For decades, a host of Arab dictators have justified their endless terms in office by pointing to Islamists waiting in the wings. Having both inflated the egos and power of Islamists and scared Western allies into accepting stability over democracy, those leaders were left to comfortably sweep "elections." Ben Ali was elected to a fifth term with 89.62 percent of the vote in 2009.

All around him is a depressingly familiar pattern. Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi (68 years old) has been in power since 1969; Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh (64) has ruled since 1978 and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (82) since 1981. Algeria's Abdelaziz Bouteflika (73) is a relative newcomer, having been in power only since 1999. Not so much fathers as grandfathers of their nations, these autocrats cling to office - and are increasingly out of touch with their young populaces.

No doubt, every Arab leader has watched Tunisia's revolt in fear while citizens across the Arab world watch in solidarity, elated at that rarity: open revolution.

"Goosebumps all over. I can't believe I lived through an Arab revolution!! Thank you, Tunisia!" tweeted Gigi Ibrahim, a young Egyptian woman whose handle is Gsquare86. "The power of the masses is capable of toppling any dictatorship. Today was Tunisia. Tomorrow is Egypt, Jordan. LONG LIVE REVOLUTION!"

Social media, where young Arabs organize and speak out against their respective regimes, have given the world a clear view of the thoughts, hopes and videos of Tunisians. For days, I have been glued to Twitter, on which events in Tunisia are discussed much faster than mainstream media could report them.

"Tunis now: the chants continue 'No to Ben Ali even if we die,' " tweeted a Tunisian who joined the 6,000 to 7,000 protesting outside the Interior Ministry hours before Ben Ali fled.
Tunisia is not a major U.S. ally. On Jan. 7, the State Department said it was concerned about the regime's online and real-life crackdown. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Jan. 12 that Washington would not take sides, infuriating those who saw a double standard in the vocal U.S. position on Iran.

But others saw encouragement from Washington's reticence. U.S. leaders are "supporting us with their silence," a Tunisian told me on Twitter. "If they say anything, we will lose."

As Arabs everywhere marvel, those in Tunis still seem grounded. Even as Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannoushi announced on state television Friday that he had taken over, people noted online that the acting president was part of Ben Ali's despised inner circle. Surely Ghannoushi is aware that Tunisians who have faced down live ammunition, curfews and tanks on the street the past month have little appetite for more of the same leadership.

Indeed, one Tunisian tweeted me: "What is unfolding is another dictatorship, we must continue the battle!"

Tunisians were fed up with not just Ben Ali but the "quasi mafia" surrounding him, as the family and cronies were described in a WikiLeaks cable, because of their "organized corruption." President Obama issued a statement on Friday in support of the Tunisian people and calling for free and fair elections.

Ben Ali imprisoned or chased into exile viable alternatives to his rule, so what comes next politically is not clear. But the world is watching this small Arab country and wondering if this is the first step in ridding the region of its granddaddies.

Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-born writer and lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues. Her e-mail address is

Lebanon: The Intermingling Of The Domestic And The Foreign

By Walid Choucair
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 14/01/2011

Lebanon’s entry into the unknown means that the questions are multiplying, while the answers are becoming fewer, if not disappearing entirely. Among the many questions: do the current developments in Lebanon resemble those of the phase that preceded the dispute over the extension of the mandate of President Emile Lahoud? This period resulted in the issuing of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559, as events then moved toward the assassination of former Premier Rafiq Hariri. Or, has Lebanon entered a phase such as that which preceded the political struggle and long-term tent-city protest in Downtown Beirut, which led to the military actions of 7 May 2008, to change the political balance of power that had been produced by the post-Hariri assassination period? Does the chain of events, after the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri was brought down, signal the end of the regional-international understanding over Lebanon, with the small country set now to see waves of crisis, and Arab and international efforts, such as those that led to failure after failure following the eruption of civil war in 1975? This was followed by Israeli wars against Lebanon, domestic wars, occupations, areas of influence, and the division of state institutions by force.

There are no clear answers to any of these questions. The phase of the unknown that Lebanon has just entered might be a mix of all of these scenarios. One single scenario – from among those experienced by Lebanon over various phases during the civil war, and after it, and after 2004-2005 – might not be valid. There have been changes in the identity of the players, in the circumstances, and in the regional and international balances of power; there have been changes in the factors that govern how Lebanon overlaps with the leading issues and crises in the Middle East.

As we await answers about the coming phase of the unknown, we should note some ironies that are related to what has happened, and what will happen.

First: the two local sides in the struggle were aware that the failure of the Saudi-Syrian initiative would lead to the fall of Hariri’s government. They knew that Hariri was aware of this, and did not rule it out, and that Syria and its allies, particularly Hezbollah, had specified the steps that Hariri should take before the “S-S” effort (Saudi Arabia and Syria) became active. This is why the Hariri camp does not seemed frightened by the fall of his government, and why Hezbollah and Syria’s allies do not seem tense; instead, they appear sure of themselves, as Damascus behaves uncharacteristically calmly.

Second: the crisis, along with the search for solutions to it, has undergone a so-called “transfer” from outside to inside the country; this comes as the outside world is up to its ears in the details of this crisis, more than any time before. The outside world has become a “domestic” side par excellence, due to the intermingling of the local and the foreign. The talk of seeing the crisis move to an inter-Lebanese treatment can only mean that the struggle over Lebanon by outside powers has been resumed, even though the Syrians are keen to hint that Saudi Arabia made honest efforts, while the Saudis remain silent. What has taken place signals that at the minimum, the two countries are not in agreement: if they were in agreement, the domestic Lebanese parties would have carried out the commitments to which they had agreed.

However, it is also true that neither “S” wants to retreat from the reconciliation that was conducted in Kuwait two years ago, which gave a new dynamism to their bilateral relations.

Moreover, when the “outside” powers are weak, they are brought in to the country, in one way or another. Israel, compared to other, Western and regional powers, has seen its domestic role in Lebanon shrink since the Lebanese-Israeli peace treaty of 17 May 1984 was canceled the following year. It retreated from Lebanon under the blows of the resistance in 2000, experienced failure and defeat in 2006, and then saw the collapse of its espionage and intelligence capabilities in Lebanon over the last three years. Even so, domestic parties are identified as pro-Israeli to justify turning the “outside parties” into “domestic ones.” The most powerful foreign side in Lebanon, namely Syria, is leading a relentless struggle with another foreign player, which is Western and Arab. The calculations of domestic and foreign parties have also come to include the need to choose between Syria and Iran, without ignoring the alliance of these two countries, and these are very complicated calculations.

Third: with the fall of the government, the regional-international understanding has also fallen by the wayside, according to a formula that formed the basis for reaching a Saudi-Syrian agreement, whose failure was announced. This formula was based on two items: seeing the government of Hariri remain in power, and preserving the stability of security in Lebanon.

If the dropping of the first item leads to the dropping of the second, according to the escalatory steps that the opposition intends to carry out, then things will exceed moving to the edge of the abyss; they will head toward the abyss, under the pretext of confronting the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. But in any case, bringing down the government is aimed at re-constituting power in Lebanon. This is in light of the failure of Saudi-Syrian cooperation that produced the current political authority, with the formation of the government that was brought down two days ago.

Tunisia: After The President Fled

By Tariq Alhomayed
This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 15/01/2011

We were waiting for a war to break out in Lebanon, or a crisis to take place in Iraq, or a huge inferno to erupt in Iran, or chaos to occur anywhere else in our region. We kept our eyes on these regions, and believe me when I tell you that the majority of Arab officials believed that the crisis in Tunisia would be resolved within days, and nobody talked about or paid much attention to what was happening there. Talk was focused on either Lebanon or Iran, and even the US Secretary of State [Hilary Clinton] said, only a few days ago, that her government would discuss the situation in Tunisia with [Tunisian President] Ben Ali after the crises ended!
Just a few days ago the Tunisian regime was complaining about the Arab media [and the lack of coverage of what was happening in Tunisia] whilst the Tunisian Minister of Communication was preoccupied with issuing denials. However just few days later this country – which is isolated and cut-off from the rest of the Arab world – is in flames, resulting in the Tunisian president boarding his plane and leaving Tunisia for the Tunisians, after years of oppression and isolation. It is clear that the situation in Tunisia was slowly heating up, and after country reached breaking point, Tunisia found itself in flames, forcing its present to flee. After years of isolation, suppression, and following a path contrary to the rest of the world – along with other isolationist countries whose regimes now know the importance of allowing the people to vent – the Tunisian street exploded…and the people of [Tunisian poet] Abul Qasim al-Shabi came out [to protest]. It was Abul Qasim al-Shabi who wrote the famous verse [and final two verses of the Tunisian national anthem]"
When the people will to live, destiny must surely respond
Oppression shall then vanish, fetters are certain to break.
However the problem now is that nobody knows where Tunisia's destiny lies. Everybody has been deceived by false figures and statistics from Tunisia, including even some international institutes, with regards to the development of the country's education system, economy, etc. This was, at least, until the young Tunisian protestor set fire to himself, which promptly spread to the rest of Tunisia.
The danger of what is happening in Tunisia today is that nobody knows whether the protest movement that has filled the streets is an organized one, or whether this is spontaneous, following years of isolation and suppression. We do not know whether what is happening in Tunisia is power being transferred from one dictator to another, or whether this is a coup riding a wave of anger and popular rebellion, or whether it is truly a change for the better. We do not know if the isolationist Tunisia of yesterday has broken free of its isolation, or whether it will sink further into seclusion joining the endless list of problems and crises in the Arab world.
Nobody is crying over [the collapse of] Ben Ali's regime, and everybody is praying that Tunisia does not fall into crisis, and that it's future is not a sad one. We pray for Tunisia, as we pray for our region at large, particularly as we do not know how long it will be our fate to see [the collapse of] such republics that refuse to act like republics. The president of Tunisia fled his country by airplane, whilst Saddam Hussein was captured hiding in a hole…so when will these republics begin to act like republics? What some people have failed to see is that our kingdoms and emirates today are more open, developed, stable, efficient, and accepting of criticism, and even more flexible [than such republics], as if they were the democracies.
Therefore, it is up to republics to act like republics, so long as they consent to hold elections, establish parliaments, and talk about democracy; in order to avoid chaos and bloodshed!

Friday, January 14, 2011

UN Tribunal Is Not The Source Of Lebanon's Political Woes

This commentary was published in The National (UAE) on 14/01/2011

Lebanon's national unity government collapsed this week after 11 ministers representing Hizbollah and its allies withdrew from the cabinet. The Sunni leader, Saad Hariri, became a caretaker prime minister, and the Lebanese president Michel Suleiman is poised to begin consultations with parliamentary leaders to appoint a new premier.

Hizbollah's walkout was not entirely a surprise: the Lebanese government has been paralysed for months, owing to a UN Special Tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of the former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri. Lebanon has been on edge since word leaked out that the tribunal is preparing to indict members of Hizbollah for involvement.

Hizbollah, the dominant Shiite political party and militia, has tried to eschew blame by accusing Israel. The group has also pressured Saad Hariri, the slain leader's son, to end Lebanese cooperation with the tribunal and publicly reject its findings. But the younger Hariri, backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia, has refused to disavow the tribunal, which in turn led Hizbollah to topple the government.

Once again, Arab and western leaders find that they must focus their attention on Lebanon, a small country that has long been the staging ground of proxy wars in the region. The Syrian president Bashar al Assad and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia travelled together to Beirut in July to meet with Lebanese leaders and help calm fears that the country was headed toward civil strife. The visit was meant to show the Arab world that Saudi-Syrian reconciliation is on track. It was also a message from Mr al Assad to Washington: Lebanon cannot remain stable without Syria's tutelage.

The Syrian and Saudi leaders have been negotiating on a compromise over the tribunal for several months, but those talks collapsed last week. That led Hizbollah and its allies to ratchet up the pressure on Mr Hariri.

While both factions have pledged to pursue peaceful paths, political deadlock in Lebanon can quickly devolve into sectarian violence. The last governmental crisis lasted18 months, leaving Lebanon without a president for six months. The stalemate was finally broken in 2008, when Hizbollah ignited the worst internal fighting since the end of Lebanon's civil war.

In response to the then prime minister Fouad Siniora's orders outlawing Hizbollah's underground fiber-optic communication network and his dismissal of a Hizbollah-affiliated security chief at the Beirut airport, the militia dispatched hundreds of heavily armed fighters into the largely Sunni areas of West Beirut. They quickly routed Sunni militiamen, seized their political offices and shut down media outlets owned by Mr Hariri.

Each Lebanese faction accuses the other of serving external masters. Indeed, Lebanon is part of an ongoing proxy war in the region, pitting Iran and Syria (who support Hizbollah and its allies) against the United States, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab regimes (who back Mr Hariri and his coalition of Sunni and Christian parties).

But while external players have a hand in the latest political paralysis, they do not deserve all the blame. The Lebanese need to find a larger political settlement of their own. Otherwise, the Sunni-Shiite rift in Lebanon could explode.

Lebanese leaders need to tackle deeper issues that go beyond the tribunal. Problems are rooted in a 1943 power-sharing agreement installed when the country won its independence from French colonial rule. The system was designed to keep a balance among 18 sects, dividing power between a Maronite Christian president, a Sunni prime minister and a Shiite speaker of parliament. The system was enshrined under the National Pact, an unwritten agreement among Lebanese leaders. Seats in parliament were divided on a 6-to-5 ratio of Christians to Muslims.

The division was based on a 1930s census that showed Maronites as the majority in Lebanon. Since then, the government has refused to hold a new census. By the 1960s, when Muslims began to outnumber Christians, Muslims clamoured for change in the balance of power. When civil war broke out in 1975, the political imbalance helped drive the major sects to form militias. Because of the confessional system, Lebanese political institutions never got a chance to develop and the country remained dependent on the powerful clans and feudal landlords that held sway in much of Lebanon.

The 1989 Taif Accord, which ended the civil war, expanded parliament and divided it equally between Christians and Muslims, and called for all militias to disarm. But Hizbollah remained, branded a "national resistance" movement against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon.
While all factions in Lebanon constantly affirm that they will abide by Taif, few acknowledge that the agreement also called for eventually abolishing the sectarian system, although it gave no time frame for doing so.

Even if the two factions can defuse the latest stalemate and reach a compromise on the tribunal and a new government, another political crisis is sure to emerge, unless Lebanon's leaders - and its people - tackle the root causes of the country's instability. Eventually, the Lebanese will have to decide what kind of country they want: one built on sectarian gerrymandering, or a more democratic way of sharing power.

Mohamad Bazzi is a journalism professor at New York University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations

For The Arab World, A Potent Lesson

By Anthony Shadid
This analysis was published in The New York Times on 14/01/2011

The reported departure of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, after popular protests in his North African country, electrified an Arab world whose residents have increasingly complained of governments that seem incapable of meeting their citizens’ demands and bereft of ideology save a motivation to perpetuate themselves in power.

“We hope that what happened in Tunisia could happen in other Arab countries where leaders and kings have rusted on their thrones,” said Abeer Madi al-Halabi, a newscaster on New TV, a Lebanese station that supports leftist causes.

Since their beginning, the protests have been closely followed by Arabic-language networks, as well as social networking sites, like Facebook and Twitter. Hours after Mr. Ben Ali’s departure, messages were posted to Facebook celebrating the fall of one of the Arab world’s heaviest handed dictatorships.

“The most important thing is that we got rid of the dictator, Ben Ali, and his family. Thank God!” said one comment posted on a Facebook group called Tunisia.

The fall of Mr. Ben Ali marks the first time that widespread street demonstrations have overthrown an Arab leader. That it came by way of what was portrayed in the Middle East as a popular uprising, crossing lines of religion and ideology, seemed only to make it more potent as an example.

Smaller protests, many of them over rising prices and economic conditions, have already taken place in countries like Egypt, Algeria and Jordan. Egypt, in particular, seems to bear at least a passing resemblance to Tunisia — a heavy-handed security state with diminishing popular support and growing demands from an educated, frustrated population.

“It’s the creeping realization that more and more people are being marginalized and pauperized and, increasingly, life is more difficult,” said Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. “You need little events that capture the spirit of the time. Tunisia best captures that in the Arab world.”

Behind Tunisia Unrest, Rage Over Wealth Of Ruling Family

Holly Pickett for The New York Times
Looters took furniture from a home belonging to a relative of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Hammamet, Tunisia, on Thursday.
Rioters on Thursday damaged a home in Hammamet, Tunisia, owned by a member of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s family.

But their new and conspicuous riches, partly exposed in a detailed cable by the American ambassador and made public by WikiLeaks, have fueled an extraordinary extended uprising by Tunisians who blame corruption among the elite for the joblessness afflicting their country.

And on Thursday, idyllic Hammamet became the latest casualty of that rage, as hundreds of protesters swarmed the streets, the police fled and rioters gleefully ransacked the mansion of a presidential relative, liberating a horse from its stable and setting aflame a pair of all-terrain vehicles.

That outburst was just a chapter in the deadly violence that flared around the country and in Tunis, the capital, again on Thursday, making the government appear increasingly shaky. The mounting protests threaten not only to overturn a close United States ally in the fight against terrorism but also to pull back the veneer of tranquil stability that draws legions of Western tourists to Tunisia’s coastal resorts.

President Ben Ali gave a hastily scheduled televised address on Thursday night, his second in the past week, and this time he appeared rattled. He no longer blamed foreign terrorists or vowed to crack down on protesters. Instead, he pledged to give in to many of the protesters’ demands, including an end to the government’s notoriously tight censorship, but rejecting calls for an immediate end to his 23-year rule.

“I am telling you I understand you, yes, I understand you,” Mr. Ben Ali, 74, declared. “And I decided: total freedom for the media with all its channels and no shutting down Internet sites and rejecting any form of monitoring of it.”

And he repeated a pledge he first made when he seized power in a bloodless coup: “No presidency for life.” He vowed not to challenge the constitutional age limit of 75 for presidents, which would make him ineligible to seek re-election in 2014.

The immediate response to the speech appeared mixed. In at least one neighborhood of the capital, grateful Tunisians could be heard in the streets, ignoring an 8 p.m. curfew order, cheering the president. But others said his words meant little.

“These are the same promises he made last week, that he made a few years ago, that he made in 1987, but on the ground it is always the same,” one person said, declining to be identified for fear of reprisals.

Security forces fired again at crowds of demonstrators who gathered in downtown Tunis; dozens have died so far in the crackdown on the protests, and it was impossible to confirm how many more died Thursday.

In what appeared to be a sign of division within the government or its forces, the military was withdrawn from the city by the end of the day, replaced by the police and other security forces considered more loyal to the ruling party and Interior Ministry.

There were calls for a general strike on Friday, and some people said they expected the protests to escalate when large groups of Tunisians spilled into the streets from their mosques after Friday Prayer. The government has shut down schools, universities and trains running to and from the city, leaving crowds of young people idle and many people with no way to get home.

Throughout a month of demonstrations, protesters have relied on Facebook and other social media to advertise and coordinate their actions, which started after a college-educated street vendor in a small provincial town burned himself to death in despair. (The police had confiscated his wares for lack of a permit.)

On Thursday morning a Facebook group called “The people of Tunisia are setting themselves on fire Mr. President” announced, in Arabic: “Today Hammamet: With our blood, with our souls, we sacrifice ourselves for the martyr.”

By midday, hundreds of young men were in the streets of this coastal resort city. Several banks were in flames, including one adjacent to the police station. Some said that clashes with the police had begun here on Wednesday and that they had turned out to avenge the deaths of two protesters killed the day before.

Just as in other protests in recent days, the demonstrators called for President Ben Ali to step down. But many seemed even more angry at his second wife, Leila Trabelsi, and her family — “No, no to the Trabelsis who looted the budget,” has been a popular slogan — and some said they still considered the president a good man brought down by the greed of his wife and her clan. Many refer to the president’s extended relations simply as The Family or The Mafia.

Prime Minister Claims Power In Tunisia As President Bin Ali Flees

Holly Pickett for The New York Times
Chaos spread in the Tunisian capital on Friday as protesters clashed with government forces.

There were also unconfirmed reports that the country’s airspace had been closed.

In his speech to the country, Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi said that “as the president of the republic is unable to exercise his functions for the time being, I have assumed, starting now, the powers of the president.”

“I call on all sons and daughters of Tunisia,” the prime minister said, “to show the spirit of patriotism and unity in order to enable our country, which is dear to all of us, to overcome this difficult phase and restore its security and stability.”

The apparent fall of Mr. Ben Ali, whose authoritarian government ruled for more than two decades, would mark the first time that widespread demonstrations had overthrown an Arab leader.

The country, which is determinedly secular, is a close United States ally in the fight against terrorism.

The prime minister’s announcement followed an extraordinary and fast-moving back-and-forth between the government and the protesters, who became increasingly emboldened over the last month of demonstrations. After the president tried to placate the protesters Thursday with promises of more freedom, including a right to demonstrate, tens of thousands rushed into the streets of downtown Tunis Friday to take advantage of his pledge by calling for his ouster
But when the protesters led a funeral procession for a recently killed protester through the streets, the police moved to disperse the crowds, brutally beating demonstrators and raining tear gas on the crowds who had gathered in front of the Interior Ministry. It is unclear if any demonstrators were shot Friday.

Mr. Ben Ali then announced that he had dismissed the Cabinet and would hold early legislative elections, but news agencies said the government also declared a state of emergency forbidding new demonstrations and warning that those who disobeyed would be shot. There were reports of gunfire downtown in the capital early Friday night, The Associated Press reported.

The reports that the president had left surfaced soon after that, as did the announcement by the prime minister. Mr. Ghannouchi did not say if he would re-instate the Cabinet.

The Obama administration was still trying to confirm that Mr. Ben Ali had left the country, National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon said at a White House press briefing Friday afternoon. He also noted the need for stability as the country undergoes “the process of much-needed political reform.”

Tunisia is far different from most of its neighboring Arab countries. There is little Islamist fervor in the country. It has a large middle class, and under Mr. Ben Ali, it has invested heavily in education. Not only are women not required to cover their heads, they enjoy a spectrum of civil rights, including free contraception, that is well beyond that in most countries in the region.

The educational investment has been a mixed blessing for the government, however, producing a generation of college educated young people who face bleak job prospects in Tunisia’s corruption-clogged economy.

The anti-government protests began a month ago when a college-educated street vendor burned himself to death in protest of his dismal prospects.

But the mounting protests quickly evolved from demands for more jobs to demands for political reforms, focusing mainly on the perceived corruption of the government and the self-enrichment of the ruling family. The protests were accelerated by the heavy use of social-media web sites like Facebook and Twitter by young people, who used the Internet to call for demonstrations and to circulate videos of each successive clash.

Some demonstrators also cited the evidence of cables from the United States Embassy in Tunisia that were released by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks providing vividly detailed accounts of the first family’s self-enrichment and opulent lifestyle.

On Friday morning, the crowd that gathered in the streets of Tunis was celebrating its confidence that change was at hand. “Victory, victory, until the government falls,” protesters chanted.
“Bouazizi you are a hero,” they shouted, referring to the vendor who died. “The people of Tunisia have won.”

Tunisia has not seen demonstrations like this since President Ben Ali came to power 23 years ago in a bloodless coup. Tunisians have been accustomed to living under a police state that countered unauthorized public gatherings with arrests and possible torture. Dozens have died over the last week as security forces — including snipers, witnesses say — fired on protesters.

Protesters gathered with signs reading phrases like “Ben Ali Get Out” in Tunis, Friday.  
Protesters held up their hands as if they were handcuffed, at a rally in front of the interior ministry in Tunis on Friday.

The crowd on Friday was notably middle-class, including young doctors and lawyers and other professionals. Some identified themselves as the “Bourguiba generation” — young people who benefited from free higher education and other social welfare policies first instituted under Tunisia’s first post-independence president, Habib Bourguiba.

Some demonstrators said they hoped that other Arab countries would follow their example despite the many differences between their country and many of those nations, where popular discontent is often expressed in the language of Islam.

Zied Mhirsi, a 33-year-old doctor carried a sign that said, in English, “Yes We Can,” a reference to President Barack Obama, above “#sidibouzid,” the name of an online Twitter feed that has provided a forum for rallying protesters. On the other side his sign said, “Thank you Al-Jazeera,” in reference to the Arab news network’s month of extensive coverage.

For the first time in the month of protests, the demonstration on Friday also included large numbers of women — almost none wearing veils — and many snapping cellphone pictures of the crowd to post on the Internet.

At least one American has been injured in the violence. Stephen Chmelewski, a 50-year-old English teacher who lives in the Lafayette neighborhood of downtown Tunis, said he saw police “corralling” residents into certain streets and protesters setting debris fires, so he went out to take pictures of the events.

He said he saw police snipers firing down on the crowds from rooftops, and one evidently struck him with a bullet that passed through his left leg and lodged in his right one. “I had protesters behind me and the police in front,” he said, “and then all of a sudden I got hit from behind by a bullet.”

He was let out of the Charles Nicole hospital Thursday night, he said, because more wounded were flooding in with gunshot wounds from riots around Tunis. “All the emergency room beds were filled up,” he said.

The French government and the United States Department of State cautioned against all non-essential travel to the North African country.

Mideast Threats That Can't Be Ignored

By Jackson Diehl
This commentary was published in The Washington Post on 14/01/2011

Barack Obama has been fortunate in the Middle East so far. Yes, his attempt to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been a high-profile failure. But Israel, the Palestinians and the region as a whole have enjoyed a remarkable stretch of relative tranquility and stability during the past two years.

This week has brought signs that that luck may be about to change. If it does, it will not be because Israelis and Palestinians have not agreed on a two-state solution. Rather, it will be because the regional troubles that the Obama administration has ignored in its preocupation with the peace process can no longer be contained.

The most obvious symptom of that is in Lebanon, where the Hezbollah movement caused the collapse of the unwieldy "unity" government Wednesday even as its pro-Western prime minister, Saad Hariri, was meeting with Obama at the White House. Lebanon is a prime front in the regional cold war between Iran, Syria and their militarized proxies, including Hezbollah and Hamas, and the "moderate" and mostly Sunni U.S. allies.

An eruption of actual civil war in Lebanon does not seem to be imminent, in spite of the likelihood that an international tribunal will soon indict members of Hezbollah for the murder of Hariri's father. But what the militia's move vividly demonstrated is that the Iranian side retains the initiative. Because Hamas and Hezbollah are the two strongest military forces in the Levant other than Israel, they have the capacity to provoke, to disrupt and to start an armed conflict at any time of their - or Tehran's - choosing.

Obama's approach has been to mostly ignore that threat while focusing on peace diplomacy, in the hope that a breakthrough would undermine the political appeal of Hamas and Hezbollah. But now both Iranian allies are flexing their muscles. Since the beginning of January, according to Israeli officials, more than 20 rockets and mortars have been fired from the Gaza Strip at Israel, renewing the bombardment that led to Israel's 2008 invasion of the territory.

On Thursday, following a tough warning from Egypt that it was risking another war, Hamas deployed security forces to enforce a cease-fire. But Israeli accounts say Hamas and Hezbollah have spent the past several years stockpiling tens of thousands of missiles, including scores that could reach Tel Aviv; the chances that the region will survive another year without their use are looking slimmer.

The most imminent threat to U.S. interests in the Middle East, however, is not war; it is revolution. Last month in the obscure Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid, a desperate man set himself on fire after police confiscated his unlicensed vegetable cart. This spark touched off what has now become a conflagration of daily protest demonstrations that threatens to consume the 29-year-old dictatorship of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali - and spread to the other rotting Arab autocracies that line the south shore of the Mediterranean.

The violence has already migrated to Algeria, and Arab media are full of speculation of where the "Tunisia scenario" will appear next: Egypt? Jordan? Libya? All those countries are threatened by rapidly rising global prices for food and fuel; the United Nations warned last week of a "food price shock." All have large numbers of restless, unemployed youth. And all are governed by repressive regimes that not only have refused to embrace political reforms in the past decade but have cracked down harder on domestic opponents since Obama took office. It's hard not to attribute that trend at least in part to the administration's relaxed attitude toward reform and its reluctance to defend human rights and democracy.

In that sense, the only good news this week has been the signs that the administration is finally changing course. In a tour of several Arab nations, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton - who has been particularly conspicuous for her silence about the region's repression - has suddenly begun speaking up about the need for change.

In a speech Thursday at the Forum for the Future conference in Doha, Qatar, Clinton talked about the frustrations of the under-30 generation in finding work and bluntly added that "people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order." She then called for "political reforms that will create the space young people are demanding, to participate in public affairs and have a meaningful role in the decisions that shape their lives."

It may be too late for the United States to head off a rolling social upheaval in the Middle East this year - or a war involving Hezbollah and Hamas. But if it follows up on what Clinton has been saying, it can at least place itself on the right side of those events.

After The Saudi – Syrian Train Came To A Stop

By Abdul Rahman al-Rahed
This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 14/01/2011
I do not believe that the collapse of Saad Hariri's government came as a surprise, although many did believe that the Saudi Arabian and Syrian mediation would be enough to protect the government and resolve the issue of the international tribunal. However everything that has been said in this regard was nothing more than wishful thinking, and now that the Saudi side had withdrawn, what train will Lebanon board? It is highly likely that the Lebanese will board the Qatari train, or perhaps the French, because there are no volunteers prepared to follow the same track, for everybody is aware of how grave these problems are, and the consequences of failure.
However why are the Qatari or French trains a second or even last option? The reason for this is Doha's good relations with the stubborn party, I mean the party that has extremely difficult demands, who is also the prime suspect in the assassination case [of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri]. I am, of course, talking about Hezbollah. Doha was also responsible for the previous agreement [between the Lebanese parties] which resulted in a two-dimensional government made up of a majority and a minority. As for the French, they are an acceptable Western party that can act as a witness to the pledges that will be made, and they will be a balanced mediator. The Turks may also step in [to mediate the Lebanese crisis] on the opposite side of the French, although I do not say that they will act as a counter-balance.

The best possible outcome is for the Qatari mediator to convince the Lebanese team that is refusing to deal with the facts with regards to the international tribunal to search for a more practical solution. This is something that was successfully achieved by Doha in the past when it put forward the idea of the [political] arranged marriage. Doha managed to convince the opposition that it was Saad Hariri's legal right to be prime minister, whilst convincing Hariri that there would be no government unless he granted the opposition more power, which resulted in the formation of the [previous] government. 

No mediator, whether Saudi Arabia or Qatar or any other country, can eliminate or deny firmly established facts and realities in this complex case; the tribunal exists, which is a fact, and charges will be leveled, which is also a fact. The mediator, no matter how enthusiastic and regardless of the support from the Lebanese or the Arabs, can by no means put an end to a tribunal which is linked to Article VII of the United Nations Chart. However, the mediator can search for solutions to alleviate the harm that may be caused by the tribunal. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said that it would be individuals, not groups, who will be held accountable [for the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri], and this is a clear example of this. This represented the first clear indication that no accusation would be leveled at Hezbollah or any other organization, regardless of whether or not members of the organization are implicated. However for there not to be a tribunal, or charges, is impossible, at least in my opinion.

If there were parties that refused to accept the framework of the Saudi mediation by seeking to attain the impossible, they will find that the Qatari mediator is introducing the same initiatives. At this point, they will not refuse and will try to market this to their political allies. I do not believe that Saudi Arabia will be angered by this, so long as this will result in the protection of Lebanese national security, and rescue the country from a deteriorating political and security situation.

The parties who have announced their withdrawal from government have put themselves in a critical situation, for they pledged to put an end the tribunal, which did not happen. They could have pledged to tackle the consequences of the anticipated charges or even reject them. Whether Hariri manages to resurrect a government or whether these parties manage to old sway over Lebanon, either by force of arms or popularity, the tribunal will continue. Therefore, let us say that whoever mediates this is lucky because the stubborn party has now discovered how wrong it was.

A Country With No Power Of Decision A Country Awaiting The Indictment

By Ghassan Charbel
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 13/01/2011

The most famous citizen in this fragmented republic is called the indictment. Although it is recent, its roots are deeply established. It is more renown than Fakhreddine, our pride; Jibran Khalil Jibran; the date of independence, which we have forgotten; April 13, 1975, the date of the first phase in this broad war; the dates of our wars and truces; the dates of the assassinations that stud our glorious national march. It is more renown than the Taef agreement; the Doha agreement; tabouli and kibbi nayyi; more renown than those “young boys” who take TV screens by storm and increase viewers’ blood tension and glucose and nervousness levels, not to mention political blindness and sectarian and confessional rabblement.

Your neighbor in the plane asks you: “Do you think the indictment is imminent?” When you reply that you don’t know, disappointment shows in his eyes. He says he has a lot of work that he cannot postpone and that he will try to hastily finish, before “the indictment causes the airport to be closed”.

Truth be said, I was not busy with national concerns during my flight. I had with me the book “The Druzes of Belgrade – The story of John Jacob” by colleague Rabih Jaber. I had started reading it at night, and the compelling narration and brilliant language made me turn one page after the other. When I felt sleepy, I decided to continue reading it on the plane. Rabih Jaber revisits the historic wounds of the Lebanese mountain with a penetrating and baleful eye that involves the reader with covert and blatant statements about the risky living on the demarcation lines.

My neighbor was aware that I was engrossed in my reading. His concern drove him to interrupt me, but I wasn’t bothered. He is not the only one whose life is poisoned by the anticipation of the indictment.

When the plane left London, Lebanon was in a quasi-normal state, as it was never normal. The country was still sleeping on the S-S pillow, and people didn’t know that the night had stolen the pillow. The country was still living in the shadow of the “national divergence government”, and Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri was getting ready to visit the White House the next day.

When the plane landed in Beirut, my phone was bombarded with text messages. The S-S umbrella beneath which the Lebanese had hidden for the past months as they feared the issuance of the indictment, has ceased its work. Thus, Lebanon found itself naked with no umbrella or pillow. It has often lacked in its history a reassuring umbrella and a comfortable pillow.

The power of decision exploded early amidst the national hostility government; the government of snares, traps, and lost amiability. Thus, it rapidly moved from the stage of the inability to meet to that of the inability to exist. The power of decision, the power of decision, the power of decision.

A man deferred the renovation of his apartment pending the indictment; a woman postponed buying new curtains; another man delayed his dentist’s appointment; and another woman postponed getting pregnant so that her baby wouldn’t get caught in the indictment’s repercussions.

It is a pleasant country where institutions dissolve as rapidly as sugar in water. When it is standing on its feet, it unable to take a decision. This applies to the presidency, the prime minister’s office, and the esteemed parliament, which acts as if the crisis was taking place in some faraway country.

I roam now in the indictment’s country; it is abandoned and fragmented. It pretends to be unified and sleeps in “regions”. The guardian of the thorny marriage in it is the inability to divorce. It is a beautiful and worrisome country; a pleasant and booby-trapped one. Its inhabitants tore at the power of decision like ruthless people tearing at the limbs of a young boy. The boy died, and each got a piece of him. The Lebanese power of decision is dead.

With no power of decision, the country’s teeth chatter in anticipation of the indictment. Nevertheless, it is a pleasant trip career-wise. Journalists are attracted by troubled countries just like coffin-makers exult at funerals.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Lebanon: Amid Stalemate, Let Negotiations Begin!

By Michael Young 
This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 13/01/2011
Michel Aoun has announced the end of the Syrian-Saudi initiative, with no results. “[W]e’ve reached a dead end,” said the general Monday. But is that true? It’s just possible that we are at the start of a new negotiating phase, this time one in which Hizbullah will have to negotiate in earnest, and in which the Syrians will continue to try playing the party off against Prime Minister Saad Hariri. 

A key test to gauge Syrian intentions will be whether Damascus orders its allies in Beirut to pull out of the government and bring it down. At the time of writing this was likely to happen, but the step represents a major risk for Syria’s President Bashar Assad. Hariri and the Saudis remain Syria’s principal tickets back into Lebanon politically, and Assad is not after a divorce with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. Still, the Syrians want Hariri to do more to discredit the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, as the institution might yet point the finger at them.

This leaves Hariri facing one of two situations. If the government falls, he will in all probability be asked to form a new government. The prime minister might refuse, compelling the opposition, with Walid Jumblatt, to form a government of its own, with a pro-Syrian Sunni as prime minister. However, this would be no easy task, as there are few legitimate Sunnis eager to head a government against their own community, its principal aim to shield the assassins of Rafik Hariri. Or, the opposition, aware of this difficulty, will sooner or later see that they can deal only with Saad Hariri, which will force them to enter into talks with him in order to find an agreeable exit for all. 

Jumblatt tartly summed up the situation recently by observing, “They say you can make a camel cross the desert, but can you make a camel cross the Atlantic?” The Obama administration refused to do any such thing, and last week Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it clear to Hariri and his sponsor, King Abdullah, that Beirut should not touch the tribunal. This came after President Barack Obama made a recess appointment that sent a new U.S. ambassador to Damascus, but also after an unidentified American official (the odds-on favorite being the assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, Jeffrey Feltman) told the Saudi-owned Al-Hayat that any Syrian-Saudi arrangement that undermined the special tribunal would constitute “blackmail.”   

After the Clinton-Hariri meeting in New York, the Saudis suddenly reversed course, and “sources” were telling Al-Hayat that the Syrian-Saudi dialogue was, in fact, a Hariri-Syrian dialogue. That sounded the death knell for the Syrian-Saudi exchanges, but one thing should be kept in mind: The Obama administration never opposed, as such, the Abdullah-Assad discussions over Lebanon, nor was it particularly hostile to the Saudis’ idea of giving Damascus power in Beirut in exchange for containing Iran and Hizbullah. The Americans may not have had high hopes for the scheme, but they did not obstruct it.

That doesn’t diminish the fact that Assad is smarting from the American derailing of Syrian-Saudi talks. This obliged him to instruct his friends in Beirut to tighten the screws on Hariri. But how far will the Syrian president go, and how far can he go? Assad does not want to be blamed by Washington and Paris for whatever goes wrong in Lebanon, and he grasps that any confrontation between the Lebanese might only reinforce Hizbullah, and more importantly Iran, at Syria’s expense. Hariri’s neutralization would deny Syria a strong card in reimposing its writ in Lebanon. A Hariri politically defeated effectively means a Syria fully dependent on Hizbullah to protect its Lebanese stakes, a situation that Assad doesn’t relish. 

What is Hariri hoping for? If he is given the choice of heading a government in which he is much weakened, he would probably not accept to become prime minister. Ideally, he would like to bargain with Hizbullah, but will only surrender something substantial on the tribunal if the party does the same elsewhere. And what might Hariri demand? Complete disarmament is surely out of the question. But maybe not some form of disarmament in the heart of Beirut; and the appointment of Hariri loyalists to senior security posts. Anything less, Hariri must feel, would only disgrace him in Sunni eyes. 

Neither Hizbullah nor Syria is pleased with what is going on. For the party, all the contentious means of crippling the tribunal have grave shortcomings. A serious political or security escalation would only harden discord at a moment when Hizbullah’s primary goal is to show that Lebanon is united in its rejection of the special tribunal. As for Assad, if he pushes too hard, he may lose for good the Lebanese Sunni card, which he has worked for years to regain. Hariri alone can issue Hizbullah with a certificate of innocence, and if the prime minister decides to sit the coming period out of office, it is difficult to see how any opposition-led government would function properly.

There are rarely dead ends in Lebanon, and Michel Aoun’s pessimism betrayed a more profound realization: that the first stage of Hizbullah’s strategy, based on intimidation, had failed. Things now become very complicated for everyone. Only negotiations between Hariri and Hizbullah are likely to result in a resolution, nothing else.     

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR and author of “The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle” (Simon & Schuster).

Difficult Position For The Palestinian Authority

By Daoud Kuttab
This commentary was published in The Jordan Times on 13/01/2011
The choices facing Palestinian leaders as they try to navigate their responsibilities while the 44-year-long Israeli occupation continues are difficult.

Some Palestinian activists of the Islamic Hamas movement were detained by the Abbas-Fayyad government in a general crackdown against armed resistance movements that sees attempts by the Palestinian Authority to apply the rule of law in the occupied territories as part of the Palestinian leadership’s commitment to the international community. Of course, in return for this, the Israelis were obliged (according to the roadmap) to freeze all settlement activities as the two parties prepare for peace talks that are aimed at ending the occupation and creating an independent, viable and contiguous Palestinian state.

Last week, the Hamas activists went on hunger strike. Palestinian and Arab mediators intervened and the Palestinian leader asked for the release of the Islamist activists. Without a clear promise from the Israelis, the Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership expressed its worry to the intermediaries that itcannot guarantee the safety of the released men.

The occupied Palestinian territories are such that a dual sovereignty system applies. With the crazy advent of areas A, B and C, the Oslo Accords signed in 1993 were expected to separate the issue of security arrangements. Palestinian security was in total control of area A, which constituted mostly the populated urban areas, while the Israelis retained security control over areas B & C. But after the 2000 Al Aqsa Intifada, the Israeli army stopped honouring this agreement and has since then regularly infiltrated areas under the security control of the Palestinian Authority. All attempts since then to return to the pre-2000 security arrangements failed. Israeli military forces enter at will in all Palestinian areas, often arresting people, and at times leaving injured and dead behind them.

This is why the PA, despite its impressive security accomplishments worked out in art under the auspices of US General Dayton, is unable to protect anyone unless the Israelis give the ok to that person. Without such a waiver (and sometime despite it) no one’s life is protected.

Although the intermediaries were told so and despite the fact that the Hamas leadership was informed of the PA’s inability to protect the Hamas activists once released, the leadership insisted that they wanted to their men released as part of a goodwill gesture towards reconciliation between Hamas and Fateh.

Not long after their release, however, the Israelis were quick to arrest the Islamist activists. Worse, the Israelis killed an innocent person as they were seeking one of the Hamas members. Sixty-five-year-old Mohammad Qawasmeh was killed in his bed. The Israeli army assassins in search of Wael Bitar had gone to the wrong floor of the building and shot the elderly man in bed. The Israelis later arrested Bitar and admitted their mistake.

In addition to this tragedy, the PA found itself on the defence for not protecting its own citizens from the actions of the Israeli army. Hamas officials in Gaza and Damascus, sharply attacked President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian leadership. They felt somehow that the Ramallah-based leadership failed to prevent the arrest and the assassination actions by the Israelis. The fact that the PA and the Israelis are regularly exchanging security information, Hamas officials hinted, should have at least prevented this tragedy and the arrests from taking place. Hamas and its spokesmen never admitted having been informed that the released fighters would be at risk because of Israel’s failure to promise their safety.

The US, whose security officials helped train the Palestinian security and which considers a Palestinian state necessary for its interests, must not allow the Israelis to get away with continuous infiltrations into Palestinian territory. And instead of the US wasting more time in a useless peace process, a more valuable effort could be to force the Israelis to respect the integrity of Palestinians, instead of undermining their leadership. It is becoming clearer that despite Israel giving lip service to peace, it is in fact working to discredit the Palestinian leadership in front of its own people.