14 Feb 2009

Cedars Island: What's the fuss about?

It doesn't take much to provoke the Lebanese, so a project like Cedars Island (http://www.cedarsisland.com) was bound to be controversial. The large development on the Lebanese coast proposed by Noor international is described as "a residential, commercial, recreational, and touristic site made for luxurious experience", built on reclaimed land in the shape of, what else, the Cedar Tree. Mind you, it's not really like a Cedar Tree, but the idealized shape of the national symbol that has been constantly re-drawn by everyone from the Lebanese flag designer to the national airline to the various political parties (mostly on the right).
Yet, the specific nature of the responses to Cedars Island is quite revealing. The 'protest' kicked off like much else with a Facebook group, that utterly meaningless form of desktop activism. Within a short period of type it attracted thousands of disgruntled Lebanese internet users. The objections ranged from the environmental to the aesthetic, the common denominator being that everyone was offended. It is not difficult to see why, to start with the development is a typical Dubai-style development, which is enough to send the Lebanese into fits of rage. Regardless that hundreds of thousands of them make a living in the Gulf, the attitude of the Lebanese towards that part of the world has always been a negative one. Dubai on the Damour coast, what an affront!
Some people were even annoyed with the fact that the project will have palm trees. Palm trees on our shores! Oh poor cedar tree... In a country where everything from the type of car that you drive to your favorite TV station is politicized, it's only natural that even trees can have such ideological significance. The Christians used to whine about the palm trees that the late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (allegedly) planted in Beirut and Saida, importing that alien tree from the Arabian Peninsula to our 'virgin' coastline. Somehow they feared that those trees will subliminally take over their political affiliations to the land of the cedars.
Then, the environmentalists stepped in, naturally. Greenpeace Lebanon (how proud am I!) is conducting a study on the effect of island on the marine eco-system. Happily, we even have a proper green party in Lebanon now (in as much as a green party could be proper). I haven't found out what they have to say about it yet, but I am sure they will not be thrilled. In a brilliant article in Al-Akhbar ( http://www.al-akhbar.com/files/pdfs/20080820/p06_20080820.pdf ) Bassam Al-Qantar exposed the 'party' for what it is: an elitist club for the affluent and the well connected.
Like any 'protest' of that nature in Lebanon it is not the farmers of Baalbek and Hermel who are protesting, it is someone else protesting in the name of the Lebanese people. It is only those who don't have to live at the mercy of nature than can afford to idealize it. In a country where hundreds of thousands of people live in areas with no economic prospects whatsoever, the Greens will take it upon themselves to stop any development project that can offend their aesthetic sensitivities.
No one has yet looked at the number of jobs that such a development will create or the volume of economic activity that it could generate. Details. People don't like the Cedars Island and therefore it has to stop. This is from people whose understanding of economics is so distorted that thousands of them joined another Facebook group to nominate the governor of the Central Bank to the Nobel Prize because of his wisdom and genius. Presumably, the ultra-conservative economic policies of hording foreign cash reserves and promoting banking policies that are slightly more advanced than those of Hammurabi.
To make matters worse, thousands of Lebanese people have been going to the West to get degrees in American and European universities where they un-critically accept the prevailing orthodoxies of environmentalism and sustainability and then head back with a clear recipe of how to cure Lebanon from its ills. Thanks to the collapse of the Left in Lebanon, progressive voices have long ago died out completely. It used to be the Lebanese left that argued for more industrialization and development to give the Lebanese working classes a better future, while the "Right" (Kataeb and co) dreamt of milking their goats under the starry skies of Mount Lebanon.
Today, the political shades range from the conservative to the down-right reactionary, and all radical ideas have been discarded. Hezbollah long ago tore up its founding document, and with it its social radicalism. (See: http://www.culturewars.org.uk/2007-08/norton.htm ) The sole purpose of Hezbollah today is to keep the Shiite masses under control and contain their explosive potential. To that end it will pacify them with small 'gains' at the expense of the integrity of the Lebanese state.
Equally, the Tayyar has lost any radical potential it ever possessed. There was a moment in the late 90s when the Tayyar could have become a genuinely radical political movement, but the youth leadership chickened out and left it to Aoun to play the role of demi-god, a role currently performed at a cinema near you to devastating effect. What promised to be a genuine change in political consciousness among Christian youths (and a few Muslims) has been hijacked by the clan leaders.
Both Hezbollah and the Tayyar have departments for the environment, incidentally, so do several of the other parties. I am not singling out Hezbollah and the Tayyar, but it is important to understand that the parties with the most radical potential have become establishment parties, so we shouldn't expect much more from the proper bourgeois parties. And today both of those parties have developed a conservative outlook, and primarily one that has no political and economic vision for the country.
So, back to Cedars Island. In the absence of any real development in the country, why should a private project like this be opposed? So it might appear hideous to some people, is that enough to prevent a major economic development? In fact, I think there's even something subversive about the scheme, it's saying nothing is sacred anymore, even your blessed Cedar! Learning from Las Vegas, anyone? Should we give the arbiters of middle class taste the right to control the fate of such developments?
Living in such a small country, we have no option but make the most of what we have. I hope this will be the beginning of an ambitious project of sea reclamation that will stop when we hit Cyprus!

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Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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