12 Aug 2010

Plus ça change: The Chronicles of a Juvenile Nation

There's a central preoccupation in Milan Kundera's work that revolves around the theme of the small nation experiencing the uncertainties of such a precarious condition. His superb intermingling of love and politics often crosses the boundaries between both, asserting once that we are witness to much larger forces than ourselves and often that we are capable of creating a path and a persona that are uniquely ours. What's true of the individual is also true of the small nation. In many respects, Lebanon's modern history has primarily been defined by being a small nation. Too often though, it seemed that Lebanon accepted that it is small, but never figured the nation part out. In what follows are some thoughts on how this failure continues to place the country in a perpetual state of emergency.

'tdawalit, so went the favoured Lebanese expression during the long years of the civil war. The word had become a daily incantation that summed up all that was wrong with Lebanon:  having started their war the Lebanese were now incapable of stopping it on their own. Tdawalit meant that the crisis has been 'internationalised', the world has not forgotten about us and help is on its way. Not for once did the Lebanese think that they should take control of their own destiny and solve their problems on their own. This strange fatalism from an otherwise very enterprising people persists until today, and is a better explanation for the country's woes than any other factor. When the civil war ended in 1990 it was as a result of an agreement sponsored by a multitude of foreign powers and negotiated in Saudi Arabia, where the remaining members of the parliament where assembled to give some sense of legitimacy to an agreement that the Lebanese people had nothing to do with.

Twenty years later and nothing seems to have changed. Weeks ago, the Lebanese awaited the arrival of their latest saviours with baited breath. A joint visit by the Saudi and Syrian leaders had them hoping that a regional 'understanding' would somehow navigate them through the latest predicament they found themselves in. The predicament in question was the expected indictment of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, investigating the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, of some members of Hezbollah. This indictment, not due till September, raised the prospect of civil infighting and the collapse of the fragile political arrangements put in place after the last parliamentary elections. As it happened, the visit had very little impact leaving the Lebanese frantically looking for an arrangement that would avoid such prospects.

Then two days ago the leader of Hezbollah Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah held a press conference in which he provided evidence that pointed to the possible involvement of Israel in the assassination of Hariri. As I argued in another posting, this was not meant as an accusation to be pursued by the STL but a face-saving initiative that would show the supporters of the tribunal, primarily prime minister Saad Hariri and his political allies, a way of out of the indictment prospect directing the accusation away from Hezbollah. I am not being dismissive of the evidence nor am I denying the possibility of Israel's involvement, but the political reading of the highly-dramatised event seems to indicate that Nasrallah was genuinely interested in avoiding the fallout resulting from an indictment of Hezbollah members.

There were many good articles written about Nasrallah's speech, both from supporters, opponents and a significant number of undecideds. The one common factor among all is the immediate and tactical nature of the analysis. There is a persistent tendency among Lebanese commentators to overlook the bigger picture and obsess about the details. Most mistakenly confuse the bigger picture with an annoyingly geo-political mode of analysis that draws heavily on realpolitik. Inadvertently, such analysis places Lebanon at the very heart of international politics rather than the small marginal nation that it actually is. It is not surprising then to see the large number of conspiracy theories that spin out of this caricature of geo-politics rendering all discourse empty and banal.

The reality in fact is much simpler, Lebanon's problems are but symptoms of its inability to govern itself and its willingness to hand out this power to external agents. I called this once political juvenility, a state of constant being in need of external assistance and guidance. Michael Young wrote in the Daily Star today: "In other words, we Lebanese never deserved the tribunal, and I suspect even less the sovereignty and rule of law it was supposed to bolster." Young seems to be completely unaware of the paradox within his statement, that sovereignty could be delivered by an external agency is a mockery of the very concept itself. Similarly, his opposites across the political divide insist on understanding Lebanese patriotism as the willingness to surrender control over the country to trusted regional powers such as Syria and Iran who would ensure that we stay committed to the righteous way.

Both sides are wrong of course. Politics is based on the exercise of autonomy, a fact that we've ignored for too long. Sovereignty matters because we can be responsible for our destiny and ensure accountability and proper representation. Why is it much easier to trust foreign powers than our fellow Lebanese? Furthermore, let's bear in mind that all concessions to foreign powers have consistently yielded unpalatable arrangements: war criminals being rehabilitated simply for switching sides, corrupt politicians being kept in power out of expediency and their stronghold on the electorate being reinforced as a result. All political sides in Lebanon are guilty of the above, both before and after 2005. It is blindness not to see that reform is not possible without severing all forms of dependency.

But let's be realistic, I am not asking for utopia. Any political agreement between the Lebanese factions that excludes foreign powers will only be the beginning of political reform. It will still be an agreement between confessional powers, but at least it will be a national agreement free from foreign meddling. The process of moving towards secular politics will start then, but without sovereignty all attempts at reform are just a pretence and a parody of what politics is. Who can forget the spectacle of Walid Jumblatt in his 'sovereignty' phase arguing for regime change in Syria, seemingly unaware that this was blatant interference in Syrian affairs? Such a transition would necessarily mean that we will also have to butt out of the affairs of other countries, and not least of all stop lecturing the Palestinians on how to conduct their struggle.

What does all of this mean in the context of the Hariri tribunal? If we want to avoid another decade of anxiety and deferred reform, the political powers should agree on the following: all the Hezbollah evidence should be handed to the Lebanese judiciary allowing it to exercise the right to question anyone and follow any lead. Lebanon withdraws its support from the STL and stops funding it, allowing the Lebanese judiciary full control over the investigations. Everyone commits not to protect any suspects and to hand them to the authorities. We deserve to find out the truth, but more importantly we deserve to find it out for ourselves. It will take a supreme act of trust on all sides in Lebanon to overcome this impasse, and only such a commitment would pave the way for sovereign politics. This is not fantasy, but a necessary condition for Lebanon's transition to nationhood. Time to grow up.


  1. We deserve to find out the truth, but more importantly we deserve to find it out for ourselves...
    for our selves, but not by our selves... for the simple reason: we are not able to do so.
    Why? because, as described by you: a lebanese investigation and trial suppose first to have a functioning state, an independent organs and protected judges and witnesses.
    we can not start from the trial of hariri's assassins to build a State.. we need first to build a Sate to be able to have a judicial answer to such a political crime.

    other point of disagreement: what is sovereignty? sovereignty is an attribute of a State on an international level, meaning that this State will not have obligations other than those on which it agrees, except for general obligations under International Law.
    In order to be a State, you need land + people + government. But many also add Recognition by other States.
    So Sovereignty is drawn from the capacity of a State, which is, and in fact in my opinion it should be, related to acceptance by other States as an equal.
    So yes, we need the others to become sovereign, we need to earn their respect, by acting as grown of course...

    third and last thing: Any political agreement between the Lebanese factions that excludes foreign powers is completely unrealistic. why? because the Lebanese factions are very much attached to a system distributing wealth and consideration only on the basis of confessions. Moreover, it is distributing a very limited capital of both. thus, it is inevitable that lebanese facions will kill each other to get even more of the cake, because non of them prefers to make one... Unless there is another economical system in Lebanon, and a change of symbolic values, Lebanese history will keep repeating it self. Entreprising, in fact, is not a true Lebanese attitude, when it will become one, maybe, a political reform will be possible, when Hariri, Jounblat, Nasrallah, and others will be paid by Lebanese Bouregoisie and not by Saoudien and Iranian oil dollars.

  2. Fadi, thanks for the comment. The first point you made was the point I made in the previous article, did you read it? Yes, we can't have independent judiciary if we don't have a state, and until now we don't have a state, and a big part of that is that Hezbollah remains outside the realm of the state.

    But you miss the point that the article is rhetorical. The question is if the factions can come to agreements sponsored by foreign powers, why can't them come to agreements on their own? You might say this is structurally impossible under the confessional system, but have we ever tried that?

    Which is related to your third point. In fact, 14 March was in a sense the product of a Bouregois revolution albeit a limited one. Why did that movement stop? I think it's because the people in charge were quick to transfer they won over to foreign powers which was a mistake. And also they excluded Hezbollah and Aoun which they had to pay the price for knowing the popular support that they have. If they had chose to retain power and offer an agreement to the others, wouldn't we be in much better position than now?

    Finally, all of this leads me to think that March 14 is now bankcrupt and the attempts to revive it are futile. Which means secular intellectuals will go back to the wilderness, but they don't know it yet.

  3. Karl,
    i tend to agree with what you are saying.. i already argued in one of my annahar articles that 14 march did not exist in fact... we, as lebanese, had something interesting between 14 February and 7 march, after that, everyone returned to his clan..
    however, i don't think that 14 March were Bourgeois in the way i meant, people who "create" wealth (for them selves of course) and not "rentiers" (in french, sorry...) who take benefit of their position whether as a traditional leader or as a new mediator between the wealth center and the lebanese consumer.
    it is this rentier position that, in my opinion, had blocked any reform tentative since 1960 at least.

    secular intellectuals will go back to the wilderness..
    what do you mean by that?

  4. I have always wondered: what had kept the Lebanese from realising a truly "independent state" back in 1943?
    At the time, there was no Islamic Iran, no Hizballah, no kryptonic Saudi Arabia as we know it now?
    Perhaps time to blame it on a fascistic middle east? One that persecutes minorities and degrades them? With the sectarian mosaic that we have, we were doomed down onto that road where each is fighting for their own survival at the expense of the other, clutching at the "foreign" power that endorses their own sect?

  5. ...and there was no Israel. But, I am always optimistic, it's up to us to change this status quo. The problem is nobody can see the situation from the other's perspective, why would each sect assume that the other one trying to get rid of them? On the positive side, things can only get better Fatima.

  6. Fadi, I mean all the secular intellectuals who joined 14th March, like a few of our friends, who I feel will be sacrificed in the next few months as the relationship with Syria improves. I think they will not be allowed to speak freely. Let's hope not, but I fear this will be the case.

  7. I am not too sure I can share your positivity Karl. I was trying to have us converge onto a different reason that could have possibly led to our current state of affairs, apart from the state of lawlessness that continues to govern this country, and from the foreign meddling (going in both directions). I believe the root of our problems is that we are a bunch of passive, and completely vegetative human beings. I have started to think it might even be in our genes. When we have the money for it we can buy our sovereignty and pay other nations to protect it for us. When we don't we turn to acquire power over the little cake we have and we start killing each other to grab the largest chunk out of it. The consequence, is as you've been describing, a loss in the ability to produce and maintain a national perspective governing our affairs. Take that out and religion takes over secularism, in forms of life as well as of culture and lastly of resistance. Now to solve all of these problems, I am not sure one should work it out from the end tail. I am not sure it helps to say that a secular state which emphasises law and nationalism is the solution. Not because this is not the ideal way forward. But because we have no means to achieve it before going back to the roots of the problem: we should stop being the scientifically and culturally backward people that we are. With science and culture, we can build an economy, a system, a law, a decent life. And I don't mean acquiring science and culture, like the GCC folks have been doing with their ridiculously generous money, but rather producing that kind of knowledge from within. I am in an unfortunate position to witness that we are way too far at the desperate end of the spectrum as far as this is concerned. I teach and do research in this backward country. There is one thing common amongst all of our students (14th of march, 8th of March, secularists, religious fanatics, ...etc). It is so unifying you'd wish they shared that kind of nationalism amongst each other, and that is, their supreme lack of motivation to work hard towards any scientific or cultural goal, an utterly overwhelming desire to sit back and vegetate until the end of time, whilst our neigbours are building Robots in their spare time.
    This, for me Karl, is the essence of our problems, and without it, we will remain Juvenile on all fronts: political and otherwise.

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  11. Fatima, I couldn't agree with you more in your prognosis of the main problem, to put it simply we have not yet produced our own form of modernity. This is ultimately the root of all problems, in our politics, in our social relationships, in our ecnonomy and so on.

    But the reason why I am optimistic is because despite all the setbacks you can detect a social dynamic at play. As in, there is a qualitative difference from other countries in the region, which is not because we are magical people but because of structural reasons like the fact that we don't have natural resources and out agriculture was destroyed early on in the 20th century, which ultimately turned out to be a good thing.

    One of the positive signs is that absolute hegemony has not taken hold in Lebanon, there are always voices of protest. This reflects some social and political dynamism. Another is the fact that we are not purely sectarian beings, each of us fluctuates between a sectarian and a secular mentality on a daily basis. So we can't be dimissive of the Lebanese people's potential, that's the main point. Otherwise, we're in danger of undermining democratic processes and ultimately risk becoming fascist simply because of our furstration with the status quo.

    Where can I see or read about your work? I want to find out more, I rately meet people that have this view.

  12. I don't write on these issues Karl, despite I have always wanted to do that.
    I write in theoretical computer science, though. I am a computer science faculty at AUB.

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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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