4 Nov 2010

Saad Hariri: The limits of politics

I met the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri for the first time this week, when I went to a talk he gave at the London School of Economics. The talk itself was very general. Hariri discussed the Arab Peace Initiative which was first proposed at the Beirut Summit for Arab leaders in 2002, and explained the need for peace in the Middle East which he asserted that Lebanon’s internal stability depends on. He touched on the economic achievements of his and the preceding government and outlined how building on those achievements is vital to fulfilling the aspirations of the Lebanese people.

Hariri did not address the subject of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in his talk, but there were several questions about it from the audience. Hariri admitted to understanding and even sharing the anxiety of the anti-tribunal camp but said that, ultimately, this issue has to be resolved through dialogue, not confrontation. Hariri was diplomatic in his choice of words, but he did question the reasons for the strong opposition to the tribunal. I thought he might be alluding to the possible involvement of some of the opponents of the tribunal in the assassination of his father, Rafik Hariri.

I’ve been perplexed for a while now by the defensive position that the tribunal has placed Hariri and his political allies into. The tribunal was meant to represent international protection for the 14th of March alliance, but now the situation has reversed and they are spending most of their energy defending the tribunal. So I put that question to Hariri without specifically mentioning the STL: Why has 14th March allowed itself to retreat into a defensive position instead of reviving Hariri Sr.’s economic and political project and consequently winning popular support through politics and development?

I must admit Hariri’s reply was interesting, although not surprising. Hariri talked about the need to pause and take stock instead of charging forward. The real reason of course being the consensual nature of politics in Lebanon: Had 14th of March pushed its political project at the same pace, it would have alienated a large segment of the Lebanese. He used the metaphor of the 14th of March demonstration itself to explain this point: Many Lebanese were at Martyrs’ Square that day, but many others were watching with anxiety. Hariri’s response seemed to stress the need to include those left behind.

But this is precisely my argument with all of the Lebanese faction leaders: Consensus-building for them is understood as a process that is conducted outside the democratic process. We’ve had a national dialogue council for a number of years now; it was intended to provide the mechanism for this consensus-building. Like everything else in Lebanon, it had to have the right balance of representation between confessional groups, geographic areas and political parties. But isn’t that why we have a parliament? This gathering is little more than a tribal council of elders, an un-constitutional body that operates outside the normal rules of politics.

Hariri’s reply to my question, much like the absurdity of having a council of elders in a parliamentary democracy, indicates the limits of politics in Lebanon. The confessional leaders inherently accept the limitations imposed on them by the nature of the Lebanese system. Political success must always be kept in check and balanced with confessional arrangements.

I found it very ironic then that Hariri, when replying to my question, made the distinction between 'national leaders' and 'confessional leaders'. He talked of his intention to emulate his father in that respect and become  a leader for all the Lebanese. This does not square up with his ready acceptance of the limits of politics in Lebanon and his willingness to accept consensus-building as a process to be conducted between confessional leaders. This is neither democratic nor politically savvy.


  1. I tend to believe the tribunal, at least from the world’s perspective and not necessarily all of ours, was set up to represent international condemnation of the 8th of March alliance. And that, in my opinion, does not equate with wanting to protect the 14th of March alliance as a politically vibrant entity. Whether the 14th of March group fade into redundant shadows or remain upbeat with a vision and a corresponding project is really not a priority for the international upholders of the tribunal, provided, of course, their opponents will eventually taste the bitter outcomes of the tribunal. Many in the 14th of March group seem to be aware of this international apathy (as opposed to the widespread impression people have), which can help explain why they’ve retreated into the defensive position you’ve described.
    Your point of consensus building versus a democratic system needs to be woven up with some important facts. Primarily, some (if not many) of us know that parliamentary elections have never, in Lebanese history, been truly democratic. This flawed process naturally defines the outcome, and its repercussions manifest themselves in a variety of phenomena, consensus building being the most striking. We continue to bother with elections, and put on a show, in the hope we retain the leading position as the only democratic Arab nation. By this we also deviously hope to continue fishing for compliments of the West, whilst nourishing our disdain for and condescendence over the neighbouring East. Add to this our shameless Lebanese version of democratic discourse, which rests almost exclusively on such petty levels of language you’d get sick to your stomach watching any of our daily news or press conferences. Democracy in our country means a one and only thing: that you can mount a podium and use as much bad language as you may wish without anyone holding you accountable.
    All things are intertwined. Hariri junior cannot emulate a national leader, very much like Nasrallah cannot. The division of labour you have discussed previously stands in the way, which also causes my former comment on it reverberate, that this also stands in the way of mature politics. Not only are they incapable of, they also don’t want to, put the effort necessary and sufficient to bring everyone in under a unified flag. They are not the only ones to blame. The laymen of Lebanon are equally responsible. People have yet to draw on their humanism, which is lacking in every simple aspect of our daily lives. I have started to see that this is more of a grave hindrance than us failing to instate a secular system. After all, what good will there be to have a bunch of heartless seculars take the lead? The Lebanese, if they ever become secular, national, whatever you may wish to call it, will yet have to learn empathy – true empathy that goes beyond hospitality and fake, macho chivalry on the streets of Beirut. It is the common Lebanese who, with their staunch opposition to national unity and their unwavering desire to vegetate and kill, are dragging on their leaders (much to the willing consent of the latter ones) onto the swamps of this Zoo we call Lebanon. Even tribes of the Arabian desert (no offence intended) have a better working system.

  2. Fatima, while I agree with much of what you say and share your anger at our hypocrisy, there's one important point that I have to disagree with you on. This for me is the starting point for politics. You've made two statements:

    "some (if not many) of us know that parliamentary elections have never, in Lebanese history, been truly democratic."

    "Democracy in our country means one and only thing: that you can mount a podium and use as much bad language as you may wish without anyone holding you accountable."

    It's true that elections in Lebanon were never fully democratic, but they are what our leaders draw their legitimacy from. Even now with all the tension, both sides are careful to seem like they are following democratic procedures. The point is instead of dismissing elections, they should be held accountable to the results of those elections, which ties into the second point you made about accountability.

    Our leaders represent us with all our faults, it's no use wishing for different leaders. But the important fact to stress is that they are not free to behave as they wish once the elections are over. The political class in Lebanon swings between its confessional base and its 'democratic' base constantly, depending on what suits its needs. I am not making the case for secularism, but for holding those leaders responsible. If we're dismissive about the elections, it means we're giving them a free license to behave without restraint or in accordance with their mandate.

    In other words, when they retreat into the confessional shell, the people must stop that. We all swing between those polarities in our daily life in Lebanon, and that takes the form of the hypocrisy you talk about. But for me, this is not about creating different type of people, but engaging people in non-sectarian politics. Big difference, I think. I am not interested in reforming people or changing their personalities, but engaging them in politics.

    Now, if we can only find out how that can be done....

  3. I could gather a few words here and there, especially after reading your latest post (following this one), that can be spun together into a more accurate discussion:

    “We’re content to watch the sequence of events unfold like a TV series that we have no control over”. “If we're dismissive about the elections, it means we're giving them a free license to behave without restraint or in accordance with their mandate”, “The response of the public should not be disengagement but demanding adherence to democratic processes”, “this is not about creating different type of people, but engaging people in non-sectarian politics.”

    With this I am glad to see the focus shifting to where we can speak more originally, into what has been my own dilemma for some time now. I’ve progressed from a social and semi-personal upbringing which blamed the universe (minus us) for all of our woes, onto a self-inflicted state of blind self-loathing, onto a state of reasoning that it’s really a bit of this and that, and that most of us have been spending time beating around the bush, simulating our problems rather than thinking about ways to put an end to them. “Now, if we can only find out how that can be done.... “. And I’d go even further to say, if we can only get the people who matter to come together and spend the right amount of time to find out how that can be done. After all, that shouldn’t be more difficult than sending spaceships into outer space. And yes, we have been far too lax, both with words and actions. It all starts with our journalism, even the types of blogs most of us keep, which only makes me anticipate the kind of comments that you read following articles in newspapers or posts on blogs. The content and the tone are partially responsible for the public reaction they are generating. Most of our journalism is bribed, or else just reactionary and on the leash. Even the most enlightened of us, when they wish to go a bit further than criticising their worst ideological foes, go about criticizing their otherwise preferred political group, but almost in a way to say, we’re hating you because you have not been competent enough to dominate the other and render them into the midgets that they are. Instead of making accountability and attacking double standards their primary cause, our journalists and most of our thinkers still nurture a love for exclusion, hiding behind a veil of moderation -- which the average public can build on, and ends up absorbing by osmosis, and venting it out in a variety of ways, electronic, or physical. That is as far as our words are concerned. With actions, the situation is a bit harder to control, simply because there aren’t enough people here to act. The brain drain we have been witnessing is exacerbating the situation. The judicious voices are simply speaking very remotely. The thinkers are turning into more and more of a virtual set of characters, a set that people on the grounds either can’t hear or can do so as if in a fuzzy dream. There are simply not enough people here to act out the words. And one can act in the simplest ways. A modest labourer on the streets of Beirut, if properly coached, can uphold proper values and accountability, very much like a fancy academic can do. But for the “good” people to just be here is becoming a rarity, for which we’re losing to battle against the “evil” ones who are thriving on the resulting swamp. I see it around me in the cruelest forms, as the best of our students take off, or the best of friends and family start visiting Lebanon less and less often to the point of nullity, citing “security concerns”. And when they come out and speak about accountability from their far away abodes, you could imagine the crooks of this jungle grinning with ridicule and mockery.

    I am sorry if I am still sounding too bleak. I am still trying hard to think less of myself as a victim, having decided to stay and yet carry on with a difficult battle.


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

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