8 Feb 2013

'Beirut, Our Disappointment' and Lebanon’s Troubled Political Geography

The confessional prism for understanding Lebanon is completely exhausted. Trying to understand the socio-political dynamics in the country through ‘sectarian’ relationships not only doesn’t tell the full story, it has become a way in itself of reproducing the sectarian narrative. This is not to say that it should be dismissed entirely, but the reality is much more complex and we need to expand our horizons. I propose a closer look at the socio-political geography of the country to supplant our understanding. Below are my first thoughts towards critiquing the spatial imagination of the political class and the way it impacts on its political actions.

Much has been said about the troubled relationship between the centre and the margins in Lebanon. Historically that relationship shaped how the political class consolidated its power, across all sects, and attempt to repress demands for change. Fouad Shehab’s limited attempt in the 60s to address the imbalance in development between the centre and the periphery was limited by being primarily bureaucratic rather than political. As such, it did not produce a viable model for engaging the periphery.

This imbalance was aggravated in recent decades as Lebanon’s ‘wings’, the regions originally meant to provide an agricultural hinterland to the commercial centre in Beirut and the coastal cities, progressively lost their productive significance. There always was an exploitative relationship between areas like Akkar, Nabattieh and Hermal and their political representatives on the national arena, but with the loss of their productive potential, (through agricultural decline) that relationship has increased their levels of dependency.

Those peripheries are periodically mobilised at times of elections or intense political/sectarian clashes, to the extent that there is talk of ‘reservoirs of anger’ in areas like Akkar, but this opportunism by the political class is self-exhausting and is both breeding discontent. There is a fundamental problem here beyond mere cynical exploitation: the peripheries are not part of the geo-political imagination of the political class.

Consider the development question. The political class views development as an act of charity, a sort of pay-off to pacify their followers in outlying areas. That means that this development is by definition limited, it is not perceived as investment in productive activity that will become self-sustaining and contribute to the national economy. This is not simply because they are cynical, after all its in their interest to create viable economic activity that would shore up their support, they are incapable of imagining such possibilities.

This is largely due to the fact that those areas are absent from the spatial imagination of the political class, they are treated as depleted dependencies that have little to offer. In many ways, this is a reflection of the spatial stasis that dominates how the elites conceptualise the country. This is partially driven by the constant fear of changing demographics and is reflected in the use of phrases like ‘fragile balance’ to describe the condition of the country. But is also a reflection of the nature of political leadership and its homogeneous social change that has become a serious impediment to broad and ambitious national projects.

It’s worth nothing that within that situation, certain areas have fared better than others. Certain areas in the south have developed in marked contrast to the north, helped by remittances from immigrants and their investments. Hezbollah has also galvanised more energy into the development process, partially driven by the reconstruction process in the aftermath of Israeli attacks, but also because its politics are deeply embedded in the region. The same didn’t happen in the Beqa’a however, and there are areas there that epitomise the periphery in terms of state neglect and the emergence of autonomous forms of social order, but one that is constantly in a state of managed friction with the state.

In the north, and in parallel with the marginalisation of the rural areas, the ‘periphery’ has expanded into the urban centre. This is not a new phenomenon in Lebanon, Beirut’s ‘misery belt’ brought the periphery into close proximity with the city and contributed directly to the eruption of the civil war. Tripoli’s social geography is creating margins that are slipping out of the control of the Sunni political class. The sectarian tensions between the areas of Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh are fed by conditions of discontent on either side, their immediate target might be their neighbours but the deeper causes are a product of marginalisation. (To the extent that the state rarely attempts to establish its control).

When two Lebanese hip hop artists that self-identify with the condition of marginalisation collaborated recently, it was interesting to see that their anger was directed at the centre itself, Beirut. El_Rass from Tripoli and Nasserdin Al- Touffar from Baalbek (Touffar is the traditional name for the mountain-roaming folk outlaws in Baalbek-Hermel) jointly wrote and performed ‘Beirut Khaibetna’ (Beirut, Our Disappointment).

The collaboration itself is a symbolic coming together of the margins against the centre that is not represented only through Beirut but the entire spectrum of the political class, including ‘the resistance’, in a direct reference to Hezbollah’s role within the current reincarnation of the sectarian system. It is a call for solidarity between the ‘peripheries’, (albeit in a form that disdains the cosmopolitan lifestyle in the city):

"من بعلبك لطرابلس شمال واحد جرد واحد وجع صامت عالجرح عاضد”

“From Baalbek to Tripoli, One North, One Maquis, Silent Pain, Biting its Pain”

"بطرابلس حدائق السعودية باطون وبالهرمل دعم ايران ما بيعبي بطون
بالضنية فتافيت اقطاع وحق الفلاح انباع وبالبقاع الحق ضاع تحت عباية مقاوم"

“In Tripoli, Saudi concrete gardens, in Hermel Iran’s support doesn’t fill the stomach

In Dnieh, feudal leftovers, the rights of the peasants were sold, and in the Beqa’a our rights were lost under the robes of the resistance”

“Beirut, Our Disappointment” is obviously not a polished political manifesto, yet there is a germinal idea towards reconstituting the political geography of the country away from the dominant sectarian narrative. Part of its rage is a stylistic necessity, but it highlights the absence of the repressed margins and is imagining an form of solidarity across them. Perhaps what is most promising for me is the possibility that we could imagine ourselves as one nation.

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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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