Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Turkey after the Twitter ban: an interview

The AK Party government of Prime Minister Erdogan banned Twitter and YouTube but nevertheless won the local elections last Sunday by a wide margin. I spoke with Ceylan Özbudak, political analyst and executive director of Building Bridges, a non-governmental organization.

How would you explain the current situation in Turkey to an outsider? Which powers and interests are colliding?

Ceylan Özbudak: The Turkish political scene has been dominated by conservative parties since 1950. Since 1946, the main opposition left-wing CHP could not get an electoral victory without a right-wing coalition. The Turkish electoral system and political scene is much different than England or the US. While the British and the American political scene is dominated by the two main parties, Turkey is home to 77 (yes that’s right, seventy-seven) political parties.

Despite banning social media the AK Party and Prime Minister Erdogan did great in the elections on March 30. Do we see the country split in two? Is Turkey more divided than ever?

CÖ: The AKP has managed to win three successive general elections in 2002, 2007 and 2011, increasing its proportion of the vote on each occasion. The AKP’s victory was decisive in the latest election of June 2011, with the party claiming 50 percent of the vote, compared to its share of 34 percent in November 2002 and 47 percent in July 2007. This was a clearly exceptional performance by any standard, and clearly contradicts any notion of public fatigue of government, which typically leads to a decline in the electoral performance of political parties after many years in office. What makes the AKP experience unique is that center-right parties are hidden in the Turkish context. 

Turkey harbors many groups of Muslim Jamaats (congregations). These jamaats have a considerable voter base, not only because of their members but also because of the relatively close circle of these members. The AK Party so far has shown a warm attitude towards these jamaats and has been supported by them. The primary opposition left party, the CHP (Republican People's Party), is not popular among the jamaats, not because of the current party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, but because of the CHP's previous politics. Even though Turkey looks very polarized from outside, it is not as polarized as it looks on the inside. If we are referring to the separation between the Fethullah Gulen group and the AK Party, we cannot really call it a separation since the voter base of the Gulen group is not more than 0,2 %.

The reaction of the outside world (EU, USA) to the recent events in Turkey (banning Twitter, YouTube) was rather lame and tame. Why is that so?

CÖ: The reactions to the Twitter and YouTube ban were rather discrete on the foreign diplomacy level because of the reasons of these bans. The reasons made it easier to consider them acceptable. What Turkey wants from Twitter authorities is nothing more than being treated the same way as England, France, Sweden or Spain. Turkey wants Twitter to take the decisions of Turkish courts seriously and act accordingly just like in the other countries. We should not forget that there is a very fine line between freedom of speech and violation of private life and while one is encouraged in advanced democracies, the latter is condemned. This is the same in Turkey too.

 Erdogan fixed the economy: Ceylan Özbudak

When will the social media ban be lifted? For how long will the current state of affairs be acceptable? 
CÖ: Well, let's not forget that in the first hour of the ban, two million tweets were sent. I think that these sites will not be blocked for long. Turkey will not be China or Iran. I hope that in the future we will not see a total banning of any website. It was always about removing certain links, not about blocking an entire social media platform.

Turkey has 12 million Twitter users. Maybe this ban will make Twitter even more popular in Turkey. (the Twitter ban has been lifted in the meantime).

Economic success is important for any government (and its constituency). And I experienced the economic success of the AKP policies myself when I visited Turkey last year, enjoying an excellent infrastructure. But how much does a good economic record excuse any other acts and any other policies a government may conduct? Where are the limits? 
CÖ: Economy is very very important for any country, not only for Turkey. Everywhere in the world, what affects voters’ behavior the most is undoubtedly the economy. Many ultra-secularists voted for the AK Party in the last elections because of the economic success the party brought to the country. Unlike its oil and gas rich neighbors, Turkey has not been able to use the short cut of one commodity. The AK Party established a strong free-market economy with all its institutions and rules, and recognizes the role of the state in the economy only in a regulatory and supervisory capacity. FIXING THE ECONOMY can be only a simple line for many analysts when they are referring to Turkey. However, it becomes a VERY SIGNIFICANT line if you are living in Turkey and you have investments to support, debts to pay, and children’s school fees to think about.

In the last 11 years, AK Party created a new middle class in Turkey and this neo-middle class has higher dreams and is looking to enhance its potential by making new investments. They are taking loans and getting into debts leaning on the well functioning economical wheel. You cannot simply tell these people to shake the economical ground they are standing on without putting forward a viable and compelling alternative. In terms of industrial development, Turkey advanced tremendously in the era of the three terms of an AK Party government.

Turkey now has an university in every city, 22 airports, 18,000 square km of double highways and the first domestically produced Turkish military helicopters, tanks, warships and drones. Turkey has paid off its 23.5 billion dollar debt to the IMF and is in a position to offer loans to that institution. It has also started paying fees for infirm patients and distributed free books and 75,000 free tablet computers to students. Unemployment is under 10% despite the recent influx of refugees.

Many people say that PM Erdogan is destroying his own legacy. What is your comment on this?

CÖ: Please see my previous answer regarding the economy. This is the legacy of Erdogan and the truth is even though restrictions can never be considered acceptable, he is not destroying his legacy.

Why does Erdogan act they way he does? 
CÖ: We have to understand that this is Turkey. Turkey is a Middle Eastern country, situated in the most volatile region of the world. Turkey is not the Principality of Lichtenstein, situated in one of the safest regions of the world. Therefore, we cannot expect people to not take this (the volatile environment) into consideration.

If you take all 75 million plus citizens of Turkey, we can safely say that the AK Party is a melting pot of past and present social and ideological movements in Turkey. Dominated by a traditionally liberal-democratic-conservative mindset, Turkish society likes to preserve and practice the moral values of religion while remaining closely attached to the now-Western values of tolerance, freedom, human rights, education and the rule of law.

This post was first published at Your Middle East online media: here.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

LOST - Lost in Beirut

Previously on LOST: In "Lost in Tripoli", Heba, a Tripoli native, has met Samir when causing a car accident while driving to Beirut. One week later, Samir visits Heba in Tripoli. They have lunch at Hallab and Heba gives Samir a sightseeing tour of Tripoli, a city he only knew via television before. Samir, a busy photographer from Beirut, finds Tripoli attractive. They both find each other attractive.

Heba hangs up the phone. This was Samir, she tells her mother. He can't come to see me this Sunday. He says that he doesn't feel comfortable driving to Tripoli at the moment.

I can understand”, says Salma, Heba's mother. “This country is a mess.”

You know”, she goes on, “your dad is not feeling well in the past weeks.”

His blood pressure is still too high?”, Heba asks.

It is”, her mother says, “and he has a pain in his left leg. He should see his doctor regularly but he can't. It is not safe to go there.”

Those damn snipers.” Heba shakes her head.

Heba and Samir are seeing each other for five months now. Several times Heba has visited Samir in Beirut.

Last Sunday afternoon they went out for lunch, taking Samir's brother, his wife and their children with them. They drove to Zaytunay Bay, a favorite hangout place for many Beirutis down at the Marina. They had intended to have a giant burger at St. Elmo's, but the restaurant was full. Babel at the other end of the row of restaurants was their fallback position. Babel served excellent Lebanese food with a modern twist. The kids liked it too.

In the restaurant, Samir was greeted by Joseph Attieh, the pop singer who had won Star Academy Lebanon in 2005. Samir had photographed him for the cover of his latest album. He hugged him like an old friend.

Until then, Heba had seen Joseph Attieh only on TV and on billboards, announcing his concert on New Year's Eve.

He looked tired. He is more attractive on film”, Heba later said.

They all are.” Samir smiled. “Photoshop works better than Botox.”

Zaytunay Bay was only a few steps away from where Mohamed Chatah, the March 14 politician, had been killed by a car bomb in the last week of 2013. Heba was tempted to walk over and take a look at the scene of the attack. Samir held her back.

Visiting unlucky places will bring bad luck.”

To me it's a mystery”, Samir explained to Heba, “how come his murderers knew that Chatah would take this route on his last day on earth? They must have had an insider talking to them.”

Samir can really talk smart, sometimes, Heba thought that afternoon. But sometimes he takes things too easy.

 Zaytounay Bay, Beirut

Like when they had their first real fight as a couple, a few weeks earlier. After the Chatah bombing, more car bombs had hit Beirut and Heba was really worried. About Lebanon, about Beirut, about everything. But particularly about Samir.

Please be careful”, Heba said, “don't go to these places anymore.”

I have to”, Samir had answered, “I have jobs to do.”

Samir took off his sunglasses. “You remember the famous picture from the 2006 war? Young Lebanese visiting South Beirut to see the destruction there, wearing Gucci glasses. Maybe one day, I will be there with my camera when it happens and then I will be famous.”

Are you crazy?” Heba almost cried. “What about me?”

I love you, and you know this”, Samir said. “But a photo like that could give my career a whole new boost.”

And after the bombings there was Sochi and the Olympic winter games. It turned out that Samir was one of the photographers on the set when Jackie Chamoun's topless pictures were taken.

That little bitch”, Heba hissed. She was jealous. “How many times did you touch her breasts?”

Come on!”, Samir tried to calm Heba. “Not once. I didn't have to. Besides, I was wearing gloves. It was cold.”

That little bitch”, Heba kept repeating. “Where did you spend the night with her? I bet that it was very hot in front of the fireplace.”

She is not such a good skier anyway”, Samir said. “Can we change the subject now?”


I am going to Beirut, mom”, Heba says. “I will take the car and leave in 15 minutes. I want to see Samir.”

Drive carefully, my daughter. And say hello to Samir. When will you present him to us?”

Mom, please. Soon, I promise.”

Just as Heba is about to leave the house, the phone rings. “It's your brother from Qatar”, her mother shouts.

How is life in Qatar, brother”, Heba asks. “Is it as boring as everybody says?”

I am here for the money”, Tarek replies. “Not for the fun.”

Business is bad in Tripoli”, Heba says. “Nobody is investing anymore.”

How much longer can you keep the banks quiet?”

I am afraid that we will run out of money shortly. We struggle.”

I will send you money in the coming week.”

And then, Heba is on her way to Beirut. The Salam mosque that was blown up by an explosion last August is still under construction. And the little department store next to it, a collateral damage of the bombing, hasn't reopened yet.

A Mercedes taxi stops and picks up new passengers. Heba honks the horn. The restaurants on el Mina Street are almost empty. Ashraf Rifi is still riding his horse on the big poster at the end of the street. Since Heba last took this road out of Tripoli, Rifi has become Lebanon's minister of justice.

Justice. All we want in the Arab world is justice, Heba thinks. Maybe more than any other people in the world.

Why is it that justice is so close to our hearts and yet so far from our minds? Heba has no answer.

She is excited to drive to Beirut. She is excited to meet Samir. On the radio they play Joseph Attieh's new song.

My life has changed quite a bit since I have met Samir, Heba thinks. I have finally left my comfort zone. At least, I am trying to leave it. This may be my last chance. After fifty, a woman with no man at her side slowly withers away. That's what my daughter says. It's scary.

The army checkpoint on the highway south of Batroun has a ragged look, as always.

The poor kids still have the same old guns, Heba sighs. The 3 billion dollars that Saudi Arabia has recently pledged to the Lebanese army haven't trickled down to here.

Heba reaches the Casino du Liban and the traffic starts getting heavier.

I wonder what the people here think about the situation that Lebanon is in. Do they still want to be a part of Lebanon?

Despite her thoughts wandering off, she is cautiously cruising between the lanes. She doesn't want to cause another accident. The highway goes from three lanes to two, and then back to three again.

This area looks safe and prosperous. It seems to Heba that she sees a new sushi restaurant every time she passes this area. But everywhere they go from here, they risk running into bombs.

She must brake hard to avoid a collision with a bus that cuts into her path. Do you feel like going nowhere, the billboard opposite Crepaway reads, like your life is too complex? Simplicity is the solution.

Highway to Beirut
On Zalqa highway, the traffic is so congested that Heba has time to check out the many furniture stores on the right side of the highway. I don't like the heavy dark woods of the furniture in Tripoli, she thinks. It's too conservative. But the tacky Italian designs are not my style either.

Why isn't there an IKEA in Lebanon, like in Europe? We have ministers for everything, but no one cares for the things we really need in Lebanon. Heba hits the accelerator.

Then, finally: one last corner and Heba will reach Samir's house. Samir is a really handsome guy, actually, Heba says to herself. With his hair going slightly grey he has a bit of a George Clooney look.

I used to be turned off by men with grey hair. They seemed so old. But with Samir, it's different. Heba feels the happiness rising inside her.

She is surprised to see Samir in front of the house when she arrives. Heba parks and gets out of the car. They kiss each other. Samir appears to be stressed and distant.

What is this suitcase here?”, Heba asks. Samir shrugs and he stutters.

I am sorry that I couldn't tell you earlier but there was no time calling you.”

Telling what? What do you mean?” Heba's face has turned to white.

I just got a call from Sandra, you know, the leader of Sandmoon, the band. Sandmoon will start an European tour tomorrow and Sandra is desperately looking for a photographer and video guy to travel with them. Their regular guy broke his leg in Faraya this morning.”

I still don't understand.” Heba is trying to breathe calmly.

I figured that I take the offer and go with them. I would have loved to spend a cozy weekend with you. But it is Europe, it's a job, it should be fun.”

In a hurried movement, Samir swings his arms around Heba and kisses her again.

Sorry, I have to go. My flight is in one hour. I love you. And we will see each other soon.”

Heba feels like she has never felt before. Something had just knocked her down.

Samir knows too many women, Heba thinks. But that's not it. That's not the point. There is something else that's bothering me.

Here I am. Standing alone on a boardwalk in Beirut. Where shall I go?

From a distance she can hear “Truly Madly Deeply”, Savage Garden's hit record from 1997. It's from her bag. Heba's phone is ringing.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The new Cold War and the Middle East

Cold War times are back in Europe. Russian troops are standing in Crimea. The peninsula in southern Ukraine is known for its sparkling wine and the conference of Yalta in 1945, where Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin agreed on the division of Germany and the post-war reorganization of Europe.

Just fresh from the Olympics in Sochi, Putin, with his moves in the Ukraine, shows again how a resurgent Russia looks like. After Gorbachev the peacenik, and Yeltsin the drunken captain, Russia had almost come to a collapse entering the third millennium. It was for Putin to take over the wheel and to clean the house. He again exerted the Kremlin's power over all of Russia, jailing oligarchs, homosexuals and pussy riots who stood in his way.

In 2014, Russia is almost back to its old Soviet form: economically strong but vulnerable on the inside, militarily powerful on the outside. In the 20 years of Russia's weakness, the Baltic states had become members of NATO and many former iron curtain states had joined the European Union. Losing Ukraine to the West was a no go for Putin. He had to act. The buck stops here.

the buck stops here: Putin and Ukranian president Yanukovich

While the Cold War remained mostly cold in Europe, it always was hotter elsewhere. The Middle East was no exception. In 1953, a CIA-assisted coup deposed Iranian prime minister Mosadegh, perceived of being too close to communism, and replaced him with US-friendly Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. He would later become the Shah.

In 1956, the Suez crisis saw a Warsaw Pact backed Egypt fight the UK, France and Israel over the control of the Suez canal. In 1979, the Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan to help a communist government pressured by Mujahedins and monarchists and to secure the USSR's southern flank.

Looking back with a nostalgic look, the Cold War seems to be the good old times. The world was bipolar, with the United States (often acting in tandem with Western Europe) and the Soviet Union making sure that no conflict would get too much out of hand. A mutual assured destruction was the guarantee that no nuclear bombs were launched during this period. However, for the people of the Middle East, the situation was less rosy.

The Cold War in the Middle East meant that autocrats and dictators were allowed to govern as they pleased. These rulers were encouraged and supported by their sponsors in Washington or Moscow. Hafez al-Assad was the Soviet's man no matter how hard he pushed his agenda in Syria. The Shah of Iran could do no wrong as long as he kept hammer and sickle out of his country. Egypt finally shifted its alliance from the USSR during the early days of the Cold War to being a United States follower under Sadat. Ultimately this lead to a peace agreement with Israel.

Whoever the godfathers of their patrons were, for the people of the Middle East it meant that liberal democracies Western style never had a chance to see the light of an election day. Democracy by definition implies instability and insecurity. During Cold War times, the superpowers were not ready to accept this risk. The Middle East was too precious a region for the Americans to have it voted away to the Soviets.

When the Berlin wall fell and the Soviet Union crumbled, the Cold War came to an end. The Unites States finally had free reigns. For Middle Easterners, their fate didn't turn into luck. An unipolar world was no better as the people of Iraq found out in 2003. Unchecked by an equivalent Soviet Union, the United States' war machine invaded Iraq to topple Saddam – no tears for him – and to achieve a strategic position in the region. 100'000s of Iraqis were killed in the process.

A window of opportunity opened up three years ago for Middle Eastern people. In hindsight, the Arab Spring was the consequence of the near end of the American hegemony and Russia not yet ready to start a new Cold War cycle. Taking advantage of this historic constellation, people in Egypt, Syria and Yemen demanded that the old guards, remnants of the Cold War, had to go. Their aspirations were high, but their hopes were soon cut short.

This is 2014 and we are back to a Cold War of a new sort. The United States' military power is about to be reduced considerably and thanks to Putin's determined actions, Russia has found a second breath. How will this new equilibrium play out in the conflict zones of the Middle East? Here is a prediction.

In Egypt, General Sisi will be happy to learn that now two weapons suppliers are at his disposal to hedge his grip. Already Egypt has signed new defense deals with Moscow. The Egyptian people can just forget to get rid of the Mubarak era anytime soon. Maybe this is for the better. The alternative that was tried was the Muslim Brotherhood and they turned out to be a bad investment.

In Syria, Bashar al-Assad, Russia's pivot in the Arab world, and his jihadist opponents, at least indirectly supported by the United States, may have gotten an extended life line with this new Cold War. However Syria as a whole – the people, the country – will be wasted completely as a result of this protracted war.

Syria's al-Assad almost got bombed last year if not for a last minute chemical weapons deal brokered by Russia. That the regime of Bashar al-Assad will be hit by American or NATO bombs at one point in time is a near given and has been announced by this writer already last September on Twitter. But then again: with Russia in the Crimea and possibly in Kiev, will the United States dare to teach Assad a lesson?

 Got oil, got gas?: Ashton meets Zarif; March 8, 2014

This leaves us with Iran who is set be the winner of this round of Cold War. Iran is the much coveted prize in any future gamble in the Middle East. With its well established institutions, Iran is a rock compared to the sand dunes the rest of the Middle Eastern countries are built on.

In a not too distant future, Putin may cut off Europe from Russia's oil and gas supplies to pressure Merkel et al. into some kind of a bargain. But luckily a nuclear deal with Iran had been signed in a hurry and thanks to Europe's new best friends in Tehran, the German chancellor will not suffer from a cold winter. And for everything else there are nuclear power plants as the Mullahs have argued for a long time.

Of course the Iranians will be more inclined to help Europe out when they promise to be nice with their friend Assad. If not, Iran always has the Russians to partner with – and they have a proven record of having a soft spot for the al-Assads.

An Arab official once said: “I don't like what Putin does, but I like how he does it”. Today, Assad must like what Putin does. As for the Iranians, this Persian proverb might be fitting: “Patience is bitter, but it has a sweet fruit.”

This post was first published at Your Middle East online media: here


Sunday, February 23, 2014

Seven statements about life in Lebanon

Lebanon is a country under severe stress. Torn apart by internal divisions and flooded by a constant stream of refugees from neighboring Syria, Lebanon struggles to stay above the waterline of a tsunami that is about to swallow the entire Middle East.

How do young Lebanese assess the situation they live in? What do they think about the declining security in Lebanon and about growing up in a country where the future is uncertain, if not impossible? Do they support the politics of a particular sect or are they secular?

In January of 2014, I had the possibility to interview six students from the Antonine sisters school in Ghazir. The school is located in a upper middle class Christian neighborhood 25 km north of Beirut. The students were four girls and two boys between 16 and 17 years old. The following text contains seven statements about their life in Lebanon.

1 “I personally dislike the idea of being bound to a particular sect; it would put boundaries to my flow of thoughts and actions.”

The Lebanese are a free spirited people, pushing for individualistic approaches even when they are in a group. They cancel appointments at the last minute and make their own plans instead. They see themselves as leaders, not as team players.

Good news: the free spirit will remain part of the Lebanese national character. Most of the students from Ghazir call themselves secular. Well educated and with their eyes open to the world, they advocate a strict separation between politics and religion; if not, as one student put it, exhibit A: Lebanon.

Will this secular attitude hold once the students enter adult life? Only the younger generation has the privilege to think without compromises.

2 “We are mature enough to understand that we can no longer pretend that we don't know what is going on.”

In the harsh environment that is Lebanon, children grow up to be smart quickly. Everywhere you go in Lebanon, your personal survival kit must be your company. Don't leave home without your brain.

In Europe, the younger people often refer to themselves as “the disenchanted generation”. There is nothing left to fight for in Europe. At least not in a positive way; the populist fight against immigrants even from within the continent will gain much momentum in the years to come. In Lebanon, the future is at stake.

But will the realization that “we know what is going on” be turned into action? Social movements have all but disappeared in Lebanon.

"we know what is going on": the Antonine sisters school in Ghazir

3 “Lebanon is a chaos. The rest of the Middle East is a massacre. What happens in Lebanon once a week happens in Syria every day. The thing is that Lebanon is in a kind of half-war, half-peace state. You can't take action because you are not even sure what the situation is.”

There is no easy way out for Lebanon. After the civil war and with the Taif agreement, a political system and a distribution of power based on sects was conceived and written almost in stone. What was meant to be a temporary solution to hold the country together is now the force that drives the country apart, again.

The sectarian system, as one 16 years old explained, has gotten the Lebanese more labeled. And indeed: everybody seems to carry a X or a Y on their foreheads. If you have this name then you belong to this religion and you live in this region, following this politician. There is no need for Lebanese to talk to each other anymore. The brand that I have given you tells me everything.

But without a dialog, only the forces of evil will be heard.

4 “In my opinion the only way to solve the problems (of Lebanon and the Middle East) is to erase religion from all political and legal matters.”

5 “Christianity is a common ground I share with my family and my environment; it gives a reason to my existence and helps me understand what science has not been able to explain.”

Whatever is the question in Lebanon, religion is part of the answer. To ban religion in the public sphere would be like teaching a horse how to speak. It is quite impossible. Confronted with a world in turmoil, religion gives an identity and a comforting sense of not being alone when things turn sour.

While a social system based on religion allows for a high degree of liberalism within the respective sect – every sect is able to live by its own rules – it is a gravedigger of liberalism on a state level. If religion is the standard by which a state defines its subjects, the power in this state will be held by the masters of these religions.

A weak executive branch and non existing state institutions won't be the cause, but the consequence of such a system. Remember: it's institutions that make a functioning state, not elections, nor democracy as such.

 "Lebanon is a chaos. The rest of the Middle East is a massacre": a Lebanese student

6 “I have no fear for my own situation since I have an almost set future ahead of me which Lebanon's situation cannot affect.”

The prevailing thought in Lebanon these days appears to be this: I can't affect Lebanon but I won't permit Lebanon to affect me. After living with a mental immigration for years, the physical emigration is a well established path for many to cope with the situation.

Many dreams for a personal and professional future that the Lebanese have cannot be achieved in Lebanon. Lebanese, and certainly the younger generation, are too well educated and too bright to be restrained by the restrictions of their country.

Of course it 's true: the Lebanese have always been a migrating people. They live by the sea and yearn to peek beyond the horizon. However, with the brain drain, and without an incentive to return, a country will be drained of its prosperous future.

People remaining in Lebanon will be people who do their own thing, no matter what. The crazy people: people who believe that blowing up other people is the solution to everything. The “inner exile” people: people who have given up on Lebanon and its society and pursue their happiness within their very private space.

This may be enough on a personal level, this may be enough to make Beirut the entertainment capital of the greater Middle East, but it won't contribute to the development of Lebanon, and the Lebanese society, as a whole.

Does this sound too pessimistic? There is hope. Lebanese are the perennial optimists and world champions in suppressing unpleasant facts that don't fit their self given image of God's own country. This is what keeps the Lebanese going and what keeps the country from going under.

7 “I have to say that Lebanon is a country full of action; you can never get bored here. If it's not a bomb or a suicidal bomber, it's a snow storm, or it's a bunch of people trying to make 'the world's largest hummus bowl'. I have learned to be optimistic about everything. It's not always as horrible as the news present the case here. We go to school, go watch movies, go party and enjoy our lives just any other normal teenager, but with the occasional 'fireworks' as I would call it.”

Calling a bombing “the occasional firework” against boredom? Felix Libanus! There is no reason to worry then. Olympic skier Jackie Chamoun's topless photos stir up Lebanon much more than the continual threat of car bombs. We shall overcome.

Thanks to Sasha J. Mattar from the Antonine sisters school in Ghazir. Her help was essential for this article.

This post was first published at Your Middle East online media: here.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Saudi Arabia raises the bets in Lebanon

The funeral of Mohamad Chatah was barely over when Lebanese president Michel Sleiman announced the news: Lebanon would receive $3 billion from Saudi Arabia to strengthen the Lebanese army.

Of course the deal was agreed upon long before Mohamad Chatah – a former Lebanese finance minister, ambassador to the United States and an adviser to Saad Hariri, the leader of the pro Saudi, pro Western March 14 movement – was assassinated in Beirut on December 27. Nevertheless, the timing of the announcement was striking. What is the sum that Saudi Arabia, an external heavyweight on the Lebanese political scene, deems adequate to compensate Lebanon for the loss of a politician of the March 14 camp? $3 billion?

Later that day, in a well orchestrated sequence of announcements, French president François Hollande declared from Riyadh, where he was visiting, that France will supply weapons to Lebanon if it is asked to. Just in case that the Lebanese wouldn't know where to go shopping with the Saudi Arabian money.

All three countries involved in this deal are in the middle of a crisis situation. Lebanon seems to go backwards rather than forward. The country is paralyzed by a domestic confrontation between the March 14 and March 8 groups and is heavily affected by the war in neighboring Syria and a wider ideological conflict across the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia on the other hand is miffed and feels threatened by the recent rapprochement between the United States and Iran. The kingdom is looking for new allies and is currently considering to acquire nuclear weapons technology from Pakistan.

thank you, Abdullah: Hamra, Beirut

France, finally, is punching above its weight for a long time already. Its permanent United Nations Security Council seat is a remnant from the past and has no justification today. Except for the fact that France holds a considerable amount of territories across the globe and that France still views Africa as being its turf, regardless of the fact that most African countries gained their independence more than fifty years ago.

Hollande himself is eager for a political success somewhere; if not at home, then abroad. Single handedly, France intervened militarily in 2013 in Mali and in the Central African Republic. France was even ready to bomb Syria alone this past summer, and was only stopped by a last minute chemical weapons deal brokered by Russia.

Recent reports show that merely an estimated 35% of the material the French army is equipped with is actually operable. The rest of the equipment is in dire need of repair or had to be left behind in the sands of the Malian desert. A tight defense budget doesn't allow for the material to be replaced anytime soon; the French defense industry is compelled to look for customers elsewhere.

Les extrêmes se touchent”, say the French, and indeed, the ultra-secular France, where wearing a veil in public is banned, and the Salafist monarchy of Saudi Arabia, where women are not allowed to drive cars, make for an odd couple. But when geopolitical interests converge, extremes do not only touch, they overlap!

Very often, much to the chagrin of the country and its population, geopolitical interests converge in Lebanon. The huge $3 billion figure that Saudi Arabia pledges to Lebanon is no pocket money, but is meant to be a game changer. It shows that Saudi Arabia will use any petrodollar power it has to turn the tables in the Middle East, and particularly in Lebanon, its way.

For which purpose then shall the Lebanese army be boosted with the money from Saudi Arabia? Is it to halt the war in Syria at Lebanon's borders? Or to stop sectarian terrorism inside Lebanon, especially in Tripoli and in Beirut? Or rather to stop Hezbollah from fighting in Syria? Shall the money be used to buy weapons for the Lebanese army to subsequently disarm Hezbollah? Or can it be used to buy an effective air defense system to shoot down Israeli airplanes that fly over Lebanese territory on an almost daily basis?

Lebanon is far from having a national consensus on the questions asked above. But without such a consensus, the money from Saudi Arabia will have the same result as money flowing into Lebanon from the United States or Iran: it serves the policies of the donor, not of the recipient. The upcoming money from Saudi Arabia is not money for the love of Lebanon; its aim is to strengthen the Saudi position in the Middle East and to counter Iran and to contain Hezbollah.

fold, call or raise: Casino du Liban

Operating out of a corner: do the Saudi Arabians really know what they want and how to get to this? Or do they rather act erratically like a headless rooster in a courtyard full of chicken? In giving a lift to the Lebanese army, which is said to have much personnel subscribing to the ideology of Hezbollah, and at the same time supporting anti Assad forces in Syria, the Saudis risk to sponsor both sides of the Syrian conflict in parallel. However, it is in chaos where the potent strive best.

More arms equals more stability”: this was the Cold War formula. But this is the Middle East, this is 2014. The rules of the games are different. Here and today, the valid formula is “more money equals more war”. After the 1973 Yom Kippur war of Syria and Egypt with Israel, a lot of money was flowing into Lebanon. Two years later the Lebanese civil war started.

The $3 billion from Saudi Arabia are a serious bet at the poker table that is Lebanon. Some even call it a declaration of war. The opponents of Saudi Arabia will be either forced to fold their hands – improbable -, to call the Saudi hand or to raise the bets themselves. The Lebanese audience, passive bystanders to a gamble with their destiny, will find out in 2014 who holds the winning cards. Who will go all-in first in Lebanon's casino?

This post was first published at Your Middle East online media: here

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Hezbollah – in the words of South Lebanon's women

Not a single week is passing by without an article or an analysis published about Hezbollah. Whose agenda is Hezbollah pushing: its own, Iran's, or is the party working for the best of Lebanon as a whole? Who was Hassan al-Laqis, the Hezbollah commander assassinated last week in Beirut, and who killed him? Are Hezbollah's supporters brainwashed and oppressed by a rigid party doctrine?

These analyzes are mostly written by outsiders not familiar with the situation in the south of Lebanon, Hezbollah's core territory. What is it really like to live in 'Hezbollah country'? How is life as a woman under Hezbollah rule? To get a better understanding I was able to interview two women from South Lebanon, Rola and Sana'a. Here is what they have to say.

Rola, 34

My name is Rola, I am 34 years old, married with three children. I taught social studies for four years and have gone back to university this year, studying English literature.

I am not a party member, and I have never been active in a Hezbollah organization, however I am a huge sympathizer of Hezbollah. What connects me to Hezbollah is the cause we both believe in, the fight against the Israeli occupation. I believe that it is our right to defend our land and our existence. Hezbollah is one of many resistance movements that began in the 70s after the Israeli attacks on Lebanon. Hezbollah is a result, not a cause!

Among the many expressions that are commonly associated with Hezbollah, sacrifice and martyrdom speak to me the most. I believe that the road to freedom and dignity is paved with sacrifice and blood and being a martyr for defending my land would be the greatest value ever.

I have never been a beneficiary of Hezbollah's social services, but I put my kids in a school sponsored by Hezbollah. There is no specific Hezbollah curriculum in this school, however they commemorate certain Islamic Shia occasions in a particular way, for instance the memory of Ashura. I consider Hezbollah's protection of my family and myself as the most valuable service the party is giving me.

I don't wear a Hijab because I think that this is not a main duty amongst our Islamic duties and that it is more of a social phenomenon. It is my free will not to wear the Hijab. It is normal in our society to have veiled and non veiled women. Not putting on the Hijab hasn't affected my life at all; I can freely express my opinions. I might put the Hijab on if I would change my beliefs and my ways of thinking. But no one can force me to put it on except God.

Women have important roles in our society. They are the ones who instill the awareness in younger generations for the noble goals of the resistance. The acceptance of a martyr's mother, wife or daughter demonstrates a tremendous dedication and faith in Hezbollah's cause. Hezbollah's message for young people is that our dignity and our land are worth dying for.

women in support of Hezbollah: Haifa Wehbe

I like to think that South Lebanon is not Hezbollah, but South Lebanon is 'the resistance'. Our struggle with Israel started much before the existence of Hezbollah and it won't stop with Hezbollah's end but with Israel's end. To this day, Israel is still invading our airspace, is stealing our water, is kidnapping our citizens and is spying on us.

Before the year 2000 - the year of the liberation from Israel - South Lebanon had been forgotten by the Lebanese government. Today the Lebanese who don't live in the south are still fearful of visiting us. They believe that it is not safe here, which is a very wrong view since you can't see any armed scenes in the south except with the Lebanese army.

There is a famous saying about Lebanon and Syria which is 'one people, two countries'. It is not a Syrian revolution against the government anymore, it is an American-Gulf agenda to destroy Syria because of its continuous support for the resistance that defeated Israel in 2000 and 2006. If Syria would fall, Lebanon would be affected in a negative way immediately. I would love to see the media focus more on the fighters coming from all over the world to combat the Syrian regime. At least Lebanon is on the Syrian borders, but I don't understand Tunisian, Chechen and Afghan fighters coming to Syria!!

Hezbollah started doing politics in the 90s, they have allies in the parliament and have signed an agreement with the biggest Christian party in Lebanon, Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement. So yes, Hezbollah is not only proficient in fighting with arms but they can do politics as well.

Hezbollah can be a role model in its honesty, transparency and devotion to its cause. Many Hezbollah leaders have martyred sons while other Lebanese leaders' sons travel abroad to study and to prepare themselves to take over daddy's leadership.”

Sana'a, 20

My name is Sana'a, I am 20 years old and I am a student. I am a non-religious Muslim with a Christian mother; my hobbies are reading, listening to music and I have an obsession with the 'Friends' series.

I am an anti-zionist, anti-imperialist and I lean towards left-wing politics. Resistance is like a religion to me that I worship. I believe in the pride of all of Lebanon, not only of South Lebanon.

I am not a member of Hezbollah and I don't call myself a sympathizer. Hezbollah are my people; the fighters are my cousins, my brothers, my children, my family's friends. They are not foreigners, they belong to this country, they are the sons of this country. One cannot ask who are Hezbollah because we all are Hezbollah.

Hezbollah are our liberators and they are also our protector against the continuous Israeli aggression. Hezbollah gives us a sense of security.

Among the many expressions usually linked with Hezbollah, 'fighting injustice' is what appeals most to me. Injustice can be anything, from poverty to racism to sectarianism. I am strongly against fatalism: if you want something, you have to fight for it.

For me, martyrdom is a selfless concept. One must remember that you don't necessarily have to fight to be a martyr. Children can be martyrs. Anyone who dies as a result of oppression or injustice is a martyr.

I went to a Hezbollah sponsored school for a few years, but we didn't have any particular lessons with resistance related teachings. We had religious classes though, with much emphasis on tolerance. However we were taught not to accept humiliation no matter what. That was mostly done by teaching us about the martyrdom of the Muslim prophet and how he did not bow down to injustice and humiliation.

I do not wear the Hijab but I respect the women who do. I see no problem in wearing it in the future after reading more about it. The reason why I don't wear it is because I am not very religious, nothing more, nothing less. I have never been treated differently by anyone in this community because I don't wear the Hijab.

Hezbollah is a promoter of women's rights; they encourage women to take part in all fields of life. Many of Hezbollah's social services that are funded by the party are headed by women and Hezbollah has in the past nominated women to run for parliament. We, as women, are encouraged by the resistance to increase our knowledge in all areas because only then we will be able to fight for our rights and express our views. A wide range of women support Hezbollah. I mean, even Haifa Wehbe does!

As much as we have had several wars with Israel, I think that South Lebanon is one of the most peaceful places in Lebanon. You hardly hear of conflict, neighbors are friendly to each and we also have Christians here with whom there is never an issue. Actually, I went to a Christian school myself for some time.

In 2013, besides resisting against Israel, Hezbollah resists against any imperialism gift-wrapped in 'freedom'. This is part of the resistance ideology. In Syria, the West, together with the Gulf states, are the aggressors, and most of them are supporters of zionist Israel. Hezbollah views the conflict in Syria as an imperialist agenda against Syria and the resistance axis.

People is the south love Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah because he is honest, more honest than any leader we have seen. He respects people' minds; Hezbollah has no cult of personality. Even Israelis, in various polls, have acknowledged that Nasrallah is more honest than their own leaders.

There are two main misconceptions about Hezbollah: firstly, that they are intolerant Muslim extremists. They are not! As a matter of fact, Hezbollah has a secular military branch that many fighters from other sects have chosen to join. For some in the West, resistance is equal to terrorism. However, any comparison with Al Qaeda is completely wrong. In fact, Hezbollah is fighting Al Qaeda in Syria right now.

The second misconception is that Hezbollah controls everybody's personal life in South Lebanon. This is not true. Hezbollah is not a totalitarian party. Hezbollah doesn't interfere in personal lives, it doesn't care what people drink or eat. Some places in the south sell alcohol without Hezbollah intervening; this is not the party's goal.

The idea that drives Hezbollah is 'no to humiliation'. This alone should appeal to all sects, even to Jews who have been persecuted under Hitler and before. With creating a secular branch, Hezbollah has left room for those who prefer no to fight under an Islamist resistance banner. In 2009 the party has dropped a lot of its Islamist policies that it had held before. Hezbollah would not be so strong if it only had Shia support. I am convinced that Hezbollah's ideology is not a barrier for religious coexistence.”

Hezbollah: a sinner with a future?

For people and politicians in Europe and the United States (and for many in Lebanon!), Hezbollah keeps being the controversial movement with the enigmatic agenda. Will this perception change after a nuclear deal has been signed with Iran? The biggest menace these days in the Middle East is the growing number of Al Qaeda-linked Salafist-takfiri militants proliferating across western Iraq, northeastern Syria and north of Lebanon. These militants are of great concern for both the West and Iran. All of a sudden, Hezbollah, in fighting these forces in Syria, could find itself on the right side of Western history. Or, as Oscar Wilde once famously said:The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.”

This post was first published at Your Middle East online media: here.