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National Dialogue and Hizbollah’s Weapons

by Sune Haugbolle.

Here is my take on the National Dialogue discussions that began today in Beirut.

The National Dialogue was launched in 2006, prior to Israel’s July-August 2006 war against Lebanon, as an ambitious attempt to tackle the fundamental differences between the country’s ‘March 8′ and ‘March 14′ coalitions. The last round was held in June 2009, ahead of parliamentary elections. Today’s resumption of talks signals a thaw in internal relations that was highlighted by Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s state visit to Damascus in December 2009. Yet it also reflects rising tensions in the region.

The topic that will overshadow all others is a new defence strategy, and (although Hizbollah won’t like it to be mentioned) the role of Hizbollah’s weapons. The weapons topic has been shelved since the government recognised the group’s right to resistance against Israel in December. A revival of the discussion was inevitable, given its highly controversial nature.

President Michel Suleiman’s call to resume dialogue followed a February 28 report by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon on the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 summer war with Israel. In the report, Ban urged Suleiman to push Lebanon’s parties towards consensus on a defence strategy.

Suleiman’s decision to hold meetings may also have been the result of US pressure.

Israeli threats

National Dialogue discussions coincide with heightened tensions caused by an exchange of threats between Israel on the one hand and Hizbollah, Syria and Iran on the other. The tensions have put renewed international spotlight on Hizbollah’s weapons.

The Shia party is believed to have increased its arsenal of rockets from 15,000 before the 2006 war to 40,000 today, some of which may be able to reach Tel Aviv. During a February 16 speech, Hizbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah offered a new vision of strategic parity with Israel — an uneasy ‘balance of terror’ — stressing Hizbollah’s ability to strike Israel’s interior.

Nasrallah’s decision to raise the stakes has provoked fears that Israel will feel forced into pre-emptive action against Lebanon, even if no conflict breaks out over Iran.

Israeli leaders have vowed to fight ‘all’ of Lebanon in the event of an outbreak of conflict (as opposed to targeting Hizbollah alone), as a result of the movement’s participation in government.

Nasrallah in Damascus

Nasrallah answered Israeli threats by closing ranks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad and his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad when they met last month in Damascus . The meeting conveyed two main messages:

First, that Washington has failed to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran, and is unlikely to see more success in the near future. This was highlighted by the timing of the meeting, which occurred immediately after the US decision to reopen its embassy in Damascus, illustrating Syria’s newfound confidence and willing defiance.

And second that, in the event of an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, Iran’s primary answer will be through Hizbollah and will therefore involve Lebanon.

Suleiman’s dilemma

Nasrallah’s conduct in Damascus as a ‘pseudo’ Lebanese minister of foreign affairs has drawn strong criticism from many March 14 leaders, who reiterate the sovereign right of Lebanon’s government to decide over matters of war and peace. This puts President Suleiman in a difficult situation at the National Dialogue meetings.

He will be determined to ensure national unity, having from the beginning of his tenure tried to position himself centrally. The dialogue meetings could be a means to calm tensions and avert conflict, but only if Suleiman is seen as a neutral arbiter. He must thus avoid siding too openly with March 14 against Hizbollah.

He will also need to respond to international pressure on the weapons issue. He will hope that the National Dialogue gives the impression that the Lebanese state — and not Hizbollah — still makes decisions on war and peace.

Finally, he must decide on the extent of Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) cooperation with UN peacekeepers in south Lebanon. The two sides have recently performed joint manoeuvres on Mount Hermon, ostensibly designed to stem the flow of arms to Hizbollah. More extensive LAF cooperation with the UN could force a verbal confrontation with Nasrallah.

Outcomes

One should not expect too much from this week’s session. In reality, all parties know that, as Hizbollah demonstrated in the May 2008 fighting, its hand cannot be forced by any Lebanese party. It is also clear that no consensus can be reached in the current heated situation; and that the meeting is primarily a result of Suleiman needing to demonstrate to the West that he is doing something.

Therefore, the meetings are largely symbolic, though the stakes are high. If things go badly, the discussions could underscore the gulf between March 8 and March 14, reversing the tide of their improved relationship under the Hariri government. In any case, March 14 and others will treasure having a platform to express their deep concerns over the prospects a new war with Israel, which may in the end restrain Hizbollah. In the best case scenario, provide the platform for real negotiations in the future about a defence strategy formula that integrates Hizbollah’s weapons into the LAF.

War drums

Despite the fact that Hizbollah will not disarm and Israel increasingly sees the group as an existential threat, a regional war involving Hizbollah is unlikely in the coming months.

Having learned the lesson from the 2006 war, the group will not get easily drawn into a new conflict and will resist minor Israeli ‘provocations’, let alone staging military operations against Israel. In order to maintain national and international legitimacy, it is necessary for Hizbollah to fight a defensive war, if anything at all.

On the Israeli side, despite the usual gung-ho rhetoric, the leadership cannot politically justify an unprovoked attack on Hizbollah. It may seek an excuse, thus provoking Hizbollah into small clashes, but the latter is aware of this and will seek not to respond. The Israeli leadership will heed US warnings and refrain from attacking Iran before more diplomatic efforts have been exerted. If it does strike, it will do so no earlier than the autumn.

In the longer term, a clash is more likely — whether it arises from an Israeli strike on Iran, or some other action. Hizbollah will wait until a war fits its strategic thinking, since the need to maintain domestic legitimacy at present tops its strategic agenda. Nevertheless, these priorities are not set in stone; strategy may change should there be a shift in the balance of power within the group.

In conclusion, Suleiman faces a hard task containing the March 14 coalition’s deep reservations about Hizbollah’s weapons. If he succeeds, the National Dialogue meetings could strengthen the government. If not, Lebanon will once again appear divided, risking the stability of the fragile unity government, and increasing the chance of outside powers taking advantage of domestic divisions, as they routinely do in times of conflict in Lebanon.

The Muslim Internet

by Sune Haugbolle.

My review of Gary R. Bun’t recent book, i-Muslims: Rewiring the House of Islam, has just been published by H-Net. Despite my criticisms (it’s a review, after all), I hope it also conveys my admiration for Bunt’s untiring work to make sense of the Muslim Internet. I highly recommend his webpage Virtually Islamic.

Here is the review:

Not so much a “new media” anymore, after twenty-odd years the effects
of the Internet are discernable everywhere. It is spewing out an
outrageous amount of information, which has become part and parcel of
our daily lives linking phenomena in the real world with virtual
information and representations, just as it is linking people with
each other in truly different ways than before. Some things remain
the same, however, and scholars of Internet-based media face the
basic problem of the social scientist. Namely that, since as Max
Weber said, social reality is infinite, the most difficult choices
are methodological. What do we do with all this information, and how
can we study media flows, the incessant stream of ephemeral material,
in a way that provides more than a snapshot of the media? One answer
is to adopt an approach modeled on the Internet itself by forming
research networks that document and analyze particular phenomena on
the Net. Others link the Internet to an emergent historiography of
mass media and modernity dating back to the printing press, which can
be a healthy antidote to the hype about new media. Finally, with
regard to other mass media like cassette tapes and television,
anthropologists such as Charles Hirsckind and Lila Abu-Lughod have
adopted an ethnographic approach that goes close to the processes of
production, usage, and network formation.

To date, hardly any research of this sort has been done on the
Internet in the Middle East, although the topic is often commented
on, particularly in relation to Islam. Gary Bunt’s _iMuslims_ should
therefore be welcomed as one of the first major works that tries to
develop a coherent analyses of the ways in which Muslims around the
world use the Internet and the impact it is having on the duties and
rituals of Islam. Building on his own work of more than a decade
published in _Virtually Islamic: Computer-Mediated Communication and
Cyber Islamic Environments _(2000, also the name of his Web page),
and _Islam in the Digital Age_:_ E-jihad, Online Fatwas, and Cyber
Islamic Environments_ (2003), as well as the limited existing
literature, Bunt explores diverse aspects of online Islam, from
Islamic textual sources to blogging and jihadism. _iMuslims_ is more
grounded in the age of Web 2.0; hence the reference to mobile media
like iPhones and iPods, and more broadly to the integrated role of
information technology and mediatized social networks in the life of
Muslims in the book’s title. Bunt clearly shows that as scholars of
Islam and the Middle East, we cannot afford to ignore the Web, or to
treat is as incidental to politics, culture, and social life. The Net
revolution must be constantly analyzed. As Dale Eickelman, Jon
Anderson, and others pointed out in the mid-1990s, the Internet has
from the very beginning transformed how Muslims interact and practice
their creed. Since then, Internet media have become increasingly
user-oriented and mobile, and more and more people even in developing
countries have gained access to their riches, resulting in ever more
Islamic material online.

The Muslim Internet, writes Bunt, is essentially a number of venues,
or environments–playgrounds where new actors are drawn into the
discursive and symbolic contestation over Islam. His term for these
virtual places for Muslims to communicate and engage in
reformulations of their creed is “cyber-Islamic environments,” or
CIEs. The first chapter, “Locating Islam in Cyberspace,” includes a
spider web-like diagram illustrating the complex ways in which Web
2.0 is giving shape to CIEs. Although it is hard to distinguish where
non-Muslim media end and Muslim media begin in this diagram, it is
clear that everything from chat rooms, blogs, and vlogs (video
blogs), to social networking sites like Facebook, Myspace, and flikr
can be given an Islamic coloring on today’s Internet. Through this
process, Bunt argues, Islam is developing into an open-source system
that allows non-elites the opportunity to participate in the
reformulation of their creed. To some extent, this transnational
development in the age of globalization, theorized by Peter
Mandaville, Olivier Roy, and others, can be seen as a return to the
formative period of Islam when Islamic scholars collaborated across
boundaries. The forging of new interpretations, communities, and
global networks brings with it a number of challenges and dangers,
many of which are accentuated by the Internet.

At the same time, Bunt stresses the barriers that prevent the
formation of a transnational community, in terms of language,
sectarian orientation, and government censorship. While English was
the language of choice in the early CIEs, today Arabic, Persian and
Urdu, as well as numerous smaller languages compete for attention.
None of them are likely to become a lingua franca, even if Arabic
CIEs dominate. Furthermore, limited Internet access in most
Muslim-majority countries means that only select social groups are
connected to the new ostensibly open-source Islam. In terms of
digital opportunity, the GCC countries rank as high as some European
countries, while Yemen and Sudan are at par with most African
countries. These unequal opportunities have serious implications,
allowing some states to become power centers in the new Muslim public
sphere, while others are backwaters, even if this power does not
emanate from the state itself. Nation-states, even formally Islamic
ones like Iran and Saudi Arabia, are busy policing CIEs, which
engenders subversion. As Bunt argues, the latter is often the more
important kind of activity online, as the Net gives otherwise
marginalized groups a space for expression. Islamic bloggers and
programmers, just like (and often in tandem with) secular ones, are
finding ways to express dissent, even in repressive states like
Syria.

An interesting question is to what extent subversion and disagreement
has the potential to translate into actual debate about the common
good (_al-maslaha_), be it political or religious, in a diffuse
public arena like the Internet. This theoretical debate about a new
(real or idealized) public sphere and the particular role of the
Internet, has been dealt with extensively by, among others, Armando
Salvatore and Dale Eickelman. Bunt is mainly concerned with the great
multiplicity of CIEs and less with power relations involved in the
contestation over _al-maslaha_. For instance, in chapter 3 he
discusses how the sources of Islam, the Qur’an and the _sunna_, have
become mass-mediated and in the process are changing the way Muslims
use these sources and construct expert knowledge. For example, Bunt
details how the main duties of ordinary Muslims, the five pillars of
Islam, have become reinterpreted through various software that makes
it possible for more and more devout Muslims to connect and create a
shared set of practices and beliefs. Equally, the Web facilitates
praying, Muslim dating, fasting, and not least, counseling. Most of
these are perfectly prosaic quotidian aspects of Muslim life which
have become easier to perform because of the Net.

However, the Net also showcases conflicting interpretations, and this
is where the question of _al-maslaha_ becomes critical. Perhaps the
most critical effect of new media on Islam is the way in which they
challenge traditional religious authority. Men with less training
than traditional _ulama_ have emerged on television and computer
screens, offering alternative roads to _fiqh_. Perhaps even more
critical, Wiki counseling now makes it possible for a democratic
concept of _al-maslaha_ to emerge which bypasses Islamic
institutions. Of course, _ulama_ and Islamic centers of learning like
al-Azhar University also use the new media to resists the challenge
mounted against them. But CIEs generally favor dissenting voices. A
recent example is the October 2009 _niqab_ affair in Egypt, where the
Grand Shaykh of al-Azhar University Muhmmad al-Tantawi’s ban on
_niqab_s was met with a virulent Internet campaign from devout Muslim
students who ridiculed the learned man. Such (counter)public
undermining of an Islamic authority would have been unthinkable
before the Internet age.

In chapter 3, and throughout the book, one is left with questions
about the political implications of the plurality that Bunt
describes. Who stands to gain from the dispersion of Islamic
authority? What is Saudi Arabia’s role? What is al-Azhar’s? Do the
apparently organic developments of authority that Bunt describes
dovetail with existing, highly politically charged attempts to
create, maintain, or resist an Islamic international? These are
obviously open questions, but not all of them are raised.

The last two chapters of the book deal with what Bunt calls jihadist
online forums. The development of Al-Qaida from the mid-1990s has a
close affinity with computer networks and is closely linked to the
Web. The connection between jihadists, salafis, and the Internet is
the most researched area of CIEs, often motivated by security
interests. But even if jihadi research often takes place in a grey
zone between academia and security services, its extensive use of
collaborative research and number-crunching may still hold lessons
for the study of other Internet phenomena. Through Bunt’s insightful
description of jihadi milieus online, it becomes clear that jihadi
networks showcase both highly sophisticated network models for
publicity and communication, and examples of how the Net has become
an open-source entry to formulations of Islam. Jihadis put these
tools to use most places in the world today, but particularly in Iraq
and Palestine (treated separately in the book’s final chapter). He
provides plenty of examples of online radicalism, but also of the
many intersections between Islamic radicals and groups with other
agendas. Indeed, as Bunt stresses, the pressing need to map and
understand cyber-jihadis should not make us blind to the many
peaceful ways Muslims use the Net, or indeed the many other ways
Muslims live their lives.

At the end of the day, many Muslims are first and foremost media
users. In the emergent research on Islam and new media there is a
tendency to fall into the old Orientalist trap of particularizing
social processes which Muslims actually share with everyone else. In
addition, Muslims also use non-Islamic media, including Web-based
ones. A case in point is the blogosphere, dealt with in chapter 4. As
Bunt notes, Muslim blogs can sometimes be hard to differentiate from
other blogs. What characterizes the blogs he describes is often not
so much Islamic content as the way in which they interact with other
CIEs. The interactivity–the creation of Islamic pathways on the Net
through RSS feeds and other links–may be the key to understanding
the effect of blogs. However, the fact that some blogs interact with
other CIEs does not completely resolve the problem of
particularizing. Many, if not most, of the bloggers quoted in Bunt’s
overview of the most vocal or active Muslim countries in the
blogosphere, debate social affairs rather than religion as such. In
fact, many Muslim bloggers prefer not to be identified as Muslims,
but rather just young people, bloggers, or activists.

_iMuslims_ is the best overview of the Muslim Internet to date. It is
up-to-date, comprehensive, and should be compulsory reading for
students and scholars of Islam, media, and politics in the Middle
East. However, the paradox between, on one hand, identifying Muslim
public spheres energized by new media, while, on the other hand, also
admitting that they intersect with secular issues, aesthetics,
traditions, and forms of expressions, is never completely resolved in
_iMuslims_. Perhaps the most glaring illustration of the problem is
when Bunt categorizes the communist, Shiite professor Asad Abukhalil,
known as the Angry Arab, as part of the Islamic blogosphere (p. 173).
Of course Abukhalil regularly comments on Islamic topics, but so do a
large list of bloggers, hacks, and ordinary people on the Net. In
fact, the Angry Arab is one of the most secular Arab blogs. Would
Abukhalil mind being labeled an iMuslim? The term itself is  not
convincing; it sounds a little too much like a different species.
Could we for example imagine a book called _iChristians_, other than
perhaps about very fundamentalist Christians online? By subsuming
every phenomenon in Muslim contexts, or related to Islam, under an
Islamic heading, we risk underwriting claims about Islam as the
primary, sometimes the only valid, identity marker. The more
interesting debate concerning mass media, perhaps, is how we as
scholars can come to grips with contestations and intersections
between revivalist Islam and secular modernity.

The Lost Utopia

by Sune Haugbolle.

Last week in Ramallah, while relaxing in between interviews and trips around the West Bank, I had the pleasure of reading the Swedish journalist and author Goran Rosenberg’s L’utopie perdue. Being present on the West Bank with its gruelling checkpoints, its towering Separation Wall, and its tense, tense atmosphere of suffering and mutual hatred – and being present inside Israel too for that matter, with its pervading fear and securitisation – nothing seemed more fitting to describe the situation than that feeling of a lost utopia.

The book, originally written in Swedish, is not yet translated into English, but should be. It is an excellent account of Rosenberg’s departure from post WWII Sweden to Israel in the 1960s, his involvement with youth movements including periods spend in Kibbutzim, and then his eventual disenchantment with Zionism. Intermixed with the personal narrative is the story of Zionism, from the European enlightenment and its Jewish followers who saw universalism as a way to break out of the Ghettos, to the subsequent Romantic turn which left Jews on the margins of European nationalist intellectual currents. In this historical development, Rosenberg emphasises the way in which Jews internalised European anti-Semitism to create the utopia of the strong, unaffected, son-of-the-soil settler who would build the new country through hard labour and be a thousand light years removed from the grey, downcast Ghetto Jew. Rosenberg lived this ideal in the early years of the young country, amidst the fervour of other idealist supporters of “muscular Zionism.”

His realisation of the parallel tragedy of the Palestinian people on which the country was built is one of the things that begin to make Rosenberg away from his ideals.

Being in Ramallah, somehow Rosenberg’s description of lost utopia put things into relief for me: the ideals of strength on which the state of Israel was built; the incredible hopes; the perceived need to create an Iron Wall to protect these hopes from enemies, and the inevitable feeling (for anyone with the slightest sense of reality) that things have gone awry since the 1990s – it all added layers of explanation to the tragedy that is Israel and Palestine.

Rosenberg’s book intersects with one of the latest pieces in the New York Review of Books by Tony Judt, the Jewish American historian who is suffering from near complete paralysis but continues to write remarkable short pieces of memoirs. In it he describes his youth in a kibbutz in the 1960s and the influence of what he calls Labour Zionism. The primary influence of having lived the ideological fervour of those years was to make him, “perhaps a bit prematurely,” suspicious of identity politics in all forms.

It is possible to shed the utopia and critique it and explain it from the outside. Judt has in fact been a longstanding critic of Zionism and written a number of articles which made him a target of Zionist sympathisers in the past, including a majestic 2003 defence of a binational state.

Now, his latest series in NYRB has brought a number of personal attacks on Judt that quite shamelessly link his “self-hating” “anti-Semitism” to his disease. The attacks come from the British Neocon Anthony Julius (in an interview with the Guardian), and Middle East scholar Martin Kramer. The comments are quoted on Mondoweiss blog, and include Martin Kramer ostensibly saying on his Facebook profile that “Tony Judt has become a metaphor for Jewry before Israel: a disembodied amalgam of grand ideas, unable to act in the physical world or move about freely to create or defend, incapable of self-sustenance, and therefore utterly dependent on the good will of others. The loss of muscularity that he wishes upon the Jews as a collective, fate has imposed on him as an individual. As ironic as it is tragic.”

If this is an accurate quote from Kramer, it isn’t just mean, it is despicable. And it brings back the point that the utopian need for of a strong Jewry, the internalised anti-Semitism of modern Zionism, which Rosenberg and Judt historicise, is so deep in the bones with many Jews inside and outside of Israel that for them it seems to justify any means and transgressing any boundaries, be they military or moral.

Why Lebanon’s economy continues to thrive

by Sune Haugbolle.

After a long hiatus due to the fact that I was finishing my book, here is an analysis of the Lebanese economy. It is somewhat baffling, and a nice piece of good news from the Levant, that in a time when Western countries fear a lapse into recession, the Lebanese economy continues to thrive.

Lebanese politics ended 2009 on a positive note with the visit to Damascus on December 20 of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri. It was the first such visit since the assassination of his father in February 2005. His visit signalled that Hariri, backed by France and Saudi Arabia, is willing to accept a regional role for Syria.

This year has started in the same vein: Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, another staunch government critic of Syria, has now moved to what he calls a ‘centrist’ position, leaving open the possibility that he, too, will achieve reconciliation with Damascus. Since regional reconciliation holds the key to national reconciliation in Lebanon, the thaw between Syria and its enemies in Beirut bodes well for national unity, political reforms and economic progress during 2010.

By Lebanese standards, 2009 was a quiet year. The chief development was the drawn out government formation process, which concluded in November with the election of Hariri to the premiership. The improvement in political stability had a positive effect on the economy, which showed signs of having completed its recovery following the politically disastrous period of 2005-08.

Thus, Lebanon saw the second highest growth rate in the region after Qatar, with government and World Bank estimates at 7%. The conservative lending strategy of its banks protected it from some of the effects of the global recession. The World Bank estimates that growth will continue at the same rate in 2010.

Moreover, bank deposits grew by 20% thanks to increased savings from Lebanese nationals living abroad. Foreign exchange reserves also increased to a record level of 28.6 billion dollars. Despite the fact that many Lebanese expatriates lost capital in the downturn, this has been outweighed by the fact that local banks are now seen as a safe haven.

Stability also boosted tourism. In the first ten months of the year, Lebanon attracted 1.57 million visitors, an increase of 42.7% over 2008. Although average spending per tourist was down on previous years due to the global recession, the tourist sector thrived on increasing numbers rather than fewer but wealthier visitors from Arab and European countries. Finally, the balance of payments recorded a surplus of 12 billion dollars, the highest in recent history.

Lebanon’s remarkable ability to prosper amid the global recession has boosted investor confidence, both at home and abroad. Yet the heavy debt burden continues to cloud the outlook: it is now estimated at 51 billion dollars, or 155% of the country’s GDP, and is expected to rise by a further 5 billion dollars this year.

Inefficiency and corruption are endemic in state institutions and must be addressed if the country is to reduce its debt. Finance Minister Raya Haffar Hassan has vowed to focus public spending in 2010 on a number of key areas.

One of them is transport. A high-speed railway has been proposed along the coast to alleviate the heavy environmental costs imposed by road traffic. New roads are also planned, with special emphasis on integrating the underdeveloped northern regions into the economy.

Another important area to address is modernisation of public education is planned in order to bridge the gap between public and private schools, and to alleviate sectarian divisions among the youth. Moreover, new power plants are envisaged to alleviate frequent power cuts and reduce high electricity prices, and the government has promised to improve efficiency of the information and communications technology sector, which is so crucial to facilitate private business activity and attract foreign investment.

Such large public projects are likely to require an increase in Value Added Tax (VAT) — a move which could undermine the government’s current popularity. On the other hand, these projects will create new jobs and further reduce unemployment, which was down from 18% in 2008 to 10% last year.

Reform of infrastructure and education are in line with the pledges made to donor states at the Paris III meeting in 2007. So far, only half of the total 7.6 billion dollars pledged to help authorities reduce the public debt, achieve reforms and stimulate the economy, has been disbursed. The remainder is tied to proposals that are still awaiting parliamentary approval, the most important of which involve privatisation. Here the government will find itself in some difficulty:

The composite nature of the coalition and deep divisions among ministers threaten to stymie economic reforms. Hizbollah, which holds two ministries, is opposed to privatisation. Its ally, Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, controls the Telecoms and Energy and Water Ministries, seen as crucial to privatisation efforts.

Telecoms Minister Charbel Nahas has expressed concern that selling the entire cellular network to private companies could turn a public monopoly into a private one. However, the current providers will come under scrutiny and be forced to improve their services, which are among the most expensive in the world.

Although Lebanon is plagued with an acute power shortage, and the national Electricite du Liban is in poor financial shape, a viable private alternative is still lacking. This suggests that no restructuring of the electricity sector, which accounts for almost half of the national budget, is likely in the short term.

Despite these difficulties, the prospects for 2010 look good for Lebanon’s economy. Barring major political crises, the economy will continue to expand, even if sharp divisions in the government will impede its ability to conduct the much-needed economic reforms.

al-Jazeera and the blame game of racism

By Sune Haugbolle.

On Thursday night, al-Jazeera aired its much touted and feared programme about racism in Denmark. The trailers aired in the last week had sent alarm bells ringing among both politicians and media here in Denmark. The programme promised to expose Danish racism, intolerance, and Islamophobia, and could maybe trigger negative reactions in the region?

So far, no sign of an uproar from that notorious Arab street that should cause Danes to be alarmed… First of all, because people in the Middle East have much more important things to worry about than Danes and Denmark (I know this is hard to believe for some). And second, because the programme did not touch on any of the religiously fused issues that brought matters to a head during the Muhammad cartoon crisis. The story about failed integration in Western Europe is not a new one, even though the programme probably added to any dismay Arabs may already have felt towards Denmark. And maybe just because a lot of people will have found the tone a little shrill – certainly if they have any personal experience with Denmark.

I personally found instructor Awad Jouma’s portrayal of our problems with immigration, racism and crime in Denmark really black and white, both in content and form. The programme zoomed in on the most negative aspects and blew them out of proportion. Talk about al-rai wal-rai al-akher… For example, there was an unreasonably large focus on the Danish Nazi party, a tiny group of lunatics and not in any way representative of neither Danish attitudes towards immigrants nor the real political issues at stake.

Namely, principally, the Danish People’s Party and its central position in Danish politics since 2001. The regime change in 2001 was touched upon, but not analysed in any details that could have helped Arab viewers understand the situation. If any one thing about Denmark and Muslims would be worth communicating to the Arab world, it would be a nuanced, detailed story of how an extreme right wing party (Fremskridtspartiet) in the mid-1990s morphed into what has become the deciding factor in Danish immigration policies. How fears of Islam among some population groups have been blown out of proportion and used politically, and in the process changed the basic rules of public debate in Denmark.

As it was presented here, the viewer had no chance of understanding why around 10% of the Danish population vote for this party, how it conquered parts of the middle ground, and what relation this change has to racism. And, not least, how a large part of the Danish population is both alarmed and ashamed about our right-wing turn. The viewers of this programme would have learned little about neither the Danish “Kulturkampf” between left and right, nor the important implications it has had on politics and media in the last seven years. And it is no excuse that the director was an outsider: indeed, he was not. Awad Jouma lived most of his life in Denmark, and has previously shown some of the more positive aspects of that experience in a documentary about his father, also shown on al-Jazeera.

What we got instead was a vaguely formulated thesis, sustained by the usual fare of over-dramatizing background music, about how racism in the Danish population, broadly speaking, has lead to a number of things: to failed immigration, to crime among young immigrants, to the Danish police assisting ostensibly racist biker gangs like Hell’s Angels in their ongoing war against immigrant gangs, and how Danish foreign policy has become completely entangled with American and Israeli interests. All a result of racism in Danish society, mind you. The blame fell squarely on the Danish population.

There is of course racism, and there are anti-Muslim sentiments in Denmark, which is something we are all struggling with. And there is, in my opinion, way too little debate about it in the Danish media which appear to have agreed that tackling racism amounts to “political correctness,” a “Swedish” stage of development which Danish society has luckily long surpassed, as the Danish immigrant politician Nasser Khader formulated it on the news show DR2 deadline Thursday night. We should face our demons, (even if that makes us Swedes in the eyes of some), by all means, and we and outsiders interested in Danish affairs should understand how mainstream politics became infused with fear of “the other.” Not least because it not a purely Danish issue, but a problem in all of Europe. Therefore TV documentaries, very influential media forms in today’s world, are welcome.

But such a project calls for a nuanced and sensitive critique, not sensationalistic TV journalism. Where the programme worked tremendously well was in the parts where it talked about conditions in Denmark’s Sandholm asylum seekers center, which like other such centres truly is a shame and a crime. But mostly, we were served a spicy sauce of conspiracy theories, racist bikers, and the gloomiest shots of wonderful Copenhagen I have ever seen in my life! Every single image was of grimy suburban streets in February. Having seen this programme I think more than one Arab viewer would have been left wondering why anyone would have wanted to leave the Middle East for Denmark in the first place.

Understanding the roots of violence, racism and cultural divides in our societies can never be a blame game. The first thing we must realise is that they are shared predicaments, and that we must look for the answers, in a careful and nuanced way, both in Europe and in the Middle East.

Hariri puts forward a cabinet proposal

by Sune Haugbolle.

So, after months of wrangling, Hariri yesterday finally proposed a cabinet line-up to President Michel Suleiman, and to the whole of Lebanon’s fractured political landscape. As expected, the proposal follows the earlier idea of a unity government with a 15-10-5 division of ministries, 15 to March 14, 10 to March 8 and 5 to Suleiman’s lot.

The main problem with the proposal is that it was essentially put forward without a prior agreement – since an agreement couldn’t be found. Hariri failed to meet Aoun’s demand that he get the Interior Ministry, and that his son-in-law, Gibran Bassil, keep the Telecommunications Ministry. Hizbollah, for their part, have refrained from putting pressure on Aoun, and without that happening the old rhino is unlikely to budge. This is to say nothing of Hizbollah’s own problems with the proposal, which falls short of meeting their own demands of guarantees.

So, nothing has chnaged really. Perhaps the only thing that should make us wonder is the timing of the announcement. Of course Hariri couldn’t stall forever; something had to happen, even if he likely knew that March 8 would reject his cabinet proposal out of hand. On the other side, it is possible that there were regional strategic reasonings behind Hariri’s actions. The proposal comes while Syria, March 8’s strongest external ally, is caught up in a spat with Iraq over last month’s Baghdad bombings, for which Iraq holds Syria partially responsible.  (For Danish speakers, here is a link to me talking about the Syria-Iraq controversy on Danish TV DR2 last Tuesday).  

Bashar al-Asad has refused to even acknowledge the nature of the problem, and despite Turkish and American attempts to set up a joint committee to investigate the border, Iraq is taking action on its own. Since last week, Iraqi security forces have been gathering on the Syrian border in an attempt to curb infiltration of Ba’athist militants, and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is pushing for a UN tribunal to investigate foreign complicity in the bombings.

If Hariri has indeed reacted to these events, which occupy local media quite a bit more than international ones, he may have calculated that Syria’s focus on its dispute with Iraq, in addition to increasing domestic and international pressures on Iran, will weaken Hizbollah to the point where it is compelled to accept his cabinet. If this is indeed the case, Hariri has made a mistake: Hizbollah’s strength or weakness is not so much relative to regional events, as we have seen before, but primarily an effect of their own perception (which is ever strong and determined). Therefore the most likely outcome of the cabinet proposal is yet more threading water for Lebanon.

Lebanon’s government deadlock explained

 by Sune Haugbolle.

My last piece on Jumblatt’s defection from March 14 somewhat optimistically predicted a short delay in the government formation process. Since then things have gone really sour again. Here is an analysis of the obstacles and their implications.

Since the June parliamentary elections, the March 14 coalition has failed to use its victory to dictate the terms of a new government. The negotiations have faltered on March 8’s demand for a blocking third of cabinet posts. More deep-seated disagreements over Hizbollah’s weapons and Lebanon’s regional alliances add to the complications.

In July, the two camps appeared to have agreed on a compromise solution granting 15 posts to March 14 (short of a majority) and ten to March 8 (short of veto power), with President Michel Suleiman choosing five and thus having a decisive say. However, in recent weeks disagreement over the exact allocation of ministries has taken the process back to the start, and raised the tone of personal bickering and media slander to its shrillest level since 2008.

Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun has been at the centre of the latest crisis in government formation. On August 16, Aoun demanded that his Reform and Change bloc be allotted the Interior Ministry and that his son-in-law, caretaker minister Gebran Bassil, keep the Telecommunications Ministry for another term.

This uncompromising stance has prompted March 14 to criticise Hizbollah’s inability or unwillingness to mediate. Saad al-Hariri has made it clear that he is unlikely to accept Aoun’s conditions, which means that for now negotiations are deadlocked. Unless there is truth to al-Akhbar’s story from yesterday about a Saudi-Syrian push to kickstart talks, the most likely scenario now seems to be that the deliberations over a new cabinet will be postponed until after the end of Ramadan in late September.

As ever, domestic political wrangling in Lebanon reflects regional power struggles. Courtesy of US rapprochement, Syria has moved decisively out of the cold, and returned to its favoured position as the necessary diplomatic bridge between Iran and the West. Damascus’ relations with Saudi Arabia have yet to improve, as a scheduled meeting between King Abdallah and President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus in late July was cancelled. Syria’s relations with Egypt, another key ally of Hariri, have been deep-frozen because of Egyptian allegations that Hizbollah members have been spying and plotting bomb attacks in Egypt. The first trial took place in Cairo yesterday, and the fallout is surely more bad blood between Egypt and Hizbollah.   

On the other front, Assad has moved to shore up relations with embattled Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad during a state visit on August 19. Here, Assad emphasised the necessity of resolute defence against Western influence in the region.

Syria’s strengthened position indirectly provoked the latest breakdown in government negotiations, when Druze leader Walid Jumblatt declared on August 2 that he would leave March 14. As I argued in my earlier piece, his aim was to hedge against Syria’s rising influence, and his defection has been widely seen as a victory for Damascus.

This is because Jumblatt, who is known for his ever-changing allegiances, has, since 2005, formed one-third of a strong coalition of Christian, Sunni and Druze opposition to Syrian influence in Lebanon, which has dominated Lebanese politics. Although it does not sound the death knell for March 14, Jumblatt’s defection still marks a tide change in Lebanese politics and opens up opportunities for new alliances in the coming months:

First, although Jumblatt has hardly embraced the Syrians, they are in a much stronger position in Lebanon. Hariri, now left with distinctly anti-Syrian Christian allies Amin Gemayel and Samir Geagea, may feel compelled to move towards a more conciliatory position, lest he alienate his Sunni constituency.

Second, while taking no concrete action, Jumblatt has spoken with members of both March 8 and March 14, and is locating himself in a central position between the two without joining either. He has signalled that he will be associating himself with Suleiman, adding to the possibility of a strong conciliatory bloc emerging — which would mediate between the two existing groups — and may also include Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri.

If such a strong third bloc does materialise, Aoun may also be tempted to reconsider his alliance with Hizbollah, which has not landed him the presidency or gained him much actual influence.

The biggest decisions to be taken are surely Saad Hariri’s. As prime minister-designate, and with Suleiman preferring a neutral role, the onus is squarely on Hariri to form a government, but he is left with some hard choices following Jumblatt’s defection. He has several options:

He could of course accommodate Aoun’s demands, which would make him look defeated by Aoun and Hizbollah, but would leave March 8 with no legitimate reasons to oppose a quick government formation.

Alternatively, he could carry through a planned visit to Damascus, which has been postponed. Effectively this would mean giving up his resistance to Syrian influence on the government formation process, particularly as the Syrians have signalled that they want Hariri to visit Damascus before the cabinet is finalised.

Finally, he could continue to oppose Syrian pressure. By not going to Damascus so far, Hariri has been signalling that he intends to resist the Syrian endeavour to re-impose some sort of hegemony over Lebanon. US discouragement of such a visit and Hariri’s reluctance to do business with a regime he believes to be responsible for his father’s assassination are also playing a part. As Michael Young suggested recently, they may have also contributed to the cancellation of the scheduled meeting in Damascus between Abdallah and Assad.

In conclusion, although March 14 would like to see a new government formed, Hariri appears ready to hold out for regional events which would tip the balance in his favour. This could either be US President Barack Obama’s expected Middle East peace initiative next month. While Obama’s peace plan might deflect attention from Lebanon, it could also prompt Syria to work with Saudi Arabia over Palestinian reconciliation and accept a new Lebanese government in return for inclusion in the peace process.  

Alternatively, Hariri could be waiting for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon to issue an indictment naming Hizbollah as a participant in the assassination of Hariri’s father, as predicted by the German magazine, Der Spiegel, earlier this year. This would leave Syria weakened and more eager to reach an agreement.

Whatever he does, Hariri holds the keys to further progress. If he chooses to accommodate Aoun’s demand for a key ministry, he may be able to form a new government and hence avoid the more serious choice between openly accepting or rejecting Syrian hegemony. If not, deadlock could well continue at least until the end of Ramadan.

It’s that flippin’ Jumblatt again!

by Sune Haugbolle.

Summer’s almost gone, and CUMINet is coming back to life. And so, it seems, is Lebanese politics. Walid Jumblatt – the eternal flip-flopping turncoat of Lebanese politics – yesterday announced that he is parting ways with the March 14 coalition. Jumblatt, who has been hinting his departure for a while, chose an awkward moment to announce it, just days before a new cabinet was expected to be sworn in.

Jumblatt’s latest volte-face raises an interesting questions: how many times can a Lebanese leader change sides before losing credibility? Well, Jumblatt may just have made a 180 too many – he has certainly made a few through the years.  The problem is that his influence is not what it once was on the Lebanese scene. So while his latest move is obviously bad news for March 14, it may not sound the death knell for the tattered coalition. They still have the International Tribunal to fight for and too keep them united – not a small thing, and not an objective Jumblatt’s departure is likely to change.

What are his reasons for leaving? The first and most important is security. Jumblatt has seen the return of Syria as a powerful hegemon in Lebanon since the end of the Bush era, and even before. Courtesy of the Obama administration’s rapprochement with Syria, Damascus has moved decisively out of the cold. In that sense Jumblatt is not foreshadowing anything this time (an ability observers often praise him for), but merely reacting to well-established facts.

It is doubtful that we will see Jumblatt kiss and make up in Damascus any time soon, given the amount of garbage (‘Nazis’) he managed to throw at Bashar al-Asad and his regime over the last four years. But he will be hoping that at least he will not be seen as an arch-enemy of Damascus any longer.  

Furthermore, being surrounded by Shiite neighbours, his Shuf Mountains fiefdom needs neighbourly relations with an ever stronger Hizbollah to improve rapidly. And he knows that relinquishing the tough stance on Hizbollah’s weapons propagated by some of his, now former, allies in March 14, is the ticket that will allow him to enter into friendlier relations with the Shiite party.   

It is not yet clear where exactly Jumblatt will place himself in the, now re-shuffled, jigsaw of Lebanese politics. But the most likely move would be to join President Suleiman and possibly Nabih Berri in a third block the role of which will be to mediate when March 14 (or what is left of it) and March 8 are at loggerheads in a new coalition government.

Due to Jumblatt’s announcement cabinet seats, which were ostensibly all but lined up on Monday, will now have to be reshuffled, and a new government may not be formed before the end of this week or early next week.

Lebanon’s economy continues to surprise

by Sune Haugbolle.

As a small distraction from the dramatic events in Iran, and Rasmus’ great coverage of them, here is an in-depth analysis of Lebanon’s curious economy, which has been booming in the midst of a financial crisis.

Now that the elections are over in Lebanon, it is time to look forward. It is likely that the formation of a new unity government will take some time, the sticking point being March 8’s wish for a blocking third of the cabinet.

Meanwhile, let’s take a look at Lebanon’s economy which so far has shown an amazing ability to weather the international financial crises of the last year. There have been predictions lately from the Central Bank that economic growth could exceed 6% this year. The figure contradicts earlier predictions of a 2009 growth rate of 3%, down from 8% last year.

An unlikely success story

Lebanon has, indeed, been one of the unlikely success stories of the global financial crisis. The vital tourism and construction industries are booming, and capital is flowing into the country. As optimistic Lebanese leaders, bankers and businessmen have emphasised, the success is primarily due to conservative bank-lending and bank-investment regulations, limiting exposure to mortgage-backed instruments and other products that have hurt the balance sheets of other international banks, including many Gulf countries.

A result of the country’s long experience with perpetual instability in the national and regional political environment, conservative lending policies, backed up by a solid flow of remittances from millions of Lebanese abroad, have immunised the Lebanese economy from political turmoil. Apart from the months immediately following the 2006 war with Israel, the Lebanese economy has experienced uninterrupted growth since 2001.

Healthy bank sector

A few years back Lebanon’s state regulations were subjected to heavy criticism from domestic and international bankers. Now the financial crisis has turned Lebanese banks into a safe haven in the region, and the economy has thrived.

The proof is in the pudding: Bank deposits have grown steadily, rising 15% in the first three months of the year from the year-earlier period, foreign currency reserves were estimated at 17.6 billion dollars in January 2009, up from 9.8 billion at the end of 2007, and foreign liquid assets stood at 22.3 billion at the end of March 2009, a record high.

Danger signs

The banking sector’s success is remarkable but does not detract from the fact that Lebanon’s economy is well integrated into the global economy and will therefore inevitably feel some effects of its downturn in 2009. There are particular reasons for concern:

First, private investors have incurred great losses in national and international investments. The Beirut stock market alone has lost more than 5 billion dollars since mid-2008.

Second, the lack of capital investment will be felt in the crucial construction, telecommunication and service sectors in the medium term, particularly if the crisis continues throughout 2009.

Third, growth in recent years has mainly been restricted to these sectors. Although the construction sector has continued to expand in the first months of 2009, over reliance on construction is problematic because it is linked to remittances and Gulf capital.

Fourth, the stability of the Lebanese housing market depends on continued construction.

Remittances

A serious slowdown in remittances could therefore potentially start a domino effect in the Lebanese economy, hitting construction and real estate. Somewhere between a quarter and a third of Lebanon’s GDP comes from remittances from the more than 12 million Lebanese living overseas.

The IMF estimates that remittances will decrease globally by up to 10% over the next year. This means that thousands of Lebanese work in the Gulf countries, whose economies have been badly hit by the crisis. Furthermore, decreased investment from the Gulf would affect the real estate sector, which has been one of the main drivers of Lebanon’s growth.

Despite suggestions of the opposite, it is unlikely that unemployed highly skilled migrants will actually return to Lebanon and invigorate the economy as long as wages are so low. Statistics suggest that Lebanese migrant workers who have lost their jobs in 2008 have eschewed the low wages in Lebanon and instead preferred to look for work in emerging markets outside the Gulf, such as Iraqi Kurdistan and India.

Official figures suggest that repatriated capital has continued to increase in 2009 so far, but those figures could change as job losses begin to take effect. Lebanese exports to the Gulf are also expected to fall.

Public debt

The downside of Lebanon’s success story is enormous public debt, currently at 47 billion dollars, or 170% of the country’s GDP, and growing by 8%. More than 60% of that debt is locally owned, with more than a quarter of the Lebanese banks’ assets in treasury bonds. Public debt is around 60% of total credit owned by the banks which is, by international standards, very high. The Lebanese banking system is therefore highly exposed to the sovereign.

Reforms?

The state will continue to borrow heavily from local banks and international financial groups until the government adopts radical reforms to reduce haphazard spending and increase revenues. This is because the state continues to record budget deficits, in the first quarter of 2009 of 1.8 billion dollars.

On the positive side, the economy has proven capable of dealing with the negative numbers. Excessive liquidity in the local markets means that local banks will have no problem financing outstanding bonds in 2009.

Finance Minister Mohammed Shatah is one of the heroes of this situation. He has been lauded by US officials for his willingness to implement economic reforms. In April, Washington provided a grant of 50 million dollars in recognition of the Finance Ministry’s efforts to improve Lebanon’s fiscal position and set a stronger economic growth path as part of a 250 million dollar package linked to progress on economic reform.

Outlook

March 14’ victory in the June 7 elections is unlikely to detract from the overall positive outlook for the Lebanese economy. If anything, new Prime Minister, whether Fouad Siniora, Saad Hariri or a third choice, will team up with Shatah and his team of financial advisers. The result could be a renewed push for more wide-ranging privatisation.

In conclusion, Lebanon’s economy will continue to do well in the rest of 2009. This is mainly the result of clever financial policies from the central bank and a flexible banking sector. Barring a sharp fall in remittances, the banking sector will continue to safeguard against a downturn in the Lebanese economy in the short to medium term.

The Spiegel affair

by Sune Haugbolle.

On Saturday the German magazine Der Spiegel published an article claiming that Special Tribunal for Lebanon investigators believe Hizbollah is linked to the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. The article quotes an unnamed person close to the tribunal for saying that there is now hard evidence, in the form of a number of connected cell phones belonging to the perpetrators of the killing and key Hizbollah members, that the Oerpational Unit of the Shiite organization organised the crime.  

I tend to think that the timing of this leak alone is fishy, and I am not convinced that the story is real. But who is to say in a world of Arab politics shrouded in truths and lies. Either way you look at it, the Spiegel article is remarkable. There seems to be two possibilities. Either we are dealing with a terrible truth, shocking to Lebanese as well as to outside observers (me included) and diplomats, which must surely be dodged politically lest Lebanon is to be thrown into sectarian and military turmoil. Part of that truth could also be that the Party of God is split to an extent that one part of the organization acts independently. That is speculation of cause. It is also pure speculation to start thinking about which regional power must have been involved. It is hard not to speculate, though, and people are speculating massively as I am writing this, inside and outside Lebanon, and in the blogosphere of course. For some, the Speigel story is nothing more than a confirmation of earlier suspicions. Hizbollah’s detractors have brought up that the car used for the killing came from the Dahiya, which suggests that Hizbollah must have had some knowledge of the operation.

The second possibility is that we are dealing with a partial or full fabrication, as Hizbollah officials and associated media in Lebanon have suggested today.

There have been suggestions that Der Spiegel could have links to Israeli security services, or at least israeli sympathies. Even if the story turns out to be a fabrication somehow accepted by the editorial board of the Spiegel magazine – who must have known that they were dealing with explosive stuff and therefore presumably made sure that the source was trustworthy – and the magazine is forced to withdraw the story, the mechanisms of public life in Lebanon will make sure that a new “truth” about Hariri death, rivaling the narrative of a Syrian plot which many have favoured to this day, has been born. A truth, conspiracy theory or not, will take on a life of its own, circulate, be verified, preached to the converts, and perhaps used politically. Those who have axes to grind against the Party of God, and they are many, will grind their axes happily. None more so than the segments of the Sunni community, which have been locked in street battles with Shiites in West Beirut several times in recent years. The Druze who clashed with Hizbollah last May in the Shouf also have grudges and scores to settle. 

First reactions from Jumblatt and Hariri suggest that the leaders of these groups are very aware that whether true or not the Truth must now be contained. Jumblatt even evoked (for God knows which time) the specter of Ayn al-Rumaneh and a new civil war. IF –and that is a big if in my opinion – the leak turns out to be some kind of media strategy from the Tribunal, in an attempt to prepare the world for the terrible Truth, rather than presenting it out of the blue once the hearing begin in earnest next year, it is possible that the story will blow over for now but then suddenly reappear as the real thing. A worrisome scenario. Let’s all really really hope that this is baloney, German style.