Thursday 22 May 2008

Disabled protest

Borzou Daragahi tells the story of the disabled activists whose protest captured the imagination of the country:

Wheelchair-bound, they had neither guns nor influence. They lined up last week along the airport road as convoys of tinted-windowed SUVs carrying politicians headed to Qatar to try to break a political deadlock that was dragging Lebanon toward civil war.

Striking image and powerful words of the activists, many hurt in the country's 1975-90 civil war, sent an unmistakable message to leaders of both the pro-West coalition and the Iranian- and Syrian-backed camp led by the Shiite militia Hezbollah.

"If you don't agree, don't come back," said their signs.


The AFP news agency reports on life returning to normal in downtown Beirut. The 550-day protest camps have gone, as have the rolls of razor wire.

Here's a taste:

A festive mood took hold in Beirut as a sit-in that choked the capital was lifted and signs of life began to return to the heart of the city.

Some cafes reopened their doors although they were unprepared.

Many Lebanese made their way to downtown Beirut to share the excitment and take part in the reopening of the city centre as the tent camp was being dismantled.

Cleaning crews from the government-contracted private firm Sukleen in their distinctive green trucks descended on downtown Beirut to help the protesters ged rid of mattresses, panes of wood and other belongings.

Motorists along the "Ring" bridge overlooking the area honked their horns as they drove by. Passersby, and Lebanese army soldiers alike, looked down in relief and disbelief.

What's wrong with Doha?

Economist Karim Makdisi spoke to Tadamon Canada on the "issue" left off the table at Doha:

"Lebanon is facing several critical issues. First there is a tremendous social and economic crisis in this country, there is a forty-five billion dollar debt, one of the largest debts per capita in the world, resulting from over a decade of neo-liberal economic policies that simply didn’t work throughout the 1990’s.

"In truth there is little opposition towards the economic policies that the government is putting forward, that is to say that the opposition in Lebanon is more or less in agreement with the government in regards to social and economic policy.

"Both the opposition and the government have attempted to sweep the main social and economic issues facing Lebanon under the carpet."

Wednesday 21 May 2008

Lebanon—US lament

A dolefull Time magazine laments the loss of US influence in Lebanon:

The US government may find a Hizbollah-dominated Lebanon hard to swallow. Disarming Hizbollah and securing Lebanon's independence from Syrian and Iranian influence was one of the Bush administration's major Middle East policies; it garnered broad support among European governments, including France, that were not on board in Iraq.

Nor will Israel be keen to live with the fact that its most formidable adversary is now in de facto control of almost an entire country, with a sophisticated banking system, an international airport and a varied mountainous terrain in which to train and prepare for war. But Israel and America have few options.

They can't isolate Lebanon like the Hamas-controlled Gaza strip, and the last two Israeli invasions of Lebanon were disasters. Like the American-backed government, they may have to admit defeat in Lebanon.


Meanwhile the tone coming from Voice of America seems to confirm that the west has dumped March 14:

While the Doha accord does not mandate the disarmament of Hezbollah, it does reaffirm the primary authority of Lebanon's central government and demands that other parties refrain from using weapons and violence for political ends.


The Jerusalem Post is slightly more cynical:

The Bush administration seemed Wednesday to try to put the best face on the deal that ends Lebanon's 18-month political stalemate, but also gives the Iran- and Syria-backed Hizbullah veto power over any government decision.

At the State Department, Assistant Secretary of State David Welch called the agreement "a necessary and positive step."


Jim Quilty, a veteran journalist who has lived in Lebanon for over a decade, gives important insights to the crisis. He writes in Middle East Report Online:

There is little to cheer about in the conduct of politics in this country, neither early May’s opposition action nor the political circumstances that brought it on.

Ultimate responsibility for the most-recent bloodshed, as for so much needless violence Lebanese citizens have endured over the decades, rests in the contradictions of their sectarian state.

Immediate responsibility for the country’s latest brush with civil war lies in the hands of that state’s inheritors, the government of Fouad Siniora, and its foreign sponsors.

Doha—what kind of deal?

The government has given way on key opposition demands at the Doha talks. The LA Times has some of the details.

Yet on the crucial question of elections—the compromise rewards March 14 with a disproportionate number of parliamentary seats—the sectarian foundations of the system remain unchanged.

This can only mean a recurring crisis.

The one crucial item not on the agenda was the minimum wage, inflation and the disastrous neo-liberal policies accepted by both sides.

The impact of the economic problems were outlined by Riad Salameh, the governor of the central bank. The Oxford Business Group notes:

"On May 15, Salameh warned that Lebanon would face a sharp increase in inflation, tipping price rises of more than 10 percent for the year. If Salameh's predictions are fulfilled, it would be the first time since 1994 that Lebanon's inflation rate strays into double digits, having ranged between 2 percent and 4 percent for the past 12 years."

For the vast majority of Lebanese not represented at Doha this is a pressing issue of everyday life.

Tuesday 20 May 2008

No Plan B

M K Bhadrakumar of the Asia Times gives some insights into US failures in the Middle East:

Unsurprisingly, there is much anger and bitterness among Lebanese warlords that they were let down by the Bush administration. Prime Minister Fuad al-Siniora wanted to resign and the Saudis had to dissuade him from doing so. The result is plain to see.

The political balance has shifted in favor of the Hezbollah and the pro-West militias have been humiliated. Most important, an improbable alliance formed between the Hezbollah and the Lebanese army (which the Bush administration assisted to the tune of $400 million in the past two-year period).

The regional implications are equally significant. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are backing Arab League mediation efforts, distancing themselves from the US denunciations of Iran and Syria.

The two Arab heavyweights would be uneasy about the lengthening shadows of Iranian influence on Lebanon, but they realize at the same time that Iran is a regional power with which they need to come to terms.

In sum, the Bush administration has no Plan B on Lebanon.

Sunday 18 May 2008

Sectarian tensions

The New York Times reports on the growing sectarianism among Sunnis. Although the article is rather skewed—it fails to mention that the vicitms of the Future Current mobs in the north were Sunni supporters of the opposition, or that the crucial Sunni city of Saida also backed Hizbollah. However it captures some of the sectarian fury among government supporters.

Here's a clip:

Mr. Obaid was one of many Sunni men who drove to Beirut after hearing that Hezbollah was attacking the offices of his political patron, Mr. [Saad] Hariri. On arriving in the city, he stopped at a checkpoint, where militiamen asked him where he was from.

He barely had time to answer, he said, before the men — who recognized him as a Sunni from his northern accent — opened fire on the car, riddling it with bullets and killing Mr. Obaid’s young nephew, Abdo.

Meanwhile, as the street fighting went on in west Beirut on May 8 Mr. Hariri’s Sunni militia had proved to be largely mythical: its fighters were quickly thrashed. Some were given orders not to fight, so as to avoid a massacre.

The next day, as Hezbollah fighters and their allies were taking control of west Beirut, one Sunni fighter ran up to a group of young men in the Sunni stronghold of Tarik Jadideh and told them it was over.

“Hurry up, run away, it is over, there is nothing left,” the gunman said, before running off himself. “They are coming after us, and this time with shoes, not weapons, to humiliate us even more.”

Before long, a sense of communal victimhood and rage spread. On the way to a funeral on May 10 for one of the young Sunni men killed during the battles, mourners walked in a procession while chanting, “Shiites are the enemies of God.”