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FPM

There is a fantasy among many in Lebanon- liberals in particular– that a silent majority of Lebanese do not support the country’s political establishment. That most Lebanese would prefer a life free from the political parties of today, which had largely been former militias established by warlords during the civil war. And if this is true, it is the millions of Lebanese living abroad that would be this best indicator of such a deep regime change desire, felt particularly by those who have fled their homeland due to the destruction warlords have caused.

So when voting was allowed for the first time this year from the millions of Lebanese living in the diaspora, many hoped the balance of power could shift, that voices of those opposed to the political establishment would be heard more loudly.

But so far, that doesn’t seem to be quite the case.

The voting is continuing as I type this, yet Lebanese TV stations are on the ground all over the world today, giving us a good idea of what the polling stations and early voters look like. And there are plenty of party colors to see.

In Sweden:

In Australia:


In Brazil, it was basically an FPM street party:

Future Movement had its corner too:

The PSP and Lebanese Forces were not left out though:

Meanwhile in Ivory Coast, West Africa, nearly everyone seemed to be wearing an Amal cap or T-shrit:

This case was similar in Berlin:

Posters of the party leader, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, were even seen plastered around the voting area:

But the Future Movement ascots crew were not missing:

Meanwhile the PSP was strong in Montreal:

And in Washington, the Orange love was tangible:

Many reporters found this all too amusing, remarking on how well the rivals got along abroad. An Al Jadeed reporter in Africa was having a great time with partisans remarking: “all the parties are one heart today.”

But then one added: “We are only here for Nabih Berri.”

The Lebanese ambassador to Brazil was very proud that all the parties were represented and how “democratic” the affair had been. Suddenly places like Brazil and West Africa became “a model for coexistence” that the homeland should emulate.

Only one reporter noted that there were no representatives from alternative parties. None mentioned the fact that these parties all illegally reappointed themselves, cancelling elections for almost a decade. Or how they have failed to deliver any semblance of basic public services during that time, manage the garbage crisis or have direct roots in the destruction of the entire country and gutting of its institutions we are facing today.

In fact reporters could have suggested that Lebanese parties have gotten along very well in the postwar period and warlords are now friends and even have dinner together. So clearly hugs and smiles are in no short supply.

Instead of asking tougher questions about the parties, reporters focused more on the excitement of the day. And indeed many first time voters offered moving stories, especially elder voters living abroad much of their lives. Watching the polling station workers, carefully reviewing IDs and passports, the multi-screen displays at the ministry of interior, checking live feeds from every polling station worldwide, and the excitement and relative calm of the operation, it was hard not to get caught up in the moment.  It was indeed a historic day and the largely bankrupt Lebanese state somehow managed to pull it off.

But what does it all mean? That Lebanon is hopelessly locked into its current party system and nothing of significance is going on with independents?

No.

Independents are making a big showing this year, bigger than ever before. And party popularity, despite the loud partisans we may see in the streets, is at a low point and party leaderships are having to work harder for votes than ever before.

But we must have realistic expectations. Independents are not going to sweep to victory any time soon. Not because this is Lebanon and nothing changes, but because that is true in almost any established political environment, including Western democracies. It is very difficult for independents to break into an entrenched party system.

First and foremost it is hard to compete with that kind of money. Independents are generally small and young groupings that lack the huge campaign chests of major parties and even more importantly, the media and institutional power that they have been accumulating for decades, essential to sustaining their current positions of power.

But change is still happening, and we should look more carefully at how new political activists and collectives are having an impact on political culture and political practices, and not focus solely on poll numbers or election results. As I have argued in a major research paper I wrote at Oxford last year, political change is felt most strongly outside of elections and also in the ways that establishment political and media institutions react to the discourse and activities being put forward by activists.

In the paper, I try to give many real world examples of the tangible activist-driven changes felt in recent years, from changes and reversals in policies, laws and major projects. The title is Structures of Change in Post-war Lebanon: Amplified Activism, Digital Documentation and Post-Sectarian Narratives.

Yes we can be optimistic for change. But we also have to be realistic about the deep power of political parties and how that power is maintained, no matter what their ideology may be. Independents are having an impact, but if they want to win, they need to understand more about what these parties have offered and continue to offer, beyond simply dismissing them as backwards or irrelevant.

 

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On the surface, it felt like so many rallies I have covered in Lebanon. Young people, hungry for change, fighting the powers that be, yelling over a megaphone trying to push back police lines, to make a statement, to be heard.

But this wasn’t a battle against the system of tribal/nepotistic Lebanese politics, it was a rally for one of its chief players: retired Army general Michel Aoun, who fought one of the bloodiest battles in the Lebanese civil war during the late 1980s, leaving thousands killed. At the war’s end, he and his rival Samir Geagea were banished from politics–Aoun was sent into exile, Geagea was sent to prison. But now some 20 years later, both are back in the game and their supporters are just as fervent. Well, sort of.

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At today’s rally in front of the prime minister’s offices, the constant chant was: “God, Lebanon, Aoun and that’s it!” It’s a spin on the anthem of authoritarianism, the type of personality worship that pervades our political culture. From Syria to Egypt, Muslim or Christian, Sunni or Shia the slogan is deployed, switching out the names of course, to lavish praise, not on a political statement or movement in general but a specific leader. A specific person who is hailed as being the answer to all problems. That was essentially what was being said today. Just elect Aoun as president and the country will be back on track. (Lebanon has been without a president for over a year due to political deadlock.) And although Aoun and Geagea do not come from the powerful feudal families that have traditionally ruled Lebanon, they have increasingly adopted their same nepotistic tactics. One of the most powerful members of Aoun’s political coalition is his son-in-law, minister Gebran Bassil. Geagea’s wife, Sethrida Geagea is now a member of parliament, representing his party.

So why do people partake in such rallies, such cult worship of an aging politician or political dynasty which may seem particularly medieval to many?

“He is very Lebanese,” one women in her 50s told me as she waved a flag with the General’s insignia on trademark orange. “He doesn’t stay silent in the face of wrongdoing.”

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Others literally wore their views on their shirts. This one says “Aoun the resistor”:
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And “General, General, total liberation”

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Or:

“Aoun is the dignity of the people”:

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“We only kneel before God”

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The last reference seems to be related to the idea that Aounists are being somehow marginalized by the government, due to a failure to elect a president. This plays into the larger discourse of “Christian rights” that has become a central rallying call of the party. The idea is that Lebanese Christians have been robbed of their political rights, as Muslim parties such as Hezbollah and the Hariri dynasty have become increasingly prominent in the last couple of decades. This is partly true, but it is also a somewhat natural evolution due to a decreasing Christian population as well as the long fall of the French colonial system that conveniently gave huge powers to elite Lebanese Christian politicians during the founding of Lebanon, while Muslims and particularly Shia, were largely disenfranchised during the period. But as you can imagine, a critical read on Lebanese history is very unpopular with those who stand the most to lose from it.

One woman even brought along her Ethiopian housekeeper, who wore a Virgin Mary baseball cap. “She wanted to come to protect the Christians,” her employer told me with a huge smile. The girl nodded shyly.

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Putting aside the shameful Kafala system for a moment–in the broader sense, what seems to be at stake here is identity politics, cultural history and the worldview to which we are born into, contributing to what and who we blame for our problems. In Lebanon, all this is complicated by the violence of war. Which side killed our relatives, which side protected us? Many of those who rallied today may have had fathers or cousins who fought under Aoun during those dark war years. Some may still look to his leadership or that of others for patronage, a little bureaucratic help here and there, to get your kids into school, help find a job or pay for health care, what we call “wasta.”

These are not easy issues to deal with– particularly when faced with institutions and public services gutted by civil war– and they will probably be with us for years to come. For example, the United States civil war ended over 150 years ago, yet as the recent confederate flag controversy indicates, Americans are still grappling with the social and economic ruptures of that battle.

A truth and reconciliation process is desperately needed in Lebanon. Perhaps one day we can worry about which leader is best suited to do the job and give little credence to his feudal or religious pedigree and our visceral fears or assurances that a certain politician “will protect us,” “our rights” because he is “one of us.” (Some in Lebanon are already fighting for that)

But in the meantime, it might also be helpful to realize that we are all human and want many of the same things on some level. We also need to be brave enough to accept each other’s deep-seated issues, no matter how ridiculous or misguided we think they are.

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Of course violence was not absent–some people got injured while trying to nudge army lines and some army members may have gotten understandably frustrated:

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But Red Cross medics were standing by to treat the wounded and no shots were fired. Perhaps that is some share of progress in itself.

Heck, the whole event lasted only a few hours, only around 300 people showed up and it was so mildly dangerous, I even spotted a couple of hipsters walking by with rolled up shorts and endless summer footwear:

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Others were busy taking selfies:

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All in all, it seemed a lot more of a docile situation than some media outlets–opposed to Aoun–made it out to be. Indeed local media’s obsession with the old political class, dramatizing every speech while spending little time investigating the country’s actual myriad of problems, is also a major part of the postwar challenges we face. But that’s the subject of another post.

 

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Correction: An earlier version of this post noted that Gebran Bassil was Aoun’s nephew, when he is actually his son-in-law. Aoun’s nephew, Alain Aoun is also a member of parliament and part of General Aoun’s political coalition. 

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Just hours after today’s killing of a Hezbollah commander, OTV is now replaying its lengthy interview with Hezbollah chief Sayed Hassan Nasrallah from last night.
Today Hezbollah is blaming the killing on Israel, but last night Nasrallah blamed Saudi intelligence for the twin suicide attacks on the Iranian embassy last month. At first those attacks were initially blamed on Israel, so will today’s killing also eventually be blamed on Saudi Arabia or other parties?
And before anyone gets any “sectarian” ideas, OTV is a Chrisitian-owned broadcaster that is fervently pro-Hezbollah, pro-rightist Christian politics. What’s most interesting about this aspect of the Syrian conflict, I believe is how, under threat, Hezbollah has increasingly defined itself as non-extremist, non-terrorist and pro-religious tolerance when compared to the rebel groups it is fighting in Syria. It’s almost as if the battle has gravitated Hezbollah closer to its often-Islamophobic Christian and secular allies in the fight against what it has labeled as extremist Islam.