Even if independent candidates don’t win big on election day, they are already having an impact on Lebanese political culture. They have introduced new styles of campaigning that come as a sharp contrast to how politics is commonly practiced in Lebanon.
While establishment politicians deploy their usual tactics: blanketing the streets with their faces:
And even a Hezbollah orchestra, literally singing for your support:
Independents, meanwhile are taking the race to some unusual places. But places that are not unfamiliar to most Lebanese, who are not living in a party atmosphere.
The Madaniyya party, for example, held a press conference at a giant trash dump to call attention to the incumbent parties’ failure to deal with Lebanon’s waste crisis that is endangering public health.
Rather than adding more pollution to the mix, the Kollouna Watanti party created virtual posters on Facebook, photoshopping over the politicians faces with a deeper message: “When you see their advertisements, remember their accomplishments.”
فقط للتذكير أنّ اعلاناتهم ووعودهم الانتخابية التي تملأ طرقاتنا.. كان الاجدى ان تستخدم بتكاليفها الباهظة ليخبرونا عن انجازاتهم لا تكرار وعودهم التي لم تتحقق طوال تسعة سنوات..
Finally, a LiBaladi commercial reminds voters that politicians have failed to address rampant pollution along the country’s beaches, the lack of safe public spaces for children to play and dangerous, overburdened roads with no public transportation:
Now what is interesting is also how mainstream parties have reacted to independent campaigns. While some like Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea dismissed independents, others have somehow taken up some activist causes of recent years.
Here, Nicholas Sehnaoui, a former minister and senior leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, includes the Fouad Boutros Park in his list of projects, a plan proposed by heritage activists five years ago.
Other candidates, such as Nadim Gemayel, have also begun speaking about the need for a right to the city, public spaces and sustainability, brought up extensively by new parties from previous elections such as Beirut Madinati.
Gemayel spoke recently to Facebook page El 3ama, which illustrates an important campaigning media change: politicians are now talking to alternative websites, when in the past, political communication strictly took place on party-run or affiliated channels. Interviews like this one let us see the candidates in a less controlled environment, catching them off guard at times and thus revealing more than they may have wanted to say:
Mainstream media outlets like LBC also seem keen on capturing a broader youth audience, with shows like Lawen Waslin, which is a bit like Carpool Karaoke with politicians. In this interview, former minister and political veteran Wiam Wahab takes activist positions on the destruction of Lebanon’s coast by private resorts. But then also in an awkward moment reveals that “women should not act like men.”
Major Lebanese TV channels are also reportedly charging guests up to $250,000 per appearance, keeping primetime a commodity mainly limited to the country’s business and political elites.
We saw a similar trend of activists differentiating themselves from mainstream political practices during Beirut’s municipal elections in 2016, where ruling party candidates also mimicked activist rhetorics. (You can read more about that in this previous post.)
Could this influence continue to strengthen in future elections?
During an episode of Al Jazeera’s The Stream, this week, I spoke with independent candidates and was struck by all the organizing work that has gone into their campaigns, with some creating nationwide alliances for the first time. Activist causes helped bring these individuals together to build wider networks and stronger platforms, competing in municipal elections, union elections and now parliamentary elections.
You can watch the full episode here:
Independent candidates are realizing that politics is a long term game, that takes years of organizing, alliance-building and election strategizing. But they are advancing quickly and their influence is already being felt. The mere fact that politics is taking place outside the established party system, that people now have alternative ways of expressing themselves and being heard is a feat on its own.
The number of candidates running this year (1,000) is an exponential increase on previous years, particularly when it comes to over 100 women candidates, including an unprecedented all-female election slate:
Suddenly establishment parties are also featuring a number of women on their lists. Was this also a reaction to gender rights activism over recent years?
In their campaign posters, establishment parties project an air of confidence. This billboard simply says: “Beirut, don’t worry.”
But maybe Beirut should worry. The country is facing an environmental disaster, a public services disaster, a refugee crisis on a globally unprecedented scale, just to name a few. Even if activists do not win, they are forming stronger coalitions of dissent to challenge those in power.
The political parties are still very entrenched and well resourced- after all, they have been building themselves up for decades. But their media and messaging is increasingly undermined and outdated. With so many new online media outlets, they can no longer monopolize public debates and hide uncomfortable issues from public view. With so many people interested in politics for the first time (partly due to the party’s failures) competition and oversight is growing and politicians cannot rely on old tactics as much as they once did.
In this changing political environment, it is the old guard that should be worried or at least less comfortable, and that could be a good thing for everyone.
If you still haven’t made up your mind, there are many resources out there such as Mist3ideen and Megaphone that have put together some extensive research on the candidates and the voting process.
The 2015 Paris attacks will be remembered as one of the most widely covered tragedies of the year, but they may also stand out for the mainstream media’s wide-ranging reaction to massive critiques of its coverage. I look at how the post-attack reactions and rebuttals affect reporting and what impact this may have on future coverage in my December column for Bold Magazine, republished below.
Hacking the narrative: the media reaction to criticism of Paris-Beirut coverage
By Habib Battah
Bold Magazine // December 2015
Hours before the coordinated attacks in Paris, I began outlining a critical response to the media coverage of twin bombings in Beirut a day earlier. Of course by the time I began typing, the story had changed and suddenly everyone was talking about France, which only magnified the minimalist and dehumanizing treatment of the unnamed victims in Lebanon. A couple of Lebanese bloggers also articulated this point and I integrated their posts into the piece. Having written these types of critiques dozens of times, I didn’t expect much of a reaction. The downplaying of Arab casualties has never been a hot topic.
But nearly 20 minutes after my critique was uploaded on Al Jazeera’s website, the New York Times–whose coverage was central to the problems I had raised– published an entirely new article, now virtually admitting the reporting was a problematic as I and others had suggested. The new article and its headline: “Beirut, Also the Site of Deadly Attacks Feels Forgotten” was a far cry from that of the initial Times piece “Deadly Blasts Hit Hezbollah Stronghold…” (a term media critics have protested over the years because it implies ordinary victims walking down the street are somehow automatically implicated in the party as combatants.)
A day earlier, when the initial piece was published, complaints began to roll in on Twitter and the first headline changed several times from “Deadly Blasts Hit Hezbollah Area” to “Deadly Blasts Hit Crowded Civilian Area.”
Beyond the headlines: “Forgotten Beirut” as a sub genre
The Times reporter, Beirut Bureau chief Anne Barnard, tweeted that she had requested the change, seeming to indicate that audience pressure on social media had no impact on editorial decisions. But had it impacted the reporter? In exchange of direct messages, Barnard later admitted that she was only “alerted” to the headline after a complaining tweet, maintaining that she would have made the change “regardless”.
Yet pieces authored by Barnard in 2014 and 2013 used the term Hezbollah stronghold were never changed and remain online to this day.
It wasn’t just the headline. The body of the Barnard’s follow-up article saw a dramatic shift from a focus entirely on the geopolitical elements, i.e. Hezbollah’s deployment in Syria to a focus nearly entirely on the victims who were now quoted for the first time. There was also rich detail about the civilian infrastructure obliterated by the blasts, such as the marketplace and neighborhood, which were also missing in the earlier report. The second Times piece even acknowledged the critique of its “stronghold” headline and quoted a local blogger who wrote: “When my people died, they did not send the world into mourning.”
The New York Times remake story was widely circulated, and it, along with my critique in Al Jazeera and others were quoted in subsequent pieces by CNN, The Huffington Post, Time magazine and others. Within a day, there were suddenly hundreds of articles about “forgotten Beirut,” which by now had become a sub genre of the Paris story. In all my years of pointing out the Western media’s downplaying of Lebanese or Palestinian lives, I had never seen a critique taken so seriously by mainstream outlets. Had social media helped influence the debate, finally forcing major new organizations to take non-Western casualties more seriously?
Interestingly, a counter-critique quickly emerged, with some major publications suggesting the media wasn’t to blame for a lack of coverage; it was readers who had simply gotten their facts wrong.
Leading this chorus of chiding readers was the prominent American writer Max Fisher who noted: “The media has, in fact, covered the Beirut bombings extensively…Yet these are stories that… readers have largely ignored.”
The Washington Post’s Cairo correspondent Erin Cunningham resorted to Facebook to publicly air her anger with the critics, asserting that she and others had risked their lives to tell stories from war zones: “Don’t say journalists don’t cover it, because they do… every single day. They get hurt doing it, they die doing it… In fact, they care about the stories more than you do.”
Thankfully, a reality check came via The Economist which published a statistical graph proving the glaring mathematical incorrectness of such analyses by revealing that compared to over 2.5 million articles about Paris on the day of the attack, the coverage of Beirut was literally non-existent with about 5,000 mentions (many undoubtedly brief or related to Paris) and still less than 0.1 percent of search results by comparison to the tragedy in France.
But how could respectable publications and senior reporters rely on a purely numerical analysis and thus completely ignore the content or length of the articles they were supposedly analyzing– the journalistic structures and formats, the headlines and paragraphs that failed to humanize or personalize Beirut deaths? These were not young, bright Parisians who died, they were ‘Hezbollah people.’ The massacre in Beirut was not an attack on humanity, it was an attack on Hezbollah. At least that’s how it was framed by mainstream media, regardless of the mere existence of articles or a handful of self-congratulatory reporters on the scene.
In some respects, he was right. For many, Paris and other Western capitals appear as a haven of stability compared to Beirut and other cities of the global south such as Garissa, Kenya, Baga Nigeria, Baghdad or Sanaa just to name a few of the places devastated by major attacks on civilians this year or this week.
But what many Western news outlets seemed to have completely missed is that the very sense of security inside the Western bubble highlights why it is so important to discuss the double standards applied to Paris and Beirut victims.
The illusion of “safe zones”
Instead of searching for justifications on why it was “okay” not to cover Beirut, correspondents should be asking how it could be okay to ignore entire parts of the world. Instead of dismissing Beirut and non-Western cities as culturally foreign grey zones, perhaps journalists could attempt to see what these different regions have in common. This does not mean a mere call for tears or empathy. More often than not, the Western powers have and continue to play an intimate role in the conflicts of the Middle East, Africa and beyond. The idea that the general Western public feels those places are alien is less a rational fact than a broad ignorance of the role their government (and tax-dollars) have been playing there, be it through direct or covert military operations, political support or trade in weapons, oil and other commodities, that are key to Western jobs and industries.
And instead of pushing away global inequality by blaming readers or political leaders, the media should also accept some responsibility for its instrumental role in creating the narratives and frames that inform the actions of policy makers, politicians and the readers who vote them in power.
Fortunately, as seen by the example of the New York Times, this introspection has begun to happen at some levels. And for all the trenchant responses described above, there have been dozens of other pieces thoughtfully calling the coverage into question. But beyond the mere acknowledgment of global tragedies, the Beirut-Paris moment also provides an opportunity to look deeper at the myth of global ‘safe zone’ segregation and begin to question the structures that perpetuate its perceived existence.
“I don’t mind sitting here,” I told the Hezbollah guard who kept watch over us in a run-down prefabricated portable office. “But I haven’t eaten all day and I’m hungry,” I added, not knowing it was already 10PM.
“Tell me, what do you want to eat,” he asked.
“What are you going to eat,” my friend replied, trying to inject some normalcy to the tense silence after our interrogation. “We’ll have whatever you are having.”
“Just tell me what do you feel like having,” the Hezbollah guard insisted.
“How about shawarma,” I said, thinking of the famous south Beirut shawarma spot we were driving toward before getting pulled over and brought to this shack in an abandoned parking lot.
“Beef or chicken,” the Hezbollah guard asked without blinking.
We had been detained for nearly three hours and my hunger only added to the unease of not knowing what would happen to us next, if the guards were being honest or playing mind tricks on us or how panicked our parents and friends would be if they knew where we were. Our cell phones and IDs had been confiscated and all I could do was stare at the rusted bolt of the metal door that the guard kept shut as he watched us in silence–his black baseball cap turned low over his eyes.
It all started early Friday evening after we had left Karout Grand Stores, a kind of Home Depot in South Beirut that sells everything from power tools to lawn chairs. We bought a tent for cheap for our camping trip to Nahr Ibrahim (Abraham’s River). But we couldn’t leave without having one of the best shawermas in the city at Harkous Chicken. It proved to be a fateful last stop.
Often referred to as a “Hezbollah stronghold” in the Western media, south Beirut is really just a regular densely populated working class neighborhood where the party is popular. One difference is a large number of checkpoints and draw bridges that have been installed at intersections following the raft of car bombings that happened there in 2013 and 2014. It’s an understandable measure that has pretty much ended the violence but also leads to huge traffic jams. As we we were waiting to get through an intersection, I saw an interesting insignia on a concrete road barricade.
It was similar to the ones seen throughout parts of central Beirut reconstructed by the massive real estate firm, Solidere:
Deployed at construction sites, the barricades are branded and serve a marketing purpose. In this case bearing Solidere’s logo, with the word Beirut in colored font:
And stamping it onto the barricades:
Now what I found interesting was that Hezbollah also had established a reconstruction company after the end of the 2006 war, when Israeli bombs flattened an entire neighborhood and left some 20,000 people homeless. And in the rebuilding process, Hezbollah’s company “Wa’ad” (promise) also branded its logo on similar concrete barricades.
A major difference is that Solidere, established by Lebanon’s late billionaire prime minister, turned old Beirut into a luxury playground catering to the rich, erasing much of the past social fabric of a mixed income city center, while Hezbollah’s Waad rebuilt the neighborhood for the working class families that lived there and encouraged them to move back. I thought a picture of the Waad and Solidere logos– in the form of concrete blocks– would make an interesting image for a further comparison. So I quickly snapped a picture of the barricade next to my car without even sticking the camera out the window. My passenger says he didn’t even see me take the photo, but someone else did. About a minute later as we finally got through the intersection, I heard a voice shout out, asking me to pull over.
Immediately, a man approached: “Please step out of the car. Give me your license and registration. Give me your phone,” he said calmly.
“I will erase the picture, no problem,” I offered, still holding on to my cell.
“Give me the phone!” he repeated sternly. Two other men circled around the side and I handed it to him. As I tried to explain why I took the photo, another man appeared on a scooter. The men ranged from late teens to middle-aged, all wearing civilian clothes: jeans, pants or T-shirts. The man on the scooter carrying our phones and IDs in one hand, asked us to follow him. As he took off, I was still trying to explain to one of the younger men standing there. He held onto my arm as we pulled away and said “don’t worry, you guys will be fine.”
We followed the scooter for just a few blocks and were told to stop and park near an abandoned lot. We waited in the car for a few minutes until summoned and asked to come out. As we walked up to the parking lot, a steely eyed man with a dark brown complexion and wrist tattoo greeted us coldly. He asked us to follow him to some old portable offices stacked up in the corner of the lot. My friend, who has mild anxiety was beginning to panic. “I’m not going inside,” he murmured as we followed him. But our minder led us straight into the little compound and pulled back a dirty old curtain to reveal what looked like a storage/junk room; it was dark with no lights.
“Wait in here,” he ordered.
“I don’t want to go in there,” my friend–we’ll call him T– said.
The minder insisted that it was just procedure and left us. So we sat on the edge of the dark room, refusing to go inside. T popped an anti-anxiety pill, as a precaution if things got worse. Suddenly I felt horrible for taking the picture.
About 15 minutes later I was called in to one of the portable offices. A middle aged man with a baby face and glasses asked me to have a seat. He wore a plaid button shirt. We will call him Hajj 1, because Hajj- a term of respect, was used by the men among each other as well as to address us . Hajj 1 began filling out a standard form and asked me usual questions and some extra ones:
-Family registration number
-Where are you from — i.e. my father’s village.
Then there was one more question:
“What are your politics?”
“How can you ask me that,” I said. “I don’t know how to answer you.”
He sighed and said: “This is Lebanon. You know everyone has politics.”
I said I don’t belong to a political party and that I was a critic of the political system and that I thought all Lebanese politicians worked together. I told him how I cover real estate development and why I was interested in the sign. I told him I have criticized Solidere so much that people think I am pro-Hezbollah. (The late prime minister’s party and Hezbollah are political rivals.) I told him I write about internet and ancient ruins, also. He listened patiently. He asked when I had come to Lebanon, since earlier I said I had lived abroad.
“Do you want me to tell you my life story,” I said sincerely. I looked at T who was waiting outside and he rolled his eyes. Haj 1 asked what other countries I had traveled to. “All of them,” I asked, jokingly. He didn’t flinch. I said many countries in Europe, like Italy.
Hajj 1 was flanked by the stern-faced young guy that let us in. We’ll call him Hajj 2. Both stared at me quietly and intently as I spoke.
Hajj 1 got up and began photocopying my documents on a small scanner and then made a phone call and left the room. Hajj 2 stayed and now acted reassuring. “We have trust in your story,” he said. “These are just procedures.”
Hajj 1 came back. He said it would only be a few minutes. I told him we were just going to eat sharawma at Harkous and that they have a buy two get one free special offer. He said: “Are you hungry? We can order whatever you want.” I declined thinking it would be over soon. Hajj 2 interrupted. “Soda? Juice?”
I kept talking, trying to convince them I was innocent. I even remembered the names of some Al Manar (Hezbollah TV) staff I had met before. I even once applied for a permit at Hezbollah’s media office when working on a documentary for Danish TV about the destruction of the 2006 war. “All my information is already with Hezbollah, I said.
Hajj 1 nodded in silence. He looked at me and said: “Are you scared?” I said no. He added: “Are you comfortable?”
Hajj 1 smiled at Hajj 2 and then a third man showed up, also wearing jeans and an embroidered button shirt. We’ll call him Hajj 3. He greeted Hajj 1 with a kiss and a handshake and I thought he was just a guy passing by off the street to say hi. But Hajj 3 turned out to be a more significant player.
Hajj 3 asked my friend and I to follow him.
Without warning, he whipped out a small digital camera and told me to stand against the wall. I smiled and then I was serious. This was not a driver’s license photo. He brought the camera about 5 inches from my face. I later learned he had just done the same with T, having interrogated him in another room.
Hajj 3 then led the two of us into another portable office. To the right there was a small barracks with two army cots stacked up like a bunk bed. Hajj led us into a third room the size of a large closet with two chairs and a desk. He closed a rusted metal door behind us as I saw a man entering the barracks with a Kalashnikov rifle slung around his shoulder. He was not wearing a uniform either. Hajj 3 shut the door and sat behind the desk. T and I looked at each other. Things seemed to be going well but now we were confined to a drab claustrophobic space behind a metal door. Hajj 3 didn’t talk to us much. He sat behind the desk and appeared to be writing notes.
I tried explaining my story again, but Hajj 3 kept his baseball cap over his eyes, and the high desk blocked his face from me. He nodded.
Could we call our friends and family? Hajj 3 said, “I will talk to the Hajj”–meaning Hajj 1. “It should only be a few more minutes.” Finally Hajj 1 popped in the door. He asked T some questions and then left again, assuring us it would be a few minutes. Another hour passed by.
T and I tried to keep talking. T looked at Hajj 3 and asked. “So who are you guys? Does your division have a name? For example, if someone wanted to present you with a commemorative plaque, who would it be addressed to?”
I laughed and said, come on, “it’s known.” Hajj 3 cracked a half smile. “Really, guys I can’t tell you anything.” I kept talking. I told him about my investigations about telecom and ancient ruins being cleared, how the coast was literally being sold off to private companies. At some points he looked up and seemed to be curious. T said, come on, this guy has other things to worry about than corruption scandals. Hajj 3 cracked a smile briefly. So T kept asking him.
“We want to know what you are concerned about. You know the situation in Lebanon. What do you think is going to happen?”
This time I rolled my eyes at T. Hajj shook his head and half smiled. But T kept going. “I mean, how does someone even apply for work with you?” I laughed. Hajj 3 got up. It seemed we were driving him nuts. “I’m sorry are we bothering you,” I asked. “No not at all,–Walou” Hajj 3 said as he stood up and opened the door. I joked that he was going to go home tonight and tell his family that some guys they detained asked him all these questions. He cracked a smile again, only briefly, turning away to hide his expression. I hoped we would get home to tell the story too, but as time passed by, I grew increasingly unsure about that.
It had now been over two hours. Earlier Hajj 3 repeatedly said it would only be a few minutes. Our friends had been waiting for us at the chicken restaurant. Hajj 3 sat back down behind the desk. “It’s taking a long time, ” he said. That didn’t sound good. I couldn’t think straight. I literally had eaten all day. I had back to back meetings then I had to pick up T from the airport. All this happened during his first few hours in Lebanon. I pleaded again to Hajj 3. He offered the food again. I told him I want Harkous chicken, he smiled and said: “What if I get you chicken and write Harkous on the receipt?” He smiled. “What about chips? Pepsi? Hajj 3 had already offered us water and cigarettes. I felt confused. One minute everyone was nice and wanted to help–the next minute there were long silences and no food ever arrived. Was this a psychological game? Where will they take us next?
Finally after nearly three hours, Hajj 1 showed up again with our IDs and phones in hand. He gave me a piece of paper and asked me to write down the website where I would write the article about comparing Wa’ad with Solidere. Now he was smiling. He then asked me to write down any other papers or media I work for. He handed our phones back and asked me to unlock mine to delete the pictures of the barricade. I protested but he insisted and I think T was about to kill me. I obliged and Hajj said I could apply to the Hezbollah media office to get that picture.
Finally, as we were getting up, T tried one last question as Hajj 1 stood before us. “So if our friends ask us, where should we tell them we were?”
Hajj 1 smiled. “At Hezbollah.”
Before we left, and now that I had my phone back, I wanted to show Hajj 1 a video a local TV station produced about a blog post I wrote that forced the New York Times to correct an article misquoting Hezbollah leader Nasrallah. As we walked out into the parking lot, I tried to open the video several times in vain.
“You are trying to open a video,” Hajj 1 said with a chuckle. “God help you! The coverage is terrible here. You’ll wait an hour to load it. Once again, notoriously slow Lebanese internet would haunt me.
“Don’t worry about it, ” Hajj 1 said. “We’ll check your website. He apologized for the inconvenience and said “Nice to get to know you” and “If you ever need anything, give us a call.” T actually asked Haj 1 for his number and he gave him this strip of paper as a ‘business card’:
Even reticent Hajj 3 was suddenly more talkative and mustered some broken English: “God-a blesss you.”
We shook all their hands and got back into the car.
Looking back at the experience, I have to say Hezbollah treated me far better than the corporate real estate developers that twisted my arms behind my back until I erased pictures of ancient ruins I saw on their site or the masked young hoodlums that belong to a Western-allied political movement who ran after me. Or the Lebanese government official who ripped away my voice recorder after our interview, erased all my audio files and threatened me in numerous ways. Yet in the South Beirut “Hezbollah stronghold”, never once did anyone shout or curse at us, threaten us with weapons or any sort of physical violence.
But it still wasn’t fun. Having your phone and personal data confiscated against your will is invasive and unnerving to say the very least. I’m also not sure it was the best use of my time or Hezbollah’s time to stop anyone who takes a photograph. On the other hand, with so many car bombs and regular threats of war from Israel, it’s not hard to understand why they might be a little bit paranoid.
Was my experience unique? A couple of weeks ago, a woman taking a photo in south Beirut claimed to have had it much rougher. She said the Hezbollah men had threatened and shouted at her, even put a gun to her head. At first I was horrified by the piece, but now I wonder if perhaps there was more to the story. Did she challenge the security men more than I had or more than she told the news channel, which convienently is staunchly anti-Hezbollah? Was I treated better because I was a journalist? One journalist working for a major Western news organization claims to have been beaten and tortured by Hezbollah.
I can’t be sure why these accounts differ so greatly from mine. But amid all the wars Hezbollah is involved in, both T and I emerged with a sense of appreciation that things didn’t go worse. Moral of the story: Don’t take pictures in South Beirut. Is that good for journalism and transparency? Definitely not. But these are not ordinary times either.
There has been much fanfare about the removal of political signs and posters from Beirut, as part of a reported reconciliation deal between the parties/militias/old men that run this country. I have to admit, I was surprised to see the decades-old Amal mural painted over on Spears Street.
The Daily Star reported that Hezbollah had even removed posters of martyrs in Saida, though advertisements for the party’s museum remain up.
But what the Star didn’t report is that as posters came down for some groups, a massive billboard campaign went up commemorating the life of slain prime minister Rafik Hariri. The billboards promoted a political rally for his party that would be held on the day of his assassination last week.
The billboards are literally ubiquitous across the city. From downtown:
The northern suburbs:
Multiple images on the same panel:
Even three billboards on one street:
I wonder if this campaign was excluded from the reconciliation deal and why.
Look out for my column next month in Bold Magazine for more on Beirut’s history with political posters, how the latest crackdown compares to previous removal campaigns and what is often left out of the process.
Israeli TV is on all Lebanese channels as we wait for Israel’s expected response to an attack on one of its convoys in South Lebanon. Hezbollah is saying the attack is retaliation for the killing of several of its men a week ago by Israeli warplanes.
It’s hard not to feel reminded of those days in 2006 when soon after an Israeli convoy was attacked, Israel’s military began shelling south Lebanon as is happening right now. At the time, I remember a colleague in my office laughing it off, while I worried things would get much worse. Sure enough, things escalated over the next few days when Israel warplanes destroyed highways, bridges, airport runways and eventually leveled several villages and parts of south Beirut in a month long war that left over 1,000 Lebanese civilians dead.
Is this Deja Vu or have things changed? This time around, Hezbollah is already involved in a war in Syria and some believe its forces are stretched too thin for a second war. But on the other side we have Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is considered one of the most hawkish Israeli leaders, far more so than his predecessor in 2006, Ehud Olmert. Some say Israeli elections are upcoming in March and a war won’t help him win. Or will it?
The ironies are already starting to pour in. Today a former Lebanese warlord was warning current Lebanese warlords about the dangers of in war:
If he’s worried, should we worry? Or is a large part of this media theatre, with all sides trying to score propaganda points?
You’ll notice the Western media frequently calls Israeli attacks retaliations, but will almost certainly frame any action by Hezbollah as offensive. Hezbollah also claims the Israeli soldiers were occupying Lebanese territory– rather than peacefully minding their own business in Israel. That’s another detail you probably won’t hear much about in major Western media outlets.
On the other hand, Hezbollah media are broadcasting call-in congratulations from various officials and they just aired a report on a handful of cars near the border, claiming these spectators proved that ‘people are not afraid.’
“No one is scarred,” said one pundit on Al Manar. ‘On the contrary, people had been waiting anxiously for the resistance to respond.” Meanwhile Arab media are reporting up to 15 dead Israelis, while Israeli media only report “medium to light” injuries.
All we know for sure is that it started out as such a beautiful morning…
Yet now my only hope is for a massive storm. Maybe a deluge will wash away some of the belligerence.
I recently stumbled upon a familiar sight at a Middle Eastern art exhibit in Chelsea, New York. It was a view anyone living in Lebanon during the 2006 war may have seen.
The piece by Ali Cherri was projected on the wall at the center of the gallery:
The viewer watches a slide show, revealing military ships appearing on the horizon.
The rhythm of the slides bring back the mix of monotony and fear we felt during those days. The ships–most of them from the US Navy- were evacuating American and European nationals during a brief truce.
Watching it was a bit agonizing for those who would not go. All day long ships would disappear and reappear. Tens of thousands of people had been evacuated by the time it was over after about a week. And everyday we wondered anxiously what was in store for us when it ended and the bombing resumed.
The piece was also accompanied by an audio recording of a message by the Israeli military, which had infiltrated the Lebanese radio waves and played the following message.
I too photographed and video taped the ships at the time but the footage seemed so mundane I never really used it.
Looking at the price tag suggested for these few slides, I really wish I had!
You can bid on this piece and watch Ali’s full slideshow and audio here. And you can view all the Middle Eastern works in the auction which will benefit the New York-based Alwan for the Arts, a non-profit which regularly brings Arab and regionally-focused film screenings, lectures, book readings and other great events to the city.
Lebanese president Michel Sleiman left office today, but his presidency will linger a while longer in billboards erected across the highway.
The sign above literally reads: “You entered big and you leave big.”
Yet technically speaking Sleiman leaves office much like his predecessor did six years ago: with no successor and a presidential void.
So what is the “big” reference here and how will Sleiman be remembered? Will it be for his tweet calling for civil marriage or his criticism and very public disagreements with Lebanon’s most powerful force, Hezbollah? Or will it be his de-facto pardon of indie rock star who was arrested for mentioning his name in a song? Meanwhile other tweeps and journalists still face criminal charges for insulting him.
So what legacies do these billboards commemorate and who paid for them anyway?
No name is attached to the canvas, but interestingly the same stretch of highway near the Nahr El Mawt/City Mall area was also plastered in Sleiman praise when he came to office in 2008 and again during in 2013, a year before he left office. Could it be the same secret admirer?
Sleiman propaganda on the same pedestrian bridge in 2008. See previous post.
At least six people were reported killed in today’s bomb in Bir Hassan, near South Beirut.
As usual, scores of people were injured and dozens of shops destroyed. One of the stores that was completely blown away was Rammal electronics, which quickly strung up a banner over the blast site reading:
The owner, La Coste-wearing Adnan Rammal, was later interviewed on Al Manar. His shop was also destroyed during the 2006 war with Israel but he started out by saying: “These people are worse than the Israelis.”
The assumption was that the Israeli military had at least given some warning before attacking residential South Beirut, parts of which were completely flattened by its aircraft after leaflets had been dropped.
Adnan also said that the neighborhood was mixed. The orphanage next door, Dar Al Ataym–which was also devastated– was Sunni-run, he explained, adding that many of his employees were also Sunnis.
Of course some in the neighborhood were also strong supporters of Hezbollah. As is routine in these events, even victims interviewed in hospital beds pledged allegiance to Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.
But several others in the hospital did not mention Nasrallah. That’s one key idea that gets lost in the tiresome “Hezbollah neighborhood” description, parroted by pundits and the media. It ignores the more messy reality that no neighborhood–in Lebanon or elsewhere– is uniformly or even overwhelmingly supportive of one group or another. It is a neighborhood after all, where people have lived and worked long before Hezbollah or other parities came to power. There is no stronghold. Both the mainstream media and suicide bombers need to realize that.
A day after the car bombing that killed four people in Hermel, Al Manar TV reported live from a candlelight vigil near the scene of the blast. As the reporter appeared on camera the crowd behind him was chanting for praise for Hezbollah with the intermittent line: “America is the enemy of God”
The reporter then began to interview women and mothers. As in past car bombs targeting neighborhoods where Hezbollah is popular, the residents were defiant, saying the attack only strengthened their faith in the party.
“Let’s not waste time talking about the terrorists,” the woman below said, framed by a picture of Hezbollah leader Sayed Hassan Nasrallah. “Let’s give all our strength to Sayed Hassan and fight these terrorists.”
The sentiments tonight were very similar to previous attacks, when victims have pledged alliance to Hezbollah even in hospital beds and Hezbollah flags have been hoisted moments after blasts in buildings with blown out windows:
Meanwhile, the Lebanese army has arrested (I thought police were supposed to do that) 13 suspects including a 24-year-old cleric and charged them with setting up previous bomb attacks. But so far the army has yet to release any evidence beyond a confession, according to early reports.
No hard evidence has emerged to link yesterday’s blast with the previous attacks, and its unclear why the US is being blamed. But as shown by the emotions at the crime scene, few will wait for investigations. As I have noted before, the dots are becoming too easy to connect in Lebanon while the need to present evidence is becoming increasingly irrelevant.
The partially burnt ID papers allegedly belonging to a suicide bomber have emerged as the key piece of evidence in last week’s Haret Hreik explosion in south Beirut.
But MP Khaled Daher held a press conference today mocking the discovery as fantastical. Watch this one minute snippet I captured:
He begins by advising all those targeted in assassinations to carry their ID papers close, because these papers are apparently fireproof and bombproof.
“Who would not believe that a Lebanese ID paper lands safely while bodies and steel car parts are torn to pieces?
“What kind of ID paper flies through the air to the 8th floor? These Lebanese ID papers should be entered into the Guinness Book. It’s a spectacular ID. It should be used as a shield for anyone that feels targeted in Lebanon.”
The subtext here is that Daher represents a region in North Lebanon from which the bomber–or at least the person named on the ID card–comes from. Daher is also a member of the anti-Hezbollah political alliance and is thus claiming that Hezbollah has invented this piece of evidence to attack his constituents, many of whom support the Syrian opposition.
But while Daher claims the bombing was a “natural” retribution for Hezbollah’s “hellish” involvement in the Syrian war, he himself has been accused of involvement in the Syrian war by supporting and supplying Syrian rebels.
Interestingly Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV covered bits of this press conference, but they conveniently cut out any references to the magic ID papers or the Guinness Book of World Records.