Eye on the ball

Hariri and Khalife have a laugh at our expense (Photo: AP/Bilal Hussein)

It is often between the headlines, rather than the headlines themselves, that  the essence of conflict resides. As any seasoned observer of Lebanon knows, the country’s media outlets will tug at either side until they have sufficiently stretched the people’s patience so thin that they can be scared into submission and again accept the age old constructs of sectarianism, patronage and a non-functioning state as the only way to avert all out war. And so paying too much attention to what this or that politician says during these tense times is not going to yield an accurate nor useful analysis of what the impetus is for the last, or the latest round of political bickering.

A more pragmatic approach would be to observe what has been taken off the agenda. The previous period of tension, albeit less problematic than this one, was  characterized by reverting to the root causes of civil strife itself. The suggestions made by parliament speaker Nabih Berri and others, however disingenuous, concerning the abolition of sectarianism and electoral reform where aimed at diverting attention away from Hezbollah’s weapons as much as anything else. The issue of false witnesses and the STL indictments are similar in that they also divert attention away from weapons and towards an Israeli plot to destabilize the country, which in turn allows the argument for Hezbollah keeping its weapons to remain all the more salient.

But since the post-election stalwarts opposing Hezbollah’s weapons have in effect accepted that they will have to keep them in some capacity, there is little reason to address that subject with such fervor.  But it is also convenient for the likes of M14 to latch onto aggressive acts by the party and its allies as sure shot signs that they are not the ones to blame for the stagnancy of the state amongst their power base. In the meantime, those same parties can run their institutions and bodies of patronage without scrutiny from the media or from the public at large.

Considering that the STL has not uttered one word, and there have been countless conflicting reports about the indictments since it began, it seems like folly to believe any reports coming from the Arab or international press over their contents. Obviously the ifs, thens, and buts will dictate the course of the media’s rhetoric, but to repeatedly lead with a non-issue and drag the country into a state of sectarian fear is in itself an objective clearly achieved by all sides of the political playing field. It was quite obvious that when all of this started, the talk was of a compromise between Hariri and Hezbollah over the issue which is surely being hatched right now despite what we see on our TV screens.

This is in no way a conspiracy; its as plain and predictably deceitful  as the smiles on the faces of politicians all over the country; it is the default strategy that has typified every political period previous to the assassination of Rafik Hariri and looks to be the post 2009 election strategy as well. To focus rhetoric on sectarian fueled issues for sustained periods of time allows for the substantive issues affecting the country to be put on the back-burner indefinitely. To be sure, as soon as the issue of electricity, water, poverty and even traffic, began to receive some traction amongst the population, there was a sudden surge in the level of talk about the STL kindled by the rumors that the indictments would be issued in September. This has not happened, and yet the same pundits and politicians continue to insist, as they always have, that they know what the essence of the tribunal holds and the media continues to carry their reports.

In the meantime, the problems afflicting the country remain, as do those who hold the reigns of power. Right now the national budget is being debated for 2010 and 2011 and money allocated to each ministry is still not disclosed to the public in either. The news reports brush over the discussions in the cabinet and the parliament as being “technical,” meaning they will not wast precious air and advertising time discussing them for fear that the public begins to understand where their money is going. They then promptly move onto the next linguistic sparring match between the so-called opposing forces while ministries themselves have no performance indicators, are stacked with political appointees and use the UNDP to conduct their work while they and their patrons take their salaries from the public purse. It is beyond me on what technical basis, other than who gets a larger piece of pie, anything is being debated.

Thus its little surprise that such practice is not condemned with the same fervor as the non-existent indictment. If that were the only thing politicians were doing, then it would be business as usual. The difference this time is that gasoline is being poured on the ground by all involved in order to pose a concurrent threat to and by both local and external interests who know all too well that it is the latter’s  prerogative to light a match.

Lebanese security soldiers pander around with Hezbollah in front of the home of Jamil al-Sayyed. (Photo:AP/Hussein Malla)

For the moment, there seems to be little interest from the regional and international players in plotting such a course given the effects it would have on their agreed upon standing in the Lebanese arena. That the Lebanese stand for such provocation is becoming less and less of a certainty to those in power and thus the stakes are being raised more and more as the days pass.

The only way out of this vicious cycle is for the population and the media to not buy into the rhetoric and not be afraid even if one party or another does take action militarily on the streets. The recent Burj Abi Haidar incident both supports the ‘distraction hypothesis’ and the fact that such actions are not having the desired effect of scaring the Lebanese into abject submission given that the public has tired of the issue.

Progress towards demanding more useful and functional government therefore hinges on this: whether the Lebanese can be distracted or scared enough to keep avoiding core issues. The answer to that question looks to be far off for the moment but reading between the headlines will most likely lead us to the answer rather than over-analyzing the minutia of Lebanese politics.


Author: Sami Halabi

Sami Halabi is a policy consultant who covers a range of policy issues and analyses development programmes, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. Sami specialises in analysing policies and programmes in order to provide evidence-based recommendations to policy-makers and international development agencies. Sami holds a Master of Public Policy with Distinction from The University of Edinburgh.

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