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Lebanon's rough ride toward 'normal' politics.

Byline: Marc J Sirois

Summary: Deep breaths, please. The Lebanese psyche has been under sustained assault for nearly three years, a series of punishing blows from multiple directions that has transformed cautious moderates into radicals who froth at the mouth, thoughtful intellectuals into simpletons devoted to tribalism.

First person by MARC J. SIROIS

Deep breaths, please. The Lebanese psyche has been under sustained assault for nearly three years, a series of punishing blows from multiple directions that has transformed cautious moderates into radicals who froth at the mouth, thoughtful intellectuals into simpletons devoted to tribalism, and life-long friends into irreconcilable enemies. Events like the blood-soaked protests in Beirut's suburbs on Sunday should amplify the few remaining voices of reason, and instead the result is increasingly irresponsible rhetoric.

The volatility of the situation demands that both sides in Lebanon's deeply entrenched power struggle examine more closely the effects of both the tactics they use and the words they employ to pursue their respective strategies. It would help, too, if each camp would do more to define its own agenda rather than concentrating on tearing down the supposed plans of its opponent. Such actions would have the double benefit of both reducing the odds of an uncontrollable conflagration and opening the way for a workable compromise. A failure to undertake such measures can only worsen the breakdowns of communication and trust that have kept the government and the opposition at loggerheads.

Come what may, there will continue to be competing visions for Lebanon's future, as the political spectrum includes important forces with views on internal and external matters alike that are diametrically opposed - and smatterings of everything in between. Like Lebanon's religious diversity, the variety of political outlooks can be a helpful source of vitality and perpetual renewal, but only if the current level of debate can be abandoned for higher ground. It has been both a blessing and a curse that this country's political traditions include more freedom of speech and broader media rights than anywhere else in the Arab world, and those who abuse such privileges today risk losing them tomorrow.

This is not to say that media bias and political mudslinging are unique to Lebanon. On the contrary, some of the world's sturdiest democracies regularly produce unfounded accusations that should (but don't) color the cheeks of even the most jaded politicos. Major Western politicians and their minions, including subservient journalists, have turned character assassination against their domestic rivals into an art form. There is no excusing their shameless behavior, but at least they operate in environments that limit the damage to widespread disillusionment. In Lebanon, where democratic institutions are still in their infancy and where democratic practices like the rule of law are still a foreign concept, the possible repercussions include the return of civil war, hardly an end that would justify such malignant means.

In the past, Lebanese political parties have attempted to clear the air for sober interaction by agreeing to "cease-fires" in their wars of words, but these have broken down faster than sugar cubes in hot coffee. It is not mere partisanship that has caused these meltdowns: It is a shared refusal to accept the very possibility that the other side's intentions might be driven by anything other than greed and/or treachery. Worse yet, the rotting cadavers of these previous attempts at dialogue poison the atmosphere and discourage further attempts to hold rational discussions.

Again, it is not the nature of adversarial politics that has betrayed Lebanon. Instead, it is the fragility of Lebanese institutions that has allowed the rancor of Lebanese politicians to foul the entire country. There is not yet a habit of keeping political disputes within civilized parameters, and there is no referee equipped with the ability, the willingness and the stature to enforce a measure of civility. There is also the matter of the newness of the process itself: Since the departure of the Syrians in 2005, all Lebanese and their political leaders have been navigating uncharted territory, groping in the dark to determine which rules still apply, which ones do not, and which require some adjustment. This does not come easy in any society, let alone one almost wholly unacquainted with the policies and practices that tend to result from the rule of law.

The unfamiliarity with "normal" democratic politics lends itself to the "black and white" visions of many political factions. The inapplicability of many precepts of both the center-left and center-right has had a similar effect, causing a retreat by many of their erstwhile supporters to the more comfortable zone of sectarianism. In the West, for instance, the right accuses the left of being "soft" on what is described as Islamic fundamentalism (often boorishly equated with "terrorism," but that is another matter). In Lebanon, though, much of what passes for the mainstream left has sided against Hizbullah, an openly Islamist Shiite party, and its opposition partners. Further complicating matters is the fact that in doing so, parties like the Democratic Left are now in the same camp as other Islamists, although these are Sunni organizations, some of them previously shunned by the ruling coalition's dominant Sunni force, the Future Movement.

These realities are the product of a political system designed to create people whose adherence to ideology (weak) and regard for secular ideas (low) make them incapable of defending a given position without invoking arguments infused with tribal paranoia. Incapable of defining themselves without uncomfortable reference to backward notions, they rely instead on denigrating the "other" as a primordial threat to all that is good and just, even if that means defending those elements of the status quo that institutionalize inequality and actively block the expansion of both individual and collective rights.

There is not a total absence of hope. Amid the storm of mutual recrimination that has followed the appalling events of Sunday, for instance, came one encouraging sentiment expressed by none other than Prime Minister Fouad Siniora (himself a favorite target of scorn from the opposition, but also of some pro-government types who question the extent of his commitment to the "cause"). All of the people who were killed, Siniora, declared, were "martyrs of all the nation." By thus acknowledging the sacrifice and anointing the intentions of young men whose sympathies were clearly anywhere but with him, the prime minister created a sliver of hope in the possibility of an eventual solution. The gesture has been met by none of the reciprocity that it deserved from the opposition, and others nominally allied to Siniora have moved with alacrity to prevent what might otherwise be important steps toward reconciliation, but the fact that the words were uttered proves that reason is not dead in Lebanon, just hiding out.

Marc J. Sirois is managing editor of THE DAILY STAR.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Date:Jan 31, 2008
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