Bewitchingly deceptive Beirut
and the criminal nature of Arab regimes
by: Hanna Ziadeh*
This early summer day Beirut revealed itself from its most deceitful aspect where the Mediterranean light and the city's joie de vivre drove my traveling companion Khaled to proclaim "there is no mate to Beirut." He is visiting from Dubai, where he, like thousands of Lebanese moved to in order to find work. Despite Dubai's newly acquired mass-made temptations, Khaled still missed Beirut and its way to tempt with a social freedom, a human immediacy and the feeling of being a principle protagonist in the melee of life in a real city and not an extra in Dubai's acquired mega scenery.
Beirut's charm hides a dark truth. Beirut's street cafes are filled with young and old, men and women who enjoy their coffee lattes while surfing the web on their MacBook and skimming the countless newspapers for news about the numerous Arab revolutions. The deceptive atmosphere is best revealed through the pretended calm with which people, media and politicians are debating these tumultuous changes, as if they occurred on Mars. The Arab spring's upheaval, which last reached the neighboring Syria, is discussed with the airy indulgence that characterizes those who think they will not be touched by the problem. The otherwise politically sophisticated Lebanese imagine that the chronically unstable but relatively democratic Lebanon is going to remain for the moment the only stable Arab country. It is an illusion. True that the famous stability, which the repressive Arab regimes used to boast about, has been thoroughly shaken by the chronically repressed people who claimed freedom, democracy and social justice for all, but the Lebanese are mistaken if they think that their old sectarian power-sharing system can curb the revolutionary aftermath.
The question is how can the Lebanese maintain a notion of stability, when the country has not had a government for over five months and when the acting Prime Minister Sa'ad Hariri have been residing abroad for almost as long; when the police chief Ashraf Riffi is obeying orders from his boss the Interior Minister Ziad Baroud or even the President of the Republic Michel Sulayman? How can the illusion of a democratic, stable Lebanon coexist with the fact that oil for the country’s power-plants are being purchased almost from week to week and that neither the parliament nor the government can meet to approve the state budget or appoint a new director of the National Bank? While western tourists are being kidnapped and UN forces bombed, the state system stands paralyzed in face of all these challenges.
What is the common feature between Lebanon's system crisis and the Arab regimes crumbling under popular protests? The Arab revolution has not only revealed the regimes’ false stability but also the ruling Arab elites’ true criminal nature, regardless of the ideological camouflage they used. The 'popular', anti-Western social-nationalist regimes in Libya, Syria and Yemen have been even more criminal than the pro-Western liberal regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. These elites’ criminal nature is not revealed through their use of massive means of violence against their civilian populations, such as security forces, intelligence agencies or the army. This expresses their authoritarian character but not their criminal nature. No. It is because in addition to the use of the state’s repressive machinery, the elites have systematically used vile criminal gangs to terrorize and subjugate the people. In Egypt, the ex-president Mubarak used criminals, called baltajier, to subdue the demonstrators. In Libya, the socialist leader Kadaffi recruits criminal mercenaries murtazaqa from all across Africa to murder, rape and rob the Libyan people. In Yemen, President Saleh decided to subdue the young protestors in the numerous liberation squares by using snipers backed by the Yemeni version of baltajijer, cohorts of armed murderers who attacked demonstrators with hand-grenades and K17’s. Syria has shown itself to be the worst. Here, President Assad not only managed to use army tanks and artillery to encircle and bomb entire cities when police forces and intelligence services could not suppress the protests; until now, he also succeeded in getting away with extensively using common criminal elements, the so-called shabiha, to murder, humiliate and terrorize the population.
The Arab regimes’ criminal nature is a manifestation of the fact that the modern Arab state as a political structure has been eaten up from inside and replaced by a mafia-like organization in which family, clan, tribe or sect see themselves as the sole legitimate ruler as well as the only patriotic people! The ‘left-over’ population is stigmatized either as "rats", "traitors" or "bandits" deserving only to be eradicated. In Lebanon, similar multi-sectarian mafia elites managed to gain control of the state and share its resources between them. The Lebanese exception has been that these mafia elites have taken the trouble to recruit a significant proportion of their sects behind them, either through the use of money and privileges or sectarian mobilization against each other. Lebanon's current systemic crisis shows that the Lebanese form of usurpation of some popular legitimacy can not replace genuine democracy; a democracy that could unite the Lebanese across sectarian affiliations and not as now, divide and rule them individually and as groups entirely on sectarian grounds. The Lebanese should view with more humility the Arab revolution and learn from their lessons. Lebanese should realize that 17 different sectarian mafia gangs rather than a single mafia mob constitutes an illusion of democracy, which will inevitably lead to another round of sectarian war where the practitioners of false ideologies take over the streets. It is the Lebanese version of the Arab institutionalized crime hiding under Beirut's deceptive charm.
* Hanna Ziadeh (حنا زيادة), born in Beirut; he is PhD fellow at the Danish Institute for Human Rights and specialized in the modern history of the Arab world - firstname.lastname@example.org.