The Tyranny of Wael Abu Faour

wael-abu-faour

“I ask everyone to stop their political and economic prostitution and debauchery, and to instead trust the government and its workers”

Thus spoke our fearless Minister of health from his high horse, feigning surprise and playing at righteousness in the face of a business community that was blindsided by his brazen overreach.

Minister Abu Faour is shocked, (shocked! I tell you) that people may doubt the findings of underpaid government workers working behind closed doors and unaccountably producing extra judicial sentences on restaurants and retailers that have long had good standing with their customers and communities.

Trust Me

Whatever Mr. Abu Faour is doing, it is good politics. It makes for an entertaining spectacle (in the same way that public executions do); it gives the masses the illusion that the government is working on their behalf, and it portrays the up-and-coming young minister as a no nonsense kinda guy who doesn’t care what corporations say; a man who rolls his sleeves and get things done regardless of of the objections of the connected and powerful. Well played PSP, your transition plan is on track..

But there is one big hole in this enterprise: The minister stakes this entire crusade on a very shaky foundation: Trust in government.

Trust Vs Checks and Balances

The problem is that government is not supposed to work on trust. We don’t need to keep learning that from history. Successful and efficient governments work on legal foundations of transparency and checks and balances. The notion that we should trust what government is doing behind closed doors is the vestige of old command economies and tyrannical regimes.

It shouldn’t be treasonous to doubt the incentives of underpaid government workers who are suddenly given tremendous powers to destroy businesses. What if Crepaway bribed the inspector to destroy its competitor Roadster Diner? What if Refaat el Hallab made him an offer he can’t refuse to smear its arch-enemy Abdul Rahman? What guarantees do these businesses have other than “oh, Lebanese government workers are angels, they would never do such a thing”.

As a Lebanese citizen, I want food safety, and I want checks on businesses’ overreach (again, checks and balances). But Mr. Abu Faour’s campaign could have been much more effective by being more transparent and by at least having multiple independent labs check the samples.

Instead, he decided to have a political circus.

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How to Burn Islamic Flags Without Upsetting Muslims

Many Muslims can’t stand ISIS and see in them a terrorist organization that is giving Islam a bad name. But for religious reasons those same Muslims are very bothered when the flag of ISIS is burnt in public because it contains what they consider to be sacrosanct religious text.

We can argue about whether or not they have the right to be upset or insulted, but the fact is that they are, and their anger over the burned flags can distract us from the big picture. Our Minister of Justice, Mr. Ashraf Rifi is a moderate who has spoken many times against the blind extremism of ISIS. But that didn’t prevent him from seeking to deter people from burning their flag (and angering many lebanese in the process) because he can imagine how the extremists will use the flag-burning incident to rally the masses and distract from the main fight at hand.

Is there a middle ground? Can we protest against monsters who cloak themselves in religious text without angering the devout? Here’s a compromise I’m proposing: Flags that resemble the flags of political entities without actually containing the religious text. As an example, here are three flags where the religious text is replaced by gibberish. I think even the devout should agree that burning those is halal..

flags-to-burn

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Let the Newspapers Die in Peace

Newspapers all over the world are diminishing. Don’t make it harder for them…

old-annahar

There has been an awful lot of snickering online recently, about how low the venerable Annahar has gotten in its quest for clicks. Aside from the fluff which has markedly increased, there is alarm among the intelligentsia that even their reporting quality is diminishing. One particularly jarring instance was the newspaper’s reporting that Hillary Clinton supposedly admitted that the USA created the ISIS terrorist group.

The reactions varied from concerned disappointment to gleeful schadenfreude, but everyone seems to assume that the reduction in quality is because of bad or neglectful management; that Neila Tueni is somehow a serial disappointer who decided to disappoint her readers after having disappointed her voters. But the bitter truth is that there is nothing anyone can do to save Annahar or any newspaper for that matter, and blaming it would be tantamount to blaming a terminal cancer patient for dying.

“People Don’t Read Newspapers Anymore”

The trope that people have stopped reading newspapers has been around for many years. It was repeated after every media invention that was made. “The radio will kill newspapers”, “TV will kill newspapers”, even “cinema will kill newspapers” were refrains that were heard across the ages, but the newspaper survived. So it’s tempting to believe that this is yet another manufactured crisis, and another false alarm. But this time it’s real: The Internet is killing the newspaper, at least in the form that we’re used to. It’s being replaced on the breakfast table by your facebook and twitter feeds, which is where you probably discovered the outrage about Annahar’s quality.

New York Times reporter David Carr has been writing about the demise of print for a while. He wrote (highly recommended) a few weeks ago about how difficult it is for print to compete with the internet:

Think about what happened when the Malaysian airliner was shot down in eastern Ukraine. No matter where you were, or what you were doing, an ambient feed of information pulsed and heaved all around you. Graphic images soon appeared in social media feeds and breathless news alerts arrived in the inboxes of anyone with even a casual interest.

[...] Nothing can compete with the shimmering immediacy of now, and not just when seismic events take place, but in our everyday lives. We are sponges and we live in a world where the fire hose is always on. [...] Online, we are always beckoned forward to the next great thing, often right in the middle of what we thought we wanted to read about. Consider how many times you have clicked a link early in an article and never returned to what brought you there in the first place.

So what can be done about it? Who is to blame and how can this be “fixed”? David Carr again, in another article from a few days ago:

So whose fault is it? No one’s. Nothing is wrong in a fundamental sense: A free-market economy is moving to reallocate capital to its more productive uses, which happens all the time. Ask Kodak. Or Blockbuster. Or the makers of personal computers. Just because the product being manufactured is news in print does not make it sacrosanct or immune to the natural order.

“But Lebanon is Different”

The least mentioned detail about Annahar these days is that it is actually the Lebanese newspaper that has most tried to join the digital age. It has redesigned its website often, it embraced social media, it even dabbled with online video. But most notably, it has overhauled the entire print edition, complete with a custom font designed by Nadine Chahine and a layout done by one of the world’s foremost newspaper layout experts.

But no matter how much they try, this will not change the fundamental economics: Advertisers are realizing that there are many cheaper ways to reach newspapers’ audiences that don’t involve printing machines at dawn and trucks driving across the country. Readers are also realizing that they can read fresher, more immediate news for free. Even the politicians who used to support newspapers may be starting to realize that their investment may not be worth it. When that happens, the newspapers in Lebanon will be truly dead.

In any case, don’t kick a horse while it’s dead and try to be empathetic to a newspaper’s demise.

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Can the Islamic Caliphate Lead to Good things?

The only way a grand idea can die is for it to rise then have a spectacular public crash

On paper, Communism was a fantastic idea. It caused aspirations that spanned the globe, threatened established orders in entire countries and caused a certain kind of people to yearn, deeply, to be part of its utopia. In the end, it was neither propaganda nor weapons that killed the idea of Communism, it was the rise then spectacular fall of the Soviet Union. If it weren’t for the failure of the Soviet Union, we would still have people all over the world yearning for a communist rule, causing mini revolutions everywhere trying to establish communist orders.

Dreaming of a Caliphate

Any Muslim who spent enough time around other Muslims will have noticed that many of them have a deep yearning for the resurrection of an Islamic Caliphate that would rule the entire Umma under shariaa law. At this point some westerners would be incredulous: Why would anyone want to live under a medieval rule with unaccountable rulers and ruthless laws? My answer is: I have no clue, I’m team modernity all the way. All I know is that this is a real and relatively widespread dream for many Muslims, especially those disillusioned by modernity and western cultural norms which they see as “foreign” and “imperialistic”, much like the “artificial” borders between Muslim states.

One can only get a real appreciation for how popular this dream is when one reads the tweets of the tens of thousands of supporters of ISIS on twitter. Normal people who otherwise tweet about the world cup and what they had for breakfast are tweeting about how they wish that ISIS’ Caliphate will reach their own countries.

The purpose of this post is not to make light of the horrors taking place in Iraq and Syria. It is not to diminish the real danger that extremists and their caliphate pose on places like Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. It is to posit that the rise of the Islamic Caliphate today could play a role in the real transition of the world’s Muslims to modernity.

The apparent rise of ISIS (now IS –Islamic State–) has given hope to many Muslims around the world. Its military effectiveness, its large area of control and its substantial wealth, are all causing many to believe that this is the real deal, the Islamic state they have always been waiting for. People are joining from Europe, the US and all over the world. These are not paid mercenaries, these are real believers in the cause who are leaving their loved ones to join the cause, not unlike western communists who defected to the Soviet Union when it was at the peak of its power.

Building a future on crushed hope

Strong hope is a necessary ingredient for the death of an idea, for crushed hope alone can beget real introspection and soul-searching. Like the Soviet Union, the Islamic state is built on unsustainable fundamentals and is on course for a spectacular implosion. Only when that happens can Muslims around the world finally let go of the idea of a Caliphate and start a real negotiation for a social contract fit for modern times.

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There is no Such Thing as the Right to Watch the World Cup

Badna ne7dar

Let’s get this out of the way first: FIFA is greedy. Very greedy. The international body responsible for the world cup tries to squeeze out every single penny it can from our pockets. It sells very expensive ads and then it double dips by selling broadcasting rights for exorbitant prices. If FIFA were a website, it would set up a high pay wall to access it and then it would litter it with display ads, text ads and sponsored posts to the point that you struggle to find its main content. Again: “Greedy”.

That said, it seems people need to be reminded that there’s no such thing as “the right to watch the world cup”, a phrase we are hearing constantly in Lebanon following the debacle over broadcasting rights that left many people incapable of watching the games.

People are feeling this way because they have always managed to watch the games for free. Our shock stems from the fact that someone has finally managed to come up with a copy-right technology that we couldn’t hack our way around. In the end, this is a business that is run by a private corporation, FIFA. We don’t eat at restaurants for free. We don’t go to the cinema for free. Even the players are not playing for free. Why should we watch the world cup for free? We feel we are entitled to watch the worldcup because it involves intangibles like national pride, the brotherhood of men and the beauty of sports, but in the end, it’s all about balancing the books for FIFA.

Many Lebanese are also shocked that the government or municipalities don’t just subsidize our access to the world cup, tax-payer-money be damned. Governments subsidizing sporting events is an old tradition of authoritarian regimes who want the “mobs” to spend their energy on activities other than revolting against the government. There is plenty of government hating in Lebanon, but that still doesn’t justify taking away millions of dollars from salaries of public employees and spending them on our game-viewing pleasures.

The real problem is that FIFA is a monopoly, a corrupt monopoly at that. FIFA doesn’t feel it needs to stem its greed because no other body is competing with it for organizing the world’s beautiful game. Competition would magically transform us, the viewers, from powerless consumers meekly touting our “right to watch the world cup” to king-makers who drive down prices and broaden access to the game. This is where our anger should be directed.

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On Moderation

As I’m watching the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) take over important parts of the levant, and as I witness Abdel Fattah al Sissi getting sworn in as Egypt’s president, I couldn’t help but think of “moderation”, an idea that is central to our political discourse in the Muslim world and central to the way foreign powers like to talk about us.

Moderation is often touted as a solution to all our problems. Just yesterday the ex ambassador to Syria Robert Ford got in on the action and told us that we should arm more “moderates” to fight the Assad Regime… But what if the quest for moderation itself was a source of trouble? What if moderation was one of the causes of our repeated historical tragedies?

Meet the Moderates

One cynical way of defining a moderate is that he is someone who doesn’t have anything he’s willing to die for. As I wrote in a tweet: People die for country, for belief, for ideology, for loved ones, for money. Nobody dies for the cause of “moderation.”

Moderates don’t want trouble. We could even call this their defining characteristic. They want their businesses to prosper, their kids to grow up in good health and they don’t want to think of bothersome ideas that sound good on paper but that effectively mess with their livelyhoods. At first signs of serious trouble, rich moderates immigrate, poor moderates become refugees and those who are stuck either surrender to their oppressors or die. When Syria occupied Lebanon, Lebanese moderates “worked with” the Syrian dictator.

Moderates Hate Uncertainty

Across the Arab world, there was a big sigh of relief among many moderates when Abdul Fattah al Sissi was sworn in as the President of Egypt amid cries of “Egypt is back!”.

Is Sissi a moderate? You judge: His courts just sentenced Alaa Abdul Fattah, an activist who did nothing more than break an anti demonstration law with 15 years of prison. Before that, many “moderates” breathed a sigh of relief when hundreds of Islamists were summarily handed death sentences for allegedly demonstrating and killing a policeman. There is an active attempt by the Egyptian military elite to restore the “rule of fear” that kept Mubarak in Power (until he fell that is).

But Arab moderates love Sissi. Dictators serve a very important role for Arab moderates. They deal with the dirty business that is preventing people from living normal lives (remember, avoiding trouble is a moderate’s defining characteristic). It’s a win-win situation: Dictators get power and prestige while moderates get to go about their businesses without worrying about obnoxious moralists telling them what they can drink and eat and how their daughters should dress and how often they should pray. The calm creates stability, stability creates business and jobs and moderates love that.

With luck, you get a couple of generations of stability accompanied by good public education and you end up with a high litteracy rate and a semblence of democracy like Turkey or Tunisia, where the anti-clerical become a large part of the population and begin calling themselves “secular” instead of “moderates”.

Moderation as an end in itself

My favorites words to describe good politicians are “pragmatic” and “reasonable”. But these words, like the word “moderate”, are usually auxiliary to a main, defining ideology. For example: A pragmatic conservative. A reasonable liberal. A moderate socialist.

But in this part of the world, we use the word “moderate” as an end in itself, as a way to distinguish us from “extremists”. In our tribal societies, moderation is the secret handshake that tribes use to tell each other that they neither want trouble nor want to cause any. But what happens when one of the tribes becomes a bully? This is when a dictator (or foreign powers in Lebanon’s case) comes in handy

An army that will fight in the name of moderation is a mirage. A real ideology should be behind a fighting doctrine: Be it nationalism, “Freedom” or a religious belief.

The next best option is a dictator, and you can call him “moderate” if you want

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Fetishizing an Idealized Past

Ghosts from the past are not solutions to present problems..

Here’s a logic that appeals to many people: Our politicians today are corrupt and evil. Back in the day, we had real men. Men who sacrificed for the good of the republic. Men who gave our parents better days than the ones we have today.

We’ve seen that logic play out in Turkey, with Attaturk nostalgists railing against the Islamization of Erdogan. We’ve seen it in the Arab world, with Nasserite arabists lamenting the “glorious” days of Abdul Nasser that contrast with today’s mediocrity.


Spot the difference

And today, unfortunately, we’re seeing it in Lebanon too, with portraits of Fouad Chehab being plastered all over the streets of Beirut, accompanied by adoring hagiographies in the Lebanese blogosphere..

I say unfortunately because I can’t believe that people still believe the myths that are woven in history books about supposedly great people of the past. For all we know the three politicians above may have been as dirty as the ones we have today. Our leaders of today may one day appear as paragons of virtue to our great grandchildren. History books are purposefully dramatic and filled with stories of acts of heroism. Children need to believe in heroes to get a sense of nationalism, but we as adults would be naive to take them at face value. Power plays are always dirty and beneath hero morality.

Look at Syria today. History is being written before our own eyes. Two versions of history are already apparent to anyone who would care to see both points of views, and the version that prevails, the one that will be taught to Syrian children many years from now, will depends on who wins the war today. Bashar al Assad could described as an Adolf Hitler figure who brought humiliation and suffering to the Syrian people.

But he could also be described as a Kemal Attaturk figure, who killed terrorists and modernized the country in the face of grand conspiracies. The victors always write the history.

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My New Blog

I just realized that I haven’t mentioned here that I started a new blog. It is more personal, more conversational and geekier than Beirut Spring. In it I write about technology, computer programming, design and other things I enjoy like coffee. And because of its casual nature, I hope to update it more frequently (fingers crossed) than Beirut Spring (which will always be my first-born).

I wish to also remind you of my other pet project Lebanese Blogs, a really good place to read Lebanese blogs. I made some major improvements to it since I last mentioned it here. And I think you really need to give it a second look.

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A Glimpse of a Functioning Democracy

Politics in Lebanon feels today like politics in real democracies


Hanna making many politicians uncomfortable (photo by Jean Assi)

The conventional wisdom on the tug of war going on in Lebanon today between public sector workers on one hand and employers and bankers on the other is that the Lebanese economy is finally finding its limits and giving in to the weight of its burdens. Journalists and politicians are talking casually of a looming economic disaster and there are warnings of doom and gloom on all sides of the political divide. But a silver lining can still be found.

Good Kind of Pressure

Forget for a moment the terrible things like the Syrian civil war and refugees. Instead, take a look at what’s going on in our parliament. Our MPs are in a real quandary, facing on one hand a well organized and well lead labour movement that is threatening a large-scale disturbance if its demands aren’t met. On the other, bankers, employers and economic bigwigs like BDL Governor Riad Salemeh are warning of the catastrophic economic results bowing to these demands would entail (checking the impulse MPs may have had to give in to populist demands).

Our MPs are in a rare moment of weary head scratching where they have to conjure up solutions that require both legislative craftsmanship and political skill. Their ultimate objective is to appease the unions (to be reelected and to avoid social unrest) without plunging the country into a back-breaking deficit. This requires skill, creative thinking, deal making, and most significantly, redistributive action that may anger rich and powerful proteges of some politicians. Sacred cows like Electricité du Liban (privatizing it), the telecom duopoly (adding more competition) and Middle East Airlines (ending exclusivity) may also have to be reformed.

Something has changed and the dividing lines in this latest crisis are less about politics and more about class and causes. Civil society and interest groups are finding more and more creative ways to get organized and put real pressure on parliamentarians, and this trend is only going to accelerate.

Economic scarcity, scrounging for money, powerful interests pitted against one another with politicians in the middle. Painful reform, consequential legislation that steps on powerful toes. This is the stuff that real democracies are made of. Democracy was never meant to be a friction-free panacea, it was invented as a way to manage the inevitable conflicts that arise within societies.

Lebanon is ideally placed to make use of the tools of Democracy. Our army is not strong enough (like that of Egypt) to repress the poor and and discipline the rich. Our state is not rich enough (Like Saudi Arabia) to bribe the population into acquiescence. There is no central authoritative figure who can lay down the law of the land (like in many Arab countries). All we’ve got are the compromises we can forge under that flawed parliament’s roof, and that is a good if messy thing.

Granted, we still have a lot of problems, but the tension in parliament and on the streets are not one of them

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Why you Should Avoid the new App Stores by Alfa and Touch… For Now

Consumers should try to stay away from app ecosystems created by their ISPs until they learn about some important details.


Beware the trap stores..

I learned today that Alfa and Touch are launching app stores to give Lebanese users “more options” in their mobile lives. The idea is that when you want to pay for an app (or presumably for an in-app purchase), you don’t have to use a credit card. The payment is simply added to your cell phone bill at the end of the month. This is called Mobile payment or Direct Carrier Billing, and it’s a huge thing especially in the developing world.

You can see how this is appealing to potential app developers; many people in Lebanon don’t use credit cards for online payments, so carrier billing is a big opportunity to get money from just about every person who has a sim card. This means that if a Lebanese software developer writes an app to rate and review your favorite man2ouch corner store, she can theoretically charge 0.99$ for that app and hope that users won’t mind paying because they trust the payment system. Even users find this appealing because of its relative ease and security.

What can go wrong?

To understand the potential for mischief by Alfa and Touch, we have to take a step back and see the larger picture.

  • The Telecom sector in Lebanon is the government’s largest source of income and its lack of competitiveness is by design to maximize said income.
  • Telecoms are being disrupted all over the world. People are using VoIP (like Skype) and data messaging (like WhatsApp) instead of services that brought serious money to the Telcos like long distance calls and SMS
  • The government once felt so threatened by the loss of income from VoIP that it tried to ban it outright

In other words, if you understand the incentive structure behind the telecoms and the government, incentives that made cell bills in Lebanon one of the highest in the world and made internet access artificially scarce, it wouldn’t be too paranoid to be concerned about the kind of power that an app store could give your mobile internet provider. Imagine for example if users started getting bribed with cheaper 3G if they used their app stores exclusively. Or imagine if the government mandates that all online payments should be made through “trusted” stores, like say, Alfa and Touch. Maybe the local app stores become so dominant that the government feels it can get away with banning other stores, and then lo-and-behold apps like WhatsApp and Skype disappear from the official app store.

Luckily, this is a far off prospect, chiefly because of the dominance of iOS and Android and because technology advances faster than governments. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be prepared.

How local app “stores” can be done well

Let’s be reasonable. The carriers (and the government) should be able to make some money from the apps craze. It will help them survive and it will help our economy a bit. But that doesn’t mean that they should control or trap us. There’s a better way.

App stores provide three services: Curation (choosing which apps are featured), Payment channels (how you pay for apps) and Account Management (which person bought which app). The local telecom operators can provide curation by setting up websites with links to cool Lebanese apps, possibly powered by social media voting. They could also create a payment gateway, a profitable paypal alternative that is powered by direct carrier billing (through an independent cloud service that links your mobile number to a username and password).

But do they have to have an “app store” where they sell us the apps themselves? I don’t want that service from my mobile internet provider, it doesn’t make me feel comfortable and it can be a scary prospect.

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