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.

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

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.

A Team of Rivals

Why the formation of a new Lebanese government is a cause for celebration

lebanese-government
Photo: Dalati & Nohra

You have to give it to the cynics. They are exceedingly creative in the ways they express their derision and disgust at the formation of a new government, snorting their dismissals in creative and pithy status updates on Facebook and Twitter, where they count the many reasons why this government is the worse thing to hit humanity since the plague.

Pick your favorite gripe: The politicians are selling us out, inciting their popular bases only to eventually strike a deal behind our backs. There is only one female minister, and apparently she’s a zionist agent. The ministers are only in it for embezzling our public funds. This is a conspiracy of the rich to protect their privileges at the expense of the working class. We have waited eleven month and we ended up getting a replica of the government before it. The list goes on.

I suppose even the ministers themselves are not celebrating. Gebran Bassil is not going to enjoy his chit-chats with Ashraf Rifi, a famous FPM Bête Noire. Sejaan el Azzi is definitively not going to make a habit of inviting Hussein al-Hajj Hassan for drinks and arguilehs in his ministerial office. Each half of this government believes that the other half is literally trying to kill it. These guys are holding their noses to work together.

Raise your glasses

I for one, am going to celebrate. Not because I think our ministers are good men who came together in a moment of national salvation to guide the country to safety. Not because I have high hopes and expectations of what they are going to achieve. Not because I particularly enjoy Tammam Salam’s smile and charisma or because I miss Nabih Berri’s gavel. I am happy because holy-shit Lebanon still has the ability to form governments!

To understand how important that achievement is, take a step back and try to give Lebanon a bird eye’s view: This is a country that has only two neighbors: One is an enemy and the other is in open civil war, a war that brought us a million refugees, killed our tourism, blocked our export routes to arab countries and exacerbated the violence between our national factions. This is a country where nothing works: lights don’t turn on, sewers don’t drain, cars blow up and water is facing a catastrophic shortage. Our country is the very definition of a sinking ship. Commentators are wondering whether Lebanon is still a viable country, analysts are speculating about new borders and rating agencies are wondering about our solvency. Everyone was asking: Can lebanon still form a government or will it forever languish in a headless limbo? Today we got our answer.

The important realization here is that our political parties did not form this government because they’re greedy. They formed it because they really are panicking. Even thieves don’t want their country to fall apart. They’d have nothing left to loot. It is tempting to judge things through the lenses of politics, cult of personality and ideology. But in the end, the regular man and woman on the street will always prefer a government over no government. At least now they’ll have someone to blame.

Digitize Those Books

It is a crime against culture, against heritage and against the future to keep rare books away from scanners.

sa2eh-library-nath-hThe Al-Sa2eh Library after being restored (Photo by Nath Halawani)

It was a heart warming sight: Tripoli’s civil society rushing to take part in salvaging and restoring what remained of the historic Al-Sa2eh library. It was also encouraging to see the politicians promising to restore it to its former self. But after the dust settles on the immediate need to undo the fire, we need to have another conversation about books and  their value to the Lebanese.

Future Proofing

I’m not very familiar with the business model of Al-Sa2eh Library or about whether Father Srouj had a business model at all (as opposed to doing a public service). But what I do know is that if that library, and for that matter any library in Lebanon, contains truly rare books, books that offer value to society and that only exist in a form that is vulnerable to fire, water, sabotage and rotting, it would be a great disservice to future generations not to have digital copies of those books that are widely distributed, redundant, searchable, sortable and publicly accessible. Look at Norway, it has recently digitized all of its books and made them free to read online.

There was a subtle underlying emotion in the Al-Sa2eh library affair that I personally find unsettling but that is still relatively widespread in Lebanon: An almost fetish-like fixation on the physicality of books: Their smell, their texture and their visual brilliance. That is fine in the same way that it’s fine to use books as decorative items in your home, but the true value of books is in the knowledge (and entertainment) that these books provide, regardless of what technology was used to convey it (ink on dead trees or bits and pixels).

It’s Easier Than you Think

As we have seen, Tripoli has no shortage of civil society volunteers. It also has no shortage of philanthropist politicians who want to be seen as sponsors of culture. Also, Lebanon has no shortage of Ministers who want to appear cool by supporting such initiatives (Cough! –Sehnaoui– Cough!). It can be done guys, it only needs a small push. Granted it’s not as sexy as a watching a bunch of people restoring an old library hand-in-hand, but it will be much more useful for future generations.

The Age of the Muslim Civil War

The Shiaa-Sunni war is only a small part of a larger dynamic

muslim-civil-war

When analysts and observers talk about what’s going on in the region, they like to refer to a large narrative that is shaping war and peace in our neighborhood. The ‘big’ story today is that there is a cold war between Saudi Arabia (Sunnis) on one side, and Iran (Shias) on the other. Since this is a proxy war the fighting takes place in “stages” like Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain. This, consequently is creating the post-Arab-Spring mayhem that we see everyday in the news.

True but Incomplete

A grand narrative has its benefits. It generally simplifies a complex issue and strips away the superfluous details, making it easy for readers to wrap their heads around otherwise difficult-to-understand situations in far away places. But it can also be dangerous, especially when people start seeing all the conflicts from that prism, causing them to ignore other dynamics that are equally consequential.

I was thinking about this today when I learned that an old Library run by a Christian man was burned down in Tripoli, Lebanon (my city). When that happened, two dynamics immediately took shape on Facebook and Twitter: “Moderate Sunnis” from Tripoli started to forcefully denounce this cowardly act against books and our “Christian Brothers” and planning a demonstration in support of Father Srouj. The other dynamic is that those same “Moderate Sunnis” were being accused by the other Lebanese camp (the supporters of Hezbollah), of getting in bed with and turning a blind eye to the kind of people (extremist Sunnis) who harass Christians and burn down their libraries.

This is when it hit me: Hezbollah’s allies were seeing this through the Shiaa-Vs-Sunni prism, but what happened in Tripoli, a city with a large majority of Sunni Muslims, has nothing to do with the Sunni-Shiaa war. It was a classic case of what I call “Egypt-Syndrome”, where Sunni Moderates (Liberals in Egypt-speak) are confronting Muslim extremists over the maltreatment of Christian compatriots. (In fact General Ashraf Rifi’s pronouncements against the “terrorists” who burned the library is awfully reminiscent of the posture of Egypt’s General Sisi). The Sunni-Sunni conflict is in turn a part of a larger trend in the region, from Turkey to Morocco, where Sunnis are fighting Sunnis over how exactly a modern society should conform to a strict interpretation of the Koran in managing its affairs.

The chart I put together (above), while not comprehensive, attempts to show the geographical breadth of the Muslim-Muslim conflict in all parts of the MENA region. The reason why these conflicts started doesn’t matter (take your pick: Arab Spring removing oppressors and giving a space for conflicts to rise, Zionist Meddling, Western Imperialism, whatever suits your fancy). But what is indisputable is that we have entered the age of the Muslim Civil war.

The Death of Two Mohammeds

Two Different people, one common destiny…

two-mohameds

One, the one who was targeted, was a middle-aged economist. A former minister and World Bank official. His thinning hair almost reached his shoulders, but when he wore a suit, he tamed it with a healthy amount of hair gel and framed it with stylish binoculars. People close to him described him as brilliant, approachable, cool and open-minded. And he certainly looked the role.

The other, the bystander, was a young teenager. He had the too-cool-for-school look, with his red hoodie, his acne-covering stubble and his street cred selfies with the other boys. His biggest worry at that moment was probably which instagram filter he was going to use, or whether his secret crush in school would dig the careless way in which he was staring at the camera.

The bomb, in typically crude bluntness, didn’t care about how different these people were. It killed them both with equal viciousness and left them both bleeding and lifeless on the formerly-glitzy streets of this part of the capital. They were both named Mohammed, and perhaps a bit of tortured symbolism can be extracted from that. You know, like for example how silly the notion is that the Middle East is in turmoil because Muslims are savage terrorists who can’t live in modern times.

There are many ways in which yesterday’s incident can be analyzed, explained and contextualized. Politics, power struggles and regional wars can certainly account for the big picture. But I worry that we are becoming a bit too desensitized, that we are quickly forgetting about individuals like Mohammad Chaar and Mohammad Chatah whose lives, in all their eventfulness, richness and splendor, get trampled over so casually by this monstrous insanity.

Temporary Reduction of Hezbollah Enrichment

hezbollah-funeral

Somewhere deep in the bowels of Dahieh, a Hezbollah communications task force is working hard to solve a prickly problem: Where should the party of God officially place blame for the assassination of Hassane Laqees, a man whose profile in the party is so high that the news of his death took the first spot on the BBC’s international news website?

For starters, Hezbollah must point a finger. It doesn’t do the whole ‘we will wait for our official investigations to end before blaming anyone’ line. Theirs is traditionally a choice between a whipping boy and complete silence. But today their options look particularly bad; the death of Hassane Laqees has already done irreversible harm to the party.

The Usual suspects

Blaming Israel or Saudi Arabia, a few weeks after the dual explosions in Dahieh that targeted the Iranian embassy and killed scores of innocent people, would be a morale-sapping admission of failure by the party which until recently derived a good deal of its power from its reputation of infallibility and its ability to protect its own. Two hits in a row awkwardly change the conversation from “bad luck” to “dangerous incompetence.”

Another snag is defining the nature of the enemy. Are we talking about crazy bearded Sunni ideologues who blow up themselves indiscriminately, whose very irrationality is cause for rallying the Shiaas around Hezbollah? Or are we talking about a precise, professional opponent who can carry out sophisticated assassinations of senior operatives in their strongholds?

The Not-So-Usual suspect

What we won’t be hearing for sure however is the possibility that Hassane Laqees’s head was a token of goodwill from the Iranians to the Americans as part of their latest deal. The secret talks are still ongoing after all. Killing such a high official in Hezbollah’s military arm could have been the Hezbollah equivalent of reducing Uranium enrichment to 5%.

Through this assassinations the Iranians would have dangled to the Americans the tantalizing prospect of Sayyed Nasrallah’s head as part of a future final deal, giving even more strength to the Iranian negotiating hand and giving more reasons for the Americans to concede regional influence and respect to the Persian behemoth..

The spinners have their work cut out for them..

Pride of Country

One of the little things that makes Lebanon hard to love

independence-day

All this morning I was haunted by this photo. On the face of it, this is a normal Lebanese school girl, happily waving her flag on Independence Day. She’s probably proud that she memorized the entire national anthem, the fruit of a mild process of indoctrination that all kids go through in Lebanon as they grow up in this country.

She probably sings happily: “سهلنا والجبل، منبت للرجال” (Our mountains and fields, birthplace of men), blissfully unaware of how literally that phrase is implemented in the land of men and Cedars. This girl, who lived and will grow up in Lebanon, whose first language is Lebanese, possibly with a regional accent, who takes a 3arous labneh to school, who plays with Lebanese kids and eats lebanese treats and sings Lebanese jingles. This girl will never get a Lebanese nationality and is a foreigner in her own country because only her mother is Lebanese. When she’s 18, she will need a visa –to be renewed every year– to live where she had lived her entire live. In theory, she could even be deported.

This gross unfairness becomes almost comical if you look at the Lebanese landscape today, with Syrian refugees making almost the quarter of the entire population. It’s almost funny to remember that the stated reason for this misogynistic law is to preserve Lebanon’s “fragile demographic balance”, where for some reason women who marry foreign men put more water in the Lebanese wine than men who marry foreign women.

This photo is also an allegory for love of country. If that girl knew what was waiting for her, she would have thrown that flag in the faces of her teachers and spat on their shoes. Instead, her mom wanted her to hold that flag and to sing the national anthem, a perfect symbol for hope in a country that is maddeningly difficult to love.

Happy National Day to you all..

Update: Imagine if that girl grows up and writes an article about her issue? Turns out you don’t have to imagine; Lama Miri wrote exactly such an article

What Politicians Can and Can't Do About Tripoli

Politicians can’t do anything to change the situation in Tripoli, but that’s not why the people are complaining.

tripolilb_haytham_kabbara
–Tripoli at Night, photo by Haytham Kabbara

Every time someone complains on Facebook or on Twitter that Lebanese Politicians are doing nothing for Tripoli, I feel a mixture of emotions. On one hand, I find it absurd that people are asking politicians to fix a situation they are completely powerless to fix. Saying politicians should do something about the war in Tripoli is as absurd as saying that politicians should do something about the war in Syria. The situation is too complex to be “fixed”; all politicians can do at the moment is to back one horse or the other, warlords on the streets answer to higher forces than some powerless man in a suit.

Even the Army is powerless; as I’ve argued before, the army would lose a lot if it deployed an “Iron Fist” policy:

Both sides in the conflict in Tripoli are complaining that the army is too lenient on the other side, but imagine how worse it would be if the army is seen as siding with one side at the expense of the other. It would then face two dangers: A collapse of moral authority and dissent within the army

Another part of me however believes that the complainers are right. Despite the above, the politicians are not excused in their inaction. They are not doing the right thing by completely staying out of this (or worse, charming us with pointless platitudes in pointless public statements). There is one big step they could take that can make the situation a bit better for the city’s dwellers.

Why the people are angry and the one thing politicians can do about it

At the risk of sounding like psycho-babble, the real anger in Tripoli is not because the politicians aren’t doing anything to solve the situation, it’s because they don’t really understand what’s going on. The average Trabelsy is angry because he feels that the politicians aren’t really understanding how bad things are. The most poignant critique I have seen again and again is that Tripoli is not treated as if it were a part of Lebanon.

The one thing politicians can do to show that they really care is to make a grand gesture and move to Tripoli. Baabda, Ain el Tineh and the Seraille are quite far from the action. As I’ve experienced personally, it’s one thing to read on the news about bombs and shootings and missiles, and it’s quite another to actually live the action, stay awake at night and worry that the next missile may find its way into your child’s window.

Mr. President, Mr. (acting) Prime Minister, Mr. Speaker, Mr. politician who likes to make hollow statements on TV. Move to Tripoli, listen with your own ear to what’s going on. See what it really feels to be there. After that, we’ll start believing in whatever actions you decide to take regarding the situation.