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.

→ Respond to this post On Twitter

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

→ Respond to this post On Twitter

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.

→ Respond to this post On Twitter

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.

→ Respond to this post On Twitter

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

→ Respond to this post On Twitter

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.

→ Respond to this post On Twitter

A Team of Rivals

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

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.

→ Respond to this post On Twitter

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.

→ Respond to this post On Twitter

The Age of the Muslim Civil War

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


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.

→ Respond to this post On Twitter

The Death of Two Mohammeds

Two Different people, one common destiny…


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.

→ Respond to this post On Twitter