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.

–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.

In Praise of Security Theater

Most security measures taken in Lebanese public places don’t actually work, but they’re important nonetheless.

Spinneys Tripoli stopped allowing cars from parking right in front of it in the wake of the two explosions

A fearless Lebanese journalist finally conducted an experiment I’ve been long speculating about: What if someone tried to drive a car that is full of explosives past security measures the government and large companies are implementing? Those antenna things were long discredited, and surely those little changes here and there can’t change much in the lethality of a potential attack by terrorists bent on causing mayhem. Sure enough, Radwan Mortada’s report was damning: Many of the measures taken don’t work in the least in detecting explosives, and the security experts who implemented them probably know that. Why are they still around? Why is this scam lasting so long?

Security Theater

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, Security expert Bruce Schneier’s has coined the term security theater to describe measures that are taken by authorities to give the people a false sense of security. Some measures (like increasing clear buffer areas in Spinneys) actually work, but most of what is being done today by  malls and government agencies in Lebanon is security theatre. But is that really a bad thing? Our immediate reaction once we learn about the ineffectiveness of security measures is to cry foul and play the blaming game. But if we set our emotions aside and consider the facts, we will understand why the perception of security is almost as important as security itself.

First, two central and important facts:

  • Despite how scary they are and how much people are talking about them, the odds of you dying of terrorist attacks are very, very low. You are much more likely to be killed in a car accident than in an explosion at your local mall.
  • There is no security system that is air-tight. There are no measures that can 100% stop a determined man from killing a large amount of people

Once you really understand the facts above, and understand populations’ tendency for unconstructive panic, you’ll understand why security theater is important for people to be able to live normal lives. People who believe that security is being taken care of –even if it’s an illusion– will behave more rationally and more in line with their actual odds of being hurt by terrorist attacks. Even Scheiner himself, the man who invented the term “security theater”, came around to seeing its value: “delivering the perception of improved security may be a practical job requirement [for security professionals]” he admitted.

Wherever you look in Lebanon, you see security theater. Sometimes you don’t even recognize that it’s security theatre. The day after the explosions in Tripoli, many army tanks roamed the streets of the capital of the north and made a thundering background noise heard all across the place. The tanks were not meant to increase security (how can rolling tanks discover booby-trapped cars?), but they  achieved their objective perfectly: They soothed the frayed nerves of scared and wary citizens.

Celebrating "Greater Lebanon"

Why “Greater Lebanon” would be a much better national holiday than “Independence Day”

Lebanese flag hoisted near the site of one of Tripoli's explosions

Lebanese flag hoisted near the site of one of Tripoli’s explosions

Yesterday, MP Bahia al Hariri made what many saw as a remarkable gesture: She “gave back” her salary as an MP for the last years to the people. We had a little twitter chat about this, I think it’s admirable and arguably the right thing to do, but it has all the grace of a rich co-worker standing in the middle of an office and declaring that she will give back her salary to the company and work for free, to the silent resentment of her less well-off colleagues who actually need their salaries.

But I digress. It is the backdrop of Ms. Hariri’s munificence, the “ceremony on the anniversary of the establishment of Greater Lebanon in 1920″, which really caught my attention. Forget for a moment how much of a mouthful it sounds; with some work, this could serve as a great alternative to Independence day as Lebanon’s main national holiday.

I have written before on why the concept of “independence” is silly in this day and age, but I also argued that the Lebanese still need a day to celebrate their country and raise their flag. The more I think about this “Greater Lebanon” day, the more appropriate I find it to be Lebanon’s big national holiday.

A better national Holiday

Conceptually, the establishment of Greater Lebanon, a moment in history where the Lebanese came together to build a country that is larger than their sects and tribes, is more worthy of celebration than Independence day, which can be thought of as an act of temporarily combining our forces to reject a “foreign” occupier, only to get back at each other’s throats once they’re gone.

“Greater Lebanon” can be seen as a process that requires constant improvement, constant striving and hard work to reach a more perfect union, as the Americans would say. “Independence” was something that happened some time ago that we either take for granted or dispute. It is about a state of affair that stopped existing, a negative, as opposed to a situation we need to celebrate, build on and improve each year, an aspirational positive.

Greater Lebanon is even a more practical holiday, which in its own way is symbolic. The Greater Lebanon declaration happened in the Summer, as opposed to the often stormy days when we celebrate Independence day. Summer is the season where most Lebanese come back from the diaspora to visit their motherland. Celebrating a national holiday in the summer assures that many Lebanese who live abroad (a majority of the Lebanese) can celebrate inside their country.

Summer is also the season when most Lebanese get married, which is fitting if we think of Greater Lebanon as a marriage of our country’s many parts.

An Ode to Curtains

If I were to pick a hero following the horrendous events of Tripoli on Friday, events that touched me and my family personally, I would without doubt choose the item responsible for the most lives saved on that fateful day: The humble curtain.

Curtains saved my own life; The explosion was strong enough to violently break windows and send large, frightening glass shrapnels hurtling toward certain kills if it weren’t for that most mundane of household objects, when curtains magically transformed into safety nets and stopped those hideous sharp edges from reaching eyes, necks and other body parts. Here’s where I was sitting:

That story was repeated again and again. Curtains protected my wife who was breastfeeding my 5-day old baby near the window. They saved my 4-year-old son who was looking on with wonder as his mother fed his little sister. They protected my inlaws, my friends, our neighborhood barber, our local grocer and most of my neighbors who now owe their lives to pieces of cloth that, much like the victims of the explosions, became unwilling martyrs of that madness that is sweeping Lebanon.

I mourn the many lives lost on that day, but they would have been much more numerous if it weren’t for curtains. If I was asked about the single most important advice to give people who are fearing explosions, my answer would be straightforward: If you don’t have curtains in your home, install some immediately and try to keep them down as much as possible. Hopefully you will never need them, but if you do, your loved ones will thank you.

Facebook as a Country

Why a CEO president is not the solution

I was reading with interest Liliane’s blog post where she imagines a utopia in which Lebanon was being run by a CEO. Liliane, who works in a multinational corporation, wrote: “If such a multi-national company serving more than 1 billion monthly active users can operate successfully [..] then there is hope for a country with 4 million to do the same”

She elaborates:

If I want to see my Lebanon function properly, we need a good CEO whose sole purpose is to see this country grow, its people work together for a better Lebanon [..] We need a good CEO who hires ministers that are competent and qualified, who in turn hire competent and qualified people for their ministries

The CEO president is a common dream for many. On the surface it sounds like a an enlightened aspiration, but on closer inspection, the CEO president is not very different from the “benevolent dictator” or “ruthless military ruler” fantasies. These are all utopias where a leader not only knows what the best interest of a country is, but is absolutely empowered and uninterrupted in his execution of his vision (for some reason, he’s always a “he”).

The dream of heroic figureheads, whether visionary (Dubai-style benevolent dictator), powerful (General Sisi of Egypt) or data-driven (Zukerberg), promises to bring lebanon things it sorely needs: Discipline, common purpose and efficiency. These heroes look down on politics as “messy” and “chaotic” nuisances. They also have no patience for the toll politics extract on efficiency and achieving goals. This appeals to many people who just want to get on with life, but it is misguided.

Countries are not one-man-shows

The problem with a CEO president is the same as with other benevolent dictators: Countries are messy things with messy forces at play. They have no clear objectives like companies (grow and make profits) and they are not rigid hierarchal structures like armies. They are living, growing things with contradictory forces that simply cannot be whipped into shape without huge losses to personal liberties and diversity. Politics are messy because people’s relationships with each other are messy.

The best thing political leadership can achieve is to nudge and coax people into working together for a prosperous future that can be accepted by a majority of the population. Sometimes the process is ugly and involves compromises that many will find tasteless. But this is the price we pay for dynamic societies and liberty. A benevolent dictator can quickly lose patience with human rights activists or other “irritations” that distract from achieving whatever goal the dear leader deems crucial.

If Facebook was a country

Mark Zukerberg woke up with a headache this morning. The Data Liberty Resistance (DLR) faction in Facebook, which represents about 35% of the employees and is seen as sympathetic to Google, is threatening to shut down Facebook’s servers if its demands of replacing PHP with Python as the main programming language in Facebook are not met. The DLR had found a strategic ally in the General movement for Facebook Change (GMFC), representing almost 15% of Facebook’s employees and led by a megalomaniac who wants to replace Zukerberg as CEO. Employees whisper that Yahoo! is secretly funding the GMFC insurgency.

Zukerberg would have done something about it, but his allies at the Future of Facebook Fraternity (FFF), representing almost 35% of the employees, are encouraged by their sponsors at Microsoft to compromise with the DLR. They are proposing the .Net framework as a “no victor, no vanquished” solution that would make everyone better off. The GMFC meanwhile is smelling a rat and are threatenning to turn off the electricity on the Facebook servers if the DLR and the FFF worked out a deal behind its back.

Zukerberg will have to find a compromise and convince all the factions that if the servers are shut the future of Facebook will be in danger. If only, he thought wistfully, there was such a thing as a CEO President.

Update: Thank you to Beirut Spring readers Karim and Oussama for sharing these relevant articles with us:

Personal Note: In case you’re wondering where I have been, I am busy welcoming a new member of my family: A healthy baby girl that is one lovely bundle of joy…

Weekend Post: Following on Twitter

There is only one good reason to follow someone on Twitter.

Decisions decisions

When I first joined Twitter, I started following everything and everyone who sounded vaguely Lebanese. I also followed back everyone who followed me, as a form of courtesy and protocole. It was at a time when this blog was about gathering little nuggets of Lebanese news here and there, and I figured at the time that twitter was a great source of offbeat news.

Years have passed and my thinking about twitter has developed, and I think I finally worked out a philosophy for how to use twitter effectively and efficiently. I will share it here even though I know many will find it controversial.

Who you should not follow on Twitter

  • You should not follow people because they are famous. Some celebrities post mind-numbingly boring and useless stuff. I know one celebrity who posts nothing but “good morning” and “good night” posts. Some just don’t know how to use twitter and their account are just placeholder accounts.
  • You should not follow friends or family just because you know them. Some people I really like post the most useless stuff (horoscopes, 4Square check-ins, Paper.li news). We have Facebook for friends, keep Twitter for people who post stuff that are interesting to you.
  • Don’t follow someone just because they follow you back. This is tricky and can risk sounding arrogant. But twitter is not about people, it’s about what they post. Some people who follow me post  about topics that I don’t care about at all: Football, horoscopes (can you guess my pet peeve?) or cars. Listen, if I follow you and you’re not interested in what I post (Lebanon,  politics, coding and coffee), I won’t take it personally if you don’t follow me back, honestly.
  • Don’t follow news accounts or people who post all the latest news in any topic. This is useless pollution to your timeline; if a news item is interesting enough, someone will end up retweeting it and you’ll see it.
  • Avoid hashtag polluters. If I see a tweet with two words and 12 hashtags, I immediately unfollow the person. Hashtags are useful, but they can be abused.
  • Don’t follow someone because they’re writing about a topic that is hot at the moment: Egypt is big right now but I won’t go about following every egyptian I find on twitter. A better way is to create an Egypt twitter list and put all these tweeps in it (you don’t have to follow someone to put them in a list).
  • Don’t follow someone just because they’re attractive. But that doesn’t mean that you should have a prejudice against good looking people. Some of the most intelligent tweeps I follow are also quite fetching.

The one reason you should follow someone on Twitter

If you read the section above carefully, you should have been able to tease out the answer . The only criteria for following someone on twitter is that, more often than not, they post things that are interesting to you. That’s it. It’s not about friendship or niceties, it’s about what people post.

When you want to decide if someone is worth following, go to their profile page and read their last 10 tweets (ignore conversations because they often don’t show up on your timeline), are these interesting to you? Do they post interesting links about topics you care about? Do they have a unique perspective on an issue? Are they funny? Do they write like real people (as opposed to robots)? Are their tweets unique to them?

Be discerning. You can’t possibly enjoy following thousands and thousands of accounts. There’s nothing wrong with following a few hundred of the best accounts. And by best I don’t mean the most famous or the ones with the most followers, but the ones you enjoy reading most. Unfollow liberally and without guilt; unfollowing someone is not the same as unfriending them. If they are upset point them to this post.

I understand that not everyone uses twitter the same. Some use it just to make friends and chat, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you want to benefit from what the platform excels at,  you may find my advice useful. Oh, and if you do think that what I say is interesting, do follow me on twitter.

Apology as a political tool

Sooner or later, Lebanese politicians will learn the lesson politicians everywhere have learned: That sometimes a public apology is the least bad option.

Nadim Gemayel

Nadim Gemayel, Lebanon’s young and soft-spoken MP (ex-MP some say), is by no means the only politician in Lebanon surrounded by heavy handed security brutes who take a bit too much pleasure in throwing their weight around to “protect” their employers. In fact one can make a case that it is impossible in Lebanon to find security personel that are at once tough, loyal and well behaved. One can also argue that with the high-risk nature of the job in a country with so many political assassinations, personal security is not exactly the domain of the thoughtful and the sensitive.

But sheikh Nadim and his security entourage found themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time, provoking and antagonising a civil movement that has a strong online presence and a wide reach among Lebanon’s civil society. He then proceeded to gauchely spin what happened in order to portray himself as a victim, only to be smacked with online video footage that exposes his lies. Bloggers and political opponents pounced immediately.

You can’t always shape the message

Nassawyia, a feminist collective, is hardly the only group that was bullied by the security personel of a politician, but so far, they have proven to be the loudest and most harmful to his public image. But Mr. Gemayel refused to do the one sensible thing that would have taken the wind out of that entire PR snowball: To apologize and to throw his security team under the bus.

There is a cultural aspect in our region where an apology is perceived as a form of weakness, but politicians and business leaders in all democratic nations have learned to apologize, not because they’re nice people –far from it– but because it is in their own self interests. The problem with letting a situation like this fester is that things can quickly get out of control. What began as a small altercation between his guards and a group of activists suddenly turned into an uncontrollable mess that touched his own reputation and allowed free riders to pile on with their own political biases about his family and political history. This stopped being about the obnoxious security personel and became about how Gemayel is a “rotten liar” and a “fascist”. To make this uglier, some hacks decided to defend Mr. Gemayel by demonising Nassawyia through chauvinistic and comically foolish arguments that are completely unrelated to his guards’ misdemeanour.

Do Mr. Gemayel’s defenders make valid points? Perhaps. Maybe Nassawiya wouldn’t have dared attacked Hezbollah MPs in the same way. Maybe Mr. Gemayel was scapegoated for the sins of others. Maybe the country does indeed have more serious issues to think about. But Gemayel could have nipped this whole thing in the bud if he immediately showed some contrition and at least promised to investigate the matter. He would have scored some brownie points with voters, and if he were a skilled and experienced politician, he would have co-opted the feminist cause and made it his own and turned this crisis into an opportunity. Even his enemies would then find themselves at a loss at how to attack him.

Hopefully, Lebanese politicians will start learning that in the age of Youtube, a sincere apology can sometimes be their best weapon.

For Lebanese Sunnis, Support for the Army but no Hero Worship

Public expressions of support and a pragmatic acceptance of the important role the army plays, but suspicion lingers.

– Some see flawed heroes –

To witness the public expressions of support for the army on Lebanese TV, billboards and blogs, you’d be excused to believe that everybody is taking part of the collective festival of idolatry sweeping the country and that only terrorists and cold-hearted fanatics disagree with the sentiment. But there is one group that supports the army without being terribly excited about over-the-top expressions of unconditional support.

Some explaining to do

The general attitudes of average Sunnis is that the army has every right to respond forcefully to criminals and soldier-slayers like Ahmad al Assir, and that every dead soldier is a terrible loss for Lebanon. But there is a very real and disconcerting sense that the army is only expressing its lethal force on Sunni militias and criminals, while turning a blind eye to Shiaa criminals and coordinating with their militias.

Where are the plain-faced killers of Hashem Salman? Where is the man accused of planning to kill Butros Harb? Where are the four people indicted by the international Tribunal for killing Hariri? What with Nasrallah’s blatant confession of fighting in Syria? All questions that are constantly being asked by Sunnis, with dark mutterings of army complicity. Facebook and twitter are drowned in photos and footage of the Lebanese army sitting idly as Hezbollah gunmen with yellow armed bands handle “security”.

To put it plainly, the support of the Sunni community for the army is guarded and conditional. Guarded because they understand that the army, despite their suspicions, is the only institution left that has a semblance of state control and unity, and conditional because they are waiting to see what the Army is planning to do with Hezbollah’s armed security zones in Sunni areas.

The pragmatic and right thing to do is to support the Lebanese army. All the heavyweight Sunni politicians have been driving home that message relentlessly (to the extent you wonder why they feel compelled to repeat it again and again). For now, most of the population understand this and are very aware of its importance.

But they will pass on the hero worship.

"Yes But"

The attitude of Sunnis to Ahmed el Assir is infuriating the rest of the Lebanese

Back in the early 2000s after the September 11 attacks in the US and other terrorist bombings in places like London, western commentators were writing about a strange phenomenon among Muslims: Many of them, even the moderate ones, refuse to absolutely and unequivocally denounce bin Laden, and if they do, they always rush to point that bin Laden’s actions took place because of x, y and z (usually America’s policy of protecting Israel and propping up Arab dictators).

That attitude drove the observers mad because it didn’t make sense that otherwise sensible and decent people can’t get themselves to denounce, clearly and with absolutely no qualifications, actions that result in the deaths of hundreds of innocent people.

From the Muslim point of view, there was a sense that yes, Bin laden was a mad man, but America brought this onto itself and its policies were the reason he existed. Asking normal Muslims to disown him, they thought, as if they were somehow responsible for his actions, adds insult to injury.


In Lebanon today, we are facing a similar dynamic with Ahmad el Assir, whose actions (killing 10s of Lebanese soldiers and turning Saida into a warzone) are unforgivable.

There is a sense in non-Sunni Lebanon that the Sunnis secretly support Ahmad el Assir. There is a general impression that even if the Sunnis don’t support him, they somehow approve of the situation he created because it allows them to blame Hezbollah for it. Moderate Sunni politicians don’t seem quite 100% forceful in their denouncements of Al-Assir, and Sunnis on facebook are not as zealous as others in posting photos of the dead soldiers. Besides, why is it that roads get cut off “in support of Assir” in Sunni areas? Why aren’t the moderates preventing them? The silence of moderate Sunnis is deafening to the others.

From the Sunni point of view, the moderates resent having to answer for the actions of one fanatic, and somehow seem to understand the environment in which Assir (and others) got radicalized. Hariri supporters hate Al-Assir as much as the next Lebanese, but they are telling everyone who would listen that Hezbollah, by ejecting the moderate Sunni leader (Hariri), brought Al-Assir and his ilk to themselves.

Meanwhile, the non-”moderates”, the militant Sunnis who really believe that there is a Sunni-vs-Shiaa war going on, see a blatant double standards in how the Army deals with non-state-weapons: Why do they (the soldiers) turn a blind eye to Hezbollah’s weapons and only attack the Sunni guys?

In short, there’s a complicated mix of emotions and thoughts going on in Sunni Lebanese minds. They feel bad for the fallen soldiers, but they resent those who are focusing on the dead soldiers to demonize their sect while forgetting the “real” reason the soldiers died, ie non-state (hezbollah) weapons.

This is why they are silent.

Not a Revolution

Lebanon’s tomato movement is a refreshing expression of revulsion, but it is not about to turn into a popular revolution.

Photo by Habib Battah
There is no denying the righteousness of their cause. An ineffectual parliament extending its own mandate is a telling symbol of everything that is wrong with our Lebanese state and its institutions. Law enforcement whose members hit demonstrators while casually standing by as militias brandish machine guns and roam about freely is another.

This is why the sight of ordinary citizens expressing their distate so publicly and forcefully should bring to us nothing but admiration. It is no wonder that many people are joining their ranks, as this is a truly noble cause.

But a popular revolution, one that will change the system, it is not.

It is becoming a recurring theme in this blog, but every time I read these wild expectations online about how “the system” is going to be overthrown because thousands of activists decided to express anger on the streets, I get amused until I find out that they’re serious in their hopes.

A slap on the wrist

The scope of this movement should be clear: Get the MPs to repeal their decision to extend their mandate. Try to convince the MPs who are in theory against the extension to back their words with action (resignation). If you do that, your movement would be judged a success by the population at large. If you started a public debate about the role of MPs and their accountability to citizens, it will also be judged a success.

But please don’t be naive and believe that this is a popular revolution for changing the system in Lebanon. Don’t be so intoxicated by the crowds that you forget the tens of thousands who decided that watching Arab Idol was a better use of their time than hunkering down with you in Riad el Solh. Because if you do, like many before you, you will be disappointed.

True revolutions, the kind that make significant changes in power equations, look nothing like what activists do in Lebanon online and on its streets. Men, women and the elderly from all walks of life join in. The action takes place in all cities, towns and hamlets. Traders close their shops and join in, children and teachers leave school and join in. They are sweeping in a way only those who have been through one can know. This is what happened in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. This is what could happen (but still doubtful) in Brazil. But the closest we got to that in Lebanon was March 14, 2005 (and that only achieved the withdrawal of the Syrian army).

Changing the system

The purpose of this post (and the ones before it) is not to discourage action or drive young revolutionaries to despair, but to invite them to channel this dynamism into long term thinking, focus and sustainable action. There is nothing wrong with forming political parties, developing political messages, recruiting members and having long-term plans about governing the country. In fact it’s easier and cheaper than ever before with social media and the internet.

Magical thinking about revolutions that will somehow make everything better is just pie in the sky in countries where people usually vote to choose their representatives.