Lebanon: Doha Deal | Sectarianism

May 26th, 2008 | Posted in Beirut, Hezbollah, Iran, Lebanon, Palestine, Independent Media, Politics
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    Broadcasts from Beirut VI: Nada Bakri reporter with the New York Times.

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    Photo: Beirut from above.

A Tadamon! interview project aiming to highlight progressive voices from the ground in Lebanon on the ongoing conflict, voices independent from major political parties…

An interview with Nada Bakri, correspondent for the New York Times in Lebanon, who comments on the recent political deal reached in Doha, Qatar resulting in an official end to the recent political crisis in Lebanon. As Lebanese leaders have agreed on a power sharing agreement, people on the streets in Beirut remain skeptical that the recent agreement will result in long term stability as it reinforces the sectarian nature of Lebanese politics.

This interview offers insights into the sectarian nature of Lebanon’s political system, as rooted in the political foundations of the country, but also as reaffirmed in the recent Doha deal. Also this commentary from the New York Times correspondent in Lebanon offers some insight into how the recent conflict in Lebanon is related to growing sectarian tensions across the Middle East, specifically in Iraq.

Stefan Christoff: Throughout recent weeks you have been closely reporting on the political crisis that Lebanon has been experiencing. Today can you first describe the mood today on the streets in Beirut, talk about what people are saying on the streets in Lebanon given that a negotiated solution has come about in Qatar.

Nada Bakri: Immediately after the agreement was announced, I quickly went to downtown Beirut and groups of people were walking in the city all visibly happy, many smiling, congratulating each other on the agreement reached in Qatar. Many families and children were also on the streets for the first time in a couple weeks. It was excellent to see people celebrating in a sense.

Soon after the agreement was announced opposition supporters began to dismantle the tent city that had been erected in downtown Beirut, so many, many people gathered to watch the tent city be dismantled as it has remained in downtown since December 2006 when it was struck during a major protest lead by the opposition.

In speaking with many people on the streets, everyone was happy that finally after so long the government and opposition have come to an agreement in Lebanon’s interests. Although many people were concerned that this agreement might not hold for a very long time especially after the clashes last week, creating a certain amount of serious animosity between Sunni and Shi’ite communities.

Many people talk about the events last week as leaving a deep social wound. Also many people spoke about a sense of humiliation stemming from last weeks events, specifically Sunni, who felt they were humiliated in Beirut by Hezbollah and their allies. Many people are skeptical that this Doha deal will heal these wounds, resulting from the recent clashes. Although today, people are generally more hopeful for a stable future in Lebanon, as compared to the mood on the street in recent months.

Stefan Christoff: Some commentators have expressed concern with the fact that Lebanese political leaders had to literally leave Lebanon to find arrive at a solution, a situation similar to the signing of the Taif Agreement in Saudi Arabia that brought an official end to the civil war. Given the fact that the resolution couldn’t be brokered inside Lebanon but that once again Lebanese political leaders had to leave the country, Lebanon had to once again rely again on outside powers. Could you offer your thoughts on this?

Nada Bakri: In a sense the Qatar agreement is very classic Lebanese political agreement. This country has always been a battlefield for foreign powers, a place that outside powers have used to fight out their political disagreements. Lebanese leaders have always had to rely on their foreign patrons to solve their internal problems, a reality that isn’t different today and was extremely clear in Doha.

This is expected given that the main political camps in the country are backed by outside forces, the government backed by Saudi Arabia and the U.S. and the opposition forces backed by Iran and Syria. Given that both sides are so strongly supported by regional and international powers with time, as this conflict dragged on, it became almost impossible for them to agree internally, inside Lebanon, without serious intervention from foreign powers.

Also we must realize that there is a tie between the Qatar agreement and the fact that Syria and Israel have confirmed that indirect peace negotiations are taking place, something confirmed this week by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Regional events have always deeply impacted the delicate situation inside Lebanon.

Similar to the Lebanese civil-war, the various factions inside Lebanon were heavily supported by external powers, all competing for influence inside Lebanon. Lebanon’s civil war was brought to an end, similar to the recent fighting, outside of Lebanon with the Taif Agreement signed in Saudi Arabia.

Stefan Christoff: In describing the mood on the streets in Beirut, you mentioned that many people are saying that the recent events have left quite a deep wound with people in Lebanon. Can you comment on how people in Lebanon are reacting to the Qatar agreement and also the violent events in Beirut in recent weeks?

Nada Bakri: Well spending time on Beirut’s streets throughout the past weeks, visiting Sunni neighborhoods in Beirut, speaking to families who lost loved ones during the recent clashes, it became clear that the recent events will not be quickly forgotten. Many Sunnis expressed again how they felt humiliated by Hezbollah and also very abandoned by their political leadership, who placed them as civilians on the front-line of the confrontation. Many people spoke about revenge, not in the immediate future but did speak about revenge.

Also many spoke about how they view the recent political deal as not healing their emotional wounds however still people spoke about moving forward from the horrible recent events. Still many people seemed skeptical that long term peace would prevail in Lebanon, as even though the current crisis has been resolved it’s often assumed that there would be future crises due to Lebanon’s political system.

Given that the political process in the country is fundamentally rooted in sectarianism, many people are critical that the recent deal has reinforced Lebanon’s sectarian political system, which will potentially lead to future political clashes.

Stefan Christoff: Concerning the sectarian nature of Lebanese politics, many discussions surrounding the Qatar negotiations focus on this point. Could you talk about the ways in which sectarianism is intimately woven into Lebanon’s political system and how sectarianism is related to numerous historical political crises in Lebanon?

Nada Bakri: Lebanon’s system is based on dividing power between religious sects. Lebanon’s long civil war spanning between 1975 and 1990 was fueled at different times by sectarianism. Today Lebanon’s Shi’ite community, who have been historically marginalized and speak about their rights being historically violated, wants to have more say in the political decision making process in the country.

The Doha agreement underlines Lebanon’s sectarian composition, especially looking at the electoral law that was passed in Doha, which ensures that Shi’ites will be represented with more representatives in Beirut, while also ensuring that Sunni’s and Christians maintain a certain amount of representatives in Beirut.

Politically everything revolves around how much power the various sects in Lebanon have, which in many ways is the reality that Lebanon has been living since it was created as based on a sectarian political formula.

Stefan Christoff: Now throughout the Middle East there are increasing in sectarian divisions throughout the region in general, Iraq is another serious case. So can you discuss sectarianism today in Lebanon within a wider regional context?

Nada Bakri: Clearly the situation in Lebanon in regards to sectarianism is influenced by the situation in Iraq. A conflict between Sunni and Shi’ite communities exists in both countries today.

In Lebanon’s recent conflict, once the opposition ministers walked out, the Shi’ite ministers, often we would witness the government playing sectarian cards. Often the government would invite Lebanon’s Sunni Mufti to come to perform Friday prayers for government figures, which was in a sense an attempt to rally Sunni’s across Lebanon behind the government.

Also government figures would often make reference to the threat of Shi’ite hegemony in Lebanon, often making reference to Iran’s influence over Lebanon as illustrating this reality. Also government figures would often make reference to Iran’s growing influence over the region, talking about the Shi’ite crescent in the Middle East.

Often the situation in Iraq was highlighted by pro-government figures, who talk about how today after the U.S. invasion the Sunni community feels powerless in Iraq. Lebanese government leaders would talk about how in Lebanon the Sunni’s must resist the Shi’ite expansion of power, using Iraq as an example, as a reference point.

Stefan Christoff: Now concerning sectarianism in Lebanon can you talk about people who are articulating a clear message against sectarianism, both people on the streets but also any political figures critiquing the sectarian divisions in the country.

Nada Bakri: In Lebanon mainly secular people are putting forward this critique, who you would expect to say this, however today they don’t have much influence. However many people are inciting sectarianism, political analysts, advisers to the government, who are always on T.V. speaking in sectarian terms. Many people are also on the streets in Beirut saying things like, the Shi’ite have always been shoe-shiners, should always remain shoe-shiners and we will overcome.

Mainstream critiques towards sectarianism aren’t that common, given that it’s so rooted in the Lebanese mentality, mainly only the leftists or secular forces critique Lebanon’s sectarianism.

Stefan Christoff: Given your role in the media can you talk about the critical importance for the media in Lebanon in the context of political life. Each main political faction maintains a media outlet broadcasting through a specific political lens. Can you comment on Lebanon’s media landscape and how it is different or unique as compared to other countries internationally?

Nada Bakri: Lebanon’s media unfortunately played a very negative role in this recent crisis.

Each political faction maintains a media outlet and attempts to propagate their ideas, beliefs and interests through the media they control. Often media outlets are used to mobilize political through inflaming feelings against other political forces or religious communities in Lebanon. Even Qatar’s Prime Minister, Hamad Bin Jassim, spoke about the media as being a reason why the political crisis in Lebanon was extremely difficult to resolve, as there are so many media outlets broadcasting competing visions for the country each with a specific constituency that becomes mobilized in opposite directions.

In other Arab countries you don’t see such a diversity of media outlets, as in many countries the media is controlled by the government and plays a role to simply broadcast the views of the government, not any political opposition in the country. However in Lebanon today there is very little media independent from the major political parties, even independent political analysts are rare.

Nada Bakri is a Lebanese journalist, with the New York Times in Lebanon.

Broadcasts from Beirut is broadcast in audio format on CKUT Radio in Montreal.

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