Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Democracy for slaves

Everytime I watch or read some news about demonstrations in Lebanon, I am astonished at the number of people that the Lebanese political leaders manage to pull out on the streets, and by how they swear by those numbers as a testimony to their popularity. "Democracy" they say. Demonstration here, mass movement there... it's democracy talking, the will of the people. And I am even more astonished at the fact that some people do indulge in the belief that this is democracy... French style "manifestation". Democracy here, democracy there... democracy everywhere! Good!

But has it occurred to anyone taking place in these "manifestations" that manifesting something means showing a will? And that a demonstration or a "manifestation", in order to be truly democratic, has to come from the self-conscious will of the people to express or to act, without being told to?

In Lebanon, this process is actually... reversed! It is the will of one person, a leader, which is expressed by the people, who are told to demonstrate that they support the will of this person. It is the will of a person, a leader, which is dictated on the people, making them believe that it is theirs. In fact, the people are only using their freedom of expression in order to support this leader's will, not their own's . By a tweak of words, they are made believe that they are expressing themselves freely using "democratic means" like demonstrating. But what is a democratic mean? Is a demonstration democracy?

In ancient Greece, Rome and other societies, the slaves, who were not masters of their destinies, had the right to speak their minds but could not impose their wills on their masters, who were their leaders. They had freedom of speech and of thought, but were not free to control their destinies. They could tell their leaders that they were not happy, or that they did not want to be slaves (their masters knew it, anyway), but they could not change the set of rules by which they lived, to their advantage, or according to their own beliefs. Slaves they were, although free to express themselves, even to write their thoughts, or to claim their rights in front of courts!

Self-expression, or the freedom of it, is not democracy. It is a right, given or not, but it is not democracy. And he who thinks that speaking his mind and shouting it in the street is free, while unable to make his leaders follow suit, or even to change his leaders if they don't follow suit, providing the majority of the people share his views about his life and destiny, is not free. He is a slave.

And it seems to me that in Lebanon, as long as the people are unable to face the leaders and make them go if they are not pleased with their performances, they will remain the slaves that they are. And this also applies to other Middle-Eastern countries where "democracy" is a la mode.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Beirut basics - part IV : Spirit

However brutal, noisy, dirty or ugly it can sometimes be, Beirut remains the city where life, not shells, explodes against the backstage of the clearest sky ever, where East meets West in spirit, architecture, literature, people and vision. It is a city of old and new, constantly challenged, constantly moving, never the same and yet unchanged.

It is a place where Muslims wish merry Christmas, and Christians invite Muslims to Ramadan fast-breaking feasts without having to engage in polite conversations about religion. It is a place where church bells ring unabated while the muezzin chants to the glory of God. In Beirut, being Muslim or Christian, or both, is normal, no questions asked, no explanations to give or classes to take in order to understand the other.

Beirut is a place where a synagogue still stands after 20 years of war, damaged like all other Beirut buildings, but still there because no one destroyed it although they could have. It is a place where people meet to discuss diverging godly and earthly matters without having to justify where they came from, because they were simply born here.

It is a place where people work hard, as can be seen from the extraordinary dynamism of the city. It is a place where ambition can drive you high, or drive you out.

Beirut is no different than Lebanon, with diverse shapes, colors, places, communities, religions, ideas and people. But what makes it special is that it is a concentrate of Lebanon, making it a very special and unique place in the country, and indeed in the whole region close and far. No such other place exists in the Middle-East or the Arab world at large. Other cities may compete with Beirut on many of its attributes : Dubai is cosmopolitan and rich, Cairo is grand, historical and noisy, Damascus is filled with ancient palaces, mosques and churches, Amman is civilized, Tunis is wonderful, Istanbul is a meeting place of East and West, Casablanca is moving and partying... but Beirut is all this at once, all the time, all these elements are constantly competing with each other, yet seem to be needing each other to exist.

But in Beirut, ugliness can overshadow beauty, and poorness make richness shameful. In Beirut you can cry of despair and become hysterically happy, because of the city itself. It can drive you towards madness or reason, it can make you leave and yet yearn to come back.

The secret? A unique blend of self-regulated lawlessness, order, chaos, religion, richness, poverty, weather, people, but most of all, a love of life and a dynamism which is everywhere apparent. This blend is what gives the feeling of, as Beirutis say, "everything is possible".

This is what makes this city unique, at times unbearable yet simply unforgettable.

Beirut basics - part III : Political

Political Beirut, like its population, is a blend of everything which exists in the country and in the Middle-east. No single party or ideology has the lead, and all of them fight, sometimes to the death, among its walls. Here is why :

First of all, it is the capital of Lebanon, home to its Parliament and all other political institutions, therefore representative of all Lebanese constituencies.

Second, being capital of Lebanon and Lebanon being a country sharing a border with Israel, most decisions taken at the regional or international levels affecting Israel will automatically have an impact on Beirut and Lebanese politics.

Third, Beirut is a combination of strong familial, political and religious communities and not unlike the rest of country, every party, family or community has some kind of allegiance to local and foreign ideals, parties or governments.

Fourth, it is the headquarter of most Lebanese political parties, even when those parties do not hold their popular roots in Beirut but since it is the capital, they have to be here in order to exert influence.

Fifth, Beirut is a very flexible financial and trade center home to important merchant communities for whom "everything is possible" by tradition, seeing the tangential nature or the rule of law and where funding can be relatively freely delivered to and from anywhere in the world, conveniently secretly.

Sixth and not less important, political Beirut is not only Beirut. Its southern suburbs are home to large swathes of the country's Shiaa population where the Hezbollah party holds seat, and its northern and eastern suburbs home to large Christian, mainly Maronite, populations whose allegiances are not homogeneous.

Due to all of the above elements and like all of Lebanon, Beirut is a political kaleidoscope which can switch colors and turn upside down at the willingness of history. Which makes it important, powerful, yet dangerous.