Saturday, July 28, 2007

Northern Lebanon

I had a very interesting day yesterday. I'm visiting Lebanon with my good friend Anand, who is getting started as a freelance journalist. We met up with Bassem, a Lebanese friend of mine who is now working on humanitarian aid for people displaced from the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp by the fighting there over the last few months.

Seen from abroad, the Nahr el-Bared crisis has an almost comic quality. It's now pretty clear that Fateh al-Islam (FI) was set up with money from people close to the pro-western Lebanese government (Seymour Hersh reported this months before the fighting broke out, and recently a prominent member of Lebanon's most important political family admitted to funding to a similar group, Jund ash-Sham). The most plausible story is that these groups were built up in the hopes that they would attack Hezbullah and provoke them into doing something stupid, but when FI's backers realized they were dealing with a bunch of loose cannons (imagine that!) they cut off their money, and FI tried to take it by force. The Lebanese army has taken quite a beating (I just read that near the beginning of the fighting a group of Lebanese soldiers was ambushed and had to be rescued by armed civilians) in spite of a massive firepower superiority which they haven't been shy about using.

There is a sinister side to this, though. The frame for mainstream discussion here is the war on terror and the heroic army standing together in spite of adversity to defeat another foreign threat, but a few things creep through.

One thing which is entirely unsurprising but almost unremarked on is the army's hostility towards Nahr el-Bared and its' inhabitants, not just FI. Some of this comes through in a video Bassem showed me, recently posted on YouTube, of a group of Lebanese soldiers relaxing in the rubble (by the way, if you want to help improve the sound, transcribe it, or translate it into english please let me know). There are a lot of stories around of the army mistreating civilians while they were trying to get out of the camp.

No doubt part of this is a result of the xenophobic climate encouraged by the government here (which has also led to attacks on Syrian migrant workers), but there are signs that there is more to it than just bullying. Yesterday the Daily Star ran an article which talked about government's plans to make the rebuilt Nahr el-Bared the first Palestinian camp in Lebanon under complete Lebanese control, beginning the process of stripping the Palestinians of the last compensation they have for their pariah status. To drive the point home one frequently sees images (I particularly noticed posters put up along Lebanon's main highway by the municipality of Jounieh) showing soldiers raising the Lebanese flag over the conquered rubble of the camp.

Unfortunately virtually all political forces here are going along with the program. The PLO seems more concerned with diplomatic support for the coup in the West Bank than the future of the Palestinians in Lebanon; Hezbollah is keeping quiet, as it has been on most other issues recently; the Lebanese Communist Party sees this as part of Lebanon's still unfinished bourgeois revolution and supports the Army reflexively as a force for national unity, as do the soft left and some others; I hear that even some autonomists have been swept along. The only organized exception I can attest to personally is TYMAT, a small group informally associated with the International Socialist Tendency, although I have heard of others.

We drove through Jounieh and the other beach towns, past Tripoli and Nahr el-Bared -- you can see it from the highway, a pile of concrete rubble with a Lebanese flag stuck on top and surrounded by soldiers. We went back to Baddawi for several hours. Although Baddawi is not as densely built up as Shatila, which I visited a couple of years ago, with the extra 30,000 people who have come over from Nahr el-Bared it is quite crowded, on top of being incredibly hot and humid (refugee camps are seldom set up in the locations most blessed by nature). We spent a few hours in the camp; Anand set up some meetings while I sat around and talked to the kids loitering around the UNRWA school.

After a while Ashraf, who runs a computer store and community center in the camp, invited some aid workers and us to an early dinner "someplace cooler". This turned out to be a 40 minute drive away on the side of a mountain, which seemed to be floating in the layer of haze covering Lebanon's coastal plain and all of the commotion down there. As when I was in Lebanon last summer, I'm surprised by how close you can be to such momentous events and still feel like they are happening in another world.


The odd magazine I mentioned in my last post is called Nox; they have a website, but I couldn't get through to it.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Arrival in Beirut

I've now had a day and a half in Beirut, and although it somwtimes feels like the air is trying to claw my eyes out, the weather is everything summer in the middle east should be, and there are even more traffic barriers and jumpy young guys with M-16s than ever, it still feels comfortable.

So far I'm staying in what could charitably be called a flophouse. It looks like it hasn't been painted in at least a decade, and I am sleeping in what would seem to be a balcony which has been converted into a room by hanging a tarp over it. Nonetheless, it's reasonably clean, it's a lot more quiet and private than the hostel I was at in Istanbul, and for $8 a night for a place two blocks from the waterfront it's hard to complain too much. I've arranged for a studio apartment starting from tomorrow, which I'll be sharing with my friend Anand who will be coming here starting tomorrow to spend a month or so journalizing.

Nothing terribly exciting. I met up last night with my friend M (who is as big a curmudgeon as ever) and today with Ghassan from TYMAT.

While I was wandering around today I found a very odd Jordanian magazine, the name of which escapes me; it's sort of a glossy men's magazine written by intellectual, mostly-Arab lefties, with a regular column by George Galloway two pages after a review of the newest Porsche. The writing leaves something to be desired (partly because there is not very much of it -- 3/4 of the space in the features is taken up by pictures) but it's interesting nonetheless: I picked it up for a piece on how Hamas is operating a police force in the Gaza Strip.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Turkey follow up

Judging from the press reports the elections came out pretty well here. The AK Party got a resounding majority, a huge slap in the face for the generals who are still trying to run the country.

The left-Kurdish alliance has done pretty well. If the projections are right the DTP, the Kurdish party, has enough members of parliament to set up a formal parliamentary group. The AK Party just short of the 2/3 majority it needs to elect a new president, and the DTP probably has enough seats to make the difference, hopefully putting them in a position to get some concessions.

One of the Left candidates seems to have been elected too -- Mehmet Ufuk Uras, the chairmain of the Freedom and Solidarity Party (ODP). This is very important for the future of the alliance I talked about last time -- particularly since the ODP, the second most important participant after the DTP, was deeply divided about participating. Uras now has something to show for it, and one hopes that will help things along in the future.

Saturday, July 21, 2007


I'm now in Istanbul, after a somewhat eventful trip involving an unexpected extra night in Rome and arriving in Turkey without my luggage. I've been doing some touristing (pictures to follow), and I just had the unexpectedly non-sucky experience of doing a paper sale in a language where I don't speak more than 6 words (I managed to sell about 10 papers, which I think is better than I ever did in the states).

I've been hanging out with Antikapitalist, the IS Tendency group in Turkey. They managed to broker an electoral arrangement between a bunch of Left parties (in particular ÖDP, EMEP, and SDP, for those keeping track) and the main Kurdish party (currently called DTP, formerly DEHAP) which has gotten a huge level of involvement: 15,000 people signed the statement Antikapitalist started things with, and there are nearly 100 campaign offices in the Asian side of Istanbul alone, mostly set up by groups that sprang up from nowhere. The election is tomorrow; it seems pretty much guaranteed that a lot of the Kurdish candidates will get elected, and we'll see about the others. In any case it is already a big development, and it's cool to be able to say that I had a little tiny part in it.

Unfortunately a neofascist party, the MHP, is almost certain to make a big breakthrough as well. Their street wing, the Grey Wolves, has recently shifted from sending groups of 50-100 people to start rumbles with campus leftists to sending groups of 5-10 people to ambush individduals on their way to/from school, which is much harder to counter and much less likely to get into the newspapers -- the latter is particularly important right now since they are trying to turn "respectable".

Some of the folks I was talking to were very worried about the situation after the elections: the elections were moved up by several months as a result of the army's attempts a little while ago to break the back of the ruling AK Party, but AK looks set to get an even higher proportion of the votes than in the last election, which raises the possibility that the army and the nationalist parties will try something more aggressive.

I've finally had the roots of the political situation here properly explained to me. It seems like Turkey is one of a few places in the world today where the different political parties are genuinely based on different economic strata of the ruling class. The Kemalists (CHP) are tied up with the army -- which is also owns the third biggest holding company in Turkey -- and other sections of the state, and along with that the big banks, the local affiliates of multinationals, and various hangers on. The Islamists (mainly AK Party) get their support from small manufacturing concerns as well as more "traditional" sectors. This isn't compradors vs "patriotic" capitalists: the small manufacturers are very export-oriented, hence AK Party's fixation on joining the EU (as well as friendliness towards Iran and Russia), but there is a difference. The Kemalists meanwhile use 'secularism' and ethnic chauvinism, as well as outright military force, to keep a near-monopoly on state support and patronage.

This depends a lot on US support, including US help through international institutions which lets Turkey sustain (so far) a ridiculously overvalued currency and a massive trade deficit, both mostly subsidizing the lifestyles of a few people (Turkish CEOs are apparently the 5th best paid in the world). At the same time the Turkish military is still not very comfortable within its present borders -- witness the constant interventions into Iraqi Kurdistan, which many seem to want to ramp up even further.

Anyhow. I'm still waiting for my luggage (32 hours and counting), and about ready to fall asleep, so I won't try for an elegant conclusion. Instead see if you can figure out what's wrong with this picture, taken of a market stall in the middle of Istanbul. First to post the correct answer gets a vague sense of satisfaction, at least if you're as easily amused as I am: