Friday, October 15, 2010

The UN road to decline

I always thought that Lebanon’s membership in the UN Security Council was a bad idea. Sensitive issues (such as the Iran sanctions) were bound to strain our domestic politics, and the tangible benefits are few.

New research by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith of New York University, reported in the November issue of Foreign Policy, supports my view:

  1. Relative to other countries, temporary members of the Security Council see economic growth drop 3.5 percent and score 2 percent lower on the widely used Polity ranking, which measures levels of democracy. 
  2. They also see press restrictions increase 3.1 points on Freedom House’s 100-point scale.

The reason? Security council membership is a great opportunity to practice the type of political prostitution at which the Lebanese excel.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Howls of a wounded beast

While visiting Washington yesterday, I  was surprised to read this in the Washington Post:

"Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sought to pull Lebanon firmly into his country's fold Wednesday in a visit that underscored the growing power of Tehran and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah ."


Iran is not a "growing power". It has an imploding economy.  Years of economic mismanagement mean that the economy cannot create enough jobs to stabilise the rapidly rising rate of unemployment.  International sanctions are also working wonders in compounding the economic decline. I recommend reading this recent Wall Street Journal article, which documents the collapse of the riyal in the black market. Iran's economy is not going to converge with Zimbabwe's any time soon, but Ahmadinejad has his hands full dealing with his own unpopularity back home.

I would not be too complacent and assume that Hizbollah will decline in perfect tandem with Iran.  Nasrallah runs an efficient operation that delivers the best bang for Ahmadinjad's increasingly precious buck. I doubt they will reduce funding to Hizbollah. Nonetheless, Hizbollah's main crutch is getting weaker, not stronger.  The cacophony of rhetoric out of Tehran and Dahiyeh is the howling of a wounded beast, not a threat that should make us tremble.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Legalize Harry!

One of the facts that struck me while reading the article on censorship laws in Lebanon on is that Harry Belafonte is banned in Lebanon.  I would not be surprised if many Lebanese don't know Harry Belafonte. His career peaked a long time ago, and he was mostly known in America.

I know his music well because it is the soundtrack of my childhood. My mother loves him. She still can't stop listening to his music and thinks he is the sexiest man that has ever lived. He is certainly sexier than my dad.

Yet, as a result of Lebanon's Kafkaesque laws, he is banned. The issue, presumably, has to do with his support for Israel.  When you google his name, however, you come across such articles from Mondoweiss:

The organizers of the Toronto Declaration – No Celebration of Occupation are pleased to announce that more than 1000 people from around the world-including many Israelis-have signed on in protest of TIFF’s City-to-City Spotlight on Tel Aviv. New signatories include music and cinematic legends Harry Belafonte ....... Leading intellectual figures Noam Chomsky, Judith Butler and Anne McClintock have also recently endorsed the declaration....

I raise this example as yet more evidence of the absurdity of Lebanese censorship laws, in unlikely event that anyone is still in doubt.

Obviously, the rules are unenforceable.  I'm happy to say that somewhere in downtown Beirut, as I write this, there is an 80 year old lady that is still breaking the law by singing along to this anti-Arab propaganda:

"Work all night on a drink of rum
Daylight come and me wan' go home
Stack banana till de morning come
Daylight come and me wan' go home
Come, Mister tally man, tally me banana...."

Let's hope Minister Mitri is able to get some sensible reforms done.  

Minister Mitri is listening

Minister Mitri has very promptly and kindly responded to my email of the letter I just posted. The following is his response:

"Thank you so much for your message. Could not but agree on enhancing transparency and on the need to overhaul censorship laws.

Tarek Mitri "

I would like to echo Mustapha at Beirut Spring:  The Minister is gracious and open to suggestions. If you have concrete suggestions send them to 

Media Reform Through Transparency: Open Letter to Minister Mitri

Dear Minister Mitri,

Thank you for inviting suggestions regarding the new media law, which I learned about through Beirut Spring. I am writing an open letter in order to share my views with my readers.

I have high expectations of the law because you are the one taking this initiative forward.  Your track record has been laudable.

A concrete suggestion I have is to enhance the credibility of our news outlets by increasing transparency. One way to achieve this would be requiring all publications (as well as TV and Radio) that receive financial support from political parties or politicians to disclose these sums as a percentage of their budget or capital.  The exact financials need not be disclosed, as the ratio is sufficient for readers to be able to gauge the extent to which a publication is being supported either through a subsidy or an equity stake. This disclosure should be done in every issue.

These types of disclosures are standard practice in the publications of investment banks, when they publish research on an company and may have a conflict of interests.  While it is true that the political affiliation of most papers is somehow "known," for some it is not so clear.  Full disclosures are a useful daily reminder to readers.

Your previous positions on censorship are commendable. I have in mind, for example, your position on the screening of Waltz with Bashir. This is not because such censorship is both wrong and unenforceable, but in this particular case it is helping to perpetuate dishonesty about our own history (please see my post about Sabra and Shatila).

I hope the new media law will be an opportunity to completely overhaul the censorship laws. A recent article on, a gay Arab website highlights some of the Kafkaesque outcomes of our current rules: even the Australian comedy Priscilla Queen of the Desert is banned because of homosexuality!

Equally troubling is the number of movies that remain banned because of "Sympathy for Jews." All I can say about this one is to suggest a look at Facebook. You will find that the Beirut Maghen Abraham Synagogue, which will soon re-open, already has more fans than Michel Aoun. It's comforting to think that the Lebanese people are more mature than the Lebanese laws!