Lebanon: caught between a rock and a hard place since 1967

Here’s my latest article for Fair Observer: a context piece on the complexities of Lebanon’s modern history from independence to present day. From the Israel-Palestine conflict to Syria’s civil war, Lebanon has found itself embroiled in politico-religious tensions between other Middle Eastern nations for decades.

A background summary of Lebanese domestic and foreign affairs since the end of French colonial rule.

Background

Lebanon has been the battleground for some of the Middle East’s most bitter conflicts. Yet, it has also enjoyed periods of prosperity. Over the past four decades, animosity between the country’s Christian and Muslim populations and influxes of Palestinian refugees has embroiled the country in major internal and external clashes involving Israel, Palestine, and Syria.

Lebanon declared its independence in 1941 following 21 years under the French mandate. In 1943, an unwritten National Covenant laying out the structure of the state distributed parliamentary seats on a six-to-five ratio in favour of Christians. This distribution was based on a 1932 census, when the country had a Christian majority. No census has since been taken, prompting repeated calls from Lebanese Muslims for a new census to bring proportionate parliamentary representation for the increased Muslim population. In 1989, a Charter of National Reconciliation finally redressed the balance of Christians and Muslims in the National Assembly, abolishing the six-to-five ratio.

The 1967 six-day war marked the onset of major conflict in Lebanon. Although Lebanon played no active role in the war, it became entangled in the conflict after Palestinian fighters began using the country as a base for anti-Israeli attacks.

Violent exchanges between Lebanese Phalangist militia and Palestinian guerrillas in 1975, dragged Lebanon into a protracted civil war. Syrian troops invaded in 1976 to restore peace and curb Palestinian groups, resulting in the killing of thousands of Palestinians.

In response to Palestinian assaults, Israel invaded southern Lebanon in 1978, but withdrew under UN pressure. However, the assassination of Shlomo Argov, Israel’s ambassador to Britain, by a Palestinian splinter group provoked a full-scale invasion in June 1982. The same year saw the Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinian civilians by the Lebanese Phalangist militia under the watch of Ariel Sharon, Israeli defence minister at the time.

The civil war ended in 1990 after many years of death and destruction.

Why is Lebanon relevant?

Domestic politics appeared promising in 1990, as Omar Karami forged a government of national reconciliation. The Lebanese government has since become increasingly unstable, with consistent power wrangling between a small cluster of politicians, along with religiously and territorially motivated assassinations.

The National Assembly ordered the dissolution of all militias in 1991, although Hezbollah was permitted to remain active and the South Lebanon Army refused to disband.

Israel has remained determined to end the threat from Hezbollah. This has involved the bombing of Hezbollah bases in southern Lebanon and an attack on a UN base that killed over 100 displaced Lebanese civilians sheltering there.

Meanwhile, Israel withdrew its troops from southern Lebanon in May 2000.

In February 2005, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed in a car bombing, provoking anti-Syrian protests and increased demands for the withdrawal of Syrian forces. The assassination led to a protracted trial, first by the UN and later at The Hague, which indicted four Hezbollah members in 2011; Hezbollah claims the trial was manipulated by Israel.

As a result of anti-Syrian sentiment, Syria initiated the withdrawal of soldiers from Lebanon in accordance with a UN resolution in 2005.

Furthermore, the seizure of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah led to the 2006 Lebanon war between the armed militant group and Israel. The war caused over 1,000 deaths, mostly civilians, and major infrastructural damage, displacing thousands. After 34 days of fighting, a ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah was put in force on August 14.

Meanwhile, as Hezbollah and pro-government skirmishes in 2008 sparked fears of civil war, parliament elected army chief Michel Suleiman as president, ending protracted political deadlock. Politicians then set to work establishing a national unity government – a task successfully completed by newly elected PM Saad Hariri in 2009.

However, this unity was short-lived; the government collapsed in January 2011 after Hezbollah ministers and their allies resigned. A fresh government, led by PM Najib Mikati, awarded a majority of seats to Hezbollah and its allies.

More recently, the ongoing Syrian conflict spilled over into Lebanon earlier this year as several people have been killed in Tripoli in Sunni-Alawite clashes.

What happened to our revolution? A documentary on women in Egypt

In exactly three weeks, I’ll be travelling to Cairo to film my documentary on life for women in Egypt since the 2011 revolution. I’m nervous, excited, and wholeheartedly committed to producing a unique insight into this critical issue.

From the outset, I sought to produce a piece that was multidimensional and inclusive rather than focusing exclusively on a small cluster of Egyptian women’s rights activists or victims of discrimination. I wanted to feature an assortment of characters who would reflect the genuine diversity of women in Egypt. By using this strategy, I have secured a wide array of interviews with belly dancers, artists, writers, politicians, campaigners, legal professionals, and more. My only concern at this stage is fitting in so many fascinating people in such a short space of time.

Inspiration

Part of my inspiration for this project was Mona Eltahawy’s piece, ‘Why do they hate us?’, published by Foreign Policy. I found the forthright way she articulated her attitudes to be bold and daring, and it led me to seek different perspectives on the topic. I quickly became confident that this issue, though covered by international media, is certainly worthy of more in-depth analysis, as so many voices remain unheard.

This emphasis on untold stories made specifying my target audience easy: Unreported World felt like a perfect fit. Finding out that my application for a summer internship with Unreported World had been successful sealed the deal, as the internship in July will help shape my editing process in August.

Despite the bitter hatred directed at Mubarak’s regime from women during the protests, female representation in parliament has actually seen a drastic drop from 12% to 2% since his fall from power. This is a far cry from the gender equality and fair representation hoped for as women fought alongside men for change in January 2011. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces repealed a parliamentary quota that designated a minimum of 64 seats to women allegedly due to suspicion that it was manipulated under Mubarak to ensure women of his ruling party would be sworn into power. Sadly, the removal of this quota has led women to sit in only 9 out of 508 seats in parliament.

In terms of physical and sexual abuse, in March 2011, Samira Ibrahim brought a case against Dr Ahmed Adel for carrying out so-called “virginity tests” on women protestors. These tests were invasive, degrading procedures which violated women in order to prove that only unclean, promiscuous women camped out with men during the demonstrations. Although a court ruled these tests to be illegal in December 2011, the charges against Dr. Adel were dropped in March 2012 due to several witnesses retracting their statements at the last minute. This occurred in spite of the confession of a senior general that these procedures definitely took place.

These are just two examples of the whole-scale discrimination that faces women in Egypt and is provoking a tidal wave of resentment that is continually gaining momentum. If the new government fails to satisfy increasing demands for gender equality, renewed violent protests could well be on the horizon.

Progress

Virtually everyone I have contacted has offered been supportive, and has responded positively to my relentless pursuit of further contacts; I appreciate it must be a little annoying to be incessantly asked: “do you know anyone else who may be interested in participating in my project? Do you know how I may get in touch with X?”

As interviews began piling up, I realised I faced a new concern: narrowing the focus of my piece. In how much depth should I explore the role of Islam, and the different attitudes of women towards Islam as a liberating or oppressive force in their lives? (Check out this piece on MP Azza al-Garf for a fascinating insight into this debate.) How deeply should I analyse the historical context of women’s rights in Egypt? Should I focus more on women in Egyptian politics or victims of physical and sexual abuse?

Given the contemporaneity of the presidential elections, I’ve decided to place emphasis in my piece on what implications the newly elected government could have for women in Egypt. This does also encompass the issue of physical and sexual abuse, since this problem of systematic misogyny reaches far back into the Mubarak era and is still a political issue, given the fact that it is Egyptian police who have carried out abuse against women protestors since the revolution.

I received some great news a couple of days ago. Deb Bergeron of Rainlake Productions, based in New York, has asked to hire me to film shots for the company’s upcoming documentary on transitioning democracies in the Middle East while I’m in Cairo. Furthermore, I’ll be working with Fair Observer on my documentary, writing articles for the platform to log my experiences and observations.

Every day new developments prompt new observations and responses in blogs, features, and analyses across the web. I’ve offered a small sample of some fantastic links below – do check them out if you have a spare couple of minutes.

I’ll be posting regular updates about the progress of my documentary on this blog, so stay tuned.

What happened to our revolution? Women in Egypt

With flights booked and interviews provisionally arranged, it’s on. I’m going to Cairo.

I’ll be taking risks and digging around for answers to the questions women in Egypt are asking: after fighting alongside men of Egypt in the revolution of 2011, how come women are now being left in the cold? How can anyone justify the discrimination against women – particularly female protestors – and their freedoms seen most recently in the Abbaseya protests? Why is sexual assault of women by police going unpunished?

The well-documented “virginity tests” carried out by police against female protestors last year have received widespread media coverage and have been condemned by women’s rights groups. Yet in March the military court passed a sentence clearing Ahmed Adel, a doctor of charges of carrying out virginity tests on women activists, indicating that violations of women’s human rights are remaining unpunished in the region.

More recently, the National Egyptian Women’s Council has come under intense criticism for its decision not to support female protestors detained after anti-military demonstrations last week. 11 activists and one soldier were killed in clashes between anti-military protestors and soldiers outside the defence ministry in Cairo, with hundreds more injured. Among those detained were numerous women, who allegedly suffered abuse at the hands of police during their incarceration. The Council’s announcement that it would not support the women provoked widespread condemnation of a body many women feel to be unrepresentative of their concerns and well-being.

With presidential elections rapidly approaching, military authorities remain apprehensive of the potential for further violence as citizens express their rejection of martial law. Following last week’s conflict, a city-wide curfew was enforced, resulting in a relative lull of tension. Yet with the prominence of Islam in politics looking set to increase in the upcoming elections, women’s fight to secure civil rights and live free from gender-based discrimination could soon escalate. Misogynist attitudes severely limit the chances of Bothaina Kamel, Egypt’s first female presidential candidate, securing the public vote, and from other female MPs from gaining fair representation for women in Egypt’s political future.

In my documentary, I will investigate these pressing concerns as extensively as possible. I’m under no illusions about some of the risks this will involve, and I’ll take necessary caution to stay safe and avoid angering the authorities. I’m nervous, daunted, and so excited. Everyday I’m securing more and more interviews with such a diverse range of men and women with different perspectives, backgrounds and experiences with gender-based discrimination. So far, these include feminists, bloggers, belly dancers, academics and more. I’m even having good fortune in finding men to interview, which I thought I’d be hard-pressed to achieve! I’ll keep a record on this blog of all the developments. Watch this space.