Tag Archives: Politics

Search for Common Ground in Lebanon

1 Oct

By Dalila Mahdawi

BEIRUT: Religious pluralism is a defining feature of Lebanon: so much so it is enshrined in the country’s political system, designed to give political representation to all communities. But with Lebanon’s  population divided across 18 recognized sects, the country’s politics and society have historically been wrought with bitter ideological differences. 

These differences are often perpetuated by the prejudices parents pass on, intentionally or not, to their children. It is perhaps inevitable, then, that Le­banon’s youngsters at times find themselves reinforcing the country’s religious, socio-economic and political disputes with peers at school. 

Aware of the need to reach out to youth, as well as the underfunding of teacher-training programs in Lebanon, one of the biggest conflict-resolution organizations in the world has instigated a national program to train teachers on ways to communicate, promote respect for diversity and mediate disputes. 

The idea of peace education is not new, but in Lebanon it has yet to become common practice in schools or universities. 

“The best way for us to really be effective [in creating a tolerant society] is to begin with children and youth … the future of tomorrow,” said Sarah Shouman, director of Search for Common Ground’s (SFCG) Lebanon office. 

The pilot project is currently under way at four public and three private schools across the country, where an average of 20 teachers receive practical training in “instilling a culture of listening and problem solving in schools,” Shouman added. One exercise teachers are learning to pass on is how to frame their grievances in more neutral language, as opposed to adopting accusatory stances that usually elicit confrontational responses. 

While the project comes at a time of relative calm in Leba­non, bloody clashes in May 2008, uneasy relations with Israel, and the current political deadlock over the formation of a national-unity government, mean the possibility of renewed conflict is never too far away from people’s minds.

Teachers and school administrators were initially reluctant to participate, Shouman said. “I think some schools are sick to death of people coming in and telling them they’re doing it wrong. That’s not our intention at all. We understand that there’s a lot of pressure in the education system … we’re trying to build on what is there already.” This approach seems to be working: “Every hour in this workshop has value … every action has a new goal in my life,” said one teacher who participated in the training. 

Building on the success of the pilot scheme, SFCG will embark on similar teacher training projects in 80 schools nationwide over the next two years, in partnership with Lebanon’s Education Ministry, Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue, the Arab Group for Christian-Muslim Dialogue, and the Hariri Foundation. “We want to capitalize on the expertise already in Lebanon and also make the most of expertise around the world in peace education,” Shouman said. 

While SFCG’s Lebanon office only opened in October 2008, the organization has already made considerable strides in promoting a culture of tolerance and conflict resolution. 

 SFCG’s first project here was the much-acclaimed television series, “Kilna Bil Hayy,” English for All of Us in the Neighborhood.” The show, whose first season just wrapped up on LBC International, follows the adventures of six families from Lebanon’s biggest communities – Armenians, Christians, Druze, Palestinians, Shiites and Sunnis – who live in the same apartment complex. A supernatural presence, personified as Lina, teaches the children to look beyond the political, religious and socio-economic prejudices of their parents and to build friendships with their neighbors based on commonalities, respect for diversity, and trust. 

 The series was adapted for the Lebanese context after the huge success of “Nashe Maalo,” a similar SFCG television series in Macedonia promoting intercultural understanding. SFCG Le­banon is now looking for funding to produce a second series. 

 The group is also organizing a traveling film festival on truth and reconciliation for October. The film festival has been running in other countries since 2001, screening films or documentaries that show the human face of war and contribute to preventing and reducing conflict. The festival will travel to 12 schools and eight universities around the country and will be followed by moderated talks.

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Hear the women of Iran roar

17 Jun
Women in Iran at the core of the protest movement

Women in Iran are at the core of the protest movement

With Iran’s population currently revolting, a lot of attention is being paid to the country’s women. Here are just three of the many articles telling their stories: 

While I don’t always agree with the Christian Science Monitor’s editorials or the paper’s religious standing, they generally print high-quality, informative reports. This editorial addresses the situation of women in Iran’s current “uprising”. “What is striking about the Iranians protesting fraud in the June 10 “election” is the number of women on the front lines. Among all those cheated at the polls, they may feel the most denied.

Excellent and informed article on The National:  “We feel cheated, frustrated and betrayed,” said an Iranian woman in a message circulated on Facebook. Iran’s energetic female activists are using the social networking site to mobilise opposition to Mr Ahmadinejad. Iranian women also have a dynamic presence on the country’s blogosphere – the biggest in the Middle East – which they are using to keep up popular momentum against the election outcome.

This article on Comment is Free on The Guardian is as dull as dishwater to read but containts some interesting facts. 

“Over the last year, for example, there have been a series of small but significant victories: Iranian MPs have declined to enact laws that would have further facilitated men’s ability to indulge in polygamy; new measures are presently under discussion to enhance women’s inheritance rights; and reforms are also being put forward to end the insulting, discriminatory rule in compensation cases, where a family of a dead woman will be awarded literally half of the compensation paid for a man’s death.”

Lebanon’s Crawl to Equality

12 Jun

This article first appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and was written for Common Ground News Service.

Patriarchy and political dynasties have shut out women who wish to govern.

By Dalila Mahdawi

It sees itself as one of the Middle East’s most liberal countries, but Lebanon’s lack of women politicians is conspicuous. While Lebanese women today enjoy senior positions in the private sector, political appointments have all but eluded them.

Lebanese women were granted suffrage in 1953, yet to this day they face considerable obstacles to entering politics in a country where political dynasties and patriarchy rule.

Most Lebanese women who do go into politics do so “wearing black” – that is, filling a position made available by a deceased male relative, and for which there is no other male relative available. Two examples are Myrna Boustani, who became the first Lebanese woman in parliament upon her father’s death, and Nayla Mouawad, who joined the body after becoming a widowed first lady of Lebanon.

But even when a female politician is elected to parliament without the help of a tragedy – as Bahia Hariri was in 1992, well before the assassination of her brother Rafiq Hariri, the five-time prime minister – it still seems to be a requirement that she hail from a rich and traditionally political family. It is virtually impossible for an independent, self-made woman to enter the political arena.

Unfortunately, the issue of women’s political participation was only superficially addressed by Lebanon’s elections on Sunday. The elections, which saw a Hezbollah-led opposition defeated by the Western-backed March 14 coalition, were widely hailed as the most competitive in years. But out of 587 candidates, only 12 – or a mere 2 percent – were women.

Worse, only four of those 12 – Nayla Tueni, Bahia Hariri, Strida Geagea, and Gilberte Zwein – were elected to Lebanon’s 128-member parliament. And all of them belong to political dynasties.

Lebanon’s instability has in the past helped drown out voices calling for gender equality. Over the last relatively trouble-free year, however, those voices have become louder and more persistent – most notably in a campaign to alter Lebanon’s discriminatory nationality law, which prevents Lebanese women married to non-Lebanese men from transferring their nationality to their husbands and children.

Beirut has also been pressured to amend discriminatory family laws and to make greater efforts to combat gender-based violence.

But during the run-up to the elections, the closest the country came to a national debate on women’s role in politics was a war of slogans. The opposition’s Free Patriotic Movement played on the well-known French saying “Sois belle et tais-toi” (“Be beautiful and shut up”) with posters urging women to “Sois belle et vote” – “Be beautiful and vote.” The March 14 coalition responded with “Sois egale et vote” – “Be equal and vote.”

The parties were keen to attract women voters. But none of them explained how exactly they intended to promote women’s rights.

Women will be able to play a greater role in the governance of Lebanon only if the country’s political system moves away from its traditional sectarian system and toward a secular meritocracy. In 2005, a national commission to draft a new electoral law suggested introducing a 30 percent quota for women, but this was rejected. If the parties are serious in their calls for equality, they could impose voluntary internal quotas to ensure that a minimum number of women run in intraparty and national elections.

Lebanon has a duty to eliminate gender discrimination. Beirut amended the national constitution in 1990 to embrace the International Bill of Human Rights, paving the way for international human rights to be applied to national legislation. It might be too late for this year’s elections, but greater political participation by women could be encouraged in the 2010 municipal elections.

As long as Lebanon continues to hinder women’s rights and prevent women from entering the political process, the country cannot enjoy true democracy. Men and women alike must work to encourage the election of more women members of parliament.

Lebanese women have had the right to die as part of their country’s army for the last 18 years. They should also have the right to help formulate the laws that govern every Lebanese citizen – man or woman.

In Lebanon’s Christian district, March 14 holds the cards

8 Jun

BEIRUT: Constituents in  Beirut I, a predominantly Christian district, crowded into polling stations on Sunday to elect five candidates to join the country’s next parliament. As The Daily Star went to press Sunday night, exit polls showed the March 14 coalition winning a clean sweep in the district, with voter turnout estimated at 44 percent.

Twenty candidates, ten of whom were Independents, battled for the seats covering the areas of Achrafieh, Rmeil and Saifi. The March 14 list of Nayla Tueni (Orthodox), Serge Torsarkissian (Armenian Catholic), Jean Ogassapian (Armenian Orthodox), Michel Pharaoun (Catholic) and Nadim Gemayel (Maronite), stood against Issam Abu Jamra (Orthodox), Vreij Sabounjian (Armenian Orthodox), Gregoire Kaloust (Armenian Catholic), Nicholas Sehnaoui (Catholic) and Massoud Al-Ashkar (Maronite) of the March 8 coalition. Two of the district’s seats will go to Armenian candidates, with one each going to Orthodox, Maronite and Catholic candidates.

Supporters of the Armenian Tashnag party, which is allied with March 8, took to the polls in particular force in the early morning hours, with convoys of cars bearing the party emblem and Armenian flag dropping off entire families outside polling stations. According to exit polls, 31,500 people in Beirut I voted, among them 6,700 Armenians.

Hagob Norunzayan, 42, got up early to vote for the March 8 ticket. The Armenians were coming “back from all over the world just to vote,” he said, denying allegations that they received cash to vote.

Hagob Norunzayan, 42, got up early to vote for the March 8 ticket. The Armenians were coming “back from all over the world just to vote,” he said, denying allegations that they received cash to vote.

“We want to live in a strong Lebanon. We will win,” he added optimistically.

Former US President Jimmy Carter was in Achrafieh Sunday to observe the voting.

Talking to reporters at the Zahrat al-Ihsan School polling station, Carter said he hoped Lebanon’s parties and foreign supporters would accept the election results.

“I don’t have any concerns over the conduct of the elections,” he said. “I have concerns over the acceptance of the results by all the major parties.”

Nadim Gemayel of the Christian Phalange party was seen midday touring the Rmeil II polling station in Achrafieh. “We saw a great evolution among the people,” he said of his electoral campaign. “We succeeded in making people vote against the weapons of Hizbullah. I am confident about my list: 5-0.”

Former LBC journalist May Chidiac cast her vote in Achrafieh’s Rmeil I polling station. Chidiac survived a 2005 assassination attempt that many blamed on pro-Syrian groups. She called Christian voters who support “pro-Syrian” and “pro-Iranian” candidates “misled.”

Hizbullah poster: My land is worth more than gold

Hizbullah poster: My land is worth more than gold

Constituents were “voting for their identity …We want a free, independent Lebanon,” she said. “Lebanon is a mixture of things, but we want it to be a pro-Occidental country.”

March 14 candidate Nayla Tueni later made an appearance at the same polling station, dressed casually in jeans and a t-shirt. The 26-year-old Tueni, deputy general director of Lebanon’s popular daily An-Nahar and the daughter of assassinated MP and journalist Gebran Tueni, has been called inexperienced by rivals. “It’s amazing people came so numerous,” she told The Daily Star in reference to the high turnout. “They want a change.”

At a number of polling stations, old men and women cast their ballots after being carried up several flights of stairs by relatives or able-bodied onlookers.

The Lebanese Physical Handicapped Union sent a complaint to the Interior Ministry lamenting the difficulties disabled people faced in accessing polling stations, often situated on the second or third floors.

Several March 14 and March 8 supporters interviewed at different polling stations said that they were voting to define Lebanon’s relations with the international community.

“Foreign policy is the most important element of this election,” said a 31-year-old March 14 supporter who did not wished to be identified.

“I believe in their foreign policy, they’re going to deal with how outside powers will deal with Lebanon,” he said of the rival coalitions.

Sandy T., 21, meanwhile said Aoun’s alliance with Hizbullah had prevented further sectarian violence in the country. “If he hadn’t made the alliance, there would be big problems between the different religions,” she said.

“We believe in what he and [Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan] Nasrallah say, and in what they can do to change Lebanon,” she added.

After voting, partisans sought refuge from Sunday’s blistering heat, eating sandwiches and chocolate bars packed in special lunchboxes bearing the logos of their preferred political party.

Although polling in Beirut I was largely peaceful, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) broke up a fight in the early afternoon at the Ali Abi Taleb High School polling station, LBC Television reported.

The high school was the only polling station for the constituency’s minority Sunni and Shiite residents.

An 85-year-old male voter reportedly died of a heart attack before casting his ballot.

According to OTV, four people were taken to hospital after fainting in the highly congested polling stations of the Zahret al-Ihsan and Tabaris schools.

Lebanese Armed Forces troops patrolled Achrafieh’s Sassine Square and detained a number of individuals after clashes broke out over party flags Sunday evening.

Despite the minor skirmishes, an election observer who wished to remain anonymous said the one-day elections had been “relatively tranquil.”

The observer nevertheless pointed to several violations, including several senior political figures and candidates campaigning inside the polling stations, defying a rule that they must stay at least 75 meters away from the polls.

“They were going around the polling station to try to rally the troops, shaking hands,” the observer said, adding that the incident was reported to the Interior Ministry.

Poor crowd control and incidences of intimidation within polling stations in Beirut I also occurred, said the observer.

Children ‘abused’ during political campaigning, says rights coalition

30 May
Not harmless fun: involving children in electoral campaigning is exploitation

Not harmless fun: involving children in electoral campaigning is exploitation

BEIRUT: They might not all be able to vote, but Lebanon’s young people are playing an important part in political campaigning ahead of the June 7 elections, either by appearing in poster or television campaigns or by handing out flyers. According to a national child’s rights coalition, however, the use of 14-18 year olds in political campaigning often tends to be exploitative.

“Past experiences of parliamentary and municipal elections between 1992 and 2005 have shown that 50-60 percent of electoral mechanisms were mostly based on “youth,”” said Maria Assi on behalf of the Child Protection Working Group (CPWG) on Friday.

“Their presence is not included within their rights to participate or learn about the electoral process,” but is rather harnessed for such responsibilities as hanging up political posters or distributing candidate lists outside of polling stations, she added.

In this politically divided country, those tasks can often lead to violence. “They are used, or rather, abused, as the flames to ignite any potential fires that occur during or after voting,” Assi said.

CPWG gathered Friday to highlight the exploitation of young people in the upcoming elections and urge Lebanon’s different political parties to respect the rights of the country’s youth. “Let children live as the children of today and not as the youth of tomorrow,” said Assi, who is also director of Beyond, a child-rights organization involved in CPWG.

Political parties “probably think that because they are children, they won’t be exposed to any trouble, but [what they are doing] is exploitative,” said Wafa Issa, monitoring and evaluation officer at Right to Play Lebanon, a global child rights organization.

Tasks like distributing flyers “are not always perceived as exploitative or as putting children at risk, but they are.”

Maha Damaj, a child protection officer at UNICEF, agreed. “It’s like sending your child next door for a cup of sugar because it’s less embarrassing than going yourself,” she said of parties that send young people to flyer in areas where their candidate might not be endorsed. “In this case, they can get into squabbles, even against other children.” Encouraging children to attend political rallies is likewise exploitative, she said, as the children might not fully understand the meaning of the event or the party’s political agenda.

The problem is complicated by the fact that children often do not realize they are being exploited, said Issa. “Sometimes they are paid by the party in question,” or the young individual willingly chooses to help because of familial or other peer affiliations, she said.

Issa and CPWG stressed the importance of “positive participation” by Lebanon’s youngsters in political life. “They need to be fully informed about the parties, their involvement should be voluntary, and they need to know what they are getting themselves into,” she said. “We consider any participation that doesn’t necessarily put them at risk but isn’t voluntary as exploitative.”

So far, said Damaj, there was only “anecdotal evidence” that young people were being exploited, but will be verified by the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, a LPWG affiliate, which is collecting evidence about such incidences.

Memo to remove confession from records is ‘not enough’

14 Feb

By Dalila Mahdawi               Friday, February 13, 2009

BEIRUT: Just one day after Interior Minister Ziad Baroud issued a memorandum allowing citizens to remove their confessional identity from their Civil Registry Records, a number of Lebanese political analysts and civil society activists have said the measure does not go far enough to tackle Lebanon’s confessional political system.

The memo, which was circulated on Wednesday, stipulated that the registrar should accept requests to remove a person’s religious identity and replace it with a slash sign ( / ). Although Baroud’s move was welcomed by civil society organizations and political analysts, many said it was merely a cosmetic change that would make little real difference to people’s lives as long as Lebanon’s political system remained rooted in sectarianism.

“I think this is an exceedingly important and positive first step on an issue that has long been a demand of secular and civil society groups,” said the director of public policy think tank Carnegie Middle East Center, Paul Salem.

But he noted that the move to remove religious affiliations from government records would create a number of problems for those who chose to do so. There are no secular family courts in Lebanon – citizens are instead referred to state-subsidized courts run by their religious sects which implement their own personal status and family laws. Those who choose to remove their sectarian affiliation from official documentation would therefore no longer be registered in religious courts and it is not yet clear where they would be referred. “What needs to happen is for these people to be covered constitutionally and legislatively,” Salem said, urging the government to address the issue.

While he also hoped the move would also pressure the government to begin talking “seriously about de-confessionalizing Lebanese politics,” Salem was careful to emphasize that this did not necessarily suggest a weakening in people’s religiosity. “I hope political and religious figures do not take it as such,” he said.

Nadim Houry, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said Baroud’s move was “a welcome but insufficient step” for a society with an “embedded” confessional system. “While people can now remove their confessional status from civil records, their confession will continue to govern their lives and the political office they run for,” Houry said. “It doesn’t get said enough, but sectarianism in Lebanon is discriminatory. If you’re Shiite, you can never dream of becoming president,” a position reserved for Maronites.

Dima Dabbous-Sensenig, director of the Lebanese American University’s Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World, agreed. “The fact is, this [memo] doesn’t change anything. If I want to get married, divorced or to adopt, I still have to go to a religious court. The system will still work in a sectarian manner.”

Salem, Houry and Dabbous-Sensenig all said Baroud’s memo would need to be followed up with moves on creating secular personal and family status laws.

For Nadine Farghal of the Civil Campaign for Electoral Reform, the move also raised other questions. A possible follow-up law “would be to have a secular electoral system,” she said.

For some, the move came much too late. “While this step is highly welcomed, it is a decree that should have been introduced more than 30 years ago,” the web-based Middle East Times wrote in an editorial on Thursday. “The absence of one’s religious affiliation on the national identity card could have saved the lives of thousands who were mindlessly killed during the Civil War, based purely on what religion was marked on their ID cards.”

 Interior Ministry officials were not available for comment.

Saves the Day

14 May

Al Jazeera has a story on a Deal being reached for Lebanon through Arab mediation. I shall post a bit of the story below so you get an idea:
Lebanon’s pro-government and opposition factions, have reached a deal to revoke two decisions that resulted in fierce gun battles in Beirut, the Lebanese capital, last week. The violence was sparked when the government issued an order to dismantle Hezbollah’s communications system, and to sack the head of airport security.
Delegation members opened talks in Beirut on Wednesday to try to defuse tensions between the US-backed government and the Hezbollah-led opposition. The Lebanese cabinet is holding a session and is expected to formally endorse the deal.

1) This must be the first time in history the Arab League has ever produced anything other than empty rhetoric, wasted time and money. Well done, you can pat yourselves on the backs now!

2) How embarrassing that the Lebanese must always either ask for help from foreign powers, have it imposed on them or just be walked all over by foreigners. It’s time the Lebanese started using their own brains and start finding their own solutions to the problems they have a lot of responsibility in creating. This visit was no more than symbolic, to deliver the Lebanese government the hard kick up the arse it seems to need before it can make any sort of decision. Everyone knew what the Arab League was going to suggest- it wasn’t exactly rocket science. The suggestion was proposed ages ago.