Tag Archives: Lebanon

Who Governs Lebanon?

Lebanon's Prime Minister, Saad al-Hariri, waves to the crowd at a political rally.

Lebanon's Prime Minister, Saad al-Hariri, waves to the crowd at a political rally.

Incumbent Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri will remain in his post as head of a caretaker government in Lebanon, according to a report by the BBC yesterday. Lebanon had been poised to enter a period of political deadlock and uncertainty, and the Arab League described the situation in Lebanon as “tense,” after eleven ministers from Hariri’s ruling coalition resigned last week. The ministers, all of whom have ties to the powerful Hezbollah party, are angry about plans by a United Nations-backed tribunal to indict several of its members for their alleged involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was also the father of current Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri. Their decision effectively dismantled the government of national unity [glossary] that had been in place since 2008.

Lebanon appears to be entering a prolonged period of political stalemate which, unlike the longstanding stalemate in Belgium, will likely paralyze the country. The country is sharply divided along religious and sectarian lines and has a history of civil conflict. The National Pact, the informal agreement that has governed Lebanese politics since 1943, mandates that the top three political posts in the country be allocated on the basis of religion, with the country’s president be a Maronite Christian, its Prime Minister be a Sunni Muslim, and its Speaker of the Parliament be a Shi’a Muslim. The Pact also reserves half the parliament for Christian parties and half for Muslim parties. 

Further, neighboring powers, including Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, have regularly intervened in Lebanese affairs.

The current political standoff in Lebanon is more than a simple problem of coalition [glossary] politics. Hezbollah, the favored party of the country’s Shi’a population, is more than an opposition party. It is also the most powerful military force in the country and frequently operates as a government in its own right, operating its own satellite television station and providing social services like subsidized housing and welfare support to people across the country. Internationally, Hezbollah’s paramilitary wing has been a strong opponent of Israel.

If al-Hariri is unable to re-establish a majority coalition in the parliament—a situation that appears highly unlikely, given Hezbollah’s strong opposition to the release of tribunal findings—Lebanon appears likely to remain in a political quagmire. Neither side can form a ruling coalition without the support of the other, but neither side appears willing to compromise.

But concerns also run deeper. Many domestic observers are cautioning that the political standoff could turn violent, rekindling tensions remaining from the Lebanese Civil War. And if that takes place, it is possible that Israel would feel compelled to intervene, as it did most recently in 2006, resulting in the displacement of some 1.5 million people in northern Israel and southern Lebanon  More broadly such a conflict would also endanger the ongoing talks with the Palestinians. Unlike the political stalemate in Belgium, which has been unable to form a ruling coalition in its national parliament since elections in July 2010, the political stalemate in Lebanon appears both more fragile and more dangerous.

The International Relations of Hummus…Seriously

The World's Largest Hummus, Lebanon

The World's Largest Hummus, Lebanon

There’s a war brewing…a war over hummus. That creamy delicacy of chickpeas, tahini, olive oil and lemon juice is at the heart of a dispute between Israel and Lebanon, both seeking to assert their claim over the dish.

Actually, there are two issues at stake. The first is simply a matter of international rivalry. For the past several years, both Israel and Lebanon have been seeking to outdo the other to claim their place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest hummus. The most recent effort, made by 300 chefs in Lebanon on Saturday, resulted in a batch of hummus that weight ten tons (22,046 pounds). In perspective, that’s about ten automobiles worth of hummus. (Video of the effort is available at the Telegraph’s website.)  

Saturday’s effort by Lebanon took the record back from Israel, which had made a four ton batch of hummus in October, an effort which had taken the back from Lebanon, which had taken it from Israel, ad infinitum. On the surface, this is simply a matter of international pride and rivalry. And the peaceful expression of the rivalry through cooking (or sport) is preferable to its expression through armed military conflict, as was the case in 2006 when Israel invaded Lebanon in an effort to seek out Hezbollah militants firing rockets into Israel.

But there’s another element as well. The origins of hummus are disputed. Today, the dish is widely consumed around the world. Although the earliest verified reference to the dish dates to the eighteenth century, many assert it’s one of the world’s oldest foods. There are references to similar dishes in the Middle East dating back at least to the twelfth century. Records of chickpeas and sesame (the main ingredient in tahini) cultivation can be found dating to at least 2500 BC, and olive oil is discussed in the Bible.

The origins of the dish, though, are disputed. In 2008, the government of Lebanon petitioned the European Union to classify hummus as a uniquely Lebanese food, granting it protected geographical status. Dishes like feta (Greek cheese) and Champagne (sparkling French wine) receive this protection. Other foods including Gorgonzola, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Melton Mowbray pork pies, and Asiago cheese, are also protected. The mark is intended to offer a form of intellectual property protection for the label, promoting the product by giving consumers specific information regarding the origin of the product while simultaneously providing a mechanism to facilitate rural development.

According to the Lebanese government, humus is a uniquely Lebanese dish and the name should therefore be protected.  Like with feta cheese, which can only be called feta if produced in Greece and which must otherwise be called “Greek-style cheese” or something similar, the Lebanese government is asserting its claim that only Lebanese hummus is really hummus. At stake is a $1 billion international market for the product.

But there are also questions of nationalism and of national pride. The Lebanese claim that Israel is “stealing” their country’s national dish…along with several other national dishes, including falafel, tabbouleh, and baba ghanouj. The success of Israeli-manufactured hummus in European Union markets likely led to the assertion of Lebanon’s claim. But the specific manifestation of the claim, particularly in the context of the longstanding military tensions between the two countries, takes on a much deeper and more powerful meaning.

Think about that next time you have that hummus.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

It’s been an interesting week for the U.S. economy. According to figures released on Thursday, the U.S. trade deficit jumped by 16.3 percent to $32 billion in June, a figure sharply higher than the $27 billion that had been forecast. The dramatic increase in imports was fueled by the “Cash for Clunkers” program, which led to a dramatic increase in auto imports. Meanwhile, the Commerce Department reported that the poverty rate had increased from 12.5 percent in 2007 to 13.2 percent in 2008. The poverty rate, which is defined as the number of people with an annual income of less than $11,200 (or less than $22,000 for a family of four), increased as a result of the global economic downturn. Home foreclosures also remain near their record high level. The troubled status of the U.S. economy led the Federal Reserve to indicate that it would be unlikely to raise interest rates in the first half of next year.

In news from outside the U.S. economy last week:

1. A trade dispute between the United States and China may be headed to the World Trade Organization for resolution. The United States last week imposed a new duty on tires manufactured in China, less than one week after it also imposed higher tariffs on Chinese steel piping. A spokesperson for the Chinese government condemned the move as protectionism, warning that “a chain reaction of trade protectionist measures that could slow the current pace of revival in the world economy.” Observers fear that the Chinese could respond with higher tariffs on U.S. agricultural and automotive exports, potentially sparking a trade war. But in an interesting editorial in the Financial Times, Clyde Prestowiz argued that the imposition of higher tariffs on Chinese exports to the Untied States could potentially help the push for free trade.

2. With the German election just a couple of weeks away, campaigning is in full force, and observers are already working through the numerous possible coalition arrangements. But in perhaps the most interesting development to date, German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück last week called for the imposition of a new global tax on international financial transaction, the proceeds of which would be used to repay governments for the cost of fiscal stimulus packages and bank rescue operations. While not dismissing the idea out of hand, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the proposal “electioneering.” Steinbrück’s call follows a similar proposal made by the Chair of the British Financial Services Authority, Lord Turner, and could make for interesting discussions at the upcoming G20 summit.

3. The counting process in the Afghan elections continues to drag on. Although incumbent President Hamid Karzai now has enough votes to win the disputed presidential election outright, according to the most recent results of the Independent Election Commission, widespread irregularities have led to calls for partial recounts. On Sunday, the IEC agreed to move forward with discussions on a recount, but it stopped short of spelling out precisely what votes would or would not be included. The Electoral Complains Commission, a body established by the United Nations to observe elections and investigate allegations of fraud, noted “clear and convincing” evidence of fraud and vote rigging in southern provinces which went heavily towards Karzai.

4. The first high-level contact between the government of Zimbabwe and the west took place on Sunday, as the European Union’s Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Development and the Swedish Prime Minister (who also holds the European Union’s rotating presidency) met with representatives of the Zimbabwean government in Harare. The meeting is the first high-level contact since the European Union imposed sanctions against Zimbabwe in 2002. While the European Union delegation remained noncommittal regarding the future direction of contact with the Zimbabwean government, stating only that “We’re entering a new phase. The [power-sharing agreement in Zimbabwe] was an important step forward, but much more needs to be done. The key to re-engagement is the full implementation of the political agreement.” The status of the power sharing arrangement in Zimbabwe remains uncertain, as President Robert Mugabe and his rival, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, continue to struggle over the distribution of political authority within the country.

5. The government of Guatemala last week declared a “state of calamity” in response to the widespread hunger gripping the country. The World Food Programme estimated that the country would require an immediate shipment of 20 tons of food the worst affected areas in order to stave off starvation. Alvar Colom, Guatemala’s president, said that global climate change was affecting the El Niño, causing a massive drought in the northeastern portion of the country. But Colom was also critical of the high level of inequality in the country, observing that “There is food, but those who go hungry have no money to buy it.” Critics also note that poorly defined land rights, narcoviolence, and alleged corruption have also undermined food production. According to the World Food Programme, half of all children under five in Guatemala suffer from malnutrition.

And in a bonus story for this week:

6. After more than three months since the general election, the political situation in Lebanon remains cloudy. On Thursday, Saad Hariri, the leader of Lebanon’s pro-Western majority, resigned as prime minister designee, despite performing well-above expectations in June’s elections. According to Hariri, the country’s parliamentary minority blocked efforts to develop a coalition government, leaving the country in a period of political uncertainty.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

The death of Michael Jackson dominated news coverage this week, pushing other major developments aside. Indeed, with so much popular interest generated that popular sites like Twitter and Facebook were overwhelmed with traffic and unable to keep up with bandwidth demands. By Sunday morning, networks were slowly returning to other coverage.

In other news from the previous week:

1. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband issued a statement expressing “deep concern” over the decision of the Iranian government to arrest eight local employees working in Tehran. The eight Iranian employees at the British embassy were charged with involvement in the ongoing protest over the outcome of Iran’s presidential elections. The arrests follow developments last week in which Britain and Iran each expelled two of the other’s diplomats. The arrests (and the continuing deteriorating relationship more generally) will likely be a topic for informal discussions at the G8 meeting this weekend.

2. Meetings between NATO and Russian foreign ministers over the weekend set the stage for greater cooperation in Afghanistan, counter-terrorism, and nuclear proliferation. Relations between Russia and the west had deteriorated after the Georgian war last year. The Russian government also announced plans to restructure the country’s military.

3. Taro Aso, Japan’s prime minister, is facing increasing pressure to resign from his post ahead of general elections which must be held by October. Aso’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Japan has dominated post-war Japanese politics, ruling the country for all but 11 months of the last 53 years. But Japan’s ongoing economic crisis, combined with allegations of corruption and political infighting within the LDP, has led to a sharp decline in popular support for the party—and a potential radical shift in Japanese politics, with the opposition Democratic Party of Japan poised to seize the opportunity.

4. Lebanon’s new prime minister, Saad al-Hariri, has begun the task of forming a new parliament for the country. Hariri won a surprising victory over rival Hizbollah last month, but now faces the daunting task of uniting Lebanon’s three rival factions, the Sunnis, Shi’as, and Christians. In order to maintain good relations between Lebanon’s three factions, Hariri has proposed to establish a government of national unity. (glossary) But Hizbollah has so far refused to accept the possibility of a unity government unless it is granted veto power, a development which Hariri opposes. Hariri was the favored candidate of the United States and Saudi Arabia, but was sharply opposed by Syria. Stable relations between the three countries are seen as vital to the maintenance of peace and stability in Lebanon.

5. Human Rights Watch accused the government of Zimbabwe of engaging in murder, forced labor, and torture in its diamond mining operations in the Marange district in the eastern part of the country. The accusations come shortly after a campaign by the country’s prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, failed to secure the western economic aid it had hoped for. Zimbabwe faces considerable challengesin its attempt to address the ongoing economic and political crisis which has plagued the country for more than a year. While inflation has come down from its record 231 million percent last year, the political standoff between President Robert Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since its independence in 1980, and his political rival, Prime Minister Tsvangirai, remains unresolved.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

Headlines this week have been dominated by two stories: Michael Phelps’ success at the Olympic Games and the Russia-Georgia War.  With all the attention paid to these two stories, here are five other developments you might have missed.

1.  Russia’s Poland Threat:  After Russia’s move into Georgia last week, Poland decided to permit U.S. interceptor missile bases to be housed there.  The bases, part of the Bush Administration’s strategic defense initiative program, had been frozen due to American resistance to Polish demands that a Patriot missiles battery be stationed in the country as part of the deal.  After the Georgian conflict, the United States appeared willing to give in to the Polish demand.  In response, Russia warned Poland that it was now a target for their nuclear arsenal.

2.  Musharraf’s (Possible) Resignation:  Facing possible impeachment, Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf indicated on Thursday that he will be stepping down.  Impeachment proceedings had been set to start early next week.  Musharraf’s resignation was likely intended to avoid that spectacle.  As part of the agreement, Musharraf will avoid prosecution and will be permitted to remain in Pakistan.  His departure, however, signals an important shift in Pakistani politics, a key country in the war on terror.

3.  No Diplomatic Solution in Zimbabwe:  Negotiations intended to resolve Zimbabwe’s longstanding crisis have so far failed to reach a peaceful settlement.  At issue is who will lead Zimbabwe.  Robert Mugabe, the current president, has been in office since 1980 and has increasingly relied on force to maintain his rule.  Morgan Tsvangarai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change party, won the first round of presidential elections last March before being forced to cancel his campaign in the second round of voting due to political violence.  Despite extensive pressure being placed on the country by South Africa, Mugabe appears so far to be unwilling to share power.  Negations continue, but few are hopeful that a settlement will be reached.

4.  Lugo Wins Paraguay Election:  Continuing a leftward shift in many Latin American countries, Fernando Lugo won the election in Paraguay, marking the end of 61 years of one-party rule by the Colorado Party.  One of Lugo’s first acts as President was to decline his monthly salary of approximately $4000, declaring that “the money belongs to the poorest.”  Evo Morales, the leftist President of Bolivia, said that Lugo’s victory would “deepen democracy” in the region.

5.  Syrian-Lebanese Meeting:  In the face of a declining security situation in Lebanon, the country’s President, Michel Suleiman, agreed to re-establish full diplomatic relations with neighboring Syria.  The agreement, part of a package that seeks to normalize relations between the two countries, marks the first time the countries would exchange ambassadors since both achieved independence in the 1940s.

Can I Have a Big Mac, Fries, and a Coke With That?

Assessing political stability and comparing levels of economic development has always been a tricky business.   Take, for example, the use of gross domestic product as a proxy for levels of economic prosperity.  Everyone uses it—World Bank programs cite it, academics use it, and so on.  But no one ever really seems truly happy with it.  And with good reason.  As a measure of economic development, GDP leaves a lot out.  But if we want to look at levels of economic development, we really don’t have any good alternatives…or do we?

Last week NPR carried a story from the Africa correspondent for the Economist, Jonathan Ledgard.  (You can listen to the segment on the Day to Day website).  Ledgard argues that Coca Cola sales are a key indicator of political and economic stability across the African continent.  Why?  Well, Coke is widely available, relatively cheap, and almost always produced locally.  When Coke runs out, as in the case of Somalia, Eritrea, or Kenya, a crisis is usually brewing.  According to Legdard, Coke is

a pan-African product. It’s found in almost every African country… Even in the sort-of sub-villages, some guy on a bicycle will be taking five or six cases of Coke to a shack in the Congolese jungle or in the backwaters of Ethiopia. And it’s kind of amazing that that product can penetrate that far… A drop in the sales of Coke will be reflected in political, cultural, ethnic disturbances.

So it looks like we can add the Coca Cola index of political stability to the Economist’s Big Mac Index, which measures purchasing power parity, and Thomas Friedman’s Golden Arches theory—a restatement of Kant’s liberal peace—which asserts that no two countries with McDonald’s have ever gone to war with one another…almost true, except for the conflict in the former Yugoslavia and the recent war between Israel and Lebanon.

So does globalization mean peace and prosperity?  I’m not sure, but at least you can have  a Big Mac and a Coke with that.