Today is the anniversary of that beautiful day when for a couple of hours, many Lebanese people had hope, and put aside their political and sectarian egos to fight a common enemy: the Syrian regime that had occupied Lebanon for almost 3 decades.
But, after those couple of hours, the political “leaders” of March 14, who had always been Syrian regime boot-lickers, reverted to their old ways again, just with new management. Corruption, lies, disrespect for basic rights and outright theft of Lebanon’s coffers. A couple of people who weren’t rotten to the core, ended up being blown up to a million charred pieces, just like everyone’s hopes for a better Lebanon.
We always had something to look forward to in our unfortunate history. The end of the civil war, the end of the Israeli occupation, the end of the Syrian occupation, etc. But now, it seems the new “light at the end of the tunnel” is the end of the Syrian war, which is at a stalemate that doesn’t look like it’s ending soon. So, basically, we have nothing to look forward to this time. As Lebanese cleanly bisect themselves between two forms of Islamic extremism, the very few that remain on the sidelines don’t have much choice in the massively-corrupt and uncharismatic remnants of the Free Syrian Army. So, there is no light at the end of this proverbial tunnel, and it’s quickly becoming a pitch-black, roller coaster tunnel with things not only stagnating, but deteriorating at an alarming rate on every level.
The economy is in shambles, and everyone is too busy with the cabinet’s platform’s vocabulary to care. Socially, we’re as divided and violent as ever, with the coffins of beaten women stacking up, and the collective conscience of our political elite held captive by a brutally medieval religious judiciary system that puts Lebanon on the bottom rung when it comes to women’s issues in the world.
But, the oppression of women, the LGBT community and free-thinkers is nothing new in Lebanon, and even though the state might be too corrupt and broken to actually do that themselves, any 2-bit criminal with a couple of dollars can make your life hell using the police and judiciary, which I’ve written about more extensively here. What’s new, or at least unexplainable, is the vicious crackdown on freedom of speech and journalism in a country where every oppressed Arab used to come to publish their magazines and newspapers without any obstacles or red tape.
Today, we see Jean Assy forced to publicly apologize to the president after the latter threatened him with two months in prison for a tweet. We see LBCI, who’s breaking away from the traditional Lebanese mainstream media and actually reporting on things other than what the political parties sponsoring other channels care about, getting hounded from all sides for covering the tough stories. We see bloggers like Imad, Rita, Abir and myself being dragged to police precincts and threatened with arrest if we don’t sign a pledge that guarantees we stop “slandering” some disgusting scam some Lebanese think is “7arba2a”. We see journalists getting kidnapped, death threats and law suits for doing their jobs. We see average citizens queueing up to explain what they said in a Facebook status or blogpost. To top all that off, we have the delightfully narcissistic censorship bureau censoring things left and right, to the point that many people and companies now self-censor for fear of getting shot down by that horribly insulting bureau.
In other words, it’s looking a lot like Saudi Arabia and Iran these days in Beirut. And I’m not happy about that. I hate the fact that I need to be afraid when I land in Beirut’s airport. Afraid because in my absence, any malevolent and illegally fueled legal action against me with inaccurate information, will make the ISF’s efforts to find me (read, call me on my personal cellphone) futile and thus, I’ll be a fugitive and will be arrested the second I land. By the time the snail-mail judiciary system figures out I’m in jail and shouldn’t be, I would have spent a good month or two behind bars for no good reason (except maybe that I don’t have thousands of dollars to “bail” me out).
I was in Washington DC the other week, and you all saw that hilarious Egyptian woman shouting at Obama to “shut up your mouse”. Being blocks away from The White House, I couldn’t resist not doing my own version, just a stone’s throw away from Obama’s bedroom. There I was, a big, bearded Arab man shouting “SHUT UP YOUR MOUSE OBAMA”, the most powerful man in the free world, and lo and behold, I’m still alive, not behind bars and not being interrogated. The fact that I can do that to the president of the United States of America, and that right is guaranteed, while at home, a tweet or blogpost can land me in jail, is particularly painful for me. It also shows you how different we are, that we still need centuries to get to where freedom of speech has in better countries. Please, don’t bring up US foreign policy here, I’m talking about individual rights on US soil. I also know that murder rates here are higher, but at least here they’re punished and investigated, not protected by sheikhs and priests. Also, of course it’s gonna be higher. A large US city’s population is usually double that of Lebanon’s.
Anyway, I feel more respected here than back home. Here, in a country where we think people are racists towards Arabs, I’ve had the best hospitality from New Hampshire to Florida, San Francisco to San Diego, and everything in between. The police never harass me. I’m never stopped and searched. I feel like a normal human being, one with enough rights and dignity to say “Hello officer!” to a man or woman in uniform, not try as hard as possible to evade them for fear they’ll humiliate me, ruin my day/night and try to squeeze some dollars from me by made-up or silly reasons, when real criminals are let free to do as they please on our streets.
I have never been this pessimistic about Lebanon. Both “sides” are culprits in this unacceptable crackdown on free-thinkers and opinionated citizens. Whether it’s the president’s absurd intimidation of Jean Assy, or Gebran Bassil’s lawsuit against Executive Magazine, or Samir Geagea’s endless list of lawsuits against anyone who addresses him, or the numerous threats of legal action and worse against people you piss off for one reason or another, it’s become shit. In other words, they’re all guilty of that, some more than others. Why? Because I don’t expect Hezbollah or extremist sunni groups to value freedom of speech and individual rights. They strive off of extorting you from your rights “for the sake of the greater cause”. I do expect the Lebanese Forces, Free Patriotic Movement and Future Movement though to be guardians of the freedoms they all advertise themselves as protectors of. Instead, they’re just like all the rest, only worse because they’re hypocrites, not just obstacles to a better Lebanon.
I’ll leave you with these few moments of zen with two of my very good friends and colleagues: Dima Sadek, and Imad Bazzi as a show of disdain for the path Lebanon and its politicians and security forces are taking when it comes to personal freedoms and basic rights.
Lebanon, I don’t really miss you. And I’m not sure I can come back.