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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Welcome to the Lebanese Blogosphere

By Lysandra Ohrstrom
Daily Star staff
Friday, March 10, 2006

Welcome to the Lebanese Blogosphere






BEIRUT: Decades from now, history textbooks for Lebanese high-school students will no doubt look back at the Independence Intifada as a moment of democratic rebirth in Lebanon. They will probably not, however, pay much attention to another consequence of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's assassination - the eruption of the Lebanese blogosphere.

Before Hariri was killed, there were almost no blogs out there in the virtual world focusing specifically on Lebanese politics. Some old-school bloggers occasionally placed Lebanon in a regional context, but they usually avoided local politics.

All this changed after March 14, when Lebanon-centric blogging activity spiked, driven primarily by members of the diaspora who were living in the West and watching events unfold from a geographic distance.

Now, a year on, there are at least eight active blogs in the Lebanese blogosphere, including the Angry Arab News Service, Beirut2Bayside and Lebanese Bloggers. They are all well aware of one another. And they don't necessarily like one another.

In fact, these bloggers duke it out online, verbally jousting with one another as they dissect local politics. The Lebanese blogosphere has become a microcosm of the country, and in their regular posts, these bloggers are channeling the same frustration with the status quo that prompted a million Lebanese to assemble on Martyrs' Square on March 14, demanding accountability from their government.

Blogs are often described as online diaries, a definition that highlights the dual potential of the medium. Server space is free, so blogs cost next to nothing to operate and can be authored anonymously by anyone with a computer and an internet connection.

The low entry barriers for blogging have prompted Western media to hype the technological trend as "an information revolution" embodying democratic ideals. At its best, a blog can be a zone for free speech, offering an underground platform for political dialogue in authoritarian societies.

But blogging can also be hijacked for narcissistic purposes, as demonstrated by the glut of blogs in the West where people post the minutia of their personal lives.

By and large, Lebanese blogs fall into the former category. They are Web sites where texts, images, links to each others' sites and other media are posted regularly. They are heavy with more or less useful information.

Since bloggers are not subject to implicit and explicit filters like the mainstream media, they are free to expose political hypocrisy, hash out conspiracy theories and, as is the case with the best blogs, propose alternative political solutions.

Asad Abu Khalil, 45, is a tenured politics professor at California State University in Stanislaus, California. He runs the Angry Arab blog and spends an average of two hours a day writing for it.

Other bloggers post less frequently, either when they have the time or when they are particularly riled up about something.

Raja Abu Hassan, 26, is a student and one of six contributors to Lebanese Bloggers. He is currently working on a doctorate in public policy at John's Hopkins University in Maryland.

Perhaps it is his age, but he is also the most idealistic of this lot when it comes to blogging.

"When you are here in the States, you want to reach out and communicate with other Lebanese regardless of sect, and that reflects on your political discourse," he says. "In Lebanon, you are always surrounded by your family and friends, socializing and arguing about politics. So you can't disengage religion and politics."

Hassan pinpoints the chief irony of the Lebanese blogosphere: The majority of bloggers do not live in Lebanon but rather in the West.

"I saw the media coverage of March 14 from the U.S.," says Hassan, "and it made me feel hopeful about Lebanese politics for the first time in a while. But I also felt disconnected, so I got some friends together and we started Lebanese Bloggers."

Other Lebanese bloggers are scattered throughout Western Europe and the U.S. Though most of them have never met, they log on from New York, London and California. As such the diaspora condition of Lebanese society has permeated the blogosphere as well.

The Lebanese blogosphere is divided into two main camps, and bloggers from one side often attack the other by referencing obscure social scientists and philosophers.
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Tony Badran of Beirut2Bayside and Hassan of Lebanese Bloggers fall to the right of the blogosphere's political spectrum, in that they are supportive but critical of the March 14 movement.

"I used to be against a confessional system but when I went back to Lebanon last year, after the assassination, I realized that it has to be maintained for me to see political reform in this lifetime," says Hassan. "But I hope it won't be around for my great-grandchildren."

Khalil of the Angry Arab blog represents the left. Though Badran and the rest of the mainstream bloggers universally dismiss Khalil as irrelevant, the collective animosity he elicits suggests otherwise

"Abu Khalil is a hypocrite. He kills us with the Edward Said anti-essentialization argument but insists on some essentialized core of Lebanese identity," says Badran, speaking over the phone from New York. "Then there is the Hizbullah cheerleader Helena Coban. They are populists and third worldists. They identify Shiites as poor and Christians as rich. These notions of left and right are not relevant in Lebanon. And this whole obsession with the Phalangists - get over it. These people are stuck between 1982 and 1984."

"I agree with the sentiments behind March 14, but what is it anyway? I hate when people like Abu Khalil try to Arabize it and label it 'White Arabism.' They acknowledge the dissonance inherent to Lebanese identity, which is what I try to convey in my blog. Deconfessionalization - taking away the mechanism that has maintained balance in a segmented society - would be almost criminally dangerous right now," adds Badran.

Khalil takes these criticisms in stride, admitting he "relishes" criticizing political figures.

"Most of the blogs are from one political camp - the March 14 forces - and that's why they hate me so much. I view it as a coalition of sectarian forces masquerading behind a vulgar display of flags that mean absolutely nothing," he says.

Khalil is quick to point out the causes and symptoms of Lebanon's political disease, but he is hard pressed to propose a cure (itself, perhaps, symptomatic of the political left).

Having renounced his hope for political change back when he described himself as a Marxist-Leninist, Khalil feels no responsibility to alter the current status quo that is, he says, "in place to cement the monopoly of elites."

"I don't have faith in the masses," he says, "since most sectors of the population care more about Haifa Wehbe than the Palestinians. I cannot change this."

"Here's the thing about [Abu Khalil], he's anti-everything. He spits on everyone, Hariri, Tueni," charges Badran. "One day he is a Shiite. One day he is an American. One day he is an upper-class Beiruti."

(In the interest of full disclosure, The Daily Star's opinion editor Michael Young is also a frequent target of Khalil's blog.)

Hassan, for his part, says of the Angry Arab only this: "I choose not to read him out of concern for my blood pressure."

So where is all this going if the Lebanese blogosphere is to avoid sinking into its own internal petty politics?

Hassan says he hopes his blog will have real political impact. He and Badran are also organizing a meeting with other members of the Lebanese blogsphere in Washington later this year, to determine "what we can do from our positions here that can actually make a difference," he explains. They hope to draft a set of policy prescriptions to present to the Lebanese government.

More than any of his peers, Hassan is most fully exploiting the democratic potential of blogging. Still cynicism persists as a post from Khalil on March 2005 demonstrates: "There is no Lebanese cause to speak of. What cause? Unless you are talking about fraud, sectarianism, clerical interventions, daily political oscillations and fakeries. That is why the cause for me has always been ... Palestine and socio-economic justice ... everywhere."

1 comment:

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