Category Archives: Politics

We Are With You Forever: Lebanon Wants its Prime Minister Back

By Nick Lobo

On November 22, Lebanon’s prime minister Saad al-Hariri returned to Beirut after more than two weeks, having hastily tendered his resignation from the Saudi capital at the beginning of the month—a move widely understood to better reflect the will of Riyadh than that of Hariri himself. The prime minister returned to a country whose chronically volatile political order had just flirted with disaster. Certainly, the prospect of a head of government being strong-armed by one of his country’s larger, more aggressive allies would be cause for concern anywhere in the world. Lebanon’s is an especially precarious case made significantly more complicated by internal actors and interests just as much as by its powerful neighbors, who have historically played an inordinate role in shaping the country’s development. Thus, any analysis of the current crisis must be firmly rooted in a clear understanding of this cast of characters, comprising the domestic and the foreign alike. Still, the question on the mind of anyone intently watching the situation unfold remains brutally simple: is Lebanon headed for another war?

In Hariri’s resignation speech given in Riyadh, where he remained for nearly three weeks, the premier castigated Hezbollah for contributing to the country’s deeply fractured political state, going so far as to refer to it as “the arm of Iran.” Notably, Hariri also cited threats against his life as a major impetus for his resignation and mentioned an atmosphere in Lebanon resembling that of early 2005, when his father, former premier Rafiq al-Hariri, was assassinated in a tragic car bombing widely attributed to Hezbollah. However, the Lebanese army put forth a statement following Hariri’s speech announcing that no assassination threats had been discovered in its investigations, raising suspicion about the veracity of the premier’s stated concerns. The questionable circumstances of Hariri’s stay in Riyadh had few Lebanese, especially within Hariri’s Sunni base, convinced that he was acting of his own free will. President Michel ‘Aoun, a Maronite Christian and long-time ally of Hezbollah, wasted no time in declaring that Hariri is a “hostage” of the Saudi regime and that he will not accept the prime minister’s resignation until it is delivered in person.

Hariri’s lengthy November 12 interview with Paula Yacoubian of Future TV did little to dispel these suspicions; Yacoubian, who went to great lengths during the interview to prove that it had not been pre-recorded or otherwise staged, remarked that she was unable to convince anyone that the premier is not a prisoner in the Saudi capital. Hariri’s stressed and erratic demeanor throughout the recording served only to further affirm this assumption.

Hezbollah, meaning “party of God” in Arabic, has wielded significant military power and enjoyed the backing of wide popular support in Lebanon since its emergence during the country’s bloody civil war in the 1980s as an aggregation of Shi’a groups loyal to Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. Hezbollah’s genesis certainly owes to a complex blend of local and international factors, but the Islamic Republic’s role in the group’s formation and its historic support for and coordination with its efforts is notable. The 1989 Ta’if Agreement, brokered in Saudi Arabia, brought the war to an end and disarmed the country’s various militant groups. Hezbollah was allowed to remain the country’s only armed sectarian militia thereafter, labeled as “Islamic resistance” to the ongoing occupation. It is this historical reality that placed Hezbollah at the helm of Lebanese politics. Hezbollah relies extensively on foreign support, chiefly from Iran—it continues to receive the financial patronage of the Islamic Republic to the tune of $800 million in recent years according to some estimates, although the exact amount is impossible to know.

The group, now an institutionalized political entity, commands a larger fighting force than the Lebanese military and has served as a steadfast patron of Bashar al-Asad’s regime since 2013. Although the group continues to command loyal bases of support among Shi’i communities, within Lebanon and across the region, it has been the target of increased criticism and scrutiny for its use of violence, most recently by the Arab League which formally declared Hezbollah a terrorist organization on November 19.

Saudi Arabia has long been intent on limiting Iranian hegemony in the Middle East. The two countries have been staunch adversaries since the Iranian Revolution in 1979 deposed the shah’s regime and established a Shi’a theocracy in its place. These diametrically-opposed regional powers exist in a chronic proxy conflict, often described as a cold war, fought across several theaters: the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, the Qatar diplomatic crisis, and now the situation in Lebanon are prime examples of how this bad blood has manifested in significant and tragic ways across the region—particularly for the smaller, less powerful states that wind up caught in the sectarian crossfire. The recent Lebanese political turmoil also started in the wake of Saudi forces intercepting a missile fired at Riyadh from the Iranian- and Hezbollah-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, where the Kingdom and its coalition have for years been deeply invested in upholding the besieged government of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.

There’s nothing new about this deep-seated regional rivalry per se, but the crisis in Lebanon can also be attributed, in many ways, to the personal ambitions of Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman, who recently caught the world’s attention with his ostensible anti-corruption purge of nearly 500 princes, ministers and businessmen. In addition to the prince’s efforts to consolidate his power domestically, as represented by this purge, bin Salman has sought to rein in his regional allies as well. Hariri, who stands at the helm of a government that not only allows but directly includes Hezbollah, a powerful Iranian-allied force ideologically and strategically hostile to Saudi interests, became a liability in bin Salman’s calculus of regional politics. It is also likely that Hariri’s lukewarm popularity before his resignation and his lack of a strong mandate over his Sunni base—portraying the premier as failing to fill the shoes of his immensely popular father and predecessor—motivated bin Salman’s desire to bring about a restructuring of Lebanon’s government.

Compelling, though still technically unconfirmed, evidence suggests that bin Salman pressured Hariri to resign the premiership in order to mitigate the risks he envisioned. By most accounts, bin Salman’s gambit appears to have failed. The most direct support for this conclusion is that Hariri suspended his resignation upon his return to Beirut. Moreover, Hariri’s apparent detention in Saudi Arabia has given rise to a significant jump in his popular backing, rallying the Lebanese people around slogans like “We are all Saad” and “We want our PM back” and inspiring demonstrations. Although it remains to be seen whether this outpouring of support will result in a much-needed parliamentary victory for Hariri and his al-Mustaqbal (Arabic for “Future”) party next May, the popular backlash against Saudi interference in Lebanese affairs severely undercuts bin Salman’s bid to keep Lebanon in line and has denied the Gulf power a clear “win” against Hezbollah and Iran. The conditions of Hariri’s long-awaited return to his country and office suggest that Lebanon is unlikely to collapse into total disaster in the near future. Nevertheless, the crisis has shown that the country’s fragile political order remains deeply susceptible to the whims of foreign powers.

Featured Image from The Christian Science Monitor

Catholics Respond to Rising Anti-Globalization in Latin America

By Bristow Richards

Last year saw citizens of the US and Europe respond to globalism with disdain and contempt. 2015, the year of the COP21 climate accords, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the Iran Nuclear Deal, gave way to 2016, the year of Donald Trump’s election, Brexit, and a general loss of faith in institutions. There is reason to believe that the same variety of anti-globalism could have political weight in Latin America as well. In recent decades, the region has experienced the worst side effects of both national isolation and global interconnectedness. In the Eighties, states involved themselves too heavily in their national economies and instituted too many import barriers, which led to an inflation crisis that ruined entire markets in the region. Latin American historians often refer to the era as the “Lost Decade.” Openness to international markets and institutions, on the other hand, can also be dangerous. Argentina had the biggest sovereign debt default in history in 2001 after relying almost solely on foreign capital and the IMF.

 

What can assuage the looming anxiety Latin Americans feel towards globalism? Populism and protectionism have been one cathartic political response in other regions of the globe. But politics is not the only solution.

 

One group of Catholics claims to have the answer. In February, Spanish-speaking Catholic theologians met in Boston to discuss the church’s approach to globalization and structures of exclusion. At the inaugural Ibero-American Conference of Theology, Catholic thinkers discussed issues from ranging from populism and acculturation, to the environment. Among those present was Juan Carlos Scannone, a previous teacher of the current pope, and Carlos María Gallí, one of the pope’s close friends and advisors. These Catholic thinkers argued that their particular reading of Christianity could address contemporary problems faced by all people, across political spectrums and throughout the globe. Their approach to Catholicism is called Liberation Theology – made renowned by Gustavo Gutiérrez in his 1973 book, A Theology of Liberation. Gutiérrez himself attended the conference, a gesture that seemed to give credence to the contemporary supporters of his theology. Although liberation theology once enjoyed considerable sway in Latin America, its influence has waned in the past few decades. In this political moment, however, liberation theologians are gaining momentum, hoping to return to mainstream political and cultural conversations in the Americas.

 

Liberation theology, according to its proponents, is a reading of Christian teaching that focuses on helping the poor and excluded to overcome exclusionary institutions like governments and multinational corporations. It has often been characterized as a leftist sociopolitical movement. Some strands of liberation theology take on a deterministic, Marxist interpretation of material well-being, encouraging the working class to struggle against these exploitative or extractive institutions, and to struggle violently, when necessary. The summary declaration from the Ibero-American Conference of Theology, however, takes on a gentler tone. The declaration calls for a reinvigorated approach to theology that pays special attention to “the reality of social conflicts,” aspiring to overcome vast inequalities of wealth, resources, and opportunities in Latin America and the Caribbean. The region could use it, too: inequality plagues Latin America from Buenos Aires to Bogotá, although it has been modestly improving in the past few years. To impoverished rural parishioners, a materialistic understanding of religion is more descriptive of their reality than the messages of vacuous Vatican elites, who are more concerned with debating abortion and gay marriage.

 

The “preference for the poor” espoused by liberation theologians is not unique to their movement. Pope Francis, though he does not specifically endorse Liberation Theology, has gone to great lengths to bring the church’s attention more to its people, especially its poorest. When he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires, the pontiff-to-be made it a priority to improve the church’s relations with the villas miserias – “miserable neighborhoods”– where poverty and crime were often deadly. He condemned international institutions and unchecked capitalism for exacerbating the suffering of Argentines after the 2001 default. As pope, he has sought to improve Vatican relations with liberation theologians. In 2015, Francis invited Gustavo Gutiérrez to speak at the Vatican as a welcome guest. Perhaps more notable was when the pope ordered the beatification of Archbishop Óscar Romero, a divisive liberation theologian who was shot at the altar during the reign of El Salvador’s oppressive military dictatorship in 1980. The pope’s latent support for liberation theology has given the movement the nearly official legitimacy it has lacked since its founding.

 

Although Pope Francis has conditioned the church to consider the tamer calls of liberation theology, Gutiérrez and his entourage may still not be fully capitalizing on their chance to influence political events in Latin America. Elections in the Americas are seeing center-right administrations rise up under the likes of Argentina’s Mauricio Macri and Peru’s Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. While the source of this retreat from the Left may be based as much on disdain for the corruption of current leftist governments as it is on a rejection of leftism itself, the political landscape is becoming less amenable to some of the basic ideological premises of liberation theology. To make matters worse, Latin America is becoming decidedly less Catholic, with studies indicating that Catholic identity has decreased by more than 20% since the 20th century.

 

Despite these challenges, liberation theologians continue to have an immense asset at their disposal: Catholicism itself. Issues like globalization, migration, and poverty are transnational by nature. Transnational issues are also notoriously difficult to approach by any sort of international political effort. They aren’t necessarily the product of sovereign states, and it is nearly impossible for loose coalitions of independent countries to agree on how to solve them. The church, on the other hand, has the characteristics of a transnational movement. It relies on more than a billion individuals, who regularly choosing to reaffirm it. The Church does not need borders or laws to maintain influence. Furthermore, the Catholic Church has extensive bureaucratic capacity and ideological authority in the Vatican. The pope can influence Catholics with inspiration and religiosity, without imposing laws or inciting partisanship. Pope Francis has the power to open the minds of nearly 1.2 billion people, to ideas of social and political activism, to urge them to resist oppressive institutions. At the very least, he can make Catholics more receptive to religious leftism.

 

Catholicism (from the greek word katholikismos, or “universal doctrine”) can be a powerful solution to the fears that transcend national boundaries. Emboldened by a friendly Vatican and renewed organizational capacity, it seems that liberation theologians will attempt to strengthen their base in Latin America, and perhaps enter the cultural mainstream within the next few years. It will be a slow process. Gutierrez and his colleagues will likely take advantage of Pope Francis’ frequent visits to the region in the next decade, using his liberal Catholicism to further legitimize their endeavors. Time will tell if their message really takes root.