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The Relativity of Racism

In September 2010, Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi declared to his people, in a statement that got remarkably little attention until three years later, when the New York Times and the Jerusalem Post unearthed it, that Israel- Palestinian negotiations would yield nothing of substance since Arabs and Palestinians would be wasting their time with “the descendants of apes and pigs” who were also, by the by, “bloodsuckers.”

Then early this year, Morsi, whose career by then had improved—he had been elected Egypt’s president—amended that statement on a trip to (um...) Berlin. Well probably amended is the wrong verb here—let’s say he defended it by pointing out his words had been taken out of context. I’m not sure, personally, what the proper political context for “descendants of apes and pigs” should be, but President Morsi is apparently because what he really meant to do, he added, was attack “believers of any religion who shed blood.” Evidently barnyard animals and silverbacks fall into this religious, blood-shedding category.

A Young Voice from Cairo on Freedom of Expression and Art

Omar Robert Hamilton is something of a vocational chameleon. A founding member of Egypt’s artistic Mosireen opposition group and a producer of the Palestine Festival of Literature, he’s also a celebrated young filmmaker, an activist, an event organizer, a professional photographer, a film archivist, and a published writer who lives between Cairo and London.

With protests continuing in the wake of the opposition’s June 30th “Tamarod” (Rebel) event calling for new presidential elections in Egypt, Hamilton is well positioned for close questioning on the region.

Egypt on the Brink

Extraordinary events are unfolding in Egypt.

Millions of people (millions!) surged into the streets of Cairo and demanded President Mohamed Morsi resign. Egyptian newspaper Al Masry Al Youm claims this was the biggest demonstration in thousands of years of Egyptian history.

Egyptian activist and blogger Sandmonkey posted the following on Twitter: “Dear World, pay attention: Muslims protesting in the millions against Islamism. This is Historic.”

It certainly is.

And the army is on side with the demonstrators. Commanders have given Morsi 48 hours to share power or be overthrown.

Meanwhile, protestors ransacked Muslim Brotherhood offices and a handful of people, including an American student named Andrew Pochter, were killed in clashes between Islamists and secularists.

I don’t have a clue where all this is heading. Not a clue. Just about anything could happen at this point.

It might all blow over. I’d be surprised if that happened, but I’m also surprised this is happening.

The army might actually remove Morsi from power. This is exactly how Hosni Mubarak was overthrown. Protesters took to the streets and demanded he be removed, and the army took care of it.

Political Islam may be in the process of being discredited in Egypt before our very eyes. Then again, the Salafists may win hearts and minds by saying the Muslim Brothers were too moderate, that the only solution to what ails Egypt is their stern and unyielding and total imposition of political Islam.

Egypt could revert to its age-old default condition and be ruled again by a military dictatorship.

Civilian technocrats might take over.

Morsi could purge the army again and impose a vicious police state of his own.

Egypt could cycle through a rapid series of new presidents like Argentina did some years back when its economy collapsed.

Egypt isn’t prone to communal civil war like Lebanon, Syria, Algeria, and Iraq, but there’s a first time for everything.

Maybe none of the above scenarios will come to pass, but all of them are possible.

If Morsi is replaced, the new president will not have an easier time governing Egypt even if he does everything right. Egypt’s economy, an emergency room case to begin with, is imploding. Half the population lives on less than two dollars a day because they have no education or skills. That’s not a problem that can be fixed any time soon. Tourists won’t return any time soon, and Egypt desperately needs tourist dollars and Euros.

Nor will Egypt’s authoritarian political culture instantly become Jeffersonian. That could eventually happen, but it’s not going to happen before Wednesday morning.

Whatever comes next, the misnamed “Arab Spring” appears to be moving to a new phase.

Searching for My Uncles' Soviet Killers

Two of my uncles were killed by the Soviets and I’d like to know who the perpetrators were. The first, my aunt’s husband, Bohdan, was killed exactly 72 years ago, on June 30, 1941, when the Soviet secret police shot somewhere between 9,000 and 20–25,000 (or possibly even more) mostly Ukrainian political prisoners in western Ukraine in the course of a week. The second, my father’s kid brother, Teodozii, was arrested sometime in 1947, sent to a prison camp in Siberia, and never returned.

Lebanon's Israel Syndrome

The Tower, an outstanding new magazine about the Middle East edited by David Hazony, has just published one of my long essays. Here’s the first half.

Lebanon has a serious problem with Israel.

The country has technically been at war with its southern neighbor since the Jewish state declared independence in 1948. Israeli citizens are banned. Even foreigners are banned if they have Israeli stamps in their passports. Lebanese citizens aren’t allowed to have any communication of any kind with Israelis anywhere in the world. If citizens of the two countries meet, say, on a beach in Cyprus or in a bar in New York, the Lebanese risks prison just for saying hello. Israel doesn’t even exist on Lebanese maps.

At the same time, with the possible exception of Morocco, Lebanon is in important ways the least anti-Israel country in the Arab world. Indeed, decades ago many Israelis assumed it would be among the first Arab countries to sign a peace treaty with the Jewish state. It made sense at the time. With its enormous one-third Christian minority (it used to have an outright Christian majority), it’s the least Muslim and most religiously diverse of all the Arab countries. And since a huge number of its Christians insist they aren’t even Arabs, Lebanon might be the least Arab of the Arabic-speaking countries. Its capital, Beirut, has more in common with Tel Aviv than with any Arab city, including those in Lebanon itself. Put simply, Lebanon is just about the only Arab country where Israel can find natural allies.

Yet today it is widely assumed that Lebanon will be the last Arab country to make peace with Israel.

To understand this paradox, you have to try to understand Lebanon. To say Lebanon is a nation of contradictions is a cliché, but it’s a cliché because it is true. It is simultaneously Western and Eastern, Christian and Muslim, modern and feudal, democratic and illiberal, secular and sectarian, cosmopolitan and parochial, progressive and reactionary, tolerant and aggressively hateful. This is because there is more than one Lebanon.

Lebanon is divided roughly into Christian, Sunni, and Shia thirds, with a ten percent Druze population, as well. The Christians have had ties with the West for centuries. Most of the Shiites look to Iran for leadership and support. The Sunnis are generally aligned with the more liberal and moderate forces in the Arab world, as well as with the Saudis. Thanks to all of this, as well as Lebanon’s location between Israel and Syria, Lebanon tends to get sucked into regional conflicts.

And because Lebanon was (and to some extent still is) a vassal state of Syria, even discussing peace and normal relations with Israel can get you imprisoned or killed. That’s been the case since the middle of Lebanon’s civil war when international peacekeepers withdrew from Beirut, and Syria’s ruling Assad family came to dominate Lebanese politics.

Lebanon is a more-or-less free country that protects freedom of speech, but on the Israeli question, it is effectively a police state. Lebanese are afraid to talk to each other about it. They’ll talk to me, though, because I’m an outsider. They’re extremely careful, of course, and much of what they say is strictly in confidence, but once in a while someone will talk to me on-the-record, knowing perfectly well that I’m going to publish what they have to say.

*

I’ve been working in Lebanon on and off for eight years, and I’ve noticed that things have changed since the Syrian revolution broke out in 2011.

The red line on Israel isn’t as bright as it used to be. Except for the usual warmongering rhetoric from Hezbollah, I sense more moderation and sanity than I used to. It doesn’t surprise me. Peace between Israel and Lebanon is still a long way off, but the possibility is now at least conceivable, mainly because the end of Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad will be the beginning of the end for Hezbollah. And they’re the ones who enforce the red line on Israel.

This became clear to me when I had lunch with Mosbah Ahdab, a Sunni politician and former member of parliament from Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city.

“The post-Assad transition is going to be tough,” he said as we shared a bottle of wine in his living room, “because we have Hezbollah still around. But Hezbollah will be cut down to a more realistic size. They will still have their weapons, but they can’t continue provoking the tens of millions of people who live around here that they’ve been aggressive to all these years.”

Indeed, Hezbollah will be surrounded by enemies. With the Assad family out of power in Syria, Hezbollah will be left exposed as a Shia minority in a Sunni majority region. Their immediate neighbors are Jews, Christians, and Druze, none of whom have the time, patience, or tolerance for an Iranian proxy militia in the eastern Mediterranean.

“There will be the real possibility of development,” Ahdab said. “We could have train service all the way down to Cairo. It could be fantastic.”

Michael Young, the opinion page editor of Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper, once said that Lebanon is a place where what isn’t said matters just as much as what is. This was one of those times.

Look at a map: The only way a train can travel from Beirut to Cairo is by passing through Israel. Lebanon and Israel will need an open border and normal relations before something like that could even get started. Yet a former member of parliament—not a Christian, but a Sunni Muslim—is openly, if a little obliquely, discussing it.

But he can’t discuss it with the Israelis. He can’t talk about anything with Israelis or he’ll go to jail. And he isn’t happy about that at all.

“I was once invited to a European Union conference,” he told me. “There was an Israeli guy from the Web site bitterlemons.net sitting near me and trying to talk to me. There was a camera around and I couldn’t respond. When the session started he said to the president that he didn’t know why he was invited to a place where people from Arab countries are present and refuse to speak with him. When it was my turn to speak, I addressed the president. I said, the previous gentleman is totally right. It’s ridiculous to be unable to communicate, but the laws in my country forbid me from speaking to him. I’ll go to jail.”

I’ve heard lots of stories like this over the years from Lebanese and Israelis. Israelis are offended when they run into Lebanese people who refuse to acknowledge them, but Ahdab isn’t kidding when he says he’ll go to prison. He used to be part of the government, but he’s afraid of his own government’s laws. And if he had tried to change the law when he was in the parliament, he almost certainly would have been killed by Hezbollah or another of Syria’s allies.

I told Ahdab I think that law is insane.

“Absolutely,” he said.

But what if there’s a new regime in Damascus? What if, as he said, Hezbollah gets cut down to size?

*

Samy Gemayel, in a long-standing family tradition, serves as a member of the Lebanese parliament. He’s the son of former President Amine Gemayel and the nephew of Bashir Gemayel, who was Lebanon’s president-elect in 1982 before he was assassinated. Samy’s brother Pierre was an MP in 2006 when men wielding automatic pistols shot him to death through the windshield of his car.

The Gemayels founded the Kataeb Party, which had a militia best known as the Phalangists during the civil war of the 1970s and 1980s. It was a hard-right party back then, but like most parties in Lebanon (except for Hezbollah) it has mellowed with age. Today, the Kataeb has more in common with European social democratic parties than with its militant and ruthless old self.

I met Samy Gemayel in his office in the mountains above Beirut and asked what he thinks might change in Lebanon without the Assad regime next door, especially if it also means a chastened and weakened Hezbollah. And, I added, “will there be any possibility that people might at least start discussing a Lebanese-Israeli peace track with a new government in Syria? Nobody even talks about it now even though Israel and Syria have negotiated repeatedly.”

“It’s a syndrome of the Lebanese people,” he said. “For twenty years anyone who even opened his mouth and said we should think about having a peace treaty with Israel went to prison or was killed.”

That was because of the Syrians and Hezbollah.

“People are afraid,” he said. “It’s like someone who has been in prison for thirty years. When he gets out of prison, he’s afraid to walk on the street and talk to people. It’s the same for the Lebanese people. They haven’t gotten over this syndrome. Especially since Hezbollah is here to remind them.”

A peace treaty is a long way off, of course, and will certainly require the destruction or transformation of Hezbollah before it can happen. But the first step will be getting over this syndrome and dissolving the red line. And there may be a relatively simple way to accomplish it.

“What if,” I said to Gemayel, “people from Washington came here and said, ‘Hey, you need to talk to your neighbors.’ Would things change?”

“Yes, it can change,” he said.

And why shouldn’t it? The syndrome is simple. It’s based on fear, silence, and punishment. If the United States pressures Lebanon to negotiate with Israel, the Lebanese will at least be able to discuss the fact that they’re being pressured by the United States to negotiate with Israel. And those who think it’s a fine idea will be given international cover. Just as the red line was imposed from the outside, it can be erased from the outside.

Indeed, powerful Lebanese people are walking right up to the red line right now without pressure from outside.

“Remember,” Gemayel said, “when Hezbollah had indirect talks with Israel through the Germans? I went on TV. It was the first time someone talked about this. I said, ‘how come Hezbollah is allowed to talk to the Israelis indirectly through the Germans to get their prisoners back while the Lebanese state is not allowed to do indirect talks like Hezbollah to get back Shebaa Farms?’”

Hezbollah didn’t respond to that challenge. What could they possibly say?

The Gemayels and their party were allied with Israel during Lebanon’s civil war. Samy Gemayel’s uncle, Bashir, swore to vanquish Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian state-within-a-state in southern Lebanon, to throw out the Syrian army, and to sign a peace treaty with Jerusalem. Naturally the Israelis backed him to the hilt in 1982 when they invaded and he was elected president.

According to Thomas Friedman’s account in his book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, one of the last things Bashir Gemayel ever said was, “To all those who don’t like the idea of me as president, I say, they will get used to it.” A few moments later, he was blown to pieces by terrorists from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.

Bashir’s brother Amine replaced him as president. Lebanon’s civil war raged on—it was only half-way through at that point. And the Kataeb’s alliance with Israel began to wane. Jerusalem’s peace partner was dead and replaced with his more cautious brother. Hezbollah was on the rise in the south—from which Arafat’s PLO had been evicted—and in the northern Bekaa Valley. The Assad regime’s military forces weren’t planning to leave Lebanon anytime soon. The Israeli dream of a friendly and terrorist-free Lebanon was premature and would have to be deferred for a generation at least.

I asked Samy Gemayel about his party’s former alliance with Israel, and I did it carefully. “You can answer me twice,” I said, “on the record and off the record. I can turn off my voice recorder because I want to know what you really think, but I also want to know what you would say publicly.”

“Let me be very clear,” he said, “and this is my answer publicly and non-publicly. We believe we had no choice back then but to have an alliance with Israel. I’ve said it on TV. And if we find ourselves in the same position today, we would do it again. I also said that on TV. We couldn’t do anything else. The Syrians were against us. The Palestinians were against us. The Lebanese Muslims were against us. The entire Arab world was against us. What were we supposed to do? Say, please kill us? We would take support from anywhere, and the only country that supported us at that time was Israel. We really don’t have anything to hide on this matter. And we believe that there should come a day when we negotiate with Israel on all pending and disputed issues in order to have permanent peace on our southern borders. We should end this. We should have stability.”

He went on. I thought he might be careful and cautious, that he’d rather discuss something else, but no, he walked right up to the red line and told me I could print all of it.

“There is no excuse,” he continued, “why Egypt is allowed to have a peace treaty with Israel while we cannot negotiate for an armistice. Why can Jordan have a peace treaty while we also cannot negotiate for an armistice? Even Syria, without a peace treaty, has had peaceful relations with Israel since 1974. Why can’t we? More, why can Hezbollah, a paramilitary group, negotiate with Israel twice through German mediators in 2004 and 2009 to release its prisoners, and the official Lebanese state is not allowed to?”

How many Lebanese people agree with Gemayel? Who knows? They aren’t really allowed to discuss it. There certainly aren’t any polls on this question, and they wouldn’t be reliable if there were.

When I asked how many people he sensed agreed with him, he put it this way: “We have to take into consideration that a lot of people were killed here by Israel. We have to be very careful when we talk about it because people died. But it’s the same for Syria. Syria also killed a significant number of Lebanese from 1976 onward; more than what Israel killed, it may be argued. So if you want to have this attitude toward Israel, why not have the same toward Syria? Syria has done more harm to Lebanon than Israel.”

There are two reasons it’s considered acceptable to be a Lebanese ally of Syria but not of Israel. First of all, Syria is a “brother” Arab country. And second, Syria conquered Lebanon, transformed its political system, and still has agents and proxies inside.

“We just want peace in this country,” Gemayel said. “We want to build this country that has been destroyed for the last forty years. And we can’t build this country as long as it is at war. We don’t want to be at war anymore. It’s as simple as that.”

Read the rest in The Tower magazine.


Luxor in Revolt

Egyptian President Mohamad Morsi is destroying the country with a toxic mix of ideology and incompetence, and the city of Luxor is now in open revolt after he appointed a terrorist as the governor.

MEDINAT HABU, Egypt — Muhammed Hassan vividly remembers the November day in 1997 when six Gama'a Islamiyya gunmen charged a 3,400-year-old mortuary temple in Luxor.

“My cousin was a guard and was sitting in the police kiosk, and they took their guns out of their jackets and killed him,” he recounts.

A temple custodian, Hassan hid as the Islamists slaughtered 58 foreign tourists and four Egyptians. He crept out 45 minutes later to find “a bloodbath … puddles of blood everywhere.”

Helping to remove the bodies, he saw “one woman holding her child … when they died, they were stuck together. That was the most difficult thing for me to see.”

[…]

In Luxor, protests erupted last week when Morsy named Adel Al Khayat, a leading Gama'a Islamiyya figure, as the local governor; Al Khayat withdrew when residents barred his office door and burned tires in the street.

Many here resented his connection to the group behind the 1997 massacre. Many believe his selection reflected an Islamist assault on tourism, near collapse since Egypt's 2011 revolution.

In the past, Hassan says, 20,000 tourists visited Luxor daily. “Now we are lucky to get 400, 500.” Only five of the normal 320 tourist cruise ships sail the Nile, according to guides.

Hassan calls out to a fellow guide, Adel Asad, to ask his opinion about the state of things. “Luxor is dead,” Asad yells back, and the ousted governor “is an idiot, like the president.”

That's a sentiment heard often here.

Within living memory, Egyptians have tried monarchy, Arab Nationalism, socialism, and military dictatorship. None of those government models worked, so now they’re trying Islamism.

It won’t work either. It will fail more spectacularly than even the others.

Egyptians might eventually see the virtues in political liberalism—a small minority of Egyptians already do—but it won’t likely become the dominant philosophy until it’s pushed by people who haven’t been born yet.

Millions More Squandered by USAID in Afghanistan

Won’t US aid agencies ever learn?

A new government auditor’s report (pdf) shows that the United States Agency for International Development allowed a contractor to distribute 300 solar panels to scores of shopkeepers in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan—even though almost none of the shops were wired for electricity.

Few if any of the panels were ever put to use. Some shopkeepers took them home, or sold them. At $2,300 each, that’s $600,000 in taxpayer money wasted. But there’s more, so much more.

USAID spent about $70 million overall on an agricultural-development program for southern Afghanistan over the last two years. To carry out the work, it contracted with International Relief and Development, Inc., a Washington-area NGO known as IRD.

Afghanistan’s Vicious Patronage Network

Just about any American who’s spent much time in Afghanistan will tell you that the biggest challenge we faced there wasn’t the insurgency, but the culture, specifically the “old boy” patronage networks and expectations of bribery that have wasted untold millions of American taxpayers’ money. This will take a very long time to change. And as we leave Afghanistan—the turnover of security responsibilities to the Afghan National Army and Police passed almost unheralded last week—we leave behind a generation of young Afghans who have the education to serve their country, but not the opportunities they deserve. I’m referring to the many recent college graduates who are unemployed or under-employed.

When I was visiting Afghanistan often, I used to get a lot of e-mails like the ones below:

June 24 2013

Dear Ann Marlowe

Hi, I hope you are fine and be successful in your business.

Putin’s Police Raid Human Rights Group

“You are scaring the … public. Nothing like that is happening here,” Vladimir Putin told German ARD television in April. “There is no need to scare anybody [by saying] that someone is being seized, arrested, confiscated [sic] … There are some administrative sanctions, but I believe that they are absolutely within the bounds of civilized rules.” The Kremlin leader was responding to a question about the ongoing crackdown against Russian NGOs, which have been forced by a new law to label themselves as “foreign agents”—which, in the Russian language, is synonymous with “foreign spies.” Organizations that have refused to accept this slanderous label—including all of Russia’s leading human rights NGOs—are facing forced dissolution.

China’s Coming Cash Crash?

Today you could not tell the Chinese banking system is entering a new phase in its month-long liquidity crisis, at least from the Chinese stock market. Shares ended down 0.4 percent, but the big story is that trading was only “choppy,” not volatile. 

Yesterday shares went on a “bungee jump.” First, the widely followed Shanghai Composite Index fell almost 6 percent—to its lowest level in more than four years—and then, in the last 90 minutes of trading, it skyrocketed to close near its opening, down only 0.2 percent for the day.

Argentina's High Court Clips Kirchner's Wings

In a stunning decision last week, the Argentine Supreme Court struck down an attempt by President Cristina Kirchner to submit the country’s judiciary to political control by the executive. Many saw Kirchner’s reform legislation, which the court ruled unconstitutional, as an attempt by the president to open the door to a third term in office.

The ruling gives wings to the growing internal opposition to Kirchner’s turbulent style of populist government, which has produced acute inflation, loss of foreign investments, and conflicts over press freedom and the rule of law. The dissent has even reached into the ruling peronist movement, where a new generation of leaders, mainly popular mayors, have rejected Kirchner’s reelection. A legislative election in October will determine whether the opposition will achieve control of Argentina’s bicameral Congress and end a decade of political dominance by the Kirchner faction.

On Nationalism and Fascism, Part 3

These reflections suggest that the most useful way of conceptualizing the interwar Organization of Ukrainian Nationalism (OUN) is as a nationalist movement with a nationalist ideology along the lines described above. In turn, this means that the OUN is most usefully compared to other nationalist movements that aspired to national liberation and the creation of nation-states (such as the American revolutionaries of 1776, the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Algerian National Liberation Front, the Irish Republican Army, the interwar Croatian Ustasha, the Vietnamese National Liberation Front, the Chinese Communist Party, and the Haganah in the British Mandate of Palestine, to name just a few) and not to fascist regimes or to fascist movements (such as Italian fascism, Nazism, the Polish Falanga, the Romanian Iron Guard, the Hungarian Arrow Cross, and the like).

Snowden’s Hunt for Refuge

Having left Hong Kong (wisely for him, I think: You just never know what China is going to do next), the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden is on his way. To Cuba, claimed the initial reports. No, actually to Venezuela, claimed later reports. And finally—the final report. Or what we are led to think is the final report on Snowden’s final destination: Ecuador.

Hezbollah's Disneyland

Hezbollah now has a theme park.

The Tourist Landmark of the Resistance promises a fun-filled day for the entire family celebrating the holy Islamic “resistance” against the perfidious Zionist Entity. The Syrian- and Iranian-backed Party of God built it on top of a mountain overlooking South Lebanon and the Israeli border area, and they bus in school kids from all over the country to look at it.

Anti-American propagandist Noam Chomsky attended the inauguration.

It’s open to visitors from everywhere in the world except Israel, so I had to see it. My friend and occasional traveling companion Sean LaFreniere joined me, and we set out in a rental car from Beirut.

Getting there was a bit tricky. The museum-park was built on an old Hezbollah combat base that sits 3,400 feet above the rolling hills of South Lebanon. The nearby village of Mleeta is nowhere near a main road, nor is it on any maps, not even the huge and otherwise comprehensive map I bought for twelve dollars. But Google Earth knows where it is, and I could see online that it’s just four miles south of the Christian town of Jezzine at the southern tip of the Mount Lebanon range.

So I figured Sean and I could go there via Jezzine, which is on every map and is not at all hard to find. Jezzine isn’t exactly a hot spot for tourists, but Westerners do wind up there once in a while to soak in the mountainous scenery, to admire the Ottoman architecture of the old downtown area, and to escape the heat and humidity down at sea level.

But I knew in advance that driving south from Jezzine might be tricky and potentially…interesting. Hezbollah has been snapping up property there for years and using it for some secretive purpose that still isn’t entirely clear. Whatever they’re doing, it’s almost certainly part of their battlefield preparation for the next round of armed conflict with Israel.

Reporter Nicholas Blanford visited the area south of Jezzine in 2010 and was stopped by a Hezbollah fighter with an AK-47. “What are you doing here?” the gunman said. “This is a military zone. You should not be here.”

Jezzine is not along the low-lying Israeli border where most of the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah has taken place. It’s a Christian town thousands of feet up. Immediately to the south of it, though, is one of the highest elevation Shia regions in all of Lebanon. It’s somewhat protected by geography from ground invasions, and because it’s at a high elevation, it’s an excellent and rather obvious place to dig in and launch surface-to-surface missiles.

So I felt a bit of trepidation about driving through there, but it’s the easiest route to Mleeta and Hezbollah’s theme park, and the journalist in me was curious if I’d see anything.

Sean and I had coffee in one of Jezzine’s cafes. An oblivious person would have no idea they were a mere handful of miles from either a closed terrorist military zone or a terrorist Disneyland. Jezzine is a mountain town that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Eastern Europe, but it’s in Lebanon where quasi-Western outposts in the East co-exist very uneasily next to Iran’s state-within-a-state on the Mediterranean.

Only one road leads south out of town, so there was no question which way Sean and I were supposed to go.

Lebanon’s mountains are overwhelmingly Christian and Druze and have been for a thousand years, but almost immediately outside Jezzine we passed Hezbollah billboards and flags. I tensed up a bit and scanned the countryside for signs military activity even though I doubted I’d see much. Hezbollah expertly hides its rocket launchers and bunkers. Its engineers built vast underground tunnels right under the noses of the Israelis by smuggling unearthed rocks out of the ground one or two at a time and by smuggling cement into caves one teaspoon at a time. It took years, but that’s how they did it. So while I was pretty sure I wouldn’t see anything Hezbollah wanted to hide, I couldn’t help looking.

And Hezbollah can’t help being paranoid.

A Lebanese army soldier stopped me and Sean on the road. He was a kid, hardly a day older than twenty, and he seemed affable enough like nearly all soldiers at Lebanese checkpoints, but a man in his fifties in a nearby building barked an order at him, and the kid told us to get out of the car.

We stepped out of the car.

“You need to go inside,” the kid said, “and answer some questions.”

This checkpoint was ostensibly staffed by the Lebanese army, but I later found out Hezbollah took control of it a couple of years ago. It was one of their demands during negotiations after they invaded Beirut in 2008. But I didn’t have to be told that. It was obvious. The man Sean and I were ordered to see was clearly not an officer in the army.

He wore blue jeans and a black leather jacket. He had a beard that looked like mine would if I didn’t trim it or shave for three weeks. (No one in the military wears beards.) If I showed you a picture of him, you’d think he was American or European with his white skin and blue eyes and his casual Western attire. His attitude, though, and his general bearing, reeked of authority and of Hezbollah.

“Where are you going!” he barked as if it was a command instead of a question.

“Nabatieh,” I said, referring a Shia city down off the mountain that is not in the hands of Hezbollah.

“No!” he said and wagged his finger in my face like I was a naughty child about to be punished. “Nabatieh, no!”

The Lebanese army command in Sidon told me and Sean we could go anywhere we liked north of Nabatieh, that only the Israeli border region was closed, but that turned out not to be true.

I’ve been to Nabatieh plenty of times. It is not controlled or administered by Hezbollah. Going there is not a big deal. There’s nothing sensitive in Nabatieh, nor is it dangerous or really even unfriendly. This man in the black leather jacket had no reason to care if Sean and I ended up in Nabatieh. What he didn’t want was for us to drive to Nabatieh from there.

“Turn around and go back!” the man said. “Back to Jezzine!”

“Okay,” I said.

If I defied him, he’d lay hands on me. That came across. He wasn’t carrying a weapon that I could see, but the young man on the road was. And it was obvious that the man in the black leather jacket was the king of that inch. Sean and I were not getting past him.

So we returned to the car.

“Back to Jezzine!” he yelled again, his face flushed with anger at our existence.

I don’t know what he wanted to hide, but whatever it was, it’s roughly two miles south of Jezzine and two miles north of Hezbollah’s Disneyland.

*

Sean and I had to drive all the way back down to Sidon and up to Mleeta from the coast. The distance to Mleeta from Sidon is only twenty miles or so, but the route passes through an intricate web of unmarked and mostly unmapped back roads over rolling terrain. Once in a while I saw a sign pointing us in the right direction, but only one turn in five was marked, so we made a ridiculous number of wrong turns.

We drove through village after village, often turning at random, having no idea if we were going to the right way or not, constantly doubling back and second-guessing ourselves. I asked for directions a couple of times, but no one had the first clue how to get there or how to explain it. Everyone told us something different, which is what happens throughout the country no matter where I’m trying to go. There’s hardly any point in asking, really. Some people, if they don’t know the way, will just guess.

But we finally found the right road up the mountain and climbed through unlabeled and unmapped Shia villages until eventually we reached the top and had a commanding airplane view of South Lebanon. Israel was off to the left through the haze. The azure Mediterranean shimmered like an ocean before us.

And then we were at the Tourist Landmark of the Resistance. Two hours earlier we were but a handful of miles away at the checkpoint.

Hezbollah’s museum-park was practically empty.

It’s not on the list of sites promoted or managed by the Ministry of Tourism. No. This is, I believe, the only tourist attraction in the world built and managed by a terrorist organization.

Admission is thankfully free. I don’t know for certain, but I suspect it’s against the law for me to conduct economic business of any kind with Hezbollah. It’s against the law for diplomats at the American Embassy in Lebanon to even speak to anyone from Hezbollah. Either way, I don’t want to give them my money.

Sean and I picked up our free tickets at the gate and walked in.

I didn’t want to poke around in Hezbollahland with my big and obvious journalist camera, but Sean brought his tiny one and took some pictures. All the photos you see here are his.

“How weird is this?” I said as we approached. “Nothing like this will ever be built by Al-Qaeda.”

A slightly scruffy young man in a baseball cap saw us and approached. He appeared to be in his mid-twenties. Apparently, he was our guide. 

How was this going to go? Would he think we were useful idiots who ran off to Lebanon to cheerlead the resistance? A miniscule percentage of Americans think Hezbollah is awesome, but a lot of them wash up in Lebanon. The place is a magnet for such people. I’ve met some. They have issues.

Or did our guide-to-be suspect Sean and I were as hostile to Hezbollah as they are to us? Would he think we were spies or Israelis who sneaked in on dual passports?

Turns out he was suspicious. He didn’t actually say “ugh” when he figured out who we are, but I could read it all over his face.

“Welcome,” he said stiffly.

I made eye contact with him for only the briefest of moments. “Thank you,” I said, and I said it coldly.

And so we made it clear what we thought of each other.

“Do you…know where you are?” he said, as if we were dolts who just happened upon the place randomly.

Of course I knew where we were. It took a lot of effort and most of the day to get there. But I pretended like I had only a vague knowledge of even which country I was in, let alone which part of it.

“I sort of know where we are,” I lied, “but not really, so why don’t you tell us what this place is.”

He correctly explained that Israel occupied South Lebanon from 1982 to 2000 and that Hezbollah resisted and expelled the occupation. He did not say that Hezbollah is a creature of the Syrian and Iranian governments. Nor did he say it’s a sectarian militia in a state of cold war with the rest of the country and in a state of hot war with the bulk of the people in Syria. He certainly didn’t say Hezbollah is a terrorist organization that operates on six continents. No, in his version, Hezbollah is the Lebanese branch of the French Resistance.

But of course he would put it that way. He was talking to an American.

Sean wandered off while the Hezbollah guy spoke. I know why Sean did it without having to ask. He was giving me an excuse to break away later without being rude or looking suspicious. But I did not want to break away yet. I wanted to hear how Hezbollah explained itself to Americans.

The way the guy told Hezbollah’s story, the period of resistance was all in the past. He did not say the Party of God is still active. He certainly didn’t tell me Hezbollah is guarding something secret just up the road. He didn’t know that Sean and I had tried to approach from that direction, but he had to know it was possible. I thought about asking him what the checkpoint was for, but he was wary enough already and I didn’t drive all the way to Mleeta just to get kicked out or interrogated right at the gate.

“Thanks for the welcome,” I said, “but I need to go find my friend.”

He nodded, relieved. He was no more interested in spending time with me than I wanted to hang out with him. “I’ll be here if you have any questions,” he said coldly.

We didn’t shake hands.

I wandered off in Sean’s direction. The man who would have been our guide didn’t follow.

“They’ve got a theater in that building,” I said and gestured with my thumb when I caught up with Sean. “They’re showing propaganda in there. We should go watch it.”

We went inside. The film was not long. It was all about Hezbollah’s insurgency from the mid-1980s through the year 2000. It ended with a wild boast from the now-dead Hezbollah leader Abbas al-Musawi. He claimed, “Israel has fallen.”

Um, no. Israel has not fallen.

Saddam Hussein’s regime fell in Iraq, as did Moammar Qaddafi’s in Libya. Hosni Mubarak fell in Egypt. Bashar al-Assad may yet fall in Syria. But Israel hasn’t gone anywhere.

On the outskirts of Cairo is a monument to the Yom Kippur War of 1973 where, after launching initially successful sneak attacks, Egypt and Syria got their asses kicked by the Israelis.

According to Cairo’s ludicrous narrative, Egypt emerged as the victor.

The monument was built by the North Koreans. An architecturally identical propaganda installation exists in Pyongyang.

I have no idea, really, if such hysterical claims of victory against all evidence and reality are taken seriously by those who make them. It’s no secret that failed leaders conceal the truth from their subjects, but at the same time the human mind is capable of extraordinary self-deception.

Hezbollah’s museum-park, though, is better than Egypt’s. It’s more creative and interesting to look at, the propaganda less obvious.

An extraordinary diverse array of Israeli and Hezbollah ordnance is on display to satisfy every war nerd’s curiosity. Some of it is set up in labeled orderly rows and some if it is used in post-modern set pieces.

Take the pit, for instance, described on a sign as “structural scenic art.” Blown-up Israeli tanks and helmets are “artistically” scattered about in a giant hole in the ground. It’s supposed to symbolize Israel’s defeat when Israeli troops left in 2000.

Beyond the pit are tunnels and bunkers. I couldn’t tell how much of what I was looking at was real and how much was built for the park. After all, the Tourist Monument of the Resistance was erected atop one of Hezbollah’s old military bases. Some of what I was looking at was probably real.

And since I couldn’t always tell where the real ended and the fake began, it was worth a visit and a look regardless of what I think about Hezbollah’s politics. It’s worth seeing. And per Dr. Johnson, it’s worth going to see.

I was able to momentarily divorce myself from the politics and recognize that, aside from the subject matter, it’s the kind of museum-park I’d expect to see in Europe or the United States. The experience could have been—should have been—creepier than it was. The fact that I wasn’t creeped out left me feeling uneasy. Why wasn’t it much more disturbing?

That’s when it hit me.

Hezbollah completely and utterly sanitized itself on top of that mountain.

Nowhere on the grounds is any mention whatsoever of the airplanes Hezbollah hijacked. Hezbollah pioneered suicide-bombings in the Middle East. Such things were unheard of before the Lebanese civil war. That’s a crucial part of Hezbollah’s history, and of the modern Middle East generally, but you wouldn’t know it from their museum. No exhibit chronicled the invasion of Beirut in 2008. Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian war is ignored. Acts of mass murder carried out in Argentina, Saudi Arabia, and Bulgaria are conspicuous blanks.

Visitors are not told about the kidnapping, torture, and murder of Americans in the 1980s. An honest Hezbollah museum would have a wax figure of a journalist chained to a radiator. No history of Hezbollah is complete without noting that the Party of God kidnapped the CIA’s Beirut station chief William Buckley and tortured him to death, but Hezbollah wants everyone to forget about that. Hezbollah destroyed the American and French Embassies in Beirut and leveled the US Marine base near the airport, but they left that stuff out, too.

Don’t get the wrong idea. They did not leave it out because they’re ashamed of it. These people are terrorists, not guilt-ridden liberals. They left it out because they know other people hate them for what they have done, yet they yearn to be popular.

And here’s the interesting thing about that: I’m not the target audience. Neither are you. Hezbollah isn’t sanitizing its history for Western consumption. Hezbollah is sanitizing its history for internal consumption.

Lebanese citizens are the target. Westerners can hardly even find the damn place. It’s not advertised anywhere, not in Beirut and certainly not in travel agency brochures. The Ministry of Tourism, which is of course geared to foreigners, completely ignores it. You have to know it’s there. A low-information visitor from Europe or the United States would have no idea it exists.

Hezbollah is selling itself as a patriotic guerrilla army that fought a war for liberation on behalf of the entire country. It has to because it’s otherwise feared and loathed as a foreign-backed militia that a single sect uses to bully all others.

The Party of God knows perfectly well that’s how it’s perceived. Hezbollah defensively argues against that perception on its very own plaques.

Hezbollah has repeatedly dragged the country into armed conflicts that no one else wants. In 2008 it started an internal war that no one else wanted. And it’s threatening to do it again by bringing home the Syrian war. An exhaustive catalogue of Hezbollah’s behavior would make it look no less monstrous at home as it does abroad.

There’s something else, too. If you were to visit this place without knowing anything about the relentless war against Israel except what Hezbollah told you, you’d think the war was long over. But just a few miles up the unmarked road to the north, the checkpoint manned by a paranoid irregular officer denying access to a military zone is proof that it’s not.

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In Jordan, a Fight for Media Freedom

Jordan’s recent decision to block hundreds of news websites has seen considerable outcry, even giving rise to a new initiative called 7oryanet, roughly translated as “freedom oh Internet.”

This is not to be interpreted in a hand-wringing way. This is not, “oh, freedom”—insert despairing sigh—“oh, Internet.”

On the contrary; when the law passed, the digital activist opposition collective responded by holding a national Internet blackout in protest. “What made the outcry from Amman different this time was the diversity of stakeholders,” observed Katherine Mansfield, writing in the Middle East–focused entrepreneurial publication WAMDA. “Freedom of speech activists were joined by the burgeoning Jordanian startup community in protesting the new laws.”

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