Hussain Abdul-Hussain

Confessions of a former March 14er

Now is the time to look at groups the way they look at themselves: Christian, Sunni, Shiite, Alawite, Druze and the like

ore than 3,000 Lebanese protested in Beirut on 3 October 2007 against a wave of attacks on anti-Syrian figures in the country

March 14, 2007 was the only time I joined one of those massive protests in downtown Beirut. As I walked with friends through the crowds, a group of men with drums chanted: “All the Shia are dying because of (former Sunni Prime Minister) Fouad Siniora.” A friend from the Sunni Future Movement, who passed by us, knew that three of us were Shiite-born March 14 supporters. He apologized. We said we had not taken offense, only for him to respond: “But where are all the good Shia like you?”


I smiled and intuitively said: “Had we considered ourselves Shia, we’d have been in the other square (Riad Solh, where March 8 and allies had organized a sit in).” Thus was the story of the Shiite-born March 14ers. They were welcome as defectors and expected to put a national face on what was fundamentally a sectarian anti-Hezbollah alliance of Sunnis, Druze and Christians.


Like liberals from other sects, the Shiite-born March 14ers understood that they had to be realistic and pick between the lesser of two evils. They reasoned that March 14 were the underdogs, that their leaders were being killed, and that even though Lebanon under March 14 rule would not be a liberal democracy, it would still be better than the fascist theories of the “resistance society and state.”


Meanwhile, March 14 never ceased to underperform and disappoint. With every cabinet formation, March 14 leaders poked each other’s eyes for portfolios. With every election, their tickets would be formed at the last minute after endless bickering. To top it all, whenever they won a parliamentary majority, they raced to sell their advantage to March 8, often in return for insignificant concessions.


March 14 never presented a governing platform with a five or a 10-year vision of how to grow the economy, create jobs, minimize corruption, push toward secularism or reform the constitution and state institutions.


The climax of March 14’s tribal nature came with former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s visit to Damascus, where he made up with Syrian President Bashar Assad. After the visit, and overnight, scores of March 14 leaders and pundits abandoned their rhetoric on democracy and sovereignty and started preaching about the need to be realistic.


What March 14 never realized was that nationalism and democracy take time, patience and perseverance to gel. Shiite-born March 14ers like us had paid a higher price for our position: we had walked out on our tribe; we had exposed our families to immense social pressure in our villages and circles of relatives. And then, all of sudden, we were expected to go back to all those we had broken with over matters of principle and just say it had been a misunderstanding.


Personally, March 14 was not the first disappointment. As half-Iraqi, I had bet on Iraqis — the nation of 1 million engineers — and invested emotionally and intellectually in the toppling of Saddam Hussein, hoping democracy would take root. But democracy needs democrats and all we got in Iraq was a wave of looters followed by a wave of Shiite militia thugs, prompting Sunni terrorists to open shop in Iraq. The result was the creation of the most failing federal state in history.


I then put my old world, Lebanon and Iraq, behind and happily endorsed my American dream, only for the Syrians to take to the streets in defiance of one of the world’s most brutal regimes. I thus shelved my Iraqi and Lebanese disappointments, and because in its first months the Arab media had kept a lid on the Syrian revolution, I spent endless hours montaging footage of protests in Syrian cities, blogging and advocating for Syrian democracy.


But not to be outbid by the Iraqis or the Lebanese, Syria’s rebels took sectarianism to a new level. Their social media activity turned into anti-Shiite vitriol, which never offended or interested me. When Ahmed Al-Jarba, president of Syrian National Coalition, visited Washington, he instructed everyone to call him “Sheikh Ahmed.”


So here I found myself — after a decade of advocating for secularism, democracy and justice in the Middle East — still in the trenches with medieval sectarian and tribal leaders. I continue to support change in Syria and everywhere else. But I have no hope that anything good will come out of the Syrian inferno, regardless of Assad’s fate.  


Now is the time to be realistic. Now is the time to learn from the Iraqi, Lebanese and Syrian experiences: Non-sectarian, liberal citizens are few, helpless and irrelevant. The majority of individuals in the Middle East are members of tribes vying for control in a zero-sum game.


Now is the time to look at groups the way they look at themselves: Christian, Sunni, Shiite, Alawite, Druze and the like. While some of them think coexistence is a solution, coexistence in fact deepens fault lines, which have been flaring up over the past millennia.


Now is the time to suggest realistic solutions that might mitigate violence. Let all these communities disengage. Let each one live alone. The only regret is that, with sectarian states, non-sectarian people like me will find no place to call home. That is a problem we have get used to.


Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Kuwaiti newspaper Alrai. He tweets @hahussain


I smiled and said: “Had we considered ourselves Shia, we’d have been in the other square." (AFP Photo/Ramzi Haidar)

The climax of March 14’s tribal nature came with Saad Hariri’s visit to Damascus, where he made up with Bashar Assad."

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    If one holds ideas for which one's environment has not yet ripened, does not mean one should give up and "return to the herd" as Hussain suggests he is doing. A ship such as this one takes a long time to turn, and many of its stewards will die before it finally turns. We have Europe as a precedent where it took a millennium to change what had been a dark, backward, ultra-religious, tribal and sectarian society into today's search for union founded on reason. The ideas exist in this Middle East; they're just not yet in the majority. Worse, the ideas remain in the purview of elites, not the street. We lack daring and courageous theorists, philosophers, authors and such to write in Arabic about what aches our societies. Guns and revolutions could make a difference, but liberal ideas need to be seeded in the minds of ordinary people before change is possible. Otherwise, as we see in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Syria, in Egypt.... we wage wars and revolutions to replace one dictator with another. Tunisia is a beacon of hope. Its people in the street seem to understand viscerally what it takes to create a liberal and tolerant society. Lebanon is pathetically backward compared to Tunisia.

    November 28, 2014

  • Beiruti

    Bravo Hanibaal! Great post

    November 29, 2014

  • abc2000

    we have plenty of "intellectual" or artists: they live abroad, no body is reading them, or they are assassinated (Samir Kassir, Gibran Tueini)

    December 1, 2014

  • Traveldiva

    Well said, Zaidt. All current leaders in Parliament should be dismissed. What Lebanon needs is the next generation of younger, moderate-thinking leadership (such as yourself) who genuinely care about the progress and future economic/social/educational development of Lebanon. The current government, regardless of religious sect, is incompetent and has been for years, and can't seem to get anything right. What country in the 21st Century, doesn't have water and electricity? All Parliament does is fight to maintain a Presidential vacuum and keep their roles in power. Totally agree-- women should definitely hold some political positions in Lebanon. It would be great to see a new perspective in government. After all, it's time for change.

    November 27, 2014

  • KayStearns

    Do you even think about what you write dude? Seriously the quality of the pieces on NowLebanon have reach massive lows. The way you portray your arguments, your sentence composition, your grammar ... its all just of very low quality and highly emotional. Nothing personal, some of the points you mention are valid, you just need to stop attempting to use fiery rhetoric to back your arguments. My two cents.

    November 26, 2014

  • ZiadT

    1 of 6- Interesting story, but it is absurd to suggest that secularists are a minority or have no place in the Middle East. The reason March 14th never achieved what the Cedar Revolution was all about (i.e. secularism, unity, modernity, liberalism, freedom, democracy and human rights for Lebanon), is because the revolution was hijacked by the same politicians who have a vested interest in seeing all these principles not materialize. When one million Lebanese went down to protest all waving Lebanese flags it was not because of Hariri’s assassination. It was mainly to say that they reject violence as a means of enforcing policy. They reject living in a country where corrupt politicians cut deals behind their backs. They reject sectarianism and the divide and conquer tactics that are being used against them. They reject not having a sovereign state and they wanted to see a big change. In short, they wanted a sovereign Lebanese state capable of guaranteeing their rights as citizens regardless of their religious, ethnic or social class. Not only did our corrupt politicians highjack this movement and any other movement that advocate political or social change, but they used it to deepen the sectarian divide and make themselves more relevant and the soul representatives of this movement. The same can be said about March 8th to not take sides… they are the same political garbage in a different pile.

    November 24, 2014

  • ZiadT

    2 of 6- Saad Hariri saw this movement as support for his father and the Future movement. He wanted to capitalize on that to inherit a political dynasty and make the transition a smooth one. Remember when they passed a law that allows inheritance to be passed on from father to son without paying any taxes for one day? You know the day when he inherited the billions of dollars from his father?... why does he get an exemption while the rest of us in Lebanon have to pay taxes? If for one minute any of the supporters of March 14th think that Saad Hariri, a born billionaire, cares about or is in touch with their reality, their day to day problems, then clearly they are delusional. True, Rafik Hariri gave to Lebanon, but the other side of the truth is that he didn’t do it because he was charitable, he also took a lot in return and made a fortune. Let’s not forget that during the civil war, he used to do Saudi Arabia’s bidding and funded many battles that cost the lives of so many innocent Lebanese citizens. The man scammed owners of Downtown into giving up their shares for little or nothing, he is no saint and no god. We should stop idolizing leaders as if they are infallible.

    November 24, 2014

  • ZiadT

    3 of 6- Another point in case is Walid Jumblatt, who has the philosophy of leading the charge of any social political movement in order to stay relevant, show that he is in touch with the needs of everyone and position himself as the leader and representative of these movement. This allows him to negotiate a bigger piece of the pie and maintain his position as the leader of a Druze community who is fed up with his domination and control of the Chouf Mountains. He has not allowed any development in Druze areas and anyone who proposes starting a factory, a business or any job creating project has to absurdly relinquish 51% control to Walid Beik. In other words if Mr. Jumblatt wants his constituents in the Chouf to stay poor so that he can stay in power and be a “Lord” over them all the while not providing them with anything in return. The man is a war criminal, a warlord and has no problem sending young Druze men to their death or to kill fellow Lebanese to maintain or enhance his political position. His seat in parliament during elections is guaranteed by the fact that no one dares to run against him in his district. He also inherited a sectarian political dynasty from his Father and is likely to pass it on to his son Taymoor. But other than that a charming progressive leader no doubt and a true democrat and a man of the people… Only his dog Oscar truly believes that.

    November 24, 2014

  • ZiadT

    4 of 6- Then we have Samir Geagea, who used March 14th movement to re-launch his political career and make a comeback into the politics plundering and sectarianism. It is surprising how prison changes people who once vowed to not give up on “the cause” (narrow sectarian Maronite Christian only vision of Lebanon cause) and are willing to send their supporters to their death to kill fellow poor Lebanese and massacre his opponents Christians and Muslims alike. After all, his record during the civil war includes: murdering members of Camil Chamoun’s National Liberal Party to bring the Tiger Militia under the Lebanese Forces Umbrella; the killing of Tony Frangiyeh and his family in the Ehden Massacre; cooperating and assisting Israel during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon; commanding the Lebanese Forces with the aim of uprooting the Druze from their villages in the Chouf; he became head of the Lebanese Forces after overthrowing Hobeika, and fought Michel Aoun and his army in both cases causing tremendous death and destruction in East Beirut. This is to name just a few of his patriotic achievements... But other than that he is a religious God fearing man, an honest patriot who reached out to work with his former opponent Walid Jumblatt because he cares about the future of Lebanon and all the Lebanese. Yeah Right! Let’s give him a piece of the pie too! He earned it!… Amin Gemayel has a similar record to all of the above.

    November 24, 2014

  • ZiadT

    5 of 6 - Do we honestly believe that these so-called current “leaders” care about the future of Lebanon, a Lebanese State or its citizens? They thrive on not having a state that will guaranty equal rights and responsibility to all its citizens. Again we can list the same patriotic achievements of March 8th leaders it would sound exactly the same… All politicians on all sides are not interested in seeing a secular state with strong institutions and the rule of law. It is how they came to power and how they maintain power in the first place, why change that? What’s in it for them? Nothing! They just want to stay in power. The minute the average citizen starts complaining that there are no jobs, no electricity, no water, too much corruption, inequality, injustice or question their political legitimacy, they create a perception of a sectarian threat to the existence of the Sunnis, the Shias, the Christians, the Druze or to the community they represent in order to distract everyone from the real issues and the truth. The truth is they are not fit to govern and are unworthy to represent us.

    November 24, 2014

  • ZiadT

    6 of 6- The sooner we realize that, the sooner we can live a better life together and achieve the goal of a secular strong, democratic, rule of law State. Until then the solution is definitely not to live in sectarian silos because clearly this path will lead to more wars, death and destruction for everyone and will only benefit these leaders. I’m not suggesting a violent revolution the way it happened in Syria or in Lybia but we need to be conscious of the truth about these politicians and start to build strong civil societies that will keep them in check. Lets ask for one specific thing at a time example: clean water, electricity, civil marriage, transparency, accountability, healthcare, education... issues that affect us all and that we can all agree on. I don’t think anyone in Lebanon wants to have dirty water and no electricity. Also we need to have new candidates that will run during next elections (let’s hope we have elections in 2 ½ years). I would recommend women because clearly men dropped the ball on this...

    November 24, 2014

  • Beiruti

    Ziadt for President!!!!!!!

    November 26, 2014

  • Beiruti

    A sad tale, but disengagement, retreat into one's own homogeneous confessional group is the surest way to continual sectarian strife. It is only natural that when there is no need or opportunity to interact with those of different confessional backgrounds, that the familiarity of dealing with others gives way to ignorance about them. And where we are ignorant we become prone to the demagogue who would play on our ignorance to vilify and demonize the other so as to make possible the rise of fear and hatred which fuel strife and conflict. So no, retreat into homogeneous communities is the exact wrong remedy. Integration, living among those not like yourself, letting them see that you are not the devil and you learning that they are not the devil is the first step toward peaceful coexistence, if it is to exist at all.

    November 24, 2014