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Lecture of Dr. Ghassan Salameh - RH UN-Habitat Memotial Award -2012

Lecture of Dr. Ghassan Salameh

During Ceremony Held to Present the

Rafik Hariri UN-Habitat Memorial Award


For two and a half years, I served as minister of culture in the Lebanese government, in charge, among many other things, of national heritage. In a country like Lebanon, this means millennia of accumulated world class treasures. On the day I left my position, I did not miss the opportunity to observe that "whatever Lebanese think of my performance, they have to recognize that tens of archeological sites have been discove1red and preserved under my watch and, no less important, that not a single building listed as part of our heritage, has been demolished". Not that the pressure from real estate promoters was not heavy: in their haste to take advantage of Beirut property boom, they wanted to ignore archeological discoveries and to replace beautiful Tuscany style villas with high rise office and residential buildings. They tried bribes, they complained to my superiors and colleagues, they even sued before the courts and they systematically failed in their efforts. And the single most important reason for our success in preservation was Prime Minister Rafic Hariri’s constant support. His line was clear : I trust your judgment and integrity Ghassan and I will adamantly support you".

This was quite remarkable for someone like Rafic Hariri, known as an energetic builder and certainly not as a keen fan of preservation. But Hariri was not only a builder as the restored souks of Beirut, the highways, the airport and so many other public works testify. By the time I had joined his cabinet, he had mutated into an accomplished statesman, knowledgeable of the intricacies of domestic politics, sensitive to public opinion, unbeatable on the richness and contradictions of our national legislation and, last but not least, an influential player in regional and international politics. I was a latecomer to his inner circle but I was to benefit from his trust and friendship, despite hours and hours of discussions about regional and world politics where we did not always see eye to eye. But, at least by the time I became his minister, he was an accomplished champion of conversation and an astute, patient and witty party to dialogue.

During those years, we were lucky to receive and host the prime minister of Malaysia for an official visit. Hariri told me then: «listen carefully to what Dr Mahathir has to say. He may be controversial but he is straightforward and, more importantly, he is a role model for so many leaders in the Islamic world". Dr Mahathir had then given in the large room of the grand serail a memorable speech on governance and world politics and I remember that I was much closer to Dr Mahathir's line on the developing crisis over Iraq than anybody else in the room. And this became even more obvious in spring 2003 when Hariri asked me to be by his side at the Non Aligned Summit in Kuala Lumpur. By then, Hariri was already on the defensive against those who wanted to isolate him. Many warned me against joining him in that trip. But I accepted the invitation and the discussion we had during that long trip from Beirut to Paris and then to the Malaysian capital, the two of us alone in his huge triple 7, remains very vivid in my memory. I was worried about the insistent attempts to curtail his government; he was, as ever, confident, probably overconfident, in his ability to overcome his adversaries' plots and to come back stronger so that he can implement his plan for Lebanon. A few weeks later, under heavy pressure, we had to part ways: Hariri was reappointed as prime minister but with a cabinet he strongly disliked and I left to Iraq as a UN official.

For my few years as member of Rafic Hariri's cabinet and being a witness of his deep admiration and friendship with Dr Mahathir, I am today grateful to be given the opportunity to speak at a ceremony where the Hariri UN Award for Habitat is bestowed on the great statesman and former prime minister of Malaysia. I do believe that both leaders had in common a deep attachment to their faith mixed in with a wonderful will and an infinite energy to rebuilding their respective countries. Both are endowed with a steely will and both are not risk averse. Both realize that prosperity is no less important than democracy. Both deeply believe that Muslims are not fatally condemned to remain on the margins of the world system and both indefatigably endeavored to bring their countries to the center of global attention. I offer you here my tribute to the late Rafic Hariri and my greetings and congratulations to Dr Mahathir on this most moving of events.

Ladies and gentlemen,

A few weeks from now, more precisely on December 17th, we will remember a much more modest figure, a vendor of vegetables in the small Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid who, out of despair, set himself alight and, by so doing, led an era of unprecedented upheavals in the Arab world, that is far from concluded, and which is often labeled as «the Arab Spring». With hindsight, some have felt that the intimations of these upheavals go back to those days of 2005 when hundreds of thousands of Lebanese took it to the streets to demonstrate against an order of things they had come to loathe, Hariri’s assassination having been the epitome of a country mishandled, betrayed, taken captive before almost being murdered.

Politics, plots and strategies are intertwined with those events evolving since December of 2010, but it would be simplistic to reduce those upheavals to a struggle for power among local and external players. There is certainly a competition for power and influence, pitting governments, sects, ideologies against each other but there is more, much more to what we are witnessing than this mechanistic view. Although no two cases are similar, some general features are perceptible across the entire region.

One evident process is a clear revolt against authoritarianism. Arab regimes had been immune to the third wave of democratization that had swept from Southern Europe to Southern America and from there into Central and Eastern Europe. Instead of joining that planetary shift, Arab authoritarianism had then been able to reinvent itself and to withstand a wave that, for the first time in human history, had allowed more than half of all human beings to live under a democratic regime. A clear majority of countries, for the first time ever, were espousing representative politics, but not in our part of the world, leading some impatient cognoscenti to complain and theorize about a so-called «Arab exceptionalism», some kind of genetic immunity to participative politics in their view. To a large extent, the Arab world is now going through a delayed sequel to this wave, with people in Tunisia and Syria, Egypt and Bahrain, calling for more political participation, sometimes obtaining what they seek or at least the first fruits of the reform process and proving wrong a large part of the established expertise.

But this is only part of the story. The present upheavals are also a rebellion by large chunks of the society against the local beneficiaries of globalization. In Cairo and Tunis, in Damascus as much as in

San’a, people were fed up with economic measures that gave a narrow, government- affiliated elite the exclusive benefits of economic growth such as sham privatizations where the regimes’ protégés took possession of public goods and properties through nepotism and trickery. Demonstrators now shouted in the streets: «We are suffering from the regime’s heavy hand, and now we also have to put up with its dirty one». That is why the present upheaval is not only political, it is also ethical in the sense that the demands are for more transparency, more open competition, more equality in access to resources.

We are also witnessing, and this is particularly relevant to you my colleagues from UN Habitat, a rebellion of the periphery against the urban centers. The immediate post- independence regimes were to a large extent, rural base, surviving thanks to the support of the peasantry and the provincial cities. More recently however, most Arab governments had shed their traditional support system in the rural areas and allied themselves with the urban classes. Tunisian leaders were too obsessed with tourism and industry on the coastline to cater for the hinterland; Syrian leaders neglected a peasantry made miserable by successive years of drought; other governments were insensitive to the inability of the armed forces and the bureaucracy to employ more and more young people from the countryside. Urban outskirts grew with huge numbers of rurbans, people from the countryside who migrated into the cities peripheries to live in illegal shantytowns and look desperately for jobs. The size of cities like Alexandria, Aleppo, Baghdad is now four to five times what it was 30 or 35 years ago. Most participants in the evolving dramas, on both sides of the political divide, belong to these social strata, are equally nostalgic of a rural order that has all but disappeared and are frustrated by an unwelcoming urban order that simultaneously fascinates and ostracizes them.

And that’s were a fourth dynamic comes in, which consists of identity politics. Tribalism has been paramount in the start and ultimate denouement of the Libyan drama. Sectarian cleavages are crucial in the Syrian or Bahrain cases. Ethnicity is acute in Kurdistan as much as in Amazighi Maghreb. And, of course, everywhere religion deploys some or all of the social functions anthropologists have seen in it. Religion is a faith that mobilizes around absolute, transcendental, undisputable truths. Religion is a language that unites and divides thrills and sublimates, heals and energizes. Religion is an institution that helps and organizes, frames the issues and maintains the bonding links. And, last but not least, religion is a market where rival forces are competing for a share of the marketplace of souls.

In these functions, religion has been on the rise on all fronts. It is ubiquitous in the private domain as well as in the public space, in the minds as much as in the hearts, in the easy clichés as much as in the elaborate sermons, in the hands of religious leaders as much as in those of political entrepreneurs, in the quiet meditations of Sufis as much as in the slogans of Jihadis. This large desecularization of the political game is often portrayed as “the revenge of God” but I do see mostly in this phenomenon a form of frustrated communautarism, a form of nationalism seeking to position itself in the shifting sands of globalization without entirely being swept by them. Islamists in particular have come to the forefront as participants in those upheavals and, here and there, as beneficiaries of new electoral politics. More often than not, these new Islamist leaders are faced with typically secular challenges such as the maintenance of public order, the creation of jobs, the respect of international treaties. With time, they are discovering how easy it was to be a counter-elite and how demanding it is to be a ruling one.

A fifth element of the present upheavals involves an open debate on what a legitimate government ought to be. To a large extent, if you allow me a rewriting of the Weberian trilogy, I would say that legitimacy was based on the principle of origins: I rule you because I have founded this country and it bears my name or because I had led the struggle for independence or because I have fought a war against Israel. New generations have shown themselves to be little impressed by these claims and credentials. And while they do not question this source of legitimacy, they only add : it is not enough. Hence their insistence on a legitimacy that would not only be based on the past but also on present ingredients and conditions. In practical terms, this means that legitimacy should emerge from and be based on representation: you can rule us because we have selected you as our ruler. Legitimacy should also derive from true achievments: you can rule us because you have proved to be a great achiever of public goods. My own view is that new generations of Arabs will not consider any legitimacy based on yesterday’s claims to be sufficient for a rule to be considered acceptable. They will insist on having governments that are truly representative and true achievers.

These are, in my modest view, the basic dynamics of the ongoing dramas taking place here and there. Now I am not naive to think that all this is the result of pure immaculate conception. Of course external forces, distant powers, regional hopefuls have all played some role in this evolving drama, as echoes from the UN Security Council, a few streets away, testify. But at the risk of being criticized by Americans as well as by their enemies, let me clearly state that America’s role in the initiation and management of these events is much smaller than some Americans would like to think and also less than what most of their enemies keep repeating. To a large extent this is a domestically induced process, amplified and aggravated by regional tensions and rivalries with non regional powers, the greater ones included, playing quite a modest role compared to the past.

Of course nobody is innocent and it is only natural that in view of this deep open-ended drama most powers of the region and of the world rush to defend their interests and their local allies with funds, weapons and diplomatic support. That part of the world is far from marginal and the two best-known items it exports are highly combustible : petrol and prophets. So, external powers are attracted to it for reasons of self defense and for imperial designs and they therefore can hardly remain passive in view of what is happening. In some places such as Libya they have weighed on the outcome, by accelerating the process; in other places such as Yemen or Syria their interference has been limited, out of choice or of necessity but certainly not out of indifference.

My take though is what looks like a multiyear cycle of instability, that has not so far reached its full geographic scope and possibly not yet its climax, will depend less on extra-regional interference than on the nature of the transition, on the peaceful or militarized form of the upheaval, on the quality of the men who will lead the political transitions, on the role to be played by the armed forces and on the open competition between economic hardship and political stability.

What does the production of a terrible movie produced by some shadowy figure in California and igniting bloody reactions have to do with all this? Contrary to many, I see no strong connection other than the unstoppable tendency of many actors to try and use opportunistically whatever is available before them to divert attention from the real issues they are facing.

Still the feeling of being offended regarding what one considers as truly sacred is natural and legitimate and the community of nations should devise some kind of conventional conciliation between the respect for the sacred and the respect freedom of expression. We are truly facing what you may call a clash of norms: some are fixated on the individual, others are obsessed with the community, some unconditionally support freedom while others defend minimal forms of mutual respect. This clash of norms has no forum where it can be openly discussed and I presently see no organization equipped and intent in looking directly at this clash of norms, rather than of civilizations, and I see no serious attempt to find a solution for this important tension in global affairs. For that, an appropriate international forum, the determination to address the issue and the sincere quest of a code of conduct for all of us are equally needed.

But for that, as for rebuilding countries and cities, we need visionaries. I am not sure, that presently have many of them around. But I invite you, ladies and gentlemen, to reflect on the best ways to bring them back to our public life.


The Founder

Rafik Hariri philanthropic and developmental contributions are countless. The most remarkable being the multifaceted support to educate more than 36,000 Lebanese university students within Lebanon, and beyond.

Rafik Hariri philanthropic and developmental contributions are countless. The most remarkable being the multifaceted support to educate more than 36,000 Lebanese university students within Lebanon, and beyond.

Rafik Hariri philanthropic and developmental contributions are countless. The most remarkable being the multifaceted support to educate more than 36,000 Lebanese university students within Lebanon, and beyond.

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