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February 2, 2022 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 359

Middle East Of Life, Middle East Of Death

February 2, 2022 | By Alberto M. Fernandez*
Lebanon | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 359

It is a year ago since Lokman Slim was assassinated in Lebanon. His was the latest in a series of high-profile killings of politicians, journalists, and military officials in Lebanon that lasted for more than a decade. Lebanon has seen many assassinations in recent years and it is likely that it will see more. Overwhelmingly, those targeted for elimination have been opponents of Hezbollah.

Lokman was a dear friend. He was also, in my view, a great and brave man – writer, publisher, filmmaker, activist – who believed deeply in human dignity, in life, and who represented the best of what all too often has been cheaply described as the Lebanese Ideal. His death was a great loss not only for Lebanon but for freedom-loving people in the Middle East and beyond.

I wish that his death had provoked a real political earthquake in his home country, bringing about real change, but, of course, nothing really happened. The economic crisis, the August 2020 Beirut port explosion, and (with the notable exception of Rafiq Hariri's death in 2005) other high-profile killings have failed to shake the status quo of a kleptocratic state locked in a symbiotic relationship with a terrorist group. The state of Lebanon is the host while Hezbollah is the parasite, the two increasingly intertwined. Lokman's heroic family and friends continue the good fight – as do many other Lebanese of good will. They deserve our constant, clear-eyed support in every way possible, including in calling for justice and an end to impunity, an end that can only come with a disarmed Hezbollah, a contradiction in terms. Lokman Slim is gone, his strong vision lingers, despite his killers.

If anything, Lebanon's ruling kleptocracy have doubled down on maintaining their stranglehold on power. First by seeking to manipulate any sort of future international bailout or financial restructuring as much as possible in their favor and secondly by covering for and rationalizing Hezbollah's continued puppet master rule, as seen by the shameless interaction of the Lebanese government with the West and with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.

But Lokman's death and Lebanon's agonizing travails place in sharp contrast an even greater conflict rolling through the Arab Middle East for years now, one that seems to be reaching a type of climax between two contending sides. There are no angels among states in the region and I am not referring to Western type pipe dreams of democracy versus dictatorship or "the people/street" versus the regime. This is something more elemental.

There is an ongoing, murderous effort to reconfigure countries and societies in the region toward near permanent war and conflict without end. Most of this effort is driven by Iran and its many proxies in the region, in Lebanon, of course, by Hezbollah. The "Resistance Axis" is a weapon fashioned by Iran's Revolutionary Guards against Israel, but also against any state or sub-group within a state, that might stand against the Iranian tide. It is a tool made for hegemony, for constant mobilization toward an apocalyptic end goal. Iran is not alone. Some of the attempt at the violent reordering of societies and nations is driven by Sunni Islamism and Jihadism, whether from actual terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS or by extremists of the Muslim Brotherhood in its various regional iterations. The goal here is to demolish what was there before and forcibly rebuild around a militant ideology. The fact that states like Lebanon or Yemen are poverty-stricken and their populations increasingly desperate can even be seen as a plus in such dystopian scenarios.

States that are Western allies and ostensibly fight Sunni extremism, countries like Egypt and Jordan, also face internal challenges driven by the enticing narratives of the militants. You can watch parts of Egyptian or Jordanian political discourse (in both countries heavily monitored by their own security services) and be struck by the extremism and intolerance.

Opposing Iranian and Islamist dreams of unbridled conflict are a few states that seek to defend themselves and to safeguard their own attempts at securing modernity and prosperity within their borders. Countries like Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. Not angels, not paragons of perfect virtue, not by a long shot. But builders rather than destroyers, trying, with their faults and missteps, to break out of the toxic cycle of destruction and conflict we know so well for so long. A Middle East Of Life in contrast to a Middle East Of Death.

Lokman's life and vision were a rebuttal of the entire Hezbollah project. Stable, tolerant, and prosperous societies in the UAE and, increasingly, in Saudi Arabia are visible rebuttals and rejections of the revolutionary end state envisioned by Iran and by the Salafi-Jihadis. Israel's existence as a Jewish majority state with a significant Arab population buying into the system, warts and all, is by its very presence, an existential threat to the Muqawama ("rwesistance") paradigm.

The repeated attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE coming from the Houthis in Yemen are certainly connected to the war in Yemen and the fact that Iran's proxies in that country are facing tougher opposition on the ground. But the attacks are also an attempt at sabotaging governance and ideological models which stray from the disastrous policy decisions of the past and which promise to be successful, inspiring others elsewhere that a better, different future is possible. It is no coincidence that Iran funds and works with religiously based Shia militias and parties, with Baathists, and with Sunni Islamists like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. They represent a continuation of what has been the dominant narrative for decades, permanent revolution and frequent death, forever, until some illusory ideological victory is achieved down the road.

Some days it seems like the region is well and truly lost, at least in terms of a real break with a bloody past. There is plenty of ground for despair. Certainly, the West, including the United States, is in a defensive crouch in a region from which we only seem to want disentanglement. When good people are killed in Lebanon and Iraq or when Iran and its puppets threaten to destroy Arab cities and high rises made of glass, seemingly without political consequences, one can easily despair. But a far better response is to get angry and keep working, whether it is the work of civil society groups like the Lokman Slim Foundation or the Dar Al-Jadeed publishing house in Beirut or those helping the destitute and marginalized in Lebanon. And real, tangible hope is also to be found in the heroic and skilled work of air defense professionals protecting the skies over Jeddah and Abu Dhabi. Successfully defending one's sovereignty, whether by taking out terrorist missile launchers or by continuing to build societies that are strong, tolerant, and forward-looking is the best response and the sweetest revenge.

*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.

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