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"The Second Time as Farce": Lebanon's Al Akhbar newspaper

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Marx's observation, proffered in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, about history repeating itself first as tragedy, then as farce, has been regurgitated so often that one feels a sheep-like silliness in reciting it again. But that's the thing about transcendent quotes: there are times when no other words capture the nature of the moment as arrestingly.

This dog-eared insight of Highgate Cemetery's most famous resident came to mind while I was reading about Al Akhbar, a Lebanese newspaper that was the subject of a New York Times report this week. Al Akhbar's editorial line is unabashedly leftist. Its editor sits under a framed portrait of Marx himself. The paper's support of gay rights and women's rights makes it, in the words of the Times headline, "a rarity" in a media environment dominated by Saudi-funded platforms that slavishly follow the imperatives of the conservative Arab regimes.

At the same time, Al Akhbar enthusiastically bills Hezbollah as a resistance movement. Its editors laud the late Hezbollah operative Imad Mughniyeh as "Our Che." If there is a Lebanese address for the red-green alliance of leftists and Islamists, it seems that Al Akhbar is it.

Any competent dialectician knows that a thing is best understood in times of crisis. In Europe, the glaring contradictions incubated by the fusion of militant socialism (red) with militant Islamism (green) have resulted in bitter, vengeful breakdowns: witness the implosion of the Respect Party in Britain, or the signal failure of France's various leftist grouplets to build a base among the dyspeptic youth of the sprawling banlieues. However, compared to the epic misfortunes of similar alliances in the Middle East, these European examples seem almost banal.

Which is why that Eighteenth Brumaire quote is so apt. When Middle Eastern leftists have gotten into bed with Islamists or radical nationalists, they have invariably ended up dead. The first time this happened -- as it did in Iraq in the late 1970s, when the Ba'ath Party butchered its erstwhile communist partners, and not long after in Iran, when Khomeini's enforcers set upon communists with zealous fury -- we witnessed unbearably gruesome tragedy. But should Al Akhbar one day undergo the same fate -- and I have no qualms in venturing that this is exactly what will happen if Hezbollah becomes the unrivalled source of power in Lebanon - how else, other than as farce, could such a conclusion be described?

Is Al Akhbar, then, staffed by amnesiacs, or can its journalists make the case that things will be different the next time around? We are not told. What does come through in Worth's dispatch is the cocksure certainty which Al Akhbar has in its mission, summarized with elevator pitch brevity as "anti-imperialism."

No doubt, such branding will appeal to western radicals enamored with the Cairo Declaration's iteration of leftish, third-worldish, politics. Equally, one must assume that part of Al Akhbar's rationale in adopting more progressive positions on matters of sexuality and gender is to increase its appeal to this constituency; according to Worth, the paper is launching an English-language site in 2011. If this is a marketing strategy, then it resembles the campaign of the execrable Iranian mouthpiece known as Press TV to strike a chord with disaffected opinion in Europe.

Inevitably, the anti-capitalist mutation of antisemitism is central here. Just as Press TV has promoted antisemitism, in the form of Holocaust denial, so does Al Akhbar, in the form of a program to ethnically cleanse the Jewish population of the territory currently known as Israel. Worth cites Al Akhbar's editor, Ibrahim al-Amine, waxing lyrical about Israel's coming elimination, and the subsequent deportation of the Jews "back to Europe," where, as the "hucksters" and "hagglers" dismissed by Marx in his On the Jewish Question, they will feel much more at home in its brazenly capitalist environment.

Socialism this may be, albeit of a particularly vulgar sort. A better descriptor is Strasserism, a political current named for the anti-corporate Nazi agitator who -- Al Akhbar please note -- ended up dead when Hitler purged internal opposition during the Night of the Long Knives in 1934.

Nevertheless, there is, in Worth's piece, an aspiration only the churlish would dismiss: that outfits like Al Akhbar, whatever their flaws, might herald the emergence of a critical, independent media in a region which desperately needs one. In that spirit, therefore, and despite my profound misgivings, I won't write off Al Akhbar just yet. Instead, I would urge the paper to break the mold of the Arab press by providing reportage and analysis of the following three stories:

Story One. An Italian human rights group has just a released a report concerning the detention, in the Egyptian border town of Rafah, of 250 Israel-bound migrants from various African countries. Their captors are Hamas-linked traffickers. Follow the money.

Story Two. The Iraqi city of Kirkuk is once more a flashpoint between the Kurdish regional government and the central government in Baghdad. The situation is all the more fragile because Kurdish memories of the ethnic cleansing carried out by Saddam's regime are still fresh. Revisit those events.

Story Three. South Sudan is readying itself for a January 9, 2011 independence referendum. Given the area's vast untapped wealth, what threat would the government in the north, led by the indicted war criminal Omar al-Bashir, pose to a newly-independent republic? Go and investigate.

Incisive coverage of these stories, which, just by acknowledging the humanity of non-Arab minorities in the region, puncture the widespread Arab narrative of noble victimhood, have enormous potential to liberate the minds of young and inquisitive Arab readers. There are, as well, encouraging precedents in all parts of the world -- one thinks, for example, of the courageous exposes of the weekly Serbian magazine Vreme during the darkest days of the Milosevic regime. The conditions in the Middle East are ripe for a similar initiative.

So step up, Al Akhbar. For if history is indeed shaped by the struggles of ordinary people, then no outcome, farcical or otherwise, is preordained.