Ambassador Angelina Eichhorst/Make 2015 the year of state institutions

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Make 2015 the year of state institutions
By: Ambassador Angelina Eichhorst/head of the Delegation of the European Union to Lebanon.
Jan. 03, 2015

During a recent gathering for Grand Serail employees, Prime Minister Tammam Salam was quoted as saying: We will not celebrate New Year in Lebanon and we will not feel happy until the Army and internal security servicemen are freed. Mr. Salam’s words reveal the strong responsibility he feels for his country and for the security and safety of his fellow countrymen and women. They reflect the general mood of the public, one of anxiety and concern.

Rarely have the inhabitants of this part of the world been faced with direct accounts and images of violent acts. Those who by their own nature or beliefs walk the life of tolerance, moderation and openness increasingly feel they are a minority.

The quest of many in the past year in Lebanon was: How could it all get so far and what is still to come? How low can a boy or girl fall in order to be attracted to join a group of brutal torturers and murderers? How far can women and men go in teaching and spreading violence with the intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial or religious group?

Today’s “extremism” in the Middle East and vast parts of Africa and Asia keeps academics, opinion and policymakers increasingly busy. Last week’s The Daily Star feature article by Venetia Rainey on “Understanding the drive to extremism” sums up the combination of factors that prompt a person to wreak havoc, often in the name of religion.

Governments across the region make strong calls for and contributions to yet another coalition against terrorism. Many agree that military action is not the answer.

Real efforts are most needed in building a contemporary civil state, starting with schools, universities, high-tech institutes; in providing top notch health services and jobs – the oxygen and space to breathe and prosper.

Few would disagree with the need for a functioning state, but many of those who are not expected to give their lives defending the nation seem to prefer a mood of apathy, inaction, even cynics.

Some choose to fight virtually; they read, write, observe, comment, share. They tick “like,” “‘delete” or “block” disturbing commentaries. They scroll and turn to the next page, away from what they see. Leaving the one-way virtual remarks behind, and a vacuum to be filled.

It is remarkable how many let existing vacuums grow, confirming Hegel’s notion that “nature abhors vacuums.” They leave people to resort to defiance of the state and its institutions, rather than obliging by values which should be set in stone, just as traffic rules are there to be followed. a

For years we have observed and commented on how individuals, as described by Venetia Rainey, were recruited by extremists in this region. There was hardly any reaction against it. The critical analyses were mostly left to academics. In most cases there was no authority concerned with the fate of the fragile future recruits. Few parents dared to face their children heads-on to bring them back to reason.

My own first direct experience with organized crime of terrorist nature was in Somalia where militant Islamist groups started to take over parts of the country during the 1991-92 war. The connection with “moderate” Somalis was militarized; there was no real development effort to give hope to the people: There was no functioning state. It was a most bloody war indeed and Somalia was left to pretty much struggle on its own.

Back in Egypt in 1993, when I ran interviews for Dutch media, I was shocked to see the number of “extremist recruits” on the rise since I had been there last, only three years earlier, during the first Gulf War. Youngsters, too poor to leave the country, easily bought into the “Islam Huwa al-Hal” [Islam is the Solution] concept. Others moved to the Gulf region for money, only to return – once a year – with the most conservative religious ideas the mainstream could not recognize. At best, they would shrug their shoulders: nobody would dare to speak out “against religion,” while few faced the potential recruits head-on. Egypt was – and still is – a functioning state, but, over the years, the state did very little to give hope to the yearly hundreds of thousands who reached school age and had no place to learn, develop and feel safe.

Between 1995 and 2004 I worked in the EU Brussels institutions on “human and social security and development,” a crucial period during which one saw a vast increase of extremist sentiments across the southern flank of Europe. The European Union was working on the premises of the magic wand offered by free trade agreements for all our southern neighbors, trying to move the region forward, despite the Arab-Israeli conflict. There was a general, typically European, acknowledgement of the need for state-building, the strengthening of public institutions, but resources were simply too limited. Some argued against the European Union investing billions of euros in the region. I believe to the contrary that more could have been done on the ground to help fight for a contemporary civil state.

And while there was intellectual concern about “how to dialogue with political Islam,” there was not enough regard for “how to support state-builders and advance on citizenship.”

The importance of a functioning state, providing security, rule of law and a minimum of quality services only took a true form after the Arab awakenings, when we saw countries with functioning institutions, through elections and popular participation, removing their respective dictatorial leaderships and withholding – albeit with huge challenges – the forces of anarchy, violence, anger and atrocities.

The majority of the people working in these state institutions have received education in their own country, are locally grounded and ready to work for the nation-state, with true allegiance to the public good. In Lebanon, one should therefore never forget that there are men and women who are ready to fight for their country, ready to work peacefully on the building of a contemporary civil state where there are no vacuums left to be filled by inhumanity. I therefore hope this coming year will be a year of “fighting for,” rather than “fighting against.” A year of bringing forward the hard work and positive examples of all women and men in Lebanon, who wish for their dreams of a bright future to come true.

Ambassador Angelina Eichhorst is the head of the Delegation of the European Union to Lebanon.