Lebanon’s Brush with Civil War
For background on the Lebanese political crisis, see Jim Quilty, “Winter of Lebanon’s Discontents,” Middle East Report Online, January 27, 2007.
For more on Michel Aoun, see Heiko Wimmen, “Rallying Around the Renegade,” Middle East Report Online, August 27, 2007.
For more on Nahr al-Barid, see Jim Quilty, “The Collateral Damage of Lebanese Sovereignty,” Middle East Report Online, June 18, 2007.
When Israel commenced its bombardment of Lebanon on July 12, 2006, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his general staff declared that the air raids were provoked by Hizballah’s kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers that day. As the destruction piled up over the ensuing 33 days, then, Lebanese did not ask themselves, “Why is Israel bombing us?” Rather, the question in many Lebanese minds, those of ordinary citizens and analysts alike, was “Why did Hizballah provoke this? Why now?” The implicit answer—that the Shi‘i Islamist party was acting in the interests of its friends in Tehran and Damascus rather than those of its constituents and compatriots in Lebanon—has reverberated through the country’s political discourse ever since, with few bothering to recall the rhetorical and historical precedents for the abduction operation.
The bloody clashes that broke out between opposition and government gunmen on May 7 have sparked fevered speculation as well. That Hizballah militants could take over West Beirut came as little surprise. Many were astonished by the speed of the advance, however, and the low number of casualties left in its wake, as the reports of 50-caliber machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, as well as small arms, reverberated in West Beirut for a second day. The pertinent question, then, is not “How could Hizballah do this?” but “Why did the Lebanese government choose to provoke Hizballah at this time?”
The question may seem a bit peculiar. Is it possible to read reports of battle-hardened Hizballah guerrillas emerging in West Beirut, brushing aside its defenders and occupying it in a day, and see anything but a “coup”? Television images of apparently crazed Shi‘i thugs firing RPGs at the political offices of Parliament majority leader (and Sunni scion) Saad al-Hariri’s Future Movement seem to corroborate narratives of a barbarous insurgency against a democratically elected government. Surely, images of Hizballah’s Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) allies torching the studios of Hariri’s Future Television and pasting the likeness of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad outside could be nothing but reactionary authoritarianism slashing the throat of free speech. The fires rising over the ‘Alay community of Shuwayfat, where Hizballah-allied fighters engaged with the gunmen of Progressive Socialist Party leader (and Druze overlord) Walid Jumblatt, seem to confirm suspicions of an effort to suppress Lebanon’s long-cherished pluralism in favor of a repressively monochrome Shi‘i Islamist state.
While there may be an element of truth in these readings, they do no justice to the political complexities beneath the appearances. Lebanon’s 18-month political crisis—presaged by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in February 2005, framed by the subsequent departure of Syrian soldiers and expedited by the summer 2006 war—does seem to have reached its endgame. There is little to cheer about in the conduct of politics in this country, neither early May’s opposition action nor the political circumstances that brought it on. Ultimate responsibility for the most-recent bloodshed, as for so much needless violence Lebanese citizens have endured over the decades, rests in the contradictions of their sectarian state. Immediate responsibility for the country’s latest brush with civil war lies in the hands of that state’s inheritors, the government of Fouad Siniora, and its foreign sponsors.
Provocation and Response
Most non-Lebanese became aware of what was happening in Beirut after street fighting erupted in the capital’s mixed Sunni-Shi‘i quarters on May 7. The match was lit on May 1 when Jumblatt told Lebanon’s national news agency about a network of cameras evidently set up to monitor goings-on at Beirut International Airport. He accused the responsible party—which, given the airport’s proximity to Beirut’s southern suburbs, or the dahiya, could only be Hizballah—of planning an operation, remarking how easily a shoulder-fired missile could be launched against any plane on the runway.
At a press conference on May 3, Jumblatt called for the expulsion of Iran’s ambassador to Lebanon, and the banning of Iranian flights to Beirut because they might be carrying weapons and money to Hizballah. He charged that Gen. Wafiq Shuqayr, the airport security chief, was complicit in allowing the Shi‘i party to install the dubious cameras and demanded he be sacked.
Judicial officials told the press on May 5 that Lebanon’s prosecutor-general Sa‘id Mirza ordered the investigation into the airport security cameras. (The same day, as it happens, the New York Times and various Western wire agencies reported the US military’s unverified accusations that Hizballah was involved in training Iraqi Shi‘i militants in camps near Tehran.) After a marathon meeting of the rump cabinet the next day, the information minister told reporters the government had reassigned Shuqayr and was launching a judicial probe into an illegal telecommunications network that Hizballah had set up, with Iranian help, in southern and eastern Lebanon as well as the dahiya, describing the network as “an attack on state sovereignty.” Hizballah mocked Jumblatt’s accusations as delusional. The party’s second-in-command, Sheikh Na‘im Qasim, defended the telephone network as an integral part of the Islamic Resistance, the militia that fought Israel in 2006 and beforehand. Since September 2004, with the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1559, the international community has backed Hizballah’s domestic rivals’ demand that the Resistance be disbanded. Hizballah warned it would not cooperate with the government’s investigation, and called out its supporters for a show of strength.
The opposition timed its mobilization to correspond to a 24-hour general strike called by Lebanon’s General Labor Confederation for May 7. The strike began peacefully enough, despite the opposition’s closing of several key roads with sand berms, burning tires and the like. The airport road was among those blocked, forcing the suspension of flights. Civil disobedience degenerated into (sometimes armed) clashes between opposition supporters and government loyalists in several mixed (Sunni-Shi‘i) quarters, however, leaving ten people wounded.
Hizballah and its fellow Shi‘i party Amal continued their civil disobedience campaign on May 8, accentuated now by the sound of periodic gunfire. Government loyalists blocked the highway linking Beirut to southern Lebanon with burning tires and berms of their own and barricaded the Beirut-Damascus highway near the eastern border crossing at Masna‘.
In a speech before a video-linked press conference that evening, Hizballah Secretary-General Hasan Nasrallah said the Siniora government’s decision to outlaw and dismantle the telecommunication network was effectively “a declaration of war…against the Resistance and its weapons for the benefit of America and Israel. The communications network is the significant part of the weapons of the Resistance. I said that we will cut off the hand that targets the weapons of the Resistance.… Today is the day to carry out this decision.” The opposition action would continue, Nasrallah said, until the government rescinded its ban on Hizballah’s security infrastructure.
In a speech televised soon afterward, Saad al-Hariri characterized opposition moves in West Beirut as “a crime that must stop immediately. We will not accept that Beirut kneel before anyone.” Hizballah, he continued, had “misinterpreted” the government decisions to probe the party’s private communications network and reassign Shuqayr. The measures, he said, were meant to protect the army and did not target Hizballah. He proposed ending the crisis by placing the two decisions in the hands of the army to implement or suspend.
After the broadcasts, the West Beirut clashes changed complexion. By the next day Hizballah and Amal forces (and their allies in the SSNP) had taken control of West Beirut, having systematically taken out select Future Movement and affiliated offices and disarmed hundreds of Future Movement militants. Since the end of the 2006 war, and particularly since the current political crisis began 18 months ago, this nascent militia (mostly composed, it seems, of underemployed young Sunnis from West Beirut) had been amply supplied with arms and ammunition. Evidently there had been less emphasis on training: Anecdotes have emerged of amateur gunmen firing on non-combatants, lobbing RPGs into the sea or, more frequently, abandoning their positions without a fight. Hariri-owned media outlets—al-Mustaqbal newspaper, Future Television and al-Sharq Radio—were attacked (in some cases, ransacked), shuttered and handed over to the army. On the morning of May 9, SSNP and Amal gunmen set fire to the buildings.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice narrated events for Western consumption. “Backed by Syria and Iran, Hizballah and its allies are killing and injuring innocent citizens and undermining the legitimate authority of the Lebanese government and the institutions of the Lebanese state,” she said. “Seeking to protect their state within a state, Hizballah has exploited its allies and demonstrated its contempt for its fellow Lebanese.”
In mainly Christian East Beirut, meanwhile, life carried on more or less as normal.
Hizballah-owned al-Manar television broadcast on May 8 that the party rejected Hariri’s terms for cessation of hostilities. That said, Amal and Hizballah fighters began to disappear from the streets two days later, shortly after the government handed responsibility for the anti-Hizballah legislation over to the army. The military overturned the measures, saying it would handle the issue of the communications network in a way “that would not harm the public interest and the security of the resistance,” and reinstated Shuqayr. Siniora also called upon the army to secure the capital. The army asked the gunmen to withdraw and (except for the recalcitrant SSNP) they obliged. It was estimated that 37 people were killed in four days of fighting.
By that point, gun battles had flared up outside Beirut, first in the Bekaa Valley. Pro-government gunmen later overwhelmed SSNP and Baath Party offices in Tripoli; in Halba, they stormed the SSNP headquarters, leaving seven dead inside. On May 10, Hizballah accused fighters loyal to Jumblatt of abducting three opposition members, killing two of them and throwing their bodies in front of the Iman Hospital in ‘Alay, just east of Beirut. Fighting soon spread to this town as well. The same day, the guided-missile destroyer USS Cole—which was briefly deployed off Lebanon on February 28—crossed the Suez Canal en route to the Mediterranean. By May 12, the guns and grenade launchers had fallen silent and the Lebanese army was deployed between opposition and government loyalists.
Backdrop of Stalemate
Anyone believing in representative democratic government, civil society activism and the like would have difficulty condoning an opposition group organizing such a paramilitary action against a national capital, regardless of how representative and democratic the government in question might be. Prime Minister Siniora and his colleagues in the March 14 bloc—named after the date of the largest popular rally held in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square during the 2005 “Independence Intifada”—were swept into office in the elections after that ferment helped to push Syrian troops out of Lebanon. The March 14 bloc holds the parliamentary majority, but other political groups hold a large minority. Most of the Hizballah-led opposition is comprised of parties loosely representing those Lebanese who (for manifold reasons) abstained from the “Syria out!” demonstrations; the partisans of Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, a key member of the opposition, were enthusiastic participants. The opposition has deemed the Siniora government illegitimate for about 18 months, since its ministers resigned from the cabinet in December 2006.
Before the resignations, Lebanon’s government was based on the so-called four-way coalition. Negotiated in the runup to the 2005 elections, this arrangement had several components. First, it saw Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, the head of Amal and, increasingly, a Hizballah ally, agree with Nasrallah to apply the 2000 parliamentary electoral law. Not the most democratic electoral legislation ever devised, the 2000 law was designed by the Syrian occupation regime to favor Lebanon’s compact minorities in the Druze and Christian communities. Though, as the plurality, Shi‘i politicians dislike the 2000 law, it suited both (the now anti-Syrian) Jumblatt as well as the various Christian camps—all of whom prefer to vote for “their own” deputies. Amal and Hizballah also cooperated with Future and its allies in ensuring that the election, or at least its first two rounds, went uncontested. This bargain alienated a good number of the idealistic young democrats who had manned the Martyrs’ Square campground. On the other hand, it secured a comfortable parliamentary majority for the March 14 bloc, the speaker’s chair for Berri and seats in the cabinet for Hizballah.
The dissent from this tentative framework for Lebanese self-government came not from Amal and Hizballah, but from Michel Aoun, the former army chief who had returned from years in exile after the Syrian pullout. When Aoun contested the third round with his ally Michel al-Murr, the team won more seats in Parliament than any other Christian political group. This fact was lost on the March 14 forces, who denied Aoun any voice in the cabinet, and the Western media, which generally depicts the right-wing Samir Geagea and Amin Gemayel as Lebanon’s most important Christian leaders.
As Nasrallah remarked at his May 7 press conference, the government was made aware of the existence of his party’s private communications system when Amal and Hizballah were seated in the Siniora cabinet. “I would like you to recall that when the four-way alliance was forged, this network was in place. They did not consider it then an infringement on sovereignty, law and public funds,” he said. “Now, when the four-way alliance has become a mere dream, some members of the government are angered by it.”
From the outset, the Siniora cabinet was undermined by structural contradictions. Several factors were at play, but chief among them were, first, Washington’s sponsorship of the March 14 side, and the pressure it put upon the Siniora government to fully implement Resolution 1559 and, second, the 2006 war. The Siniora government immediately depicted that war, and the havoc it wrought in Lebanon, as the fruit of Hizballah unilateralism—rather than the work of, say, an Israeli government that watches warily as Hizballah becomes entrenched in Lebanese high politics.
The resignation of pro-Hizballah ministers in December 2006 stemmed from their indignation at the decision of Siniora and his March 14 cohort to overrule their dissent in enacting certain legislation. To do so ignored Lebanon’s tradition of cabinet consensus, which demands that major acts of legislation be tabled if a sizable number of ministers object. This cumbersome convention—often blamed for endless delays in the process of government—was deemed necessary to secure nationwide representation in the sectarian mechanisms of the state after the 1975-1990 civil war. The Siniora government is dishonest when it terms the opposition’s demand for more equitable representation “a cabinet veto,” because, excepting the odd “technocratic” cabinet, all post-civil war cabinets have been assembled, and acted, on this consensus basis. One of the many ironies of the present crisis is that—though it is consistently represented as a force dedicated to overthrowing the state—Hizballah’s argument since December 2006 has been that the government play by the rules.
If the Siniora rump cabinet has somehow forgotten the customs of local governance, the Hizballah-led action in West Beirut does not fit the strictest definition of the term “coup”—as government and Western media representations would have it. Terrifying as early May was for those citizens caught in the crossfire, militants neither tried to change the government by force of arms nor to occupy government or state offices. Rather, they demanded that Siniora’s rump cabinet withdraw a controversial decision. The cabinet did this late on May 13 and the opposition welcomed the move with rounds of ecstatic automatic weapons fire (after which the death toll from the conflict remained steady at 65, though the number of dead in ‘Alay has yet to be properly confirmed). An Arab League delegation arrived in Beirut on May 14 and proposed that the rivals meet to renew dialogue in Doha, capital of Qatar. The government agreed and Beirut’s airport road opened immediately. Lebanon’s politicians have flown to Doha, purportedly seeking a solution to the stalemate that dates from December 2006. One of the first substantive issues they took up was the election law for the next round of parliamentary polls.
Whither the Peacekeepers?
During his first televised appearance of the crisis, Siniora called on the army to restore law and order, “to live up to its national responsibilities without hesitation or delay. This has not happened up to now.” His call echoed the feelings of amateur Lebanon watchers and government loyalists, who were perturbed by the way Lebanon’s security services responded to the opposition “coup.” To this point, the army has been singled out for opprobrium, though the gendarmerie, or Internal Security Forces (ISF), also failed to behave in a manner that citizens of North American or Western European countries would expect. The reasons are sectarian and political.
ISF units practically disappeared from West Beirut streets on May 7, and residents of some West Beirut neighborhoods say they did not see another ISF patrol until May 14. Though the rank and file hails from most all of the 18 Lebanese confessions, the ISF is perceived to be a Sunni Muslim domain. A phenomenon of Lebanon’s post-1990 reconstruction regime, this “confessionalization” of the security apparatus began as a counterpoise to demographic changes in the army—as did the practice of equipping it with army-style materiel. Confessionalization has been carried to an extreme under the Siniora government, which created a blue-uniformed section of the (usually gray-camouflaged) ISF, the Panthers, reported to be overwhelmingly Sunni. Amidst the sectarian tensions of the post-2006 war period, this confessional identification has had curious practical consequences. The southern precincts of downtown Beirut, where the opposition has squatted for 18 months, are guarded by the Lebanese army, which the opposition trusts. North of the government’s razor wire barricades, one is far more likely to see the uniforms of the ISF, which the opposition does not trust. Under these circumstances, it was deemed wise to remove the gendarmes from West Beirut streets when one might imagine residents most needed them.
The behavior of the Lebanese army during these events was a more complex matter. On May 7, army units in riot gear deployed in West Beirut. They directed traffic around trouble spots, but did not intervene directly. They remained circumspect on May 8, the day of the opposition takeover of West Beirut, the army command issuing a statement warning that if the crisis lengthened, the armed forces’ unity was in peril. When opposition gunmen withdrew from the streets, they relinquished their positions to soldiers.
These tactics gave rise to accusations that the army was complicit in the opposition “coup.” Indeed, there were anecdotes of involvement of soldiers in the burning of the Future news building. Photographs provide hard evidence of gunmen wearing the ISF’s gray fatigues during the clashes, but it is impossible to know whether these men were serving ISF troops, or simply bought or borrowed a uniform. Similarly, stories of looters in green fatigues do not prove army complicity.
The cornerstone of the Lebanese army mythos is that it is not primarily a fighting force, but an institution of state, where clan and sectarian identification is subordinated to the national interest. Along with the central bank, in fact, the army is considered the only such institution, the operations of state being otherwise inseparable from the partisan interests that hold power at any given time. Historically, army commanders have kept the army aloof from civil-sectarian conflict or else presided over its dissolution. This is no matter of sentimental patriotism: When the army splits, more trained men at arms are at the disposal of the combatants. Thus Gen. Fouad Shihab declined to intervene in the 1958 troubles. The efforts of President Sulayman Franjiyya and his allied minister Camille Chamoun to deploy the army during the crises of 1975-1976 provoked mutinies among army units in the north, the south and the Bekaa Valley, with Muslim troops and middle-ranking officers coalescing under the leadership of Col. Ahmad al-Khatib. When, in February 1984, President Amin Gemayel tried to deploy the army in West Beirut (to fill the vacuum left by Israeli withdrawal), the armed forces again snapped in two, with Shi‘i units going over to Amal.
Lebanese are, of course, aware that the army has an operating relationship with the Islamic Resistance. Though it was not a combatant in the 2006 war, for instance, the army apparently did provide some communications assistance to Hizballah, and the Israeli air force bombed its barracks as a result. Yet there is nothing unusual about the army having an intimate relationship with the country’s strongest paramilitary force. In 1975, when it was still much more of a Christian preserve, the army had close ties with the Phalange, the main Christian paramilitary group, and facilitated its arms acquisitions. Indeed, some scholars of recent Lebanese history point out that Michel Aoun was one of several members of the Lebanese military who were integral to the rise of Bashir Gemayel, leader of the Lebanese Forces (the militia offspring of the Phalange), to the Lebanese presidency.
One of the differences between 1975 and 2008 is that the largest paramilitary force is aligned with the opposition rather than pro-government factions. The gear-grinding cognitive dissonance that presently afflicts pro-government citizens and pundits arises from the fact that nowadays the (inherently inclusive) army must negotiate confessional-political sensitivities—a large Shi‘i rank and file and Shi‘i officers whose promotions are monitored by Amal and Hizballah—that mirror the current trials of the (inherently exclusive) Lebanese political class.
The interaction between the tribulations of the Lebanese army and the state it is meant to symbolize raises other interesting questions, none of them related to complicity in civil disorder. One of these concerns the loyalist and opposition sides’ agreement (as of December 5, 2007) that army commander Michel Suleiman should be the consensus candidate for the Lebanese presidency. Lebanese politicians, who pride themselves on not going the way of military dictatorship pursued by other Arab states, do tend to fall back on military figures in times of crisis. The Shihab presidency emerging from the 1958 unrest provides the prototype. The political class (in the person of President Amin Gemayel) subsequently looked to Michel Aoun when it was otherwise unable, or unwilling, to organize a presidential succession. Though he was chosen by Damascus, in 1998 Emile Lahoud was viewed with enthusiasm by many Lebanese, who considered him a counterweight to the unbridled power of Rafiq al-Hariri. For Mount Lebanon’s Christian voters in 2005, Aoun seemed the strongest candidate to balance Nasrallah and Hariri the younger.
The political class’ necessary confidence in Suleiman and the military is only one episode in the drama the army has undergone since 2005. After the civil war, the senior partner in defending Hariri’s reconstruction regime was the Syrian army and intelligence services. When that force was made to withdraw in 2005, the Lebanese army’s responsibilities increased exponentially and (in an environment of political assassinations and opportunistic bombings) thanklessly. After the 2006 war, by which point the government had canceled obligatory military service, the army’s capacities were further taxed when it was required to deploy south of the Litani River to partner with the UN peacekeeping force. From May to September 2007 the army had to contend with the crisis at Nahr al-Barid Palestinian refugee camp, which left some 420 people killed, 168 of them soldiers.
The battle with Fatah al-Islam, the salafi group dug in at Nahr al-Barid, was notable for the alacrity with which both sides of the political stalemate expressed their support for the struggling army. This exercise in Lebanese national unity fostered a culture that made public criticism of army malfeasance intolerable. Members of NGOs dealing with Nahr al-Barid’s humanitarian crisis, for instance, reported grisly tales of arson and looting at otherwise undamaged Palestinian properties in the camp, while the army kept journalists at bay. Since the country was principally united against the Palestinians (for having “allowed” Fatah al-Islam to settle in the camp), news coverage of this looting was rare, to say the least.
The United States and its “moderate” Arab allies came to Lebanon’s assistance during the Nahr al-Barid crisis as well, and donations of materiel flooded into the country, presumably destined for the arms caches of the army and security services. Though such transfers are seldom transparent, an outside observer might be forgiven for thinking Washington, Riyadh, Cairo and Amman were keen to assist the March 14 government in retaining the army’s loyalty.
Between the events of Nahr al-Barid and the opposition’s drive through West Beirut, two incidents threw the army’s role in the mechanism of state, and its relations with Hizballah, into question. On December 12, 2007, a week after the opposing parties agreed Suleiman would be the next Lebanese president, army Brig. Gen. Francois al-Hajj was killed by a car bomb in Baabda, the twelfth political assassination or attempted assassination in Lebanon since October 2004. The hit was professional and provocative. Though he was not widely known up to that point, the press and public was subsequently informed that Hajj was Suleiman’s top lieutenant and presumptive successor as army commander if his boss ever became president. Apparently he also directed the Nahr al-Barid operation and was, interestingly enough, an army liaison with Hizballah. The first member of the army to be targeted in the post-2004 bombing campaign, Hajj’s location on the political and operational grid challenges the narrative advanced by the Siniora government and its Western backers that Lebanon’s chaos all flows from Hizballah’s Syrian and Iranian allies.
The army is an opaque institution, and alternative explanations for Hajj’s slaying are of little more than speculative value. But assuming that Hajj’s assassination was a warning to the armed forces, the need for exaggerated political neutrality on the part of the army was underlined during the opposition’s previous effort to mobilize on Beirut streets on January 27, 2008. At that time, an army unit shot and killed seven Shi‘i protesters. The incident put major strains on Hizballah and Amal’s relationship with the armed forces and, on February 11, three army officers and 16 soldiers were charged in the killings.
Motives and Ramifications
Why did the Lebanese government move against Hizballah’s security apparatus now, when it did not have the means to implement or enforce the measure?
Given Nasrallah’s promises concerning the inviolability of Hizballah arms, and given the complete inadequacy of the youngsters so irresponsibly armed by the Future Movement to the task of confronting Hizballah, it is difficult not to conclude that this media-savvy government’s move was sheer provocation. Had Hizballah chosen to comply with government demands—presumably in order to avoid the sectarian street clashes of the sort that broke out during previous opposition demonstrations—the government initiative would have greatly increased its stature in the eyes of its sponsors and supporters. If, as proved to be the case, Hizballah responded in the manner that Nasrallah promised, the party would have ample opportunity to demonstrate its state-within-a-state status, effectively giving the international media a “coup” to condemn, and creating an intolerable state of affairs for Washington and its regional allies. In either case, the crisis would be pushed back to the top of the agenda of a conflict-fatigued international community.
In Lebanon, where political rivals habitually rely upon foreign patrons to stave off the prospect of domestic political concessions, it is assumed that the US and its allies were behind the provocation. Such a theory would take some time to prove. The March 14 forces’ constellation of allies range from the royal families of Saudi Arabia and Jordan to Egypt’s oligarchs to Bush’s functionaries—all of whom enjoy varying degrees of closeness to the Hariri family and Jumblatt. The order to move against Hizballah may not have come straight from the US embassy or Condoleezza Rice’s office, but the speed with which UN Middle East envoy Terje Roed-Larsen took the issue of Hizballah’s security apparatus to the Security Council suggests forethought. On May 8, Roed-Larsen informed the UN that Hizballah “maintains a massive paramilitary infrastructure separate from the state” that “constitutes a threat to regional peace and security.”
Washington’s responsibility resides in the culture of intransigence it has helped to cultivate in the Siniora government since the 2006 war and its consistent rejection of dialogue with the opposition. Realities in Iraq are quite different than in Lebanon, but it is tempting to see the Siniora government’s provocation as a Lebanese version of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s decision to employ the Iraqi Army and internal security forces against Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Basra in March. Had it been a less humiliating failure, Maliki’s gambit might have offered a template for Lebanon’s fragile rump cabinet.
On the other hand, as Washington’s relationship with Israel has amply demonstrated, international clientelism leaves a fair degree of play between patron and client regimes. Opposition watchers have insisted upon Hizballah’s operational autonomy from Damascus and Tehran, and the same privilege ought to be accorded to Hariri and Jumblatt.
One reading suggests the government’s move against Hizballah is the expression of a coalition of a disparate, politically bankrupt, political class, among whom strong statesmanship is utterly lacking. As it happens, strong leadership is also at a premium among the Siniora government’s putative patrons and allies, particularly the US, which has entered the doldrums of a lame-duck presidency. Under these circumstances, it is just as likely that Washington would allow its Lebanese clients to take the lead as it is that the US recommended the course of action itself.
Whether it acted in consultation with its overseas allies or not, the government’s attempt to curb Hizballah’s security apparatus has had the same effect: The international community is engaged.
The crisis has any number of possible consequences. There are optimists among the pundits who see this brush with civil war as a means for both sides to make the concessions needed to end the 18-month deadlock. With the gunmen off the streets, the army declaring its intention to enforce the peace more strenuously and the government forced to rescind its attack on Hizballah’s communications infrastructure, it is reasoned, now is the time for the opposition to end its downtown sit-in. At least one editorialist, Rami Khouri, has suggested that, bluster from the various regional and local actors aside, these events could provide an opportunity for the US and Iran to exercise joint trusteeship over Lebanon’s stability—the sort of condominium observers have hoped would take shape in Iraq.
Then there are the negative ramifications. Regardless of its militia’s discipline, and no matter how low the body count in the first two days, Hizballah’s sweep through West Beirut has done irreparable damage to its image among moderate supporters, particularly in the Sunni and Shi‘i communities. By the end of Lebanon’s civil war, the party had vowed never to wield its arms against other Lebanese, saying these were reserved for use against Israel. A good deal of public tolerance of Hizballah among those outside the party rested on trusting Nasrallah to keep that promise. Given the climate of sectarian fear that Lebanon’s political class has nurtured since 2005, the specter of firefights involving ski-masked militants, the very embodiment of “them,” was bound to conjure up horrific memories of the 15-year civil war, and with it the resentment of those Lebanese who never want to return to those days. True, the Hariri-owned media (like most Lebanese media) is a neo-feudal institution whose principles of disinterested journalism have badly lapsed since 2005, but silencing media voices (and worse, allowing SSNP partisans to vandalize and torch the premises) could not but confirm accusations that the opposition is authoritarian. For Lebanese Sunnis, it is not difficult to see these actions as an assault upon the memory of Saad’s assassinated father. The ensuing bitterness is unlikely to be assuaged by reminding them how many opposition media outlets Rafiq al-Hariri shut down when he was prime minister.
Among those government loyalists more comfortable with the language of militancy, this anxiety and frustration is woven into a complex of shame and desire for revenge, particularly among those whose friends and relatives were killed. Palpable, too, is the feeling of betrayal among the young men armed and liberally supplied, if barely trained, by the Future Movement or its proxies. Some of these aspiring fighters feel abandoned by Hariri and Jumblatt. Compounded by loyalist resentment of Lebanese army conduct throughout the contest, this alienation could have severe consequences for securing a peaceful resolution over the long term.
There is no shortage of precedent for where young men’s loyalties can turn when they become disenchanted with their moderate political leadership. If the political leadership is already a sectarian one, as in Lebanon, the migration to political Islam is that much briefer. In this, the army’s battle for Nahr al-Barid in the summer of 2007 may be instructive. On one hand, the army’s victory after 14 weeks surely marked a blow against salafi Islam in Lebanon, presumably making it less likely Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims would drift in that direction. On the other hand, there are reasons to be less sanguine. It will be recalled that politicians associated with the Siniora government were accused of supporting Fatah al-Islam, as well as a second salafi organization subcontracted to secure a refugee camp in Sidon after militants attacked Lebanese army units there. Finally, the conditions of Nahr al-Barid’s fall—with an undisclosed number of militants, indeed the entire leadership, escaping—arouse suspicions that the army’s conquest of transnational political Islam was not as absolute as its supporters would hope.
On the day the opposition action began, Michael Young, opinion editor of Beirut’s English-language newspaper The Daily Star—many of whose readers associate his opinions with those of American neo-conservatism—published a column suggesting it might be time for the rest of Lebanon to seek an “amicable divorce” from its Shi‘i community. Deliberately or not, such calls evoke the discourse of the “canton,” advocated during the civil war by Lebanese Forces chieftain Samir Geagea as a solution to the withering of the inter-sectarian consensus upon which the state was founded. For other Lebanese, the origins of their country’s serial political crises reside in the sectarian state, not the confessions of those who happen to live in it. For many secular Lebanese, the notion that partitioning this country of 4 million residents is the only way to save Lebanese sectarianism from its irreconcilable differences sounds a little too much like cutting off the nose to spite the face.
Addendum: the Doha Agreement
A delegation of pro-government and opposition politicians traveled to Doha on May 15 to try to negotiate a solution to Lebanon’s 18-month-long standoff. On May 21, at around 10 am local time, both sides announced they had reached an agreement that addresses Lebanon’s crisis with short and medium term measures.
In the short term, the deal calls for House Speaker Nabih Berri to convene the Lebanese parliament within 24 hours to elect armed forces commander Michel Suleiman president of the republic; for practical reasons, spokesmen from both sides later clarified that the election would take place on Sunday, May 25. Both sides agreed to assemble a national unity government of 30 ministers—16 from the parliamentary majority led by Saad al-Hariri, 11 from the ranks of the opposition and three to be appointed by the new president—and to participate in that government in good faith. This arrangement, a concession to what the government has termed the opposition’s demand to a right of “veto” over cabinet decisions, entails a return to the convention of “cabinet consensus” that has conditioned Lebanese government practice through most of the reconstruction period.
Over the medium term, the parties agreed to base the 2009 parliamentary elections on the country’s 1960 electoral law—which assumes smaller voting constituencies are the best means to ensure democratic representation in parliament—with amendments to Beirut’s three constituencies. Both sides agreed to refrain from accusations of treason or other language that can incite sectarian violence, and from resorting violence, armed or otherwise, as a means of resolving political conflict. This is considered a step-down from the government demand that Hizballah promise never again to raise its arms against Lebanese citizens. The president is expected to lead talks delineating the extension of state authority throughout Lebanon, with an eye to maintaining security.
The agreement has been characterized as a major win for Hizballah, and thus a setback for the government and its Washington and Riyadh sponsors. Preliminary reactions to the agreement have nevertheless been overwhelmingly positive. Spokesmen of the political class have rehearsed the “no victor, no vanquished” slogan that is habitually chanted whenever ad hoc solutions have been found for Lebanon’s structural contradictions. The international patrons of both sides have applauded that civil war has been averted. Within hours of the Doha announcement, opposition protestors manning the 18-month-old sit-in in the southern parts of downtown Beirut began to dismantle their tents. Lebanese on the street have professed a range of responses. There is relief that the long standoff has finally been resolved. There is anger that the political class didn’t reach this accommodation many months, and many more lives, ago. There is skepticism, since none of the substantive issues at the root of the confrontation have been resolved. The Doha Agreement will grant the citizens of Lebanon a breathing spell, during which they can attend to more mundane but manifold crises that have festered for the last 18 months. In the interim, the political class can toy with the possibilities, challenges and responsibilities of self-government.