1975-2008: 33 years on…

‘But, although there are similarities between the circumstances of today and those leading up to the outbreak of war in 1975, there are also significant differences. Civil war requires that both sides be ready to fight, and today, neither appears to have an interest in full-on civil war; certainly, neither side wants to take responsibility for starting such a conflict. The March 14 coalition operates through and depends fundamentally on the existence of state institutions, which would be threatened by a civil war. Hence, the majority might not be willing to enter a war that risks the further erosion of already damaged institutions.
Outwardly, Hezbollah is the party that appears most willing (and able) to move the current Lebanese political crisis toward open conflict, if only because its leaders persistently remind the public of the power and quantity of its weapons. Moreover, Hezbollah, unlike the March 14 coalition, does not operate so much through the state as it does through its own independently-maintained institutions. Since it has effectively established its own institutions, army and funding, it would be the least affected by any economic and structural fallout of a war.
On the other hand, although Hezbollah may be willing to play the political war and participate in destroying the state’s institutions, there is ample reason to believe that it would try to avoid escalating the crisis to an open conflict. A civil war would push Hezbollah to use its arms against other Lebanese, destroying the legitimacy of their weapons, which are supposedly committed exclusively to resistance against Israel.’

Hassan Krayyem, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, analyzes the much-touted comparison between the outbreak of the civil war in 1975 and the situation today on nowlebanon. He makes some pertinent observations, although I have a sinking feeling that the following element might turn out to have the opposite effect to the one he’s arguing: ‘Moreover, in 1975, the international community was distracted when Lebanon stumbled into civil war, whereas today, Lebanon is backed up by regional and international powers, who have pledged to support Lebanon through its crisis.’

The most interesting and revealing observation comes at the end though: ‘Lebanon’s political leadership has never been much for self-criticism, indeed few were ever held accountable after the 1975 civil war. As a result, the collective memory of the Lebanese never truly reconciled itself with its own past: one need look no further than Lebanon’s classrooms, where agreement has yet to be reached on how to teach the war’s history to students, for ample evidence of how little the Lebanese have let themselves learn from the past. Fears that history will repeat itself are valid, but one needs to take into consideration something else. In 1975, the Lebanese people did not have the memory of 1975; this time, they do. The brutal images of civil war are still seared into the Lebanese psyche, and one can only hope that the national will not let itself be drawn into another conflict so easily this time. The Lebanese may not yet have learned to heal their deepest wounds, but hopefully, they have at least learned that civil war is not worth its terrible price.’

Ian Black writes a good analytical piece in the Guardian, mentioning an oft-overlooked fact about Hezbollah: they have their followers under tight control, contrary to Amal (or the PSP or Mustaqbal, to mention but a few). ‘On January 27, though, Hizbullah reacted with the discipline that has made it the most formidable fighting force in Lebanon and helped it claim victory in the 2006 war. “We were given strict orders not to fire back,” said a fighter in the Beirut suburb of Haret Hreik, where gaping holes and rubble mark Israel’s air strikes. “If we had, then all hell would have broken out.”

Black ends on a less optimistic note than Krayyem: ‘So far the war is largely one of words. But there are worries about young people whose politics are tribal but who do not remember the cost of 15 years of civil war. The fear is that Lebanon’s next conflict will pit Shias against Sunnis. “The divide is deep and along sectarian lines and tension is high,” said Farid al-Khazen, a Christian opposition MP. “That doesn’t mean we are heading for war, but there’s no solution either.” Others are not so sure. “It’s getting dangerous,” argued Timur Goksel, who lectures at Beirut’s American University. “Everyone is aware that civil war is an expensive game, even though there isn’t the same level of militarisation now and the Palestinians aren’t a factor any more. But the dynamics are scary and you can’t stop them until they’ve run their course. Things can easily get out of hand on the streets.”

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