Laïque Pride and a Lebanese primer

Resuming after another few months of absence from the blog, let’s for a change not talk about impending wars (although the latest and much-ridiculed stab bu Shimon Peres at making us believe the nimble guerrilla fighters of Hezbollah would have any use for cumbersome Scud missiles does present a tempting occasion). Yesterday morning some 3,000 people showed up in downtown Beirut for a march demanding an end to sectarianism in Lebanon, carrying banners saying ‘Civil marriage, not civil war’, and shouting slogans such as ‘Shu tayftak? Ma khassak!’ (What’s your sect? None of your business!’).  The march has received wide coverage in the international press, see e.g. here, here and here. Despite the crowd being as young and photogenic as any in the Independence Intifade of 2005 (and much more diverse, as virtually every sect was represented), the problem remains – as Elias Muhanna argues here in the Guardian’s Comment is Free section – that nobody really knows (or agrees on) what exactly the concept of ‘secularisation’ would entail in a sectarian system such as the Lebanese. A law to install civil marriage is an obvious starting point on a road which logically would have to end in abolishing the entire Ottoman millet-like legal peculiarity which submits personal status issues of the individual (laws governing birth, death, marriage, divorce, inheritance and the like) to the religious courts run by his or her sect, resulting in widely divergent laws for different citizens of the same country. Additionally, this system is a severe impediment to inter-sect marriage. Currently, Lebanese (or foreigners and Lebanese) of different sects who want to marry face a choice between either one of them converting to the other’s religion or concluding a civil marriage abroad, typically in Cyprus, which is then paradoxically recognized by the Lebanese state after all. But there is also the sectarian distribution of every important, and many rather unimportant, government positions according to fixed quota for each religious group – from the maronite president and army commander via the sunni prime minister and the equal division of parliament seats between christians and muslims right down to the four greek-catholic ambassadors and the alawite assistant vice-secretary to the director of some minor government department. Obviously, this does not make for a system where the ablest person is automatically put in the position most suitable to him (or rather seldom, her).
On the other hand, this vagueness  also presents an opportunity to develop a system unquely suited to the Lebanese situation, as pointed out by another frequently chanted slogan at the demonstration: ‘La Turkiyyeh, la franjiyyeh, 3almaniyyeh lebneniyyeh!’ – meaning ‘(we don’t want) the turkish or the french (forms of) ‘laïcité, (we want) a Lebanese one!

Anyway, one of the main incentives to reform the current system is its immense complexity, which makes it a legedarily daunting task for journalists to explain in anything like a comprehensible fashion in the usual 800 words of a newspaper lead. I have spent some time recently writing a general ‘primer’ on Lebanese politics, trying to explain in some detail who is who and what is what, where the current situation is at, and how we got there. It is kind of a project in progress, but those interested can find the entire text (some 12 A4 pages) in its current state below. I used the most recent Valentine’s Day as an opening to hang the rest onto, which obviously is a bit outdated even now already, and by the time this project is finished (if indeed it ever will be…) I’ll have to think of a new opening but whatever, here goes:

Lebanon: a primer

Valentine’s day in Lebanon: politics not romance

Another February 14th has come and gone in Lebanon, and as has been the custom in this country since 2006, a mass of people gathered on Martyr’s Square in the capital Beirut to commemorate the assassination, on the same day in 2005, of business tycoon, ex-prime minister and icon of Lebanon’s reconstruction after the civil war, Rafiq Hariri. Other than the previous four years though, the turnout was not the massive one million plus – and this time around none of the country’s multiple partisan media outlets even bothered to claim so. The March 14th coalition, formed after Hariri’s assassination and instrumental in ending the 27-year Syrian occupation only months later, has all but fallen apart. Enthusiasm among the Lebanese for the Independence Uprising (Intifadat al-Istiqlal) – or the ‘Cedar Revolution’ as some spin doctor in the US State Department dubbed it – has waned considerably.

One reason for this is the lack of actual material – as opposed to political and symbolic – support from mainly the US and Saudi Arabia for their anti-Syrian allies in Lebanon. Another reason is the lack of progress made by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, charged by the UNSC with investigating Hariri’s assassination. Just as important was the July War in 2006, Israel’s brutal and disproportionately violent attack on the Lebanese people and their country’s vital infrastructure, explicitly condoned and encouraged by the US – with Condoleezza Rice famously describing the vicious assault as the ‘birth pangs of a new Middle East’. Although Hezbollah took a serious political beating for being seen as ‘provoking’ the conflict, and was moreover begrudged for calling the destruction of much of the infrastructure a ‘divine victory’, on the whole the war served to remind many that for real protection from their most aggressive neighbour they would have to look elsewhere than the Israel-friendly west.

But the decisive moment came in May 2008, when a violent confrontation took place between the March 14th camp and its opponents of March 8th, in which the latter took control of the streets of West Beirut, easily defeating in a matter of hours their opponents’ militias. The resulting deadlock was transformed into an agreement concluded in June of that year in Doha (Qatar) which formed a government of national unity. Add to this the manifest failure of the Bush administration’s policies not only in Lebanon but also in Iraq, and Obama’s subsequent and (at least slightly) different approach to Syria and Iran, and it becomes clear why the March 14th coalition today existis only in name.

Who’s who?

Trying to offer a concise overview of the political situation in Lebanon is surprisingly hard, as this tiny country with its small population of a mere 4 million is divided into 18 officially recognized sects (each with its own personal status jurisdiction, and the largest complete with dedicated media and political and/or military organizations) and even more political parties. Sectarian and political divisions tend to overlap and intertwine in subtle and surprising ways, yet should not be amalgamated wholesale. Moreover, some knowledge of Lebanon’s recent history is required to make sense of the relationships between all these actors.

At present, received wisdom sees the country as politically divided into two main camps, named March 14th and March 8th after the respective dates of their most massive popular manifestations in the streets of Beirut in 2005. This is the year when the present bipolar constellation was formed by Rafiq Hariri’s assassination, followed by the departure of the last remaining military occupier of the country – Syria (Israel having been forced out in 2000 by Hezbollah’s Islamic Resistance).

The March 14th coalition is – or rather, speaking in April 2010, was – made up of several separate political groupings:

  • the Future Party, led by Hariri’s son Saad, and grouping a large majority of the country’s sunni population
  • the Lebanese Forces of Samir Geagea and the Phalanges (Kata’ib) led by Amin Gemayyel, who together represent slightly less than half of the country’s christians
  • the Progressive Socialist Party, an originally secular and ideological but since the civil war mainly druze affair headed by Walid Junblatt
  • a few independent politicians with smaller local followings.

Junblatt – known as the most unpredictable weathervane in Lebanese politics but very skilled, as a minority leader,  must be, at always ending up on the winning side – was one of the most vocal opponents of Syria, but has removed his PSP from the coalition after the parliamentary elections of June last year. His U-turn was completed by a visit to Damascus in late March to make up with Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad. Hariri’s Future Movement has toned down its anti-Syrian and anti-Hezbollah rhetoric to the point where Hariri could be heard claiming in February 2010 that in the event of a new Israeli attack, the Lebanese government, army and people will stand as one with Hezbollah. All of which leaves a (large) minority of the christians as the only steadfast proponents of the staunchly pro-US and pro-Saudi camp.

Which brings us to the other major bloc in Lebanese politics. First opposing the March 14th-led government, then (since June 2008) participating in it with a ‘blocking minority’, is the March 8th coalition. Typically described in the Western media as ‘pro-Syrian’, ‘anti-Western’ and ‘Hezbollah-led’, it is a far more complex entity, conprised of:

  • Hezbollah, led by secretary general Hassan Nasrallah
  • Amal, led by speaker of parliament Nabih Berri, who together represent the overwhelming majority of the country’s shia population
  • ‘General’ Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, representing about half of the christians – originally this ‘new’ movement, comprising a large number of young, reform-minded followers, participated in the Independence Intifada, but in 2006, to everybody’s surprise, Aoun signed a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ with Hezbollah and switched sides
  • Samir Frangieh’s Marada, another (smaller and local) christian grouping
  • the Syrian Socialist National Party (SSNP), which is nominally secular and Arab nationalist (as in striving to reconstitute Greater Syria), but in practice consists mostly of christians and alawites
  • a few smaller independent politicians including two druze minority parties, as well as the remnants of the formerly important communist and baath parties.

In other words – the conflict in Lebanon is not primarily a sectarian or religious one, as is often gratuitously claimed: only the sunnis and the shia are (mostly) united on the same side; christians of various denominations and druze are ‘divided’. Religion as such in any case plays no role in the conflict and is not an issue. Neither is the conflict a class-based struggle – as neither coalition is explicitly socialist, and both are mostly free-market proponents. On the contrary, it is both a political strife (where the choice of foreign alliances and influences is concerned) and a clan-based or tribal one (where domestic issues are concerned).

Sectarian divisions?

Indeed, although Lebanon officially recognizes eighteen different religious sects1 and its judicial system recognizes the judicial sovereignty of each of those over their adherents as far as personal status law is concerned (a remnant of the millet system as employed in the Ottoman empire of which Lebanon was a part until the French mandate after WWI), the population as a whole shows a marked tolerance – if not actual indifference – to the ‘other’s’ religious practices. Attempts at mutual conversion are extremely rare and usually of foreign origin.2 In fact, the Arabic word commonly used to describe the ‘sectarian’ Lebanese set-up is ‘ta’ifiyyah’, which literally means ‘factionalism’ or ‘clanism’ and technically entails no specific religious connotation at all.

The power relations in this mountainous country are actually in the main best described as ‘neo-feudal’ or even semi-dictatorial: the various parties – whether they coincide with (parts of) specific religious sects or involve cross-sections of more than one sect – even today are generally led by the traditional land-owning ‘aristocracy’ (this is the case of Walid Junblatt, Talal Arslan3 and Samir Frangieh) or by warlords who grabbed power during the civil war and remain in positions of authority today (Samir Geagea, Amin Gemayyel, Nabih Berri, Michel Aoun – who was actually commander of the Lebanese army – and in a different sense Hasan Nasrallah too, as well as – again – Junblatt).

Shortly after the country’s independence in 1946, a half-million strong presence of Palestinian refugees, until today mostly concentrated in the miserable conditions of a dozen refugee camps, came to complicate this set-up. The Armenian population of several hundred thousand, who arrived in the first quarter of the 20th century as refugees from what is now Turkey and Syria, escaping the Ottoman massacres, is well integrated into the country but remains a distinct cultural group. A number of Kurdish and Iraqi refugees as well as Syrian economic immigrants and a number of Bedouins still roaming the Bekaa valley, all generally poor sunnis without political clout, completes the picture.

All of this, however, should not obscure the fact that even during the civil war (1975-1990) not all christians fought with the sectarian right-wing pro-Israel forces of the Phalanges and (later, after an internal power struggle) the Lebanese Forces. Many fought with the communist parties, the SSNP, the PSP and Palestinian factions in the Lebanese National Movement, which was a largely anti-imperialist, pro-Palestinian and pan-Arab affair. If it was not for the intervention of the Syrian army, this coalition would probably have won the war against the sectarian forces in 1976, and the picture would look extremely different now. Demonstrations for secularism such as the one held by the grassroots Laïque Pride movement on April 26th would not have been necessary anymore. The fact that it managed to attract some 3,000 mainly young people proves that the spirit of cross-sectarian community has not entirely been crushed yet in the country. Indeed, many young Lebanese are exasperated by the eternal ‘sectarian’ tensions and particularly by the efforts of some leaders to revive them at every occasion for their own narrow political and electoral purposes. Whether they will be able to reach critical mass is not clear, however, as the entire system is geared against their efforts.

Democratic deficit

But don’t the Lebanese all live together in a democracy and solve their problems in democratic ways? Well, yes and no. Whereas the system is formally democratic, various arrangements guaranteeing quantitative sectarian representation and an unfathomably complex election system cast dark shadows over the actual level of representation. The country’s original scheme for power sharing, known as the ‘National Pact’, was devised at independence by two important politicians representing the maronites (strongly favoured by the French during the mandate) and the sunni muslims respectively. Their ‘gentleman’s agreement’, which was never put on paper, officially divided the most powerful offices of the newborn democracy between ‘christians’ and ‘muslims’ (although in reality the division mainly benefited maronites and sunnis), giving the christians a 6 to 5 guarantee of parliament seats.

Whereas this division might have roughly mirrored the population structure in 1946 (although the numerous shia muslims were under-represented from the start), it certainly ceased to reflect the actual demographic reality as this evolved in subsequent decades, and the civil war was fought to a large extent to abolish or at least reform this ‘confessional system’. The term ‘civil war’ is actually a misnomer for a bewildering series of struggles which lasted for 15 years and caused some 150,000 deaths. It involved ever-shifting alliances pitting every party against every other at some point during the conflict and provoking invasions and occupations by both Israel and Syria before the 1989 Ta’if agreement finally brought about a hesitant peace. It did not, however, end the occupation by either Israel (the IDF was finally forced out of the south of the country in 2000) or Syria (which kept occupying and dominating northern Lebanon and the Bekaa valley until 2005).

Many would argue that even today the conflict is still smoldering, and the ‘peace’ is actually just a ‘ceasefire’. Indeed, most of the original bones of contention remain unresolved, no truth and reconciliation commission has been put in place, none of the perpetrators of the numerous war crimes and masacres have been convicted (or even indicted),4 and many internal refugees have not been able to return to their original homes. In short, much bad blood remains and every minor conflict since then has been seized as an opportunity to resume latent unresolved feuds. The Ta’if accords did divide political power more evenly, notably putting christians and muslims on an equal basis in parliament, severely curtailing the formerly all-encompassing authority of the maronite presidency, reinforcing the powers of the sunni prime minister, and according the newly empowered position of speaker of parliament to the up to then massively under-represented shia sect. It also called for the abolition of the sectarian system in the longer term – something which has hardly been discussed, let alone brought about, by subsequent governments.

It must be noted, moreover, that the sectarian distribution of representatives does not merely concern the top positions, but imposes quotas on every level of the civil service, army, police force and all other government agencies, causing a level of inefficiency, nepotism and corruption that virtually paralyses the state.

The distorting election system

As for the actual election system – it is complicated beyond belief for many reasons. Firstly, the sectarian division results in every electoral district being distributed among the sects, precluding elections based on political programmes or merits and often forcing the district’s voters to elect members of other sects. This system is often justified by its propensity to force candidates to forge cross-sectarian alliances and appeal to voters of different sects. It also, however, severely diminishes the representational value of the entire process, especially in its interaction with a second element, the rather Anglo-Saxon ‘first-past-the-post’ system (as opposed to proportional representation). Taken together, these two factors make it all but impossible for secular and non-sectarian parties to score the number of votes needed to get a candidate elected in any given district. Thirdly, the gerrymandering of districts has been a popular way to influence results, employed notably by the Syrian regime before 2005 to ensure the diffusion of the christian vote.

Added to that comes the peculiarity that the Lebanese do not vote in their place of residence but in the district where they are registered, usually the original home village of their (extended) family. As Lebanon’s population is urbanized to a high degree – more than half of the four million Lebanese live in the capital alone – and transfer of residence is an extremely complicated and drawn-out bureaucratic procedure, as many people moreover remain displaced after the civil war and – to complicate matters further – tens of thousands of expat workers return to the country at election time, this constellation leads to extraordinarily bizarre results – especially in municipal elections – one of which is coming up in the beginning of May 2010.

Take for example the various councils that make up the southern Beirut suburbs of Dahiyyeh – formerly a mostly christian area, but since the civil war (when it found itself in West Beirut and most of the inhabitants fled/were expelled to the northern christian-held areas around Jounieh and Kaslik) almost exclusively populated by shia refugees from the Israeli occupation of the south: they still all have christian mayors. Or take any village on Mount Lebanon or in the Bekaa valley, where 90% of the voters have – often for generations – been living in the capital or even abroad, but still get to determine who dominates the local political scene – and hence the council, the economy, the infrastructure etcetera.

But on the national level too, the system creates clear distortions. If we take as a concrete example the recent parliamentary elections of June 2009, we see that they were officially ‘won’ by the March 14th coalition – the ‘majority’ as the Western media still insist on calling them – in terms of the number of deputies they were able to send to parliament. Yet on the national level, fully 55% of the popular vote went to the ‘opposition’ of March 8th – and that is before we subtract the PSP vote, as Junblatt pulled his party out of the coalition shortly after the elections. Fully 10% of the Lebanese vote went to secular nationalist – read: mostly different varieties of leftist and/or panarabist – parties such as the baath, SSNP, nasserist, communist and Democratic Left parties, yet they do not have a single representative in parliament between them. As it is clear to every voter that their representatives don’t stand a chance of being elected, we can only speculate how many potential votes they lose through this situation. Add to that the widespread vote-buying in various forms (from handing out sums of cash money and material incentives to paying expats’ flights into the country for voting purposes), as well as the fact hat entire families and clans essentially vote for the traditional leader of their clan no matter what as they have done for generations – and the democratic veneer of the country’s political system turns out to be a very thin layer indeed.

The role of Hariri

And yet, despite its parliamentary majority, the March 14th coalition has not been able to translate its official victory into government control. A national unity government has indeed again been formed (after lengthy negotiations), uniting ‘majority’ and ‘opposition’ in a virtual deadlock where neither can force its will on the other, and so Lebanon remains as lost to the US, Israel and their ‘moderate’ Arab allies as it has been since the start of the civil war. Indeed, although the outcome of this conflict has been the destruction of the leftist and Arab nationalist forces in the country, reinforcing the sectarian divisions that make it so easy for foreign powers to manipulate its domestic politics, Lebanon has not returned to its former unequivocal pro-western position.

From independence until the first brief civil war of 1958, the country’s all-powerful maronite presidents kept a firm anti-nasserist and anti-communist line, culminating in the country’s entry into the anti-soviet Baghdad Pact. That was a step too far for the then powerful domestic panarabist and leftist forces though, and between 1958 and 1975, the country’s political line was a delicate balancing act between them and the pro-western christian right5 – a balancing act that ultimately failed, and reduced the free market offshore tax haven known as ‘the Switzerland of the Middle East’ to a pile of rubble and agony, with little fiefdoms ruled by warlords whose economic interests dictated a continuation of hostilities for the next 15 years, incidentally, as the first televised civil war, leaving an indelible impression on a generation of TV audiences worldwide of the archetypal  ‘failed state’, prefiguring later ganglands such as Afghanistan and Somalia.

And this is where Rafiq Hariri enters the scene. The warlords were eventually bought off by Hariri’s generous spreading of his Saudi-gained capital. The man continued to spread his largesse in the reconstruction of post-war Lebanon – or at least this is what the official mythology surrounding this near-legendary figure affirms. Others contend that he massively inflated the country’s national debt by – as its prime minister – awarding gigantic construction contracts to his own companies and paying them by having the state lend money from his own banks – at a handsome interest rate. The reconstruction efforts were moreover largely confined to the prestigious business center of Beirut, hardly benefiting the rest of the capital, let alone other parts of the country, and involved a great amount of hotly contested confiscation and expropriation affecting many owners of homes and businesses. Yet public recognition of the man’s corruption and his massive personal enrichment6 on the back of the country – not to mention his many anti-social and wildly capitalist measures, which destroyed whatever agricultural and industrial productivity remained after the damage done by the civil war – remains taboo in Lebanon. Indeed, despite the country’s continuing de facto position as the main frontline state of Arab resistance against US-Israeli imperialism, it is also a decidedly capitalist and free market-oriented economy. It is often claimed that this was the trade-off negotiated between Hezbollah and Hariri – the former undertaking to leave the economy to the latter in return for him not interfering with the resistance.

Hariri’s glorification into a national martyr after 2005 – when a man happy to deal with a dominant Syrian regime for 15 years was suddenly transformed into a fierce defender of Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence – along with other traditionally pro-Syrian elements such as Walid Junblatt – in combination with his family and business empire’s domination of important Lebanese media outlets, has until now prevented any objective or pertinent analysis of the policies and actions of a man who to the objective observer makes Silvio Berlusconi look like an amateur dilettant. Rafiq Hariri, who did actually start from humble beginnings, made his fortune in real estate construction in Saudi Arabia, in the process becoming close friends with elements in the ruling family of the kingdom. He has always been the point man for Saudi interests in Lebanon, and his son continues to act in that capacity. Indeed, Saudi Arabia and Syria are the two foreign powers mostly influencing Lebanese politics – as opposed to Lebanese military affairs, which are of course dominated by Israel and Iran.

Simply put, this means that bilateral Syrian-Saudi relations are a good barometre on which to read the presence – or potential – of political unrest in Lebanon. When the hereditary king and the hereditary president perceive their interests as coinciding, Lebanon flourishes – this was the case between 1989 and 2005, when Saudi Arabia and its ‘moderate’ pro-US allies (as well as the US) awarded Lebanon to Syrian control as a reward for the latter’s cooperation in the alliance fighting Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. When their respective interests clash – as they did from 2005 to 2009, when the US neocons and their ‘moderate’ Arab allies were trying to pressure Syria to give up its privileged relationship with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas for Israel’s sake – Lebanon suffers. The effect which this constellation – among many others – produces on the prospect of future military action in the region involving Lebanon, will be dealt with later. First we must have a quick look at the most recent game-changing armed confrontation inside the country, the ‘events’ of May 2008, as the Lebanese are in the habit of referring to them.

The May 2008 ‘events’

To understand what happened on May 7th, 2008, we must place it in the context of the ongoing conflict between the ‘majority’ government (primarily composed of March 14th ministers, but without an absolute majority) and the ‘opposition’ (the parliamentary minority since the elections of 2005) of March 8th. The conflict consisted of the March 8th movement demanding – after the 2006 war, which hugely increased popular respect for Hezbollah’s resistance to the Israeli invasion, whereas the majority government was seen as weak and incompetent – the formation of a national unity government in which the opposition would have a ‘blocking’ third, i.e. the power to veto any decisions and make the government collapse if needed. When the March 14th movement refused this, and equally refused to hold early parliamentary elections, the five shia ministers (two from Hezbollah, two from Amal and one independent) left the government on November 11th, 2006, de facto paralysing it7 and on December 1st, the opposition started a longterm sit-in which virtually encircled the Grand Serail (the Ottoman-built seat of the government), as well as paralysing the newly rebuilt commercial centre of Beirut in downtown. The sit-in lasted right through 2007 – with occasional low-level violence flaring up between supporters of the two camps – until the end of the ‘events’ of May 2008, hugely impairing the tourist industry’s recovery from the July war of 2006, and thus depriving the country of a major income earner.8 As neither side was able to enforce its demands on the other, the country’s politics remained caught in a deadlock, as illustrated by the lasting inability of parliament to agree on the election of a president to replace the Syrian-imposed Emile Lahoud, whose term ended in November 2007.

To increase the intensity of all these events, the timeline of the conflict (starting with Hariri’s murder in 2005) was moreover punctuated by a series of assassinations of Lebanese politicians and other public figures, including notably journalist Samir Kassir, MP and publisher of Nahar newspaper Gibran Tueni, ex-Communist Party leader George Hawi and, in December 2006, serving minister of Industry Pierre Gemayyel of the Lebanese Phalanges. The government also – after the departure of the shia ministers, and so arguably unconstitutionally9, voted to approve the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, set up by the UNSC to investigate the assassination of Hariri and the following series of murders. The March 14th coalition – and others – have consistently accused Syria of being behind these assassinations.

The direct cause leading to the May events, however, was provided by two decisions taken by the government which were hugely provocative and controversial, as they directly affected the strength of the military resistance against Israel. The first decision decreed the dismantlement of Hezbollah’s communications network10, the second relieved the head of security at Rafiq Hariri International Airport – a Hezbollah man – from his position. Hezbollah and its allies gave the government 24 hours to reverse both decisions. When it refused to do so, Hezbollah and some of its allies – Amal and the SSNP11 – hi-jacked what was supposed to be a massive labour demonstration and took over the streets of East Beirut. It took them only a few hours to defeat the badly-trained militia recently put together by Saad Hariri’s Future party. Its effect in demonstrating Hezbollah’s unassailable military might was only increased by the fact that most of the actual fighters were provided by Amal and the SSNP, usually in small commandos led and controlled by a Hezbollah man, while the party’s most experienced fighters were kept on alert at the southern border, in case Israel decided to grab the opportunity for another invasion.

The army, meanwhile, stayed resolutely neutral, and christian fighters – divided over the two camps – did not take part, with both parties also respecting the neutrality of the predominantly christian areas of East Beirut. In all, the actual fighting was over in the first 24 hours, with Hezbollah handing over the disarmed Future fighters and their weapons, as well as control over the ‘conquered’ – or ‘demilitarised’ – areas, to the Lebanese army as soon as the fight was decided. Clashes also happened in Tripoli – where intermittent flare-ups of violence between the alawi quarter of Jabal Mohsen (allied with March 8th) and the sunni quarter of Bab al-Tabbaneh (dominated by the Future party) continued over the next year or so. In Halba, north of Tripoli, the Future party used the occasion for a reported massacre among its long-time rivals of the SSNP.

But the most lethal and spectacular clashes took place when Hezbollah clashed with the druze PSP militia in the foothills of the Chouf mountains. The druze mobilised the entire population to defend their traditional homelands using anything from hunting rifles to RPG’s while Hezbollah fired katyusha rockets from southern Beirut (the only occasion reported where heavy weapons were used in the conflict). Seventeen Hezbollah fighters and as many PSP militiamen were killed before the druze agreed to surrender to the army (but not to Hezbollah).

The human cost of the conflict was, all things considered, relatively low – 84 people were killed in all, with another 200 wounded – but its psychological and political effects were earth-shattering. On the positive side, the political deadlock was now broken: Saniora’s government finally caved in to the opposition’s demands for a national unity government, which was formed on May 21st through negotiations in Doha (Qatar), where the parties also agreed to elect a new president – army commander Michel Suleyman, who had kept the army carefully neutral throughout the battles. The tradition of national unity governments was now firmly established, as proven after the June 2009 elections, where March 14th was unable to leverage its small parliamentary majority into forming a government with the simple majority. Another tradition seemed to have been established too: the post of top commander of the LAF serving as the springboard to the presidency, Suleyman following in the footsteps of Emile Lahoud before him…

On the negative side, however, tensions between the two camps had been hugely aggravated12, with many Lebanese regarding Hezbollah with more suspicion than before, as this was the occasion where they had broken their longstanding promise never to use their arms against the Lebanese. As for the conflict’s international ramifications, it had now become abundantly clear, as stated in the introduction, that the March 14th alliance was not going to receive any substantial support – least of all militarily – from its US, and Saudi backers, and that the neocon-laid plans for the country were dead and buried. Subsequent decision by, e.g., Walid Junblatt to leave the coalition and switch to the other side, were virtually decided during those few days in May.

Israeli threats – is another war looming?

Israeli leaders threatening Hezbollah – and since its participation in the last two Lebanese governments, the Lebanese state and all of its population and infrastructure – are nothing new or remarkable. Israeli planes and drones violate Lebanese airspace on a daily basis, short-lived incursions of the IDF into Lebanese territory are a regular phenomenon too, sometimes resulting in the kidnapping of Lebanese citizens, as happened to a hapless 17-year old shepherd in January. All this notwithstanding the fact that Hezbollah has refrained from any rocket or other attacks on Israel since the end of the July war in 2006. Barking dogs don’t bite, however, and as long as the vocal threats continue, most Lebanese conclude that no real action is imminent. Yet the general conclusion among analysts and population alike is that another war at some point in the future is all but unavoidable.

The IDF is still licking its wounds from its ‘defeat’ in 2006 and feels it needs to reassert its deterrence force by fighting a real militarily powerful enemy – and winning clearly. 2008/2009’s Cast Lead offensive having been a civilian massacre rather than a war, it may have restored the IDF’s internal confidence, but did nothing to impress Hezbollah’s forces, who have been rearming and entrenching themselves north of the Litani river. Nasrallah has repeatedly promised surprises in store for Israel, as well as confidently asserting that any next war would ‘redraw the entire face of the region’. In a speech on February 14th – in commemoration of Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyyeh’s assassination in Damascus in 2008, the secretary-general of Hezbollah warned of tit-for-tat retaliation, specifically mentioning strikes on Israel’s Ben Gurion airport in revenge for strikes on Rafiq Hariri airport. Military analysts now concur that, apart from having built up a large arsenal of more powerful and far-reaching rockets and generally being militarily far stronger than in 2006, Hezbollah’s next strategic move will involve the actual invasion of parts of Israel.

Yet the islamic resistance is unlkely to trigger the next Israeli invasion lightly, as it has taken serious political blows inside Lebanon for being blamed for provoking the 2006 war, which caused destruction all over the country, and not just in ‘Hezbollah strongholds’, whatever Israel may claim. The trigger for renewed conflict is more likely to come from outside Lebanon – notably by a potential Israeli strike (with or without US cooperation) of Iran’s much-vaunted nuclear installations. With Tehran’s regime being close to both Hezbollah and Hamas, and having recently signed a mutual defense pact with Damascus, the possibilities for repercussions are virtually unlimited, especially taking into account that any Israeli aerial attack would see its bombers crossing either Iraqi or Saudi airspace. The recent resistance top in Damascus, where Assad, Ahmadi Nejad and Nasrallah appeared together, does not bode well for Israel either – at least if Syria and Iran are actually planning to contribute more than lip service and moral support in the next confrontation, instead of leaving the Lebanese to battle it out with the Israelis on their own as in the past..

1The most important ones, in terms of population numbers, being shia, sunni, maronite, greek orthodox, druze, greek catholic and roman catholic. Smaller churches are alawi, ismaili, armenian orthodox, armenian catholic, chaldean chrstians, copts and various protestant denominations. The israelites (Lebanese jews) used to be recognised as the nineteenth sect, but they virtually all emigrated – not in 1948, and not even during the first half of the civil war, but in 1982, when their position became untenable after Israel’s invasion.

2 I.e. American or British evangelicals trying to convert maronite, roman catholic or greek orthodox christians, and French jesuits attempting to convince maronite and other christians to return to the ‘true church’. A marked indigenous exception are maronites who spontaneously convert to the greek orthodox church because of the latter’s more lenient divorce laws, it being virtually impossible to dissolve a marriage concluded by the maronite chuch.

3Junblatt and Arslan are the two ‘aristocratic’ families who have ruled the druze (and fought each other over this rule) since the 17th century.

4Indeed, as noted above, many of them are still in power, occupying official positions in government and parliament and enjoying their war-related fortunes. The only warlord to be imprisoned for his crimes was Samir Geagea, kept in an isolation cell for 11 years by the Syrian regime. Unfortunately, his conviction was achieved by means of a political show trial that did not address any of the real underlying issues, but merely rid the regime of a political opponent.

5It should be noted however that the common association of Lebanon’s christians and the rightwing or imperialist forces is a crude generalisation which does not do justice to the many christians involved in communist, leftist and panarabist movements. It also hides the fact that many muslims were not exactly on the leftist or panarabist side either.

6Compare, for example, Lebanon’s national debt to the combined fortune of Hariri’s heirs – all of which suddenly appeared in the Fortune 500 list after his death.

7I.e. it was unconstitutional without a shia representation.

8Incidentally causing the emergence of a new nightlife centre at Gemmayzeh, as the main entrance to the previous complex of bars and nightclubs at Rue Monnot – and its parking lot, all-important to the Lebanese – was virtually blocked by the sit-in.

9And declared so by president Lahoud, who refused to sign the decree.

10A largely symbolic decision anyway, as this net, which actually consists of ‘old school’ fibre cables dug into the ground and crisscrossing large parts of the country- its low-tech quality paradoxically making it virtually impossible for the sophisticated Israel equipment to intercept its phone traffic – is one of the essential strengths of the resistance, and dismantling it would mean an open armed confrontation with Hezbollah and its allies. The Lebanese army, led by future president Michel Suleyman, would definitely have refused to obey such an order, for exactly the same reasons that made it refuse to take sides in the conflict which subsequently broke out.

11But notably not the FPM and Marada, its christian allies. The christian community was the only one almost evenly split over the two camps, and throughout the ‘events’, the christian neighbourhoods of Beirut remained unaffected, apart from a short spillover into Sodeco from Ras al-Naba. The SSNP, though in the main composed of christians, is not seen as a ‘christian’ party in the sectarian sense, a peculiarity which underscores my thesis above that ‘secarianism’ in the religious sense is not an issue in Lebanon.

12Especially between sunnis and shias: in June and July alone, sectarian clashes in Tripoli and the Bekaa valley caused over 20 more deaths.


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