How the European left supports Lebanon

Hazem Saghieh
13 August 2006

Europe's left-wingers are supporting us Lebanese against Israel and its war crimes. Thanks, that's great: the Lebanese need all the backing they can get in facing the overwhelming technological savagery unleashed on their land and airspace, scorching the earth and not distinguishing civilians from soldiers, babies from adults.

Yet it would be better if the left, which is by definition progressive, grasped the specificity of the situation it is dealing with, rather than contenting itself with generalisations motivated only by hatred of American foreign policy and sometimes of America itself. American policy, especially in the middle east, is certainly despicable, but love for Lebanon and other countries and peoples should come before hating America and its policy, just as devotion to concrete peoples should always take precedence over allegiance to "causes".

It is all very well for demonstrators to wave placards depicting George W Bush, Tony Blair and the Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, but it would be much better if the face of Hizbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah were up there with them, too.

Hazem Saghieh is senior commentator for the London-based Arabic paper Al-Hayat

Also by Hazem Saghieh on openDemocracy:

"Al-Jazeera: the world through Arab eyes" (June 2004)

"Rafiq Hariri's murder: why do Lebanese blame Syria?"
(February 2005)

"How to make Israel secure" (August 2005)

(with Saleh Bechir) "The 'Muslim community': a European invention" (October 2005)

"Syria and Lebanon: keeping it in the family" (December 2005)

"The cartoon jihad" (March 2006)

"Iran's politics: constants and variables" (May 2006)

"How the European left supports Lebanon"

At any rate, the generalisations bandied about by the left are no substitute for a close reading of recent Lebanese history. The origins of the present crisis date back much further than Bush and Olmert, and even Hizbollah itself. From Israel's creation in 1948 until 1967, Lebanon managed to prevent conflict breaking out on its border with the Jewish State without signing any peace agreement with it. However, after Syria was defeated in the six-day war it decided to avoid direct military confrontation with Israel as a means of recovering the Golan Heights, and instead chose to use Lebanon to that end.

Syria succeeded in playing on the numerous sectarian differences that were characteristic of Lebanon, as of so many newly-established third-world nations. The ideal way for Syria to exploit these divisions was to arm vengeful Lebanese and Palestinians, and to transport Palestinian fighters from Jordan to Lebanon following their confrontations with the Jordanian army in 1970.

Meanwhile in 1969, President Nasser of Egypt – allied to Syria and likewise exploiting Lebanon's sectarian divisions – imposed the so-called "Cairo agreement" on the Lebanese government. The terms of the accord put Lebanon's border with Israel under the control of the Palestinian militias. In this way Lebanon, and the principle of its territorial sovereignty, suffered their first setback. The weakness of the Lebanese state and its failings towards militant Lebanese and Palestinians alike had dire consequences; the result, directly or indirectly, was not any pressure to reform the state and improve the way it functions, but rather its utter destruction.

As the historical record makes clear, things deteriorated until the outbreak of what the Lebanese call the "two-year war" of 1975-76, the first round of Lebanon's civil conflict. Then the Syrian army, the Palestinians and Lebanese militias took control of Beirut, while some of those militias and paramilitary organisations gained a hold over the southern border and in the Beka'a valley, until the Israeli invasion of Lebanon of 1982.

Of course, progressive people disapprove of such an invasion, which degraded Lebanon's inhabitants, destroyed its economy and tore apart the fabric of its sectarian relations. But they should also condemn just as severely the collapse of the Lebanese state which was engineered by neighbouring quasi-totalitarian regimes long before Israel's intervention.

Why was it "progressive" to defend Lebanon? First, because it had been conducting a relatively successful experiment in coexistence between seventeen different religious sects. It is true that for historical reasons the Maronite Christians had the upper hand in government, but it is also true that the other sects, both Muslim and non-Muslim, exercised an effective power of veto over both major and minor affairs of state.

Second, Lebanon was gradually managing to overcome the differences between its different communities and regions. The country had the largest middle class in the middle east and a dynamic economy which was promoting growth even in the areas furthest from Beirut.

Third, for all its shortcomings, Lebanon's parliamentary system was without equal in the Arab world. Lebanon had simultaneously gained an unparalleled freedom of expression, with ever-increasing newspapers and magazines, not to mention a flourishing publishing sector producing original and translated work which made Beirut the printing press of the Arab world. Trade unions and political parties also enjoyed considerable liberties: on the eve of the 1975-1976 conflict most left-wing movements, including the Communist Party, were legalised.

In 1972, the year of the last elections before the war, the general-secretary of the Communist Party stood in the parliamentary elections; members were also elected for the Ba'ath Party and the Nasserites (who called for a pan-Arab union in which Lebanon would have been dissolved). The status of women in Lebanon was immeasurably better than in most of the rest of the Arab world.

The regressive choice

Those on the left should have lamented the collapse of such a model in the middle east. But instead they preferred to support the war, backing the "progressive" sects which oppose American policy against the "reactionary" sects which are considered pro-west. Needless to say, Lebanon's destruction did nothing to benefit the Palestinians, but simply threatened to turn the country into another Palestine. This threat, which was initiated then, remains today.

Such a terrible situation continued until, following the Islamic revolution of 1979, Iran replaced the Soviet Union in the forefront of the "resistance" to American-Israeli influence. Again, left-wingers paid scant attention to the reactionary nature of Ayatollah Khomeini's ideology, his misogyny and hostility to agricultural reform and anything else that might be called progressive.

In Lebanon, the combination of Khomeini's ideas and the Israeli invasion spawned Hizbollah which called, in its early years, for the creation of a (Shi'a) "Islamic republic" – this, in a country which had started out as a melting-pot of religious minorities. There are other key facts about Hizbollah often neglected by the left. At its outset, members of the movement in the Beka'a valley, accompanied by Iranian "Revolutionary Guards", used to spray girls' legs with acid, because their skirts did not cover their knees and their faces were not veiled.

Between them Hizbollah and Amal, the other main Shi'a movement, killed several communist leaders and intellectuals, so as to monopolise the resistance to Israel and annex it to Syria and Iran. Meanwhile Hizbollah was energetically "cleansing" Beirut's southern suburbs of Christians and turning the area into its stronghold. It also began kidnapping western citizens, in order to provide Iran with a bargaining chip in its dealings with the United States. All the while Hizbollah remained an armed force outside the state, which it prevented from becoming established.

After Israel withdrew its forces from Lebanon in 2000, Hizbollah persevered with its "resistance", and in so doing served non-Lebanese interests, fracturing both the state (the key to all political progress) and the national consensus (the key to all democratic progress), until the present crisis occurred.

Where is the progress in all of this? If Karl Marx knew that his followers had donned Iranian clerics' robes, he would be turning in his grave.

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