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Hizbollah and Lebanon: the curse of a state

Robert G Rabil
22 May 2008

The military campaign launched in May 2008 by the Shi'a Islamist party Hizbollah to control Beirut has raised fundamental questions about the very existence of Lebanon as a nation-state. But the ten days of armed confrontation that followed, which took the lives of more than sixty people, have also shed new light on the myths surrounding Hizbollah itself (not least its status as a "resistance" movement).

The Qatar-mediated pact between government and opposition sealed on 21 May 2008 after five days of talks - which gives the opposition veto-power over the proposed national-unity government, agrees changes in Lebanon's electoral law, and opens the way to the election of a new president - may have concluded the current phase of conflict. But a sustainable political path forward for Lebanon will require much more if the bleak events of these weeks are not to be followed by an even larger conflagration in the future. Robert G Rabil is associate professor of middle-east politics and director of graduate studies in the political-science department at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of Embattled Neighbors: Syria, Israel and Lebanon (Lynne Rienner, 2003) and Syria, United States and the War on Terror in the Middle East (Praeger, 2006).

Also by Robert G Rabil in openDemocracy:

"Lebanon divided" (7 August 2007)

"Lebanon, Syria, Iran: lessons of Sharm el-Sheikh" (11 May 2007)

A house divided

The withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in April 2005 brought to the fore the deep sectarian and ideological schisms among and between the different confessional groups in the country. In fact, even before the withdrawal, the country split roughly along two camps, one supporting the rule of law and an ideological proximity with the west and some moderate Arab states, while the other supporting a change in the political structure and an Islamist, pro-Iranian ideological orientation. This split has further deepened on account of the struggle between Washington on one side, and Tehran and Damascus on the other, for a new regional order following the removal of the Iraqi Ba'ath regime.

The first camp, represented by the so-called 14 March forces, includes a majority of Christians, Sunni and Druze. It played a key role in forcing Syria from Lebanon; in setting up an international tribunal to investigate the murder of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri on 14 February 2005, followed by that of other political activists (allegedly by Syrian intelligence and their agents in Lebanon); and in supporting United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1559, which called for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and the disarming of Hizbollah.

Simultaneously, the pro-14 March government of Fouad Siniora has attempted to remove the last vestiges of Syrian power in Lebanon, which lay within the formal and informal public sectors. Throughout the years of Syrian hegemony over Lebanon, Damascus filled the organs of the formal public sector with its own loyalists. No less significant, Damascus played a supporting role in creating an informal public sector which has outstripped the state as a patronage system and a military force. Thanks to unremittingly Iranian support, The Shi'a Islamist party Hizbollah was able to build a state within a state.

The Hizbollah-led opposition, which includes pro-Syrian groups and the secular Bloc of Reform and Change led by Michel Aoun, has attempted to prevent the Siniora government from taking unilateral political actions or any action deemed detrimental to the interest of the party and the "resistance". More specifically, the party has been careful about protecting its socio-political and military infrastructure. Initially, Hizbollah opposed the international tribunal on the grounds that it was instigated by Israel's patron and ally, the United States. Moreover, it prevented the government from appointing anti-Syrian officials to sensitive posts.

Meanwhile, Damascus continued to supply Hizbollah and other pro-Syrian Palestinian groups with weapons. It is in this context that the summer 2006 war erupted between Hizbollah and Israel. The hostilities ended on the basis of a seven-point plan introduced by Siniora and according to UNSC Resolution 1701, which increased the number of United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) troops in southern Lebanon and called for the dismantling and disarming of all militias. Despite the destruction wrought upon both Lebanese infrastructure and Hizbollah's members, the group's secretary-general leader Hassan Nasrallah declared a "divine" victory. Iran and Syria rode Hizbollah's wave of Pyrrhic victory.Among openDemocracy's many articles on Lebanon's political troubles:

Hazem Saghieh, "Rafiq al-Hariri's murder: why do Lebanese blame Syria?" (21 February 2005)

Hazem Saghieh, "Syria and Lebanon: keeping it in the family" (14 December 2005)

Roger Scruton, "Lebanon: the missing perspective" (20 July 2006)

Nadim Shehadi, "Riviera vs Citadel: the battle for Lebanon" (22 August 2006)

Paul Rogers, "Lebanon: the war after the war" (12 October 2006)

Mai Ghoussoub, "Lebanon: slices of life" (31 October 2006)

Alex Klaushofer, "Lebanon's two futures" (11 December 2006)

Hazem Saghieh, "Lebanon's internal struggle: two logics in combat" (19 December 2006)

Mai Ghoussoub, "Beirut and contradiction: reading the World Press Photo award" (13 February 2007)

Fred Halliday, "Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq: three crises" (22 June 2007)

Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, "Washington in Lebanon and Palestine: fatal manipulation" (6 August 2007)

Vicken Cheterian, "Lebanon: short memory, system failure" (25 September 2007)

Hazem Saghieh, "Lebanon's ‘14 March': from protest to leadership" (1 April 2008)

As a result, whatever semblance of national unity Lebanon had exhibited during the summer crisis dissipated. Recriminations and counter-recriminations became a staple of Lebanese politics. The struggle for controlling the state has moved to the heart of this charged political climate. The government and its allies have attempted to implement UN Security Council resolutions and to elect a president who is not pro-Syrian. On the other hand, at a minimum, Hizbollah has sought veto power over government decisions under the pretext of national unity; at a maximum, Hizbollah has sought to change the political structure in Lebanon so as to make it commensurate with Shi'a plurality.

Before long, the pro-opposition Shi'a ministers resigned from the cabinet in the belief that the government would no longer be legitimate without the representation of the Shi'a community. However, the government did not resign. Rather, a wave of assassination of anti-Syrian figures, including in November 2006 that of minister Pierre Gemayel - the son of former president and head of the Phalange party Amin Gemayel - emboldened the government to officially ask the United Nations to proceed with the international tribunal.

The opposition called for a national-unity government and threatened to take the streets. Hassan Nasrallah, rebuffed by the government, called for a sit-in before the Grand Serail, the premier's official residence in downtown Beirut. This sharpened the struggle for Lebanon and the battle of wills between Nasrallah and Aoun on one side, and Siniora and Saad Hariri (the head of the largest parliamentary bloc, and Rafiq al-Hariri's son), on the other.

A state of insecurity

In January 2007, the Hizbollah-led opposition attempted to take over the state by forcing the resignation of the government. It blockaded most major routes to and from the capital. However, Siniora remained steadfast in his Grand Serail. But behind the façade of steadfastness, cracks in the wall of solidarity of the 14 March forces began to appear. The government and its allies, driven by regional/international and confessional considerations, have gradually lost leverage over the presidential elections, which were supposed to be held in November 2007; frequently scheduled and then postponed rounds of parliamentary voting have reduced the elections to near-farce.

Meanwhile, concerns about a civil war (which could spill over into regional strife between Shi'a and Sunni) mounted, as did worries about the political influence of the key figures in the 14 March forces (i.e. Saad Hariri and the main Druze leader Walid Jumblatt). These led the government and its allies to forego the constitutional formula of electing a president with a simple 50%-plus-one parliamentary majority (something that would neutralise Hizbollah and Syria) and instead support a compromise candidate.

A consensual presidential candidate, in the person of the commander of the Lebanese army Michel Suleiman, has been agreed upon by the two camps. But the Hizbollah-led opposition has exploited this shift by introducing several proposals revolving around what the movement has termed the "basket of conciliatory demands". These demands, shared by the opposition if aired in slightly different versions by Michel Aoun and speaker of parliament Nabih Berri, were at their core the acquisition of veto power in a national-unity government; the establishment of a new electoral law based on the Qada' (district); and the election of Michel Suleiman as president. The government and its allies rejected the opposition's multilateral proposal.

At the same time, Damascus and Tehran have been transporting weapons to Hizbollah and replenishing its arsenal - in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701. In addition, a report by the fact-finding mission of the International Lebanese Committee (ILC) for UNSCR 1559 - which has consultative status with the UN - revealed that Syria still occupies approximately 458 square kilometers of Lebanese territory in different areas adjacent to the border, and that it has changed the topography of the land so as to facilitate smuggling of weapons into Lebanon. The Syrian regime, far from withdrawing from Lebanon (even technically) has created new "facts on the ground" which mock the international system in their violation of a slew of United Nations Security Council resolutions - especially Resolution 1680 (May 2006) and Resolution 1559 (September 2004).

No less significant, Lebanese authorities have moved to confront radical Islamist movements, perceived by the government as Syrian proxies. A new jihadist organisation called Fatah al-Islam became the focal-point of an uprising in the Palestinian Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in May-June 2007. Simultaneously, the government has deepened its investigation into the assassination in Lebanon of anti-Syrian figures and representatives of political movements. These efforts undoubtedly unnerved Damascus and its allies. It is no coincidence that senior intelligence and army officers have become targets of assassination, a new trend given that these earlier murders involved political figures and activists critical of Syria.

The departure from the pattern established in February 2005 by Rafiq al-Hariri's killing is exemplified by the car-bomb assassination of the army's chief of operations, Brigadier Francois Haj, in east Beirut in December 2007. The same month, Samir Shehadeh - the head of an intelligence unit closely involved in the UN-led investigation - was wounded by a roadside bomb south of Beirut. He was replaced by Wissam Eid, who was killed in January 2008.

Against this violent and insecure background, Lebanon has plunged deeper into a political vacuum and sociopolitical flux. A president is yet to be elected even though the term of Emile Lahoud ended in November 2007. A significant and worrying factor is that the contending parties have engaged in an escalatory discourse of "treason", which itself further intensifies political polarisation.

A declaration of war

The immediate spark of civil strife, however, came in the form of two decisions taken by the government on 5 May 2008: to remove airport security chief Brigadier-General Wafiq Shuqeir over his alleged links to Hizbollah; and to consider a private-communications network set up by Hizbollah illegal and unconstitutional, something which amounted to criminalising the Islamist party and exposing its senior cadres.

Nasrallah immediately responded by describing the government's decisions a "declaration of war" and asserting his readiness to use force to protect the "weapons" of Hizbollah. He followed by ordering a swift military onslaught on west Beirut. The pro-government groups were no match for Hizbollah's well equipped and trained fighters. Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblatt were put virtually under house-arrest. Hariri's television station and al-Mustaqbal newspaper headquarters were respectively taken off the air and destroyed. The fighting then expanded to some Druze areas in the Chouf and Mount Lebanon and to the northern city of Tripoli. Hizbollah, though sustaining a number of casualties, cleqrly asserted its military prowess. The veteran Druze leader Walid Jumblatt called on his supporters to lay down their arms in Mount Lebanon, while dignitaries in Tripoli succeeded in reaching a ceasefire.

An Arab diplomatic delegation led by the foreign minister of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, travelled to Beirut and held intensive meetings with Lebanese leaders to defuse the crisis. An agreement was reached between the two camps, and late in the evening of 15 May the government reversed its two decisions in "the view of the higher national interests". Consequently, the fighting ended.

The agreement brokered by the Arab delegation was reached after acceptance of the following points:

* the formation of a national-unity government

* the drafting of a new electoral law

* once these two items are met, the ending of the sit-in in downtown Beirut - to be followed the next day by the election of Michel Suleiman as president. At the same time, a national dialogue would be launched in Doha, Qatar (which at its conclusion on 21 May 2008 confirms that the presidential election will indeed take place, on 25 May).

The implications of what has happened for the future of Lebanon cannot be overemphasised. No doubt, Hizbollah has scored a political victory - now embodied in the document signed in Qatar which ends the immediate crisis - by the sheer virtue of the fact that the government reversed its decisions. But a closer look at the dynamics of these cataclysmic events show that this victory is ephemeral and could signal two momentous results: the beginning of the end of Hizbollah as a model "resistance" movement in the Muslim world, and the end of Lebanon's political system as a confessional nation-state.

A Lebanese vacuum

The logic of this conclusion is related to the fact and the timing of the Lebanese government's important decisions in these two matters. It is no secret to all political leaders that Hizbollah has maintained a communications network as part of its security apparatus. Moreover, the government, despite its efforts to reinforce its own security and military apparatus, has not shut down the military-operations room jointly operated by the Lebanese army and Hizbollah. Notwithstanding the shipment of arms to Hizbollah from both Iran and Syria, Hizbollah's penetration of the public sector has not (as many argued it would) been severely affected by the withdrawal of Syrian troops. Besides the frustration gripping both camps, the government took this fateful decision because it could no longer ignore the reality that Hizbollah has been expanding its own state at the expense of the Lebanese state.

True, the decision to deem Hizbollah's communications network illegal was about the potential of the Islamist party to compete with the state over revenues from private cellular lines as much as about security considerations. The Islamist party has contracted the private Wimax cellphone company to extend more than 100,000 cell-lines throughout Lebanon; this effectively threatens the ability of the government, which receives approximately one-third of its revenues from cellphone taxes, to collect tax revenues.

To many Lebanese, this network confirmed beyond doubt Hizbollah's objective of strengthening and expanding its "state within the Lebanese state" to the point of making it a façade of legitimacy for its existence as an Iranian satellite. The Islamist party has now used its weapons against Lebanese groups, thus debunking its own self-myth as a resistance movement beyond the pale of Lebanon's Byzantine politics. No less important - and against the view of many pundits who have proclaimed Hizbollah's "victory" and capacity to impose its will on Lebanon - the fighting has exposed the party's limitations.

Hizbollah's advance into the Chouf and Mount Lebanon was checked by Jumblatt's supporters who raced to defend their towns. Jumblatt's decision to call on his followers to lay down their arms may have arisen from his recognition that his fighters did not have enough ammunition to outlast Hizbollah's attack, but it also reflected his concern to prevent intercommunal infighting. In much the same vein, Hizbollah's advance in Tripoli was swiftly checked by the creation of an all-encompassing bloc of the city's major movements committed to securing the area. While Christian areas themselves remained largely free from fighting, hundreds of armed Christians staked out defensive positions along the approaches of east Beirut. In addition, and notwithstanding the grumbling among some allies of Hizbollah, the party received sharp criticism from the spiritual leaders of both the Sunni and Druze communities.

Hizbollah's admission after these events of the need (expressed by its deputy secretary-general) to return "to doing politics openly, without preconditions" is a recognition of both the movement's newly revealed limitations and the prohibitive price of seizing power in Lebanon in the manner of Hamas in Gaza. Now, even after the Qatar-brokered agreement of 21 May 2008, Hizbollah's weapons can no longer but be a key item on the table of national dialogue. After all, the natrure of the deal means that the14 March forces and Arab states have - notwithstanding their uplifting statements - indirectly legitimised Hizbollah's state within the Lebanese state. This has created a scenario reminiscent of the Cairo agreement of 1969, when the Arab states helped create another state within the Lebanese state - at that time a Palestinian one.

The crisis has perilously widened the rift among Lebanon's main groups. It has created a desperate and abnormal situation where the price of salvaging Lebanon has become inhibitive and the price of co-existing with Hizbollah has become prohibitive. This is the true curse of a nation.

 

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