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Lebanon and the "Spring" of others

Syria’s unrest has allowed Lebanon to finally play a role in the Arab uprisings, with potentially dangerous effects, argues Fatima Issawi
Fatima El Issawi
7 September 2011

The so-called Arab Spring has proved again that the main practical “function” of Lebanon remains to be a battlefield for other's grievances. While the Arab world is raging with pro-democracy protests, the Lebanese scene is surprisingly, for once, very calm. As a friend rightly described it, Lebanon is becoming a sleepy backyard.

As has historically been the case with regional crises, the Lebanese have embraced the current unrest in Syria. Divisions between the two main political blocks in the country - the pro-Western block, represented by the so-called 14 March coalition, and the pro-Syrian regime, the Iranian-backed 8 March movement which is controlling the present government –are taking up the new slogans for the bitter conflict between the two camps, yet this remains contained in the political arena.

The Syrian rebellion against the Assad regime was accompanied by rumours accusing the Future movement of Saad Hariri (the former Prime Minister who headed a pro-Western coalition for nearly 6 years) of secretly funding the Syrian rebels and smuggling arms to Syrian territory. Although Hariri denied these accusations, to the extent in the first stage of the Syrian unrest of forbidding his parliamentary block and his media outlets to openly tackle the Syrian situation, it is important to note that the Lebanese Sunni are seen as the main supporters of the country’s oppressed neighbours. Sunni Islamist political groups and parties are the most vocal opponents of the Syrian regime, strongly voicing their support for the Syrian protesters and de facto adopting their cause.   

On the other side, rumours have also been raging about a direct implication of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group in training and supporting the Syrian regime’s repression of its people. Some figures among Syrian human rights activists have talked openly about the presence of “Lebanese agents” in the "Shabbiha" (a popular expression describing civilians used by the regime to brutally repress demonstrators). The Shia group, Hezbollah, whose leaders’ photos have been shattered in many Syrian protests while antagonistic slogans have been chanted against him, had to issue press statements denying any involvement in the regime’s repression of the Syrian protesters.

With the crackdown on anti-government protesters becoming harsher, the Lebanese villages at the border with Syria became the harbour of thousands of frightened civilians seeking refuge on Lebanese soil. The ordeal of these Syrian civilians, who are strongly supported by the Sunni community of Tripoli, the main northern Lebanese city, has triggered a wave of violence between the city’s Sunni and Alawite neighbourhoods. These bitter confrontations between two neighbourhoods, known for a long and bloody history, are a sample of what could be the price of the Syrian unrest if it moved into Lebanese territory.

On the pretext of not intervening in the internal affairs of neighbouring countries, the policy of non-intervention in Syrian affairs has been gaining more and more ground, even within the 14 March coalition, in opposition to a popular mood within its base which is calling for a clear Lebanese stance in support of the Syrian protests and denouncing the brutality of the regime. In the first months of the Syrian protests, the political leaders of the March 14 coalition were committed to an implicit silence with regard to the unrest in Syria. The only political party which dared to publicly express its support for the Syrian rebellion was the Islamic Group (al Jamaa al Islamiya), founded in 1952 as the Lebanese branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. This unique voice in support of the rebellion's cause strengthens the fears that the Syrian protest may have an Islamist face.

In contrast with the apparent indifference of politicians, civil society has taken the initiative to organize via the social media several rallies bringing together journalists, youth and intellectuals and breaking the wall of silence. These demonstrations are attracting growing participation and are systematically confronted with counter-demonstrations, claiming support for the Syrian regime. The site of the Syrian embassy in Beirut’s fashionable Hamra district is becoming the theatre of scuffles between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime, with the media frequently reporting attacks on opponents of the Assad regime carried out by what these reports describe as the Lebanese “Shabbiha”.

On the other side, the pro-Syrian regime block, headed by Hezbollah, continues to voice its support for the Syrian regime, stressing that the only way out of the present bloodshed is to implement the political and economic reforms promised by the Syrian President. Surprisingly, the most prominent voice in support of the Syrian regime in Lebanon is the Christian leader, General Michel Aoun, who a decade ago fought a losing war against the Syrian army which led him to a long exile.   

The Christian leader, who has the major representation within a ruling alliance controlled by Hezbollah, has lately become the most vocal partisan of the Syrian regime in Lebanon. His defence of the Syrian regime goes as far as denying the brutality demonstrated by the regime during the bloody attack against the iconic Syrian city of Hama. According to General Aoun, Syria is calm and the Syrian army did not use force against civilians in Hama, which was subject to a brutal assault by the Syrian army reportedly causing hundreds of death among civilians. Behind the General’s position lies a fierce campaign of fear, presenting the Assad regime as the main protector of Christians’ future in the region against the emergence of a hard-line Islamist regime with tough radical affiliations. These fears are strongly penetrating the hearts and minds of Aoun’s supporters, for whom the Syrian regime used to be their fiercest enemy. The Christian fears of further exclusion from decision-making are aggravated by the example of the Iraqi Christians’ ordeal. For many of Aoun’s supporters the "Taif" accord, which put an end to the Lebanese civil war (1992), took power away from the Maronite president and gave it to a cabinet led by a Sunni prime minister, becoming a symbol of the Christians' defeat.

Lebanese Christians are split between the Lebanese Forces led by Samir Geagea, a partner in the pro-Western March 14 coalition, and the Change and Reform parliamentary bloc of Michel Aoun, a close ally of Hezbollah and represented in the present government. The Christian parties represented within the 14 March coalition are downplaying these fears and assuring their supporters that the implications of the so called Arab Spring will not jeopardise the future of the Christians of the region.

The official Lebanese position with regard to the UN Security Council stance on Syria is the best expression of the Lebanese dilemma. The UN Security Council presidential statement condemning the recent upsurge of violence in Syria was disavowed, although not blocked, by Lebanon. The Lebanese Prime Minister, Najib Mikati, a Sunni business tycoon backed by Hezbollah, considered that this position “pleased all parties and took into account Lebanon’s individualities”. The Hezbollah Deputy Secretary General, Naim Qassem, described the decision as “right and wise”. The leader of the Hezbollah parliamentary bloc Loyalty to the Resistance, Mohammad Raad , made a statement accusing “foreign powers "of intervening in Syria not in order to press for reforms, but to make the country “yield and abandon the resistance”.

Lebanon is, as always, the perfect field for raising grievances, especially when these grievances are not those of the Lebanese people. Unlike other Arab nations, the Lebanese people did not find any common grievances to lead them onto the streets. A timid attempt to organize demonstrations calling for the fall of the confessional system collapsed after a few restricted protests. The group known as the “civil campaign to bring down the confessional system” was quickly adopted by the March 8 bloc, and especially the Lebanese parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri. Abrogating the confessional regime would open the door for the hegemony of the mainly Shia majority on the political scene, ending the de facto tradition of a Christian presidency of the country.

The "Spring" of other Arab nations has been no less problematic and divisive for the Lebanese. The successive and surprising triumphs of the pro-democracy protesters in Tunisia and Egypt were received with deep doubts by the pro-Western camp, clearly voicing its fears of an Islamist takeover which could result in a further strengthening of the pro-Iranian camp. The mood within the supporters of the pro-resistance camp was festive.  The fall of the Egyptian president was welcomed in Beirut with gunfire celebrating the defeat of a symbol of the pro-Western camp. When Syrian cities became the main scene of the Arab revolution, fears and joys shifted dramatically. For the supporters of the pro-Western camp, the Syrian revolution is the "mother of all revolutions" in an Arab world embracing change - for the best or the worst, no matter. For their rivals, the Arab Spring is becoming the symbol of the defeat of Arab regimes which de facto although dictatorships, are secular, to the benefit of a radical Islamism which will transform the face of the Arab world in the direction of greater exclusion.  

The Syrian unrest has provided the Lebanese with an excellent opportunity to finally be part of the Arab uprisings, in what has long been their own way: where do you find yourself in others' grievances?


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