Lebanon on the brink – but of what?

Zaid Al-Ali
8 December 2006

How best to describe the situation in Lebanon today? The country's major political parties are adopting irreconcilable positions, and are all being supported by hundreds of thousands of supporters - no small feat for a country of only 4 million people. The opposition demands that the government should step down and that new elections should be held but the government refuses. The opposition claims that Hizbollah's war with Israel in July-August 2006 represented a "divine victory" but the government claims that the victory was pyrrhic at best.

The government, led by prime minister Fouad Siniora, claims that the opposition is merely a tool in the hands of Iran and Syria; the opposition argues in response that the government takes its orders from Washington. The government depicts former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, assassinated on 14 February 2005, as a quasi-saint who almost single-handedly rebuilt Lebanon from the ashes of its civil war; the opposition considers Hassan Nasrallah to be an unblemished guiding light for his community and the country as a whole. Stuck in the middle are those who apply George Orwell's adage (which he applied to the quintessential saint, Gandhi): saints should always be judged guilty until proven innocent.

For a country that has a long history of sectarian tensions, and some of the greatest levels of economic disparities in the middle east, the almost daily demonstrations that have been ongoing for the past few weeks - centred on the capital city, Beirut - have placed everyone in Lebanon slightly on edge.

The demonstrations have for the most part been peaceful, but a few street fights have taken place between groups of young men in different neighbourhoods, which has resulted in many wounded and at least one dead (a young Shi'a man, Ahmed Ali Mahmoud, killed on 3 December). Lebanon is teetering on the edge, and it is worth recalling how it reached this point, and discussing where the current political dispute is likely to lead.

Also on Lebanon past and present in openDemocracy:

Roger Scruton, "Lebanon before and after Syria"
(9 March 2005)

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

Fred Halliday, "A Lebanese fragment: two days with Hizbollah"
(20 July 2006)

George Schöpflin, "Israel-Lebanon: a battle over modernity"
(8 August 2006)

Hazem Saghieh, "How the European left supports Lebanon"
(14 August 2006)

Jihad N Fakhreddine, "The Lebanese enigma: strength in weakness"
(16 August 2006)

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

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

How did we get here?

The trigger that set off the current tensions was the murder of Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon's richest businessman as well as its premier for two periods (1992-98, 2000-04). Hariri was far from being the first Lebanese politician to have been murdered - and his killing has been followed by a spate of others in the ensuing twenty-two months, most recently Pierre Gemayel's on 21 November - his supporters and their allies considered that this was their opportunity to hit back at the Syrian occupation of their country.

One of the largest demonstrations ever to have been held in the Arab region took place a month afterwards, on 14 March 2005 (thus giving rise to the political bloc known as the "March 14" movement). The demonstrators were from different religious denominations - Christians, Sunni Muslims, Druze, amongst others - but all were united in their opposition to the Syrian government, which they accused of having ruinedtheir country economically and politically.

At the time, the Syrians were at their most vulnerable. International pressure as well as the very clear message sent from the demonstrators made it clear that their occupation of the country had to come to an end, and a Syrian withdrawal followed on 26 April 2005. This however was not enough for the anti-Syrian camp. In the words of Saad Hariri, son and political successor of the late prime minister, the Syrian government was a "terrorist regime" and had to be brought to justice. Efforts have therefore been made to encourage the formation of an international tribunal that would operate under the auspices of the United Nations to try the assassins.

In theory, everyone in Lebanon is in favour of forming an international tribunal, but there is disagreement about the terms under which this tribunal should be made to operate. Hizbollah and its allies have repeatedly demanded that the tribunal's jurisdiction should be limited in scope, whereas the anti-Syrian camp has been making moves to grant the tribunal the type of flexibility that Kenneth Starr enjoyed in his investigations of Bill Clinton in 1994-98 - which, it should be recalled, amounted to nothing other than wasted governmental time and money.

Also relevant is the fact that Hizbollah owes a debt of allegiance to the Syrian regime - having received political and material support from Damascus over a number of years - and would probably not benefit from seeing it implicated in the assassination.

A post-war realignment

The summer war with Israel created an opportunity for Hizbollah and its allies to grab the bull by the horns and reposition themselves. It was clear immediately after the ceasefire was declared on 14 August 2006 that, one way or another, a realignment would have to take place within the government.

Of all of the major political parties in government, Hizbollah was the quickest to react. Hot on the heels of its impressive resistance against the might of the Israeli military, the party announced the day after hostilities ended that it - and not the government - would compensate all victims of the war. This created an incredible impression of professionalism, power, efficiency and sensitivity throughout the country and the Arab region as a whole. That was coupled with a massive advertising campaign, which in part involved the placing of posters according to which God had granted the Lebanese a "divine country".

The context, however, meant that this message could not have been crasser. The effect that the war had had on the country was evident to anyone that was interested in looking: poverty had increased, inflation had escalated, homelessness soared - and the Lebanese economy, in what should have been a record year, actually contracted by at least 8%, with many businesses closing for good. There is no dispute that this damage was solely caused by Israel, but it was at best inappropriate for Hizbollah to engage in chest-beating in the midst of so much misery.

For its part, the Lebanese government seemed completely mesmerised by the post-war situation and in comparison to Hizbollah came across as inept and single-minded. For good measure, it decided that it too should display its own form of disdain towards the Lebanese people; only days after the war ended, it invited Condoleezza Rice to Beirut, despite her encouragement to the Israelis to intensify their bombing campaign.

Hizbollah, fully aware that it had the upper hand, demanded that the government be reconstituted to include the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), a mainly Christian party headed by former General Michel Aoun that had been in opposition since 2005. Many Lebanese argue that Aoun is the only politician with a genuine political programme designed not to protect privilege but to promote economic and social growth in the country.

Although the government agreed in principle to include the FPM, it could not agree as to the number of ministers that it should be granted. Hizbollah and its allies demanded that they should be granted a third of the government, which constitutionally would give them enough power to force new elections should they choose to do so.

How many thirds?

The government was and is concerned to prevent new elections, for two reasons. First, if it can maintain its current parliamentary majority, it will be able to secure the presidency (which is indirectly elected by parliament, and which will become available in the next few months); second, this in turn would ensure political support for the international tribunal responsible for trying the assassins of Rafiq Hariri.

The government therefore refused pointblank to place its own neck under the guillotine. Hizbollah and its allies withdrew from the government in protest and have mounted a campaign to force new elections through a series of street demonstrations. The Hizbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah has mobilised his followers with a series of increasingly combative speeches. On 7 December, he even called on the ruling March 14 movement to reconsider its refusal to grant the opposition a third of the government. "If not", Nasrallah warned, "it will be us that will be granting you a third".

The government's reaction could not have been worse. Instead of working to address the growing division within the country, it has focused all its attention on accelerating the formation of the international tribunal. Although the details of the agreement between the government and the United Nations have not been made public, it is widely accepted that the tribunal will be given a wide-ranging jurisdiction to investigate any number of crimes, and that 50% of the expenses will be born by the Lebanese state, which is already drowning in its own debt.

Zaid Al-Ali is an attorney at the New York Bar and specialises in international commercial arbitration. He has graduated from King's College London, the Sorbonne University in Paris and Harvard Law School. He is also the editor of www.iraqieconomy.org

Among Zaid Al-Ali's articles on openDemocracy:

"Iraq: the lost generation"
(7 November 2004)

"Iraq's dangerous elections"
(23 December 2004)

"The end of secularism in Iraq"
(18 May 2005)

"Iraq: a constitution or an epitaph?"
(16 August 2005)

"Iraq: a constitution to nowhere"
(14 October 2005)

"Iraq's war of elimination"
(21 August 2006)

"Saving Iraq: a critique of Peter W Galbraith" (26 October 2006)

"The US votes: the road ahead for Iraq"
(14 November 2006)

Where does Lebanon go from here?

Walking in downtown Beirut nowadays is a curious, inspiring yet somewhat depressing affair. The area remains one of the busiest in the city, but the usual crowds of bourgeois families dawdling in restaurants too expensive for most Lebanese to visit have been replaced by a stream of protestors from less privileged backgrounds who are calling for the government's demise.

All open spaces have been occupied by tents and protestors who spend their time either chanting witty anti-government slogans, singing, smoking water-pipes and sleeping. The vast majority are peaceful, although the skirmishes that have taken place have prompted the army to issue a rare statement appealing for an end to the country's political deadlock. At the same time, the sit-in has forced another economic slump - almost all the businesses in the area, some of the most important ones in the country, have shuttered their doors.

The country is divided, politically and economically. Sectarianism is an important and growing factor in the debate. The growing Sunni-Shi'a divide is particularly worrying in light of what is happening in Iraq.

But the social conditions in which Lebanese people are living are just as important to the current debate. The opposition insists that the government is acting not only as a tool of the Bush administration but as a defender of privilege against those in daily want of life's necessities. Michel Aoun reflected this in a statement issued on 6 December 2006. He claimed that "(those) who are ruling us today were in power during the era of Syrian tutelage. They only changed their masters...(This) corrupted government, which has an economic strategy based only on loans and debts, is incapable of carrying out reforms that would allow a better use of the assistance".

There is little doubt that in the time that the government has been in power, it has very little to show in terms of meaningful accomplishments. It is also clear that its reliance on American political support was misplaced, considering how little sympathy the Bush administration showed for the Lebanese who were suffering under the Israeli bombing campaign.

At the same time, one of the most disturbing elements of the current dispute is the covert campaign of targeted attacks, inaugurated by Hariri's assassination, in which several prominent anti-Syrian politicians and journalists have been killed or maimed - among them Samir Kassir, George Hawi, May Chidiac, and Gebran Tueni. No one knows for certain who the perpetrators are, but it remains the case that no one has been assassinated in the opposition camp - a fact that injects the current political dispute with a particularly bitter and dangerous taste.

After the remarkable display of national unity during the month-long war with Israel, the deep divisions of the pre-war period have returned in even more intensified form. This is bad enough, but what worries many of those caught in the middle is that the opposition has almost exhausted all the legal and constitutional methods that it can use to bring down the government. Once these methods are exhausted, what next? Mass strikes? Riots? Worse?

Arab states, the international community and local officials are making efforts to resolve the dispute by encouraging both sides to compromise. But even if a resolution is reached, a number of internal factors - including its multi-confessional society and distributive system of government - makes Lebanon extremely vulnerable to external influence.

Even such factors, however, are not in themselves sufficient to tip Lebanon over the brink; after all, the country has survived for long periods of its modern history in conditions of internal social peace. What makes its present predicament so delicate is the febrile condition of the regional environment. So long as there is a conflict in Palestine, so long as there is a United States occupation and war in Iraq, and so long as Iran strives to achieve nuclear-power status, it will be very difficult for the Lebanese people to take decisive moves to resolve their political disagreements without suffering the consequences.

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