Lebanon’s internal struggle: two logics in combat

Hazem Saghieh
19 December 2006

The war in Lebanon of July-August 2006 raised and continues to raise many questions. The attempt to answer them raises two almost irreconcilable forms of logic, each with its own ideological roots and outlook.

The very existence of these two rationales, and the consequent struggle between them, is one of the most important features of political thought in general, and of politics in the middle east in particular. At the heart of their conflictual relationship is the tension between the concept of the nation-state and its degree of acceptability in this part of the world, where the concept was imported along with western colonialism.

The prevalent logic adopted by many influential voices in the global south (what used to be more widely known as the "third world"), among western leftists, and in the Arab world, includes the hypothesis of unending conflict between Israel, backed by the United States, and a liberation movement embodied until 1982 by the Palestinian revolution and thereafter by Lebanon's Hizbollah. The latter's role, according to this argument, is at the very least to respond to the continuing aggression of the Jewish state, and at most to liberate occupied territory.

There is undoubtedly an element of truth in this argument, and both Israel's arrogance and the United States's refusal to resolve the middle-east crisis lends it credibility. However, its proponents are also guilty of oversimplification, which carries here some serious consequences. In particular, a crucial element is absent: the central fact that world politics is based on the state, or the "nation-state", which is the chief unit of currency in the commerce of international relations.

The implication of this key reality is that all the regions of the world are equal, regardless of their historical or cultural differences. Even if "the Arabs" are considered as a cohesive political unit or category (rather than, for example, "the state"), it remains true that "the Arabs" did not declare war in Lebanon, either through the Arab League or through the summits of Arab heads of state derived from it; nor have "the Arabs" drawn up any overall Arab military strategy to fight Israel.

The conclusion is much the same if "the Muslims" are taken as a political unit or category: they too have never declared war through any of their institutions (for example, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference), nor prepared any strategy for that purpose.

Also in openDemocracy on the politics of Lebanon:

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

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

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

Zaid Al-Ali, "Lebanon on the brink – but of what?" (8 December 2006)

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

Three elements

In speaking of the nation-state in this context, all three of the classic elements taught to students of political science are denoted. First, and most fundamentally, there is the principle of sovereignty embodied by an elected government, which by virtue of its election is the legitimate representative of the will of the people and the nation. It is well known that Lebanon's present, (theoretically) sovereign government neither declared war on Israel nor planned to do so, as the Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora and numerous other officials have stated repeatedly.

Second, there is the extent of popular consent regarding the principle of war. It is very clear that far from reaching any such consensus, the Lebanese disagreed intensely about it. Most of them regard Hizbollah's arsenal as something frightening which forces them into situations and calculations which are both abhorrent to them and undemocratic by definition.

Moreover, the existence of Hizbollah's arms contravenes the political principle coined by the German sociologist Max Weber, which is still universally accepted today: namely, that in any given society, the state must have a monopoly of the legitimate instruments of violence.

The third element of the nation-state (one particularly relevant as far as the Lebanese problem is concerned) is recognised borders. The United Nations stated that Lebanon recovered its occupied territory when Israel withdrew in 2000, thereby drawing the so-called "blue line" between the two countries. Hizbollah's killing of eight Israeli soldiers on 12 July 2006 and its abduction of two others was therefore a grave violation of international law, regardless of the denunciation of Israeli policy based on collective punishment.

Two hypotheses

Neither the Shebaa farms, which remain under Israeli occupation, nor the three Lebanese prisoners still in Israeli captivity in themselves justify launching a destructive war. Instead these problems require the strengthening of the central government in Beirut, in order to win it greater international respect and allow it to make its voice heard. This could in turn boost its weight at the negotiating table and enable it to secure both the release of the prisoners and the liberation of the Shebaa farms, through diplomacy combined with the Lebanese government's control of the country's borders.

The pretexts concerning both occupied territory and prisoners are undermined by many facts. Syria had in effect already annexed the Shebaa farms when Israel seized them in the six-day war of 1967. As for the prisoners, there are many more Lebanese citizens in Syrian jails than the three men held captive in Israel.

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" (August 2006)

"Suez: Arab victory or Arab tragedy?"
(20 October 2006)

It is worth recalling too some of the many other instances around the world where neither territory nor prisoners have warranted the declaration of war. The north African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, under Spanish rule; the three islands in the Persian Gulf seized by Iran; the ongoing dispute between Britain and Spain over Gibraltar; and the continuing disagreements involving Japan, Russia, South Korea and China over various islands: all are vivid demonstrations of tensions which have not escalated into open warfare.

In the early 1980s, the Egyptians and Israelis succeeded in resolving their dispute over the border town of Taba through international mediation, and more than a decade later Bahrain and Qatar overcame their disagreement over the Fasht al-Dibl coral reefs in the same way.

Whatever the case may be, it is obvious that Hizbollah cannot evade the criteria of the state in the prosecution of war and its possible consequences. A lesson of history is that irregular movements can only benefit from their military endeavours in two scenarios. Either the movement in question must be an extension of a political regime, or possess organic links to such a regime, as was the case with the Vietcong in South Vietnam and its relationship to North Vietnam.

Alternatively, the movement's action must lead to its seizing power, thereby transforming itself into a state and replacing the existing regime. This was the case with the social and ideological revolutions which overthrew old regimes through violence, or the revolutions staged by national-liberation movements which expelled colonial powers by force and then replaced them.

If the first of these hypotheses is true in Lebanon's case, Hizbollah fought against Israel as a proxy of Iran and Syria, using Lebanon's soil and its people to this end. This is precisely the accusation which Hizbollah's critics and opponents make against it. If the second hypothesis is true, it means that Hizbollah is preparing to seize power in Lebanon - another charge which some level against it. Anyone familiar with the country's pluralistic character knows that this would mean only one thing: another protracted civil war that would destroy what remains of Lebanon.

The fact is that Hezbollah itself reinforces both possibilities when it presents us with one of two options: either it refuses to hand over its weapons and missiles to the state, or the state changes to become the "state of Hizbollah" (and in the latter case, Hizbollah would be handing over its arsenal to itself).

Apart from anything else, to disregard the state and behave as if a given community can do as it sees fit only serves to undermine the progress that goes hand-in-hand with respect for pluralism, in countries where that respect is already in short supply. So imagine if those who are preparing to fill the vacuum in Lebanon are of the ilk of the Syrian and Iranian regimes, which have a very weak link to either progress or pluralism!

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