[The addendum from the “On Lebanon” post.]
A friend from university who lives in West Beirut told me this morning that his neighborhood has Hezb Allah members patrolling and that the Hariri militiamen have either been routed or gone into hiding. He said he thinks the opposition is using this as an opportunity to show its power to the rest of the country — that it cannot be ignored or yanked around. He went as far as to say that Hezb Allah was attempting to “put the Sunnis in their place” (this friend is Christian; I am waiting on an email or phone call back from a Sunni friend who lives in a different part of the same neighborhood). The consensus on the right and pro-government side of things seems to be that Hezb Allah is pushing towards a coup. The speculation is whether or not Hezb Allah will move from its positions in West Beirut across the old Green Line into [Christian] East Beirut, or whether or not the Free Patriotic Movement will attempt to do so; there do not seem to be strong indications that the Christian elements of the opposition are participating in the violence, though this could change.
My sense is that in the recent cabinet discussions (on 5/6 May) the government overestimated its bargaining position, after the assassination of Iymad Mughniyeh, the defection of Michel Murr, and so on. This is why it was so parsimonious with its concessions to the trade unions and was so forward in dismissing the airport’s security chief and cutting up Hezb Allah’s comms network. Hezb Allah’s response, the strike, the shutting down of the airport, and so on, seems to be a way of reminding the government that it does not carry a monopoly of force over the country, and should not behave in such a manner that suggests that it does. The government surely feels that Hezb Allah is aiming to topple them, or at the very least strongly intimidate them into making further and more sweeping concessions. At the same time, it has been clear for over a year that all sides in Lebanon have been preparing for battle, supporters of Walid Joumblatt chanted in favor of civil war several months ago, and well before that Christian, Sunni, Druze, and Shia factions and citizens were preparing for armed conflict by purchasing and smuggling weapons into the country.
At the heart of all struggles between identities are power relationships. While most Western observers are used to discussing Christian/Muslim tensions, it is apparent that the real tension is between Sunni and Shia — the privileged Muslim community, which has held postilions of power and prestige in the country and the less politically and socially advantaged one, which has been shafted from such positions since the foundation. The Sunnis, always a minority among minorities, enjoys, in the view of many Hezb Allah supporters and surely its leadership, more than its fair share of power in the government. That the Shia have come to be Lebanon’s largest confessional grouping, where as the Sunni share of the population has remained relatively small, all the while with its political share remaining marginal aside from the militia apparatuses is at the core of these tensions and there can be no political solution that does not address them (a fact that the 14 March leadership is loathe to acknowledge). The Shia have historically been ignored or actively marginalized from the Lebanese political process. Hezb Allah’s philosophy seems to be that political participation and influence flow from the barrel of a gun.
Lebanon’s political problems will continue so long as its political system does not reflect reality and the various sects are unwilling to allow for the reconfiguration of the country’s power relations. As things stand, with a staunchly reactionary forces on the one side and just as staunchly “revolutionary” forces on the other and both entirely disinterested in political compromise, the only way that a political settlement can be reached is through military competition or the robust intervention of a third party. Hezb Allah wishes wants the government to back down from its recent positions in exchange for a lifting of the blockade on the airport; this is unlikely with the present government. The point of the the blockade and neighborhood take is perhaps a mere demonstration of force, or a dress rehearsal for a future coup (which I think is unlikely, given that the response of the other factions will certainly be to arm themselves as much as possible after these incidents so as to prevent such a future coup; I think if a coup will happen it will happen soon, so that it takes place with the least resistance, which be greatest if the other groups were given more time to prepare for confrontation).
Zakaria’s view of al-Qaeda’s strategy (as a sign of weakness) of latching onto local sectarian, ethnic or political grievances as a means of sustaining itself (as in Iraq, Pakistan, etc.) seems to be validated by al-Qaeda’s call for the defense of Lebanon’s Sunni community and its “declaration of war” against Hezb Allah.