On Lebanon

“I saw him without a gun, shooting at me, and his bullets pierced me
just like all the other bullets.”

Rashid al-Daif, Passage to Dusk.

There is a very real possibility that tension over Abkhazia will
escalate, so understanding the nature of the conflict is key.
Unfortunately, Applebaum’s analysis sheds no light on the situation,
but rather points to a disturbing trend in American mainstream media:
presenting simplistic and therefore misleading analysis of
foreign-policy issues.

Turning Abkhazia into a War,” Brooke Leonard, The National Interest, 9 May, 2008.

This is is not only the case with Anne Applebaum’s Washington Post article. It also appears to be the case with the media coverage of the clashes going on in Beirut right now, most of which have uncritically adopted the view of the [Sunni] Mustaqbalites — who are being described in most television reports as “Sunni” “gangs” and in newspaper reports as Sunni government “supporters,” while the well known connections these street gangs (which may be said to be little else but proto-militias) to the machinery of the Hariri family and other components of Sunni elements in the Lebanese government are ignored — and their Western and Arab allies. The entire chain of events leading up to the current street confrontations has been muddled in the American media, as well has the nature of the violence itself (I recall a reporter on CNN beginning a sentence with something to the effect of “If sectarian violence begins” — as if “Sunni-Shiite clashes” was not ipso facto sectarian violence). See Noah Pollak’s postings at Commentary on the matter to see further simplification and bungling of the Lebanese political setting.

The above sentiments and those seen throughout American reporting and writing on Lebanon come fro a profound misunderstanding of what Lebanon is and how it works. It rests on the assumption that there are political organizations that are “good” where as others are anti-Semitic (while ignoring the anti-Semitism of those on the “good” side) or anti-Western, apparently without any actual reason other than to be such. It further rests on an assumption that the Lebanese political setting is somehow desirable and not one that holds the individual prisoner to his sectarian identity and greatly favors feudal and mafia-like economic, social, and political patterns over actual progress in these areas. It over romanticizes periods when the country’s aristocracy and oligarchy has been able to provide peace, and revises the particulars and critical elements of these periods stability. It further adopts semi-nationalist narratives that attach all that is positive in the Lebanese social culture to certain class and sectarian segments of the country while holding other segments of Lebanon in a lower regard. It is more interested in highlighting the fact that Lebanese consume alcohol and go clubbing than in exploring the structural elements that have contributed to the repeated failure of the Lebanese political system. It is a view devoid of objectivity and overly sympathetic with those it attempts to present. It has found its way into parts of the media, government, and academic circles.

American reporters are also eager to gloat over the manner in which Lebanon could fall into another civil war in which the country’s post-war economic progress is wiped out. But one such report, by Drew Kumpf, is interesting:

Hezbollah supporters’ tent camps have paralyzed parts of downtown
Beirut and now they are springing up along the road to the airport
which will be a vital source of tourism revenue this summer. It’s
shaping up to be yet another example of Hezbollah’s “resistance”
hurting the very people it claims to fight for.

From the moment I heard Nasrallah state that his supporters would fire on anyone who fired on them — and at this stage such marksmen would have to be Lebanese — I wondered what about all the talk about Hezb Allah never using its weapons on fellow Lebanese? Anyone who believes that a single political party in Lebanon is interested in anything beyond the advancement or supremacy of its sect is at worst naive and at worst disingenuous. This goes for those groupings within the 14 March bloc and the opposition. This said, Hezb Allah is not alone in threatening to hurt those it claims to represent; this will be the case in the other communities when the Sunni and non-Muslim factions’ militias crystallize more thoroughly and fighting begins in earnest. The troubles in Lebanon do not rest on Hezb Allah’s shoulders alone: all Lebanese political factions bear the blame, be they allied with the West or not.

As far as I am concerned, Hezb Allah, like all Lebanese political parties and factions, is a sectarian organizations whose primary interests are those of the Shia community in Lebanon, even though its network of social services may attend to the needs of non-Shias. Any arms amassed by political actors in Lebanese are without exception intended for use against other Lebanese (though not exclusively). This is the nature of the Lebanese social and political system, and it is why Lebanon’s political turmoil is so profitable for outside actors: there are always Lebanese who are willing to connive against other Lebanese on behalf of outsiders because to do so serves to further their historical vendettas and offer the prospect of sectarian, clan, or individual advancement within Lebanon. The present situation bodes well for all interested Powers: the US (along with the Sunni Arabs and Israel), and Iran and Syria.

Addendum: 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.

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3 thoughts on “On Lebanon

  1. I think there are a couple of things you forgot to mention, Nouri. With all due respect:

    Hezb Allah is not just another militia in Lebanon. It is the only one to have kept heavy weapons. It is also the only one who pretends to have a “national mission” of “defending the country against Israel” regardless of the Lebanese institutions and the fact that Israel does not threaten Lebanon. It is easy to send back all factions to their responsibilities, but at least the current Sunni faction and its Druzes and FL allies are pretending to defend the constitutional order and Lebanese institutions (and I know they are doing a very poor job of it, due to their own ambitions). Hezb Allah, unlike the other parties in Lebanon, has refused to settle things politically. It (or its patrons) has consistently murdered any personality with the courage to defend the state of law in the country.

    So no, Hezb Allah and the Future Movement (Sunni Haririst) are not just one and the same. The FM is not perfect and they have also an agenda but we have to point at the real responsibilities. Sorry.

    Second, there seem to be now a problem between Hezb Allah and the Syrians. Since their “hero” was murdered in Damas, Nasrallah does not trust Al Assad any more. He might be wrong, but it seems that Hezb Allah is now clinging to the Beirut airport because it is the only link with its last trustful support, Iran.

  2. Hezb Allah is not just another militia in Lebanon. It is the only one to have kept heavy weapons. It is also the only one who pretends to have a “national mission” of “defending the country against Israel” regardless of the Lebanese institutions and the fact that Israel does not threaten Lebanon.

    This is true (and I expect those who read this blog to be aware of this fact; I was speaking as to the fundamental nature of both parties, which are identical: they are sectarian, easily made violent, and not in a mood for serious compromise), save for the fact that Israel does threaten Lebanon and the Lebanese army is a farcical band that has no capability of defending Lebanon against any threat, internal or external. That Hezb Allah did not disarm, I think, has deeper political roots. They were fighting Israel for several years after the war, and their weapons are the only thing that give their constituents political voice, because without the other factions will not listen to the Shia. And the other factions have made no effort to accommodate the Shia in such a way that is would reflect their demographics and address their social/political standing, because this would come at their own expense.

    It is easy to send back all factions to their responsibilities, but at least the current Sunni faction and its Druzes and FL allies are pretending to defend the constitutional order and Lebanese institutions (and I know they are doing a very poor job of it, due to their own ambitions). Hezb Allah, unlike the other parties in Lebanon, has refused to settle things politically. It (or its patrons) has consistently murdered any personality with the courage to defend the state of law in the country.

    Pretending is not the same as doing. Hezb Allah exists because the other factions do not want to and will do all they can to maintain the presently outdated sectarian order. They are not the only ones that have not tried to solve things politically. They have refused to accept the Maronite/Sunni/Druze order, which would put their elites and their constituents at a disadvantage (the government forces have not offered much in the way of compromise either). The supposed constitutional order in the country is a major part of the problem, and while Hezb Allah is not entirely correct in its methods (assassination, violence, etc.) its grievances are real and that the other side ignores them illustrates that they too are a part of the problem.

  3. I am totally aware of the Shia problems and I agree with you that they have been exploited and dominated by the educated elite of the other sectarian groups just as well as by external forces (Syria and more and more Iran). But I doubt that increasing the bloodshed, working with foreign meddlers and antagonizing the other groups in the country is a good way for the Shia to gain respect. If they used their considerable resources to build something, give proper education to their people and rebuild the part of the country that they contributed to destroy, they would probably get respect. At the moment, other Lebanese see them as uneducated, traitors, irresponsible and violent thugs and it is difficult to blame them for that.

    By the way, I am sorry, but Israel is not threatening Lebanon in any way right now. It invaded Lebanon in the 80’s because it was used as a proxy by the PLO (and we all know what a strategic mistake it was for both sides, not to mention the obvious gross violations of Human Rights). But there is currently no threat from Israel to Lebanon. On the contrary, there is a threat from Lebanon (Hizbollah) on Israel, as the latest war have demonstrated.

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