Thursday, November 16, 2006

Lebanon: a theater of internal and external conflict

Lebanon: A theater of internal and external conflict

Ghassan Rubeiz November 16, 2006


National Lebanese unity is at risk today. With confused priorities Lebanese political warlords are again at each others’ throats. On Nov 11, a week long series of heated meetings intended to strengthen opposition representation in a government of national unity failed. As a result, Hizbullah threatened to stage massive demonstrations after withdrawing its two ministers from the Cabinet and successfully pressuring four other ministers to resign.

Political leaders are juggling a strange mixture of local, regional and international issues. Related to the conflict are the question of Hizbullah’s future, General Michel Aoun’s presidential plans and the pursuit of justice for the murdered former Prime Minister Hariri.

In addition to local dynamics, the cabinet restructuring conflict has external dimensions. Lebanese society confronts two contrasting ideological currents from the outside. The West dominates the country through the influence of the US, Europe and Israel. Iran and Syria and the rest of the Arab/ Islamic world also have a firm hand on domestic politics and cultural life. Informally, the sad truth is that there have always been two Lebanons, one Western and one Oriental.

Hizbullah remains the center of tension in a country that has never used its national armed forces effectively. Hizbullah is not willing to lay down its arms but the recent UN cease-fire agreement stipulates demilitarization of unauthorized armies.

The country’s conflict makes sad theater. Michel Aoun, a strong political leader, seeks to become the next President of the republic but he is rejected by the current anti-Syrian government; he is wooed by Hizbullah and he is opposed by the West. The government wants to punish the murderers of the Prime Minister, using a UN- mandated international tribunal that would implicate prominent Lebanese and Syrian politicians. In this theater of conflict, Hizbullah, to stay strong, needs Syrian support in face of international pressure. Hizbullah’s ministers and allies withdraw from the cabinet objecting to the sudden request of the Cabinet to authorize the work of the Tribunal during the decisive negotiations of last week.

The plot thickens: the unpopular President of the Republic, Jamil Lahood, opposes his Cabinet and declares its insistence on approving the Tribunal illegal. But Lahood is in political debt to Syria since his term was extended through that country’s pressure before its withdrawal. He is ignored internationally and isolated domestically.

To simplify, the crisis of the government has two sides. In order of importance, the opposition includes Hizbullah, the Free Patriotic Movement Party of Aoun and President Lahood. Hizbullah represents the Shia community; Aoun is a secular leader but his followers are largely Christians and President Lahood is a Catholic (Maronite). From beyond the border, Iran and Syria back up the opposition, oppose the pro-Hariri government and orchestrate a policy of challenge to the US. By demanding better representation in the government, the opposition argues for struggle against Western hegemony, political reform and fair representation for all communities.

On the government side, there are two Sunnite leaders: Saad Harriri and Prime Minister Seniora. The parliamentary majority includes about two thirds of the Christian legislators and representatives of the Druze community, of which Walid Jumblat is currently (not in the past) the most vocal anti Syrian figure. The Hariri family is very close to the Sunni minded Saudi Arabia and to the West. Traditionally, Christian politicians are pro- Western, with notable exceptions.

The Christians are on both sides of the domestic conflict; they have become a demographic minority; they are poorly led; and they do not have a regional patron. The sectarian tension of leadership in Lebanon is gradually shifting from being Christian- Muslim to Shia- Sunni, mirroring a regional trend. Some would argue that the real rift within Muslim society is more ideological than sectarian. Many believe that the conflict is between the modernist and the traditionalist.

The political mess in which the government finds itself now is partially a result of its confused priorities. The current over riding issues are national unity and stability. After a hectic summer war which killed a thousand civilians, left tens of thousands without shelter, a million cluster bombs, a polluted coast line, the Hariri justice has faded in the wider perspective.

The crisis is containable but it has the potential of making Lebanon another Iraq. The government must focus on national unity: communal healing and rehabilitation of the victims. This unity policy means that achieving justice now in the explosive issue of the Hariri murder is divisive. The country is overloaded with tension: a giant national debt, a weak army; a non credible parliament, Hizbullah’s unclear status, and unfriendly neighbors.
On the other hand, Hizbullah’s threat to resort to street demonstrations is another type of confused priorities. Today, street action in Lebanon is a segue to the unpleasant unknown. Local and foreign enemies mingle with local adversaries to exploit political vacuum. There are groups, outside the resistance movement who wish to covertly enter the arena of public protest to cause immense disorder. We have witnessed the scene before too many times. One or two politicians are assassinated; a minority neighborhood is attacked; covert foreign agents escalate street fighting. A demonic surprise of some sort occurs.

The parliament has rarely been practical in solving hot national issues. One exit from this intractable conflict might be the formation of committee representing all parties. The group would synthesize the compromises already achieved in the last two weeks of negotiations toward widening the cabinet, strengthening the opposition and clarifying the top national priorities. If the work of the international tribunal could be delayed, the formation of the unity government is still possible to reach. The pursuit of basic stability may have to take precedence over the pursuit of full justice. In a nation that has a very weak army, a threatened economy, a wounded society, the government may have to appreciate its limitations and act accordingly.


The author is an independent Arab American commentator. His blog is .

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