Politicians and the Lebanese media have adopted August 7, 2001 as the date on which the Lebanese government began to crack down on public freedoms. On that afternoon, a pro-opposition television station broadcast live footage of Lebanese army personnel raiding the offices of Christian political figures Tawfiq Hindi and Nadim Lteif. Hindi, Lteif and dozens of others were charged with “collaborating with Israel” or engaging in banned political activity, sparking cries of “police state.” The arrests came as unusual cross-sectarian alliances appeared to be forming to challenge the government, especially its continued acquiescence to the “presence” of over 30,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon.

On August 3, 2001, the Maronite patriarch Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir began a historic visit to southern Mount Lebanon, stronghold of the Druze community. Sfeir’s first foray to the residence of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, which received an impressive public welcome, led observers to describe the visit as a “reconciliation” between the Maronite and Druze communities. Maronite and Druze militias were bitter antagonists in one of the bloodiest episodes of the Lebanese civil war—the 1983-1984 War of the Mountain. Amazed TV viewers watched young people standing side by side and waving the flags of the Christian Lebanese Forces and Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party. When Sfeir’s motorcade wound its way back home two days later, thousands of Christian Lebanese lined the roads to bid him farewell. As the live coverage continued, scores of people were seen chanting “Syria out!” and deriding Emile Lahoud, the pro-Syrian president of Lebanon. More than 100 people were rounded up on charges of insulting a sisterly Arab country, disturbing public order and voicing provocative slogans.

On August 9, demonstrators gathered at Beirut’s Justice Palace to peacefully protest the detentions. In front of the cameras, plainclothes security personnel roughed up and dragged away the young male and female demonstrators, arresting them for “assaulting security personnel” and fueling public outrage. Scores of politicians gathered on August 19 to denounce the authorities’ behavior, with the audience including Jumblatt, traditional Muslim politicians, leftist groups and representatives of the parliamentary bloc of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

One year after the August events, however, these nascent coalitions were unable and unwilling to gather again. Jumblatt attended neither the rally nor the news conference which took place. Instead, he had lunch at the presidential palace and praised Lahoud’s “treatment” of the repercussions of the August 7 arrests. The momentum that seemed to be building for sovereignty—moderating Syrian influence in Lebanese politics—has declined. Lebanon’s opposition is sidelined by the repercussions of September 11 or by purely domestic factors.

Lahoud vs. Hariri

Pressure to reform the moribund Lebanese political-economic system and address ties with Syria increased after Israel’s withdrawal in May 2000 from almost all territory it occupied in southern Lebanon and the death, two weeks later, of Syrian President Hafiz al-Asad. The Israeli pullout prompted calls by mainly Christian politicians to send the Lebanese army to the border, with the most significant call coming in September 2000 from the country’s Council of Maronite Bishops, headed by Sfeir. Lahoud and other senior politicians rejected the calls, saying the army would not be used to ensure Israeli security. Guerrilla resistance would continue with the Shebaa Farms, a sliver of land on the border of the occupied Golan Heights, still occupied by Israel. The bishops also urged a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, prompting the authorities to affirm that Syria’s presence is “necessary, temporary and legitimate.”

Meanwhile, Jumblatt continued an opening to Christian communities he had begun several years earlier, treating the Syrian presence to occasional acerbic criticism. During the summer 2000 parliamentary elections, Jumblatt nearly swept the districts in which he fielded candidates, Druze and Christian, against staunchly pro-Syrian figures. Sfeir’s trip to Jumblatt’s residence topped a series of reconciliation efforts which, judging by the authorities’ fierce counterattack, were largely successful.

While the battle between the state and the opposition grabbed headlines, the August 7 crackdown also highlighted the struggle between Lahoud and Hariri, who disagree strongly on a range of policy matters and do not get along personally. The raid took place while Hariri and Defense Minister Khalil Hrawi were out of the country—and thus without the knowledge of the Cabinet. By the terms of the new constitution adopted in 1989, the Cabinet wields executive authority.

Qornet Shehwan

In April 2001, several dozen Christian politicians formed the Qornet Shehwan Gathering, an opposition coalition that took its name from the Maronite monastery in which founding members had been holding meetings. The gathering grouped independent MPs, a former ambassador to Washington and representatives from right-wing groups like the Lebanese Forces and Gen. Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement. Echoing Sfeir and the bishops, Qornet Shehwan supported sending the army to the border and having excellent ties with Syria, provided that balance was restored to the relationship. But the emergence of Qornet Shehwan comes at a time when the Lahoud-Hariri dispute works to push the opposition to the sidelines.

During Hariri’s first stint as prime minister (1992-1998), he faced significant opposition to his governments’ neoliberal economic policies. When Lahoud took office in 1998 he named Salim Hoss to head the first government. But Hariri returned triumphant after a strong showing in the 2000 parliamentary elections. The Lebanese quickly got a taste of French-style cohabitation, as Lahoud and Hariri’s disagreements required more and more effort to defuse, sometimes with Syrian guidance. With the added burden of a floundering economy and extreme pressure to reduce debt servicing, neither Lahoud nor Hariri has incentive to give in to a substantial opposition demand to outflank the other’s rival.

Meanwhile, opposition groups like Qornet Shehwan have failed to engage Lahoud, Hariri or the Syrians in anything resembling a dialogue. Instead they are content to advocate difficult-to-achieve goals like cleaning up the judiciary, decentralizing government powers and effecting large-scale political and economic reforms. For nearly a year, the events of September 11 have allowed the authorities to invoke the bogeyman of the “critical regional situation” to keep the opposition marginal. Jumblatt has read the way the wind is blowing. His “stump speech” of late describes a second Sykes-Picot agreement that will carve up the region, highlighting US military threats against Iraq, Lebanon and Syria; this is no time, the Druze leader implies, for divisive issues such as the balance between Beirut and Damascus.

Summer of the Patriarch

Though the intifada and Washington’s “war on terrorism” dampened the state’s inclination to respond to the opposition, the opposition groundswell proceeded nonetheless. A parliamentary by-election in June 2002, to replace the late opposition MP Albert Mokheiber, provided the chance for the opposition to flex its muscle at the ballot box. The Qornet Shehwan Gathering split their votes, with some backing TV station owner Gabriel Murr, while others supported lawyer-activist Ghassan Mokheiber, nephew of the late MP. The pro-regime camp, meanwhile, supported Murr’s niece Myrna. Gabriel Murr was finally declared the winner of an extremely close race after his niece withdrew at the state’s behest. Significantly, the Lebanese Forces and the Aounists participated in the poll — they had boycotted the first three post-war rounds of parliamentary elections. The districting system for Lebanon’s 2005 elections is not yet known. It could be arranged to defeat opposition figures, as in previous rounds. But nonetheless the June poll has left its mark, if only in the posters of Aoun and Lebanese Forces personalities Bashir Gemayel and Samir Geagea which were raised high at election rallies. For Jumblatt and other leftist figures, those faces recall some of the worst sectarian violence of the war. (Gemayel’s assassination in 1982 was the precursor to the massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese Forces militiamen at Sabra and Shatila.)

The system experienced a second major jolt in June, when Maronite figures in Los Angeles gathered for a Maronite World Congress. The gathering’s resolutions called for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, but did not stop there. Participants also voted to support the Syria Accountability Act, legislation proposed in the US Congress that would authorize a range of sanctions against Syria if the White House could not prove that Syria does not support Hizballah, import Iraqi oil, develop weapons of mass destruction or keep troops in Lebanon. The Act is also supported by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the US Committee for a Free Lebanon, whose Golden Circle of “core supporters” includes former Defense Department official Richard Perle, former ambassador to the UN Jeane Kirkpatrick and pro-Israel commentator Daniel Pipes, among several others. Though still pending in Congress, the Act is strongly opposed by the Bush administration and USA Engage, a pro-trade business coalition.

The Maronite expatriate congress provoked a storm of protest from politicians in Lebanon. Some who participated sought to put the best face possible on the proceedings, arguing that they could not outvote the hard-core anti-Syrian constituency in the diaspora. Damascus feels that its overtures to Lebanon’s Christians during the first half of 2002, such as a military redeployment and President Bashar al-Asad’s first visit to Lebanon, were rewarded by “extremist” positions. By mid-summer, Damascus had become sufficiently vexed to counterattack on several fronts. Most notably, several dozen Maronite MPs have begun exploring the possibility of forming a “consultative group” that would be a counterweight to Qornet Shehwan. Asad has in recent weeks welcomed all comers to Damascus to discuss bilateral relations, leading a stream of Christian politicians to make the trek. But Lebanon’s post-war Christian community has one political leader: the Maronite patriarch. Sfeir continues to call for full sovereignty and independence, while remaining somewhat above the fray. He did not strongly endorse the Los Angeles resolutions, and he calls for the best possible ties with Damascus, provided that they are between equals. In Sfeir’s view, no comparable olive branch—reducing the numbers of Syrian workers in Lebanon, for instance, or releasing the imprisoned Geagea—has yet come from the Asad regime.

The End of Taif?

The 1989 Taif Agreement or “Document of National Accord” was hammered out by members of Parliament in the mountain resort town slightly inland from Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast. Taif retuned Lebanon’s political system by taking presidential prerogatives and investing them in the Cabinet as a whole, and also called for Syrian withdrawal to the Bekaa Valley along the Syrian border. A blueprint for Lebanon’s political system, the document did not abolish the practice whereby government posts are reserved for certain sectarian groups, but called for the formation of a committee to discuss the gradual deconfessionalization of politics down the road. The document is now 13 years old, and key provisions have yet to be implemented.

Key players often call for Taif’s implementation, but the stances of Lahoud and Hariri are instructive. Lahoud rarely mentions the document by name; his favorite slogan is building a “state of law and institutions.” Hariri recently dismissed the entire Taif debate by saying the document is “97 percent” implemented already. As Lebanon’s two senior politicians remain apparently cool to Taif, it was ironic to see the issue raised during the rally organized by Aoun’s supporters on August 7. Some speakers called for forgetting Taif and relying on international resolutions to force a Syrian withdrawal. Jumblatt has already denounced the rally as being a local version of the Los Angeles conference, and even a Qornet Shehwan member like MP Nassib Lahoud, who was in attendance, felt compelled to distance himself from some of the rally’s rhetoric. But clearly, the Taif Accord is having a difficult time in Lebanon.

How to cite this article:

Marlin Dick "Thirteen-Year Itch," Middle East Report Online, August 13, 2002.

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