Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

In the two months since the standoff between the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and the Hizballah-led opposition began in earnest, the atmosphere in the Lebanese capital of Beirut has oscillated between ambient anxiety and incongruous routine. Tensions exploded on January 25, when four Lebanese were killed and over 150 wounded in street fighting that began on the grounds of Beirut Arab University near the neighborhood of Tariq Jadideh, and largely pitted Sunnis against Shi‘a. The previous day, three youths were killed as opposition backers blockaded streets and burned tires in cities across Lebanon to enforce a general strike called by Hizballah’s secretary-general, Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah.

Meanwhile, the open-ended “sit-in” of opposition supporters, a tent city covering a mile-wide swath of southern downtown Beirut, has remained in place since December 1, largely without incident. This campaign of peaceful civil disobedience has made movement around the city vastly more inconvenient and — with the downtown area divided north from south by a six-foot high tangle of concertina wire — all but shuttered the capital’s high-end shops and restaurants. But life, for the most part, has gone on.

Rhetorical salvos aside, the Siniora government has tried to ignore the standoff and pursue its program as if it were business as usual, though clearly it is not. With Nasrallah promising a general strike, the prime minister traveled to Paris as planned to seek pledges from foreign donors. Opposition leaders assure the government that their campaign will continue to escalate until their demands — chiefly, that Siniora’s cabinet yield to a new government of “national unity” — are met.

The inter-communal clashes in Tariq Jadideh were the deadliest since the 1975-1990 civil war, and consensus has it that Lebanon is more politically divided today than at any time since the war ended. It is worth asking why the divisions have emerged, and how.

March 8 vs. March 14

The present crisis is the logical outcome of Israel’s war upon Lebanon in the summer of 2006, though the battle lines were drawn by the events following the assassination of ex-Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005. On March 8 of that year, Hizballah and its allies brought several hundreds of thousands of Lebanese to a rally “thanking” the Syrian troops who were soon to depart Lebanon. The Syrian government, of course, has been the most frequently named suspect in the Hariri killing. The late premier’s Future movement and its allies responded with an even larger “Syria out!” demonstration on March 14. The political forces represented on March 14 went on to win a majority in Lebanon’s Parliament, though ministers loyal to Hizballah, its Shi‘i ally Amal and President Emile Lahoud (backed by Syria) were included in both the interim administration of Najib Miqati and the government that formed after the May-June elections.

Fast-forward to the Israeli aerial assault that began after Hizballah snatched two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid in July 2006. About two weeks into the bombardment, the March 14 leadership was compelled to abandon rhetoric criticizing Hizballah for dragging Lebanon into a war it did not want. By then it had become clear that the Israeli military could not deliver on promises to neutralize Hizballah’s fighting capacity speedily. With Lebanon’s death toll mounting and international tolerance for the Israeli attacks waning, March 14 politicians began to praise those who were fighting the attackers.

They resumed their criticisms, however, soon after the UN-brokered cessation of hostilities in mid-August. Feeling its fighters had humiliated the powerful Israeli military, Hizballah represented the 34-day war as a “divine victory.” March 14 politicians, pointing to the country’s smashed infrastructure and reeling economy, mocked the notion that Lebanon had won anything in the war. Among March 14 supporters, talk of “divine victory” fed suspicions that Hizballah had provoked a conflict at the behest of its sponsors in Damascus and Tehran. Hearing the March 14 forces’ rejoinder, Hizballah supporters muttered darkly about the affection in Siniora’s wartime relationship with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — even as she provided Israel with a month of diplomatic cover while Lebanon’s Shi‘a bore the brunt of the Israeli bombing and shelling.

By late October, the discourse had descended to such a low level that Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, also head of Amal, warned that street violence could erupt. Berri, who earned a new lease on political life before the war as mediator between Hizballah and the March 14 forces, coaxed both sides to a week of roundtable discussions. The speaker said he wanted to discuss electoral reform. This old Lebanese chestnut sends a shiver up the spine of sectarian leaders from the smaller of Lebanon’s 18 officially recognized ethno-confessional communities. They prefer the current system, whose small electoral districts ensure that Christian and Druze voters, for example, can vote for Christian and Druze candidates. Larger communities, like the Shi‘a, argue that larger districts are more democratic and more in line with the provisions of the Ta’if accords that helped to end the civil war.

In the Berri-brokered talks, Hizballah contended that Lebanon needs a government of “national unity,” by which they meant greater representation for themselves and their allies. In this they spoke on behalf of their principal Christian ally, Gen. Michel Aoun, whose supporters were excluded from Siniora’s cabinet, despite a strong showing in the 2005 elections. Hizballah said they were not opposed to a March 14-dominated cabinet or the Siniora premiership. A national unity government could be accomplished via a simple cabinet reshuffle or the creation of new portfolios — a common practice in Lebanon’s consensual system. Officially, Hizballah and Amal were allotted five seats in Siniora’s 24-member cabinet; in a national unity government, they wanted a third of the seats.

Siniora and the March 14 forces repeatedly rejected this formula, saying it would give Hizballah and Aoun a “blocking minority” that would render decision-making impossible. By Lebanese law, the resignation of a third of the cabinet triggers the fall of the government. No such concession was possible, the premier said, until the March 8 forces agreed to dispense with Lahoud, a Damascus client whose mandate was extended, in violation of the Lebanese constitution, for three years in 2004. Lahoud’s refusal to resign symbolizes the limited success of the “Beirut spring” that ushered Syria out in 2005. Hizballah has no obvious interest in defending Lahoud’s residence in Baabda Palace; his term ends in November 2007, anyway. Removing him has been difficult because the Maronite Christian political establishment — the patriarch included — want to preserve the inviolability of the highest political institution allocated to their community under Lebanon’s confessional system. This is important for Aoun, of course, who has designs on the presidency himself.

The roundtable discussions proved fruitless. And the rhetoric escalated.

Government vs. Opposition

“If dialogue does not result in a government of national unity,” Sayyid Nasrallah said in an interview with Hizballah’s al-Manar television on October 31, “we will resort to demonstrations. It’s our constitutional right, our democratic right to express our opinions in the street.” “Protest will be met by protest,” declared Akram Shuhayyib, a senior aide to Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a key March 14 politician, the next day. “The bullet will not be confronted with a flower.” Samir Geagea — head of the right-wing Maronite Lebanese Forces, and an increasingly assertive March 14 spokesman after the assassination of Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel on November 21 — warned that if Hizballah called for demonstrations, his supporters were ready to stage counter-demonstrations.

In an interview with LBC television, Saad al-Hariri, heir to his father’s Future movement, said the “national unity” demands were a Syrian-orchestrated “political coup d’etat.” Siniora, Jumblatt and other government figures reiterated this formulation, as did the White House, which expressed concern over “mounting evidence” (never specified) that Hizballah was collaborating with Iran and Syria in “preparing plans to topple” Siniora’s government. Hizballah replied by accusing Siniora of failing to support the resistance during the war and of supporting US and Israeli demands for its disarmament. On November 11, the six ministers aligned with Hizballah and Amal left the cabinet, and the Shi‘i parties, along with Aoun, commenced plans for mobilizations in the streets.

The plans were suspended when gunmen killed Pierre Gemayel. Gemayel was not a great statesman; he once remarked that a larger quantity of Lebanon’s population may be Shi‘i, but the better quality is Christian. His importance rested in his family tree. His father, former President Amin Gemayel, is scion of the founding family of the Phalange party and, through his assassinated uncle Bashir, the Lebanese Forces. In the aftermath of the killing, there were violent confrontations between Lebanese Forces activists and Aoun supporters, and tensions were also evident in West Beirut, where many quarters have a mixed Sunni-Shi‘i population. In the Sunni quarter of Qasqas, ‘Ali Ahmad Mahmoud, a Shi‘i supporter of Amal, was shot dead on December 4. With the dread shade of communal violence hanging over the capital, thousands of Lebanese army troops were deployed along with armored personnel carriers all over south-central Beirut — in addition to the units already standing guard over government offices downtown.

Downtown vs. Dahiya

What occurred next was not quite what anyone expected. Nasrallah designated Martyrs’ Square — the same plaza that had been the venue for the “Beirut spring” — as the epicenter of the December 1 mobilization. Promises of counter-demonstrations from the Lebanese Forces and other March 14 stalwarts, who feel downtown is their turf, led the army to include the Martyrs’ Square statue in the area they enclosed behind razor wire, along with the parliamentary building and the prime minister’s offices. The effect of the barrier, intended or otherwise, is to symbolize the division of Lebanon’s public sphere.

On demonstration day, hundreds of thousands of Hizballah and Aoun supporters packed the squares and building sites that make up the southern reaches of downtown. Though the expected speeches and patriotic male-choir music were in evidence, the mood of the demonstration, and the subsequent sit-in, has been less militant than festive. The sounds of drumming and the smells of water pipes and grilled meats have made the sit-in a replica of the carnivalesque rallies of the “Beirut spring,” though this sit-in is larger that the 2005 prototype. The participants, too, convey a different air than their 2005 counterparts. Whether the Hizballah supporters clustered around Riyad al-Sulh Square, the Aounist enclave further east or the smattering of others, these people are recognizably less well-to-do than the bourgeois revolutionaries of the “independence intifada.”

This mobilization has been misrepresented in various ways. At least one foreign journalist, seeing the sit-in’s social makeup, has depicted it as a “popular uprising.” It can be described as such only insofar as both Hizballah and Aoun’s party have a strong populist appeal, speaking of inequality and poverty more readily than, say, the younger Hariri. In the early days of the sit-in, government supporters pointed to the presence of Hizballah security (“discipline men”) as evidence of coup-like intentions. Hizballah supporters say the security presence is necessary to protect the demonstrators from unruly elements among pro-government forces. In fact, their presence has made the sit-in less rowdy than its 2005 predecessor, where low-intensity conflict between Lebanese Forces and Aounist youth became increasingly frequent.

Lebanese critics of the sit-in also say protesters are paid activists. It is an oft-heard refrain meant to contrast Hizballah mobilizations with the 2005 rallies (misleadingly portrayed as utterly voluntary and spontaneous), question Hizballah supporters’ political agency and (in its most recent variation) accuse them of being in the employ of Tehran, which is assumed to be footing the bill. If stipends are being provided (and reports of such are too common to ignore), this betrays the marginal economic status of the demonstrators, many of whom suffered badly during the summer war. Many better-heeled Lebanese despair of having downtown Beirut “squatted in” by poor residents of the dahiya, the shorthand for Beirut’s heavily Shi‘i southern suburbs. A few counter that, though this is not a people’s uprising, there is some justice in these Lebanese taking at least temporary possession of the outskirts of downtown, from whose expensive glitz they have previously been excluded.

One of the more significant but least discussed aspects of the sit-in is that, like its 2005 predecessor, it has acted as an effective pressure valve — at least before the violence of January 24-25. This extraordinary mobilization does make political capital from Amal and Hizballah supporters’ anger, but (intentionally or not) it has also provided a place where they — particularly bored, unemployed and otherwise disenfranchised young men — can sublimate their frustration.

With the physical barricade raucous but harmless, increasingly heated verbal exchanges flew over the metaphorical razor wire. In a televised address to the week-old sit-in on December 7, Nasrallah accused Siniora of complicity in the Israeli attack on Lebanon. Giving voice to theories already in wide circulation on the street, he said the government bears responsibility for the summer war because certain ministers had conspired with the US and Israel to destroy Hizballah. Not coincidentally, the Israeli government has done Siniora’s reputation no favors since the crisis took shape. In the wake of the Gemayel assassination, for instance, Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres told Israeli radio that Israel had no dog in Lebanon’s fight. “It’s a struggle between Hizballah, which wants to see an Iranian Lebanon, and the majority of Lebanese who want a sovereign Lebanon,” he said. This comment strongly resembled the line of pro-government politicians in Lebanon, a line they reiterated as the crisis continued to build.

Privatizers vs. Labor

In early December, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa arrived in Lebanon to negotiate a compromise. Political sources said Moussa proposed that the cabinet be expanded to 30 ministers — 19 from Siniora’s ruling coalition, 10 from the opposition and one neutral. He suggested that Lahoud remain in office until the end of his term and that both sides agree on a deadline for starting consultations about a successor. The next president should be chosen by parliamentary consensus, as per the constitution. Moussa also called for the formation of a national unity government, and a timetable for a new electoral law. Moussa reported he had won nominal agreement from both sides for his proposals, but his efforts to seal the deal were inconclusive. By December 18, the opposition had stepped up its original demands, calling now for early parliamentary elections to replace Siniora’s government.

After Christmas and the Muslim ‘Id al-Adha holiday, a new dividing line came to the fore, as the government’s energies turned to preparations for the Paris III donors’ conference beginning on January 25. The government’s goal (exceeded by the January 25 pledges of $7.6 billion) was to raise $4 billion in grants and soft loans to help Lebanon address its crushing $41 billion debt — around 180 percent of the country’s gross domestic product — most of which was accumulated during the post-civil war reconstruction overseen by Rafiq al-Hariri.

On January 2, Siniora unveiled economic reform legislation that he said was vital to securing the cooperation of the international community. Without reforms and the external investment they will encourage, the government argues, Lebanon will be condemned to cycles of rising debt, high interest rates, depressed private investment and low growth. One keystone of the reform program is partial or total privatization of state-owned utilities (such as the lucrative mobile telephone sector). Another is to raise taxes. Public sector pay rates will also be reviewed and staff rolls inspected with an eye to reduction.

After Paris III, Siniora told the press on January 3, “We will come home and tell the Lebanese people, ‘This is what we got.’ If the opposition doesn’t want it, so be it. If the opposition wants to scuttle [the reforms], they will bear the responsibility.” Siniora has thus thrown down the same rhetorical gauntlet that served his former employer Rafiq al-Hariri so well in years past: There is one way to attend to Lebanon’s economic woes, and to oppose it is to doom the country to misery.

In response, Lebanon’s General Labor Confederation (GLC) announced it would launch a series of protests. On January 6, GLC president Ghassan Ghusn called on all citizens with limited incomes to join a sit-in in front of the Finance Ministry. Though it boasts a registered membership of 200,000, the GLC has long been infiltrated by the country’s political parties, with Amal and Hizballah being particularly well-represented. Conscious of this, Ghusn insisted the confederation’s protest was separate from the political power struggle. The opposition announced its support for the labor demonstrations, though, and the next day Saad al-Hariri berated Hizballah for undermining Paris III. “This attack,” he said, “will not hit the government, but will harm economic stability and the standard of living of the Lebanese people.”

The turnout at the January 9 demonstration was estimated at a paltry 1,500 people. The same was true of subsequent demonstrations in front of other ministry offices around Beirut. Some in the Beiruti press attributed the low attendance to political fatigue after six weeks of demonstrations. It is equally likely that working people simply could not afford the time off work. More significantly, the small number of demonstrators suggested that opposition support for the GLC initiative is only nominal. If Hizballah was interested in standing beneath the banner of organized labor — or in opposing Future’s economic policies, for that matter — these demonstrations could have been massive.

The International in the Local

It is a Lebanese habit of mind to lay all the country’s political difficulties at the doorstep of foreign intrigue. The habit is self-deluding, since local politicians are always complicit in foreign influence. That said, Lebanon’s political crisis cannot be properly understood without taking the international climate into account. At one level, the mutual recriminations — that Hizballah and Aoun are acting as surrogates for Tehran and Damascus, that the Siniora government is Washington’s puppet — reproduce a seductive rhetoric of externalized blame that can be traced back to the troubles of 1958. That does not make the courting of foreign patronage to advance local interests, or rumors thereof, any less important.

All the Siniora government’s major policy initiatives since the summertime war — a NATO-reinforced UNIFIL force along the southern border, foreign funding for post-war reconstruction, the tribunal to investigate Rafiq al-Hariri’s assassination, Paris III — effectively internationalize the Lebanese predicament. The effect is to reduce the nuances of local political compromise to black-and-white formulae: international relations require states to obey UN resolutions; economic growth demands compliance with the “Washington consensus”; the assassination of a figure of Hariri’s stature calls for an international tribunal. Reasonable as these statements sound to many Lebanese, many others, along with Hizballah’s leadership, are supremely suspicious of the “international community” as it is presently configured, and not without reason. The UN provides one example.

While reams of paper have been filled with UN resolutions condemning Israel’s Palestine policies, the “international community” has never seen fit to act upon them. On the other hand, the international community has doggedly pursued the implementation of resolutions sponsored by the US, directed against Syria, Iran and Hizballah, and favorable to Israeli interests. This discrepancy explains Hizballah’s sudden distrust of UNIFIL, with whom — after a few preliminary kinks in the 1980s—the party’s fighters have had a good working relationship. As Nasrallah put it in a October 31 interview on al-Manar, the “party in power is seeking to make UNIFIL…occupy Lebanon and disarm the resistance…. This plan is dangerous and of the sort that could transform Lebanon into another Iraq or another Afghanistan…. This plan was already hoped for by the [leadership] before the Israeli aggression. It is an American-Israeli demand.”

Hizballah’s doubts about “UNIFIL II” were only reinforced by incidents that make the UN look increasingly like an instrument of US policy. On November 3, for instance, the press ran stories that Washington wanted the job of UN undersecretary-general in charge of peacekeeping for an American, in exchange for backing Ban Ki-moon’s election as secretary-general. This growing skepticism about the UN has an antecedent in Hizballah’s wariness of Detlev Mehlis, the German prosecutor who led the UN-sponsored Hariri investigation until Belgian prosecutor Serge Brammertz took over in January 2006. In the wake of the Gemayel assassination, Mehlis gave an interview to the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, run on November 23. “It is apparent to anyone who is unbiased that all the clues after this attack clearly point to the forces who want to bring down the Lebanese government and get in the way of the tribunal,” Mehlis said. “These are the so-called pro-Syrian forces in Lebanon. They have an obvious motive.”

Many wondered how Mehlis could have gleaned these “clues” from Germany. True, the plain-spoken Mehlis is no longer running the Hariri investigation, and so no longer bound to observe codes of judicial discretion, but his remarks (which so precisely echo the reactions of White House spokesmen) provide ammunition to those who would challenge the investigation’s reputation as an unbiased and apolitical exercise in international justice.

Another facet of the international environment worth mentioning is the perceived upsurge of political Shi‘ism in the Arab east. Conservative Sunni regimes like Saudi Arabia have grumbled about a nascent “Shiite crescent” midwifed by the rise of the Shi‘a in post-Saddam Iraq and the heightened power of Iran as the Bush administration’s Iraqi adventure falters. When the Israeli air force bombed Lebanese Shi‘i population centers and the international community (the Arab League included) failed to stir for two weeks, many in Lebanon concluded that Riyadh had decided to nip the Shi‘i florescence in the bud. Regional politics acquired a bitter local edge with the ill-advised decision of Saad al-Hariri and his March 14 allies to parrot Saudi criticism of Hizballah.

Clearly, Riyadh is an important factor in the Lebanon equation, as witnessed by Hizballah’s recent dispatch of its ministers on the pilgrimage to Mecca. On December 26, the Saudi king flew Hizballah Deputy Secretary-General Na‘im Qasim and senior aide Muhammad Fanayish to Jidda for meetings with himself and Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal.

Since the end of the 2006 war, darker speculation has drifted into popular discourse — stories of Saudi princes providing arms and/or training to Lebanese Sunnis with an inchoate resentment of Nasrallah’s rising stature. After all, the story goes, Saudis with jihadi sympathies hate Hizballah even more than they despise the excesses of the royal family. Such rumors correspond to reports in the regional and international media concerning al-Qaeda’s efforts to infiltrate Lebanon since the beginning of the Israeli bombardment. Depending on which reports one reads, their mission is to attack the “pro-American Siniora government,” schismatic Hizballah or UNIFIL troops in south Lebanon.

Sometimes there is more than mere rumor, as on November 28 when a 28-year old Syrian man named ‘Umar ‘Abdallah exploded outside a passport control office on the Syrian-Lebanese border. A statement from the Syrian Interior Ministry (not necessarily the most reliable source) claimed ‘Abdallah was trying to cross the border with forged documents when he was found out, fled and detonated the belt of explosives he was wearing. He was, they say, the military commander of al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, a militant organization claiming links to al-Qaeda.

Peace Amongst Patrons?

It is not difficult to despair of a resolution to the Lebanese crisis before more blood is shed. As seen on January 24-25, the Lebanese army’s mandate is restricted to standing between demonstrators of different confessions — a function of its own sectarian makeup. The troops of the Internal Security Forces have been held back from this crisis, inspiring opposition assertions that the Interior Ministry is a tool of the Hariri family.

Even more problematic is the singular lack of statesmanship on the part of the political class, who, pleas for calm notwithstanding, seem overall more inclined to speak on behalf of their communities or their patrons than any “national interest.”

That leaves the international community. Beiruti media outlets aired a story on January 25 claiming that Riyadh and Tehran were working on a way to defuse Lebanon’s political crisis. The pro-March 14 al-Nahar newspaper and al-Safir, a daily generally sympathetic to the opposition, both reported that Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki had been in touch with his Saudi counterpart by telephone. The phone call was read as a hopeful sign, since both government and opposition camps have said they are ready to accept such mediation efforts.

As if to remind all parties that Hizballah does not simply dance to Tehran’s tune, though, that day Nasrallah remarked that no agreement could be imposed against the will of the Lebanese people. He vowed not to back down from demands for a veto in the cabinet and early elections. “There is talk of reviving serious initiatives, a Saudi-Iranian action…. We bless any effort,” Nasrallah told a gathering in the dahiya. “But any possible agreement between any two respected governments is not binding upon the Lebanese…. The role of brotherly and friendly states is to help the Lebanese reach consensus…. No one in Lebanon or outside Lebanon should think that the opposition could contemplate going back or abandon its goals.”

On January 26, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal dampened hopes of a regionally sponsored solution. “There is really no initiative that we can call a Saudi initiative,” he told the international press from the sidelines of Paris III. “There was a message received by the king from [Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei…. [It] was an offer to cooperate to achieve solidarity between Muslims. The response was that…if Iran can do anything to calm its supporters in the region, then this would be the best service that could be done for the sake of Muslim solidarity.”

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CORRECTIONS: The initial version of this article said Hizballah took three Israeli soldiers into captivity; the actual number was two. Also, the initial version misleadingly implied that confrontations between Hizballah and UNIFIL took place in 1978. These events occurred in the 1980s. We regret the errors.

How to cite this article:

Jim Quilty "Winter of Lebanon’s Discontents," Middle East Report Online, January 26, 2007.
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