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

On November 11, 2006, the six Shi‘i ministers in the Lebanese government, affiliates of Hizballah and the Amal movement, left the cabinet in protest of their colleagues’ rejection of their demand for a government of “national unity.” Such a government would give the Shi‘i parties and their Christian ally, the Free Patriotic Movement of Gen. Michel Aoun, greater representation in the cabinet. The majority in the cabinet argued that Lebanese had elected their government, in the May–June 2005 parliamentary contests that came on the heels of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri and the departure of Syrian troops from Lebanon. On December 1, Hizballah and its allies mounted street demonstrations in downtown Beirut, while the cabinet of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora ordered the main government buildings cordoned off with razor wire. The demonstrations rapidly settled down into a standing tent city housing thousands of relatively placid protesters, mostly from Beirut’s southern suburbs. The Hizballah-led opposition now demands that the government yield to new parliamentary elections. Siniora, backed by Washington and Paris, denounces this call as an “attempted coup d’etát.” At press time, the standoff continues with no end in sight. As during previous stages of Lebanon’s tumult since the assassination of Hariri, left-leaning Lebanese critics have responded with differing analyses. Two such critics are the important leftist intellectual Fawwaz Trabulsi and Elias Khoury, a novelist and columnist, and a key figure in the Democratic Left, long associated with opposition to the Syrian “presence” in Lebanon. Their discussion of the Lebanese impasse, hosted by New York University’s Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies, was recorded on January 22, 2007, one day before a general strike called by Hizballah and its allies, the Aounists and Amal. We present here an abridged version of the discussion.

Moderator: Let’s begin by asking each of you for your view of the current situation.

Fawwaz Trabulsi: In the present situation, we see the impact of two events: the 2005 Syrian withdrawal and the 2006 war between Israel and Hizballah.

The Ta’if agreement [that helped end Lebanon’s 1975–1990 civil war] had within it the idea of an overseer—the Syrian regime in Damascus. Whenever Lebanese political leaders had a quarrel with each other, they went to Damascus to help them settle it. I don’t mean that we should bring this system back. But, without this outside arbiter, Lebanese politics has two major problems. First, there are three leadership posts with quasi-equal prerogatives: the Maronite Christian president, the Sunni prime minister and the Shi‘i speaker of parliament. There is a very tense relationship among the three posts, and among the communities they represent. The other problem is that the Lebanese constitution is based on two rather contradictory principles. The first is republican parliamentary democracy, or majority rule. Effectively, elections produce a majority, which chooses a prime minister, who chooses his cabinet, and then, in theory, the majority rules. on the other hand, because of the confessional system, in Lebanon you can always defend the case that rule cannot be majoritarian, and that government must always have room for the minority. So, today, the government emphasizes its legitimate election by the people as a majority, whereas the opposition says that a major sect, the Shi‘a, is outside the cabinet and, consequently, the minority has the right to veto power over the decisions of the executive. Most major cabinet decisions have to pass by two-thirds vote, which means that when the opposition represented by Hizballah and the Free Patriotic Movement demands veto power, they’re demanding to have a third of the cabinet seats, plus one. Now you have a double bind: a majority would be at the mercy of a minority that could announce a veto of the majority’s decisions.

The 2006 war entered into this equation in more than one way. Most importantly, Hizballah, having borne the burden of the fighting against Israel, opted for a major share in decision making in the cabinet. They sought to do this by increasing the cabinet seats of their electoral coalition from 2005.

Lebanon faces other important problems that are continually put aside in the name of independence or a fight against external enemies. We are a country of 4 million bearing a debt equivalent to that of Egypt, a country of 70 million. The Lebanese are suffering from a drastic decrease in their living standards. The government is corrupt, and in the opposition you have the major mafia leader [Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri] who represented corruption under the Syrian mandate.

Against this backdrop, the government and the opposition have both raised the stakes so high that they don’t have a fallback plan. The opposition seeks the downfall of the government, which is refusing to leave and is definitely backed by the US and France. At the same time, the government is talking about controversial economic reform. Add to the mix the long history of the sects of Lebanon believing they can empower themselves against their local rivals by resorting to external forces. Inasmuch as local actors are incapable of reaching a settlement, one can expect a protracted crisis—one that might not be devoid of violence.

Elias Khoury: The Syrian regime, under both Hafiz al-Asad and his son, has a very interesting point of view that I call the tragedy of Abraham. You know the story: Abraham always had sheep he could sacrifice instead of sacrificing himself. So Asad sacrificed the Lebanese National Movement, the Palestinian resistance and the Christians. I’ve always thought that the story of Hizballah was an Abrahamic tragedy because they, too, would be sacrificed one day.

After the summer war, I went to the destroyed villages at the border and discovered something amazing. Hizballah fighters had achieved all that we leftists dreamed of [during the 1978–2000 Israeli occupation of south Lebanon]: They had made the south into a Vietnam of the Middle East for Israel. The Hizballah fighters’ technique was a typical Viet Cong technique. If you go to the south, you will not see any Hizballah fighters. They are there and not there; they are nowhere and everywhere. That is, the fighters are from the villages, not from outside. Well-structured, trained, they fought the Golani Brigade, the elite troops of the Israeli army, and proved that they are the only elite brigades in Lebanon.

After this experience, I realized how sad the situation of Hizballah is. The tragedy of Hizballah comes from the structure itself: The party is simultaneously bigger and smaller than Lebanon. It is a pan-Islamic party and it is a confessional Shi‘i party. In 2000, after Israel withdrew, Hizballah was not able to do what every liberation movement in the world had done. If you liberate the occupied territories of your country, you take power. This happened in Vietnam, this happened in Algeria, it happens everywhere. But since Lebanon is in the modality of confession, Hizballah couldn’t take power. It’s smaller than this small country.

This is the genius of Hafiz al-Asad. Nobody remembers now that assassinations in Lebanon did not begin with the assassinations of Samir Kassir and George Hawi in 2005. Assassinations took place in the 1980s, when the cadres of the Communist Party were assassinated in the siege of Beirut. In destroying the Lebanese National Movement, and turning the task of resistance to Israel over to an Islamist party, Hafiz al-Asad was clever. He realized that this resistance movement, if it was to win victory against the Israeli occupation, still could not take power. It would be under Syrian control, available to be used by the Syrians in internal Lebanese politics.

Hizballah likes to call the conclusion of the war a “divine victory.” Because we are not defeated, it is victory. But remember, the compromise that was Resolution 1701 is not a victory for Hizballah. It created a strategic problem, because Hizballah has lost the liberty to reinforce its positions along the Lebanese-Israeli border, and so the border cannot be used any longer. There were also all the problems of reconstructing the destroyed areas of the southern suburbs of Beirut and elsewhere. So, even though Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah became the idol of resistance all over the Arab and Islamic world, Hizballah leaders found themselves feeling that they had to do something.

At that moment, this stupid idea came to their mind: They could topple the government through democracy. What has happened since December 1, 2006 is a repeat of March 14, 2005—down to the slogans, the rituals and the people sleeping in tents. Hizballah thought that, any moment, their coalition with Gen. Aoun would be able to topple the government through sheer moral stature. What actually happened was the reverse: The moment Hizballah took to the streets to press their demands, there was a reaction from the Sunni community. At that moment, I thought Hizballah found itself helpless: They could not move forward and they could not move backward.

For someone like me, who really feels solidarity with those very brave fighters, there is a problem within their ideology and with their political structure. They cannot be separated from the Syrian strategy in Lebanon, and they cannot separate themselves from being the Iranian ideological instrument. In this sense, they are condemned to remain representatives of the Shi‘i community alone. That, in turn, means that all their avenues toward taking power can lead nowhere except to civil war. And a civil war will mean the destruction of Hizballah. So we are at a dead end.

It is a dead end not only for Hizballah, but for the whole Lebanese political structure. The whole country is becoming totally dominated by the confessional structure. There is no more space for people who are secular, who are a little bit different. This confessional structure cannot survive on its own. In my analysis, not only have the Lebanese confessions decided to ally themselves with foreign forces, but they only became political powers through these alliances. The Shi‘i community did not become a real confession before the Iranian revolution. Now the Sunnis are becoming a real confession led by the Saudis, who are frightened by Iran and about what’s going on in Iraq. Rafiq al-Hariri was given the domain of his confession by the Syrians, but (as a Saudi citizen) he was also a representative of the Saudis. Now there is no Syrian-Saudi compromise. This cannot work.

For the first time, we are in a civil war that is being fought only verbally. Lebanon always does invent things. So maybe now we are inventing a civil war that takes place only on television, where nobody is ready to go fight. There is no way out of this dead end, except for the leaders of the Lebanese confessions to realize that it’s time for them to become Lebanese. They have fought for a country, and they must govern the country together.

Moderator: It will be helpful to talk about the Shi‘a, sociologically as well as politically. The Shi‘a have become this category hurled in various directions by commentators—a sort of demonic bugbear.

Elias Khoury: Psychically, the Shi‘a of southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley lean toward the southern suburbs of Beirut and the poor parts of the cities. But things have begun to change, with major injections of money into the south from Shi‘a working in African countries. Development took place in the 1960s and 1970s, with public schooling, and so what we think of as the poorest community in the country, that is the Shi‘a, is still poor but not monolithically so. The Shi‘a are no longer special in this sense. Hizballah is a major actor in the redistribution of wealth and is a major economic power, not just a military power. A lot of money was spent on the military buildup in the south.

The rift in the country is no longer what our leftist comrades once thought—a class struggle disguised as a confessional struggle. It’s a confessional struggle. It’s based upon the structure of communities that have become politicized through the Lebanese political system, on the one hand, and alliance with foreign forces, on the other.

Fawwaz Trabulsi: There is nothing called the Shi‘a or the Sunnis, especially when we’re talking about political parties. I want to emphasize that Hizballah is a typical populist party, as is the Free Patriotic Movement. Hizballah represents a large section of the Shi‘i middle class. Look at the syndicates of the professions, and you’ll see that the Muslims are mainly represented by Hizballah and the Christians by the Free Patriotic Movement. So you have a marginalized middle class, which has never benefited from any link to the state. Hizballah is marginalized twice: It was the only force fighting, and also it is mainly a private-sector party. You can say the same about the Free Patriotic Movement. They represent a large sector of the new bourgeoisie, people who send a lot of money to Michel Aoun. They are the ones who have been financing his television station, which takes in tens of millions of Lebanese pounds.

So we’re not talking about those Shi‘a who are outside, we’re talking about two populist movements that are quite influential. They are the proof of how closed and impermeable the Lebanese political system is.

How to cite this article:

Elias Khoury, Fawwaz Traboulsi "The Lebanese Impasse," Middle East Report 242 (Spring 2007).
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