ICC Note: As Lebanon descends towards chaos, its Christians continue to leave and weaken politically. Please keep them in prayer. The following piece is excellent for understanding the current situation.
War looms large in Lebanon
One year on the future of Lebanon hangs in the balance, speculates Omayma Abdel-Latif from Beirut
Lebanon (Ahram) While talk of a coming war overshadows almost everything here in Bint Jbeil, it did not take away from a strange sense of calm in this town only 13km from the border with Israel whose resistance proved a turning point in the war. Bint Jbeil seemed worlds apart from the ongoing political crisis that has gripped the country for the past year. And yet just like other southern towns, it is affected by the political wrangling between Lebanon ‘s opposition commonly known as the March 8th forces and the government’s March 14th forces. The Lebanese government received $6 billion in aid but it has been very slow in handing out compensation to war victims. Only six per cent of those whose houses were destroyed during the war have received compensation. The cause of the delay, many of the residents in southern villages believe, has to do with the political conflict with the Lebanese opposition spearheaded by Hizbullah.
This political conflict which has taken hold of the country for the past year has intensified the sectarian tensions to unprecedented levels. “Are we on the verge of total collapse or are there signs of a new settlement?” asked prominent Lebanese writer Elias Khoury in his weekly column in An-Nahar. This is the question everyone is asking as Lebanon commemorates the first anniversary of US-Israeli aggression last July.
Khoury provided a grim answer, suggesting that signs of failures are clearer than signs of a peaceful settlement. Indeed, Lebanon today faces its most difficult moment since the signing of the Taif agreement in 1989, which brought an end to civil hostilities. With so many difficult challenges facing it, the future of the country is hanging in the balance. These are times which many Lebanese observers believe are similar to those which preceded the 1975 Civil War. ” Lebanon is going through a cold civil war,” said analyst Suleiman Taqieddin. The political crisis which has sharply divided the country along sectarian and political lines has prompted many observers to question whether what is at stake this time is the very political system that keeps the country intact. Lebanon is in danger, wrote Nabil Bu Munsef in An- Nahar, when its very system being targeted by internal and external forces, and at no time is this clear than it is today.” Added to this is the fact that the UNIFIL are no longer immune to attacks. Two attacks in less than a month is a reason to worry about the fate of the multi national force and with it the fragile peace in the south. What adds to the complexity of the situation is that the Lebanese army, the sole institution which the Lebanese today regard as the guardian of the country’s unity, has been bogged down in a war against a shadowy group, whose origins, agenda and funding remain a source of speculation to this day.
END OF TAIF ERA: The Taif agreement marked the end of the 15-year-old civil war and has defined Lebanese politics since the end of that war. While all Lebanese political forces insist they honour the Taif agreement, which is literally the Lebanese constitution, at no time has the political system it produced been more under attack than it is today. Political rivals accuse each other of undermining it. While the March 14th alliance charges that Hizbullah, empowered by its victory, is working towards changing the power balance set by Taif, March 8th, on the other hand, accuses the ‘illegal government’, as commonly dubbed in the March 8th media, of staging a coup against the Lebanese constitution. The opposition leadership insists that it did not seek to change the political formula set by the Taif agreement but merely wants a fairer share of power. It was the dismal performance of Fouad Al-Siniora government during and following the war, the party’s allies argue, which are forcing the Lebanese opposition to work towards a more representative government that includes Hizbullah’s Christian allies Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and former interior minister Suleiman Franjyia. The string of failures committed by the Western- backed Siniora government both on the political and security levels have convinced the Lebanese opposition that only a national unity government can save the country. They have been trying to force the government to submit to the will of the opposition which constitutes almost two-thirds of the Lebanese, beginning with forcing the resignation of the five Shia ministers from the government as well as a Christian minister appointed by the president. This was followed by a sit-in in downtown Beirut a few steps from the Sarya, the cabinet. A one-day general strike was called for on January 23rd but then having seen that such moves merely exacerbated the sectarian tension, the opposition decided to call off acts of civil disobedience, though the sit-in continued.
THE WAR OF THE SECTS: The political crisis proved harder to resolve leading to sharp sectarian divisions. Relations between Lebanon ‘s main sects have reached the lowest level since the end of the war. The government lacking five ministers representing the Shia — making it unconstitutional; the majority of Sunnis are involved in a sectarian discourse against Shia and Christians; and the Christian religious establishment is accusing the Sunnis in the person of the prime minister and head of Tayar Al-Mustaqbal Saad Al-Hariri, the majority leader in parliament, of working towards marginalising the Christians and “Islamising Lebanon” according to Bishop Beshara Al-Raiae in an interview with As-Safir newspaper two weeks ago.
Some Christians perceive the ongoing political conflict as a power struggle between Lebanon’s two Muslim sects, and argue that the one position granted to them by Taif — the presidency — has been completely undermined by Harirism or political Sunnism. Although both the opposition and the government camps have the backing of important Christian political forces which can claim to represent a significant section of the Christians, they are being perceived as tools in the hands of the two Muslim sects. While this view is held mostly by right- wing Christian groups, the fact that the Maronite religious establishment moved an inch closer to embrace it speaks volumes about the pent-up frustration on the part of Lebanon’s Christians regarding what they consider to be a systematic attempt to exclude them from the political process.
Shia-Sunni relations are not in any better shape. During the war, Hizbullah had massive support from across the Muslim world, the majority of which is Sunni. In Lebanon , Sunnis, who pride themselves as guardians of Lebanon ‘s Arab identity and fought alongside the Palestinians against Israeli occupation and Christian groups during civil war, have found their cause revived under the Hizbullah banner. But even as the guns fell silent, work was under way to achieve a change of heart in the Sunni street. In his Friday sermon, Sayed Mohamed Hussein Fadlullah pointed out that the worst thing that has been done to damage Hizbullah’s resistance is painting it as a purely Shia movement in order to kill the massive support and popularity it built across the Muslim world.
This was coupled with attempts by members of Tayar Al-Mustaqbal, which has the support of the majority of the Sunnis, to use the sectarian card to mobilise its constituency and expand its social and popular base. This was achieved by buying loyalties of the poorer sections of Lebanon ‘s Sunnis through hand-outs and monthly payments. The climax came on 25 January during a bloody confrontation in Jamet Beirut Al-Arabya between supporters of Hizbullah and Amal movement and Tayar Al-Mustaqbal loyals. It was a replay of civil war scenes that sent shock waves across the country and served as a grim reminder of what future awaits the country if mobilisation across sectarian lines continues.
Hizbullah leadership repeatedly said it was fully aware of the attempts to drag the resistance into civil hostilities in order to delegitimise it and justify demands to disarm it. It also understood that the political crisis which engulfed the country following the resignation of the five Shia ministers from the government was an extension of the July war. “The war never really ended”, commented one Hizbullah member. During the past year, Hizbullah has been painted by forces in government’s March 14th as the internal enemy. Both Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and one of the leading warlords of Lebanon ‘s civil war Samir Geagea worked hard towards achieving this goal. Saad Al-Hariri waved the sectarian card for a constituency that is hungry for leadership and direction. “If you cannot kill Hizbullah through shells and bombs then work on killing it as a resistance movement in the public psyche and make it appear as though it is only an Iranian pawn bent on destroying Lebanon in the service of Syria — this has been the strategy of March 14th and continues to be. They continue what the US and Israel started. It has been a war by a different name”, said a party member.
Foreign intervention has been a major catalyst in fanning the flames of internal strife. Such intervention has only served to polarize and deepen the source of conflict rather than resolve it, prompting one Lebanese writer to suggest that instead of having the Lebanese meet in La Celle-Saint- Cloud under French tutelage, it would have been a better idea if the meeting had brought together the real players — the French foreign minister and his Syrian, Iranian and Saudi counterparts.
Last year’s events proved that Lebanon cannot be run in isolation from the regional crisis. The country continues to pay a heavy price to its stability and security as a result of the Saudi- Iranian power struggle on the one hand and the Saudi-Syrian rift on the other. Iran has emerged as a key player in the Lebanese domestic game more than at any time before. Although it has an alliance with Syria , it does not see eye to eye with Syria when it comes to Lebanese politics.
ALQAIDA IN LEBANON : The Nahr Al-Bared confrontation between the Lebanese army and Fatah Al-Islam group, which enters its second month, has brought to the fore questions about the extent to which radical Islamist movements have found their way into Lebanon . The warning “Al-Qaeda is in Lebanon ” has been bombarding the Lebanese. But while Salafist movements are nothing new to Lebanon , Al-Qaeda is something altogether different. The attacks on UNIFIL, whose presence is part of implementing Resolution 1701, sent shockwaves across the country. The area south of Litani River has come under UNIFIL command, it, nonetheless, did not help stabilise the situation in the south. Lebanese observers say that the bombing which targeted the Spanish forces in earlier July and the second one targeting a Malaysian force near Jisr Al-Qasmiya in Tyre on Monday clearly showed the dire need for a security role to be assigned to Hizbullah in the area of UNIFIL operations not in a way that would make it regain its former influence, but as a partner to the international forces concerned with implementing Resolution 1701.
The attacks on UNIFIL have proved yet again the fragility of the security and political situation in the country. Perhaps the only point of consensus upon which the Lebanese opposition and government agrees is that the crisis must be resolved internally, but what is not clear is whether this will be done through peaceful means or through resorting to violence yet again.