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Lebanon Crisis: What can be worse than violence?


Lebanon's latest crisis may be the terminal illness of Lebanese democracy. A Hezbollah led, Syrian-supported demonstration has paralyzed the government for six days. Lebanese loyal to the government, as well as Western and Arab nations, seem to be paralysed like deer in the headlamps of an oncoming vehicle. Everyone deplores the crisis and offers calm, but nobody is doing anything to resolve it or to help the Seniora government face down the Hezbollah.

Commentary on the crisis has focused mostly on the need to avoid violence and civil war. The stakes and the background and the issues are evaded rather studiously.

Lebanon has not apparently completely coalesced into a nation. It is a coalition of sects and clans. It's constitution is based on sectarian apportionment of representation, giving Maronite Christians disproportionate power, according to their share of the population in the 1940s. Since then, the Shi'a "minority" has grown steadily. Since no census has been taken in a long time, nobody knows how many Shi'a there really are in Lebanon, but it is probable that their claim to be a majority is based on reality.

Lebanese governments have largely ignored the Shi'a south and the Beq'a valley, which remain extremely poor. The poverty is exacerbated by the high birthrates, which are what brought about the Shi'a demographic revolution. Hezbollah took advantage of this situation, offering the Shi'a both political champions and social programs to offset the government neglect. The concern of the West to promote democracy in Lebanon did not, unfortunately, extend to offering massive economic and social programs to provide an alternative to the Hezbollah.

The sectarian constitution was to have been dissolved under the Taif accords, but it never happened. If the sectarian constitution is dissolved, there is a danger of total domination by the Shi'ites. On the other hand, the current sectarian constitution cannot continue as it is because it is manifestly unfair, and a source of bitter discontent. The problem is how to make Lebanon a representative democracy without empowering the Hezbollah and the allies of Syria.

The weakness and division at home have been exploited by foreign countries, especially Syria and Iran. It resulted in a long Syrian occupation, culminating in the murder of popular politician Rafiq Hariri, an opponent of Syrian puppet president Emile Lahoud. International indignation and Lebanese outrage forced the Syrians to withdraw. However, the Hebzollah movement and others have become proxies for Syria.

The long tribulations of Lebanon and the complexities of the political alliances are often thought to be uniquely Lebanese features. In fact, they are remarkably reminiscent of the Thirty Years War that took place in Germany in the 17th century. Like modern Lebanon, Germany was weak and divided. What began as a quarrel over succession and a religious war, ended as a power struggle between several foreign powers, who used Germany as a battle ground to settle the future of Europe and to get some tasty bits of German land for themselves. Typical of this war, the peace conference that ended the war sat for eleven months before it was discovered that nobody knew what issues needed to be settled.

In Lebanon, the issues are often similarly complex and obscure, and are cleverly hidden.

Opposition to Syrian and Hezbollah policies is hazardous to the health of prominent Lebanese. Political leader Pierre Gemayel and newspaper editor Gebran Tueni are among the many casualties of these Lebanese disease.

The current act of the Lebanese tragedy began when the government of Fuad Seniora approved a plan for an international tribunal to bring the murderers of Rafiq Hariri to justice. Manifestly, the murderers of Hariri would not think that is a good plan. Hezbollah ministers tried to block the decision. When they failed, they walked out of the government, and Hezbollah, with Syrian help, initiated this demonstration. It is no secret that there are Syrians among the demonstrators. The demonstration does not even pretend to be "spontaneous." Hezbollah first Secretary Nasrallah announced he would bring down the government with a demonstration, and then he went ahead with his plan. The demonstrators say they are for a democratic government and against "foreign meddling." They are motivated by the old ills of unrepresentative government and poverty.

We have been in this movie a few times before. The crowds who supported the 1917 Soviet revolution wanted "Bread, Land, Peace." They wanted an end to the incompetent Kerensky government, they wanted democracy and an end to the war. What they got was forced collectivization, purges and gulags, because that was the program of the Bolshevik party. The crowds who supported the 1979 revolution of Khomeini in Iran for the most part wanted democracy and an end to the terror rule of the Shah. Instead, they got a new set of secret police, and a government that murdered more and different dissidents and pursues a dangerous foreign policy. The Lebanese demonstrators did not learn from the lesson of Iran. In ten years they may be very surprised and very sorry to see the result of their efforts.

Reality denial is rife in Lebanon. Egregious exponents of this school are the editors of the Daily Star who wrote:

Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine all experience situations where rival domestic factions confront each other in the corridors of power as well as in the street, in some cases also using occasional bursts of violence to make a point. The complicating factor in all three cases is also the direct, sustained and even escalating involvement of foreign countries to bolster their preferred sides in the domestic political battles. The fact that these cases all occur simultaneously is a sad but timely comment on the poverty of the modern Arab political order that was initially created by the European colonial powers, subsequently distorted and militarized by domestic excesses, and now further aggravated by foreign interference.

Somehow it all becomes the fault of European colonial powers. The "foreign countries" not mentioned are Syria and Iran. Of course if it were not for the evil European colonial powers (specifically France and Britain) there would not be any Lebanon at all. It wold have been swallowed up in Greater Syria. And of course, the evasive prose masks the fact, the demonstration aims to bring down a democratically elected government, prevent the administration of justice, and perpetuate the reign of terror enforced by assassinations.

Far more to the point was this Lebanese comment:

If the totalitarian inner workings of Hezbollah are a preview of what government they wish to impose on the free people of Lebanon. Hezbollah's dangerous trio, Nasrallah, Aoun and Lahoud, have hidden behind the facade of democracy to pursue their will by anything but democracy.

The masses that filled the streets of downtown Beirut were told by Syria's top ally in Lebanon - president Lahoud - to disregard the orders of the democratically elected government and to listen only to Hezbollah.

Hezbollah ally Michel Aoun called Lebanon's Army a militia and gangs because they protected Lebanon's Prime Minister from a storm of violent protesters, and ultimately because they stood in the way of Aoun's primary goal - to force his way into the presidency.

Wake up and smell the coffee

The timing of Hezbollah's self imposed war with Israel and the current attempt to overthrow the government are desperate moves on the part of the militia to maintain control of their arms and avoid the inevitable - a future Lebanon free of non-democratic armed militias.

Syria and Iran have every reason in the world to maintain control and influence over Lebanon. Without Hezbollah and Lahoud, Iran will lose its sickle and Syria will lose its hammer.

With the current government in place, Lahoud will be replaced in 2007 with someone far less intimate with Syria. A new president who holds Lebanon's interests before those of any foreign country will work with the government towards disarming the Hezbollah militia, a move that will not sit well with Syria and Iran.

What Nasrallah really wants, the ultimate goal of the demonstrations, is spelled out in the Hezbollah program:

We don't wish you evil. We call upon you to embrace Islam so that you can be happy in this world and the next. If you refuse to adhere to Islam, maintain your ties with the Muslims and don't take part in any activity against them. Free yourselves from the consequences of hateful confessionalism. Banish from your hearts all fanaticism and parochialism. Open your hearts to our Call (da'wa) which we address to you. Open yourselves up to Islam where you'll find salvation and happiness upon earth and in the hereafter.

Surrender to Islam or acquiesce in an Islamic republic and you can live in peace, that is the offer of Hezbollah to the rest of the Lebanese.

One commentary summary reassures us that, according to Eyal Zisser writing in Yediot Ahronot:

Nasrallah's sights are not set on a bloody civil war. Nasrallah is simply seeking to subdue [pro-Western Prime Minister] Fouad Siniora and to force him to surrender to his demands."

Oh, then that is OK. Nasrallah doesn't want violence. He just wants to stage a coup without violence. Of course, if you can take power without violence it is better than having to fight, no? The title of the commentary is less reassuring and it tells the real story: Lebanon: Civil War or Nasrallah's Peace?. The Lebanese will chose Nasrallah's "peace" apparently, and the rest of the world, by its inaction, will help them chose. The Hezbollah are always willing, of course, to declare, "Give us an Islamist government or give us death." Nobody in Lebanon is willing to say "Give me liberty or give me death."

The poor Lebanese, like rabbits in fattening cage, will find that those who try to trade liberty for safety get neither liberty nor safety.

Ami Isseroff

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Replies: 2 comments

It is inevitible that a government who allows an agressive and openly violent faction to share their power will be absorbed by the agressive faction. Siniora's government is bound by the international community, if he wants to maintain a good diplomatic relationship, to play by the common civil rules. Hezbollah, on the other hand does not wish to have relations with the west and thus have nothing tieing their hands from preforming a coup. Hezbollah has been, and continue to test the waters, to see if the west or anyone else will aid Siniora. As soon as they have come to the conclusion that his government has no allies upon which they can depend, Hezbollah will cease control. Israel would do well to aid Siniora by providing his government protection. This would obviously be seen as a betrayal to the Lebanese people by Siniora, but if Israel played their cards right through diplomacy campains they may retain enough lebanese support to advert the coup. Of course, bombing Lebanon will not serve to achieve public support. Israel can either help the lesser of two evils or be confronted with a much more powerfull and deadly Palestinianesc situation for the unseen future.

Posted by OMFG @ 12/08/2006 07:13 PM CST

"The problem is how to make Lebanon a representative democracy without empowering the Hezbollah and the allies of Syria."

Acknowledging that Lebanon is not a representative democracy but a gerrymandered confessional stitch-up organised to disenfranchise the probable Shi'ite majority is a good start. I also agree that empowering Hezbollah is extremely undesirable. However, if the majority of Lebanese support Hezbollah or its allies, it's hard to see how a consistent democrat can fault Nasrallah's current tactics.

Hezbollah did not invent these sort of massive street protests aimed at dislodging a government of questionable legitimacy. The Eastern Europeans did, and they were lauded for it by commentators from across the western political spectrum. But suddenly the tactic is recast as illegitimate.

Finally it seems to me that the foreign power which has done most to assist the rise of Hezbollah is not Syria but Israel. Without the 1982 invasion, occupation and recent fiasco would we have this problem? Oddly absent from the analysis above.

Posted by Spike @ 12/12/2006 02:49 PM CST

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