Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 January 2008
Issue No. 878
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Ayman El-Amir

Whose Lebanon is it?

It's high time for the Lebanese to start nurturing a collective possessiveness and a unified solidarity towards a single Lebanon, argues Ayman El-Amir*

Lebanon has a job vacancy that several months of factional negotiations and weeks of foreign mediation could not fill -- the presidency. The Lebanese parliament has, for the tenth time, postponed its meeting to elect a president due to disagreement between the parliamentary majority and the opposition that has made the two-third majority necessary to select a president unattainable. Lebanon, at times a peaceful and friendly dreamland, is now in the grip of a reign of terror, mastered by political assassinations and car bombs. The most recent shockwave was the car-bomb murder of the army's chief of operations, Brigadier François Al-Hajj. It was a strong reminder that none of the red lines established in Lebanese politics since the end of the Civil War is inviolable. In the present stalemate, Lebanon has one of two choices: to go the way of Balkanisation or to restructure the political system away from the rickety sectarian balance it has tried to live by since the 1926 constitution and the 1943 National Pact.

For centuries, Lebanon has been ruled by feudal warlords that turned into statesmen as the Ottoman Empire declined and the country gained statehood under French mandate. Like the Balkans, Lebanon has a blood-stained history of inter-ethnic rivalry and cleansing. In this historical context, everyone persecuted and killed everyone else: the Druze massacred the Maronites, the Maronites killed the Muslims, and the Palestinians, and the Sunni and Shia Muslims, fought and killed each other as recently as the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-1989.

Lebanese politicians have learned to pawn off the country's security to foreign powers as the best guarantee of protecting conflicting sectarian interests. This has equally been a colonialist legacy. When, in 1840, the British became wary of the expansionist policy and influence of Mohamed Ali Pasha, the Viceroy of the Ottoman Sultan in Egypt, they decided to dislodge his son Ibrahim Pasha from Syria and Lebanon, which he had conquered earlier. They wooed local chieftains and rulers with money and privileges to rebel against Egyptian rule in favour of British protection in the name of the Ottoman sultan. The tradition of foreign intervention was carried on. A century later, President Camille Chamoun appealed in 1958 to US President Dwight D Eisenhower to help save his presidency from an imminent civil conflict. Eisenhower promptly sent the Sixth Fleet to salvage Chamoun's presidency. In 1982, at the height of the Lebanese Civil War, Bashir Gemayel, scion of the Maronite community, struck an alliance with the then Israeli Defence Minister Ariel Sharon, the mind-architect of the invasion and siege of Beirut who also collaborated in the Phalange militia's massacre of Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Gemayel was elected president in 1982 but was assassinated before assuming office. His brother Amin replaced him and in 1983 signed a peace treaty with Israel that was never implemented due to the objection of Syria, who has consistently played the big brother role in Lebanon. It was in the same year that US President Ronald Reagan sent more than 1,500 marines as part of a force to control the Civil War situation in Lebanon, particularly to contain Syria's influence. In the first suicide bombing mustered by the newly-born Hizbullah against foreign military presence in Lebanon, a truckload of explosives was detonated at the US marine barracks, killing 241 -- a major blow to the interventionist policy of the US's Reagan administration. Lebanon's history of domestic sectarian rivalries, shifting alliances, regional power struggles, reconciliation and tribal allegiances explain only partly the present French-led diplomatic grass-hopping by all sorts of envoys all over Beirut in the past few months. Short of solving the political logjam, it only served as a reminder that Lebanon is open space to all kinds of interests and interventions. US President George W Bush has thrown in his hat, suggesting that the president of Lebanon be elected by a simple majority (50 plus one). Prime Minister Fouad Al-Siniora immediately obliged by calling for the amendment of the country's constitution to designate the army chief as president-candidate, but also to put the opposition on the spot.

Lebanon is trying to survive as a modern, pluralistic, pro-Western democracy dressed in a mediaeval, sectarian straightjacket. In times of crisis, sectarian balance ensures immobility. If the balance is tipped one way or the other, a car bomb sends a clear message to political master-minds. This is the one, unlearned lesson of the Lebanese Civil War that was recognised by the Taif Accord of 1989. It called for the eradication of political sectarianism as a matter of national priority. This is usually overlooked when Western political leaders express their views on the situation in Lebanon. They see it as a backyard arena for shadow-boxing Iran and Syria. When they call up UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which endorsed the Taif Accord, they only recall the provision for disarming "all militias"-- all meaning Hizbullah, which single-handedly beat back Israeli incursion into Lebanon in the summer months of 2006. In the old colonial mentality, Western powers support their allies as a way of ensuring their political interests rather than the security and stability of Lebanon per se. And the West's Lebanese allies are more interested in safeguarding their time-honoured heritage of feudal privileges and associated political power against the dynamics of change.

Among these dynamics is the demographic change that has enhanced the numerical power of the Shia population. The marginalised Lebanese Shia, who suffered during the Civil War and were again the main target of Israeli heavy bombing raids during the 2006 incursion, are no longer satisfied with the role of the sacrificial lamb. They are posting their claim to power-sharing as a 20th century populist concept not exclusively derived from feudal privilege. How to reconcile this concept with an obsolete political system that dons the mantle of a modern- day democracy is Lebanon's dilemma.

Lebanon's complex domestic situation is exacerbated by regional politics and international relations. Leaders of Lebanese sectarian factions are travelling back and forth to countries of influence to seek support against their opponents. Likewise, senior envoys of allied countries are paying endless mediation visits to Beirut. Arab leaders are on the phone with each other and with Lebanese political leaders every other day. And the Arab League is inactively seized with the situation -- all leading to no breakthrough. However, it is also a useful reminder that foreign intervention -- for which there is ample space in Lebanon -- only serves to complicate the situation. An eerie calm has settled on Beirut after the tragic assassination of Brigadier Al-Hajj. It might be that calm is what the Lebanese need most, without foreign counselling or intervention, in order to sort out their painful predicament and build an all- party consensus. They could serve their collective interest if they go back to the Taif Accord and agree on a schedule to implement all its provisions, including national reconciliation, building a non-sectarian political system and disbanding all the militias, including Walid Jumblatt's, the Phalangists' and half a dozen other ragtag feudal armies, not just Hizbullah.

The Lebanese truly love their country, their culture, their tradition, their Lebanon. That is, everyone loves his/her Lebanon and will fight to maintain the status quo of a sectarian coalition that is propped up on stilts. However, Lebanon looks different if you are looking up to Jebel Ash-Chouf from the heart of Beirut, or looking down from Beiteldin on southern Beirut and the Hamra district. The Lebanese people's only hope is to look at the whole of Lebanon with only one pair of unsquinted eyes.

* The writer is former Al-Ahram correspondent in Washington, DC. He also served as director of United Nations Radio and Television in New York.

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