Skirting the precipice
Despite the sad sight of casualties, recent events in Lebanon may have sent tremors strong enough to break the current political deadlock, writes Ayman El-Amir*
Last week, Lebanon marched briskly to the brink of civil war and then stepped back. The powerless government of Prime Minister Fouad Al-Siniora, backed by its Western allies and Arab moderates, attempted to de-claw the multi-sectarian coalition of Hizbullah but the coalition pushed back. It was more than a test of wills; rather a grim reminder of the 15-year long civil war of 1975-1990, of which no one wanted a replay. At the cost of several dozen victims in various sections of Beirut and Tripoli, Mount Lebanon and Al-Shoaf, the skirmishes may provide a breakthrough in the political stalemate that has gripped Lebanon for almost a year now. The Lebanese army is poised to play the role of powerbroker.
It would seem that the crisis began when pro-West Druze leader Walid Jumblatt tipped off the Siniora government about a private fixed-line telecommunications network run by Hizbullah as part of its military defence system. Security cameras were also set up outside the airport to monitor traffic in a secure landing and take-off area of the airport. In addition, it was pointed out that the director of Beirut International Airport security, Wafik Shukair, was a Shia. The telecommunications network was in place before the Israeli offensive on Lebanon in July-August 2006. It played a key role in throwing back the invasion and has since become instrumental to the military capacity of Hizbullah. The impotent Siniora government suddenly "discovered" the existence of the network, the prime minister considered it a threat to state security and even went as far as stating that "Lebanon is an occupied country" by the same Hizbullah that defended Lebanon against the Israeli invasion two years ago.
To the foreign intelligence community operating in the Middle East, often in collaboration with allied regimes, it is no secret that Israel has developed the technological capacity to monitor all telecommunication exchanges in the region and listen in on some targeted ones. Hizbullah's network has proved to be largely impenetrable, which is a source of frustration for both the Israelis and the US. So for Jumblatt and the Siniora government to raise alarm about the network of Hizbullah and to fire the director of Beirut International Airport security on sectarian grounds can only be interpreted in the context of the escalating US-Israeli campaign against Syria and Iran. Potential military action against Iran or Syria would require the neutralisation, if not the destruction, of Hizbullah. Should Prime Minister Siniora have succeeded in taking over the telecommunications network of Hizbullah, even in collaboration with the Lebanese army, it would not be difficult to guess where the codes and operating manuals of the network would have ended up 48 hours later. The timing of unfolding the issue is, to say the least, suspicious. That is why Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah labelled the prime minister's decrees regarding the network and the firing of the director of airport security "a declaration of war" against the organisation, vowing that its arms would only be used to defend itself.
When the Lebanese army was thrust in the middle of the Siniora-engineered power conflict, its prudent commander, Lieutenant-General Michel Suleiman, refused to act in any divisive way to support the miscalculated decision of Siniora and his supporters, Saad Al-Hariri of the Future Movement and Jumblatt of the Progressive Socialist Party. They wanted him to throw the weight of the army against Hizbullah in an all- out war. By holding back, Suleiman not only demonstrated that the army is capable of being the non-partisan saviour of the nation when adventurous politicians want to play Russian roulette with it, but also added to his presidential credentials. This was matched by Hizbullah's decision to withdraw its fighters from the streets of West Beirut and Al-Hamra district, effectively imposing a ceasefire, despite the temporary flare- up in Jebel Halba and Mount Lebanon ignited by the followers of majority loyalists (Hariri/ Jumblatt) against supporters of the Hizbullah coalition. Hizbullah's restraint, the army commander's prudence and the failure of Hariri's make- believe initiative have left the Siniora government isolated. Its position is not improved by the usual encouragement and statements of support coming from the White House, or the loitering of the USS Cole off the coast of Lebanon. The Siniora will eventually bear the brunt of the national crisis it has triggered by miscalculation, and ineptly failed to contain. As the Lebanese army began its deployment in flash points and the situation calmed down, the majority leader Saad Al-Hariri stoked the rhetoric by accusing Syria and Iran of prodding Hizbullah to incite a Shia-Sunni sedition and ignite a civil war. In a press conference on Tuesday, Al-Hariri accused the organisation of staging a coup d'état which, he said, could not have been executed without an Israeli cover. How could a coalition of Iran-Syria-Israel-Hizbullah have connived to stage the so-called coup defies any rational analysis.
The confrontation may prove a blessing in disguise if only the Lebanese could free themselves from the imposition of Arab politics and initiatives that are largely mixed with Western political interests. The US-Arab moderates' coalition oversimplifies the conflict in Lebanon. To this US-driven coalition, it is the struggle between a radical Iranian-Syrian-Hizbullah alliance that opposes US-Israeli domination of the Middle East and the atrophied forces of a status-quo before which the dynamics of history should be frozen in time until doomsday. The brief crisis in Lebanon has proven, once again, that sectarian political balances cannot survive in a modern political context of liberal, free democracy. Lebanon has been pawned for too long to regional and foreign interests. In the aftermath of the failed Israeli incursion into Lebanon and the havoc it wreaked on Beirut, Saudi Arabia decided to deposit an endowment of $1 billion in the Lebanese Central Bank and a loan of $500 million to shore up the Lebanese lira and, by extension, the Saudi business investment run by the Hariri family. The international community -- that is, the Western alliance -- pledged $7 billion for the reconstruction of Lebanon. For those who know the politics of the region, there is no free lunch in the Middle East, particularly in Lebanon.
Now that the fighting has tapered off to an intermittent ceasefire, Lebanese factions are sorting out the implications and future options. A recent poll indicated that 63 per cent of the Lebanese blame the Siniora government for the eruption that has left approximately 100 people dead and many more injured. Some 27 per cent blamed it on Hizbullah. There is a near consensus, shared by both the opposition and the army, that the government should withdraw its two controversial decisions, or resign. Prime Minister Al-Siniora backed off a little by stating that, "the decisions have been adopted but not issued" as executive orders.
As would be expected, the Arab League's foreign ministers met in an emergency session and decided to send a ministerial delegation, which arrived in Beirut Wednesday to address the situation. This is not necessarily good news. Prior to that emergency meeting, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and the ruler of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Ben Khalifa Al Thani, had met and agreed that the matter was an internal Lebanese affair. During the Arab foreign ministers' meeting in Cairo, media reports indicated there was a "sharp exchange" between the Saudi foreign minister and the permanent representative of Syria over developments in Lebanon. Should this be true, it would mean that Arab foreign ministers, who are as polarised as the Lebanese factions they back, including the so-called majority government, could make matters worse, not better. To achieve any measure of success, they will have to discard the perception of a Shia- Sunni conflict, an Iranian-Syrian- Hizbullah coalition against the pro- Western sages of the Hariri- Jumblatt-Siniora moderation majority, blessed by the US and Israel.
The saving factor that should guide the Arab foreign ministers' conciliation delegation, together with the Arab initiative on Lebanon, is the emerging consensus on a package agreement for the formation of a government of national unity, election of a president, amendment of the election law and the holding of new elections. This is not entirely inconsistent with the Arab initiative. However, the real challenge is the provisions of the 1990 Taif Accords for dismantling the system of political sectarianism and internal arrangements for disarming and absorbing militias.
The trouble with Lebanon is that because of its long history of sectarian violence, politicians have manipulated their constituencies into believing that their very survival depends not so much on the rule of law in an egalitarian state system as on huddling together under the protection of a sectarian umbrella defended by armed militias. In this paradigm, every Lebanese believes that sectarian protection, not the law of the land, is the best guarantee of his interests and privileges. This will be the primary challenge the would-be new president of Lebanon will face: how to create a new consensus that would replace the feudal system of warlords and historical privileges. The Hizbullah coalition and nationalist forces could lend the new president the power he needs to change that centuries-old paradigm.
* The writer is former Al-Ahram correspondent in Washington, DC. He also served as director of United Nations Radio and Television in New York.