Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1233, (12 - 18 February 2015)
Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Issue 1233, (12 - 18 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Burying the hatchet

Lebanese Sunni, Shiite and Maronite leaders are trying to patch up their differences behind closed doors, reports Hassan Al-Kashawi in Beirut

Al-Ahram Weekly

Lebanese journalists are usually adept at finding out the inside story on political consultations taking place in their country, but this seems not to be the case this time round. There have been no leaks from the high-level talks involving Hezbollah and Future Current, leaving observers to guess what the outcome for Lebanon may be.

The same is true of the inter-Christian talks between Samir Jaajaa of the Lebanese Forces Party (LFP) and former army chief Michel Aoun, who leads the pro-Hezbollah Free Patriotic Movement. The former foes need to reach an agreement on the country’s future president. If they manage to do so they could spare Lebanon months of instability.

Future Current and Hezbollah have buried the hatchet for now, convincing their friends in the anti-Syrian 14 March Alliance and the pro-Syrian 8 March Alliance to tone down their rhetoric. The talks are being held under the auspices of the Lebanese parliamentary speaker, Nabih Birri, who is also the leader of the Shiite Amal Movement.

The usual points of controversy have been excluded from the Future-Hezbollah talks. There will be no mention of Hezbollah’s weapons, its presence in Syria, its confrontation with Israel, or the International Criminal Court’s charges against some of its members in connection with the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri.

Instead, Lebanon’s leading Sunni and Shiite groups will discuss sectarian tensions and how to defuse them in various parts of the country, especially in mixed Sunni-Shiite areas. Sectarian tensions have been reported in west Beirut, where Sunnis and Shiites live side by side, in the same streets and buildings, and inter-marriage between members of the two communities is common.

In some neighbourhoods, where Shiites may slightly outnumber Sunnis, military groups associated with Hezbollah and the Amal Movement have become conspicuous in the streets, leading to heightened tensions and occasional confrontations. In most cases, the military groups have avoided provocations, but the partisan banners and sectarian posters they use have often proved too much for Sunni sensitivities.

Beirut was traditionally a stronghold of the Sunnis, who are known for their more cosmopolitan way of life. The majority of Shiites, who tend to be more conservative, hails from south Lebanon, and they are therefore comparative newcomers to this Westernised city.

Recent divisions over Hezbollah’s involvement in Lebanon have made things worse, as supporters of the 8 March Alliance often plaster pro-Syrian slogans, or pictures of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, on buildings.

In some cases, Shiite irregulars have set up roadblocks and checked cars, irritating the Sunni population. Tensions of this sort tend to surface at times of high alert when Shiites are worried about possible suicide attacks.

Not to be outdone, supporters of Future Current have also posted banners and raised flags of a sectarian nature. This has been particularly true of the predominantly Sunni areas of cities such as Tripoli. In their current talks, officials of both Hezbollah and Future Current will be looking at ways to stop such sectarian propaganda, removing one source of communal frictions.

But this will be easier said than done, as in some areas the slogans tend to be more religious than political. Christian areas are full of crosses and statues of the Virgin Mary, for example, and the Shiites may have a point in saying they should be allowed to put up religious materials in their areas.

Another point on the agenda is the Biqaa Valley, where both Hezbollah and the Amal Movement hold sway. The northern sections of the Biqaa are infested with gangs that survive on smuggling, narcotics and even abductions. These gangs have strong links with the local clans, most of them pro-Hezbollah.

Hezbollah’s detractors say that it is protecting illegal actions in the Biqaa, as it is eager to keep its influence in a region that currently provides the largest number of recruits to the militant Shiite group. Southern Lebanese men, now experiencing relatively higher standards of living, are less eager to join Hezbollah than was the case before.

But something has to be done about law and order in the Biqaa, where two Christians were recently killed by a Shiite gang. Hezbollah denies that it is offering protection for criminal acts in the Biqaa, but it is unclear whether it is willing to alienate its supporters in this region.

Hezbollah recently proved itself capable of making hard choices. In confrontations between the Lebanese army and militants of both Shiite and Sunni backgrounds, Hezbollah acquitted itself well, according to the testimony of its Future Current adversaries.

Over the past few weeks, Hezbollah has provided political and military backing to the Lebanese army as it deployed in hostile areas, including Bab Al-Tabbana in Tripoli. But measures to pacify the Biqaa Valley have been postponed, the latest being attributed to the Lebanese army being too busy controlling Sunni militants along the borders with Syria to do anything about the Biqaa.

Another plan to secure the Biqaa is on the cards, however, and, if implemented, this would put the supporters of Future Current at ease and help defuse intercommunal tensions.

Hezbollah is already making gains from the rapprochement with Future Current. The Lebanese army has deployed in areas where Sunni militants are stirring up trouble. As well, the mere fact that Sunni leaders now view Sunni extremism as a bigger threat than Hezbollah must be comforting for the Shiite militant group, whose popularity dipped after it became embroiled in the Syrian civil war.

One sticking point that the Sunni and Shiite interlocutors will have to address is the right of the pro-Hezbollah Resistance Brigades, a pro-Hezbollah militia that includes Sunnis in its ranks, to bear arms. The brigades are often deployed in predominantly Sunni neighbourhoods, and some say they are Hezbollah’s means of controlling the areas.

Unlike Hezbollah regulars, who are disciplined and avoid confrontation with compatriots, the Resistance Brigades are known for their abrasive attitudes, which have landed them in fights with mainstream Sunnis, especially those who support Future Current. Even Hezbollah’s Sunni allies have complained of the unruliness of the Resistance Brigades, but Hezbollah remains noncommittal about them.

Also crucial in the Hezbollah-Future dialogue is the selection of a candidate for the presidency. Everyone knows that Hezbollah wants its ally, former army chief Aoun, to take the post. But this may not be acceptable to Future Current, which relies on the support of people such as Samir Jaajaa and Amine Gemayel who have wide support in the Maronite community.

In a recent event celebrating the signing of a memorandum of understanding between Hezbollah and Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, a senior Hezbollah leader said his party “cannot agree to any other president” than the octogenarian Aoun.

The second dialogue now underway in Lebanon is between Aoun and Jaajaa. These long-time foes have a chance to come up with a compromise choice for the presidency, but it is unclear if such a breakthrough is possible. Many Lebanese are pinning their hopes on the Maronites uniting at this crucial juncture for the country.

Druze leader Walid Jumblatt is a wily player who is not known to trust Maronite politicians. The Druze fought pitched battles against the two largest Maronite militias, the Lebanese Forces and the Phalanges, during the country’s civil war. Jumblatt will be the one to watch in Lebanon’s shifting alliances.

If the deals reached behind closed doors are to his satisfaction, Lebanon may finally turn a corner.

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