Saturday,21 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1224, (4 - 10 December 2014)
Saturday,21 July, 2018
Issue 1224, (4 - 10 December 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Opting for dialogue

Lebanon’s Future Current and Hizbullah have found enough common ground to launch a dialogue, reports Hassan
from Beirut

Al-Ahram Weekly

The announcement came almost out of the blue: Lebanon’s top rivals, the Future Current, which represents most of the country’s Sunnis, and Hizbullah, which claims to speak on behalf of its Shiites, are going to start a dialogue on far-reaching security issues in the near future, with Nabih Berri, the parliamentary speaker, acting as facilitator.

Leading the reconciliation bid on the Future Current side is Nehad Al-Mashnuq, the country’s Interior Minister, who has recently invited Wafiq Al-Safa, Hizbullah’s security chief, to his office for talks about the opening of a road to the Lebanese Sunni town of Al-Tufeil, which is currently surrounded by Hizbullah and pro-Syria militia.

Close cooperation between Al-Mashnuq and Hizbullah led to the army intervention that ended the fighting in Tripoli between the Alawites of Jebel Mohsen and the Sunni gunmen of Bab Al-Tabbanah. Because of the army intervention, warlords on both sides left the area, including Mohsen Eid and Ali Eid, leaders of the Arab Democratic Party, a pro-Syria group.

Even more importantly, the Future-Hizbullah cooperation has allowed the Lebanese army to take action against Sunni militants in Arsal. Speaking at a recent rally, Hizbullah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah offered a rare tribute to the Future Current, praising its support for the army operation in north Lebanon and pledging to engage it in dialogue.

So unusual were Nasrallah’s remarks that his audience, used to inflammatory hyperbole, failed to react to their chief’s words with the customary applause.

Conversely, the Future Current leader, Saad Al-Hariri, appeared on television to declare his desire to engage Hizbullah in meaningful dialogue. But Al-Hariri made it clear that the talks would not touch on Hizbullah’s involvement in Syria, which he called “insane”.

Another thorny issue that the two sides cannot discuss is the international trial concerning the killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri, Saad’s father, in which Hizbullah could have been involved. The disarming of Hizbullah, another topic that is periodically discussed in Lebanon, is also outside the realm of the talks.

Yet on both sides of the country’s Shiite-Sunni divide, enthusiasm for the dialogue is muted. After years of animosity, the idea of reconciliation seems alien to supporters of both sides.

Old habits die hard. And even the man who masterminded the talks, Nehad Al-Mashnuq, has lashed out at Hizbullah for allegedly failing to support the security plan in the Shiite areas. His remarks were ignored by Hizbullah officials.

Behind the bid for reconciliation comes a wider realisation in the country and beyond that the fomentation of Shiite-Sunni resentment could backfire. The only beneficiaries of the sectarian conflict so far have been ultra-militant Sunni Islamist groups, such as the Islamic State (IS) and Al-Nusrah Front, which in the end are bad news for the Shiites, the moderate Sunnis, and everyone else.

Due to the Lebanon’s topography, further escalation of the conflict between the Shiites and Sunnis could be devastating to the Sunnis, who lack the firepower of Hizbullah and the mountain strongholds of the Maronites and Druze.

The grinding war in neighbouring Syria has brought home to Hizbullah the uncomfortable truth that challenging the Sunnis in battle could lead to an endless war of attrition that not even its hardened combatants are able to sustain.

The conflict in the region has led to the emergence of two opposing camps, with a Washington-Riyadh-Future Current pact pitted against a Moscow-Tehran-Hizbullah one. But on both sides of the conflict the opponents realise that even enmity has its boundaries. Their rivalry has created a common enemy, the IS, and this common enemy is now bringing them closer together.

The Iranians and the Syrian regime may have played down the success of the US-led campaign against IS, but they have been secretly delighted at the way it has been going. Likewise, Washington is pleased to see Hizbullah doing its bidding by fighting alongside the Lebanese army which the Americans fully back.

Hizbullah may still be called a terrorist organisation, but when its fighters are ranged against ultra-militant Sunnis, it earns at least some implicit approval.

The Lebanese army is also getting a lot of support. Riyadh has promised it $3.5 billion in aid, with $500 million to be paid immediately. The Iranians have also offered it assistance “in kind,” which it has turned down. And the Americans are sending it daily consignments of hardware.

With all this help, the Lebanese army is gaining credibility, and its work on the ground has been facilitated by its unprecedented rapprochement with Hizbullah.

When Saudi Arabia told the UN to include Hizbullah on the list of terror organisations fighting in Syria, Hizbullah refrained from comment, perhaps to avoid rocking the boat of reconciliation as it sails into politically uncharted waters.

The fight against the IS has created some strange bedfellows, and this for now is cementing a climate of reconciliation in Lebanon.

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