Beirut on the Brink
“If we wanted to stage a coup, you would have woken up this morning in prison, or in the middle of the sea. We do not want that. It is a political issue, with a political solution through early elections.”
- Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, in comments directed tothe U.S.-backed Lebanese government, Al-ManarTV, 8 May 2008.
As Hezbollah’s men returned to their neighborhoods after Friday’s show of force when their authority was extended over the whole of West Beirut, many residents began to realize just how close to the precipice of civil war their country stood. And fears of it have yet to recede.
The events of the past several days were intended to send a clear message from Lebanon’s opposition to the ruling March 14 Coalition government led by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and allies Walid Jumblatt, Rafiq Hariri and Samir Geagea: our patience with you is wearing thin.
The situation started to unfold the morning of May 6th whenSiniora’s Council of Ministers decided to sack Beirut International Airport’s security chief Brigadier General Wafiq Shukair–a suspected Hezbollah-sympathizer–over the alleged placement of cameras in the airport thought to be capable of monitoring the movements of government officials (Dr. Franklin Lamb has since debunked this allegation. He interviewed the director of the private construction company Jihad al-Bina, Qassim Allaq, who indicated that the cameras have been there for over 20 years. The containers hiding them and land on which they are placed are owned by Allaq’s company and have not been a source of contention until now).
The cabinet simultaneously declared that the telecommunication network maintained by Hezbollah posed a threat to national security and deemed it “illegal and unconstitutional.” It should be noted that during Israel’s July 2006 invasion of Lebanon, this network remained impenetrable to Israeli intelligence and was indispensable to the defense of the country by providing the only secure means of communication for the resistance.
The following day, the General Labor Union staged a general strike to protest the government’s failure to increase the minimum wage in light of rising food and commodity prices. Hezbollah and Amal, two of the main parties in opposition to the government backed the strike, but protests quickly degenerated into civil strife as demonstrators burnt tires, erected barricades and blocked roads, causing the airport to close and the capital to shut down.
On May 8th, Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah held a rare press conference via video link to respond to the allegations against Hezbollah, Shukair’s termination, the alleged illegality of the group’s communications network and the crisis at hand.
He said, “Our communication network is a regular telephone network, and is the most important weapon in any resistance. In the July War, our strongest point was control because communication between leadership and field battles was secure, and this was confessed by the enemy … this is how we ensured success. (Our network) is related to defending the country against Israel.”
Describing the cabinet’s ruling to dismantle it as “…tantamount to a declaration of war and a start of war on the resistance and its weapons in the interest of America and Israel,” he issued no call-to-arms himself.
Nonetheless, street battles ultimately erupted along sectarian lines, with Shiites supporting the opposition and Sunnis backing the government. Eighteen people were reported killed in the clashes – the worst sectarian violence Lebanon has seen since the bloody 1975-1990 civil war.
The irony of Siniora’s Council of Ministers’ characterization of Hezbollah’s phone system as “unconstitutional” cannot be overlooked. Since the resignation of five Shiite ministers from Siniora’s cabinet in November 2006, the government itself may be considered unconstitutional. The Lebanese constitution requires that all confessional groups be represented in the cabinet. This continues to be a source of contention among the parties.
And let us not forgot the actions that this “cabinet,” minus the five ministers, have taken over the past several years.
Ha’aretz correspondent Avi Issacharoff, author of Spider Webs – The Story of the Second Lebanon War writes:
“For the first time, we reveal…that moderate Arab states and the people close to the Lebanese government have conveyed messages to the Israeli government via different sides demanding Israel continue the war until Hezbollah was completely crushed.”
It was Saad Hariri, parliamentary majority leader, head of the Future Movement and son of the late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, who released radical Salafi militants from jail or granted them amnesty in order to unleash them on Hezbollah. Such was the case with Fatah al-Islam. The deal apparently backfired and resulted in the fiasco at Tripoli’s Nahr al-Barad refugee camp in 2007.
Seymour Hersh writes in this piece “The Redirection” (The New Yorker, 3 March 2007):
“In an interview in Beirut, a senior official in the Siniora government acknowledged that there were Sunni jihadists operating inside Lebanon. ‘We have a liberal attitude that allows Al Qaeda types to have a presence here.’ ”
In his press conference, Nasrallah aptly remarked, “This is not a government, this is a gang.”
The opposition is pushing for a power-sharing agreement with the ruling coalition, one in which its ministers may wield veto power over cabinet decisions. This seems reasonable, in light of the actions of a prime minister who cut deals with the Israelis while they were killing and maiming his country’s citizens. This demand has become the primary obstacle in electing a new president and establishing a functional government in Lebanon.
Unsurprisingly, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt called for an emergency meeting of the Arab League this week. It is these countries – all monarchies or dictatorships – that feel most threatened by Lebanon’s crisis. The root of their fear is embodied in Nasrallah’s statement quoted at the beginning of this article calling for a political solution: accountability of the government, a check on its actions, and elections. All are anathema to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah of Jordan and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, lest their own people should one day make similar demands.
Although this conflict is often couched in sectarian terms—Sunni versus Shiite—this is just window dressing. It instead involves issues of legitimate political representation and the desire of those who oppose U.S. and Israeli designs on the region to no longer be marginalized.
It would behoove Prime Minister Siniora and the ruling March 14 Coalition, after seeing not only what Hezbollah is capable of but the restraint they are able to exert, to enter into serious and genuine negotiations to form a unity and power-sharing government. Hezbollah and the opposition have restrained their hand, although the manufactured accusations against them have tested their limits and patience and served only to push Beirut to the brink of disaster.
As Nasrallah himself warned: “I said, before Jumblatt, that any hand that reaches for the resistance, its arms will be cut off. Israel tried that in the July War, and we cut its hand off. We do not advise you to try us.”
RANNIE AMIRI is an independent commentator on the Arab and Islamic worlds. He may be reached at: rbamiri at yahoo.com.