After the rout of pro-US March 14 militias at the hands of the Hizbullah-led opposition forces in Beirut and Shouf mountains last week, a Qatari-led Arab League delegation sent to Beirut on 14 May succeeded in brokering a truce. The seven-point agreement reached includes the immediate resumption of national dialogue in Doha–with the main aim of finally forming a national unity government, electing a president by consensus, and agreeing on the details of an electoral law—and the pledge not to use force to settle political disputes. The airport, port and main border crossing with Syria, as well as schools and shops, were promptly re-opened as militias on both sides removed roadblocks and hid their weapons.
With the army deployed throughout key areas, Lebanese citizens once again resumed their everyday activities under the more familiar conditions of a devastated environment, massive traffic jams, unregulated construction and urban planning, electricity and water shortages, state-sponsored theft or abuse of public lands and resources, rising poverty, inflation and unemployment, and one of the worst budget deficits per capita in the world. The illusion of normalcy, in other words, has returned returns for the time being but the real question is: for how long?
There is little doubt that the Doha truce averted a descent into the nightmare of a large-scale civil conflict most Lebanese were dreading, and as such was welcome by all. However, there is equally little doubt that this truce represents a temporary pause in an on-going regional war fomented by the unrelenting US ‘war on terror’. In this larger war, unlike the street battles of last week, there can be no winners among the Lebanese people, only losers, just as their has been among the Palestinians, Iraqis, Afghans, Somalis and others who have been caught in the same global, and apparently perpetual, conflict.
The continued US, Israeli and Saudi obsession with Iran (which these days is being used interchangeably with “Shia’a” in a bid to fan sectarian flames) means that they will already be planning ahead for the next battle, probably in Lebanon and almost certainly in Gaza (since Hamas is placed in the “Iran” column), in order to halt the perceived Iranian gain in Lebanon last week. In such a case, the recent conciliatory sentiments expressed by some March 14 leaders like Walid Jumblatt must be read as a strategic objective to gain time and space to regroup.
The disconcerting silence of Saudi Arabia is perhaps the most troubling. Not only have the Saudi-sponsored sectarian militias in Lebanon been defeated, but now its tiny but increasingly ambitious Gulf rival state of Qatar has rubbed salt into its wounds by stealing the diplomatic limelight and consolidating its role as regional peacemaker. The Saudis have both the means and influence to mobilize Sunni Salafist groups in Lebanon in a protracted sectarian war against Hizbullah, or precipitate the collapse of the Lebanese economy, if it decides it has ‘lost’ the country to Iran. As such, the Doha participants will want to pacify the Saudis.
And what of the Lebanese themselves? The very fact that the ruling political class needs once again to undertake negotiations in another country in order to resolve internal political disagreements illustrates the core problem in the Lebanese political sectarian system as bequeathed by the colonial powers beginning in the 19th Century. This system creates disenfranchised “non-citizens” that allow the elite (of all sects) to plunder state resources during economic boom times such as occurred during the post civil war period of the 1990s.
On the other hand, during periods of social or political unrest, the Lebanese system inexorably leads to either sectarian conflict and/or the hegemonic stability imposed by an international or regional power (such as Syria, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the US). The Doha negotiations will likely reinforce this sectarian tendency rather than address its root causes, and as such the Lebanese, rather than coming together as citizens of a nation, will once again be divided into disparate communities regulated by sectarian patrons.
For their part, March 14 leaders have repeatedly failed to evolve beyond their parochial, and intensely sectarian, rhetoric since gaining political ascendancy in the aftermath of Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon in April 2005. Their apparently craven reliance on what is the most pro-Israeli and anti-Arab US administration in history means that their credibility, to say nothing of their legitimacy, is virtually non-existent among the core constituency of the opposition movement. That March 14 leaders, including Prime Minster Fouad Siniora, would compare Hizbullah’s 24-hour sweep of Beirut to successive Israeli invasions—with their untold horrors inflicted upon the Lebanese and Palestinians—tells its own damning story. Indeed, it merely reinforces the state’s long history of palpable neglect (in terms of both services and compassion) for southern Lebanon’s communities that have endured not only poverty but three decades of Israeli occupation and violence. Within this context, March 14’s mantra of “building a strong state” rings hollow.
However, Hizbullah’s standing has also fallen in national terms after its decision to flex its muscles last week. Hizbullah finally snapped when the government passed a series of provocative decrees on May 7th—under intense pressure from the US and in coordination with UN Special Envoy Terje Roed Larsen—that went beyond the ‘rules of the game’ established earlier by the pro-government and opposition forces. These rules had acknowledged that the status of the Resistance’s weapons were a subject of future national dialogue and consensus only, not unilateral government decrees or international dictates.
The May 7 government decrees thus breeched this basic understanding with Hizbullah by declaring that the highly-effective, private, secure communications network considered by Hizbullah to be pivotal in its war of resistance against Israel was now a ‘threat’ to state security and thus had to be dismantled immediately. Hizbullah’s violent response to these cabinet decisions was not so much a campaign to overturn the government decrees per se (the entire opposition, after all, considers the Siniora government illegitimate and without any authority), but a proactive move to seize the initiative on the ground in what they see as a new stage in the US-Israeli-Saudi-March 14 war on the resistance. In this it surely succeeded.
Still, Hizbullah understands well that its take-over of Beirut—following over a year’s non-violent campaign that yielded much bating by March 14 militias but no political gains—required the betrayal of its long-standing commitment to the Lebanese people not to use its formidable weapons internally. Ironically it thus fulfilled one of March 14’s strategic objectives: dragging Hizbullah into an internal fight and portraying it as a mere sectarian ‘militia’ instead of a noble and widely-supported national resistance movement.
Accordingly, the very idea of the national resistance in Lebanon, so effective in militarily defeating the Israeli occupation and puncturing the myth of Zionist supremacy vis-à-vis the Arabs, has been eroded following the battles of last week. Under these circumstances, it is not difficult to imagine yet another US-backed Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the coming months but this time, some of those that lost the street battles in Beirut might join the fight against Hizbullah.
The Doha accords might well end in handshakes and the selection of a president, probably Army chief Michel Suleiman, as well as a government of national unity. The deeper conflict, however, will persist as it is rooted in the sectarian nature of the Lebanese political system that inhibits the emergence of national statesmen strong enough to care for all Lebanon’s citizens and resist mischievous intervention from regional or international patrons.
Meanwhile, the Lebanese have two choices. They can retain the existing political system and thus continue to endure persistently unstable conditions –and potentially further conflict– until the US drops its disastrous ‘war on terror’ policy in the region and starts engaging its perceived enemies. Or they can throw out the inherently corrupt, sectarian political class and demand real changes to the political and economic systems in order to come together as a nation.
As one person interviewed on Lebanese TV half-joked when asked to comment on the potential resolution at Doha: if they don’t agree we should close the airport to prevent them all from returning.
KARIM MAKDISI is an Assistant Professor in the Dept. of Political Studies and Public Administration at the American University of Beirut
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org