By Michael Young
Thursday, January 31, 2008
The tragic and senseless killing of demonstrators in Shiyyah last Sunday was, perhaps rightfully, seen as the opening shot in a new phase of the Lebanese crisis that may turn much more violent. Who was responsible for the crimes still remains unclear. But a cooler analysis of what took place shows an equally disturbing reality: Sunday was a political disaster for the Shiite opposition parties, Hizbullah and Amal, whose inability to achieve their political ends, but also to retreat from the brink, makes the likelihood of further hostilities much greater.
After the end of the summer 2006 war and the growing confrontation between the parliamentary majority and the opposition, Hizbullah was always careful to place non-Shiites in the forefront of the opposition's actions. While Sunni representatives were anemic, Michel Aoun was, for a time, someone who added credibility to the claim that the opposition was multiconfessional. That argument took a severe beating in the street protests of January 23, 2007, when the Aounists were unable to block roads for very long in Christian areas without assistance from the army. By nightfall, even that endeavor had collapsed as roads inside the Christian heartland and between Beirut and Tripoli were opened.
However, Aoun struck back in the Metn by-election last summer, when he managed to get an unknown, Camille Khoury, elected to Parliament. It was a pyrrhic victory to be sure. The vote tally confirmed that the general had lost a sizable share of the Maronite vote; it showed that he relied heavily on a unified Armenian electorate not particularly committed to the general personally, that might vote very differently in the future; but it also showed that Aoun was not out of the game, as some had predicted.
However, from the moment the March 14 coalition decided to support the army commander, Michel Suleiman, as its candidate for president, Aoun's situation changed dramatically. The general had calculated that a presidential vacuum would enhance his chances of being elected, on the grounds that the thwarted Christians would rally behind him. In fact the exact opposite has happened. Provided with the option of a potentially strong Christian president in Suleiman, displeased with Aoun's and his ally Suleiman Franjieh's wanton attacks against Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, never really convinced by the Free Patriotic Movement's alliance with Hizbullah, the Christians, many of whom voted for Aoun in 2005, have been steadily turning away from the general.
A sure sign of this is the behavior of that cunning weathervane of Christian opinion, Michel Murr. In recent weeks Murr has mounted a very damaging internal rebellion against Aoun. He has defended the Arab plan that seeks to bring Suleiman to power as "good for the Christians," when Aoun's greatest fear is that his community will embrace such a line and abandon his own candidacy. Murr has defended Sfeir against Franjieh's attacks, even as most Aounist parliamentarians who once made Bkirki their second home remained silent. And Murr declared that the Metn would not participate in opposition street demonstrations. This was an easy promise to make, because Aoun doesn't even have the capacity to organize protests in areas his bloc members represent in Parliament.
The thing is, Murr's attitude is popular among Christians. And last Sunday, Aoun found himself in the worst possible situation when his ally Hizbullah and the army - the one state institution in which the general still retains some sympathy - clashed. For most Christians the choice was an easy one to make: They sided with the army, particularly after demonstrators were reported to have broken cars in the Christian quarter of Ain al-Rummaneh, where someone later tossed a grenade that injured several people. In that context, Aoun's alliance with Hizbullah now looks to many of his coreligionists like a bad idea, one that might precipitate a civil conflict if the opposition pursues its protests, which almost nobody seriously accepts as a demand for more electricity and cheaper food.
But then put yourselves in Hizbullah's shoes, and those of the Amal movement. With your Christian partner neutralized, suddenly the opposition looks mainly like a Shiite phenomenon. Worse, it looks like a mainly Shiite phenomenon directed against the Lebanese Army, a presidential election, and, by extension, the Lebanese state itself. This is certainly not where Hizbullah's secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, ever wanted to position himself; and it is, in a word, suicidal for Shiites.
However, that apparently has not induced Hizbullah to backtrack. The Sunday rioting was probably destined to discredit Suleiman. The opposition's follow-up criticism of the army commander as someone who is no longer a consensus presidential candidate lends credence to this theory. The Syrians have recently been trying to peddle alternative candidates, via Qatar, to the French - which Qatari and French denials in fact only confirmed. Suddenly, Hizbullah finds itself in the uncomfortable position of blocking the election of a man many Christians regard as a potentially strong leader, all because the party won't abandon Aoun, who is on the political decline. And why won't it do so? Because Hizbullah desperately needs the general as an ally in a future government.
Whether Hizbullah's calculations are mainly domestic, or are shaped to a large extent by Syria is irrelevant. The party is, perhaps unintentionally, pushing Shiites into a confrontation with the rest of Lebanese society to protect itself, and nothing could be worse for the community. Hizbullah's inability to achieve any of its political aims in the past 13 months has only increased its sense of frustration, and the prospect of violence. The party is flailing, but March 14 must at all costs help think of creative ways to prevent the Shiites from succumbing to a new "Kerbala complex," a sense that victimhood is the historical lot of their community.
In 1975, the Christians had their own Kerbala complex, one that dictated stubbornness in the defense of Christian prerogatives, which at the time were regarded as an existential red line. In the process they lost their control over the state. Hizbullah has made defense of its weapons an existential red line for the Shiite community. But Kerbala, as one astute analyst has put it, is hardly something the Shiites should want to remember, as it ended in a massacre and defeat. Nor is it something any Lebanese should want the Shiite community to remember, or repeat.
The Christians learned to their detriment during the 1975-1990 conflict that a war against the Sunnis was also in many ways a war against the Arab world. The Christian community never recovered from that disaster. That's a lesson the Shiite community should not have to learn.