Thursday, May 8, 2008

Heading toward a Lebanese divorce

Heading toward a Lebanese divorce
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, May 08, 2008

Once we accept that this week's alleged labor unrest was only the latest phase in Hizbullah's war against the Lebanese state, will we understand what actually took place yesterday. And once we realize that cutting the airport road was a calculated effort by Hizbullah to reverse the Siniora government's transfer of the airport security chief, Wafiq Shouqair, will we understand what may take place in the coming days.

Since last January, when Hizbullah and Amal used the pretense of social dissatisfaction to obstruct roads in and around Beirut, the opposition has, quite openly, shown itself to be limited to Hizbullah. Michel Aoun, once a useful fig leaf to lend cross-communal diversity to the opposition, has since become an afterthought with hardly any pull in Christian streets.

Long ago we learned that Hizbullah could not, in any real sense, allow the emergence of a Lebanese state free from Syrian control. Soon after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the party tried to suffocate the 2005 "independence intifada" in the egg, realizing that Hizbullah had no future as an autonomous armed group in a state that would seek to reimpose its writ after decades of subservience to Damascus. That effort failed on March 14, 2005 - mostly useful as an event in showing that a majority of people would not be intimidated by Hizbullah's rally of March 8.

Hizbullah's anxieties were understandable. As the party saw things, without a Lebanese state embracing the idea of open-ended conflict against Israel, and Hizbullah's sovereign, vanguard role in that conflict (and what state truly independent of Syria would ever want to choose so reckless a path?), Hizbullah would not be able to justify retaining its weapons. But without its weapons, Hizbullah could not exist. Post-Syria Lebanon has posed existential problems for the party, problems that began when Israel withdrew from most of South Lebanon in 2000. The irony of this situation - that Hizbullah was always most comfortable when both Syria and Israel were present in Lebanon - the latter to fight against, the former to safeguard that fight - says a lot about the party's future options.

Aoun will doubtless find an excuse to explain why the calls for a strike were ignored in predominantly Christian areas. But Hizbullah has to be careful. Now the party's every move is one of the Shiites against the rest. The sharp decline in Aoun's popularity, not to mention the pressure being felt by other Hizbullah allies like Elie Skaff in Zahleh, all emanate from a single source: Most Christians, not to mention vast majorities of Sunnis and Druze, see no possible coexistence between the idea of the Lebanese state and a Hizbullah that insists on demanding veto power over any decision that might limit its political and military margin of maneuver.

The ludicrousness of Aoun's latest statements on Monday only underlined this reality. You have to wonder what the general's electorate felt when he defended Hizbullah's activities in Kisirwan and Jbeil, which he represents in Parliament. There will always be those who follow Aoun into a brick wall, who will even follow him to Damascus to bestow his blessings on the Assad regime, a trip he should be encouraged to make if only to be kicked to the outer circles of political insignificance. But most Christians are smarter and can see that the general, after having seriously damaged his own Maronite community by refusing to elect a president, does not even rate much inside the opposition, whose errors Aoun continues to endorse to his detriment.

In picking a fight with Hizbullah over its cameras next to the airport, Walid Jumblatt did something different than what the public imagined. The reality is that Hizbullah doesn't need cameras to know what is going on at the facility. Through its authority over the General Security directorate, the airport's security unit, and sympathetic employees, Hizbullah has all the information it needs on air traffic. Rather, what Jumblatt did was provoke a confrontation and, to dig up the old Soviet jargon, heighten the contradictions between Lebanese society and Hizbullah. Now the party's true intentions are out there for everyone to see. Hizbullah can no longer hide behind its "resistance," a fictitious "national opposition" or imaginary social protests. It is confirming on a daily basis that its minimal goal is to keep alive a Hizbullah state within the state and to force most Lebanese to accept this, even as the party infiltrates the government bureaucracy and has free rein in the airport and ports.

Yet the message on Wednesday was plain. Outside areas under direct Hizbullah control, no one respected the call for a strike. The labor unions were not even able to march through mainly Sunni neighborhoods, for fear of street fights. The only real weapon Hizbullah has is to hold the airport hostage by closing all access roads. But all sides can close roads. How such action can possibly be in the interest of the Shiite community is beyond comprehension. Isolating the airport amounts to thuggery, underlining that Hizbullah now has few means other than to collectively punish all Lebanese to advance its exclusivist agenda. As the commentator Uqab Sakr put it: "Shutting down the airport is what the Israelis did in 2006; it's not what Hizbullah should be doing today."

The Lebanese state cannot live side by side with a Hizbullah state. This theorem is becoming more evident by the day, as the party's actions in the past three years have been, by definition, directed against the state, the government, the army and the security forces, institutions of national representation, the economy, and more fundamentally the rules of the Lebanese communal game. We've reached the point where Hizbullah, and more importantly the Shiite community, must choose. Will it persist in favoring a Hizbullah-led parallel state that will surely continue to clash with the recognized state? Or will Shiites try to find a new arrangement with their countrymen that forces Hizbullah to surrender its weapons?

The turmoil will continue, and at this point has already taken on a regional coloring. Hizbullah will not easily swallow Shouqair's transfer, and the closing of the airport road is its leverage to coerce the government into going back on the decision. But all this will only raise the prospect of escalating violence while focusing hostility against Hizbullah, benefiting no one. If the party wants its semi-independent entity, it is now obliged to state this plainly. The masks have fallen. And if Hizbullah does decide to reject Lebanon, then we shouldn't be surprised if some start speaking of an amicable divorce between Shiites and the rest of Lebanon.


joelr said...

Well, of course Lebanon can't coexist with the Hezbollah infestation, not in any meaningful way for any but the Hezbollards.

Thought experiment: if the non-Hezzie Lebanese really do need to take on Hezbollah, are they in a better or worse condition to do it today than they were in concert with the IDF back in 2006?

By the way, in terms of coverage in the US, it's been pretty minimal, except in niche media. Fairly or unfairly, Arabs killing Arabs is only news hereabouts when there's US military folks or Jews nearby to blame.

Thus endeth the lesson.

Jester said...

Would have Hezbollah entered Christian areas if it wasn't for Aoun?