Friday, August 1, 2008

The majority's Achilles heel in Tripoli

The majority's Achilles heel in Tripoli
By Michael Young
Commentary by
Friday, August 01, 2008

What has caused the violence in Tripoli? The explanations are many, few of them entirely convincing. But they all fail to tell us anything about the dangerous consequences the fighting, if it resumes, as it is likely to, might have on the fortunes of the Future Movement, the cornerstone of the parliamentary majority.

Regardless of who was responsible for the recent skirmishing between the Sunni neighborhood of Bab al-Tebbaneh and the Alawite quarter of Jabal Mohsen, as most people observe what is going on, as they see the gunmen of Bab al-Tebbaneh firing guns in the midst of an urban area, they cannot help but wonder whether Saad Hariri approves of this. If he approves, he would be lending legitimacy to a militia phenomenon that he and his movement have always insisted they stand against; and if he disapproves, it would suggest that Hariri's control over his own community is tentative at best, especially in a region where Sunni strength could help him compensate for the humiliation his followers suffered in Beirut last May. Either way, Hariri and the Future Movement don't look the better for it.

That question appeared to be on the mind of the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt last Saturday, when he declared, "The wound suffered by Beirut cannot be treated through revenge elsewhere, because we would only be pouring oil onto the fire and, as a consequence, implementing the designs of states that are negotiating or that have their differences - states that in the end will arrive at settlements between themselves."

Jumblatt has been unusually nervous about the events in northern Lebanon of late. That's not surprising. If the situation were to go to pieces there, if Sunni-Shiite tension were again to break out into open conflict, the Druze leader would be a primary target of Hizbullah, which still seeks to control the high ground in Aley and the Chouf, as it tried to do last May. The party doesn't like the fact that Jumblatt sits above their several supply lines to and from the South, and at their back when facing Israel. But Jumblatt is said to also fear something else: If the Sunni Islamists become powerful in Tripoli and the Akkar, Syria would be handed an ideal justification to cross the border militarily to protect itself and its Alawite brethren from religious extremists in Lebanon.

Jumblatt's comments were sourly received by Saad Hariri's entourage, which interpreted them as criticism of the Future Movement. The Druze leader has changed his tone of late when it comes to his allies in the March 14 coalition, suggesting he is already maneuvering in anticipation of elections next year. However, when it comes to the fundamentals of Lebanese politics today, Jumblatt cannot and will not soon break with Saad Hariri. That's why Jumblatt's anxiety toward what is going on in Tripoli and the progress and arming of Islamist groups, particularly the Salafists, speaks to a broader problem that Hariri will soon have to address. Otherwise, it might create a much larger headache for him that could undermine his relationship with his political allies.

Following the debacle in Beirut last May, the Hariri camp failed to use its popular support in the North as leverage to regain the political initiative. Saad Hariri would have done well to immediately head to Tripoli and show Hizbullah that he still retained communal muscle - all the more so as his representatives in the city performed poorly during the crisis. It was important for Hariri to do several things: revive Sunni morale nationally, correct the problems in his own movement, and, most importantly, affirm that it was moderate Sunnis like him, not Islamists, who would shape upcoming developments in North Lebanon. Instead, it is the Islamists who are now taking advantage of the vacuum left there.

Islamist advances could hand Syria precisely what it failed to accomplish last year when it sponsored the Fatah al-Islam phenomenon at Nahr al-Bared. The more moderate Sunnis, with Hariri at their head, could be discredited, the Sunni community could be split, tensions could arise between the Future Movement and its Christian allies in March 14, there could be discord between Sunni and Christian inhabitants of the North, and Jumblatt's fears could be confirmed with Syria choosing to intervene - this time with outside approval since no one wants to see Salafists triumphing in Lebanon. The scenario may be an unlikely one, but for the moment nothing suggests the Hariri camp is offering an alternative.

There is still tremendous goodwill for Hariri in the North. His access to substantial sums of money, also the existence of a Sunni political class worried about the rise of extremism, means Hariri has the latitude to ensure it is not the Islamists who set the agenda. What this requires, however, is a more credible network of people on the ground and a bottom-up reorganization of the Future Movement and of its strategy in Tripoli, Dinniyeh, and the Akkar. The fighting between Bab al-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen is but a symptom of a larger problem: that of a Sunni community that has still not found its equilibrium after the assassination of Rafik Hariri. For better or worse the North should now be Hariri's momentary priority, not Beirut; it is his main source of men, vitality and political sway. He should spend more time there, learn its rhythms, and take in hand a political situation that, if it were to spin out of control, could spell the end for everything Saad Hariri has tried to build up.

1 comment:

Strategos said...

"it sponsored the Fatah al-Islam" any proof?

and Concerning the Sunnis not founding their equilibrium after harriri's assassination , this isn't clear. Rafik Harriri and the future movement (which was overshadowed by his presence till 2005) never had any significant weight outside Beirut before harriri's assassination.

series of events starting with the war on iraq , saddam's removal ,Harriri's assassination , the shiaa-sunni massacres in iraq , are the real cause behind the sunni fear.