Thursday, February 17, 2011

Lebanon's feuding sides draw rival inspirations from Egypt

Although Hizbollah and Iran hailed the ouster of the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak as a political defeat for their enemies, it is not at all certain that Sunnis in some parts of the Arab world, particularly in Lebanon, were distressed by the transformations in Cairo.

Iran's satisfaction, and that of its Arab followers, derived from a short-term appraisal that Mr Mubarak's departure was a setback for the United States. However, nothing yet indicates that Washington has "lost" Egypt. In fact, America's regional role may be strengthened if its Arab friends become more democratic, or just more pluralistic. After all, the protests in Tunisia and Egypt confirmed the deep detestation for - and therefore the fragility of - an American-led network of regional alliances resting on a foundation of despotism.

For many Arabs, the Sunni majority especially, developments in Egypt produced an electric moment for other reasons. Much of the reaction was related to perceptions rather than reality, since the final outcome in Cairo remains to be seen. However, a wave of optimism swept throughout the Middle East when Mr Mubarak stepped down because here, it seemed, was a genuinely new morning for the Arabs, another sign, after Tunisia, of freshness and life in a desiccated wasteland of authoritarianism. And this time it was occurring in the land that had once best embodied Arab post-colonial confidence, under the Arab nationalist regime of President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Mr Nasser's failings were irrelevant. Egypt re-entered the powerful realm of political allegory, the popular overthrow of the Mubarak regime providing grist for a narrative of Arab democratic renaissance. Interpretations could vary depending on which Arab state one lived in, but it is probably fair to say that many Arabs viewed matters, at least partly, in sectarian terms: this was not only Egypt's moment; not only a moment of affirmation for a new and liberated Arab man (or woman); it was also a moment of reaffirmation for a wider Sunni community that had steadily seen its regional vigour decline in the presence of a Shiite Iran and pro-Iranian groups that have borrowed effectively the symbols of Arab nationalism, hitherto Sunni symbols.

This sense of Arab rejuvenation may cut in inconsistent directions. Arab mistrust of the United States might grow, but ultimately the Egyptian and Tunisian revolts were a demand to be part of the modern world, not to be isolated from it. Gone are the binary choices of the Cold War years. And in such a fluid political environment it is difficult to imagine net winners and losers in a future Middle East, not least if international actors adopt new ways of interacting with Arab regimes less able to enforce the stifling paternalism of the past.

Lebanon, where regional dynamics often play out with the greatest impact, provides a useful illustration of the paradoxes released by events in Egypt. Mr Mubarak's exit was greeted with celebratory gunfire in Beirut's southern suburbs, controlled by Hizbollah. Yet the party's main rival, the Sunni Future Movement led by Saad Hariri, seemed no less energised. Egypt has apparently become whatever one wants it to be. Hizbollah may have seen a setback for the Obama administration; but Mr Hariri saw a victory against the rule of the gun, which this week in a speech on the sixth anniversary of the assassination of his father, Rafik Hariri, he turned against Hizbollah, which had deployed its weapons to intimidate Lebanon's Sunnis.

The transformations in Egypt could have an indirect bearing on a number of political and legal challenges that Lebanon will soon have to confront. Hizbollah and Syria recently brought down Mr Hariri's government, and have instead backed Najib Miqati's efforts to form a new government. This government, if it sees the light of day, will be of a single political colouration, since Mr Hariri and his allies in the March 14 coalition have refused to join. The reason is that they believe that Mr Miqati has already agreed to a Hizbollah condition that he end Lebanon's ties with a special tribunal that is preparing indictments on Rafik Hariri's assassination.

This makes for a combustible sectarian mix. A Miqati government perceived by most Sunnis as being formed against their interests will find it difficult to rule through any kind of consensus. This difficulty will be compounded if the government goes through with obstructing the process of uncovering Rafik Hariri's killers, at a time when the Shiite Hizbollah may be accused of involvement in the crime. If, as some observers have suggested, Syrian officials are also named in an indictment, this can only further exacerbate ambient tensions.

The Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt once declared that the murder of Mr Hariri was an act designed to prevent the emergence of a "strong Sunni". In that case, Egypt may have just shifted the goal posts. If Egyptians could overcome their fear of the superior firepower of security forces; if they could impose justice on an unjust leader; and if all this could send shockwaves of pride throughout the Middle East, because Egypt once again was a vanguard for Sunni Arabs, then there is no reason these messages cannot echo in Beirut. Hizbollah and Syria's guns can be overcome, justice in the Hariri assassination can triumph, and Sunnis in general can be the stronger for it.

This, at least, is the defiant Sunni emotion that Syria, Hizbollah and their Lebanese comrades may soon have to address. On Tuesday, Saad Hariri took a hard line on the political crisis in Lebanon, outlining a programme for tougher opposition to his domestic political foes, above all Hizbollah. Instability lies ahead for the country, but this time the story may blend with the romanticism generated by two successful Arab uprisings elsewhere. The consequences are unpredictable.

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