Saturday, May 10, 2008

Hizballah humiliates March 14, Lebanon enters new phase

Enough was enough.

That was the message from Hizballah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, during his press conference two days ago.

The country had been paralysed in a political deadlock for 18 months, six of which without a president. The economy was spiralling into stagnation and an ever-growing debt, the occasional riot and assassination adding to the tension.

Both sides - the Syrian/Iranian-backed Opposition led by Hizballah and the US-backed ruling March 14 coalition led by Saad Hariri - had pushed buttons throughout the impasse, but refrained from a complete blowout ... until May 7.

Last week, the March 14 coalition sacked the Beirut Airport's head of security, a close friend of Hizballah, accusing the Shi'ite group of spying at the airport. The move outraged Hizballah, but March 14 didn't stop there. Its next move was the catalyst for the sharp turn of events, the final straw for Hizballah and its allies. March 14 deemed Hizballah's military telecommunications network, which the resistance movement says was vital to its defense against Israel in the 2006 war, illegal and commenced on plans to dismantle it.

Hizballah's response? Enough is enough!

Nasrallah lambasted the encroachments on Hizballah as a declaration of war, and poured hundreds of its well-disciplined fighters - alongside fellow militiamen from allies Amal and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) - into Saad Hariri's stronghold of West Beirut, seizing control of the Muslim section of the city in less than 24 hours. In a spiteful response, the fighters shut down Hariri's media network, Al Mustaqbal, and set the building ablaze.

Reports also emerged that Hizballah and Amal fighters surrounded the Clemenceau home of PSP Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, as well as his security centres in the Chouf mountains. Nasrallah openly and sternly singled out Jumblatt in his press conference during the week, accusing him of playing lord to the Siniora government and attempting to spark a Sunni-Shi'ite conflict. Jumblatt conceded that Hizballah's military might is unrivalled in Lebanon, and warned the Shi'ite group that it can't impose its will on the rest of the country.

But will Hizballah impose its authority?

The outcome remains to be seen. What we do know is that the one-sided civil war is over. In 72 hours, Hizballah and its allies have humiliated March 14. Some have begun referring to this incident as a coup d'etat, but it seems unlikely that Hizballah will overthrow the March 14 government. However, what is clear now is that it can remove the government from office within a heartbeat, and that is enough to give the March 14 leaders cause for concern.

The country has been in need of serious dialogue and partnership for the past 18 months. Hizballah appears to be forcing the March 14 to sit down and listen to its demands. It will leave a government powerless to make any decisions, a lameduck in every sense of the word. Nasrallah will no longer tolerate a pro-US coalition calling the shots in the country, particularly where it concerns Hizballah. Instead of imposing its will, the Opposition appears to be imposing a form of partnership at the very least, with the Lebanese military at the helm.

Hizballah is aware that it would have frightened large sections of the Lebanese community as a result of this action. The Shi'ite group has survived the past 26 years much on the good PR it has throughout Lebanon and the Arab world. It prides itself on being the only Lebanese faction not to have committed atrocities in the 1975-1990 civil war, or lifted a finger against a fellow Lebanese. The past few days has dispelled that long held claim as it turned its guns against its compatriots. It was indeed well-disciplined and heavy casualties were avoided, but opponents to Hizballah have long feared that the Shi'ite party will use its arms to force its way to power in the country.

Have their fears been realised?

Nasrallah's political decisions in the coming week will be the most crucial decisions in his political career. The fate of the country rests on his shoulder. Hizballah - for the first time - has the overwhelming responsibility of directing the country. Will it repeat the mistakes of its predecessors, the Sunnis and Maronites, in monopolising power? Or will it share and fight to restore its PR status as a benevolent power for Lebanon?

In the first move to win back hearts and minds, Hizballah immediately handed over captured buildings, such as Al-Mustaqbal's office, to a Lebanese Army trailing behind it. This move was more symbolic than a mere military procedure. It was designed to show the Lebanese that Hizballah does not intend to own Lebanon, or impose its will, but instead demonstrate to the remainder of the country that it is a force that needs to be recognised and respected.

Hizballah has also taken notes from the suffering of Gaza following Hamas' electoral victory and its own bloody coup. Despite its democratic legitimacy, the West shunned Hamas and blocked much needed aid and investment to the Palestinian people. Hizballah is aware that if it follows a similar path, all Lebanese will suffer the wrath of a Western and Arab economic snub.

This fear is ensuring Hizballah continues to work collectively with its Opposition allies, particularly its two main Christian counterparts, Michel Aoun and Sleiman Franjiyeh. Having Christian backing in Lebanon is a crucial leverage for Hizballah in dealing with the West. They are more or less saying, 'you harm us, you harm the Christians'.

Hizballah will not take full control of Lebanon, but instead share it with its fellow allies, which includes the Shi'ite Amal movement, the Christian parties of Aoun and Franjiyeh, the secular SSNP, the Druze leader Talal Arslan, and the pro-Syrian Sunni chieftains such as Omar Karami. In other words, Hizballah has enough friends to fill positions of power without inviting Western or Arab economic sanctions.

March 14's total demise is a matter of time. Hizballah will not overthrow the government, but will simply squeeze it until it disappears. It is now utterly powerless. There is little anyone can do to resurrect it, save an invasion from a Western or a Sunni Arab power. Neither the US nor Israel is prepared to embark on another perilous war in Lebanon. If there is to be a military response from either of these countries, it is most probable that this time they would target the source ... Syria and/or Iran. Neither country will allow Lebanon to become a Hizballah-run state, which is exactly why the Shi'ite group will carefully seek an inclusive power-sharing system that will be mainly comprised of its aforementioned allies.

Further steps to weaken March 14 don't seem necessary. Instead, Hizballah believes that it has enough popular support across the country to drown out the pro-American coalition. It commands the support of the Shi'ite community, a large portion of the Christian community (thanks to Aoun and Franjieh), and a smaller section of the Druze and Sunni communities as a result of Arslan, the SSNP, and the few anti-Hariri Sunni clans. In addition, the Opposition also retains the majority support of the 350,000 Palestinian Sunnis holed up in armed refugee camps.

March 14 represented an old guard in Lebanon's politics. Walid Jumblatt of the Druze community, and Samir Geagea of the right-wing Maronite Lebanese Forces, are remnants of the 1975-1990 conflict. Geagea's right-wing Phalangist mentality has lost ground and support from its traditional backers in the Christian community. Disenchanted from its defeat in the first civil war, the Christians have moved from a desire to rule the country to a more secular approach of power sharing with its Muslim compatriots. Geagea's rival, Michel Aoun, tapped into this new Christian thinking, and has now become the face of Lebanon's Christians. Hizballah is confident that by sharing power with Aoun, and with no March 14 to contend, it will win the hearts and minds of the Christian community.

But the trust of the Druze community will be hard to come by. Jumblatt is of za'im status among the Druze. His community have vested their entire hopes into this man to the extent that they would follow him to whatever end. Jumblatt is renowned to flip sides often. It was only three years ago that he was touting Hizballah as a legitimate resistance. Nasrallah will shrink the influence of Jumblatt, silence his rhetoric, and perhaps force a reconciliation between him and Hizballah's Druze ally, Talal Arslan.

Hizballah's major battle for hearts and minds will be the Sunnis of Lebanon. Before Rafik al-Hariri's death, the Sunnis were great admirers of Hizballah, and equal beneficiaries of the combined Syrian-Saudi hegemonic partnership that prevailed in the 1990s. The Sunnis were fervent supporters of the resistance against Israel, and equally sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. The Sunnis and Shi'ites shared similar ideals on Lebanon's political landscape, with both communities engaged in the left-wing and Arabist movements throughout the 1950s and 60s.

However, the warm relationship was quickly turned upside down following Hariri's assassination and the sharp rise in tension between the Sunni chief state Saudi Arabia and its Shi'ite equivalent Iran. The Shia-Sunni conflict in Iraq didn't help the cause either. Suddenly, what was a 'Muslim camp' quickly disintegrated into a Sunni vs Shi'ite political feud. Hizballah bemoaned the growing distance between itself and Lebanon's Sunnis, despite Nasrallah remaining the most popular figure among the Sunni Arab public outside of the country.

But it is worth noting that Sunni support for Saad Hariri became apparent only after his father's death. At the time of the assassination, the Sunnis felt threatened and that they were being targeted in the country. The Sunni community has long been fractured by competing clans and large families, much like the Christians, but for the first time they found themselves attracted to a single sect leader, and to a commonality.

Rafik al-Hariri originated from the Sunni city of Sidon in the south, and built his prestige and power in the highly secular Sunni West Beirut. That largely alienated the Sunni communities in Tripoli and the north of the country, which held more traditional customs, were more strict in their adherence to Islam, and held close ties to Syria. Sunni residents on the northern fringes of Lebanon would rely on the Syrian towns across the border for their livelihoods, and were much detached from the Hariri world of West Beirut.

Hariri supporters in Beirut have long stated that Rafik al-Hariri had attempted to reconstruct Tripoli as he did Beirut, but his overtures were constantly rejected by then Tripolite Sunni strongman, Omar Karami.

The death of Hariri was met with great investment into the Sunni regions in the north, and money was being poured from Saad Hariri into the pockets of poor families. Hariri needed the respect of the impoverished northern Sunni regions to become the spokesman of Sunnis in Lebanon. Hizballah is hoping that the support of northern Sunnis for Hariri is simply a matter of finances and not conviction. If Hizballah and its allies do reach power, which is becoming increasingly likely, it will need to provide services to these impoverished regions if it is to defeat Hariri's money machine, and break his claim to the title of leader of all Sunnis in Lebanon.

The short, but violent civil war of the past three days will be followed by a grander civil war that may take years ... a civil war for hearts and minds. For it is only with the trust of the Lebanese people can Hizballah truly rule this country.


M Bashir said...

good analysis

Anonymous said...

What will this scenario look like in a few years when Iran (and thus Hezbollah) have nuclear materials? From the western view- this necessitates a hit on Iran soon. If Hezbollah is powerful now- what will it look like with a nuclear apparatus?

Liz said...

You have given us a good analysis especially when you pointed out what happened to Hamas. Hizbollah has done a remarquable job until now.

Anonymous said...

Good stuff.

Saif said...

A balanced and well-written piece.

Anonymous said...

The problem of trust is a huge problem. Whether you like the gvt or not, it is democratically constituted. So weapons took over the constitution. Now even if Hizballa proves to be a group of angels, they have set this rule, that whatever the law is, might makes right. This logic, on the long term, is bad for everybody. What happened these last days should not have happened. Now that it did, we need to wprk together on building trust. A major democratic principle to build the trust, is that the monopole of the use of power be controlled by the voters. This is not the case with the Hizballa, unless they become part of the army. Other measures won't build any trust.

Ann said...

Thank you, a worthwhile piece and a breath of fresh air.

omar said...

Enjoyed that analysis of my parent's homeland, a place with a political history that is incredibly difficult to get my head around.

Interested to read that you live in Australia... Are you active in any activist/leftist organisations here?

Antoun said...


It is a pity that it got to the stage it did last week. No side was willing to concede, and as Lebanese often do, instead of sharing and finding a way to reconcile, they fight.

As for March 14, I believe they seriously lost the trust and respect of the Lebanese people after the Cedar Revolution. Instead of leading the country into a new direction, free of Syria, and introducing new reforms, they clung onto the corrupt establishment the Syrians imposed to further their power. Second, they became embroiled in the American agenda for a New Middle East out of fear for their survival.

That is the mistake March 14 made. Securing power in Lebanon requires the trust of the people, not that of Washington. Hezbollah invested heavily into improving its PR by forming an alliance with the Christians. March 14, on the other hand, didn't invest in the people, but instead ran to Washington and Riyadh for their security.

We arrived at a stage where many Lebanese were gaining trust for Hezbollah, and losing faith in March 14. I'm not discounting Hezbollah's own links to Syria and Iran, but it played its politics in Lebanon well, and it presented itself as a saviour for Lebanon, which was enhanced by its victory against Israel.

Hezbollah thrives on its image as a moral saviour, and it works time and time again.

The takeover of Beirut is a blow to this image, you are correct. That is why I have stated that Hezbollah now has years and years ahead of it to regain the trust of the Lebanese it has lost. It said it would never use its weapons to take power, it has.

If they give the power back to the people, they will reclaim that trust.


I am active in the Lebanese community here, but I'm not a member of any leftist or political organisations.

Anonymous said...

some great insight here... good job man