Anj — Lebanon: short memory, system failure

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Lebanon: short memory, system failure
By Vicken Cheterian
Lebanon has approached the opening of its two-month presidential election period, scheduled to begin on 25 September 2007, in a troubled mood. The atmosphere of foreboding is intensified by the assassination on 19 September of the member of parliament Antoine Ghanem (along with six other people). Ghanem was a critic of Syria, and many at his funeral [1] three days later were convinced that Syria was responsible for his death.
The incident is but the latest in a series of such killings that began with the murder of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri [2] on 14 February 2005. The atmosphere of tension, which includes a boycott by opposition members of the parliamentary session due to select the new president, contributed to the last-minute postponement [2] of the start of the election process until 24 October.
But whenever the vote is held and whichever of the eight leading candidates [3] is elected, the process alone will not resolve the deep fractures within the country. A recent return to Beirut convinces me that to understand the present crisis, it is necessary to take a longer-term perspective which traces its origins to the character and operation of Lebanon’s political system since the end of the civil war of 1975-90.
The cost of forgetting
Much of Beirut shows no sign of the effects of the intense bombardment by Israel in the war [3] of July-August 2006. The appearance of downtown Beirut reflects too the ambitious renovation plans of Rafiq Hariri, which were criticised by many Lebanese yet which – in the fusion of traditional architectural styles with cool and friendly pedestrian zones – are impressive.
But it is not hard to encounter either ghosts of the past or fears over the future. The cafés are empty of tourists and the luxury shops are abandoned, while most of downtown Beirut is encircled by barbed-wire and guarded by heavily armed military at every corner. The echoes of the long siege of the central government of Fouad Siniora mounted by the Hizbollah-led [4] opposition in the weeks around the anniversary of the 2006 war are everywhere present. Lebanon is consumed by rumour and trepidation over the possibility of a new internal conflict to match the destructive civil war of 1975-90.
“After the civil war, a huge effort was made to reconstruct buildings and roads, but the human ruins did not interest anyone”, says the civil-society activist Dalal Halawani. Her husband was abducted from their home in 1982 (in the aftermath of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon) by people who identified themselves as Lebanese secret police; he has not been seen since. When she started looking for him she discovered that other women were also searching for their missing family members; this inspired her to form an “association of parents of kidnapped and disappeared persons”.
When the war ended after the Taif agreement [5] of 1989, Dalal and her colleagues hoped that the truth of these abductions would be investigated and revealed. This did not happen: the government was not interested in the task, and the association’s press conferences provoked hostile reactions. Even the number of the disappeared persons was subject to sharp variations: a governmental commission estimated the number In the late 1990s at 17,000, but this was later reduced to 2,312. After the war, says Dalal Halawani, the past was buried: “the warlords changed their military fatigues into suits and occupied ministerial positions or became parliamentarians”.
The roots of division
The land of cedars never undertook a proper reckoning that could heal the wounds of civil war. The result today is that they are again festering. The confessional divide is stronger than ever, a factor underpinned and reinforced by a demographically and socially rising Shi’a population. Every parliamentarian is expanding his own “security” unit, so that they are coming to resemble the old, wartime militias.
A combustible situation is not reflected only in the mass demonstrations or regular assassinations (Samir Kassir, George Hawi, Gibran Tueni and Walid Eido are only some of the prominent figures killed in 2005-07). In January 2007, fighting in one of the universities between Hizbollah sympathisers and students supporting the “future movement” of Rafiq’s son Saad Hariri [6] spread to clashes in various neighbourhoods in Beirut, Sayda and Tripoli. The appearance of rooftop snipers and roadblocks where people’s confessional identity was checked suggested to many citizens that the prospect of a new civil war was real. It was only the rapid intervention of all political leaders that stopped the event from slipping out of control. Since then, there have been population movements and confessional redistribution between neighbourhoods.
The lengthy, violent struggle over the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahd el-Bared [7], near Tripoli – where a jihadi group had taken control – was a further sign of Lebanon’s dangerous insecurity [7] This clash reflects the fact that Lebanon faces a crucial challenge over what to do with unofficial military formations. In the 1970s, the armed groups of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) took Lebanon as base for its operations; each time it conducted a military assault against Israeli interests, Lebanon felt the wrath of Israel’s war machine.
The result was a division in the Lebanese political elite between those who sought to insulate Lebanon [8] from the middle-east conflict by eliminating the PLO, and those who saw Israeli aggression as the source of the country’s problems. It was this schism that led to the destruction of Lebanon from 1975.
The massive bombing by Israel in summer 2006 after Hizbollah’s seizure of two of its soldiers on the border polarised the Lebanese along similar lines: between those who desired Hizbollah’s disarmament as a way of avoiding Israeli assaults and subduing the influence of the movement’s Syrian (and Iranian) backers, and those who saw Hizbollah [8] as the only armed force capable [9] of countering Israel and ensuring Lebanon’s defence.
In the immediate aftermath of the war [9], the prudence of Hizbollah’s attitude indicated that it wished to avoid internal [9] confrontation. Much changed over the next year. Hizbollah now openly labels the government of Siniora as “traitorous” for its efforts to disarm the “resistance” (which Hizbollah sees as collaboration with the United States, and even with Israel); while the government’s supporters increasingly regard Hizbollah as a “state within a state”, whose power is guaranteed by deliveries of arms from Iran and Syria.
The historian Ara Sanjian [10] talks about Lebanon’s “political marketplace”, where the characters and alliances change even as the underlying political game remains the same. He says that in 1975 it was the Maronite [11] Christian political elite that defended the idea of Lebanese sovereignty, while Sunni Muslims (supported by the Shi’a) were the leading pan-Arabists; today, the Sunni political elite is leading the idea of Lebanese sovereignty, while the Shi’a (supported by a majority of Maronites) have assumed the role of pan-Arabists. In the past, the cleavage was Christian-Muslim; today, it is Sunni-Shi’a.
The new polarisation [11] owes much to the failures of the post-1990 period, when theofficial discourse declared that the war was a result of external interference. There was no major effort at national reconciliation, to reform state institutions, or to understand and explain why the civil war happened in order to prevent its repetition.
The state of weakness
Suleiman Takieddine, a lawyer and political writer, identifies the source of the current crisis as the failure to reform Lebanon’s state structures. “At the end of the war, there was a redistribution of power between the warring sides with the financial support of Rafiq Hariri and Syrian patronage”, he says. The Taif agreement included decentralisation measures and development aid to poor areas, but Hariri’s concept was that economic development would solve the other problems of the country. As internal problems have revived, regional troubles again plague little Lebanon, comments Takieddine: “United Nations resolution 1559 [12] [which prefaced the withdrawal [12] of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005] opened three huge files – relations with Syria, Hizbollah weapons, and Palestinian weapons. Each of these files is in itself enough to start a war”.
The Lebanese parliament’s sixty-day period during which it is supposed to choose a new president [13] is due to start on 25 September. The political class is deeply divided: both the Saad Hariri-led majority and the Hizbollah opposition fear the others’ designs; the decision of Hizbollah and its allies to boycott [14] the electoral process is one aspect of this. These internal fractures are an invitation to foreign intervention; indeed, the identity of the next Lebanese president is causing as many discussions in Damascus, Riyadh, Paris, and Washington as in Lebanon itself.
The Lebanese political order is a belated survivor of the Ottoman millet system, one in which religious institutions politically represent “their” communities and run their internal affairs, from family law to administration of historic buildings. Power is distributed in a complex manner between the sixteen recognised confessions, from the heads of government (where the president and army chief-of-staff are Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the parliamentary speaker a Shi’a Muslim) right down to each administrative unit.
The arrangement was once hailed as an example of pluralism in a region characterised by authoritarian, homogenising regimes. In the longer term, it has proved incapable of preventing periodic crises [14] that threaten the security or stability of the country. Yet, there is no political force in the country strong or popular enough to question the entrenched divisions the system imposes on the Lebanese, and to call for the establishment of equality among all its citizens.
The Lebanese state has always been weak; there is indeed a perennial argument [14] that “the strength of Lebanon is in its weakness”. Today that seems decreasingly true, if it ever was.