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Lebanon in Lethal Disarray! - abyssus abyssum invocat
I Remember Lebanon is a documentary that was directed and produced by Zeina Aboul Hosn in 2006...

3 February   |   2008   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... It represents an emotional journey through her memories of Beirut, filmed just before the war bombs started falling on the country, and offers a chance to meet the new generation of young Lebanese men and women whose lives have been altered significantly since this latest chapter of violence that followed a period of relative tranquillity and growth.

In promoting her documentary, Hosn wrote that when she visited Lebanon in June 2006, “everything was perfect - the city was buzzing, there was so much energy, high expectations, a lot of hope ... While in the airplane at Beirut International Airport, heading to London, I thought to myself, this is the time to move back - Beirut is booming! Two days later, that runway at the airport no longer existed - the country was under attack and under siege ... I wanted people here to know what was being destroyed - I wanted this film to shatter the distance of that war, and I wanted to release the anger and frustration I felt, watching my family, my friends, and my Lebanon burn.”

Since those indiscriminate bombs started clustering all parts of a flailing Lebanon during the torrid summer of 2006, much has changed in the country. In my article of 6 October 2007 on the Lebanese presidential hustings entitled From Early October till Late November?, I echoed the hope of ordinary Lebanese men and women for peace. I argued that min kul ikhtilaf i’tilaf - out of every difference of opinion emerges a coalition - whereby it was perhaps high time for Lebanon to evince the political maturity that strengthens its national unity within its confessional diversity and in the process defines an honourable way out of its woes.

But have any of the improvements I had hoped for taken hold in Lebanon in the past four months?

Alas, I regret that things have in fact taken successive turns to the worse. As Crisis Watch Bulletin #54 of 1 February 2008 underlined, the conflict situation in Lebanon has deteriorated further into a Conflict Risk Alert and the country now stands at yet another critical crossroads between war and peace. Broadly speaking, Lebanon today is polarised between the two coalitions of 8th and 14th March. The former coalition represents largely the “opposition” that houses the Muslim Shi’i movements of Amal & Hizbullah headed by Nebih Berri and Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah alongside the two Christian [nominally Maronite] factions of the Free Patriotic Movement headed by General Michel Aoun [that is linked to Hizbullah with a Document of Understanding] and the Marada Movement of Suleiman Franjieh. The 14th March coalition, on the other hand, are “in government” and consist of the Sunni Muslim constituencies of Lebanon led by Sa’ad Hariri, son of the assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, along with the Druze faction of Walid Jumblatt and the countervailing Christian factions that include the Phalangist Party and the Lebanese Forces of Amin Gemayel and Dr Samir Geagea. Over and above the deep confessional divisions of the country, Lebanon is now also running on autopilot, without a President since 23 November 2007, a Parliament whose doors remain cripplingly shut most of the time, and with the institutions of the military and intelligence services being targeted with wanton killings. No wonder that the ordinary populace is not only sick to the teeth of those political impasses created by bickering politicians, it is also challenged by an economic meltdown and a vertiginous increase in the cost of living - which many Lebanese can ill afford today.

So the war-weary and over-politicised Lebanese are left to battle it out amongst themselves as they witness their picturesque country being torn in a tug-of-war between Iran and Syria supporting the 8th March coalition with ample arms and monies, and the USA, some Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, as well as the EU supporting the 14th March coalition with lots of verbal promises and political initiatives. But there is an almost unarticulated fear in the country that results from a clear military imbalance between the two sides: words cannot defy arms, and although Lebanese politicians still insist that they will not resort to another civil war, it is starkly clear that the preponderance of arms on one side (namely with Hizbullah) makes many Lebanese Christians and Muslims quite jittery about the possibility that the genie might escape the bottle, that those arms could be used in an undemocratic strategy to impose a pseudo-Islamist or pro-Syrian / Iranian agenda that is anathema to at least half the country. Lebanon would then catapult toward another civil war equal in ferocity to the one from 1975 till 1990 - as the Marada leader intimated darkly in an interview with al-Jazeera Arabic television on 4 February 2008.

In the midst of this political maelstrom that refuses to seek an egress, the initiatives have been plentiful. The last one, sponsored unanimously by the Foreign Ministers of the 22-member Arab League at its extraordinary meeting in its headquarters in Cairo on 5 January 2008, boiled down to a three-pronged plan. It involved the immediate election of General Michel Suleiman as President of this tottering republic, the formation of a national unity government comprising ministers from both the 8th and 14th March coalitions and the adoption of a new electoral law that would represent more equitably the demographic and confessional realities of Lebanon today.

One epicentre of the Christian voice in Lebanon remains HE Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, the enfeebled and much-maligned patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church at Bkirke, who welcomed the Arab League initiative as a way to avert looming disasters that could dismember the country. But his pleas have fallen on deaf ears, and he has become embroiled in a tit-for-tat campaign that has demeaned his own ecclesial position further but also shown how some secular politicians would rise against their religious leaders when the price is right. Not only the patriarch, but the spiritual leaders of Lebanon’s three Muslim main sects also urged their politicians to speed up implementation of this Arab initiative. Grand Mufti Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Qabbani and Sheikhs Abdul Amir Qabalan and Naim Hassan voiced a joint statement that “Lebanon’s salvation … is the duty of all the Lebanese.”

Yet nothing moves forward, progress is as elusive as ever, with new pre-conditions being set out almost as soon as previous ones have been dealt with, and the ever-incandescent sparks of tension are flying between the different factions. In the past few weeks, there have been contained scuffles and riots between supporters of both coalitions - over the posters of Rafik Hariri in the Basta district of Beirut, to bloody fights ostensibly over electricity cuts in the Mar Mikhael-Shiyah neighbourhoods of Beirut, and to armed attacks in Corniche Mazra’a. Those riots - whether orchestrated or spontaneous - could spin out of control if the army as sole neutral guarantor of law and order fails to ensure security or is targeted to disempower its structures and thereby make Lebanon even more susceptible.

Today, there are new calls to take this crisis to the UN in case this supra-national organisation will manage to leverage its collective international influence to secure a solution that has escaped the protagonists themselves. Yet, I remember the heady days last November when French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and many other Lebanese and international politicians prevailed upon Cardinal Sfeir to present his own list of possible candidates -papabile some people dubbed it wryly - for the presidency. The patriarch resisted this proactive involvement in the political debacle because he was sensitive to its political pitfalls. However, after consultations with the Apostolic Nuncio Luigi Gatti and his own bishops, he ended up relenting to the pressure by presenting a list that was divided into four groups. The first group included Aoun, Harb and Lahoud. The second group of more consensual candidates comprised of Ghanem, Khoury, Edde, Bouez and Dakkash. The third group of economists folded Tarabay, Qattar and Salameh. Finally, the fourth group consisted singly of the army commander Michel Suleiman.

This list is now almost part of the political lore of Lebanon as the whole political establishment claims to support the election of Michel Suleiman as consensual candidate. However, even this first step in correcting the political prism of Lebanon is not occurring smoothly, and there are dubious forces with spurious motivations militating against the stability Suleiman might bring to the country. Some pundits even claim that Suleiman’s candidacy is a plain decoy for abstaining from electing any president or for imposing a viscerally pro-Syrian choice to the post.

Yet, it is nothing new for most seasoned political observers to suggest that Lebanon has become once more an open arena - some would add an ailing symptom - for the power-plays of the whole region. This thesis would add that any solution to those Lebanese bloody standoffs between the two factions and their diehard supporters is largely predicated upon the outcome of the critical “ideological” battlefield between different forces in the region. Syria and Iran do not wish to forsake their tutelage of Lebanon and are working through their local allies to ensure that the outcome of this standoff does not run against their regional geo-strategic interests (including in Lebanon). Conversely, the USA, much of Europe and many countries in the Arab world are supporting PM Fouad Siniora’s government for the edification of a different form of democracy whereby Shi’i demographics would also not become the ascendant force in Lebanon and impact more seriously majority Sunni interests in the whole region - especially in view of the global influence Iran brings with it today despite the ongoing conflict over its nuclear issue. In this war of affiliations and alliances in Lebanon, it is no wonder for instance that the question of the tawtin or citizenship for over 400,000 Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon for decades has assumed such a dramatic importance. After all, their acquisition of citizenship would impact upon the confessional balances in the country.

In all of this, starting perhaps with the Ta’ef Accords of 22 October 1989 that diluted the Christian influence in Lebanon, it is arguable that the bitter Sunni-Shi’i conflict is being played out via the Christian proxies on both sides. True, the Christians are just under than 30% of the whole country today - and this might well need to be factored into the constitutional and electoral makeup of Lebanon at some later stage - but the way they are being shunted aside, sometimes aided and abetted by their own self-centred arrogance and inability to rise above the patina of their own exclusivist interests, is not a good omen for Lebanon. I recall a succulent dinner my partner and I had with a prominent Shi’i woman in the Ain el-Tineh neighbourhood of Beirut who told me bluntly that a Lebanon minus the Christian dimension is not a Lebanon she as a Shi’i woman would ever wish to live in. Yet, is she not in the minority with such wonderfully inclusive views - views that are inclusive at least on the surface? Driving from east to west Beirut, I am often struck by the striking difference in political, social and cultural mores, so much so that I wonder at times whether Lebanon should not consider a clear bi-communal, bi-zonal setup that would avert all the divisions of the moment and make all Lebanese feel safer in their country. Of course, I admit freely that this is both naïve and non-feasible for concrete practical, political and demographic reasons, but the thought crosses my mind occasionally - and I know it also crosses that of many other Lebanese minds too.

Juan Bautista Alberdi, an Argentine constitutionalist, noted in 1837 that “nations, like men, do not have wings; they make their journeys on foot, step by step.” Unfortunately, the Lebanese collective political establishments are even unable to implement what they have seemingly agreed upon - namely, the election of a consensual president or ra’is tawafouqi - so that his election would herald the necessary implementation of the other pending constitutional and institutional matters. As Cardinal Sfeir stated last week, it is time to elect a president “who can manage the country’s affairs and not a president handcuffed with conditions.” After all, it is redundant to place the cart before the horse, and so the election of a president should precede all other appointments. Yet, there are many reasons why this is not happening, not least a total breach of trust between both halves of Lebanon as represented by their political coalitions, paralleled with the ominous reality that many parties outside Lebanon are toiling to ensure that the Lebanese do not sit down and resolve their outstanding issues. Is it possible that all those political ploys and shenanigans are aimed at emptying this nation from its institutions? Worse, are the Lebanese being led into a regional and international trap rather than strive to insulate their country from those political re-alignments?

Sad indeed, yet, despite the doom and gloom surrounding this Mediterranean country for the past eighteen months, I still hold out some hope that the horse sense and basic decency of all ordinary Lebanese citizens would prevail in the end: if politicians on either side cannot define a common programme for the good of this country but spend their time besting one another, and the Lebanese media is becoming increasingly partisan, the Lebanese people are themselves not nearly so confused. Talking to taxi drivers, a sure barometer of populist political weathervanes, it is clear that a Lebanon removed from its servile ideological monologues, wants only to live, work and study - to be as it were, in an existential sense - in a free and sovereign land that strengthens its own role rather than those of outside powers. Unlike their politicians, most ordinary folk understand that their country can no longer be a servant to preying foreign masters - be they Syrian or American, Israeli, Iranian or other - but a land where principled freedom would lead to mutual conviviality. As Robert Ghanem, a deputy who heads the parliamentary Justice Committee, said last week, “We need a basket of principles rather than a basket of conditions to shield the nation against whatever happens in the region.” Quite true, or else the conspiracies striking against Lebanon’s very entity and pitting Iran against the USA (either directly or via third parties) could even lead to another fratricidal civil war.

Will the Lebanese demonstrate visibly at long last their oft-stated love and deep-rooted attachment to their country?

I recall a millennium-old Latin saying: abyssus abyssum invocat whereby one evil deed leads to another. I just pray that Lebanon - ‘where things are rarely what they seem on the surface’ as Victor T Le Vine, professor of political science at Washington University, specialising in Middle East, African and terrorist studies opined once - will find its own voice so it moves forward as best it can in an imperfect and artificial Middle East region run by many imperfect politicians and artificial leaders. I do not expect Lebanon to become an exemplar of democracy, good governance or confessional pluralism overnight, but given its rich human resources, I merely hope it will become a normal independent state once more rather than the battleground for hyper-inflated Lebanese political egos, a myriad foreign intelligence services or, worse, ill-intentioned and expansionist alien infiltrations of all colours.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2008   |   3 February


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