The day after the quick removal of Mustaqbal’s mercenaries from West Beirut, a Saturday if I am not mistaken, there were no cats on the streets. The roads from Hamra to Gemmayzeh were totally deserted. At the start of the bridge of Beshara el Khoury coming from Burj el Murr, the main road was blocked by big piles of sand, and one had to go through a little street to the right in order to cut through around the bridge and end up at the other side. After passing by a couple of smiling Amal kids with talkie walkies, I ended up facing from a significant distance the UN building in down town. The UN building in down town is the biggest masquerade ever. They are more guarded than guantanamo’s prisons. But that’s a different story.
Anyway, there were a couple of guys standing under the bridge, and judging from their clothes, they were Hizbullah militants. As I was a bit lost I approached my car from them and asked one who came forward to me: “How can I get to the other side?” The guy smiled at me and said: “What side are you talking about?”. And so because I am of the humorous type (as many of you have noticed), I said to him as I waved with my hand to the direction of “The East”, “you know… The Other side”.
And this is when he answered with a big laugh: “no, you have to be more precise! Are you scared? you know, even if you are a fan of Samir Geagea (min shabibet Geagea), I have a legal obligation (Taklif Shar’i) to do everything possible to get you safe where you need to go”. This last part was said with such pride that it was spilling over all the traits of his face. I quickly answered that I’m no fan of him, that I was just talking metaphorically, and that I needed to get to next to Gemayze. So he explained to me how to get there.
Why am I telling this anecdote? Many people heard of the “Taklif Shar’i” Hizbullah militants follow, and how it is connected to Shi’a legal principles etc. But I don’t find all these essentialist and culturally-narrow theories satisfying. I want to know in what way does this differ from any code, any disciplinary mode prevalent in military organization or any institution for that matter. What type of training other armies go through (the American army for example), and what are the similarities and differences in terms of crystallizing respect of authority and self-control? What’s the resulting relation between self, group, and organization? How is the carrying of weapon add dimensions to all that? I think it is a good starting point (not the only one by all means) to understand why is Hizbullah so well organized (compared to a chaotically disorganized Arab world).
For those not interested in academic empty quarrels you can skip this post. Our colleague, friend and fellow blogger Abu muqawama, has proposed to call the conflict that is happening in this little slice of land that came to be called Lebanon another civil war. And here, he provides more evidence of that. I think one should wonder why we try to call a war “civil” in the first place. Is it to differentiate it from wars that take place between “armies”? What makes a militia become an army? What’s the sanctifying procedure? Usually classical reasoning would be to say that an army is ‘the regular army’ when it answers to the commandment of the State in place. Here there are so many question that opens up on our way to understand State formation especially in post-colonial divided regions like the Middle East. What’s the difference between Hizbullah’s military structure, other military structures (like those they fought), and the Lebanese army one? What “causes” are each of them defending?
The interesting aspect of what’s going on in this place called Lebanon is the fact that a party is trying to adopt State discourse without really holding State power. A party adopting State-like practices without really claiming to become a State. I’m still astonished as to where Hizbullah think it can go using such method without really controlling the country.
But to go back to our point, calling a war ‘civil’ adds to it another moral (legitimizing) dimension, it hints on the idea that a war is happening between ad-hoc military formations emanating from within the population. This discursive insertion of ‘civil’ takes for granted the idea that there is some sort of an imagined community (here the Lebanese) and that this community is tearing itself apart. Hizbullah actually uses and is constrained by this discourse, the one projecting the existence of a Lebanese community (the one of multi-confessionalism, consociationalism, etc). In the case of the last few days, the party considered itself doing a “cleaning job” that in the end will serve the interest of the State. So it was considered very normal for its media channels (and other opposition medias) to talk about the storming into offices of the Mustaqbal militia, and the collection of weapons as a ‘restoring order’ operation, and relegating the matter to The Law (i.e. the army in this case).
I won’t write more because I promised myself not to make lengthy posts. I will probably re-articulate these (very disarticulated) ideas in other coming posts.
Fida’ Itani is back with this haunting idea that behind every weakening of Mustaqbal, there is a strengthening of Sunni Salafi groups that are more anti-Shi’a than anti-Israeli. I do agree with his analysis, in the fact that there is an increasing anti-Shi’a sentiment in the country. But I do also think that anti-Shi’a feelings have always existed and shared by the population at various level, social, economic and political. I wonder how much these groups can have political clout, and I don’t know how much their alleged ideology (judging from the quotes Itani provides) is really sustainable in the future. Also this demonization of “The Salafi” is very much akin to the one made of Hizbullah. Now that Hizbullah is supposed to be ‘the good guy’ wanting to build cooperatively the “Lebanese State”, the frontiers of the sanctified and not sanctified has been broadened. That said he makes a good point, and weakening Mustaqbal is certainly a lose-lose situation.
The opposition cannot weaken a party, humiliate him, etc, and then claim it wants to share power the traditional Lebanese way. This is the biggest contradiction of Hizbullah: It wants to play by the rules of the game (confessionalism, consociationalism, etc.) but uses vanguard party methods of takeover. The biggest problem of Hizbullah is that it is not a state-within-a-state it is a much better functioning State than the Lebanese State at any point of it history, yet wants to bring itself down and play by the rules of the figments of a State that is the Lebanese State. This political schizophrenia (present in Tayyar to a certain degree) may turn out to be more detrimental to the stability of the political system.
It is important to understand that I am not defending Hizbullah’s viewpoint in the previous posts. I am just trying to describe certain social realities I observe. I am not saying that Hizbullah did good or bad. I am not really judging Hizbullah’s actions.
But probably I should in a certain way say a line or two about this because people are mostly searching for pinpointing culprits. I do think Hizbullah made a mistake, but I also think it was a trap, and that, judging from the political evolution of the party, it was going to eventually fall in it.
Were there alternative policies at hand? I don’t know, I’m not sure we have all the information we need to judge what was possible (what was available to Hizbullah decision-makers). But one thing is sure, Hizbullah is not the only one in this. I am ready to bet that other opposition parties, actors, etc did not just participate in what happened the past few days but also may have advised, pushed, encouraged, etc Hizbullah to move in this direction. Hizbullah doing this, say, a couple of years ago pre-hariri assassination, is almost unthinkable.
I don’t understand why the media is supposed to have “a cause” that surpasses all other causes. Mustaqbal buildings were burnt down by SSNP men (in retaliation for what they did with their offices a couple of month ago). The same night we saw Mustaqbal’s employees crying on TV saying that they were not sectarian but that this attack made them sectarian. Al Haqid summarizes well why these claims are bullshit.
The next day, even Al Akhbar was condemning the attack of the building on the ground that we should not impinge on the freedom of the press. What the hell is this liberal value that these groups are erecting? So Al Akhbar finds it normal that killings are happening when it is on the loyalist side but when it is a journalist, a journalist has no party, color, texture. A journalist is like an angel that should stay untouched.
Journalist, and as a matter of fact any producer of information or knowledge is irremediably the quintessence of party engagement. He/she is the direct formulator of political ideology. He should be the primary target of perceived enemies. This double standard played by the press, this weird self-erected business/social code that the press brandish among its targeted audience is at most obscene if not totally denying of the realities it lives in. What more bourgeois can you get?
Something that makes me snap out very quickly is the outrage shown by people in Beirut to what “the jihadist” did in ‘west Beirut’, as if it was an isolated event, something popping out of nowhere, and as if this only happened to them. Nobody really understand that these types of armed threats were happening in other parts of Beirut and in other parts of Lebanon for the past couple of years by the militias that are connected to the government. Stop being shocked at SSNP’s signature around Hamra, it is simply pay back. Stop thinking that you’ve lived near death experiences when other parts of the country have been living similar states, when they were trying to demonstrate, or pressure the government to change course, and nobody talked about it, nobody nagged for hours when people got killed in Mar Mikhael or in other places. Nobody felt concerned.
Another double standard characteristic is those who say that Hizbullah has finally shown its true face when it turned its “arms towards the inside” thereby destroying their image of a resistant group that honorably defeated Israel. Not only is this a totally flawed reading of what happened, but also, since when anyone thought highly of Hizbullah’s practices of the past decades? I read journalists (and hear people) that always hated and despised Hizbullah now talking about their glorious lost past, warning Hizbullah that they are tarnishing this image. Shame.
If there is one main idea that can capture what happened in the preceding days it would be the resolution of the security struggle that started after the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. As I said in previous posts, Hizbullah found itself in an unforeseen situation after the dismantling of the security system that was in place under the Syrian-Lahoud regime, a system that guaranteed a security protection to Hizbullah’s infrastructure. Once the Syrians were out, Hizbullah entered in a destabilizing spiral culminating with the Israeli murderous incursions, and then today with the decision to shut down their telecommunication network, provoking the armed actions against the newly built security militia structures of the ruling coalition. Destabilization here means on the one hand that Hizbullah has to face new threats, but also that it will try to grasp new opportunities to create security-stable spaces. The seizure of the soldiers in July 2006 followed the long fruitless negotiations with the ruling coalition. This seizure was supposed to create new ‘national’ imperatives, new status-quos. And today the elimination of the Mustaqbal militia is geared at changing the terms of negotiations and giving a higher bargaining position for the opposition.
Every time the opposition tried to pressure the governments to back down through strikes and other demonstrations, there were snipers, checkpoints appearing, and other intimidating (if not murderous) actions that left the government unshakable and the opposition paralysed and frustrated. Since Hariri’s assassination, American and Arab aid came to help in the armament and training of these new military-security groups such as the Mustaqbal militia you now here about.
In addition to that, all the groups left out of the new post-Syrian withdrawal setting that came to form “the opposition” wanted some form of revenge. In this case, I have in mind the SSNP that was quite humiliated throughout these years by Mustaqbal and so came gladly to work with Hizbullah to foment this mini-coup (a new type of coup indeed that requires a coalition and that is not aimed at completely destroying the power in place). The SSNP is the less credited organization to have worked for decades in resistance efforts against Israel (they still have training camps). The SSNP and Hizbullah stayed historically very close not the least because of their visceral rejection of Israel. Recently, Hariri militiamen had burnt they’re offices in Tariq el Jdideh explaining why they quickly did the same thing with Mustaqbal’s buildings.
The position of the Lebanese Army is quite interesting in this whole process. I would not be surprised if they had previous knowledge of what was going to happen. That would explain the anger of 14th of March politicians who a couple of days ago were still glorifying their nominee for the presidency, the general of the army Michel Suleyman. Beyond the strategic gains the army achieved with the decision to disarm the militias Hizb and co were neutralizing, there is a clear stand being taken with regard to what constitute the prevailing ‘nationalist’ doxa. More on that later.