Sunni politics in Lebanon

There are three main (intersecting) orientations “mainstream” Sunni politics perceives (or deal with) more radical militant movements such the brief hollywoodean movement of Sheikh Asir, Jubhat al Nusra or Da’esh (ISIS).

1- To secretly feel that they are scoring points against their more traditional political enemy that is Hizbullah

2- To despise them but have no long-term political breath to do much about it and to prefer adopt piecemeal approaches, co-opting these groups for popularity/electoral reasons

3- To practice ostrich politics or avoid looking at the elephant in the room.

In either case, this is untenable especially with more powerful groups such as Da’esh that are highly strategic in their movements and that, by looks of it, definitely plan to eat little by little the border “Sunni” region of north Lebanon.

This will require a political consensus that neither the weak army institution of the army nor the various political force could muster during the short but turbulent history of  the tiny republic of Lebanon.

So if I want to be completely pessimistic, I see that the consociational democracy formula, which is slightly reworked arrangement of the “strength of Lebanon is in its weakness” motto (Pierre Gemayel’s infamous statement), may pave the way for larger Sunni politics. It just happens that it comes (as is often the case) in a very violent and brutal way).

Playing with guns: An event among others in Nahr el Bared

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The guy on the right got a bullet in the head a couple of minutes after this picture was taken. As he seemed still alive, it is the photoprapher of this picture, Bilal Jawish, who could retrieve him from the battlefield the army not daring to approach him to get him out. It seems that he survived although it was not known in what condition. This happened on the 20th of May 2007.

What happened? A “Real politik” reading

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.

Hizbullah’s momentum

Hizbullah has not been very verbal about the Israeli killing of two Lebanese in Ghajar near the Wazani river in the South. Now that’s a very unusual stance. Yesterday, when Parliamentary member and leader of the Hizbullah denominated parliamentary committee Mohammad Raad was interviewed on Al Manar TV, there was nothing said about this event. All the discussion revolved around Black Sunday (when 7 protesters died during demonstrations against electricity cuts) and Hizbullah’s position vis-a-vis the army and the ruling coalition. The interviewer asked questions in such a way to push Raad to justify and defend their position of why they are not after the Lebanese Army as an institution, and why they are hell-bent on knowing who were the detractors ‘infiltrated into’ the ranks of the army or shooting on the rooftops from out of it.

From this I gather one important conclusion. This time Hizbullah won’t let it pass. Since the Syrian withdrawal and the first direct political confrontations with the party, Hizbullah has slowly learned the rules of the game if it wants to get a share of the political pie (without Syria around). They moved from total quiescence to daily publishing of information that shows how corrupt and ‘illegitimate’ are the ruling coalition. What they want to know this time, is who exactly shot among the Lebanese army and how are they related to the ruling coalition (or to the snipers on the roof tops). It is an excellent opportunity (becoming fewer and fewer) to weaken the ruling coalition.

Hizbullah is focusing so much on this that it practically ignored Israeli disturbances in the south. To my knowledge there was only one official statement by Parliamentary member El Hajj Hassan condemning the attack and saying that Hizbullah reserves itself the right to retaliate. See normally in this case you would have Al Manar TV flooding you with information on what will happen next of how Israeli committed a huge mistake etc. Something really big is being played here, much bigger than Israeli skirmishes alongside the border.

Hizbullah affiliated website wa3ad does have a very detailed account of what happened though.

Past and practically current events in the life of Brid. Gen. el-Hajj

So a quick recap of Brigadier Francois el-Hajj’s military history in reverse chronological order

1- Played a central role in the destruction and defeat of Fath al Islam’s forces in Nahr el Bared.
2- Lead battles against the bad guys in Deniyeh (replicas of Fath al Islam) 7 years ago, only to find them released along with Samir Geagea in the euphoria run-up of the cedar revolution.
3- Countered Lebanese Forces attacks in 1989 moments after Geagea (leader of LF) assured him that the army (under the command of General Aoun at the time) won’t be attacked. Hajj accordingly led the attack from Qolei3at and pushed LF forces back to Nahr el Mot.
4- Escaped an Israeli-LF assassination’s attempt back in 1976, after Bashir Gemayel’s forces (LF old face) had asked him to coordinate with the Israelis in order to set up a security zone in the south, to which he refused.

Now consider this:

1- El-Hajj is from Rmeish (Christian), a border village with Israel that is a couple of minutes away from Ayta Shaab (Shiite) famous for its fierce resistance to Israel incursions (especially during the last war). During the latest Israeli murderous adventure, most people from Ayta sought refuge in Rmeish their neighbors with whom they have strong ties due to their common economic work (tobacco cultivation) and age-old family friendships. Considering the fact that Hizbullah and the Lebanese army were coordinating on many levels, I would not be exaggerating if I say that it is possible that people like El-Hajj played key roles in that process. People like that are either preciously cherished (politically I mean), or vehemently hated.

2- El Hajj was going to be the next General of the army.

3- This and that.

Does this look like a guy the “Syrian-Iranian axis” would try to kill? Only if they want to shoot themselves in the foot. More on this later.

What is left of Nahr el Bared

Click on the picture to view the true extent of the damage.

National consciousness

Here I just want to throw some ideas around. I have been meaning to write something but the fact that I am trying to produce my miserable thesis does not permit me to invest to many neurones around here. So scattered thoughts here they are:

Let me start with the obvious: Today the Lebanese state is witnessing a crucial step in its formative experience through the war practices of the Lebanese army. Rare are the all-encompassing (non-sectarian) “Lebanese” practices, but the army voice such a discourse, and the people try as hard as possible to claim to abide by it. Lebanese army banners are hanging from many homes from various regions of the country. A lot of people are proud of the army. The politicized side of it comes from those who sends implicit references to Hizbullah saying that “the weapons of the army are the red line”.

In order to do this, the creation of the enemy as a precursor for non-sectarian identification is necessary. The enemy has to be completely alien to possible Lebanese forms. Imported. Not even confessional or tribal. In this case, the enemy is “Sunni Salafism”. Dominant actors try to portray it as having nothing of “lebanese” traits. Just like Hizbullah was or a long time expressed by various ideologues (media, academics, etc.) as being a pure import from Iran.

There is even something vaguely “American” about this way of drawing political boundaries. When the Lebanese army was doing its conference following the end of the Nahr el Bared battle, they were talking of this enemy just like an American general would explain the strategy against al Qaeda. No wonder why the Lebanese are linking Fath el Islam to some Al Qaeda institutional command.

All this said (which opens the door to a lot of inquiry on the practices of Middle Eastern States), it is important I believe not to lose sight of the very important confessional aspect of the institution of the Lebanese army in terms of organizational hierarchy, although we need a close examination of the “anatomy” of the army and see that there are surely differently lived experiences between different confessions fighting together within the army from people who never joined the army (This needs investigation).

At the end of the day, the various “Lebanese subjects” have just added another imaginary to their repertoire. It has not strengthened their national consciousness because not much has changed in their daily social practices. The euphoria following the Lebanese army triumph is ill-founded. The political will not succeed in creating and solidifying new cross-confessional forms of consciousness even if they raise the Al-Qaeda argument for very simple reasons, one being that political actors don’t want that to happen, and two being that nothing changed at the institutional level.

The only problem with such double standards is rising social schizophrenia this population will find itself engulfed in. And collective denials of this sort can breed many political diseases.

Excuse the generalities around the end, but you guys can manage illustrating these.

I will bomb (the shit out of) you to peace

Lebanese army ad found on billboards and wall posters everywhere in the country.

Annahar and its sources

Today Annahar reported that after interrogating members of Fath al Islam, it seems they were preparing for a ’11th of sept’ style of attack on hotels in Beirut, and that they got arms from Syria. Basically, the perfect ‘terrorist’ group. I wonder is Annahar reporting what it wants to hear (as the ideological construct works on an unconscious level), or are the interrogators really extracting such informations? Who basically is interrogating FI? Because if the interrogators are the Lebanese army, I would doubt that they would reveal stuff like that, at the very least for diplomatic purposes.

Time for a round up

This post has been modified to include the precious insights of the commentators. First, I retract the ‘blame’ language that is quite useless it is true. Second, I try to focus on asking the questions we tend to think are the most relevant.

The recent wave of violence taking place in Lebanon has put into question several issues that I wish to address:

1- The legitimacy of the Lebanese army’s action

Posing the problem in the way it is posed through either nationalist from one side or leftist ‘humanist’ rhetoric from the other fails to address the problem. The Lebanese army was caught off guard whatever one may say. It would be much more judicious to wonder why the Lebanese army was put in this situation in the first place (if there is such a thing as a mover). And why, until now, no significant diplomatic moves have been recorded.

We need a much better understanding of what is going on inside the camps. How are political organizations structured? What are the various competing claims to power? What are the different security structures? And if there is a state of mild anarchy within the camps then to what extent other groups know what is going on but are keeping it to themselves? The way the PLO is behaving for example is just outrageous: It is sanctifying the Lebanese army’s deeds and hope that Fath al Islam can be wiped out the hard way. Where were they all this time? So busy brokering deals with the Americans that they forgot there are camps in Lebanon?

But above all, one needs to understand better how did Fath and even Hamas lost their grasp of political leverage inside the camps. Who are the non-Palestinian actors that played a role in this weakening if any?

Next, one needs to assess the various primary scenarios at hand: whether Fath al Islam before going wild was initially backed by the Lebanese Mustaqbal lead group (with or without US oversight), or whether Syria has supposedly sent Al Absi to play dirty tricks on the Lebanese (i.e. abiding by the “there is a Syrian behind every misdeed in Lebanon”). But in order to do so one needs to demystify Fath al Islam’s “ethos”.

2- The motives of Fath Al Islam (demystifying the ‘ethos’)

That is the trickiest question. What are Fath Al Islam trying to achieve? Are they fighting some ‘imperialist’ or ‘western’ or whatever discursively-defined enemy that poses real exploitative structures on them? Who? The Lebanese government? What was the Lebanese State doing against these people?

See, the problem with the pervasiveness of the ‘terrorist’ concept is that these dudes don’t even need to have a motive in order to create trouble, because it is thus thought under this conceptual framework that because they are ‘terrorist’ (labeled as such) there is something ‘within their being’ that is prone to violence, nothing more nothing less. It is the ideological pervasiveness in the belief of the ‘the essence behind the action’ that bluntly biases our understanding of this movement. We don’t look for motives because the motive is just their ‘being’! (i.e. being terrorist, which is an empty signifier).

So let’s look for some sense in this: We know that Al Absi before being arrested in Syria was planning to ‘liberate the Golan‘. Well ok, that may be a militant plan that I can buy. Then, what were they doing in Lebanon? Did post-Hariri (because as pointed out by Jean Aziz for example, Hariri himself was not playing the ‘Sunni fundamentalist’ card) people promised them something specific? What was their political agenda? Why acting today?

3- The impact on the Lebanese political groups

The most interesting aspect of all this is how government, the opposition and even somewhat neutral ‘bystanders’ in the presses, blogs etc. are just working the problem through the ethical dilemma they face: Should we back the Lebanese army? or should we voice our concerns against the Palestinian civilians? Should we accuse the US of fomenting trouble, and wanting to find a pretext in order to either send more aid or just build a military base?

The obvious thing is that both the ruling government and the opposition groups are trying to play on the ‘terrorist’ rhetoric the best way possible. Opposition blames the government of letting ‘extremists’ develop, so they criticize their security mess-ups. And the government is pressing on more rapprochement with the international community in order to corner Hizbullah and other ‘old-regime’ remnants.

4- And now I vent a little (a note on the side):

Today, I pity the Lebanese army that found itself engulfed in this bloody quest, that is refueling anti-Palestinian sentiments, not between the Lebanese army ranks that are mostly Shi’as and are the most pro-Palestinian constituency in Lebanon today, but between the miserable petite bourgeoisie as would call it Al Haqid that have nothing else to do than to say: “ah these Palestinians they don’t want to let the army restore order, then they just get what they deserve!”.

I pity the innocent individual soldiers in the army that are obliged to play the ‘nationalist’ game for no reasons but to kill or get killed. I pity the Palestinians who are blocked in this camp or have difficulty leaving. And I pity the Palestinians to be in a camp in the first place. So I blame Lebanese authorities to have kept Palestinians in such a marginalized state where playing with a rifle was (obviously) a more exciting prospect than sitting and praying for divine liberation. And today, I blame Palestinian groups that have no oversight on these armed men and who on top of it all are hiding behind a completely disarrayed and brainwashed Lebanese government (himself hiding behind Uncle Sam) in order to see stability restored in their shit hole.

For the record …

It said that it could not break down the deaths between militants and civilians but that the total number of people killed since fighting began on May 20 exceeded 100, including soldiers, militants and civilians.

Le mythe de la terreur

Personnellement je trouve que l’apparition soudaine de ce phénomène de Fath el Islam au Nord très bizarre, d’un cote c’est l’ennemi parfait. Physiquement on peut l’associer au barbare étranger, la presse insiste sur le caractère étranger de ce groupe, on parle de saoudiens, de pakistanais, qui n’envoient pas leur enfants a l’école!! Bref des véritables monstres qui agressent notre…brave armée… affaire à suivre.

Just to make it clear

I was never fond of conspiracy theories. Not because people don’t conspire, far from it. But because in politics, people are not that shrewd and are not endowed with awareness of the long-term. In light of this, a couple of points so as to make sure everybody agrees on this:

1- It is the ‘ruling majority’ government (specifically the Hariri camp) that gave the possibility (directly or tacitly) for Fatah Al Islam to develop. As would say Al Haqid, Fatah al Islam is a Lebanese political actor, or is a product of the Lebanese political system. It is also the result of the corruptive and incompetent practice of post-Syria-withdrawal Lebanon government.

2- The US administration may have overseen or even financed the formation of the such groups, even if today it is possible that they cannot control what they started (recent history is replete with such examples from Afghanistan).

3- It is much less likely that the Syrians are behind the whole thing in the sense that Syria would not want to jeopardize the Lebanese army (one of its only remaining ally), and neither would want to put Hizbullah in an awkward position (which is clearly the case today).

4- Both actors can benefit though from likely future developments, although the US will definitely have a much more important role to play (maybe military) in Lebanon. Syria is to remain on the defensive trying to collect pieces of what is left from the US elephant-like advancement in the Middle East.

Exodus

Sitting in one of the hospital’s many full rooms, Rehan Khoadr, 20, was recovering from shrapnel wounds to her abdomen, chest and legs. A thin woman, she appeared drawn but gestured animatedly despite an intravenous needle inserted into her arm.

“When the war started we became scared and tried to flee the camps,” she said. “As we were getting ready to leave a bomb fell on our house. That is all I remember. Now I know my father is dead and my mother is in a coma.”

On the fourth day …

The Lebanese army yesterday asked the Pentagon to provide more ammunition to continue its assault. It also asked for bulletproof vests and helmets. The US, which has given $30m (£15.2m) in equipment to the Lebanese army over the past 12 months, including Humvees and helicopter spare parts, is likely to comply.