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).

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Isolationism or Regionalization?

Recently the Phalangist MP Sami Gemayel has proposed to “amend the preamble of the constitution to stipulate Lebanon’s neutrality towards regional conflicts”.

“We request amending the constitution to clearly state that Lebanon must stay neutral towards regional events,” Gemayel said after the weekly meeting of the party’s political bureau. He elaborated: “We are very concerned about Lebanese factions’ participation in the Syrian war and this can lead to transferring the fighting into Lebanon.” “We remind those publicly declaring that they have fighters in Syria, particularly Hizbullah, that they have signed the Baabda Declaration that clearly states we must disassociate Lebanon from regional crises,” the MP noted.

The Baabda declaration took place in June 2012 during one of these so-called “national dialogue sessions”. Whether Lebanon should get involved in regional questions or just adopt an isolationist stance is at the heart of a historical debate that is as old as the existence of the State. Logically enough, the isolationist stance was traditionally endorsed by the Lebanese Christian Right (and still represented by the Phalangist party although recently joined by several other groups). This stance found many enemies whose political existence depended on the resolution or simply the management of regional questions. The coalitions of pro-Palestinian formations, resistance groups against Israeli occupation, pro-Syrian political parties, and so on).

It is not a coincidence that the isolationist stance went well with the famous dictum “Lebanon’s strength is in its weakness” that Pierre Gemayel (again former Phalangist leader and grandfather of the PM Sami Gemayel) declared at some point in the 1970s referring to the multi-confessional nature of the political process and the neutrality position Lebanon strove to enjoy at that time. The event following 1975 were to prove the extent to which this declaration was detrimental to those who found themselves to be Lebanese nationals. It is ironic also, that in the midst of the event following the 1975 debacle, the same party that had adopted an isolationist line had ended up asking for Syrian interference in order to defeat the leftist-Palestinian coalition. Syria was then on an integral part of doing politics in Lebanon. So in order to protect an isolationist/neutral stance the party was forced to ask for a regional cover.

More generally, the paradox of Middle Eastern states is that the more they push for national isolation (for security reasons) the less they are able to confront bigger political forces and thus end up weakening their political bargaining power. The Sunni-Shi’i conflict that has been nurtured gradually since the 1990s is the last mess that threatens to wreck any power the region can accumulate in facing forms of domination. It all started when Iran took precedence in establishing itself as the only regional force that can challenge Israel and the US, a development that left many jealous states and parties across the region. And crucially enough, Iran could only do that because Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas were working together to that effect. These movements are born from the consequence of State ineffectiveness at carrying vital political actions in order to liberate territory and create a strong military deterrence power. Again, the regional nexus permitted local parties to become stronger and voice certain political demands that could not be answered and delivered by local institutions. Whatever one’s stand toward the Syrian uprising (and elsewhere), this development weakens states at the regional at least in the short to mid term as it forces new groups to shorten their attention to “the inside”.

The irony though here is that Middle Eastern countries are not all sticking to a plan of focusing on “the inside” The Gulf and in particular Saudi Arabia and Qatar have tried in all possible ways to challenges Iranian foreign policies by targeting its proxy, first Hamas and Hizbullah, then the Syrian state. This regional war cannot be dissociated from its potentiality of boosting certain states or political formations over others that do have regional agendas. Then, in a context such as the Middle East where occupation is regionally organized, where some states have regional agendas, the isolationist stance resemble what is called ostrich politics (where the ostrich is said to try to delude her enemies by hiding her head in the sand). They fail to see how they cannot avoid the fact that any genuinely political action must involve regional interference whether from within or from without. While Gemayel shouts for a Lebanese neutral stance above, members of his most important political ally (Al Mustaqbal party) and its main sponsors (such as Saudi Arabia) are all deeply involved inside Syria.

I am not trying here to defend Hizbullah’s intervention in Syria but more appropriately to explain why it is impossible for them not to intervene, just like it was practically impossible for Palestinians not to try to wage political militant activities from Lebanese territories, or why more generally, regional issues dictates local ones. This is so because first, local quests for influence need certain regional leverage, and second, because certain political questions are irremediably “trans-national” (such as the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). But the only way to carry out transnational actions is by putting in place a political formation of State, institutions, organizations or groups, that can operate freely away from the vagaries and individualizing tendencies of the democratic push. More on this later.

Electoral fever

To follow on Qifa Nabki’s views from a ’72 Benz C250′, I have to share my own experience that happened today on my way to Hamra. At some point, I decided to ask the driver what he thought of the elections coming up. He said: “I am going to be frank with you, I am with Sleiman beik, all the way”. He added: “if someone wants to pay me money to vote for him, I’ll gladly take it, and buy myself a bottle of whiskey that I particularly am fond of, and I would still vote for Sleiman beik”. He told me the brand name of this whisky, but I just can’t recall.

I then asked him if he was approached to get money to vote for specific parties, to which he answered in the affirmative, adding that it is really the norm in the north, offices are wide open and invite people to ask for anything they want lest they would vote for the Mustaqbal list.

Morality of the story: there is something like a free lunch.

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.

For the record

We do not want to clash with the regime, with those who neglect us. Today, we shout out loud the wrongs against us, that cloud of injustice that has followed us since the beginning of our history. Starting from today we will no longer complain nor cry. Our name is not mitwali [a name for the Shi’a that has taken on a derogatory connotation]; our name is “men of refusal” (rafidun), “men of vengeance,” “men who revolt against all tyranny” (kharijun), even though this costs us our blood and our lives. Husain faced the enemy with 70 men; the enemy was very numerous. Today we are more than 70; and our enemy is not the quarter of the whole world….
We do not want sentiments, but action. We are tired of words, feelings, speeches… I have made more speeches than anyone else. And I am the one who most often called for calm… From today on I will not keep silent. If you keep quiet, I will not… We want our full rights completely. not only our posts, but the twenty demands… in the petition, and we will accept nothing else in exchange.

You would think this is taken from a speech made by SG of Hizbullah Nasrallah. Actually it was given in February 1974 by Imam Musa Sadr founder of AMAL (Cited in Norton, AR. 1997. Amal and the Shi’a. Austin: Texas University Press). In a way, Lebanese history can be read as a lesson of political conduct in life. At the end of the day, unequal structures once politicized must be corrected, no demands just disappear (here my emphasis come from the assumption that things must become demands, they must be made socially conscious). And where AMAL failed to address certain of these demands (the half successful piece meal clientelistic recipes of Nabih Berri), another organization arose (Hizbullah), and is hell bent on having a share in the decision making process. What Sadr was asking for, Hizbullah will eventually get.

The particular ways in which this formation of social consciousness is inscribed in specific symbols and language idioms, are what I am after.

Thanks to Jumblat and Hariri begging, Chirac will push for Geagea?

So Druze feudal warlord Walid Jumblatt and Sunni oligarch Saad Hariri are pushing French corrupted (in part by the lavish payments of Hariri family) and arms dealer president Jacques Chirac to accept civil war long-time militia-man extreme Christian wacko Samir Geagea as a most appropriate candidate for the presidency of Lebanon? And so Chirac meets with Geagea? Great… where have we come down to? Has the French president anything else to do than to meet with Hariri one day and decorate him on useless grounds, then meet the next day with baby killer Geagea? Pitiful L’Orient Le jour must now have multiple orgasms: “civilization has finally recognized that we Lebanese are part of them! They care about Lebanon!”

In any case, this development shows why I think Geagea has gained everything in a sense. Everybody thinks that Geagea worked for Hariri and that it is a shame for the Christians etc. But I think that Geagea has shrewdly worked his way in order to impose himself as the only feasible candidate. The more the opposition grew stronger the more the ‘majority’ could only resort to extreme ends in order to get their political share. This is where Geagea’s role became indispensable, a strategy followed by the extreme right in most countries, not to say the least in Israel… and papa Chirac will always do what the financial benefactors ask for (for example UN 1559 etc.).

Some of Lebanon’s power shifts

Now if you come to think about it, what happened in Lebanon in the last few years is a classical example of shifts in power poles. One need to look at changes happening at the level of organizations and institutions (of the state and related) that deal with security issues, especially if one wants to understand the political deadlock which we are slowly sinking in.

The main argument I wish to make is that, at the local level, Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon has provoked two main events: First, it has rushed Hizbullah to get out of its self-made ‘safe-zone’ and confront specific political choices it had to make at some point. This is prevalent in the fact that every institution in the party is trying to adjust to the new reality, and this can be seen clearly through its media organs, the new meanings used in speeches (borrowing from ‘Lebanese’ ideological material such as cedar, mountains etc.), and especially through the practices of the organization (denouncing more forcefully other Lebanese player for example), in the run up to the dialogue sessions, to its demands to have a share in existential national decision.

The second event is the frontal assault waged against Hizbullah, forcefully followed by the 14th of March heterogeneous political alliance. Of course both events are closely linked.

The security void has triggered many tentative seizing of coercive means. The Lebanese army stayed closely allied with the president keeping a close coordination with Hizbullah, one of the reasons why 14th of Marchers want the president down. Alternatively, some groups tried to seize other security-sensitive state institutions like the police forces or internal security forces (Hariri and the Amn el dakhili), while others, lacking easy access to the state have resorted to militia strengthening (Geagea and the LF, and probably the SSNP and various other smaller organizations).

Assassination rationales can be inscribed in the same context. Beyond their symbolic motives and repercussions in constraining elites to make specific political choices, and shifting public opinion in specific directions, the very strategic choice of assassinating would not have been that attractive prior to Syrian withdrawals because of the different security settings that prevailed.

The most important thing of it all is that Hizbullah has changed its political priorities for the second time (first time would be in 1992 by entering lebanese political life). How this will evolve is still a mystery. It will depend mostly on the regional brokered deals and how much Hizbullah will accept specific compromises. They seem to be ready to accept anything as long as their weapons are not dismantled under the Pax (well not pax if we look at Iraq…) Americana umbrella. This could have regressive repercussions on the capability of Hizbullah to contribute to a change in the Lebanese political system. Especially that in a sense, they may be the only group politically (practically) that can trigger long lasting change.

Why not the Christians? The way Christians are trying to squeeze themselves inside the new security formulas shows their profound weakness in being able to push for any substantial change. Divided between relying on Americans and alliances with Sunni and Druze oligarchs on the one hand, or strengthening the security system already put in place by the Lahoud-Hizbullah-Syria alliance, Christians are the most vulnerable target of all sects, and this is why it may be too soon to speak of a serious questioning of the confessional system. In both cases, Christians are very depended on other power brokers. In the first case, they want to go for ‘the whole nine yards’ a tradition set forth by their Phalangist and other isolationist antecedents. In the second, they accept neighboring political realities and want to work with it and have an already set institutional security structure to start from. In sum, Christian politics is still framed in the same security equations since Syria entered Lebanon in 1976. It is these security equations that first divided (to name but a few) the Qataeb (Phalangists), then the LF, and lately the various Christian groups picking and choosing from earlier political formations.

Is it also clear why political assassinations targeted Christians?