Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Sliding Toward Civil War? The Coming Failure of Lebanon

In response to calls for a country-wide strike in protest of new economic proposals by the Lebanese government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, tens of thousands of National Opposition and pro-government supporters flooded the streets of cities and regions across Lebanon. By the afternoon, a thick cloud of black smoke from burning tires hung over Beirut. Although the uniformed members of Hizbu'llah, the powerful Shi'i political and paramilitary movement that is one of the 3 large political organizations that make up the Opposition (along with the Shi'i AMAL movement and the Maronite Christian Free Patriotic Movement of Michel Aoun) were reportedly well disciplined, Opposition and pro-government protestors engaged in clashes both inside and outside of Beirut. When the smoke cleared today, at least 3 people had been killed.

Siniora and his key allies, Saad al-Hariri (head of the Sunni Future Movement), the socialist Druze hobbit Walid Jumblatt, and the thuggish Maronite warlord Samir Geagea, continued to call the National Opposition an agent for neighboring Syria and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The embattled prime minister promised to remain in power but the wide extent of today's protests further bring into question his ability to do so if the Opposition, as promised, increases pressure on the government to resign.

Perhaps the most disturbing scene was the refusal or inability of the Lebanese military to control both sides of today's protests. National Opposition and pro-government supporters exchanged volleys of rocks and even bullets and physical confrontations pitting Shi'i against Sunni Muslims, Maronites against Maronites, Muslims against Christians, and Christians against secular pro-Syrian socialists. Beirut's airport, which was supposedly guarded by the Lebanese military, was in fact safeguarded by armed Hizbu'llah patrols.

The increasing sectarian tension, which has more to do with "ethnic" identity as opposed to a strictly "religious" identity, clearly shows that all segments of Lebanon's population have failed to internalize the serious social, economic, and political issues that caused their country to explode in an orgy of violence in 1975 and dragged its people into a destructive, 15-year-long civil war. Both the pro-government and National Opposition camps have contributed to the dangerous escalation in such tensions during the last two months, despite attempts by Arab League Secretary General Amr Mousa [RIGHT] to mediate an agreement between the two sides. The National Opposition leadership continues to call for the government to resign while the government and its supporters continue to insist that the status quo is essentially maintained.
In a speech aimed at the National Opposition, Siniora threatened to use force to end the protests but also promised to engage in further dialogue with his government's critics. Such duality has become characteristic of Siniora's speeches since the National Opposition brought over 800,000 protestors to the streets of central Beirut for its first massive demonstration on December 1, 2006. It remains unclear (though increasingly doubtful) that the government would be able to mobilize a unified national military against National Opposition forces. The Lebanese military units that would probably be utilized against demonstrators are primarily staffed by pro-government Sunni Muslims, Maronite Catholics, and Druze socialists.

"This has been transformed into a coup d'etat. It is a revolt in every sense of the word," said Maronite warlord Geagea, who until 2005 had been serving jail time for ordering the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rashid Karami and the bombings of Maronite churches aligned with his rivals, including the former general Aoun [AOUN, left and GEAGEA, right].

Despite Western focus on the Shi'i-Sunni rift, which is often overplayed, street battles between the allies of the Maronite leaders Geagea and Aoun were some of the most violent, resurrecting images of the mini civil war that the two men waged against one another and against the Syrian army in 1990.

To read press coverage on today's protests across Lebanon, see:

To read an analytical essay on the economic issues underpinning today's protests, see:

Before Tuesday's protests, Hizbu'llah Secretary General Shaykh Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah accused the government and its allies of inflaming sectarian tensions, particularly the Sunni Muslim supporters of Hariri's Future Movement, which reportedly is backed financially by the Salafi-dominated Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: ""Some of the governing team strive day and night to push matters towards a civil war in Lebanon. Some of them work and dream ... that there will be a Sunni-Shi`ite sedition in Lebanon...We will not go to a civil war."

In accordance with their leaders' rhetoric, National Opposition and pro-government protestors hoisted pictures of them. According to a report in the British newspaper The Independent by longtime Middle East reporter Robert Risk, Sunnis raised portraits of the recently executed former Iraqi Ba'thist President Saddam Husayn al-Tikriti in at least one instance. Perhaps the understatement of the year: the future of Lebanon is extremely grim if such sectarian divisions remain.

To read Robert Fisk's editorial, see:

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